Monday, October 5, 2009

Conservatives' Uh-Kyl-eze Heel

Today's news sheds a great deal of light on what it is that drives today's modern conservative. You know the type--anti-tax, small government, tea-bagging advocates for free enterprise, capitalism, and maximizing individual liberty. USA Today, in a story headlined "Health care bills tackle gender gap in coverage" (p. 5A), quotes Sen. Jon Kyl, defending his right as an American not to have to pay for mandatory maternity coverage, "I don't need maternity care, and so requiring that to be in my insurance policy is something that I don't need and will make the policy more expensive".

Kyl is a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which is currently engaged in putting the final touches on a health care reform bill. Also sitting on that committee is Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. Her retort to Kyl was, "I think your mom probably did".

Thus, we have it--writ small--the inherent disconnect between the two sides in this or any other debate in America over the role of government vis-a-vis what has been called the "common good". One side feels that a society is never more noble than when it harnesses the common treasure for the common weal. The other feels ennobled when the few are empowered to gather the highest possible percentage of the treasure unto themselves--even to the point of feeling resentful that a neighboring mother's labor might cost them a few dollars more for health insurance.

I know which kind of society I would not want to live in. I pray I never do.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan - Newsroom - Health care reform

Here's a link to a statement from my employer regarding health care reform. This post does not necessarily represent the point of view of the blog authors (Lewis and Dan)...

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan - Newsroom - Health care reform

Shared via AddThis

Friday, August 28, 2009

What duty?

Today's USA Today [Opinionline, p. 7A] includes a quote from Jonathan Cohn, senior editor of The New Republic, as follows:

"[Ted] Kennedy...was a crusader....He saw a country full of people made vulnerable--by circumstances of birth, economic misfortune, illness, or injury....He believed we had an obligation, as a nation, to protect them. And so he spoke out--for universal health care, for civil rights, for aid to people with disabilities, for more generous assistance to the poor. And when opponents criticized those moves, because they meant bigger government or bigger taxes, Kennedy didn't deny the charge. He justified it, in a way few Democrats would dare to do today. It was, he said, the way Americans fulfill their duty to one another."

Americans duty to one another? Now, there's a novel notion. Of course, there are millions of Americans who step up to the plate to help other Americans in need through charitable service or private donations. This is all very good. However, there are some ways of helping our fellow Americans for which private charity simply cannot get the job done. One of those areas is health care. Nor is the free market the answer. Why? Because when it comes to health care, profitability, prevention, and doctor-patient privilege just do not mix well. Cost efficacy judgments must be made by those with the most at risk in the treatment, not by those whose stake is measured solely by the advantage to shareholders.

It's like one of the health care professionals said tonight on Bill Moyers' Journal: "We live in a society, not just an economy." Kennedy understood that. The question now is, does Obama get it?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In Memorium--Edward M. Kennedy

I became a Democrat in November of 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected the 35th president of the United States. I was 14 years old and just on the cusp of forming my own moral and political consciousness. President Kennedy's assassination, three years later, shattered whatever illusions I had about the nobility of politics in America. It cauterized my naivete as to the superiority of America's ideals and ushered in a brief but devastating era of the worst form of anarchy--ballot by bullet. It was that mind-numbing insanity that brought down another of my heroes, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., in 1968. What idealism about America I had left at that point, bled to death in that same moment.

Today is the first day in my life as a socially sentient being that there is not a Kennedy brother walking the earth--no voice, unabashedly liberal, yet willing to speak with, to, and for those of a very different ideology. Yet, I cannot say that Ted Kennedy was my idol; a hero, yes, but not my ideal. Like every tragic hero whose story has ever been written, he was noble, yet flawed. He drank too much, womanized far too often, and indulged his enormous appetites more than I could fathom. Yet, his voice was raised, in defense of those less fortunate, more loudly and clearly than I could ever muster. He understood his wealth and how to enjoy it to the fullest. But he never forgot that "there, but for the grace of God, go I". For that, I will always admire the man and seek to emulate him.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Thought dot II

"When the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail."--Abraham Maslow, 1962 [Also known as "The Law of the Instrument"]

The trademark cry of fiscal conservatives and libertarians is "low taxes, small government" as the solution to each and every problem that comes before Congress. It is, in Maslow's vernacular, the only tool in their toolbox. In times of economic contraction, such as we are experiencing now, their response is to use a larger hammer.

Even in matters of life-and-death, such as health care reform, tight-wad true-believers will consistently pull out the same tool and pound on the problem with all the enthusiasm of a preschooler gleefully driving a square peg into a round hole--oblivious to the damage done to both peg and hole. Thus, we hear [USA Today, Monday, August 24, 2009, page 6A] the voices of Senators Lieberman and Conrad calling for delaying any further action on health insurance reform legislation "until the economy's out of recession".

