Monday, December 30, 2013

Barack Obama's Ride

Barack Obama’s Ride
(With profuse apologies to Longfellow.)

Listen my children and you shall hear,
The tale of Barack’s very bad year,
It began with such promise, November Two-Twelve
He romped over Mitt, and Ryan he shelved.
Yet, back at the White House as he stood at the stern
The crimson storm waters began to leap and to churn.

He said to his staff, "If the Red States they march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the Congressional arch.
A ruby red torch as a warning light,--
Signal one if by land, and two if by sea;
Make it thrice if Issa—he means to impeach me.
Then be ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Blue county and village and farm.

Then he said "Good-night!" and uttered no more
Turned on his heel, and closed the Oval-ed door,
Just then as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings she lay
The man-o-war Teapot, a powerful brute;
Ready to rampage, and plunder and loot

Meanwhile, an O-aide through catcalls and jeers
Wanders and watches, with NSA ears.
He reads from the Journal, he monitors Drudge,
Benghazi, and Snowden, and all of the sludge.
A whisper, a roar, and what does he hear?
It’s the House that the Founders only held dear.

Down scaled the aide the side of Washington’s Tower,
No choice, from sequester, no lift and no power.
He took one deep breath, he peered down below.
Espies discontent’s seeds so deep did they sow.
Usurper and worse, so the Elephant said,
That he could hear, like a sentinel's tread.
Back to the river, he walks with great care,
To Congress he heads, he knows no one’s there.
Lantern in hand, he locates the arch,
Shines one, two, and three, they are all on the march.

Meanwhile, impatient, atwitter, and keen,
It’s Christie, and Rand, with thoughts of Sixteen.
“Hey, wait” says big O, They picked me for Pres.”
“I turned on the news, and that’s what Wolf said.”
Pshaw said the Right, how silly you be,
For an election to count, we all must agree.

So Barack gazed out upon the realm, looking far and near,
He sought out the issues he once held most dear.
T’was gun control first, in sad Newton’s wake.
But when the NRA frowns, the mighty do quake.
Then immigration, they hoped, could O put that to bed?
Not so fast, that’s Marco’s bill, which made it all but dead.

Then cast his eye abroad he did, yet met with only buts.
The Syrians went tribal, the North Koreans nuts.
At Jo-Berg he shook a Castro’s hand, and selfied with a belle.
Enraging half Miami, and surely all Michelle,
And in Europe, friendly Europe, with Merkel planned a chat
But Angela is quite angry, she’d had no clue of that.

He spun back domestic, sought a bargain big and fine and grand.
Came a cropper when Harry nuked Mitch, and old Johnny took a stand.
Yet foamy outrage grew stale and sour, and default was getting old.
Bored Senators are like the weather; damp, forbidding, cold.
Out of town they sought to be, a Christmas break or two,
So Paul shopped with Patty, and they purchased nothing new.

And O-Care, oh Woe-Care I dare not say too much.
Work it will, he says, with a tweak or two, and a genie’s touch.
And that’s how our year closes, not final is its fate.
Good things will come, O tells us, to those who log on and wait.

Of the future, perchance a glimmer, and then perhaps a gleam?
A year is but a second, a decade just a dream.
It’s always darkest before the dawn, so the sages tell.
Maybe thirteen was unlucky, but the midterms should be swell.

Happy New Year to all.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

Join us on Twitter @SyncPol

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Embracing The Suck: Practical Pols and Purity Police

Embracing The Suck-Practical Pols and Purity Police

It was a week where crude worked. 

John Boehner, the chain-smoking, dark-liquor sipping, Tea-coddling Speaker of the House, decided to come out of his defensive crouch and throw a haymaker or two.  He weighed in on the Paul Ryan-Patty Murray budget compromise and told his fellow Republican House-mates to hold their nose and act like adults. 

His counterpart, House Minority Leader, Nancy Pelosi, whipped her troops into line with the immortal phrase,  “Embrace the Suck.”

The Ryan-Murray “suck” isn’t a great one.  It is mostly small-bore deficit reduction, with no new real revenues and no new serious spending cuts. All agree it is no “Grand Bargain” especially since the pair had an agreement going in that neither would have to give up their “core principles.”

So, what’s in the gift box handed to the Congress for ratification?  Its most prominent features are replacing the sequester with more specific cuts and ending extended unemployment benefits.  Not a lot of sizzle there.

