Saturday, December 18, 2010

No Experts Needed

There are a lot of issues that require some level of expertise when you delve into the details. This is especially true with finance and economic related policies. However, it requires no specialized knowledge to see when theories defy logic itself. The recent debate over the so called 'Bush Tax Cuts' are a perfect example. They were originally enacted to help restart a sluggish economy, but really did very little in this regard. On top of that, they were unpaid for and therefore were mainlined directly into the deficit and ultimately the national debt. To add insult to stupidity, these cuts disproportionately helped those earning over a million dollars a year. Hardly the segment hurt most by economic troubles. This is what is known to Conservatives as the theory of Trickle Down Economics, made famous under the Reagan administration. To everyone else, it's simply known as Help the Wealthy and hope they feel generous towards the little people.

If there is one economic idea that should be run through the shredder it's Trickle Down Economics. Let's set aside the example of its abject failure in the mid-late '80s and instead just think for a moment. A capitalist based economy is powered by the engine of consumerism. People buy houses, cars, TVs, computers, beer, clothes, etc. That demand means companies who supply these items need to make more of them and create improved versions. To do this they hire workers to design and produce the items. Those workers get paid for this work and use that money to buy houses, cars, TVs and so on. With me so far? So the corporations make money by selling items to people who have money to spend. The more money consumers have to spend, the more they can buy and the more luxuries they will desire. Corporations make more money by providing these items. As demand rises, they find it profitable to add more factories, hire more workers and produce more. The new workers spend their paychecks on more items, from necessities to luxuries. From food to diamonds. The capitalist version of the circle of life. Simplified, but you get the idea.

Now for the Trickle Down Economics in this scenario. This theory says that to stimulate the economy you should give tax cuts to the corporations and the wealthy so that they will use that money to expand factories and create jobs. What should be obvious by now is that this goes against even the most basic idea of capitalism. Wealthy individuals and corporations don't create factories and the resulting jobs because they have extra cash on hand this year, they do it when there is DEMAND! It doesn't matter how many tax cuts you give them, if there is no one shopping for jewelry, it's unlikely that Kay Jewelers is going to be opening any new stores anytime soon. You can 'trickle' all you want and all you'll accomplish is to make the corporations richer. This is not particle physics, it's logic on par with 1+1=2.

So here we are, two years into a colossal recession. Unemployment is pushing 10% and the credit markets might as well not exist for all the lending that's going on. Bankruptcies and foreclosures are at eye watering levels. The deficit, and therefore the national debt, is skyrocketing as the Federal government keeps pumping money into the economy like a winter driver trying desperately to keep the engine running on a December morning. So what is the plan being pushed by Conservatives? Trickle Down Economics in the form of the Bush administration's disproportionate tax cuts for the wealthiest 2%! They spew forth all sorts of political babble to confuse us into thinking that keeping tax cuts in place for this tiny section of America is vital to reviving the economy.

Nobody seems capable of explaining how this would work in the real world. Don't forget that these tax cuts are already in force and have been for the better part of a decade. All we are debating is if they should expire or be renewed. But to hear Republicans tell it, maintaining these cuts for the top earners will magically boost the economy. Remember that if the rates were to return to what they were before the cuts were enacted in 2001, they would be at the level they were during the economic boom of the 1990s. Hardly a dire situation. In fact, I'd say that generic tax cuts usually have minimal stimulative effect at the best of times. For most of the country the cuts usually only add up to a few dollars a paycheck which is barely noticeable. Certainly not likely to keep a family out of foreclosure or encourage them to spend on luxuries.

If the GOP were really worried most about the deficit and actually cared about being fiscally responsible, they would be the first in line to call for the Bush Tax Cuts to expire. The next best option is to keep them in place for income less than a quarter million dollars and let the rest lapse. This would erase about $800 Billion in projected costs over the next decade. But what are they actually calling for, nay, demanding? Keep 'em all, especially the cuts for the top 2%. They are so desperate to keep the wealthy well looked after that they have gone for a scorched earth policy in the Senate, refusing to consider any legislation until the tax issue is resolved. And by resolved I mean, all GOP demands met. What is so amazing about this is that they can still say the words 'fiscal conservative' without collapsing in laughter. It certainly is a joke, albeit a very bad one.

As I write this, and wallow in disgust, Congress has just passed a deal struck between the White House and senior GOP leaders that would renew the entire Bush Tax package for two more years. What did Obama get for giving in on a stand he and the Democratic leadership have been harping on since before the elections? A stand supported by a majority of Americans, according to more than one poll. Well, he got an agreement for a one year extension of Unemployment benefits and, uh... nope, that's about it. There are some assorted other tax related cuts and such, but most of them were things the GOP liked anyway, so from my standpoint a very lopsided deal. Actually not just from my standpoint. A good number of Democrats are pretty put out by this agreement, as are a few Republicans who seem irritated that Obama didn't just surrender the Presidency outright. Worse, at least for the future of the Obama Presidency, is that it gave the GOP a huge, undeserved victory and inspired the Democratic base to a collective "WTF?!" Most importantly though, it shows that if Republicans pick the right hostage, in this case the long term unemployed, the White House is likely to capitulate. By the way, in a post deal press conference it was Obama who used the hostage metaphor to explain the deal. This is particularly odd since as far as I know, if the hostage takers demand a jet as a trade for the hostages, we usually don't whistle up a Gulfstream 200 and wave goodbye as they depart. But perhaps I'm misinformed on these sorts of negotiations.

There is so much about this deal in particular, as well as Congressional incompetence in general, that leaves me stunned. As far as I can tell, the only real stimulative part of the proposal is the extension of unemployment benefits. This will put cash in the hands of those who not only want to spend it, but absolutely must. Think unemployment benefits are just a waste of money? First, let's remember that these benefits are only for those who have been laid off through no fault of their own. So we aren't dealing with lazy people who quit their jobs. These are the casualties of recession level downsizing. Second, the money these people get through unemployment is often the only thing keeping them housed and fed. Stopping unemployment benefits isn't just non-stimulative, it actually contributes to the recession. Soon after losing this life-line, individuals and families will start defaulting on mortgage and car loans. Going delinquent on rent. Some who have held on as long as possible will finally give in to Bankruptcy. Do any of these things sound good for the economy?

I had a tiny sliver of hope that this deal would be modified enough to be at least vaguely palatable. But that was way too optimistic of me as, despite angry words on both sides of the aisle, it passed both houses of Congress this week. The 111th Congress, from GOP obstruction and the ongoing 'War on Logic' to Democratic incompetence and spinelessness, is a poster child for all that's wrong with our government. And I didn't even mention the Supreme Court's ruling to give corporations many of the rights of individual citizens! I suppose Corporate suffrage can't be far off. We are in tough times, but we are not going to get out of them by shoring up the coffers of the wealthy or of big corporations. Huge corporate profits have not managed to resuscitate the economy thus far. Why? Because it doesn't matter how nice the detailing or how clean the engine is, if there's no fuel in the tank then the car ain't moving. The economic fuel is consumer spending. Everything boils down to this. Without it, we aren't going anywhere. Outside of the unemployment extension, I don't see anything in this deal that will improve matters, though it will spike the national debt to greater heights. Once again political victory brings little help to those most harmed by the recession while continuing to reward the mindset that got us into it.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rally to Restore Sanity/and or Fear

Yes, I made the pilgrimage from North Carolina to DC to attend the 'Rally to Restore Sanity/and or Fear'. It was quite the experience. I will say upfront that I will likely not do another rally of this size again. Don't get me wrong, the people were generally very nice and friendly, but any time you get several hundred thousand people crammed into one area, even the size of the National Mall, it gets a bit crowded. But aside from the shuffling crowd, difficulty seeing the screens at times and the very long metro back to the car I did enjoy the show. More on the show in a moment.

Before I attended I had come across a handful of articles, mostly proclaiming the problems the authors saw with the Rally. I was rather surprised actually by some of them. Now I never paid much attention to some of the various Tea Party, Second Amendment and Glenn Beck rallies that have been staged on or near the Mall the last year or so. At least not beyond noting their existence anyway. So maybe I missed all the pre-rally analysis and criticism leading up to and immediately after the events. But it sure felt like this event was under the microscope from the moment it was announced. What was even weirder was the strange arguments against it, especially before it had even happened.

One theme was the lament that Stewart and Colbert would ruin their 'brand'. That somehow leading a rally would magically transform them both into political pundits and make them unable to ever return to the comedy side of the street. Why? The rally was aggressively non-partisan and was promoted as pretty much an extension of the Daily Show/Colbert Report franchise. Nobody should have really expected either man of turning serious all of a sudden. In fact several weeks earlier, in an NPR interview, Stewart clearly stated that he had looked at Beck's 'Rally to Restore Honor' and had seen that as a great framework for the kind of thing that he and Colbert did already. And they wrapped it around the theme, also a constant on The Daily Show, of stepping down the rhetoric and the volume so we could actually exchange ideas.

