Monday, December 24, 2012

Critical Thinking

Earlier in the year there was a spate of articles on the Texas Republican Party, and its concern over the teaching of "critical thinking," and whether it should be in the Texas public school curriculum. In response, the same people who consider it essential that students learn logical analysis, fact from fiction, evidence from assertion, and a general willingness to challenge received wisdom, are also mostly the same people who drop their jaws in disbelief that certain politicians and educators in Texas would be opposed to what most of us consider to not only be an essential 21st century skill, but one that is already in short supply.

But it really isn't that surprising, not if one accounts for the world view of those who are skeptical if not outright defiant about critical thinking, and what they prefer be taught in its place. 

Conservatives have often argued that much of what comes under the rubric of critical thinking undermines authority, especially parental authority, and gives license to students not to merely question authority, but to subvert it. Empowering the student to think systematically, analyze, and challenge the views of others--and not merely accept--is now seen by the Texas GOP as subversive. This is merely the current version of an age-old pattern: The aristocracy is to be educated, peasants are to work; the masses are to be controlled and remain illiterate; the clergy will interpret and obfuscate doctrine as needed. No Latin for you.

Cognitive scientist George Lakoff has laid out the key distinctions rather well. Many conservatives, but especially authoritarians (and not, by way of comparison, libertarians, even conservative ones), see humans as essentially evil and sinful in nature. They-we-must undergo a strict and disciplined upbringing, where we learn  obedience and submission to authority. The central authority figure is the father, he who dispenses judgement and punishment.

In contrast, more liberal households are more likely to encourage their children to explore, create, and examine the how and why of life. Less rote memorization, more hands up in the classroom, and more critical thinking, just that which irritates the Right. This talk of creativity and exploration is all fine up to a point, they say, but not if it undermines the family, other authority figures, and moral certitude. For such authoritarians, a strict father is preferable to a nurturing mother.

The Texas Republican Party Platform of 2012 is unambiguous: "We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority (emphasis mine)."

Silly me, I thought a central point of education was to challenge a student's "fixed beliefs."

In an insightful, if distressing, article called How the Conservative Worldview Quashes Critical Thinking -- and What That Means For Our Kids' Future, Sara Robinson writes:
In the conservative model, critical thinking is horrifically dangerous, because it teaches kids to reject the assessment of external authorities in favor of their own judgment -- a habit of mind that invites opposition and rebellion. This is why, for much of Western history, critical thinking skills have only been taught to the elite students -- the ones headed for the professions, who will be entrusted with managing society on behalf of the aristocracy. (The aristocrats, of course, are sending their kids to private schools, where they will receive a classical education that teaches them everything they'll need to know to remain in charge.) Our public schools, unfortunately, have replicated a class stratification on this front that's been in place since the Renaissance.
Robinson makes the point that education is inherently a partisan issue, something conservatives seem to realize more than progressives. We had been making great strides in this country primarily because of two interrelated trends: an expanding middle class and an ever-widening public school system that was tasked with educating millions who, in times previous, would have been relegated to cheap, ignorant labor.

We are witnessing trends, policies, and attitudes that are threatening to reverse these gains. As taxes are cut, and state and local budgets come under pressure, a curriculum that educated us, and made society less coarse, has come under attack as humanities, philosophy, music, art, and now critical thinking, are being curtailed. While many school districts attempt to upgrade math and science, a laudable objective, many schools are forced to gut enriching subjects simply because budgets compel them.

But this is not strictly an issue of budget constraints. Again, Sara Robinson:
It's obvious that stripping these mind-expanding fripperies out of the curriculum -- as conservatives are proposing, often with no push-back at all from liberals -- serves the narrow, functional conservative view of education and citizenship very well. But we let them win this point at our peril. It's not exactly accurate -- but nonetheless true -- to say that the reason we call it "liberal education" is that the more of it you have, the more liberal you're likely to be. If we buy into the idea that critical thinking is somehow non-essential, we're not only betraying the entire future of the liberal tradition in America; we're also depriving future generations of the basic skills and knowledge they'll need to defend their democracy from the plutocrats who are always standing in the shadows, determined to wrest it from them.
More tax cuts will be implemented long before any real reduction in the federal debt takes place. So don't expect positive changes in public education any time soon, unless you think charter schools and vouchers are an improvement.

At least the Pentagon gets all the money it needs.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tax the Traders

Here is an idea that is slowly gaining ground, though I don't suspect our corporate-owned media wants to spend much time on it. As if Wall Street didn't hate him enough already, Eliot Spitzer recently made the case that Wall Street traders should be taxed.

As Spitzer says:
This one is not so new; it has been around for a long time, supported by a wide range of economists, including Nobel laureate James Tobin, as well as advocates, including Ralph Nader in the Washington Post this weekend, and elected officials: a tax on financial transactions. It will give us gobs of revenue. It will fall on a sector that has generated enormous and unwarranted profits for a very few, who at the same time have benefited from huge bailouts and regulatory help and largely escaped any responsibility for their central role in creating the financial cataclysm that we are still struggling with. 
Here is the idea: A tax of less than half a percent on every $100 of stock sales or sales of other financial instruments including bonds, derivatives, and options. The tax could raise anywhere from $170 billion to $350 billion per year depending how it was applied. Extend that over 10 years, and we are raising almost what the White House and Republicans agree needs to be raised in order to accomplish the objectives of a grand bargain.
The exact amount is open for debate; Spitzer says 1/2 of a percent per $100 of trade value. Others have said a flat 1% or $.10 per trade. The amount raised would be highly significant in each case. The key would be to set the tax at a low enough rate that small investors would hardly notice, but make it high enough so that high-frequency program traders on Wall Street would think twice about the speculative casino they have created. In other words, impose a tax that compels Wall Street to contribute more and take less, and at the same time encourage actual investing, and with longer-term outlooks.

Elliot Spitzer is spot-on when he concludes:
The application of this concept to the financial sector could solve our need for revenue, bring some sanity back into the financial sector, and give us a way to raise the revenue we need to run the government in a fiscally responsible way. Maybe this is the old idea that we need folks in D.C. to pay attention to again.
Right, but don't hold your breath. The investor class and the politicians they control are not into doing the right thing, they are into money and power. For them, the current system works well.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


I am pleased, if that is the right word, to see a growing chorus of criticism about not just the direction this country is headed, but the very specific reasons why. Some point to the eroding infrastructure, and characterize it, too vaguely I believe, as "economic decline." It is, but without detailing why such decline is happening, such assertions have limited utility.

Others are closer to the point when they talk of the US becoming "third world." They don't mean a lack of technology or development, but instead point to economic inequality and a political economy dominated by a well-entrenched landed-gentry-cum-oligarchs; e.g., an aristocratic overclass. 

Those who know their American history, the history we did not learn in high school, are well aware this country was built on cultural fault lines from the very beginning. Talk of secession was in the air, and has remained there, from the earliest days of the Republic. If you didn't hear much about secession growing up, and thought it was just that one flare-up called the Civil War, it's probably because you were not born in the south, or in Texas.

But this is not about secession; it's about southern economics, or Dixiefication.  A recent article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times takes an important leap in fleshing out what has gone wrong in the US in the last 30+ years.

Kristof writes of the last 30+ years of conservative influence as a "failed experiment."
...In upper-middle-class suburbs on the East Coast, the newest must-have isn’t a $7,500 Sub-Zero refrigerator. It’s a standby generator that automatically flips on backup power to an entire house when the electrical grid goes out.

In part, that’s a legacy of Hurricane Sandy. Such a system can cost well over $10,000, but many families are fed up with losing power again and again...

