Saturday, April 7, 2012

Get the big hook -- or maybe a butterfly net

Remember in those old movies about vaudeville -- when a terrible performer just keeps cracking unfunny jokes, then tries tap dancing, then starts doing card tricks, desperately trying to turn the audience's boos and jeers into cheers?

And then suddenly this giant hook extends out from the backstage wings and pulls the hapless performer off the stage    While from the other side of the stage, the guy with the dancing dog act makes a quick entrance trying to grab the crowd's attention.

Thhat's where we are with Newt and the Republican primary vaudeville act.   It's time for the hook.   Or maybe even a butterfly net might be necessary to capture this "angry little attack muffin" (Peggy Noonan's wonderful sobriquet for Newt) and put him away.

And there's Newt -- with yet one more trick up his sleeve -- "Let me just try this !!   I know they'll love me then.  Please, pretty please? . . . .No, not the hook !!!"  "NOOoooooooo.  I won't go!"

That's what Newt is saying now.   True, he had two wins in SC and GA and a total of 135 delegates to Romney's 660.  Since SC and GA, he has had a string of third and fourth place finishes, with a couple of distant seconds and no further prospects.   His campaign is in debt;  his main donor says he is at the end of his line.    One of his big consulting groups is filing for bankruptcy.

Here's the trick Newt is offering up now.    He will stay in the race to influence the GOP platform and force Romney to stick to a more conservative stance.

Big deal.    Nobody pays much attention to platforms these days, Newt.    Not if they are politically inconvenient.   They are policy statements that mollify some insiders,  but the voters could hardly care any less.   They listen to what the candidate says.  And you can bet that Romney is going to tell them what they want to hear, regardless of what's in the platform.

So, Newt.   Either you go quietly and peacefully, or it's the hook.   Don't make us call in the white coats with their big butterfly nets.    Make that the extra large size, please.


Friday, April 6, 2012

Newt's financial irresponsibility

The latest in a long string of bankruptcy filings by Newt Gingrich's political and non-profit groups was announced Wednesday.   The Center for Health Transformation was founded by Gingrich in 2003 to generate legislative proposals for health care reform -- and they included individual mandates, by the way.  The Center is filing for bankruptcy to liquidate its assets and escape its debts -- a repeated pattern for Newt's enterprises.

Huffington Post has reported:

Since 1984, Gingrich has launched 12 politically oriented organizations and initiatives based in Washington. Of those, five have been investigated by the Internal Revenue Service and the House Ethics Committee, another five closed down with debts totaling more than $500,000, and two were subject to legal action.
Newt's second wife has also revealed in an interview last year that Newt was hopelessly in debt personally, and unconcerned about it, when they married.  She took over the finances and finally got them out of debt.   Newt thinks big ideas, you know?   He can't be bothered with pesky details like paying bills.  People give him money and he spends it -- apparently rather lavishly -- on private jets and jewels.

It has also been reported previously that Newt often leaves others holding the bag and losing money when these enterprises fail -- and he just blithely moves on.   He always manages to escape and leave it to others to mop up and take the financial hit.  Meanwhile, he traipses off to Tiffany's on another shopping spree with Callista.

It fits with his character.   The folly of his "big ideas" campaign is catching up with him.  Even his sugar-daddy, billionaire Sheldon Adelson, has said that Newt is "at the end of his line."

Whew.    It's about time for this juvenile clown to get his come-uppance.   The image of Newt as an over-inflated balloon, floating above the crowds at Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade sticks with me.    I think we're about to see a big whoooosh as Newt gets deflated.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

New theory about Mitt Romney

Here's my latest theory to explain Mitt Romney's inconceivably non-sensical comments.

He must be deaf -- and can't hear what he is actually saying.  So he just says anything and nevermind that it is totally disconnected from reality or anything else he has said.

What produced this wonderful insight, you ask?

Today, Mittens was quoted as saying that Barack Obama "spent too much time at Harvard."

OK.  That's an opinion.  But here's a fact.   Obama spent three years at Harvard Law School.

Mitt Romney spent four years also at Harvard getting a joint JD/MBA.

Go figure.


Playing politics with prices at the pump

How much control does the president of the United States have over the price of gasoline at the pump?   Very, very little -- and certainly not in the short run.

That didn't stop Newt Gingrich (in his High Dishonest mode) from promising that he would lower them to $2.50 if only voters would give him the chance.   Did he have a plan?   No, not one that had any practical validity.

