Archive for August 2013

GOP’s Death in Slow Motion

August 31, 2013

The waning days of August are usually quiet and bring a mixed bag of emotions.  There is sadness that summer is ending, and an offsetting excitement that fall is about to begin.  The Washington political stage will bounce back to life.   But unless matters change considerably, we may be looking at the dissolution of a political party.

Being a member of Congress is not as easy a job as it might sound.  Like the Mayor of any city, there are pot holes to fill.  Hmmm.  For Congress, the Middle East is a mess with one week Egypt grabbing the headlines and the next week Syria is in first place.  Turkey, Libya, Lebanon,  and Iran have jockeyed amongst each other for share of mind.  So much for Congress members to worry about.

Domestically immigration reform, voting rights, the sequester, the Federal Budget, and the necessary increase of the federal debt limit are all vying for the attention of Congress.  This is quite a list and are not trivial in nature.  It will take the best from each Party to find the best solution.  Tough situations often bring the best from those confronted.  What about this time?

Hmmm.

Congress, however, has been spectacularly impotent with respect to governing and the current situation seems not to be different.  The Republican “just say no” approach has ground the wheels of government to a halt.   This Republican behavior is said to be the result of several minority constituencies (Tea Party, ultra conservatives, and evangelicals) all pushing their own agenda and not the least bit interested in compromising for the purpose of governing.  In other words, these GOP members do not care to fill the pot holes.

This week, John Boehner said there would be a “whale of a battle” over any increase in the Federal Debt limit.  Boehner said this was a valuable chance “to leverage” GOP positions on other issues (namely Obamacare).  If this resulted in Government default, so be it.

What did he just say?

The debt is about money already authorized by Congress and spent by the Government.  It is not about next year’s budget or any existing laws.  And most of all, the debt is just like our personal debt.  Default carries consequences much broader than not paying owed money.

The GOP seems locked into a misguided death watch over the Affordable Care Act.  Clearly there is a valid concern over whether American healthcare will improve under the ACA.  For every GOP proposal to hinder the ACA, there ought be a corresponding counter proposal.  Hmmm. Not there.

The debt increase issue seems of much less a concern about the fiscal health of the Country than the possibility that Obamacare may begin to function.  What is the GOP so concerned about?

Is their concern that the individual mandate, or the tax on Medical Equipment companies, or the requirement for businesses to provide health insurance coverage for their employees are too onerous?  If so, what is the GOP’s ideas about providing the benefits of ACA but with different requirements?

Or, does the GOP simply reject the idea that health care should be available for all residents?  (It would appear that some within the GOP do)  Does the GOP subscribe to the notion that an American can have as good health care as they can afford?  If so, why do they not say so?

It is becoming increasingly likely that the GOP brand is broken.  It appears that the amalgam of Libertarians, ultra right wingers, evangelicals, along with the rump fiscally conservative Republican faction is in fact today’s GOP.  This is not a party but a combination of three or four distinctly different cohorts.

Saying no to immigration reform, saying no to gun controls, saying no health care reform, saying no to sensible, and balanced budget reforms is a prescription for stagnation or retrogression.  This is an unstable situation for any party that harbors so many internally inconsistent goals.   Unless one likes pot holes, it is hard to see a future with his collection of desperate political views.

The big question is whether the GOP will simply, like the Soviet Union, one day just stop being, or whether under the pressure of the real world in which we live, the GOP will crack and split into so many pieces so fractured they can not be reassembled?

Hmmm.

Stranger yet, the possibility of dissolution does not seem to be an apparent concern as judged by the GOP spokespersons who pass as the Party’s leaders.  I see the GOP ultimately splitting into pieces.   I also see the possibly the more moderate parts of the Democrat Party might combine with this rump Republican faction an form a new majority.  Hopefully it will be a majority that knows it must fill pot holes.

Of course this might just be a last minute summer dream.

 

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The Bully Speaks For Whom?

August 27, 2013

When the US invaded Iraq on March 20, 2003, a sad period in American history began.  Twenty days later Bagdad fell and the Hussein regime was officially over.  Only eight years later, however, did American forces depart Iraq.  And if truth be known, had the Iraqi Government acquiesced and granted a “status of forces agreement” protecting American military from local prosecution, American troops would still be on combat duty there.

The US acted as a bully when it invaded a significantly less powerful country on trumped up allegations.  This foreign intervention opened again Pandora’s Middle East box reminding the world how cruel and dangerous man could be.

