Saturday, April 30, 2011

Not Quite Vast*

A substantial majority* of Americans believes that the country is headed in the wrong direction. This is considered bad news for Barack Obama.  After all he is the president. I’m with the majority on where the nation is heading and, as one who felt as optimistic about this presidency as any in my lifetime, I am disappointed. This is based less on what he has done than what he hasn’t done, either by omission or a timid pursuit of his initiatives.  As a tactician he he’s shown little aptitude for horse trading, poker or haggling in general. 

But there are other considerations in fairly measuring his performance. He did inherit a nation in worse shape than any president since FDR who, in a political sense, was more fortunate. His presidency began three years after the start of the Great Depression, which by then left no doubt that it belonged to his predecessor, Herbert Hoover. Obama was elected and inaugurated only two and four months after most of us realized what had hit us. Since then an increasing larger part of our current discomfort is taking place on his watch. Unlike FDR he is being held accountable for problems created during the presidency of his predecessor, George Bush.  

The president of the United Sates has absolute power, but only over the executive branch of government.  His influence on the legislative branch is limited to vetoing laws of which he disapproves and has no direct control over the laws Congress passes. In his first two years the House approved hundreds of measures that would have won majorities in the Senate were it not for parliamentary maneuvers exclusive to that body. 

I’ve heard Obama voters say they wish he were “more like Bush.” They should be reminded that for the first six of his eight years Bush had a Republican controlled Congress, made possible by a modicum of help and minimum obstruction from Democrats. The same can’t be said relative to Obama’s tenure. Since Lyndon Johnson’s presidency a “Democratic controlled Congress” has become a textbook oxymoron.  

Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell openly stated his intent to make Obama “a one term president.” This thinking may not be unique to members of the party out of power. But to say so publicly is to my knowledge a first. While I admit to begrudging admiration for McConnell’s candor, it is evidence of his party’s scorched earth policy. Let the nation burn if necessary until they can own what’s left. 

Every Democratic president since LBJ has been subject to unprecedented incivility by Republican Congressional opposition. A cursory look at the record shows no evidence of this degree of discourtesy being returned in kind. I’ll of course be voting for Obama out of ideology. But apart from that I could also never vote for a candidate selected as its nominee by this mean spirited assortment of thieves, frauds, xenophobes, lunatics, bigots, and dunces.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Entitlements Again?

Entitlements, most prominently social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, are receiving much of the blame for the size our deficit. Social Security is getting a bum rap. It is in surplus and is calculated to remain so till 2037. More significant, its trust fund owns around a quarter of the national debt. If a federally managed program can accumulate enough money in nearly eighty years to become one of our government’s major creditors, it must have been doing something right.  It’s misleading, often knowingly, to mention it in the same context as the others.

Medicaid is simply a charity for which the tab picked up by a combination of federal and state government. Our choice here is simple. We can either ignore the needy, causing them to lead to shorter lives or spend money to help them live longer. 
But Medicare is an indispensable part of our social network that, until recently, has worked well since its inception in 1965. The problem now is that the cost of medical coverage has increased at a faster rate than almost everything, in particular the money financing it. A simple solution, to which the right wing is trying to lead us, is to cut benefits, the equivalent of raising the price. Vouchers would be given to cover limited expenses.

The other approach is to take a critical look at the disproportionally increased cost of medical care. I believe price fixing is present in all components of the medical complex; doctors, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and the insurance companies. I don’t begrudge doctors in this respect. I’d be suspicious of one known as being “cheaper.” It’s overpricing by the entire complex that’s being rationalized by the well known fact that many services are free to those who can’t pay for them. A recent charge for a friend’s hour in a hospital bed after a colonoscopy was $2,000. Even If we allow as much as half the cost of the hospital’s services going to deadbeats, a thousand would still be a gross overcharge. 

Annual limits in the voucher plan, put forward by Paul Ryan and approved by the House of Representatives, are antithetical to the concept of insurance.  I don’t carry collision insurance on my car because I can survive its entire loss. But few people would choose to do without coverage for liability. We may dislike medical deductibles, but nothing like we would a ceiling on coverage. The very insecurity that Medicare was created to prevent would be imposed on older Americans for the first time.  

Those with less than legitimate interests, who oppose reducing the cost of medical care and its coverage, enjoy an enormous financial advantage that has been greatly enhanced by Citizens United. The Ryan/Republican plan is admittedly simpler. But if we choose it over the alternative it will be too late for a very long time.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Culling the Herd

As I touched on in the last letter, there’s a discrepancy in right wing thinking on how we got here and where we’re going. In the first case we’re a hundred percent God’s Creation and in the second we’re headed towards survival of the fittest, AKA Darwinism, which happens to be evidence of, dare I say it, evolution.

