Wednesday, September 26, 2012

News of the Day: Insanity Edition

This special edition of News of the Day is dedicated to the sheer number of bang-head-into-wall stories of idiocy, discrimination, and ridiculousness that have bubbled up out of the news recently. Here we go with the short list of real gems.

1. When a female child from a Texas school was spanked by the male assistant principal, it broke the rules of the school district; not that the child was spanked, which is allowed apparently, but that she was spanked by a faculty member of the opposite sex. The mother of the teen gave permission for the corporal punishment, but then filed a complaint that the male assistant principal carried out the punishment. Rather than, you know, disciplining the man for breaking the rules (perhaps with a paddle to the ass), the school district decided the best course of action was to remove the limit on cross-gender corporal punishment. So, instead of apologizing for a punishment that broke the rules and caused significant physical harm, the school board is planning to simply normalize the behavior. Yeah, that's a reasonable response.

And not to get off on a tangent here, but this kind of corporal punishment, which left significant marks after the fact, would qualify as physical abuse of a child in some states. Just saying...

2. Once again, common sense is flying out the window at the speed of obstructionism. Congressional Democrats have produced a piece of legislation that would protect pregnant women in the workplace from being fired for failing to fulfill the duties of their job as a result of their pregnancy. For example, one woman was fired for carrying around a water bottle after she developed a bladder infection due to her pregnancy. Another was fired after a doctor told her she could not lift heavy objects after a near-miscarriage, and her boss would not let her co-workers help her. The Americans with Disabilities Act prevents this kind of thing from happening to people with disabilities, and there are laws that prevent women from being fired simply for being pregnant, but there is nothing that protects them or requires accommodation for those few months when they need it. Instead of taking the common-sense, help-the-pregnant-woman approach, House Republicans have voiced their opposition to the bill, claiming it would place an undo burden on business and eat into their profits. This was the same argument they used in opposing a bill to monitor the discrepancy in pay between men and women in America and work to correct the imbalance. Again, they said that if women are paid the same as men that it will cost businesses more money. It's nice to know we have such caring representatives in Congress...

3. Most people who pay attention are up in arms over the Citizens United ruling, which allows corporations and other groups and individuals to give unlimited amounts of cash anonymously to election campaigns. Romney has received the vast majoity of the money given in this campaign from the Super-PACs that have sprung up as a result of the ruling. But Mr. Romney recently expressed that he wanted to see Citizens United scaled back....but only to prevent teachers unions from donating money. Never mind millionaires and billionaires, never mind corporate special interests, never mind the PACs, SuperPACs, or non-profits. Romney thinks that it's the teachers unions that are going too far with their political donations. I wonder, Mitt, how much of your money came from teachers unions versus wealthy individuals and SuperPACs? Really? So, it's okay for a multinational corporation to pour millions into your campaign coffers without disclosing its identity, but if a teachers union wants to give a few grand, we need them to identify themselves? Really?

4. Don't read this one if you're not a football fan. Okay, by now most fans have heard of the debacle that is the final call of the Packers/Seahawks game on Monday night. Here are the levels of incompetence as I see them: 1) The two refs made different calls on the field, one of a touchback (the right call) and one of a touchdown (what were you thinking?!?). 2) The call on the field turned, magically, into a touchdown when the refs conferred. 3) The refs reviewed the play and still ruled it a touchdown!!!! 4)Now, the NFL itself is backing up the call, which reeks of a move to simply save face. If this isn't a clear indication that we need the usual refs back, I don't know what is. If you need a link to the political world, this is what happens when wealthy owners try to turn into union-busters and make more money on the backs of their employees. They've made the calculation that if they stand strong on a minor issue like the pensions of the refs, they'll be in a stronger position to negotiate the contracts of the players. If this is what happens when we have 2nd string refs running the games, imagine what will happen when they're using replacement players next year!

5. Finally, Rush Limbaugh has made another one of his astute observations, by blaming feminists for a study which shows that male genitalia is getting smaller. According to Limbaugh, the growing movement for equality between the sexes is demasculating our society, to the point where men are being born with smaller genitals. As if junk science turned into socio-political cannon fodder wasn't bad enough, this is Limbaugh we're talking about. If anyone should know better than to say stupid things off the cuff, it's this guy. But Limbaugh has been making a name for himself recently for his outrageous conspiracy theories. For example, he thought the hurricane threatening Florida during the RNC was a liberal conspiracy. And let's not forget the whole birth control debacle. So, when Rush Limbaugh makes gender equality sound synonymous with Fascism and Nazism, just remember that this is the guy blaming liberals for a hurricane.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

State of Mind

You may remember back in January when a picture surfaced of several marines who appeared to be urinating on the corpses of killed members of the Taliban. The photo, which was accompanied by a video of incident, went viral, led to riots and demonstrations like those we are seeing now, and has now led to two of the individuals shown being Court-Martialed for the incident.

I link to the story above for a few reasons. First, I like to cite my sources. Second, I want to draw attention to the fact that there are incredible similarities between this incident and the more recent video that was released that upset the Muslim world for its portrayal of the prophet. Both were carried out by Americans, both seemed to be blatantly and needlessly disrespectful to an entire culture, and neither group seemed to fully think through the consequences of their actions. Even the response at the time of this photo was the same: people took to the streets, there were violent demonstrations, and I believe people ended up being killed as a result, though my memory fails and the Internet won't dredge up the information for me.

The other thing that gets me, though, and the final reason I posted the above link is because it highlights an underlying issue that I have pointed out many times; that is, the apparent lack of empathy that many Americans have for others. I encourage you to read the comments on the linked article. Many people celebrate those soldiers for peeing on their dead enemies, and say they should receive medals (purple hearts in some cases) rather than a court-martial.

