The Most Dangerous Man In America

Wednesday, 28 November 2012, 20:41 | Category : Politics
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OK, not really. Or mostly not really. Except maybe in the fiscal sense. I’m talking about Grover Norquist. In the past quarter-century, he has probably done more to distort US fiscal policy than anyone. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a low-taxes policy. But when it’s wielded like a mace in all situations, it isn’t a policy, it’s a creed, and as we’re beginning to see now, those adherents who fail to strictly conform are branded apostates. Since 1986, Norquist has reigned supreme as a no-tax-increase zealot, and signing the pledge to oppose any tax increase has become mandatory for any serious Republican office-seeker. Among other things, this has come to mean that there’s no longer such a thing as a temporary tax cut. Once a tax goes down, for whatever reason, it can’t go back up. The 2001 and 2003 tax cuts were “temporary”, with a supposed sunset of 2010.

Why the sunset? Because a permanent tax cut would have required 60 votes in the Senate, and the Republicans didn’t have that many. So they used a legislative mechanism that required only a simple majority and passed “temporary” tax cuts, that were never intended to be temporary. Their presumption was that as soon as they got 60 Republicans in the Senate, they would make the cuts permanent. That never happened. What also never happened was any decrease in spending. As I’ve said many times before, Democrats are tax-and-spend; Republicans are spend-and-spend. So the hard, simple reality is that a decade of tax cuts were paid for with borrowed money, to be repaid by our children and grandchildren. President Obama and the Democrats don’t get off either – the 2% payroll tax cut is probably the biggest disagreement I’ve had with his policies. It was a poorly-played political move that yielded essentially no political benefits. But back to Norquist – there are basically two ways to manage government budgets: revenues and spending. Sure, you can play around the edges with economic policy incentives, but what it really boils down to is revenues and spending. The essence of Democratic government is compromise, but thanks to Norquist and his single-issue political theology, the Republicans have set aside half the mechanism. Until, perhaps, now. We’re seeing just a hint of weakening in the ranks. Maybe. Norquist has vowed revenge against anyone who breaks ranks in any way, whether it’s on tax rates or deduction caps*. No one, in Norquist’s America, can ever pay more in taxes than they do today. He exists in a world where spending cuts will somehow create all the deficit reduction we’ll need. And, of course, none of those cuts can come from defense, no matter how high military spending has grown. It’s a fantasy, and a dangerous one.

* – Once again today, I heard a Republican senator saying that he wouldn’t allow any increase in tax rates for the wealthy, because increasing tax rates would cause small businesses to cut jobs. But, he said, he would be willing to consider a cap on deductions, which would, of course, cause their tax bill to be higher. Somebody help me out here – do small business owners have one pot of money for paying taxes due to tax rates, which is also used to create jobs, and another pot to pay the tax bill resulting from lower deductions, which isn’t used for job creation? Because otherwise the “job creators” argument makes no sense.

Lame Ducks And Dead Polar Bears

Tuesday, 13 November 2012, 15:34 | Category : Politics
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Congress returns to work today, and we’ll once again be treated to a nearly endless series of “lame duck” proclamations. They have 16 days to accomplish something, or do nothing, or waddle somewhere in between. And despite what you’ve heard, it isn’t all about the fiscal cliff (a term I already hate with something approaching a passion). Somewhere out there is a farm bill, which is only important if you grow food for money, or pay money to buy food. The debt ceiling is out there once again. And there could be bills about disaster funding, the Law Of The Sea Treaty, and dead polar bears (seriously, and no, this isn’t about the ice floes melting). But what we’ll hear most about is the looming fiscal cliff. And if you aren’t already frightened into your survivalist cave by this, there are plenty of people on airwaves all around you who will do their best to make you think that civilization as we know it will end come January 1, and if that’s the case, then the only thing standing between us and the abyss is a bunch of lame ducks.

I’m not making light of the situation, but I’m thinking that as the days and weeks go by, if Congress and the President don’t come to a compromise solution, the hysteria will grow until we’re all scared to death. Despite all the statistics and numbers, the economy is driven by attitude much more than we’d like to admit, and the endless fear-mongering is going to make sequestration worse than it has to be. FDR would say “fear of sequestration is worse than sequestration itself”. Come January 1, the government is not going to show up at your door demanding you turn over, in cash, an amount equal to the higher taxes you might owe. They aren’t going to start pulling fighter jets off the runway for storage. No army platoons will be demobilized and sent home from Afghanistan. And they won’t start cancelling aid to the poor. What will happen is that a non-lame-duck Congress will have to start negotiating on an entirely different set of propositions – cutting taxes instead of raising them, which would make Republicans especially happy – but also playing one set of cuts off against another, which won’t make so many people happy. So it wouldn’t be something to trifle with, but it would be a scenario open to many sorts of compromise that aren’t there right now. Maybe Congress should set the budget mess aside and use the next 16 working days to deal with some of the other issues, like what to do with those dead polar bears.

