Friday, March 27, 2009

An Outrageous Proposal

Just read this brief post by Matthew Yglesias regarding the reaction by fellow Repubelicurs and the press to the emptiness of the GOP “alternative plan” to Barry’s impending budget proposal. At the end he writes: “I’ve never really seen political reporters get outraged before about the fact that a policy document makes no sense in the past. It was a curious outbreak of substance among the press corps that I don’t think was particularly foreseeable.”

I will keep my fingers crossed first that this latest outrage grows legs and sticks around a while, and second, that it acts as a harbinger for the future both of reportage and Repube policy proposals.

In the first case, the so-called Repube alternative would be laughable if it wasn’t such a serious matter. It’s simply another restatement of the same talking points they’ve been blathering on about for years about less tax and spend government. To the extent that these ideas have been implemented, they have gone a long way towards creating the current economic disaster we are living through. They persist in putting fancy covers on the same empty rhetoric and propose absolutely nothing which might actually directly address matters as they exist now. As opposed to last week’s outrage about AIG bonuses, from a political standpoint, this one matters. The minority party has nothing to say about anything and doesn’t have even the balls to admit that there’s no point in doing anything except saying “no” to everything, just to be in opposition. And god forbid they admit there might be some value in something the Democrats propose.

In the second place, maybe, just maybe this absurdity will finally snap the mainstream media as well as the few remaining thoughtful Repubes into focusing on some actual substance instead of how it would be marketed to the public if there was actually anything to market. It would be fascinating to see what it would be like to really have some competing valid ideas.

I am hopeful, but not optimistic.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Hell No We Won't Grow

The ocean liner USS American Dream is heading for an iceberg which does not appear as if it will be affected sufficiently by global warming before we hit it. That is unless Captain Barry Obama can steer this unwieldy beast out of the way. Trouble is a lot of folk are scared of what happens if we look in the other direction, so they think we should hit the ‘berg and take our chances. But not our captain, no.

After opening his news conference with a barrage of clich├ęs worthy of the worst American Idol music writer, the prez rather stiffly ran through a workman-like run of questions. To me he seemed like he had been interrupted from considerably more interesting meetings and I must say it’s the first time I’ve seen him look like he has better things to do. Of course he does have better things to do, but one of the things he has to do is to be the front man promoting his multifaceted program of not just fixing the economy, but doing so in a manner which puts the country in some semblance of proper footing to actually deal with the challenges of the times rather than argue points of empty political and cultural philosophy as we have been doing more or less for a generation or so.

I’ll state here flatly that the baby boomer years of rising to and having power — the 80s and 90s — were essentially a complete waste. I think that historians will look back at this period as colossal wastes of time, energy, and resources. Politically, the entire period saw no attempt to see ahead and innovate into the future with the great exception of the geek culture managing to create the internet and related technology revolution. But those folks, by their nature as geeks, were systematically shut out of activities run by the cool guys like Bill Clinton and Georgie Bush. So for now the best we have to show for that singular advance is the great speed and volume with which quality porn has become accessible to the masses. The iconic movie of the boomers will turn out to be Wall Street with Gordon Gecko’s famous declaration that “greed is good” the eternal mantra of the era. The generation generally spent its time sucking out the resources of the world, and now the post-Boomers, like Captain Barry, have to act like the cleanup crew after their lifelong fraternity party has come to its stale, beer, vomit, and used condom conclusion.

So here we are and Captain Barry said quite clearly, as he has been all along, that we now have no choice but to address the issues which have lingered for at least a generation, if not longer, if we wish to continue to be, much less to grow, as a nation. We must address health care, education, and energy, all while rebuilding our financial system, or likely we will lose the ability to ever address these issues in a comprehensive, interconnected, and sensible way.

This is about the kind of country we want to have going forward. It’s really about resetting the clock back to before Lyndon Johnson screwed everything up by focusing his political gifts on Vietnam instead of his War on Poverty. Ever since, it’s been cultural and political war; among differing versions of false conservatism and flamboyant niche nurturing. It’s been fake money and mortgaged futures. It’s been fear and quick riches. It’s been “gimme!” and “it’s mine!” (genuflecting to the ghost of George Carlin).

The president mentioned Pittsburgh in his opening remarks tonight. That city and its industrial output and work ethic used to define the American spirit and the American Dream. At some point in the past few decades that symbol became Las Vegas. Well boys and girls, it’s once again time to take a savage journey into the heart of the American Dream. If our politicians will allow us to take that journey, we may find the heart of the beast is still beating, and we’ll have the juice to steer away from the iceberg and steam ahead to a future we can still define.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Outrage About Outrage

$165 million in bonuses was distributed among the staff at the Financial Products Division of AIG. Those are the good people who brought you the current financial panic and have resulted in AIG receiving $170 billion in US government bailout money (so far).

