Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Unethical, Money-Grubbing Opportunists, Or....

Well, take a look at this story about a Manhattan law firm Graubard Miller's legal fees and conduct toward its client, and tell me what the alternative interpretation is.

(I'm willing to assume that the article doesn't tell the whole story - news stories rarely do. But I'm at a bit of a loss to figure out what part of a theoretical "rest of the story" might make me sympathize with the law firm.)

McCain on Health Care

John McCain offers some not-so-straight talk on health care. Hillary Clinton gets it right:
In a statement, Clinton said McCain's plan has "fundamental flaws" and charged that it would abandon millions of Americans to expensive, high-risk insurance arrangements. "Older Americans or those with pre-existing conditions would be allowed to get only one type of coverage in a high risk GAP pool," Clinton said. "That kind of arrangement does more to help insurers than individuals."
McCain's "plan" basically involves ending employer-sponsored health insurance (i.e., effectively ending group insurance coverage), then handing you a subsidy ("a $5,000 family tax credit") too small to provide you or your family with good, comprehensive insurance coverage. The type that elites like John McCain and Newt Gingrich apparently believe should be reserved to people like themselves.

If McCain were interested in being honest about this, he would admit that he is catering to two powerful special interest groups: Industry lobbyists who see that, even with tax breaks, health insurance is becoming too costly to offer as an employee benefit. And, of course, health insurance industry lobbyists who don't want a national plan to "compete" with their offerings - because to date, in order to "compete" with programs like Medicare private insurers have required massive subsidies.

McCain's proposal for people like himself, who (if given a choice) insurers wouldn't touch?
McCain sought to answer those charges Tuesday by saying he would create what he called a guaranteed access plan, or GAP, to help provide coverage of last resort for the sick and other "high-risk" people until the marketplace has matured enough to take care of them.
Let's compare that idea to Michigan's reality, where within the existing private market,
The Blues argue that as insurers of last resort they have to cover the sickest patients and take the most risk. Other firms, they argue, can dump their customers by raising their premiums to unaffordable levels and stick the Blues with them.
McCain's proposal for keeping this from happening with his newly created guaranteed health insurance plan for the uninsurable? He doesn't have one. Candidate McCain, how would this program work? How would it be financed?
He gave few details of how such a program would work, who would run it or how it would be financed.
Oh, let me throw out an idea for financing it, consistent with McCain's stated economic policy - we'll have indefinite war in Iraq, slash taxes for corporations and the wealthy, and pay for everything else with the savings that result.
McCain advisers said such a program could cost as much as $7 billion a year. But McCain vowed not to "create another entitlement program that Washington will let get out of control." He added: "Nor will I saddle states with another unfunded mandate."
Sure... because as the private health insurance markets insure, private companies will suddenly become willing to take a massive loss by providing individual health insurance policies to people presently deemed uninsurable. Why, isn't that exactly what is happening in our current "free market" system? I suspect that if the "guaranteed" plans for uninsurable people become a reality, $7 billion will look like a bargain. We switch from the current system, replete with delays and denials of care, and the cancellation of policies for specious reasons, to one where the policy holder deemed "too expensive" is simply handed off to the government plan - or quits the private plan in favor of the government plan to avoid the bureaucracy, delays, and specious denials of care.

But McCain says he won't let the unknown costs of his undefined program "get out of control", so who am I to question his claims?

Different Visions of Rev. Wright

The New Republic attempts to explain what might have attracted Obama to Rev. Wright. Presenting a passage from David Mendell's biography of Obama,
Wright remains a maverick among Chicago's vast assortment of black preachers. He will question Scripture when he feels it forsakes common sense; he is an ardent foe of mandatory school prayer; and he is a staunch advocate for homosexual rights, which is almost unheard-of among African-American ministers. Gay and lesbian couples, with hands clasped, can be spotted in Trinity's pews each Sunday. Even if some blacks consider Wright's church serving only the bourgeois set, his ministry attracts a broad cross section of Chicago's black community.

* * *

But more than that, Trinity's less doctrinal approach to the Bible intrigued and attracted Obama. "Faith to him is how he sees the human condition," Wright said. "Faith to him is not . . . litmus test, mouth-spouting, quoting Scripture. It's what you do with your life, how you live your life. That's far more important than beating someone over the head with Scripture that says women shouldn't wear pants or if you drink, you're going to hell. That's just not who Barack is."
The article suggests,
So, if you buy Wright's account [as given to David Mendell] - and it rings pretty true to me - it was his intellectualism and social progressivism that won Obama over. Certainly it's hard to imagine that someone like Obama, who came from a progressive, secular background, would have felt genuinely comfortable in a socially conservative, anti-intellectual church. The problem for Obama is that the flip-side of these virtues was a minister with a radical worldview and a penchant for advertising it loudly.
That interpretation would help explain why Obama might accept Wright, warts and all, into his life. And why he would give Wright a chance to redeem himself, rather than issuing the renunciation some demanded from "day one" of this petty scandal.

The Washington Post in an unsigned editorial (and it seems almost cowardly to say this without attaching an author's name) opines:
We didn't join the renewed and growing chorus calling on Mr. Obama to renounce the Rev. Wright after the minister's all-about-me rant at the National Press Club on Monday, but the candidate's motivation is pretty obvious. The Rev. Wright praised Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, said it was plausible that AIDS was a genocidal tool of the U.S. government to kill African Americans and proclaimed that attacks on him were an attack on the black church. He also delivered a deliberate poke in the eye to his former parishioner, suggesting that Mr. Obama's conciliatory Philadelphia speech was nothing but politics. With each defiant utterance Monday, the Rev. Wright dug a deeper political hole for Mr. Obama.

Did Mr. Obama climb out of that hole yesterday? It seems to us that the whole sorry episode raises legitimate questions about his judgment.
You can't pat yourself on the back for supposedly not calling for further repudiation of Wright while insisting that Wright's comments raise questions about Obama's judgment - the two go hand-in-hand. Moreover, do try for some internal consistency. Yesterday's similarly unsigned editorial proclaimed,
None of this is helpful to Mr. Obama, who could face more calls not only to denounce such inflammatory comments but also to renounce his longtime pastor. We will not join in that chorus. In his address on race in Philadelphia last month after video of the Rev. Wright's fiery sermons burst onto the national scene, Mr. Obama condemned, "in unequivocal terms, the statements of Rev. Wright that have caused such controversy." The candidate credibly explained how he could understand his minister's anger without sharing or approving of it. Having had a closer look at the Rev. Wright, voters will have to decide for themselves how much weight to give Mr. Obama's long association with the pastor. But it is the Rev. Wright, not Mr. Obama, who yesterday chose to further discredit himself.
So yesterday Obama had given a credible response to attacks over Wright, and today he has insufficiently responded to "legitimate questions about his judgment"?

The saddest part here is that Wright had a choice to make. He could have stepped up by presenting himself as a solid, Christian leader who had been misunderstood in one sermon. He could have engaged in a gentle dialog on race, discussed the difference in style between his style of preaching and the more restrained version many Americans are used to. He could have deflated the use of the out-of-context "G-D America" clip by Obama's opponents. But no, he instead chose to act the part of, in Jim Sleeper's words, a "wounded, raving, preening narcissist". It has to be painful to have your career reduced to a caricature, to have your good works ignored, and to have the Washington Post suggest that anybody who would voluntarily associate with you is unfit for national office. But Wright needs to take responsibility for the fact that he just made that pain a lot worse.

Does Michael Gerson Actually Have An Area Of Expertise?

