Dancing the Furlough Kabuki

Much to my surprise, the government shutdown I anticipated last week never happened. The snarling, obfuscation and “my way or the highway” statements on Friday suggested (at best) a weekend with the federal government shutdown. Much of the noise was apparently posturing. A deal was struck late on Friday. Another continuing resolution was passed by both houses and hurriedly signed by the President. Staff worked through the weekend writing the bill both houses of Congress will vote on this week to cover federal discretionary spending through the end of September. Its passage is not assured, but seems likely.

If you truly want to gum up the workings of government, keep dribbling out money to agencies week by week with no idea of how you will ultimately be permitted to spend it. This “gumming the gears up” strategy seems to have worked well so far, from the perspective of someone nested inside the federal bureaucracy. We have spent all sorts of time and money just figuring how to shutdown gracefully if required to do so. It’s not an easy thing to do. It’s like trying to turn off an aircraft carrier. It can be done but happens only when it is decommissioned, so no one bothers to figure out how to do it. Guidance on who was essential, who was not and what the rules would be for a furlough were confusing and were constantly shifting. What systems needed to be maintained and which could be stood down during the furlough were also subject to great change. All sorts of preliminary and revised guidance documents came down, many of which were lengthy and could not be read fully in the time required. On Friday there were last minute meetings by senior leadership in my organization, resulting in even more last minute meetings with staff that still left questions open. It seemed at one point that if you were “nonessential” you could not even read your work email after midnight on Friday.

I was in Denver on business all week, which made it even more confusing. I monitored email and listened in on conference calls all while trying to work in a conference room but I received little clarity. In the middle of the afternoon on Friday, I finally boarded a bus to Boulder to spend the weekend with my brother. I left convinced that if I saw my office on Monday it would only be to issue furlough notices to my employees, return my laptop computer and get my own furlough notice. Fortunately, my airfare home was prepaid, but we were warned that if a shutdown happened then our government credit cards could not be used after midnight last Friday. My travel expenses, like baggage and shuttle fees, might come out of my own pocket.

One thing was for sure: I was “nonessential”. I remember reading some news report where some citizen who was asked about the shutdown said that we should get rid of all nonessential people in the government. Think of all the money that could be saved! I am sure this citizen was one of many with the same opinion. Here’s the reality: essential people cannot do their work for long without nonessential people. Take the human resources office, for example. They are likely all nonessential employees. The essential employee though has to hope he does not get a workplace injury, because someone in HR would need to facilitate a claim. Similar things are true about my job and my “nonessential” staff. One sailor may be able to maintain the rigging on a small ship, or even a large ship in a calm sea. It’s in stormier seas that you need extra crew. Moreover, no sailor will stay for long on a ship where the cook does not have meals ready in the galley. No autopilot mode can last forever. Eventually, many other people are needed to keep the whole thing working. An immense amount of coordination is needed to run government lawfully and in a planned and systematic fashion.

So using terms like “essential” and “nonessential” were probably not the best choice of words. “Critical” and “noncritical” would have been better. In my office, only one person was deemed essential, and it was not a manager. It was a technical guy who could troubleshoot problems with our critical servers. In the event of a shutdown, we were told it was against regulations to check our email. Why? We would be working and we could not be compensated for “nonessential” activities, therefore it was unlawful to do so. How do you move from nonessential to essential? Someone who is essential has to tell you that you are essential, and then you are only allowed to work until your essential work is done, and then you go off the clock. Oh, and don’t expect to be compensated until after the shutdown is over.

You would think that if you are furloughed, nonessential and unpaid to boot, then you should be able to be a free agent during the furlough. If I wanted to earn some extra income working the French fry vat at the local McDonalds, I should be able to do so. Not so fast! There are rules for these sorts of things. If my agency suddenly is funded, then I still may be nonessential but I must report to work. Nor can I volunteer my time while furloughed, or take a paid or unpaid vacation because I need to be available if something essential does come up. Nor can I file for unemployment, at least not immediately, because in Virginia where I live I have to wait two weeks. In short being furloughed doesn’t mean that you are out of a job, just that there is no money to pay you and you cannot work. Technically, you remain employed, but you don’t earn a salary and need to stay close to home. Oh, and you can’t call your supervisor because they are nonessential too. In short, being furloughed is a Catch 22. In theory, you could be on furlough for years, draw no salary, and yet be unable to accept another job.

In the 1995-1996 shutdowns, in the end it did not matter. Congress subsequently reimbursed employees who were nonessential as if they had actually worked. This time if a furlough happens everyone agrees reimbursement won’t happen. In some sense, this is unfair, but not to the taxpayer who sees no point in paying anyone who is not working. It is unfair from the perspective of a federal employee who is willing to work, cannot and is not allowed to do any other work as well. Their only option is to quit the federal government altogether. Unfortunately, with HR being nonessential, there is no way to quit until the furlough is over. You can’t even call your boss to say, “I quit!” So starting a new job during your furlough is in some sense, illegal.

So far these procedures have been all moot, but I imagine they will occur, and probably sooner rather than later. The federal debt limit must be raised soon, which offers Republicans more opportunities for furlough shenanigans. Then there is the FY12 budget, whose passage will make the FY11 budget look like a cakewalk. Perhaps clarity will return after the 2012 elections. I have some hope that by then voters will be so sick of extreme polarity that they will vote sensible moderates into office. I’d best not count on it.

Let’s throw those bums a bone

Merry Christmas to you, particularly if you happen to be Christian. Presumably, the birth of Jesus means more to you than it does to me. Because I do not believe in Jesus’s  divinity, I cannot claim to be a Christian, except perhaps in spirit. Like most Americans, I participate in many aspects of Christmas anyhow. I am not beyond festooning my house with Christmas lights, putting up a Christmas tree and even putting an angel on its top. Aside from the usual presents under our tree for loved ones who rarely need nor want what I buy them, I was a real Santa Claus this year. It did not involved donning a red suit, but it did involve spending about $100 on presents for a 3 year old girl named Jaylee, for whom I am a Secret Santa. I won’t meet her but she will get things she really wants but which her family cannot afford, including a Dora the Explorer doll and a three wheel scooter. We also spent a few hundred dollars on food for the homeless that we donated to a nearly empty community food bank.

Nuclear moneyed families will use the occasion of the season to tune into various holiday TV specials, some of which are actually religious. Most of these turns out to be feel-good shows, like the latest Hallmark holiday special starring my heartthrob Jewel Staite. In it, apparently two people and a motherless boy find love, not in Jesus, but in each other. Many of these specials are animated, and many are frankly dreadful to watch, even for children. Many contain more saccharine than saccharine itself. Most people would say that A Charlie Brown Christmas is the holiday special that most closely evokes the religious aspects of Christmas. For me, How the Grinch stole Christmas is most appropriate for our modern times. It is clear that Jesus was no fan of the rich. The Grinch epitomizes the soulless, possession-obsessed, anti-poor overlords about to overrun our House of Representatives, people so soulless they cannot wait to cut unemployment benefits and food stamps, even for their own constituents.

