Category Archives: Barack Obama

Presidents Don’t Matter

In August 2013, or so we were told at the time, the Syrian government launched a chemical attack against one of its own towns, killing by various estimates between 300 and 1700 people.  The Syrian government vehemently denied that it had done such a thing, and a UN investigation was ultimately inconclusive.

At the time, our Dear Leader, President Obama, felt the need to intervene and positively stop such attacks in the future.  But there was not the political will to invade Syria, so instead he moaned about how someone could take this problem off his hands.  The Russians were happy to oblige.

A week and a half ago, or so we were told at the time, the Syrian government launched a chemical attack against one of its own towns, killing under 100 people.  The Syrian government vehemently denied it had done such a thing.

At the time, President Trump felt the need to send a message that such behavior would not be tolerated.  He sent a bouquet of cruise missiles to destroy the airbase from which the attack was launched.  The matter was over and done with within 72 hours.  And the media started to regard Trump as an actual President, rather than a blithering idiot.

If the attack really took place as described in the media, then President Trump’s response was appropriate.  We don’t need to invade Syria, but we do need to keep our word that some things are unacceptable.

I want to believe that.  I really do.  My life would be much calmer that way.  My problem is that some things just don’t fit:

  • Why would the Syrian government do such a thing? They had supposedly cooperated with the US and the Russians to rid themselves of chemical weapons.  Using them now would throw all that away, and anger Russia, their new patron.
  • What’s the point of a chemical attack that kills under 100 people, many of them children? It won’t accomplish any rational military objective, and will only make everyone mad.

The compelling alternative is that the attack earlier this month was a put-up job, staged to frame the Syrian government.  There are others besides the Syrian government who would have far more to gain from an alleged Syrian chemical attack.

And if that’s the case, then either President Trump knows it’s a put-up job, or he doesn’t.

  • If he knows that the attack is fake, then he has not only failed to ‘drain the swamp’ as promised, he has neatly ensconced himself as Head Alligator. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and surprisingly quickly.
  • If he doesn’t, and he was misled by our intelligence agencies, then the conspiracy theorists are right: there really is an entrenched, unelected shadow government that has the real power, and the elected officials are just window dressing.

In either case, the bottom line is that this episode has demonstrated that Presidents don’t matter.   If Hillary Clinton had won the election, I don’t see how things would have happened differently.

But beyond that, it’s been several years now, and I’m still perplexed by our official animus against Syrian President Bashar Assad.  It isn’t just chemical weapons: we’ve tolerated various stripes of tyrants against their own people in the past, because they were our allies against a larger adversary.  Saddam Hussein, a genuine evil dictator, was our bestest friend for years because he stood against the Russians.  As the leader of a secular Arab state, Assad should be a natural ally.  But he isn’t.

That, alas, is a question for another day.

No Repeal

I railed against Obamacare (officially the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) in these pages when it was enacted in 2010.

On the other hand, it really hasn’t had much of a practical impact on me and my family.  For just about all my adult life, I’ve had health insurance one way or another.  Going without is not an option: a trip to the hospital for almost anything costs tens of thousands of dollars.  Many of the features of Obamacare (equal premiums for men and women, no exclusion of pre-existing conditions, etc.) were already the law in New York.  I didn’t have a health insurance plan that I was particularly attached to, so it didn’t bother me when the insurance company changed my plan at renewal time to something compliant with the new regulations.

In fact, the only thing I really noticed was that there was a little bit of a lull in premium increases for a couple of years (and even a cut at one point, on changing plans), and then the premiums resumed their skyward march (between about 7% and 22% every year).

In one of my posts, I anticipated that health care might end up swallowing even more of the nation’s GDP than the 17% or so in 2010, but that hasn’t happened: health care as a percentage of GDP has remained steady since Obamacare was enacted.

Nevertheless, although my objections are more philosophical than practical, I still consider Obamacare the worst public policy decision of our time.  For years, the Republicans railed against it, and swore they would repeal it, given the chance.

Last week, they tried, and failed.  A bill was drawn up, then withdrawn as there were not the votes to pass it.

And now, all sides are engaged in pointless posturing.  The Democrats are crowing that they saved Obamacare from the jaws of the Republicans; President Trump is blaming everyone but himself.

But the plan to ‘repeal’ Obamacare was fouled up from the beginning:

  • House Speaker Paul Ryan went to great lengths to discuss the process by which Obamacare would be undone, but there was little discussion about what the Republicans would do. (Not coming across anything in the press, I finally had to turn to Wikipedia for a coherent explanation.)
  • As a result, the opposition was able to seize the narrative: they’re trying to take your health care away from you!
  • The most salient feature of the American Health Care Act was that it dropped the requirements for individuals to carry insurance, and for large employers to make it available to their employees. But many if not most of the people for whom this is an issue have the means and the inclination to secure their own health insurance (whether on their own or through their employers), and would do so even in the absence of a mandate.
  • The most toxic features of Obamacare, including the requirements to issue insurance regardless of pre-existing conditions and to allow children to remain on their parents’ policies until halfway to middle age, are the most politically popular, and were taken off the table by President Trump before any of the negotiations started.

Ultimately, it’s on the Republicans to present a compelling alternative to Obamacare, rather than nibbling around the edges.  Sadly, I’m not sure that’s possible.

When countries have implemented ‘socialized medicine,’ there have always been limits.  Whether they are designed into the program to begin with, or are worked out in implementation, there are necessarily limits, because the resources of even a prosperous nation are finite.  But under Obamacare, everyone has the right to health insurance that can, in theory, provide infinite benefits.  (After all, one’s health is priceless!)  This theory hasn’t been tested yet, but that will come in time.  And while Obamacare does admit administrative limitation of benefits, that hasn’t happened yet.

Consequently, the Republicans are in a position where they must compete with the theoretically infinite benefits of Obamacare.  They can’t argue that Obamacare is unsustainable, not only because the problems haven’t emerged, but because the whole Federal government, on its present course, is unsustainable.  They’re constrained to keep the elements of Obamacare most in need of change because those elements are politically popular.  And ultimately, they can’t practically propose to really repeal Obamacare, and they’re stuck with uselessly fussing with it.

At this point, we’ll have to wait until the whole enterprise keels over to try again.

Mixed Bag

“Donald Trump is not a gentleman,” remarked my wife the other day.  She’s right, but then again, neither is Ted Cruz.  The two of the got embroiled in what seemed a bar fight over pictures of the candidates’ wives.  (I’m not going to fill in the details here: if the whole soggy saga gets lost to posterity, it can only be an improvement!)  At this point, I may end up voting for Bernie Sanders as the only candidate who (a) acts like a responsible adult, and (b) isn’t dead on the vine.

  • One might vote for Hillary Clinton because she’s a woman, or because she presents herself as the logical continuation of the Obama administration. But Clinton, sadly, embodies everything that we love to hate about male politicians, and many people, myself included, believe that Obama is the worst President in modern times.  Moreover, she across as stale and tired in her speeches.  Even if I were on the fence and willing to consider her as a candidate, she needs to present herself as someone who actually wants the job.
  • John Kasich probably has the best head for figures of any of the candidates, and is the most likely to actually fix our problems. Alas, unless he can get people’s attention, his candidacy will go nowhere.  But that seems to be the plan.  I can almost imagine some Republican Party guy making the pitch: “We want you to run for President.  But realize that you won’t be the nominee: we just want you to be there to take momentum away from any oddballs that might show up.”  I’d have told the Party guy to fuck off, but that’s just me.

*          *          *

I initially had nothing useful to say about last Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels.  But as news reports came out that the perpetrators were already known to the intelligence services, but that the Belgians were somehow unable to stop them, I began to wonder.  Apparently, what we’re supposed to do is let the potential terrorists into our midst, then maintain a police state to monitor what they’re doing and jump on them just as they’re about to attack.  Wouldn’t it be far simpler and cheaper not to let the potential terrorists into the country in the first place?

*          *          *

And for that reason, I can’t get upset with President Obama for not aborting his trip to Cuba to address the Brussels attacks.  When he woke up in the morning, the attacks were already a fait accompli.  It wasn’t like 11 September, when the United States was actually under attack while President Bush continued his visit to a Texas kindergarten.  (On that day it would have been so simple to say, “I’m very sorry, but something has happened that requires my immediate attention.  I have to go.”)  But this time, the deed was done: the Belgians have emergency services that can clean up the mess: all that’s left for our President is to utter the usual rot about how we stand with the victims.

What was creepy about the Cuba visit, however, was the President’s decision to have himself and his entourage photographed in the shadow of the Che Guevara mural in Revolution Square.  The Cubans had planned something different, but the President had everyone move so that Che was in the background.

For many years, I though the Cuban embargo was pointless and stupid, but it’s probably not practical for us to simply admit that.  But that isn’t what I think is happening now.  We’re reopening relations with Cuba not because we acknowledge that the embargo hasn’t accomplished anything useful, but because Cuba and the United States are converging.

“But Cuba is a totalitarian surveillance state!” I hear you cry.

And what are we becoming?

The Scripted Emergency

A week and a half ago Wednesday, three men with rifles shot up a conference room in a center for the developmentally disabled (try saying that ten times fast!) in San Bernadino, California, killing 14 and injuring about 20.  I found out about it at the gym that day: I was annoyed because I wanted to watch Judge Judy while on the treadmill, but all the major networks had been pre-empted.

The reporting came across as less of a news event and more of a manufactured pageant: the announcers regurgitating the same three sentences’ worth of facts while we saw the same shots of the outside of a building and distressed people.  It was, in brief, a scripted emergency.

Later the story changed: there were not three assailants but two: a native-born American citizen and his Pakistani/Saudi wife, conveniently shot dead by police.  One of the shooters just quietly disappeared from the narrative.  And on Friday, the news media were invited to rummage around the couple’s home, with all sorts of documents left behind by the FBI, barely two days after the event.

The story has been leading the network news programs ever since, even though there still isn’t much to tell.  The event has been labeled ‘terrorism,’ as if that declaring the event as such is somehow momentous.

Yes, the event is what we, today, call terrorism.  From what we know about the motives of the killers, we now know that it was an event of Islamic terrorism.  But this type of terrorism only has power to terrify if the people are told about it.  Does this event merit wall-to-wall coverage, when all we really know fits in a couple of paragraphs?

The news media are as much terrorists as the shooters themselves.

Sunday night, President Obama, our Dear Leader, addressed the nation, telling us nothing we didn’t already know.  He ducked out of the Kennedy Center awards to make a 13-minute Oval Office appearance, and then returned to the festivities.  He wants people who are on terror watch lists (‘no-fly lists’) to be denied the right to buy guns.

It’s a charming thought, but it wouldn’t have stopped the San Bernadino shooters, who had squeaky-clean records until last Wednesday.  And it flies in the face of our Fifth Amendment (no person shall be denied life, liberty, or property without due process): the process by which one is added to the terror watch list is a deep dark secret, with no way of finding out about it until you try to fly somewhere.  For all I know, I may be earning myself a spot on the list by writing and posting this essay.

The Dear Leader also wants us to embrace the hundreds of thousands of Islamic refugees that he proposes to bring from the Middle East.  What they are seeking refuge from is not entirely clear, given that the vast majority are Muslims.  We have no moral justification (a story for another day) to bring then here, and even though they may not be associated with ISIS or al-Qaeda or any of those groups, I can’t see how they can bring anything but trouble.

I don’t really know how a young American-born man and his Middle Eastern wife embarked on a path of terrorism.  I’m not sure it really matters.

But it’s clear to me that the government and the media are doing far more to advance the cause of Islamic terrorism than the terrorists themselves.

They should stop.

Remembering Paris

A week ago Friday, Islamic terrorists associated with ISIS executed a series of attacks in Paris, at a sports arena, a music hall, a restaurant, and several other sites.  They killed 129 people and left over 300 wounded.

I was horrified, but not particularly surprised.  Two weeks before, ISIS planted a bomb on a Russian airliner full of tourists returning home from Egypt.  The plane dropped out of the sky, and all 224 on board was killed.  The Russians, more than us, have stirred up the ISIS hornet’s nest, and now we’re facing the consequences.  (Then again, we built ISIS, but that’s another story.)

The next day (a week ago Saturday), my wife and I went to see the new James Bond movie, Spectre.  One of the trailers was for London has Fallen, an upcoming action movie in which terrorists blow up, well, London.  It seemed in poor taste after the events of the previous day.  But I suppose that the show must go on.

Spectre was a pleasant afternoon’s entertainment, without so much emphasis on Bond’s personal problems.  But it’s consistent with the new generation of Bond films in that Bond’s adversary resolves into a non-rogue agent of the same government that Bond himself serves.  The plot revolves around a ‘Nine Eyes’ surveillance initiative by which nine countries would pool their resources and share surveillance data on all their citizens.  But, in real life, there is a ‘Five Eyes’ surveillance agreement between the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.  It seems pointless for Bond to appear in a movie trying to thwart a plot that is already in operation in real life.

Saturday night, the Democratic Presidential candidates had a debate.  I watched some of it after the fact, and lost interest: the candidates are too much in agreement with each other.  But Hillary Clinton was called out for not wanting to say that we were at war with ‘radical Islam.’

On one level, I agree with her: it’s ludicrous to say that one is ‘at war with Islam.’  A religion is a set of ideas: software for the brain.  It’s almost like saying one is at war with Microsoft Word.   But the principles of Islam are a driving force for the terrorists.  That’s why I prefer to refer to our adversary as ‘Islamic terrorists,’ and what makes Hillary’s use of ‘jihadist’ evasive.

