Monday, October 31, 2011

Getting Acquainted with Your New Minority Status

The white, christian majority in this country, being the long-time majority, doesn't have the experience to handle minority status graciously. I, on the other hand, grew up in a family that was proud of its recent immigrant history, in an area that had seen waves of immigration. So I have great appreciation for the ethnic mixer in this country. But I don't have a clue what it feels like to be in the majority.

Maybe I can help the white majority make a graceful transition into minority status. First some reassurance about being a minority:
  • You don't automatically lose your culture when you become a minority. You just share it with fewer people, but it's still very vibrant. You can see this is true if you visit any cultural fair near you. You'll get to see and sample the ethnic food, the favorite music, maybe even see the fancy dress, but most of all the pride in a unique cultural identity. 
  • Being a minority is not being embattled. You don't have to fight to survive when you become a minority, or there would be fewer minorities and whites wouldn't be facing this question. The days of genocide in the US are over, so you won't be targeted for death or beatings.
  • You don't have to worry about your culture, your lives, your limbs, so what's left? You may worry about losing your white, christian advantages, which weren't fair anyway, so they don't count. The only thing left to worry about is your comfort in a not-so-white world. That's actually good news. It's easy to survive a little loss of comfort.
So if the biggest problem you'll encounter is being uncomfortable, let me help you some more with my guide to how to be a well-behaved demographic minority:
  • Being a minority, you aren't part of a group that owns everything or nearly everything. If you are used to thinking "this is mine" as in "my park," "my street," "my school," "my highway," or "my country," stop. It isn't just yours, not like your house where everything is yours to play with or break. 
  • You are now clearly sharing with lots of people. It's like being a guest in a big table that includes a lot of new people, and you all have to act respectful to each other and get along. So if you've been a brat about being white and the top of the heap, you're not on top anymore. No one is. You're all at the same table, so be nice with those knives and forks.
  • Realize that most places are neutral territory, hopefully by mutual agreement. You are sharing all these public spaces, so share nicely. Don't insult other people, don't expect them to be just like you, and take turns. One weekend the Puerto Rican Cultural Society uses the park, the next weekend is the Columbus Festival. You can visit each other's festival or not. It's a choice, not a requirement. You don't have to like it, but don't try to stop it.
  • Some places aren't neutral territory. Instead they are your home-base. In your church or your house, what you do (or what they do) is nobody else's business as long as nobody gets hurt.
  • Most of all, don't try to adjust the demographics. Don't pass white-only emigration laws or massacre people. Don't try to tip the demographics by having lots more children. A baby race is the demographic equivalent of an arms race. Believe me, that approach hasn't done good anywhere. Look at Israel as an example.
Please follow my advice and take my word--it is entirely possible to be a happy, healthy minority in this country. It's part of what makes America great.

EXTRAS. Being a minority: 
"Sometimes it can be alienating, at work, at school, at social events when you are the only minority there... It's always something that's on your mind... Mostly it's like being anyone else though."
"... it is like a sentence because we are stamped with the word "minority" as though we aren't apart of the "acceptable" population."
"I have faced hatred, and insults based upon religion."

"This is why it is more important than ever for whites to recognize this and make a conscious effort to preserve and protect our race, culture, and heritage before it is eventually gone."
"...close the border already!! we need a passport to leave our house!!"

"You have this perception out there that whites are no longer in control or the majority."
"Will they suffer a similar fate to that of the whites in South Africa?"

On the Republican Menu: Just the leftovers

The low caliber of the Republican candidates is proving itself again. Today, I watched a compilation of clips from a Rick Perry speech last Friday where he seemed drunk.  Bachmann, Newt, Santorum ... nobody wants these egomaniacs with no realistic sense of themselves to be president. It would be too dangerous.

This should be a great year to run for president as a Republican. Then why is the field so bad? Because of the Tea Party. Romney is the only major candidate not pandering to them. I suspect that other potential candidates couldn't stomach the political atmosphere. They weren't prepared to spew hate the way the Tea Party demands, and they didn't want to be the Tea Party's target either.