If ever there were a time when we needed more of the true Christmas spirit, 2010 would be it. Food banks are bare. Homeless shelters are overflowing. The only way to get Congress to extend unemployment benefits is to continue to borrow obscene amounts of money to give tax cuts to millionaires who don’t need the money and have been living on government largess for much of the last decade. 99’ers (those unemployed for 99 weeks or more) are now out of luck and will get not even coal in their stockings, which at least would provide a little heat. Instead, they will likely soon be found standing in a cold queue for a cot in their local homeless shelter. Letting them eat cake is clearly too rich for them, but apparently cheaper than buying them fruits and vegetables. With their food stamps benefits exhausted and their food pantries empty, their next dinner may come courtesy of the dumpster behind the local Wendy’s restaurant. To add to their misery, Lord, it’s cold out there, at least here in northern Virginia. We’ve gone weeks without seeing forty degrees and today we are getting gusts of wind up to forty miles an hour. It has only occasionally crept above the freezing point.

Not that we, especially us purported Christians, really will care all that much. We will comfort ourselves with the fantasy that through ensuring that our citizens are miserable, we are providing the virtue of self-reliance, all at no cost to our wallets. We are teaching them to fish, so to speak, although many of them are reeled in like fish. Our legislators whine that we cannot afford to put them on Medicaid or give them emergency housing. The social safety net is so yesterday. The homeless can spend their days shuttling between the dumpsters at Wendy’s, the line at the homeless shelter and the emergency room for their pneumonia, which is fine with us because none of these are on our commutes. Out of sight, out of mind.

Surely, all this recession-fed self-reliance and austerity will eventually bear fruit, although so far in Ireland, Greece, England and elsewhere the evidence that austerity has any advantages beyond making the less moneyed more vulnerable and scared cannot be found. All this is necessary because we have been living beyond our modest means, but also because while the rich like being rich a lot, they like being richer even more, and have no qualms if it is done by making the middle class impoverished. It’s good to be a creditor and if you threaten to stop loaning money, even first world countries get scared and start cutting spending.

It would be great if the so called Christians and humanitarians among us would practice what we profess. In two days, we celebrate the birth of Jesus who implored those of us with possessions to give them to the poor. There is little sign that the rich will do so, unless they can be bribed to write it off on their taxes. With the top one percent of the country owning over 42 percent of the national wealth (as of 2007), the rich can afford to pay much more to feed, house and cloth our abundant poor. Much of our national misery is self-inflicted because wealth redistribution is now anathema. It has to be voluntary, but the rich at least cannot seem to summon the will to pony up some small measure of their vast treasure at this miserable time. In short, the vast majority of them are apparently as Christian as Attila the Hun.

So Merry Christmas to all of you who are food, sleep and/or shelter deprived. With luck, the winter won’t leave your old coat too threadbare. As for the rest of us, while raising that glass of eggnog, let’s acknowledge our true feelings about the poor and the homeless, as found in this Bob Rivers’s parody of the of tune “Home for the Holidays”:

Oh there’s food for the homeless on the holidays
‘Cause no matter how filthy and uncombed
If your down on your luck, you can really graze
For the holidays we throw those bums a bone

I met a man who drank and smelled of pee
He was headin’ for the local mission for some homemade pumpkin pie
Pan-handlin’ folks are always hangin’ round by the discount liquor store
And they’re not too brand specific
Gee a buck would be terrific

But there’s food for the homeless on the holidays
There’s a turkey just like Mama made at home
If they pine for redemption from their heathen ways
Come the holidays we’ll throw those bums a bone

Take a piss in your pants til you smell like you’re from France
Put some vino in a crumpled paper sack
Though you’re smellin’ like a beast you’ll treated to a feast
want second? Come right back!

There’s lots of food for the homeless on the holidays
Have some pumpkin pie and ham with provolone
We don’t care if they eat dog food on the other days
When you call a cardboard box your home sweet home
For the holidays we’ll toss those bums a bone

How Republicans politically manipulate you

Republicans may be wrong on most things, but that certainly does not mean they are stupid. How many poor Republicans do you know? I cannot think of any offhand. Unless you inherit a boatload of money, you don’t get to be rich by being stupid. You get rich by figuring out ways to manipulate people, organizations and markets so that you come out ahead, usually at someone else’s expense. Perhaps the first rule in becoming rich should be to join the Republican Party.

Lately, Republicans have fine-tuned their machine to deliriously new and exciting heights. The Great Recession scared most of us shirtless, but Republicans saw it as an opportunity. They got us into it in the first place. However, when you don’t care about the consequences of your actions as long as it enriches you and your tribe, and when you do not feel remorse, you also won’t suffer from shame and guilt that most normal people would feel.

Yes, their stock portfolios took a tumble just as mine did, but they had eight profitable years under George W. Bush and largely Republican congresses to fatten their cash coffers. They persuaded Congress, which they essentially purchased, to lower capital gains taxes below their income tax rate, far below it, in fact. This means that investing money is now officially valued more than labor, which means the rest of us will pay disproportionately more in taxes. They also pushed the levers of power to lower their income tax rates as well. The cost has been massive deficits and the movement of wealth from middle and lower classes into the elite’s pockets instead. That this happens really doesn’t bother them at all; it makes them happy. If the government has to borrow money to give them tax cuts, like we’re going to do again with the latest compromise, that’s perfectly fine too. All that really matters is the accumulation of more and more wealth through whatever means works. When you cannot grow an economy because of lots of systemic factors, moving wealth from the bottom half to you is more than acceptable.

So unsurprisingly, Republicans dominate the moneyed professions, such as banking, investments, realty and the like. The one exception might be the law profession, simply because Republicans as a class don’t like it when the legal system can be used sue the rich into making them give up some of their wealth. It’s not sporting for a Republican to play Robin Hood, and that’s what a lot of these trial lawyers do, while often collecting a third of the settlement as their reward. So we get disinformation campaigns on so-called lawsuit abuse, for filing civil suits in court that are inherently lawful.

One of the first rules that the rich learn is that if you want to make money, you have to spend money. If you are of modest means like the rest of us, you don’t have a whole lot of discretionary spending. In fact, Republicans are hoping you are up to your eyeballs in debt, because this just makes you more disenfranchised. Whereas if you are rich, spending ten percent of your income to make sure you stay rich or get richer makes a lot of sense.

With the Supreme Court’s blessing in the Citizens United decision, they now no longer have much in the way of constraints. Under the guise of a corporation or a political action committee, they can spend as much as they want on elections. Unsurprisingly, they use their money to dominate the airwaves to make sure their message is heard. They also spend gobs of money on focus groups to figure out what message or phrases are most likely to influence you. Once they find it, they market it relentlessly.

Therefore, you get campaigns that culminate in an odd sort of distinction: PolitiFact’s infamous Lie of the Year 2010, a carefully crafted lie generated by moneyed Republicans designed specifically to appeal to your worst fears. That it was in fact a lie matters not. There is no penalty for lying in political advertising. The only thing that matters is whether you can sustain the lie long enough for it to have a political effect. Oh, the lie? It came from political consultant Frank Luntz who urged GOP leaders to say that health care reform was “government takeover”. How many of you knew it was a lie? How many of you were convinced, like Sarah Palin may actually believe (but probably no other thinking Republicans), that health care reform meant government death panels were imminent? How many of you were uncertain, but it had just enough plausibility in your mind to alter your vote?

