Friday, August 31, 2012

Revolt of the Rich

Rarely do I find a piece of writing the so clearly lays out my own concerns and observations of what is happening in our society. Rarely is an article written that demonstrates the exhaustive problem of a nation divided by an ever-widening chasm of wealth. But this is one of those articles.

Mike Lofgren, of The American Conservative, wrote this astounding piece that dives into the plutocratic mindset of America's wealthiest citizens. He discusses the historical trend of the wealthy and powerful taking responsibility for their actions that lead to economic catastrophe, and how in generations past the general population was largely aware of the impact these big players had on our country. He also discusses how all of that has deserted us now, as the wealthy and well-connected shrug off their role in the economic collapse of the late 2000's, expect the government to blindly give them money and immunity from prosecution (to them, persecution), and have successfully kept their motives, intentions, and actions hidden from the greater public.

Lofgren goes on to paint a picture of the America that will result from these trends if they are allowed to continue:

"Those super-rich, in turn, aim to create a “tollbooth” economy, whereby more and more of our highways, bridges, libraries, parks, and beaches are possessed by private oligarchs who will extract a toll from the rest of us."

This is an absolutely plutocratic idea, and yet that is exactly the kind of system the super-rich seem to be going for. And while we have a large group of people who glorify the wealthy and never seem to acknowledge their faults, we will struggle against the continuous push of economic inequality, brought on by a system whose rules are slated to the rich and powerful.

And as if it weren't enough to have the wealthiest, most well-connected people in our country vying to control more wealth and power, they've succeeded in convincing the craziest bunch of self-destructive lunatics to join them. Too bad they didn't realize what a Pandora's box they were opening when they decided to pay for the Tea Party...

The American Taliban

I know a lot of conservatives and Republicans. I talk with them on a regular basis, and I've come to realize that there is a profound difference between a Republican and a Tea Partier. For one thing, a Republican will listen, respect that you have an opinion, and may even have a discussion with you that involves compromise. They are respectful, thoughtful, and understand that they are one side of a coin. Tea Partiers, who I don't have as much experience with, are altogether different. They don't compromise, don't listen, and believe that shouting down an opponent is the same as winning an argument. They believe that theirs is the only solution, that any other position is akin to treason, and that anyone who doesn't agree with them is un-American and not worth the effort to reason with. They claim to have a profound belief in religion, and believe America was founded as a Christian nation, despite evidence and actions to the contrary. They claim the right to engage in armed rebellion against the government as a patriotic duty, and have somehow convinced themselves that such action against their countrymen is warranted by the Constitution itself. The Tea Partiers are an extremist sect of the Republican Party, and their ideology has seeped into the fabric of Republican doctrine for the last few years.

I respect Republicans. I respect their opinions, I enjoy discussing and debating policy with them. I enjoy speaking with them about issues, then shaking hands and letting our friendship stand. I enjoy hearing new perspectives and having a diplomatic discussion with Republicans, because it helps me gain a better perspective on the issues that I am concerned about and helps me to understand where a line of mediation may be found. I honestly and truthfully believe that Republicans want what is best for this country, as I do, and that together we can make this country stronger than it has ever been. I do not feel this way about any Tea Pary member that I know of. Their policies and principles are destructive to or nation and our way of life. Their beliefs are hypocritical, demeaning, nonsensical, dangerous, and irrational. They preach hatred as a sacred duty, violence as a constitutional right, vulgarity and a blatant disregard for others as ideological purity. These are not the values of America. These are the values of, forgive the harsh term, a terrorist group.



Agree or disagree all you want. I welcome that. But respect that I have my opinions and, seeing as how it's my blog, respect that I have the right to express them as I see fit. I welcome discussion, provided we listen to each other and can be respectful.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Creating Support

A couple of weeks ago, Romney attended a rally in Ohio that was attended by hundreds of miners. It was an incredible turnout, and the crowd seemed to be incredibly supportive of the Republican nominee for President.

Yeah, well, appearances can be deceiving.

As it turns out, the miners were told that the rally was mandatory for them to attend, they were not paid for the day, and many of them were worried that they would be fired if they did not show up. The CFO of the company has denied that this is the case, but then followed it up with this little gem of a statement:

"Our managers communicated to our workforce that the attendance at the Romney event was mandatory, but no one was forced to attend". I cannot tell you how happy I am that he said this, mostly because it is so hilariously ironic. It's also worth pointing out that the company these miners work for, Murray Energy Company, has donated $900,000 to Republican campaigns in the last two years, and their CEO has stumped for Romney in this election.

Now, I don't have a problem with Romney giving a speech to miners, and I'd be surprised if many miners were not Republicans. After all, Republicans tend to be more favorable toward the coal industry by wanting looser regulations on things like emissions and safety standards. But what I take issue with is a company forcing its employees to attend a rally, and then docking their pay when they attend. It shouldn't matter what the CEO's political opinions are, they should not be forcing their employees to go to a rally for a political candidate, period.

Convention Contention

The GOP convention is officially underway, and already we're hearing some interesting things. Aside from the keynote speakers and pundits that have been delivering their stump speeches, we've had the opportunity to see how the Republican party is reshaping themselves for the next four years. As is traditional, the party has used the convention to vote on and adopt new planks to the party platform. While some of these are considered obvious additions, they have nonetheless grabbed the attention of some in the media, mostly because of how blatantly ridiculous they are.

For example, a platform was adopted by the party that calls for Republicans to pass a complete ban on all abortions, even in cases of rape, incest, and threat's to the health of the mother. So, Republicans, who only a decade ago were mostly content with the compromise that was in place (no federal funding of abortions, limited access except in cases of rape, incest, and health concerns), are now vehemently opposed to abortion in any circumstance. In other words, they are vehemently opposed to women's freedom to choose for themselves what is best for them.

