Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reverse Mortgages

Most of us know how reverse mortgages work. Homeowners of at least sixty two years of age receive cash payments with their homes as collateral, to be redeemed at their death. While I have yet to consider one for myself, I see nothing wrong with such agreement. In most cases the next generation is far enough along that their parents shouldn’t have to stint themselves the use of the wealth they have accumulated in their lifetimes.

But when one party in an agreement benefits directly from the misfortune of the other, in this case death, a double take is in order. I haven’t heard of alleged foul play with these transactions. But, in another part of the financial world, we knew something was amiss on learning that major institutions had been making major bets against securities that their brokers were recommending to clients.  

When it comes to the environment we’re getting involved with some serious reverse mortgaging. There seems to be a difference of opinion here as to how much protection, if any, is needed. As I see it folks who think more caution is in order have science on their side. The other guys claim some random number of scientists who agree with them. I’d like to see the resumes of these experts. They might provide some belly laughs, particularly those institutions of higher learning bearing the brand of well known bible thumpers.

But let’s stretch a point and give equal validity to both sides. In that case there is a fifty percent chance of either being wrong. We’re not dealing with property now, but with the future of the planet and a lot of people who’ll be living on it after us.  As the stakes get higher the need increases for insurance, in this case prevention. True conservatives would want to go green as quickly as possible. I submit the word “conserve” as evidence.

Most of us can do with a little less material wealth and convenience, so as a nation let’s take something out and put it in a policy. Leaving things as they are is a reverse mortgage taken too far, except to those who don’t give a damn about the world they’ll leave behind.  

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Deep In the Heart of Taxes

It comes as no surprise that Republicans are somewhat less enthusiastic than Democrats on the matter of extending payroll tax cuts. As I understand it the difference involves the means by which the cuts will be paid, either corresponding revenue increases or expense reductions.  Democrats favor a small surtax on income of more than a million dollars. Republicans, opposed to any tax increase, want a decrease in overall government spending.

During the fight over raising the debt ceiling, Republicans were adamant that eliminating benefits, such as subsidies or tax exemptions, was tantamount to a tax increase, sheer heresy in light of elected party officials’ oath of allegiance to that great public servant, Grover Norquist. A most conspicuous instance was their resistance to ending an oil drilling subsidy to Exxon/Mobil, the world’s most profitable corporation. I find it curious that they don’t see ending the payroll tax cuts in the same light. Granted, they are only a temporary part of our fiscal structure and require periodic governmental renewal. But then the same can be said of those hallowed Bush tax cuts. It seems mighty like a matter of different strokes for different folks.   

As well it should, but in the opposite direction! The cost of living in what most people regard as a comfortable manner has nothing to do with one’s income. If a family or individual can afford to live beyond that, the extra income required can be fairly taxed at a slightly higher rate. This reasoning applies in what can be considered “normal” times. But with the nation in worse financial shape than at any time since the Great Depression, this imbalance is even more essential. There seems to be general agreement that sacrifice is in order, but not on who should do the sacrificing. There shouldn’t be any question! A family whose home is threatened by foreclosure can’t afford to give as much as one whose worst case scenario is leaving a smaller inheritance.

Issues like these are rarely if ever decided ethically. The side that makes the most noise is usually the one that prevails. Big Money, as epitomized by the likes of the Koch brothers, has been in particularly good voice of late with the help of the Citizens United P.A. system But don’t lose faith. The time is near, maybe nearer than we think, when this sound will be barely audible over the din of inequity.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

There's No Business Like Big Business

It’s no secret that quite a few Democratic Congressional votes are for sale as needed. Of course virtually the entire Republican membership is in effect a wholly owned subsidiary of big money. Exhibit A is repealing the Bush tax cuts. The main thrust of their argument is that it would discourage “small business.” It defies simple math and common sense to claim that an entrepreneur showing a taxable profit of $300 thousand would throw in the towel faced with the “threat” of having to pay a few percentage points higher on the last fifty Gs.
So how has small business done now that the Great Communicator and the Compassionate Conservative have worked their wonders?  In 1980 our modest size city had three hardware stores. If you don’t know what they were ask your parents. Each had at least one person who knew what the store sold and would help you find it. Now we have none. Yes we have Home Depot and Lowe’s with their “hardware sections” and workers with precious little knowledge of what’s in them. Worse yet, items that were once available in one small building, often are now in separate departments at distant ends of the campus.
Back then we had at least as many locally owned pharmacies which have been replaced by behemoths like Walgreens and CVS, or by small sections in the big stores of our far flung food chains. Speaking of food it seems that local markets are also becoming an endangered species. This consolidation is symbolic and symptomatic of the direction of our entire economy. No name epitomizes it more than Walmart.
“One percent” has now become an epithet to much of the country, unfairly painting all the super rich with the same brush. Many feel as Warren Buffet does. But those who are driving Republican fiscal policy are only interested in small business to the extent that it’s to their competitive advantage to eliminate it. Prospective small business owners have much more to fear from big business, than they do from the IRS.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