Republicans played voters like a well-tuned fiddle this election season. Voters were already dreadfully anxious because while we were technically out of a recession the unemployment rate hovered near ten percent. So thinking like a Republican, you see opportunity and put out messages designed to feed these anxieties. Accuracy is obviously not important, you just have to influence perceptions and feelings. And when you have a lot of money and can afford to do first class market research and saturate the airwaves, you can translate anxiety into votes and gain sixty-three seats in the House of Representatives alone.

Democrats unwittingly aided and abetted Republicans, proving ineffectual at best at countering these messages. This was in part due to the large volume of salvos being hurdled at them. If you are forced into a defensive game, this eventually means that you will lose, because to win you have to score points. With money, it is possible to put the opposition on the defense most of the time. Rest assured that Republican political consultants have prepared poll tested responses in advance for any response they will get from Democrats to one of their many lies and exaggerations. Mainly they know that we voters are simple creatures. We cannot handle too much complexity, so they keep repeating the same talking points relentlessly until they sort of morph into a new conventional wisdom.

Any questions? How to change this dynamic will be the subject of a future post.

Bloomberg plus The Coffee Party in 2012?

Michael Bloomberg for President? The mayor of New York City is making noises like he may be running for president. Anyhow, so suggests Washington Post columnist Dan Balz in today’s paper, quoting the $18 billion three-term mayor of the Big Apple from various recent speeches. One thing is for sure: it’s hard to pin Bloomberg down to a political party or ideology. He used to be a Democrat, found it convenient to run for mayor as a Republican, then when he last ran for mayor decided he was an Independent. No question about it: it helps to be a billionaire. A month before he was reelected to a third term (for which he had to cajole the City Council to amend the city’s charter), he had spent $63 million on his campaign, drowning out his closest opposition sixteen to one. In a Democratic city, he won grudging respect from the governed. His approval ratings hovered in the sixties for a long time and are now in the mid forties. For a politician these days, those are good numbers

As a partisan Democrat, I have a grudging respect for the guy. Good: he supports same sex marriage and gun control, although I suspect the latter just within his city. He raised taxes in 2003 and as a result steadied the city’s precarious financial position. He believes in immigration reform and is generally pro-environmental. Not so good: he thinks us lefties are, well, kind of weird. He’s convinced we think that only more government will solve problems when we really want government to do the people’s business when other means clearly don’t work. He does not want to decriminalize marijuana although he admits to having used it (and enjoyed it). He considers himself a fiscal conservative, although he is not the kind that Grover Norquist would recognize. He supported the War in Iraq. He is not exactly anti-development and has taken the side of developers over preservationists. In 2004, this very smart man endorsed George W. Bush for his second term at the Republican National Convention. He must have been smoking that stuff he does not want to decriminalize.

Will Bloomberg run for president in 2012? An astute businessman, Balz suggests he won’t unless he is convinced that the polls suggest it is viable. History would be stacked against him. Arguably, Ross Perot’s run as an independent in 1992 put Bill Clinton in the Oval Office. Still, these are unique times. The country is deeply divided but there remains an independent middle deeply disgusted with both parties. If this group can constitute a critical mass that is greater than the mass of partisan Republicans and Democrats, Bloomberg could win. With $18 billion, he can self finance a national campaign.

I sometimes wonder if those of us who are partisan are just as sick of the partisanship as the rest of the country. I cannot be alone. I am deeply scared for our country. President Obama’s most recent attempt to tack toward the middle has left me very troubled. Yet, I am not sure if I were in his shoes that I could have done anything differently. The current political dynamics stink and the only way to move even a very modest agenda seems to require dances with the devil. I guess I should not be surprised that Republicans will put tax cuts over deficit reduction. It is just crazy insane to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars to finance tax cuts to multimillionaires who not only don’t need it but cannot even think of ways to spend it. Republican audacity simply knows no limits.

Our country desperately needs a few things that seem likely to elude us. We need to be one united states again, instead of the sectarian divided states that we clearly are. We need politicians to behave reasonably, not to be rewarded for ever more virulent and extreme positions. Instead, we have the irresistible force colliding with the immovable object. All that generates is great destruction, destruction that achieves the aims of neither the left, nor the right, nor the middle but likely will make the Chinese happy.

For me this is Bloomberg’s appeal. We already have a Congress overwhelmingly white and wealthy, but we don’t have a whole lot of people in Congress who can act rationally. This is because no matter what side you are on, you don’t get there unless you echo the party line. President Obama’s latest capitulation to Republicans is a case in point. Democrats, at least House Democrats, are outraged and rightly feel they have been betrayed. Obama can stalk the center, but he is going to find it a lonely spot. It may sway independents and maybe even get him reelected, but it won’t grow the center. What’s the point of having a second term if it will be one where he is continuously hamstrung and where little of any real benefit results? Instead, Obama will become an even larger piñata, with Democrats taking swings at him as well as Republicans.

Bloomberg doesn’t come with that baggage. Is he a Republican, Democrat or Independent? Does it matter? No, because neither side will find a reason to like him and will only feel threatened by his candidacy, should he run. Bloomberg’s credentials as mayor, his pragmatism, his fearlessness to tell things and they are, and (let’s face it) his great wealth that gives him the means to do so, are compelling credentials, just the sort of stuff we need. Which is why, although I am a partisan Democrat, I might have to vote for him. Why? Because our national situation is so bad that whether the president is Republican or Democrat, their political affiliation would only fan the flames of further national dysfunction. To get beyond it, the first step may be an independent mediator in the form of an independent presidential candidate with the right credentials, the right attitude, and the money to challenge all the political parties and the entrenched special interests out there. Bloomberg’s got all these things.

If I were to give Bloomberg advice, it would be not to run as an Independent, but to run under the Coffee Party banner. The Coffee Party is arguably not a real party, but it could become one quickly enough. The Coffee Party is simply a bunch of moderate and reasonable people, with a slightly leftward bent, sick of excessive partisanship and incivility by both parties. They believe we can rise beyond our partisanship and ideology and just be reasonable. Like Michael Bloomberg has demonstrated as mayor.

It’s not widely know, but Abraham Lincoln was the first Republican president. The Republican Party coalesced around the old American Whig and other parties after the Whigs disintegrated. They were the counterpoint to the Democratic Party, which in its day was unmistakable from today’s Republican Party. Abraham Lincoln himself was a Whig for most of his life. The time for a party of moderates may be rising. The time for deeply polarizing Democratic and Republican parties may be waning.

I am convinced that pragmatic and moderate people are the majority in this country; they are just not heard. Bloomberg, affiliated and running under a Coffee Party might sweep not only himself into office, but throw out both Republicans and Democrats from Congress. Moderate Americans just need a viable alternative and need to rise up en masse. Right now, they don’t have a party which is viably centrist. It’s either the devil they know or the devil they don’t.

If such a party were viable and if Bloomberg were associated with it, I might switch. More than anything else, we must govern in a civil and reasonable fashion again. Continuing down our current path yields disunity and a rapid descent into second world status. As a patriot, I cannot stand for it.

