Universal Translator

Friday, July 29, 2011

Yep. This is Very Weird. By Design

A few years ago I got into an online conversation with my former Constitutional Law professor. He is a good guy and I probably was too harsh in our conversation, but that is because he believes in our system of government and is almost incapable of recognizing that -- sometimes -- it breaks down. But even now that I am no longer his student and he is not required to put up with my kvetching, the man still took the time out to talk with me and argue me out of my default "Let's burn it down!" mindset. Like I said, a good man.

One of the things he recommended to me to help me make sense of what I was witnessing in the dark days of the Bush II administration is a book titled "Our Undemocratic Constitution," written by another constitutional law professor named Sanford Levinson. (My prof called him "Sandy," but I think that is only because my prof knows him; I won't take such liberties.)

I read the book and it did a good deal to show me how conservative is our system of governance. Not "conservative" in a system of values, but "conservative" in that our system was consciously designed not to let a lot of change happen. There are a lot of veto points in our system that allow a relatively small number of people to stop whatever is going on at the moment.

And I am sure that when the Founding Fathers crafted this document in the late 18th Century, that probably seemed like a good thing. I'm pretty sure I could not have come up with a better idea myself, and I've the advantage of two centuries of additional history to help me.

But now it looks as if a small group of people have seized one of our two political parties, which is bad. But that political party controls one of the two houses of Congress, which is worse. And even though the Congress is only one-third of our federal system, it is a necessary one-third.

Which means that our federal system of government depends on Congress, and the Congess depends on the House, and the House depends on its majority party, and right now that majority party is controlled by the Manson Family.

Can you spell "disaster"?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reason # 2,364 Why I am an Agnostic

So I just got back from walking my dog, I've got a pot of pasta boiling on the stove, and I'm listening to a podcast I downloaded a week or so ago. The guest is a guy named Darrel Ray, a psychologist who has written a book titled: "The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture," and I am vaguely listening when I suddenly realize that the entire hook -- at least of this interview, I don't know about the book -- is that this guy is trying to persuade me that atheists enjoy better sex lives than do religious people.

That idea seems familiar, where have I heard that before? Hmmmmmmm. . . . .

Oh, yeah! Now I remember!

It was that stupid pledge Family Leader -- the Iowa Christian-Right Group -- was demanding the Republican Presidential aspirants sign. The Pledge required that the GOP pols explicitly recognize that "the overwhelming statistical evidence [is] that married people enjoy better health, better sex . . . ."

But . . . seriously? Is this how religiously-minded people expect to persuade me that there is a God, that my consciousness extends beyond death, that there is a true manifestation of the Sublime, Divine and Indescribable within my reach . . . or, y'know, maybe not?

This is what they've come up with -- the religious and the atheists -- to sell me on their most transcendental beliefs? How hard they can make me nut?

Jesus! If that's all there is then why not invite me to start worshipping at The Church of Michael Hutchence?

* * *

I dunno about you, but when I hear someone trying to sell me on their version of Truth, the Universe, and Everything, and their sales pitch is that I get to nut harder if I believe what they believe . . . I tend to think I'm talking to a pimp, and that what they are selling me is a whore.

No, thanks . . . I'll find my own way.

Wall Street and the Teabaggers: Buyer's Remorse

If I could maintain the right level of detachment -- say, the kind that comes with depersonalization disorder -- I think I might be capable of enjoying a bit of schadenfreude at the expense of the House Republicans right now.  It appears that the Wall Street Republicans are trying to get some kind of deal done to raise the debt ceiling, and the Teabaggers are determined not to let them get away with it.
As TimF at Balloon-Juice observed about two week ago, this may be "a truly existential moment -- [the GOP] has to decide who is in charge, and halfway measures won't do. Does the party serve wealthy people, who mostly want low taxes and stability, or does it serve tea party anarchists?"
What makes it all the more delicious -- provided you can ignore the Sword of Damocles hanging over our heads -- is that it wasn't supposed to be this way.  So many people have been repeating and listening to the same Teabagger rhetoric for more than two years now that the idea the Teabaggers were supposed to be "anti-Wall Street" has seeped into our collective psyche.  But if you go back to the beginning of the movement it is clear that the Teabaggers were really created simply to do the bidding of their Wall Street Masters.  
Unfortunately, the Big Money Boyz created a monster too stupid not to be brainwashed by its own propaganda and now it is running amok and threatening to tear down the castle.  I'd laugh, but I don't think that's an appropriate response when watching a horror movie.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

This is Getting Really Crazy

First, the House Republicans insisted on voting on their insane "Cut, Cap and Balance" plan for cutting the deficit, despite the fact they knew it was DOA in the Senate. But they went through this little vanity act anyway, wasting time, and then -- as was expected -- the Senate killed the beast last Friday by voting to table it.

Then John Boehner and Harry Reid announced they were working on their own, competing deficit reduction bills. Reid's bill gives the Republicans everything they've asked for: $2.7 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years, with absolutely no revenue increases. However, Reid's plan (i) cuts costs by closing out the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and (ii) does not cut Medicare or Social Security spending. Since the GOP doesn't believe a spending cut is really a spending cut unless it hurts old, poor or sick people, the Republicans already have announced their opposition to Reid's plan.

