Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Spring Break

Alachua County 2009
I am away for a week taking a road trip burning dead dinosaurs so I won't be posting here until after we get back and I resume daily pondering. On a completley unrelated subject my picture blog which is not in any broad sense timely, will continue daily at Key West Diary in my absence thanks to Blogger's ability to store my essays and post them on a timer.

Phony War

There is the sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop during the course of Twenty-Ten. We have seen what some observers believe to be round one unfold in the unravelling of world economic fortunes and now we are supposed to be getting ready for round two to sneak up on us. The wait is unnerving.

We are told that many threads of economic derangement are about to be pulled at the same time. We have commercial real estate loans coming due en masse with no credit to support refinancing and no customers to justify keeping myriad stores open across the fruited plain. We have Bank of America attempting to stop the hemorrhaging of home foreclosures by promising to buy up in essence, three billion dollars in principal of homes that are currently underwater. The pain of this maneuver may be sweetened by the fact the bank plans to pay not one dime in Federal Income Taxes for 2009. On the other hand some merchants of gloom suggest residential housing prices may drop by half yet again...Which, thanks to the intervention of Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac would leave the US Government on the hook to the tune of trillions more dollars.

In Europe the struggle to figure out the European Union's future continues. Bureaucrats in Brussels are moving ahead with plans to create a foreign service representing the Union, at the same time Germany is saying there will be no bailout for Greece unless sit is the IMF doing the bailing. Bringing in the International Monetary Fund is viewed as an admission that the Union can't manage it's own monetary policy. "The Euro is a currency in search of a country" was one wry comment attributed to an economist this past week. Portugal's bond ratings are slipping and AA status will mean higher costs of borrowing. Britain may be next they say.

Japan is on the ropes and interest rates may be rising. Exports are flourishing and unemployment has dropped slightly to below 5%, yet the country can't climb out of it's deflationary spiral and the government is borrowing 300% of GDP from it's citizens to fund out of control spending. China has over purchased raw materials they tell us and has nowhere to go but down, as exports are being impacted and they have no internal market to speak of.

It all just keeps rattling along supposedly preparing us for the time the other shoe will drop. Meanwhile we polish our muskets and practice austerity with more or less success as we wait. Wait for what? Who knows because if we knew we wouldn't be waiting. Me? I'm waiting for the ocean to warm up enough to make swimming tolerable. I hope summer is long enough and calm enough to allow plenty of swimming to help take my mind off these looming and intractable worries.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Housing Dump

The housing front has been reporting some wild goings on and I don't know what to think. Bank of America is going to wipe out some three billion dollars of debt by writing down the principal of homes underwater and simply reducing principal to new assessed values. The US government is taking on more housing debt burden and despite all this frenzied activity there are rumblings of further chaos to come.

I myself have started down the road of attempting a refinance of our home which has sunk in value to some degree, not as bad as many perhaps, but we did the right thing, put 25% down and secured a sensible 5.8% thirty year loan. Now our down payment has vanished, our home is still worth less than we owe and banks are taking us all for an economic ride. I am pissed If my wife and I, decidedly small enough to fail, pay our bills why do we have to subsidize our very own mortgage lender to the tune of trillions of dollars? And Wells Fargo now says it will owe no Federal taxes in 2009 thanks to all the bailouts and losses and bonuses no doubt. Grr!

With that thought in mind I read Ilargi's sour reflections on Automatic Earth and I found her comments to be full of sense, as unpleasant as they may be. One salient fact that I had previously considered is that any loans refinanced will be recourse loans meaning any defaults will be recoverable by any assets available, not just the house itself. And why would that be an issue?

Well, it will be a huge issue if, as Ilargi suggests house prices may drop another 50% from where they are now. The FHA has six million practically non performing loans under it's belt and all plans to kick start a recovery depend on home values remaining stable and possibly rising. If as she suggests, house prices drop, the whole recovery thing will implode. Why implode? Because the US Trasury is having trouble selling bonds and it seems interest rates may be forced to rise. With interets rates rising and house values likely continuing to dump...things implode.

The thing about house prices is that they depend on employment- no duh!- and employment is at Depression levels no matter what our leaders tell us. House prices can't bounce back with more than 25% of the population unemployed or under employed. This whole ten percent figure is malarkey. And Shadow Statistics still shows true unemployment around 22% all told, a much more realistic figure, free as it is from the bonds of political necessity.

So what happens when rosy predictions meet hard reality and house prices slide and the government has no ready cash and people with recourse loans decide the game isn't worth the candle and walk away from their new low, loans? The answer to that question is swinging in the wind because no one in charge apparently wants to face that problem just yet. Let us hold our breaths, collectively and do the same. Perhaps Wells Fargo will tell me, thanks for the bail out and go fuck myself-no refinance for me! That will spare me the bother of trying to figure out if a re-finance is good thing or not, and will perhaps make it easier to do the walk of shame when my bank makes it the only form of protest left.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Party Of Cruelty

I am a fan of J H Kunstler's Blog, found in my web list. He publishes around 9:30 eastern time every Monday morning. This week he produced a scathing indictment of the Republican Party. I recommend you check out his blog and the comments (hundreds of them!) each week. I found his column this week to be particularly interesting as the dynamic duo of Cokie Roberts and her husband Steve, the bland columnists par excellence, came out with both barrels blazing attacking Glenn Beck for being an undemocratic, unpatriotic fascist of his own making. Boy, it seems like even the bland middle is getting pissed off. Check out Kunstler and visit his page for those comments. I believe he deserves to be heard as far and as wide as possible.

It was amusing to see the Republican party inveigh against health insurance reform as if they were a synod of Presbyterian necromancers girding the nation for a takeover by the spawn of hell. This was the same gang, by the way, who championed the Medicare Prescription Drug Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003, then regarded as the most reckless giveaway of public funds in human history. Along the way, they enlisted an army of nay-sayers representing everything dark, disgraceful, and ignorant in the American character. If the Republicans keep going this way, they'll end up with something worse than Naziism: a party that hates everything but believes in absolutely nothing.

The most striking elements of so-called health care in America these days is how cruel and unjust it is, and in taking a stand against reforming it the Republican party appeared to be firmly in support of cruelty and injustice. This would be well within the historical tradition of other religious crusades which turned political -- such as the Spanish Inquisition and the seventeenth century war against witchcraft. Whatever else the Democratic party has stood for in recent history, it has tended to oppose institutional cruelty and injustice, and notice that it has also been the party for keeping religion out of government.

Now a health care reform act has passed and there's some reason to hope that insurance companies will be prevented from doing things like canceling the coverage of policy-holders who have the impertinence to actually get sick, which has been their main device for revenue enhancement, and we'll see how they cope with the idea that being alive in a treacherous world is the fundamental pre-existing condition.

I surely don't know if the nation can afford to pay for what this law requires, but then can we really afford to pay for anything? -- including the salaries, retirement benefits, and health insurance of congressmen, not to mention two wars, bailout life support for banks, rising unemployment benefits, shovel-ready stimulus projects, et cetera, blah blah? Probably not.

My guess is that the health care "industry" will unravel in the years ahead under the weight of its own hypercomplexity just as all the other hypercomplex systems of normal American life (such as it is) groan and collapse under their own unworkable immensities -- and I speak here of industrial-style farming, Big Box "consumerism," Happy Motoring, too-big-to-fail finance, centralized public education, and the pension racket. All the activities of daily life in this country have poor prospects for continuing in their current form.

At least this once a workable majority in the government has stood up to the forces of cruelty and injustice, and whatever else happens to us in the course of this long emergency, it will be a good thing if the party of fairness and justice identifies its adversaries for what they are: not "partners in governing," or any such academical-therapeutic bullshit, but enemies of every generous impulse in the national character.

I hope that Mr. Obama's party can carry this message clearly into the electoral battles ahead, painting the Republican opposition for what it is: a gang of hypocritical, pietistic sadists, seeking pleasure in the suffering of others while pretending to be Christians, devoid of sympathy, empathy, or any inclination to simple human kindness, constant breakers of the Golden Rule, enemies of the common good. In fact, the current edition of the Republican party has achieved something really memorable in the annals of collective bad intentions: they have managed to create a sense of the public interest whose main goal is the destruction of the public interest.

