Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Al Franken Goes to the Senate


Al Franken is on his way to the Senate today. Norm Coleman lost his challenge before the Minnesota Supreme Court and conceded shortly afterwards.

That means that the Democratic Party now has 60 seats in Senate. What does that mean? I think in the short term it will make it easier to get certain initiatives through on a party-line vote. Republicans will be deprived of their ability to filibuster since 60 votes is enough to invoke cloture to stop a filibuster until after the 2010 midterm election.

In the short term, Democrats are guaranteed to get Sonia Sotomayor confirmed to the Supreme Court. And in the next year or so, they can reshape the judiciary without having to worry about attracting Republican votes for any nominee.

That doesn’t mean that Democrats can push anything they want through. There are conservative Democrats such as Evan Bayh, Max Baucus, Ben Nelson, and Arlen Specter. This might mean for example, that getting a public option in the upcoming healthcare legislation could still be difficult. At a minimum those Democrats will have a lot of power in the Senate as they can decide whether legislation attains the magic number of 60 votes to pass.

Long term, it is almost always difficult to have such a large majority and not have lots of ideological diversity. Recall that during the New Deal era, Democrats had to carefully balance northern liberals and southern reactionaries. That unwieldy partnership collapsed during the 1960s. I don’t see a conflict of that level happening, but there will undoubtedly be divisions in the party eventually.

For the Democrats now, the onus of government is completely on them. Republicans can claim that any problem is the fault of the Democrats. After all, Democrats are in complete control of both the White House and Congress.

Which Republican Will be President in 2012?


In the wake of the Mark Sanford scandal, I want to assess the chances for who I think are the most likely Republican challengers in 2012. It’s still early and a lot could change. This should nonetheless be interesting. I will be updating periodically.

Mitt Romney

I think he probably has the best chance right now. The 2012 election will turn on the economy. And if the economy is still weak, he is best positioned to capitalize. He has experience as a business executive and governor and is plainly very economically literate. He could sell himself as a pragmatic problem-solver. I think the electorate will be so thirsty for a compelling economic vision that he may well not have any issues with his Mormonism like he did in 2008. I think he is the odds on favorite to be the Republican nominee right now.

Sarah Palin

There’s no doubt that she appeals to a lot of base Republicans and evangelicals. But she has high unfavorable ratings and has to fight the perception that she doesn’t have the chops to be President. Plus, she has a home base in Alaska which will make campaigning more difficult than it is for her rivals. She could make a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses which are dominated by evangelicals, but I don’t think she can ultimately win the nomination. And even if she could, I don’t see her being able to win a national election right now.

Mike Huckabee

Much of the above applies to him As well. He does have 10 years as Governor he can run on. But in 2008, he failed to extend his appeal much beyond evangelicals. I think that will hurt him in 2012 as well. I just don’t see social issues being effective with the electorate in 2012.

Tim Pawlenty

He’s relatively unknown right now. But he is governor of a blue state (Minnesota) and has an attractive working class background. Moreover, I expect him not to alienate any of the Republican factions. This could be of help to him in the Iowa caucus, which allows second choice voting. He has better chances than many people know now.

Newt Gingrich

He’s an interesting man with a lot of ideas. But he’s been out of office for a decade now. He does have some appeal to base Republicans. But he has a sordid past that can be dredged up. He had to resign as speaker in 1999 and he was having an affair at the same time he pushed for impeachment against Bill Clinton. I’m not even sure he’ll run frankly.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Preliminary Thoughts on the Ricci Ruling


The Supreme Court issued its ruling in the now famous Ricci case where white firefighters claimed reverse discrimination. I have discussed the facts of the case extensively in a previous post (http://thegadsonreview.blogspot.com/2009/06/i-feel-sorry-for-ricci.html).

Suffice it to say, I am not surprised by the ruling given the current conservative tilt of the court. Justices Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, Kennedy, and Alito are deeply skeptical of affirmative action. For example, Scalia, Thomas, and Kennedy ruled against the University of Michigan in a case about the law school’s affirmative action program in Grutter vs. Bollinger in 2003.

I can’t help feeling a bit happy for Ricci. He has a compelling life story, and I believe he deserved a promotion. I will need to delve deeper into the legal reasoning as soon as I can get my hand on the opinions to see if I think the case was correctly decided.

That leaves the question of what effect the ruling will have on Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings. It does give some fodder for conservatives who want to oppose her nomination. They can say “look, this woman issues unconstitutional rulings that discriminate against white men.” The public could also have a negative impression of Sotomayor upon learning of this reversal and the case itself.

However, Republicans still have to deal with the fact that Sotomayor is the first Latina nominee to the Supreme Court in US history. A strong Hispanic vote for Obama last November helped deliver him a comfortable margin of victory. I’m still not sure Republicans will want to risk a further backlash from Hispanic voters going into midterm elections next year. A harsh treatment of Sotomayor could cement the current perception many minorities have of Republicans as a white man’s party.

And it does seem preposterous for Republicans to use this ruling to say that Sotomayor is outside of the mainstream. It was a 5-4 decision after all, and had the court had a different left-right split, the decision could well have turned out differently. If being overturned by the Supreme Court were a disqualification, then Samuel Alito who was overturned in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey in the 1990s should not have been confirmed either (http://www.slate.com/id/2129375/).

This ruling will no doubt give Republicans more cover to vote against her, but I still see Sotomayor getting confirmed.

Another Stimulus?


There has been mixed news on the economic front, but clearly there is enough bad news that many are still very pessimistic about the economy. The financial crisis and resulting recession have been so severe that some argue we need a second stimulus. Paul Krugman is a proponent of a second stimulus. Such a case can be found in this article from the New Republic:

http://www.tnr.com/politics/story.html?id=ff352956-a17d-4d80-895a-8f1c28b6351e

I think there is certainly an economic case to be made for more stimulus. But politically, I just don’t see it happening. We already had a nearly $800 billion stimulus passed early on in the Obama administration. Moreover, we are currently in talks about a $1 trillion healthcare reform. More and more Americans are concerned about the amount of debt the government is in. Persuading them or their representatives to authorize another say, $800 billion will be almost impossible.

