Mr. Potter Has Won?

My perennial Christmas Missive, returns after a 4 year (can your believe it) hiatus. And who would have thought 5 years after the Great Meltdown produced the Great Recession, , 5 years into the age of Obama and a purported move away from supply-side economics pretty much nothing has changed to reign in the very things – excessive income inequality, unfettered financial speculation and moral hazard policies that reward the affluent investor over the struggling worker—that drove us to the brink Great Depression II, setting us up nicely for another round of financial mayhem within the decade.  Meanwhile 5 years into a recovery plan that has produced recovery for the richest  10% of the population who now take in more than half of all income (up by over 50%) and even more so the top 1% who raked in  over 90% of the gains from the recovery, middle class and working families are enduring stagnant or declining incomes that haven’t seen significant real increases since the dawn of 1980s supply side economics.    I was apparently naively optimistic when I wrote: Perhaps by Obama Christmas II the tides may turn. For now, let us at least raise a voice of prayer and a glass of cheer to the fact the Potters aren’t adding as much to their winning totals as they used to.Who knew Morning In America actually meant a sunset for  middle class expansion and an American Dream  deferred.. And yes, Virginia, income inequality DOES matter as any Feudal peasant or lord could have told you and as a brief glance at a map of global income inequality also tells you.  Excessive income inequality produces and exacerbates  poverty and  authoritarianism.  Period.  But at least there is hope in the coming year, what with that Marxist in The White House (as we always knew, thank you Fox News) and one now in the Vatican (thank you Rush Limbaugh for that bit of analysis), that national and global attention and conversation may actually turn to a meaningful discussion of inequality and—beyond the social justice issues and even bad for capitalism issues (true capitalism being antithetical to monopolies of power and wealth) the anti-democratic tendencies it fosters.  Until then,  let us hope that the Mister Potters haven’t won – for once they do it won’t be the same America we were born in.  Merry Christmas and best hopes for the future.  CL

__________

I watched the perennial holiday chestnut, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the other day. There was George Bailey, as he is every year, struggling to keep the old Savings and Loan afloat. There was the malicious Mr. Potter, a truly covetous old sinner, trying to put Bailey out of business.  There was Clarence the angel showing, once again, that our world is a better place for the George Bailey’s amongst us.  It’s too bad that in today’s world the Potters are beating the Baileys, hands down.

Old man Potter dismissed the Bailey Savings and Loan as a kind of privatized social welfare program for dumb poor workers who couldn’t cut it on their own. “And what does that  get us,” he asked?  “A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class.  And all because a few starry eyed dreamers stir them up and fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas? Don’t the  Rush Limbaughs or Tom Delays say the same thing today?

Labor laws, social welfare, retirement benefits, guaranteed healthcare, workplace safety laws, consumer protection–all are dismissed by our modern Potters as so much misplaced sympathy offered to the undeserving by the foolishly starry eyed, thinking that is at best naïve and at worst dangerous.  Any mention of social welfare on AM radio is now associated with Bolshevik Socialism – want to give workers a guaranteed living wage or put any limits at all on the worst excesses of the market and you’re labeled as an advocate of Gulags and death camps.

George, of course, argued back.  “Just remember this, Mr. Potter,” he retorted, “that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.  Well is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”  Today he could add: is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die with decent healthcare, affordable housing, quality education for their kids and the sure knowledge that when old age comes, there will be some comforts to look forward to?

We don’t have that many George Bailey’s today. Few stand up to our Potters when they tell us workers can’t expect job security, no one is entitled to healthcare and decent pay is whatever the most desperate amongst us is willing to work for.  Even the Democrats, the party of dreams for the working stiff, have fallen in line with the rhetoric of balanced budgets and smaller government (except, of course, if deficits are required to provide tax cuts to the richest Americans) even if the cost are reduced programs to help the disadvantaged.

Can’t anyone makes the simple point George made that helping the least amongst us is not simple altruism, it is Capitalist self interest at it’s best? “Your all business men here,” he reminded the S&L board members thinking of supporting Potter, “don’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers?”  Heck, wasn’t it that old socialist Henry Ford’s idea to raise worker pay, not because it was the moral thing to do but because it made them better participants in the Capitalist market place?   Like Old Man Potter, much of American corporate business has become warped and frustrated by ruthless competition and now sees its workers only as cattle to be milked for as long as possible before being sent to the layoff slaughterhouse.

Frank Capra understood that the Potters amongst us seldom lose, though the more public-minded like old George could, on occasion, battle them to a draw. Notice that, while George Bailey ultimately survived his battle with Potter, the old man survived unscathed too, his own crime of theft of the Bailey’s deposits unpunished. There have always been the Potters amongst us, those who pursue personal gain at any cost, be they a grasping banker like fictitious  Potter or the greedy executives of a massive corporations like Enron or WorldCom. What’s regrettable is that there are fewer and fewer George Bailey’s speaking up for the little guy.

In the real world the Bailey S&L would have been bought out by the 1980s by PotterCorp, a huge transnational Financial Services leviathan. A PotterCorp holding company would have bought out Bedford Fall’s chief industry, the plastic’s factory old Hee-Haw Sam Wainwright had built at George’s urging and shipped the jobs to Third World sweatshops. Downtown Bedford Falls would now be a ghost town with shops shuttered by a massive PotterMart selling cheap slave-labor produced products to the town’s poorly paid service employees.   Yes, least be there any doubt, in the world of today Mister Potter would have won.  And, least there be any doubt, Mr. Potter voted Republican.