And then there is John Boehner's "two-step proposal," which is supposed raise the debt ceiling by $1.2 trillion (which will carry us through about 6 months) and slash entitlement spending for the old, poor and sick people the GOP considers such lazy parasites. Afterward, Boehner anticipates we go through this entire hostage-taking exercise again six months from now by having another round of debt-limit wrangling while the Republicans look for more safety net programs they can slash.

But Obama has announced an intention to veto Boehner's plan if it gets to him, which it won't because Reid has announced it won't pass the Senate, which is moot because Republican leaders themselves acknowledge that Boehner doesn't have enough votes to get his bill past the House either.

In light of all this, Reid indicated earlier today that he was going to wait to watch Boehner's proposal get shot down in the House before presenting his own bill in the Senate. I suppose the thinking was that - by then - we'd be so close to the Aug. 2nd drop-dead date that Reid's plan would be the only way to avoid defaulting on our debt, and that enough sane Republicans could be found in the House to get his plan passed and onto President Obama's desk before Defaultageddon.

But then the Congressional Budget Office announced that Boehner's plan doesn't actually save very much money. So then Boehner said that he is re-writing his proposal (and scrambling to try to get some more support from his own party) and is delaying a vote on his plan until Thursday. Oh, yeah . . . and get this: Boehner also has scheduled another vote on Thursday to have a balanced budget amendment added to the Constition. That's right. Apparently, for the GOP, 5 days before the United States defaults on its debt obligations is the perfect time to have a vote about amending the frigging Constitution.

There is no word yet if Harry Reid still intends to wait for Boehner's bill to be shot down before bringing his own proposal before the Senate, but it seems clear that while the House Republicans are dicking around with balanced budget amendments and bills that can't even get past the chamber that they themselves control time is getting very, very short.

Here's a proposal: Why doesn't Congress just raise the debt ceiling, without worrying right now about slashing the deficit, exactly the way it has 89 times before? Seriously, this wholly manufactured "debt ceiling crisis" could be resolved in 30 seconds with a coupla voice votes, and then Congress could go back to arguing about the deficit -- without the Sword of Damocles hanging over its head -- while it tried to work out the 2012 budget.

Simple, no?

The Insidiousness of the "Job Creator" Meme

Something that has gained a lot of traction over on the Right is the idea that the Rich are the ones who create jobs. Apparently just as a byproduct of being rich, jobs are thrown off by them like some kind of magical aura. And this is why, we are told, the Rich cannot be asked to pay any more in taxes: because then they might get mad and take their ball and go home and deprive us of the jobs that spring up miraculously from their blessed footprints.

This is a truly stupid idea. Jobs don't instantly spring up out of wealth, jobs are created whenever there is a demand for some good or service that is not yet being met. Demand creates jobs -- talking about any other factor is just fussing about details.

But there is something else at work here, something more subtle and insidious: the idea that hiring someone is a gift, like alms. If you look for it, you see this idea popping up everywhere.

GOP: Gang Of (adolescent) Punks

Back in my college days I read a line by P.J. O'Rourke that stuck with me ever since. P.J. was explaining the allure of being a 3rd World freedom fighter and observed (paraphrasing from memory): "It will always be more fun to run around in the mountains with a Kalashnikov and sleep with ideology-addled college girls than it will be to spend your life in a rice paddy staring at the ass-end of a water buffalo." Of course, what is implied but not stated is that "staring at the ass-end of a water buffalo" is what actually keeps people from starving to death.

Generally speaking, it is the sober, plodding work that people do that produces more overall benefit, and does so more reliably and routinely, than does the rousing, romantic, exciting confrontation that we all tend to find so viscerally appealing. This is why - in the Real World - most people end up in jobs that do not provide much in the way of excitement but do pay better than any reasonable alternative: boring, routine work produces the most benefit to society. This is also why they don't make movies that are only about people doing boring, routine work: we may all of us be stuck doing that sort of stuff, but we don't enjoy it much and our dreams are always of things a lot more fun.

One of the marks of being an adult is recognizing a univeral truth: if you really want to accomplish something worthwhile, doing so will involve a great deal of hard, mostly boring work. On the other hand, if you care more about "striking a blow" or "making a statement" for whatever cause you've decided to make your own, then you are still pretty much an adolescent who really just wants to star in a movie.

Sometimes it seems to me that America is becoming more and more a nation of adolescents. Even scarier, there seems to be an increasing likelihood that these adolescents have actually seized control of the country.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Screw "Shared Sacrifice"

Jonathan Tasini has a highly recommended post up over at The Daily Kos titled “Three Grand Myths."  In his discussion of one of these Grand Myths – the nation’s debt and deficit problems – Tasini tosses out this observation:

In a press release incomprehensibly titled, “Conrad’s 50-50 Proposal is a Good Sign,” [a] “progressive” leader praises Sen. Kent Conrad – one of the leading purveyors of the phony deficit crisis – for a proposal that would cut critical government services by hundreds of billions of dollars:  “The Conrad proposal is the first strong Democratic proposal that has come out of these negotiations.”

The statement is full of self-delusion – that is, that a “50-50 proposal” could cut $2 trillion from the budget but, the statement demands, the proposal has to be one in which, “No deal that takes more out of the programs for middle income and poor Americans than it takes from tax breaks, loopholes and havens for the rich and the big corporations, and no deal that undermines the economic recovery.”

