Thursday, November 1, 2012

Straight talk from the Economist

Our American endorsement

Which one?

America could do better than Barack Obama; sadly, Mitt Romney does not fit the bill

FOUR years ago, The Economist endorsed Barack Obama for the White House with enthusiasm. So did millions of voters. Next week Americans will trudge to the polls far less hopefully. So (in spirit at least) will this London-based newspaper. Having endured a miserably negative campaign, the world’s most powerful country now has a much more difficult decision to make than it faced four years ago.
That is in large part because of the woeful nature of Mr Obama’s campaign. A man who once personified hope and centrism set a new low by unleashing attacks on Mitt Romney even before the first Republican primary. Yet elections are about choosing somebody to run a country. And this choice turns on two questions: how good a president has Mr Obama been, especially on the main issues of the economy and foreign policy? And can America really trust the ever-changing Mitt Romney to do a better job? On that basis, the Democrat narrowly deserves to be re-elected.
The changeling
Mr Obama’s first term has been patchy. On the economy, the most powerful argument in his favour is simply that he stopped it all being a lot worse. America was in a downward economic spiral when he took over, with its banks and carmakers in deep trouble and unemployment rising at the rate of 800,000 a month. His responses—an aggressive stimulus, bailing out General Motors and Chrysler, putting the banks through a sensible stress test and forcing them to raise capital (so that they are now in much better shape than their European peers)—helped avert a Depression. That is a hard message to sell on the doorstep when growth is sluggish and jobs scarce; but it will win Mr Obama some plaudits from history, and it does from us too.
Two other things count, on balance, in his favour. One is foreign policy, where he was also left with a daunting inheritance. Mr Obama has refocused George Bush’s “war on terror” more squarely on terrorists, killing Osama bin Laden, stepping up drone strikes (perhaps too liberally, see article) and retreating from Iraq and Afghanistan (in both cases too quickly for our taste). After a shaky start with China, American diplomacy has made a necessary “pivot” towards Asia. By contrast, with both the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and his “reset” with Russia, he overreached and underdelivered. Iran has continued its worrying crawl towards nuclear weapons.
All these problems could have been anticipated. The Arab spring could not. Here Mr Obama can point to the ousting of tyrants in Egypt and Libya, but he has followed events rather than shaping them, nowhere more so than with the current carnage in Syria. Compared with, say, George Bush senior, who handled the end of the cold war, this aloof, disengaged man is no master diplomat; set beside the younger Bush, however, Mr Obama has been a safe pair of hands.
The other qualified achievement is health reform. Even to a newspaper with no love for big government, the fact that over 40m people had no health coverage in a country as rich as America was a scandal. “Obamacare” will correct that, but Mr Obama did very little to deal with the system’s other flaw—its huge and unaffordable costs. He surrendered too much control to left-wing Democrats in Congress. As with the gargantuan Dodd-Frank reform of Wall Street, Obamacare has generated a tangle of red tape—and left business to deal with it all.
It is here that our doubts about Mr Obama set in. No administration in many decades has had such a poor appreciation of commerce. Previous Democrats, notably Bill Clinton, raised taxes, but still understood capitalism. Bashing business seems second nature to many of the people around Mr Obama. If he has appointed some decent people to his cabinet—Hillary Clinton at the State Department, Arne Duncan at education and Tim Geithner at the Treasury—the White House itself has too often seemed insular and left-leaning. The obstructive Republicans in Congress have certainly been a convenient excuse for many of the president’s failures, but he must also shoulder some blame. Mr Obama spends regrettably little time buttering up people who disagree with him; of the 104 rounds of golf the president has played in office, only one was with a Republican congressman.
Above all, Mr Obama has shown no readiness to tackle the main domestic issue confronting the next president: America cannot continue to tax like a small government but spend like a big one. Mr Obama came into office promising to end “our chronic avoidance of tough decisions” on reforming its finances—and then retreated fast, as he did on climate change and on immigration. Disgracefully, he ignored the suggestions of the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson deficit commission that he himself set up. More tellingly, he has failed to lay out a credible plan for what he will do in the next four years. Virtually his entire campaign has been spent attacking Mr Romney, usually for his wealth and success in business.
Many a Mitt makes a muddle
Mr Obama’s shortcomings have left ample room for a pragmatic Republican, especially one who could balance the books and overhaul government. Such a candidate briefly flickered across television screens in the first presidential debate. This newspaper would vote for that Mitt Romney, just as it would for the Romney who ran Democratic Massachusetts in a bipartisan way (even pioneering the blueprint for Obamacare). The problem is that there are a lot of Romneys and they have committed themselves to a lot of dangerous things.
