Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Gatekeepers: My thoughts...

I watched the award winning and Academy Award nominated movie for best documentary, "The Gatekeepers" this evening. The 2012 film, directed by Dror Moreh focuses on interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel's internal and very secretive security service.

My interest in this film comes not from a strong personal connection to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. My admittedly pedestrian understanding of this is most certainly incomplete. My curiosity was piqued over the last few months as I saw previews for this film at the local art cinema in Dayton, OH and heard / read interviews / reviews most of which seemed to show the film in a favorable light.

I found the film and these men to be credible. It wasn't an over the top emotional plea for this or that path forward, but rather a pretty "eyes wide open" on what's worked and what hasn't from the Israeli perspective regarding Palestine. The men struck me as unquestionably loyal to the State of Israel and its people. They candidly admitted mistakes from their units as well as both conservative governmental and religious elements in their country. It struck a chord with me as we hear many on the far right politically and in religious circles advocating what some feel are extremist, hawkish positions with regard to foreign policy.

What seems clear to me after watching this movie is that they all share a profound concern for the future of Israel and the safety of its citizens. They advocate talking to the Palestinians, Hamas, Iran, radical Islamists,  etc. in an effort to stop the seemingly endless cycle of violence. As one said in the final line of the movie, "...we win every battle, but lose the war."

While the film has been critically acclaimed, there are those who feel otherwise, including Moshe Yaalon, Israel's Vice Prime Minister who said the film, was edited to "serve the Palestinian narrative." And, "What was presented there was presented in a really one-sided manner, and therefore the film is slanted,” Yaalon, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and a former military chief, told Israel’s Army Radio. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said he has not seen the film yet and according to the New York Times, has no plans to. 

With supporters and detractors alike commenting on the film, as an outsider, I'm still not sure what the solution(s) are for that region. They are probably not simple. Both people deserves basic human rights, which  of course means a right to live in peace and not be attacked. How the settlements question get settled, who knows? Even the learned men from the Shin Bet don't seem to have the answers. It does seem that they collectively believe Israel would be better served by redoubling efforts to communicate with the various elements involved.

It strikes me as odd and probably not wise that Mr. Netanyahu has no interest in hearing what these men have to say. He may not appreciate the form director Moreh took or the fact that these former intelligence professionals agreed to participate in the film, but their voices have probably earned the right to be, at the very least, heard. 

I'm not sure that this film provides any complete answers to the issue, but if you have even a passing interest in understanding that situation, its worth the price of admission. If you have more than a passing interest, then I would heartily encourage you to go see the film and make your own mind up. 


Thursday, March 28, 2013

McConnell is determined to kill Obamacare...(one way or the other)

Even as the Affordable Care Act rolls out toward full implementation by the end of 2014, efforts continue to dismantle, defund and ultimately replace it with something else...

Read a good writeup from the National Journal: - The Secret Republican Plan to Repeal 'Obamacare' - Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Gay Marriage: The Next Issue on the Republican's Recovery Plan?

The compelling argument is on the side of homosexuals. That’s where the compelling argument is. ‘We’re Americans. We just want to be treated like everybody else.’ That’s a compelling argument, and to deny that, you have got to have a very strong argument on the other side. The argument on the other side hasn’t been able to do anything but thump the Bible.” - Bill O'Reilly on Fox News on Tuesday

First there was immigration, but gay marriage may be the next trending issue to be embraced by Republicans in their initial steps towards broadening the party's appeal.  In addition to O'Reilly's quote, there are other signs.

There is this from the Republican Party's recent "Growth & Opportunity Project" report:

 "For the GOP to appeal to younger voters, we do not have to agree on every issue, but we do need to make sure young people do not see the Party as totally intolerant of alternative points of view. Already, there is a generational difference within the conservative movement about issues involving the treatment and the rights of gays — and for many younger voters, these issues are a gateway into whether the Party is a place they want to be."

Then on Sunday, there was Karl Rove saying that there "could" be a 2016 Republican candidate who supports gay marriage.

And back in February, "at least 75" Republicans signed a legal brief to the Supreme Court arguing that gay marriage is not only a Constitutional right but reinforces conservative principles: family stability, individual freedom, and government non-intervention.

I could list more.