The real question is whether Congress will do anything. While the Democrats appear to have gained maybe 8 seats in the House, there hasn’t been any significant shift in either people or positions. It’s still the same old Congress. If Republicans feel chastened by the election results, they may be willing to give a bit on taxes. If John Boehner feels sufficiently chastened, he may lean on some of his less-chastened members to take a few steps back towards the center. Or the Republicans may stand fast to their Norquistian Pledges, and hoping their interpretation of the election results is correct, that it was a combination of a bad storm and a worse candidate, with some voter shenanigans thrown in. If that turns out to be the case, they need to get their spinmeisters involved quickly. Thanks to the Pew Center, Boehner now knows who’ll get the blame if no compromise is found and we dive off that cliff. I don’t think they asked any questions about polar bears.

Getting To 60

Thursday, 8 November 2012, 16:29 | Category : Politics
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One of the real surprises of Election Night was the added strength of Senate Democrats. While going in, Republicans had hopes of taking over the Senate, when the dust finally settled by mid-day on Wednesday, Democrats had actually gained 2 seats, giving them 53, with 2 more seats held by independents (Sanders in Vermont and Angus King in Maine) expected to caucus with them. Sanders is essentially a given, while King may prove a little more true to the independent label at times, but most analysts put him in the Democrat-leaning camp. What this does is put Senate leader Harry Reid closer to that magical number of 60, the number of votes needed to defeat a filibuster (or in today’s political reality, a threatened filibuster). He would need to carve out 5 Republican votes, certainly not an easy task. But if he chose to try, who might he target? There aren’t many Republicans left who would qualify for the moderate or maverick label, but there are a few, under the right circumstances:

  • 56 – John McCain – he’s shown an independent streak in the past, and is probably secure enough back home to fend off a challenge from the right – which wouldn’t happen until 2016, anyway.
  • 57 – Susan Collins of Maine. Up for election in 2014, she is also probably secure enough to hold on to her seat during a primary challenge. Beyond her, it gets tricky…
  • 58 – let’s say Lamar Alexander of Tennessee. In the past, he has at times acted like he wanted to be considered an elder statesman of sorts. If he chooses to run again, he certainly wouldn’t be immune to a challenge from the right, however.
  • 59 – Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. She won re-election as an independent, after losing in the primary to a Tea Party type backed by Sarah Palin. But she’s in office until 2016, which would give her time to repair the damage that might result from a defection to break a filibuster – although Republicans have long memories.
  • 60 – if the previous 4 were wishful thinking, getting to 60 represents fantasyland, I guess. But let’s play along. At one time I might have put Charles Grassley in this slot, but I think he’s moved into the conservative camp pretty solidly. Lindsey Graham has occasionally displayed a maverick streak, but defection for him would mean a strong challenge from the hard right. So I’ll go with Thad Cochran of Mississippi. At one time, Cochran was a pretty solid moderate. Like most Republican senators, he’s sounded much more of the conservative message for a while. But his term is up in 2014, and there’s wide speculation that he won’t run again. The right issue might pull him back to his more moderate former self.

So are the chances any better if you wait until 2014 and try to pick up seats in that election? Unfortunately for the Democrats, probably not, unless the Republicans nominate more crazies that don’t know when to keep silent. Republicans will be running in Alabama, Georgia, Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming. There’s almost zero chance for a Democrat in Alabama, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas (in Mississippi there is one Democrat who could mount a serious statewide race, but he seems to have little stomach for office now). Wyoming, Idaho, and Nebraska could, I suppose, see a Democrat in the mold of Jon Tester rise from the stubble, but I have no idea who that might be. If Susan Collins chose to retire, Maine could easily see a Democratic pickup, and Alaska is a bit of a wild-card, I suppose. But unless there is some earth-shaking change in the political environment in multiple states, there just doesn’t seem to be any chance for the Democrats to pick up 5 seats in 2014. Filibusters or the threat of filibusters, then, will continue to paralyze the US Senate (unless Harry Reid can somehow change the rules). It doesn’t bode well for problem-solving at the national level.