Take foreign policy. In the debates Mr Romney stuck closely to the president on almost every issue. But elsewhere he has repeatedly taken a more bellicose line. In some cases, such as Syria and Russia (see article), this newspaper would welcome a more robust position. But Mr Romney seems too ready to bomb Iran, too uncritically supportive of Israel and cruelly wrong in his belief in “the Palestinians not wanting to see peace”. The bellicosity could start on the first day of his presidency, when he has vowed to list China as a currency manipulator—a pointless provocation to its new leadership that could easily degenerate into a trade war.
Or take reducing the deficit and reforming American government. Here there is more to like about Mr Romney. He generally believes in the smaller state we would rather see; he would slash red tape and his running-mate, Paul Ryan, has dared to broach much-needed entitlement reform.
Yet far from being the voice of fiscal prudence, Mr Romney wants to start with huge tax cuts (which will disproportionately favour the wealthy), while dramatically increasing defence spending. Together those measures would add $7 trillion to the ten-year deficit. He would balance the books through eliminating loopholes (a good idea, but he will not specify which ones) and through savage cuts to programmes that help America’s poor (a bad idea, which will increase inequality still further). At least Mr Obama, although he distanced himself from Bowles-Simpson, has made it clear that any long-term solution has to involve both entitlement reform and tax rises. Mr Romney is still in the cloud-cuckoo-land of thinking you can do it entirely through spending cuts: the Republican even rejected a ratio of ten parts spending cuts to one part tax rises. Backing business is important, but getting the macroeconomics right matters far more.
Mr Romney’s more sensible supporters explain his fiscal policies away as necessary rubbish, concocted to persuade the fanatics who vote in the Republican primaries: the great flipflopper, they maintain, does not mean a word of it. Of course, he knows in current circumstances no sane person would really push defence spending, projected to fall below 3% of GDP, to 4%; of course President Romney would strike a deal that raises overall tax revenues, even if he cuts tax rates.
You’d better believe him
However, even if you accept that Romneynomics may be more numerate in practice than it is in theory, it is far harder to imagine that he will reverse course entirely. When politicians get elected they tend to do quite a lot of the things they promised during their campaigns. François Hollande, France’s famously pliable new president, was supposed to be too pragmatic to introduce a 75% top tax rate, yet he is steaming ahead with his plan. We weren’t fooled by the French left; we see no reason why the American right will be more flexible. Mr Romney, like Mr Hollande, will have his party at his back—and a long record of pandering to them.
Indeed, the extremism of his party is Mr Romney’s greatest handicap. The Democrats have their implacable fringe too: look at the teachers’ unions. But the Republicans have become a party of Torquemadas, forcing representatives to sign pledges never to raise taxes, to dump the chairman of the Federal Reserve and to embrace an ever more Southern-fried approach to social policy. Under President Romney, new conservative Supreme Court justices would try to overturn Roe v Wade, returning abortion policy to the states. The rights of immigrants (who have hardly had a good deal under Mr Obama) and gays (who have) would also come under threat. This newspaper yearns for the more tolerant conservatism of Ronald Reagan, where “small government” meant keeping the state out of people’s bedrooms as well as out of their businesses. Mr Romney shows no sign of wanting to revive it.
The devil we know
We very much hope that whichever of these men wins office will prove our pessimism wrong. Once in the White House, maybe the Romney of the mind will become reality, cracking bipartisan deals to reshape American government, with his vice-president keeping the headbangers in the Republican Party in line. A re-elected President Obama might learn from his mistakes, clean up the White House, listen to the odd businessman and secure a legacy happier than the one he would leave after a single term. Both men have it in them to be their better selves; but the sad fact is that neither candidate has campaigned as if that is his plan.
As a result, this election offers American voters an unedifying choice. Many of The Economist’s readers, especially those who run businesses in America, may well conclude that nothing could be worse than another four years of Mr Obama. We beg to differ. For all his businesslike intentions, Mr Romney has an economic plan that works only if you don’t believe most of what he says. That is not a convincing pitch for a chief executive. And for all his shortcomings, Mr Obama has dragged America’s economy back from the brink of disaster, and has made a decent fist of foreign policy. So this newspaper would stick with the devil it knows, and re-elect him.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Sincere Wish

All of us here at the Mad Dog Moderate Party sincerely hope that the Tea Party faithful up there in the Northeast proudly stand by their principles and refuse to take any help from the government in the face of the disaster wrought by Hurricane Sandy. After all, as you've said so often, so proudly and, dare we say it, so stridently: You built it! Now you FIX it.