Or was he hire to present mindless prattle about whatever issue the Bush Administration deems important on any particular day?
It is a central argument of the Bush administration that the outcome in Iraq is essential to the broader war on terrorism - which is plainly true. When it comes to Sunni radicalism, the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan are a single struggle. Al-Qaeda has latched on to local grievances, tribal conflicts and general chaos in all three nations to extend its influence.
So, basically, he's arguing that when we invade nations in the Middle East and South Asia, or ally with their dictators in order to advance our wars, we create havens for Al Qaeda? We shift Al Qaeda from the nations we're invading into our allied nations? Or into other nations we're invading? Seriously - what's his thesis here? If he's truly arguing that after five years of war we've transformed Iraq from being essentially al-Qaeda free to being a stronghold, and have meanwhile allowed it to expand its influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, how does he believe himself to be making an argument for continued (perpetual?) war?
But this argument, used to justify U.S. efforts in Iraq, cuts another way as well. Is America taking all three related insurgencies with sufficient seriousness?
Er, no, that's not the other way it "cuts". But thanks for trying.
Iraq, while consuming greater sacrifice, is now producing the most encouraging results. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is reeling.
But what does "Al-Qaeda in Iraq" have to do with your prior statements about Al-Qaeda? Michael Gerson - are you trying to perpetuate the lie that "Al-Qaeda" and "Al-Qaeda in Iraq" are the same organization? (Of course you are.)
To clear Sadr City block by block -- an area with 2 million people, most of them loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr -- would require divisions that do not exist. So the strategy is to kill or capture members of the "special groups" -- the Shiite equivalent of al-Qaeda - while engaging members of Sadr's movement who want to join the political process.
Ah, so it doesn't really matter that the fight in Iraq isn't against Al-Qaeda, because every insurgent group that poses a threat to U.S. forces or the Maliki government is an "equivalent of al-Qaeda". And we draw this comparison based upon... the fact that it's "scary" to compare them to Al-Qaeda? Seriously, Michael - what goals do the Shiite militias share with Al-Qaeda? To take but one small, obvious example, one of Al-Qaeda's stated goals is to draw us deeper into a battle in the Middle East. The Shiite militias opposed to the Maliki government are demanding that we leave.
Iraq's future -- and the future of American involvement in that country -- now rests with the Shiites. If many turn to politics, the nation's path will be shorter and easier. If many choose conflict, it will be tougher and longer. But the gains against al-Qaeda in Iraq, the other great destabilizer, cannot be denied.
And again, what do gains against "al-Qaeda in Iraq" have to do with al-Qaeda proper? Bin Laden's organization? Al-Qaeda was not even welcome in Hussein's Sunni-controlled Iraq. Assuming it were to happen, what delusion grips Gerson that he believes the Shiite militias will tolerate it once they control the nation?

Unsurprisingly, Gerson feels compelled to close with a retreat to the last refuge of a Republican Hack, the "Some Democrats" argument....
Some Democrats make an illegitimate argument: that we need to abandon Iraq in order to win in Afghanistan.
Here's an easy question for you, Michael: Which Democrats?
On the contrary, a loss in Iraq would make every front in the war on terror more difficult by providing terrorists a base of operations and boosting the morale and recruitment of every radical group on Earth.
Gerson's argument, of course, presupposes that the Maliki government Gerson was earlier praising as having "finally shown some fight against radical militias" and having "gained in political stature and regional respect" will fold like a cheap suit the moment U.S. forces start to withdraw. And it relies upon his continued prevarication that any organization that opposes the U.S. occupation or the U.S.-imposed Maliki government is comprised of "terrorists" who pose to the U.S. the same threat as Al-Qaeda.

Gerson's IQ would have to be somewhere below room temperature for him to actually believe that al-Qaeda proper, or even it's similarly named Iraqi counterpart, would be welcome in a Shiite state governed by somebody like al-Sadr.

In prescribing the same tired nostrums, hacks like Gerson never get around to addressing that key question: Who will control Iraq after we depart, and why should we believe that they have any interest in allowing their nation to be a "base of operations" for terrorists? If you have nothing to support that claim, do us this favor - admit that you're just making stuff up, then shut up and let the grown-ups discuss these issues without your interruptions.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Clinton Makes It Hard....

You know, with Obama's association with Wright, and with his "bitter/cling" comments, even with full consideration of her own errors and misstatements I sometimes start to think, "Maybe Clinton really is the better candidate." But for some reason she has to make it hard.
Clinton, who toured the Miller Veneers wood manufacturing company in Indianapolis, said "there are a lot of people in Indiana who would really benefit from a gas tax holiday.

"That might not mean much to my opponent, but I think it means a lot to people who are struggling here, people who commute a long way to work, farmers and truckers," Clinton said. She has called for a windfall tax on oil companies to pay for a gas tax holiday.
Clinton has to know the realities of her proposal. Here, she's in the world of President Bush, with his prevarications that drilling in ANWR would lower gas prices, capping it off with innuendo that Obama doesn't care about working people.

Clinton is lucky that there are other issues in the race, because on the issue of the "gas tax holiday", Obama's the only candidate who is acting like a grown-up. (But then I'm still disenfranchised, so I guess neither of them have to care what I think.)

Meet "Teh Stupids"

Reuters has blogs? Okay.... Well, let's just say "teh stupids" they quote are bringing out my inner elitist:a Reuter's blog tells us that,
Barack Obama can talk about his childhood years in Kansas and upbringing by his white Midwestern grandparents, but if voters at one small-town Indiana cafe are any indication, he has a long way to go to convince them he represents heartland America.
Okay, so far it seems like we're talking about the flap over Rev. Wright, the "bitter/cling" stuff, and... well, no.
”Obama has great ideas but his background scares me,” said Chris Leighton, 60, a secretary having lunch at the Chaperral Cafe in Shelbyville, in southeast Indiana. “Everyone talks about him being a Muslim and having ties to terrorism, but how do people really find out?”
Well, you know, having a brain in your head doesn't hurt. Oh, but it gets worse.
Construction worker Ron Debaun, 61, said he hadn’t yet decided whether he would support Obama or Hillary Clinton in Indiana’s May 6 primary, noting they both “have good ideas.” But he’s leaning toward Clinton.

What doesn’t he like about Obama?

”His Muslim ties,” said Debaun.

Why does he think Obama is a Muslim?

“Let’s just say that he admits it himself,” he said.
Well, at least he's sufficiently open-minded to consider voting for Obama, despite his delusions. And it keeps going....
Retired locksmith Leslie Hedman, 61, said he doesn’t like any of the three candidates — Clinton, Obama, or Republican John McCain – because none are committed Christians.

”Obama is a Muslim,” he said. Where did he hear that?

”He said he was but then he said he’s not,” said Hedman.
Perhaps by "committed" he means none hang with him at the asylum?

One person is upset over Wright. The fifth and last?
“A person who doesn’t believe in anything? I don’t want anything to do with him,” said cafe owner and Clinton supporter Shirley Bailey, 70. “He says he won’t take an oath on the Bible, he won’t salute the American flag. That doesn’t sit well with me.”
Whispered smear campaigns, it seems, resonate with teh stupids.

Time For Obama To Give a New Speech On Wright

A number of years ago, a lawyer I know decided to support a fellow lawyer in his quest to become a judge. He hosted a large party for the candidate, and introduced him to a wide range of people including some influential union leaders. We're not talking strangers here - the lawyers had known each other for years, and for two of three years had attended the same law school. They weren't personally close, but they had been working with each other professionally for years.

What was the "thank you" the lawyer received for his efforts? Once the parties were over and the introductions had been made, the candidate simply bypassed him. He was an intermediary, and the candidate no longer saw a need for him.

This is not a unique experience. There are people who view others as rungs on the ladder of success. They'll happily use your head as a rung, then forget about you. Some of these people are really good at making you feel important right up to the day they no longer have a use for you. The next day, they may say something like this:
Politicians say what they say and do what they do based on electability, based on sound bites, based on polls....

* * *

"He didn't distance himself. He had to distance himself because he's a politician."
I think it's time for Obama to reexamine his relationship with Wright, to see if he may have been regarded as nothing more than a step on the ladder of success by a narcissistic preacher who no longer has a use for him.

Eugene Robinson gets it about right, acknowledging Wright's service as a marine and a preacher, but observing.
I'm through with Wright not because he responded - in similar circumstances, I certainly couldn't have kept silent - but because his response was so egocentric. We get it, Rev. Wright: You're ready for your close-up.

* * *

Historically and theologically, he was inflating his importance in a pride-goeth-before-the-fall kind of way. Politically, by surfacing now, he was throwing Barack Obama under the bus.