But that's not the only eyebrow-raising thing that's come up at the convention. How about the GOP business owner who complained that the government didn't give him enough money? He was trying to make a point that government has interfered to much in business, and then went off on how Obama snubbed him and didn't give him any stimulus funds. Really? Which is it that you're more upset about?

And to add a little more insult to the injury of Republican voter-suppression efforts across the country, a court has ordered that the Texas redistricting plan has disenfranchised Latinos in a way that violates the law, and so has ordered the state to redraw the districting lines. This is an issue that's largely been ignored, though to be fair more interesting things have come up. However, the timing of this has been interesting, coming out at the same time as the convention.

So, we have folks complaining that the government is too big, then complaining that they aren't getting help from the government. We have a party that has publicly endorsed the elimination of a woman's right to make choices for herself. And we have a court that has ordered Republicans to stop disenfranchising minority voters. Over all, a great week for the GOP. What kind of things will they come up with next?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Monkey See, Monkey...

Here's a video of an experiment conducted with monkeys that shows that even they understand that unequal pay for the same task is ridiculous. To put that in perspective, every Republican in Congress has voted against laws that would require equal pay for men and women who do the same job. That means, a bunch of monkeys in a lab have a better understanding of equality than the GOPers in Congress.

A Dying Breed

Jonathan Chait of Daily Intel has a short but poignant piece on the changing demographics of our country and how they are affecting the Republican Party. For years, the Republican base has been made up almost entirely from the wealthy, white, older, male, and/or retired communities. That group used to have a much larger stake in the country, but today they are shrinking in the face of new immigration, and changing cultural demographics.

Normally, when facing the prospect of becoming irrelevant, a group will try to change their policy to reflect the changing culture. Not the GOP. No, instead, they're sticking to their tried-and-true policies and platforms, in the hopes of pulling out one last big election win with which to usher in their vision for America. And then? Well, if that happens, they won't have to worry about demographics any more.

The problem is that Republican party platforms do not appeal to a broad spectrum of people. The Republicans talk about wanting to dismantle Medicaid, Social Security, Food Stamps, and other social programs that are popular with new emerging groups of people. Not only that, but they want to take on positions of regressive taxation, and roll back our social policies in such a way that would deny rights that people have now (think abortion and gay marriage). Clearly, these positions are not popular with the majority of Americans. But, rather than rethinking their postions, Republicans and Tea Partiers continue to pronounce their own correctness, and are seeking instead to try and gain as much control as possible, one last time. At least, that's Chait's theory.

And what can we expect if that happens? Well, according to the article, some of Romney's advisors have predicted that he would be aggressive in rolling back these popular programs like those described above, which will likely make him a one-term president. However, that may also give Romney enough time to orchestrate national voter ID laws, like those that have cropped up in many states. Those laws, while controversial and in the process of being debated in courts, have been decried by many as a way of limiting people's access to the voting booth. In many cases, it has been shown that voter ID laws would limit the ability of people to vote, even if they are registered and legally eligible to do so, and that such laws restrict voters who usually vote democratic. If Romney were to support such measures nationally, you can imagine what that would mean for Republicans. They have also been attempting to change the demographics of our country by taking over the process of redistricting, which has led to a lot of controversy over how they have divided certain districts, to the point where these too have had to be approved by the court to make sure they are not overly partisan.


So, rather than change to meet the demands of America's new demographics, Republicans are seeking to either solidify their power by making it difficult for those new demographics to vote, or to have one last push to power that will give them the leverage they need to make the changes they want to see. If they are successful in either of these endeavors, I worry about the ramifications for our society, political culture, and our country.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Critiquing Romney

With the Republican Convention kicking off tomorrow following a 1-day delay, there has been a lot of talk about Romney's acceptance of the party nomination. Some still believe that Ron Paul has a shot, but most have resigned themselves to the fact that they are running with Mitt on the Republican ticket. While the addtion of Ryan has made this an easier pill to swallow, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about Romney's background. And Romney has a bad habit of trying to paint any question of his record or history as an attack, even when it's people just trying to get to know him.

Romney's background is still largely unknown. There is very little public documentation that tells us anything about his business dealings, though there are some serious questions (like, how he managed to end up with an IRA account worth $100 Million when the maximum yearly deposit for such an account is $100K) about what he's done to become wealthy and stay that way. Two of the biggest questions have been around Romney's work at Bain Capital, and Romney's tax returns.

As for Bain, Romney has claimed that he left in 1999. Since then, documents have surfaced, including tax information, that link Romney to an active role in the company up until 2010, more than a decade after he claimed to be done with them. Not only that, but these documents also show some potentially illegal tax evasion by Romney that allowed him to bypass certain tax obligations and save himself millions.

But going beyond these questions, Romney remains vague on other issues. He has yet, for example, provided any specifics on his plans for the economy, and his own positions have shifted so many times that no one knows what he believes in today. As for social issues, Romney has moved far to the Right to garner support from a base that is, at best, lukewarm about his nomination. But that has come at the expense of the undecided's and the moderates (therefore, possibly at the expense of the election). Through all of this, Romney has added no substance to his campaign, except to add Ryan to the ticket, who is nothing if not substantive. However, that is no excuse for Romney to not give details on his positions.

Romney has explained that his speech at the convention will be an all-out attack on Obama. This has several drawbacks. First, it's preaching to the choir. He's guaranteed to get a warm reception if he just gets up there and complains about his political opponent to a crowd of birthers, xenophobes, and right-wing nuts. Second, such a speech is meaningless. He won't gain any new supporters, people who are going to vote for him have already made up their minds, and he runs the risk of saying something stupid. The third problem is that it still refrains from a specific message. Romney's not giving any details on his plan, no matter how much Fox News tries to explain otherwise. He's not clarifying his positions, and for a person with such an inconsistent record, that's a big issue.

