Sunday, October 31, 2010

Two days ....

This post was inspired by a Paul Krugman column.

So the election is in two days. In Pittsburgh, Mike Doyle is likely to be relected, it is a possibly toss up between Toomey and Sestack, but apparently likely to be Toomey, and the same for Corbett and Onorato (Corbett winning). Now here’s a question: what do you think will happen when the Republicans take the House, and perhaps the Senate?

My answer: nothing. If you thought we did not see much progress on the economy in the last two years, get ready for less in the next two years. Some Republicans claim vaguely they want to reduce spending, and certainly they want to cut taxes for the rich. But most Republicans (besides some Tea Party fanatics) don’t describe specifics, even to the point of not pledging to reduce earmarks.

But assuming that Republicans can overcome their lack of enthusiasm and their history of spending during the Bush years, and pass bills in the house, how well things go in the Senate. The Republicans may or may not get a majority there, but we now know that 60 votes for cloture is the new standard for passage of legislation. What is to stop the Democrats from picking up the habits of the Republicans of the last four years? Personal holds and filibusters are absolutely possible. And if the Republicans change the rules to prevent Democrats from doing these things, then when the pendulum swings again, the new rules will apply to them too.

And at the end of the process, there is still Obama, who can veto legislation. And whatever else might be the result from Tuesday’s election, I don’t think the Republicans will have two thirds majorities in both houses.

So what will happen next January when the new members take their seats in Congress. My guess is nothing. I think the House may do some things, nothing that would help people who are actually unemployed. I don’t think a repeal of healthcare will pass the Senate, although some tax breaks for corporations and the rich might (and might be signed by Obama). I think the remaining middle class and those who do make more than a hundred grand (whom I classify as at least upper middle class) will continue to do OK. But I think the poor face more tough years, out as far as I can see.

Of the races, I am not a huge fan of Onorato, but I guess he would be better than Corbett. I am also not a fan of Doyle, but that race doesn’t matter (the primary was more important, but I don’t even remember if Doyle had a challenger). But the important vote is for Toomey or Sestak. Yes, it may not matter if I am right that the Republicans can never get enough of a majority to do anything. But I gotta say why give the Republicans reason to think they might be able to roll back the Democrat’s accomplishments. Plus, despite the Republicans/Tea Party’s overheated rhetoric, I don’t think either Obama or Sestak is that radical. But Toomey might be.

You will have to decide for yourself. I hope you read/watch more than one source, and if you have a job now, you ask yourself how much Republicans have tried to help the poor in the past.

Yeah, Kelly today ...

Yeah, so I haven't posted for a couple of weeks. I am hoping to get better about that.

I didn't bother with Jack Kelly's column last week, because he was blaming everyone for intelligence failures (except "Able Danger", an apparently muscular data mining program). I am a little baffled by Kelly's column today. He cites a report by Neil Barofsky, Treasury’s Inspector General for the Troubled Assets Relief Program. Now, apparently Congress saddled the TARP not only with saving Wall Street (a reasonable enough goal, or have we forgotten the Great Depression), but also with having banks lend to small business and even bring unemployment down. Now those were laudable goals but as Obama was elected Wall Street decided to refuse to play along. They have loaned little, and apparently are still engaging in risky behavior (as financial regulation slowly gets implemented). Loaning almost no money means that of course that there was not extra cash to expand business, which is how TARP would help unemployment fall.

But what is amazing is that in the interest of criticizing Democrats and especially Obama in any way possibly, Kelly is agreeing with this report from the TARP IG. He is agreeing with the idea that banks should have been forced to loan money to business. What happened to the free market, to shrinking the government, to getting the government off our backs? I mean, I might go for forcing the banks to loan money, but even I would have trouble with what mechanism would be used to decide where loans would be made (how the businesses would be approved and how much).

Kelly disguises his desperate embracing of any criticism of Obama as a criticism of the media. He claims that the “liberal” is deliberately ignoring the TARP IG’s report, because it criticizes the President. Maybe that’s true, although the media (liberal or otherwise) has not really been a friend of the President, with all the coverage of the President’s low approval ratings and sketchy coverage of the health care bill. But here’s a couple of questions: what about the people in government who eliminated the regulations that would have prevented the financial crisis? What about the banks that decided not to lend money?

