Archive for the ‘Politics 2011’ Category

The Thinker

Philanderers for president!

Are you a better person for being married only once? That’s what I was wondering today as I read this article in the Washington Post. Mitt Romney, currently polling second among Republicans in the run for the party’s presidential nomination, doesn’t have a string of broken marriages to point to. Gosh, he’s been married to the same woman for more than forty years! He likes to draw attention to the fact because it shows you just how much he believes in marriage. You might say he’s a marriage pro. First time up and he hits a home run. Thus, as your president, he’ll hit them all out of the park because his eye is keen and his stroke is true.

You can’t say the same thing about Newt Gingrich, currently the top choice in most polls of Republicans for the same nomination. Twice divorced, he is now on wife number three (Camilla), who he apparently bedded while still married to wife number two (Marianne). Marianne should have seen it coming though because Newt apparently bedded her while still married to wife number one (Jackie). All these are mistakes in Newt’s past that he candidly acknowledges and says he regrets. To show that he has had a change of heart, he has signed the National Organization for Marriage’s pledge that he will faithfully work for a constitutional amendment defining marriage nationally as the union between one man and one woman. Curiously, the pledge does not require him to be faithful to Camilla, which may be good for Newt given his track record. Not to worry, Newt has said pledged publicly that he will be faithful to her. If this were truly a concern of Camilla’s (and I have my doubts), I’d make him wear a chastity belt and keep the only key.

Anyhow, congratulations to Mitt and wife Ann and forty-two years of perfect fidelity! The great thing about Mitt is I can look at him and know he never cheated on Ann. This is in part because Mormons seem to have some sort of secret inoculation (I think it’s the Terminal Guilt Vaccine), but also because you can see it in Mitt’s eyes: he’s just not the philandering type. He’s just a simple and kind of goofy guy. If he were a horse, he’d insist he wear blinders. Mitt too has signed the NOM pledge, which suggests he wants the rest of us to wear blinders too. It’s just like those monkeys on Captain Kangaroo: hear no evil, speak no evil, and see no evil. It’s that simple folks, married folks. Except of course for the sinful and chronic philanderers like Newt Gingrich and countless other politicians who don’t measure up to his high moral stature.

Should you vote for Mitt because he is a faithful guy? That should be a strike in his favor if you are a conservative, because true conservatives want to go back as far as possible into the past and relive those glory days. And back in, say, the 18th century, divorce was simply unavailable in the United States. Back then you might as well have connected husband and wife together with a ball and chain. In any event, if found guilty of adultery it was likely a crime and, channeling Nathaniel Hawthorne, fallen women like Hester Prynne might be forced to go around with a big scarlet A on their bodices.

Even if you are a conservative, you might want to give the virtue of fidelity as a reason for voting for someone a second thought. Curiously, Newt did some of his best work as a conservative while cheating on Marianne. Working with Bill Clinton, another fellow philanderer (perhaps that’s why they got on so well), welfare benefits were fundamentally changed and the federal budget actually got balanced. Perhaps it was all that testosterone surging through him due to Camilla’s womanly charms, but he managed to affect change on a magnitude that even Saint Ronald Reagan could not pull off. Remember the episode “Mirror, Mirror” in the original Star Trek’s second season, where an alternate Captain Kirk keeps a convenient captain’s whore in his quarters? If I wanted to further conservative values and Newt became our next president, I’d be chipping in to get Newt a presidential concubine. She might do her best work underneath the desk in the Oval Office.

What amazing accomplishments can the faithful Mitt Romney claim as governor? Well, there was that Massachusetts health care plan, which Democrats modeled in the Affordable Care Act. Now, of course, conservatives revile the ACA for being allegedly socialist. More importantly, it’s reviled because Democrats passed it and that Black-Muslim-Kenyan-socialist-apostate President Obama signed it. In short, all that faithfulness was not only unhelpful to conservative causes; it actually was a detriment. It appears to have interfered with clear conservative thinking.

Curiously, chronic philanderers Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton rate among our most productive politicians. Nice faithful guys like Mitt Romney get one term as governor. Even slimeballs like Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois recently sentenced to 14 years in a federal prison, got two terms as governor. Americans were generally peeved that Clinton was brought up on impeachment charges, and figuratively cried when he left office, giving him approval ratings in the sixties.

Of course, if you are trying to throw sand into the gears of government, maybe a true conservative is what you want. Maybe you should vote for Ron Paul, another candidate whose faithfulness I cannot question. (This is due, in part, to suffering through this movie.) If Ron Paul had his way, our federal government would be largely a shell of what it is today. People like Newt Gingrich though tend to enlarge government because exercising power is not about diminishing power. Think about it: if you diminish your power, you can’t exercise it at some later time. Having power is about making your enemies pay and giving their horde to your friends. Only a die-hard idealist like Ron Paul might actually succeed in shrinking government. To do this, at your center, you have to be ideology centered rather than ego driven.

Unsurprisingly, this is not true of any of the other Republican candidates. They are all drooling from the corners of their mouths because they want to exercise power. If power is diminished, that means everyone has less of it. And where’s the fun in that? It might mean, for example, no constitutional amendment to declare marriage as between only one man and one woman, because you sure don’t want to spend tax money enforcing it. And that might mean deciding defining what a marriage is becomes a matter for each state and keeping the federal government’s hands off the whole issue. That’s not cool. You cannot enforce an ideology that way.

If I actually wanted a politician to get something done and have to pick between a faithful politician and a philandering one, I’ll pick the philandering one. After all, having an illicit affair is not a simple matter. It requires complex skills, surreptitious behavior and high stakes. That sounds kind of what we need in a pragmatic president.

So I say: philanderers for president! And, “Go Newt!”

 
The Thinker

Iraq and Afghanistan: the folly slowly winds down

The end result will be a gradual deterioration and failure of both endeavors [Iraq and Afghanistan] as casualties and costs go through the roof and as Americans grow tired of a conflict with no clear exit criteria. Eventually we will declare a weak victory and leave, but no one will be fooled: we will have had our hands burnt and will be unlikely to indulge in such reckless military adventurism for the foreseeable future.