...the lust for generators is a reflection of our antiquated electrical grid and failure to address climate change. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave our grid , prone to bottlenecks and blackouts, a grade of D+ in 2009.
Kristof notes that demand for household generators has surged. Most of them are being scooped up by upper-middle class families that can afford the generator and the gas that goes with it. 
That’s how things often work in America. Half-a-century of tax cuts focused on the wealthiest Americans leave us with third-rate public services, leading the wealthy to develop inefficient private workarounds.
But our political system is dysfunctional: in addressing income inequality, in confronting climate change and in maintaining national infrastructure.
Indeed it it dysfunctional. But government is not a mess because people do not know what to do. We are being purposefully pushed in one direction because of deeply held ideological beliefs and the policies that reflect that ideology. That belief system is familiar to those raised in the deep south. It is based on class, race, hierarchy, tribalism, and an obsequious allegiance to authority. The result is that the plantation mentality of the colonial south, where cruel slave masters from Barbados established themselves far from the prying eyes of Yankee do-gooders, and created a feudal society dominated by a privileged few. In other words, a society much like the old one they left behind in Europe, one structured on wealth, privilege, and class. Democracy and equality before the law had nothing to do with it. Mouth breather Ted Nugent, who appears increasingly unstable these days, epitomizes this brutally undemocratic attitude when he says that poor people and those on welfare should be denied the right to vote.

Slavery may be gone, but much of the rest of Dixie model not only has remained, it has spread to other states, mostly in the Midwest and Appalachia. A sense of where I am coming from on this can be found in Democracy Heading South: National Politics in the Shadow of Dixie, (2001) and Dixie Rising: How the South is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture, (1996) by Peter Applebome. A study I have mentioned before, Colin Woodward's American Nations, provides an invaluable historical backdrop to explain how we got this way.

A sense of that Southern model, what I am calling Dixification, can be seen in a litany of examples. Kristof provides a few:
So time and again, we see the decline of public services accompanied by the rise of private workarounds for the wealthy.
Is crime a problem? Well, rather than pay for better policing, move to a gated community with private security guards! 
Are public schools failing? Well, superb private schools have spaces for a mere $40,000 per child per year.

Public libraries closing branches and cutting hours? Well, buy your own books and magazines!

Are public parks — even our awesome national parks, dubbed “America’s best idea” and the quintessential “public good” — suffering from budget cuts? Don’t whine. Just buy a weekend home in the country!

Public playgrounds and tennis courts decrepit? Never mind — just join a private tennis club!
I’m used to seeing this mind-set in developing countries like Chad or Pakistan, where the feudal rich make do behind high walls topped with shards of glass; increasingly, I see it in our country. The disregard for public goods was epitomized by Mitt Romney’s call to end financing of public broadcasting.
You got it, Kristof. At its core, Dixification means disdain for the public sector, but also low wages, low regulations, and low taxes.  It calls for a dominant class run by corporations, the modern version of the plantation's boss man; land owners and sharecroppers, feudal overlords and a peasantry.

Recent data shows just how badly the middle class has been squeezed. As CNNMoney just reported (my emphasis):
Corporate profits hit their highest percentage of GDP on record in the third quarter.
Just four years after the worst shock to the economy since the Great Depression, U.S. corporate profits are stronger than ever.
In the third quarter, corporate earnings were $1.75 trillion, up 18.6% from a year ago, according to last week's gross domestic product report. That took after-tax profits to their greatest percentage of GDP in history.
But the record profits come at the same time that workers' wages have fallen to their lowest-ever share of GDP.
Welcome to Dixie.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Reactionaries Did Themselves In

So now that the elections are finally over, the recriminations have begun. I said earlier that if Romney lost, the Republican party would blame Romney and not its policies. Party big shots and their shills in the media would say they lost because Romney was a flawed candidate, or that he ran a weak campaign. And now we see that process has begun. But master operative Karl Rove is also taking a lot of heat for Republican losses that, amazingly, most of them did not see coming. Rove has been bitterly denounced for his failure to do lots of things, but basically, as far as the super rich guys were concerned, his failure to deliver on a campaign they were treating as bought and paid for.

Of course, Rove has a bit of defense; Romney really was a weak candidate. Rove provided various logistical services for a veritable swarm of candidates, and of course he provided boatloads of money for candidates who were only too happy to have the help. He didn't tell the various down ticket Republicans that they should put their foot in their mouths by offending gays, blacks, Hispanics, and women. Whatever was going through the minds of loathsome candidates like Joe Walsh of Illinois, Allen West of Florida, Todd Akin of Missouri, or Richard Mourdock of Indiana, came from their hearts, so to speak. They all ran on anger, divisiveness, and contempt for people not like themselves; they all lost.

What is not happening, for most Republicans, is a recognition that their policies are not supported by most Americans and their attitude, including, most certainly, Mitt Romney's, mightily pissed off way too many highly motivated voters. Their reactionary world view kept them from appreciating just how much damage they were doing to themselves and to the Republican brand. For many years Republicans at all levels have allowed themselves to retreat from a mainstream view of the world, of liberalism, Democrats, and especially President Obama. Instead, a parallel, deeply reactionary (and therefore not a traditionally-nuanced conservatism) alternative has grown to dominate the party.

At the center of that alternative universe is conservative media, dominated by the Fox News we have come to love, as well as Rush Limbaugh, but also a host of others, many of them owned or affiliated with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, as is Fox. The Republican party has for years helped develop and increasingly relied upon an ideologically-driven alternative media. It is a model, besides being irresistibly profitable for the executives who run it, that has gamed rank-and-file viewers while providing a comforting and convenient outlet for right wing voices. Doing so created apparent legitimacy to noxious and offensive individuals and ideas as well as an ideological bubble that served to inoculate conservative voters from uncomfortable facts or non-confirmatory narratives. It also induced Republican politicians, not always the most nuanced thinkers to begin with, to deeply overestimate their party's appeal and misjudge how offensive they were perceived by all but the diminishing numbers of true believers.

Monday, October 29, 2012

What Romney Won't Run On: Mass Governor

On October 9 I posted the first of what are to be several articles on what Romney won't run on. At the time I said:
We have seen a curious pattern with Mitt Romney's campaign style over the months. Earlier in the year, Romney pointedly told us how qualified he is to be president and how proud he was of his accomplishments. And what have been his examples? 
Well, Bain, of course, except when people started to look into what private equity actually entails; more on that another day. Romney is positively bipolar regarding his single biggest achievement as Governor of Massachusetts, a state-wide health plan informally called Romneycare. More on that later, too.

And what about that stint as Governor of Massachusetts? Besides Romneycare. That was real executive experience, was it not? Look, he says, at his solid record of competence, and in a state dominated by Democrats. That's got to be a big plus.

Have you stopped to think about how little Mitt Romney actually talks about his record as Governor? Or to be more precise, how little you know about his four years at the helm. Romney is not shy to proclaim he created jobs, or he balanced the budget,but like so much else on his campaign stops, his declamations regarding his time in Massachusetts have a robotic, incomplete, Powerpoint feel to them. The man mindlessly recites focus group-approved bromides. In so doing, he often impatiently dictates to the listener, as if staying on message and getting your pet phrases into peoples' heads ––to do what? Show you have disciplined campaign?–– is more important that letting people actually get to know who you are. It is a campaign that is incredibly sanitized, so much so that Romney as a person cannot help but look stiff, unnatural, and aloof. Ask the man substantive questions and think carefully about how little is in his answers.

So how do the people of Massachusetts feel about their former governor? Are they behind his presidential effort? Voters there know him pretty well, and they remember his record. Jason Schwartz from Boston Magazine recently posted a lengthy piece on that state's recollections of Romney. Let's just say when Mitt tells his story, he's leaving a lot out. And before anyone starts foaming about how Massachusetts is full of socialists who hate freedom, it was they, not teabaggers from down south, or Utah, who decided that Romney had a message and actually voted him into office.

