Posts Tagged ‘Republicans’

The Thinker

Republicans may be insane and vindictive but they are also hilarious

Thanks to all of you visitors who keep coming to read my 2010 post, Psychiatrists agree: Republicans are insane. I still find it weird when a post so many years old retains popularity, as this one sure seems to be.

For better or worse, Republicans speak their minds, no matter how loopy it sounds afterward. Strangely, most seem to enjoy foaming at the mouth, so much so that it goes to prove my thesis that they are insane. DailyKos.com is of course the “Orange Satan” progressive liberal website. It is also the site to go to if you decide that rather than just getting mad at Republicans, you also want to laugh along at their daily rants and lunacies. More and more, I go to Daily Kos simply to get my humor for the day. Republicans seem to provide an inexhaustible supply.

Whatever happened to sane Republicans anyhow? You know, the Nelson Rockefellers of the world? They tended to be from money, but were buttoned down and business-like. They were conservative in the sense that they moved cautiously.

They are apparently gone with the wind, and now only lunatics inhabit Tara. The new residents are hanging from the rooftops and foaming from the mouths. If you look carefully, you can see them with their loaded semi-automatic rifles peeking out the windows. I feel kind of sorry for them but they simply won’t take their Prozac. So I might as well laugh at them. What’s so funny, you may ask?

  • Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi. No amount of facts that show that plain old bad judgment by our late Ambassador who flew some of his staff to an under-guarded consulate in Benghazi, Libya (effectively a war zone) has dissuaded Republicans from their unshakable belief that there were much more sinister motives at work by the Obama Administration and of course by President Obama and Hillary Clinton specifically. No less than three committees in the House are looking into the matter again. Among those they want to subpoena include Secretary of State John Kerry, who was a sitting senator when the incident happened. They believe there simply has to be an Obama conspiracy at work somewhere in this regrettable mistake. Republicans are also convinced that with enough hearings that they will find something that will validate their paranoid delusions about Obama and his evil administration. Even if they don’t find anything, they are certain that all these hearings will help them win more control of Congress in the next election. Most Americans, if they tune into this at all, are simply snickering. If reasonably up on this stuff, like me, they are laughing deliriously at each new paranoid claim.
  • Ping-ponging on the Bergdahl release. Before the rescue the mantra was: the Taliban is holding Bowe Bergdahl so we must get him home and Obama is not trying hard enough! It’s been five years already! Every effort must be expended to free this captive soldier. He may be hurt, tortured, or injured or something! And we must leave no soldier behind on the battlefield! After the deal: exchanging five Taliban detainees, who were never charged with a crime against the United States but held in Gitmo anyhow, is negotiating with terrorists. Before Bergdahl was just a patriotic soldier, but now that they are tuned into the details that he deserted his post (even though he did it before and returned), he’s a traitor that deserved capture. Of course the only thing that really mattered to them was they saw a new potential attack angle against President Obama, which was obviously much more important than securing Bergdahl’s release. In today’s news is news that Bergdahl claims that he was tortured by the Taliban. It will be interesting to see how the GOP spins this now. My bet: “He’s just trying to cop a plea so he is not tried for aiding and abetting the enemy.”
  • Craziness on the minimum wage. Republicans overall are hostile to increasing the minimum wage, which even Republicans agree is far below a living wage. For many the real solution is to repeal the minimum wage. Why would this be good? Because it would incentivize employers to create more jobs, lowering the unemployment rate! Of course, those taking these jobs would mean making less, meaning they would do menial work and digging themselves into even more dire poverty at the same time. Meanwhile, with no wage rate floor, those employers already providing the minimum wage would have incentive to cut their wages, further impoverishing a whole lot more people. All this new poverty would make more people eligible for food stamps. Their obstinacy is quite sad but that they can say these things while maintaining a straight face is hilarious!
  • Fox News. The network pretends to be “fair and balanced” and not at all racist or discriminatory when their female talent consists exclusively of pretty and white conservative blondes. Got to keep those 60-something conservative white guys with plenty of eye candy!
  • Sarah Palin. Nuff said.
  • Donald Trump and his jaw dropping mouth. He doesn’t believe that Obama’s short and long form birth certificates are real, despite both having been produced many times and that an ad announcing his birth was published in a Honolulu newspaper in 1961. He’s in good company as long as he stays in the Republican Party.
  • Regular and blatant lies that global warming is not real, in spite of the statistics that show global temperatures rising pretty much every year and that most years are on average warmer than the ones that preceded it. How can I not laugh at a party full of people so dogmatic that actual facts have no bearing at all?
  • They are the anti-free pro-freedom party! That they are the pro-freedom party while doing their best to deny freedoms to anyone who doesn’t share their values including gays who desire to get married, women seeking abortions, Hispanics who want to become citizens and pay taxes, blacks who want proportional representation in their states and the poor who want to be able to vote without the hassle and expense of getting photo identification. Yes, course it’s appalling but at the same time their cognitive dissonance on the issue is downright hilarious!
  • Our world’s best health care system. They claim that our health care is tops in the world when we rank actually rank #16. Only I guess we’re not #1 anymore because of Obamacare. Because of Obamacare, poor people are getting treatment. Logically, if they weren’t getting treatment, we’d have better health care. It’s hilarious!
  • Rick Santorum and the many Pat Boone wannabees in the party. Rick is so fetishly sober and faithful to his wife that he won’t sit on a sofa with any woman other than his wife. Most Republicans are glassy-eyed in admiration over Rick’s heartfelt demonstration of fidelity, not to mention the cool sweater vest.
  • We love the poor and want to help them by making them poorer! It’s hilarious that they keep denying they hate the poor while systematically doing everything possible to make their lives more miserable and move what little income they have left into their pockets instead. It’s “the beatings will continue until the morale improves” way of making people happy! It’s tough love, but it is love. Feel the love, poor people!
  • Their gun fetish. They see nothing at all peculiar or alarming about paranoid schizophrenics having easy access to all the guns and ammunition they want. They cheer “open carry” losers who like to go into Targets with loaded semi-automatic weapons. Nothing to see here but some honest exercising of constitutional rights! What could possibly go wrong with a group of white redneck young adults strung out on testosterone and loaded assault weapons running around our retails stores?
  • The NRA in general. Any statement from the organization is good for a few laughs. You wonder how any organization could possibly be so clueless about cause and effect. Then you realize it’s not cluelessness; it’s just dogma. Dogma means never having to think through your illogical positions.
  • The Tea Party. It’s a party so principle driven that it is incapable of any compromise whatsoever, so it’s incapable of governing until the unlikely time when there is no one in Congress other than Tea Partiers. Dr. Seuss could not have created a more perfect north or south going Zak.