Sadly, it's time for Obama to return the favor.
In the alternative, he can let Wright continue to step on his head for the next several months (or until Wright gets better traction from finding somebody else to step on).
Update: Andrew Sullivan puts things more bluntly:
This is no longer about cynics trying to associate one man's politics with another. It is now about Wright attempting to associate himself and some of his noxious, stupid, rancid views with the likely Democratic nominee.
Freed from his church and given a national spotlight, we now get to see "the real Reverend Wright". Is he still the man Obama thought he was? (Here's some music to think by.)
Update 2: There's going to be a lot of this today. At TPM Cafe, Todd Gitlin opines,
Wright on video, preening, smirking, reveling in his star turn, has spun my mind around. I found him convincing in this sense: He's convinced me that he's a clear and present danger to Obama's candidacy. The father has turned on the son--it's the Laius complex in action. Sure, sure, Wright offers a heap of clever and not-so-clever self-extenuations for his kind words about Louis Farrakhan, and absurdly claims to speak for the entire black church. But he makes it clear that he believes Obama is simply "a politician," meaning a shifty no-good. He's broken the parental contract.
Obama's choice here is potentially "make or break". In no small part it's his supporters who are demanding action this time. His opponents are gloating.
Update 3: M.J. Rosenberg adds,
It is not Wright himself that bothers us. It is that Obama does not utterly and completely repudiate a man who is willfully and with malice aforethought doing him profound and possibly fatal damage.

We don't care about Wright's views on racism, the Middle East or Farrakhan. He's just another media preacher. And not one of us believes that Barack Obama shares any of his views.

That is why we need Obama to divest himself of this guy. Not doing so, allowing this buffoon to hurt the most promising campaign of a generation, would demonstrate a weakness we cannot have in a President.
I imagine it's painful to repudiate the guy who no doubt showed a gentle, loving face over twenty years as Obama's pastor, but I think the face we're seeing now is "the real deal". Rosenberg is correct, in my view, to identify Obama's next step as a test of his suitability for the presidency.

Monday, April 28, 2008

As For Those Gas Prices

Am I being too hard on McCain and Clinton over gas prices? If anything, I'm being too easy on them - and on Obama who, although not joining in "gas tax holiday" silliness, also hasn't articulated an energy policy that will take us off our present course.

What course is that, you ask? Well, as much as one can predict the future, it appears to be this one:
As oil prices soared to record levels in recent years, basic economics suggested that consumption would fall and supply would rise as producers opened the taps to pump more.

But as prices flirt with $120 a barrel, many energy specialists are becoming worried that neither seems to be happening. Higher prices have done little to attract new production or to suppress global demand, and the resulting mismatch has sent oil prices spiraling upward.

* * *

Oil prices might reach more than $200 by 2012, [CIBC World Markets analyst Jeff Rubin] said, a level that would probably mean $7-a-gallon gasoline in the United States.
And if oil prices don't reach $200/bbl in 2012, how many more years do you suppose it will take?

A three month "gas tax holiday", which McCain suggests will increase consumption? How much farther can you get from facing the realities of the situation?

Gas Prices

This seems terrifically circular. Hillary Clinton's proposal to deal with high gas prices involves "Imposing a windfall profits tax on oil companies and using the money to suspend the gas tax for the peak summer months". Under the McCain plan, the oil companies can be anticipated to raise prices to take in part (perhaps all) of the "tax break" as profits. Under the Clinton plan, the oil companies can be anticipated to raise prices to recoup the money they pay under the "windfall profits tax". (And are we really supposed to believe that a "windfall profits tax" on oil companies would survive Bush's veto pen?)

Clinton also proposes "Closing $7.5 billion in oil and gas loopholes and using the funds to provide assistance for lower-income families to pay their energy and grocery bills". By this, she means ending "the approximately $7.5 billion per in tax giveaways and subsidies that we continue to provide to oil and gas companies, despite their record profits." Again, even if this repeal of subsidies were to pass, how would it survive a veto? (I did suggest cutting those subsidies as an alternative to to McCain's ideas, but I'm under no illusion that McCain would embrace the idea or that it would survive a White House veto. I think, in pitching something like this as a "plan", a candidate needs to address political reality - or it's just more pandering.) I'm also curious as to whether this includes or excludes subsidies of corn ethanol - if we are entering a world where cutting the subsidies is considered realistic, let's make sure we get rid of ethanol subsidies as well. Finally, however admirable the goals, as proposed by Clinton this particular idea has nothing to do with gas prices.

Clinton's other proposals relate to crude oil,
  • Cracking down on speculation by energy traders and market manipulation in oil and gas markets that are driving up the price of oil by at least $20 a barrel;
  • Pressuring OPEC to increase oil production, including by filing a WTO complaint against OPEC countries
  • Stopping new additions to the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and standing ready to release oil to counter market spikes and reduce volatility.
Except these ideas, even if we assume them realistic, won't affect gas prices. Summer gas price spikes are "justified" by refinery capacity, not whether oil is at $90 or $120/bbl.
It's the same story every year.

Each spring, just before the summer driving season, gasoline prices skyrocket. And every year, these four words appear in news reports nationwide as a big reason for the runup: "lack of refining capacity."

Then experts call for more refineries, politicians pledge to make the dirty behemoths easier to build, but guess what? Nothing really happens. Next year, repeat story.

So why hasn't a new refinery been built in the U.S. since 1976?
That question was asked by CNN Money more than a year ago. If Clinton wishes to be taken seriously on the issue of gas prices, what's her answer?

Kristol On Debates

Funny, when Kristol was cheerleading for Bush back in 2004 I don't recall him ever complaining, "But Bush is doing the country and electorate a genuine disservice by only agreeing to three debates." No, that sort of complaint is reserved for Democratic primary candidates, who have "only" participated in twenty-one debates. Kristol smirks,
On Friday in Indiana, Obama talked tough in response to a question: “I get pretty fed up with people questioning my patriotism.” And, he continued, “I am happy to have that debate with them any place, anytime.” He’s happy to have fantasy debates with unnamed people who are allegedly challenging his patriotism. But he’s not willing to have a real debate with the real person he’s competing against for the nomination.
... For the twenty-second time.

Let's get real for a moment. What's the advantage to Obama in participating in a debate? It's not like G.W., where he was fortunate enough that an obeisant media led by people like Kristol handed him "wins" for performances that, shall we say, involved significant departures from reality. ("I own a lumber business? That's news to me... Need some wood?") Or where hacks and tools like Kristol were happy to facilitate his hiding from any one-on-one encounter where he might actually have to, you know, think on his feet. Even within the context of the exceedingly complex, self-serving rules Bush and Kerry created for their "debates", hacks like Kristol were pleased to see their man avoid further scrutiny in a context where other people might shape the message.

This is no different. Particularly after the shameful performance of the moderators in the last debate, why would Obama choose to risk having somebody else again attempt to define him and his image in the light of various rumors and petty scandals, when he can instead present the image he prefers? Oh yes, there is a difference - for Kristol, it's only the candidate he favors who should be permitted to retreat from debates and control his own image.

There's something to the idea that debates do the public a service, forcing candidates to speak about the issues or address matters they would prefer fall into the background. That's part of the supposed justification for the smearfest at the start of the last "debate" - who cares about Iraq, health care, energy policy, whatever. "We" want to know more about Rev. Wright, and why Obama didn't conduct a full background check and pull a rap sheet for every person he's associated with over the last forty years. Clinton's offer of an unmoderated debate? Do you think she would stick to actual issues - the economy, health care, Iraq, etc., or do you think she'd be right back in the gutter, confronting Obama on the "issues" Gibson and Stephanopoulos prefer? I have nothing against Clinton, but I think at this point it's obvious that she is perfectly happy to splash around in the gutter if it helps her win.

I would prefer more debates. Perhaps Obama should counter Clinton's proposal by offering her a public debate, but only on specific issues - the ones voters supposedly care about, like health care, tax policy, and the Iraq war. No mention of sniper fire in Bosnia or sitting on charity boards with ex-radicals. But barring that, we're likely to get more of the same - and I can't recall the last time I learned something substantive from one of these debates. Like it or not, in the present context, Obama's choice to decline another debate allows him to better control his message and his image. You and I don't have to like it, but that's what they call "good politics".

John McCain - Stupid or Dishonest?

Republican presidential candidate John McCain on Sunday called Democratic rival Barack Obama insensitive to poor people and out of touch on economic issues.

The GOP nominee-in-waiting rapped his Democratic rival for opposing his idea to suspend the tax on fuel during the summer, a proposal that McCain believes will particularly help low-income people who usually have older cars that guzzle more gas.
What a brilliant idea. Create a "tax holiday" that will probably simply result in higher margins for the oil industry, in order to help people owning the least efficient cars drive more miles. Let's not, say, consider subsidizing their transition into newer, more reliable, more efficient vehicles. Let's not offer them a rebate, such that the oil industry doesn't simply raise gas prices ("supply and demand") to turn the "tax holiday" into additional profits.