As I said, TARP’s goal was laudable enough, but perhaps unrealistic. And as Democrats all over the country have done, I have some complaints about the President. But in this case, I think that the “crime” of not meeting unrealistic goals should take a back seat to other “crimes” that have been committed, such as getting us into this mess and those that have done little to nothing to help us get out of the mess.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

It's Sunday ...

So today's Jack Kelly column has one interesting element. It has no pandering specifically to the Tea Party that I can see. Kelly does take a number of shots at a sitting United States Representative, and makes assertions that may not be fact.

Barney Frank is a interesting character. I realize saying that paints a big target on my (somewhat out sized) stomach, but I will make the obligatory statement that I have nothing against, and indeed have been friends with gays (although I am lousy about maintaining friendships with everyone, including my gay friends). I don't begrudge Barney Frank being angry if he thinks he is being attacked because he is gay. The reason I say that is because Frank was apparently really pissed when Stephen Colbert did a profile on Frank. Of course you should know what you will get when Colbert asks to do a profile of you (an often cringe-worthy event) and although I haven't seen it I believe Colbert went all out (I have seen clips of Colbert sashaying behind a striding, glaring Frank). What was interesting to me was that for months after words Frank emphasized in his appearances how he has a sense of humor. He even told a few jokes here and there (I think one on "Wait Wait, Don't Tell Me") that were OK, not knee slappers. As I said, an interesting character.

Of course, Kelly said absolutely nothing about Frank being gay, which is no more than as it should be. What Kelly does say is that Frank is “The member of Congress most responsible for our current economic troubles” (and possibly in trouble) right off the bat. This is the alternate reality that conservatives live in. Kelly also identifies Chris Dodd and Kent Conrad, and also (interestingly) parts of the financial industry as villains in the economic collapse. Of course in the financial arena Kelly focuses on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, claiming their “bankruptcies accelerated the economic collapse”. Well, yes, that statement is obviously true, but to what degree did their collapse affect the recession as a whole? I would say not too much, but it fits Kelly’s view of the world to say the vast bulk of the recession is due to the Democrat created, assisting the poor Freddie and Fannie. In fact, Kelly re-writes history in saying that in 2003 and 2005 Bush proposed tighter regulation of Fannie and Freddie (read: gutting their mission of helping the poor get mortgages). I don’t remember Bush doing that, although I am sure he did, he just didn’t push very hard. Remember, Republicans held Congress in those years, and could have passed Bush’s regulations the way they passed the Bush tax cuts, through reconciliation.

I found it interesting that Kelly also blamed “Wall Street bankers” for their “bizarre financial instruments which were supposed to reduce risk, but multiplied it instead.”. He specifically mentioned Countrywide mortgages as a villain, a safe target since it is now defunct. I guess Republicans have taken a page from the Obama campaign playbook and now its ok for financial firms to be cast as villains in this election. After all, if Republicans take the House they can pass all sorts of deregulation and see if the Democrats in the Senate have the balls to stop them. The prospect of getting rid of Frank would be a big bonus for financial firms, since he has been a long time thorn in their sides.


The larger sociological questions of what is going on in this election are quite interesting too. How many people, in 2008, voted not for Obama but against McCain, especially after his poor debate performance? If Obama had tried to keep more of his campaign promises, such as to release more of the “detainees” (read prisoners) at Guantanamo, to stop being so secret about torture and wiretapping and to get us out of Afghanistan and Iraq, would the Democrats be more popular? Mind you, I would argue Obama has taken a half step on all of these (and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repeal, which has passed the House), but for every half step, there are more steps where Obama has allowed the Bush programs to continue, or even expand somewhat (predator drones). Mind you, these programs have nothing to do with jobs, and one might argue that the predator drone program, if correctly used, could be very effective against terrorists (even as one concedes it has not been effectively implemented). And speaking of jobs, what if Obama had not been distracted by health care for a year, what if he had made the stimulus larger and perhaps taken out some of the tax cuts in favor of spending on state and local government jobs. Would he have been a lightening rod for Republican fury such that Americans would not vote for a black candidate for President for decades?