So, how is Mitt Romney doing? Well, in raw donations he's way ahead of Obama. He's got some polls that put him in a good spot, and he's closing the national polling gap. However, when it comes to substance, he's got about as much a balloon. Sure, he can place himself in opposition to everything that Obama has done. But all that does is make him appear solid while it leaves him full of hot air. When presidential debates begin, I think it will become painfully clear that Romney has no solid strategy, no solid ideas, and that everything is in flux. He spouts off about cutting taxes, fine, but he doesn't turn that into a real nuts-and-bolts plan. It's platitudes, and he's going to need more than that if he wants a shot.

Fixing the VA

I was recently told a story about a US war veteran. This veteran lives about 100 miles from the nearest VA hospital, where they must go to get their prescriptions filled. They cannot get those prescriptions filled unless they go have an appointment. The travel is particularly hard on them, meaning they must double up on their pain medications following such a trip, and will be laid up in bed for several days afterwards. The VA does not deliver, does not send out a physician, and demands that this frail, elderly individual cause themselves undo pain and suffering to get the prescriptions they need to live comfortably in their old age.

This individual is running out of their medication, and had an appointment to go to the VA in September to renew them. But the VA called and cancelled the visit, and pushed it to October. That means that this person will have an additional month without any medications because the VA chose to push back their appointment, and they are not able to fill their prescrition anywhere else, even though they have several refills pending. So now, they are stuck without medication for a month, and with no way of fixing this problem. And what happens if the VA postpones again?

This is a true life story, and it is by no means an exception. One of the things that Americans have always had is a profound respect for our men and women in uniform, our veterans, and their families. We have long advocated that they be taken care of as a thank-you for their service to our country.

So when I hear stories like this, it makes me feel as though we should do something, and something profound, to help. I'm not talking about merely giving the VA more money. I'm talking about changing how the VA works. You see, even if the VA had kept that appointment, they are still requiring an elderly veteran to travel a very long distance, placing themselves in physical pain, to get their prescriptions. Anyone who is not a veteran or does not use the VA would never dream of putting up with that. So, why do we force our veterans to?

I know that the VA does some good things for our veterans, but this is not one of them. How do we provide basic support to our veterans in a cost-efficient manner that doesn't require so much trouble and difficulty on their part? How can we make it so that they don't have to wait a month without prescriptions because the VA is overcrowded and too busy?

Well, here are some solutions. First, instead of centralizing the services of the VA, send out VA doctors like the Visiting Nurses Association. Instead of central hubs, open smaller local offices that are easier to get to, and that can send a doctor into the community to write prescriptions, do check-ups, and monitor the health of seniors without forcing them to go anywhere. Second, allow veterans to have more freedom to select where they receive care. If they like their PCP, don't force them to go the VA to get a prescription written or filled. Give them the ability to go to the local pharmacy to pick it up. How hard is that? Finally, provide veterans with the means to get to their appointments. If they struggle with driving, then provide transportation. If you are requiring them to go somewhere, then you damn well better be providing them with a free mode of transportation so they can get there.

It seems that our VA, like many other parts of our government, has struggled in this recession and the subsequent dog fight over the debt. While no one is advocating a cut to the VA budget, it is worth looking at some different business models to make their services run smoother, more efficient, and more helpful for those they serve. After all, don't our veterans deserve that much?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Will We Survive?

Rush Limbaugh has made some interesting comments regarding a second term of the Obama administration. Normally, the extreme Right speaks of such a thing with overtones of apocalypse and complete collapse of our society as we know it. But Limbaugh seems to have gained a bit of reason, because he now says that America "could survive four more years of Obama."

Before you start thinking that Limbaugh is changing his tune on anything, be aware that he followed this up by expressing concern for the people who would vote to re-elect Obama, and wondered allowed how the Rigth should deal with this problem.

Well, if Limbaugh listened to Glenn Beck and his minions, he would know that there are ways of dealing with the majority of the American population. Beck and his drones have been going off about civil war, 2nd-Amendment solutions, armed rebellion for years now. They have decided that they alone have the authority to take back their country from the democratically elected leader that they don't like. It's really quite something.

So, what does Limbaugh's comment mean? Well, it means he hasn't changed, merely changed focus. Rather than getting his listeners to target the President with their anger, he wants them to focus on their neighbors and friends. He wants them to see that their fellow Americans are the problem. In a way, this is even worse. After all, one of the greatest failings of our government right now is that there is no compromise to be had. No one works with each other. And that works its way down to the people. No one listens to each other any more. It's all mud-slinging and name-calling. People are set in their ways, and don't feel they have to compromise. So, when Rush says that the people are the problem, those who listen to him are going to agree, and turn that into another reason not to work together. It's another barrier to compromise, which makes the whole situation worse.

So, we have Beck who wants an armed revolt, and Limbaugh who is telling his listeners that their Obama-supporting neighbors are what's wrong with America. This corruption of our public discourse is going to have some serious consequences going forward.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

When these guys say it's over....

Todd Akin, the GOP candidate in MO who sparked so much controversy with his comments regarding rape and pregnancy, has vowed to stay in the race for the Senate seat. That is not for lack of trying by the conservative establishment and it's many celebrity pundits. Two voices that have spoken out against Akin continuing his campaign have raised my eyebrows, and made me wonder just what is keeping Akin in at this point.

One is Rush Limbaugh. You know, that guy who called a college student who wanted government help to pay for contraception a "slut" and demanded that she make videos of herself having sex so that the taxpayers would get something out of the deal? You know, that guy? Even he says that Akin's comments were "stupid." Mr. Akin, when Rush Limbaugh says that you crossed the line, I think you can assume he knows what he's talking about.