South Side Story

Until Friday, we hadn’t heard much new about “Occupy Wall Street.” There had been the inevitable confrontations between demonstrators and authorities. We’ve been shown a TV clip of a bleeding demonstrator being hauled away after having been bludgeoned by police. This was clearly an overreaction by a policeman for having his hat knocked off. I also believe the initial act was counter to the intent of a substantial majority of the movement.
But New York’s Mayor Bloomberg’s claim was that labor unions are the backbone of OWS, was newsworthy, also revealing a faulty sense of proportion. It clarified the way the lines have been drawn. There’s a lot of anti union sentiment out there and now we now know where it’s headed. I suppose this was obvious when this whole movement first made news. Hizzoner just confirmed it.
Certainly union people have committed acts ranging from unethical to criminal. As a member of a union most of my life I can attest that mine has worked with something less than perfection. So should we abolish them? If the answer is yes then by that reasoning the same can be said of police, to which I’d add among others, public educators and the military. We should consider that these people are paid to represent all citizens equally and should therefore be held to a somewhat stricter standard than union officials who, like the Chamber of Commerce, are openly paid to represent a particular group.
It seems obvious who will eventually win this battle, the only question being when. However it develops, things are bound to get messy. It’s in the interest of the nation to keep them from getting too messy. The longer this battle takes the greater the chance of losing a semblance of Constitutional order. We have two directly opposing forces, one of which will have to give in. The spirit behind OWS involves too many people for it to be stopped. If the opposing side recognizes the inevitable, the conflict can be settled by relatively few people, say roughly one percent.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Joe Paterno, Tragedy

There’s more to tragedy than misfortune. The fall of Joe McCarthy was not tragic because nothing was lost, quite the opposite. Joe Paterno’s situation is tragic because he was highly regarded in his profession. His reputation had much to do with the scholastic achievement of his players. On a personal level he was quarterback at Brown during part of my time there. But the cold simple fact is that he and others at the college, including the president, withheld knowledge from proper authorities of criminal behavior by a member of his coaching staff. Equally important is the offender’s known proclivity for this behavior.

Beyond the details of this scandal is its reflection of college sports, particularly football. It’s hard now to believe that there was a time when college athletic teams were simply the best that could be assembled from a given student body. The famous 5th down game in 1940 was important because Cornell, eventual loser to Dartmouth, had been ranked second in the nation. Cornell, from the little old Ivy League, whose teams these days lose most early games to relatively unknown regional schools until the schedule gets easier when they start playing against each other.

Sure, money was involved then as it is today. Alumni have always been more generous to the old alma mater when its teams are winning. But in those days wealth, and consequently college donations, were more evenly divided. Now the lion’s share comes from really big spenders.

But alumni donations are only the tip of the iceberg. The real bucks in college sports come from TV. The football program alone at Penn State took in $70 million last year, of which $50 million was profit. Alumni money shouldn’t and can’t be controlled. But money from TV can. Professional football, a business by definition, divides TV revenue equally among all its teams.
Because much of college football is amateur in name only it is in need of similar supervision which can only come from the NCAA. More of this money can be better used for purposes other than winning games, for example education.

If the situation at Penn State is unique it’s only in the specifics. Regarding the corrosive effect of money in intercollegiate sports on the integrity of our educational system it’s just par for the course.

Addendum: I’ve read and heard a lot of punditry viewing the affair in a religious context. I disagree. In my opinion it’s business as usual.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Surrey On Top

I took notice of the caption to an article in last week’s N.Y. Times that read “Oakland Police Clash with Fringe Protestors.” I accept the Times description. Since its inception the people in this movement appear to have taken care to keep its actions non violent. With this many people involved there are bound to be instances of confrontation between demonstrations and the authorities, namely police.
I’m certain that at this moment most right wingers would quarrel with the word “fringe” and
would like to portray the O.W.S. people as violent rabble. It’s only a matter of time, probably little at that, before the deep thinkers on the right hire some flunkies to do real damage and give this movement a bad name. Remember Andrew Breithbart and James O’Keefe who planned and carried out the assassination of Acorn? These folks are rarin’ to go and this one is too deliciously obvious for them to pass up. Of course they’d be hiring people to commit crimes.  But if they do it in the right state, let’s say Arizona, they should have no problem.
O.W.S. has yet to identify itself with the Democratic Party whose high ranking members, the president for example, have not publicly supported the movement. The objects of these protests are not exclusively Republican, John Corzine is exhibit A. But honest Democratic Congressional votes, not those for sale when needed for special occasions, tend to comply less with Wall Street interests than the votes of Republicans. In this context it’s no secret which party has the higher ratio of good guys to bad guys.
The right wing, much of which unknowingly suffers as do the protestors from the misdeeds of corporate America, has been quite vocal in its disapproval of O.W.S. If they keep it up as I think they will, these people never admit having been wrong*, they will eventually drive the movement’s votes to the Democrats. In that case we can look forward to something really inventive in voter restriction.
*Alternate lyric; being in love with yourself means never having to say you’re sorry.

Friday, November 4, 2011

We're Number One

On June 4, 2009 Barck Obama gave a major speech from Cairo, his first to the International Community, which was met with overwhelming approval by his audience. He had been president for a little over 4 months and his health care plans had yet to become public. This was the first chance for Republicans, who had been frothing at the mouth since his election, to strike. They criticized him for being too friendly to foreigners, to whom he happened to be speaking, and worst of all, never once mentioning “American exceptionalism.” My reaction was that virtually telling the rest of the world how much better your country is than theirs is not a way to win friends and influence people.

On the business of American exceptionalism, if we’re judged solely by our barons of finance and the system that allows them to operate as they do, we are a Third World nation dressed in First World clothing. In terms of equality of income, on a list of forty one nations we rank thirty eighth. Not surprisingly our poverty rating is in the same vicinity.

Educationally we’re low on the totem pole of industrialized nations in spite of the fact that we rank second in per capita expenditures. Why are we getting less for our buck? We are experiencing an ideological fight started by those who believe the world was created a few thousand years ago in a week. They demand that these notions be taught in science classes as alternative to what we know of our world. As I see it the integrity an entire educational system reflecting this kind of thinking is suspect. And why is college tuition so expensive that so many students enter adulthood heavily in debt. The institutions involved are subsidized by the government to the extent that donations are tax deductable. Have any serious colleges gone out of business lately? The last I heard they were still singing the fight song at good ol’ Oral Roberts.

