Friday, March 28, 2014

The Nationalization of Elections

The idea of a representative democracy is that in contrast to a President who elected nationally, there will be Senators elected from the various states, and representing the interests of their states, and representatives who will likewise be elected from only a part of a state, and represent and look out for the interests of that part of their state.

Throughout the history of the Republic, this has worked pretty well. Critics may argue that at times it has led to the funding of projects of limited value (such as a highway interchange that will serve a town of a few hundred people or a research project on a topic of dubious importance but directs funding to a particular college where the research will be carried out,) but in fact this has always been as conventional wisdom had it, an important part of government. Standard wisdom in an earlier day was that "Political hacks used to say pork was the political grease that lubricated legislative deals."

This meant that it was possible to get enough votes for key legislation by including yes, some pet projects (though one man's 'pet project' may be another man's lifeline to the outside world; hardly any of the infamous 'pork' legislation did not in fact provide at least some benefit even if it was to a relatively small part of America; there are frankly a lot of towns that could be benefited by a new post office, a road paving or some other investment in infrastructure.

What we see today, instead of members of Congress who are able to effectively represent their district and in the process get the necessary funding for improvements, are members of Congress who may not even be beholden to their districts at all. Big money has (especially since Citizens United) moved into the political arena in a major way, to where even members who raise millions of dollars on their own, may have it matched by groups that have one or two anonymous donors. In 2010, these groups were almost entirely working on behalf of the GOP, but by now there are a few working on behalf of Democratic candidates as well.

Ironically, most of the members of Congress that these groups target are those in the middle. By now there are very few northeastern Republicans left (none at all from New England states in the House of Representatives) and only a couple of southern Democrats who come from districts that are not majority African-American. In particular, the northeastern Republicans have been replaced by Democrats who are almost all very liberal (so among the least likely Democrats to vote against the party line) and the southern Democrats have been replaced by very conservative Republicans who are similarly likely to march in lockstep. Since it was northeastern Republicans and Southern Democrats who traditionally were those most likely to vote for compromise or provide the key votes in moving legislation forward that might be of a bipartisan nature, what this means is that Congress is very polarized. To exacerbate this, most of the money is spent in 'swing districts' that are more likely to elect moderates to Congress. To cite one example, the district I live in changed partisan hands in 2008, 2010 and 2012. That makes it among the swingiest district in the country, and not surprisingly we see a great deal of political ad spending (almost all negative.) Members elected in a district like this, who might not be all that ideological otherwise, are pushed to toe their own party line because the attack ads will come regardless so in accordance with the old saying that 'if you will call me the devil whether I am or not, then I might as well be the devil' often they find the best path to re-election is to fire up their base (since the other side will turn out against them anyway) so therefore they are more likely to swing to that side.

In the short term this favors Republicans, if only because Republicans controlled redistricting so well after the 2010 election that they were able to draw a map that elected a Republican majority in 2012 even though Democrats got more votes FOR CONGRESS in 2012. In 2020, it will be a Presidential election year though so it is unlikely that Republicans will be able to maintain the kind of control over legislatures that they had after 2010, so their control of the House, if unlikely to be broken before then, may well be broken after 2020. In the long term however, the change is likely to simply harm communities across most of America. That is because the people who donate to the large Super-PACs are mainly national donors (even if we don't know all of what who donated, we do know that they are people with a national, rather than a local, agenda.) Since pork is also now banned, there is virtually nothing that a member of Congress can do that will win more votes in their district than making sure they are in the good graces of the Super-PACs who are running ads in their districts. As they will be attacked by the other side's PAC's, their main goal will be to give their own financial backers what they are asking for. In such a scenario, individual voters are less and less important, and that is the real tragedy of what we have come to.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

New Year's predictions-- 2014

JANUARY: Congress will convene to discuss an extension of unemployment benefits. Republicans who have been trashing President Obama’s economic record and saying the economy hasn’t been recovering fast enough, will suddenly turn on a dime faster than the Communist party in the days of Stalin, suddenly arguing that the economy is recovering so fast that we don’t need to extend them anymore because there are enough jobs available for everyone. At least until the vote is taken, at which point they will finish a complete 360 and go back to trashing the President on the economy (“Who, me? I didn’t say that!”)

Also in January: Edward Snowden will stir up another controversy when it is revealed that the NSA has been spying on singer Katy Perry. It will turn out, however, that some cheapskate in the intelligence division just wanted to listen to her songs without paying for the download.

FEBRUARY: The Seattle Seahawks will beat the Denver Broncos in a snowy Super Bowl. Seattle head coach Pete Carroll will sustain a concussion when players will try to give him the traditional Gatorade shower, but in a cold Giants stadium the Gatorade in the bucket will have frozen solid. (KLONK!! oops.)

MARCH: Another government shutdown looming, John Boehner will tell the House Sergeant at Arms to lock the doors if he sees Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) coming to speak to house members.

Also in March: The Tenth Circuit Court in Denver confirms a lower court ruling that Utah’s same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional, leading to a cascade of states allowing same-sex couples to wed. Opponents of marital equality will quote the Bible verse about how the penalty for homosexuality is death by stoning, but will be so out of touch with young people with more liberal attitudes that the young people think ‘death by stoning’ means a whole lot of marijuana.

