Thursday, October 31, 2013

What buck?

President Truman (D) had a sign on his desk that said “The Buck Stops Here.”  According to his Presidential library the saying “derives from the slang expression 'pass the buck' which means passing the responsibility on to someone else. The latter expression is said to have originated with the game of poker, in which a marker or counter was used to indicate the person whose turn it was to deal. If the player did not wish to deal he could pass the responsibility by passing the "buck," as the counter came to be called, to the next player.”  Truman often referred to the sign, so much so that in his final address to the nation he said:  “The President--whoever he is--has to decide. He can't pass the buck to anybody. No one else can do the deciding for him. That's his job.”  President George W. Bush (43) took that to the extreme dubbing himself “The Decider.”  President Obama on the other hand is more likely to say:  “What buck?”

The job of President has become gargantuan.  The imperial Presidency of modern times has the Executive Branch involved in virtually every element of day-to-day life of Americans.  The role of President is one that cuts to the core of “big" vs "small" government debates.  With such a broad portfolio of issues, it’s not surprising that many details are not passed by the President.
Republicans are salivating this week at the idea that President Obama’s administration is crumbling.  CNN’s homepage shrieked “Obama Under siege” – something even Fox News wasn’t claiming.  The issues of the day were:  the computer program to process healthcare applications was not working as advertised and the President told the American public he was unaware how bad the system was on his signature piece of legislation.  Then the Edward Snowden leaks continue to embarrass the White House with the President stating the he only learned of his administrations surveillance of German Chancellor Angela Merkel from news reports.
It’s not surprising that Obama didn’t know about the condition of the sign-up process for insurance – it seems the bulk of the administration didn’t know how poorly the system worked.  As it relates to the bugger-in-chief, though, it's a different story.  Here's a man who keeps his own kill list and chooses which person to kill on his own.  His claim that he didn’t know his government’s highly controversial spy program included foreign leaders just doesn't pass the smell test - let alone the walk-like-a-duck test.
The default response of having the President feigning ignorance may trace to Watergate and subsequent issues where the favorite question from media and opposition leaders seems to be:  “What did the President know and when did he know it?”  Everything is so partisan, so cantankerous, and so litigious in politics today that the safest course of action is to claim ineptness and stupidity rather than owning a decision.
George Bush (43) made 8 years of bad decisions, but at least he stood by them and was accountable for them.  It’s time for President Obama to follow in the Truman tradition and realize that the buck stops at his desk and his alone.  ("What desk?" he'd respond!)

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Legislating Common Courtesy

I’m about to celebrate six smoke free years.  The November after my Dad’s stroke I quit my pack a day habit cold turkey.  I had stopped before, many times.  I was introduced to the habit around age 8 by my brother and then kept it up.  My grandmother, in an effort that failed miserably, let me smoke with her under the hopes that the rebellion would end.  It didn’t, legitimizing it instead, so much so that for years we sat smoking and chatting together.  After college I took a 7 or 8 year hiatus, my longest smoke-free stint ever, before being sucked back in. 
I was never a reluctant smoker – I enjoyed the taste, the habit and the various accoutrements that went with it.  I had a collection of lighters, and cigarette cases – selecting them for a day as carefully as some select ties and shoes.  I was a Marlboro Man – at my most addictive two packs of red per day – the soft-pack of course because the hard pack had butts that were a few millimeters shorter.  I have prided myself on not being a finger-wagging ex-smoker, who are often the worst most intolerant and unsympathetic people around.  Since moving to Boston, though, I am becoming what I detest:  a smokin’ mad righteous ex-smoker.
During the many years in Los Angeles that I did smoke, I was the leper.  Laws were passed that required people to smoke hundreds of feet away from public spaces.  You can’t puff away at outside cafes anymore.  Even smoking inside your own apartment was outlawed in the People’s Republic of West Hollywood.  The criminalization of a legal habit was a factor in quitting, along with the gargantuan taxes levied against the product that doubled the cost.  Seeing the effects of a massive stroke with my Dad had the most impact on a habit that often leads to stroke.  When I did stop smoking it was as much for my health and wealth as to be able to partake in society again.
My 9-month stint in the Twin Cities in Minnesota didn’t trigger many issues.  The weather there is so heinous in both the summer and winter that one doesn’t need to smoke to try and kill themselves, Mother Nature is ready to do it most of the year for you.
In my year in Boston, it’s a different story.  I can’t leave a building in the city without inhaling a waft of smoke.  Any time – day or night.  As I acclimated to the city I realized that some of it is geographic:  in both CA and MN you have to use a car or public transport to get around.  Boston, however is a smaller city where walking is often faster and more direct in getting from point a to point b.  With smoking laws on the books people can only smoke outside – so the difference is that there are more people on the street and use the transport time to also be the time to smoke.