Hey - here's an idea. Let's not diminish the highway fund at all, but instead suspend subsidies to the energy industry over the summer, and pass the savings along to Americans in the form of an increased "rebate check". Oh... you say that's a "no go" if it involves taking taxpayer money away from wealthy, profitable corporations? Well, there's a surprise....
The Arizona senator deflected questions about his record on the Bush administration's tax cuts — he initially opposed them but now supports extending them — by again criticizing Obama.

"Sen. Obama wants to raise the capital gains tax, which would have a direct effect on 100 million Americans," McCain said. "That means he has no understanding of the economy and that he is totally insensitive to the hopes and dreams and ambitions of 100 million Americans who will be affected by his almost doubling of the capital gains tax."
A standard Republican lie. The suggestion that ordinary taxpayers pay capital gains taxes on their retirement funds. No, John. We pay income tax on our tax-deferred retirement savings when we make withdrawals. That is to say, most of us pay taxes well above the capital gains tax rate. That special rate is best enjoyed by filthy rich families - you know, like you and your wife.

Yes, I'm aware of McCain's many statements that he doesn't understand the economy, and I'm willing to concede that point. But these statements aren't emerging from a vacuum - he didn't create these policies or responses on his own. They're the product of his campaign team, and this is what his campaign stands for. You want to talk elitist - yes, voters, the McCain campaign thinks you're stupid. Worse, they're trusting that the media won't point this out.

(In relation to the title of this post, please note that I don't want to create a false dichotomy - he could be both. As for whether it's impolite to suggest that McCain is stupid? Well, that's apparently his assumption about me, so let's just say "turnabout is fair play.")

Obama on Fox News

Obama agrees to an interview on Fox. An Obama spokesperson says Obama will "take on" Fox News, refusing to specify what that means. Third parties spun that as a promise of confrontation, but that's not apparent from the actual statement made. Some people imagine that the only possible meaning of this phrase is for Obama to devote a considerable portion of his interview to attacking the bias of Fox News. And instead he puts in a strong performance, but doesn't attack the network.

Some pro-Obama sites, and of course some anti-Obama sites, want to characterize Obama's campaign as having acted "in bad faith" or having "lied".

You're kidding me, right? You really wanted Barack Obama go to on Fox News, act like a petulant child, and fill the airwaves with a whole new set of anti-Obama sound bites and clips? That's better than his "taking on" the challenge of a Fox News interview, and coming out looking like a competent Presidential candidate?

For future reference, saying you're going to "take on" a challenge doesn't mean that you will be confrontational. You should be pleased that Obama did well, not complaining that he chose not to play the part of a partisan warrior. That latter approach? Some of us would call it, "Playing into a trap."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

McCain's Separate Finances

Josh Marshall notes that McCain has been paying a bargain rate for the use of his wife's private jet, then asks,
Reading the piece, one question that suggests itself is why go through all the roundabout? McCain's wife can give him as much free air travel as she wants. That's just self-financing, which lots of candidates do completely legally. John Kerry, remember, took a loan out on his home to pour money into his campaign during its nadir just before Iowa. But remember, this was also around the time that McCain was kinda sorta opting in to the public financing system. So I'd be curious to hear how these two things would have interacted, what the legal repercussions would have been.
I suspect this has less to do with public financing than it does with McCain's desire to keep secret his wife's wealth and tax returns. His campaign's claim, "Senator and Mrs. McCain have kept their personal finances separate throughout their 27-year marriage", becomes less viable if she's making him six figure gifts or loans to support his campaign.

Friday, April 25, 2008

McCain's Oh So Tough....

McCain pounds his chest, announcing,
I will be Hamas’s worst nightmare.
Well, great. He'll be the worst nightmare of an organization that poses absolutely no threat to the United States.

As a trade-off, though, voters would have to accept the fact that he's al-Qaeda's wet dream.

Which do you think is more important to U.S. strategic interests?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All The Teachers

George Will offers a ramble on education reform today, which seems to boil down to a belief that schools will be better if we have fewer teachers who earn less pay and enjoy fewer job protections. I guess Will sees teachers as being like capital gains taxes - the more you cut, the better off you are (as long as you don't pay attention to, say, reality).

Never One To Waste An Opportunity....

Dan Schnur cautions Democrats,
As well it should. John McCain was a big winner in Pennsylvania this week. Not because of his primary victory — in fact, his advisers should be concerned that more than one-fourth of all Republicans still refused to cast their ballots for their party’s nominee — but because a continued Democratic primary season allows Senator McCain to continue his move to the political center with no significant obstacle in his path. Already, he has begun using phrases like “the best ideas from both parties,” and he has used the last several weeks to begin to address his campaign’s financial and organizational difficulties.
Oh no... he's developing phrases!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It's Not Temper - It's Temperament

Michael Gerson presents a typically mindless defense of John McCain's temper, arguing in the alternate first that McCain doesn't really have a temper problem, and second that if he does it doesn't mean he isn't suited to be President. Only at the end of his editorial does he touch on the real issue,
On the evidence of the Virginia speech, McCain's worst temptation is not anger but arrogance. Opponents are not merely wrong; they are self-interested and corrupt. In a righteous cause, McCain can be self-righteous.
That, he quickly dismisses as "inseparable from McCain's political appeal". Really? The public perceives McCain as an arrogant, self-righteous narcissist? How appealing.

Here, Gerson plays an accidental Marc Antony - he comes to praise McCain and ends up burying him. In devoting the bulk of his article to avoiding what he concedes to be the real issue, Gerson writes,
In the course of a recent article in The Post on McCain's history of anger management issues, former New Hampshire senator Robert Smith claims that McCain's "temper would place this country at risk in international affairs, and the world perhaps in danger." The argument seems to be: McCain will get ticked off and invade Iran - or maybe, on a bad day, Canada.
No. The argument seems to be that McCain could get into one of his snits with a world leader (or multiple world leaders), handicapping our nation's diplomacy and coalition-building efforts. Granted, that's not necessarily worse than G.W.'s "I don't care what you think" unilateralism, an approach to the world that also appears to be built on a foundation of narcissism, but that doesn't make it better.

In attempting to reinvent one of McCain's "straight talk" moments, Gerson illustrates this point:
In at least one instance, McCain's temper seems to have clouded his judgment. In February 2000, after being criticized by religious conservatives, McCain gave a very angry speech in Virginia attacking leaders of the religious right as "agents of intolerance," comparing them to Louis Farrakhan, accusing them of having "turned good causes into businesses," calling them "corrupting influences on religion and politics" who "shame our faith, our party and our country." It was a tantrum disguised as a campaign event.
So you see, McCain's reversing his position on "agents of intolerance" wasn't a flip-flop. It was his finally getting over a temper tantrum and grudge. And that process only took him seven years.

Now, I personally disagree with Gerson's reinvention. Anger can cause people to say things "that they don't really mean", but that's usually a matter of degree. Sure, we could interpret this as a parent-child moment, where the child declares (and means) "I hate you" to a parent in a moment of anger or frustration. But we're dealing with grown-ups here, so that's a level of pathology I would prefer not to ascribe to a Presidential candidate. In this context, anger may lead to an exaggeration of the charge - focusing on the bad and minimizing the good - but it would be a remarkable display of immaturity for a man in his mid-sixties, in a fit of pique, to say the opposite of what he meant and adhere to that position for years.

Now, perhaps to Gerson this is a more flattering depiction, or more useful in selling McCain to the religious right, than saying, "He meant what he said, or at least he meant most of it, but now it's politically convenient for him to embrace the leaders he once condemned." But I suspect that's exactly what we're observing. That interpretation is also consistent with McCain's other flip-flops, such as his sudden lack of concern for balancing the budget.

Even as Gerson reinvents McCain's criticism of the religious right as a temper tantrum, he gives us the McCain camp's response to the Washington Post's article on McCain's temper: "the candidate's 'temper is no greater than the average person's' and that the article is '99 percent fiction.'" It's implicit within Gerson's column that he doesn't buy the first part of that argument. But what about the second part - at what point are we going to demand that the straight talking senator stop issuing nebulous denials through his proxies, and directly answer these concerns? Temper tantrums and grudges? "He has no recollection." 100 years of war? "He evaded that question, and he's not going to answer it." (Yes, I know. It's not "we" - the press largely treats McCain with kid gloves.)