APRIL: We will finally learn why Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson keeps shooting himself in the foot, when it is revealed that he hides a fifth of Jack Daniels deep inside that beard and takes it out for a quick swallow when nobody’s looking.

MAY: Surprise drug testing will be implemented at the Kentucky Derby. Owners will breathe a sigh of relief when they find out it is for the jockeys, not the horses.

JUNE: Kanye West will get married to Kim Kardashian. The smiling couple will be photographed with their child, North West, as Kanye gives Kim instead of a diamond, a platinum ring with his image stamped on it.

JULY: Kanye West and Kim Kardashian will announce their impending divorce. It will turn out that the ring was really made out of pewter. By this time though, she will announce she is pregnant with their second child, Wild West.

Also in July: It will be revealed that Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-not the sharpest tool in the shed) was once hospitalized with Naegleria fowleri, the notorious brain-eating amoeba. Fortunately, Gohmert survived the encounter and even got elected to Congress, as a true half-wit.

AUGUST: There will be renewed interest in Mars, as NASA announces proof of life on the red planet after a Mars rover stumbles across a mysterious abandoned dome. Nothing about the design of the building will look familiar to anyone on the earth, except for the Dallas Cowboys logo on the back wall.

SEPTEMBER:The band One Direction will announce a break-up. Their fans bid the price of Hari-kiri kits on the internet up to $10,000 apiece.

OCTOBER: A three dimensional printer will bring about a huge breakthrough in the field of 'bioprinting,' and will print from a model a fully functional inner ear which will be transplanted to a patient who was formerly deaf. Unfortunately, the breakthrough will occur at the height of the campaign season and after a few days of listening to radio and television, the patient will ask the team of surgeons to take it out again.

NOVEMBER: It being late in the year to make headlines, the North Korean regime will launch a man into space. However they will be embarrassed when the astronaut realizes he is beyond the reach of Kim Jong Un’s security police, and intentionally brings the lander down in a corn field in Nebraska instead of the intended landing site in North Korea.

DECEMBER: In his Christmas message, Pope Francis will continue to question income inequality and talk about the need to help the poor, the sick, the destitute and the elderly. A pastor at a Dallas megachurch will ask his congregation to pray for the Pope to convert and become a Christian.

Also in December: Santa Claus will be inundated with the same unexpected increase in volume that affected FedEx and UPS this year, and will still be hustling around delivering presents on Christmas day and on December 26.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Cruise vs. Cruz

I thought it might be a good idea to help people tell the difference between Senator Ted Cruz, who led the recent shutdown of the Federal Government, costing $24 billion and harming the economy with actor Tom Cruise, who at least in recent years has exhibited other kinds of bizarre behavior.

Here are some differences between Cruz (pictured in the first photo) and Cruise (pictured in the second.)

Tom Cruise starred in ‘Mission Impossible.’

Ted Cruz just led ‘Mission Impossible,’ and yes, it was impossible.

Tom Cruise is a member of a religion that a lot of people consider a dangerous cult.

Ted Cruise is a member of a political faction that a lot of people consider a dangerous cult.

While on the set of ‘All You Need Is Kill’ , a movie being shot in London, Tom Cruise had his daughter flown in so he could show her around.

While on the floor of the Senate, Ted Cruz read his daughters ‘Green Eggs and Ham,’ and missed the point.

Katie Holmes has questioned Tom Cruise’s mental state.

The country has questioned Ted Cruz’ mental state.

Tom Cruise went nuts on national TV one time and jumped on Oprah’s couch.

Ted Cruz went nuts on national TV and jumped in front of all the TV cameras.

Tom Cruise has played a jerk in several movies, including ‘Cocktail,’ ‘Jerry McGuire’ and ‘Rain Man.’ It seems to come naturally to him.

It comes naturally to Ted Cruz, too.

Tom Cruise’s first movie was ‘Endless Love.’

Ted Cruz’s first stunt during the shutdown was ‘endless speech.’

Tom Cruise flew a fighter jet in ‘Top Gun.’

Ted Cruz supported the sequester, which has grounded all the fighter jets flown by the Navy Blue Angels and the Air Force Thunderbirds.

A forum on the Razzie Award website once described Tom Cruise as a ‘world class wacko.’

John McCain called Ted Cruz a ‘wacko bird.’

Tom Cruise, in a 2006 interview with Parade Magazine, described his father as ‘a merchant of chaos.’

Ted Cruz fits that description.

Tom Cruise gave nothing other than expenses for Suri to Katie Holmes in their divorce agreement.

Ted Cruz helped make sure that in the end Republicans had such a weak hand that they got nothing other than $3 billion for a dam in Kentucky in their agreement to reopen the government.

Tom Cruise once appeared in ‘Interview with a Vampire.’

Ted Cruz’s shutdown helped suck the blood out of the economy in a lot of places around the country.

Via Perii Maestas Calles:

Tom Cruise is a dramatic actor.

Ted Cruz is a comedic actor.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Liberal Groundhog Day predictions

On Groundhog day:

President Obama will not see his shadow, because he is facing resolutely forward to meet and take on the challenges of building a better future.

Hard to say whether the President's GOP critics are seeing their shadows as they are running from raincloud to raincloud and standing in every little squall they can find as they insist there will be four more years of winter.

