A few ideas concerning items of current or continuing political interest.  With the luxury of time, distance and leisure, here are a few suggestions concerning


What they might say:

July 18, 2013

On Mr. Obama and the law

President Obama was a hell of a law student, but he’s not much of a lawyer, nor even much of a believer in the law.  Thankfully, he quit using the odious term “war on terror,” but he forgot to quit pursuing all the bellicose, extraconstitutional tactics of his predecessor who instituted the term.  He keeps calling people “enemy combatants” and either killing them or keeping them in places like Guantanamo Bay because he does not believe the United States’ criminal justice system is up to dealing with them.  Well, it is.

If you’ve sat through enough jury trials, you will have come to an abiding faith in juries.  Laws may be bad, and lawyers may be incompetent, and judges may be biased, but juries almost unfailingly render correct verdicts according to the  the law and instructions from a judge.  Sometimes juries let people go who are probably guilty.  That’s because probable guilt isn’t sufficient, in our system, for conviction.

It’s a beautiful system.  It entails some risks because the Founders believed in freedom and justice more than in absolute safety and punishment.  We should trust the system.  The president should trust it.

July 16, 2013

Concerning exceptionalism

This one’s for the American exceptionalists. Omsk is a city of some 1.2 million souls in Siberia. It has 57 public libraries; numerous chamber groups and symphonic orchestras, including a state-sponsored philharmonic; eight professional theaters, three of which are private; an active and well-funded preservation program for its fabulous legacy of architecture; and hundreds of artists who actually make a living at their work. The climate, of course, is about like North Dakota’s.
Omsk, of course, is in a country whose president is probably a serial killer. Like ours.

July 14, 2013

About the Zimmerman trial

First, it’s probably a good idea not to call it the Trayvon Martin trial.  it was George Zimmerman who was on trial, was it not?  Zimmerman was acquitted because the prosecution failed to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  Probable guilt just isn’t enough in our system.

Oh, unless you’re in Gitmo, that is.  The prisoners — not detainees, please — at the Guantanamo Bay facility are there because we do not trust our system of criminal justice when it comes to people who pose political risks.  Political, in that a crime committed by one of these people if he were released would be terribly damaging to the president’s party — any president’s party, but especially a Democrat’s.  These people are held without charge and without bail and without trial and without hope, against a whole host of constitutional provisions, because of political fear.  We really should be ashamed.

On Hillary Clinton’s $200,000 speaking fee

Tell you what:  I’ll make a better speech than Mrs. Clinton, and I’ll do it for a mere tenth of her fee.

July 10. 2013

Getting it off the chest

We’ve been rather bothered over the last week or so, since posting a bit of a provocative Independence Day screed and having a conservative reader sneeringly observe that in America, the poor have cable television.  Our reader, apparently, has never experienced poverty.  Poverty is instructive.

In the first place, some 670,000 Americans live without housing of any kind. No place to connect the cable.  About half of the homeless population have severe mental problems, substance abuse problems or both.  The other half are fully functional, but unable to make a living.  The formula is simple.  For millions of Americans — and their number is growing — wages are so low and rents are so high that soon the life choices come to food, transportation, housing or medical care, but not all four.

It’s a grim existence, poverty, grinding the pride and eventually the hope out of its victims.  The reflexive right-wing response to poverty, though, is to blame the condition on its victims: you’re being poor; stop it.   The farm bill failed because the right wingers believe too many people receive food stamps.  Maybe so.  Maybe they could buy food, if they’d just give up the housing.  Walmart should be the first to protest the Republicans’ move, though.  Many of their employees make so little money they qualify for food stamps.  It’s an insult to the workers, but a subsidy to Walmart.

We’ve come to the point in this country that we think homelessness for hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens is normal.  It’s just the way the market works, and the market, after all, is divine.

July 4, 2013

On Independence Day

It’s a day of conflicting emotions, amounting to a dull sadness.  Working up patriotic pride is not possible when a nation that, we were told, stood  for peace, justice and equality has turned to war, greed and increasing class definition; when the symbols of patriotism are chiefly militaristic; when the national leadership is in complete denial of our economic, cultural and political decline; when at least half the population believe we are a Christian nation, then claim greed and avarice as Christian virtues.

The best America, we would like to believe, is in front of us, but the evidence says it is behind us by 40 years.

Maybe, some day, we can lose all this crap about American exceptionalism and recognize that we are exceptional only in our form of government; and that we’ve perverted even that with money and jingoism.  Maybe we can recognize that there is good in all peoples, ready to be released by the spread of liberal ideas, and not just by  metastasizing predatory forms of capitalism.

Maybe.

July 2, 2013

On Spy vs. Spy

Oh, the embarrassment!  Edward Snowden’s leaks, as it turns out, show that the United States has been spying on its allies, including the offices of the European Union.  Secretary of State John Kerry says, in so many words, so what? Everybody does it.  It’s hard to say whether everyone does it or not, but we’ve certainly made the case that everyone should.  We can’t be trusted.

About being a journalist

July 2, 2013

There’s a lot of bloviation going on lately, particularly in The New York Times, concerning the question of who is a journalist.  We suspect this navel-gazing is aimed, generally, at defining Edward Snowden and Julian Assange out of the meager benefits of being one.  The question is silly because of the very reason it is being posed: there is no legal or generally accepted professional definition of a journalist.  A journalist is someone who writes for a journal, his or someone else’s.  He doesn’t have to be any good at it; she doesn’t have to be responsible, professional or even serious.

There’s nothing really new here.  Indubitable journalists have taken themselves seriously, perhaps too seriously, for a long time.  They want to call themselves professionals, and they want to say that bloggers, commentators, humorists, et al, do not meet their high (and mythical) standards.  They are quick to point out that the press is the only private business mentioned in, let alone protected by, the Constitution.

Well, it ain’t so.  The press is not necessarily a business. The press is anybody who has one.  Nowadays, that means everybody with a computer and an Internet connection. It certainly is not confined to people who censor themselves because the government would like them to. The First Amendment, in fact, expresses an extraordinarily broad protection of freedom of expression generally.

Which brings us to Messrs. Snowden and Assange, the leaker and the publisher.  Mr. Snowden is not a journalist; Mr. Assange is.  Mr. Snowden is one of the true heroes, not necessarily of the public, but of the press, because he is a source willing to stand up and identify himself.  Mr. Assange, of Wikileaks, finds out stuff the government would not like to have made public, and publishes it.  That makes him a member of the press whether the more established institutions of the press like it or not.

If this logic is legitimate, then Mr. Assange deserves the protection of the First Amendment, and Mr. Snowden deserves such support as the press can give him.  Like it or not, these people are changing the world in rapid fashion.  If nothing else, they have made it abundantly clear that the government has too many secrets.  This is true on at least three grounds — first, that a government operating largely in secret sacrifices its credibility; second, that things needing to be kept secret are not likely very savory, if acceptable to the people at all; and third, that too many secrets, with too many clearances, cannot successfully be kept.

July 1, 2013

About pirates

Pirates made their home in the Cayman Islands from the 16th century well into the 19th.  What a tradition.  Today’s pirates are not the swashbuckling, sword-wielding thugs of old, but expensively dressed and well respected people from all parts of the world.  They are the super rich, who have, according to Forbes Magazine and others, stashed at least $21 trillion — TRILLION — in tax havens like the Caymans and Switzerland.

Want to know why the country is in debt?  Some people aren’t paying their taxes.

June 30, 2013

We often think everyone sees things from the same perspective. We wonder why others don’t seem to understand our views or see things that are so clear to us. We may not even consider looking at things through their eyes. Last evening, I was doing my new routine, swimming laps for exercise. Our place is right under a major air flight path and while on my back looking up at the sky, I often see jets… at about FL30 glinting in the sky. I saw a 747 last evening. Of course, from where I was when I first spotted it until it disappeared, it seemed to be moving slow enough that I decided to race it the length of the pool. And from where I was–I WON the race. Reality and good sense told me that I had not REALLY won, and that if the jet was actually traveling at the speed it appeared to me to be traveling that it would have fallen out of the sky–likely right on top of me. I recognize that everyone’s views are filtered through their own particular prisms of perspective and experience, each that varies widely from my own. I am glad that everyone has a different way; of looking at things and I try to factor this into my overall reality and keep things in check. Maybe by so doing I can keep from falling out of the sky–or drowning in my pool–or at least allowing room for others who have different perspectives than my own. Thank you everyone for being different.

June 29, 2013

On the president’s leadership

President Obama is getting blasted from all sides for policy positions, a reflection of the fact that the political center has vaporized.  He’s also taking a huge amount of heat for an alleged failure of leadership.

Something you learn, if you’ve been in management for any lengthy period of time, is that some situations and some people are unmanageable.  People cannot be led who refuse to follow.  Obama and House Speaker John Boehner have exactly the same leadership problem, and it’s called the Tea Party.  You cannot work with people, especially in politics, who are so firmly persuaded of their rectitude and everybody else’s perfidy that they consider compromise the same as capitulation, everything being a matter of deep principle.

There’s not much leadership just now because there’s not much followership.

June 28, 2013

About government and sin

Ever since the right wing declared us a Christian nation, we’ve been unable to raise any taxes at all except “sin” taxes on booze and tobacco.  It works well for the right, as the heavy price of tobacco, like state-sponsored gambling, is a tax on the poor.  After all, when was the last time you saw someone sucking on a cigarette who looked as though he could afford the next pack?

But wait! Greed is a sin.  To the Catholics, it’s a cardinal sin, one of the seven deadly sins.  Why not tax greed?  This is not a proposal for increasing income taxes.   This would be for taxing wealth on people too greedy for the health of their own souls.  After the first billion or so, what is wealth for, after all, but feeding greed?  We could discourage greed and pay off the national debt (neither borrowers nor lenders be) at the same time.  Then we could do what Jesus would do, or what he said, anyway.  We could take the rest and give it to the poor.

It would help discourage another deadly sin, too, that of pride.  We could relieve Bill Gates, for example, of the responsibility of all those television appearances (be not boastful) to talk about helping the starving Africans while he has to struggle by on $65 billion, give or take.

Just a thought.

June 25, 2013

Concerning the liberal, lamestream media

Chris Matthews, the ostensible Democrat (who proudly says he voted for Michael Steele for senator), spent an inordinate amount of time today on his “Hardball” show on MSNBC, the ostensibly liberal cable outlet, working over Edward Snowden as a despicable criminal and coward.  He was joined by Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post, who whined that, unlike Daniel Ellsberg 40 years ago, Snowden hadn’t stayed in this country and turned himself over to the authorities — never mind that Ellsberg was in hiding for a long while before he did that.

At the end, Matthews conceded that “we know a lot more about the intelligence apparatus because of this guy.”  Isn’t that the whole point?  And, if you’re a member of the news media, isn’t that supposed to be a good thing?

