Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I should post something ...

I should post something, to keep y'all interested.

Really, I got nothing.

A horse, a rabbi and Robert Zimmerman (tm) walk into a bar. The Bartender looks up and says "What is this, some sort of a joke?" Buh-duhp bah (rimshot noise ... no, not that).

I did want to say something about the Vatican's continuing problems. Did the pope really equate accusations that he ignored child abuse to "petty gossip"? Really? I mean, that is probably worse than the George W Bush school of how to navigate politics.

Primaries coming up. Listen, any economist should tell you, if he or she is being honest, that your vote counts for nothing. But voting is like behaving morally after realizing you can't really dismiss the existentialists logically. You gotta do it, so vote for the people who would surprise you when they screwed you over (the Sestaks, the Hoeffels, Obama ...and I am probably misspelling all these guys names). Specter is probably a lock, and maybe Onorato, but these other guys would be better in office. So make a statement, charge that windmill, Don Q.

Did I just read that Obama opened up coastline for oil drilling? Say whut?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Kelly moderates his hyperbole, somewhat ...

As I have often done, I am taking a look at today's column from one particular conservative columnist, Jack Kelly at the mostly otherwise moderate/liberal Post-Gazette. Kelly still has his snarky tone, comparing the terms "new deal", "fair deal" (a Truman term) and "big f-ing deal" (which Kelly accurately attributes to Biden). But he sort of redeems of his past excesses with this phrase in his fourth paragraph "Obamacare, on the other hand, is detested by many if not most Americans". Not a majority? Not all? It must have nearly killed Kelly to admit that the polls don't absolutely show a majority of Americans opposed to health care reform.

On the other hand, if they are being honest, liberals should get used to phrases like "slim majority" or even "slim plurality" in conjunction with all things Obama. Actually it is a testament to the continuing weariness of that huge mass of working Americans that they (we) have had much more trouble getting ahead, not to say just keeping up. The actual health care bill is a sort of a poor copy of what apparently the Swiss have. And by the way, the Swiss are second only to us in terms of per capita on health care. Therefore, I suspect that as this bill is implemented, US spending per capita will drop, but will settle at a level still higher than every other industrial country (if not ever country period). Americans do have reason to be suspicious.

Unfortunately Jack Kelly is a poor spokesman for the other side. Instead of focusing on shortcomings in terms of what it is supposed to do, Kelly focused on how the cost will bankrupt the country, and that is might be unconstitutional. Even if the HCR bill does some of what it is supposed to do, it will pay for itself pretty well, and unless the Supreme Court thinks it is a good idea during a Democrat administration to re-write the constitution (they were willing to do that in 2000, but that resulted in a Republican administration).

Here's hoping there will be an on point debate that starts sometime soon. I'm hoping but I'm not optimistic.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

My Earth Hour moment ...

So tonight Earth Hour took place, from 8:30 to 9:30 (for the uninitiated, that is turning off the lights for an hour). I had seen commercials, and Bill Peduto (tm) had tweeted about it (OK, Bill Peduto is not trademarked; I wouldn't have made the joke but I seriously doubt he reads my blog). At first I thought it was at 8:00, but then I found it out it was supposed to start at 8:30 (OK, that was really apropos of nothing).

So I did taxes today, the Saturday 10 to 4 shift that went to 4:30 (I should have stayed longer, been a mensch, but I might have ended up being the last one there, and I am not that much of a mensch). After leaving Just Harvest, I suffered through some typical Pittsburgh Saturday traffic to make my way to Costco, picked up some cheap gas and then did some unnecessary shopping there. I followed that up by whipping out to an Aldi (I had missed Aldi last week on my shopping circuit). So I had been wanting to get to an Aldi, but of course there is also a Dollar store and a Big Lots in that strip mall as well. More unnecessary shopping and I was getting hungry, but i was also thinking about what might do about Earth Hour. The politically correct thing to do would be to buy a pillar candle or two, and wait out the hour respectfully considering the earth and energy and yada yada yada yawn. But I didn't buy the pillar and the little emergency candles I have burn out too fast.