According to the CDC ( out of the 3 states, MA has the highest rate of smokers, so there is empirical support that shows there are more smokers in Boston.  (In CA and MN it’s in the 11% range, while MA is nearly 19%.)
It’s been as disconcerting as imaginable to find myself become that which I resist most:  an anti-smoker.  I’m not an ex-smoker, I’ve become anti.  Even on a cruise now the ships set aside outside areas, but the handful of folks who smoke off their decks or in other public spaces disrupt the environment for all.
In town there are days where you just can’t escape it, and it’s very unpleasant to inhale other people’s debris.  Sure there’s the second-hand smoke argument, but for somebody who has spent the majority of his life smoking, it’s a hollow argument.  I like to think I was a considerate smoker, blowing smoke and going out of my way not to disrupt people, but I’m sure I failed as often as I succeeded.  Changing the law isn’t the answer – legislating behavior is a bad idea.  People (including myself) must be allowed the right to do stupid things.  What would be nice, though, is legislating common courtesy.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Representative Coalition

Amazon Video recommended I watch “The Manor the other day, probably as a result of my affection for “Downton Abbey,” “Upstairs Downstairs” and an embarrassingly high number of whodunnits from the other side of the pond.  This “reality show” was filmed in 2001 and put everyday 21st Century people in the various household roles – from the Butler down to the Hallboy and the Housekeeper to the Scullery Maid.  None of them had ever done any work like it before.  The “family” was a real well-to-do family from who were elevated to the role of Lord and Lady of the House.  Nobody was voted off or eliminated – the point of the “project” was to see how 19 volunteers from the modern world would adapt to life in 1905.  It was a fascinating and entertaining look at how order and chaos came out of a rigorous set of mores and rules of the time and the difficulties – both Upstairs and Downstairs – in applying them.  Adapting to an Edwardian lifestyle brought out the best and worst in people.  A dozen years after the six episode series aired I found it riveting, humorous and relevant to today’s political situation in the US.

The impotence of today’s politics in Congress is rooted in the past.  The battle between Thomas Jefferson’s Republicanism (not to be confused with today’s iteration) and Thomas Hamilton’s Federalist Party from the days of the country’s founding continues to fought.  Jeffersonian Democracy theory is very grass roots, involves people from all parts of government, puts the legislative decisions above all others and is rooted in liberty at all costs, guaranteed by the cornerstone of free expression.  Hamilton's ideas followed a more aristocratic model where the Supreme Court was able to overrule Congress, where the Executive Branch could be modeled after the British Monarchy, and there was a more ordered way of making decisions.  It’s this version of democracy that has survived largely intact, despite the lip service given to Jeffersonian ideals.

Neither the ideas of Jefferson nor the legislative victories of Hamilton have resulted in an effective governance structure for the U.S. Government today.  Quasi-shut-downs, fake-furloughs, and the inability to craft, pass and implement a budget has ground the idea of government to a halt.  More and more everyday people are angry and disgusted – and fewer and fewer will participate in the process.  For decades we’ve had a minority of voters electing representatives.  The result is fewer people are engaged in the discourse, and fewer still actually participate.  This downward spiral of participation allows the most vocal – and not the most representative – views to win the day.
The fracture in Washington DC is actually a good representation of the country overall.  Americans do not agree on the size or impact of government.  There is a fundamental schism.  Though fairly represented, the views have become so entrenched that there is no give, no movement, no compromise, no solution –so the least represented view (of doing nothing) is the one that ultimately wins.  How’s that for irony?
Congressional districts should be crafted by commissions, not by politicians.  Voting should be as easy and as prevalent as using an ATM.  It’ll be messy, loud and further fractured.  Leaders would have to come from those who could build a representative coalition, not from party loyalty – a bygone notion from a bygone era.  It’s not dissimilar to other democracies that are forced to build coalition governments.  It’d make for terrible television because the narrative would be so complex --- but it would be good for the country.  With these ideals, maybe I was meant for a Manor House way of life?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Furlough Hyperbole

With a week or so before the “deadline” to raise the debt ceiling, the rhetoric has reached epidemic levels.  President “No Drama” Obama said earlier this week that not raising the debt ceiling would “be like a nuclear bomb” going off economically.  Total annihilation and an inability to sustain life for centuries is what will happen if the credit card limit isn’t raised?  Some Republican leaders are saying it doesn’t matter if the U.S. pays its bills, and, in fact might be a good thing to “default” on America’s obligations.  Once again the “leadership” of the country froths and spews, but doesn’t solve problems.

