Friday, November 30, 2012

Opening Salvo

The good news is that I appear- thus far- to have been wrong in assuming that Barack Obama will concede ground even before starting to negotiate.  The bad news is that we're in only the bottom of the first inning.  The worse news is that I continue to use tired, worn sports parallels.

The baseball analogy is apt, though one should beware of someone referring to his own remark as "apt."   Team Obama has put out its opening bid, as summarized by Wonkblog's Suzy Khimm:



Immediate increase in both top marginal rates, as well as capital gains and dividends: +$960 Billion
Additional taxes: +$600 Billion
2009-level estate tax
AMT and business tax extenders: -$236 Billion
Payroll tax extension or alternative policy: -$110B
Bonus depreciation extension


$50 billion stimulus package in FY13
Mass refi mortgage proposal
Deferral of sequester
Savings from non-entitlement mandatory programs
Extension of unemployment insurance: $30 billion
Medicare SGR Patch: $25 Billion
Increase in the debt limit to avoid requiring Congress to vote to increase


Tax reform consistent with $1.6 trillion tax increase
Entitlement policies from President’s FY13 budget that could total $400 billion in savings

Despite a cut in the Medicare program and nothing about defense, that's a better proposal than we had a right to expect from Obama and may reflect a notion on the part of the President that he ought to stop negotiating with himself.
On Thursday, Charles Krauthammer charged on GOP TV

What Geithner offered, what you showed on the screen, Robert E. Lee was offered easier terms at Appomattox, and he lost the Civil War.   There are not only no cuts in this, there's an increase in spending with a new stimulus. I mean, this is almost unheard of. What do they expect? They obviously expect the Republicans will cave on everything. I think the Republicans ought to simply walk away.

Squealing loudest, Rush Limbaugh claims  "Now, as I say, if we ever needed any proof what I've been saying for the last couple days is true, we got it yesterday with this ridiculous opening bid.  Santa Claus wants to take his sleigh over the fiscal cliff. There's no question about it now.  None.  Whatsoever."    

According to Fred Barnes, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (to whom Limbaugh says he spoke) "says he 'burst into laughter' Thursday when Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner outlined the administration proposal for averting the fiscal cliff.  He wasn’t trying to embarrass Geithner, McConnell says, only responding candidly to his one-sided plan, explicit on tax increases, vague on spending cuts."

And House Speaker John Weepy Boehner- who is almost as influential as Limbaugh- remarked “Let’s not kid ourselves.   Right now, we’re almost nowhere.”

Unless they're auditioning for an Academy Award, Repubs really do appear annoyed by the President's initial proposal, which is a splendid sign.   Still, it's a little disconcerting to read from the well-connected Ezra Klein

If Republicans want to cut Medicare, let them propose the cuts. If they want to raise revenue through tax reform, let them identify the deductions. If they want deeper cuts in discretionary spending, let them settle on a number. And, above all, if they don’t like the White House’s preferred policies, let them propose their own. That way, if the White House eventually does give in and agree to some of their demands, Republicans will feel like they got one over on the president.

This suggests that Obama primarily wants the GOP to request the debilitating cuts in the social safety net he then would largely accept.   At that point, it would be left to the left to oppose a destructive measure- if it is up to the task.

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No Dice

Rush Limbaugh keeps outdoing himself.   With no adherence to principle, but only to right-wing politics, Limbaugh pretends there is no conflict between his commitment to unbridled, rapacious capitalism, theocratic ideals, and his own free-wheeling lifestyle.    

So Thursday Limbaugh eulogized motivational speaker Zip Ziglar, who has died at age 86, by contending

Folks, it used to happen in this country. What used to happen is that people would get jobs, hopefully jobs they liked, and they would work really hard, try to climb the ladder of success, as it was called, but they would work really hard. Some people didn't have what we call self-starter characteristics. Some people had to be inspired by others, and so Zig Ziglar made a career out of doing personal appearances, and they were always with a bunch of speakers, things that go on all day. And literally hundreds of thousands of people a year would show up to learn to be inspired to work hard to become successful. Now, that type of motivation is practically gone in this country now, and to the extent that it still exists, it is frowned on.

That kind of route to success now has a bull's-eye on it, if you succeed. "It was on the job that Ziglar developed a curiosity about human nature -- What made a man tick? Why did some succeed where others failed? -- that ultimately led to a thriving career in motivational speaking." He tried to light a fire under those who weren't successful, to get them to believe in themselves. Now, as I say, that's from a bygone era. This kind of thing is frowned on now. Because not everybody can work hard, and you know, a lot of people who work very hard don't ever have anything to show for it, and that isn't fair. So hard work is kind of frowned on now. Like Obama, he really hasn't worked hard. He's a kept man. Well, I mean...

Hard work is, as Rush noted, "kind of frowned on now."   That might sound a little odd from a guy who works three hours a week saying whatever pops into his mind, but it gets worse.  The fellow who Thursday extolled the virtue of achieving success through industriousness was singing a different tune when on February 2, 2010 President Obama properly and courageously stated "You don’t go buying a boat when you can barely pay your mortgage. You don’t blow a bunch of cash on Vegas when you’re trying to save for college."  The next day, Limbaugh commented

 By the way, I'm just saying, just a little side note here, but gambling is forbidden in the Koran. Just a little aside. Just saying. President Barack Obama known for having a way with words but some lawmakers from Nevada wish he would pipe down about trips to the city after sparking a firestorm of criticism from Nevada's elected officials for suggesting that people saving money for college shouldn't blow it in Vegas. Obama told US Senate majority leader Dingy Harry in a letter he wasn't saying anything negative about Las Vegas. I was making the simple point that families use vacation dollars, not college tuition money to have fun. And no place better to have fun than Vegas, one of our country's great destinations. Obama says he always enjoys his visits to Vegas. He's going out there this month or later this month. White House spokesman referred to Obama's letter to Reid, said the administration had no further comment. And again the Koran prohibits -- gambling is forbidden in the Koran, I'm just saying.

Limbaugh, a critic of all things Muslim, is a huge supporter of gambling, remarked "just a little side note here, but gambling is forbidden in the Koran" and "again the Koran prohibits- gambling is forbidden in the Koran, I'm just saying."  A few years later, he is distraught that "not everybody can work hard, and you know a lot of people who work very hard don't ever have anything to show for it, and that isn't fair.  so hard work is kind of frowned on now."

And a lot of people don't have anything to show for it because they blew it gambling, in Las Vegas or elsewhere.   It's the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme, making a few individuals wealthy off the bad luck of others.  It demeans the value of the hard work Rush commends upon praising the legacy of a right-wing motivational speaker.   And it is a practice Rush Limbaugh is terribly fond of.

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Democrats Behaving Republican

Yesterday, the President made clear his New Year's wish:

Now, the good news is there’s a better option.  Right now, as we speak, Congress can pass a law that would prevent a tax hike on the first $250,000 of everybody’s income.  Everybody's.  And that means that 98 percent of Americans and 97 percent of small businesses wouldn’t see their income taxes go up by a single dime.  Ninety-eight percent of Americans, 97 percent of small businesses would not see their income taxes go up by a single dime...