Bad Times At Walmart.com

Tuesday, 6 November 2012, 18:39 | Category : Life
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Be aware, if you ever order from Walmart.com, that there’s a rash of fraudulent e-delivered iTunes cards being ordered, and that because Walmart.com claims they can’t track who really makes these purchases, you’re stuck paying for it. I’ve spent two months disputing two charges with Mastercard and Walmart, and each claims it’s up to the other to make good on the loss. And at this point, both have now told me that they will not reimburse me. Walmart knows there’s a problem – the agent just told me this on the phone – but their policy is to never reimburse. So, buy from walmart.com at your own risk. And make sure your credit card information isn’t stored there.

Here’s the details:

On August 5, 2012, my wife got 2 emails from walmart.com thanking her for buying 2 iTunes gift cards. We immediately called Mastercard, and they told us to call walmart.com, which we did. The charges were still “Pending” at this time. We explained what happened, and the agent told us she would turn it over to the fraud department. We never heard anything from Walmart. I then officially disputed the charges with Mastercard. After about a month, we got two thick letters with all this “documentation” from Walmart showing the purchase, and Mastercard informed us the charges were considered legitimate. I disputed this finding, and then, since I had the iTunes redemption codes for the cards, contacted Apple to see who had redeemed the cards. Within a half-hour, Apple had sent a response with the redeeming email address (esmailyhamed002@yahoo.com), so I sent this information to Walmart and Mastercard. The response by Mastercard was that they considered the charges legitimate and as far as they were concerned, the case was closed. Then today, Walmart told me they never reimburse, it’s up to the bank to do that.

Poems, Prayers, and Promises

Tuesday, 6 November 2012, 18:15 | Category : Politics
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John Denver released an album by this name in 1971, which pretty much set him on his way. The title song had the lines

How long it’s been since yesterday
And what about tomorrow
What about our dreams
And all the memories we share

Tomorrow morning, if the results are known, one side or the other will awaken with these questions foremost in their minds, although maybe not as eloquently spoken as by John Denver. If most predictions hold, it’s Mitt Romney who has lost, then there will likely be much Old Testament-style weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth, because of the intense dislike – hatred, really – the right has held for President Obama and his policies. Given recent history, there’s no reason to believe that the reaction within the Republican Party will be one that changes the course of the party back towards moderation. Doing so would require too many people, both leaders and supporters, to admit that their headlong drive to the extreme right was wrong. And there simply aren’t enough moderate voices of consequence among Republicans today to influence that reaction. So we can expect, probably, a putsch against those who will be perceived as not hard-line enough on conservative litmus-test issues. Romney, deservedly or not, will be one of those rapidly pushed aside. He was never considered “one of us” by the Tea Party segment, and while they accepted the inevitability of his candidacy as the one chance to defeat Obama, his loss will become one huge “I told you so” moment for them. Ever since Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” of 1969, Republicans have believed there was this huge mass of voters who, against any obvious evidence, were “with them” on their core issues, and this belief has remained over the past 43 years, through election wins and losses. The victories of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984, George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and the Tea Party-led wave election of 2010 were seen as confirmation of this silently conservative voting bloc; the losses to Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama were generally pictured as the fault of candidates who weren’t really conservatives, and so couldn’t energize this group. The idea that the Republican Party might possibly be moving too far to the right for mainstream America is utterly rejected as political apostasy. And so, we can expect another round of “purification” if Romney does lose.

Should projections prove wrong, and Obama is defeated, Democrats will have an entirely different tomorrow to face. There is no Tea Party equivalent on the left, no core set of issues that create a cohesive center. Obviously there are plenty of liberal issues – health care, education, environmentalism (even if its been largely absent in this election cycle) – but not the critical mass that gives the Republicans cohesion. Perhaps a defeat would create exactly that. Certainly, in the immediate aftermath of 2008, no one foresaw the rise of the Tea Party. But Democrats have always been longer on passion and shorter on organization, and that makes it more difficult to pick up the pieces and start anew. And if Obama loses, the possibility exists that enough Republican senate candidates will ride Romney’s coattails to victory to give them control of the Senate. That would cast the Democrats back into the wilderness they inhabited after the 2000 election. While they did eventually return, it took a superbly charismatic candidate in Barack Obama to re-energize them and bring them back. It will be a cold, lonely journey to find the next one.