Gerson's depiction of McCain's ego suggests that, whatever the role of his temper, McCain doesn't have the temperament to be a good President. My interpretation is less damning of McCain, save perhaps to his image as a straight-talking maverick. But no matter how you slice it, McCain's ego and temper are valid considerations in the coming election.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Nuclear Pandering

Our government has a tendency to inflate petty despots into insane megalomaniacs who pose an immediate threat to the United States. This phenomenon isn't unique to the U.S.. When the facts are finally known, the "dangerous madmen" depicted in Congressional hearings and the media usually turn out to be far less fearsome.

One of our current "madmen" is Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom we pretend is in full control of the country and itching to attack Israel. We're supposedly not sure that the Iranians are rational or deterrable1 - never mind that the nation has no contemporary history of aggressive war against its neighbors. Their actual contribution to regional instability? They fund terrorist organizations and seek to expand Shia Islam in the Arab world.

But they have a nuclear weapons program, and they desire nuclear weapons. Is that, of itself, "insane"? Hardly. It's entirely rational to want nuclear weapons when your global and regional adversaries have nuclear weapons. It's entirely rational to want nuclear weapons when you are being threatened with attack or invasion. It's entirely rational to want nuclear weapons when they will elevate your status as a regional power. From our standpoint, to put it mildly, the outcome is undesirable, but can you truly pretend that you don't understand why Iran would view a nuclear arsenal as a very good thing to possess?2

What benefits would nuclear weapons offer to Iran in an aggressive war? Let's look at Iran's neighbors. Turkey? Even if we were to dream up some sort of benefit in their trying, they're not going to invade a NATO member state. Iraq? Right now, "that's us" - they're not going to attack U.S. occupied Iraq, and it appears that by the time we leave (assuming we ever do) they will by all appearances enjoy a friendly, Shiite government in Baghdad. Pakistan? Again, to what end. And Pakistan's already a nuclear power, so getting nukes doesn't give Iran any special advantage. Afghanistan? As with Iraq, "that's us." Well, gee... I guess that leaves the oh-so-desirable targets of Turkmenistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan? Or will anti-Iranian hawks soon be dreaming up "the Iranian Armada", comprised of thousands of ships ready to set sail for Saudi Arabia?

But we live in an age of pandering, and that's not advanced by defeating the idea that Iranians are not wholly irrational beings, bent on self-destruction, and intending to launch a nuclear attack on Israel the moment they have their first low-yield nuclear bomb. That image of Iran also provides candidates with the opportunity for a bit of chest-thumping, "I'm so ready to 'push the button'" machismo. Case in point? Hillary Clinton.
Clinton’s remarks, made in an interview on MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” clarified a statement she made last week in a Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia. In that debate, Clinton, D-N.Y., said an Iranian attack on Israel would bring “massive retaliation,” without defining what the phrase meant.

In the interview Monday, Clinton affirmed that she would warn Iran’s leaders that “their use of nuclear weapons against Israel would provoke a nuclear response from the United States.”
I recognize that there are people who lap this sort of stuff up, and I apologize in advance to you if you're one of them. This is reckless, shameful pandering. First, its idiotic to presuppose that Israel needs the U.S. to provide nuclear deterrence. Israel has been a nuclear power for decades, and is generally regarded as having about two hundred high yield nuclear weapons. There aren't even two hundred viable nuclear targets in Iran. While nuclear nutters like to giggle about "turning the desert to glass", once you hit Iran's thirty or so population centers (and that includes some cities barely above 100,000 people) that's pretty much all that's left to do.

So, following the fanciful, suicidal attack by Iran we have two scenarios - Israel demonstrates nuclear restraint in response to an attack, perhaps focusing on military targets and infrastructure while avoiding civilian centers, and Clinton nonetheless cries, "Let loose the missiles!" Or Israel destroys every population center in Iran and Clinton cries, "Everybody's dead, but some of that desert isn't glass yet! Let the missiles fly!" Which of those images does Clinton believe makes her look good?

Oh, I know, we're not actually supposed to think it through.

The funny part? (And I mean "funny sad" not "funny ha ha".) She didn't even stop there. Now we're also threatening Iran with attack if it attacks another nation in the region. Now she may correct me, but I'm not aware of an actual Iranian armada, so as discussed above it's a bit hard to imagine what nation Iran might suddenly decide to invade. Or is it nuke? "It's been such a boring week - let's nuke somebody... Hey, what about Jordan?"
Clinton said it was vital that the United States create a new “security umbrella” to reassure Israel and its other allies in the region that they would not be threatened by Iran. She said she would tell them that “if you were the subject of an unprovoked nuclear attack by Iran, the United States, and hopefully our NATO allies, would respond to that.”
That's a more sensible policy than Clinton gave for an attack on Israel. If Iran were to attack one of our allies, Iran could expect a broad military response with "all options" implicitly on the table. Yet it further highlights the absurdity of her position in relation to Israel - we'll threaten Iran with nuclear annihilation if it attacks a country that has at least a generational lead on Iran's military, and that can presently turn Iran into a smear? But we're going to be more circumspect if Iran launches a nuclear attack against one of our other regional allies? Without asking if Iran might do that, exploring why Iran might do that, or whether getting involved in the conflict would serve our strategic interests?

With due respect to Clinton's nominal goal of assuring other states in the region that they don't need their own nuclear weapons programs, we can persuade our allies in the region of that by continuing arms sales and threatening to stop those sales or cut back on aid money if they initiate nuclear weapons programs. The other nations in the Middle East probably won't be listening to us.

1. On the question, Hillary Clinton notes that some believe Iran is "not deterrable, that they somehow have a different mindset and a worldview that might very well lead the leadership to be willing to become martyrs. I don't buy that, but I think we have to test it." I'll give her credit for her qualified rejection of that belief, although it makes you wonder why she finds it necessary to articulate her "nuke 'em 'till they glow" policy.

2. I am giving due consideration to the NIE assessment suggesting that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program. But they nonetheless have an expanding nuclear program and by all appearances aspire to possess nuclear weapons.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

"I Have No Recollection"

I recall once having a police officer on the witness stand, and asking him if he had threatened my client, "I'm going to send you to prison and have your children taken away." The answer? "I don't remember."

No? Would that be because it is a threat you make so often that you can't specifically recall the occasions when you've used it? Or is it because you're afraid that if you deny it, a witness will come forward and contradict you? Because if it weren't something you might have said, you would answer, "No."

In relation to the story that John McCain tried to block a job for a former secretary to Arizona Gov. Evan Meacham,
Around the time of Meacham's ouster, Johnson said, McCain paid a visit to him. Johnson recalled that McCain swiftly used the opportunity to lecture Meacham: "You should never have been elected. You're an embarrassment to the [Republican] Party."

A stupefied Meacham just stared at the senator. An indignant Johnson, as she tells the story, snapped at McCain: "How dare you? You're the embarrassment to the party."

As Johnson and another person working in Freestone's office remember, the surprised supervisor told Johnson about McCain's objections to her. "But I'm hiring you anyway," Freestone told her.

For Johnson, McCain's call raised questions as to whether he bore a lasting animosity against anyone who ever challenged him. "Everyone in [Freestone's] office thought it was all ridiculous . . . and petty," remembers Johnson, a devout Republican conservative who today is an Arizona state senator.

"Senator McCain says he has no recollection of ever making a phone call to block a job for Karen Johnson," [McCain strategist Mark ] Salter said.
But we're still left with this: If it's not something he did, it's close enough to something he might have done that we don't get an outright denial.

"But He Wouldn't Have Done That" Syndrome

Bush has at times been justifiably criticized for pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into Iraq, even as our nation's infrastructure crumbles - with no sign that he has any interest in "nation building" at home. An all-too-common response is, "But he wouldn't have done that anyway, so it's not fair to bring it up." Sure it is. Prior to his launching his multi-trillion dollar venture to rebuild Iraq, we frequently heard how Republicans don't support "nation-building", yet there we are. If the federal government is going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars fixing public schools, is it not far less hypocritical for a "conservative" like Bush to expend similar sums within our borders for the benefit of taxpayers, than outside our borders as part of a nation-building exercise?