So, thanks Republicans! You are so completely surreal and out of touch that for those of us with one foot still in reality, laughter is inevitable. And laughter is good medicine, both for the body and soul. You are the gift that keeps on giving.

 
The Thinker

Running scared

What would you do if you knew that your life, as you have known it, was going to change fundamentally? Great traumatic events happen to us in our lives, but none of us welcome them. When they happen, we tend to seek out the comfort of the known rather than confront the discomfort of the unknown.

Many Japanese warriors at the end of World War II preferred what they saw as suicide with dignity – crashing their aircraft into enemy aircraft carriers or self-immolation – to defeat and living in a world that was ordered fundamentally differently than the way they were raised. Others will instead find ways to resist. They think that change can be stopped somehow, and they will simply resist it to the last fiber of their being. And so they turn their houses into fortresses, buy arsenals of guns and create a fallout shelter stocked with years of food, water, medicines and other perishables.

Something like this is happening right now across much of Red America. They smell the winds of change. For years they have ignored it by expressing the opinion that while things may be changing out there it won’t happen here. At some point though the smell becomes too pervasive. Up go defenses and the barricades. For many in power though it means that they feel compelled to use it to their utmost advantage. It means highly gerrymandered districts allowing ever more extreme people to get elected to Congress. It also means creating laws that are clearly unconstitutional (like Missouri granting its citizens exemption from certain federal gun laws) to intrusive for people you don’t like (unnecessary vaginal ultrasounds for women prior to an abortion). It means that their values must be promoted with no exceptions. So out go textbooks that say evolution is established science and in come textbooks that promote creationism instead. You tighten the screws even more on the poor by reducing food stamps and making it harder to get on Medicaid. You sign laws that do away with early voting on weekends because you don’t want that kind to vote anyhow. You are running scared.

It’s quite an ordeal. In fact, the late Eric Hoffer wrote a book about it, The Ordeal of Change, which is an interesting read if you have the time. If you looked at our changing demographics and have read Hoffer’s book, what’s happening today should not be a surprise. In fact, it is entirely predictable. What’s going on in Red America has happened lots of times before and will keep happening in the future. We are now in the “no compromises to encroaching reality” phase of this ordeal of change.

Civilized people of course recognize that change can mean that long established social systems can be reordered. When it appears inevitable, we will seek to make change as easy as possible, to minimize anger and hurt. It’s not always possible, however. The denial phase seems to be in Red America’s rear view mirror, but the anger phase certainly isn’t. They feel terribly hurt because their society is fundamentally changing, and fear it will leave them in a less privileged place when complete.

So the anger gets expressed in laws that even ten years ago they would not have considered, such as transvaginal ultrasounds for pregnant women who want an abortion. They feel they must dish out in pain at least as much as they perceive they are receiving in pain. Why do they do this? Part of it is reflexive meanness toward those not like them, but part of it is also because when anger is served out, its recipients tend to hurt too. Most people give wide berth to bullies. By acting like bullies, they are ultimately hoping we will leave them alone.

In this context, a lot of what is going on in Red America and by Republicans in Congress begins to make sense. If you accept that the Affordable Care Act is the institutionalized law of the land then you realize that you can really only amend it, not repeal it. However, if your lines are drawn and your barricades are in place then you are left with a no surrender mentality. At least so far, there is no sign of surrendering to the rule of law. Republicans will accept nothing less than the repeal of the Affordable Care Act. They cannot even come up with a coherent replacement for it, in part because they reject the premise that our old system was not perfect. If they reject what was, then in some way they must also agree that their values were either incorrect or unworkable in the modern context. That creates cognitive dissonance, so it is repressed through the mechanism that tells them, like it told Commander Taggert, to “Never give up, never surrender.”

It is increasingly clear that marriage will soon be available to anyone regardless of their sexual orientation. The Supreme Court has pretty much declared at the federal level that doing otherwise is unconstitutional, because it gives privileges to one sort of citizen unavailable to another. Moreover, because of the Supremacy Clause in the constitution, federal law trumps state law when the two conflict. Consequently, entirely reasonable federal judges are invalidating state marriage laws across the country, even in deeply red states like Oklahoma and Utah. While good for gays and lesbians, it is not so good for those whose values are invalidated through the process of law. To some extent, their anger is counterproductive, because it stokes more anger, and adds to feelings of oppression and righteousness.

It’s unclear how this will all end. Change driven by demographics and social trends can be temporarily stymied but is rarely thwarted. It would help if Red America could look at the larger picture and take comfort from it. Our worship of capitalism will likely keep a large and poor working class for them to look down on. Also, anti-abortion laws will ensure a large population of poor people. Their churches will still be around when this is over, but the demographics will probably mean fewer of us will be in church. The people around us will be more multihued, but they already are: Red America simply isn’t looking close enough. For the most part, people will continue to cloister by combinations of race and class, as they have always done. In short, a lot of the angst from Red America, while predictable, is perhaps too much ado about much less change than they thought.

This should be a source of some comfort. Ultimately though few will understand what all the fuss was about. Only cranks complain about mixed race marriages today. In twenty years the same will be true with those complaining about gay marriage. Getting to the tranquil future from the enraged present though is likely to continue to be trying.

 
The Thinker

Progress through moderation, or why you should eat your vegetables

Do you want to know why so little is getting done in Washington, D.C.? In my humble opinion, it’s because of the absence of moderate legislators. Granted, this would not have been obvious to me a dozen years ago. But today, as I see the actual result of virtually totally polarized government, I am starting to understand that if anything meaningful is to happen in our government, it will require electing a lot of moderates.