As I watched the evening news this week, and they regurgitated the Paris attacks, I realized that I was supposed to be frightened.  I don’t see the point: quivering in fear accomplishes nothing.  Even the Parisians understand that: they have been coming together at the Place de la Republique to talk, and heal, and move forward.

But our leadership is latching on to the event to tell us that we need yet more surveillance, and that those evil companies, Apple and Google, have released software that enables individuals to send encrypted messages that the government can’t read!  They have to be stopped!  And, by the way, you can blame this all on Edward Snowden, for spilling the beans about the NSA.

Well, maybe.  If the volume of data to be transferred is small enough, it’s easy to make an unbreakable code, with or without a smartphone app, because the party who would break the code does not have enough input to begin to try.  And no, the government does not have the right to read our communications in transit, any more than it has the right to read our paper mail.

Meanwhile, President Obama wants to bring at least 10,000 Syrian refugees into the US per year over the next two years, and perhaps many more.  He says that it’s in the American tradition of looking after the downtrodden.

Again, well, maybe.  Our Dear Leader sent out a graphic noting that in the past five years, we’ve accepted 2,000 refugees, none of whom have been arrested for terrorism… yet.  But now he’s proposing bringing in an order of magnitude more in a shorter time, and somehow things will just work out?

Moreover, we’re broke.  You might say that it’s only a few billion, and barely moves the needle in terms of the national debt.  But it still pains me to see our President playing Lady Bountiful, spending money he doesn’t have.

All of which has taken me a bit afield from what I started with, the terrorist attacks in Paris last week.  To be sure, it’s sad and horrifying, but life goes on.  I speak from experience: we had terrorist death and destruction in New York City not that long ago.

But more horrifying than the destruction wrought by the terrorists is the realization that, in both instances, our leadership brought the terrorists into existence to play some other geopolitical games, and they turned on us when circumstances changed.

We have to start doing something different.  And we need to start, as individuals, by not letting our leadership and the media fearmongers frighten us.

Afghanistan

Our Dear Leader announced this week that we would not be leaving Afghanistan as planned at the end of 2016.  We will continue to have several thousand troops there for the foreseeable future, beyond the end of the Obama administration in January 2017.

Will someone remind me how we got into Afghanistan in the first place?

Oh yes, that’s right: after 11 September, we believed that the Taliban, the Afghan leadership, was harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.  So we partnered with the ‘Northern Alliance’ and routed the Taliban.  We then fumbled around in the mountains for a few weeks, but never found Osama there.

OK, the Taliban’s out.  What did we expect would happen next?

Did we believe the Afghan people were pining for limited republican government like we like to believe we have ourselves?  Building that would have been a major, major project that could not have been done on the cheap.

So we installed something resembling a government, not even a very good government, and the Taliban was able to recover as a militant force.

It’s now 14 years later, Osama is dead, and al-Qaeda are now our friends because they’re attacking Syrian President Assad.

What do we expect to achieve with our continued efforts there?  For my part, I have no clue.

The USSR went into Afghanistan in 1979 to support an allied government, as an exercise in geopolitical gamesmanship.  They left in 1989, having accomplished pretty much nothing.  Meanwhile, the USSR itself was much weakened, and fell apart two years later.

Do we believe that we can do better?  If so, what?

My mother used to say, ‘Don’t throw good money after bad.’

It may be time to pull the plug.

Getting Schooled

Over the last week, Vladimir Putin has been addressing ISIS with brisk dispatch, while our President is running around bloviating.  This morning our Dear Leader told us:

Mr. Putin had to go into Syria not out of strength but out of weakness, because his client, Mr. Assad, was crumbling.  And it was insufficient for him simply to send them arms and money; now he’s got to put in his own planes and his own pilots.  And the notion that he put forward a plan and that somehow the international community sees that as viable because there is a vacuum there — I didn’t see, after he made that speech in the United Nations, suddenly the 60-nation coalition that we have start lining up behind him.

Where do I begin?

  • The weakness of which Obama speaks is Syria’s, not Russia’s. It’s expected, from time to time, that a stronger country will have to support its weaker allies.  And Russia is politically and culturally more ready to engage in direct military action than we are, for a variety of reasons.
  • If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. If we haven’t learned the value of doing it yourself from years of proxy warfare, where last year’s ally is this year’s enemy, we probably never will.
  • I don’t know if our Dear Leader has noticed, but I don’t believe that Putin cares what the international community thinks of his actions. He is convinced of the rightness of his plan and proceeding accordingly.  He doesn’t need to go to the UN for validation.
  • In any case, the ‘international community’ just wants ISIS to go away, without any effort on their part.
  • And our ’60-nation coalition’ has so far been, in a word, useless.

Beyond that, Syria’s ‘weakness’ is a result of our finagling.  Our issues with Syria, as far as I can tell, go back to the Bush administration, when we believed that Syria and Iran were supporting terrorists who were working to destabilize Iraq.  I’m not sure why the trying-to-be-secular government of Syria would embroil itself in the morass of Iraq, but then again, our leaders had told us a few years earlier that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and had to be stopped, so I’m sure they were also right about Syria partnering with Iran.

Then, more recently, there was the ‘Arab Spring.’  In hindsight, it was a move by the Islamists to install Islamic governments in the countries in the region that didn’t have them.  In Egypt, they succeeded in installing a new President loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood, but he was so inept at leading the country that he was deposed in a military coup.

President Assad was a little more astute and saw the Arab Spring movement for what it was.  He endeavored to shut it down.  And we took the side of the Islamists, and our enemies from ten years ago—who had engaged in actual terrorism on US soil—were now our allies.

That took brains!

So while we rail against ISIS, and our Dear Leader says that we will ‘degrade and destroy’ it, it actually serves our purposes in oppressing the Syrian government.  I’ve framed the issue in previous posts as our wanting to support ‘moderate Syrian rebels’ who realized that running their own little state would be easier and safer, as if it were an innocent error on the part of our leadership.

I was being polite.  Mistakes of this magnitude are not made innocently.

And now Vladimir Putin is sending his air force, and ultimately his army, to mop up our mess.  He isn’t spending six months in the UN to build a consensus.  His leadership supports him.  He doesn’t have to worry about his plan gaining political traction within Russia.  I’m sure that he doesn’t have teams of lawyers scrutinizing target lists (like we did) to avoid collateral damage: you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.  And I would expect the Russians to ultimately dispatch ISIS in a few months.

We’re getting schooled… the hard way.  Hopefully we will have learned something, at least.

The Power Beyond

One of last week’s crises was resolved this week, as the Republican Congress passed a ‘clean’ funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security and President Obama signed it, funding its operations for the remainder of the fiscal year, including Obama’s executive action to legalize some five million illegal immigrants.

In other words, the Republicans caved.

As I understand the logic behind the decision, since a Federal judge ruled against Obama’s executive action policies, the Republicans need do nothing further to stop the policies, as they can let the matter play out in the courts.

Well, maybe.

To my view, if Congress passes a bill allocating funding to an executive agency, knowing damn right well what they’re going to do with it, then they have effectively authorized the agency’s actions.   And I’m sure the Administration will make that point.

So why did the Republicans give up so easily?  And why has it been, throughout the Obama administration, that the Republicans have never been able to make headway while President Obama and his crew have been blundering about, making up rules as they go along, and taking a Roger Rabbit approach to the Constitution?

The Democrats have demonized House Speaker John Boehner as the locus of the opposition, but everything I’ve seen suggests that he is just another politician, whose high-sounding principles vanish the instant they become inconvenient.

My unfortunate hypothesis is that there is a Power Beyond Congress and the President, and that this Power Beyond is OK with open borders and OK with our blundering administration.

There are any number of conspiracy theories about the Council on Foreign Relations or the Bilderburg group or Skull and Bones or whomever.  They may be right that one or more of these may be the identity of the Power Beyond.  At this point, I don’t know.  But I’m pretty sure is isn’t God, and it isn’t the people (i.e. the government deriving its power from the consent of the governed).

The Power Beyond manifests itself in other ways besides government policy: it’s also why the mainstream media, now organized into six giant corporations, won’t actually tell us anything that we’d really need to know.  It manifests itself in our non-educating educational system, where young people learn… I’m still not sure myself.  It manifests itself in our fluoridated water, originally promoted as combating tooth decay, but having no practical positive effect, and yet we continue to do it.

There have always been people for whom the world has been a plaything.  The Russian revolutionaries who organized what became the USSR would not have been able to do so without financing from the capitalist West.  Perhaps the capitalists thought it a nifty experiment at the time.  And perhaps, for these people, the United States was fun while it lasted, and now it’s tired and broken-down, and it’s time to move on.

Our Non-Fearless Non-Leader

It’s State of the Union time again.

The Constitution requires that the President ‘shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union.’  This has now devolved into an annual address before a joint session of Congress, televised to the nation as a major event.  Instead of merely presenting ‘information,’ the President uses the address to put forward his agenda for the coming year. In recent years, the speech has been ‘enhanced’ with PowerPoint-style graphics delivered on a split screen.  (At least they don’t show the PowerPoints in the actual House chamber… yet.)

And this year, President Obama has already been test-marketing his proposals in recent weeks: we already know much of what he’s going to say.  So while on one level it’s kind of pointless, as an informed citizen I feel that I have to sit through it anyway.

But it’s a chance to yell back at the screen what I really think.  Times are from the video of the speech from the White House Web site.

02:46: “More people are insured than ever before.”  Yeah, at great personal cost to themselves, because you forced them to.  And it’s still unclear whether having insurance will actually provide access to good health care.

03:04: “And we are as free from the grip of foreign oil as we’ve been in 30 years.”  You didn’t build that, Obama.  Don’t take credit for it.  And your pals in Saudi Arabia are now trying to sweep it all away.

04:34: “The state of the Union is strong.”  Every State of the Union address includes this line somewhere in the first five minutes.  I was a little worried you weren’t going to make it.

06:30: “So tonight, I want to focus less on a checklist  of proposals….”  To be followed, of course, by the checklist of proposals.

06:43: Where’s Ben?  The President launches into the story of Rebekah and Ben Erler, married seven years and living in Minneapolis.  Rebekah is in the audience, sitting next to the First Lady.  But Ben is absent.  Was he really too busy to come to Washington?  Did he not have an adequate suit?  Could they not get a babysitter?  Or is it politically incorrect to show a normal heterosexual married couple except on America’s Funniest Home Videos?

09:10: “And over the past five years, our businesses have created over 11 million new jobs.”  The chamber erupts in applause, the Senators and Congressmen clapping like trained seals.  Guys: you didn’t build that, either.

09:50: “And thanks to lower gas prices, and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save about $750 at the pump.”  I can’t see that fuel economy has changed much over the past 10 years at least.  The recent drop in gas prices is not so much a consequence of our new exploration efforts as it is the Saudis lowering the price for their own ends.

10:34: “Today we have new tools to stop taxpayer-funded bailouts….”  Actually, the only tool we need is for our leadership to stand up and say ‘no.’  But in 2008, we were told that a failure to enact bailouts would result in mass riots and martial law.

14:18: “Because families like Rebekah’s still need our help.  She and Ben are working as hard as ever, but they’ve had to forego vacations and a new car so that they can pay off student loans and save for retirement.  Friday night pizza, that’s a big splurge.  Basic childcare for Jack and Henry costs more than their mortgage, and almost as much as a year at the University of Minnesota.”  That’s called, well, the human condition.  Most of us, when bringing up small children, don’t have money for luxuries.  And proper child care is expensive, because it’s labor intensive, and not just anyone can do it.  (And having the government pay for it will make it cheaper?)

16:00: “First, middle-class economics means helping working families feel more secure in a world of constant change.  That means helping folks afford childcare, college, health care, a home, retirement.”  Mitt Romney’s campaign imploded in 2012 when when a video leaked to the public in which he stated the truth that about 47% of the population receives payments from the Federal government.  Obama apparently won’t be happy until it’s at least 77%.

18:31: “Send me a bill that gives every worker in America the opportunity to earn seven days of paid sick leave.  It’s the right thing to do.” Paid for by whom?

18:54:  “That’s why this Congress still needs to pass a law that makes sure a woman is paid the same as a man for doing the same work.” We often hear the figure that women get paid 77 cents to a man’s dollar.  But when one matches men against women at the same levels of experience and responsibility, the difference becomes much smaller.  And equal pay for equal work has been the law since… 1963!  (In fairness, women’s earnings still don’t quite equal men’s for the same work.  But I doubt that Yet Another Government Bureaucracy will help very much.)

22:14: “That’s why I’m sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.”   So now the community colleges will become wards of the Federal government.  And, like everywhere else touched by Federal funds, the colleges will be run to maintain their subsidies.  Whether anyone learns anything is, of course, besides the point.

25:48:  “…we need the new economy to keep churning out high-wage jobs for our workers to fill.”  All I’ve been reading about for the past few years is how people who were laid off from middle-class jobs in 2008-2009 are coming back as burger flippers.  Where are these high-wage jobs of which you speak?

27:13: “So let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline.  Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than 30 times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come.”  But Keystone XL (the ‘single oil pipeline’) is to be built with private funds. It’s not the same thing.

30:45:  “Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a reenergized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars.”  Yes, but when?  In the 1960s, when JFK pressed us to go to the moon, we felt there was some urgency.

37:02:  ” Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition, including Arab nations, to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group[ISIL]….  And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL. ”  So we’re not getting into a ground war, but we need a resolution to authorize the use of force… for what, exactly?

