Archive for December 2012

The Strange Tale of 2012

December 31, 2012

Often we hear, “things can’t get worse”, only to see them get worse.  How about, “tomorrow will be better still” and see things unchanged.  And when we are least suspecting, “something great just happened”.

In 2012 we saw a continuation of an unfocused and dysfunction Congress.  Ordinarily one might say “so what”, or “what else is new”.  Some see a Congress paralyzed into inactivity as a good thing.  The unfortunate collateral damage from a dysfunctional Congress is the message sent to most Americans.  Your elected representatives don’t care and can’t cooperate, so why should you try?  With the economy struggling, this is not the desired attitude one would want to see across America.

America has problems at all levels of government, national, state, and local.  These problems are all solvable and represent no terminal disease… unless we let it turn into an irreversible malaise.

The political discourse was even worse.  Such out and out mistruths as “job creators”, photo IDs, and securing the borders took on the cloth of politically driven purposes.  Say what it takes to get the vote.  Don’t worry about “fact check”.  And with seemingly unlimited funds, any message can be sold.

But in this sea of intellectual darkness, a ray of sunshine did appear.  The Presidential race which looked to be a toss up, if not a Republican victory, actually went to the incumbent by a clear margin.  The American electorate rejected the mistruths and assigned blame for Congressional dysfunction to the GOP.  The job creators, the photo ID advocates, and the immigration reform deniers were shown the door.  President Obama was reelected.

The major 2012 question left unanswered is whether the GOP has learned anything.  Obstructionism, blatant use of mistruths, and disdain for the average person will not yield results the GOP is seeking.  Worse, a weakened and wounded GOP is doubly not good.  Without a vigorous but constructive opposition, Democrats will fail quickly too.  This is the prescription for America’s Roman ending… collapse from within.

America is many things but it is also not many things people say.  Our schools are the most costly in the world and their results about 16 from the best.  Our health care is the most costly, does not cover all residents, and produces outcomes which are mediocre.  The US has more guns per capita and imprisons more people than any other country in the world.  And the US spends almost as much on Defense as all other countries combined.

These are all situations which can be managed and improved.  The 2013 question is how can we make progress if we stick with a formula of dysfunction and mistruths?  The strange tale of 2012 might shows us the way.

 

Does A Year Make A Difference?

December 30, 2012

Last year on this date, I wrote a post about what Iowans thought about President Obama.  The post

spoke actually of the GOP primary and its depiction of President Obama and his policies.  In the end, Iowans voted to reelect President Obama rejecting the opinions cited in my post.

In a strange way, I believe this is what happened to the GOP nationally.  The 2011 and 2012 primary season enabled Republican candidates to describe a world that did not exist.  Instead of clearly laying out how their policies would produce better results than President Obama’s (an outcome that could be quite possible), the GOP defaulted to distortions and mistruths.

Read last year’s post and think about what occurred during the Presidential race.  The fiscal cliff debate is much the same.  The high ground of increasing taxes while modifying all spending including defense and entitlements is wide open.  Neither party is willing to address this in a balanced manner, and which sincerely makes an attempt at eliminating the deficit (and then living within a balanced budget).

This is a grand moment for Republicans but there are no signs they will seize it.

Convergence Convergence

December 29, 2012

The on-again, off-again Congressional Fiscal Cliff discussions represent the worst side of American politics.  They simply make no sense and Americans know it.  Worse, the mindless talk from Senate and House leaders is taking the nation’s eye off the real problems.

For example, the real problem is not Americans paying more in taxes.  With a deficit as large as the one we have, someone will have to pay more, either out of their own pocket or via a payroll or sales tax.  And the resistance to the top 2% paying more in taxes, it is completely ludicrous that increasing tax rates to Clinton era levels for some cut of the top 2% is somehow wrong or would hurt the economy.

Just as real is the proposition that raising taxes alone will cure the deficit dilemma.  Spending must be addressed, or all Americans must agree to across the board higher taxes.  Spending includes entitlements for sure.  Spending also includes Defense expenditures, farm subsidies, homeland security, and some portion of a wide range of other government programs.

The main casualty of current Congressional behavior are the real underlying drivers of the deficit.  For example, why are politicians content to avoid changing laws even though they know full well that the programs are either partially of fully unfunded?  Why are politicians unwilling to discuss the high cost of American health care in the face of the rest of the modern world spending about one half.  And in the world of the 21 century where more populous countries (China, India, and Southeast Asia) will present as much economic competition as the US can handle and more, why aren’t we considering the role of government in assisting American businesses to become more competitive?