The US bully used unprecedented force to crush Iraqi insurgents.  The insurgents used unprecedented force (thanks to limitless numbers of suicide bombers) to wreak havoc on American troops and other Iraqis who were not members of their religious group (or even those who were just in the wrong place at the wrong time).  The Iraq Invasion and Occupation was an expensive teaching blunder.  The question is whether anyone went to school?

Had the US (the Bush/Chaney Administration) not felt the bravery of a bully, the Iraq situation might have played out much differently.  Had the US considered what unintended consequences could be loosed, or who were the other regional “bad guys” and how US interests might have been better served with an intact Iraq, the tragic Iraq War could have been prevented.

Fast forward.

There are some parallels with Syria.  Bashar al Assad is a ruthless leader who has shown he will do what ever is necessary to remain in power.  Syria, like Iraq has a religious minority ruling a different majority.  And using suicide bombs to gain admission to “paradise” while killing as many other innocents as possible is a familiar theme in Syria too.  But surely the Obama Administration does not consider itself a bully?

With the news yesterday, that the US has concluded the Syrian Government authorized the use of chemical weapons on its own people, Secretary of State John Kerry has signaled the US will do something in response… soon.

As with Iraq, there is no similarity between the US and Syria in military strength.  As with Iraq, Syria is hardly the most pressing regional issue.  As with Iraq there is no proof that chemical weapons were used but even if they were, does that justify US military direct intervention?

The Washington “leak environment” indicates the US will use shipboard cruise missiles to deliver a statement.  While this is far less than an invasion, it is still demonstrates disproportionate military capability.  Had the Syrian Government exposed US personnel to chemical weapons, this might be an acceptable response.  Firing from the safety of war ships at targets that can’t shoot back, seems like bullying to me.

I suppose it could be argued that there is a hair line difference between “bullying” and “coercing” and “negotiating”.  Along this continuum, what is the wise position to hold when the Assad regime is overthrown and a dysfunctional “anti-US” insurgent regime replaces it?

Learning From History?

August 26, 2013

President Obama’s Middle East leadership or more directly, the lack of leadership has been the subject of many op-ed columnists.  Today, New York Times columnist Bill Keller joined the crowd who see problems galore in Egypt and Syria but does not see the type of rhetoric he feels appropriate coming out of the White House.  What’s going on?

Keller and the New York Times are generally considered friendly to Democrats and especially to President Obama.  What has happened to the President’s leadership if suddenly this criticism is spewing forth?

The President has tried to lead by an infrequently used method.  President Obama stands in contrast to former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W Bush.  Clinton figured out what he wanted to do and then tested it with trial balloons.  If the first balloon was not well received (domestically), Clinton would alter his position and test again.  When the public opinion polls showed green, Clinton charged forward as if there had never been any other option.

President Bush fell under the political influence of Karl Rove and the foreign affairs desires of Vice President Dick Cheney.  Both relied on “over the top” right wing starting positions designed to intimidate the adversary as well as any one else who might want to suggest another approach.

President Obama, probably by nature, has chosen the middle approach as his preferred path.  Obama clearly understands the complicated and nuanced nature of the Middle East.   This option, however, is sure to generate the largest amount of criticism since both conservatives and progressives do not see their interests being championed.

It is a very complicated world and Bush’s hip shooting, or the Clinton poll watching method seem clearly inadequate too.   So what are Obama’s critics trying to say?

Some whine that America has lost its “influence”.  These critics wring their hands saying there are no good options because President Obama has done this or that.  Others simply say he is too timid or lacks the courage of leadership.

Often they call for cutting foreign aid or imposing sanctions or taking military means to make our nation’s point.  They say these things as if they are living in a vacuum.  They seem ignorant of the necessary conditions for democracy or the limits of our country’s treasury.

In Syria, the debate is about the use of force in support of the insurgents.  What?  Who are the insurgents and why would we expect them to be any different from those present Iraqi insurgents content to suicide bomb Iraq back into the dark ages?

One school calls for “surgical strikes” (like cruise missiles) which we are told are inexpensive and safe for Americans (sorry Syrians).  What’s the point?  Bush/Cheney “shock and awed” Iraq into open civil war over absolutely idiotic beliefs about Mohamed’s descendants.

Today Bill Keller was more “against” than “for” anything in particular.  Keller is against the “Generals” and sees a principled stand (free and fair elections I assume he means) as where President Obama should be putting his money.  The Generals should go back to the barracks and former President Morsi should be brought back.  Hmmm.