Granted, there is still opposition to the issue. For one thing, the court brief's signers were a bit short on currently elected officials. For another, in a recent survey the only age group to show 50% or greater approval were those born after 1980. And support of gay marriage would certainly alienate some of the GOP faithful, in particular the religious right.

But the Republican party can embrace - or at least tolerate - gay marriage using the same logic that the court brief uses - it is consistent with conservative beliefs such as government non-intervention. They can also maintain respect for religious beliefs but within the context of church-state separation, which has the Founding Fathers' seal of approval. None of this compromises GOP core principles of limited government, low taxes, and opposition to entitlements. And, in a point worth emphasizing in the Republican recovery plan, support of this issue is consistent with the party's legacy of abolition and women's suffrage.

I think that Mr. O'Reilly has it right.


Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Hmmm, US is #1 in...

Old news for many RC readers, but Ezra Klein does a nice job compiling all the data in one place. The article from 3/26 is aptly titled, "21 Graphs That Show America's Health-care Prices Are Ludicrous..." This never gets old, of course. Presentations like Klein's help address the all too common cherry picking where people like to pick certain and rather limited metrics as they attempt to convince others that the US healthcare system rocks.

It doesn't. It stinks. Its way too expensive, its results aren't what you probably think they are and unlike most industrialized countries, we don't cover everyone.

Go read...

Click here...


Why its not the guns...

David Brooks steps up with another reasonable and thoughtful work on what's worked and what hasn't on gun control. Mr. Brooks and I likely disagree on a few things on the subject but I appreciate his tone.

NYT: The Killing Chain

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Big Week at the Supreme Court...

Big week at the Supreme Court...
This is one of the biggest weeks we've seen in a while at the Supreme Court. The Court will hear two potentially landmark cases which, no matter their final rulings, are sure to upset a substantial number of people across the United States.

The two subjects before the Court this week involve same sex marriage and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

SCOTUSBLOG, has (probably) the premier coverage of the Court and offers this preview:

What are the two cases?
One concerns the right to same-sex marriage itself while the second involves the federal benefits available to legally married gay couples.
The first centers on California’s Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot initiative that banned same-sex marriage in the state. The initiative effectively overturned a decision by the California Supreme Court, which had ruled five months earlier that the state’s constitution required recognition of same-sex nuptials. Two couples seeking to marry are challenging the law.
The second case concerns the Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 federal law that defined marriage as a heterosexual union. Under the law, gay spouses can’t claim the federal benefits available to other married couples, including the rights to file a joint tax return and receive Social Security survivor benefits. DOMA, as the law is known, is being challenged by Edie Windsor, an 83-year-old New York resident fighting a $363,000 federal estate tax bill imposed after the 2009 death of her spouse.
Click here to read the rest of their preview...
I have no predictions, but a few thoughts to share...
As the United States continues to evolve as a nation, we forget sometimes that we're still a fairly young member of the world governments. Civilization is a process, it seems, and we're certainly not done learning how to live with more civility toward all. In general, we seem comfortable expanding rights for various segments (Blacks, Women, etc...) of our population not contracting them as we move through time. I hope this week continues this trend. 
In my opinion, it is not the Federal nor State's right to determine which groups among us may enjoy the benefits of marriage and which may not. If we are all equal under the law, what is there to really discuss? Yes, that's a simplification of the two issues, but I say it really boils down to that basic premise. Are we all equal or not. 


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Pop music sampler from Israel

President Obama concludes his Israel trip today. To sample some current Isreali pop music, explore Israel's radio 91fm music player.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Dr. Aaron Carroll on Stand Up with Pete Dominick (Audio)

Pete Dominick, host of Stand Up with Pete Dominick on Sirius XM radio Indy Channel, interviews Dr. Aaron Carroll, from the Indiana University School of Medicine. Dr. Carroll is a frequent guest on the program where he discusses various issues within health policy.

In this interview Dr. Carroll discusses the care at the Veterans Administration, why reforming Medicare and Medicaid is hard, why the transition to an improved way of handling medical information is coming along slowly and takes a few questions from listeners...

Click here to listen to it. It runs about 33 minutes in length...


What Might've Been? Gingrich/Santorum? Santorum/Gingrich?

Business Week posts an interesting story, "The Secret Gingrich-Santorum 'Unity Ticket' That Nearly Toppled Romney" that looks back at a potential 3rd ticket that came very close to becoming a reality in the last election.