Congress – Republicans and Democrats – voted for certain spending levels that exceeded the income that would be coming into the US Government as part of the budget process.  Much angst and drum went about those negotiations, but ultimately there was an agreement, though nobody was happy.  Costs were incurred and spending followed the plan.  Now the bill is due.  The debt ceiling is only to pay for prior costs incurred, it’s not authorizing new spending or new debt. Everybody agreed to deficit funding, so it’s bizarre now to have some balk at the law of the land.  Stranger still is that the increase of the debt ceiling isn’t part and parcel of the budget process – if everybody agrees that $1 trillion will be spent beyond what’s brought in – then right then and there the debt ceiling should be raised because it’s part of the plan.
In the event that the political establishment is not able to come to agreement on what had already been agreed to, and the debt ceiling isn’t raised to cover costs already incurred - doesn’t mean that no money is coming in to Government coffers.  Approx. $1.30 is spent for every $1 that comes in.  That $1 is still coming in.
The Treasury Secretary must make decisions on how to spend the money.  Congress has authorized spending in excess of what is earned, so it’s up to the Treasury Department to decide which bills to pay.  Would the Treasury Secretary not pay the interest on the debt and put the country into actual default?  Doubtful as it would be a violation of his Constitutionally sworn duty to uphold the full faith and credit of the United States. 
Interest on existing U.S. debt represents about 18% of spending.  If you factor out the portion of the debt that is owed internally (to the Social Security Trust Fund, and other U.S. interests) what actually has to go out in cash to meet debt obligations is fairly small…maybe 6%.  Given that the money will be there the priority should go to keeping the credit worthiness in tact – even if it means losing political advantage.
Social Security, Medicare and a few other entitlements would likewise be funded to prevent America Fall (our version of Arab Spring).  Discretionary spending would take a hit as would some military spending.  Would this be a good way to balance the books?  Smart?  Without question, NO.  It’s the least attractive way to manage the finances of any family, any organization or any country.  But would the world as we know it end if in a week’s time the U.S. had to spend only what it brought in?  No, it wouldn’t.  Claiming that it would only further deteriorates the trust in democracy.
Congress felt the pain of the 800,000 Federal Workers who were furloughed (out of 2.8 million - or 28%.) The House has voted so that any worker who was furloughed will receive 100% of their pay retroactively.  These workers are being paid not to work. There is, once again, zero consequence for something happening.  Banks that took risk and made bad loans?  Government was there to cushion the pain.  Auto companies that avoided market conditions?  Government was there to save the day.  Workers not being paid for not working?  Government promises that it'll make everybody whole.  At the very least if a worker is going to be paid they should actually do some work! (I'm such the radical.) 
President Obama warned of catastrophic consequences if the “sequester” kicked in.  Republicans warned of Armageddon if the Affordable Care Act went into effect.  Neither was the case, though there's plenty of problems with both of those examples.  Now the media and political elite are foaming about default, which won’t happen in any way shape or form unless the Treasury Secretary is derelict in his duty and wholly and totally incompetent.  Can’t we just furlough the hyperbole and fulfill what was already agreed to?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Read this Blog!

Each week for the past 3 plus years I’ve aimed to headline each blog in a way that both captured the essence of the subject I would be addressing, while being an ironic or wry twist on a well known phrase or idea.  It’s not particularly unique approach and sometimes it’s more successful than others – but my goal is to grab the reader’s attention and describe what is to follow.  The first paragraph usually is a more personal hook that ends with an interesting or provocative statement, designed to have people click through or continue reading.  “Read this Blog!” is different – much more direct, no salesmanship, no gimmicks, it’s exactly what I want the reader to do.  This week I’m totally over the trickery – and that’s because the “Government Shutdown” is anything but, and that each side of the political spectrum and the major media has bought hook, line and sinker into this faux description, it’s time to deal in facts.

The history of calling a piece of legislation or a government program something that the public can easily and quickly understand probably goes back a long way.  Social Security.  It could easily have been called Mandatory Savings and Redistribution. But Social Security is a much nicer sounding description of the program.  And, of course, both the real title and my make-believe one each accurately describe the program.  Then there’s the array of freedom-loving military exercises that obfuscate the brutal violence and death that surrounds war.

When I hear “Government Shutdown” – I tend to take the term relatively literally, as do millions of others:  the U.S. Government operations will stop.  If there’s no money to pay for government services, then they wouldn’t continue, right?  Ending all constituent services: that’s the pressure that’s supposed to drive the opposing sides together.  It emulates a strike at a company:  when the workers walk off the job – management or others might be able to do a few things, but the base operations of the company stop.  That’s the incentive to get the opposing sides to sit down and figure something out – as they’re each losing.
In this instance, what’s being lost is still important and impactful, but not a majority of Government services.  “Essential” services have been declared so that much of the core functions of government will continue.  FAA, Food Inspectors, IRS collection agents, lawyers at the Justice Department and, of course, Congress itself and its staffers. Areas that are important and impact people in a less direct way – parks, museums, etc. are somehow less “essential.”  I have friends who have been furloughed, and friends who haven’t.  It’s a terrible way to treat people, and certainly no way to manage a large complex organization that is designed to serve the public.
I guarantee that if airports shut down, meat wasn’t processed and safety checked and money wasn’t collected – it’s a pretty sure bet that the United States wouldn’t be in the current predicament, or if it had happened, it’d be over in a nano-second.  But it’s in both the Democrats and the Republicans best interest to have the narrative out there about a Government Shutdown.  It’s all politics and not policy.
Congress: Enough with the political theatre, it's time for an intermission.  Shut it down fully, or open it up fully.