Newt was more blatantly dishonest, but Romney and Santorum are loudly blaming Obama for the price at the pump.

Here's the truth about how the price of gasoline is set, from an Associated Press article by Jonathan Fahey.   It matches what all responsible economists who study oil prices say.  The pump price is determined by:

1.  The price of crude oil.  This is the primary fluctuating factor, and this is set by the price of crude oil on the international trade exchanges.   Factors which are making this high right now include:
     a. The rising demand from developing nations of Asia, Latin American, and the Middle East.
     b.  Global traders and the prices they are willing to pay, which in turn respond to things such as fear of nuclear tensions with Iran.

2.  Retailers buy from oil refineries through exchanges such as the New York Mercantile Exchange.  It is then sold to distributors who set wholesale prices and then eventually to the retailers (gas stations) who set their own prices, often influenced by the competition down the street.

3.   Are prices manipulated by Wall Street investors?    To some extent.   Investors in futures can either bet on prices rising or falling.  So that somewhat limited effect can go either way.  And this, of course, also makes the prices vulnerable to manipulative, political motives.

4.   Politics?    There is little any single politician, including the president, can do to directly effect prices.   Increasing drilling -- the Republicans' loud mantra -- has no immediate effect, and even any long-range effect is dampened by the fact that the increased production simply goes on the international trade markets and would be but a drop in the bucket.  It is not a one-to-one relation (drill here, keep the gas here) that Republicans are implying.

     The Republican claim that opening a new oil well now will lower your pump price next month is an outright lie.

     a.  Releasing oil from emergency supplies, another Republican demand, may cause a slight dip in prices temporarilybut it would be quickly absorbed in the global price of crude -- and could even have the opposite effect by other nations taking it as a sign of scarcity and cutting back their own production to save their supply.

      b.  Cutting gasoline taxes.   This will lower the pump price -- but it also reduces the incentive to cut unnecessary use and to produce more fuel efficient cars.   In truth, raising taxes would be a more effective curb on excessive use of gasoline.

5.  Long range effective help:

     a  Setting higher fuel efficiency standards for cars and trucks and partially subsidizing development and purchase of more fuel efficient vehicles.   Obama has done this, and it is beginning to have an effect.

     b.   Encouraging expanded domestic production through granting drilling rights while still protecting the environment.   Obama has done this too, and gets much flak for his caution about the environment.   In truth, more new wells for drilling have been approved during his term than in the past, and for the first time in decades we now supply more than half the oil we consume.

     c.   Encouraging the development of alternate energy for heating to reduce the need for use of oil for heating.   Solar and wind power.   And again Obama has done this.

A New York Times story last Sunday by Richard Thaler, a University of Chicago professor of economics and behavioral science, reported a poll taken of a panel of 40 well-respected economists from top universities.  They were asked to consider this statement:
"Changes in U.S. gasoline prices over the past 10 years have predominantly been due to market factors rather than economic or energy policies."

Not a single one of the 40 disagreed with that statement.
So let's demand that Republicans tell the truth about gasoline pump prices.   Make them back up their claims.  They won't be able to do it.

This is not an issue that should be a political football -- but as long as the Republicans can fool the people into thinking they could actually do something about it -- they will use it as a weapon.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Don't tread on me

While I'm on my soap box about right wing bigots trying to force the rest of us to conform to their beliefs, let me extend this to include the recent flap about birth control and medical insurance coverage.

Sometimes the point is made better by writers of Letters' to Editors than by the professional pundits.  Maybe it's the requirement for brevity that makes them so pithy and so right-on.

Here are two from this week's Newsweek concerning their recent article by Peter Boyer about Cardinal Timothy Dolan's indignant position that the Obama health care plan was trying to force the church to support contraception against its principles:
"Churches have all the freedom in the world to explain their belief systems and to define behavioral expectations.  But it remains the choice of the individual to follow a church's precepts.  Dictatorial Catholics, evangelicals, and others need to accept the fact that others' personal decisions, including those regarding contraception, are simply not theirs to make."
     Michaelens Gorney, Johns Creek, GA."

"I wish Peter Boyer had asked Cardinal Timothy Dolan why he doesn't object to insurance covering Viagra.  After all, Viagra is a drug used by men who want to have sex.  Is the Catholic Church going to make sure this sex is with their wives and for procreation purposes only?  What if an unmarried man wants a Viagra prescription -- how is that OK?"
      Becky Bartlett, Nazareth, PA.
 Very well put.