Schwartz reminds us that Romney was governor just six years ago. "Today he’s so unpopular here he’s barely bothering to campaign in the state. There are reasons for that—and they could spell doom for his presidential campaign."  Schwartz continues:
When he does talk about his time here as governor, it’s usually to pump up his bipartisan bona fides or brag about how he balanced the budget without raising taxes. (Strictly speaking, this is true, though helpfully devoid of context: All Massachusetts governors are constitutionally required to balance the budget, and while Romney technically may not have raised taxes, he did hike fees on a variety of government services.) What he does not discuss are the hugely successful bills he passed, like universal healthcare and an assault-weapons ban. Obviously, he also does not mention just how unpopular he was when he left office.
Schwartz understates Mitt's fee-raising spree. Romney was determined to not raise taxes but he had no qualms about hiking fees, often dramatically, on a wide range of services, licenses, permits, and the like.
So please, America, pay attention. There’s been too little talk about Romney’s time as governor of Massachusetts, and now that you’re deciding whether to make him our next president, it’s worth understanding just how and why he alienated the voters who know him best. Because the big problems that have been plaguing Romney on the campaign trail—that he’s personally inaccessible, that he’s had trouble unifying his party, that he’s become known as a flip-flopper—all have their roots in Massachusetts.
Schwartz goes on to relate the many people in Massachusetts who were taken aback by Romney's aloof unwillingness to communicate with mayors and other state officials. His activity seemed invariably orchestrated for political effect (not unique to Romney, of course). The problem was not the occasional grandstanding; it was the indifference and unwillingness to talk. 
Nor did Romney appear to connect any better with voters, despite what seemed like an auspicious start to his term...Romney created a bubble for himself, very similar to the one he’s employed while running for president. Out on the trail, he often seems robotic when trying to relate to people, and almost never answers impromptu questions from the press. When he does go off-script, the results are often poor...Given Romney’s obvious national aspirations while governor, it’s somewhat curious that he didn’t practice off-the-cuff exchanges more often. Apparently he believed that life outside the bubble was just as perilous for him then as it’s proving to be now.
Schwartz notes, as have others, that Romney has pretty much written off winning Massachusetts. He had lost interest in the state even while still governor. After a strong start in 2003-4, Romney "basically checked out of Massachusetts. He planned 78 town visits in 2005, and just 25 in the first 10 months of 2006 (the final two months of his 2006 schedules were missing from the records in the state archives). That year he spent all or part of 219 days outside the state, building his national profile."

Elected to run his state but loses interest halfway through? Who else does that remind you of?

There's so much more in the article. By all means, read it in its entirety.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Vote Suppression

Perhaps you have seen the news of a young political operative in Virginia named Colin Small who was caught dumping completed voter registration forms in a dumpster. You can see his picture, and the story, here. He looks like a surly, sullen little prick, doesn't he? But who knows? Maybe he was just having a bad day. After all, when you work for Republicans and are caught in a criminal act, and then find your mug plastered on national media, you wouldn't feel like smiling either.

Virginia's Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli will not investigate Small's attempted destruction of voter registration forms because the State Board of Elections doesn't recommend one. Virginia Registrar Brandi Lilly says, “There’s no way to tell by party when people fill out these forms, what party they’re affiliated with, so I don’t think there’s any political motivation.”

Ferchristssake, Brandi, give your brain a chance. How can you know there was no political motivation if you don't bother to even investigate? Note we are not talking prosecution; that is difficult decision and prosecutors will often decide to not file charges because a provable case is just not there. Fine, but you are not even going to investigate? I can think of many reasons why a politically motivated and partisan operative, which Small is, would dump the forms. He may have identified the registrants as black, or they appeared to be students, or they were young women. And if that doesn't make sense to you, you haven't been paying attention to Republican voter suppression in Virginia and elsewhere.

I can understand the Republican party doesn't want any more of this kind of news. All the same, the word now is that the local sheriff's office has indeed arrested Small and is considering prosecution. I'm guessing that sheriff is going to hear from Republicans much higher up than Colin Small, and they won't be asking if he is registered to vote.

I have a big problem with all of this, aside from the likelihood, despite Ms. Lilly's inane observation, that Small's action is not isolated. And that is the casual way the media is playing this. That may change of course, as events unfold. But I am not counting on it. Recall, in contrast, the orgy that concern trolls had over ACORN, especially after Republicans, including those in Congress, beat them over the head with it. Republicans wanted ACORN to be a story. Never mind that ACORN followed the letter of the law and reported the registration irregularities, as required. That is a shameful story I should revisit sometime.

Here's a picture of Small's page. He looks a little happier in this one. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

What Romney Won't Run On: Mormonism

We have seen a curious pattern with Mitt Romney's campaign style over the months. Earlier in the year, Romney pointedly told us how qualified he is to be president and how proud he was of his accomplishments. And what have been his examples? Romney repeatedly touted his business acumen, specifically his record at Bain Capital. It was, he claimed, a clear indication not only that he knew how to successfully run a company, but that he would take those same clear-eyed instincts to turn the country around. The oft-stated implication is that running a business is very much like running a government;  meeting payroll, balancing the books, and all that. Many seem persuaded by this analogy. 

But hey, Romney has real political experience too, as Massachusetts Governor. Look at his sensible record in a very blue state. It shows, Romney says, that he knows how to work with the Democrats and that he has executive experience. Notice also his difficulty in deciding whether or not he still stands behind Romneycare. He wants to denounce Obamacare, wants to trot out his own health care plan while Governor of Massachusetts, but doesn't want voters to realize how similar the two programs are. He cannot decide to run on Romneycare, and it shows.

And let's not forget his private-sector executive leadership as chief executive of the 2002 Winter Olympics Organizing Committee. Did that not show his poise under pressure? His turn-around skills? His ability to bring people together and attain goals? That was the message. As with the rest of his record, he hoped voters would take his narrative on the Salt Lake Olympics at face value. However, he not only has felt compelled to frequently alter that narrative, he flat-out runs from his record whenever he senses the need.

Why is that?

That brings us to his religion. The other issues above, Bain Capital and the rest, will be revisited in the coming days and weeks. For the moment, I want to examine Romney's, and his party's, messaging on how they want voters to think about religion.

We were supposed to be over the religion issue, weren't we? Don't worry, Romney is one of us. Isn't that what Republican officials have been saying in an effort to rally the Evangelical base? Too bad conservatives still foam at the mouth when it comes to Obama; Muslim invective is still acceptable and is still an effective campaign tactic. But don't ridicule our Mormon candidate, you wouldn't want to be a bigot.

Republicans have finally nominated "the other." Suspicious types were only supposed to reside in the Democratic Party. Real Christians are Republicans, but Mormons? They're some type of cult, aren't they? Apparently not any more.

Some people had a fit when Jack Kennedy ran for president. They figured he would take his orders from the Pope. I personally grew up around people who believed Pope Paul VI was the antichrist, said you could see the mark of the beast on his forehead if you looked closely. And, of course, a new crop suggests that Obama may be the antichrist. Some shit never ends.

But Republicans have been busy sanitizing Mitt Romney and his religious faith. I suppose it's progress in a way; Mormonism will likely never again be a major electoral issue. So if America's right wing can swallow hard and accept Mormons as fellow Americans, then who am I to object?

Well, maybe. Bigotry is alive in the US; it is merely suppressed when required, only to express itself when it suits political operatives and even then only when the right combination of emotional triggers is reached. That combination was not reached with Romney, though it seemed that it might early in the primaries, because his religious beliefs were not entangled with other key triggers, such as race, sexual orientation, or political party. Obama's Christianity would not have been unchallenged had he been a white conservative. That is to say, he would have been seen for what he is, and not accused of being the ultimate conservative bogeyman; a black Muslim. It was the combination of race, party, political views, combined with unprincipled doubts on religion, that has brought out the worst in redstate America. Romney, by comparison, only has had to contend with doubts over his religion. His feckless pandering on policies is of his own making. 

And yet...  One of my own yardsticks on religion has not been the specific doctrines of the person's faith, because none can escape the trap of implausibility and their obvious human origins, but whether candidates take that stuff seriously. Jack Kennedy got past the Catholic issue in part because he was perceived as being a cultural Catholic, decidedly secular and modern. It wasn't all for show, but his Catholicism was also not something that inspired unthinking adherence to doctrine and dogma. There were no other significant triggers that were able to create an insurmountable roadblock to his presidential quest. His religion did cause him grief for a time, of course, and undoubtedly cost him some votes.