The statement promotes and endorses the immoral framing of “shared sacrifice” – that people who already have paid dearly for the financial mess of the past years with millions of jobs lost and devastated retirement funds, should give even more to repair damage they had no hand in creating.  (emphasis added)

I think this is a great point, and one that I’d take even further.  Forget about only the suffering caused by “the financial mess of the past [few] years” – that doesn’t go nearly far enough. 

I want us to recognize that the Reagan Revolution of 1980 was the start of America’s economic brickhouse being turned into a 30-year Ultimate Rave featuring a great DJ, an open bar and an all-you-can eat buffet . . . except that only the already affluent were invited to the party.  And I want us recognize that the time has come to finally put our economic house back in order, and that this means acknowledging that the strength of our nation’s economy ultimately rests on and derives from the economic security of its citizens – all of its citizens.

But I damned sure don’t want to hear anything about how “everybody has to share the sacrifice” that comes from rebuilding our house.  Let those who ate and drank and partied so well during the past 30 years of supply-side gibberish, Voodoo Economics, and crony capitalism pay all of the costs for their good times.  The rest of us didn’t get to go to the party, we shouldn’t be asked now to clean up the mess.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

America Has Defaulted Before. Sort of.

Norm Ornstein has a new article up at Foreign Policy titled: "Worst. Congress. Ever." (H/t, again, to Steve Benen at Washington Monthly) In it, Ornstein reviews how the GOP's extreme partisan ideology has hamstrung the 112th Congress so as to prevent even the simplest and most necessary acts from being accomplished:
[L]ook what we have now: a long-term debt disaster with viable bipartisan solutions on the table but ignored or cast aside in Congress; an impasse of the usually perfunctory matter of raising the statutory debt limit placing the United States in jeopardy of its first ever default . . . (emphasis added).
You see statements like this again and again when reading articles about the debt ceiling: that if the debt ceiling isn't raised the United States will default on its debt obligations for "the first time ever." Except that statement isn't really true. In fact, our country pretty much began by defaulting on its debts.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Story of Who We Are

Via Steve Benen over at Political Animal I see that the White House has been circulating a video of President Obama speaking with some college students in Massachusetts. In trying to explain the nature of politics to them, Obama said the following:

[O]ne of the challenges of this generation is, I think, to understand that the nature of our democracy and the nature of our politics is to marry principle to a political process. That means you don't get 100% of what you want. You don't get it if you are the majority; you don't get it if you are in the minority. And you can be an honorable [person] in politics understanding that you are not going to get 100% of what you want.

One of the reasons I like this statement is because it implicitly clarifies the respective, and different, roles that are supposed to be played by politicians and advocates. The mere fact that you can never get 100% of what you want doesn't mean that you stop advocating for it. It just means that you have to recognize that -- in any particular political battle -- you won't realize it.

And that is fine. It is the job of the politician to compromise with the other side and obtain for you the most he can get that you want, whilst giving up the least that you are willing to sacrifice. But it is the job of us, the advocates, to continue to press for our desires and try and re-work our society to make it better fit the image we have of what it should be.

Above all, it is our job to try and remember that what we call "the political process" is precisely that: a process. It is always ongoing, it is always changing, it is always evolving. It never, ever stops.

Arguing with each other over societal policies and prescriptions is nothing less than the never-ending story we tell each other about who and what we are as a people. And if you want your narrative to carry the day, you can't stop talking.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Maybe We Should Try and Get Obama's Back

I’ve been playing around over at The Great Orange Satan the past few days, cross-posting some things and leaving comments here and there on others’ diaries.  I enjoy being part of the politically aware, on-line Leftist community not least for the opportunity it gives me to share a back and forth with others who care enough to spend their time paying attention to news and thinking about what is going on in the world.

One of the things that always strikes me is how diverse are the people on the Left side of the political spectrum . . . at least compared to those on the Right.  There is a reason that for 30+ years – year in, year out - the political pundits have been able to pull out that tired trope:  “Democrats in Disarray.”  It is because the Democratic party always is.

Where the Conservative/Republican party has no difficulty circling wagons and attacking everyone who is The Other, the Liberal/Democratic party doesn’t really see it that way.  As inclined toward inclusion as we are, we naturally take in everybody willing to fight the good fight.  Unfortunately, after doing so, we tend to argue with each other about who is really a “Good Liberal” -- as if there is some “elect of the elect” toward which we should aspire.

Broadly, this breaks down into two groups:  the ideologically liberal pure, and the pragmatists.  The ideologically liberal pure constantly sneer at the pragmatists for being “sell-outs,” and the pragmatists always sneer at the ideologically liberal pure for being “electoral losers.”  Every once in an election year the two factions join together (more or less) to try and defeat the Evil Conservative Republicans, but even when they succeed they almost always forget their common foe immediately thereafter and turn upon and start savaging each other.

Personally, I find it quite frustrating.

Which is one of the reasons I am very happy to have Barack Obama as my president, right now.  Everyone says that the Presidency ages you, but rarely have we seen it age someone this quickly.  Still, he isn’t giving it up.  He is still fighting to try and do something to get the country moving again.

I am not sure I could do that.  I have my problems with the way Obama has used his presidency; I, personally, would have taken a much more liberal and partisan approach to the job.  Unlike Obama, I would not have made a fetish of “bipartisanship,” and I certainly would not sacrifice effective economic policy on its altar.