The Great Regression

The Great Recession sure isn’t/wasn’t much fun. According to economists, we have been out of the recession for a while, but for most Americans, with 9.6% unemployment we feel still deeply mired in it. We probably won’t feel like we are out of it until unemployment is around six percent or so, and we have recovered at least most of the wealth we lost in the 2000s.

Republicans of course are saying they want to create jobs. Naturally, the best way to do it is to follow their economic theories, which are largely the same theories that got us into our current mess. This time however there is a new wrinkle. They say this time they will honestly and sincerely shrink the size of government and balance the budget too, all while ensuring that no taxes go up. Just like they said they were going to do the last few times and missed the mark by a few trillion dollars.

President Obama tried to head them off at the pass this week by proposing to freeze federal salaries for two years. Republicans of course have a much more aggressive idea. To start, they want to cut federal jobs by ten percent and reduce federal wages by ten percent. Surely, this is just the tonic we need to reduce unemployment: pink slip hundreds of thousands of federal employees and cut their wages to boot, by at least ten percent. Oh, and those federal pensions sure look like they can be cut too, even though federal employees have been faithfully contributing to their own pension plans all this time. It’s not stealing if the government passes a law saying it’s legal!

If history is any guide, this latest attempt to shrink the size of government will in fact grow it. There have been ceilings on the number of federal employees for much of my federal career. This made it hard to attract new talent, but it certainly opened the doors to contractors who rushed into federal agencies to do much of our work, albeit with a substantial markup, generally in the thirty to 50 percent range. This allowed contractors to give money to Republicans so they could pass laws allowing even more contractors to be hired. It was a profitable cycle for both sides. Republicans may succeed in cutting federal salaries by ten percent or more, but when those private sector bids come in don’t expect that they will match reduced federal salaries.

Republicans have all sorts of curious ideas. Some of them, for thirty seconds or so, almost sound plausible. Most of them though sound strange at best and horrifying at worse. Conservatives have apparently decided that the further you can roll back time, the better things will be. What is amazing is that they may have the votes to enact some of these wacky ideals into law.

Some years back when some Republicans opined that some part of social security money should go into private accounts, Americans rose up in arms. It was one of the reasons the Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006. This time they want to make you wait until you are nearly seventy to collect benefits and when you collect them, to give you fewer dollars, all in the name of making social security solvent. Apparently, Americans haven’t bothered to educate themselves on the matter because a lot of them are now nodding their heads. Yes, they are saying, I need to retire later and get less of my own money back so that a system that is fully solvent for more than the next twenty years with no changes whatsoever can use its surpluses to pay for other costs of government. It makes sense that I should sacrifice my retirement!

Republicans also have their eyes on Medicare. Their solution to rising costs: give people vouchers to buy insurance. Of course, these same Republicans also want to repeal recent health care legislation, which is the first meaningful attempt to actually reign in health care costs by forcing efficiencies and fair play. Vouchers are a back door way to undo the alleged socialism of Medicare but won’t stop the spiraling health costs. This means, of course, that seniors who are not rich will be incrementally priced out of health care when they need it the most. What a satisfying way to stop “socialism”.

As weird and radical as these ideas are, these remain some of the tamer ideas. Republicans have much wackier ideas in their arsenal, all of which follow a general theme: let’s regress America back to the 19th century, no the 18th! How far can they go?

Well, there are plenty of Republicans who want to repeal the 14th amendment. This constitutional amendment says if you are born in America, you are a citizen. We have had the 14th amendment for 142 years, more than half as long as we have been a country, but these “conservative” Republicans now consider it wrong and radical. The animus of course is they are dreadfully concerned that there are too many people not like them living here now, you know, Hispanics and the like. If you can’t deport them, at least you can disenfranchise them. As you will see, other Republicans have much more aggressive ways to disenfranchise Americans.

Republicans are also forming a long line to repeal the 17th amendment. It used to be that state legislatures elected senators. They want to go back to those days, disenfranchising you from voting for the senator of your choice. Their argument: this is the way it was written when the constitution was set up, so it must be better than what we have now because original intent must be better than subsequent amendments. Never mind that it’s never a cakewalk to get any constitutional amendment enacted. It requires 2/3 of both houses of Congress plus three quarters of the states, a very high hurdle. They figure, if it was good enough in 1783, it’s got to be better than what we have in 2010.

When I first heard that some Republicans wanted to repeal the 17th amendment, I honestly thought it was a joke. Who in their right mind could possibly believe in something this nutty and antidemocratic? Much to my surprise, these people are serious. However, going back to the 19th century is not going back far enough some Republicans. To be faithful to our constitution, we have to go back to original intent. And in the very old days, states decided the criteria for who could vote and who could not. Generally, you could vote only if you were (a) white (b) male and (c) property owners. In short, you were not an “enfranchised” citizen unless you had enough capital to own property.

Just two days ago we learned that Tea Party Nation leader Judson Philips believes that denying the vote to those who do not have property is a good idea. “And that makes a lot of sense, because if you’re a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community,” Philips actually said. He did not call for only white men to have this privilege, so perhaps that means he is a secret progressive.

I am not a renter. Yet, it occurs to me that if Philips had his way I would still not be able to vote. I happen to be male and white, which is good as far as original intent is concerned, but I do not own my property. Rather, I have a mortgage. You only really own your property if you pay off your mortgage balance. I have about $80,000 to go. Instead, all I really own is the equity in my house, which is not actual property. Most likely, you could not vote either, which would mean mostly rich Republicans would constitute the voter pool, something that doesn’t seem to bother Philips, naturally. After all, they are vested in the country because they have property, much of which was purchased with unearned inheritances.

If there were any doubt who Republicans really care about, you can see it in their actions over extending the Bush era “temporary” tax cuts. In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised Republicans would block any bill in the lame duck session of Congress unless tax cuts are first extended to the wealthy. Republicans have donned their Scrooge hat and are also blocking extended unemployment benefits for the chronically unemployed, a new START treaty with Russia and hosts of other things.

If all Republican fantasies came true and only property owners could vote, I suspect reverting to the 18th century would not be far enough. There is no limit to how far back conservatives can go. What they want is a Great Regression. Was feudalism really all that bad? And what’s wrong with a little polygamy? It was fine for many a Jewish leader, and the original Semite himself Abraham had plenty of wives.

Abraham probably didn’t pay anything in taxes either. I suspect this is their ultimate goal: to revert us way beyond the Dark Ages, into the pre-Biblical days where you lived by your wits, government did not exist and all were free to be savages preying on their fellow men. Justice was an eye for an eye; it was perfectly fair and natural. Their actions suggest this is precisely where they are going. Do not stop at Go and do not collect $200.

Yet we keep voting these clowns into office. It’s like the rest of us are abused wives. Yes, I must have done something wrong because he beat me, so beat me some more. I deserve it!

Let’s hope we all sober up by 2012.

Random thoughts running around my brain, Part 2

It helps to write an occasional topic-less post. Seinfeld was always fun to watch, and it was a show about nothing. So it’s okay to have a post that is the same way from time to time, like this one, where more random thoughts running around my brain make it to electronic paper.