That is not to say there is nothing the government can do. The government should be trying to help Americans get out of debt. I have identified the huge amount of debt American institutions and individuals hold as an important cause of this deep recession in my post on Friday. We could make consumer debt tax deductible on the condition that people use the savings to pay off their credit cards. The Fed is keeping interest rates close to 0 to try and stimulate the economy. The Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) is trying to get bad assets off of bank balance sheets. These actions should and will continue.

The government is doing an extraordinary amount to ward off a depression and might well have succeeded in that goal. Regardless of the very real economic difficulties, another stimulus package will not happen.

Article on Dem Majority

Here is an article regarding the punditry on how the Democratic Party will have a new majority you might find interesting:

http://blogcritics.org/politics/article/talk-of-permanent-majority-for-dems/

Friday, June 26, 2009

Is the Economy Improving?


At first glance, there seems to be some good news about the economy today. The commerce department is reporting that consumer spending rose by .3 percent in May. Moreover, incomes jumped 1.4%, which far exceeded the .3% economists were expecting.(http://www.realclearmarkets.com/news/ap/finance_business/2009/Jun/26/may_incomes_surge__but_savings_outpace_spending.html)

But much of that higher income simply reflected money from President Obama’s stimulus package. And much of that money was saved instead of spent. This comes on the heels of some negative economic news yesterday. GDP declined by 5.5% (though it should be noted this was less than economists predicted). Last week, initial jobless claims rose by 15,000 to 627,000 while economists had expected a drop to 600,000.

Some observers including Obama have seen some green shoots in the economy. Ben Bernanke even predicted that the recession might be over this year. Personally, I take a more bearish view of the economy. Part of the reason for the unusual intensity of this recession is the scale of deleveraging that must take place. Simply put, people ran up to much debt. This is true of institutions and individuals.

Recessions are never easy to go through, but many families were already living on the edge before the crisis. And when the crisis came and they had to take pay cuts or lost jobs, they had less disposable income left to pay down their accumulated debts. To pay off their debts and mortgages, Americans had to spend less. Taken as a whole this meant a drop in consumer spending, which meant a loss in jobs, and a further drop in consumer spending. That means that there are fewer jobs and lower incomes at the worst possible time for Americans in debt.

That is probably why the Fed’s cutting the interest rate all the way to 0 has not been enough to lift the economy as it would be in a normal business cycle. People simply have too much debt and too little income with which to pay it off to consider taking on more debt. I think this vicious cycle is going to continue to play itself out for a while longer than many observers expect.

Eventually of course the economy will improve. I just think it will be later rather than sooner unfortunately.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

We Need to Pay Attention to North Korea


In the media frenzy over Mark Sanford, North Korea’s new hostile actions have been largely ignored. As a US destroyer tailed a North Korean ship suspected of bringing weapons to Myanmar, North Korea threatened to wipe the US off the map a few days ago. Here’s a link to a story:

http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2009/06/24/pentagon-dismisses-silly-north-koreas-threat-wipe/

Just in case, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates moved the THAAD system along with the SBX radar system.

It’s worth thinking through the implications of North Korea’s increased belligerence recently. Remember, just last year, the North Koreans destroyed the water cooling tower at the Yongbyon facility. This supposedly heralded a new era in North Korean relations with the outside world.

North Korea’s actions are making some of our Asian allies nervous. South Korea and Japan might conclude that they need to build their militaries up to safeguard against any threat from North Korea. This in turn should make China nervous—Japan and China have a tortured past—and cause it to further increase its military capabilities. The end-result of all that would be a more destabilized, volatile region.

This all comes as Kim Jong-Il has designated his third son, a 26 year old, to be his successor as ruler of North Korea. Do these actions portend a more contentious future between North Korea and the outside world under the future new ruler. Or is Kim Jong-Il making waves before he dies? Time will tell.

More on Mark Sanford


I posted yesterday about Mark Sanford’s mysterious absence. It turns out there is more to the story.

At a press conference, Sanford admitted to an adulterous affair with an Argentine woman. Ironically, he says he spent the past few days “crying in Argentina.” It seems weird to get on a plane and go to a different continent just to cry. One wonders if Sanford had another purpose for his trip.

There is clearly a lot of tumult in Sanford’s personal life. At the press conference, he revealed that his wife asked him to leave two weeks ago. Fortunately, it looks as if the two will try and reconcile. I hope things turn out okay for his family.

So what does this mean for Sanford? A lot of observers are saying this means the end of Sanford’s political ambitions. I myself shared that assessment just yesterday. But now I’m not so sure. The American public can be pretty forgiving. Bill Clinton retained high approval ratings throughout the impeachment hearings. David Vitter remains in the senate. Newt Gingrich might be a credible candidate for President in 2012 despite the fact that he had an affair at the same time he led the charge to impeach Clinton. It is said that we are nation of second chances, and I think that’s true to large degree.

Also, Americans have a short attention span. This is particularly true given the dismal state of the economy. Americans are too busy worrying about their family finances. To the extent they are paying attention to politics, it’s probably the health care debate or the possibility of revolution that has them captivated. After the economic crisis is over, there will be some other important issue. So while political junkies might remember this, my bet is that the average American won’t 5 years from now. If you need proof of that, test a neighbor or work colleague by seeing if they can list the transgressions of David Vitter, Newt Gingrich or Ted Kennedy.

And if they do, then Sanford can say that this was all a very difficult time for his family. He can say that he made mistakes that he truly regrets, and that he has reconciled with his wife. Americans might respect that kind of candor. More to the point, more families than we’d care to imagine have gone through one spouse’s adultery and struggled to work through the resulting issues because they still love each other. A lot of people can relate to Sanford.