So we really need to get this right.  I can only do it with the help of the American people.  So, tweet -- what was that again -- "My2K" -- tweet using the hashtag "My2K," or email, post it on a member of Congress's Facebook wall.  Do what it takes to communicate a sense of urgency.  We don't have a lot of time here.  We've got a few weeks to get this thing done.  We could get it done tomorrow.  Now, optimistically, I don't think we're going to get it done tomorrow -- (laughter) -- but I tell you, if everybody here goes out of their way to make their voices heard, and spread the word to your friends and your family, your coworkers, your neighbors, then I am confident we will get it done.  And we will put America on the right track not just for next year but for many years to come.  All right?  

Yes, we all laughed.

The Daily Kos' Jed Lewison is all atwitter, writes

The Twitter thing (#My2k) is cute and catchy, but the key point here is that Obama isn't treating this as a deal to be made between John Boehner and himself—he's treating this an issue that all Americans have a stake in. That's why he held today's event and that's why he's going to Philadelphia on Friday to press his case.

 "The point President Obama was making here," the usually sensible Lewison contends, "is that he doesn't see the tax cut debate as a negotiation with the Republican Party."

Ah, but he does.  He has thrown down the gauntlet... but solely on the issue of tax breaks for the wealthy, on their income above $200,000 (as an individual) or $250,000 (as a couple).   In the same statement, the putative Democratic president asserted "Our ultimate goal is an agreement that gets our long-term deficit under control in a way that is fair and balanced.  That kind of agreement would be good for our businesses; it would be good for our economy; it would be good for our children’s future"

The President is proposing a deal, however undefined at this point, that is "fair and balanced."  He gets what he wants- reversion to the Clinton-era tax rates for the wealthy- and Republicans get they want.

That may be how it works out in the end.   But Obama is advocating this as his starting point, his position to begin negotiations.   And he makes sure to label it as "fair and balanced," the slogan Republican such as he prefer for their media outlets.

To be fair, Obama isn't the only "Democrat" giving it up in advance.   Monday, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina stated "We want to take a look at what we can do to Medicare and Medicaid, means testing, although we do means test Medicare now. I think we ought to expand means testing and I really think we can take a look at the way we compute the consumer price index."

Zaid Jilani noted the Wall Street Journal reported November 15

On Capitol Hill, it isn’t clear how strenuously Democrats will resist cutting entitlements. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.) said he and others were open to changes as long as they were done in a measured way and were part of deal that included tax increases. Mr. Van Hollen also said changing Social Security and increasing the Medicare eligibility age above 65 should be part of negotiations.

“I’m willing to consider all of these ideas as part of an overall plan,” Mr. Van Hollen said Tuesday at the Journal’s CEO Council.

White House officials in 2011 were in advanced talks with Mr. Boehner that would have agreed to some of these changes, notably raising Medicare’s eligibility age. That is one cause of liberals’ anxiety about how the coming talks may unfold.

The same day, the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, Kent Conrad, was interviewed by The Washington Post.    Asked about raising the retirement age for Medicare, he at least reversed "fair and balanced" to "balanced and fair":

I wouldn’t want that to be the starting point, but as part of an overall package, that’s balanced and fair. Given that we now have exchanges to purchase insurance because of the president’s health-care reform law, it makes it much more acceptable, much more reasonable, over a long period of time to gradually increase the age given that people are living so much longer.

Americans are not living longer and excising 65 and 66 year old persons from Medicare would send some of them into health insurance exchanges, which would make those contraptions less viable.   Clyburn suggests support for Medicare reduction "as part of an overall plan" and Conrad cautions he "wouldn't want" reduction "to be the starting point"- but they have gone a long way to making it the party's opening bid.    And they have done this in return for raising the low rates (on high incomes) which are set to expire automatically

Yes, we all have our price.  Unfortunately for the country, for Barack Obama and his acolytes, that price is very low.  Digby has a right to complain that raising the Medicare retirement age

is basically an offering to get the Republicans to agree to ask those making more than 259k (or a million)a year to "pay a little bit more." Or perhaps it's better understood as a human sacrifice.

It's hard to believe that it was only three years ago that we were close to an agreement to lower the Medicare eligibility age to 55 (which would have been a godsend.) Now Democrats are talking about raising it to 67. After a big re-election victory. Wow. 

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Republican Presidency Proceeds

Zeke Miller at Buzzfeed summarizes

Obama senior adviser David Plouffe predicted that the fiscal cliff negotiations are "going to get hairy" in the coming weeks, saying President Barack Obama is committed to achieving the elusive "big deal" on taxes and spending he and Speaker of the House John Boehner have tried to strike for more than 18 months.

In post-election remarks at the University of Delaware, Plouffe warned of "paralysis" if both parties remain beholden to their base, saying Obama is looking for a deal that sets the country on the right fiscal path for a 10- to 20-year period.

"The only way that gets done is for Republicans again to step back and get mercilessly criticized by Grover Norquist and the Right, and it means that Democrats are going to have to do some tough things on spending and entitlements that means that they'll criticized on by their left," Plouffe said at his alma mater in conversation with former McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt.

The senior White House adviser repeated Obama's opposition to extending the Bush tax cuts on those earning more than $250,000 a year, but expressed openness to a tax reform deal that could potentially lower what the wealthy pay.

“What we also want to do is engage in a process of tax reform that would ultimately produce lower rates, even potentially for the wealthiest," he said, referring to benefits from corporate tax reform.

Plouffe added that while the White House wants to engage in comprehensive tax reform, they know they must also "carefully" address the "chief drivers of our deficit": Medicare and Medicaid.

It's ironic- or perhaps fitting- that Plouffe lectures (video, below) the left as the administration figures it is appeasing its liberal supporters by fixating on ending the Bush-era tax cuts on income above $200,000 ($250,000 for a household) per year.  Approvingly, Rachel Maddow yesterday noted

But he and his White House and even his presidential election campaign which theoretically has disbanded but still seems to be around, they have been more than clear that what the president is going to do first is work on getting the Bush tax cuts extended for all income levels below a quarter million dollars. Income above a quarter million dollars will go back to the Clinton era tax rates. That is the president`s first priority.And that is forced on him in part by the scheduled expiration of those tax cuts at the end of the year. But it also seems to be embraced as what he wants to work on. 

President Obama is not arguing for that tax cut expiration date to be extended, to be put off for awhile so he can work on something else in the meantime. He very much seems to want this fight. 

And he`s not only talking about it at every public opportunity, reminding everybody that it is what he campaigned on when he won reelection."The New York Times" is also now reporting that he`s employing the contact list and supporter information mega database that he built during his reelection campaign toward trying to win that particular policy fight.

The Administration evidently is all-in on eliminating the lower rate for the (above $200,000/$250,000) wealthy- but not for anything else.   Even as most on the left- including Maddow and most of the crew at the allegedly liberal MSNBC- accept Obama's priorities, Plouffe complains "There are some- maybe not so much in our party but some commentators on the left- that we should not deal with this at all."  This follows the misrepresentation- nay, lie that  "The notion that somehow these deficits and our debt are not a threat to our national security and our economic future is something that I could not disagree with more."