  • Who do I really admire? Those who can refrain from overeating on Thanksgiving. That requires willpower I do not have. All I can do is limit the damage, which means lots of protein (eggs) with breakfast, exercise (a two and a half mile walk, in my case) and try (but not always succeeding) not going for seconds. The best way for me not to succumb to food temptations is to keep them out of my house. On Thanksgiving, like the cornucopia, they overflow in abundance and I am sucked into their vortex.
  • As frequent readers know, my wife and I are now proud owners of a new 2011 Subaru Impreza. It’s my wife’s first “new” car just for her. She can have it. I drove it for the first time yesterday. Maybe it’s a guy thing, but I just don’t like it. She chose a manual transmission. It took a full minute for me to remember how to start the car (press down on the clutch, then turn the key). It’s been at least five years since I drove a stick and it now seems unnatural and bothersome. It did not shift particularly smoothly and because its pistons are mounted horizontally instead of vertically, the car feels like it wiggles sometimes, particularly when shifting to higher gears.
  • Subarus are just so chick cars. I had heard this, but thought it was just a stereotype. It is not. This became clear to me when I spent some time reviewing the glossy Subaru Impreza brochure my wife brought home from the dealer. Every page is meticulously designed to appeal to women, not men. All the photographs and illustrations are ever so carefully arranged photographs to carry a common woman-orient theme. Woman driving Subaru with dog in the window. Happy families. Women in jeans, model thin, in tight blouses running on lawns. Women lounging on the grass in front of their Subarus. Subarus parked in front of art galleries and coffee shops. On every page comforting female words: made to last, affordable, efficient, smart investment, built for living, stability, control, economical (well, maybe not at 23 mpg), agile, dog-friendly. What they won’t say: Subarus are just not sexy cars, they are practical and reliable cars. They ooze ordinary. If this is my wife’s midlife crisis mobile, she should have gone for something sexier rather than a car so relentlessly practical. I tend to buy practical as well, but Subaru make it a fetish.
  • With the purchase of the Subaru Impreza, our oldest car is now just six years old. I think this means my lifestyle is finally catching up with my income. I’m glad to be driving my Honda Civic Hybrid again, instead of a boxy, oversized Honda Odyssey I never liked.
  • Just why was it that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat Democrats? It’s like they have a death wish. Democrats rescued Wall Street, which now vilifies them because of consumer protection laws designed to keep them from doing the same stupid things again. Democrats kept a nation from collapsing into another Great Depression, saved our banks and financial institution, and kept our car industry and the huge ecosystem associated with the car industry. They even gave enormous tax breaks to business, just like Republicans. With friends like Wall Street, who needs enemies? While most Americans are struggling, businesses are enjoying record profits and refusing to use their profits to hire Americans. If Wall Street had any lick of sense, they would be promoting Democrats, not pillorying them. If I were President Obama, I’d say enough is enough and every day call attention to these record profits that are not being used to put Americans back to work. Heck, if they won’t hire Americans, I would campaign to raise taxes for big businesses. A populist campaign would also be a compelling 2012 campaign theme.
  • There’s a new Harry Potter movie out and I just don’t care to go see it, not even in IMAX. In fact, if I do see it, it won’t be in IMAX. My eardrums and neck still hurt from my last IMAX movie experience.
  • I am sick of being middle aged. The cardiologist keeps playing with my heart medications and giving me twenty-four hour Holter monitor tests. In spite of the surgery I had earlier this year, I still have foot and thigh nerve problems. Sitting is a painful endeavor and physical therapy hasn’t really made the problem go away. I cannot stand all day and earn a living. Ouch and more ouch.
  • And speaking of middle age, one scary statistic from this news report jumped out at me: “The poll finds that two in five men between 45 and 65 having problems with sexual functioning. Only 19 percent of female boomers say the same. For both genders, less than half received treatment.” That explains the overwhelming number of drug ads for sexual dysfunction. If only the magic blue pill also made older men actually want to have sex. Women, would it be too much to ask you to diet and exercise? Yeah, I know, you want us men to do the same thing.
  • I’m getting used to having a stepmother. She is old fashioned, so I addressed her by my father’s last name, which she liked. There is a lot to like about Marie. My dad chose well. My guilty thought of the day: I may like her better than my late mother. Perhaps this should not be surprising given that she did not have to raise me, so she comes with no baggage. Anyhow, my father and stepmother graced us with their presence and appetite for Thanksgiving, and showed us pictures of their honeymoon in Switzerland, which we watched on our high definition TV.
  • Speaking of Thanksgiving, the cat enjoyed the occasional scraps of turkey we threw his way last night. And he is being very useful making a rug of himself on my lap as I blog.
  • It makes so much of a difference to teach a higher-level class. The material is more interesting to teach, the students are awake and interested, and they are just interesting people in general. I will miss teaching them when class ends in a few weeks. This is why I got into teaching part time. Unfortunately, when you teach in a community college, you are much more likely to get a class full of students who would rather be somewhere else and would just as soon tune you out.
  • When I feel despondent about the state of the world, it helps to facilitate the youth group at my church. They are such a wonderful group of engaging, thoughtful, sensitive and humane youth. Perhaps with future leaders like these we are not necessarily doomed as a species, although I sometimes think we deserve to be. I hope to blog more about them in the future.

A battle lost, but a war far from over

News analysts and politicians are in a tizzy because House Democrats have done what seems to be a very strange thing. How, they ask, can House Democrats elect current Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi as their new minority leader, when they lost sixty house seats on November 2nd? Isn’t this counterproductive? Isn’t it rewarding failure?

These critics are looking at the wrong set of goal posts. To news analysts and pundits, the goal is to control power. To people like me, the goal of government is to work for the best interests of its people, even if in the process you must lose power for a while because you dared to do what was right and stand up against special interests. By that measure, Nancy Pelosi was a sterling success. Rarely has a Congress been as productive as this current congress, and Democrats in the House led the way. The usually recalcitrant Senate provided the breaks on so much progressive legislation that first was approved by the House. Even so, the 111th Congress passed an amazing amount of progressive legislation. Moreover, Pelosi’s leadership skills were instrumental in marshaling House Democrats, as fractious as their Senate colleagues into a strong and effective force.

