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Sunday, July 31, 2011

America's crumbling image: More debt ceiling debate fallout

The Congressional elections of 2010 was supposed to be about jobs. Jobs, jobs, jobs.

Instead, we got a retread of the culture wars – the usual assortment of favorites like abortion, gay marriage, border control and whatnot. Plus, there was some tea party protestations with the package, as a bonus.

But mostly, we got hard lines declaring that the only way we would resolve any looming debt crisis facing the nation would be by cutting government spending. We also got the rebranding of said spending: “entitlements.”

That language shift is important. After all, it’s easier for those of us slaving away every day to scorn and scoff at those who are plunging us into bottomless debt and think they’re owed something.  That can help sway public opinion, which pushes any public mandate into your corner, making it easier to mow down the opposition.

That brings us here to the close of July, less than a year later, teetering on the unthinkable – the downgraded credit of the triple-A rated United States of America, whose greenback has been world currency for longer than English has reigned as the official international language.

Raising the debt ceiling – something that has been done dozens of times through administrations led by both parties – was the easy work. Figuring out how to restructure spending would be the hard work. For some, that is. Others would just toss those without into the streets and figure it's a lick on them if they couldn't do better for themselves. 

If the debt ceiling debacle has been the easy lift, it's going to take more than Superman and the entire Justice League AND Hercules to heft the second half of the issue. For the record, no such superheroes roam the halls of the U.S. Congress. Not even in alter-ego form. Somebody's going to have to page them. And fast.

Both Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have been sounding the bells. And in case folks have been tone deaf to that, the markets signaled their own alarm, with stocks slumping downward every day last week. That finally got House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to cede the president’s point, that default would be economically catastrophic for U.S. and world markets. There may be some eventual relief in sight, though slight. Late Sunday, there were yet more assurances that a deal was "close."

But Boehner and McConnell's admissions of reality was a that concession came too late in the process – after start-and-walk talks with the president, days, instead of months, prior to the U.S. Treasury's Aug. 2 deadline.

Meanwhile, the tea party faithful still declare that such deadlines are pure fiction, that it’s all an elaborate ruse put together by the Obama Administration. And if it’s not, it’s his fault for panicking the world, not their obstinacy when it came to compromising on a deal on the debt solution that would include revenue adjustments – i.e. higher taxes for some, closing of loopholes for others. 

It was a deal Boehner could not sell or seal with the president. Compromise, we've come to find in this process, is a four-letter word in certain GOP vernacular. Or a two-letter one: “No.”

Meanwhile, the Moody’s economics team of John Lonski and Ben Garber warned again of a potential oncoming double-dip recession. The confidence that many had anticipated would ease open wallets and hiring offices suddenly slammed down in the face of the political wrangling that hijacked Washington.

How delighted America’s enemies must be at this moment – watching the world’s greatest economic and military power devour itself in what amounts to the pettiest of bickering. How easy it will be to demolish the remains of our global moral authority since we've all but delivered the equivalent of a juiced-up shredder and unlimited vats of coffee.

The nation whose fingerprints are plastered over international monetary policy, whose lectures are nearly mandated the world over, walked the precipice of global credit default. And to top it, much of the antagonism arose with a faction that was discontented with the concept of paying to educate its next generation, protect its elders, or care for its infirm and indigent. These costs have been lumped under the title of “wasteful government spending.”

Better those dollars stay in individual pockets; best if it goes to coffers of corporate conglomerates.

The propaganda writes itself. It also removes America’s hagiography and puts a glaring spotlight on the wizard behind the curtain.  And at a time when tens of millions of young people in the Middle East, Europe and the Americas, North and South, are looking for leadership and models to emulate as they fashion political philosophy for the next century, we have failed them, as a nation. And that’s the truest tragedy of all.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Debtor's Dance

With her staunch, power pantsuits and wonkish ways, few would have taken Hillary Clinton for a tap dancer.

Yet U.S. Secretary of State Clinton was doing approximately that in Asia earlier this week as the idiocy on Capitol Hill continued, careening us closer toward a completely unnecessary crash of confidence in America.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks in Hong Kong. Photo courtesy: CNN
Perhaps there's a conservative out there smiling, but it's hard to imagine any true patriots actually are.

Before a Hong Kong audience of investors and policymaker on Monday, Clinton deftly dodged any sense of panic about the tomfoolery that is the faux crisis of the debt ceiling debate. She danced about the obvious -- that so many legislators are intent on driving the economy off the cliff, both domestic and global, insistently so, because they are too busy denying that a default would mean anything.

