Category Archives: Presidential election

Voting… Somehow

I’ve come to believe that voting ought to be a little bit difficult.

Voting shouldn’t be an ordeal or an all-day project, but for me, voting has always meant taking time on Election Day itself to go somewhere off the beaten path, wait in line, possibly as much as an hour, and vote.  In my work, some of the controls of the machinery are designed to be purposefully difficult to operate because they would be dangerous if used without specific intent.  To me, voting is a similar endeavor: it’s serious, and not to be done lightly.

New York mailed absentee ballot applications a few weeks before this year’s primaries, with helpful instructions: you couldn’t simply vote absentee because you were afraid of Covid, but if you wrote it up as a ‘health issue’ you were good to go.  In the spring, I had not yet returned to the office, but I had been going out for a walk every day, joining my wife for grocery shopping, and heading out to job sites: a trip to the polls didn’t seem particularly frightening.

I ultimately didn’t vote.  Biden had already won the Democratic Presidential nomination, and none of the candidates in the other races were different enough from their opponents to make a vote worthwhile.  Not making a decision is, itself, a decision.

New York took a reasonable approach in sending out absentee ballot applications before the election, and giving voters an alternative to voting in person.  It represented a minor change from established law and procedure, but was appropriate under the circumstances.  However, while the Presidential race was effectively already decided by the time New York held its election, some of the other races were undecided for weeks until all the absentee ballots could be counted or their disposition resolved.

Now that we know what happened, would this be the right thing for the general election?

In one respect, it may not matter: New York is a thoroughly blue state and will go for Biden no matter what.  But the New York experience suggests that mandating national vote-by-mail, as the Democrats are proposing, is a spectacularly bad idea.

  • First, it’s an unwarranted intrusion by the Federal government on a function that is the responsibility of state and local governments.  It’s the responsibility of the states, with their knowledge of local conditions, to decide the best method for their citizens to vote.
  • Contrary to the insistence of the news media, vote-by-mail fraud does happen: in fact, the results of a local election in New Jersey were thrown out by the courts just last week.  The potential for election fraud with mail voting has historically been recognized by both parties, until the Democrats decided a couple of years ago that such a thing just didn’t happen.  For my part, it appears the Democrats are more interested in grabbing power than in good governance: I wouldn’t put it past them to try to finagle the election.
  • But the real problem with a vast shift to mail-in voting is human error and the Postal Service.  When you vote in person, the election staffer is checking the paperwork and walking you through a process so simple as to be essentially foolproof.  If you make an innocent mistake with your mail-in ballot, like forgetting to sign the accompanying paperwork, you’ve lost your vote.  (Some places will give you the opportunity to rectify such errors, but that takes time.)  And even in the best of circumstances, lost or delayed mail, or mail without postmarks, could result in more people losing their votes than the margin of a close race.  The Postal Service is an imperfect organization, and even throwing $25 billion at it, two and a half months before the general election, isn’t likely to help.

At this point, alas, all I can do is hope for the best, and hope and pray for a calm and fair election.  If the election goes badly—no matter who wins—it will be a worse emergency than Covid.

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.

Russian Hacking?

“CIA believes Russia helped Donald Trump win the White House,” read the headline in the Daily News back in December.  How did they accomplish this extraordinary feat? I wondered.  Hacked voting machines in Pennsylvania?  Mass hypnosis in Oklahoma?  Itching powder in Hillary’s bedroom?

Alas, nothing quite so dramatic:

Officials briefed on the matter told the Washington Post the assessment found that several individuals with close ties to Moscow provided anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks with thousands of hacked emails in order to boost Trump and harm Hillary Clinton’s chances.

OK, they may have a point.  We don’t know how WikiLeaks gets the documents that it publishes, and, although WikiLeaks denies it, it’s entirely possible that the trove of e-mails published in the runup to the elections came from Russia.

But in that case, whose fault is it?  The Russians, for pursuing their national interests, or Hillary, for maintaining a private e-mail server that was eminently hackable?  And the Democratic party, for not doing proper IT security?

It’s particularly interesting that nobody has suggested that the WikiLeaks e-mails are bogus.  WikiLeaks had to be stopped—so said our President—not because they were fanciful storytellers, but because their documents were real.

So the Russians influenced our election… by making available information that the government would rather we didn’t know?  Given that the information was acquired as a consequence of the carelessness and hubris of our leadership, how is this a bad thing?  Sorry, guys: the exclusionary rule (that information gained in violation of Fourth Amendment rules cannot be used in a criminal trial) doesn’t apply.  Hillary Clinton is not on criminal trial.  (Or does someone imagine that she is?)

For the moment, let’s grant the report as written.  It’s entirely plausible that (a) Russia forwarded hacked e-mails to WikiLeaks, and (b) did so to favor Trump in the election.  But does that mean that (c) in the absence of such action, Hillary would have won?

I doubt it.

In the weeks before the election, WikiLeaks e-mail reports made the rounds of the alternative media, but didn’t get very much play in the mainstream media.  As far as Hillary herself, the e-mails didn’t really deliver any new revelations as much as confirmation of what we had already surmised.  It’s a preposterous stretch to go from ‘Russians delivered hacked e-mails to WikiLeaks’ to believing that ‘Trump won the election thanks to Russian hacking.’