Instead it looks like our leaders will deliver nothing or close to nothing and simply delay the needed decisions to a later date (as usual), or they will deliver what most of the outside government world see as obvious (about $1.5 trillion combination of tax increases and spending decreases).

Strangely, reforming health care, the source of 50% of the deficit, seems not an issue.  Even more strange, the competitiveness of American businesses on the global stage seems to many not a place for government policy.  Rather, government policy should instead create conditions where anyone could make money if the government were to award them a franchise.

 

 

GOP – The Grand Odd Party

December 28, 2012

The Grand Old Party has become the Grand Odd Party.  While still labeled the GOP (keeping the outward brand sign the same), this is not your grandfather’s GOP.  It is a party with advanced dementia.

Before I continue, let me be clear that Democrats are not distinguishing themselves either.  The Dems are playing poker and looking at where they might pick up a few new seats in the 2014 midterms.  At a time when history could be made, I see no brave Democrats coming forth.

The Grand Odd Party does not lack leaders who gladly come to the front.  It is what these Republicans do that is particularly odd.  How can the red staters argue that the top 2% should not pay more in taxes, then suggest that maybe millionaires could, and then simply walk away from the negotiations when $400,000 might have sealed the deal?  Have they forgotten that we just concluded an election where President Obama campaigned on raising taxes on the top 2% and he won convincingly?

One might argue that Republicans now feel they would prefer to see all the Bush Tax Cuts expire and then vote in 2013 for tax reductions.  The GOP might think that with the debt limit fast approaching, why not try to force major entitlement reforms then or shut down the government?  So is that odd behavior?

Indeed it is, and here’s why.

The GOP behavior since 2010 has been consistently “obstructionist”.  American voters are not quick studies, for sure, but they do see what’s going on.  In time voters will decide that another party should get a chance.  There could be a large shift come 2014 if the current gridlock over the deficit and debt increase plays out as it has so far.

The second, and non-political, reason is that real problem is staring everyone in the eye and no one (including Democrats) are speaking up.  The fundamental problem facing America is the cost of our health care delivery system.  Compared to all other modern industrial countries the US is spending more than twice as much per person with health outcome that can only be described as mediocre.  Reform health care and the deficit problem can be solved in a heartbeat.

There is no chance that the GOP leadership does not know this.  Yet, they persist in doubling down on no tax increases, and just cutting entitlements.  The GOP plan will not balance the budget without severe spending cuts and ultimately regressive taxes.  The math does not work otherwise.  So it is “odd” that GOP rhetoric continues to go round and round retracing the same arguments where no data or facts can be found to support their position.

Were the GOP to only make a reasonable (mathematically demonstrable) proposal, they could expose the Democrats shallow ideas.  Isn’t it odd that they do not?

An Experiment To Big To Attempt

December 27, 2012

The NRA call for stationing armed and trained guards in every one of the over 100,000 public schools is a bold proposal.  The child-like logic of putting a good guy with a gun in front of a bad guy with a gun is intriguing.  Clearly a school principal without any means of defense is easy prey to someone bent on killing other teachers or students.  So would the NRA proposal work?

Maybe.

Both the tragedies at Columbine and Virginia Tech, however, involved the presence of trained and armed guards.  So we know it is not a 100% solution.  I believe that if it generally were known that all (or a) school had armed guards, someone bent upon mayhem would adjust his/her plan to either avoid the guard or eliminate the guard and then proceed with their plan.

Armed guards could also invite attacks by simply being there.  And the response to an attack by a bad person might result in unintended collateral injuries and deaths.  Bullets have a strange way of finding unintended targets.

I think there is even a more insidious aspect to this NRA proposal.  Most all of these violent shooting crimes have involved mentally fragile people (armed with automatic weapons with large capacity clips) who were trying desperately to make a statement.  If the solution to Newtown is just arm the schools, what makes anyone think a mentally sick person is going to be content with having a shoot out when he/she might select a different (and easier) target…  What about malls, sporting events, marathons, churches, parking lots, beaches, etc.

The notion of preventing another Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy by arming each of the 100,000+ public schools is an experiment too big to run.  Common sense suggests, much to the contrary, that taking all military like weapons off the streets, confiscating all large capacity ammunition clips, and criminally charging straw gun purchasers as well as those who lose weapons and do not report the loss, will work as well (or better) without the unintended consequences.   Hmmm.

 

The Night Before… What?

December 24, 2012

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the House (and Senate), not a creature was stirring, not even a lobbyist.

Congress has adjourned.  Congress members have returned home for their holidays.  So for today and tomorrow, the wheels of government are at rest.  It is time for rest and merriment.  It is a time to recall how fortunate the US has been and like the “Romes” before, the duties of elected officials carry large responsibilities.  A little rest and then back to work.

