Category Archives: Politics

The Democrats, So Far

I haven’t written for a while.  I wanted to write something in response to the shootings in early August: not so much the shootings themselves, but the media response to them. I was afraid that someone might come to the wrong conclusion about me.  But the world is changing, and not in a good way, and if I just shut up, I’ll still get trampled.  Maybe not right now, but sometime close enough to worry about.

Since then, I’ve been watching the Democratic Presidential debates.  It’s still too early to critically assess the candidates against each other, so it’s more a game of perceptions.  Some are wokescolds, some come across as genuinely Presidential, some are just annoying, and one seems like a crazy cat lady.

But I couldn’t vote for any of them.  Stripped of the rhetoric and the variations of individual candidates, they all have the same formula:

The American people are suffering and fearful.  Under my leadership, the Federal government will relieve your suffering and assuage your fears.  Under my leadership, the Federal government will bring help.

And if you don’t need or want help, too bad: you’ll get it anyway.

To be fair, it isn’t that Trump doesn’t pitch to fear and suffering: it’s what politicians do.  But Trump proposes to address the woes of his constituents by doing that which the government should have been doing in the first place, and not trying to fix things by regulation.

As I write these words, my mother’s pithy summary of the Republican philosophy rings in my head:

“I’ve got mine, so bugger you.”  (And yes, she actually said “bugger.”)

And if all the Democrats wanted were higher taxes, I might concede her point.

But I believe my mother would be horrified by what we’ve become.  No: she already knew: she said it herself, 15 or so years ago:

“We’re a spent people.”

A spent people, in need of help from the government, don’t care about liberty.

But liberty is what the Democrats propose to sacrifice in the name of helping the people, although for the most part they won’t say that out loud.  They do talk about gun control, but that would only be the beginning.

After the ‘Shutdown’

I’ve been overtaken by the tail end of a project that has taken much of my time for the last several months.  My staff and I had to work nights and weekends, and through the holidays, to frantically get everything hooked up and operational, and finished the last part Friday morning.  We’ll have to do cleanup over the next few weeks, but that hopefully won’t be quite so manic.

*          *          *

The soap opera that was the government shutdown is over, for now.  President Trump will not get funding from Congress for a wall or other border security measures, for now.  It would be within the President’s power to allocate funds for the purpose by executive order, and he isn’t doing that, for now.

I respect the President for trying to force this issue, and I respect him for recognizing that he wasn’t getting anywhere.  What’s galling is that the Democratic leaders, Senator Schumer and House Speaker Pelosi, were in favor of better border security a few years ago, but are against it now that President Trump wants it.

It was a defeat for the President, of course, but not a ‘humiliation,’ as it was reported in the Daily News and other media yesterday.  Remember that Trump is not a politician by education or temperament.  He’s much more willing to take risks than a ‘normal’ politician, because he’s learned that, yes, risks sometimes go bad, and defeat stings, but you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again.  He does not humiliate easily.

But what happens next month?

A proper way forward will require the parties to address each other with respect.  It’s hard to assess the dimensions of Trump’s respect—or lack thereof—for Schumer and Pelosi.  He’s given to making offhand tweets, but I’m not sure that means anything one way or the other.  I’m sure, however, that he recognizes the power they hold over the situation, and while he may not respect the people, he respects their positions.

On the other hand, the Democratic leadership seems to see Trump as somewhere between contemptible and beneath even contempt.  It’s not just that they voted for the other candidate in 2016: Trump is not their President.  If he can’t be removed from office (not that that won’t be a coming attraction), he can be effectively neutered by refusing to acknowledge him as President.

It’s a simple strategy, and demonstrably effective, for now.  All they have to do is stay the course.

For 2020, it will either work extremely well or extremely poorly.

Exercise in Futility

It’s been rather a while since I last wrote something here.  I’ve been frantically busy at work.  Until this year, I had exactly one instance where I had to pull an all-nighter (actually a bit more than that, as my all-nighters typically start around 7:00 am) in the service of my career.  This summer, I had four.  Such, it seems, is the way of the world….

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Exercise Your Right to Vote

Recently, message boards have been installed in the subway stations that indicate when the next train is arriving.   On the whole, it’s a good thing.  But yesterday morning, I looked up and was reminded to ‘exercise my right to vote.’  It bothered me.  If a friend reminds me to vote, it’s OK; if the League of Women Voters reminds me to vote, they’re doing their job.  But when the people who run the subway feel the need to remind me to vote, I have to wonder what the racket is.

Alas, voting seems an exercise in futility.  This year, NYC elects a mayor.  The incumbent, Bill de Blasio, is almost certain to be re-elected, not so much for his stellar achievements, but because of a dearth of opposition.  The Republican candidate, Nicole Malliotakis, doesn’t seem to have much of a platform other than that she isn’t de Blasio.

I don’t like de Blasio: he’s an echo of the leftist mayors of the past who ran the city into the ground in the 1970s and 1980s.  On the other hand, other than his influence-peddling scandals, I can’t see that he has actually done anything terribly wrong.  The wheels have not fallen off the city; crime is still at historic lows; we still have something that vaguely resembles prosperity.

But that’s hardly a ringing endorsement.

The other major item this year is a referendum to hold a state Constitutional Convention.  The US constitution is short (20 pages, give or take), concise, and to the point.  The New York State constitution runs to about 300 pages, and includes all sorts of things that should properly be in the domain of the state legislature.  As a result, the actual state legislature is reduced to nibbling around the edges, and a legislature with nothing useful to do is truly the devil’s workshop.

One of the provisions of the State Constitution is that, every 20 years, there should be a referendum on whether to hold a Constitutional Convention.  Such a convention could propose amendments which then would go before the voters.

There are many who are opposed to a convention.  Civil servants, for example, don’t want anyone to change the provision that civil service pensions are sacrosanct: they can be increased at will (which the politicians will do when they’re feeling flush), but never decreased. And even if you believe that the State Constitution needs a kick in the pants, the Convention will likely not be much help, as it will be filled with the current political class, with a vested interest in the status quo.

Still, hope springs eternal.  I made the effort and got to the polls in a driving rain.  I voted for Nicole and for a constitutional convention, even though I know they’re both losing propositions.  I got an ‘I voted’ sticker, something that has appeared in NYC voting places in the last few years:
I Voted

I have to wonder what the point of the sticker is: my fascination with stickers started to wane… when I was six.

Running Off at the Mouth

It’s a common occurrence during a political campaign: the candidate says something that’s a little off-message, or represents a contradiction to his past record, and is called out for it.  And the candidate goes mumbly, acknowledges his mistake, and goes forward with his message a little more muted.

Donald Trump is different.  He runs off at the mouth on a regular basis, gets called out for it, and regrets nothing.  And it seems crazy.