Plouffe did not specify who these folks "on the left" are because there are few liberals who don't acknowledge- generally, even emphasize- that the debt is a long-term problem.  They don't say, or write, or tweet, or anything that deficits or the debt should not be dealt with at all- only not now.  As Paul Krugman has explained

Household borrowing has plunged; businesses are sitting on cash because there’s no reason to expand capacity when the sales aren’t there; and the result is that investors are all dressed up with nowhere to go, or rather no place to put their money. So they’re buying government debt, even at very low returns, for lack of alternatives. Moreover, by making money available so cheaply, they are in effect begging governments to issue more debt.

And governments should be granting their wish, not obsessing over short-term deficits.

Obligatory caveat: yes, we have a long-run budget problem, and we should be taking steps to address that problem, mainly by reining in health care costs. But it’s simply crazy to be laying off schoolteachers and canceling infrastructure projects at a time when investors are offering zero- or negative-interest financing.

It is precisely in the long term that health care spending (not Medicare itself) is a serious threat to financial stability.   Short-term deficits and debt which so exorcise Plouffe and are (in his view) minimized by the left are huge now because of the tax cuts, an unfunded prescription drug mandate, two wars, and a recession.   It is long-term debt- which the left has emphasized since Plouffe was in diapers- which is exacerbated by health care spending.  And Medicare lowers, rather than raises, health care costs. Krugman again:

Studies by the Urban Institute and more recently by CBPP find that Medicaid is significantly cheaper than private insurance. This is partly because of lower administrative costs; also, Medicaid, more than Medicare, bargains hard, using things like a limited formulary that lets it drive a harder bargain over drug prices.

And there is, of course, the international evidence:   every other advanced country has a less privatized health insurance system than we do, and we have much higher costs than anyone else.

Summarizing his inner macho, Plouffe contended a favorable solution "means that Democrats are going to have to do some tough things on spending and entitlements that means that they'll criticized on by their left."   Message:  "we're going to 'get tough' on the left," which hardly would be news from a president never fond of the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.   But it is significant; this is not any Democratic senator, even Dick Durbin, nor a policy wonk.  Plouffe is a political consultant and stategist by trade who was the chief delegate counter for Senator Obama in 2008.  So when he threatens to lower corporate tax rates and to cut Medicare and Medicare in order to allow tax rates on incomes above $200,000/$250,000 to rise as they already are scheduled to do under current law, he's serving a president who's serving the interests of the elite.

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Still Intimidated, Presumably

In a case which appears to be flying under the radar, CNN Supreme Court Producer Bill Mears reports

The Supreme Court has ordered a federal appeals court to take another look at whether a key requirement in the health care reform law violates religious freedoms.

A pending lawsuit from the private Liberty University had claimed, among other things, that the law would lead to taxpayer dollars funding abortions and contraception, a claim the Obama administration rejects. The justices issued their order Monday.

The high court in June had upheld the overall law championed by President Obama, but left room for continued legal challenges to certain aspects of the law's application.

The Lynchburg, Virginia-based school bills itself as the largest Christian evangelical college in the world.

A three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 2011 unanimously concluded the university's lawsuit should be blocked on jurisdictional grounds. There is no indication when the appeals court will revisit the issue in the wake of the high court's order.

After the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act's funding mechanism -- the so-called individual mandate requiring nearly all Americans to purchase health insurance or pay a financial penalty -- it tossed out all other pending appeals.

Liberty University then refiled its lawsuit, saying its objections to the law should be reconsidered in light of the court's 5-4 ruling affirming the overall law.

The school believes Americans should not be required to purchase health insurance -- and employers forced to provide it -- if there are legitimate moral and religious objections to some provisions.

The Administration doesn't have clean hands here.  Eleven months ago, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius rejected the advice of the Food and Drug Administration and ruled that Plan B One-Step, the contraception available over-the-counter to females 17 years of age and over, would not be made available for younger girls without a prescription.   As Digby observes

Even the president decided that it would be better for young girls to get pregnant than have easy access to birth control. The conservatives nearly had a mass nervous breakdown at the mere idea that anyone would "condone" birth control among those who are the most likely to have unprotected sex. 

Somehow, the right has managed to equate in the minds of a large swath of Americans the idea that birth control and abortion are synonymous, or nearly so.   That flies in the face logic- and of the recent report revealing

Providing birth control to women at no cost substantially reduced unplanned pregnancies and cut abortion rates by a range of 62-78 percent compared to the national rate, a new study shows.  The research, by investigators at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, appears online Oct. 4 in Obstetrics & Gynecology.

Among a range of birth control methods offered in the study, most women chose long-acting methods like intrauterine devices (IUDs) or implants, which have lower failure rates than commonly used birth control pills. In the United States, IUDs and implants have high up-front costs that sometimes aren’t covered by health insurance, making these methods unaffordable for many women.

“This study shows that by removing barriers to highly-effective contraceptive methods such as IUDs and implants, we can reduce unintended pregnancies and the need for abortions,” says lead author Jeff Peipert, MD, PhD, the Robert J. Terry Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

According to The New York Times, When Sebelius made her apparently politically expedient decision contradicting scientific advice, it "avoided what could have been a bruising political battle over parental control and contraception  during a presidential election season."

Surely, now that the President, safely re-elected to his last term as president (or any elective office), the progressive most of his supporters believe he is will come out of the closet.  

Not yet, anyway.  Mears writes (emphasis mine)

It is one of several dozen pending lawsuits around the country filed to challenge the law's application since the June decision. The Richmond-based appeals court taking on the Liberty University case could ask both the federal government and the school to submit updated legal arguments. The Obama administration did not object to the university asking for another chance to press its claims.

Of course it didn't.  In this administration, whether it's the Justice Department, HHS, or the President himself, no conservative antagonist is too hostile that it can't be appeased.

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Monday, November 26, 2012

Means To An End

House Speaker John Boehner has called Grover Norquist "some random person" and has stated "Because the American people expect us to find common ground, we are willing to accept some additional revenues, via tax reform."   Georgia Senator Saxby Chambliss claims the founder and director of Americans for Tax Reform "has no credibility" and Bush 41 has charged "Circumstances change, and you can't be wedded to some formula by Grover Norquist.   It's- who the hell is Grover Norquist, anyway?"

Some Republicans undoubtedly would say, rhetorically and in private:  "Who the hell is George H.W. Bush, anyway?"  (He is the last Republican president and, worse yet, the last president since Jimmy Carter to be rejected for a second term.)   Norquist, creator and keeper of the Taxpayer Protection Pledge, still is far more influential that HW Bush.

Still, as The Philadelphia Inquirer's Thomas Fitzgerald writes, some GOP congressmen "are openly defying Norquist."

That's just it- they're openly defying Norquist, all the better to curry favor with media types who yearn for a sign, any sign that Republicans may be doing something that may approximate what can be plausibly called "compromise."  But compromise it's not.

Boehner, who sent a thrill up the legs of many Obamites and media types when he spoke vaguely on November 7 about "additional revenues," now says "we need to repeal Obamacare and enact common-sense, step-by-step reforms that start with lowering the cost of health care."  (You win the election; we set the agenda.  Sounds fair, doesn't it?)
While the House Speaker is willing to consider "additional revenues" in order to undermine the Affordable Care Act, Senator Chambliss has his eyes set on Wall Street's favorite targets, Social Security and Medicare. Zaid Jilani notes

For more than a year, Chambliss has been involved with a group of senators who support the Bowles-Simpson plan to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits while lowering the corporate tax rate. This Bowles-Simpson plan closes a few token tax loopholes, and also reduces the popular mortgage interest deduction. Norquist is opposed to closing even the tiny loopholes that the Bowles-Simpson plan closes, so he staunchly opposes the plan altogether — which also means opposing Chambliss.

