Monday, April 28, 2014

Straight Talk: Loving Bundy and Impeaching Nixon

Straight Talk: Loving Bundy and Impeaching Nixon

If Cliven Bundy weren’t a real person, I think we would have to make him up.  He’s a figure right out of a classic Western, a straight-shooting, straight-talking man, in a white hat, peaceable, of course, but ready with a gun to protect his spread from horse thieves and cattle rustlers and varmints.   What could be more genuinely American than a Cliven Bundy?

Those types of images stir my Eastern city-slicker blood in a way few other things do. I’ve never lost my love for movies like “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” or “My Darling Clementine” where virtue triumphs over evil, but not without a few bumps in the road.  Good men die, and good women cry, and all endings are bitter sweet. 

So, when Cliven Bundy rode out of the west on the thundering hooves of his horse “Taker” he might have cut an admirable a figure.  There was the delicate matter of him taking his herds onto other people’s land and eating their grass, for free, but being a carnivore myself and preferring grass-fed beef, and being an admirer of the open range, I might have been inclined to cut the good fellow some slack.  It’s just grass.   If anything, Bundy was performing a public service, because that was public land he was organically mowing, and asking him to pay for it seems a monumental act of Government ingratitude.

So said Bundy.  So said any number of Republican politicians, including Governors Brian Sandoval and Rick Perry, Senators Dean Heller, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and a gaggle of lesser lights.  And so said his supporters at conservative media and blogosphere, particularly Sean Hannity, who was about to nominate him to join Popes John the XXIII and John Paul II for canonization.  It got even better when Bundy rounded up some of the local boys and met those nasty old government fee-collectors with the straight-talking threat of lead.  Patriots all. 

Unfortunately, Mr. Bundy is a little more Blazing Saddles than John Ford, and some of that straight talk isn’t quite fit for the womenfolk.  He’s not very fond of African Americans, and while that might play really well as parody, he’s no Mel Brooks.   Oddly enough, he does seem to admire Mexicans “awful nice people” which, in a different context, might have helped with the Latino vote in 2016.  However, he did appear to go a little too far in the embrace of slavery, and most of his establishment supporters had to back away (while nevertheless lauding his resistance to Obama-style jackbooted thuggery.)

From my perspective, the racial references were an unfortunate distraction from the real issue.  Set aside the heroic mythmaking, and in plain English (without any regional accent whatsoever) here’s what Cliven Bundy did:  He walked into someone’s store, picked up a case of beer, some nachos, a few cartons of smokes, and a fistful of beef jerkies, and walked out without paying for it.  For twenty-odd years.  And when the owner of the store called him on it, Bundy brought armed men to show him who is boss.  I am astonished that anyone, especially a conservative who ostensibly venerates property rights, could possibly think that is OK.  That grass doesn’t belong to Bundy, and the fact that the public owns it does not mean it's there for the taking.  It is already unbelievably cheap for ranchers.  Bureau of Land Management grazing fees are $1.35 per month, per cow.  The average price on private land is $16.80.  You might say that differential a type of food stamps for cattleman.  But that’s the program, and that’s a separate discussion entirely.  Not paying the fee at all—that’s stealing, pure and simple, and any government-hating conservative who’s taxes go up by a dollar to make up the difference in lost revenue ought to realize that he just gave that buck to Cliven Bundy.

But, as we seem to be a little short on straight talk these days out West (and wherever Fox is heard) let us return to Harry Truman’s home state of Missouri. 

In Missouri, Republicans have advanced three separate charges of impeachment against Jay Nixon, the state’s Democratic Governor.  Article VII, Section 1 of the Missouri Constitution says All elective executive officials of the state, and judges of the supreme court, courts of appeals and circuit courts shall be liable to impeachment for crimes, misconduct, habitual drunkenness, willful neglect of duty, corruption in office, incompetency, or any offense involving moral turpitude or oppression in office.”

