Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 - it's a wrap

So, 2013 is coming to a close. What to say about it?

I think to me the most significant political thing that happened this year is that the Tea Party has lost it's death grip on the Republican Party and thus on the government. After stupidly shutting down the government, at a cost of about $24 billion, they lost credibility to the point that the beleaguered House Majority Leader, John Boehner finally exploded calling them "ridiculous."  

Speaking of ridiculous, of course, Obamacare has gotten off to a ridiculously incompetent start, but I think that is probably fixable going forward. A reordered health care system for a country of this size will have new problems needing solving, and I have hopes that it will end up working good enough. At least the three main problems of the pre-Obamacare health system are mostly gone.  That is: most of the poor now can have health coverage, those with pre-existing conditions can't be denied coverage, and a catastrophic illness will no longer bankrupt a middle class family. This ends up costing those who make decent money working for themselves more for their insurance, but I guess that's one of the trade-offs. 

I am glad that the United States has managed to stay out of the religious and civil wars in the Middle East, notably staying out of Syria.  We still need to provide some leadership there, but I hope we can contain that leadership to areas of diplomacy and finance, plus maybe some military training and weapons. 

The Outrage Industry on talk radio, blogs, and cable TV continue unabashedly, but I am hopeful that those captured by them will start to wonder if life is as simply explained as their media leaders are saying. After all, it is one thing to present simple ideas that can be easily understood, that capitalize on people's sense of injustice and frustration, and create an audience for their own massive incomes, but is something else altogether to actually come up with doable and workable political solutions that recognize that in a nation of over 300 million people not everyone will ever agree. 

Ultimately, I choose to trust that the American people will work things out, stumble haltingly forward, make incremental improvements in America and around the world, and continue in actualizing it's destiny of being a significant force for good in the world. We always have. We will continue to do so. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Outgoing Fed Chairman's criticism of Republican austerity

Ben Bernanke made a final appearance yesterday to discuss the economy and the role of the Fed in trying to keep the economy running.  I think he gets a lot of credit for keeping the country and the world out of a second Depression.  The Great Recession has been quite painful, but we did avoid going over a much more cataclysmic cliff.

Bernanke apparently made frequent comments about how he did the best he could to stimulate the economy in the face of fiscal austerity measures imposed by Congress which had the effect of depressing the economy.  Obviously, he thinks that the Republican choices to impose austerity and spending cuts have harmed the economic recovery.

I know that the Republican dogma is that the way to stimulate the economy is to cut taxes and shrink the government, and I used to believe that myself.  But, quite frankly, the data of the last thirty years just doesn't support that belief. 

Reagan cut taxes and the government and over his 8 years there was an 18% increase in jobs and a 12% increase in family income.  So, back in my Republican days I thought that was pretty good proof that the thing to do was cut the government, unfetter the markets, and stand back and let the economy roar, and everyone benefited.

Then, Clinton raised taxes and over his 8 years there was also an 18.6% increase in jobs and also a 12% rise in medium income.  Oops, the Reaganomics dogma was not looking so certain.

Then, George W cut taxes and it all went south – over his 8 years there was 1.6 million fewer jobs and a 2.7% decline, not increase - decline in family income.  You can try to explain away W’s economy by excusing it as being the victim of the financial crash of 2008, but the reason there was a financial crash of 2008 is that the Reaganomics ideology was to deregulate the financial industry, and a deregulated financial industry turned the financial industry into a greed monster that sucked billions from the middle classes with a manufactured housing bubble that bankrupted and unemployed millions while making multimillionaires of a few thousand financial manipulators.

By the way, the financial catastrophe ended my Republican days.  As many have said, there is no education in the second kick in the head from a mule.  (It didn't start me on a new era of Democrat days, I am now officially independent)

So, it is now apparent to me that economic growth is a function of many forces, and that cutting taxes and the government does not produce jobs and economic growth.  The experiment of the last thirty plus years just doesn't support the ideological belief in cutting taxes and government austerity as something that grows the economy.

And, indeed, Bernanke is quite clear in his criticism of Republican austerity policies.  He points out that the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Republicans’ budget cutting reduced the country’s economic growth by 1.5%.  That’s millions of jobs.

It’s a painful thing to change your political beliefs.  I have done it twice in my lifetime, and other changes may be ahead of me, but I no longer believe in Reaganomics or austerity as a way to grow the economy and jobs.  It’s an obsolete ideology to my mind. 

The data just doesn't support the belief.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Republicans --- gasp --- negotiate a budget deal!

In a hopeful display of sanity, Republican House deficit hawk Paul Ryan successfully negotiated a budget deal with Senate Democratic liberal Patty Murray.  And then he and Speaker of the House, John Boehner, sold it to House Republicans.  

They did this in order to avoid another suicidal attempt to shut down the government or default on American debt.  They did this to try to undo some of the damage created the last time they shut down the government and threatened a government default.  They did this to try to demonstrate that they were actually capable of governing the country, that is, actually capable of committing acts of politics, that is, actually capable of negotiating, compromising, cutting a deal, that is actually acting like grown ups rather than adolescent absolutists unwilling to see beyond their own ideological imperatives.

Wow. This might be the first sign of Republican sanity since the Tea Party took over the Republican Party in 2010.  

Apparently, and not unexpectedly, the expected hard core conservative activist organizations - Heritage Action, Americans for Prosperity, and Club for Growth - tried to pressure Republicans to oppose the Ryan-Murray deal.  But, as John Boehner so eloquently exclaimed:

"You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they even saw it?  ... They - they're using our members and their using the American People for their own goals, this is ridiculous!"

The Speaker's long standing patience with the extremists of his party seems to have finally come to an end. His outburst seems to have allowed House Republicans to join in open defiance of the threats from the Tea Party vigilantes.  

Republicans may actually start moving away from the grip of talk radio and the hard core activist organizations.  I believe they need to in order to survive.  

The details of the deal are fairly minor, but the deal itself could well be momentous.  As Dana Milbank wrote:

"And yet Ryan achieved something monumental this week: He persuaded his fellow conservatives to compromise,..."

And as Ryan said:

“We understand in this divided government, we’re not going to get everything we want.”