The other is Sarah Palin. Again, when Sarah Palin is telling you to drop out of the race for a position in government, it should tell you that you have about the same chance of winning as a man in a coma. Palin, of all people, seems to have more sense than Akin on this issue, and that should frighten what's left of the voting bloc that is still behind this guy.

But despite all of this, Akin is sticking it out. Despite the celebrity condemnation, the media firestorm, the threat of the RNC pulling funding and having his airtime cut off, Akin is staying in. Why? Not really sure, and neither is anyone else it seems. He's basically handing the election to McCaskill, who the Republicans thought would be the most vulnerable Senator for them to target. Now, it seems they're going to be sitting on their hands for another Senate session. One has to wonder what is going through this guys mind.

Out of all of this, I'm still trying to understand why Akin said what he did. Sure, he believes that kind of junk science as a way of promoting his position that rape need not be granted a special exemption in abortion bans. But, when he apologized, he specifically apologized for using the term "legitimate rape." He did not apologize for spreading a false claim about about rape and pregnancy. He did not apologize for trying to pass off personal opinion as evidence-based scientific fact. He did not apologize for ignoring the reality of the thousands of women who become pregnant by rape every year. No, he apologized for saying the word "forcible," and then had the audacity to complain that people were making too much out of this issue. This coming from a guy who clearly is missing the point of what people are upset about.

Akin, listen to Rush and Sarah. Listen to the most empty-headed noise-machines the GOP has to offer, and step out of the race. Better yet, stay in and guarantee a Democratic win. But regardless of your decision, try to understand why what you said is so disrespectful, uninformed, wrong, and misguided. Thanks.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

News of the Day

1. Mitt Romney picked up another endorsement this week in the form of the group Americans for Inequality. The satirical group's message is a call to support income inequality in America, and to teach others about the benefits of wide gaps between the wealthy and everyone else. No word yet on the Romney campaign's acceptance of this prestigious endorsement, but I think we can all guess what the response will be. No need to thank them Mitt, they're just happy to help!

2. Thought this was an interesting look at the poll numbers for Obama and Romney. Romney received no jump from adding Ryan to the ticket, which may indicate a lack of excitement over the pick. Either that, or the people they polled for this pay attention to politics and know what the Ryan choice means for the ticket...

3. Of course, there are other ways to try and predict the election. Like cockroach racing.

4. Is this too far to limit free speech? A former marine is detained after making violent comments directed at the government on his personal facebook page. Question: does the fact that this is a former marine have any bearing on this story? Apparently so, since it's been noted in every article to cover it. So, what do you think? Is this a limit on free speech, or a precaution to protect innocent lives? Not really sure myself...kind of a gray area. As usual, when I post links to The Blaze, I encourage you to read the comments.

5. If you pay attention, you've heard about the comments that Congressman Akin made regarding rape. It's caused a rift in the GOP, with some people supporting his continued run for office and others saying he should bow out. Either way, his comments were reprehensible and flat-out inaccurate. It speaks to larger view held by the vehemently pro-life community that has latched onto the conservative Republican and Tea Party groups. NPR had a great interview that talked about claims such as these, their history, and why they are made by those who represent pro-lifers.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Ryan plan

Economist Paul Krugman takes Paul Ryan's budget plan to task in a recent NYT article. Krugman looks at the numbers, and determines that the Ryan plan is completely unfeasible and will do nothing to reduce the deficit and debt, but will actually cause it to balloon even further. All this, while at the same time programs for the poor are slashed and the wealthy are given larger tax cuts.

We've heard this before, but Krugman has a way of cutting through the talking points and looking at the hard numbers. He takes nothing for granted, makes no assertions about the ramifications of these policies, just goes by the numbers. That alone doesn't add up.

Republicans have been attacking Obama for draining $700 Billion or so out of Medicare to fund Obamacare. What they neglect to mention is that this money is from reimbursement programs and so on, which means it was not money that went to recipients of the program. Another interesting fact is that this same money is cut in Ryan's budget plan but, unlike the President using that money in a different health care program, Ryan's budget would use that money to drive more tax cuts for the wealthy. In other words, it would not be used to reduce the deficit or debt, but to relieve the tax burden of the wealthy. Interesting.

So, how can Republicans complain about Obama's Medicare "cuts" while at the same time praising Ryan's budget plan? The answer: not easily. It requires an argument over semantics, which is the only point that can be contested to differentiate these two programs. By calling Ryan's budget proposal a voucher program, Democrats are using a particular word to create fear about his policies. Republicans are trying to change that word into something else or, at the very least, kick up dirt over the Democrats calling it a voucher program. Instead, Republicans are trying to muddy the waters with long, complex explanations about how it's not a voucher program when Ryan has said that's what it is. Rather than argue the merits of the plan, the Republicans are taking a stand on what to call it. If you need more indication that Republicans are clutching at straws over this, look no further.

UPDATE: Even the folks who watch and read Fox News prefer a voucher program as the way to fix Medicare. If that's the case, it would appear that this argument over the validity of the word "voucher" to describe Ryan's plan is doubly ridiculous for the GOP, since their own supporters are in favor of a voucher program...

Friday, August 17, 2012

Sling that Mud

Jon Stewart has a great bit on how our politicians (he focuses mostly on Republicans) have gotten into a war of words that is becoming one of the worst in recent memory. Well, it's at least the worst since the last campaign. Things may feel like they're escalating, but really we're just getting into the election season. But as Stewart points out, it's gotten to the point where neither side even acknowledges or realizes just how much trash they're spewing towards one another.