That Nixon fellow must have done some pretty bad stuff?  When I first heard about this, I was privately hoping for something salacious, like taking off for several days to visit your mistress, or selling public offices.  As State Representative Nick Marshall, a Sponsor of the bill said, “I will seek Articles of Impeachment against the Governor. He has openly disregarded the laws and Constitution of the State of Missouri and allowed his administration to do so on multiple occasions. If we are to live under the Rule of Law, he cannot be allowed to remain in office.”

If we are to live under the Rule of Law.”  I rather like that.  Give me details!!!!

Very disappointing.  Missourians are dull, dull, dull. Here are the grounds for impeaching Jay Nixon: 1) a November 2013 Executive Order to the Missouri taxing authority directing them to accept for filing same sex tax returns that had been accepted by the IRS, 2) a failure to call a special election fast enough, and 3) a failure to adequately punish officials at the state Department of Public Safety for releasing the names of Missourians with concealed weapons permits to a Social Security Administration agent who requested them last year. 

That is every bit of crimes, misconduct, drunkenness, and oppression they could gin up. That is what they are going to use to oust the elected Governor of their state.  It’s the same type of bizarre mentality that calls (pre-racist rant) Cliven Bundy a hero.  The law means what we say it means. 

To paraphrase Truman, that is a load of Horse Hockey.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Win One For The Geezer

Win One For the Geezer

On the afternoon of November 4, 1980, I was sitting in a back office of a major media organization looking at exit polling results that seemed incomprehensible.  Ronald Reagan was not only winning nationally, but also led everywhere in the South except for Jimmy Carter’s home state of Georgia.

I thought this was so improbable that I wondered if we had corrupted data.  I knew that the “Solid South” wasn’t anymore. Nixon’s Southern Strategy had caught two emerging trends: the anger in the region over the adoption of the Civil Rights Acts, and the inherent cultural conservatism there.  Carter, however, was unmistakably Southern, down to the peanut farm and the redneck brother. In 1976, he had beat Jerry Ford because of the Solid South, carrying every single state in the region except for Virginia, for an Electoral Vote margin of 143 to 12. 

Carter was also a tragic figure, and pretty much everyone knew it.  Objectively, people understood he had been dealt a very bad hand.  The economy was in terrible shape, inflation was brutal, energy prices were going through the roof, the Russians were up to no good, and a bunch of Iranians wearing strange clothes had gone mad.  But Carter was also a lousy President, all good intentions and bad execution.  He beat back a strong, late, primary challenge from Ted Kennedy without making any effort to heal the split (I attended one day of the 1980 Democratic Convention, and the two strongest emotions in the room were anger and despair) and hunkered down in his bunker.  He was still a Southern Democrat.

And, I thought, he had caught a tremendous break: Who would vote for Ronald Reagan, a radical, war-mongering, out-of office Governor who once starred in a movie with a chimp?

Obviously, this was wildly wrong.  I (and I wasn’t alone) was working on a set of assumptions that were hidebound by obsolete certainties like the permanence of the old FDR coalition.  Full-term Kennedy and Johnson Presidencies might have kept that coalition together, modernized and strengthened it.  But that never happened, and liberal Democrats, emboldened by their success in opposing the Viet Nam war, failed to recognize that Nixon’s destruction of George McGovern in 1972 wasn’t an aberration, but in fact part of an enormous secular change in the electorate.  Reagan just put the exclamation point on something that should have been obvious.  Northern and Western Democrats had nothing to offer the South, besides a historical fact.  And that, in the final analysis, was nothing at all.  The region (and the entire country) just wasn’t the same anymore.

I mention this because of a very interesting study, The Next America, written by Paul Taylor for the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan think tank. The country is in the midst of changing again, and Taylor identifies several long-term trends that are moving faster that our politics seems able to absorb.

The first is obvious.  Our population is getting older.  Life expectancy is increasing, and birth rates are declining. Older people, thanks to public health advances, can remain healthy, productive, and self-reliant.  But they are also looking at longer retirements of declining physical and mental resources.  In short, they need support for a much longer time than was anticipated when Social Security and Medicare were created.  Our mid-20th Century system wasn’t built for this.