An excerpt:

The discussions between the two camps commenced in early February, just after Gingrich got trounced in Florida. Brabender called members of the Gingrich brain trust, hoping they could persuade Gingrich to drop out and endorse Santorum, who was rising in the polls. “I’ll tell you this,” says Brabender, “If Gingrich had dropped out at the right time, Santorum would have been the nominee.” Brabender wasn’t short on moxie: He wanted Gingrich to declare in the middle of a nationally televised debate that he was dropping out and endorsing Santorum. “I couldn’t write an ad to match the political theater that would have created,” he says. 

There's always a chance that a Gingrich/Santorum team might've caught fire and won the hearts, minds and votes of the electorate, but I don't see how it  would've achieved the ultimate goal of defeating the incumbent President Obama. Mitt Romney ran to the left of both Gingrich and Santorum, and despite that relative moderate centrism that had hopefully connected with the independents last Fall but didn't really, and failed. How a more conservative ticket would've somehow won over the centrist votes Romney failed to, defies logic. They wouldn't have.

A Gingrich/Santorum ticket would've been sweet, sweet music to the Obama campaign, trust me. A splintered opposition would've siphoned off considerable votes from Romney and almost none from Obama. As decisive as the Obama victory was last November, had the above scenario every become reality, Obama would've won in an absolute landslide.

Ultimately this idea failed, in part at least, due to the inability of either Gingrich or Santorum to agree to be the other guys running mate. The degree with which either man was so out of touch as to not realize the certain doom that awaited such an ego-driven move. Hard to imagine, eh?

Read the full article here: "The Secret Gingrich-Santorum 'Unity Ticket' That Nearly Toppled Romney"

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

St. Augustine of Hippo and the GOP

Columnist David Brooks finds parallels in today's Republican party and the 4th century struggles of the Catholic Church. At that time, the Church was in turmoil. On one side was the Donatists, who advocated doctrinal purity and defending the faith against hostile forces through a core community of committed believers. On the other was Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, who started a very different revival movement:

"Augustine, as his magisterial biographer Peter Brown puts it, 'was deeply preoccupied by the idea of the basic unity of the human race.' He reacted against any effort to divide people between those within the church and those permanently outside.

He wanted the church to go on offense and swallow the world. This would involve swallowing impurities as well as purities. It would mean putting to use those who are imperfect. This was the price to be paid if you wanted an active church coexisting with sinners, disciplining and rebuking them.

In this view, the church would be attractive because it was hungering and thirsting for fulfillment. Far from being a stable ark, the church would be a dynamic, ever-changing network, propelled onto the streets by its own tensions. Augustine had this deep, volatile personality. His ideal church was firmly rooted in doctrine, but yearning for discovery."

Brooks points out that the "Donatist tendency — to close ranks and return defensively to first principles — can be seen today whenever a movement faces a crisis.".

However: "This second tendency is also found in movements that are in crisis, but it is rare because it requires a lack of defensiveness, and a confidence that your identity is secure even amid crisis."

The Donatist tendency is obvious in Republican reaction to last fall's election. Is there a St. Augustine who will lead them to a renewal?

Read the complete article here:

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Michelle Bachman gets fact-checked...

Republican Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann has been "fact-checked" by the Washington Post for remarks she made at CPAC when she made the following claim:

“Here's the truth that the president won't tell you. Of every dollar that you hold in your hands, 70 cents of that dollar that's supposed to go to the poor doesn't. It actually goes to benefit the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. — 70 cents on the dollar. That's how the president's caring works in practice. So $3 in food stamps for the needy, $7 in salaries and pensions for the bureaucrats who are supposed to be taking care of the poor. So with all due respect, I ask you, how does this show that our president cares about the poor?”
— Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference, March 16, 2013
Click here to read what the Post comes up with upon further review...


Monday, March 18, 2013

Gov. Chris Christie in a good place for 2016...

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie wasn't invited to this year's CPAC convention last week, which caused much gnashing of teeth across much of political punditland.

I say Christie had more to gain by not being in the clown tent than he could've by showing up.

Think about it.

Why did Governor Romney lose the 2012 election to Barack Obama? Was it because he didn't earn enough support from conservatives? Probably not, as most conservatives still voted for him, even if they had to hold their nose while they did it. They sure weren't going to vote for Obama.

