Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Winter's Discontents

December 31, 2014

Now is the winter of our discontent
A ghastly Fall for this child of York;
And all the reddened clouds that lour'd upon the House
Sank deep my Senate hopes, to the ocean buried.
Now our wounds are bound with crepe of black;
Bold placards hung for mocking monuments;
The pachyderm beckons the herd to merry meetings,
A dissonant march shouts out delightful measures.
Grim-visaged electoral war wiped clean South’s last aqua tint;
And now, instead of fearsome Harry Reid
To rile the nature of ambitious adversaries,
Mitch capered nimbly in the august chamber
Nipping bourbon smooth and biting chaw.
What next, for Dems, so harsh the no?
Does Hill look back from mirror’s shine;
Or Warren’s swan to set the heart aflutter?
Poor Joe, a man with teeth agleam,
Half wolf, he says, half lamb, we see;
And what of O, curtailed of height and heft?
Stands alone amidst the rising seas,
A tree deformed, unfinish'd, lamed-ducked
Resign right now? Scarce half made up?
His plans so out of sorts, passé, not new
Barely earn McCain’s bark, or Mitt’s firm pooh;
So who is next, Bush, Cruz or Rand?
Is it Marco’s rage, or Kasich’s bland?
Could Christie’s star shine anew?
Or Perry’s three-shooter aim for true?
Perhaps a budget wonk, Paul Ryan’s mark.
Jindal’s bayou boy, Huck’s pungent pork?
Yet O is shrewd, or so its said
Deformed, perhaps, but not quite dead:
His charms have dimmed, no lover he,
And yet, there he stands for all to see
Villain, they shrieked, what fate you plan for us?
A ruse, they claimed, to drive the elephant mad?
The plots he lays, are quiet, dark, and dangerous,
Sly clubs he pulls fromst’ deep inside tattered bag
Cigars and rum, and save the trees, in silence does he scheme
A migrant’s tale, fresh fruit not meat, a regulator’s dream
And tho’ we feign indifference, the chill we feel is real
What dost thou O be thinking, what bells begin to peal?
Ignore him, say his foes, it’s Congress rules the roost
Impeach him now, it’s only fair, for we are the true and just
Yet prophet warns for all to know,
The omen’s plain and clear
Behead the King, his power grows,
His secret wish draws near.
Not peace, not war, nor greedy hope to tax the rich and fat
Not caliphate, not socialist, but no, not even that.
Tis wary lies the head, that seeks the crown too soon
An eager hand will feels the sting, the serpent leaves a wound
What fate could all befall us, if haste speeds up the end?
Not Jeb, nor Ted, nor Marco, a-packing we can send.
We ask the seer, if not Red but Blue, Hill, or Liz, or Jim?
But darkness clouds her vision, the crystal ball grows dim
We ask O plain, he shakes his head, it’s clear he just won’t tell
Aught-sixteen, he grins, could be The Year of Michelle.

Happy New Year to all, and best wishes for wonderful 2015. 

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

Friday, December 26, 2014

El Obama's Scroogie

El Obama’s Scroogie

December 26, 2014

The great Cuban-born pitcher, Luis Tiant, had a live arm as a young man.  Scouted in his teens while playing for Cuban Juvenile League All-Star team in 1957, he was signed for the enormous sum of $150.00 per month, and then purchased by the Cleveland Indians in 1961, just in time to have hostilities between the United States and Cuba escalate.  He didn’t see his parents for fourteen years. 

In the late 1960’s, Tiant hurt his shoulder, and after some difficult years, realized that to continue pitching effectively he had to change. Out emerged El Tiante —different arm-angles, different release points, a curve, a scroogie, a little of this and a little of that, and, most famously, one of the most bizarre wind-ups seen since the Dead-ball era.  He literally turned his back on the hitter, regaining the time from his lost zip with the extra split second that the batter took to determine when the ball would actually be thrown.  He broke all the rules—no one was like him.  And he got results.