DailyKos (where I guiltily hang out regularly) is a progressive on-line community and is all about electing what it calls “better” Democrats. Yes, we’ll vote for a moderate Democrat if there is no other choice. A moderate Democrat counts as well as a liberal Democrat when claiming a majority, and a majority holds the bulk of the power in a legislature. What they really want though are very liberal Democrats: the green tea drinking, carbon-neutral, gay-friendly, single-payer type of Democrat. The thinking goes that if we get enough of them elected, we’ll actually become a green country with marriage rights for all. Naturally, over at sites like Red State, they are recruiting the Ted Cruzes of the Republican Party. It seems like there is no logical end to how deeply conservative they want their candidates to be. Lately the litmus test includes repealing the amendment that allows for the direct election of senators.

I am all for green tea drinking, carbon-neutral, gay-friendly, single-payer Democrats, at least in the abstract. It’s when we actually get them to Congress and need them to legislate that it usually all goes to hell. This is because they are trying to legislate with the other side, which is also polarized. The more partisan you are, the less likely you are to accommodate suggestions from the other side. It’s my way or the highway. And so you get episodes like last October’s government shutdown, a costly and deeply counterproductive boondoggle. You get highly principled legislators so principled they cannot do what they were sent to Congress to do: legislate. Instead, they spend their time complaining.

Congress has given up on the deliberative process. Most committee chairmen spend their time promoting their party’s grievances with the other party, not working on legislation. Congress simply isn’t weighing the nation’s needs anymore. About all they can agree on, and only after a lot of warring, is to continue spending at about the same level we spent the year before. There is little in the way of direction to the agencies of government on how to spend money.

Unsurprisingly, when Congress refuses to do its job, the president gets antsy. We saw it on display at the State of the Union address. President Obama basically said that if Congress is going to sit on its hands, he will act. He’ll use the full measure of his executive powers to make change happen. This, of course, ticks off the Republicans in Congress, and leads to silly vitriol like the president is a Nazi or a dictator. This of course ignores that presidents of both parties have routinely pushed the boundaries of executive power. It was not that long ago when Democrats were complaining about President Bush’s many signing statements, basically saying which parts of a law he will choose to enforce. There is little evidence that President Obama has taken his executive authority to such absurd levels.

There is a solution to this problem: enacting real legislation. Real legislation is not the fiftieth vote by the House to repeal Obamacare, but it might be a reasonably bipartisan vote to change some unpopular aspects of it, perhaps the president’s not entirely true claim that if you like your health policy, you can keep it. That would reflect some debate and consensus. It would also acknowledge reality that the Affordable Care Act is here to stay, so we might as well amend it rather than foolishly think we can abolish it. To actually do this though you first have to acknowledge that you can’t always get what you want. You have to, like, compromise.

Democrats are no better. The people at DailyKos want a Congress full of senators like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. I like and admire both senators. But I also know if the Democratic-side of the Senate were nothing but Elizabeth Warrens and Bernie Sanders not a whole lot of legislation would get enacted into law. Our polarized Congress would just get more polarized.

There are exceptions of course. Great change can be made when one party seizes control of both the White House and the Congress. That’s how the imperfect Affordable Care Act got enacted. It’s how social security became law. It’s great for the party in charge when this happens, but it is invariably a fleeting experience. For the party out of power, these laws simply get their dander up. You can bet when they get power again, as happened to Republicans after the 2010 elections, their pent up resentment will be felt. In the case of House Republicans, it meant fifty fruitless votes to repeal Obamacare. More importantly, it also meant that they controlled the power of the purse, since appropriation legislation must originate in the House. And so we got fiscal cliffs, reduced stimuli and endless brinkmanship over debt ceilings, not to mention boatloads of Tea Partiers. We also got dysfunctional government. That was the price of Obamacare.

Electing “better” (i.e. more extreme) Republicans and Democrats simply ensures more of the same. So at some point a rational voter must ask themselves: is this really in my best interests? Is it really in the nation’s best interest? Does it really make sense to, say, not do anything serious about global climate change until my hypothetically green-friendly legislature is in power because the other side is being so unreasonable?

My answer is no. It’s in both my interest and the nation’s interest to do something about these issues, even if only half measures and imperfect. This is because time is our most precious commodity, and we are spending our future by doing nothing today. Hence, I need to be pragmatic about who I vote for.

I am not thrilled with Mark Warner as my senator. He’s a Democrat, but he’s very middle of the road and business-friendly, and arguably more than a little worker-hostile. However, he has crossover appeal. Even in this partisan climate he is working with Republican senators to try to move legislation, even though it seems impossible much of the time. The nation needs a lot more senators like Mark Warner, even though I do not agree with him on many issues.

The choice is like eating your vegetables instead of a slice of greasy pizza. I’d prefer the pizza any day, but I need to eat my vegetables instead. Ultimately, both I and my country will be better off if I put that clothespin on my nose and pull the lever to reelect Mark Warner. The logical part of my brain tells me I need to reelect him. The emotional side of me though wishes Elizabeth Warren would move to Virginia, so I could vote for her instead.

For the sake of my country, I’ve got to use my left brain.

 
The Thinker

Cruising into denial

The good news is that our cruise was perfectly timed. We missed a second massive polar vortex by escaping to the Caribbean via a cruise ship. Moreover, we did not spend it vomiting by catching the Norovirus, unlike the unlucky passengers of the Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas and the Caribbean Princess. Despite these risks, I am definitely starting to see the appeal of being a snowbird. Winter is not bad and it can be pretty and invigorating. But when it goes on too long, or it gets too cold, or when there are no breaks of cold weather, and when you are sick of the sun slipping behind the horizon by five p.m., maybe it’s time to be in southern latitudes for a while. It worked for us. I am still red in the face, despite the sunscreen. With luck it will last for a while.

The bad news is when we came home on Monday we were back into the thick of the cold weather. We missed the worst of the recent cold and snow. But it was still in the mid 30s, and this was sure not Aruba. Our car, twelve days on the BWI long-term parking lot, anemically came back to life. We were greeted to the traditional slow traffic on the beltway and by a mixture of snow and frost covering the front lawn. We may need to deal with a massive snowfall next week too. In short, we’ve been vortexed. We should get above freezing tomorrow but for three mornings in a row it was 8, 9 and 6 degrees Fahrenheit in the morning. Temperatures in the 40s will feel like a heat wave.

Earlier on Monday morning, we grabbed a quick breakfast in the dining room of our cruise ship as we waited for our call to disembark. Unless you holler, you usually get paired up with some other couple. You know you have been on a cruise ship too long when you recognize people and some of their names because you had long conversations with them over dinner. I had a few passengers call me by name on the cruise ship. Most of these people are fine to dine with.