This is exactly what the Republican majority on the Supreme Court did earlier this year by deciding that corporations -- which are sociopathic by definition in being answerable only to their shareholders and nothing else -- should enjoy the same full privileges in election campaign contributions as human persons, who are assumed to have obligations, duties, and responsibilities to the common good (and therefore to the public interest). This shameful act by the court majority only underscores the chief defining characteristic of Republicans in their current incarnation: an inability to think. And so, naturally Republicans gravitate toward superstition and the traditional devices of improvident religious authorities -- persecution of the weak, torture, denial of due process, and dogmas designed to spread hatred.

I hope the American public begins to understand this, because they have been manipulated in their own pain and hardship by these dark forces, and their thrall to the likes of John Boehner, Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush, Hannity, and the rest of these vicious morons could easily increase as their economic hardships deepen. We're facing a comprehensive contraction of wealth and economy that is going to challenge every shared virtue in our national soul, and we're not going to meet these difficulties successfully without a sense of mutual obligation and sympathy for each other. The Republican party is just itching to turn a giant thumbscrew on the US public -- that is, before they try to start burning their enemies at the stake. We understand that the Health Care Reform Act is a first stand against that.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Questions Answered

I received the following questions in response to my suggestion last week that lack of health insurance reform is uncivilized and immoral. I cannot attribute the questions to anyone as they were posted anonymously. Anyone with answer of their own are welcome to dive in on either side (or neither) of the debate.
1) Your claim that in "civilized nations where citizens have a right to health care one doesn't see begging posters like the one photographed on a Key West street. There is no need" a cursory search in Google reveals the contrary.

In Britain, homelessness estimated at 400K (source:
In France 200K (Source: FEANTSA)
In Germany 590K (Source: share Int'l)
...and so on. If pictures are what's needed, there are plenty. There is no need? Please. I won't "jump the canyon" and throw the compassion card here....

2)To your summary of national funding networks to support the programs, I would love to know how they work in reality. I'm willing to learn - but it's almost impossible to cut through the partisan talking points and get to an objective comparison.

The core (and only) point I am making is concern over giving additional personal property and civil liberties to a central government. Period.

I would rather see the focus on how to make the system more responsive and efficient (is that the track record of our central gov't?) instead of how to "eat the rich" to pay for another gov't program.

Discuss the successes of Social Security, Medicare and various welfare programs in your reply. Don't just ignore these inconvenient topics and hurl epithets.

3)To your point that cutting spending on the military would finance this new entitlement program, I'll agree this would be a viable source of funding if we act fast. The Defense budget represents 24% of total gov't expenditures (source: This percentage is has steadily dropped over time and the social safety net we're apparently sorely deficient on in this country represents 56% of gov't expenditures and is historically the fastest growing portion of the budget.

4) How do you specifically propose we provide jobs and grow opportunity for future generations if we increase penalties for companies to grow and provide jobs? I'm all in favor of a fairer tax code - one that eliminates the "social engineering" programs buried in the current mess we've got... but populists will have none of it (e.g. a flat tax, nat'l sales tax, etc.) as it's not "progressive" enough despite the fact that currently 1% of the population pays 40% of the taxes in this country.

How do you prevent companies from escaping the pain of the new U.S. economic system and going to friendlier climes? Taking jobs and capital with them. How?

Include in your reply the fact that the vast majority of jobs in this country are with small private companies, not large "poster child" corporations - and how are they to survive and add jobs with these "increas(ed) taxes on corporations and unearned income."

Do we really think "tax freedom" day comes too early in this country?

5) The religious intonations of the replies to my posts are disgusting and irrelevant. The insinuation of personal greediness and callousness speak better than I can on the shallowness of thinking on the posters part.

Apologies for
being redundant, but my point is not opposition to helping the needy, it's doing it via a "command economy" I'm afraid of. If the "civilized" nations of Canada, Switzerland, Germany, etc. have such a wonderful system, why aren't Americans expatriating en masse to those locations? Why not?

March 21, 2010 10:23 AM

1) Homelessness is not the issue under discussion. Every country has a proportion of people without homes. In fact the welfare states of western Europe have extensive support for people without homes and people in proximate danger of losing their homes. Unemployment benefits are more generous, mental health care is better, though not necessarily as good as one might wish. Poverty is generally less stigmatized as a moral failing than it is in the US. Nevertheless Britain, like key West has it's own population of vagrants, that is to say people who are homeless by choice, as a lifestyle. No one goes bankrupt to pay for medical care. That is a huge difference between the US and Europe. You may argue that there are fewer than the numbers quoted by progressives like me, but the fact remains that people are crippled by medical costs in the US; in Europe they aren't.

2) As far as insurance reform goes I would prefer to see Medicare extended to all with an option to buy private insurance for those that wish to and can afford it. For instance private insurance in the UK removes the wait for non emergency surgery, it pays for private rooms and so forth. However basic care is extensive and free. The drawbacks to national health care systems are real and are due to lack of money rather than generic "bureaucratic incompetence." A friend of mine diagnosed with adult onset diabetes had her co-pays waived as she was diagnosed with a chronic illness. that is to say with a medically proven need the system stepped in to actually help her rather than hinder her access to care. My stepmother, a lifelong smoker was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the jaw and throat. She lived in a remote community in the Highlands of Scotland and undoubtedly her care was intimate and personalized because she was in a remote community. But get this: she had round the clock at home nursing and doctor home visits as she lay dying. It cost her not a penny. Her family could face the prospect of her imminent death without having to worry about the bills. Does that sound uncivilized to you?

National Health care services are costly and they do suffer from lack of money and care is not uniformly excellent. However here in the US a visit to a hospital will reveal the same issues-long lines, botched treatments, crumbling infrastructure and other problems related to particular medical systems and facilities. Just because care if provided by for profit provider doesn't mean patients get better treatment than shareholders. The difference is we pay far more per capita for services that cost infinitely more to provide.

On the subject of Medicare, let me just say that people who have access to it and use it love it. Remember those seniors bitching about wanting to keep government hands off their Medicare? Talk to a Veteran and you will find a large preponderance who strongly approve of the level of service at the VA. And you will also find those that have received poor services. Just like in the private sector. Funding for these services has been subtracted by successive administrations to pay for General fund needs. The fact remains that left alone, Social Security is well funded into the foreseeable future. The problem is that it is the object of scurrilous attacks to impoverish and render more fearful working Americans. Without secure access to health care and pensions Americans are vulnerable to the depredations of corporate America and they like to keep us malleable. Europeans, guaranteed their services are protesting loudly the costs of bailing out the corporations; we aren't. That would just be a by-product of a strong social network in my opinion.

4) The tax code is impossible. I would support a flat tax perhaps set at more than one rate or set to kick in at a rate high enough to allow low income families sufficient tax-free income to live. Particularly I think corporate taxes should be flat rate taxes with no loopholes. the problem with the flat rate tax is it cuts off funding for charities but perhaps that is an issue that could be considered separately (one could check a box on the tax return to set aside a millage of one's taxes for charities or something like that). A loophole free tax code would level the playing field to some extent for small business.

I think the most important issue to consider is the oft quoted figure that consumer spending funds 70% of economic activity in the US and without a living wage consumers will not be there to fund anything. It is, you might say, the Henry Ford principle of paying workers enough to buy the product. The other thing that tends to be forgotten in the debate over taxes is that American consumers are the customers that have created extraordinary wealth in this country. Microsoft would be as nothing without the home market. I would envision some form of protectionism (hated word!) to force (hated word!) corporations to consider the value of the home market. If John Deere moves production overseas then John Deere products re-imported to the US (from Canada or Europe or elsewhere) suffers the same import tax as China or anyplace else. Protectionism is decried as a terrible thing but I have watched globalisation wreck productive well paid jobs in the US.

5) If opponents of health care reform stuck to the issue instead of shouting "faggot" and "nigger" and "socialist" at proponents perhaps the rhetoric would cool down. The Republican Party has not brought anything to the table in the move towards reform. All they have ever said is they want to start again. If you don't want to be tarred as a selfish, callow bigot you might do well to speak out LOUDLY against those on your side of the aisle who use those tactics. It's time to understand that we on the left aren't going to let the bully tactics of the right go unanswered.