Along that line, Martin Neil Baily of the Brookings Institute writes,
The war in Iraq has been much more costly than anyone expected1, both in lives and money, and it is tempting to wrap it into a single package with our current economic crisis and the policy mistakes that contributed to it. But muddling the messes does not help. Let’s judge the war on its own merits, and concentrate on the real causes of the financial crisis. It’s the only way to avoid making the same mistakes again.
One could even argue that the Iraq war has boosted the economy, by injecting enormous sums of money into defense contractors and suppliers. The counter-point being,
Of course, we could have gotten just as much or more stimulus by spending $10 billion a month on actually useful stuff– think how much domestic infrastructure could have been built or repaired for the cost of this miserable war.
There's another side to it, as well. Once you max out the credit card, you not only have greater difficulty affording additional debt (assuming your lenders will extend you more credit), a good chunk of money you could spend on other priorities ends up going to interest. Thanks to Bush's war spending, we're not well-positioned to borrow for domestic spending, and money that could have been directed to domestic priorities (or toward balancing the budget) is instead directed to servicing the increased debt.

Meanwhile, investing in infrastructure improvements in the U.S. would create real jobs, right now, and should provide a return well into the future, not just through increased efficiency but by preventing calamity.
1. More costly than anyone expected? Perhaps, but that doesn't mean that there weren't people who came close [PDF].
Be warned that this discussion vastly oversimplifies the analysis by constructing only two cases, whereas reality presents a dizzying array of outcomes. Returning to the metaphor of war as a giant roll of the dice, we might say that the U.S. could end up paying the “low” costs of around $120 billion if the dice come up favorably. If some dice come up unfavorably, the costs would lie between the low and the high cases. However, if the U.S. has a string of bad luck or misjudgments during or after the war, the outcome, while less likely, could reach the $1.6 trillion of the high case.
That's quite close to the mark, and may be pretty much "on the money" if we don't consider the long-term costs we will incur caring for wounded veterans.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Kids and Television

Today in the Post, an author describes her concerns about young children and television. After introducing the idea that it is possible to let your kids watch TV or DvD's while avoiding commercials, she states,
You probably think that these parents are doing the right thing - avoiding commercial advertising while selecting programs expressly made for children. For years, that's what I thought, too.
The avoidance of commercials is a good thing. To say "it's not the end of the story," is fine, but consistent with the rest of the editorial it should be remembered that small children have trouble distinguishing when programming ends and when a commercial begins - that's the intent of advertisers - and also that for all the talk about programming designed for specific age groups, commercials involve some very sophisticated psychological techniques directed at children within the target market, often far more sophisticated than those used by producers of "age appropriate" programming.
But a flurry of new research says we have more to learn. The problem: We're assuming that our children can make sense of what they watch, no matter how old they are. We're forgetting that huge cognitive leaps occur between the ages of 1 and 7.
Who's this "we"? Is it the "royal we"?
Researchers, it turns out, doubt that a 1-year-old can even make sense of the sequence of information on the screen, let alone pick up the wholesome messages in "Sesame Street." There's almost no evidence that children under 5 are picking up on the moral lessons in "VeggieTales," not to mention the supposedly character-building themes of many Disney movies. And the children's shows on PBS may be more educational, but that doesn't mean that they're always getting through to young children.
This extends to pretty much everything. Babies understand very little of what we say to them, yet still we talk to them. Babies and young children may very much enjoy having a story read to them, but that doesn't mean that they understand the story, let alone their "character-buiding themes" or "moral lessons". Should we also refrain from reading to children until we are sure they will be able to fully understand not just the story line, but also any moral the author intends them to draw? Should we hold off until they can also grasp all of the allegory within a story? How far do we take this? No Teletubbies or SpongeBob until the child is old enough to independently assess dubious claims that certain lead characters are gay?
You may ask, "Where's the real harm if our kids don't 'get' the shows they watch?" If adults are there to provide context, point out new things and shake their hips to the Wiggles, the worries are few. But for most families, TV becomes a babysitter. Would you knowingly hire a babysitter who, no matter how smart, mistakenly leads children astray?
So the story here is, if you're not going to pay attention to the messages your kids are receiving, even if you're pretty sure they're safe and wholesome, make sure those messages come from something other than television? What other sources of messages are acceptable, and why are they superior to television? Or is it that you should let your small children play, unsupervised, or sit quietly in an unstimulating environment, so as to save them from the potential perils of seeing a T.V. show they cannot fully understand?
I've heard lots of parental stories about late nights spent comforting children who were frightened by something they saw in a supposedly innocuous children's show, even if - or maybe because - they didn't understand what it was about.
Are we to believe that this phenomenon is unique to television? Personally, I remember finding the story of Abraham and Isaac rather disconcerting. Is this a quantity thing, based upon the assumption that kids watch lots of TV and don't get any comparable exposure to age-inappropriate material from any other source?
Video is a part of our children's lives, and I'm thankful for it. But as they grow up in a multimedia whirlwind, they'll need us to manage not only how much time they spend with TV and video but also what they watch. That means that parents, TV producers and educators alike are going to have to be aware of what our children will actually be absorbing when the screen lights up.
And that's not such a bad approach to take. But again, why limit it to television?

Friday, April 18, 2008

McCain's Interest Income

According to his tax returns, his interest income from his savings accounts? $12 in 2007, and $14 in 2006. From his money market account? $74 in 2007, and nothing in 2006.

Do you suppose that he keeps his money under his mattress? Is there something in his past that makes him distrust banks?1
1. Yes, I was alluding to that, so no, you don't need to tell me about it.

McCain's Tax Returns

I'm with Josh Marshall on this one - the McCain campaign's release of two years of individual tax returns for John McCain is insufficient, and would be unacceptable from any other candidate. Given how little information is actually conveyed in his tax returns, I am left wondering about this claim:
Senator and Mrs. McCain have kept their personal finances separate throughout their 27-year marriage. Accordingly, they have for many years filed separate tax returns.
For how "many" years? Two? Because if his other tax returns look like the last two, there's no conceivable reason not to release them, even if we're going to play the "privacy of our children" game with Cindy's.

David Brooks? He's No Fool

When reading David Brooks, The American Conservative reminds us that the operative word isn't tool fool:
I’ve been pondering for months whether David Brooks is far and away McCain’s most sophisticated operative. He writes a deft put-down of Obama today, commenting en passant about “the cultural issues” and Jeremiah Wright, and noting that “voters want a president who basically shares their values and life experiences.” “How Obama Fell to Earth” is the title of the column.

How amazing that Brooks could restrain himself from writing this stuff until Obama was 80 percent assured of securing the Democratic nomination. It’s not as if Jeremiah Wright appeared on the scene yesterday.
While I disagree with the author of that post in relation to his praise of Steve Sailer, whose online activities tend in my view to be about a millimeter short of "white supremacism", the gist is correct - for months, despite the fact that any sensate reader knows he's going to vote for the Republican candidate, Brooks has come close to swooning over Obama. His sudden shift to attack mode isn't inspired by new facts or evidence, but by timing. This approach is not only politically helpful to his party, but makes the job of writing columns about Obama pretty easy - take all the nice things you said about him last month, and explain how disappointed you have become. By things you knew all along, or are making up.

Brooks is in full "no mendacity barred" mode in taking on Obama. He exaggerates Obama's statement on not raising taxes, but more strikingly in whining, " That will make it impossible to address entitlement reform," completely omits the fact that his candidate, McCain, promises further massive tax cuts. Further, it's an outright lie that the most fiscally troubling entitlements, Medicare and Social Security, are significantly affected by a promise not to raise income taxes. There, as I noted yesterday, Obama has proposed lifting the cap on payroll taxes. Check the transcript of the debate. Brooks surely remembers this,
Well, Charlie, I just have to respond real quickly to Senator Clinton's last comment. What I have proposed is that we raise the cap on the payroll tax, because right now millionaires and billionaires don't have to pay beyond $97,000 a year.
Brooks gave an "A" grade to the imbecilic questions raised in the debate, including this whopper from Charlie Gibson:
And in each instance, when the [capital gains] rate dropped, revenues from the tax increased. The government took in more money.
Well, gee... why don't we cut the capital gains rate to 0% and use the massively increased tax revenues to make up for any shortfalls in other areas. (That was sarcasm, of course - but here's a more realistic picture of how capital gains taxes line up with tax revenues.)

Further, half or more of all income taxes are paid by people earning above the range Obama described, so how is it that we could not see significant increases in tax revenues without touching taxes below that threshold? For that matter, when did we enter an era where the only way to increase spending is to raise income taxes?

