Saturday, October 26, 2013

Our President: petty, petulant, and obnoxius

Chicago Tribune (Larry Dowing, Reuters /October 25, 2013)
I have gone into some detail previously on the pettiness of the current denizen of the White House, on the near-constant aura of condescension that pervades his speeches, his press briefings, even his State of the Union Addresses. Back in May of 2012, I noted just how un-Presindential Obama had been through much of his first term, just how badly he fared in this regard when compared to past Presidents like Reagan, Carter, and even Bush (George W.):
From the beginning of his Presidency, Obama has been snippy, petty, and condescending towards his political opponents, towards officials who dare to disagree with him, and--worst of all--towards everyday American citizens...

In contrast, I look at Reagan and Carter and see men who--regardless of how one sees their actual performance in office--carried themselves with the dignity the office demands, the dignity we should expect from out Chief Executive. I think George W. Bush behaved admirably in this regard as well, though I know there is a large segment of the population who rejoices in labeling him a fool, in mocking his conduct. Still, I think people would be hard-pressed to point out specific instances where Bush acted less-than-Presidentially.
Remember some of his greatest (worst) moments from that first term? Chiding Supreme Court Justices during a State of the Union Address, trying to intimidate the same when Obamacare came before the Court, singling out private citizens like Rush Limbaugh in remarks, mocking the first wave of the Tea Party movement, and on and on and on, Obama set a very low benchmark for civility, for class and decorum. Of course, his sycophants in the media and his legions of fanboys tried to justify all of this behavior. Really, they applauded it without a second thought. Why? Because in their minds, Obama was the victim, was getting far worse treatment from those he treated with disdain and contempt (I've never been clear about their argument with regard to the Court, but then neither have they).

As I am so often pointing out, however, such people have no sense of history. Both Carter and Reagan caught all kinds of flak while in the Oval Office. George W. Bush caught even more. Yet all three managed to hold themselves above the pettiness. At best, they'd simply refuse to go down to such a level. At worst, they'd allow others in their administrations to return fire when it came to mudslinging. They did this because they--all of them--understood their roles and respected the office of the Presidency, knew that whomever held it should, above all else, do so with dignity.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Progressive monkeys eat their old

There was a time, not all that long ago, when Jon Stewart's The Daily Show was the go-to source in social media and messageboard world for the Left. With any issue that made the Right look bad, you can bet dollars to donuts some left-leaning friend would post a clip of Stewart opining on the matter, offering his patented barbs of mockery. On messageboards and comment threads throughout internet-land, links to clips from The Daily Show would show up constantly. And frankly, such links were often right on point and quite effective. Stewart is good at what he does, at the humorous presentation of political and social commentary. He was good at it and he still is.

But Stewart has always been ready to jump on both sides, at least to some extent. And when his target is a liberal politician or--God forbid--the Obama Administration, his biggest fans, the ones responsible for sharing his clips all over the place, tend to go quiet. Predictably so. Needless to say, some of the recent segments from The Daily Show--the ones mocking the Obamacare website--are having such an effect. The same is true of Stephen Colbert's show, The Colbert Report, though to a much lesser extent. Colbert's clips aren't as widely shared and he tends to keep his views more firmly partisan. Still, Colbert can't help but make liberal Congresscritters and the Administration look foolish when the opportunity presents itself.

Here's a recent clip from The Daily Show:


And here's one from The Colbert Report:


Both mock the rollout of Obamacare, the big website opening, but Stewart's is far more thorough in this regard. Colbert can't help trying to zing the Right as well. Still, the larger point remains: despite the hilarity--and accuracy--of these clips, most of the left-leaning fans of these shows simply aren't interested in sharing clips that make Obama and the Democrats look bad. And of course, why would they?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

We. Are. Not. A. Democracy.

No one wants to hear it, though. Before, during, and after the recent Shutdown and all of the posturing about Obamacare, there is a line of thought that has been and continues to be repeatedly expressed: that standing in the way of things is wrong because it's not how a democracy is supposed to function. The President, various Democratic (and some Republican) politicians, and a great many pundits have been selling this idea, talking about getting rid of the "extremism" on the Right, and lamenting about how the current "dysfunction" in Washington, D.C. is a new thing that is very much at odds with the way things are supposed to be and usually have been.

It's all fantasy, a-historical claptrap, built around a fundamental ignorance of actual political history in the United States and of how the federal government was actually constituted.