Lance Armstrong is seeing his shadow. And he is standing very much alone.

Bill Clinton is seeing his shadow, and he is quickly doing the dishes, vacuuming the floor and folding laundry, because his wife called to say that she is on her way home from the office.

New Secretary of State John Kerry isn't seeing his shadow, because he's still standing in Hillary's shadow.

Rush Limbaugh is seeing his shadow. The big, red, round nose, afro wig and size 22 clown shoes are easily visible.

Former Senator Jim DeMint may still be able to see his shadow, but it is fading rapidly.

New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg is seeing his shadow. It looks like Cory Booker.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A Liberal Contemplating the National Debt and Spending

In the coming months, it is clear that we will have a big debate about government spending and the debt.

And while I have often debated Republicans who advocate deep cuts in spending on various social or entitlement programs, these Republicans do have a point. And it's a point that we on the left made not too many years ago (during the Bush years.) We can't continue to run trillion dollar deficits and continue ignoring the pending storm clouds like the proverbial grasshopper. The winter of unsustainable debt, along with the crushing austerity that it will bring, isn't that far off. And to be honest, in everything from insisting on the Bush tax cuts remaining in place for the middle class to hardly even mentioning spending, I can see where the Obama administration is still fiddling when in fact we should all be working together like the ants to identify what we can to do bring the budget into balance again. We can make the debt if not vanish, at least become manageable, but not by just ignoring it. Granted, the periodic GOP gambit of threatening to default on the debt and not pay our bills would be a disaster if it happened and won't solve anything, but nevertheless they do have a point about the failure to address the debt and should be given credit for insisting that we pay attention to it.

In fact, we are fortunate that right now (partly because the economy has been so lousy for the past five years) interest rates are at historic lows and have been there for a long time. That means that the interest we pay just to service the debt is also very low. Imagine when interest rates go back up-- we could be paying a substantial portion of our tax not to actually do anything or benefit anybody, except to pay those who hold our I.O.U.'s for continuing to hold them.

My main areas of disagreement with the right have focused on two areas: 1. their insistence that the deficit is a function of spending alone (while conspicuously ignoring revenue,) and 2. that we must balance the budget on the backs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, along with other government services that benefit working people.

The revenue area is one that was somewhat addressed by the recent 'fiscal cliff' agreement but still should have been addressed farther. The right tends to focus only one side of the budget. But in fact a budget has two sides: what you take in and what you pay out. When you spend more than you make, you run a deficit. In that case, it is necessary to look both at how to cut spending and also if there are feasible ways to increase revenue. For example, when our household ran a deficit (in fact we ended up losing a home to foreclosure during the housing crisis a few years ago) we did cut back on our spending, but I also took a second job early in the morning that brings in some extra income. Both of those things were part of the equation towards fixing our household budget. But to rule out earning extra income would have made no sense then, and we ended up making extra income instead. That said, the 'fiscal cliff' tax deal allowed only the taxes on the wealthy to revert to the Clinton rates, but kept the 'middle class tax cuts' intact (except for the payroll tax cut that was implemented under Obama, and which I thought was a mistake then and am glad that it is gone.) I am a middle class taxpayer. And in fact, I enjoy, for example, my expanded child tax credit every year. BUT-- I'd frankly rather have gone back to the Clinton tax rates now than have less Social Security available when I retire. The deal we got is expected to raise $600 billion in revenue over the next ten years. Granted, it's better to have $600 billion if the goal is to bring down the deficit than not to have it, but the truth is that repealing ALL of the Bush tax cuts would have raised four trillion dollars in revenue over the next decade. Getting 15% of the revenue that would have happened if we did nothing convinces me that to a degree, the administration doesn't take the deficit as a whole seriously enough.

Of course even if we did have $4 trillion in new revenue, that would only be enough to pay a quarter of the existing debt, not to mention any more deficit spending going forward if nothing is done on the spending side. So in other words, while revenue is part of the equation (and I refuse to even debate anyone who is so ideological that they ignore it completely) it is the lesser part of the equation. Even though most of the recent deficit spending can be justified, the money was still spent. For example, while we may not like TARP and the auto bailout or the Stimulus, those things did rescue an economy that was headed straight to Hades and bring it back to at least a slow rate of growth. But like an emergency loan to repair a vehicle that is needed to drive to work or to pay for a necessary medical procedure, once that is done the loan is still there and must be repaid. Other recent spending was probably less necessary (for example we wasted a trillion dollars to install a government in Iraq that is more friendly to Iran than it is to the U.S.) but that too, was charged to the national credit card and must be repaid. And beyond that, the driver for spending going forward is not one time spending like the Iraq war and the Stimulus, but rather ongoing expenditures in which the budget is just too large to support with what we are bringing in.

When we do discuss spending cuts, we on the left love to point to two areas: the War budget (known officially as the 'Defense' budget, although the United States hasn't been attacked by a foreign power on our soil since World War II, and not seriously threated by a foreign invasion since the War of 1812); and corporate welfare (a catch-all phrase that includes tax breaks to industries or specific corporations, direct payouts or subsidies, and contracts frequently championed by lobbyists that often pay corporations to do work that is less important to the people that the work is supposed to benefit than it is to the corporation's bottom line.)