38:07:  “… Mr. Putin’s aggression it was suggested was a masterful display of strategy and strength.  That’s what I heard from some folks.  Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters.”  Well, maybe.  Russia isn’t doing so well right now, but they’re used to hardship.  We aren’t, and our vaunted prosperity is mostly pluffage.

41:00:  ” Between now and this spring, we have a chance to negotiate a comprehensive agreement that prevents a nuclear-armed Iran….  There are no guarantees that negotiations will succeed, and I keep all options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran.  But new sanctions passed by this Congress, at this moment in time, will all but guarantee that diplomacy fails — alienating America from its allies; making it harder to maintain sanctions; and ensuring that Iran starts up its nuclear program again.  It doesn’t make sense.  And that’s why I will veto any new sanctions bill that threatens to undo this progress.”  So let me make sure I understand this.  Iran is our adversary.  We’re negotiating with them, but nothing seems to be coming of it.  So if Congress proposes to actually do something that would meaningfully impact Iran, you’re going to veto it.  Is that right?

41:35: ” No foreign nation, no hacker, should be able to shut down our networks, steal our trade secrets, or invade the privacy of American families, especially our kids.”  But if our own government invades the privacy of American families, that’s fine.

48:40: ” So while some have moved on from the debates over our surveillance programs, I have not.  As promised, our intelligence agencies have worked hard, with the recommendations of privacy advocates, to increase transparency and build more safeguards against potential abuse.  And next month, we’ll issue a report on how we’re keeping our promise to keep our country safe while strengthening privacy.”  As long as the NSA is Hoovering up all our electronic communications, it will ultimately be used against us, regardless of what ‘safeguards’ the present administration decides to implement.  Someday, probably in the not-too-distant future, computer power will be abundant enough and cheap enough that it will be possible to sift through the vast pile of data: initially, to protect us against terrorists, but ultimately for God knows what.  The only protection, temporary though it might be, is to turn off the Hoover, and not to build more such facilities.

From there, the speech went on to the usual platitudes, the same as any President might say about how wonderful we are as a nation and a people.  Whatever.

Maybe I’d take it a little more seriously if the audience would stop clapping like trained seals.

Notre Président n’est pas Charlie

Last Sunday, three million people marched in the streets of Paris to stand up for the principle of free speech and a free press, after the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo the week before.  Over 40 world leaders (including the Israeli Prime Minister and the President of the Palestinian Authority) showed up…

…but President Obama was conspicuous by  his absence.  Our leadership also did not see fit to send the Vice President, the Secretary of State, or even the Attorney General, who happened to be in Paris at the time.

Our leadership complained that they couldn’t have arranged security on such short notice.  But that’s, in a word, bullshit.

Let’s face it: behind the bluster, the real reason that the leadership of the United States, the alleged beacon of freedom for the entire world, didn’t believe this event was worthy of their presence is because they don’t believe in liberty, or free speech, anymore.

Our President said it himself:

The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam.

(OK, I pointed out this in my last post on the subject.  It’s almost as bad as when Bush 41 told us ‘Read my lips: no new taxes.’  But unlike Bush, who had to shamefully walk back his remarks–to the extent that it may have cost him re-election–Obama still stands by his words.)

Meanwhile, our leadership is also considering new legislation that would afford ‘freedom of the press’ protections only to professional journalists.  But most of them work for the six big media companies, and are already muzzled by their bosses.

So it wasn’t a mistake that nobody in our leadership was walking in Paris last Sunday.  It wasn’t a problem arranging security; it wasn’t a schedule conflict; it wasn’t an oversight.

Our leadership does not believe in our First Amendment freedoms anymore.

And they didn’t feel the need to fake it, either.

Immigration Executive Action

Production Note:  This morning, I discovered the controls in WordPress that enable one to use one’s nickname to identify posts, etc.  So now my posts and comments are identified as belonging to ‘BklynGuy.’  But it’s still me.

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Last Thursday, President Obama announced a plan to grant residency to those illegal immigrants who had been here for five years and had citizen or permanent resident children.  I missed his speech on Thursday night, but tuned in to some of the commentary on the Spanish television networks.  They all thought it was a really good idea, and were looking forward to more action in the same vein.

On the other hand, one of my conservative colleagues sent me the following:

Each and Every Illegal Alien Is a Criminal

Well, maybe.

Illegal immigration, as the name implies, is against the law.

So is murder.

And so is speeding.

And in the continuum of breaking the law, illegal immigration is closer to speeding than murder.  And an appropriate punishment is closer to speeding than murder: pay a fine, face an administrative penalty (points on one’s driver’s license for speeding; something similarly relevant for illegal immigration), and be done with it.  For the moment, I’m not addressing other crimes that one might commit on top of being an illegal alien: that’s a different kettle of fish, and one I’ll get back to at the end of this post.

Meanwhile, the President struck back with this item:

White House Immigration

On the surface, it seems a perfectly reasonable approach.  It is, indeed, such a reasonable approach that we tried it in the 1980s.  We provided a path to residence and citizenship for those already here, together with allegedly better border enforcement and penalties for employers who hired illegal aliens.  But we didn’t follow through on that last part, so instead of 4 million illegal aliens, we now have 12 million.

There’s nothing to suggest that this time wouldn’t be different.  From past events this year, it’s difficult to imagine the Obama administration actually working to secure the border.  It seems to be in their interest to keep the ‘humanitarian crisis’ going.  But, again from past experience, I don’t see that someone else would do much better.

Beyond that, Obama has incrementally used executive action to get around the  law in progressively larger steps.  Besides the scandals, there was the tweaking of Affordable Care Act requirements to make his administration politically palatable.  This move on immigration is the biggest and boldest yet, and if we let it stand, further usurpations of power are inevitable, not only by Obama, but future Presidents as well.

Should I write to my Congressman or Senator?  It seems pointless: they’re all total Democrats who worship the ground our President walks on.  I should save my breath to cool my porridge.

But the bottom line:

  • Our immigration system is broken.  Despite all the rhetoric, in fact, both parties like it that way and want to keep it.  The Democrats like it because immigrant families are part of their power base; the Republicans like it because illegal immigrants push wages down for everybody.
  • For that reason, it’s hard to believe that our leadership will enact real immigration reform.
  • And if they do, whether that reform will be actually implemented, without backfiring on itself, is even more doubtful.
  • I noted earlier that merely coming here illegally is closer to speeding than murder.  But if someone here illegally commits other crimes, we should throw the book at him.  But too often, our leadership seems to wink at it.  One of our ongoing scandals is that of illegal immigrant families claiming not only their own families as dependents on tax returns, but also their relatives back in their homeland, and our leadership doesn’t seem to care.  We have to start caring.
  • The Republicans will moan for a few months about Obama’s abuse of executive authority, but they’ll ultimately let it stand.  After all, they wouldn’t want the Democrats to come after a Republican President doing the same thing.

The illegal immigrants aren’t the problem.  It’s the bloody politicians.

 

Net Neutrality

Earlier this week, President Obama gave a speech about what is popularly called ‘net neutrality.’  While I’m not sure that the solution he proposes (giving the matter to the FCC to regulate–partially) is a good answer, he is at least pointed in the right direction.

Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

The essential thing that makes the Internet wonderful is that it is unregulated.  Put a properly formatted packet in at one end, and it comes out at the other.  And for the most part, other than satisfying the technical element of ‘a properly formatted packet,’ there is no other requirement.  The packet can contain anything at all.  Moreover, there are no ‘first-class packets’ or ‘second-class packets:’ they all get routed and forwarded the same.  This equality of packets is not established by government regulation: it’s configured into the Internet itself, as that was what they started with, and until now, there had been no compelling need to change it.

But some people would like their packets to have priority.  Should they be able to pay for the privilege?

Well, maybe.

If a company like Netflix wanted to build its own network alongside the Internet to distribute its videos, and interconnect with Internet service providers to distribute their content to people’s houses, that would be cool.  In this case, Netflix would be building infrastructure to better serve its customers, and they aren’t taking access away from anyone else.

But that’s not what the concept of ‘Internet fast lanes’ seems to be about.

Instead, the thought seems to be to maximize revenue from the infrastructure in place.  So the bandwidth that is allocated for an ‘Internet fast lane’ is necessarily taken away from someone else.

So a content provider could pay extra for ‘fast-lane access’ and provide (in theory) superior service to a competitor who didn’t.  Big content providers could roll the additional cost of ‘fast-lane access’ into their prices.

And smaller content providers who didn’t pay extra would be left at the mercy of Internet service providers and the bandwidth they cared to allocate for ‘non-premium access.’

The effect of this is very similar to government regulation: it favors the bigger firms, who can pay for priority access, while discouraging competitors.

And it might ultimately lead to a more difficult set of government regulations aimed at protecting some level of ‘non-premium access,’ and new criminal laws for the act of forging packet headers to secure priority access for packets without paying extra.

So net neutrality, where all packets are created equal, is the simplest approach.

This doesn’t mean that consumers can’t choose to pay more for faster Internet access.  That has always been the case, and will continue to be.  But that relates to the rate at which packets can be transferred from your home to the Internet, and not what happens beyond that.

How Bad Is ‘Worst’?

The New York Post reported today that a plurality of respondents in a recent poll (33%) named President Obama as the worst President since World War II.  George W. Bush came in second with 28%, and Richard Nixon was a distant third at 13%.    So now I’m somewhat comforted to know that it’s not just me.

When I used to rail at Bush, I would call him derisively  ‘Our Fearless Leader.’  But I can’t call Obama that: he isn’t fearless, and I’ve never seen him actually lead.

People used to say that Jimmy Carter was our worst President.  B’ut his problem was that he was once a naval officer, and approached the Presidency the same way: address problems forthrightly, and take the necessary measures to deal with them, even though it may be difficult or painful.  Obama, in contrast, seems perfectly happy kicking the can down the road.

But if he’s that bad of a President, can we do something about it?  Some of the conservative Web sites that I read suggest that Obama should be impeached.  Its a charming thought, but, alas, I don’t see it happening.

We began the process of impeaching President Nixon because it appeared that he was using the power of his office to subvert our democratic system.  (Nixon resigned at that point, and we never got to the bottom of what actually happened.)  We impeached President Clinton (but failed to convict him) because of alleged personal crimes (he lied under oath).   While these crimes had no discernable impact on his ability to govern, they were nevertheless crimes.

We can reasonably say that President Obama is not respecting that part of the Constitution that requires him to ‘faithfully execute the laws.’  But the Constitution is deliberately vague on that point.  The Founders expected that a President might have to deal with conflicting constraints, and anticipated that he might have to use some professional judgement in executing the laws.  So the requirement is more of a guideline.

Moreover, impeachment was never meant as a remedy for policy decisions that one might disagree with, or alleged disrespect for the office, or lying to the American people (which for the typical politician comes almost as easily as breathing).  For those, the appropriate remedy is not to re-elect the man or his party.  But we did re-elect Obama in 2012, and by a substantial margin.

Some have suggested that the President could be charged with treason.  But that won’t work either.  In the absence of a declaration of war, the executive gets to decide who the enemy is.

In brief, our Constitution was never designed to deal with the case of a President who pursues his own agenda, with apparent disregard not only for the Constitution and the rule of law, but for common sense.  The Founders presumed that such a man would never become President.

But we elected him, not once but twice….

Obama’s Right

It was a pathetic bit of a pathetic State of the Union address: a call to American business to raise wages so that Americans would have more disposable income.  But for once, President Obama was actually right.

When I entered the working world, my first jobs paid a little more than the minimum wage when I started.  But after a few months’ experience, the pay went up.  At least in the New York metropolitan area, even basic jobs paid more than the minimum wage.  The notion that minimum-wage jobs were for teenagers just starting out in the work world was really true.

And if you earned twice the minimum wage, you could find a modest apartment that you wouldn’t have to share with roommates.  With a little more than that, company-paid health insurance, and a like-minded spouse, you could even start a family.  (OK, now you’re back to having a roommate,  but it really isn’t the same thing.)

All of this was accessible to pretty much everyone, or at least it seemed that way at the time.

In the past weeks, the Daily News has reported on people working for large employers, receiving the minimum wage (or very close) and no benefits.  One woman had worked for McDonald’s for 10 years and was still earning $8.25/hour.  She must be a rotten employee, I thought at first: how do you work for the same place for 10 years without a raise or a promotion?

But she was hardly alone.

There are many other workers, hardly teenagers, toiling year after year for the minimum wage.  Some of them work for contractors to the Port Authority at the airports, cleaning toilets or hauling baggage.  Once upon a time, these jobs might have been unionized, with benefits and a living wage.  But not anymore.

And the employers can do this because there are hordes of unemployed who’ll be happy to clean toilets if you won’t.

Beyond that, employees who aren’t paid a living wage are often eligible for food stamps.  So part of an employee’s food bill is a cost that the business can now externalize onto the government.

If businesses paid their employees more, such that the employees would be able to pay their own food bills, it would indeed help the economy and break the cycle of government dependence.  In this respect, the President, for once, is right.

Unfortunately, the business that does that will find that its competitors–who didn’t raise the wages they pay–are eating its lunch.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying…

No, that isn’t true.

I’m still worried, just as much as I ever was, if not more.

What made last week’s default debacle particularly scary was that, unlike August 2011, we now know that President Obama will handle the situation like a petulant child.  Rather than encouraging the people to be calm and face the problems together, he would happily incite nationwide riots because, after all, a good crisis should never go to waste.