NOM's shameless tactics exposed

The National Organization for Marriage.    Wouldn't you think those would be good people, even if misguidedly thinking that they alone own the rights to say who is entitled to marry?

Not so.   These are evil, manipulative, despicable people.   The odious Maggie Gallagher, whose writings I detested years ago when the AJC carried her weekly opinion column, is one of its leaders.

Now NOM's tactics have been exposed when a Maine judge unsealed memos from NOM introduced in a suit over the group's right to keep its donors names secret.   Why Maine?   Because NOM had been a major force in the campaign where voters overturned that state's law that legalized same-sex marriage.

NOM has an official designation as a social welfare organization and thus is entitled to avoid federal disclosure requirements.   But that is a completely false mask, and these memos prove that it is first and foremost a political activism organization.

Thanks to an editorial in the New York Times for this information:
1.  In the memos NOM brags about its "crucial" role in passage of California's Proposition 8.

2.  They describe their use of robo-calls to scare residents in different states away from supporting marriage equality.

3.  They talk of a plan to "expose Obama as a social radical."
It gets worse.   Much worse.
 4.  One memo is quoted:  "The strategic goal of the project is to drive a wedge between gays and blacks -- two key Democratic constituencies."

5.  Another stated aim is to manipulate Hispanic voters by making opposition to gay marriage "a key badge of Latino identity."

And this (quoting from the Times editorial):
"These are not the musing of a marginalized group.   The day after the memos became public, National Organization for Marriage's co-founder and chairman emeritus, Robert George, was appointed by John Boehner . . . to a United States commission focused on addressing religious intolerance and extremism around the globe."

"Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have publicly aligned themselves with the group and signed its pledge to work aggressively from the White House against same-sex marriage."
It's time for NOM to be held accountable for the misuse of its privileged status as a social service organization.   Either stop all political activity or lose the protections for non-political groups.


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Obama in campaign mode

Suddenly, it seems that Barack Obama has found his campaign voice again.

On top of his strong statement yesterday about the pending SCOTUS decision on the Affordable Care Act, today he goes after the Paul Ryan budget plan that has just been passed by the Republican controlled House.

He calls it "nothing but thinly veiled Social Darwinism" in a talk he will give to an Associated Press luncheon today in Washington.
"It's a Trojan Horse. . . . Disguised as [a] deficit reduction plan, it's really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It's nothing but thinly-veiled Social Darwinism. It's antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everyone who's willing to work for it -- a place where prosperity doesn't trickle down from the top, but grows outward from the heart of the middle class. And by gutting the very things we need to grow an economy that's built to last -- education and training; research and development -- it's a prescription for decline."
Stressing the theme that prosperity has never trickled down from the success of a wealthy few;  it comes, rather, from the success of a strong middle class.
"That's how a generation who went to college on the GI Bill, including my grandfather, helped build the most prosperous economy the world has ever known.  That's why a CEO like Henry Ford made it his mission to pay his workers enough so they could buy the cars that they made. That's why studies have shown that countries with less inequality tend to have stronger and steadier economic growth over the long run."
Bravo, Mr. President.


Obama's message to SCOTUS

It would be unseemly for POTUS to lecture SCOTUS about how it should decide the challenge to health care reform.

But, in a Rose Garden press conference today, Obama has done just that indirectly by giving a forthright assessment of what he thinks they will do.  That is permissible.

It turns out to be the best, succinct argument that I have heard for upholding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.   Here are Obama's major points (from a Huffington Post article):

1.  First and foremost, precedent.  He noted that two staunchly conservative lower court justices had agreed that the mandate and penalty were permissible under the Commerce Clause.  It might have been better if he had cited prior SCOTUS decisions rather than the decisions by lower ranked judges on this same bill.   But he was emphasizing the "staunchly conservative" judges.

2.  Second, under the ACA, changes have already been put in place that affect millions of children, Medicare's prescription drug coverage, and other insurance reforms including the ban of pre-existing condition -- all of which would have to be reversed because it cannot work without the individual mandate.  He said,
"People's lives are affected by the lack of availability of health care, the in-affordability of health care, their inability to get health care because of pre-existing conditions ... I think the American people understand and I think that the justices should understand that in the absence of the individual mandate, you cannot have a mechanism to ensure that people with preexisting conditions can actually get health care."
 And the third, very forceful point was about judicial activism.
"Ultimately I am confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress. . . .  And I just remind conservative commentators that for years what we have heard is that the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint; that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, this is a good example. And I'm pretty confident that this court will recognize that and not take that step."
Precedent, the effect of reversal on human lives, and judicial activism.

