Jan 26, 2008

Why do the Rich & Powerful Get a Free Lunch from Our Government While We Pick up the Check?

There's a problem with the US economy these days and our leaders are talking about an economic stimulus package. They have to appear to be doing something even though their actions aren't going to help all that much; yet, they'll add hundreds of billions to our huge debt. It's a political decision more than an economic one. Impressions matter, often more than the facts, and this being a big election year, no politician wants to be accused of not helping Americans. Paul Krugman has the details here.

I just finished reading Free Lunch. Have you heard David Cay Johnston these days on a few programs --like PBS (on Moyers Journal) & NPR--talking about the many ways that the profits go to individuals while the risk is socialized? His new book, Free Lunch, is a must-read. He writes in plain language and provides many examples of how the system is being fixed to serve those who have power and money. Another self-identified Republican, Kevin Phillips, has written extensively about the "game" that's being played here. His book, Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich is an excellent source to understanding how things work when (if) someone wants to know what it means to be rich in America.

Only 11% of US taxpayers make more than $100,000 a year, yet, there's this popular myth of upward economic mobility. The best predictor of one's financial situation is his/her parents. The vast economic center of American society has seen very small steps of financial improvement, while the poor have been worse off, and the very rich have entered a new Gilded Age. Most people will never make that much. Who, nowadays, has the power to make the government spend money to help the very rich? To maintain a system that shrinking the government and cutting services means having an adverse impact on the vast majority of Americans who depend & need those services from their own government? Robert Reich [former Labor Secretary] has made a very important observation: Unless the system allows the people to practice citizenship, then you can kiss democracy good-bye.

There are lots of problems with the government. I've spent my life exposing all sorts of problems with government. But government is fundamentally essential. Government is what creates for us civilization. We created this country so that we could be free, so that we could pursue our lives the way that we want to pursue them. And wealth is a byproduct of that. But the government is being turned into a vehicle not to ensure our liberties and create a level playing field but instead into a vehicle to take from the many to enrich the few. David Cay Johnston

Representative government is a cornerstone of democracy. The debate among the conservatives and the progressives has been centered on the role of the government. Is it our government's role to: 1. Protect, and, 2. To empower? If so, then the next question is, who should be protected and empowered? Those who need it the most or those who only need government to keep the game fixed?

Jan 20, 2008

January 20th 2008-2009: One Year Left in Bush's Presidency.

Waving good-byes?

As I'm writing this, one year from this moment, there will be a new president in the White House. I've been running the Bush countdown clock (on the sidebar) for a long time, but I finally sense the end of this disastrous presidency is near--not soon enough though. I can't wait for November 4th... Obviously, I have preferences over the current field of candidates, but, I'll repeat, any Dem is way much preferable to any Repub at this point.

I've been watching the contests for the nomination. It's exciting and gives me hope for the future. The Republicans are confused and looking for an identity while most of their choices leaves them with much to be desired. Back in the early summer, I thought that the Democratic race would be between Hillary Clinton and the "anti-Hillary." For a while it seemed that there would be a 3-way race and that Edwards's populist appeal would be the counterbalance to the "establishment" candidacy of Mrs. Clinton. The grass-roots, progressives, the blogosphere and party activists had considered Edwards as the best one [absent Gore] to head the Democratic ticket in November.

Obama managed to capture the imagination and the momentum instead and be the only one able to challenge Mrs. Clinton's inevitability as the party's flag bearer. It seems more so now with the deflation of John Edwards--whose South Carolina is his last chance to survive as a player (not a serious contender though)--and his supporters moving over to Obama, as it was shown in the Nevada caucuses.

By the way, what the hell is going on with the caucus system? It's not very democratic; it's rather inefficient, and unnecessarily complicated. In addition to changing the order states hold their contests and the front-loading, the caucus system has to go too. It can be replaced by a primary. If states want to maintain some of the characteristics of a caucus, the voters can be given a ballot whereas they can indicate on their ballots, choice 1, choice 2, and choice 3, etc.