So I thought to myself, I am hungry and I seriously doubt the typical Pittsburgh restaurateur has heard of Earth Hour (may a few, but I thought not many would have). I figured what better way to leave my lights off in my apartment than by not being in my apartment for the hour. That little Thai place in Regent Square seemed like a god bet (it always seemed like it wasn't very busy). Turned out Saturday night is a different story. I sat in the coffee shop across the street, and waited for a bit to see if it might empty ... a bit (I was hungry).

It didn't. So I just went to Taco Bell, ate a Fresco Burrito, read some of Charlie Pierce's new book "Idiot America" (courtesy of the Library). I am going to have to report back on that book after I finish it (and probably buy it, it is that good so far).

Here's where I might say something profound or at least witty .... or sumpin'

Got nothing.

Happy Earth Hour.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Words fail me ...

OK, donations are down, in this time of the "Great Recession" (as someone, maybe Bob Herbert, put it). Times are tough, and yet, I don't think this was inevitable, or at least, I would have hoped it was not inevitable.

I am speaking of the apparent demise of ACORN.

Now, for a long time I was not a fan of ACORN. To me, they were people who wanted to hit me up for money, and, besides, despite the liberal school I went to, I thought ACORN's politics were pretty far to the left of my own, and therefore, unrealistic (yeah. pretty arrogant of me).

A brief tangent, I have to say I am not the person ACORN was interested in helping. A white male, I went to what I consider a pretty good college. I know how to dress to impress (at least superficially) and I can be reasonably articulate. I don't make as much money as I should, but not because I didn't have the leg up my skin tone and education should have given me. If I happen to get a letter from a government agency, I should be able to navigate the issue reasonably well. ACORN did not feel like I deserved their help.

I started to pay more attention to ACORN during the Obama campaign, when they were accused of committing voter fraud, trying to steal the election. Somewhere along the way, I heard that ACORN helped people with foreclosures.

Now I should repeat that for the last four years I have worked at Just Harvest, preparing taxes for low income people at the IRS free site that Just Harvest hosts. So my view of groups that work with the poor has changed. I accept that some, maybe many of the people who come in with only $4000 in W-2 income have other income they aren't reporting, possibly but not necessarily illegal in nature. I suspect they know that I have suspicions, but I am supposed to take what they say on face value. I mean, I don't want to go too deeply into this, but I will just to say I have a lot of sympathy for the ACORN employees that dealt with James O'Keefe.

So now ACORN is out of business. Let's not forget that the same Congress that so courageously voted to enact health care reform previously voted to "de-fund" ACORN, essentially validating all the shitty charges conservatives had made about ACORN. And of course the media, including the New York Times, had their role in dutifully repeating the charges James O'Keefe leveled at ACORN. The media as a whole essentially praised the criminal and vilified the innocent (OK, not totally innocent but at worst, those with poor judgment). The NYTimes gave a tepid non-apology a few days ago. They managed to get it in right before ACORN folded, so I guess they can sleep pretty well at night. As can people like O'Keefe, and all those Congress-persons.

Probably the only people who will have trouble sleeping are those who are worried about losing their house, or their jobs. Those people who have no access to the rapidly receding safety net. Which now includes ACORN's former employees.

The day after, or "I freed who!" ...

The punch line to an old joke about Abraham Lincoln. Paul Krugman has what I consider to be a pretty summary of how we got here. I'll wait while you go read it ...

So I would only expand on a couple of his ideas. Clearly (in my opinion) Obama wanted some degree of Republican participation in writing the bill. Now, I wouldn't have gone that route personally, and I suspect the Congressional Democrats would not have welcomed Republicans to the table, certainly not in the House. On the other hand, you may remember that when Olympia Snowe, Susan Collins and our Arlen approached Harry Reid regarding the stimulus bill (over a year ago), they got pretty much all they wanted. So who knows, but the Republicans decided early on to go a different road, one of whipping up public sentiment against the bill (hey, it worked in 1993).

When the bill was started, at least some versions of it included a public option, a government run health insurance plan that would have provided low cost health insurance to the poor. This would have made our reformed health insurance market look a bit like Switzerland's, with a tightly regulated private market and including a government plan. By the way, we are number one in spending per capita on health care, but the Swiss are number two, so it is not like the original plan was too radical. Except that it was, at least for Democrats in conservative states. I've already talked about my feelings about the bill, so I will leave it at that.

