Saturday, December 22, 2012

Barack Obama's Christmas Wish

Or John Boehner's gift to Barack

Or the fiscal cliff is coming and you better be nice. Or we're all getting coal for Christmas. Or the Senate wants in on what may end up a Christmas with no gifts, at all. Or the Senate doesn't really want any part of Christmas. Or something.

To recap. Obama told Boehner that he is willing to settle for tax increases on households earning $400,000 or more, and might be willing to adjust cost-of-living increases for Social Security, maybe.

Boehner, thinking that he couldn't sell such an agreement to House Republicans, decided to test his own leadership by proposing legislation that would maintain most of the Bush tax cuts and increase taxes only for households making one million dollars or more. Feedback from his caucus persuaded Boehner that he would suffer legislative defeat on the proposal, a definite embarrassment for the speaker. So, he decided to humiliate himself by pulling his proposal without a vote and go home to Ohio. His last words were something like "let Harry (Senate Majority Leader Reid) do it."

Maybe that is Reid's Christmas wish, but it didn't sound like it when his Democratic colleague, Sen. Charles Schumer, said, "we're not going to want to come to a deal if we know Boehner isn't going to move it in the House."

Anyway, Senate Republicans have the filibuster to use against any deal. And, in comments reported by the Washington Post on Saturday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell sounded like he agreed with Schumer's statement. No enthusiasm for leadership there.

Still, though it seems improbable, there might be enough Republican votes in the Senate to shut down a filibuster. It would take seven Republicans to do so and, probably, a fiscal cliff deal that doesn't protect the wealthy as much as Boehner has sought to do, reduces some scheduled cuts to the Pentagon budget, and cuts Social Security COLA increases a bit (maybe including protection for low-income recipients). To complete the deal would then take support from all House Democrats and 17 House Republicans, or some mix of the two caucuses that adds up to 218 votes in the House.

Not only does such a deal seem improbable, it would leave larger budget cuts, stimulus spending, further revenue increases, and an increase in the authorized national debt to be negotiated by the same parties in January. Failure to address everything on the table in a satisfactory way means reduced unemployment benefits for long-term unemployed, tax increases for low- and middle-income earners and steep cuts for social programs. The Obama administration can take certain steps to put off the impact of some tax increases and spending cuts, but those steps likely will not do much to keep the stock market from tanking, or to prevent business investment and hiring from dropping significantly, or to avoid dropping back into recession.

So what seems likely to be the outcome of all of this? One of the following, I think:


1. Obama turns out to have been more clever than most people thought. Polls show that a significant majority of Americans will blame Republicans more than Democrats for failure on the fiscal cliff. This may well be a large part of Obama's willingness to hold out for a deal that protects low- and middle-income households, extends unemployment benefits and includes new stimulus spending. He gets some of this stuff in a proposal that passes the House and Senate between Christmas and New Year's and enters 2013 looking like a leader with an ability to get more of what he wants from demoralized Republicans.


2. Obama turns out to have been more of a compromiser than Democrats want and gets Republican votes in the House and Senate for a deal that gives up too much on entitlements and leaves extreme right-wingers in Congress feeling like they can still wag the dog. He enters 2013 with little chance of protecting social spending from further cuts and having to give in further to get congressional Republicans to raise the debt ceiling.


3. Obama holds the line and we dive over the cliff, causing a certain amount of economic panic as we enter 2013. Republicans will get the lion's share of the blame for the damage, but will be consoled by the ability to vote for tax cuts as part of any eventual agreement. It will be too late to prevent the collateral damage that will fall primarily on working folks and communities of color in the first quarter of the year.


4. Right-wing Republicans continue their zealous campaign to cripple the federal government throughout 2013 and turn the legislative session into trench warfare, insuring deeper recession and, likely, the longest mid-term election campaign in history. Even a shockingly large Democratic victory in the 2014 elections will do little to immediately relieve the longest and deepest economic downturn in American history. European and Asian economies will suffer even worse.


5. Mutated combinations of some or all of the above are possible. The actual outcome could be an either more or less disastrous hybrid and almost certainly a sterile one.

