Monday, August 27, 2012

Romney To Ryan To Akin; Mitt Goes Platform Diving

Romney to Ryan to Akin; Mitt Goes Platform Diving

There is a scene late in the movie “Judgment In Nuremberg” in which two American jurists, presiding over a trial of Nazi judges, are debating whether someone who was following enacted legislation could be held responsible for the application of unjust laws.  One insists they be acquitted, while the other, played by Spencer Tracy, demands to know why. Tracy’s view prevails, and the trial ends in convictions.

Afterwards, he meets with one of the German jurists, a person Tracy held in great esteem before the war.  The man accepts the verdict, praises Tracy for his fairness, but pleads that he never expected it to come to the end it did.

Tracy final words are decisive “(I)t came to that the first time you sentenced a man…you knew to be innocent.”   

The movie’s sympathies clearly lie with Tracy (as they must) but the larger question of when authority must resist injustice is still valid.  Equally true is the question of what fealty a Presidential candidate owes to the party platform upon which he runs. 

Ordinarily, we don’t pay all that much attention to party platforms.  They are part of the back stage arcanery (or chicanery) that is the political convention, with rules and credential committees, and off-site meetings for shrimp, roasted tenderloin, and cash with well-heeled lobbyists and ultra-wealthy contributors.  It is what we don’t get to see when the network cameras are on.  Much of this is covered by the peculiar omerta that is politics, from the tiniest contest for alderman, to the Presidency itself.  There are things you just don’t talk about.

The Romney machine was moving towards Tampa with an inexorable momentum that may very well carry him to the Presidency. His choice of Paul Ryan was greeted with a type of rapture formerly reserved for the Beatles, he is outraising Mr. Obama by a huge margin (and that’s just the disclosed money) and Republican-dominated administrations in swing states across the country have put in place a thicket of barriers to voting for those who are more likely to support Mr. Obama.  Even Timothy, Cardinal Egan, the most powerful Catholic figure in the country, had been brought in to close the Convention.  Charisma, money, brute force, and some help from a higher authority.  Little had been left to chance.

And, then came Todd Akin.  An obscure Congressman from a very conservative Missouri district, he won the GOP senatorial primary in a splintered field.  Akin, by all accounts a deeply and sincerely religious man, has a negligible record of accomplishment in Congress, and apparently few friends there.  Congressman Akin indulged himself in a few out of the mainstream thoughts about rape, and then made a quick detour into the science of reproduction, and the female body’s ability to distinguish between good and bad sperm.

Skunk at the picnic!!! As fast as you can say “conference call with Romney and Rove” virtually every Republican in the country ran for the hills.  The GOP Senatorial campaign and Crossroads said they wouldn’t fund him, and dozens either begged or demanded that he drop out (including, after a pause to see where the wind was blowing, Romney and Ryan).  When he dug in, they started looking for procedural moves to get him out (he did win the primary, but what’s an election if you don’t like the vote?) When that didn’t immediately work, they developed a case of collective amnesia.  Akin, Akin?  You mean that gay guy on American Idol?  Never heard of him.

Akin was not without a few friends.  Back home his constituents shared many of his views, as did many Christian conservatives, and Mike Huckabee lent support.  Huckabee hit the nail on the head.  While Akin’s language could have been more politic, on the topic of faith in general and abortion in specific, he was right in the mainstream of contemporary Republican thought.  Ryan himself was a co-sponsor, with Akin, of a bill that would have banned all abortions, without an exception for rape, incest, or the health or life of the mother.

Yes, but, Ryan didn’t mean it that way, and certainly Romney holds a different position (surely, that must be the most used phrase in the campaign-there is always something where Romney held, or used to hold, a different position.)  So, Akin has to go.

Except,  Akin won’t, and Akin’s work lives on.  The GOP Platform committee has met and adopted a document of surpassing conservatism.  It’s down on Sharia Law. Wants a Constitutional Amendment to ban tax increases.  A return to the Gold Standard.  A provision denying women roles in combat (take that, Tammy Duckworth, so you lost your legs in the service of your country!).  A double fence on the Mexican border, presumably because one is insufficient. Reality TV this isn't.

