Friday, December 07, 2012

Nobody Asked Me, But...

I'm going to set aside the usual format today in favor of exploring this forming exhoration in my breast.
I'm looking back over the past year, and as I grow a little bit older, I'm wise to the fact that my best days may be behind me. Parts of me that haven't hurt before do, and parts that have hurt, hurt a little more. My skin cancer bounced back (on my ass, no less!) and I had a little scare late in the year that seems to have passed, mysteriously appearing and disappearing in the blink of a blood test.
Outlier? Possibly. It wouldn't be the first blood test the lab screwed up. Still, it was enough to deflate any notion I had that life was going to get easier after the past turbulent decade.
I feel like I haven't made much of a difference, that my efforts seem to be running into walls.
And I don't want to make it out that I consider the year a failure. In many ways it most certainly was not. Indeed, on balance it's been a pretty good year. Except the bits that didn't go well are bits I could have handled better.
All that is a roundabout way of getting into what I really want to talk about: taking responsibility.
In many respects, the conservative and Teabagger mantra of "take responsibility for yourself" appeals to me. We should. We all should look after ourselves to the best of our abilities.
But here's where Teabaggers and I part company: some people, many people, hell, ALL people have weak points. We all have places in our lives where we can use a little help. For instance, mine is in staying on a diet :-)
What? You didn't think I rode my bike 3,000 miles this year for my health, did you?
Well, I mean, I did, but I did because if I didn't, I would balloon up. But I digress...
The whole point of a society is, if you have a weakness and your neighbor has a strength that dovetails nicely with your weakness, it's part of his responsibility to help you. This is what neighbors do. The problem is, our society has become so expansive and so enumerary that it's hard to match up needs to strengths.
Indeed, it would be possible for imbalances in this equation to form: one person taking more than they need, another giving too much because he or she has to, based on the needs of others.
And this is where government steps in. It can create pathways for help to get to those who need it. It can create avenues for those who can give help to do so safely and without concern that they'll exhaust their resources helping.
Think about Sandy and how hard it's been to clean up and fix up things, and then imagine what would have happened without government.
Some tragedies are obvious. Some are not, but that doesn't make them any less tragic. Hunger, for instance, food insecurity. Newark Mayor Corey Booker is trying to spend a week surviving on just food stamps, to prove that a) it cannot be done, and b) that most people who rely on them use them to supplement other income and so shouldn't be called names like "lazy" or "shiftless".
This is where the Teabaggers fail epically. Nobody wants to be on food stamps anymore than they want to be unemployed or on welfare. Perhaps you can find one in 10,000 who challenge this rule, but really...are we going to punish millions for the sake of dozens?
Taking care of our own is part of taking care of ourselves, as we've seen. This is part of the social contract with a community -- to give when you can and receive when you must -- and in this case, the government is part of the community.
We pay taxes for programs like this because it's how we can best make a difference. We contribute a little to a much larger pot, and that's how we make a difference in other people's lives.
But there are other ways you and I can make differences, and surprisingly, in small steps we can help solve big problems.
A plastic bag floats over the sidewalk on the breeze like a spastic jellyfish. You can let it go, or you can pick it up and walk ten feet to a trashcan and throw it away. Which would you do?
Eventually, that plastic bag could make its way into the belly of an animal, or wrapped about the throat of a bird. Or more likely, a bag just like it could end up on your front lawn or sidewalk, forcing you to pick it up. If we could all pick up the loose bag when we see one, it really just shifts your responsibility forward a little.
Too, it gets you involved in your community, picking up the trash on a sidewalk that's not yours. Incrementally, it makes your community more important to you and by extension, a bigger part of you. When everybody takes responsibility for the community streets, you have a society.
One step further: you buy locally. You try to find food grown within a hundred miles of your house -- not an easy task in colder climes, admittedly. You stay away from retailers who are hostile to workers and unions, because you believe anyone deserves a good paying job with benefits that won't force them on food stamps (see how this works?)
That retailer will either change or die if all of us do that, if all of us take responsibility for ourselves and our community and suddenly that community has expanded to encompass that big box retailer who has to deal with declining sales and a hostile consumer base. They have to change or not be part of the bigger community outside their doors.
And soon, as a nation, we're starting to solve the world problems that we impact the greatest: if we all decide to stop buying cars that use an inefficient gasoline engine and start to use transportation with less of a fetid impact on the planet, we go from the number one carbon polluter to much farther down the list, and someone else becomes "the worst." And they'll start to race us to the bottom.
Yes, there will be low-normals who object to these changes, but here's the thing: if enough of us do it, those changes become cool, and the people who resist them become pariahs in their own communities. Suddenly, the sneers they reserved for "welfare queens" are flipped around, and those who sneered becomes the sneered at.
Will we still need government to enforce these? Absolutely. Problems like these, as I've shown, exceed the capacity of local society to enforce. But if society itself can get behind them, then the power of enforcement is made much less intrusive, since it will be less and less likely that people will resist when they see all their neighbors picking up the trash.
So maybe my year wasn't as productive as it could have been because I've been looking at the big picture and forgetting that it's the little things in life -- the smile, the kind word, the tossing loose trash in a trashcan, or even just writing nearly every day at this shitty little blog and changing just noe mind -- that end up mattering in the long run. Maybe, just maybe, I made a difference.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Here We Go

Maybe the Maya were right after all...