Show us how it's done!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Who are the 47%?

We’re all makers and takers

By Ravi Agrawal, CNN

Editor’s note: Ravi Agrawal is a senior producer on Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square. The views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter @RaviAgrawalCNN

It all began, as things so often do these days, with a leaked video. Then there was a hurriedly-arranged press conference, an ensuing media maelstrom, and finally, attack ads.

Mitt Romney’s revelation that his “job is not to worry” about the “47 percent of the people” who “pay no income tax” has divided America. On the one hand, the 47 percent of households who pay no income tax are enraged, belittled. “People want a hand up, not a hand out,” says President Barack Obama. But assuming Romney understood his audience at that fateful fundraiser, his comments suggest the 53 percent are angry too: weary of contributing what they think is more than a fair share, and worried that if their man loses they’ll have to pay more. As columnist David Brooks put it, it’s the makers versus the moochers.

I’ve been struck by how surprised people are that nearly half of Americans don’t pay income tax. Why so many, ask the 53 percent. What happened?

If only America looked at the rest of the world.

Consider India. If you’re a taxpayer, you’re part of the elite few. In fact, only 2.8 percent of the population officially makes more than the $3,700 threshold for paying taxes (per capita income is only a third of that amount.) The rest – the 97.2 percent – don’t file an income tax return.

Or consider communist China. How many of its 1.34 billion citizens pay income taxes? According to the state-run Xinhua newspaper, only 24 million made the cut this year. By my math, that’s 1.72 percent of the population; 98.28 percent of Chinese don’t pay taxes!

Between India and China, that’s a third of all humanity. And I could go on. The numbers for the U.S. and China and India aren't directly comparable – the U.S. number is for households, while the others are for individuals. But the fact remains that in much of the world – across Asia, Africa, and South America – it turns out that not paying income tax is not unusual; paying taxes is unusual.

The American 53 percent should be happy there are so many shoulders to carry the load.

The fact is that Romney’s comments suggest a number of misconceptions that are stoking resentment and contributing to the creation of a class fault-line across America.

First, are federal services used exclusively by the people who don’t pay income taxes? A fascinating article in the New York Times shows why that’s not true. It points to a Cornell University survey that asked Americans whether they had taken advantage of federal government programs like student loans or Medicare (it doesn’t take into account government programs that impact everyone, like the police or the highway system). Ninety-six percent admitted to seeking federal assistance. Young adults not eligible for many of these services accounted for the other 4 percent.

In some form or the other, we are all takers; every single one of us. It’s not just government programs; look at subsidies. In the U.S. for example, a gallon of gasoline costs nearly $4. But you would pay twice as much in most of Europe. Even the Indians and Chinese pay more. Doesn’t everyone benefit from subsidies?
In an excellent essay for TIME, meanwhile, Michael Grunwald – a tax payer – outlines how every single thing his family uses would cost more were it not for subsidies: water, electricity, food, even public radio.
Second, let’s flip this around. Just as we are all takers, we are all makers too. Everyone – rich and poor – contributes. There are payroll taxes, property taxes, Social Security and Medicaid taxes. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein points out that even the poorest fifth of Americans pay on average about 17.4 percent of their incomes on these taxes. A majority of Americans end up paying 25 to 30 percent of their income – more than Mitt Romney likely does, as Klein points out.

The shared burden holds true for other parts of the world, too – places far more unequal than America.
We tend to think of income tax as a burden. Perhaps we should see it as a privilege, a luxury to have an income level that makes us eligible to pay it. Look around the world and you’ll see that income tax payers are part of an elite club. More people want into this club than out. Perhaps that’s what fuels resentment on both sides. In creating arbitrary numbers that divide those who pay taxes and those who don’t, we rank people. And yet, everyone makes, everyone takes. Perhaps the system just needs a gentler touch: an all-encompassing income-tax curve. But try getting that through Congress…

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Why don't we hear about this in the Liberal Press in America?