Over a year ago, I wrote a piece on the supposed decline in civility that many on the Left were imagining was taking place, thanks supposedly to the Tea Party movement. As I noted then, no such change was occurring at all. An edginess in the arena of political discourse, the usage of violent metaphors even, has always existed in the United States since the earliest days of its founding. All of the calls for a kinder, gentler tone were and still are--at their root--dishonest; they represent a simple attempt to marginalize dissenting opinions (like those from the Tea Party crowd). The talk from the Left with regard to the Shutdown makes this point abundantly clear, what with all the nonsense about "hostage-taking" and "Tea Party terrorists." The fact of the matter is that the Left wants the freedom to engage in heinous, divisive, and even violent rhetoric whenever it so desires while simultaneously limiting its ideological opponents from doing the same by shaming them.

In the piece linked to above, I told the story of the caning of Senator Sumner in 1856 by Representative Preston Brooks (for the record, Sumner was a Republican, Brooks was a Democrat). It's worth repeating here, just to make it crystal clear how nonsensical the idea is that there as been a decline in civility between the Parties, that a spirit of bipartisan cooperation had always been the norm until quite recently:
For those unfamiliar with the story, it began with Sumner taking the floor of the Senate to make a speech denouncing the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed those territories to determine--via popular vote--if they would be Slave or Free States. In the speech, he attacked Senator Andrew Butler--an author of the Act--going so far as to call his mistress an ugly harlot and to mock Butler's mannerisms and speech (Butler had recently suffered a debilitating stroke). A few days later, Brooks--nephew of Butler--beat Sumner into unconsciousness with a cane in revenge for the verbal attacks on Butler and South Carolina.

The incident reflected the the rising tide of emotions that would sweep the United States into civil war. It was seized on by both sides for its propaganda value, the North seeing it as an unjustified assault, the South as a righteous and provoked response to personal attacks.
I should note that Sumner's attack on Butler--via the speech--was rhetorically brilliant, a masterpiece by a gifted orator. At the same time, it was viciously personal. And it is the combination of the two--brilliant and vicious--that so enraged Preston Brooks I am sure, and led him to assault Sumner because Brooks lacked the intellectual chops to respond in kind. Make no mistake, I'm not suggesting what Sumner did should be applauded at all. Mocking people in such a manner is tasteless, to say the least, regardless of the larger goal being served. Nor am I trying to justify Brooks' response. It was most certainly way over the line. But after the incident, people across the country took sides (mostly--but not completely--along a North/South divide) with regard to the caning, sides that were already extant on other issues before the caning.

This became a major incident, stark evidence of just how polarized the nation was over the issue of slavery in that moment. But the inherent conflict between differences of opinion and the means of expressing those differences--through mockery, ridicule, violent imagery, threats, and ultimately actual violence--was nothing new. It still is nothing new. It's the nature of politics whenever there is room in a given system for people to openly express differences of opinion. The turn to physical violence is, of course, lamentable, something that should be avoided at all costs. But beyond that, it really is just politics.

The calls for a cessation of such expressions, for more civil dialogue and the like, are nothing new either. After the caning incident, many did exactly this (even as others happily stoked the fires). And that's fine, laudable even (except when it reflects hypocrisy, which is probably/unfortunately more likely than not). The point is, it's all grist for the mill, all a part of a functioning government imbued with democratic processes. It's not "dysfunction" at all, it's proper functioning within a society--in general--where people are allowed and even encouraged to disagree.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Economic analysis today: the clueless lecturing the equally clueless

Robert Kuttner and Thomas Friedman walk into a bar...

There is a semi-fun website a friend introduced to me some time ago called the Thomas Friedman Op/Ed Generator. It "creates" new op-eds in the style of Friedman based on a couple of different templates, but with some key terms varied within those templates. I haven't actually sat down to determine how many different variations the engine can create, but the number is probably not very high; there aren't that many templates or terms to vary (it's repeated itself sometimes after only ten or fewer creations). Still, it's cute.

The point being made by the website is pretty good, though: Friedman doesn't say a whole helluva lot in his New York Times columns anymore. He really hasn't for years. One might even say he's the poster child for "mailing it in." His recent books are not much better, in my opinion. He just doesn't have anything significant or original to say and hasn't for quite some time. Here's a piece on Friedman's peccadilloes by Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone from way back in 2009. It's hilarious, well worth reading, and still completely accurate. A sample:
Remember Friedman's take on Bush's Iraq policy? "It's OK to throw out your steering wheel," he wrote, "as long as you remember you're driving without one." Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman's analysis of America's foreign policy outlook last May: "The first rule of holes is when you're in one, stop digging. When you're in three, bring a lot of shovels."