The second is an explosion of racial diversity.  In 1960, 85% of Americans were white.  In 2010, 64% were white.  By 2030, it is projected to be 55%.  That fits with our immigration trends.  The waves of immigration that ended in the 1920s were 90% European.  Now, only 12% come from Europe, and 50% come from Latin America.  We are also intermarrying at a rate unthinkable just a generation ago.  Our mid 20th Century culture wasn’t built for this either.

What is our future? It is already here, in adult form, in the Millennials.  Per the Pew study, four in ten are non-white. They are also very different in attitudes and approach than any group that preceded them.  They are doing everything slower and at a lower intensity: marrying later, having kids later, starting careers later, joining religious and civic organizations later.  Even if they follow the arc that many of their elders expect; getting more conservative when they “grow up,” they are not going to replace the 65 and up group’s overall social and economic views.  They are just different.

The Pew study talks about more numbers, and the single most important set is the one that both Democrats and Republicans seem completely oblivious to.  16/1 and 3/1.  Those are the ratios of active workers to retired workers, measured in 1950, and again in 2010.  Right now, as Taylor notes, programs that benefit the elderly take up close to half of the entire Federal budget, money that crowds out other spending. Those other expenditures include longer-term investments in education, job training, and infrastructure—all things that would do little for seniors but a great deal for younger voters.  Taylor calls this disconnect a problem of “generational equity.”  I think that’s a diplomatic phrase.  It’s closer to generational malfeasance. 

Why this lack of generational equity?  It is largely a product of electoral math and intellectual inflexibility.  The Democrats, as is their wont, have been using the last war’s strategy to fight the next one. Democratic orthodoxy is still tied up in FDR social contract of entitlements, and Social Security and Medicare were ostensibly the “Third Rail” which would bind seniors to them in perpetuity.  But seniors are this generation’s Southern Democrats.  They want stability in a world that seems to be changing too fast.  They want their community, their church, their values, and their checks to be life-long.  Democrats have become a threat to their way of life.  But the party seems to have no other way. They have to support senior entitlements, even when seniors don’t support Democrats, because all the other social programs are indefensible when you are making Granny go without her pills.  That leaves the Democrats nothing to offer Millennials besides a friendlier cultural package. That’s just not very much for a group that has their economic lives in front of them.

The Republicans are no better.  They smartly latched on to senior’s fears and have sold them on a centurion at the gate strategy.  The GOP will protect them—they will keep out the immigrants, keep back the unfaithful rabble, the ugly and crass, the loud music and noisy gays, and make sure that no dollar gets wasted on someone who is merely poor or young.  The GOP will be the moat around Sunshine Village.  

But the Republicans haven’t really changed.  They are still in thrall to the social conservatives, still hostile towards a growing segment of the population. They still hate entitlements in specific and domestic spending in general.  The Ryan Budget, just passed in the House, makes that clear.  They will sustain their older voting block, for now, but there is no money and no plan to deal with generational equity besides their “growth and opportunity” slogan.  That, as a friend is fond of saying, is a “nothingburger.”

Of course, that ratio, 16/1, or 3/1, headed to 2/1, isn’t going to go away.  Just 6% of Millennials think they are going to get full Social Security benefits--half believe they are going to get nothing.  That should tell both sides that the Millennials are realists who are open to global solutions, particularly if we can do this as a community, with all participating.

In short, Millennials aren’t the problem.  It’s the two political parties, frightened of the short-term consequences, and trapped in past-century certainties, who seem unwilling to deal with generational inequality.  Both are still trying to win one for the geezer. 

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

McCutcheon Got Your Tongue?

McCutcheon Got Your Tongue?

Free speech.  Ain’t it grand?  The right to speak your mind, no matter how unpopular your words may be.  It is more than a Constitutional right, it is as American a virtue as you can find, the very quintessence of who and what we are and what we have fought for.