But right now Obama is still trying to get a deal done to keep the country from going into the economic crapper and he is facing an unhinged opposition party, and he is at the same time contending with a “liberal base” that at least 5 times out of 10 considers him a “sell-out.”  As tough as his job is, it’s gotta be even worse knowing that a sizeable chunk of the people who voted for you no longer have your back.

Just last night I came across this sentiment from James Kunstler

If I were Barack Obama, I'd think twice about presiding over this irresolvable muddle of engineered swindles, sinking prospects, booby-trapped budgets, and played-out lies for another term. Let Hillary step in and try to keep this leaky Flying Dutchman out of the drink.  

When I read that I suddenly imagined how alluring the idea of simply quitting must sometimes seem to Barack Obama.  Obama was sworn in to preside over cleaning up maybe the worst mess ever left behind for a new president.  And for the entirety of his term, he has been forced to deal with the most recalcitrant, reactionary opposition party any president has ever seen; a party determined to let the country go down in flames before it will grant him even the slightest degree of cooperation.  Moreover, Obama has had to deal with not only the opposition, but with those of us on the Left so busy trying to “out-Left” each other that we publish headlines that ask whether Obama is:  “The Worst President Ever.”

* * *

Now, if Obama were a Conservative I’m sure he wouldn’t be running for re-election; it’d be so much easier to just retire and cash in.  Isn’t that what Conservatives do?  Sarah Palin cared so little about the job she had been handed – Governor of Alaska – that once she hit the national stage she up and quit that job, trading it in to be a B-list celebrity on a basic cable channel hawking her own books.

Obama could easily quit and coast on his laurels.  Not only is he a President, he is the First Black President and for that alone he has secured his place in the history books.

But, from all that we see now, Obama isn’t about to do that.  Obama is still trying to cut a deal and do what he thinks is the right thing for the country – as much as I and others might disagree with him on the details – and he is still the only thing standing between us and the utter corporatization that will occur should the Republicans take complete control in 2012.

* * *

Hey . . . I don’t know where I fall on the “liberal spectrum,” whether I should be viewed as a True Believer or a Pragmatic Sellout.  I believe in my goals, and I also believe that sometimes you have to give ground to get ground.  Sometimes you cede territory to gain a strategic advantage.  And I recognize that when someone else is calling the shots it is difficult to know whether that guy is doing something smart, or doing something feckless.

But what I do know is that Kunstler was right:  it would be amazingly easy for Obama to just walk away from the problems he’s inherited, and if he did so his historical legacy would remain intact.  I think the man deserves just a little bit of appreciation for hanging in there and fighting the fight, and not giving up and rolling over even when it seems he has so little support from so many of us.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Eric Cantor: My Negotiating Guru

House Leader Eric Cantor has an, ah, unique negotiating style. Apparently, during a meeting with President Obama on Tuesday, Cantor suggested that there was nothing stopping everyone involved in the debt limit negotiations from reaching a deal immediately. Cantor pointed out that the GOP had asked for entitlement cuts and that the White House had agreed to some entitlement cuts in exchange for additional increases in revenue. The only sticking point was that the GOP didn't want to give Obama any increases in revenue. Nevertheless:

"We both agree on doing something that is good for the country, which is dealing with entitlements," Cantor said, "Why don't we just do that? Why do we have to sit here and say we still got to raise taxes when we don't agree on that? We both agree on entitlements, and, in fact, we would both agree on what the president's prescription for entitlement reform is."

That's brilliant! I can't wait to pull that the next time I get a new car: "Look, we both agree that you want me to have this car, and that I want me to have this car. Why do we have to sit here and say we still got to agree that I need to pay you money for it? Why don't we just go with what we both agree on: I get the car. We can do this deal right now."

I'm sure that'll go over about as well as did this silliness with the President.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

One More Thought re: Debt Limit Negotiations

Over at Balloon Juice TimF has a post up about the debt limit negotiations and he raises an interesting point:

It looks like [the GOP] has arrived at a truly existential moment -- it has to decide who is in charge, and halfway measures won't do. Does the party serve wealthy people, who mostly want low taxes and stability, or does it serve tea party anarchists? The issue here is quite similar to the GOP dilemma on immigration in that the party utterly depends on two factions whose demands are not just misaligned but diametrically opposed. The Chamber of Commerce not only wants but in fact depends on undocumented immigrants for more jobs than most people realize, while redneck racists will do almost anything to clean the brown people out of their towns and states.


As recently as the mid-Bush administration Republican initiatives still served the CoC at least as much as they catered to racist Bubbas. Can you imagine that now? Of course you can't. Leading edge GOP policies like Arizona's SB1070 and the Georgia law that left their unpicked fruit harvest to rot make it look an awful lot like angry, stupid Bubbas have a solid grip on the steering wheel.

Boehner and his business lobby could still rally and put armageddon back in snooze mode for a few more months. If they do it would count as one hell of an upset against a raging 'roided-up faction that has won every intra-party battle so far.