I was hoping that the Republicans would be able to do something about Obamacare, the worst public policy decision since Prohibition.  But other than one little nibble (that we would explore the possibility of verifying one’s income before granting a subsidy), Obamacare stands.

And what is this business of ‘raising the debt ceiling until February’?  The debt ceiling is a number.  You raise it by a trillion dollars, or a billion dollars, or 75 cents.  But thus time it’s different: Congress has abdicated its authority under the Constitution and enabled the Treasury to borrow however much it needs for the next four months.

The movement to defund Obamacare was led by the Tea Party Republicans, who believe in a constitutional republic with a limited government.  (How quaint!)  The Republicans in general got hosed, even though most Republicans, from what I can tell, are as much big-government statists as the Democrats.  (Indeed, in last year’s Presidential election, it was hard to tell the difference between Romney and Obama, except that Romney would work to undo Obamacare… maybe.)

In the end, it worked out spectacularly well for the President: no substantial changes to Obamacare, no restrictions on spending, debt ceiling increases by time rather than money, the Tea Party excoriated as lunatics, the Republicans weakened, and the chance to repeat the lesson three months from now if anyone should dare to challenge these issues again.

Maybe it’s time to give up.

Maybe deficits don’t matter after all.  Maybe debt is a badge of honor.  It’s contrary to what I was brought up with, but maybe the world has changed, and what I was brought up with is now wrong.

I can’t imagine how this would work out, other than a totalitarian socialist utopia in which everyone is equally shabby, or else chaos, destruction, and death.  But the problem may be my lack of vision.

It may be time to learn to stop worrying and love the debt.

But I’m not ready to admit that.

Default, Again

For my part, there appears to be an eminently reasonable approach to the stalemate that has resulted in the Federal government shutdown: postpone the Obamacare penalty for not carrying insurance for one year.  People would still have the option to buy the insurance, and receive subsidies (perhaps reducing them a few ticks to balance the penalties that won’t be collected).  It would balance the Administration’s unilaterally postponing the Obamacare employer obligation for one year.  In fact, I believe that House Republicans proposed such an approach, but Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, rejected it out of hand.

Meanwhile, on top of the government shutdown (which has in fact left about two-thirds of the government up and spending), we now face a deadlock over the debt ceiling.  We went through this a couple of years ago, and if we had adults in charge, I wouldn’t be particularly worried.  If the government cannot borrow money, the 14th Amendment means that its debts are sacrosanct.  The government must pay its debts, which includes paying interest and principal on its bonds, and paying contractors and employees for services rendered.

Everything else is fair game.

If adults were in charge, they would follow the 14th Amendment, pay the debts, then prioritize the other expenses (aid for states and localities, ongoing procurements and government services that can be shut down, foreign aid, and–the elephant in the room–entitlements) and pay what they can from the remaining funds.  It’s what the rest of us do when we have a case of the shorts.  In fairness, the immediate effects would not be good for the economy.  But we would be facing reality, which is the first step to actually fixing things.

Alas, we don’t have adults in the room anymore.  One of the disconcerting parts of the Syria debacle a month ago is that the only person who seemed to have his head on straight was Vladimir Putin.  Our President and Secretary of State came across as damned fools.

That’s the real scary part.

Shutdown

I burst out laughing when I saw today’s Daily News headline:

House of Turds

But I’m not sure that House Speaker Boehner deserves the honor he is accorded here.  As far as I can tell, he’s an establishment politician who is somewhat embarrassed by his colleagues who are standing up for their principles and exercising their authority to actually change something.  (After all, it wouldn’t be good for angry Democrats to stand up for their constituencies and work to undo bad Republican policy.)

In any case, the House, driven by Republicans, and the Senate failed to come to agreement last night, and as a result, the Federal government is now ‘shut down.’  Well, not really: the mail will still be delivered, the politicians will still get paid, and essential services are still running.  But the national parks are closed across the country, and some 800,000 Federal employees are temporarily unemployed.

Whom do you blame for the government shutdown?

The direct answer is obvious: the House Republicans, of course.  They could have gotten with the program and kicked the can down the road, as has been done a hundred times before.  But the pollster’s question is loaded: it implies that the Federal government shutdown is a something to be blamed for.

To be sure, it’s not ideal, and not a desirable outcome.  But it’s the first break in our time from the pattern of yowling and wailing about some problem or another and then resolving to change nothing.  At least they’re trying.

Meanwhile, my mailbox is stuffed with missives from the Obamoids about the rotten Republicans who ‘want to prevent 40 million people from gaining affordable, accessible health care.’

No, that isn’t it at all.  It’s that Obamacare insurance is not ‘affordable;’ it’s unclear, given shortages of doctors and the rotten medical care in this country (unless you’re in the 1%, going to a hospital is only marginally nicer than going to jail), how ‘accessible’ care will be; and maybe a third of ’40 million’ will benefit, while the rest of us are bankrupted in the process.  Meanwhile, as a weekend bonus, employers all over the country are cutting their staffs and their hours so as not to have to pay for it.

And for those who say that Obamacare is ‘the law of the land,’ settled and beyond debate, I have three words:

So was Prohibition.

Obamacare: For Real?

Next week, the Obamacare health care exchanges will open up, enabling Americans to buy health insurance at allegedly reduced premiums.  An op-ed piece in the Daily News urged people to look up how much health insurance would cost before complaining.

OK, I’m game.

For comparison, the health insurance I buy for my company has a premium of $575/month for a single person.

Under Obamacare, there are four grades of coverage: ‘platinum,’ ‘gold,’ ‘silver,’ and ‘bronze.’  The grades are defined in terms of what fraction of the aggregate medical costs of the covered population they will pay: ‘bronze’ pays 60%, up to ‘platinum,’ which pays 90%.  I don’t have any information about how this resolves into practical details like co-payments, or how much one will have to pay for a hospital visit, and I don’t have a real basis for comparison with my current insurance.  (I asked my insurance agent  for a figure for comparison, but didn’t get an answer.  I suspect, though, that my current insurance is somewhere between ‘gold’ and ‘platinum.’)  There’s also a ‘catastrophic’ level, which is only available to people under 30.

There are nine insurance providers offering Obamacare policies in Brooklyn; for the purposes of this table I took the median premium as a middle-of-the-road value.

Level Full Premium/month (median) Net cost after subsidy/month
$40k/year income $25k/year income
Platinum 577 529 356
Gold 486 438 265
Silver 419 371 198
Bronze 340 291 118
Catastrophic 218 218 218

In fairness, many of the provisions of Obamacare that will drive up premiums in other places (no exclusion for pre-existing conditions, equal premiums for men and women) were already law in New York State.  So I wasn’t expecting much change from the status quo, and I was right.

What about not carrying insurance?  In 2014, the penalty will be $95 or 1% of income, whichever is greater.  For an individual with an income of $40,000/year, that works out to $33/month, well below even the ‘catastrophic’ plan.  In 2016, the penalty will be $695 or 2.5% of income, or $83/month for a $40,000/year income: still cheaper than real insurance.

The one good thing that I can see, for where I live, is that an individual can buy comprehensive health insurance for a premium that is comparable to an employer’s group plan.  (A while back, when I was between policies, I asked about the premium for an individual health insurance plan for myself and my wife.  The agent was ashamed to tell me.  “Be brave,” I told her.  Her shame was justified: the premium was $2500/month.)

But even with subsidies, it’s still God-awful expensive.  And I still don’t understand how making everyone pay for it–mobilizing more dollars to pay for the same finite resource–will not raise costs through simple supply and demand.

Insecurity Adviser

Tuesday’s NBC Nighly News included an interview with Susan Rice, the President’s national security adviser, about the upcoming attack in Syria.  It was unexpectedly entertaining, but not in a good way:

Q: If you lose the vote in congress. what does the president do then?

A: …we have no expectation of losing the vote in congress.  We are quite confident and indeed today. we’ve had a series of very constructive bipartisan meetings… a number of key leaders have come out of those discussions, making plain their support for this. on a bipartisan basis.

In other words, the fix is in, even though most of the electorate is against it, and many Congressmen are getting almost unanimous word from their constituents that going to war in Syria is a really bad idea.

Q: …Since when did we start announcing our intentions to the enemy. potentially giving the enemy time to prepare?

A. We have not announced our intentions to the enemy….

Huh?  Our leadership has been about as subtle as Miley Cyrus.  (And ten years hence, we’ll wonder what that meant.)

…in fact the united states has been making clear for years that it is unacceptable to use chemical weapons. when president obama made the statement last summer… that the use of chemical weapons is absolutely unacceptable.

You see?  We’re not blabbing our intentions!  We’re just telling everyone about them.

Q: Do you draw that bright a distinction between the death by an incendiary bomb by a school and death by chemical weapons?  That appears to be the administration’s bright line on this?

A: All of this is horrific… if terrorists get hold of those weapons, other dictators get hold of those weapons, they can be used on a massive scale.

As opposed to massive use of incendiaries, which are OK.

Q: what about the measurable chance as recent history has taught us, that military action could in this case, make things worse?

A: …We think that’s a very limited risk in this case. in the first instance, Assad and his backers in Iran and Hezbollah, do not have any interest in seeing this escalate….

I did a double-take when I heard this the first time, and went back to the video and the transcript.  What planet is she on?  Iran and Hezbollah are spoiling for a fight, and will be more than happy to escalate.  They can start by attacking Israel.

…they know that the united states will stand up for our own national security , our own defense. and that of our partners and friends in the region. it’s not in their interest to escalate, and i don’t think they would do so….

That’s almost as good as Bush belling us that the Iraqis would welcome us as liberators.  Getting us into another interminable war, in the face of flagging public support at home, when we’re, in a word, broke, would definitely be in our adversaries’ interest.

…We also have to ask, what if we don’t act. what message does that send to those who would use violence against us or others with impunity?

Well, if we do act, it tells our adversaries that if they do something really bad, we’ll send in the missiles to make some pinprick attacks, and think we’ve done our job.

Do we have a national insecurity adviser?  That could only be an improvement.

A Step Back

On Saturday, President Obama reverted to type (since he was first elected, he has strenuously avoided the appearance of actually leading on anything) and announced that he would be seeking authorization from Congress to engage in military strikes in Syria.

Yesterday, we learned that Obama had actually been reconsidering on Friday, while the news media were banging the drums for an imminent attack.  We’ve been had, again.

But the drumbeat for war continued on the evening news last night:

  • “Air samples and blood samples have tested positive for signatures of sarin,” noted our Secretary of State.  That’s not particularly surprising: sarin is an effective chemical weapon.  But that doesn’t address the more important question: who used it?
  • We’re told that when Obama told his advisers that he would hold off on the attacks and seek authorization from Congress, his advisers tried to talk him out of it.  Why would he do such a thing?  Because by getting the US involved in a pointless war–by himself–he could get himself impeached.  And his fingerprints would be all over it.
  • Senator John McCain, Obama’s rival in the 2008 election, had a somewhat different take on it.  The actual merits of the case in Syria seemed beside the point.  But if the President deferred to Congress, and Congress voted him down, it would be bad for future Presidents who might need to engage in unilateral executive action.  And this is a problem… how?
  • The evening news then reported on Syrian refugees who are distinctly disappointed that America hadn’t come through with destruction.  “We are asking for Obama to strike Assad, like he promised,” one refugee remarked.  When all else fails, go for the heartstrings….

On last night’s news, other than noting that some Congressmen and Senators were opposed to the attacks, there was no discussion of the case against striking Syria.  Is this because the case is so self-evident as to not be worth reporting, or is it that the news media’s corporate masters really want us to drag out the blunderbuss?

“A Shot across the Bow”

About  a week ago, so we’ve been told, the Syrian government deployed chemical weapons against its own people in several villages east of Damascus, killing several hundred.  On Monday, our Secretary of State, John Kerry, looking like an unshaven bum in his expensive suit, called it a ‘moral obscenity’ deserving of American military retaliation.  (And this is the same John Kerry who ran against Bush for President in 2004?)

Why don’t I believe this narrative?

I’m reminded of the runup to the Iraq war in 2002, when we were told that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world, when it seemed clear enough, even in 2001, that we were looking for a pretext to fight Iraq so that the younger Bush could avenge where the older Bush had wimped out.

We’re against the current Syrian government, when we were OK with them until a couple of years ago.  We’re now arming the ‘rebels,’ some of whom belong to al-Qaeda, which, I thought, was the enemy.

President Obama now proposes ‘a shot across the bow’ to send the Assad regime “a pretty strong signal, that in fact, it better not do it again.”  Perhaps that’s meant to be reassuring, but I’m not reassured.

A literal shot across the bow is a warning measure (not intending to accomplish actual damage) taken against a warship in a context that makes that ship a legitimate target.  Obama proposes cruise missile strikes against Syrian military installations to actually destroy them: if that’s not an act of war, I don’t know what is.

Last year, Obama indicated that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would be a ‘red line’ that would trigger severe consequences.  So now either the narrative of last week’s attacks is true, and we need to follow through on our word and retaliate, or else visibly wimp out; or the narrative is fake, and we’re setting ourselves up for another pointless military adventure.

I don’t believe that even President Carter would have been that stupid.

 

Quickies

You Haven't Signed Yet

Today is President Obama’s birthday, and over the last week, the Obamoids have sent me about a dozen messages urging me to sign the President’s birthday card.  I’m creeped out: it seems something more fitting for a country with a Dear Leader, rather than a President.

