Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What debate?

The debate? Tonight I just cannot bring myself to watch the Presidential debate. It will be painful enough to get tomorrow’s rehash….

Nothing that happens tonight at Hofstra will result in changing my mind about Obama. In any case I have already voted today, and, while in Nevada over the weekend, I will put in some more phoning or canvassing or whatever needs doing.

Everybody was touting Mr. Romney’s magnificent performance at the first debate.. I found him hyperactive, rattling off talking points very fast, as if fearful of being interrupted, or of hearing his little inner voice telling him what nonsense he was saying. He probably knows it, but rationalizes the whole process as those senseless, meaningless things that you have to say if you want to become President.

To me he sounds like an “idiot savant”, those people (remember Dustin Hoffman in “Rainman”?) that know a lot about one thing and cannot stop talking about it, and understand nothing  about what the real people in this world  do, feel, and worry about. That immense experiential vacuum has to be hidden in a flurry of words, reduced to semiotic markers, repeated over and over. 

Take that expression that Mr. Romney has been so frantically repeating lately: “trickle down government.” What does it mean? Nothing at all: government is supposed to trickle down because it is our emanation, the famous “of, for, by the people”. Everything the government does is in our stead, government is our stand-in, and all it does belongs to us.

No, “trickle down government” is a blanket of fog to debunk and counteract the very real Republican doctrine of “trickle down economics”, that posits that the rich deserve to get everything, because if they have a lot, some of it will inevitably trickle down to the rest of mortals. By repeating the one trickle down phrase, we are supposed to forget about the other. It never happened, it was wrong anyway, and look, they, meaning the Democrats are doing the reverse, “trickle down government.” But it is not the reverse, it is a non-sequitur, a nonsense noise, a cloudfuscation.

I was wondering the other day why Romney brought up the Spanish economy, where, according to him 42% of citizens depend on the government for handouts. Spain is supposed to be a basket case on a par with Greece, and the reason is that nobody does any work but receives bounty from the government. And he then contrasted that with the 47% figure that he had used in Boca Raton as recorded on the infamous and ubiquitous video. See, we are even worse that Spain.

It so happens that Spain is in a deep crisis, but it is not a debt crisis, nor an entitlement crisis. It is a banking crisis. The Spanish government’s level of indebtedness, after two grueling years of recession, high unemployment (and support to the unemployed) as well as precipitously collapsing tax revenues, is only 90% of GNP, on the level with France and not far from Germany. Spain is still able to finance its debt at below 6%, which is bad enough, but not catastrophic. 

Why go into debt at all? Because the government has to pay for the large investments that nobody else wants to do but that are essential for the functioning of the economy, of the citizens’ daily life, like roads, railways, schools, police, firefighters, army and bookkeepers. The purpose of the debt is to make progress possible; it cannot be eliminated, it has to be managed. The bonds issued by governments, the so called “sovereign debt”, have maturities, and when that date arrives, they are paid off and new debt issued. Just like refinancing your home. I have always found all this talk of “burdening our children and grand-children” highly demagogic. Future generations will do as we do, manage the debt by rolling it over.

And let us not forget another thing: Spain may have, as the Spanish novelist and activist Perez Reverte has pointed out, more politicians per capita that any country in Europe. The point that he was trying to make is that politicians, even if honest, cost money. The seventeen regional governments, roughly equivalent to what we call states in the USA, all had their infrastructure projects and the capacity to access the international banks, the so-called “markets”, which were only too glad to finance any project, as harebrained as it might be. The indebtedness of the regional governments was very high, accumulated during the last ten years when most of them were run, in contrast to the central government, by Spain’s conservatives, the PP party.

On the strength of the crisis the PP last December won a landslide election and is now in charge of the central Treasury. And immediately, in spite of the crisis, it has begun to dismantle a perfectly viable and functioning European style “State of Wellbeing”, cutting and chopping and privatizing education, the Health Service, civil servant’s salaries, and bailing out the banks to the tune of many billlions of Euros. Why let such an opportunity to cut loose the neediest people at the time of greatest need go to waste?

That is the agenda of the oligarchs, democratically clothed in the accoutrements of necessity. And, I suspect, that is also Romney’s agenda: to help his peers, the only class he really understands and admires.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Whither the despondency?

We are wallowing in despair because our champion, Barack Obama, did not step and quash Mitt Romney's fallacies and airy attitude, during the first and most recent debate on Wednesday October 4th.