My hunch is that this might prevent Sanford from laying the groundwork to run in 2012. While he’s tainted, it would be difficult to get top talent for his campaign or be taken serious by the media. To the extent that people do remember, it might also hurt him with the evangelicals who dominate the Iowa caucus. But I do think that he might have a shot in 2016 if he can survive in office now. Almost everyone will have forgotten by then.

I also think that we should be careful about judging Sanford. What he did was surely wrong. But I’m not ready to say he should never be able to occupy office ever again. If we made moral perfection our standard for holding office, Congress would be empty. If Sanford’s wife is willing to give him another chance, then so am I.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wall Street Increases Executive Pay...Big Surprise


If the Obama administration really wants to change how Wall Street executives are compensated, it has its work cut out for it. That much became clear today as Citigroup announced that it intends to raise employees’ base salaries by as much as 50%.

Citigroup has received $45 billion in taxpayer funds. To make the publicity of this even worse for the company, the biggest salary increases are going to investment bankers and traders.

This is sure to spark voter outrage. We’re in a recession where people in most sectors of the economy are losing jobs or taking pay cuts. And they’re not getting any bailouts. They will understandably ask why they’re tax dollars are being used to support lavish investment banker salaries.

Citigroup has said the salaries are necessary to compete successfully with other Wall Street firms. That is undoubtedly true. If executives aren’t being paid a certain amount at Citigroup, they will try to find jobs at Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs. And if salaries are precipitously cut industry-wide, good executives might leave Wall Street.

This situation is truly galling. People who made terrible investment decisions that led to the collapse of the global economy are on track to reclaim their bloated salaries at the same time regular, hardworking Americans are suffering. But the prospect of an important Wall Street firm not being able to retain top talent could retard the recovery of an important sector of the American economy.

These are my preliminary thoughts on the salary increases. I’ll have more to say as the situation unfolds.

Mark Sanford Goes AWOL


Everyone deals with stress in different ways. Mark Sanford, the Republican Governor of South Carolina apparently deals with it by leaving without telling anyone.

To compound the weirdness of the situation, Sanford’s office mistakenly informed us that Sanford had gone hiking on the Appalachian Trail. As it turns out, Sanford flew to Argentina for a few days. When asked why his office told the press that he was hiking, he replied “I don’t know.” He was also surprised that his unannounced trip generated any fuss.

It has already been pointed out that it is beyond irresponsible for a Governor to go off without telling anyone. A natural disaster or terrorist attack could have occurred. In such a case, it would have been helpful for South Carolinians to have a functioning Governor.

But this may do lasting damage to Sanford’s hopes in 2012. Quite simply, many people will wonder if a person who goes off somewhere for 5 days without telling anyone is in his right mind. Should he run, this could be a persistent story following him on the campaign trail.

It is not helpful that Sanford’s 15 minutes of fame this year came when he tried to refuse all stimulus funding at the same time South Carolinians were losing their jobs. These facts can be used to paint Sanford as a rash man prone to kneejerk reactions.

That said, the 2012 election is years away—a lifetime in politics. There will be plenty of time for people to forget this story.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Did Bill Clinton Cause the Financial Crisis?


I saw an interesting article today blaming Bill Clinton for the financial crisis. You can find the article here: http://www.marketwatch.com/story/bill-clintons-legacy-is-our-financial-disaster.

The crux of the argument against Clinton concerns certain financial reforms. The first reform the author dislikes was a reduction in the amount of taxes one had to pay on the sale of a home over $500,000. This made buying and selling a home the best investment from a tax perspective one could make. According to the author, this fueled a wave of speculation that helped lead to the housing bubble in the 2000s.

Second, Clinton failed to regulate derivatives when counseled against it by some of his economic advisors. Derivatives are not a simple concept, but the essence is that they are contracts whose prices are derived from the something else such as an asset. Given what an esoteric financial concept it is, it’s little wonder that so many Americans had never heard of them before the financial crisis.

Lastly, the author charges that Clinton was wrong to allow the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act. He reasons that banks were thus allowed to become “too big to fail” which caused the need for all of the bank bailouts in the present crisis.

I think it is probably fair to blame Clinton for some of the financial crisis. Many observers have said that derivatives were a cause of the financial crisis. However, I don’t think there’s any way Clinton could have foreseen the damage derivatives would bring 10 years later.

In all of this, we must remember that as the author points out, Clinton faced a Republican congress bent on deregulation. It is hard to see a tougher regulatory scheme getting through such a congress. And as the economy was booming, there were comparatively few people pushing for such reforms in the first place.

The roots of this crisis are complex and deep. Clinton deserves some blame, as does George W. Bush, politicians of both parties in congress, unscrupulous lenders, and irresponsible financial institutions (they could have chosen not to use 100x leverage without the government telling them not to). And ultimately, American consumers bear some responsibility. They bought houses they couldn’t afford, and took on too much debt.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Thumbs Up on Health Insurance Mandates

Healthcare has been on my mind quite a bit, as you can see with the previous couple of posts. Another part of the controversy concerns individual mandates. Should the government be able to make people purchase health insurance?

The argument against such mandates is simply that we should allow people the liberty to do what they want. If a person doesn’t want to buy health insurance, and is willing to bear the consequences, then he should be able to have that choice.

The problem is, the consequences don’t affect only the person in question who buys the insurance. If such a person gets in a car accident, and goes to the emergency room, he will be treated. And that treatment will of course be paid for with taxpayer funds.

Moreover, it seems silly to oppose health insurance mandates at the same time you support mandates to buy car insurance, as many politicians do. It would seem that having a healthy population and a cost-effective health care system is at least as compelling a state interest as making sure that someone can pick up the tab after car accidents.

Having individual mandates could also bring down premiums for lots of people. Most of the people who currently have no health insurance are young and not sick. Because there will be a bigger, healthier pool to bear the risk of the sick, each individual will have to pay less in premiums. Right now, we have a serious adverse selection problem. People who are disproportionately old and sick are the ones paying health insurance premiums. Since the pools are more risky, premiums have to rise to compensate insurers for the increased risk. This ends up pricing out the old and sick who can’t keep up with the increasing premiums.

