2011/09/30

The assault on the needs of regular people

In their "Abbreviated Pundit Round-up" Daily Kos today details a few of the many ways Republicans are trying to cripple the government so that it's unable to assist regular citizens. One of the items that makes no logical sense from the perspective of regular taxpayers/citizens is Amtrak. The Staggers Rail Act of 1980 freed railroad companies to focus on freight lines and to pretty much ignore passenger rail via the founding of Amtrak. Passenger rail wasn't all that profitable as people appeared to prefer either driving for shorter distances or flying for longer trips. 9-11 led to increasingly tight and inconvenient rules for air travel (I had to dispose of several bottles of liquids before getting on a plane a few years ago, and no, the expense wasn't huge, but it was quite annoying to have to do that) and it made for lengthy delays at airports. Not surprisingly, that's led to increased popularity for Amtrak.

With other countries having high-speed rail, that's made airplanes even less appealing as long and medium-distance transportation. Could the US simply turn rail back over to private industry? Probably, but as the linked piece indicates, freight lines aren't really compatible with the new high-speed passenger lines.


[Freight railway] owners worry that the plans will demand expensive train-control technology that freight traffic could do without. They fear a reduction in the capacity available to freight. Most of all they fret that the spending of federal money on upgrading their tracks will lead the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the industry watchdog, to impose tough conditions on them and, in effect, to reintroduce regulation of their operations.

Just seems to me that conservative/right-wing plans to destroy Amtrak would give America the worst of both worlds, we'd keep our annoying and inconvenient restrictions on air travel, but we wouldn't be able to just use Amtrak as an alternative. Would private service be cheaper? Probably, but that's not because private service is inherently better than government service. The main difference is that private lines could concentrate on medium-distance services of 50 to 500 miles and not have to worry about longer-distance lines of over 500 miles (The Boston to Washington Northeast Corridor is 440 miles long) whereas Amtrak has to run much longer-distance lines that run from California to Illinois or from Chicago to New Orleans. So yes, privatised rail service would see a big drop in costs for rail passengers, but those relatively few people who use long-distance passenger rail would get clobbered with either very expensive service or no service at all, being forced to go by air or having to drive.

Last night, I was at the public meeting that was considering an occupation of Philadelphia, modelled on the successful Occupy Wall Street action. As a traditional-news reporter was asking questions, it occurred to me that one of the major reasons I was so excited about it was that it pushes the Republican assault on government off of the front pages and that it drives the Republican/Tea Party-inspired drive for austerity and cutting the budget onto the back pages and out of peoples' view. If we can keep the attention of American citizens focussed on what we citizens need as opposed to what the plutocrats and oligarchs want, we're far more likely to succeed.

2011/09/23

Living in the past

Rick Santorum comes out strongly against gay and lesbian servicepeople being "out" and open about their sexual identities. His fundamental point is that military service has nothing to do with sexuality and that Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen should focus on their jobs and not bother with the distractions of wanting to get married or raise a family while in the service.
In the times that Santorum appears to be nostalgic for (No, Santorum never served in any branch of the military, so "nostalgia" is not really an accurate term), in the 2004 movie King Arthur, our heroes get drafted into the Roman Army for a term of 30 years. If they had sex lives at all during that time, it was expected to be with "ladies of easy virtue." If they sought to maintain a family on the side, well, they could probably have done so. Families in the old days didn't expect to receive any financial benefits from the Army. Families were expected to simply live off of what they grew or hunted and to simply do without a father and a husband (Female soldiers are, historically, an extremely recent innovation) for extended periods and well, if the soldier was lost in combat, the family would eventually learn about it from his buddies when the group got home.
Back during the late 90s, I believe it was a Marine officer who expressed the opinion that Marines simply shouldn't get married while on active duty. I can sort of, kind of see that for a four-year enlistee, but to expect a 20-year careerist to live that way is simply not taking into account the fact that families nowadays need to be supported by the family breadwinner. Families don't simply live off the land any more. American employees who worked on farms in 2010 were just a little over a million. Number of total nonfarm employees for the same period was up to nearly 138 million in 2008 and down to 129 million in 2010. Children need to be educated, they need to move on to college or graduate school if their families really want them to get ahead. Older parents get care these days, they don't simply die off when health problems come up.
Unfortunately for people like Santorum, these days, the American armed services need to involve themselves in family issues anyway. Dealing with gay and lesbian personnel is just one more issue that gets tossed onto a pile of many other issues. A look at the Armed Forces Crossroads website shows us that supporting families is hardly just a throw-away or side issue. It involves many, many people working full time on many different aspects of the non-military parts of servicemember's lives.
Update:  Gotta love this piece from Washington Monthly. The blogger points out: "...because nothing says 'support the troops' like booing a U.S. Army serviceman currently in Iraq."