Was it because Romney failed to woo enough Democrats over to his side? No, because that wasn't likely to ever happen. Romney won self described independents but lost self described moderates. So, why did Romney lose?

Blacks, Women, Hispanics and Asians. In other words, minorities.

While there was some lip service paid to minorities at CPAC, consider how the GOP announced its "new direction" with the release of its "Growth and Opportunity Project" today. The New York Times started its write-up of it with this:

"Republican leaders on Monday offered a sweeping self-critique of a party they said was in an “ideological cul-de-sac” and needed better outreach and a new brand of conservatism to appeal to younger voters, ethnic minorities and women."

Uh, duh...

The ink was barely dry before conservatives like Rush Limbaugh began to attack its authors as being "totally bamboozled and lacking confidence."

Safe to say, the Republican Party and Conservatives are not on the same page. They can't even agree on immigration, which is going to be a hot button issue for the next few years. How in the world hard-line Conservatives expect to win over the Hispanic and Latino vote is beyond me. History tells us that African Americans since the late 1950's simply don't vote for Republicans above the 10-13% range, which is squat. Mitt Romney got less than 7% in the last election.

Gov. Christie doesn't need nor want any of the chaos that was found at CPAC. Its a bit like flypaper and once its on you, its hard to get it off. Let the others give speeches, drink big slurpies and incite the believers. Think minorities are feeling the love now after this year's CPAC? Why would they?

Its so, so early to make predictions for 2016, but I suspect Christie will be a factor and his not being viewed as "one of them" to many independents, moderates and yes, minorities can only help him. He doesn't need to win over the hardliners. He watched what that strategy did for Romney which was kill any chances he had to beat President Obama. They made Romney run so far to his right during the primaries that he simply couldn't find his way back during the general.

And that, as they say, was that.

In the end, the next successful GOP candidate will not go too far out of his way to woo the far right. Rather, the far right will...eventually...climb on board the campaign and play nice. Gov. Christie is positioned very smartly for a run in 2016. I'll be shocked if he makes the same mistakes Romney did.


A Not-So-Big-Gulp of CPAC

The Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC, is primarily an opportunity to rally the faithful and to provide some measure on the state of the state of American political conservatism. As a mostly intramural exercise, it has limited significance in terms of news or election outcomes. With the 2016 campaign so far off, this year's convention was like an NBA game in the first period or a chess match with all of the pawns still on the board: a time when the contest can't be won and only lost by a colossal blunder.

But it was the political marquee event of the week, and interesting things were there to be found for those so inclined.

Here are some random thoughts on this year's event:

  • Marco Rubio is an early 2016 front-runner who as a Hispanic provides a potential antidote to the demographic trends that don't bode well for Republicans. But we knew that before CPAC.
  • One winner appears to be Ben Carson. The good doctor is now on the board, with CPAC having solidified his position as one of the pawns. Big deal. At this point, he looks like he might fill the role of far right populist attack dog, maybe 2016's version of Herman Cain.  Carson's quotes from over the weekend remind me of what I used to hear on Cain's radio show, which he hosted in my home town of Atlanta before he ever considered entering the presidential race.
  • Its interesting that two guys that strike me as "far right populist attack dogs" are a wealthy former business owner and a surgeon. And Donald Trump seems to desperately want the job too.
  • The biggest winners might be identified by absence and silence:
    • Non-invitee Chris Christie. He is now perfectly positioned to win his gubernatorial re-election this year as a moderate in a liberal state, not having to defend his conservative credentials at CPAC. His conservative moderation will then differentiate  his candidacy from the field in the Republican primaries, after which he can move to the right for the general election. Wait a minute, that was Mitt's strategy. Oh well. 
    • A couple of previously prominent issues have been pushed to the back burner. The reluctance to showcase past positions is perhaps an indication that change is underway:
      • Gay marriage: There were no calls for a federal marriage amendment, and the gay conservative group GOProud wasn't invited.
      • Immigration: There was some bantering in panels, but silence from the main stage, even from Sen. Marco Rubio.
  • Sample quotes:
    • "All too often we’re associated with being 'anti' everything." - Jeb Bush
    • "Stop preaching to the choir" - Sarah Palin, said while preaching to the choir
    • "Bloggers are where its at" - Michelle Bachmann

(Editor's Note: Senator Rand Paul won this year's straw poll with 25% of the vote, followed by Florida Senator Marco Rubio with 23%. Rick Santorum came in 3rd with 8% and New jersey Governor Chris Christie rounded out the top 4 with 7%...)

