Chris Christie, Leader of the Free World

Imagine you work for a large, belligerent, mean-spirited man—sort of like a wild boar but without the grace and sense of portion control—say, someone like Chris Christie. And you and some of your fellow minions (all of whose careers depend completely on the wild boar’s good will) come up with a really, really great idea, a wonderful plan to punish the “animals” (preferred gubernatorial terminology for “Democrats”) who have been nipping at your boss’s heels. The one little catch is that if word of your plan gets out, your boss will be incredibly embarrassed and suffer great political harm, perhaps even to the extent of having to speak politely to reporters. What to do? Do you a) run with the plan anyway, knowing the boss loves surprises and would never dream of taking retribution on you if by chance you accidentally scuttle his chance to be president, or b) even though you’re sure he’ll totally love your plan, cover your ass by making sure he was ok with it? “Uh, say, boss, I bet it would make those bums up in Ft. Lee look pretty bad if there was to be, like maybe, uh some traffic problems on the bridge, uh, you think?” (for current background on the bridge scandal, see NYT article)

Clearly the answer is “b.” Underlings, even clueless Republican underlings, working for a bullying micromanager wouldn’t even dream of taking such a politically drastic step without having an ok from above. So it looks like we’re in for a long round of “what did he know and when did he know it” to see if someone was so incredibly stupid as to document a conversation with the governor about causing 4 days of gridlock in the entire town of Ft. Lee.

However, as entertaining as this might be (Rachel Maddow is proving an excellent and engaging investigative reporter), I’m not sure it really matters. Or matters in terms of whether Chris Christie is the kind of person we want as the ever-becoming-less-aptly-termed Leader of the Free World (although certainly still “leader of a gigantic army with thousands of nuclear weapons”). It does matter in terms of possible indictment or impeachment but here’s why it doesn’t matter for the Christie for President nightmare (and why “b” might not actually be the correct answer). Assume for a minute that Christie actually in truth didn’t know about the plan. To me that means that the underlings were all so completely convinced that the bridge closure plot was simply “business as usual,” something so obviously in line with Christie’s wishes and modus operandi, that it didn’t even occur to them to get permission—it would be like getting permission to order pizza. They know what he wants without him having to say. So the fact that Christie runs an administration in which underhanded political tricks that inconvenience 10s of thousands (and apparently caused one death) are considered business as usual—something not worth bothering the boss about—is as damning as if Christie had cooked up the entire scheme himself and moved all the traffic cones (although he’s already confessed to that). Whatever turns up from here on out, Christie is clearly unfit for the Oval Office. What remains to be seen is whether he is fit for an early bus ticket home.

“Big Government” Vs Snowden

Since President Obama took office, conservatives have railed almost continuously against “big government” and “government spending.” They have latched onto these memes as tightly (and with about as much intelligence) as a starfish trying to pull open a clam—though I must say I don’t recall hearing a peep about these concerns during Bush’s 2 terms.

So by all rights and logic, Edward Snowden should be a hero of the conservatives, shouldn’t he? After all, the NSA surveillance program he revealed was large and expensive. And even more anti-conservative, its whole purpose was to gather and store massive amounts of data on everybody in America. That’s something they used to do in East Germany, not the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. Heck, during the time of the founding fathers, many argued against having a CENSUS because that would be a major infringement on freedom. “You want to know how many people live in my house? Bugger off!” So you can just imagine what they would’ve thought about the government compiling a list of everyone you ever wrote or spoke to.

That must mean conservatives want to give Snowden the Medal of Freedom and a lifetime fellowship at the Heritage Foundation, right? Nah, they want to kill him. Their only debate is whether to just kill him or to give him a fair trial and then kill him.

What’s with this? Well, it’s because conservatives really don’t believe in their own memes. They’re not against big government. They’re against big government that protects its people from dying of hunger and treatable medical conditions. But they’re totally FOR big government that protects its people from dying of being blown up by Muslims. They’re not really against government spending. They’re just against government spending that helps ordinary people get an education or keep their homes. They’re totally in favor of government spending (or providing tax breaks—same thing) to help big companies keep their businesses.  

Why this logical inconsistency? Well, I think deep down, conservatives (at least a few) actually do understand that just as it doesn’t matter how many brushes or how much paint Rembrandt used, it’s not the SIZE of government and number of dollars spent that’s important, it’s WHAT that government does with its size and spending that really matters. Thing is, when you get down to it, what they want the government to do are things that benefit only THEM. Keep me safe from terrorists (who could strike ANYWHERE!)? Fine. Keep other people (particularly those with less income and darker skin color) safe from illness? What a waste. They probably brought it on themselves anyway.