This article from today's Guardian -

Veterans' bill voted down by GOP as Senate Democrats proclaim 'new low'

Democrats fall two votes short of passing bill that would help unemployed veterans amid accusations GOP played politics

Harry Reid, the majority leader of the Senate, said the bill had met 'one Republican stall tactic after another'. Photograph: Harry Hamburg/AP
Republicans have voted down legislation that would have established a $1bn jobs programme to put unemployed veterans back to work as firefighters and police officers and in public work projects.
They objected to the cost of the bill, which they said violated spending limits agreed to last year in Congress.
Democrats and veterans groups say its cost are fully offset.
The bill, which had bipartisan support in the Senate and would have given priority to post-9/11 veterans whose employment prospects are three points below the national average, fell two votes short of the majority of 60 needed to waive Republican objections.
After the vote, at midday on Wednesday, Patty Murray, chairman of the Senate veterans affairs committee, accused Senate Republicans of "shocking and shameful" obstructive politics.
She said: "At a time when one in four young veterans are unemployed, Republicans should have been able, for just this once, to put aside the politics of obstruction and to help these men and women provide for their families.
"It's unbelievable that even after more than a decade of war many Republicans still will not acknowledge that the treatment of our veterans is a cost of war. Today they voted down a fully paid-for bill that included bipartisan ideas to put veterans in jobs that will allow them to serve their communities. Jobs that would have helped provide veterans with the self-esteem that is so critical to their successful transition home."
Murray said the bill had been extensively rewritten to include amendments by Republicans – eight of the 12 provisions in the bill were Republican-originated ideas. She said that the bill had even incorporated most of the provisions of a competing Republican bill, but to no avail.
Democratic senator Bill Nelson of Florida, the bill's lead sponsor, said: "[With] a need so great as unemployed veterans, this is not the time to draw a technical line on the budget."
Republicans said they agreed with the sentiment to help veterans but said the bill was flawed.
Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma said the federal government already had six job-training programs for veterans and there was no way to monitor how well they were working. He said that the way forward was not to increase debt.
"We ought to do nothing now that makes the problem worse for our kids and grandkids," Coburn told the Associated Press.
Supporters modeled their proposal partly after the Civilian Conservation Corp used during the Great Depression to employ people to build parks and build dams.
A handful of Republicans joined with Democrats in voting to waive the objection to the bill: senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, Dean Heller of Nevada, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Maine's Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe. The Democrats needed a vote of 60 to go forward with the bill but the final vote was 58 to 40.
"After everything our veterans have done for us, the least we can do is make sure they are afforded every opportunity to thrive here at home," Heller said.
Minutes before the vote, Murray gave an impassioned speech from the floor, asking for unity to pass the bill which she said "should not be killed by procedural games".
The vote, postponed from last week because of Republican opposition, was the latest in a series of delays which have hampered the bill's progress. Members of the House are preparing to leave Washington to campaign on their re-election.
The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America described the vote as a "huge disappointment".
Ramsay Sulayman, of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he was saddened to see "a very small group of people that are standing for principle to block the bill from even coming to a vote" on an issue like veteran jobs, which has seen a strong spirit of bipartisan support.
"That's what we object to. If people say 'We don't like the bill' and stand up and get up and vote and go on the record ... that is different. It's sad to see a few people holding a bill to hostage."
The jobs bill is based on a proposal in President Barack Obama's state of the union address in January.
Harry Reid, the majority leader of the Senate, said the bill had met "one Republican stall tactic after another", in a post to his Twitter account last week. He said the tactics marked a "new low" for Republicans.
Jeff Sessions, the Senate Budget Committee ranking member, said he objected to the bill on the grounds it would increase the veterans affairs department budget and would blow though the spending cap lawmakers agreed last year.
Democrats argue the bills costs are already covered by plans to collect more than half a billion in unpaid taxes over the next five years, according to the Washington Examiner.
The bill was held up in the Senate last week after filibustering by Rand Paul, the Republican Senator for Kentucky, to gain support for a Pakistani doctor who helped locate Osama Bin Laden.
Paul has promised to block Senate action until the doctor, Shakil Afridi, is released from jail. The Pakistani government has said it will not release him. Paul has also called on the Obama administration to cut foreign aid to Pakistan until Afridi is released.
Unemployment for the newest generation of veterans, post 9/11, rose to 10.9% in August, a stark contrast to the nation's unemployment rate of 8.1% in the same month. Veterans commonly find work after service in federal, state and local government jobs, a vulnerable sector in the current economy.
Younger veterans are especially vulnerable to unemployment after deployment. Around 20% of 18-24-year-old veterans are unemployed.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Big Lie Part Two: Obama

