Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"Pope Francis's message and tone are making Catholic Republicans a little uncomfortable"

A couple of weeks ago I wrote: Pope Francis, Catholic Conservatives and the Republican Party where I suggested that this Pope is likely to cause a strain in the relationship of Catholics with the GOP. Since then we've learned that, in his speech at the UN General Assembly, the Pope will issue an edict urging the world's 1.2 billion Catholics to do what they can to fight climate change.

And so today, Kevin Cirilli at The Hill writes: Pope Francis Drives a Wedge Between the Catholic Church, GOP.
Pope Francis is increasingly driving a wedge between conservatives and the Catholic Church.

The magnetic pope has sparked new enthusiasm around the world for the church and has flexed his political muscles internationally, most recently by helping to engineer a new relationship between the United States and Cuba.

But Francis’s agenda, which also includes calls to address income inequality and limit climate change, is putting him at odds with Republicans, including GOP Catholics in the United States.

“Oh my gloria, this is a definite change in tone from being a 'scolder-in-chief' to being the one who identifies with the pain in our world,” said Simone, who organized the “Nuns on a Bus” cross-country tours.

“Pope Francis's message and tone are making Catholic Republicans a little uncomfortable,” Simone said. “He's stirring the concern on issues like poverty and the economy.”
As I said before - this is definitely something to keep an eye on.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Photo of the Day: All Grown Up

A lot of people have been talking about how President Obama has aged during his tenure in the White House. But the dramatic change has come elsewhere. Take a look at the family on election night November 2008.

Now take a look at them this month at the annual Christmas in Washington celebration.

Yes, the President has aged. But Malia and Sasha...OH MY!!!!

American Leadership

Most of us have forgotten by now, but at the time that President George W. Bush gave his 2004 inaugural address, it was considered to be the best speech of his presidency. A word cloud would undoubtably show that he used the word "freedom" more than any other.
We are led, by events and common sense, to one conclusion: The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.

America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.
For many of us though, this speech felt like a major attempt to justify President Bush's decision to invade Iraq.
From all of you, I have asked patience in the hard task of securing America, which you have granted in good measure. Our country has accepted obligations that are difficult to fulfill, and would be dishonorable to abandon. Yet because we have acted in the great liberating tradition of this nation, tens of millions have achieved their freedom. And as hope kindles hope, millions more will find it.
While we know from the words and deeds of President Obama that he shares the ultimate goal that President Bush addressed in this speech, he has drawn a sharp line in rejecting the means our former president employed to accomplish it. Here's how he addressed that in his interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep:
I think that the challenge that we're going to have is a recognition that we are hugely influential; we're the one indispensable nation. But when it comes to nation-building, when it comes to what is going to be a generational project in a place like Libya or a place like Syria or a place like Iraq, we can help, but we can't do it for them.

Now, I think the American people recognize that. There are times here in Washington where pundits don't; they think you can just move chess pieces around the table. And whenever we have that kind of hubris, we tend to get burned. Where we're successful is where we see an opportunity, we put resources in, we support those who are trying to do the right thing for their society; and every so often, something breaks.
And so, when it comes to a country like Iraq, here is where President Obama parts ways with former President Bush.

Towards the end of the interview with NPR President Obama said something that was rather puzzling.
America's never been in the business of colonizing other countries and grabbing their resources; we've never been in the business of bullying folks into doing things that we can't do for ourselves. Where we have done that, by the way, it's never worked out all that well. That's not our best tradition.

Our best tradition is when we just lead by example and when we are strong and secure and we're standing up for what we believe in. And we're in a great position to do that right now.
The first sentence in that quote is simply not true...we have covertly colonized other countries, grabbed their resources and played the bully. And the next two sentences from the President acknowledge that fact.

This is a manner of speech from President Obama that I've seen before. He tends to focus our attention on this country's ideals - much as he based his 2008 speech about racism on our founding ideals. The President often speaks aspirationaly rather than descriptively.

I have to admit that I struggle with this pattern a bit. After all, what was the invasion of Iraq but one giant attempt at bullying. To use a another example, an awful lot of Americans are not aware of the context of the Cuban revolution that led - eventually - to the embargo. Fidel Castro's association with the USSR was a direct result of the fact that the United States used our influence with President Batista (a ruthless dictator) to grab Cuba's resources. None of that is meant to excuse the abuses of the Castro regime. But the United States was complicit. As President Obama said, it was not our best tradition and it didn't work out all that well in the end. So it would be helpful for us to learn from those kinds of mistakes.

I am aware, however, that even though President Obama shades his references to our past in this way, he is still accused of going on apology tours around the globe (four pinocchios from the fact-checker) and entire movies are made about his so-called "anti-Americanism."

And yet I long for the day when even our president can talk honestly about both the good and bad we've done as a country. That is another way we could lead by example. But it apparently requires more strength and security than we can muster right now.

"A Lot of the Work That We've Done Is Now Beginning to Bear Fruit"

During his interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, President Obama rejected the idea that his recent actions have simply been a response to the defeat of Democrats in the 2014 midterm election and instead suggested that he is now "liberated" to tackle things that he didn't have the capacity to accomplish previously.
...I have spent six years now in this office. We have dealt with the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression. We have dealt with international turmoil that we haven't seen in a lot of years.

And I said at the beginning of this year that 2014 would be a breakthrough year, and it was a bumpy path.

But at the end of 2014, I could look back and say we are as well-positioned today as we have been in quite some time economically, that American leadership is more needed around the world than ever before — and that is liberating in the sense that a lot of the work that we've done is now beginning to bear fruit. And it gives me an opportunity then to start focusing on some of the other hard challenges that I didn't always have the time or the capacity to get to earlier in my presidency.
The President then listed the four domestic issues that consumed most of his first six years: the financial crisis, health care reform, educational reform and immigration reform. While each of those will require continued work, Americans are beginning to realize the fruits of his administration's focus on those major goals.

Now our Chief Executive is saying that his strategic vision will pivot to something he identifies as a "long-term project:"
But what is true is that I'm in a position now where, with the economy relatively strong, with us having lowered the deficit, with us having strong growth and job growth, for the first time us starting to see wages ticking up, with inflation low, with energy production high — now I have the ability to focus on some long-term projects, including making sure that everybody is benefiting from this growth and not just some.
When, during his end-of-the-year press conference, the President said that "interesting stuff happens in the fourth quarter," keep in mind that's the ball he has his eye on right now.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Tangle and the Weave

As 2014 draws to a close, a lot of pundits are taking time for reflection on the last 12 months. I am particularly impressed with what Paul Krugman and Michael Grunwald have written along those lines. If you haven't already read what they have to say, I strongly suggest that you do so.