Now this is actually quite rational. Unfortunately, it’s rational because conservatives realize that the memes “I’m against big government” and “I’m against taxes” sound a whole lot better than their real meme, which is “To heck with you, what about me?” And portraying the progressives’ meme as “Tax and spend” riles up the conservative base a lot more than would the actual progressive meme “We’re all in this together, so let’s see what we can do to make life better for everyone.”

So how about Snowden? Well, is the NSA surveillance program making life better for us all? Does it even help anyone? Doesn’t appear to be much evidence of that—no senator has come forth to say “I saw completely convincing evidence that it foiled a major terrorist attack. Although I can’t tell you the specifics, I have no doubt it worked.” No, the NSA seems to have created a program both sides can hate. It is an expensive overreach that has taken away significant privacy rights with little demonstrable benefit and is now defending itself by playing on overblown fears of personal danger. Snowden didn’t give away the store, he lifted up the flat rock showing the creepy-crawlies hiding beneath.

Whose War on Christmas?

One of the many good things about Christmas Day is that Fox News will now suspend its peculiar annual ritual ranting about the fictitious liberal “war on Christmas.”  Now, admittedly some liberals are a bit uncomfortable with the country’s fixation on the feasting and gifting part of Christmas when so many are hungry and in want, but liberal guilt pangs hardly rise to the level of a “war” even by today’s lax usage standards (“the war on tire underinflation”). Besides, feasting and gifting are at best peripheral to the “real meaning” of Christmas? Even a Fox anchor (at least one caught unawares) would have to admit that the ecumenical meaning of the Christmas holiday is a message of peace, love and brotherhood. Right? Sounds pretty liberal to me (practically a hippie manifesto). So who could be at war with that? Hmm…

Well, a NYT op ed today discussed the upcoming House and Senate compromise deal on the Farm Bill, part of which contains $8 billion in cuts to food stamp benefits to 850,000 of the nation’s poorest households. The “compromise” part means that the House Republicans compromised their Christmas wish for $40 billion in cuts down to only $8 billion. Gee, less food for the hungry. Now there’s a lump of coal in your Christmas stocking (oops, can’t even do that—Republicans don’t want to provide home heating aid either). Say, who else didn’t want to give out coal?

“Oh! but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire… No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty.”
Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

That’s right, Ebenezer Scrooge was at war with Christmas. Sound like anyone we know? Maybe, the Republicans? Fox News? Now of course they all just love the crèche in the city hall courtyard, the nativity scene re-enactments at the school pageant. But those displays seem to be the beginning and end of their devotion to the Christmas spirit. And here’s what Dickens’ Christmas spirit had to say about that:

“There are some upon this earth of yours,” returned the Spirit, “who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us.”

Yes, cutting food and health care for the poor, referring to them as “takers” who are simply a drag on society (“what, are there no workhouses?”) is the ultimate war on Christmas. When your concerns are only with the “haves” and “have-mores,” then you are at war with Christmas. The real Christians seem to think so. Pope Francis stated in his Christmas Eve message last night:

“If our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us.”

Well, Scrooge ultimately changed. He reclaimed his sense of fellowship with humanity, he even bought food for the poor. Perhaps we could do the same. All of us.

Merry Christmas to all.

Money is Power—For Now

Went to a reception for Joe Sestak the other night. He’s not “running” for the Senate yet, but he’s “exploring” it seriously. And if you’ve ever watched the Discovery Channel, you know exploration costs money, what with all the sled dogs and dried seal meat—and that’s just to get to the North Pole, which is much cheaper and easier than getting to Washington, DC, even from here in Pennsylvania.

Now, I don’t begrudge Joe my contributions, because I’d like his explorations to succeed (and I’ve hosted several events for Joe to prove it) and it does take a lot of money. Joe has $ 1 Million at his disposal but Pat Toomey, the evil Grinch who recently took over the North Pole (because Santa Claus gave away too many food presents to unworthy hungry people) has $3 million. Neither Joe nor the Grinch (quite correctly) thinks he has enough. Why on earth does it take so much?

