Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Where is our leader? part 2

The president gave a press conference today and was critical of the Republicans for refusing to raise taxes as part of a congressional agreement to raise the debt ceiling and thus allow the government to continue to pay its bills come August 2. But, unfortunately, he gave no indication of where he stands in the negotiations other than his old, tried and tired urge to tax the super-rich, which will not even come close to balancing the budget.  It looked to me like a campaign speech rather than the leader of our country taking the bull by the horns and leading the country and the Congress into an agreement on reducing the deficit.

When the president spends his bully pulpit time blaming and attacking the other political party as the two parties are in the process of trying to negotiate an agreement, it tells me that the negotiations cannot come to an agreement.  I suppose Democrats were encouraged that Obama finally sounded tough and said nasty things about the Republicans that Democrats want him to say, but I don't see how today's performance created any space for Boehner and the Republicans to find a way to agree to raising taxes as part of what they will agree to.  It looked to me like a pandering to his base and another campaign speech for 2012.

I agree, completely, that the Republicans need to raise revenues.  It is not any news to anyone that this needs to be done.  But for the president to just criticize the Republicans does nothing to move them forward.

The only thing that makes any sense to me on the revenue side is a major tax reform that lowers tax rates, broadens the tax base, and eliminates the tax earmarks that give away special exemptions to taxation.  This was proposed by Simpson-Bowles in December of last year.  The only person in the country that could have taken that report, and the momentum created by that report, was the President of the United States, regardless of who the president was at that time, and regardless of which party the president belonged to.  But, this president ducked.  He pretended to be influenced by Simpson Bowles, and he proposed ... raising taxes on the super-rich ... what a surprise.  

I hope that the two sides agree to sign off on the increase in the debt ceiling by doing two things:  cut spending and make a binding pledge to create tax reform starting August 3, with the President taking the lead with a deadline of proposing an overhaul of the tax system by the end of September.  I see no other way of increasing tax revenues other than massive tax reform.  He doesn't even need to take any time to study the tax reform, all he needs to do is present the Simpson Bowles tax plan and lead the country from his bully pulpit, and lead Congress with good old fashioned LBJ congressional maneuvering and get it done.  

We need leadership, and only the president is in a position to provide it.  It takes more than a jaunty walk and snide attacks on his opponents to get it done.  It takes genius, and genius is what we need.  Maybe this crisis will finally awaken the man in the White House to become the leader that I had voted for two and a half very long years ago.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Where is our leader?

The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has just issued a declaration that the country is headed toward a massive deficit explosion if we don’t cut spending and raise revenues.  Not a surprise, of course, but this official governmental declaration puts teeth in the obvious.

The main culprits of runaway spending, says the CBO, are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare.  The quickest way to raise taxes, they note, is to repeal the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy AND the middle class.  Both parties are dealing with this, the biggest crisis of my time, as complete idiots.  There is a kind of stupidity that only smart people are capable of, the stupidity of entrenched ideology.  And both parties are deeply entrenched in ideologies that are obsolete and toxic.

The Republicans have taken an idiotic blood oath to never raise taxes.  The Democrats have taken an idiotic blood oath to never cut entitlements.  This puts the country on the Greek path to financial and economic doom.

A dear friend has pointed out that we are dealing with a failure of imagination.  I believe that what people cannot imagine is the sincerity and decentness of  their political opponents' positions and values. 

Democrats can only see the Republicans’ desire to cut spending as the caricature of Republicans that they carry in their ideologically twisted minds – as greedy and uncaring pawns of the super rich.  That way, Democrats don’t have to confront the terrors of a government that is too big to succeed.

Republicans can only see the Democrat’s desire to maintain and expand entitlement spending as a caricature of Democrats that they carry in their ideologically twisted minds - as catering to the special interests that have kept them in power since FDR and attacking the golden goose of capitalism that lays the golden egg of prosperity.  That way they don’t have to confront the terrors of an aging, middle class and poor populations trapped in poverty, mediocrity, and hopelessness.

None of this is going to change without remarkable leadership, and the only position in the country that has the ability to lead the country into the deep and painful direction that it needs to go (cut spending and raise revenues for goodness sake, it's not that hard to figure out) is the presidency.  But, Obama is missing in action.  He seems remarkably passive in this drama being fought out in the House and the Senate.  His VP, Biden, is trying to bring the sides together, but it is all inside baseball.  And inside baseball is not going to get it done.

