Who We Thought They Were

Several seasons ago, following a particularly embarrassing come-from-way-behind home field loss to the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football, then Arizona Cardinals head coach Dennis Green took to the podium during the post-game press conference and made the following statement:
“...The Bears are who we thought they were.  That’s why we took the damn field.  Now if you wanna crown ‘em, then crown their ass!  But they are who we thought they were!  And we let ‘em off the hook!”
Democrats, meet me at paragraph four.
Democrats, Democrats, Democrats.  Do you remember what you were doing last November?  No, you should have been out voting.  But you weren’t.  Instead you were sitting on the couch stuffing potato chips and complaining about how terrible it was that the only thing a Democratic-controlled Congress could accomplish over the past two years was dig the country out of the deepest recession since 1933, overhaul the entire financial system and pass the first major reform of the healthcare system since the advent of Medicare.  Due to that apathy, Republicans now control the U.S. House of Representatives and 29 state legislatures and governorships.  In order to prevent Republicans from simply steam-rolling bills through legislatures of which they have complete control, Democrats have had to resort to procedural methods and stalling tactics.  Or, as in the case of Wisconsin and Indiana, desperate (and let’s be honest, pathetic) measures, such as fleeing their respective states for the sanctuary of Illinois.  Republicans in newly red states are systematically dismantling the Democratic Party, (with the deepest cuts yet to come when the electoral districts are redrawn over the next couple years), and Democrats have helped them do it.  Still think mid-terms don’t matter?
Despite threats from Governor Walker to lay off state workers in retaliation, Wisconsin state senators remain fugitives and protests at the capitol building in Madison continue to grow.  Using a state budget crisis as a catalyst (a crisis created in part by the almost two hundred million in tax cuts the governor signed into law just days after being sworn into office), Walker pushed legislation through the state house which would allow him to, among other things, sell state assets without solicitation of bids, cut wages and benefits of state workers significantly and strip public unions of the right to collectively bargain for more than wage increases tied to the rate of inflation.  In keeping with the spirit of slash and burn that seems to be sweeping the country, Democrats chose to largely ignore the no-bid contracts and public unions agreed to wage freezes, benefit cuts - in fact they agreed to everything but the one item that had absolutely no effect on the budget either way, elimination of the right to collectively bargain.  But that wasn’t enough for Governor Walker.  For him it seems to be kill collective bargaining or bust.  And for about a week he seemed to be holding up pretty well.  It was the “common sense, deficit-busting” elected representative, versus the “power-grubbing, treasury destroying unions,” with neither side willing to give in.  And then there was that phone call.
Last Wednesday morning a blogger from a website called the Buffalo Beast called Governor Walker’s office pretending to be billionaire industrialist, and Walker campaign contributor David Koch.  During the call, Walker admits to - among other things - his demand to end collective bargaining has nothing to do with saving the state money, plotting to trick Democratic Senators into returning to Madison, and considering hiring “troublemakers” to stir up the protesters to make them appear disorganized and violent.  Ordinarily, a public exposure of statement like those would shame a public figure into perhaps admitting he may have been something of a jackass in his prior dealings with others.  Not Scott Walker.  He doubled down.  Dug in.  Decided he would instead, threaten to have Democratic senators expelled from the Senate and issue warrants for their arrest.  Yeah.  That oughta bring ‘em back.
The longer this situation drags on, the less popular Walker’s policies - and ultimately his administration become.  Polls indicate that were the election to be held now, merely three months after bringing him to power with a four point margin of victory, voters would elect Walker’s rival by a six point margin.  But that fact is neither here nor there.  Sometimes governing involves doing things that are not popular, and Walker could simply claim he was elected to make tough choices and people are now upset that he’s doing what he said he was going to do, (even thought he isn’t.)  The lesson here, is that Wisconsin Democrats (and soon-to-be Ohio, Indiana and Michigan Democrats as well) brought this scourge upon themselves.  Scott Walker is who we thought he was.  Wisconsin Republicans are who we thought they were.  And you let them off the hook.  Democrats were so busy bitching and moaning and being depressed over how they didn’t get their public option, and the President wasn’t tough enough with Wall Street, and he didn’t tax rich people enough, and that the wars weren’t over yet, and that Guantanamo Bay Detention Center is still open that they decided they would rather stay home last November and not vote.  Well, now we get to deal with the consequences of that decision.  All these protests and procedural stalling tactics and fleeing of the state could have been avoided had you learned anything from the past 30 years and understood that Republicans are who we thought they were.  But you didn’t.  Instead, you let them off the hook.  Believe me.  They won’t make the same mistake.
In other news, the tide of revolution continues to sweep across the Middle East and north Africa, with Libya the latest to attempt to oust it’s dictator.  Following the lead of neighbors in Tunisia and Egypt, protesters first took to the streets on February 17, demanding the resignation of Muammar Gaddafi, who came to power in a military coup 42 years ago.  Since then fighting has broken out across the country, resulting in rebel forces now controlling territory in the east and west of the country, leaving a defiant Gaddafi hold up in the capital city of Tripoli, surrounded by several thousand loyal troops.  Many of his attempts to utilize the military to quash the protests have been foiled by pilots who took their aircraft and defected to Italy, rather than rain bombs down upon their own citizens.  However, he still retains enough support to push hope for a bloodless revolution toward the brink of civil war.
Not all revolutions are as effective, or proceed as (relatively) smoothly as those we witnessed in Egypt and Tunisia only weeks ago.  Sometimes things take a turn for the worse.  Sometimes bullets are fired and lives are lost.  There are many who believe it need not be that way, that the West should step in and militarily decide the outcome in favor of those protesting against the oppressive regime.  But advocates of such intervention need to be very careful of what they wish for.  History has repeated shown us that there are always unintended consequences that somehow, someway, more often than not, come back to haunt us.  Especially in the Middle East.  Arming the Mujahideen against the Soviets, arming Saddam Hussein against Iran, demanding Palestinian elections.  Whatever the solution to the current Libyan crisis, it must come from Libyans themselves.  Not from “outsiders” professing to have Libyan’s best interest in mind.  Libyans must decide what type of government they wish to live under, and they must take the necessary steps to achieve it.  Anything else will be viewed as order imposed by the West, usurping the right of the Libyan people to determine their own destiny.  The very last thing the United States needs now is a third active Middle Eastern military conflict.