In the following week, we learned:

  • The President knew about ‘Russian hacking’ several weeks before the election, but our leadership claimed that they didn’t act because they didn’t want to appear to be favoring Hillary. But there were rumblings in the news at the time, and if the President wanted to do something, prudence would dictate that he would have to do so quietly, without calling a press conference.
  • The Republicans suffered hacking attempts from the same actors, at about the same time. But the GOP is apparently better at IT security, and the hacking attempts were not successful.

I had expected this issue to go away after Trump was confirmed in the Electoral College vote on 19 December.  But it’s still with us, and today Congress will vote to ratify the Electoral College results and confirm Trump as President-elect.

Our current leadership has been briefed on this issue, and seems to believe it, even though no specifics have come out in the press.  (I guess all the specifics are deep dark secrets.)  Trump is scheduled to be briefed today, and even though he’s given to running off at the mouth on Twitter, I don’t expect that to happen this time.

We shall see….

Reaping the Whirlwind

Madam President

Shortly before the election, Newsweek went to press with an issue commemorating Hillary Clinton’s victory.  They made a business decision and took a calculated risk, and they lost.  But some of the inside front cover copy caught my attention:

…But as the tone of the election went darker and more bizarre by the day, President-Elect Hillary Clinton “went high” when her opponent and his supporters went ever lower….

Well, maybe.  Much of Hillary Clinton’s campaigning was built around the notion that she is not Donald Trump.  But, in any event, she didn’t have to run a negative campaign.  The media ran it for her.

It’s normal in politics to favor one candidate over another, and it’s normal (and appropriate) to point out a candidate’s shortcomings.  Ultimately, the voters assess the good and the bad about the candidates, and make their decision.

Donald Trump has made many insensitive remarks, some of them borderline racist.   But there is a big difference between making a racist remark and being an actual racist.  We all know people who are given to running off at the mouth and saying stupid things, but we know that they don’t mean anything by it.  (Alternately, there are some who would say that racism is America’s original sin and that we’re all racists.  But even then, there is a big difference between a mere sinner and a Ku Klux Klansman.)

The media seemed to overlook this essential difference.  Perhaps it’s that in the modern world, no story is worth telling if it can’t be told in five seconds.  Perhaps it helped to sell newspapers.

And Trump refused to play the game.  He could have walked back his statements and gotten all mumbly, and shown himself to be Just Another Useless Politician.

The media came to tell us that Trump is not just a man who runs off at the mouth, he’s a racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic bigot.

It’s normal in politics for a candidate to call his opponent nasty names.  But among politicians, there are limits: after all, you might need a favor from your opponent, or his party, in the future.  This is the first time I’ve seen the news media vilify a candidate on their own power.

In fairness, there have been radio announcers and other public figures who lost their jobs over making insensitive remarks.  It’s totally OK, when assessing candidates for office, to make a similar judgement and hold a candidate’s remarks against him.  It’s OK for a newspaper to run an editorial endorsing whatever candidate the newspaper prefers, under whatever criteria they care to use.  What isn’t OK is for a newspaper or TV network to let their editorial viewpoints color their non-editorial reporting of events.

Perhaps it makes for exciting television.  But it can backfire, not just for the news media, but for the rest of us: what happens if the ‘evil’ candidate wins?

*          *          *

In other news, South Korea has been overtaken by political protests: people are very angry at their President, who is resisting calls to resign.  It seems that Madam President in Seoul, among other things, has been sharing government secrets with a female personal advisor who has no security clearance.

And we’ve hardly heard a peep about it in the US.  I wonder why….

Popping the Bubble

Fire Hydrant

Perhaps.  But you could say the same thing about Hillary Clinton.

Last night, I was watching election returns in a restaurant with some friends in the Upper East Side.  It was a little before 9:00: early returns put Trump and Clinton about even.  We had just paid the check.

“Do I want to see the 9:00 projections?  No, I don’t.” I told the group, and left.

I headed down Second Avenue, got a Citibike, rode it across the Queensborough Bridge to Long Island City, and got a G train home.  The ride cleared my head.

But I’ve had a bellyful of this election, and I didn’t want any more.  When I got home, I finished some paperwork—studiously avoiding anything that even smelled like a news report—took a shower, and went to bed.

And now it’s 5:09 Wednesday morning, and I still don’t know who won.

But having lived through a few Presidential elections, I can tell when my preferred candidate is about to lose.  It’s not that I think Trump is a great guy.  But we need a new direction in this country, and Clinton, as far as I can tell, will continue the policies of her predecessor and keep us limping along for another few years.

I actually bought a copy of Stronger Together, the Clinton campaign book, to try and understand where she was coming from.  While the description of our problems in the first chapter is spot-on, the solutions she proposes are either vague, ineffective, or will make the problem worse.  I realized just last night that the vague policy prescriptions are a feature, not a bug: if you don’t put forward specific policies, people won’t be able to object to them.