 

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California Budget Deficit? What California Budget Deficit?

The Gubernator announced his last May Revise  this past Friday.  It was greeted with the usual rending of garments and gnashing of teeth now a customary part of the California budget blowout.   To close an almost $20 billion deficit His Arnoldness is now proposing freezes on local education, more slashing of government workers’ numbers and pay and huge cuts in social welfare and state medical care, including the complete termination of Calworks. Take that , you million mooching kids living off of state handouts.

But what are you going to do when the state is running almost 25% in the red?

And Our Last Action-Hero Governor can’t even depend on a last minute uber-dramatic rescue from Obi Wan Obama.  Washington’s response to  the Governor’s January request for $7 billion in reimbursements for Federal programs?  Drop dead.  Washington’s likely response to his new $3.4 billion beg?  Ditto.

Our Term(Limited)inator in Chief shouldn’t be  asking for a paltry $3.4 billion, anyway.  If the Feds have the audacity to insult the Golden State with such brass tribute he should throw it back in their faces.

No, what  one of the most successful businessmen in Hollywood History should demand is $70 billion.  That’s BILLION, with a big “B”. $70 billion is how much more California pays the Feds then the Feds give back in services and spending.

Californians get back about 78¢ for every dollar collected here by the Feds That means for the $313 billion  per year Californians pay the Federal government the Feds put back around $224 billion  in services and payments.  Which leaves California with that magic $70 billion deficit vis-à-vis  D.C.

Rather than running a $20 billion dollar budget deficit  in terms of revenues and spending  California actually has a $50 billion surplus. That is, if the Golden State got to keep all the gold it ships off to Washington.  Who then ships it off Red States like Mississippi, Alabama and all the others who get more back than they put in to the Federal slot machine.

I heard a commentator on the Dennis Prager show today compare Germany bailing out Greece to Texas bailing out  California .  Sorry but that’s the wrong comparison.  Texas gets back 94$ per dollar it sends.  Alaska gets back  a whopping $1.84.

So it’s Germany is to Greece as California is to Alaska, SAT fans.

Note to Feds: pay us our $70 billion, please.  We’ll take it in gold, if possible.

Note to Sarah Palin:  Shuttup already.  Your state takes more federal money per dollar sent than any other and you have the nerve to cry at your own Tea Party?  How about  you send us Californians—Real Americans who pay a lot more in shouldering the burden of being Americans than you and your mooching Alaskans—the $3.6 billion more you get back from that hated American government than you send in?

Consider it a down payment on monies owed California by a grateful nation.

Death Tax

Fitting the First Lady was in town  on tax day yesterday talking about nutrition, children’s health and obesity.  That’s because her visit underscored one of the greaqt inequities in our  society: the real death tax.

The First Lady was highlighting all the negative health effects people in poorer neighbors suffer due at least in part to lower income levels, access to reasonably priced alternatives to fast and processed foods and limited  availability of exercise and outdoor  recreational spaces  Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of the California Endowment was more direct stating:  “And so if you live in City Heights I can tell you that you will probably live 12 to 14 years a shorter lifespan than someone from La Jolla.” Ross’ assertion that zip code plays a big role in life expectancy is supported by study after study. Fitzgerald was right:  the rich ARE different than you and I.  They live longer.

So, as the anti-tax and death-tax rhetoric heats up (especially with the expiration of George W’s tax cuts next year—Hey George, way to go forgetting to make the centerpiece of your legislative legacy permanent! Heck of a job there, Bushie!) let’s save a little outrage for the ultimate of death taxes–the one that really does kill people.  But what’s a little death-related social inequity in a country of the people, by the people and for the people dedicated to promoting the general welfare.  So what if  La Jollans live longer than Encantoians—it all averages out.

Come to think of it,  that would be Clairemontians.

Lights, Camera, Revolution!

I was listening to that incredibly talented entertainer Ricky “Don’t Start the Revolution Without Me” Roberts this morning  and got to hear one of  Bobbo “Its Common Sense Because I Say So” Basso’s Tom Paine takeoffs which inspires the following vignette:

INT STUDIO CHIEF’S OFFICE—DAY

THE SCENE: A standard Studio Mogul’s lair, self-aggrandizing celeb photos on the wall, lots of chrome and gleam and an acre-size executive desk.   The MOGUL, sits feet up behind the desk, requisite stogy clenched in teeth.  The WRITER stands before the desk, schoolboy at attention, making his pitch.

WRITER: I’m tellin’s ya, man, this story has it all.  It’s Mister Smith Goes to Washington meets BraveheartMeet John Doe meets Pulp Fiction….

MOGUL: (intrigued) Tell me more….

WRITER: Okay – Act One:  the handsome charismatic prince sweeps the country off its feet, wowing them with his repertoire of multi-syllabic sweet nothings…

MOGUL: Who you thinking’?  Pitt?  Clooney?

WRITER: No, no, here’s the twist.  The guy’s black .

MOGUL: Oh, Freeman.

WRITER: No, younger and hipper.  More a Don Cheadle or  a Denzel. So anyway, Act One he wins the country and sweeps into the White House

MOGUL: Black guy president?  So what, the world ends?  World always ends when a black guy’s president.

WRITER: No, no, that’s too cliche. I mean America as we know it almost ends.  But the American people come to their senses and save it.  So in Act Two  the country turns on him like a woman scorned!

MOGUL: Classic! Boy meets girl, loses girl.  So what brings him down?  Sex Scandal?  Corruption?  Corrupt sex scandal—I really like those? Bloody controversial war?

