Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Post-Partisan Stimulus

Having already asked if Pres. Obama's inaugural address told us "post-partisan" means "do it my way or shut up," I'm concerned about some of Mr. Obama's comments regarding the House stimulus package.

He asked Republicans "to 'put politics aside' in the interest of creating jobs."

But that's the problem: the Republicans don't think much of this bill is designed to create jobs.

Is it "politics" to say, "This bill has more pork than a luau" or "This is about as stimulating as a shot of NyQuil?"

Apparently so. What Mr. Obama and the Congressional Democrats want is to give taxpayer money to ACORN and La Raza unopposed and to use this economic situation as an opportunity to expand government health care.

As boring as it is, I encourage everyone to read the stimulus bill and let your Congressmen know what you think about it. It may not be "post-partisan," but it is a necessary part of our political process.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Parsing the Obama Inaugural Address 2

I’ve heard many conservative commentators call Pres. Obama’s inaugural address a great speech. I’m not sure which speech they were listening to.

Or maybe that’s the problem – I rarely listen to speeches. I read them after the fact both to save time and to avoid the emotional affect of powerful speakers – like Mr. Obama.

Reading Mr. Obama’s speech, it looks like the usual generalities (with a liberal twist) peppered with the occasional glimpse of his philosophy of government.

Then there were the shots at Pres. Bush. Did someone forget to tell the speechwriters that the campaign is over? Did anyone consider that Mr. Bush would be sitting just a few feet from where Mr. Obama was speaking?

The most striking thing about his address requires remembering that he has stated his intention to be “post-partisan.” No more Democrat vs Republican or conservative vs liberal; he wants to talk about what works.

In the speech he said, “the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.”

Um, no. The arguments we’ve had were over whether or not the Constitution permits certain activities. Ignoring that question isn’t post-partisan – it’s liberal. We argued over whether government can fix many of the problems in our society. Ignoring that isn’t post-partisanship, either – it’s liberalism.

Will the next four years be all about being “post-partisan?” If so, will post-partisanship require that dissenters simply shut up?

It’s been said that “bipartisanship” means “Democrats win.” Is post-partisanship going to be the same thing? If it includes treating political differences as moral failures, as with most of the references to Mr. Bush’s policies, then it may be a long four years.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Parsing the Obama Inaugural Address 1

We have a new president. His stated intention is to hit the ground running, so we're going to have to as well.

Pres. Obama's inaugural address is going to provide conservatives with much to chew on in the coming days. My initial reaction was, "Holy cow!"

The first question to be asked of any inaugural address is whether this is just speechifying or if it's a true agenda for the new president's young administration.

In this case, if it's the former, then he's just another politician. If it's the latter, then I'm afraid he may be starting to believe his own press.

Mr. Obama's committing his administration to fixing the economy, health care, education, energy, and the war. No surprise there.

He also called for us to make "farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds" in foreign countries. We're going to fix the environment the world over, end nuclear weapons, and stop terrorism. He doesn't plan on just saving the country; he plans to save the world.

It's going to be an interesting four years. Hopefully not in the bad way.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Legacy of George W Bush

The presidency of George W. Bush will be hotly debated in the near future. Many who denigrate his work will do so because they've never forgiven him for the 2000 election, others simply because he’s a Republican. More than a few will continue to feel betrayed by President Bush, and others will honestly believe he was the best thing that could have happened to the United States of America.

As the years lengthen and emotions fade, how will historians and political scientists rate his administration? Decades hence, will they be able to say he had a good presidency, a bad one, or simply a very complicated one?

I am persuaded that long term the judgment of history will be that he was an imperfect president, one with a spotty record, but also one who did the best he could with the hand he was dealt.

The September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent “War on Terror” will no doubt be the part of the Bush years that provokes the most debate and the most books in the decades to come, and since I can do little more than scratch the surface here, I will simply make a few brief statements on the topic.

Conspiracy theorists not withstanding, I don’t think most people believe the Bush administration “allowed” the attacks to occur. If the administration and/or intelligence community dropped the ball prior to 9/11, they certainly made up for it afterwards. On Sept. 10, 2001, no one believed we could suffer such a blow; on Sept. 12, 2001, no one believed we would go more than a couple of years without another. The seven years that have passed without another incident can certainly be attributed to many things, but anyone who denies the Bush administration’s hand in it is blinded by ideology.