I have to believe that at least one of the conservative bloc will be moved enough by such considerations to find a way to justify voting to uphold the law.   That's all it will take.   One conservative vote.   Kennedy?   Roberts?   Scalia could even still be a long shot, despite his obvious hostility to the law itself.  But if he acts on principle and is consistent with a prior vote of his, he should.

I would add what Obama couldn't afford to say:   If SCOTUS overturns ACA, there will be a good case to make that the court has become politicized.   If you add this to Bush vs Gore and Citizens United, you have a strong case.   Roberts, at any rate, is not likely to want that as the legacy of The Roberts Court.

The other consequence could be a strong boost for pushing forward for a tax-funded, universal, single-payer program -- or even the simplest form of that:   expand Medicare to everyone.   It's already set up, it works just fine (as long as the  doctor reimbursements are not too paltry and the regulations not too onerous)


Monday, April 2, 2012

Critical Krugman

Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize winning economist, is definitely liberal in his politics and in his economic analyses -- and he is not shy about putting it in print as a regular columnist for the New York Times and a frequent tv commentator.   But he hits unusually hard today:
The big bad event of last week was, of course, the Supreme Court hearing on health reform. In the course of that hearing it became clear that several of the justices, and possibly a majority, are political creatures pure and simple, willing to embrace any argument, no matter how absurd, that serves the interests of Team Republican. 

But we should not allow events in the court to completely overshadow another, almost equally disturbing spectacle. For on Thursday Republicans in the House of Representatives passed what was surely the most fraudulent budget in American history.
And when I say fraudulent, I mean just that. . . .   it slashes taxes for corporations and the rich while drastically cutting food and medical aid to the needy. Even aside from all that . . . the alleged deficit reduction depends on the completely unsupported assertion that trillions of dollars in revenue can be found by closing tax loopholes. . . .
Krugman then explains that, even in an economy as large as our, that is a lot of loopholes.  So which ones does Ryan propose to plug?
None. Not one. He has, however, categorically ruled out any move to close the major loophole that benefits the rich, namely the ultra-low tax rates on income from capital. . . .

Mr. Ryan talks loudly about the evils of debt and deficits, but his plan would actually make the deficit bigger even as it inflicted huge pain in the name of deficit reduction. But is his budget really the most fraudulent in American history? Yes, it is. . . . 
Krugman goes on to explain that there have been fraudulent budgets before.   For example, George W. Bush's practice of bait and switch, in which he underestimated cost of cuts by pretending that they were temporary -- and then after the budget was adopted demanding that the cuts be made permanent.

This Ryan budget, passed by the House, will not be adopted as long as President Obama is in the White House, but it has been endorsed by Mitt Romney.   Krugman concludes:
But what we learn from the latest Republican budget is that the whole pursuit of a Grand Bargain was a waste of time and political capital. For a lasting budget deal can only work if both parties can be counted on to be both responsible and honest — and House Republicans have just demonstrated, as clearly as anyone could wish, that they are neither. 
Of course, this has been obvious for some time.   But it feels good that one can still read such a hard-hitting, correct analysis of the political news in a major U. S. newspaper, The New York Times.


Sunday, April 1, 2012

Trayvon Martin #6

The Orlando Sentinel consulted two voice analysis experts to try to identify the person heard screaming on the 911 tapes.   Using different methods, each came to the conclusion that the voice could not be that of George Zimmerman.   They could not positively say that it was Trayvon Martin, because they did not have a recording of his voice for comparison;  but they were definite that it could not be Zimmerman.

Supposed witnesses who saw two figures on the ground have supplied conflicting stories -- one about seeing "the guy in the red shirt" (Zimmerman) lying on the ground and another person above him.

Clarity (if it ever is found) will have to wait for the thorough investigation by the state attorney, with sworn testimony from witnesses, and assistance from the Department of Justice.

But here's what we do know:   Trayvon Martin had every right to be where he was as a guest of a resident of the gated community.   There is no evidence that he was doing anything wrong or even suspicious, except for Zimmerman's saying that he "looked suspicious."  Zimmerman was patrolling his neighborhood because of several recent breakins.  Apparently to him, a black teen in a hoodie was enough to make him suspicious.   Oh, yes, he also said that Martin was "looking around at the houses."   