Understand that in some ways Republicans won in 2008 in losing. They have been able to make wild accusations against Obama, the Democrats and what legislation has passed (health care reform, the stimulus) while using (abusing) the rules of the Senate to hold up hundreds of pieces of legislation. If Republicans win the House in the midterms and especially if they win the Senate, they will be expected to get things done. This will be a chance for Democratic Senators to take a page from the Republican play book and place holds on legislation, and use cloture against Republican legislation (especially if Democrats retain the Senate).

Meet the Press today implied that Obama may start to behave differently after the midterms (it’s not clear whether this depends on the outcome of the midterms or not). About time, I say. I think that Obama would re-energize his original followers if he became calmly strident towards the Republicans. He tried the reach across the aisle thing, and I will give him credit for that, but clearly the Republicans have rebuffed every effort (almost totally).

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Tea Party in a bit more depth

I've been watching Bill Maher's "Real Time" (which I want to call "Politically Incorrect") when I remember to catch it. I have to say, Maher makes a habit of having conservatives on, such as Andrew Breitbart sometime one, two weeks ago. Unfortunately since he usually has celebrities on, whether left or right, the discussions never resolve anything.

This past Friday (yesterday) Maher had a young woman on who was in charge of the St Louis Tea Party. Maher had evidently been looking for a Tea Party person to come on this show and somehow connected with this young woman. At the risk of being sexist or giving offense I will say she is an attractive young woman (whose name totally escapes me) but also, I was perhaps as curious as Maher about what she would have to say.

So I remember maybe the first thing Maher asked her concerned why all the Tea Party candidates are Republicans. Personally I think it is to get the votes of people who wouldn’t vote for a third party candidate or for a conservative unless the only other option was a liberal. But this woman’s response was, as I remember, to say that she had been a Democrat in college, and was an independent before joining the Tea Party. In other words, se simply didn’t answer Maher’s question. He didn’t press enough, but the rest of the program also went like that. When the Stimulus was brought up, she said it failed, she said we spent more on the Iraq war than on the stimulus, she threw in the phrase “out of control spending”. In other words, whether she was making points or defending herself, she simply used little Republican/Tea Party phrases.

A lot of politicians give interviews in sound bites, but I thought the Tea Party was/is supposed to be the antidote to politics as usual. It was/is supposed to be a breath of fresh air, a cleaning out of the old boys and bringing in people who might not be operators in the political world, but are good honest folk looking out for the little guy.

That’s saying nothing of how the Tea Party manifesto states that the Tea Party doesn’t trust or intend to obey the Republican party. Except that they really are identical to them.

Friday, October 15, 2010

What I'm Reading

Nick Hornby, one of my favorite writers, used to write a column for the Believer magazine entitled "What I'm Reading". Basically the Believer paid him to read books and write witty things about them, and he did. In fact his columns were compiled into very good books.

In lieu of a proper post, I am going to point to some very good columns by other people I have stumbled across recently. Maybe I will write more about them later.

There was a fascinating review of/interview about a new documentary (coming to Pittsburgh in November) called "Inside Job" in Salon; the movie is yet more about the financial collapse. It is mostly an interview with the film maker; about midway through the interview he compares the last twenty years of popular economic thought to the intellectual decline of communist thought in the Soviet Union. Interesting stuff.

Glenn Greenwald is one of my new favorite writers. Paul Krugman has a blog entitled "The Conscience of a Liberal", but really that title should belong to Greenwald's column in Salon. Just recently he had a column where he describes the war on drugs and the war on terror as mirrors. Just before that, Greenwald continued the role he has taken up, as a very intelligent and fair critic of the Obama administration. In this case, he took Robert Gibbs to task for accusing the Chamber of Commerce of behavior that Gibbs had himself had participated in 2004. My dad used to say (and probably still does) that the Democrats did the same thing in the sixties that Nixon did in the seventies, its just that the Democrats didn't get caught (I should write more about this in the future). Greenwald's column on Gibbs does not let the Chamber off the hook, he simply also takes the Chamber's accusers to task for (a) the sloppy tenor of their accusations and (b) the messy past of some of those accusers.