Like any compromise, a lot of people are very unhappy.  The more progressive side of the Democratic caucus hates the unemployment insurance part (and the Christmas shopping season allows plenty of Scrooge references.)  And, of course, because it doesn’t immediately eliminate all government spending except for aid to parochial schools and the military, it doesn’t sufficiently feed the TP-dragon.

But it’s a deal, in the sense that it funds the government through the 2015 fiscal year, and, by doing so, gives more flexibility to deal with the meat-cleaver impact of sequester.  It’s a budget, and spares us the comedic tragedy of another shutdown.

Or not.  There are several things the agreement doesn’t do, and perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t deal with the debt-ceiling limit.  Ryan himself said on Sunday that the GOP will be looking to extract more concessions in January.  If the GOP does play default games again, we will have a budget (possibly, more on that later) without any money, and yet another round of extortion.  They figure (perhaps correctly, this time) that maybe the public will support them in killing Obamacare and anything else on their wish list. 

The problem for the GOP is that it places two things in motion that may have unintended consequences.  The first is that with the disastrous rollout of Obamacare, the President is in the doghouse and his party is seeing shadows behind every shadow. That creates a wonderful electoral landscape for 2014 for Republicans—if they don’t overplay their hand and remind people of exactly what they didn’t like about the GOPs in the first place.

The second is a little more complex, and involves a serious intra-party battle for control, complicated by nominating politics that may spill out into public view in a way that is distinctly unflattering.

To oversimplify, think of the GOP being dominated by two wings, the Practical Pols and the Purity Police.

Practical or Pure, with a very few exceptions, they are all conservative.  It’s just a matter of how many times they have been distilled. And, they all want power.  The difference is that the Practical Pols understand that imposing one’s will on the electorate first requires convincing them to put you in office.  The Purity folk dream the same dreams, only without the inconvenient electoral nuance.  For them, the real enemy is the impure among them. Hence, well-funded primary challenges.

One would think that a lesson might have been learned this last Fall, when the Purity Police had the upper hand.  They mounted a coordinated assault by special interest groups such as Heritage Action, Club for Growth, the Koch Brother’s Americans for Prosperity, Ted Cruz’s (supposedly unaffiliated) Senate Conservatives Fund and the calculated outrage and goading by affiliated media outlets.  For weeks, everything froze.

But, to paraphrase Sarah Palin, that “closey-defaulty thing” didn’t work out as well as they all expected.  People found that while everyone hates the government, it’s a very selective hate—they only hate those parts they don’t want to use.  And the public at large knew whom to blame.  They didn’t much like Obamacare, but this one was on the GOP.  Faced with mounting anxiety and disgust, the GOP turned to shrewd, dour old Mitch McConnell.  The deal he cut in October allowed enough people to retain their principles by flinging their hands up in the air in dismay while voting “aye” at the same time.  Several needed to call for emergency chiropractic help.

Part of that McConnell-Reid deal was the Ryan/Murray-led committee, and what Paul Ryan presented is what he was able to extract from that set of negotiations.  Not enough, screamed the Purity Police.  Marco Rubio, desperately trying to regain his reputation after his immigration apostasy, denounced it even before it released, earning a sharp rebuke from Ryan himself.

Armed with Ryan’s credibility, and his own growing piqué, Boehner finally took a stand.  He lashed out at the Senate Conservatives Fund, Heritage Action, Club for Growth and FreedomWorks for "misleading their followers” and said they lost all credibility.  He might very well have been aided by Pelosi’s “suck” because what Nancy hates couldn’t have been all that bad.

Amazingly enough, it worked.  The House approved the bill, 332 to 94, with both parties delivering more than 160 votes. The “nays” were the oddest collection of votes imaginable, with 32 liberal Democrats joining 62 of the most radical-right Republicans.  If I had to guess, that much proximity will cause many of those to send their clothes out to the dry-cleaner for fumigation.

The Senate proved to be a harder nut, for a reason that wasn’t necessarily intuitive. There, the primary threats from the Purity Police need to be taken seriously because Senate seats are more highly prized.  To that end, John Cornyn (Texas) is being challenged by the lunatic fringe Congressman Steve Stockman, and Pat Roberts of Kansas by businessman Milton Wolf.  Senators Cornyn and Roberts are, respectively, the 2nd and 5th most conservative in their chamber, which you might think would be enough. Other flaming liberal GOP Senators being “primaried” include Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Mitch McConnell.  That makes all those gentlemen sensitive to their right flank, whatever microscopic area that may occupy.  The same outside groups who orchestrated the first fiasco doubled down on the pressure, directly calling out the incumbents.  That created a real quandary in the minds of the Practicals.  The Senate didn’t want to not pass the bill, and take immediate responsibility for another shutdown, but there was risk in supporting this one, even though the GOP didn’t really give up anything they cared about.  