Does the Tea Party run the Republicans now, or is it just the only part with a voice that still works? I think it's time for Republicans to push back. Some sane Republican should talk some sense--talk respectfully about Obama's successes and failures, talk about how to compromise on deficit reduction and tax reform. Instead of having 8 flavors of Not-Romney, we should have at least 4 flavors of Not-Tea-Party. That would be a Republican race that I and most of the country would cheer on. As it is, we're laughing, or just shaking our heads. 

P.S. I know these ideas aren't news. However, today it's all I can think about, so I'm exorcising it onto my blog. That's part of what my blog is for.

Extras: Flashback 2008, no more hacks, this devastating bit from Jon Stewart that I've cited elsewhere in the blog and is completely relevant here too.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Usurpers

The cry "We're going to take back our country" is one I heard frequently from tea partiers. The sense is that some (usually specified) elected officials are illegitimate usurpers of that office. The implied meaning in  'take back the country' is usually electoral, but violence, or a second amendment solution, lurks in the background

The idea that elected officials are not illegitimate holders of their elected office can come from concerns about the fairness of the election or about the officials themselves. It's often mixed up in the believers' heads. Obama was elected by fraud, he's also not a natural-born American, and no one with his political philosophy should ever be elected.

So Obama is treated like a usurper. But Clinton was also treated like a usurper, and there's no doubt that he was a natural-born American. I think the concerns about fraud and Obama's citizenship are just smokescreens for the real reason people don't want him as president--that they don't want someone with his politics in the White House. Therefore, any Democratic president is going to get this treatment--the constant complaints, the attacks on his legitimacy, the insults like "traitor," and the calls to impeach.

Clinton got it too, and it was surprising in its virulence at the time. Hillary called it a "vast rightwing conspiracy," but it actually became normal operating procedure for Clinton's GOP opponents, and the machinery hasn't ever stopped. Now Obama is the target, along with his senior staff, particularly Eric Holder for some reason.

Bear in mind that here can easily be an unending series of complaints about any official since none of us is perfect or all-powerful or able to accomplish everything within our purview. I think the Obama administration has been relatively clean, which is why Operation Fast and Furious is still such an item of anger. It's the biggest club with which to beat the Obama administration, and it isn't that big (in my subjective opinion), especially since it began under President Bush in 2006.

I wonder about this sense that any Democratic president is a usurper. It can feel that the president doesn't have much support if you live in a deep-red state or receive your political information in a partisan echo chamber. Many people, on the right, left, and middle, thin that they are actually in the majority if only:
  • The media wasn't so biased.
  • The media would get the truth out there.
  • Voting fraud was eliminated.
  • Stupid voters weren't allowed to vote.
  • Freeloaders weren't allowed to vote.
  • Immigration laws were enforced.
The belief that your ideas are superior and would win a electorate majority if only [something] is common enough. I just don't know why it persists in the face of election results. Why is there the sense that you are part of the "silent majority" (Nixon) or the real Americans (Palin), and those others are not?

The echo chamber of media and the politics of the people around you with can certainly reinforce that idea, and Fox News and other right-wing outlets do plenty of conscious reinforcement. But I think there's more. There's a kind of resentment at work. It's resentment of elites, particularly in non-conservative media and in academia, who have used their power to stifle. Many people feel stifled, belittled, and embattled. It's no wonder they want to take their country back. That's how anyone feels when they're shouted down, or just perceive that kind of treatment. So they turn their resentment on these elites and their allies, the Democrats.

I don't have a quick solution to this. But I want to remind people that civil discourse and true listening are lacking, and we see the outcome of this situation and probably thousands of others.

