2010 advice to the President and structural problems

In my files I came across a piece of writing from January 2010 that I don’t seem to have ever posted. I’m going to paste it farther below, because it just shows how slowly things change in our country.

Actually, we’re still trying to sort out some of the issues bequeathed to us by our esteemed Founders: large states vs. small states, executive vs. legislative vs. judicial branches, liberty vs. equality, security vs. freedom from unreasonable searches, the aftermath of slavery, economic injustice, access to education, who controls the military, and much more.

I did post, on 3/27/10, a different set of ideas in “My advice to Obama, 11/30/08,” which you can read here.

Do we still remember those days in early 2010 when the current administration was just a year old, it still wasn’t clear whether or when the country would recover from the great crash of 2008, the Tea Party was just taking shape, the Affordable Care Act was not yet signed into law (3/23/10), the disastrous (for Democrats and in some ways mainstream Republicans and the country) 2010 election had not yet occurred, and the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling (1/10) was just about to lead to the huge influx of political money into Super PACs and “social welfare” organizations?

Despite all that, I still think things move slowly around here.

The piece I just found, dated 1/29/10, shows that structurally nothing much has changed. Even Obamacare, if it stays with us, does not change the basic system of people purchasing insurance health care from private profit-making organizations (except for special groups like veterans and seniors). And that “hands-off dance the administration and Congress have been doing for the last year” has now stretched on to almost 6 years, with no end in sight.

So here are my thoughts, just as written 4+ years ago [plus a few comments added in brackets]:

After the November 2008 election, president-elect Obama asked for advice from the public, and I planned to set out mine in some detail. I know he was quite busy, but someone somewhere might have had time to read it. What I did get around to sending was a brief note that 25% of Americans would always oppose and detest him and that he should proceed to try to listen to and please the other 75%. It doesn’t seem that that advice, which certainly must have come from many quarters, registered on him till this month [meaning January 2010].

What I would have said more fully, according to the page of notes I’ve found, was that it was high time for the government to try to solve some really serious structural problems that are making this country almost non-functional in its domestic policies, and that threaten the people’s future well-being. I’m not talking about tweaks and adjustments, but these critical areas:

1) Economics: too much inequality of wealth, insecurity of families and communities, loss of income, jobs, and homes; too much dependence on consumer spending and imports, not enough on producing needed goods and services; lack of sufficient rewards for hard work; imbalance of expenditures between the military and all other areas [I should have specified discretionary]; corporate overpowering of small businesses.

2) Education: insufficient opportunities for children who need the most help; over-reliance on property tax to fund public schools; decline of public universities.

3) Health care: lack of a fair national health care program; millions with no insurance who are therefore cared for minimally and at public expense anyhow; inadequate care of veterans; poor performance with regard to cost and in comparison to other developed countries.

4) Transportation and energy: over-reliance on cars and trucks; weak mass transportation in most regions; poor progress on alternative energy sources; dependence on foreign sources of oil necessitating expensive military operations [actually, has that changed? I'm doubtful, as long as we are both importing and exporting gas and oil].

5) Political life: need to inspire voters to turn out in the relatively good numbers of Nov. 2008; counteract excessive lobbying influence, corruption, gerrymandering, apathy.

These are issues that need to be solved by total rethinking and recasting, not by little adjustments and compromises. I’d love to think that the public, or the free market, or generous philanthropists, could solve any of this, but honestly, I think these are federal and/or state government questions.

So, how is the government doing? It’s hard to apportion blame in the hands-off dance the administration and Congress have been doing for the last year, but between the two of them, though a few individuals have been trying, the results so far are terrible. We’ll see if any of the energy of the State of the Union message gets spread around, but since the president made some of the same promises before and after his election, I’m not optimistic. We’ve had gridlock, we have gridlock, and things continue to degrade in the five challenge areas listed above.

I’ve been saying for a year that Obama should give up on true health care reform [I meant, table it until later, rather than fighting it through without features than many thought were essential, like the "public option"] and make the 2010 congressional election a sort of referendum on what the public wants. Elections should be referendums, but that works out only if the public is paying attention. It is said that Americans get the government they deserve. If they don’t pay attention, they get terrible government. With the decline in voting from November 2008 to November 2009, what might encourage us to expect sudden improvement after November 2010?
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Posted in Politics, President & candidates, US House, US Senate | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Responsibility in the country, responsibility in the world

How is President Obama like the United States?