WRITER: No, bigger ‘n that.  The dude pushes through—are you ready for this—a healthcare reform.

MOGUL:  In America?  Get real.  Adolescent wizards and vampires are more believable.

WRITER: I didn’t  say comprehensive reform. Naw, just a little reform. You know, kinda a watered down Massachusetts thing that that guy with the really  good hair did before he ran for president.  Nothing as radical as that Nixon dude or Truman  talked about, for godsakes.  I’m not talkin’ fantasy here.   So, anyway, it gets it past and then all these mobs take to the streets screaming about how he’s a dictator bringin’ godless communism to America.

MOGUL: Serves the commie bastard right.  So in Act III he sees the error of his ways, begs America for forgiveness, repeals his ill fated reform and wins the girl—I mean the people—back!

WRITER: No, no.  Too obvious. The twist is in Act III the people, now driven  absolutely insane by this guy giving healthcare to millions of people rebel.  They take to the streets and storm the capitol.  When they’re done a new Republican congress populated by really good looking white people with really nice teeth (thanks to the dental plan their corporate employers provided them as top rank executives)  takes over.  They impeach the young, brash prince—and his trusty old F-bombing sidekick and make their handsome white Speaker with really good hair the new Prez.  Then the guy gets rid of the healthcare reform (and Medicare, social security, welfare, all environmental laws, meat inspection and the like). As the people rejoice in the streets (of course, a lot of them are living there by then) the music comes up – something really patriotic and uplifting…

MOGUL: How about Dixie?  That’s a catchy tune!

WRITER: Love it!  So the music comes up and we fade to black. Whadda ya think?

MOGUL: Love it, man, love it.  One thing—you think maybe you can tweak it so the healthcare reform turns out to have unleashed a virus or something that turns normal, rational people into invective-spitting deranged anti-government zombies?  Or even better, Libertarian Vampires ready to feed on the body politic? You know, Advise and Consent meets 27 Days Later.

WRITER: Don’t see why not.

MOGUL: Outstanding.  Only one problem though…

WRITER: What’s that boss?

MOGUL: We make fiction at this studio, not documentaries.  Whadda think we are—the History Channel?

FADE OUT

Yo Ho Yo Ho A Filibustero Life For Me

In response to my “Fortune Cookie” blog, Loyal Reader Larry asks the following series of very good questions:

Mr. Luna- I have some questions for you that I really don’t understand. I was a Political Science Major, but that was a long, long time ago. I’d like to understand why this 60 seat thing is so crucial, yet the Republicans never had this 60 seat thing for their 6 years, and yet they were able to pass and enact bill after Bill, and there was nothing the Democrats could do about it for 6 years, and no compromises were necessary. What am I not getting here? How come with more than 41 Senators, The Democrats were not able to prevent the Republican/Bush agenda.
Did I also dream that when Republicans were in the Majority(recently) they threatened to abolish the Filibuster and now the Democrats are afraid of this group of 41, but were the Republicans ever afraid of the Democrats 40+ Senators.
I continue to be baffled and bewildered. Are there 2 sets of rules? I don’t get it. Thanks

The simple, knee-jerk and emotionally-satisfying answer to all of your questions is: The Democrats are a bunch of Woosies!  (NOT my first chose of epitaph but decorum dictates restraint.)   The Democrats have not been able to advance a meaningful, game-altering agenda ever since LBJ lost the hearts and minds of the American people over Vietnam.  If the Democrats jumped off the Empire State Building (legislatively speaking) they’d miss the ground.  If the Democrats tried to take candy from a baby, the baby’d beat them up.  If the Democrats fell into an empty swimming pool they’d drown. 

That being said, as in all things (except, perhaps, responding to the presence of a very large and very hungry carnivore by screaming like a little girl and running like hell)  the situation is more complicated than a simple, knee-jerk and emotionally driven response.

The United States Senate was, by design, created  to be a collegial institution.  The principle of majority rules never has applied to this august body. Senatorial rules of debate and procedure adopted since the dawn of the Republic allow for a minority—even of one—to slow down or even block action.   To get anything done on anything controversial a supermajority is historically called for.   The Senate was designed this way to prevent a majority of the states from simply forcing their will on a minority of states.  The House is all about majority rules.  The Senate is all about consensus.  The filibuster—the ability of a minority of senators to take the Senate floor and essentially hold it hostage until some matter they object to is removed from consideration—is one of those devices.

Now, today’s filibuster is not your daddy’s filibuster. Once upon a time, for a filibuster to work, a senator or group of senators had to physically stand in the hall of the Senate, on their feet, talking without stop.  As long as they held the floor no other senator could speak or make a motion to move a bill forward: there could be no vote.  The filibuster senator(s) would demand that a quorum of senators (fifty percent) be present to witness their endeavor, guaranteeing that, as long as they held the floor, no-one could get pretty much anything done in the Senate. These are the filibusters of  the days of Mister Smith Goes To Washington.  As we’ll see below, those simple days are long gone.

Now there are physical limits to how long one senator can stand up and talk.  The record for a filibuster belongs to Strom  “Don’t Want to Give Equal Rights to Blacks But Don’t Mind Fathering a Child With One Out Of Wedlock” Thurmond, who ran on for over twenty-four hours to block the Voting Rights Act.  But you get two or more senators going at it in a tag team and a filibuster can last for ever.  To keep the Senate  from being forever hijacked  (the term filibuster comes from an amalgamated Franco-Dutch-Spanish phrase that, essentially, means “pirate”—filibustering is, therefore, in a sense, an act of legislative terrorism) by a handful of malcontents, the body adopted the rule of “Cloture.”  Cloture is a vote of senators to end debate—and therefore a filibuster—by invoking the Thirty Hour Rule. If passed, a move for Cloture means that, after just an additional THIRTY HOURS of debate, the matter on the floor must be brought to a vote.  The number of senators required to pass cloture originally was two-thirds; that threshold was dropped to sixty percent (sixty votes) in the 1970s, and remains so today.

