Archive for January 2014

Drip, Drip, Drip

I wonder if any of the defenders of Chris Chistie are willing to recognize reality at this point and while you are questioning your judgement, maybe you have economic policies all wrong too? Nope not when women and gays still vote Republican. Denial runs deep.

Smart Environmentalism

The following is a headline just released:

Government Report Paves Way for Obama’s Approval of Keystone Pipeline

Now I would prefer that projects like the Keystone Project and the shale oil it represents go away.  We need to reduce carbon burning.  Having said that, if the report is accurate and I have no reason to believe it isn’t, the shale oil is going to be developed and sold on the world market whether we approve or not.  There are other issues with the pipeline itself and the problems with shale oil spills, but that has to be weighed against transporting this stuff on the rails where we have seen some catastropic derailments.

But it is going to be developed and stopping the pipeline isn’t going to stop the project or the additional carbon it puts into the air.  So if the pipeline is safer than rail, what are the real objections other than shale oil is bad?  In other words the President is going to have to approve this based on the facts as they now stand and then the environmentalists are going to fall on their swords crying foul.  Maybe they picked the wrong fight.

Maybe the fight they should have picked was implementing a carbon tax.  Since shale oil is much more carbon dioxide intensive, a carbon tax would make it less profitable.  And as we know, the only thing that talks and walks is money in this world of ours.  Maybe if environmentalists would focus more on what works instead of making principled stands that fail, we might have less carbon dioxide in the future.  I’m just saying…

 

Friday

Well my mind is kind of reeling. There are so many things that are not making sense, I don’t know where to start. Probably the first is the Farm Bill which should just be vetoed and tell Congress to get it right. Of course it has lots of good things in it, but it is loaded with bad things. Just to mention one is crop insurance which protects our farmers from Mother Nature, but is really a give away to insurance companies where we the tax payers guarantee a 14% return on their policies (and subsidize them). Why? Or why Congress removed the requirement to disclose who in congress is getting subsidized insurance? Full disclosure anyone?

That brings up a whole topic of compromise, horse trading, and extortion and . When does one become the other? Chris Chistie’s folks are mulling this over right now and clearly in politics the gray predominates. Right here in California we have a project going south (literally and figuratively) because of politics. That would the the high speed rail project. The route it will take was based upon horse trading to get votes and align the route with cities who had their votes for sale. So instead of good policy and projects, we get the suboptimal solution, and one that may ultimately spell its demise.

Let’s look at immigration. Republicans have given us a one page immigration plan, which means they haven’t giving us anything yet. But what is good immigration policy? Or how much of this is weighed down by pandering to the base as opposed to good policy that might work. Democrats are probably thinking we can throw away more money on border security if we can get a bill that actually helps legalized those who are in the shadows. Well that remains to be seen, but is that really a good compromise?

I guess what is really bothering me is that we know how to fix many things. They really are not up for debate since we already have enough data. But it would appear that we elect politicians who game the system for political advantage instead of working for the good of the country. How do we get around that? That is what is rolling around in my mind. We have a systemic problem in our political system that ensures that politicians like Chris Christie succeed instead of more public service oriented people. Sure Chris and most Democrats sell us that they care about us, but what they do is what they are.

So some horse trading and compromise works. Clearly if I want a new water treatment facility for my citizens I should be able to make a deal to support someone else’s project to get it. It is in the interest of my voters. But when I make deals to benefit special business interests or my political prospects, I am no longer serving the people’s interest (except where I lie to myself that this is good for the people). So how do we figure out who are the good guys and who aren’t. Watch what they do, not what they say. If women would do that, there would not be one female who is a Republican. I can dream.

What is the Greatest Threat to Democracy

She who must never be mentioned here is reading some essays in an essay contest and this was the topic. I got to thinking about this one. If you could name one thing that is the greatest threat to Democracy, what would it be?

As my mind raced over voter suppression, denial of civil rights to some of our citizens (including women), NSA surveillance, anti-intellectualism, money in politics, he said/she said reporting, denial of science, xenophobia and immigrant bashing, religion in politics, and economic inequality, I thought about what most of these have in common.