You can see this ideal best illustrated by Norman Rockwell in his “Freedom of Speech” painting.  One man stands alone at a town hall meeting.  He’s young, but his ruggedly handsome face is a bit weathered, which fits with his plaid shirt, open at the neck, and earthen-colored suede jacket with a folded pamphlet in the pocket.  His hands are those of someone who works hard, his head is tilted slightly back, presumably looking up at someone at a podium.  Surrounding him in the audience are his neighbors; a woman in a hat, some older men in white shirts and narrow ties.

“Freedom of Speech” was part of a quartet (a reverent Freedom of Religion, a Thanksgiving setting for Freedom from Want, and a scene of parents tucking in two small boys in Freedom from Fear) drawn from FDR’s 1941 “Four Freedoms” State of the Union Address.

The “Speech” painting is the strongest of the four.  It has Rockwell’s peculiar ability to make the observer both a viewer and a participant: you can see yourself there.  I would contrast it with the statue of Daniel Webster in Central Park.  Webster was the most famous orator of a great oratorical age, the man who even faced off against Satan himself in Stephen Vincent Benét’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster.”  The statue shows Webster, formally dressed, his right hand in his jacket, high above the ground on a tall plinth, “Liberty and Union, One and Inseparable” engraved at the base. Webster is remote and timeless.  Put a toga on him, and he could easily be in the Roman Senate.  Your task is only to admire him.  He will speak for you.  But Rockwell’s imagery is more potent.  In America, any person, of any standing, may speak and be heard, and be treated with respect, even if he speaks alone.     

No doubt, Chief Justice John Roberts, in his plurality opinion in McCutcheon et al. v. Federal Election Commission, was inspired by Rockwell’s vision of the common man speaking his peace, free from the enveloping tendrils of an oppressive government.  McCutcheon is the second leg (after Citizen’s United) in the Court’s conservative wing’s relay race to place money, legally, at the highest rung of political speech.  If free speech is a good thing (and we all agree with that) and even more free speech is better, so, it logically follows that the more money that is spent in politics, the more free our speech really is.  Giant campaign contributions from the well-heeled looking for political influence should be seen not as corrosive, but rather as higher acts of patriotism and fealty to the original intent of the Founders.  Given the sound of war whoops from the GOP (the “et al.” in “McCutcheon et al.”) happy days are really here again.

If the reader detects a certain level of cynicism in the above, it is (somewhat) unintentional.  I believe that there is clear majority on this Court that is quite conservative, with Justice Kennedy sometimes taking a middle road.  That does not mean that I believe that Justice Roberts is a reflexive partisan who puts his thumb on the scale so as to benefit the GOP.   We have to be really careful with the idea that Supreme Court Justices rule according to their voter preferences, rather than their ideological predilections. There is a difference, and a critical one at that.  The holding in McCutcheon, and, for that matter, in Citizens United, is fairly straightforward, and not, per se, partisan. The gloves are off for both sides.  It’s just a question of who has bigger fists.

In McCutcheon, four Justices (Roberts, Kennedy, Alito and Scalia, with Thomas providing the fifth vote) joined in an opinion that struck down limits on the total amount that an individual could give to federal candidates, parties, and certain political committees in an election cycle.  The opinion stated that the caps were invalid under the First Amendment because they seriously restricted participation in the democratic process. 

Roberts expressed solicitude for the poor billionaires who’s speech had been so impeded.  He allowed that those of us who admire the Rolls Royce Phantom, but prioritize other, more essential spending, might be a little aggrieved at the idea that a Koch, an Adelson, or a Soros were free to buy politicians in bulk.  But, that is exactly why the First Amendment is so critical—it protects unpopular speech from an oppressive majority. 

I understand the Chief Justice’s reasoning, and I am intrigued by the idea, no matter how far-fetched, that I am part of an oppressive majority.  If he has simply stopped there, I would have seen McCutcheon in the same vein as I saw Citizens United—unpleasant but possibly right on the law.  But Roberts, in needing to further eviscerate both Congressional action and the Court’s own decision in Buckley vs. Valero, went a step too far.  The original campaign finance rules, and Buckley, were about corruption.  In plain language, the Congress and the Supreme Court recognized that giant sums of cash bought access and favorable legislation.  The Chief Justice expressly rejected this, undercutting the Buckley rationale by saying aggregate caps do not further the government’s interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of such corruption.