We have the world’s highest per capita medical expenses and yet we are well down the list in life expectancy and other pertinent categories. The role of insurance companies has been discussed at length. But the fact that our doctors, not general practitioners but specialists, are paid considerably more than those in other nations has not. There is clearly price fixing in our medical profession, which is as it should be in my opinion. Price should not be a consideration in selecting a doctor. But should the medical profession have the only voice in fixing prices? I think not.   

Still the United States, by virtue of its education and research, was at the world’s cutting edge in the technology of the 20th Century, useful stuff like science, medicine, transportation and communication. We also helped out big in World War II.  But American exceptionalism has become a thing of the past. The appropriate question now concerns what we’ve done lately.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Early and Often

The night before the l994 Republican sweep of both Houses of Congress, Mary Matalin in a CNN interview said that her party was well organized and would win big. She was right on both counts. The host responded by suggesting that a low turnout would benefit Republicans, a logical assumption with which Ms Matalin strongly disagreed, evidence of the then current sanctity of a high voter turnout.

My how things have changed! Now newly elected Tea Party sponsored governors and state legislators are openly attempting to discourage disenfranchised and minority voters, people who tend to vote Democratic, with unprecedented and unfair voter ID requirements. The pretext for this is alleged voter fraud which, from what’s been proved, is in the low single digits in even in the most populous voting districts.

An increased voter turnout, while not a certainty, is a likely consequence of Occupy Wall Street. Some previous voters in this group may choose to abstain given the results produced by the current crop of office holders. But the people now in the streets are young, bright and, above all concerned. I don’t see many of them sitting out Election Day. The fact that the criticism is coming from the political right, i.e. Fox News, strongly suggests the direction of the movement. Given a choice between Obama, Romney and a third party candidate I see the president coming off with a majority, the size being the only question.

Right wing criticism of OWS has made so many different disparaging connections that it’s hard to keep track of them. The only one with a superficial resemblance is with the hippie’s of the “60s and early ‘70s whose main cause was opposition to the Vietnam War. Of course there were others. Remember the Symbionese Liberation Army, whatever it stood for? But it was opposition to the war that gave the movement respectability. If you question this just think   “domino theory”

Those protests slowed and stopped in tandem with the Vietnam War. Today’s OWS people are victims of a system tailored to the benefit of corporate bandits that has left them with bleak prospects, possibly for a lifetime. The system and the thieves won’t be going away on their own any time soon. Neither will the victims.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Wall Street to Main Street

My last letter, in late September, dealt with the lack of media coverage of the current anti Wall Street movement. Since that time the bulk of news coverage has dealt with two subjects. One is the Republican Presidential debates to which I say that any subject involving reference to Herman Cain as a potential president is absurd by definition. The other is the move front and center by “Occupy Wall Street.” It is a development of such potentially monumental proportions that I’ve been hesitant to comment on it, other than to wish the participants the best.

That was until last night when I heard Michael Moore advising the protestors not to limit their demands to financial reform, but to go for the whole ball of wax in correcting the nation’s ills. I disagree, not with his opinion on these subjects of course, but with this tactic. The new crowd has a powerful single issue, particularly as more people realize that they are among the 99% who don’t benefit from the status quo. Try arguing gun control with someone as upset as you, but who insists on a person’s right to carry a gun into a bar from which he might not be allowed to drive home .You’ve lost him right off the bat. There’s even a plank in the Tea Party platform condemning Wall Street for the TARP bailout, conveniently blaming Democratic support in Congress. This reasoning conveniently ignores the fact that President George W. Bush requested and set it up during the last four months of his administration.

Critics accuse these people of advocating redistribution of wealth. But every change in our fiscal structure does just that. As time passes, even the time between now and the election, more voters will realize that for the past thirty years wealth has been redistributed in the direction of those who need it least. Simple arithmetic says that the redistribution should be reversed. The question is how much? Is it too much to ask the very richest Americans, whose annual income exceeds what most of us consider commensurate with a high life style, to pay higher taxes on only their excess income. The answer depends on the size of that marginal increase, but clearly something beyond single digits

The same people speak of this new movement as socialistic and it may be; but no more so than laws that were enacted as a consequence of the Great Depression and served us well until they were repealed when America began to feel good about itself. Too good! The hair of the dog may be OK for an occasional hangover, but this one is now a binge that has lasted too long. There’s a time for the bartender to eighty six the worst drunks and that time is now.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Street

Unless you’re one of those bleeding heart liberals who tune in to MSNBC, you may not know that there have been hundreds of people literally on the street, Wall Street, peacefully protesting what they consider the wrongs being committed by the lords inside those proximate hallowed halls. The press in general has paid scant, if any, attention, including that left wing bastion, the New York Times which covered it on page 18 of Thursday’s edition under “Local” news. The contrast in media coverage between this and Tea Party demonstrations is striking. Suspicious minds might even conclude that the media as a whole are biased to the right rather than left, as the Philistines claim.
There is visual evidence of police misconduct, something well short of the Rodney King episode, but still inappropriate and unwarranted. Minor beatings and pepper sprayings of individuals to whom a particular cop may have taken a dislike have been recorded. The commissioner of the city’s Police Department, in support of his troops, has criticized the protestors for “tumultuous conduct.” Heavens! I just hope they didn’t use obscenities.
Nothing of this restrictive nature seems to happen at Tea Party shenanigans even though many demonstrators have been pictured holding guns. Of course they weren’t loaded and there’s not a shred of evidence that the demonstrators’ conduct was tumultuous.
A viewer seeing both types of rallies must notice that the Tea Partiers are considerably longer in the tooth. My thinking is since they’re now getting what they’ve paid for from a system that was working, they’re obsessed with the possibility of having to pay one red cent, because changing circumstances may demand it, in order to give someone else’s offspring opportunities equivalent to what they had.
The battle lines have been drawn and, in my admittedly biased opinion, I think it’s the right wing that has drawn them. They may win the battle next year. But there’s no question who will win the war. It’s only a question of when.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Annie Rides Again

Back in the 1950s Al Capp, giving his reasons for allowing Daisy Mae to marry Lil Abner, mentioned a rival comic strip featuring “an orphan who spoke like the Republican platform of 1928.” Well folks; Orphan Annie has been reincarnated, and not surprisingly, in the form of the entire Republican Party. The common denominator is the claim that American business needs fewer, not more, regulations and should be left to its own devices. “Small” is the adjective of choice in referring to business. This is either a euphemism or a lie, take your pick.