For his part, Snowden says he’d like to live in a democratic country.  From the Tea Party hordes on the right to the Spartan 300 socialists still standing on the left, he’d have a good deal of company in believing that would not be the United States.

June 25, 2013

About the Supremes

The fix is in.  Along with gerrymandering, the Citizens United case and voter suppression, the right-wing tool that is the United States Supreme Court now has vitiated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  The holding is that racial discrimination can no longer be held to be worse in Mississippi and Georgia and South Carolina than it is in Massachusetts or Minnesota or Oregon.  Must be so; just ask Paula Deen.

If anything, the reasoning of the court is an argument for extending the legislation to cover all states, but as the court logically held, that is up to Congress.  Right.  And fixing sexism is up to Phyllis Schlafly.

Beginning to reverse this insanity is going to require electing a lot of liberals, particularly to state legislatures.  That just got a lot harder.

June 21, 2013

About the borders

The  day will come when passing from Mexico to the United States, or from Tibet to Nepal or from Turkey to Iran, will be no more difficult than passing from Illinois to Indiana.  But the United States, which should be leading the way toward that happy day, is instead delaying it.  A wall 700 miles long, with thousands more border-patrol agents, will be going up along the Mexican border, thanks to Republicans who insist on border security ahead of any immigration reform.  The cost?  Somewhere north of $30 billion.  Those tight-fisted budget hawks can launch another assault on Davis-Bacon, of course, so that their contractor friends can hire undocumented workers to build the thing.

June 20, 2013

On the money

Last year’s average winning candidate for a seat in Congress spent a reported $10.2 million, according to opensecrets.org, the website of the Center for Responsive Politics.  The interesting thing is that that figure was up by 19 per cent from just two years earlier.  With the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, allowing unlimited corporate campaign contributions, and more secret contributions, the figure is bound to rise farther.

The consequences for democracy look pretty grim.  It’s a pretty rare candidate for Congress who has ready access to that kind of money — well, without selling something.

What has to be for sale is a vote now and again, a piece of a politician’s soul.  The depletion of the soul happens usually by degrees, and the politician never knows how much he has left.  The devil does, though.

Public financing of campaigns, brought about by a constitutional amendment to ban corporate contributions and redefine them as nonpersons, and by strict legal limits on personal contributions, is the answer.  Check out Sen. Bernie Sanders’ attempt to get the amendment underway, and sign his petition.  Please.  Here it is:  http://www.sanders.senate.gov/petition/?uid=f1c2660f-54b9-4193-86a4-ec2c39342c6c

June 18, 2013

About taking things with a grain of salt

The sky is falling.  Again.  To hear the director of United States intelligence, James Clapper, and the director of the National Security Agency, Keith Alexander, tell it, the recent revelations by NSA contractor Edward Snowden have been seriously, deeply, perhaps permanently damaging to the national security.

Almost certainly not.  You have to remember that these people may not be congenital liars, but they are professional liars.  Some months ago, when Clapper, under oath, told Sen. Ron Wyden that no such program as Snowden described even existed, he lied.  When he and Alexander and  Snowden’s employer and the president himself said people like Snowden could not and have not listened to Americans’ phone calls without court orders, they lied.  (This according to New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler, from a secret briefing.)  Of course, nobody got into the slightest trouble for lying.  They’re in the lying business, after all.

Snowden, on the other hand, is just beginning to experience the rain of hellfire for telling the truth.

(Later post)  We’ve been informed that the Nadler story has been retracted.  It’s impossible in these affairs to tell who’s lying.

Here’s the whole story:

http://hotair.com/archives/2013/06/16/nadler-nsa-told-us-analysts-can-conduct-warrantless-wiretapping/

June 17, 2013

On the future of entitlements

Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of The Washington Post, has the most amazing piece in this morning’s paper http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/fred-hiatt-liberals-should-lead-entitlement-reform/2013/06/16/12f6a046-d51f-11e2-8cbe-1bcbee06f8f8_story.html?hpid=z2. Liberals, he argues, should lead the way to entitlement “reform.”  That is, the supporters of the social safety net should start cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and the few other remaining shreds of fabric in the net.  Otherwise, Hiatt argues, non-defense discretionary spending will fall from 4 per cent to 2.7 per cent of the federal budget in the coming decade. Everything else liberals support, from education to science and food safety, will drop off the table.

Hiatt’s dire predictions and appalling argument are premised on certain political realities, as he sees them.  In fact, they are merely assumptions.  The first is that war spending — let’s call it what it is, not “defense” — cannot be reduced, and the second is that taxes cannot be raised.  Well, bull.

Let’s start, though, with the use of the loaded word “entitlements.”  You work for 50 years and you don’t have much of a pension.  Why?  You tried self-employment and it didn’t work out too well.  Stints with private-sector employers paid too little and lasted too briefly to build up much for you, except for the one job, whose promised pension vaporized when the private-equity firm bought out the company and raided the pension fund before tanking the whole operation.  You do have a modest Social Security payment.  Are you entitled to it?  Oh, yeah.

Now, to Hiatt’s silly assumptions:  The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are about over.  We do not have to invade Iran or Syria or Turkey or any other damned place, there to purchase everlasting hatred along with a tenuous and temporary supply of filthy fuel.  We could cut the Pentagon budget by half and not miss it.  The generals, along with their contractor friends, will wail that support for troops in the field will suffer.  That’s what they’ll sacrifice, too, before they lose a single golf course or officer’s club.

Raising taxes?  We have to.  This truth eventually must sink in, even in Congress, but it may take the election of some liberals to get it done.  Let’s not just give up on the front end, Mr. Hiatt.

About the military

This one comes with some risk of backlash.  Ah, well.

There’s a good deal of denial getting around.  Without conspicuous exception, American politicians sing the praises of the country’s soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.  They’re the most valiant, the best trained, the best equipped, the smartest and the all-round finest troops the world has ever seen.  Seriously?

The appalling rate of sexual assaults of women in the Armed Forces finally has caught the attention of some — female — members of Congress.  Good.  But why is it that according to the Pentagon last month, the year previous had seen 26,000 known cases of alleged sexual assault by members of the military — not counting contractors?

Surely it has something to do with a  bunch of people being deployed three and four times to war zones, with no war technically going on.  Just as surely, some of it can be attributed to a sexist tradition in the military and a somewhat less pronounced one in the society at large.

But could it also be in some part because of the kind of people being successfully  recruited to serve in the all-volunteer Armed Forces?  They’re not, by a long shot, all dead-enders.  But since 2003, the percentage of recruits with high school diplomas has plunged by at least 20 per cent, and the number of waivers granted for felons to enter the military has ballooned.

The quality of recruits in the enlisted ranks is pretty grim.  You get what you pay for, especially while fighting overseas without a draft.

June 10, 2013

Concerning Edward Snowden

The man who leaked the news to London’s The Guardian about the National Security Agency’s surveillance of millions of phone calls and Internet communications is variously called a hero, a traitor, a whistleblower, a criminal, etc.  So what is he?

A person who acts out of conscience, and at great personal peril, to right what, by his own lights, is a terrible wrong, we’d usually call heroic.  The fact that in this case his actions may have been criminal enhances, rather than diminishes, the courage of his course.

It happens that we agree with Snowden: the NSA was a long way out of bounds, and contractors like him were privy to far too much information on far too many Americans.  But that’s really beside the point, isn’t it?  The point is that Snowden tried to pursue a proper course through appropriate channels, failed and took a leap that would have deterred most of us even from our most deeply felt moral convictions.

There’s something admirable about that, don’t you think?

About GOP minority outreach

It’s been a comical scene as the Republicans have declared outreach to the ethnic minorities in the country.  Nobody takes it seriously, it seems.  Here’s a suggestion: stop voter suppression among minorities.  Stop pursuing laws that make it harder to vote.  Stop finding the names of black military personnel serving overseas and challenging their residency.  It’s wrong, and in many cases it’s a felony.  Just stop it.

June 8, 2013

Regarding privacy

One of the luxuries of blogging is that you don’t have to write anything until you’re ready.  This business of the government’s looking into cell phone and internet records has taken some time for reflection.  But our first, visceral reaction hasn’t changed.  It’s repulsive.

Under the thinnest legal cover, from a court that operates in secret, the government has been monitoring a lot of Americans’ communications.  Several points need to be made in this connection.

First, the Obama administration didn’t start this terrible practice; they just didn’t repudiate it.

Second, people who think they have any reasonable expectation of privacy in cell-phone conversations or on the World Wide Web are hopelessly naïve.

Third, you can probably catch some bad guys this way, and maybe the government has done so.  They’re not going to say so.  Instead, they’ll continue defend the practice without ever admitting that it is going on.

Finally, most Americans probably think the monitoring is a good idea.

So what’s so repulsive?

America was built on a lot of things: theft, slavery and genocide, of course, but also ideals of equality, the rule of law and freedom.  Protecting freedom — not protecting the public feeling of safety — is the first responsibility of government, and the job cannot be accomplished by sacrificing freedom of any kind.  That includes the freedom from government intrusion into private communications.

With apologies to the constitutional lawyer in the White House, and to the contemptible secret court on which he relies, there are some provisions of the Constitution that suffer insult from this program.  The First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech and of association.  That means the government shouldn’t care who it is with whom we communicate, or how, or when, or what we say.  The Fourth Amendment guarantees protection from unreasonable search and seizure.  Without going into the particulars of a search, because no particulars are called for in this blanket program, let’s just say that the Fourth Amendment is about privacy.  Yes, the Constitution honors privacy, without using the word.  So maybe the government should, too.

June 5, 2013

About IRS meetings

One would think, listening to CNN, that the Internal Revenue Service’s meetings were sponsored by Caligula and funded by Croesus.  “Lavish,” they say, and “wasteful,” without qualification.  The evidence?  Among other things, the IRS made some videos and gave attendees some trinkets like notebooks — made in China, where everything else is made.

Well, politicians are constantly telling government to act more like private business.   Maybe they don’t really mean it.

Two people got into trouble over this.  They’re the ones who ordered food.  You can’t do that in the government, not for a group.  The irony is that it was probably the cheapest way for the taxpayers to feed the crowd.  Otherwise, they all eat on their own and bill the agency for the maximum allowable for the meal.

May 28,2013

Concerning appointments

Perhaps no president ever tried harder to strike a middle ground than Barack Obama, and perhaps none since Abraham Lincoln found the middle so nearly annihilated.  Obama’s tactics have alienated both wings of American politics, because he moved so far from his original goals in initiatives like the Affordable Care Act, yet enacted something.  The liberals were disappointed in the movement, the right horrified at any action at all.

His cabinet appointments of late show more of the same kind of vacillation, and the same alienation of both wings.  For the Department of Labor, he chose Thomas Perez, a favorite of the labor movement and the kind of progressive Democrats hoped (and Republicans feared) Obama himself would be.  Now for Commerce he chooses Penny Pritzker, billionaire heir to the Hyatt hotel chain and a longtime enemy of the labor movement.