2011/09/14

Blue Dogs and the budget

A Blue Dog Democrat said:


"...we've got to get our fiscal house in order," Shuler said. "We're at 15 percent of GDP in revenue and 24 and a half percent of expenditures. You want to take that 15 percent to 13 percent and increase spending to 27 percent.... I've ran a business, that doesn't go good on my balance sheet. I'm in the red when that happens."

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities agrees with these percentages and also points out that the US is spending nearly half a trillion dollars on safety net programs. Where does our Blue Dog intend to make a cut so that our budget goes down from 15% to 13%? The safety net programs are a pretty tempting target because safety net money normally goes to constituents that don't write big checks to politicians, that the politicians then spend on re-election campaigns.

Well, aren't there expensive programs that everybody agrees aren't all that useful? Back in 1981, President Reagan's first year in office, there were a few small cuts that everybody could agree on. The US was publishing an estimate every year of how much coal remained in the ground. The estimate ran into the hundreds of years worth. That publication was canceled. Problem was, despite the Golden Fleece Award given out by former Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) from 1975 to 1988, there just wasn't much of what politicians refer to as "low-hanging fruit," so after mid-1981, there simply haven't been any serious budget cuts.  There was a slogan that David Stockman, Reagan's first Budget Director, liked to cite "We're against weak claims, not weak clients." Great slogan, but one that was very difficult to stick with in practice, because those who write big checks for re-election campaigns have a pretty powerful and persuasive voice when it comes to budget priorities.

It's far from clear where Blue Dogs want to make cuts in the budget, but it does appear pretty clear that their preferred route is not to get more Americans employed, but to slash expenditures. As the Daily Kos piece says, what the Blue Dogs want is "not just bad politics, it's bad policy." The essential problem that Blue Dogs don't appear to understand is that the government is not a business.

Governor Rick Scott of Florida (R), tried to run Florida's government as though it was just another private, for-profit corporation and quickly learned that

The inclination is to give a new governor the benefit of the doubt and let him settle into office a bit. Scott squandered that with his arbitrary decisions and disregard for other institutions, including the Cabinet, Congress, the voters and the media.

Scott is used to running an enterprise as a one-man show, where he's not answerable to anyone. State governments don't work that way and there's no reason they ever should. It's extremely important to remember:

Democratic Government is not structured to make a profit. It's job is to spend the pooled contributions of the citizens (taxes) to provide services to those citizens - health, education, defense, infrastructure. There is no profit, as we, the People, are supposed to run this country, and are not selling these services to ourselves.

It's simply a contradiction for the Democratic Party to include Blue Dogs, who just don't appear to understand this. There's a very strong argument that the Democratic Party has been too much of a big tent party and that it needs to shrink down by kicking all of their Blue Dog Democrats out. Let those guys form their own party. Will that make Democrats a minority? Probably, yes. The advantage, however, is that Democrats would speak with one, consistent and unified voice. In contrast, what we have is a party where someone says something like this:

I am a former prosecutor. I put people in the electric chair. I have a gun. I believe in capital punishment. I believe in this war on terror. And I'm a Democrat.