Chambliss is willing to deal with closing small loopholes in the tax code in order to get to the wider goals of the Bowles-Simpson plan: cutting Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age, cutting Medicare benefits by capping overall spending, and dramatically lowering corporate tax rates.

On Sunday's This Week with George Stephanopolous, Georgia Senator Lindsey Graham conceded "Republicans should put revenue on the table. We're this far in debt. We don't generate enough revenue. Capping deductions will help generate revenue. "   Moments later Graham, one of the congressmen often hailed as independent of Norquist, spun (h/t/ to Susie Madrak) this tale:

I don't think you can look at entitlement reform without adjusting the age for retirement, like Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan did. It goes to 66, 67 here pretty soon for Social Security. Let it float up another year or so over the next 30 years, adjust Medicare from 65 to 67 over the next 30 years, means test benefits for people in our income level. I don't expect the Democrats to go for premium support or a voucher plan, but I do expect them to adjust these entitlement programs before they bankrupt the country and run out of money themselves. So age adjustment and means testing for both Social Security, Medicare I think is eminently reasonable. And all those who've looked at this problem have done that over time.

Discussing the fiscal cliff, fiscal curb, or whatever idiotic, inaccurate cliches are in vogue this week, Graham pimps for raising the age for Social Security recipients.   If we pretend, as does the thoroughly dishonest South Carolinian, that Social Security has something to do with the deficit (other than cutting it as politicians use the trust fund to pay for tax cuts), Graham ought to be informed that life expectancy has dipped, however slightly, in recent years. Lyn Parramore responds to the fear mongers by explaining

You will be hearing lots of convincing-sounding rhetoric on this topic in upcoming weeks –often from Democrats – including the notion that we should be means-testing Social Security for longevity among high-income earners. That plan plays into the mythology that the program is somehow broken and needs to be “fixed.” It also plays into the game of fiscal conservatives who know full well that means testing will diminish support, which is why they have been ardently pushing it for 50 years. It’s yet another red herring.

In return for beginning to demolish Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, Republicans hint at a willingness to accept an increase in revenue.   But to many on the right, lowering taxes on the wealthy- the "job creators"- itself magically increases tax revenue (supply-side economics, Laffer Curve, voodoo economics, etc.).   If they can be persuaded to accept caps on deductions, the loopholes simply will return within a few years.  The lobbyists will not get religion, fold up their tents and go home simply because of a minor, temporary setback.   Grover Norquist maintains his grip on the Gas and Oil Party.

In the meantime, the attack on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid- demonized as "entitlements"- would continue apace among neo-liberal centrists and conservative plutocrats.  The Great Recession may have been engineered (intentionally or otherwise) by the financial community, but old people, poor people, and sick people must suffer for their sins.

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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Failing, Heroically

David Petraeus' executive officer, retired Colonel Peter Mansoor, was referring to Paula Broadwell when he said "In Iraq, General Petraeus was adamant that he didn't want reporters embedded within his headquarters in any way.   What troubles me is why he decided to change his own guidance and allow her unfettered and lengthy access."

The answer to that is embedded in the word "embedded."I think we all know why, the answer fittingly embedded in the word "embedded."

Or maybe not, because General Petraeus was not motivated exclusively by his hormones.   Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post has written

Since his first combat tour in Iraq in 2003, Petraeus had cultivated a cadre of a few dozen loyal staff officers, many of whom had doctoral degrees from top universities and taught at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Usually, he personally selected these men and women to serve on his staff.

In Afghanistan, the retinue grew as people drawn to his fame and eager to launch their own careers took up positions for him in Kabul. “He didn’t seek out these people, but he also didn’t turn them away,” said an officer who spent 40 months working for Petraeus in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Prominent members of conservative, Washington-based defense think tanks were given permanent office space at his headquarters and access to military aircraft to tour the battlefield. They provided advice to field commanders that sometimes conflicted with orders the commanders were getting from their immediate bosses.

Some of Petraeus’s staff officers said he and the American mission in Afghanistan benefited from the broader array of viewpoints, but others complained that the outsiders were a distraction, the price of his growing fame.

Apparently, the General needed a posse, for we learn from the Daily Beast

The sisters are also believed to have attended the farewell party for Sir Nigel Sheinwald, the former British ambassador to the U.S., in Washington last year. Peter King, a Republican congressman for New York who was at the event, told CNN yesterday that he had met Kelley at “one or two events at the British embassy.” An embassy spokesman declined to check, saying that it would take too much time.

Kelley, a mother of three and an unpaid “social liaison” for the U.S. military in Tampa, is said to have spared no expense at such parties to honor top brass stationed at nearby U.S. Central Command. She was pictured at one event at her $1.2 million mansion in 2010 with General Petraeus, who arrived in a 28-man police motorcycle escort.

There is no word yet whether congressional Republicans will target extravagance by military officers as part of their assault on the evil deficit.    Nor do we know if the Washington establishment will connect the dots on the portrait of the now-disgraced General who in his dissertation at Princeton University in 1987 wrote "What policymakers believe to have taken place in any particular case is what matters- more than what actually occurred."    Michael Hastings explains

There’s his war record in Iraq, starting when he headed up the Iraqi security force training program in 2004. He’s more or less skated on that, including all the weapons he lost, the insane corruption, and the fact that he essentially armed and trained what later became known as “Iraqi death squads.” On his final Iraq tour, during the so-called "surge," he pulled off what is perhaps the most impressive con job in recent American history. He convinced the entire Washington establishment that we won the war.

The establishment included the Brookings Institution's Micheal E. O'Hanlon and Kenneth M. Pollack, who wrote of the war in Iraq "Today, morale is high.  The soldiers and marines told us they feel that they now have a superb commander in Gen. David Petraeus; they are confident in his strategy, they see real results; and they feel they now have the numbers needed to make a real difference."

That was over five years ago, but the General is still bamboozling opinion makers.  Following the resignation of the guy who presided over defeat in Iraq, defeat in Afghanistan, and an intelligence scandal pertaining to Benghazi, USA Today editorialized "David Petraeus made a doozy of a mistake, one that cost him his job and tarnished his sterling reputation. But if the frenzy passes without further surprises, he can drive on to new pathways and continue to be of service to his country."

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Friday, November 23, 2012

Blame The Consumer

Are you wondering why it's necessary for big-box stores to open on a national holiday, Thanksgiving Day?  Look in the mirror- because it's your fault.

Or so says a reporter, Marie Panaritis, for The Philadelphia Inquirer.  She writes

In the rush to assign blame for the Christmas shopping frenzy that is taking hold earlier than ever - detractors assailed Target, Toys R Us, and Walmart for planned Thanksgiving openings this year - one must follow the fingertips of American shoppers.

Because the bogeyman boils down to this: online, online, online.

For decades, retailers made a bundle on Black Friday by packing stores with sale goods, filling Thanksgiving Day newspapers with advertisements, and reveling in revenue as customers rolled in the next day en masse.