The number of filibusters in the Senate have sky-rocketed since the early 1990s.  You can thank Bob “Easy, Boy” Dole for that one.  Back in 1993 the Democrats were giddy with power, controlling majorities in both the House and Senate and with their man Bill in the White House.  Having been elected to deal with the 1991-1992 recession on the mantra “It’s The Economy, Stupid”, Clinton sent a stimulus bill to Congress in early 1993.  Republicans in the House condemned it as more Democratic tax and spend politics.  With a large majority in the House, however, the Democrats were able to ride roughshod over the GOP,  passing the bill without allowing the Republicans much in the way of debate or amendment.  Dole, the Republican Senate minority leader, decided to teach the Democrats a lesson in congeniality. Dole dug  out a Senate Rule that hadn’t seen the light of day since the 19th  century. (Say what you will about Dole the Presidential Candidate—he was a Whiz bang Senatorially leader, the likes of which neither party has seen since he left his real home for the Quixotic ’96 campaign.)  The rule essentially allows you to “phone-in” a filibuster.  If your side in the Senate has a secure 41 votes to block a motion of cloture, your side can simply announce it will filibuster a bill if it is brought to the floor.  The other side, knowing they cannot bring the bill to a vote and facing the possibility of a real, stay up all night in the Senate filibuster, is now helpless. The bill dies without sixty votes.

When Dole did this to the Democrats they responded with anger, frothing at the mouth and sputtering before the press about how undemocratic and unfair it was.  (Clinton’s stimulus plan died.)   Bob Dole responded by blowing them a raspberry.  Then Republicans took over the Senate in 1994 and, for the next six years, Democrats started to use Dr. Dole’s Pain Free Magic Filibuster Elixir, guaranteed to kill bills before they kill you.  Republicans responded with anger, frothing at the mouth and sputtering before the press about how undemocratic and unfair it was.  Democrats responded by blowing them a raspberry. Then Democrats took control of the Senate in 2001 and Republicans Doled them with filibusters.  Democrats sputtered, Republicans raspberried.  When Republicans took back the Senate in 2002, though, things turned even uglier.  Democrats began using the Dole filibuster to block several of George W. Bush’s more controversial (at least in their minds) appellate court nominations.  Republicans sputtered and frothed—and threatened to change the rules on judicial nominations to take a vote of cloture down to a simple majority, effectively killing the use of the filibuster.  Republican leaders at first called this the “nuclear option” as in going to total war with the Democrats, changing the incendiary phrase to the “Constitutional Option” (which, like many GOP handles, was both misleading and false: there is nothing in the Constitution that precludes the use of the filibuster in the Senate.)  Then John McCain stepped into the breach (that was back in the pre-2008 days when McCain was still a moderate maverick and not the cranky old reactionary conservative he morphed into).  McCain reminded his fellow party members that, while they were currently in the majority one day they might not be so lucky and, when that day came, they might really like to be able to use a filibuster or seventy-three to block the judicial nominations—and other actions—of some future liberal Democratic President.  Say, a charismatic black politicians from, or, I dunno, Chicago?   McCain led the Group of 14 senators who pushed through a compromise:  the Democrats would practice more restraint in blocking Bush judicial nominations, the filibuster would remain untouched. Reactionary-right Republicans continue to this day to condemn  cranky conservative McCain for being a mooshy RINO for betraying his party with his Gang of 14, even though that is the reason why, five years later, a minority of forty-one Republicans in the Senate can now derail healthcare—and the rest of the Obama agenda.

Of course, that is also not the whole story, either.

For a party to successfully use the Dole filibuster the party must have a firm, dependable forty-one votes.  That means, if the party is in the Senate minority, pretty much every member has to vote in lock-step.  For the Republicans that means ALL forty-one senators have to toe the party line to avoid cloture—which they DO!  The Republican party of today is also not your daddy’s party.  The Grand Old Party has become the Old Southern Party consisting lots of politicians who, in years past, would have been Democrats simply because they would never have belonged to the party of Lincoln.  But the GOP is no longer the party of Lincoln—it is the party of Reagan with all the anti-liberal, anti-Washington rhetoric, which are code words for all  anti-civil rights movement and anti affirmative action rhetoric–that implies.  Over the last twenty years the Republican Party has systematically purged moderate and liberal Republicans from their Congressional ranks such that, today, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina is being called too liberal.   The only remain Republican senatorial moderates—read Olympia Snow and  Susan Collins—understand that, unless they break to the right they’ll be busted out of politics altogether by conservative primary challengers.  So the Republican party has become one conservative beast with many mouths and limbs, moving in ideological lockstep.

Bully for them.