I recognize that Brooks comes from the school of pseudo-conservatism where deficits matter... but only if there's a Democrat in the White House. But who seriously tries to argue in this era that a balanced budget must take priority over all else, even in the face of a recession? Further, if in fact Obama winds down the war in Iraq, that should free up a lot of money that is presently being spent on the war - although I'm sure Brooks sees it as entirely justifiable deficit spend hundreds of billions on a war he supports, as opposed to spending similar amounts of money repairing this nation's crumbling infrastructure or implementing health care reform.

Which brings us to Brooks' next deception, "Then [Obama] made an iron vow to get American troops out of Iraq within 16 months." Well, no. He didn't. If you actually look at what Obama said, he was very careful to avoid committing to a specific timeframe. He instead indicated that the direction of the war would be his decision to make, with due consideration of the advice of the military. Brooks didn't just fall off the turnip truck - he could have legitimately criticized Obama for evading the question, something that would have fit in just fine with this "He's just another, ordinary politician"-type column. But apparently honesty doesn't serve his purposes.

Then we get into standard Brooks-style elitism, and sneering at working class voters:
Then there are the cultural issues. Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos of ABC News are taking a lot of heat for spending so much time asking about Jeremiah Wright and the “bitter” comments. But the fact is that voters want a president who basically shares their values and life experiences. Fairly or not, they look at symbols like Michael Dukakis in a tank, John Kerry’s windsurfing or John Edwards’s haircut as clues about shared values.
And how do we know voters do this? Because Brooks says they do. And what voters is he describing with this insulting stereotype? You got it.

If it really is "all about image", why has Brooks never sneered at our "cowboy" President for apparently being afraid of horses? Why not a column sniggering, "He's such a wimp, he can't even eat a pretzel without ending up in the hospital"? Because I'm pretty sure he would give us that type of "analysis" of similar "news" about Obama or Clinton.

Do you think there's one chance in a billion that Brooks would say, "This, after all, is how I choose my candidate"? Do you think he would attribute that type of shallow thinking to any other member of the Republican elite? If he did, how fast and furious would be the repudiation? This is mainstream Republican elitism on full display, folks. It's somehow not "elitist" to tell the working class, "You make your voting decisions based upon how a candidate bowls, looks in a tank, or how much he pays for a haircut." Do the voters themselves agree with Brooks? No, it appears that they do not.

I think it is fair to say that voters want a President who will project American values to the world. Image is part of that, and it is thus an important part of a campaign. But it is just plain insulting to picture working class voters as beer-guzzling yokels who choose a candidate based on such conceits as "Who would I rather have a beer with." Whatever the image a candidate cultivates, there are darn few voters who don't recognize that they will never be invited to have a beer with the President - they know that honor is primarily reserved for elites like, well, David Brooks. McCain's not inviting us to his back yard BBQ's. Bush doesn't have us over to watch football, or even to help him clear brush on his faux ranch. We even know that Clinton's shot and a beer was a photo op, not a reflection of her lifestyle, without your telling us. That is to say, Mr. Brooks, contrary to your elitist beliefs, voters aren't half as stupid as you think they are.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Be Careful With That Tax Cap....

Perhaps its understandable that Obama remains fixated on fixing the Social Security "crisis" despite far more pressing concerns for our economy (such as Medicare/Medicaid costs), as it appears to be a media obsession. But the "solution" of a substantial increase in the cap is not a good one.

Let's remember that it's not only taxes that are capped, but also benefits. There's an essential deal with the upper middle class and wealthy - they continue to participate in the Social Security program at a level not substantially disproportionate to the benefits you will eventually receive, with their tax contributions propping up the entire system. At the other end, when the U.S. Treasury has to "buy back" the bonds that constitute the Social Security trust fund, it is difficult to imagine how income taxes won't have to be raised, and the wealthy will also bear the brunt of any tax increase. (Either that, or we further explode the deficit to pay back the money owed to the trust fund.)

If you significantly change that balance, such that Social Security goes from being an acceptable deal to being a raw deal in the eyes of higher income earners, you create an incentive for them to walk away from the system. And although we like to pretend otherwise, these are the people who have the ear of Congress. They're also the group that, on the whole, prefers that the "crisis" be fixed through such measures as reducing benefits to early retirees and raising the retirement age.

Raising the cap will also likely inspire more small businesspeople to incorporate, draw a salary below the cap, and pay themselves additional "profits" free of "self-employment" taxes.

Hey.... Buddy....

Wanna buy a five star hotel?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Elitism, Kang and Kodos Style

Elitist: You're wrong to be concerned about issues I don't care about. You should vote for me so I can work on the issues I see as important to this country.

Non-Elitist: You're right to be concerned about issues I don't care about. You should vote for me so I can work on the issues I see as important to this country.

Values And Elitism

Although one might think it has already been hammered to death, Dan Schnur, the Washington Post's resident McCain backer now adds to the stack of editorials on Obama's use of the words "bitter" and "cling". His take, although mostly trite, is a bit different than most in that it addresses something frequently forgotten in this discussion - that everybody has values.
Both Senator Obama and Mr. Frank seem to be saying that economic policy should be more important to voters than social and cultural questions.

For many people, that’s certainly true. But there are plenty of other voters who don’t necessarily base their votes solely on jobs and taxes, and many of them are quite financially successful. They have determined their political affiliations largely as a result of the same continuing battles over abortion, guns and same-sex marriage that have drawn so many working-class voters to Republican candidates over the years. The only difference is the side of the fight they’ve chosen. It’s hard to argue that a wealthy pro-choice Democrat is any less of a values voter than a pro-life construction worker who votes Republican.
But here's the thing. The term "values voters" didn't emerge from a void. It was a carefully chosen phrase, used by people like Schnur to direct Republican messages at a specific demographic - a group he describes as "one of the most sought-after prizes in national elections". Yes, values voters, Republican elites like Schnur view you as "prizes" to be "won" - how condescending is that?

As used by somebody like Schnur, the term "values voters" can be interpreted in one of two ways. The more flattering is that the group has values superior to those of other Americans - but Schnur disavows that interpretation, arguing that even elites have values. The less flattering is that the group can be manipulated into voting on values issues, even though their values are no better than anybody else's. That, of course, is what Schnur, et al, see as the implicit meaning of Obama's comment and as the grounds for criticism of Obama.

Isn't there a third way, you ask? That "values voters" place such import on their values that they will vote against their economic self-interest to protect those values? That, of course, is what people like Schnur pretend to be arguing - even though this again doesn't differentiate "values voters" from the "wealthy pro-choice Democrat" Schnur describes.

I might be more charitable to Schnur if the Republicans were sincere in their entreaties to values voters. But surely you haven't missed the disenchantment of the religious right with George W. Bush. Many "values voters" accurately perceive how their concerns have been exploited by the Republican Party in order to get votes and power, but how little actual progress has been made on the values issues they hold dear. Schnur sees these reflected in "issues like gun ownership, abortion and same-sex marriage". Beyond that, why does Schnur's list of values omit, for example, peace, justice, or the environment - values cherished by many "blue collar Americans"? Why is it that the only values he articulates as belonging to that group are Republican wedge issues? Because that's all he sees? Or is it that values that don't work in favor of the Republican Party aren't worthy of notice?

Other than a set of "Chicken Little" ballot initiatives about how gay marriage would sweep the nation without state constitutional amendments, what progress have "values voters" seen on these issues under G.W. Bush? Essentially nothing. What did they "lose" on these issues under Bill Clinton? Essentially nothing. So it becomes necessary to reinvent the issue, not as "We're the party that will give lip service to your moral values but not lift a finger when it comes to acting on them," but as, "At least we don't look down on you for your moral values."
An environmentally conscious, pro-stem cell bond trader who votes Democratic is lauded for selflessness and open-mindedness. A gun-owning, church-going factory worker who supports Republican candidates, on the other hand, must be the victim of partisan deception. This double standard is at the heart of the Democratic challenge in national elections: rather than diminish these cultural beliefs as a byproduct of economic discomfort, a more experienced and open-minded candidate would recognize and respect the foundations on which these values are based.
So it's still a one night stand, but Schnur is willing to promise, "If you vote for us, we'll still respect you in the morning." (Just don't expect a phone call.)

If that's not enough condescension for you, exactly when did the term "values voter" become synonymous with "blue-collar Americans"? Schnur conflates the groups as a matter of convenience - it allows him to suggest that Obama looks down on all working class Americans, while escaping the task of differentiating blue collar workers who are "values voters" from those who are not. Saying "We're all values voters" is not sufficient; Schnur is describing a particular demographic. If Schnur truly believes that all "blue collar Americans" are a monolith, thinking as he believes they do, we've again entered the realm of extraordinary condescension.