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My birthday was last Thursday, and for the last week, my bank’s ATM has greeted me with ‘Happy Birthday!’  As far back as I can remember, one had to supply one’s date of birth when opening a bank account: I’m not wondering how they knew it was my birthday.  But I question the wisdom of displaying a birthday greeting on an ATM.  Some people don’t want to be reminded of their birthday.  For my part, it’s not really upsetting, but it’s creepy in a Big Brother sort of way.

*          *          *

Why are we giving foreign aid to Egypt?

We’re broke, after all, and we have a law that says that a government that has perpetrated a military coup is ineligible to receive foreign aid.  And regardless of whether we believe the Egyptian military was right or wrong, the fact remains that a military coup has taken place.

Senator Rand Paul pressed the issue in the Senate.  His proposal was defeated, but what’s telling is why it was defeated.

Aid to Egypt is essential, we now understand, because if Egypt is sedated with foreign aid, it will be less of a threat to Israel.  Then again, if we don’t help the Egyptians, maybe the Russians will.

Senator and former Presidential candidate John McCain argued, “This is a question of whether the senator from Kentucky knows what’s better for Israel, or if Israel knows what’s better for Israel.”

Of course Israel knows what’s best for Israel.  But Israel has no inherent claim to American tax dollars.

Or do they?

Obamacare: Big Whoop

“Tangible good news” was the subject line of the latest missive from the White House.  I’ve always wondered how one can send something tangible in an e-mail, so I opened it.

One of the features of health care reform is a requirement that insurance companies must spend at least 80% of what they collect in premiums on actual medical care.  Companies that collect too much must rebate the difference.  So the missive was crowing that some an estimated $850 million would be paid back to some 8.5 million policyholders this year, as an glorious achievement of the new health care law.

So some fraction of the population, less than 10% of American households, received a check for an average of $100.

Meanwhile, my health insurance company has announced their new and improved (which is to say more expensive) premiums for the coming year:

Coverage Old premium, per month New premium, per month New premium, per hour (40 hrs/week)
Single $540 $575 $3.32
Couple $1185 $1265 $7.30
Parent/Children $1000 $1070 $6.17
Family $1710 $1825 $10.53

So that $100 would pay for this year’s premium increase for my wife and me for a little over a month.  But it wouldn’t even provide a week’s coverage for a single person.

Meanwhile, the Federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour wouldn’t pay for coverage for a couple or a family.  New York State is raising the state minimum wage to $9 in steps through the end of 2015 (it’s still $7.25 for the rest of this year), but even that wouldn’t cover the premium for a family.

So, big whoop for Obamacare.

And if you did receive a rebate on your health insurance, don’t spend it all in one place.

Something Fishy

The Obamoids recently sent out this video:

Supposedly, immigration reform is a wonderful idea because, even considering the additional social services that some of them might require, we’ll be far ahead in terms of jobs and economic growth.

I don’t subscribe to the common belief that immigrants are an unmitigated drain on our resources and our society.  I live in New York City, a place built by immigrants, and I see that wondrous things happen when the brightest people from around the world come together.

On the other hand, I also know that some immigrants are a drain on the system, and worse, the government, particularly the Federal government, doesn’t seem interested in doing anything about it.  My sense is that it pretty much balances out overall, although some places do suffer because, locally, there are very many more who are draining than contributing.

I’ve written before in these pages that both parties, contrary to their rhetoric, actually like our mangled immigration system the way it is, as it serves their respective purposes. So I’m skeptical of any proposal on general principles.  But the notion that immigration reform would somehow boost the economy seems ludicrous.

Am I missing something?

But You Can’t Say That Out Loud….

When Obama was running for President in 2008, I signed up for the campaign e-mail list, an act that I’ve now come to regret.  I believe that I’ve received more e-mail this year from Obama’s ‘Organizing for Action’ group than I did when he was running for re-election.  He can’t run for a third term–right?–so why is he hitting me up for money?

And why am I told that I should ‘have the President’s back’?  Isn’t that what the Secret Service is for?

I received a missive today in this vein in which Joe Biden, the Vice President, remarks about the Republican opposition:

When I asked several Republican senators after they voted against background checks [for gun purchasers], not one offered an explanation on the merits of why they couldn’t vote for them. But almost to a person, they said, “I don’t want to take on Ted Cruz. I don’t want to take on Rand Paul. They’ll be in my district.”

I’ll be clear: I do not own a gun.  I don’t have a burning need to run out and get one.  While it would be cool to learn to shoot, I don’t have the time or energy to invest in it.  But I believe that the Second Amendment underpins our other freedoms in that an armed citizenry represents the ultimate defense against government overreach.  And if the circumstances of my life or my environment changed, of course I would arm myself.

And there is a simple explanation on the merits as to why universal background checks are a bad idea.  Presumably, one ‘passes’ or ‘fails’ a background check, and is either granted or denied the right to purchase a firearm.  But who determines the criteria for passing the background check?  And what’s to prevent the criteria from being manipulated for partisan political purposes, or to effectively deny what is still a Constitutional right?

But I guess that a Republican Senator can’t say that out loud.  As a present-day politician, he cannot vocalize the notion of our Founding Fathers that government is inherently untrustworthy and its reach needs to be constrained.

So instead, he blames Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.

And comes across as either spineless or stupid.

Machine Politics

A few years ago, when computerized voting devices came into use, some software professionals reviewed the devices and their software and found them deficient.  There is a YouTube video about finagling a particular brand of voting machine with a hardware change.  New York missed out on this: state law requires that all of the candidates and issues on a ballot appear on a single page, and so we have paper ballots and scanners, which are really clunky, but seem to work.

I’m not a software jock, but I know something about computers.  Given a couple of days, I could write a functional emulation of one of the old mechanical voting machines for a Windows PC.  You’d have to partition the ballot to make it readable on the screen, but other than that, it would work.  It wouldn’t be certifiably bomb-proof, but in the hands of professionals, it could be used to run a real election.

After the November elections, reports surfaced that many districts in Pennsylvania and Ohio recorded not a single vote for Romney.  In other districts, the number of votes recorded exceeded the number of actual voters.  There were scattered reports of people who were clearly not from the area (out in rural areas where people presumably know each other) appearing in significant numbers to vote.  There were also reports of people being unable to vote for Romney in that the machine would change their vote to Obama.

None of these events was reported widely in the media, but then again, when the votes from the 2000 election in Florida were counted a few months later, Al Gore would have one, and that story was buried, too.

I’m beginning to believe that the complaints about deficient software and hackable voting machines may be misplaced.  The software in an election device may be imperfect—is there ever such a thing as perfect software?—but running an honest election is really simple stuff.

But what if the election authorities, or someone behind them, didn’t want to run an honest election?

In another time, I would have considered the thought preposterous.  But if someone did want to run a corrupt election, voting machines would be just one tool among many.  And whatever software certifications the machines might have had are beside the point.  No machine is incorruptible, if you want to corrupt it badly enough.

But why?  And why has the mainstream media reported nothing about this?

Over the Cliff

Our leadership in Washington is now contemplating how to ‘avoid’ the ‘fiscal cliff’ at the end of the year, when, if nothing is done, taxes will rise some $2000 on the average American household, and the Federal government will face actual budget cuts.

Awwww… poor babies.

It’s true that nobody likes paying taxes, and even fewer enjoy a tax increase.  And the tax increase that will bite most Americans is the end of the ‘temporary’ cut in the Social Security payroll tax, which will itself cost the median American household about$1000.

But the intent of that tax cut was to stimulate the economy through consumer spending.  It didn’t work.  When I try to do something, and it doesn’t work, I stop doing it.  But I guess that the ‘temporarily’ lowered Social Security tax rate has become yet another entitlement.

The other part of the ‘fiscal cliff’ is a reduction of some 10% of discretionary spending.  Other than an adjustment to Medicare reimbursements, entitlements aren’t touched.  Again, nobody likes budget cuts, but I can’t believe that the Federal government will roll over and die because of a 10% cut.

Yes, we need to raise taxes on the rich.  The economy, as it has functioned for at least the last ten years, has worked to transfer money from everyone else to the very richest.  If we continue at this rate, we will have regressed to a feudal state in another generation.  It’s reasonable, in this context, for the government to redistribute to maintain balance.  But do not believe, for a moment, that raising taxes on the rich will solve all our problems, or provide license for yet more government spending.  We’re still very badly out of balance.

President Obama, for his part, is doubling down on the crisis, asking Congress to delegate to him the power to raise the debt ceiling, and allocate more stimulus spending.   No, that won’t work either.  We still have a Constitutional government of checks and balances.  We worried about an overreaching executive under President Bush, and are now learning that Democrats can do it too.

Will doing nothing and ‘going over the fiscal cliff’ be pleasant?  No.  But I can’t see how it will be any worse than the power grabs and kick-the-can-down-the-road schemes in play now.  The job fairies are will not shower their employment pixie dust on us if we extend the Bush tax cuts for two more years.  This is because there are no job fairies.

Until our leadership comes up with a real plan to bring revenues and spending back into balance, the fiscal cliff seems the least painful alternative in the long run, as it at least represents an effort to balance revenues and spending.

Election Wrap

I was in a subway station yesterday when I heard a very outspoken woman, about 20 feet away, talking to her friend.  She had voted for Obama because Romney, if he had been elected, would take away food stamps, Section 8 housing vouchers, and all other manner of government goodies.

New York was always going to go for Obama, so much so that there was very little campaigning or advertising by either candidate.  While the Romney camp talked about cutting government spending, I don’t remember anything about serious cuts to existing programs.  Yet it was easy enough to read between the lines and believe that a Romney victory would lead to cuts in food stamps.

It’s a powerful argument to vote for Obama if your life depends on government subsidies, but is was almost entirely unspoken, other than the response to Romney’s remarks about the 47% who pay no Federal income taxes.

I can’t begrudge this lady her vote: she voted in her rational self-interest, as all of us do.  But to her, it doesn’t matter whether the economy does well or badly, or whether unemployment is 5% or 15%, as long as the government goodies keep flowing.

That there may not be enough productive activity to support these government goodies in the future, however, is another question.

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I was in Amsterdam for a professional conference this week, and conversation often devolved into discussions about Sandy and the US Presidential election.  Generally, Europeans were expecting that Obama would be re-elected, and some people looked questioningly at me when I told them I had voted for the other guy.  Certainly, Obama is closer to the European image of what a President should be than Romney.

*          *          *

I don’t expect good things to come from Obama’s re-election: more economic stagnation, and a resurgence of price inflation.  But at least it’s over.

Alas, Campaign 2016 begins next week.

They’re Both Losers

A few days ago, a video came to light in which Mitt Romney, the Republican Presidential candidate, made the following remarks earlier this year:

There are 47 percent who will vote for the President, no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent on the government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it…. Forty-seven percent of Americans pay no income tax. So our message of low taxes doesn’t connect. And so my job is not to worry about those people — I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

And to some extent, he’s right:

  • About 47% of Americans pay no Federal income tax.
  • About 47% of Americans (actually somewhat more) live in a household receiving financial aid from the government in one form or another.
  • About 47% of the electorate will vote for Obama no matter what.
  • Some percentage of Americans, though probably not 47%, see themselves as victims deserving compensation.
  • Some percentage of Americans have absolved themselves of personal responsibility for their actions.  (This is one of the reasons we have the highest prison population of any nation on Earth.)

Nevertheless, it was an unwise thing to say: the way it came out, it suggested that the only worthwhile Americans were the 53% who paid income tax.  But we already knew that Romney has a tin ear for how his remarks will resonate with the public.

What’s worse is that these remarks confirmed what we suspected about Romney: that he lives in a bubble surrounded by like-minded advisors who don’t recognize that, for example, many of the 47% who don’t pay income tax are simply people trying to make a living, or retirees receiving Social Security.  (But then, Obama lives in a similar bubble.)

Romney also said, this past week,

A tape came out a couple of days ago, with the President saying, yes, he believes in redistribution.  Well, I don’t!  I believe the way to lift people, and to help people have higher incomes, is not to take from some and give to others, but to create wealth for all of us.

It’s an admirable sentiment, to be sure, but how does he plan to accomplish it?  (And don’t say ‘tax cuts.’)

I’m disgusted with Romney.  Unfortunately, the alternative is even worse.

President Obama has been an abject failure as a leader.  The first signs of this appeared in 2009, even before he was inaugurated.  He had said that there should be a stimulus, and then threw the matter over the fence for Congress to hash out.  Congress, in turn, ran around like kids in a candy store, spending money on this and that, and in the end doing very little to get the economy producing again.  It was the Obama administration’s efforts in Libya (with ‘kinetic military action’) that introduced ‘leading from behind’ into our political lexicon.

And this week, our President remarked,

Obviously, the fact that we haven’t been able to change the tone in Washington, is disappointing….  So I think that I’ve learned some lessons over the last four years, and the most important lesson that I’ve learned is that you can’t change Washington from the inside.  You can only change it from the outside.

If that isn’t an admission of defeat, I don’t know what is.  (Change from the outside?  You mean, like, invasion by a foreign army?)

‘You Didn’t Build That’

A few weeks ago, President Obama made a speech in which he remarked:

     If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.  There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.  Somebody invested in roads and bridges.  If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that.  Somebody else made that happen.  The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

Well, I’ve got a business, and I most definitely did build that.  I’ll freely admit that I stand on the shoulders of giants: I did not build the Internet, or the power grid, or the roads or bridges myself.  But many other people grew up with those same things.  Most of them haven’t built a business.  So yes: my business, my little piece of the world, yes, I did build that.  (Also, many of the things that Obama cites did not come from the government.  That great teacher you knew as a child may have been in the public school, but it was his characteristics as an individual–and not as a member of the school system–that made him great.  And the Internet was originally developed by the government as a communication system for the military, and not as an engine of private profit.  It was private enterprise that built it out into the Internet we all know and love.)

