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On Contradiction, Or, Will Obama Lose An Argument With Himself? January 16, 2011

There have been many unlikely things that have happened this past month or so: some of them appearing as legislation, some of them appearing in the form of Republicans who set new records for running away from the words they used to get elected—and some of them appearing in the markets, where, believe it or not, many Europeans finds themselves wishing for our economic situation right about now.

There are even improbable sports stories: our frequently hapless Seattle Seahawks, the only team to ever make the NFL Playoffs with a losing record, are today preparing to knock the Chicago Bears out of their bid to play in the Super Bowl, having crushed the defending holders of the Lombardi Trophy just last week before the 12th Man in Seattle.

But as improbable as all that is, the one thing I never thought I would see is Barack Obama getting into a political argument with himself over Social Security—and then losing the argument.

Even more improbably, it looks like there’s just about a week left for him to come to a decision…and it looks like you’re going to have to help him make up his mind.

“He who was prepared to help the escaping murderer or to embrace the impenitent thief, found, to the overthrow of all his logic, that he objected to the use of dynamite”

–From The Dynamiter, by Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson

So we’ll keep this all just between you and me, but I’ve been hearing a few things this past week, and I figured we’d start by filling you in on the inside dirt:

The State of the Union address is coming up fast (January 25th, in fact); obviously Social Security could become a hot topic during the speech. If it does, here’s what’s potentially going to occur:

–The President will announce a spirited defense of the program, and tell the world that he will not support any cuts in your benefits, and that we’ll clear up the funding issues by raising the cap on the payroll tax.

–He’ll announce that he has decided to support cutting your benefits by backing proposals that would again raise the retirement age and would cause the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to go up by less than the actual cost of living…which is just another way of sneaking in a cut to your eventual benefits.

I’m told that option number one is the least likely of the two…which is something you might not expect—especially if you were paying attention to what Obama was saying about Social Security when he was out looking for our votes in 2007 and 2008.

Here’s a good example: in November of 2007 he appeared on Meet the Press

“…and when you look at, how we should approach Social Security, I believe, that, uh, cutting retire–, uh, cutting benefits, is not the right answer…I meet too many seniors all across the country who are struggling with the limited Social Security benefits that they have…that raising the retirement age is not the best option, particularly when we’ve got people who ware [sic] still in manufacturing…”

There’s more: Candidate Obama wrote an op-ed piece (Fixed-income seniors can expect a tax cut) in September of 2007 for the Quad City Times that was designed to influence the way Iowa voters thought about his chances of being President one day. Here’s what he had to say then:

“Second, I do not want to cut benefits or raise the retirement age. I believe there are a number of ways we can make Social Security solvent that do not involve placing these added burdens on our seniors. One possible option, for example, is to raise the cap on the amount of income subject to the Social Security tax. If we kept the payroll tax rate exactly the same but applied it to all earnings and not just the first $97,500, we could virtually eliminate the entire Social Security shortfall.”

This is what he told the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) on the occasion of the group’s 50th anniversary, just about two months before the ’08 election:

“…but John McCain’s campaign has gone even further, suggesting that the best answer for the growing pressures on Social Security might be to cut…cost of living adjustments or raise the retirement age. Now let me be clear: I will not do either.

…I think that’s why the best way forward is to first look to adjust the cap on the payroll tax. 97% of Americans will see absolutely no change in their taxes under my proposal. 97%. What it does allow us to do is to extend the life of Social Security without cutting benefits or raising the retirement age.”

Naturally, if you looked at all this and said: ”Well, what’s the big deal, exactly?” you’d be making a reasonable point…but the problem, from what “background” conversations are suggesting, is that there is an effort afoot to get the President to agree to these cuts as part of a “Grand Bargain” that might include an extension of the debt ceiling, which is going to have to be voted on before March, and possibly other elements of dealmaking as well.

And naturally, if you watched how the President negotiated issues like the “public option” and the tax cuts last December…well, a reasonable person might worry that the same kind of deal is about to be made right now.

To make things worse, there are stories afoot that suggest this President is looking to cement a legacy here—and a legacy that consists of “I rescued Social Security” would be a fine narrative for the ’12 campaign…as long as the “rescue” isn‘t accomplished on the backs of those who can afford cuts the least.

“But what I’m going to continue to insist on is that the reason we need to fix it now is precisely to protect our senior citizens and maintain not only Social Security as a social insurance program, but also make sure that the benefits are sufficient so that we don’t have seniors in need.”

–Barack Obama, on Meet the Press, November 11, 2007

So what’s to be done?

As you can imagine, this is the time to start flooding the White House switchboard (202 456 1212) to let them know that you want the President to listen to his own best arguments and stick with raising the payroll tax cap.