That’s not a middle course.  It’s a wild veering of course, comprehensible only in that the president owes labor for its support, and owes Ms. Pritzker for her management of his campaign finances.

In other words, politics as usual.

May 24, 2013

About the president’s speech on terrorism

It’s been tough coming up with a one-word description of President Obama’s anti-terrorism speech yesterday at the National Defense University.  Here it is: Jeffersonian.

Among the remarkable men in America’s greatest generation — take that, Tom Brokaw — Thomas Jefferson was perhaps the most generously gifted.  He had almost the pen of Thomas Paine, almost the natural leadership of George Washington, almost the encyclopedic mind of Benjamin Franklin, almost the theoretical political powers of James Madison.  Jefferson retired the trophy, though, as the greatest hypocrite of them all.

He extolled the life of the yeoman farmer, as exemplified by his desultory antagonist John Adams, preferring for himself the life of the deadbeat aristocrat.  He was a revolutionary, but eluded the military service that most of his contemporaries undertook.  He wrote brilliantly about the corrosive moral effects of slavery, but unlike Washington, could not bring himself to manumit his many slaves even as he died.  Some of them were his children.

Obama, who reminds us all the time of the majestic moral leadership of Abraham Lincoln, is making a case for himself as the greatest hypocrite since Jefferson.  Extraordinary powers of warmaking, vested in the single personage of the president, Obama says, are dangerous to the democracy.  Well, yes, they certainly are.  So Obama’s explanation of the good he has done with his “kill list” does not suffice to justify his fig leaf of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force to cover drone strikes against Americans overseas and the continuing use of the shadowy hellhole at Guantanamo Bay.

This stuff is wrong.  There’s no need here to go into all the reasons it’s wrong.  Obama admitted it yesterday.  His speech went a long way toward explaining why it is wrong, but it left plenty of room for him to continue doing it.  He needs to stop it.  Now.

May 23, 2013

About Jay Rockefeller

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia has announced his retirement.  Too bad.  Yesterday in a committee hearing on the confirmation of Anthony Fox as Transportation secretary, Rockefeller delivered himself of an important peroration in his inimitable style.  (All public Rockefellers speak  in a kind of stream of semiconsciousness.  It’s a forgivable, sometimes endearing, departure from the usual set pieces and talking points of political discourse.)  In a rambling lecture to the newcomer, Rockefeller told Fox he didn’t want to hear about how Fox was going to tighten the government belt and do more with less.  Recognizing that what you can do with less is — surprise! — less, the senator said we’ve got to belly up to the infrastructure problem and pay for improvements.  We are, in plain words, going to have to pay some taxes to fix the roads.  He also pointed out a little-known fact: the federal government has fewer employees than at any time since the Eisenhower administration.

What a good and decent man.

May 22, 2013

On all these recent investigations

It’s a little bit encouraging to see Democrats unwilling to defend President Obama on the Internal Revenue Service abuses of power toward Tea Party and other right-wing organizations, and for the most part, on the spying on Associated Press reporters.  Were these same things occurring under a GOP administration, it’s a certain bet that congressional Republicans would line up behind the president in outraged defense.  They did on Iran-Contra.

May 21, 2013

About aid to Oklahoma

Of course the federal government should move swiftly to provide all the aid needed in the wake of the tornado that killed dozens of people.  Oklahomans are Americans.

The ironic position of the Oklahoma congressional delegation has not gone unnoticed.  They didn’t support aid to New Jersey after a devastating hurricane.  Why not? Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe says it was because the assistance bill was larded up with other stuff.

Here’s hoping somebody attaches to the Oklahoma bill a provision reinstating funding for ACORN.  ACORN is gone, of course, destroyed by right-wing distortions, so the gesture would be only symbolic.  But oh, so sweet.

May 18, 2013

Concerning secrets

If it’s not Christmastime and you have a burning desire to keep secrets, you’re probably up to something.  Pretty much everybody feels this way, which is why the insistence on secrecy in a governmental administration arouses suspicion to the point that Republicans start calling for more openness.  Goodness.

Our own considerable experience with  security agents of the government is that their incompetence is exceeded only by their arrogance.  They want to close a lot of things to public scrutiny.  A government-made map, for example, is to a civil servant a useful product underwritten by the taxpayers and shared with them as soon and as broadly as possible.  To a security agent, the same product is a piece of intelligence, closely to be guarded.

The problems with that latter attitude are many, but here are three.  The first is that people pay for products to which they do not then have access and cannot use for their own purposes, such as business development.  The second is that the more things you classify, the bigger you have to make the pool of clearances.  Soon it becomes uncontrollable.  The third is that the people who keep the secrets get to decide what is secret, and the temptation is irresistible to classify anything that is embarrassing.  In that connection, it is easy to confuse a threat to state security with any mild threat to an officeholder’s or a bureaucrat’s own interests.

So: do you want a president who has the attitude of the civil servant, or one who is at heart a security agent?  The fact is that he must wear both hats, but he will prefer one over the other.

When President Obama took office, one of his first and most significant acts was to effectively reverse the burden of proof in federal Freedom of Information Act cases.  The George W. Bush administration had instructed the executive departments to fight all FOIA requests, shutting down or slowing down access to mountainous troves of government data.  Obama instructed the same departments to assume that documents were public, and to close access to them only on a showing of compelling cause.  That commendable action put the president squarely under the hat of a civil servant.

Today’s Obama is, sadly, a different man.  Looking into the files and emails and phone calls of reporters to locate leaks in an inevitably leaky system is incompetent politics and arrogant government.  The president needs to look around for his civil-service hat.

May 14, 2013

About Holder

Attorney General Eric Holder, in the attempt to defend his Justice Department’s intrusion into the Associated Press communications system, claims national security was at risk.  He has, then, publicly accused the AP of complicity in something that threatens the national security.  That’s not going to hold up.  He has to go, and the president has to reverse this ridiculous path of policy.

If you don’t like leaks of classified information, go after the leakers, not the reporters.  Not ever.

By the way, if you have billions of bits of secret information, requiring hundreds of thousands of people to have clearances, do you really expect to keep the lid on all that?

May 14, 2013

Now what?

Now — today — is the time for Barack Obama to take decisive action to preserve his presidency.  The fact that the Benghazi investigation is a witch hunt must not obscure the president’s judgment on two nasty scandals that have to be dealt with by the White House before the White House is buried by them.

Obama must  proclaim in public who knew about the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservative groups for audits.  He must say who authorized Justice Department monitoring of Associated Press reporters’ work.  As to the latter, frankly, it strains credulity to think that anyone other than the president himself could have given the go-ahead on such a stupid thing.  If that was the case, then the president must admit it.  If not, he’s got some firing to do in a big hurry.

The truth often stings.  The best potions will do that as they commence their healing work.

There is no need here to go into all the examples from recent history in which misdeeds were bad but forgivable, cover-ups worse and indelible.  Just remember: Nixon.  Clinton.  Impeachment.

May 13, 2013

About the IRS, again

If President Obama’s better judgment prevails, he will endorse John McCain’s call for a special investigator to probe the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of Tea Party and other right-wing groups before and during the 2012 campaigns.  He will promise to purge the people responsible, and any who covered it up, especially those at the highest levels to whom knowledge can be traced.  This thing stinks.

May 11, 2013

Regarding the IRS and politics

Treasury Secretary Jack Lew has admitted that the Internal Revenue Service unfairly and illegally targeted Tea Party groups for investigation during the course of the 2012 political campaigns.  We know we can count on congressional Republicans to investigate the matter to death.  This time, they should.  If it turns out that the political operation of President Obama was involved in any way, the incidents put him in the company of Richard Nixon, and history as well as Congress should hold him accountable.  This is a deeply serious business.  Here’s hoping we get to the bottom of it, and quickly.

May 11, 2013

Concerning Social Security

The Republican Party opposed president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan for Social Security.  After it was passed, it became so popular that it couldn’t be touched for more than 60 years.  Still, they didn’t like it.  The long-term effort to persuade people that everything governmental is a smelly plan to take their money is paying off.  They’re attacking Social Security openly, and they’re spreading a lot of falsehoods about it: it’s double taxation, and it’s a Ponzi scheme, and it’s a national identity card system, and it’s going to fail, and, of course, it’s socialistic.

To start with, your Social Security benefits are taxed only if you’re still making money, and a fair amount of it.

As to the allegation that it’s a Ponzi scheme, it is not, because there is an endless supply of new participants in the program.
Bad investment?  Not a real good one, measured against some in the private sector.  But because it is mandatory for working Americans, and because it is a government program, it is guaranteed.  Low-risk investments are low-reward investments.  I
Social Security, in fact,  was never designed to be a retirement program, but as it turns out, millions of people have nothing else.  Because private companies have been robbing and eliminating pension programs, and because people are very mobile in the job market now, this is bound to be increasingly true.  Maybe, then, we should do what most other developed countries do, and have a genuine government retirement program, much more generous than Social Security.
As for taking money out of the trust fund, as Lyndon Johnson’s and every subsequent administration, Democratic and Republican alike, has done —  it shouldn’t have happened.  If it hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have people talking about the actuarial problems of the system . . . problems which, by the way, are easily solved by a small additional tax on the wealthiest participants.
What about the national identity card thing?  In fact, you don’t have to give your Social Security number to anyone except the government, which already knows it.  But it’s handy, so people use it.  If you’re still interested in the myth of personal privacy, you can keep your number private.  And you can cut up your passport, credit cards, and driver’s license.  Good luck.

May 10, 2013

Concerning Benghazi

Four Americans died at the hands of foreigners in the attack on the American consulate in Libya.  Pretty bad.  Since the Newtown massacre of the innocents, something like 4,000 Americans have been killed by other Americans with guns.  Maybe worse?

About winning and losing

The 90-plus per cent of Americans who support universal background checks for gun purchases are going to win the day.  They lost round one, but Democrats in places like Arkansas and North Dakota, who voted against cloture on the issue, will rue the day they pushed that fat red button.  So will some Republicans.  Even in the troglodytic House, 90 per cent support will eventually triumph.  With any luck, the legislation will be exactly what the gun nuts fear: precedent for more stringent measures a bit later.

So, if 90 per cent can win, why not the 99 per cent?  Why is it that on issue after economic issue — bankruptcy “reform,” Wall Street “reform,” tax fairness, spending decisions, all of it — the 99 per cent come up losers against the tiny few, greedy rich?  The answer is simple and terribly discouraging.  It’s because unlike the 90 per cent on the gun issues, the 99 percent on the economic issues either fail to understand or fail to believe their own problems.  About half of them vote Republican.

It is an astounding thing that a middle-class person could support regressive taxation or deregulation of the financial sector.  These things are contrary to middle-class interests, deeply, immediately and devastatingly contrary.