Yesterday, I discussed the vote at some length with my son.  He voted for Clinton.  His reactions to events were almost the opposite of mine: Clinton’s private e-mail server, which hit me like a punch in the gut (she’s disrespecting her office and the American people!), seemed a bit of abstract technological trivia to him.  And Trump’s offhand remarks, which struck me as the mark of a man given to running off at the mouth, hit my son like a punch in the gut (how dare Trump even consider messing with a woman’s right to choose?).

In any case, it’s time to pop the bubble.

Trump won!

My sense of ‘a candidate about to lose’ was off this year.

There may be hope for us, after all….

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.

Feeling the Bern

Every Sunday night for the last three weeks, I’ve reminded myself that Tuesday is Primary Day and I have to vote.  And for the previous two Mondays (but not today), I’ve corrected myself that the New York primary election is on the 19th.

On one level, I shouldn’t care.  I’ve written in these pages previously that all of the candidates are, to put it politely, useless.  And I could reasonably say that I don’t have time: my duties this week have me leaving the house at 0530; I have to catch up with paperwork after hours; the polling place is in a really awkward spot, not near a subway station.

Beyond that, I’m a registered Democrat.  My parents were, and up until maybe 2000, I would consider the candidates for an office and often decide that while the Republican candidate’s views were closer to my own, the Democrat seemed to be less of an arrogant asshole.  I’ve thought about changing, but to vote in the Republican primaries this year, I would have had to change my party registration by last October.  And it wasn’t clear back then that the Republican primaries would be as interesting as they turned out to be.

Still, it’s Election Day, and I have a choice.  And our country is troubled: I have to make the effort, pointless though it may be.

And my choice, for tomorrow, is Bernie Sanders.

I actually disagree with Sanders on many of his policy decisions.  While I believe that there may be room for the rich to pay more in taxes, I don’t believe that we can tax enough to finance some of Sanders’s more grandiose schemes.

But if Bernie Sanders is elected President, with a Republican Congress, the result will be gridlock.  And that is, in fact, a good thing: it means that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats will be able to make things worse.  Gridlock worked for the deficit: after years of trillion-dollar deficits, the figure has dropped to less than half that.

In contrast, Hillary Clinton is just another Demican (Republicrat?).  The Republicans will rail against her, as they do against Obama, but in the end will go along to get along. (And I’ll skip, for today, all the other reasons I don’t believe Hillary Clinton is unsuitable to be President.)

Our country needs a change.  Unfortunately, the change we really need will be necessarily painful and disruptive, especially in the short term.  And the government—even if it were an absolute dictatorship—can’t fix our problems by fiat.  Until we can face reality, then, the next best alternative is a government that does nothing, so that at least it can’t make things worse.

And so tonight, I’m feeling the Bern.

(Or is it that I just had too much to eat?)

 

Mixed Bag

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

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

*          *          *

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

*          *          *

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

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

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

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

And what are we becoming?

The 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.

They’re All Frauds

My life would probably be easier if I simply disregarded Presidential politics.  Even though I’ve come to believe that Democrats are mostly useless, I haven’t changed my party registration, so my choices in the upcoming primary are Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.  I don’t like either of them, but pressed to a choice, I’d vote for Sanders: Clinton has demonstrated such disdain for the American people that she has disqualified herself.  But I suspect that’s a lost cause.

And New York has traditionally been a Democratic state, to the point where Presidential candidates haven’t bothered visiting in years, except to attend fund-raisers.  Then again, Trump is a New Yorker.  So unless Trump is the Republican candidate, New York will almost certainly go to Clinton.  And nothing I could do, even if I had ten thousand like-minded friends, would change that.

So if I put this all out of my mind, I can make my life much easier.  I’ll worry about it in November.  And even then, what I think about the candidates won’t matter.

Alas, the temptation to talk about politics is irresistible.  Some brief observations:

  • My opinion of Trump has gone down in the past weeks.  It isn’t so much his past (which I’ve known about) as his attitude.  He’s petulant, and a sore loser.  He also gets demerits for referring to one of his opponents as ‘little Marco.’
  • If Trump becomes President, I’m not sure how he would be able to satisfy people’s expectations that he would ‘make America great again.’  The government cannot create prosperity: the best it can do is create an environment in which people can be prosperous for themselves.
  • Nevertheless, I’d rather have Trump than Clinton.
  • And on the subject of Clinton, many support her on the grounds that she will continue the policy directions of President Obama. That, in itself, makes sense.  What’s strange is that President Obama has been the worst President that I can ever remember, and his policy directions have been, on average, breathtakingly bad.
  • I don’t take seriously this month’s polls about ‘Republican candidate X vs. Democratic candidate Y.’  We’re still learning about the candidates, particularly the Republicans.
  • For all we hear about Rubio’s modest upbringing, he has become curiously rich, not through his own productive effort, but through miraculous real estate transactions.
  • I want to like Cruz and Rubio: it’s encouraging to see young talent.  But both are supporters of more war (why, oh why, did we feel the need to get involved with Syria to begin with?) and enthusiastic supporters of the surveillance state.
  • John Kasich gave the best performance in last Thursday’s debate: he came across as the only adult among the candidates.  But he needs to make a more compelling presentation of himself in order to have a chance.

The essential problem is that all of the candidates are frauds.  Some are more fraudulent than others, but they’re all pretty much useless.