Occam’s Razor
November 3, 2003

It won’t be like the final episode of M*A*S*H. When the final helicopter with U.S. soldiers flies out of the Green Zone by the end of this month, there will be no “Goodbye” spelled out in rocks on the ground below. For the vast majority of Iraqis, if anything were to be written to express their feelings about our war and occupation, it would be “Good Riddance”. It took us eight long years, at least a trillion dollars in direct costs and likely three trillion or more dollars in final costs, not to mention at least 4,483 casualties just in Iraq to do what exactly? Do we even remember why we invaded Iraq in the first place?

Most Americans have forgotten. We tuned out the Iraq War around 2007 and to the extent we focused on our soldiers overseas, we turned our attention to Afghanistan instead. Just in case you forgot, we had to invade Iraq because it had weapons of mass destruction that it was getting ready to unleash against our allies and us. You knew it was true because in front of the U.N. Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to satellite photos of railroad cars that he said contained portable chemical laboratories that made nerve gas and other internationally outlawed chemical agents. Those weapons of mass destruction were right there!

Except of course they were not but once invaded for a mistake we found it inconvenient to quietly leave. We had won an unnecessary war in Iraq, but almost immediately lost the peace. Iraq, held together by Saddam Hussein’s terror, quickly split into its ethnic factions that quickly got back to doing what they used to do when there was no strongman: wage religious and ethnic war on each other. To enforce something resembling peace, we compartmentalized much of Baghdad into ethnic enclaves complete with two story concrete high separation walls and what feels even today like a billion checkpoints. It never stopped the violence. Nothing really did, although it was curious that violence seemed to at least ebb the more our soldiers stayed on base.

Yes, by the end of the month we will be out, except for the 16,000 or so Americans who will be attached to our embassy in the Green Zone. It’s unclear to me why we need 16,000 Americans in the Green Zone, particularly after talking with a former ambassador to Iraq in the 1980s (who happens to be a member of my church) who oversaw what was then the doubling of staff in Iraq, to 32 people.

Supposedly we are leaving behind a peaceful and stable Iraq, but of course this is a lie. Bombings continue regularly, but rarely make the news these days because they have become so routine. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to be imitating the dictator we toppled. Security in Baghdad and elsewhere, to the extent it exists, is handled by troops sworn to loyalty to him. al-Maliki also takes after Saddam Hussein because he has no problem with torturing his fellow citizens, although perhaps he is less egregious in it than Hussein was. One major change: al-Maliki is a Shi’ite where Hussein was a Sunni. Just as Hussein found it convenient to keep a few trusted Shi’ites on the staff, al-Maliki seems to have found it convenient to keep some Sunnis on the staff as well. It’s unclear if democracy has really taken hold in Iraq or not, but it there is plenty of evidence, like with recent elections in Russia, that there is mucho ballot stuffing. Maybe this is a sign of progress.

In any case, our American soldiers leave with a whimper, not a bang, and we will be lucky if our last soldiers only have shoes thrown at them as we exit. President Obama can at least take credit for getting us out of Iraq. We leave behind a country still very much at civil war, but with a shell of a democracy and a three trillion dollar price tag.

Over in Afghanistan, things are not that dissimilar. The government of president Hamid Karsi is thoroughly corrupt, and we don’t like it, but largely choose to do nothing about it. Corrupt Afghani governments are as Afghani as apple pies represent the taste of American, so there is not much new here except that the Taliban, at least for the moment, are not in charge, at least not in Kabul. It seems likely that they will be shortly after we make our own Goodbye, Farewell and Amen episode. Thanks to our largess, they might be able to be bought off, at least for a while, buying us a few years of the illusion of leaving Afghanistan as a stable democracy. Most likely the Taliban are more religious than idolaters of American manna. The good news is that the Taliban probably have learned one lesson: don’t let al Qaeda and their affiliates set up shop, or out come our cruise missiles and special forces. Otherwise, we won’t care if they oppress their women and decapitate errant sinners in their public squares again. Well, we will certainly denounce it, but we won’t do anything to stop it. The bottom line: sponsoring terror is okay, just not against our interests or us.

But American troops can’t leave Afghanistan quite yet. Obama first has to wind the conflict down in stages, and leave it just stable enough for us to skedaddle out of there as well without too many mortars hurdled at us as we exit. All bets are off, of course, if a Republican wins the presidency in 2012. Republicans seem pathologically unable not to flex military muscle, except for maybe Ron Paul, which might be a reason to vote for him.

Within a few years we should have wound down both conflicts. The cost of our adventure proved ruinous, as I predicted, but did plenty to keep the defense industry alive. What have we won? Arguably we succeeded in wiping out al Qaeda, now a shadow of its former self. This likely could have been done without invading Afghanistan, and certainly without the folly of invading and occupying Iraq. If we take as a lesson learned to stop invading foreign countries that annoy us, perhaps that will justify the cost in the long run. Our history since Vietnam though suggests we won’t retain our lessons for long, so we are probably doomed to repeat the lesson. Perhaps next time though our creditors will just say no. The perhaps we will learn to make peace instead of war. Here’s hoping.

 
The Thinker

Governments should not be run like a business

It’s hard to listen to a politician today without hearing them tell you that the problem with government is that it’s not being run like a business. For example, Mitt Romney says his private sector experience running a venture capital firm (Bain Capital) was great preparation for being governor of Massachusetts and, he hopes, president of the United States.

In reality, a primary reason our government is as messed up as it is is because incoming politicians have tried to treat government as a business. The resulting mess tends to be ugly and ruinously expensive. As one example, for a couple of decades now our esteemed national leaders have declared that since the private sector can do everything better than the government, we must outsource as much of the government as possible to gain the wonderful efficiencies of the private sector.

Outsourcing the government has been great for businesses, but not so much for government and for the taxpayers. Ask Blackwater. There was a need, they had the product and they had a business model designed to shaft the government. A grunt private, even with pension and various other benefits costs a tiny fraction of the cost of a guard provided by Blackwater. How much more? It’s hard to say exactly, but add in benefits, profit and nice corporate offices in Arlington, Virginia and even the most unskilled guard from Blackwater likely bills at least $100 an hour. A private does not have a problem following orders. It’s not just a good idea, it’s required, even when inconvenient. Failure to do so may result in a courts marshal. Ask a Blackwater contractor to do something not explicitly in the contract and they will either refuse or it will require the payment of some sort of high usury fee.