Syrian forces have mixed chemical weapons and added them to bombs in preparation for possible use on President Bashar Assad’s own people, Fox News confirms.

A senior U.S. official told Fox News that bombs were loaded with components of sarin gas, a deadly nerve gas. Syrian forces have 60 days to use these bombs until the chemical mixture expires and has to be destroyed.

The nerve agent has been loaded into canisters in aerosol form that can be dropped from planes, Fox said. A Fox reporter spoke with Pentagon officials, who expressed grave concern. Sarin is capable of killing many people in a short time. There is no antidote.

Earlier, Fox reported that U.S. troops were deploying to the Syrian border for defensive purposes.

Any solution to the Syrian conflict that comes before sarin is deployed will be tricky, and the pressure to deploy sarin has been anted up as rebels continue to advance on Damascus.

Already, Russia has warned Turkey about meddling in the internal politics of Syria, a major arms purchaser from Russia. Those differences have been papered over in recent days, but the use of sarin gas would cast a whole new light on the tenuous agreement.

Russia has tried to place itself as a neutral observer, leaning towards Assad -- the "status quo" would probably be the code they'd use to indicate this predilection -- but it has blocked no less than three UN resolutions asking Assad to step down peacefully or to provide UN support to the rebels.

But Turkey has deployed Patriot missiles to its border with Syria, and ostensibly these could be used at US direction to shoot down planes suspected of carrying chemical weapons. Too, Turkey has a dog in the hunt, since winds do not respect borders.

An ad hoc, presumably emergency meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, has been arranged for this afternoon on the crisis. Perhaps Russia is reconsidering her position in support of Assad. Certainly, the chemical weapons -- which must be deployed by February 1 or thereabouts, else they'll lose potency -- raises the stakes for them.  


Wednesday, December 05, 2012

The End Of His Story

Back in 1992, all-around idiot Francis Fukuyama posited the end of history. His rationale was, now that the Soviet Union was dead and the then-nascent Chinese economy was tooling up to be globally competitive, the ideology of liberal democracy married to capitalism would take hold and the world would enter a glorious era of unicorns and bunnies.
Twenty years on, it seems more a warped Peter Pan nightmarish scenario. Even America has lost the thread of that ridiculous ideology that Fukuyama posited after twelve years of Reagan/Bush.
Now, no one is disputing that more of the world has tended towards democracy in the past twenty years. One only need look back over the past decade, even just the past year, to see dictatorship after dictatorship topple and fall, either from internal forces such as the Arab Spring or external forces as the Gulf Wars.
But Fukuyama's point, that democracy is somehow the best political system for a nation's economics, has been thrown into disrepute, even just in America. The past twelve years have seen 99% of the nation fall far behind corporatist economic growth and since corporations control the democracy...well, would anyone posit that having the lowest possible tax rates on corporations has done anything to improve either the democracy or the economy?
Enter Josh Barro of Bloomberg. His dad is Robert Barro, one of the signal figures in macroeconomic policy, a man so adept at the field that it's his text book students read. A man who is now working on trying to codify how religion fits into the macroeconomic picture. So he has a deep background in economics.
Josh is a former fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think-tank -- the Board of Directors includes Bill Kristol -- so he's hardly a socialist. He seems to get it.
[...]Conservatives do not have economic ideas that are good for the middle class. Since the 1970s, wage gains have decoupled from productivity gains and the median family has therefore reaped a disproportionately small share of the benefits of growth. Conservatives are left without anything to say about this problem.

What can they say about it? I have a few ideas, though I don't think conservatives are likely to like any of them too much.

What does he talk about?

The redistribution of wealth. Go read that again, I'll wait.

Josh approaches this issue from a conservative slant, to be sure, and I could take issue with some of the details of his broadly outlined solutions like means-testing welfare programs (seems duplicative, for one thing), but on balance, he makes a strong case.

Lower taxes and smaller government *might* raise GDP. Certainly over the Bush administration, growth happened. It was anemic but measurable. That was with historically low taxes. Josh's point was that this concentrated wealth in the hands of the rich, while leaving scraps and crumbs for the rest of us.

No trickle down, in other words. Given that this is the single talking point any conservative can raise when talking about stimulating the economy, Barro is essentially pointing out that conservatives have nothing.

Couple that with the fact that the lion's share in the current government economic transfers programs have been in aid to the elderly, which are not means-tested or adjusted for other income, basically, it's giving more of your hard earned money to wealthier people in two separate scoops: original economic activity, plus benefits accrued from your taxes.