And there is certainly ample room to cut in both of these areas. Perhaps nothing better exemplifies both than spending that Congress, under the influence of defense industry lobbyists, has appropriated for weapons systems that even the Pentagon has said they don't need, don't want and have no use for. Examples include the continued production of M-1 Abrams tanks, despite the fact that the army already has six hundred of them and says that is more than enough, the continued production and use of the C-27J Spartan transport aircraft, despite the fact that it has been rendered obsolete by the C-130 and the Pentagon wants to retire those still in operation (and certainly does not want any more,) and perhaps the poster child for this kind of thing, the F-35 fighter jet, an expensive boondoggle that has already been overbudget by billions of dollars (partly because it was rushed into production at the behest of lobbyists working for Lockheed before the prototypes had been fully tested) but now has literally become 'impossible to kill,' with accessories like an extra engine costing billions of dollars that the Marines (who would be operating the jet!-- when did Marines fly jets?) have said they have no use for. Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL) deserves some credit here, for doggedly trying to get the funding for the extra engine out of the defense bill, but somehow it is never put to rest and keeps threating to come back.

HERE'S AN IDEA: What if the Joint Chiefs of Staff had something like a 'line-item veto' for the defense budget? If they found an item they just didn't want tucked in there, they could line item it out, with 50% of the money saved going back to the U.S. Treasury and the other 50% we would allow them to transfer to other parts of their budget as they saw a need. I'm sure the defense industry lobbyists would still make their case but since the Joint Chiefs are not elected they don't have to worry about which congressional district it's made in, or about campaign donations from defense contractors.

Beyond that, the United States spends over $700 billion per year on 'Defense,' which is five times what China spends, ten times what Russia spends and in fact more than China, Russia and the next ten nations after them(most of whom are our allies) all combined. As we've seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, just throwing money at the problem doesn't win wars anyway (I don't know what the defense budget for the Taliban is, but I'm sure it wouldn't be enough to afford even a single F-35 fighter.) The truth is, we could cut our defense budget fully in half and still spend more than twice as much as China and way more than anybody else. Even if you don't like that idea, the truth is that there is plenty of room to cut out a lot of the expensive military hardware we have stockpiled. Part of the problem is that in fact we do spend a lot of it to 'maintain a presence overseas.' Why? Why should the U.S. be jumping in and trying to solve everyone else's problems? Unless it is a matter of American national security, there is no reason for us to be deployed all over the world-- or more bluntly, to spend what it takes to be deployed all over the world. We can't afford it anymore.

Corporate welfare is not limited to Defense contractors, of course. Healthy industries like big agribusiness, the oil industry and the pharmaceutical industry are the beneficiaries of billions of dollars in government subsidies, tax breaks and special deals. They all employ lobbyists on K Street who make sure that those breaks and subsidies continue in any new bill, and perhaps even grow or multiply. I could give a long list of such breaks, but let's focus on one in particular: Medicare was actually solvent until the 2004 prescription drug bill. As I wrote at the time, the bill actually made it harder, not easier for a lot of seniors to get their medication, but beyond that it increased the cost to Medicare by $400 billion over the last decade but is projected to increase the cost by $1.5 to $2 trillion over this coming decade. While ostensibly this is going to help seniors pay for drugs, in fact most of it is a subsidy to the pharmaceutical industry. This does NOT decrease the cost of drugs, folks! The subsidy is supposed to hold the price of drugs down, but in fact the pharmaceutical companies are allowed to selectively gouge Americans and charge us higher prices (whether we pay or the government pays through Medicare, Medicaid or some other program) than the price of the SAME DRUG, from the SAME FACTORY in any other country! And not by a little either, but SEVERAL TIMES MORE!! That is because tucked into the prescription drug bill was a provision making it much more difficult for Americans to reimport prescription drugs from Canada or elsewhere. I do know people who do, in fact, go to Mexico to buy prescription drugs and pay a fraction of the cost (even though their insurance won't pay for it there) that they pay in the U.S. for the same unopened container that they would buy in the U.S., but the prescription drug bill prevents Medicare from negotiation of prices with suppliers as the governments in other countries do. This is truly corporate welfare at its worst: hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies on one hand to a very profitable industry to supposedly make their products cheaper, but in fact they turn around and price-gouge with the other hand, and our government BY LAW lets them do it! And don't tell me that the pharmaceutical companies are selling at a loss in Canada and Europe and everyplace else either. They aren't, or they wouldn't be selling there at all. They are just raking it in here from both customers and the government, because the bill that allowed them to do it was written on K Street by their own lobbyists.

WHAT WE SHOULD DO ABOUT IT: First, we should immediately re-open the prescription drug bill and allow Medicare to negotiate prices with pharmaceutical manufacturers. Also pare down or eliminate the subsidies. If we need to reign in the long term growth of spending of Medicare (and we do) this is where we should begin. And then after that, take a similar look at subsidies and special tax breaks that benefit agribusiness, the energy industry (both green energy AND big oil,) banking, and yes, those subsidies that we have heard kicked around for years that pay companies to move jobs offshore. If it can't be justified get rid of it. And just to make sure, don't trust Congress to do it-- they are too mesmerized by lobbyists. Create something like BRAC, except for corporate welfare that would have the ability to get rid of this stuff.