The word “regulations” is being used by Annie’s disciples in a tone that makes it sound like a profanity. Regulations, rules or laws, call them what you will, have always been with us, and not necessarily to our benefit. A strong argument can be made, with which I agree, against our legal position on marijuana. On the other hand I doubt that the most fanatical libertarian would call for eliminating traffic lights.

Back in Annie’s day a grossly unequal share of the wealth resulting from unbridled laissez faire didn’t shake voters’ faith in Herbert Hoover’s promise of “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.” A couple of years later, when even rich folks started jumping out of tall buildings, people realized that something was very wrong so they made rules to prevent a repeat performance.

Years later Annie made her first reincarnation in the form of a Hollywood actor and started convincing us that these rules were no longer necessary. Eventually it became evident that she was wrong again, except for folks like her Daddy Warbucks (a well chosen name) who haven’t been jumping out of buildings. In fact they’re doing quite nicely thank you.

Of course the financial community still has some regulations. Embezzlement is frowned on in courts of law and apprehended violators generally do jail time. But Daddy Warbucks and his friends have avoided the hoosegow and are now busily comparison shopping for their most practical items, members of Congress. Annie should be so proud!   

A bit of trivia: Al Capp subsequently inserted Orphan Annie type characters in Lil Abner. Daddy Warbucks was “Uncle Sawbuck” and his assistant was “Franklin Finog,” spelled backwards Gonif, Yiddish for thief.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Not To Be Spoken

“The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one term president.” It’s common knowledge that these words were spoken by Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell.  This is hardly an unthinkable thought. I wouldn’t be surprised if throughout our history a majority of Congress has felt this way about a first term president from the opposing party.  But to my knowledge it has been an unspeakable thought for someone of this prominence who can be considered as spokesman for his political party.
It’s easy to see that under normal circumstances this statement could put Mr. McConnell out on a limb. After all there are legislative decisions that might conceivably benefit the nation during Obama’s tenure and, in the process, enhance his reelection prospects. The words “single and most important thing” are unequivocal as to how Republican Senators should vote in such situations if they followed instructions as they have been doing. Our history is replete with unspoken conflicts of this nature in both political parties with the nation often getting the short end of the stick.
But to my knowledge this candor from someone so high in our legislative hierarchy is a first of its kind. It was no slip of the tongue and raises the question of why McConnell would break precedent and run the risk of confirming doubts on the integrity of votes from members of his party. It’s one thing not to play by the rules, or at least the pretense of rules. It’s quite another to defiantly announce that you intend to break them.
To me the answer is that he thought he could get away with it. Subsequent events have proven him right. This leads to another question. How did he know he could publicly and blatantly flaunt President Barack Hussein Obama without adverse consequences? Need I answer this question?
Maybe we should be appreciative of McConnell for his honesty. My personal take, to borrow a phrase from the British, is that if this is loyal opposition I shudder to think of the alternative.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Greater Evil

It’s human nature for people of a political persuasion to hope that the least electable candidate represents the opposition. A graphic example is the Nixon campaign in 1972. The “dirty tricks” against his moderate opponents, Muskie and Humphrey, were well chronicled in the Senate Watergate hearings. Few people seemed to notice that George McGovern’s name was not among the victims. The fact may be forgotten or not even known by many. But during the primary season when he was unopposed, Nixon donors were instructed to send their donations to George McGovern.*  By this standard, as a Democrat I should be hoping for the nomination of Rick Perry, now that the GOP field seems to be distilling to two candidates. This is not the case.
I’m not an admirer of “Mitt” Romney and will not vote for him in the general election. Like all Republicans he is a candidate of money, although the same can be said of most prominent politicians including, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama. Unfortunately that’s the way our system works. But in Rick Perry I see more than avarice. I sense meanness.
“Sense” is by definition subjective. Mine is based in part on his answer to a question by the moderator in a recent candidate debate, as to his feelings about the disproportionally high number of executions in his state. His answer, that anyone who killed someone in Texas deserved to pay with his or her life, was followed by wildly enthusiastic audience response. It ignored the point of the question which didn’t concern the death penalty itself, but the justice of the convictions.  
I’ve referred several times to Barry Goldwater and what a majority of voters considered his off the wall ideas. But most of us who voted against him didn’t feel he was mean, only wrong. Perry, in promoting his recent Jesus fest on TV, blubbered like Jimmy Swaggart every time he mentioned “Jesus.” Having heard him speak on non religious issues, and looking at his eyes as he spoke, I consider this man incapable of any kind of humility.
If cross party voting in primaries were possible in the state in which I vote I’d be a Republican for a day and cast an enthusiastic vote for Romney. Given the quality of candidates generally, for many of us voting is a question of the lesser of evils. In my judgment no serious candidate, or even some of the frivolous ones, is as great an evil as Rick Perry, who just might become President of the United States of America.
*I heard this point confirmed, voluntarily and defiantly by Pat Buchanan, a minor player in the saga, late in the Senate Watergate hearings. During that primary season I was hired to provide a band for three McGovern rallies, after which I was assured of the same job in the fall before the general election. You might guess what happened, actually didn’t happen, and why.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Song Is Ended

I am a card carrying Democrat who has voted for every Democratic presidential candidate since Adlai Stevenson. I intend to vote for Barack Obama, despite being disappointed with his presidency. One reason can be summed up by five names; Scalia, Thomas, Kennedy, Roberts and Alito. Another is the caliber of the current potential opponents. All are certifiable fruitcakes with the exception of a former Utah Governor whose GPS appears to have malfunctioned and a former Massachusetts Governor who has yet to locate the center of gravity.   

