Archive for February 2015

Easy Decision

February 26, 2015

Senate Democrats, for reasons not clear, invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to meet with them in a “closed door” session during his upcoming Congress visit. Netanyahu declined for reasons most likely related to trying to keep Democrats from mass boycotting his speech to Congress. So tell me again why Netanyahu is speaking before Congress?

AIPAC (America Israel Public Affairs Committee) is meeting during the same week that Netanyahu visits. AIPAC is an un-apologist for all matters dealing with Israel and solid supporter of its conservative lead government. AIPAC is also quick to intimidate or congratulate (with $$$) US political figures based upon their level of unquestioning support for Israel. Netanyahu is a regular visitor to AIPAC conventions. Hmmm.

So in the world of Washington dysfunctional politics, Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu to speak before a combined session of both Houses of Congress, two weeks before the next Israeli general election, while unprecedented, came as no surprise. Netanyahu’s acceptance, however, was surprising.

Netanyahu undoubtably knows that Boehner is not leading a well oiled machine. With a huge majority in the House, Boehner’s majority has voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act and to deny funding for the Homeland Security Department (by attaching conditions which he knows in advance cannot pass in the Senate). His legislative activity is not exactly speaking for all Americans.

But then Netanyahu’s views for Israel do not speak for all Israelis, or for the best interests of Israel’s neighbors. Divide and conquer, however, is and has been a well known strategy to win in tactical situations. Why not try it in Washington.

President Obama has done well to keep his rhetoric controlled and above the gutter where Speaker Boehner and Netanyahu seem comfortable. The President and Vice President will be out of town or unavailable to meet with Netanyahu, and now Congressional Democrats must decide whether they will attend Netanyahu’s speech. (I can imagine the pressure which the combination “threat and reward” AIPAC money can mean in the life of Democrat Congress members.)


Any Congress member who wants to know Netanyahu’s thoughts (as if they don’t already) can go to the AIPAC meeting. Republican members will understandably follow Boehner’s lead and attend the Congressional speech. But why should Democrats even think about this for a moment?

Netanyahu’s speech is a partisan speech and unfit for the floor of Congress. It should be an easy decision to spend the day instead at the National Gallery where Congress members could learn something.

Gone Fishing

February 24, 2015

Florida Governor Rick Scott visited Philadelphia yesterday. He was seeking to meet with Pennsylvania headquartered companies and asking them to consider relocating to Florida. Why does feel slimy and unseemly?

Philadelphia like so many other northern States is emerged in another colder than usual winter and the thoughts of the warm Florida sun is certainly inviting. Why wouldn’t anyone want to work in a pleasant year round climate? At least that seemed to be the pitch the Florida Governor was making. But doesn’t the Governor have enough to say grace over just running his own State?

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Florida has higher unemployment, higher corporate taxes, lower average wage, and considerably lower levels of unionized workers than Pennsylvania. I can understand Governor Scott pitching the lower rate of union workers but its hard to imagine his enthusiasm about unemployment, taxes, and the prospect of workers earning less money.

In an eery similarity to the current GOP threat to shut down Homeland Security, Governor Scott sees a win for his State when a company relocates. Scott seems to overlook the hardship that would befall the target company’s workers. For Homeland Security workers, they will continue “working because they are deemed essential” but not get a pay check.  This apparently  does not offend any GOP test for fairness,  The same seems true for Governor Scott.

Of course there could also be another motive. Governor Scott claimed also that in Florida companies would not have to operate under the policies of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. Hmmm. Governor Wolf, a Democrat, has been in office about one month so his impact is totally unmeasured.

I wonder whether Governor Scott sees the GOP Presidential nominee selection process as a mess, and given the other candidates, why not Scott? Nothing like an appearance in a far away Democrat State to project his name cleverly into the mix. Hmmm.