Then came the Internet. And the old model crumbled like a Jenga tower at a holiday party. Retailers that open their doors at ungodly hours on and after Thanksgiving are competing with an online shopping realm where the doors never close.

Do retailers such as Aeropostale, Banana Republic, Big Lots, CVS, Family Dollar, Gap, Kenneth Cole, Kmart, Old Navy, Sears, Sony, Starbucks, Target, Toys'R'Us, Walgreens and Whole Foods open on Thanksgiving in order to profit at the expense of what otherwise would be a family-focused holiday?  No, they are doing it as a favor to you, the consumer, because

Tons of people trawl the Internet on Thanksgiving as the turkey roasts and the relatives squabble over old beefs. Still others click-and-buy on the days before and after, and all through Christmas, depending on which discounts land in their e-mail.

Rather than let that business vanish forever, brick-and-mortar retailers opt to open earlier - an enticement aimed at damage control.

And, as a pampered and spoiled consumer don't ever, ever consider saving yourself or your family money:

As though all this were not sobering enough for companies that stock, heat, staff, and keep stores open through the holidays, there is yet another enemy:

The very retailers being criticized on moral grounds for opening on once-untouchable days are in this predicament in part because they are being exploited by increasingly wily shoppers.

"Showrooming," as it is known in the industry, is when a customer strolls into a store, inspects a popular product, then compares its price on a smartphone or leaves to order it online. (One edge that online retailers have on price stems from the fact that they do not carry the overhead associated with actual stores.)

"One of the biggest competitors to Walmart right now is Amazon," Kahn said. "These online competitors, there's no question, are changing the way brick-and-mortar retailers do business."

Presumably, Wal-Mart, the leading retailer in the world and the company that sets the standard for American retailing, can barely keep up.   Yet, as Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute notes

Concretely, between 2007 and 2010, while median family wealth fell by 38.8 percent, the wealth of the Walton family members rose from $73.3 billion to $89.5 billion…In 2007, it was reported that the Walton family wealth was as large as the bottom 35 million families in the wealth distribution combined, or 30.5 percent of all American families.

And in 2010, as the Walton’s wealth has risen and most other Americans’ wealth declined, it is now the case that the Walton family wealth is as large as the bottom 48.8 million families in the wealth distribution (constituting 41.5 percent of all American families) combined.

Major retailers can open on a major national holiday.  But they are not going to be open 24 hours, 7 days a week and those greedy, conniving, thrift-conscious consumers still will want to shop before they retire at 11:00 on a Sunday night, or when they awaken early at 5:00 a.m., or at any time the stores are not open. And if they want to spend without going to the trouble of dressing and driving, the Internet still will be available to them, even if stores open at 12:01 a.m. Thursday morning and remain open throughout Black Friday.

One major chain, this year at least, bucked the trend.  P.C. Richard & Son posted on its Facebook page "It is our opinion that retailers who choose to open Thanksgiving Day or Night show no respect for their employees and families, and are in total disrespect of family values in the United States of America."

P.C. Richard, with its 66 stores in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut, and (primarily) New York State, is not among the mom 'n pop operations, which face a particularly big challenge. "Small business Saturday" may be soothing to the soul, but its impact will be dwarfed by the inability of these retailers to conduct business on Thanksgiving.

We can be relieved that the guy contemptuous of the 47% has been denied victory by the country's first black president.    But it is still a country of the 1%, aided and abetted by a mainstream media too often operating of, by, and for, corporate interests who go to ever-greater lengths to separate Americans from their money.

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Off The Mark

Senator John McCain has vowed to try to block any nomination of Susan Rice to head the Department of State.   On November 14, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham, as with McCain a member of the Armed Services Committee, argued “I think she was a political choice, telling a political narrative, and either she didn’t know the truth about Benghazi—so she shouldn’t have been on T.V.—or she was spinning it.” Graham said. He said he wouldn’t “promote” anybody involved in the “Benghazi debacle.”   Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina initiated a letter dated November 19, addressed to President Obama and signed by 97 Repub members of the U.S. House of Representatives, in which critics of the Administration have claimed "Ambassador Rice is widely having viewed as having either willfully or incompetently as having misled the American people in the Benghazi matter."

The third ranking House Democrat, Jim Clyburn of South Carolina (South Carolina again?), is not amused.  On November 20,  appearing on CNN's Turning Point, he maintained

You know, these are code words.   We heard them during the campaign. During this recent campaign, we heard Senator Sununu calling our president lazy, incompetent—these kinds of terms that those of us, especially those of us who were grown and raised in the South, we would hear these little words and phrases all of our lives, and we’d get insulted by them.

Following Obama's debate performance in Denver, when the President was widely viewed as detached, Romney surrogate Sununu charged "What people saw last night, I think, was a president that revealed his incompetence, how lazy and detached he is, and how he has absolutely no idea how serious the economic problems of the country are, and how he has failed to even begin to address them."

There is little reason to accuse President Obama of being "lazy," other than that it reinforces a traditional stereotype of whites toward blacks.   "Detached," however:  not so much.   When Caucasians get together in a locker room lacking ethnic diversity, "detached" is not the characterization that frequently springs to many minds, or lips, to refer to blacks.

Republicans really ought (which means they won't), however, to knock off using variants of the term "incompetent."     When their nemesis is unskilled, unqualified, or inefficient (rough synonyms for "incompetent"), they ought to say so, rather than resorting to the vague, imprecise charge of lacking competence.

This is one of the problems with the G.O.P. charge against Ambassador Rice and, less significantly, Clyburn's criticism.   Clyburn uses a scattershot approach, accusing Rice's critics- McCain, Graham, the U.S. Representatives, maybe even your next-door neighbor - of racial prejudice by using code words.  But accusing black people of lacking trustworthiness or competence is qualitatively different than accusing them of laziness, which someone chronologically challenged as is Clyburn would recognize.    

The GOP, though, is guilty of two sins. The following is the relevant portion of the interview with Bob Schieffer in which Susan Rice offended so many Republicans:

RICE (9/16/12): Well, Bob, let me tell you what we understand to be the assessment at present. First of all, very importantly, as you discussed with the president, there is an investigation that the United States government will launch, led by the FBI that has begun.


So we’ll want to see the results of that investigation to draw any definitive conclusions. But based on the best information we have to date, what our assessment is as of the present is in fact what— It began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo, where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by this hateful video.

But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post- revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent.


SCHIEFFER: Do you agree or disagree with him that al Qaeda had some part in this?

RICE: Well, we’ll have to find out that out. I mean, I think it’s clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence. Whether they were al Qaeda affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or al Qaeda itself, I think is one of the things we’ll have to determine.

As Bob Somerby (from whom the transcript above is taken) has noted (emphasis his)

Quite plainly, she didn’t say the deadly attack “was not a terrorist attack.” In response to Schieffer's question, she explicitly said that it might have been the work of “al Qaeda itself!” 

She didn’t say the deadly attack was the result of spontaneous demonstrations in Egypt (although it may have been, in some sense). She said the evening’s events began as a reaction to Cairo, after which the extremist elements joined in with their heavy weapons. On two other programs, she said they "hijacked" ongoing events.