Their justification for this? Eye-for-an-eye mentality. They see what we have suffered at the hands of extremist Muslims, and so believe this is called for. What they neglect to consider, as usual, are the consequences for their point of view. I can agree that we have enemies in the Muslim community, and that we are doing what we can to rout them out and establish a democratic ally in the region. But I also happen to believe that things like this, along with the recent video, are slaps in the face to an entire religion, and an entire region that takes that religion very seriously (where we have military boots on the ground, no less). Is that really a wise course of action? You can believe whatever you want, and speak out about whatever you want, I grant you. But isn't a little common sense in order?

And here's where it really gets me. Things like the photo and the video make a whole lot of people upset, which makes the region unstable and threatens the safety of our troops. These same people who celebrate those derogatory  bits of ridiculousness are the first to decry the violence and volatility of the region, and call these people savages, etc. But who's really the savage? Why would someone do or say or produce something that they know is going to enrage a large group of people, possibly cause the death of American heroes, and then claim that they care more about those heroes than anybody else? It's repugnant, but that's where we're at.

So, how do we deal with this? What do we say to the people who think pissing on a corpse is worthy of a medal? How do reach those people, logically? I don't know, and I hope we figure it out soon, because I for one do not want to see what the next piece is that causes the Middle East to erupt into fits of violence.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Parallels

Following the theme of abandoning common sense, here are a few more news items for you.

1. Ultraconservative Islamists are asking the UN to place bans on insulting the prophet Muhammad. This comes after weeks of rioting and decades of instability in the region. As a brief historical note, ultraconservative Muslim groups have spent the better part of the last fifty years gaining power and prominence in the Middle East. They reinstated the requirement that women where headscarves, they turned the fledgling democracies into full-blown theocracies, they required reading of Quran, amongst other things. The changes differ from place to place, but in general conservative Muslim tradition has largely taken over. This push on the UN to ban insults of the prophet is surprising, but so is the response here in the US.

The funny thing, to me anyway, is that this kind of ban is exactly the kind of thing ultraconservative Christians here would want for themselves. In fact, they make a huge issue out of decrying their own victimhood in a country where they are largely accepted and have a lot of protections. What the Muslim community wants is mutual respect, they say. Fine, that is a good goal. I can't believe that American values will be respected by the Muslim countries of the Middle East if we show respect back, as long as their conservative theocrats continue to control them. That's not me being anti-Islam, that's me being realistic. I would love for there to be peace in the Middle East. I would love to see American forces leaving, our bases shut down, and see a growing society there. But that's not happening now, and as long as radicalism is hijacking the conversation for the people of the Middle East, there won't be mutual understanding.

My point in all of this is that, while the Muslim community does seem particularly volatile when it comes to defaming their prophet, they can't expect special treatment because of that. Just as Christians here can't sue you or throw you in jail for criticizing Jesus, Islam should not be allowed to proecute people via the UN for something they find personally reprehensible, but that is protected under another countries free speech laws.



And now for something completely different.....


2. A new report by several key economists expresses that the best way for us to deal with mass amount of deficit and debt is to combine spending cuts with tax increases. A common sense, right down the middle solution to the problem. What could go wrong?

Well, as you can imagine, quite a bit. As it turns out, our politicians don't listen to experts in things like economics and markets when making decisions about the economy. They listen to their party leaders, their lobbyists, and their gut, and they make decisions that score them political points with their base while stonewalling progress. And as those economists explain, it is this lack of knowing what will happen in Washington that is holding things back.

There is a lot that can be said for taxes on businesses, the wealthy, etc. There's a lot that can be said for the deficit and debt. But the thing that really kills job growth is uncertainty. That's true on Wall Street and on Main Street. A business can function if it knows what it's tax rate is going to be, even if it's high. So can a family, for the most part. But not knowing causes confusion and uncertainty, leading to stagnation. These economists suggest that a clear path forward alone would be enough to help the economy. But again, obstructionism (from both sides) and an inability to respond to even the simplest issues, has left us drowning in unemployment.

Again, we see a lack of common sense, a complete lack of understanding beyond political gain, and a lack of interest in the general welfare of our country. This is the core problem in Washington right now: everyone wants to get re-elected that they're neglecting their duties as a congressperson. We can argue back and forth about who is more at fault, what should be done differently, and even what routes should be taken by Congress. But until we can elect people who can put politics aside for the good of the nation, all that talk is just hypothetical. We have to remove the log from the eye of congress before worrying about the bit of dust.

Junk Science

Back in the 90's, Bill Nye was a household name. His science show captivated young audiences and probably inspired a whole generation of engineers, chemists, and biologists. He was an influential voice for common sense education, even if those who watched his show didn't see his underlying message at the time.

Recently, Bill Nye has been making waves once again, this time by being completely honest about his disdain for creationism. Nye even went so far as to use scientific facts, rational argument, and soft vocal tones to get his point across. This is contrast to the way creationists usually get their point across: religious zealotry, irrational biblical reference, and loud yelling. In fact, Nye's arguments were so persuasive, he may have dented the resolve of many a creationist.

But creationists, not above the "eye for an eye" thing, saw this attack on their belief system as carte blanche for an attack on Nye himself. And since the Bible is fairly explicit on not killing people, they were forced to do the next best thing: spread a rumor on Twitter that the famous scientist was dead.

Of course, this was quickly debunked, thanks to Mr. Science Guy producing a video the following day of himself, very much alive, and still very much against creationism. The video spawned a few humorous jabs at the creationists, such as this.