While you ask why Americans aren't emigrating to countries with health care worth having the answer is complex. One, emigration ( as those of us who have done it) is intimidating and difficult especially to a country with a foreign language. Foreign countries don't want emigrants any more than we do and we are a nation unlike any other built on immigrants! Americans aren't taught foreign languages, rarely travel and are brainwashed to think this is the best country in the world. How many of your neighbors do you know have the money to buy a ticket to London? Or would know how to cope when they got there? Besides which, health care isn't the primary issue in everybody's life- not until they get ill. Then you find out how messed up our system really is but then you're ill and leaving your family and friends to live elsewhere is impossible wouldn't you say?

On top of all those practical issues is the fact, amply illustrated by your own questions, viz, question number two where you yourself say:

I would love to know how they work in reality. I'm willing to learn - but it's almost impossible to cut through the partisan talking points and get to an objective comparison

If someone as interested and involved as yourself can't sort truth versus fiction what chance does the average Joe have? Especially when lies and disinformation are the stock in trade of the Republican opposition? Republicans aren't discussing issues, they are throwing insults and calling the President illegitimate and a socialist and I don't know what. How about your side steps up and discusses reform rationally and presents a plan that can be compared to the Democrat plan? I guess we will see what Republicans can offer up that is constructive, not destructive. That would be change I could believe in.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why Reform?

The health insurance reform debate has been framed by conservatives, not because their world view is correct but because they shout loud and long and unified and we leftist policy wonks want a reasonable debate. So they get to call Representative Frank a faggot and we get to argue how and why health insurance reform will reduce costs. They march up to the Capitol and shout "nigger" at black Representatives and we wonder why it isn't obvious that this path to reform is simply smarter government regulation. This isn't a take over of health providers by government fiat- this is a reining in (albeit modest) of some aspects of the runaway gravy train that has fed health insurance corporations. It's a no brainer, a modest first step to controlling costs and giving people a chance to have access to health care.What seems obvious to a policy wonk like me does not appear anything close to obvious to people who think Sarah Palin has a viable national candidacy. I read that President Obama is a socialist hell-bent on inflicting government programs upon us. Which I suppose might have been true had we seen Medicare coverage expanded. Or had we seen even a public option included in the package of reforms proposed for passage. Instead what we got was a bundle of tighter regulations on insurance companies while guaranteeing them a larger pool of healthy premium payers. Such is the grip of corporate America on our politicians that we cannot envision any reform anywhere that doesn't offer compensation to our corporate masters for the slightest moral inconvenience they may be asked to suffer. Never let it be said corporate America's bottom line should be reduced to fulfill a moral obligation.

That is, I guess, how I view health care reform. For me it is a moral obligation. The fact that the new mish mash of regulations will cover but 95%of Americans seems absurd; yet it is a huge leap forward. That the reforms are expected to cost less than forging ahead with our current non-system is a bonus. The costs of not having proper access to health care are far higher than the sort of numbers the Congressional Budget Office can crunch. The CBO says the reforms will reduce costs but we know free preventative care will encourage people to seek medical supervision before they need intervention which in the long run will reduce costs considerably. Consider too the health hazard posed by a lifestyle involving large quantities of inappropriate foods combined with not much exercise. And add to that the current expectation that emergency rooms will cover medical needs by passing on the costs to the insured... All these issues mean that not passing health insurance reform would be far more costly in the long run.

I am not an opponent of good government. Personally I'd like to see Medicare for all offered. It is obvious that elderly Americans love Medicare, in the same way Canadians enjoy their socialism in health care delivery. Elderly Americans have the option of buying private insurance, especially now that pre-existing conditions will no longer be a reason to be refused. Yet I doubt anyone will drop Medicare to go private.

When push came to shove our leaders, Republicans at the time, funnelled vast sums of money to bail out bankers and insurance companies. President Obama followed in the same vein, a puppet in the hands of his campaign contributors. Health insurance reform offers us a watered down package for the same reason, but even Dennis Kucinich got on board at the last moment because this is better than nothing.

Dennis Kucinich

Meanwhile we will have to soldier on with this abysmal economy and keep hoping for the best. Private insurance has been screwing us just as badly as private bankers have been screwing with our money. A little government regulation goes a long way in leveling the playing field for we the people. I look forward to seeing how Republicans propose to take back these reforms once enacted. This change could be an example of good government which we should all back. I hope it has time to grow and show what it can do for ordinary working Americans.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Summary Of Health Care Reforms

1. Adult children may remain as dependents on their parents’ policy until their 27th birthday

2. Children under age 19 may not be excluded for pre-existing conditions

3. No more lifetime or annual caps on coverage

4. Free preventative care for all

5. Adults with pre-existing conditions may buy into a national high-risk pool until the exchanges come online. While these will not be cheap, they’re still better than total exclusion and get some benefit from a wider pool of insureds.

6. Small businesses will be entitled to a tax credit for 2009 and 2010, which could be as much as 50% of what they pay for employees’ health insurance.

7. The “donut hole” closes for Medicare patients, making prescription medications more affordable for seniors.

8. Requirement that all insurers must post their balance sheets on the Internet and fully disclose administrative costs, executive compensation packages, and benefit payments.

9. Authorizes early funding of community health centers in all 50 states (Bernie Sanders’ amendment). Community health centers provide primary, dental and vision services to people in the community, based on a sliding scale for payment according to ability to pay.

10. AND no more rescissions. Effective immediately, you can't lose your insurance because you get sick.

Taxes Aren't Theft

I startled some friends of mine a few years ago. It's not that difficult for me to do, owing to my penchant for saying what's on my mind, but this comment was dropped into the night and left it's mark without my even noticing. Josh and Lisa had invited us over for dinner one winter evening and it was pleasant enough we lit their outdoor fireplace and pulled up their fake Adirondack chairs and sat around looking at the flames as one does and talking about this and that.

It was a while ago and I was worried more about the future of the economy which seemed, at that time to have hit a dead end. Our leaders in New York and Washington were running around like headless chickens and indeed they tell us now things really were on the brink. Little wonder I was gloomy as I sipped the whiskey and watched the flames. It seems I made a remark about paying taxes that struck a chord with Josh and Lisa. They told me later that I said that paying taxes is the price of admission to a civilized society and as such I was glad to pay them. Which is how I feel. No surprise I suppose that I am not the first person to say that, though it was my original remark at the time.

Linguist George Lakoff says conservatives frame the debate over paying taxes as though taxes are an affliction. It's this approach to paying taxes that has set the tone for political debate since Ronald Reagan came to power. Alongside deregulation, the notion that paying taxes is somehow "bad" entered into the common consciousness, one that democrats have felt obliged to subscribe to as well. This despite the fact that conservatives routinely critique Democrats as "tax and spend Liberals" as though Republicans somehow don't tax and spend. Actually I think that taxing and spending makes for a sensible budget instead of cutting taxes and increasing spending but that is another story.

Back to Lakoff from whose writings I have this rather provocative quotation:

Conservatives have worked for decades to establish the metaphors of taxation as a burden, an affliction, and an unfair punishment – all of which require "relief." … And on the day that George W. Bush took office, the words tax relief started appearing in White House communiqués to the press and in official speeches and reports by conservatives. …The word relief evokes a frame in which there is a blameless Afflicted Person who we identify with and who has some Affliction, some pain or harm that is imposed by some external Cause-of-pain. Relief is the taking away of the pain or harm, and it is brought about by some Reliever-of-pain. … The term tax relief evokes all of this and more. Taxes, in this phrase, are the Affliction (the Crime), proponents of taxes are the Causes-of Affliction (the Villains), the taxpayer is the Afflicted Victim, and the proponents of "tax relief" are the Heroes who deserve the taxpayers' gratitude. Every time the phrase tax relief is used and heard or read by millions of people, the more this view of taxation as an affliction and conservatives as heroes gets reinforced.

Try this alternative view of taxation instead:

Taxes are our dues — we pay our dues to be Americans and enjoy the benefits of American society. Taxes are what we pay to live in a civilized society that is democratic, offers opportunity, and has a huge infrastructure available to all citizens. This incredible infrastructure has been paid for by previous taxpayers. Roads and highways, the Internet, the broadcast airwaves, our public education system, our power grid — every day we all use this vast infrastructure. Our dues maintain it.It is about being a member, a part of the community. People pay a membership fee to join a gym, the local YMCA, or a club for which they get to use the basketball courts, the swimming pool, and the golf course. They did not pay for these facilities with their own memberships. They were built and paid for by other members, and all the current members maintain them with their dues. It is the same thing with our country — being a member in good standing of a remarkable nation. Americans pay their dues.