Wow.  There is hope for this government yet.  What the heck, the Republican Party might even survive the assaults from their extremist wing Tea Party.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Outrage Industry is making our country ungovernable

The authors of a new book, "The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility" by Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, have an article in that does a good job of outlining the characteristics of the Outrage Industry that has taken over our media over the last twenty or so years.  It really shows how our country is becoming ungovernable as a result of this media industry.

The outrage industry is on both the right and the left.  It is stronger on the right these days, and it has spawned the right wing extremist political Tea Party movement.  But it is on the left as well, trying mightily to spawn a left wing version of a Tea Party movement.  God help us all if they succeed.

Here are some of the characteristics of outrage tactics:
  • charismatic, personality centered voices of outrage
  • personal attacks
  • vitriol
  • moral indignation
  • name calling
  • offensive language
  • venom
  • vilification
  • fear mongering
  • ad hominem attacks
  • creation of scandals
  • conspiracy theories
  • sensationalism
  • belittling ridicule
  • mockery
  • hyperbolic forecasts of impending doom
  • rude behavior
  • incivility writ large
  • ideological selectivity
  • hyperbolic reinterpretations of current events
  • vilification of opponents
  • over-generalizations
  • communication designed for maximum emotional impact
  • reactive to events to reinterpret and reframe events to fit an ideological view
  • presenting themselves as brave and admirable
  • ideological vetting of candidates for ideological purity
  • labeling open mindedness, collaboration, and compromise as weakness
  • communication designed evoke righteous emotions of anger, indignation, fear
  • sense of inclusion and belonging in a tribe of like minded outraged people who care about how awful it all is
  • overly simplified stories that show opponents as fundamentally different than you
The article includes an example of these tactics used by the right wing Outrage Industry operative, Rush Limbaugh, and the left wing Outrage Industry operative Lawrence O'Donnell.  

The short summary, to me, is that the outrage industry is designed to create an audience for the media-outrage personalities.  It is most definitely not designed to discuss current events and foster thinking about events or politics.  It is designed to give a safe harbor for alienated and fearful people to go to in order to feel that they belong.  It is a tribal call to like minds to see the world as extraordinarily dangerous because of the existence of other tribes who must be fought, vilified and ridiculed.  It is political correctness - both right wing and left wing political correctness - exaggerated to a level of open civil war.

A simple thought experiment:  could Rush Limbaugh on the right or Bill Ayers on the left be elected president?  Of course not.  They are extremists who create an audience, not politicians who can create legislation.  So, why would anyone take their advice on whom to vote for?  They can only recommend unelectable extremists, or those who if elected would be unable to engage in the politics of governance.

So, why is there such an audience for the outrage industry?  I think there are a couple of reasons.  First it is a response to the nature of reality, which is change.  Everything changes, always.  And fear of change can be tapped into by clever media to create a very lucrative audience.  (Right wing Rush Limbaugh is said to have an annual income of $70 million, right wing Glenn Beck is about the same, left wing Rachel Maddow is a paltry $7 million but still pretty good).

Second, I think that people who are carrying unresolved issues of anger and fear and low self esteem are drawn to venues that stoke righteous emotions about how awful "others" are rather than do the personal, intimate, and sometimes unsettling work of dealing with and releasing their own unresolved emotional issues.  It is a lot easier to be outraged by the evils of the "others" than face your own internal fears and uncertainties.

The solutions?  

  • Realize that we are being manipulated by the Outrage Industry so that we can feel the safe emotions of righteousness and get a sense of belonging to our Tribe of Good People Bravely Fighting the Tribes of Bad People.  
  • Realize that the purpose of the Outrage Industry is to make lots of money and not to help us improve the country's governance.
  • Realize that we can only govern ourselves through the subtle, complicated arts of politics - which means cooperation, compromise, collaboration, deal making.  
  • Deal with our own personal fears and uncertainties in the privacy of our own hearts and minds, and avoid the lure of the easy substitutes of righteous emotions to distract us from our own personal issues.
One can hope for and expect positive change.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Talk-talk rather than war-war in Iran

The United States has entered into negotiations with Iran.  It’s about time, it seems to me.  Indeed, they have come to a temporary agreement along the path of limiting Iran’s nuclear capabilities.  Sounds good to me.  The goal for the U.S. is to keep Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and the goal for Iran is to have the sanctions lifted, or maybe more to the point, the goal for Iran is to be accepted as a normal country in the world.  

Apparently Henry Kissinger stated a while ago that Iran had to decide whether to be a cause or a nation.  Perhaps this negotiation is a good sign that they have decided to become a nation rather than a cause.  Certainly the people of Iran did their best to elect the most moderate candidate they could to be their elected leader. 

Israel is furious, or rather the right wing faction of Israel is furious.  The Republicans are furious, or rather the right wing faction of the Republican party is furious.  They decided long ago that Iran is not to be trusted, that Iran is dedicated to nuclear annihilation of Israel, and that Iran will say anything that allows them to develop the bomb and destroy Israel, and that Iran is eager to have every Iranian living in Iran become a martyr to the holy cause of eliminating Israel.  Long ago they decided this.  Long ago.

Personally, I think the right wings in Israel and the Republican party are a little nuts.  I can well imagine that Iran wants to have nukes and may be willing to be devious to get them.  But I don’t think that Iran is ready to immolate itself in order to immolate Israel.  I would imagine that if I were an Iranian I would think that if it’s OK for Israel to have nukes it should be OK for Iran to have nukes. 

At any rate, talk-talk is a lot better than war-war, and I’m glad to see Obama willing to step away from toeing the line of Israel and the Israel lobby in the U.S., and for him to come up with a less hostile and domineering approach to the Middle East.  I understand that this is especially unnerving to the Tea Party faction of the Republican Party since the foundation of that ideology seems to be a hyper-masculine, super-tough, gun-totin’ rootin’-tootin’ brand of manhood, expressed best by Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman (oddly enough).  Never compromise, or give in, or negotiate anything for any reason at any time, just stick-to-your-guns and congratulate yourself on your extraordinary bravery - this seems to be their modus operandi.