In the above link, you can watch a short video of Bill Nye discussing his displeasure with creationists in America, which has long been the most attractive place for science and thinkers to congregate and work. Nye has some great lines in the video, like saying of creationists "It's very much analogous to trying to do geology without believing in tectonic plates. You're just not going to get the right answer. You're whole world is just going to be a mystery instead of an exciting place."

What's interesting about that is that this seems to be exactly what creationists want: a mystery. Since it's creation, religion (any religion) has served as a way of explaining things that are a mystery. Ancient people found religion in lightning, rain, earthquakes, death, the sun, the moon, the stars, and just about everything else. If they couldn't explain it, they chalked it up to religion. When creationists argue for their point of view, they are arguing for us as a nation to keep the living world around us a mystery. Why? Because if people don't understand how something works, they will be more likely to accept a ready-made answer. The more people who don't know about evolution, the more people will latch onto a belief system that rejects it.

And because this is the viewpoint of Creationism, those who reject evolution see those who support it as having similar motives. It is a natural part of human nature: if we don't like someone, we believe they don't like us. If we feel threatened by someone, we assume they are threatening us. It is because of this response that creationists continue to fight, sometimes aggressively, to prevent the teaching of evolution is schools, to stop evolution from being put in textbooks, and to "teach the controversy" to students, even though they themselves are creating the controversy, not the science world.

When America is already sliding in many areas of study compared to our peers around the world, it really shows how impaired we are when a religious extremist view can wield so much power in limiting the teaching of real science. How is it that we allow a group that can scream out their opposition to have so much influence over our curriculum and, therefore, our future? It's appalling that we are having this debate, of all things, while our children continue to do worse in national testing. There are so many other issues to tackle, this is a ridiculous red herring.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Sliding in the Polls

I should preface this by saying that polls in general, and especially national polls, are notorious for being hopelessly inaccurate. You have to look at who is running the poll, who they looked at, how they selected participants, how they interpreted data, how they summarize their findings, and how they present their findings. At any of these stages, and often at many of them, a polling group can manipulate its system to provide a particular outcome. And even if they don't, the knowledge that it happens is enough to call even the best possible polling institutions into question, and gives those who disagree with the results a way of arguing against them (which leads to ironic twists when those same people then praise polls that they support).

That being said, new national polling indicates that Romney is starting to slide backwards, while Obama's national lead is widening. Already, Obama can secure the election if he picks up every state that supports him, however feebily. That is a tough spot for Romney to be in, especially when we haven't even had debates yet. It's possible, as always, that things could change. Bad employment numbers, shocks to the economy, more bloodshed overseas, or any other national tragedy or setback will likely harm the President's numbers. But his lead at this point is huge.

What is causing this? Well, if you haven't been paying attention, this hasn't exactly been Romney's best week. His own base doesn't like him, and he's not winning over any moderates. He keeps saying things that are dumb or insensitive or both, he's not acting presidential, and his own VP pick is showing him up. What Romney needs is consistency and positivity, neither of which seem to be his strong suit.

Now, I'm not saying it's going to be a runaway for Obama. I highly doubt it will be. But I think that Romney is going to be a bit wanting in the debates, and I think he's starting in a low position against this President. Obama has a lot of statistics going against him: unemployment, slow job growth, unrest in the Middle East, deficit and debt talks, etc. But even with all that, he's got a huge lead on Romney in most polls. So, what gives? Either people don't care about that stuff, see that it's not really Obama's fault, or they really just don't like Romney.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

America: Made in China

This week, there seems to be a sudden surge in the amount of disdain for China and its marketing policies. Earlier this week, Obama announced a case he filed with the WTO against China's subsidy of their car industry. Romney also jumped on the bandwagon of China-bashing by saying that he would label China a currency manipulator, and would crack down on Chinese market manipulation.

All this is well and good, but there are a few snags. First of all, aside from Obama filing a request for an investigation, this is all talk. And politicians have been complaining about China for years. Never mind that we made them who they are today. We outsourced for free trade boons to our economy, and then got lazy with our own manufacturing and development while China carved out an ever-growing portion of our economy, and now our energy sector as well.

Secondly, what a President or presidential candidate says to rally support on the campaign trail is one thing. But when you're sitting behind that desk, and have to somehow pull back China's influence without ruining our relationship with a country that had the foresight to buy up our debt, it's not so simple as a talking point. What happens when we agitate that relationship? Will China suddenly become more aggressive in demanding they get paid back? Will they spark a trade war with us that will cost US companies even more? There are a lot of bleak outcomes to engaging in this kind of talk with China.

But that's not to say that we shouldn't. Instead, as I've said, we should make changes here at home that will make competing with China possible. For one thing, instead of calling them out for subsidizing their industry, why don't we subsidize ours? We tried it with the stimulus, and many companies have done well by it. We can do that, legally and effectively, and start fighting back against the wave of cheap Chinese imports. The other option is to reinstate trade tariffs to hike the price on Chinese products. Fair Trade is the name of the game, since Free Trade got us into this mess in the first place.

Granted, there are issues with this. For one thing, it could lead to inflation, as the cost of items goes up to reflect the rise in tariffs. It could also piss off China, which will then seek action against us anyway. Or, it could cause stagnation in our markets, as people stop buying those cheap Chinese products because they're not so cheap anymore. Any number of these things could happen.