Barack Obama has some accomplishments to his credit, such as resuscitating the auto industry and changing the military’s policy on gays. But these are fringe issues compared to the more important ones on which he has attempted little if anything. On the environment the flat earth types still hold sway and our unbalanced tax code is fundamentally unchanged.

The capitulation to raise the debt ceiling is was inexcusable. To give in to the legislative demands of a political party threatening the solvency of the nation was a craven concession to blackmail.  Common sense should tell us that this same tactic will be repeated the next time the ceiling needs to be raised, unless the president at the time happens to be a Republican. Obama declined the preferable options of calling the blackmailers’ bluff or invoking the part of the 14th Amendment that says that the validity of the public debt “shall not be questioned.”  

Many of his former supporters complain that Obama should be more like Truman. The short answer is that he’s not Truman, nor was any intervening president. It can be added that no person of color could have become president behaving as Truman, who even his critics never claimed to be anything other than “true blue” in ethnicity and religion. Barack Obama may be more articulate than any president my lifetime, a gift that has value in explaining issues to the electorate. Yet some of his most important decisions have been a major disappointment to those of us who had such hopes when we voted for him. Facility with words is an important quality for the presidency. But to paraphrase an Irving Berlin lyric, when the song is ended it’s the melody that lingers on.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Bring Us Together

“Bring us together.” This was a major theme in Richard Nixon’s l968 election campaign.* It said as much about his presidency as “compassionate conservative” did about George Bush’s. Still the principle is inarguably worthy. By this yardstick, it can be said that we haven’t done well the intervening forty three years. Of course peoples’ political opinions will always differ. It’s just that they used to differ more politely.

Whatever Barack Obama has done to his credit or discredit, he is our president. Yes, past presidents have been vilified at times in unforgivable ways, but not with this much breadth and intensity. The incivility is not limited to slapstick performers at Tea Party rallies. Titled leaders of the opposition in both Houses of Congress have refused specific presidential requests for their time. I believe this is a first and, make no mistake, it is very personal.

Within Congress itself, there is a diminished pretense of courtesy. All administration appointees are now routinely filibustered. The comity that used to exist among Senators has all but disappeared. Will Rogers spoke of Senators addressing a colleague they didn’t like as “the honorable gentleman” really meaning “the rotten polecat.” At least they observed the formalities. Late on election night 1972 I saw both local opposing party chairmen in East Rutherford, New Jersey sharing a few cordial rounds of drinks in a jazz club where I was working. Does this sort of non partisan conviviality still exist at this level, and if so, to what extent?

In the public sector, where these divisions are the most harmful, my evidence is entirely anecdotal. A friend wrote me about a 77 year old companion who was physically attacked at a Florida bar over a political argument with a younger man whose ultimate bone of contention was being addressed as “young man,” a poor choice of words perhaps, but nothing demanding physical retaliation.  

Tea Party types, and consequently the entire Republican Party, are clearly moving sharply to the right. If one accepts the premise, my premise at least, that the political left is fundamentally the same old left, it’s easy to see where this new divisiveness and the rancor accompanying it come from.

I believe that religion has no place in politics, to which I’d add that politics should have no place in religion. For far too many people their politics has become their religion.

*Nixon claimed that the idea came from a sign carried during the campaign by a young girl in Deshler, Ohio. A 13 year old girl named Vicki Cole claimed to be the sign carrier and achieved a “Joe the Plumber” celebrity status. This ended with Watergate and suspicions within the Nixon campaign, by staffers who were on the train at the time, that she was a phony.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Cause and Effect

There isn’t much argument these days over the importance of jobs. To openly oppose job creation is the rough equivalent of advocating corruption. Declaring their importance is merely stating the obvious. But to call this an issue muddies the water. Underemployment does exacerbate hard times. But it is to a much greater extent a symptom rather than a cause. The cause by itself is indeed an issue.
Sufficient jobs for a healthy economy cannot be created by government fiat. FDR did what he could with WPA and other federally funded programs that added a glimmer of hope. But the Great Depression didn’t end until the fall of France in 1940, when industrialists, with a nudge from the president, saw armament in their future.
What is at issue is how best to create jobs. The president and most Democrats see the solution as increased investment in an economy now in deficit. Republicans, who are in effect running the show, advocate fiscal austerity, which as I see it has two major flaws, one relating to the Great Depression. Despite all the hardship during the pump priming phase of FDR’s stewardship, the nation was in somewhat better financial condition, and considerably better spirit than it had been under three years of Hoover’s fiscal prudence. The other is that at this time Republicans are intentionally working against the national interest, expecting to pick up the pieces with a new president. Their Senate leader McConnell’s publicly stated plans on the length of Barack Obama’s tenure should pretty well set the matter straight. I’m certain that if Republicans retake the presidency next year their concerns over a balanced budget would evaporate in a hurry.
The need for a sound fiscal policy can’t be denied. But in the general course of events it is more a long term matter than the current hard times which, by their nature, necessitate a quicker response. If we continue to move in the direction in which Republicans are now leading us we’re more than likely to make long term problems out of both. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Who's On First

On a recent TV talk show a poll of Tea Party voters was cited in which a substantial majority, in excess of two thirds, consisted of traditional Republican voters who shared the social values associated with that party’s right wing.  One of the panelists pointed out that, by any name, this was essentially the Republican base. Both major parties have bases that almost always vote for their candidates. The difference is in the right wingers’ excess enthusiasm, fanaticism to this admittedly jaundiced eye. This gives the Republicans a big edge.

