You Can’t Get There From Here

Tight BudgetKudos to David Brooks for writing a second column on the Sequester, and opening with a sincere apology for the first one. Brooks initially and erroneously claimed that Obama had no plan on the table to avoid the imminent Sequester, but then corrected himself to admit that, rather, he simply didn’t like the plan Obama had. That’s never an easy haul for anyone.

But then he goes on to lay out his 3-point plan that he would like to see Obama push to resolve the current impasse.

  1. Take entitlement spending that currently goes to the affluent elderly and redirect it to invest in the young and the struggling.
  2. Enact a value-added tax, use money from that tax to finance an income tax exemption.
  3. Talk obsessively about family structure and social repair to restitch the social fabric.

None of these are bad ideas, but none of them remotely address the current threat of Sequestration. Number 1 simply redirects funds, and so has a net neutral budget impact. Number 2 is not only budget-neutral, but requires a substantial retooling of the tax code. The details of this sort of reform take years to work out. There’s no way this would have any impact on the budget crisis du jour. And number 3 has no direct budget impact at all.

This also doesn’t address the unfortunate reality that the GOP base simply isn’t interested in solving this problem.  As Ezra Klien points out, the available deal is a far bigger gain for the Republican agenda than Sequestration. The White House is willing to cut the deficit, cut entitlements, protect defense spending, and eliminate tax loopholes as part of a settlement plan. While this does nothing to lower tax rates, it still rings the bell on 4 of the 5 major budget policy objectives on the right.

Doing nothing only cuts the deficit, and then by not as much as Obama’s current proposal. It does nothing about entitlements, tax loopholes, or tax rates. Not to mention, it significantly cuts defense. So what does the GOP win by standing firm on their plan to sit idly by?

Obviously they don’t win on achieving their stated policy agenda. They don’t win on popularity either. A plurality (49%) of Americans say the Sequester will be Republicans’ fault if it happens, while only 31% will blame Obama.

The only possible win here is personal and political. Each of the obstinate Congressmen and Senators will be able to return home and claim they denied Obama everything he ever wanted, and refused to budge even an inch in compromise. And while I’m forced to accept that there exist districts where this message plays well, I worry about the state of our society that it does.

Nonetheless, it further dooms Brooks’ plan. As a pundit on the right, he surely must realize that getting the GOP base to support something, and having the President advocate for something, are pretty much mutually exclusive.

Two things are clear. First, the Sequester is exactly what the GOP base wants to happen. Second, no deal Obama could put on the table would change that. Food for thought as you decide who gets the blame. Yet small comfort as you settle in for the Sequester induced economic recession.


Obama’s Alleged Snub of Israel

Israel SnubThe photo message to the left has been making the rounds on Facebook and other sources. As of this writing, it had over 20k shares and over 130k likes.

It’s the latest right-wing outrage over a seemingly small Obama maneuver. According to Reuters:

(Reuters) – The White House has rejected a request by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet President Barack Obama in the United States this month, an Israeli official said on Tuesday, after a row erupted between the allies over Iran’s nuclear programme.

An Israeli official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that Netanyahu’s aides had asked for a meeting when he visits the United Nations this month, and “the White House has got back to us and said it appears a meeting is not possible. It said that the president’s schedule will not permit that”.

Netanyahu has met with Obama on all the Israeli leader’s U.S. trips since 2009.

The White House has not confirmed the snub. But even assuming it’s an accurate recounting, I fail to see the rationale for reactions best summed up by the comment appearing on my Facebook news feed saying, “I think it is totally disgraceful!”

Granted, a meeting commits us to nothing, but neither does a refusal to meet mean a complete breakdown of a relationship. This is a standard negotiating tactic. By refusing the meet, the US is asserting its position of power and control in the situation. Basically indicating that Netanyahu needs to soften his stance and take a more conciliatory posture. That hardly seems an untenable position for the US political right-wing who are typically more than a little hawkish in their foreign policy, and often tout that America should assert its position as the global superpower.