I admit that I watched and read far more about the RNC in Tampa than I have the DNC in Charlotte because, frankly, the Sideshow madness of the current Republican Party is far more entertaining. Like going to Flea Markets in small country towns, the Human Condition is both grotesque and tender at the same time.

Clearly, Mr. Muslim Obama America-Hater was in for a bashing at this carnival and, naturally, no one pulled any punches. The theme was present in the gleeful misquoting of the president as a backdrop to the show: We Built This. Even those who pretend, for dramatic reasons, to misunderstand what Mr. Obama was saying (the entire infrastructure of a nation that created a context for entrepreneurs to be successful was built by everyone and paid for by taxes). And Mr. Ryan didn't disappoint either. He took a while to get going and build a head of steam that might carry him past his awkwardness of following a charismatic speaker like Rubio, but he found his pace and hit it:

  • Obama robbed Medicare (which Ryan knows to be not true because he has written the same numbers into a succession of his own budgets as a way to continue Medicare's solvency).
  • Obama didn't lift a finger to maintain the GM plant in Ryan's homestate despite promising to do otherwise (hilarious because the plant Ryan is describing closed before Obama came into the White House as any check of the facts will show. And funnier still, go back and look at Romney's Op-Ed piece in the NYT about letting plants like that die for the good of the Market).
  • "[Obama] created a bipartisan debt commission. They came back with an urgent report. He thanked them, sent them on their way and then did exactly nothing." (Well now, Mr. Ryan, you know that's not true because you sat on that bipartisan commission and know full well that it died because you and two Republicans refused to support it. Lovely attempt to shift the blame).
That last bullet point is worth noting. As you may remember, 2008 began with America mired in two extremely expensive and tragic wars, the economy was in the worst crisis since the Great Depression and America's place on the world stage, which had started off post 9/11 with immense positive soft power, was so mired in disaster that China and Iran were stronger than ever. George Bush, through his ill-advised adventure in Iraq actually made the Axis of Evil stronger. America was in a bad way, but not so bad that we couldn't rally and climb back to the top, because that's what America does. If we all pitch in . . .

Except . . .Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell got the ball rolling by laying down the primary goal for the Republican Party: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." In other words, if it came down to bipartisanship to save America's economy and standing on the international stage, or partisanship to prevent Obama from ever looking successful the Republican plan was clear: they would take the Low Road of partisanship.

And if you're being honest, you'll note that the last three years have been a stark and nearly hysterical attempt to create gridlock in Congress in order to jeopardize the administration. We've seen it over and over again to the point where America's credit rating was downgraded for the first time in history from AAA to AA + over the absurdism of allowing the temporary Bush Tax Cuts - created in a time before the economy crashed - to expire and raising the Debt Ceiling - something Reagan did eighteen times. It was a cartoonish, adolescent game of brinksmanship that was easily avoided - Speaker of the House John Boehner was all about being noble and bipartisan and solving the problem -  in the beginning, before he was reigned in by Uber Leader, the unelected superlobbyist Grover Nordquist. Suddenly Boehner pulled back from bipartisanship and began playing Playground Tough Guy.

And the economy teetered ever closer to disaster.

The fact that anything got done at all in this climate is remarkable and deserves to be counted as a success, but I don't want to go overboard.

So, Mitt Romney, let's address the single biggest question you raised during your tepid, bloodless speech: Are We Better Off Now? According to most indicators, the answer is Yes. According to The Economist's Report Card:

"Did Mr Obama blow it? Nearly four years later, voters seem to think so: approval of his economic management is near rock-bottom, the single-biggest obstacle to his re-election. This, however, is not a fair judgment on Mr Obama’s record, which must consider not just the results but the decisions he took, the alternatives on offer and the obstacles in his way. Seen in that light, the report card is better. His handling of the crisis and recession were impressive. Unfortunately, his efforts to reshape the economy have often misfired. And America’s public finances are in a dire state."