It might seem that making young people pay premiums for services they will not use is unfair. There are a couple of responses to that objection. First, we do this quite a bit under status quo. Drivers who aren’t accident prone and who have never been pulled over or had an accident still have to pay car insurance. Moreover, we make rich people who will not use social security or Medicare pay taxes to support those two programs.

Second, young people will someday be old and sick. That means they will benefit from this arrangement at some point too. There will come a day when they extract more in healthcare costs than they put in; they would be supported by young people when that time comes.

I understand that many young people are also those with disproportionately low incomes since they’re at the bottom of the pay scale at entry-level jobs (their wages will increase with time). To mitigate the hardship a mandate might cause, we should provide means-tested vouchers to help them with the cost of their premiums. Indeed, I expect the final form of legislation regarding healthcare to have such a provision.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

An article on the Middle East

Here's a recent article I've written concerning the Obama focus on the Palestinian question. Hope you enjoy!

http://blogcritics.org/politics/article/focus-on-the-palestinian-question-first/

Universal Healthcare's Time Has Come

President Obama is planning on moving ahead shortly with his plans on universal healthcare. The details are vague, but the goal is not: to cover all of the uninsured and improve a broken system.

The chances are much improved for passage this time around for a couple of reasons. First, President Obama has a mandate that Clinton did not. When Clinton was elected in 1992, it was with 43% of the vote. Had Ross Perot not been in the race, he might well have lost. This prevented Clinton from being the dominant figure he needed to be. By contrast, Obama won 53% of the vote and 364 electoral votes. He has a high approval rating and has more stature to push a bill through.

Second, the Democrats have more power. When Al Franken is finally seated, there will be 60 Democrats, enough to shut off a filibuster. There is some diversity in the Democratic caucus to be sure, but I doubt any Democrat wants to run afoul of the party leadership, risk a primary challenge, or stunt potential for national office by voting with the Republicans to filibuster healthcare.

Finally, there is a greater public perception of the problem. A broad majority of Americans 62%-32% according to a recent ABC News/Washington Post (http://abcnews.go.com/sections/living/US/healthcare031020_poll.html) support universal coverage. People are increasingly dissatisfied with their care and worried about whether they can afford skyrocketing insurance premiums. True, there is disagreement over issues like whether there should be a mandate. But in general, there is a greater consensus for healthcare than there has been in the past.

This is not to say that there are no obstacles. The insurance and drug industries will mount furious challenges. They will try and stoke fear, perhaps by invoking Henry and Louise from their efforts in the early 1990s to defeat universal healthcare. And Republicans will surely fight hard as well out of ideology.

The greatest conflict could come over the public option. Republicans and assorted lobbying groups will claim this will make private insurers go out of business. But this need not be the case. There will always be a market for insurance that provides services above and beyond what the government does. France, which has a government run system, also has private insurers citizens can turn to for supplemental insurance. Canada is unique in not allowing people to buy private insurance for treatments the government covers. No Democrat is proposing such an idea, nor should he.

Furthermore, a public option is the best way to contain costs. Just providing vouchers for people to buy private care won’t. Many insurance companies don’t have an incentive to pay for preventative care because people are not on one plan over a 30 year time horizon. So the company won’t benefit from reduced costs down the road. But the government would stand to benefit when taking preventative measures reduces the likelihood of having to pay for say an expensive coronary bypass surgery.

There are two other ways a public plan will reduce costs. The first is competition with the private sector. In order to stay afloat, private insurers will need to reduce waste and over head and offer lower premiums. Or they will have to offer truly amazing services to get people to buy their plans. People who prefer private insurance will thus benefit in the form of lower benefits. The second is that a public plan will be well suited to caring for people with genetic or preexisting conditions. Private insurers often charge high premiums to compensate for taking on these patients (to the extent that they don’t turn these patients away). Decreasing the amount of risk in the company’s risk pool will also allow for lower premiums.

Allowing Democrats to pass universal healthcare, an entitlement which will benefit millions of working and middle class people would be bad politically for Republicans. The Democrats will get credit, and when Republicans want to cut taxes, they fear Democrats will be able to charge that the revenue will come out of healthcare. But ultimately, this looks like a winning fight for Democrats.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iran's Tiananmen Moment?

The Ayatollah Khameni has warned that bloodshed will ensue if protesters take to the streets this weekend. He has announced that there was no fraud in the election and is clearly dismayed about the upheaval.

That has led commentators to ask whether this will be Iran’s Tiananmen. It could be. There is clearly a lot of dissatisfaction with the way things are going. This ranges from a sputtering economy to the lack of power the people actually have in the government. Today, people could still take to the streets despite Khameni’s threats and spark a showdown with the regime.

But in asking whether this is a Tiananmen moment, few observers seemed to remember what happened in China after the killings. Democracy stalled. Today, China is a place of substantial economic liberty, but not political liberty (though some strides have been made). People in China do not enjoy the same rights that people in the west do.

The point here is to keep in mind that just having a brutal confrontation with the Mullah’s will not guarantee democracy.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

VAT Tax Time

Healthcare reform will have a hefty tag. And Obama has insisted that any reform be deficit-neutral.

So to raise the revenue needed, some in both parties are talking about imposing a value-added tax (VAT). The VAT works by taxing the value added at each stage of production. This is a good description of what happens with a VAT:

“Take a hand-made guitar: When the maker buys the strings and the wood, he receives invoices that show how much value-added tax their producers have paid. By assembling the guitar into an instrument a musician can use, the maker adds value, and can sell the guitar for more than the cost of the materials. He will pay tax on his sales price, but may first subtract the taxes that suppliers have paid, avoiding double taxation. Net, he pays tax only on the value he adds.”

Just a 5% VAT could bring in around $500 billion a year. A higher vat could end up helping us not only pay for healthcare reform, but pay down the immense budget deficit. Moreover, it has the virtue of taxing consumption and incentivizing saving. It would be good for all involved if Americans stopped binging on debt and started saving.