To the average guy a bonus is something you get for a job well done — an unexpected something, given by grateful bosses to hardworking, successful employees. Sports fans have come to know of bonuses as a means of generating incentive in players to meet high performance goals. A-Rod makes it 50 homers, he gets to spend a night in the cage with Madonna, that sort of thing. In the case of AIG, though, it sounds like these folks were rewarded for driving a respected international corporation and, by extension, the entire world economy, to the edge of collapse. Seems pretty outrageous. How could the government allow this?

I’m not going to try to parse the machinations of the deal to give these bonuses other than to say it seems to be a product of the prior administration (with some advise and consent by Ben Bernanke, Tim Geithner, and some others still hanging around the water cooler in DC). All the plans, in place before Barry came into office, are completely consistent with every other action taken by the former administration. They all had the effect of concentrating enormous amounts of taxpayer cash more or less directly into the hands of a relatively few number of hands at the top of the income pyramid while the entire edifice of political and corporate structure began to teeter below.

Here’s the thing, the guys at AIG getting these bonuses are splitting up one tenth of one percent of what AIG has received (so far). “Distasteful”, to quote the current straw man, recently appointed AIG chairman Edward Liddy, but not really all that outrageous. What I suspect will soon become the real outrage will happen as we start to understand more about where the $170 billion (so far) has gone.

The next meme to start popping up in the political and financial discourse will be “counter-parties”. AIG was primarily an insurance company which sold variations of just about every sort of insurance devised. A counter-party is the recipient of a check when a claim is made on the insurance coverage. In other words, if I have hurricane insurance on my house, then a hurricane blows down my house, I am the counter-party who gets the check from my insurance carrier to cover my lost house. Calling me a counter-party is a fancy way of saying I bought the insurance to protect myself.

This will become important because AIG has been infused with $170 billion (so far) basically to pay off claims on stupid risks taken by the Financial Products Department. They insured the stupid loans bundled together in instruments created by the banks. Most of the bad instruments are held by JP Morgan-Chase (Goldman, Sachs), HSBC (not a US bank), Wells-Fargo (Wachovia), Bank of America, and Citigroup. So really, the money that went to AIG (so far) theoretically is being used to pay claims against the debts (mortgages, credit cards, etc.) going bad at those banks. But wait a minute, those banks also received direct infusions in the neighborhood of $170 billion (so far) also.

From an accounting perspective, these companies have all been preserved after years of very bad management, taking huge risks, huge personal paydays for the folks who did the deals, and we are paying the bill for its failure. The phrase “privatize the profits, socialize the losses” was one I heard quite a bit while Randi Rhodes was still on the air and it’s starting to feel more and more like she was right. “They” get to keep the money when “they” make it, we have to pay for it when “they” lose (although that payment still goes to “them”). I understand and agree with the notion that in a severe recession/depression, the only viable source of capital infusion is the government. No one else is spending their own cash and in a world that revolves on the use and reuse of money only the government has sufficient resources to force a change. How that money gets spent is another issue.

What we are seeing now are the continuing consequences of the Bush administration’s outrageous philosophy come full circle. Barry was stuck with it on January 20th and in the absence of a signing statement to the contrary, he is bound by law to carry it out pretty much as he is doing. Personally, I’d feel better if every American instead, was instead given a portion of the $340 billion (so far) for specific use towards either their mortgages or their credit cards or some other bank originated debt. That way the banks are in the same spot as far as getting their cash infusion and at least the people are using their own tax dollars to wipe the debt off their own books. The debts now don’t go bad, AIG doesn’t have to pay the claims, and instead investigations into a foolish, probably criminally fraudulent insurance enterprise can proceed. Wouldn’t THAT be outrageous??

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Going All In

A few memes popping frequently upon the airwaves the past few days. One of them is “overloading the circuits”. This refers to the Obama administration moving quickly on policy matters which emanated from his campaign promises and which obstructionists argue have nothing to do with improving the economy. Of course, the obstructionists are on the right and they work hard to stop all forward motion on economic matters, particularly since the measures will end up having an effect on the pocketbooks of the folks at the top of the income pyramid.

The biggie is health care, an item addressed by every single modern economy in the world, and some not so modern, except for ours. I’m not going to address the merits or not of such a program right now, but rather the concept of trying to accomplish so many things apparently all at once.

Nothing about any proposed policy is new. Everything has been on the agenda for years, in the case of health care, 60 years (keep in mind Germany has had national health care since the 1870s). The issues have been discussed and debated; it’s just a matter of formalizing most of it at this point and getting it to the floors of congress for an up or down vote. Overloading the circuits means the opposition won’t have enough time to parse through the documents to find the stupid little crap they always find to go on the media outlets foaming at the mouth about how irresponsible the democrats are being, blah blah blah.