Time for a new approach.  I have hopes that Obama and Iran are on a new track that can end quite well.  Who knows, Israel might get tired of their own Sarah Palins and find a way to make deals for safety rather than intimidate their way to safety.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The nuclear option and political extremism

Democratic Majority leader, Harry Reid, exercised the "nuclear option" today in the Senate.  He passed a new rule that eliminates the 60 vote filibuster in order for a vote to go to the Senate floor for a vote.  This will apply only to presidential nominees, and will not apply to presidential Supreme Court nominees, nor will it apply to legislation.

There are two terrible things about this, in my view.  

First, I think it is terrible that the Republicans forced this to happen.  I am sure that the Reps are pleased that the Dems have gone nuclear.  This allows them to blame the Dems for the hyper-partisanship in the Senate and in Congress.  And it clears the way for them to eliminate the filibuster on everything if they take control of the Senate in 2014, which they think is now possible with Obamacare on the ropes.

But, in filibustering three consecutive judge nominees for the D.C. district court they announced loudly and clearly that they fully intended to filibuster pretty much everyone that Obama nominated.  They have a long and inglorious record of blocking Obama nominees for both the bench and for heads of departments.  The Dems did it to W as well, but not even close to as much as the Reps have done it to Obama.

Second, I think it is terrible that the Dems did this.  The good news is that the filibuster has only been eliminated for presidential appointees, and not for normal legislation.  The point of the filibuster has been to make the Senate different than the House.  In the House, the majority rules, period.  The minority might as well not even show up.  What the majority wants to pass, they pass.  An example is the Republican led House, dominated by a Tea Party bloc, has passed over 40 bills to repeal Obamacare.  With no Dem votes needed or paid attention to.  If the Senate does away with the filibuster altogether, it becomes another House of Representatives and the majority just passes whatever it wants to if they stay together.  This allows a party in power of each house to pass only hyper-partisan, ideologically pure laws.  This is already happening in the House.  No compromise, just ideological purity.  

The big issue is partisan warfare.  In the House, the war is total.  The Reps are totally dedicated to stopping any and all things the Dems want.  In the Senate, the war is almost as total, and the filibuster allowed the Reps to be almost as obstructionist as the Reps in the House.

Eliminating the filibuster allows the president to nominate more ideologically extreme judges and department heads because he won't need any votes from the opposition party.  You can say Obama never got votes from the Reps anyhow, but the world turns and time passes and this now becomes an institutional push toward more and more judges and department heads who are deeply entrenched in the ideological wars of the president and the majority party.

I hope that Obama treads lightly here, and does not appoint left wing extremists as judges and as department and cabinet heads.  If he can restrain himself and nominate candidates that he can truthfully say are more centrist and professional and would be able to get some opposition party votes if the partisan warfare weren't at such a fevered pitch, then he can help tamp down some of the future partisanship that is possible to come as a result of the new filibuster rules.  

But, if he takes this opportunity to stack the courts and appointments with left wing nutcases, he will pour gasoline on the partisan fires.  

Friday, November 15, 2013

Bill Clinton leads the charge away from Obama's false promise

When the Big Dog, Bill Clinton, tells Obama that he has to honor the promise he made to the American people that they could keep the health care plans they had if they wanted to, you know that something really bad is happening in Democrat Party land.  

First, it is astonishing that someone has to tell the president of the United States that it's not OK to make major promises on issues central to his presidency that he knows he cannot keep.  Why would anyone have to tell the president that he can't lie to the American people about something so central to his presidency and get away with it?  And it's not like Bill Clinton is St. Francis of Assisi.  He is the man who said "it depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is."  After all, "Clintonian" is a word meaning sneaky, something that sounds truthful but is not really.  

Second, Bill Clinton was just leading the charge of Democrats away from a president who has become toxic to the brand.  It looks to me like he was helping put as much distance as he could between Hilary and Obama.  Other Dems followed quickly calling for legislation that would honor Obama's deceitful promise.

I really don't understand why Obama is so inept at communication.  When he said "if you like your plan you can keep your plan" it now appears that he knew that was a lie.  He could have told a little more complicated thing like - "We put a grandfather clause in the bill that allows you to keep your plan that was in existence at the time Obamacare was signed into law. (Probably)."  That would have been true and defensible and could have been fine for the campaign.  But, Obama was trying to win re-election, so he "simplified" the message.  Or, more to the point, he lied about it.  

What on earth did he plan to do when the cancellation letters started showing up?  He knew they would.  Did he think the mainstream media would just explain it all away for him?  Did he think that he is some kind of exception and people would just forget about it and let him off the hook?  Did he think that the Reps were so discredited that no one would pay any attention to them?

This in more than a fumble or a mistake.  This is a matter of judgment and character.  

I thought that the Reps were insane to place all of their eggs in the Obamacare basket on the hope that the new law would be a catastrophe.  I thought their 40 plus votes to repeal or defund Obamacare was lunacy. I still think shutting down the government and threatening default on government bills was ridiculously stupid for them to do.  But it certainly etched it in the public's mind that they hated Obamacare.  And if Obamacare doesn't work, they may actually make political gains after all.

The Reps can't possibly be seen as a viable political party, unless, of course, they run against the Dems, who used to look reasonable, but now are weighted down by a president who looks to be a person somewhere between incompetent and deceitful.

It's probably never as bad as it seems when it's bad, and never as good as it seems when it's good, but right now it is not good for Obama, or for Dems.  Just ask Bill Clinton.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Three Silicon Valley guys took three days to create a website to sign up for Obamacare!

Three guys in their twenties. One room. Four desks. Three days. Result?  A website to sign up for new health insurance under Obamacare. Good grief!  

One of the three masterminds, George Kalogeropoulis, who created says:

"We were surprised to see that it was actually fairly difficult to use to find and understand our options," he told CNN. "Given that the data was publicly available, we thought that it made a lot of sense to take the data that was on there and just make it easy to search through and view available plans."
The result is a bare-bones site that lets users enter their zip code, plus details about their family and income, to find suggested plans in their area.
Good grief. 

The website leads you to a plan of your choice, and then it is up to you to call or click through to the insurer, or to go to the government site to sign up. Seems pretty easy, except if you try to use the government site, of course. 

                "Creating the original Sherpa site took three days and cost "several hundred dollars," according to Kalogeropoulos. The three programmers have continued fine-tuning the site as its popularity has grown. In less than a week, the site has had almost 200,000 unique visitors and over half a million page views, he said."