Ironically, the VAT might also cause a temporary increase in consumer spending. If Americans see that a 10% VAT tax is coming in a few months, they might be more inclined to go shopping and buy at lower prices. This spike in consumer spending could help ameliorate the recession.

There are two main objections to the VAT. One is that the tax will be regressive. And there is truth to that. Poor and working class people must spend a greater percentage of their income on consumption. To soften the impact of the VAT, we could exempt some of these people from paying any income taxes, or we could send some sort of rebates back to them. Also, remember that this money will be used to pay for healthcare. Perhaps, it is best then, to think of the money paid out as a VAT as a premium.

The second objection comes from conservatives, who are worried that such a tax will be a cash cow for the government. Government will have a lot of new revenue it can spend on new programs. I too worry that some in congress will want to start new programs we shouldn’t be paying for right now. But I think given our fiscal situation, the government needs a cash cow. This is an idea that should seriously be considered.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

John Ensign in Trouble

Scandals are always happening in Washington DC. Today, it was John Ensign on the hot seat for an extramarital affair with a former campaign staffer. You can read the full story here:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/16/AR2009061602746.html?hpid=artslot

It’s pretty disturbing stuff. But I don’t think it will have any effect on the Republican Party as a whole. John Ensign is known by no one except for Nevada residents and political junkies. People aren’t still talking about Larry Craig and David Vitter anymore. This story too will fade soon enough.

Besides, there are more important issues right now. The economy and the debate over healthcare are dominating public discourse now as they should. People will spend more time worrying about their jobs this week than they will thinking about the details of Ensign’s affair.

This may however, have some effect on Ensign’s political career. He was seriously thinking about running for President and had made trips to Iowa. Something tells me the evangelical voters who dominate the caucuses there would be inclined to punish him for his conduct. The last thing the Republican Party would want is a scandal-plagued standard-bearer.

But then, if the economy is still a serious issue in 2012, perhaps no one will care. Moreover, he is not up for reelection in 2012 so the story will probably fade before anyone decides to vote for or against him.

So I don’t think there’s much effect to this story.

Monday, June 15, 2009

America Still Conservative in Many Ways

An interesting new Gallup poll today found that there are twice as many conservatives as liberals in the country. We have a democrat in the White House and a democratic-controlled congress. Didn’t the voters say they wanted a break from the conservative governance of the past 40 years?

Perhaps not. The two biggest reasons Obama won were dissatisfaction with George W. Bush and the financial crisis. On some level, people were voting against mounting casualties in Iraq and his handling of Hurricane Katrina. And in times of economic distress, democrats usually benefit.

Also, Obama has put the spotlight on some issues that might make people feel more conservative. For example, lifting the global gag order and closing down Guantanamo were decisions that majorities of Americans disagree with. Furthermore, the large amount of borrowing by the government surely has plenty of Americans a little worried.

In some ways it is hard to square these numbers with Obama’s approval rating which remains high. Despite the fact that Americans disproportionately identify as conservative, they want to give him a chance to do well because so much is at stake. And they feel like he is making a good-faith effort to fix the economy and make their lives better.

Nonetheless, this has to be a warning to democrats in Washington. They need to be careful about making sweeping changes. This is not to say that they cannot pass universal healthcare for example; they just need to implement a plan that takes into account Americans’ conservative feelings.

It will be interesting to see how these numbers hold up over the next few years.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ahmadinejad Clings to Power in Iran

It looks like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will remain President of Iran. The interior ministry reports that Ahmadinejad won 62.6% of the vote in Friday’s election. His reformist opponent, Mousavi won less than 34%

Mousavi is alleging vote fraud. And I wouldn’t doubt it. Ahmadinejad faced plenty of concern especially with the economy and inflation. At the very least, I would have expected the results to be closer. It does look though that there were shenanigans. The Washington Post reported that:

Mousavi's supporters charged that officials were trying to steal the election and cut off alternative sources of information. For several hours during the balloting Friday, they said, international telephone lines to Tehran were down and text messaging -- which Mousavi's supporters had used to organize street rallies -- was blocked. Members of the baseej, a paramilitary force of volunteers organized by the Revolutionary Guard Corps, reportedly seized a building in North Tehran that housed several Web sites supporting Mousavi, which were shut down.

A senior aide to another opposition candidate, Mehdi Karroubi, charged that the Interior Ministry was distorting the early vote count by providing results from the countryside and not cities. "We believe these results are void and not acceptable," said the aide, Morteza Alviri.

Still, unless something dramatic happens, Ahmadinejad will be President. This seems like a setback for the Obama administration which was no doubt hoping a reformist candidate would win who would be more amenable to the west. But perhaps Ahmadinejad will be more moderate. The widespread violence and riots surely indicate a growing dissatisfaction with Ahmadinejad’s rule.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The economy and the recent shootings

There has been a spate of widely reported shootings lately. A gunman killed a security guard yesterday at the US Holocaust Museum. George Tiller, a man who performed late-term abortions was killed in his church last week, and a soldier in the US military was killed by a Muslim who was apparently angry about US foreign policy.

So do these shootings represent a trend that is here to stay? Already some are saying that these shootings are products of the dire economic times. I think this is interesting. There’s no question in my mind that a bad economy can increase desperation. People who have no jobs, no pensions, and are worried about how to stretch enough money to meet next week’s living expenses can be pushed over the edge to do crazy things.

Of course this is not the case for most people. But some subsection of the population will undoubtedly fall into extremism. During the Great Depression for example, demagogues like Father Coughlin and Huey Long commanded legions of followers. In Germany, the Great Depression and hyperinflation of the 1920s helped put the Nazis in power.

Still, I am a little hesitant to say that these shootings will represent a trend. Whatever the economy’s troubles, I don’t expect there to be another depression. Furthermore, I think we’ve made a lot of progress as a society in moving past racism and anti-Semitism. While there are still anti-Semites and racists out there, I believe the ones who would perpetrate violence are a fringe. Or maybe I’m just hoping.

