Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Class Warfare

Like other card carrying Democrats I’ve been accused of engaging in “class warfare” for my position on domestic financial issues, even though I may not qualify as a member of the “class” on whose side I’m supposedly engaged. My analogy to this martial lexicon is the equivalent of calling someone a rabble rouser for protesting a lynching. Or how about accusing America of warmongering in its response to Pearl Harbor?

I don’t deny the existence of class warfare. Some variation on it has been with us since the days when Alexander Hamilton represented the hoity toy, under the logo of Federalists, later to become Whigs and finally Republicans. Their rivals, led by Thomas Jefferson, worked more for the interests of the hoi polloi, first as Republicans and then morphing nominally into Democrats.

It’s unfair painting all members of the financial upper crust with a plutocratic brush. The generation of Kennedys that ended with the recent passing of its youngest member generally used its political influence to the detriment of its financial interests. On the other hand I can’t think of anyone starting at the bottom of the financial ladder doing favors for the well heeled without becoming one of them in the process as a consequence, if not a reward.

The Republicans’ one-size-fits-all solution to fiscal problems has been tax cuts, an area in which George W. Bush looked after them well. His tax rate on top income was 4.6% lower than it had been in the Clinton years. It would be fun hearing their shrieks if a proposal were made to cut taxes at the rate for the first $250 thousand or so for everyone from Joe Six Pack to the richest of the rich. Of course we’d continue hearing that lower taxes “create jobs” as they’re doing now.

How has the class war been going in recent years? (I’m glad you asked that question) Since 1979 the real average income for the top 5% of families has risen 88%. For the bottom 20% it has declined 1%. There may have been times when the contest has been close enough to be called a war. But this isn’t one of them. If the results of the past thirty years are any indication we seem to be looking at more of an occupation and resistance. It should be a fitting time for the plutocrats to break out the “mission accomplished” banner. Yes, the Bush tax cuts expire next year. But 4.6% off the top shouldn’t be that big a deal and giving back a few crumbs would be a fitting gesture. All things considered they will have had one hell of a run.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Enough Is Too Much

Several days after the right wing incivility began we are starting to hear about similar cases by the other side. Under normal circumstances one wouldn’t expect this sort of reaction from the winners. I remember a runoff in a Florida gubernatorial primary in which gunshots were fired at the loser’s office the day before the election. I’ve always felt that this incident was contrived. This may not be the case in the firing of shots at Eric Kantor’s window. But it is within my perception of the ethics of this bill’s opponents. I confess to partiality in considering this sort of deception  beyond the pale for its proponents.

This behavior has been exacerbated by statements from the head of the RNC and from a former vice presidential candidate who urged the faithful to “reload” and unveiled a map superimposing cross hairs of a gun sight on the districts of presumed vulnerable congressional opponents.

Acts ranging from blatant incivility to criminality may not be committed by those at the top. But there are past and present public officials in a position to directly cause and possibly prevent them by others. Statements by top Democrats in both Houses have been unequivocally unequivocal. What is needed is a single statement on which leaders of both political parties agree. Timing is important. If we wait too long somebody could get hurt.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Fox "News"

Over the years I’ve been scolded for not paying more attention to what “the other side” is saying. My reply has been that when I already know that somebody  else’s logic is based on what I consider highly dubious premises, there’s nothing to be gained by letting it consume my time. For this reason I don’t read the Wall Street Journal, don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh and don’t tune into Fox TV.

Lately I’ve backslid occasionally on the latter during commercial breaks on MSNBC. Last night I snuck in a bit of the Sean Hannity show with four others on his the panel. One of them was Juan Williams who I had heard in the past on CNN’s Crossfire. He came across as a reasonable sort who I would describe as centrist, but others might think was a bit to the left. I was surprised when he went to Fox because he didn’t seem the type.