Mud-slinging, fact-hijacking, falsehods, truth-stretching, and embellishment have all been a part of our campaign cycle for a while now. Thanks to Citizens United, corporations are getting on the fun with their political ads that take even more out of context figures and soundbites to try and twist the truth. As I've written about before, information is now being whittled down to the point where there is no context, and where context no longer matters to anyone. It's a two-way street, meaning a politician can say anything they want, and then defend it by decrying the lack of context. But all this does is serve the never-ending sludge-fight that has become our national discourse. There is no debate on issues, there is only propping up the party line, and stalling out legislation. There is no discussion, no agreement, no deal-making. It just seems that politicians are not even aware of themselves anymore. And what's worse, the media largely lets them get away with it. Occasionally, someone will call out a truly ridiculous claim. For example, Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney have been having to answer claims by economists who say their plans for deficit and debt reduction don't add up. They have made some very grandiose statements about how they will fix the economy, but there hasn't been a real discussion about their plan because Romney simply calls any analysis that doesn't agree with him bad.

It's an example that speaks to the larger problem. Our leaders have come to the point where they will dismiss any criticism of their plan as being partisan, because they expect any and all dissent to be partisan. They don't take that criticism as a learning experience, but double down on their beliefs and further gridlock the system. And the criticism itself has largely become politicized. With the exception of a few nonpartisan think-tanks, a lot of the "analysis" is done by partisan groups looking to skewer an opponent with their own plan. Again, this is not helpful criticism, it's deliberately meant to be damaging to a person's character as well as their policy.

And that's my final point. It used to be that politicians debated one another on the policies at hand. Now, it's personal. The folks in the Tea Party, and those like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, have become more vocal about attacking people based on their personal traits rather than on a policy. They have attacked "liberals" rather than a specific position that this "liberal" takes. What this does is oversimplifies the battle lines, making it easier to target people. All they have to say is "liberal" and those who listen to them know not to support that person. They don't know anything about them, but are making a judgment on them as a person, rather than a politician, and without knowing their position on anything.

So, politicians are attacking their opponents on a personal level, using out-of-context soundbites and outright lies, and are not listening to the slightest critique of their own policies no matter the source. All the while, the media is feeding into this, because it makes for good entertainment, and is cheaper to cover than the tedious explanations of positions, and the debates that go along with solidifying an argument for or against a policy.

And the worst part of all? This crap works.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Secession?

This is one of those ideas that seems silly at first, until you realize people are serious about it: secession from the union. A new interview with Chuck Thompson, who recently wrote a book on the subject, the North and South would be a lot better off if they just went their separate ways.

Thompson points out that the culture, values, and vision of America in these two extremes is so radically different that we're practically two different countries already. He points out that the South is more theocratic and state's-rights-focused than the North, who instead worries about everyone getting along and having clean air and water.

This is an idea that has even found itself kicking around state legislatures, specifically in Texas. And if Obama wins the 2012 election, you can bet we'll hear more people talking about it. But what does that say about us as a nation? What does this discussion mean for us? Are we really beyond working out our differences? Is the gap between the North and South really to great to bridge?

To me, the idea of breaking up the United States is laughable, and downright un-American. After all, how many Americans died in the Civil War to maintain a single, unified nation? Granted, not everyone is thrilled that this was the outcome, but the point has always been that we would remain one nation, no matter what.

I spend perhaps an unhealthy amount of time on conservative news sites, particularly those with open comment forums so I can see what their reader have to say. What I've noticed is that many conservatives talk openly, honestly, and very seriously about one of two solutions to disliking Obama: secession and armed revolution. Granted, revolution is by far more popular, but secession is right up there, and I'm sure there are those who wouldn't mind kicking all the liberals out of their new southern nation.

What strikes me about this, and upsets me, is that these same people claim to be patriots. And not just patriots, but the best patriots, who love their country the most, and are willing to spill blood in the name of the stars and stripes. Let me make a point here: if you are advocating for the secession of the southern states, or are advocating for armed overthrow of the government, that is NOT patriotism. That is anarchy. You can quibble all day about the intent of the Second Amendment. You can have a debate about the merits of following the laws of your state government when you don't agree with them. But when you start talking about killing people or actually breaking away from the land you claim to love so much, there is something very wrong with that.

The North and South don't really agree on much, and seldom do they get along. But like a pair of siblings, their stuck together. If people want to entertain a fantastical notion that breaking the states apart would be a good thing for us, consider that if we do there is no more "us", but instead there is "us and them." And that is how wars, economic competition, inequality, and feudalism start. We are better than that, and should be.

Romney/Ryan

I don't usually post on the weekends, and seldom do I check up on the news. But I happened to notice that Romney had selected his running mate for 2012. Romney's choice of Paul Ryan has stirred a lot of discussion on both sides of the aisle, as well as in the media. Obama expressed his admiration for Ryan, even as he expressed his direct opposition to his policies. John McCain endorsed the choice, saying it was a new generation for the party, and a new direction with new leadership. Ryan, for his part, has hit the ground running, campaigning in Iowa and making several speeches to accept the pick for the VP slot.

In many ways, the Ryan pick makes a lot of sense. For one thing, Ryan is a great complement to Romney. Romney is a moderate Republican at best, has a hard time nailing down specifics on any plan or policy, and struggles against the most conservative core of his base. Ryan answers all of these drawbacks. His message and policies are clear and consistent. He has a very specific plan for America and is not afraid to run with it. He is a favorite of the Tea Party conservative base. And, he has a strong head for conservative politics. While Romney has often touted his socially conservative positions, Ryan focuses more on governance and politics, meaning they cover both aspects of conservatism very well.