I know that this is brief, but I have deadline related to a far more significant event - I need to fill out my March Madness bracket.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Bloomberg is wrong, and Captain America is right

Liberalism run amok, and called out by a liberal. It happens!

And he's right.

Leonard Pitts recalls Dr. Doom's attempt to rule the world in New York City Mayor Bloomberg's decree on drink sizes in New York dining establishments. An excerpt:

Apparently, if you send two people venturing out, one to the extreme left, and the other to the extreme right, of our political spectrum, they will end up face to face. Because the distinguishing characteristic of extreme liberalism or extreme conservatism is the extremism; itself, the fact that some people just don’t know when to quit.
Obviously, the state is sometimes obliged to impose restrictions. One shouldn’t be allowed to sell Camels to kindergarteners. Or do 90 on a residential street. Or discriminate by race, creed, gender, condition, or sexual orientation.
But there is a difference between those restrictions the state imposes to protect the health, welfare and property of those around us from us or defend the vulnerable from exploitation and those the state imposes to regulate behavior that is simply unwise. The latter reflects a lack of faith in the wisdom of people, their ability, when properly informed, to make the right choice.

Read more here:

Read the entire column here.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Target Knows Your Daughter Is Pregnant Before You Do?

  The major retailer Target is an aggressive user of market research and consumer analytics, like most of their competitors. Back in early 2011, the New York Times recently ran a story you may have missed about these market research techniques, specifically Target's use of high-end statistical models to accurately predict consumer behavior at various significant moments of a consumer's life.

  While compiling information about consumer's buying habits, lifestyles, income, financial history, etc. isn't new, it seems the direction some of the recent research Target used is, some might say, controversial.

An excerpt from the New York Times article from January 2011:

...a man walked into a Target outside Minneapolis and demanded to see the manager. He was clutching coupons that had been sent to his daughter, and he was angry, according to an employee who participated in the conversation.
“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”
The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.
On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”

Monday, March 11, 2013

States are Wild but Federal Law Trumps

You're a GOP controlled state government, unhappy with the Democratic administration, and frustrated with what you perceive as ever increasing federal encroachment. So what do you do? You initiate legislation to counteract what you consider to be intrusive federal laws, of course:

- An Oklahoma House committee has approved a bill that would make it a felony to enforce the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare")
- Texas, Wyoming, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Iowa, and other states are considering legislation to nullify federal gun control laws, some even criminalizing federal law enforcement 
- A Missouri newspaper analyzed pending state legislation and found that "almost 20 bills introduced this year either seek to invalidate existing federal law or stop enforcement of possible future law".

Well, not so fast. Nullification - the idea that a state has the right to reject any law that they deem unconstitutional - has a long and colorful history, but from a legal standpoint has been dead since the early 19th century.

It was none other than Thomas Jefferson and James Madison who, in 1798 in opposition to the Alien and Sedition Acts, initiated a strategy of individual states standing up to federal legislation that they deemed unconstitutional. That effort ultimately went nowhere. 

The Supreme Court first ruled against nullification in 1809, reinforcing the concept that the federal judiciary is empowered to rule on the constitutionality of federal legislation. 

A big blow came in the so-called Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833 when South Carolina passed an Ordinance of Nullification, declaring the Tariffs of 1828 and 1832 null and void and threatening secession. President Andrew Jackson stared them down, promising military action if necessary, and the Ordinance was repealed.  It is noteworthy that at this time James Madison himself wrote of nullification being unconstitutional.

There were subsequent nullification attempts - in particular from northern states seeking to strike down Fugitive Slave Laws - but the Supreme Court held firm. The issue died down with the conclusion of the Civil War, which of course dealt definitively with the related issue of secession.

Nullification was revived in the 1950s when southern states passed laws to contradict federal orders to desegregate schools. Of course, the Supreme Court acted decisively and the nullification technique again fell away … until now.

The avenues available to states that want to fight what they consider to be unconstitutional legislation are well known: a federal lawsuit or a constitutional amendment. Every state legislator should be fully aware of the unconstitutional status of nullification.