Businesses are entities designed to make profits. Governments expressly don’t want to make profit because taxpayers resent paying a dime more in taxes than they have to pay. If government were truly run as a business, the IRS would charge processing fees to process your tax return and charge $1 a minute for tax advice over the phone. In fact many of us pay a fee to file a tax return, but the government doesn’t get a dime. It’s private sector entities that add value and profit by facilitating the transaction so you can get a refund faster.

If government charged a fee for every service, it would grow corrupt. How many civil servants do you see driving around in luxury cars? I’m a pretty well paid civil servant, and I’ve never come close to having the income to buy a Lexus. Those few that do are likely political appointees or elected officials, and with luck their crimes will be discovered by salaried detectives and prosecuted by salaried DAs.

Here’s the thing: the civil service works best when people are paid a respectable but not lavish living wage, they are held to a strict and impartial code of conduct and they are permitted to exercise as much independent judgment as their position allows. I know this from working inside it for thirty years. When you get a fair deal, you have incentive to work in the interest of the government. Job security in the government is not something evil; it is a feature of a job that enhances loyalty and makes it easier to put the peoples’ business first. Pay a civil servant too little and there is incentive to take bribes. This is the problem in most third world countries where bribery is rife: no one can afford to live on the pittance that is their actual salary. Corruption simply breeds more corruption. Paying civil servants a living wage solves the problem.

There are so many silly myths about the private sector that you would think experience would have debunked them. One is that businesses are oh so efficient. Businesses tend to be as efficient as they need to be and never more. The ones who are really bad at efficiency tend to go out of business. Small businesses in particular have a hard time at it. People think they are cut out for being an entrepreneur, but in reality it is very hard and the odds are against you. Take a look at the docket at your local county bankruptcy court sometime. Look at the stack of business bankruptcy filings. Businesses fail all the time, some for reasons that suggest incompetency, some because they have the wrong product or service for the market, but usually for both reasons. Every business out there wants to have a lock on a particular market so they can raise prices and reduce quality. That’s why companies like Google and IBM spend significant amounts of money to buy out competitors. They don’t invite competition. They want to cut competition off at the knees. This is done by means legal, legal but unethical, and outright criminal actions which pragmatic businesses do hoping they won’t get caught. An obvious example: companies like Citibank accused of robo-signing hundreds of thousands of home foreclosures.

Maybe that’s fine in the world of business, but do we really want to inculcate this attitude in our government? I would hope not! Government exists to address common societal issues that are not suited to business. Some of the reasons are because they must be done impartially, because the work in inherently unprofitable, and because there are long-term interests that need to be addressed.

This may be hard to believe, but there are some things the government does much better than the private sector. In general, education is one of them. It may be hard to believe when you think about failing inner city public schools, but most schools are not failing and get high marks from parents. There are enormous efficiencies when you can buy textbooks for a school district in bulk, or need to ensure that 10,000 teachers adhere to the same standards, or that your students at least get one healthy and nutritious meal a day in the school’s lunchroom.

The public sector is exceptionally cost effective delivering higher education, as evidenced by state universities near you with well moneyed alumni. A public college tends to be half the cost, or less, than a private college, and often achieve better results. They serve a critical need: making higher education relatively affordable, something the private sector could not do, which is why government created them. Community colleges are an even bigger bargain. I am wrapping up teaching a semester course at a community college. I was hired to teach the course for less than $3000. My students got plenty of individual attention. They paid a few hundred dollars each for the course. It just so happens that a similar course is available down the street from Oracle Education, at a cost of several thousands of dollars. Arguably, my students got a much richer educational experience at a tenth of the cost. Yes, community colleges are bargains, which is why they are expanding like crazy and are one of the growth sectors in this crazy economy. What’s not? Try private colleges, particularly career-oriented private colleges like Kaplan University, owned by the Washington Post. Their success rate is miserable and their costs are high. They do excel at convenience, but they have little incentive to make sure their students graduate. They are after a profit, not the success of the student.

In general, government is a much different domain than the private sector. You want those leading your government to be people who understand this, and understand what makes government work efficiently and effectively. You want leaders who align the government with the current and future needs of the citizenry. You don’t want someone who thinks that a private sector business model will work in this domain. Instead, you want someone who has demonstrated competence leading and managing governments and other non-profit institutions. This leaves out most of those currently running for president. You would be wise not to vote for any of them, because they are likely to leave your government worse off when they leave.

 
The Thinker

Master liar

I’ll give Herman Cain one thing: he is a great liar.

Of course, I cannot say for certain that Cain is lying about denying incidents of alleged sexual harassment and, more recently, denying an alleged 13-year on-again, off-again affair with an Atlanta-based divorcee. On the latter allegation, Cain at least admits a friendship with the alleged other woman, Ginger White. He admits giving her money from time to time. From the voluminous cell phone logs provided by Ms. White, it would be hard to deny they traded a lot of text messages, including one at 4:30 in the morning.

That’s quite a “friendship” you have there, Herman. Can I get in on this act? I suspect though I would not qualify for your offer because I am inconveniently a male and thus not quite the sort of “friend” you are looking for. I’d be glad to take your free money for being “friends”, as long as you don’t expect me to answer text messages at 4:30 a.m. Ideally, we’d be just Facebook friends.

My gut though tells me that Cain is just another in a long line of serial philanderers and sexual harassers so full of themselves they believe they are God’s gift to humanity, and in this case, the United States too. If I were in the top one percent like he is, maybe my ego would bloat up too, like a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in a Thanksgiving Day parade. Then maybe I could lie convincingly like Herman Cain. To lie like he does, you first have to be shameless. He seems to have all the qualifications there. This is, after all, a guy who feels free to berate the 99% for being failures because they are not among the 1%. It is much easier to imagine this than all these women being shameless too in order to get a day in the national news. If so, they probably had a terrific mentor. Unfortunately for Cain, there are all sorts of corroborating evidence: phone logs, overly personal handwritten notes in books that he has signed and memories of intimates of the accusers when these incidents happened. So as much as I might want to give Cain benefit of the doubt, the evidence suggests, if a fire never happened, something sure is smoldering.