And, that absolute ban on abortions, with no modifying language, and an acknowledgment that it could be extended to ban several forms of birth control.  It even includes a “salute” to states like Virginia, who tried to add the trans-vaginal ultrasound.

So, where does Mitt stand on these?  Well, Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee, hastily pointed out that it’s the GOP platform, not Mitt Romney’s platform. 

I don’t think that’s enough.  I can understand and respect that there are people of faith who deeply believe that abortion is wrong in all circumstances, and wish to live their lives that way.  But the GOP position, Mitt Romney’s position, appears to be “carry your rapist’s baby to term, or die trying.” That's a little harsh for me.

Romney has made it to the doorstep of the office of the most powerful person on Earth.  He has done it with smarts, and ruthlessness, and tons of money, and a remarkable skill of running on his past accomplishments while denying his past positions. 

He has even managed to deny Ron Paul delegates their moment in the Sun, even though he didn’t need the votes.  A man with that kind of talent for power could have softened platform, toned down some of the more outlier parts.  He chose not to, for reasons only he must know.

Mr. Romney, is it your platform, or not?  I think we would all like to know.


Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mitt's Little Gusher And Grandma's Purse

Mitt’s Little Gusher And Grandma’s Purse

Mitt Romney is unveiling a new energy plan, “The Romney Plan For A Stronger Middle Class: Energy Independence.” 

Since I am a card-carrying member of the middle class, I was feeling more than a little patriotic, and decided to peruse its high points.  Just a few minutes with it took me back to the simpler and more innocent pleasures of my childhood.

When I was about nine years old, my grandmother went down to the basement, opened the safe, brought up a small and tattered cloth purse with a steel clasp and handed it to me.

Together we sat at her kitchen table and examined the treasure trove.  Roughly a dozen American coins that my Grandfather, who had owned a candy store, had put aside because they were old or interesting.

I was hooked.  Even at nine I was already a history junkie, and these things were history.  There were a couple of half dollars from the early part of the 19th Century, and a two-cent piece, a large penny from 1803 (1803-Jefferson and Adams!) a half-dime, and a commemorative coin from the Columbia Expedition.  I also got a lesson in capitalism.  When I took out my “Red Book of American Coins” I found that the best looking coin in the bunch was actually less valuable than the more worn one.  Scarcity drives prices.

Before you start thinking that Grandma’s purse is paying for my kid’s college educations, there weren’t any Antiques Roadshow moments.  But they were just so cool they brought me this sense of being in a place and time with muskets and three-cornered hats and great speeches, and brave men and women carving out the country.  I had devoured Sandberg’s biography of Lincoln-perhaps one of these had somehow found their way into and out of his hand, or one of his cabinet members-anything was possible.

Those great men led me back to Mitt Romney, because Mitt Romney has an excellent chance of being the next President, and perhaps he, too, might cup a half-dollar in his hand.

For someone who may be only a few months away from being the most powerful person on Earth, we know little detail about his plans, beyond a sense that he wishes to take us back to the Gilded Age.

His tax plan disproportionately helps people like him at the expense of the middle class.  Just how much it would help him personally we cannot know, since he refuses to share his tax returns.  And just how much it will hurt us, is hard to tell, since he refuses to identify which tax deductions he plans to eliminate.  Most likely are the mortgage interest deduction and that of employer-financed health insurance- both of which aim directly at the middle and working classes. But we can't be sure.

Entitlement reform is also somewhat vague-he promises seniors (who vote in high proportions) that he won’t touch either Social Security or Medicare-even though the Ryan Plan changes Medicare in two years.  The savings seem to come from everyone else, who will continue to pay, but should expect very little.  However we can’t be sure of that, since he won’t really tell us that either.

But, what we do know is that we are getting Mitt Romney, Olympics’ Fixer and Bain Capital Uber-Capitalist.  A man who knows his way under the hood of an economy, and who is going to make it all better.

And now we are fortunate to finally have his new Energy Policy to fill in the blanks.  Mitt is indeed going to bring his special Bain talents to the White House.  Find someone’s undervalued assets, take control, and monetize them.

Mitt’s Energy Plan is an unconscionable give-away to the special interests so large it is hard to take in in one reading.  Drilling off of Virginia and the Carolinas.  A roll back of safety and environmental regulations.  Giving up Federal control of public lands to the states and the oil and gas industry.  And additional Federal subsidies to help them extract our assets for their profits.