I wonder if the debt ceiling impasse might not lead the financial Powers That Be to start backing Obama and the Dems again. Despite all of the Wall Street whining about Obama once referring to them as "Fat Cats" the banksters have done very, very well under Obama's watch. The markets are up and bankster compensation is through the roof. Sure Obama and the Dems want to raise their taxes, but at least the Democratic party is still capable of acting rationally to prevent a complete financial meltdown. If the Republicans have been as thoroughly captured by their insane Teabagging base as it now appears, then the Republicans pose a much more fundamental threat to business-as-usual in this country than do the Dems -- and therefore a much more fundamental threat to the CoC and the Wall Street banksters.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Gaming Out the Debt Limit Negotiations

(Because Estabon Ferlingetti VI demanded it)

For a lot of different reasons, it is obviously insane that the House GOP has resorted to extortion by threatening to block an increase in the nation’s debt limit unless its demands for spending cuts are met.  Every person who actually understands the situation agrees that the economic consequences would be disastrous should America end up defaulting on its public debts.  Toby Ziegler explains:

This is why even John Boehner and Mitch McConnell have acknowledged that the nation’s debt limit must be raised before the August 2nd drop-dead date.  “Must” – not “should.” Toby Ziegler's assessment of what will occur should the United States default of its debt obligations may have been dramatic, but it wasn't far off the mark. <:p>

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Using the Shock Doctrine to Cut Social Security Benefits

Reports are being floated that even Social Security – for some unfathomable reason – might be on the table in the ongoing debt ceiling and deficit negotiations.  On its face, it is impossible that Social Security has anything to do with either the debt ceiling or the deficit.  Social Security is funded by a dedicated revenue stream (our payroll taxes), and its trust fund is “off-budget” and treated separately from the rest of federal spending.


Social Security is a defined benefit pension plan sponsored by the federal government, financed primarily with dedicated contributions of workers matched by their employers.  Social Security has no borrowing authority and so does not and cannot contribute to the federal deficit.  And it will be in balance for the next 26 years, even with no policy changes.  (emphasis added).

The American Prospect

But, of course, that isn’t the whole story.  The rest of the story is that after 30 years of subsidizing the wealthiest Americans with the payroll taxes paid by the poor and the middle class, the bill is about to be presented and wealthy Americans don’t really want to pay that bill.  Of course, if they are allowed to skate on this it will be the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor and the middle class to the rich in the history of . . . well, forever, but is there any doubt that the odds are with the wealthy on this one? 

Obama Planning to Strong Arm Liberals Over Debt Talks?

It increasingly looks like President Obama intends to use the debt ceiling negotiations to force through some sort of deficit-reduction plan, and that this plan will mostly focus on reducing government spending.

For a long time I had been hoping that Obama was playing some kind of advanced 11th-Dimensional chess with Republicans for political purposes, but the Treasury Department’s recent announcement that the 14th Amendment does not provide a “silver bullet” for circumventing the debt ceiling fairly clearly indicates that Obama intends to strong-arm some kind of deal within the next few days.  And that the people he may be intending to strong-arm are liberal Democrats.

Friday, July 8, 2011

You Lose the Right to Your Treasure When You Lock it Away

I came across this amazing story last night in the Asia Times Online about the discovery of $22 billion worth of treasure in an Indian temple -- and what should be done with it.  As Raja Murthy puts it, the question presented is:  "Who owns this ancient wealth of the gods:  priests or the people?"

As I understand it, a legal dispute arose a year or so ago about whether the priests currently charged with caring for the 9th century Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandarum, the capital of the south Indian state of Kerala, were doing so properly.  In an effort to resolve the dispute, the Supreme Court ordered that an inventory of the temple's holdings be taken.  This involved -- among other things -- opening up temple vaults that had been sealed for over 130 years.  Although temple records indicated that some treasure was contained in the vaults, nobody knew how much treasure was there or of what it consisted.  I can only imagine what went through the mind of the guy who turned the key to find:
over a ton of gold, sacks of diamonds and precious stones; gold necklaces over three meters long and weighing over 2.5 kilograms, gold crowns, thousands of pieces of antique jewelry, idols, and artifacts studded with diamonds and emeralds.

* * *

It easily displaces the Vatican, estimated to own about $15 billion in wealth, and the Tirupati temple, in the south Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, with about $11 billion of worldly properties.

Antique collectors' valuation of the find, to be confirmed by the Supreme Court, could be over $100 billion.

(emphasis added)

Of course, the temple priests are insisting that the treasure belongs to them, or at least should remain in their keeping -- after all, all of this wealth was donated to the temple for the gods so, y'know, who else would it belong to?

But as Murthy goes on to note "[t]he increasing clamor is for the treasure to be used similarly for welfare of the many.  The Mubai-based Times of India edition of July 5 calculated that the Padmanabhaswamy temple treasure would meet India's entire education budget for the next two-and-a-half years.

Count me firmly on the side of those who would take this windfall and put it to use for the Indian people.

* * *

Look, I get that this stuff was donated to the temple and -- notwithstanding that I do not regard myself as a religious person -- I would certainly not denigrate the important aesthetic benefit provided by places of sanctity and holiness.  Had this stuff actually been put to use by the temple to exalt their gods, then I would never be among those arguing that it should be stripped and slagged down and put to more mundane purposes.

But the priests did not do that.  Entrusted with the care of a great fortune, donated for the greater glory of the gods and indirectly (as Murthy also points out) for the benefit of the people, the priests of this temple locked the loot up in some vaults and forgot they even had it.

I'm sorry, but that abdication of responsibility for this treasure means to me that the priests don't get to keep it. Money is the life blood of an economy, but it only works if it circulates. Spending this fortune on education, or infrastructure, or any of an infinite number of other uses for India itself, for its citizens, should outstrip whatever claim the priests might make on what really can only be described as a windfall -- a windfall for which the priests did not look and to which they should not be entitled.