Barack Obama just pulled a little El Tiante.  He looked at all the rules about our relationship with Cuba, decided they weren’t putting wins up on the board, and came up with a new pitch from an entirely new delivery.  Obama decided to bring Cuba just a little bit in from the cold.

Was he right?  You have to pick through the issues very carefully.  Let’s start with the Castros. Good guys, lovers of liberty?  Not exactly.  If there has been any mellowing, we can stipulate they hide it very well.  

And, we can also stipulate that the Cuban émigrés who lost both political freedom and personal assets in Fidel’s La Revolución justifiably bear a long grudge. They ended up on the wrong side of a struggle between one form of dictatorship and another. One can’t blame them for resisting anything short of Castro’s complete capitulation and a triumphant return to the homeland.

It is a peculiarity of our history that we don't really understand revolution, even though we lived it.  We don’t get the concept that radical changes in leadership can lead to a complete reversal of fortune, both in the political and economic spheres.  It didn’t happen here.  We had some bloodshed, a bit of tar and feathering, many Tories left and were compensated by the Crown, but if someone had slept through 1776 and awoken 15 years later, they probably wouldn’t have been shocked at who had money and power.  Nor would they have been that shocked at the way we went about things—we emulated the Brits, except for keeping the King.

But Fidel really was “The World Turned Upside Down”.  So, any re-evaluation of Cuban policy begins with the unhappiness of the older generation of Cuban émigrés who lost it all and want to see no normalization.  You have to accept that their feelings are genuine, and legitimate, and must be taken into account.  But you then have consider that, with the passing of years, we have begun a changing of the guard—and a majority of younger Cuban-Americans support normalization.  Finally, we have to ask the most important, and frankly, the most uncomfortable question—what is in our national interest, and how does the present policy advance those goals?

We might as well start on the third by admitting something to ourselves.  American foreign policy is generally driven by self-interest.  George W. Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” was a lovely concept, very high-minded, and we can even agree for the purposes of argument that he advanced it for noble reasons.  But it is totally impractical as a central rationale.  We don’t do it that way.  We pick our friends and our enemies to advance our interests.  In our hemisphere, we have, at various times, stood behind the Argentinian Junta, the dictatorships in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Duvalier’s Haiti.  There was cold calculation in this: first, support American business (Banana Republic wasn't always so stylish) and later as a Cold-War strategy.

What about Cuba?  Well, there is the very stirring Teddy Roosevelt charge up San Juan Hill, an epic in the Spanish American War of 1898.  And then, the far more prosaic Cuban “Constitution” we imposed, which allowed Uncle Sam to drop by on occasion to make sure that they maintained “a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty.”  As Thomas Donlan pointed out in a recent editorial in Barrons, we did these little ‘interventions’ in force and on a regular basis in the early part of the 20th Century.  Donlan went on to quote a Marine Major General who operated in Cuba and other Latin American countries “I was a racketeer for capitalism.”

“Racketeer for capitalism” isn’t exactly the type of sentiment that stirs the soul, but we are all past that, of course.  That leaves us basically with one remaining “national interest”; Cuba is infested with Commies.  Certainly true.  As is our largest foreign holder of US Treasuries, “Red” China, and as is a place like North Viet Nam, where we lost over 50,000 of our men not all that long ago.  

How about a strategic issue?  There was that nasty incident in 1962 where the Russians placed nuclear-tipped missiles in Cuba. So, the embargo, which was imposed in 1960, and strengthened by a series of laws enacted afterwards, would seem to have some “existential” underpinnings.  Except that was more than 50 years ago, and we did about $30 Billion worth of trade with Putin’s kleptocracy in 2014, despite the rather limited embargo we’ve imposed on them recently for Ukraine.  Somehow, the logic seems to dim….

A rational person would acknowledge that more than 50 years of this have not produced the regime change we wanted, have not restored the now fairly ancient warriors of the expat community to their homes and assets, and frankly does us very little good in the world of diplomacy.  We look silly—everyone else quite happily smokes Cuban cigars—and the small-mindedness of this, coupled with an obvious double standard, diminishes the moral force of our arguments in the international forum on a host of other issues. 