It’s the mining part that brought me back to Grandma’s purse.  I thought of those coins, and one in particular.  The 1826 Liberty Capped Bust silver half.  Just absolutely beautiful, crisp lines front and back, superb, classic design, well struck, and in really nice condition.   How did my grandfather come into possession of this really fantastic looking coin-how did he get any of them?  He surely wasn’t a collector.

I asked my Dad, who owned a pharmacy, and who would also occasionally come home with something nice like a (real) silver dollar.  Why would anyone give up these treasures as nothing more than loose change?

Because they had to, he explained.  The man who walked into my grandfather’s candy store in 1938 and handed over that beautiful 50-cent piece had absolutely no choice.  Maybe he needed a carton of cigarettes, or a treat for a child, or to get a notary stamp.  So, with not much else to use, he went into the back of a drawer, or a coffee can, or some other hiding place, and put the coin in his pocket for spending. 

Is that where we are?  Digging into our coffee cans for anything to sell?  Or is it just Mitt, dressing it up as help for the middle class, but selling at ten cents on the dollar to his friends?  He’s already bringing those Bain skills to this particular transaction.  Reports are he’s raised $7 Million fresh dollars from the oil and gas interests.  Now that’s a good business; taking a commission before you even have the signed agreement. 

I don’t think my grandfather would have been comfortable with that. 


Monday, August 20, 2012

What Oil Filters Can Teach Us About Taxes And Charity

What Oil Filters Can Teach Us About Taxes And Charity

There is a wonderful old series of commercials extolling Fram Oil Filters.  In one, the opening shot is a garage where the hood is up on some ailing automobile.  A man in coveralls looks down and shakes his head.  The owner of the car was obviously both penurious and misguided: looking to save money in the short term, he failed to regularly change his oil filter.  An economic abyss now looms.

Speaking of the abyss, last week’s round of toxic chatter from the campaigns and their surrogates had more than the usual quota of gaffes and hyperbole.  There was the Joe Biden “chains” comment (and the delicious irony of Rudy Giuliani calling Biden a clown) and GOP Senatorial hopeful Todd Akin’s bizarre riff on “legitimate rape”, and Paul Ryan slamming Mr. Obama’s plan to cut Medicare Advantage by $716 Million dollars, even though his own plan does exactly the same thing. 

There was also a little bit of fun when a report came out that roughly 30 GOP House members of and their staffers were reprimanded for drinking and, in one case, skinny-dipping (Freshman Congressman Kevin Yoder of Kansas) while on a trip to Israel last August.  The GOP defends the junket as underscoring “the strategic importance of the relationship with one of our greatest allies,” which, I suppose, is an interesting way of getting Rep. Yoder to wrap himself in the flag.

But, amidst all the noise and faux outrage, there remains one particularly persistent little itch that won’t go away no matter how much we scratch:  Mitt’s tax returns.  He has released 2010, and promised 2011, and that’s all we are getting. Of course, this leads to all kinds of (unflattering) speculation.

So, what is in Mitt’s treasure trove of IRS data?  Probably what you think-rich man has all sorts of ways to avoid paying taxes.  Could there be more embarrassing disclosures, such as a tax amnesty?  Perhaps, although I doubt there’s anything racier than an actuarial “Lifestyles of The Rich And Famous.” 

The White House, not to play a political card (not them!) offered Mitt a way out, or, as my children would say, “trap!”  Release five years of returns and all is forgiven. Nope.  Mitt doesn’t have to, and he isn’t going to, and there is nothing further to discuss.

Except, there still is, and even the GOP pros know it.  So Mitt causally let it drop that he paid about 13.6% in taxes-less than most of us who are reliant on the less favored earned income, but something.  He should have let it go at that, because he then noted that his tax and charitable contributions, he “gives” closer to 20%.  

An interesting perspective.  Taxes are charity.  The Washington Post interviewed Michael Tanner of the Koch-affiliated Cato Institute, who confirmed that, indeed, the conservative position on taxes is that they are a form of charity, in that both are intended for the public good.