I have to say that portion of the ruling is ludicrous.  The idea that money doesn’t buy access, that money doesn’t buy Ambassadorships, and no-bid contracts, and favorable legislation, and tax preferences is so far-fetched as to shock the conscience.  Roberts himself admits that “[t]he line between quid pro quo corruption and general influence may seem vague at times.” But, the “distinction must be respected in order to safeguard basic First Amendment rights.”

If there is one truly pernicious aspect of McCutcheon that has the most lasting impact, it will be that.  Who can truly say what is quid pro quo and what is constituent service?  When the Republican-controlled government of Wisconsin passed a bill that gave the mining company  Gogebic Taconite (GTac) to right to strip mine and dump tailings in the most sensitive watershed in the state, while at the same time freeing them from environmental impact hearings and absolving them from paying most taxes, was that a “quid pro quo?”   Or was it just a group of Republicans philosophically friendly to business and hostile to the environment?  And was GTac’s outspending of their opponents by a reported 600-1 (not a typo) just another pat on the back for an ideology well thought out?

We all know the truth.  Money corrupts, and big money corrupts even more.  It doesn't matter who is giving or getting. One of the most interesting, and surprising, comments I read was from a big Republican donor who didn’t want to be identified.  He was unhappy.   He can no longer tell all the askers with outstretched palms that he’s capped out.  McCutcheon just raised the price for “general influence.” 

The gates to the sewer were opened wider last week. 

Somehow, I don’t see Norman Rockwell approving.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Ryan's Plan--Greedy Boy Grabs For It All

Greedy Boy Grabs For It All

When my eldest was a very little boy, he got a story every night before bedtime.  Sometimes we read a book together. More often it was a little bit of fluff I made up, usually mixing in real people, like his grandparents or great grandparents, places he knew, foods he liked, fictional characters, and children. 

One of his favorites was Greedy Boy.  Greedy Boy loved walnuts.  He loved everything about walnuts.  He liked stacking them and playing with them and rolling them on the floor.  He even liked cracking them and eating them.  He liked them so much he wanted all the walnuts for himself. 

Greedy Boy’s mother was on to him.  She kept all her walnuts in an old cut glass jar with a narrow neck and a cork stopper.  You could barely fit your hand in to get one.  And the jar was way too heavy for a small boy to take down from the countertop and shake out.

One day, Greedy Boy’s mom came home with a large bag of fresh walnuts.  One by one, she put them in the jar, while Greedy Boy watched. 

Suddenly, the doorbell rang, and Greedy Boy’s mom left the room.  He knew if he asked Mom he could have a few.  A few?  All those walnuts seemed to beg Greedy Boy “take me, take me.”

Greedy Boy pulled out the cork stopper, reached in, and grabbed for a handful of walnuts.  At that very moment he heard the door shut.  Mom was returning to the kitchen. Frantically, Greedy Boy tried to pull out his hand, and the walnuts, but his loaded fist was too big.  He got stuck, just when Mom walked in the door.

When Paul Ryan, with that young-seminarian demeanor, announced his budget plans. I somehow found myself thinking of Greedy Boy and all those walnuts. Ryan’s plan is a spectacular land grab of conservative fantasy.  It purports to cut spending by $5 trillion in the next decade, while increasing the Defense budget by nearly $500 Million.  Top targets include the repeal of Obamacare (which he says will save $2 Trillion) slashing spending on education, on food stamps, and on a variety of domestic programs, including George Bush’s Medicare Part D.  There would be cuts to the Federal workforce, reductions in benefits, and increased premiums that would result in a significant decrease in after-tax pay.  Medicaid would be replaced by block grants to states (where, presumably, like-minded Governors would find other uses for the money.) Medicare, the primary health plan for seniors, would be partially privatized for those currently under 55.  Social Security “would be discussed at a later date.”