These kind of lawmakers will castigate "greedy" homeowners for causing the housing bust, often pointing their fingers as lower-income folks who dared to grasp the American Dream via the detested Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac. When these homeowners default (and those middle-income people who snapped up jumbo loans to live large usually are excused from this), it's a sign of incompetence and irresponsibility.

Yet when the U.S. Congress OPTS to default on its standing obligations, be it paying its mortgages or checks to veterans , the logic is that it's a sign of principle. It's about stopping "spending" and ending debt.

Let's face it. Most people would love to end their debt by just not paying their notes on time, but banks don't take too kindly to that. The same is true in this case, where the ongoing threat of such stupidity is giving great pause to our bankers -- largely China. They are frowning deeply at U.S. political "recklessness" and acting -- downsizing their T-bill holdings and other investments, further weakening the dollar and our recovery.

Overseas, it's hard to fathom that this great nation, once admired for its generous nature and prudent stewardship, has allowed itself to be enslaved by a handful of tea-swilling, mission-blinded zealots.

Yes, the United States is on a negative slope when it comes to its fiscal house. But even the sober authors of the U.S. debt commission report stated that "budget cuts should start gradually so they don’t
interfere with the ongoing economic recovery." This isn't the time to insist on a bloody hacksaw job. But that kind of intolerant rigidity has been the demand of the Republican caucus, thwarting the deals to date.

It's this lack of coherence and compromise that has made ratings agencies, Wall Street and world investors uneasy. We just got out of a tumultuous economic period and have been settling into a jittery one. Now the U.S. House of Representatives, led by mistaken Republicans, are rumbling us back toward catastrophe.

Hillary Clinton is probably happy to be back stateside. Were she still traveling, as the Aug. 2 deadline to lift the debt ceiling looms and the deadlock ensues, she just may have worn out the taps on her shoes.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Making messy myth of Minnesota “nice”

As D.C.’s debt ceiling debacle drags on, the popcorn has been crackling in time for the latest comic relief: Tim Pawlenty vs. Michele Bachmann.
 In some respect, it’s a train wreck that doesn’t deserve the attention. In all honesty, it smacks of desperation by the Pawlenty people to remain relevant, because he's not wowing them in the polls – any of them. This is despite having led Minnesota, a decent-sized state, as governor, despite having declared his intentions early and despite all that gosh-darned earnestness. No one is taking this suitor. He can't even break into double digits. 

Pawlenty almost had higher name recognition when he first came off as a mostly moderate Republican who would defend his values on The Rachel Maddow Show. The good-natured but firm sparring with the rising liberal cable-show commentator puffed up his stock. Then, like the housing market, it all collapsed.

He was dwarfed by crazy.

Not just normal, run-of-the-mill crazy like Newt Gingrich or the dogged quaintness of the near-eccentric U.S. Ron Paul. Or even decidedly disgusting digs by Herman “Can’t-stand-Muslims” Cain, the former  Godfather’s Pizza CEO trying to out-black the president and out-bigot his opponents in this GOP mash up.

Nope. Pawlenty got played out of position by a fellow Minnesotan – straight-outta-Stearns County silliness in the form of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, self-anointed Congressional tea party leader.

The man who won early buzz as a strong potential rival to Mitt Romney can't get it going, but in swoops the woman who swears the Founding Fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more” (just as soon as they got finished reaping all the benefits of all that free, lash-driven labor and sanctioned rape; see "Washington, George" or "Jefferson, Thomas"). She's running second only to front-runner Mitt Romney.

Panicked Pawlenty people must have urged him to stiffen his rhetoric, add some sharp right turns to his speeches. Team T-Paw removed that renowned Minnesota Nice from the playbook and launched our lad into murky mud-slinging waters.

President Obama was the easy target. But then Pawlenty’s slings were lost amid the dozens of arrows slung by his 12 – or 16, or 24, but who’s counting? – fellow GOP presidential wannabes. And Romney just played it cool and quiet, bobbing along, unfazed.

On a pivot, Pawlenty changed strategies, walking right up to the door of attacking Romney at the first full GOP debate . . . and like a kid caught on the steps during Mischief Night, slunk back. So ended Round One.

Clearly that devil on his shoulder was no match for Minnesota Nice.

Round Two. Pawlenty got back in his corner. He shook it off, drank from the Courage Carafe and opened an offensive on the opponent he most needed to bring down . . . which was Bachmann. Using migraines as a weapon.

Yes, migraines.

Not her lack coherency – despite numerous examples, from distortions on monetary policy to basic American history. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart’s writing team actually should pay her for the material she readily has supplied.  