The Republican critics (with, perhaps, a couple of exceptions), then, are wrong.   But they are worse than wrong.  They are cowardly in their criticism.

Certainly, John McCain, especially, is not a coward as an individual, possessing a superlative war record.  But some of these fellows are knowingly targeting the wrong individual.  

They should not be assailing President Obama, either, despite the latter's testerone-infused, alpha male challenge to Rice's critics:   “If Senator McCain and Senator Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me. And I’m happy to have that discussion with them... But when they go after the U.N. ambassador apparently because they think she's an easy target, then they've got a problem with me."

That was good politics, good theater, and good chivalry- but, unfortunately, beside the point.  Obama, though, did note Rice "had nothing to do with Benghazi and was simply doing a presentation based on information she had received."   CBS News 

has learned that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) cut specific references to "al Qaeda" and "terrorism" from the unclassified talking points given to Ambassador Susan Rice on the Benghazi consulate attack - with the agreement of the CIA and FBI. The White House or State Department did not make those changes...

An intelligence source says the talking points were passed from the CIA to the DNI, where the substantive edits were made, and then to FBI, which made more edits as part of "standard procedure."

The head of the DNI is James Clapper, an Obama appointee. He ultimately did review the points, before they were given to Ambassador Rice and members of the House intelligence committee on Sept. 14. They were compiled the day before.

Brennan says her source wouldn't confirm who in the agency suggested the final edits which were signed off on by all intelligence agencies.

CBS learned the details only this week.  But members of Congress, Republicans included, have known for some time that Rice's remarks were "talking points," meant to convey to the public only that information which the intelligence community, given the needs of national security, wanted released.

One unnamed official explained "Because of the various elements involved in the attack, the term extremist was meant to capture the range of participants."   But much of the criticism is misguided not only in content.   Susan Rice has been attacked not because she is black or a woman, but because she is part of the Democratic administration.  And most of all, she has been attacked because she is not part of the intelligence community which, it would appear, is immune from all criticism, as well as oversight.


Wishing you a happy Thanksgiving in an off-beat manner:

"As God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly."

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Deficit Obsession

Politics is, at first glance, a matter of competing ideologies springing from different values.  

Some people believe same-sex marriage should be only between a man and a woman, as traditionally it has been, and as sanctioned in the world's best-selling book.  The other believes it is simply a matter of equality, allowing everyone the same opportunity.

There are different opinions as to when life begins, but even some individuals who believe it is at conception support reproductive rights, believing that a woman must be allowed to do as she wishes with her own body.  And many pro-life people, even those not fixated on the the idea that life begins at conception, believe that each life- or potential life- is precious and should not be snuffed out.

This clash of values is featured prominently even in a discussion of the federal income tax rate.   Everyone should pay something, to have "skin in the game," say conservatives, who would maintain that position even when reminded that virtually every American pays some combination of   payroll, property, sales, excise, or local/state income taxes.    The rest of us argue that there already is a growing gap between the wealthy and everyone else, and that efforts must be ongoing to help those who most need it or to smooth out the vagaries of life.

Sometimes, however, evidence suggests that conflicting values is less significant than with ignorance of facts, willful or otherwise.

The drive to cut Social Security benefits is perhaps the most glaring example.   Many peopledo not realize that Social Security has its own dedicated source of funding, cannot legally operate with a deficit, and is financially sound.   They hear members of the media who, engaged in a profession with very little demand physically, may live and work forever, casually maintain that the lifespan of Americans is growing by leaps and bounds.

Lynn Parramore of Alternet has observed the "group of hustlers claiming that life expectancy for Americans was less than 62 years in 1935, and now it’s more than 77 years, so the program must be inadequate."   She explains

The early figure was based on life expectancy at birth. That is a vastly different matter from projecting how long people will live after they reach the age of 65 and start collecting benefits. In the 1930s, there was much higher infant mortality, and children died much more frequently from diseases that are now preventable through immunization. Because our parents’ and grandparents’ generations had a high rate of early death, the life expectancy at birth in 1930 was indeed less than 62 years. But here’s the catch: Social Security is funded by the workers who collect the benefits, along with their employers. Obviously, if you die as a child, you are not going to collect benefits. So the significant measure is not how long you’re going to live after you are born, but rather how long you’re going to live once you hit 65.

In reality, the average life expectancy once a person has reached the age 65 has increased only a modest five years on average since 1940.

So let’s be clear. Workers who reach the age of 65 today are only living five years longer than their parents. The designers of the program were fully aware of this possibility when they calculated the retirement age and they constructed the program accordingly.

Recently, this clash of myth and reality has taken root in the obsessive desire by the mainstream media to warn the American people of utter death and devastation if the budget deficit is not curbed.   Robert Reich has noticed

an entire deficit-cutting political industry has grown up in recent years – starting with Ross Perot’s third party in the 1992 election, extending through Peter Petersen’s Institute and other think-tanks funded by Wall Street and big business, embracing the eat-your-spinach deficit hawk crowd in the Democratic Party, and culminating in the Simpson-Bowles Commission that President Obama created in order to appease the hawks but which only legitimized them further.

Most of the media have bought into the narrative that our economic problems stem from an out-of-control budget deficit. They’re repeating this hokum even now, when we’re staring at a fiscal cliff that illustrates just how dangerous deficit reduction can be.

As the deficit burgeoned under Presidents Reagan and Bush 43, there was concern (among Democrats) but little alarm raised and Dick Cheney famously boasted "Reagan proved deficits don't matter."  Once a Democrat entered the Oval Office in 2009, however, there were dire predictions of runaway inflation and soaring interest rates, with public spending crowding out private investment.      But inflation remains low and interest rates have plummeted to a level even below the minimal growth in the consumer price index.                            

Deficit fetish has not been curbed, unfortunately, even though, as Jed Graham describes at

Believe it or not, the federal deficit has fallen faster over the past three years than it has in any such stretch since demobilization from World War II.

In fact, outside of that post-WWII era, the only time the deficit has fallen faster was when the economy relapsed in 1937, turning the Great Depression into a decade-long affair.

If U.S. history offers any guide, we are already testing the speed limits of a fiscal consolidation that doesn't risk backfiring. That's why the best way to address the fiscal cliff likely is to postpone it.

While long-term deficit reduction is important and deficits remain very large by historical standards, the reality is that the government already has its foot on the brakes.

In this sense, the "fiscal cliff" metaphor is especially poor. The government doesn't need to apply the brakes with more force to avoid disaster. Rather the "cliff" is an artificial one that has sprung up because the two parties are able to agree on so little.

Hopefully, they will agree, as they did at the end of 2010, to embrace their disagreement for a bit longer.

And hopefully, congressional Republicans will succumb to the tea party and the more unyielding factions of their coalition.   More dangerous would be accepting the advice of their realists, such as William Kristol, who believes the party should accept the higher taxes on upper incomes proposed by Barack Obama in return for concessions from the Democrats.   This would please President Obama but, as Digby remarks

I know that the administration doesn't want to delay the expiration of the high end tax cuts, but I honestly don't think it's the most important thing in the world if they do. This economy is weak and if we do go back into recession (or even slow growth) after these tax hikes are enacted, the moneyed elites will ensure that "taxing the job creators" gets the blame. It's not worth the price of "dramatic reforms" to entitlement programs and it won't create one job or help one foreclosed homeowner.

