Thursday, September 13, 2012

How Do You Make A War?

"How do you make a hurricane?" is the punch line of an old joke in which two retired Jewish retailers meet on a Florida beach and compare their retirement plans. Put in context of the current US election, the question becomes, "How do you make a war?" Imagine you are the incumbent President of the USA. You face an election that everyone, including yourself, believes will be determined by the economy. Your problem is that the economy is, for too many people, in the crapper. You know that no one, even yourself, could, in less than four years, fix an economy that the opposition party, together with an incredible number of morons from your own party, spent 30 years screwing up. But you are the incumbent and so you get to take the blame for whatever state the economy is in on election day. In the immortal words of Barney Frank, no one has ever won re-election with a bumper sticker that says "It would have been worse without me." You may have noticed that Mr. Frank is not running for re-election. To make matters worse, your opponent can honestly say that he knows something about business, finance and the economy. Agree with him or not, he is able to make what one of my professors used to call "intelligent noises" on those subjects.

And then it hits you. Four years ago the issue that everyone, including yourself, was convinced would decide the election would be which candidate would make a better Commander-in-Chief. The country was mired in three wars (Iraq, Afghanistan and global terrorism) and suffering from a loss of prestige on the world stage. Your problem was that you had no demonstrable skill or experience in foreign affairs or warfare. Your opponent, a war hero who survived torture to become a US Senator, was going to crush you in the debates and then march to victory in November. Just as things were looking tough, your predecessor figured out how to make a depression. Suddenly, the election was totally about "the economy, stupid." You succeeded in looking and sounding like you had a clue. At the same time, your opponent looked lost in some senior moment. And the election went from a difficult, uphill slog to a slam dunk.

So now, four years later, the question on the floor is, how do you make a war? Or at least get everyone to focus on the wars that we already have while ignoring the economy. You have spent four years as the Commander-in-Chief and even some of your worst detractors have had to concede that you've actually been pretty good at it. You've been milking the Bin Laden and other targeted assassinations for all they're worth and have most world leaders taking the USA seriously again. You really would not mind having more of that stuff to announce at press conferences, using all that free TV time you get just because you are the President. At the same time, your opponent is clearly clueless when it comes to foreign affairs. I mean, really, what potential US President makes a courtesy call at 10 Downing Street and manages to incur the wrath of the Prime Minister of the UK? How lame is that? And using the death of a popular US Ambassador for cheap political shots has even hard core Republicans wondering out loud if he's not really up to the job. If I'm your opponent I'm not all that thrilled to have my so-called friends describing my latest faux pas as a "game changer" without specifying that I'm the guy who benefits from the changed game. So, how do you make a war?

The answer is, you don't  You are not your predecessor. It's just not in you to deliberately start or heat up a war to settle a personal grudge or get re-elected. But it turns out that Joe Biden, of all people, was right. There is always some unexpected crisis that will test a President. And change the focus of the public debate. Al Qaeda cells in Libya and Tunisia are about to learn why so many of their colleagues in Pakistan and Yemen don't return phone calls these days. Meanwhile, suppose Assad gets killed and Syria collapses into total chaos. With cable news in the midst of a Syrian feeding frenzy, Bibi Netanyahu, thinking that no one will notice, bombs Iranian nuclear facilities. Iran will, of course, retaliate by not only launching missile attacks on Israeli cities but also by trying to close the Straits of Hormuz. You've had your Navy and Air Force planning and practicing for these events for months, if not years. And so, before you go into the last debate, your Navy and Air Force will have wiped out the Iranian Navy and Air Force, bombed every nuclear and missile facility in Iran, opened an air corridor for the Israelis to do something which the usual whiners will describe as "disproportionate" but no one will actually do anything about and, if things really break your way, Hillary and the CIA  would have helped put Syria under the auspices of Turkey. Pull this off and you can spend November 7 drafting your second inaugural address.
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Friday, February 17, 2012