Zimmerman was told by the 911 operator not to pursue him and to wait for the police to arrive.   He also has a history of violent outbursts, trouble with the police, and of frequent calls to 911 to report suspicious characters.

The "stand your ground" law, that is being used in Zimmerman's defense, requires hardly more than a killer's word that he felt threatened.  That is almost a license to kill.  Zimmerman says only that Martin looked suspicious and that he jumped him from behind and was beating him.   But Zimmerman weighed about 100 pounds more than Martin, and he showed no obvious evidence of having been beaten, at least not seriously enough to warrant using a gun.  And if the voice analysis stands up in court, then his case becomes very very weak.

The truth is:  This same stand your ground law would apply even more so to Trayvon Martin.  

We know for a fact from the 911 tapes that Zimmerman was stalking Martin and that Zimmerman was armed and prepared to kill.    Of course Martin felt threatened.  And there is one witness who was on the phone with him who says he was trying to get away from this man who was following him.

So, if anyone had justification for using lethal force to defend himself, it was Trayvon Martin.

But he is the one who wound up dead.


Conservative activist judges

The right-wingers rant about "activist judges" as though judicial activism is inseparable from "liberal."

Chief Justice John Roberts is said to care a great deal about the reputation and the legacy of The Roberts Court, and he seems to want it to be known for restraint and respect for precedent.

Then he has some household chores to do with his fellow conservative justices on the Supreme Court, because this group of nine (himself included) is about to redefine the meaning of "conservative activism."

Consider Bush v. Gore and Citizens United as two recent examples of an over-reaching court decision by the conservative majority.   Or consider the questions asked by the conservatives in the Affordable Care Act during this week's unprecedented three days of hearings.

As E. J. Dionne writes in the Washington Post, they seem ready to act as an alternate legislature, discussing the fine points of the 2700 page law, quoting budget figures, devoting a whole day of arguments about whether the whole bill could survive if they overturn the individual mandate and speculating about whether it could have passed without the mandate.  In other words, they are definitely delving into the political negotiations of the creation of the law rather than sticking to its constitutionality.

Let's be clear:   an activist judge is not a liberal judge but one who makes new law rather than deciding on the constitutionality of old law and precedent.   It was those liberals Breyer and Sotomayor who reminded their colleagues that some of the issues being discussed were the merits of the bill, which is the job of the legislature, not the courts.

Dionne reminds us that:
"The irony is that if the court’s conservatives overthrow the mandate, they will hasten the arrival of a more government-heavy system. Justice Anthony Kennedy even hinted that it might be more “honest” if government simply used “the tax power to raise revenue and to just have a national health service, single-payer.” Remember those words.

"One of the most astonishing arguments came from Roberts, who spoke with alarm that people would be required to purchase coverage for issues they might never confront. He specifically cited “pediatric services” and “maternity services.”

"Well, yes, men pay to cover maternity services while women pay for treating prostate problems. It’s called health insurance. Would it be better to segregate the insurance market along gender lines?

"The court’s right-wing justices seemed to forget that the best argument for the individual mandate was made in 1989 by a respected conservative, the Heritage Foundation's Stuart Butler.
“If a man is struck down by a heart attack in the street,” Butler said, “Americans will care for him whether or not he has insurance. If we find that he has spent his money on other things rather than insurance, we may be angry but we will not deny him services — even if that means more prudent citizens end up paying the tab. A mandate on individuals recognizes this implicit contract.”

"Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to reject the sense of solidarity that Butler embraced. When Solicitor General Donald Verrilli explained that “we’ve obligated ourselves so that people get health care,” Scalia replied coolly: “Well, don’t obligate yourself to that.” Does this mean letting Butler's guy die?

 "Slate's Dahlia Lithwick called attention to this exchange and was eloquent in describing its meaning.  “This case isn’t so much about freedom from government-mandated broccoli or gyms,” Lithwick wrote. “It’s about freedom from our obligations to one another . . . the freedom to ignore the injured” and to “walk away from those in peril.”
"This is what conservative justices will do if they strike down or cripple the health-care law. And a court that gave us Bush v. Gore and Citizens United will prove conclusively that it sees no limits on its power, no need to defer to those elected to make our laws. A Supreme Court that is supposed to give us justice will instead deliver ideology."
One consequence of having the law struck down will likely be a renewed push for a single payer system of health care -- made available to every citizen and paid for by taxes.   Medicare for All would be the simplest way to implement that.  By one estimate, all the administrative savings could pay for the premiums for all those currently uninsured.