First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the fuck is he talking about? If you're supposed to stop digging when you're in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense? It's stuff like this that makes me wonder if the editors over at the New York Times editorial page spend their afternoons dropping acid or drinking rubbing alcohol. Sending a line like that into print is the journalism equivalent of a security guard at a nuke plant waving a pair of mullahs in explosive vests through the front gate. It should never, ever happen.
Fast forward to the here and now. Here's a recent column by Friedman entitled "Sorry, Kids. We Ate It All." In it, Friedman urges young people to get involved with what is going on in their government because "seniors, unions, and Wall Street" are more or less destroying the future of the "Facebook generation" (which in and of itself shows just how clueless Friedman is, as the average age of Facebook users is now over forty and going up).

The entire piece is really just a big "attaboy" for Friedman's friend, Stanley Druckenmiller, and the latter's attempt to incite young people (college students) to action. It's short on analysis and long on rhetoric (like the typical Friedman column):
With graph after graph, they [Druckenmiller and Geoffrey Canada] show how government spending, investments, entitlements and poverty alleviation have overwhelmingly benefited the elderly since the 1960s and how the situation will only get worse as our over-65 population soars 100 percent between now and 2050, while the working population that will have to support them — ages 18 to 64 — will grow by 17 percent. This imbalance will lead to a huge burden on the young and, without greater growth, necessitate cutting the very government investments in infrastructure, Head Start, and medical and technology research that help the poorest and also create the jobs of the future.

Druckenmiller is not looking to get his taxes cut. He considers Social Security and Medicare great achievements for how they’ve reduced poverty among the elderly. He and Canada are simply convinced that only a Vietnam-war-scale movement by the young can break through the web of special interests to force politicians to put in place the reforms that would actually secure both today’s seniors and future seniors, today’s middle class and the wanna-be middle class.
The problems we are facing as a nation, thanks to the growing population of retirees and the aging of the population as a whole, are nothing new of course. And it's certainly reasonable to worry about the future, especially for those facing the financial burdens of this future. But the idea that--somehow--these problems can be blamed on "seniors, unions, and Wall Street" is questionable, to say the least. They are a consequence of many things, most of which were unavoidable because of changing demographics, particularly that of life expectancy. Nonetheless, Druckenmiller and Canada have the supposed solutions, which Friedman apparently endorses:
Druckenmiller urges young people to design their own solutions, but, when asked, he recommends: raising taxes on capital gains, dividends and carried interest — now hugely weighted to the wealthy and elderly — to make them equal to earned income taxes; making all consumers more price sensitive when obtaining health care; means-testing Social Security and Medicare so they go to those most in need; phasing in higher age qualifications for entitlements and cutting corporate taxes to zero, so the people who actually create jobs will have more resources to do so.
Before I dive into these "solutions," let's take a look at the response to Friedman's piece from Robert Kuttner at The American Prospect, cleverly entitled "Tom Friedman's Worst Column Ever" (hey Bob, they can't all be the worst column ever). Kuttner quite fairly jumps on Friedman for what I noted above: using his New York Times column to pimp for his friend, Stanley Druckenmiller. It really is appalling, such obvious favoritism. Or it least it would be if it weren't for the fact that a huge percentage of politicos, inside-the-beltway "journalists," and various kinds of DC insiders weren't every bit as intertwined as a matter of course. Sure, Friedman is obviously biased towards his friend here. And maybe that should be a problem, but having Kuttner--of all people--jump up and down and act all outraged about it is, well, just too damn funny. The man co-founded--with Robert Reich and Paul Starr--and runs a website dedicated to serving the interests of progressive politicians. Sycophantic love ballads to Barack Obama-- masterfully disguised as editorial pieces--are a near-daily feature there. Kuttner complaining about bias from someone else is like driving Thomas Friedman without a rubber band. But I digress.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Did Ted Cruz just take one for the team?

