Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Corporate America Never Had It So Good (Literally)

To hear the Republicans tell it, American business is afraid to start hiring or lending money. They’re plagued by uncertainty (John Boehner’s favorite word these days). They’re trembling in anticipation of what the allegedly socialist-anti-business Obama may due to their bottom line.

Well, so far their bottom line doesn’t seem to be suffering much: American corporations just logged the best quarter ever in terms of profits—$1.66 trillion.

Members of the GOP and their corporate and industrial sponsors have sold a good many Americans a bill of goods. They’ve got folks believing that the new administration hasn’t helped the economy much; in fact, the measures taken by the new administration have pulled the economy back from the edge of a cliff, where it was teetering precariously on the brink of depression.

American business deserves no sympathy. American industry gets away with murder (sometimes literally, as in the case of Massey Energy) and takes advantage of countless loopholes available to avoid paying taxes.

It’s the nature of business, which is amoral by nature, to avoid oversight and seek to maximize profits. It’s the duty of a democratic government—and the citizens who shape that government through their votes—to ensure that business acts responsibly.

From billions in bonuses to the geniuses at bailed-out banks to the tragedy caused by BP in the Gulf of Mexico, the past year has provided numerous examples of why business bears watchin.’

The myth of the self-regulating market is busted; businesses themselves, however, have never done better. They have much to be thankful for this holiday season.

It’s time that knee-jerk Republicans quit buying into phony doomsday scenarios about how bad things are economically and start thinking about how to make things better for real flesh-and-blood American people.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Quote for the Day

From Gene Lyons, food for thought for those who think political beliefs are arranged along a spectrum, with “truth” lying somewhere near the middle:

“Sometimes, see, Goldilocks can't find the porridge that's just right. Sometimes, when two sources tell very different stories, the truth doesn't lie somewhere between them. Often, somebody's lying.”

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pork and Political Vegetarianism

The next few months should be highly entertaining for Congress watchers.

Take an entrenched group of Republicans who haven’t bothered to make any real policy decisions since their last leader left office (unless you call “No!” a policy). Add a starry-eyed group of freshmen officials with the idea they have a mandate to change things. (Some of the latter, like Rand Paul, seem to be devotedly, if misguidedly, motivated by strong opinions of exactly how things should change.) Toss in some “red meat”—one or more of the popular buzz words, the mere mention of which can get Tea Partiers worked up into a froth; specifically, toss in the word “pork.”

Voilá! You now have the makings of a real political free-for-all.

They’re off!

Never mind the wars. Never mind jobs. Never mind foreign policy or increasingly deadly weather patterns or our disastrous dependence on oil. Like a bunch of first graders playing soccer for the first time, they’re off in a pack to chase the ball wherever it may lead them, everybody trying to get in a kick.

Here’s the reality: What conservatives snidely refer to as “pork” is the reason folks in Congress—especially in the House—get elected (and stay elected).

Adding “pork”—also called “earmarks”—to major pieces of legislation is the only way legislators can get Congress to act on the myriad of little things they will never vote on as a body. There will never be a national debate about whether a new bridge should be built to replace a crumbling one in Hoboken. Or whether a port should be upgraded to help the economy of a struggling coastal town. Or whether a small dam should be built in a remote district to allow for irrigation of nearby land.

Collectively, these are the little things that really matter to voters—whether the tiny patch of America on which they live is habitable, or accessible in the winter time, or able to support their children if they choose to continue living in the area where they grew up.

After a good deal of arm twisting, even Mitch McConnell—a 26-year Congressional veteran who has been a staunch defender of earmarks—caved into peer pressure and agreed to support the GOP’s grandstanding gesture of banning earmarks. Of course, neither he nor the others who came out in support of this ridiculous idea have any intention of not trying to get favors for their constituents back home—they just want to be able to say it’s the fault of the Democrats for not going along with the idea.

Bottom line: Earmarks comprise about 1.5% of the Federal budget, or $7.7 billion of this year’s $410 billion budget.

Now, how about those tax breaks for the rich, which would add $36 billion to the deficit next year alone?

Friday, November 12, 2010

How the President Lost the People in 2010: Part III

In this last of a three-part discussion about the disaffected voters of 2010, we focus on those addicted to hate radio (like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage) and radical TV (namely, Fox News). The rise of these sources of incessant right-wing propaganda is new in America and has dramatically altered the political landscape. Those who compare these media sources to left-wing pundits and public radio are either unfamiliar with the latter or are being deliberately disingenuous: there’s absolutely no comparison in terms of hours of programming, accuracy of reports, and emotional vs. rational appeal of their content.