Cost them several hundred dollars?  

Good grief.

So, even though I get my insurance through my employer I went to the website to see how easy it was.  It was easy.  I was presented with 29 plans to choose from.  I was given a phone number to call to sign up, and given the option to click through to the insurer's website to sign up.  I was informed that I didn't qualify for a subsidy.
The prices were kind of shocking, but that is to be expected.  Insurance is costly.  So it goes.

If you are one of the few who does not get their insurance through your employer, give this site a shot.  You will be given choices in about a minute. Signing up is up to you.

Good grief.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Moffett quits pro football to protect his body and his brain

I've been writing about how football causes brain injuries which result in depression, violent behavior, even suicide in players in their later years.  I think the data is pretty conclusive, but if I look at TV it just seems hopeless for the athletes because football is a huge multi-billion dollar industry.  How will this ever go away?  It is loved by fans, by beer makers, by auto makers, by sports games makers, by TV executives, by pretty much every boy and man in the country, by football players themselves... wait, maybe not by the players themselves, at least not for some of them now, and maybe more later.

What if the football players themselves decided that they don't want to play anymore?  What if the players start to understand that it's not just their knees and bones and organs that are being destroyed so that others can make millions off of their bodies?  

What if players start to realize that no matter how tough they are, no matter how much pain they can tolerate, no matter how much they pride themselves in being able to get off the ground and come back at full speed... there is nothing they can do to toughen their brains, that blob of jello inside their skulls that gets damaged again and again and again when they block or tackle or be blocked or be tackled, even when they don't have a full loss of consciousness concussion they can start to know that they are getting brain damage with sub-concussions many times a game, a season, a career? What if they start to think even the money and glamour and fame and lifestyle isn't  worth it?

One man decided that it's not worth it.  John Moffett is walking away from a guaranteed million dollars, and from his future in pro football. What he has to say gives me hope.  

Sports radio commentator Jim Rhome had this to say today.  He says Moffitt said:

 “I just really thought about it and decided I’m not happy. I’m not happy at all. And I think it’s really madness to risk your body, risk your well-being and risk your happiness for money. Everybody, they just don’t get it and they think it’s crazy. But I think what I was doing is crazy.”
Moffitt just left a million bucks on the table and a shot at a Super Bowl run with Denver…and it’s probably the smartest thing he’ll ever do.  A million bucks is great… Quality of life is better.
And what good is the dough if you spend every single day in a dark, quiet room with a scrambled brain.  Moffitt could retire now with his mind and body intact… Or he could get fired in a few years after hundreds of more headshots, bad knees a slightly bigger nest egg.
I don’t think he’s crazy at all. I respect him for making the call.  We’d all love to have his life, and all this dude wants, is ours.
Moffett is also quoted as saying:

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A synergistic solution to health care problems

September was a bad month for the Republicans (Congressional Republicans shut down the government and tried to stop paying about 30% of the government's bills).  They looked like nutjobs who couldn't be trusted to run a car wash let alone the government.

And October was a bad month for Obama and the Democrats.  The Obamacare rollout has been a disaster.  The website is apparently terrible, and millions are losing their insurance despite repeated promises by Obama that if you wanted to keep your existing insurance you could.  

At the heart of liberalism is a trust in government.  Obama's trustworthiness is justifiably dismal, and government's trustworthiness is even lower - the government looks like it just isn't up to the size and complexity of Obamacare, which has been the conservative charge against government for decades - nameless bureaucrats with little interest in the people they serve mindlessly enforcing rules impersonally and destructively on a helpless public.

Two things that stand out loud and clear from September is that Republicans really, really hate Obamacare, and Democrats really, really like it - or at least the Dems really want it to work.

I may be one of the only people in the country that never had a strong opinion about Obamacare.  I had to agree with the Dems that the old health care system was fundamentally flawed because it didn't cover everybody, had limits on insurance payouts resulting in bankruptcy for middle class people inflicted with catastrophic medical emergencies, and denied coverage to people with pre-existing conditions (which would eventually be almost everyone as they grew older).  These were very serious problems that had to be addressed and Obamacare addressed them.  But is it functional?

On the other hand, I have to agree with the Reps that trying to take one sixth of the economy under the control of the federal government just may be more than the government is capable of handling.  

The problem with the Reps is they don't really have an alternative.  Oh, I understand there are a bunch of Reps with various ideas, but there is no easy to explain workable Republican alternative that is being championed by the party to move forward - either to fix Obamacare or to replace it with a conservative alternative that addresses coverage for everybody, prevents medical bankruptcies, and cares for people with pre-existing conditions.

I have a suggestion for the Reps to present as an improvement/replacement.  It is unlikely that anyone will champion it, but I have always liked it.

The conservative economist from Harvard, Martin Feldstein, has what could be called the 15% solution.  

The government gives every family or independent person a voucher that pays for all health care costs above 15% of their annual income.  If any want to have more coverage, they pay for more.  

This takes away bankruptcy by medical catastrophe.  It takes away previous medical history exclusions. It eliminates rationing. This takes away caps on payouts. It eliminates bureaucrats deciding which health procedures to allow.  This introduces buying savvy in the purchase of care and thus reduces the overall cost of healthcare in the country.  It keeps the insurance companies in business. It creates competition in the insurance industry to compete for clients. It's a conservative solution.

If people have problems paying the first 15% they will have a government issued credit card, at a low rate, enough to cover the bureaucratic costs of handling loans, with no profits and no exorbitant salaries.  

Everyone gets the voucher and credit card which could be used only for insurance.  Bold, easy to explain, covers everyone.  Feldstein says that costs of the vouchers is in line with existing government expenditures, so there is no increase in government costs.

Plus, surprise surprise, it would be a synergy of liberal and conservative ideas - liberal Obamacare based on caring and compassion, and conservative adjustment based on the freedom and power of markets. Both parties could be proud of creating a better health care system for the country. Of course, that would mean they would have to stop hating each other and demonizing each other.  A bridge too far?

I think it could be a good solution to our health care debacle.  Dems could see it as an improvement to Obamacare (replace full coverage for everyone with catastrophic care for everyone).  Reps could see it as a replacement (replace full care for everyone with vouchers and a government issued credit card for everyone - no fines for not participating, no incentives for not participating).
One thing is guaranteed. At this point in time the Reps have put everything into making sure Obamacare doesn't work, and Dems have put everything into making sure Obamacare does work.  