Funnily enough this was my own attitude toward paying taxes neatly summed up here by someone of whom I had never previously heard. After Lisa and Josh expressed surprise at my attitude, expressed perhaps as an immigrant. I am finding this lack of desire to be a member of the club to be rather disheartening. I wonder at the fact that state lawmakers, faced with laws of which they disapprove come up with the notion of secession as the answer. I find it hard to credit the taxpayers of the state of Utah with having much sense when their representatives suggest secession as the answer to health insurance reform. The club survives when we follow the rules and pay our dues. I would hate to imagine that sitting around a fireplace talking of taxes as patriotic could be construed as too patriotic in the face of secession. Secession? Surely that is more unthinkable than the proposal that we all get access to health care. Isn't it?

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Health Care Reform

From the Huffington Post:

Summoned to success by President Barack Obama, the Democratic-controlled Congress approved historic legislation Sunday night extending health care to tens of millions of uninsured Americans and cracking down on insurance company abuses, a climactic chapter in the century-long quest for near universal coverage. Widely viewed as dead two months ago, the Senate-passed bill cleared the House on a 219-212 vote. Republicans were unanimous in opposition, joined by 34 dissident Democrats.

Obama watched the vote in the White House's Roosevelt Room with Vice President Joe Biden and about 40 staff aides. When the long sought 216th vote came in — the magic number needed for passage — the room burst into applause and hugs. An exultant president exchanged a high-five with his chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.

A second, smaller measure — making changes in the first — was lined up for passage later in the evening. It would then go to the Senate, where Democratic leaders said they had the votes to pass it.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the legislation awaiting the president's approval would extend coverage to 32 million Americans who lack it, ban insurers from denying coverage on the basis of pre-existing medical conditions and cut deficits by an estimated $138 billion over a decade. If realized, the expansion of coverage would include 95 percent of all eligible individuals under age 65.

For the first time, most Americans would be required to purchase insurance, and face penalties if they refused. Much of the money in the bill would be devoted to subsidies to help families at incomes of up to $88,000 a year pay their premiums.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Health Insurance Reform

I wish one of the "No!" votes on today's scheduled insurance reform could explain why this sort of begging, seen in a Key West window is okay?

I am child-free and glad to stay that way but I do not understand why it is okay to live in a country where parents cannot afford treatment for their children. We have, the Republicans tell us, a health care system that foreign kings and presidents choose to use, it is that good. Which leaves one wondering what the rest of us are supposed to do.

As glad as I am that some sort of reform appears to be coming at last, I remain committed to the notion that Medicare for all is the best, most efficient way to go, and let the foreign potentates and banksters buy private insurance so that even in illness they can be apart from the rest of us plebs.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Waiting Game

In looking back at the Great Depression of 1929 we are told that everything went to hell in a hand basket that October and stretched out for a decade until World war two broke out and the economy was saved by the need to produce materiel to kill the armies of the Axis. Along the way leftists like me praise FDR for overcoming the opposition and starting the Works Progress Administration and putting Americans to work. Revisionists (the bad guys as it were...) say the WPA and the New Deal only papered over the problems and never actually fixed anything. If you look at the details of the lost decade there was a great deal of misery and a great deal of support from the people for their champion, President Roosevelt. Economists who look at the minutiae of the government's decision making at the time will criticize this approach or that approach but when we look back from here we see a unified approach to problem solving that perhaps was not really there at the time. One of the starkest reminders of how hard the Depression really was comes when you talk to a survivor. They were a stoic generation and they won't say much (unlike Baby Boomers!) about their feelings but they were all marked by the experience of surviving their economic crash. The stories of survivors hoarding food, living frugally, saving money obsessively are legion. The history books may tell us breezily the Depression saw 25 percent unemployment and plummeting living standards all brought to a close by the War but that sort of abbreviated history doesn't tell it like it was. Our parents and grandparents suffered torments that stayed with them for the rest of their lives.Europeans are being warned by some of their leaders that life in the near term is going to get much bleaker. The Bank of England has announced living standards will plummet in the years ahead. The French government faces the unenviable task of telling their population the same. The French, unlike Americans, don't take kindly to being told they are going to pay for the sins of the wealthy and the french government is fiddling around trying to figure out how to break the news gently. meanwhile Germany has still not made up it's mind what form the Greek bailout will take and Greeks have been throwing Molotov cocktails in an effort to spur their leaders into action. The sad part is that the spending and borrowing of the past three decades are coming to a head. And Europeans, cocooned by a welfare state that would would Americans' eyes water, is starting to crumble.In the United States we have yet to hear the message that the shit is hitting the fan. Our leaders tell us we have an economy starting to rebound, unemployment isn't getting worse at the same rate as last year etc etc... Yet on the ground it is obvious things aren't getting better. States are going bankrupt as must be obvious to anyone living in California, Illinois, New Jersey and Michigan among others. The gloomy economists on the sidelines are filling in for our absent leaders and they promise a future filled with hardship. Social services will be cut, arts programs will go, public facilities will be closed, pension payments will be delayed, hospitals will close, police response times will be longer. Stores are going to close, foreclosures will increase, energy will cost more, wages for the employed will stagnate and the younger generation will refuse to subsidize the retirements of those of us ready to leave the workforce.

In the face of the gloomy prognostications there is a sense of fatalism that creeps into my mind, the sort of paralysed helplessness that one sees in a wild animal caught in the headlights. From my vantage point life goes on as normal. We work, we pay our mortgage, I show up to work, the building is air conditioned to an extravagant degree. The city of Key West is starting to look at the next budget cycle and there is no word so far of wild cuts, layoffs or major changes. Tourists cram the streets of the city, and of all Florida destinations the Florida Keys are proving to be the most resilient. Tourism is up this year over recent years and while room rates have dropped the rooms are still filling up in Keys hotels and guest houses.Sitting here now, sheltered, fed and employed I wonder what the future might bring. It's hard to square the apocalyptic visions brought to us by Moody's and the Bank of England. My colleagues go about their work and their lives shopping online planning vacations, eating out. I can't make up my mind if they are smart lucky or foolish. Me? I vacillate between hoarding and spending, with my wife putting on the brakes when she feels down and letting go when she decides to feel hopeful. We've scrapped plans to go to Europe this summer, our tilt at the windmill of frugality, planning instead a road trip with a dog and a tent, Okie style, possibly to New England, cheaper and closer to home. Not exactly frugal but not exactly extravagant either.

It seems inevitable that something has to give. It may very well be ordinary daily life but I do not propose to retreat to a Montana fortress, even if I had one, to ride out the coming storm. There is a part of me that hopes that if living standards are going to drop, as seems likely, that in some respects life may actually get better. I will undoubtedly miss the modern conveniences , cheap and readily available, but it wouldn't be human if, in exchange some good didn't come out of a new way of life. Dread mixed with an intriguing sense of the possibilities. Perhaps I am an optimist deep down.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Moody Predictions

It has been something of a conspiracy theory but the call to end the legitimacy of the Federal Reserve banking system has been gaining ground. Replacing the Federal Reserve with a government controlled central bank seems a hard sell in an age when Government is viewed by the masses as less likely to support their interests than corporations. Perhaps we shall see a movement dedicated to the breakup of the monopoly that gains the ears of Congress but it doesn't seem likely.

On the other hand, as far as i know, there is no underground movement to subvert the power and legitimacy of the bond ratings agencies, even though the various recent bubbles have shown Standard and Poor and Moody's to be lackeys of the people who supposedly hire them to investigate their corporate value. Without a Triple A rating a bond gets to cost the issuer a ton money in interest supposedly because Standard and Poor, Moody's or Fitch (in London) have studied the corporate entrails and come up with an idea of how risky the investment is likely to be, Fat chance. It used to be a pretty boring job, regulated by national financial watchdogs like the Securities and Exchange Commission in the US. The the great derivatives fiasco upended everything financial, including ratings agencies when they got involved in essentially issuing fake ratings for vast profit. I mean, think about it: slices of US investments were offered around the world with AAA ratings and they were based on NINJA supported mortgages (No Income, No Job, No Assets = NINJA) and people were buying these Triple A investments...and lost their shirts, unless they were too big to fail in which case we lost ours supporting their crap investments.