Despite the fact that some economists are now saying the worst of the recession is likely over, in almost the same breath they caution us that employment may not return to normal levels for several years. Since our current health insurance system is joined at the (artificial) hip to employment, delaying action on reform--again!--after 50 years of dissembling and demurral by the same mindset that is calling for yet more delay will only mean more Americans suffering delayed treatment and premature death due to a lack of money to pay for sick care. These voices deserve to be ignored and, if necessary, bowled over before they can strike one more blow against sanity, humanity, and reality.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Dot thought

[Editor's note: This is my first attempt to come up with very succinct "dot thoughts" that capture a profound truth which hopefully will cut through some of the confusion and obfuscation that rampages amongst the citizenry.]

Subject: The health care public option

Background: Those opposed to the public option opine that it would eventually lead to a "government takeover of U.S. health care".

The Question: Are they right?

The Short Answer: Yes...and that's a good thing.

The Dot Thought for today: Who would you trust more with your life (and the availability and source of health care insurance fundamentally gets down to this question)? Option 1: a private, for-profit company bureaucrat whose bonus and salary is determined by the difference between the amount taken in via premiums and the amount paid out in claims. Option 2: a government bureaucrat whose salary and performance review is based upon the level of service delivered to the customer/taxpayer (or is based on time-in-service with indirect relation to performance, if at all).

Conclusion: If you chose Option 1, your interests are probably tied to those of the private insurance industry, either due to your investments in the industry or its investments in you. Your health is probably good and your income better than average. If you chose Option 2, you probably have no financial stake in the game at all--outside of the hope that your premiums will be lower or coverage more readily available--and feel some level of insecurity that you will have medical coverage when you need it.

Because the latter group is many times larger than the former, the public option would become reality, if left to a vote of the people. If it doesn't, the outcome will have been driven by beltway politics and not democracy.

It's that simple.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Categorizing the Electorate Redux

First of all, I'd like to thank Lewis for using the word "redux" recently, and hence bringing it into my vocabulary.

A few months ago I posted a categorization of the U.S. electorate which looked something like this, each with about 25%:

  • Social Conservative
  • Economic Conservative / Libertarian
  • Moderate
  • Progressive

Another way of looking at things is that globalists account for 50% of the electorate, and isolationists account for 50%. Social Conservatives and Progressives tend to be more isolationist, at least in terms of being against the multi-national mindset which looks at the world as one big integrated economy. The powerful centrists -- Moderates and Economic Conservatives -- tend to be more globalist in perspective.

Of course, there are exceptions. The Ron Paul Libertarians tend to be isolationist. And many progressives have a strong global perspective. So the globalist v isolationalist categorization doesn't map all that neatly on top of my previous categorization schema. But there is a generalization which can be made: the centrists tend to be in favor of free trade and a more integrated global economy, while the left and right wing tends to be against the recent torrid pace of globalization.

Both the left and right are in this sense conservative. They oppose different aspects of rapid change. The right is conservative with regard to behavioral standards. The left is conservative with regard to the environment. Both are conservative with regard to the economic dislocation caused by globalization.

In this regard, the Obama Administration, like the Clinton Administration before, is right smack in the center. Both the left and right are marginalized. However, if the economy fails to improve and, in fact, worsens, the center will become weaker as more and more American realize the global economy isn't working to their benefit these days...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Thompson Home (Formerly Thompson Home For Old Ladies)--Detroit MI

This 1884 Queen Anne structure is an early work by noted local architect George D. Mason. The home was established as a care facility for older women by philanthropist Mary Thompson. The building is now owned by Wayne State University and houses the School of Social Work. This is where Al Acker works...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


I am 63 years old. That makes me one of the oldest Baby Boomers in the U.S. I am young enough to have been spared the deprivations of the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II. I grew up with the paranoia of the Red Scare and the Cold War and the turmoil of the Vietnam War. Yet, I remained conscious of an abiding truth that gave rise to an optimism completely alien to those of my parents' era--I knew that I and those of my generation were likely to thrive in terms of lifestyle beyond what they had been able to achieve and that many of the struggles they endured in attempting to secure a college education and find productive and rewarding work, wherever that might take them, would not frustrate our dreams as theirs had been. I and those of my generation were truly the first to have a chance of finding the American Dream on a wholesale level.

In my youth, I saw that opportunity coming from standing on the shoulders of my parents' relentless devotion to making that American Dream come true, not only for me but, in a small measure for themselves. They owned a very modest ranch house in a new subdivision, were able to take vacations, drive newer cars, and set some money aside for their retirement. I, on the other hand, was able, upon college graduation and securing my first job, to buy a first car and house more flashy or capacious than they were living in after a lifetime of working.