Of course, no bad deed ever has to go unrewarded, and someone has to get the walnuts here.  As you might have guessed, Ryan does see the objects of his bounty, and they will not come as much of a surprise. So Ryan also includes a “tax reform” concept that reduces the top tax rates and collapses all the rates into only two. Being the good and virtuous fiscal conservative he is, he needs to make it revenue neutral, meaning some will have to pay more for others to pay less.  But being a good and virtuous politician, he refuses to spell out what deductions he might cut so the public can figure out who might do all that paying.  In case you were curious about Dave Camp’s plan, which actually did (to the horror of some major campaign contributors) spell out some things, it’s been officially kicked to the curb.  Representative Camp is not running for reelection, and he will return to his home state of Michigan with empty pockets.

Will any of this come to pass?  Well, Ryan is in line to become the next chair of the Ways and Means Committee (replacing the now un-mourned Dave Camp) so we should expect the House (with perhaps more walnuts thrown in) to pass it.  The chances in the Senate are probably nil right now, but with the expected GOP takeover in 2015, it could make its way to Mr. Obama’s desk shortly as a “signature” piece of legislation after his State of the Union.

Politically?  Mr. Obama will veto it, but it will become a template for negotiation for yet another government shutdown and debt ceiling increase.  The issues won’t go away.  They will get teed up for the 2016 election, as they should, because they need to be resolved in the political arena.

Ryan has done us a favor, because the issues he raises demonstrate some fault lines in each Party’s supporters.  Republicans have, particularly in the Obama era, been dominating the senior vote.  Part of that is senior opposition to Obamacare, which they fear will cut into their benefits.  Part is social issues—seniors are simply more likely to align themselves with more conservative values, particularly on things like faith, reproductive issues, and gay rights.  Part is that many see themselves as self-reliant, and others as takers, regardless of the monthly checks they get.  Part is particular to rapidity of culture change and even Mr. Obama himself.  This does not mean that seniors are racists.  Rather, I would suggest, they may have a different frame of reference.  If you were born in 1940 you almost certainly grew up in segregation, hard or soft.  Your ideas about the proper role of minorities in this country are likely to be very different than someone in her twenties.

Will seniors stick with the GOP in the long term? Gays will be with us always, but Obama will not.  How about those pocketbook issues?  If Ryan’s cuts in some or all senior walnuts come to pass, will they still be willing to back whomever comes out of the GOP primaries?

What about the young?  They are very much the reverse image of seniors; more socially tolerant, more accepting of Mr. Obama personally, somewhat more sympathetic and public spirited towards the needy.  Right now, they lean Democratic.  But they are also cynical about the possibilities of them ever getting Social Security.  Will they support higher taxes on them to support the entitlement spending they don’t expect to either need or get?

You could break down demographic after demographic, region-by-region, and you would find analogous questions.  Ultimately, most vote their self-interest.  If politics is like a marketplace, with all issues for sale, few want to pay more and get less. They, too, want all the walnuts they can get.  In an ideal world, Mom and Greedy Boy would discuss things and agree on the number of walnuts.  However, in the political area, where electeds are making a virtue of their inflexibility, we may have to be less optimistic.

That is a huge problem, because, as we have seen with Obamacare, when one side imposes their vision, the other may never accept it.  I believe the GOP would oppose Obama regardless, but ACA provides the rocket fuel.  So, take a hard look at Ryan’s budget, beyond the headlines and the packaging.  You might find things in there that you support.  Won’t you won’t see is any balance.  It is a radical re-working of government.  He really wants all the walnuts.

My son always loved the end of the Greedy Boy story.  Greedy Boy tugged and he tugged, but he couldn’t get his hand out without letting go of the walnuts.  And he couldn’t bear to give up his prize.

So, when Greedy Boy’s Mom turned the corner and saw him, hands behind his back, red faced, shielding the jar of walnuts, she asked, “Greedy Boy, what are you doing?”

Wise words from electorate.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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