This is also the time to get your Members of Congress and Senators on the phone—and whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, it’s not going to be hard to remind them that if they screw this one up…they’re going to make permanent enemies out of…millions of registered voters.

So get to it.

We have about a week—and if you want to save your own Social Security future…you better get up and make it happen.

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On Rugged Individualism, Or, Meet The Ghost Of Government Past January 15, 2011

It is about time for the 112th House to come back into session, and the first thing on the agenda appears to be an effort to take away any healthcare reform that have been passed by this Administration.

Next comes an effort to slash Social Security and Medicare, an effort to reverse financial reforms, and proposals to “slash” spending—but only on domestic discretionary items.

If the House majority had its way there would be no restrictions on offshore drilling, no rules designed to prevent climate change—in fact, few if any environmental protections at all…and all of this is intended to bring to life the philosophy that government, for all intents and purposes, should just go away and leave us all alone.

I don’t buy into that kind of thinking—not even a little bit—and today we’re going to look around the world and see if we can’t figure out why.

There is an unalterable rightness about the best Florentine paintings of the period. It is wholly lacking from the late works of Tintoretto. In the schoolmasterly phase, even his greatest pictures could be improved. Only it would need another Tintoretto to do the improving.

–From Old Masters: Great Artists In Old Age, by Dr. Thomas Dormandy, RSM

So when it becomes tougher and tougher for old folks to get by on whatever the national pension system can provide…what do you suppose they do?

As it turns out, they turn to crime to supplement their incomes—and they’re doing it all over the world.

In the UK, local officials in Croyden saw a 15% jump in elderly crime in 2008-2009, Japan has had a multi-year elderly shoplifting problem that tripled in size from 1999 to 2008 (nearly 50,000 elderly Japanese were arrested that year—and a third of them were repeat offenders). Even in Germany, about three times as many elderly people are charged with committing crimes as report that they are the victims of crimes.

Then there’s Elizabeth Grube, 70, and her sister, Elaine Volkert, 65, both of Stroudsburg, Pa, who had been dealing about $10,000 worth of heroin a week when they were busted.

What happens when you give up on urban planning, and you empower the market to decide where people should build their homes?

Well…how about Bhopal?

Nobody should have been allowed to build homes next to a chemical plant—but in India, there’s not really a lot of control over that sort of thing…so the poor folks built around the plant, and one night, at least 3700 people died from a toxic leak.

In Haiti, lots of “empowerment” combined with lots of poverty has led to so much deforestation that it is possible, from space, to easily discern Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic…because the Dominicans have trees. As often happens, however, the market addresses imbalances, and now the Haitians have a surplus of a new natural resource that the Dominicans don’t: landslides.

Building codes are such a pain, aren’t they?

Not so much in China, where, in one survey, nearly half of apartment dwellers said they fear the buildings they live in might fall over or something…which they sometimes do. Poor school construction kills Chinese schoolchildren, too—by the thousands—which even the Chinese Government now acknowledges.

Now all of this is theoretical and much of it takes place overseas…but what about right here in the USA?

Consider Detroit: there is a lot less of it these days, for a variety of reasons both economic and social, and what with giving another $4 trillion in tax cuts to the rich…well, there’s just not much money available to help Detroit out.

As a result, the city is considering something that sounds like the prequel to Robocop: withdrawing services from about 25% of “Old Detroit”, tearing down thousands of abandoned buildings, and turning the open space into a sort of “urban prairie”.

In fact, “undevelopment” has become so bad that, within the city, wildlife is now abundant: pheasants roam the streets, a coyote was “arrested” inside the Federal Courthouse, and Glemie Dean Beasley makes a fair bit of money selling raccoon (fur or meat, take your choice) to Detroit’s chapeau and soul food connoisseurs.

And finally, a few words about the Second Amendment:

There are those among us who wish to advance the concept that anyone can own any weapon they choose, and that, if you carry it to the right political event, it makes the perfect “accessory of intimidation”.

To them I would say: “There are lots of examples, already, of countries where that is a part of the culture…and those countries are Somalia, and Afghanistan, and Yemen, and Columbia…and if I’m looking for examples of what I want my own country to be like…it ain’t Afghanistan, or Yemen, or Somalia, or Columbia.”

I believe in the necessity of Government, just as Thomas Paine did…because it’s just plain Common Sense…and I do not believe that “this is my land, and all that matters is me and mine…” is going to work as a substitute for a United States of America…and if you believe in a vision of this country that looks like mine, you’re going to have to stand up for it, right now, as this Congress gets its crazy on, and make it real clear to those folks that extremism in the defense of liberty, misdirected, is not only a vice—but a good way to lose your liberty altogether.

Those of you who are discouraged are going to have to get up off the proverbial floor and start over, those of you who think you can’t win a political fight anymore are going to have to constantly remind themselves that we can and do win in this environment…and those of you who think the only thing left is to grab your guns, hunker down in the bunker, and wait for Jesus to save you…you need to have a cookie.