It never occurred to me that my instant success might be due to something other than my own hard work or marriage to a woman with a well-paying career of her own. I took for granted that my children would also find the American Dream as easy in the realization as in the speaking of its name. Cars would continue to grow in power, houses in the number and size of rooms. Gas would remain abundant and cheap. The air would be cleaned by mechanical and chemical catalytic methods. Electronic devices would evolve to bring us an unending string of new forms of entertainment and lower and lower prices. Freedom and equality would inevitable advance as American ingenuity brought "better living through chemistry" to all the citizens of the world. Future success must depend upon the inevitability of continuous and uninterrupted growth--in population, infrastructure, ingenuity, and, as day follows the night, consumption of cheap and abundant oil.

It has been a good life. Not luxurious but comfortable. I have experienced all of the perquisites and privileges of middle class life in the U.S. One of those was the freedom to acquire without regard for any downside. Nor did I give any thought to whether my acquisitions played any part in how happy I was on any given day. Although I felt myself to be somewhat of a skeptic when it comes to TV commercials, I never doubted that they and the programs that bookended them influenced my wants and desires. Nor did I question the fundamental premise that ownership and contentment were somehow related.

I am now retired and in chapter three of my life. My consumerism has been tempered by a flatlined income. At some point, I realized that I could be happy without a closet full of new clothes or a living room adorned with spotless furniture. I learned that downsizing my living space was not the end of world; in fact, it could be the beginning of a new, more care-free life. I downsized to save money and reduce my carbon footprint. Fifteen years ago, I had no awareness of what a carbon footprint was or why it mattered. Today, I realize that, to my children and their children, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere matters more than the status conveyed by anything they might own or, for that matter, the rate of growth of the GDP. What matters to them is not any longer their prospects of having a higher standard of living but whether they will live to retire at all. By that measure, fear of diminished prospects of wealth today or temporary tax increases or postponing gratification pales in comparison.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Why All Moralities Are Not Equal, Redux

Today brings the news that Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has just switched from a Republican to a Democrat. He said that his former party has simply moved away from the center, leaving him more closely aligned with the Democrats. Hmmm. Perhaps this will please not only the Dems but the Republican base, as well. After all, they are the champions of the morality of "purity". Doesn't the departure of a member who did not hew to a strict conservative line leave their party more pure than it was yesterday? Sounds like a win-win to me.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Why All Moralities Are Not Equal

In an article published by Alternet titled, Conservatives Live in a Different Moral Universe--And Here's Why It Matters, Tom Jacobs expounds upon the morality theories of psychologist Jonathan Haidt to the effect that the problem with liberals is that we fail to understand--and, therefore, discount--the moral values of conservatives when making our cases for our favorite policies. In the article, Jacobs, quoting from Dan McAdams, Northwestern University research psychologist and noted author, describes the "five foundational moral impulses" as follows:

  • Harm/care: It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.
  • Fairness/reciprocity: Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.
  • In-group loyalty: People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty, and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.
  • Authority/respect: People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.
  • Purity/sanctity: The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination, and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.
According to Haidt (and I don't think many folks on the right or left would vehemently disagree), liberals tend to feel strongly about the first two in the list but often feel cold or even negatively about the last three. Further, Haidt argues that his studies have indicated that conservatives are drawn to loyalty, authority, and purity--thought of as outdated or backward by liberals--while acknowledging the importance of preventing harm and being fair.

The article by Jacobs began with him telling a story about Haidt--how, though a liberal himself, he would fly almost into a rage over bumper stickers on "Volvos" such as, "Support Our Troops: Bring them home!" or "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism." What upset Haidt was that, in his view, liberals were thus being disingenuous for claiming to be patriotic or supporting our troops when we were, in fact, being critical of our government because our moral system doesn't value loyalty to nations.

Well, gee, we ARE talking about a bumper sticker! I don't see a lot of balancing of competing moralities on conservative's bumper stickers, either. (America: Love It or Leave It! comes to mind.)

The issue here isn't really bumper stickers. It's whether or not the five moralities which Haidt describes--and for which he believes it is incumbent upon liberals to account--are all equal. If there are moralities among the list which can lead--inevitably--to the diminution of any of the others, then we should not pay as much homage to those. I would argue that, if history has anything worthwhile to teach, it is that a morality based upon the word "should" should (irony intended) be taken with a grain of salt.

Example 1: In-group loyalty. I see this brand of morality as virtually worthless as a moral compass. In fact, I would say that it is greatest force for evil in the world (unless your cousins in a strange city insist that you attend a football game with them and not rooting for their team would jeopardize family ties (another questionable, but arguably discretionary, loyalty)). If you doubt what I am saying, let me remind you that Hitler was really, really big on in-group loyalty--as are the Taliban, the Mafia, and others of that ilk. Unless you're talking about Nobel Peace Prize winners, almost all in-groups have nothing at all to do with moral meritocracy; they are about circumstances over which the individual members have absolutely no control and have few requirements for membership beyond happenstance.

