Thursday, December 13, 2012

Cliff Diving

The phrase "hurtling towards the fiscal cliff" implies a rapidly approaching fiduciary cataclysm.  It conjures images of Daddy Warbucks and Rich Uncle Skeleton driving the Monopoly car into the Grand Canyon hand in hand a la Thelma and Louise.  Some of you may think this imagery is a little over-the-top; if you do, you clearly haven't been reading the Washington Post, which has been treating every mention of even the possibility of not reaching a deal as a Southern belle would treat a case of the vapours.  There are a number of Very Serious People (mostly K Street lobbyists and Beltway pundits) who breathlessly warn of economic Armageddon should America plunge off the terrifying precipice of Current Tax Rates and into the abyss that is Austerity.  Countless stories have been devoted to this seeming greatest of economic perils; in fact, the looming disaster has inspired more stories than nearly every other subject combined.  Surely this is the greatest of financial challenges the United States has ever faced, and surely all of this is in no way, shape, or form meaningless hype, right?

Sorry.  Wrong on both counts.

To explain why, it's necessary to take a little detour to explain what composes the "fiscal cliff" and how each of its elements contributes to legitimate economic danger...eventually.  In 2001 and 2003, Congress, at the behest of the Bush Administration, passed a pair of tax cuts that slashed rates across the board while (surprise) drastically cutting the effective rate paid by the wealthiest Americans.  These cuts were set to expire in 2010 to avoid the Byrd rule, which would have prevented their initial passage by reconciliation.  However, as part of the first of what were to be a series of hostage negotiations over the last three years, the cuts were extended in exchange for funding further unemployment benefits (which had never been politicized during economic downturn before), with the caveat being that the cuts would then expire for good at the end of 2012.  As some of you may have noticed, it's now the end of 2012.  I should point out that the increase in taxes isn't some mammoth new cashgrab; it's a simple return to the rates at the end of the Clinton presidency.  This WILL hit everyone for a good-sized chunk of their income (the White House estimates the average family of four will take a hit of about $2200), but notably it hits the wealthy substantially harder (the aforementioned links note increases in the top rate, plus increased rates on capital gains and dividends).    Since this would restore some, albeit not much, needed progressivity to the income tax system, it's not an inherently bad thing for the whole set of cuts to expire.  However, the President noted several times during the campaign - and it's concrete fact - that the middle class has been getting wrecked for the last decade plus (I'd say 35 years, give or take) and can't afford that kind of tax hike.  Thus, he proposed, and the Senate passed, a bill that maintains the lower rates for the lower tax brackets and permanently eliminates the "marriage penalty" provision while allowing all the other cuts that primarily affect those who make more than $250,000 to expire.  That would maintain the lower rates for 98% of families, and 97% of small businesses, provided you don't define small business like Mitt Romney does.  Naturally, the bill hasn't come up for a vote in the House, because it would pass.  No, really.

The other side of the "cliff" comes from automatic spending cuts signed into law last year.  Some of you may recall the hideous "debt ceiling" debacle from the summer of 2011, where Republican bomb-throwers and Tea Party (ugh) sociopaths in the House refused to raise the debt ceiling (an artificial cap on the amount the country can borrow at one time) without enormous cuts across the board to domestic programs.  The negotiations were long and mostly pointless.  Ultimately, the Budget Control Act was passed in the summer of 2011.  It produced the needed raise in the debt ceiling but came at the cost of a $1.2 trillion sequester (forced budget cuts) over ten years, with the sequester split evenly between defense and non-defense programs.  This wasn't enough to prevent a downgrade of the nation's credit rating, though Standard and Poor's greatest downgrade was to its own credibility.  To try and head off the sequester, a supercommittee was created with extraordinary powers to bring legislation to the floors of each house of Congress without any of the delays or blockades typical to such procedures.  To the surprise of absolutely no one, it failed to produce anything.  As such, the major aspects of the sequester - namely substantial cuts to defense spending and across-the-board discretionary spending - are set to take effect at the start of 2013, at the same time the aforementioned tax cuts are scheduled to expire.