It’s certainly not sled dogs and seal meat (interns and pizza). Nope, it’s all needed for TV advertising. After all, how would we know who was an evil, Muslim, socialist minion of Hitler if his opponent didn’t tell us that on TV—over and over and over? However, much more important than scurrilous information is the positive feedback loop of the money/TV connection. The more money candidates raise, the more seriously they are taken by their national party (which won’t back anyone who can’t generate a whopping nest egg on their own), by the pundits, by their potential opponents (what eager-beaver Republican would want to challenge Toomey knowing he’s starting $3 Million or more in the hole?) and by potential donors (nobody wants to put money into a losing cause). Thus the positive feedback loop. Candidates who have money are the most likely to get money, which then enables them to get even more money.

This isn’t anything new, and I’ve already written about it (Voting with Dollars). But there’s another way money in politics has affected democracy that I haven’t mentioned. Money has so obviously become the key to political success (as opposed to, say, voting) that the huge number of eligible voters without the spare cash to funnel to people who represent their hopes and dreams have become convinced that the game is rigged against them—so why bother. Why bother volunteering, why bother talking politics with friends and neighbors, why bother…VOTING.

And they don’t. This is the real triumph, and evil, of money in politics. The top few percent have used huge media cash infusions to convince the lower 75% that they are powerless*, EVEN THOUGH IN A SINGLE ELECTION THEY COULD THROW THE BUMS OUT AND VOTE IN CANDIDATES WHO ACTUALLY REPRESENT THEM. This reminds me of the pictures you see of hundreds of prisoners of war being escorted by a mere handful of armed guards. The prisoners could overwhelm their captors at any minute—but they’ve been convinced that they are powerless…and so they are.

Prisoners on the Eastern Front, WWII.

Prisoners on the Eastern Front, WWII.

Let’s modify the old slogan: “Workers of the world VOTE, you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Don’t let a relatively few wealthy guardians of privilege and the status quo continue to flood themselves and their cronies with contracts, tax breaks and deregulation, things that are against the interests of almost everyone who lives here (and on the earth) yet continue to be done because the beneficiaries have convinced us that we can’t stop them. Well we can, if we only will.

*Turnouts are typically < 50% for off-year Congressional elections, and often in single digits for state and local primaries—where the $$-driven decisions are baked in (FairVote.org)

Thanksgiving Thoughts From the Right

Nick Kristoff wrote an Op-Ed piece in the NYT for Thanksgiving (“Where is the Love?”) that focused on “…a conversation about empathy for fellow humans in distress,” pointed out the apparent lack thereof, and followed with the rabidly liberal observation that “…success in life is a reflection not only of enterprise and willpower, but also of random chance and early upbringing.” He then closed with the (socialist? communist? Christian?) remark that “…compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but a mark of civilization.”

His musings struck me as reasonable and rather mild—appropriate observations on a day in which we give thanks for the good things that have come the way of some, but as per Mr Kristoff, not enough of us.

However, Mr. Kristoff’s editorializing that some in our society seem to have a slight deficiency in their sense of charity and empathy aroused a storm of indignation from the right, who countered with these devastating Thanksgiving Day rebuttals:

LD from Tulsa: “We need to let the poor know they have to start taking responsibility for their own actions.

Gmason from Left Coast: “The problem is that the so-called compassion of the left has done more to harm the nation’s poor than to help them. All of your policies kill job creation and the opportunity to lift yourself out of the poverty. You undermine the moral fabric of our nation…

Malucks from Malvern: “Depriving people of the dignity that personal achievement bestows is far more insidious than spreading around other people’s wealth.”

Al from USA: “Far to many are lazy and resentful of the success that hard work brings.”

Gene from Atlanta GA: “It is certainly true that born poor is a disadvantage…However, the majority feel like they are entitled to government health care, housing, food, etc.

Jeff, from Goffstown, NH: “We see people who could work but chose to remain “on the dole” and who think nothing about it…I’m tired of supporting those that think they are owed a living just for being born.”

Smack! Bam! Take that, you liberal lefty you for daring to say we lack empathy and compassion! We have plenty of empathy—for ourselves! And we’re very compassionate for those who pay taxes! Other commenters felt moved to add their preferred alternative to providing food and shelter to those in need:

Walker in Bar Harbor: “Perhaps poor people should not have kids…

De Ruiter, from South Central PA: “I am tired of paying for other people’s mistakes. Our government is using my hard earned tax dollars to pay unfit women to churn out large numbers of illegitimate, doomed to poverty children by a series of stray men who breed for a night or two and them move on to impregnate the next welfare woman.”