Patently the President was unprepared for a sudden lurch to the center by the aspiring candidate, who had described himself very recently as "seriously conservative". The Romney campaign is counting that after so many changes of position, opinion, coloratura, nobody would be able to remember whether Romney said or did not say his tax plan included a 5 trillion cut for the wealthy. Those words may never have crossed his lips, but neither had we heard previously his assertion that he did not intend to lower taxes on the upper 0.1%. He also did not say that he would increase them. Is that what he means by his crusade against loopholes in the tax system.?

David Brooks, today, celebrates the rebirth of Massachusetts Mitt. And he rejoices that Romney "....broke with Tea Party orthodoxy and began to redefine Republican identity." What I find surprising is that anybody can claim any residual identity for Republicans and/or Romney after all the chameleonic show stoppers that we have witnessed. To me, Romney is so desperate to be President, that he will shed any clothing and adopt any guise in order to get there.

So, what does this say about the voting public? Will the Tea Party's thunder and brimstone prove to have been populist hot air? Their fearsome "grass-roots" dyspepsia will swallow, maybe even digest, this latest Romney iteration? Mitt seems to think so; he has ostentatiously walked away from "No, No, No"'s fearsome altar.

For the rest of us there is a whiff of calculation in the air. Behind all this "look-at-me-now" posture, all the budget and deficit flimflammery, the "etch-a-sketch" accommodation, there is a cynical pragmatism of just getting elected and then restore the predictable policies of asserting the will and preponderance of the upper 10%, the country-club fantasists, the old and new gilded age oligarchy.

I will remember that pious Spanish lady, consulting her confessor about the leveling Vatican Council II conclusions, who received the reply: "do not worry, Madam; as usual heaven is meant for the likes of us."

Obama may have come across as lackluster during the debate, but he was consistent. Nothing he said he has not said before. His positions have been thoughtful, tested and strongly held. In other words, statesmanlike. His words lacked novelty, and he might have used some fireworks to put them across one more time. But overall I find him intelligent and reassuring, if not quite the socialist I would like him to be.

As a sidebar, why did Mitt pick on Spain's economy during his presentation? Couldn't he have picked Greece, Italy or Afghanistan, to make his point?

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Still about civil rights!

Monsignor Dolan’s and the rest of the American “prelatariate” position on refusing communion to those of their flock who support gay marriage, does not lack of logical coherence, i.e. the old saw “if you are not with me you are against me.”

It does, however, lack of any kind of democratic and humanistic justification. We are now going on to a two and a quarter centuries of the “liberté, égalité, fraternité” proclamation, that should have ended the social slicing and dicing that allows some people to do things denied to others. Why should anybody be excluded from enjoying connubial bliss?.

The Catholic Church has always liked to assert authority over humanity’s procreative activities, infringing what Mr. Charles M. Blow calls “the sovereignty of a person’s body - to make individual health care choices and have freedom in love and marriage”. After all that is our children’s first claim on their road to adulthood.

Multitasking between the New York Times report on Monsignor’s utterances and the altogether admirable John Julius Norwich’s book “Absolute Monarchs”, a heroic attempt to summarize two thousand years of Papal history into 468 pages, I serendipitously ran into the following paragraph: “ Julius III […] a competent canon lawyer, ...and later co-president of the opening of the Council of Trent, was, however better known for his infatuation with a seventeen-year-old boy, somewhat inappropriately named Innocenzo, whom he had picked up two years before in the streets of Parma and whom, on his accession he instantly made cardinal.” An irresistible juxtaposition, don’t you think?

And I also learned that the last time the Papacy used the interdict, the weapon that denied the divine right to rule to any head of state who displeased the Church, was in 1657, against the Most Serene Republic of Venice, which serenely ignored it, and went about its business to no ill effects. That tool was thereafter so blunted that the Vatican has never again used it.

The American Catholic Church is most likely to misuse this most modern form of interdict (the denial of sacraments) that will alienate even more of its faithful. Meanwhile we have to wonder why social injustice and the growing economic inequality do not merit the same kind of strong voice and stance.

It is to be regretted that honest politicians like Roy MacDonald have to pay a high price for their courageous and principled recognition of the denial of civil rights occurring right in our age and time.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Intended consequences