"But wait!  If those both happen at the same time, then no one's spending on anything and the economy will stall out!  That actually is bad!  You lied to me OH MY GOD THE PTA HAS DISBANDED AAAAAHHHHHHH"  Settle down.  While it is true that the effects of both will be deleterious to the nation's economic health (which is why I've replaced the term "fiscal cliff" with "austerity bomb"), consider that most people don't pay all their taxes at one time.  If we split that average $2200 annual hike over 26 biweekly pay periods, that comes out to $84.62 per paycheck.  If it takes two months to get the Republicans to sign on, that's $335 in extra withholding; should the bill make cuts retroactive to January 1st, that money will all come back to the taxpayer in their refund.  Likewise, most people don't buy all their groceries for the year on January 1st.  Consider just the defense cuts (rumored to be approximately $600 billion over 10 years).  If it takes two months to get a deal, that comes out to $10 billion cut in those two months.  By comparison, the military budget for last year was roughly $1.4 trillion.  Simple math points out that the total cut would equal 0.7% of the total military budget.  That's roughly the cost of funding TWO WEEKS of the war in Iraq.  It's also roughly the lowest credible estimate for total government oil subsidies.  So as you can see, if the austerity bomb does go off, the country WILL go back into recession...but not unless NONE of the sequester's cuts OR the automatic tax hikes are eliminated for several (read: at least three) months.  (Editor's note: I'd like to point out that that last link, which matches my feelings on the subject AND backs up my statements, comes from a Nobel Prize-winning economist.  So before anyone goes accusing me of not knowing my econ, I found someone who clearly does to back me up.)  The simplest solution to the whole thing?  Pass the previously-discussed middle class tax stalls (they're not really cuts) and find places where there's obvious waste and unnecessary spending throughout the system (my suggestions: scrapping the F-35 program and allowing Medicare to haggle for prescription drug prices).  However, those aren't going to happen because 1, Republicans are pledged to Grover (not that Grover) not to allow taxes to go up on anyone ever, and 2, Republicans are beholded to defense contractors to help them rake in as much money as they can as quickly as they can.  Hence the current negotiations between the White House and John "I swear it's not pronounced Boner" Boehner, in which the President has finally stood firm for something and the Speaker has cried about it.  Repeatedly.  President Obama understands that if he doesn't make a deal before the end of the year, the top tax rates will go up (positive) and he can propose the lower rates on the poor and middle class as the Obama tax cuts and dare the Republicans to vote against lowering taxes.  On top of that, he also realizes that when people arre confronted with programs that could be cut, there are some that they really don't want to see cut.  He also understands that, coming off an election where he (despite reporting to the contrary) whomped his opponent, he's got the backing of a sizable portion of the country.

So, if going off the cliff (or more accurately, down the bunny slope) won't turn the USA into Greece overnight AND won't have the devastating economic consequences of the UK's austerity plan unless nothing's done for a quarter-plus of the year, why is every major media outlet so terrified of it?  Why is every Sunday morning pundit roundtable treating January 1st, 2013 like the mainstream public is treating December 21st, 2012?  Why are so-called responsible journalists turning into raving derelicts wearing "The End Is Nigh" sandwich boards and yelling "Bring out your dead!" to the gullible masses?  Two words: corporate ownership.  See, the austerity bomb actually IS a big deal to the wealthy who own most of the mass media these days.  Those higher tax rates cut into their take home pay, particularly the capital gains hikes (no more dodging the top bracket by taking their pay in stock options).  The sequester will also take a major chunk out of corporate profits, particularly in the defense sector.  The fear of job losses is consequential only because corporate America responds to every potential blow to profit margins by laying off workers.  And we haven't even begun to discuss Wall Street, where anything that might bring down dividends is akin to Srebrenica.  That's why there are so many demands for a deal, preferably one that damages Social Security or Medicare in the process.  That's why the media is pushing the "the cliff is TOTAL DISASTER" meme harder than WCW pushed Goldberg.  That's why the average American is now willing to agree with any deficit-reduction commission's plan, even ones that don't exist.

In the words of Paul Harvey, now you know the rest of the story.  Carry it with you wherever pockets of ignorance exist, and there are plenty.  People only fear what they don't understand, and while understanding is getting better, it's not nearly good enough.  The sheer number of people who still believe in death panels is proof of that.

Until next time, remember that knowing is half the battle.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Lies And The Lying Liars Who Tell Them

(Editor's Note: Apologies to Al Franken for stealing the title of his book.  For those who haven't read it, it's an exceptional piece of work and I highly recommend it.  The Kindle version is a mere $11.99 on Amazon, or if you prefer actual paper, you can get it at any major bookstore for significantly less.) 

"In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." - George Orwell

I wanted to wait until after the clown show that was the Republican National Convention to convey my distaste with the Teapublican presidential ticket.  Fortunately for me, the Convention provided a treasure trove of ludicrousness for mocking purposes.  From Ann Romney's "Tonight I want to talk to you about love" speech getting immediately trampled by Chris Christie's "I believe we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved" to Christie's speech in which he didn't mention the nominee by name until over sixteen minutes had passed (which  led me to crack the next day that Christie's ego is so large, it almost fits into a pair of his pants), the first night (well, technically the second...thank you, merciful hurricane) was a less-than-auspicious start for Governor Etch-a-Sketch.  Day 2 didn't go much better, as a surprise rule change designed to eliminate grassroots influence drew the ire of the Ron Paul psychopaths, followed by Condoleeza "I ignored 'Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US' memos and all I got is this lousy Secretary of State job" Rice and New Mexico Governor Suzana Martinez getting trotted out as part of the "See, some of our best friends are women/black/Hispanic"!" plan.  The night concluded with Paul Ryan's unconscionably awful speech, which was so bad that even Fox News couldn't ignore the sheer number of lies.  I'll have more on that in a bit.