Merry Christmas, or something.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Journalistic malpractice on Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Recent Washington Post report editorializes in obvious way

I wrote the Post again yesterday. Just a quickie to note that whatever the paper and its reporter intended,  a recent U.S. criticism of Israeli settlement plans was not also an expression of skepticism about Palestinians' willingness to negotiate peace. But it was gratuitous to say so, and a good example, at the very least, of sloppy thinking about the Israeli-Palesinian conflict.

Taken out of context, the mistake proves little. But it nevertheless fits nicely in the American media's decades long failure to grasp the fact that however much Zionism may express the legitimate longing of the Jewish people for a safe and secure homeland, it does not justify the creation of a Jewish state on territory belonging to others, nor does it place the creation of the state of Israel outside the judgement of international law.

Of course, Israel is not going anywhere. However much Palestinians may wish for a different outcome, there will always be an Israel. But it may one day negotiate compensation with Palestinians for the taking of their territory and the continued occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza; and it may also one day compromise its character as a Jewish theocratic state in the interest of a more democratic outcome.

In any case, here is the letter that I sent to the Post yesterday:

The third paragraph in Anne Gearan's Wednesday story, "U.S. condemns Israeli settlement plan," contains the observation that a U.S. criticism of Israeli settlement plans "reveals profound skepticism about whether the leadership of both Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank has the will to return to substantive talks," but it's hard to see how that statement can be correct. There is no mention anyplace else in the 12-graph story of U.S. suspicions about the "will" of Palestinians. Indeed, the entire story is about the negative effect that new and existing Israeli settlements have on peace prospects. Perhaps, Gearan wished to characterize Palestinians as equally guilty in an effort to maintain some sort of journalistic "balance," but the statement looks much more like bias and should have been edited out.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Gun control the hard way

There is no easy way

As a member of the Ann Arbor City Council in the 1980s, I pushed a gun control measure that basically banned just about anything with a trigger. I didn't write the proposed ordinance. Advocates brought it to the Democratic council caucus looking for legislative sponsors.

None of the liberals in the caucus wanted to touch it, which surprised me. I thought it was a no-brainer, but, as it turned out, they were in some ways wiser than I, or at least clearer about what would happen once the ordinance actually hit our legislative agenda.

In any case, always looking for ways to rile up the unriled, I volunteered to lead the legislative fight. I've written briefly about what happened in an earlier post, "Gun control according to Harvey Wasserman," but it's worth repeating here that though the ordinance failed to pass, the public debate on the issue was both exciting and educational.

During public hearings, a good number of people on both sides found inflammatory and insulting ways to describe individuals and groups whose position they opposed. Speakers frequently claimed the moral high ground in the debate and the right to flat out dismiss both the personal character and the political positions of those on the other side. The fairly common and very human tendency to do such things made a calm public discussion difficult, at times impossible.

Now, after the killings at Sandy Hook, readers can see that form of near self-righteous indignation manifesting itself in a Washington Post column calling for renewed effort to pass gun control legislation by the normally reserved and diplomatic E.J. Dionne. "It is time to insist that such craven propaganda [opposing gun control] will no longer be taken seriously," he wrote. "If Congress does not act this time, we can deem it as totally bought and paid for by the representatives of gun manufacturers, gun dealers and their very well-compensated apologists."

Dionne may well be right, and he is not alone in saying so, but if a new debate about gun control is to begin, perhaps a delay in smearing the other side is in order. Certainly, opponents of new measures to ban automatic weapons, or register guns, or raise the rather minimal bar for gun ownership, in general, will wish to change the subject, or broaden it. "Guns," we have heard many times before, "don't kill people. People kill people."

We will hear that again, and more. But "we will have to avoid the paralysis induced by those who cast every mass shooting as the work of one deranged individual and never ever the result of flawed policies. We must beware of those who invoke complexity not to further understanding but to encourage passivity and resignation," Dionne insisted in his column.

Yes, well, but how will we know if someone raises the possibility that deranged individuals, not guns, are the problem because they really believe that to be true or, instead, because they wish to paralyze the rest of us with self-doubt? Perhaps, we will have to assume good intentions and, on the way to stricter laws, consider that there are, indeed, complexities.