Fast forward to this year's Republican primaries where we witnessed religious warriors like Rick Santorum who were not just deeply religious, but were often in your face with it. Santorum in particular wore it on his sleeve, and proudly proclaimed that conservative Catholic dogma informed his policies. Others, to varying degrees, including Newt Gingrich, Michelle Bachmann, essentially all of them, did not just ask that voters tolerate their religious faith, but aggressively insisted that conservative evangelical Christianity be given primacy in public life.

You see the difference? We were once told to accept politicians and their religion precisely because there was no discernible influence, at least not of anything objectionable. Joe Biden and Barack Obama fit that category. So did Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush the Elder, and Clinton. Bush the Lesser represented something of hybrid or transitional figure. Now many candidates want you to vote for them precisely because they are conservative Christians, even the Catholic guy.

Rick Santorum represented a bold push consistent with the ongoing right-wing lurch of his party. He wrapped his campaign in religiosity that made him seem more like a revivalist preacher, a Jeremiah prophesying doom because of our moral failings, as defined by him. In so doing, Santorum made it clear he would support policies that would punish and criminalize behavior that is legal but that he personally did not approve of.

But what about Romney? He won the nomination, not Santorum. Romney is not in your face with his beliefs. He doesn't thump his Book of Mormon. But he also doesn't want to field questions about it. We are to respect his religion while he, in turn, chooses to not discuss it, except to say how wonderful it has been for him. In short, we are to respect his Mormonism, a creed that was never seen as truly Christian, but hey, close enough.

But here is the deal; Republicans have unrelentingly argued that most everything in President Obama's past ought to examined; what has been they don't like. Too exotic, not American enough, a neo-colonial mindset that explains, they tell us, why Obama is fundamentally un-American.  For many on the right, Obama is either a Muslim, or if he is a Christian, he's the wrong kind. Just look at that Reverend Wright fellow; another angry black man. Books, films, and endless pseudo-investigations have been launched in an effort to discredit the man and raise suspicions in any way possible. Many of these attacks make no substantive effort to examine the actual policies Obama supports, which are decidedly mainstream and moderate.

Republicans have successfully snuffed anti-Mormon bigotry, which one could argue is commendable, but in so doing they have also squelched any critical examination of a breathtakingly bizarre set of beliefs and assertions. One is at pains to explain anything credible about the origins of the Mormon faith. And for those who might think the preceding sentences represent bigotry, I don't defend any religious doctrine, so I avoid the hypocrisy of denouncing one set of beliefs while asking forbearance on my own. No special pleading is needed nor is it allowed. Instead, one must recognize the very thick line that separates unprincipled bigotry from critical examination.

Romney, I would argue, is well aware of this country's tentative embrace of his secretive religion, especially from those on the religious right. He has dodged a bullet, if you will. The less he needs to talk about Mormon doctrine, the better it is for his campaign.

Romney has been allowed to campaign on unexamined religious claims because Republicans found no alternatives to him in the Republican primaries. They are stuck with him, so rallying around your candidate now means to shut up about the Mormon stuff.

No similar restraint is required for President Obama. Muslim or Christian, it doesn't matter. He wasn't born here anyway, right?

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Blame Romney?

The Republican Party has been good at setting narratives, some uplifting, some not. The last four years have been deeply negative because that is where the Party is headed, but also because they don't hold the presidency. Hence the unceasing narrative, successfully planted in the minds of many, that Barack Obama is not one of us; he's foreign, ineligible, out of touch, neo-colonial, Marxist, Muslim. The drumbeat never ends because Republicans understand their base and how it is motivated by fear and uncertainty, and they understand better than Dems that winning elections is about telling emotional stories.

The current presidential race has all of the standard Republican boilerplate, but we have  seen many Republicans stray off message in recent years, to put it mildly. One has to wonder why deeply conservative candidates believe attacking women, social security, medicare, Hispanics, teachers, a struggling working class, and more, could be a winning campaign strategy. Attacking everyone who is not like you is not a recommended approach to expanding the voter base. 

And now Mitt Romney, goaded by teabaggers everywhere, has taken the face of 21st century Republicanism much further to the right. It is hard to believe this is the same party that brought us fiery fighter Teddy Roosevelt, calm and fair Dwight Eisenhower,  and bland but sensible Gerald Ford. Even Dick Nixon looks positively moderate by comparison. Romney had an opportunity to bring sense to his party and denounce the worst and most radical elements, but for probably personal reasons, he has chosen to pander to them instead.

And now he appears trapped by their ideology. Weeks before the general election, it is obvious that Romney, and many other downticket candidates, not only have espoused unpopular and destructive policies, which are obvious to many of us, but that he has run a poor campaign, which is obvious to almost everyone. And it has come at a time in the election cycle when far more people are paying attention. To be sure, many Republicans warned long ago that Romney was not their guy. And now that it is too late, it has become obvious to many party bigwigs that Romney was a weak choice.

However, it is precisely Romney's weaknesses that are giving Republicans a new narrative to invent. The angle being developed is that if Obama is reelected, it will be Romney's fault; he is, after all, a weak campaigner. It is only Sept 30, and a Romney defeat is still far from certain, so manufacturing excuses in advance does not look like a winning strategy.

And yet we can see a subtle whisper campaign starting to build. The Republicans, they tell us, could have, should have, won the presidency, if only they had had a candidate who knew how to campaign. Republicans are now assuring themselves they have the right policies, the right prescriptions, the right everything; it's just that Romney put up a weak campaign. Who knew?

And Obama? Because he is all those terrible things Republicans say he is, there is no way he should be winning this thing. It is, you see, just more proof that Romney was a weak candidate. If you buy into right-wing critiques of Obama, then voters should have flocked to Romney. This was the expectation, even from Romney himself. Few are willing to admit they massively misconstrued the electorate.

If Romney loses, especially if he continues to offend voters, he will be crucified by his party. He was never especially popular anyway. He won the nomination because he was able to pander to the right, and because the other Republican candidates were even weaker and more risible than he. The election is weeks away and Republicans have to convince voters that it is not the Republican brand that is to blame, just that one guy at the top of the ticket. And if he does in fact lose, it is only because he was a crappy campaigner.

What other reasons could there be?

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Road to Plutocracy

The United States once generally adhered to economic policies that were pretty common sense on their face: We believed in economic democracy, not oligarchy, we believed that severe maldistribution of wealth was not just fundamentally unfair, but unsustainable and dangerous. For generations we properly regulated banks and we had few banking issues as a result.

When the US fought wars, we paid for them in part with steeply progressive--and temporary--tax rates. It was obvious to us and to our trading partners that manufacturing and a modern infrastructure were the bases of economic strength; banks should only play a supportive role. Moreover the US generously supported public universities, which returned the favor by providing us with scientific and technological preeminence. Economic doctrine and history both informed mainstream policies.

We once understood that a strong middle class was essential to overall prosperity as well as the foundation of democracy and free elections. As part of the social contract, industry generally worked with labor, offering wages that were in line with ever-rising productivity. There was little vilification of labor unions at a time when membership was far higher. Corporate dividends and government interest were paid overwhelmingly to Americans and not to neo-mercantilists in Asia and shadowy investors in the Cayman Islands. While the wealthy have always benefited the most, dividends and interest payments in the past were mostly pumped back into local communities. In other words, debt and equities were held almost entirely by Americans. Recipients spent this unearned income within the US, largely in their own communities. That which they saved went into a local banks and credit unions, not Wall Street. This whole process helped grow the economy and stabilize neighborhoods.

