Sunday, October 21, 2012

Debt By Prez

I created these two charts out of curiosity and really just as a reference for myself but thought I’d go ahead and publish them here.  This is the United States and the president is not a dictator which limits the usefulness of a simplistic comparison like this but it is still interesting and instructive. The president is the single most powerful individual in government.  They set the tone and provide the leadership that moves policy one direction or another. 

Since republicans are breathlessly criticizing the president for increasing the national debt and claiming, as usual, to be the party of fiscal responsibility, this data seems especially relevant.  To put it simply, there is no historical basis for giving the republican party any credibility on the subject of decreasing our debt.  If past performance is any indication of future results, we should expect the opposite.  At least over the course of my lifetime debt has grown much faster under republican presidents than under democrats.

Reagan is the one who really jumps off the page here; the deified standard bearer, universally praised for being the ultimate crusader against big government, and yet, no president in recent history has even come close to exploding the national debt in the way he did.  More than just an actor, Reagan must have been a master of mass hypnosis, as even in death millions of Americans have a completely inaccurate view of his presidency.  

The fact that the hero of the American right is someone who managed to preside over a debt increase of 189% tells you a lot about the modern American right.  I think it's no coincidence that this hero was a professional actor.  He ushered in the ultimate political con-job, “trickle down economics”, a wet dream for economic elites that was so cynical even George H.W. Bush referred to it as Voodoo Economics. It almost feels like a cruel joke that a republican presidential candidate is able to sell this same failed formula thirty years later.  I am continually amazed at how there never seems to be any real political consequences for republicans when their ideas and policies fail miserably.  

Monday, October 15, 2012

Our Cartoonish Electorate

Its election season which means every few hours a graphic or post like the one above pops up on my Facebook news feed.  As a native and resident Texan whose friend list is full of other Texans, almost all of the political posting falls somewhere along the spectrum between Obama is the anti-Christ and Obama wants to eat your babies.

To say the least there’s not much in the way of diversity of political thought ‘round here. That’s okay though.  As I’ve said before on this blog, political views are determined mostly by geography. You can’t necessarily hold the geographical group think phenomenon against people.

Now back to my picture.  See anything wrong with it?  Nobody on the Facebook thread that I copied it from seems to.  Instead, there’s just the usual chorus of people piling on with comments like “So True!” and “Amen!” and "Damn socialist!"

It should also be pointed out that several of the people commenting on the thread are pretty engaged politically.  So what’s wrong with the cartoon?  Well, everything.  Literally. 

Let’s look at each bucket in turn:

The AIG bailout occurred on September 16, 2008, three and a half months before Obama took office.  The federal government, under president George W. Bush, allocated $85 billion of U.S. Treasury funds so AIG could honor it’s collateral obligations. (Most of that money was paid to Goldman Sachs incidentally.)

The Emergency Economic Stabilization Act Of 2008 (aka the bank bailouts) was signed into law in October of 2008, at the request of the George W. Bush administration. $700 billion of U.S. Treasury funds were allocated to purchase toxic assets from the too-big-to-fail banks.  Again, two months before president Obama took office.

I can only assume that this one is supposed to represent the collapse of the housing bubble.  The housing bubble began to deflate in 2007 and the volume of subprime mortgage lending peaked between 2004-and 2006.  By mid to late 2008 the U.S. economy was in free fall, soon to be followed by the global economy.  Once again, all of this occurred before Barack Hussein Obama became president.

The initial auto industry bailout was initiated by president George W. Bush in December of 2008.  $17.4 billion of U.S. Treasury funds were allocated to prevent GM and Chrysler from going into what president Bush referred to as “disorderly bankruptcy”. Here's his speech announcing the bailout.  Obama did expand the auto bailout later in 2009, so we can at least give the Obama-hater who drew this cartoon a little credit there.  But once again, the initial policy was implemented before Obama became president.

There’s also a bucket that says “Ins.”.  I have no idea what that is supposed to be so I won’t comment on it.

So every single policy or event that this cartoonist is trying to attribute to Obama actually occurred while George W. Bush was president.  You try to point this out and without fail the reply is “When are you people going to stop blaming Bush!”. 

