Calling their bluff and Obama’s trump card

The temperature hit a record 105 degrees Friday at Washington Dulles International Airport, a new record. The temperature must have been at least as hot at the White House. There President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner were engaged in their latest discussion regarding raising the nation’s debt ceiling. Apparently tempers flared, Boehner left, and the president and speaker were left to give dueling press conferences to explain why the other side was being unreasonable. Meanwhile, social security recipients were anxiously wondering if they were going to get their checks on August 3rd.

The dueling press conferences were at least instructive in underscoring the fundamental issue of disagreement. It’s not the deficit that really matters, it’s not even the debt ceiling, and it’s not jobs or the state of our economy. It’s taxes. For House Republicans, the bottom line is no taxes must be raised, not even when our deficit is more than a trillion dollars a year. Unfortunately, they have boxed themselves in by claiming that debt and the deficit were more important when all along it was really about taxes. Now, as President Obama pointed out in his press conference, they are left with the inability to say yes.

To Republicans, the deficit is less important than no new taxes. It turns out that for them taxes trump everything. It used to be that Pentagon spending was sacrosanct for Republicans: how could we possibly endanger our national security? Well, not anymore: when push comes to shove they would rather reduce our military budget than raise a dime in new taxes. The logic gets fuzzy when it comes to agriculture subsidies and the like. In their minds, taking these away without adding subsidies somewhere else is a tax hike. Thus spake Grover Norquist. But cutting Pentagon spending in general, even though there is a huge defense community that depends on federal spending, is apparently okay if it avoids a tax hike.

The debt ceiling is fungible as well. Republicans are not opposed to raising the debt ceiling, but only if there are no new taxes and “savings” by cutting expenditures exceeds the amount by which the debt ceiling is raised. It is also fine to not pay our bills, bring the economy into depression, leave grandma without her social security check and raise our long-term borrowing costs rather than raise a single dime in new taxes.

One can arguably say that Republicans are crazy, but one cannot fault them for inconsistency. They mean what they say and they say what they mean unless, and this is a very big unless, they can have a sudden change of heart or Speaker Boehner can convince enough House Democrats and non-Tea Party Republicans to go for another deal.

So far Republicans have been remarkably tone deaf to their corporate masters, who are now telling them, “Okay, enough is enough. Time to sober up and compromise now.” Too bad these same corporate masters were not working to elect establishment Republicans rather than Tea Party Republicans last year. While they achieved their desire for a majority of Republicans in the House, it came at the expense of political accommodation, hitherto a necessary skill when there is divided government.

Yet, there is a power stronger than even Grover Norquist that Republicans have foolishly ignored until now, but they will discover on or around August 3rd if the debt ceiling is not raised. It is the power of senior citizens who depend on social security but who will not get it. It is the power of sixty million angry and desperate phone calls from hot-tempered grannies and gramps who, if they are mobile, will also be picketing outside their representative’s offices. You really don’t want to rile up these folks, because they were the ones who voted you into office, but they did so on the condition that you would not mess with their junk.

Politically, letting Republicans push us into default probably would help rather than hurt the president, providing it can be shown that he did everything possible to prevent a default. Given that the Senate has already rejected the House’s plan, this has already been demonstrated. The economic effect of default would likely be catastrophic, but the political effect would be to throw the Tea Party out in 2012, and likely lead to the demise of the Republican Party brand.

Still, there has to be one adult left in the room. If I were President Obama, and if push came to shove I would say that the 14th Amendment gives me the right to extend the debt ceiling unilaterally to cover all debts covered by law. I would also cross my fingers and hope that at the 11th hour that there were enough worthy creditors willing to loan us money to avoid default. I expect he has his lawyers all over the problem. That is his trump card that he will be forced to pull out only if all else fails.

Why Republicans are duty bound to cancel their insurance

Over the last couple of years, my family has been at fault for two automobile accidents. I got in a minor fender bender when a car clipped the side of my bumper as I was trying to pull into traffic. My daughter, being a relatively inexperienced driver, also had an accident. She learned it’s not a good idea to change a CD if your car is creeping forward.

No one was hurt in either accident, thank goodness. My daughter was in shock for a while, but after paying a $250 deductible for each accident and about a week of hassle, our cars were better than new. Our auto insurance rates did go up modestly. Clearly, we were not out of pocket the $5000 to $10,000 it would have cost to pay the full cost of these accidents.