We would have been aghast at the idea that massive, intractable trade deficits would arrive and be accepted with surprisingly alacrity. That banks would be allowed to once again trade in securities, take wild, highly-leveraged bets with other people's money, dominate the political process, and virtually insulate themselves from legal accountability. Because of compliant politicians who now have all the money they need to stay in office, the big banks and other stars of Wall Street have been able to maximize gains to themselves, and spread losses onto others, primarily tax payers. This includes companies that have been propped up by taxpayers. It's a sweet deal for the investor class; get the middle class to foot the bill, while dividends and capital gains go overwhelmingly to the investor class. It is, at its simplest, a rigged financial system that has privatized the gains and socialized the costs.

It is all coming undone, though not by the middle class, not by local banks, not by unions, and certainly not by gays, secularists, feminists, immigrants, or Democrats trying to rein in a bloated defense budget. But we have been assured repeatedly that minimal regulations are good because unfettered financial markets will make the best decisions, that they allocate capital most efficiently. Neo-liberalism fetishizes minimal regulations, free and unmonitored movement of capital, low taxes, and free trade.That same neo-liberalism has been a cheerleader for policies that have hollowed out our industrial base, turned the economy over to a rapacious financial system, have put us into deep debt to Japan, China, and elsewhere. In the process, dividends and interest payments that used to stimulate the American economy now stimulate theirs.

Now we are told to spend freely, with few admonishments to save more. Our economic system is now deeply dependent on middle class consumers willing to endlessly consume, a process that is far less beneficial than in decades past because so much of what we buy is imported. Part of the massive earnings enjoyed by our trading partners is now used to finance US debt. The Reagan administration set us on this course of indebtedness because it knew foreign governments had piles of US dollars, and because conservatives in our own government refused to allow a level of taxation that would pay the bills. The 1% are now able to avoid taxation on income that would have been taxed in the past; taxes that would have helped to pay for the Iraq war, which has gone unpaid, and such things as maintaining a modern infrastructure.

Most of the middle class is in serious debt. Families will not and should not spend freely if their job security is in question. Many have experienced wage reductions as they move from one employer to another. An ever-growing proportion of American families realize they cannot simultaneously save enough for retirement, pay for basics, including health care, rising food and energy prices--especially in the face of no commensurate wage increases-- and also set aside for their children's needs, including college tuition. This is not a sudden condition; it has been building for decades.

The right wing and other intellectual thugs want you to believe that it started with President Obama. They hope you don't notice the policies they are espousing are the same ones that have been largely in place for most of the last 30 plus years.

It is, in any event, a laughably ignorant concept to argue that Obama is even in a position to have anything more than a modest effect, for good or bad. The conditions that most people and the government are now in are far larger and intractable for any president to handle. It has taken America 30+ years to get here, it cannot be turned around in four years, not when Bush handed Obama a shit storm and two unpaid wars, not when Republicans oppose him on every substantive point, and not when those same Republicans are able to exploit what we now see are serious shortcomings in the structure of our system of government.

It has taken the US decades to drift into the present condition. During this time the wealthy have garnered ever more of the wealth, paid ever decreasing taxes for it, run corporations that have earned more, paid lower wages, have been taxed less, and have more freedom to move capital around the world, and fewer obligations to middle class families. This is as the wealthy have always wanted it, and it is what today's Republican Party wants. Their biggest concern is that President Obama would do something to stop this inexorable trend towards plutocracy.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

More Lying

I'm not sure which impresses me more: the breath-taking willingness of Paul Ryan to lie, or the fact that at least some in the media have, finally, remembered what their job means and are now willing to call Ryan what he is; a relentless and shameless liar.

Many bloggers and political junkies have been saying from the outset that Ryan was deeply flawed and so ideologically driven that he feels at ease in lying. And I don't mean making partisan speeches, or strident accusations. Nor do I mean stretching the truth, or making questionable interpretations, which all politicians have done. I mean Paul Ryan is making bald-face lies, in the strictest sense of the word. Intentional misrepresentation has become a rhetorical tool.

Ryan went so far over the top in his recent speech at the Republican National Convention that even the mainstream press could no longer play along with the "serious thinker" crap. The Washington Post said it was "Paul Ryan's breathtakingly dishonest speech."  Jonathan Cohn at The New Republic asked if it might just be The Most Dishonest Convention Speech...Ever?  The Huffington Post has a nice compilation from various sources, including ABC and CNN. And it turns out even Fox can't get past the lying, saying " anyone paying the slightest bit of attention to facts, Ryan’s speech was an apparent attempt to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech."

Ouch, that's gotta hurt.

So what was it that Ryan was lying about this time? By all means, click the links above for more complete discussion. The short answer that most seemed to agree upon would be as follows:
1) Ryan once again claimed that the GM plant in Ryan's district closed on Obama's watch, when it didn't. What makes Ryan especially contemptible to me is that he had been called out on this claim a few days before, and didn't bother to make any correction. The second time around, more of the media caught it.
2) Ryan is still claiming that Obama is "stealing" $700+ billion from medicare.
3) Ryan also took Obama to task on the now nearly forgotten Simpson-Bowles Debt Commission, noting that Obama created it, and then seemed to ignore it. Sure, Ryan, you called it an "urgent report," but you yourself voted against it.
4) Again, Ryan blamed Obama for the gaping federal budget deficit, ignoring the fact that the biggest single reason for it is the Bush tax cuts, which Ryan voted for. And this is coming from a man who wants to cut those taxes even more for the wealthy,including zero taxes on capital gains. This would mean Romney would effectively pay zero in taxes, without the need for offshore accounts.Yeah, Ryan, that will really balance the books.
5) Ryan even tried to blame Obama for the credit rating downgrade a while back when the US appeared to be inching towards default. As Jonathan Cohn notes: "And why did that possibility exist? Because Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling, playing chicken not just with the nations’ credit rating but the whole economy, unless Obama would cave into their budget demands."
Here's Stephen Colbert's take: love how he skewers those who still want to make light of Ryan's lying. I'm looking at you, Erin Burnett.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Lying Ryan

What the hell is wrong with Paul Ryan? He recently tried to blame President Obama for a GM plant closing in Janesville, Wisconsin, as if Republican obstructionism had no role. Worse, Ryan, Romney, and nearly everyone in their party said at the time that Obama was wrong to intervene to save GM. This was shortly after the Janesville plant closed. Romney also made it clear that government should let GM go bankrupt.

Ryan blamed the lost jobs at Janesville, which is in his congressional district, on Obama. Did Obama not intervene? Did GM not survive? Ryan wants you to ignore the fact that GM is still in business, meaning many plants are up, operating, and profitable, but attacks Obama for not saving that one plant that happens to be in Ryan's district.

Ryan wants it both ways. Government should not intervene in commerce; the free market has the solution. Yet he chides Obama because workers in Ryan's district lost their jobs precisely because, he says, Obama did not act to save that specific plant. I thought you guys loved the Randian free market rough and tumble; you know, creative destruction and all that? And is there any one out there who doesn't acknowledge that GM had no choice but to shed manufacturing output?

The final irony to this is that GM closed the plant in 2008, under George W. Bush. Ryan is so determined to score cheap political points that he got his story completely screwed up.

A more complete chronology, complete with video, can be found here.

* * *
There is a small addendum to the Janesville plant story: it made SUVs. People are moving away from them for very rational reasons. Ryan and others want to blame the plant closing on Obama because of high gas prices, overlooking the fact that gas prices have been affecting sales of SUVs for years. They're also ignoring the intense market competition within the segment. This crap about high prices makes Americans look stupid; we have the lowest gas prices in the industrialized world. The real motivator in politics is that so many of us are addicted to the idea of perpetually cheap gas. We want a world where gas is so cheap we can drive gas-guzzling behemoths with impunity. The trend towards smaller, more fuel efficient cars, towards hybrids and, gasp, electric ones, towards the legitimacy of downsizing and public transportation, is inevitable.

Factor in global warming, pollution, and the growing role of solar and wind power. All of this has been embraced by liberals here as well as significant majorities in other countries, many of which have become demonstrably more fuel-efficient than the US, and environmentally cleaner to boot.

And it bugs the shit out of Republicans.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A $50 lesson?