But Ryan does not come without drawbacks of his own. He's been a Congressman since the late 90's, but has limited private sector experience, something conservatives in particular tend to value very highly in their candidates. He's also very divisive, with his plans that tend to eliminate any good will between the Left and Right. But the biggest problem with Ryan is that he is a blatant Social Darwinist. While that might strengthen his credentials among neo-con circles, it will alienate the all-important undecideds, and will likely turn the minds of many moderates as well. Ryan's budget plan was a rallying call for conservatives, but it is a disastrous piece of legislation when it comes to the people. Ryan's plan calls for massive cuts to medicaid, food stamps, education, etc. He wants to turn Medicare into a voucher program rather than a guaranteed support for seniors. He wants to slash spending on infrastructure, and his plan would force the government to eliminate every major agency due to a lack of tax revenue. That's because Ryan's plan is to not only cut those programs that benefit the poor, but also to cut the taxes on the wealthiest Americans (under his plan, Romney would pay about 0.82% in taxes because Ryan would eliminate taxes on capital gains, interest, and would get rid of the estate tax entirely).

Again, this is a rallying call for many conservatives, who feel that these programs are superfluous, wasteful, unnecessary, job-killing government control programs. But for the average American, these proposals are directly harmful to their way of life. Romney, being no stranger to divisive tactics himself, does not seem to realize that he is essentially handing the election to Obama, even if his base is happy.

And here's the interesting thing about this appointment. It's almost too good to be true for Obama. As I've said, Ryan is a hard-line conservative who's going to get very little support with moderates. He's been outspoken about his plans for slashing social programs, his belief that the poor are freeloaders, and that top-down, trickle-down economics coupled with egregious austerity measures are inherently American and the only logical course of action. Remind you of anyone? Some liberal analysts have looked at this appointment by Romney and see a strong resemblance to the McCain/Palin ticket of 2008. It seems the Conservatives have done the same thing: tie a long-running moderate with a fresh, new, neo-con that cares more about uniting the base than reaching across the aisle. The similarities in their partnership is uncanny. Palin continues to be a divisive figure in our political culture, traipsing around the country as if she were an important political figure. Ryan, of course, is starting in a similar position, being brought in on a party ticket to try and appease a base that's not entirely happy with its prospects.

It's almost as if Obama planned this appointment himself. And, in a way, he did. By focusing on Romney's lack of specifics, moderate record, and generalizing platitudes, the Obama campaign forced Romney to seek and select a running mate that met these specific criticisms. It had to be someone who was an unashamed conservative, with a clear message and plan, and who wasn't afraid to stick to it under heavy opposition. No other VP option had that kind of clout, and so Ryan it is. More evidence of the Obama campaign anticipating this appointment can be seen in how quickly they gathered their response. Within hours, campaign ads were flying, speeches were being given, and pundits were sounding off on the selection by Romney. It appears as though Obama pushed Romney's buttons in just the right way to get him to select Ryan.

I'm sure that, if the Obama campaign had focused all of it's attention on Romney's anti-immigration stance, Romney would have selected Marco Rubio. But rather than dividing the hispanic vote, it appears Obama went for a more clean-cut conservative that wouldn't have a big impact on his own voter demographics. Smart move. Now, let's see how the two campaigns duke it out until election day. It's going to be an interesting couple of months...

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Fighting the Unknown

One of the biggest debates this year has been the new voter ID laws that have been passed in several important states, primarily by strong Republican majorities. Those who oppose these laws point out that there is little to no evidence of voter fraud being a problem, and definitely no evidence that it is an epidemic problem requiring legislation that very clearly disenfranchises large numbers of voters.

Those who support such measures say that voter fraud is a huge problem, and that we don't know about it because there's no way to find out when it's happening. It's very convenient that we are in the midst of a crisis of voter fraud, which we can't track and can't predict, but that will be completely stopped by requiring voters to show a photo ID. And, if those laws prevent millions of people across the country from voting due to a lack of such ID, well, then that's just an unfortunate side-effect to maintaining the validity of our voting system.

But John Stewart takes the Republicans to task in his latest Daily Show by pointing out that even Republicans can't seem to find evidence that would suggest these laws are necessary. Furthermore, it's been shown that while states with voter ID laws have allowed for ways for voters to get free ID's from the state, they require a photo ID to obtain, making them superfluous.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Impossible

A recent look at Mitt Romney's economic plan has come to an interesting conclusion: It is mathematically impossible. According to the study, conducted by the Tax Policy Center, a non-partisan group run by a former Bush economic advisor, Romney's tax plan simply does not add up. They even tried using unrealistically positive growth projections. It all came out to the same thing: at the very least, Romney would have to cut all non-military, non-Social Security spending by 49% by 2022. Since Romney has vowed to not cut the military budget and to maintain benefits for current retirees, he's left with no other option if he wants to keep his promise to cut all tax rates by 20% and reduce the deficit at the same time.

Romney has been very tight-lipped about his plan. In fact, while he's claimed to have his plan all along and berated the President for not being more open about his views, Romney has so far refused to give any specifics on what he would do to cut spending, reduce the deficit, and what tax loopholes he would close to reform the tax system. Yet, with the minimal information he has produced, the TPC was able to run their calculations.

Of course, Romney's campaign took issue with the study, at first calling it a liberal jab due to a former Obama staffer co-authoring the study, and then calling into question the validity of the numbers the TPC used, claiming they ignored major factors such as private sector growth due to planned tax cuts. But the TPC is led by a former Bush advisor, which negates the charge of partisanship, and the Center also points out that it is impossible to factor in things like private sector growth without knowing the specifics of Romney's cuts, and what their actual effect will be.

But none of this seems to bother Romney or his constituents very much. After all, he's planning to cut all taxes by 20%. The problem, though, is that those cuts will come at the cost of slashing programs that help the poor, and according to the TPC report will result in a tax increase for the middle class. That would be because of the closing of all tax incentives that would result in a net increase in the taxes paid by those in the middle class.