But I don’t believe that Trump is approaching the campaign as a politician running for office.  He’s approaching it as something like a business deal, although a little different in the need for public involvement.  To this end:

  • There’s no such thing as bad publicity, as long as they spell your name right. During the primaries, Trump would say this or that and get free press coverage, which accomplished far more than he could through even an aggressive advertising campaign.  He was able to effectively bring his name and his ideas across the country, and present himself as a compelling alternative to the more ordinary sort of Republicans.
  • Manage your counterparty’s expectations. In negotiating a deal, besides resolving the actual terms of a deal to one’s best advantage, the smart negotiator endeavors to manage the counterparty’s expectations, so that the one’s interests are preserved and the deal will be executed smoothly.  In Trump’s case, the terms of the deal are fixed: he’s running for President.  But if he gets mealy-mouthed every time he gets called out, it will hamper his ability to be President if he should be elected.  So he regrets nothing.
  • Be prepared to walk away. In business, there is such a thing as a bad deal.  You negotiate with someone, and for whatever reason, you can’t secure a deal that advances your interests.  When that happens, there is no dishonor in abandoning the effort and walking away.  But a politician running for office is normally overtaken with the desire to win at any cost.  He will almost literally sell his soul and say whatever he believes he needs to say.  While Trump prides himself on being a winner, he isn’t going to change himself into a conventional politician: he doesn’t have the temperament for it.  And he has enough self-respect (some would say ego) not to try.

So I can’t get upset with Trump for running off at the mouth: it’s part of who he is, what he learned from a lifetime in business and not politics.  While I personally think it’s admirable, I expect that not everyone will agree.  Fortunately, there’s a ready remedy: vote for someone else.

Demicans

There are lots of ways to organize a world, and many of them work, at least in the short run:

  • There can be such a thing as a benevolent dictator. But they usually don’t last: they either get corrupted by power, or their successors have other plans.
  • When I traveled to Chile a few years ago, I had the sense of it as a country that had gone through the wrenching transformations we are facing now, and come out the other end. But Chile had been under a military dictatorship for over two decades.
  • Soviet Communism had a pretty good run: for a time, they were our only real rival on the world stage. But Soviet Communism carried the seeds of its own destruction, in their belief in educating—really educating—the populace.  After a couple of generations, people realized that they didn’t want to be Communists any more.

But all of that is beside the point now: our leadership knows the one, the only, and the proper and correct way forward.  They’ve been to college, studied real hard, and unearthed the Awesome Nugget of Eternal Truth.  The news media knows and understands the Awesome Nugget as well, but knowing which side their bread is buttered on, won’t explain it out loud.

And so, whether Democratic or Republican, our leaders subscribe to the same basic tenets:

  • Big government: Since the United States is the world’s most powerful nation, it stands to reason that we should have the most powerful government.
  • Big surveillance: And our big government has its first responsibility to protect us from the evil terrorists.
  • America the global hegemon: And of course, we have the absolute right, if not duty, to throw our weight around the world.  All in the name of freedom, of course, and protecting ourselves from the terrorists.
  • Entitlements forever: It isn’t just that Social Security is the third rail of American politics: contemplating cuts to entitlements would be an admission that we aren’t the nation we used to be.
  • Free trade: The market works most efficiently when it is unconstrained by artificial rules like borders.  So let’s not have any.
  • Open borders: And while we’re having open borders for things, why not people too?  Immigrants do wonderful things for our country: we should be glad to have as many as want to arrive here.  (Having not studied the Awesome Nugget myself, I’m not sure how that’s supposed to work, but I’m sure that’s my own shortcoming.)
  • Fiat money: Money is an abstraction, and deficits don’t matter, if we have a big enough rug under which they can be swept.  Fiscal responsibility is a quaint virtue from another time, like waiting until you get married to move in together.  Tying ourselves to a known scarce commodity (like gold or silver) is a relic of the past, and unnecessarily limits our ability to implement our plans.
  • Too big to fail: Our big government lives in symbiosis with big business.  Just as it would be disastrous if government itself were to fail, it would be almost as bad for a Citibank or a General Motors to fail.   The effects would not be confined to that one firm, and would spread through the economy, to catastrophic effect.  So we won’t let that happen.
  • The Constitution as a dead letter: We can’t say this one out loud: after all, the President’s oath of office still calls for him to ‘preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.’  But the Constitution is really a quaint anachronism, not suitable for a modern superpower.
  • Climate Change: Whether it’s real or not doesn’t matter: without an overarching ‘emergency,’ how else could we advance the rest of our agenda?

Now an individual politician, running for office, might rail against a couple of these points: whatever works to get him elected.  Once in office, however, he will follow the program.

This, then, is the Demican party platform.  You may think of other elements, but I think I’ve covered the basics.

Now, in fact, the two ‘radical’ candidates for President, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, have in fact accepted most of these tenets as gospel.  Each has only really challenged a couple of them.

What makes them dangerous is that, having amassed a following by challenging the Demicans, they might actually follow through if elected.

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.

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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 Vast Two-Winged Conspiracy

I didn’t want to write another Donald Trump piece, but recent events have been too compelling.

Last Friday, a Trump rally in Chicago had to be cancelled because it was overrun with protestors and became a civil disturbance.  Yesterday, the Daily News issued yet another editorial remarking that ‘Trump must be stopped.’

It’s the nature of politics that one is ‘for’ one’s preferred candidate, and ‘against’ the other guy.  But there is a big difference between ‘I’m against X,’ and ‘X must be stopped.’  To say that someone ‘must be stopped’ is to call for some extra-political force to smite one’s opponent.  That isn’t politics: it is, at best, a bar fight.

So now, in addition to the Republican establishment calling for ‘Trump to be stopped,’ we now have left-wing agitators trying to stop Trump, literally.  The convergence is unsettling.  It’s not just a left- or right-wing conspiracy anymore: it’s a two-winged, capable-of-flying-around-on-its-own-power conspiracy.

But I still don’t understand what’s actually evil about Trump.  I can understand why one may not like him, or might want someone else to be President, but that’s not the same as saying Trump is evil.

It seems to be the vogue to compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, or at least to raise the thought before abruptly backing off.  But let’s do the comparison:

Adolf Hitler was a pathetic loser in real life until he discovered politics.  Donald Trump has had his ups and downs, but, on balance, has been a big, big winner.

Hitler targeted the Jews because it was convenient, and advanced his agenda, even though Jewish people had nothing to do with Germany’s troubles at the time.  Trump is identifying the Mexicans and Muslims as our adversaries because they either really are our adversaries, or there is a reasonable association.

In fairness to the Mexicans, the actual movement of individual Mexicans across the southern border has been going on for over a century, and, on the grand scale of things, isn’t a major national security problem.  But that doesn’t mean the border shouldn’t be secured, as more dangerous things and people than impoverished Mexicans can cross a porous border.  And since Mexico would necessarily be on the other side of a fortified border, it’s a reasonable simplification to say that Mexico is the problem.

As far as the Muslims, imagine that the couple alleged to be responsible for last December’s San Bernadino attack were overly pious Christians, taking up assault rifles against people for not going to church every Sunday and for listening to rock music.  The notion of Christians shooting up a workplace in the name of their religion is ludicrous, in part because Christian scripture doesn’t admit such behavior.