What right-wing media outlets have in common are people who get rich selling a product—and that product is anger. Together they have built a hostile, negative conservative movement which was first appropriated by—then driven by—the GOP. The people who deliver the messages of fear, hatred, and negativism—the vehicles of anger and rage—are not unlike people who hock cigarettes: in both cases, the products are habit forming, addictive, and unhealthy.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, Fox viewers could be excused for believing what they heard and being sucked into conspiracy theories designed to make them angry. Like cigarette smokers before there was much information about lung cancer, those early viewers were relatively innocent of the knowledge that would have forced them to be aware of what they were doing. However, we now know that, just as cigarette smokers were harming their bodies and those of people around them, hostile right-wingers are doing damage to their bodies and their brains, as well as to their country.

Being innocent of knowledge isn’t at all the same thing as being willfully ignorant when knowledge is readily available.

There’s no shortage of information debunking Fox “news.” For example, the outrageous claims regarding the cost of President Obama’s current trip to Asia—Billions of Dollars! One-tenth of the United States Navy!—reverberated for days in the conservative echo chamber. Never mind that numerous reputable sources quickly pointed out how laughable those claims were—Fox News and its cousins create their own “facts.”

Such “facts” are usually supported by circular reasoning (Fox heard it from Rush who got it from Drudge who got it from Fox . . .). Like poisonous mushrooms, the “sources” for right-wing propaganda have become so numerous (being, as they are, so profitable) that such a merry-go-round of disinformation can keep going for months—even years (such as, for example, the matter of the president’s birth certificate or the off-the-wall theories of the “truthers”).

Outrageous claims and conspiracy theories also find legitimacy when right-wing pundits or politicians write op-ed articles for conservative-friendly newspapers or magazines (such as the otherwise reputable WSJ). Mainstream commentators trying to be what Fox News, tongue-in-cheek, only claims to be—fair and balanced—sometimes treat factual information from the left (such as scientific discoveries about evolution or global climate change) and denialism from the right as being equivalent. (Frankly, her habit of bending over backwards to legitimize wacky right-wing ideas was the reason I started tuning out CNN’s Campbell Brown—and I guess I wasn’t the only one.)

With its new slogan, “Lean forward,” we may hope that MSNBC will gradually become what Fox watchers have claimed for years: a true and consistent voice for progressive ideas and a counterweight to the pernicious Fox News. So far, a few outspoken liberal pundits (Olbermann, Maddow, Matthews) do what they can to present the rational (read “liberal”) side of many national arguments. But it will take many more voices to help make some segments of the viewing public aware that there really are two sides to some of these issues.

It can be said that during the past year and a half, the president lost the people by not staying in daily contact with his constituents (although, in all fairness, the man does have another job to do). However, it’s the duty of voters themselves to make an effort to really be aware of more than one side of the important arguments.

For his part, there are those of us who think the president is compounding his “mistake”—if that’s what you want to call it—by being too accommodating and stubbornly sticking to his bipartisan dream. The Republicans have made it abundantly clear that they have no intention of playing at all until and unless the other team leaves the field entirely. His “turn the other cheek” attempts at bipartisan decision making haven’t worked up to now, nor are they likely to work any time in the foreseeable future.

But that’s a topic we’ll explore another day.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mean Politics

After what America has gone through for the past ten years—two wars, the destruction of the American economy, and the two-year hangover we’ve endured since—you’d think the Republicans would want to get something constructive done now that they will have more power in Congress. But no.

Darrell Issa, GOP patsy that he is, wants to have “seven hearings a week, times 40 weeks” to try to discredit the Obama administration. John Boehner and others are saber-rattling about a 1995-style government shutdown.

What’s most instructive about this last proposal is what conservatives have to say about it. It’s all about tactics and power-mongering and nothing about the well-being of the American people (as, for example, in this recent article from the American Spectator).

Is there anyone—anyone—left in the Party of No who actually has a conscience?

Coming soon: “How the President Lost the People in 2010: Part III.”

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How the President Lost the People in 2010: Part II

At a high school reunion in the spring of 2009, I visited with a woman I remembered as being sweet, sensitive, and impassioned about social issues. She remarked that for her entire adult life, she’d always voted for the “pro-life” candidate in every election. The presidential election of 2008 had left her confused, she said, because neither of the candidates seemed to be unequivocally anti-abortion.