The problem here is that Netanyahu clearly wants the US to draw “red lines” with the intent of forcing the US into military action with Iran. He’s been quite open about that, and about his ire that Obama won’t commit to irrevocable terms under which he will bomb Iran. He has also openly taken sides in our election, becoming almost the Israeli wing of the Republican party. This is something our allies rarely do, partly out of respect, but also out of the recognition that they ultimately have to deal with the next President, regardless of how the election comes out. If he wants the respectful attention of our President, and ultimately wants us to do him a significant favor, he’s got a funny way of going about it.

Forgetting this involves Obama for a minute, what is the right advocating for here? That the President is obliged to accept a visit from any foreign head of state on demand? I would think not. The President should meet when there is value to the US in doing so. In this case, Netanyahu wants something the US isn’t prepared to give (commitment to military action in Iran), nor is it clear the Israeli people are prepared for that. Their own defense minister cautions against Netanyahu’s plan. Further, Netanyahu’s reputation with pretty much every world leader is that of a petulant child, prone to tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. Moreover, his historical record is that he leaks details of confidential meetings where he doesn’t get his way to the press, spun to his own advantage. Where is the potential upside for the President, or for the country in taking this meeting? Presumably, you want a President who’s tough, and sometimes that means saying no. That clearly doesn’t mean the President is saying they will never meet. They’ve had numerous meetings in the past, and spoke on the phone just last week. We are the most powerful nation on the planet. You earn a meeting, you don’t demand one.

I also wonder if we would even be having this discussion if the Prime Minister of Spain was demanding to be seen? It seems to me that Israel gets treated differently than any other foreign nation. Are they in a precarious geographic situation? Sure. so is South Korea. But in the end, Israel is still a foreign country and how we treat them should be based on what’s in our national interest. We are not obligated to treat them like a teenage child who has moved out of the house, but still needs Daddy to protect them.

And yes, I do recognize Israel’s exulted position among the religious right as the Holy Land and the location of many of the End Times prophecies.  But that is not a basis for making national policy. If their church’s would like to form their own militias and deploy them to the West Bank that’s fine by me. But the US federal government should not be making foreign policy decisions based on bible stories.

In another vein, during the ’08 election, many of the same folks who are apoplectic over snubbing Netanyahu now, were abhorred that Obama said that under the right conditions he’d meet with Iran or other hostile governments. The claim was that even meeting with Ahmadinejad showed weakness and meant we’d give in to them. Why are the rules different now? Why would this meeting not show weakness and a willingness to concede?

And as long as I’m on a roll here, let’s talk about Obama’s “terrible” support for Israel. So far he has provided full financing and technical assistance for Israel’s Iron Dome short-range anti-rocket defense system. In July, he provided an additional $70 million to extend the Iron Dome system across southern Israel. That’s in addition to the $3 billion in annual military assistance to Israel that the president requests and that Congress routinely approves. He has increased aid to Israel and given it access to the most advanced military equipment, including the latest fighter aircraft. Obama has given close coordination by intelligence agencies — including the deployment of cyberweapons — to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, said last year, “I can hardly remember a better period of American support and backing, and Israeli cooperation and similar strategic understanding of events around us than what we have right now.”

Obama persuaded Russia and China to support harsh sanctions on Iran, including an arms embargo and the cancellation of a Russian sale of advanced antiaircraft missiles that would have severely complicated any military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Obama secured European support for what even Ahmadinejad, called “the most severe and strictest sanctions ever imposed on a country.”

Obama has been steadfast against efforts to delegitimize Israel in international forums. He has blocked Palestinian attempts to bypass negotiations and achieve United Nations recognition as a member state, a move that would have opened the way to efforts by Israel’s foes to sanction and criminalize its policies. As a sign of its support, the Obama administration even vetoed a Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements.

In light of all this, it may be fair to say that Obama has an issue with Netanyahu, as does almost anyone who’s ever met him. But it’s pretty hard to claim he doesn’t care about or support Israel.