Nothing can be Done


We're being told all the time that there are so many roadblocks to changing these things. We're then told that none of them matter. Our ADD-prone media system doesn't focus on a single story long enough for people to formulate opinions, or even consider long-term solutions to the problems. Take the recent mass shootings. People will largely be satisfied that the gunmen are soundly evaluated by psychiatrists and put before a jury that will find them guilty. But no one pays attention long enough for there to be a real discussion about the underlying causes of these things (and it's not just about guns). Those who do try to keep their focus on these big stories are told that they're being divisive, beating a dead horse, or that it's no longer relevent. But we can't hope to fix any of these problems with five-second soundbites.

And all of that comes back to voter apathy. People feel like they aren't informed, and so get tired of trying to keep up with the political stuff, especially when they're told that they don't reallly matter and that all their choices are the same. When the majority of undecided's don't vote, it leave the fringe groups more influence in the elections, leading to extremist officials running our country. People need to feel informed, empowered, and like they're part of our national discourse. These are real issues that need real solutions.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Diplomacy in Israel

Recently, Presidential candidate Mitt Romney took a trip to Israel. While there, he made a number of speeches, held some fundraisers, and talked with state officials there about their ongoing debates with Palestine. Since that trip, the Romney campaign has released a new ad which attacks Obama for never visiting Israel and not saying that Jerusalem is it's capitol. Romney has now done both of these things.

This highlights an issue that I've been having a hard time understanding. Once again, Romney helps to articulate it. During his visit, Romney upset the Palestinian community by claiming that Israel's culture was the reason for its economic prosperity and growth, which vastly outstrips Palestine. Of course, the Palestinians were upset because Israel has been violating treaties and border agreements for decades, limiting Palestinian rights and freedoms, putting in place economic sanctions and embargoes, and using the political system to limit the growth and development of Palestinian communities. It is due to direct interference by the Israeli powers that Palestine has struggled socio-economically. For Romney to chalk up Israel's success and Palestine's failure to a simple difference in culture is insulting and blindly ignorant of the truth.

So, why does America continually support Israel? Obama has largely been absent from the debate over Israel and Palestinian rights, saying that it is up to those powers to decide what they will do. While this has drawn criticism from many political corners, it does show that Obama understands the tension between these two people, and (I think) shows diplomatic prudence in picking his fights. After all, it's a touchy subject because of our long-standing support of Israel and the political implications that seem to come from the slightest criticism of them.

It seems to me that Israel has been engaged something resembling domestic terrorism for quite a while in their treatment of Palestine. There are numerous stories of violence and murder by Israeli border guards. Israel has staunchly ignored border and peace agreements with the Palestinians, invading their lands and controlling their development. In fact, a recent story pointed out that Palestinians are being forced to demolish their own homes because Israeli officials will not give them permits to have them on their own land. At the same time, Israeli neighborhoods and towns are continuing to grow.

We here in America tend to hear a lot about Palestinian terror attacks, from bombs and firefights to kidnappings and assaults. But rarely do we hear any criticism of Israeli policy. Why is that? I don't understand why America turns a blind eye to our ally and condemn the acts of the people that ally is oppressing. Shouldn't we put the welfare of humans before stability with a political power? I certainly think so. And if that power is not acting in a humane way, we should call them out on it.

This speak to a larger problem with America, in that we tend to neglect the atrocities of our friends and demonize that atrocities of our enemies. It's a depressing thought to consider that we condone the killing of Palestinians by the Israeli's, but condemn that act in reverse. What makes an Israeli more valuable, more worthy of compassion, than a Palestinian?

Maybe Romney had it right. Maybe we support Israel for cultural reasons. After all, we seem to be in a struggle over the religion of Islam in our society, why not translate that to a mistrust and vilification of an Islamic state? That seems to be the basis for the animosity. But why should it be? Does oppression or violence by a Jewish or Christian state escape our notice while oppression or violence perpetrated by a Muslim state spark outrage? Apparently. And that is not okay.

So, I'm still wondering why it is that we blindly support Israel, no matter what? Can anyone shed light on this relationship? It troubles me that our leaders can't seem to look straight into the heart of this issue and shed light on the inequality that is being perpetuated by Israel without facing political castration. How are we supposed to make progress towards peace in this world if we ignore the unrest that is caused by our own allies?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Unemployment

The official US unemployment rate ticked up to 8.3% in the month of July, despite over 150K jobs created. There are a couple of debates over why this is, some looking at it positively, some negatively.

Those looking at it positively state that the official rate may have gone up because more people were looking for work, indicated greater confidence in the job market. Those looking at it negatively, of course, state that the unemployment rate has gone up. Romney, in a brief statement to reporters, called this a "hammer blow" to the middle class.

It's worth noting, though, that the overall trend for unemployment has been downward for the last few years. Since 2010, when the unemployment rate spiked at around 10%, it's gone down considerably. Here's a great graph to show you. If you'll notice, Obama's first year in office saw a spike in unemployment. Sure, he was President, but he was working off of Bush's last budget, and had not put any policies in place yet to counter the job losses. Jump to 2010, and the number starts to fall. It jumps in a few places, and is certainly not going down quickly, but the overall trend is that the unemployment rate has dropped since 2010, so for a year and a half. The lowest it's gone since Obama took office was 8.1% in April of this year. We've ticked up .2% since. Again, looking at the graph, that's not out of the ordinary.

I would also like to point out that, though the unemployment rate was much lower in the Bush years, this huge upswing started long before Barack Obama was elected or entered the White House. So far, our President has helped to bring it down by a good amount, especially considering the projections made by most economists who said it would take 10 years minimum to right the ship.