The Democrats, however, continue to live up to Will Rogers’ famous line, “I’m not a member of an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”  The reality is, while the Democrats, by title, controlled sixty votes in the Senate until this Tuesday, the Democratic senators are ideologically divided between traditional liberals like California’s Feinstein and Boxer, Blue Dog  “moderates” (read fiscal and, mostly, social conservatives) like Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) and DINOs like former Democrat Joe “Teach You All For Giving Me the VEEP Slot On A Losing Ticket” Lieberman.  This motley crew couldn’t find common ground on what condiments to put on a hotdog, let alone keep enough party discipline to deliver an assured sixty votes.  That’s why, even though Democrats had more than forty votes in the Senate throughout the Bush years, they couldn’t block much beyond the most controversial Bush judicial appointments and the Republicans could get much of their domestic—and almost all of their foreign policy—agendas adopted.

The real danger to the Republic, however, is not the filibuster or even the failure of healthcare reform.  The real danger is that, over the next several election cycles, Democrats follow in the footsteps of their Republican Brethren and begin to really work at ideologically purifying their ranks.   A number of the more conservative Democrats in purple states  may start to think about doing a full Lieberman (which Lieberman, with his trademark  jello-like resolve, hasn’t mustered the courage to finally do, yet) and bolt to the GOP.  Other moderate-conservatives might find themselves targeted by increasingly liberal opponents in their primaries.  The result: a US Senate divided between two completely antagonistic ideological blocks which tolerate no compromise and forge no consensus.  Under these circumstances the Senate simply cannot function: nothing can get done.  Which ever party is in the minority, enjoying more than forty votes, will simply obstruct the other party until they get propelled into the majority by an angry public—only to not get anything done when the minority blocks them.

The United States may well be heading into its Fourth Republic Phase.  Back in the 1950s the French government (the Fourth Republic) foundered when partisan division rendered the parliament impotent to deal with major problems like the Algerian problem.  The political paralysis and rising social crisis almost resulted in a military coup, averted only by the extra-constitutional creation of a new Fifth Republic by the godlike Charles de Gaulle.  The French had to completely redesign their government (producing the “French” or “Mixed” model, in which the people elect both a President who appoints a Prime Minister to run the government, and a Parliament which approves or fires the Prime Minister and passes laws).

I don’t see Americans, with their almost Japanese reverence of their political ancestors, willing to consider a major revamp of our system of government to deal with such paralysis any time soon.  And I sure as heck don’t see a de Gaulle out there anywhere on the political landscape.  (Colin Powell might have had a chance at the role if he hadn’t squandered his credibility defending nonexistent WMDs for a President who rewarded him by letting his administration rivals stab him in the back and heave his political corpse off the second term truck.)

So that, dear Larry, is why the Democrats couldn’t stop the Republicans, why the Republicans can stop the Democrats and why both parties are poised to stop the political heart of the American Republic.

Broken Cookie

Oh, what a difference a day makes. On Monday all the Democrats were wringing their hands in grief over the impending loss of Ted Kennedy’s long-held liberal seat in the Senate to Republican insurgent elephantista Scott Brown. Losing the seat would be a repudiation of Barack Obama and his policies among independents and disaffected voters, they all cried. Losing the seat following Obama personally campaigning for Martha Coakley would mean that his coattails had been shorn away. Losing the seat the day before his first anniversary as Commander in Chief would mean not only that the honeymoon was over, but also that the public was considering filing a petition of divorce. Losing the seat meant losing the filibuster-busting 60th vote in the Senate and, with it, the likelihood of passing Obama’s cornerstone healthcare reform this term, next term or any term. Losing the seat meant Obama now had the best chance of being a one-term Democrat since Bill Clinton blew healthcare reform back in ’93.

Woooh. That was a close one. But, as I boldly predicted in my fortune cookie blog Monday, Coakley won in a squeaker. In retrospect, I can’t imagine what all the hand-wringing was about. Did people really think the Democrats would actually take the Kennedy seat for granted and not find the best candidate possible to fill in his giant liberal shoes? Did people really think the Democrats would nominate someone with the personal touch of a cucumber and the political savvy of a stone to run for the a seat formerly held by one of the most gregarious, hand-pumping politicians ever to come from the Bay State? Did people really think the Democrats would run with a candidate who didn’t even know which team Curt Shilling played for? Moreover, did people really think Obama’s whiz-bang White House political machine would actually send their man up to the Bay State to campaign unless their own private polling showed that the thing was in the bag?

I mean, pleazzzz. These are the Democrats we’re talking about here, not a bunch of just-off-the-turnip-truck jokesters who couldn’t pass a bill holding a super-majority for the life of their party. These guys don’t blow elections by resting on weak Massachusetts candidates with the personality of a codfish. These guys don’t blow successive presidencies by trying to run healthcare reform straight down the middle into the unyielding Republican defensive line, giving up the ball at the next midterm election. This is the party of Carter! Gore! Kerry! Have a little faith, people.

No, the egg is certainly on the face of all those doubters who didn’t believe the vaunted White House machine would roll over this one as easily as a semi running over the Pillsbury Dough Boy, yessir. And After the Dems finish with healthcare reform, there’s nothing stopping them. Minimum-wage legislation, Wall Street-bonus bashing, reversing the 30-year slide in middle class income-level job creation? There’ll be no stoppin’ ‘em now that True Shoot Annie Oakley Coakley has stapled Scott Brown to the Cosmo centerfold…

Hold on, this just in.  What’s that…Brown?…By five percent?…Really?…Oh.

My apologies, all. I don’t know what I was thinking. (Damn you, California medicinal marijuana law!) Apparently the Democrats ARE THAT STUPID. And now, year one into his administration, Ba- “Rock the Status Quo” Obama is reduced to Bill Clinton sans philandering, waiting for the Republicans to overreach after winning the House next November and then nominating a right-wing ultra-conservative to alienate every independent in the country in 2012. Luckily for Obama, the odds are probably 8:3 in his favor on that one.