But Islamic scripture is different.

Moreover, throughout our history, we have chosen to restrict immigration when we deemed it in the national interest.  We don’t have the moral obligation to bring the refugees of the world to our shores, and, in particular, don’t have the obligation to provide such refugees government help.  When ‘The New Colossus’ (‘…give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…’) was set into the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, we were not a welfare state.  The bargain was that we would let you in, and you would then have the opportunity to work for a living.

In another time, we wouldn’t have to be concerned that an Islamic terrorist might slip through as a refugee.  A century ago, we expected that immigrants would assimilate to American culture.  They could hang on to their cuisine and many of their traditions, but they were expected to drive on the right side of the road and respect our laws and our Constitution.  And if someone wanted to resort to violence, others would try to talk him out of it, and if that failed, report the matter to the authorities.

But individuals have to take part in this process.  Alas, we’ve become afraid to call someone out for fear of offending him, or appearing to be Islamophobic or whatever.  While it is possible to leave this matter to the government, in order to try to protect us, the government will necessarily have to turn into a police state.

Or the government can do the simpler, less intrusive thing, and not admit Muslims as refugees.

Yes, Trump is petulant, and he’s thin-skinned.  But so is our Dear Leader.

Yes, Trump is an elitist.  But so are all the other candidates: he’s just more open about it.

Yes, Trump is a fraud and a liar.  But Trump is unlike the other candidates in that he has had to suffer the consequences of his actions.  He’s been sued and gone bankrupt… and recovered.

No, Trump will not ‘make America great again.’  No President can, single-handedly.

The bottom line: Trump is a rotten candidate for President, just like all the others.  But he isn’t evil.

And if you believe that Trump ‘must be stopped,’ check your premises.  You’ll find something is seriously wrong.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump burst on the political scene last summer, declaring himself a candidate for President and telling us that he would get Mexico to build a fence on our southern border, because:

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.

On one level, it was ludicrous: Mexico (i.e. the Mexican government) doesn’t send anyone to the US, except a handful of diplomatic personnel.  The influx of Mexicans represents ordinary people, both good and bad.  (In fact, net migration from Mexico has almost zeroed out in recent years: the US economy has been so rotten that many Mexicans have found better opportunities at home.)  And it strains the imagination to conceive of the means by which Trump would force Mexico to pay for the wall.

But it resonated with many people, including me, because it seems clear that our current leadership is not serious about securing the border, and one of the essential attributes of a place that wants to call itself a ‘country’ is that it has a functioning border.

And Trump has gone on, since then, gaining popularity to the point where he is the leading contender for the Republican Presidential nomination.  It’s been interesting:

  • There was a minor dustup a few months ago when Trump did not did not rebuke a questioner for asserting that President Obama is a Muslim. In fairness, Trump, as a Republican, is a member of the opposition, and doesn’t have a duty to correct what may be a mistaken impression of our President.  But beyond that, a person’s religion is not just the sort of building he visits to pray, or the day he does it: it’s a set of values in one’s soul.  Our Dear Leader has made any number of speeches extolling Islam and deprecating Christianity: judge for yourself.
  • Shortly after, while we were considering admitting Syrian refugees, Trump proposed that we halt all legal admission of Muslims (even for business or tourism!) to the US. That would be, perhaps, a step too far, but far better than admitting tens or hundreds of thousands of refugees.  Contrary to our Dear Leader’s assertions of ‘who we are as a people,’ historically we have restricted entry to the US, either generally or selectively, when we believed that such was in our national interest.  And we have no moral obligation to take refugees from war-torn areas, even where we are one of the belligerents: war is supposed to be a temporary condition, and peace is supposed to return… eventually.  (Alas, our Dear Leader is taking refugees by executive order, and the Republicans, to their eternal discredit, agreed to fund the effort.)
  • In the earlier debates, Trump and Ted Cruz seemed to be, if not allies, at least sharing common views. But more recently, now that Cruz is doing better in the polls, Trump has questioned whether Cruz, born in Canada to a US citizen mother, is eligible to be President.

It is this last point that seems most telling about Trump.  Underneath it all, there are no principles: he does and says whatever advances his interests at the moment.  Cruz was an ally, until he started doing better in the polls and became a threat, and then he wasn’t.

Trump is also one of the croniest of the crony capitalists, having made much of his money by playing local governments to get tax abatements and the like for his projects.  And some of his remarks as a real estate developer give pause.  He remarked that Fifth Avenue in Midtown should be given over to luxury retail, and stores addressing a more modest audience should be elsewhere.  (Alas, I can’t put my hand on the exact quote.)  Fifth Avenue (a stone’s throw from my office) is successful as a commercial venue because it has something for everyone.  It isn’t Rodeo Drive, and I hope it never will be.  There are parts of Manhattan that are given over to luxury retail.  I don’t go there: they’re boring.

Still, Trump is willing to name the elephant in the room that nobody else will dare discuss, and the policy directions that he has discussed so far are at least pointed in the right direction.  And it is for that reason that he is the candidate that, right now, I dislike the least.

Alas, even if he should be elected, I’m sure that, in short order, he’ll turn into just another politician.

Still, one can at least hope.

Despairing for a President

Let’s start with the Democrats, because I’ve been a registered Democrat all my life, even though I’ve been disgusted with them for at least the last six years.

There’s Hillary Clinton.  I am well and truly Ready for Hillary… to just go away.  Between Benghazi, and running her own personal private e-mail server while Secretary of State, she is now officially a sneak.  I’ve gotten to the point where I simply can’t believe anything she says.

But let’s make the plausible assumption that, if elected, she would follow the same policy directions as the current President.  Would I want four more years of a listless economy, an airheaded foreign policy, and open borders?  No, thank you.

The other official candidate at this point is Bernie Sanders, who is somewhere to the left of Hillary: a fan of more government ‘investment…’ to do what?

Then there are the Republicans.  I’ve been disgusted with the Democrats for the past six years, and while I could change my party registration, what I’ve seen on that side of the fence hasn’t been compelling.

First, there’s Jeb Bush, who has the obvious name factor: is there no other family across our broad land capable of fielding plausible Republican candidates?

But beyond that, he and the newcomers Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio all subscribe to the same basic platform: a more assertive America, meaning going to war against whomever makes us mad,  (And if there’s no obvious enemy, they’ll make one,  Where would W have been without 11 September as a pretext to go to war in Iraq?)  They also stand for ‘immigration reform,’ meaning, at best, another 1980s-style reset, in which the illegal immigrants already here are given a path to legal status, while the icky part of the job–securing the borders and enforcing the law against hiring illegal immigrants–goes quietly by the boards.

In fact, all of the candidates seem to stand for open borders, although some are more vocal about it than others.  Evidently, the Power Beyond wants open borders.  Perhaps they’re worried that we’re in demographic decline because of our low birth rate.  But what’s galling is that we, as real American citizens, don’t seem to matter.