Then it came to me: Fat old white men (a.k.a. the Republican Party). I wonder how an essay on the threat of fat old white men would score?

Happy Talk/Crazy Talk

The SOTU and its aftermath are a good reflection of our dysfunction today. A failure on both sides to face reality. Sadly one side, the Presidents knows the reality, the other side is in LaLa land, but I get ahead of myself. I guess the conventional wisdom is that the President has to exhume confidence and paint an optimistic picture of our state of the state so Americans can feel good about themselves and hence the state of the state will improve. I would argue that we have reach a point where intervention is necessary and some one has to sit us down and make us face reality, and then give us a way out or we will continue our destructive ways. So I will start with a few examples where the President gave us happy talk instead of reality.

The lowest unemployment rate in five years – Well yes and no. When you look at the drop in those that are actually measured it is scary. We have a large number of Americans who have dropped out of the job market so they don’t get counted. And the long term unemployed has stayed high for a record long period. Oh, and let’s not forget that the jobs they can find are not quality jobs that pay the same as they got before the economy crashed. In reality we have a record number of unemployed and that is the crisis of our times. Instead it is sweep it under the table as it is getting better. Most Americans get this and you wonder if the speech was aimed at the 1%.

A manufacturing sector that is adding jobs – True, but at lower wages and less benefits than before with unions protecting workers rights severely handicapped.

More oil produced at home than we buy from the rest of the world – True, but it still goes on the world oil market for the best price so what’s the point other than pandering to drill baby drill?

Massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on – Not really. What has really hurt jobs are our trade policies of which the President is still a proponent of and is pushing more “free trade” policies that send our jobs overseas. And of course the lack of demand that keeps businesses from expanding. We need more good paying jobs and he is not addressing this as our real crisis

MyRA. It’s a new savings bond that encourages folks to build a nest egg. – Sadly this ignores the point that most workers with stagnant wages don’t have enough disposable income to have much personal savings. We would be better off increasing Social Security and the tax base to pay for it.

After 2014, we will support a unified Afghanistan as it takes responsibility for its own future – Afghanistan is a mess and there is no way it can stand on its own two feet. But most Americans don’t care as they shouldn’t, so this little lie really doesn’t matter other than giving Lindsey and John war talk when it falls.

Okay there was a lot in the speech that was true, like the decreasing deficit, but once again, decreasing too fast and hurting our recovery. But there was some truth to the happy talk, but the overall tone did not set us up for a real program of progress forward, a reset, just baby steps if the Republicans will give just a little. It was a speech of recognizing little can be done and asking for very little. So President Obama is out pushing a “modest” agenda basically asking for state and corporations to voluntarily help and using executive orders where he can on things like on minimum wage for federal contractors and the environment. That is why the crazy talk is so crazy.

The Republican talking points are from another reality. First of course is the “abuse” of executive orders and he is usurping Congress’s Constitutional powers. Now they are going to sue. What a joke. He has used less executive orders than presidents in the last 135 years. The power he is executing is clearly delineated by law and it is miniscule. And of course, the next President can undo them with a stroke of the pen.

Then there is the my way or the highway argument that “King” Obama is forcing on the Republicans. Let’s just review: Who was it that shut down the government and would not compromise when it was offered? Even more striking is that he overtly appealed to them in the State of the Union to work with him on minimum wage and immigration. He asked that they consider reducing some of the cuts to R&D and other programs. It was a concillatory speech. It had very little new in it, and it borrowed from Republican ideas, and he is stealing their power and taking over the country!

They are crazy and they are appealing to people who live in an alternate reality. That is why I have argued here before that he should know this will be their reaction and name it. Don’t try to placate them because it can’t be done. If he gave them everything they wanted they would vote it down because it is a plot. So end the happy talk except where it is truly justified. Point out the reality of our situation and give us a plan to reboot the economy and our path forward. Think big not small because they will fight it no matter what. And then see who the American people really want in charge of their future. Give them a real choice.