Being the moderate statist that I am, I had a hard time wrapping my head around that.  In my mind, taxes go for things like fire departments, roads, schools, cops, and national defense. 

Charity, on the other hand, might also “go for the public good” but is by no means the same.  I pick my charities based on my personal priorities: my place of worship, my alma mater, a library, a park.  Yesterday, my wife and I sent a check to honor our late parents.   I could have approached the IRS with a request that they consider a direct payment, but something tells me that wouldn’t have worked.

Mitt, too, has his priorities: his church, The US Equestrian Team Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, the Friends of the George W. Bush Library.  Those are choices that reflect his personal interests and political ambitions, as is perfectly appropriate.

But, if conservatives continue to equate charity to taxes, aren’t they really asking for what amounts to a personal line-item veto on expenditures?  The lower they can drive taxes and public spending, the more “charity” has to fill the gap.  That is, of course, exactly what the Ryan Plan is all about.  It doesn't balance the budget, but it does eliminate virtually all discretionary domestic spending along with entitlement “reform”, and upstreams the cash to the affluent.  Presumably, those folk could take the money they got from Granny and then engage in “charity”-they would give (or not) to the causes they support.  So, Mitt could pay less for things like schools and cops, and give more to various conservative causes and show horses. 

That shows you just how much the modern conservative movement has gone away from long-held concepts of public virtue.  Government should provide nothing beyond national defense--and even a war can be put on a credit card. Roads, sanitation, public safety, schools are all optional.

They have pushed this idea brilliantly, with a series of anti-tax measures that disconnect the individual from the public services he takes advantage of.  There is a fascinating article by Floyd Norris in the New York Times “Schools Pass Debt To The Next Generation” which covers a recent bond issue by the Poway (California) school district.  Poway needs to do renovations, but the taxpayers, aided by various Propositions, don’t want to pay for them, they just want to use them.  So Poway is borrowing $105 Million at 6.8%, and deferring payment until 2033, when, with accrued interest, it will pay more than eight times what it borrowed.  My friend Cynical Cynic says that the difference between Democrats and Republicans is that the Democrats want to tax and spend, and the Republicans borrow and spend.  We end up in the same place.  He seems to have it just right.

Brings me back to the Fram commercial.  The owner of the shop looks at the damage that could have been avoided if only the owner had changed his filter, and delivers the punch line, “you can pay me now, or, pay me later.” Then he slams down the hood.

I do change my oil and filter regularly, but the car is getting old.  I’m thinking of setting up a charitable foundation.  I wonder if the IRS would go for it?


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Veep Veep: A Syncopated Guide To Mitt's NBF

Veep Veep, A Syncopated Guide To Mitt’s NBF

Well, Mitt has done the “brave and bold” thing, and chosen Paul Ryan, the brave and bold, handsome, telegenic, intellectual, young, dynamic, dreamboat of the Right. 

Ryan is the complete package for those who dream of pre-1929 days.  Besides his good looks he’s the author of “The Ryan Plan” (cue celestial choir), which is a cornucopia of classic Republican nostrums: Tax cuts for “job creators” and less of everything for everyone else.  His new budget projects a balanced budget-by 2040 (wow!!)  Naturally,  it extends and makes permanent the Bush Tax cuts and reduces the tax rates for corporations. It also puts Medicare on the road to its inevitable extinction, and makes deep cuts in a wide swathe of domestic programs. When fully implemented, total spending will decline to 19% of GNP from its current 24% of GNP, with all the savings coming from the domestic side, especially from the entitlement programs. 

The chorus of Ryan love has been going on since early Spring; a coordinated push from conservative columnists, bloggers, news outlets, and, of course, the Wall Street Journal.  Romney, unsurprisingly, decided not to buck City Hall.

There are two things going on here, and both are worth examining. 