I just want a health care system that covers everyone including those with pre-existing conditions, and prevents medical catastrophe bankruptcies. If Obamacare works, those concerns are more or less handled, if it doesn't, maybe the 15% solution could work.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Meanwhile, back at the financial industry crisis of greed...

One of my favorite financial writers is Gretchen Morgenson.  She writes a weekly column on the industry for the New York Times.  Today she writes about the $13 billion fine the Justice Department is charging JP Morgan Chase, run by Jaimie Dimon.  To me, the fine is nice, and a little bit of punishment, but I don't think it does much of anything to change the flawed incentive system that led to a crisis of greed and corruption that did so much damage to the U.S. and world economies, from which we are all still suffering (except for the super wealthy, of course).

I guess there are those bemoaning that the fines were too harsh, but as Ms. Morgenson writes:
"Nobody made them underwrite toxic loans, sell them to unwitting investors and misuse beleaguered borrowers."  

Personally, I would still like to see some jail time for the leaders of these pirate institutions.  But, oh well.

She points out the obvious, that the financial giants have gotten bigger, still have an intrinsic government guarantee of being bailed out for their sins that go awry, and have gained political influence as as result of the crisis that they created in 2008.  I would add that in many ways, our democracy has been supplanted by an oligarchy led by the financial sharks fresh from their last kills.

She reminds us that the financial institutions used to be controlled by the Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial and investment banking. And although it can be claimed that such a separation might not have prevented the 2008 financial meltdown, there was one very toxic effect of the repeal of that law - the institutions themselves grew exponentially in size and power and political influence.  They became impregnable.  They took over the government.  For themselves.  Not for the benefit of the economy. For their own pocketbooks. 

But isn't that the magic of capitalism?  that when each of us operates in our own self interest the economy is guided by an invisible hand that ends up benefiting the economy itself and thus, in the long run, benefits the people in the economy?  Well, yes, unless some become too powerful and disrupt the competition that is the heart of capitalism.  Witness Teddy Roosevelt's trust busting of over a hundred years ago, which was needed to allow the proper functioning of capitalism.

She cites a professor of entrepreneurship and finance at the University of Chicago:

""When all the financial firms are the same and all large, then they are going to have the same interests and lobby in the same direction" Zingales said.  If they have competing interests because they cannot all be in the same businesses, their lobbying power shrinks."

Zingales' solution:

"First, we must force these institutions to recapitalize more" he said.  "But we must also find a more automatic trigger to force recapitalizations along the way."

The automatic trigger empowers the regulators to take over the institutions if they don't recapitalize.  That should get their attention.

Finally, Zingales recommends changing antitrust rules to include taking into account the added political influence proposed mergers would have in addition to the effect the mergers would have on competition and economies of scale.  

He concludes:

"These companies become so important politically to the state or country that it is hard to resist transforming their interests into the policy of the country."

Unfortunately, it is not much of a stretch of the imagination to see that the policies of our country have been transformed into the interests of the financial giants for quite some time.  Which would be fine, if the financial industry were focused on providing capital for capitalism, real capitalism, creating businesses and industries and jobs and economic growth.  But, the financial industry seems to have been transformed into a zero sum game where those on the inside make fortunes and those on the outside just hope our portfolios and pensions aren't destroyed by the recklessness and greed of the sharks at the top.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Brain damage evidence continues to mount for football

The great ex-quarterback, Brett Favre, says he's had scary losses of memory.  Here is his quote:

""I don't remember my daughter playing soccer, playing youth soccer, one summer. I don't remember that. ... This was pretty shocking to me. ... For the first time in 44 years, that put a little fear in me."

I just watched the documentary "Frontline: League of Denial, the NFL's Concussion Crisis".  It is very sobering.  The first NFL player to have his brain sectioned during an autopsy was the Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Mike Webster.  He played on the great teams that won four Super Bowls.  He was nicknamed "Iron Mike."  He was beloved.  He was admired for his enormous courage.  When he retired he stopped being himself.  He could not complete sentences.  He became distracted, violent, disturbed.  He died at the age of fifty.  His body was destroyed, and his mind was damaged - CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).  A degenerative disease of the brain.  Junior Seau also had CTE.  He killed himself at the age of 43 by shooting himself in the heart with the demand that his brain be autopsied to discover if it had been damaged by football.  It was.  He had undergone dramatic personality changes.  He ended the nightmare.  

The NFL paid $765 million to settle a concussion lawsuit brought by ex-players.  The NFL is doing its best to pretend to protect the players and research brain injuries and to stress "clean" play in the sport.  But the damage isn't a function of dirty play, it's a function of playing football, period.  You can't play football without contact, and you can't have contact without concussions and sub-concussions.  

Super agent, Lee Steinburg recounted his time with quarterback Troy Aikman after Aikman was knocked unconscious in a big game.  They were in his hospital room, lights very low because normal light was too painful for Aikman to bear.  Aikman asked Lee where he was, why, who won the game, etc.  Kind of disturbing to Steinburg to see the effects of the concussion.  But, ten minutes later, Aikman asked the same series of questions, with no memory of having just asked them.  And then again.  And then again.  For a few times.  Pretty shocking.

 And now Brett Favre admits to his fears about the state of his brain.

How many mothers and fathers will allow their sons to play this game which includes brain damage as an integral part of the game?  How many people can enjoy watching it once they see it with new eyes, the eyes of looking for brain damage?  I can't.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Sane Republicans save their party, for now...

So, Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid of the Senate hashed out a deal and the government will re-open and the debt limit will be raised.  The suicide wing of the Republican Party has been overcome, good news indeed, for the country, and for the Republican Party.  

Hard to imagine how the Tea Party could have hurt itself more, other than actually to have caused a U S government default on paying its bills, which so many of them actually wanted to do.  The Tea Party seems to me to be led by the Confederate Southern states, who seem to love "heroic lost causes", for example, Pickett's charge that lost the battle of Gettysburg, and the Civil War. I guess it makes them feel brave. 