I imagine learning to lie convincingly takes practice. It requires acting, although in Cain’s case he may have done it for so long that it has become like a second skin. One of the reasons I am so bad at lying is because I have so rarely attempted it. There are many reasons for this, but most likely it is because in my formative years I learned that lying was a sin. I learned this not just on my pappy’s knees, but also from various Sisters of Charity with long yardsticks and a flair for inflicting corporal punishment. So whenever I have lied I felt guilt. But more often I felt shame, which was painfully easily read on my face.

African Americans like Cain may have an advantage here: their darker faces make it easier to hide a flushed face. Or perhaps he never learned to feel ashamed about lying. Regardless, the art of lying convincingly requires no fear. Raise that chin. Look the camera directly in the eye. Do not hyper-blink. Be the person you want to project. This probably becomes easier as you rise in the corporate world. People learn to fear you, or at least act in a submissive fashion. The world should move around you, rather than the other way around. This approach has the “virtue” of providing an element of doubt. If you can charge fearlessly ahead in spite of these allegations like Cain, it is easier to give the benefit of the doubt to the candidate, particularly if you are inclined to vote for him anyhow.

I do wonder what would happen if there were incontrovertible proof. If Cain and White did have sex, there may be DNA evidence lying around. This certainly was bad news for Bill Clinton but at least he was already president at the time. Cain might regret his absolute denials. Meanwhile the Cain campaign is hedging, saying it is “reassessing” his candidacy. An untimely withdrawal from the race may be as close as we get of an admission of guilt.

I would not be surprised, as in the case of Jenny Sanford, if some weeks after Cain’s withdrawal from the race we learn that his wife Gloria has filed for divorce. Then, instead of people remembering Cain for his 9-9-9 plan, his fortunes reversed, we may remember 666 instead: the Number of the Beast.

 
The Thinker

Give ‘em a real holiday

I don’t know if you have noticed, but real holidays have been slowly disappearing. It’s getting almost impossible to find a holiday that is, well, a holiday. If you are thinking that a holiday is the same thing as having a paid day off during the week to shop, Madison Avenue blesses you. If you are thinking a holiday is a day where you stay home and your employer pays for it, and everything that represents the hassle of normal life pretty much shuts down then, like the Grinch, you have some idea of the true meaning of a holiday. A holiday is a day when life generally stops. It’s like being retired for a day. It’s a mental health day.

It’s hard to believe but this is the way it used to be. On Memorial Day during the decades following the Civil War, when it was better known as Decoration Day, the only work-like activity was decorating the graves of civil war soldiers and with about 700,000 of them there were plenty to decorate. The big event of the day was watching the parade down Main Street, but that was about it. If you felt ambitious, maybe you went back home and roasted some ears of corn or hamburger steaks on a grill in the backyard. Our Civil War seems almost trivial compared to the twenty million or so who died in the First World War. No surprise then that Veterans Day (when it was better known as Armistice Day) was also often a day for quiet contemplation and for expressing genuine gratitude for the freedoms we enjoy due to our veterans. Veterans Day might have also been focused around a parade down Main Street, where the populace would applaud or take off their hats as proud veterans marched past.

Today, most employers do not even give the day as a holiday. World War I is so 1919. The last American soldier that served in the Great War died a few years back. Instead, pretty much all our holidays have been co-opted to honor our real national religion: capitalism. Even Martin Luther King has been used by Madison Avenue as an excuse to sell stuff in what is otherwise a dead retail month. King did move mountains, but his legacy now is principally about moving mountains of mattresses, sheets, pillowcases and appliances.

Supporting this seemingly insatiable need to shop are millions of retail workers, who are virtually the worst paid people in the country. (Migrant workers may be worse off.) With a few exceptions, if you work retail not only are you working inconvenient hours, you are likely not even making close to a living wage. In fact, you are likely a part timer because few retail stores want to hire you full time. Then they might have to pay you benefits or overtime, which are expensive. If you haven’t compared the cost of living with retail workers’ income, you can trust me on this: you cannot earn even poverty line wages working retail. If you support yourself working retail, even with two or more jobs you are probably eligible for food stamps.

If all this were not enough for retail workers, then there are your hours, which are likely to be constantly shifting. If you work part time for our largest retail employer (Wal-Mart) expect to be batted around like a ping pong ball. You may work forty hours one week and four hours the next. Expect to be straightening store shelves at 2 a.m. and maybe back for more at 6 a.m. You may even be locked in the store overnight.

You sure would appreciate a real holiday where for just a couple of days a year you can just zone out while someone else helps pay your bills. But apparently even a couple of holidays a year are a couple too many for retail workers. Thanksgiving is no longer sacrosanct. That’s right, retail worker. No turkey with stuffing for you, not that you could afford turkey anyhow with organic turkeys going at $4.09 a pound this year. Better to keep your Thanksgiving meal modest: maybe a dozen Krispy Kremes for dinner instead. You will need all that sugar because increasingly Thanksgiving has become just another shopping day, which means retail worker drones like you will be hustling in the aisles and at the registers. Black Friday is giving way to Black Thursday.

With so many scuzzy retail chains out there, it is hard to pick from the worst of the worst, but any retail chain that is open on Thanksgiving is, by definition, among the worst of the worst. These include Wal-Mart (opening at 9 PM), KMart (open Thanksgiving for the last ten years straight), Old Navy and BooksaMillion. I know about BooksaMillion personally because my daughter had the misfortune to work there for a year. There they were on Thanksgiving at 9 AM as usual, fluorescent lights all ablaze and the parking lot virtually empty. This was of course some years ago. Today, increasingly you are thinking that even on Thanksgiving there will be some stores open at the local shopping center. If it’s BooksAMillion, you can practically count on it. And if you are an employee working on Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving dinner means bringing some substandard turkey loaf to heat up in the microwave in the break room during your doubtless too short break.

Here is what should be open on Thanksgiving: gas stations, hospitals, hotels, homeless shelters, police and fire stations and that’s about it. You say you need to run down to the local Food Lion on turkey day because you need an extra jar of turkey gravy? Too bad for you. You should have thought about that by Wednesday night. It’s a holiday, stupid! It’s a day to spend with people who are important to you or, if you prefer, a day to vegetate at home with a bad turkey loaf roasted in your oven in an aluminum container, instant potatoes from a box and some gravy from a package. If you can muster any such feelings because if you work retail, it’s a day to be thankful. Instead you may be at some register somewhere or prepping the store for opening at midnight on Black Friday. See, only privileged people with money to buy stuff get to have holidays. For retail workers, be glad to have a crappy job. At least you have flexible hours, if flexible means hours at the convenience of your employer.