Let me say, as forcefully as I can, that I do believe in patriotism. But it is a patriotism based upon merit and not "My country, right or wrong!" This is why liberalism is morally superior to conservatism. In fact, the Jacobs article admits as much when he quotes Dallas Morning News columnist and BeliefNet blogger, Rod Dreher, "an Orthodox Christian, unorthodox conservative, and Haidt fan" as saying, "Look how horribly the GOP had to screw up [during the Bush II years] to alienate many conservatives. In the end, the GOP, the conservative movement and the nation [emphasis added] would have been better served had we on the right not been so yellow-dog loyal. But, as Haidt shows, it's in our nature [emphasis added]."

Here's the question I would have for Mr. Haidt: Should liberals pay lip service or make any kind of concessions (other than the merely semantic ones) to people who cling foolishly to their senseless false morality that places personal vanity and pride over the welfare of the country?

Example 2: Authority/respect. I believe that most all liberals have a full measure of deference to authority. After all, we seem to be just as successful at business and non-profit enterprises as conservatives. Obama ran a superlative and very successful campaign with his staff stuffed with liberals. His White House seems to run in a tight and disciplined manner. As far as I know, FDR was a pretty good manager and his staff got the job done as he wished.

I think the difference between liberals and conservatives might be that liberals seek to work for people that they admire; respect must be earned. I would guess that conscientious objectors tend to be liberals. Those Germans, Austrians, Poles, Danes, and Dutch who harbored Jews from the clutches of the Nazis were probably liberals. Most of them were not Jews themselves. (What does that say about the morality of in-group loyalty?) Liberals know when the righteous bounds of authority have been breached and it is time to withhold respect. Would there be any whistleblowers without liberals? Would we have known about My Lai?

Robert Oppenheimer worked diligently on the atomic bomb and contributed a great deal toward the success of that project. Yet, he spent the rest of his life, much of it black-balled, because he regretted what he had done and sought to put an end to proliferation. Oppenheimer was a liberal who did his duty to country, despite his personal morality that valued "do no harm" more. It nearly destroyed him.

Example 3: Purity/sanctity. As Jacobs admits in his piece, the notion of purity has been, since the early 1900's and the advances in science and medicine and to quote a noted conservative in the Bush II Justice Department in an entirely different context, made "quaint". As Jacobs suggests, it is most likely to rear its pugnacious head in defense of one of Haidt's least favorite human characteristics--disengenuousness (remember his bumper sticker diatribe). To argue that gay marriage--one of Haidt's examples of this morality coming into play--somehow taints the purity of the institution of marriage or the family is like saying that allowing African-Americans full citizenship will destroy Western civilization. It really isn't about "purity" or "sanctity" at all. It's back to the old, rotten-to-the-core idea of in-group morality. The "institution" of marriage has undergone more transformations than music. In most states, it is easier to get a marriage license than a driver's license. As for family values, well, I think we've heard enough news stories about infanticide, matricide and patricide to know how far that notion will carry you.

Here's a new Dot for all my [three or four] readers: Liberals are the ONLY ONES in our society who worry about how to reach across the aisle toward those of different moral points of view. Conservatives may understand liberal morality more than liberals understand theirs (as Jacobs contends), but, if so, their tendency to remain loyal to country, party, class, sect, family, faith, and quarterback keeps them huddling inward and not facing outward toward the world. In that posture, it's a little hard to feel caring or empathetic about your fellow humans. What usually happens is that they only hear the play as called by the quarterback, then break for their set positions.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Viva Olbermann!

Along with Jon Stewart, he's the best thing to happen to TV in my lifetime. And kudos to him for pulling the whole network (MSNBC) with him. Maddow is a great addition, just as Colbert was a great offshoot of Stewart's show.

People need to speak out against the atrocities, and these folks are doing so. If the country is going to move in the right direction, the truth must be spoken on TV...

Sunday, April 19, 2009

4 Electoral Groups & 2 Power Blocks

This is a follow up to my previous post -- Four Economic Flavors.

I've changed the name of the far right political block to "social conservative" (was "Republican"). So now I see the following four electoral blocks, each with about 25% of the electorate:

  1. Social Conservative
  2. Economic Conservative / Libertarian
  3. Moderate
  4. Progressive

Obama is firmly in the "Moderate" group, which is where the much of the power lies. Speaking of power, here are 2 powerful special interest groups:

  1. Wall Street
  2. Military-Industrial Complex

Is this a reasonable description of where power and opinion lies in our country? What could change the balance for better or worse?