Finally, the coup de grace came on Thursday.  No, I'm not talking about the video on Mitt Romney's life that didn't air on major network coverage.  No, I'm not talking about Marco Rubio positioning himself as the lead man for the 2016 race with the only speech that didn't embarrass its speaker.  No, I'm not even talking about Romney's acceptance speech, which was typically light on facts and heavy on lies, platitudes, and rhetoric (more on this in a bit as well).  I'm speaking of the single strangest moment in a convention I can remember: Clint Eastwood's rambling, incoherent, bizarre "conversation" with an empty chair occupied by an invisible President Obama.  It completely flabbergasted Brian Williams (not easy to do).  It preemptively took all the air out of Rubio's sails.  It spawned a fantastic Twitter feed for Invisible Obama.  It resulted in an internet flashmeme within hours (Google "eastwooding" for details/pictures).  Last, but certainly not least, it turned one of the last surviving film icons, universally known for his gravitas, into a complete laughingstock.  There is no way to describe this in the fact-based community but as a complete disaster for the Romney camp; the day after the candidate's speech is designed to be the candidate's biggest win, and instead of discussing Mitt's winning oratory skills (sarcasm) the GOP is stuck trying to explain why they didn't bother vetting an 82-year-old man who asked for a chair to use as a prop.  Priceless.

However, I've digressed from my point, which is the rampant lying associated with the Romney campaign.  To be fair, this isn't a new phenomenon for them: the majority of their campaign has been based on lies, largely because they're a little lacking in ideas.  However, the brazenness of it at the Convention really caught my eye.  We've never seen a campaign willing to openly ignore facts on literally every issue with no fear of being called on it.  Those who do point out that, hey, that's not even remotely true, get tagged with the "liberal media/partisan" label and get lambasted with "both sides do it" tomfoolery.  News flash: both sides DON'T do it.  There's no level of comparison between Al Gore's "I was involved with the creation of the internet" and the entire right's "Obama is a Kenyan Muslim Socialist" meme.  One is a little oversold, but ultimately based in truth, while the other is completely made up.  It's pathetic, and I've had enough of it.  So, I'm going to spend the next few paragraphs calling out the lies in Congressman Ryan and Romney Hood's respective speeches, replete with evidence to back up my opposition.  All quotes are taken directly from transcripts of their speeches, which can be found here and here.

1. "I'm the newcomer to the campaign, so let me share a first impression. I have never seen opponents so silent about their record, and so desperate to keep their power. They've run out of ideas. Their moment came and went. Fear and division are all they've got left."

FALSE. At a campaign event just two days ago, President Obama included a substantial list of his accomplishments AND told the crowd when they started booing Romney "Don't boo - vote."  This is typical of his campaign speeches, as anyone can see if they go through the litany of campaign speeches listed at the White House.  He even makes the point (not in this one, but in others) that he thinks Romney is a good man with a fundamentally different view of where to take the country and that people who believe in that vision should vote for Romney.  Last I checked the President wasn't the one funding a militia to oust himself.  Last I checked the President wasn't blowing the dog whistle on welfare.  Seems that Mr. Ryan has things backwards.

2. "President Barack Obama came to office during an economic crisis, as he has reminded us a time or two. Those were very tough days, and any fair measure of his record has to take that into account. My home state voted for President Obama. When he talked about change, many people liked the sound of it, especially in Janesville, where we were about to lose a major factory. A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: "I believe that if our government is there to support you. this plant will be here for another hundred years." That's what he said in 2008. Well, as it turned out, that plant didn't last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that's how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.

Not exactly false, but a gross misrepresentation of facts.  Ryan has mentioned this before in other stump speeches and stated his intention more clearly than he did here.  The Janesville plant did close down.  Obama did say exactly what Ryan claims.  You'll also notice that "that plant didn't last another year."  This is an important detail.  Obama made his statement when he was at a campaign event in Wisconsin in February of 2008.  In October of 2008 GM announced they would be idling the plant and laying off the majority of the workers.  Those of you with functional cerebrums might note that this is a month before Obama was even elected.  All but 57 workers were eliminated in December of 2008 when all but a single Izuzu line shut down; again, for those who understand calendars, that's a full month before the President-elect took office.  While it's true that the last line didn't go down until June 2009, and while it's ostensibly true that the Administration could have demanded that GM fully reopen the plant, under the terms of the bailout/bridge loan they allowed GM to make all decisions regarding the closure of facilities.  So the notion that Obama is responsible for the closure of the plant is disingenuous at best.

3. "It went to companies like Solyndra, with their gold-plated connections, subsidized jobs, and make-believe markets. The stimulus was a case of political patronage, corporate welfare, and cronyism at their worst. You, the working men and women of this country, were cut out of the deal."

FALSE.  Ignoring the political patronage and corporate welfare claims (since, you know, the company was originally considered by the Bush Administration), let's look at the notion that Solyndra never had a chance to succeed.  At one point, Solyndra's technology was unique, giving it a technical advantage over its competition.  However, because it was unique technology, it was more expensive to produce; thus, the return on investment wasn't as high as with companies like GE who worked with less efficient, but cheaper, alternatives.  In addition, soon after receiving their loan, Solyndra got blindsided by a massive Chinese subsidy on solar panels.  While this hurt everyone in the American solar industry, it hit them the hardest because their margin for error was so thin.  The notion that the jobs and market were/are make-believe shows little appreciation for reality.  I could also bring up the fact that the company's executives are now under investigation for misrepresenting the company's finances in order to secure the loan, or I could bring up the fact that Mitt Romney, as governor, helped subsidize Konarka (which also went bankrupt), or I could bring up the fact that the Solyndra collapse was directly stated to be one of the reasons for sizable new tariffs on Chinese solar panels passed earlier this year.  That just seems like piling on, though.  Besides, this gentleman does it better than I can.