The US has a history of supporting the “Generals” or the “Strong Man” and it is not necessarily a pretty picture.  Sooner or later, time has a habit of revising America’s choice (Iran, China, Chile, Vietnam for example).

This would argue that supporting, or better yet, propping up the Generals might not bode well for the future.  There is a big difference, however, in keeping hands off Egypt and letting things work out by themselves, admittedly this favors today the Generals, versus picking a side and announcing it in public statements of support and behind the scenes intelligence activity.

In Syria, the Assad regime is no friend of democracy or the US.  The insurgents, however, are a dog’s breakfast of factions who offer little hope a better life for Syrians, or for that matter those living in the Middle East neighborhood.  How could anyone recommend an alternative?

Egypt is in a far better spot although hardly a candidate for Democracy any time soon.  The wealthy Arab Gulf States along with Israel are voting for a secular government where the streets are safe to walk in.  Lacking huge oil reserves, Egypt is the last place a government would want to fall under Islamic law.

So, pulling support for the Generals is tantamount to putting the Muslim Brotherhood in charge.  This would be like beginning a race for the 1400’s.  The Generals, on the other hand, would favor economic policies which would make them wealthier to be sure, but these policies could also improve Egypt overall.

These are not night and day choices but doing nothing (President Obama’s apparent choice) at least removes the US’ “often wrong but well intended” hand from the scales of history.

Turning The Queen Mary

August 25, 2013

Friday evening the Public Broadcasting System presented a documentary on James Baldwin.  In one clip, Baldwin spoke on a Dick Cavett show.  Baldwin said, in effect, that he could not be sure of motives, but his observations informed him that schools were either mostly black or nearly all white, that trade unions were mostly white, and that in cities or towns, the residential areas were divided into where only whites lived or only blacks resided.  He left unsaid why or the role discrimination played.  Instead, he left it to the audience to draw their own conclusion.

Yesterday, in Washington DC, there is the first of two celebrations of the “I have a dream” speech” (March on Washington).  Fifty years ago, black leaders put into clear words, a commitment for change that James Baldwin had intimated.  While there has been no doubt much progress since that 1963 march, so much remains the same.  One wonders why and is there still discrimination after all these years?

The answer, of course, is most certainly.  Discrimination is part of the human condition. But that is not the whole answer.

Look around. The Augusta Golf Club has clearly a discriminatory policy (there are only two token women members).  Skill trades unions (whose members earn more than ordinary union workers) are still mostly white.   Residential living patterns reflect economic (and consequently racial) groupings.

All this can be explained by citing the status quo.  It is easy to blame insufficient building growth as grounds for inadequate numbers of jobs for both the exiting union members and a crop of new members.   Citing affordability, one can account for current racial housing patterns.  Hmmm.

On the other hand, our President is half African American.  There are numerous distinguished and respected African Americans is government, industry, education and the arts.  Clearly there has been progress.

Yet it is also true that blacks are proportionally more represented in prison, have a higher unemployment rate, too many do not finish high school (never mind college), and as a group earn the lowest average annual income.  Stop and frisk as well as other more straight forward profiling snags blacks more than any other group.  So, how can we expect the 50 year repeat dream work?

Hmmm.

With the United States growing much slower than it has in the past, the notion of a zero sum game must be recognized.  For someone to win, someone else must lose.

Jobs, especially good paying jobs, are going to go to those most qualified.  If a job candidate has not finished high school, can barely read or write, cannot balance a checkbook, or has great difficulty controlling his/her emotions, undertake problem solving, or set priorities, it is unlikely this person will do well competing for the scare number of job openings, regardless of race.  The outlook for too many African Americans is bleak.  This should be commonsense even though it is deplorable.

So what is the “dream” for those marching this time?

The “I have a dream” crowd might focus on what they can do.  African Americans who have made it (even though they still may not be able to follow Condoleezza Rice as a member of Augusta) might, instead, dream of reaching down and pulling up another African American.  These so called African American winners might look at successful Mexicans (or other Hispanics), or Vietnamese, or Koreans, or Indians, or Pakistanis and see what has worked for them.  Each of these groups still experiences sophisticated discrimination yet each is sending more of their youth to the best of universities.

Blacks are quick to say they experience discrimination because they look different.  So do Mexicans, Vietnamese, Koreans, Indians, and Pakistanis.