Friday, April 17, 2009

Obama's Grasp on Power

Some political observers have been impressed with how much Obama is taking on, and there is a lot on his plate -- health care reform, renewed focus on Afghanistan, fiscal stimulus, carbon cap and trade, new dog, etc. But some of us progressives are looking at the power interests that is unwilling to confront at present:

  • Wall Street
  • Intelligence community

With regard to Wall Street, I have previously posted that I feel Obama is in dangerous territory with regard to his embrace of the status quo as embodied in the policies of Summers and Geithner. Here's further commentary along those lines:

I don't generally overreact to news (from the NYT this morning, on the AIG-Goldman connection that runs through Edward Liddy's stock ownership), but this has gone far enough. Have we completely lost of sense of what is and is not a conflict of interest? ...

If the Obama Administration thinks this is a storm in a tea cup, think again (I'm sure Valerie Jarrett gets this, but someone please check). Straws may or may not break camel's backs, but simple symbolic issues - that millions of people can understand and relate to - can bring major political damage in the midst of a broader, more complex economic fiasco.

With regard to the intelligence community, torture, and possible Bush Administration crimes, Keith Olbermann blasted Obama last night...

In a "Special Comment" regarding the release by the Obama Administration of "the remainder of this nightmare of Bush Administration torture memos," MSNBC's Keith Olbermann offered the current Commander in Chief some praise for going "half-way," then blasted him for issuing a statement which said that "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past."

"This President has gone where few before him, dared," Olbermann said Thursday night. "The dirty laundry — illegal, un-American, self-defeating, self-destroying — is out for all to see."

Olbermann continued, "Mr. Obama deserves our praise and our thanks for that. And yet he has gone but half-way. And, in this case, in far too many respects, half the distance is worse than standing still... Mr. President, you are wrong. What you describe would be not "spent energy" but catharsis. Not 'blame laid,' but responsibility ascribed."

While I tend to agree with Olbermann on Bush era crimes and with those who would have Obama take on the Wall Street titans, I have to wonder whether or not those are battles that Obama can win at this point in his presidency. My observation is that presidents are always embattled, and Democratic presidents especially. Carter was overwhelmed by reactionary forces, and perhaps from the intelligence agencies in particular. Clinton, of course, was impeached following years of being hounded by the political opposition. Perhaps the only reason he ultimately survived was that he was "bi-partisan" and not actually that much of a threat to the powers that be.

So I think we need to cut Obama some slack and give him a chance to consolidate some power before taking on Wall Street and the Cheney faction of the military-industrial complex...

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Minority's Dilemma

The following is from an email sent today by former Colorado Senate Majority Leader and Democrat, Ken Gordon, of Denver. Ken is far more prescient and introspective than most politicians that I know and I thought his piece would be of fairly broad interest:

The Minority’s Dilemma: It seems that a majority of the country is willing to give President Obama a chance. Most Americans recognize that he came into a difficult situation and they are hoping his program will be successful in helping with the economy, the war, the environment, etc. Yet Republican elected officials seem to be less supportive.

I was in the minority in the Colorado Legislature for ten years so I have some familiarity with the quandary facing minority parties.

I think it is useful to create a decision box. On the vertical axis we have two possibilities. The minority can either support the President’s program or they can oppose it. On the horizontal plane we have two possibilities as well. The program can either succeed or fail. So this creates four boxes--

1. The minority party supports the President, and the plan is successful.
2. The minority party supports the plan, and the plan fails.
3. The minority party opposes the plan, and the plan succeeds.
4. The minority party opposes the plan, and the plan fails.

Let’s assume that some of the Republican elected officials have a partisan interest. That is, their principle goal is to win more seats in the next election, and defeat the President in 2012. Which of the four possibilities is most likely to help them reach their goal?

If they support the President and he is successful, they may have done the right thing for the country, but the President will get most of the credit. So supporting the President when he is successful won’t hurt, but it is unlikely to help them pick up seats or defeat the President in 2012.

If they support the President and he is unsuccessful, they won’t get a benefit because they were advocates for the same unsuccessful policy.

If they oppose the President, and he is successful, they will obviously receive no benefit from that approach.

However, if they oppose the President, and his plan is unsuccessful, they can say, more or less, “We told you so.” This will benefit them.

As you can see, this analysis does not consider the merits of any proposed program. It is an analysis that the minority can use regardless of the merits, and I believe that it is what leads so many elected Republicans to relentlessly oppose whatever the President and the Democrats in Washington, or Denver for that matter, propose.

The only political advantage they can receive is for them to oppose the Democratic program and have it fail.

Now there are quite a few Republicans who do not go through this analysis. They make their decisions based on a genuine examination of the merits of a proposal seen through the light of their values. But unfortunately there are enough who only care about the politics so that every talk show has no trouble finding knee-jerk opposition to every Obama or Democratic proposal. It is disheartening for those of us who would like to see the country come together in the face of our serious challenges, but there it is.

By the way, when the Democrats are in the minority, I am sorry to say, there is no shortage of knee-jerk opponents as well.

I have been troubled by the opposition to Obama, who in my view is making a good faith effort to deal with a difficult situation. I had hoped for more of a “country over party” position from the minority. Perhaps we will get there someday.

I hope you are doing well. As always do not hesitate to write back with comments or questions and feel free to forward this email to anyone you think might be interested or to republish, with attribution, in any blog or other publication.


Ken Gordon

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Four Economic Flavors

It occurred to me that are 4 sets of opinions in the public discourse regarding our current economic situation:

  1. Republican. This viewpoint, embraced by current & former Republican leaders including Dubya and McCain, is totally disconnected from reality. These people had no idea that the economic crash was approaching, and I have no respect for their opinions. However, they remain a serious danger since they will try to regain power should the economy fail to recover in a timely fashion.
  2. Status quo. This includes most of Obama's economic team. It also includes much of the mainstream media including NPR (for the most part). While much better than the Republicans, this elite group failed to anticipate the severe economic recession we are now in. Erstwhile moderate Republicans are in this group along with the powerful Wall Street Democrats such as Summers and Rubin. This group was riding high in the latter years of the Clinton Administration, but now seems out of touch. There is a revolving door between the Wall Street investment firm Goldman-Sachs and the Treasury Department. These people mean well, but they also mean to keep their elite status. They are fat cats and many have inappropriately benefited from the recent government bailouts of the financial sector. There are numerous disturbing conflicts of interest in this group.
  3. Pissed off conservative. There are many conservatives who could see that the Bush Administration was screwing up, and now have the same opinion of the Obama Administration. Some of these people were correct in predicting the financial meltdown and ensuing economic distress. Think Ron Paul. So these people have a good track record in that respect. They hate the subsidies to the big banks and their voices will become more influential if the recession worsens.
  4. Progressive. Most of the media that I follow are skeptical of the Obama Administration's efforts to rescue the economy by providing subsidies to the giant financial corporations. Some are downright hostile toward the Obama Administration, but most are just plain worried that we are going in the wrong direction. I am in this camp myself. I half-heartedly want Obama to succeed in rescuing Citibank and Goldman Sachs so that he will continue to be a popular and powerful president. But I am worried that this will falter and that all hell will break loose as Republicans and conservatives smell blood and progressives won't really be able to defend the corporate elites behind the Obama plan.

Will the center hold? The progressives and conservatives that I follow have a much better track record in predicting the path of the economy than do the mainstream Democrats and their Wall Street teammates. The voices I respect the most are calling attention to the severity of this downturn and warning that it won't be over anytime soon. If this is the case, then the public may lose its patience with the status quo leadership. If Obama tries to ride out the storm with Geithner, Summers, and the other insiders, it could be his undoing. I love Obama and I think he'll be able to adjust should the current plans start to unravel. I hope to see him move strongly in a progressive direction should that happen. Then we'll be in for a real battle, but at least the lines will be clearly drawn...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

How to Change the World

First -- To see how not to change the world, I recommend this speech by Joe Bageant. Mr. Bageant says that "We've Let Corporations and Media Rob Our Souls -- It's Time to Do Something Meaningful" and proceeds to belittle American society.

Here are some of the remarks that may turn off readers:

  • "This financialization of our consciousness under American-style capitalism has become all we know."
  • "Corporations are, of course, deathless and faceless machines and have no soul or human emotions. That we look to them for so much makes us a corporate cult and makes corporations a fetish of our culture."
  • "Yet you and I are not unique in the least. Despite the American yada-yada about individualism, you are not special. Nor am I."
  • "The fact is, you will seldom, if ever, make any significant material or lifestyle choices of your own in your entire life."
  • "We are all replaceable parts in the machinery of a capitalist economy."
  • "Citizenship has been reduced to simple consumer-group consciousness. Consequently, even though Americans are only 6 percent of the planet's population, we use 36 percent of the planet's resources. And we interpret that experience as normal and desirable and as evidence of being the most-advanced nation in the world. Despite that our lives have been reduced to a mere marketing demographic."

Certainly, there is a germ of truth in all these points. But constructive criticism requires some connection with the listener beyond utter debasement of his or her culture.

The last point, about American's consuming more than our share of the planet's resources, is one serious point I want to address. I dare say that this statistic is losing its luster as far as I'm concerned. News flash:
SHANGHAI (AP) — Preliminary figures show auto sales in China reached about 1.03 million in March, exceeding U.S. sales for the third month in a row, state media reports said Wednesday. Associated Press

Are we getting better because our share of world consumption is going down?

Bageant's point is that the whole world is going to capitalist hell, but he offers not even a glimmer of an alternative. The best he can do is suggest that we might be better off moving to Belize and living as simple peasants. This happens to be what he has done, and his smug superiority really turns me off. He doesn't provide a solution; rather he congratulates himself on having moved outside of American society, and suggests that we will all be happier, and the world will be a better place, if we do the same. That may be true, but I doubt it, and it's not going to happen.

Rather than attacking all of society, I suggest that the battle be more focused. Perhaps we could start by dealing with environmental issues, including threats posed by modern weaponry such as nuclear bombs. One doesn't have to buy all the generalizations about how we're all pawns in the capitalist game to believe that it makes sense to protect the environment. Even our corporate masters do not want to destroy the environment. After all, a healthy environment is necessary to sustain a healthy corporation.

I'm intrigued by the idea of treating environmental debates as a kind of warfare. What if we applied the principles of warfare, as outlined by Sun Tzu in The Art of War to fighting political battles over how to preserve the environment? A winning strategy will require sound planning and coordinated effort.

Look at the recent Iraq War. Bush failed because he didn't unite the country (USA) behind him in this war. His team belittled moderates and didn't listen to opponents. The worst mistake we can make in fighting our environmental foes is to rant and rave and say that you are either with us or against us.

At least, that how I see it right now...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A new star in the heavens

To observe Barack Obama deliver his speech before a joint session of Congress last night after eight years of watching George W. Bush do the same was a little like sitting through hours of a Three Stooges retrospective not realizing that the main feature to follow was Some Like It Hot. The realization that you have just wasted a good chunk of your life being dumbed-down is devastating. Knowing that genius still flourishes, together with the promise of more of the same to come makes the price of the ticket seem like a bargain.

During my lifetime, I have only once experienced anything like the feeling of being witness to a sphinx rising from a desert of despair that I feel now. That was in 1961, when I, as a 15-year-old boy, experienced my first political crush when John F. Kennedy and his remarkable family moved into the White House. Then, it seemed a torch had been passed from the hands of an old, tired-but-wise warrior who looked like my grandfather, to another type of warrior--young, glamorous, eloquent, vigorous, compassionate. The times were much like now--menace from abroad, crippled economy at home. JFK swept in like a stiff ocean breeze, stirring souls like so many palm trees lining a beach. Suddenly, it felt as if we could make it through to the other side. America was on the move again, making the world safer for democracy and offering hope to the unfortunate.

It was Ronald Reagan who said, "It's morning in America". He was wrong. It was only the gaudy glitter of Las Vegas at night, harbinger of the greed and decadence that has brought our economy to its knees, like a street beggar tugging at the sleeve of every passing socialist for relief.

Now, Obama has risen from the desert of the Reagan Legacy, guardian of the temple, where lay our most sacred values, facing directly toward the rising sun. Vandals may take pot shots at his nose but they cannot alter his magnificence, his grandeur, his timeless wisdom. As surely as the sun will rise tomorrow, President Obama will be there to show it where its light is most needed. I know this because last night, he was truly a shooting star.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

NY Times on White Collar Workers in Detroit

From the NY Times --

DETROIT — For all the ups and downs, and more downs, that white-collar workers here have lived through, they have always managed to put on a brave face, assuring one another that the American auto industry will come back stronger than ever.

But now that resolve has given way to grim resignation, as General Motors, Ford Motor and Chrysler have announced wave upon wave of job cuts.

After closing plants and shrinking their blue-collar work force, Detroit’s troubled Big Three are cutting white-collar jobs in their hometown at an unprecedented pace — more than 15,000 in the last year, with more to come.

Unlike union workers laid off from idled factories, salaried workers have no safety net of health care or guaranteed income for a year. At best, it’s a small severance or buyout, and a voucher for a discount on one of the hundreds of thousands of unsold cars that G.M. or Chrysler has sitting in inventory.

White-collar workers who walk out of the headquarters of the auto companies face few prospects in the Michigan economy. And with G.M. and Chrysler surviving on federal loans, facing a deadline Tuesday to submit new and broader restructuring plans to the government, the outlook grows only more bleak.

The market for the skills of auto engineers or designers in the prime of their careers has evaporated, with no hope in sight for a turnaround. Moving to another city is hardly an option when there are so few buyers for the suburban homes that would have to be sold first...

G.M., Ford and Chrysler have eliminated a total of 120,000 manufacturing jobs in the last three years. And now the cuts are drastically thinning the ranks of white-collar professionals, turning the once-bustling office towers of the companies into half-empty monuments to better days.

G.M. delivered another blow last week when it said it would reduce its global salaried work force by 14 percent, or 10,000 workers this year. In the Detroit area, that could mean an additional 3,000 workers will be out of a job by May 1. G.M.’s next round of white-collar cuts will not include buyouts. Chrysler has not said whether it plans more cuts.

The Detroit area housing market, already deeply depressed, has plummeted since the buyouts. In January, the foreclosure rate increased 102 percent from the same month a year earlier in Oakland County, Mich., home to a huge number of G.M. and Chrysler employees.

The state’s unemployment rate was 10.6 percent in December and continues to climb. Job fairs routinely create mob scenes, drawing thousands of out-of-work employees of the Big Three and their suppliers...

The cuts are extending to the vast network of employees who worked on contract to the Detroit companies. Craig Meyer, employed by a supplier named Aerotek, was told by phone that his seven years as a contract designer at Chrysler were over as he was driving to the home of his in-laws the night before Thanksgiving.

Mr. Meyer has been collecting unemployment since, although the $362 he gets a week is less than half what he was making at Chrysler. “We’re just about able to pay the bills each month,” he said. “Food and gas is when we need to start to dip into savings.”

The prospects are getting worse for Detroit, not better. Last year, United States car sales dropped 18 percent, to 13.2 million, and industry executives expect just 10 million car sales in 2009 and possibly for years to come.

“Those white-collar jobs aren’t going to come back any more than the blue-collar jobs are,” said Kevin Boyle, a Detroit native and author of historical books on the city. “As bad as it is everywhere, it’s not as bad as it is in Detroit right now.”

Monday, February 16, 2009

More Good News

Again, from today's Freep:
Annual traffic crash deaths are on the verge of dropping below 40,000 for the first time since the early 1960s, and it's not solely because our miserable economy is taking drivers off the roads.

The nation is in the midst of a big decline in driving....

Other reasons, too, seem obvious. Long term, more people are wearing seatbelts -- 83% nationwide, according to the transportation department. Automakers are building safer vehicles. Roads, meanwhile, have been designed in recent decades with fewer sharp curves and dangerous hills, and more safety features such as median barriers, said FHWA spokesman Doug Hecox.

But the rapid drop in fatalities is outpacing the decline in travel and advances in technology.

Good Ecological News

From today's Freep:

In a stunning sign of ecological recovery, beavers have returned to Detroit for the first time in perhaps a century....

"It's part of that larger story of ecological recovery," Hartig said, citing the return of many species to the Detroit River area in recent years. Those include sturgeon, whitefish, peregrine falcons, bald eagles, walleye, and, now, a beaver.

"If it's cleaner for them, it's cleaner for us, too," Hartig said...

The river's ecology is recovering, said Tim Payne, Southeast Michigan wildlife supervisor for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

"There's no question that having a cleaner river is having an impact on species coming back," he said.

Stock Market Prediction

My favorite economist/analyst is David Rosenberg of Merrill Lynch. He makes a prediction which is referenced in the following snippet from a newsletter by John Mauldin:

Last week I said that 2009 as-reported earnings estimates for the S&P 500 would be dropping. 2008 earnings had dropped to $29.57 as I wrote the letter. They are now down to $28.60. One of my favorite analysts is David Rosenberg of Merrill Lynch. His forecast for reported earnings for 2009 is now down to $28. That puts the P/E for the S&P 500 at 30.

He also projects "operating" earnings to be $55 for 2010. And, as he writes today:

"For those looking for a silver lining, at least we are going to have a deeper bottom to bounce off. Applying a classic recession-trough multiple of 12x against a forward EPS estimate of $55 would imply an ultimate low of 666 on the S&P 500, likely by October if our estimate of the timing for the end of the official downturn is accurate."

That is a 20% drop from today's close of 829.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Monday, February 2, 2009

The Case against Moderation, Part 3

"We got the sense that he was very genuine," said Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.). But "if he comes and meets with us like that and it doesn't have an impact, it begins to hurt his credibility."

And, thus, we have it--the outlines of the trap that President Obama has tripped with his neck. This quote, taken from yesterday's Washington Post, betrays more plainly than I ever could, the folly of trying to reach across the aisle to make warm-and-fuzzy with the current stripe of Congressional Republicans. The circus tiger that for years has let you put your head in its mouth and remove it unharmed--but for a little drool that tends to get in your eyes--has now shut its yap--hard. With black suits, spotless white shirts, bleached smiles, and wipe-on/wipe-off suntans, Rep. John Boehner and his minions have made a sucker out of America's smartest man.

It was our President, with his ideology of moderation and compromise, that not only stuck his head in it, but also forced that foul mouth open. His promise of reaching across the aisle gave his opponents, unable to muster even a wisp of a smile during his Inauguration, the means to make meaningless his promise of "change we can believe in". All they had to do was to play along, like the team-players they had neither the inclination or the skills to be, and, when the time came to act-not-yak, unite behind their leader (Rush?) and vote in unanimous opposition to whatever it was that their President wanted. By voting to insure Obama's failure, while praising his "bipartisanship"--and, thus, appearing to be willing to compromise if only the terms were right--they could then say, as Rep. Wamp did, that it was Obama's ineffectiveness in attempting to gain their support--a clear failure of leadership--that was the problem.

It may have been a brilliant strategy for their party, if yet disastrous for the country. I can only hope and pray that the public will see through this cynicism and short-sightedness and punish the tiger by thrashing him within a inch of his life in November 2010.