And all of the candidates claim to be ready to fix the economy, when in fact, they can’t.  The economy will improve if and when the private sector returns to real productive activity instead of pluffage.  But while government can encourage productive activity, it can’t force businesses to expand and hire.

Finally, none of the candidates seem to want to do anything about the emerging police state.  One of the things that I realized from the muted overall response to Edward Snowden is that much of our leadership is OK with our government snorfing  up every phone call, e-mail, and blog post.

We became a superpower decades ago because we had the productive economic base to support it.  We didn’t become a superpower because we were ordained by God, or because there was something magical about our land: we earned it.  And if we want to remain a superpower, we have to maintain and expand that base, which we haven’t been doing.  So we need to take a few steps back and either rebuild our economic base (which is more in the hands of private enterprise than something the government can do), or face the reality that without that base, we can no longer be a superpower.

And none of the candidates running for President, nor even any of the not-quite-candidates who are still considering whether to run, seems to get this.

I’m So Glad I Don’t Run a Restaurant

A pizzeria in Indiana was forced to close after its owner told the press that, in effect, they they would serve customers in their restaurant regardless of their religion or sexual orientation, but that if a gay couple wanted them to cater their wedding, they would refuse.

The owners were painted as evil practitioners of discrimination, cousins of Jim Crow.  Yet, at first, their position seems reasonable.

I wrote in these pages, back in 2012, that gay couples should be able to use civil marriage to secure their legal rights with respect to each other.  I was concerned, however, that the effect would be to redefine marriage into something other than what it has been for eons.

To me, refusing to participate in a wedding is not the same as refusing service to a customer.  A wedding is a celebration of a new marriage, and if the participants in the celebration are not in the spirit of the event, even if they’re contractors, then it won’t be the best sendoff for the new couple.  And it isn’t fair to the couple to have some of the participants there by force, especially when one could find another caterer, photographer, etc. who would be in the spirit of the event.

But then again:

  • Doesn’t being a professional mean executing your work with skill and grace, even if you’re not in the spirit?
  • How is telling a potential client ‘you can find another,’ or even, ‘I don’t really do these events, but here’s Mr. X, who will be able to serve you better than I can,’ different when addressing a gay couple as opposed to, say, a black couple?

The Indiana legislature passed a law last week affirming one’s right to one’s religious beliefs:

Sec. 8. (a) Except as provided in subsection (b), a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion, even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability. (b) A governmental entity may substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion only if the governmental entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

Sec. 9. A person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened, by a violation of this chapter may assert the violation or impending violation as a claim or defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding, regardless of whether the state or any other governmental entity is a party to the proceeding. If the relevant governmental entity is not a party to the proceeding, the governmental entity has an unconditional right to intervene in order to respond to the person’s invocation of this chapter.

I’ve read that five times and still can’t figure out what it’s practically useful for.  It seems to say that the government cannot infringe on one’s exercise of religion, except when they feel they have to.  And if one is sued, and uses as one’s defense that the law under which they are being sued infringes on their religion, they’ve invited the government to enter the case, presumably on the other side.

If I run a restaurant, and decide that I don’t want to cater gay weddings, this new law isn’t really helpful.

Nevertheless, the law unleashed a firestorm of opposition, even though there is a very similar Federal law on the books, so that this week, the Indiana legislature passed an update, explicitly declaring that ‘providers’ (i.e. any person or establishment other than an explicitly religious one) may not discriminate on the basis of ‘race, color, religion, ancestry, age, national origin, disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or United States military service,’ and may not use last week’s law (which otherwise remains in effect) as a defense.

I guess the message is: shut up and cater.

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….

“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.

*          *          *

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?

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?

New York’s Next Mayor

This November, we will elect a new Mayor for New York City.  But whom?

In 2008, Mayor Bloomberg got the City Council to change the term limits law, allowing him to run for a third term.  My previous experience with third-term mayors (Ed Koch) is that the third term is when the wheels fall off.  There were two referenda for term limits in the 1990s, and I voted for them both times.

On balance, Bloomberg has been a good mayor.  I’ve bristled at his nanny-state moves, like the effort to ban large sodas, but he had been a good manager and has tried to stand up against he public employee unions.  If there had been a referendum in 2008 to change the term limit laws, I would have voted for it: in the ten years since the previous referenda, term limits haven’t actually changed things very much.

But Bloomberg got the City Council to change the law without a referendum.  (It’s a fair question how long a decision made by referendum should stand, but that’s a subject for another day.)  I thought it was a dirty trick, but in 2009, I voted for him anyway: his opponent was just another Democratic politician, ready to raise taxes, give the store away to the public employee unions, and step back from the policies that have made New York the safest big city in America.

Now it’s 2013, and Mayor Bloomberg is not running for a fourth term.  While the wheels haven’t come off like they did for Ed Koch, it’s still time for a change.  But the field is a disappointment:

  • Most of the Democratic challengers are career politicians who currently hold one office or another, and all seem to promise the same things: more government goodies and higher taxes on the rich to pay for it.  (Unlike Federal taxes, there is very little headroom for raising local taxes, as it’s easy to move somewhere else.)
  • I liked Anthony Weiner in 2009, but he didn’t make it through the Democratic primaries.  After he left Congress in disgrace for Tweeting lewd pictures of himself, the bad jokes practically write themselves.
  • Joe Lhota, the former MTA head, is probably the most promising candidate right now.  But it’s hard to tell what he stands for: I fear that he may be so used to building consensus that he will not be able to make the tough decisions.  His opponents will also be able to paint him as responsible for MTA fare hikes.
  • John Catsimatidis, owner of the Gristedes supermarket chain, is a New York success story: the immigrant kid who made good in the Big Apple.  But as a politician, he comes across as inept.
  • George McDonald is an interesting Republican candidate, but I can’t see how he can get traction.
  • Adolfo Carrion is a lifelong Democrat, but this year is running on the Independence Party ballot line, sidestepping the Democratic primaries and guaranteeing him a spot in the general election.  How that actually recommends him for office, I do not know.

We’ll see….

Tax Breaks for Offshoring?

One of the topics of the Presidential debates, and of discussions on this blog, was tax breaks that companies get for moving their operations overseas.  Are there really such things, such as would encourage businesses to offshore themselves and ditch their US work force?

As far as I can tell, as far as an obvious tax break, no.  There is no US program that will give a business a tax credit for, say, building a factory in Bangladesh.  But there are benefits that come out of the normal functioning of the tax law:

  • US taxes on businesses are based on profits after expenses.  The law generally gives wide discretion to businesses on what is considered an appropriate business expense.  Under current law, the expenses incurred in moving one’s operations overseas fall into that category.  They’re legitimate businesses expenses and may be deducted from revenue when calculating taxable profit.
  • When a US business earns revenue overseas, the resulting profit should be taxable in the US, with an offset for whatever foreign taxes were paid.  What actually happens is that, as long as the revenue and profits remain outside the US, the Federal government has no cognizance of them, and they remain exempt from US tax.  Apple, for example, has billions of dollars overseas that it will not bring back to the US because it would be immediately taxed.