Obama Might Not Know What a "Sista Souljah Moment" Is

For those too young to remember, Bill Clinton created the eponymous "Sista Souljah moment" when he criticized the rapper and political activist in June 1992 for some intemperate comments she had made about race relations in the U.S. (Those comments were made in the context of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which in turn were sparked when four white police officers -- who had been captured on videotape administering a savage beating to African-American Rodney King -- were acquitted of wrongdoing.)

Clinton's criticism of Sista Souljah, previously seen as a fellow traveler of the perceived-to-be (but not really) liberal Bill Clinton, earned him some backlash from Jesse Jackson and other black Democratic activists but it solidified his position among more moderate, white Democrats and helped make him more palatable to independents and Republicans. After Clinton won the 1992 election with a plurality, political pundits and observers came to think of his "Sista Souljah moment" as a very canny piece of electioneering. Ever since, having a "Sista Souljah moment" has become almost a rite of passage for high-profile Democratic politicians.

I'm wondering, now, if this is what President Obama thinks he is doing by putting potential Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid cuts on the table in these debt ceiling negotiations. Maybe he thinks that by "standing up to the liberals" in his party -- you know, the people who still believe The New Deal is a good deal -- he will gain some mainstream credibility going into 2012.

I certainly hope not. The thing about Clinton's Sista Souljah moment is that when he did it -- and this is important -- Clinton wasn't doing anything substantive. Criticizing a hip-hop DJ for a few fiery sentences is not the same thing as cutting benefits for seniors and the poor. It was a piece of political theater meant to ally concerns by the more racially apprehensive members of society -- it cost Clinton nothing.

But cutting entitlements is going to cost Obama plenty. If you thought Democrats didn't show up to vote in 2010, see how many show up to vote after Obama and the Congressional Dems eviscerate the programs liberal voters care most about. I really hope Obama truly is as smart as his backers claim and that this is just more 11th-Dimensional chess and a feint and a ploy and that he is not serious. Because God help him -- God help us all -- if he is.

Are Republicans Simply Incapable of Agreeing on the Debt Ceiling?

We're getting down to the short strokes now on the debt ceiling negotiations, and I'm trying to put together a fairly longish post about those negotiations for publication sometime later today (hopefully).

In the meantime, I just read Nate Silver's New York Times article Why the Republicans Resist Compromise and I urge everyone else to do so as well.

Although focused mostly on the GOP's political chances in next year's presidential election, Silver has crunched the numbers and discovered -- unsurprisingly -- that the Republican party has been thoroughly taken over by its most conservative (read Tea Bagger) members. In addition to discussing what this means for Michele Bachmann's likelihood of winning the Republican nomination, Silver's article has this chilling passage that relates to the ongoing debt ceiling negotations:

This is why Republicans find it difficult to compromise on something like the debt ceiling, even when it might seem they have substantial incentive to do so. Republicans are still fairly unpopoular -- only about 40 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the party, which is barely better than their standing in 2006 or 2008, (although Democrats have become significantly less popular since then). As long as conservative Republicans are much more likely to vote than anyone else, the party can fare well despite that unpopularity, as it obviously did in 2010. But it means that Republican members of Congress have a mandate to remain steadfast to the conservatives who are responsible for electing them.

(emphasis added)

I've long believed that the Big Money Boyz would eventually call the Republicans onto the carpet and explain the facts of life to them: the debt ceiling absolutely has to be raised, or interest rates will skyrocket and the Creditor Class (the Big Money Boyz) will find the value of their bond portfolios dropping like a stone. I kind of assumed that all this Republican posturing over the debt ceiling and demanding huge spending cuts in entitlement programs was just a show for the rubes back home.

But Silver's article has got me wondering whether the Republican Congress Critters -- whom I've never thought to be very bright -- can be reasoned with or even threatened by the Big Money Boyz. Most people can't conceive of causal relationships more intricate than 1 cause = 1 effect. If the Republican freshmen understand in their bones that it was the ultra-conservative Tea Baggers who put them into office, then they may not be able to also comprehend that crashing the economy could be much, much worse for them personally than disappointing their lobotomized supporters will be.

And if they can't understand that, then their willingness to do the reasonable thing goes out the window.

And the deadline looms nearer.

GOP and African-Americans: Is This a Joke?


It's no secret that Republicans have an extremely difficult time connecting with African-American voters. Probably this has to do with the fact that starting with Nixon's "Southern Strategy" in the late 1960's, continuing through George Bush I's infamous Willie Horton ad until today with Fox News suggesting that President Obama has a problem with white women, the Republicans have made a habit out of sowing racial division to scoop up more white votes.

But they want you to know that they're decent people and, as this tea partier puts it, "[T]he worst thing you can call a decent person is a racist."

That's true, and so you have to understand that if there's two things that Conservatives really, really hate it's being called a racist, and black people.

Sorry, but -- seriously -- the Republicans and the interest groups to which they kowtow certainly seem to go out of their way to make jokes like that easier.

For example, there is an evangelical group out of Iowa called Family Leader that has put together yet another pledge it is demanding all the GOP Presidential aspirants sign. The pledge largely consists of your run-of-the-mill "pro-family" language -- stay faithful to your spouse, don't divorce, affirm that sexual orientation is a choice and not genetically determined -- but there is one aspect of it that seems batshit insane: acknowledge that black people were better off being kept as slaves.