Yet these ratings agencies got a free pass with a brief apology and continue on giving investments their imprimatur. Weird huh? But it gets worse (it always does!) because these sell-outs also rate government debt. To be allowed to continue to play in the European sand pit with it's neighbors Greece needs to sell bonds to pay down debt and keep functioning. Anything lower than Triple increases the interest Greece will have to pay back anyone who buys their junk bonds (the fee paid to the private interests that market these bonds is not refundable. Nice job if you can get it). If your grandfather bought bonds issued by the Czarist government of Russia they would make attractive dust catchers on your wall but no way was Lenin going to meet those obligations after he kicked Kerensky out. They became junk bonds.

So we still have these ratings agencies calling the shots and in order to keep investors aware of what they are thinking they issue reports from time to time. Moody's just issued a doozy suggesting "social unrest" is just over the horizon. If you live in the US, UK, Spain, Germany and France, Moody's suggests that "tough choices" may inflame the people and cause them to express dissatisfaction publicly. If you live in the US you read this and start oiling your guns, elsewhere you stock up on spray paint and cardboard and start writing large rude comments about financiers and tycoons and make a date to meet in the street.If you are the object of Moody's speculation you start figuring where to place your bets.

The beauty of being truly wealthy is that life becomes little more than a casino, and most likely you have the bank in your pocket to some degree making your bets all the sweeter. What Moody's is suggesting is that countries need to reduce total debt and reduce their deficits at the same time and the only way to do that (they say) is to cut social service spending (screw the poor) and cut wages (screw the employed) and raise taxes (ditto). If you are reading Moody's to try to figure where next to place the odd billion you start shorting bonds issued by the countries in question. In other words you bet against the countries in question being able to sort themselves out which increases the likelihood of them doing just that. And you pocket another hundred million. Cool huh?

I read the Moody's report and wonder what our social landscape will look like with half the teachers we have now, with government union jobs paying less and less, with permanent unemployment and underemployment at 25% and Moody's people figure it's a good bet we are going to get pissed off. And as I hope I have explained, it's not in their interest to change the path of destruction. They make money and increase their power anyway.

Please feel free to disagree, but I am oiling my guns.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Dred Scott Revisited

The estimable Lawrence Lessig was hired last year by the Safra Center for Ethics and was to get paid to spend five years studying corruption. His will be a busy five years no doubt. In reviewing the recent Supreme Court decision opening the doors to the unlimited sale of our electoral process to corporate money Lessig proposes a new constitutional amendment to limit the damage. Danette turned me on to this essay found here: so you can read it yourself in full.

It must be obvious to anyone that pays attention to my political beliefs, that I think the five to four vote by the Supreme Court was a classic error on the level of the Dred Scott decision before the Civil War. In that one, declaring Blacks were not US Citizens and thus unable to seek emancipation from the courts even when living in "free states" the vote came by 7 to 2 which pretty much guaranteed war two years later. At that time the court declared that had they decided Scott and his wife were able to petition for their freedom, having lived in free territories (declared such by the Missouri Compromise) they would have deprived the widow Emerson of her property whether or not her property resided in free states. Which, looking back from this place in history makes that Supreme Court look as mad as a flock of loons, and I am confident that given a hundred years this shower will end up the same way in the eyes of history.
Harriet and Dred Scott

Given that the current court is split four to four with Justice Kennedy the swing vote we are stuck in a parallel universe of lawmaking which is dependent on his ego for sanity to prevail. Don't get me wrong, any grouping that rates David Souter as a "liberal" is not a liberal grouping that I would consider joining, but it's the best we've got at the moment. In writing the dissent Senior Associate Justice Stevens shocked people who fancy themselves "court observers" by sarcastically suggesting that corporations should get the vote as that too is a form of speech. He isn't given to bitterness but you can see his point. I remember a time when Stevens was a middle of the road justice with some towering intellects on the left of the Supreme Court. His elevation to liberal is just a reflection of the times.

Had the 1858 Supreme Court voted in favor of the Scotts' petition they would have overturned effectively the Missouri Compromise and precipitated a flood of black refugees from the south. Thus in making their political calculation they voted in a way that defies common sense (and denies the revisionists assertion that slaves were happy as slaves). Similarly today, had the Supreme Court voted in favor of the Federal Election Commission they would have denied corporations the right to essentially buy our elections. The notion that corporate interests should be allowed to buy our elections is totally at odds with the common sense position that votes decide elections and a free voters should cast their votes in the land of the free.

The Citizens United vote lifts the ban on corporations (and by implication on Unions) on spending unlimited amounts of money on explicit election advertising. These days, elections are a money making machine for television which is where the loudest debates occur especially in large electoral jurisdictions. By allowing a free-for-all in corporate funding and by not explicitly banning foreign corporations from joining in the fun, the Supreme Court has effectively turened our elections, what was left of them, on their head. The sort of money a corporation can throw at buying TV time will make a mockery of town hall debates on any subject at any time.

Lessig's solution comes from the mind of an academic. He's like to see the 28th Amendment to the US Constitution read like this:

Nothing in this Constitution shall be construed to restrict the power to limit, though not to ban, campaign expenditures of non-citizens of the United States during the last 60 days before an election.

It's a clever proposal because it doesn't supply a blanket negation of the "rights" of corporations, thus sustaining previous Court rulings on the ridiculous notion of the person-hood of the corporate being. What it does do is forbid campaign spending by non citizens, a pale reflection of Dred Scott 150 years later, this time to support democracy. Corporations foreign or domestic are not citizens. Of course by Lessig's own account there would be a rather large hole in the Amendment which would allow citizens to take up spending on behalf of non citizens but one hopes greater transparency in electoral law could cover that (if citizens bother to pay attention).

I think the proposal would enrage corporate leaders who see nothing clever or funny about an idea that deprives them of the power to rule. Besides where will you find the necessary two thirds of the State legislatures to vote a double negative into constituional law? They couldn't pull their socks up high enough to give women equal rights! I wonder if Citizens United could ever be the precursor to what Dred Scott became? An historical footnote to a conflagration. We should all be like Lessig and find a secure berth to see us through the next five years.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

High Intensity Lunch

We went out to lunch this weekend with another couple and over corned beef hash and tuna (not on the same plates) we took a meandering walk though the disaffection and anxiety that permeates our lives these days. They used to own an apartment in Manhattan but were essentially forced out by the influx of petulant arrivistes who demanded modern and expensive additions to the cooperatively owned apartment building. Perhaps too the Manhattan couple just decided it was time to move and seek a warmer climate. They came to Key West, while keeping their summer home in that other gay haven (I'm told) Provincetown on Cape Cod, a place I have never been but may be Key West In The Cold.

Because we were all four of us disaffected Democrats the conversation soon drifted into politics and the shared frustration of seeing Congress and the White House waste every opportunity to get something done. Van suggested a new line to me that I had not previously considered. He blames Dear Leader's sidekick Rahm Emmanuel for driving the Democrat Party to run candidates against vulnerable Republicans to the degree that yes, they won a huge majority, but at the expense of party purity. Now the Democrat controlled Congress is riddled with centrist Democrats who owe their election to disaffected Republicans and middle-of-the-road policies are what they support. Thus the super majorities we see are in fact tenuous coalitions of the not so terribly willing. I found this theory intriguing, one that explains in part the total inaction of our Democrat majority. "He's a one term President," Philip muttered, shaking his head sadly.

I don't see things in the Republican Party going swimmingly either. On the one hand the ever present threat of Sarah Palin, beauty queen, becoming the first woman president seems like it could be a concern, but to my way of thinking she is just too uninformed to make it anywhere close. I could be wrong, but I think she is phenomenon that will fade. I have also seen Mitt Romney's name put forward as the best hope for the Republican Party. Van had some choice comments about Romney's hard fought failed opposition to Massachusetts' universal health care reform which became loud support when it suited his political interests. However on the subject of Romney for President history generally does not generally shed a favorable light on a failed candidate who tries again (Richard Nixon notwithstanding!).

The lunch conversation persuaded me to consider the broader political field not least because they were muttering about emigration being the only answer, a grumble I carry deep within me some days. So look with hope to the Independents and we fall flat on our faces. Tea Party adherents, with their flag flown by the Palin aforementioned are not, despite the best efforts of their supporters to portray them so, a broad based movement of disaffected people. They are right wingers, and a magnet for every wacko conspiracy the right wing is peddling these days, and there are lots of them. The Liberty Party seems like it is Libertarianism in a more formal setting and while I like plenty of the philosophy, a party that eschews universal health coverage on the spurious grounds of party political principle won't get my support.