It looks to me like the Tea Party is a kind of a romanticized idealism of a lost civilization, the Confederacy, and are ever dedicated to the hope that The South Will Rise Again. Or, more to the point, they seem to be dedicated to a notion of Southern manhood. I have no idea why any of the rest of the country gets sucked into their long dead fantasies. 

Sunday, October 13, 2013

George McGovern, the Tea Party, and unintended consequences

George Friedman of does a good job of going back the the political roots of the current government shutdown.  He avoids taking sides as to the issues and focuses on the system that got us here.  His basic point is that our parties are more extreme today because we are now selecting presidential candidates via a primary voting system rather than having party bosses vet candidates and choose them at the conventions.  This is a very good point, to my mind.

A few years back I saw an interview with the retired CBS news anchor, Walter Cronkite.  He said that it used to be that the party bosses would get together in the proverbial smoke filled rooms and talk about who should run for president.  Someone would mention a name and the rest would say, no way, that guy is a drunk, or that guy can't keep it in his pants, or that guy has a hair trigger temper and couldn't be trusted with the nuclear button, or that guy is a nut case fanatic who would alienate most of the country.  So, they went through a process where they ended up choosing some pretty well vetted candidates. 

Then, the Viet Nam war happened, the 1968 Democratic Party convention blew up in violence in Chicago and the party bosses (Mayor Daley and retiring president LBJ) rigged the convention to take away the nomination from the liberal anti-war candidate, Eugene McCarthy, and gave the nomination to LBJ's Vice President, Hubert Humphrey.  So, George McGovern changed all of that.  He headed a commission that would undermine the ability of the bosses to work behind closed doors to manipulate the selection process, and to have the candidates chosen by the voters.  So, the primaries became how candidates were selected.  

Sounded wonderful.  Idealism at its finest.  No more corrupt bosses imposing candidates on the public.  Hoorah!

So, what ended up happening?  

As Friedman points out, the primary system ends up automatically choosing the most ideologically pure and extreme candidates because most people are NOT ideological, they are absorbed in their lives. So, the people who select the nominees for both parties are the ideologically committed - those whose lives are centered around politics and ideology.  They choose hard core ideologues for president, senate, representative, and state offices as well.  They are the ones who vote in the primaries, which have a low turnout, and which normal people don't feel well enough informed about to cast votes.

Look at the presidential candidates that showed up for the Democrats after McGovern's institution of the primary system: George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis - pretty hard core liberals all.  Not until 1988, twenty years after the McGovern change, did a more centrist candidate, Bill Clinton win the primary nomination process.  Then they went back to pretty liberal candidates in Al Gore and John Kerry.  How liberal Obama is is a question of hot dispute.

This push toward extremism is even more pronounced in the House of Representatives and even the Senate.  Today's politicians aren't worried as much about their opponents on the other side of the isle and they are from more extremist primary challengers in their own party.  The Tea Party has become the natural consequence of the primaries system.  We can certainly expect a left wing version of the Tea Party to be right around the corner, I am afraid.

So, one of the big factors driving the polarization of today's politics is the primary system of choosing candidates and electing politicians.  Gerrymandering adds considerably to the problem, where the parties assign districts so as to make safe seats for their parties, but underneath even that force for extremism is the primary system itself.  

I share George Friedman's dismay at not being able to propose a solution.  We aren't going back to the party bosses, because today's politicians don't get their campaign money from them but through grass roots fundraisers and multibillionaire donors who are fervidly dedicated to single issues or other forms of extremist groupings of issues.

My hope is that today's dysfunctional government situation will wake up enough normal people that they will pay attention, and will influence the primaries away from the take-no-prisoner-and-never-compromise-or-negotiate extremists and vote for men and women who are more interested in becoming actual politicians, i.e. people with principles and ideals who understand that the nature of governance is politics, which involves making deals to get the best that you can for your side and moving on to the next issue.

Friday, October 11, 2013

How does a political party destroy itself?

How does a political party destroy itself? One way is by causing so much pain in the country that no one will vote for them anymore (except the fanatical utopianists within the fevered ideological bubble, of course). The question now seems to me to be whether the Republican Party can save itself from the Tea Party fanatics before the fanatics create massive pain to the country.

Shut the government down unless they get their way?  Stop writing checks for about 30% of government obligations unless they get their way?  In a democracy the way you get to get your way is to win elections. The minority doesnt get to force everyone else to give in to their demands by simply sabotaging the very operation of democracy itself.

I have written for some time now that I think the Republicans are destroying themselves. I have been thinking that they would be so discredited in the eyes of the voting public that they would end up in a precipitous decline at the polls.  But, I am starting to worry that the way that this may play out is that the fanatics are actually able to get their way and it will create a world wide financial catastrophe and depression.  

That would certainly end the Republican Party, but I hope it doesn't come to that. I hope that the Republican Party can marginalize the fanatics before they cause us all that much pain.  Let the Tea Party destroy itself by having the Republican Party turn their back on them and get back to the business of doing what they are paid to do, i.e. govern, i.e. negotiate, i.e compromise.  

Monday, September 30, 2013

Tea Party on the brink of destruction

The hard core right wing Tea Party wing of the Republican Party is finally getting what it wants, to shut down the government which it hates so much.  The idea is to shut off the spigot of goodies that create a culture of dependency.  So the only thing they really want to end are those programs that help people in need.  They seem to be obsessed by the notion that a small percentage of people abuse the entitlement programs like food stamps and Medicare.  This is just silliness, in my opinion.

I don't think it is possible for any big program of any big organization to be run with absolutely no fraud or abuse.  But does that mean that the program shouldn't exist?  Are bridges built without some fraudulent cost over-runs?  Are airports built without any featherbedding of contracts?  Any huge endeavor has potential for abuse, but should we abandon building bridges or airports because of that?  I think the obvious answer is to fight the abuse but keep the programs. That is what management is all about, isn't it?

How about the financial industry, if one is looking for corruption and abuse of a massive, complicated system?  Are we to shut down the banks because the upper management has turned them into corrupt sources of multi-millions for themselves?  I would dearly love to see some of the top thieves in the financial industry ruined financially and sent to jail, but even I don't want the banks themselves to disappear.