The typical take on the last-minute deal reached by the Senate, passed by the House, and signed into law by President Obama: "Democrats win, Republicans lose!" Administration sycophant Jamelle Bouie's fanboy-esque editorial is as a good a piece as any to cite in this regard. After opening with a pointless reference to The Dark Knight Rises--thus proving he's hip--Bouie writes the following:
There’s nothing in here for Democrats, but that doesn’t matter: It’s a complete capitulation by Republicans, made worse by the beating they’ve taken in the court of public opinion. Americans overwhelmingly disapprove of the GOP and its handling of the budget. It’s too early to make predictions about the 2014 midterm elections, but for now, we can say that the shutdown has destroyed Republican chances in New York City—where mayoral candidate Joe Lhota is running away from the national brand—and in Virginia, where gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli is running against the shutdown, and desperately trying to distance himself from the Tea Party movement he used to embrace...

By holding firm and refusing to bend to Republican demands for capitulation, Obama has broken the Republican Party.
There you have it. The mighty savior Barack Obama has broken the Republican Party. The deal was a complete capitulation. Well okay then. Nothing left to do but sweep up the pieces and pass every initiative on Obama's wish list, from climate change to gun control. After all, there is no longer a functioning opposition party. Should be simple enough. Alas (for the hard-core ideologues and technocrats out there), things are not so simple.

True enough, the Republican Party has some serious rifts in it. And true enough, this fourteen day government shutdown didn't stop the Obamacare implementation (though that train wreck is successfully screwing itself). All it did was make Republicans look petty and foolish in the eyes of the many, particularly those in the mainstream media.

What it also did was to set up yet another special committee tasked with reaching some sort of deal on cutting spending. What it didn't do is take sequestration off the table. The previous sequester-induced cuts remain, the spectre of more waits in the wings, and for the next several months this will be the real issue in Washington, D.C. That's exactly not what the Democrats wanted, just a few months ago, while it's pretty much what the Republicans were then seeking. As Peter Beinart notes:
For their part, Democrats bristled at the prospect of a “clean” CR. Four days after Cantor’s memo, the Democratic-aligned Center for American Progress warned that by extending the sequester, Republicans were “trying to lock these additional spending cuts into place and create a new baseline from which future negotiations must begin.” CAP added that “It’s easy to see why this approach would be attractive to Speaker Boehner; it is much harder to understand why any progressive or centrist would support such an approach.”

Let’s pause for a moment to underscore the point. In early September, a “clean” CR—including sequester cuts—that funded the government into 2014 was considered a Republican victory by both the Republican House Majority Leader and Washington’s most prominent Democratic think tank. Now, just over a month later, the media is describing the exact same deal as Republican “surrender.”
Surrender. Complete capitulation. That's how the Republicans getting exactly what the Democrats would never supposedly give is being termed. Though by no means should we call it a Republican victory, per the reasons I noted above. But calling this result a surrender or a complete capitulation by the Republicans is every bit as imbecilic (or at least it would be, if the nation wasn't full of so many imbeciles). For the political discourse in Washington, D.C. and the nation as a whole has shifted drastically since the end of the last Bush Administration. Government debt is now an issue, in every election and in every session of Congress. The citizenry--regardless of their stance on the issue--is far more aware of government debt than at possibly any time in the nation's history.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Assad and Putin have played the world for fools

While all of the screeching, name-calling, and phony-narrative reciting continues in Washington, D.C over Obamacare and the debt ceiling, most pundits and politicians have completely lost sight of--if not wholly forgotten--the situation in Syria. Remember that? Where Assad's forces used chemical weapons against civilians, thereby crossing Obama's "red line"? Where John Kerry made a sarcastic remark that somehow became the Administration's official policy? Where Putin stepped in and wrested control of the situation from Obama with a mere flick of his wrist?

So what's the current story in Syria? Prior to the use of chemical weapons by Assad's forces, the civil war in Syria appeared to be going against the "rightful" ruler. Al Qaeda-linked forces were growing, Assad appeared to be on less and less secure footing. Many predicted he would be forced to flee the country in the near future. But now, after the gassing of his own people, Assad has effectively stabilized his position, at least for the foreseeable future:
In a few short weeks, the push to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons under international supervision has, in the view of many, in effect supplanted the goal of ousting Assad.

On Monday, Syria formally became the 190th nation to sign on to the Chemical Weapons Convention, the international treaty outlawing the use and production of such arms.

Assad's surprise decision to allow the destruction of his chemical arsenal has "made a dent in the interventionist narrative that he's an uncontrollable madman who can't recognize diplomacy if it hit him in the face," said Ramzy Mardini, an analyst based in Amman, Jordan. "That growing reality is favoring Assad, not the opposition."