It is powerful to have a dream, especially a vision of how the future might be different in a positive manner.  The “I have a dream” successful followers need an expanded dream, one in which they play a different “hands on” role to help pull up their brothers and sisters.

 

Egypt? So What’s The Big Deal?

August 21, 2013

It has been tortuous to watch President Obama and his Administration try to express a US position towards Egypt.  One moment he’s for policies which would restore the Muslim Brotherhood to power.  The next moment he seems content with the Generals.  Like a Professor, President Obama seems to be able to see both sides of the issue but can not utter his choice.

Foolishly, the Bush Administration started this mess when they encouraged more freedom of expression for Egypt.  When former President Mubarak finally got around to allowing more free expression, the Arab Spring had arrived.  With the genie out of the bottle, history’s course was not predictable.

“Free and fair” elections were held and the Islamic Brotherhood won narrowly.  The election was hardly over when the newly elected President, Mohamed Morsi declared he would exercise extraordinary powers until the Constitution was changed (in a way that provided these powers).  Included in the Constitutional changes were the entry of Sharia law and an implicit role of Islam in State affairs.

The Brotherhood pointed out repeatedly that they had won the election and that provided them the right to change the ways things were done.  Morsi championed democracy while he twisted it to create a Islamic fascist State.  Hmmm.

The Egyptian military are not “awareness robbed” individuals.  They know that only with sectarian governments where the military can predict the course of events will the military’s privileged lives be safe.  Look at Pakistan, Iran, and Egypt.

So back to President Obama.

His position does not differ that much from former President George W Bush.  “We are not interested in an elections results, we are interested in the process used in an election”, or words to that effect, the President said.  Who could find fault with this endorsement of democracy?

The Bush and now Obama position simply does not reflect current reality.  If Egypt were experienced with open democracy, the rule of law, and commercially, the owners and leaders of major businesses achieved their positions through meritocracy, and the Egyptian concept of government could accept inclusiveness  (protections for minorities), one could argue Egypt was more than ready for democracy.  But we have just seen that Egypt is not ready.

Some will argue that returning to a strong man ruler will not prepare Egypt either.  On the other hand, President Morsi’s path would sink Egypt further and further into an Islamic and fascist State.  So what’s a President suppose to do?

The issue President Obama should be focused upon is the greater Middle East and a settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  This is the key to creating a Middle East playground where the more dysfunctional States (Syria, Iran, Iraq) can mature.

Saying this differently, the problem is not Egypt, it is the greater Middle East.  This Muslin region is divided by ethnicity and religious secularism.  The region can also boast of some of the lowest educational levels and huge income inequality.  The answer for Egypt is the answer which is best for the region.

The President must hold his nose and support the Generals.

Is The NSA Thinking Wisely?

August 19, 2013

There is no doubt top officials at the NSA are embarrassed.  There is also no doubt these officials harbor a certain amount of anger, after all this is the most top secret arm of Government.  But it’s long history of anonymity has left it ill-equipped to deal with the Edward Snowdon aftermath.

The NSA and their Congressional supporters have constantly reminded us that the world is loaded with some pretty bad people.  It takes an ever watchful NSA to keep these wolves at bay, we are told.  And Snowdon, and all those who have or would in the future, help him are as close to traitors as one can get.  In fact some may have already stepped over the line.

In the Sunday New York Times magazine, there was a feature article on Laura Poitras.  Ms Poitras earns her keep as a documentary film maker and director, and has been concentrating upon NSA and other secret Government activity for the past few years.  She revealed how the Government has followed her activities even though there are no indications she is a terrorist, or that she has supported terrorists.  She has, however, facilitate the release of Snowdon’s stolen NSA files.

You may respond that any friend of Snowdon’s is not a friend of mine.  Full stop.  But be careful.  Sunday, English border officials detained David M Miranda, a go-between for Ms Poitras and Glenn Greenwald (London Guardian reporter who broke the Snowdon story), and after hours of questioning confiscated Miranda’s computer, notes, and thumb drives.  No lawyers and no subpoenas were present or presented.  Hmmm.

Snowdon revealed massive NSA surveillance and the gathering of vast amounts of communications records (much involving American citizens).  The NSA has defended its actions by saying they were pursuing terrorist networks and have not listened or analyzed the phone records of Americans.

Snowdon may have (probably has) violated laws about safe guarding confidential information.  Greenwald and Poitras have warned about Government actions “which could” subsequently violate individual privacy rights.  Now coming full circle, it appears the Government (and its friend Great Britain) have moved beyond terrorist networks and have become interested in those who might want to warn us of government encroachment.  Hmmm.