So, the Tea Party seems to be suffering under the delusion that they can blame Obama for the government shutdown.  What nonsense.  The hard core right wing, the Confederate wing of the Republican party, is doing what it knows how to do, destroy itself while it congratulates itself for its manly courage.  I think it is no accident that the heart of the hard core is in the old confederate states, the deep south, with Texan Republican Ted Cruz proclaiming himself to be the face of the "rebellion." 

One of the things that I am seeing so clearly in all of this is how ideology works.  Those inside the ideological bubble see themselves as being at the heart of a world changing movement that is destined to sweep us all up in it so that we can all see the brilliant light of its goodness and truth.  That's what the Communists thought, that's what the Fascists thought, that's what the Libertarians think, that's what the Evangelicals think.  As a matter of fact isn't that what the Catholics thought as they were torturing their way to dominance in the Spanish Inquisition?  Isn't that what the Islamist Jihadists think while they blow themselves up in crowded places?  

They are delusional.  Too bad that their delusions are so costly and painful to all the rest of us.

Fanaticism is not an attractor.  Closing the government is the action of a three year old child - throwing a tantrum and holding their breath until they get their way.

Well, they are not going to get their way, but they will drive people out of the Republican Party.  I left in 2010 when the Tea Party took it over and I found them to be repulsively intolerant, inflexible, and childishly willful.

But, maybe that is what they really want after all, to follow in the footsteps of their ideological founders, the Confederacy - to bravely fight a hopeless battle and feel very manly while they are destroyed by those who see them as nutcases, and who just turn away.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Syria - bumbling, fumbling, stumbling, but managing to stay out of their Civil War? So far...

Bumbling, fumbling, stumbling... oh dear, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are having real problems with Syria.  Why?  Are they incompetent fools?  Maybe.  But the real problem is the Middle East and how it compares to American values and interests.

It seems to me that there are some obvious truths.

First, the Middle East really seems to want to have a Middle East wide civil and religious war and carve up the Middle East along religious and sectarian lines - Shia, Sunni, Kurd, Allawite, and whoever else is out there wanting to live only with people just like themselves and are anxious to kill everyone else. 

I think it would be very nice if they all just got along and allowed religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity and tolerance, but the area is centuries behind the West in this respect, and the West isn't real good at it either, witness the bitter conflicts between the South and the Tea Party on one hand, and the North and the Liberals on the other.  At least we had our Civil War a century and a half ago, so the shooting is over, I hope.

Second, the nation does not, does not, does not want to go back into the sands of Middle East and spend its blood and treasure trying to pick sides between, or even to calm down, the killers in those civil and religious wars.

Third, the West finds it almost impossible to stand by and do nothing when we see brutality, slaughter, and massacre on our TVs and computer screens.  

Fourth, the interests of the U.S. and the West are best served by Syria remaining in the control of the Assad regime, but not Assad himself, rather than being taken over by radical islamist jihadists.  The Assad regime has no particular aim to kill Americans or other Westerners, whereas jihadists seem dedicated to killing infidels wherever they find them.  How to show the compassion of civilized people without empowering jihadist fanatics?

So, what can a president do?  Any president?  Of either party? Given these completely contradictory forces?  Probably either look like a bumbling, stumbling, fumbling fool, by being indecisive, kind of like Obama - or look like a bull in a china shop trashing and crashing everything he touches by being really decisive and militarily strong, kind of like W. 

Why is Syria of interest to us?  It's not, really.  But humanitarian hawks want to Do Something.  Why was Iraq of interest to us? It wasn't, really, but neocon hawks wanted to Do Something.  I was one of those, to my regret now.  

If I thought that adding American military to the Middle East would end the slaughter there, I might think it was OK.  But, as best as I can tell, American blood in Middle Eastern sands only adds more deaths, not fewer.  They are going to have to fight their way into newly drawn countries, or learn to live with each other, and the U.S. and the West aren't going to be able to have much to do with that process, as best as I can tell.

I continue to think our only option is to try to identify and train and support those factions that are more modernist and moderate.  Or at least, once some winners emerge, to add our expertise and guidance to allow them to create pluralistic democracies.  Our hopes were raised by the February 11 peaceful uprising in Egypt that deposed Mubarak, but that beautiful movement of the bulk of the Egyptians was taken over by... the Muslim Brotherhood, who proceeded to build an islamist dictatorship.  Not exactly a surprise, at least in retrospect.  

The real hope that I have is that they get tired of killing each other and decide to find a way to either separate from each other as a function of diplomacy, or to find a way to live together in relative peace.  

I concluded after the disaster of the Viet Nam war that I should only support a U.S. war if a mother and father could look at each other upon hearing of the death of a child in that war and say to each other that the pain of that loss is unbearable but at least we can comfort ourselves by knowing that our child died for a worthy cause.  I don't see how getting sucked into the Middle Eastern Civil and Religious wars satisfies that criterion.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

I can't enjoy watching a sport that includes brain damage

 I lost interest in baseball and football when they became showcases for cheating by using steroids and other performance enhancing drugs to ruin the games. Football has an even deeper reason for me to not watch - brain damage. I just can't enjoy watching a sport that has brain damage as an integral part of the sport.

In the '60s I was an avid football and boxing fan.  I thought the athletes were the pinnacles of athletic excellence.  I loved the sports.  Muhammed Ali, Joe Frazier, Jim Brown, Dick Butkus, Joe Montana, Jerry Rice - these were thrilling heroes to me, and it filled me with many hours of joy to watch them.  

But then, the drugs ruined the games for me because of the inhuman levels of size and strength and speed of the players.  In a way, baseball was more spoiled for me than football because at least the football players were all supersizing at the same time and the competitors were still on a par with each other, whereas in baseball the game is a balance between the geometry of the ballparks and the strengths and abilities of the players, and when they became supersized they outgrew the dimensions of the parks, and the statistics became meaningless.

And now, we know the terrible price that football players are paying for the enjoyment of the sports fan - permanent brain damage.  I always knew that the players crippled their knees, shoulders, backs, feet, elbows, etc. but thought that if they were willing to pay the price, I would just ignore the whole issue and admire them all the more for their physical courage.  

But brain damage is different.  A football player cannot do anything to make his brain immune to concussion and permanent damage.  Better designed helmets will not protect his brain from concussion.  Apparently, it is not just the vicious headhunting practices where a tackler or blocker tries to knock out an opponent, but rather it is on most plays that blockers and blocked, and tacklers and tackled, jar their brains enough that even then they suffer a form of concussion that is less than a total loss of consciousness and is enough to kill off brain cells and create conditions for brain disease.