So the Republicans did not give Obama a defeat yesterday (jumping forward to today). And for ever after, Obama will be the President who passed health care reform. It may be that the Republicans will re-take the Congress in November, and repeal the bill, but that won't change the fact that it passed on Obama's watch.

But I don't think it is bad for the Republicans that they couldn't block the bill. They now have their wedge and fear issue, which they can ride all the way to November.

Even back two Novembers ago, the country was pretty evenly split between voting for the crazy old guy and the cool and articulate but black guy. A little more than half of the voting public either enthusiastically or reluctantly voted for Obama. And part of what he ran on was health care reform. Things have obviously changed since then, and Obama might not win if the election were held today. Or more importantly, the county may decide, state by state or district by district, to return Congress to the Republicans. That may happen if the Republicans can use HCR as a "fear" issue. It speaks poorly of us as a country if that works, but realistically it has a chance.

We'll see.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Sunday is my fun day ...

Or at least the day I have time to stop and relax, and perhaps write. Today a lot of other people will be working, taking a vote that they know will be spun by one side or the other in the fall. This legislation is sufficiently complicated that both sides will claim extreme consequences Monday regardless of how the vote goes today. Jason Altmire, among hundreds of others, will be vilified very loudly by one side or the other, and praised more faintly by the other side (or other).

Of course, Altmire is sort of special to our region in that of course first, his district is close to Pittsburgh but also that he was supposed to be the expert in health care and insurance. His expertise was supposed to help guide the Democrats in health care reform. Now we have reached a final vote, and Altmire wants to vote against his party's bill, ostensibly because of what the voters in his district are saying. It is probably a vocal minority that is complaining loudly about the Democratic bill. To be fair, in electoral calculus, it is hard to gauge the effect of a vocal minority, whether their sure turnout at the polls outweighs everyone else's possible turnout, or whether the vocal minority might have an effect on other voters. But it is still not hard to be disappointed with Altmire; as a Democrat and also the supposed expert he has no alternative to his own parties' bill. But I don't live in his district, so I have no vote and would feel bad doing any more than blogging about it (I shouldn't choose someone else's representation in Congress).

I feel I would be remiss if I didn't address Jack Kelly's column today, but in keeping with my more recent practice I am not going to spend a lot of time with him. Today he is suggesting that the method being used to pass health care is unconstitutional and the Supreme Court will declare the reform bill unconstitutional. He also suggests that the Court will be motivated to do so because of Obama's (unprecedented, according to Kelly) snub to the Court during the State of the Union address. Now, I looked and didn't find where I think he talked about this snub to the Supreme's in a past column. But Kelly's undisguised glee that the Court might act not because the Congressional procedure is in fact unconstitutional, but rather because Robert's and the other conservatives on the Court are holding a grudge is fairly slimy, even for a columnist.

Now, despite the myth that the Court decides all decisions based solely on the Constitution (yeah, yeah, yeah, I know, even the Libertarians don't believe that, in fact, that is their complaint), they actually have to navigate the tricky path of adhering to an imperfect constitution (it allowed slavery, and only allowed male property owners to vote) and addressing public opinion that either pushes for or pushes against progress (usually both, and loudly). For myself, given the history of the Court (Dred Scott versus Brown v Board of Education), I have no more respect for them than I do for the average Congressman or President. They all actually do tough jobs, but they kind of do them in an average manner.

I hope Kelly's wrong, that the Court won't get involved in Health Care. He may be right, certainly the conservatives/Republicans will scurry to find anything to sink Obama, and hope that will be enough to propel them into control of Congress. Of course, I would question the morality of the Republicans/conservatives position (I'll wait while you stop laughing) but the reality is that the Republicans/conservative seem determined to do anything to stop health care/insurance reform and at least some want to do that because they want to stop Obama. Which brings us back to the question of their motivation (saving Americans from bad reform versus damaging a landmark President with a landmark agenda).

Thursday, March 18, 2010

HCR - scary initials

I believe I have posted here before about health care/insurance reform, but not for a while. I have been talking about it in many other places, most recently responding to annoying comments on Facebook. But there has been something on my mind that I did not feel I could post on FB without fear of being called a turncoat. That something is that I think the Democrat's bill in Congress really sucks. I can see no mechanism for cost controls, private insurance is left in place, yada, yada, yada. But here's the thing, and there's no getting around this (I love saying early West Wing like things): the alternative is not single payer or even Swiss-like regulated private insurance. The alternative is doing nothing, waiting maybe another fifteen years to approach health care/insurance reform again.