Of course, the whole purpose of insurance is to protect you from major financial liabilities. Most of us would agree that insurance is perfectly reasonable, as most of us are not sitting on a pile of money to pay out a judgment against us if we were found at fault.

Still, isn’t there something more than a little socialistic about insurance? That’s what I am wondering after listening to conservatives, Tea Party and Republican activists talk about repealing “Obamacare”, assuming they get a majority in one or more houses of Congress. As best I can tell, they consider the legislation socialism, even though no public option survived in the legislation. A couple of things seem to be sticking in their claw. First, they really don’t want to pay for those who cannot afford insurance. Second, is their incessant mantra of “personal responsibility”. People should pay for their health insurance. If they cannot afford it, well, things are tough all over, Mac. Trust to luck, vitamins, five-dollar prescriptions from Wal-Mart and, most importantly, don’t get seriously ill. And if you do end up with some chronic condition, rather than send the bill to the government or those who are insured, host a fundraiser, get relatives to pay your bills, or just accept the fact that you must suffer more and die prematurely. After all, the dictate of personal responsibility is more important than anything, even if this means because of your inability to pay that you are subject to immense suffering and an early death. Your suffering simply makes us a stronger country!

Curiously, few conservatives, Republicans or Tea Partiers seem to object to uninsured motorists insurance that they pay as part of their auto insurance. Whether auto insurance is required or not, some drivers won’t buy it. Also, some people have such miserable driving records that no insurance company will sell them a policy. For you, the driver, the result is the same. If you are hit by an uninsured motorist, then unless the motorist is independently wealthy, you will pay the cost of someone else’s mistake. In other words, someone will have escaped personal responsibility!

Fortunately, the number of uninsured motorists is relatively small. The same cannot be said for the number of Americans without health insurance. At last count, some fifty one million Americans did not have or could not afford health insurance. That’s roughly one in six Americans. Many more have some insurance, but it is insufficient. Certainly some of the uninsured pay their medical expenses out of pocket, but more typically, uninsured Americans allow chronic conditions to develop because they cannot afford to treat them earlier. When driven by necessity, they run to our emergency rooms and receive essentially free care. As most of us know, the insured bear the cost of this care. It is added in indirectly to the cost of a health insurance premium. So if you have health insurance, you are paying for the uninsured whether you like it or not, albeit indirectly.

At least with auto insurance the cost of uninsured motorist coverage is usually itemized. This rarely happens with your health insurance premiums. The last statistic I read estimated that about eight hundred dollars of each annual health insurance premium went to reimburse hospitals for the uninsured. These costs contribute substantially to the cost of health insurance. Moreover, as the ranks of the uninsured grow, these costs escalate. In addition, both state and the federal government, principally through Medicaid, pay other health care costs for those too poor to afford health insurance.

A good Republican, Conservative or Tea Partier though should not have any insurance policies. Why? Because they believe that personal responsibility is a black and white issues; no shades of gray allowed. So you should not even drive a car, or see a doctor unless you know you can pay these costs out of pocket. Co-pays are socialistic in nature because they encourage you to take risks at someone else’s expense. So you need to first either inherit a pile of money or have to earn enough money on hand so that you can pay for all your costs out of pocket. (This also allows you to negotiate good deals with your doctors, who are inclined to give cash discounts.)

Republicans, think carefully because insurance defeats the whole notion of individual responsibility. It encourages you to get into auto accidents, to neglect your house maintenance and to hit the Country Buffet every day. If you knew you would have to pay a million dollar judgment or hospital bill out of pocket, of course you would be far more prudent. If you knew because of hitting the Jack in the Box twice a week you would not be able to afford your Lipitor, you would be eating salads instead.

So that’s my suggestions for everyone into personal responsibility. No more weaseling. Time to put your philosophy where your mouth is. Cancel all your insurance immediately and pay for everything out of pocket. Because surely if everyone did the same America would be a utopia, right?

We can never go back to before … nor should we try

A recent Washington Post – ABC poll identified about twenty six percent of the country as “angry” about the newly enacted health care legislation. Presumably, good portions of these citizens are members of (or sympathetic with) the Tea Party movement. The poll found ninety four percent of these people are white and 73 percent identify themselves as conservative.