As for the runors that Mike Bloomberg (the billionaire mayor of NYC) could run as independent, I think this guy is looking but won't make a decision until the two parties have their nominees. The Dems will have a strong ticket and the winds of change. It'll depend on the Repubs. If they nominate someone who won't have a freakin chance, Bloomberg may run. I don't think he's got any chance. Third-party/independent candidates have had absolutely no chance in presidential politics. Even Teddy Roosevelt (a national figure and a past president) couldn't get elected as an independent in 1912. *

I still think there's lots of progressive reforms needed in the way we recruit, select, and eventually elect the president of the US. The caucus system is not very democratic system and should be replaced with an open primary, that's held from morning to evening. By the way, the primary is paid by the state whereas the caucus is paid by the party. Maybe this explains the arcane rules and the limited access to the ballot box (or device that records the votes).

*T. Roosevelt served as US president, 1901-1909. He ran as a progressive against the Republican incumbent president, W.H. Taft, and won most of the primaries where states had open contests. Most of the states (then and in the past) selected their nominees through state conventions where party bosses dominated. The open primaries was the result of the progressive movement at the beginning of the century and Roosevelt's efforts opened up the party nominations to the membership, gradually breaking up the political bosses' control. Yet, those bosses had control of the party and gave the nomination to Taft. Roosevelt took his delegates from the Republican convention and formed his own party. Taft was the first sitting president to come in third in a three way race, behind T.R. Democrat Woodrow Wilson won that election with 42% of the national vote in 1912.

Jan 15, 2008

The Unbearable Lightness of Republican Beings

The Greeks had a word for this, hubris!

When I recently said that all the Republicans running for president this year could might as well be speaking Klingon, I meant that they're clearly not speaking to me or any progressive person. It would have been funny, except that obviously they're saying something that many Americans like to hear. For me, the problem isn't how we get things done--at least in such instance, we could debate the better course of action. No, the Republicans [leaders and much of their base] identify the wrong demons. Thus, the proposed policies do not solve problems and do not benefit most Americans. What has the Republicans done in the last many years except to make things worse for most of us? This is the bigger issue here--let's not forget it!

I'm sorry, but I don't think this is what a Republican front runner should be trying to do; but then again, he doesn't even accept the strongest scientific theory we've got, that of evolution! [note to Huckabee: a scientific theory is supported by facts, it's verifiable, and can be amended if better evidence is discovered; it's not an opinion, guess, gut feeling, wishful thinking!]:
I have opponents in this race who do not want to change the Constitution. But I believe it’s a lot easier to change the Constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that’s what we need to do is amend the Constitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than trying to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view of how we treat each other and how we treat the family.
Mike Huckabee to a cheering audience, 1/14/2008

These words were not taken out of context. Huckabee is running as a preacher and has made similar statements in the past. Actually, I'd welcome a discussion on the merits of changing our Constitution. Let's see what needs to be changed and debate why. But, this discussion will have to have reason as the platform for a meaningful discussion. Sadly, I don't think Huckabee--and all those who want to impose their religious dogma on the rest of us--are capable of a reasonable discussion without justifying their arguments on what they believe their god commands. Otherwise, we enter into a childish argument, like my god can beat the crap out of your god...

I mean, I myself have had private divine revelations. I know what God wants, and let me tell you, Zeus really doesn't like anyone who believes in false gods. Eternal damnation in Hades awaits those who disobey Zeus. If we were to amend the US Constitution, Zeus has told me, we should establish a theocratic state according to the old Hellenistic religion. Get ready for lots of nudity and a god of wine!

I believe one the best things we've got here is the secular constitution, and the "establishment clause" that separates church and state. In a recent post, I analysed why the US was founded upon this principle and why we must be 1st Amendment patriots.

PS. I have to point to another religious fanatic running for president:

"It is as if they [non believers] are intent on establishing a new religion in America – the religion of secularism. They're wrong." Mitt Romney, Republican presidential candidate

[Addendum] A few years ago, I thought that the US would go through a serious struggle, a fight between religion and science/modernity. It has started, and, unless you've been under a rock, it has intensified under Bush & Co. When I wear my political communications hat, I understand that elections are not about educating the public; it's about a battle of ideas and of framing issues. A person makes up his/her own mind after being exposed to myths, ideologies, and the cultural environment usually over a long time. Some myths are so strong that people do not examine them at all. A long and complicated discussion--especially one that challenges strong & long-held impressions--cannot take place in the heat of a political campaign.