The conservative media, of course, went with the old standard of considering any gathering that hinted at compromise or discussion as nothing but a bunch of cowardly liberals who didn't understand the real world. I've always found this to be shortsighted and ignorant. It goes back to the schoolyard philosophy that 'Strength' is the most important factor in the world. But their definition of strength has no room for strength of character or conviction. They usually define it as simply power to force or dictate to others. A view that 'Us or Them', 'Our way or the highway' and never admitting you're wrong are somehow admirable qualities. The truth is that, just as parents teach their kids, it takes courage and strength to admit to a mistake and teamwork does make you stronger. Bullying a weaker opponent is not strength, it's merely cruelty. And you attract more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. So it's not surprising or at all illuminating that the conservatives who's careers rely on volume over substance would miss the point of a Rally for Sanity.

But the comments that struck me the oddest were from liberal activists who seemed to be completely unsure what to make of it. They wanted to fold it into a box labeled 'Protest', but it didn't fit. And for some liberals the idea of reasonable compromise was almost as alien as it was to the conservative fringes. Of course they didn't see themselves as 'extremists' even if they rejected the same calls to reason that the far Right ignored. I read two such articles on Huffington Post.

The first was by Mike Elk, a self described 'Labor Journalist' who spent the first few paragraphs describing how much of a Progressive rally it was and that "it is thus vital for progressive media outlets, including labor publications, to adequately cover the event." Apparently this is because any 'Progressive' event absolutely must be all about social justice and the rights of workers. I'm quite sure there are a lot of events that are somewhat progressive that do not focus on labor rights. So why get so worked up here? He then launched into a longwinded lament about how he and a number of journalists from other "major labor publications" were denied formal credentials to cover the event. Keep in mind that lack of formal credentials in no way bars them from covering the event, it's public after all, they just wouldn't have access to the press tent with internet access and power feeds. Inconvenient, but hardly crippling for a journalist. Yet he droned on and on about how important the labor movement was to progressives and how this denial was such a slap in the face to the labor movement. Huh? Whine much, Mike? Even when he stopped consoling himself for this insult to his pride and that of every blue collar working stiff he continued to rip into the rally. Apparently since this was only 'entertainment' then the whole thing was obviously just a Comedy Central plan to boost ad revenue. Thus Stewart and Colbert were just smiling shills for corporate America. I admit his leaps and bounds of logic, and I use the term loosely, are dizzying to read. The deeper you get the more snotty his narrative becomes and drips with scorn for the show's white liberal elites and their "slack activism" and tossing in digs at how The Daily Show lampooned a union that hired outside people to do the picketing for them during a wage dispute. And even though Mr. Elk notes that he agreed in this case, he can't get over how the show has 'refused' to cover major labor struggles. Let me get this straight, you are upset that The Daily Show, on Comedy Central, is not sending people out to cover labor rights struggles? When have you ever seen them do serious journalism? They are not a news organization, Mike! That's why they are on Comedy Central. Mr. Elk seems to be unable to reconcile how a show that uses humor to point up hypocrisy and political illogic doesn't do investigative journalism. If nothing else, Mr. Elk's article is an entertaining read, though I doubt that was his intention.

The other post that stood out to me was by the leader of the activist organization CODEPINK, Medea Benjamin. She pulled no punches and immediately dove into making sweeping generalizations and heaping insults on the "slacktivists" who she saw as  Stewart and Colbert's primary audience. Essentially she seems to have little but derision for anyone who isn't actually in the trenches of the protest movement. Taking offense at a statement on the rally website that said that Stewart was looking for people who've been "too busy to go to rallies, who actually have lives and families and jobs (or are looking for jobs)." Just like Elk, without the ego driven whining, she makes the mistake of expecting The Daily Show and the Colbert Report to be something they are not and railing at both for her own lack of understanding. Stewart doesn't invalidate the aims of CODEPINK and other activist organizations. His view is not that the cause isn't worth fighting for, it's that the manner of the protest is likely to drive away at least as many prospective supporters as it attracts. In other words, the more outlandish the stunt to get attention, the crazier you will seem to the public. Now this view is arguable, but it's still a valid critique.

During the Rally, one bit had Stewart and Colbert again arguing Fear vs. Reason, this time with montages of outrageous statements and over the top punditry from the entire spectrum of cable news. The following week, while the Fox folks simply pretended the Rally was just a publicity stunt with no actual value, several liberal hosts lashed out. Why? Because they had been included in some of the montages. But what most irritated them was that they had been lumped in with Fox and they felt that they were not equally at fault. This is a good reminder of the other side of the equation. Journalists and hosts who figure that as long as they are no worse than the guys across the street, then they shouldn't be expected to be responsible. One of the protesters was Keith Olbermann, who I generally like and often agree with. But if we are to be honest, he is also sometimes guilty of excessive hyperbole, such as his comments after Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's old Senate seat in January. I remember thinking at the time that many of his points were pretty thin and strained. While I will firmly maintain that Keith is far more even in his demeanor and fair in his reporting than most of the Fox luminaries, it shouldn't mean he's above reproach for his missteps.

Look, both shows certainly lean liberal-progressive, despite the declarations of Stephen Colbert's conservative character, but they aren't really news shows. They aren't Woodward and Bernstein. They fill the same niche as the likes of Mark Twain and Will Rogers did, by commenting on the absurdity of politics and those who report on it with a sharp wit. And like Shakespeare's often present Fool, who used humor to disguise his dangerously accurate observations of the vain and powerful. So judge them for what they are, not what you wish they were. As for the meaning of the Rally itself, Jon Stewart summed it up quite succinctly in his brief but direct moment of seriousness, which I am appending below. It is well worth a read. As he notes, the media and the mountain of pundits and self proclaimed experts did not create our problems, but they make solving them so very much harder. We work best as a nation when we stop yelling at each other and start talking to each other. That's when problems get solved.

Jon Stewart's closing remarks:

"So, uh, what exactly was this? I can't control what people think this was: I can only tell you my intentions.

This was not a rally to ridicule people of faith, or people of activism, or look down our noses at the heartland, or passionate argument, or to suggest that times are not difficult and that we have nothing to fear--they are, and we do.

But we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus, and not be enemies. But unfortunately, one of our main tools in delineating the two broke. The country's 24-hour, political pundit perpetual panic conflictinator did not cause our problems, but its existence makes solving them that much harder. The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire, and then perhaps host a week of shows on the dangerous, unexpected flaming ants epidemic. If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.

There are terrorists, and racists, and Stalinists, and theocrats, but those are titles that must be earned! You must have the resume! Not being able to distinguish between real racists and Tea Party-ers, or real bigots and Juan Williams or Rick Sanchez is an insult--not only to those people, but to the racists themselves, who have put in the exhausting effort it takes to hate. Just as the inability to distinguish terrorists from Muslims makes us less safe, not more.

The press is our immune system. If it overreacts to everything, we actually get sicker--and, perhaps, eczema. And yet... I feel good. Strangely, calmly, good. Because the image of Americans that is reflected back to us by our political and media process is false. It is us, through a funhouse mirror--and not the good kind that makes you look slim in the waist, and maybe taller, but the kind where you have a giant forehead, and an ass shaped like a month-old pumpkin, and one eyeball.

So why would we work together? Why would you reach across the aisle, to a pumpkin-assed forehead eyeball monster? If the picture of us were true, of course our inability to solve problems would actually be quite sane and reasonable--why would you work with Marxists actively subverting our Constitution, and homophobes who see no one's humanity but their own?

We hear every damned day about how fragile our country is, on the brink of catastrophe, torn by polarizing hate, and how it's a shame that we can't work together to get things done. The truth is, we do! We work together to get things done every damned day! The only place we don't is here (in Washington) or on cable TV! But Americans don't live here, or on cable TV. Where we live, our values and principles form the foundation that sustains us while we get things done--not the barriers that prevent us from getting things done.

Most Americans don't live their lives solely as Democrats, Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Americans live their lives more as people that are just a little bit late for something they have to do. Often something they do not want to do! But they do it. Impossible things, every day, that are only made possible through the little, reasonable compromises we all make.

(Points to video screen, showing video of cars in traffic.) Look on the screen. This is where we are, this is who we are. These cars. That's a schoolteacher who probably think his taxes are too high, he's going to work. There's another car, a woman with two small kids, can't really think about anything else right now... A lady's in the NRA, loves Oprah. There's another car, an investment banker, gay, also likes Oprah. Another car's a Latino carpenter; another car, a fundamentalist vacuum salesman. Atheist obstetrician. Mormon Jay-Z fan.

But this is us. Every one of the cars that you see is filled with individuals of strong belief, and principles they hold dear--often principles and beliefs in direct opposition to their fellow travelers'. And yet, these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze, one by one, into a mile-long, 30-foot-wide tunnel, carved underneath a mighty river. And they do it, concession by concession: you go, then I'll go. You go, then I'll go. You go, then I'll go. 'Oh my God--is that an NRA sticker on your car?' 'Is that an Obama sticker on your car?' It's okay--you go, then I go.

And sure, at some point, there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder, and cuts in at the last minute. But that individual is rare, and he is scorned, and he is not hired as an analyst!

Because we know, instinctively, as a people, that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together. And the truth is there will always be darkness, and sometimes the light at the end of the tunnel isn't the promised land. Sometimes, it's just New Jersey."

