Wednesday, January 30, 2013

That's one way to do it...

It's no secret that a lot of people are upset about federal power reaching in to control state legislatures. While the newest pushes are in health care and gun control, with gay marriage and abortion rights on the sidelines for now, these are issues that we've been debating since our founding.

At the founding of our nation, it was decided that the state and federal governments would share power, that one could not enforce laws that violated the laws of the other. Stricter laws were always recognized before looser ones. In fact, our founding fathers rejected plans that would have placed more power in the hands of the states than the central government. If you need further evidence of this, look to the Federalist Papers, which conveniently explain (in the words of the founders, no less) how they wanted a strong centralized government.

But that's not enough, ironically, for Tea Partiers who hypocritically claim to value the wisdom of our founding by rejecting federal power. Mississippi is the latest state where the TP is pushing for a full rejection of federal oversight, and they're taking a few step beyond anyone else by trying to set up a panel of state lawmakers with the authority to pick and choose which federal laws and guidelines the state will follow.

Not only is it a rejection of our founding principles, but it's also extremely unconstitutional. The federal government is the law of the land, and a part of that land does not have the authority to ignore them. The debate between federal and state powers is a useful one to have, but actions like this are meant to end the debate once and for all and pick a winner. The point of these arguments, though, is not for one side to win but for both sides to have their voices heard in equal measure and for policy and progress to be made that reflects both points of view.

This is an underlying issue with the Tea Party. They are not interested in compromise, the force that has driven our democracy forward for the last 200+ years. They are not interested in debating and listening to those who disagree with them. They want to win, they want to be the only ones left, and they want their views to be the only ones that matter. It's that disastrous, un-American, and un-Democratic philosophy that is, in my view, causing so much stress in Congress, and what is driving our nation mad with crazy crap like this.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Changing Direction

Oh boy. It seems there's a lot of change happening this time of year. With Republicans finally willing to talk immigration reform and raising of the debt ceiling, what other changes will there be in the next few weeks and months? Here's a list:


1. A recent study at Texas public schools points out that students there are still being taught conservative biblical views in lieu of actual science. Rather than allowing students to learn Christianity in a religions or humanities course, Texas has gone in a different direction from the rest of America, and used public science courses to expound on religious theory.

2. A Nevada woman, in an effort to prove how easy voter fraud can be, was recently arrested for committing voter fraud. Roxanne Rubin plead guilty to a lesser charge, which netted her a $2481 fine, 100 hours of community service, and an impulse control class. By proving that the system can accurately detect and punish voter fraud, Ms. Rubin conveniently disproved her own theory. Joy.

3. Now that the GOP has essentially pulled a 180 on the conservative points over the debt ceiling and immigration reform, they are in search of a new unifying front to push in this Congressional cycle. John Boehner conveniently provides us with their plan: to end abortions by 2014. It's a lofty goal to be sure, and indicates a major change of direction in our national discourse. As the Right loses ground over fiscal issues such as the debt and deficit reduction, they appear to be taking up the mantle on social issues as a way of maintaining their solid voting base while abandoning their greatest hot-button issues of the past few years.


It will be interesting to see just what comes out of all these changes. Will the GOP pull back from the brink of utter insanity? Perhaps. Will they plunge further into obscure conservatism? Maybe. Time will tell, I'm sure.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Same Old Story

Paul Krugman points out that the deficit hawks who have been warning of imminent economic collapse for the last several years seem to be changing their tune slightly. This may be because their predictions have not happened, but also because they are losing some of their target audience, the general public. While they are still attracting like-minded folks to their cause, they are losing ground with more rational people, especially since their predictions have not come to pass.

Krugman points out that deficit issues were mostly a result of a bad economy, which resulted in lower tax revenue and higher demands on the unemployment programs. Now that unemployment is falling, more people are working, meaning higher revenues and less demand on unemployment programs, meaning spending on those programs has declined and our budgets are coming back to normal. While we're still higher than we should be, and we still need to work on deficit reduction in a large sense, the hysteria is by no means necessary anymore.

Of course, hysteria is a powerful political tool, and is unlikely to fade completely any time soon. I think it should, seeing as how there is ample evidence of what happens when deficit concerns turn into austerity solutions.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Baby Steps

This week, House Republicans made a startling about face on the issue of the debt ceiling. In the past, the GOP leadership and prominent conservative members have refused to take a clean, simple increase to the debt ceiling. You may remember that this defiance led to a downgrade in the U.S. credit rating.

That seems to have changed, at least publicly and partially. Eric Cantor , House majority leader, made an offer to extend the debt ceiling for three months with the intent of giving Congress time to pass a responsible budget. In addition,  Cantor's proposal would stop members of Congress from being paid if they fail to pass a budget in that timeframe.

It's refreshing to see even some compromise in Washington, especially when it comes with real solutions for getting our legislature in gear. Not getting paid will probably be a good motivator.

Here's my concern: Republicans will kill this because it's a break from the lock-step of the GOP line against debt ceiling increases. Also, Democrats may kill it because it was proposed by a Republican and/or it doesn't go far enough. Moderate members of either party will probably support it, but moderation is in a minority these days. My prediction is that Cantor will walk this one back after a long talk with the GOP establishment, and we'll be back to square one.