Looking at Obama's record in the face of the disasters facing our economy, we can see that
  • a bank crisis that threatened to destroy us was offset by TARP bailouts which have been almost completely paid back, and the crisis averted.
  • two massive employers Chrysler and GM were ushered into bankruptcy then provide the financing necessary to reorganise, on condition that both eliminated unneeded capacity and workers. Both companies emerged from bankruptcy within a few months. Chrysler, now part of Italy’s Fiat, is again profitable, as is GM, which returned to the stockmarket in 2010.
  • a stimulus that nonpartisan assessors see as saving or creating 3.4m jobs
  • one disasterous, illegal and unethical war over and done with
  • Osama Bin Laden dead and the war in Afghanistan winding down
  • and unemployment numbers that are back up to nearly where they were before the crash. 

 Really - in comparison with the where we were in 2008 vs. where we are now - yes, we are better off. We're not in The Best Possible Place, but we are no longer on the brink of disaster. You did your job, you didn't blow it. That's not enough to recommend a president for a further term, but it's certainly commendable.

George W. Bush - now he blew it. There's almost no standard you can judge the previous president  by without finding failure and ineptitude and missed opportunity. He had eight years and when he was done we were looking up out of a pretty deep hole. Do you remember that?

Obama is, at best and worst, a mediocre president. He didn't blow it and, in a lot of ways he kept us from sinking.

We survived eight years of Bush - I reckon eight years of Obama won't be too bad.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Big Lie Part One: Bush

"All this was inspired by the principle - which is quite true in itself - that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and waver and will continue to think that there may be some other explanation. For the grossly impudent lie always leaves traces behind it, even after it has been nailed down, a fact which is known to all expert liars in this world and to all who conspire together in the art of lying."
Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

From year to year I contemplate whether or not I want to continue teaching The Tragedy of Julius Caesar to my sophomore Honors classes. Shakespearean drama based on Ancient Rome, written in Elizabethan blank verse, does not combine into a sure sell to teenagers who would rather parse the language down to its struts and pylons rather than savor it in it's purest uncut form. Then I read the newspaper and Facebook and hear Talk Radio and I realize that, Yes, indeed - this is important stuff. 

One of the central themes to the play, in my opinion, is how vulnerable people are in the face of information manipulation - what the political writers refer to as spin. Whether it's Cassius seducing Brutus to lead an assassination of Caesar, or Mart Antony seducing the plebians at Caesar's funeral, the real protagonist of the play is Spin, which makes people chose against their own best interests to fulfill an end planned by someone with no altruistic goal. 

Believe it or not, I'm no big Obama supporter. I am proudly registered at my polling place as an Independent. Oh, sure, I was seduced by the promise of Mr. Obama early on and excited by all that his election presented. But politics more often than not is a meatgrinder for saviors and charlatans alike. And Mr. Obama, like so many of his predecessors, is neither: he walks the broadway of mediocrity.

Therefore, what disturbs me the most these days is being forced into a corner where I feel a need to defend the president. I've got nothing against him at all, but I'm also not one of his cheerleaders. Yet time and time again I feel pushed onto the stump to defend him against the storm of detractors who attack him and his record in increasingly hysterical and illogical ways that stun and repel and disgust me, which puts me squarely in the eye of the storm. Everyone I know and come into contact with, all those "friends" on Facebook, are militantly in the Other Camp - which is fine. But somehow I've become the poster boy for Defending the President, which not a role I take to naturally. I voted for him, yes. But that's all. As a Mad-Dog Moderate he doesn't reflect my politics any better than anyone else does these days.

Still, here I am, and this is why: in the Year of Our Lord, 2008, the casket was nailed shut on what was arguably the worst presidency of all time. George W.'s record was so toxic that even now, when the Democrats are on the ropes and history has been smudged and fudged, W. was conspicuously absent from the RNC in Tampa. His brother - the one-time superstar of the Republican Party, Jeb Bush, was not even a candidate despite being seen years ago as a particularly powerful contender. His only role in Tampa this August seemed to be as an angry man, the last Torchbearer left for W. His speech was memorable only as a clumsy attempt to paint his brother a little less harshly for posterity.