4. "What did the taxpayers get out of the Obama stimulus? More debt. That money wasn't just spent and wasted— it was borrowed, spent, and wasted."

5.  "You see, even with all the hidden taxes to pay for the health care takeover, even with new taxes on nearly a million small businesses, the planners in Washington still didn't have enough money. They needed more. They needed hundreds of billions more. So, they just took it all away from Medicare. Seven hundred and sixteen billion dollars, funneled out of Medicare by President Obama. An obligation we have to our parents and grandparents is being sacrificed, all to pay for a new entitlement we didn't even ask for. The greatest threat to Medicare is Obamacare, and we're going to stop it."

FALSE.  Hoo boy.  Where to start?  Well, we could start by noting that the $716 billion not going to Medicare doesn't affect benefits AT ALL.  It's all money saved by reducing payments to providers, insurance companies, and hospitals.  Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, tighter regulation and stricter pricing rules have allowed the government to more effectively negotiate prices.  That's not money stolen from the plan, it's money THEY DON'T HAVE TO SPEND ANYMORE.  Bit of a difference.  In fact, it's about eight years' worth of a difference, as that's how long the change has improved the solvency lifetime of Medicare.  If anything, it's the perfect example of why the Bush prescription drug plan was such an unmitigated disaster.  What's worse, though, is that Ryan factors those exact same savings into his "so-bad-people-don't-believe-it's-real" budget and uses the money for...well, it's not quite clear.  The only thing worse than a boldface lie is an hypocritical boldface lie, and Congressman Ryan deals in those like a fishmonger with ever so much tuna to unload.

6.  "We had help from Medicare, and it was there, just like it's there for my mom today. Medicare is a promise, and we will honor it. A Romney-Ryan administration will protect and strengthen Medicare, for my mom's generation, for my generation, and for my kids and yours."

FALSE.  Anyone who's had to deal with the exorbitant and seemingly endless cost increases in the health care field understands exactly how crippling the Ryan (and by association, the Romney) plan for Medicare would be, but for those who've been on Mars for the past decade, I'll walk you through it: in place of the current system (with an exception for everyone born in 1958 or earlier, so the GOP doesn't screw itself out of the elderly vote) Medicare would be replaced with a voucher system.  Each recipient would receive a government stipend to be put toward purchasing private health insurance.  As you may guess, your average private insurance company likely isn't going to take the limited amount of government money as compensation for one of their coverage plans, particularly given the age and accumulated medical history of the potential buyer.  Thus, the average senior would be stuck dropping a substantial chunk of their already-limited income on covering the gap.  When you factor in the reopening of the prescription drug donut hole (as a result of the repeal of the Affordable Care Act) and the lack of power to negotiate lower rates (because there's no longer a government branch to hold the insurance companies accountable), what was once a guarantee of health care in waning years now becomes a roll of the dice.  Worse yet, Ryan's plan indexes the size of the voucher to the overall rate of inflation, NOT the rate of health care inflation.  Health care inflation has outstripped general inflation for quite some time now.  So over time, the voucher pays for less and less, until finally the patient is left to handle the majority of the costs themselves.  By the time the first person would be eligible for the new plan, in 2022, they'd be looking at an increase of over SIX THOUSAND DOLLARS in their out-of-pocket expenses.  Oh, and before anyone gets the wise idea to say "That's the old plan, he changed it since then, your numbers are bad and you should feel bad," I should point out that only the original plan was scored by the CBO; the new one has never been submitted for scoring because Ryan has intentionally left a number of the details sketchy.  Does any of that say "protect and strengthen" to you?  It seems to say to me that if I want to afford my funeral I'm better off killing myself at 60 than I would be living into that dystopia.

7.  "He created a bipartisan debt commission. They came back with an urgent report. He thanked them, sent them on their way, and then did exactly nothing."

FALSE.  This one's particularly egregious, because not only did the President take the recommendations of the relatively terrible Simpson-Bowles commission into account (much to his discredit), but he sent some of them to Congress when attempting to negotiate the Budget Control Act (also, much to his discredit).  Where it really sticks in my craw is that Paul Ryan was a member of the House Budget Committee and voted on the commission's recommendations; at least 14 yeas would have adopted the commission's report as Congress's official position and started the ball rolling on turning it into a very, very bad law.  Ryan voted no, complaining that it didn't do enough to restructure Medicare.  I'm sure that comes as a shock to you all.  The report vote thankfully failed at 11-7.  You don't get to complain about the roads not being plowed when you slash the tires on the snowplows, Mr. Ryan.

8.  "Republicans stepped up with good-faith reforms and solutions equal to the problems. How did the president respond? By doing nothing— nothing except to dodge and demagogue the issue."

FALSE.  I don't think I need to explain this one.

9.  "In a clean break from the Obama years, and frankly from the years before this president, we will keep federal spending at 20 percent of GDP, or less. That is enough. The choice is whether to put hard limits on economic growth, or hard limits on the size of government, and we choose to limit government."