OK, so right about now I sound like the typical liberal. I've talked about raising taxes, and I've talked about cutting defense and corporate welfare. And we do need to look at those things, but our deficit is so massive that we can't get rid of it only by raisng taxes and cutting things I want to see cut. What else?

Well, let's be honest here. So-called 'entitlements; have grown pretty much unrestrained for decades. They aren't really 'entitlements' because they have been earned-- people paid into Social Security and Medicare for their whole lives, with the promise that it would be there. I have. I'm fifty, and got my first job when I was 16. And I expect Social Security and Medicare to be there when I'm old enough. However, as we can see from the travails of state pension plans, you can't expect to put tens thousands of dollars into a plan and take hundreds of thousands out unless 1) you do fully fund the plan every year (one reason I was frankly unhappy with the payroll tax cut and am glad it was allowed to expire) and 2) you either get a very good return rate on your investments or you have some mechanism for slowing down the rate of growth of expenditures.

Since we already began discussing Medicare under the paragraph on corporate welfare and the pharmaceutical industry, let's talk some more about it. To begin with, Obamacare does not take money out of Medicare. What it does is slow the growth of Medicare by $750 billion over the next ten years. The same $750 billion was in Paul Ryan's budget. Instead of scaring seniors about it, explain that all it does is hold down growth. This is a good thing, but it is insufficient (even if we also rewrote the drug bill into something sane.) Other fixes include getting rid of the cap on income subject to the payroll tax (also applies to Social Security,) cutting payments to providers, means testing for wealthier enrollees and increasing the eligibility age to 67. Personally, I don't have a problem with increasing the cap on income subject to the payroll tax from its present $119,000 since even if we do the payroll tax is still a flat tax (shouldn't conservatives love a flat tax?) However, while under this scenario everyone would still be eligible to receive Medicare, under means-testing, whereby wealthier retirees would received reduced or no benefits on the theory that they could pay their own bills, we have an inherent contradiction. Paying taxes for something we may not use is normal (for example, I pay tax to support the Child Support Enforcement division even though I personally don't get child support.) However, if we raise or eliminate the payroll tax cap, then it is doubling up on the same group of taxpayers if we also go to means testing (yeah, I know-- 'soak the rich' is popular, but can we honestly say it would be fair to raise a tax that is dedicated to paying for a benefit that right now everyone can get, and then turn around and tell them that by the way, they won't qualify for the benefit either? EITHER raising the tax cap OR means-testing is probably on the table but even I would be very much against doing both, as a matter of fundamental fairness. Cutting payments to providers is already in Medicare laws. We haven't been following through on it (i.e. we suspend the rule by passing the so-called 'doc fix' every year.) The concern is that if doctors and hospitals are underpaid then quality will suffer, or perhaps they will get out of the business altogether. There is, however, an easy fix to this which we should be consdering. Living in a rural area, I can see that there is a severe shortage of doctors. So why now go to more of a system of physician assistants, nurses and local clinics (as opposed to hospitals) that can offer medical care for all but the most complex of conditions? To some degree, that is happening now. But accelerate this change. Empower P.A.'s and nurses to do more, pay them accordingly (though probably less than the full price a doctor gets today from Medicare) and the same with smaller, more localized clinics. Train more P.A.'s. This will help bring the overall cost of healthcare down, so that maybe the 'doc fix' won't be needed. FURTHER let's not forget that the reason it is necessary now is because of the number of uninsured patients who show up in emergency rooms and then can't pay. As Obamacare kicks in (whether you like Obamacare or not, this will be true) there will be fewer uninsured people so providers won't get stuck with not getting paid as often. This again will cut costs, making a Medicare payment that keeps to the present schedule more feasible. Maybe the 'doc fix' could be phased out over time. One other proposal that has been raised for Medicare: raising the eligibility age to 67. The logic here is that the retirement age for full Social Security benefits is being raised to 67, so why not do the same with Medicare? There is a good reason why not to, however. Technically this would save the government money because in theory people would pay into the system for two years longer and then draw from the system for two years less. In reality what this means is that the poeple not entering the Medicare pool would be the 65 and 66 year olds, who are relatively the most healthy (meaning the cheapest to cover) so it could drive the cost up for everyone else as the average Medicare patient would require more resources. Conversely, they are generally less healthy than younger workers who are in their private insurance pool, so this could raise insurance premiums for everyone. Not much of a benefit. Further, with the Social Security retirement age going up to 67, many of them will remain working and earning a paycheck (and therefore paying payroll taxes (!!) ) until they reach age 67 anyway.

