Saturday, August 13, 2011

Joke at the Iowa Straw Poll

Michele Bachmann, speaking to her supporters today at the Iowa Straw Poll, made this claim:
Her experience as a tax lawyer helps her understand how to turn the U.S. economy around.
This is two days after she made the claim during the FoxNews Iowa debate that we should have not raised the debt ceiling and instead let the government go into default on its debts. I don't think that speaks very well for any wisdom gained as a tax lawyer.

The two have almost nothing to do with each other. To be a tax lawyer, you need to know a lot about the tax code, who gets to deduct what, where the loopholes are, etc. But it has nothing to do with economics and financial systems.

Beyond that, what experience did Michele actually have as a tax lawyer? First, she has a law degree from the Oral Roberts University's School of Law. According to an article in The New Yorker (8/15/11) by Ryan Lizza, "The Bible, not the Constitution or conventional jurisprudence, guides the curriculum."

And, by the way, Michele's husband Marcus, earned his masters in counseling at Pat Robertson's school that later became known as Regent University.

Michele did go on to get a masters degree in tax law from the College of William & Mary. Then she worked for the IRS for four years in St. Paul, representing the commissioner of the IRS before the U.S. Tax Court. Unless I'm misunderstanding, what this means is:
She worked for the government as a tax lawyer -- presumably suing people for not paying their taxes.
However, former colleagues who were interviewed by Ryan Lizza for this article, said that she was not there long enough to gain much experience; she just did "lightweight stuff." In fact, all six of those interviewed told Lizza that the primary thing they remember about Michele was that she spent a good portion of her time on maternity leave. One of them said, "She was an attorney here, but she was never here." Most of the cases she worked on were settled, and only one of her cases ended up in the courtroom.

It's a ridiculous statement, a joke. But then that's what we expect of Ms. Bachmann. Her base loves it. And she will do well in the Iowa Straw Poll. But she will not get the nomination.


Liberals debate Obama's performance

A critique of Obama's performance by Drew Westen, Emory psychology professor, author of The Political Brain, and a personal friend of mine, was given unprecedented prominence in last Sunday's New York Times. It occupied almost the entire front page of the "Sunday Review" section (editorials and op-eds), and continued inside, splashed across the top two-thirds of two other adjoining inside pages. I do not recall ever seeing an opinion piece given so much prestigious space.

Drew's thesis is that Obama has failed to be the strong leader that he could have been and that those who elected him expected him to be. He attributes it to Obama's misguided attempts to negotiate and compromise and his apparent inhibition of bold leadership in the face of strong opposition from the other side. (But he goes too far, in my opinion, in calling this a "character defect.") In addition, despite his rhetorical ability in some settings, Drew says that he has failed to present his message in an effective way, when it comes to getting legislation passed.

I agree with most of his points, but I think he goes too far in attributing it solely to Obama's shortcomings, even though I have moved more and more toward recognizing that he may not be the ideal leader for this time and this political climate with absolutely unmovable opponents. Perhaps a more aggressive leader and one who articulates a clear vision for the way ahead is what we need now.

It's well worth reading his article, "What Happened to Obama?"

But, even better than the article itself, was a 30 minute discussion on Charlie Rose's August 11 show. Guests were Drew Westen, Fareed Zakaria (editor of Time Magazine, who mostly defended Obama) and Jonathan Chait (editor of he New Republic, who is also critical of Obama, but less so than Drew).

There was no conservative voice here, no one trumpeting tax cuts for the rich. This was a dialogue between left-center and progressive voices, at least that's the way it seemed to me. But they thoroughly discussed all the issues that have made me so ambivalent about Obama's performance.

The argument mostly comes down to this: could Obama have done more and gotten better results (ie, been less quick to compromise, been bolder in pressing for votes in Congress, framing his message better for the public, as well as for key senators)? Or has he done the best he could with the Congress we gave him? The latter has been the position I have clung to until recently.

Zakaria, for example, pointed out some of Obama's amazing accomplishments (the stimulus, health care reform, etc.). Yes, the 2009 stimulus bill should have been much bigger. But in fact the one we did get squeaked by with only a 1 vote majority. He says that anyone who thinks a different way of framing the argument, or a bolder stand from Obama, could have gotten a stimulus twice as big through Congress is simply dealing in fantasy.

For anyone interested in this argument: this is 30 minutes of high level discussion by four very bright and informed individuals across the liberal-progressive spectrum. I highly recommend it.


Friday, August 12, 2011

A Democratic Woman

Olympia Snowe looks stateswomanly next to Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin.

But there is a smart, articulate, determined, principled, progressive, ardent fighter for the middle class, who is probably going to run for the Senate from Massachusetts to take back Ted Kennedy's seat.

Elizabeth Warren, Harvard Law Professor and the one who was so effective in fighting the big banks and credit card companies in setting up the new consumers credit protection bureau that Republicans threw up a steel wall of resistance to her nomination to head the agency she had created.

OK. Let's turn that defeat into an even better place for her. There's no one on the horizon that I would work more passionately to help get elected than Elizabeth Warren-- even as a senator from another state. We need her as a strong voice in the U.S. Senate. I'll send my first contribution as soon as she announces.

It can happen.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

Short takes

1. Republican Senator Olymphia Snowe (R-ME), speaking to a group of supporters at a rally, lamented the extreme partisanship of the debt ceiling debate: “I’m embarrassed by all of us,’’ she said. “I’ve never seen a worse Congress in my whole political life."