  Not a bull's eye for the topic, but a great graphic for 
"take our country back" from

Type "most Americans want" into Google to see what phrases come up in auto-complete.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Short: Miles apart on regulation

"The reductions of toxic pollution required by the pending “Mercury and Air Toxics” standard would save as many as 17,000 lives every year by 2015 and prevent up to 120,000 cases of childhood asthma symptoms." -National Resources Defense Council

"If enacted, the regulations would lead to nationwide employment losses totaling 1.44 million job-years by 2020 and increase Americans’ average electricity bills by 11.5 percent. In some parts of the United States, rates would climb by almost 24 percent." - A coal-power industrial group

One article talks only about the health benefits of a set of regulations. One article talks only about the economic drawbacks. Where can we go for a balanced discussion? None of the top 20 Google suggestions help.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Funny deja vu moment courtesy of Rick Perry

I was addicted to Intrade 3 years ago--tracking Obama's strength all the way to his victory on Election Day. Then I stopped being such a political junkie, started watching Lost, or something. But today, I remembered it in a flash of inspiration. Let me set the scene.

I'm reading of the latest blunder from Rick Perry. He's trying to restore his support, so he talks about how much he loves guns and hunting. This is the train of my thought:
  1. Of course Perry loves guns.
  2. He probably loves hunting up at N*****head camp.
  3. He's not too smart getting people thinking about that again.
  4. I better check Intrade and see how Romney is doing.
Romney is doing great--his stock is up above $6 a share. Check it out and see where the other candidates are.

Herman Cain improvises

Maybe this isn't fair. Candidates often haven't worked out their policy positions before they run for office. On the other hand, Cain was mostly retired, was doing political commentary, and then decided to run for president, only the highest office in the entire country. So, yes, it is fair to expect him to have his plan worked out a little better than it appeared this week.

Monday - He says there will be tax relief for poorer workers living or working in "empowerment zones."

Friday - He announces the 9-0-9 plan for workers at or below the poverty line, meaning that they don't pay the payroll tax. Change of plans, I guess. The benefits for business of empowerment zones, well that's still being worked on.  (By the way, this website hasn't caught up yet either.)

Here's what I think: Herman Cain latched onto someone's economic plan. It sounded good in the echo chamber, but not so good out in the real world that contains 1) poor workers 2) noisy liberals in the media that will point out the plan's effect on poor workers.

So Cain conferred with his economic adviser, trying to alter the plan for the real world after the tour bus is on the road. Between Monday and Friday somebody pointed out that poor workers may live somewhere outside of an "empowerment zone." Cain, as a former poor child, should have known this already. Actually, everyone in this country should know this.

Soon we'll hear about problems with the 9-0-9 plan. I've got two already:
  1. How does the government know you're under the poverty line unless you file a tax return? 
  2. If you're under the poverty line, you don't have any incentive to get slightly over the poverty line unless the income tax is phased in. So there be 9-1-9 plan, then 9-3-9 plan, etc?
Maybe this commentator is right--Herman Cain's 9-9-9 Plan Is Disintegrating In Front of Our Eyes.

Herman with his favorite focus group

Friday, October 21, 2011

Romney's economic plan - FAIL

It's time for me to accept that Romney may well be Republican nominee, despite the appearance that half the Repub base can't stand him. Since I live in Massachusetts, I've experienced Romney as a governor but I can barely remember it. That indicates that he wasn't a great governor or an awful one. That's the sum of my firsthand experience. For any other questions, I have to research just like anyone else. This comment from an Atlantic blog seconded my impression of him and prompted my flurry of Romney research:
"He's seeped himself in the republican orthodoxy with a wink wink and nod and a smile at the camera.  I think he can largely free himself from that come the general election." --Atlantic post
My impression of Romney as a campaigner: polished delivery, strong on the details, personable, moderate. I don't remember many policy proposals, but the entire field has been rather lean on policy (except 9-9-9), so that's par for the course. I had to look at the goods, so I skimmed Romney's 87-page economic plan.