Sports Hypocrisy In Plain Sight

February 22, 2015

Kurt Busch has joined the list of professional athletes who have been penalized for the good of the whole. Similarly to Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson and Baltimore’s Ray Rice, Busch was suspended on the basis of abuse charges by his former girl friend. The Nascar organization stepped forward and said Busch’s behavior was out of bounds and an indefinite suspension was in order. Hmmm.

This is the same Nascar that weekly features 200 mile per hour racing where kissing the leading cars rear bumper (and spinning it out of control) seems almost manufactured for fan entertainment. So whose behavior is more dangerous?

The answer most likely is “who cares”. The Nascar organization’s response is motivated to prevent the world of “PC speak” from disparaging the racing organization’s image and in some way hurting TV revenues.

It’s all about money. What say Adrian and Ray?

The NCAA has just as huge an hypocrisy coming towards center stage right now. In the world of “student athletes”, the University of Kentucky’s mens basketball team is a scandal waiting to happen. Kentucky has figured out a way to recruit a freshman championship quality team year after year.  Kentucky is forced to recruit a new squad each year because their champion players all elect to go to the NBA following one year at Kentucky.

So what’s the pending scandal?

Does anyone think that these student athletes attend any meaningful classes? How many of these students even complete their freshman year? And who cares?

The real scandal of pro-football, pro-racing, and the top level of amateur level NCAA is that they have found ways to generate huge earnings by providing the spectator a riveting and exciting sport products, and sometimes those ways are incompatible with either the world around them.

Spousal abuse is adherent to be sure, but there are laws and a criminal process to prosecute abusers. The NCAA is quick to punish even the slightest benefit that may go to an athlete, even those who come from the poorest of homes. While the NCAA is raking in dollars, it seems to have no problem looking the other way when Kentucky fields an entirely new crop of outstanding athletes each year.

Kentucky appears to makes no effort to guide these students on an academic path.

Sooner or later, the PC police will pounce upon this academically inconsistent behavior and make the University and its coach, John Caliper the villains. Unlike Rice, Peterson, and Busch, there is no criminal process to make judgement on Kentucky. There is only the court of business profits to weigh in on Kentucky’s propriety.

How Could Congress Make A Deal?

February 21, 2015

There are many explanations for the apparent gridlock in Washington. Certainly there are cases of distrust and misunderstanding. There is also just partisan politics where it makes no different what anyone says, “I’m voting my party line”. And I suspect some of the gridlock can be traced to “what’s in it for me”.

As a general statement Democrats favor a wide range of progressive issues ranging from poverty reduction to assistance for those on fixed income to healthcare availability to education access, and so forth. Democrats see government as a pathway to improve these areas.  Democrats are ready to tax others to provide these services. (Regrettably Democrats are not big on measuring whether the services were actually provided, or that the services provided accomplished their intended purpose). If sufficient tax revenues are not available, Democrats are comfortable with borrowing (increasing the national debt) in order to provide these services.

Republicans, on the other hand, question the wisdom of any entitlement (either because the see no need or they feel the aid will fall into the wrong hands). Republicans think citizens should “earn” enough or go without (the GOP recognizes the truly indignant and would provide for them). Government ought to be confined to Defense Spending and probably infrastructure (the major national defense highway systems) spending in the mind of the GOP. States and localities should tend to all other issues. Hmmm.

One party seems to care little about the ordinary person, the changing nature of American society, or recognize the need for reasonable constraints on our modern, highly technical free enterprise economy. On the contrary, this party may actually value highly the potential of each American to take care of themselves.  This party may think how things are is how they should be.

The other party sees most “problems” as beyond the scope of Americans to solve without the help of government. Progressive solutions, they reason, have worked in the past, so why not now?   Progressive (Government sponsored) solutions and the cost be damned are their motto.  They foresee social ills ultimately ruining the country.  On the bright side, they see progressive solutions creating economic rewards which will more than pay for the solution’s cost. Hmmm.

How are we to find common ground?

For starters, why don’t both parties acknowledge “nothing” is free. For example, free education for grades K-12 in fact is not close to free. Teachers’ salaries, text books/supplies, and building maintenance/operating costs must be paid for in some way (normally through property or sales taxes). So, it should be clear that even good things must be paid for… So for starters, why can’t Republicans and Democrats agree upon that?  If government provides services, these services must be paid for.