Consider some of the legislation passed by this Congress and compare it with any congress in your living memory:

  • Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. No longer will women have pay discrimination lawsuits thrown out because 180 days have elapsed.
  • American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. This act drew plenty of scorn from Republicans and certainly did add greatly to our national debt. However, it also saved two to three million jobs and held our economy together. Skeptical? Our nation’s Number One investor Warren Buffet says it’s true. Without it and the bailout, it seems certain that we would now be mired in a depression instead of the effects of a lingering recession. Instead of 9.6% unemployment, it is likely the unemployment rate would be 15% or higher. Like the auto companies or loathe them, the bailout kept them afloat and even GM is returning to profitability. In some cases, taxpayers are making a profit from these bailouts, while saving large numbers of jobs right here in America.
  • Credit CARD Act. The act ended a host of egregious and abusive practices by credit card companies who were charging usury interest rates and fees. The act makes shopping for credit cards much less complicated and much more straightforward.
  • Family Smoking Prevention and Control Act. For the first time, the FDA is allowed to regulate cigarettes as the dangerous and controlled substance that they are. Coming soon to packs of cigarettes: graphic pictures of the effects of smoking to help dissuade smokers, courtesy of an empowered FDA, albeit fifty years later than necessary.
  • Worker, Homeowner and Business Assistance Act. Provided fourteen extra weeks of unemployment insurance for the longest unemployed Americans in the worst 24 states. The act has kept millions from destitution and homelessness.
  • Statutory Pay as you Go Act. Reinstated pay as you go budget rules that Republicans discarded in 2002. Ensures that most new spending is offset by cuts elsewhere or by new taxes. It’s a law any Republican should love, which make you wonder why they were the ones to abandon it.
  • Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Health reform. While not perfect, for the first time your health insurance company cannot end your insurance because your condition is unprofitable for them. The act covers the health insurance needs of young adults under their parents’ policies through age 26. It squeezes real cost savings and efficiencies from Medicare and Medicaid. It opens health insurance plans to all comers and does not allow any health insurance company to reject you. The Act makes significant and meaningful changes that will lower the rate of growth in medical costs by ending much of the shifting of costs to others and state and local governments.
  • Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act. Closed the donut hole for Medicare Part D recipients. It also allowed the government to make student loans directly to students, taking away the profit from the middleman.
  • Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. This act puts in place governance that should preclude much of our latest financial disaster from happening again.

Time and time again, Pelosi stood in the firewall and organized House Democrats to pass progressive legislation. Through her raw power, guile, persuasion, strong-arming, nudging and probably some backroom deals she made things happen. No shrinking violet, she was one liberal unafraid of critics and unafraid to intimidate them.

Pundits will say she pushed through legislation America did not want. Others will say that she should have spent all her time creating jobs for Americans, although many of these same critics expected her to do it without spending any money. It was largely Democrats that kept the economy from collapsing altogether. Despite the higher unemployment rates, the Obama administration and the Pelosi/Reid 111th Congress has still created more jobs in two years than President Bush created in eight.

That’s of little comfort though to the unemployed. I am sorry that the public took out their wrath on a Democratic congress, and I am sorry for the sixty or so Democratic House members who lost their seats. They fell on their swords, but they did so nobly. They moved crucial progressive legislation. They kept an economy from collapsing and bought us time to recover. They all deserve our thanks, respect and honor. They are true patriots. The problems we face are engrained and long standing. There is no silver bullet for any of these. If they can be solved at all, it is only through the application of a lot of time, money and quality legislation. By that standard, and not by the artificial one of who controls power after an election, the 111th Congress and Speaker Pelosi were great successes.

We progressives may have lost a battle on November 2nd, but this war is far from over. To win the war, we need proven leaders who can chart a way forward. Nancy Pelosi is such a leader. House Democrats did the right thing by making her their minority leader in the next Congress. Those who are angry with her have their anger misplaced. I would rather have a Republican 112th Congress than a Democratic 111th Congress that accomplished nothing of note. With courage, conviction, spunk and determination, Pelosi showed her mettle and that she has the right stuff. Let’s hope she stays in Congress long enough to inflict some revenge. I think she will live to see it.

My plan to reduce our deficits

Over at Daily Kos, many are calling President Obama’s bipartisan commission to recommend was to achieve fiscal stability, “The Cat Food Commission”. If enacted, a proposal released yesterday by the commission’s co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson would certainly require a lot of austerity and painful choices. This is why it doomed to go nowhere. However, it is useful to underscore what it might take to actually achieve a balanced budget.

It’s like Bowles and Simpson tried to produce a document they knew could not possibly garner any support. Even some members of the commission, who were surprised when the co-chairs released it, found they could not support it. Outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi quickly rejected its suggestions for changes to Social Security and Medicare. There are some good ideas in the recommendations. Simplifying tax rates, for example, would make a lot of sense and make it harder for some to avoid paying a fair share of taxes. Overall, the proposal requires too many sacred cows to be slain. As one example, it says that we should stop the home mortgage interest deduction. Good luck on getting that one through Congress. You can bet if it came to a vote, the real estate lobby would target for defeat any member of Congress that voted for it.

So I know a few things already. Congress will not pass some massive, comprehensive budget reform law. That is as likely to happen as a single payer health care plan was likely to pass in this Congress. No, if it happens at all, there will be all sorts of backroom wheeling and dealing, with the big winners likely big business and the big losers ordinary, income-challenged Americans. Most likely, Congress will choose to punt any real reform until sometime past 2012 and hope an improved economy keeps voters from focusing on the problem. While our budget deficit has been a long-standing and chronic problem, what citizens really want from our government now are jobs and some semblance of the prosperity they had ten years ago. The budget deficit issue was mostly fodder whipped up by Republicans and Tea Partiers to add to our anxiety level so they could win political power.

No question about it: our budget deficit is bad. However, it is not nearly as bad as some would suggest. Our debt, as a percentage of gross national product, has been much higher than it is now. Toward the end of World War 2, public debt hit around 110% of GDP. Now we are about 50% of GDP. This number would be a lot less intimidating if we were still not painfully climbing out of a recession. If you produce less output, then of course your debt as a percentage of GDP will be higher. After World War 2, the government generally lived within its means or racked up only modest deficits. We reached a post World War 2 low during President Nixon’s term of office. It has skyrocketed under Republican presidents since that time. As a nation, we have endured much higher levels of relative debt before and came through it, and have done it without draconian solutions like cutting social security benefits.

What disturbs me the most about the Bowles-Simpson proposal are some of its assumptions. One assumption is that tax rates should be as low as they are now. If anything, our current tax rates are too low and need to be higher. In order to keep taxes at that low a level and shrink the deficit, it proposes all sorts of unpopular ways of cutting expenditures, most of which are impossible to pass. Moreover, since they are politically impossible to pass, at some point you must raise taxes to make up the difference.

Their proposal to reduce social security benefits and extend the retirement age is very unpopular with the public, who are happy to pay higher withholding rates in order to keep the current retirement ages. Then there is the good news from the system’s trustees that Social Security is solvent for at least the next fifteen years with no changes to the law. Solvent means that Social Security’s accumulated assets (in U.S. Treasury Bills) won’t be exhausted for at least 15 years, and it only just recently started to draw down from them. In short, Social Security is not causing a drain on the treasury and for now its surpluses reduces our budget deficits. So it needs tweaks rather than the draconian solutions in this proposal. Rather, it appears that the Bowles-Simpson proposal wants to monetize the Social Security surplus to further reduce the deficit. This can happen if the retirement age increases because the U.S. Treasury makes money as long as Social Security collects more than it pays out. Frankly, this and similar “reform” proposals are a scam and taxpayers should be up in arms about it. Many of the new Tea Party members of Congress were elected promoting the false claim about the imminent bankruptcy of the Social Security system.

What are feasible ways to really get to a balanced budget again? The fastest way is to have an economy that is rapidly growing with near full employment, because that means more taxes are collected, obviating a whole lot of painful deficit reduction choices. Arguably, the fastest way to do this is to borrow more money to stimulate the economy some more. That’s not likely to happen and even I agree that the odds it would work at creating lasting growth are dubious. This, combined with modest tax rate increases, say to levels during the Clinton Administration, would do a lot to bring in more revenue and close the deficit gap.