The first is that the Right doesn’t trust Romney.  He is the nominee, and they know he’s going to take care of his own (primarily, the old business elites) with lower taxes, less regulation, more goodies from the public till.  That will satisfy the big bucks contributors looking to monetize their support.  But they suspect (with good reason) that he has no passion beyond management and profit.  And they worry he’s is going to want to keep the job, and that probably means being a little less doctrinaire when he gets in office.  That doesn’t do it for them.  They want to clean the stables, make permanent their economic plans, and impose a sufficiently conservative social agenda to satisfy the religious right.  The GOP ideal is something akin to Franco’s Spain-a robust military, unbridled, unregulated and subsidized business, and tight ties with organized religion.  They can then lock up their electoral advantage with a continuation of the K Street initiative (punishing businesses that contribute or support Democrats) more attacks on labor, and voter suppression techniques. Nothing new here.  For every politician and political operative who talks about ideas and principles, there are ten more who just want to be in charge.  “Big government” and “Statism” is only bad when you don’t have the keys to the car.

The second is a little more complicated, and has a lot to do with electoral politics.  Romney and his advisors have long held to the idea that this election is a repeat of 1980: that the weakness in the economy and Obama’s own general unpopularity will lead to a Reaganesque late surge and a Romney landslide.   There are a lot of reasons to buy into that analysis;  Obama hasn’t been able to get beyond his own base, Obamacare remains unpopular, unemployment is high, people are fearful, and the GOP in Congress have perfected all the tools of obstruction.

But, all those things have been true through the entire Republican primary season, and Obama stubbornly stays close or ahead.  Perhaps that’s because Obama is not Carter-he’s smarter and tougher.  Perhaps it’s because there’s no traumatic event like the Iranian Hostage crisis.  And, perhaps it’s because Romney is no Reagan. 

Romney is no Reagan.  He’s Romney, a coldblooded and calculating businessman who knows what he wants.  This is no different than a corporate takeover-you size up your opponent, find a weak spot, push the knife in, take the prize, and drain it.  Sometimes your early approaches are rebuffed by a surprisingly adroit opposing management.  So, you take a breath, re-evaluate, and bring in additional equity.

That’s what Ryan is.  Romney has been pledging undying fealty to the Right, but with words only.  Now he’s taken some of their money.  He’s counting on them being minority partners, and not loan sharks, but my guess is that they expect a high-leverage return.

Will it work?  It’s too soon to tell.  The ecstatic reaction of the Right is to be expected, but the truth of the matter is that, while Veep picks (Palin) can draw a tremendous amount of heat, they rarely count for much.  Romney thinks that Ryan will help him in the Midwest, starting with Wisconsin.  He knows it could cost him among the elderly who may be concerned about Medicare.  He’s obviously done the math and decided to roll the dice. 

What he doesn’t know is when the interest will be due to his “investors” but it’s logical to assume the GOP Platform, with “The Ryan Plan”  front and center, will be the first payment.

Can Romney and Ryan campaign on Ryan’s ideas? Crudely, it depends on whether they can continue to avoid getting into great detail, and whether Romney can keep his tax returns private.  Because “The Ryan Plan” is a big wet kiss on the mouth to Mitt and others like him. 

But, here’s the dirty little secret about “The Ryan Plan.”  Ryan is half right-the entitlement reform side, which we need to do.  His problem is that he can’t control his partisan political impulses-he so badly wants to take the savings and hand it to the affluent, so badly wants to “starve the beast,” that’s he’s missing an opportunity. Actually, we are all missing an opportunity.

Here’s a Moderate Moderator’s prediction: The first candidate who speaks plainly about a grand bargain; entitlement reform, real tax reform, tax fairness, real deficit reduction, and fully shared sacrifice will win-and deserve to win. 

Here’s a second prediction:  Neither side will do it, because either they can’t stomach shared sacrifice when they could take it all (that would be the GOP) or risk giving up a political prize such as the gutting of Medicare (that would be Mr. Obama).

They are both wrong.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

What Baseball, Asimov, And Galen Can Teach Us About Global Warming

What Baseball, Asimov and Galen Can Teach Us About Global Warming

There is a terrific short story by Isaac Asimov, “The Red Queen’s Race,” which imagines an unhinged scientist inventing a method of time travel, translating a chemistry text into Hellenic Greek and sending the book back in time to ancient Greece.  When government officials realize what he has done, they wait for the “butterfly effect,” expecting this new knowledge to change the course of human history and perhaps their very existence.