I am sure I have talked about the hidden tax, the cost of employer provided health insurance premiums that are passed on to everyone. It's not just union shops that have employer provided health insurance, so do colleges and universities, insurance firms (including Highmark and UPMC, ironic, no?), banks, the government, etc etc etc. Everything costs more because the insurance companies can charge what they want. And if someone can show me a study that proves offering health insurance across state borders works, I will be pleased to read and comment. But from personal experience dealing with a national insurance company (and their customer service department located who knows where) that has a presence in Pennsylvania, remote health insurance companies bring with them unique problems.

Now, I don't think the Democratic plan really does anything for the hidden tax, and that is something we are going to need to deal with soon, but again, the alternative is not passing a phantom Republican plan. Even if Republicans have introduced bills, they are not on anyone's radar, so they might as well not exist.

So I will grit my teeth and continue to defend the Democrat's HCR bill, particularly against false Republican accusations like saying the Public Option will ruin our health care and cause huge waits for procedures (*actually seen on FaceBook). That particular statement is false because the current bill *has* *no* *public* *op-* *tion*.

But I wanted to say I'm not stupid, this bill is only slightly better than nothing. That that is so is a topic for another post.

(It would be OK with me, Barry, if you want to go ahead and call the other members of your party a bunch of self interested, self serving jerks whose only redeeming quality is that they are slightly less self interested and self serving than their Republican counterparts. But that redeeming quality is off set by the Republicans ability to get their message out.)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Should we put a parking chair in the parking garages...

So I am relatively confused about what is happening with the parking garages. We should realize that it was over a year ago that the Mayor first floated the idea of leasing the garages. Now, I can't tell you what has taken him so long to get going on this, but I guess since City Council is interested in at least studying the matter, if not an alternative plan, suddenly the Mayor needs to start threatening people (again).

My questions start with the fact that the City will lose a revenue source. Now, I will have to look (when I have time) at some City budgets, to see what the City is giving up, and, perhaps, gaining in lowered payments to the pension fund. Maybe. If the City goes with the Mayor's plan, we will lose control of the parking garages. I believe I read an article that indicated the lessee could immediately (over three years) increase parking rates to "market levels", then increase rates rather more slowly. I have a feeling those three years would be kind of painful. But the City would (might) get a couple of hundred million to put in the pension fund. Hopefully the City wouldn't squander it.

On the other hand, if the City followed the Lamb/Dowd plan would give the pension fund a steady source of revenue for some time to come, perhaps until the automobile disappears. But we won't have that big infusion of cash that frankly might be required by state law (the legislature). The Mayor may in fact have that in mind. All of elected City government belongs to the Democratic party, but in a conflict between the Mayor and the Council, the legislature might decide to side with the Mayor.

But to me, the most interesting thing is that Bill Peduto and Pat Dowd might be working together on this. Not that this should be surprising. When Pat Dowd was (first) running for Council, in spring of 2007, he advocated such progressive ideas as transparency in government and tackling the debt the City carries (including the pension debt). Pat Dowd the campaigner was someone very similar to Bill Peduto the councilman, or at least the image Bill Peduto would like to project. The past couple of years has seen the two men steadily moving to two different camps, at odds. But perhaps they have now (finally) found an issue they can agree on. As I said, that is an interesting thing.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Blog for shared misery ... er, Equality, 2010

A couple of local bloggers had sent around an email to other local bloggers asking them to post on gay marriage on this, the Blog for Equality Day 2010. And I am happy to do so, although I got a late start this morning (something happened with the clocks yesterday ????) and I couldn’t type anything ‘til now.

I have to say about the only thing I have to offer is to repeat a shtick I heard from some stand up guy (and I will probably mangle it). I remember he was setting it up by talking about how on a gay beach you will see these gay guys, and they are tan and obviously have time to work out and follow a careful diet and they look relaxed, non-stressed and great (this is, of course, a stereotype, but work with me here, people). Then you look at the straight men and women and they are pale and do not have time to work out or eat carefully (and it shows) and they have stressed features and lines and all. And the comedian says if the gays want to get married, please, let’s let them. Misery loves company (not that there’s anything wrong with it, … or does that work there?).