Most citizens were thankful for the increased government activity to prevent another 9/11.  Laws have been passed which come close to invading Constitutional rights but again, most people have sided with the government apparently believing that the Government was on their side.  It just looks like the efforts to interfere with Greenwald and Poitras are efforts to quiet reporting using laws intended to suppress terrorists.  Hmmm.

The Obama Administration needs to become more sensitive to the problems the NSA bureaucracy is creating.  There is a thin line between what people suspect are government’s intentions and what they might actually be.  It is time for some old fashion PR advice.  If Americans become worried about this government intrusion, why should they not fear “big government” in other areas?

Just look at the mess air travel has become when bureaucrats were allowed to run wild.

Healthcare Math

August 18, 2013

It is a mystery to me why the GOP continues to deride the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and not offer some alternative combining the same benefits but in some more attractive piece of legislation.  Is the GOP effort to repeal or defund Obamacare based upon supposed defects in how the law generates benefits (like taxes or personal requirements), or is their disgust based upon the benefits themselves?

There are plenty of progressives who would argue ACA simply does not go far enough and does not deal substantially enough with cost.  These liberals would toss Obamacare in a heartbeat if they could replace it with a European style “universal healthcare model”.  But, what are the GOP’s ideas?

Consider that the US healthcare delivery system accounts for about $3 trillion in annual expenditures ($2.6 trillion in 2010).  With a population of about 320 million, that represents about $9,000 per person per year.  In other words, a family of four represent $36,000 in annual healthcare cost.

You may be quick to say you do not come close to spending $9,000 or $36,000 if you are part of a family of four.

Take a breath.  This is just math.  But if you stop and think about years when you are likely consume more medical services (like pregnancies, chronic diseases, or when you grow older), you can see that medical costs can mount up.  Some estimates for knee replacements ring in at about $ 70,000.

And even if you are a lucky person and are healthy, someone else is spending to make up your lower than average healthcare consumption.  Who is paying these huge amounts if you are not?

It would appear that American businesses and tax payers are carrying most of the healthcare cost load.  Most Americans obtain their coverage through their employer, and once they reach the age of 65, receive tax payer provided Medicare coverage.  Each of us may pay some amount through co-pays and deductibles and the Federal Government supplements tax payer contributions (for Medicare and Medicaid) with sizable borrowings (read increases to the national debt).  When the dust settles, the US in total has spent $3 trillion, about twice as much as Germany or France, both of which provide better health outcomes for all residents.

An Hypothetical Republican Plan

Check one.  The GOP embraces (   ) healthcare for all Americans, or (   ) as much healthcare for all Americans as they can afford.

If the GOP truly cared about American healthcare (box one), they might come forward with an ACA alternative.  They might begin by pointing out the complicated nature of Obamacare and its many taxes and complicated compliance rules.  They might also underscore the burden US business, especially small businesses inherit having to provide healthcare insurance policies.  Why not free businesses from this responsibility?

The GOP could go on to say there was no way someone (or a family) earning the minimum wage ($15050 per year) could ever afford their mathematical share of healthcare annual cost.  It should be expected that such a family would decline insurance coverage or take a policy with minimal coverage due to its cost.  The children of this family would grow up seeking emergency room care, and should there be chronic illnesses, they would be out of luck.

The GOP would point out that emergency room coverage was actually an expensive hidden tax on everyone else.  The rest of us were paying and the uninsured was receiving substandard healthcare.  The GOP reasoned that if all Americans were paying anyways, why not provide good quality care?

The GOP would point out that Medicare and Medicaid were two under funded healthcare programs where again the rest of us are responsible for the difference.  Why not roll Medicare and Medicaid into the fix for ACA?

The GOP would say firmly though that this healthcare alternative is not free and must be paid for in some manner.  They would propose a combination of wage taxes (like now), coupled with some modest co-pays or deductibles (just enough to curb waste), and a new flat tax (for example a national sales tax).  In one fell swoop the GOP could eliminate three programs they detest and replace them with an elegant alternative.

The  best part of the GOP proposal would be that if they implemented a plan like Germany’s or France’s, it would be possible to eventual cut overall per capita healthcare costs in half with even better outcomes than experienced today.  Hmmm.

If the GOP checked the second box, one would think they only favored ri….   Hmmm.

How could anyone object to the benefits outlined in the GOP first plan?