Occasionally you get a crank. We got a couple from southwest Florida on Monday morning in the Vista Dining room of the Noordam. After a long digression about the man’s stroke fifteen years earlier, we of course talked about the cold weather, although weather in Fort Lauderdale was already nearing eighty. Doubtlessly parroting Fox “News”, the gentleman we were with expressed the opinion that global warming and climate change were bunk. Look at that polar vortex freezing most of the United States. Case closed.

It’s quite a challenge for me to remain civil in these circumstances. Most people choose to see what they want to see, particularly viewers of Fox “News”, which is fair and balanced, as long as you don’t count the “fair” and “balanced” part. But when you are a white couple in your sixties like this couple, you live in a deeply red part of the state and you have been on 64 (yes, that’s what they said) cruises, you are obviously swimming in money and, when not on a cruise ship, probably living in a gated community somewhere where you can spout crap like this with conviction.

I gently pointed out news reports that temperatures in Rio de Janeiro recently reached a crushing 110 degrees. The southern hemisphere is in its summer, which also means out in Oz (Australia) temperatures are close to these stratospheric levels too. 106 degrees is forecast in Adelaide on Saturday, and there are the now usual brushfires to deal with, meaning there is a catastrophic fire rating in southeast Australia. Hopefully, these brush fires won’t destroy more Australian homes, but it’s becoming usual to have summers where hundreds of homes down under succumb to flames caused by fires created by these long and excessive heat waves. When we returned home and read the news, I learned that the temperature in Alaska reached 62 degrees in Port Alsworth. In general, the west coast is warmer and drier this winter than normal, due to the shifting jet stream, which is pumping the warmer air northward along the west coast, but otherwise is freezing the east coast. More than half of California is experiencing a severe drought. But of course, because the news is full of reports about negative degrees Fahrenheit across most of the northern states, it means to some that global warming must be bunk.

People wonder why scientists are overwhelmingly Democrats. It’s because they cannot deny the obvious, and they examine the totality of evidence before making assertions. For a Republican, if there is a polar vortex it means there is no climate change. If there is an excessive heat wave, it’s an aberration and evidence of nothing. Democrats though are looking at the earth as a system. And on average, in spite of the polar vortex, the earth is warm and getting warmer. It obviously doesn’t mean the world in general is cooling down.

I didn’t press my logic too far with this couple. I knew from experience it would engender some hostility. We simply had to finish a quick meal and the price was right, even if we had to sit with a couple that admired Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter. Keep pleasant. Keep positive. Keep civil. Smile, but don’t smirk.

It may be inconvenient, but neither Fox “News” nor Rush Limbaugh can change the laws of chemistry. When you keep adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, more heat is going to be retained from the sun, on average, than otherwise and that means it’s going to be hotter. Rent a chemistry lab and do the experiment for yourself. So things are going to get warmer until we stop pumping these gases causing global warming into the atmosphere. Maybe God can move mountains, but he never has, at least not unless you count over eons. God isn’t going to change the laws of chemistry and physics simply because it disagrees with our prejudices.

I hate to give up cruising. Fortunately, this couple was not typical of those we sat with. But I may need a special cruise next time: where only sane people are allowed to board. The stupid: sometimes it does not just burn; it flares.

 
The Thinker

Christie: change you cannot believe in

Some time ago I wrote about political bullies. I wasn’t thinking of Republican New Jersey governor Chris Christie in particular when I wrote it. In part this was because there were so many other fine examples in the Republican Party he hardly stood out. In fact, almost all the prominent Republican politicians are bullies. It’s part of their trademark, at least in recent years. The civilized and mannered ones have all pretty much retired, died or joined the Democrats.

Christie this week is an example of a political bully that got his comeuppance. In a long, tedious and frequently bizarre news conference on Thursday, Christie worked hard and unconvincingly to limit his political damage from Bridgegate. I don’t think the scandal has an official name yet, but this will do. It involved restricting the number of lanes allowed to residents of Fort Lee, just across the Hudson River in New Jersey from Manhattan to a toll plaza to get into Manhattan via the George Washington Bridge. For a full week, ironically during the week of September 11 last year, local citizens of Fort Lee were tied up needlessly in traffic because their access to the toll plaza had been restricted from three lanes to one. This caused monumental traffic jams and likely contributed to one death. Reputedly this closure was ordered, if not by Christie himself, then by his close aides, as retribution. Why? Reputedly, it was because Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor refused to endorse Christie for reelection. Christie handily won reelection anyhow by an impressive sixty plus percent margin.

At the news conference, Christie portrayed himself as something of a victim. He said he was lied to by his staffers, and said that he was shocked that people he trusted lied him to. To hold people accountable he fired an aide, Deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly. Port Authority executive David Wildstein resigned last month reputedly due to the scandal. Curiously though for a bully, at least when it came to his friends, he was not up to doing it personally. Kelly was fired by email. During the news conference, Christie said he was sorry, of course, but also said he was not a bully, and that people who know him would not characterize him as one.

Really? This easily passes the smirk test.  Being loud, obnoxious and in your face are key ingredients to Christie’s style. It’s what got him elected then reelected. In New Jersey, these are something akin to assets. The state has a history of corrupt officials, typically Democratic officials because it is an overwhelmingly Democratic state. The state also has a history of mob influence, and has lots of Italians in general. In short, being obnoxious and corrupt is part of the culture. What gave Christie allure to New Jersey voters is that he was a Republican not afraid to take on the powers in his state. Given the state’s history, it’s not surprising that his bullying and obnoxiousness was considered an asset.

Christie is a caricature of a bully. He is not afraid to get up close and personal, yell loudly, put his finger in your chest and violate your personal space to make his point. He takes the initiative rather than wait on events. As I noted in my earlier essay, bullying generally works. It is considered bizarre behavior. Most of us are trained to be civilized so we are taken aback when we encounter a bully. We simply don’t know how to behave. While we feel incoherent and flustered, the bully has asserted himself and changed the dynamics. And so far it has worked well for Christie. Arguably, in a state with such a corrupt history as New Jersey, you need a bully in charge.