Education in the issues is not the problem.   Lots of people who vote against their own economic interests are quite well educated.  Their beliefs, however, are often matters of faith, not of reasoned understanding.   You cannot tell a creationist, otherwise educated or not, about the bedrock principles of modern biology.  He will not hear it, because it conflicts with articles of faith, which reside in a part of the brain bearing only tenuous associations with facts and reason.

Likewise, it is useless to tell a Republican that there is actual, empirical, indisputable evidence that a progressive tax system is good for everybody.  He will not hear it because he cannot hear it.  It’s a matter of faith.

Changing this stuff is a tall order.

Concerning worker safety

Turns out the West, Texas, fertilizer plant that blew up last week had 1,300 times the legal limit of ammonium nitrate, an explosive, and no sprinkler system.  Where was OSHA, which is getting blamed for the lack of oversight?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration was doing what it can do — responding to worker complaints, rather than conducting regular reviews of worksites.  OSHA, whose very existence has always rankled Republicans, doesn’t have the resources to make routine inspections.  In a place like Texas, with a virulently anti-labor atmosphere, workers are afraid to make complaints.

Look for right-wing politicans to blame OSHA for not doing its job, having made their doing it impossible, and to resist any reform that would result in more frequent inspections or higher fines.  It won’t work, they’ll say.  It’ll hamper business, they’ll say.  In other words, it’s just like gun control: we haven’t tried it, and we’re not about to try it.  There’s just nothing we can do.

About hasty threats

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against the rebels in that country.  President Obama earlier said they’d better not, or else.  Now what?

Now we’ve got a country in the Middle East that saw no peace or stability from 1947 to 1971, when it was taken over by the Assad regime of the current dictator’s father, Haffez al Assad.  That regime, father and son alike, has been repressive and cruel, but because it was stable, has been something the United States could live with.  When the citizens rebelled, the Obama adminstration and the Hillary Clinton State Department expressed support for the rebels, not knowing exactly who they were or exactly what they intended, other than the overthrow of Bashir al Assad. Now we’ve got confusion and something that looks very like a commitment to use military force against Assad but in support of god knows what.

We also have a military that is utterly exhausted from more than a decade of war.  We have a populace that overwhelmingly supports every new war and turns against it when it turns out to be protracted and ugly, as wars do.  We have no draft.  We have no budget for this sort of business.

So, a couple of proposals.  Firts, let’s re-institute the draft, as Charlie Rangel proposed a few years back.  It’ll put people into harm’s way who come from families of means and influence.  This will test our genuine will to fight.  Then let’s pass a truth-in-recruiting act.  It’ll require the military to post, alongside their promises of veterans’ benefits, the facts about what actually happens to veterans.

Peace, y’all.

Concerning criminals and terrorists

The Obama administration has made the right decision to treat the Boston Marathon bombings as crimes, not acts of war, and the defendant as a criminal suspect, not the dubiously constitutional, vague category of “enemy combatant.”  The decision will spare us another “war” against enemies unknown, an affair with no clear end, ever.

Was it terrorism?  Well, yes, criminal terrorism.  Who are the terrorists in the world?  There are quite a lot, as it turns out.

How about a country that sends silent drones to kill its own citizens, along with hundreds of others, in other, poorer countries on the other side of the world?  How about a country that sends missiles tipped with cluster bombs to blow up villages in places like Yemen and Somalia because somebody who might be in the villages might fit the profile of somebody who might become a threat?  That’ll create some terror, along with some enduring hatred.

About unhappy young men

Whether you believe that religion, on balance, is a positive force in the universe or not, certainly it is reasonable to believe that one thing the practice of religion should do is help its adherents cope with the world.  Sometimes it certainly does.  Sometimes religion is just a way to feed the torment of already unhappy people.

If it turns out that the young suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing were guilty, and that the survivor says they were motivated by religious impulses, then the tragedy is multiplied beyond the death and physical destruction, bringing with it an invitation to bigotry: to the belief that Islam is evil and that it is pitted against Christianity in an Armageddon-bound struggle.

That’s crazy, of course, based on a lot of assumptions too broad to be useful, including the idea that the United States is a Christian nation.  But it is the belief of a lot of people, and the suspicion, we suppose, of many more.

President Obama will do his best to lead the way in condemning the act while warning us not to blame one of the world’s huge religions for it.  Unfortunately, he is not in the best position to lead on the question because bigots and misled millions still believe, contrary to all the evidence, that he is himself a Muslim.

Only conservative Republicans can lead on this hugely important matter.  Let’s hope they will.

On Boston

Here’s hoping the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings turn out to be homegrown right-wingers.  This is not for the obvious political reasons, but because the country doesn’t need another excuse to take itself to war against a non-state, foreign gang of criminals, let alone against a mythical construct like “terror.”

What the country needs is enough faith in its own institutions  to prosecute crimes as crimes, and to seek peace instead of war.  We do not need to put any more people into prison at Guantanamo Bay, pretending that justice has been done against people who have no protections of any system of real justice.

Nor do we need to pretend we are at war, giving the president extraordinary powers to do things like Gitmo detentions.  Don’t you love that one, by the way?  These people are not prisoners, but”detainees.”  (Sorry about Friday’s dinner; we’ve been detained).

What we need is enough leadership and enough courage to show the world what due process, equal protection and the presumption of innocence are all about. Ah, but that wouldn’t have resulted in the celebrated, summary execution of Osama bin Laden, would it?

Concerning the state of American “culture”

It was Oscar Wilde who famously called this the only country in history to have passed directly from barbarism to decadence without an intervening period of civilization.  Were he alive to day, the playwright and wit would, no doubt, have something to say about a slide back to the savage state of our beginnings.

It’s not just the baseball caps in restaurants and the endless vulgarity of the television landscape that would gall him and appall him.  It is the failure to learn from out own lurid history.

We tried the Wild West.  We tamed it enough to survive in it.  Now a fair proportion of the population, led jointly by inner-city gangs and the National Rifle Association, seems to think that whole, violent period was a grand time.  Well, it wasn’t.

Allowing people to carry guns openly led to a lot of shootings, none of them heroic.  Why go through that again?  Guns in schools will lead to shootings in schools, guaranteed.  Failure to check gun-buyers’ backgrounds will lead to crazy people getting them.  It already has.

We really don’t have to try to vault all the way from this mire of barbarism to civilization.  But we could try an intermediate step, which would be sanity.

About glimmers of hope

Occasionally the American political system shows signs of a pulse.  Such a sign is popping up in the debate over firearms legislation.  With a baker’s dozen Republicans poised to filibuster the modest effort to impose a few limits on gun ownership, it seems that they may fall short of the 40 votes needed to prevent debate on the measures.  Why?  Maybe because 90 per cent of voters think universal background checks are a good idea, and lesser but still overwhelming majorities support bans on high-capacity magazines and military-style weapons.

The people, speaking in majorities, are not always right.  Once or twice in his career, every politician needs to fall on his sword to do what is right in the face of majority opposition.  But when the public is righteous, as in this case, no hara kiri is called for.  Just do the easy thing and tell the NRA to go — well, to stay put.

Regarding Syria

When the revolt commenced in Syria, we started getting emails about it from our old friend Jim Abourezk, the one-time U.S. senator from South Dakota.  The gyst of his message was, be careful what you wish for.  These rebels may be worse than the relative stability, however oppressive and repellant, of the Assad regime.  We thought perhaps Abourezk had gone over the edge.

Turns out he was right, of course.  The mess that is the Syrian civil war now includes substantial assistance to some of the rebels by the Obama administration.  It will lead to no good, and perhaps to calamity.  Already somewhere upwards of 70,000 people are dead, and Syria is closer to chaos, anarchy and hopelessness than it is to democracy, peace and stability.

A blog is no place to write the book-length work it would take to explain why, and the blogger is not up to writing the book, but the United States needs to get the heck out of the Middle East.  We have proven, as if the British and French hadn’t before us, that Western powers do not understand the culture or politics of the region, or even the tangled web of their own interests there.  We have sufficient reason, without the tar baby of Mideastern intrigue, to wean ourselves from their oil.  We cannot make the place work.  Only its peoples can, and they need to be left alone to do it.

This view is both radically wrong and pitifully naive, according to those in our government who consider themselves expert in the matter.  Well, they’ve made a hash of things, haven’t they?

About minimal wages

During the last presidential campaign, President Obama got into a bit of a mess by saying, “The private sector is doing fine.”  It didn’t feel fine to most folk.  In fact, by the traditional measures of economic health, i.e., profits and stock prices, the economy was doing more than fine.  It was gangbusters, still is.  Jobs and workers?  Another matter.

Now comes Elizabeth Warren, the new senator from Massachusetts, who understands arithmetic.  She points out that if the minimum wage had kept pace with increasing worker productivity since 1960, it would not stand at $7.25, as it does, but at $22 an hour!  Somebody’s getting away with workers’ money at the rate of $14.75 an hour.

Get ready for a wailing chorus about “class warfare” for raising the point.  Those who stole the money aren’t the ones who’ll be accused.

Concerning thrifty ways

The conservatives are afraid we’ll wind up like Europe, so we have to impose government austerity.  Like Europe.  Never mind that these people were not one bit conservative, but utterly profligate with the people’s money, when they were in power, and that they still advocate ever higher spending on ways to kill people.  Just consider that the time for frugality is when you have something to save.  The time to spend is when you don’t have anything.  It’s not like your family budge at all.  Quite the oppposite.  Ask the Greeks.

About the rank ghost of Richard M. Nixon

Sorry if this news might interfere with a  bulletin on Miley Cyrus’ tattoos, but there’s been rather a fascinating revelation about the depths of Richard Nixon’s perfidious soul.  Nobody else seems to be paying it much attention.

It’s been a mystery for almost 45 years why the Vietnam peace talks of 1968 collapsed.  Turns out, according to recently released tapes from the Lyndon B. Johnson White House, it’s because Nixon, then a candidate for president, knew that peace would wreck his chances.  So, through a campaign associate named Anna Chennault, he sabotaged the talks, getting the South Vietnamese to pull out before things really got underway.

Johnson fares little better, himself, in this sad history.  Having learned about the “treason,” as he called it, he did not release it to the public because the FBI, at his direction, had gained the information in questionable ways.  Hubert Humphrey, given the information, also declined to use it.  So Nixon got elected and 22,000 more Americans died needlessly, along with probably hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese.

What are we to take from this?  Perhaps that the prize of the American presidency tempts people, even Quakers like Nixon, beyond the bounds of human morality?  That’s not news.  But some things can be shocking without being surprising.  Maybe the story should tell us something about the way we choose presidents.  A Quaker becomes a craven, megalomaniacal criminal.  A community organizer becomes the friend of Wall Street in its least wholesome expressions.  The power of the presidency, the pursuit of it, the demands of it, the solitary headiness even of dreaming of it, produce some pretty ghastly results.