Patriot Act & Privacy
Terrorists are an enemy unlike any we’ve ever faced and we have spent the last seven years searching for the right way to deal with them. We’ve had some hits, we’ve had some misses, and we’ve had to reconsider our old ways of thinking on many issues. Privacy rights have been one of the latter.

One of the tools the government has used to keep the country safe is the Patriot Act and similar laws. Much of this was devoted to changing how the intelligence community worked, but no small part of it concerned changing how they gathered intelligence – even in the US. Our founders new there would be crises that would require setting aside certain rights, and the Bush administration thought this was one of them. History may judge that they went too far, but in the end I think people will realize that this was a necessary sacrifice to prevent another 9/11.

The first realization post 9/11 was that those who harbored terrorists must be treated as enemies. We needed to make the cost of providing aid and comfort to al Qaida and company too high for anyone to take the risk. This also created an opportunity to do some real good in a part of the world that was suffering under oppressive regimes. We’ve been more successful with one part of that than the other. Though we haven’t rid the world of state sponsors of terrorists, we can point to real improvements in the lives of Afghanis. And the Taliban is out of power, though they have not lost all influence in the region.

The second realization post 9/11 was that we could not afford to let trouble spots continue to fester until they blew up in our faces – be it another terrorist attack, possibly with much more potent weapons, or another attack on an oil-rich ally. That realization, combined with Saddam Hussein’s continued violation of the Gulf War cease-fire agreements, resulted in the decision to invade Iraq.

Though history will probably record that Iraq possessed few non-conventional weapons, it will also confirm that every major power in the world believed otherwise and that Hussein’s goal was to re-establish WMD programs once the sanctions lapsed. Had the US and its allies not invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein would probably have achieved nuclear weapons before Iran, and it takes little imagination to envision what the presence a nuclear Iraq would have done to the Middle East.

Here, too, history will confirm that a “mistaken” invasion of Iraq resulted in great improvements in the lives of millions of people and the creation of the Middle East’s first Arab democracy.

Of course, Iraq and the “War on Terror” will bring up Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. I think history’s evaluation of these will be mixed. First, we have to confirm that people do bad things at times, and that the soldiers in Iraq are often the same age as frat boys. Given sufficient stress and peer pressure, 20-year-olds do stupid things. But I think time will provide the perspective to say that making a man wear a dog collar is not torture in the strictest sense of the word.

In Guantanamo, history will, I believe, acknowledge that the US faced an unusual situation – a war not against a nation but a diverse group with no uniforms and no rules. Though it may not judge that we acted properly in all of our treatment of the not-prisoners-of-war there, I think it will at least appreciate the struggle to determine what to do with combatants to whom no rules or precedents apply and who may hold knowledge vital to protecting American civilians and soldiers.

Outside of the War on Terror, but not unrelated to it, President Bush has a mixed record but is often unfairly criticized; I believe history will judge that his presidency was largely successful on this front.

Global Popularity
The prevailing opinion today is that the US has suffered a severe loss of popularity and credibility in the eyes of other countries – both their leaders and the people. Eventually historians will say that is both true and untrue.

Many of those who dislike the US very loudly today felt the same way before George W. Bush was president. The only change has been that the American media has given them the opportunity to voice their feelings. Many of these people dislike the US for being “Christian,” a democracy, or powerful. They have not liked us and will not like us as long as those conditions do not change.

But there are those who have truly turned against us. Some of these are appalled by the notion of preemptive military action; these people are certainly within their rights, but it is worth noting that a great many of these people are from countries that have largely abandoned any military power at all. They have a completely different way of looking at the world than the US, and there is little we can do to change that.

Another group may be classified as fickle friends. These people are easy to get along with as long as we do what they want. Once we disagree, they turn against us. This immature attitude can be triggered by our foreign policy, economic policies, environmental policies, or military actions. These people cannot be friends who agree to disagree; they must denigrate those with whom they disagree, and the only way to please them is to obey them on every issue.

While recognizing the many people who disliked the US in this period, history will acknowledge that the US maintained many friendships and made others and that President Bush’s “unilateral” action in Iraq involved dozens of other countries whose leaders, and often people, viewed the world in terms similar to his.