Conservative: You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Inigo-Montoya-SwordWhen it comes to civil liberties and personal freedoms, I’m a self-avowed flaming liberal. Marry whom you love, worship whom you will, or don’t. Smoke dope. Paint your house neon green. Dance naked in the street. As long as your actions don’t directly infringe someone else’s freedom, have at it.

But in the realm of economics, foreign policy, commercial regulation, etc. I consider myself fairly conservative.  That’s “conservative” with a lower case “c”. It’s “conservative” in the sense of the dictionary definition. Someone who favors existing proven pragmatic methods. Someone who likes to preserve. Someone not prone to extravagant new experimental ventures. Someone who is cautiously moderate, and fiscally responsible.

This is far away from what “Conservative” with a capital “C” has come to mean in America. When you capitalize the “C”, suddenly you become someone who advocates for hawkish foreign policy, unabashed capitalism, and socially Darwinian domestic policy. Someone who favors dogmatic inflexible situationally independent rules.

The bizarre reality of being a Conservative in America is that you aren’t really very conservative at all. On the other hand, being conservative now makes you politically Liberal (with a capital “L”). It’s all so confusing. Perhaps a couple of examples would help.

Let’s take healthcare. On a per capita basis, American healthcare costs double what is spent for care in every other industrialized western country. And no, the quality of care is not better here. Health care costs are a drain on businesses and wages because providing employee healthcare is so expensive and continues to grow at multiples of the inflation rate.

The Conservative answer is basically to stay the course. There is a conservative angle here in that conservatives are resistant to change. But this is being ignorant of the larger picture. Sure, you can be resistant to policy change, but that doesn’t stop the change in healthcare costs that is eating up the economy. This is like sitting on your roof, refusing to be evacuated while the flood waters rise around you. The myopic conservative position may be to stay the course, but the safe, pragmatic, less risky position is to get in the next boat that comes by.

Looking around the world, some form of government run universal healthcare is the norm. There are any number of varieties including true socialized healthcare ala Great Britain, Medicare for all ala Canada, or even regulated and compulsory private insurance ala Switzerland.  All deliver roughly equivalent results at a fraction of the cost of the U.S. system. Further, there are so many variations of this system all succeeding, it can’t be that tricky to implement. Given, the clear choice for true conservatives should always be to solve a problem using a cost effective, proven, and time tested technique, the answer to healthcare should be clear.

In a somewhat related vein, there is a vested conservative interest in having a healthy and well-educated citizenry, who are living in a country with a solid modern infrastructure. All of these are foundational elements to the capitalistic industrial success that ultimately drives the economic prowess that makes this country great. Collapsed bridges, flooded cities, unreliable communications or power networks, or unemployable and non-productive citizens are all largely preventable problems if the society as a whole is making persistent and solid investments in its long term future. A liberal might advocate for something similar because it was the humane thing to do or because everyone deserves a chance. But a conservative should advocate for these things because they are solid practical ways to enable a productive society and minimize the collective expense.

Think of it this way. A conservative would clearly buy insurance on his home and make every effort to keep it well maintained. In this way, it’s a safe reliable shelter that should meet the needs of his family for decades to come. What could be a more conservative position than that?

When it comes to the environment, how can you be conservative and yet oppose environmental conservatism? No, I don’t think preserving every last species of minnow or song bird is vital. Species have been going extinct since the dawn of time. That’s the circle of life. But preserving and protecting the larger ecosystem we live in and depend on is about as conservative an idea as I can imagine. From deep sea oil drilling and fracking to carbon emissions, acid rain, and nuclear waste, the capital “C” Conservative position is diametrically opposed to the lower cased conservative one. I don’t get it.

On foreign policy, I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s conservative about the kick ass and take names approach to the world. There are absolutely national interests that lie outside our borders, but diplomacy and economic power are far more cost effective, with less risk to domestic lives and treasure, than military action. It’s important to carry a big stick, but that doesn’t mean you never bother to speak softly.