This isn't false, as it's a pledge and not a statement of historical record.  I just wanted to put it here to point out how incredibly stupid this is.  Capping federal spending at a percentage of GDP is just insane, no matter how you try to slice it.  As an example, the current U.S. GDP is roughly $14.5 trillion.  Using Ryan's math, that would set the federal budget for next year at $2.9 trillion.  While that would result in a budget deficit of a mere $300 billion, by comparison, the current budget outlay for 2012 is roughly $3.7 trillion.  So, while the deficit wouldn't be growing by as much, there'd be at least $800 billion dollars worth of cuts to be made, and Ryan's made it clear that revenue increases and cuts to military spending are off the table.  That means that every other federal program would have to be gutted, just to hit an arbitrary benchmark.  Good call, Congressman.

10.  "None of us have to settle for the best this administration offers— a dull, adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.  Listen to the way we're spoken to already, as if everyone is stuck in some class or station in life, victims of circumstances beyond our control, with government there to help us cope with our fate.  It's the exact opposite of everything I learned growing up in Wisconsin, or at college in Ohio."

FALSE.  This one's actually pretty funny.  Paul Ryan's father died when he was 16, which qualified him for Social Security survivors benefits.  He saved that money and put it towards the aforementioned college tuition at Miami of Ohio.  After college, outside of a few odd jobs here and there, he did most of his work as a policy wonk and speechwriter for Jack Kemp and Sam Brownback (both execrable, for the record).  In 1998, he won his seat in the House, where he's been ever since.  The "rugged individualist," the scion of the Randians, the head witch doctor of neoconservative voodoo economics, owes nearly everything in his life to the federal government: his education, his experiences, his friendships, and his jobs, both past and present.  In other words, Paul Ryan, you didn't build that.

11.  "Four years ago, I know that many Americans felt a fresh excitement about the possibilities of a new president. That president was not the choice of our party but Americans always come together after elections."

FALSE.  The first from Guy Smiley's speech, and it's a whopper.  This should be explanation enough.

12.  "The President has disappointed America because he hasn’t led America in the right direction. He took office without the basic qualification that most Americans have and one that was essential to his task. He had almost no experience working in a business."

FALSE.  While it's arguably true that the President has relatively little experience working in a business, it's unequivocally false to claim that business experience is necessary for being President.  George Washington was a career soldier.  Ditto Dwight Eisenhower.  Lincoln had business experience, but it was all failures.  Same with Ulysses S. Grant.  Our two most recent presidents known for being businessmen came from the same family and did a similar job of driving the country off a cliff.  Other businessman presidents include Warren Harding (most scandal-ridden presidency ever), Calvin Coolidge (created the environment that led to the Great Depression, closest thing we've had to a Tea Party president), and Herbert Hoover (made the Great Depression worse).  One could argue that it's actually more beneficial for a president NOT to have been a businessman.

13.  "These are American success stories. And yet the centerpiece of the President’s entire re-election campaign is attacking success. Is it any wonder that someone who attacks success has led the worst economic recovery since the Great Depression?"

FALSE.  "It’s heartbreaking enough that there are millions of working families in this country who are now forced to take their children to food banks for a decent meal. But the idea that those children might not have a chance to climb out of that situation and back into the middle class, no matter how hard they work? That’s inexcusable. It is wrong. It flies in the face of everything that we stand for.  Now, fortunately, that’s not a future that we have to accept, because there’s another view about how we build a strong middle class in this country -- a view that’s truer to our history, a vision that’s been embraced in the past by people of both parties for more than 200 years.  It’s not a view that we should somehow turn back technology or put up walls around America. It’s not a view that says we should punish profit or success or pretend that government knows how to fix all of society’s problems. It is a view that says in America we are greater together -- when everyone engages in fair play and everybody gets a fair shot and everybody does their fair share." - President Obama, December 6, 2011

14.  "This president can ask us to be patient.  This president can tell us it was someone else’s fault.  This president can tell us that the next four years he’ll get it right.  But this president cannot tell us that YOU are better off today than when he took office."

FALSE.  First, I'd argue that the roughly 2.5 million people represented by job growth over the last four years would disagree.  However, that's not my biggest issue.  My biggest issue is that this is a bogus, misleading, fiendish question to ask.  What's worse is that it's being parroted in the corporate media right now because they refuse to do their own legwork for anything anymore (more to come).  I read an analogy that I thought perfectly explained my objection: let's say that your house catches fire.  The fire department arrives and succeeds in putting it out, though not before the combination of smoke, flame, and water has done a number on the interior.  Your response to this is not going to be to complain to the fire department that your house isn't better off than it was before the fire; you're simply going to be happy that you still have a house at all.  I hope you all get where I'm going with that, even though I doubt the American public at large would be capable of following along.  Another thought about this from one of my readers: "It didn't take FDR 4 years to end the Depression. It took him 4 TERMS. Global recessions aren't an easy fix and what FDR helped not only in the short term, but for generations to come."  It would be my hope that Americans are smart enough to understand this, but I know better.  My point is that the question that needs to be asked isn't "Are you better off now that you were four years ago?" but "Are you going to be better off with me in charge than with Obama?"  If that can't be answered in the affirmative, then that's an insurmountable hill to climb.