Axis of Evil
History will also show that many of those who criticized the US’s actions regarding Iraq immediately expected the US to take care of North Korea – which will also be seen as a case study of what Iraq could have become had it achieved nuclear weapons.

These same people were actually invited to engage Iran on the subject of its nuclear weapons program. Any historian with any sense of irony will mention the steady progress of Iran’s nuclear program when discussing the calls for more “diplomacy” with Saddam Hussein.

On non-military issues, the Bush administration has faired no better. Mr. Bush has been roundly criticized for refusing to sign the same Kyoto treaty rejected by his predecessor and given no credit for the actual decrease in “global warming” gases from the US.

Long term, I think history will lump global warming in with comet pills, but given the political climate of the day, I think historians will see the wisdom of striving to limit CO2 without signing impossible agreements that would have hamstrung our economy to advantage of our biggest competitors.

President Bush has been ignored on the AIDS issue as much as he’s been criticized on the environment, but one day the record will show that his administration made huge efforts not only to increase funding to international AIDS programs but also to implement new programs to improve the lives of AIDS patients and curb the spread of the disease, especially in Africa.

On domestic issues, Mr. Bush has been no less polarizing than abroad. His policies have generally been wildly popular with one group and vilified by the other – and it was not always his party that supported his plans.

Mr. Bush’s first and most important domestic victory was his tax cuts. Historians who are not conditioned to hate tax cuts will no doubt point to these moves as the saving grace of the 2000-2001 recession. Not only did they keep vital capital in the public sector, they serve as another set of evidence that sensible tax cuts can stimulate the economy and ultimately raise government revenues. (Extravagant government spending is a separate issue.)

President Bush has been very unpopular with the opposing party on international issues; he’s been equally unpopular with his own party on many domestic ones. Here I think historians will point back to two of Mr. Bush’s promises from his first campaign – the “new tone” and “compassionate conservatism.” These goals, combined with the problems of waging a war, will probably be seen to have resulted in some domestic moves that were very unpopular with his base.

Federal embryonic stem cell research funding, “No Child Left Behind,” campaign finance reform, and the Medicare prescription drug program will likely all be seen as compromise positions intended to give both sides a little of what was important to them – especially Congressional Democrats whose cooperation was vital to the war effort.

Of course, it’s debatable how much Democratic good will these moves actually earned Mr. Bush, but I think history will recognize that he made a sincere effort at achieving the “new tone,” especially early in his presidency.

One can question whether the Bush administration’s efforts at compromise achieved anything of importance on the issues named above, but there are some issues where all the Bush presidency will be credited with is raising awareness. Those issues include Social Security and immigration reform.

The former was essentially dead on arrival to a Congress afraid of doing anything that might be interpreted as harming a very popular program. The latter only succeeded in creating a firestorm that may have hurt his party in at least the next two federal elections –by alienating both the GOP base and Hispanic voters.

2008 Economic Crisis
It’s hard to predict what will be said about this president and this crisis when we’re still trying to figure out what the heck is going on, but I think two things will be emphasized by future historians:

First, the Bush administration called this thing years before it happened. They certainly could have worked harder to prevent the eventual crisis, but they identified at least some of the dangers in the mortgage market years before the crisis was realized and called for reform.

Second, when the crisis hit, Pres. Bush did not cling to his ideology when he thought it was not working. To use his phrase, he opted, right or wrong, for “compassionate” over “conservative.”

Looking at an 8-year administration as a whole, I think the judgment of history will be that President Bush did well at his first priority – keeping the American people safe. I think it will be said that he knew there was a time to stand by your principles and a time to compromise and that he was guided by his sense of right and wrong more than his sense of Right and Left. I don’t know that history will judge him to be a great president, but I think in the end he will be seen to have been a good president and a good man.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Booming Tax Bill

An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal claims that taxes must go up no matter who's in charge. The argument is basically that, unless spending goes down, there simply will not be enough money to fund all of the government's responsibilities, especially Medicare and Social Security for Baby Boomers, and spending is not going to go down.

My question is, why not?

People often say about SocSec, "I paid into it, and I want to get my money back out of it." Newsflash: Your money's long gone.

Instead of raising taxes, we need to tell people to accept that they're not going to get their money back.