Campaigns are ran by appealing to already preconceived notions of the electorate. Image, code words, behavior, are all meant to paint an image of the candidate--an image that re-affirms and identifies with the popular sentiment.

However, the progressives and any person who has a fondness for the truth, have to take a stand to defend against the forces of darkness and regression. We have to contribute to the debate about the conditions in our country today and about the future of humanity. The level and depth of misinformation, scientific illiteracy, and plain ignorance in the US is a serious problem--for a country so influential on the world stage. I don't think any topic should be off limits. A new renaissance, a new Age of Reason is due here.

Lastly, we have to re-open the topic of morality, because I'm sick & tired of being lectured about morality by ignoramuses, theocrats, social authoritarians, and charlatans of history.

editor's note: Religion made simple by Jesus & Mo (sketch above; click to make it bigger)

Jan 9, 2008

The Citizens can be the Winds of Change but Our Next Captain Should Also Have a Good Sense of Direction!

Hopefully in this election, we're changing direction too not just the driver.

Everyone talks about change, but aren't the two winners in New Hampshire part of the establishment? Especially if you see the teams Clinton and McCain have assembled. Anyway, usually I don't really pay much attention to those who say they're for change. Even the conservatives are for change these days--even though the prescribe the same poison as Bush. Unless, someone specifically explains not only what he/she wants to change but also how, then I look for other clues in evaluating the candidate. On the other hand, we have seen real change in these first two presidential contests: a black and a woman have won! Never before such persons had won state presidential contests (for a major party in the US).

The polls got it wrong about the Democratic race. Way off. Now everyone is talking about an upset that Hillary delivered. I see it differently. Clinton was ahead in N. Hampshire by double digits for ever. Obama was poised to deliver an upset after his win in Iowa, but couldn't. The difference (39% to 37%) between Clinton and Obama was very small; a different, harsher weather might have flipped the result. The vote count may be attributed to the independents that chose to boost McCain, perhaps thinking Obama had this thing wrapped up.

The race will go one for a while longer, and in more diverse states. With a Bill Richardson [Hispanic roots] dropping out, the Hispanic vote in Nevada (and elsewhere) will be very important. Here's the Democrats' schedule for the next few weeks:

  • Michigan, Jan. 15th
  • Nevada, 19th
  • South Carolina, 26th
  • Florida, 29th
  • 23 States, Feb. 5th
This site has all the state-by-state count, dates, poll numbers, etc. Great resource.

There's a fight going on, with the Dem. National Comm. (DNC) penalizing Michigan and Florida for holding their primaries so early against the wishes of the DNC, but they are important states in the general election, so the DNC may give in and seat their delegates at the national convention in Denver. Clinton (and anyone with a budget and name recognition) favored a short primary season--the earlier the better. But, I hope this system is re-evaluated, including the order of the states in the process.

I'd prefer a system that gives a chance to candidates who are lesser known, and without big bank accounts. A group of 5-7 small states, on a rotating basis, to start the presidential race for the nomination. Then we should move on to another group of bigger states, and so forth. This way, small and big states could be important players in the process.

Opening up the system with greater access to voting is necessary. Such measures would include, same-day voter registration, absentee balloting (hence, eliminating the caucus!), and, of course, reliable methods of balloting! Those who don't know it, the airwaves belong to the public. Part of the licensing requirements is that media should serve the public interest! Wow, that's a good idea, isn't it? In a democracy, elections are important, just as the need of the public to be informed. Therefore, I'm suggesting a legal obligation of that media to provide free airtime to all candidates who meet some minimum qualifications.

NOW (on PBS) just aired an interesting segment on Dirty Politics. As the South Carolina primary is approaching, watch what happened there a few years ago [when Bush destroyed McCain using dirty tricks].

I clearly dislike dishonest politics, and I do want to see smarter politics, not appeals to the lowest common denominator, use of fear, or campaigns that rely on pushing the emotional buttons. Since I'm not running for public office, I can say that it comes down to the individual citizen to have the interest in the affairs of our country and invest the appropriate time before making his decision at the ballot box. Further, people don't like negative ads, but they exist because they're effective. Let's be honest here, why should it matter if McCain had an Asian child out of wedlock, or Hillary was a lesbian, or Obama Hussein was not a Xtian? [watch NOW's video, link above, on these claims]

To me, it's more relevant to ask a candidate whether he accepts the scientific method, and whether he accepts the theory of evolution or does he prefers something else? Does he confuse the meaning of scientific theory with any view, or a guess, or a feeling? And, whether this candidate will promote creationism, alchemy, astrology, and phrenology...