If this type of thing was a one-off occurrence I wouldn’t have bothered talking about it here.  But it’s rampant. It’s every day, all the time.  And I offer it up as further evidence that right wing, Obama-hating America lives in an alternative universe, an information bubble that is impervious to basic, factual understanding of real life, verifiable events.   As bit of a political loudmouth I feel like I’m in a constant game of whack-a-mole with the phantom creations of the conservative echo chamber. 

I’m only 35 years old so maybe my historical sample size is too small, but the level at which this president gets blamed for all of the disastrous policies and consequences of his predecessor  feels unprecedented. The blind and hysterical hatred that is directed at him is wildly disproportionate to his accomplishments or lack of.  Regardless of one’s political leanings cartoons like the one above shouldn’t be going viral on social media.  Even a casual familiarity with the news would be enough for anyone to quickly see how ridiculous and misleading it is.  But here in the land of mass political amnesia, with our oh so selective interpretation of reality, this thing becomes gospel.

Regarding the person who posted this on Facebook, I kindly pointed out the inaccuracies and said what I often say in these cases:  If you guys are upset with stuff that He Who Must Not Be Named George W. Bush did why don't you just say so and use HIS name and put his picture on your cartoons?  You can imagine the response I got.

Friday, October 12, 2012

In Which I Agree With Bill O’Reilly

Saturday night the wife and I sprang for the $4.95 to watch the live internet streaming debate between Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart.  (Yes, we are party animals.)  One of the questions was:  “What do you think is the most fundamental problem with the public political discourse?”  O’Reilly’s answer: “Capitalism.”

It’s a good thing I was drinking because I might’ve collapsed in surprise at being in total agreement with ‘The Mayor Of Bullshit Mountain’. O’Reilly explained how lucrative it is to be a professional hater – an assassin – as he called it.  Now granted this is a bit like Ronald McDonald pinpointing French fries as the culprit behind America’s obesity problem, but he has a point.  The highest paid media personalities are the ones most adept at working their audience into a blind rage every evening.   

Bill O’ even suggested that a lot of times these haters don’t even believe the stuff they are saying, they’re just playing to their crowd.  I’ve said as much before myself.  The problem is that their allegedly massive audiences actually do believe what they are saying.  And these are the people voting in primaries and driving the discourse. 

Although I basically agree with Bill here, I think he’s only partly correct.  Capitalism, or the fact that the haters command these huge followings, is more of a symptom than the root cause.  I blame the people who dial in to these pontificating buffoons more than the pontificating buffoons themselves.   Taken one step further, I blame an educational and cultural system that produces such a large number of people who are only interested in tuning in to media that reinforces their pre-existing beliefs and caters to their prejudices and biases.  

The haters are just offering what the market demands.  There is so much anger and frustration out there.  The haters tap in to that and channel it in ways that are appealing to their listeners/viewers. It’s really mental laziness and lack of intellectual curiosity that make the success of the haters possible.

Hard news doesn’t sell and thinking for one’s self takes some effort which is why both are notably absent from the national public dialogue.  The cable and radio haters don’t offer much in the way of actual news and they do your thinking for you.   In a complex and diverse world with complex and diverse problems they offer simple explanations and even simpler solutions.  Add in their masterful ability to play to the innate human need to feel victimized and you have a winning formula.

So yes, O’Reilly is right.  Capitalism is dragging down the public discourse.  But capitalism comes down to supply and demand and it’s obvious there is huge demand for dumbed-down, vitriolic, one-sided ‘info-tainment’.  I hate to say it but my conclusion would be that the public discourse has degraded because the public itself has.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A 'Job Creator' Speaks

A Bloomberg article that I read today sent me to the blog of former American Airlines chairman and CEO, Bob Crandall.  The piece was about economic inequality in the US, a subject that I think is THE major issue of our time, and mentioned that even a successful, wealthy, and well-respected ex-CEO like Crandall was decrying the negative impacts of so much wealth concentrated at the top.  Naturally this piqued my interest and I promptly made my way over to his blog and read the most recent dozen entries or so.

Sure enough, this one-percenter makes some of the same observations and points that have seemed so obvious to me and many others.  What makes it noteworthy is that this is yet another prominent business leader making statements that are blasphemous to American right wing ideology, an ideology that probably 40% of the population takes as gospel, even as they are ravaged by the real-life consequences of its policies.  It’s one thing for a bearded hippie living in a tent near central park to point out that the US is turning into a banana republic, but something else entirely when ex CEOs of iconic American corporations and billionaire investors do it.