Since Social Security is solvent, the three biggest factors driving the deficit are Medicare, Medicaid and defense spending. (Too low tax rates should go without saying.) The new health care law will, if it is not overturned, squeeze cost savings from Medicare and Medicaid, slowing their rate of growth but not to the point where they keep up with general inflation. It would not be popular, but legislative caps on these programs to a percent of the GDP would be a sane approach. If anything should stimulate efficiency, this should. Caps could be raised, but only if revenues were raised as well, i.e. it was deficit neutral.

Then there is the Department of Defense, which even its secretary admits is a vast, inefficient and bloated bureaucracy, feeding an ever-expanding military industrial complex. Our military is also vastly overleveraged. Frankly, we cannot afford the military we have. It needs to be shrunk. As a nation, we need to make hard choices about where to spend our defense dollars. The Bowles-Simpson proposal at least does us a favor by pointing this out. Reducing our military presence overseas and closing many of our overseas bases makes a lot of sense.

If you look at the drivers for deficit spending, along with entitlements, elective wars also drive up debt. Bush’s two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost at least three trillion dollars, and probably more like four to five trillion after all the costs are paid out. Our current debt is about 13 trillion dollars, which means just these two wars have bloated our debt by nearly 25%. Elective wars have huge financial consequences so they must be much harder to start and need to be paid for. Here is my proposal: strengthen Congress’s right to declare war or any major military incursions. Require that all wars be paid for in higher taxes, unless two thirds of both houses of Congress agree to suspend the rule. Another lesson: diplomacy is a lot cheaper than war!

Do these things and many of the other problems will take care of themselves. Any new entitlement needs to go through a process to ensure it is deficit neutral (which is the case with the health care law, by the way). Congress’s recent pay-go rules need to be codified into law, which will probably require a constitutional amendment.

Politicians often find it more expedient to cut discretionary spending, but excluding defense, this is a small portion of the federal budget. In 2009, non-defense discretionary spending was only 12% of the federal budget, or about $437 billion dollars out of a $3.5 trillion dollar budget. This spending rarely rises much beyond inflation. Entitlements and defense spending are driving up the debt. While there is wasteful non-defense discretionary spending, it’s likely not a lot, and certainly not enough to solve our deficit problem. For most of us giving up our space program, food and drug safety, air traffic control system, national parks, the weather service and such are not negotiable anyhow.

In short, we don’t have to retire at age 69 in order to solve our fiscal problems, but we do have to seriously contain costs for entitlements, decide defense spending is not sacrosanct, keep ourselves out of elective wars, and, yes, raise taxes to something reasonable but not too burdensome. Why would we choose to spend our senior years eating cat food when it is not necessary?

Let’s get to it.

Election 2010 postmortem

As best I can parse it, the message from voters last night was, “the beatings will continue until the morale improves.” Republicans gained at least sixty house seats. Looking at the House electoral map it looks largely red from sea to shining sea. Unfortunately for Republicans, we have a bicameral legislature. While Republicans made important gains in the Senate, they did not win majority control. Democrats control at least 51 senate seats. Colorado and Washington State remain in dispute, but seem likely to go blue. Lisa Murkowski apparently won a write in vote in Alaska, and will doubtless canvas with the Republicans. So the Senate remains Democratic, with a likely 53-47 Democratic majority.

One lesson for Republicans: the Tea Party giveth and the Tea Party taketh. Their energy doubtless piled on Republican House majorities, but proved counterproductive in the Senate. While adding Tea Partiers Rand Paul in Kentucky, Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania and Marco Rubio in Florida, overall Tea Partiers likely cost the GOP control of the Senate. Christine O’Donnell lost by seventeen percent in Delaware. John Raese lost by ten percent in West Virginia. Harry Reid, largely reviled in Nevada, won by five percent over an even worse candidate, Tea Partier Sharron Angle. In Alaska, voters were inclined to not take the advice of their former governor Sarah Palin and through a write in process elected Lisa Murkoswski instead. Doubtless, there will be recounts in Washington State and Colorado, but it doesn’t appear that the extreme positions of Dino Rossi or Ken Buck helped Republicans. More milquetoast candidates might have flipped these seats and given Republicans control of the Senate too. While the outcome in the House was a major disaster for Democrats, in a poisonous election year for incumbents, Democrats actually came out surprisingly well overall, retaining control of the Senate and, of course, the White House for two more years.

Democrats though need to check their backs, because Republican governors also did very well last night. Republicans control a majority of governorships and added control of ten legislatures last night. Governors and state legislatures draw congressional districts, which means that districts will drawn in an even more partisan manner, resulting in higher levels of Republicans in Congress. The long-term trend for Republicans though is not good. Ultimately, demographics will do them in, unless they can find ways to broaden their appeal toward Hispanics and younger people.

There is a lot of exit polling trying to make sense of this election. Doubtless, the analysis will get spun and respun. The animus driving this election though is clear: it’s the economy stupid. If somehow Democrats had managed to undo all the excesses of Republican rule in their two years and employment were at five percent instead of near ten percent, this wave likely would not have occurred. Voters expect politicians to make their lives better. When it does not happen, they tend to vote their bum out and vote the other bum in. At least fourteen percent of House seats flipped in this election. This is a remarkable number rarely seen in our history. It reflects the great anxiety that Americans are feeling now. What is remarkable is that with 9.6% unemployment even more representatives were not voted out of office.

It remains to be seen whether either party will learn from this election. My betting is neither will, which means, as I predicted in September that the only thing we can count on for sure in the next two years will be greater national dysfunction. What is the point of having power if you do not use it? House Republicans will probably be unable not to scratch the itch, so I expect all sorts of convoluted attempts (which are doomed to fail) to somehow “undo” health care reform and punish President Obama for alleged “socialism”. In reality, the American people don’t care that much about the health care law. What they care about is their own bottom line. Just getting back to their standard of living before the recession would make most Americans happy. Unfortunately, even if we had a united government there are no quick solutions to our national problems. The only real solutions are long term. So far, major tax cuts, many targeted toward business of all kinds, haven’t spurred hiring. Deficit reduction won’t spur hiring either. It may be prudent for the government to live within its means, but that doesn’t translate into more jobs. In the short term, it takes money out of the economy, increasing unemployment.

What will it take? Some certainty about our future would help. To start, it would be helpful to clear up the backlog of millions of foreclosed houses. Doing whatever it takes to resolve these foreclosures quickly makes an unknown problem a known one with a defined size and scope, allowing businesses to adjust their economic expectations accordingly. The other part are systemic reforms that Democrats have been working on, albeit sporadically and ineffectively. Health care costs are the biggest vampire on our economic health. The health care law certainly is not perfect, but it is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, there is no quick way to change a health care system. It takes time. Eventually though these efficiencies work their way through the system. As health care costs are controlled, more money is available for uses that are more productive and we add more certainty to the economy as well.