Fortunately, Ryan had provided a Deus es machina.  One of the few actual deficit reducers in the agreement was a (previously GOP supported) provision that will slow the growth of pension benefits to military retirees under the age of 62.  Veterans and affiliated groups were furious, and this allowed the proper amount of outrage to be emitted from the aggrieved defenders of our brave men and women.  On cue, they took to every open mike they could find and then headed for the hills, stopping only long enough to agree to cloture on a possible filibuster.  Then, comfortable knowing that it would pass while they railed against it, all but nine of them voted no. 

The bill now goes to Mr. Obama, who will sign it.  A two-year bill, can kicked down the road, crisis averted?  Not quite.  While the deal sets parameters of spending, it doesn’t actually say what each agency gets.  That gets resolved in committee, so there is still the possibility of another government shut down if it can’t be resolved there.  And there is still the little matter of the Ryan’s threat on the debt ceiling.  But that’s well down the road—close to month from today.  Plenty of time, nothing to worry about.

Leads one to search for the proper slogan.  A new era of cooperation! Responsible government at its very finest! Lacks a certain frisson, I think we would all agree.  

Embrace the suck?  Now, that has resonance.

Michael Liss (MM)

Questions or comments, email the Moderator

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Monday, December 9, 2013

Detroit: Pensions, Potholes and Promises

Detroit: Pensions, Potholes and Promises

Late last week, a Federal Bankruptcy Judge, Steven Rhodes, cleared the way for Detroit to stiff all of its public-sector pensioners.  Pensions, Judge Rhodes said, were no different than any other type of secured debt, like money owed to bondholders, and the claims go into (and get paid from) the same pot of degraded assets.

Outside of the sound of the popping of corks in the private jets of the bondholders, what Judge Rhodes did was tee up the one of the most controversial issues that the political system must solve: how to adapt on the fly to a multi-generational series of interlocking promises.

Detroit has been terribly mismanaged, and had been dealing with the secular decline and globalization of its core auto industry.  It has lost nearly a third of its total population in the last two decades, and whole neighborhoods have been abandoned.  As jobs shrink, those who can leave do, and the rest become, as a group, more and more dependent on aid that the city has less and less of a tax base to support. 

That leads to a horrible quandary.  Pay to fix the pothole, or pay the guy who fixed potholes twenty years ago?  So, whether Judge Rhodes is right or wrong on the law regarding pensions (and he disregarded an explicit Michigan Constitution provision to reach his result) he is almost certainly correct on a core reality: Detroit currently has about two retired public service workers for every one presently on the job.  That is an irreducible fact, and if the political system can’t deal with it (and, it clearly hasn’t) people will by voting with their feet. Why resign yourself to decay? 

Many Conservative columnists and talk-show jocks are crowing about Detroit.  Punishing the public service worker is very high on their Christmas gift list.  Taking their pensions is even better. Detroit is the perfect storm of joy for them. “Detroit” is code for everything they think is pernicious in American society: an urban area with an urban population, an organized work force, and a higher percentage of Democratic voters. “Detroit” is what New York City will morph into within three months of Bill de Blasio’s inauguration.  “Detroit” is the barren wasteland that the nation will become unless we encourage self-help by eliminating not just the safety net “free goods” but also programs that we have paid into (like Social Security) or bargained for (like pensions.) All you need is one intoxicating whiff of economic and social Calvinism and you will be on the path to righteousness. 

Of course, this is complete nonsense.  We live in a complex ecosystem, a web of taxing and spending rules that constantly reallocate benefits.  The basis of our system has been a dynamic tension between two imperatives, the growth-oriented free-market freewheeling Capitalism that knows no rules and accepts no limitations, and the nanny state proto-European approach that often makes the government (and, by extension, the taxpayer or the buyer of Treasury Securities) the writer of too many checks. 

In wealthier times, we dealt with this by making sure that the largest number of people had stakes in sustaining a stable system. The rich remained comfortable in the reassuring fact that the government always pampered the elites.  The poor could rely on social programs like welfare, subsidized housing, and SNAP.  We had horrible, intractable poverty in sections of the country but these were often rural and overlooked sections, like Appalachia.  The working person had collective bargaining to balance out the power of capital and a secure future through defined benefit pensions and Social Security.