If you are going to be a bully though, at least have the decency to admit it. Don’t spend much of your news conference proclaiming that you are not the person you made yourself out to be as part of your trademark. It’s not surprising in the least that he would attract and hire people with a similar temperament; indeed it would be surprising if he had not. Given that their boss was into retribution and political payback, his subordinates probably felt they were being faithful to their boss by imitating his behavior. And if the Democratic mayor of a New Jersey city isn’t going to endorse their boss for reelection, well, then there is a price to pay. It’s time to show who’s really in charge. And so they did because they could. It’s how bullies operate. You are liberal in dishing out punishment because you are trying to make an emotional impact. You do this on the assumption an emotional impact will change future actions. The message to residents of Fort Lee was pretty obvious: if you elect people not in tune with the governor then you are going to pay a price. For most it was the price of inconvenience, but inconvenience is costly and in this case allegedly deadly as well.

Bullies are rendered powerless when they are stood up to. Ideally this courage inspires others to do the same, soon rendering the bully impotent. Restricting traffic to a major thoroughfare into Manhattan is an example of a bully going too far over the line. With the help of grassroots Democratic activists, eventually the press took notice and started digging. That Christie’s subordinates ordered this is simply all we need to know about the character of the guy. Christie is in the moving cheese business. While voters appreciated most of the cheese that Christie managed to move, you can move too much too quickly. And when that happens, as in Bridgegate, you learn which boundaries can be transgressed and which cannot.

Given that the incident was widely publicized at the time, Christie’s ability to tune it out suggests his insular, incurious and haughty nature. Publically, he suggested that such local issues were beneath him. Most likely privately he was aware that his minions were pulling some strings on his behalf, and he enjoyed seeing his enemies squirm.  I doubt his staff involved in this affair gave it much thought. It was consistent with their boss’s management style.

Time will tell if this will have a lasting effect on Christie’s political ambitions. It certainly gives Americans, who probably haven’t tuned that much into Christie, some concerns to chaw over. For Christie, successful damage control will mean tempering his temper, the very asset that brought him political fame. Once tempered, it’s unlikely that he will shine out above the crowd of other Republicans with eyes on the White House in 2016.

The bullying trademark of the Republican Party has been wearing thin for a long time. Americans are disgusted with the Tea Party in particular, for their obnoxious and uncompromising attitudes and the damage it caused. Rush Limbaugh’s show is in tatters. Political compromise is in; political extremism is out. Part of Christie’s trademark was that sometimes he would work across the aisle, or take a position anathema to most Republicans, thereby demonstrating the courage of his convictions. Without bullying as his shtick though, there is little to recommend him. Instead, now there are lots of red flags.

Christie has become the symbol of change we cannot believe in.

 
The Thinker

Decking the secular halls

So an atheist, a Buddhist, a Unitarian Universalist (me), his un-churched sister, her sarcastic college age son and the cynical brother who says he only worships Baal get together for dinner. The occasion: Christmas, of course.

That’s right, our Christmas tree is festooned with lights and bulbs. An angel adorns its top proclaiming the good news of Jesus’s birth. Our halls (such as they are) are decked out. There are cookie tins stuffed with ginger snaps and butter cookies.  Charlotte Church’s coloratura voice is coming out of speakers singing, of course, Christmas carols. Our porch and garage door are lined with blue lights that I put up weeks ago to celebrate the Christmas season. We have all the signs of Christmas except for the Christ part. We’re having ourselves a fully secular Christmas.

If you had to pick a Christian among us, I would come the closest. The roots of Unitarian Universalism are in Christianity. There are in fact many practicing Christian UUs, although I can’t find them in my “church” which seems to be at least half atheists. Still, UUs generally admire Jesus, such as he is imperfectly revealed to us in the gospels. I don’t think he was divine, as is true of most of us UUs. Also I don’t put much faith in prayer or miracles, but I do think Jesus probably existed and obviously inspired enough people so that his ideas carried forward after his death in a viral manner. There is no historical record of his existence outside of the Gospels, but that’s good enough for me; it passes my Occam’s Razor test.

Of course there is no evidence that Jesus was born on December 25th anyhow, but it is convenient to the winter solstice, which was likely why it is celebrated on this date. There used to be a lot of heathens around and if you are going to convert them you have to work with their natural worship dates.  So most likely we are celebrating the birth of a man who might well be fictional, that most rational people cannot consider divine, whose birthday we don’t know and whose legend is known only because oral tradition was eventually written down and then rewritten, often with errors and omissions, over the centuries. Along the way we picked up saints, including a Greek bishop called St. Nicholas, and morphed this single aesthete into an obese citizen of the North Pole who dwelled in his own small kingdom full of elves and flying reindeer, and that fly despite the absence of wings. St. Nick magically supplies toys just one night a year to all the good Christian children in the world and keeps up an impressive schedule making appearances at local shopping malls. As adults we of course laugh at this childish nonsense, even while seventy three percent of us Americans also profess to believe that Jesus was born to a virgin.

Myth has morphed into rarely challenged creed. A compelling new book suggests Judaism was simply made up by a bunch of elders in an attempt to unite the Judeans and the Galileans so they could fight common encroachers. If correct there was likely no Abraham, no Moses, no enslavement of the Jews in Egypt (for which there is no independent record), no burning bush, and no forty years of wandering in the desert of the Sinai which, lacking an oasis, would probably kill a large group of Jews dead within a few weeks anyhow.

And yet still we celebrate Christmas, and this includes the hopelessly secular among us like most of my family who, sadly, were raised as devout Catholics. My adult daughter, a professed atheist and now back in her bedroom after graduation, is fully into the Christmas season. She was pushing us early to put up Christmas lights and the Christmas tree. She was ready to deck our halls and could be heard singing Christmas carols in her bedroom. She was aghast that I forgot to buy some kielbasa for Christmas breakfast, a tradition that dates back to my deceased mother and which we carry on, if I don’t forget about it, on Christmas mornings. So it was off to the Food Lion before they closed Christmas Eve for some of the sacred sausage, served with scrambled eggs somewhat hurriedly before unwrapping presents under our Christmas tree.