The turnaround has caused profound consternation among Syrian opposition figures and regional powers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia that have strongly backed the rebels.
In order for inspections to proceed, there needs to be relative calm. This means rebel action against Assad's forces that might interfere with these inspections will have to be discouraged, perhaps even by Russian forces. That's the card Obama has naively given to Putin. Plus, rebel strongholds are subject to these inspections as well, a point lost on the Administration it would seem. For this means forcing the rebel forces to not only reveal aspects of their organization, but also suspend some operations. Hands up, who thinks Assad has too much honor to take advantage of such a situation? Yeah, that's what I thought.

The Administration continues to insist that Assad's removal must be a part of any long-term peace negotiations in Syria. That's great. But the Administration has essentially surrendered it's ability to be a significant player in such negotiations. And rightly so. After all, Obama promised "enormous consequences" for Syria if it stepped over the red line. Apparently, those "enormous consequences" include providing Assad with a firmer hold on power. Beyond that, what? Easy access to Russian support, both logistic and possibly military? Brilliant.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Redskins and Palefaces: shedding old light on a new controversy

Let's face it, some people just love to be offended. They're not content with just waiting to be insulted, they actively search for offense, often finding it where none was intended or even exists. Remember the "eeny, meeny, miny, mo" incident on a Southwest flight some years back? Basically, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant got on the intercom of a plane during boarding and said "eeny, meeny, miny, mo, pick a seat we gotta go." Two passengers were deeply offended by this, claiming it was racist. First they complained to the airline, then they actually filed a lawsuit, asking for monetary damages.

One of the two women--who were sisters--claimed that hearing the ryhme caused her to have seizure on the flight, which was then followed by a larger seizure some days later. Both claimed to have been "humiliated" by the rhyme, their lawyer characterized it as a "racial slur," and believed the jury's decision--in finding no discrimination--was wholly unfair (leading to an appeal that was subsequently denied).

Years later--in 2007--a teacher at a Wisconsin middle school was suspended for using the "eeny, meeny, miny, mo" rhyme during class, apparently because a parent complained to the school after hearing about the rhyme being used. It's unclear, however, what the full story is here, what version of the rhyme was used by the teacher. Because there is a very offensive version out their, with the second line being "catch a nigger by the toe," as opposed to the now-common "catch a tiger by the toe."

In the case of the Southwest attendant, who made up her own second line, things are quite clear. The lawsuit was based on the idea that using "eeny, meeny, miny, mo" alone was racist and therefore offensive because of the existence of the above version, which was cited as the (more) original version of the rhyme. But is it? The rhyme goes back a long ways in both the United States and England. It has taken--and continues to take--many forms. There's no evidence that any one particular version is the oldest and given the English roots of the rhyme, it is highly unlikely that a version with "nigger" in it could possibly fill that role. Indeed, versions of the rhyme exist in other European languages, including German and Cornish. I'm given to think the English-language versions that uses "where do all the Frenchman go" as the second line is very possibly the oldest version that is not wholly gibberish, given the less-than-friendly relationship between England and France during long periods of the past.

Regardless, the point is that the rhyme did not originate as a racist thing, at all. It originated to serve the same function it continues to serve today: as a means of helping children differentiate and count. My kids know it and use it (with "tiger"). So do their friends, friends from all sorts of backgrounds. The central issue here--aside from the actual choice of language--is intent: when my six-year old uses the rhyme to decide who goes first in a game, there's no ill will, whatsoever. To suppose that there is requires one to step away from reality completely. And that's exactly what the two women on the Southwest flight did, since it's obvious there was no intent to offend on the part of the flight attendant, not to mention the fact that no racist/insulting language was actually used.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Micro-managing your child's education: is it a good idea?

The other day, my eldest child--currently in 10th grade--was at her ballet studio, where she not only takes classes but also works (for a handful of hours a week). She watches the younger children, helps with their classes, and also babysits some children when their parent (mom) is in Pilates class. It's a nice gig for her, it really is. Not only does she get paid, she also gets to engage with younger kids (which she loves) and also their parents. This particular day, she was talking with a group of moms about grades. Several of the moms were expressing how much they liked and used the Miami-Dade School System's "parent portal."