But what the President's move, and Romney's remarks are getting at is that the problem is getting too big to ignore. Before long, nothing made in America will be able to compete globally or domestically. Cars, power grid technology, health and wellness products, etc. will all be produced cheaply in China and imported by the US. We've been a consumer nation for decades, and now we're behind. Do we really want to be beholden to China forever as our supplier of all goods? I don't want that, and so we have to address it now.

It all comes crashing down

Figurtively of course, and by no means in a way that means it's over, but the Romney campaign is doing a very good job of pounding nails into its own coffin. It's not enough that Romney is having to fight off the debacle that was his response to the deaths in Libya, now he's having to respond to something else he's said when he didn't think people were listening to him.

In a moment of true honesty, when he appeared more comfortable in his own skin that I've ever seen him, Romney shoots himself in the foot for the second time in a week and offends nearly half the country. Not only does he overgeneralize by calling 47% of people freeloaders, essentially, but then goes on to say that it's not his job to worry about them. Well, I suppose it's not his job to worry about them right now, but he's applying for a position where that is his job. So, do his comments make it seem like he'll take this job seriously?

But you know, Romney has been a victim of his own making for a while now. He doesn't provide details on his plans, doesn't divulge information about himself, and then complains that people aren't warming up to him. Couple that with things like this, and you can imagine he must be sweating it out right now.

And that's not all. If it were just the Left and the "Mainstream Media" that were out for blood with Romney, he could handle it. He'd have his base and the conservative media and pundits to back him up. But even they're jumping ship with Romney. Remember back in 2010, during the midterm elections, when Republicans were gleefully pointing out how many White House staffers were leaving "like rats on a sinking ship"? Well, witness the conservative version of the exact same phenomenon. And the thing is, Romney's not even in the White House yet. These guys can't stand him for being too moderate.

Frank Rich, writing in New York Magazine, describes the phenomenon of the far-right, and seeks to explain, through exposing himself to a week of hard right media, just what makes this base tick. As I said above, it appears on the outside that people are abandoning Romney and Ryan to their fate at this point, but the truth seems to be that real hardliners never wanted them in the first place. They feel abandoned by their party, and want real conservatism to take over. As I've written about before, this continual slide to the right by mainstream Republicans is occurring, but those who are waiting for them are getting fed up with how long it's taking.

What strikes me about all this is how Romney, his supporters, and the Right wing of the Republican party all seem to believe that their problem is a lack of conviction, a lack of conservatism, and a lack of Republican values. Romney has been duped, no doubt by the conservative base, into thinking that moderates respond more favorably to a denial of facts, ideological purity, extremism, and loudness. Not being a moderate myself, I can't tell you from personal experience whether this is the case. But it seems to me that these tactics would push people away from Republicans rather than drawing them in. Time will tell, of course. We're inside of two months heading into the election. Romney is going to have to really work this election if he wants a shot.

And, in case you were interested in that 47% that Romney mentioned, here's a good breakdown.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What is Wrong with You?

I understand dirty politics. I can understand taking a questionable quote out of context and using it to make a larger statement about your opponent. I can understand taking a single line from a single bill and trying to pass it off that your opponent voted specifically for or against that provision. I can understand those tactics, even if I can't agree with their use. And I know that all politicians use them.

What I can't understand is using a national tragedy, especially one that is painfully recent, as a backdrop to make false, distorted, slanderous, despicable claims about a political opponent. I don't understand how a person, especially in the public eye, can hold an impromptu press conference while blood is being cleaned up at a murder scene to decry their opponent's response to the tragedy as being unsympathetic and wrong. Three words come to mind when I see a story like this:

How. Dare. You.

You, Mr. Romney, have crossed a line in political and social decency. You have utterly ruined any thought I may have had that you were a decent man. Why? Because less than 24 hours after four people are shot and killed in the Lybian city of Benghazi, including our Lybian Ambassador, you cancel a rally, tear down the set, and hold an impromptu press conference to attack the President for his response.

And, not only is this immoral, mean-spirited, and needlessly vulgar, you make a complete mockery of the event by LYING THROUGH YOUR TEETH! What kind of idiot does this? Do you not realize that this is the hot topic issue of the day, that millions of people around the world, in media, in their homes, over the Internet, are all streaming information on this event, including the President's response. Do you really think people won't notice that what you chose to quote is complete wrong? That the piece you picked to emphasize came from the embassy itself, before the attack?

I know that you are waging a campaign, and are likely to use the tactics I listed above, which I can understand if I don't necessarily agree with. But this is a slap in the face to the memory of violence and death that has come with this attack. How dare you use this tragedy as a means of advancing your political career less than 24 hours after it happened, and then disgrace it even more by making up a story to attack Obama with. That is sick, shameful, and disturbing.

And I'm not the only one who thinks you've screwed yourself over. You were so focused on beating down your opponent that you've come across as a self-serving, arrogant, misinformed political narcissist. Unlike some other analysts, I don't know if you've completely ruined your chances in the election. But I'll tell you something: you've ruined your chances with me.

Granted, I'm not your biggest fan. But I respected you up until this point. Some people thought I was crazy for saying that I respected you as a person. I genuinely thought that you had the best interests of the country at heart. No more. No more do I see you as a patriot who is trying to do what he thinks is right by our constitution. I see a bully. I see a brat. I see a man who is in this for himself. If you cared about the nation, you would have kept your damn mouth shut and expressed nothing but grief and asked for nothing but solidarity. You would not have made this kind of crap into a punchline, because you would have understood how much it hurts America to see you use its darkest moments as fodder for your campaign.