No White Christmas this year, which is actually par for the course here in Northern Virginia. You can expect one every fifteen years or so. However, it was cold enough to qualify for Christmas, with temperatures that never made it officially above freezing despite clear skies. Walking this afternoon for exercise and bundled in my warmest parka, I felt gratitude, not just for Jesus but also for warm houses. Living outside in this weather like our distant ancestors did must have sucked. The only people these days who have an inkling of what it is like are our homeless, the exact sort of people Jesus would have cared the most about. As we raise our eggnog and sing our carols, we try not to think about them. Let them sleep in the woods in a tent and get dinner out of a dumpster. Sadly, some of our leaders clearly want to increase their ranks, and in the recently passed budget agreement succeeded by reducing food stamp allowances and heating assistance and ending long-term unemployment benefits. This is based on the curious and erroneous belief that this will make them get off their duffs and earn a living, but really was done because they are sadists absent compassion for anyone not like them. For many of these poor, 2014 will be bleaker than 2013.

For those of us lucky enough to have some wealth and privilege, we can wrap ourselves up inside our houses, sing carols in front of a hearth (probably with a gas log), tell and retell dated family stories, eat too much food and mostly forget about Jesus. If he were alive he’d probably be suggesting that we bring some food and eggnog outside to our neighbors in the woods, or maybe invite them inside our house for some home cooking, a shower, use of our washing machines and a night in a clean bed. Most of us are not that brave, convinced that the homeless are mentally ill, thus likely to strangle us in our sleep. We like the idea of being kind to those less fortunate to us more than the soiling our hands through the actual doing of deeds. Some of us will work in a soup kitchen for a day or two. Some may even give out blankets to prevent hypothermia for the homeless. To the extent that I put my values into action this year, it was to talk for five minutes with the guy from Goodwill who empties my trash in the office on Christmas Eve, learn about his son and daughter and wish him a happy holiday. I also bought $75 in gift cards for a local 16-year-old teenage girl through the Secret Santa program at our church. I also give money to charities, but this is an implicit admission that I want others to do the work that I can’t seem to do personally. I too am hypocritical, although perhaps less than most.

Yet still we huddle around our tree on Christmas Eve, unwrap our presents on Christmas Day and listen to holiday tunes on the player, many of which proclaim a savior was born today. Looking at our actions toward each other, there’s not much evidence that Jesus succeeded. And while none of us believe in Jesus’s divinity, we do sort of wish, like Santa Claus, that he actually did all those wonderful things. We just haven’t drunk enough spiked eggnog to short-circuit the logical parts of our brains.

If we could actually minister like Jesus, well then perhaps Christmas would be worthy of our celebration.

 
The Thinker

The interview

This blog is principally a written work, but today you can hear my voice if you want. Simply click on the audio player and listen to the MP3 recording. The interview is 24:09 and is 34.8MB in size. (Download)

I was interviewed by NetRoots Radio as a voice in the federal shutdown. The interview was with “Fripp”, a co-host of the Netroots Radio Tuesday show “Kicking Ass”. The interview is not actually part of the show, but is available as a podcast. I simply give my two cents about what it is like to be furloughed and offered a few political opinions. If you read this blog regularly, you won’t learn much new except you get to hear what I sound like.

“Fripp” is actually a man named Tom who is my age and living near Portland, Oregon. Tom and I have been friends since 4th grade so he is unquestionably my oldest friend, thus I was a natural person for him to interview. The interview was done via Skype on Monday afternoon. The natural pauses in sentences have been removed by software. I don’t normally speak so succinctly.

You can learn more about Tom here.

 
The Thinker

The shutdown: what’s it all about, Alfie?

Congress is threatening to send me back to work tomorrow. As of this writing (about 4PM ET) the final votes have not been taken but the thinking is that the Senate will approve the proposed “compromise”. House Republicans, bruised and bloodied, will allow Democrats and its few moderate Republicans to pass the bill. The real majority in the House, which is curiously not the Republican Party but Democrats and some moderate leaning Republicans, will finally wield its power, weak though it is. Government will reopen, the trash will be picked up off the National Mall and tourists and homeless people will start urinating inside the public restrooms on the mall, instead of outside of it.

And people like me will go back to work and try to pretend the whole two-week nightmare didn’t happen. I know it happened though. I got my final paycheck through the end of September. It was 43% smaller than the last one. Basically I was paid for six days of work instead of ten (we are paid biweekly). It seems likely that I will get back pay, although the Senate has not approved the bill yet. If there are winners in this debacle, I may be one of the few. I did not have a vacation per se, as it was full of nervousness, just with the cushion of a decent cash reserve. I never stopped working, but it was just not for the feds. Instead I mostly painted. I actually could use one more day as I did not quite finish restaining our deck (rails to come later). I was quite productive, just not for the mission of the United States. As part of my retirement mission: mission accomplished! Many of the chores I would have to do anyhow before we relocate in retirement are now done and two years ahead of schedule.

Mostly though this shutdown screwed lots of people. For most federal employees it was mostly a lot of time at home and trying to swallow their anxiety. For many federal contractors, it meant furloughs for the duration of the shutdown, and zero likelihood of being repaid. For the support people who service federal buildings, the janitors and cafeteria workers, for example: it’s a disaster with no income and no prospect that their employer will pay them for circumstances beyond their control. They tend to live paycheck to paycheck and their paychecks are paltry. For the economy as a whole, this is going to hurt, perhaps through a temporary rise in unemployment and loss of gross domestic product. The uncertainty caused by this shutdown will be quantified at some point and the number will be in the billions of dollars. Less tax revenues will increase the deficit. Less expenditure will affect retail sales.

The stakeholder that matters most is you, the taxpayer. Maybe you weren’t inconvenienced at an airport security line, but for the most part you could not enter a national park. You may discover yourself in the emergency room in a few weeks poisoned by meat you consumed that was unsafe because meat inspectors were furloughed. Certain people trying to close on house sales could not because their papers were not in order. The Center for Disease Control may be behind the eight ball if a new infectious disease breaks out as most of them were furloughed. Don’t assume the government saved money by “closing”. Federal employees like me will be paid retroactively but even if we were not, the actual costs would still be higher than not closing the government.

In reality, government is like a vast machine. It costs serious money to shut it down and serious money to start it up again. To use one example, many servers (computers used to serve information) were shut down. Servers usually work great provided you don’t turn them off. Some percent of these servers will not come back up, and will require parts and service calls. A lot of them will come up but won’t actually work properly. I expect when I turn my government computer on, it will complain because the antivirus software is more than two weeks out of date. I’m sure there will be other issues too. Computer woes will dominate most of my day tomorrow when I shuffle back into the office.