I appreciate and support the Occupy Wall Street movement.  These are people who, regardless of their image or social status, at least understand the source of the problem.  They get who’s screwing them.  They are vocal and visible and reminiscent of the real people-power type of mass movements that were so successful at initiating social change in the 1960s.  That is a great thing.  And one conclusion that I’ve come to after five or six years of studying politics and power like a mad scientist is that positive social change starts from the bottom up.  The people influence the leaders who are in a position to make public will a reality.

So Occupy is great, but the mere fact that most of them are students or people who are otherwise not working a nine-to-five makes them easy for the media and much of society to marginalize.  Sadly, there are millions of people in this country who just don’t think you count as a real human being with valid concerns unless you’ve had to “make a payroll”.  An entire political party subscribes to this view.  Nevermind the absurdity that only a small percentage of people who belong to that party actually meet their own criteria for being a worthy citizen. 

Bob Crandall is not the kind of person that the usual suspects can assail with the sneering “take a shower and get a job” line of attack.  When someone of his social standing is willing to put aside their own narrow self-interests and openly discuss truths that are uncomfortable and inconvenient to his class, I find it encouraging and I think it should be applauded.  The cry of “class warfare” is used by the very people who are successfully waging it. It’s nothing more than an attempt to shut down the discussion and far too often it works.  But when people like Crandall lend their voice to this cause, the efforts to turn it into a thought crime become less effective.

Other business leaders have weighed in on this issue, most notably Warren Buffett who made the statement: “There’s class warfare alright, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”  There’s also venture capitalist Nick Hanauer who gave the must-see TED talk where he refers to  trickle down economics as the biggest political con in history.   And the big boogeyman of the American right, super-capitalist billionaire George Soros, also has a few things to say on the subject.

Buffett, Hanauer, Soros, and Crandall are not the kind of people who can be brushed off by so-called conservatives as shiftless government dependents or socialist agitators.  Although to be fair, I’ve seen them try, usually with pretty laughable results. (Ex: “But Buffett is just an investor, he hasn’t created any jobs!”…What? So you mean it’s possible to become the wealthiest human being on earth and not be a ‘job-creator’? Hmmm...)

Each of these individuals has directly or indirectly advocated policies that would personally cost them money.  They’ve acknowledged that the system is rigged in favor of people in their position at the expense of people who are not.  They’ve admitted that such an imbalance of power and wealth has serious negative consequences on society.  Why?  My guess is that they feel a sense of responsibility and obligation to the country that allowed them to achieve such dramatic success.  Does it upset others in their social class who do not feel that sense of responsibility? Of course it does.  There will always be those who, despite their obscene wealth, think of nothing but getting more, whatever the impact that has on everyone else.  Unfortunately, in terms of the one-percent they are in the majority.  And that makes the Buffetts and Crandalls out there even more important to those of us who would like to see positive change.

Getting back to Bob Crandall’s blog, here are some of the points he brings up which I think are spot on:

  •  26 of the country’s top CEOs personally made more money than their company paid in taxes in 2011.  This is absurd and is a perfect example of the unfairness of tax laws and the need for changes   in corporate governance rules.
  •  In order to address major problems and the looming national debt, the very wealthy and corporations need to pay higher taxes.  The Bush tax cuts for incomes over $250K should be allowed to expire and the estate tax should be re-instated.
  • The right likes to complain that the corporate tax rate is too high, 39% they say.  But statutory tax rates are different than effective tax rates and the effective rate (the one that actually reflects the percentage paid) of US corporations is roughly 12%.  As an example, Apple, now the world’s richest company, only paid a 9.8% tax rate in 2011.
  •  The US government needs to spend more money in the short term to stimulate demand. Our infrastructure is outdated and crumbling and with interest rates at roughly 0%, now would be a great time to invest in some much needed improvements and put some people to work.
      I predict that as time goes on and the gold-plated, diamond encrusted, elephant in the room becomes even harder to ignore, more people like Bob Crandall will look beyond the self-interest of their own socio-economic class and speak up on behalf of the greater good.  Then maybe we can quit pretending that this is a discussion about envy and treat it like the very real threat to American democracy that it is.

Romney - Man Of The People

What kind of political blowhard observer would I be if I didn’t say something about Wednesday night’s presidential debate?  Meant to do this sooner but we’ve had technical difficulties for over a week now.  Very spotty internet service from AT&T broadband.  I’m sure it’s the government’s fault somehow.