Guess again.

Based upon the collapse of the President’s grand bargain, and John Boehner’s DOA Plan B, there is something seriously wrong with Congress.  But what could it be?

Our two party system works because, in the past, Congress agreed to go with the majority decision and each side understood it could not get 100% of its wishes, in other words, compromise was necessary.  That does not seem to be apparent to the current crowd that occupy Congress.

Use of a “majority of the majority” to advance legislation in the House, and the reliance upon the “super majority” in the Senate have ground both chambers to a halt.  But why have our political parties forgotten the past and adopted these disruptive policies?

The price of being a Congress member has gone through the roof, that’s why.  This is a bit a “chicken and egg” argument.  Has the cost of campaigning driven elected officials to do what was necessary to induce special interests to support them?  Or has the flow of special interest money which spills freely into each Congress members’ office emboldened more and more members to steer more and more of that money into their own pockets, and they don’t want to get off that gravy train?

Maybe a couple days of rest might clear enough members heads that they will put the needs of all Americans ahead of their own interests.  Hmmm.  I guess it is me that is dreaming.

 

Philadelphia’s Big Decision

December 23, 2012

Thinking back over 2012, do you remember the wild claims that the Obama Administration was against “religious freedom”?  A number of faith based organizations, most notably the Catholic Church cried foul over the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that employers provide health care insurance which contain full woman’s reproductive health coverage… read birth control.

These religious groups claimed their deeply held beliefs would be violated if they were forced to pay for birth control means.  These same groups vehemently denounced abortion, but incredulously were against family planning and birth control.  What were they thinking?  Certainly not about the needs of women.

The Philadelphia School District has announced that in January following the year end school break, they will install condom dispensers in 22 of Philadelphia’s public high schools.  OMG…  Is this another assault on religious freedoms?

The school district explained that the 22 high schools selected already had unacceptably high rates of STD (sexually transmitted disease).  Providing condoms was an act of public health, not a statement about birth control.

Time will tell whether this step will impact STD or the number of unwanted pregnancies.  It is, however, a prudent step and a positive sign of common sense.

 

The Pope and The NRA

December 22, 2012

So what does the head of the Roman Catholic Church and the Vice President of the National Rifle Association have in common?  Answer – They are both organization men, and both hold delusional views.

Oh, please, tell me something I don’t know.

The Pope set his marker down with his annual Christmas message.  Gratuitously, the Pope slammed same sex marriage and the aspirations of homosexuals.  The Pope spoke of the need to keep marriage between one man and one woman because same sex marriage deteriorates “normal” marriage, and that would lead to war.  Hmmm.  I wonder where the Pope has been these last few years?

Wayne LaPierre, NRA Vice President and chief spokesperson, stepped forward Friday and offered the NRA thoughts on how to prevent another Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy.  LaPierre’s answer was for the Federal Government to place a trained and armed guard in every US public school.  Hmmm.

The Pope’s views are delusional because homosexuality is a natural condition.  Further the fight for same sex marriage is partly for recognition (committed relationships are good things) and partly for access to the same benefits “married heterosexuals” enjoy.  In every aspect of committed same sex lives, there are no differences with traditionally married couples when it comes to careers, public service, or community life.  Homosexuals contribute to society.  These are not “bad” people.

LaPierre and the NRA make the delusional scoreboard with their seemingly blind view of Sandy Hook.  There are over 100,000 K-12 public schools .  If you assume that a trained, armed, and dependable school guard would need to earn $60,000 in salary and benefits, that would mean the US would be shelling out $60 billion each year (correction, the number should be $6 billion, see comments).  Another way of looking at that is 100,000 armed guards would represent $15,000 (correction, this number should be $1500) expenditure for every one of the NRA’s 4 million members.  Do you think LaPierre has been listening to the fiscal cliff discussions?

The Pope and LaPierre head organizations.  These men hold personal views and they also hold organizational views.  Both organizations are facing changing times where common sense is resisting past orthodoxies because those past views no longer conform with reality.  The Catholic Church has elected to chart its survival by appealing to the most conservative and encouraging them with messages that play to their basest fears.  The NRA whose members include sportsman, hunters, and gun enthusiasts has chosen to focus upon those who fear for their personal safety, especially those who join militias and train for outdoor survival.

Hmmm.  Now that I think about this, there is certainly a lot in common between these two men and two organizations.

A Vision Of Things To Come?