For an alternative view, take a look at what Daniel Drezner wrote in his 2014 recap.  He basically embraces an assumption that 2014 was awful...but it could have been a lot worse.
‘There have been worse years in recent history,” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote, “but 2014 definitely stands out for the sheer variety of awfulness.” That sentiment captures the popular perception of a year that can’t seem to end soon enough...

But what if 2014 turned out better than expected? Thinking about what actually happened this past year may not be the best way to judge it. After all, an awful lot of smart people predicted a lot of even-more-terrible things that never came to pass.
In recapping all of the "awful" about 2014, Drezner includes the following:
  1. Increased racial polarization
  2. Russia invading Ukraine
  3. Emergence of ISIS
  4. Stagnated euro-zone economies
  5. Ebola
  6. Pakistani Taliban massacre of school children
  7. North Korean threat to "The Interview"
I have to question whether that list adds up to anything more awful than any other year. The truth is that bad things happen pretty regularly in the world. If that were our measurement, couldn't we round up enough bad news to proclaim every year awful?

It's interesting to note that Drezner's point about how things could have been worse is all based on the fact that we have dealt pretty effectively with the challenges that 2014 brought us. He ends with quoting President Obama at his year-end news conference.
And, you know, part of what I hope, as we reflect on the new year — this should generate . . . some confidence. America knows how to solve problems.
That pretty well summarizes the difference that President Obama has been talking about for months now between cynicism and hope.

To assume that we should measure our lives based on whether or not bad things happen in the world is to believe in a level of control that is illusory. The struggle will not end. Unless/until we grasp that, we are destined for cynicism.

I am reminded of a quote from the book The Healing by Jonathan Odell. Polly Shine is teaching her apprentice Granada the art of healing. She tells her that her mother's people in Africa were the finest weavers in the world.
"She told me the secret...what made them so fine, mother after daughter after grandaughter, all the way down the line."

"What was it Polly?"

"She say, the difference in weavers is, some see the tangle and others see the weave. The ones that can't take their eyes off the tangle, they never rise above it."
It is paying attention to the weave that gives us confidence...and hope.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Jock vs Geek settled...I win!

I've had a long-running feud with Chipsticks about whether President Obama is a jock or a geek (nerd). Evidently the verdict is in.
When the cameras aren’t rolling, President Obama ponders honeybee colony collapse disorder, fusion energy, and climate change. In truth, he’s a real “science geek.”

That’s at least according to John Holdren, Obama’s chief adviser on science and technology. In an NPR interview reported by The Hill, Holdren said he believes Obama is the “most science-aware president since Thomas Jefferson.”
So...its Nancy for the WIN!!! But don't worry Chipsticks, I won't rub it in too much.


Ten Memorable Photos from 2014

Here are some of my favorite moments from 2014.

10. This is exactly why I'm a dog-lover

9. The Listener-in-Chief

8. This year brought a lot of POTUS fashion commentary. I personally got a kick out of all the pearl-clutching over this one.

7. But the media went into full freak-out mode over this.

6. As a strong supporter of AG Holder, I was disappointed when he announced that he was leaving the administration. Not to steps Loretta Lynch.

5. A 2014 recap has to include something about the protests in Ferguson. I can think of no picture that demonstrates what it's all about better than this one.

4. I've always been a bit of a nut about Stonehenge. So of course, I enjoyed this day a lot.

3. The #PrezRezVisit was a true highlight of the year.

2. Nothing...and I mean nothing...captures the politics of 2014 better than this one.

1. And finally, the VERY BEST of 2014 - hands down, no contest!!!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Gender Bender-in-Chief

While all the kids are busy playing with their new toys, President Obama has been sending a message.

Girls can play ball.

And boys can wear tiaras.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

What Would Jesus Say/Do?

On the night that we celebrate the birth of Jesus, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on some of the things he said/did during his life among us - especially as it relates to things that are topics of discussion today.

On the separation of church and state:
Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.

Mark 12:17
On prayer in public places:
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:5-6
On income inequality:
Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Matthew 19:24
On our obligation to the poor and oppressed:
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 24:34-40
Summing it all up:
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

Matthew 7:12
But it wasn't just the words Jesus said. The life he lived demonstrated that he walked his talk. As I usually do at this time of year, I'd like to quote from something kid oakland wrote about that 10 years ago.
Let me tell you something about the Jesus that I know.

He was a real man. Born in a poor region to working poor parents. He loved learning, he loved his mother and his father.

But he left them and spent his life with the poor, the outcast, the rejected, the defiled, the sick, the sinners, the bedraggled, the bereft, the self-hating, the lonely, the banished, the foul, the miserable, the desperate and finally, those sick with their own power.

He did this, not because of his ideology or his creed. He did this not because of his doctrine. He did this, quite simply, because he loved them. He preferred them.

Their company, their stories, their lives, their environs, their plight and their faith.

And they loved him. Because he touched them. He looked them in the eye and believed in them. Because, at the end of the day, when they looked to him they saw that his commitment to them was a commitment unsullied by qualifier or clause. It was a commitment to love them, even upon pain of death. And they saw in him, a love that promised to love them as they were, who they were...fully, without judgement or flinching glance, or hypocritical accommodation.

This man, Jesus, was surrounded by friends and disciples whom he mentored....not by carping or enforcing rules...but by example and teaching. By the force of his actions. By his resolute commitment to the least, the smallest, the most in need.
The Christmas carol that represents this to me more than any other - and has always been my favorite - is Oh Holy Night, which was written by French composer Adolphe Adam in 1847. The second verse is especially relevant today. Take a listen. And no matter whether or not you celebrate the birth of Jesus, my wish is that your soul will feel its worth today...and always.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Midday Music Break: 93 Million Miles and "Home" for the Holidays

OK. I'm finally going to admit it publicly...I have a ginormous crush on Jason Mraz. And he's not helping me get over it one little bit with this:

We are off the earth, for the earth. NASA and its international partners have successfully been living continuously on the International Space Station (ISS) for over 14 years. This “Home” in space gives us a tremendous view of earth our home. During 6 month missions to space, Astronauts and Cosmonauts are able to communicate with their families in their homes.

As NASA begins to explore beyond low earth orbit, “Home” will take on a whole new meaning. Home is inside of you, whether its mars, the ISS, earth, or where you hang your hat (space helmet). This video is set to the song “93 Million Miles” by Jason Mraz. Intermixed are selections of video that show the beauty of planet Earth (home) as seen from the space station and scenes of astronauts and cosmonauts performing science and day-to-day activities.