I'm not sure I can respect you any more, Mitt. I really thought you were better than this. It's hard to believe, but you've let me down even more. Shame on you.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11 Anniversary

Eleven years ago today, at right about this time, America suffered the most devastating attack on its own soil in history. Nothing like it has been seen here before or since. In that moment, America changed. We became united, albeit briefly, and we became a nation that needed to protect itself. In the hours, days, weeks, and months that followed, that fateful day colored every conversation, drove every policy agreement, and had a place in every law. It was the thought in the back of everyone's mind. Every time we turned on the television, it was with fear that another attack had come and with hope that we were finally safe.

Today, we remember those who died in the attacks. We remember that their unwilling sacrifice was beyond our understanding, that their legacy goes beyond our divisions, and that their memory goes beyond our lives and into generations to come. Today, we look back, but we also look forward.

We look back at the decisions that were made, the people who acted without thinking, without feeling, without hesitation, to help those in need. We look back at the bravery displayed by our fellow Americans at ground zero, in classrooms, in the halls of Congress, in the White House, in every living room of this great nation. We look back at the unifying power of that moment, how it cauterized a nation and forged in us an ability to lay aside our political and social differences and join hands in mourning, in solidarity, and in comfort. We look back on all that has happened since, all that has been done to remember and ensure that those victims did not die in vain.

We look forward to the end of fear, the end of war, and the end of death in the name of terrorism. We look forward to the day when we can proclaim that our work is done, that we are safe, that the world is a better place, and that the sacrifice has been met with action. We look forward to the day when we no longer have to fear for our children, our family, our friends and our neighbors. We look forward to the day when our men and women in uniform can come home and no longer have to pay the ultimate price for our freedom. We look forward to the day when we announce that justice has been done, whatever that may be.

Do not misunderstand me. I do not advocate for one course or another. This is not a message of partisan opinion. This is not me attempting to say what is right or wrong, good or bad. This is not a moment for the people of our nation to fight over the course of the future. We all have the same goal in mind. We all began this journey in the same place. We have all arrived at this moment. Let us lay aside the distractions of government, the worries of an election, and the policies of our lawmakers, and come together, even for just a moment, as we did eleven years ago. Let us feel as one again, and remember solemnly the reason for this day.

God Bless America.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The result of Obstruction

Third and final post for today (I think).

My favorite economist, Paul Krugman, looks back on a long-lost bill that would have made a difference. The American Jobs Act, proposed by President Obama, was going to be a benchmark for future legislation and a drive to grow jobs, improve the economy, and fight the debt and deficit. It died in Congress, thanks to the obstruction of the Republicans. This is ironic because Republicans tried to make everything about jobs. It's now hypocritical because Republicans have complained about the lackluster job growth and overall recovery from our economic slump. What bother Krugman about this is that, as usual, Republicans are banking on people not remembering or never knowing that they were the ones that blocked the jobs bill in the first place.

We are lagging in our job growth and economic recovery, that's true. But, as I've said before, most of the problem is the gridlock in Washington. Let's take one example. When the last debt ceiling debate was going on, Republicans struck a deal with the White House and Democrats: if they couldn't reach a compromise on the debt ceiling (which shouldn't have needed a compromise at all), then there would be automatic spending cuts to defense and social programs. The idea was that these cuts would be so abhorrent to both parties that they would do whatever it took to avoid them. They didn't, and those cuts are set to happen at the end of this year (that fiscal cliff they keep talking about). Now, after they made this deal, Republicans are backing out by saying that the cuts to defense will cost jobs, despite their age-old view that government spending doesn't create any jobs at all. Meanwhile, Republicans are complaining that Obama put them in this position. That is a lie. They put themselves there, and now they are trying to turn that to a political advantage by lying to the American People about who orchestrated this situation.

The problem with Obstructionism at this time is that it needn't be at all. Republicans, back in the 90's, were more than willing to compromise and work with the President. And look what happened; we had an economic explosion! Yet this crop of conservatives would never dream of actually solving any problems while they don't control the White House. And while they play their political games, our economic recovery suffers. Our country needs both parties and needs them to work together. If we can't have that, then we need new leadership.

It Could have been Worse

Jon Stewart has another great video narrated by Larry David, which argues that things could have been much worse without Obama in office. It takes a turn for the hilarious, but the premise is a good one. Does anybody out there really think that McCain/Palin would have been a better solution to our economic issues in 2008/09?

One of those things

Romney is at it again over health care. For months, his mantra has been "repeal, replace" in regards to Obamacare. This has resonated with his base very effectively, and he's been sidestepping most of the more popular pieces of the law so he won't be seen as disenfranchising any newly supported demographics.

But Romney has made the fatal Romney mistake of getting down to specifics, and in this case, it comes with a major contradiction. Romney stated on "Meet the Press" that he would not repeal Obamacare in its entirety. That is a new stance for the Republican Presidential candidate. When asked for specifics on what he would keep, Romney tossed out pre-existing conditions. To put that in perspective, the mandate in the law that insurance companies be required to cover people with pre-existing conditions is one of the most popular and most controversial parts of the law. It essentially forces insurance companies to do their job, despite the profit margin, something insurance companies seem loathe to do.

So, this flip-flop seems to be bad enough. Romney went on to clarify (another change from tradition) that he would support plans to keep certain parts of the law, and would make it illegal for people with pre-existing conditions to be discriminated against if they move to a new job (this is already law). But then a Romney aide, whose name I couldn't find, took it a step further. The aide claimed that Romney's comments were not a contradiction, that Romney supported people with pre-existing conditions having insurance and that, here's where it gets good, the free market would take care of those people.

I'm sure Romney would never have said this, even if he believes it. After all, it would be political suicide to suggest we go back to the free market health care solutions from before the ACA, when people with pre-existing conditions couldn't get insurance at all, and people saw their coverage dropped when they got sick. It would be like admitting amnesia over how our system worked merely five years ago.