As mentioned a moment ago, the retirement age for full Social Security benefits was raised from 65 the last time a Social Security reform bill was passed, during the Clinton administration, and will be 67 beginning with my classmates and I, who were born in 1962. The logic here is pretty straightforward: people today live longer than they used to. Many people retire at 65 and live to be 90 or 100 or even older. This means drawing Social Security in some cases for virtually as long as the person paid into it (even though what they paid in is a fraction of what they are drawing.) Clearly this is not sustainable as it is presently structured, especially with a declining pool of younger workers. So some people have proposed revisiting the full retirement age again, possibly raising it 70. I have mixed feelings about that. Today, I am pretty healthy and knowing how long 20 years is, I don't believe I would be unable to work until 70. And if I became unable to work sooner than that, Social Security has a disability benefit that covers people who become sick earlier. However, I am a college professor. Physically, this is an undemanding job. But some people who work hard physical labor, like miners and construction workers, may not have a body that can last until 70. So maybe the answer is to put retirement into a range, say between 67-70, in which it is set to 70, but where people who spend more than 10 years working in certain jobs get a year credit for each 10 years worked at that job. Also,the President (causing great consternation among the AARP, made a concession during the 'fiscal cliff' talks which went nowhere because at the time Boehner was hearing from Republicans that they would refuse to vote for anything that included a tax increase. Obama's concession was not about taxes however, it was about using the so-called 'chained CPI' to calculate cost of living adjustments for Social Security. The regular CPI that is used now is based on comparing the cost of the same exact items month after month. But the chained CPI is adjusted by the rate at which folks quit buying those same items and substitute cheaper ones. For example, when the price of milk gets too high, a certain number of people will stop buying their favorite brand and begin buying the store brand, which is cheaper. The government has a pretty good handle now on how that happens, and the chained CPI takes this into account,so it is a lower rate than the traditional CPI. Doing that alone could over the long term save substantial money on Social Security without actually cutting anybody's benefits.

What about government itself, then? After all, if you ask a conservative they will say that the prime example of too much spending is not any program, but the Federal government itself. The Federal government does contain layers and layers of bureaucracy, often engaging in fights with each other over regulatory ‘turf.’ In fact, turf battles between agencies are often a symptom of too many people trying to do too little work, because if we had the right number of people working on problems then they wouldn’t be trying to get more work. So I would agree that there is some cutting within the Federal government that can be done, but I’d also caution that every agency or department was set up for a reason, and every regulation was similarly written for a reason, so I reject the approach of just naming entire departments that somebody doesn’t like and doing away with it. As one example, the other day someone told me that they think we should do away with the Department of Commerce; but that would include the weather service, which means that nobody would get any tornado warnings. In other words, think these things through instead of just blithely and casually tossing entire departments out. And in fact a lot of regulation is painfully necessary, as we have been learning from the investigation of the Upper Big Branch mine accident, in which the regulations that were supposed to be followed, weren’t. The answer to that is not to do away with regulation so other mines can be just as unsafe.

So what can we do to cut government regulation (which = government spending to enforce?) Well, we have an answer right here in Arizona. Following the giant Rodeo-Chedeski fire on the Mogollon rim in 2002, there was a lot of finger pointing. The timber industry blamed environmentalists for opposing logging that might have created natural breaks in the forest. The environmentalists blamed cattle ranchers for destroying the natural habitat in the forest and fostering erosion along stream beds that helped dry out the soil and eventually the trees. Everybody blamed the government (and with good justification) for decades of mismanagement, especially the policy that was in place for many years of putting all fires out quickly, thereby allowing the growth of thick underbrush that in a healthy forest would be burned out periodically by smaller fires instead of accumulating over decades to help feed a monstrous fire when it happened. But a funny thing came out of that. Stakeholders in the management of the forests, including environmentalists, loggers, ranchers, state, county and local governments and local residents came together in what became known as the Four forest restoration intitative (4FRI for short) and wrote their own rules and regulations for how the forest should be managed. And, it’s worked pretty well. The forest is healthier because of logging which thins, but does not destroy, the forest. And a couple of years ago the program showed its success. The Wallow fire burned even more acres than the Rodeo-Chedeski, but it was much less destructive, largely because of forest thinning that limited how much fuel was available at any one time. So here is what that gives us: Regulation may be necessary, but the success of 4FRI shows that it doesn’t have to be the Federal government writing the regulations. 4FRI has the blessing of the Federal government, even though they are not involved. If representatives from the logging industry and the Sierra club can sit down and write a better set of logging regulations than the Federal government could have come up with, then perhaps the same could be done in other places. In that case we would have regulation but not necessarily regulation written by the Federal Government. If so then that would be one area where the government could be cut.

In any case, the adage about spending our grandchildren's money is correct, and we do have to fix the problem. Divided government necessitates that for it to be fixed anytime soon, both parties will have to put aside ideologically mandated solutions and figure out a path forward together, or we really will be the grasshopper, stuck out in the cold with nothing to eat when winter does arrive.

Monday, January 07, 2013

Elitists in the Senate don't want an enlisted man in charge at the Pentagon

The President has decided to stick by his original intent to nominate former Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, as the new Secretary of Defense, to replace Leon Panetta.

Many Senators, especially among Hagel's former Republican colleagues are gearing up to oppose him. The truth is that whatever other issues they may have (and we will look at those,) there is one underlying fact: Chuck Hagel, if confirmed will be something that other Secretaries of Defense have not been. A combat veteran and an enlisted man rather than an officer. Hagel rose to the rank of sergeant and served in Vietnam, as a squad leader, where he was awarded the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry and a commendation, as well as two purple hearts.