15.  "His policies have not helped create jobs, they have depressed them. And this I can tell you about where President Obama would take America:  His plan to raise taxes on small business won't add jobs, it will eliminate them;  His assault on coal and gas and oil will send energy and manufacturing jobs to China;  His trillion dollar cuts to our military will eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs, and also put our security at greater risk;  His $716 billion cut to Medicare to finance Obamacare will both hurt today's seniors, and depress innovation – and jobs – in medicine.  And his trillion-dollar deficits will slow our economy, restrain employment, and cause wages to stall."

FALSE x 5.  One, the President has cut taxes on small businesses at least 18 times.  Two, oil production and coal extraction are at or near their highest levels ever.  Three, those military cuts are part of the sequester attached to the Budget Control Act and are only in place because Republicans refused any revenue increases in trying to reduce the deficit (should be noted that VP pick Paul Ryan voted in favor of this).  Also, we spend more on defense than nearly every other country combined; I think we can get by with only as much as, say, the top 9 countries combined.  Four, I've already debunked.  And five, those deficits are in large part due to the unpaid wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Bush tax cuts, the latter of which Romney Hood intends to continue, strengthened, in perpetuity. I rest my case.

16.  "And let me make this very clear – unlike President Obama, I will not raise taxes on the middle class."

FALSE.  The President hasn't touched middle class tax rates.  In fact, the payroll tax holiday lowered the effective tax rate for the middle class.  The same cannot be said of Mr. Romney's tax plan.

17.  "I will begin my presidency with a jobs tour. President Obama began with an apology tour."

FALSE.  Where did this "apology tour" idea come from?  If it HAS happened, could someone kindly point me to some video?

18.  "President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus, even as he has relaxed sanctions on Castro's Cuba."

FALSE.  If anything, the Obama Administration has been too good to Israel and too hard-line on Cuba.

There's more, but this is getting really long and I wanted to get to the bigger issue at hand: how they're getting away with this.  For decades, the press was willing, even gleeful, to fulfill its civic duty and cut through the hogwash to the facts.  Woodward and Bernstein achieved immortality by blowing the lid off the biggest Presidential scandal since Teapot Dome.  Walter Cronkite called out the Johnson Administration's "everything is fine, nothing to see here" whitewashing of Vietnam.  Now?  While there are still a few legitimate journalists out there, doing respectable, decent, necessary work, the majority are all too willing to parrot whatever their network's head honchos decide is important.  In this particular race, the falsity has become omnipresent, primarily from the Republican side.  The answer to the question of why one side can lie through its teeth and escape scot-free while the other can't utter the slightest exaggeration lies in my previous column (yes, I'm aware it was six months's the only other one on the page, so it should be easy to go back and look).  Citizens United opened the floodgates for an orgy of campaign and campaign-related spending on advertising, and the networks are all too happy to oblige.  Consider that the networks are expected to bring in more than SIX TIMES as much from this presidential cycle as they did from 2008 (which was, itself, the previous high-water mark).  They don't get that money by being hard on the candidate, and remember that conservative super PACs outmoney their left-wing counterparts by an obscene margin.  That's why you have Tom "Both Sides Do It" Brokaw out there on Morning Joe, lending his gravitas to the perpetuation of a stereotype.  That's why Wolf Blitzer pretends that people like Bernie Sanders are crazy and that Obama is being an angry black man when he so much as suggests Romney's not being 100% honest.  That's why the major newsmedia continues to perpetuate this as a horserace when demographics, the Electoral College counts, and even logic suggest otherwise.  The old saying is that money is the root of all evil; in that case, the corporate media is a factory farm, and the super PACs are Monsanto.

Until next time, keep some salt with you.  You never know when you'll need to take something with a grain of it.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

PAC-Man Fever

I’d like to start by presenting, out of context, a quote relevant to my topic:

“We now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

Sounds pretty ridiculous, right? If, say, I received $20 million from Microsoft and then spent my next column raving about Bill Gates’s attempts to buy the education system, some of you, I would assume, would think my honest opinion had been co-opted by the opinion my new corporate overlord wanted me to have. When people like Mitch McConnell talk about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and their campaign contributions include representatives for T. Boone Pickens, it’s only natural to believe there’s corruption involved, right?

How about this one?

“The appearance of influence or access, furthermore, will not cause the electorate to lose faith in our democracy.”

Just as ridiculous, right? If the people believe their voice has less influence than that of some outside influence, they inevitably lose faith in leadership. That goes for all kinds of hierarchies, from third-world banana republics to the New York Knicks (replace corporate campaign donors with Isiah Thomas and you’ll see where I’m going with this). There isn’t a single situation where preferential treatment of a specific voice doesn’t result in, at a minimum, disillusionment with the process, and at a maximum, outright revolt (entire Middle East, please pick up the white courtesy phone).

So what kind of kook would say these kinds of things? John “I used to be with it, but then they changed what IT was” McCain? Sorry, he adamantly opposes both of those thoughts. Glenn “Lord High Suzerain of the Post-Apocalyptic Nightmarescape” Beck? Sorry, too busy looking for a job to engage in this level of psychosis. The grand boogeyman of American politics, Richard Nixon? Sorry, didn’t really worry about campaign financing, plus, you know, he’s been dead (awaiting a jar and a robot body) for eight years. No, the speaker of these two patently absurd falsehoods is a far more dangerous, far more important person, and his statements represent a bullet in the spine of American democracy.