Those are bygone days.  The elites still have government stacking the deck for them, as should be expected.  But they now also have the advantage of a system that has created outsized rewards at the expense of the shareholders of publically traded companies and the people who work for them. The gap between the compensation of the CEO and the line-worker has grown astronomically.  As has the asset gap. And, the relentless drive to cut costs stops when you get to the executive suite.  Close a plant, fire 1000 people, outsource the work, and then collect an eight-figure bonus and a bouquet of stock options.  

But before we blame the rich, who are, after all, just doing what comes naturally, we also have recognize that the basic promise that kept the peace with the middle-class, the workers, and the poor was ultimately one that could not survive the impact of demography and globalization without farsighted planning.  That is something that politicians were loath to do.  And this was a bipartisan blindness.  Democrats were cozy with the unions and public service, making hard bargaining something only the other guy did.  They gave it away.  But they weren’t alone. Republicans cared only about low tax rates and an open community chest of special interest legislation, below market concessions, and outright subsidies for their boardroom friends.  George W. Bush himself, Mr. Conservative, fought a war he refused to pay for, created a giant new entitlement (Medicare Part D) and cut rates substantially for high earners. Who says you can’t have it all?

You can’t, and anyone with any sense in his or her head knows it. But Detroit leaves us with a horrible paradox.  Because as much as it is an example of the results of bad management and bad luck, it is also reflective of a core truth:  Whether it’s through loss of job, loss of pension, reduction in entitlements, or even SNAP, people cannot spend money if they don’t have it. That means small businesses shrivel up, stores close, mortgages and taxes go unpaid, and homes and even whole communities fall into disrepair.  You can kill a town with overindulgence, and you can kill it with austerity.  Detroit may suffer both kinds of death.

So, if I were a Democrat and really wanted to be compassionate, I would learn from Detroit, and spend a little more time worrying about where employment will come from and how to incentivize work.

And, if I were a Republican, rejoicing in the demise of a city without friends or resources, and looking at Judge Rhode’s decision as healthy dose of morality to administer to the folk all across the country who don’t fund me, I might pause for a moment and reflect.  Not only aren’t there enough prisons and workhouses for every soon-to-be ex-pensioner, but those people might just have been customers of my biggest donors.

In the meantime, Detroit’s Emergency Manager, Kevyn Orr, called in Christie’s to appraise the collection at the Detroit Institute of Art, despite the opinion of Michigan’s Attorney General that it couldn’t be sold.  But the creditors weren’t happy—they want more.  In late November, they filed a motion with Judge Rhodes to get an independent appraisal.  Might as well suck the orange dry before tossing the peel in the gutter.

Let’s hope there is still someone left to pick it up when they are done. 

Michael Liss

Please follow us on Twitter @ SyncPol

Monday, December 2, 2013

Fifty Shades Of Black And White

Fifty Shades of Black and White

On December 13, 1937, the Japanese Army routed the larger in numbers but vastly inferior Chinese forces and captured the ancient city of Nanking.  In the days that followed, they occupied the city and committed, on a grand scale, a series of acts so gruesome and bestial that the period is known as “The Rape of Nanking.”

Why the Japanese army acted the way they did is perhaps beyond comprehension.  It occupies the same space as Hitler’s campaigns of extermination, Lenin and Stalin’s purges, and the killing fields in Cambodia.  The critical thing to remember is that this isn’t just the mad vision of a single crazy person, but rather, to paraphrase Daniel Goldhagen, acts enabled by countless “willing executioners.”

What causes some to participate and others to resist is unknown.  Surely, rational people recognize evil when they see it, but there can be a blurring of the lines when the “enemy” has been described as degraded and inferior.  That’s exactly what happens during war--all sides use propaganda. Then, somehow, acts of violence, cruelty or even moral depravity can seem to be justifiable.  Black and white merge into something opaque and unknowable.

Clearly, there are things that are simply wrong to do, no matter who is doing them.  There are good people who will act under stress in ways that they would otherwise recoil from in normal times.  And, even more stand by without protest, perhaps in silent acquiescence or agreement, perhaps simply paralyzed by fear.  Fighting a war, killing, by definition, forces people to make moral choices about what they perceive, or are told to perceive, as a greater good.  Many simply go along, living with the ambiguity of the situation, content to close their eyes and throw their lot with their side.  It is hard to grasp what the ordinary Japanese soldier, garrisoning Nanking, must have felt.  It is harder to believe that they could have felt anything.