  • The United States is not an exceptional nation because like to think of ourselves as exceptional, or because we were somehow blessed by God.  We are an exceptional nation because we were founded on exceptional ideas.  We have strayed from those ideas, and are suffering the consequences.
  • We were able to field the world’s most powerful military because we had the most powerful productive economy at home to support it.  A productive economy includes things like manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation.  It does not include trading in third-hand, second-rate mortgages, health care as an industry, or consultancies to establish and maintain regulatory compliance.
  • To return to our core values will be difficult and painful.  As we’ve moved away from genuinely productive activities, we’ve filled in the void with non-productive activities that nevertheless transact trillions of dollars and hire millions of people.

The last President to level with us was Jimmy Carter.  He failed, not because he picked bad policy directions, but because he was politically inept.  Every President since then has tried to blow up the American people with happy talk, while the underlying rot continues.

And none of the current candidates are any different.

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.

Machine Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

All the Hidden Taxes

As we head into the last laps of the Presidential election,  it seem appropriate to consider how our tax system is structured.  The people who argue that the tax system is too complex are correct, but not for the reason that they think.  The marginal tax on income is higher than we think because of the large number of other taxes that we pay.  Pigouvian taxes, like the taxes on cigarettes and liquor, raise a surprisingly small amount of revenue, yet they are the ones that people feel most strongly (and feel most strongly about ) because they are rapidly passed through to the customer.  I like to joke that the truest market basket that we can use for the cost of living is ten gallons of gas, a carton of Marlboros, and a case of Bud or bottle of Jack Daniels. 

One tax that I dislike is tax on unemployment compensation. I’ve never qualified for unemployment compensation, but taxing it seems to be mean-spirited at best, and it doesn’t raise that much money. If I buy insurance against nearly any loss, I am not taxed when the insurance company pays me for my car being totalled or my house being damaged.  At the same time, I also believe that the amount that is charged for unemployment insurance should be much higher, and that people should be able to opt out.  It should be self-funding, not something that is largely dependent on federal funding.  Unfortunately, this means that unemployment insurance rates would either have to go up or people would need to work longer to qualify for it, and the amount of time that they would receive benefits would be reduced.

Another hidden tax is the increasing reliance that towns have on various fees, like the $150 ticket for that red-light camera.  What most people don’t know is that the revenue is split between the camera operator and the town, and that’s a lot of the reason that the ticket is so expensive.  If you have a good volume of traffic, as Washington DC does, the ticket is fairly cheap because most people won’t fight it and a lot of people will run the light or speed.

Another interesting tax is the ability to buy a deferred verdict for your first misdemeanor or traffic violation conviction in some jurisdictions.  One pleads guilty, pays the fees and fine, and if you keep a clean record for six months, the guilty verdict is not entered and it is effectively suspended until then, unless you get picked up on another charge.  The people who would benefit most from this are the least able to pay the fines, and if you need a payment plan, it costs you $35 extra.  There are opportunities to work off one’s fines at $10 an hour, but that doesn’t do you any good unless you have a day or days off during the week.  Work crews do not go out on weekends.  If you are booked into the county jail, it costs you $30 to be booked, though that fee is refunded if you are found not guilty on the charge.  A lot of arrests in my town are actually just the issuance of a summons. The county jail has about three times the number of inmates that it was built to accommodate. 

I don’t expect the reduction in FICA taxes from 6.2% of income up to $106,500 to 4.2% will survive into 2013, and we’ve already seen a reduction in the maximum contribution to health savings accounts from $5000 to $2500 to health savings accounts effective in 2013.  I believe that 2010 saw the removal of over-the-counter drugs from the list of items that you could use the account to reimburse your costs.

I liked the “Making Work Pay” tax credit that was available in 2009 and 2010 more than the FICA tax holiday because it was a lot cheaper and the greatest amount of the tax cut went to people who made $60K or less if you were single.  It phased out above that level. You needed to make something like half-time minimum wage to get the maximum amount, which I think was $800, and everyone would get $800 ($1600 for married filing jointly) until they hit the phase-out amount for their filing status.  I had the pleasant surprise of the IRS telling me that I qualified for a couple of hundred dollars for the “Making Work Pay” tax credit with my 2009 return.  I had figured that I wouldn’t be eligible for it, so I didn’t bother to research it.

One thing that people often don’t understand is that tax deductions aren’t worth what they think that they are.  Suppose that I have $10K in itemized deductions. I’d get $5950 for the standard deduction in any case, so I save only about a thousand dollars on my federal taxes compared to not having the deductions.

The coming thing will be to broaden the tax base.  Rates won’t change, but taxes will increase.  

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?

They’re Both Losers

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

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

And to some extent, he’s right:

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

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

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

Romney also said, this past week,

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

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

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

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

And this week, our President remarked,

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

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

Tax Hikes for Job Creators

From a report in today’s New York Post:

What Dems’ Tax Hikes Really Mean

…But who are those “wealthiest Americans”? Illinois businessman Wilson F. Hunt Jr. recently passed on to me the details of how his small business, which he owns with his wife, will be ensnared in this scheme to soak the rich.