All that being said, we have to acknowledge that there are still domestic political considerations. Those expat Cubans not only have a moral claim, but also still hold major sway, particularly in Electoral Voter-rich Florida.  And, while President Obama has considerable Executive Branch authority to conduct foreign relations, there is a web of at least half a dozen laws that would have to be amended by Congress.

What happens next? The President has already opened the door, and it remains to be seen whether Congress, soon to be completely controlled by the GOP, will either move things along, or try to slam it as hard as possible on his foot.  They have a few approaches they can take.  The most passive would be to refuse to alter existing legislation, but let the rest of Obama’s policy proceed.   Or, they could do as they threatened and defund any spending on enacting it.  Or, they could escalate even further by defunding and adding a condemnatory resolution.

This isn’t going to be easy. GOP has a real conundrum, because they are going to have reconcile what position they ultimately want to take it in plain view.  Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have roundly denounced Obama, but Rand Paul approves.  Donlan, by no stretch of the imagination a liberal, supports the new policy.  So, of all people, does George Will.  As does the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which spent nearly 100% of its campaign contributions on Republicans in the last election cycle.  And any number of other Republican/Conservatives who deplore the fact that “Emperor” Obama did it, but quietly admit there really isn’t anything wrong with the concept, it’s just “the way” he did it, or that he wasn’t gracious enough to not do it and wait for one of theirs to get the credit. 

But, I like it.  I don’t care much about the political ramifications.  And I don’t know whether Obama is right on this, but he’s done something really fascinating.  He has taken a policy that has long demonstrated its ineffectual nature, and challenged it. In sclerotic Washington, that is worth something.

Old El-Obama threw a scroogie.  I'd like to see that pitch more.  From both parties.

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Flourish or Perish

I have been feeling a little blue since the midterm election, or, more accurately, a little black and blue, so I decided to give myself a break from staring at screens for almost anything political.  I pulled on my running clothes, and, instead of heading to Central Park, I jogged down to Strand. 

I had a mission—find an in-stock copy of the economist Edmund Phelps’ Mass Flourishing and otherwise poke around in that absurdly appealing dog-pile of dusty obscure books.

I located the Phelps, in a “review copy, not for resale” version (which heightened its outlaw appeal) and devoured it. It’s not a perfect book, not always cleanly laid out, but Phelps is a polymath, and Mass Flourishing isn’t just about economics, it’s also a bit of a ramble about human achievement and drive and artistic expression, about music, and trading routes, and painting, and philosophy.  It led me all over the place, some times with false starts, sometimes down alleyways that I found unconvincing, but I found it had an inner drive that pulled me along. When I finished it, I had this odd hunger for conversation, but it being a weekend, the apartment emptied out, I turned instead to the NPR website, where you can hear the whispery narration merely by reading the text.  I deliberately skipped over the “Cromnibus” swamp, to a little story, “Congress Says Goodbye to its Last WWII Vets”.

When this 113th Congress finally, and blessedly, calls it a wrap, it will note the retirements of Democrat John Dingell of Michigan, and Republican Ralph Hall of Texas.

These two were the last—in Dingell’s words, “the last leaves on the tree.”  Literally hundreds came before them.  The incoming class of 1946 had 70 vets, including JFK and Nixon.  Their tenure (it reached its peak from the late 40’s to the 1970’s) was marked by a lot of good old push and shove (these weren’t shrinking violets) and a surprising amount of bipartisanship. They did a lot together.

Not everyone mourns their passing—in fact, many think this is a good thing, because our connection to their shared experience and sense of community has been fraying for some time. In many cultures, the old are venerated for their wisdom.  Not ours. We don’t think they have anything of value—rather they represent a drain on us—spending our inheritances, taking up booths in the diners as they nurse their coffees, causing the bus to kneel and wait when we have to get someplace.  We go through the motions of honoring them, but really, they annoy us and, in moments of quiet reflection, they scare us—they represent a future we fear we cannot escape.