John Taylor from Millbrook NY: “If your income is below a certain level then you cannot have children. Additionally, if you are collecting any form of government subsidy then from the moment you start collecting you cannot have anymore children. Yes, this is crude and of course would have to be refined a bit…”

George Gharda-Ward MD, from Jacksonville FL: “How about forced sterilization. Let’s say that if a woman doesn’t have a household income of at least $40,000 by age 25 we just operate on them?”

Ah yes, the party that doesn’t like poor people, doesn’t want to have as many poor people, and explicitly states it doesn’t want them to breed, continues to fight with tooth and claw—to deny them birth control. At least they didn’t go so far as to advocate the solution to the problem of poor children that Jonathan Swift put forth in A Modest Proposal. Hope Michelle Bachmann never reads that.

Happy Thanksgiving—to all

Death of the Filibuster

Well, not really death, maybe more of a wounding. Well, not really a wounding, maybe more of a paper cut (ooh, but those things are nasty!), since the recent Senate rule change (see NYT article) blocked the filibuster only in regards to certain executive branch nominations and lower federal court appointments (not the Supreme Court). So it’s still fine to filibuster each and every one of the myriad other Senate bills that come up to help make the world safe for American business. But it raises an interesting question. How many votes should it take to decide something?

Our first response is that of course it should just be a simple plurality. What got more votes? If 51 people want Tom to be dog catcher (I’m sorry, Animal Control Officer) and 49 want Bill, then Tom’s got the job. That’s the default of democracy, right? But what if the Community Association is ordering pizza for its annual meeting? Should 51 meat lovers be able to order only pepperoni and sausage pizzas and force the 49 vegetarians to go hungry (or violate their principles)? That’s certainly “democratic” (small d) but somehow just doesn’t seem right. It’s what they call tyranny of the majority and of course has impacts far beyond pizza. After all, if Hitler found 51% of Germans (a not unlikely percentage) willing to say “Let’s get rid of all the Jews” and “Let’s invade everybody, even though we’re hopelessly outnumbered,” should the Germans have gone ahead with those plans even though a significant minority of the population thought “this is evil and insane and will destroy our country”? (the survivors getting to say “We told you so” after the war doesn’t make up for it)

No. Clearly some things are too important and/or too risky to enter into without more significant consensus than 51 to 49. Maybe 75% of people should need to agree to start a war?

But which things are that important? What decisions are so impactful that we would like to see more than 50.1% agreement? Hard to say—that would require some thought and careful analysis, substances that are in short supply in the government right now (and the country at large, for that matter). I suggested that going to war and ordering pizza are some possibilities (and the Constitution says amending the Constitution also is one) but there certainly are many others. Since it’s pretty hard to come up with a comprehensive list, the Senate, by permitting filibusters, has simply allowed significant minorities (originally 33%, now 40%) to decide on their own what issues they think are momentous enough to require more than 51% agreement. However, the original intent was that the minority would demand such greater consensus only when they had serious, strongly-held, principled objections (like to going to war or to denying Black people the vote). But the way the filibuster is now conducted, the “serious, strongly-held, principled” part has become simply “whenever we don’t like something.” Every vote has become vegetarians vs carnivores and the minority always feels justified in requiring a supermajority. Hmm. That doesn’t seem right either.

Eliminating the filibuster (either completely or only for certain types of bills) would just take us back to tyranny of the majority. But keeping the filibuster as it is makes every decision, from appointing postmasters to agreeing to pay bills we’ve already incurred, as momentous as going to war. What seems more sensible is to raise the bar for when a minority is allowed to put on the brakes. And that would involve coming up with some way to distinguish strongly-held, principled objections to major policy issues from mere annoyance at not getting one’s way. Now we know we can’t just ask politicians how important something is. They’re all capable of describing the closing of a post office in terms worthy of the apocalypse. No, we need them to demonstrate their level of commitment—prove that their issue is really important stuff and not just partisan pique. Perhaps holding their breath until they turn blue? That would be fun to watch, but probably too easy. The original filibuster rules required speaking until you turned blue. That’s a bit harder, how about that? Well, it demonstrated commitment but also blocked every other bit of occasionally-legitimate business of the Senate for an extended period of time. We need something that doesn’t stop the government in its tracks. Hunger strikes? Getting a face tattoo (“Block Senate Bill S. 47!”)? Shaving their head and painting their scalp green? Hmm, I sort of like the face tattooing, but maybe there’s something that also shows that their constituents go along with the idea. How about saying senators can only “super” a bill (ie, require a supermajority) if they present a petition signed by a significant percentage of their constituents? How many? I don’t know, but demonstrating buy-in by more than a core of rabid partisans would entail major effort that wouldn’t be undertaken at the drop of a hat (or bill) and would also ensure that senators couldn’t filibuster something that most of their constituents agreed with.