Perhaps as part of any reforms coming out of the Occupy Wall Street movement, one of them will be laws to redefine holidays so they resemble, well, holidays. Imagine how much more blissful we could be if we all knew that on a holiday we would get the day off (or at least be compensated extra for it if we could not). Imagine if most holidays were like Christmas (which is doubtless itself under retail attack) and life just sort of stopped. Who could not use more mental health days? I know I could, but from my retail days I know who could use them even more: the millions of suffering, hassled, stressed and underpaid retail workers of our country. I say we need a law to shut down all retail stores on Thanksgiving by law. Give everyone including our retail workers a real holiday with pay on Thanksgiving.

 
The Thinker

How to unoccupy Wall Street

There is no sign that protesters occupying Wall Street and other cities are going away. Police are just one of many groups baffled by these groups: seemingly disparate communities of people intent to live 24/7 outside in urban environments, making homes in cheap plastic tents, sleeping in sleeping bags on cold concrete surfaces, and using local McDonalds for bodily necessities. For the most part they are a peaceful lot, although a small subset of the protestors occupying Oakland caused some minor vandalism at the Port of Oakland. Mostly the protestors seem to be communal and ad hoc. It is the ad hoc nature of these protests that is perhaps the most disturbing aspect to those who oppose them. “What do they want?” is the common complaint, but answers from the representatives of the 99% are elusive. They oppose the power of corporations and big banks, and the increasing wealth of the superrich, but there are no list of demands, no spokesmen, and no figurehead. Instead the protestors and the protests seem to be wholly organic.

It’s unclear what caused the movement to come together now, when conditions have been bad for years. Moreover, it is nebulous as best how it will end. Police are trying the usual tactics of coercion and intimidation. Marches tend to be sporadic and ad hoc, which often violates some local ordinance where protests have to be planned. This gives police the justification to lobby tear gas, use pepper spray and try other group dispersal tactics. Protestors generally handle these indignities well. Neither Jesus nor Martin Luther King would find much in their behavior worthy of chastisement.

I suspect at this point even the police are wising up. These Occupy movements are fed by general discontent, and they fade away only when the source of the discontent fades. A robust economic recovery that lifts all boats does not appear to be on the horizon. If anything, Congress seems intent to do everything possible not to solve our underlying economic problems, and Republicans see growing income inequality as good. A cold winter may shrink the number of occupiers temporarily, but is unlikely to stop protests altogether. Even if it does, they are easy enough to restart with crowd-sourcing technologies on Twitter and Facebook.

Authorities can try using increasingly heavier hands. After all, it worked before. During the early days of the Great Depression, about 46,000 former World War I soldiers unable to find work and their families occupied Washington D.C. They wanted Congress to give them immediately cash payments for their service certificates. The Bonus Army got the attention of Congress and the White House, but not in a good way. General Douglas McArthur used two regiments of cavalry to clear Washington of protestors. Yet, protestors were eventually successful. In 1936, the Bonus Army got their bonuses. Members of the Bonus Army also received preferential hiring for positions in the Civilian Conservation Corps. The ruckus helped sweep Franklin D. Roosevelt into the White House in 1932.

While the number of actual protestors at Occupy events is relatively small, at least at the moment a plurality of Americans are sympathetic to their cause. With approval of Congress at nine percent, Americans overall feel disconnected from their government. The Occupy movement is a direct result of this disconnection and frustration.

The problems that Occupy movements are trying to address are institutional and devilishly hard to solve, which suggests these movements are not going to go away anytime soon. Congress is largely refusing to consider their requests. This makes perfect sense because our political system has been engineered by time and money to enfranchise those with money and those that are highly partisan. The result is a Congress elected from congressional districts drawn so politically extreme that moderates and ordinary people in the middle are institutionally disenfranchised. Moreover, the disenfranchisement will be permanent unless things change in a fundamental way.

Those looking for hope will not find much. We recently finished the 2010 census and partisan state legislatures are doing again what they have always done: drawing Congressional districts that are highly partisan. There are a few brave exceptions. California and Arizona are now required by law to draw nonpartisan districts. It seems to be working in California, but the jury is still out in Arizona. In any event, two states out of fifty changing course is hardly a trend, and typically congressional districts are redrawn only as a result of the census held every ten years.

Something resembling real change is simply not possible for another year, which is when the next congressional elections are scheduled. Even then the odds of any real change are rather small. The decentralized nature of Occupy events is a direct response to this actual disempowerment.

A prequel to the Occupy movements could be seen with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010. In the ruling, the Supreme Court broadened the ability of corporations and entities with money to influence government. Virtually everyone except major corporations and those in power panned the ruling. We reacted viscerally to the notion that a corporation is the same thing as a person. Before we had tolerated it, but with the ruling broadening it, slowly a critical mass formed. This event plus the way we addressed the Great Recession to favor Wall Street formed the catalyst for a new and broadly popular movement.

It will take a new people-oriented Congress in 2013 to really address these inequities. Whether we get this kind of Congress is problematic but it is possible that despite our highly partisan districts the 99% will speak with a strong enough voice where a new dynamic can emerge.

At a minimum, a few constitutional amendments would be in order for this new Congress, with dubious prospects that they would be approved by three fourths of the states. In the first, the constitution must be amended to specify that only people and not other entities can contribute to campaigns for political office and that Congress can restrict the amount of these contributions by law. In the second, states would be required to create congressional districts that are contiguous and nonpartisan, to be overseen or perhaps even created by federal judges in these states.

A constitutional amendment cannot address income inequality, but a Congress that actually represents the people rather than the wealthy and the political extremes could choose to pass laws that help address these issues. It’s my belief that these steps, and only these steps, will truly end these Occupy protests.

 

 
The Thinker

Free and clear

Protestors on Wall Street and elsewhere are occupying spots in major cities, trying to make the top one percent acknowledge the ninety nine percent. Many are without jobs. Those with jobs may have taken pay cuts, or were forced to go part time, or were required to contribute more toward health care or retirement. Many of those protestors also carry the burden of underwater mortgages. Others are saddled with burdensome student debt.