Oh well, at least I can take solace this weekend watching the Bolts take down the Colts this Sunday. After the trouncing they gave the Jets last week, there’s no stopping the chargin’ Chargers, despite what any party-pooping naysayers might have thought. I mean, people really think the Chargers would actually choke again in round one of the playoffs, throwing multiple interceptions and missing easy field goals……………

Fortune Cookie

Two quick predictions:

For all the horserace drama the Massachusetts special election is generating my bet is, when the fortune cookie crumbles, Coakley and the Democrats hold on to Ted Kennedy’s ancestral seat and Barack Obama keeps his thin filibuster-busting sixty votes in the Senate.  As far as I can tell (and I may well be wrong on this, as I often am), the touted polls showing Scott Brown up a by a few percent over Martha “Makes Bland Seem Exciting” Coakley have been of “voters” and not “likely voters.”  The turn out tomorrow is going to be bleak, comprised of party stalwarts who actually care enough to brave the thirty-something freezing rain to vote.  While Brown is doing well with independents. Both Bush and Obama have shown that independents matter far less than getting the party base out.  And Democrats have a three-one advantage in their Bay State base.   Brown has gotten a lot of out of state support.  But getting Rudy “I’m from New York and You Know How Much People In Massachusetts Love New York” Giuliani to campaign for you is a far throw from getting Bill “Show Me the Love One More Time Massachusetts” Clinton to stand by you.  Throw in the Obama Express stop yesterday and the Mass Senate race begins to resemble the Owens/Hoffman row last fall in New York’s 23rd Congressional.   If Coakley wins—even by a narrow two or three percent—Obama celebrates his one-year anniversary with a second major congressional victory (which he can claim as his own due to his quick visit) and National Republicans look like they’ve blown yet another one.

Of course, if Brown does pull it off and upsets Coakley Republicans go into the spring fundraising season invigorated and on the offensive, Healthcare gets filibustered to death by the Republicans, despite whatever Nancy Pelosi may Pollyanna-ishly hope, Republicans score big victories in November and Barack Obama faces the real possibility of becoming the Democrats first Jimmy Carter of the 21st Century.  So relax, Democrats.  Nothin’ on the line here.

Closer to home, I’ve got to disagree with long time Charger Voice Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton’s observation on “These Days” this morning that the Charger’s Disappointment Bowl loss yesterday won’t impact the franchise’s quest for new digs. Going all the way to the Big Dance in the Big Easy was the Charger’s best chance in years to rally Bolts fans—particularly the “We only pay attention to the Chargers when they win” fans, aka the “independent voters of the sports world — to support a new stadium at the ballot box.   In disappointing defeat, Bolts fans are more likely to balk—and bolt—at any municipal effort to throw public money at a team who didn’t deliver on the publics hopes.  Will this make the Bolts more likely to bolt themselves?  Maybe.  Though any reality of a bolting is years in the future.  For know Dean Spanos had better suck it up fast and launch a determined “Just wait’ll Next Year, San Diego!” campaign, replete with a willingness to throw a few million more at team building over the next year.  John Moores at least knew enough to buy a guaranteed championship team before he hit the voters up for big bucks.  It’s time for Spanos to put up and shut up—or sell the team to someone willing to do what it takes to make San Diego winners.  That is, if they want a big, new home for the Chargers.  If not, just keep doing what they’ve been doing.

Mr. Potter is Winning, Still.

(My perennial Christmas Missive, loyal reader.  And yes, the Potters of the world are still ahead in the game of life.  One year after the election of George Barack Obama Bailey, with healthcare  reform delayed,  Wall Street reform dismissed and Obama’s agenda being fought in a scorched earth Republican retreat right out of Tolstoy,  the Potters are still holding firm.  Perhaps by Obama Christmas II the tides may turn. For now, let us at least raise a voice of prayer and a glass of cheer to the fact the Potters aren’t adding as much to their winning totals as they used to. Oh, and a PS:  for those of you who do not like IAWL because, in the end, old man Potter gets away with the Bailey cash, you are missing a major point of the movie.  For George to get his own life back and, in the process, save a piece of the life of his town,  Bedford Falls, is about as fantastic a victory as one should hope for.  Even Capra couldn’t bring himself to so schmaltz up his already delightfully schmaltzy show by pretending that Potter would ever see the inside of a jail cell.  If your waiting for the Potters of the world to be brought to justice please remember it is the Potters of the world that usually determine what justice is and how it will be applied.   Getting to the point where the Bailey’s can at least coexist and prosper with the Potters is about as good as life can get, even in fantasy. )

I watched the perennial holiday chestnut, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the other day. There was George Bailey, as he is every year, struggling to keep the old Savings and Loan afloat. There was the malicious Mr. Potter, a truly covetous old sinner, trying to put Bailey out of business.  There was Clarence the angel showing, once again, that our world is a better place for the George Bailey’s amongst us.  It’s too bad that in today’s world the Potters are beating the Baileys, hands down.

Old man Potter dismissed the Bailey Savings and Loan as a kind of privatized social welfare program for dumb poor workers who couldn’t cut it on their own. “And what does that  get us,” he asked?  “A discontented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class.  And all because a few starry eyed dreamers stir them up and fill their heads with a lot of impossible ideas? Don’t the  Rush Limbaughs or Tom Delays say the same thing today?  