Anyhow, I’ll try to be brief.

This debate was a snoozer.  One candidate must have agreed with me because he looked like he needed a nap. He seemed bored and a little irritated to even be there.  That would be our president.  The other guy came off like he’d been downing Red Bull all afternoon.  If they were trying to provide contrast they succeeded in that regard.

So Romney “won”.  Obama was blindsided and frankly, so was I.  The Romney who has been campaigning the last twelve months was not the same guy who was on stage Wednesday night. Not in demeanor, but more importantly, not in policy.  Or so he’d have us believe. It’s pretty easy to win a debate when you change your major policy positions on the fly and simply deny any of the negative things associated with what you’ve proposed. I can’t blame Obama too much. I have no idea how you are supposed to debate with that.  It’s frowned on to look your opponent in the eye and say “Governor, with all due respect, you are completely full of shit.”

Romney started off with the standard right wing chorus: regulations and taxes are killing the economy.  Less than fifteen minutes later we got to hear about how he loves regulation, especially for Wall Street.  Then there was the big tax discussion that took up most of the debate.  Romney says he will cut tax rates, especially for the wealthy, but don’t worry.  He promises that that nobody, especially the wealthy, will actually pay less taxes. So don’t be concerned about those tax cuts impacting the deficit.  Healthcare was a big topic too.  Romney of course will ‘repeal Obamacare on day one’.  But again, don’t fret. He’s keeping all the good parts.  Romney miraculously turned into Mr. Middle Class seemingly overnight.  He was determined to use the phrase “middle class” more than Obama. It would’ve made a good drinking game.

In short, it appeared to me that Romney’s strategy for beating Obama…was to sound more like Obama.  A man in love with regulation who is determined to see that the wealthy don’t pay one less penny in taxes because they are ‘doing just fine’, who thinks of nothing but the well being of the middle class and wants to make sure that health insurance companies can’t deny people with pre-existing conditions. 

Look – if the republican strategy for winning the presidency is to pose as a democrat, we are winning. 

I won’t bother with all the factual inaccuracies (one count had Romney at 27 lies misstatements in 38 minutes) because anyone can look that up.  But even if he was sincere, here is someone claiming that the United States can solve its debt problem, create twelve million jobs, give everyone awesome healthcare, and nobody anywhere will have to sacrifice a thing.  And we all get a free pony. 

Maybe in a country where football and little honey boo boo get more attention than politics people will fall for this all gain no pain fantasy.  Maybe nobody will dig into the details and see that Mitt Romney’s healthcare “plan” does indeed prevent insurance companies from discriminating against people with pre-existing conditions – but only for people who have not had a lapse in insurance coverage, a provision that is already law. In other words, no change there.  Maybe nobody will pick up on the fact that this person who claims to be so serious about lowering the deficit and debt never denied that his proposal calls for increasing the already outrageous military budget by $2 trillion dollars.  Maybe nobody will ask how that gets paid for (and find out that it doesn’t).  Maybe nobody will question the mathematical impossibility of cutting taxes by 20% without lowering actual revenues.  Maybe they’ll overlook the fact that eliminating every single loophole and deduction would still not make up that 20%.  Maybe nobody will scratch their head at how the guy who has spent his entire campaign breathlessly decrying regulation just stood behind a podium in front of 17 million people and literally said the words: “I like regulation!.” Maybe nobody will note how utterly ridiculous and laughable it was, when asked for a single specific thing he would cut to lower the deficit, all he could come up with was to defund Big Bird.  Maybe they won’t realize that funding for public television and radio makes up a whopping .00014% ($135M) of the total budget, or question why he wouldn’t touch the $7 BILLION of government subsidies that go the oil companies.

Sorry for all the maybes but it would take a massive amount of cognitive dissonance and selective listening to even begin to think that is a serious person with a meaningful vision.

Yes, Obama flubbed the thing and ignored a wagon load of low hanging fruit. I think part of it was falling victim to the baffled by bullshit tactic that was deployed against him but that’s no excuse for his terrible energy level and demeanor.  As someone who remains convinced that a Mitt Romney presidency will be George W. Bush Act III, I sincerely hope that next time the president is rested and better prepared to deal with a guy who will say anything on the fly.