The Revolution Will Be Televisied

Wow.  I go away for a few weeks and I miss, what, two revolutions?  I guess that’ll teach me.
Well, in case you haven’t heard, change has come to Egypt.  Following more than two weeks street protests, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned his office and turned over control to the country’s military leaders.  This, only a few weeks after the tiny North African state of Tunisia ousted it’s own president in similar fashion.  And those two acts have sparked popular uprisingings all over the Middle East, including Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Syria and Iran.
Of course, no overthrow of a foreign government – particularly in the Middle East - would be complete without a heaping helping of “Oh-my-god-what-does-this-mean-for-America?” navel-gazing by every talking head with access to a media outlet.  But before we prattle on about what change means to us, thousands of miles away, what does a change in leadership mean for Egyptians?  For the first time in thirty years, Egyptians will have the opportunity to choose a leader not named Mubarak.  Many – if not most – of the protesters in Tahrir Square, in Alexandria and across the country, and the reporters covering the story for the Arab news networks have never known any other leader.  Provided the Army commanders are true to their word, six to eight months from now, millions of Egyptians will vote in free and fair elections for the first time, selecting their own leader, instead of having one forced upon them.  It is a fantastic moment for Egypt and Tunisia, a triumph of peaceful protest and an awesome responsibility for the citizens of those countries.  They will now determine their own future.  It will be a difficult process, contentious process and an exhausting process.  And they will have to ensure that the results of their efforts will be worthy of the sacrifices made over the past several weeks.
Now, what does a new government in Egypt mean for us?  Well, if you’re Glen Beck, it signals the rise of an Islamic Caliphate and the end of Western civilization.  But if you are a sane, rational human being, the answer is, we don’t know yet.  It depends entirely on the make-up of the new government.  Egypt could formulate a government similar to any Western democracy, or they could end up with a situation similar to that of Iran, an “elected” government controlled by a fundamentalist clergy.  From our point of view, the former is certainly preferable to the latter, but even among Western democracies, some are certainly friendlier and more supportive than others.  Regardless of the outcome of the elections, several things are almost certain.  Egypt’s new government is likely to be somewhat less friendly to Israel, end the blockade of the West Bank, and be far more concerned with Egyptian domestic policy than American foreign policy.
Taking the afore-mentioned concerns into account, it was interesting – to say the least – to watch the response of American conservatives to the events of the past few weeks in the Middle East.  They seemed to fall into two camps.  One group praised the protesters for taking their political fate into their own hand by rising up and demanding the end to a three decade long autocratic regime, and demanding to know why President Obama had not taken a stronger stand in supporting them.   The other group, terrified of potentially trading the devil they know and tacitly support (Mubarak), for the devil they don’t (any potential extremist Islamic regime), constantly attempted to cast suspicion on the motives of protesters and protest organizers, and demanded to know why President Obama had not taken stronger measures to support the existing dictator.  Had the consequences not been so high it would have been amusing to watch and listen to people who constantly lament the “socialist dictatorship” they claim to live under in this country and who define “real” Americans as those using the word freedom at least twice in every sentence, trying to convince anyone who would listen that we should prefer Egyptians continue to suffer under an autocratic regime, because his successor could be worse.
What struck me about that was how paranoid and paralytic that latter thought process can be.  How could a country progress like that, absolutely terrified of everything and everyone around it?  How can a country accomplish anything constructive if it believes that all of it’s neighbors are out to get it, and that this, “the greatest republic in the history of the world” is so fragile that the slightest deviation from a myopic world view threatens to bring us to our knees.  Either we support the right of people to freedom, self-determination and self-government, or we don’t.  There is no room there for support of freedom, only if we the United States are completely comfortable with the determination people have made for themselves.
I’m sorry, I almost just died laughing.  Watched Republican Senator Jeff Sessions attempting to explain how the budget cuts outlined by President Obama in the amount of one trillion dollars over the next ten years are insignificant, while budget cuts proposed by Republicans in the amount of one trillion dollars over the next ten years are a serious attempt at deficit reduction.  Which brings me to the other topic du jour.  This past Monday President Obama released his budget blueprint for fiscal year 2012 to Congress.  The proposal calls for a budget of approximately $3.7 trillion, with projected deficit reduction of a little more than one trillion dollars over the next ten years.  What it does not include, is any mention of the debt reduction recommendations made by the President’s own debt commission last year.  In response to the President’s proposal, Republican Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan commented that, “presidents are elected to lead, and this president just punted.”  This may be the first – and only time I will agree with Paul Ryan on anything.
Yes, I understand the politics behind the President’s refusal to tackle the structural budgetary debt in any serious manner.  I understand completely that while most Americans claim they want Congress to reduce the deficit, most Americans are also unwilling to stomach cuts to any of the programs significantly contributing to that deficit.  Given that fact I also understand that the President gains no political advantage – especially in an election cycle – by proposing unpopular cuts to popular programs.  I understand that if he had proposed reductions in Medicare spending or Social Security payments (programs which, in their perfect world, Republicans would like to eliminate), Republicans would have attacked him for trying to pull the plug on grandma and throw grandpa out on the street.  I know that if he had dared to advocate reductions in Defense funding above and beyond the $80 billion already proposed by Defense Secretary Gates, Republicans would have insisted he was soft on defense and anxious to see the military projection of American power weakened around the world.  And I know that despite all their bloviating about cutting a hundred billion from the budget in their first year in control of the House, Republicans have managed to come up with only $35 billion in cuts, and have not attempted to tackle the difficult issues either.  I know all that stuff.  I understand it.  It is just so utterly frustrating that a President who previously has done such a good job at talking to us like we are in fact adults, decided not to do so this time around.
I am so tired of Democrats ceding tax and budget arguments and allowing Republicans to control the debate.  President Obama had an opportunity to wrest control of the fiscal debate from Republicans.  He could have laid out a case for why it will be necessary to raise the Social Security retirement age and lift the cap on income subject to the tax in order to keep the program self-sufficient.  He could have explained the need to reduce the cost of healthcare and the growth of Medicare in the long term to ensure it is available for the growing number of retirees.  He could have championed the merits of a simplified tax code, with lower rates across the board and an elimination of deductions that disproportionately benefit certain segments of society.  He could have made the case that this country would not be any less safe accounting for 36% of the entire planet’s defense spending, instead of the 43% we spend currently, when the closes competitor spends less than 7%.  But he didn’t.  He left it up to Republicans to frame the arguments instead, deciding to play political defense instead of offense.  He won the coin flip in overtime and chose to kick instead of receive.  Decisions like that often turn out poorly.  I really hope this is the exception.