The good news is that the plan is not a typical Republican conservative supply-side fairy tale. Of course there's Obama-bashing on every other page, but there's some promising stuff too. What I liked:
  • Lower tax rate on cap gains, dividends, interest, but importantly, only for tax payers under $200,000.
  • Cut corporate rate to 25% and end rules that discourage repatriation of overseas profits.
  • An explicit shout-out to Simpson-Bowles' recommendations on tax reform - broader tax base, simpler, fewer deductions.
  • A cap on regulation that measures compliance costs, and doesn't allow an overall rise in compliance costs.
  • A bit of respect for Dodd-Frank disguised as criticism.
  • Cut, cap, and balance but at 20% of GDP, not the 18% level that most conservatives quote.
What I didn't like:
  • Eliminate estate tax (but this is such a Republican plank, I'm not too surprised).
  • Mention of the illusory tax compliance cost of $400 billion a year. I don't believe we spend 2.7% of our GDP in tax compliance. Where the spending is concentrated, in complex business arrangements,  will likely remain.
  • A poke in the eye at the auto industry over the bail-out--UAW made out, but investors (carefully not called creditors) got screwed. I predict he'll change his tune on this one in the general campaign.
  • Only small fixes to Social Security.
  • A shout-out to Ryan's plan to voucherize Medicare, but with unspecified differences. This void shows how dangerous a definite policy commitment would be. I doubt that Romney will choose the deeply unpopular voucher approach.
  • Turn Medicaid into a block grant. (I'm on the fence as to whether this will be beneficial or not.)
  • Support for a balanced budget amendment that is more a strait-jacket than a workable plan.
  • Tough talk about sanctioning China for currency manipulation.
Gaping holes in the plan:
  • No plan for the uninsured or for lowering health care costs.
  • No specific areas of spending cuts, but a reduction of the federal workforce by attrition.
  • No proposed federal budget with numbers.

So, my overall impression is that the plan isn't extreme considering it came from a Republican: no major tax cuts, a reasonable goal on regulation. But it fails in two essential ways:
  • It isn't a plan unless it contains actual numbers.
  • It isn't honest about what will be painful. 
This plan is meant to get Romney elected, and only then will we find out if he'll grapple with tough issues. I'm sure no one is surprised that Romney is playing it safe.
 ...but don't expect a straight answer.

Should I review Michele Bachmann's plan now? ... No, I'll stick to real candidates.

Update 12/13/11. Romney announced his plans for Medicare reform, and they look a lot like Ryan's plan to voucherize the program.The big advantage of vouchers is that the federal government can decide how much to spend year-to-year. A big disadvantage is that it puts cost-containment onto insurance companies. To be fair, cost-containment is the boogey man in all Medicare plans. ...Oh, it's not a voucher, it's premium support. Don't ask me to explain the non-existent difference between the two.

Wall Street Journal review of Romney's plan

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Debating with Ron Paul

No, I don't get the pleasure of debating Dr. Paul, but I do get to debate a few of his (always) avid supporters. Here are a few observations:
  • They assert that life would be better without the federal oversight, but they never provide any data to back up the contention. Their belief is based on a faith and hope, not data. This isn't unusual in politics, but Paul supporters tend to think of themselves as more intelligent, so pointing this out galls them.
  • Since they don't have an answer when you point out that their politics are based on faith, they don't come back with any answer. The conversation is over. They probably move on to someone who won't ask any hard questions.
  • There's a strong strain of nostalgia for times before the federal government got so large (either before the first federal income tax, before the New Deal, or before Teddy Roosevelt). I definitely have sympathy for this longing for a time when a brave person or family could go to the frontier and homestead without farming regulations, water regulations, estimated tax payments, housing standards, gun permits and waiting periods, etc. But getting rid of government won't bring back that period. We'd still be the more crowded country we are now.
Maybe this is the vision that draws such fierce support to Ron Paul--you wouldn't have various governments or other entities telling you what you have to do. You can drink raw milk. You can sell raw milk without being closed down. There's something good there. But how can we enable the good without opening the door to the ruinously bad?