Because his company elects to pay taxes as a Sub-chapter S Corporation, all the company’s profits are reported on the couple’s individual income tax returns as the sole shareholders in the company. They paid almost $1.1 million in taxes in 2010, yet the couple paid themselves only a combined salary of $189,000.

The rest of the income was put into retained earnings, which the company could then use to expand its business the following year.

We can’t raise taxes on them!  Otherwise, they’ll go out of business and not create any new jobs!  Well, maybe….

Let’s do the math:

  • The report doesn’t say whether the $1.1M in taxes is just in Federal income taxes or for all of their income taxes.  If the $1.1M refers to Federal taxes, it means that the business earned profits somewhere around $3.5M.  I don’t know the Illinois state tax rules, nor whether they had to pay local taxes that got included in the $1.1M figure.  As a worst case approximation, if their business were in New York City, their business would have to earn about $2.2M to pay $1.1M in taxes.  (Yes, taxes in NYC are that high.)  To keep the example simple, and be true to the author’s purported intent, I’ll assume that the Hunts paid $1.1M in Federal income taxes.
  • While the business earned, say, $3.5M, the taxes paid don’t give us a clue as to how much revenue it took in.  It could have been $5M or $500M.
  • The business could have spent that $3.5M on plant and equipment, or hiring additional employees, and paid less tax.  But the Hunts elected not to do that.
  • If the business had been a Subchapter C corporation, which pays taxes for itself, it would have similarly had to pay a little over $1M in Federal corporate taxes.
  • If the ‘Bush tax cuts’ expire through Congressional inaction, the Hunts will have to pay about $1.22M in taxes instead of $1.1M.  Yes, it’s $120,000 more, which is not a trivial sum, but their business can demonstrably afford it.

I’ll agree that the tax code really bites when it comes to retained earnings.  A business that saves its surplus to use in future years gets whomped.  It’s not how business is supposed to work: you’re supposed to borrow to expand your business, so that you can write off the interest.  (I find this particularly painful: the bank won’t lend my business 25 cents, so I have to finance everything out of the till.)

My point is that I find it very hard to believe the Republicans’ assertion that tweaking tax rates up–or down–will have a significant impact on employment.  There are no vast piles of jobs waiting in the wings to be deployed when tax rates drop 10 percent.

Whom Do I Vote For?

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s All Over/Stupid Bridge Games

I headed out bright and early Tuesday morning to pull the lever for Barack Obama.  The polling place was busy, but curiously, nobody was waiting to vote in my district, so I got in and out fast.  So that’s that.

And yet…

Some years ago, I read Thomas Frank’s book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, and wondered at the political landscape where the struggling Kansans would consistently vote Republican, despite the fact that Republican policies were taking their jobs and leaving them worse off.

A New York Post op-ed piece at the time suggested that the Kansans were simply looking out for their own self-interest: they wanted to pay lower taxes.  But it’s more than that.

The United States used to stand for the idea of a place with limited government where one could work hard, compete fairly, and succeed.  The rest of the world probably still believes that, to some degree.  But for those of us who live here, it seems rather different.  I’ve speculated about the causes for that in these pages, and so won’t rehash that here.

I live in the city, and I’m pragmatic: I see that the changes around us under the Republicans (not necessarily initiated by the government, but encouraged by its free-market policies) are changing our country into something that we Americans are not necessarily morally, emotionally, or mentally prepared to face: a new era of competition for all of us.

So I’ll vote for Obama, to take a step away from that.  But it is a step away from what the United States traditionally stood for, and, yes, a step in the direction of socialism.

On the other hand, in cherishing what we stood for, unlike the Kansans of Franks’ book, I wouldn’t (and didn’t) vote for McCain as the more ‘true American’ alternative.  McCain is for big government too, just in a slightly different flavor.

But now I understand where the Kansans are coming from.

*          *          *

The MTA, our local transportation agency, is renaming what we always knew as the Triborough Bridge as the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge.  The name refers to a group of toll bridges that connect Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens.

We’ve known for some time that the MTA is in dire financial straits: another subway and bus fare hike seems inevitable for next year.  So why are they spending hundreds of thousands (and perhaps millions) of dollars to rename a bridge that had a perfectly good (and functional) name to begin with?

Making the Choice

About two weeks ago, one of my colleagues sent me this cartoon:

A Democrat…

My immediate reaction was that, well, my colleague is a Republican.   But there’s a little bit more to it than that.

I know that giving to those who are ‘too lazy’ doesn’t work.  Despite the best intentions, it engenders laziness and corrodes personal honor.

But what happens when the world changes, and those who did not set out to be lazy find themselves in dire straits?  Unemployment is creeping up, and jobs are hard to find.  The eight-hour workday, for many, is a quaint relic of the past.  And almost every night on the news, there is a report of some large corporation or another firing a few thousand staffers.  For my part, I left my last job (and went into business for myself) because I was expected to give over my weekends for unpaid overtime, and was still in the doghouse with management for overrunning my budget.

Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for President, proposes to reduce taxes for most of us, while increasing taxes on those earning over $250k per year and closing corporate loopholes.  It doesn’t solve the real problem, but it helps.  One aspect of Obama’s plan is that more people in the lower income levels would actually receive a tax credit instead of paying Federal income taxes.