Basically, this is a resource the school system provides that allows parents of children in all grades to access all sorts of information, both general and specific. On the specific side, parents can check their children's gradebooks on a daily basis, provided teachers have updated the information. Thus, they often know--if they log in to the portal--what grade a child received on a test as soon as the child knows. Sometimes even sooner. The parents my daughter was talking with--all but one of them--thought this was great. One noted that it allowed her to call her daughter before school was even over apparently to giver her daughter shit about a bad grade (pardon my language).

The one parent who didn't buy in to all of this noted that while she knew about the portal, had signed up for it even, she never used it for checking grades at all. Never. And my daughter chimed in by noting how her parents--my wife and I--were the same way. For while I've also signed up and even longed on to check out the various resources, I've never felt a need to check the grades my children are getting. Their report cards--interim and quarterly--are good enough for me.

But the exchange did get me thinking. I took stock of my own situation, of my children, how they were doing in school, how they felt about things like grades, and how my wife and I approached things with them when it came to school and grades.

I have three children aged 6, 13, and 15 in grades 1st, 8th, and 10th, respectively. Obviously, the first-grader is not in the same sort of situation at all as the other two. Her grades right now won't impact her future in any meaningful way, provided she doesn't get failing ones. Still, she understands grades, what they mean, and wants to do well. And she does.

The eighth-grader is in the last year of middle school, will enter high school next year. He's currently in a magnet program and if he wants to stay in a similar one for high school, his grades do matter. Plus, even if he doesn't stay in a magnet program, his grades are used to determine which level he will be placed in next year for various subjects. His grades do matter, they do impact his future, his choices and options. He's also in the National Junior Honor Society, and he needs to keep his grades up to stay in that organization. And he's aware that they're important now, even though--being a typical thirteen-year-old boy--he'd much rather spend his time playing video games and riding bikes with friends than studying and doing homework.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

History Lesson, Part II: from The Birth of a Nation to a Federal Income Tax

Odd tangents, moments of strange intersections, events seemingly unrelated but with a thread pulling them together: this is the theme of this post (Part II), the previous one (Part I), and one more to follow (Part III).
I ended Part I of this series with a reference to Senator Oscar Wilder Underwood of Alabama, the man who helped lead the anti-Klan faction of the Democratic Party at the 1924 Convention. As I said, he would retire from the Senate in 1926 at the conclusion of his current term. But prior to his efforts to defang the Ku Klux Klan, he was involved in some other historic events. So let's go back to 1913, one hundred years ago this very week, and look at some legislation passed by Congress

At the time, Underwood was not yet a Senator. He was a member of the House of Representatives, serving the State of Alabama in that role since 1897. Underwood was also the Majority leader of the House, a position he attained in 1911, following the election of 1910 when the Democrats gained control of the House after sixteen years of Republican domination. In that role, he helped to create and pass the Revenue Act of 1913 (also known as the Underwood Tariff Act).

This legislation did two significant things. First, it lowered almost all current tariffs, setting the base rate at 25%, much lower than the then-current rate of 40% (which was itself set in 1909 and lower than the previous average rates). The issue of tariffs had dogged the Federal Government for decades because there was no agreement on the basic issue, whether tariffs should be used in a protectionist manner or whether they should be kept as low as possible. The Republican Party was divided on the matter and the Democrats--led by Underwood and President Woodrow Wilson--were of one mind: lower tariffs as a means of increasing economic activity. The public by and large supported this approach, as evidenced by the fact that it handed Democrats control of both Houses and the Presidency in 1912, largely on the basis of the Democrats' economic platform.

But by taking an ax to tariff rates, the Democrats were concerned about replacing the "lost revenue" from such a move. They assumed, as did most everyone else in Congress, that a decrease in a given tax rate was a static event, that it would lead to a directly corresponding decrease in taxes collected. There were very few voices arguing differently at the time. Now, we know their fear of lost revenue was predicated on a misunderstanding of how economies actually function: they could not come to terms with the idea that lowering rates could increase economic activity to such an extent that more taxes were collected, not less.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

History Lesson, Part I: from The Birth of a Nation to a Federal Income Tax

Odd tangents, moments of strange intersections, events seemingly unrelated but with a thread pulling them together: this is the theme of this post (Part I) and two more to follow (Part II and Part III).
D. W. Griffith's landmark film, The Birth of a Nation, premiered nearly one hundred years ago on February 8th, 1915. At the time, it was a huge film, both with regard to the cost to make it and with regard to the money it made in the box office. In fact, it would hold the title of highest grossing motion picture for decades, until eventually supplanted by Gone with the Wind in 1940. Not unsurprisingly, both films dealt with events during or related to the Civil War (before and after), a critical period for the American zeitgeist.