The democrats are right to go for everything now while the energy is there to do it. The GOP argues to wait for the economy to stabilize. Two outcomes are possible if that is allowed to happen. First, things can stabilize in which case any further moves will be made to look like a threat to stability so they shouldn’t be taken, or; second, things don’t stabilize in which case further moves shouldn’t be made because they will make things worse (and anyway, more effort must be made directly on the problems at hand rather than side issues).

So go ahead and overload the circuits. If those (Republicur) folks in Congress can’t keep up at this point, it’s just another example of their governing inadequacy. Years of inertia can be overcome if they want. They don’t want. They spent the entirety of their time in power trying to kill the beast and now that it’s nearly dead we are trying to revive the carcass. My friend Barry has made it clear that it’s possible to do more than one thing at a time. Dedicated readers here will note I said a long time ago not to play poker with this guy. He’s going all in. He can still be nice about it but I’m glad we have cute little grandma Nancy to bust out the rolling pin and flatten ‘em to get things cooked. Ah metaphors!!!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Whither Rush: Corpulent Bleats From the Republican Intellectual Desert

I could be wrong here, but I just don’t understand delusion. Like everyone else, I come in contact with various degrees of it on a daily basis and I generally pay no mind to it as long as it doesn’t get in the way of my own perceived existence. I am also an advocate of the canard expressed by Groucho Marx when he resigned from the Friar's Club, an exclusive club of well-known comedians. Upon receiving a note insisting he give an explanation for resigning, he stated, “because I wouldn’t want to be in a club that would have me as a member.” With the exception of sports teams when I was a kid, I’ve never been comfortable in large groups seeking common goals. That attitude probably has something to do with why I am a solo practitioner in my professional life, why I shy away from most spiritual gatherings, and why I don’t get directly involved in politics despite my obvious interest in its theory and practice.

Having said that, I shall now gush forth on the latest topic of political interest, Rush Limbaugh’s apparent de facto leadership of the intellectual strategy of the Republicur party. I have mixed feelings about the whole thing. On the one hand, I relish the spectacle of the utter emptiness of Republicur thought these days. In my lifetime I haven’t seen a political party so dominate the national agenda as the GOP has throughout most of my lifetime, only to fall so far so fast with such ringing clarity as has happened since the ’06 elections. They have quite literally clung to the petard of the uselessness of government, no taxes, and brazen jingoism for decades now. They made Ronald Reagan into a saint no matter how he violated every principle he supposedly ever stood for. No better a symbol of the rot and hypocrisy of the GOP could be found than in the bloated Vicodin and Viagra cocktail popping Limbaugh. The audacity of him bouncing before the world proclaiming moral rectitude and manliness should appear as an astonishing joke by anyone who sees it.

Is Rush really interested in leading the GOP? Doubtful. I think Rush is interested in Rush. There was an article on him in the NY Times Sunday Magazine a while back. He acknowledged his upbringing as a southern conservative but he more or less considers himself a hired hand who is there to generate revenue for himself and his advertisers. Pure commercial shill though relatively honest about the positions he takes. He’s honest slime. But he has the hypnotized juden of CPAC that he is speaking for them. And for now that’s probably what they need to keep from slithering off in dispirited clots to Minnesota airport bathrooms.

On the other hand, it’s all meaningless showmanship at this point. Best to let a non-politician showman take the lead now. This is a time for the GOP to reassess itself and its positions as well as strategy. They already know how to sell the ideas, it’s just that for now no one wants what they’re selling. They can either back off and see if the Obama administration succeeds, in which case nothing the GOP can do will help them back into power for a long time, or see if the administration fails, in which case coming back to power will be easy if there’s any country left to misgovern. It’s the fuzzy in-between that matters and honestly, unless something really big and probably really bad happens, we won’t know where we stand economically and otherwise until about this time next year, just as the jockeying for the 2010 elections gets going in earnest.

That said, it’s probably best for democrats that Rush is indeed the voice of the party. It’s become increasingly difficult to contradict either form or substance when Rush wheezes political. The result is that the party is stuck with its discredited policies and philosophy cemented in place since Rush is not actually an intellectual of any kind but just an intake valve for natural and pharmaceutical resources while he spews out the old lines about bad big government, unfair taxes on his fellow offensively rich, individual responsibility from a guy who can probably barely reach around to wipe his own ass anymore, and manliness for a crowd of unnaturally homophobic dudes.

Of course, there is one lurking tendency I detect curled behind a fair amount of their rhetoric. When you can’t convince someone with the force of your ideas, you can only convince them with force. The tone of the Republicur rhetoric often gives me the shakes that they could easily edge in that direction. I don’t agree with them and because of that, I feel their dislike for me has a personal intensity and dehumanizing revulsion that I do not have towards them (ad hominem attacks on Rush for the sake of the words used admittedly notwithstanding). It is beyond disagreement. It is righteous hatred. It is delusion. And I don’t understand it.