I think Cantor has the right idea with this, though. Hold the feet of Congress to the fire, and give them a real deadline when they will get burned if they don't act.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Double Standard

Rich Nadworny, a contributor on public radio, recently had a very succinct piece in which he decries our reaction to various catastrophes. The point has been made several times since the Newtown shootings, but they are worth another look because they continue to be an issue.

As Nadworny points out, we view tragedies in very different ways. After 9/11, security in airports changed dramatically. Few people questioned it, because it was all in the name of our national security. When the shoe-bomber came along, suddenly we all had to remove our shoes. Again, few people complained, because we all wanted to be safe.

But when something like Newtown happens, for some reason we don't have the same reaction. At least, our national conversation goes very differently. Instead of agreeing on stricter gun laws, we have a huge debate over it, with one side saying it's necessary and the other side saying it's a violation of our rights.

The irony, of course, is that gun violence kills more people than terrorist-related activities. FactCheck.org has a great breakdown of gun rhetoric vs. fact. While the instances of gun-related deaths has decreased, it's still significantly higher than the number of Americans killed in terrorist attacks. And these are the numbers each and every year!

Nadworny makes a good point at the end of his piece: we need to start treating gun violence as a threat to our national defense. In other words, treat gun violence like terrorist activity. In the aftermath of 9/11, our government and many groups supported things like the Patriot Act. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, large numbers of congressman and outside groups are still resisting common-sense gun laws.

I'm not talking about taking away all guns. I'm talking about common sense. The NRA says they want to put an armed guard in every school. That's insanity. I think we should be limiting access to our most deadly weapons, like AK-47s, and doing proper background checks, as well as cross-referencing Department of Corrections databases to find out if anyone has a criminal record or is mentally unstable.



Lee Judge

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Failing

John Stewart is mad. And rightly so. His home city has been beaten up by a storm, and Congress can't pull itself together long enough to help the victims. It's been two months, and the House of Representatives decided it was better to end their session than to vote on providing more relieft to the victims of Hurricane Sandy.

In his monday show, Jon Stewart took House Republicans to task for failing to vote on the relief funds, and then, in an effort to seem truly dickish, passing a reduced funding package that, even then, 67 GOPers refused to support.

This speaks to a larger problem with the GOP, which Stewart mentions in the clip above (I hope it loads; my computer is having a bit of trouble with it). For one thing, the Republicans have been in this crazy frame of mind where they think it's better to let people suffer than to spend a penny to help them. Every little thing becomes politically charged. We saw it with the debt ceiling, which used to be routine, and now we're seeing it with disaster relief. It's not as if the GOP is disinclined to accept federal dollars for their own districts. They do so on a regular basis, with no hint of the irony in that. It's when they have a major media platform, a chance to make a public stance of principle, that they seem to let their brains go numb in an effort to curry favor with their extreme supporters.

Turning disaster aid into a political flash point was a stupid thing for the GOP to do, though, because people are genuinely interested in other people's welfare. It would be like taking a stand against protecting children; it would be political suicide. But in this case, it seems the backlash has been minimized. I'm not sure why, but this doesn't seem to be getting a lot of people talking.

This kind of thing reminds me of the most recent GOP primary race, when people at the debates were heard yelling things like "let 'em die" in reference to an uninsured person. Is this really the mentality that the GOP is allying itself with? It seems that way, since they seem so uninterested in doing even the simplest things to help people in their own country.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Biting the Hand that Feeds

AIG, the battered titan of investment banking, is considering whether to join in a lawsuit against the US government for bailing it out. That's right, AIG pleaded for a government bailout to save it from going belly up back in 2007/08. Now, in 2013, they are considering whether to sue the government for about half the amount they just finished paying back!

It's insanity at its finest. The basis for the lawsuit is that the government violated the 5th Amendment, amounting to an illegal seizure of property without just compensation. This argument is being made because the government took an ownership share of AIG stock (over 90%) when it bailed them out. That stock was slowly returned to shareholders of AIG as the company paid back the government. The shareholders are now complaining that they didn't make as much money as they would have if the government hadn't been involved, a ridiculous notion since there would be no AIG to earn money from at all if it hadn't received a bailout (at least according to conventional understanding).

Keep in mind, many of the people who now complain about government bailouts demanded them when Bush was in office and signed off on them. Furthermore, many economists now say and have said since their inception that they need not have happened at all. Indeed, institutions like AIG created the very crises that they then benefited from by taking bailout money.

The irony, once again, is that AIG shareholders are complaining about a loss on their investment, when they would have lost so much more if it had not been for government intervention. And this is the real point of the issue: the same people who want a small, ineffective government are simultaneously the ones who demand support from the government for themselves. Consider it. These are people who essentially publicized their losses, and are now trying to privatize what they perceive as their rightful gains. It is preposterous.