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Think it Through

Am I the only one who has noticed the flood of vague and/or unworkable policy positions from Conservatives, especially Tea Party candidates? It's starting to get on my nerves. Particularly as some of the most fringy candidates are sheltering in the friendly embrace of the conservative media so as not to be faced with the indignity of an inquisitive thought. In that climate they are able to say almost anything and not be asked any inconvenient questions like, "How would you go about that?" or "Could you clarify what you meant when you said . . . ?" Therein lies the problem. Candidates are making claims that go virtually unchallenged. Not that this is entirely new since the Republican party as a whole has been doing that ever since they lost big in 2008. However some of the ideas that are fashionable on the Right are getting a bit on the extreme side.

One of the Tea Party favorites is the idea of privatizing Social Security. You hear this popping up all over the campaign trail. Some even use the euphemism of 'personalizing' rather than privatizing. Sounds better, but it means the same thing. This plan would move your Social Security nest-egg out of the Federal government and into the private sector. In other words, into the Stock Market. As I understand it you would manage it like a 401K account by picking which investment vehicles to invest your bundle of retirement cash in. Of course it takes only a brief glance in the nation's rearview mirror to see a glaring example of why this is a stupid idea. Just remember the near collapse of the financial system only a few years ago. You don't even need to flex your imagination since we just saw it in brilliant technicolor. For something that's supposed to be a minimum, reliable retirement income, risking it in the stock market may not be the best idea. Yes you could do well, but you may not and you can't really plan on the best case scenario. One other thing to think about, what do we do as a nation if a crash does wipe out a large percentage of the privatized Social Security nest eggs? Odds are, and you know it's true, that the government would end up stepping in to help reimburse those who lost most or all of their investments. So any savings to the country would be wiped away when we bail out retirees. It's called 'cause & effect' and it transcends all political parties and philosophies.

A perennial favorite of Conservatives is what I call the 'Magic Tax Cut'. According to Conservative lore, the bigger and more wide ranging the tax cut, the more the economy will grow! This is, of course, impossible. The 'Magic Tax Cut' also pays for itself! This is, of course, impossible. Doesn't stop them from pretending it's true though. Less taxes means less money into the government. Now if the economy is booming then it will equal out to some degree. But as a stimulant to a sluggish economy, it's not that effective. The economy runs on consumers spending money. The more money we have to spend, the more cash is pumped into the economy. A tax cut is only going to put a few dollars a pay check into consumers' hands. Nowhere near enough to make a difference in spending habits. But wait, just like all things in the universe, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the case of a tax cut that means that the government will take in much less money than it otherwise would. The one way to make tax cuts less problematic is to make cuts somewhere else so that they are paid for. This rarely happens, particularly with Republicans. No politician wants to undermine the propaganda value of cutting taxes by also cutting services. In fact both tax cuts instituted by the G.W Bush administration are partly to blame for current deficits as they were never offset by any cuts. In other words, un-paid for. Sadly amusing to now hear many of the same Conservatives that were so supportive of the Bush tax cuts now moaning at the insanity of expenditures that aren't paid for. Funny how perspective changes everything.

Look, we all love the idea of less money siphoned from our paychecks by the government. It's also a great talking point as it feeds the idea that 'The Man' is taking our hard earned cash for some shadowy purpose that doesn't benefit us. But think about it for a minute. Where do you think the money comes from to pave the roads? Fund the Police, Fire and Rescue services? Help clean up after a natural disaster? Fund agencies that test our food, water and air for safety? Protect and maintain parks, not just Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon but also the national battlefields and other parks? Provide security at border crossings, airports and seaports? Fund our global military commitments? Finance a public education system so kids of any economic background can get a basic education, not to mention the publicly funded colleges and universities? Student loan guarantees? Medicare for older Americans who would have a hell of a time getting affordable health insurance on the open market? Any of these things sound familiar? Contrary to the propaganda, taxes are not inherently evil. Yes there is some waste, inevitable whenever humans are involved, but most of it goes to support the things we use every single day. And yes, we all have things we wish our taxes didn't pay for, but so what? That's the price of living in a country like America. We should stay on top of our government to make sure they are spending our money as wisely as possible, but we have to stop acting like taxes are always evil and that 'Public' means 'Free'.

Then we have one of my personal favorite Conservative mantras; Small Government. One well known Conservative, Grover Norquist, famously quipped "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub". What I find so annoying is that the people who proudly proclaim support for this idea are the same ones who are demanding that homosexuals be barred from legally being married. They are the same people who support kicking gay service members out of the military simply for their sexual preference. They are the ones ready to enshrine the Ten Commandments into law and push other Christian doctrine on a secular nation made up of large numbers of non-Christians. They are the same people who think that once an egg is fertilized that the government assumes control of a woman's reproductive system. Some of the current crop of Conservatives are even now claiming that a woman be forced to carry their rapist's child or a pregnancy from incest. Sharon Angle, Tea Party candidate for Senate in Nevada, actually stated that it was God's plan and a woman in this situation should "make lemonade from lemons". This is the small government many Conservatives want. A government with no ability to regulate corporations, but with the right to dictate citizens' personal choices. That's not small government, that's dictatorial government.

There are many more items I could pick on, but the bottom line is that when a politician makes a statement, even if it does resonate with you on some level, think it through. Follow the train of logic, if one even exists. Don't just take it at face value and assume they've already checked all the angles. The only angle they're really concerned with is the one that gets them into office. Just like a PR firm, a politician is trying to grab you with catchy phrases and emotional hooks. And a politician who is campaigning for office is not concerned with accuracy or workability. It's about motivating you to vote for them. A great example of this is health reform. Republicans will freely admit support for most of the individual parts of the law, yet in the media they are blathering on about "Repeal & Replace". Believe me, if they actually could repeal it, highly unlikely, they would replace it with something almost identical, but with a more flowery name. Of course to repeal it would require not just control of both houses of Congress, but a solid 2/3 majority in both to ensure an override of the inevitable Presidential veto. So you see, a politician can promise you anything he wants, but that doesn't mean he can or even wants to actually do it.

We have lots of problems and few, if any, have solutions so simple that they will fit on a bumper sticker. Cutting taxes will not, by itself, fix the economy or take millions off the unemployment roles. Tax cuts are also not without cost. And less money into the government means less money for the things we all demand our government do. It's fine to believe in small government, but if you do then you better be able to tell us what you're willing to do without. You can't support a government small enough to "drown in a bathtub" yet continue to pretend that it can do everything it does now. And if you really want a smaller government presence, then start by keeping it out of our personal lives. It has no place dictating personal choices that do no harm to others.  We, as voting citizens, have to hold all candidates and sitting politicians accountable for what they say and demand that they tell us how they plan to implement these grand ideas. What many candidates most fear is that voters will actually question their statements and realize that the only thing beneath the catchy tag line is their own personal ambition.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Entertainment in Three Dimensions

I will state upfront that I have generally been uninterested in 3D movies. Used to be they were mostly schlocky horror movies that used the technology simply to scare viewers by throwing axes at the audience. That has changed. Not to say that there aren't a number of movies that still use 3D as a scare tactic, but it's found more mainstream support over the last few years. Still, I have consciously avoided the 3D versions of movies I've wanted to see.

Over the last year, it seems that every animated flick or adventure movie was released with a 3D version. It had become such a 'must have' thing that Clash of the Titans, originally shot in 2D, had 3D bolted on after the fact. According to some reviews, the result was lackluster, but then most didn't seem charitable about the movie itself either. Until this last weekend I had only seen one major motion picture in 3D and that was Ice Age 3. I only saw the 3D version of that because I was going along with others. If it had been my choice I would have seen it in 2D instead. As the number of movies released in 3D increased I did find my curiosity peaked and wondered about seeing one in 2D then again in 3D, but I never really got around to it. Partly this was not being excited enough about most of them to want to see them twice in the theater. Partly it was the roughly $3 premium the 3D versions commanded. Not a huge sum of money, but added to the regular ticket price and something from the concession stand begins pushing even a matinee towards $20.

This changed for me last weekend. I was in a blah mood and figured a movie was a good idea, so I checked the listings. While scanning the current releases I found myself drawn to the Avatar re-release that was supposed to include additional scenes. Seemed like a good choice. I'd seen it in 2D back in December, so I would have some means of comparison, and there's no doubt that it's a visually impressive movie. After a brief debate I figured 'why not?' So I ponied up over $9 for a matinee show, grabbed some snacks and my 3D specs and headed in.

For some reason I was a little surprised to see the previews in 3D, though I'm not sure why it should have been unexpected. I settled into my usual spot down front and as close to center as possible. My usual preference is to be close enough that the screen pretty much fills my vision. Feels more immersive somehow. Soon after the movie started however I realized that this wasn't ideal for 3D. Why? The glasses have pretty small lenses and I found that sitting that close meant that I was often turning my head a little to see things clearly towards the edges of the screen. I could have moved, but ultimately didn't. The place was just full enough that I wouldn't have gotten a good center seat without going to the back of the theater. After a little time I got used to it and only occasionally noticed the lens issue.