Maybe you don't try to prevent the bad. You accept both the good and the bad that freedom and liberty bring. Maybe Ron Paul supporters shouldn't say it would be much better under these policies (more accurately, lack of policies), but it would be freer. That isn't the choice our society made before, but it's worth looking at our decisions again.

Coming to your street soon...

Update 10/19/11. Here's a highlight from the comments. Nick points out that that personal autonomy (ie., freedom) is the fundamental ideal for Paul. That prompted me to see him as a fundamentalist, which means he won't make decisions on a rationalist basis. He's also somewhat utopian, believing (or proclaiming) that a return to his view of constitutionalism will cure many of the problems in this country. In either case, he never acknowledges the possible drawbacks to his policies. Reality isn't allowed to impinge on his ideal world. It's really quite bizarre--how he'll call out the failures of others, but never think he or his firm beliefs could lead to any failures.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Obama's Disappointing Leadership

My disappointment with Obama has been growing since summer '09. I've been trying to figure out whether that's an unfair response on my part, or whether my discontent arises from significant failures on Obama's part.

It's not that Obama is a clear disaster. In fact, it's hard when you're president not to have some solid accomplishments, which I realized when I tried to come up with the ultimate failed president, and couldn't find one disastrous enough. (Governor of Arizona Evan Mecham is probably the gold standard of executive failure.)

So the problem isn't total absence of accomplishment, but a pattern of lapses in leadership. It's easy for steadfast supporters to argue against this perception as being subjective. However, these types of judgments are important when evaluating leadership, and voters do this naturally during an election cycle. Here are my complaints about Obama's leadership:
  • Not up for the fight
  • Doesn't take it to the people
  • Gets glum and doesn't do anything
  • Misreads mood (sputnik moment falls flat)
  • Didn't rein in house Democrats

Many of these are a symptom of not being comfortable as president after his previous role as legislator. For example, Obama was largely absent from the work hammering out the health bill, even after things were just grinding in Congress. Despite his campaign promise that the work would be done in the open, he allowed the House Democrats to negotiate it in secret. The procedure used by Congress left them open to legitimate charges of favoritism to supporters (unions) and must-win senators, not aiming for a smaller sized bill, and ill-defined charges like ramming it down America's throat.

Now, Obama doesn't control either the House or Senate, but he could have let them know, in the way politically influential figures do, what he expected in terms of content and process. Instead, he let the Congressional Democrats do their thing and make stupid choices that cost them dearly in elections since 2008.

Such periods of inattention or inaction have occurred too often. Just to show what I mean, here's a timeline of significant milestones or achievements:
  • 1/20/09 - Inauguration
  • 1/22/09 - No Torture policy
  • 1/29/09 - Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act signed
  • 2/4/09 -  SCHIP (child health insurance plan) expansion 
  • 2/17/09 - Stimulus bill signed
  • 2/27/09 - Iraq withdrawal announced
  • 3/9/09  -  Cancellation of F-22 aircraft
  • 3/11/09 - Budget passed
  • 3/30/09 - Auto bailout plan announced
  • 4/3/09 -   Goodwill tour of NATO alllies
  • 4/13/09 - New Cuba policy
  • 5/22/09 - Credit Card Act signed
  • 6/4/09 -   Goodwill tour of Arab states
  • 6/26/09 - Cash for Clunkers signed
  • 6/26/09 - Swiss bank disclosure agreement negotiated
  • 6/27/09 - Iraq troop withdrawal begins
  • 10/22/09 - Vets Budget Reform Act signed
  • 11/6/09 - First Time Home Buyers program extended
  • 12/1/09 - Afghan policy (surge) announcement
  • 12/9/09 - Nobel Peace Prize acceptance

  • 2/18/10 - Deficit commission formed
  • 3/23/10 - Health care reform bill signed (Obamacare)
  • 4/20/10 - Ban on offshore oil drilling implemented after BP spill
  • 7/21/10 - Wall Street Reform Act signed
  • 10/12/10 - Offshore drilling ban lifted
  • 12/3/10 -   Deficit commission fails to get minimum 14 votes needed
  • 12/10/10 - Bush Tax cuts extended
  • 12/27/10 - DADT repeal passes

  • 2/2/11 -   START treaty ratification begins
  • 5/1/11 -   Bin Laden killed
  • 7/29/11 - New mileage standards agreement 
  • 8/2/11 -   Debt ceiling deal
I picked out these accomplishments by how significant they seemed to me, so that fits the definition of subjective. However, I didn't know the dates of these events.