President Obama's to-do list: Lock in the Obama coalition for the Democrats

Ron Brownstein got a great quote from the White House.
One senior Obama adviser says the administration "To Do list" after 2012 included thinking "about how you lock in the Obama coalition for Democrats going forward. Because it's not a 100 percent certainty that they come out for the next Democrat." Part of the answer, the adviser said, was to pursue aggressive unilateral action on "a set of issues where we have an advantage … and believe are substantively the right thing to do" and dare Republicans to oppose him.
 In one fell swoop that knocks out two recent narratives coming from D.C. pundits:
  1. That Democrats should focus on winning back white working class voters. Really, about going backwards. That is exactly the dynamic that played out in the 2008 primary against Hillary Clinton and the general election against McCain. Take a look at who won!
  2. The more recent narrative that President Obama's executive actions are simply a reaction to the Democratic losses in the 2014 midterms. As I pointed out before, they have all been in the works for at least 1-2 years.
As we've seen so often in the past from this President, he isn't buying in to the fear-mongering about those awful Republicans and the threat they pose. As any Aikido master would do, he's stepping right into the center of the conflict and daring his opponent to oppose him. He knows that the white male patriarchy is simply lashing out in its death throes - and that the best way to defeat them is to expose their game.

I understand that most D.C. pundits aren't ever going to understand a strategy like that. But make no mistake, President Obama knows exactly what he's doing! He's going all-in on this country moving forward. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Midday Music Break

Have you guys seen this?

What a wonderful tribute this is to the timelessness of the Beach Boys! This song (God Only Knows) was released 49 years ago as part of their Pet Sounds album and is rightfully credited as being one of the best songs (both lyrically and musically) in all of rock and roll.


Why the Cuban Embargo Didn't Work - And Why it Never Would Have

I have to give BooMan an awful lot of credit for trying to see Sen. Rubio's arguments about Cuba from Rubio's perspective. This is exactly what President Obama has asked us to do.
“I am obligated to try to see the world through George Bush’s eyes, no matter how much I may disagree with him,” he wrote in Audacity. “That’s what empathy does—it calls us all to task, the conservative and the liberal … We are all shaken out of our complacency.”
Doing this is the only way we'll ever break down the polarization that infects our politics today. And yes, we're the adults, so it doesn't work to simply say to the other side: "You go first."

But in acknowledging that normalization isn't likely to work in bringing democracy to Cuba, BooMan left out the one really big reason why the embargo was never going to work. We all join the bandwagon President Obama articulated in suggesting that if it hasn't worked for the last 50 years, its time to try something new. But the President also suggested WHY it hasn't worked during his announcement about our change in policy last week.
And though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, no other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions, and it has had little effect beyond providing the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people.
Strategies like an embargo depend on the power of partnership to be effective. By definition, if you have no partners (or not enough partners) have no power. The expansion of our partnerships in regards to Iran and nuclear weapons at the beginning of the Obama administration is EXACTLY why Iran is now at the bargaining table. And its also why President Obama worked so hard to get European countries to back sanctions against Russia after their invasion of Ukraine. If we had tried to go it alone, it would have been as unsuccessful as our embargo of Cuba has been for the last 50 years.

All of this is one of the reasons why having a community organizer who understands power dynamics in the White House is such a BFD!!!

So if Sen. Rubio really wants to see some change in Cuba's government, he'd have to make the case for why the rest of the world should join us in the embargo. That's not likely to be an effective argument. And so, regardless of whether or not you think normalizing our relationship with Cuba will bring any change, it was time to end this ineffective strategy.

Why I Write

I am starting to get used to the fact that on so many occasions - when I'm feeling alienated from the crowd and out on a limb about something - Al Giordano comes along to reinforce that  I'm exactly where I need to be.

It all started back when he noticed that there was something very different about this guy Barack Obama. Even though Giordano's politics were WAY left of this presidential candidate, he recognized a fellow community organizer and saw the possibilities so few people were able to envision.

Of course there was also the time he accurately predicted the split between progressive activists and organizers long before it actually happened. He is the one who invented the term "poutragers" for the former and also took to calling them "chicken littles."

So it comes as no surprise that today Al very eloquently articulated exactly why it is that I write about culture and politics. He was reacting to this article in Slate on The Year of Outrage 2014.

First of all, Al takes a deep psychological dive into why it is that we - as readers - are so attracted to outrage.
What is it that has turned the rest of us from readers into salivating Pavlovian pets, so easily (and eagerly) manipulated and pulled by the nose ring from crisis to crisis? I've concluded that our participation in these daily outrage/poutrage cycles comes from a place of deep frustration over our own individual impotence. We feel powerless (or too lazy, or fearful) to change the big and important things and so we seize upon the latest Poutrage-du-jour in the futile hope that just by being part of something that "went viral" we have somehow done our part or at least hitched our wagon to its star. Many non-media workers also look for hit counts (or "likes" or "retweets") not for money but as illusory compensation for the absolute alienation all this "interconnectedness" has given us.
But then, rather that getting all poutraged about that, he turns the tables and suggests that it provides an opportunity for writers.
I've come to look at the failings of other media as opportunities for my own writing. I do believe fervently in constructing a counter-culture of noncooperation with the daily poutrage cycle, and so whatever the next big outrage that comes to surprise us today or tomorrow brings, the first task is to step back, examine what is driving this particular poutrage convention, and not say anything unless and until one has something real to add to it. That's how all truly meaningful change ever began: a few people stepping back from what everybody else was saying and thinking while they were driven by the dominant media of their eras, refusing to get swept up in it because there was something more worthwhile, outside of those limitations prescribed from above, yet to do...
That sounds like exactly what I was trying to say yesterday in my intro to this piece.

Its true that I occasionally decide to engage in a rant - and when I do, I get a lot more hits. But overall I recognize that a constant state of poutrage leads to cynicism and eventually inertia.

Perhaps it is my own "shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity" that assumes there are those who are ready to exit the poutrage game and hunger for something else. But regardless of whether or not that's true - its where my authentic self wants to be. So I plan on staying put.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Flame Throwers and Fire Fighters

It's obvious that the big story of the day is the murder of two NYC police officers yesterday. I'm always hesitant to comment on a story like this as its unfolding. Its better to wait for all the information, process it, and see what we can draw from it.