Did the world know what was happening and simply stand by?  Yes and no.  There were a few journalists who, at stupendous personal risk, reported and filmed, and their dispatches filtered out to the press.  Even more substantive were the heroic efforts by a number of foreign businessmen, diplomats, and missionaries, who formed the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone and created a safe area in the western quarter of the city.  A German, John Rabe, selected because of his membership in the Nazi Party, led the Committee. Rabe’s efforts, and those of a literal handful of others, were nothing short of extraordinary.  Mr. Rabe is credited with saving perhaps 250,000 Chinese lives, at times literally chasing Japanese soldiers away from his home within the Zone.

The picture of Rabe striding around, flashing his decorations and his swastikas, pulling soldiers away from their victims, while, at the same time writing to Hitler to complain (Hitler, the humanitarian?) is the type of thing that is hard to imagine. And yet, there is something about this story that seems so grainy-newsreel dated, and yet so contemporary.  It makes the petty complaints, and the petty people who populate our political life so infinitesimally small that it takes your breath away. 

The smart observers of what is going on in Washington, on both sides of the aisle, know it.  They see the systemic dysfunction as a people failure, not a process one, and they look for ways to restore the center. There was an interesting suggestion by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post “Save America, Restore the Draft” that calls for two years of mandatory service for all men and women.  Milbank notes that only 19% of the combined Senate and House are veterans, the lowest level since World War II (remember, we entered WWI late in the conflict.)   Milbank goes on to say “It’s no coincidence that this same period has seen the gradual collapse of our ability to govern ourselves: a loss of control over the nation’s debt, legislative stalemate and a disabling partisanship. It’s no coincidence, either, that Americans’ approval of Congress has dropped to just 9percent, the lowest since Gallup began asking the question 39 years ago. Because so few serving in politics have worn their country’s uniform, they have collectively forgotten how to put country before party and self-interest. They have forgotten a “cause greater than self,” and they have lost the knowledge of how to make compromises for the good of the country. Without a history of sacrifice and service, they’ve turned politics into war.”

“Turning politics into war” is a phrase Milbank uses too easily, because fairly obviously, we are not shooting at each other.  And, assuming that nobility of purpose is derived from military service may also be a stretch.  But he is right on point on two things: The first is that working in socially and economically diverse groups forces people to reach out of their comfort zones to attain a common goal.  The second is reinforcing the connection of the young to the community and the country. 

One could argue the opposite.  I doubt that the Germans or the Japanese lacked social cohesion or commitment to a national purpose.  But, implicit in Milbank’s argument is the conviction that what we have here in America, after all the yelling, and the tugging, and the selfishness, is something of far greater value than just self-interest at the expense of the rest of the world. 

Is that just narcissism? Why wouldn’t we act as others have, and be indifferent to life?  We are, after all, the only country to use nuclear weapons, and we firebombed Dresden.  I think the difference that Milbank perceives is something bigger in the human experience, a call to service, and a recognition of the costs of being insensate to the sounds of inhumanity.  Work with others, even those with divergent experiences and views, and you come to value shared accomplishment.

Milbank is an optimist.  The comments that followed his article were predictably partisan, many of them ugly. And even more crabbed and sour views, often in the guise of clever Thanksgiving snarkiness, emanated from the ideological echo chamber.  Optimism doesn’t sell when the hot product of the month is vinegar.

Yet, I think Milbank is right in his optimism, if not his method, because he is relying on our moral compass.  Even more broadly, he is relying on John Rabe’s moral compass, a basic humanity that allows one to be an enthusiastic Nazi in 1937, and a savior of countless thousands.

Rabe eventually returned to Germany, and was promptly interrogated by the Gestapo. Whether his letter ever reached Hitler is unknown. It was certainly unanswered.  He struggled terribly, both during the war, and afterwards.  Sick, unemployed or underemployed, he despaired of even feeding his family.  When, in 1948, the survivors of Nanking heard of his circumstances, they took up a collection, and the Mayor personally traveled to Switzerland to purchase supplies for him.

One need not be perfect to do the right thing. There is black, and there is white, and there is a vast expanse in between.  The Nazi John Rabe made that journey. 

Surely, we can do the same.

Michael Liss

please follow us on Twitter @SyncPol