Labor laws, social welfare, retirement benefits, guaranteed healthcare, workplace safety laws, consumer protection–all are dismissed by our modern Potters as so much misplaced sympathy offered to the undeserving by the foolishly starry eyed, thinking that is at best naïve and at worst dangerous.  Any mention of social welfare on AM radio is now associated with Bolshevik Socialism – want to give workers a guaranteed living wage or put any limits at all on the worst excesses of the market and you’re labeled as an advocate of Gulags and death camps.

George, of course, argued back.  “Just remember this, Mr. Potter,” he retorted, “that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.  Well is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”  Today he could add: is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die with decent healthcare, affordable housing, quality education for their kids and the sure knowledge that when old age comes, there will be some comforts to look forward to?

We don’t have that many George Bailey’s today. Few stand up to our Potters when they tell us workers can’t expect job security, no one is entitled to healthcare and decent pay is whatever the most desperate amongst us is willing to work for.  Even the Democrats, the party of dreams for the working stiff, have fallen in line with the rhetoric of balanced budgets and smaller government (except, of course, if deficits are required to provide tax cuts to the richest Americans) even if the cost are reduced programs to help the disadvantaged.

Can’t anyone makes the simple point George made that helping the least amongst us is not simple altruism, it is Capitalist self interest at it’s best? “Your all business men here,” he reminded the S&L board members thinking of supporting Potter, “don’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers?”  Heck, wasn’t it that old socialist Henry Ford’s idea to raise worker pay, not because it was the moral thing to do but because it made them better participants in the Capitalist market place?   Like Old Man Potter, much of American corporate business has become warped and frustrated by ruthless competition and now sees its workers only as cattle to be milked for as long as possible before being sent to the layoff slaughterhouse. 

Frank Capra understood that the Potters amongst us seldom lose, though the more public-minded like old George could, on occasion, battle them to a draw. Notice that, while George Bailey ultimately survived his battle with Potter, the old man survived unscathed too, his own crime of theft of the Bailey’s deposits unpunished. There have always been the Potters amongst us, those who pursue personal gain at any cost, be they a grasping banker like fictitious  Potter or the greedy executives of a massive corporations like Enron or WorldCom. What’s regrettable is that there are fewer and fewer George Bailey’s speaking up for the little guy.

In the real world the Bailey S&L would have been bought out by the 1980s by PotterCorp, a huge transnational Financial Services leviathan. A PotterCorp holding company would have bought out Bedford Fall’s chief industry, the plastic’s factory old Hee-Haw Sam Wainwright had built at George’s urging and shipped the jobs to Third World sweatshops. Downtown Bedford Falls would now be a ghost town with shops shuttered by a massive PotterMart selling cheap slave-labor produced products to the town’s poorly paid service employees.   Yes, least be there any doubt, in the world of today Mister Potter would have won.  And, least there be any doubt, Mr. Potter voted Republican.

Throwing Worse Money After Bad

This morning the Obama administration fessed up to what out side critics have been saying for some time:  its efforts to date to stem the mortgage foreclosure crisis hasn’t worked.  “Making Home Affordable” was a seventy-five billion dollar incentive to the financial industry to deal with the fact the a quarter or more  of Americans are now upside down in their homes and millions are facing potential foreclosure in no small part because of actions by the financial industry. 

The Great Double-Ought Bubble was the product of many blowing lips: the irrational monetary exuberance of the Greenspan Fed cutting interest rates to give-away rates; foolishly greedy homeowners and buyers looking to turn hearth and home into equity ATMs; rapacious realtors looking for the next commission come what may.  But the biggest lips blowing up the bubble were those of the financial industry which, from financing ridiculous rates for subprime mortgages complete with their own bubble clauses to the slicing, dicing and splicing of mortgage-backed securities spread the risks of their reckless realty practices far and wide.

So who’d a thunk that the same Wall Street suits sitting in Board Rooms and Fed meeting rooms who came up with the Foreclosure Fiasco would chose to not  sit on their hands—and the throats of homeowners—when it comes to cleaning up the festering mess?  The Obama Administration, of course.  Talk about the audacity of hope.  The “Making Home Affordable” plan relied on financial institutions to take up front risks and forego “lucrative fees”  to help out underwater  homeowners based on an appeal to do the right thing by the government.  So they didn’t, simple as that.   Who’d a thunk that? Oh, right.

Today the Administration now promises to get tough with financial firms by not paying them the cash incentives promised in exchange for modifying distressed mortgages until those mortgages be permanently de-distressed.   That would be the cash incentives that were not big enough to tempt financial institutions to modify a significant number of mortgages in the first place. 

Right.

Six or twelve  months and three or four million more home foreclosures from now, what will the Administration do?  Get really, really tough on the financial industry by halting all deliveries of cappuccinos to their walnut-paneled offices until more mortgages are modified?  That threat might actually work better. Unfortunately, by then, the country might well find itself deep in the second dip of the Great Recession and the Obama administration may find itself facing its own potential pink slip in 2012.

The real scary fact of this great meltdown  has been that, step by step, everyone involved in it, from consumers to businessmen to government officials, essentially took rational, intelligent actions in pursuing their own self interest under the system of the time.  The real scary fact of this great meltdown is that there is no one bad guy—no Enron or AIG or Michael Milken or even a good old Gordon Gecko to blame this all on.  The great meltdown has been the product of systemic failure which has resulted, amongst other things, in the tying of the mortgage industry into a Gordian knot of conflicting interests. 

Only the terrible swift sword of government action can cut through that not.