The Cat Is Out Of The Bag

In my last blog I described why Republican leaders and their mouthpieces at Fox News do not want you to know just how responsible they are for the country's economic woes. Until recently they were doing a pretty good job of keeping people distracted from reality, the great foe of Republican politics. But, suddenly, the cat is out of the bag. Republicans' share of the blame for the US economy is a serious election issue. The fun part is that the debate is percolating not out of the Obama campaign or even Stephen Colbert's SuperPAC. It's coming from within the campaigns of Republicans running against Mitt Romney. And, all of a sudden, Romney, easily the candidate with the best chance in a general election, doesn't look like he's even close to being nominated. Why? Well, it turns out that Tea Party members and Evangelical Christians are just not as stupid as the mainstream Republican leadership and major donors seem to believe them to be. It also appears that it really is the economy, stupid, and trying to distract voters with things like the recent flap over birth control is not distracting Republican voters from the fact that they, like the rest of the 99%, have been screwed by their own party.

Much is being made of Mitt Romney's large, continuing income from his days at Bain Capital, a leveraged buyout  ("LBO") firm that he once headed. His Republican opponents have accused him of being a job-killing, vulture capitalist who doesn't care about the common man (i.e., Tea Party members and Evangelical Christians). In a nation where the general election will be determined by independent and swing voters looking for a centrist candidate, Romney has been forced to run further and further to the right. This gets him into more trouble since he really is not and never was a "strenuous conservative."

His opponents forced him to release his income tax returns so we can all see the extent of his ill-gotten gains. From this we know that Romney earns millions of dollars a year but pays a total Federal income tax burden of less than 14%. His adversaries are shocked. Shocked to discover unchecked capitalism in this establishment. This is giving Republican leaders, Karl Rove at Fox News and major Republican donors fits. Even some GOP biggies who are not comfortable with Romney, are urging Santorum, Gingrich, the next "flavor of the week" and their Super PAC supporters to tone it down. Why? Well, because, as discussed in my last blog, the Republicans have spent most of the last 32 years trying to make the world a happy place for the Mitt Romneys while generally screwing anyone unfortunate enough to make less than a million dollars a year.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear, Mitt Romney has done nothing wrong. I won't bore you with a discussion of "carried interest" and how it gets taxed as a long term capital gain. Let's just say that Romney has played by the rules and won big. How much more American can that possibly be? So, why are so many Republican leaders trying to get everyone to ignore this fact? What the Republican leaders and major donors don't want you (particularly if you are an Independent voter or a Tea Party member) to get focused on is that Romney has been playing by rules that have been largely put in place, or protected from the horrors of government regulation, by more than 30 years of Republican control over US economic and fiscal policies. If you don't like what Romney and the rest of the 1% are getting away with your recourse is to elect a President and Congressional representatives who will change the rules. Which is exactly what the people who currently control and fund the Republican party do not want to have happen. The fun started when Newt Gingrich went after Romney as a job killing vulture capitalist. Newt, a hero warrior of the Reagan Revolution who engineered the first Republican House majority in 40 years, didn't bother to mention that he was a key player setting up and preserving the tax and regulatory environment that made Romney very very rich. To make matters worse for mainstream Republicans, Rick Santorum, riding the populist wave that never quite lifts Ron Paul's boat, rolled into Michigan and started talking about how the bailouts of banks and big corporations, but not the little people like him and you, began under the Republican Administration in office before January 20, 2009! 

Now, your typical Tea Party member and most Evangelical Christians are, like the Occupy Wall Street folks, part of the 99%. They are victims of the past 32 years of Republican policies. All of a sudden they have a candidate, Santorum, who really is a "strenuous conservative" and who is committing the political sin of telling people the truth. Add to this the facts that Santorum's positions on subjects such as birth control (forget abortion, the real issue has always been womens' access to affordable birth control) and homosexuality and  family values, as demonstrated by his personal life, are, from a right wing conservative viewpoint, impeccable. this makes him a formidable opponent for Romney.