All of this would be water under the bridge, except that yesterday, I went with my wife to participate in the Labor Day Parade.  She’s a member of the Screen Actors Guild, which merged earlier this year with the union representing television and radio performers to become SAG-AFTRA.  We had to report on 44th Street, in an area with other theatrical unions: Actors’ Equity, the Musicians, the Stagehands.  The Steamfitters’ motorcycle club roared up the street to take their positions in the parade.

Many of the unions in this country were founded about a century ago, in the 1890s and 1900s.  And it’s useful to remember how they came to be.  It was time of vast productive energy: many of the things that we take for granted were built during that time.  And many of the company owners and bosses were, well, rotten.

And so the workers banded together to say, in effect, ‘you didn’t build that.’  And, unlike the bluster from our President, it was actually true: while finance and management are necessary ingredients for a successful enterprise, at the time, things didn’t get built unless you had the manpower to build them.

It was a rainy morning, and shortly after we stepped onto Fifth Avenue, the clouds let loose with a drenching downpour.  My wife and I had brought umbrellas, and a sixtyish woman latched onto my arm to get a little dry space.

“This seems like some kind of a punishment,” she remarked.

“No,” I answered.  “We’re standing with the union.  There was a time in our history when standing with the union was a little bit dangerous.  We need to remember that.”

We need to remember that, because it may happen again.

Just Another Tax Loophole

I’ve written in these pages about what I consider the horror of ‘health care reform.’  We have a serious problem with health care in this country: it costs too much.  And nothing in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will do anything useful to make care affordable.

I empathized with my conservative friends who considered it unconstitutional.  I wanted to believe myself that the requirement to purchase insurance went beyond the Federal government’s constitutional power to regulate commerce.  But I couldn’t quite believe that the Supreme Court could strike it down, although I couldn’t say way.

But the Supremes upheld Obamacare for the reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  The penalty for not having health insurance is a tax, Obama’s minions’ protests to the contrary notwithstanding.  Consider:

  • The penalty will be administered by the IRS;
  • You’ll pay it as part of your income taxes;
  • You won’t suffer any other consequences for failing to carry health insurance and paying the ‘penalty.’  You won’t get locked up, or lose your right to vote, or your professional licenses, or even get points on you driver’s license.  Hell, you won’t even lose your right to get medical care as an uninsured person.
  • If you don’t carry health insurance, and fail to pay the penalty, the government will come after you for… failing to pay your taxes.

If it looks like a tax, and quacks like a tax, well, it’s a tax.  It’s a selective tax, meant to encourage you to do something, and in that sense it’s hardly unique.  The tax code is filled with thousands of provisions to ‘adjust’ one’s tax liability in response to this or that.

It’s also telling that the Supreme Court didn’t touch any of the administrative apparatus of Obamacare.  They had no problem with the government defining what an acceptable health insurance plan consists of.  But then again, government has been regulating for over a century: what’s new about that?

Well, that settles one thing: I’m off the fence, and voting for Romney.  I don’t like either of the candidates, and for the most part I can’t see any meaningful difference between them.  But Romney acknowledges that health care reform is trouble, and at least pretends that he will do something about it.   (And yes, I know that as governor of Massachusetts, Romney pushed a similar health insurance plan to become law there.  But he’s allowed to acknowledge that it was better in concept than execution.)

Alas, I don’t expect the effort to repeal Obamacare to get much traction.  Not because of backlash from the other side, nor for the useful bits of the law that nobody wants to lose.   The big money will realize that Obamacare will marshal trillions of dollars to pay for health care, and they’ll want their share.  The result will be a big burst of investment in health care: new hospitals, pharmaceutical plants, and thousands and thousands of jobs.  (I can hear Senator Schumer now: ‘A vote to kill Obamacare is a vote to kill jobs.’)  It will pull the economy out of the doldrums–happy days are here again!–and last for two or three years, maybe four.

And then they’ll realize that nobody can afford to pay for health insurance, and the government is broke, and it will all implode.

Whom Do I Vote For?

For a while now, I’ve refused to vote in elections for the New York State Assembly or Senate.  I’ll go to the polls and vote for President or Governor or US Representative or Senator, and simply skip voting for Assemblyman or State Senator.  I’ve realized that whomever I vote for, the New York State Legislature will do whatever it pleases.  At best, they do nothing; at worst, they make my life miserable.

A few years ago, I made an exception and voted for an earnest young man who was running for state Senator.  He won the election, and is now in his second term.  He proposed a law requiring motor vehicle dealers in New York State to disclose mileage in terms of gallons per mile, as well as miles per gallon.  The measure died in committee in his first term, and I doubt it will go any further this time.

This year, I am seriously considering not voting for either of the candidates for President.

I voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and am now thoroughly disgusted with him.  He hasn’t done anything useful to help the economy, not even to admit that, perhaps, ‘fixing the economy’ is something beyond the power of our government, and We the People need to do something ourselves.  His signature achievement, health care reform, is an abomination that may be thrown out by the Supreme Court.  And for the last three years, the government has had to borrow one out of three dollars that it spends.

But the Republican presumptive candidate, Mitt Romney, isn’t any better.   He talks a great game, but except for health care reform, I can’t see any real policy differences between him and Obama.  OK, maybe Romney wants tax cuts.  But what good does it do for me to get a few dollars more a week if everything else is still going to hell?  And maybe a Romney administration will have a slightly less inept foreign policy.  But we’ll still continue with the charade of the War on Terror.  (How can you go to war against an emotion anyway?)

Maybe something will come out to push me one way or the other during the conventions and the debates.  But if I had to go to the polls next Tuesday, I wouldn’t bother voting for either of them.

We Didn’t Get the Briefing

When Barack Obama was running for President, he had the entirely reasonable idea of letting the Bush tax cuts expire for those making over $200k/year.  In December 2010, he caved and signed on to an extension of the tax cuts for two more years, even though the government was (and still is) running huge deficits.

What happened?

Allow me a somewhat fanciful explanation:

Sometime after he was elected but before he was inaugurated, President-elect Obama was briefed on the realities of our world and the Presidency.  He was told the truth about terrorists and UFOs, the proper way to order an ICBM launch, and the location of the secret White House Coke machine.

I’ll speculate further that he was also given a briefing rather like the ‘primal forces of nature’ speech from the movie Network about how the US was doomed, and how he couldn’t raise taxes on the rich, or tweak entitlements, or do any of the practical things that one might think of to actually address the problems we face.  He was also informed in grisly detail of the consequences for proposing such heresies, or telling the American public the truth about what we are facing.

And so Barack Obama, apostle of Hope and Change, became yet another politician.

But we didn’t get that briefing.  We’re outside the corridors of power, watching our country crumble around us, wondering, if not about our next meal, where our meals will come from two years from now.

If we set aside, for a moment, our notions of what is politically correct or feasible, how could we restore productivity and prosperity?  Or is it really a lost cause?

Tax Cuts for Me, but Not for Thee

The Republicans, who consider the entire concept of taxation to be evil, have found a tax increase that they actually like.

Last December, in an effort to stimulate the economy, Congress passed a one-year reduction in the payroll tax.  The actual rules are a bit complicated, but basically, the roughly 8% Social Security/Medicare tax that every working American pays (including the nearly half that don’t earn enough to pay Federal income tax) was reduced to about 6%, a little more than a 25% reduction.

Now we’re looking for ways to cut spending, and the Republicans are proposing not to extend this tax break for another year.  If this were a package deal, together with ditching the Bush tax cuts, I’d be OK with it.

To be fair, the Republicans have a point: putting a few hundred extra dollars into the pockets of ordinary Americans (who don’t create jobs) won’t do much to pull the economy out of its slump.  On the other hand, putting thousands of extra dollars into the pockets of the richest Americans hasn’t helped much, either.

For my part, I’m not sure that tax cuts do that much to stimulate the economy, and I get annoyed with politicians of either stripe who push for tax cuts just to score votes.  But the underlying argument of the Republicans is mean-spirited: rich people’s money is valuable to the economy and not to be taxed, while poor people’s money ‘doesn’t create jobs,’ and therefore fair game.

Obama the Liar?

A conservative friend of mine send me an essay railing at President Obama for being, among other things, a liar.  While I’m sure it was satisfying for the author of the essay to write it, and for many conservatives to read it, I wondered.  My mother taught me to be very careful when calling someone a liar, and while I can think of oodles of things that our President said that turned out to be not quite true on further inspection, I was hard-pressed to identify a real lie.  So I turned to the Web, where I found lots of help.  There was an article in Human Events listing the ‘top 10 Obama lies.’  So let’s have a look:

1.  Americans want higher taxes:  During the debate over raising the debt ceiling, President Obama said that 80% of Americans support including higher taxes as part of the deal.  But a Rasmussen poll taken the same week showed that only 34% believe a tax hike should be included in a debt-ceiling agreement.

I remember news reports that indicated that a majority did favor higher taxes.  And in fact, there was a Quinnipiac poll that reported 55% in favor of higher taxes on the wealthy and corporations to help address the debt.  Not quite the 80% reported by our President, but close enough by politician standards.

2.  Mother denied health insurance:  During his presidential campaign, Obama said that his mother died of cancer after being denied coverage for a preexisting condition…. But [she] had health insurance through her employer and was only denied disability insurance.

His mother was denied some form of insurance.  Again, close enough for political work.

3.  Tax restraint for middle and lower class:  Obama pledged during his campaign and throughout his presidency not to raise taxes on families making less than $250,000.  But ObamaCare’s individual mandate… a higher federal cigarette tax and countless other “fees” in the health care law… hit the middle and lower class.

The usual context of this statement is the Federal income tax, and in that context, Obama has been true to his word.  ObamaCare is a special case, about which I have more later, and if you don’t want to pay excise taxes on cigarettes, then don’t smoke.

4.  Shovel-ready jobs:  When Obama was selling his $787 billion stimulus package, he consistently bragged about how shovel-ready construction jobs would be funded across the nation.  Even the President later admitted…:  “There’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.”

In my professional life, I’m involved with public works projects, and I know that there is no such thing as a ‘shovel-ready’ job.  At best, there is a nearly-complete design on the shelf that is waiting for funding, and it would take a bare minimum of three months (and more practically 6-9 months) to finish the design, bid and award a contract, and start work.

But Obama is a politician, not an engineer, and if he hears from state and local politicians about all these projects they’d like to execute, but just need funding, he’s inclined to believe them. Alas, even allowing for a few months’ latency, there was no bump in employment as these ‘not-quite-shovel-ready’ jobs took hold.  So I’ll score this as one that he had to learn the hard way.

5.  Keep your doctor:  President Obama repeatedly pledged that under his health care measure, Americans would be able to keep their doctors.  However, with rising costs, many employers will dump their health care plans….

ObamaCare is an abomination for a variety of reasons.  But Obama is correct in noting that there is nothing in the health care legislation that will prevent you from seeing your current doctor or maintaining your current insurance.   (Whether you will be able to in real life is another matter, as many have pointed out.)

6.  No lobbyists:  During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama said:  “We have the chance to tell all those corporate lobbyists that the days of them setting the agenda in Washington are over….”  At least a dozen former lobbyists got top jobs in his administration at the beginning of his presidency….

Every politician rails at lobbyists, and ultimately does nothing.  So what else is new?

7.  Foreign money in campaigns:  During his 2010 State of the Union address, and again during the 2010 midterm elections, Obama railed against foreign money influencing U.S. elections.  The only problem was that there was no evidence to support the charge….

Obama’s 2010 State of the Union address came a few days after the Citizens United Supreme Court decision ruling that allowed corporations and others to present ‘issue’ advertising during the political campaign cycle.  While such advertising cannot identify candidates by name, it can be readily associated with candidates.  And a foreign corporation could indeed present such advertising, if they really wanted to wade into the cesspool that is American politics.

8.  Arizona immigration law:  During the battle over Arizona’s immigration law, President Obama said:  “Now suddenly if you don’t have your papers and you took your kid out to get ice cream, you can be harassed, that’s something that could potentially happen.”

Well, if you were speeding on the way to the ice cream parlor, you might get stopped, and then you could get in trouble for not having your papers.  I don’t know if Arizona has a law (as in New York) enabling the police to stop and ticket you if you aren’t wearing your seat belt, but if it does, that would be another ‘show me your papers’ moment.  The threshold is any infraction where the police would stop you and ask questions, not necessarily a crime.

9.  Transparency:  Obama pledged that transparency would be a top priority, but his administration refused to grant one-third of the Freedom of Information Act requests, according to an Associated Press analysis.  He also was dishonest about transparency when he said that health-care negotiations would be televised on C-SPAN and that he would wait five days to sign a bill so people would have a chance to read it online.

Stupid naive campaign promises, nothing more.

10.  Constitutional oath:  During his January 2009 inauguration, Barack Obama pledged to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” yet he has consistently ignored the 10th Amendment giving powers not enumerated in the Constitution to the states.  Exhibit No. 1: ObamaCare.

ObamaCare relies on a twisted interpretation of the Commerce Clause (‘Congress shall have power to… regulate Commerce… among the several States;’) to require people to purchase insurance.  As far as the Tenth Amendment, I’m sure it isn’t the first time that the Federal government has imposed uniform standards on something across the states.