On the other hand, the public has to have access to information, and the system should provide the framework & the safeguards for free and accurate information. Smarter people produce smarter politics. We should take ownership of our government, should we not?

The quality of government says a great deal about the citizens and the conditions that exist in a particular country. Does it not? Several countries (i.e., in Scandinavia) have managed to have rather efficient government, no serious corruption problems, with strong social safety net, while maintaining a very free & democratic system!

In the US, the Republicans see the government as the problem and the enemy that needs to be "drowned in a bathtub." What kind of a government such a party can run? More often than not, the GOP has no well-laid plans to make the government work for the people. "Cut taxes, cut services, shrink the government," they tell us. No ones likes taxes, but, then, who needs the services government can & should provide?!! Under Bush and the neocons, we've gotten the worst of conservative medicine: they've cut the taxes (guess who's benefited?), cut services, but made the government bigger than ever before! Oh, and they did it while accumulating the biggest debt ever!

Boy, it is time for some radical change around here!

Comics by Ziggy

Jan 2, 2008

And They're Off. The First Votes for the Next President are Being Cast!

[with updates, below the main post]
It won't be until January 20th, 2009, when Bush 43 will finally vacate the White House, but for all practical purposes this 2008 is his final year. Unfortunately, his terrible policies will leave a toxic residue for a long time. But, elections have consequences. The higher the office, the more care the citizens should exercise in rendering a decision. As I'm writing this, the very long presidential campaign is about to be tested with actual votes in the caucuses and primaries. Soon, the field will be whittled to 2-3 candidates of either party. Tonight, it's the Iowa caucuses, so I'll be updating this post frequently as results come in.

Back in the early 1970s, the Democratic Party thought it would be a good idea to have a new way to start the contest by having a small state, or two, go first, so candidates & voters could partake in "retail politics." Generally, this has been a way for lesser known candidates with less money to have a shot at the nomination of their party. This idea appealed to the Republicans too, so their party also picked Iowa to go first in their contest. The rules, however, are different. The Democrats have been using an incredibly complicated system that requires lots of time & effort from every participant. The Republicans make it easier: just show up, vote their preference and go back to their warm homes.

Democracy is a work in progress. The system is frequently tweaked, while better educated citizenry with more interest in the affairs of the country can produce better politics. Politics reflect the people, especially in a democratic society. But, what we have in Iowa is not very good democratic politics.

First, the cost is enormous--not only in Iowa, but everywhere. In the year before a single actual vote is cast, candidates are deemed viable not on the basis of their qualifications, policy proposals, etc, but on their ability to have a big bank account. Second, the Iowa caucus system is exclusionary! The voting takes place in the evening and lasts a couple hours. Those who work the evening/night shift can't participate. There's no absentee balloting. Those Iowans serving in the armed forces are de facto excluded. Third, there's no one-person-one vote. Precincts are allocated delegates based on part turnout rates. Or, having 1,000 people vote for you in this pricinct may give you 1 delegate, same as 10 people voting in another! (The rules book is like a telephone directory of a big city)

It's no surpise that the turnout is only 5-10% of eligible voters of Iowa! Yes, it's this low. This year, I've heard that close to 200,000 (maybe even more) Iowans will participate. Let's see. On average, some 60,000 Dems and 90,000 Repubs turn out in January to cast a vote. That's not good, especially if you put this into the perspective of the money spent, the disproportionate impact on the race, and--not to forget--the non-representative sample of America Iowa has. It's a very rural state, 95% white. Nevada, the Carolinas, for example, can be better representative sample of the US.