Furthermore, people have been bombing abortion clinics even in good times. And the Muslim who killed the soldier seems motivated by radical Islam, although the bad economy might have caused him to convert in the first place. Still, I’m not ready to chalk this all up to the economy yet.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Upset in Virginia

Creigh Deeds pulled off a stunning victory in last night’s Virginia Democratic gubernatorial primary. He won a whopping 50% of the vote.

This was despite his closest opponent Terry McAuliffe’s celebrity and money. Not to mention the fact that he was endorsed by Ed Rendell and Brian Schweitzer, two prominent Democratic governors from Pennsylvania and Montana respectively.

There are two big losers tonight. One is of course McAuliffe. He failed to prevail despite all of his considerable advantages. Maybe if he decides to become active in Virginia politics for several years he can one day try for state office again.

The other big loser is Rendell. He put some of his prestige on the line in endorsing McAuliffe in hopes of influencing the primary in Virginia. I have a feeling this will embolden Joe Sestak to run against Arlen Specter. Rendell has said in unequivocal terms that he does not want Sestak to make the race. He went as far as to say that “Joe should not run for the Senate in the Democratic primary. He would get killed.”

Seeing how little Rendell was able to influence the outcome in Virginia could give Sestak confidence to buck him. Of course, Rendell will be investing more time and money in a Pennsylvania Primary. Also, Specter has the backing of the Obama administration and the rest of the Democratic establishment in Pennsylvania.

Still, I’m excited to see how this all influences Sestak’s thinking.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Would America be better off if Gore won in 2000?

I’ve been asking myself this question a lot these days. Certain things would indeed be different. There are two that come immediately to mind.

The first is the war in Iraq. I just don’t believe a Gore administration would have gone. He wouldn’t have been so heavily influenced by neo-con thinking like George W. Bush evidently was. I also think that he would have been more likely to conclude that we needed to focus on the war in Afghanistan instead of needing to broaden the scope of the war on terror as Bush did.

This means that we would have a viable military option on the table to check Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It also means that Iran wouldn’t have benefited from all the chaos in neighboring Iraq in the first place. Lastly, we wouldn’t have spent the enormous sums of money we did there, or aroused such ill will in the Arab world.

The second is on fiscal restraint. Gore might well have pushed an expensive new healthcare entitlement. This would likely have been leavened with compromise with Republicans assuming it got through at all. But I can’t see him pushing for over a trillion dollars worth of tax cuts as Bush did. When taken with the enormous expenditures in Iraq, our budget deficit would probably be less than what it is today.

I do believe that the financial crisis would have happened no matter who was in office. The roots go back years. Subprime mortgages would have existed if Gore were elected. Lehman and other financial institutions would have been over-leveraged. Remember, the collapse is worldwide. It happened in countries with heavy regulatory schemes in continental Europe too.

But the spending done to get us out of the economic difficulties would not have created the huge deficit we have now I think. So there you have it. I think America might well be a better place if it had a President Gore instead of a President Bush in 2000.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Poor Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown is probably going to be run out of office in the next few months, although there is an off-chance he can hang on until he is obligated to call elections next year. I’m just not sure he deserves his poor reputation, or his poor political fortune.

It seems like every week, there is a new by-election where Labor loses another seat. Just today, another junior minister quit on him.

Even before the economic crisis, his popularity was never high in part because of his indecision about calling a new election. And now, the fact that he is in power during the collapse makes voters even hungrier for change. This despite the fact that he has approved a flurry of new measures designed to improve the economy. And the next likely Prime Minister, David Cameroon has offered no real alternative.

The collapse clearly cannot be of Brown’s own making either as Prime Minister, or as Chancellor of the Exchequer. America had the same problems, and so too did banks in continental Europe. The problems clearly transcended political ideology and national borders.

To be sure, Brown has not been a perfect Prime Minister. But I can’t help feeling sorry for him.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

You want a meritocracy with that?

It’s been a common belief among many—often conservatives though sometimes not—that class doesn’t matter in America. If you work hard and are smart you can get ahead in life. End of story. People who aren’t rich or well-off should stop complaining and just work harder. I wonder though, how much the class of the family we’re born to affects our chances in life. How much of a meritocracy do we really have?

Not necessarily a lot argues Paul Krugman in his book The Conscience of a Liberal. He cites some compelling evidence. For example, a study published by the National Center for Education Statistics found that kids from the top quarter of the income distribution who scored in the bottom quarter on a math exam were more likely to finish college than kids from the bottom quarter of income who finished in the top quarter on the exam.

What could cause this? The kids from the poor families who score high can’t be dumber than the rich kids who end up finishing college here. After all, they did better on the exam than their rich counterparts. And it seems unfathomable that the poor kids somehow have worse work ethics than the rich ones. If anything, they may have had to struggle harder in school because of their home circumstances to acquire the skills they needed to do well on the exam.

Therefore other factors must be at play. Perhaps the clearest is that these kids often have difficulty financing a college education. The cost of college is rising so fast that even the scholarships they might win aren’t enough to pay tuition bills. So they have two choices: take on unsustainable levels of debt or just not finish college. Little wonder that these kids choose to leave or not attend in the first place.

And the consequences of not finishing college remain for life. The rich kids who got to finish college will find higher-paying jobs and earn more over a lifetime. They will have an easier time purchasing healthcare and paying to send their children to college. In cases like this, the only thing that separates the rich kids from the poor is that their parents had more money. It seems galling to claim that their better outcomes in life were a result of “meritocracy,” or that the kids had “equality of opportunity.”

Yes it is possible to transcend circumstances. America has plenty of people who have risen from poverty to achieve great things. And I’m proud of that fact. But too many observers have taken these exceptions and pretended they’re a rule. The fact of the matter is that one’s circumstances in life, even in the US, determine much more than we would like. In the next few years, I hope we have an honest discussion about how to provide true equality of opportunity to future generations.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Will McCaulliffe win in Virginia?

The Virginia democratic primary for Governor is next Tuesday, and by any reasonable standard, one candidate should be winning.