Say It Like You Mean It

After a lovely bowl of mini ziti a-la marinara and diced tomatoes I thoroughly annoyed my wife by dutifully watching the President’s State of the Union address, and the following Republican responses.  So, since I invested all that time in front of the television, I will spend another block of time trying to make sense of it all.
I have never, truly enjoyed one of these things.  I find them all inherently dishonest in a certain respect.  American is always a great nation, we’re all working hard but need to work harder to get better, and the State of the Union is always strong, with room for improvement.  There seems to be a little too much self-congratulation and not enough frank honesty about where we are and what we need to do.  But, they are what they are, and once you accept that there is always going to be more cheer-leading than substance you can set that critique aside and examine the overall vision laid out by the speaker.
Overall I thought it was a good speech.  The President clearly and concisely laid out his vision for the country during the upcoming election cycle.  He advocated an emphasis on education, energy and infrastructure, with a pledge to tackle the tough issues of trimming popular government programs, reducing regulations and reforming the tax code.  He spoke of reforms to create a leaner, more responsible government, a government worthy of being trusted to efficiently execute the responsibilities it is charged with.  And, of course, made mention of significant administration achievements like trade agreements and nuclear arms reductions.  He did not spend much time discussing the past, choosing instead to look ahead to the challenges of the near future, promising renewed educational competitiveness and 80% renewable energy reliance by 2035.  But he also did something I haven’t heard a national Democratic political figure do in as long as I can remember.  He noted, albeit subtly, that those low-skilled, good-paying industrial manufacturing jobs that have been lost over the past 30 years, are simply never coming back - despite the perpetual lamentations of many liberals and Democratic politicians to the contrary.  We are no longer going to pay ten human beings to do the work of one robot, and the sooner we can put that notion behind us and focus on other ways to create jobs, the better off we’ll be.
I would have preferred a little more emphasis on debt reduction than the President provided.  I know clean energy is one of his core values, but I think he might have been better served - both practically and politically - by reducing his focus on that and spending more time on deficits and spending.  During the current political cycle, comprehensive energy reform is an impossible goal to accomplish.  But some mix of tax reform and deficit reduction is certainly achievable.  I don’t subscribe to the paranoia that this country is one sub-prime loan away from a collapse of Grecian or Irish proportions.  Rhetoric of that sort is disingenuous and irresponsible, and does nothing but obstruct serious debate.  There are myriad reasons why America is in vastly superior financial shape than most of its global competitors, all of which we have previously and will continue to explore in upcoming weeks.  But persistently high debt to GDP ratios will cause trouble for the country down the road, and therefore must be deal with seriously before they become impossible to control without catastrophic consequences.  Late last year the President’s Fiscal Commission released the findings of its year-long study into ways to bring the structural budget deficit under control.  Their recommendations included reducing military and Medicare/Medicaid budgets significantly (around 20%) over the next ten years, raising the retirement age to 67, means-testing Social Security, eliminating federal subsidies of all types, allowing the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003 to expire and reducing the marginal tax rates while broadening the tax base by eliminating tax deductions across the board.  I think many of those were solid suggestions, provided to President Obama under the cover of a bi-partisan commission, and he would have done well to embrace as many of those recommendations as possible.  Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan would not have been able to deliver such an eloquent reasonable-sounding argument for thrifty, limited government if the President had stolen his thunder beforehand.
Speaking of Paul Ryan, he certainly did himself and his party a favor by not Jindal-ing or Bachman-ing the official Republican response.  By constraining his remarks to a single topic, speaking to the audience like we are adults and avoiding trivial things like “volcano monitoring,” Ryan easily came off as at least the second-most reasonable guy in the room.  Agree with him or not, Ryan does have extensive and fairly serious ideas for decreasing the size and cost of government.  However, he has, to this point, been able to get a grand total of zero of his Republican colleagues to sign on to any of them.  They all seem far more interested in promoting a useless repeal of a needed reform to an industry they have never been interested in reforming until now and drafting legislation in opposition to abortion and marriage equality.  So, while the President has a difficult task in regaining the trust of the Independent voters who elected him, Ryan’s task of marshaling Republican support for difficult, meaningful fiscal reform may be almost as difficult.
I’m not even going to dignify Michelle Bachman’s attempt at a Ross Perot / Glen Beck imitation with a response.