Edward Conard has published a book, “Unintended Consequences”, to add his views to the current debate about inequality and taxation fairness. Mr. Conard’s takes the contrarian view, the unpopular one, and sustains that inequality is not evil, and that the rich, the very rich, deserve every advantage and every consideration because of their superior diligence, intelligence and dedication.
He writes a very cogent book, full of formulas and coherence. He describes how he, from humble beginnings, worked very hard, and ended up at the Harvard Business School. There he met Mitt Romney, who recruited him for Bain Capital. He proceeds to describe the long hours, the meeting-packed weekdays and weekends, that he put in to earn his hundreds of millions of dollars.
I have recently arrived to the Bay Area, and used the services of a national moving business. On the Sunday before our intended departure a huge van arrived, manned by a driver and his helper. They proceeded over the next sixteen hours to pack and wrap the content of our house, all the furniture and 300 boxes of the flotsam and jetsam that we had accumulated over the last twenty years. They were meticulous, cheerful, respectful and relentless.
During the Coast to Coast transit they picked up another load for San Francisco, checking on our progress by cellphone every day. Six days later we arrived in Oakland and they appeared on our doorstep a few hours after us, having discharged their second load in SF. They proceeded to unload carefully over the next ten hours, left everything where we wanted it and cleaned up their traces.
They told me that they had not been home in six months, crisscrossing the USA on their business, seven days a week. They were making a living, only one of them had health insurance. Here we have an instance of the fingerpost. Our societal model rewards different work very differently. Need I ask you about the fairness of such a reality? Working hard, paying their taxes and playing by the rules, they were certainly not attaining the American dream. Shouldn't we aim for a social compact that values solidarity? By solidarity I do not mean the abundant works of beneficent support that some of the very affluent keep pouring out. Solidarity should not depend on the individual's impulses, but should be inbuilt into the kind of society we all want to live in. Reawrds should be meted out like punishment is in Gilbert and Sulivan's "The Mikado": Make the punishment fit the crime". Or, like the old Marxist saw: to each according to his needs, from each according to his means.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Are we seeing red?

It was not supposed to be this way. In November, Mariano Rajoy won a landslide election for his Popular Party (PP), the successor to the francoist ideology, which had been out of power since 2004. Zapatero, the outgoing Socialist premier, paid the price of the collapse of the building boom that had sustained a Spanish "economic miracle" all through 2009. Then came the world financial crisis, unemployment soared, government revenue melted away, and Zapatero was accused of not being sufficiently socialist and in cahoots with the bailed out bankers.
The irony is that the failure of the capitalist model led to the collapse of the left in Europe.

Maybe not. On March 25th the autonomous region of Andalucía, Spain's most populous, and a reliable provider of Socialist votes for 30 years, held its regional election. The PP put forward it's best arguments and people, looking to impose the blue tide of conservative policies on the whole map of Spain; polling pointed to a clear victory, and the PP candidate, Javier Arenas, three times defeated in previous contests, robed himself in the approval of the national PP, and embraced Mariano Rajoy's hard-cutting, austere and retrograde program. On Monday the count was in: PP had indeed won the popular vote, in spite of having lost 300,000 voters since the last contest. The Socialist party (PSA) also lost hundreds of thousands of votes, but remained only 3 seats short of the majority in the Andalusian Parliament.
The big winner was the United Left party, a conglomerate of the remnants of the old Communist, and several shades of Anarchist, parties. They gained three parliamentary seats, for a total of five, becoming the pivot that would deny the conservatives their victory and stemmed the tide of reactionary blue over the political map.
To make matters worse, today the region of Asturias, old bastion of trade unionism as a predominantly extractive (coal and iron mining) economy, confirmed that the badly split conservatives had failed to win a majority. Socialists and United Left matched the 22 Conservative seats in the Asturian parliament; the fulcrum, this time, lies in the hands of a small dissident, hard left and pure, party headed by a former Socialist, Rosa Díez.
Mr. Rajoy, the national premier, today confronted with the first national general strike in a generation, declares that he will stick to his guns, squeezing a further 15% from government spending. He is in an impossible situation, between the Scilla of EU demands for austerity, and the Charybdis of an increasingly hostile and belligerent population. Government workers have seen their incomes cut by 5% across the board, and frozen for the next three years. In many schools janitors having been laid off, parents have volunteered to sweep and clean classes and corridors. Support staff, like educational psychologists, are paying out of their own pockets for their car's fuel while traveling long distances from school to school.
Here I am, sitting in a Starbucks in Seville, behind drawn blinds, while trade unionists walk the streets, blowing whistles and waving red flags. It is anybody's guess at this point how widespread the strike will be. This morning's El País, the leading Spanish daily, came out with half it's usual pages, and claims that among its workers strike compliance was in excess of 65%.
The Spanish Socialist party has already joined in the European Social-democratic rethink of attitudes and policies. In Andalucía and Asturias they will certainly be influenced by their partners on the hard left to offer and pursue solutions to the crisis that take care of the plain folk, stressing the well being of the greater number, instead of just the ubiquitous one percenters.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Fridays are wonderful days. First of all Fridays are the portal of the week-end; we can look forward to be freed of the constraints of daily drudgery and wallow in the mundane details of a different kind. At least we do not have to think of setting the alarm clock unless we want to get to the gym early.