The day after the shootings at Sandy Hook, the Post ran a sidebar that listed a baker's dozen incidents this year in which gunmen killed at least two people. In those 13 incidents, 90 people were killed, including seven shooters who shot themselves and one killed by police. The incident at Sandy Hook was the second deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. The July killing of 12 at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado would have tied for seventh deadliest (with four previous shootings) if the shooter himself had also been killed.

It does make sense to act as quickly as possible to better control the sale of automatic weapons to private individuals and to pass other restrictions as well, but how we proceed to consider the matter might affect the conclusion at which we arrive.

Dionne wants quick action. "After mass shootings, its always said we must improve our mental-health system and the treatment of those who may be prone to violence," he wrote, but "...this noble sentiment is too often part of a strategy to evade any action on guns themselves".

"Not this time. Americans are not the only people in the world who confront mental-health problems. We are the only country that regularly experiences horrors of this sort. The difference, as the writer Garry Wills has said, is that the United States treats the gun as a secular god, immune to rational analysis and human intervention.

"We must depose the false deity. We must act now to curb gun violence, or we never will," he concluded.

I'm sorry to be the one arguing against that notion. But mental illness is certainly part of the problem. And for many years gun control advocates have helped polarize the debate over gun control, retarding progress, by sending the message that the people who own guns are the problem. I am perfectly willing to acknowledge that many gun owners are opposed to all sorts of reasonable efforts to regulate gun ownership. But I learned in the rowdy debate over gun control in Ann Arbor that if one can't hear the objections of those who oppose gun control, one can't very easily change the conditions of the debate.

Dionne's concluding sentiment to the contrary, we will one day curb gun violence when we acknowledge that guns and mental illness and the availability of treatment are all part of the problem. We will one day curb gun violence when our rhetoric ceases to divide us.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Medicare reform

What it should look like

Ezra Klein's column in the print edition of today's Washington Post is headlined "Republicans missing central issue on Medicare." On the Post's website, the column is headed "A smarter Republican agenda on Medicare." I like the head on the print version better, though near as I can tell, the content in print and on the web is nearly identical.

I like the print head better because Klein's column makes the point that "raising the Medicare age [of eligibility] is a particularly dumb cut, and his elaboration of that point is simple and clear. The move wouldn't save anything. "It merely shifts costs to employers, consumers and other public entities, including Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act and the states." The move would not reduce the deficit or preserve the program.

Some Republicans and conservatives are pushing "beneficiary engagement," Klein writes, but nothing in his column makes the case that there is "a smarter Republican agenda" out there. It's just that some Republicans are not interested in pursuing the "trophy" win (as Nancy Pelosi calls it) that John Boehner and the House Republican caucus appear to be seeking.

In the meantime, a smarter agenda for Medicare reform, "A Systemic Approach to Containing Health Care Spending" is posted on the website of the New England Journal of Medicine. And in "The Senior
Protection Program," the Center for American Progress (CAP) proposes a series of reforms that should save hundreds of millions of dollars over the next 10 years. Despite all the fiscal cliff hoopla, the CAP proposal hasn't gotten much media attention. Other than a Republican interest in preserving profits for insurers, pharmaceutical companies and medical equipment manufacturers, it's hard to say why.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

We do have a dog in the Michigan fight

The union movement built prosperity and solidarity

Membership in organized labor has been declining for years. The largest industrial unions have gone the way of rustbelt industries, declining and nearly disappearing. The public sector unions that held the line through the last part of the 20th century have suffered significant losses during the Great Recession and its aftermath, and teachers' unions in particular have suffered from right-wing attacks that have accompanied the education reform movement. The passage this week of a right-to-work law in Michigan may be part of the continuing decline, but ought to raise new alarms on the American left.

There are plenty of critiques of unions in the mainstream press, so none of those will be linked here. Readers can hunt them down easily enough. Yes, union leaders are sometimes too cozy with power, especially in states and cities. And, yes, union leaders sometimes get too comfortable with the perks of their own power.