They are the unemployed, the underemployed, the over leveraged, the disenfranchised and the generally pissed off. If you are one of them, at a certain point you might as well pitch a tent in Zucotti Park. The weather may be too hot or too cold. You may have to wait in a line at McDonalds at 3 AM to use a toilet. You may suffer from insomnia from the din of a city that never sleeps and smell like a bus depot. But at least you are in the presence of fellow compatriots. You have known relentless misery, you are knowing more misery but at least you can talk with someone who really understands. And once a day or so you can shout out your lungs at the largely tone-deaf moneyed class who might, if the weather is nice, toast you with champagne from the balcony of the New York Stock Exchange.

Mortgage rates are at record lows, but little good this does someone who is underwater on their mortgage. Because they had the flawed judgment to misjudge the future, they are no longer credit worthy, so certainly no respectable lender is going to let them renegotiate their mortgage. The Sword of Damocles shall always be pressed against their chests. No, only good people, really special people, i.e. those with actual equity in their house and good jobs get to refinance their mortgages at crazy low interest rates. In that sense, maybe I am one of the one percent.

No, not really. Our income is not that lofty. We’d need $343,927 in adjusted gross income to fall into that bracket. We’re not quite in the top five percent either. We’d need $154,653 in AGI to qualify. We come close though, so we are definitely in the top ten percent, which is good enough for many of us with mortgages to get one of those sweet refinance deals. Unlike those with underwater mortgages, our property had about twenty years to mostly appreciate, so that when prices finally fell we still had plenty of equity. Plus, over nearly two decades we have chipped away at our house’s principle. The current balance on our mortgage is $64,211.24. We paid $191,000 for the house in 1993 and took a mortgage for $171,900 of the amount. It was not until two years ago that we managed to get the balance below $100,000.

Despite our current 6.875% interest rate, our credit union is still happy to refinance the balance of our mortgage, if we don’t mind giving them $2581 in various fees for the privilege. In exchange they will pay off our 30-year mortgage and give us a new 10-year mortgage at 2.875%. We should save $372 a month in interest, once we pay off the fees, which will take about seven months.

As for those of you with underwater mortgages, sorry, you are largely out of luck. I’d like to say we possessed some sort of genius, buying low in good neighborhoods but the truth was we were just lucky. My wife and I could easily have been underwater on our mortgage too. By chance and perhaps date of birth we rolled double sixes.

Please don’t be angry with us. Yet there must be some sort of element of unfairness here. Someone must be getting shafted when we start accumulating $372 more a month. Rest assured that just like the brokers on Wall Street this extra income will be unearned. I did not have to take a part time job at a Wal-Mart to bring home this extra bacon. I just had to fill out some papers, tidy up the house for the real estate appraiser and endure yet another loan closing ceremony. This will be our fourth, since we first owned a townhouse and already refinanced once. The only deficiency to our refinanced loan is that I will have less mortgage interest to write off on my taxes. Still, I would rather pay more taxes than pay a lender extra interest. Perhaps some of it will trickle down to some of you. I would not hold your breath. I don’t plan to hire a gardener, and I already got a service that mows the grass.

Granted, owning a house comes with all sorts of other expenses not factored into the principle, interest and escrow. The entire outside of our house with the exception of three doors has been replaced. Every appliance has been replaced, sometimes more than once. Still, I can remember the days when I was living on a marginal income and rented. Once a year like clockwork you could count on the rent being raised, generally well above the cost of living. Soon we will be paying less per month in principle and interest than we paid thirty years ago per month when we lived in an apartment. It makes no sense. Meanwhile, as the downsized give up houses and end up back in apartments, extra demand is making rents go up. This crazy disparity makes no sense to me. It probably does to a Republican like Herman Cain. After all, they are loooosers.

The day is not that far off (I am hoping less than five years) when we will make that final mortgage payment. Then there will be no more mortgage payments ever. We will own the house, not to mention our cars, free and clear. Moreover, for the first time since I was age twenty or so I will be able to honestly say that I won’t owe anyone a dime. I can lay down the heavy burden of debt from my shoulders at last. I plan a party on that day, and drinking a lot of expensive champagne. I might even get drunk.

Being free of debt won’t mean our lives will be free, of course. I don’t know what I will do with all that extra money every month. Perhaps with my decent pension and retirement saving I will truly retire and never work another day in my life. Perhaps it will get eaten up in ever more egregious health care premiums or long-term care insurance. For a while though I hope I can at least revel in being free from the burden of debt.

Perhaps I will pitch a tent in Zucotti Park.

 
The Thinker

Wall Street’s puppet masters

Last month I wrote how the oligarchy stays in charge. At the time, the Occupy Wall Street movement was nascent, so nascent that not even I was blogging about it. Since then it, everything has changed. It used to be that the headlines were full of stories about how we need to cut the deficit and lower taxes. Thanks to OWS, the story is now about the chronic lack of jobs, sinking standards of living that seem unstoppable, and a generation of mostly twenty somethings with no real job prospects on even their most distant horizons. They are joined by other large groups of unemployed people who happen to be over fifty, and thus become something like untouchables. Unemployment is a problem at all levels of the workforce. The OWS movement is finally giving it the focus it deserves, and rightly raises the question: why did we bail out Wall Street when none of it trickled down to the unemployed who needed it most?

The OWS movement has at least made me do more pondering about how the wealthy stay wealthy and how the rest of us take it on the chin. There are the obvious strategies that I mentioned in the previous post: the moneyed and Wall Street buy the influence they want. Then there are less obvious strategies: such as using inheritances to pass unearned income to the next generation, wealth that is arguably put to unproductive uses. Then there are the strategies that most people don’t think about.

For example, there is snuffing out potential competition. The oil companies, in spite of their profits, are running scared of the clean energy industry. Oh sure, they are spending lots of money with newspaper advertisements touting how they are going green by doing solar energy projects and the like. This is ninety percent setting expectations and one percent doing something tangible. It’s a try to set up a meme with the public that, “Well, they really aren’t entirely evil just because they want to rip up Alberta’s tar sands.” Those with the money, at least if they are savvy, will continue to spend significant capital to make sure competitive markets don’t emerge.