Well, it was funnier on TEEVEE. There are economic arguments against gay marriage, and then there are the religious/social arguments about the love that dare not speak its name. The economic arguments run along the line of not extending benefits to domestic partners (of the same gender) and perhaps inheritance rights. I believe I heard gay promiscuity blamed in part for not wanting to give domestic partners benefits, but oddly that supports the need for gay marriage. I would think my employer was being reckless if it extended health insurance to boyfriends or girlfriends (regardless of the employee’s sexual orientation), but a married partner implies the whole legal obligation. So by all means, let’s clear that up by establishing that people can get married regardless of orientation, and that they are married, with all the rights but also all of the obligations (and I guess all the stress).

As for the religious/social arguments, well, I don’t know if Gandhi was as nice as Ben Kingsley says he was, or what Morgan Freeman’s baritone timbre would tell us, or even what Hay-Seuss would drive. The West Wing had an episode (“The Midterms”, thank you Google) where Martin Sheen lectured a Dr Laura-like about how the Old Testament says more than just don’t be homosexual. There was also the bit about not eating shellfish, yes to selling daughters into slavery, football players not being able to touch pigskin, and putting people to death for working on the Sabbath.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a committed lapsed Unitarian who plans to maybe possibly attend services after the tax season, and I firmly believe in my own fuzzy interpretation of the New Testament gospels .. blessed are the cheese-makers (purveyors of dairy products in general) and the Greeks … er meek (which is nice, they get so little). Love thy neighbor, unless he or she is of thy same gender, in which case, only like thy neighbor in a socially appropriate way.

That sort of thing. That's what I'm for, sort of.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday in the Park with Jack ...

So a lot of people, conservatives and liberals, are criticizing Obama. I don't know anything about John (oops, *Jackson*) Diehl of the Washington Post, but he wrote a piece with some criticisms of Obama on Wednesday. So of course Jack Kelly repeats only the criticisms, and suggests that the only reason Americans think Obama has a good foreign policy is because they don't read enough Ralph Peters.

I have some problems with Obama's foreign policy, because I am not sure it will work. But alternatives, such as hastily leaving Iraq or Afghanistan, will likely not produce a desirable result. Indeed some Republicans have expressed approval of Obama's foreign policy, but for Jack Kelly the criticism is all that is important. He belongs to that wing of the conservatives/Republicans that feel that it is worth it to destroy the country to drive a (black) Democrat from the White House.

Enough of Kelly. There was also a third meeting of the Coffee Party Movement in Pittsburgh yesterday, at the Galleria Panera. My count was 33 people, but I arrived late. I don't think anything was decided, but the discussion was civil. I don't know whether top down leadership was a more progressive and activist national leadership will succeed in giving the Pittsburgh group a definite direction and set of goals, or whether the Pittsburgh group will become like the League of Women voters, describing all sides of an issue. For myself (as I believe I stated before) I would like to see some activism on local issues and candidates at least. The primaries are pretty soon, so now is the time to act.

The Squirrel Hill group may meet on Thursday at the Panera in the old Howard Johnson's in Oakland. But that is contingent on being able to get the room there. So even that is a wait and see kind of thing.

Friday, March 12, 2010

NYTimes Conservatives

A Facebook commenter who styles himself a libertarian was describing sources he would not trust, such as all the liberal blogs and the New York Times. Perhaps there is something to that view, as two of the so-called conservative NYTimes columnists surprised me recently. Ross Douthat said, in a posting on his blog, that any tax reform should still contain some progressive elements (in other words, a flat tax is not appropriate for tax reform). And in today's NYTimes David Brooks does a surprisingly accurate job of describing Obama's politics.

In the past year and a half, Brooks has switched from praising the political, oratorical and intellectuals gifts Obama has, to accurately describing and analyzing Obama's actions and predicaments, to essentially carrying the water for his fellow conservatives by lying about Obama's actions and intentions (including when he accused Obama of telling lies to the American people). Need less to say, I have become very ambivalent, at best, about Brooks. But in today's column, for whatever reason, he gives a very even handed and reasonable description of Obama's politics (it's worth reading). He starts by pointing out the flaws in the views of Obama of both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans.