The timeline shows a massive slowdown in actions after June 2009, and only 5 significant events in 2010 prior to the mid-term elections. He picked up the ball again only since the debt ceiling agreement this year. That's over two years of relative inactivity, which is inexcusable in my opinion.

My two biggest complaints about Obama's leadership:
  1. Obama should have followed the Clinton model of moderating the leftish tendencies of the party. That side of the Democratic party, including many in the House, resented the heavy hand of the Clintons and cheered the end of their centrist Democratic Leadership Conference. They were hoping that Obama would give them a free hand. They got their wish and sowed their own downfall.
  2. After mistakenly letting Congress take forever on the healthcare and Wall Street bills, Obama could have regained momentum in 2010 by tackling the next biggest problem--the mounting debt. Since it wasn't on his agenda, the field was wide open for anyone to grab the issue, which the Tea Party did. Thus our current situation.
I don't know if Obama can recover from his errors or whether he even deserves to. Two years is a long time...

Resources: Best list of accomplishments (not too short, not the kitchen sink), timeline

Update December '12. I'm leaning towards blaming Pelosi for her part in a somewhat runaway Congress.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

9 + 9 + 9 Doesn't Equal a Plan

Unfortunately, I have to do more debunking. This time the topic is Herman Cain's 999 plan. He's touting this plan quite a bit, and the press is falling down on its job of checking his claims.

Broadly, Cain's plan is to tax all sales 9%, all wages and salaries 9%, and business profits 9%. There would be no other federal taxes--no other payroll taxes, no capital gains tax, no estate tax. Deductions would be severely limited, maybe only charitable gifts would be exempt.

With such major change to the tax structure, would the federal government be collecting the same amount of tax, or would it create even larger deficits? According to Cain, this plan provides the same revenue. But he doesn't provide analysis.

So the analysis is left to motley horde of the internet, which is my favorite horde. Think Progress estimates this:
  • $665 billion from tax on wages/salaries
  • $112 billion from tax on business
  • $500 billion from tax on sales
  • $1.12 trillion total

Bloomberg News has this estimate:
  • $913 billion from tax on wages/salaries
  • $128 billion from tax on business
  • $920 billion from tax on sales
  • $1.96 trillion total

Critiques of this plan are so rare, I have to include this one from either a joke or racist site:
  • $1.13 trillion from tax on wages/salaries
  • $270 billion from tax on business
  • $378 billion from tax on sales
  • $1.78 trillion total

Now, I'm rather ticked that I can't find more information on this plan. In fact, one of the best sources is the Christian Post. That isn't totally surprising, since Cain first explained the rate for his plan at a Christian conference. Cain says in his video introduction of the plan "If 10% is good enough for God, then 9% should be just fine for the Federal Government."

That statement doesn't allay my doubts, maybe because "trust me" or "God will deliver" aren't reassuring to the hard scientist in me. On comment threads, Cain's supporters even throw out this one:
Let's see. Herman Cain has a degree in mathematics and a Master's degree in computer science. You have an English-major understanding of math.... What is more likely is that Herman Cain explained his economic policy quite clearly and ... anyone with more than an English-major understanding of math would understand....
Look, don't whip out your degree from Harvard or Yale or wherever and expect me to stop asking the question. Instead, go borrow Glenn Beck's unused chalk board and write up your figures. I'm completely capable of checking the math... and of calling bullshit on a candidate who won't give us the math. I'm waiting, Herman...