Understanding the Problem, but Giving the Wrong Prescription: Jonathan Chait

Jonathan Chait wrote a very insightful post on the State of the Union address entitled, Why Obama Pretended He Can Take Economic Action, and it zeroed in on all the issues, but missed the prescription for a change in approach.  Here are some excerpts:

The basic underlying fact of the situation is that the economy is growing very slowly because Congressional Republicans have done everything in their power to apply the fiscal brakes to the recovery. Among macroeconomic forecasters, this is not a remotely controversial assertion but rather an obvious fact that they wearily plug into their models. “I regard the spending cuts of the last several years as just mad,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, told the New York Times, “It delayed what would otherwise have been a quicker recovery.”

Disentangling the party’s underlying motives for this belief is nearly impossible. As the great cliché goes, it’s impossible to make a man understand something if his livelihood depends upon not understanding it, and the livelihood of the Republican Congress depends upon averting a rapid recovery under Obama.

A completely honest Obama speech about the economy would concede that he is nearly helpless to spur economic growth given the need to obtain consent from a Congressional party whose political interest lies in thwarting it. But he would be an idiot to say that. Americans tend to hold Obama accountable even for the actions of Congressional Republicans that lie beyond his control. (Many influential pundits do, too.) They equate the amount of time Obama devotes to talking about economic policy with his commitment to economic policy.

And so Obama is reduced to pretending the giant elephant in the room does not exist. His speech tonight offered a series of familiar, worthy economic reforms that Republicans will not pass, as he has done in previous speeches.

…He’s tried to crack this many times, with little success. The main solution available to him is for the economy to recover without much help from Washington. In the meantime, his best course of action is simply to talk about plans to help the economy as much as he can.

I would argue that while Jonathan is exactly right about the elephant in the room, he is exactly wrong about, “But he would be an idiot to say that“, and “his best course of action is simply to talk about plans to help the economy as much as he can.”  Jonathan is proposing what he has been doing and it does not work.

Anybody remember George Bush?  He was popular because he convinced the American people through his bluster and confidence, that he knew what he was doing.  His policies were a disaster (and they are basically what the Republicans offer today), but his confidence gave Americans confidence.  Take a page from his play book.

Being positive and cooperative has not worked with a Republican Congress that has no intention of letting up.  So why not give the American people a choice?  Why not give the real speech that says Republicans are your enemy?  Your present approach is getting us nowhere, your approval ratings are in the dumper, and most Americans see you as powerless.  So take back the power.

Go directly after them.  Don’t just talk, point out that Republicans are the problem, name names, and draw distinct policy lines.  Introduce into the Senate Bills that you know they will filibuster and attack them when they do.  Go on the offensive.  What we see now is the defensive and it is a losing strategy.  Oh, and Harry, do away with the filibuster or make them talk when they do, and then attack them for everyone to see.

Democrats trying to reduce the damage that Republicans are doing, and that is what President Obama is about along with Congressional Democrats, is a strategy destined to failure.  Just look at where we have been.  It is time to quit saying that honest people can disagree, and fight for the facts and show who is not honest.  We can no longer accept the status quo.

SOTU

My thoughts after thinking about it for a while are mixed. The first thing you want to know is about the audience. The Democrats brought guests who inspire by their fortitude and self sacrifice. They put a human face on on the results of policy from the soldier horribly wounded after his 10th deployment in Afhganistan, to the mother who has has her unemployment insurance cut off. The Republicans brought their Duck Dynasty hero and Sean Hannity to the speech. Oh, and lets not forget Steve Stockman walking out half way through. Impressive right?

Now on to the speech itself. In many ways he made it clear that Congress (A.K.A Republicans) were the problem. But it was done in a soft pedaled way that will probably play well with the pundits, but may leave uninformed voters still just hating Congress instead of the Republicans who are the real problem. It is kind of pathetic to ask cities and states to raise the minimum wage because the Republicans in Congress won’t do it. He left the door open on immigration, not pitting Democrats against Republicans which leaves the way for incremental bills and a path to legal status without citizenship. Both are a ploy to go nowhere, but seems oh so reasonable.

I guess if you want to see how far the Democratic Party has fallen look at his proposal for MyRA as a universal savings plan. Retirement used to be a three legged stool, personal savings, pensions, and Social Security. Pensions and personal savings have withered and Social Security is all that is left for most people. The advantage to an MyRA is that it would have a guaranteed return like a savings bond, but it doesn’t answer the question for the majority of people who simply get by and don’t have money to set aside and eat. I was hopeful there for a minute that he was going to talk about expanding social security, but of course I dream. And that is the real answer. This is just another “private sector” scheme to solve a problem only government can solve. It is really a Republican scheme.