Galen was a prominent Roman physician of the second century, and likely the greatest of the medical researchers of antiquity.  Galen created new surgical techniques and contributed immensely to the understanding of anatomy, physiology, pathology, pharmacology, and neurology.  His genius was such that many of his observations were particularly acute -- medical students in the 19th century were still using some of his drawings.  But his influence was so powerful that his ideas, both correct and incorrect, held sway for more than a millennium, and were adopted as dogma by the Catholic Church.  You could not dispute “The Dead Hand of Galen” no matter what your eyes told you.

I was reminded of Galen and “The Red Queen’s Race” while reading a post and comments from the excellent baseball blog High Heat Stats (  High Heat uses modern baseball metrics to evaluate the performance of past and present players.  At one point, the conversation focused on Bobby Richardson, a second baseman for the Yankees from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties. The “modern” numbers show he was over-rated -- in fact, they show he was sub-par.  But this is a player who, in his own time, was considered a star.  He won five Gold Gloves, was an All Star seven times, and got MVP votes in seven separate seasons.  How does a consistent, then-contemporary evaluation deviate that much from a back-checked data analysis?  Were the people who saw Bobby Richardson on a daily basis so wrong?  Or are the modern formulas used to evaluate players wrong?  And what does this have to do with Global Warming?

I decided to experiment.  First, I commented on HHS (a remarkably sane and rational place) and got back some responses that dispassionately examined the statistical evidence and came to a reasoned conclusion -- Richardson was probably somewhat over-rated but the modern metrics also may not fully reflect his worth, in part because both strategy and expectations have changed.  Sane people, baseball fans, finding a middle ground.

Then I commented on two articles in the Washington Post on global warming -- the first was an opinion piece by James Hansen (of NASA), and the second on the threats warming in the Artic have had on native populations.  To give you an idea of how intense the discussions were, the Hansen piece received over 5000 comments, and most of them were scabrous and insulting.  The deniers claim global warming is not occurring, or if it is occurring it is completely natural, and if it's not completely natural whatever man produces has an infinitesimal impact, and even if man-influenced changes are having a impact, it’s a beneficial one, and, in any event, it's all a liberal plot.  One thing they are sure of is that every scientist is on the take, and that every bit of scientific data is either falsified, or proves nothing.  In one of my posts, I said that I understood the economic arguments against doing anything about global warming (costs to industry, higher costs for consumers) but couldn’t accept the idea, pushed by the deniers, that absolutely nothing was going on in the climate.  I was shot out of the water.  These folk have constructed for themselves a fortress against any ideas to the contrary, and literally swarm anyone who suggests otherwise.

Obviously, global warming is a lot more important than Bobby Richardson -- at least in some quarters.  But the thought process in these two forums reflects Asimov’s in The Red Queen’s Race -- there is both an absolute truth and a relativism that has to be contextualized.  Those moderns who waited, tensely, for the butterfly effect, and perhaps the end of their world, never saw it come, and, after a while, they realized it never would.  There was no magic in sending an advanced chemistry book back to ancient Greece -- the people who opened it didn’t have the accumulated knowledge that made it useful, nor the infrastructure to support it. So the information was effectively useless; since it could not be integrated it fell on deaf ears and could not be acted upon. The global warming deniers end up in the same place; while they have the intellectual capacity to analyze the data, they lack the emotional range to accept it. 

Is ignorance, willful or not, permanent?  How did the Dead Hand of Galen begin to lose its grip?  Galen had based some of his anatomical writings on dissections of monkeys and pigs, assuming that physiology would be consistent across mammals.  Eventually, variations between observation and reality could not be reconciled.  But “eventually” is a very long time.  Galen’s position held for more than 1300 years, until 1543, when Andreas Vesalius published “De Humani Corporis Fabrica.”  The “Fabrica” is based on direct observations--Vesalius’s dissections—that had to be done by candlelight after sneaking into graveyards in the dead of night. Reality struggled through to reach the light.

I am not suggesting that the global warming deniers will still be denying 1300 years from now, although if they do so, they better be doing it from very tall and climate controlled towers surrounded by mammoth sea-walls.  I did ask the Washington Post crowd an obvious question:  when 98% of scientists, after looking at all the available data, confirm the impact of human activity on global warming, how could the deniers take the position they did?

The response?  Scientific consensus is not scientific fact.

Spoiled a perfectly good day for me.  Let’s hope these folk don’t like baseball.