It is most evident in mid-term elections in which the turnout is lighter than when the presidency is at stake. Congressional elections in 1946, 1994 and recently in 2010, which resulted in Republican landslides, are cases in point. True, the reverse happened in 2006. But that was after six years of the George W. Bush presidency. Truman and Clinton had only been in office for two years and were reelected two years later.  Obama’s test is yet to come.

My thinking is that this enthusiasm gap has something to do with diversified interests on the left contrasted with those on the relatively homogenized right. People whose interests involve the environment, reproductive choice, financial regulations, labor rights and civil liberties may see eye to eye on most of these issues. But not to the degree of those who are indifferent to civil liberties, advocate religion in public life and hate gun control, gays, abortion and government in any form, unless they need it.  Throw in a president who isn’t “one of them” and it’s no contest.

The extreme right tends to be better focused on its benefit to Republicans than the left is to Democrats. Tea Party influence clearly led to the current GOP super House majority. On the other hand the actions of Civil Rights and Vietnam War protestors in the 1960s resulted in the election of Richard Nixon.
People on the far right seem to have more adrenalin than their adversaries on the left. This may lead to what can charitably be called more adventuresome actions which, on occasion, can become a bit chancy. If worst comes to worst they can always fall back on what has become a Republican battle cry since Watergate. It has no place in a court of law, but has worked with some success in the court of public opinion. “They all do it.”

Monday, August 22, 2011

Defense of Liberty

“I would remind you that extremism in defense of liberty is no vice.” Many of us recognize these words as spoken by Barry Goldwater in his 1964 acceptance speech at the Republican Convention. It played a big part in the size of his defeat by Lyndon Johnson in the general election. Yet about two out of five Americans voted for him. Their ideological descendants comprise what is now called the Tea Party. However one regards these people, it’s quite a stretch to call them moderate, they have taken control of the Republican Party by the legitimate process of voting heavily in party primaries.
Goldwater’s statement, with which they evidently concur, sounds alright on paper. The problem is in agreeing on what constitutes defense of liberty. Many of us applauded, as we still do, the non violent civil disobedience inspired by Martin Luther King. The meaning, if not the words of the Goldwater dictum fit. These words could also have been used by the most violent Black Panther during the ghetto riots later in the decade, with an opposite historical verdict.
The Tea Party began making news in the days preceding tax filing on April 15, 2009. The taxes due then were at a slightly lower rate than those of the previous year, during the administration of a Caucasian Republican president. Somehow paying taxes under a Democratic president of color became un-American.
Most of us, including and particularly Tea Partiers, agree that the actions of the colonists leading to the War of Independence, while extreme, were taken in defense of liberty. “Taxation without Representation” was the valid battle cry of the instigators of the Boston Tea Party from which today’s enthusiasts have taken their name. But unlike the taxes imposed by the British that the colonists found so objectionable, today’s taxes have been set by the will of a majority of our own democratically elected representatives.
The folks appearing publicly in colonial garb carrying signs reading “Don’t Tread on Me” provide evidence of at least one major failure of our public education, specifically adult knowledge of American history.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Over the years there have been several times when I just didn’t want to hear the news or, worse yet, commentary on it. One of them was the immediate aftermath of 9/11. The most recent was last week, a consequence of the conclusion of the national debt crisis. There’s much more to be said about what’s wrong than what isn’t. That’s too much territory for me to take on now. 

The one aspect in particular that sticks in my craw is the presidential decision not to invoke the 14th Amendment, with its sanctification of the national debt. Reasoned legal opinion that was initially mixed on this subject seemed to have become more positive as the hour drew nigh.

From the commentary I’ve heard, the president opposed this course because of a reluctance to expand the authority of the executive branch. Hogwash! I can’t remember a president who didn’t want to retain and acquire as much executive power as possible. Some were just better at this sort of thing than others. 

Preserving dubious executive prerogative occupied by the Bush Administration was the reason the Obama Justice Department chose not to prosecute the known civil rights crimes of his predecessor. These were crimes he condemned vehemently while campaigning for the presidency. Beyond that it seems a milestone in naivety to expect the next Republican president not to try to set a new standard in this field.

Another argument I’ve heard is that it would create a “Constitutional crisis.” I’m not certain what the term means, but I remember hearing it used during Watergate and Bush v Gore. The ensuing adjudications resulted sequentially in proper and atrocious judicial decisions.  But while these crises were being settled life went on pretty much as usual, without anything as tumultuous as what’s now taking place on Wall Street; an unintended consequence of “playing it safe.”

I plan to vote for Barack Obama next year. Future composition of the Supreme Court, by itself, is reason enough. But like many who voted for him with passion, I am deeply disappointed with major critical parts of his performance as president.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Lop Sided

At tender ages my younger sister and I were supervised by what is called today an au pair who, as we grew older, favored my sister. If I was “naughty” it was “honestly, that boy.” When my sister misbehaved it was “honestly those children.”  The latter part is reflected in the reaction of a large part of the population to the Congressional impasse over raising the debt ceiling.

“Honestly that Congress! They should all be put on bread and water to see how it feels.” That’s pretty much the prevailing sentiment among many Americans of all political persuasions. While it may have merit generally, it doesn’t in this case. It is Congressional Republicans, you can look it up, who are obstructing what has always been an essential and routine procedure, at the risk of demolishing the national credit rating among other unpredictable dire consequences.