Finally, the NYTimes has its share of good articles and columns (more than I actually read). Paul Krugman has a good column on mortgages and the financial industry in general today (a tad bombastic, but then again if an economist can't get upset about wasted money ...). Some more detail about how the banks engaged in the bad mortgage to toxic asset process itself is detailed here.

Next thing I plan to read is details about Pittsburgh's parking/pension mess.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Air Traffic Controllers and teachers ...

Sometime around 1982 I took a class in labor economics. The labor professor, Hirschel Kasper, I think, was considered the best of the econ department. Of course when you study labor economics, you have to look at unions. At the time, unions were getting the bad rap, what with the decline of manufacturing in the 1970's and the firing of the Air Traffic Controllers. Kasper liked to tell anecdotes as well as give us the statistics and graphs. He recounted the story of railroad "firemen" whose were still "working" on diesel locomotives because of the union rules, despite having no wood or coal to shovel into a (non-existent) fire to run the (non-existent) boiler on the train. But Kasper pointed out that statistically train accidents (big, ugly expensive things) went down for those trains. Those firemen, sitting around doing nothing, looked out the window and spotted the potential accidents before they became accidents. Not that that is a very productive use of labor resources, but, you know, big ugly expensive accidents.

So I learned a long time ago to try to keep an open mind about unions (if nothing else). Historically of course they were the counter weight to companies who saw workers as faceless, easily replicable inputs into the assembly line. By the 1970's, though, as I said, unions were blamed for the decline in US manufacturing. Since then we have seen service unions, including or particularly teacher's unions, come under attack. The teacher's unions are seen as the primary culprit in the decline in public education.

Now, the rules of employment are interestingly complex in education, both at the university and grade school levels, though for obviously different reasons. Tenure is the big issue for post secondary institutions; for better or worse, it preserves academic freedom or perhaps it protects bad professors. In secondary education there is also tenure in at least some districts, and also usually unions. Again there is the question of whether unions protect bad teachers, or help keep classes smaller, or do both simultaneously.

Without even attempting to answer any of those questions, I will step right up to a bit of what the government has done in the last ten years. I assume we all understand that “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) was an anti union bill. Lower performing schools (ie, those in poor neighborhoods) would be shut down and parents would be “allowed” to send there kids to better schools. No mention of who was going to pay for this, or how better schools would react to or even be able to accept a large number of new students. But that wasn’t the federal government’s problem; the important thing is that schools were held accountable. No one looked at or even mentioned 25% unemployment rates, single moms only fourteen years older than their children (and thus not having even a high school degree) or any of the other problems of low income neighborhoods. I have to say what I found most amazing was that Teddy Kennedy was a cosponsor on this bill.

Flash forward nine years and the new big thing is charter schools. There is that documentary “Waiting for Superman”, which has already had caveats assigned to it. Just today Ross Douthat wrote a column which had faint praise for charter schools, but claims this does not damn them; it shows they are sufficiently superior we should embrace them. Douthat says that charter schools may not outperform public schools in test scores, and in fact a week or so ago Gail Collins wrote that 17% outperform public schools, while roughly a third trail them, although she didn’t reveal what that meant specifically (test scores, grades, graduation rates?), But Douthat tells us Charter Schools have other value, including “money saved (both charter and private schools usually spend much less per pupil than their public competitors), in improved graduation rates, and in higher parental and student satisfaction”. I would highlight the money saved part, and further point out this Douthat’s second paragraph, “the plight of children trapped in failing schools with lousy, union-protected teachers”. Charter schools as a group are well known for being almost entirely non-union shops.

Douthat’s source for this column is Frederick Hess, who wrote an essay recently “Does School Choice Work?”. Hess is an ‘education scholar” at the American Enterprise Institute. Hess (via Douthat) says that instead of (tax) money going to school boards and thus schools, it should go to students, who will bring it to the school of their choice, whatever that school may be.