Relying on the private sector to sort out a housing crisis that it a) made; b) doesn’t fully understand; and c) has no short-term interests in fixing is taking audacious hope to the point of simple blind foolishness.  Government must use the  power of law to modify the very mortgages the financial industry refuses to do.  Without such bold, truly audacious action the  foreclosure crisis threatens to spike again, dragging the housing and financial sectors back down and dropping the entire economy back into the swirling porcelain bowl.

Last year I suggested the government pursue an aggressive National Fair Mortgage Act to, by the power of law,  reset mortgage principals back to pre-bubble assessed home values and structure these mortgages on a 30 year fixed, 4%-5% rate, with mortgage holders being compensated through tax breaks and direct government compensation for any losses.  (See the plan here.)  As foreclosures continue to soar, the economy continues to falter and the latest efforts by the Obama administration to get the banks to fix bad mortgages fail,  the powers that be might want to chew on  this idea a bit.

Continuing to try and get banks to fix loans they have no interest in fixing, however, remains throwing worse money after bad.

National Science Day, Anyone?

medal_nobel_after_topbox

Well, Nobel season has come to an end with the U.S. receiving its usual slew of Nobel laureates. Eight American scientists (Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider, Jack W. Szostak, Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle, George E. Smith, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz were honored with Nobels in four areas of science. Throw in the dismal science of economics and you’ve got two more members of Team Nobel USA (Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson). And, well, memory is foggy on this, but I think another prominent American got a Nobel for something or other besides science or literature. Altogether, of the 11 Nobels awarded for science and economics, 10 went to Americans.

So where have all the balloons and national whoo-hoos been?

Oh, that’s right. This is only the Nobel prizes we’re talking about here—certainly nothing as important as winning gold medals at an international athletic competition. I mean, somebody shot-puts a foot farther or luges .0003 seconds faster, that has a big impact on our lives. Meanwhile, three obscure U.S. scientists pick up a Nobel in physiology/medicine “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase”? I mean, who cares about telomeres and enzyme telomerase? Except, of course, maybe for the fact the seminal work these scientists conducted over the last several decades is telling science why cells, after so many cell divisions, start screwing up their self-replication, leading to little minor maladies like cancer. And aging. And because of the work of these three scientists, Science (with a big capital S) is getting really, really close to curing the big C. And taking a whack at prolonging the even bigger and even more inevitable “A”—adding, in the process, perhaps decades to the human life span.

Like I say, big whoop!

And who can blame the media and talking heads for focusing instead for the last two weeks on that other American who won a Nobel for working toward Peace?  Or on not winning an Olympic bid? Now those are big, human-species-shaping events. Those Nobel science geeks? Let them be happy with a presidential pat on the back and a 10-second blurb on CNN.

If you want to know why I’m banking on India to be the big, global power by the end of this century, just consider: India celebrates National Science Day every Feb. 28, in memory of an Indian physicist who won a Nobel Prize 79 YEARS AGO!!! India—INDIA!—which has won eight Nobels total, has a National Science Day, recognizing that the future of India as a great power rests upon its rising mastery of science and technology. The U.S., with more than 300 hundred Nobel winners—more than three times the total of any other nation (and more than the total of most other nations combined)—does not. Yes, we we used to have a rinky-dink National Science Week that garnered about as much attention outside of high school and college science departments as National Peach Melba Day (Jan. 13) does outside of Georgia. But a day honoring the hundreds of American Nobel prize winners who have transformed this nation and the world? Please. I mean, where could we fit one in anyway, with our national calendar already chock-a-block full of must-celebrate days like National Buffet Day (Jan. 2) and National Bicarbonate of Soda Day (Dec. 30).

If you want to understand why America is rapidly becoming a post-scientific/scientifically illiterate culture in which PM infomercial flim-flam artists and AM talk show flakes compete with Nobel prize winning scientists for the public’s attention and trust (and, alas, increasingly win), reflect on this: If you don’t celebrate, elevate and commemorate science—if you don’t even bother to meaningfully nationally praise those American scientists who have earned the respect of the world—don’t be surprised when the public disparages and disputes them instead.

Maybe that’s why fewer Americans (less than 40 percent) accept the scientific theory of evolution than in any other industrial country in the world. Yeah, evolution’s just another scientific theory, so what? I mean, just because evolution theory is the very foundation of pretty much all the earth-shattering—and life-altering—work in biology and physiology for the last century, like the research in cell development that three Americans just got a Nobel prize for, someone should believe in it? Please—that is so empirically rational. Maybe our public diminishing of science is why only 53 percent of Americans know how many days it takes for Earth to go around the sun? Or that only 59 percent of Americans know that The Flintstones is fantasy and that man and dinosaur never cohabitated.

If President Obama wants to do something for making up to the world for getting a Nobel prize many argue he didn’t deserve (but everyone should recognize he didn’t ask for), maybe he should work with Congress and proclaim a National American Nobel Prize Winner’s Day. And follow it up with a National Science Appreciation Day. Make the latter a real, day-off holiday. Maybe that would get Americans to pay attention to the endeavor that has set them apart from and above all the other nations of the world since the days scientists like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson dominated American culture and politics. Maybe a National Nobel and National Science Day would help Americans remember and reclaim their heritage as a scientific culture born of the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason.

Oh, and restoring public funding of applied scientific research to its 1980s level might be a good idea, too. You know, in lieu of sending flowers or e-cards on that new National Science Day.

Something’s got to be done. If we become any more post-scientific in our culture and scientifically illiterate in our national debate we’ll soon start to stop winning those Nobel prizes. And then the sun will really set on the American dream.


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