Today the Post published some follow up interviews with these self-identified angry Americans. It turns out that health care reform is just the tip of their iceberg of complaints. Typical is this interview with a man from California:

“I grew up in the ’50s,” said Hugh Pearson, 63, a retired builder from Bakersfield, Calif. “That was a wonderful time. Nobody was getting rich, nobody was doing everything big. But it was ‘Ozzie and Harriet’ days, ‘Leave It to Beaver’-type stuff. Now we have all this MTV, expose-yourself stuff, and we have no morality left, not even by the legislators.”

Said a man from suburban Kansas:

“The tea party activists represent Middle America. They are the hardworking Americans who see their country eroding in front of their eyes,” said Chris Domsch of suburban Kansas City, Mo. He said he is an independent but has never backed a Democratic presidential candidate.

Now they are discovering that America is no longer “Leave it to Beaver”? Now they are seeing fundamental changes in America? Just where have these people been living since the 1950s? I suspect they were living in places like the Shenandoah Valley, or just Appalachia in general, where the populace is 95% or more white. Segregated into their nice, white suburban enclaves they must not have ventured out much into the rest of America. However, even in Appalachia and in the deep south, you must be obsessively myopic not to see the wrenching social, demographic and economic changes of these last decades.

Our manufacturing industry has largely vanished and most of our economy is now service jobs. Much of the higher wages that came with manufacturing jobs have disappeared as well. Few things epitomize America more today than Wal-Mart, where you celebrate your patriotism and American entrepreneurialism by buying foreign goods at discount prices from clerks who Wal-Mart will not even pay a living wage.

As for the social changes, did they sleep through the last fifty years? Blacks no longer stay at the back of the bus or drink from separate water fountains. The stay at home mother is almost extinct. In fact, women are close to overtaking men as a majority of the workforce (47.5%). As for all those immigrants, we’ve always been a nation of immigrants, it’s just that now their skin tends to have a darker hue. Aside from the color of their skin, their story is much like the poor white Irish and Polish immigrants from which I came. If you want to give a Tea Partier a heart attack, tell him about this prediction released today: in 2010, more babies in America will be born from minorities than from whites.

America has never been a static place. To the extent we lived in Pleasantville, it was because we kept the rabble out with strict zoning laws. However, that does not mean that our laws have kept up with the pace of social change. At some point, the need to accommodate different conditions and demographics demands actual change. Sometimes it happens in a relatively seismic fashion, like with health care reform. Ideally, the process would be nice and smooth. An informed and educated Congress would periodically look at these changing demographics and align new laws to accommodate them. Unfortunately, for the most part those who represent us have had their campaign coffers filled by the moneyed people who like the status quo.

Of course, this is America, so most of the legislative change that has occurred has been to help those who already wield a disproportionate amount of power. Seniors got prescription drug benefits. Wealthy people got huge tax cuts. Defense contractors got huge, open-ended contracts. Moreover, while giving out all these new benefits (largely during Republican administrations) hardly anyone’s taxes were raised. Then in 2008, it all came tumbling down in a credit collapse, which created double-digit unemployment. Six million Americans are so discouraged they do not even bother looking for work, and so are not counted as unemployed.

My strong suspicion is that had the economy not collapsed, these Tea Partiers and “angry” citizens would not be holding rallies, but would be happily remaining in blissful ignorance. It is only now that change became big enough that government could actually trying to address the needs of those who have actually been hurt by our policies of the last decades that some raise the socialism banner.

The fact is that America will not be a majority white country much longer. Hoot, holler, cry about socialism, tell us we must go back to a Leave it to Beaver country, but you cannot change these demographics. However, the United States has always been about disenfranchised or oppressed people making a better life for themselves. Through that unique American alchemy, they usually end up freer, more educated and with more money than where they came from. Throughout the years, this process has often been tumultuous. The fears expressed by Tea Partiers have expressed many times before in our history.

It should not be this way. America is a country of change. It is built into our DNA so unsurprisingly it results in MTV, Internet chat rooms and new ways to screw up your life. It has also resulted in amazing innovations, like the very same Internet many now fear but which was invented here in America and now drives a huge part of our economy. The approximately 26% of Americans who describe themselves as “angry” haven’t accepted this change, and cling tenaciously to a largely fictional notion of the way things were. Yet, if we could somehow turn back the clock, we would simply fall further behind the rest of the world, because they are not going back.