Famously, one of the greatest linebackers, Junior Seau, and Dave Duerson as well, committed suicide by shooting themselves in their hearts so that their brains could be studied postmortem.  Their brains showed that they had been suffering from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a brain disease caused by multiple concussions and sub-concussions, as a result of a lifetime in football.  The result?  A lifetime of dementia, confusion, depression, aggression, violence, and even suicide.  Much too big a price to pay for the enjoyment of sports' fans.

The sport has become a multibillion dollar industry.  It is the main advertising venue for beer and cars, a symbol of hyper masculinity that viewers try to identify with and imitate.  I think one of the reasons we have an obesity epidemic in America is because men have an image of masculinity where being thee hundred pounds is admired.  Weighing three hundred pounds is pretty easy to accomplish with beer and pizza and sugars.  How many couch potatoes with one hundred pound bellies think of themselves as fitting into the mold of supersteroided and growth-hormoned football freaks?  The nation is killing its athletes and its fans at the same time with a love of a game that is intrinsically damaging to its participants.

Enough of my rant.

Enough of football too, as far as I'm concerned.  How many fathers will let their sons play a game that will cripple their bodies and permanently damage their brains?  

The NFL is trying to put this all behind them by settling a lawsuit and promising to make the game safer.  They are fooling themselves.  The damaged veteran players are not going to go softly into the night, and neither are their families and lawyers. They shouldn't.

I watch golf and love it.  No steroids that help performance, no brain damage, no injuries that cripple golfers for life, a code of honor and honesty rather than of cheating and winning at any cost.  It is actually a sport rather than a sports racket that uses up athletes and throws them on the dung heap when they are washed up.

I think football is on its death bed, and I think it knows it. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Humanitarian hawks under Obama are pretty similar to neocons under W

Susan Rice and Samantha Power are a lot like Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol in that they are each ideologues who push for military action against tyrants, just from different sides of the political spectrum.  Obama has humanitarian hawks pushing him, W had neocons pushing him.  I have hopes that Obama is less malleable that W was, and that he will manage to keep us out of a major military involvement in Syria.

As I wrote before, the U.S. has no real national interest in Syria.  David Stockman writes passionately in that the U.S. needs to get out of the business of military interventions that aren't connected to defending the homeland or connected to real, tangible issues of national security.  His main point is that after WWI and after WWII the U.S. cut its military in half because it wasn't needed to be the same size as during such huge wars.  But, after the U.S. won the Cold War the military was not slashed appropriately, but rather we have charged out into the world to make things right by either the ideologies of those on the right or those on the left.  Key quote:

"The screaming strategic truth is that America no longer has any industrial state enemies capable of delivering military harm to its shores: Russia has become a feeble kleptocracy run by a loud-mouthed thief, and the Communist Party oligarchs in China would face a devastating economic collapse within months were they to attack their American markets for sneakers and Apples. So the real question now before Congress is, how is it possible that the peace-loving citizens of America, facing no industrial-scale military threat from anywhere on the planet, find themselves in a constant state of war?"

9/11 certainly happened, but are the fanatical Islamists really all that concerned about overthrowing the U.S.?  Didn't they just want us out of the deserts?  Why do we keep meddling in their religious and civil wars?

Secrertary of State John Kerry made a lovely, impassioned speech trying to inspire Congress to do the right thing and avenge the deaths of innocents by chemical gas.  But, does anyone think that Assad is going to unleash sarin gas and wipe out half the population of the U.S.?  Stockman says that the propaganda war machine is constantly:

"...falsely transforming tin-pot dictators and tyrants like Ho Chi Minh, Daniel Ortega, Slobodan Milosevic, the Taliban, Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, and now Bashar al-Assad into dangerous enemies... Only after the fact, when billions in taxpayer resources have been squandered and thousands of American servicemen have been killed and maimed, do we learn that it was all a mistake, that the collateral destruction vastly exceeded the ostensible threat, and that there remains not a trace of long-term-security benefit to the American people."

As to Syria, the U.N., NATO, the Arab League, pretty much everyone is staying out of this one.  But, the U.S. left wing humanitarian hawks are so appalled at watching bad people do bad things that they feel compelled to Do Something.  But, how do we drop missiles into a civil war without it blowing up in our faces?  How do we stick a military toe into the quicksand without eliciting a response that demands our whole foot?

The real question that the left wing humanitarian hawks and the right wing neocons never really understood the answer to was, what happens after the bad guys are dethroned? Quite frankly, Assad is bad for the Syrians, but he's not bad for the national interests of the U.S.  The guys fighting him are very bad for the U.S., as I understand it, al Nusra is associated with al Qaeda. I have hopes that modernists and moderates can gain power over time, and I hope the U.S. and the west can help them take over.  But that is not going to be helped with missiles form ships offshore now, as best as I can tell.

George Friedman of observes that Obama has no appetite for nation building in Syria.  He has learned the sorrowful lessons of W's failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and from his own failures in Lybia.  He suggests an interesting possibility, that the Alawite regime stay in place but get rid of Assad.  That sounds interesting to me.  It could open the door to reduced slaughter by the regime and open the door to some political negotiations.  I wonder if Russia could offer Assad asylum?  Or maybe Iran?  He seems to have friends.  Or the Alawite regime could just let him die of pneumonia or some such.

One thing for sure, whatever Obama and the U.S. does, he and we will be blamed for everything that happens in the Middle East.  Friedman sums up ironically:

"It is not easy to be president, nor is it easy to be the world's leading power. It is nice to be able to sit in moral judgment of men like Assad, but sadly not have the power to do anything. Where life gets hard is when sitting in moral judgment forces you to do something because you can. It teaches you to be careful in judging, as the world will both demand that you do something and condemn you for doing it."

I think it is too late, and Obama feels he must do a Limited Attack.  I pray that it is a one time shot, or better yet that Congress says no and Obama concedes, just as Cameron did in Britain.  Sometimes, a president needs to let the country talk him into using common sense, and Just Say No to the very well intentioned but wrong ideologues in his own administration.