As for the overall experience, I was not overwhelmed. Certainly some scenes were more spectacular and visually stunning in 3D, but I didn't feel that it was enough to overcome the price and the requirement for bulky glasses. In fact I often felt like I was watching the movie through a tube. As long as I looked straight ahead, it was OK. But if I looked down at my drink or snack, what wasn't a fuzzy mess was partially blocked by the heavy frames of the glasses. It really yanked me out of the experience. Another issue was the feeling that the lenses were not very clean. The edges seemed fuzzy to some degree. I didn't think to look closely when I left to see if that was true or if it was just the nature of the small lenses.

In the end, I still feel little if any desire to go 3D. The bulky glasses, with such small lenses make it very easy to be distracted and taken out of the action. They often felt like a barrier, as if I was watching the movie through holes in a wall. If they were lighter and could be made with a more 'Oakley' style wrap-around design it would make a huge difference. However I suspect that one reason the lenses are as small and flat as they are is due to limitations in the current technology. As long as glasses are required it seems to me that 3D is little more than an interesting gimmick. While it can make the visuals pop at times, overall these occasions were not enough to sell me on it. I want to be able to lean back and get lost in the film, not keep shifting my sightline and wondering if the glasses are dirty or not. And it's obvious that I would have been better off farther back, despite my preference for sitting closer. In the end I felt that the limitations of 3D pulled me out of the movie far more than it immersed me in it. This isn't to say I'll never see another movie in 3D, but it's not my first choice. Once the technology finds a way to deliver 3D with no eyewear required, then it will be much more interesting to me.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Book Review: War

The war in Afghanistan conjures up many things for Americans. But unless we've got a loved one in harm's way or have lost someone there, we usually focus on the larger political issues. We think about the Taliban, Al-Qaida and the 'terrorist connection' or maybe about Pakistan's tepid response to extremists operating out their side of the border. What we don't think about is what it's like to be an infantryman, spending 15 months in one of the tiny outposts scattered about Afghanistan's frontiers. That's what Sabastian Junger's book 'War' is all about.

Sebastian Junger is a journalist who's written a number of books, including the book that was adapted into the movie 'The Perfect Storm'. This book was put together from five trips Junger made, often with photographer Tim Hetherington, into the Korengal Valley over the course of 2007 - 2008. He was embedded with a US Army unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, occupying several outposts in a six mile long valley that accounted for a fifth of all the fighting in Afghanistan. As he puts it in the introduction, he was "totally dependent on the military for food, security and transportation." He often went on patrols with the men and, in one instance, was nearly killed by an improvised bomb that went off under a Humvee he was traveling in.

Much of the book takes place in the area around an outpost called Restrepo, named for a medic who was killed in the valley. This book doesn't address the grand points of strategy or politics, but instead focuses on a small group of soldiers and their daily experiences of boredom, terror and exhilaration. Most of these men are in their early 20's and sent to fight on the far side of the world. Junger introduces you to many of them individually and gives a glimpse into the stresses we, here in the States, can only imagine. Making foot patrols in 100+ degree heat in full body armor and loaded down with weapons and ammunition. Hiking through terrain that is so steep and difficult in places that even hardened infantrymen are left gasping and exhausted. Sudden bursts of gunfire and the latent fear of being overrun.

The book is neither Pro nor Anti war. Its focus is so close and narrow that the causes or goals of the war at large are barely even acknowledged. It's a book about camaraderie and trust at a level that only someone who has been in combat could probably really understand. Junger shows the strange world these soldiers inhabit where the boredom can become so oppressive that some almost hoped for an attack. He also gives us a glimpse into the aftermath of spending months in this environment. In one instance Junger relates how one of the soldiers, when he returned home, instructed his mother on the only way to wake him. He told her to touch his ankle and call his last name. This was how he was always awakened for guard duty. Anything else could mean they were being overrun.

This book shows very well the hardships and the toll this sort of experience exacts on young men under fire. But more than probably anything else, we see love. The kind of love that transcends the simplistic view of whether you like or dislike the guy next to you. Either way, you know that you'll risk your life for him and he for you. It's not a matter of bravery or courage in the Hollywood sense. It's a matter of love and trust. These men are driven, not out of some desire to be heroes, but by a soul deep determination to never, ever let the others down. I think this book is a 'must read' whether you support or oppose the war in Afghanistan.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Party First

I try very hard to be open minded when listening to interviews and speeches. It doesn't mean I expect them to change my mind, but I don't want to be the type of person who ignores anything that doesn't match my preconceived ideas and occasionally I do learn something. But any respect I may have had for Conservative ideas, politicians or pundits has been stripped to the bone over the last few years. Particularly since the last Presidential election, intelligent discourse from Conservatives has gone out the window. I can't speak for their private correspondence, but in public they are all about extremism, absolutism and misinformation. Ironically, these are some of the same charges they make about their opponents. This isn't the normal political theater, this is more like political farce.

I believe it primarily emerged from pure fear. Fear that a moderate, young, articulate black man was swept into office on a wave of popular support. To Conservatives, with the loss of control in both House and Senate, this must have looked like the apocalypse. It was complicated further when this new President actually was willing to incorporate old Republican ideas for health reform and other pressing issues. While this would mean that Conservatives could actually expect to be able to get some of their policies incorporated in Administration legislation it also meant that they would get little to no credit from the passage of these compromise bills. And that would put them in a lousy position going into the next election cycle. They needed to stand out from the Democrats, not be in a coalition with them. So they fell back on the only weapons they had left: obstructionism, fear and misinformation. They immediately dug in their heels, circled the wagons and stood in absolute opposition to absolutely everything.

Some will take exception to my characterization of the President as a 'Moderate', but that's merely a result of 18 months of ludicrous hyperbole spewed by Conservatives into any microphone they could find. Over and over the President has incorporated ideas formerly championed by Republicans in years past. In fact one of the most controversial provisions in the Health Reform bill, the Individual Mandate, was an idea originally proposed by Republicans during the Clinton era health reform fight. And that was not the only one. The President and Democrats in Congress also compromised over and over with their Republican colleagues on virtually every piece of legislation in the vain hope that they could get even token support for their proposals. The result? Republicans began fighting against their own ideas and calling them radical and extremist! I've seen parades of split screen speeches where prominent Republicans made diametrically opposed arguments separated by, in some cases, less than a year! On one side is Republican X calling for adoption of this great idea and on the other the same person calling the very same idea Socialist, extremist and the end of civilization as we know it. The only thing that surprised me more than watching such outrageous displays of hypocrisy was seeing crowds of protesters who actually took these idiots seriously. These people either didn't realize how false the speakers were being or didn't care as long as it fell into their preconceived narrative. Final proof of the absurdity of Conservative's charges of extremism is the fact that every one of these supposed 'Left wing extremist' bills was met with frustration and disappointment from Liberals who watched compromise after compromise gut the ideas they most cared about, such as the 'Public Option/Single Payer' plan. So if the President and Democrats are so extreme in their policies, then please explain to me why middle of the road Liberals were so underwhelmed with the results? Calling these policies 'extremist' makes for catchy sound bites, but bears little resemblance to reality.

For over a year and a half Conservatives have used every trick in the rule book to block not just final votes on legislation but even motions to bring bills to the floor for discussion. I can't see how their actions could be judged as anything but pure obstructionism for its own sake. This session of Congress has seen the Senate Filibuster, whereby the minority party can block majority action if they can control a mere 41% of the voting members, invoked more than twice as often as any other year in US history. Republicans in the Senate have blocked or attempted to block almost every piece of legislation proposed by the Democrats. And in many of the other cases they still threatened to Filibuster. Senate Democrats have reached the point of just assuming that ANY legislation will require 60 votes to pass. These Filibusters had little to do with policy disagreements and were all about doing everything possible to stop a popular President from accomplishing anything. Even at the expense of the nation they are supposed to be serving. How do I know this? Because of the unprecedented frequency that Filibusters have been used and the vanishingly rare occurrences of Republicans breaking ranks to vote 'Yes'. In a normal Congressional session it is commonplace for individual Senators and small blocks to vote contrary to the bulk of the Republican or Democratic party. It's normal for moderate Conservatives to occasionally agree with moderate Liberals. But since the inauguration the Republicans have somehow managed to vote 'no' as an unbroken block on the vast majority of issues. A few might talk of considering a vote in favor, but when it came down to it they almost always voted 'no'. So either every single piece of legislation proposed by Obama or Congressional Democrats was unconscionable or Republicans were following a well crafted and rehearsed plan. There is no other explanation.

The other indicator of how moderate the current Administration is overall comes from how far and fast Conservatives have bolted farther to the Right in an effort to differentiate themselves from the Administration. This has been turbo charged by the rise of the 'Tea Party' candidates who accuse the current majority of being synonymous with Hitler, Stalin, Marx and any other historically 'evil' person they can remember from High School civics class. They speak as if there is some form of tyranny being practiced, completely forgetting that the majority party was VOTED into office! They speak in reverent tones of the Constitution, yet conveniently ignore sections they don't like whenever it suits them. They ignore the annoying fact that these individuals were all elected and instead mutter about "second amendment remedies" if they don't get what they want. There has been no tyranny unless it's the tyranny of Democracy.