Take a look at the Paul Ryan budget plan which is now also the Republican Party’s. In addition to multiple cuts in programs that help the less enfranchised, it lowers the tax rate on top income to below that of middle income. Ryan said it all with one word in a publicized prepared speech, by using “hammock” in reference to recipients of unemployment insurance money. Of course there are beneficiaries who use the system other than as intended. But he is painting with an outlandishly wide brush. I don’t see how he and his party could imply more clearly that disparity of wealth is a good thing and that that should be increased.

Paul Ryan is an unabashed admirer of Ayn Rand. For those who don’t know who she is, or was, I’d describe her as being to Twentieth Century political fiction what Rupert Murdoch is to Journalism. As an advocate of survival of the fiscally fittest she would be proud of Ryan and his budget. In her morality plays the forces of good are embodied in brilliant rugged individualists who triumph over the forces of evil, personified by socialistic antagonists. One of her novels, Fountainhead, was made into a movie starring Gary Cooper. We can expect it to be shown a lot before and next year’s election, during which time we’ll be hearing much more about her and her other monument, Atlas Shrugged.

Using Hitler in political argument is trite and simplistic.  But I’ve seen enough of those signs with Obama’s picture with the trademark mustache that I now consider it fair game. Granted, the ideal world of der Fuhrer differs in some ways from that of Ms Rand. One is based on race and the other on wealth. Hitler was less patient in making his point, using gas chambers, while Ms Rand leaned in the direction of attrition, made easy by making life harder for the less desirable. But most important, they shared the common belief that people who, by their measurement are at the bottom, are expendable and shouldn’t be encouraged to hang around.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Only When Necessary

The argument over dealing with our fiscal problems seems to have been won, at least for the moment, by Republicans and their Tea Party constituency. By their reasoning an expense is simply an expense and nothing more. A penny saved is a penny earned. But there are those of us who consider some expenses as investments and reducing them as penny wise and pound foolish. The right’s surest rhetorical winner has been to trot out “the future of our children and grandchildren” or the equivalent, and the debt we’ll be passing on to them. This, by itself, is a reasonable argument.

This concern evaporates when the issue is the environment. In that case research results are just another liberal hoax. I equate this with the Wizard telling Dorothy and her friends to “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” I hope they’re right since they’ve already made significant cuts for research and for the EPA to act on its conclusions.

This duplicity, in a more subtle sense, is also part of the right wing’s war against evolution. Excluded are Wall Street Republicans, the generals who finance the movement and have other interests. Included are Sunday school Republicans, the spear carriers who do the work and the voting. 

Try reconciling this conviction with the Paul Ryan budget plan that is now the stated position of the Republican Party. It is a textbook example of Darwinism which is inseparable from evolution. Help would be reduced for people who need it most and increased for those who need it least. It would be leading us back to the very old game of survival of the fittest. In this millennium fitness would not be a matter of our ability to catch or defend ourselves from wild animals, but of money. Ryan’s plan borrows not only from Charles Darwin, but from Ayn Rand, an avowed hero of his.

The intent of this effort is to point out the selective application of principles allegedly dear to the hearts of the right wing. This tactic was put to words concisely by the Hollywood script writer who gave us “white man speak with forked tongue.”

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


Whatever one thinks of our government, it cannot be accused of indifference to the threat of drug addiction. Not only the sale, use and possession, but even paraphernalia, are proscribed by law. I consider this a case of government intrusion. It’s proper that we be advised of the consequences of our consumption to ourselves. Beyond that we should be on our own. (As self inflicted acts go, I could accept suicide as criminal. A mandatory death penalty would be a nice touch) 

Of course the effect on others as a consequence of our consumption is a different matter, as the DUI litigation that adorns the front pages of most regional newspapers attests. In this respect I’d put money at the top of the list. Many people don’t think of it in that context because this addiction only affects rich people. Less wealthy folks don’t have enough left at the end of the day to develop the habit. Their addiction is perforce limited to the things their money can buy, and they often go unwisely into debt acquiring them.  Not all rich people are addicted. Some don’t object to the relatively minor tax increases being discussed. But most of those who are pressuring Congress to prevent them can afford all the material things they want, and still crave more money, not to spend, only to have. 

In many cases what these rich people covet most is what they can’t buy off the rack, influence and fame. In the latter case we have a man whose name has literally desecrated much of the national landscape. Of the former my most vivid image is an early 80’s picture of Carl Icahn in a weekly news magazine. He controlled one major corporation and was trying to acquire another, U.S Steel and TWA* as I recall. The one word in the caption that struck me was “embattled.” Describing a person who owns, or at least controls, one major corporation, having difficulty acquiring another as embattled is incongruous.