I don't really care who does what on the Republican side. I've said it before, their candidates speak a different language than I, and, obviously, have the wrong priorities & policies. On the Democratic side, as I've been hinting all along, my preference is Edwards, even though I will support the eventual nominee as a far better choice than whomever the GOP puts forth. My ideal ticket would be Edwards/Obama in November. Edwards can be a good president that can bring the country together at a time when the US has no more margin of error and must immediately begin the recovery effort on January 20, 2009, a minute past noon! Obama can be a great VP for the next 8 years, and possibly the next president of the US; he's young and talented enough for this, and, by then, there would be a forgone conclusion that our country can indeed elect a non-white to the highest office.

also believe that Edwards will be a very strong candidate in the general election, stronger that the other 2 Dems. Faux News is scared of him, as they've never aired hypothetical math-ups between him and other Reps, while they've done this with both Clinton and Obama! I'd never take anything for granted in politics, but a very strong Democrat may turn victory into another tide of electing more Dems to the US Senate. This is very important too, because part of the renewal process will be to remove some of the regressive & obstructionist senators while pushing for needed changes. We have to make Lieberman (I-CT) irrelevant. We have to have the votes to get sensible justices to the Supreme Court. This body--one of the 3 branches of our government--is extremely important when it comes to issues of privacy, human rights, civil rights, education, science v. theocracy, democracy, freedom of expression, and basically on all matters that concern life in the US. Because of GOP presidents, we got extremists and regressives on SCOTUS. This generally conservative court has, on a few cases, held back the conservative assault by a 5-4 margin.

Things can drastically deteriorate in our country if we don't get some new sensible justices on the high court soon--especially with 3 of its most liberal justices half a step from retirement. Let's not forget this important aspect when votes are cast on November 8th, 2008....
Despite disagreements on policy with Mrs. Clinton
, I do think she'd make a far better president than the Bushes or any other Republican. But, if she leads the Democratic ticket in the general, Republicans and all those who for whatever reason don't like her, will be more likely to come out to vote against her. This may boost the support of other GOP candidates. Even hardcore Repubs have told me that they know the presidency will change hands in the next election because they admit Bush has been a royal screw-up. Their only hope is that Ms. Clinton runs, so there might be a close race. In other words, I want to see the strongest possible Dem going into the general, and winning not just the White House but enough popular support and with a coattail that results in bigger majorities in the two chambers of Congress.

Final Update 1/3/08

The numbers are in. Obama has won by 8 points (38%) over Edwards (30%) & Clinton (29%). All three move on to New Hampshire's primary on Jan. 8th. The rest will soon drop out. The biggest loser on either side is Romney (25%) who outspent winner Huckabee (35%) by many millions of dollars. The Republicans are still searching for identity. I expect most of the Repubs in the field to continue on for a while longer.

I think it's been an amazing night for Obama, who may win in five days too. Increased participation as a whole, and among the young and the independents helped him win big. Iowa is a white (95%) conservative state, but at least the Dems there are willing to give a black man a chance to win the nomination!

As I said in my previous post, a higher turnout wouldn't be good for Edwards, because he relied on seasoned, experienced caucus goers. But, he is still a good contender, although he must do well in NH, Nevada, and South Carolina to have a realistic chance. Clinton was hurt more in Iowa, because her inevitability is crushed. The spin that will follow may inflict more damage--if the focus is on her poor return for her investment of many million dollars in Iowa--estimated, $200 per vote. Her "firewall" is Feb. 5th--the super-duper multi state primary date--when her money (wich includes field operations) and name recognition will be a great asset.

Turnout appears to be much higher than before, but still way too low for such an important decision. There are about 1.2 million Iowans registered to vote, almost evenly split between the two parties. The Repubs almost always turned out in greater numbers as their voting procedure has been a simple matter, unlike the Dems. This year is was very unusual. The Repubs increased their numbers by 1/3, but the Dems went from 60,000 to over 235,000! That's huge.

Obviously, Obama benefited from this turnout of young and new voters. This may be his key to success--to do what others hoped, promised, but never managed to deliver: huge blocks of new voters. I'm surprised that Edwards held on to second place based on this numbers and being outspent by alot

More numbers: According to the Entrance Poll, 57% of attendees were first time caucus goers! This is incredible. Obama won that group, by 41% to 29% Clinton and 18% Edwards. It also appears that Edwards received the majority of second-choice votes.

editor's note: I'm ending this post here, revised & updated. Of course this thread will be picked up again in a couple days...