That's the bottom line for me. I see Conservatives, particularly as the mid-term elections approach, give every sign of actually hoping the economy remains stagnant and jobs non-existent. The worse the economy, the more they can frame it as the fault of the majority party. Never mind that Conservatives have proposed almost nothing of substance themselves. Despite the fact that they have done everything they could to prevent any significant legislation from being passed. Despite gutting every attempt at stimulating the economy to the point of even voting against tax breaks. Keeping in mind that for Conservatives, tax cuts are the holy grail of economic policy. According to them cutting taxes, which they don't mention will increase the deficit, will jump start the economy, magically create millions of jobs, protect us from terrorists and cure most forms of cancer. Despite the fact that there is little data to suggest that tax cuts are particularly effective as stimulus. And despite the fact that George W. Bush's two rounds of tax cuts added well over a Trillion dollars to the national debt. Facts are such annoying things, aren't they?

Do I think Democrats are our saviors? No, of course not. I don't necessarily agree with everything that they have proposed or passed and there are many things I wish they had taken action on that they have not. But I'll tell you one thing, at least they are trying to do something. They are still trying to act as a functioning government. Are they pure and righteous? No, but they haven't looked out on the sea of citizens laid off and unemployed through no fault of their own and accused them of sloth and drug abuse as a number of prominent Republicans have done. Democrats have tried to implement plans to stimulate the economy using all sorts of ideas including tax cuts for small business only to watch them delayed and picked apart by the opposition. I will vote Democrat because at least they are making some attempt at doing the job they were elected to do. They aren't saints and I have no illusions about their own self interest, but at least they are on the job. They are making an effort to put out the fires rather than using them to light torches.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Real Inconvenient Truth

I'm sure a lot of people have heard of Nissan's new electric car called the Leaf. It's nice to see electric vehicles being actively developed after all these years of tinkering. With an electric range of around 40 miles and the inclusion of a gasoline generator to provide electric power if you stretch your travels beyond that initial range, it seems like an excellent compromise. An electric car emits no carbon monoxide or other pollutants into the atmosphere and can be charged overnight during non-peak power usage. Of course there is a problem. Seems there always is, but that just reminds us that there are no perfect solutions. The sticking point is the power itself. The Leaf is a great step towards reducing pollution, but it's only a step. Focusing on the end product, electric cars, blinds us to the root issue of where the electricity comes from. Technically the Leaf is a "zero emission" vehicle. But only if you ignore the emissions of the power plants that produced the electricity itself.

So now we face the crux of the issue. Yes we can dust off the old idea of an electric vehicle, but we're left with . . . well, an ELECTRIC vehicle. Electricity is not a magic substance distilled from dreams, it's a limited commodity. We don't have it anywhere near as bad as some of the less industrialized nations who have to live with regular daily periods without power or unexpected brownouts. However even in the US, stretches of very hot weather in urban centers can still cause brownouts and public calls for limiting use during peak times. Now a small number of electric cars, charging overnight may not be a significant issue but assuming, not unreasonably, that the technology becomes cheaper and more prevalent we are going to see demand for electricity rise even as the demand for gas begins to fall. Remember, there are no free rides when it comes to powering our civilization and all that additional electrical demand has to come from somewhere. I would suggest that it might be wise to work on the supply problem before we dive too deeply into creating additional demand.

So that brings us to how we generate the power we have now. Since we've yet to discover any of the near mythic power technologies such as cold fusion, we are left with our current, no pun intended, power generation technology. That situation is not pretty and certainly not clean. Our electricity comes from power plants and the majority of those generate power by burning coal.  Coal, of course, is the worst type of fuel for pollution. But there are the new 'clean coal' plants, right? Sure it's clean, as long as you compare it to other coal plants. Compared to anything else they're still horrible. So while I'm all for electric vehicles, at some point we're going to have to address the actual problem...the fact that most of our energy is still based on ancient technology. Coal, natural gas and oil are, at their most basic, little removed from the idea of burning logs to heat the cave. All we've done since is to refine the process over the centuries. We continue to be shackled to finite, dirty and dangerous sources of power and creating an electric car only pushes the pollution off to another location. It doesn't actually reduce it.

This brings us to pollution that is caused almost exclusively by burning fossil fuels. Now I don't know if it causes Global Warming, and to be honest I don't really care. What I do care about is stopping the pollution! We are way too worked up about this debate on 'Climate Change' and its cause. Seems that most scientists agree that there has been a warming trend in the Earth's climate with correspondingly more extreme weather. Where the fist fights erupt is over the, in my opinion meaningless, assignation of blame for it. Is it a natural cycle or is it human induced or at least human enhanced? I tell you, it does not matter! This is a pointless argument. Why? Because there is no doubt whatsoever that we are polluting the planet. We dump things into our waterways, oceans and the air that we would never touch, drink or breath because it would kill us. Nobody with a functioning brain can possibly think this stuff is doing anything good for the environment or our collective health. The 'environment' isn't just a whimsical term used by GreenPeace. The Environment is what we breathe, what we drink and what we eat. Every belch of soot from a coal plant ends up in someone's lungs. Every bucket of fertilizer ends up somewhere in the marine food chain and eventually some trace will find its way into that tasty plate of Fish and Chips you picked up at Applebees. Every misguided attempt to coax out another wisp of natural gas from the bedrock leaches a little bit of chemical residue into the water supply. Every year, just south of the mouth of the Mississippi river, a huge 'dead zone' appears in the Gulf of Mexico. It's an area of very low oxygen where little if any marine animals can live. This isn't a natural thing. It's there because of heavy fertilizer runoff from the midwest farm belt. Color me reactionary, but this is a problem!

I know it sounds all touchy-feely, but Earth's ecosystem is one huge terrarium. What happens in one corner WILL affect everything else.  Ocean currents circle the globe just as the jet stream rushes like a river at 30,000 feet across the continents. Oil spills and chemical releases don't respect national borders and are immune to military force and border fencing. We see this every time a volcano erupts and ash is tracked thousands and thousands of miles around the globe. But we pretend that it's just an inconvenient freak of nature rather than a real world example of how our planet works. Why? Because it's easier to just ignore it since it doesn't have a visible impact on our daily lives. Because it's fiscally and therefore politically convenient to do so. Am I the only one who wonders how many health issues, from cancer to autism may be linked to the toxins we breathe, eat and drink every day? Disagree? Then I invite you to take a nice deep drink of Mississippi river water. Go camp out for a week next to your nearest coal plant,  and don't forget to take the kids!  Emphysema is best when shared.

Look, the baseline issue here is our energy policy. Or more specifically our intense fear of actually coming up with one. The reason is because we are so heavily invested, financial and otherwise, in fossil fuels and the logistics of collecting and transporting them that any threat to move away from the tried and true sends up screams of outrage. Screams from those who benefit most from the status quo. Let me repeat that, those most opposed to moving away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy are those companies who profit from the status quo. You won't find any coal barons or oil moguls pushing for clean, renewable energy and you never will. Unless, of course, they figure out how to make lots of money from it. That's an important point to keep in mind. It's in the best interests of oil, gas and coal companies to discourage anything that threatens their monopoly on energy production. Or anything that threatens to increase their costs and subsequently lowers their profits. Energy companies are already the wealthiest in the history of humanity, but greed is insatiable. These same companies are so deeply embedded in State and Federal Government that it's painfully difficult to get any motion on moving our energy supply out of the 19th century. But we need to make the change and soon. Every day we add more pollution to the air and water. Every day the global reserves of fossil fuels are further depleted. So as we slowly poison ourselves we are also ignoring the absolute fact that these fuel sources WILL run out. Why was the Deepwater Horizon rig drilling in over 5,000 feet of water? It sure wasn't because of convenience or cost.  It's because we are running out of oil reserves in more accessible locations! Just like we are having to mine deeper and deeper for significant reserves of coal. And why we are dropping natural gas wells in people's back yards and contaminating their drinking water. No, the world won't be running out of any of these fuels tomorrow, but it's coming. Just think about the term 'fossil' fuels. This stuff was laid down and cooked underground for millions of years to become the energy sources of today. When it's gone, it's gone forever, at least in a time period that has any meaning to humans. Politicians of all stripes drone on and on about the need to obtain energy independence yet nobody has the guts to actually do anything. Humans are apparently too stupid and short sighted to prepare for even obvious disasters lurking in the future because it will inconvenience us today. We'd rather react once the bottom falls out rather than prepare ahead of time. That's the real Inconvenient Truth.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Fiscal Reality

The conventional wisdom is that one of the most important planks in the Republican platform is 'Fiscal Conservatism'. In other words, the idea is keeping the government's purse strings pulled tight whenever possible and limit spending for non essential items.  Sounds like a good idea, doesn't it? I would have to say that I like the sentiment. I'm sure I wouldn't agree with everyone else on what's essential, but that's its own issue. The point is that Republicans and Conservatives in general are always harping on about fiscal restraint. Conversely, we are also told that Democrats like to spend and spend freely. Ask just about anyone and they'll tell you that Democrats are the spenders and Republicans are the party of fiscal restraint. What makes it so inconvenient is that it's not true.