Major Update!!!!
And Correction
10/12/11 - Cain's economic adviser finally released some figures to Bloomberg. For people like me, who like tangible things like pounds and dollars and hard numbers, this was big news. To most of the media... I guess they gave up on math long ago. But bear with me.
  • $7.7 trillion in wages/salaries x 9%  =             $693 billion
  • $9.5 trillion in business gross income x 9% =  $855 billion
  • $8.3 trillion in taxable sales x 9%     =            $749 billion
  • Total   $2.3 trillion --on par with current revenues
But look again at the numbers. Cain's plan overestimates sales by 35% over Bureau of Labor stats. Wages/salaries are on par.

Now the correction: I had written that the business tax was on profits. I was wrong. The tax is on gross income minus certain major deduction. I haven't been able to check whether $9.5 trillion is reasonable or not. I tried, and found that the Bureau of Economic Analysis reported $21.6 trillion total private industrial output in 2009. Now, that confuses me because I thought our annual GDP was approximately $14.6 trillion. So where does the extra come from? Trade deficits? I've reached my limit on trying to understand this on my own. I hope some journalist with real economic understanding will clear this up.

Update 10/21/11. I finally noticed the inconspicuous links to the plan details on Cain's website. But they just lead to more confusion. Good luck if you go there.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Obama's budget plan - FAIL

Obama unveiled his job plan with a great rhetorical performance on Sept. 8, and promised a deficit reduction plan for Sept. 19. The job plan didn't live up to its roll-out, and neither does the deficit reduction plan.

Now, I have to admit my bias, in case you haven't figured it out from my blog so far. I'd like to see a balanced budget within ten years, so I'm going to be critical on anything substantially less than that. I'm going to be on the lookout for funny numbers. Obama's plan triggers some of my alarms.

Obama has debt maxing out at 77% of GDP. That's odd, because I thought it was 100% already and heading higher. He counts only public debt, not what government owes to itself (SS and Medicare funds, probably federal reserve money too).

Cuts are modest at best:
  • $257 billion from mandatory spending, mostly cuts in agricultural subsidies
  • $248 billion from Medicare
  • $73 billion from Medicaid
  • Various other small cuts: post office, federal pension contributions, raising certain fees
  • $1 trillion savings from not having wars
  • Total $1.5 trillion above the $1 trillion in the August debt deal
These are ten year numbers. Divide everything by 10, then tell me that cutting $25 billion per year from Medicare is going to be enough savings.

Even the best part of the plan, tax reform, is less than it appears. Obama plans to let Bush cuts expire for >$200,000 people and reduce deductions for them. That will bring in about $1.1 trillion. The plan also closes various other loopholes for a total of $1.5 trillion.

The reform plan includes talk about "measures to broaden the tax base." This is a current Republican talking point. Perhaps Obama is trying to defuse it, but his use is somewhat misleading. A few more households may be taxed due to closing loopholes in personal income tax. Most of the broadening will be from cutting business tax loopholes. Not a bad idea, and actually a good critique on "broadening the tax base."

This plan will appeal of the left wing of the party, but probably not many others. Having even more people heading to the edge of a party isn't a good prescription for the country, and I doubt that it'll save Obama's reelection prospects. I don't see signs that his "Pass the bill" demands appeal to moderates or independents. It looks like Democrat grandstanding, which is no more charming than Republican grandstanding.

That's too bad, since both the jobs bill and this plan have some good, specific ideas. It's too bad Obama felt he had to go big, but didn't have enough high-quality options to offer.

I can add this budget plans to the other ones I didn't like, such as Rand Paul's and Paul Ryan's. This is better than those, but not as good as Simpson-Bowles, which is the best I've seen so far.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Political Lie Machine: Dems caused the mortgage meltdown

I scoffed at this one at first. The idea that it wasn't the likely suspects (greedy bankers, greedy Wall Street execs, greedy mortgage brokers, useful fraudulent applicants, and pliant bond rating agencies), but those do-gooding Democrats, seemed ludicrous. Perfect for conservatives, since it moved blame off allies and potential donors and onto their favorite scapegoat. But ridiculous. But I heard it so many times, I had to find the truth.