But so do progressives who get elected to public office or settle into tenure track positions at major universities. But they do not stop being politically progressive simply because they compromise or, even, overindulge. Neither do unions. The point is that regardless of what unions and their leaderships sometimes do to deserve criticism, progressives need to recognize that to err in some of these familiar ways is both all too human and ought not be an obstacle to progressive solidarity with labor.

I've written before about the need for the left to completely embrace the union movement; twice when I was working for In These Times ("Labor's Future is Ours" and "When Mainstream Media Tells Labor Stories"), and several posts on this blog (many of which can be found here).

Now, Harold Meyerson, one of the few mainstream media columnists with a true appreciation of the value of organized labor, has written an instructive column in the Washington Post, "The Lansing-Beijing connection," on how right-to-work laws undermine prosperity and increase inequality. "[A]n exhaustive study by economist Lonnie K. Stevens of Hofstra University found states that have enacted such laws reported no increase in business start-ups or rates of employment. Wages and personal income are lower in those states...Stevens concluded, though proprietors' incomes are higher," Meyerson wrote.

Everyone who embraces the goals of reducing income and wealth inequality in the United States and globally ought to be embracing labor organizing, as well. Jobs with Justice, a national organization founded to be a bridge between non-union progressives and the labor movement, is one way to get moving on this. Also, check out labor writer David Moberg's interview with Larry Cohen, organizing director for the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and a founder of Jobs with Justice.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Wishing for peace in the Middle East

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement aimed at Israel may not bring peace, but so far, nothing else is either

"Alanis Morissette, the Canadian American pop singer, is an unlikely ambassador to the Middle East, but in some ways, she is a good one," wrote Washington Post religion columnist Lisa Miller in her column, "Morissette did more good by not boycotting Israel," last Saturday (Dec. 8). This is so, Miller said, because "perhaps Morissette is a foreign policy savant and understands, as the British peace activist Hannah Weisfield explained in Haaretz in March, that a broad boycott of Israel conflates too much: its politicians with its people; its current policies with its legitimate history; its business in the occupied territories with those inside its 1949 borders."

So we are to understand that the only boycotts people like Morissette should honor are the ones that don't conflate people and their politicians, that focus exclusively on Israel's current policies and not the unfortunate circumstances of its unilateral creation on Palestinian territory, that focus on the occupied territories and not the longing of Palestinians for the parts of their homeland they likely will never retrieve. This matters especially, Miller wrote in her column, because the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement doesn't have any real plan to achieve a negotiated settlement between Palestinians and Israelis.

But if having a negotiated plan for peace between Israel and Palestinian was actually a precondition for action in this case, then Israelis ought to be barred from any action aimed at maintaining the Occupation or from establishing any more settlements on Palestinian territory. Likewise, Palestinians would be barred from launching rockets or suicide attacks. Miller, no doubt, is shocked that neither side is showing the kind of restraint she appears to prefer.

Oddly, Morissette,, the "foreign policy savant," apparently has no plan, either. Otherwise, why would Miller suggest that "Morissette might have served the cause of peace...better by clearly articulating her reasons for going to Israel." Since Morissette did not do so, one can hardly avoid the conclusion that Miller isn't really writing about the pop singer, at all, but is taking the opportunity to applaud her for not cooperating with the BDS movement. Miller very likely has no plans for peace, either, beyond a kind of Rodney King, can't-we-all-just-get-along plea.

Indeed, BDS, conceived on the model of the boycott of South African goods in the 1980s, which certainly helped in isolating South Africa and speeding the fall of apartheid in that country, may not be the key to building an enduring peace between Palestine and Israel. But it is an acknowledgement of the suffering of Palestinians since the Jewish state was created on Palestinian territory and of the fact that more than half a century later, Palestinians continue to suffer from the persistent application of Israeli power in the portion of Palestine that theoretically still belongs to them. The BDS initiative also reflects the opinion of many people that however much Jews might have suffered during the Holocaust, that experience did not confer on them the right to take land occupied by another people.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Best Case Scenario

or the silver lining at the end of the world

Stephen King says this:
at the end of all rationalism
the mass grave.

biology, physics, he says,
the deathtrip.
At the end of it all

the bomb, the plague--
climate change
at the the end of it all.