To suggest that a private sector company in a free market system will cover a person with a pre-existing condition, even at a loss, is laughable. That's bad business, and no company whose sole interest is the bottom line would do that on their own. I can understand the theory that a company would offer a plan for folks with pre-existing conditions as a way of carving out a niche in the market, but that company would never do that if it wasn't profitable, short or long term. That's why the ACA was good: it forced companies do their job, even if it wasn't good business, and forced them to actually help people.

I'm hoping that we can have a grown-up discussion about health care solutions, and I would like to see more work done on preventative care. I support the ACA for the most part, and I would hope that Romney, in an effort to be popular, will support some of the key provisions that his base may be too blinded to see the value in.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Slow and Unsteady

This past week, the jobs report from August was released, which showed that less than 100,000 jobs were created. Furthermore, the unemployment rate dropped to 8.1%, down from 8.3%, as more people dropped out of the workforce and stopped looking for jobs. Overall, it was gloomy report, marred even further by the fact that projections for June and July job growth were overblown, and had to be scaled back.

Pundits took to the airwaves, claiming this or that factor, that it was all because of Obama, or all because of Republicans in Congress, or all because of Europe, the private sector, the job market, manufacturing woes, etc. In truth, it was all of these things, in part, that is causing a major economic slowdown and this unsteady, unpredictable recovery we have been facing as a whole.

Of course, our elected officials are to blame. But is it just one group? Absolutely not. Obama, for his part, has struggled to come to an agreement with House Republicans over how to address the jobs issue. Furthermore, he has not been very direct with the Fed over solutions to the economic crisis we are still staring at down the road. The Fed, in turn, as been very lax in its response, taking a careful and conservative approach to recovery that has little impact. Congress, meanwhile, has not been able to get out of its own way for two years now, as Republicans throw up roadblocks on basic bills and legislation, while trying to score political points with ridiculous, doomed-to-fail votes. Democrats have also been feeding into the gridlock, though at least they have not brought the same bill to the floor thirty-something times to have it rejected so they look like they're trying to do something.

Economists themselves deserve some of the blame as well. Economists, thanks to the hyper-focus on our our economy, have been given a prominent role in explaining our situation, what caused it, and what will fix it. But, like politicians, economists have begun with a premise for success and cherry-picked information that supports it. This goes both ways, but we see it most with those who advocate austerity and trickle-down economic policies. There is ample evidence that these policies don't work the way they are supposed to, but that doesn't stop some economists (those paid by organizations like The Heritage Foundation) from expounding on the merits of these theories. The debate shifts between three issues: jobs, the economy, and the debt and taxes. The funny thing is, these are not distinct problems, even though politicians and economists treat them as though they were. When the experts on economic policy cannot be upfront about what works and what doesn't, it stalls out any hope of progress.

Then we have the Eurozone. It's ironic that we here in America have stopped hearing daily stories on this issue, because it has never gotten better, and has actually become much worse in the last few months as the summertime economy has cooled off. The problem with the Eurozone crisis is very complex, but in relation to the American economy, it is the equivalent of a ball and chain around the ankle of the American recovery as it tries to stay afloat. The reason is that America has become a global economy, has contributed and invested in the global market, and any impact anywhere in the world has a major impact on us. Why is disruption in the Middle Eastern nations such a big deal? Because we get oil from them, and any halt in the production or export from that region will have catastrophic effects on the global market. Similarly, the economies of Europe are all trying to hold it together (with a single currency no less - much harder to do) as some countries grow and others shrink, some are swallowed by debt and others are prospering. The issue with the Eurozone is that those at the top (Germany) don't want to help those at the bottom (Greece, Spain) because those countries borrowed beyond their ability to pay back. They want to teach them a lesson, even if that lesson comes at the expense of the global economy. So, while Europe tries to sort out loans, fiscal cliffs, and debt defaults, we here in America are struggling against slow trade, jumpy investment markets, and fear from Wall Street about the global economy we helped forge.

Those are the big issues, but there are a number of smaller ones. Take, for example, the housing market. Most recoveries in the past have occurred thanks to the housing market, which tends to bounce back big time in a recovery because of low interest rates that are usually part of the recovery package. In this case, the recession was caused in large part because of easy credit and a housing bubble. What this means is that housing is still on the mend, people are wary, and the market is making very small gains. Another issue that is having an impact is the problem of middle class shrinkage. More people are falling out of the middle class than any time in recent years, and the middle class is still suffering from high unemployment. What this means is that our economic engine of consumer purchasing is at a near-standstill. Average household income is falling, there are threats to cut programs that aid the middle class, and the constant reminder of debt are all keeping people from spending their money, which is reducing demand. Then you have the private sector of America, the big corporations that are sitting comfortably on mountains of cash, not hiring or investing, and shelling money into election campaigns while trying to shirk tax obligations. With talk of further deregulation, tax cuts, and more freedom for the private sector and investment sector that led to the collapse in the first place, it's clear that our leaders have not learned from the mistakes of the last eight to ten years. We need some common-sense restrictions on special interests and private sector influence over our economic policy.

Finally, there's the changes in our economic demographics to consider. Manufacturing lost thousands of jobs in August. Thanks to Free Trade agreements, America has been turned into a consumer nation, meaning we no longer produce our own goods but rather import them from other countries. In an economy like this, when consumerism is an essential piece to economic recovery, we're at a disadvantage. As we move away from manufacturing, we're either going to spend the money to create new industries, or we're simply going to fall apart as a producer. This process, which started back in the 1990's with NAFTA, is a much greater liability when we face an economic slow-down. It gives us fewer options and less flexibility to respond to market variables. After all, if Americans are consuming as much, we're not trading, which means the global economy starts to shrink, causing more headaches, and the process begins all over again.