                                             HAPPY THANKSGIVING

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Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Something Short Of Massacre

As of this moment (4:40 p.m. Eastern), there is hope for an end, however temporary, to the attacks between Hamas and Israel as

Diplomatic efforts accelerated on Tuesday to end the deadly confrontation between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, as the United States sent Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to the Middle East and Egypt’s president and his senior aides expressed confidence that a cease-fire was close. But by late evening there was no word on an agreement.

But by late evening there was no announcement, and Mrs. Clinton said she would be working in coming days to complete an agreement. Appearing beside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to speak briefly to the press, Mrs. Clinton said she hoped to achieve an end to the hostilities with a deal that moves “toward a comprehensive peace for all people in the region.”

Reacting to the Israeli missiles which have killed at least 54 Palestinian civilians, hundreds of protesters had taken to the streets of Chicago the previous night to protest U.S. support of Tel Aviv.  Hatem Abudayyeh of the U.S. Palestinian Community Network told ABC "The problem with U.S. policy is you support Israel unequivocally all the time, even when they're massacring civilians."    And today

Masked Israeli gunmen forced six people suspected of collaborating with Hamas to lie face down on the street — and shot them dead, witnesses told The Associated Press.

Then, while an angry mob stomped and spat on five of the bodies, the sixth was tied to the back of a motorcycle and and dragged through the streets.

“Spy! Spy!” the people screamed as the corpse was hauled off.

Witnesses told the AP that Israel posted the names of the alleged informers on a utility pole.

Informed, thoughtful, and objective reader that you are, you didn't believe that.    Substitute Hamas for Israeli/Israel and Israel for Hamas, and this is the story as it was actually written in The (New York) Daily News:

Masked Hamas gunmen forced six people suspected of collaborating with Israel to lie face down on the street — and shot them dead, witnesses told The Associated Press.

Then, while an angry mob stomped and spat on five of the bodies, the sixth was tied to the back of a motorcycle and and dragged through the streets.

“Spy! Spy!” the people screamed as the corpse was hauled off.

Witnesses told the AP that Hamas posted the names of the alleged informers on a utility pole.

Israel continues its (sarcasm alert) policy of genocide when (emphasis mine)

Intensifying the pressure on Hamas after a day of heavy rocket fire out of Gaza against southern Israel, the Israeli military said on Tuesday afternoon that it had distributed leaflets over Gaza instructing the Palestinian residents in several areas to evacuate their homes immediately, “for your safety,” and to move toward defined zones in central Gaza City.

Israeli actions can be misguided, unwise, or excessive; massacres, though, are not how they roll.    There is, meanwhile, no ambiguity in the policy and aims of Hamas.

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Monday, November 19, 2012

Governor, You're No Mario Cuomo

Hooray for Chris Hayes (video, below) and Alex Pareene, both of whom recently exposed Andrew Cuomo. And it's not a pretty sight.

After vowing in July "I will veto laws that are not drawn by an independent commission that are partisan," the New York governor, as Salon's Pareene notes, "signed off on gerrymandered state Senate districts."   Though the state assembly is safely Democratic, this month's elections for the 63-member state senate produced 31 Democrats and 30 Republicans.   However, Brooklyn's Simcha Felder, elected as a Democrat, announced he would caucus as a Republican, a switch which has elicited little interest from the governor.  

That leaves 31 Republicans and 30 Democrats with two races yet to be decided.  In one of these, Democrat Terry Gipson leads incumbent Repub senator Terry Saland, whom Cuomo had successfully encouraged to cross party lines to endorse same-sex marriage.

In another Senate district, another GOP incumbent who voted to support with the governor on same-sex marriage, Roy McDonald, was defeated in the primary by a tea party-backed candidate, with Cuomo nevertheless refusing to back the Democratic opponent in the general election.

Cuomo's support of the GOP redistricting map, coupled with his failure to support Democratic legislative candidates, has jeopardized Democratic efforts to enact progressive legislation, including an increase in the minimum wage, public financing of elections, and decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use.  Hayes observes

Watching all this unfold, one can’t help but suspect that Andrew Cuomo does not want a Democratic majority in the state Senate, because a Republican majority gives him more of an opportunity to burnish his bipartisan compromiser bonafides before launching his presidential campaign...” 

Pareene has found Governor Cuomo's

tenure so far has been marked by flashy liberal victories on issues like gay marriage, along with a quietly conservative economic agenda: A property tax cap, total neglect of mass transit, and (partial) support for fracking. Even on economic issues where Cuomo has more liberal priorities, he rarely pushes his Republican friends particularly hard. (A Republican-controlled state Senate will almost certainly block a minimum wage increase Cuomo ostensibly supports.) There’s a reason, in other words, that the National Review loves him.

Cuomo also has cut education and health care spending, as well as benefits for public employees.   Hayes fears Cuomo is striving to "burnish his bipartisan compromise bonafides before launching his presidential campaign."   Worse, as Pareene notes, "he’s in an enviable position of being able to run and govern as a conservative while retaining a progressive reputation, because he’s, you know, a Cuomo and a big-city blue state liberal governor who got gay marriage passed."

Pushing same-sex marriage through the state legislature was a critical strategic victory for the New York governor, enhancing his support in the gay community and its allies, and enriching his fund-raising capacity among them.   But whatever positions Andrew Cuomo takes on major national issues over the next 3-4 years, his effort to clothe himself with a bipartisan veneer while taking the position of Wall Street in opposition to Main Street ought not to be forgotten in a party which will have any combination of Martin O'Malley, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Sherrod Brown (if there is a God), and other worthy individuals competing to be the party's presidential nominee.   For that matter, Andrew Cuomo's path to the Democratic nomination ought to be stopped whatever the opposition.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

With Gender, Missing The Point

Female Democratic U.S. Representatives recognize that attacks upon Susan Rice over the Benghazi assault have been overwrought and unfair and

Republican senators’ angry criticism of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice over her initial account of the deadly Sept. 11 attack in Libya smacks of sexism and racism, a dozen female members of the House said Friday.

In unusually personal terms, the Democratic women lashed out at Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham who earlier this week called Rice unqualified and untrustworthy and promised to scuttle her nomination if President Barack Obama nominates her to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“All of the things they have disliked about things that have gone on in the administration, they have never called a male unqualified, not bright, not trustworthy,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, the next chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus. “There is a clear sexism and racism that goes with these comments being made by unfortunately Sen. McCain and others.”

Rice's G.O.P. critics have not complained that she is hysterical, angry, manly, or conniving and have avoided stereotypes of women.  Her supporters appear to have forgotten

The House has voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress over his failure to turn over documents related to the Fast and Furious scandal, the first time Congress has taken such a dramatic move against a sitting Cabinet official.

The vote was 255-67, with 17 Democrats voting in support of a criminal contempt resolution, which authorizes Republicans leaders to seek criminal charges against Holder. This Democratic support came despite a round of behind-the-scenes lobbying by senior White House and Justice officials - as well as pressure from party leaders - to support Holder...