On economics, Conservatives have the equation completely backwards. A conservative approach would be to take on some debt when times were bad and investment was needed. But then to be responsible and pay that debt off when things were going well.  Instead, we see Conservatives opt for austerity in bad times, in essence compounding the downturn, and then claiming deficits don’t matter during prosperous times, thereby compounding the recovery. A conservative should favor a nice even economy, not one that slingshots about like a roller-coaster.

In a very real way, the current capital “C” Conservative movement has become radical. Meanwhile the Liberal movement has morphed into something downright lower case conservative. Minimally, this means that hanging your identity on a label rather than a solid ideology may lead you to a point where you are unintentionally advocating for outcomes you would very much oppose. Modern marketing means you have to be a very intelligent consumer; and not just when you are shopping for margarine, but when you are shopping for politicians.

My ideology makes me politically conservative. But the current state of politics means I align most closely with the Liberals. Clearly, in today’s world, words don’t mean what you think they mean. Vote wisely.


One of these things is not like the other

GOPvsDemThis week has provided for an interesting micro-study on a key difference between our two political parties.

Harry Reid proclaimed that Mitt Romney did not pay any taxes for years. Meanwhile, Romney released a new ad asserting that Obama was gutting welfare reform. These were not tit-for-tat events. They are relatively unrelated. But the parties’ and pundits respective reactions to each are instructive.

First, a recap of the facts: Reid’s claim is a baseless accusation. The public has no knowledge of whether or not it’s actually true, and little reason to believe Reid actually knows. It’s a distasteful attempt to put a political opponent on the defensive. To make him guilty until he proves himself innocent.  Romney’s claim is different. While it is also intended to put his opponent on the defensive, it is flat-out, demonstrably, unquestionably, factually false.

How were these two events reported? The New York Times is generally considered a left-leaning news source. You might presume they’d defend Reid while hanging Romney out to dry. You’d be wrong.

Compare the opening of a story on Reid:

Senator Harry Reid’s decision this week to hurl a taunting, unsubstantiated accusation at Mitt Romney is hardly out of character for the cantankerous Democratic leader of the Senate, who revels in provocative comments and once called Mr. Romney “kind of a joke.”

To the opening of a story on Romney:

Seven years ago, Mitt Romney joined other governors to urge the federal government to grant “increased waiver authority” to states to experiment with implementation of the federal welfare-to-work program.

But as he runs for president, Mr. Romney and his Republican allies are now accusing President Obama of “gutting” the welfare program by saying it will consider waivers to states.

These are not cherry picked stories, nor is the NYT unique in this regard. The major media outlets and pundits are pulling no punches in calling Reid out on his baseless accusation.  Meanwhile, Romney’s lie is treated as a topic of reasonable debate.

My initial reaction to this was that the “mainstream media” was now so in fear of being labeled as having a liberal bias, they had become afraid to expose even outright falsehoods on the conservative side. And I do think this is at least part of it.  The right’s efforts to play up their victimization by a lefty lamestream media have assuredly had an effect on the way news gets reported.

Yet I think that’s not the whole story. I think a part of the media reaction also relates to how far the parties get from their behavioral norms. The GOP has key figures claiming Obama’s birth certificate was faked, and that there is a Muslim conspiracy brewing in the State department. In the greater scheme of outrageous claims, “Obama guts welfare reform” barely nudges the needle. On the Democratic side, unsubstantiated claims of filing perfectly legal tax returns that play the IRS for every penny are treated as scandalous.

There’s a lesson here. Both sides may “play the game”, but not to the same degree. It’s kind of like claiming the USA and Tunisia were both playing Olympic basketball the other night. While technically true, they weren’t playing in the same league.

Still, I know many of you out there are completely frustrated with the whole thing. You claim to hate what both sides do, and that’s more than fair. There are no angels in politics.Some of you are determined to check out of the political process by not voting, or you intend to make a statement by voting for a 3rd party candidate.