About seriously addressing government growth

Think the government’s too big?  You’re quite arguably wrong, but if you want spending to come down, there’s something serious to do that may be counterintuitive.  Figure out what services you want the government to deliver.  Build a government workforce designed for those jobs.  Stop most of the contracting.  Here’s why:

In the first place, contracted work usually costs more than work performed by government employees.  You have to pay for the work, and then you have to underwrite the profits.  As noted in a previous post, President Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget showed that this is true, over time, in a huge majority of cases.  Moreover, government contractors are notorious gougers as a lot.

Second, when you contract out a job, you create an instant lobby for more of the same.  Privately run prisons build a class of monied people who would very much like to see more people in prison.  Private contractors doing the work of the taxpayers always want more work, and they send great numbers of people, with bags of money, to Capitol Hill to press the case.  When government workers do the same jobs, only consumers of the services ask for more.

There is a place for contracting of government work.  The tool should be used for jobs that are temporary, or for which demand fluctuates a lot.  That’s about it.

On getting serious about the deficit

Really.  What would it take to solve the deficit problem and reduce or eliminate the national debt?  The answers are simple, correct and, for the moment, impossible.

First we’d tax rich people a whole lot more.  Conservatives are correct that this would not solve our deficit problem, or even come close.  But it would help, and as a matter of social justice (we know, they hate the term), it would be right.  Something needs to reverse the trend toward a two-tiered economy — one for the rich and another, less functional one, for everybody else.

Okay, now what?  Medicare for everybody.  That’s right, nationalize health care.  As it is, the United States spends upwards of 15 per cent of its gross national product on health care.  That’s about twice what Norway or the United Kingdom spend with nationalized programs.  But the American health outcomes, to the extent it’s possible to measure these things, is far worse than those across the Atlantic.  Based on profit, but without the cost controls of a true market, it’s out of control.  The millions of people who are not adequately covered by private insurance are taken care of — poorly — in the most expensive possible ways.  They get primary care at emergency rooms on the taxpayer dime.  It’s the dumbest conceivable way to run a system.  It’s not even a system.

Finally, we’d ‘fess up to the obvious and end the half-century experiment called the “war” on drugs.  Just decriminalize everything, as the Netherlands has done with cannabis, and work our way toward what the Dutch have, which is the lowest rates of recreational drug use in the developed world.  One of the first effects would be a gateway out of prison for millions of nonviolent offenders who are there because of draconian drug laws, lack of other opportunity and stupid life choices.

The government would be awash in money, some of which we could use to fund drug diversion and rehabilitation, some of which could go to neighborhood rehabilitation where the drug problems are worst, and some of which could go to infrastructure redevelopment.

Good ideas?  Of course.  Going to happen?  Of course not.

On solving the budget mess

It’s all over, at least in principle.  Every Republican is opposed to another penny in revenue, and every Democrat, it seems, has accepted the conservative arithmentic: we must have “entitlement reform,” meaning cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, maybe other programs that poor people need.  Why?  Because it is politically easier to beat poor people to death in the public square than to deprive rich people of another beach house,

It is true that Medicare and Medicaid are bloated and growing.  They have to be brought under control.  But there are two ways to do it.  The obvious is to just quit spending money on all those poor people and old people, and that’s what we’re going to do.  The better way would be to cut medical costs throughout the economy.  Oh, that would hurt.  It would hurt pharmaceutical companies whose prices could be capped at a fair level of profit, as is done in most of the developed world.  It would hurt hospital adminstrators, who take more and more money home because their institutions are not for profit, so they can’t distribute the green to shareholders.  It would hurt insurance companies, who don’t belong in the health-care game to begin with.

Everybody else would benefit.  What the hell.

Oh, that’s cheeky

AIPAC, the Israeli lobby, is sending hordes of people to Capitol Hill to get Israel’s generous American aid package exempted from sequestration.

About arguments in the White House

A new book claims that President Obama had  strong disagreements with former Secretary of  State Hillary Clinton and the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke seems to have come as a shock to some.  Really?  According to the book, written by a Johns Hopkins University academic, the president tended to rely on inexperienced political advisors more than on Holbrooke.  He wouldn’t be the first to learn that political offices and officials are, first and last, political. Or that people new to Washington tend to distrust those who’ve been involved for long periods some big mess or another.  As for Mrs. Clinton, she’s her own person, a strong and assertive figure.  That she disagreed with the president and expressed her views should come as no surprise, indeed as a comforting thing.  It was the president, after all, who put up with that.  And when, on her resignation, they appeared on television together, they looked pretty darned comfortable together, don’t you think?

On the economic future

Some things are encouraging, others not so much.  Shale gas, cheaper and cleaner than oil, is a very promising development.  It should be slowed, however, long enough to gather baseline data so that environmental effects can be measured.  Of concern lately is the amount of methane, a dangerous greenhouse gas, that is emitted during the shale fracturing and later.  Only so much of it can be captured and used, at least in an economically feasible fashion under current rules.  How much, no one knows for sure.  How much is being emitted, even, is a mystery because it isn’t measured.  This is a stupid way to do business, ignoring climate change, the transcendent problem of our time.

China’s problems, some of which were documented in a fascinating “60 Minutes” report on that country’s housing bubble, are no cause for cheer.  If they have a collapse, it’s bad for everybody.  This is more truly a global economy than ever before.  The Chinese have a largely capitalist economy now, but with a communist government.  The two are not compatible.  Look for enormous unrest across the Pacific

Concerning the White House as real estate

Every president sells off access; every one seems to forget that the White House is a public building.  But for President Obama to sell White House meetings after campaigning against the excesses of the lobbyists is particularly egregious and disappointing.  It’s not enough to say that these are the rules of a filthy game.  It’s time to clean up the game, as he said he would.

About Subway

The founder of the Subway sandwich chain says regulations has become so burdensome that, if they’d been in place when he was starting his business, he never would have got it off the ground.  No Justin? What a pity.

About Walmart’s late distress

“Disastrous sales” was the expression of a Walmart executive whose leaked email discussed the retail giant’s quarterly performance.  In an economy that is supposed to be recovering, news of the email was something of a  jolt.

On the other hand, it should not have been a surprise, because the coincidence of this news with the end of the payroll tax cut was quite likely more than coincidence.  It was, in fact, a stark and disturbing demonstration of how close to the edge the people live who buy at Walmart.  The sales of Williams-Sonoma, the pricey kitchen-goods chain, apparently did not plunge commensurately during the same quarter.

The episode shows the fragility of the recovery, which is threatened further by the stupid and unnecessary impending sequestration in federal spending. It also suggests quite strongly that moving the federal budget toward balance cannot be done successfully on the backs of regular working people.  They can’t take any more, just now.  Williams-Sonoma customers can, though.

These considerations bring up the advice of a reader — we’ll call him Uncle Hank — who suggests a simple measure of tax fairness.  If a tax increase changes your lifestyle, he thinks, then it’s probably not very fair or very well advised.  We take it, though, that by a change in lifestyle, he means a forced choice between food and medicine, for example, not just another consideration in whether to buy a fifth polo pony.

On pending economic calamity (or not)

Comes the question, again from a conservative reader, What about Spain and Greece and Bulgaria?  Aren’t you afraid we’ll end up like them?  The rest of the sentence, we take it, would be, “if we keep spending like drunken sailors on social welfare programs. . .”

The quick answer is no, because the United States dollar is a heck of a lot sounder currency than the euro.  The dollar is backed by genuine production, good credit (still), a strong history and a central government that may look foolish at the moment, but that remains as stable as any in the world.

The longer,  rather more honest answer is that if we keep spending like crazy — on weapons we don’t need, on uncontrolled but highly controllable medical costs and on interest on the national debt — and if we don’t rediscover the ethic of paying our collective bills, then, yes, we could end up in a crisis at some point.

It is absolutely true that the country must turn its attention at some point to balancing the budget and reducing the national debt.  It is also true, as we’ve contended before, that that point is not quite now.  The best thing we can possibly do to reduce the deficit is to return to a healthy economy with lower unemployment, and it’s likely going to take more government spending, in the short term, to make all that happen.  It’s not as though we’re dancing in the dark, here.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal programs took a long time to work — most of the decade of the 1930s, in fact.  But they were steadily making things better until, in 1938, he finally bowed to Republican pressure and began to cut spending in the hope of cutting deficits.  The economy took a plunge again and was finally revived only by the massive government spending and corresponding deficts of the Second World War.  Yes, yes, we’ve had some wars lately.  But the way we fight them nowadays, while it makes some people massively rich, doesn’t employ a lot of people or contribute much to the tax base, either.

About sequestration

Lots of people seem to think they sky is going to fall if sequestration of a small part of the federal budget is allowed to take effect in a few days.  The sky will crash in, too, on some poor people who rely on federal assistance, usually passed through state programs.

Few politicians, however, worry themselves in public about poor people.  What are they concerned about, the president included?  The defense budget, of course, which is $649 billion, give or take.  We used to call it the War Department, by the way, which was honest.  Now it’s the Defense Department, even when waging unnecessary, illegal, preemptive warfare.  Anyway, Pentagon spending is up by roughly 50 per cent over the last decade.  But with one war just over and another winding down, the military can’t stand a cut of 10 per cent?  Amazing.

On Mr. Obama’s place

President Obama is making a bid to go down in history as something rather more important than our first not-all-white chief executive.  The one thing he could take on that would make the most difference is campaign-finance reform, as the money problem stalls solutions to everything else.  He won’t, probably because he wouldn’t get anywhere with it.  Ditto for the second logical priority, environmental controls commencing with serious carbon-emissions cutbacks.

The president, has, however, already dragged the nation behind him on health-care reform, and the historic legislation is starting to pay its dividends.  Those who feared that “Obamacare” was just a first step, and those who welcomed it as a first step, were right.  More is to be done, particularly with respect to cost controls, but the groundwork has been laid.

Now, commencing with last week’s State of the Union address, Mr. Obama proposes to take on early-childhood education.  That, in the form of universal, mandatory preschool, will, if it passes, represent the first truly great step in nationwide educational reform that can keep the country sound and competitive for generations to come.  Coincident with common sense, a great many studies have shown that the learning environment of early childhood leaves an indelible imprint, for better or for worse, on anyone.

The political right will respond to Mr. Obama’s initiative that it is too expensive and that the early-childhood environment is the responsibility of parents, not the state.  As to the first argument, this is one of those things  so compellingly cost effective that money spent on them must be seen as necessary investment, not simple expenditures.  As to the second, it is patently obvious that we have far too many parents in the country who are either unable or unwilling to provide their children with proper environments.  That, ideally, they should be considered responsible simply ignores the reality that for one reason or another, they are . . . not responsible.

One complaint, though:  Mr. Obama, a lawyer, always talks about education in terms of national competitiveness and the need for more technologists, engineers, mathemeticians and scientists.  It’s getting awfully tiresome.  Math and science may form the backbone of commercial and industrial need at the short term.  They are not, however, the soul of civilization.  Language, arts, history and the humanities are.