Frankly, I wish someone with better financial chops than me would look into this question and give a definitive answer, apportioning blame fairly and accurately. However, there hasn't been a high-profile 9-11 type commission, so it's been open season for the usual political spin apparatus.

For the Republican lie machine version, let me paraphrase Kevin Hassett: Fannie and Freddie, pushed by the Democrats, sponsored huge numbers of sub-prime mortgages that allowed unqualified borrowers, many being minorities, to buy properties way more expensive than they could afford.
"Fannie and Freddie did this by becoming a key enabler of the mortgage crisis. They fueled Wall Street's efforts to securitize subprime loans... Take away Fannie and Freddie, or regulate them more wisely, and it's hard to imagine how these highly liquid markets would ever have emerged. This whole mess would never have happened."
According to Kevin Hassett, Wall Street banks were just "bystanders injured in the blast" even though they originated sub-prime loans through legions of mortgage brokers and then securitized and sold them to unwary investors. Sure, bystanders. Hassett himself doesn't point out that there were large numbers of minorities, because he's wearing a Republican uniform, but sites like do. Other mouthpieces trace the blame back to Jimmy Carter and the Community Reinvestment Act that tried to reverse banks' practice of red-lining.

For a rare balanced explanation, I had to search a lot, and finally found a readable one at They blame a long list, most of them on my suspects list: Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, Wall Street firms, Congress, the Bush Administration, Clinton Administration, mortgage brokers, buyers, real estate agents, certain accounting rules, and collective delusion that this wasn't a bubble. They absolve the repeal of Glass-Steagal, and don't even comment on the Community Reinvestment Act. doesn't discuss how the mortgage meltdown migrated to affect the entire financial industry, but that's where AIG and other speculators get involved. They sold the slice-and-dice packaged mortgage-backed securities, wrote insurance on the poorly vetted mortgage securities churned out by Wall Street firms, and betted on one or both sides using credit-default swaps.

Based on my research, this is what I think happened:
  • The Carter through Clinton Administrations had programs to help lower-income buyers purchase homes. To support these programs, there was some relaxation of lending standards.
  • Selling sub-prime mortgages became very profitable. Selling mortgage-backed securities was very profitable. Selling insurance on these securities was very profitable. Buyers of these securities didn't know what was in them, but knew that they paid higher returns than most bonds. Profit motive all around.
  • So, these small programs opened the doors a crack, and Wall Street firms rammed their trucks through.
  • Yeah, sounds like it was the Dems.

Fairly Balanced Sources: Mortgage Explanation Site, economics paper and Andrew Sullivan
Left and left-leaning: Barney Frank, Southern Poverty Law Center, NYRB, and McClatchey News
Right: Forbes, The Sun, House Republican, FreedomWorks
Non-expert right and far right: Yahoo question and white nationalist

Update 10/7/11: Per a comment from the Atlantic website: "Let's not forget the SEC saying okay to the banks to go with a 30-1 leverage..." Agree! How did miss that one?

Update 12/18/11: Per a new report, house flippers also had a role.

Update 9/15/12. I'm still reading that it was the Dems' fault. I've had unsettled questions about how much the government was responsible for lowering mortgage underwriting standards. The answer is that government goals for lower income house ownership did loosen standards. However, it was the profitability of securitizing subprime loans that pushed and expanded those loose standards within the private sector:

More sources:  A short, readable summary from Wikipedia; a history of Fannie, and the source of the graph above; a conservative blames Barney Frank again using the same complaint that Fannie invented subprime securitization so everything afterwards is their fault.

Another update on 12/12/12 here. A few more facts, but nothing that shakes up the story. The Dems did more than "opened the doors a crack." But all the other factors are still also to blame.