Thus the recent state legislative energy amounts to no more than political grandstanding and perhaps an outlet to let off some steam from the electorate. The legal outcome of the legislation is certain, though perhaps not that of their citizens who may be subject to felony violations in following the dubious state laws.

In the Nullification Crisis, states' rights advocate and southern President Jackson took a strong unionist stance, explicitly labeled the nullification behavior as treasonous, and threatened the violators with facing the consequences of such actions. But there were important differences compared to now - his opposition was formidable and he took them seriously. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

New Poll Shows Clinton/Christie at Front of 2016 Presidential Pack...

According to a new poll from Quinnipiac University, Democrat and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would defeat both Vice President Joe Biden or New York Governor Andrew Cuomo for the Democratic Nomination if the election was held today. For Republicans, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie leads fellow Republicans Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Paul Ryan, Congressman from Wisconsin.

Remember, polls are a snapshot of current opinions. Keep in mind that Michelle Bachmann won the Iowa straw poll last election cycle and we know how that turned out, don't we?

The poll also found that Hispanic voters prefer Clinton to Marco Rubio by a significant margin, (60-24%). A stat that likely sends chills down the backs of GOP party leaders.

The poll also reveals that President Obama is trusted more than Congress is when it comes to the economy (44-40), health care(46-41) and immigration (45-40).

Also from the poll this info on gun reform:

By an 88 - 10 percent margin, including 85 - 13 percent among voters in households with guns, American voters support background checks for all gun buyers. Voters also support 54 - 41 percent a nationwide ban on the sale of assault weapons and back 54 - 42 percent a nationwide ban on the sale of ammunition magazines with more than 10 rounds. 

The poll was conducted between February 27th to March 4th, surveying over 1900 registered voters.


Unemployment Drops to 7.7%, lowest since Dec. '08...

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the the unemployment rate in the US dropped to 7.7% for February. The unemployment rate had ticked up slightly to 7.9% in January. This is the lowest  rate the country has seen since December of 2008, the last full month of  George W. Bush administration and the month following the election of Barack Obama into office for his first term.

The improvement came across several job sectors including retail, healthcare, construction and information services.

Here's several stories on the new numbers. Make of the numbers and these opinions, what you will. Keep in mind, there's still roughly twelve million people unemployed in the US, many for a substantial period of time, during which skills erode, technology advances, prospects look grim for the long term unemployed (27 weeks or more). The long term unemployed make up over 40% of the total unemployed in the country.

You can read the actual Bureau Summary here.

You can read the actual labor report here.

What the White House is saying here.

Wall Street Journal coverage here.

NBC News coverage here.

Fox News coverage here.

Newsmax coverage here.


Thursday, March 7, 2013

Rep. Ryan's Magical Balancing Act

Rep. Paul Ryan's previous budget was forecast to balance by 2038. Next week, he will unveil a "no surprises" budget that balances in 10 years. How can he do this without major changes, which would presumably surprise some people? 

Easy, says Ezra Klein. First, the Congressional Budget Office's new and improved deficit projections will help to the tune of $800 billion, as will the fiscal cliff tax increases (which Ryan voted for). Abandon sequestration, and - voila! - your old budget balances in 10 years.

News Flash: President Obama is Reaching Out to Republicans

President Obama has begun a charm offensive with Republicans in search of a big budget deal. Will it help? Who knows, but it surely won't hurt. And while he's at it, he can include some of their Democratic colleagues, too.

From Ezra Klein:
“After more than two years of failed negotiations with GOP leaders,” report Lori Montgomery and Rosalind Helderman, “President Obama is for the first time reaching out directly to rank-and-file Republicans who have expressed a willingness to strike a far-reaching budget deal that includes higher taxes.”
And that’s not all! “President Barack Obama has invited a group of Republican senators to the White House for dinner Wednesday evening, a source familiar with the event confirmed.” And he’ll be joining Senate Republicans at their next lunch. 
I spoke recently with a liberal senator who fondly remembered that former President Bush repeatedly invited him up to the White House even as the senator spent every single day investigating and opposing Bush in the Senate — Obama, he said, has spent less time with him than Bush did. 

Click here to read the entire column


Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Latest from Bruce Bartlett: "The worst possible way to cut spending"

Bartlett's columns are always a good read.