Romney is a Mormon, which is not a Christian church, according to a lot of Christians. (You have no idea how bizarre that sounds to a Jewish boy from Brooklyn, unless, of course, you are also an MOT.) Romney also managed to actually govern Massachusetts which meant compromising with Ted Kennedy-type Democrats, an unforgivable sin in a Republican primary fight. Gingrich's ties to the Washington elite, his own penchant for cashing in on his public persona and his personal hypocrisy are just too much for him to overcome. Meanwhile Ron Paul, who has been telling the truth about the Republican Party for years just doesn't seem to gain enough traction to be a serious contender. Add it all up and Santorum is the flavor of the week. Maybe even the month and, if he takes Michigan and does well on Super Tuesday, maybe all the way to the convention.

Now, here's the really fun part. Santorum is going around waking the Tea Party and Evangelical folks up to the fact that they are among the minions who have been getting economically screwed by the Republican Party for the past 32 years. Add to this the fact that Republicans, pre-Tea Party, pandered to family values voters to get nominated but, if elected, soon found more pressing matters to take care of and the situation is incredibly volatile. Every actual vote and every poll shows that a clear majority of Republican primary voters do not want Romney. That same majority would vote for a clone combining Santorum, Paul and just a hint of Gingrich (probably so we can go nuke Iran). Which just gladdens my heart. Oh, its not just the schadenfreude of Mitt Romney, a major American success story, falling into disrepute because he is a major American success story, its that Barack Obama's chances of being re-elected have never looked better. The Republicans are eating up huge amounts of media time, inches of newsprint and millions of dollars, running Obama's campaign for him.

Early in his term Obama said that he had two or perhaps three years to get the economy moving again or he would be a one term President. Today the economy is nothing to write home about but it is getting better. As Barney Frank famously said, "No one has ever been re-elected with a bumper sticker that read: It Would Have Been Worse Without Me." But most elected officials do get re-elected if most voters are better off on election day than they were when the official took office. (Reagan's famous quote, "Ask yourself: Am I better off today than I was four years ago?") So, on the economy, Obama has a shot but certainly not a slam dunk. But if the Republicans nominate Santorum, and especially if they come with an equally far right vice presidential candidate (I'm hoping for a Santorum/Bachmann ticket), Obama will win easily. 

About 40% of those who vote in November will vote for the Republican, no matter who he is. Another 40% will vote for Obama, even if we have to hold our noses while we do it. Its the 20% in the middle, voters who describe themselves as independents or as swing voters (a party member willing to vote for the other party), who will elect the next President. These people tend to be fiscally conservative but socially fall into the "live and let live" crowd. Faced with a Santorum, who, in the words of Lewis Black, "demonstrates a level of ignorance that is stunning in the 21st century," they'll vote for Obama simply because he scares them less.

For this blog I thank my most conservative friend. A wonderful drinking companion who, four years ago and to no one's surprise, was all set to vote for John McCain. But one day she turned on her TV and got a good look at Sarah Palin. And Obama got a vote he was never going to get. That's why mainstream Republicans and major Republican donors are having fits and I am really enjoying this election season. Read more!

The Little Plastic Castle On The Potomac: What Republican “Leaders” Don’t Want You (Or Their Base) To Know.

17 February 2012
Tel Aviv

Among my favorite urban myths is the one about how goldfish have no memory, so the little plastic castle is a pleasant surprise every time they circle their bowls. Perhaps the Republican Party ought to replace its elephant symbol with a goldfish. Why? Because according to any Republican leader (or Fox News host), nothing happened before January 20, 2009 (or, to be specific, nothing that is the fault of any Republican). According to the “official” GOP/Fox News line, the only President who came between Franklin Roosevelt and Barack Obama was Bill Clinton and no Republicans had anything to do with any legislation, regulations or court decisions that might have had any impact whatsoever on employment, housing, government budget deficits, Wall Street disasters that almost wiped out capitalism on a global scale, oil spills or the three wars in which we have been engaged for most of the last ten years. Now, I know that some of the current candidates to be the Republican nominee for President have actually broken from this party line (e.g., Rick Santorum in Michigan conceding that government bailouts were started by Bush II and that Obama was merely “following along”) but I will deal with the delightful schadenfreude I get from watching the Republicans destroy one another in my next blog.