Fundamentally, that's what it comes down to. The Senators who will be sitting in judgement of Chuck Hagel are largely Ivy League educated, and often had things handed to them along the way. If they did serve in the military, they were officers, not 'grunts,' as enlisted soldiers are sometimes called. So they were much more comfortable confirming Secretaries of Defense like the past several, i.e. Leon Panetta (who was an army intelligence officer,) Robert Gates (who went directly into the CIA,) Donald Rumsfeld (an officer and flight instructor in the peacetime navy,) Bill Cohen (who was never in the military) William Perry (who was briefly an enlisted man in the peacetime military but later became an officer,) Les Aspin (an officer who served during Vietnam as a systems analyst in the Pentagon,) Dick Cheney(who subsisted on several college deferments to avoid going to Vietnam, though as Secretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush and later Vice President he was perfectly agreeable to sending other people off to fight,) Frank Carlucci (a naval officer who never saw combat) and Caspar Weinberger (a captain on Douglas MacArthur's intelligence staff who never saw combat.) IN FACT, IF CHUCK HAGEL BECOMES SECRETARY OF DEFENSE HE WOULD BE THE FIRST SOLDIER TO GO THROUGH HIS CAREER AS AN ENLISTED MAN EVER TO HOLD THE OFFICE! He would also be the first combat veteran since Elliot Richardson, a Nixon administration official who led a platoon at Normandy as a young lieutanant. Later, after he had served as Secretary of Defense, Richardson became the Attorney General and showed he had much the same stuff as Hagel when he resigned rather than fire the Special Watergate Prosecutor on direct orders from the President. Even Richardson was an officer, however. The idea of an enlisted man giving orders to the entire military is upsetting and shocking to elitists in the Senate who believe that a military man must at least have received a commission before daring to stand before them and ask permission to serve in the office.

Traditionally, Presidents have had the right to select their cabinet members, with the term, 'advice and consent of the Senate,' mainly a formality. In fact, in the past century, only three cabinet nominees were not approved by the Senate. In 1925, Calvin Coolidge nominated Charles B. Warren for Attorney General. The Senate rejected Warren over his ties to the 'sugar trust,' a consortium of sugar companies that had been attempting to gain monopolistic control over the industry. The Senate rejected him, 41-39 (with over a dozen Senators abstaining.) Coolidge stupidly re-nominated Warren, and the Senate rejected him again.

In 1959, President Eisenhower nominated Louis Strauss, former head of the Atomic Energy Commission. Strauss, as head of the AEC had overseen a monthlong hearing which resulted in the revokation of the security clearance of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who had been the director of the Manhattan Project over Oppenheimer's political views. In 1954, when the hearing was held, the United States was still in the grip of McCarthyism, but by 1959 things had changed so much that Strauss' preoccupation with Oppenheimer and previous anti-communist witch hunt were held against him by many Senators, particularly those who saw in Strauss a stand-in for McCarthy, who many of them remembered and not fondly. Strauss didn't help his own case with his abrasive personality, arguing with members of the Senate who were questioning him. In the end, he was rejected by the Senate on a 49-46 vote.

In 1989, George H.W. Bush nominated Senator John Tower as Secretary of Defense. The Senate itself has always been considered a 'safe' place to go for a nominee, and that is what Bush thought, as Tower was a sitting Senator and Senators were generally more than happy to vote for a member of their own body, knowing them well (and in addition sometimes wanting to keep collegial relations because one day many of them might be nominees for cabinet positions.) What he miscalculated on was that Senators might know their own members too well. Senators generally don't air each other's dirty laundry to the press for obvious reasons, but as a nominee, it didn't take long for Tower's reputation for womanizing and heavy drinking to become an issue. In other words, Senators may know the nominee, but they may know personally issues that could disqualify him without having to root around and find those things. That was the case with Tower, who was rejected by a 53-47 vote.

Despite strong partisanship following the 2000 election, only two of George W. Bush's nominees even faced much questioning over their appointment. The only one who was opposed even by a majority of Democrats was Attorney General John Ashcroft, who won a 58-42 confirmation vote after issues were raised over his past refusal to enforce court orders on desegregation and other issues. Later during Bush's presidency, the Senate blocked one of his nominees, John Bolton as Ambassador to the U.N. over concern that Bolton's abrasive style and inflammatory rhetoric might not be suited to the position; Bush made a recess appointment and appointed Bolton to the position anyway.

In 2008, President Obama, despite having a couple of nominees who had to step down before they had a hearing over allegations of scandal unrelated to either the President or the positions they were nominated for, was able to get the Senate to confirm all of his nominees (the most controversial probably being Eric Holder.) But two weeks ago, Susan Rice, who the President wanted to nominate for Secretary of Defense, stepped down after it would be clear that she would be blocked by the Senate over questions related to faulty information she apparently received and relayed regarding the attack on the Benghazi consulate in September. As soon as that happened, attention turned to Hagel, who was even then rumored to be in the running for Secretary of Defense. Hagel is not only a former Senator, but a former Republican Senator, though one who was known for being willing to speak his mind and not necessarily constrained by party orthodoxy; for example Hagel, despite voting for the resolution in 2002 that was used by the Bush administration to justify the Iraq war, was one of the first Republicans to openly regret his vote and speak out against the war. At times his bluntness has gotten him in trouble, for example in 1998, he criticized James Hormel, President Clinton's nominee to serve as ambassador to Luxembourg, as "openly, aggressively gay." However, Hagel has apologized to Hormel and said that he was wrong and is now fully committed to supporting the rights of the LGBT community, and while Hormel originally was skeptical he has now accepted Hagel's apology. Hagel has said that if nominated he would continue to fully implement the repeal of 'Don't ask don't tell' that the Defense Department is now enforcing. While he could get some questions over this, I doubt if that would sink his nomination, since many people have over time changed their position on a number of issues including gay rights, and that includes some of Hagel's Senate colleagues (remember that in 1993, Bill Clinton settled for DADT because Congress wouldn't pass a law allowing openly gay members to serve in the military; but two years ago Congress did just that at President Obama's request, and quite a few members who were present in 1993 voted for it two years ago but probably would not have then.) Far better for Hagel to just say, as he has in effect done, "I was wrong," and move on.