But as people are weighing in, there are those that are fanning the flames and those that are trying to tamp them down. For example, in the category of flame throwers:

Rudy Giuliani:
“We’ve had four months of propaganda starting with the president that everybody should hate the police,” Giuliani said during an appearance on Fox News on Sunday. “The protests are being embraced, the protests are being encouraged. The protests, even the ones that don’t lead to violence, a lot of them lead to violence, all of them lead to a conclusion. The police are bad, the police are racist. That is completely wrong.”
George Pataki:
Sickened by these barbaric acts, which sadly are a predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric of #ericholder & #mayordeblasio.
NYPD Union Chief Patrick Lynch:
"There’s blood on many hands tonight. Those that incited violence on the streets under the guise of protest that tried to tear down what NYPD officers did every day. We tried to warn it must not go on, it cannot be tolerated," Lynch said, according to CBS New York. "That blood on the hands starts at City Hall in the office of the mayor."
And here is what a few of the fire fighters had to say.

President Obama:
I unconditionally condemn today's murder of two police officers in New York City. Two brave men won't be going home to their loved ones tonight, and for that, there is no justification. The officers who serve and protect our communities risk their own safety for ours every single day—and they deserve our respect and gratitude every single day. Tonight, I ask people to reject violence and words that harm, and turn to words that heal—prayer, patient dialogue, and sympathy for the friends and family of the fallen.
Attorney General Eric Holder:
I condemn this afternoon's senseless shooting of two New York City police officers in the strongest possible terms.

This was an unspeakable act of barbarism, and I was deeply saddened to hear of the loss of these two brave officers in the line of duty.

On behalf of all those who serve in the United States Department of Justice, I want to express my heartfelt condolences to the officers' loved ones and colleagues. I will make available all of the resources of the Department to aid the NYPD in investigating this tragedy.

This cowardly attack underscores the dangers that are routinely faced by those who protect and serve their fellow citizens. As a nation we must not forget this as we discuss the events of the recent past. These courageous men and women routinely incur tremendous personal risks, and place their lives on the line each and every day, in order to preserve public safety. We are forever in their debt.

Our nation must always honor the valor -- and the sacrifices -- of all law enforcement officers with a steadfast commitment to keeping them safe. This means forging closer bonds between officers and the communities they serve, so that public safety is not a cause that is served by a courageous few, but a promise that's fulfilled by police officials and citizens working side by side.
U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York (and AG nominee) Loretta Lynch:
I was shocked and deeply saddened to hear of this afternoon’s brutal and senseless attack on two NYPD Officers, and I join Attorney General Holder in expressing my deepest condolences to the families of these fallen heroes...

Today’s assailant struck at the heart of our city — the dedicated officers who pledge their lives to safeguard us all. Today, two have fallen, in a stark reminder of the challenges and risks that our law enforcement officers face every day, both in New York City and throughout our nation.

Let us take this time to grieve with their families, and join the NYPD and all New Yorkers in honoring them for their sacrifice.
Frankly, some of the rhetoric of the flame throwers scares me. I'm sure hoping the fire fighters prevail.

Learning From Fly-Over Country

For a couple of years now, I've been suggesting that we take our eyes off the coasts for just a while and focus on two states in fly-over country - Minnesota and Wisconsin. We might learn a thing or two about the results of Democratic vs Republican governance. About a year ago, Lawrence Jacobs did just that.
Minnesota and Wisconsin share much more than bone-chilling winters: German and Northern European roots; farming; and, until recently, a populist progressive tradition stretching back a century to Wisconsin’s Fighting Bob La Follette and the birth of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

But in 2010 these cousin states diverged. By doing so they began a natural experiment that compares the agendas of modern progressivism and the new right...

A month after Mr. Walker’s inauguration in January 2011, he catapulted himself to the front ranks of national conservative leaders with attacks on the collective bargaining rights of Civil Service unions and sharp reductions in taxes and spending. Once Mr. Dayton teamed up with a Democratic Legislature in 2012, Minnesota adopted some of the most progressive policies in the country...

Which side of the experiment — the new right or modern progressivism — has been most effective in increasing jobs and improving business opportunities, not to mention living conditions?

Obviously, firm answers will require more time and more data, but the first round of evidence gives the edge to Minnesota’s model of increased services, higher costs (mostly for the affluent) and reduced payments to entrenched interests like the insurers who cover the Medicaid population.
Excuse me for a moment while I humble-brag a bit - because I happen to live in Minnesota. Recent news weights that scale in our favor even more than it was last year.

First of all, the State's Department of Revenue announced that Minnesota's budget SURPLUS had risen to $1 billion. At the same time, our unemployment rate in November was the lowest we've seen since 2001 - 3.7%.

Meanwhile, Wisconsin's budget DEFICIT sits at $1.8 billion and their unemployment rate is 5.2%.

I think its time to score this one:

Democratic policies - 1
Republican policies - 0

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Odds & Ends

Speaking of Gitmo detainees, today the Obama administration announced it was releasing four more who are going back to Afghanistan.

In spite of all the pearl-clutching on both the right and the left about bank bailouts, the TARP program has officially ended - leaving taxpayers with a $15.3 billion profit.

It's probably too soon to celebrate, but the good news is that - backed by U.S. airstrikes - the Kurds have recaptured a large swath of territory from ISIS.

Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that civil rights laws that provide workplace protection apply to transgender workers.

Having watched the bold moves President Obama has made over the last couple of months, a lot of people are trying to guess where the next one will come from. Some see a possible sign in the recent move initiating NLRB vs McDonalds.

Rand Corporation senior defense analyst Bruce Bennett screened the movie The Interview before all the commotion created by North Korean hackers. His take is that the depiction of Kim Jong Un would have created a problem for him with the elite in his country.

Finally, when I first heard Paolo Nutini sing, my thought was "Boy, he's an old soul" (as the saying goes). Paolo burst on the scene with a couple of cd's and then pretty much disappeared for four years. My initial assessment of him was affirmed when earlier this year he released "Caustic Love." Here's an incredibly relevant track off that cd titled "Iron Sky."

P.S. If you can't place the origin of the speech in the middle of the song, here's one ginormous hint.

Pope Francis, Catholic Conservatives and the Republican Party

One of the most fascinating parts of the negotiations between the United States and Cuba was the role Pope Francis played in both initiating the process and hosting a meeting at the Vatican. That story has been pretty well reported.

Much less noticed is the fact that recently Pope Francis offered to help the Obama administration place Guantanamo detainees who have been cleared for release.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said the Holy See welcomed recent signs President Barack Obama appears to have accelerated efforts to close the controversial facility where some detainees have been held for more than a decade without charge and tortured.