But the Greatest Generation is different, regardless of what lens you choose to look through.  Not merely because they fought and won the war against Germany and Japan, but also because they are the last of the Depression generation—the last group to have first-hand memories of a sustained failure of capitalism, and its slow, but powerful recovery.   

Imagine 25% unemployment.  Imagine a stock market where the Dow Jones Industrial Average went from 381.17 to 41.22—89 cent loss on the dollar.  Imagine going to the bank where you had painstakingly put together your savings and finding it out of cash, or with its doors closed.

That was reality for many who later served in Congress. It was reality for my parents.  My maternal grandfather had a tailor shop, and no customers for nice suits and coats.  My mother remembered not being able to go to the 1939 World’s Fair, because the carfare (round trip subway tokens for four) was too much.  My father’s Dad had a candy store on the Upper West Side and lived above it in a small room six days a week, then went home to the Bronx on the seventh day. 

It marked my parents, just as it marked many of their generation.  They ran a drugstore for more than thirty years—my Mom did the billing, and when some of their customers got in a bit of trouble, like the loss of a job, and fell behind, she’d ask my Dad, who, more often then not, would screw up his face, wave his hand, and mutter something that translated it to “don’t send it, not the right thing to do.”  My parents were exceptionally generous people, but they were not the exception for their time or their community.  Everyone helped out a little.  And, also like many of their generation, they were planners. You always kept a little money in the house.  And in a jacket pocket.  And the linen drawer.  And, maybe in a brown night deposit bag.  And in the lower left drawer of the desk.  Because, you never know when you are going to need a few dollars. 

This type of thinking, a peculiar combination of self-reliance, a sense of a social obligation, and a willingness to work hard, helped shaped their generation and gave it vitality and drive. If you made it through the Depression, if you came back from the war in one piece, you knew—just knew, that if you stuck to it, you could make a place for yourself in America.

What people learned were two things that to contemporary ears seem contradictory, but made perfect sense then.  The first was that some big problems (Hitler, Tojo, Dust Bowl, rural electrification) needed top-down directed mass efforts to solve.  The second was that individual effort led to creativity, innovation, and rewards—the very essence of Calvinist-inspired capitalism.  In short, there was a feeling that success was both achievable and scalable—I might build a better mousetrap and make a million, and we could put a man on the moon.     

I found some of this optimism in Phelps’ book, along with deep concern that the growing corporatism that marks both our economic and political lives is stifling the ability and even the urge to be a risk-taker, to be creative, to find meaningful work.  Phelps believes in the individual: both the monumental thinkers and achievers like Einstein or Henry Ford, and the ordinary people like the plumber who designs a new wrench and the small businessman who throws every bit of money and energy he has into his bodega. Their work becomes meaningful, and from it comes a sense of personal pride, a place in the community earned and not just given, and perhaps, a chance to be a pair of shoulders for others to stand on to achieve even more.  It is quintessentially American. 

Unfortunately, this dynamism, which lasted from the 1830s to the 1960s, has begun to ebb with growth of the super-state.  Phelps points to the thicket of rules and regulations, of safety nets that shield people and big business from the worst of it, and of legislatively enacted barriers to entry, whether they be monopoly control of an industry, or unionized labor’s control of the bargaining process. In his view, these all have created a rent-seeker class of politicians and technocrats who understand neither economics nor business, but have a keen sense of how to market access and favorable treatment.

Where to lay blame? Well, Phelps is clearly a low-regulation free market kind of guy who holds socialism and corporatism in rather low esteem. But he also inspires you, just a bit, with two somewhat unexpected traits.  The first is, he’s not an ideologue—he approaches the data with integrity and reaches his conclusions without a political agenda. The second is his generosity of spirit.  He really is searching for an answer to benefit the maximum number of people. 

That’s what Mass Flourishing is about: an effort to “revive the modern values that stirred people to go boldly forth toward lives of richness.”

Lives of richness.  Flourishing instead of perishing.  Professor Phelps turned 81 this last summer, but that sounds like a pretty young idea to me.   

December 18, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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