This latter opens up its own cans of worms:

  • When a multinational business operates in the US, it may be able to rearrange its finances to that the profits from its US operations appear to have been earned elsewhere.
  • If the money is ‘out there in the world’ and not subject to US tax, there are a galaxy of international tax-avoidance schemes by which it can be further hidden away.

I’m not sure what can be done to address these items.  You could say that the expenses of moving one’s business abroad are not deductible.  Indeed, President Obama proposed such a law, but it was defeated in the Senate.  But how does the government distinguish between moving one’s business and expanding it?  Alternately, rather than relocating its operations abroad, it could simply close its operations in the US and contract out to a foreign firm.  (There are no Apple factories in China: Apple products are made by Chinese firms like Foxconn.)

I have even less clue as to what to do about the second issue.  No politician could survive the wrath of Big Business for trying to collect taxes from US firms on foreign operations.  And again, the businesses could rearrange themselves to maintain the exemption.

The only thing the US could do is to reduce taxes and hope that business stops playing tax games, figuring that it’s cheaper to simply pay up.

Yeah, right.  It’s hard to be cheaper than zero.

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.

*          *          *

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.

Three Democratic Untruths

A while back, I had written about ‘Three Republican Untruths.’  I’ve been overtaken by other events, but Election Day is next Tuesday, so if I’m going to present the other side, now’s the time.  Here goes:

Government spending is not the problem, it’s the solution: The Federal government has run deficits in excess of one trillion dollars in every year of the Obama administration.  Of every three dollars spent by the government, one is borrowed.  And yet, unemployment remains high, and the overall economy remains sluggish.

Some say that the answer is more stimulus: Keynesian theory says so.  But Keynes also noted that government spending to generate demand should vary with the state of the economy: when there’s plenty of demand elsewhere, the government should reduce its own spending to maintain balance.  We haven’t done that, and now we find that government stimulus doesn’t really stimulate very much anymore.

And yes, we could simply will more money into existence: it’s a little more complicated than that, with the Federal Reserve, but that’s already happening.  The problem is that doing so inflates and debases the currency.  For now, inflation has been mostly contained, but that’s unlikely to last forever.

Related to this is Social Security.  President Bush was attacked in 2005 for suggesting that Social Security should be privatized.  I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good idea, but the basic problem of any pension plan is how to invest the money collected today in order to pay future beneficiaries.  Until now, the money collected from Social Security tax was nominally invested in Treasury bonds.  In other words, it got lent to the rest of the government, which spent it.  We’re now learning the hard way how that worked out.

Health care reform is a singular achievement:  I’ve written about this before.  Many of the provisions of health care reform are already the law in New York State, and the result is that health insurance is fantastically expensive.  For most people, it will have to be subsidized.  Health care reform mobilizes trillions of dollars of public and private funds to pay for health care, with very little to actually limit costs.  (Or is that where the death panels come in?)

The world would be at peace if it weren’t for us:  Yes, the US has gone to war for really stupid reasons at various times in our history.  But, on balance, we’ve been more of a force for good than for evil.  And there are still enemies out there.  Romney was right when he referred to Russia as our greatest geopolitical adversary: it’s an authoritarian state with visions of its former grandeur, with the resources and the will to make good on its dreams.  It’s OK, as Obama had suggested in 2008, to seek to open up dialogue with our adversaries.  But it’s also very possible that our adversaries don’t want to talk to us.

Throwing the Race

I have a theory: half of the eight completed Presidential races since I became old enough to vote (1980 through 2008) weren’t really races at all.  For those elections, the incumbent party was so strong that the other party merely went through the motions of nominating a candidate, knowing all along it was an exercise in futility, and the other guy would win:

  • In 1984, the economy was starting to take off under Reagan, even as it was being hollowed out from within, and people were feeling good.  The Democrats nominated Walter Mondale, Carter’s Vice-President, and pushed for higher taxes as a practical necessity, and the Republicans never let them hear the end of it.  I voted for Reagan that year, and lied to my mother about it.
  • In 1988: we were still feeling good about Reagan, and the elder Bush, whom I had admired in 1980, changed his tune and said that he would continue the Reagan policies.  From my perspective, they seemed to be working, and I couldn’t see the Democratic approach as an improvement.  I had just moved to Pittsburgh, and didn’t get to register in time, so I sat that election out.
  • In 1996: President Clinton had learned to get along with the Republican Congress.  He had ‘triangulated’ to the right, and the results were encouraging.  The Republicans nominated Bob Dole, who was a lackluster candidate, and too old.  I voted for Clinton.
  • In 2004: President Bush was running as a ‘war President’ who shouldn’t be replaced in the ‘heat of battle.’  In a nutshell, his platform was, ‘I will keep you safe.’  John Kerry’s platform, in a nutshell, was ‘I am not George Bush.’  I remember Kerry’s speech at the Democratic convention, accepting the nomination:  it was singularly uninspiring, as if he were relying on the fact that he was not George Bush.  Many people didn’t like Bush, including me.  But that wasn’t enough for most of the electorate.

One might argue that the 2008 election was similar, with the roles reversed: this time the incumbent party was weak, so they ran an old man, and nominated a woman as their Vice-Presidential candidate.  (Someday, perhaps within my lifetime, there will be a serious female candidate for Vice-President or President.  Hillary Clinton would be a plausible choice.  But Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin were not serious candidates: they were there to try to get the women’s vote and generate attention.)

The 2012 Presidential race seems to be shaping up the same way, even though this time the incumbent President and his party are not strong.  I’m bitterly disappointed, not only by President Obama’s policy directions, but by his complete lack of actual leadership.  From what I can tell, I’m not alone.  Yet, in Mitt Romney, the Republicans have run a weak candidate, the croniest of crony capitalists.  People don’t like him, and Obama, for all his uselessness, is trending ahead in the polls.

You would have thought that, for all the opposition to health care reform, government by executive fiat, and other Obama excesses, the Republicans would have chosen a candidate who could stand up to Obama and let him have it (metaphorically of course) with both barrels.  But that didn’t happen.

Perhaps the conspiracy theorists are right: there is an invisible committee of Powers that Be somewhere that actually decides who our next President will be, and the whole business of political parties and candidates and polls and elections is merely theater to amuse and distract the public.

OK, then: how do we get a real President, who will actually lead, and bring us to face our problems, even though facing them will probably be painful in the short term?

‘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.

Sarah Palin Had Better Legs

My television is still sitting on the floor where the movers left it last March, so I doubt that I will be watching either convention.

It’s a strange election year for the Republicans, at least from my perspective.  The Republicans have nominated a ticket that reminds me of my history teacher, who modeled underwear for the Sears catalog, and the guy who ran the AV club. 

We never really do leave high school. 

From the Mailbox

Disney Insider

‘Like a pro:’  you mean that I have to get a job there?