To take another Tenth Amendment example, consider Arizona’s immigration law.  The President can rail against it; he can have the Justice Department sue the state of Arizona in pursuit of what he believes to be right; but he can’t force Arizona to abandon its law.

Our President may question whether the Constitution allows him to do this or that, but I can’t identify any time where the President has simply disregarded or violated the Constitution.

*          *          *

My point in all of this is not to defend President Obama’s performance: he has been one of our most inept Presidents in a long time.  Yes, he’s more inept than President Carter, who had decent policies but couldn’t present them well.

But he’s no more a liar than the average politician.  Every politician overlooks inconvenient facts, makes pointless promises he has no intent in keeping, pontificates from ignorance (‘shovel-ready jobs’), or engages in creative over- or understatement to advance his agenda.  Moreover, every President lives in a bubble, surrounded by advisors who tell him what he wants to hear.

I’m bitterly disappointed in President Obama.  I disagree with his policies, and I’m horrified by his non-leadership leadership style.  But if I call him a liar, I would also have to call almost all of his modern predecessors liars too.  The last President who wasn’t a liar was Jimmy Carter: it was perhaps the root of many of his problems.

Immigration ‘Reform’

President Obama was speaking in Texas the other day about immigration reform.  His proposals are dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled House and tepid Senate, but he was at it anyway:  “Maybe they’ll need a moat,” he said of the Republicans. “Maybe they’ll want alligators in the moat.”

He’s probably right.  But that isn’t the real problem.

One of the basic attributes of a nation is that it has the right to decide whether to allow people and things in and out.  We’ve failed at that for quite some time, and while there has been progress in building a fence (which, in itself, is not a bad idea), there are still wide open spaces that the Border Patrol cannot practically supervise, as well as criminal elements with a vested interest in moving across the border on their own terms.

But let’s imagine, for a wild moment, that today we installed a hermetically sealed border: nothing could get in or out unless the designated authorities allowed it.  Drug smugglers and terrorists are kept out; business travelers can pass through freely; other people can get in if they have the resources and patience.  Fine and dandy.

OK: what do we do about the roughly 12 million that are already here illegally?   Right now, the government doesn’t generally go looking around for illegal aliens.  If they cross paths with one, he might get deported, but maybe not.  But that satisfies nobody.

One approach is that favored by Obama, and Democrats in general: provide a path to legal residence, and ultimately citizenship, for those who are worthy of it (as demonstrated by living here peacefully, paying one’s taxes, otherwise not breaking the law, etc.).

It’s a practical solution.  It was so practical that it was actually done in the 1980s, under Ronald Reagan.  But we were supposed to couple that with reinforcing the border and making it harder for illegal immigrants to get jobs, and we didn’t really do that part.  So here we are again.

Some on the right have suggested mass deportations as a solution.  But that is a nonstarter for many practical reasons, most obviously because we would have to overtly turn our country into a police state in order to make sure we got everyone.  And as soon as an American citizen got deported inadvertently, all of the politicians who were responsible for the plan would be on their way out, routed by a groundswell of popular anger.

So the Republicans simply say ‘no amnesty,’ and nothing changes.  (Never mind, by the way, that providing a path to residence through paying a fine and filling out piles of paperwork does not constitute ‘amnesty.’)  And we have an underclass of scared people who are willing to work for very little, which drives down wages for the rest of us.  Is that what America stands for?

Perhaps not, but eerily, it’s what the Republicans stand for.  The modern Republican stands for lower taxes, less regulation, and less of everything that can get between a businessman and his profits.  If government policy can be used to lower wages, then that’s good, too.

But if what you really want (although won’t admit) is to keep a scared underclass on hand to lower wages, then a secure border isn’t really very helpful.  As for the criminals who might sneak across, the answer is simple: live somewhere else.

So while the Republicans profess to be defenders of the realm, they’re really defenders of the status quo, because that’s what best serves their real interests.

And if that weren’t enough, there’s also the other reason for ‘no amnesty’ that is more acceptable in polite company: if the currently illegal immigrants ultimately became citizens, they’d probably be Democrats.

Bin Laden Dead

Last Sunday, so the news reports tell us, a team of Navy Seals visited Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and killed him.  He was then buried at sea.

Yeah, right.

That, indeed, was my reaction.  My trust in government has eroded to the point where I’m reluctant to take such news seriously.  Osama bin Laden was the bogeyman of the last decade: Obama must be pretty desperate in the polls to tell us that he was gone.

But as more detailed reports came out yesterday, I’m willing to believe… just barely.  And I’m encouraged that our President has learned that being nice doesn’t always work: sometimes you have to use force.

Now, can we repeal the Patriot Act, disband the TSA, and peel those stupid flag decals off our subway trains?

Yeah, right….

Birth Certificates and Passports

The other day, President Barack Obama released his long-form birth certificate, supposedly ending the controversy over whether or not he was actually born in Hawaii.  While I find myself opposed to his policies (even after I voted for him!), the whole ‘birther’ exercise seems pointless and stupid.  (And it isn’t over: some are asserting that the long-form birth certificate is itself a forgery, and 70% of the respondents in a poll in the Daily News assert that the release of the certificate does not close the issue.)

For my part, if competent authority saw fit to issue Obama a US passport–that indicates his place of birth as Hawaii–well before he became President, then he’s a US citizen, born in Hawaii.  He spent most of his youth and adolescence outside the US, and was therefore not steeped in American culture, but that doesn’t disqualify him to be President, and nevertheless, we voted for him.

In other news this week, both AlterNet.org and Glenn Beck (weird combination!) came forward with the a draft form proposed by the Department of State for new passport applicants.   The form asks for your immediate relatives (parents, siblings, children), every address you’ve lived at since birth, and every job you’ve held, including your supervisor’s name.

Once upon a time, I was a New York subway conductor.  Every day, I was assigned to a different route.  I guess my ‘supervisor’ would have been the Crew Dispatcher, but I never met him and don’t remember his name.

If you weren’t born at a ‘medical facility,’ there is an additional series of questions, including your mother’s address one year before and after your birth, medical care she received, and other records of your birth.  (But if you were born at a medical facility, I guess you get the short-form birth certificate from your local Department of Vital records and you’re good to go.)

The reports don’t indicate the context in which the form will be used: whether it’s for all applicants, or just those who can’t otherwise document themselves.  The one context where the form would genuinely seem to be useful is for a child of illegal immigrants who is born in the US in someone’s house.  (As much as some may resent it, it’s still the law of the land, and even if the Constitution is changed, those already born here will still be citizens.)

But it will be genuinely be chilling if this form is required for all new passports, and freakish if it is required for renewals.

I guess I’ll find out when my passport runs out in two years.

If I have to fill out the form, I’ll have to find our who the Crew Dispatcher was.

Or can I just dig up a copy of my long-form birth certificate?

Egypt: What Now?

Yesterday, Hosni Mubarak stepped down as President of Egypt, after three weeks of demonstrations.  Egyptians at home and all around the world rejoiced at the prospect of freedom, as the army took over.

No, that last part was not meant as a joke.  The people were happy because the army took over.  That part seems a little strange to me as an American, who considers the military as an agency of the government, but I understand that other parts of the world do things differently.

For our part, the American leadership was all over the place in responding to the events in Egypt, because, in brief, we’re not sure what to do about it.  On the one hand, we’re pleased that the Egyptian people are striving for political freedom.  On the other hand, President Mubarak was a strategic ally, and Egypt is the one Arab nation that is undeniably at peace with Israel.  In a practical sense, we were sorry to see him go, but we couldn’t say that too loud.

But what happens next?

The immediate cause of the demonstrations in Egypt was increased food prices and poor economic opportunity.  But I don’t see how replacing the President as leader with a general, or even the transition to greater political freedom, is going to change that.

From our perspective as Americans, we worry that some Islamic group will take power, ditch the peace with Israel, and generally give us trouble.  But not knowing the facts on the ground, there is not much we can practically do.

Except pray and hope for the best….

Disappointment

Last Tuesday, I had wanted to watch the President’s State of the Union address, but my wife wanted to watch a Korean soap opera.  I deferred to my wife: I find the Korean soaps entertaining, or at least the ones with English subtitles.  And I could watch the address later, or at least read a transcript.

This morning, I finally got around to watching the speech.  I’m genuinely disappointed:

  • President Obama told us that ‘innovation’ was the way out of our troubles.  OK, but the problem with innovation is that it ends up getting manufactured in China.
  • He gave us chapter and verse about how education needs to be improved in the US, and got a standing ovation for stating the obvious about respecting teachers.  But there was nothing about how, specifically, we might enhance school performance.
  • He also agreed that it was necessary to do something about government spending.  However, entitlements were completely off the table, although they represent most of our problem.
  • He noted that the Federal government would reorganize itself to become more efficient.  That’s certainly a good idea, but hardly a source of jobs.
  • He indicated that he was willing to consider changes to last year’s health reform law, most specifically the onerous requirement for businesses to report virtually all of their spending to the government.  Funny, but if everyone hates the idea, why didn’t it get changed in the ‘wonderfully productive’ lame-duck session of Congress before Christmas?

Where are the Grownups?

Yesterday, President Obama signed into law an extension of the Bush tax cuts for two years, after insisting in his campaign that he wanted to let the cuts expire for those earning over $250,000/year.  The liberals who supported him are disappointed that he turned his back on his principles; more moderate commentators commend him for pivoting to the center like Bill Clinton.

For my part, I’m disgusted.

The bonanza for the rich (relief from what would have been a maximum 13% tax increase) was accompanied by a one-third cut in the employees’ portion of the Social Security tax for next year.  So we’ve all got a share of the goodies.
In this battle between Republicans and Democrats, the only thing that both sides can agree on is spending money they don’t have.

Meanwhile, the toxic borrowing goes on, and nobody seems to want to do anything about it.

Is Obama Nuts?

From today’s Daily News:

President Obama Saturday announced $10 billion in trade deals with India that will create 50,000 U.S. jobs.

“The United States sees Asia, especially India, as the market of the future,” Obama said at a gathering of business leaders in Mumbai. “We don’t simply welcome your rise … we ardently support it.”

…Still, he acknowledged many of his fellow countrymen don’t see India as a job creator.

“There still exists a caricature of India as a land of call centers and back offices that cost American jobs. That’s a real perception,” he said.

…”For America, this is a jobs strategy,” he said. “The goods we sell in this country currently support tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs across the United States.”

The deals, for instance, include Boeing building aircraft for the country and General Electric selling it jet engines.

***

Obama wants to assert that trade with India creates jobs for Americans.  OK, it’s nice that we can still build aircraft for export.  But the fact remains that call centers and back-office functions, as well as activities requiring actual thought, like legal and medical reviews, are outsourced to Indian firms on a far larger scale.

And the 50,000 jobs (or even 100,000, as some sources suggest) associated with the specific trade deals with India are far less than we need every month just to stay ahead of population growth.

And one day, probably sooner rather than later, the economics will come together to enable India to build aircraft and engines for themselves, rather than importing them.

Does Obama simply not understand what’s happening?

Or are we so desperate that any export deal is to be hailed as a major achievement?

Health Care Reform Signed into Law

Alas, the President signed health care reform into law yesterday in an elaborate ceremony with 22 pens.  It isn’t the end of the world; it isn’t even the end of the US republic.

But it will drive preposterously high insurance premiums still higher, and ultimately affect the care and insurance arrangements we currently have in effect (Our Fearless Leader’s assertions to the contrary notwithstanding).

I’m still on the Barack Obama mailing list, and I received a missive Monday that asserted:

…every American will finally be guaranteed high quality, affordable health care coverage.

No, what we’re guaranteed is access to health insurance, because we’ll be required to buy it.  What the insurance will ultimately be good for–and even what the insurance we currently carry will be good for–is another question.

Arbitrary premium hikes, insurance cancellations, and discrimination against pre-existing conditions will now be gone forever.

In fairness, some of these represent genuine problems.  It clearly isn’t right for an insurance company to initially provide coverage and then, when you get seriously ill, refer to your adolescent acne, or something similarly irrelevant, as a ‘pre-existing condition’ and rescind your coverage.   And nobody likes arbitrary premium increases.

But premiums rise to reflect increases in the cost of providing care, which has gone up far faster than the general rate of inflation.  Unless you do something to actually reduce health care costs, what about the non-arbitrary premium hikes?

And if insurance companies can’t discriminate against pre-existing conditions at all, and insurance will still be expensive, what will prevent people from waiting to purchase insurance until they’re seriously ill?  This will result in substantial, non-arbitrary premium increases.

And we’ll finally start reducing the cost of care — creating millions of jobs, preventing families and businesses from plunging into bankruptcy, and removing over a trillion dollars of debt from the backs of our children.

Just one question: how?  We’re going to mobilize trillions of dollars of private and taxpayer funds to pay for health care.  How does that make costs go down?

Feeding the Monsters

It looks like Our Fearless Leader will get his way and ‘health care reform’ will soon be the law of the land.  Heaven help us.

Health care reform–the campaign promise–was intended to address a practical problem: it costs too much.  It costs the government; it costs private insurers (who pass the cost along); and woe unto that poor soul who gets seriously ill without insurance.  He’ll end up broke: lacking the clout to negotiate a better deal, he will have to pay full price.

Imagine a community beset by monsters, who come out at night, wreck buildings, eat the cows and chickens, and the occasional small child.

To deal with this obvious danger, the government mandates that everyone carry monster insurance.  It works like this: when monsters attack your home, you call for help, and within three minutes, the Monster Insurance crew arrives at your home in a truck with a tank of strawberry-flavored Ensure.  The monster is hosed down with Ensure; he licks it off his belly; and contented, he slinks back into the night.