Would these same people who cling to the 1950s also want the racism, the homophobia, the paranoia, the plasticity and the pollution that came with it? Would they want to take their chances without modern antibiotics or a polio vaccine? Do they really think no one was fooling around back in the 1950s? That people weren’t suffering from the same vices back then as well? They may have deadened themselves with more prosaic addictions like alcohol, but America was just as unhappy then. Moreover, people like James Dean were showing their generation how to be rebellious. Back then, the politicians were just as crooked and unscrupulous. The infamous red baiting Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin was an alcoholic. The 1950s also saw the rise of Richard M. Nixon, arguably our worst and most corrupted president.

America is morphing as it has many times in its more than two centuries as a country. By 2050, whites will no longer be in the majority. We are destined to be more multi-hued and integrated as a nation. That doesn’t mean America’s nature will change that much. We will certainly be larger in 2050 than we were in 1950, by a factor of two or three. America is haltingly and rather badly trying to figure out what social compact is needed for modern times since the old one clearly no longer fits. We expect that after all the hand wringing is done that we will emerge a more civilized and tolerant country.

Tea Partiers: Armed and Dangerous

I guess it is too much to expect Tea Partiers to just go home and be pissed off but lawful citizens. No one expected any of them (or for that matter, most Republicans) to be happy with the health care reform legislation signed into law yesterday. It’s okay for them to vent their spleens, call the law unconstitutional (which it is not), organize peaceful but boisterous protests, petition the government to repeal the law and work actively to regain a majority in Congress. It is not okay to harass members of Congress, spit on them, call African American members of Congress niggers or homosexual members faggots. It is not okay to throw bricks through the windows of their Congressional offices, send them intimidating faxes showing their heads in a noose, or make threats to kill them, or their family, or in one case, a congressman’s brother and his family. In fact, most of these actions are illegal.

Doubtless, we will hear that those crossing the line are a tiny few, but the video evidence of protests by Tea Partiers at the Capitol over the weekend suggests otherwise. Moreover, certain members of Congress were cheering the Tea Partiers on, both outside of the Capitol over the weekend and in one case from the floor of the House of Representatives while it was in session. The instigators, i.e. the Glenn Becks, Rush Limbaughs, Sean Hannities and Bill O’Reillies of the media, not to mention dozens of other rabid conservatives inhabiting talk radio, will of course disclaim any responsibility for their part in this mess. So will Fox News, although they covered Tea Party rallies last summer like it was the most important story in the news. (Curiously, these rallies were far smaller than antiwar rallies years earlier that they ignored, dismissed or underreported.)

This is the ugly fruit of their extreme vitriol and hatred when they lose. They now control a party of people so extreme that the bipartisanship they claim to care about is virtually impossible. Almost exclusively, angry white people are now directing the Republican Party. They have cast their lot with these angry extremists in the attempt to regain political power. The reality is their party is now a party full of loose cannons beyond their control.

Tea Partiers may think that me, a liberal Democrat, cannot understand them because I don’t share their values. I do, however, know what it feels like. We had it for eight years under George W. Bush. We held rallies against the Afghanistan and Iraq wars that regularly drew ten times as many people as participated in Tea Party rallies. We too vented our spleens in protest marches. Every nasty thing that Tea Partiers are saying about President Obama we (or at least some of us) echoed about President Bush. We called him a war criminal that should be brought up on charges of authorizing torture. We railed against his illegal wiretaps and electronic surveillance policies. One thing we did not do was throw bricks into the offices of Congressional Republicans, or spit on any member of the Bush Administration, or insult them to their face with ethnic slurs. We did not target their relatives with death threats. We played inside the rules of the democratic system in our country.

Anger is perhaps expected when your side loses. It turns out that this legislation was not Obama’s Waterloo after all. Tea Partiers though need to be very careful, because through their actions they are quickly distancing themselves from mainstream America, who see their violence as crazy, extremist, unlawful and undemocratic. Instead of coming across as passionate people of conviction, they are coming across as the crazy aunt kept hidden in the attic. By their actions, they are telling America that when they think a law was passed using unconstitutional means, even if it was not, and they are willing to go to unlawful means to undo it. Essentially, they have placed a little asterisk next to the rule of law. At least some of them feel they can circumvent the rule of law and use vigilante justice when their dander is raised high enough.