The New York Post calls that ‘welfare.’  Perhaps, but a refundable tax credit is not enough to live on; it’s just intended to make life a little easier.  As long as the tax credit is tied to some actual earned income, it’s not going to erode the value of work.

To take the contrary view, that of the Republicans, is to redefine ‘lazy.’  If you want to go out and work, even if it’s physically demanding, you’re still ‘lazy’ if you expect your employer, in return for your efforts, to take care of you through health insurance or other benefits, or you expect to be able to have a working life that allows you time for your own pursuits.

The major problem with this view is that most of us were not brought up to be entrepreneurs and be comfortable taking risks.  We may like the sensation of risk–such as one experiences when bungee jumping or skydiving–but those activities, with their redundant safety measures, are probably safer than crossing the street, and do not prepare us to manage risk in our lives.

While many of us may have set up lemonade stands when we were kids, I can’t remember taking a course in high school or college about the basic principles of business.  (There were courses in economics, which is not the same thing.)  And I wonder how our young people, who live in constant communication with each other with their cell phones and their computers, will adapt to the process of going into business for one’s self, which is intensly personal and involves, to a surprising extent, being able to keep secrets.

But that is what lies before us under the Republicans.   And in that direction, to take the zeroth-degree approximation, lies armed revolution: we will learn to be violent before we learn to be businessmen. Actually, we already know how to be violent, so it won’t be a big leap.

And that is why, despite my misgivings about Barack Obama, I will pull the lever for him tomorrow.

Off the Fence for Obama

Like everyone else with half a brain in this country, I’ve been looking at the Presidential candidates and trying to decide whom I should vote for in November.

I’ve started with the premise, among others, that Iraq is off the table as an issue.  There is an agreement in place with the Iraqi government on how we will withdraw our forces over time, and while the initial decision to go to Iraq was a spectacularly bad judgement, neither of the present candidates was specifically responsible for it.

The Democrats are running Barack Obama, a wonderful orator with big plans for how the government will help us.  He grants that these plans will cost money, and proposes to pay for them by eliminating tax loopholes for businesses, and allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire.  His approach to foreign policy emphasizes the use of diplomacy over military force.

The Republicans are running John McCain, a former Navy pilot and prisoner of war who has the vibe of being a ‘maverick.’  On the other hand, his actual votes in the Senate track very closely the Bush administration’s desires.  He wants to keep the tax cuts and considers the world a dangerous place, where the use of force is a real consideration.

Part of me really wants to vote for McCain.  I believe that he has better judgement than Bush, I don’t like taxes (who does?), and I’m genuinely skeptical of big government plans to help people, because I’ve seen them backfire.

On the other hand, a government, like a household or a company, has to take in enough money to maintain itself and do the things it does.  And maintaining a strong military and being prepared to use it aren’t cheap.  Moreover, I don’t buy into the thought that lowering tax rates will stimulate economic activity to the point where the government will take in more money than if it had left taxes alone: if taxes were oppressively high, as they were a generation ago, it might be true, but not now.

In the second quarter of 2008, the US economy grew by 2.1%, so that we can officially say that we’re not in a recession, but shed over 500,000 jobs. Who wins and who loses when that happens?

And what good does it do to make ourselves safe from terrorists if most of us end up worse off in terms of our daily standard of living, in a country that is becoming no longer the land of opportunity?

McCain will do nothing to stop this.  Obama will at least try.

For this reason, despite my misgivings, I’ve decided to vote for Barack Obama in the next election.

But God help us, either way….

Of Pigs and Presidents

While on the campaign trail, Barack Obama remarked, with regard to the Republican effort to appear as reformers, “You can put lipstick on a pig, and it’s still a pig.”

The Republicans took the remark as a slur against their Vice-Presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, who remarked that she was a ‘pit bull with lipstick’ in her speech last week.  Obama’s remarks made the front page in today’s papers.

Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.  But wouldn’t it be nice if we could get past this silly stuff and actually discuss the issues?

Labor Day Parade

My wife asked me to join her in the Labor Day parade today, which this year was held yesterday, the Saturday after Labor Day.  She’s a member of the Screen Actors Guild.  My previous time in the parade was in 1982, when I was a newly-minted member of the Transport Workers Union.

The announcement from SAG indicated that the first 25 members to show up would get a free T-shirt.  My wife and I arrived late, but she was #18 on the list, and even though I’m not a member, I got one too.  I’m not an actor: I just play one for the Labor Day parade.

Tropical Storm Hanna,  which had threatened to douse the city all day, held off until mid-afternoon.  It didn’t rain, but it was really, really muggy.  Still, it was a festive occasion, walking up Fifth Avenue.

However, there were very few spectators.  Along the 28 blocks, there were perhaps a couple of hundred people who seemed to be actually watching the parade.  Foot traffic on Fifth Avenue was about normal for late on a Saturday morning,  In recent years, interest in the parade has flagged: is it that the parade didn’t take place on Labor Day (and why is that?), loss of interest in labor unions, or that parades aren’t enough of a public spectacle to hold a crowd anymore?  (When I was with the Transport Workers in 1982, it was really on Labor Day, and there were a good few thousand spectators.)