What will this do the population of monsters?   They’ll find it easier to feed, and grow stronger, and reproduce in greater numbers.  The Monster Insurance crews will need bigger trucks, and premiums will go up.  Moreover, when the monsters get tired of strawberry-flavored Ensure, the crew will have to bring other flavors.

‘But wait!’ I hear you scream.  ‘We’re not talking about monsters, we’re talking about medical treatments that save people’s lives!’  That’s true.  But what kind of life is it if all you’re going is earning money to pay for health care?  And what happens when all your taxes–if you’re healthy enough to earn a living–go to pay for other people’s health care… and the government still can’t balance its books?  (We’re closer to that in New York State than most people care to admit.)

Right now, health care is about one-sixth of the economy, considerably more than in other industrialized countries.   I’ll predict that if health care reform passes, within ten years, health care will be at least one-quarter of the economy, and the cost will still be bankrupting all of us.

Now is the time to face the monsters, rather than figure out better ways of feeding them.

Disappointment

The Obama administration indicated yesterday that the President would call for a three-year freeze on discretionary spending as part of the State of the Union address tonight.  It’s official: he’s now just another politician, and not even a very good one.

Every President in modern memory, except one, has jumped up and down and insisted that the deficit be reduced.  (The only exception was Clinton: we were flush with the Peace Dividend and actually ran surpluses.)  And every President who jumped up and down about deficit reduction never actually accomplished it.

The freeze in discretionary spending affects less than $500 billion of a $3.5 trillion budget.  (Can’t anyone divide?  The press is reporting that the freeze affects 17% of the budget, but when I went to school, 500/3500 = 1/7 = about 14%!)  Of course, the sacred cows of defense and entitlements are off the table.  Projected savings from this measure in the first year are estimated to be $10 to $15 billion, or less than 0.5 %.  It’s like saying that I’ll balance my family budget by giving up magazines, books, and movies.

On the other hand, deficit spending (whether actual spending increases or tax cuts) is the government’s most useful tool for dealing with a bad economy.  The spending has to be chosen wisely, which didn’t happen with last year’s stimulus package (in which the Democratic Congress ran around like kids in a candy store).  Bad deficit spending is worse than flushing the money down the toilet, because the recipients of the money will have reason to expect more in the future. But good deficit spending (say, investments in infrastructure) can be genuinely useful.

More than I’m disappointed by the substance of the move, I’m disappointed that our President seems to be displaying no leadership at all.  He’s getting the buzz that people are worried about the deficits, so he’s serving up some old blather to suggest that people shouldn’t worry.

I wish President Obama would:

  • Pick a direction.  For all that I railed against President Bush, he at least did this part right.  If Obama wants to temper his decisions to make them more acceptable to the opposition, it should be done before taking the plans to the public.  Setting forth a big plan, and then conceding later, looks wishy-washy.
  • Articulate a clear vision of what he’s trying to do, going beyond the sound bites and addressing reasonable concerns from the other side.
  • Do NOT then throw the issue over the fence and let Congress hash out the details.  Architects don’t draw up plans and then say, “OK, my work is finished, it’s now the contractor’s job.”  They generally have a role in managing the construction project, keeping things on track, and fixing glitches that pop up.

Obama also disappointed me with his remark that he’d ‘rather be a really good one-term President, than a mediocre two-term President.’  The only way you can get to be a mediocre two-term President is to get re-elected, and for that you have to be a good one-term President.

Looking back, when was the last mediocre two-term President?  Not Clinton: he presided over peace and prosperity, as well as bringing us the ongoing drama of the impeachment that wasn’t.  Not Reagan: he helped end the Cold War.  Not Nixon: he didn’t serve two full terms, and he resigned in disgrace: definitely not mediocre.  Not Johnson: he brought us civil rights and Big Government: the latter was perhaps not a good thing, but still not mediocre.  (Johnson also didn’t serve two full terms.)  Maybe Eisenhower, but that was before I was born, so I can’t really say.

But I’ll grant the possibility that someone might get re-elected to the Presidency, then go to sleep, and end up a mediocre two-term President.  Unfortunately, the only sure methods of being a great one-term President without running the risk of being a mediocre two-term President are to either (1) refuse to run for re-election or (2) die in office.

Christmas Bomb

Last Friday, a young man from Nigeria attempted to set off a bomb on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam shortly before it was due to arrive in Detroit.  The effort failed because the explosive didn’t go off as intended: it just lit on fire, and the man was tackled at that point by another passenger.

It wasn’t as if this guy was a total surprise: he was on a terrorist watch list, and his father, a wealthy banker in Nigeria, contacted the American embassy to warn us about him.  But somehow we didn’t recognize the problem in time, didn’t yank his visa, and didn’t stop him from boarding the flight.

The bomb itself was 50 grams of explosive powder packed into a condom and sewn into his underwear (this last resulting in a slew of really silly headlines: ‘Fruit of the Loon;’ ‘Pants on Fire’).  There was nothing to show on a metal detector, and one would have to do a very thorough pat-down to find the package (insert appropriate off-color remark here).

The response from our leadership has been singularly inept: Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Homeland Security, first asserted that ‘the system worked’ until confronted by overwhelming evidence that it hadn’t.  And Our Fearless Leader took a few minutes out of his Hawaii vacation on Monday to tell us what we already knew, because, after all, the President should say something about such an event.

There is talk about using full-body scanners to detect packages that one might carry on one’s person.  They’re effective, but they enable the viewer to look at the scanned person… naked.   I guess that’s OK, just as long as I can’t hear them snicker.

I’ll take someone in a remote location looking at me naked and snickering over some of the rules that came out after the incident.  For the last hour of a flight, passengers are to sit in their seats and do nothing.  No laptops, or blankets, or pillows, or even a paperback novel.  And no hints as to where the plane might be: the video with the map is out, as well as announcements from the pilot.  (Meanwhile, the terrorist can still look out the window!)

I understand that some of these rules may have been rescinded, so perhaps things are a little saner now.  And I’ll admit that I don’t know what the proper response to this event should be.  But adding yet another layer of aviation-security theater does not reassure me.

At least I don’t have any business trips for the next few months….

Socialized Medicine by Another Name

The health care reform bill passed the Senate on Monday morning, and is close to becoming law.  The Democrats, by their numbers, have simply silenced any effective debate on the measure.

The poorer among us will be covered by an expansion of Medicaid.  Funding for Medicaid is provided jointly by the Federal government and the states.  As a result, most states will be mandated to support the cost of a broader Medicaid program.   However, Senator Nelson of Nebraska got, as part of the price for his support of the measure, that the Feds would pay Nebraska’s increased Medicaid costs so the state wouldn’t have to.   Meanwhile, with New York State going broke even without new Medicaid mandates, our esteemed senators, loyal Democrats that they are, didn’t get us one thin dime.  (Senator Nelson also insisted that the Federal government not pay for abortions through insurance subsidies, but that’s within the realm of reasonable politics.)

The rest of us will have to purchase insurance for ourselves or get it through our employment.  Those who don’t will have to pay a penalty tax.  Given that insurers won’t be able to decline coverage for pre-existing conditions, or adjust rates to the age of the insured to properly reflect the actual risk, insurance will become very expensive. New York has similar rules as part of state law, so insurance is already expensive here, but premiums are expected to rise still further.

As a result, insurance will be so expensive that most ordinary people won’t be able to afford it without help.  So the Federal government will subsidize part or all of the cost.

Meanwhile, the government will also define what constitutes an ‘acceptable’ health insurance policy.  As a result, when the cost of medical care goes up (as it certainly will, because there are no direct measures to contain costs), Federal regulators will respond by identifying ‘appropriate’ treatments that will be covered by ‘acceptable’ insurance policies.  And expensive treatments will be limited or made unavailable as a result.  The government may also institute a rule, similar to current Medicare, that a doctor who takes insurance money may not contract independently with patients for treatments that insurance won’t cover.

Yes, insurance companies will remain, and they will ‘compete’ for your business.  But with the benefits to be provided set by government, and the actuarial performance set by government, they won’t be able to compete on the actual attributes of their insurance.

So what we end up with is government control of the health care system, just like socialized medicine.  But instead of the government paying directly for health care, the control is accomplished through regulation of insurance, which everyone is required to buy.

And there’s nothing I can do about it.  I could write my Senators and Congressman, but they’re true loyal Democrats, totally in favor of the plan.  They didn’t even try to wheedle some extra benefits for their home state like Senator Nelson.

I should save my breath to cool my porridge.

Health Care Blues

I have been wanting to write something about President Obama’s health care plan, but have been having trouble getting all my thoughts in order.  I know:

  • Government spending on health care in this country (at all levels) per capita is slightly higher than in countries with ‘socialized medicine.’
  • Private spending on health care in the US is about the same per capita as public spending, so we collectively spend a little more than twice as much on health care.
  • In countries with socialized medicine, there are often shortages of doctors, and waiting lists for specialized treatments.  And sometimes people die from not having receive treatments that would be more readily available in the US.
  • On the other hand, on general measures of public health, such as life expectancy, infant mortality, and obesity, the US is behind other countries with socialized medicine.
  • The US is the fount of medical innovation in the world, chiefly because someone who comes up with a good idea can turn a profit from it.
  • People in the US go bankrupt every day from the cost of health care.  An extended illness or cancer can easily wipe out an individual’s savings.  Insurance can help, but often has its own limitations and horror stories.
  • The cost of health care is going up rapidly, much faster than the general rate of inflation.  My health insurance premium went up 20% this year, and that’s consistent with past years.  Back when I was an employee, my company would moan every year about how the price if insurance had gone up, and that they would absorb most of the cost, but our co-pays would have to go up.
  • Medicare, the government insurance program for the elderly, tries to limit its costs by setting rates at which it will reimburse for services, but does not try to limit the services themselves.  This is called ‘not getting between the doctor and the patient.’

Some first thoughts:

  • If the cost of health care continues to go up, it will upend not only the government’s budget, but everyone else’s as well.
  • It would be tempting to believe that we could somehow ‘cut the waste’ and magically reduce the cost of health care without actually reducing the care that is delivered.  Perhaps we can trim a few percent, but not enough to solve the problem.
  • It’s one matter for the government to take measures to control its own costs.  That’s entirely reasonable.  It’s quite another for the government to try to solve everyone’s cost problem.
  • It would be spectacularly bad for the government to do something that would kill the innovative, capitalist component of health care.

More to follow….

Health Care Reform

I could give chapter and verse on how rotten I believe health care is in this country.  I had the devil’s own time getting health insurance when I went into business for myself, and the premiums went up about 20% when the policy renewed this spring.  Hospitals are most unpleasant places; most of them seem to run on the ragged edge of malpractice.

And the price of all this rottenness?  Governments (Federal, State, and local) in the US collectively spend more per capita than in countries with ‘socialized medicine.’  Private payers spend again as much: in total, we spend more than twice as much per capita on health care than in other industrialized countries.

And the cost goes up and up, faster than the general rate of inflation.  My insurance company isn’t raising my premium by 20% to tick me off: they do it because their costs went up similarly.

This is the ‘unsustainable’ condition that President Obama is warning us about in his efforts for ‘health care reform.’  Unchecked, the costs will upend government budgets, and indeed the private economy as well.

Last night, Our Fearless Leader addressed the nation to address the issue.  He sounded all the right notes, but one thing troubles me:

The President noted that we pay more for health care than in other countries, and that lowering health care costs is a key goal.  He then asserted that two-thirds of the cost of health care reform is what is currently being paid in the existing system, and that one-third will have to come from cost savings or taxes or some other new funding.

So he’s contemplating a 50% increase in expenditures.

How, exactly, is this a savings?

Unfortunately, a real solution to this problem necessarily involves limiting the actual cost of health care, and nothing in the current plans seems to do more than nibble around the edges.

The problem is that the current system is an immense self-licking ice cream cone, and there are are politicial constituencies that earn their living from it.  Until an effort is made to actually contain costs, and not just find newer and cleverer ways to fund them, we’re still stuck.

Beware the Unspoken Corollary

When Barack Obama was running for President last year, much was made of his statement that he was willing to negotiate with our adversaries.  Some thought he was hopelessly naive, while others (including myself) thought it was preferable to the policies of then-President Bush to reach for the blunderbuss whenever the opportunity presented itself.

In all of the discussions, nobody brought out the corollary of Obama’s position: that in being willing to negotiate with one’s adversaries, one must accept their  policies and actions.  If you say, “I want to talk, but what you’ve done is unacceptable,” you’ve ended the conversation very quickly.

So now we have the Iranian elections, in which the incumbent Ahmadinejad officially won with over 65% of the vote, despite pre-election data suggesting a close race.  President Bush, or any other President in recent memory, would have criticized the Iranian government for trampling the will of the people.

But not Obama.  He has described the election issue as the problem for a sovereign state, which should properly be resolved by that state without our intervention.  He has remarked that he doesn’t want the Iranian government to have any cause to blame us for their situation.

It’s a charming thought, except the Iranians are blaming us anyway.  Truth never stood in the way of good propaganda.

On Friday, the religious leader of Iran called for a halt to demonstrations, or else severe consequences would follow.  A curtain of silence has fallen across the country, as the government has imposed increasing restrictions on the foreign press.  We know that the demonstrations are continuing, and that the authorities are responding.  Whether this is simply riot control, or something darker, is unknown.

But our President can’t say anything about it, lest the Iranians use it against us.