What the so-called party leaders and most of the talking heads want you to focus on is how all of America’s economic woes are Obama's fault, except for the stuff that is still Clinton's fault.  This includes, but is not limited to, unemployment, budget deficits, wars, the Gulf oil spill, the continued failure to restore damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, sexual immorality (well, maybe that really is Clinton's fault) and, my favorite, a tax increase, now postponed by heroic Republicans in Congress until the end of 2012 (at which time Republicans will once again seize control and make the cuts permanent, at least for rich people like Mitt Romney).

Now, before you surf away or hit your delete key, it's not that I don't think there's plenty of blame to go around. Democrats, a subspecies that seems to have no exoskeleton, let alone a back bone, are just as guilty.  At no time in the past 32 years would Democrats have been unable to block Republican legislation by voting as a block or using various Senate rules. But as the only political party I know that is capable of having its caucus in a rain barrel, the Democrats consistently caved in and even supported to every tax cut and war the Republicans wanted. This being said, it is the Republicans who have taken their goldfish-style dementia to such a high level of entertainment that I can't resist at least one snarky blog on the subject.. And here is the rest of it.High on the list of things the GOP leadership would prefer not to discuss is the fact that, in the 32 years since Ronald Reagan became President, the Republicans will have held the Presidency for 20 years, the Senate for 16 years (including the two years during which Dick Cheney had to be disarmed, sobered up and hauled in from a secure, unnamed location to break or create tie votes in favor of the Republicans) and the House of Representatives for 14 years. For 12 years, 1995 through 2006, the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and, for six years, all three branches of government. A substantial majority of currently sitting Federal judges plus many of the people who form what was once referred to as the "permanent government" (back when I had to write this sort of stuff for final exams) were appointed by, or first came to Washington to work for, someone named Reagan or Bush.

In 1981, a new sheriff came to town, Ronald Reagan, and with him he brought what came to be called Reaganomics and the Reagan Revolution. Whether or not you are a Reagan fan (truth be told, I enjoyed Death Valley Days), you have to concede that his Administration had the greatest impact on America, in general, and Washington, in particular, since the Roosevelt Administration. The Reagan Revolution made the USA a haven for rich people, prevented middle class incomes from ever increasing, made it open season on organized labor and eliminated enforcement of outdated regulations like the anti-trust and securities laws. In general, Reagan and his allies managed to convince too many of us that, private enterprise can always do things more efficiently and effectively than the government. To this day we hear the daily cry that small government is better than big government and the ideal would be to have no government at all (unless, of course, you are a Congressman trying to get a new bridge built in his or her district). According to this new gospel, growth would always be stimulated by cutting the unfair tax burden, particularly on rich people (oh, sorry, “job creators”) and corporations and destroyed by any tax increase, ever. (Let's not confuse our GOP friends by harping on the fact that Presdients Reagan, Bush I and Clinton all signed off on tax increases which were closely followed by an historic bull market, the creation of millions of jobs and a government budget surplus. Why ruin an election campaign with facts?)  The Reagan Revolution continued on through the Clinton and Bush II Administrations. During the second Clinton and first Bush II terms, Washington managed to either repeal or, through regulatory inaction, ignore, key pieces of New Deal legislation designed to prevent banks, insurance companies and others from speculating with depositors’ money and crashing the nation’s credit and financial systems.

Oddly enough, back in the Reagan/Bush I years, in what can fairly be described as a bipartisan effort, Congress managed to impose fiscal restraints on itself. Kind of. Sort of. Well, at least by Washington standards it was restraint. Any new spending or new tax cuts had to be revenue neutral. In other words, if you wanted to spend more money you had to either find new revenue (i.e., raise taxes) or cut some other spending. Incredibly, with Congress and the White House, divided between the parties for most of the late 80s and 90s, this worked. Kind of. Sort of. Well by Washington standards it worked. And so, by the end of the Clinton Administration the government actually ran a surplus. And, according to the Congressional Budget Office (“CBO”), that surplus was going to grow to be hundreds of billions of dollars. That was, of course, if nothing significant happened to cause a change in America's or the world's economy over the ten years beginning with 2001. Would you rely on such an assumption? The CBO warned anyone who would listen (which turned out to be Fortune's Allan Sloan and his readers but apparently this group did not include anyone holding an elected Federal office) that its estimate could not be relied on for a period much longer than it just took you to read this sentence.