When I go on vacation, I want to rest.  And one of the things that I most need to rest from is the necessity of planning my activities. Making ‘a game plan to cover more ground’ sounds suspiciously like work.

Is part of our problem that we’ve turned work into play and play into work?

The item on the right is also interesting.  I had to clip it to fit on this page, but the text of the message is as follows:

My four children and I are huge Disney fans and travel to Orlando at least twice a year to get our Disney “fix.” For each of my children’s sixteenth birthdays, I take them to a destination of their choice for some special one-on-one time with Mom. They can choose anywhere in the world….

I have to wonder:

  • Where is Dad in this?  I suppose he has to stay at home and work to pay for the twice-a-year trips: Disney World is not cheap. 
  • Is he OK that his wife and children are addicts who need a ‘fix’?
  • If my mother had suggested, when I was turning 16, that I go on a vacation with her ‘for some special one-on-one time with Mom,’  I would have been seriously creeped out.  What sort of family is this?  (Or are all her children girls?)

Also from the mailbox:

Campaign in Pennsylvania

So they want people from New York to campaign, not in New York, but in Pennsylvania.  Apparently it’s a foregone conclusion that New York will vote for Obama.

I already know that I’ll be out of town on Election Day, and will have to request an absentee ballot in order to vote.  I don’t like either of the candidates, but I find Romney slightly less horrid.  I’d make the effort to vote for him if I were in town.  But given the circumstances, is it worth the bother?

Letter from Spain

I’ve been on vacation with my wife the past week in Spain.  Today we’re in Madrid, and I wanted to see Picasso’s Guernica in the Reina Sofia museum.  So we went.

The town of Guernica was bombed in 1937 by the Germans and the Italians during the Spanish Civil War at the behest of Franco, who eventually won, and ruled Spain as a dictator for almost 40 years.  Picasso had been commissioned by the Spanish Republican government to paint a mural for the Paris International Exhibition, and decided to paint a mural about war and destruction.  I won’t try to write about the experience of seeing the painting, other than to note that it is a moving experience.  The best that I can do is to provide a small reproduction of it here.  The original is approximately 11′ x 25′, and is actually painted in black and white, with very little discernible color.

Guernica by Picasso

The display of Guernica in the museum was complemented by other artworks from the time, as well as propaganda posters from both sides in the Spanish Civil War.

The icky part, and the reason I’m writing about it, is that some of the factors that led to the Spanish Civil War are very much with us in the United States.

In contrast to the American Civil War, where the two sides were split geographically (North vs. South), the Spanish Civil War pitted the Republican civil government against the Nationalists: an array of clergy, businessmen, and others who thought the Republic wasn’t doing a good job.  But instead of mere partisan debate, the Nationalists found supporters in Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.  When part of the Spanish armed forces followed the Nationalists instead of their own civilian government, the war began.  We talk about ‘class warfare’ as a particular flavor of political debate, but this time, class warfare was real warfare, with no neat geographical divisions between the two sides.

Today, we have  the ‘conservatives’ who believe that our current leadership is not true to our ideals, and will bring about a socialist tyranny.  Some people imagine a governmental collapse, with fighting in the streets and looting and chaos.  Another vision is the overarching police surveillance state.  It’s true that the principle embodied in the Posse Comitatus law, which prevents the military from engaging in civilian law enforcement, has faded in recent years.

On the other side, there are the ‘liberals’ who support our current national leadership, who look around and don’t see anything that can’t be fixed with a few trillion worth of deficit spending.

One big difference is that the outsiders, who believe that our government is on the wrong path, do not have supporters like the Spanish Nationalists did, who could provide military support.

Still:

Our government cannot fix the economy, and this is true regardless of which party is in power.  The best they can do is create an environment in which the economy will fix itself, but I doubt they can even do that.

If things get worse, our government will have a challenge meeting the first obligation of every functioning government: maintaining civil order.

And then, our ‘elected, constitutional government’ will do the only thing governments know how to do in such circumstances: drop the hammer on us.

The wedge issues

We are approaching the election and here come the “issues”. No, not the real ones, like the economy, the wars, healthcare, etc. Instead we see the issues like abortion, gun control, gay marriage and various other social issues. These are wedge issues intended to make people forget the real problems.

Abortion is probably the most dominant. It became legal in 1973 and since then every presidential election has been all about this. In that time we have had four Republican administrations (Ford, Reagan and the two Bushes)and three of them ran as pro life candidates (Ford did not and admitted he was not opposed to abortion). Interestingly the Republican first ladies have all stated they were pro choice. Here’s the thing though, none of the Republican candidates really cared enough about the issue, just pandering to the religious right. Here’s the reality though, a president can’t overturn it, it would have to go to the Supreme Court and then it would become a state issue. In the blue states it would likely stay legal and the red it would depend. Most people support abortion rights according to various sources. In fact it is interesting to note that Reagan and Bush 1 both appointed Supreme Court Justices who upheld Roe. I consider myself prochoice though I would likely not have an abortion myself unless I was raped or my health. I also don’t think Romney is obsessed with abortion. Yet I am seeing on this religious site people only voting for Romney because “he’s prolife”. Really? then why did he say he was prochoice to run for governor? Because he’s pandering to the religious wackos who have overtaken the Republicans.

Gay marriage and gun control are both wedge issues to rile people. I don’t know the stats but I’m willing to bet most people don’t care if gays are allowed to marry. I certainly don’t, and in fact figure they can’t ruin marriage anymore than straight people. With gun control I support the rights to have guns, but also have no issue with the Brady Bill, because there are many people who shouldn’t own guns due to mental issues or violent behavior.

It all boils down to this: both parties are playing a game with people. The Republicans know if they outlaw Roe V Wade they will lose most women and will never be elected. The Democrats know if they outlaw guns they will lose the rural conservative Democrats. Ironically my representative is a prolife, NRA endorsed, union endorsed Democrat woman. How weird is that? She would never get elected in Cook County. Meanwhile we have several Republicans in office who support gun control, gay rights, and abortion. See, this is why you can’t always look at these issues, look at what they bring to the table.

The missing congressman

There is a soap opera happening in my neck of the woods and it has to do with the guy who will be my congressman. I say will be because this idiot changed the district so this could happen.

Let me explain this better. I grew up in the 2nd Congressional District in Illinois which handles the south side of Chicago. The most recent congressman was Jesse Jackson Jr after the last congressman (Mel Reynolds)went to prison on a teen sex scandal. One thing most people know about Jr (as he is called) is that he’s the son of Jesse Jackson Sr. However, like him he has the same issue shall we say that his father does (which he shares with Clinton if you get my drift). Years ago I met him and I truly liked him. I don’t agree with all of his policies but liked how he wanted to help the needy. However, as I’ve gotten older and more conservative I realized that by helping the poor that meant me paying more in taxes. Anyway, I ended up moving from the area to another county and about a half hour south.