There is an arguable difference of opinion over the proper approach to our financial problems, barely arguable in my opinion. To me the impact of the Great Depression is a piece of history that more than hints at the need for red ink for investment in the short term. Taxes are an unpleasant necessity, less so on those who can most afford to pay them. Results of the policies of our previous president do nothing to support the merit of upper income tax cuts, other than to their beneficiaries. Those in power who share this thinking have already deferred for the most part, let’s say 75%, to those who feel that belt tightening is the only cure. Unless our side submits to unconditional surrender, our opponents threaten to bring the house down and damn the consequences.


The existence of differing opinions does not mean that the truth invariably lies somewhere between, a notion that the folks running the media apparently don’t accept. To quote Paul Krugman; “if one party declared that the earth was flat the headlines would read ‘Views Differ on Shape of Planet.”


There are no two sides, and consequently no legitimacy, to the debt ceiling argument. It must be raised to pay for expenses incurred by previous presidents and Congresses. Whatever today’s legislators feel about these past commitments, they are entitled to discontinue them, but not to renege on previously incurred indebtedness. As a nation we have never in our history argued publicly about not paying our bills. That we are doing so now is the figurative equivalent of having a gun pointed at our heads, in this case by an overly enthusiastic legislative minority of novices, to accomplish by threat what it’s unable to accomplish by a traditional time honored process.

Friday, July 29, 2011


On a personal level I’ve always felt that my reaction to blackmail would be something like “OK, do your worst.”Never having been in that position, this feeling is has to be based on intellectual, rather than emotional considerations. In the cold light of day there is always the likelihood of subsequent demands, so it seems more practical to get the matter over with quickly.

Blackmail is what Congressional Tea Party types are now inflicting on the nation, including most of their Republican colleagues. For the first time in our history a price has been put on agreeing to raise the debt ceiling. And a steep price at that! We are all vulnerable to default.  

What the Monster was to Frankenstein the Tea Party is to what remains of traditional Congressional Republicans. Their followers can only vote once, but by God they vote even in them there primaries. Three Senate seats may have been lost to the party in Delaware, Nevada and Alaska by the Tea nation. But just take a look at the House. The big guys know where their bread is buttered and they don’t tolerate heresy, as John McCain has just learned.

Until now I have followed the minutia of this debt ceiling tussle with great interest. But the time has come that I don’t give a damn whose plan is being voted on in which House of Congress. What should have been, as it always has, a routine legislative exercise has been turned into a likely disaster by a minority gang of know nothings who won’t play the game unless it’s by their rules.

My guess a few days ago was that cooler heads would prevail. That seems unlikely now, unless a bipartisan Congressional majority gives the president a new clean debt ceiling until 2013, with budgetary considerations to be made at another time. If not the nation faces default. In this case Barack Obama will have no reasonable alternative to exercising his authority by unilaterally raising the debt ceiling. The legality of such action is at least strongly implied by the 14th Amendment.

Not to do so would be unforgivable. Legal opinion is uncertain on this subject. But the process itself would take time and allow everybody to save face. As to the verdict I repeat from last week’s effort: Wall Street and big money don’t want default. Adversity can make the strangest bedfellows.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Fat Tax

While it isn’t the central issue in the debt ceiling crisis, the term “flat tax” keeps popping up in Republican talking points. It’s often paired with the word “simplified” to make it more palatable to those who can’t tell winners from losers. What’s meant is the same tax rate for everyone, rich or poor.

Supporters often point out that an overwhelming amount of tax dollars already come from the richest taxpayers. This is nothing more than simple arithmetic supporting the Willie Sutton doctrine. A more meaningful argument would be that rich provide the jobs. Not many paying jobs are provided by poorer people.  

To counter this argument it should be mentioned that not all the money available to create jobs is being spent for that purpose. A logical reason would be that the demand for products doesn’t always justify increased production. It’s hard to criticize what may be a prudent business decision. But it defies logic to include a road not taken in a body of evidence. It should also be mentioned that a significantly large number of the rich have made a life’s career doing nothing but managing their portfolios.

What I find most laughable is the claim that a 4% tax increase on annual income over $250 thousand would discourage “small business.” I don’t believe for a minute that the businesses of major concern are small by any definition. But let’s give them this one and dissect a recent claim by a right wing talking head of a disincentive to a businessman anticipating a $300 thousand profit. Granted this trifling amount could cause Exxon/Mobil to throw in the towel. But it’s another story for our hypothetical small businessman. By the president’s proposal, with its $250 thousand breaking point, Mr. Small Businessman would have to pay an extra $2,000 in taxes, on only the excess income, in addition to the roughly $90 thousand he would ordinarily have paid on all his income. This prospect wouldn’t discourage me one bit.

The saving grace of the right wing’s idea of shared sacrifice is that only Singapore and Hong Kong have a greater disparity of wealth and income than we do and we’ve always prided ourselves on being number one.





Sunday, July 24, 2011

Put a Cool Head on It

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell has volunteered that high among his party’s priorities is to make Barack Obama a “one term president.” This is hardly a unique wish among officials in the opposition party. But to my knowledge it’s the first time it has been stated publicly by a high ranking member. It’s my opinion that this is because the president in question is this president.

Since LBJ’s tenure, no Democratic president has been given proper respect from Congressional Republicans. I don’t believe the reverse is true. Ronald Reagan and both Bushes weren’t roughed up nearly as badly as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. I see this as reflecting the Republicans notion that the presidency is their divine right.  If they gave two good ol’ Southern boys this kind of treatment, what’s an anti-colonialist Kenyan to expect?