Answer: both get blamed whatever they do.

In the continuing antics of the US House of Representatives, the Boehner team wants President Obama to wait for their permission to do anything. After they’ve played about with the federal law-making system till it’s completely broken, they want the President to just leave it lying broken and bleeding in the halls of the Capitol.

So, if the President tries to make the Affordable Health Care Act, which Congress passed in 2010, phase in more smoothly, they sue him.

But they expect him to act when they don’t know what they want. Then it’s the President’s fault for not doing enough. Why isn’t he acting faster to solve the child immigration crisis brought on by a law passed by Congress and signed by his predecessor in 2008?

On the international scene, similarly, other countries sit around waiting for the U.S. to solve the latest problem, and then everyone blames us for whatever we do or don’t do.

We broke Iraq, in Colin Powell’s term, so we own it. and of course we and we alone are responsible for saving people being massacred there.

According to an AP story today,

This is going to be a long-term project” that won’t end and can’t succeed unless Iraqis form an inclusive government in Baghdad capable of keeping the country from breaking apart, Obama said at the White House….

“We can conduct air strikes, but, ultimately, there’s not going to be an American military solution to this problem. There’s going to have to be an Iraqi solution that America and other countries and allies support,” he said.

In other words, the country that Western powers artificially carved out after World War I will be broken till the U.S. finally lets its pieces go their separate ways. Till then, while everyone else watches, we’ll be sending in bombing missions and advisors and security forces to protect our security forces.

Afghanistan–we also broke it, and it’s still broken too. Western Europe broke Ukraine by trying to tear it out of the Russian orbit, and Russia’s Putin rushed in and picked up a prime chunk of it.

And then there’s the 70-year piece of tragic theater playing out between Israel and Palestine. The cooped-up people who have been killed in large numbers recently are inhabitants of Gaza, which is part of Palestine, which was part of the Ottoman Empire, which was broken up by the Western powers after World War I. Even their next-door neighbor Egypt won’t let needed supplies in over the border. Everyone’s waiting for the US to fix that disaster too. 

If we do anything (other than give both sides money and equipment) it’s our fault, and if we don’t, it’s our fault too. Over generations, the US has created a culture of dependency, and now we can’t break the cycle. I don’t mean just the culture of dependency of Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan; I mean the dependency of the world, waiting for us to do something.

It makes you think the people in power better not keep breaking things, doesn’t it? Except the culture of dependency on the US, that is.

When legislators and countries won’t do their job, there is gridlock. Gridlock isn’t good for anyone, at least anyone who believes in democracy.

In the US House of Representatives, the people in power aren’t taking the responsibility to do their job, which is to pass laws for the benefit of the country. If Americans are paying attention, they will go to the polls in November to say what they think about irresponsible legislators.

And the countries of the world aren’t taking the responsibility to do their job, which is to advance their own citizens’ interests while trying for good relations among countries, which is also in the interest of their own citizens and all citizens of the world.

Posted in International, President & candidates, US House | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

The secret Boehner memo on Bowe Bergdahl

From: John Boehner
To: Republican Members of the US House of Representatives
5/30/14

Dear Colleagues,

Our friends at NSA, who know everything, have informed me that some sort of deal may be in the works for the release of a US prisoner named Bowe Bergdahl.

A) If the deal goes through, our response will be: Who is this Bergdahl guy anyhow and how did he get captured? Does he speak any foreign languages? Are we sure he is really an American? How dare this administration make deals with the likes of the Taliban? Is Obama releasing terrorists to go back to their wicked ways? His attempts to shut down the detention facility at Guantánamo, like Benghazi and Obamacare (feel free to enlarge on those themes), show the bad faith of this administration.

B) If the deal doesn’t go through, here’s our line: How dare this administration leave this poor American boy in the clutches of the Taliban for 5 long years? Has Obama no concern for the feelings of the Bergdahl parents and the suffering people of Hailey, Idaho, who have never given up hope? Our prayers are with this loyal American whose continued captivity, like Benghazi and Obamacare (feel free to enlarge on those themes) shows the bad faith of this administration.