This whole idea of elitism is rather funny, not just because by the definitions applied in this debate our Founding Fathers were elitist, but because the elites of both parties constitute a de facto ruling class. They represents the best and the worst of the aristocracies Jefferson described - the "natural aristocracy" of people who have risen on their merits, combined with the "artificial aristocracy" of people who get their power by virtue of "wealth and birth". If your issue does not matter to those elites, it will take nothing short of a political earthquake to move Congress to act on your behalf. Hence the sleepy tokenism the Republican Party offers to "values voters" - an offering of table scraps to retain their votes, but no seat at the big table.

Let's consider how John McCain stacks up on this front, starting with his new tax proposal: Working Americans get a "gas tax holiday", a gradual increase in the exemption for dependents, and a massive increase in... let's call it the birth tax - each person's share of the exploding federal deficit. The upper middle class and wealthy get gradual relief from the Alternative Minimum Tax. The wealthy get immediate and permanent relief from income and estate taxes. Corporations get their taxes slashed by 40%. The cost of this to working Americans? Less money to fix roads and improve infrastructure, an even larger federal deficit, and if we do anything to try to balance the budget, massive reductions in Medicare and Social Security benefits (with no corresponding reduction in Medicare or Social Security taxes).

But McCain's a "man of the people". He's perfectly at home cooking at his back yard BBQ. So much so that he bought the neighboring house so he would have more room for his parties. He'll refer to voters as "my friends", but sorry, we're the type of friends who don't get asked over for a hamburger. He won't release his tax returns, probably because his deductions would appall the average working American. (Does he really want people to know how much he spends on his annual BBQ for the press? And yes, I do suspect he takes a deduction for that event.)

We can go further. McCain goes to a Baptist Church, yet has never been baptized and has a long history of antipathy toward the leadership of the Religious Right - until it because convenient to embrace John Hagee and Rod Parsley. He has a long history of championing free trade agreements, but to put it mildly he's not emphasizing that fact. A champion of campaign finance reform, he backed out of his commitment to use public financing for his primary campaign. A champion of balanced budgets, he has embraced the anti-tax agenda of the "Club for Growth" despite the consequences to the budget - a retreat from his past positions similar to his embrace of the religious right. (The Club For Growth loves McCain's budget proposals, save of course for those elements directed at working Americans.) Until recently McCain was a champion of immigration reform, but seems to have flip-flopped on that issue as well.

So yes, as Schnur says,
[L]ike the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr. controversy that preceded it, Senator Obama’s tendency to erect cultural barriers between himself and this critical block of swing voters will become more of an obstacle in a general election campaign.
Because people like Schnur will keep feeding that line to the swing voters to distract them from how little McCain actually has to offer, or to perpetuate the myth that the Republicans are somehow less "elitist" than Democrats.

Grasping A Bad Analogy

Ruth Marcus (sort of ) defends John Yoo, contending that his arguments in favor of torture and expansive executive power were amateurish and wrong, but that it would somehow be 'dangerous' if he were subjected to any professional consequence.
Yet the message sent to students by dumping Yoo would be even worse: that some opinions are too dangerous to express. Lawyers are used to staking a foothold on slippery slopes, but this one, with academic freedom at issue, is too treacherous to risk.
I would find that argument more compelling had Yoo made public pronouncements on torture. The controversy is over a confidential memo, something that the Bush Administration and probably Yoo himself would have preferred to have never entered the public realm. But on to the analogy:
The most useful analogy I've read on this subject comes from Princeton professor Deborah Pearlstein, who asked what Berkeley would do if a molecular biology professor "had written a medical opinion while in government employ disclaiming the truth of evolution," and continued to dispute the theory of evolution once he resumed teaching.
That's suggesting that Yoo's sole offense is bad scholarship. And you know what? I don't think that professors should be shielded from scrutiny, or from possible loss of position, if they engage in bad scholarship. Fundamentally, what good is a professor who is unable to grasp the subject matter of his supposed area of expertise? The better argument, attempted on the Volokh Conspiracy, is premised upon a defense of the scholarship.

The Genesis of Racism.... According to Gerson

I don't know why I do this to myself.... Michael Gerson writes,
Racial discrimination is the poorly healed scar of American history, and Obama's election would be a happy arrival on a national journey that began with African Americans considered only three-fifths of a person.
Gerson truly believes that racial discrimination is premised on American history? Which would make it unique to America?

If I were to try to be charitable, I could broaden his argument such that all racism is predicated on the scars of history. Except there's racism in every society, even those with few discernible race-related scars. Often, antipathy is directed at racial or ethnic groups new to a society - in that case, would Gerson tell us that the "scar" is the nation's historic lack of racial conflict?

For a guy who pretends to be an evangelical Christian, this ranks right up with his "Adultery? No biggie" column. Given his propensity for attacking Obama's church, is he truly telling us that his minister has never spoken on racism, and its roots in the frailties of man? That the lesson he draws from years of church attendance is, "Don't examine yourself for the roots of your sins - it's all great-grandpa's fault"? Or is he simply letting us know that he habitually sleeps through the sermon.

Gerson seems to have glimmers of memory from his Sunday School classes:
This message is inherently prideful: I understand your bitterness and confusion, but I don't reflect it. You know me. I'm better than that.
Perhaps now he needs to brush up on that passage about "specks" and "beams".

Heinous Crimes

The Washington Post, in an unsigned editorial, argues,
There is no crime more heinous than the rape of a child. But does the Constitution allow states to impose the death penalty for such a crime when the child's life has not been taken?
Well, if we accept the first premise, the obvious answer is "yes". But homicide is pretty horrific (and that's without getting into, say, mass murder or genocide), so perhaps we shouldn't start playing a game of "My 'heinous' is bigger than yours." The Post recites,
[A coalition of social workers and interest groups that work on behalf of victims of sexual abuse] argues convincingly that the already gross underreporting of child sexual abuse might only be exacerbated if the death penalty were imposed in such cases. In most such cases, the perpetrators are family members or acquaintances; children might be even more frightened to report a crime if they thought they'd be responsible for the death of someone they knew or even loved. Even if the child was brave enough to come forward, a family member with ties to the offender could prevent disclosure to law enforcement authorities.
Here's something else that probably should have occurred to them: if the penalty is the same whether you leave your victim alive or dead, some will choose the latter. The "Lindbergh laws" imposing long sentences or even the death penalty for kidnapping are often described as having reduced the chances of recovering a kidnapping victim alive.

You Don't Need To Be A Rocket Scientist....

Schoolboy corrects Nasa calculations.
The schoolboy used telescopic findings from the Institute of Astrophysics, in Potsdam, to calculate there was a one in 450 chance that the Apophis asteroid would collide with Earth.

Nasa had previously estimated that the chances were one in 45,000, but told its sister organisation, the European Space Agency (ESA), that the teenager's findings showed the correct calculations.
What's a few orders of magnitude between friends?

Well, There's A Shock

Following up on the emergence of "swiftboating"-style tactics against McCain, the Atlantic Free Press claims,
Last March, the masterminds of the swift boat blitzkrieg against Kerry, in 2004, formed Vietnam Vets against McCain. As Raw Story revealed, Jerry Kiley, one of the group's founders, says that the Arizona senator "pretends to be a conservative Republican, but he's not the man that people have projected onto him.," and this may be the best thing they have to say about McCain.

In a series of television ads Vietnam Vets plans to air soon, they aim to "expose" his support of the Communist regime in Vietnam, as well as allege that, as president, the presumptive Republican nominee would grant drivers license to "illegal immigrants."
The article indicates that it isn't clear who is providing funding for the group's planned ad campaign.

Monday, April 14, 2008

"They Call Me Mr. Tibbs"

Kentucky congressman Geoff Davis "compared Obama and his message for change similar to a 'snake oil salesman.' He said in his remarks at the GOP dinner [on Saturday] that he also recently participated in a 'highly classified, national security simulation' with Obama."

"'I'm going to tell you something: That boy's finger does not need to be on the button,' Davis said. 'He could not make a decision in that simulation that related to a nuclear threat to this country.'"
What decade is this, again?

Beyond that, why is Davis blabbing about something he purports to be "highly classified"?