I recently got a whiff of the story below on Facebook. I couldn't help but notice, to the point of nausea, how many others thought it was persuasive, reminiscent as it is of other calls to mindlessness, such as "god said it, I believe it, that settles it."

There is, I would argue, much cognitive processing in common between those who think the $50 lesson represents reality and those inspired by the above tautological hairball. Here, in its entirety, is what passes in Republican circles as political gospel.
The $50 Lesson 
Recently, while I was working in the flower beds in the front yard, my neighbors stopped to chat as they returned home from walking their dog. During our friendly conversation, I asked their little girl what she wanted to be when she grows up. She said she wanted to be President some day. Both of her parents, liberal Democrats, were standing there, so I asked her, "If you were President what would be the first thing you would do?" She replied... "I'd give food and houses to all the homeless people." Her parents beamed with pride! "Wow...what a worthy goal!" I said. "But you don't have to wait until you're President to do that!" I told her. "What do you mean?" she replied. So I told her, "You can come over to my house and mow the lawn, pull weeds, and trim my hedge, and I'll pay you $50. Then you can go over to the grocery store where the homeless guy hangs out and give him the $50 to use toward food and a new house." She thought that over for a few seconds, then she looked me straight in the eye and asked, "Why doesn't the homeless guy come over and do the work, and you can just pay him the $50?" I said, "Welcome to the Republican Party." Her parents aren't speaking to me anymore.
What is it with conservatives and their simplistic bromides? The underlying assumption at the end is that the liberal parents are at a loss of words, silenced by Republican wisdom. More likely it is because they realize their neighbors are freakin' idiots. There are entire books devoted to the harms of conservative economic dogma, such as outsourcing, deregulation, free trade, wage suppression, and, as always, another round of tax cuts for the wealthiest. Responding to the $50 lesson, from the standpoint of policy and that stuff they call data, is like picking low-hanging fruit. It is why progressives often consider conservatives to have low self-awareness, as personality inventories often show. Or to use technical jargon; "Are the actually persuaded by this tripe?"

That would be a fact-based approach, one that wonkish progressives are inclined to follow. But arguing the economic evidence, the way, say, Paul Krugman would, misses the point. Much of what pushes a conservative's button is piss poor economics; the mistake is in believing that a quest for good policy that benefits as many as possible is what motivates those on the right as it does for the left.

It doesn't. We are talking about how conservatives tend to interpret the world. They traffic in these asinine tales because they are starkly simple, comforting, and supportive of their identity, the same way they pound devotional material into their heads, or attach great importance to symbolic acts, such as flag-waving. The $50 lesson and other "just so" stories are a staple of the American right wing because they strike a moral note; usually with symbolism as blunt as a Disney movie. They are feel-good formulaic stories that moralize and reinforce biases through use of inane and unambiguous tales. They are usually not very accurate, sometimes insanely misleading, but accuracy--and fairness-- are not the objectives; moral reinforcement is.

The similarity to the religious right's jaw-dropping theological claims is not a coincidence. Televangelists never tire of saying evolution is a fraud, insisting, for example, there are no transitional fossils, even as evolutionists find them time and again. The evidence is ignored, explained away, or even, bizarrely, blamed on Satan.

Literate, scientifically minded, and modern Americans often have a difficult time confronting a reactionary right, one that is disproportionately powerful in government, business, and religion. Many of us fail to realize that for the religious right, just as it is for so many conservative Republicans, it is about perpetuating a belief system and the moral basis of an authoritarian culture; learning and accepting scientific realities is not the primary motivation, in church or in government.

Jesus and Mo are especially good at making my points.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Are You Experienced?

A number of Republican Senators were asked recently, "What are Mitt Romney's qualifications to be commander-in-chief?" The answers were either not very encouraging, if you are a Romney supporter, or hilarious, if you like stand-up comedy. According to, "The answers ranged from the fact that he had led the state national guard as governor of Massachusetts to his extensive travel abroad to his two years as a missionary in France and his all-around management ability."

This range of answers is fairly insipid (two years as missionary in France?) until you realize that the Senators had nothing else to say; Romney really doesn't have foreign policy experience.

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions did his best, claiming that Romney "seems to instinctively understand foreign policy and, of course, he was commander of the national guard." Arizona Senator John McCain declared of Mitt Romney, "He's got all the right instincts...To me, he's Reaganesque."

Good instincts? Really? Does Sessions honestly think Gov. Romney had any meaningful interaction as commander of the Massachusetts national guard during his one term? And have Sessions or McCain forgotten how incompetent Romney looked in Great Britain and Israel? The man the media in America and Europe are calling a wimp McCain thinks is Reaganesque? Ferchristsake, Senator, give your brain a chance. Whatever else you may like about Romney, his political instincts should not be one of them.

McCain slammed Romney in 2008 precisely because Mitt had no foreign policy experience. McCain's claim, as presidential candidate, was that he, McCain, had a more extensive background in foreign policy generally as well as in national defense, which is where the commander-in-chief issue becomes especially relevant.

It was a fair point at the time, Senator, but now you think Romney has "all the right instincts"?

Recall how Obama was also slammed for this very reason; he also had thin foreign policy experience. And Republicans lined up to tell voters how terribly important foreign policy experience is and how dangerous it would be to elect that inexperienced senator from Illinois. Now that the shoe is on the other foot, Republican Senator Ron Johnson said, "Listen, you know what his experience is, and there are very few people who run for president who have all kinds of foreign-policy experience."

Obama also lived overseas, as well as Hawaii, where he experienced a diverse upbringing. That, of course, has often been used against him. Too exotic, you see. Not reliably American, which is code for not a white guy, not from the heartland.

The same people who attacked John Kerry in 2004 because he seemed "too French," and because he said he liked French cuisine are the same people are now saying Romney's missionary work in France, where he went to avoid military service in Vietnam, should be viewed as a foreign policy plus?

The same Republican senators who say foreign policy experience is very important, and then admit Romney has very little of it are compelled to ignore the obvious; the only candidate who has a great deal of foreign policy experience is President Obama, who enjoys the inherent advantage of every incumbent. Whatever arguments that could have been made against Senator Obama in 2008 about his limited experience are out the door and completely irrelevant in 2012.

Republicans are not going to make much of the presidential-executive-foreign policy-commander-in-chief experience factor now because only President Obama meets their criteria.

Friday, July 27, 2012


The heavyweight Republicans featured in the video--including Mitt Romney--supported the Vietnam war, but pulled various strings to avoid serving themselves. This is not news for most of us, but really; which of Romney supporters can honestly say that if the circumstances were reversed, they would not have howled endlessly about the horrid hypocrisy? Imagine if Obama had demonstrated in favor of Vietnam, Iraq, or wherever, including support for the draft, and then skipped out of that same draft and went to, of all places, France?

You know damn well that teabaggers would be apoplectic with rage.

Republicans viciously denounced Bill Clinton as a draft dodger, but have no problem when Romney bailed, Bush used his connections, and Dick Cheney said he had "other priorities." The difference is Bill Clinton opposed the war, period. Each Republican featured in the video below was in favor of sending others to die in their stead. These are the same people who have consistently supported tax cuts for the wealthy, knowing full well that that each of these horrifically expensive wars would not be paid for and would add grievously to the federal debt. 

Never forget these are the same people and party that were able to convince many voters that decorated combat veteran John Kerry was a traitor. Imagine if Obama had national guard records that suddenly went missing, like Bush's did.

Nice comparison with Muhammad Ali, who stood on principle and willingly paid the price. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Scary Black Man Gonna Getcha!

Republicans want so desperately to convince just enough Americans that President Obama is not one of us; too dark, funny name, Kenyan, a fascist and a Marxist. And even if he was born in Hawaii, that's not authentic enough.

And Mitt not-his-real-name Romney? He's one of us, except maybe for the magic underwear, and his $250 million net worth, and his overseas bank accounts. The Internet is crawling with trolls that somehow think the fact that Obama once went by the name of Barry is proof the man is hiding something, but don't give a rat's ass that their man is named after a baseball glove. 

The latest smear is much like others in recent months: lift a quote out of context, insist upon the most asinine conclusion possible, get absolutely hysterical about it, and then pound it repeatedly into the heads of your listeners. I'm looking at you, Fox.

You know the story. I know you know. President Obama supposedly claimed that all you successful business owners out there didn't really build your own business. He must be claiming that you are just lucky to inherit it, or government gave it to you. Must be, huh? Sort of a "Limbaugh said it, I believe it, that settles it," exercise in shutting down your mind.

Here's the quote, which I have transcribed from the video below:
"If you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own....If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen...The point is that we succeed because of individual initiative, but also because we do things together."
It is that line in red that was lifted out of context and which has caused so many conservatives to foam at the mouth. But only those with their brain up their ideological ass, those willfully ignorant, cannot see that President Obama was referring to roads and bridges when he said "you didn't build that."

The President then gave an example of how business benefits from the Internet, noting that it was government action that made the Internet possible. You can easily come up with your own examples: physicians may have worked hard to get through med school, but they didn't build the hospitals, or discover the procedures they now use, or create Medicare to help them get paid. They didn't invent the malpractice insurance they have, or train the lawyers and accountants that advise them, or design and build the BMW they drive to the golf course they didn't build.

It's all obvious and indisputable, really. No one denies that untold numbers of people have contributed to make what America is today. As Issac Newton said, "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Few would see any of this as controversial. But this is election season and Republicans are spending millions to manipulate the evidence, make fantastic claims, and hope you won't notice that they are lying through their teeth.

And once again, Mitt Romney continues to lead by example. Recall that Romney more than once has lifted an Obama quote laughably out of context, a stunt that is easy to catch because of little things like cameras and the Internet.

And just so this doesn't end up as a "that's-your-opinion" type of thing, and because I like to use real evidence, here is the video that shows the out-of-context quote straight from the President, along with Romney flat-out lying about it. Listen carefully to what Romney says he stands for and compare it to what the President says. You won't see this on Fox.

Others have also slapped down the breath-taking attempt to make it seem Obama said what he didn't; here, here, and here.   

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Avoiding the Real Issues

As America continues to struggle, many have reminded us of the value of innovation-- in technology and commerce, mostly, --but also in education and government. President Obama himself has often stressed the importance of innovation; how we once had it in abundance, how it now is eroding, and what we must do to get it back. The value of innovation would seem to be something that progressives and conservatives could mostly agree on, and that helps explain why the President talks about it. There is, of course, less agreement on just how innovation should be enhanced, and what the proper role of government should be.

When President Obama talks about the importance of innovation, he has often, inadvertently or not, draped it in conservative talking points. We need to "work harder", "stay in school", --or go back to school-- and get that degree or those credentials. It's a competitive world out there; if you can't get the job you want, it's because you are not properly trained and credentialed. And, of course, you cannot blame corporate America if you don't have the proper skills. We must not let down them down; work harder and prove your value to the job creators.

This storyline is not so wrong as it is incomplete. Obviously, there is much to be said for staying is school, seeking additional training, or more broadly, the role of innovation. American commerce still provides sundry example of where hard work and innovation can take you; they are the twin edges we must sharpen if we are to meet future challenges.

Every speech devoted to either of these takes the focus away from the underlying causes of US difficulty; jobs, to be sure, but also wage levels for the jobs we still have. Most people are in fact employed, and most jobs have not been outsourced or lost to foreign competition. What is not being acknowledged is that a disproportionate number of the jobs Americans now have face little foreign competition. That's the good part; the bad part is modest wages, benefits, and skill requirements for so many of these jobs. You don't need a degree to work fast food, retailing, and the like. And what about that other more technical job you went to back to school for, got a degree in, and now are heavily in debt for? Sorry, that job has been filled.

The problem of our sluggish economic growth is not a lack of innovation. We have bought into an economic doctrine that sanctifies free trade, financial deregulation, including unfettered flow of capital, and an obsession with credit and debt. It is a system designed by and for banks and the investor class, with little regard for main street or the middle class. The result is an indifference to massive trade deficits, dangerously leveraged banks, and an increasingly ability of the wealthy to avoid taxation and accountability.

Employees are seen as a mere input in this profit model. Low wages are good since they improve the bottom line. If workers are recalcitrant and actually want a living wage, management should be free to outsource production to low wage countries. To hear some tell it, management is virtually obligated to fire its American workers and seek cheap unregulated workers abroad, for improving the bottom line is management's only real responsibility. It's what the investors want, you know.

And the people who work for the company? That's labor, an input. Lower input costs mean higher profits. Why pay more? Any manager who does not seek to maximize profits is doing a disservice to investors, just like they were all taught in American business schools. It's all very rational and efficient, don't you see?

Innovation does not directly address any of this. We have innovated like crazy and what are the results? Entire industries have been shipped overseas. Because we have allowed our industrial base and concomitant skills to erode, seeking out overseas producers has become a default position. A generation has grown up assuming that American reliance on foreign manufacturers is the natural order of things.

Nor do the calls for greater innovation say who will benefit from the results. Asia is a huge beneficiary of US economic policy. For generations our tax dollars have poured into basic R&D, much of it going to public universities. It has been a great success story, and it has played a key role in America's development. And like the recent round of stimulus spending, much of those tax dollars ends up in Asia. Working harder, as even Obama has exhorted, does nothing to change the imbalances. US corporations already have what they always want; cheap labor, huge profits. The investor class took a hit in 2008, but they have recovered nicely, and have fat dividends and lightly-taxed capital gains to show for it.

So the middle class needs to work harder? For them? Because the job creators need help? Americans are already working harder than elsewhere in the OECD; we also have, in recent decades, relatively little to show for it. Wages have been suppressed, union membership has plummeted, and pensions and benefits have become even more rarefied. All of this is the direct result of flawed policies made in response to legitimate economic challenges.

Innovation will help; it always has. But the role of innovation has been undermined for the same reason our techno-industrial base has. Economic history is very clear on this: Nations that vigorously promote and defend their industrial and technical base have thrived. Those that didn't, and let their financial sector dominate, have crumbled.

America will not be an exception.

Monday, July 9, 2012


We heard a lot of criticism directed at President Obama when gasoline prices started to climb earlier this year. Republicans, knowing how easily many voters can be manipulated, thought they had a campaign issue: just remind everyone that gas prices are going up, ignore the complex set of factors that explain the rise, especially Wall Street speculators, and just blame the President.

They lined up at the mic to do just that:
      In February, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made the laughably inane claim that “This President will go to any length to drive up gas prices and pave the way for his ideological agenda.”
      In March,  Mitt Romney declared, “He gets full credit or blame for what’s happened in this economy, and what’s happened to gasoline prices under his watch..."
     In April, House Speaker John Boehner said, “The president holds the key to addressing the pain Ohioans are feeling at the gas pump and moving our nation away from its reliance on foreign energy. My question for the president is: what are you waiting for?”

As it turned out, Boehner didn't have long to wait. Now that gas prices are falling, he and other Republicans have grown silent. Romney said Obama deserved credit, as well as blame, for what has happened. That is simplistic nonsense, of course; the fact that Congressional Republicans have spent three years obstructing the President apparently is not a factor for Romney. Let's be clear on that point: you may agree with Republican tactics and say the Dems must be stopped, etc., but you cannot later ignore the Republicans' role in the Washington logjam and pretend it wasn't a factor.

In any event, Romney is a little slow about giving Obama "full credit" on gas prices. Now one might say that Obama doesn't deserve much credit or blame: The White House inherently has few short-term options on oil prices and cannot be expected to simply step in and ratchet down gas prices. American presidents do not have that kind of power.

But that doesn't mean Obama didn't have some options, or that he didn't use them.