Please instruct your staffs to choose the relevant argument whenever any news comes through.

For your eyes only.

JB

Posted in Peace and War, Satire, US Senate | Tagged , , , , , | 13 Comments

Are the Republicans really afraid of Wolf or just playing games?

This week I received two expensive-looking glossy 4-page mailers (two attached 8.5 X 11″ pages printed on both sides) urging me to vote against Tom Wolf in the May 20 Democratic primary election. You may have gotten those too?

I don’t know to whom the mailers are directed, but I am betting: to Democrats who vote regularly in primaries.

Both mailers are “paid for by the Republican Party of Pennsylvania.” Why?

They could have winked at one of their super-rich friends (including corporations and PACs, now that those are human beings too) and gotten the job done by dark money. But they must have wanted the Republican name on the mailer.

They can’t be so naive as to think a regular Dem voter is going to vote for Tom Corbett this year. Even a lot of Republicans aren’t likely to do that. The plan could be to disrupt the Democratic primary. This is why, though I know many disagree, I favor the current PA system of closed primaries. If R’s and I’s could vote in this year’s 4-way Dem gubernatorial primary, they could throw the victory to the candidate perceived as the weakest, or the one least likely to garner real Dem support–if they can figure out who that is; the four still in the race are the ones with the most staying power of a good field of nine.

Of course, the Republican Party of PA knows Corbett is considered the most endangered governor in the country and could take down other R candidates with him, and presumably the strategists are trying to reduce the danger by whatever desperate means they can find.

One’s first line of thought is: as a businessman, Wolf has the money to spend and he can appeal to business owners in a way that Corbett (who can’t appeal to anyone but the oils and gas industry) can’t; and Wolf, unlike his rivals, can’t be described as having a lengthy political background (he was Secretary of Revenue for a year and a half, April 2007 until November 2008).

For several months Wolf has been, as it were, far at the head of the pack. But actually, all the Dems have consistently beaten Corbett in polling so far. It’s not clear to me which candidate the Republicans would prefer. Their two mailers don’t tell me whom they’d like me to vote for. Maybe that one will come soon.

Actually, the PA Republican party has also explicitly attacked Rob McCord. So would they rather their guy run against a woman (McGinty or Schwartz) than a man? I suggest they better be careful what they wish for.

The premises of the mailers are so stupid as to make one wonder if it’s all more subtle than first appears. One ad blames Wolf for raising taxes when he was Secretary of Revenue. By that reasoning, who is the mighty titan who currently determines budgets and taxes in Harrisburg? Dan Meuser that’s who.

But note that his department
, of course, is purely administrative:

The Department of Revenue’s mission is to fairly, efficiently and accurately administer the tax laws and other revenue programs of the commonwealth to fund necessary government services. In addition to tax collection, the department administers the Property Tax/Rent Rebate Program, researches and develops revenue projections for the state budget and oversees the Pennsylvania Lottery, which generates funds for programs that benefit older Pennsylvanians.

It doesn’t take much political savvy to know that the General Assembly, not cabinet officials, makes laws and set budgets and tax rates. That’s what it means to have separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

The other mailer attacks Wolf for making a profit in selling his company. That’s odd: isn’t that what businessmen do? Why is the party of big business attacking a businessman for making money from business? Very perplexing.

For more considerations, see Jake Sternberger, “PA Republicans: We Accidentally Lost $87M Dollars. But Here Are Some Lies about Tom Wolf,” Keystone Politics, May 13, 2014.

Wolf could now get a bounce from saying: “The other side is really afraid of me, so vote for me.” Often, in politics, nasty flashy stupid ads generate a backlash. And note that the second ad has a powerful and rather attractive image of a wolf (three times, actually). I like the looks of that wolf better than a bulldog I saw the other day. Wolves have a lot of appeal now among conservationists, as a symbol of the way nature used to be, the balance of powers in the natural world.

Back in February, a neighbor told me: “I really like those ads by that Paul Fox guy.” Foxes, today, are fairly well received animals too (except by chicken farmers). We’ve had foxes (and a coyote) in my neighborhood in the borough of West Chester; they help keep down the four-footed pest population.