In other words, neither candidate promised what so many had promised before: to reverse the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade and, once again, make abortion illegal in America. (No president or politician could possibly do that, but reality is not an issue here. It’s the promises that count.)

This woman’s fixation on a single issue—a complex issue made simple by the clever GOP spin machine—means that she voted twice for George Bush. She seemed untroubled by his two deadly wars (in which many thousands of former babies had been sacrificed), policies of torture and imprisonment without due cause, and failure to provide basic medical care for mothers and babies throughout the land. She also seemed oblivious to the fact that neither Bush nor his advisors ever mentioned the topic of abortion—which was clearly nowhere on their long list of concerns—except during campaigns.

By and large, Americans aren’t deep thinkers when it comes to politics. This is something Republicans understand and Democrats do not.

Gun rights are another wedge issue that the GOP has historically exploited with great success. In the recent elections, there wasn’t a great deal of national news about guns (there being no actual threat to gun rights to report about). In targeted mailings and Internet campaigns, however, the extreme right continually prods hunters and militia types with conspiracy theories, stoking their fears about having their weapons confiscated by . . . somebody. Hence the impression some Alaskans ended up with that Attorney General Eric Holder was out to get their guns. And a number of the faux Palins during the last election made sure to be seen taking aim, “locked and loaded” against any imagined transgression involving their “Second Amendment rights.” (Which reminds me—who’s in charge of watching Sharron Angle these days—the woman who spoke ominously about “Second Amendment remedies” if the last election didn’t go her way.)

On the issue of gay rights, the right-wing coalition has a cozy deal going. Libertarians (who, by the way, tend to actually think about what they believe) and religious fundamentalists (who don’t) are both up in arms about gays. Libertarians are angry because Obama hasn’t exercised his executive power—or waved his magic wand—and unilaterally ended “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” (Never mind his reasoned and repeated arguments about how much better it will be for all concerned if Congress does away with the silly law it created.) The radical religious, meanwhile, are mad about gays gaining support for basic civil liberties, including marriage. While it’s unlikely that either of these camps went out en masse and voted for Republicans for this reason alone, their noisy complaints helped to stoke the nation’s discontent and drown out the few reasoned voices trying to celebrate the administration’s many accomplishments.

Simplistic thinking, conspiracy theories, and intolerance. Take away voters who respond to these, and who do you have left?

People who are well educated. People who read. People who think deeply, trying to consider important issues from several different angles. People, in other words, that the Sarah Palins of the world scoff at for being “elitist.”

People like the president.

One of the things Obama failed to do during the first two years of his administration was to take monumentally complex issues and break them down into small enough bites for the American public to swallow. In a country in which a relative few are willing to do real intellectual work, it’s hard to inform the populace about issues like global climate change, credit reform, and why tax breaks to the middle class stimulate the economy while tax breaks to the rich do not.

It’s hard. But it’s what the president and his advisers must do if they want to win in 2012.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Tomorrow . . .Creeps in Its Petty Pace . . .

Regarding my promised "Part 2" of the last post, the word "tomorrow" was an estimate. That discussion will continue soon.

Meanwhile, from conservative commentator David Frum, here are some interesting remarks about the GOP's "just say no" approach to health reform.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

How the President Lost the People in 2010: Part I

In general, people who are upset with President Obama fall into one of three categories: namely, those who are
  1. confused and hurting because of the economy (e.g., out of work, in debt, and/or threatened with the loss of their home),

  2. upset about social issues and individual liberties (including guns, gay rights, and abortion), and/or

  3. addicted to hate radio and radical TV (e.g., Rush Limbaugh and Fox News).

In days to come, we’ll discuss the disaffected Americans in Categories 2 and 3—as well as what responsible, progressive thinkers in this country ought to do about the situation. Today we’ll begin by discussing members of the electorate who fall into Category 1: those embittered because they are directly and adversely impacted by the struggling economy.

Like all human beings who are frightened and hurting, people who are out of work, out of money, and out of options will generally vent their anger on someone. As leader of the country, the president is bound to be a lightning rod for some of that anger. It goes with the territory.

There’s not much point in trying to reason with desperate people; understandably, they want to see success, not listen to economic theories. (Nevertheless, many liberals are upset with the president for not doing a better job of explaining things to the public—as though the man doesn’t have another job to do, other than politicking.)

Republicans, well aware of this natural tendency of people to blame the party in power, has spent the past two years trying to ensure that things don’t get any better—not under Obama’s watch.