When Barack Obama suggested raising the ceiling on SocSec taxes, people said decoupling input and payout would turn it into welfare. Well that's exactly what we need to do.

Social Security was never a good plan. For years we've known that it would crash and burn as soon as a smaller generation (e.g., Generation X) had to support a large one (e.g., the Baby Boomers). In fact, calling it a ponzi scheme is probably fair. As in any ponzi, eventually someone is going get the shaft, and the shaft is upon us.

There is no nonpainful solution to this mess. The best we can hope for is to keep it from destroying both our economy and our way of life.

The first thing to do is impliment means testing for Social Security payments. Bill Gates and Rush Limbaugh do not need Social Security; they're not alone. We need to tell those folks who can get by without Social Security, "Sorry, we screwed up, and you're not going to get your 'investment' back."

Second, we will have to keep SocSec payments low. Not only will this keep costs down, it will help fix one of the unfortunate unintended consequences of the Social Security system: its enabling young people's failure to support their elders. We need, as a society, to remind people they are responsible to financially support those who supported them. This will be painful to many; some will have to cut down on the number of Wii games they buy. Others may have to switch from Starbucks to McDonalds. A few will even have to make real sacrifices ... just like their parents and grandparents made for them.

Perhaps we can make it easier for people to declare their elder relatives as dependents. Maybe we can make it possible to share the tax deduction. We can probably find ways to help, but we will need people to start taking care of their own families.

Third, and related to the last, we need to reconsider the retirement age. When SocSec appeared on the scene, people generally lived about 3 years after retirement. We now have a large segment of our population that is retired for 15 years. Besides the cost of supporting these retirees, we deprive our society of the benefit of having these experienced, wise people in our workforce, and we deprive our senior citizens of purpose -- which frequently leads to declining health and happiness.

Fourth, we cannot fix Medicare without fixing healthcare. And Medicare, Medicaid, and the VA have shown us that centralized control of medical care or medical insurance do not lower costs. We will have to impliment real changes in the way we do things if we want to see our health insurance system improve.

While we're at it, we need to get serious about cutting spending across the board. We need to cut how much we let the First Lady spend on redecorating the White House, and we need to cut how much we give to foreign countries for military spending. We may need to explore alternatives to prison for nonviolent felons and alternative funding for the space program. Nothing should be off the table.

As our neighbors across the Atlantic are finding out, you cannot support a large welfare state for long, and certainly not with low reproductive rates. We have escaped many of their problems by keeping our entitlements somewhat in check, by having more kids, and by having a booming economy, but it's about to catch up with us. We can spare ourselves some painful lessons if we learn from their mistakes and fix our problems before they become crises.

A Bailout Roundup

The newspapers want a bailout, or is it protection money? "Pay us or we'll start doing our job."

Nobody needs steel, so steel wants cash.

The states want a bailout, too -- why should they practice deficit spending when the feds will do it for them?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Senator Burris

You have to feel for Roland Burris. He's come into a dream come true -- appointed to be a US Senator. And his dream turned into a nightmare.

All of this drama because the Illinois Democrats didn't have the stones to do something about Blagojevich. Now, the Senate Democrats want to do something to show they don't approve of Blagojevich, so they want to punish ... Burris.

By law, the governor of Illinois has the sole authority to appoint Obama's replacement. The man he has named is to all appearances clean -- maybe one of the few Illinois politicians not under investigation for something. There is no legal, or really even ethical, reason to deny Roland Burris a Senate seat.

Hopefully Reid and company will decide to handle this matter honorably rather than punish Burris simply because he's the only one they can.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Law of Unintended Consequences redux

Don't tell me you didn't see this coming: The high price of gas forced consumers to buy less, resulting in less tax revenue -- which governments want to replace.

Of course, what government always wants is more tax revenue, but for years people have been predicting that, if the liberals every got the decrease in gas consumption they said they wanted, it would bite them.

The same goes for if people quit smoking. Or eat healthy (healthy food is less processed, so it passes through fewers hands...). Or use public transportation (these things always run in the red; more riders won't help if they require more buses/trains).

Generally, there is a cost to every gain, and a good side to every bad. Conservatives (I didn't say Republicans) understand this and try to stay out of the way; liberals end up stepping on their own feet.
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