Nope. That would come later. He first inferred that she may not be fit to be Commander in Chief because of reported vicious headaches. And as has been his pattern, he walked that back, calling it a “sideshow.” 

Then came Round Three, leading off with criticism of her lack of experience

Maybe he thought he was taking the path of least resistance. Or that she would stand still as he decided which way to try and take her down a notch. Maybe he expected her to practice Minnesota Nice, too.


Mama Migraine came roaring back. And that was just the beginning of his headache.

There’s fear that the comments could be read as a sly sexist wink, since female migraine sufferers outpace males. What next? Midol Michele – can we trust her at 3 a.m.? Boom! Enter the gender card!

Pundits blasted the blunder for what it was – at once spineless and bland, making it an apt T-Paw faux pas.

There is that maxim that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. If Pawlenty chats up Newt Gingrich, Man about Town and Tiffany’s, he'll learn that the sages lied. This kind of summertime stupidity is not how you want your presidential campaign defined. Not unless you’re planning to start pitching for Excedrin.

Regardless of the glint of promise that shimmered early on, Pawlenty keeps tramping down the wrong road. Yes, it's early. Six months in politics is like two minutes in football. But if he can’t get a grip for those critical caucuses in Iowa, with conservatives ready to launch the sails of the next GOP contender for the White House, he can pretty much kiss it goodnight. And probably only on the cheek, because he won't be making it to second base.

Forgot to mention Bachmann’s birthplace. It's Waterloo, Iowa. Heard she's planning quite the homecoming.

Monday, July 18, 2011

On Murdoch: In defense of a First Amendment rapist

In no society is the arrest of journalists a good thing. And in no society should there be a desire to set such precedent.

While no one is above the law, the tensions between those who would lead a free society and those who choose to protect it via a free press are long standing. Should the former ever gain control over the actions of the latter, the society ultimately loses, because it would compromise our freedom and allow us to slip closer to a totalitarian state.

This fact is under high consideration as the NewsCorp. scandal continues to unfurl on both sides of the Atlantic. As arrests of NewsCorp employees mount, including the former head of Rupert Murdoch's U.K. news division, so do disturbing musings about "muzzles" for the media.

It's enough to send shivers up the spines of every notebook-toting journalist, even if it's understandable.

The repulsive nature  -- from hacking cell phones to bribing the police for leads -- of these allegations has put the idea of tightening press freedoms on turbo boosters and may prove to be the greatest crime Murdoch & Co,. have perpetuated on our society.

Along with his apologies to the families affected by this scandal, Murdoch needs to apologize to every actual journalist.

Just as Watergate eroded public faith in politicians and Bush v. Gore shattered trust in the political process, this phone hacking scandal threatens to upend the tenuous balance of journalism, both here and abroad.

After all, trust and accuracy are the currency. Without either, the profession is bankrupt.

For as polarizing as his news outfits and philosophy can be and have been, Murdoch nearly single-handedly has unified forces on both the left and right to reconsider restricting the press. Contrary to popular belief, there IS a code of ethics for actual journalists, much like in other professions. While Murdoch's employees appeared to have been rewarded for flouting these guidelines, real journalists abide by them. Their work further cultivates our democracy, maintaining its vibrancy and our collective and guaranteed pursuit of life, liberty and happiness.

Silencing dissenting and distasteful speech always seems justifiable in the moment, but in the main, it's a dangerous practice of thought control exercised by despots and dictators. The First Amendment  protects even vile speech -- including things uttered on FOX News-- to secure political choice and free will.

With little doubt, Murdoch, who has built himself into a near oligarch through early and decades-long investment in cross-platform media ownership, is far from a sympathetic character, in the United States or in Great Britain. Through his global conglomerate, the plucky Aussie has flexed a steel fist that often sent politicians cowering and grabbed power and prestige through fear for decades.

Domestically, that reputation solidified with each screech and screed from FOX News. Its inflated and cartoonish contributions to the nation's political discourse has led it to be Public Enemy No. 1 when speaking of the coarsening and dumbing down of the culture, aided by a stable of blockbuster but mind-numbing cultural fare such as The New York Post and American Idol.

In acquiring the stately Dow Jones Company and with it, The Wall Street Journal, in 2007, Murdoch sought to buy a level of American sophistication and respect his tawdry and tacky tabloids -- print and broadcast -- could never afford him. The distasteful and illegal actions of those of his employ who helped plump up profits with their reckless disregard have eroded those efforts and set loose termites on his empire's ebony walls.

Let his punishment manifest in a pariah-esque reality and demolished stock returns. Let the journalistic abusers pay fines for their indecency and be banished to a Janet Cooke-like netherworld. But let the press be.