But despite the importance of The Birth of a Nation in the history of filmmaking, despite its success, it is not a very well received film today because of the themes in the story. And that's completely fair, really. The story is chock-full of racism, it idealizes the Ku Klux Klan (which used it as a recruitment film almost immediately after it was released), and the "history" in it is questionable to say the least. Nonetheless, President Woodrow Wilson saw fit to show the film at the White House.

I say "nonetheless" with a heavy dose of sarcasm, for the film's themes were quite consistent with President Wilson's own racist views and fantasies, with the revisionist history of the nation he both accepted and helped to create.

But here's the thing, D. W. Griffith never meant for the film to be so received (it is, of course, his fault that it was, for he made it the way he made it). The central theme of the movie was supposed to be about how there was no actual nation before the Civil War, how a singular nation was forged in blood in that war and in its aftermath. He portrays the assassination of Lincoln as critical in this regard, for Lincoln--in Griffith's view--was a key to the idea of unity because he was sympathetic to the South. His death prolonged the struggle unnecessarily, a struggle that somehow--in Griffith's (and President Wilson's apparently) warped vision--required the Ku Klux Klan to be there to save the day, to bring an end to the violence. Indeed, the film closes with an appeal for peace in the new nation:
Dare we dream of a golden day when the bestial War shall rule no more? But instead-the gentle Prince in the Hall of Brotherly Love in the City of Peace...
Though to drive home the racist aspects of the film, the original version also supposedly included a reference to "Lincoln's Solution," the deportation of all blacks back to Africa.

The significance of the film--apart from filmmaking issues--is its role that I noted above: as a recruitment tool for the Ku Klux Klan, or more specifically, for a new kind of organization that would take over where the original Ku Klux Klan left off. The Klan, as it initially existed, was a creature of the post-War South, where its terroristic kinds of activities could be undertaken more easily and when the South had a large population of disgruntled Confederate veterans as a source to fill the ranks of the Klan.

But by the later 1870's, there was nothing left of the Klan. And really, the early Klan did more to advance civil rights issues than any other group, insofar as is its heinous activities were used as evidence for why the government--federal, state, and local--needed to involve itself in civil rights causes across the board.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Tiger Blood of the Administration

As the Federal Government Shutdown continues towards a full week--which at this point looks like a foregone conclusion--we can step back and take stock of the situation, as the battle lines are clearly drawn. There is no significant movement from either side. Polls suggest the Republicans in the House are getting the most blame, but as I explained previously this is misleading. The hardliners in the House do not answer to the people at large, they answer to their constituents. And there's plenty of anecdotal evidence that their actions are fully in line with what the majority of their constituents want.

Nonetheless, they are getting hammered by the press, by many Republicans in the Senate, by Democrats, and of course by the Administration for shutting down the government. All of the above groups place the blame for the shutdown wholly on the shoulders of the House Republicans (and Ted Cruz, to be fair). And in that light, one would think these other groups want the shutdown to end, want it over. That's certainly true of the Republicans in the Senate, for their opposition to the House Republicans is based on the assumption that the shutdown is politically costly for Republicans in general, an assumption that may be correct in the moment but will likely mean nothing by the next election cycle (the nation's attention span being no longer than that of typical half-hour sit-com). But what about the other groups? Do they really want the shutdown to end as quickly as possible?

The members of the mainstream media may suggest they want it to end, but let's get real. The shutdown is great fodder for the 24-hour news cycle. It provides talking heads with a near-constant supply of red meat. Why would they want it to end?

As to the Democrats and the Administration, their position seems clear: they want the shutdown to end because it's damaging to the government, the nation, and the economy as a whole, not to mention what it is doing to individual federal workers who have been furloughed. As cynical as a I am about politicians and their motives, I don't think the great majority are really evil or bad people. I don't think they want to cause financial hardship to others. So I'll grant the Democrats and the Administration this: they do--most of them--care about the consequences of the shutdown for federal workers. Oddly enough, I think most of the House Republicans care, as well.