On the left we have the infant Coffee Party which will presumably collapse when the Tea Party does the same. I wanted to attend the Coffee Party gathering in Key West last weekend but could not which was disappointing. I will be interested to see if they can do more than simply become a grab bag of interesting ideas. The good old Green stand by is off the map. I supported the Greens for a while in California but their meetings requiring consensus on all things were worse even than the Democrats as far as getting anything done.

In the end we seem to be stuck with the Republicrats, people entrenched in the system and bought by the powerful. How to make them change is anyone's guess. Some people like term limits which I think simply kill off institutional memory and empower the entrenched bureaucrats. Others like me like public financing of elections, an idea abhorrent to the right and interestingly to our elected officials. You'd think that would be a hint...And so it goes. I am fresh out of ideas and perhaps by the next time we get together for lunch, the solution to the party political problem will be apparent to one of us. That would be an interesting meal. To clear the sour taste from my mouth I ordered a slice of berry cheesecake to share before my wife could protest. Ending on a high note as always at Square Grouper.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Choosing Our Future

The difficulty with coming to grips with history is that it takes as little as a few hours to read a biography but it takes a life time to live it. I am constantly reminded that the great events of history (usually wars and conflicts owing to our penchant of listening to male historians I fear) come down to us as both faits accomplis and events that occurred instantly, or at least within the length of time it takes to read about them. The US's ever increasing involvement in Viet Nam was not ordained to follow the path it did, just as our involvement in Afghanistan did not have to follow the curve it has, at least so far. Yet when we look back at the early 60s we see one event inexorably leading to the next. The claim that a US ship was attacked was debunked almost immediately yet the politicians, bound and determined to get involved ignored their military and took the country down the path of greater interference to "save" the corrupt and impossible state of South Viet Nam. Similarly the US built an elaborate house of cards claiming there were "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq, and in so doing they overrode the reports which were prepared by the politicians own spies and analysts. The die was cast.

It took a long time for the famous dictators of 20th century Europe to rise to power but they set their paths in stone for us to look back on them and marvel. Benito Mussolini started out a socialist and gave that up as a bad job when he realized it wasn't going to get him power. Adolf Hitler's story was the similar in that he followed a path that took him to jail and despair. We don't think of the great mass murderer of his epoch as a miserable failed artist ready to commit suicide when rejected by the woman he's just not part of the myth. Francisco Franco took over Spain in much more linear fashion rising like a regular guy through the ranks, and snatching the prize when he saw his chance. Perhaps evidence of his stability was shown when he declined to join the general bloodletting and carried on past World War II to live a long and peaceful life as a very successful dictator. He looks quite self satisfied here:So then I ask myself what could possibly be the path to be followed by a dictator in the US? Ascent through the ranks of peaceful, democratically elected (more or less) members of Congress? In the military? Such a scenario seems more likely to me than fragmentation of the republic. I wonder who would have the nuts to put a border post between Texas and Arkansas? "Show your passport please?" is an odd question to put to your neighbor in a pick up truck who lives across the road in Texarkana.

Where there is no separation of culture or language, that is to say, history, it gets much more complex to draw a dividing line. Indeed the world of commerce and trade has been working to knock down these barriers and so far protectionism hasn't even been put on the table as a possible solution to our unemployment troubles. We are trapped in the narrative that continues to insist that free market capitalism will save us. Even though trade barriers are down in Europe you can still tell a Pole from a German simply by asking the question: What is your name? You can't do that in the US. All we are separated by is our political opinions. The Civil War was geographic and cultural and economic and even abolitionists in the south (there were a few) could mask their distaste for slavery enough to support a war which smacked of imperialism because it was also geographic.

How to separate a red state from a blue state these days? Who isn't fed up with the political leadership? We all feel betrayed to one degree or another, you because Obama is a socialist, me because he isn't. We both know our votes count less than corporate sponsorship of the political class, we neither of us know what to do about it.

Perhaps the answer some will find will be terrorism, old fashioned 20th century Red Brigades, RAF, IRA style guerrilla warfare against the State. But we live in a comfortable world and it will take a lot to persuade a man on a couch to take up arms. The terrorists of 20th century Europe were idealistic youngsters, educated, disaffected and hopeless. Timothy McVeigh got his education in the military and lost his sense of himself as a civilian leading him to blow up a federal building and kill hundreds. He hoped his act would foment revolution but he went to the gallows disappointed. Joe Stack mixed up his own lack of business acumen with aggravation at the system and his flight into another Federal building was not the spark that started a revolt. The Tea Party will, I predict, run out of steam by election time. They carry along too much weird baggage to sweep up the fence sitting protesters. Sarah Palin will exhaust her welcome and the rest of us will face a shrinking economy, collapsing business real estate and an ever harder struggle to stay optimistic.

If ill advised "patriots" do start bombing offices and planes I'm guessing most people would be only to delighted to have some martial law enacted. I recall a few years ago more than 50% of those polled thought the First Amendment "went too far"! Such are the patriots of the modern land of the free, where taking the easy path is always the first choice. Americans these days seem ready for a strong leader who will tell them what to do, so dictatorship might be just the ticket. I'm not ready for a Generalissimo but perhaps there is a General out there in the ranks ready to be non partisan, ready to save the Republic for the good of the Republic. It happened in Rome at the end of the Roman Empire, I guess it could happen here. It didn't end well for Rome and I doubt it would here either.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Guns And Fishes

There has been some debate in Florida about new fishing regulations that may limit certain fishing quotas and possibly end fishing for some species to allow stocks to increase. This proposal predictably has some people up in arms, others suggest that "voluntary restraints" might work, which one has to suppose would have already worked if they were going to. I am not an angler, a fact that I frequently feel the need to apologize for, owing to the fact that I live in one of the best angling areas of the country (I think). However the issue of permitting people to hunt for permit brings up another issue which is the question of our time: how much government regulation is too much? The way I see it government's purpose is to regulate, there is no other reason for government, but the obsessive fear of regulation permeates public discussion, or what passes for public debate in the US. Over the past thirty years the US hasn't done much other than to repeal "burdensome"government regulations and the end result was predictable enough. Total chaos ensued after President Clinton signed the repeal of the Glass-Stegall Act in 1999. The repeal tore down all barriers that prevented banks from operating as investment houses and ironically enough, when the crisis was threatening to bring down Goldman Sachs (Alleluia!) the investment bank asked to be allowed to call itself a commercial, common-or-garden bank to participate in government largesse. that infusion of our money saved Goldman Sachs which has gone on to award itself endless bonuses and pats on the back. A few more regulations and a little less largesse might have worked better for us all I think.

The nutters on the right have now started another wild rumor a propos fishing. It is said that Dear Leader may be about to abolish all fishing in the US and the sad thing is there are compulsive Obama-haters who believe this tripe. Apparently the wild rumor has a purpose: commercial fishermen want to get the more eco-conscious recreational fishermen on their side in opposing fishing restrictions. So they create an absurd wild rumor which might even work.

There are so many examples of opposition to government regulations you can take your pick. There is a constant refrain that regulations are wrecking the economy. It's time the left took up the opposite refrain and pointed out why regulations can actually be a good idea, such as the preservation of fish species that would otherwise be wiped out. Good governance is a good thing.Oh and by the way, does anyone remember all the scare mongering about how Dear Leader would take away everyone's guns? Yes that was another wild eyed rumor that worked a treat for gun shops. Such was the panic they have been unable to keep semi automatics or ammunition on the shelves to feed the demand. It isn't too cynical I dare say to suggest that someone always profits from these mad claims. Why am I surprised?

Friday, March 12, 2010

John Corey's Anger

reader supported news is organizing a petition to send this article to Democrats to pass on the notion, quaint as it may seem that we are a little tired of their inability to get anything done. By Viet Nam veteran John Corey:

I am angry.

I'm tired of pundits and know-nothing, media gasbags. I'm tired of snarky "inside politics" programming. I am sick of the bigotry and hatred of "birthers" and faux patriotic cranks and their GOP puppet masters. And I'm really pissed at the Democratic Party that confuses having a plate of limp noodles with having a spine.
I'm going to vomit if I hear the word "bipartisanship" one more time.

It was bipartisanship that gave us this activist, conservative Supreme Court, a Supreme Court that says money is free speech and corporations are persons except when real people try to hold them accountable for their greed and poisonous ways.
Bipartisanship gave us the Patriot Act and FISA and illegal wiretaps and two wars and "free speech zones" and "no fly" lists. God bless bipartisan America.