First let's look at history. The previous five Presidential Administrations all increased the national debt, which probably surprises no one. But you might be surprised by how much each Administration contributed to our current debt. The Republicans' mythological hero, Ronald Reagan ballooned the national debt by 189% in his eight years in office, making him by far the biggest spender. Next on the list is another Republican, George W. Bush who increased the debt by 89% in his eight years. You're probably thinking that Clinton must be next, as the only other eight year Administration, right? Well, as a matter of fact, you would be wrong. George H. W. Bush takes the number three spot with a 55% increase in his four years in the White House. Number four is Jimmy Carter having added 42% in four years. That's right, William Jefferson Clinton, after eight years only added 36% to the national debt. He even managed to run a budget surplus towards the end of his second term. So here we have five Presidential Administrations and all three Republicans outspent the two Democratic Administrations. On top of that, the Clinton White House presided over the most fiscally responsible spending despite being reviled by Republicans. I realize that this simplifies the financial details of these administrations, yet it's hard not to see a fundamental hypocrisy from the 'Fiscal Conservatives' on the right.

Today the deficit is a major issue to the country, but has become the very raison d'ĂȘtre for the Conservative movement. In fact, since March of this year it has been a grueling fight to get unemployment extensions passed in the Senate as Republicans thump their chests and demand that they be paid for in the budget before they can be passed. On the surface this sounds somewhat reasonable. But as far as I can tell, emergency measures like these have historically never been paid for up front. That's probably because they are needed due to an . . . emergency. Another thing to realize, despite several prominent Republicans' moralistic babbling, is that unemployment benefits in a deep recession like we have now are just about the most direct form of economic stimulus possible. You are putting desperately needed money into the hands of people who will spend just about all of it back into the economy immediately. This prevents even more foreclosures, car repossessions and loan defaults by people on the edge. You keep people in their apartments rather than pushing them onto the streets to become an even bigger issue for the nation. But the steady thrum of Republicans chanting 'deficit, deficit, deficit' drowns out these obvious facts. What is really infuriating is that during lulls in the unemployment extension arguments, the same Conservatives who decried unpaid for benefits are calling for extending Bush era tax cuts for those who are least affected by the recession. Incidentally, both rounds of tax cuts pushed through by the Bush Administration and Republicans in Congress were, wait for it . . . UN-paid for. I wish I was surprised by the hypocrisy but for good or ill I'm getting a little numb to it after the last decade. The logic, if you'll allow me to demean the term for a moment, given is that tax cuts will pay for themselves. I'm serious, that's the idea. Worse yet, some people with functioning brains actually believe it. Oh, I'm not saying that in the long term the cuts may not have some positive effects that could make back a percentage of the original cuts. But tax cuts that pay for themselves are about as viable as the mythic perpetual motion machine. It might make sense four hours into a Friday night bar crawl, but in the sober light of day it's complete drivel.

The reality is that, based on past performance, Republicans seem incapable of walking the walk once they get power. They will talk up fiscal responsibility all day long and deep into the night, but their actions continually underscore a complete lack of interest in the subject. It's a hollow, empty charade for most of them. They are on full volume now because the debt is an issue after the 8 years of wars and tax cuts under Bush and the necessity of heavy spending to try and stabilize the economy immediately after Obama took office. I won't deny that the debt is a major issue. In fact I posted a piece about the need to deal with the national debt back around the end of Bush's first term. The complicating factor is that now, in the midst of a dodgy recovery from the biggest financial disaster in 80 years, is not the time to start slashing and cutting spending. Why? Because the economy is teetering on the edge and right now the Federal government is the only entity ready and willing to pump money into the economy.  The banks have somewhat recovered but are sitting tight on their cash until the economy revives. Kind of a Catch-22 for them. Banks won't lend until the economy stabilizes but the economy is having trouble stabilizing due to a lack of credit available. You see if we cut now then the States, who are already struggling to find money just to pay school teachers, will be thrown to the sharks, not to mention most any cuts of significance would result in adding more names to the already endless seeming unemployment lists. Here's where a healthy sense of irony comes in. The best time to make strides on the national debt is when the economy is doing well. That's when States are making ends meet and have some leeway in how they manage their budgets. That's when tax revenues are high because individuals and companies are buying and spending freely. That's when foreclosure and bankruptcy rates are low. That's when the banking system is flush with cash and eager to lend. That's also when politicians are least likely to cut programs and trim fiscal fat. It's when the American public is blissfully unconcerned about the debt because everything is going so darn well.

I have never claimed, and never will, that I'm a financial expert. But the most important item on the nation's agenda at this moment is stimulating the economy to spur new job creation. That's job numero uno. And that's not going to be accomplished by renewing tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans or by the Republicans' myopic plan of 'tax cuts fix everything'. No single thing is going to magically resurrect the economy. It will take targeted tax incentives, aggressive, focused spending, loosened credit markets and consumer confidence to get the nation back on its feet. This includes extended unemployment, in the short term, to provide some minimal support for those who are the most obvious victims of the collapse. Let me remind you that to be eligible for unemployment benefits a person had to have lost their job through no fault of their own. These people are not dead-beats as some pathetic politicians and pundits like to portray them. They were laid off because the economy tanked and business dried up, not because they quit or were fired. We can't ignore the ballooning debt, but we can't let it paralyze us from doing what's needed to restart the economy either. Unfortunately no single thing will get the national debt under control. Dealing with debt is like losing weight. It can't be done overnight and it's going to require long term changes and willpower.  Where it gets tough is when the recovery is complete, the storm clouds part and the sun returns. That's when we need that fervor to attack the problem because it's always more difficult to focus on cuts and and spending reductions when the cash is flowing. America must be ready and willing to demand action on the debt when we have the resources to do so and not fall back into spending it as fast as we get it. As a nation we are so fond of declaring wars on things, so why not a War on Debt? Not only would that be a winnable war, but one with concrete benefits for Americas future. When we've climbed out of this recession, let's focus on reducing government spending through cuts and changing the way we do things. For one thing, let's reduce our military commitments overseas. I'm not just talking about Iraq and Afghanistan, though to be sure both of these wars are costing us dearly. We don't need 50,000 troops in Germany anymore. We don't need tens of thousands in Japan or most of the other countries where we continue to maintain huge active duty forces. Most of these Cold War era military commitments are no longer needed. I'm not saying we should pull out everyone from everywhere, but there is no reason for the manpower commitments we currently maintain. America is capable of dealing with the financial crisis and then paying down the debt. What we have, up to this moment, been sorely lacking is the will to do so.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Hot Potato

As much as some politicians hoped fervently to avoid it, there are signs that the immigration issue will rear its politically dangerous head prior to the mid-term elections. It's dangerous because no one is really sure how it will affect voters. The flap over Arizona's recent immigration law has sparked a lot of debate, and lawsuits, both for and against the law and has kept immigration in the public's consciousness. This seems to be forcing the issue into the political spotlight. President Obama essentially conceded this point with last week's speech on the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

As the President pointed out, we seem frozen between the two poles of this issue. On one side are those who say that anyone here illegally must go and go now. They say that we need to fence off our borders and bolster our border security so that we can seal the borders up tight. This is unwise, unworkable and unlikely to actually work. Logistically it is all but impossible to deport the 11 million plus who are in the US illegally. Financially it would cost immense sums of money to attempt and stress the economy dearly in a time when we cannot afford more instability. Nationalistically it is absurd to attempt to turn America into a walled citadel. That sort of thing has been attempted in the past by ancient China and Rome with little lasting effect. For a nation that was built by immigrants, it seems awfully arrogant to stand up now and say it was fine when our grandparents did it, but it's somehow different now.

On the other side are those who call for a blanket amnesty for all who are in this country illegally. They say that it's the moral thing to do. But this ignores two major facts that the President noted in his speech. The first is that those here illegally are, quite literally, here in violation of US law. This can't just be ignored. The second point is that a great many immigrants are right now going through all the dance steps and jumping through all the hoops required to become a citizen. To grant amnesty to all of those who live here illegally would spit in the face of all who are doing it legally. And it tells those considering crossing the border, be it land or sea, that there is no real punishment if they come to America and get caught. In other words, why go through the work and cost of doing it legally when you can get the same result by just sneaking over the border and hiding out for a while?

So that leaves us with the need to compromise. I oppose a blanket amnesty for the reasons I stated above, but I do think a path to citizenship makes sense. Of course there must be required steps to get there and individuals here illegally must not be allowed to 'jump the line' ahead of those who have done everything right. Among the hurdles I've seen that make sense is some sort of background check to look for any criminal activity. Another is a requirement to learn English. Learning the language seems like a small requirement for someone who, presumably, wants to become an American. It's not about abandoning your heritage, it's about adapting to your new country and not expecting that country to adapt to you. This does also bring up the fact that America does not have an official language. This is something I believe needs to be rectified. Some may say that making English the official language is exclusionary, but that's ridiculous. I think it's more exclusionary to leave it as a free for all. As things stand now English already is the de facto standard, however the lack of a national code or amendment leaves too much ambiguity. In fact, in one case I stumbled upon when looking at this subject a Texas border town actually voted to make Spanish the official language due to the high Hispanic population. While I understand why they did it, this is the sort of thing that shows how the issue needs to be settled on a national scale. An official language should not be a State or town issue, it's clearly something that falls under the Federal government. Besides, is it a problem for Italy to make Italian the official language or Germany to make German the official language? I think it behooves us to make this vague area clear on a national level.