Many of the parade participants wore Obama for President buttons, and Obama posters appeared on some of the floats.  Of course, Barack Obama, as the Democratic candidate, is favored by the labor unions because he proposes to use government to help the working people.

And why not?  Over the last eight years, we’ve seen the Bush administration use the power of government to favor big business and the wealthy.  He cut taxes and then embroiled us in an expensive war.  He promoted the New Feudalism, also known as the Ownership Society, where one is what one owns.  Under his watch, hundreds of thousands of Americans signed up  for mortgages they couldn’t afford, as a path to home ownership, and then found themselves homeless when their payments ratcheted up, and their income didn’t.

And who wins, ultimately, when hundreds of thousands of Americans go bankrupt?  The people who have assets to begin with, who stay calm, and  can acquire the foreclosed properties cheap.  The rich get richer….

On the other hand, when I was an impressionable teenager in the 1970s, I saw how the opposite premise, that government should use its power to help the people, could backfire.  My parents had steady jobs, so there was never a question of not having a roof overhead or food on the table.  But we had both inflation and unemployment, something classical economics said wasn’t supposed to happen.

In the early 1970s, we had the energy crisis when the Arabs refused to sell us oil. The Federal government has spent billions since then to try to encourage alternate sources of energy.  And while there has been progress, we’re still addicted to oil, and moaned this spring when the price of gasoline shot up.  So I have to wonder what would change to make the next infusion of Federal billions actually accomplish something.

For my part, I’d like to see a government that doesn’t use its power to particularly help anyone.  But it’s far more compelling campaigning to suggest what the government can or should do than what it can’t or shouldn’t.  So we’re stuck with the candidates as they stand.

*          *          *

I was impressed with the speech made by Sarah Palin, the Governor of Alaska and the Republican candidate for Vice-President,  at the convention last week.  She’s a good orator, and if her cover story is to believed, a good leader and administrator.  She’s also suffered the slings and arrows of life to a greater extent than your average politician.  All in all, it’s a compelling package, and more relevant than the average Vice Presidential candidate because her running mate, John McCain, will be the oldest person to become President if he is elected.

To some degree, I resented the commentary in the press about her lack of experience, and whether or not she had been properly vetted before her selection.  When I’ve had to hire someone, and have chosen experience over energy and a positive attitude given two otherwise similar candidates, I’ve generally been disappointed.  And I can’t get too terribly upset over Palin’s pregnant teenage daughter when I consider that Palin herself got married in her early 20s.  Some people get married earlier in life than others.

But as I contemplated the Obama buttons at the Labor Day parade, it came to me.  I’m sure that, in fact, Palin was very thoroughly vetted.  Her positions on issues, which didn’t really come out in the convention speech, are very far to the right.  She plays to the Republican base, more so than McCain.

She’s portrayed as a ‘reformer.’  Let’s grant that premise for a moment and consider: of everything that was and is wrong with the Bush administration, it never was in need of ‘reform.’  Our Fearless Leader made his decisions because he believed they were right, and not because someone paid him to.  Yes, all of his friends are in Big Oil, and he aspired to be a Big Oil man himself, but we knew that from the beginning, and voted for him anyway.

Sarah Palin is not a pit bull with lipstick: she’s Dubya with lipstick.

Losers, Sore and Otherwise

At the political conventions this year, Tuesday night seems to be the night for the loser to extol the winner.  A week ago, at the Democratic convention, Hillary Clinton threw her ‘support’ behind Barack Obama, even though she was unable to identify anything good about him beyond his not being a Republican, and her more memorable lines were about herself (‘the sisterhood of the traveling pantsuit’).

Moreover, the whole convention last week was suffused with the funk of how Hillary should have properly won, but got upstaged by Obama, the upstart.

Last night, at the Republican convention, Fred Thompson  talked about John McCain, and it was a refreshing contrast.  Perhaps it was because Thompson was never a serious candidate, but he was able to actually identify good things about McCain, as well as noting that he’s not a Democrat.

Watching the Republican convention left me with the feeling that McCain was an honorable man who would make a fine President, something the Democrats failed to do at that point with Obama.

For my part, I’m still on the fence, and I have misgivings about both of the major candidates.  But it’s instructive that McCain seems to be held in higher esteem among the Republicans than Obama is among the Democrats.

Anatomy of a Hissy Fit

Last Sunday, Wesley Clark, former general and Democratic Presidential candidate, remarked on Face the Nation that “I don’t think riding in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to be President.” The remark related to the Republican candidate, John McCain.

It was, perhaps, a rude thing to say, but not entirely out of place.  Much of McCain’s appeal is based on his having been shot down over Vietnam and serving several years as a prisoner of war.  And as for a qualification to be President, I’d rather have a guy who flew a fighter plane and didn’t get shot down.

But the McCain camp worked themselves into a lather over the remark, suggesting that Clark was asserting that McCain’s military service did not qualify him to be President.

Well, it doesn’t!  The last President to have actually served in the military (as opposed to the National Guard) was the elder George Bush.  And there are thousands of ex-fighter pilots, and probably hundreds of ex-fighter pilots who were also prisoners of war: are all of them entitled to be President?