Bad enough that Douthat is trying to get private or even religious schools funded with taxpayer money (and public schools defunded), but I can’t help but think that Hess and Douthat have brought us to a hop and a skip of saying that not only should the student’s school money stay with him, but his or her parents specific tax should stay with the student (only fair, after all, mom and dad (or great grand dad, but whose counting) bought that mansion and pay taxes on it; why shouldn’t Thurston junior benefit from those taxes?), We have certainly heard similar logic used in talking about double taxation in the inheritance/estate tax and capital gains taxes.

Meanwhile, behind the rather overt attempt to privatize education is an additional more subtle attack on unions, the teachers union in particular. Now, I am as willing as anyone to say bad teachers should be weeded out of the profession. What may surprise you is that the anyone in this case are the leaders of the teacher’s unions. Whether it is because they see the handwriting on the wall or because they truly are dedicating to providing the best education for our children (your children, I have none), union leaders have made a point of saying they support local district goals of getting specific bad teachers out of the classroom.

In this kind of battle/war, however, perception often trumps reality. I urge all of us to step back and look and think and consider what’s best for all children, maybe particularly the ones that don’t get that high school diploma, and grow up to be the group that has the 14% unemployment now.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Back to basics

You may have heard of Podcamp, an annual meeting and educational conference for "social media". I go to learn more about blogging and other kinds of electronic communication. I've been at least twice, and each time I remember always hearing someone say "never apologize for not posting on a blog". Never the less, I am not happy I didn't post since last Sunday.

But at the minimum, I like to look at Jack Kelly's weekly column. This week Kelly seems to return to his roots, raising questions about how much the defense intelligence community knew about 9/11 before 9/11. I think we all know Kelly is a hawk, but he also seems to like David and Goliath stories of patriotic soldiers standing up to a faceless bureaucracy determined to protect itself. Kelly seems to have no sources of his, instead he does the sort of summary that most anyone with an internet connection could do. Granted, Kelly is only columnist, not an investigative reporter, but I believe Kelly has been working on variants of this story for a long time (thus having old stories and information he can reuse). Is there something there? I dunno, maybe. The Justice department and the Defense department have been just as secretive and I guess vicious under Obama as they were under Bush. In fact, many of the events Kelly talks about took place during the Bush administration, something Kelly acknowledges late in his column (after taking his obligatory shot at Jamie Gorelik).

Actually, his saying Bush might be involved in this cover up is the one thing about this column that is relevant for today's political situation, and is interesting in itself. Although the Tea Party professes itself to be independent, they were of course guided by people like Dick Armey behind the scenes and Sarah Palin very much out in front, and funded to some extent by the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. So the Tea Party has ties to the Republicans, and it is really Republican or right leaning independents who are interested in the Tea Party. Tea Party backed or endorsed candidates are running as Republicans, not as third party candidates. But where the Tea Party parts ways with the Republican party is in their demands for ideological purity. Apparently George Bush has failed that test, and Jack Kelly is, if not throwing him under the bus, at least giving Bush a bit of a shove. I guess Kelly is still angling to become a local voice for the Tea Party.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

This Sunday in Kelly

You know, let's be clear, the Republicans are the party of Lincoln. And rather surprisingly to me, that still meant something even forty years ago, for whatever reason. Republicans were instrumental in getting the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed. But then the Republican party initiated their southern strategy, luring/welcoming white "Dixiecrat" politicians to the Republican party, and ever since Republicans have represented/balanced corporate and white interests. I will say that in an ideal world unfettered capitalism shouldn't necessarily disadvantage African Americans. But we don't live in an ideal world, we live in a reality that reflects the state of realities just prior to one we are in, where the parents of today's African American adults were systematically discriminated against, where today's African American adults don't have jobs in much higher percentages than the norm in America, and where underfunded urban schools meet African American children who, looking at their parents, see no future in America for themselves. And the only policies that Republicans would agree to (maybe) address these problems are ones where other traditional Democratic will suffer (charter schools with their generally anti union stance) or where traditional Republican constituencies will benefit more (tax cuts skewed towards the wealthy). Whether this is because of racism partly motivated by the large number of former dixiecrats or just pragmatism on the part of obstructionist Republicans, the end result is the same.