As always, wallets should decide winners and losers among the Fourth Estate -- not legislators.

Else, unchecked, the zeal of Murdoch opponents could incur unintended consequences for journalists everywhere, bringing to mind the prescient words of Protestant pastor and philosopher Martin Niemöller:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Socialist
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out –

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Pompadour Perry: Courting bomb throwers for a White House run

At one time, traitors and others accused of treasonous actions against the United States of America would be hauled off in chains with a certain date before a firing squad or the gallows.

Today, they’re urged to run for president. Go figure.

Rick Perry, the latest Texas governor intent
on crashing the White House lawn
It is uncanny that people who swear that government is evil are gunning to be in charge of it. First we had the erstwhile U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann deciding to pick up where Sarah Palin dropped off (or fizzled out, depending on your view). Now, the long-awaited candidacy of Texas Gov. Rick Perry appears weeks away, leaving self-proclaimed conservative and tea party activists and political watchers salivating.

It’s intriguing that people who brandish the Constitution in public discourse like a Bible at an exorcism have such a ready embrace for someone who openly has violated said sacred document, if not disqualified himself for a run at the highest office in the land, in spirit if not in completed deed.

What’s that? You missed Perry’s discussion about secession from the Union being a viable option, hearkening Jefferson Davis, nearly begging President Obama to channel his favorite president outright?

Perry’s comments in the spring of 2009 – just a few months into the Obama Administration – fired up those with Davey Crockett dreams and nightmares of a “liberal” black man with his finger on the button.

Lest we forget, the last time someone talked secession, a lot of bodies piled up in places like Gettysburg, Manassas,  Shiloh and some 378 other battlefields across this country and nearly shattered it. Then, like Perry’s rationale now, economics lay at the heart of the conflict, with devastating consequences.

And if you need a refresher, the 14th Amendment – cited more frequently as the president’s potential nuclear option-resolution to the debt ceiling debacle – has clear instructions and disdain for those who would bad-mouth the country and seek higher office: nothing doing. Section 3 is quite clear:

No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice-President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. 

For those keeping score, secession is definitely a form of insurrection. Or rebellion. Take your pick.

Of course, a chunk of the Constitution-waving tea party set has overlooked that proviso; 1 in 5 said they’d back Perry in a recent Marist poll – and he’s not yet declared. In case some woke up and paid attention to his subtle secessionist flirtation, Perry sought to clean up his “enthusiasm” weeks later.

He has all the trappings of a presidential pol-in-waiting – from the Hollywood hair to the swinging politics, from a Democrat who stumped for Al Gore’s 1988 presidential aspirations to Bible-thumping red-meat spewing GOP good ol’ boy.

Up to his open musings of “different scenarios,” Perry’s job approval numbers hadn’t been too hot – and they’re not rousing now, particularly if parsed along racial lines. But he’s a savvy opportunist.

Of course, he’s far from alone.

Bush’s Brain aka Turd Blossom aka Evil Genius Karl Rove clearly wants to get back into the ring to do battle with President Obama, the Democrat that upended the Republican Party in 2008. And he looks willing to jump on this horse in hopes of riding it back to Pennsylvania Avenue, even if the rest of the Bush camp detests Perry, and the lack of love seems mutual. Political loyalties are built to last, after all – all the way until the next election cycle. And the narrative is that Texas – and by extension Perry – is a success story amid a nation wracked by recession.

Right-to-work Texas has been able to ramp up its economy and produce some winners in recent years, but the losers have been plentiful as well. Since 1980, its rate of poverty has continued to outpace that of the nation – and the ranks of the poor there continue to grow. Its rousing economic output has come under question lately, too. Despite being a nation with a short attention span, shenanigans such as the Tom DeLay-powered redistricting and Enron excesses cannot be forgotten, for they exemplified the worst in American power and greed. Nor can it be forgotten that Perry was in the thick of it. Pure Texan.

His pistol-packing ways leaves some waxing poetic while his fiscal policies has others sputtering curses. His retro culture warrior credentials make some simply shudder. But in an era where Michele Bachmann once was dismissed as plain wacko and now is giving frontrunner Mitt Romney a serious case of heartburn, a Perry candidacy is one to watch – carefully.

Texas has produced a few presidents in the modern era, from Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson to Republican George W. Bush. Neither was seen as a roaring success for the Republic, considering the political and militaristic morasses to which they led a once-willing turned deeply cynical nation.

We’re still suffering those effects, decades later. It’s enough evidence for even fevered minds to realize it’s too soon to willingly give another Lone Star leader keys to the White House – let alone this one.