What's that? You didn't hear all about it? And some people still think our corporate-owned media has a liberal bias. To make a bad situation worse, the White House has done a poor job of sharing Obama's message and accomplishments. It's as if he believes the media is an honest broker and is motivated to get the full story out. Peter Cohen, writing for Forbes, captures this frustrating imbalance:
When he was running for President in 2008, Barack Obama struck me as a gifted orator. But now that he’s running for re-election, it feels to me that the messaging power of his political opponents is like Hurricane Katrina blowing against a chipmunk’s squeal. So I am confident that a piece of excellent news for drivers resulting from a little-noticed policy from Mr. Obama will get no attention at all from the media.
In April, I predicted that President Obama’s $52 million plan to increase the margin requirements and otherwise tighten the screws on oil speculators — who borrow huge sums to bet on the direction of oil without taking delivery — would cut oil prices by 10 percent. He’s beaten that prediction, and the lowered price of gasoline has added $78.4 billion to its consumers’ spending power.
Cohen has much more to say on the specific steps Obama has outlined to combat high prices, including:
  --Increase by a factor of six Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) surveillance and enforcement staff “to better deter oil market manipulation,
  --Boost 10-fold, to $10 million, the civil and criminal penalties against “firms that engage in market manipulation,
  --Give the CFTC authority to increase the trader margins — the amount of their own capital that traders must set aside for each bet...
These and other factors, including increased domestic oil production, have driven down oil and gasoline prices. Cohen puts it in human terms:
So just how much has Mr. Obama stimulated the economy through his April crackdown on oil speculators? Well, if my experience is any indication, the answer is quite a bit. After all, I was paying about $4.05 a gallon for mid-grade back then and this week the price had fallen to $3.49.

That 56 cents a gallon decline would amount to me saving about $582 a year — assuming that I fill up my 20 gallon tank once a week. But if the AP is right, that same 56 cent a gallon drop would add $78.4 billion to U.S. GDP.

That’s not much for a $15 trillion economy, but it represents a 1,508 percent return on Mr. Obama’s $52 million investment, in two months.
In the final analysis, I notice a double standard. Republicans attack Obama for not doing something about high gas prices. He, in fact, did something, including increased drilling and permit approval. Not a sound of approval from his critics, and not much coverage in the media. In the spring, Obama also outlines his plan to rein in speculators. By the first day of summer oil prices were off 21% from their April highs.

Republicans blame Obama for not doing something about gas prices even as they insist government should stay out of free markets. He does something, brings down prices, and they call it government meddling. Weren't you the guys blaming him for not doing anything?

Feckless assholes

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Hey, Big Spender

Republicans have now accepted as an article of faith that President Obama is not merely a  "tax and spend liberal," but that his spending is reckless, unprecedented, and making things worst. That Republicans have actually convinced themselves that Obama is far left, radical, socialist, or even just liberal, says more about the cognitive filters many wear.

For the most part, Obama's critics on the right have got their arguments about federal spending almost completely backwards. And yes, Mitt Romney is leading the way.

First, here is Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post:
There are those who tell the truth. There are those who distort the truth. And then there’s Mitt Romney.

Every political campaign exaggerates and dissembles. This practice may not be admirable — it’s surely one reason so many Americans are disenchanted with politics — but it’s something we’ve all come to expect. Candidates claim the right to make any boast or accusation as long as there’s a kernel of veracity in there somewhere.

Even by this lax standard, Romney too often fails. Not to put too fine a point on it, he lies. Quite a bit.
“Since President Obama assumed office three years ago, federal spending has accelerated at a pace without precedent in recent history,” Romney claims on his campaign Web site. This is utterly false. The truth is that spending has slowed markedly under Obama.
An analysis published last week by MarketWatch, a financial news Web site owned by Dow Jones & Co., compared the yearly growth of federal spending under presidents going back to Ronald Reagan. Citing figures from the Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office, MarketWatch concluded that “there has been no huge increase in spending under the current president, despite what you hear.”
Quite the contrary: Spending has increased at a yearly rate of only 1.4 percent during Obama’s tenure, even if you include some stimulus spending (in the 2009 fiscal year) that technically should be attributed to President George W. Bush. This is by far the smallest — I repeat, smallest — increase in spending of any recent president. (The Washington Post’s Fact Checker concluded the spending increase figure should have been 3.3 percent.)

Here is how summarizes their findings:
Is President Obama’s spending an “inferno,” as Mitt Romney claims, or a binge that “never happened” as an analysis touted by the White House concluded? We judge that both of those claims are wrong on the facts. 
The truth is that the nearly 18 percent spike in spending in fiscal 2009 — for which the president is sometimes blamed entirely — was mostly due to appropriations and policies that were already in place when Obama took office. 
That includes spending for the bank bailout legislation approved by President Bush. Annual increases in amounts actually spent since fiscal 2009 have been relatively modest. In fact, spending for the first seven months of the current fiscal year is running slightly below the same period last year, and below projections.

Finally, Rex Nutting of the Wall Street Journal's Marketwatch, acknowledges that:
Of all the falsehoods told about President Barack Obama, the biggest whopper is the one about his reckless spending spree.

As would-be president Mitt Romney tells it: “I will lead us out of this debt and spending inferno.”

Almost everyone believes that Obama has presided over a massive increase in federal spending, an “inferno” of spending that threatens our jobs, our businesses and our children’s future. Even Democrats seem to think it’s true.

But it didn’t happen. Although there was a big stimulus bill under Obama, federal spending is rising at the slowest pace since Dwight Eisenhower brought the Korean War to an end in the 1950s.

Even hapless Herbert Hoover managed to increase spending more than Obama has.

Here are the facts, according to the official government statistics:

• In the 2009 fiscal year — the last of George W. Bush’s presidency — federal spending rose by 17.9% from $2.98 trillion to $3.52 trillion. Check the official numbers at the Office of Management and Budget.

• In fiscal 2010 — the first budget under Obama — spending fell 1.8% to $3.46 trillion.

• In fiscal 2011, spending rose 4.3% to $3.60 trillion.

• In fiscal 2012, spending is set to rise 0.7% to $3.63 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office’s estimate of the budget that was agreed to last August.

• Finally in fiscal 2013 — the final budget of Obama’s term — spending is scheduled to fall 1.3% to $3.58 trillion. Read the CBO’s latest budget outlook.

Over Obama’s four budget years, federal spending is on track to rise from $3.52 trillion to $3.58 trillion, an annualized increase of just 0.4%.

There has been no huge increase in spending under the current president, despite what you hear.
Facts don't seem to carry the weight they used to. Teabaggers will keep howling about how Obama is killing us with spending and debt, all part of his socialist takeover of America, you see. They demanded tax cuts from Bush, and now bitch that those same tax cuts have blown a hole in the federal budget. They have never read a formal paper on what Keynesian spending really means, and they don't understand why, for example, Europe's current austerity measures are counterproductive.

Bear in mind we are talking about a very large swath of voters, a majority some might say, who have a terrible time thinking through the most elementary, face-palm-in-disbelief moments imaginable. You know the types; the ones that cannot find Iraq, New Zealand, or Austria on a map; or the embarrassing number who think the sun revolves around the earth, or believe their pastor when he says evolution has been discredited.

Yeah, those people. They are easy targets for simplistic sloganeering. And Romney knows it.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The American Dream

This is a TED video worth watching. For those who think that talk of the increasingly hideous inequality in the America is just the politics of envy, class warfare, or some other ignorant talking point, you will notice some inescapable details; facts, empiricism, and methodology. You will also be at pains to explain why you think the USA is number one, as so many mindlessly believe.

Bear in mind while you watch this video that Mitt Romney's two favorite campaign promises are to provide even greater tax cuts to the rich, and to overturn Obamacare. And he has repeatedly made clear that he would not do anything to rein in the Wall Street banks. If you think those are good ideas, you are likely to learn something from this.

For more information on the speaker, Richard Wilkinson, and what his research so compelling demonstrates, visit The Equality Trust.
 “If Americans want to live the American dream, they should go to Denmark.”