Well, okay . . . that might be a slight exaggeration. So I'll let the National Journal describe it:

In arguing that the institution of marriage is under assault, Family Leader contends that by one measure African-American families were in better shape during slavery than now: African-American children were more likely to be raised in a two-parent household in 1860 than if they were born today, as the group put it, "after the election of USA's first African-American president."

Just . . . Wow. The mind boggles. Family Leader is insisting that all Republican presidential candidates sign a pledge acknowledging that African-American children were better off being raised in two-parent households as slaves.

Needless to say, Michele Bachmann signed it immediately.

UPDATE: Well that didn't take along. Amid all the furor about this "misconstrued lanugage," Family Leader has dropped the pro-slavery language from its pledge. Michele Bachmann claims -- and this is not a joke -- that she signed the pledge without reading it. So, y'know . . . vote for her.

Conservative Sinecures Undermine Our Democracy

I found this excellent piece at the Wits and Vinegar blog arguing that we may be seeing something new with modern GOP state rule: the dismantling of our economic society by entirely unchecked greed. Wits and Vinegar suggests that - bad as things are now - we would be fooling ourselves if we allow ourselves to believe that at some point this dismantling will end out of at least a sense of self-preservation. It really is a very good post, and I urge you to click over and read it in its entirety.

There was one bit, though, that I did disagree with, and it was the suggestion that the Republican governors at the forefront of this dismantling don't realize that they are merely dupes and tools of their corporate paymasters:

[A]ll of these governors are similar, as are people like Paul Ryan -- they are under the assumption that they actually have a political future. It serves the interest of their major backers to have them harbor this delusion, but in reality they are in office only until the people have another chance to oust them for destroying the middle class. They are there to ram through ALEC authored legistlation, bust unions and leave the public education in this country so broken that it will take generations to repair. They care nothing for the long-term cost of such destructive action. Like George W. Bush before them, you have someone who is just egomaniacal enough to think they have what it takes to lead, and deluded enough to think that they are "in touch" and "on the right side of history." My ass. Sorry boys.

While I don't doubt Wits and Vinegar is spot on in her description of these men as egomanical and deluded, I would not go so far as to suggest they are unwitting dupes of their right-wing political backers. Having achieved the governorship in their respective states, they realize they don't have any political future after this -- they just don't care.

Liberals have spent the past decade or more bemoaning the fact that Conservatives have been playing long-ball and have stolen a march on us by creating, funding and supporting a web of right-wing think tanks whose only purpose is to think up and popularize policies and supporting rationales pushing right-wing interests. It seems to have escaped most of us that - in addition to providing a steady drumbeat of Conservative agitprop and policy prescriptions ready to be rolled out the moment Conservatives held power again -- these think tanks also helped to blunt the only power American voters have when their elected officials go to far: the power of the ballot box.

For example, nothing would please me more than to see Scott Walker recalled from office next year for having gone way too far in his entirely unnecessary "scorch the earth" war against Wisconsin's public employee unions. But the damage will have been done nevertheless, and Scott Walker will never have to want. His financial backers will get him a board job at one of these think tanks, a sinecure with a friendly university, and set him up with a lucrative position in some lobbying firm. Scott Walker is going to be just fine for the rest of his days.

Post-politics cushions for rabid right-wingers have become SOP now, further weakening our representative democracy. Why fear the will of the voters if -- once you are out of office -- you can really cash in? The fear that voters would kick them out of office was once the only way to ensure that elected officials didn't go too far in service of their paymasters, but Right-Wing Welfare has largely undermined that protection.

I think Walker and the rest (like the odious Rick Scott who isn't even waiting to leave before cashing in) know this, I think it is at least an implicit part of the deal the Koch Brothers, et al. made with them: destroy the unions, destroy the social safety net, destroy the regulations that vex us, and we will make sure that you are set for life.

I think they know exactly what they are doing, and what they can look forward to. They embrace it.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

And Speaking of Robert A. Heinlein Getting it Wrong . . . .

I cross-posted yesterday's entry over at The Great Orange Satan and had to explain to at least one person who commented that I actually do like most of Robert A. Heinlein's work.  But Hey! when RAH got things wrong he really got things wrong.

The first of Heinlein's "Howard Families" stories, Methuselah's Children, originally published in 1941 when Heinlein was only about 34, introduced readers not only to Lazarus Long but also to the entire Howard Families concept.  Essentially, the premise was that a man named Ira Howard got amazingly wealthy during the California Gold Rush of the mid-1800's but died in his 40's of old age.  You see, Heinlein explained, back in the 1800's the average lifespan was only about 38 or so and therefore - even with all his wealth -- poor Ira was dying in his 40's.  Ira Howard deeply resented this, and so created a foundation for the purpose of persuading people with extraordinarily long-lived ancestors (all four grandparents had to be alive at the time of marriage) to marry each other.  It was a program of selective breeding intended to extend human longevity.

Now, even as a kid I knew something was wrong about this.  Sure, I knew that average lifespans had been increasing for years, but I also was pretty sure that nobody in the 1800's died of old age when they were only 40.  It took me a while to reconcile these facts, but I eventually worked out that "average life span" doesn't mean how long individual people could expect to live, it only denoted how long a generic baby born into a society was expected to live.  This statistic was heavily skewed by the high rates of infant mortality and the then fatal nature of many childhood illnesses, but -- generally speaking -- once an individual reached adulthood the promised Biblical span of "three score and ten" was at least within his or her reach.