A preview of his newest work, from Tuesday's New York Times...

The Worst Possible Way to Cut Spending

One big problem in the sequestration debate is that both sides have been talking past each other, with unstated assumptions underlying their statements and positions. There is also a great deal of posturing going on that disguises more agreement than the public knows.
Contrary to popular belief, Democrats don’t disagree that many programs could be cut substantially without harming government’s core mission. The problem is twofold. First, they disagree with Republicans on which programs are wasteful. Second, Republicans tend to believe that any program they disagree with, philosophically, is, per se, money wasted.The guiding Republican premise is that there is a vast amount of fat and waste in the federal government. Just as when individuals are overweight, a diet will improve their health.


Where Are You on the Income Disparity Discussion?

Recently, there has been quite a bit of discussion about income distribution (more specifically, income disparity or inequality) in the United States. The basic argument is this. Too much of our collective wealth is in the hands of too few of us, and its not good for us either as individuals or as a Country. Progressives argue that "the 1%" has the deck tilted clearly in their favor and that the lower income earners often have various obstructions in their way. Conservatives sometimes feel this isn't even an issue. People who are highly successful and wealthy haven't usually been handed their success and these same people often do the heavy lifting when it comes to paying taxes. Something that the poorest Americans typically don't do, especially when it comes to income taxes.

Regardless of your position on this subject, I think this video is well done and worth a moment of our time:

Here is a link to the actual Harvard study referenced in the video. (H/T to T. Dickinson...)

My personal opinion is that the lower earners, say the bottom 5-10% should be doing better. I'm not just suggesting a handout, but the proper mix of improved education, community health, higher entry level wages, etc. could go a ways toward elevating this population. Likewise, the highest earning group I think, can be asked to do without many of the tax write-offs, exemptions and in some cases governmental subsidies that have made their fantastic success possible.

We shouldn't look at either extreme with contempt. That serves no one. In most cases, the poor would prefer not to be that way, but in many, many cases, have been in the wrong place at the wrong time and considering socio-economic realities, will have a difficult time rising up from the poverty/low-income life they know. The baby born today in the ghetto does not have the same opportunities a baby born into wealth enjoy. While America often prides itself on equal opportunity for all, its a standard we've yet to reach.

Likewise, to look at the wealthiest is wrong-minded as well. In many cases, the wealth has been inherited, but in more, its been built by an enterprising person who was able to combine resources, effort, and opportunity in a highly successful way. Rarely have these people done it entirely on their own. No doubt some public/governmental resources have impacted their path to success along the way. No one succeeds or fails in a vacuum, I say. There is personal responsibility to be expected from all of us. The person who schemes in order to abuse food stamps or housing assistance owns their behavior, as does the person who schemes in order to abuse investments or other financial transactions.

The notion that we as a Country should do more to help the poor lift themselves higher up in our society does not automatically equate with Socialism. The notion that the most successful/wealthy among us are greedy bastards with no conscience is foolish. The demonization of both groups is a sideshow/strawman that does nothing to advance the discussion or help anyone.


Monday, March 4, 2013

Washington's Ground Hog Day

Here we go again...

Washington's Ground Hog Day
By Tim Dickinson

The current Sequester issue is the third occurrence in a Groundhog Day-like cycle of mostly futile attempts to address some basic budgeting and financial issues. This cycle epitomizes our dysfunctional government: polls show that more than 8 out of 10 disapprove of Congress while long term issues go un-addressed and no one comes out looking good. Unfortunately, there is little hope in sight of the situation improving.

The cycle kicked off with the debt limit crisis of 2011, which resulted in the Budget Control Act of 2011. This piece of legislation had a clear winner: President Obama. The legislation provided an immediate solution for the looming debt limit crisis while deferring other contentious issues past the 2012 election.

However, this victory came at a significant cost. First, the increasingly apparent ineffectiveness of our government led to the Standard & Poor’s downgrade of federal debt. Second, it led to Acts 2 and 3 of the Capitol drama, the so-called fiscal cliff and sequester.

Last week, this dysfunction was on full display, with one side blaming the other and no progress towards a solution. There’s been fussing about which party is responsible for the current situation (answer: both), overstatements and outright untruths about the immediate impacts and victims, and exchanges about who did and didn’t do what. The fact checkers have had a field day.