And that's a hell of a task. Let's go back to the eight years of Bushism in 2008 when W. limped away into obscurity as "One of the least popular and most divisive presidents in American history. At home, his approval rating has been stuck in the 20s for months; abroad, George Bush has presided over the most catastrophic collapse in America's reputation since the second world war. The American economy is in deep recession, brought on by a crisis that forced Mr Bush to preside over huge and unpopular bail-outs" - in the words of The Economist, hardly a banner waving member of the Liberal Media. The Economist for those of you unfamiliar with it is a Business and Market friendly publication that is solidly conservative, and which had no issues originally endorsing W. In addition, it is a British publication and thus is able to take a much longer view of American politics than somebody nostril deep in the muck.

A quick review of the eight years of Bushism reads like a sitcom of disaster and incompetence: he entered the White House with the government holding it's first budget surplus in decades, which he threw away in ill-advised tax cuts that fell heavily on the wealthiest Americans and then by funding two simultaneous wars. By the time he was done the government was deeply in debt.

In the words of even friendly, conservative journalists, "the three most notable characteristics of the Bush presidency: partisanship, politicisation and incompetence. Mr Bush was the most partisan president in living memory. He was content to be president of half the country—a leader who fused his roles of head of state and leader of his party. He devoted his presidency to feeding the Republican coalition that elected him."

In fact, the Bush presidency, in more ways than one - with a nod towards that old jedi master of partisanship, Newt Gingrich - sowed the seeds of Government Gridlock that haunts us to this day. Again, according to The Economist: "Relentless partisanship led to the politicisation of almost everything Mr Bush did. He used his first televised address to justify putting strict limits on federal funding for stem-cell research, and used the first veto of his presidency to prevent the expansion of that funding. He appointed two “strict constructionist” judges to the Supreme Court, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, turned his back on the Kyoto protocol, dismissed several international treaties, particularly the anti-ballistic-missile treaty, loosened regulations on firearms and campaigned against gay marriage. His energy policy was written by Mr Cheney with the help of a handful of cronies from the energy industry."

"The Iraq war was a case study of what happens when politicisation is mixed with incompetence. A long-standing convention holds that politics stops at the ocean's edge. But Mr Bush and his inner circle labelled the Democrats “Defeaticrats” whenever they were reluctant to support extending the war from Afghanistan to Iraq. They manipulated intelligence to demonstrate that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and had close relations with al-Qaeda. This not only divided a country that had been brought together by September 11th; it also undermined popular support for what Mr Bush regarded as the central theme of his presidency, the war on terror.

"Sean Wilentz, a historian at Princeton, remarks how unusual it is for a president to have politicised such a national catastrophe: “No other president—Lincoln in the civil war, FDR in world war two, John F. Kennedy at critical moments of the cold war—faced with such a monumental set of military and political circumstances, failed to embrace the opposing political party to help wage a truly national struggle. But Bush shut out and even demonised the Democrats.”

"The invasion of Iraq was like much else in the Bush years—an initial triumph that contained the seeds of disaster."

My point here, in documenting the massive failures of the Bush years - and I've only scratched the surface - is that many of those howling about Mr. Obama remained silent and, through their silence, indicated their satisfaction and support for those disastrous policies of George W. Bush. If you remained quiet and complacent from 2001-2008 and then suddenly reared up in Righteous Rage against Obama then I'm calling you out.

I don't want to defend Obama because I've tried to maintain neutrality. But really - where is all this sputtering tea party rebellion coming from? Where was it for eight years previous? If you didn't post raging, frothing I Hate the Government posts on Facebook then, if you didn't rage and scream and roll your eyes around at the excesses of Little Big Government Bushism and ruinous fiscal and foreign policy during that administration then I'm calling you out. You are myopically partisan and your views are frighteningly one-sided.


Thursday, August 30, 2012

Mitt the Godfather

One of the great things about watching Mafia movies is the vicarious thrill they give us. Most of us live lives of quiet obscurity, swallowing a thousand daily losses as we creep towards the end of all flesh. Not the gangsters we see on TV: they roar across the scene like grizzly bears, raging and taking and living until their lives are spent in a grotesque fury. None of us really want to kill anyone I hope; ideally few of us have harbored any real fantasies of whacking some smart ass and hauling his body off in a car trunk for a shameful grave in a construction site somewhere. Mafia movies let us live that lifestyle vicariously.