2. Michele Bachmann is the anticipated front runner in the Iowa straw poll to be conducted this weekend. So she's probably going to be the target of several of her opponents in tonight's debate. Here's a good place to start, although you might need a Democrat or at least a courageous journalist to call attention to it: Bachmann got her facts exactly backwards in why S & P's downgraded our credit rating.

She said it was because we raised the debt ceiling. In fact, S & P was all in favor of raising the ceiling; and they said -- in plain English for anyone to read -- that it was the political dysfunction in Congress that concerned them, not the debt ceiling. And Bachmann's Tea Party Caucus was largely responsible for making the dysfunction as bad as it was.

Of course, neither she nor her followers care about the facts: just make up stuff that fits with their preferred "truthiness."

3. Sarah Palin, never one to let an opportunity pass to thrust herself into the spotlight, has announced that she will attend the Iowa State Fair this week. Just in time to rain on the parade of others who are seriously campaigning in the state, the day before the Straw Poll. Just a couple of months ago, after lying low for a while, she suddenly surfaced in New Hampshire the day Mitt Romney had scheduled his big announcement that he was running for president. And of course the panting media turned their cameras on Mama Grizzley instead of the Mitter.

This woman has morphed from out-of-her-element, political novice to crafty, despicable opportunist. She's not seriously running for president. She's just trying to keep her media popularity going so she can rake in the dough in speaking and writing fees. Even worse is the way daughter Palin has turned her out-of-wedlock pregnancy into a million dollar contract to promote herself.

As to these three Republican women -- Olympia Snowe is a giant of a stateswoman compared to the other two media hogs.


The supercommittee

Nine of the twelve members of the "super committee" have now been named -- lacking only Nancy Pelosi's choice of three House Democrats.

Of course, the choices will inevitably displease almost everyone, in some way. And I must say that I'm not too happy -- but I don't know what picks would make me happy.

One report I saw criticized Reid's Senate Democrats, saying that they all get big financial contributions from the corporate world, so likely will tilt toward business interests.

Then a NYT article today said, of the nine, that three of them (Republican Portman and Democrats Kerry and Baucus) all have a history of working across party lines.

So, that means 1 of the 6 Repubs, and 2 of the 3 Dems appointed thus far are more likely to compromise. All six of the Repubs have signed Grover Norquist's pledge not to vote for tax increases.

This doesn't sound promising at all. It will take only one member to break with his/her party and vote for a compromise plan. Then it will go directly to Congress for an up/down vote, without amendments.


Monday, August 8, 2011

Krugman responds to the S & P downgrade

So the stock market fell precipitously again today, certainly not helped by the unprecedented downgrade by Standard and Poor's credit rating agency. Markets have destabilized worldwide.

Paul Krugman's response in his New York Times column today is worthy of attention.

He begins by saying that, to understand what it means, you have to hold in your mind "two seemingly (but not actually) contradictory ideas." (1) that the U.S. is no longer the stable, reliable country it once was; and (2) S & P's credibility is even lower.

He points out that S & P's, along with other rating agencies, played a role in causing the 2008 financial crisis. They gave AAA ratings to mortgage-backed assets "that have since turned into toxic waste." And it gave Lehman Brothers an A rating right up to the month that it collapsed and triggered the global panic. Not only that, but they made a $2 trillion error in their calculations about our deficit, which our Treasury officials quickly called to their attention. They even conceded the error -- but issued the downgrade anyway.

So, why should anyone listen to Standard & Poor's economists?

Which brings us to Krugman's other point: It's political dysfunction, not the deficit, that is the problem.
No, what makes America look unreliable isn’t budget math, it’s politics. And please, let’s not have the usual declarations that both sides are at fault. Our problems are almost entirely one-sided — specifically, they’re caused by the rise of an extremist right that is prepared to create repeated crises rather than give an inch on its demands.

The truth is that as far as the straight economics goes, America’s long-run fiscal problems shouldn’t be all that hard to fix. It’s true that an aging population and rising health care costs will, under current policies, push spending up faster than tax receipts. But the United States has far higher health costs than any other advanced country, and very low taxes by international standards. If we could move even part way toward international norms on both these fronts, our budget problems would be solved.

So why can’t we do that? Because we have a powerful political movement in this country that screamed “death panels” in the face of modest efforts to use Medicare funds more effectively, and preferred to risk financial catastrophe rather than agree to even a penny in additional revenues.

The real question facing America, even in purely fiscal terms, isn’t whether we’ll trim a trillion here or a trillion there from deficits. It is whether the extremists now blocking any kind of responsible policy can be defeated and marginalized.

And, for all its credibility problems, Standard & Poor's explanation for its downgrading said as much. They said it was political dysfunction in Washington, that Republicans seem unwilling to allow the Bush-era tax cuts to expire.

The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy.

I may be naive, but at this point it seems to me that we should not be bad-mouthing S & P's reliability record but thanking them for making this point in a way that demands attention. There's an old Southern expression about being stubborn as a mule. "To get a mule to go the way you want, first you have to hit him over the head with a 2 x 4 to get his attention."

There does seem to be a sense of urgency that NOW we really have to get beyond partisanship and come up with a plan that will restore our credit-worthiness. Even if S & P's is way off base on the math, they're spot-on in assessing our political dysfunction and making that the issue.


Sunday, August 7, 2011

Lighten up; it's Sunday

Comedian Lewis Black on why he does not do Sarah Palin jokes:

"I made the decision after she was nominated and I heard her speak the first couple of times, after a couple of weeks, and I knew she was like for me a mother-load [of joke material].

"But I was so shocked that she was running. It stunned me so much, I said on stage that I will not make jokes about her because I could not live in this world if I believed she was a real person. And so I have, for the entire time she's been around, treated her as a hallucination."