While the recent economics report leaves a lot to be desired, it has had the advantage of once again focusing people's attention on something other than the debt. It's brought people into the discussion about jobs and economic forces, and this has meant renewed focus on the real core issues of the problem. I would like to see more collaboration between the Left and Right, more discussion between economists, more common-sense and flexibility in Europe, a stronger stance for American products, and more help for the American middle class. If we can do that, we can lay the groundwork for recovery, and shift the discussion from principle to definitive policy.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Bill's Speech

Bill Clinton spoke for about 50 minutes at the DNC last night. He got a lot of applause, and truly united the crowd at the convention, to the point where at least one GOP strategist said, "This will be the moment that probably reelected Barack Obama."

I know that he was a divisive individual and President, but he has become a prominent figure in national and world affairs. He remains an engaging speaker, a powerful symbol, and an important voice for rallying
American Democrats and independents. Here's his speech. Enjoy!

When a Lie is not a Lie

As you can imagine, there's been a lot of coverage over the DNC convention this week. I touched on it a bit a few days ago while I was criticizing Fox for being somewhat partisan in their coverage of the events. But they're not the only ones. The Blaze, Glenn Beck's news site, has posted a story entitled "5 of the biggest lies told on the first day of the DNC." Sounds like it should be a pretty harsh, take down type of piece, right?

Well, not so much. See, it turns out the folks at The Blaze took a bunch of material from Fact Check to write this piece, and Fact Check really couldn't find any statements from the first day of the DNC that qualified as outright "lies." Sure, there was some truth-stretching. There was some embellishment. But nothing that was said was without a basis in fact at some level.

Rather than modify the theme of their article and the headline itself, The Blaze simply posted the information, then shrugged off the fact that they themselves were lying about the information by asserting that it didn't matter if the Fact Checkers found lies or not because these were Dems, and they lie as easily as they breathe, apparently.

As usual, I recommend reading the viewer comments. While some condemn The Blaze for their ridiculous attempt to make mountains of lies out of molehills, some seem to be completely ignorant of what the article actually said. Still others point out the ironic fact that, on many occasions, The Blaze has criticized Fact Check and other oversight groups for being partisan, liberally biased, and not accurate in any way. They've actually spent a good amount of time bashing fact check sites and groups for ignoring what they consider huge lies, or downplaying certain quotes from politicians, while others are given a more harsh rating.

And here's the other point to make: when the RNC was going on, The Blaze ran an article where they analyzed claims about Paul Ryan and his budget plans, etc. While the article was clearly trying to defend Ryan by painting the offered quotes as lies and misrepresentations of his record, they couldn't ignore that, once again, the information they presented had a basis in fact. The Democrats were not making stuff up, and The Blaze ended up publishing an article that was another lukewarm attempt to discredit liberals.

So The Blaze can't show the Democrats lied, and can't show that Republican statements were unfairly analyzed, yet they continued to publish articles that claim exactly that. Maybe they should just give up...

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Product-less Economy

Matt Taibbi goes into detail about how Romney made his fortune at Bain, what kind of tactics he used, and how this model of business has taken over the American economy. As Taibbi points out, America is no longer a nation that makes things, it simply makes money. Lots of it. For not a lot of people. Our manufacturing and infrastructure have become neglected as more and more of our sharpest business minds flood to Wall Street and drop their greed straws into the perpetual money machine to suck out their fortunes.

It has been this way, or at least approaching this way, for a long time. Back in the 80's, there was a change in our business model as manufacturing became less important and we started opening up to foreign trade. Then came NAFTA, and the era of free trade. Now, America could get cheaper products that were produced in other countries. Places like Wal-Mart overtook mom-and-pop stores nationwide who couldn't compete with a large corporate business that could sell things cheaper than the small stores could buy them. The mantra of "Made in the USA" lost its meaning as people starting buying cheap, buying a lot, and giving less. Our economy might have slowed, wealth might have dried up, jobs might have been lost (in fact, many were) if not for the Wall Street folks who simply took all that trade and economic activity and turned it into risky investments.

Companies like Bain Capital became prominent as ways for companies to restructure for the new era of business. Romney and his associates started "helping" businesses streamline to a 21st Century kind of business model. Of course, those companies never realized that Romney and his friends were one step ahead of them, and had seen the decline in labor and the rise in investment and trading as an opportunity to reap millions. As Taibbi explains, their plans went like clockwork: They would buy a company, dump loads of debt into it, then force them to cut jobs and pay, all while paying Bain for this service. Romney made his millions, and thousands made it onto the unemployment rolls.

But the story of Bain is not unique, nor is it over. We may not be seeing the wholesale dismantling of entire companies for personal gain on a regular basis, but it does happen, and the move towards investment wealth and away from production wealth continues. We no longer build things for ourselves; we import. What we do make here goes abroad. We are approaching a point at which we will have a product-less economy.

Sure, that might seem strange, but it's not that far off from our current trend. In 2008, when the economy tanked, companies dumped jobs. Some of those companies, not to mention Wall Street itself, got bailed out by Bush and then Obama. Those companies used that money to, wait for it.....invest. Granted, they also paid their CEO's big bonuses, and they paid back some debts, and they used some to grow their business, but they added back almost none of the jobs that they cut. The rest of that money went into investment portfolios where its been paying back dividends ever since. And why did these companies choose to do this? Because they saw the writing on the wall, and knew that American manufacturing was dying. This allowed them to diversify where they got money from, and how they chose to move that money.