There are a couple of points where I think his analysis could use some clarifications. He states that (he thinks) there are not any cost containment measures in the (a?) health care bill currently in Congress. That may be true, but if the public option had survived in the bill, something Mr Brooks, among many others, fought against (and lied about), there might well have been downward pressure on both health insurance premiums and health providers charges. Obviously a single payer option would have addressed both issues, but both have been demonized out of any chance of passage in the Congress.

Second, Mr Brooks calls Obama (accurately, IMO) a center left pragmatist looking for a moderate middle to work with to pass moderately progressive legislation. But, says Mr Brooks, the voters are in information cocoons, listening only to the extreme views on their side of the political spectrum. I believe Brooks is saying there is no moderate middle in Congress right now, because of the pressure from the views of the political extremes. To the extent that that is true (and I have to say I think it is an accurate reflection of current reality), I blame the media, ever willing to report the views of the leaders of extreme groups instantly, and the internet for flattening information, so a determined chorus from the extremes can gain more attention than their usually inaccurate view deserve.

But I still believe that some politicians ran for office to help people, regardless of how they define helping people. I think that if they felt they would not be portrayed by opposition interest groups as villains, they might be willing to compromise and vote for legislation that does at least some good. But that would take an effort by those who have the ability to reach large numbers of people to get the voting public to calm down and let their legislators actually do their jobs.

I wonder about the coincidence of Brooks writing this column the day before the Coffee Party has its kick off nationwide meeting. Perhaps Brooks is sending an implicit message that he approves of the goal of promoting civility in politics, and of getting legislators to listen to the majorities in their districts and take action based on the will of the people.

Or maybe Brooks got out of the left side of his bed today.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

What are we doing?

Sorry about the delay in posting. Still doing a job and a half, so for another month and change, I won't have much extra time.

I went to another "coffee party" meeting. The driving impulse of the people I've met seems to be a desire to get a seemingly stalled government moving again. But past that, there is not yet an agreed upon set of goals. There does seem to be a desire to facilitate civil communication between liberals and conservatives. I think the end goal of that would be to then get both groups to speak to their elected representatives, and present ideas that the two sides had agreed upon. But there is a long road before that, including another potentially divisive election this year.

Changing tack somewhat, at the two coffee party meetings I have gone to, I expressed an idea that was not much more than thinking aloud, but seemed to be well received. This is the way it goes: By now, we all (should) know that the rest of the industrialized world has more government involvement in health care. European and Asian countries, plus Canada and Latin American countries all have either single payer or heavily regulated private insurance. Why did they do this? Because they realized that not doing it would allow a much worse health care/insurance system. What would that much worse system look like? Well ... us. We are the poster child for why government involvement in the health care and insurance arena is so necessary. Think about that. The richest country in the world, the envy of the world in many ways, and we are making are nation figuratively sick with our unregulated health care/insurance system.

People seemed to be able to digest that idea pretty well. What do you think?

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Civility may be overated ...

So I did sign up with the Coffee Party (Coffee Party capitalized, not capitalized??? - today caps). I was thinking this might be a way to push myself out there a bit into politics, but maybe on my terms. After all, the Coffee Party is brand new, and while the people who started it in DC may have an idea of how they want to proceed, out here in the sticks we are still thinking about how to define ourselves (or not, more about that in a bit). I even signed the civility pledge.

So I looked at the Coffee Party website today and noticed there was a new widget, which was maybe local chapters(?)... So I didn't do anything with it until I got home from work. Well, the new widget, which on the main page was a US map with a bunch of pins, was in fact a listing of the closet local Coffee Party meeting to whomever, by zip code. So I punched in my zip ... hmmm, a group in Greensburg on the 13th. Nah. Norths Hills, meeting on March 3rd, at 7:00pm (I am reading that on March 3rd at 5:50pm, while dinner is in the microwave). I wolfed down dinner and tore out to the Panera on McKnight Road.

There were eight of us, one guy had been a member since last Friday, or maybe a couple of days before that. He had emailed the DC people about whether there was a Pittsburgh group or chapter or whatever, and had gotten a call from the DC people asking him if he wanted to set one up. That's how we got there.