Last Thursday the New York Times published a poll in which respondents answered questions on how they would prefer to cut the deficit.  Poll results were broken down into four categories; All, Republicans, Independents and Democrats.  For almost every single question the deviation of Republicans and Democrats from the overall (“All” category) was the same, while the responses for Independents much more closely reflected the general response.  On this issue - perhaps more than any other, the President needs to understand his audience.  From now until November of 2012, the block of voters that matters most to him are the Independents.  According to the latest Gallup survey, 28% of voters identify themselves as Republican, 28% as Democrat and 42% as Independent.  Those 42% of Independent voters are the ones President Obama needs to reach in order to continue on to a second term.  An examination of these poll results could help give him insight into how far Independents are willing to go on deficit reduction, and how they would prefer to see it accomplished.  Some of the results might surprise him.  
Two weekends ago, Jared Loughner strolled into a Tucson, Arizona Safeway, interrupted a town hall-style meeting being held there by U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and opened fire.  By the time he ran out of bullets and was tackled by onlookers as he attempted to reload, he had injured 13 people and killed six, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl.  Representative Giffords was shot through the head and remains in serious condition at an Arizona hospital.
In the aftermath of the shooting, everyone immediately and continually speculated on the motives of the shooter.  Was he crazy?  Was he a terrorist?  Was he influenced by the overheated political rhetoric so frustratingly common in our day to day discourse?  We still don’t know.  Due to some YouTube postings and comments from former professors and classmates, most seem to have settled on the as yet unfounded conclusion that Loughner is mentally ill.  I’m not sure why this is the case.  He has no history of mental illness and has not been recently diagnosed as such.  Strange internet postings and outbursts in class might make you weird, but they don’t necessarily qualify you as mentally ill.
Most of those not buying the mental illness angle, engaged in sometimes heated debate regarding the degree of responsibility the purveyors of poisonous political rhetoric should feel for Loughner's actions.  Predictably, the political entertainers claimed their venom was merely entertainment, and they could not and should not be blamed for the actions of a crazy man, then accused their accusers of all the same things their accusers were accusing them of.  Some even attempted a little revisionist history, claiming rifle scope targets placed over certain congressional districts on web pages during the mid-term election campaign were actually “surveyor’s sights”, having nothing to do with targeting certain members for defeat.  All in an attempt to make the point that violent speech and imagery has absolutely no negative impact on society at large.  I guess advertisers have been wasting their billions each year trying to influence the public with words and pictures.  I wonder if any of them limit their kids’ access to rap music, Dead Space and R-rated movies?
I am also always fascinated by the inevitable gun control discussion that always follows incidents like this.  Somebody always says that if there were tougher laws controlling access to firearms, the shooter would not have been able to purchase the legal gun and extended magazine he used in the shooting.  That person is countered by someone who claims that if only citizens of insert-state-here were allowed to carry concealed weapons these incidents would never happen.  Someone else brings up the fact that in countries like England, Japan and Canada were access to handguns is severely restricted, far fewer gun-related deaths take place than here in the United States.  Which then causes another person to note that in countries were handguns are prolific and in some cases required to be carried, like Israel, gun-related crime and fatalities are also substantially less common than they are here.  Things continue ad-infinitum in such a manner and nothing is ever resolved.  I don’t know which argument is correct, and frankly I don’t care.  I have never understood the intrinsically American fascination /fetish for shooting and killing things and I suspect I never will.  But in this case, the facts are as follows.  When it comes to firearms, Arizona is literally the wild wild West.  You can own pretty much whatever you want, however many you want, and take them with you where ever you want to.  If you don’t have a leg holster, shoulder holster, gun rack for the Suburban and one for the dog, you aren’t living up to your obligations as an Arizonan.  Representative Giffords owned and was licensed to carry a Glock semi-automatic pistol on her person.  I would have a difficult time believing that there aren’t more guns residing in Arizona than there are people.  Yet, on the day of the shooting, after firing 33 uncontested rounds into a crowd of people, Jared Loughner was subdued  while he tried to reload his weapon by first two, then four bystanders, with the help of a folding chair and some blind luck.  Not by gun-wielding citizen sheriffs.  If this incident could take place in the state with perhaps the least restrictive gun laws in the country, how could restricting access to firearms have possibly made this situation any worse?
Finally, due to an odd confluence of circumstances, next month’s Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers will likely be the first in history played without cheerleaders on either sideline.  How can this be, you ask?  How can a championship game, played at the home of the world famous Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders not feature any cheerleaders?  It seems the Packers and Steelers are two of only six NFL teams (the Browns, Bears, Giants and Lions being the others) that do not have cheerleading squads.  I guess it makes sense.  Not much point to cheering snow pants and triple-layered down jackets now is there.