He said the Vatican stood ready to "help find adequate humanitarian solutions through our international contacts" in order to help place detainees, adding that Parolin and Kerry had discussed the issue in depth.
This is why many are seeing a "bolder vision of Vatican diplomacy" with this Pope.

During the Reagan era, fundamentalist Protestants and Catholics put aside their traditional enmity over religious differences and banded together around the Republican Party's cultural agenda. That's when the Democratic Party lost a lot of traditional Catholics who had been strong supporters of President Kennedy.

As Pope Francis calls the Church back into service to the poor, warns against the danger of idolizing capitalism, and engages affirmatively with a diplomatic approach to foreign policy, the alliance of Catholic conservatives with the Republican Party will be strained. That's something to keep an eye on.

President Obama Plays the Long Game

The media is settling on a new narrative about President Obama. It's always interesting watching one after another join in that process. For example, Timothy Egan calls it Obama Unbound.
Perhaps the best thing to happen to him [Obama] was the crushing blow his party took in the midterm elections. Come January, Republicans will have their largest House majority in 84 years — since Herbert Hoover was president. Granted, no politician wants to join Hoover and history in the same sentence. But Obama is not cowering or conceding. He’s been liberated by defeat, becoming the president that many of his supporters hoped he would be.

He promised to be transformative. Instead, especially in the last two years, he’s been listless, passive, a spectator to his own presidency. Rather than setting things in motion, he reacted to events. Even Ebola, the great scare that prompted so much media hysteria it was awarded Lie of the Year by PolitiFact, was somehow his fault. No more. Of late, the president who has nothing to lose has discovered that his best friend is the future.
Glenn Thrush calls it Operation Revenge.
“He needs to run, to compete – or more to the point, he needs someone to run against,” a former top Obama adviser told me.

He’s got that now, in a Republican-controlled Capitol Hill. Obama, a political counterpuncher who often needs a slap in the face to wake up, got a gut-shot in November. The Democrats’ staggering loss in the midterms – like his disastrous performance in the first presidential debate against Mitt Romney in 2012 – seems to have jolted him to the realization that he’ll have to act boldly to preserve what he’d assumed was a settled legacy.
The trouble with this kind of analysis is that it is ahistorical. Every one of the things these pundits name as an example of this President's newfound persona - executive actions on immigration, new EPA rules, climate change agreement with China, Russian sanctions, normalization of relationship with Cuba - has been in the works for at least the last 1-2 years (during the time he was supposedly a listless, passive spectator). Back in January of this year, he announced his intention to implement the “pen and phone strategy” we’re all witnessing unfold.
President Barack Obama offered a brief preview Tuesday of his State of the Union address, telling his Cabinet that he won’t wait for Congress to act on key agenda items in 2014.

“I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” he said at his first Cabinet meeting of the year. Outlining the strategy, Obama said he plans to use his pen to sign executive actions and his phone to convene outside groups in support of his agenda if Congress proves unable or unwilling to act on his priorities.
It's true that President Obama might have a new lightness in his step. But that could just as well be because he's finally off for a much-needed vacation in Hawaii with his family. Anyone who has really watched this President operate knows that he plays the long game. Here's how Michelle Obama described that back in 2011.
Here's the thing about my husband: even in the toughest moments, when it seems like all is lost, Barack Obama never loses sight of the end goal. He never lets himself get distracted by the chatter and the noise, even if it comes from some of his best supporters. He just keeps moving forward.

And in those moments when we're all sweating it, when we're worried that the bill won't pass or the negotiation will fall through, Barack always reminds me that we're playing a long game here. He reminds me that change is slow — it doesn't happen overnight.

If we keep showing up, if we keep fighting the good fight and doing what we know is right, then eventually we will get there.

We always have. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

President Obama's core

Jon Favreau, Obama's former speechwriter, tweeted this during the President's news conference today.

I think Jon understands President Obama better than anyone outside his close circle of family and friends. So let's take a look at why he thinks Barack Obama ran for office. Here are the last few paragraphs of the President's remarks today.
The one thing I will say -- and this is going to be the last thing I say -- is that one of the great things about this job is you get to know the American people. I mean, you meet folks from every walk of life and every region of the country, and every race and every faith. And what I don’t think is always captured in our political debates is the vast majority of people are just trying to do the right thing, and people are basically good and have good intentions. Sometimes our institutions and our systems don’t work as well as they should. Sometimes you've got a police department that has gotten into bad habits over a period of time and hasn’t maybe surfaced some hidden biases that we all carry around. But if you offer practical solutions, I think people want to fix these problems. It’s not -- this isn’t a situation where people feel good seeing somebody choked and dying. I think that troubles everybody. So there’s an opportunity of all of us to come together and to take a practical approach to these problems.

And I guess that's my general theme for the end of the year -- which is we’ve gone through difficult times. It is your job, press corps, to report on all the mistakes that are made and all the bad things that happen and the crises that look like they're popping. And I understand that. But through persistent effort and faith in the American people, things get better. The economy has gotten better. Our ability to generate clean energy has gotten better. We know more about how to educate our kids. We solved problems. Ebola is a real crisis; you get a mistake in the first case because it’s not something that's been seen before -- we fix it. You have some unaccompanied children who spike at a border, and it may not get fixed in the time frame of the news cycle, but it gets fixed.

And part of what I hope as we reflect on the New Year this should generate is some confidence. America knows how to solve problems. And when we work together, we can't be stopped.
I keep going back to this over and over, but Ta-Nehisi Coates called it a "shocking, almost certifiable faith in humanity." Whether or not you think that faith is warranted, it is what sits at the core of who President Barack Obama is.

Latin America, Torture and the Cold War

I am tempted to use the word "serendipitous" to describe the fact that within a matter of days, the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee released its report on the investigation of the use of torture by the Bush/Cheney administration, Brazil's National Truth Commission released its report on the activities of its brutal military dictatorship, and President Obama announced the normalization of our relationship with Cuba.

Let me remind you of what Greg Grandin wrote back in 2007 when we were first learning about the extent to which torture had been used in the "global war on terrorism."
In fact, it was in Latin America that the CIA and U.S. military intelligence agents, working closely with local allies, first helped put into place the unholy trinity of government-sponsored terrorism now on display in Iraq and elsewhere: death squads, disappearances and torture.
Countries all over South and Central America (as well as Africa) have held truth and reconciliation commissions to document the atrocities committed in their countries as they attempted to throw off the weight of colonialism and reach for independence. Throughout that process, we've been reminded of the role the United States played as a "silent partner" in those atrocities. Brazil is simply the latest.
The final report confirms that the U.S. played a direct role in encouraging state sponsored torture in Brazil. According to the 2,000 page document — and backed by extensive historiography –, over 300 members of the Brazilian military spent time at the School of the Americas, run out of Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia, where they had “theoretical and practical lessons on torture, which would later be replicated in Brazil,” the report notes. 
The school was one of the main tools used by the U.S. government to deter perceived communist threats in Latin America, and gave instruction to dictatorial militaries across the continent. A Pentagon manual released in 1996 details the curriculum, which encourages the use of torture, blackmail, and arresting the families of those being questioned.
This is not some ancient history. Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff was unable to hold back tears at the announcement of this report because she had been one of those people subjected to torture during her three year imprisonment by the military dictatorship (the one the U.S. had helped place in power by supporting a coup in 1964).