And so, in 2001, we were gifted with the first round of Bush tax cuts. Even under the rosy predictions used to pass these cuts, the Federal government would start running deficits again by the end of 2010. Looking forward after 2010, the projected deficits rose into the trillions. And so, in yet another act that passes for fiscal restraint in the Capitol, Congress put a sunset provision into the tax cuts. In general, on January 1, 2011, the tax code would revert back to the rules that would have been in effect had the 2001 legislation never been enacted. Bush signed the bill into law figuring that one of two things would happen. Either a later Congress would blink first and make the tax cuts permanent or he would be out of office and his successor would be blamed for imposing a huge tax increase; which is just what the Republicans are now trying to do to Obama.

And the surplus? Well, for those of you who have no memory of the United States before January 20, 2009, Bush signed his first round of tax cuts in Spring 2001. Starting on September 11, 2001, the United States suffered its worst terrorist attack, a stock market crash and entered into wars on three fronts (Homeland Security, Afghanistan/Pakistan and Iraq). And so, with tax revenues falling while expenses were rising at astronomical rates, the Republicans in Congress and the White House stepped up to the plate and passed a second round of tax cuts. Where were the Democrats? They were cowering in the corner trembling in fear of not being seen as supporting our troops or of losing the next election by voting against more tax cuts. Thus, the Bush II administration, with the full support of Congress, guaranteed that the USA would have multi-trillion dollar deficits for decades to come.

Meanwhile, outside the Beltway, from 1981 until 2007 (with a couple of minor bumps in the road) Wall Street was on its greatest roll ever. Ripping up companies, sticking them back together, destroying huge numbers of jobs, and creating jobs that were either lower paying or located in China, India, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe. The bottom line?  In 1980, the top 1% of Americans, when ranked by annual income, received 10% of all income. In 2007, just before the Bush Recession, this had grown to 24% and all indications are that this gap between the 1% and the 99% continues to grow. For most Americans, family income has been flat or gone down when adjusted for inflation. The most striking example of what can be best described as the Republicans’ War on The Middle Class is that roughly 75% of workers who lost their jobs in the Bush Recession and have now returned to work are working for less.

But what about the great economy we’ve had for most of the past 32 years? If things are so bad, where have all those corporate profits and personal wealth come from? Well, for Wall Street, there's globalization. It is not uncommon for a US-based corporation to earn more money outside than inside the US. (How do you think Ford avoided a bailout and bankruptcy when their US sales were not much better than Chrysler or GM?) Back at home people on Main Street were increasing the volume of what we consume. But didn’t I just tell you how most Americans have seen their incomes drop, or at least not rise, over the past 32 years? So, how can we buy more and more stuff with less cash to spend? Easy: credit. And I do mean easy credit. Give everyone 5 or 6 credit cards, give people who can’t possibly repay them home mortgages and equity-based lines of credit. Just keep extending credit to support the purchase of stuff. Need to pay off your old loans? Just get new loans. And, to keep the money flowing, take all these basically worthless IOUs and “securitize” them into investment products that not even their creators understand. Then, to top it all off, give the securitized debt a AAA rating courtesy of the rating companies who get their fees from the creators of the securities and fully insure the investment banks' risk, but not their customers', using an insurance company whose assets could not possibly cover the potential losses. Our government didn't just allow this, the government was a major player in the action.

And so, after almost 30 years of the Republicans pushing their version of free market capitalism (that’s a system under which profits are privatized for the top 1% while losses of companies deemed "too big to fail" are socialized among the rest of us), the US economy was transformed into one gigantic Ponzi scheme. And so, when the inevitable down cycle came, when the housing market collapsed and the stock market went south, when major banks and insurance companies were sinking under so much leverage that they could never work themselves out of debt, the US economy dropped into its worst recession since the 1930s. The Roosevelt Administration had tried to warn us this would would happen without the protection of New Deal legislation. The Republicans, who at one point wanted to replace Roosevelt’s picture on the dime with that of Ronald Reagan, told us that we had to root out socialism in America by eliminating all vestiges of the New Deal and managed to trigger a second great depression. The only reason why we are now slowly pulling out of a recession instead of slogging through the second great depression have been the bailouts arranged by that class traitor, Henry Paulson, Bush II Treasury Secretary and former Chairman of Goldman Sachs, followed by the Obama Administration's efforts to put a floor on our losses and try to stimulate a recovery. Americans will be paying for Republican profligacy for decades to come, except for guys like Mitt Romney. But that's another blog. Read more!