But the simple reality is this. Come 2013, one of these two parties will take the White House. And one of these two parties will control each of the houses of Congress. With four short months to go until the election, no other party has a remote chance in hell of altering that reality.

One of these things is not like the other. As the Templar Knight told Indiana Jones, “Choose wisely.” And as the band Rush reminds us in their song Freewill, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”


Babbling in the Mirror – Obama Supporter Interviews Future Self

I received a link to a YouTube video today. The video is a mock up of someone from 2008 interviewing their current selves and dealing with all the crushing disappointments of the Obama Administration.

The link came with a request:

“Please, please, somebody tell me where she is wrong. I really want to know!”

I’ll try to suspend my skepticism that anyone circulating this sort of propaganda is truly interested in facts, or even willing to accept them, but I’m up for the challenge anyway.

The video contains a scarcity of actual data, but there are a lot of general claims.  A few are fairly accurate, many are directionally incorrect, and a few are outright false. In the opening, the 2008 woman is going on about the utopia that would surely result from 4 years under Obama.  Granted, there was a lot of optimism from his supporters upon his election, but anyone who believes any President can effect a utopian transformation of the country is delusional. If you think it can be done in the midst of the second largest economic downfall in the last century, you’re just plain nuts.  It’s unfair to compare Obama to some vision of Nirvana. Rather, the accurate comparison is to the alternative, a McCain administration. Unfortunately, we’ll never know what that might have been. Maybe it would be better, maybe worse, but we can be pretty sure, based on the previous 30 years of mostly Republican administrations, that it wouldn’t quite be utopia.

Obama Supporter - Self InterviewThe initial substantive claim is that the 2012 woman’s father died because his asthma medication was outlawed. This is flat out false.  No asthma medications have been outlawed.  Starting this year, CFC based inhalers were banned. Keep in mind that CFC propellants have been banned since the 70s in everything else in an effort to save the ozone layer. Civilization survived. Further, HFA inhalers are available as an alternative. Same medication, same dose, different delivery mechanism.

Next is a general lament about high unemployment. There’s no doubt that unemployment remains unacceptably high. However, looking at the data, private sector employment bottomed out in early 2010 and continues to climb steadily upward.  But public sector employment is plummeting at a rate the private sector in a minimally expanding economy can’t ameliorate. Look at a comparison of Bush’s first term compared to Obama’s. Bush responded to the economic downturn in 2000 with stimulus by expanding government payroll.  Obama responded by slashing government jobs in favor of private sector stimulus. Hmmm…

But Obama had a super-majority! Why didn’t he fix everything? Obama’s super-majority in Congress hinged on one man, Ted Kennedy. A man who had the gall to be suffering terminal brain cancer upon Obama’s election, and who died in August of that first year.  Kennedy made special and heroic returns to the Senate floor to cast votes on the stimulus and on Obamacare, but otherwise was incapacitated. After his death, Scott Brown was elected and the Obama super-majority vanished.

Oh, the executive orders! There’s no specific complaint over any specific executive orders, but the implication is that Obama is issuing them all over the place.  The data from the National Archives would disagree. Obama has issued 129 EOs so far.  Pro-rating that for his entire first term puts him on pace to issue 147 by January.  G.W. Bush averaged 145/term. Clinton averaged 181, Bush Sr. did 165, and Reagan comes in at 190.  So Obama’s on the low end of recent history.

Why didn’t the stimulus fix everything as promised? First, we have to accept the 2008 woman somehow magically knowing about the 2009 stimulus package, but I’m nit-picking. Most stimulus proponents now agree the stimulus package was not up to the task. The enormity of the economic hole was much larger than anticipated and the level of stimulus was insufficient to achieve the desired results.  However, it probably was the largest package that would have been politically do-able.  But even then, did it have a positive effect? There is arguably legitimate debate here, although the consensus is that the stimulus did improve things. But even if it didn’t, there’s no one claiming it did any harm excepting a brief blip in the debt curve.