I believe that immigration is generally a good thing. Some of the more strident voices I've heard against immigration seem to view them all as nothing but a drain on society. This is preposterous. Even if immigrants are payed in cash, under the table, they are still part of the economy. Every tank of gas they buy is taxed. Every bag of groceries they buy is taxed. Every piece of furniture? Taxed. And every time they patronize a store or restaurant they are supporting the economy. So while illegal immigrants may be contributing less than those here legally, they are far from leeches sucking the life out of the country. Like most things, this controversy would do well with some level headed, logical compromise and a lot less emotional rhetoric. Of course in an election year that's about as likely as Limbaugh voting Democrat.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Stepping into the Glare

Everyone has their view on November's mid-term elections. Some, particularly those on the Right, are predicting major gains by the Republicans. History does show that the next election following a party change in the White House almost always brings losses for the party in power. Some of the more fanciful among them even crow that the results will sweep the Democrats out of the majority in both houses. This is highly unlikely as it would require a huge change in representation to bring those sorts of results. My take on the coming elections is that it is likely to be messy, but I doubt it will herald a significant swing in Congress one way or the other. Contrary to the so called conventional wisdom I don't think you will see any widespread ousting of incumbents. It will happen here and there, but probably not on any grand scale. While there is some incumbent distrust, particularly from the Right, it has yet to really show up as a significant issue in the primaries so far. Only a couple incumbents have been pushed out of the race so far. But the Tea Party movement has managed to make some inroads in several races with primary wins, particularly in Kentucky with Rand Paul and in Nevada with Sharon Angle. The problem is that once these candidates step out of their political comfort zone in their party's primaries and into the general election, their far Right and in some cases 'wing-nut Right' views become problematic.

Kentucky's Rand Paul, son of former Presidential hopeful and Republican Congressman Ron Paul, rode the Tea Party wave to beat the establishment choice who was backed by Senator McConnell and other mainstream Republicans. Almost immediately though he found himself in the center of a controversy as soon as he stepped out of the primary and onto the stage of the general election. In interviews with NPR and later Rachel Maddow his solidly Libertarian philosophy of a very limited Federal government was lit up in neon when the subject of the 1964 Civil Rights act came up. While affirming his general support he couldn't stop himself from making it clear that he did have an issue with the part of the law that would require private businesses who served the public to stop discriminating based on race or ethnic criteria. Put simply, he seems to feel that when it comes to a private business, the Federal government should not step in to force compliance of non-discrimination. It should be left essentially to market forces to decide the issue. In other words, if a restaurant discriminates in who it will serve, then the free market will punish them over time and eventually force them to make changes. It fits into the general Libertarian view of a small, generally hands off central government.  Some, of course, began to accuse him of racism, which he denied, saying he was against discrimination and wouldn't patronize a club or business that did and I believe him. I don't think, strictly speaking, that he is a racist, but this does point to a social stand that I think is very much a minority viewpoint. Especially once you step outside the Conservative side of the political landscape.

In Nevada, Sharon Angle won in a crowded field of challengers all vying for a chance to face Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in November. The primary included Sue Lowden who became infamous for her suggestion that healthcare costs could be reduced if we returned to the golden age of barter; for example, paying your doctor with a chicken or offering to paint his house. I find myself concerned about the house painting idea as it may well clash with your need for medical attention. But Sharon Angle won out and has now been thrust into the general election which requires more exposure to the glare of non-Conservative media. Suddenly her remarks from previous months and years are finding their way into the public consciousness and some people, me included, are thinking she may have some significant baggage in tow. First are various statements she has made over the last 6 months that have all been variations on the same theme. In January during a radio interview she stated: "If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies . . ." Now I know what this statement, and the others using almost identical language, sounds like to me but I'd be interested to hear her clarification, except now that she is out of the Republican primary she is determined to side-step questions about this that are understandably coming from the local and mainstream media. In one confrontation with a local reporter who asked her about the quote, instead of answering this question and others in the same vein, she kept telling the reporter to "go ask Harry Reid.”  It was a classic case of a politician who was trying very hard to only deal with the Conservative media and got surprised by someone who actually wanted her to defend her positions. Among her other stated concerns are an interest in getting rid of the Environmental Protection Agency, transitioning Social Security into a private system and concerns about fluoridation of drinking water. This last hearkens back to the heyday of Communist conspiracy theories in the 1950s. Dr. Strangelove aficionados will undoubtedly crack a smile or maybe even have a good chuckle at the reference.

Both of these candidates have the exact same problem. Their campaigns have focused heavily on the Conservative base so they could win Republican primaries, but in so doing they have had to ride on policy ideas and beliefs that appealed to the core Conservative constituencies. Unfortunately for them, the core of the Conservative movement has, over the last couple years, side stepped several yards to the right of what it was previously. This means the candidates are in a difficult position in a general state election where they will require the support of moderate and independent voters to win. However the very strengths that won them the party primaries are now being used against them by their Democratic opponents. This is what I think we are going to see, writ large, in the run-up to the mid-term elections: Conservative candidates riding high as they come out of primary victories, but then being bloodied badly as they come into contact with the rest of the voting populace. Both of these candidates are doing their best to avoid this by sheltering under the cover of Conservative media outlets. Doing everything they can to limit exposure to 'unfriendly' journalists, in other words any reporter who won't smile and agree with everything they say. It will be interesting to see how this will work. It didn't help Sarah Palin in her 2008 Vice Presidential run. Once she found herself unable to avoid talking to more main stream media outlets the number of quotes and policy positions that made moderates go, "Huh?!" rose sharply and the McCain/Palin campaign staff was required to waste a lot of time and energy to attempt damage control. Ultimately these encounters with actual journalists cost the McCain-Palin campaign more votes than Palin's young, brash, outsider status brought in. While she has since found a strange sort of cult celebrity, she is not taken seriously by anyone outside the far Right. And therein lies the crux of the problem.  In a time when the Republican Right wing is pulling the whole party farther from the Middle and almost demonizing Moderate views, many Republican candidates are entering the general elections with massive gaps between themselves and their Democratic opponents. The danger for them is that Independents and Moderates might actually be more inclined to vote for a conservative Democrat over a far Right Republican whose ideas seem out of touch with the general public. I think a number of these new Conservative stars are going to stumble badly as moderates and independents discover more and more about them.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Greed Spill

There are still many questions about the BP/Transocean disaster in the Gulf but one thing is crystal clear, greed has once again trumped safety and common sense. This is yet another in a long string of examples of massively successful companies that still feel that it makes sense to save a few dollars by cutting corners. Just as we've seen in the recent financial debacle and the Upper Big Branch mine explosion, rich corporations played fast and loose with common sense because it was in their best financial interests to do so. Wall Street did it with people's financial future and the stability of the nation's economy. Massey Energy did it with the Upper Big Branch mine, costing the lives of 29 miners. And now BP and Transocean have done it with the environment of the Gulf Coast, the livelihoods of those in the fishing and tourist industries and they did it literally with the lives of 11 rig workers.

Now I'm not siding with Michael Moore to say that Capitalism should be killed, though his argument is not without its points. What I have maintained is that Capitalism will always, without careful oversight, trend towards corruption and fiscal lunacy. During the financial crisis companies seemed immune to any consideration of the inevitable result of the financial bubble. Instead of easing up and throttling back to cruising speed, knowing that the wave of profit was going to end and almost certainly end catastrophically, they slammed the throttle through the gate and flew into the wall at mach 3 screaming like nineteen year olds at a frat party. So quite clearly, we can't even rely on companies to look out for their own long term stability. It's true that this crisis came about from the unholy confluence of bad government decisions, inept or criminally negligent bureaucratic oversight, idiotic lending practices, over leveraged banks and investors willing to buy and sell anything, up to and including their own internal organs. And what do all of those factors have in common? Greed. Pure, undiluted greed. For money, power, influence or just plain bragging rights.

The Massey Energy mine explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine is another example of this triumph of cash over conscience. As investigations into the mine explosion that killed 29 continue, more and more evidence is coming to light about how Massey continually worked to avoid instituting safety procedures designed to disperse methane and coal dust just to save a little money and prevent even the slightest drop in production. A number of workers have testified that it was standard procedure when an inspector was onsite to relay the 'alert' down into the mine so they could scramble to put 'curtains' and other safety equipment into position prior to the inspectors reaching the area. A report on a number of 'crash' inspections where the inspectors immediately took control of communications and were able to reach the lower sections of the mine without any warning found numerous major violations in every single case. It's inconceivable to me that a company would show almost no concern whatsoever about the health and safety of workers in one of the most dangerous and unhealthy jobs in the world. I would think that it would be in the company's best interests to keep them safe and do everything to reduce the chance of a catastrophic event, even if only to avoid the risk of mine damage, investigations and lawsuits. But obviously I'm thinking too long term, whereas Massey is concerned with current numbers and making sure they never falter for any reason, even the safety of their workers.