In fact, a great many people with excellent technical skills use them to rise within organizations.  Then they find that, because their linguistic and broader educational backgrounds are limited, their rise is, too.  Their technical expertise, whatever it is, becomes less important the higher they rise, and their communications skills become correspondingly important.

To put first things first, then, reading — and the love of reading — probably ought to top all educational priorities.  If you have it, the rest will come.

About taxes and the working poor

Our thoughtful conservative thinks all earners should pay taxes.  Assumedly, this means income taxes, because all earners do pay lots of taxes, including payroll taxes, sales taxes and property taxes.  If they rent, they’re still paying property taxes, because that’s a pass-through from landlords.

There’s a powerful argument for paying income taxes if you earn money in this country.  Every taxpayer has a felt stake in the system, which is a good thing.  Of course, at tax time, lots of people resent their obligations, while some swell with pride at fulfilling their patriotic duty.  We’d like to let everybody feel that pride, and we’d do it in a heartbeat if everyone worked for a living wage.

On the other hand, if you work for WalMart, and you’re eligible for public assistance because your pay is so low, it seems a little silly to make you pay the taxes you’ll be getting back in food stamps, doesn’t it?

Concerning dreamers

John Lennon’s inspired song “Imagine” does as much as anything to promote the idea of liberals and leftists (such as there are) as unrealistic. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one . . .”  If the lefties are dreamers, it would seem to follow that the righties are realists.  Let’s slow down and examine that idea.

People are entitled to dreams, of course, and they should have ideals.  They are not entitled to live in a world that does not exist.  The tendency to do so is utterly nonpartisan and non-ideological.  For every liberal who thinks there’s a right to homelessness, there’s a conservative who believes the homeless brought their misery on themselves, and figure every minimum-wage job will lead to something better and ever better.  For every starry-eyed leftie who thinks socialism is practical in this country, there’s a rightie who thinks evolution  and global warming are myths.

For every John Lennon, in other words, there is an Ayn Rand.  These people may be fun to listen to — well, Lennon, anyway — but they’re not living in the real world.  Don’t take them too seriously.

About the flat tax

A thoughtful conservative reader poses the question, What is wrong with a flat tax?

The reflexive liberal response is that it’s flat.  That is, it is not progressive; it doesn’t tax high-income people at higher rates than the poorest taxpayers, and therefore is unfair.

Fairness, though, is in the eye of the taxpayer.  Most people, no doubt, feel that the fair tax is the one somebody else pays.

Either way, the flat tax is a political loser, for now.  When they examine the idea, people like graduated rates.  And when you add up the votes, rich people, of whom there are relatively few, gain from a flat tax, while other earners lose.

When Cordell Hull was sponsoring the income tax 100 years ago in the House of Representatives, he could not imagine that it would have the slightest chance of passage if it were not progressive.  It’s been flattened quite a bit since, but usually by loopholes rather than outright cuts in top rates.  Nowadays the economic royalists make so bold as to say the “job creators” — spin lingo for rich people, who haven’t been creating a lot of jobs, at least in this country — deserve to keep all their money because they earned it.

To believe that, you have to believe that a hedge fund operator’s work is both harder and hundreds of times more valuable to society than that of a concrete finisher, a teacher, a day-care worker or a food inspector.  It also helps to believe that the tax code should never be a tool in addressing a growing and socially unsustainable disparity in income and wealth. It would help, too, to believe that everyone in the society, regardless of home life, educational opportunity, race, geography and inheritance, had the same chance to make money.

The questions really are a bit more complicated than all this, of course.  In the first, place, “flat tax,” like all the consumption taxes — sales taxes, value-added taxes — is not necessarily as simple as it sounds.  It can take various forms.  And, very importantly, while one of its attractions is simplicity, there is nothing to keep it from growing as complicated as the current tax code; and nothing but the power of lobbies to keep the current one as complex as it has become.

Let’s say that by “flat tax” we mean something on the order of Hall-Rabushka.  This was a proposal out of the right-wing Hoover Institution during the Reagan administration, and most of the serious “flat” tax proposals since then have followed its broad outlines.  Both business, with certain deductions, and households would be taxed at 19 per cent, with exemptions for households earning less than $25,000  per annum.  This makes it progressive on the low end, highly advantageous for the wealthiest.  It is, in other words, a proposal to put more pressure on the dwindling middle class of our economic structure.

It would seem to be a preferable thing to simplify the current system.  It was never popular, but taxes just aren’t.  It was not always so complicated as it has become, and it need not be.  But really, it should be progressive.  If you think that’s a proposal for redistributing wealth, well, it is.  If you think you do not believe in redistribution of wealth, you are probably wrong.  Government takes money and redistributes it through the economy.  That’s taxing and spending.  So we all believe, to some degree, in wealth redistribution.  The only question is, which direction?

Concerning change

“Reform” is a seductive word.  Every liberal is a reformer at heart, and practically everyone considering himself a conservative these days is pretty sure the whole world is whacked out and needs rearranging.

Be wary, though — be frightened, in fact — when a politician says, as the president did in his State of the Union address, that he wants to reform entitlements.  “Reform,” in the lexicon of most of those who use the word in this context, means “limit,” if not “destroy.”

It’s getting tiresome to shout this argument into the gale of right-wing dogma, but here are the bare facts: Social Security does not need reform.  It needs a small bit of financial tweaking, easily done without cutting anyone’s benefits now or in the future.  Moreover, it does not contribute to the deficit.  Medicare, for the elderly, and even Medicaid, for the poor, do not need reform.  They need financial support, fewer poor people and lower overall costs for medical care.

The president’s words are ominous, because they parrot the rhetoric of the Tea Party right, which wants to eliminate these programs.  Surprised?  Popular as Social Security and Medicare are, they have never, ever had the support of Republicans.  Republicans fought the establishment of Social Security, but Republican presidents from Eisenhower through Ford tolerated it because they thought it was politically unassailable.  They fought the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid, but made an uneasy and temporary truce with them for decades.

All that is over.  The programs are as popular as ever, so you can’t just say you want to eliminate them.  You have to say you want to “reform” them in order to “save” them.

Bull.

About blind hogs and acorns

George Will, the brilliant but myopic right-wing columnist, supports. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s bill to break up the biggest banks.  That means there’s hope for acting on the obvious: if it’s too big to fail, it’s just too durned big.

On the president’s being a socialist

He’s not.  Ask any actual socialist.  You’ll get a pained groan or a belly laugh.  The guy’s actually on the center right, even in a country as far to the political right as the United States leans these days.  Right or wrong?  Think about it.  Richard Nixon, if he were alive, would be too liberal to contend for the Democratic nomination for president.  He signed the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.  He supported not only the New Deal, but most of the Great Society programs.  He instituted wage and price controls, for goodness’ sake.  We’re a long way from all that now.  So what is all this constant rubbish about Barack Obama’s socialism?

It’s just a shibboleth, of course, a name that is supposed to scare people.  With any thought to the matter, it wouldn’t be so scary.  Here’s the fact of the matter:  While it is true that capitalism has lifted more people, in more countries, to economic independence than any other system, it is just as true that capitalism unbridled results, eventually, in terrible inequities and various forms of near slavery for working people.  Think Dickens’ England, or the New York garment district of 1915.

It is true that socialism, in its purer forms, tends not to work very well.  It is also true (see above) that the purer forms of capitalism work rather poorly.  What we have, therefore, and what we should have, is a blended economy, basically capitalist but with enough leftism to knock off some of the rough, cruel edges of capitalist operations.

Nationalized health care is socialistic?  So what?

About support for killing people

If threats are real but not imminent, and the president wants to kill people anyway, then he needs to get the Congress to authorize some changes.  That should not be a problem.  With this Congress, when it comes to saving lives or improving lives, we’re busted flatter than a fritter; just can’t help.  When it comes to killing people, money turns up in bushels and container cars.

About killing people

It is a short and tragic moral descent from trying to become good, to thinking one is good, to thinking that because one is essentially good, then all that one does is moral.  The same president who says torturing people is immoral, says killing them without benefit of arrest, trial or review, and outside a state of war, is the right thing to do.

It is, of course wrong, and he is deeply and sadly wrong, misguided, perhaps, by the kind of hubris it takes even to contemplate seeking his office. President Obama long ago rightly abandoned the meaningless phrase “war on terror,” which served only to let presidents assume monstrous wartime powers without the bother of war.  It was logical to assume he did not feel the need for those powers.  As it turns out, he’s straightened out the rhetoric, but not his behavior.  Drone strikes are killing people willy-nilly in territory not claimed or controlled by the United States.   Whether those people are American citizens or not is really quite beside the point.  They may be enemies of the United States, but if so — and if they plan violence in furtherance of their beliefs — they are criminals or may become criminals, and they need to be dealt with through the criminal justice system.  If the president lacks faith in the criminal justice system, then he needs to set about fixing it.

Instead, he has used the chief officer of the Department of Justice (it should be the Department of Law) to define “imminent” threat to mean sometime maybe.  All so he can kill people.

Americans don’t seem too upset by all this.  Either they are not paying attention, or they are more fearful than just, or they have fallen into the same morally delusional illogic as the president.

It’s a long climb out of a hole in the national soul like this one.

About the “Christians”

The Arkansas House of Representatives has passed a bill to allow gun toting in churches.  Great.  Maybe some of the “Christians” will kill each other off while apoplectically involved in some of their debates over details of arcane doctrine.  Maybe we could even give them some ideas to disagree on.  Here’s one:  To whom do you owe your first national loyalty, the United States or Israel?

About Mrs. Clinton

If you’ve ever contributed to a Democrat or a liberal cause, it’s hard to avoid a lot of email traffic about Hillary Clinton.  Sign this to thank her for her splendid service.  Send money here to contribute to a super PAC (she doesn’t know about it).  Altogether, it could almost make you believe the apparent consensus of the pundits — that the Democratic presidential nomination is hers for the taking in 2016.

Wait a minute!  Does anybody remember 2008, which started this same way?  Mrs. Clinton didn’t wind up with the nomination.  She had more money, more name recognition, more supporters and more organization than anyone else, by a mile, when the primary season started.  Turns out she had about the same number of supporters when the thing was over with.  That’s what tends to happen to early frontrunners.

It’s even possible that, with the Mideast as unstable as ever and North Africa in turmoil and Europe on the ropes, some will conclude that Mrs. Clinton wasn’t the greatest secretary of State in history.

Moreover, when she runs for the 2016 nomination, as we suppose she will, she’s got a couple of secondhand albatrosses.  She cannot disclaim any of the mistakes of her husband’s tenure, nor any of those of the Obama administration, which she served with a very high profile.  Some people will have realized that the deregulatory zeal of the Clinton adminstration had something to do with the near collapse of the economy in 2008; some may even blame it on selling out the party to Wall Street.  Others will blame the Obama administration for not fixing all that after promising to.

It’ll make Elizabeth Warren look pretty good, won’t it?