So, don't get too discouraged by this jump in unemployment. Remember, the overall trend has been positive.

DeMarco is in deep

I've written on several occasions about Ed DeMarco, the director for the agency that oversees Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and how is policies have been detrimental to the US economic recovery. In his most recent piece for the Times, Paul Krugman takes DeMarco to task as well for his refusal to allow homeowners to refinance their mortgages to get a lower interest rate, thereby saving them from bankruptcy and foreclosure.

Krugman points out two things that are very interesting. First, that the plan to allow homeowners to refinance in order to stimulate the economy and balance the housing market has bipartisan support. However, Republicans have blocked Obama from appointing someone to replace DeMarco, who is adamant that he will block this from happening. So, while Republicans support a refinancing program for homeowners, they seem to be actively disrupting it from being done, which may indicate more of their political obstruction for the sake of denying Obama a "win" on the economy. The second interesting point is that DeMarco's resistance to refinancing is really beyond the scope of his job description. DeMarco is not supposed to use his position to set national policy, merely observe the operations of Fannie and Freddie to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse. What DeMarco is doing is overreaching in his role as a regulator, and using his leverage over the organizations to push their policy in a direction he wants. It should be enough to have him removed from his position but, as I've stated before, there are some roadblocks being thrown up to prevent that.

It's a little disheartening to me that one man can throw his influence around to the extent that he can disrupt the economic recovery of an entire nation. Mortgage refinancing, rate adjustments, etc. are considered some of the most valuable tools used by the lending agencies to help people stay in their homes. DeMarco's own agency has produced studies and data that show there would be increased economic activity, a slowdown in foreclosures, and more revenue generated because people would be able to pay off their bills rather than going deeper into debt and defaulting. It makes sense, and it's a policy that both parties supposedly agree on. So how is it that such a plan can be disrupted by one person?

Hopefully, DeMarco will be targeted by the Obama administration for a recess appointment. That may make some waves within the Republican party, but they are the ones that are not letting Obama replace the man, so they really should have no complaint on that score. It is especially scandalous if they truly support the plan to relieve the burdens on homeowners, as Krugman asserts, because it would mean they are standing on both sides of the issue, and are leaning towards the side that will cause harm to the American People.

I know some people like to argue that those who took sub-prime mortgages, bad loans, or risky investments when it came to purchasing a home are to blame. They should have known better, they should have read the fine print. But here's the thing. You can't expect everyone to "know better" or this wouldn't have happened. And when you have professional economists who don't understand what happened, how can you expect the average American to? But the larger issue with blaming the consumer on this issue is that it glosses over the fact that these are American citizens who were the victims of fraudulent and negligent financial practice. We don't blame murder, assault, rape, or robbery victims for being victims of crimes. Why are we hearing people blame homeowners for getting mortgages that turned out to be money traps? To me, it makes little sense. But still, DeMarco and others continue to claim that people need to learn from their mistakes, need to fall down in order to get back up, need to go into default, bankruptcy, lose their homes, and lose their financial future on principle. Let's start moving towards a system that helps the victims rather than re victimizing them.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Unsustainable

At midnight last night, the US Postal Service defaulted to the US Treasury to the tune of $5.5 Billion. The USPS has said that this will not affect day-to-day operations, but that they are currently looking for a way to pay the money they owe.

Here's the funny part: Congress has been trying to work on a bill that would have saved the USPS from this default. In fact, a bill to do just that passed the Senate a week ago. However, the House did not take it up, and decided instead to go on recess, leaving the USPS to default.

Not only that, but members of the House, most notably Darrell Issa, also proposed a strategy to make the USPS more solvent. However, once again, the House didn't move on any of the bills and simply let the USPS fail.

Here's the thing. As most people are now aware, the USPS is very unique when it comes to its business model. It is required, by law, to fund retirement and health benefits for its employees 75 years in advance. Yes. 75. That means, the USPS has to put away money for employees that aren't even hired yet, aren't even of working age yet. No other corporation or government agency has such a mandate. The result of this, coupled with the slow-down in standard shipping due to Internet purchasing and so forth, has meant that the USPS has seen its profits whittle away to nothing.

The postmaster general, Patrick Donahoe, put forward a proposal that would have cut costs for the agency, which included job cuts, closing mail distribution centers, and cutting hours of operation. He also asked that Congress lift some of the debilitating requirements on funding retirement benefits. Again, Congress refused to move on the issue before leaving for a month.

What this amounts to, in my mind, is gross negligence of duty on the part of Congress. They knew this was coming, they had the time and the plan to make sure it didn't happen, and they deliberately ignored the problem.

My hypothesis is that these same Congressmen will issue statements decrying the USPS default, blaming Obama, blaming bad business practices, blaming wasteful spending by the agency, and will use this as a way to try and eliminate the USPS.

I've seen a lot of people who suggest this would be a good thing, since we could rely on for-profit, private mail services for our basic mail. Here's the issue. First of all, I don't have to pay for the junk mail that I get now. With a for-profit company, I would have to pay to get mail that I don't even want. Secondly, those for-profit companies generally don't go to far-flung, remote places to deliver, opting instead to drop packages at nearby post offices for people to pick up. Without post offices, where would those packages go? And, how would those people get their daily mail? Would they have to travel tens of miles every single day just to find out if they got anything important? That's ridiculous.

Our USPS is an amazing organization, and has been since its creation. It is a cornerstone of what makes our country work. That can't simply be ignored. But, we must work with the USPS to become like any other agency. We shouldn't be forcing them into an impossible financial situation. That's just wrong. We shouldn't be squeezing them out by demanding that they meet unparalleled standards of practice. We need to let them be profitable, as they used to be, and celebrate all the work they do for people.