A bigger issue with some members of the Senate is likely to be officially Hagel's stances on Israel and Iran. In fact, Hagel has several times expressed support for Israel, but has often criticized the power of the Israeli lobby in the U.S. Well, he's right. If the pro-Israel lobby wasn't so strong, we might not have seen so much opposition to Hagel for just cricitizing them. Hagel has openly opposed Iraeli settlement policies in the West Bank (something that President Obama opposes too) and in fact he is also correct that as long as Iraelis are building settlements on the West Bank, they are in effect rendering any kind of a 'two state solution' impossible. Hagel's opponents have taken to smearing him as a result as an anti-Semite. This is not unusual treatment for anyone who speaks out against Israeli policies (I've experienced it myself even though I was raised in a Jewish household) but even former Secretary of State William Cohen, himself both a Jew and a Republican, has defended Hagel against this charge

Hagel has also been skeptical of U.S. involvement in foreign wars and opposed both the troop surge in Iraq and the continued deployment in Afghanistan. Hagel is also on record as being skeptical of military operations against Iran, believing that it is much easier to get into a war than to get out of one. For this reasons, he wants to give sanctions a chance to work before contemplating military action in Iran or anyplace else.


Unlike the Secretaries of Defense that most members of the Senate are comfortable with, Chuck Hagel understands the ugly reality of combat and is reluctant to send soldiers into harm's way. Maybe that's the real reason why mostly Republicans and some Democrats in the Senate are uncomfortable with the idea of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. It's true that he is a mere enlisted man, but they could probably get past their pride and arrogance on the matter if he wasn't so reluctant to send other people's children to foreign shores to fight and die. They don't like Hagel's reluctance, because they've always been so willing and eager themselves to give the word and vote to send the sons and daughters of others to go marching off to the next apocalypse.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

2013 predictions

OK, back by popular demand (well, I did get one person ask me how come I wasn't doing New Year's predictions this year.) Deep Thought New Year's predictions for 2013.

January: President Obama is sworn in for another term. After the swearing in, Republicans will also be swearing.

February: Congress takes up the sequester and the debt ceiling. Republicans get some spending cuts in return for raising the ceiling, but as a concession to Democrats, before the ceiling is raised, Grover Norquist is superglued onto it so by raising it they can all just push him away.

March: After a vote was taken on raising the debt ceiling at all, Republicans in the Congress rebel and oust John Boehner as speaker. He is replaced by Michele Bachmann, whose plan for solving the debt crisis involves arming all members. This plan backfires when during a heated debate, Louie Gohmert challenges Carolyn McCarthy to a duel.

April: Baseball season begins. The Arizona Diamondbacks win their first seven games-- and then lose their next 155.

May: Not to be outdone, the Arizona legislature takes up gun law reform. They propose that the solution to school shootings is to add a gun to the required list of school supplies that students are required to bring with them to school every day.

June: Congress takes up immigration reform. Rush Limbaugh promises that if they pass it, that he will 'move to Costa Rica.' Which of course it passes, and he does not, much to the chagrin of millions of people who were hoping he was serious this time.

July: The President brings up gay marriage and repeats that his position has undergone an evolution over time. Republicans say that they are disappointed in the President. For believing in evolution.

August: A massive hurricane hits 11 states and leaves even more damage and deaths than Sandy. FEMA runs out of funds and asks Congress to appropriate more emergency money. The Senate passes a bipartisan relief bill right away, but Republicans in the House agree to act only if the emergency funding is offset by cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

September: Football season begins. Frustrated with all the coaching problems that the Arizona Cardinals have had, President Michael Bidwill assumes coaching duties. The team goes 0-16. It is then that he realizes that the fault did not lie with the coaches.

October: Halloween movies are not such a big deal anymore, since people can get scared for free just by watching the news.

November: Looking ahead to the end of the year when unemployment benefits run out and other factors favor a 'grand bargain,' President Obama again makes major concessions in negotiations with the House leadership. The Republicans get the President to agree to almost everything they want in the proposed deal, with deep cuts in spending on entitlements, and tax cuts for millionaires. The Speaker backs out of the deal when most of the members of the Speaker's own caucus throw another tantrum and refuse to support the deal because the President doesn't have to write a note apologizing for standing for something.

December: Visitors to Bethlehem are shocked to find out that the town has been bulldozed to build apartment buildings for a new Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
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