The final genius
of our everloving, overstriding
He also holds this:

Technological collapse will reduce
the ambient noise that shrouds
our magic selves and
we will see

our dormant gifts awakened.
Manifest in all survivors
a certain wizardry more or less.
Hallelujah, anyway.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Cliff diving

Fiscally speaking, Obama's position only gets stronger

Why shouldn't President Obama demand Republican support for ending Bush-era tax cuts for the rich? Because if he doesn't find a way to compromise with John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, we will all go over the fiscal cliff?

The truth is Republicans have stronger reasons to avoid the cliff than Obama does and, surprisingly, many more reasons to go over it, as well. Either way, they face political damnation.

If we do take a dive, Boehner and McConnell know that Republicans will get the major portion of the blame. Their refusal to compromise will be portrayed as protecting lower tax rates for the rich. No amount of explaining will change that perception.

Obama will be criticized, too, but not as harshly, and he doesn't have 2014 election worries, either. Republican incumbents (House or Senate) planning on running for reelection will begin their campaigns fearing that intransigence on the fiscal cliff (and the debt ceiling, if it comes to that) will cost them politically.

Theoretically, going over the cliff will position Republicans to reach a "grand bargain" in January that includes tax cuts. The new year will create incentives for both sides to reach a compromise that restores some of the Bush-era tax cuts (except for high-income earners) and maintains the payroll tax exemption that will disappear at year's end.

A January compromise will allow Republicans to claim that they remain the party of tax cuts. Unfortunately for them, to get the cuts that will help maintain their brand (even though Democrats will want them, too), Republicans will likely have to agree with healthcare reforms that they have always opposed, like allowing the government to require competitive bidding for medical equipment and other items purchased by federal health-care programs.

Medicare and Medicaid reforms outlined by the Center for American Progress and generally supported by Democrats are projected to save $385 billion over 10 years, without affecting eligibility or benefit levels. Republicans have their own proposals for saving billions more in healthcare spending, but most of them come from delaying eligibility and raising costs for recipients. The credit for such reforms will go to Obama, not to Boehner, Ryan, Cantor, McConnell, et al.

That same Republican leadership will want to restore some of the cuts to the military budget that will result from going over the fiscal cliff and Democrats will want to do some of that, also. But they won't want it worse than the Republicans will and will be able to bargain for other things they want more, like a little bit more stimulus spending and reduced cuts in education and human service spending.

All of that compromising is going to make Republicans look weak to their core constituencies. It's a painful prospect; agree to tax increases to avoid going over the fiscal cliff and tarnish their anti-tax, anti-government brand, or strengthen the perception that they are defending tax cuts for the rich and agree to a compromise afterward that makes them look like a junior partner in supporting handouts to Democratic constituencies.

The only possible basis for Democrats to oppose going over the cliff is the possibility that doing so will result in instant and significant damage to the economy. (Just three weeks ago in Compromise or Betrayal, I did advocate compromising with Republicans before going over the fiscal cliff. What can I say? Like Obama on gay marriage, my thinking has evolved.)But there are all sorts of ways the government can blunt the immediate effects of tax increases and sequestration, delaying the pain for long enough to pass a fix in January. Obama has lots of cards to play now. After the cliff dive is done, his hand will be even stronger.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Calamity Jeff speaks

The time for justice and peace is going up in a cloud of warming gasses

There is a notion—the idea of an ethical human race, a human race for which justice comes first—that I wish was understood and widely embraced. Further, I wish that we all lived by that ideal.

If we did there would be a whole laundry list of very important outcomes that would be realized in such a world. Indeed, where to start itemizing?

Here, in the United States, we would have an economy in which wealth, income and healthcare were more fairly distributed. People would be able to find jobs close to home that were satisfying, or perhaps a little further away, maybe a reasonable commute on public transportation, say, if they wished a particular job in their area of expertise or one that paid a bit more than those available closer to home. People would live in decent housing located in safe neighborhoods with good public schools. And college educations would be more affordable.

U.S. domestic policy would require that investments in communities be generally equal except where historic injustices required reparations in the form of additional investment in Native American and African American communities.