Friday, March 25, 2011

One Of These Is Not Like The Others

Go get your kids' old Sesame Street tape, put on Burt and Earnie singing "One Of These ...." and then play the game with headlines from today's web version of The New York Times:

  1. Islamist Group Is Rising Force In New Egypt
  2. Thousands March To Protest Syria Killings
  3. Yemen's Leader In Talks On Exit But Still Defiant
  4. Opposition To Topple Canadian Government
Have a nice day, eh. Read more!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Small and Complicated Place

So far today, I've stood in warm sunshine, been caught in torrential rains, walked back into sunshine, felt a drizzle of rain, crossed the street into sunshine but under a cloud emitting lightening bolts and thunder claps. In Israel, if you don't like the weather, you can always wait a few minutes or simply cross the street. The place is small, complicated, interconnected and constantly changing.

Yesterday, some psychotic killer planted a bomb at one of the busiest bus stops in Jerusalem. Today, the south Tel Aviv soup kitchen where I'm a volunteer had no meat or substitute protein to serve. Why? It seems the IDF is the main source of meat or meat substitutes for La Sova and similar institutions. Only today the IDF is busy trying to intercept the next bomber or missile launcher before more people get hurt. This resulted in the cancellation of the social service activities of a number of Israeli soldiers. So, the clients of a south Tel Aviv soup kitchen had to do without. Like I said. Israel is small, complicated, interconnected and constantly changing.

My cousin, Meir, and I have been planning a family outing for this Saturday in Tel Aviv. Meir was awakened Wednesday morning by a missile striking near his Be'er Sheva apartment. Our conversation turned from walking tours to "the situation." He suggested that, for now, Liz and I should avoid crowded areas. I was ready to take his advice (one should not ignore advice in these matters from a veteran Israeli) but did point out that the area we are planning to walk through this Saturday will probably be crowded. Meir said, yes, but that's a couple of days from now. So I booked a walking tour, made a reservation for lunch and began hoping for sunny skies. After all, just because today it may be raining or something may be exploding is no reason to cancel future plans. Like I said, Israel is small, complicated, interconnected and constantly changing. Read more!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Debbie Friedman of Blessed Memory

Debbie Friedman changed the world of Jewish music, providing the soundtrack for much of the Jewish world, particularly among American Jews. Even if you don't recognize her name, if you've been in a temple or synagogue, Jewish summer camp or any service or event aimed at young families during the past 3 or 4 decades, you've heard and can probably sing some of her songs. While much of her work was for the Reform movement (she began as a song leader at NIFTY camps), she has performed, or had her music performed, just about everywhere in the American Jewish world.

Debbie's style of playing and composition could best be described as coming out of the great urban folk music revival of the 60's. Her music always reminded me of Peter, Paul and Mary. This notion changed into a certainty when I was privileged to hear her jam with Peter Yarrow during the 1990 CAGE conference at Ohio State. She used modern, urban folk music as settings for prayers and other expressions of spirituality that form the soundtrack of many lives. Other than Levandovsky (whose liturgical music has been a mainstay of Ashkenazic Judaism for almost 200 years) and Carlbach (whose Hassidic-inspired melodies are the only body of work to rival Debbie's during the last half of the 20th century), I can't name anyone whose music has permeated the spritual lives of so many Jews, including me and my family.

Debbie Friedman suffered from complex ailments which ate away at her body but never dampened her spirit. She went on with her life and her life's work in spite of the physical toll it took. I guess her body had finally had enough, long before she or any of the multitude she has inspired, had had enough.

May her memory be for a blessing. Read more!