Since the Justice Department would have to seek an indictment of Holder - a department he oversees as attorney general - no criminal charges will be brought against him. Previous administrations, including the Bush administration in 2008, refused to seek criminal charges against White House officials when a Democratic-run House passed a criminal contempt resolution over the firing of U.S. attorneys.

Boehner’s office, though, is expected to submit a criminal referral to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, Ronald Machen, in the next few days, according to a Republican official.

Holder, as with Rice, is black, and racial animus may play a role in Repub criticism of both officials.   But Holder is a man and, properly, there was no suggestion when he was under attack by Republicans that males were being targeted- and they were trying to remove an individual from office, not merely (as in Rice's case), prevent a promotion.

Clearly, the primary motive of the U.N. ambassador's critics is that she serves a Democratic president.    But a disaster has taken place and responsibility should be determined.   Evidently, that is not going to be the Republican whose first name is "General," although

Petraeus testified that the CIA draft written in response to the raid referred to militant groups Ansar al-Shariah and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but that those names were replaced with the word extremist in the final draft, according to a congressional staffer. The staffer said Petraeus testified that, to get the CIA talking points out quickly, he allowed other agencies to alter the draft as they saw fit, without asking for final review.

The congressional officials were not authorized to discuss the hearing publicly and described Petraeus' testimony to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Sen. Mark Udall (D., Colo.) said Petraeus explained that the CIA's draft points were sent to other intelligence agencies and to some federal agencies for review. Udall said Petraeus told them the final document was put in front of all the senior agency leaders, including Petraeus, and everyone signed off on it.

"The assessment that was publicly shared in unclassified talking points went through a process of editing," Udall said. "The extremist description was put in because, in an unclassified document, you want to be careful who you identify as being involved."

Rep. Peter King (R., N.Y.) said it remained unclear how the final talking points developed. The edited version was used by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice five days after the attack when the White House sent her out for a series of television interviews. Republicans have criticized Rice for saying it appeared that the attack was sparked by a spontaneous protest over an anti-Muslim video.

According to published reports, everyone- including the esteemed David Petraeus- signed the document whose contents were to be used by an administration representative when responding to the media.   Those comments substituted "extremist" for mention of any terrorist groups. 

King added "The fact is, the reference to al-Qaeda was taken out somewhere along the line by someone outside the intelligence community.   We need to find out who did it and why."  

They certainly do.  Presumably, it was not the C.I.A. director who took out the reference, especially because his agency apparently suspected the involvement.   But he agreed with the others that the American public ought to be deceived, a decision which will be disregarded by Democratic, and eagerly so by Republican, members of Congress.

So too, though, ought Ms. Rice's defenders avoid excessive deference to the awesome power represented (and until his resignation, held) by The Man Called Petraeus.    Once they take a break from charging sexism, perhaps Susan Rice's defenders might notice what others refuse to, that the man who failed in Iraq and failed in Afghanistan went on to fail at the Central Intelligence Agency.

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Junk Food Debacle

The broadcast media division of the Republican Party has wasted no time blaming unions for the closing of Hostess' factories and plans tosell of its brands and liquidate the company.   Media Matters noted

Martha MacCallum, co-host of Fox News' America's Newsroom, introduced a segment on the Hostess bankruptcy by saying the company is "blaming a worker's strike for crippling their ability to make and deliver their products." At the end of the report, co-host Bill Hemmer blamed the coming job losses at the company on "a labor dispute," suggesting that the union had put "18,000 jobs on the line." MacCallum said the employees were "paying dues to the union and then the union won't make a deal." 

Rush Limbaugh never misses an opportunity to blame workers and claimed

Yeah, I'm gonna talk about Hostess.  You know what, 18,500 people gone, Hostess Twinkies, Ding Dongs, shut down.  Some people might think it's a buy opportunity if you want to get in the Ding Dong business.  But folks, if you need an indication that the Democrats will never compromise on anything, look at this.  Hostess is going out of business because of unions.

While Rush deftly, without evidence or logic, simultaneously blames unions and the Democratic Party for corporate failure, Dean Baker sets us straight, explaining

Hostess has been relying on pretty much the same mix of products for decades. While other companies have sought to adjust to changing consumer tastes, Hostess still gets the vast majority of its revenue from a relatively small number of products that it has been selling in largely the same form since the sixties. This failure to innovate was the main reason that the company first went into bankruptcy in 2004.

Hostess remained in bankruptcy for five years until it was brought out of bankruptcy in February of 2009 by Ripplewood Holdings, a private equity company. Remarkably, it exited bankruptcy with nearly $670 million in debt, almost 50 percent more than the $450 million it owed when it went into bankruptcy.

Usually companies use bankruptcy to shed debt. With Hostess the opposite was true. This meant that Ripplewood was taking a heavily leveraged gamble. If the company survived, it would get a very high return on its investment. However there was a strong likelihood that the company would not be able to make it given its extraordinary debt burden and the weakness of the economy.

Ripplewood first asked workers for concessions in August of 2011. The workers refused since they had made substantial concessions in 2008 to facilitate the exit from bankruptcy. The concessions did not prevent layoffs of close to 20 percent of the workforce. The company also had stopped making payment to the pension fund in July of 2011 and is now more than $160 million in arrears.

Ripplewood took the company back into bankruptcy in January of this year, owing close to $1 billion. It has used bankruptcy to impose new contract terms on workers. This is the immediate cause of the current impasse, with the bakery workers’ union refusing to accept the reductions in pay and benefits and changes in work rules demanded by management.

Workers had several important issues to consider beyond just the prospect of working for less pay and under worse conditions. First, and most importantly, there was little reason to have much confidence in the current management team. They had done nothing to turn the company around in the three years since the last bankruptcy and there was little reason to believe that they would do any better going forward.

Accepting new concessions would provide no guarantee of job security. In fact, management wanted the unions to agree to the closure of 10-12 plants (of its choosing) as part of a new contract. This means that many of the company’s 18,000 workers would soon have been laid off even if the workers had accepted management’s terms.

Second, management was not shy about rewarding itself in spite of the company’s poor financial condition. The CEO upped his annual pay to $2.25 million and other top executives got raises of 35-80 percent. This doesn’t seem like the behavior of management that puts the survival of the company first.

Third, the financial situation of the pension has to be a top concern for workers. While the pension is guaranteed by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, the guarantee for multi-employer plans like the one at Hostess is limited. If the plan were to become insolvent then many workers would see large cuts in benefits.

From this standpoint, if Hostess were to continue to put off contributions to the pension and allow it to become badly underfunded, then workers could be looking at sharply reduced pensions in retirement. Workers who are approaching retirement age may view this prospect as a far greater danger than the risk of losing their job at this stage in their career.

Limbaugh blames AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka for maintaining "What’s happening with Hostess Brands is a microcosm of what’s wrong with America, as Bain-style Wall Street vultures make themselves rich by making America poor.  Crony capitalism and consistently poor management drove Hostess into the ground, but its workers are paying the price."   After a campaign in which the Democratic candidate rarely criticized venture capitalism and his most effective (other than Chris Christie) surrogate, Bill Clinton, unsurprisingly completely avoided the issue, it's downright pleasing to hear someone defend unions and workers by highlighting the recklessness of "job creators."  Months ago, Robert Reich illustrated how it works in the world of venture capitalism:

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