The BP/Transocean disaster also seems to have greed as a major factor in the rig explosion and subsequent blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. According to some early investigation and interviews with the surviving crew of the Deepwater Horizon rig, BP pushed for and finally got the rig operators, Transocean, to go outside standard procedures for decoupling from the well head. This set the stage for methane to escape up to the surface where it ignited causing the explosion that eventually sunk the rig and caused the uncontrolled eruption of oil into the Gulf. Why did they want to alter the procedure? To speed up the operation and save money. This from a corporation that made over $6 Billion profit in the first quarter of 2010. Not $6B in earnings, $6B in pure profit. With that kind of margin, why quibble over the comparative pocket change of an extra day on-site? Greed. Sure they made $6 Billion last quarter, but why not cut some 'unnecessary' costs and go for $7B next quarter! It's this kind of warped drive to place profit above all other considerations that is unacceptable and leads to disasters such as the Deepwater Horizon fiasco, the Massey mine explosion and the financial implosion of 2008.

In fact, I submit that more often than not, major 'accidents' can be traced back to a decision somewhere along the way that placed profit above regulation and good judgement. Use a cheaper material than what was planned for, skip a final safety check or fail to do a careful stress test on a piece of equipment. All these things happen because those involved want to save money and everyone assumes that an accident will never happen to them. Safety checks aren't skipped because someone is bored, they are skipped because the operation is behind schedule and if they don't catch up it will cost someone money. Or they want to save someone money by finishing early. Or they get a bonus if they finish faster. See the common denominator here? I bet the vast majority of corporate and engineering disasters in America's history can be distilled down to one or more choices of profit over sanity. Just look at the BP/Transocean emergency plan for this current disaster. From what I can tell, the sum total of emergency planning was the blowout preventer on the ocean floor and if that didn't work, as it didn't, 3 months or so to drill a relief well. That's it! Everything else they are trying are either plans that have never actually worked in the past and whatever ideas they can scrape together as a result of post disaster brain storming sessions.

In fact Transocean, who owned the rig itself, more than almost anyone else, knew with some certainty what the worst case scenario was, long before this well was ever approved for drilling. Because 30 years ago a rig owned by a company called Sedco, caught fire and burned in the Gulf of Mexico in 1979, unleashing thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf every day. Sedco is now better known as Transocean and proclaims on their web site, in a sad bit of irony "we are never out of our depth." I kid you not. Watching the archive footage from that disaster is infuriatingly similar to the current spill, right down to the failed blowout preventer. Even the technology used to attempt to stop the spill are all but identical. So while the technology to drill in deeper and deeper water has advanced at a quick pace, the tech to cap a blowout in deep water hasn't advanced in any meaningful way in over 30 years. If this doesn't upset you then you aren't paying attention. Why did they have nothing else prepared? This is the question I keep asking myself. It wouldn't take a petroleum savant to predict that it would happen again and likely at a much greater depth. So why? Because they didn't see how planning and training for this sort of worst case situation would have any positive affect on their profits. It costs money to design and test procedures and equipment to cap a blown out well head over a mile under water and financially the money spent has no positive bearing on the bottom line. From a purely accounting standpoint it would be money spent without any benefit. Unless there is a disaster, of course. So why waste money on equipment and procedures you never expect to use when you could spend that money on developing the technology to drill faster at deeper depths? It's like building a car to win the Indianapolis 500 and only as you cross the finish line do you get around to discussing how to actually bring the car to a stop.

This is why 'self regulation' or 'letting the free market decide' are not simply empty phrases, they are the harbingers of disaster. Anyone who believes that a for-profit industry can be trusted to self regulate is either a part of the industry in question, naive in the extreme or, I'm sorry to say, a complete idiot. Most, though certainly not all, corporations become more and more narcissistic the larger they become. At some point they reach a size, like BP or Massey, where the lives of their employees become vague and abstract concepts that only enter into corporate calculations as a column in a spreadsheet titled 'available resources'. A simple, calculated choice of whether to complete the well capping 'by the book' or save money and gamble that the odds are against an accident. Well, in this case 11 rig workers are dead and thousands of barrels of crude oil is gushing into the heart of America's aquatic bread-basket. Guess they chose wrong this time. Whoops! Of course next time they'll just weigh the odds again and are just as likely to make the same choice. As long as it's up to them. Corporations will always be selfish and amoral, especially once they go public and have to worry about quarterly earnings and the whims of the Market. I don't think 'Selfish' or 'Amoral' are traits we should encourage in our corporations and especially not in our financial institutions. But if they are going to function that way then we had better start paying attention.

That's why America, and any nation that stakes its power and stability on a capitalistic model, must have a system in place to counter corporate greed. Consider the metaphor of our highway and road system. We don't just put up a few caution signs and a weigh station here and there to check paperwork. We have traffic lights and stop signs to control the flow of traffic. We have state and local police to ensure drivers follow the rules and those who don't are fined or jailed. There are also those in the justice system whose job it is to provide oversight on the police to deal with any corruption. There are DMV regulations mandating safety devices and minimal mechanical soundness of our vehicles. There are inspections. There are traffic regulations to keep everyone moving in logical, controlled patterns and regulation on where and when you can park. Sure, there is the odd driver who bemoans the speed limit that prevents him from taking out his Porsche and screaming down the highway at 150 mph, but society has decided that public safety is more important than the whims of an adrenalin junkie. So why not apply these ideas to our corporate and financial system?

First, let's stop listening to every whimper from these sectors whenever a new regulation is proposed. Any objection from this quarter must be taken with a salt-lick sized grain of sodium since they have everything to gain from killing regulation. Second, make the regulations intelligent and fair, but difficult to circumvent. Third, ensure the penalties for breaking these regulations are severe enough, even for a company the size of BP, to 'encourage' compliance. Fines will only be effective if they are commensurate with the profits of the corporation in question so as to make noncompliance far too expensive and damaging to risk. Fourth, stop trusting corporations to actually follow the aforementioned regulations and make sure there is objective oversight in place. Fifth, there should be a series of checks and balances in place to verify that the oversight is clearly separated from the industry it regulates and that any corruption within that agency is swiftly addressed and severely punished (see point three). As part of this, regulators should be barred from crossing the lines to work for the industry they have been overseeing for five years or more. The last thing we need are regulators walking across the street to advise corporations on how to beat the oversight agency from which they just resigned or worse, giving corporations a pass on regulations to kiss up for a job. This has actually happened recently and I'm sure is not unique. Kind of defeats the purpose of oversight, don't you think?

As to the BP/Transocean disaster itself? If it was up to me, there would not be another approval for offshore drilling until or unless the company doing the drilling is able to demonstrate layers of redundant safety and emergency response procedures that are appropriate for the depth and manner of their drilling. Emphasis on 'demonstrate'. I don't care what someone scribbled on a bar napkin. I want it produced and tested at the depth it's rated to be used! I would order the shutdown of BP's other major drilling rig, Atlantis, which is currently drilling deeper and is only a hundred miles further out into the Gulf than the Deepwater Horizon. BP has already shown it cannot be trusted and does not currently have any workable plan to deal with deep water spills.  I would mandate that all operating offshore rigs would be subject to immediate and detailed safety inspections. Any violations that could bear on personnel safety or oil containment would result in a shutdown of that facility until it was resolved. No exceptions. Companies operating wells in US waters would be required, as stated earlier, to develop, test and deploy procedures and equipment appropriate to prevent or quickly stop a worst case scenario. No optimistic predictions! I'm talking what's the worst thing that could happen and what are the plans to deal with it. No plan, no production. This would have to be done within a specific time period or the well would be shut down. Liability for spills would be expanded well into the billions of dollars so that it would never again be worth the risk to bypass regulations or safety. Ideally this liability would be tied in some way to the company's profits so as to make the final number sufficiently agonizing. These penalties would be multiplied exponentially if the company was proven to have knowingly bypassed regulations.

Think I'm being too harsh? Tell that to the families of the 11 men who were killed on the Deepwater Horizon and the 29 who died at the Upper Big Branch mine. Tell that to the millions out of work all because of stupid decisions by people still racking in top dollar salaries. Tell that to the thousands of Gulf Coast residents who make their living from the fish, shrimp, oysters and other animals that will be devastated by this spill. Tell that to the tens of thousands of people along the coast from Texas to the Keys whose livelihoods depend on tourism. And please, try and explain the details of your concerns to the pelicans, osprey, tarpon, flounder, shrimp and all the other species who will die by the thousands because of the BP/Transocean disaster. I have zero sympathy for companies like BP and Transocean. They knew full well how badly things could go wrong, but they did nothing to prepare. No redundant systems to prevent the blow out. No viable emergency plans appropriate to the depth. In short, they did nothing except line their pockets, secure that the odds were in their favor. If both companies are destroyed in the process of cleaning up this disaster and trying to make reparations to the lives they have ended and shredded I will not shed one single tear. It will be an example to every other company about what happens when you sacrifice everyone else and everything else in the pursuit your wealth.