Now there’s a potential campaign icon: voters sending Wolf (or fox, terrier, whatever) in to clean up the Harrisburg hen coop. I can see the ads now, the feathers flying, Corbett and the R operatives flapping out the door.

On consideration, I think the Republican Party of PA really handed one to Fox, I mean Wolf.

Perhaps the Republican strategists don’t really care who the Dem candidate is and have given up on Corbett? Perhaps they are just trying to confuse Dems ideologically in order to hold on to the R majority in the PA House and Senate? Perhaps they are really more afraid of McCord, McGinty, and Schwartz and actually want to generate sympathy for Wolf? Do they have something on Wolf they aren’t talking about yet?

Such subtleties, like the apparent preference for Corbett to face a woman, could backfire.

Whatever the case, one can certainly conclude that the Republican party has more money than it knows what to do with. And they are running scared, very scared.

Wolf or no Wolf, Dems should get out to the polls on Tuesday and show that, whoever they vote for, they aren’t intimidated.

Posted in PA Governor | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

I Hear America Shooting

I wrote this “faux” poem about 15 years ago. Some of the references are to events in the second Clinton administration. Sad to say, I could have written it today.


I Hear America Shooting

“I hear America singing…”
— Walt Whitman

I hear America shooting, the varied volleys I hear,
The blue-suited policeman firing at the mugger on the run who fires back over his shoulder with his semi-automatic pistol,
The hardy day-laborer and his neighbor shooting in the morning at each other’s dogs and in the evening at each other,
The postal worker cutting down his unsympathetic boss and co-workers,
The attorney grown unaccountably tired of public life putting the pearl-handled Colt to his head and on the broad shores of Potomac pulling the trigger,
The ninth-grade teacher shooting five or six colleagues at the last faculty meeting of the semester before Christmas vacation,
The ex-marine in the crowded airport taking target practice with his efficient machine gun,
And the sweet song of the armor-piercing bullet I hear as it hums toward the bullet-proof vest,
The rattle and whir of the Uzi feasting on ordinary people talking on street corners and waiting at bus stops,
The single crash and lingering echo of the shotgun drilling the head of the small girl through the open living room window of her family’s row house,
The drive-by shooting in the city and in the forest the firing of rifles at the frightened does and hunters fleeing among the tall trees,
The men and the women, the sons and the daughters, the weapons of small and large caliber, I hear them all,
In the work day, the school day, and late into the moonlit night at parties and gatherings, indoors and out, making the handsome crackle of gunfire,
I hear America shooting.

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Poem for the day or century

Countee Cullen, from Color (Harper, 1925):

Tableau

Locked arm in arm they cross the way
The black boy and the white,
The golden splendor of the day
The sable pride of night.

From lowered blinds the dark folk stare
And here the fair folk talk,
Indignant that these two should dare
In unison to walk.

Oblivious to look and word
They pass, and see no wonder
That lightning brilliant as a sword
Should blaze the path of thunder.

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Russia between democracy and Putin

As a chess player, I read with extra interest the article “What is Garry Kasparov’s Next Move? The great chess champion brings his knowledge to the games of Sochi, global politics and computer intelligence” by Ron Rosenbaum, Smithsonian Magazine, March 2014.

Kasparov, as you may recall, was world chess champion from 1985 to 2000, became active in Russian politics, and ran (till he was eliminated on a technicality) against Vladimir Putin in 2007.

The Smithsonian article summarize–probably reflecting Kasparov’s view–the transition from communism to democracy to oligarchy as follows:

After a coterie of Harvard-based economic advisers helped engineer the privatizing of Russian state assets in the 1990s to the profit of corrupt oligarchs, the consequent immiseration of the Russian people led to Putin’s rise to power. And that led to Putin’s ongoing attempt to recoup what had been lost—seeking to recapture the states that had separated themselves from the Soviet empire, and to crush democracy within Russia.

The dates are easy to remember: after the Soviet Union collapsed, Boris Yeltsin became the Russian leader in 1990 and Putin in 2000.