Anybody have other alternatives? Unlike the Congress, I’m open to ideas.

Lies, Damn Lies and Mistakes

A staple of knucklehead-dom is the man who, on being challenged about some inane statement he made like “Obama is a Kenyan-born, Muslim socialist,” “The Apollo moon landings were Hollywood fakes,” or “Sarah Palin would make a fine president, ” blusters the retort, “You callin’ me a liar? Huh, are ya’?” Although the tempting reply is simply a whack on the nose with a rolled up newspaper (something you can’t do with your iPad—more than once, anyway), the rational person instead sighs and points out, “No, I’m not calling you a liar. I’m just saying that you’re mistaken—sadly and deludedly mistaken, but nonetheless simply mistaken. There’s a difference.”

So how is it that so many people on all sides, including the typically rational Bill Maher and Jon Stewart, seem to have bought into the Fox trope that Obama “lied” to us about the ACA. You know, the part where he said “If you like your coverage, you can keep it.” Well, he was certainly wrong. But was he wrong on purpose, that is, was he lying? Was he muttering to himself, “If we tell people their shitty coverage isn’t allowed under the new law, they’ll be really upset and will call Fox News and complain. I know! Let’s tell them that they can keep policies that are specifically banned by the law! Even though it’s written down in the ACA in black and white where everyone can read it, who will know?”  Really? Because that’s the thought process that would have to have been going on for this to be a lie. And that would make it not just a lie, but a really, really stupid lie. I mean, you’ve got a better chance arguing that the shadow angles on the videos prove the moon landings were fake than you do arguing that a law doesn’t require what it specifically says it requires. Now the 15% of the population who would believe absolutely anything bad about the president also have no trouble believing he’d lie like this. As for me, it doesn’t make much sense. Especially when there’s the alternative possibility that he was mistaken.

I think he (mistakenly) meant something else, and I say that mainly because I (mistakenly) thought he meant something else. When I heard him talk about keeping your policy if you liked it, I interpreted that to mean the fairly minor points that if you liked having health insurance, the insurance company couldn’t throw you off for outrageous offenses such as getting sick and costing them money, and that if you were already covered at work, then you wouldn’t be required to drop that plan and sign up on the exchanges—that the ACA didn’t apply to the vast majority of people who had coverage through their company. It was designed to facilitate coverage of people who were unable to get basic health insurance on their own. I (mistakenly) wasn’t thinking about the few percent (and that’s all it is) of people who purchase their own insurance, and purchased a plan that doesn’t meet the basic ACA standards, and don’t want a better one, and don’t qualify for enough subsidies to make one of the ACA plans cheaper. Mistake? Yep. Lie? No way.

I think the president (and I) have done enough mea culpas. Let’s remember what this whole thing is about. We’re trying to make health insurance available to more of the nearly 50 million Americans who do not have it, AND we’re trying to set some pretty minimum standards for what can be offered as “health insurance.” There are standards for what’s in gasoline and how your house plumbing has to be put together, so why not standards for health insurance? And just a reminder, here’s what we’re talking about:

The essential health benefits include at least the following items and services:

  • Ambulatory patient services (outpatient care you get without being admitted to a hospital)
  • Emergency services
  • Hospitalization (such as surgery)
  • Maternity and newborn care (care before and after your baby is born)
  • Mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment (this includes counseling and psychotherapy)
  • Prescription drugs
  • Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices (services and devices to help people with injuries, disabilities, or chronic conditions gain or recover mental and physical skills)
  • Laboratory services
  • Preventive and wellness services and chronic disease management
  • Pediatric services

In addition, health insurers will be prohibited from imposing lifetime limits on coverage and will be prohibited from rescinding coverage; new health plans will be required to cover certain preventive services with no cost-sharing; increases in health plan premiums will be subject to review; insurers will be required to spend at least 80% of premiums on medical costs; young adults will be allowed to remain on their parent’s insurance up to age 26.

Don’t like that? Maybe you also like water in your gasoline and plumbing made out of cardboard. The rest of us think it should be standard.