The terrible truth is that politicians on both sides of the isle are probably correct in thinking that if they raise taxes as Republicans or cut entitlements as Democrats they will be voted out of office.  So, they do what the most cynical observers of politics say they will do: anything they need to do to stay in office.  And, if they do what is needed to rescue the country from financial Armageddon they will be voted out.

So, who needs to demand that they come together and do the painful things that are needed to save the economy and the government is us.  The people need to wake up and realize that we are all Greeks now.  And we shouldn’t shame ourselves by metaphorically doing what the Greeks are doing, which is taking to the streets to demand that nothing change and the gravy train continues for them.

Only when the country decides that we need less government and more government taxes will the deficit explosion be successfully dealt with. If we don't, the debt and deficit explode and the interest on the debt wipes out all of the rest of government anyhow, and all that is left is paying off our debt.  

I think this is possible. I think most people have made that very change in their own lives by realizing that they were spending more than they were taking in and have made personal changes to live within their means.  I think a very large percentage of the voting populace will accept the same formula for our government to take those same steps.

What they need is a credible leader to make the case of the government doing what is needed to live within its means.  The first step has already been taken by the Simpson-Bowles Commission laying out the spending cuts and revenue increases needed.  The next crucial step is now needed – a leader to forcefully and persistently and persuasively to make the case to the voting public. 

Obama could have been that leader, but he has ducked.  I don’t see him or any Republican contender taking that message to the people for the 2012 election, both sides are singing to their own choirs, neither is leading to make the case to do BOTH cut spending and raise revenues. 

Where is our leader?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Futility in Afghanistan

David Brooks in the New York Times outlines the fundamental flaw of our attempts to build the nation of Afghanistan.  Somehow, Westerners are convinced that bad behavior is a function of poverty.  It's not.  Bad behavior is a function of choices.  In Afghanistan Brooks points to tribal feuds, old and new grudges, and religious fanaticism are much more the source of ongoing strife than lack of opportunity for young men.  I would add the culture where honor is the root value, various ways that the Americans and rival tribes and factions manage to dishonor various Afghanistani sectors is an escalating factor.

More money into Afghanistan sounds good to American ears, sounds compassionate, sounds smart, but it looks like all it is doing is overwhelming an old culture with more western wealth than it can deal with, and ends up so distorting the society that we are working at cross-purposes with our nation building efforts.  

Our need in foreign countries is to work within the frameworks of the countries themselves, but that is pretty much impossible when we have scores of thousands of troops there as part of our own self protection.  

The old saying is that once you are up to your ass in alligators, it is hard to remember that you came to drain the swamp.

Maybe the swamp in Afghanistan has been drained sufficiently of al Qaeda, and it is time to leave the alligators behind and come home.

Obama, as usual, looks like he is trying to find a way to kind of leave without leaving too fast and offending too many Americans as he does it.  He has apparently laid out a draw down schedule that is faster than wanted by the military, but slower than is wanted by American doves.  It's a tough call as to how to get out of Afghanistan, and there is probably no way to do it without some sort of disastrous consequence, but a lot of people are tired of fighting, and paying for fighting, the alligators.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Rory to the rescue

I had the pleasure of watching Rory McIlroy win the U.S. Open by eight strokes.  One thing is obvious: he is so different from Tiger. 

Rory is very human: as I was rooting for him I was actually anxious that he might come apart and start to make mistakes and lose the tournament, whereas Tiger has always been cast as a kind of super-human.  With Tiger it was as if he had been dropped into the golf world from the planet Krypton.  His feats were astounding.  Rory is different.  He is just a very human, and quite excellent, young man.  I can feel a connection to Rory that I never felt with Tiger. 

I am very glad to have been able to watch Tiger play what was perhaps the greatest golf of all time. Watching Tiger play golf was, in a strange way, to inhabit a kind of adolescent fantasy of skills and powers beyond human dimensions.  You couldn't identify with Tiger, you could only fantasize about having his golf superpowers.  