There will be lots of this plus also restarting the human processes. There will be more than two weeks of email to sift through and all sorts of conversations about how our priorities will shift that will take time and tax productivity. I was supposed to have all my employees’ performance evaluations done by the end of October. That’s probably not going to happen. My guess is that our productivity will be fifty percent less than usual for several weeks. Some of our planned work for the year is going to slip. You will get less governing for your tax dollars.

This of course was part of the calculus of Tea Party Republicans. They want less government. True believers as they are, they were willing to die on their swords for the cause, except of course for a few loudmouths like Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) who has reluctantly decided not to filibuster this last minute “compromise”. He’s having a hell of a first term, having won the antipathy of every senator except possibly Mike Lee (R-UT), who also has agreed to suspend his craziness. You have to wonder why they did, because breaching the debt limit and creating a massive recession is a great way to shake up Washington. Maybe in a fit of sanity they realized they would be marked men when NRA members whose investment portfolios would be halved in value because we breached the debt limit put them in the crosshairs.

The sad reality, which was easy to predict but that Republicans probably won’t admit, is that they lost badly. Obamacare was not stopped, as I predicted. The debt limit was not breached, although rating firms may downgrade our credit worthiness anyhow for all this pointless brinkmanship. The sequester remains but now it appears that agencies will have more discretion on how it will be implemented, plus both sides agree to have talks about getting rid of it altogether. The government could shut down again in January and the debt limit may be breached again in February as well. It’s more likely though that this will be handled more sanely, considering how badly it went for Republicans this time around. The only “concession” I see is a fig leaf one: people getting subsidies for Obamacare are subject to a more stringent audit, but auditing was already in the law. The agreement is basically a tacit surrender by Republicans. What is worse, it they have tarnished their brand. Less than a quarter of the country now “like” Republicans. They are likely to lose the House in 2014.

It’s too early to say whether the Republican Party suffered a fatal wound from this. Gerrymandered districts will be a reality through the next census but it is likely that Tea Party influence will quickly wane now. What is likely to replace them are not moderate Republicans, but sane conservatives.

Hopefully one lesson they will learn is that shutting down the government is counterproductive. Obama, and by inference all future presidents, will no longer negotiate under threat of shutdown or default. Power will have to be wielded the constitutional way again. We will remain the United States of America. The South’s new attempt at open rebellion has failed.

 
The Thinker

Furlough Diary, Day 13

I’m running out of places inside my house to paint and patch. The lower level is now completely repainted. I finished that project last week when I repainted the back of one door that I had neglected in the spring. The walls consisting of our master bedroom closets and vanity have been repainted. The master bedroom itself still looks good enough where it doesn’t seem worth my effort. Last time I painted it, it involved bringing in the ladder I use to get to the roof to paint the room’s vaulted ceilings, a tedious process that I will be glad to leave to the next owners. Last year we had a contractor paint the vaulted ceilings in our living room and hallways, so that’s all done.

So I’m been reduced to painting parts of the kitchen. The planter box that extends over the kitchen sink and out into the yard needed a new coat of semigloss, as did the door to the pantry which still had its original coat of paint. There are a few more doors that need painting but that’s it, aside from my daughter’s bedroom. She is occupying it, so I’ll paint it when she moves out. It’s an odd feeling to be virtually caught up on painting chores, likely for the first time in my life. All this is thanks to dysfunction in Congress.

Which means if this continues, and it looks likely at least for a few more days, outdoor chores will be next on my agenda. Four days of often-unrelenting rain from a Nor’easter has kept me indoors with the paintbrush. Staining the deck again, a chore I have ignored for years, is obviously next up when the weather decides to cooperate. According to the non-furloughed staff at the National Weather Service, we should finally see the sun tomorrow.

Painting has kept me too busy to feel cabin fever set in, but even thirteen days later it still feels unnatural to be home so much. I wisely brought home my plant at the office before leaving on October 1st. I found comfort going to the office most days and find that I miss that routine, not to mention the excellent view of the Shenandoah Mountains on clear days. Except for one trip to Starbucks, I have had no coffee. I keep my coffeemaker at work, and I routinely have two cups of decaf at my desk with lunch. My diet has changed since the furlough. I am less likely to have a salad with lunch, simply because my house has no salad bar, unlike the cafeteria at work. Aside from the cat who usually just wants to be fed, my companion is now WAMU, the public radio station in Washington D.C. that has mostly NPR public affairs content. My portable radio tuned to WAMU follows me as I move from room to room with my paintbrush. It’s a welcome distraction but of course it is mostly shutdown politics and I rarely learn anything new. But unlike my employer at the moment, at least it is something of a new constant in my life. The Diane Rehm Show, the Kojo Nnamdi Show, Talk of the Nation and of course Morning Edition and All Things Considered now follow me through the course of my day. This week will be a trial because it’s membership week. I give the station money every year but I simply cannot deal with the drivel that is membership week. Which means it will be WSCP (C-SPAN radio) next week, when I can tolerate that or, more likely, the sounds of silence.

I am not panicking over money but sometimes I feel like I should proceed with more financial caution. We are going through a cash flow challenge of sorts, which means I will probably have to start drawing from savings soon. My wife is more than gainfully employed, but she is subcontracting, and only gets paid once a month. This means all expenses are paid from my checking account, which consists of my last paycheck plus a few hundred dollars. And boy the expenses have been coming in! A lot of these are routine expenses but there continues to be large numbers of copays, mostly related to my wife and her accident in April, as we continue to chase down the cause of her seizure. There are initial consult fees, test fees, fees to tell you what the test said, random statements in the mail demanding more money, etc. Since October 1st, there has been about $350 in copays and more in prescription medications. Arguably all are necessary.

My next paycheck will be about half of my regular amount, for whatever period is covered through September 30 and that will be it for me until the furlough is over. It looks like we will be paid for the furloughed time. The bill is currently stalled in the Senate, basically on their back burner, but likely to get approved at some point. Still, there are no guarantees. Like Mr. Spock I am trying to stay logical. It makes all the sense in the world to keep hitting the Lowes for paint and other home improvement supplies, even with no money coming in. I keep an account for home improvements, so these expenses will come out of this account, but for the short term it just makes the balance in my checkbook creep toward zero.