Next up is the assertion that all of Obama’s investments in green energy have gone bankrupt. One company, Solyndra, went bankrupt.  That’s not quite all.  There’s ample room for debate on whether the government should be subsidizing commercial energy companies, but the fact remains that the vast majority of the loans have not defaulted. Further, the $535M Solyndra debacle is a relative drop in the $34B DOE loan bucket. So minimally, this claim is blowing things out of proportion.

There’s a healthcare mandate, she says with a voice dripping in desperation. Yes there is. And unless we’re content with 30-50 million Americans going without medical care or getting it by indirectly increasing the costs of those of us who do get it, there should be.  Even Mitt Romney (the unwitting father of Obamacare), was recently praising the Israeli heathcare system as being cost effective—apparently unaware that it achieves those results through government controlled universal coverage. If there’s a workable alternative solution, someone should put it on the table.  Otherwise

There’s a middle class tax hike, she says.  No, there isn’t. Taxes are at historic lows.  That is, unless you count the Obamacare individual mandate as a tax increase, in which case they are still at historic lows.  But viewing the mandate as a tax increase is a spurious argument that also requires you to acknowledge the effective tax cut the rest of get for not having to pay for the care of those without insurance through our insurance rates, paycheck deductions, and co-pays.

Obama promised transparency! Yes, he did. And the record so far is abysmal by pretty much any measure. Transparency seems to decrease year after year regardless of who’s in office.  This may be a result of the 24×7 instant news culture we live in.  Be that as it may, this is still our government and we have a right to know what’s going on in there.

There are loads of lobbyists in the Administration. Yes, there are, and Obama promised there wouldn’t be.  This is more than a little disappointing. It may be the reality of modern government. It may be that other administrations have done much the same thing, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a fundamental campaign promise on which Obama has failed badly.

African American suffer the highest unemployment rates.  Well, yes. But historically that’s always been true. That doesn’t make it a good thing, but it’s hardly a remarkable thing.

Internationally we’ve never been more hated. This is simply pants-on-fire false.

But I thought the Muslim world would follow our lead to democracy? Well, yes and no. The Arab Spring has certainly been a profound and recent movement toward democracy in much of the Muslim world. However, in many cases it has resulted in the democratic election of parties and leaders that are not so very friendly toward the USA. The unfortunate reality of letting people choose is that you may not like their choices.  Nonetheless, to say they followed our path is a little ludicrous. Further, Obama didn’t promise to bring democracy to the world. That was G.W. Bush.

Instead, we’re following Europe’s lead into debt.  Yes and no, but mostly no. First, we aren’t following Europe. We aren’t racking up debt because they are or because we view them as some sort of economic mentor. Second, not all of Europe is debt ridden. Greece, Italy, and Spain are at particular risk. This crises was created because of the European Economic Union, which joins all the countries’ currencies without linking their economies. This is not the situation in the USA. we are not going the way of Europe. We may still get sucked down by them, but that’s not a function of debt, just a reality of global economies.  Yes, the debt in the US is unsustainable. However, current debt levels are not a result of runaway spending. Spending increases are growing slower than at any time since the 50s. Instead, what we have is an unprecedented loss of revenue as a result of tax cuts, high unemployment, and a sluggish economy. Further, the US government is currently considered the most stable financial bet on the planet. At present, the Treasury is able to sell debt at negative yields. That means people are paying the US government to keep their money safe. This is beyond free money.  Yes, we can’t rack up debt forever. When the economy recovers, we absolutely need to pay it down rather than giving ourselves tax cuts like we did in 2001. But there is no evidence that debt is an emergent risk to our economy.

I recognize this has been long, and I’m flattered if you muddled through to the end. If you have any energy left, I strongly encourage you to click through and read the reference material, or dig up your own. But please, dig up facts and not emotional appeals and sound bites. The video is a cute concept, but it is a message largely without substance.