It’s not coincidence that the oil industry contributes disproportionately to Republican candidates, for instance. This behavior is not seen as anticompetitive; it is seen as pro-business. It’s easy to win the competition when you can use money to set an uneven playing field from the start. Thus money buys not just political power, but the ability to have your message drown out the competition’s. In many cases, you can buy out these threats with your ready capital, often ostensibly to build market share in an emerging industry, but more typically to quietly kill them so business as usual can continue.

This happens all the time here in American but we rarely notice it. Why are there only three major ratings firms on Wall Street? It is in part because the big three have the capital to squash any competition. The government rarely breaks up companies anymore, even after the Great Recession. In fact, despite the lessons of the Great Recession, the trend is just the opposite. Thus, as one example, Bank of America swallows up Countrywide Mortgage and everyone yawns. Money gives you this sort of power. Unless you have an administration and congress full of trustbusters, abuse simply leads to more abuse.

Perhaps the most insidious way to stay in charge is through financial obfuscation. A good example is derivative stocks. The more complex you make a financial instrument, the harder it is to figure out what is really going on. Only experts can really understand how these instruments work, and then only dimly. In all likelihood the only ones who really understand them are those who create and manage them.

That leaves us poor individual investors pretty much baffled. We know we need to invest money for the future but unless the financial entity is incredibly simple, like simple shares of a blue chip stock or an index fund, we are baffled by how it works or how to fairly value them. Instead we turn to so-called experts to give us advice on what represents good investments, for which usually they have a vested interest that disproportionately lines their pockets. To really understand our financial world, you need a PhD in finance plus you have to keep up on the minutia of markets. If you can do this, you can be bought off. Wall Street will hire you for seven or eight figure incomes to manage a fund. Unless you have missionary zeal, you won’t be an Elizabeth Warren trying to simplify things for the average consumer. And if you are Elizabeth Warren, you will find out that politicians have been bought off specifically to keep you out of a position of power.

Yes, obfuscation is profitable, at least for those already in charge, and it effectively drains wealth from the rest of us. We think that to make money we must do it through specially trained intercessors on Wall Street. What we really need are simplified rules and financial instruments that the average person can understand, which implies that many “innovative” financial instruments should probably be outlawed. As we have seen, many were engineered without real failsafes and have cascading effects when they fail that drain wealth principally from those who never directly invested in these instruments.

No wonder Republicans are dead set against a consumer protection agency. They realize that if such an agency were effective, it might level the playing field. And what that really means is that wealth generated through third parties and financial obfuscation might return to where it rightly belongs: to individual investors.

 
The Thinker

Sucking it up for Herman Cain

Herman Cain is Tea Party America’s favorite presidential candidate of the moment. Recent polls show him leading among Republican voters. While recent history suggests that Cain fascination will be brief (Michele who? Rick who?), you can understand why conservatives would be gaga over him. Cain, when speaking about Occupy Wall Street protesters, had this retort:

Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself! [...] It is not someone’s fault if they succeeded; it is someone’s fault if they failed.

Attention 99% America: this may not be obvious to you but anyone can succeed in America. The only reason we are all not millionaires is because only one percent found the moxie to become a success. The ability to achieve success includes everyone: including the crippled, the disease ridden, the mentally retarded and the homeless. You can all become independently rich if you try hard enough. And if you don’t, you are a failure. A complete looooser.

If you are still not getting it, consider the curve of standard deviation below. It seems in nature most of us fit somewhere in the middle of the curve, but some of us are must inevitably be on the low or the high end. There are very few in the top one percent of the curve. Herman Cain is one of them. You and me, we’re in the 99% and the reason that I infer this is true, channeling Herman Cain, is because we chose to go fat and be lazy:

If you are not in the top 1%, you are a looooser

In the world of Herman Cain and Tea Party America, here is where we could all be if we tried hard enough:

The possible American world according to Herman Cain

The possible American world according to Herman Cain

That’s right. We all can all be millionaires, just suck in it, suck it up, be clever, put your nose to the grindstone and inevitably you too, like Herman Cain, can rise from humble circumstances to become a millionaire. It’s that simple. When you have the right mental attitude, just like God, you can move mountains. End of story.

But some people just aren’t getting it. They apparently include Matt, a guy I hired to do some handyman work for me. The guy I tried to hire was too busy, so he referred me to Matt. Matt is a guy who lives somewhere off I-66 in Virginia’s Piedmont. Five days a week he works a full time job somewhere that obviously does not come close to covering his modest lifestyle. When not working, he is taking care of his four kids so his wife can work at her odd part time jobs. On some Friday and Saturday nights, if he is lucky, he gets gigs playing the guitar at local pubs, which contributes some spare change to household expenses, and is his one passion in life. On Thursdays and Saturdays he runs his other business: handyman for hire. He does about a third of the work himself, but he also hires other good ol’ white boys like him to put in a few hours here and there to handle customers like me who are not Tool Time Tims. All of them so far that I’ve met smoke and all appear to live hand to mouth. They are Joe Bageant’s poor working class. This week some of them made some spare change because Matt subcontracted some of my work to them.

The weather has not been a construction worker’s friend this week. We had torrential rain for a good part of yesterday. The guys tried to tack down the new screening on our deck between downpours; otherwise they were in our garage trying to put up a new garage ceiling. For some reason the morons who built our house back in the 1980s attached drywall to the ceiling of our garage. About a quarter of it fell out while I was cleaning it a few weeks back, fortunately not while I was directly under it. I’m having them replace it with sturdier particleboard, and directed that they actually use screws to attach the boards into the joists instead of the drywall nails used when the house was constructed. Anyhow, progress has been slow.

Matt apparently is not working hard enough to be a success. He was managing multiple other projects with other good ol’ boys, which meant frequent trips to Manassas and other places to make things right. He’s pissed that he’s behind on our job, and is apologetic. Fortunately I am in no hurry.

Matt is basically doing everything possible to make money in this economy with his natural talents, but even with three jobs and essentially working twelve or more hours a day seven days a week, it’s still not enough. What’s the problem here?

If you were thinking, “Well, the economy is not doing too great, and a handyman’s wages are pretty modest, and gosh, it takes a lot to feed a family of six” you are one of the 99% and hence a looooser. If you are the surreally out of touch Herman Cain, the solution is obvious: Matt is a failure. Moreover, he is simply not trying hard enough. Maybe if in addition to working seven days a week he gave up the guitar gigs and worked instead of sleep, he could finally achieve success. He basically should run himself into the ground even more than he is doing now, which is leaving him obese, tobacco addicted and with circles under his eyes.