It was also suggested that Clark apologize for his remarks.  He didn’t, but Barack Obama had to address the issue, indicating regret that Clark had taken the campaign off-message.  Politics makes cowards of us all.

The result of this is that we got through another week chasing our tails because someone said something refreshingly honest, instead of the standard manufactured blather, or, worse yet, actually addressing the issues.

Cutting the delegates in half…/Voting for Obama?

Yesterday evening, the Democratic rules committee  reached a decision about Florida and Michigan.  The delegations would be seated with half-votes instead of full votes, and for Michigan, some of the delegates (including a handful that would otherwise have gone to Hillary Clinton) were allocated to Barack Obama, who did not appear on the ballot.

As a result, Clinton nets a few dozen delegates, but not enough to make a meaningful dent in Obama’s lead.  When the last primaries end on Tuesday, Obama will be in striking distance to the nomination, but will probably not have bagged it.  But he’ll be the nominee, barring something really extraordinary.

*          *          *

I’m a registered Democrat, and I consider the Bush victory in 2000 the closest thing to a coup d’etat that our country has ever experienced.  I really don’t want to vote Republican this year, but if Clinton were to win the nomination, I’d have to vote for John McCain.

On the other hand, There’s a lot that I like about Obama, most of it stuff that seems to tick everyone else off.  I like that he listens to people who don’t believe that the US is the most wonderful country on the planet, and that he’s an intellectual with a conceptual view of the world.

Part of me likes that Obama is willing to open discussions with our enemies, but he underplays the difficulty of actually doing that: he’ll be swimming with the sharks, and if he’s not careful, he’ll get his leg bitten off.

But when it comes to Iraq, he’s lost me.  Both Obama and Clinton believe that our next task with Iraq is getting out.  While our adventures in Iraq were ill-advised at best, the next President must play the hand that he is dealt.  McCain was refreshingly honest when he remarked, a few months ago, that we might be in Iraq for 100 years.  In other words: Brother, you bought yourself a protectorate.

The Iraqi government is making progress in organizing itself and preparing to function as an independent state.  But it’s a difficult job and cannot be accomplished on a timetable driven by American politics.  It’s not, as some (including Obama) imagine, that the Iraqis are imply lazy, and if we simply hold their feet to the fire, they’ll buckle down and solve all their problems.

If we move out in 2009, we endanger Iraq’s progress, and in turn we risk destabilizing the region.   None of the advocates for withdrawal has come up with a good answer to that.

Obama has an answer, but it’s not a good one: he plans to talk to Iran and hope they’ll make nice.  It’s one thing to talk to our enemies, but it’s quite another to expect that they will act in our interest–instead of theirs–as an immediate result of such talking.

I’d like to vote for Obama, but in some respects he makes it really, really difficult.

Democrats’ Disaster

Today, the Democratic rules committee meets to decide what to do about Florida and Michigan, which were disqualified by the party because they held their primary elections too early.  In 2004, John Kerry was the clear winner after only a few weeks of campaigning, and many people across the country felt disenfranchised because they were voting only after the winner had been determined.So this year, many states fell over themselves trying to hold early primaries. New York moved its primary to early March, and Florida and Michigan moved theirs to January, in violation of Party rules. The decision had been made in 2007, and the consequences of that decision were clear: their delegates would be barred from the convention.

In response, the candidates refrained from campaigning in the two states, and Obama took his name off the Michigan ballot. Clinton won both states, through name recognition and the fact that she had yet to endure the slings and arrows of the campaign season.

And now that Clinton is behind, she’s yelling ‘disenfranchisement’ and demanding that the delegates from these states be seated with their full voting rights. (This is why, despite the fact that I voted for Clinton in March, I’m against her now: she has no integrity.) The voters of Florida and Michigan were disenfranchised by their state Party leaders, who thought they could break the rules and then get absolution through moaning and wailing.

As far as the rules committee’s decision, sadly, I don’t think it really matters. It won’t matter how the issue of Florida and Michigan are resolved, and it won’t matter who wins the Democratic Party’s nomination for President: the party will lose anyway. Maybe their candidate will be elected, but I doubt it.

The two candidates are perceived as members of a ‘disadvantaged’ groups: Hillary Clinton is a woman, and Barack Obama is black. If you favor Clinton over Obama, you’re a racist, and if you favor Obama over Clinton, you’re a sexist. Whoever wins will alienate the other half of the party’s base, and no party can expect to win that way without broad appeal beyond the base, which neither candidate has.

On the metrics, it’s hard to assess who would be the better candidate. Obama got more votes in primaries and caucuses, but in polls matching them against John McCain, the Republican candidate, Clinton does a few points better.

It’s been suggested that Clinton and Obama could both be on the ticket if the winner picked the loser to be the Vice President. Alas, I don’t think that will work either. Clinton as Vice President will be the Democrats’ Dick Cheney: the dark force that is the real power. Obama-Clinton mirrors Bush-Cheney too strongly. And if Clinton, through some degree of political legerdemain, became the Presidential candidate, many people would believe that she stole the nomination from Obama. In either case, the ticket would get lukewarm support, at best, across the Democratic spectrum, and that will not suffice to win.