I know it may feel to these people that this law was rammed down throats. Lord knows they told us often enough. Yet, nothing about how this law was enacted was unlawful or unconstitutional. Budget reconciliation has been used repeatedly by both parties, and during the Bush Administration was used to pass tax cuts for the wealthy. These tax cuts quickly ballooned our deficit, which previously had produced a surplus. Now Tea Baggers are complaining we can’t afford the health care overhaul, but not one of them is willing to raise taxes to address the revenue shortfall. Apparently, deficits only matter when your party is out of power and you see it as a way to gain political advantage, and can never be solved through additional taxes.

Really, Tea Baggers, grow up. What a terrible example you are setting for your children! There are few things more embarrassing than watching adults behave like children, but I suspect your children are actually better behaved than you are. In case you missed the presidential campaign, Obama won the presidency promising change, including health care reform. A majority of Americans (53 percent) voted for him. Americans also lawfully elected a supermajority of Democratic senators and a majority of members of the House of Representatives, in part in reaction to the extreme ways your party managed the country. The same parliamentary rules were used in this Congress to pass legislation as were used in the last few Congresses.

You may not like the health care reform legislation, but it’s the law of the land. It is highly unlikely to ever be repealed. At the earliest, it won’t happen before 2013 because it will take a new president to not veto a repeal of the law. Moreover, even if you somehow managed to replace every Democratic senator running for reelection in 2010, you would still not have the votes to overturn a presidential veto. The law will never be repealed outright. A clear majority of Americans now support the law. In particular, any attempt to remove provisions of the law that ban discrimination for preexisting conditions would ensure a legislator’s defeat. Attempts by attorneys generals from the various states to try to convince courts it is unconstitutional are dubious at best, for this law is no more an infringement of states rights than the draft is. You would be much better served by simply accepting you lost a big one, and channel your anger on the next battle.

Frankly, I find Tea Partiers not just weird, but dangerously weird in a Timothy McVeigh sort of way. I hope I am wrong, but my sense is that they are not going to peacefully accept what is now the law of the land. I think we are likely to see more extreme acts of violence from Tea Partiers in the days and weeks ahead. There are too many loose cannons on their ship and there is not one grown up in charge that can muzzle them. Should they be unwise enough to resort to more violence, they will also kill whatever chance they have of regaining political power. Americans instinctively back away from fanatics of any political stripe. Doing so will quickly prove counterproductive. The average American is greatly alarmed by their behavior.

Psychiatrists agree: Republicans are insane

A year ago, I wrote that Republicans were putting the “bye” in bipartisanship. A commenter told me I was being premature because President Obama had only been in office a month. A year later, I bet the same commenter would now agree with me. You cannot have bipartisanship unless both parties can come together on a preponderance of disparate issues. When one side refuses to play ball, well that is clearly not bipartisanship.

Watching the “bipartisan” health care reform meeting on Thursday at Blair House was an exercise in mental torture. Even the Supreme Court would have to agree that no Gitmo inmate should be forced to listen to all eight hours or so of this “dialogue”. Watching it was kind of like hitting your head repeatedly against a brick wall. Not that President Obama did not try to lead out Republicans or ask them pragmatic and civil follow up questions. It’s just that Republicans did not have a whole lot of viable suggestions. The script was very shopworn even before the first Republican opened his mouth: start from scratch on a new health care reform bill. The only aspects of health care reform they seem willing to agree to are malpractice reform (which would affect less than one percent of health care spending) and allowing citizens in one state to get health insurance from other states. Everything else: forget about it! Cover the uninsured? Not interested. Seriously reduce the number of uninsured Americans? Not interested. As business reporter Steven Pearlstein pointed out recently in The Washington Post, based on the “discussion” at the Blair House, Republicans don’t give a crap about those too poor to have health insurance and certainly don’t want one dime of taxpayer money spent on the uninsured. In their ideal world, the uninsured would not get into the emergency room until they first brought a statement from their bank that they are credit worthy.