I get nauseated every time the Senate explains how it takes a super majority to do anything for the American people. Tell you what, Senate Bozos, if it takes 60 votes to pass legislation, then it should take 60 percent of the popular vote to get you elected.

When some Tea Party crank says, "I want my country back," I respond, "No madam, you want your country backward."

When a deficit-mongering politician says, "How do we pay for this?," why not ask, "What did you Republicans do with the surplus we Democrats left you?"
When a compassionate conservative says, "Health care reform is socialism," why not answer, "No, sir, it is the moral and American way to care for people"?

Yes, I can hear it now: "You are naïve and simplistic. These are complicated matters and require sophisticated solutions. Democrats are a big tent and strive for balance. But Republicans block our path at every turn. We are thinking and considering new ways to work in harmony with everyone."

Bite me.

The only thing you get with "harmony" is a barbershop quartet.
Democrats, stop being Republican Lite. Stop whining about that mean GOP and their nasty messaging. Grow a pair; get a message; get a bumper sticker and hang it out there. Get some strong vivid talking points.

G-O-P = Greed Over People.

Greed kills - jobs, people and the economy.

Terrorism is Viagra for Republicans: The more fear - the more excited they get.
When a soldier dies for America, who dares ask if they were gay or straight?
Don't act so shocked, Democratic Party. Have you looked around lately?

You're losing the young vote that showed up to elect Obama. You're losing those old enough to remember real Democrats. Why? Because you don't talk to them anymore than you talk to me. You talk at me. You talk around me. You talk down to me. You talk about me. You don't talk with me. And you don't inspire and you don't champion and without that you are nothing more than an arbitrator of compromise and abdication.
You are facing a bully. Deal with it!

Republicans want the country backward. They champion superstition over science because it entrenches ignorance and bigotry and captures the easily frightened.
Republicans treat the Constitution the way they treat the Bible, with selective interpretation and selective application to others, while exempting themselves from judgment and accountability.

Republicans preach the gospel of fear because fear is darkness and darkness covers their theft of civil liberties and constitutional principles.

For 30 years the Republican Party has claimed the mantel of law and order, but now quake in dread of the American judicial system when putting terrorists on trial. How criminal is that?

Torture is illegal. Period. John Wayne and Jack Bauer were not our Founding Fathers - only in the make-believe world of Republican drugstore patriots.

"Don't ask, don't tell" needs to be repealed. Now. It is unconscionable, immoral and disgusting.

Empathy, compassion and equality are not pejoratives. They are American values proven again and again throughout our history.

Republicans believe that bake sales and cookies for chemotherapy best determine the value of life and health care because life is a pre-existing condition and the "free market" should not have to take on such a high risk - after all, no one gets out alive, so why should the corporation be left holding the bag? Unless, of course, the price is right.

Republicans believe that government should keep its hands off health care, but should put its hands inside a woman's body.

Republicans believe in small government - small enough to hold the "right" people and small enough to be owned and operated by the right people. And who are the right people? Them. Not you.

Democratic Party, DNC, DLCC, DSCC or whatever your acronym - I have only one question for you: Really?

You can't win against these guys? You can't get your message out against these guys? You can't give America leadership against these guys?


Geithner's Crime

If we are to believe the author of the blog Naked Capitalism the Secretary of the Treasury has broken the law in the failure of Lehman Brothers, the banking collapse that precipitated the crisis of 2008, which in turn trashed the world economic system. According to Naked Capitalism Lehman Brothers was engaged in some dicey fiddling of their books prior to the collapse and got help from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York which was run at the time by Timothy Geithner, seen below with President Obama.

Here's how it worked, more or less. Lehman Brothers was not in great shape with an estimated 130 billion in debt on a portfolio estimated around 660 billion, however what Lehman did seems to have been a deliberate attempt to cover it's losses, by fiddling with the books in the most blatant way. Quoting from the examiner's report as quoted in Naked Capitalism:

Lehman regularly increased its use of Repo 105 transactions in the days prior to reporting periods to reduce its publicly reported net leverage and balance sheet.2850 Lehman’s periodic reports did not disclose the cash borrowing from the Repo 105 transaction – i.e., although Lehman had in effect borrowed tens of billions of dollars in these transactions, Lehman did not disclose the known obligation to repay the debt.2851 Lehman used the cash from the Repo 105 transaction to pay down other liabilities, thereby reducing both the total liabilities and the total assets reported on its balance sheet and lowering its leverage ratios.

The repos are supposed to be transactions where the bank buys the assets back but Lehman was reporting them as sold, claiming therefore less debt and more cash on hand than was the case. what makes all this even worse, if that were possible, is that Lehman claimed to be in compliance with reporting regulations and that it held back nothing from regulators as these shenanigans were going on. So much so Naked Capitalism reports that Geithner ran several "stress tests" on Lehman Brothers to make sure the organization would be able to withstand a run on it's assets. Apparently Lehman failed two stress tests designed for Bear Sterns and Geithner made up an even more feeble test, dumbed down so that eventually Lehman could "pass."

All of which begs the question, what's the point of having regulators if they decline to regulate? This behavior tells me in no uncertain terms that if President Obama were ready to regulate banks he would be looking at Geithner with a jaundiced eye but he seems to be giving his Treasury Secretary a big fat "Great Job!" as President Bush was in the a bit of doing when his Cabinet members made a grand foul up. Dear Leader is exposing himself as a pawn of big business once again. I don't see much good coming out of the proposed new hard core banking regulations that we the people so desperately crave.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Blank Slate

“If you don’t know history, its as if you were born yesterday.”

Howard Zinn, Historian and Author, 1922-2010

I have never quite understood how it has become a cliché of modern education that young people think history is boring. I had my share of uninteresting history teachers but I have always been fascinated anyway by the subject and I spent a large part of my youth reading because I had nothing else to do. I spent the years of my life when most middle class youth are in college alone in a castle in the mountains of central Italy. It was not as romantic as it sounds, it was dull and isolating and not at all stimulating. But I had inherited a huge library from a grandfather whose possessions had mostly been plundered in between the time of his death and my mother's return from exile in England. During those long 23 years of an unhappy marriage the castle stood empty ten months of the year and anything of value was long since looted, to use a contemporary term, by the time my mother came home literally to die. I spent seven winters reading from the library, a room filled with leather bound tomes that dated back to the Middle Ages when my family first emerged from the primordial swamp of Italy's peasant class.I read 17th century books that looked more like manuscripts, reporting on efforts by the Doge of Venice to enforce the Inquisition. I read encyclopedias so horribly unscientific they sounded like science fiction, not facts taken at face value in the historical past. I read about the politics of 19th century Italy as though the events were taking place in the countryside outside my frosted castle windows. Civilta Cattolica, (Catholic Civilization) the journal of the Society of Jesus was leather bound and collected in an unbroken series that covered the crucial revolutionary events in the Papal States right through the unification of Italy in 1870. I sat by the fire and read the past as though it were the present. It was a home education that secured in me a desire to understand the past, not as a series of dates but of events that happened for reasons that can be understood by even a contemporary human being. The basic motivators, power, lust and money have never really changed throughout recorded history.

So, when you consider my rather unusual background, an unhappy one I hasten to add, it is hardly surprising that I should find myself odd man out in a world where interest in the past and a study of geography should be relegated to the unimportant areas of our collective lives. In my efforts to escape my fate as a member of the land owning classes I used to travel as far and as wide as imagination and money would allow. Owning land in the 1970s was not a ticket to large amounts of cash, for if it had been perhaps I could have been persuaded to stay, so I traveled on a budget by motorcycle and tent in the winters when the fields were fallow and I was exhausted by the cold and fed up with the mausoleum I called home. I went south to Africa to find heat like a migrating swallow.

A motorcycle ride through Tunisia will show a young man sights not expected, though one would expect date palms, donkeys, and djellabas, though a Roman amphitheater at El Djem came as a surprise to me. This was the Roman province of Carthage and what was built in Rome was emulated in Africa as in all the other far flung outposts of empire. Romans everywhere wanted their culture, they liked hot baths at Bath in England, just as American soldiers expect to find hamburgers on their plates in the Hindu Kush.