Jack Kelly tells us that liberals think Republicans are racist (the idea I just address above). He tells us this notion is disproved by the fact fourteen blacks are running for Congress as Republicans in this election, and 32 ran in the primaries. Actually, Kelly admits that 11 of the 14 are running in heavily Democratic districts, and have no chance. Plus what are we to make of the fact only 43% of the blacks running as Republican won their respective primaries?

Anyway, Kelly hold up three black Republican candidates as proof the Democrats don't understand reality, although one might say 3 of 538 is only a small number, perhaps (dare I say) only a token (apparently I do dare).

I'll say this once. I haven't investigated these three candidates, but I have to wonder. If they toe the Republican line and vote with their party, don't they realize they will voting on measures that will direct government resources away from the vast majority of African Americans who need help, and direct those resources towards almost entirely white Americans, the segment that is already wealthy? Now just because I'm white doesn't mean I need to choose to support legislation that benefits other whites (often, maybe mostly, whites don't need government help compared to minorities). So the three black candidates with a chance, or the 14 black candidates running or the entire 32 who ran in the primaries, they are not obligated to care about other members of their race. But I always thought being a public servant should mean starting with those who need help most, particularly (short of some natural disaster) those who have been disadvantaged historically by the majority.

There are two other comments Kelly made in passing I want to zero in on. First, Kelly says "Accusations of racism against Republicans are a staple of Democratic politics because Democrats need to keep blacks on the plantation to remain viable nationally" Ummm, accusations of racism by the Democrats may be made because they think there is evidence to support such accusations. Also there is nothing wrong with Democrats choosing to support policies popular with African Americans in order to get their votes (particularly since these policies often attempt to address historical injustices). And by the way, I find the phrase “keep blacks on the plantation” to be deeply offensive.

The other comment I want to look at is his last sentence (in his last paragraph): “It could be the increased number of black Republicans running for office and their increased acceptance by other blacks is due in large part to Mr. Obama. His election represented the pinnacle of black hopes within the Democratic Party. His disappointing performance in office is causing more than a few to consider alternatives.” Of course blacks can (and I feel should be able to) consider alternatives. But the characterization of Obama’s tenure in office to date as disappointing needs to be questioned. I try to say as often as possible I believe that when the stimulus was proposed and going through Congress, Obama tried to use his influence to put things in the bill that Republicans would agree to, such as a large fraction in tax cuts (admittedly not one that heavily benefited the rich). From the get go Obama tried to reach across the aisle (a point he had campaigned on), and in the House was flatly rebuffed, and in the Senate was almost totally rebuffed (although the three Republicans who did cross the aisle were given a lot of power). Basically the Republicans in Congress gave Obama no credit for trying to reach across the aisle, in fact they have characterized him as being a socialist (even though the stimulus had 40% tax cuts in it). There was some disappointment that Obama and the Congressional Democrats did not simply bulldoze over the Republicans, instead of trying to move forward together. If they had done so, maybe more of the stimulus would have gone directly to the unemployed, instead of indirectly through the rest of us employed people.

But even more than that, there is health care reform. Republicans characterize it as evil or at least as very bad. Yet every other “first world” industrial nation has a health care system either controlled by or heavily regulated by the government. No other industrialized nation leaves health care to the free market (of course, we had some regulation, but not nearly to the degree of other industrialized nations). Apparently nine other Presidents (dating back to Teddy Roosevelt) tried to pass comprehensive health care reform. Obama spent a year working on it, a year he could have been working on unemployment. There was all the negative stuff, scary town halls and “death panels”. Yet the end result was the first African American President managed to drag us from spending far and away the most on healthcare over to policies similar to Switzerland, which happens to spend the second highest on healthcare. But he did it. And he gets no credit for doing it.

The fact that conservatives/Republicans/Tea Party dogmatists like Jack Kelly can distort truth, without even pretending to acknowledge other points of view, should be the real disappointment.