I bet you can guess where I stand on this. It’s pretty simple. Herman Cain, you may be a success, but in many ways you are also a moron who cannot see one centimeter past the bridge of your nose. Only a moron or a conservative would actually believe this crap that you spewed out. And yet it seems part of our American character to believe your crap. The fault is never in our stars, or in the broader economy, or in life’s circumstances, or our genetics, or our abusive parents, or our substandard schools but only in ourselves. Just like original sin that the Catholics believe in, in your mind the original sin is the inability of everyone to replicate what you achieved. The rest of us are failures, basically dog poop.

Mr. Cain, please print this out and stick it up some orifice in your body where the sun don’t shine. Consider it a little thank you from one of the 99%. And Matt, I feel nothing but compassion for you and the good ol’ boys who work for you, even if I can’t get too close to you because I am a nonsmoker. You are doing extraordinary things and while it is still clearly not enough, you have my respect and heartfelt sympathy. You also have my sincere hope that the economy improves quickly so you don’t need to be someone’s handyman anymore and get the chance to breathe again. And I hope you get more gigs strumming out those songs that you love.

 
The Thinker

Maybe it’s about time for a little class warfare

It’s too early to say whether the Occupy Wall Street movement will have long-term legs. A group of a few hundred people has spent the last two weeks or so occupying Wall Street day and night. They are protesting many things they do not like about that street and the moneyed class that inhabit it. Yesterday, they moved uptown to the Brooklyn Bridge, occupied it, shut a span down and over five hundred protesters were arrested. However, the protest has mostly been lawful, if not more than a bit noisy, and mostly centered on Wall Street. Some on Wall Street look down from their balconies in bemusement and brazenly raise glasses of campaign at the protestors, while other traders try to tune out the commotion on the street.

Occupy Wall Street looks like a new phenomenon, but it is but the latest and it is spreading. It’s not hard to trace its roots to protests earlier this year in Madison, Wisconsin. The Occupy Wall Street movement seems more amorphous, less structured and lacking much in the way of central authority. Occasional lists of concerns dribble out of various alleged spokespeople and they seem to be a laundry list of complaints. However, they picked Wall Street for a reason. It is emblematic, even more so than Washington, of America’s problems. In a nutshell, protestors are seeing wealth being sucked up by Wall Street like they have a Hoover vacuum in our pockets and houses. They perceive that Wall Street has largely not suffered, and indeed has profited from the suffering of others. This has the inconvenient fact of being absolutely true.

In truth, some people on Wall Street (principally office workers) did suffer from the Great Recession. Brokerage houses laid off a lot of people and a few institutions like Lehman Brothers went belly up. Mostly though the politicians Wall Street had bought off with many campaign contributions came through for them when they badly screwed up. The gates of the U.S. treasury were opened and capital flooded into Wall Street firms to keep them solvent and to weather the crisis. Both Republican and Democratic administrations decided doing so was in the country’s best interests.

If Wall Street were more politically savvy perhaps it would have shown some humility. However, it was soon back to business as usual which included a phenomenal amount of arrogance. Had the United States not interfered in the stock markets, most likely many of these firms would no longer be in business. However bad stock prices are today, they would be valued much less. However necessary the bailout turned out to be, it exacerbated engrained bad habits on Wall Street.

It’s a little early to characterize exactly who is protesting but it appears to be principally the downsized, the educated but under or unemployed, and younger people feeling that Wall Street is pulling the rug from the expectations of the lifestyle they expected in adulthood. In reality, the 2000s were a lousy decade for almost everyone except for the rich. 2011 and 2012 are merely extending this lousy decade and the frustrated have had enough.

To start, they want justice. They see no justice when income is taxed higher than capital gains. They see no justice when their houses are foreclosed from under them while those who sold them shoddy mortgages escape and civil and criminal penalties. They see no fairness when Wall Street quickly starts awarding itself obscene bonuses and they, if they can get a job at all, make some fraction of their previous income. Why do they have to scramble and depend on charity (if they can find it) when Wall Street is coddled by Uncle Sam and, indeed, soon feels free to raise a finger at Uncle Sam? Many on Wall Street are tsk tsking the federal government for deficit spending, while depending on its largess when times get tough. In short, they are perceived as arrogant and out of touch hypocrites. More importantly, they are financially successful arrogant hypocrites, because with power and influence bought and paid for their world is hardly the risky one they purport it to be. In fact, it’s pretty comfy in there, at least among those of a certain class.

I think this movement will only continue to gain stature and size. It is already spreading to cities across the country, like Asheville NC, Spokane WA and Chicago. It’s not like a lot of these people have much else to do. They are already miserable and unemployed. Many are also homeless. How is it much worse to stand around day and night in front of Wall Street and scream about the injustices between rich and poor when every day you experience injustice, poverty and misery?

It is not coincidence that America grew so prosperous when wealth was shared broadly because tax rates were much higher. The extra revenue collected generally went to good use: for VA benefits, including paying for college for veterans, for highways that connected us, for student loans that allowed ordinary people to aspire to the middle class, and for basic research that provided vaccines and the Internet. The rich were never seriously impacted by these higher taxes because they were rich, but taxing more of their wealth did allow many ordinary people to get a leg up and allowed our nation to grow prosperous.

For all their riches, Wall Street pointedly ignores that their wealth and our national wealth is dependent upon the people, and how well they prosper. The more the ordinary people prosper, the more the rich are likely to prosper, because with all that new education and energy new markets will open up, and America will be primed to exploit them. In short, more taxes on the rich are not evil for society as a whole. They enable general prosperity, they promote the general welfare, and in the long term they raise all boats. Of course any tax rate can eventually turn regressive if high enough, but with tax rates lower than they have been in fifty years, there is plenty of room to increase revenues, which will be redistributed through a democratic process for arguably more productive uses than feeding the balance sheets of Wall Street bank accounts.

The dynamics of the movement will play out over time, but the movement could be pivotal in the 2012 elections. We do need a strategy that lifts all boats. Cutting taxes hasn’t done it. Supply side economics hasn’t done it. Deficit spending hasn’t done it. However, redistribution of income through the tax system from those who have more of it has worked quite well for the decades it has been tried. It’s time to try it again.

 

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