There will always be things that America makes. We will always grow and sell food. We will always build cars. There will always be construction workers, road workers, plumbers, architects, and so on. But I don't foresee a time when Wal-Marts will be stocked with American products, or cars on the road will be exclusively American made. We're going in the other direction, at least for now, and believe we will see more changes in how American companies do business going forward than we have seen of this trend so far. Romney was a harbinger of this new way of doing business, and I doubt very much that his presidency will stop or stall its continued progress.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Mass Delusion

I know it's one-sided, but this is a great piece written by Kurt Eichenwald that succinctly summarizes why he believes Republicans need to be defeated in 2012. Eichenwald does a great job of breaking down the issues he has with the GOP as it is today, and there are a fair few.

For one, Eichenwald takes issue with the fact that the GOP has gotten to the point in its political ideology that it can no longer tell the truth and appease its base. It must push ridiculous things like "Obama is a Socialist," "Obama is a Muslim," "Obama is not a US citizen," and so on simply to appeal to their base of voters. That base, by the way, comes up with even more crazy crap that the GOP then has to appeal to in order to maintain relevant, and the process of the sliding to the right continues. For example, theories that Obama is going to pardon all black convicts immediately after re-election, that he is going to pass an executive order that replaces our judicial system with Sharia Law, or that Obama is going to require all adults to get microchips installed in their heads for easy tracking are absolutely ridiculous, yet help make up the belief system of this new group of fanatical conservatives.

Another issue for Eichenwald is that the Republicans are unswayed by facts, new information, reality, or reasonable argument in their effort to remain ideologically pure. They will disregard evidence that is right in front of their face so that they can remain firm in their ideals. This is why the conspiracy theories above are not squashed by the leaders of the GOP; to them, they are simply principles and beliefs, like a religion, that do not require hard evidence, merely a "gut feeling."

Eichenwald also points out that they have built in their minds a kind of alternative reality and history, in which Reagan's tax cuts created immeasurable prosperity, even though it was actually the slashing of interest rates that did that. Furthermore, Eichenwald reminds us that Reagan raised taxes after he cut them, and did this several times. Of course, this part of the story is conveniently forgotten by many in the Republican leadership, and has been soundly avoided by conservatives for years. Just like they ignore the economic boom of the 90's, presided over by a Democratic President who raised taxes, they staunchly ignore the full history of their patron saint.

But the ending is perhaps the most compelling piece. Eichenwald points out that he could easily write a critical piece about Obama's policies. However, he says, it would be a piece on policy, not on the lies and deceits and drives of the Democrats. No, that piece would be about a group that is interested in governing, not controlling, the country. And that is a marked difference.

Overall, the article is well written, and, while long, worth the read. I found it thought-provoking and very direct. As Eichenwald surmises, the GOP has gone too far to the extreme to be anything but harmful if brought into power.

Polling the People

Just about every day, I make a point of visiting the Fox News website to see what they're running for political stories. Normally, it's a fairly interesting read, and I sometimes post links to their stories here. But every day they also have an un-scientific poll for viewers to jump in on.

During the Republican National Convention, each and every poll was things like "Who are you most looking forward to hearing," "Who do you think had the best speech last night," and "Do you think that the Romney campaign will get a bump from the convention?" It was clear from these that Fox was trying to get people fired up about the convention, and wanted people to be more involved in the speeches and rallying moments.

Now that the Democratic National Convention is starting, I was half-hoping to see a similar enthusiasm from the Fox News poll questions. Instead, we get this: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" And the resounding answer? Last I checked, some 87.9% said "no."

Is it just me, or does this seem a bit pathetic? I understand that Fox News is all pro-Republican and whatnot, but can't they at least try to appear non-partisan? Their headlines and articles are either anti-Obama or pro-Romney, and rarely if ever vice versa. The thing that really gets me is that it doesn't help people get a balanced look at the conventions. For all intents and purposes, they are the same. The party votes on platforms for the next four years, they have guest speakers, talk policy and platitudes, nominate their candidates, and then go home. Yet when it's the Republicans, it's like the rest of the world stops and we're all celebrating, whereas with the Democrats, it's like it doesn't matter in the slightest.

And another thing. Most of the other media outlets are going to be giving just as much airtime to the Democratic convention as they did the Republican. Granted, they spent more time on the lead-up to the RNC because of the hurricane, but they will likely be just as critical and just as interested for the Dems as for the GOP. And what will Fox have to say about this? Very likely, they'll complain that the Democrats are taking over the media, that there's so much coverage of the Dem convention, that the media is eating out of the Democrat's hands, and that they need to be even more focused on the protesters to the convention to even that out. Really? Do they not remember that, a week ago, they were falling all over themselves to talk about the Republican nominations and party platforms? They're acting like a child who was given an ice cream five minutes ago, gobbled it down, and is now throwing a tantrum because another kid has one that's exactly the same.

I don't mind if a media organization wants to be partisan, but they should be honest about it and should not expect other people to do what they want simply because they feel entitled. Fox has long been the spoiled brat of the media outlets, and it's high time they get placed in the corner for a time-out. This provides them with a great opportunity to do just that: if they can't say anything nice about the Democrat National Convention, don't say anything at all.

P.S. and it's not like the GOP was exactly upfront and honest during their convention. They made more outrageous claims, outright lies, and truth-stretches than most people have seen out of one gathering in a long time. Here's a humorous, but comprehensive, summary of just what happened at the convention.