That’s why, under the shrewd but morally indefensible leadership of John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, Republicans have steadfastly refused to say “yes” to anything that might help the economy, including public projects to improve infrastructure, extension of unemployment benefits, and tax relief for those who really need it.

That’s also why they’ve routinely lied about the positive effects of Democratic accomplishments, including

To increase their political capital, Republicans in the minority have wanted the economy to stay as bad as possible for as long as possible so people would blame the Democrats.

It worked.

Now that they represent the majority in the House of Representatives, however, the people will expect members of the GOP to say something other than “No.”

As demonstrated by the Great Recession of 2008, the Republican Party has long been bankrupt when it comes to ideas for how to build a strong economy. And by usurping the energy of the Tea Party, they have aligned themselves with many individuals—including some newly elected members of the House, like Rand Paul—whose main concerns are other than ensuring the economic privileges of big business and the very, very rich.

Will these right-wing groups—the fiscal and the social-libertarian conservatives—be able to work together to piece together any kind of coherent national policy? Will they be successful in continuing to discredit the president and blame everything on the Democrats?

It should be fun to find out.

Tomorrow, we’ll discuss more about Obama and the social-libertarians.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Ultimate Double Standard

So . . . Rupert Murdock donates $1.25 million of corporate money to Republican candidates and organizations—which, for a publicly traded company, is against the law. The consequence? Tch-tch-tch from a few mainstream media pundits.

Keith Olbermann, as an individual, donates the maximum individual contribution—$2,400—to three specific Democratic candidates. The consequence? Indefinite suspension without pay.

Will Fox News jump to his defense, as they did for Juan Williams (who immediately got a $1 million contract)?

Stay tuned.

The Majority Party Always Loses Seats in Midterm Elections

Nevertheless, these remarks by Mary Mitchell are worth pondering.

Great News about Jobs . . .

. . . 151,000 added in October! Economists are saying this is a strong indication the economy is growing again.

John Boehner will be busy all day figuring out how to take credit for that.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Buying Barbados: The $4 Billion Election

The astronomical sum of money being spent on the 2010 midterm elections in America—at least $4 billion, by most estimates—is greater than the entire GDP of many of the world’s countries, including Barbados, Montenegro, and the Isle of Man. (And we’re closing in on Mongolia.) Virtually every man, woman, and child living on American soil has been exposed to thousands of images, slogans, and arguments—mostly produced by expensive ad agencies—designed to get them to adopt a particular attitude toward a candidate or an issue.

Much has been said—and much more needs to be said—about the ability of the rich to buy elections. But let’s face it: if the American people weren’t so gullible and generally uninformed, it would take a lot more than scary music or a slick slogan to sway them. Politicians and their message machines would have to provide actual information, specific action goals, and coherent plans for implementing those goals. Then they’d have to deliver on those promises.

Regular readers of this column know what I think: I think President Obama and his team have delivered on their promises to America, accomplishing more than anyone could have expected—especially bucking a severe and unrelenting headwind of lies and obstructionism from the Republicans in Congress. From ending combat in Iraq to reforming health care to implementing Wall Street and banking reform, the current administration has done much to improve American lives.

I also think it’s appalling that most Americans seem to have already forgotten what the Party of No accomplished on its watch: two wars, general devastation of the economy, confusion about climate change, a $1.3 trillion deficit.

Be that as it may. Jon Stewart (oddly, given his profession) blames the media for America’s current problems. The Tea Party blames politicians and “elitists”—a category that often seems to include anyone who is well educated, well informed, and experienced in public office (unless, of course, they’re Republican). But it’s clear where the real blame should lie in a Democracy like ours: squarely on the shoulders of those—sadly, the majority—who either cast a vote based on a single bias, remaining willfully ignorant about everything else, or don’t vote at all.

For awhile last January, mesmerized by televised images of profound suffering, Americans seemed to care about the people of Haiti. The cameras have moved on, but hundreds of thousands of Haitians still live in crowded, stinking tents, and hundreds are dying of disease. Think what the $4 billion wasted on these midterm elections could do for them.

Never in the history of human civilization has it been so easy to find out what’s really going on in the world. With an open mind and a good mix of media (including books and articles, as well as radio and television), anyone can learn a great deal in a short time about virtually any subject.

Now that so many billions of dollars have been spent to get their attention, what Americans should do is to continue to learn and to care—not because they’re being prodded by advertising to be fearful or angry, but rather just because being informed is the right thing to do.