One of the definitions of insanity is to not learn from the same mistake. By this measure, Republicans (and this includes Conservatives and Tea Baggers) are insane. We usually deal with the insane by getting them psychotherapy or, if a menace to others or themselves, putting them in a rubber room. A clinical case could be made that the vast majority of Republicans on Capitol Hill should be in a rubber room. Because although we have tried massive tax cuts for the wealthy not once but twice and the result has been to make the rich richer and the poor poorer, Republicans are still convinced that all we need are yet more tax cuts affecting primarily the wealthy to change the situation around. In short, they are insane.

Republicans are insane on so many levels it is hard to know where to begin. Most of them deny that climate change is happening and many of them also want to abolish the EPA. This could revert the United States back to the 1960s when we had no environmental laws and polluters could pollute without restraint. They want to reduce fuel efficiency standards for cars. They actually think we can solve our dependence on foreign oil by drilling off our coastlines. The effect will of course make us more dependent on foreign oil, which will come principally from overseas and at higher and higher prices by not weaning ourselves off oil. It is just insane!

Perhaps most insane of all is that Republicans have this dichotomy about wanting to take a meat cleaver to reduce the size of government then, when asked, find it hard to find something to cut. Take a look at this 2008 American National Election Survey where self identified conservatives try to find things they would cut in federal spending. The number one thing that conservatives would like to cut is foreign aid, which accounts for less than 1 percent of our budget. Even there conservatives could not muster a majority (only 49%). Well, that certainly won’t solve the budget deficit! The next thing they most want to abolish are welfare programs. This is essentially Medicaid and food stamps, but even here, only 35% of conservatives want to do this. Presumably, 65% do not. About twenty percent want to cut funding for the war on terrorism. I assume this is the Ron Paul wing. It is clear from the chart that while tax cuts are always in season, if they were back in charge cutting the size of government would be mostly lip service, as it was under Reagan and two Bush presidencies.

But of course now these same people are in a froth because we are doing all this deficit spending. Moreover, they are deeply upset at President Obama for deficit spending money on tangible goods that we need like new bridges and road surfaces which also help to get us out of a bad recession. They prefer tax cuts and fairy dust instead. (Actually, Obama accommodated Republicans and added plenty of tax cuts in his stimulus package, including tax cuts for small business, and they are still upset.) They are telling us the government should live within its means, even during a severe economic recession. Yet, it is clear that if they were back in charge, the first thing they would do is cut taxes some more, and thereby exacerbate the budget deficit!

So why do Americans keep putting these bozos back in power? It must be because the majority of us are even dumber than Republicans, or as a nation, we suffer from ADD and cannot even remember all the debt we piled up under the last administration. Actually though the polls do not give as much comfort to Republicans as they might hope for. Americans are pissed off that divided government means that things like health care reform are not being accomplished. (By the way, Americans still strongly support health care reform, including a public option.) What is driving voters insane is the inability of politicians to find common ground at a time when it is essential. They are paying the price in house foreclosures, rising health care costs and unemployment. As much as they dislike the way Democrats are using their majorities, they like Republicans even less. Voters have a lot of visceral anger but little way to express it. Moreover, who could blame them? Obama promised change you can believe in, but a progressive president cannot necessarily turn around a deeply partisan and recalcitrant Congress. This was borne out on Thursday at the Blair House.

One thing is clear: you won’t get bipartisanship by electing Republicans. If voters want to end gridlock by voting for Republicans, they might end up breaking the gridlock but it is unlikely they will get real solutions to the problems they care about. Put Republicans back in power and for sure, you can count on more tax cuts for the privileged. You can also count on deficits that will make today’s look small. Voters would be insane to do so. Unfortunately, when you are really, really angry you are not usually thinking clearly in the first place. You are letting your emotions take control of your faculties, instead of using your brain.

If voters want bipartisanship then they have to vote for people who are running on the platform of being bipartisan. These candidates should have a track record of moderation and crossing the aisle. You certainly won’t find that in a tea bagger! Unfortunately, you are unlikely to find any such a creature nominated by the Republican Party this time around, and the odds are not much better for the Democratic Party either. With the exception of the lunatic left wing though, you can at least rest assured that the Democrats running will at least be sane. At least we have one foot firmly in reality.