Stay with me on this.

To begin, Republicans and Democrats do not agree on what services the government should provide, so it makes it very difficult to agree upon how to pay for the services we might want if we do not already agree on what we are receiving.
But maybe here is a starting point. Let’s forget about what is on the books already.

What if all new legislation required a portion of its funding to be generated from reductions in existing programs cost?

Requiring savings from existing programs would accomplish two objectives…

  1.  All organizations initially gain in efficiency as they age. This efficiency could be converted into lower operating cost which probably means less people.  This efficiency generated lower cost could be converted into funding for other programs. Hmmm.  (Political organizations, however, seeks the votes of government workers too.  People reductions are often ignored even though those workers eliminated from one program could be employed by a new one.
  2. All organizations tend to calcify as they age. Shaking up exiting organizations keeps them vibrant and more likely to remain effective.

Political leaders (regardless of political party) ought to recognize that inefficiency creep into existing bureaucratic  organizations.  Political leaders might find it easier to accept (or at least consider) new programs if they knew that already existing programs would have to be trimmed in cost to help fund the new proposal.   Taking positions like “no new tax revenues” or “no more Medicaid support (for those can’t afford healthcare)”, or on the other side of the spectrum, no changes to Medicare or Social Security (even when bankruptcy looms ahead, and everyone will lose) are not the most productive of positions to take.

The most honorable face that can be put upon the current gridlock behavior sees our politicians practicing the art of negotiation. Each is starting with their “best of all worlds position” (as they see it) and will not move off this position unless there is a sizable win for their side. Isn’t this how bargaining is suppose to proceed?

Maybe, but…  there is nothing happening in Congress that is even slightly productive.  Funding in part all new programs from reductions in existing ones will necessitate current programs continually being reviewed for efficacy and cause legislators to think hard about the cost of new laws.  Maybe this is dreaming but it seems better than the nightmare running now.

Wishing For A Punch In The Nose

February 17, 2015

The dire warnings that House Leader John Boehner has issued over the Home Land Security funding makes one wonder what are GOP leaders thinking. With control of both Houses, the GOP has the keys to the legislative branch and the opportunity to put to rest claims that Republicans do not know how to run the government, they only know how to say “no”. Events unfolding now, however, suggest the latter.

The GOP can rightly be upset that President Obama has through executive orders taken steps to reform the immigration situation. The President’s actions represents a lost opportunity for Republicans.  It seems they could not agree on steps or even to work with the already passed Senate Immigration reform version.

I guess there logic is, “if the House can’t agree, then there will be no reform”. Hmmm.

So here comes the surrogate issue, funding Home Land Security. Republicans in the House passed a funding bill which excluded funds for those parts of Home Land Security which would play a role in carrying out President Obama’s orders. Pretty slick, they had the President over a barrel. Not quite.

Senate Democrats have blocked action on this House bill utilizing the Senate filibuster provision. Boehner is up in arms about the “Senate not doing its job”. What is the good speaker smoking?

If the Senate were in some way to get to vote on the House bill, most likely it would pass and go onto the President for his signature. Instead of a signature, the bill would get a veto. And there is insufficient votes in the Senate to override the veto.

This is not new news. Everyone with a pulse knows this. The President will demand a “clean” bill funding Home Land Security and lacking that someone needs to blink.

It is a shame that this issue has come to game of chicken. Far more appropriate would have been to pass a clean bill and wait for 2016 when a Republican super majority might be elected.

I wonder what Jeb Bush or other GOP Presidential hopefuls are thinking. What a platform to run on. “True my party shut down government once more and turned their backs on Hispanics, but with me (_______________ fill in the name), I will be different.”