Whatever one’s opinion of a president, formal courtesy by members of Congress used to be a tradition. For a Congressman to shout “you lie” during a State of the Union address is well beyond acceptable limits of disagreement. For Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts, during the same speech, to visibly shake his head in response to a presidential legislative recommendation may not be as blatant. But coming from a person who is paid to adjudicate, and by inference to not legislate, it may be even more improper.

Last year Obama invited some Republican legislators to a White House meeting with about two weeks notice. The Republicans declined because the date was not “convenient.” Mr. McConnell recently upbraided the president for his rudeness in not attending a GOP request to appear in the Senate that day.

A major obstacle to settling the debt ceiling crisis has been the Republicans’ realization that any solution worked out after meeting with the president would redound to his credit. I’ve heard that they now intend to keep physical distance from him and work things out on their own. The result of this impasse is anybody’s guess. Mine is that cooler heads will prevail.

But if they don’t my prediction and hope is that Obama will stand behind a downplayed, little noted but unequivocal statement in Friday’s press conference, that he would raise the debt ceiling if necessary. I can see no interpretation other than that he would use the 14th Amendment to do so unilaterally. The pertinent sentence reads “the validity of the public debt shall not be questioned.”

This may not be the last word as legal scholars from both right and left have opined.  But litigation, even with hastened action by the Supremes, takes time that would work to the benefit of those cooler heads and might cool some of the hotter ones. The verdict of the Supreme Court in this decision isn’t the foregone conclusion it has been in recent inter party issues. The Republican Party is not of one mind on this subject and the Wall Street mind takes a dim view of default.  

For Barack Obama not to take this action in this circumstance would be derelict in my opinion. If he acts as I believe he will, he’ll be the coolest head in the block. (neighborhood?)

This could be dated in 24 hours

Monday, July 18, 2011

King of the World

The fertilizer is now hitting the fan in what can be called the “Rupert Murdoch Empire.” Two weeks ago we started hearing of some of the mischief his troops have been up to in England. It involved hacking telephone lines and emails of people from the members of the Royal family to parents of a kidnap and murder victim, and of bribing police to help gather the kind of news expected of tabloids. 

The early news was of this nature and seemed small reward for the risk involved in such clearly criminal behavior. At the time I drew a parallel with Watergate for which so much was put at risk in a failed burglary attempt, for so little. Evidently Murdoch’s early career in print journalism led to a lifelong obsession with scooping the opposition and tabloid journalism is by nature a dirty game played without rules. But when the news broke about his having blackmailed British politicians on both sides of the political aisles the plot thickened. 

From what we now know, Murdoch worked in the U.K. in a manner similar to the way J. Edgar Hoover ran the F.B.I for half a century, but without the fig leaf of technically serving a government. The resignation of the Wall Street Journal’s CEO is a sign that the organization may have been working in this country in something less than legal manner, a suspicion that many of us have held for some time.

His TV medium, Fox “News” has been a source of “information” not only for true believers, but for folks whose beliefs are formed by these alleged facts. If we’re lucky many of the latter will at least begin to smell a rat.    

Comparing Murdoch’s power to that of Nixon or the Mafia is false equivalency. His is potentially stronger in large part because it is multi-national. But it is like the Mafia’s in that it no longer depends on one individual. His syndicate has evolved to the point that he is to it what Bin Laden was to al Qaeda. There are people the likes of Roger Ailes who will not have to look for a job if Murdoch predeceases them. We are looking at an organization that just might be more powerful than any nation on earth.

Rupert Murdoch has told reporters that he is merely “annoyed” by this whole business. I think it likely that he’s bluffing and doubt that he’s irrational. But if he is privy to information that justifies his feeling nothing more than annoyance, a strong case can be made for fearing something other than fear itself

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sharing Responsibility

Over the years many elections have been decided on the issue of corruption, yet I have no recollection of a candidate claiming to favor it. The same can be said of deficits. Both political parties agree they should be reduced or, if possible, eliminated. They disagree as to how and when. Democrats are in less of a hurry and prefer a blend of increased income, sometimes known as taxes, and reduced expenses. Republicans are insisting exclusively on the latter at once, or else they’re threatening to huff and puff and blow the house down.

Differences between the two approaches are largely semantic, a fact that Republicans know how to use to their advantage. A reduction in benefits for an entitlements such as Medicare may seem like a clear cut case of reducing expenses. But Medicare contributor/beneficiaries would then have to pay additional out of pocket money for services previously covered. To them this is in effect a tax increase by any name. Payments to Exxon/Mobil, purportedly the most profitable corporation in history, are subsidies by any rational definition. But under the Grover Norquist “no tax increase ever” rules, eliminating this gift would be a tax increase.

As I see it a dollar of red ink from entitlement programs and a dollar spent on favored treatment of privileged taxpayers and corporations are identical once they reach the balance sheet. Paying for either is less a matter of what it’s called, than who is doing the paying.  A fleeting glance at the Ryan Budget passed by House Republicans should settle the question of who they feel should bear the burden of fiscal austerity.   

If there’s still doubt, we have this statement by Orrin Hatch, now a party “moderate;” “I hear how they’re caring for the poor and so forth. The poor need jobs and they also need to share some of the responsibility,”   It’s reassuring to know that the Senator has heard about this “caring for the poor and so forth.” But I’m curious as to how he would have them do more sharing of the responsibility.    

It seems to me that simply being poor could be counted as sharing responsibility. It’s not that easy to become rich.  Republicans have a cost effective method of sharing in their cornucopia of proposals, specifically drastic cuts in Medicaid, health care for those who can’t pay for it. If the poor can be made to disappear a big financial burden will be lifted. Validating Chuck Darwin’s theory might not sit well with the religious right if thinking is involved. But when all is said and done I believe they’d be satisfied with the thought that a penny saved is still a penny earned.