Trying to read the tealeaves across the Potomac River continues to be something of a black art. When or if I get to go back to work is unclear. Some days it looks promising and other days less so. The only obvious thing is that Republicans are getting seriously pummeled on the shutdown. I started out skeptical that the shutdown would mean that Democrats would retake the House in elections next year. Now I think it is more likely than not, despite the gerrymandered districts that heavily favor Republican incumbents. Some part of me is rooting for the shutdown to continue if it makes this outcome all the more probable. Even Republicans, or at least the sane ones still around, are figuring out they need to cut their losses. When groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce declares it will support Republican moderates and campaign against Tea Party affiliated candidates, you know something has changed.

What the country needs the most are not necessarily more Democrats, although they are certainly preferable to Republicans, but more moderates. The long-term consequence of this shutdown may be the return of moderates of both political stripes. This shutdown is likely to validate the thesis that a country cannot be governed with extremes on both sides holding power. We need more Mark Warners and (yes, hard to hear me say this) Chris Christies so that they can keep either extreme from getting too far away from the sensible center. We need pragmatists. We need horse traders for politicians again. God help us, we need the earmark. We are starting to see the value of the earmark, which is not so much to put plums in Congressional districts but as the oil that imperfectly moves the gears of government. If these are outcomes of the shutdown, I will welcome then.

In the meantime, I have not yet exhausted my list of home improvement chores, so I will continue to work on them doggedly while the shutdown lasts.

 
The Thinker

Furlough Diary, Day 8

Things are “curiouser and curiouser”, as Alice put it. However, Wonderland is a lot less baffling than Washington, D.C. in the midst of a massive government shutdown. I keep expecting things to make sense but in really there is no sense in all this. It feels a lot more like Catch 22 than Alice in Wonderland.

There really is no point to the government shutdown. Republicans have already tacitly conceded that the shutdown has not stopped Obamacare. The health insurance exchanges are online, albeit sporadically given the overwhelming demand and the apparently poor job of software engineering by the contractor for the federal exchange. You would think that since their tactics obviously didn’t work they might concede reality, get over their snit and reopen the government. After all, Senate Democrats have already conceded to Republicans on the size of the continuing resolution, a cut from last year’s Spartan levels.

But, no, that would mean a loss of face, which is way more important than leaving much of the federal government shut down. House Republicans won’t allow a simple up or down vote to be taken on funding the government, although the votes are there to reopen the government. However, the House did vote 408-0 to pay federal workers like me, retroactively of course, for sitting at home. It’s reasonable to ask, “Gosh, if you are going to eventually pay us anyhow, why not send us back to work?” That way at least national parks would reopen and people desperately needing to get into NIH cancer trials might get the opportunity.  But no, that’s can’t happen because you see if we are actually ordered to do something productive then Republicans can’t make people’s lives miserable, and you can’t prove the government is shut down unless people’s lives are miserable. Take out the misery and the whole thing becomes pointless.

In my case, what this amounts to is I am getting an IOU not just to stay home, but also to actively not work. It was made very clear to me when I left work a week ago: I was not to do anything resembling government work, under penalty of law. I’m forbidden from even turning on my government furnished laptop computer, or logging into my government GMail account from my personal computer. Which means I am making excellent money, more than $60/hour plus benefits, to mostly paint my house. Yesterday it was our upstairs bathroom, which needed touching up before our house goes on the market in a couple of years. It actually required totally repainting the room when the paint I purchased turned out to be glossier than what was actually on it. I figure if this goes on long enough, I’ll run out of chores to do around the house. I still have a list that includes cleaning and re-staining the deck, painting part of our master bedroom, washing all our windows, mulching the garden and removing the last of the weeds from it as well. Then I will start on the next set of non-house chores: getting the car inspected and taken in for a tune up. It used to be these were hassles but now I can do them at a time that suits me and eventually get paid obscenely for the privilege. Plus I can sleep in late, although I seem to be up by 8 AM anyhow. For this I can thank our dysfunctional Congress.

Defense Secretary Hagel has decided that most of his employees are essential after all, and called them back in to work. No phone call has arrived from my chain of command. I assume our systems are running okay, but obviously I can’t find out. I do know that when this hullaballoo is over I’ll be just one more civil servant trying to make the chaos stacking up in the office into something orderly and attainable again. All our yearly plans will have to be rethought and re-scoped, at additional time and expense, of course. In all our project plans, there was no place for a task called “government shutdown” but clearly something will have to give: scope, time or cost. Not even a government shutdown can change these facts of life.

The real crime here is the loss of governance. Nowhere in our constitution is there a Hastert Rule, which says only items that a majority of the House’s Republicans agree to vote on will get voted on. This rule, if you think about it, is more insidious than the filibuster. The filibuster is a way to ensure the minority gets heard. The Hastert Rule allows no opportunity for the minority in the House to have any say on what comes before the House. It becomes even more like Catch 22 when you consider that many Republicans are totally okay with breaching the debt ceiling, in fact they are eager to see it happen. It’s not such a big deal, they say. Simply use cash coming in to pay off our foreign creditors. Everyone else can wait. My goodness, what kind of glue are they sniffing? If just one social security payment is late because of this, the Republican Party is done: dead as a doornail in the 2014 elections. It’s amazing they can be so totally clueless about the obvious. It just goes to show the danger of ideology because it can overrule any common sense whatsoever. The real “hostage taking” that President Obama referred to today will be the Republican Party. It has already being held hostage by the Tea Party. It’s like that scene from Blazing Saddles where the sheriff points a gun at his own head.

All work in government is essential because Congress authorized it. It’s just that a lot of the work does not seem essential when you did not vote for the law. The work I do involves planning projects that take years to move from idea to implementation. It means lots of requirements, prototypes of system changes, vetting with user groups, detailed project plans, project tracking and oversight and lots of levels of testing. Declare this work nonessential and you make government less effective. In my case, the impact is that our scientific data is less likely to be shared, or shared as quickly as it could be. It could impact interdisciplinary studies needed to understand the impact of human activities on our climate.

I doubt it’s more important for me to sit at home and paint walls instead. However, if this is how you want to stop government from governing, it is effective, just much more costly than letting government do its business. If Congress wants to tell us this work is no longer essential, it can pass a law and we’ll stop.

Meanwhile, I’ll keep painting. The money is great!

 

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