So we chatted about what we thought the Coffee Party should be, for the Pittsburgh area and in general. We were, not surprisingly, all Obama fans and basically all progressives, although we were more diverse than you might expect.

There will be some sort of meeting on the 13th, one that I will likely not be able to attend, as part of the nationwide kick off of the Coffee Party. It remains to be seen how much the local news will take an interest.

But I think that the Coffee Party could be as or possibly more valuable in Pittsburgh than on the national level. Because the Democratic party has such a lock on the City, which is to say the Democratic committee has such a lock on the city, the East End coffee house progressives have not had much maneuvering room. I mean, they basically got Pat Dowd elected (and played a role in getting Bruce Kraus in too), but Dowd has charted a somewhat different course, which gave East End progressives the sense of disenchantment a year before the supporters of Obama developed it. But I think that the concept of a Coffee Party Democrat might gain traction, which is to say politicians taking on an added label, to indicate they support civility in discussion and finding intelligent, fact based solutions to issues and problems. This is something I think Bill Peduto could sign onto in a heartbeat, but also Shields, Kraus, Rudiak, perhaps Burgess (although he may not want to give up the ability to protest loudly when needed) and even perhaps Dowd, since these ideas were so important to him when he first campaigned.

Meanwhile, I am going to have to think about this civility pledge. It is going to be awfully hard to remain civil when some conservative commenter on another blog makes some snide and derogatory remark. Maybe I can chide them about their manners.

Coffee, tea ... Everclear?

So have you heard of the coffee party? It was formed just recently, I am not quite sure when. A woman, Anna Park (I think), had posted a comment or complaint on Facebook to the effect of why do you have join the tea party if you are unhappy with the government right now? Is there anything for the rest of us? She joked about calling this other thing the cappuccino party. Apparently she got a lot (relatively speaking) of response, and so the coffee party was born. It might be primarily a Facebook thing, although I don’t think it will stay there. Right now it is somewhere around 60,000 members (I think it might have been around for a month), not much in national terms but not bad for a month old internet flash mob.

Now when I say the rest of us, I think Ms Park had the Obama supporters of 2008 in mind in particular. You know, the Democrats and independents who watched Obama have early successes with the Lily Ledbetter Act and the stimulus package (mostly a successs) and other things, and then watched Congress get bogged down in the healthcare thing, with Republicans throwing everything in its path to slow it down; the Obama supporters who have become disaffected. Supposedly the coffee party supports particularly the idea that the government is not working right now but it is not the enemy. The coffee party does not want to return to the ideas of founding fathers per se, they want to help government function now. They want to promote civility and discourse, and find working solutions for our problems. So in theory the coffee and tea parties are working in parallel directions, but with different emphases.

Critics (and there are some already) around the web don’t believe it. One issue is that Ms Park’s resume includes a stint working at the New York Times, time working on the campaign of Jim Webb, and time working on Obama’s campaign. This is why I was saying I think she has Obama supporters in mind for the Coffee party, and this is what critics think too. Also, on the Coffee Party website, there is a menu choice labeled “inform”. When you click on it, you find Media Matters and FactCheck dot org posts on various topics, such as the economy, healthcare reform and climate change (also one lonely Salon post on “birthers”). This is like red meat to those on the right end of the spectrum. Of course, I don’t think there is one source the right and the left would agree on as unbiased and/or objective. Which leaves you with the question of how to promote civil discourse.

So is the coffee party really just a way to get a bunch of progressives in one coffee shop talking about the same thing at the same time? Maybe. And maybe that is not such a bad idea. I mean, it seems like Washington and the whole country might need that other idea, the group that acts like a ref between the right and left, encouraging civil conversation rather than polemics. But since there is no one (short of James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman or perhaps the Allstate guy Dennis Haysbert) that both sides trust enough to insult them when they are in the wrong, I think we have to settle for a progressive party. And hope they speak in wonky enough language to persuade some of those on the fence.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Needle (ow) in the Haystack

It's a shame Bram Reichbaum stopped writing the Pittsburgh Comet. The perfect example is that he posted a (by definition) short message on Twitter: "Sweet Merciful Pete we'd best be careful about how we finally address CBDG $. And why ONLY address Walking Around Money?" The PG story he links to is here. I don't particularly have any Council or media contacts, and it is not like I even have a lot of time right now to follow the news. But assuming the TeeVee news is not covering it, and the PG is only doing as much as I have linked to, I would say this deserves more attention than it is getting.