December 21, 2012

Last evening, Americans probably saw the end of John Boehner’s Speakership.  Speaker Boehner was unwilling to bring his own tax/spending cut bill to the House floor because he knew it would not pass.  This probably marks the end of any efforts by Boehner.  His only path forward, if he wishes to display any intellectual honesty, would be to bring a Senate tax/spending cut bill to the floor with the expectation that a House bi-partisan majority approve it.  This would be a service to the Country but not something he could get reelected Speaker on.

So, how did we get to this spot?  Hmmm.   Ask yourself if you know what the “Republican” brand stands for?

I can tell you a few things it does not stand for.  Republican Congress members represent enormously disparate groups.  From bible thumpers to out in the woods survivalists, to extreme libertarians, to right of center business people make up the GOP.  In the last election, Republicans were against latinos (immigration), gays and lesbians (same sex marriage and DOMA), science (intelligent design, global warming), women (reproductive health, Planned Parenthood), and common sense (big bird).  Each of these declarations elicited cheers from narrow groups of supporters.  The problem Republicans encountered was that the tide of public opinion and the evidence all around did not agree with their positions.  The election went to President Obama.

Quiet in the background is the Democratic Party.  They appear much more focused and united than Republicans.  I suspect the truth is that the only thing Democrats are united upon is they are not Republicans and unite to oppose these extreme Republican views.

A trillion dollar debt and no fiscal plan to stop its increase is something all Americans should find appalling.  Yet Democrats seem content with increasing taxes on the wealthy and taking mouse bites out of some spending programs.

Should the GOP collapse and the Democrats are somehow in charge, do you think they will tackle the projected trillion dollar debt in any meaningful way?

In the simplest of terms, fixing the debt and deficit problems requires collecting more in taxes and spending less in government expenditures.  Too high an increase in taxes or to deep a cut in spending all bring their own problems.  Probably some “big ideas” are necessary to get us out of the box we seem to be in.  In any case, remedies do not need to be all at once.  They could be a little now, a little more next year, and so on.

Think about it.  The fiscal cliff negotiations only yield a dent in deficit reduction.  There is no talk of what needs to come next.  Why should a fiscal conservative not worry?  Why should someone who feels strongly about healthcare not worry about the future of Medicare and Medicaid?

So today we are witnessing the implosion of the Republican Party.  They cannot agree among themselves on a course of action and cannot accept the majority vote of Americans in the last election.  They are finished without some eureka moment very soon.  I submit that Democrats will following close behind.  Democrats’ most progressive ideas are policies without funding.  Moderates will revolt next.

The American “two party” system has done the country well.  The system worked because each party represented a view and fought for their view.  When the vote was taken or the national election occurred, the majority got its way.  The two party system is now at a cross roads because one party is in collapse.

There is still time but it is getting short.  I think I can see where this is going if the GOP does not get its act together.

 

Is This About Boehner Being Speaker?

December 20, 2012

The Speaker of the House of Representatives is John Boehner.  On January 3, 2013, he might be reelected by his Republican majority, or he might not.  If not, Boehner will be just Representative Boehner, a smoker, a golf enthusiast, and a fan of tanning salons.

The alleged positions of President Obama and Speaker Boehner are so close even a first grader could find the middle and reach a compromise.  For some reason, these two can not.

Obama and Boehner are two men who also know the consequences, at least short term, of reaching no agreement by year end.  The general public will be mad and the stock markets will be furious.  Beyond the fiscal cliff issue, failure will signal two more years of total gridlock in Congress.  Public opinion on the value of government (not its services) will be in the toilet.

Here’s one take.

Suppose Speaker Boehner and the President announce an agreement.  Let’s say it is taxes up for those earning $500,000 or more, increase in dividends and capital gains taxes, and changes to Medicare and Social Security plus some other miscellaneous cuts.  The deal is about $2 trillion over 10 years.

The House votes on these measures and Speaker Boehner cannot deliver enough Republican votes for the measure to pass.  Come January 3rd, it will likely be Speaker Cantor.

From Boehner’s eyes, ending his Speakership for $2 trillion (roughly $200 billion a year) when we are sporting $1 trillion a year deficits might not seem a good bet.  Narrowly viewed, he is probably correct.  Viewed more broadly, the fiscal cliff is a surrogate for Americans believing their government can be effective.  Even a small step is important.

The 7/24 talking heads have told us repeatedly that we are watching Kabuki theater.  The ending is already known and what we are watching is the dancing that leads up to it.  I am beginning to think that is not the case.

Agreement by year end is a goal which can cement John Boehner’s legacy.  If he agrees to a compromise and gets it passed in the House, Boehner will clearly be seen as an effective leader.  If the compromise fails in the House, Boehner will be seen as a courageous leader who deserved better.