U.S. foreign policy, too, would be different, and the country would back off from its historic insistence that global resources be divided in the interests of Americans. The United States and China—by an overwhelming margin the biggest producers of carbon pollution—would join with other countries to vigorously pursue reductions in the emission of carbon dioxide, methane and other climate change gasses, and invest in climate change mitigation projects domestically and internationally.

Elsewhere, Israelis would recognize the ongoing injuries suffered by Palestinians first as the state of Israel was established and later as the Occupation began and new settlements were established. In pursuit of a productive and just Israel-Palestinian peace process, Israelis would support both land and reparations for peace, and Palestinians would relinquish their justifiable claims in exchange for a viable homeland.

Israelis would also recognize that no theocracy, Muslim, Christian or Jewish, can guarantee equal rights and would take further steps toward true democracy. In such a world, terrorism, both the Middle Eastern kind and every other variant, the frequent recourse of the raging wounded, would wither away.

The list could be much longer, of course, and, regardless of the depth of commitment to equality and justice and a sustainable future, the devil would truly be in the details of how we get to such a utopian place. Even the process of defining the place would itself be devilish, but no matter. The real question is what might motivate us all to invest our hearts and minds into doing so much good.

The answer would have to lie in the fact that failing to do so, at this point in human history will result in a train wreck of apocalyptic proportions. Humans, after all, have become, since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution (or, even, since Columbus sailed into the Carrribean), so much more efficient at laying waste to populations and to planet.

Never in the previous ten thousand years of history could we kill or destroy so quickly and so epically. Our production of death and misery and desperation is at historic highs these last 150 years or so, outpacing production in previous centuries and millennia by orders of magnitude. The degree of that increase of destructive power could be hypothesized and investigated using scientific tools; we need no Mayan calendar to predict the famines and super storms and holocausts to come.

If Howard Zinn were alive, and were willing to read this essay, I can guess how he might respond to my thesis. Zinn, of course, was no Pollyanna. He was a historical revisionist who would gaze unflinchingly on the truth of American and world history in order to name the policies and people who have inflicted so much damage on working people and people of color and women and sexual minorities, in order to name the names and crimes of people, generals and corporate heads, celebrated by more conventional versions of history.

But in the face of such painful stories and depressing outcomes, Zinn insisted on fighting back. No matter the power that might be arrayed against activists, power organized in defense of the status quo, Zinn believed in the efficacy of collective human action.

“Surely history does not start anew with each decade. The roots of one era branch and flower in subsequent eras. Human beings, writings, invisible transmitters of all kinds, carry messages across the generations,” Zinn wrote in his essay, Failure to Quit (collected in a book by the same title).

“I try to be pessimistic, to keep up with some of my friends. But I think back over the decades, and look around. And then it seems to me that the future is not certain, but it is possible,” he concluded.

Zinn would not have argued that the future we are looking at now is anything but grim. “The word ‘optimism’ used [in The Optimism of Uncertainty], and in the subtitle of [Failure to Quit], makes me a little uneasy, because it suggests a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time,” he wrote. “But I use it anyway, not because I am totally confident that the world will get better, but because I am certain that only such confidence can prevent people from giving up the game before all the cards have been played.”

The point I am making here is based on my assumption that there are now so few cards remaining in the deck that a loss of all our fortunes seems almost inexorably close. Nevertheless, this essay of mine is no call to action. It is instead a call to agreement on certain truths that seem to me to be almost self-evident. Effective action requires such agreement.

We are on the cusp of a global catastrophe that will wound us all and kill many, and even that wounding and killing will fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable. The coming changes are the outcome of centuries of human activity and policies that encourage and result in the grievously unequal distribution of resources.  What we do in the near future depends on widespread agreement that what we have been doing for millennia brought us to this point, and must not be the model for what we do henceforward.

In the absence of such an understanding, some people will still forge ahead in the effort to change what can still be changed in the interests of greater justice. I do not believe that collective action on less than a global scale will win the future that Howard Zinn believed in, but perhaps it will and we will all of us reap the benefits of the fight that remains in stouter hearts.

But we must surely ask ourselves why it is pestilence, war, famine and death in the saddle, rather than justice, peace, equality and sustainability.