Budgetary negotiations have been at a World War I-like stalemate for a while now. The Republicans want to cut social programs but are strongly opposed to any tax increases, while the Democrats are unwilling to forego elective gains and agree to proposals that don’t generate new revenue.

The best area of common ground for generating revenue – tax overhaul – apparently isn’t viable as an immediate solution. In Bob Woodward's "The Price of Politics", the Administration rejected this option reasoning that the analysis required to identify revenue generating tax reforms requires significant time – perhaps a year or longer. Thus, such gains can only be promised and not committed to, rendering them as the legislative equivalent of vapor ware, and thus a non-starter in balancing out more specific and immediate budget cuts.

Of course, there have been 18 months since the Budget Control Act to work on tax reform, but that wasn’t going to happen with a lame duck Congress in a Presidential election  year.

Having experienced this situation for several years now, it is apparent that we have in place a perfect recipe for dysfunction: a Republican party handcuffed by a proudly non-cooperative faction, Democrats with no incentive to concede election gains, and a President who has not demonstrated strength in legislative consensus building.

The end result is that the Obama Administration is committing valuable time and energy to mostly deferred issues that would be better spent in taking advantage of their 2012 victories. The Republicans are modest winners here, with Congressional stalemate delaying progress on a partisan Democratic issues such as gun control, the minimum wage, climate change, etc.

The next Acts in this drama are coming soon. March 27 is when current funding for the federal government runs out and May 19 is when the debt ceiling legislation expires. Do we already have the scripts?


ER Care is really, really, really expensive...

Good read on exorbitant cost of emergency room care. This isn't news or a shock to people to follow health care, but nonetheless Sarah Kliff does her usual good and thorough job.

Click through to read her full article...

Washington Post

Friday, March 1, 2013

Please no drama, President Obama...

President Obama told a real doozy today...
For all of the defending of President Obama I've cheerfully done, there are a growing number of instances when I just want to shake him. Listening to today's appearance before the media at the White House, I heard him describe the cut in pay that the janitors of the would be experiencing almost immediately.

President Obama's comment:

“Starting tomorrow everybody here, all the folks who are cleaning the floors at the Capitol. Now that Congress has left, somebody’s going to be vacuuming and cleaning those floors and throwing out the garbage. They’re going to have less pay. The janitors, the security guards, they just got a pay cut, and they’ve got to figure out how to manage that. That’s real.”

Uh, no Mister President, it's not real...

Let's bring in the Washington Post who dubbed it "4 Pinocchios" (which isn't good). The Post takes a good look at the claim and provides supporting evidence why it wasn't true. In summary, the paper says:

"Obama’s remarks continue the administration’s pattern of overstating the potential impact of the sequester, which we have explored this week. But this error is particularly bad--and nerve-wracking to the janitors and security guards who were misled by the president’s comments.
We originally thought this was maybe a Two Pinocchio rating, but in light of the AOC memo and the confirmation that security guards will not face a pay cut, nothing in Obama’s statement came close to being correct."
I understand why he went there. Paint a sad picture of the humblest White House employees, taking a financial hit, etc. How many people really check the accuracy of a statement like that? Enough do that it shouldn't pass your lips unless you know for a fact, its true. There were other ways to make your point, you didn't need to exaggerate or embellish something. Especially when the Right has been bitching about you and your team doing that exact same thing over the last few weeks. 
There are times when I truly think the Obama Administration is tone deaf. 
President Obama and his staff need a reality check. The game of "out spin the other side" is not an attractive one for them to be engaging in. Perhaps the argument is that in the first four year, Obama tried often to take the high road and repeatedly look weak doing so and it earned him rather little in return. So, this time, after his re-election, perhaps a "we can play this game too" strategy seems right. Except that its not.

Barack Obama should remember that relatively speaking, the American people like him, while they hate Congress' guts. By all means, make your case. Even dare to be a bit passionate while doing so. Remember, you're the "no drama" guy, right?


Uwe Reinhardt speaks on the Steven Brill TIME Magazine health costs piece

The esteemed Uwe Reinhardt weighs in on health care costs...put simply, when Reinhardt writes or speaks, we all should pay attention...

Click through and read it...

Uwe E. Reinhardt: Americans Are Shocked, Just Shocked, Over Hospital Bills -