I knew that Hannity used to have a fellow named Alan Colmes on his show who served as the house left winger and who I would describe as a “Mortimer Snerd” type. What little he said was widely, and it seemed justifiably, ignored.  When I saw Williams on the show, curiosity got the better of me and kept me tuned in a couple of minutes past MSNBC’s return to regular programming. I forget what the subject was because I was more interested in the format of the proceedings, but he was trying to say something that couldn’t be completed in a dozen or so words. He was never able to get even that far without one of the other four intruding in what appeared to be a counter clockwise pattern, cutting him off.

As one who watches Chris Mathews on Hardball I know the difficulty a guest can sometimes have answering a question he thinks he has been asked. To begin, he takes a deep breath only to find that the question was longer than he thought. But at least Chris is a one on one guy. In fact I’ve heard him take on two with the ease of a stevedore bouncer evicting two drunks. He doesn’t need three people to take turns interrupting a lone victim. Unlike the fellow being muzzled on Fox, who obviously doesn’t toe the party line, Mathews interrupts people of all political persuasions. He’s what can be called an equal opportunity interrupter.

My experiment with Fox has confirmed my expectations. As a source of information it leaves a lot to be desired. The silver lining is that while the chance of learning anything is next to nil it can be good for an occasional laugh. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

To Have or Have Not

Books will probably be written about last Sunday’s House vote on the Democratic Health Care Bill. Since none will be written by me a few relevant thoughts will have to suffice, the most obvious being that winning is generally better than losing. The Dems came out of the 1994 mid terms after having lost previously on this very issue, with less than satisfactory results. I doubt they will do worse this fall. I any case I’m certain that in the long run both the party and the nation will benefit, although not as much as I had hoped.

As a lifelong Democrat I have seethed every time my party turns the other cheek. The stakes were so high this time that they had no alternative to fighting fire with fire. The seven vote margin made the contest seem closer than it was. It’s reasonable to assume that once a head count had been taken there was nothing to be lost by releasing a few votes in critical Congressional districts. Before the 2006 midterms Nancy Pelosi’s name was often mentioned with great scorn regarding the prospects of the House with her as Speaker as a Republican talking point. By me she’s been doing just fine.

The dark side of the affair is the behavior of some of the bill’s more rabid opponents. There is no place in a civilized society for spitting and using racial and homophobic epithets on members of Congress. Some may have missed the TV clip showing a Parkinson’s disease victim, an uninvited guest, sitting in a wheelchair at a tea bag rally to protest the protest. One member of the group taunted him by saying that this was not a charity event and there would be no handouts. Others derisively threw dollar bills at him. I prefer to think that this cruelty is not representative of most Americans, most Republicans or even most tea baggers.

While there is an obvious racial component to this hatred I see its foundation as a being economic. The insurance people, with a major financial interest in the status quo, stayed in the background while financing the protests of less affluent types, many if not most having nothing remunerative to do because they’re supported by Stalinist government sponsored programs like Social Security, Medicare and the VA. They’re getting by so, perish the thought, lending a hand to the ten percent uninsured who otherwise might die, go bankrupt or lose their homes, might make a piddling dent in the quality of their lives.

This selfishness is supported by ignorance, some of it feigned, of the fact that most of the unfortunates have been on the public dole for some time. Who do they think pays for the derelict dragged into an emergency room? Anyone who sees a hospital bill should check the price of an aspirin, an overcharge paid by insurance companies. Who do we think pays them? All this should be made evident by clear thinking, something not nourished by anger of which there is no shortage in the tea party. Those in the insurance community know this. They simply hire the Paul Reveres and try to make them even angrier, hence dumber.

America has become a stage in the fight over health care coverage between haves and have nots and it’s no contest. The former have a nine to one advantage, most of the money and are aware of the minuscule conflict of interests. The anticipated results of Sundays vote won’t end the struggle and while the result is something less than a good health care coverage system, it is at least be a step in the right direction.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Down to the Wire

When it comes to predictions my record leaves something to be desired. In l954 I bet that the Cleveland Indians would beat the N.Y. Giants in six games or less. The Giants won in four. In 1982 I was offering odds that Ronald Reagan, in view of the economy and possible retirement because of his age and health, would not be reelected. So my prediction that what’s left of the health bill will become law shouldn’t give much comfort those who feel as I do.

“Free” votes have always been plentiful in Congress. An example is Alphonse D’Amato’s on a minimum wage bill which had been generally accepted in each chamber, but which the Republicans were trying to amend by adding six months of employment as a requisite. Firing employees before their six months and then rehiring them is too obvious a gimmick to even be called a loophole.  D’Amato voted with the Democrats and his constituency rather than his party because Republicans knew the amendment was a goner however he voted and saw no need for him to take one for the party.

The head count on the health care bill is close enough to conclude that there will be few, if any, free votes. It’s reminiscent of Clinton’s l993 budget which raised taxes minimally on upper income and passed each House of Congress by one vote. Coincidentally, as Republicans have claimed, it was followed by seven years of relative prosperity. Even allowing that the vote was expected to be close, the mathematical odds against such an outcome are immense, in the absence of external manipulation. I’ve already written about the House vote of Marjorie Mezvinsky, a former local New York City NBC TV reporter and a Democrat representing a traditionally Republican district in Pennsylvania. She took one for the party, saving the day by voting for the bill, later losing reelection. She wasn’t alone.

In the coming health care vote I believe there are Democrats who will to take one for the party. Their counterparts in 1994 were defeated en masse, in spite of many having opposed Clinton’s health care bill. There is something to be said for the conclusion that if you have to go down it’s best to do it in style.  The screws have been tightened by the insurance crowd for some time. Blue dog Democrats are belatedly getting proper pressure from their party. Those who survive this election might appreciate good committee positions. While I hesitate to mention it, there is always that pesky matter of principle.

In conclusion I assume no responsibility for anybody losing a bet based on this prediction, even if you claim to have intended to share your winnings with me.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Timing is Everything

George H.W. Bush’s poll numbers in the fall of 1991 were nearly as high as those of his son ten years later in the aftermath of 9/11. They were a consequence of having just repelled Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.  It had been heralded for a month and our response was delayed for several days. There are those of us who wondered why we ignored the threat as long as we did, even having our Iraq Ambassador tell Saddam that we were not interested in Arab Vs Arab conflicts. There were questions as to whether Bush had set up an ambush.  What was not generally known is that Margaret Thatcher, days after the invasion, reminded Bush how her action against the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands had added eight years to her career. This led to his belated reaction.  Had our 1992 election had been held a year earlier Bill Clinton might be known today as a former governor of Arkansas and failed presidential candidate. Unfortunately for Bush, Saddam was marching to his own drummer who was beating a year too soon. To say that in history timing can be everything is to proclaim the obvious.

Consider FDR and Obama, the stewards who inherited our two biggest financial crises of the past century. At the former’s inauguration on March 4, 1933 the Great Depression was in its fourth year with breadlines, Bonus Marches and other symptoms of the catastrophe already part of our national experience. The public was generally willing to accept whatever its new leader recommended. However long our current Great Recession had been in progress when Obama took the reins, its existence wasn’t widely evident until two months before his election. Whatever its duration and severity, he is being blamed by his enemies even though it began under George W. Bush. It can also be argued that the stage was set during the tenure of his three predecessors beginning with Reagan.

Fairly or not, FDR’s place is high in the historical presidential hierarchy. Still the Great Depression didn’t end until the fall of France in l940 when we started to spend big money creating jobs for things we weren’t certain to need and that a sizeable portion of the electorate opposed outright. But he had lifted the national spirit and, more important, he held together a nation that was threatening to fall apart with communists on the left, Father Coughlin types on the right and Huey Long’s followers somewhere in the stratosphere between.

Under Obama the nation is again coming apart. The merit of his initiatives to save and revive the economy and fix health care can be questioned. The wisdom of his purported plans to restore financial regulations that have been abandoned between the two disasters cannot. Both were the result of large scale unsecured and unrestrained speculation.

The final verdict on his presidency may rest, as it did in FDR’s, on his ability to hold the country together. Here he faces a problem other than timing, his race, which prevents him welcoming anybody’s hatred as FDR did with “money changers.” He is forced to be courteous to opponents who may fly the separate flags of Republicans and Tea baggers, but are united in one purpose, bringing about his failure and consequently the failure of the country. To be unhappy with the situation and to disagree on its proposed remedies is understandable. To be united in an attempt to destroy politically the one man who is in a position to help and unite us is unforgivable. 

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


As has often been the case, when I leave home for a week or so the news on returning is pretty much the same as it was when I left. That would describe last week were it not for the exploits of Eric Massa which made me feel nostalgic over the good old pre 9/11 days when Gary Condit was the talk of the town. I find it interesting that this sort of stuff is considered news when the elected official involved is of relatively minor status. There are 50 governors, 100 senators and 435 congressmen. To expect all 585 of them to set some sort of standard for responsible deportment is silly. Look at who elected them. 

Performance in office is another matter. We can excuse South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford’s dalliance with Tangerine easier than we can his, or any governor’s disappearing for a few days. I’m not advocating adultery by acknowledging that some of the people whom I most admire are known to have indulged in it. I’ve become educated to the point of feeling that the same standard should apply to homosexuals. To quote the song title, “ ‘tain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it.” 

For Eric Massa to claim that this was all a plot against him by Democrats for his suspected opposition to their health care plan is the antithesis of classy. The same goes for the attempt by prominent Republicans to make hay out of his claim.  My subjective Democratic impression is that Republicans are more inclined towards this sort of thing. It also seems that their culprits, such as Sanford, David Vitter and John Ensign manage to hold onto positions while Democrats, Elliot Spitzer, Charles Rangel and John Massa resign.

The preceding slight effort is just a pretext for setting up the closing line which seems so obvious that somebody in this big country must have said it, but not to my knowledge. Politically speaking Massa’s in the cold, cold ground.

Sauce For the Goose

Before James Cagney became an actor he was a dancer and before that a highly regarded amateur boxer, until his mother learned about it. He retained a lifelong interest in the sport. In his autobiography he opined that boxing would be a safer sport without gloves. He wrote that the most serious injuries are concussions from blows to the side of the head  and that the first such blow struck by a bare fisted boxer would be the last he threw in the fight, at least with that hand.

In my opinion Cagney’s theory applies metaphorically to the spate of recently threatened filibusters, any one of which would badly bruise the Republicans if it turned onto more than a threat.  As evidence I again submit the consequences of Newt Gingrich’s attempt to shut down the Congress in 1995 because Bill Clinton vetoed a bill cutting Medicare benefits. The intense public disapproval of the current Congress is small potatoes compared to the reaction if it shut down. For one thing there’d be nobody to appropriate money. Jim Bunnng’s charade, which ended predictably and mercifully, is a microcosm of the way things work and why they don’t. One Senator can’t sustain a filibuster. But his party is so committed to the process, for the time being, that senators who voted for the bill in question have helped Bunning delay it by speaking in his place to keep the game going, a game of chicken that the Democrats seem to be losing.

The playing field is shifting to budget reconciliation which requires a simple majority to pass the budget and related matters rather than the three fifths required to prevent a filibuster. Republicans are claiming that this tactic is foul play. But since becoming a Senate rule in l974 it has been used twenty two times, fourteen by Republicans. It was used to pass much of Reagan’s economic program, the “Patriot” Act and Bush’s tax cuts on top income which will have cost an estimated $1.7 trillion when they expire next year, at which time Republicans predictably will press for renewal. This trick would surely require reconciliation to succeed.

There are currently over 290 bills passed by this House of Representatives that have yet to be acted on by the Senate. The number of filibusters stalling legislation the first year of this Congress, is double that of any previous two year session. However they are regarded, the procedures of filibuster and budget reconciliation have equal status as Senate rules. They are legitimate and conventional means of passing and preventing legislation. “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”