Yeltsin’s guiding principle was to turn a communist country into a capitalist one as fast as possible. As is usually the case with sudden social change imposed from above and outside (that’s for Yeltsin’s Western advisers), disaster ensued. As described in the Wikipedia article on Boris Yeltsin:

In early 1992, prices skyrocketed throughout Russia, and a deep credit crunch shut down many industries and brought about a protracted depression. The reforms devastated the living standards of much of the population, especially the groups dependent on Soviet-era state subsidies and welfare entitlement programs. Through the 1990s, Russia’s GDP fell by 50 percent, vast sectors of the economy were wiped out, inequality and unemployment grew dramatically, while incomes fell. Hyperinflation, caused by the Central Bank of Russia’s loose monetary policy, wiped out a lot of personal savings, and tens of millions of Russians were plunged into poverty.

Might there be some lessons there for the rest of us, concerning “austerity,” the abolition of social programs, and the privatization of public resources (think: gas drilling in public parks, charterization and voucherization of public schools, and outsourcing of government functions–as in the Obamacare websites)?

What happened in Russia? See Wikipedia, “Privatization in Russia.” In summary, from the “Privatization and the rise of ‘the oligarchs'” section of the Wikipedia article on Boris Yeltsin:

Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin promoted privatization as a way of spreading ownership of shares in former state enterprises as widely as possible to create political support for his economic reforms. In the West, privatization was viewed as the key to the transition from Communism in Eastern Europe, ensuring a quick dismantling of the Soviet-era command economy to make way for ‘free market reforms.’ In the early 1990s, Anatoly Chubais, Yeltsin’s deputy for economic policy, emerged as a leading advocate of privatization in Russia.

In late 1992, Yeltsin launched a program of free vouchers as a way to give mass privatization a jump-start. Under the program, all Russian citizens were issued vouchers, each with a nominal value of around 10,000 rubles, for purchase of shares of select state enterprises. Although each citizen initially received a voucher of equal face value, within months most of them converged in the hands of intermediaries who were ready to buy them for cash right away.

In 1995, as Yeltsin struggled to finance Russia’s growing foreign debt and gain support from the Russian business elite for his bid in the early-1996 presidential elections, the Russian president prepared for a new wave of privatization offering stock shares in some of Russia’s most valuable state enterprises in exchange for bank loans. The program was promoted as a way of simultaneously speeding up privatization and ensuring the government a much-needed infusion of cash for its operating needs.

However, the deals were effectively giveaways of valuable state assets to a small group of tycoons in finance, industry, energy, telecommunications, and the media who came to be known as “oligarchs” in the mid-1990s. This was due to the fact that ordinary people sold their vouchers for cash. The vouchers were bought out by a small group of investors. By mid-1996, substantial ownership shares over major firms were acquired at very low prices by a handful of people.

In the absence of strong supervision and controls, that’s the tendency of capitalism: concentration of resources. We’ve seen it before in this country in the late-19th-century Robber Barons, and we’re seeing it again in their early-21st-century descendants.

And the next step? No, it doesn’t seem to be, despite Karl Marx, increasing class consciousness, international solidarity, the revolution of the people, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and an eventual workers’ utopia.

Let Putin and the Russian oligarchs be a warning to us! When whole groups of people are left out, social unrest ensues. See “Yeltsin’s economic legacy” by Alexander Koliandre, BBC News, Moscow, 24 April 2007:

Those who were unable to adapt quickly suffered. In particular, those employed by the state – including teachers, doctors, professors and policemen – learned to hate the “new Russians” who were flocking to the newly-opened restaurants, night clubs and casinos.

And how about that “coterie of Harvard-based economic advisers” whose advice brought about the collapse of the Russian economy and the consequent rise of Putin? You guessed it, that would be the work of Lawrence Summers, when he worked at the US Treasury Department (he didn’t become Secretary of the Treasury until 1999). Per Wikipedia:

Summers set up a project through which the Harvard Institute for International Development provided advice to the Russian government between 1992 and 1997. Later there was a scandal when it emerged that some of the Harvard project members had invested in Russia, and were therefore not impartial advisors. Summers encouraged then-Russian leader Boris Yeltsin to use the same “three-‘ations'” of policy he advocated in the Clinton Administration– “privatization, stabilization, and liberalization.”

Well, at least we can be thankful that Summers did not get another chance to implement his philosophy in our country, since he had to give up his bid to become Federal Reserve chairman in 2013.

Posted in International | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments