Thursday, August 20, 2009


My Letter to Congress

Schumer, Gillibrand & Rangel

o I sent the following letter earlier tonight to Chuck Schumer, as well as a similar version to Kirsten Gillibrand and another to Charlie Rangel. They represent me in Congress.

The Honorable Charles E. Schumer
757 Third Avenue, Suite 17-02
New York, NY 10017

Dear Senator Schumer,

I am writing you for two purposes. The first is to ask you to vote AGAINST any healthcare plan that does not include a "public option" for people to buy healthcare coverage.

A healthcare plan that relies on state or regional co-ops to somehow bring healthcare costs under control and yet have a large enough pool of currently healthy participants to pay for any currently unhealthy participants -- as every insurance organization needs, whether for-profit, nonprofit, or governmental -- is nearly akin to telling people that if they don't like their choices among private insurers, they're always welcome to go start their own insurance company. As fellow New Yorkers, we both know that lip-service programs (such as "No Child Left Behind" and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Pursue") ultimately do more harm than good. A collection of small insurance co-ops across the country will be similarly destined to fail. Please vote against any healthcare plan that does not include a "public option."

Second, but even more important, I am also writing you -- as my senator, as the vice-chair of the Joint Economic Committee, and in your roles on the Healthcare Subcommittee and the Securities, Insurance and Investment Subcommittee -- to ask you to consider a bill should the healthcare plan fail to include a public option. In that event, I'm hoping you and your fellow leaders in the Senate would work to save Medicare by introducing and passing a "Save Medicare Now" Act.

As we know, Medicare will be insolvent within a decade. Medicare is one of the most popular government programs today, and its bankruptcy would be disastrous to the many older Americans who depend on it for covering their healthcare costs. With the aging Baby Boomers, more and more Americans will be entering the age of Medicare-eligibilty, even as less funds are paid into the program by fewer younger, working taxpayers.

A Save Medicare Now Act would allow U.S. citizens not yet eligible for Medicare to buy Medicare coverage for themselves and their dependents by paying an annual fee (in addition to the contributions they already make via payroll withholding) perhaps equal to a flat 6% of their adjusted gross income. In addition, individuals and families with incomes less than two-times the poverty rate should be provided Medicare coverage as if they were already eligible at age 65.

Not only would such a simple-to-explain and simple-to-execute plan introduce a much larger potential pool of younger, healthier, paying people -- including many self-employed people and small business owners -- into the Medicare program, righting its finances, such a bill could be politically popular for a number of reasons:

  • Medicare needs to be solvent, and America's seniors will be enthusiastic for Congress to save it.

  • Medicare is universally popular; in surveys, over 60% of Americans think that saving Medicare from bankruptcy is a priority.

  • By making it a flat fee, it could garner support from libertarians and those who normally oppose progressive taxation plans.

  • By making it a bill to save Medicare, it could be more palatable to senators from states with a high percentage of older citizens. And particularly popular for senators from states with a high number of people approaching Medicare eligibility who may be very glad to have Medicare as an option if they were to lose or have lost their job so late in their career.

  • Many employers, particularly small business owners, will be enthusiastic for the program, because it would allow them to finally get out of the healthcare business and focus their employee costs on their business strategies.

  • Finally, a Save Medicare Now Act avoids introducing any new "public option" or "single payer" idea into the debate -- and at this point, the less said with those two terms, the better, regardless of their meaning.

And, as I know you are aware, because the purpose of the Save Medicare Now Act is to provide financing for a popular but increasingly insolvent federal program, it is a budget bill, and cannot be filibustered according to Senate rules.

I thank you for your consideration of such a bill, or a similar bill. I am also writing to Senator Gillibrand and Congressman Rangel with this request. I am proud to have the three of you representing me in the U.S. Congress, but I am troubled by the current direction the healthcare debate is taking and thus urge your support of a Save Medicare Now Act -- for the physical health of our senior citizens, the economic health of our medical system, and the moral health of our country.

Derek A. Baker

Now, I recognize that Chuck Schumer is partially to blame for the mess we're in right now. He was chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and as such, convinced a lot of "centrist" (or even right-wing) Democrats to run for Senate in Republican-friendly states ... which is why we have so many "Blue Dog" Democrats today who are resisting a public option in healthcare reform. On the other hand, I don't doubt that Schumer wants the right thing for America and if he could convince all those Blue Dogs to vote for an expansion of Medicare, he would. So perhaps my letter gives him at least one voter's permission to try.

And, as the letter says, I also wrote Senator Gillibrand and Cong. Rangel. Slight wording changes to reflect their chambers, committees, etc., but otherwise, the same proposal.

I'm not stupid, and I've seen Congressional staffers up close. I fully expect that one or all three of these letters will get summarized as "public option: yes; Medicare expansion: yes" and the rest trashed. But given that at least two of the three people who represent me in Congress carry some weight there, despite the fact that I fully expect them to vote for the betterment of the country whether I write them or not, I figured it couldn't hurt and, if they want yet another letter to wave on the floor of the House or Senate, they had it.

Oh, and I printed those three letters, personalized by address, salutation, and detail for each recipient, in Courier New, and handwrote the envelopes. Given that I'm legitimately an individual constituent and no one prompted me to write these letters, I figures it doesn't hurt to make it obvious that I'm a lone wolf (albeit regular voter and occasional contributor). If others take my letters as a format for their own activism, I would consider it an honor, but they'd do just as well to write their own version. Form letters count for less than constituent engagement, anger, and a threat to spread the word to neighbors.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009


A Few Comparative Facts

Nationalized Healthcare Kicks Our Butt

ome people have asked three questions which, taken at face value, are legitimate questions. What would the public option do to (a) reduce the overall cost of healthcare, and (b) improve the quality of my healthcare; and (c) what will the effect be on the deficit? The Congressional Budget Office estimates $1 trillion-plus. So how do we pay for that?

To take the last item first, the CBO analysis didn't factor in what could be saved by the public option, or by best-practice incentives, or by competitive price pressure on the private insurers. By the same rationale, fluorescent lightbulbs make no sense, because they're so much more expensive than incandescents. Except, of course, that they use less energy, so electricity bills go down, and they last much longer before needing to be replaced.

And in terms of cost going down (a), this is exactly what the insurance companies are fearful of: that an affordable, public alternative will prove a competitive cost pressure on their own premium prices. In fact, the insurance companies are so convinced that these would be the economics of their industry with a public option, they are fighting tooth and nail (and campaign contribution) to keep it from happening. So maybe we should ask them?

Also in terms of cost going down: the cat is out of the bag in terms of doctor-owned medical facilities and the scam that is pay-per-service medical care. The New Yorker article by Atul Gawande helped a great deal there, especially the examination of how some of the most successful (in terms of health, not necessarily profit) healthcare institutions are less expensive than most of the less successful ones. Add this to the efficiencies of electronic healthcare records, best practice education and incentives, and other cost-savings that we could implement today, without a single new drug or device being invented, and you've got a huge amount of savings.

As an aside, it's worth pointing out that the people screaming that a public option will be too competitive against private options should be screaming instead at the people who think the public option will be too slow and incompetent, a la the DMV. They can't both be true, after all. But cynically, the insurance companies, with the first fear, are financing much of the "outrage" over the second fear.

In terms of quality with the public option (b): the short answer is that it won't affect it, because you'll still have the same doctors and specialists you use today. But in truth, I can't answer that about the quality of YOUR healthcare. That's because I don't know what the quality of your healthcare currently is. You could have a gold-plated healthcare plan provided by your employer, and there is no reason why you can't continue to have such quality, just as today, when wealthy people will pay out-of-pocket for elective surgery or high-end specialists.

The real question therefore is: Would it improve the health of the nation overall, and thereby be the rising tide to raise all our boats? The evidence indicates that it would. Or, at least, that a public option has no connection with decline in quality, at any rate, so that there is no real economic argument against it and there IS a moral argument in favor it.

The U.S. currently spends more as a percentage of its GDP than any other country on healthcare (13.7%) -- but ranks 37th in the world in terms of its health system's performance (e.g., life expectancy, responsiveness, etc etc), and ranks 54th in the world in terms of the "fairness" (i.e., a closer relationshp between an individual's costs and an individual's income) -- behind Australia (7.8% GDP, 32nd in performance, 12th in fairness), Canada (8.6% GDP, 30th in performance, 17th in fairness), and the UK (5.8% GDP, 18th in performance, 8th in fairness).

I picked those three countries as comparisons because they're the ones that get mentioned most often, probably due to English as a common language. But among all the countries whose healthcare systems outperform the U.S.'s, 92% have more government contribution toward healthcare than we do (only Cyprus, UAE, and Morocco have less); 78% are more "fair" (e.g., fraction of average household spending minus food that goes to healthcare); and as already stated, 100% spend less overall as a percentage of GDP on healthcare than the U.S. does.

All of which is to demonstrate that we have the most expensive (than even France, Switzerland or Germany, yet all still outpeform us), among the more unfair (Oman and Portugal are only slightly less fair, yet again, still outperform the U.S. overall in healthcare), and among the less efficient (we're behind Costa Rica in performance, but, hey, we outrank Slovenia!) systems.

Now, will making our healthcare system look even marginally closer to that of the more developed countries among the 36 whose systems outperform ours mean that it will automatically bring costs down and quality up? No, there isn't a simple formula that will show that. And it's important to say that the public option ALONE won't accomplish this. That, I think, is where the question (how will the public option bring my costs down and my quality up?) ultimately fails in its sincere attempt to find some clarity in all this noise. It's asking for a 1-to-1, arithmetic relationship between the public option and personal cost or personal quality, and that will be different for each individual. If you get great medical care today, you probably won't see a lot of improvement in the quality; if you get bad or no care, you should see an improvement. If you or your employer spend a lot of money now on healthcare compared to others, you should end up paying less. If you or your employer spend very little now but you (somehow) get great care -- I dunno, maybe your sister is an internist -- then it'll probably end up costing you more.

But I would also turn it around on those who say the public option will make health care more expensive or less effective: What is the proof, math or argument that keeping the public option off the table will "keep costs down" (even though ours are higher than anyone's) or "keep quality high" (even though 36 other countries do a better job there, too)?

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Monday, August 17, 2009


An Unhealthy Debate

Lies, Damned Lies, Yet No Statistics

I keep trying to start a blog post that aims to refute all the lies, idiocy and misinformation that the right-wing (Grassley, Boehner), ignorant ("Keep the government's hands off my Medicare!"), and downright evil (Palin, Beck, etc. etc. etc.) are putting out there about health insurance reform and health coverage. But every time, I end up realizing it would be full-time job that should have started over a month ago. And then, today, I read two column that help put a lot of the bad information out there into perspective.

The first was Steven Pearlstein's look back at the 20th century and how the right-wing loses its mind every time a liberal (even a nominal liberal) gets into power. It froths at the mouth. It takes two opposing thoughts ("socialism! fascist!") and says they're the same thing. It basically makes stuff up, and the more bizarre the better. That's what gets attention, at least.

The second was Paul Krugman's column about the "Swiss menace." In it, he lays it out more clearly than anyone has yet so far. (This is why he wins Nobel Prizes, and I start blog posts only to abandon them in a sputtering mess of exasperated fury.) The summary of his summary is this:

To be clear: the "public option" that, until the last couple of days, was the stated goal of the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership in Congress (and hopefully will be again), exists between the Medicare model and the Massachusetts model. Rather than the government being the sole payer of medical bills, the government would provide an insurance option for people who can't afford or don't want to buy private insurance -- though they and their employers would still be able buy private insurance if that was what they wanted.

This is the extent of the "socialism," the "fascism," and the "un-Americanism" behind the public option, and public health insurance and public healthcare in general. That's it. And yet, all that lying and distortion now looks like it will keep the Blue Dog Democrats from supporting a public option.

I just called my congressman's office (Charlie Rangel, definitely not a "Blue Dog") to urge him to vote against any final healthcare proposal that doesn't include a public option. Because America's healthcare system is the most expensive in the world, but ranks 37th in terms of its effectiveness (World Health Organization). Not coincidentally, U.S. citizens receive less government support for their health than any of the other industrialized countries ahead of us. Perhaps more on this later.

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Thursday, June 11, 2009


Charles Rangel, Wrangler

That Ol' Country Bumpkin

n looking for some other kind of information on his site, I happened to see that my congressman, Charlie Rangel, lists something like 30 congressional "caucuses" he's a member of. He's a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. He's a member of the Progessive Caucus. He's a member of the Army Caucus and the Navy/Marine Caucus. (He was a staff sergeant in the Army and earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star in Korea, by the way.) He's a member of the Caribbean Caucus, which takes some chutzpah, given the trouble he's gotten into with unreported rental income on a villa he owns in the Dominican Republic. (Which may explain why he's also a member of the Real Estate Caucus.) He's a member of several caucuses that don't reflect his own history but rather the causes he chooses to support: the Caucus for Women's Issues, the Caucus for Armenian Issues, the Fire Services Caucus, etc., etc.

One caucus he belongs to, however, just cracked me up: the Rural Housing Caucus. Now, sure, he can be interested in the issue of rural housing, and let's give him the benefit of the doubt and say he is. But still it seems strange. Rangel represents the densest Congressional district in the United States. That is to say, each member of the House of Representatives represents approximately 600,000 people, but Rangel's district is geographically the smallest, covering just a little over 10 square miles of northern Manhattan, Rikers Island (definitely not a rural population there), and a tiny part of Queens that is, true, very lightly populated — because it mostly consists of a Con Ed power plant.

But, hey, good for him if he's interested in rural housing. Just so long as it doesn't take away from his work with the Kidney and Glaucoma caucuses, for example. Or the Caucus on Hellenic Issues. Or the Boating Caucus. Or... .

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009


Oh, Puh-leeze!

Laying it on with a trowel

f all the following are true...

...then why am I feeling so profoundly embarrassed by Brian Williams's fawning hagiography of the Obamas in this special? Are there still, somewhere in the mists, the faint fumes of ink from my diploma for a B.A. in journalism wafting somehow in my direction? I doubt it, but I'm still embarrassed for him, nonetheless.

(And yet: I'm also still watching it.)

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Friday, December 12, 2008


What the Bleep Is Up with the Illinois 5th District?

Language, Please!

Chicago's Fox News outlet (so take it FWIW) is apparently reporting that Obama's incoming chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel, did in fact have multiple conversations with Governor Rod Blagojevich about the successor to Barack Obama's seat in the U.S. Senate. There's no intimation that they were looking to make a deal, only that Emanuel may have provided the governor with a list of names that would be be seen as "acceptable" to the Obama administration.

Given the transcripts reported by Patrick Fitzgerald's office from the wiretap of Blagojevich's other phone conversations, and given the reputation of Rahm Emanuel for expressing himself in ways that could make a longshoreman blush, it makes you wonder what's up with the folks in the Fifth Congressional District of Illinois? Are they all a bunch of swearing pottymouths? Or, as someone elsewhere has said, can you imagine the number of F-bombs dropped in a conversation between Emanuel and Blagojevich?

Emanuel is the current representative of the 5th District, until the inauguration, when he'll assume his new job. Blagojevich was his predecessor in that seat, before he became governor. And two before Blago, they had Dan Rostenkowski, who served 15 months in prison for his role in the House post office scandal. I can't find evidence online that Rostenkowski also punctuated his sentences with profanity, but I'm willing to go out on a limb here and bet that he wasn't the most reticent of inmates.

So, if you travel through the Fifth District in Illinois, does it just sound like an episode of the Sopranos? Do, like, grandmothers and clergy in Elmwood Park and Northlake talk that way?

I should point out that my own Congressman (Charlie Rangel) has his own history of saying some pretty salty stuff (he called Vice President Cheney a "real son of a bitch," but I can't say I disagree with him there), not to mention some ethical questions that have been raised about his rent (or lack thereof) on some apartments and not reporting income from some other apartments. But we like 'em salty in New York. I guess they do in Chicago, as well. Especially in that Fifth District. Bleep yeah!

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008


For The Ages

Mostly? Loved It!

he good news: at this point, it doesn't even need to be said, but that never stopped me. Talk about history. Someone pointed out that very, very few countries have elected or appointed someone of a racial minority to lead the country. The most obvious, prior to this, was Peru electing a man of Japanese descent (which didn't actually turn out too great for them). But no country near the size, power, or economy of the United States — well, there isn't one, but you know what I mean -- has done so. And yet I see something like this happen and I'm actually reminded of something Ronald Reagan quoted at the groundbreaking of his presidential library in Simi, California, from a letter someone had written to him not long before: "He said, you can go to live in another land — you can go to live in France, but you can't become a Frenchman. You can go to live in Germany, but you can't become a German. You can go to live in Japan or Turkey, and you cannot become Japanese or Turkish. But anyone, from any corner of the world, can come to live in the United States and become an American."

Leaving aside the Constitutional requirement that someone be born a citizen to become president, I'm still stunned at what it will say to the world on January 20 when, walking into any U.S. embassy anywhere in the world, visitors will see a photographic portrait of a son a Kenyan and a Kansan as America's president. Not only that, a man who still has relatives living today in both places. And yet, far from being born to a life of privilege, grew up to be elected the most powerful person in the world. That, to me, says more about what America means in the world as much as anything else we might say or write about our country or our history.

Thomas Friedman's article today was particularly excellent: which he says that "on Nov. 4, 2008, shortly after 11 p.m. Eastern time, the American Civil War ended, as a black man — Barack Hussein Obama — won enough electoral votes to become president of the United States."

Of course, not everyone is of the same mind. Paul Krugman's blog pointed out that some people (at least among those who write op-eds for the WSJ) think how President Bush has been treated by Americans only shows that we didn't deserve this great, great man:

On a more serious note, my excitement at yesterday's election results were tempered today to learn:

The Oklahoma state legislature is now controlled in both chambers by Republicans. (In this election, no less.) That is the first time since statehood that has been true. And in a state that is 11th out of 51 (including DC) in the percentage of people living in poverty and 8th in the nation for teenage pregnancies. (Not to mention 15th in the country for babies born to teenage and unwed mothers overall.) Of course, the reason I bring all this up about Oklahoma is because no state voted more firmly for McCain this election than Oklahoma. The one (admittedly lame) saving grace I can find in this fact is that Obama didn't lose Oklahoma any worse than Kerry did. Which means, maybe, that Oklahomans are against progress more than they're against black people? Yay, progress! Or, rather...yay, anti-progress?

More importantly—because I mostly (but sadly) expected those results from Oklahoma—I'm really bummed about the results on constitutional propositions in California, Arizona and Florida about marriage—with California the most prominent. Enshrining bigotry into the state constitutions of California, Arizona and Florida definitely felt like a slap in the face, hard enough to draw blood. Arizona was one thing; but that California and Florida could turn their back on racism but still vote for homophobia is kind of a tough thing to accept. I understand that these things improve over decades and even generations. But that didn't make those votes any less a slap and spit in the face. They weren't the first states to vote that way, but I'd hoped they wouldn't be the last. Now I guess I have to hope they are the last.


Monday, November 03, 2008


Here We Go...

Signs of Hope and Change

ere, on the eve of Election Day, it all comes down to this:


Saturday, October 18, 2008


October Surprises

A Roundup of News that Mattered to Me

It's strange what catches your attention in the news. For me, it's sometimes the same stuff that's on the 30-minute roundup that's considered "news" by the networks. Or the goofy points brought up by Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, who I swear has the same take as I do so often that I may just quit watching her, because even what she finds outrageous or amusing is exactly what I find amusing across the TV, Web and blogosphere regarding this election.

But herewith, in lieu of actual insight or thought (which I could never claim, anyway, for this blog, I fear) a collection of things I've noticed, shared on Facebook or in e-mail, or posted elsewhere.

For one thing, starting with today, Obama held a rally under the Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, which drew an estimated 100,000 people.

Yesterday, I ran across a link posted on a blog for an article The Onion ran back in January 2001, a satirical look ahead at the Bush Administration just getting ready to take office. It's downright eerie how prescient the gang of comedy writers who put this together was...and downright scary how closely the Bush Administration hewed to a plan that was supposed to be a satire.

Thursday night, both John McCain and Barack Obama put down the gloves and donned white tie just long enough to crack wise about themselves and their opponent at the Al Smith Dinner here in New York. (Al Smith was the Governor of New York who was the first Roman Catholic to run for president as the nominee of a major party in 1928. He lost to Herbert Hoover, so Smith obviously became a cultural favorite in hindsight, even though he also later opposed Roosevelt's New Deal program.) The dinner is sponsored by the Catholic diocese of New York and raises money for Catholic charities, who do a lot of work in this city. By tradition, the two presidential candidates address the dinner every four years (unless abortion politics intervene, as happened in 1996 and 2004).

Both candidates did an exceptional job, especially considering how tense things were between them the night before at the third debate. Definitely worth watching...

John McCain, Part 1

John McCain, Part 2

Barack Obama, Part 1

Barack Obama, Part 2

Speaking of that debate, like all of Barack Obama's supporters and none of John McCain's supporters, I thought the senator from Illinois won it (in a three-peat) over the senator from Arizona. Given this shot that came from the end of the debate, perhaps the gentleman from Arizona even agreed.

Of course, this led to all sorts of Photoshop resourcefulness on the part of many people...

Two other articles that are worth considering: In a recent issue of Vanity Fair, Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz had a few good suggestions about where we go, economically, from here (and what got us here in the first place). Read it here.

And, finally, the notion of an October surprise is, actually, a very real threat, and not a very amusing one. It could be that, with the September meltdown of the financial sector, the October surprise came a month early for everyone. Or it could mean that the one person who wants desperately for the Muslim world to be at war with America will do whatever he can and needs to do to swing Americans in as bellicose a direction as possible to further that war. This article reminds us that George Bush is the best thing that ever happened to Osama bin Laden's career. Read it here. What the article doesn't really address, is the equally true obverse: at least as far as George W. Bush's re-election was concerned, Osama bin Laden was the best thing to happen to him, as well. Despite seven years of neglecting bin Laden, not finding him, letting him slip out of our close clutches, and a spate of other al-Qaida action and videos, Republican presidents are still imagined by too many Americans as bin Laden's worst enemy. But given the way they approach international conflict, the most recent or the next possible Republican president continues to be bin Laden's best hope for his goal of total global warfare.


Wednesday, September 24, 2008


My First "Quote of the Day"

I'm So Proud

his from the wayback machine seems priceless, given the news:

More recently, instruments that are more complex and less transparent--such as credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and credit-linked notes—have been developed and their use has grown very rapidly in recent years. The result? Improved credit-risk management together with more and better risk-management tools appear to have significantly reduced loan concentrations in telecommunications and, indeed, other areas and the associated stress on banks and other financial institutions.

Remarks by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan
Before the Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, D.C.
November 19, 2002

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Fire Sale

Everyone Must Go!

ast week's financial sector meltdown certainly feels like a game changer to me. For one thing, capitalists are now on record as no longer believing in the power of the free market — or, rather, admitting it has an awesome power, greater than they expected, and therefore it needs some care and feeding — and tacitly admitting that needs to come with oversight.

The Tom Toles cartoon said it best. It showed a fireman, dressed sorta like Uncle Sam, pulling a Wall Street fatcat from a burning building, who is saying, "Wait! Let me go back and save my needlepoint 'Government isn't the solution, government is the problem' inspirational wall hanging."

I have no doubt that the Republicans, as adept as they are at self- and other kinds of deception will choose to remember this crisis differently, and much will depend on what happens over the next two weeks or so. But I for most people the meltdown last week demonstrated, once and for all, that unbridled market forces, "the invisible hand of the market," cannot, by itself, bring about all the good things that we want — especially if that includes stability.

Although I have a standard disclaimer on my site that "My thoughts/opinions ≠ My employer's thoughts/opinions," I also rarely post about anything related to business or technology, so that disclaimer should be fairly obvious. But in this case, I'm going to wonder aloud about some financial and business principles that I should restate clearly are just my own musings, and not at all the opinions of my employer.

Perhaps even more importantly, I should add the warning that I understand the financial world just enough to be dangerous to myself, but don't have the capital behind me to be very dangerous to too many others. So chalk up my ignorant statements here to just that, ignorance.

But my basic, overall take is that the financial industry got completely divorced from reality. "Wall Street got drunk," as George W. Bush famously said when he thought all the cameras were off. Got drunk and started have hallucinations is more like it. This quote, from David Leonhardt's excellent piece "Bubblenomics" in this past Sunday's Week in Review section of the Times, sums it up perfectly:
Benjamin M. Friedman, author of "The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth," recalled that when he worked at Morgan Stanley in the early 1970s, the firm’s annual reports were filled with photographs of factories and other tangible businesses. More recently, Wall Street’s annual reports tend to highlight not the businesses that firms were advising so much as finance for the sake of finance, showing upward-sloping graphs and photographs of traders.

"I have the sense that in many of these firms," Mr. Friedman said, "the activity has become further and further divorced from actual economic activity."

Exactly. The actual banking system — where we deposit money in a bank for some small interest and banks make money by loaning it out to other people at higher interest — and the actual economy for that matter — the stuff of balance sheets and income statements — needs to be the primary means of wealth building for the country or, frankly, we're doomed.

I don't know if short-selling, for example, is a bad thing or a good thing. Or a morally neutral thing. I've heard people say that it provides liquidity in the market — increases what's out there to be bought and sold, in other words. And everyone points out that it was short sellers who first clued in that Enron's finances were a house of cards, and their selling Enron short led to deeper examinations of its financial health and ultimately, uncovered, the mess. That may be. But it's also investing merely as gambling. It allows you to sell a stock you don't yet own. If the price drops, you make money; if it goes up, you lose money. (Basically the opposite of going "long" as an investor.) But unlike going long — buying a stock because you expect its value to increase — short selling allows you to play the market with that stock but not own it until the transactions are totaled up.

Short selling is a headache for companies — who, admittedly, only want their stock to go up, even when it probably shouldn't. But my problem with it is that it further divorces the investment from the thing being invested in. It's like "Beginning Derivatives 101," with the "investment" merely being a prediction and a bet to make money on it. And that, I think, is the overall problem with our financial house today.

Another example: a lot companies don't pay dividends. Now, that alone wouldn't have saved us from this crisis, although a company that can't or won't pay the owners may not have all its ducks in a line, either. I know, I know: many companies, like Berkshire Hathaway, don't pay dividends, they reinvest the profits back into the company, and people who got in early there have made fortunes with the rise of their value of their stock. But at some level I have to ask: is there anything tangible connected to the ownership of the stock, or is it merely the perceived value that someone is willing to buy it for that makes it of value?

I know the answer to that. Gold has no intrinsic value, and yet we've still got survivalist whackjobs out there who want our currency tied to it. And the money that's been made (and now lost) in the stock market for so many people has not primarily come from dividend payouts, not by a long shot.

All of that is probably okay. As long as, theoretically, a payout could be made, or if we sold all the assets I'd get some small part of the proceeds, then that's as good as an actual dividend. And gold may not be "worth" any more than granite except because someone else says it is, but at least it's a thing. What worries me about what's happened to the financial system is that we've flopped the importance of the actual economy with a shadow economy of placing bets on the actual economy. We look at balance sheets and cash flows and buy stock in a company — even though there is absolutely no connection to the activities or even income of the company and the rise or fall of its stock.

Here's a modest proposal. But first, some background, again from that excellent article by Leonhardt:
The classic measure of whether the stock market is overvalued is the price-earnings ratio, which divides stock prices by annual corporate earnings. At the height of the bubble, in 2000, companies in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index were trading at 36 times their average earnings over the previous five years. It was the highest valuation since at least the 1880s, according to the economist Robert Shiller.

By 2004, surprisingly enough, the ratio had dropped only to about 26, still higher than at any point since the 1930s. At the start of last year, it was still 26.

But after the market closed on Friday, the ratio was down to roughly 17, which happens to be about its post-World War II average. At least by this one measure, stocks are no longer blatantly overvalued.

So here's my proposal, or call it a musing:
What would be the downside of establishing price floors and ceilings for a stock based on its P/E ratio? Say (for the sake of the argument) a 5/1 floor and a 25/1 ceiling? That would leave the vast majority of stocks unaffected. Checking the Google Finance stock screener, I see that it lists 141 stocks (out of 3,606) with a P/E ratio of 5 or less — and 17 of those have a negative P/E ratio. So maybe something has to be in place to account for those, for whatever reason they're trading so low. On the other hand, it shows 855 stocks with P/E ratios above 25 (one solar-related company as high as 4900.) In fact, Google, the providers of the stock screener, show a current P/E of 28.27.

In theory, a high P/E ratio is investor's confidence that a firm will make a lot more money in the long run, hence making this stock of such value. But given the way we've changed "investing" into "gambling," it's now really only investor confidence that the price will keep going up, and the "E" part of the equation be damned, or at least ignored.

If we had a floor and ceiling on P/E ratios, I don't know what the impact would be, to be honest. Nor what the correct such floors and ceilings should be: 0 and 30? -5 and 40? The stock market would be far less exciting, I'm sure. There'd be a whole lot less volume traded. IPOs would have to be rethought and reconfigured.

Or make it a further ratio to volume, and let the companies themselves decide on an annual basis by a vote of shareholders? If you choose a -10 to 50 range for your P/E ratio, 24-hour trading volume for your stock is held at a smaller number than if you opt for a relatively tight 5 to 20 range. Once it hits its allowable number of trades on the exchange, trading on that stock is halted for the day.

Or maybe we don't worry about P/E ratios, but we worry about day traders and those turning the stock market into a casino. That would mean getting rid of short selling and, probably, also requiring that a stock be held for one bell closing before it can be sold. Or maybe we do both. Maybe we find a way to outlaw — or at least outlaw public companies — from tradiing in investments that are two, three, and five or more steps removed from actual things — real estate, shares in companies, metals, bonds, commodities, etc.

Obviously, I don't really know. And none of my goofy proposals around P/E ratios and trading volumes would have solved this particular problem. And do I know what the floor or ceiling rules for P/E ratios should be? Of course I don't. And the primary philosophical objection would be that "no one can know, so we should let the free market decide." Except, as we've seen now in the past few weeks, the free market doesn't know either. So — and here's the actual proposal — why don't we let democracy decide?

Or is that exactly how we got to this problem? I'm not sure. Fortunately, Barney Frank is far smarter about this stuff than I am.

In the political realm of all this, I have to point out the difference between these two candidates, based on their remarks on the economy last Friday, September 19:

I found these two examples very enlightening. For one thing, one of them is laying out four principles that any bailout should include, but said he'd withhold details of any plan to keep from politicizing what was being worked out between the Treasury Secretary and the Congress. (Now that we've heard the details of Paulson's plan, all three pages of 'em, Obama could probably be allowed to let loose with his commentary on it, if he hasn't already.)

The other (that would be McCain) bounced all over the map, making up new regulatory agencies even while he complains about the number of regulatory agencies. And, as part of that, he thinks a good "generalist" regulatory agency would be far more effective than the "specialist" agencies. I guess, by that line of thinking, there's really no need for all those cabinet positions, either, is there? Let's have the Treasury Department manage our federal prosecutors, the Navy, public forests, and gun licenses. (Oh, wait: they actually did do that last one for decades, until the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2002.)

And he yet again yelled for the head of the head of the SEC, Christopher Cox — basically for no reason other than wanting to blame someone and look "mavericky."

But more importantly, look at how McCain took this opportunity to basically campaign against Obama, blaming him for the crisis (somehow). Obama, on the other hand, took this speech as an opportunity to say that he, John McCain, President Bush, and the Democrats and Republicans need to come together to come up with a workable plan to this financial crisis. And that was essentially the extent of his remarks about John McCain.

Now which of these two men exhibited leadership?

Finally, are we seeing a trend here? The Bush Administration ignores a warning — "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the U.S." — and Al Qaeda attacks the United States. George Bush then says the only way to address this crisis of vulnerability is to give his administration sweeping powers, and Congress must act immediately to provide those powers. From that we get the Patriot Act.

Then Saddam Hussein — who was provided financing, agriculture credits, dual-use technology, chemicals, weapons and intelligency by the Reagan and Bush I administrations — was deemed a growing threat following the US-Iraq war (see "yellowcake"), and George W. Bush again demanded sweeping powers, a blank check that would total hundreds of billions of dollars, and no oversight from Congress so he could prosecute a "preventive war" (see "Bush Doctrine").

Now we're facing the worst financial crisis in 80 years, brought on by the deregulating glee with which the Republican administrations of the past three decades treated matters economic and financial. And the solution is yet again to give the Bush Administration a blank check totaling hundreds of billions of dollars and refusal of any oversight (or it will ignore the oversight).

There really wasn't any question before last week, but last week will add at least another two decades (to the at least five decades we were already guaranteed) to any kind of historical reassessment of George W. Bush:

Worst. President. Ever.

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Monday, September 15, 2008


A Black Hole


om made a good observation tonight: You know how they turned on the Large Hadron Collider last week in Switzerland, but people are worried it will create tiny black holes that will start sucking things into them, and they'll grow larger and larger? So who would have thought that it would have started with U.S. financial firms? Stephen Hawking, please call your office.

Today's financial news is pretty scary, and could get much scarier. It's one thing to have a Dow meltdown or a Black Monday. But when it's the actual financial firms that loan money to, fund, invest, broker, insure, collateralize, etc., all the other companies on the stock market, what happens then? Or, more to the point, what happens next?

Can someone ask John McCain if he still wants to privatize Social Security? He's pretty firmly on record for wanting to do so, but perhaps he'd like to rethink that.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008


What Passes for Leadership

But...Leaders Don't Lie, Do They?

'm sure many Republicans are happy to be back to normal "us versus them" politics. It seems the convention -- and Sarah Palin's nomination as VP in particular -- has energized the people who felt they otherwise would need to sit this party out, having brought us eight years of failure, incompetence, and -- not that they objected to this one -- deep partisanship. The whole point of the culture wars is to play the "us versus them" game.

Their whole approach since the convention has been to lie, only to be cheered on further by the people who like to win elections, rather than govern.

This has been the case since the 2000 election, but it's appearing in its purist form yet so far. The reason is simple: far more than than any other election in my memory, the Republican candidates are on the wrong side of the electorate on almost every issue. So they have nothing to run on except personal attacks and personal narratives.

And it works. We really are a divided country, and becoming more so with this election. I've written about this before, when I said there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think "clarity" is the same things as "truth" -- and those who think there are more than two kinds of people in the world.

It gets even simpler than that, however. Because a lot of voters basically just want to vote for someone who will go on the offensive. They misinterpret attacks, even (or especially) lies and distortions, as "leadership." They see McCain as willing to fight dirty and think: that's the kind of leadership I want to vote for.

That's what a slim majority voted for in 2004 and what slim minority voted for in 2000. One wouldn't have thought it possible based on the 2000 primaries, but given the McCain claims that Obama wanted to teach kindergarteners about sex or called Sarah Palin a pig, I have to say that this time around, McCain has managed to out-Bush Bush. Giving a new understanding to the tag line "more of the same." At this point, it's looking like "much more."

Despite the latest, post-RNC convention bounce for McCain, I'm still hopeful.
For one thing, I think this year voters may be more willing to vote based on the issues rather than the distraction tactics of the Republicans.
And I think there's still a lot more energy behind voting for Obama than there is for voting for McCain, Sarah Palin's nomination notwithstanding.

And I think McCain has been such a heinous liar of late -- approaching the levels of the less official but no less welcomed e-mail and rumor campaigns that are so patently false (faith; citizenship; raising taxes...) -- that a lot of people will wake up and decide not to elect another administration in the same mold as the one we've had for the past seven-plus years. But on that I'm obviously being hopeful, not predictive.

Two anecdotal bits of evidence added to my hope, however. For one, this article from August that Obama is outpacing McCain 6-to-1 in campaign contributions from currently deployed troops. That could change, become closer, even flop -- but it certainly implies something going on among military families. Especially when you consider that the Disabled American Vets gave Obama a 92% rating for voting with them, but gave McCain only 28%. Or that the Vietnam Vets of America also gave Obama a 92%, but gave McCain a 37%. And the Iraq and Afghanistan Vets of America gave McCain a rating of "D" but gave Obama a B-plus. Or why the same contributions analysis shows Obama with $335,536 from 859 service personnel (deployed or not), whereas McCain had only $280,513 from 558 such personnel. The point of the number or amount of contributions is far less important than what it may say about what active duty members are saying to their families, in-laws, and friends, who in turn influence others around them.

And then there was this I found out myself. In looking through the FEC data for donations this political cycle from the ZIP code in Oklahoma I grew up in (mostly upper middle class, mostly white, safely Republican, and did I mention it's in Oklahoma?), I found that through July, there was more money given to Democratic candidates than Republican candidates (Democrats: $81,178 vs. Republicans $72,586). More importantly, Obama recieved $46,300 in donations in this ZIP code from 52 people, whereas McCain received only $41,768 from 30 people. (As a proof point, Hillary Clinton received $30,945 from 39 people.)

These (military contributions and donations from a Republican Oklahoma ZIP code) are just two examples, and only reflect data through July. But as I say, they give me hope.

Finally, a few worthwhile points about this race:


Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Michelle Rocks

Best Speech by a Political Spouse Ever?

n listening to The Brian Lehrer Show this morning, a caller just said that she hated Michelle Obama's speech, that it was "too yearning, too sing-song." She wanted a harder edge; in fact, she admitted, she wanted Hillary Clinton.

Now, as I've said before, I like Hillary, I'll continue to vote for her as senator as long as she chooses to serve, and if she'd been the nominee, I'd be voting for her in November. But Hillary isn't a great speechmaker. She's got like two notes, and nowadays she uses them to pretty good effect, depending on the audience (she didn't use to), but otherwise, she generally gives a speech the way John McLaughlin sings lullabies.

I thought Michelle Obama's speech was superb. I thought Ted Kennedy's appearance was superb. It was great television, it was great political theater. If I could have had anything from the first night of the Democratic National Convention, it would have been a little more on pointing out Republican hypocrisy on the issues. That, I think, is the best way to make the intellectual case against that party and its nominee -- much as I appreciate the need for the gut-level, too-many-houses-to-remember charactizations, too. Campaigning that McCain would be four more years of Bush only goes so far; I don't think most McCain leaners think that, for the simple reason that he isn't Bush. But he's been a hypocrite in all his flip-flopping on issues. And the Republican positions overall are hypocritcal. (Tax cuts for the elite; support the troops, until they come home; compete globally by gutting education, etc. etc. etc.)

And I'm sensitive to the criticism that an "all Obama, all the time" convention only lends credibility to the charges of arrogance and that this is a coronation. So, if I were planning this schedule, now that "family night" is over, where it was all about the personal anyway, I'd make Tuesday and Wednesday night far more substantive. Which, given the speakers, I imagine it will be.

Speaking of Hillary and her speech tonight: she has a high bar to hit here, partly through no fault of her own, partly from her own fault. Why John McCain decided to run a number of ads (at least two so far) that use her statements from the primary race about Obama BEFORE she has a national audience to rebut them (and McCain) -- and same with Biden -- is beyond me. Seems kind of stupid. And as everyone points out, there's a whole bunch of Republicans on video that are going to make great ads for Obama after the GOP convention.

But it has also occurred to me and others: if Hillary had won the nomination, what statements from Obama's own mouth would McCain be using in advertising against her? I can't think of anything, but then I didn't get too much up in arms about either of their statements about each other, chalking it up to electioneering. So maybe there were a few and I didn't notice. But I'd still like to know the answer.


Saturday, August 23, 2008


Change, "Negative" Campaigning and Veterans

Change Isn't Just "Who." It's Also "How."

One thing that occurs to me about Biden as VP is that this really would be a very different administration than what we've seen for 8 years, which is really what Barack Obama is arguing for. Sure, Joe Biden has more seniority in the Senate than all but four of his colleagues there (since he's been in the Senate since he was 30). More important, however, is that Biden has always spoken his mind about what's right for his constituents or for America, and he's notoriously not a favorite of the K Street lobbyists for this very reason. In fact, he's listed as the "poorest" Senator in the Senate, despite his years of service and opportunities for, shall we say, "financial self-aggrandizement" (whereas John McCain is the "richest" -- because he married money).

But it's not whether Obama represents change -- he obviously does, unless you haven't seen our currency -- or whether Biden doesn't. The change comes in "how" the government operates, and the first step of that is nominating a VP who will argue forcefully within an administration for his point of view but not insist upon it, and maybe even speak out publicly when he is of a different mind. That's the way our early Republic worked, and if an Obama-Biden administration have some public dust-ups over policy proposals in the next four years, but can continue to respect each other and work together, that's one sign of a change in Washington, no doubt about it.

The charge that, by responding in tone and content to McCain's low-road attacks, Obama is going back on some pledge not to "attack" his opponent, here's what he actually said on November 10, 2007 (emphasis added):
"Our moment is now. I don't want to spend the next year or the next four years re-fighting the same fights we had in the 1990s. I don't want to pit Red America against Blue America. I want to be President of the United States of America.

"And if those Republicans come at me with the same fear-mongering and swift-boating that they usually do, then I will take them head on. Because I believe the American people are tired of fear and tired of distractions and tired of diversions. We can make this election not about fear, but about the future. And that won't just be a Democratic victory; that will be an American victory."

Finally, and probably most importantly, in July McCain claimed, "I have a perfect voting record from organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and all the other veterans service organizations." One problem with that: the VFW and American Legion don't compile congressional voting records.

Even more seriously, among those that do, McCain has a dismal record for veterans. According to the Disabled American Veterans, he has supported their issues only 34% of the time. Obama, on the other hand, has voted with disabled vets 89% of the time -- almost as much as McCain has voted with George W. Bush.

Another veterans group that tracks voting records, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, gives McCain a "D" -- since he voted to support their issues only 58% of the time. Obama supported this group's favored legislation 89% time, earning a B-plus.

More information (and from which I culled this information) is here, from the Central Shenandoah Valley News Leader.



Biden for VP. McCain calls Obama "Middle Class."

McCain Doesn't Speak for the McCain Campaign

o it's Joe Biden. I'm fine with that. Actually, pretty pleased. He's had his own gaffes, will have others, but nothing compared to McCain's outright lies, flip-flops, evasions, gaffes and misstatements. More on one of the latest ones in a minute.

Since ABC and other networks broke the news sometime after midnight that Obama had picked Biden, I'm wondering if the text message that went out around 3 a.m. was trying to get out in front of early morning reports or a subtle reference to the phone call that comes in at 3 a.m. Probably the former — but it's interesting to think of Mark Penn's cellphone beeping at 3 a.m. with the news that the U.S. senator with the most actual experience in foreign affairs was joining the Obama ticket.

he fact that McCain can't remember how many houses he owns — whether to live in, for investment purposes, or whatever — is a hilarious turn of events. It'll die down during the conventions, I expect, although several of the speakers at this next week's Democratic National Convention should build on that point further.

Did McCain & Co. really think no one was ever going to ask this question, if only for background purposes? And is it that hard to figure out — even if the answer is "We have one home we live in, one we use for my work in Virginia, two vacation homes, and then we have some investment properties" as some pundits have suggested as a possible answer. (That's still not exactly the right tone to set if labeling your opponent an out-of-touch elitist is your gameplan, but at least you don't look like Ritchie Rich or Scrooge McDuck.)

What I thought was even more inept, however, was the statement put out by the McCain campaign after Obama and surrogates made note of McCain's too-rich-to-know-how-rich statements. "Does a guy who made more than $4 million last year, just got back from vacation on a private beach in Hawaii and bought his own million-dollar mansion with the help of a convicted felon really want to get into a debate about houses? Does a guy who worries about the price of arugula and thinks regular people "cling" to guns and religion in the face of economic hardship really want to have a debate about who's in touch with regular Americans?"

Leaving aside the Rezko reference — which, frankly, is really lame and a stretch as a scandal (see sidebar) — the libel against the 50th state as something exotic and elite, and the ridiculous jab at U.S. farmers who grow anything other than iceberg lettuce, what struck me most about this flailing was the first line about the Obama's income (which is mostly from book sales). Whoever wrote this (McCain spokesperson Brian Rogers) didn't watch his own candidate at Saddleback Church last weekend, apparently. According to McCain himself, the Obamas are middle-class — since he said himself "rich" doesn't kick-in as a description before you hit $5 million.

On the other hand, the McCain campaign has indicated several times that John McCain doesn't speak for the McCain campaign. This would apparently be the latest such example.

I realize so many of my latest posts (the air conditioning issue aside, which has been resolved) have been about politics — it's an election year, after all. But I've also been reading some interesting scripture as part of the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer in the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer. So, the next time one of these strikes me as something worth thinking further about out loud (well, here), I probably will. You've been warned.


Friday, August 08, 2008


The Cranky Old Man (Me, Not McCain)

Air-Conditioning Hassles and John Edwards Get My Dander Up

hey say you're not supposed to call old significant others when you're drunk (or do a lot of other things, for that matter). I think for me, the rule would be you shouldn't blog when you're cranky. Unfortunately, no one took away the keys to the blog as I was getting crankier and crankier today. Let me walk you back through it...

Sometime last night, the window-unit air conditioner in my bedroom decided the compressor was optional. "We're cutting you off! We have to think of the rest of the us: the fan, the coils, the stupid timer that only goes up to 12 hours! It's every feature for him- or herself!" So now it only blows air, a slightly warmed variation of whatever is outside.

As anyone who has lived with me knows, I'm pretty much tied to air conditioning indoors in the summer. I'm okay being outside in the heat and humidity for awhile, but when I'm inside, I want it cool. I want it cold if I'm sleeping. I want condensation on windows, if possible.

So that started me off on the wrong foot today, and it isn't just the hassle of replacing a window-unit air conditioner. That would have been the case at one time, with my old windows. But in their collective wisdom, my co-op board decided every apartment in the co-op (all 500-and-something units, across five different buildings around a central garden) needed new windows, and they had to all be the same, and it didn't matter if your current windows were just fine, worth 2-3 times what the replacements would be (my case), or the drafty originals from 1939. We were all getting new windows.

I objected strenuously, but I also recognized that I live in a cooperative. Outside of New York, that maybe doesn't mean anything to anyone. And, in day-to-day practice, a "co-op" and a "condo" are practically interchangeable. But unlike in a condominium, I don't actually own my apartment, I own shares in the overall cooperative, and am assigned (or maybe I lease? not sure the legal definition) my individual apartment. Like a co-op, I pretty much own the apartment "from the paint in." Which means I don't own the windows, as they're structural and part of the outside of the building too -- and uniformity on the outside was an issue for the co-op board, even though my original windows matched the color scheme of the others very well, they were just far better quality, and I'm on a floor that has slightly different windows anyway from the other floors.

So I gave up the fight about the windows, and probably had the value of my apartment reduced by about 5K or more, I'm guessing. Whatever.

But when it came time to re-install the window-unit air conditioners -- the co-op's buildings are too old to have central air, unfortunately -- they kind of kluged together a solution that essentially involves soldering and sealing the cabinet of your window unit into the open window, using Plexiglass for the side panels, if needed, and lots of clear caulk.

Which is what this means, now that one of those hermetically sealed air conditioners has died on me: I will probably need to schedule a time (and pay) for a window crew to come and take out the current AC unit, get delivery on a new unit from the people who sold me the last one (since it's still under extended warranty, and they'll replace it for the same value) and they take away the old unit, then get the window crew back to install the new unit. If I'm exceedingly lucky, I can get the current unit out, separate from the "cabinet" that houses it, and can get a new AC unit that will fit inside that same cabinet (i.e., the same model, if they still sell it), so the window crew doesn't need to be involved. That is the big question mark at present. All previous attempts to figure out how to remove the AC from the cabinet have failed -- as if it, too, had been sealed in when they sealed in the whole AC to the window -- but I have a newfound urgency to solving that problem, so in the depths of my frustration, there is some hope, somewhere. Meanwhile, I just want the evening temperatures in New York City to remain cool-ish here in August until I have a new air conditioner that can best the humidity.

So it is with all this as background that I started work today, from home (in the still-air-conditioned living room). A friend told me last night that he's decided he "doesn't suffer fools gladly"; he "makes fools suffer." That strikes me as a pretty harsh frame of mind to go through life with -- with more harm, ultimately, to the harm purveyor than the sufferer -- but I admit that became my mental frame of mind today, already annoyed by the air conditioning fiasco.

I have to say, however, that I work with very smart and yet still very real people, and in all the conversations I had today at work, I was struck by how decent and, well, human my colleagues can be. I don't often talk about work on this blog, for a variety of reasons, the primary one being that I've already got a professional platform, being in Communications there, but I don't want the two -- and -- ever confused. (As if.) But I have to say that the people I work with on a regular basis and the vast majority of people I connect with for ad hoc purposes are really decent and helpful folks, in spite of vacation schedules, family pressures, health issues, executives breathing down their necks, whatever it is. That alone helped me get some perspective on the day, but then came Big Annoyance Number Two: John Edwards.

Dude, what in the hell were you thinking? Seriously.

Let's leave aside the fact that you cheated on your ill wife. That would be bad enough, but the entire nation is already feeling sympathy for her, so you were just looking to be the asshole that made her life worse, weren't you? But let's put that aside for a moment, because politics is an ego game to some degree to begin with, and John McCain has done much worse. He cheated on his sick wife, too, but went ahead and divorced her to marry the blonde chick he'd cheated with. (That would be the present Mrs. McCain -- an admitted drug addict who stole prescriptions from poor kids to support her habit. But she's clean now. Whew.)

But, Senator Edwards, how stupid do you have to be to think that your affair isn't going to get discovered and reported on, especially if you're running for President of the United States?

You dolt. I supported you. I sent you money, which you apparently turned around to pay for "videos" (heh heh) produced by your paramour for your Web site -- despite her not having much background or talent to do such.

Infidelity has affectecd the lives of all the front runners' families other than the Obamas (as far as we know so far), from the McCains to the Clintons to now the Edwardses. So more importantly, it's the hypocrisy that makes me cranky. You said you couldn't support the right of gays and lesbians to marry because it conflicted with your personal religious beliefs about marriage. And, from what I've been able to determine, you were "undecided" on the Family Medical Leave Act or immigration rights applying to same-sex couples.

To your credit, you favored the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." And you cosponsored the act that adds protections based on sexual orientation to hate crimes legislation. And I have to say, I even respected the way the you expressed your opposition to gay marriage (even if that was only to play both sides of the electorate) by explaining that you weren't there yourself, but your wife and kids had made it clear that they thought you were wrong. That was a much more honest answer than what I heard from Obama or Clinton, at least, who are still neanderthals on this issues.

But -- and I'm sorry, but I have to say it -- your saying that a gay relationship isn't worthy of the status of "marriage" under Federal law even while you're debasing your own heterosexual, government-endorsed marriage is the height of hypocrisy.

I'm mad at you for a number of reasons, John. (And, having sent you money, most recently the exact day before you pulled out of the race in fact, I feel we can speak on a first-name basis, at least.) But not least among them is that you chose to debase my relationship on the grounds that yours was somehow more sacred -- and then didn't even honor that.

So, all in all, a cranky day. Not without reason. Here's hoping tomorrow, for everyone, is a better one.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008


Here's How It's Done

McCain Shows How Lying Can Make Your "Larger Point"

rom Katie Couric's interviews with Obama and McCain on CBS this evening:

Obama: There is no doubt that our troops helped to reduce violence.

Less than two minutes later:

McCain: To deny that their sacrifice didn't make possible the success of the surge in Iraq I think does a great disservice to the young men and women who are serving and have sacrificed.

Huh? He didn't say it -- in fact, he implied the opposite -- but Couric let McCain have the last word on that, regardless of whether it reflected the truth she'd just reported herself. But she was looking for a fight between the two, not any real examination of the issue.

For example, much as I want to like Katie Couric, she tends to ask dumb questions and makes dumb comments: "Senator McCain, you sound very frustrated with Senator Obama's perspective." Even he indicated that wasn't really relevant.

What actually is frustrating, Katie, is that you and everyone else are buying McCain's line that "the surge in troops has brought down violence in Iraq, therefore I have the better judgment." Violence has also declined in some places we don't even have troops. More importantly, this is basically saying, "See, we're making progress in fixing the problems we created," whereas Obama is saying, "Not only should those problems not have been created, your obsession on them has kept us from addressing even bigger problems that are becoming an even bigger threat."

But you don't get a real exploration of that in the binary world of media coverage -- he said, he said; who's right, who's wrong; answer the question, yes or no -- which, not coincidentally, the right-wing likes to frame everything in. And because this makes the media's job easier, it works.

Obama's right to keep the focus on "what is strategic." Because even if he does, the network news certainly isn't.

Stephen Colbert summed up the ridiculous way this is currently being discussed, in his interview Monday night with Sen. Jim Webb (who also made the point that, surge or no, fighting in Iraq wasn't and isn't in the strategic interests of the U.S., even though our military will do the job that's put to them and almost always have). Colbert argued, "I will grant you that perhaps it was a foreign policy disaster to go in, based on shoddy evidence. But now that the surge is working, it was worth it!" As usual, Colbert's character on Comedy Central shows just how stupid what passes for punditry is elsewhere on TV.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008


16 Months: May 2010?

Nouri al-Maliki Suggests Obama Gets Iraq Better than McCain Does

So the American people want a timetable for getting us out of Iraq. Barack Obama has said he wants us out of Iraq in 16 months, more or less (assuming he means from the time he's in office and able to set that in motion). Now the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, says he thinks the US should be out of Iraq in about the same timeframe. Which is, to say the least, awkward for John McCain, who has said we'll get out when al-Maliki thinks we should. John McCain, check your voicemail... .

In other foreign affairs news, as Obama makes his way eastward (and middle eastward), McCain has a new ad slamming him for never once holding hearings on Afghanistan as chair of a Foreign Relations subcommittee. Only two problems with that: Joe Biden, the Foreign Relations chair, has held a number of hearings on Afghanistan, and Obama attended at least one of them. And John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services committee, has attended none of the six Afghanistan-related hearings his own committee has held in the last two years.

I'm cynical enough to believe that McCain's ad will work with many voters, anyway. And, apparently, McCain is that cynical as well. Just a bit ago, he and his party were accusing the Democrats of "playing politics" by voting to restore doctor's fees under Medicare. Only problem with that is that when it was time to vote, where was the GOP's nominee? Out on the hustings, playing politics. In fact, he was the only senator to miss that vote. But he says he would have voted against it, anyway. Apparently he's one senior who thinks his health care is just fine and doesn't need to worry whether his doctor will opt out of Medicare or not.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008


What I Don't Get

Three Things Among Many

I honestly do not get this controversy about The New Yorker cover. If you haven't seen it, I'm not sure how you've missed it. But here it is (click for a larger version):

It's obviously satire, showing Michelle Obama with a big '70s Afro and Black Panther radical garb and gunfire, giving a "terrorist fist jab" to her husband, dressed in a dashiki and turban. There's an American flag burning in the Oval Office fireplace, and a portrait of Osama bin Laden above the mantel.

Basically, it's demonstrating the ridiculousness of all the goofy e-mail rumors your "low-information" voter friends may be sending around. Along the same lines of Stephen Colbert's mentions of Obama as a "secret Muslim," or Jon Stewart's nightly "Baracknophobia" segments. But many Obama supporters (and I count myself one, but certainly part company on this issue) are up in arms that someone has drawn a cartoon illustrating all these slanders that are already out there about the Obamas.

You read arguments like: "Too many voters won't read The New Yorker, they'll just see the cover and it will confirm their suspicions." "If National Review or the American Spectator had done this, what would be the difference?" "We can't afford the possibility that this will give fodder to the right-wing."

Each of those are stupid arguments. If this cartoon confirms anyone's suspicions, they weren't pulling the lever for Obama anyway. If National Review or the American Spectator had displayed this cover -- unless they're making fun of their own audience, which is unlikely -- it would have been a form of commentary about their worst fears, not satire. (And using a cartoon would be sending a decided mixed message in such an instance.) And I still don't see how this provides any fodder to any of the wingnuts that they're not already employing -- that, in fact, is the point of the satire.

For every idiot who sends this around as proof that "even the LIBERAL New Yorker thinks the Obamas are radical Muslims," I'm convinced there will be even more on-the-fence voters who see this as the satire it is, and in their minds, it takes the issue off the table: "Ha ha, Yeah, I guess those are pretty ridiculous suppositions my crazy brother-in-law keeps sending me." Even if they don't see the satire, but are offended on Obama's behalf, it makes them more sympathetic to the idea that the right-wing is slandering him, and so has the same effect.

Other than Internet fundraising and the Bush Administration's own ineptitude, the only consistently effective weapon in the progressive movement's arsenal has been satire. We'd be stupid to throw that away in the fear that someone might not see it for what it is.

Maybe I'm more loyal to The New Yorker than I am to the Obama campaign (I've been a reader and subscriber a lot longer than I've been a Democrat, I guess). But I don't think you win an election by demanding everyone on your side be as dumb as the people you're opposing. You need to be more politically savvy, you don't need to be dumber.

And if there are people crazy enough to see this cartoon cover as confirmation of their suspicions that Barack and Michelle Obama are Huey P. Newton and Angela Davis for the iPod generation, maybe they'll subscribe to The New Yorker. They may think they're getting Sean Hannity in print, but they'll really be getting Seymour Hersh and Hendrik Hertzberg. and there's a nice poetic justice in that.

The title of the cover, by the way, as reported on the ToC is "The Politics of Fear." Prescient, that.

Another thing I don't get: all the talk about Obama "moving toward the center" -- or moving rightward, leaving the center in the rearview mirror, in some people's eyes.

On almost all of the issues cited, as he said himself, if people think he's now moving to the center, they haven't been listening to him. He was already on record as believing that the Second Amendment recognizes an individual's right to bear arms (rather than a state militia's collective right, as I believe). He was already on record that some crimes (including the rape of a child, although he'd always included "and murder" in that formula) could warrant the death penalty, whereas I don't believe the state has any right to commit revenge murder on behalf of citizens. And Obama was already on record that local institutions, some of them faith-based (e.g., churches) often provide the most effective social services for the population that most needs them. (A position with which I agree; my own politically liberal Episcopal parish's food pantry relies in part on federal funds in order to hand out groceries to people who need them.)

Only on the new FISA law can I see signs of shifting positions, and I admit I don't know enough about the details (other than the telecom immunity) to judge whether this newer law really is better than the older law or not, and whether telecom immunity was worth getting it. I suspect I'd disagree with Obama's position here, too, but maybe not. However, I'm pretty sure it was the wrong choice politically, and will show up in lackluster fundraising at exactly the time Obama can't afford lackluster fundraising.

Speaking of fundraising, that wasn't a flip-flop. Or if it was, it was probably a good one. (And we've had almost eight years of a president who refused to change his mind about anything, so I don't see a foolish consistency being anything other than what Emerson said it was.) He hadn't committed to public financing, just to exploring it, And I think -- if he can remain an inspiring candidate people want to donate to, which is a big if -- he made the right call there. Public financing from the actual public really is better than forced spending, if you've got a wide enough number of contributors participating. Otherwise, it's just special interest money. The McCain campaign tried to portray Obama's decision to eschew public financing of his campaign as evidence that he's just another typical Washington politician -- which hardly flies. After all, he's the first presidential candidate to turn public campaign money down since the program was created in 1971.

Finally, among the things I also don't understand is the lingering animosity between Obama and Clinton supporters. I mean, I get it, but it was way out of proportion throughout the primaries and continues to be even now. I voted for Obama in the primary (my first choice, Edwards, having dropped out); the person I'm closest to voted for Clinton. We were both fine with that, and both said we'd be happy to vote for either of them in the general election.

But we're obviously off in some fantasy land, because to read the online commentary, at least, Hillary is an angry, conniving witch who is willing to say anything or do anything to get elected. And Barack is an unqualified empty suit who is willing to say anything or do anything to get elected. He's a confirmed misogynist. Bill and Hillary are lifelong racists. And I'm like...huh?

What I would find amusing if it didn't show signs of so many people I know and respect becoming so seriously unhinged is that most of the critiques of one side against the other are near mirror images, or at least cracked mirror images. Hillary supporters see misogyny in every anti-Hillary statement during the campaign -- of which there was some, sometimes a lot, from the pundits, to be certain -- but don't see any racism at all in Bill's or Hillary's (or even Geraldine Ferraro's) comments that alluded to race and racial lines in voting. Obamaniacs see racism and the assumption of white privilege in every utterance of the Clinton campaign -- but can't even hear themselves when they say really hateful things about Hillary Clinton that were probably last said when they were 15 and screaming at their mothers because she wouldn't let them stay out late on a school night.

Or, to put it another way, what Democrats liked about either of these candidates is one-half of what was Bill Clinton's appeal for them. For some, his policy wonkery made him a superb president, and they see how his wife shares that passion for the details. For others, he was an inspiring speaker and a personable character, and they want Obama because he makes them feel passionate about politics again (or for the first time, for many of them). Although I'm sure Bill doesn't see it this way, Hillary and Barack were each running against the other half of Bill's personality that people found appealing.

NB: Given what we've had in the years since, I miss having someone smart like him as president, but I was never that thrilled with him when he was in office. His returning to Arkansas during the campaign to deny a mentally retarded man a stay of execution was, for me, the equivalent of Obama's FISA vote. And when he signed DOMA -- and then crowed about it in campaign ads on Christian radio stations -- I figured he was about as ideologically pure as, well, Obama's critics are now calling him.

In fact, now that I've gone there, I suppose I have viewed both Hillary and Barack this year with some ambivalence, and therefore find the charges of sexism and racism so overwrought. After all, both candidates have trashed my demographic's full equality, but you don't see me running for the door marked "Nader." Or feeling much sympathy for the other poor put-upon folks being told to stand in line for their issues.

I don't think Hillary lost because of sexism; I think she lost because (a) she's been a polarizing figure all her public life, and had the highest negatives of any of the Democratic candidates, and (b) she ran a stupid campaign after Super Tuesday. She had a senior strategist who hadn't grokked that the Democratic primaries awarded delegates in proportion to the primary results, and couldn't figure out how to win caucus states, so didn't really try. She also had way too much infighting on her campaign to wage an effective general election battle.

She lost, in other words, to someone who proved to be a better politician, and so I guess I'm glad he won. I'm hoping (and voting, and contributing on the premise that) he can trounce John McCain as well. He wasn't my first choice when all this began, and we may well look back on this as yet another stupid nomination by a party that can't win even the unloseable elections. ("Here's an idea: let's nominate a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts who actively protested against fellow soldiers in the Vietnam War. If we remind people he fought in it, that's all they'll remember." Uh huh.) This year may best be remembered as the year the Democrats nominated a little-known black senator from urban Chicago, a self-described "skinny kid with big ears and a funny name" (and an even funnier middle name), and we'll have to add Obama as a partner to the firm of Mondale, Dukakis & Kerry, losers-at-elections. Maybe not.

So have we ended up nominating a John F. Kennedy this year or an Adlai Stevenson? Only history (and the election results) will tell.


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