Digging Out

Wow.  All of a sudden there is quite a bit to talk about.  As today is my birthday, I've taken this week off, so I'll have to wait a few more days to delve into this.  Perhaps by that time we'll have a little more information on the Arizona shooting and its ramafications.  Until then, stay safe and keep shoveling.


New Sheriffs In Town

Happy New Year everyone.  Here’s to hoping 2011 is a slimmer, trimmer, sexier version of 2010.
This past Wednesday was the first day of “work” for the 112th Congress.  A shiny new GOP majority was sworn in to the House of Representatives, introduced a new set of rules by which the House would operate and promptly announced they would break those very same rules next week when they vote to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  That’s right.  Not 24 hours into the session, the new majority revealed its fraudulence.  
Dissatisfied with the “pay-go” rules instituted by the previous Democratic majority, Republicans announced plans for “cut-go,” a rule by which all spending will need to be offset by spending cuts somewhere else.  In and of itself, not a bad idea.  But included in the cut-go provision, is an exemption which will allow House Republicans to vote for any and all tax-cuts, trade agreements, and of course, repeal of the Affordable Care Act.  Why?  Because according to the Congressional Budget Office, enacting the provisions of the ACA will result in a $140 billion reduction in the deficit.  A preliminary report by the same Congressional Budget Office notes that repeal of the Affordable Care Act would add between $145 - $230 billion dollars to the budget deficit.  When is a vote to increase the deficit not a vote to increase the deficit?  Apparently whenever House Republicans say it isn’t.
Several weeks ago I made the statement that Barack Obama and Paul Ryan were perhaps the only two men in Washington interested in actually reducing the structural deficit of the United States.  I was wrong about that.  Paul Ryan is not serious about reducing the deficit.  During the election campaign, Republicans, led in part by Representative Ryan, promised to cut $100 billion in spending in the first year.  Less than 24 hours into his new term, Ryan admits that $100 billion in cuts will be impossible to achieve.  When asked what he will cut from the budget to bring the deficit under control, Ryan responded that everything is on the table - except for defense, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans benefits and Homeland Security.  But I guess if Ryan has to sacrifice Free Taco Tuesday in the Capitol cafeteria to achieve those deficit-busting cuts, that’s one sacrifice he’s willing to make.
In March of this year, the amount of money the federal government needs to borrow to pay its debts will exceed its legal authority to do so.  Congress will have to vote to authorize a raise of that limit, or “debt ceiling.”  Many House Republicans - as well as several in the Senate - have announced that they are unwilling to cast this vote, as it violates several tenets of their newly (re)discovered austerity religion.  In theory, the principle of restricting the government’s ability to borrow money might seem like a good idea.  However, in practice - like so many of the “ideas” put forth by the leadership of the 112th Congress - there is a problem.  To raise money for the federal treasury, the government sells Treasury Bills.  Treasury Bills are essentially a promise to repay the value of the bond plus interest over a fixed period of time.  The value of the bills is based not on gold, or silver or grandma’s fresh-baked apple pie, but on something referred to as the “full faith and credit of the United States.”  Treasury Bills have value because the people who purchase them believe the government has the ability and the will to pay them back.  Unless the 112th Congress can reduce the budget deficit from $1.3 trillion to zero between now and the close of business on February 28th, while failing to raise the debt limit, the United States will default on it’s debts.    New Treasury Bills will be worthless.  Money - for everyone - will become a whole lot more expensive.  Foreign investors and governments will demand much higher rates of return (than the current 3%) to purchase U.S. debt.  Our credit rating and our currency will take a dive and our financial markets will give up much of the significant gains they have made over the past two years.  The recovery will be over, and it will be left to the 112th Congress to explain to the American public why they were willing to sacrifice American jobs and American capital in a foolish attempt to embarrass the President.  It’s an explanation I would be interested to hear, but hope I never have to.
This past Tuesday the Navy permanently relieved the Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise of duty.  No, not Christopher Pike or James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard or Data.  Wrong Enterprise.  Citing “extremely poor judgement,” commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Admiral John C. Harvey Jr. relieved Captain Owen Honors of his command and re-assigned him to an administrative position, effectively ending his career.  The move is a result of a series of explicit videos produced by then Executive Officer Owen Honors depicting gay slurs, mimicked masturbation, rectal exams and “chicks in the shower.”  Many people - both in and out of the military - immediately jumped to the defense of Captain Honors, insisting that he is a fine soldier, a role model and a really nice guy.  They claimed the videos were “light-hearted attempt to entertain the crew” and were “taken out of context” to be used against him.  However, there certainly were some on board the ship who were offended, as complaints were registered at the time videos were aired.  The Navy then downplayed the significance of both the videos and the complaints, but when they were leaked to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper over the weekend the Navy took a second look and decided they were significant after all.
I’m going to have to side with the Navy in this case.  Captain Honors displayed extremely poor judgement in producing and distributing these videos.  He wasn’t a cook, or a weapons mechanic, or a signaler or an engineer.  He was second in command of the flagship of the United States Navy.  His position on the ship required he rise above crude, juvenile humor.  Your duty as Executive Officer is not to provide levity for the crew.  If you want to make ‘em laugh, hire a comedian.  Your duty is maintain order uphold the dignity of your profession.  Unless your name is Adam Sandler or Dane Cook, fart jokes are not your profession.
Finally, a little celebrity gossip to brighten your new year.  Just one day after leaving rehab and moving into a beach-front mansion next door to her ex-girlfriend, Lindsay Lohan received news that she faces 180 days in jail for violating her probation.  According to Riverside police, Lohan may have breached the terms of her probation when she allegedly assaulted a former Betty Ford Clinic staff member during her stint in rehab.  Yep.  Nothing says rehabilitated like beating up nurses and stalking your ex.  Also, actress Mila Kunis has decided to split up with her boyfriend of eight years, Macaulay Culkin, leaving him... home alone.  (I know, I’m sorry.  I couldn’t resist.)  Which leaves me with just one question.  Mila Kunis was dating Macaulay Culkin?  Seriously?  For eight years?  Are the pickin’s really that slim out there is Hollywood?


Turn the Page

It's New Year's Eve.  Do you know where your champagne is?

With everything going on around the holidays I haven't had much time to reflect on the political and social happenings of the past couple weeks.  A few fairly significant items made the news; the repeal of DADT, passage of the new START, Justin Bieber nominated for Artist of the Year (suddenly I remember why I haven't watched an awards show since Steely Dan robbed Radiohead at gunpoint of Album of the Year).  Some of those things were probably more important than others, so I'll give them some additional attention in the first post of the new year.  So, hope your Christmas was Merry and you New Year is Happy.  See you next year!


Seats At The Kiddie Table

Only 9 more shopping days until Christmas.  Remember, if you don’t shop, terrorism wins.
Last Tuesday, President Obama reached a deal with senate Republicans regarding the extension of the Bush tax cuts and unemployment insurance benefits, both set to expire at the end of the year.  It certainly wasn’t pretty for Democrats.  On the face of it, Republicans got everything they really wanted - including the privilege of re-asserting the very same tax issue just in time for the next election - while Democrats got some additional unemployment insurance and a bowl of grits.  But, as additional details began to emerge, several astute observers pointed out that against an opposition united against anything and everything even remotely resembling economic stimulus, the President managed to extract almost $400 billion in additional stimulus, to take effect throughout 2011.  On Wednesday, Democrats began to complain that even though unemployment insurance would be extended for 13 months, instead of the three they though they might be able to get, and the tax cuts for the middle class would also be extended - as they all said they wanted - the fact that rich people would also benefit from the deal was difficult for them to stomach.  By Thursday, Democrats decided that the best deal they are going to get, isn’t good enough for them, and approved a non-binding resolution stating they would not bring the tax compromise to the floor for a vote.  Sigh.  Democrats, study the pretty picture below, then meet me at paragraph three.

So.  Here we are again.  Hope everybody was able to clean the unicorn rainbow crap off their lawn before the snow hit.  I’m told that if you don’t its really hard on the grass in the spring.  Anyway, about that tax cut deal.  Look, I know its difficult to be a Democrat.  Its somewhat akin to getting involve in a land war in Asia.  Sure, the cause may be nobel and the need may be great, but after a few winters it inevitably turns into a quagmire and you spend the next decade spinning your wheels trying to get out.  Believe me I understand that.  But throwing a tantrum?  Threatening to take your ball and go home?  That’s not the way to handle this.  I know, I know, Republicans have done that very same thing for the past two years and it worked perfectly for them, I know.  But they are children, and children can get away with that.  Especially when they have parents as lenient as you are.  And the tantrum simply doesn’t have the same effect when it’s thrown by the adults.  Unlike children, adults have responsibilities.  The family has to eat, the bills have to be paid, and someone has to hide the matches to keep the kids from setting the house on fire.  The fact that said someone has to be you, makes all those threats sound bitter and vindictive.  Perhaps it would help if we talked things through a little.  Maybe that would help everyone feel better.
All day Thursday, Democrats on the Hill complained that they hadn’t been part of the negotiations leading to the compromise.  While it certainly is a legitimate statement, there is a reason they weren’t invited to negotiations.  They weren’t invited because they are terrible at negotiations.  A little less than two years ago, the President came to Democratic House and Senate leaders and said hey, here’s what I’m looking for in a healthcare reform bill.  You guys go and negotiate something and get back to me.  Eighteen months later, those crack negotiators still didn’t have a piece of legislation they could agree on amongst themselves, never mind anyone from the other side of the aisle.  And in that case, over the first 12 months of debate, they didn’t even need anyone from the other side of the aisle!  It took Democrats 18 months to “negotiate” a healthcare package they could agree on.  President Obama only had 18 days remaining in the legislative session to come up with a compromise that everyone could agree to hate, but pass anyway.  Including House and Senate Democrats in that process would only have served to make the improbable, impossible.  
Aside from the fact they weren’t involved in negotiations, Democrats primary complaints about the compromise are as follows.  People who make the most money will see the greatest benefit (in terms of dollars saved) from extending the Bush-era tax cuts.  Cutting taxes for wealthy people - in and of itself - does not necessarily create jobs, as evidence by the close-to-zero net job growth witnessed during the afore-mentioned presidency.  A majority of the public actually favors the expiration of the said tax-cuts for the top two percent of income earners.  And, extending those cuts will have to be paid for with more borrowed money, adding an additional $700 billion to the deficit.  Okay, points taken.  All of those statements are absolutely true.  For the first two years of his presidency, Barack Obama made no secret about the fact that he wanted to see the tax cuts for the middle class continue and those for the top two percent expire.  But what this President seems to have the ability to do - which no other Democrat in Congress seems to share - is to deal with the world as it is, instead of how it looks through the rose-colored utopian Ray-Bans everyone else seems to be using.
The cold, hard reality is this.  Three weeks from now, Republicans will take over control of the House of Representatives and gain five additional seats in the Senate.  Any tax package designed by a Republican-controlled House to be passed by a Senate split 53-47 is going to be far less favorable to Democratic ideals than the package the President agreed to last Tuesday.  That package would likely include bigger tax-cuts, extended for a longer period of time, with little assistance - if any - to the unemployed.  In addition to that, waiting for the next Congress to take up the issue would mean that everybody would see their taxes increase on the first of the year, with the poorest workers hit with a 50% jump.  There are some Democrats in Congress who feel the Republicans are bluffing, that it is too big a political risk for them to allow unemployment insurance to expire and force a government shutdown.  Those Democrats are idiots.  They have obviously learned nothing about the Republican Party over the past two years about.  Republicans don't care about the deficit.  (If they did they would add an additional $4 trillion to the debt by insisting on extending the tax cuts.)  Republicans are also perfectly willing to cause working people (and people who would rather be working) real pain in order to make a political paint.  Millions of people lose unemployment benefits in an economy where 4-5 people apply for every open position?  They should try harder.  Tens of millions of government workers don’t get paid due to a government shutdown?  They should have found jobs in the private sector.  It will be left to Democrats to explain why everyone’s taxes went up on the first of the year when Democrats claimed they wanted to keep the current rates for lower and middle income earners.  And this is a political party that couldn’t sell beer to a college frat party, they’ll just talk themselves right out of office!
Democrats could have resolved this issue a long time ago.  Step in the way way back machine with me if you will, to several months before the midterms elections.  House Minority Leader John Boehner was caught on camera admitting that if his choice was between extending tax-cuts only for low and middle income earners or not extending any tax-cuts at all, he would vote for the former.  That very same afternoon, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi should have headed to the floor with a bill extending tax-cuts for low and middle income earners only and called for a vote.  Needless to say, they didn’t do that.  In fact, Harry Reid refused to even consider bringing the tax issues to the Senate floor because he and other Democrats didn’t want to explain to voters on the campaign trail why he feels it is necessary for taxes to increase.  Democrats didn’t want to do their jobs, but they don’t want the President to do his either.  Why does it seem like the Democratic Party is always so much more comfortable in the minority, without the responsibility of governing, where all they have to do is complain?
Fast forward to one week later.  The Senate has passed the tax-cut extension package, sending it off to the House, where who knows what will happen.  With that piece of legislation taken care of, the Senate was supposed to be able to move on to the remaining issues of the lame-duck session, like the repeal of DADT and the passage of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.  Of course, whether or not any of that is likely to happen remains hostage to the whims of infantile Senate Republicans.  During the debate over healthcare reform, Republicans delighted in citing polls showing 53%-47% opposition to the bill as evidence the President was acting against the “will of the American people.”  Now, in the face of a year-long Pentagon study, endorsements from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a Republican Defense Secretary and the support of 77% of the “American people,” John McCain appears ready to insist on filibustering the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.  As of today, Jim DeMint (R), South Carolina has threatened procedural motions to delay and eventually kill the appropriations bill and the arms treaty.  Apparently, the de-facto leader of the Republican Party himself has declared the tax-cut extension agreement struck with the President to be a sellout of “true conservative values,” and absolutely everything on this President’s agenda to be evil incarnate, and his minions have jumped to do his bidding.  Welcome to gridlock ladies and gentlemen.  Enjoy the next 24 months.
Some more news on the economic front, the U.S. trade deficit has declined to it’s lowest level in two years, thanks in no small part to the lower value of the dollar and a growing inflation issue in China.  Despite this, some people on the Hill continue to insist the government take steps to strengthen the U.S. dollar.  In difficult economic times, maintaining a “strong dollar policy,” for no other reason than the phrase contains the word “strong,” only serves to weaken essential American exports at a time when we cannot internally muster sufficient domestic consumer spending to accomplish a full recovery.  Cheap exports help us make up that difference.  Drop the macho act and use the weaker dollar to support economic growth.

Earlier this week, a federal judge in Virginia ruled a portion of the healthcare reform package - the individual mandate - to be unconstitutional.  Lower court decisions on this matter now stand at 2 - 1 in favor of the law, and there is no one who doesn’t not expect this matter to ultimately end up in the Supreme Court.  The judge ruled that the Commerce Clause does not grant Congress the power to mandate that individuals purchase insurance.  And the judge is probably correct.  But if that is the way the government’s lawyers chose to phrase their case, they deserved to lose that case.  There are ways to justify a mandate without resorting to the Commerce Clause.  The mandate should be structured as a tax.  Beginning in 2014, Americans would be required to pay an “Affordable Care Tax,” in the amount of whatever the penalty for not purchasing health insurance is under the current law.  However, if people then choose to purchase insurance - either on the individual market, the new exchanges or through his or her employer, they would receive a tax credit for the full amount of the “Affordable Care Tax” paid.  No mess, no fuss, no Commerce Clause, no problem.

Several notable passings have occurred over the past seven days.  First, Elizabeth Edwards, attorney and wife of former U.S. Senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards, passed away after a protracted battle with cancer.  She was 61 years of age.  Her death was followed by that of the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and former assistant Secretary of State, Richard Holbrooke.  He was 69.  Both were dedicated public servants, and both will be missed.
Finally, a team of scientists at Georgetown University successfully transformed immature stem cells into pancreatic tissue to combat Type 1 diabetes.  Again, it’s very early, but it really is exciting that we may soon be able to eradicate one of the most pervasive diseases in our society.  Yay science!