Learning Half The Lesson

February 14, 2015

Yesterday another unarmed person was killed by the discharge from a police officer’s weapon. This time, Antonio Zambrano-Montes, an Hispanic working in a largely agricultural community was the victim. Initial reports claim Zambrano-Montes was throwing rocks at an intersection and refused to allow police to arrest him. Other reports add that Zambrano-Montes had a history of mental illness. Hmmm.

Law enforcement agents across the country are entrusted with weapons. They receive training on how to use these guns and are required to periodically attend refreshers courses. Over time this training has focused almost exclusively on how to kill or totally disable the accused as a means of protecting the life of the police officer. Hmmm.

What, of course, is missing is training that makes using the weapon the absolute last option.  Like the old west, if a police officers feels he/she must draw a weapon, is there some way to discharge the gun without the intention of using lethal force?

Law enforcement professionals are quick to reference the harden criminal who, if given the chance, will kill the police officer first. The law enforcement experts place the primary responsibility on the citizen to fully comply with the police officer’s direction as the best method to avoid tragic shootings. But I don’t think police arrest exclusively harden criminals.  Hmmm.

There seems to have been a country-wide streak of “police kill unarmed person” which begs the question of why?

I would suggest that communities truly interested determine what type of training their law enforcement professionals receive. Our streets are frequent places where mentally or english language challenged citizens roam. A police officers commands, under these circumstances, will fall on “deaf ears”.


Roy Moore On Marriage

February 12, 2015

CNN interviewed Alabama Supreme Court Justice, Roy Moore, this morning. During the interview Judge Moore all but laid out justification for same sex marriage while arguing the opposite. Regrettably the interviewer, Chris Cuomo, chose to debate the word “marriage” and not the fundamental issue of why the Federal District Courts are involved.

Justice Moore argued that the Federal District Court had issued an “opinion” and not a law. Hmmm. His ruling that Alabama Courts did not need to follow the Federal District Courts ruling was based upon the view that the District Court was not the Supreme Court.

Justice Moore than went on to liken the Court’s opinion to “Plessy vs Ferguson” and “Dred Scott” (separate but equal and negroes can be property) decisions. Justice Moore asked whether the Federal Courts should have followed these Supreme Court rulings when today the Supreme Court decisions are viewed as gravely flawed?

Justice Moore quoted liberally the Constitution’s preamble saying the definition of marriage is not mentioned in the Constitution so it must be left to the States to decide what definition applies.  Hmmm.

What if the fundamental issue at hand is not the definition of marriage?  What if the real issue is why are certain rights available to some and not available to others.

Catholic or Protestant churches can define marriage any way they see as correct, and so can the Jewish, Islamic, or Mormon traditions. These are private organizations, like the Elks or Lions Clubs and the State has no role in setting these organizations’ beliefs.

The Constitution, however, does have an “equal protection under the law” provision. So when a State like Alabama enshrines in State law benefits (such as property transfer, rights of survivorship, adoption, etc) which are restricted to only certain male-female partnerships, then the Federal Courts are on solid grounds to call Alabama out and question why different pairs are treated differently.

Arguing the definition of marriage is futile. It is also irrelevant. The issues is why should certain pairs qualify for State benefits while other committed pairs not qualify? Equal protection under the law exposes the error which the traditional State laws passed benefits to married couples (where married meant man and woman).

There is no evidence that a man and a woman love each other more than two men or two women. There is also no evidence (as opposed to a lot of opinions) that a man-woman home is better to raise children. So, tell me again what is so special about man-woman marriage? Why should only this combination qualify for State and Federal benefits?

In a strange way Justice Moore by arguing that the Federal Courts had no role in defining marriage was in fact laying the basis that States had no right to deny citizens the same rights under the law.

Thanks Justice Moore.

Danger Ahead?

February 11, 2015

It is relatively quiet on the domestic political scene. Alabama’s Supreme Court Justice, Rory Moore has fiendishly interrupted the gay marriage issue in Alabama, and in the process, struck a blow for State’s rights. In Congress, funding of the Homeland Security Department raises the prospect of a potential “shutdown” if agreement between Democrats and Republicans cannot be reached. Other than that, the Washington grid lock seems mostly in recess. Is this a time President Obama can relax?