I like the scene in Goodfellas where Paulie, the crew boss, becomes a silent partner in the Bamboo Lounge, a legitimate business. The original owner is appealing to Paulie because certain other mobsters are disrespecting the place and he hopes, by having Paulie as part of the ownership group, that the disrespect will stop - and it does, but at a terrible cost. Paulie uses the Lounge as collateral and begins charging up all kinds of costs for liquor, food, etc. Then he sells that stuff at bottom-line prices. When the bill comes due he torches the place and collects on the insurance. It's win-win for Paulie, but not for the original owner who opines, somberly, that it was a great bar.

I can't see this movie without thinking of Mitt Romney these days. Thanks, Mitt, for ruining one of my favorite films. However even a casual reader of Romney's time at Bain Capital can't help but seeing the parallels. Consider Bain's modus operandi with an old, family owned manufacturing business called Ampad that Bain got its mitts on in 1992:

"Bain bought Ampad in 1992 for just $5 million, financing the rest of the deal with borrowed cash. Within three years, Ampad was paying $60 million in annual debt payments, plus an additional $7 million in management fees. A year later, Bain led Ampad to go public, cashed out about $50 million in stock for itself and its investors, charged the firm $2 million for arranging the IPO and pocketed another $5 million in "management" fees. Ampad wound up going bankrupt, and hundreds of workers lost their jobs, but Bain and Romney weren't crying: They'd made more than $100 million on a $5 million investment."

This is the man who calls himself a "Job Creator"? Looks more like an officially sanctioned mafioso to me. Use other people's money to buy into an undervalued company. Saddle that company with the loan debt you just took out. Then begin looting the company for assets you can sell to pay off the debt you yourself have created, sending middle management wage-earners out into the cold. At the same time bill this company for millions as your "consulting" fee while you destroy it. Then cash out and leave. No loss to you, no real risks.

And what do you do with the money? Hide it overseas where it can't be taxed and, therefore, reinvested in the country you're looting.

Romney learned early in his career that it was better to operate this way than deal with start-ups. The potential for enormous profits was unprecedented - and it went on and on and on, right up until 2000 when Romney was about to bid goodbye to his pirate empire. Nearly his last acquisition was the old family-owned toy company KB Toys, built from the ground up the old-fashioned way with lots of sweat and know-how and risk to the entrepreneur.

" In a typical private-equity fragging, Bain put up a mere $18 million to acquire KB Toys and got big banks to finance the remaining $302 million it needed. Less than a year and a half after the purchase, Bain decided to give itself a gift known as a "dividend recapitalization." The firm induced KB Toys to redeem $121 million in stock and take out more than $66 million in bank loans – $83 million of which went directly into the pockets of Bain's owners and investors, including Romney. 'The dividend recap is like borrowing someone else's credit card to take out a cash advance, and then leaving them to pay it off,' says Heather Slavkin Corzo, who monitors private equity takeovers as the senior legal policy adviser for the AFL-CIO.
Bain ended up earning a return of at least 370 percent on the deal, while KB Toys fell into bankruptcy, saddled with millions in debt. KB's former parent company, Big Lots, alleged in bankruptcy court that Bain's "unjustified" return on the dividend recap was actually "900 percent in a mere 16 months."
What happened to the people who worked for KB toys? They joined the stunned millions of Americans who saw this new economy for what it was: not a manufacturing economy that put people to work, creating an affluent middle class and healthy tax base - this is the New Way. It became clear to everyone everywhere that Bain didn't buy KB toys to turn it around, as Mitt would phrase it. There was never a plan for keeping KB competitive.

Today's economy, championed by Romney and the Right, is built not on creating jobs but on cannibalizing companies and squirreling their money away overseas, tax free. No jobs are built - the only people making any kind of profit in this economy are the educated, skilled financial class. Everybody else is doomed. Just as Bain is dismantling the Sensata auto parts factory and sending it piece by piece to China, so too our whole economy will follow. Currently the employees of Sensata are being paid to train the Chinese workers who will replace them at half their salaries. The employees could walk off in disgust, of course, but people need work - even when it's serving the devil.

This is the Market that the Libertarians speak of with such religious reverence. Without regulation (that dirty word to the Tea Party!), that's the way the money funnels - in one direction, with nothing going back in. The Market is without morality, it is driven by profit.

Is it any wonder that Romney doesn't want us to see his tax returns? Paulie the mafioso in Goodfellas wouldn't want you to see his tax returns either.