As Digby says:

According to this fellow, I'm not a member of the Democratic Party and nobody gives a damn what I think. I get that, and I believe it. But considering his list of identifiers there, the real question is, why is he?

As to the policy front, the contractionary austerity policies that Blue Dogs appear to favor is opposed by no less an institution than the International Monetary Fund (IMF). As an anti-globalizer, (A popular policy position in the 1990s-early 2000s, it's very highly skeptical of the financial sector and strongly suspects that the MOTUs don't really know what they're doing, but capitalism is far from dead or useless) is a political position that I strongly identify with and the IMF has long been a e-e-evilll boogeyman to the anti-globalization movement, so I thought it was very interesting to see the IMF put out a very useful and informative study of contractionary policies. The IMF looked at 173 instances in 17 countries to gauge the effectiveness of contractionary or "consolidation" policies.

The challenge facing the United Kingdom and many advanced economies is how to bring debt down to safer levels in the face of a weak recovery. Will deficit reduction lead to stronger growth and job creation in the short run?
Recent IMF research provides an answer to this question. Evidence from data over the past 30 years shows that consolidation lowers incomes in the short term, with wage-earners taking more of a hit than others; it also raises unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment.

In other words, no, contractionary policies are pretty worthless. The IMF was unable to identify any positive results from those 173 instances. The recent orgy of budget-cutting in the US has been followed by an economic downturn, with employment gains going flat. There's nothing mysterious or coincidental about that. One led very directly to the other.


Seriously, there's absolutely no reason for liberal Democrats to do anything to keep Blue Dogs in the party.

2011/09/12

Just thought I'd point out...

Charles Krauthammer today credits the Iraq War with having damaged al Qaeda:

Iraq, too, was decisive, though not in the way we intended. We no more chose it to be the central campaign in the crushing of al-Qaeda than Gen. Dwight Eisenhower chose the Battle of the Bulge as the locus for the final destruction of the German war machine.
Al-Qaeda, uninvited, came out to fight us in Iraq, and it was not just defeated but humiliated. The local population - Arab, Muslim, Sunni, under the supposed heel of the invader - joined the infidel and rose up against the jihadi in its midst. It was a singular defeat from which al-Qaeda never recovered.

Slight problem here, though. The Council on Foreign Relations gives us the history of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and well, er, um, it's really not quite so clear that AQI was a part of al Qaeda that existed prior to the invasion of Iraq.

Ahead of the 2003 invasion, U.S. officials made a case before the UN Security Council linking AQI with Osama bin Laden. But a number of experts say it wasn't until 2004, when Zarqawi vowed obedience to the al-Qaeda leader, that the groups became linked. "For al-Qaeda, attaching its name to Zarqawi's activities enabled it to maintain relevance even as its core forces were destroyed [in Afghanistan] or on the run," observed (PDF) al-Qaeda expert Brian Fishman in 2006. Fishman, formerly with the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy, says the relationship eventually broke down when Zarqawi ignored al-Qaeda instructions to stop attacking Shiite cultural sites.

Sorry Charlie, but your theory's a bust. Had there not been an Iraq War, there never would have been an AQI. The defeat of AQI was hardly a defeat for al Qaeda.

2011/09/11

Turkey vs Israel over Gaza

I was curious to read in a Trudy Rubin column that Turkey and the Palestinians of Gaza had been given a good offer by the UN and that they should have taken it up. The offer concerned the "US Ship to Gaza" or the "Freedom Flotilla" that had as its flagship the Mavi Marmara. I was especially struck by these passages: Israel had a "right to impose and enforce a naval blockade on Gaza" and "As the panel makes clear, Israel had a legal right to search the ship, but made a bloody mess of it."

In May 2010, the Mavi Marmara was about 80 miles from shore and Israel had a 12-mile limit, but there's no question that it was headed for Gaza. Israel's right to intercept and detain any ship attempting to break the siege or blockade of Gaza is hardly clear at all. Guests of the radio show Democracy Now, Huwaida Arrat and Norman Finklestein, strongly dispute that Israel had any such right.