What's most important about this piece is that Barro is representative of new, less insane One-Note-Johnny-On-A-Kazoo conservatives -- Reihan Salam also comes to mind -- with whom it might be possible to work alongside to move forward.
The conservative Republican base is falling apart as elderly white folks die off. This is why Republicans do well in off-year elections (voter turnout is lower which concentrates the vote to the elderly and more wealthy segments) but so poorly when the Presidency is at stake.
Think about it: over the past 20 years, Republicans have lost the popular vote for President 5 of 6 times.
Obviously, hammering home lower taxes is a recipe for failure (so are the social issue stances in a changing demographic, of course.)
This is why it's so easy to dismiss the Republican stance on the "fiscal cliff," but if they smarten up and start promoting the Barros and Salams of the party, we have a tougher fight ahead of us.
Why? Because they aren't complete idiots like Fukuyama.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Dumb, Dumberer, Dumberest

You'd think after having their asses handed to them in the November elections, Republicans might be a little more...flexible.
And you'd be wrong. The Great Orange Satan -- No, not Kos, the other one -- has stopped crying long enough to lash out at working Americans:

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner proposed $2.2 trillion of spending cuts and new revenue that lack what President Barack Obama calls essential for a fiscal agreement: higher tax rates for top-earning Americans.

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, yesterday called it a “credible plan that deserves consideration by the White House.” The Obama administration promptly rejected the proposal, which would raise the Medicare eligibility age and slow Social Security cost-of-living increases.

[...] With the Republican blueprint, both parties now have their opening offers on the table. Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson, a Democrat, said the Republican plan signals “act two” in negotiations over the so-called fiscal cliff. “There will be an act three undoubtedly, and hopefully the distance between the bid and ask is closed,” he said.

In fairness, at least one of the aspects noted above might make sense, in a perverse way: raising the Medicare eligibility age.

Look, people are going to have to work longer for a bunch of reasons (not least of which is the two major recessions that have triggered on the watch of President Bush, destroying 401(k)s), which means there is a good chance that they'll have private health insurance available to them under Obamacare. By delaying the port over to Medicare, the nation could save billions over time.

Of course, who relies on Medicare but the folks who weren't able to sock away shrinking wages for retirement.

Buried in the proposal is a signal that Republicans might consider a net hike in tax revenues (which I alluded to yesterday) but not a raise in rates. This would entail closing deductions like the home mortgage interest deduction (again, the hike would fall disproportionately on the middle class and destroy the housing market at a time it is already crippled, as it would discourage home buyers and deflate real estate prices, which fuel much of consumer spending.)

The Bush tax cuts benefitted the wealthy overwhlemingly. These "tax hikes" would impact them even less, in my back-of-the-envelope view. The Republican party is continuing guerilla warfare on the middle and working classes.
Senator Nelson speaks of a middle ground compromise, but I can't see one that's possible unless the Republicans are willing to go at least 70% of the way and start priming the pump for tax increases: actual rate rises, liek the capital gains and carried interest rates. Those cannot be made permanent or we doom the middle class to a life of servitude to the corporatocracy.
Money should have utility that exceeds the utility it has to use money to make money for a pool of investors.

Monday, December 03, 2012

The Most Important Graph You Will Need For The Fiscal "Cliff"

What you are looking at is a graph that measures the percentage of GDP that both taxes paid by Americans and government spending compared to an average of tax revenues over the past 50 years or so.
You'll immediately notice two things: Spending as a percentage of GDP  has only declined under both Democratic presidents Clinton and Obama (altho Obama's spending has spiked for the most part because of TARP and other stimulus programs, he does show a sharp drop in 2010-2012), and had tax revenues remained at Clintonian levels in the 2000s, we wouldn't be facing a crisis of confidence at the present time.
Those are facts, not rhetoric. Granted, the underlying variable to all these curves is the growth of GDP over time. You'll notice that Clinton managed to keep the economy humming along even as tax revenues increased and spending was reduced during his eight years.
Likewise, for one shining year, President Obama managed to grow the economy fast enough that the increased spending put in place by the trainwreck his predecessor left him was absorbed and paid dividends.
This graph alone justifies the expiration of the Bush tax cuts (I'd argue they should all be allowed to expire, but that's just my opinion) AND for much more stimulus spending. The spending on infrastructure repair alone would pay for itself almost immediately (within two to three years). The spending on infrastructure improvements that actually benefit the economy (and not pork barrel projects like bridges to nowhere and airports that close three months later.)
Of course, the problem with tax hikes is, well, you. I mean, who wants to pay more in taxes? If you live in a high tax state like New York or California, do you want to have to pay Federal taxes on those taxes? Is the policy of allowing home mortgage interest deductions good for the economy or bad for it? What about the money your boss might pay for health insurance for you? Should you be taxed on that? Is that now irrelevant since we have national health coverage?
And how much will truly be raised and will it be enough to give Republicans cover to say they didn't raise a tax (rates) while giving Democrats something to crow about with raising a tax (revenue)?