Then again, if the Republicans exercise the good judgment to nominate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, trying to escape their Latino-voter problem, it’ll make one of the Democratic Castros from San Antonio look like a possibility.

Or Maybe Joe Biden will wear the mantle of the Obama years better, not having Benghazi around his neck.

Then again, perhaps Martin O’Malley or Deval Patrick will take advantage of having been governor, not a legislator with a long voting record.

Our money, absurdly early though it is, would be on Virginia’s Mark Warner. He’s Southern, centrist, pro-business, glib and personable.  As a candidate, that is to say, he looks more like Bill Clinton 1992 than Mrs. C does, and he doesn’t have to answer for any of the snafus.

About the economy

The economy remains rather sluggish and the federal deficit is still growing.  Self-styled conservatives, who were responsible for ballooning the deficit, say the most urgent economic issue is defict and debt reduction.  They’re wrong.

Let’s see if we can reduce this to the simplest terms.  It is not possible both to stimulate the economy and to reduce the deficit at the same time.  These things have to be done in sequence.  As a growing economy is, by far, the best weapon against deficits, it is clear that the proper sequence is stimulus first, debt reduction later.

A federal jobs program aimed at infrastructure rehabilitation and green energy development would solve a lot of problems in a big hurry.  It would put the country back on the path toward a booming economy.  Then we’d still have a structural defict to deal with.  Not until then do we need to decide how to cut the deficit.  But we’ll be in a much better position to tax people at reasonable, modern-world rates and pay for our obligations as well as some of our myriad new needs.  And yes, we can trim some old programs that don’t work.  Starting with the dysfunctional Pentagon apparatus.

That’s not so hard to understand, now is it?

On the Obama inaugural festivities

Nobody seemed to mention the kill list.

About bad language

No, not foul language, just bad language.  Journalists pass for writers.  They really should pay a little attention to their language, starting with parts of speech.  It is an inauguration, not an inaugural; an invitation, not an invite; a quotation, not a quote.  The adjective form of “democrat” is “democratic,” even in the upper-case cases.

Concerning political perversions

The principal currencies of political power are money, information, money, organization, money, fame and money.  Being right is not in the equation, and money can negate even majority opinion.

The National Rifle Association comprises something less than 6 per cent of the country’s gun owners.  Its leaders advocate no reasonable gun-control legislation and maintain that existing gun laws should be enforced, having arranged things so that enforcement is an impossibility.  More than 60 per cent of Americans disagree with the NRA on the matter of banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.  Yet the NRA is likely to succeed in defeating even these modest measures proposed by President Obama in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.

A $300 million NRA budget goes a long way toward explaining why.  They’ve used this money to purchase organization and to inflame emotions.  Now they maintain that decisions about gun control should be made dispassionately, removed from the emotion of a moment like Sandy Hook.

The NRA’s extremism, it is said, was borrowed from David Brower’s Sierra Club.  Taking the most extreme positions on the most emotional issues is, supposedly, not the the most effective political strategy, but the best way to raise money.  The NRA, however, has gone Brower and the environmentalists one better: they’ve learned that with a committed few — and bushels of money — they can defeat both reason and public opinion.  They actually have people believing that the gun-toting ways of the Old West will create peace.  Those ways created violence and havoc, of course, which is why they were abandoned 150 years ago.

This insanity is just one example of the ways in which money has poisoned the political process.

Public campaign financing, anyone?

About the president, just now

Finally, Mr. Obama seems to be standing strongly for something that is dear to those who supported him.  His firearms legislation is reasonable and, to most Americans, greatly welcome.  Moreover, even if he’s defeated in this, the battle will further scar a divided Republican Party increasingly on the fringe of the political spectrum.  About time.

About the debt limit

It’s a cheap trick to force the president to ignore a law, then accuse him of ignoring the law.

On banks

It is reasonable to hope, but not to expect, that in the relative freedom of a second term, the Obama admistration will pursue breakups of the country’s biggest banks.  It is patently obvious that if an institution is too big to fail, it’s . . . too big.  Now the buzz, spurred largely by a brilliant Rolling Stone piece on the financial-sector bailout, is that the biggest banks are too big to regulate and too big to prosecute.  That is clearly so, because they are too big to inspect with any efficacy.

If Citigroup and Bank of America were smaller, they’d be called street-corner loan sharks.  That’s their business model.  The difference is that the big banks operate with the implicit but concrete assurance of government backing for whatever they want to do.

About guns, again

It has long been our position that the Second Amendment doesn’t mean much because its grammar is so tortured that its intent is impossible to determine on its face.  Its very language, though, does seem to suggest gun control:  “A well regulated militia . . .”

Now, such a reading will elicit howls of protests from the gun-nut crowd.  It is amazing how much emotion the issue provokes.  We’re not talking about hacking off anyone’s penis.  Are we?

On this tax thing

Mr. Murphy’s question seems to provide endless fodder.  When is a tax increase good for the economy?  Now would be a good time, at least for certain kinds of taxpayers.  The president is right that people making upwards of $250,000 a year (we hate to say “earning,” because it’s hard to argue that these people earn more than a welder or a concrete finisher, measured in either hard work or contributions to society) can afford to pay more.  They wouldn’t miss the money.  Neither would the American economy.  The “job creators” have not been doing their own job, if creating jobs is what they’re supposed to be up to.  Not in America, anyway.  So it would help to take some of the money they don’t need and use it to stimulate the economy for everybody.

Normally, in a struggling economy you don’t want to raise taxes.  You want to spend in deficit, for a time.  In order for the economy to work, somebody has to spend money and buy stuff.  If workers can’t do it because they don’t have money to spend, then the government needs to do it.  At the moment, of course, the government is technically bust.  The Republicans, who were responsible for most of the debt, now wail in concert that the No. 1 economic problem is government overspending.  Well, overspending is problematic, at least in the long run.  But somebody’s got to stimulate the economy.

So, you can’t stimulate the economy and move toward a balanced budget at the same time, right?  Yes, you can.  But not by cutting government spending and the employment that goes with it.  You have to do it by forcing rich people to do their duty.  Seems to be a lot of resistance to that idea.  The president, at least in his first campaign, was fond of saying that rich people are not less patriotic than other folk.  He was wrong.

About taxation, again

It has taken some time to get back to Mr. Murphy’s intriguing question:  When is a tax increase good for the economy?  Sorry.  But again, without trying to answer the question exhaustively at a single sitting, let’s try this tonight: Tax increases seem to have been good during the Eisenhower years, when the marginal income tax rate went to 91 per cent.  That was because Americans of that voting generation seemed to believe in paying their considerable bills for the Second World War.  The result, if a connection can be made between tax rates and economic health, was the greatest sustained economic boom in the history of the known universe.  Of course, it was also accompanied by a strong labor movement, massive public works, slowing military spending, intensive foreign aid and increasing regulation of business — you know, the entire liberal economic agenda.

More on this soon.

Further concerning the fiscal “cliff”

Things have come to a sorry pass when the future of the national economy goes through Eric Cantor.  The oleaginous little House majority leader and de facto leader of the Tea Party faction,  seems to hold all the cards in the lower chamber of Congress.  When Speaker John Boehner proposed his silly “Plan B,” with the aim of embarrassing the president, he assumedly had the votes to pass it.  He must have been told he had the votes by his lieutenants, the chief one among whom is Cantor.

Guess what?  Boehner didn’t have the votes, and he wound up being the embarrassed one.  Cantor, still posing by his side as the trusted No. 2, is one of two things.  Either he’s a disloyal lieutenant who undermined the speaker with the idea he could become speaker, himself, pretty soon; or he’s the guy who has to rally the Tea Party members to sign onto an eventual deal.  If he’s not, and he doesn’t, then the country goes over the cliff and the Republicans take the blame.

Concerning gun violence and the NRA

If more guns were the answer, the United States would be the safest country in the world already.

To polish the point, here’s a creative contribution from J. Craig Barnes:

Dear Parents,

Because mentally ill people are everywhere and dangerous, we have accepted the NRA’s offer of armed guards.
You should not be alarmed when you first see them. Because the crazy people are likely to attack with assault weapons we recognize that customary sidearms will be insufficient to the purpose. Our guards will be armed with AR-15s with laser sights.
But that may not be enough.
We ask you to write your Representative and Senator and demand the repeal of the ban on fully automatic .50 caliber machine guns. We wish to build embattlements are each corner of the school where the 50 cal’s will be positioned. Each of them will be manned by a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan. We have been told by the NRA psychiatrists that such an assignment will help with their PTSD treatment. It will also be our strongest defense against the dangerously mentally ill.
Finally, we have decided to rename our school. It will no longer P.S. 23. It will henceforth be calledl Firebase Alphabet. We thing our younger learners will like the Alphabet part, and the adults can just call it Firebase Alpha.
Kind regards and wishing you a peaceful holiday time,
Your Principal (non-union)

About Social Security and the “cliff:”

There’s no reason to touch Social Security because of this so-called fiscal cliff.  As Dick Durbin, the senator from Illinois, keeps trying to explain, there is no connection between Social Security and the federal deficit.  Yet, the president says he’ll accept, as a part of the “cliff” negotiations, a downward adjustment in the Consumer Price Index, or CPI, which is the rough measure of inflation that Social Security and many other cost-of-living adjustments are based on.

If anything, the CPI needs adjustment upward.  Wall-sized flat-screen television sets are getting cheaper, but retirees generally are more concerned about food, fuel and housing.  Without going into the byzantine workings of CPI calculation, ask yourself: does it seem as if those things are ahead or behind general inflation?

But nobody’s  going to raise the CPI.  Now what?  Democrats have a perfectly reasonable alternative: drop COLAs.  That’s right, stop automatic increases in Social Security and federal retirement programs triggered by inflation.  Tie the other retirement programs to Social Security, so that federal retirees don’t get left behind as Social Security payments increase.

This way, Democrats get to propose and pass, and take credit for, Social Security increases, as they did prior to the Nixon administration.  And Republicans, who opposed Social Security when it  was passed, will have to vote against reasonable increases in the most popular federal program ever.  Or, you know, risk their ideological purity.

Concerning taxes

The question comes from one of our dearest right-wingers, Bob Murphy.  When are taxes good for the economy?  The self-evident short answer is always, in some amount, so we take it that the thrust of the question really is, when is a tax increase a good idea?  The very short answer to that is, when we need to pay for what we’ve bought.  So, when we have big debts and big deficits, as we face now, we really ought to raise taxes.

But tax increases slow down the economy, and the quickest route back to solvency is a productive economy, right?  Well, yes . . . generally speaking.  Except that we have a class of people, lately known to the right as the job creators, who have been squirrelling away money from an obstensibly temporary tax cut for a decade and haven’t been creating jobs.  They can help pay down the debt while poorer people, by spending money they don’t send to the government, can stimulate the economy.

* * *

This very big question, though, raises so many more,  which is why we’re just getting around to answering Mr. Murphy, and why the answer will take several installments.