Essentially, the proposed compromise is that Israel could check incoming shipments for weapons, but could not otherwise stop imports. That has the problem of defining a weapon. According to Israel, cement (Freedom Flotilla II had lots of cement onboard), which is widely used as a construction material for housing in the region, is also useful for constructing fortifications. The distinction between imports via land and via sea differ only in that imports via land can be checked more easily.

The UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories writes for Uruknet that, in the case of the report of the Palmer panel, that "the report failed to address the central international law issues in a credible and satisfactory manner."


But to be satisfactory, the report had to interpret the legal issues in a reasonable and responsible manner. This meant, above all else, that the underlying blockade imposed more than four years ago on the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza was unlawful, and should be immediately lifted. On this basis, the enforcement by way of the 31 May attacks were unlawful, an offense aggravated by being the gross interference with freedom of navigation on the high seas, and further aggravated by producing nine deaths among the humanitarian workers and peace activists on the Mavi Marmara and by Israeli harassing and abusive behavior toward the rest of the passengers. Such conclusions should have been 'no brainers' for the panel, so obvious were these determinations from the perspective of international law as to leave little room for reasonable doubt.

China's news service says that "Ankara announced a series of measures against Israel, which included downgrading Turkish-Israeli diplomatic ties to the second-secretary level, suspending bilateral military agreements, and demanding a review of the Israeli blockade of Gaza by the International Court of Justice."

2011/09/05

Jonathan Chait's case for Obama


I guess what really annoys me about the last paragraph in Jonathan Chait's “What the Left Doesn’t Understand About Obama” (Sep 2), is that the piece as a whole reminds me of how my brother-in-law described Colin Powell's 2003 speech at the UN, warning us all of Iraq's mythical Weapons of Mass Destruction. He told me that “Yeah, it was real convincing, provided of course, that you had no prior knowledge of the debate and had no knowledge of the issues. Other than that, yeah, it was really persuasive.”

Chait's final paragraph was:

Liberal critics of Obama, just like conservative critics of Republican presidents, generally want both maximal partisan conflict and maximal legislative achievement. In the real world, those two things are often at odds. Hence the allure of magical thinking.


This might be convincing if President Obama had truly “left everything on the road,” had he truly made a genuinely maximal effort to achieve the goals he said he was committed to. “Liberal critics” were very much aware that the legislative option of “reconciliation” was available for passing the Affordable Care Act in the Senate, meaning that it was completely unnecessary to have a supermajority of 60 Senators to bypass the Senate's filibuster rule (The House operated by plain old majority rule, so there was no need for any bypassing there). The filibuster is, by the way, nowhere mentioned in the Constitution. Chait's statement:


Yes, Bush passed his tax cuts — by using a method called reconciliation, which can avoid a filibuster but can be used only on budget issues.


But that's a rather bizarre observation, considering that reconciliation was used after the Senate passed the Affordable Care Act, but before it went to the House for final passage of various fixes. It simply wasn't necessary for Obama and his people to permit the Blue Dog Democrats to act as though they had veto power over what went into, and what got thrown out of, the bill. Sure, Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) was a terrible fellow for getting the public option deleted from the ACA, but Speaker Pelosi made it clear that, although she was in favor of re-introducing it “...the Obama administration [had] shown no interest in the public option over the past year.“


Yes, President George W. Bush conducted a PR campaign to gut Social Security and feed it to the sharks of Wall Street, but I paid pretty close attention to the 2004 campaign for Bush's re-election, but after that campaign and vote, the introduction of his plans concerning Social Security came as a complete surprise to me. Bush had successfully convinced America that Senator John Kerry (D-MA) couldn't be trusted to be our President, but that's pretty much all that the 2004 campaign was about. It was also clear that Bush wanted to continue the Iraq War and that Kerry was a bit less enthusiastic about that, but Social Security was simply never an issue in the campaign. So yes,


Bush did have one episode where he tried to force through a major domestic reform against a Senate filibuster: his crusade to privatize Social Security. Just as liberals urge Obama to do today, Bush barnstormed the country, pounding his message and pressuring Democrats, whom he cast as obstructionists. The result? Nada, beyond the collapse of Bush’s popularity.