Unfortunately, the American people show little patience for long-term solutions focused, as they tend to be, on their own personal pain. Many of the reforms working their way through our system now, like health care reform and financial reforms, will add certainty to our economy. However, since we seem to be doomed to have not just divided government, but hostile government for the next two years, more certainty is likely to elude us, which will likely keep unemployment artificially high. Certainty does increase if parties can find common ground and develop consensus solutions. It is hard to see how this can happen with so many new Tea Partiers and no-compromise Republicans in Congress. It is not even clear if House Republicans will raise our debt ceiling in a couple of months, and keep our nation from defaulting on its loans.

If you are a praying and patriotic person, now is a good time to pray because we need political accommodation that will almost certainly elude us. Just as was true when voters went for Democrats, voters are giving Republicans a qualified mandate to get useful work done. They have no more inherent trust in Republicans than they do with Democrats, in fact less as poll after poll bears out. They just want things to get better. Will Republicans listen? If obfuscation is their strategy, they may find, as Democrats found out yesterday, that their hold on power will also be short lived.

Laughing our way to understanding

How many people yesterday attended Comedy Central’s Rally for Sanity and/or Fear on the mall yesterday? The U.S. Park Service no longer estimates crowd sizes. Newspapers reported tens of thousands but I think it is more likely the crowd exceeded 100,000. CBS News estimated 215,000.

I can say as someone who tried to attend the rally that plenty who wanted to attend the rally must have simply given up. My wife and her friend managed to get the rally but I eventually bailed. I-66 going into Washington was largely a parking lot, almost all of it due to people trying to get to the Vienna metro station to attend the rally. Getting to the metro station and finding parking was only part of the problem. There were also half hour to hour queues to get Metrorail tickets, and then more waiting to actually get on a train. As often happens at these events, people at stations further down the line found trains too packed to get on. They had to take a train to the end of the line simply to get a seat to take a train back into Washington.

We had two electronic flash passes but our friend who was from out of town had to buy a ticket. So I loaned her mine and went home to watch the rally on my computer. That way at least two of us would get there on time. I probably got a much better view at home anyhow. Glorious fall weather, a super friendly crowd and the light comedic touches by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert kept the event fun, reasonably short and mostly apolitical. The only ones being skewered seemed to be the most egregious examples of the right and the left.

The real purpose of the rally was hard to figure out. In some ways, the rally seemed unique. Has our nation’s mall ever been used for a large, comedic event before? I could not recall a time, unless you consider most political rallies to be unintentional comedic events. The event was covered without commercials and participants were encouraged to contribute to the Trust for the National Mall, as well as not to trash the mall, which is what typically happens after rallies of any size. It was also hard to figure out the point of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally on August 28th, which was clearly smaller than this event. Both rallies seemed a little surreal. At Beck’s rally, Glenn Beck tried to momentarily morph into an apolitical figure. At yesterday’s rally, Jon Stewart’s closing monologue also seemed surreal: serious but with a touch of comedy, almost a sermon about how we must all learn to live with each other.

Generally, comedians simply try to make us laugh, collect a few quick bucks and move on. It is easy to forget that comedy can help us understand and frame real issues by looking at them in a different way. All humor is based on some contrast with reality. Comedy can, if only for a moment, be like opening a small window in a stuffy room and letting some fresh air come through. As it turned out, that was the purpose of the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. It was an attempt to tell the nation that our polarization is beyond the dangerous phase. Jon Stewart’s message was to let us know that it has reached a toxic phase where it is destructive to all who seek to make this country a better place. As Stewart eloquently put it (in words that are likely to endure), “If we amplify everything, we hear nothing.”

Some will doubtless question Stewart’s credentials to diagnose our national problems. But if not Stewart, then who? Stewart’s political leanings are well known, but he is always civil. Moreover, Walter Cronkite is dead. As Stewart noted, between barrages of negative ads, endless highly skewed talk shows and 24-hour news channels, who can cut through all the noise? Stewart and Colbert did, at least for a little while, to at least some of America (principally a younger crowd).

The rally had its lame moments, but at least for a few hours it did succeed in focusing a critical mass of people on our national dysfunction and warn them of the seriousness of our problem. Sufficiently high levels of disunity and chaos feed national dysfunction and in one case triggered a civil war. Nowadays, it opens windows of opportunity, not for America, but from those countries and movements glad to clean our clocks. While we argue about tax cuts and health care for all, China is mastering clean energy technologies. It seems to have bought controlling rights to most of the world’s precious minerals, and is attempting to blockade our access to them. Massive disunity like we have now serves no national interests and further weakens us as a nation.

Short of totalitarianism, there is no way Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Tea Partiers or any political movement will ever fully succeed. Even if success were possible we would become a sterile, monolithic culture stripped of our fundamental freedoms. We have gone dangerously awry but through comedy, Comedy Central is making us aware that while we can laugh about our national problems, it really is not a laughing matter anymore. As Stewart noted (and as I noted in this blog post), however much we might not want to get along, if we are to be a functional nation we must find a civil way to do so anyhow. This is not facilitated when extremes on either side characterize the other side in dehumanizing terms.

While I am a liberal, sometimes I see liberals cross the line. I found Keith Olbermann’s most recent special comment disturbing, not for its untruthfulness, but for the visceral hatred that Olbermann so obviously feels for weird but disturbing Tea Party candidates. I could be wrong, but I have yet to hear any Olbermann special comments that are not dripping with a similar tone of animosity. The common factor is outrage. Yet it is possible to disagree without being disagreeable, to separate a person’s position from a person’s character. Neither Sharron Angle nor Sarah Palin are bad people because they disagree with me. It is their policies that I think would weaken our country. I wish politicians on both sides could learn basic civility. It was never a problem for the late William F. Buckley. However, these days vitriol seems to pay. It works as well for Keith Olbermann as it works for Rush Limbaugh. Both are banking on their ability to outrage, as well as entertain. If Olbermann did not flush with rage and anger regularly on camera then it’s unlikely he would be earning his very comfortable salary.

The Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear gave us a few good laughs, kept us entertained, but also opened up a conversation on civility and moderation that is long overdue. Some people have had enough. Moderation is driving more genteel movements like The Coffee Party. We need to stop closing our ears to each other, and try listening with an open heart instead (and I count myself as one of these people). We must try to listen with empathy and figure out what meta-causes are driving this animus.

For social conservatives, I really doubt that the size of the federal government is what gets their blood boiling. It is likely something far more basic, like the enormous social and technological changes happening all around them that seem so unstoppable, and thus uncontrollable. If that bothers you then why would you not, like Bill Buckley, do your best to holler, “Stop!” For liberals, the animus is probably not health care for all, but values rooted in a sense of community, compassion and wanting to see those values emulated by our government. Some may ridicule us for “feeling their pain” but for many of us, we feel their pain because we lived their pain.

We will never be a wholly united country, nor should we strive to be. Disagreements are natural. What is unnatural is near total polarization, which is where we are now. When this happens, genuine dialog becomes impossible. Stewart and Comedy Central may be our Don Quixote tilting at windmills, but at least they are trying to foster a climate that encourages moderation and civility. That is not worthy of laughter, but is worthy of our applause and thanks.