Today is Friday and I had a different kind of pleasure: reading columns by David Brooks and by Paul Krugman, facing each other across the Op-Ed page of the New York Times and in agreement on the dreaminess, hollowness, and plain falsehood of the political discourse in this election cycle. The demands of the extreme right, the media frenzy on reducing government spending, making government smaller, the growth through attrition mantra are delusional and the political class, the economists, the decision-makers know it. The people running for office also know it, but because we have this wide disconnect between what can really be done and what can be promised to be done, they obfuscate, dither and outright lie.

On the right of the argument and the left of the op-ed page, David Brooks, in a book report, sort of, on Bruce Bartlett's "the Benefit and the Burden", provocatively titled "America is Europe" establishes that the US welfare state is as big or bigger that anything the much derided European system can produce. But, because of the unpopularity of government expenditures the payouts are clad as tax breaks. Thus, politicians can claim success in "addressing problem after problem, but none of their efforts show up as unpopular spending."

Paul Krugman, on his right hand column, talks about "Romney's Economic Closet", and feeds off Mitt's apparently impromptu remark in Michigan "....as you cut spending, you'll slow down the economy." Somehow, we always come back to Keynes. Again Mr. Krugman writes: "Modern Republicans detest Keynes", probably because Keynes laid down the fundamental reasoning of modern, twentieth century economists. The Laffer curve, supply side economics and other such fictions so beloved by the right wing, are, according to Mr. Krugman, dismissed by Mankiw, one of the most prominent of Romney's economic advisors, as the doctrine of "charlatans and cranks".

This is the pickle barrel that Republicans are in, this election season. They are preaching pious austerity, the wholesomeness of suffering imposed on others, knowing that their discourse will solve none of our problems. And that is our biggest problem.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

What do Liberals really want?

This time I disagree with David Brooks (NYT, 1/10/12): there are no liberals left in the USA because government, the center-left's most favored instrument, has failed to provide widely accepted solutions for what ails the country.
It should be unnecessary to point out that the US system of governance lies at the intersection of hard capitalism and democracy. The people elect representatives to carry out the policies that they deem necessary to their well being and the pursuit of happiness. In the aggregate this system is supposed to produce the kind of governance that satisfies the average aspirations of the country.
But each voter has particular affinities and interests and projects them onto the candidates. As the selection process works itself out, the field narrows and each candidate assumes a mantle, more encompassing, less focused.
The wide field of voters' economic interests and the pressure of time concentrates the candidate's, and eventually the elected person's, mind ferociously, demanding a drill down to policies that satisfy most of the constituents and financial supporters. In our system, inevitably, the latter speak louder.
In the course of time government comes to be seen by the individual as beholden to the interests of others, by an aggregation of laws and regulations addressing needs and wishes of narrow constituencies. Nothing alienates and infuriates the citizen more that a perception that somebody is getting something that is not available to everybody.
The conclusion "this is not meant for me" feeds the perception of exclusion from the body politic and leads to low esteem of Congress' work.
This has not happened overnight; for many decades the oligarchies have worked and put in place mechanisms and organizations that foster the idea that people left alone are best capable to realize their aspirations. Government as the problem and the lone ranger as the solution.
It should also be unnecessary to point out that the individual does not have any resources beyond his labour, manual or intellectual, to assert a place in the sun. The individual has to cooperate with others in order to gain strength and confidence. This coming together is the definition of "res publica", the public thing, or republic, aka governance.
We are living through a furious debate about the role and function of the organs of governance. Some advocate that we literally return to the foundational documents articulating this republic, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and limit governance to the intentions, explicit or less so, of a group of eighteenth century worthies. Anything that cannot be found in those texts should not be subject to government action.
We Liberals would like to understand the founding father's intentions and, once ascertained, apply them to the immensely complicated interactions of twenty first century societies.
The present selection process to determine who will be running against President Obama in November has laid bare the public impatience with those complexities. Once more, in face of grave ills, there is a call for drastic, simple solutions that would cut the perceived problems down to size. Periodically the nostalgia of simpler times, the golden age that only existed in remembered aspirations, brings forth the call for a charismatic leader, a prophet, a steely surgeon.
Democracies are notoriously bad at producing that kind of leaders. But the field of Republican contenders has been particularly diverting. The Daily Show and the late night comedians have been well served.
What is more difficult to understand is how people like Herman Cain could be perceived by anybody as qualified to hold the office of President of the United States of America.