But this episode says absolutely nothing about the filibuster and nothing about the ability of Presidents to force Congress to do as they urge it to do through PR campaigns. If Bush had a mandate, if he was describing reality by saying "I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style." then yes, one could draw conclusions about how effective it is to barnstorm the country on a PR campaign. But a far better example would be Harry Truman's Whistle-Stop Tour, where he reminded the public what the Democratic Party stood for:


I'm asking you just to read history, to use your own judgment, and to decide whether you want to go forward with the Democratic Party or whether you want to turn the clock back to the horse and buggy days with such people that made up that "do-nothing" 80th Congress.

That Congress tried its level best to take all the rights away from labor. That Congress tried its level best to put the farmer back to 1932. That Congress tried its level best to put small business out of business. For what purpose? To help the big interests which they represented.


Note that Truman was successful precisely because he wasn't trying to ram through a deeply unpopular proposal. He was, instead, reminding people of what they already liked about the Democratic Party. Sorry Chait, but if Obama tours the country, advocating a jobs program, then I think Obama's job would be far more similar to Truman's tour than to Bush's.


Perhaps the oddest feature of the liberal indictment of Obama is its conclusion that Obama should have focused all his political capital on economic recovery. “He could likely have passed many small follow-up stimulative laws in 2009,” Jon Walker of the popular blog Firedoglake wrote last month. “Instead, he pivoted away from the economic crisis because he wrongly ignored those who warned the crisis was going to get worse.”


Nothing the slightest bit “odd” about it. Historically, a high unemployment rate has doomed presidential re-election chances. Getting Americans back to work was and remains a top-of-the-line political priority.


Rather than deploy every ounce of his leverage to force moderate Republicans, whose votes he needed, to swallow a larger stimulus than they wanted, Obama clearly husbanded some of his political capital.


Sorry, but I saw that in early 2009 and continue to see it today as an extremely poor strategic choice. That political capital did Obama no good whatsoever in passing the ACA and winning over “moderate” Republicans (Whose voting records tend to be indistinguishable from their more hard-line colleagues in any event) has been a complete bust. Obama saved his political capital for nothing.


But by far the most serious problem, as the economist Brad DeLong points out, was that Obama pivoted to deficit reduction far, far too early. Appointing the Bowles-Simpson Deficit Commission (Progressives popularly refer to it as the “Catfood Commission” and it's second iteration, the “super committee” created by the debt-limit deal, as “Catfood Commission II”) was a true stinker of an idea that, among many other problems, made it politically impossible to ask Congress for another stimulus without the Obama Administration appearing to be a bunch of incompetents. This was an entirely unforced error that has severely hamstrung the Obama Administration, turned them away from their own best interests and aided and abetted their political opposition by making it appear that their favorite issue since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, deficit reduction, was more important than putting people back to work, addressing Global Warming or addressing Peak Oil. All three of these issues are many, many times more important than deficit reduction is, was or ever will be.


No, I disagree with Chait's title, I think the left understands Obama just fine. Obama's a moderate Republican. He's in the wrong party and his errors have probably made a second term impossible. He needs to disband Catfood Commission II and he needs to adopt a full-blown campaign to get Americans back to work. He needs to put deficit reduction on the far, far back burner until other priorities are addressed and are well on the way to being solved.

2011/09/04

Cowboys & Aliens

Good stuff. Takes a while to really figure out what's going on, so patience is definitely called for. Definitely a surprise to see Harrison Ford playing the role he does. Reminds me of the comics series Secret Six (Group shot of them) in that heroes and villains are all mixed up.