His era is likely over now, and a new era of young kids in their twenties has been arriving for the last couple of years, and is now firmly in place with Rory’s masterpiece at Congressional this weekend. 

I think that Tiger sabotaged himself with his sub-human behavior which eventually became public and destroyed his marriage, his career, and his golf game.  I think that his father shamed him by putting super-human expectations on him, which he could not live up to, especially in the world of golf, the most unpredictable and uncontrollable sport of them all.  I believe that Tiger had a sub-conscious urge to be less than super-human and eventually to be found out to be less than super-human.  Unfortunately, he seems to have been able to see only two polarities: super-human or sub-human.  Maybe someday he will be able to become just human, with nice qualities of desiring to be excellent at golf and be a good man.

I wish Tiger well.  And I hope that he is taking this time in his life, where he is no longer viewed as super-human, to become human, and a good human.  It would be so good if he softened himself up and let go of his domineering, hard, unapproachable shell.  That may be too much to ask, but we golf fans are being given a different gift in the name of Rory McIlroy.  I don’t think Rory will be able to overwhelm the sport the way Tiger did, but I do expect to see him in contention for decades to come, and what a pleasure it will be to see a nice person, a very human person be in that lovely position. 

With any luck, Rory will not become the Next Tiger, he will just continue to be a nice human being who continually grows as a golfer and a man.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The election issues

Presidential elections are often a response to the perceived weaknesses and strengths of the existing president.  

To the right wing, Obama is a leftist and their design for their run at the presidency will be to run as free market right wingers against Obama the leftist/socialist.  

But, to the moderate wing of the Republican Party, say Romney or Huntsman, Obama is an ivy league professor trapped in the wrong job who doesn't have the skill set needed to be a competent, decisive leader.  

I think that if the Republicans have any chance at replacing Obama, they must run on the issues of competent leadership, especially in the arenas of the economy and foreign policy.  If they can dodge the true believers demanding ideological purity, they may even have a chance to win.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Depressing presidential election campaign coming up

David Brooks wrote an article that expresses my sense of disappointment, maybe even despair, regarding the upcoming presidential contest.  The problems of the country are almost overwhelmingly important and challenging, and our candidates in both parties seem to be remarkably unable to deal with them.

I wish I could be happier with President Obama, but I’m not.  The structural problems of the economy, deficit spending and joblessness, just don’t seem to have captured his attention, or at least they haven't inspired his creativity and leadership.  His deficit solution seems to be to “tax the rich”.  This is a theme for Democrats since FDR, and it is woefully inadequate now.  Taxing the rich makes only a small dent in the deficit.  He seems to think his health care overhaul is going to bring down medical costs, but that won’t even come close to closing the deficit enough without serious entitlement cutting.

The Republicans are even more hopeless.  Their solution seems to be to “lower taxes".  This is a theme for Republicans since Reagan, and it is woefully inadequate now.  Lower taxes are supposed to stimulate the economy and thus raise government revenues and lower deficit spending, but those increases, if they work at all, will be far too small to handle the looming deficit and potential loss of U.S. credit ratings without revenue increases.

As the problems get bigger, the politicians get more entrenched in obsolete ideologies that might have been reasonable approaches to the problems of decades ago, but don’t look to me to address today’s problems, shoot, they don’t even seem to notice today’s problems.

Brooks’ solution is to address four areas:  entitlement reform, working class empowerment, political corruption, and pro-business environment. 

He proposes what he calls a “Hamiltonian agenda” which would be pro-market where appropriate and pro-government where appropriate.  But the parties are stuck in either pro-government (Democrats) or pro-market (Republicans).  Neither is sufficient. 

I think that the party that produces a leader that is both/and rather than either/or will lead his party into the future, and the other party may well die.  I had hoped Obama was that man three years ago, but I’m not seeing it now when it is needed so desperately.  It’s going to take some magic for that to happen.  He talks both/and, but leads either/or.

Maybe Romney or Huntsman can con their base into voting for them, and then become a pragmatic both/and leader in the end.  It’s going to take some magic for that to happen too.  

Friday, June 10, 2011

Gingrich and the pitfalls of entitlement

From just the personal unlike-ability and poor-character level, Newt Gingrich never had a chance to become President of the United States.  But his nearly immediate self immolation is still a surprise.  After all, isn’t he actually smart and politically experienced? 