That candidate is Terry McCauliffe. If that name is familiar, it should be. He was a chairman of the DNC during the 1990s. Most recently, he was chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign. He has more money than his two competitors Brian Moran and or Creigh Deeds because of his many connections. He was endorsed by Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, and Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer.

And yet McCauliffe is not winning. He is currently trailing State Sen. Deeds by 3% and is just ahead of Moran. There are plenty of undecideds, so McCauliffe can still pull this out. But the question remains, why has he failed to pull away given his advantages?

First, McCauliffe doesn’t really have great ties to the state, especially compared to his competitors. He hasn’t been intimately involved in Virginia politics the way the others have, so his name ID advantage is probably not as great as I might have thought originally.

Also, there might be some perception that McCaullife is another rich guy trying to buy an election. Indeed Deeds remarked during a debate that “We will not be the party of the middle class if the nominee of this party is beholden to Donald Trump and Wall Street interests, or the tainted defense contractors who got millions of earmarks from a brother in Congress”

It will be fascinating to watch the results on Tuesday and see if McCaullife can win this.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Reaction to Obama's Speech to the Muslim World

President Obama gave his much-hyped speech to the Muslim world today. So, how did he do? Here are some thoughts I had listening to the speech

1. Obama did an effective job of communicating changes in policy

Obama noted that he has banned the use of torture, and closing Guantanamo. On Iraq, he pledged that US forced will be out of the country by 2012, and was eloquent when he said the US will deal with Iraq as a “patron, not a partner.” All of these drew large applause from the crowd. These show that Obama is making a bona fide effort to reset US relations with the Muslim world. He was wise to make this case, and did so effectively.

2. Less attention to Iran

Here, I thought Obama did fine as well. He noted that he wants to pursue a world where there are no nuclear weapons, and that he was willing to let Iran use nuclear power peacefully. It was good that he indicated a desire to put the past behind him. But overall, he didn’t spend as much time in the speech dealing with Iran as I would have thought. He could have for example, spent more time detailing what he envisions as the future for Iran. That future could include having no sanctions, having a strong economy instead of rampant inflation, etc.

3. Israel-Palestinian conflict

Obama strongly embraced Israel and said our bonds with that country are “unbreakable” He movingly detailed the history of the holocaust and excoriated those who would deny that message—a veiled swipe at Mahmoud Achmadinejad. This was probably aimed to reassure Israel and make sure American voters know that he will not be abandoning the special relationship. But he won lots of applause when he reiterated his opposition to Israeli settlements and said he would do everything possible to make sure that Palestinians could have their own state. I tend to believe that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a good way would give the US enormous credibility with the Arab world and help build consensus to take on Iran. It was important for Obama to take this issue on.

4. Democracy and women’s’ rights

This might have been the thorniest issue to address. It’s no secret that many Arab countries including Egypt where he gave the address are not exactly democratic. Obama did his best to make sure his appeal for democracy was not seen as another western crusade. He insisted that his support for democracy promotion was based only on the human desire to have a say in how one is governed. On women’s rights, he acknowledged that many Islamic countries have elected female leaders and avoided condescension towards those in the audience. But he did press them to make sure that women could choose their roles freely and that women have as much to contribute to society as men. Overall, I thought taking on the issue of women’s rights was brave in this environment.

That all leaves me wondering what the effect of this speech will be. I think on the issue of Israel-Palestine he bought himself some goodwill in the Arab world which will give him time to address the conflict. He also won further goodwill by detailing changes in US policy and insisting that the US is not, and never will be at war with Islam. George W. Bush said similar things during his term, but this is simply more believable coming from Obama. On Iran he probably didn’t change much, and he might have caused some useful controversy when talking about democracy and women’s’ rights. I have spent most of this post focusing on the Muslim audience. But he had an American one as well. On that score he assured them that he viewed his first priority as keeping them safe. He also had the requisite tough words for Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups I don’t think he said anything to hurt his domestic political standing.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A New Relationship with Israel?

Before President Obama headed on his trip to the Middle East, he said something interesting about Israel. During an interview with NPR, he stated that:

What is also true is that part of being a good friend is being honest. And I think there have been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory in the region, is profoundly negative — not only for Israeli interests but also U.S. interests. And that's part of a new dialogue that I'd like to see encouraged in the region.

Perhaps this will signal a shift from the Bush administration’s staunch backing of Israel in nearly all cases. These comments come as other Jewish groups have risen to challenge AIPAC. One example would be J-Street, an organization started by Jewish liberals which claims to be pro-Israel and pro-peace. The group opposes the settlements, opposes military action on Iran, and wants to work for peace between Israel and Syria.

These comments could also signal continued tension with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The two met at the White House in May, but Netanyahu still has not signed onto the two state solution, and many observers believe that he is not crazy about Obama’s approach to Iran. Netanyahu wants a clear deadline on an end to diplomacy with Iran; after diplomacy has failed, one assumes that Netanyahu would press for military action.

Yet at the same time, Netanyahu surely does not want undue tension with Obama. The US-Israel relationship is extremely important to Israeli voters as it should be. Voters could well punish the Netanyahu government if it seems like it has weakened relations with the Obama administration. Moreover, Netanyahu needs US support in the region. If he wants to use military force to stop Iran from acquiring a military weapon, it would be much better to have the US onboard.

So what I expect all this to mean is that Obama will continue pressing Netanyahu hard on settlements and on the two-state question. Obama believes that only by solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict can the US effectively focus on Iran. It’ll be fascinating to see how the Obama-Netanyahu relationship unfolds in the coming months and years.

Diplomatic triumph for supposedly un-diplomatic Israeli foreign minister

It looks as if controversial Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman is starting off his tenure with some diplomatic success.

This is the same Lieberman who called for Arab members of the Knesset who met with Hamas to be tried for treason, and during the most recent set of elections, advocated that Israelis Arabs be required to take loyalty oaths. Here is a transcript of an interview he gave to the Washington Post:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/26/AR2009022602806.html

Many observers expected Lieberman to make a poor showing as foreign minister. But so far, that seems not to be the case. He has managed to establish an embassy in Turkmenistan. That might seem like small potatoes, but apparently this is fairly significant for Israel.