Initially these U.S. interventions in Latin America were blatantly justified by the interests of corporate America that were operating in these countries. But when the Cold War began, the threat of communism was used as the excuse for engaging in these atrocities.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone that removing the last vestige of the Cold War in Cuba is welcome news to the leaders of South and Central America (many of whom were their freedom fighters in the 80's and 90's). President Rousseff called the deal with Cuba, "a moment which marks a change in civilization.” Former President of Columbia AndrĂ©s Pastrana summed it up this way:
There will be radical and fundamental change. I think that to a large extent the anti-imperialist discourse that we have had in the region has ended. The Cold War is over.
Many Americans credit President Ronald Reagan with ending the Cold War. To others, it ended when the Berlin Wall crumbled during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. For the people of Latin America, it happened on Wednesday, December 17, 2014 with this announcement by President Barack Obama.
Finally, our shift in policy towards Cuba comes at a moment of renewed leadership in the Americas. This April, we are prepared to have Cuba join the other nations of the hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas. But we will insist that civil society join us so that citizens, not just leaders, are shaping our future.

And I call on all my fellow leaders to give meaning to the commitment to democracy and human rights at the heart of the inter- American charter. Let us leave behind the legacy of both colonization and communism, the tyranny of drug cartels, dictators and sham elections.

A future of greater peace, security and democratic development is possible, if we work together, not to maintain power, not to secure vested interests, but instead to advance the dreams of our citizens...

Todos somos Americanos.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

In which I agree with an Erick Erickson tweet

I sure do agree with that! Of course, not in the way he meant it.

Its true that using the power of partnership is often associated with females - although not exclusively (see: Nelson Mandela). The idea of dominance as the only form of power strikes many of us as a massive "dick-swinging" contest.

What Erickson is reacting to is the use of the power of partnership by a male president. Being a consummate dick-swinger - Erickson doesn't even begin to grasp what that means. So he simply resorts to calling it "girly."

But YES! Look at us now: finally ending the last artifact of the Cold War and watching Russia tumble into the abyss - all while we are likely to be within reach of an agreement with Iran on nuclear weapons, ISIS' momentum has been stopped (although they are not defeated yet) and the new Iraqi Prime Minister is uniting Sunni and Shia in his country.

Not bad for a girly-man.


President Obama to Congressional Republicans: Govern or Make Yourselves Irrelevant

A lot of pundits are noticing that since the midterm elections, President Obama has been the opposite of a "lame duck." Kevin Drum does a good job of summing up the significant actions this president has taken recently.
  • November 10: Surprised everyone by announcing his support for strong net neutrality. 
  • November 11: Concluded a climate deal with China that was not only important in its own right, but has since been widely credited with jumpstarting progress at the Lima talks last week. 
  • November 20: Issued an executive order protecting millions of undocumented workers from the threat of deportation. 
  • November 26: Signed off on an important new EPA rule significantly limiting ozone emissions.
  • December 15: Took a quiet victory lap as Western financial sanctions considerably sharpened the pain of Vladimir Putin's imploding economy. 
  • December 16: Got nearly everything he wanted during the lame duck congressional session, and more. Democrats confirmed all important pending nominees, and then got Republican consent to several dozen lesser ones as well. 
  • December 17: Announced a historic renormalization of relations with Cuba. 
This is all part of the pen and phone strategy he announced way back in January 2014.
President Barack Obama offered a brief preview Tuesday of his State of the Union address, telling his Cabinet that he won’t wait for Congress to act on key agenda items in 2014.

“I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” he said at his first Cabinet meeting of the year. Outlining the strategy, Obama said he plans to use his pen to sign executive actions and his phone to convene outside groups in support of his agenda if Congress proves unable or unwilling to act on his priorities.
Combined with the signature legislative accomplishments of his first two years - the stimulus, health care reform and Wall Street reform - we are beginning to see the transformative nature of Barack Obama's presidency.

Come January 2015, what will be the response of the Republican majorities in Congress to these achievements? As Kevin Drum notes in that same article:
GOP leaders had plans for January, but now they may or may not be able to do much about them. Instead, they're going to have to deal with enraged tea partiers insisting that they spend time trying to repeal Obama's actions. They can't, of course, but they have to show that they're trying.
Its important to note why they can't repeal Obama's actions. That is first of all because this President has been careful to recognize where he has constitutional authority and where Congress must act. He hasn't crossed that line.

But perhaps even more importantly, the 2015 budget bill strips Republicans of their ability to hold the government hostage as their leverage in trying to force change on any of these matters for at least the next nine months. After that, we'll be in full 2016 campaign mode and its unlikely Republicans will want to initiate a government shutdown leading into the November presidential election.

The only alternative for Republicans at this point is to attach a repeal of any of these policies to something the Democrats want done, for example, comprehensive immigration reform. But the really interesting thing is...if they do that, we're back to the process of actual governing via negotiation. Oh my!!!!

What this all boils down to is that President Obama has given Congressional Republicans two options: Govern or make yourselves irrelevant. That's a major power play by our Community Organizer-in-Chief.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Vermont gives up on single payer

Recently I noted that before the end of the year, Vermont's Governor Shumlin would lay out his proposal on how to pay for single payer health insurance. Today brought an unexpected announcement.
Vermont has long had a two-pronged approach to building a single-payer health care system. First, they would figure out what they would want the system to look like. Then, they would figure out how to pay for it.

The state passed legislation outlining how the single-payer system would work in 2011. And ever since, the state has been trying to figure out how to pay for a system that covers everybody. Most estimates suggest that the single payer system would cost $2 billion each year. For a state that only collects $2.7 billion in revenue, that is a large sum of money.