Where he did put his foot down was on Iran and sanctions and that was welcome. Sadly some of the the problem is coming from his own party where Senators with big egos and conservative Jewish constitutes want to continue whipping a beat down dog. I would have liked to have seen more of that, firm positions on issues instead of we have seen some progress and maybe Congress can help me with more. That doesn’t really spell out what he stands for and where he draws a line that differentiates him from the Republicans. There is hope though.

He can now go out into the country and draw stark lines and layout a plan for the future that the Republicans will never consider. A plan requires details and he really does have to give the country a blue print, not generalities about working together and providing investments for the future. If the Democrats are going to make process in 2014 it will not be by showing “bipartisanship” in Congress, agreeing to plans that water down anything useful and improving their approval rating from 10% to 11%. They have to draw stark lines about what you get with a Democratic government and a Republican one. So far they have failed to do that and the President must lead here. We will see if he does.

Addendum:  I forgot about the President proposing more job help in using government to interface employers with workers and get the training they need to do these jobs.  Really a good idea, but a scratch in the surface that is missing the real problem.  While the official number is 3 applicants for every job, that overlooks all the people who dropped out of the numbers and is more like 6 applicants for every available job.  The real issue is that there are not enough jobs.  That’s a lack of demand which would creat jobs, not a structural problem of available jobs versus trained workers.  If you miss that connection, you get the whole economy wrong.

State of the Union or All the Wrong Advice

I listened to the talking heads giving advice for the President today and sadly he will probably heed them. The advice was to appear strong and do what you can do with Executive action, but to placate the Republicans on a few things they might address like minimum wage and immigration reform. I simply don’t agree. Once again we are setting ourselves up for the 2014 elections looking powerless.

Here is what I would advise and it is a page from FDR. Take them head on. For immigration, point out that there is already a plan approved by the Senate and the bottom line is a path to citizenship or no reform. The Dreamers and those who have earned it need to have hope. And other than that, they are not going to address anything that might make your numbers go up until after 2014 elections. So why not make it clear what your agenda is, in specifics, and point out who is the problem? Why not finally set up a choice for the voters?

Maybe legalization without citizenship would be a step forward, but the reality is that they will hang so much extraneous bad things on that bill that it won’t be worth it. So make it clear what it is you will accept and draw a line. We have been going nowhere as your VSPs have advised caution. Caution has moved the ball further to the right in each compromise. It is time to say here is what we stand for, if they won’t allow that to happen, then you the voters have a choice in 2014.

That would be my advice, but as usual no one will take it and we will go on going nowhere.

Who Said it Best Today: Letter to the Editor by Mike Mee in NYT

This appeared in the NYT Times today and about captures the entire issue:

To the Editor:

Re “Hospital Chain Said to Scheme to Inflate Bills” (front page, Jan. 24):

It is 401 B.C.; we are in the agora, the marketplace of Athens.

Ahead, an ugly, pug-nosed man makes his way toward us. He has seen us; we cannot escape.

Socrates.

“What is the purpose of health care?” he asks.

If we reply, “To improve the health of the public, Socrates,” he may accept this answer and move to his next point.

If, however, we say, “To make a profit for the shareholders,” he may have additional questions.

MIKE MEE
Endicott, N.Y., Jan. 24, 2014

I think that about captures the whole enchilada of this issue.

A Thought for Saturday Afternoon

I am sitting on my patio on this Saturday afternoon in my shirt sleeves, drinking a beer and enjoying an above 70º day at three thousand feet in the Sierras. Yes something has gone awfully haywire with the weather (I think it is called global warming). I worry about what this might bring this summer for my grapes, the rest of the farmers, and the animals and plants up here. But right now there is nothing I can do about it, so I am sipping a Heineken and listening to music streamed over my WiFi on my Sonos speakers. Then I wonder that other magical and beautiful “music” is in the air that we are just not in tune with. Food for thought.