Israel has tried for the last 17 years to establish an embassy with no avail. Turkmenistan wanted to maintain good relations with Iran which of course detests Israel. Lieberman held secret meetings with Turkmenistan’s government and played an important role in getting the embassy opened. In foreign policy circles, this should do something to soften his image as an extremist.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

I feel Sorry for Ricci

One possible impediment to Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation could be her decision in Ricci vs. DeStefano. It has become a flashpoint in the argument about whether affirmative action is still necessary. Ricci himself has become a cause célèbre for the conservative punditocracy.

Sotomayor may well have been correct in her ruling. That is to say that New Haven’s decision could have been fully within the bounds of the law—something I will not try and determine for this post. But whenever I think about the case I keep coming back to how sorry I feel for Ricci.

His story has gained much attention, but I still think it bears repeating here. Ricci was dyslexic and as such, struggled mightily in high school. When preparing for the exam New Haven was giving to decide whom to promote, Ricci quit his second job and paid $1,000 to have someone read his study material into a tape recorder so he could master it. All his toil paid off when he placed sixth out of 77 candidates when the results came in.

Yet he did not get the promotion even though he clearly deserved it in my opinion. To be sure, that says something about this particular variant of affirmative action. I believe that affirmative action can be justified in trying to craft a diverse workforce and give minorities a second look that ingrained biases—often unintentional—might deny them. But the steps New Haven took were especially drastic. The city simply threw out all of the results because it didn’t get results it liked.

But I have yet to hear any evidence that the test was unfairly biased. If a man like Ricci could do well on it despite his learning disability, it seems fair to expect that a black fireman also had a fair chance on the test. If blacks who had done well on the tests but were passed over for white supervisors because the supervisors didn’t “connect” as well with the blacks or felt that they weren’t a “culture fit,” that would be different. That didn’t happen in this case.

So while New Haven’s decision might have been entirely defensible legally, it seems so profoundly unjust. Regardless of the outcome in the Supreme Court case, I hope New Haven finds away to give Ricci the promotion he has so richly deserved.

Lay off Clarence Thomas

As conservatives continue lambasting Sonia Sotomayor as an affirmative action case, many liberals will be tempted to accuse conservatives of hypocrisy for supporting the nomination of Clarence Thomas. Thomas will again have his name dragged through the mud as every possible charge is leveled at him. He will be maligned as an intellectual lightweight who is Scalia’s lackey, and an Uncle Tom whom Kanye West might say cares as much about black people as George W. Bush.


Both charges are unfair. While Thomas has indeed received affirmative action in his life, I have yet to hear any convincing proof that he lacks the intellect necessary to serve on the court. The only explanation offered for this charge is that Thomas doesn’t ask many questions.

In fact, there is evidence that contrary to being Scalia’s lackey, Thomas has substantially influenced his thinking in certain cases. Jan Crawford Greenburg, the legal correspondent for ABC News writes:

Consider a criminal case argued during Justice Thomas's first week. It concerned a thief's effort to get out of a Louisiana mental institution and the state's desire to keep him there. Eight justices voted to side with the thief. Justice Thomas dissented, arguing that although it "may make eminent sense as a policy matter" to let the criminal out of the mental institution, nothing in the Constitution required "the states to conform to the policy preferences of federal judges.”After he sent his dissenting opinion to the other justices, as is custom, Justices Rehnquist, Scalia and Kennedy changed their votes. The case ended up 5-4.

So I’m still waiting on evidence that Thomas is any dumber than say Stephen Breyer or Anthony Kennedy. Perhaps after an exhaustive analysis of his opinions over the years, someone will find that his legal reasoning is not up to the standard we should expect of a Supreme Court justice.

The second charge might be even more unfair. The idea is that Thomas is a race traitor because he doesn’t support affirmative action or slave reparations. Particularly galling is the fact that white liberals have latched onto the idea that Thomas isn’t authentically “black”— whatever that means. The trouble is that Thomas knows better what it means to be poor and black than almost all of his elite critics, white and black. He grew up poor in Georgia and surely experienced plenty of racism coming up in the 1960s and 1970s.

The charges of being an Uncle Tom reveal a crude bigotry too. It’s the idea that all blacks must think alike at all times. And I think that’s ultimately harmful for our perception of black intelligence.

I disagree with him on affirmative action, but I am convinced he’s against it not out of malice for blacks, or because he wants to “pull the ladder up behind him,” but because he thinks it is does them more harm than good. That is debatable, but instead of calling him names, liberals should argue the merits of affirmative action.

Monday, June 1, 2009

the Empathy Ruckus

Here is an article I wrote on the empathy controversy regarding Obama's choice of Sonia Sotomayor.

http://blogcritics.org/politics/article/empathy-gate/

Thoughts on the Tiller murder

Abortion made it back in the news this weekend, but not in a way that most people expected. Instead, headlines came when George Tiller, a doctor in Kansas who performed late-term abortions was murdered in his church. So how will this affect the abortion debate in the United States?

I actually think this won’t do much. Many commentators are predicting that the murder will have the effect of painting the pro-life movement as extremists. It seems that the murderer had ties to fringe anti-abortion groups such as Prayer and Action news which advocated a “justifiable homicide position.” Perhaps there will be a backlash against groups like this.

But I don’t think this will make people reconsider their positions on abortion. If you were a pro-lifer who thought that abortion was murder, you’ll continue to believe that after this incident. If you supported abortion on demand, you’ll continue to do to so. The people in the middle will continue to struggle with the morality of abortion as before.

Something else that hasn’t been mentioned as much is that Tiller performed third trimester abortions, something most Americans oppose. In fact, a 2003 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that only 10% of Americans think these abortions should be legal. Focusing on the murder and the victim’s vocation might have the unintended effect of putting the spotlight on third-trimester abortions, which would be bad for the pro-choice movement.