That said, political calculations and long-term goals can override such caring, whether these calculations and goals are noble or ignoble. And that's exactly what's happening here. For if the fate of the furloughed federal worker, of the effect of the shutdown on the economy, was the driving issue, there would be efforts to negotiate from the Democrats and the Administration. Because let's get real again: delaying the implementation of an aspect of Obamacare, of the individual mandate, is not so devastating to the nation as to be worth this stalemate. How could it be, given that the Administration has been delaying things and granted exemptions to the legislation left and right for years now?

So what's the real deal? Simply put, this is--in the minds of the Democrats and the Administration--an opportunity to really stick the knife into the Republicans, to twist it and make it hurt. Witness this piece at the Wall Street Journal and the words of a senior member of the Administration:
Said a senior administration official: "We are winning...It doesn't really matter to us" how long the shutdown lasts "because what matters is the end result."
They believe they're winning, end of story. But what are they winning? What is the end result they actually want? It's a pointless question because they don't want anything specific, they just want to win, or at least to be perceived as if they did. In the moment, the end result is the passage of a spending bill and the continued partial implementation of the mess that is Obamacare. But these things don't matter, really. For the Administration what matters first and foremost is public perception. It needs to be seen as large and in charge, because the President clearly has a deep-seated psychological need to be the smartest man in the room. And he can only satisfy that need by winning. His failures--and he has a litany of them now--only serve to rile him up, to force the pettiness and petulance of his character to the surface.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Piecemeal: that's actually the right way to do things

It's unlikely anything positive--from the perspective of the nation at large--will come from the current shutdown of the Federal Government (aside from the fact that the NSA won't be able to monitor every phone call of every American, for a few days anyway). It's just as unlikely that anything truly awful--again, in terms of the nation--will come from it. The pundits droning on and on about the shutdown, about its consequences, are largely speaking about political repercussions (at least the honest ones), because that's really the only arena that could possibly see any serious repercussions.

But it won't.

Why? Two reasons. First, because the collective memory of the nation--notwithstanding the internet--just isn't that long. Plus, there will be other events between now and whatever election we might be talking about that will obscure the story of the 2013 Shutdown. And second, because many of the principals involved in all of this--the Republican "extremists," to use the President's ill-considered and petty words--are in secure districts and are, in fact, doing exactly what they promised their constituents they would do.

This last little factoid is escaping the great majority of the mainstream press and therefore much of the more clueless American public. As hard as this may be for some--of the benighted sort--to understand, there are actually Republicans in the House whose seats would be in greater jeopardy if they hadn't gone down this road, if they had stood idly by and not tried everything possible to stop Obamacare. That is, after all, the core issue many of them ran on, that and curbing government spending. And if a shutdown does anything at all, it does the last.

Nonetheless, the shutdown is still a futile and largely pointless exercise. And it does impact good, hard-working, decent men and women whose jobs happen to be with the Federal Government (such creatures really do exist, trust me). But I say "largely pointless" because there is a lesson buried here, one that I think few will recognize and fewer still will admit.

The Federal Government shutdown specifically because the House and Senate could not agree on a spending bill for the President to sign that would keep funding the Federal Government through the end of the year (or thereabouts). And this was because the House--where all appropriations bills must originate--sent a bill to the Senate specifically stripping Obamacare of funding (not an exactly original or unheard of move, but I don't want to go down that road right now). The Senate restored that funding and sent the bill back to the House.

It is as this point that the House attempted to "compromise" (a rereading of my piece on Ayn Rand and compromise is now in order). Rather than stripping out the funding for Obamacare, the House instead added two provisions: one that would delay the implementation of Obamacare (the individual mandate portion) for one year and another that would deprive Congress and their staff of special treatment under Obamacare (there is a defense of this out there wherein it's not really special treatment, but it's nonsense). The Senate treated this bill the same as the first: it removed both provisions and sent it back to the House. The House repeated itself, putting both provisions back in, returning the bill to the Senate, and adding a request to negotiate with Senate leadership. And the Senate then repeated itself, once again removing both provisions and passing on the idea of a sit-down.

What followed? Shutdown.

It's at this point that something truly interesting happened. The House began to pass limited funding bills, one after the other, to fund specific functions of the Federal Government. It passed bills that fund the National Parks Service, the National Institutes of Health, and finally one that would allow the District of Columbia to continue to operate in full. In the case of the first two, a number of Democrats in the House joined the Republicans (23 and 25, respectively). In the case of the last, it was passed by voice vote, so no Democrats had to go on record in opposition (this was a major carrot granted to the House Democrats, by the way, one that is receiving little attention).