Probably not. Look around the world and tell me what his next steps should be.

Syria is a political (and humanitarian) mess. Attempting to remove Basher Assad predictably has lead to an Iraq repeat, Arab killing Arab (and anyone else who gets in the way). Iraq is still highly suspect and shows no signs of uniting Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis into one functioning State. Egypt appears to be tilting further towards absolute authoritarian rule, albeit a secular dictatorship. Jordan, while currently flexing its muscles in its revenge battle with ISIS forces, is only inches away from chaos should the Monarchy be usurped.

And then there is Iran and Israel.

Iran’s government seems quite stable, but its foreign policies extend (and meddle) well into the Middle East.  Experts claim Iran is pursuing centuries old Persian and Shiite aspirations. Iran’s fingers are in Hezbollah, Hamas, Yemen, and Iraqi’s Shiites goals. Iran is also engaged in negotiating a nuclear development agreement with the West. This agreement may come to pass or may continue to be drawn out while Iran continues its nuclear programs in secret.

Israel suffers from a different type of instability. Israel is a full blown democracy where religious interests continue to hamper a secular view of the world. As a result, Israel sees advantages is Egypt’s authoritarian government, is ambivalent over the turmoil in Syria and Iraq because it sees these situations as enablers for its ambition in the West Bank. But Israel’s largest concern is Iran and in particular Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiations with Iran is out of the question because Israel fundamentally does not trust Iran to keep any promise, as well as Israel is not keen on making any concessions itself.

Hmmm. Is that all on the foreign stage?

Don’t overlook China and its aspirations to regain the leadership role China played in South East Asia thousand of years ago. (India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea may take exception to this goal.) And who can forget about Russia and their aggression in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. On one level, Russia can be said to be reliving its Eastern Europe role dating to back long before the Czars.

While the pundits may look for an over arching foreign policy, it is hard to see one. Prioritizing these situations might be more helpful and in the long term present a better chance for lasting solutions.

First, the Middle East is not the most important hotspot in the world regardless of the chaos taking place.

Second, Russia is significantly more important than the Middle East. Russia has a second rate economy but a first rate military with both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Confronting Russian military aggression, which may become necessary, must be a last resort.

Third, China represents the most important place where American diplomacy needs to be placed. With 1+ billion people and the first or second strongest economy, China is going to become more powerful whether we like it or not. If you want fo think about doomsday, consider India has also 1+ billion people and nukes, Japan has a highly advanced technical and manufacturing infrastructure and is said could convert to a nuclear power over a weekend, and places like Vietnam, the Philippines, and South Korea are proud people who want to access minerals lying off their shores, these countries might be ready to fight for what they see as their rights.

But China represents something more. China has a lot to lose. China is now a very rich country after centuries of poverty. Under the motivation of not regressing, China could choose to exercise positive leadership including economic development and defense against rogue states in its region.

Similarly, Russia has both much to lose and much to gain by behaving responsibly on the world stage. Russia could also provide economic leadership through export of oil and gas, and security with targeted action against rogue regimes from India to Turkey.

I hope that President Obama sees the path forward as going through China (first), Russia (second), and then and only then through the Middle East. Of course both Russia and China may choose to pursue their own future vision.  And then what?

The alternative that peace is achieved in the Middle East (in some presently unknown manner) but relations with Russia and China sour. Are we better off?

Hmmm.  Better focus on those policies with the greatest potential payoff.

The Politics of Money

February 10, 2015

Last evening, David Gergen spoke at the Philadelphia Speakers Series. Gergen is currently a Harvard professor and CNN commentator, and joins the speakers circuit as a paid raconteur. His talk was entertaining as well as informative.

Gergen recounted his years with President Nixon, Reagan, the Bushes, and Clinton.  He pointed out how much things have changed since the post World War II era statesmen. In short, Gergen felt the current crop of national leaders fall far short of their post WWII predecessors. Hmmm.