Or go play in the snow.

Or spend some time fingerpainting with the kids.

Or maybe you just need to knit something.

Whatever it is, do something that reminds you that we’re all OK here, and that things aren’t really that desperate, and that all that snow, and the yarn, and the kids and the fingerpaints…that is Jesus, right here on Earth, saving you right this very second, and if you’re not enjoying it every day for all it’s worth, then you will have missed out on your real Earthly reward…and your Heavenly one as well.

 

On Shame As A Tactic, Or, Betsie Gallardo: She Won…And So Can You! January 6, 2011

We have been following the story of Betsie Gallardo lately, she being the woman that, due to a medical decision, was being starved to death in a Florida prison.

She has inoperable cancer, her death is imminent, and her mother was working hard to make it possible for Betsie to die at home with some dignity.

As we reported just a couple days ago, half the battle was already won, as the Florida Department of Corrections had agreed to place her in a hospital so that she could again go back on nutritional support.

On January 5th, the Florida Parole Commission voted to allow her to end her life at home—and that means you spoke out, made a difference, and achieved a complete victory for the effort.

But even as we celebrate that victory, I think we should take a moment to realize that there is a bigger lesson here: the lesson that the fights over “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), benefits for 9/11 first responders (the Zadroga Bill), and Betsie Gallardo’s imminent release are all actually pointing us to a political strategy that works, over and over, if we are willing to understand the wisdom that’s been laid before us.

Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal.
The weak can overcome the strong;
The supple can overcome the stiff.
Under heaven everyone knows this,
Yet no one puts it into practice.

— From chapter 78 of the Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu

So what do all three of those victories have in common?

Well, how about this: in every case, Those Proud And Courageous Conservatives found themselves too embarrassed to hold their ground, and once the bright light of public shame fell upon them, their high-minded opposition to three good things simply collapsed.

And that’s my underlying thesis for 2011 and the 112th Congress: shame and embarrassment, which don’t really seem like weapons at all, are in fact fantastically powerful when focused upon those who are trying to do wrong—and a small group of people, combining shame with a bit of imagination and effort, can crack apart even the most unyielding opposition when they embarrass the hell out of those on the other side.

Jon Stewart and “The Daily Show” can very honestly point to the “weapon of mass embarrassment” they delivered just before Christmas as the final straw that broke the back of Republican obstructionism around the Zadroga Bill—and how many of you look at DADT and John McCain and see not a principled fighter for military tradition, but a sad old man who didn’t know when to go home to Arizona and take up sitting on the front porch?

For the next two years we are going to have the chance to apply this tactic over and over and over again—and we already have Republicans and Democrats alike lining up to cut your Social Security…even as they make sure their own “defined benefit” retirement is fully funded, at your expense…and that’s a great place from which to start hitting back.

And in this Congress, embarrassment and shame actually pile up, layer upon layer, to create an amazingly target-rich environment.

Here’s a great example: Fred Upton is the new Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees things like the regulation of offshore drilling and healthcare—and that’s because it was just too embarrassing to give the job to Texas’ Joe Barton…especially after he publicly apologized to BP for how tough we’ve been on them after that giant oil spill last summer.

So Fred has the new gig, and he’s all happy about that, and he’s appointed himself a Staff Director, a fella named Gary Andres.

Now there’s been a lot of talk that some of these Members of Congress might be a bit too associated with lobbyists…and the name seemed awfully familiar…so I decided to Google Andres…and sure enough, not only is he a healthcare lobbyist, in 2007 he was named by Politico as the Top Lobbyist In Washington, making him the first “Top Lobbyist” of the post-Abramoff era.

Andres, just to add to the layering, is upset that Obama is deploying an “Army of Lobbyists”, even though he himself wrote the book on lobbying, literally: “Lobbying Reconsidered: Politics Under the Influence” is available in many fine bookstores.

This seems like as good a time as any to bring today’s conversation to a close, so let’s see where we are:

Even as we celebrate Betsie Gallardo’s victory, which was at least partially obtained through the timely and well-directed application of shame and embarrassment, Conservatives are feeling awfully full of themselves, despite the fact that they were embarrassed into caving on so many things so quickly in the past month.

They will set themselves up for lots more shame and scorn…I promise…and if we step up and focus the larger public on how shameful these folks are going to be, day after day after day, we can stop things like the upcoming raping of your Social Security in exchange for raising the debt ceiling, or any of the other 100 similar kinds of changes our opponents hope to enact, by hook or by crook.

So there you go, America: we have fish, and we have barrels, and if we can’t shut these folks down, then we have only ourselves to blame—and if that were to happen, then the only people who should truly be ashamed and embarrassed…will be us.