What Shumlin appears to be saying today is that the "time is not right" to move forward on the financing of the single-payer system. And that means putting the whole effort aside, with no clear moment when the debate would be reopened.
This has always been the HUGE hurdle that any single payer system would have to jump. Its true that - in the end - such a system would likely save money. But simply comparing costs in the U.S. to countries with single payer systems is not adequate. First of all, it has been proven that health care procedures are WAY more expensive here than they are in other countries. That's part of where the discrepancy comes from. Single payer wouldn't fix that.

Secondly, switching to single payer means that costs are shifted - not that they simply go away. Vermont found that, when implemented in 2017, those costs would equal an 11.5% income tax on all residents. Trying to design a system of who pays for what inevitably would create big winners and big losers. That means a lot of chaos and an awful lot of noise from the losers.

So...single payer advocates are going to have to address how that transition should happen. Vermont just showed that if you don't do that, it is never going to happen.

It's not just about Cuba. Todos Somos Americanos

From President Obama's remarks today on the normalization of our relationship with Cuba:
Finally, our shift in policy towards Cuba comes at a moment of renewed leadership in the Americas. This April, we are prepared to have Cuba join the other nations of the hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas. But we will insist that civil society join us so that citizens, not just leaders, are shaping our future.

And I call on all my fellow leaders to give meaning to the commitment to democracy and human rights at the heart of the inter- American charter. Let us leave behind the legacy of both colonization and communism, the tyranny of drug cartels, dictators and sham elections.

A future of greater peace, security and democratic development is possible, if we work together, not to maintain power, not to secure vested interests, but instead to advance the dreams of our citizens...

Todos somos Americanos.
For many countries in South and Central America, Cuba remained the "flash-point" that recalled the way their efforts toward independence from corporate-fueled colonization were treated simply as proxies in our Cold War against communism. Much of what has been wrong about U.S. foreign policy in the modern era was played out on that stage.

President Obama's announcement today allows that flash-point to be quelled. It is a clearing out of the debris of the past that allows the doors of possibility to swing wide open. I'll be fascinated to see the results at the Summit of the Americas next April.

Why Republicans Admire Putin

Jonathan Chait reminds us of the origins of the neoconservative movement in the Republican Party.
Three decades ago, right-wing French intellectual Jean-Francois Revel published a call to arms entitled “How Democracies Perish,” which quickly became a key text of the neoconservative movement and an ideological blueprint for the Reagan administration. Revel argued that the Soviet Union’s brutality and immunity from internal criticism gave it an inherent advantage over the democratic West — the United States and Europe were too liberal, too open, too humane, too soft to defeat the resolute men of the Iron Curtain.

“Unlike the Western leadership, which is tormented by remorse and a sense of guilt,” wrote Revel, “Soviet leaders' consciences are perfectly clear, which allows them to use brute force with utter serenity both to preserve their power at home and to extend it abroad.”
This is what sparked a love-fest for Putin's tactics from Republicans immediately following his invasion of Ukraine.  "That's what you call a leader" said Rudy Giuliani. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-MI), who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, said that Putin was playing chess while President Obama played marbles.

At the time, the Obama administration consistently suggested that Putin was engaging in 19th-20th century tactics in a 21st century world.
...Obama is one of the first to have a broad range of potentially biting nonmilitary responses to employ—a measure of how much Russia has been integrated into the world's financial system since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War.

It is why American policymakers are so convinced that Russian President Vladimir Putin has miscalculated by dispatching troops to Crimea. And why you hear over and over again from the White House and State Department that Putin does not seem to understand the interconnectedness of the 21st-century world.

"What we see here are distinctly 19th- and 20th-century decisions made by President Putin to address problems, deploying military forces rather than negotiating," says a senior administration official, speaking on background. "But what he needs to understand is that in terms of his economy, he lives in the 21st-century world, an interdependent world."
President Obama addressed this directly during his speech in Brussels on March 26th.
Throughout human history, societies have grappled with the question of how to organize themselves – the proper relationship between the individual and the state; and the best means to resolve inevitable conflicts between states. And it was here in Europe, through centuries of struggle—through war and Enlightenment, repression and revolution—that a particular set of ideals began to emerge. The belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose. The belief that power is derived from the consent of the governed, and that laws and institutions should be established to protect that understanding...

But those ideals have also been tested – and threatened – by an older, more traditional view of power. This alternative vision argues that ordinary men and women are too small-minded to govern their own affairs, and that order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign.
That speech - which was one of the most powerful of Obama's presidency - was meant to unite the people of Europe (especially its young people) around this new form of 21st century power - even if it meant sacrifice from them. In this interconnected world, it is about the power of partnership as a tool to defeat the power of dominance.

And so, while Republicans continue to believe that the democratic West is "too liberal, too open, too humane, too soft to defeat the resolute men," President Obama is demonstrating that partnership can be a powerful tool in this 21st century.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Lights out

I can't fathom the idea of people who are willing to target the killing of innocent children to make a political point. I don't want to fathom it.

I can't talk about it. I don't want to talk about it.

I can't process it. I don't want to process it.

I can't understand it. I don't want to understand it.

There are times when the only thing one can do is grieve over the extent to which humanity can become depraved. This is one of those days.

So I'm going to turn the lights out here for awhile and do that.

The line dividing good and evil

From the Washington Post/ABC News poll:
By an almost 2-1 margin, or 59-to-31 percent, those interviewed support the CIA’s brutal methods, with the vast majority of supporters saying they produced valuable intelligence.
I am reminded of this quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
That's also why Jesus said, "Let he who is without sin case the first stone." Rooting out evil is first and foremost a process of self-reflection.

Monday, December 15, 2014

What does "breaking up the banks" mean?

After the recent drama about the 2015 spending bill in Congress, a lot of people are talking about the "disarray" amongst Democrats. I was particularly intrigued by what Greg Sargent wrote about that today.
There is broad Democratic agreement that the party must come up with a more comprehensive response to stagnating wages and the failure of the recovery to achieve widespread, more equitable distribution. Dems mostly agree on a range of policy responses, such as a minimum wage hike, pay equity, expanded pre-K education, and big job-creating investments in infrastructure.

But there are clear divisions, too. Democrats like Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Bernie Sanders favor some form of breaking up big banks and back expanding Social Security; Sanders wants major reform to trade policies; and some Democrats oppose the big trade deals now being negotiated.
I'm going to leave Social Security and trade deals alone for today. That's because, based on what I wrote earlier about the difference between commercial banks and global financial institutions, I got curious about what people like Warren, Brown and Sanders mean when they talk about "breaking up the banks."

Just two days ago Sen. Sanders announced that he will introduce legislation in the next Congress to break up the banks. He doesn't give any specifics there or in the agenda he announced recently for a potential presidential run. So I guess we'll have to wait and see.