I then moved into a conservative area. I still see confederate flags and there are many racist people here. Imagine Mayberry with more overt racism. This area is very heavily conservative. It is also very rural with many family farms and at the heart of the area is where Jesse Jackson Jr wants to build an airport. However the district was out of his reach so Jackson convinced the governor and the Illinois politicians to redraw districts so the airport would just happen to fall into his hands. Meanwhile the congressman who used to be in charge of this district (tea party favorite) ran for election about 2 hours away.

I should also mention that I lost my previous job due to a crony of his so let’s say my dislike of him grows stronger. But this leads to today. There is strong suspicion he is about to be indicted on corruption charges involving trying to buy then Senator Obama’s seat. Governor Blagojevich is now serving a prison sentence in Colorado and likely will for years. Jesse Jackson Jr is now in hiding and noone knows where he is.

Then people wonder why I have become critical of the Democrats in Illinois. They are dirty, and more dirty than the Republicans because they are the ones in control here. I have been chatting with the Republican running against Jackson and though I don’t agree with him on many issues (I think he’s a conservative prolife Republican)he seems like a decent guy so I will be voting for him. Unfortunately he probably won’t win but anyone is better than Jackson.

Libertarianism

Recently people have been asking me about my political views and I tell them depending on the issue I lean either right or left. Generally speaking on fiscal matter I lean right and social I lean left. Years ago I told a few people I am pretty much a Libertarian and as time goes by I believe so myself. However I do not agree with all of their views, but on their website they have a “are you a Libertarian and it said I was a left leaning one”.

Here’s their official views. http://www.lp.org/platform

Their statement: ”

“We hold that all individuals have the right to exercise sole dominion over their own lives, and have the right to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.”

 

I agree and feel we should have free right.

 

Their platform issues are a mixed bag for me because I do for the most part agree with personal freedom and almost everything they say except am a little mixed on guns. Oh I support gun rights, but do not feel everyone should be allowed a gun, like criminals. The economic ones I am mixed on because I do not support free trade aka outsourcing. I think outsourcing has destroyed this country. I do feel though that we need to make it easier to start a business in this country. I would cut taxes on companies that keep jobs here and charge higher taxes to outsource. I feel taxes need to be cut and services as well because we are paying so many taxes for things I oppose, like lifetime welfare.

 

Here’s the fact though and that is I despise Romney with a passion. On the other hand Obama has let me down, and I suspect he will raise taxes to pay for programs I oppose like welfare for illegals. If we could find a candidate who will cut taxes without having to depend on the religious right, or the unions I would support that person wholeheartedly. If we could find a candidate who would make it easier to start a business in this country without all the restrictions we have (and trust me there are a lot, because I am doing this)they would get my vote. If they would keep abortion legal but not require people to pay I would support that (I support abortion but do not feel taxpayers should pay only because some oppose it). If they would cut services to wasteful programs, and in effect lower taxes I’d vote for them. If they would get the military out of other countries, stop forcing the US to be gatekeepers for the world and stop giving financial assistance to all these countries I’d support that person wholeheartedly.

 

I can dream, can’t I?

Social Security

Many years ago, before I entered the workforce, I understood that Social Security is not a retirement program.  It is a tax, whose proceeds are used to pay retirement and other benefits.  The difference is subtle but important.

In a real retirement plan, the money collected from you and/or your employer is invested over time.  In a defined-benefit plan, there is a commitment to pay you in the future at a specified rate.  In a defined-contribution retirement plan, the money is held in your name and invested.  But in either case, the money is invested in a productive enterprise, so that it will grow, and the amount paid in at the beginning is driven by the amount to be collected at the end.

Under Social Security, the money that you and your employer pay is lent to the rest of the government and spent.  The money that you ultimately receive in benefits is paid by current workers.  The vaunted ‘trust fund’ is an accounting fiction.  And the politicians who vote for new goodies can just as easily vote to take them away.

I didn’t know about defined-benefit and defined-contribution plans in 1979, when I was finishing high school.  But the rest of it, I knew back then.

And it wasn’t a deep dark secret: I read about it in books from the library and bookstores.

The government wants us to believe that Social Security is a pension plan.  They even send out statements every year with the benefits that we might receive, if the politicians don’t change their minds.  But it isn’t so.

Now, I’m roughly halfway through my working life.  With the recent discussions over the Social Security tax, it’s really clear that it’s fake.  (The employee share of Social Security tax was cut by a third a couple of years ago, as a temporary measure.  The cut was continued after raucous debate, as it was the only tax cut that reached the majority of ordinary Americans.  A real pension plan, driven by the need to pay people in the future, would never do that.)

Yet people still believe that Social Security represents a commitment for their retirement.

Now that I’m halfway through my working life, I would have liked to believe that Social Security would be there for me.

But now I’m sure that I will ultimately retire in a coffin.

Gay Marriage

This week, President Obama, our Non-Leader, came off the fence and indicated that he was in favor of marriage between two people of the same gender.

On one level, it seems eminently reasonable.  Civil marriage gives a couple a passel of legal rights with respect to each other: inheritance, joint tax returns, access to medical data, etc.  If two men or two women are in a committed relationship, and want to avail themselves of these rights, they should be able to.

But outside of the legal definition, and the couple themselves, is such a couple really married?

Marriage has existed for eons as a basis for family and children.  It’s true that not every married couple has children, but if you have a man and a woman who presumably like each other’s company sleeping together, you have to at least admit the possibility.

Today, heterosexual marriage is not the ‘basis’ that it used to be: some 40% of the births in the United States are to unmarried women.   Admitting marriage between two men or two women would further erode the status of marriage as a benchmark for families.

And this is what many people worry about: not so much the rights of gay couples, but the impact of redefining ‘marriage’ so that it is no longer exclusively heterosexual.

Unfortunately, railing against it won’t help.  The societal forces that led us to consider gay marriage won’t go away if we pretend they don’t exist.  The Rick Santorum solution–if we legislate the morality of the 1950s, we’ll all be happy and prosperous again–won’t work.

While I acknowledge that gay marriage is an idea whose time has come, I don’t have to like it.

Lame Democrats

My parents were lifelong Democrats, and I’ve always been a registered Democrat.  While I’ve been bitterly disappointed with the party of late, and considered the alternative, I can’t bring myself to change to the other side.

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from the Democrats, offering me a bumper sticker:

Not a Republican

Is the Democratic party totally incapable of identifying one positive characteristic about the party, its platform, or its candidate that people would want to post for the world?

In 2004, Bush’s campaign promise, in a nutshell, was ‘I will keep you safe.’   Kerry’s was, ‘I am not Bush.’  Kerry lost.

The Democrats will have to do better, or else they’re toast.

But Will It Help?

Last week, I was having a chat with a conservative friend.  He was my boss, years ago, and since retired.

“The conservatives say that one of the reasons we’re not doing so well is excessive government regulation,” I said.  “Supposedly, if we ditch all these rules, we’ll unleash growth and create jobs.”

“Right.”