I hope that AIG backs off from this, because it would be unfair, unkind, unethical, and irrational. Then again, that seems to fit the standard model of practice for these types of firms, so I suppose the battle is already won. US government, prepare to pay AIG for all the pain and suffering you caused when you saved their sorry, ungrateful asses.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Smarter and Less

Now here's a good idea: allow banks to use liquid, more volatile assets to shore up investments and customer deposits. European banking regulators are meeting today to suggest loosening the rules on what type of assets banks can hold as insurance against future collapses.

Right now, banks are barred from using certain assets such as mortgage-backed securities to shore up their assets against bank runs and rough economic patches. The loosening of regulations would allow those assets to be used. One of the reasons for this is because government-backed securities have dropped a lot in value over the past few years, forcing banks to take on more government debt or take a bailout to keep themselves solvent.

The problem, as I see it, is that banks are notorious for taking risks as it is, and giving them more freedom to do so may be bad. Take those mortgage-backed securities that screwed our economy here in the states. If bank investments are backed by something so flimsy and prone to devaluation, what could happen if there's a hiccup in the housing market or global economy?

We'll have to wait and see if the deregulation measures are going to go through and how banks respond when the leash is loosened. If they start lending like mad, it could be a boon to the economy, but it could also mean a lot of risk being hefted on the banks  very quickly. Time will tell

Blind Allegiance

Paul Krugman has a new article in the New York Times. Krugman's article has to do with the pervasive idea many economists have that austerity in the face of recession and global financial crisis is and was a good thing. Krugman, as you might expect, believes it was not and actually did a lot more harm than good.

Krugman points out that the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which had previously been a stalwart advocate for austerity measures, now seems to be backing away from that in light of the new evidence in Europe that such measures have created even more economic destruction than before. But, Krugman points out, that doesn't seem to be convincing many other people.

Many economists, he claims, still believe that austerity is the only solution to our economic woes, and are staunchly ignoring the evidence to the contrary, instead opting for blind allegiance to the mantra of spending cuts, spending cuts, spending cuts.

If you think we're immune to this line of thinking in the US because we haven't seen federal austerity, think again. We're a little behind Europe, mostly due to the gridlock and partisanship in Washington and having a Democratic president, but we still have Republicans who believe austerity must occur here as well. Consider Mitch McConnell (R-KY.) who recently said that "The tax issue is finished" meaning he would not allow any more tax increases on anyone, ever, as long as he could.

McConnell and his Republican allies are not alone, either. Budget hawks are circling the Hill right now, screaming about the deal struck to avert the fiscal cliff because it cut no spending, and demanding across the board cuts to offset our debt.

This blind allegiance to spending cuts, despite expert evaluation and mass evidence to the contrary, is very disheartening. McConnell's declaration that taxes are finished and will not be debated shows, in my mind, a serious lack of foresight. That same lack of foresight is likely a culprit in the continued push for austerity. And, keep in mind, we have had austerity at the state level for years now, and look how that's turned out. Municipalities forcing people to pay for fire department services, or no longer hiring police officers or rescue personnel. Cuts to education. Cuts to mental health services. These are all symptoms of state-based austerity. It is wreaking havoc on local governments and townships, and we don't need that kind of chaos from the federal level.

As I've said in the past, we can make government more efficient. We can streamline the system of regulation, reduce the number of departments, weed out waste, fraud, and abuse, and slim down how our government functions without sacrifcing it's important functions. But simply cutting the budget down to size is NOT an answer. It takes planning, time, patience, and cooperation to make wise, reasonable changes. Until we regain a Congress that is willing to look each other in the eye and pass bills for the good of the people, that won't happen.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A Prime Example

Here is a prime example of just what is wrong with our Congress. The lack of cooperation, inability to pass a simple piece of legislation, the constant descent into chaos, and the continued partisanship all stems from a simple lack of respect.

Here's our good friend Mr. Boehner, stalwart speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States Congress, telling Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to "Go f**k yourself." Let me say that again: John Boehner tells Harry Reid to "Go f**k yourself"

In any normal work environment, that kind of outburst could very easily get you fired. It would at least require the person to go through some kind of reprimand process and apologize. But in Congress, it seems, such behavior is acceptable. By the way, I posted two different links to stories on this so that you can see the comments. What other people are saying about this tells you a lot about the culture of disrespect that our political world has fostered.

Imagine what would happen to our Congress if by some miracle they actually started to respect each other. They could have conversations, real meaningful debate, and maybe even compromise. Imagine! It would be like having a functional government again!

It's such a slap in the face to see our Congress being so disrespectful to one another. They're supposed to be the model of our civility. It doesn't take much for Americans to spit in each other's faces as it is. But when we have role models like this, it definitely doesn't help anyone.

You don't have to agree with someone to respect them and their opinions. Respect is a big part of life, and you have to respect others to receive respect in return. I know Boehner's comments are not the first of their kind on Capitol Hill, and they won't be the last, but they are a striking example of where our issues are rooted. Until we can pack away the insults and start working together, we're not going to get mcuh further with solving our problems.

Even the Pope gets it!

The Pope himself went out of his way to slam unrestrained Capitalism in his New Years address. That, I hope, will be pointed out to Congressional Republicans and Tea Partiers who think the only way to save our economy is to let the wealthy control it.