So the basic story is that Ricky Burgess feels that Community Development Block Grants allocated to Pittsburgh have not been spent entirely on the poorest neighborhoods. It is (apparently) expected that Pittsburgh will get 16.5 million this year.

One issue seems to be that the CDBG's are used to fund City Services in distressed neighborhoods, allowing the City to spend more of its normal operating revenue in wealthier neighborhoods, meaning the services are higher for all neighborhoods. Except that wasn't what the CDBG's were intended for.

Another issue that is likely to get disproportionate interest is that a small part, $675,000, of the CDBG money has historically been split up among Council members at $75,000 each. Burgess wants to pro-rate that based on the relative wealth of the neighborhoods involved. So Natalia Rudiak's portion would drop to $17,495, while Doug Shields part would drop to $32,618. Obviously this doesn't seem to be the way to make friends on council for the man who wanted to be Council President. On hte other hand, it has the sticky value of being fair.

Now, I don't know what Council members get in the way of discretionary money these days. I remember a PG story from years ago about some fund Council members had to spend on themselves (Twanda Carlisle(sp) bought herself books, Gene Riccardi bought picture frames or something?). But I believe this will mean denying money to groups in Squirrel Hill and Shadyside, who might not take too kindly to it.

One of the things that bothered me about the Bush junior administration was that we went to war (in two countries, no less) and the administration made no calls for sacrifice, much less mandating them. To be fair, I believe that was the case for the Korean and Vietnam wars as well. But Bush could have used the fact of wars in the Middle East to call for a higher gas tax, or implemented a 55 mile per hour speed limit, or called for people to conserve energy in other fashions.

Similarly, Pittsburgh has been under Act 47, distressed City status, for over five years. Yet Pittsburgh Mayors, including but not limited to Ravenstahl, have not really called on Pittsburgher's to make sacrifices. Except if Ricky Burgess is correct, the poor in Pittsburgh have been giving up assistance intended to them.

I'll bet they are not surprised.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Who's what ....

Two Political Junkies ( had a post about how the Trib was refuting Arlen Specter's claim he voted with Democrats even before he turned Democrat. That post got me to to thinking about how often in general Republicans vote together, versus how often Democrats do, which led me to this thought:

Suppose you are the canonical space alien who visits earth. You understand English, and you have been told about our political systems. You have also been told that of the two political parties, Republicans value individual freedoms over government control/action, and also believe the free market is a superior economic engine and should be as free of government control as possible. Meanwhile Democrats (who also value individual freedoms in some areas - "reproductive rights") believe that the free market slips in some areas such as pollution, monopolies and even income inequity, and we are a wealthy enough nation we can stand to regulate the market some. Democrats also believe that it is a good idea to address poverty in our country, for short term humanitarian reasons but perhaps more importantly to help poor children do better than their parents (again, there is a component of us being wealthy enough to tax the rich more and transfer some money to the less wealthy).

If you (the space alien) then looked at the behavior of Representatives and Senators in Congress after hearing these descriptions of the parties, you might be forgiven if you thought the party that votes together consistently is the Democrats, while the party that, even though it holds a majority, can not seem to get its members to vote together is the Republicans. I mean, for a party that flirts with claiming the libertarian label (they certainly want the libertarians to vote for Republicans), you might think the Republicans would encourage individualism in their own party. Seems rather the opposite.

Meanwhile, the hapless Democrats seem unable to enforce discipline on their own members. I keep thinking of when the Republicans were talking about themselves as the "Big Tent" party during the early Bush II administration. Now that mantle seems to rest more naturally on Democrats, yet it only seems to have negative connotations.

Is there a point to this little essay? Not really, I just get annoyed when Republicans, who seem to have to vote as a top down monolith, talk about the importance of individual freedoms. I guess their idea of freedom is the "Donna Reed Show" or "Leave it to Beaver" late fifties freedom, when everyone just happened to agree (or at least everyone whose opinion mattered).