“But there are vast enterprises, with billions of dollars and tens of thousands of workers, associated with these regulations.  Not just the government bureaucrats, but private-sector consultants and others, all associated with the maintenance of and compliance with these regulations.  What happens to them?”

“That’s not my concern.  They’ll just have to find work for themselves in the new environment.  Did you expect the government to help them?”

No, I really didn’t expect the government to help them.  In fact, however onerous and pointless they may seem, most government regulations have a political constituency behind them, which will make them hard to get rid of.

But as much as I’d like to believe otherwise, it seems more likely that cutting government regulations will destroy more jobs than it creates.

Oh, bother.

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?

ACTA: How Evil Is It?

In recent weeks, Congress has at least temporarily dropped efforts at preparing a law to address intellectual property (IP) and trade piracy: the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) have been dropped in response to widespread online protests.

That isn’t to say that IP piracy isn’t a  serious problem: it is.  But SOPA and PIPA were the wrong way of dealing with it.  Essentially they gave the government the power to subvert the normal operation of the Internet by making Web sites unavailable, to require Internet service providers (ISPs) to support such efforts, and the ability to do so without due process.

Now we find out that, a few months ago, the President signed the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), that supposedly requires all these things.  It requires ISPs to be the copyright police, interferes with efforts to import generic drugs, and all other manner of evil.

Well, maybe.

I’ve read the actual ACTA, as it was agreed to by various countries of the world, twice.  (It’s not terribly long: about 30 pages.)  I didn’t find any reference to ISPs having to be the police, or of any of the other evils that I had read about.  All it says is that member countries shall have laws in place to deal with trade and IP piracy.  The requirements for these laws are eerily similar to current US law.

Earlier versions had more troublesome requirements, but they didn’t make it into the final version.  Our leadership may go and enact more Draconian restrictions, but they could do that anyway.

So, yes, Internet freedom is under attack, as a long-term trend.  SOPA and PIPA may return in some form later this year, and there may be future versions of ACTA that will require ISPs to function as police.

But the current ACTA, not so much.

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.

Opportunity and Responsibility

Before 2000, when politics were less polarized, I used to observe that given two candidates, one Republican and one Democrat, who were about evenly matched on the issues, I would vote for the Democrat.  I noted that while the Republican was a little closer to my views on the principles, the Democrat seemed more like the person I’d prefer to see in office: a little more humble, a little more trustworthy.

Some time after 2001 I read the thought somewhere that Republicans view power primarily as an opportunity, while Democrats see it more as a responsibility.

In our current debt-ceiling brouhaha, the Republicans like to point out that now-President Obama voted against a debt-ceiling increase while a Senator during the Bush administration.  But the Democrats relented then, at least partially because they saw maintaining a functioning government as part of their responsibility, even if a President they didn’t agree with was spending too much.

Since I last wrote, not much has changed in the current debt-ceiling drama, except that both sides have hardened their positions, and our President has gone out on a limb and suggested raising the retirement age for Social Security and making other entitlement tweaks.  But he isn’t supported by Democratic Congressional leadership, while the Republicans absolutely insist that there be no new taxes, because that kills jobs.

(There is a cogent rebuttal to that: the economy has become fractured, which portions doing really well, and most of us having trouble.  In that case, it is reasonable for the government to seek to fund itself by taxing the part doing really well more heavily.  Note that we’re not doing this to set up new programs, but to keep the promises we’ve already made.)

Some radicals on the right have suggested that we should ‘starve the beast’ and relentlessly cut taxes until government can no longer function.  The Republicans have the opportunity to do that now.  They can remake government in their own image, if they can just tough it out for…

16 days.

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?

Atlas Shrugged Movie

When I was in my early twenties, one of my aunts recommended the Ayn Rand novel Atlas Shrugged to me.  It illuminated my life: it clarified my place in the world, and the power of one’s mind and of productive energy.

On 15 April. a movie version of the first part of the novel was released.  I finally got around to seeing it today.  It’s a little strange: it’s playing at a regular theatre, not an art house, but there is very little publicity about it: no newspaper ads, no TV commercials, not even a poster in the lobby.  In fact, if I hadn’t been for some random Web surfing a couple of weeks ago, I would have missed it.

It’s not spectacular: the production is clearly constrained by its budget, and in the interest of not making it too ‘talky,’ some of the wit in the original dialogues was dropped.  But it’s a good telling of the story, with solid performances.  I went today with my son, and will take my wife to see it next weekend, if it’s still open.

The popular perception of the movie is heavily politicized, but both sides are wrong.  Liberals see Ayn Rand as vaguely evil, with her warnings against altruism.  But it’s not that she didn’t believe in charity: it’s that she didn’t believe that it was the government’s job to subsidize people out of poverty.  And conservatives praise her as an apostle of free-market economics, which is true, but she was a champion of free enterprise without government help, which is very different from what passes for capitalism today.

In any case, it’s a good picture.  I enjoyed it, and look forward to Part II.

A Seductive Truth

In my recent readings, I’ve come across something that seems extraordinary in our time, but really wasn’t.

For most of our history, we didn’t worry about Federal budget deficits.  The government went into debt at its inception, for the Civil War, and for World War I.  In between those events, the government ran a surplus, and paid down its debt.  It was only when we started trying to use deficit spending to get us out of the Depression that we got into trouble.

The Founding Fathers regarded public debt as dangerous, and for about 150 years, we believed them.  To be sure, it wasn’t always smooth sailing.  There was boom and bust, but generally we recovered more quickly from the busts than the present situation.  And taxes went up and down, depending on the vision of the party in power.  But the idea that the national debt was something to ultimately pay off was accepted by just about everyone.

In 2000, when we had been running a surplus for a couple of years, Bush, the candidate, said that the surplus belonged to the American people, and he would give it back through tax cuts.  And, indeed, once elected, he did just that.  The surplus was not meant for us to rebuild, and prepare for the next crisis: it was a big fat cookie jar waiting to be raided.  So much for the dangers of public debt.

So why can’t we return to our roots?

Because trying to pay back our debts would mean both higher taxes and lower spending, and both of these are politically unacceptable.

It was a charming thought, though….

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….

Inconvenient Truths

As I read from both the right and the left side in our current economic troubles, it strikes me that each side has inconvenient truths that it ignores.

The left likes to say that we spend too much on defense, and the world will be a better place when schools have all they need and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber.  But that’s not quite true: in the 2010 Federal budget, 18.74% of expenditures went for defense, while over 56% went for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment, and welfare.  And our leadership is contemplating drastic defense cuts to help address the deficit: the bomber bake sale is not far off.

The right believes that tax cuts are the answer to everything, as they will unleash a flood of productive activity.  But the best returns on investment do not come from productive activity in this country.  They come from productive activity elsewhere, and trading in third-hand, second-rate mortgages.

Both sides believe that a little deficit spending is a good idea to help spark a stalled economy.   But Keynesian stimulus, as we’re finding out the hard way, only works when applied intermittently.  If you indulge in deficit spending all the time, it loses its impact.