My antipathy towards this sense of entitlement is largely personal. I can’t identify with someone feeling financially unfulfilled while having the money to buy whatever he or she wants and still having enough left at age ninety to provide for several generations of offspring. But I can emphasize with a golfer obsessed with breaking eighty, although I’ve never played the game. As an avid fisherman I’d give it all for my first swordfish.

*I tried to learn which was which from the internet. The only information I could find dealt with Icahn’s financial activity since 2007. He has had a stadium on Randall’s Island (N.Y.C.) named after him. 

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Send In the Clowns

Given the current state of the nation it looks like a good time for the old circus call, “send in the clowns.” On the subject of clowns I take my hat off to Republicans and like thinkers for their contribution. We have our guys too, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. But they’re basically humorists who are funny on purpose.  The laughter they evoke is cerebral. This situation calls for hearty belly laughs, best provided by inadvertent buffoons, the more famous the funnier. This is a field in which the right wing is magnificently endowed.

With the looming departure of Glenn Beck from Fox we face the loss of my choice for an Oscar. I find him funniest with the TV muted. I’d laugh harder at his verbal stuff if the timbre of his voice didn’t remind me at times of the man who made the name Adolph extinct. Turn off the sound and he looks like he could have given Fatty Arbuckle a run for the money.

Even with the departure of the man and his blackboards we still have an abundance of comedy from the galaxy of potential Republican presidents, at this time too numerous to mention. Sister Sarah should be around for awhile in some incarnation. Phrases like “I’ll get back to ya,” “all of them” and “I can see Russia from my house” are now part of our lore. Her entertainment value has dropped now that she is no longer officially in politics and doesn’t have to answer questions from a “straight man.” Sarah without a Katie Couric makes you wonder how Gracie would have been as a solo act without George.

For stand up buffoonery Michelle Bachman has it all. What will she say if there happens to be a Lexington or Concord in Iowa? She should do well in former Confederate states, having relieved them of the onus of slavery. Both she and Sarah would make great poster children for better high school education.  

And now lo and behold, we have here before our very eyes the Great White Hope, Donald Trump. The man’s appearance by itself is good for a few guffaws. I saw an internet video showing that all the hair you see is his. There’s no comb over which raises the question of why he looks as though there is. Could it be a great comedic sense? His embracing of birtherism puts him in the proper company with the built in laugh lines that go with the territory. I do find it curious that a reputedly great businessman has declared bankruptcy twice.

On second thought this man may be just what the country needs. If Congress fails to raise the debt ceiling this year the resulting national default will make a government shutdown look like a picnic. What could be better, a year later, than having a president who has stiffed creditors twice and still manages have his name on countless architectural monstrosities, highways and parks? I opened a pack of matches the other day and there it was again.

But back to buffoonery, I challenge anyone who questions my conclusion of where the talent lies to name a Democrat of note who is in a class with these people.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Secret Word

In recent years right wing Americans have kept all purpose words of the day handy to make their point, whatever the issue. I remember when the mere mention of “Carter” was considered a powerful rhetorical thrust, at least by those who mentioned it. Had Jimmy Carter been reelected in 1980 we could have avoided our slide down the slope of financial deregulation initiated by Ronald Reagan. Today the password is al Qaeda, leading to curiously belated islamophobia at home and threatening us with the loss of our international compass.

There’s a broad revolutionary movement afoot in Arab nations, home of some of the world’s most valuable real estate. It has already taken place in Tunisia and Egypt, is happening in Libya and threatening other nations in the region. The issue, put simply, is the disparity of wealth.

It was easily predictable that al Qaeda would cast its lot with the disenfranchised. Some Americans, many of those who pilloried Jimmy Carter, are objecting to being on the same side as the perpetrators of 9/11. But our interests are primarily, if not exclusively, with the nations involved and not at all with al Qaeda.  

Revolutions don’t always work for the better, no matter how legitimate the original grievance. We know little about the rebels in Libya and the kind of government that will result if they prevail. Against this thinking is the stigma of our long record supporting almost any dictator who is on our side in matters of concern to us. In this regard the most egregious and significant event was our restoration to power of the Shah of Iran in 1953.

I don’t know where or when axes may fall, in some cases maybe literally. But I’d lay odds that Qaddafi will not be in Tripoli a year from now, unless he’s in jail. For America to be known as having supported, or merely ignored, autocratic regimes while al Qaeda was fighting with the rebels, regardless of the outcome, would be contrary to our national interest in the world community and in our “war” against terror.

There’s a venerable bromide that goes “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” It’s carrying this line of reasoning too far to act as if a friend of my enemy cannot also be a friend of mine.