It was, however, Gergen’s answer to a question which has stuck in my mind.

When asked about tax reform, he said, as if quoting from a “Big Money playbook”, the next President would have to deal with the growing income inequality. (So far, so good). Gergen then went on to say that President Obama’s proposal to increase taxes on capital gains was a mistake. “Taxing the rich to give more to the poor”, or “putting a ceiling on top earners while trying to push up the bottom” would not work.

Gergen felt that by “growing the entire American economy” both the rich and the less rich could gain more wealth. In other words, a stronger American economy sets the table so every one wins. Hmmm.

I do not doubt Gergen may feel that. And for sure, this approach could work and did work in the 50’s and 60’s. The problem that Gergen (and a host of other GOP playbook carriers) fail to recognize is that since the 70’s the average worker has seen stagnate wages while the top earners have experienced a 400+% increase in income.

Saying this differently, during the period from 1975 or so until 2015, economic productivity increases have gone entirely into the pockets of the already wealthy. Why should anyone think that in 2016, productivity increases will begin to flow to the average worker?

Words like “taxing the rich to give to the poor” are specifically chosen to inflame American sensibilities and values. Shouldn’t we reap what we sow?

Life has become much more complicated than the days of the American frontier. Increasing the capital gains tax to levels seem only 25 years ago is hardly threatening the livelihoods of the wealthy.  And on what basis is it unfair?

Also, President Obama’s proposal related to funding the massive infrastructure crisis facing the country. While I would support a gas tax increase in preference, increasing capital gains tax is just a worthy.

No one enjoys riding on pothole cratered roads.   The major beneficiary of infrastructure repair are businesses and their owners. Hmmm.

David Gergen is not a candidate for office this year or in 2016. Never the less, I am sure we are going to hear the same phrases and wrongheaded arguments during the Presidential primaries and campaign.

The New GOP Budget?

February 9, 2015

Today’s Wall Street Journal ponders the prospects for the next GOP Federal Budget proposal (replacing Paul Ryan’s). The quandary they face is will many GOP Senators facing reelection in 2016 take a pass on the GOP conservative wing’s ideas? The over arching concern these Senator’s are experiencing is the almost certain possibility that Democrats will picture them as against the elderly if the GOP budget proposal cuts Medicare. Hmmm.

This possibility casts a pox on both political parties. There are all sorts of costly shortcomings with Medicare that do not involve reducing benefits to any recipient. The notion that Democrats would demagogue Medicare is shameful but fully predictable. The suspicion that the GOP would support deep cuts to benefits if there were no political consequences is not only shameful but unnecessary.

There is a crying need for both parties to ask the right question and then test their policy ideas against a goal to reduce unfunded Government Medicare expenditures without reducing real benefits.

Medicare provides healthcare benefits to those Americans over 65. This cohort comprises a cross section of Americans, many of whom are on fixed income household budgets and can not accommodate sharp health care cost increases.

Conservatives argue (correctly) that healthcare providers will see no reason to contain costs if the government stands ready to pay. Conservatives see a combination of greedy providers with a “really don’t care since I am not paying” public as a recipe for out of control expenditures.

Conservatives also argue that the market place will self correct through free market principles. Hmmm. What are they smoking? The free market concept totally misunderstands the relationship between a sick person and their health care provider. The healthcare market place is an exchange between two parties grossly different in medical knowledge. Free market thinking, like when we buy groceries or autos or homes simply has no comparison with health care.

At the same time, to simply say Congress should not address our “out of control” rising Medicare expenditures because that would be unfair to elderly is just as irresponsible.

Congress (and Americans) would be better served if Congress started with problem definition and not some ideological policy. When expenditures exceed revenues, one must ask simple questions like “why are revenues insufficient”, “why are expenditures increasing so much” and “how does Medicare stack up when compared to health care delivery in Germany, France, Japan, or Canada for example”.

polTo simply conclude Americans must pay more avoids the role of cost control or why there is Medicare in the first place. Congress can do better. Congress must do better.