The sad thing is that this erroneous thinking -- something that I, as a child, could eventually put together -- still informs a large part of our Social Security discourse.  It's even sadder now that we are getting reports that Social Security benefits may be on the table as part of the "Grand Bargain" that President Obama seems to be negotiating with the Republicans in order to get them to raise the nation's debt limit and not crash the world economy.

I'm sure many people remember Alan Simpson's outright embarrassing interview with the HuffPost's Ryan Grim:

HuffPost suggested to Simpson during a telephone interview that his claim about life expectancy was misleading because his data include people who died in childhood of diseases that are now largely preventable. Incorporating such early deaths skews the average life expectancy number downward, making it appear as if people live dramatically longer today than they did half a century ago. According to the Social Security Administration's actuaries, women who lived to 65 in 1940 had a life expectancy of 79.7 years and men were expected to live 77.7 years. 
"If that is the case -- and I don’t think it is -- then that means they put in peanuts," said Simpson.
Simpson speculated that the data presented to him by HuffPost had been furnished by "the Catfood Commission people" -- a reference to progressive critics of the deficit commission who gave the president's panel that label. 
Told that the data came directly from the Social Security Administration, Simpson continued to insist it was inaccurate, while misstating the nature of a statistical average: "If you’re telling me that a guy who got to be 65 in 1940 -- that all of them lived to be 77 -- that is just not correct. Just because a guy gets to be 65, he’s gonna live to be 77? Hell, that’s my genre. That’s not true," said Simpson, who will turn 80 in September. 
Understanding life expectancy rates at age 65 in 1940 is central to understanding Social Security itself. If the very nature of the population has changed dramatically since the program's creation, it stands to reason that the program itself requires dramatic changes: Means testing, creating private accounts and further upping the retirement age for the program have all been proposed by its opponents. 
But if the population is largely similar today, then only modest changes would be needed to maintain Social Security. Critics of the program therefore have an incentive to dramatize life-expectancy stats. 
But those dramatic claims aren't buttressed by the data: A man who turned 65 in 2010 has a life expectancy of 83.1 -- barely five years more than he had in 1940. Women have increased their life expectancy at roughly the same rate. Since 1940, the retirement age for drawing Social Security benefits has been lifted from 65 to 67, meaning that people are receiving a net of only three extra years of benefits than they were 70 years ago.
I really don't mean to pick on Heinlein; I actually consider myself something of a fan.  But at least when Heinlein got stuff like this wrong it just meant you had to ignore a little backstory to read what was still a pretty good science-fiction yarn.  But Alan Simpson is one of the leading proponents of Social Security reform, and every time he opens his mouth about this sort of stuff he misinforms a large swath of the American people who think what he is saying makes sense.  (Believe me . . . I've had my share of discussions trying to convince others that just because "average life span" may have increased dramatically, that doesn't necessarily mean that people are living dramatically longer.)

Allowing someone as ignorant about our Social Security program as is Alan Simpson to help set the terms of our national debate over Social Security is just pathetic, and only adds weight to those calling for Social Security benefits to be shredded.  Regardless of what Obama's real game plan regarding Social Security "reform" he deserves to be excoriated for that alone.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Thomas Jefferson vs. Lazarus Long

A great deal has been written both in the blogosphere and in the mainstream press about the GOP’s recent adventures in restricting American citizens from exercising their fundamental right to vote.  Of course, the GOP has for years raised phantom charges of “voter fraud” to justify things like requiring voters to present photo IDs before voting . . . despite the fact no evidence of any significant (or even insignificant) voter fraud has ever been presented.  As Bill Maher once pointed out, “We’re America, we don’t vote.  What’s next, you’re gonna pass a law to prevent people from wrongfully showing up for jury duty?”
But with the Republican tsunami of 2010 – especially in state races – and as very nicely summarized in this diary by The Troubadour, they’ve since cranked their efforts to restrict voting rights up to Eleven.  And all of these efforts, of course, work to the Republicans’ electoral advantage because all of these measures tend to have the most restrictive impact on minorities, the poor, and college students – you know, groups most likely to vote for a Democrat.

But I’m fairly convinced that this isn’t the only reason the GOP has embraced these vote restriction measures as fervently as they have.  Oh sure, obtaining an electoral advantage by denying your opponent’s supporters the right to vote is nice, but it’s especially nice for the GOP because the Conservative mindset doesn’t believe in democracy.  Instead, the Conservative mindset holds that only the “right sort of people” should be allowed to vote and – coincidentally enough – if you are someone who doesn’t feel like voting for the Conservatives then you, my friend, are not the “right sort of people.”

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

GOP Has Been Openly Scamming Dems for 30 Years Now

Last Thursday Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick sparked some commentary in the liberal blogosphere by penning a Washington Post op-ed in which he described attending his 25th college reunion back in 2003.  The reunion also was attended by Grover Norquist, the GOP’s chief “no new taxes” enforcer and hatchetman, who apparently made some statements about how the Republicans intended to maintain a de facto permanent Republican majority in the federal government.

What surprised and saddened me is that Norquist’s statements 8 years ago would cause even the slightest stir today.  Republicans have been pulling the scam Norquist described then for more than 30 years.  What is more, they have been telling us that this is the scam they have been pulling.  Have we just failed to pay attention?