What his failed campaign shows me is the pitfall of the excess egotism of entitlement.  That is, he seemed to think that he could get the nomination and the presidency by taking short cuts – just be smart, interesting, provocative, creative, etc.  Sarah Palin has the same entitlement/shortcut mentality – just be a captivating media personality and the country will give you the nomination and presidency. 

The truth is obvious that running for president is a full time occupation which includes a lot of tedium and patience and persistence.  I’m sure that endless fundraising and answering the same questions over and over are no fun.  But, there are no shortcuts.  It is an exhausting process that tests and reveals the character of the participants.

So, Gingrich is out.  Ironically, one of his political mistakes was stating an obvious truth when he criticized the Paul Ryan budget plan as “right wing social engineering” which he opposed the same as he opposes left wing social engineering. 

But, that is another matter that deals more with the delusions of the right wing faithful about the infallibility of their ideology.

The Republicans aren’t offering much in the way of opposition to Obama, which is a shame because I’m not real happy with the job the president is doing.  One thing I am very confident about is that the country is not going to elect a right wing extremist.  How a reasonable person gets nominated in the Republican party is a mystery to me.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Who to root for in Yemen?

Dictator Saleh was seriously injured a couple of days ago and fled to Saudi Arabia for hospitalization and surgery.  On the one hand it is good to see a tyrant wounded and probably not able to return.  However, from what little I have read about Yemen, the government power structure will probably stay intact and continue their attacks on the rebels.

My inclination was to hope that the rebellions in Yemen are part of the broader Arab Spring rising up throughout the Middle East - a striving for freedom and self determination of the peoples.  However, Fareed Zakaria was interviewed by Elliott Spitzer on his In the Arena show last week, and he said that in Yemen the countryside is controlled by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the most powerful branch of Al Qaeda today.  So, I can't root for them, even though I can't root for the tyrannical government either.  

So, all that's left is to hope that the true spirit of the Arab Spring overtakes the protests in Yemen and frees itself from both the tyrannies of the government and of Al Qaeda.  

Monday, June 6, 2011

The trouble with tribes

I spent a long weekend at a lovely wedding of the son of a dear friend.  Along the way, I had some nice conversations with new people.  One conversation was with a lovely woman who is very passionately political.  I enjoyed our exchange, but I came away from it with a renewed sense of how tribal we are.

By we, I think I mean the Boomer generation, although the tribes go beyond my Boomer generation as well.  Our Boomer generation has been waging the culture wars for decades.  I, personally, am sick of the culture wars.

This woman's cause of the day was protecting the honest, hard working, underpaid government workers from the ravages of budget cuts to their pensions.  She sees this in good vs. evil terms:  those evil, greedy people from the opposing tribe want to do evil, greedy things to people of her tribe.  I could have asked her what did she propose be cut from the budget rather than pensions, but I was really just hoping to get away from a political discussion with her.  (I'm pretty sure her response would have been that all we need to do is raise taxes on the evil, greedy people of other tribe, but I digress...)

Actually, I think her purpose for the topic was to see if she could identify me as a member of her tribe so we could delight in the shared shared pleasures of  bemoaning the fate of having to live in a world that included such greedy, evil people of the opposing tribe.

I can certainly see her concern, and think it is legitimate, that the terrible budget problems of the state of California aren't the fault of the government workers, so why should they bear the brunt of the budget cuts.  But, like I say, where do you cut instead?  Everywhere that you look for budget cuts are painful and unfair.  But we need to cut the budget.  

And we need to raise revenues.  Cut spending, raise taxes.  Obvious.  But the two tribe refuse to see the obvious.  One side only wants to cut spending, the other only wants to raise revenues.  They are wrong.

The only way to end the culture wars is stop waging the culture wars and look at the members of the opposing tribe with respect.  They have concerns that are as legitimate as the concerns of our own tribe.  This may be easier for me to see because I have been both a left wing whacko and a right wing whacko, and I know that they each have noble concerns for humanity which are legitimate and need to be heard and addressed.  

Compromise and cooperation is so needed today, but to get there we need to call off the wars and see each other as human beings rather than as sub-human enemies.