The speaker was Justice Anthony Kennedy, in the majority opinion of Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission. By a 5-4 vote strictly along party lines (there aren’t supposed to be party lines in the Supreme Court, but that hasn’t really been true since the ‘80s, in yet another example of how Ronald Reagan ruined America), the Court overruled 102 years of precedent, issued both of the preceding statements as findings of fact (there also aren’t supposed to be findings of fact by the Supreme Court, but when you’re overturning a century of precedent on nothing, you don’t worry about little things like convention), and declared the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance law unconstitutional. What does that mean? According to the Court, or more accurately, according to the Roberts/Alito/Scalia/Thomas Judicial Branch of the Republican Party, corporations have the same free speech rights as any natural human being in terms of influencing elections. Previous decisions by the Court had declared that money counts exactly the same as speech (notice that they didn’t strike down that particular precedent), so therefore, corporations have the right to spend as much money as they want in order to influence elections. There were still, ostensibly, limits in place; corporations couldn’t give directly to a campaign, and there were caps on the amount that could be given to political action committees (PACs for short; that abbreviation will come up a lot more later on). In addition, advertising from PACs could not specifically advocate or attack any candidate; they had to be based on general issues. Naturally, that wasn’t good enough for our corporate overlords, so in vs. Federal Election Committee, the Court struck down the caps on donations to PACs and allowed that money to be used for promotion or denigration of candidates. Now any corporation could open the treasury and dump a chunk of its profits into any PAC related to any political issue, without limit, in the hopes of crushing opposition. I trust you’re beginning to see the reason I’ve been calling this the third-worst Supreme Court decision in history (it’s pretty hard to top Dred Scott vs. Sandford and Plessy vs. Ferguson for sheer awfulness).

To be fair to the Supreme Court, they did call for improved disclosure laws to ensure that, at the very least, the colossal flow of corporate cash could be tracked to the source. Some might say that if they were serious about ensuring disclosure they could have mandated it in their decision, but when you’re overturning a century of rulings where do you find the time? Naturally, Congress attempted to prove itself worthy of the cause, and the DISCLOSE Act was promoted as a way to limit the damage and keep the spotlight on corporations and special interest groups. Naturally, Congress failed to get anything done because the Republicans in the Senate filibustered the bill and the Democrats lacked by a single vote the ability to invoke cloture. This Republican filibuster included, by the way, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who said – word for word – the following: “I don't like it when a large source of money is out there funding ads and is unaccountable. To the extent we can, I tend to favor disclosure.” It’s pretty easy to hold views when you never have to vote on the bills related to them, isn’t it, Senator?

With the last potential hurdle overturned, corporate money began to pour into PACs faster than frat boys into a midnight release for the latest Call of Duty. This led to the formation of super PACs, since apparently more money warrants a positive adjective (there’s really no difference between a PAC and a super PAC besides the amount of money). There are still normal PACs as well, but these days they exist for a more nefarious purpose: muddling the paper trail for those trying to track money back to its source. Corporations that want to bankroll candidates can set up shell corporations and give money to them. The shell corporations then donate the money to a PAC, which then donates that money to another PAC, which then gives the money to the super PAC for which it was originally intended. While super PACs are still required to publish records of where they get their money, those records only show the last PAC in the chain. On top of that, those records are published sparingly (most are required to publish approximately every three months) if at all (several have received permission from the Federal Election Committee, which appears to have just given up trying to do anything productive, to postpone releasing records). Good luck trying to trace money back from Restore Our Future (Mitt Romney’s super PAC) back to Exxon.

The ultimate effect of this chicanery is that money now has a greater effect than ever before on the electoral process. Consider the following: After the New Hampshire primary, Newt Gingrich appeared to be on his way out of the campaign. He’d floundered badly in Iowa, finishing fourth behind Santorum, Romney, and Paul. He’d outright tanked in New Hampshire, placing fifth (getting passed by soon-to-quit-and-start-writing-a-book Jon Huntsman). His campaign was nearly broke, as few people want to be seen donating to a loser, and with most of the outside world recognizing Newt as a self-immolating charlatan with little chance of staying stable until the convention, the odds of picking up any major corporate support seemed slim at best. That’s where Sheldon Adelson comes in. Adelson is a casino billionaire from Las Vegas. He's a hard core hawk on Israel (outside of Joe Lieberman, he might be America's biggest supporter of Netanyahu). He hates unions. And he, like the majority of the Republican base, can’t stand the thought of Mitt “Guy Smiley” Romney as the nominee. With this in mind, and for some reason seeing Newt as the most likely to beat out Mitt for the nomination (from what I've read, he seems to really like Newt, for reasons unclear to me, or to anyone else, for that matter), he gave Newt’s super PAC five million dollars. That’s right. One man. One donation. Five million dollars. Suddenly flush with cash, Newt dumped as much cash into ads in South Carolina as his open marriage would allow, and it paid off in a semi-stunning double-digit win over Romney and renewed life. The next week, Mr. Adelson’s wife wrote Newt’s super PAC another five million dollar check. Out of nowhere, Newt Gingrich was back in the race despite having performed more than poorly enough to warrant elimination. Granted, Newt’s back to also-ran status following a lackluster performance in the last debate and a flat-out curbstomping in the Colorado/Nevada/Minnesota trifecta, but we’re talking about weeks, if not months, of additional advertising, debate appearances, and discussions on mainstream media that he never would have seen if not for one man and five million dollars. Think about how different this race is if Gingrich doesn’t get that check: without the money to compete, Newt’s forced to drop out after South Carolina (which he probably doesn’t win without the massive advertising blitz). Rick Perry was still in the race at the time; does he stay in with Newt out of the way (remember, Perry had a substantially larger bankroll than anyone but Romney)? Does the base/Tea Party (ugh) crystallize behind Santorum earlier, giving him a bigger share of the vote in South Carolina and Florida and making him the de facto Not Romney candidate? Does Romney, now lacking a major opponent in South Carolina, take the state and essentially sew up the nomination? It’s all impossible to say for sure. All I know is that Newt was dead in the water, and then after one man wrote one check, he wasn’t anymore, not because of any policy choice or superior political tactic, but because he had the money to advertise.