There is a tendency to imagine sometimes that people in other countries are better educated, Europeans like to mock Americans for their lack of education, but in the fields of engineering and medicine America has always outclassed much of the rest of the world. In the abstract Americans fail to grasp the value and importance of history and geography and anthropology which, in a world dedicated to the pursuit of cold hard cash matters not too much at all. However the difference between a well educated Italian and a well educated American has been up till now the power wielded by the two nationalities. Americans in the "Heartland" who vote and make their opinions known have had far more influence unintentionally it has to be said, on world affairs than any Italian voter has in the Italian hinterland. And being a leader in the world demands a certain level of education. The difficulty lies in how to explain to a machine tool operator in Little Rock why he needs an understanding of Islam when he is unlikely and unwilling to travel further than a dollar and the English language will carry him and his car. And yet he it is who has the ability to help elect the Most Powerful President in the World. An Italian voter gets to elect the leader of a third rate world power with an Army capable of nothing more than posturing.

By dint of powerful political manhandling Americans think they are threatened by Al Quaeda in Afghanistan and the best response to the threat is to go to war. Certainly Al Quaeda brought the war on themselves with their murder in Manhattan but by now the moment seems to have passed, Afghanistan which could perhaps have been retrieved with money and determination in 2002 now appears lost to the West. And the much discredited domino theory deployed in the Viet Nam era seems to be coming to pass in Pakistan a country toppling into nuclear fueled anarchy. Yet I would venture a guess that not one in a hundred Americans could point to Pakistan on a map or give even a brief summary of why India and Pakistan went into the disaster that was partition in 1947. And yet these voters decide the future, in abstract, of Pakistan. Or they would if democracy still held sway in our corporatist state. I'd like to think one could argue that with a better understanding of the world American voters could get angry enough and confident enough to oppose the corporate empire building. As it is the world is a blank slate and someone else gets to write the future of the planet in that space. And then they ask me, why do I tilt at windmills on my little blog? Because I say, otherwise my head will explode from too much thinking. I blame all those essays by reactionary Jesuits in the 1850's with forcing me to think about the reasons for and meaning of the relevance of history to today. I love history enough to know that I want to keep it in mind long enough.

I saw this sign on the barracks wall at Auschwitz I when my wife and I were in Poland 15 years ago. We went to bear witness to something that has all too often been denied as irrelevant and too far in the past for consideration today. In twenty years I hope I will be here and still able to say I saw the crematoria, I saw the ovens, I saw the tins of poison gas. I do not wish to forget my history.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Mainstream Schizophrenia

I am seeing a divergence of opinion on our economic future in the mainstream press, though when I say "mainstream" I do not include Television as I have no reception, but I do mean mainstream outlets online. In one school of thought the nascent recovery is real and the future will soon, not this year perhaps but soon, will return to the kind of growth and pace that we have enjoyed at home since World War Two. The other school of thought seems to be taking on the opinion that fundamental changes are underway and the future is not necessarily looking good, even as it looks very different. I find the shift rather disturbing.

Sometimes it seems like there is a conspiracy for every opinion, and no doubt there will be speculation that mainstream reporters have an agenda when they speak of a dark future that may not include an imminent recovery. or, the conspiracy could be that the optimists have an agenda of their own, that of keeping us comatose. Or it could just be that opinions are diverging. In any event if mouthpieces like MSNBC and The New York Times have columnists ready to suggest that all may not be well I rather tend towards the theory that they may be catching up with realists who make a great deal more sense to me.

Economics is offered to us as a science when it is in fact an art and a pretty sketchy one at that. An economist who isn't attached to one political school of thought or another is an economist without a following. An economist who subscribes to a political theory seems likely to skewer expectations to meet the requirements and expectations of that political theory. These days when Republicans are fragmenting thanks to the anti government fringe expressing total disgust, and Democrats are fragmenting thanks to those of us on the far left who are annoyed by their inability to accomplish anything, it gets more and more complicated to pigeon hole almost anyone except an economist. Thus we find ourselves in the odd position of swirling around trying to make sense of nonsense while the theorists, the studious "scientists" of the dismal science stand steady amongst us like rocks, on the one hand predicting a rosy future and on the other sucking air through their teeth in disapproval at theories offered by the opposing political grouping.

Chris Hedges

Then we have the cross overs. I was reading comments of one Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer prize winning writer for mainstream rags like the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times where he worked, and won his prize for war reporting. His recent opinion piece on Truthdig is a portrait of the United States impoverished, fragmented and on the brink of Civil War. He quotes a colleague at the Times, David Cay Johnston at length, from which I excerpt this rather ghastly paragraph:

“If we see the end of this country it will come from the right and our failure to provide people with the basic necessities of life,” said Johnston. “Revolutions occur when young men see the present as worse than the unknown future. We are not there. But it will not take a lot to get there. The politicians running for office who are denigrating the government, who are saying there are traitors in Congress, who say we do not need the IRS, this when no government in the history of the world has existed without a tax enforcement agency, are sowing the seeds for the destruction of the country. A lot of the people on the right hate the United States of America. They would say they hate the people they are arrayed against. But the whole idea of the United States is that we criticize the government. We remake it to serve our interests. They do not want that kind of society. They reject, as Aristotle said, the idea that democracy is to rule and to be ruled in turns. They see a world where they are right and that is it. If we do not want to do it their way we should be vanquished. This is not the idea on which the United States was founded.”

It would be nice to be able to dismiss this as a rant from the Left or Right or whichever way you prefer, but it is strong language coming from the mainstream. The article is all over the web and it's titled "Calling All Rebels." This is one wing of the mainstream in the US, and this is what they are thinking. Out loud. Brr.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Mouse That Roared

317,000 people live in Iceland and they have done what 300 million Americans have failed to do: they just said no. Interestingly enough it seems as though the Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles yesterday evening was of greater moment than Iceland's vote Saturday on whether or not to submit the entire island to the whims and extravagant demands of the bankers. The Icelandic vote as of Monday morning had garnered no attention at all in the alternative press never mind the mainstream where CNN had a very small headline at the bottom of the page and no analysis at all.

Getty Picture of Icelanders Saying No

What happened was that after Icelandic banks took in a raft of money from a bunch of unsuspecting people across Europe the Icelandic banks went bust, which wasn't surprising as they were being run by a bunch of Icelandic fishermen who had no experience running a bank of any kind. They found themselves in the position of leveraging modest assets in the 2003 boom and ended up with debts of 850 times the annual budget of the entire island. They imitated Wall Street in that they multiplied their assets with creative accounting and like Wall Street a couple of years after them Iceland crashed and left a trail of 100 billion dollars in debts- $330, 000 per citizen. More or less.

What was worse the Icelandic crash sucked about five billion (4 billion Euros) out of the investment funds of millions of Dutch and British small investors, people who never wondered why these suddenly famous Icelandic banks could offer interest rates far above current rates. they plunked their funds into the banks and reaped the benefits until they went bust. At that point the Dutch and British governments stepped in to quell the livid investors and covered the losses. Nice of the governments but they wanted their money back so they trudged off to Reykjavik with their hands held out demanding their money back. The Icelandic government immediately said yes, their currency was devalued by half, the bankers had returned to their fishing boats and an air of desolation was sweeping the land as Range Rovers were repossessed and imports became prohibitively expensive. If you don't import stuff to Iceland you end up living on reindeer and fish and the prospects were making the people moody.

So much so they started setting tires on fire and yelling at their neighbors who, in this small country with four times the population of the Keys,were their neighbors and also their elected leaders. Finally the leaders organized a referendum to allow the people to vote. 62% of voters went to the polls and all but 1.7% of them told Britain and Holland to go screw themselves. Which is a heart warming thing to hear at a time when American bankers get the red carpet treatment from American taxpayers. There is one slight problem.

The schedule of the never ending enlargement of the European Union calls for Croatia and Iceland to join in 2012 and the bets are strong that Britain and Holland will vote a big fat No to Iceland if they don't get their money back. Yet, some observers are saying out loud that the European Union is dying if not dead, not least because of Greece's economic implosion and the European Central Bank's inability to do anything about it. Germany has said they are not helping Greece, especially after Greek leader started mouthing off about reparations for World War Two, and the Union is too embarrassed to bring in the International Monetary Fund to help out. So Greece is dragging the Union down with it. Iceland with all it's horrendous debt hardly seems to rate as a potential asset.

The Icelandic situation is full of implications and no one seems to care. How odd.