Let’s dive into the buying question, and why we buy and need to pay, rather than quit buying and not pay.  Let’s start, in fact, with a couple of the usual whipping boys of the political right, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.  And let’s discuss why spending for these agencies, and taxing to do so, is good for the economy.

In Pennsylvania, the EPA has partnered with state agencies and, in some cases, with nonprofits, to clean up something nearing 300 miles of streams that were so polluted  you shouldn’t eat the fish from them, if any could grow there at all.  Those miles of stream now are safe.  They are producing fish and this has opened up tons of opportunity for outdoorsmen to go spend their dollars with outdoors businesses.  The same agency is struggling to impose regulations that will clean the air of thousands of tons of contaminants.  Their every move is being fought by power companies and others who want to continue to pollute, and who claim that the EPA is costing money.  It does cost money.  But not as much as we’ll all spend on more health care for more patients dying of more diseases from more pollution if the EPA loses.

OSHA?  They force unwise business people to do what the wise ones already do.  The impetus comes largely from the union movement, which tends to care about its workers’ health.  But the best businesses have always cared about health and done their best to protect their employees.  Why?  Because of lost-time expenses and health-care expenses when they don’t.

Tomorrow we’ll try to get to issues of fairness in taxation and timing of tax changes and the principles that should guide decisions about them.

About the filibuster

When you abuse privileges, you tend to lose them.  The incessant right-wing attacks on earmarks came about in some part because New Gingrich, high priest of the right 20 years ago, ordered his minions to abuse the earmark system, rewarding their political supporters with contracts and institutional grants.  A good system, abused, went out of control.  Now it may well go away.

The filibuster is in similar danger, for similar reason.  The filibuster is not a constitutional device.  It’s not unconstitutional; it’s just not written into the framing document, or into law.  It is a peculiarity of the rules of an already unusual institution called the United States Senate.  It is, on its face, not a bad thing, in that it tends to inhibit what John Locke called the tyranny of the majority.  But it’s been abused.  Republicans, in the minority but not acknowledging that fact, have threatened filibusters in recent years at the rate of one every three calendar days, in session or not.  All they have to do is threaten, now, because actually starting any of those filibusters would use up the time too valuable to spend on anything but the real business of a modern-day senator, which is fundraising.

So Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to restrict the filibuster.  Republicans are up in arms about it.  Ah, well, they’re up in arms about everything.  They’re somewhat likely to lose some of the strength of their favorite weapon.  Good.  They abused it.

With regard to certain entitlements

This from Comrade Bernie — Bernie Sanders, the saintly socialist senator from Vermont:

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein came to Capitol Hill this week to call for
cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. As Congress and the White House
are negotiating a year-end deficit deal, Blankfein blustered about the need to
“lower people’s expectations” about their retirement and health care. He was
loose with his facts. He spoke with all the sympathy for someone struggling to
get by on a $14,000-a-year retirement that you’d expect from a Wall Street
banker paid $16 million last year.

We’d thought, naively again, that Wall Street executives might have lowered their own expectations after they damn near wrecked the entire world economy.  What were we thinking?

About “entitlement reform” generally

Why must Democrats be asked to commit to “entitlement reform” when they know that what that means is gutting benefits for recipients of federal help?  The sensible way to “reform” Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid is to pay for them.  How about that?

Anyway, if you’re looking for a balanced approach to deficit cutting — some revenue increases and some spending reductions — why doesn’t it count that two Republican-initiated wars are ending?  Several billion dollars per day ought to count, don’t you think?

Concerning the “fiscal cliff”

This is a teriffic opportunity for the right.  The conversation, so far, has been largely about whether they’ll abandon their stupid pledge to Grover Norquist never to raise taxes, on anyone, for any reason.  Because practically all the Republicans signed the pledge, and because Norquist construes any revenue increase to be a tax increase and ipso facto evil, any departure from it will be regarded as a huge concession.

So Republicans never need to talk about allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire, even on zillionnaires.  Dropping any deduction will count.  Reducing the home-mortgage interest deduction certainly would count.

The price, however, for such a departure would be huge.  The move would shift the conversation to what the Democrats want to give up in the way of spending, and it won’t touch the Pentagon.  It will take the form of vicious attacks, first on Medicaid, and then on Medicare, perhaps eventually on basic Social Security itself.

Duck and cover.  Here she comes.

About the day after

All right, demography has spoken.  The Republicans, increasingly reliant on a bunch of woolly mammoths in the less educated, more obese regions of the country, are going to have to come to terms with the future.  The Democrats need to consider something, too:  All those old, fat white guys (don’t get too crazy here; I’ve described myself) have been duped into voting against their own economic interests for hundreds of years.  When does this stop?  When does the Democratic Party go south, and go into the Midwest, and make the following, simple case?

Look at Maryland and Massachusetts.  Take a hard look at Vermont and Minnesota.  Examine their political traditions.  Examine their economic progress.  Now look at South Carolina and Mississippi, Arkansas and South Dakota.  Examine the same two things.  Ask yourself if the answer to economic problems is to get more conservative.  Really.

On election day

It’s a beautiful day in Pennsylvania, allegedly something of a battleground.  The clear hint of democracy is in the air.  It’s beginning to feel like a really bad day for Republicans.

With their trainloads of money, those guys have done a lot of party-building.  That, and a breathtaking disregard for the truth, is how they’re taking over legislatures and how they’ll hold onto the lower house of Congress.  Not all is lost, though, and this resilient republic seems poised to come back, once again, from the cold grip of corporate power.

How?  By the old, traditional lifeblood of America: immigration.  The shifting demographics of the country promise a strong shift against the party that has used working-class Hispanics as the whipping boy of their complaints.  Things will be better in four years, better yet in eight, unless the Republicans move back to their less reactionary roots.

About corporate welfare

Having mouthed off about welfare, or the lack of it, we are asked to comment on corporate welfare.  While we are unaware of any program officially so named, let’s just say that the rich are doing a lot better than the poor when it comes to tugging on the federal teat.  Oil companies alone drain off several billion dollars a year in the oil depletion allowance for independents, the even crazier intangible drilling cost deduction for the big boys and the enhanced oil recovery credit.  All this while recording record profits with near-record gasoline prices.

The Republicans want to “simplify” the tax code for the rest of us, meaning flatten it.  But they don’t want to simplify away the break for sending jobs overseas.  Gov. Romney claims not to know what that’s about.  It’s about taking a deduction for the expenses involved in relocating business offshore.  His party voted to keep that little jewel in the tax code.

This is an endlessly long topic, prospectively.  Suffice it to say that welfare is going the same route as income — less for the poor, more for the rich.  For example, a large percentage of Wal Mart employees are eligible for food stamps, which is a stingy benefit from the taxpayers.  The top four members of the Walton family hold as much wealth as the bottom 40 per cent of Americans, but the Republicans think it’s real important to shield their capital gains from taxation.  Let’s be clear about the food stamps, though:  they are an effective subsidy to the corporation as much as to the employees.  Paying people as little as that?  Well, it’s legal, and you can get stinking rich that way.  Thanks to the taxpayers.

Come to think of it, the taxpayers are the same as consumers — you know, all those people who love to pay low prices at Wal Mart?  Pretty swell deal.  Pay low prices, subsidize the workers with your own money, but don’t pay the bill because you vote for people who say your taxes are too high.  It all adds up.  Right?

And a little more on Karl Rove

It’s getting tiresome to hear him described as a political genius.  It doesn’t take a great deal of insight to figure out that you can make a successful political alliance between the rich and the uneducated.  What it takes is enough cynicism to demagogue phony social issues enough to get people to vote against their own economic interests.

Concerning the wasteful, burdensome federal government

Hurricane Sandy is going to have a lot of Republicans looking for federal help in a big way and in a big hurry.  Send us some of those nasty ol’ bureaucrats!  We need ’em!

On government operations

Why can’t government act like a business?  Uh, because it’s not?  Government agencies wouldn’t last a week in the private sector.  Well, no.  If they could, then they should be in the private sector.

On government regulation

Before Jimmy Carter got on the deregulation bandwagon, and Ronald Reagan supercharged it, the United States was the envy of the world in transportation — including airlines — telecommunication, banking, insurance and securities.  We fixed all that, deregulating it into a third-world-worthy wreck.  Yet, the frenzy for deregulation is unabated.  Go figure.

On Karl Rove

He would cheat at solitaire.

On aid to the poor

Most of our programs to aid poor people — housing assistance, utilities assistance, drugs assistance — amount to taking money from our shrinking middle class, passing it for moments through the hands of the poor, and into the hands of the landlord and stock-owning class.  It’s a wealth transfer program upward.  Most homeless people work, or want to, but they can’t make a living.  Wages are too low, rents too high.  So if we really wanted to address the problem, we’d be talking about living-wage laws and rent controls.  Not bloody likely.

On the right to life

If you believe in a right to life, then it behooves you to regard the necessities of life as rights.  That would mean food, clothing, shelter (with temperature control) and health care.  Leaving these things to the tender mercies of private business is not treating them as rights.  Tolerating homelessness as a constant in American life is beyond shameful.  It is immoral.  People have a right to live.

On welfare

What, exactly, do you mean by “welfare?”  Do you imagine you can quit working and just draw a check?  There’s TANF — temporary aid to needy families — which is exactly what it says, temporary.  There are food stamps and a certain amount of housing assistance.  Then there’s disability and unemployment compensation.  Not much else.

On government spending

It doesn’t much matter what government spending is, within the political realities of the day.  What matters is whether we intend to pay for what the government spends.  The debt we have now is perfectly manageable with reasonable tax rates and a robust economy.  This is no time to panic, and no time to cut back on any of the fundamentally important investments of government, like education, infrastructure, the welfare state and science.  It’s just time to pay for it.

On Mr. Romney’s casual changes of fundamental positions

He’s the Sybil of American politics.  How many personalities does this guy have?

On the passing of George McGovern

The senator stood for peace.  What party will do that now?

On so-called class warfare

These people are confused.  They’re confusing class with money, and victims with aggressors.  By the way, war is the greatest obscenity ever conceived by the evil side of human character.  Not every conflict is a war.

On Christian values

Why is it that those most enthusiastic about the spurious idea that this is a Christian nation tend also to be those most insistent that, as a nation, we not behave that way?

On dirty words

Progressive?  Sure.  Liberal? You bet.  The alternatives are to be regressive and illiberal.

On The “Democrat” Party

Oh, please.  Have they quit teaching parts of speech?  It’s a question of grammar.  You’re not stupid; don’t look stupid.

On gay marriage

Marriage is many things, but to the state it is one thing.  It is a contract.  So for your church or temple or synagogue, if you claim one, let it be a holy state, a relationship with the almighty, whatever.  For the state, however, it is a contract: a civil union.  So stop all the dodgy stuff about endorsing civil unions, but not marriages.  There is no difference.  And who are we to say that two otherwise eligible adult citizens can’t enter into contracts?