How bad is it getting? Mitt Romney’s super PAC spent over $15 million on advertising in Florida alone. Super PACs had already spent $30 million on the campaign as of the last week of JANUARY. Karl Rove is talking about raising – and spending - $240 MILLION on this year’s elections. Last week, President Obama (a major critic of the Citizens United decision when it happened) gave the OK to the Democratic super PAC, not because he’s changed his mind on the topic (spoiler alert: still very much against it), but because it’s a pragmatic necessity to compete (while the DNCC’s funding outstrips the RNC’s by a fair amount, there’s just no comparison in super PAC money). No one seems to like what’s happened, even those who are benefitting from the support of corporate moguls. Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney have both complained about the use of super PAC money to attack each of them. Rick Santorum’s been vocally against super PACs; no surprise, as Restore Our Future went after him like the Religious Right goes after anyone who badmouths Tim Tebow. Most of Congress hates them because they’ve become completely beholden to corporate interests (if they weren’t already); any vote threatens to unleash an avalanche of super PAC money, so every congressman runs scared from any issue that might bother those holding their leashes. House members in particular complain about having to spend the majority of their terms in office fundraising for their reelection campaign; anyone out there want to bet that phenomenon’s gotten BETTER since Citizens United? On top of all of that, there’s the possibility of it getting WORSE; the Republican Party recently filed an amicus brief stating that it believes the Tillman Act of 1907 (which bars direct campaign contributions to candidates by corporations) is unconstitutional. That’s right, the Republicans don’t just want to repeal the Affordable Care Act and Dodd-Frank, they want to repeal the whole freakin’ 20th century! Some of you might have noticed that the 20th century was the one where America became a global power once all the crap from the Gilded Age got wiped out, but your “facts” have no business getting in the way of business.

Fortunately, there are a few people in Congress who see the endgame and have stepped up to fight the power (admittedly, the thought of either of these gentlemen listening to Public Enemy amuses me). Senator Bernie Sanders (a mainstay in my columns, as you may have noticed) and Congressman Ted Deutch have introduced in their respective houses of Congress the Saving American Democracy Amendment. This would directly amend the Constitution to say that corporations are not people and thereby not entitled to the protections of natural persons enumerated in the Constitution, that said corporations will be prohibited from contributing towards the election of public officials, and that Congress and the states have the right to regulate campaign contributions. It’s not public financing of elections (as basically every other developed country does it), but it’s a start and at the very least it would stop the Roberts/Alito/Scalia/Thomas Judicial Branch of the Republican Party dead in their tracks. Will it pass anytime soon? Hell, no. Amendments require a two-thirds majority of BOTH houses to pass (good luck getting two-thirds to agree on anything in the House besides pay raises and naming post offices after Ronald Reagan), PLUS ratification by three-quarters of the states within seven years of passage by Congress (not a fait accompli; the Equal Rights Amendment died because they couldn’t get ratification within the allotted time period). I’m less concerned about ratification, as there’s enough of a populist movement between the Occupy folks, the Tea Party (ugh), and mainstream America that it should get through with ease, particularly if the elderly get behind it. I can’t see any situation, however, where it even gets out of Washington. There are too many special interests that are too entrenched and that own too many politicians for this to ever get a fair up-or-down vote, much less two-thirds support in both houses. That’s where you come in, loyal readers. As Wisconsin and the backlash against SOPA and PIPA have shown, if enough of us fight loudly enough, We the People can still get things accomplished (or not accomplished, as the case may be). Get the word out that this amendment is vitally important to the future of this country. Tell your friends, coworkers, random people in the grocery store, whoever, that we cannot and we must not let democracy get replaced completely by plutocracy.

Until next time, I’ve got two “findings of fact” of my own.

Corporations are not people.

Money is not speech.

P.S. There's an excellent piece at on this same topic. It's a chapter from Thom Hartmann's latest book, and it gets much more in-depth than I do (the luxuries of having time to write a book that requires that kind of research). Highly recommended to anyone who wants more information.