The legislation Sen. Warren introduced in July 2013 was basically a revival of what used to be known as Glass-Steagall - which would separate traditional commercial banking from financial investment firms. While this might be a reasonable step, it would neither break up nor further regulate the "too big to fail" investment firms (i.e. Lehman and AIG) that were at the heart of the Great Recession. In that sense, I think the public is a bit misled when its referred to as "breaking up the banks."

Sen. Sherrod Brown wins the door prize for proposing legislation that would actually "break up the banks."
The legislation would place sensible limits on the amount of debt that a single financial institution could take on relative to the entire productive economy. No bank could have non-deposit liabilities valued greater than two percent of U.S. GDP, and no investment bank could have non-deposit liabilities exceeding three percent of GDP. This would only affect the six largest megabanks, which would be given three years to comply by drawing up their own proposals to meet this goal.
After reading about Sen. Brown's legislation, this tweet from WaPo's Congressional reporter a few days ago makes perfect sense.

My question for Senator Brown would be to ask how his proposed legislation would affect wage stagnation and job creation. Anything that destabilizes financial institutions could seriously disrupt the positive trends we're beginning to see there. Overall, when it comes to income inequality, I tend to support efforts to build up from the bottom rather than tear down at the top. But I'm open to being persuaded that both might be necessary.

In the end though, it doesn't surprise me that the deep work on an issue like this is coming from someone who tends to be out of the limelight of our hysteria-based media. Keep your eye on Sen. Sherrod Brown!

Wall Street Reform for non-experts

Bear with me for a moment because I'm going to delve into a topic that is not my area of expertise and that usually makes people like me exit from a conversation when our eyes glaze over. But as the conversation over the evils of Wall Street heightens once again, I think there are a few distinctions that are not being made that can help us all understand where our priorities should be.

Coming out of the Great Depression, a series of reforms were initiated to regulate know, the kinds of institutions we're all familiar with where we deposit our money for savings/checking accounts. This included things like the ability of the federal government to take banks into "receivership" if they appeared to be failing and insure the money that we placed in them against losses.

Over the years, financial institutions developed that went way beyond those activities and were therefore not subject to those regulations. During the financial crisis of 2008 - we heard about some of them. They were companies like Lehman Brothers and AIG. As we watched Lehman collapse and AIG near-collapse, we started to learn the meaning of "too big to fail." Because these corporations were so large and international in scope, the entire globe was threatened with financial collapse.

A lot of liberals wanted the Obama administration to take these companies into receivership in order to stabilize them and punish the managers whose practices led us to the brink. But as Paul Krugman noted, the administration's position was that the Great Depression Era regulation of banks did not provide the federal government with that authority. The significant portions of Dodd/Frank were designed to remedy that.

When it comes to the current controversy over the provision cromnibus eliminated from Dodd/Frank, Paul Krugman basically agrees with both me and Matt Taibbi - it did not touch this critical portion of Wall Street reform.
Now, this isn’t the death of financial reform. In fact, I’d argue that regulating insured banks is something of a sideshow, since the 2008 crisis was brought on mainly by uninsured institutions like Lehman Brothers and A.I.G. The really important parts of reform involve consumer protection and the enhanced ability of regulators both to police the actions of “systemically important” financial institutions (which needn’t be conventional banks) and to take such institutions into receivership at times of crisis.
Making this distinction is critical because we need to effectively pick our battles as they emerge. As I've pointed out previously, the passage of cromnibus takes away the Republican leverage of holding us hostage to potential government shut-downs for at least the next nine months. That weakens Wall Street's ability to further erode these critical elements of reform. So let's keep our eye on that prize.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Discarding the Master's Tools

I find it fascinating that the liberal's "go-to guy" on railing against Wall Street - Matt Taibbi - basically agrees with me that Blanche Lincoln's contribution to Dodd/Frank was not a significant part of Wall Street reform.
Is killing the Citigroup provision really worth the trouble? Is it a "Hill to die on"? Maybe not in itself.
Instead, he has to rely on a "slippery slope" argument to defend his rant against what he calls The Blob ("a single furiously-money-collecting/favor-churning oligarchical Beltway party).
But the key here is that a victory on the swaps issue will provide the Beltway hacks with a playbook for killing the rest of the few meaningful things in Dodd-Frank, probably beginning with the similar Volcker Rule, designed to prevent other types of gambling by federally-insured banks. Once they cave on the swaps issue, it won't be long before the whole bill vanishes, and we can go all the way back to our pre-2008 regulatory Nirvana.
In other words, it's not that this provision was so important. It's that allowing this one to be repealed will lead to the eventual elimination of Dodd/Frank. I would argue that might have been the case if Boehner had gotten his 3-month continuing resolution. That would have set up a series of "must pass" spending bills loaded with these kinds of provisions. But with the passage of cromnibus, we will now have at least nine months of a Republican-controlled Congress with no government shutdown threats.

But of course Taibbi - like a few other liberals - isn't really worried about government shutdowns. He thinks liberals should embrace the tactics of the lunatic caucus.
If the Democrats actually stood for anything other than sounding as progressive as possible without offending their financial backers, then they would do what Republicans always do in these situations: force a shutdown to save their legislation.
The argument behind something like this is that the threat of a government shutdown gives you leverage in negotiating. But the threat doesn't work if you're bluffing. You have to be ready to actually shut down the government for it to be effective.

The values embraced by Democrats mean we have to look elsewhere for leverage. If you doubt that, just look at a summary of the results of our last federal government shut down. For those who actually care about the unemployed and underemployed, all you need to know is that the CBO suggested that even one of such short duration cost us 120,000 jobs.

Mike Lofgren - former Republican Congressional aide - explained a few years ago why the GOP is comfortable using this kind of leverage.
A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress's generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters' confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that "they are all crooks," and that "government is no good," further leading them to think, "a plague on both your houses" and "the parties are like two kids in a school yard." This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s - a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn ("Government is the problem," declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).
Whenever someone suggests that Democrats should mimic the tactics used by Republicans, I think of this:

That makes our job harder. It requires more creativity and maturity. As then-Senator Barack Obama said back in 2005:
The bottom line is that our job is harder than the conservatives' job...A polarized electorate that is turned off of politics, and easily dismisses both parties because of the nasty, dishonest tone of the debate, works perfectly well for those who seek to chip away at the very idea of government because, in the end, a cynical electorate is a selfish electorate.

The root of the problem is a theology that enables sexual abuse

As someone who was raised in a white evangelical Christian family and church, it deeply saddens me every time we hear that another leader o...