Sunday, February 14, 2016

Hillary's Lame Campaign

I want to start by making clear that this is just about the campaign, and not about who should be President or the Democratic nominee.  If you like Hillary Clinton's positions, or Hillary, or think it is important to nominate a woman, by all means vote for Hillary.  If you like Bernie Sanders' positions, or Bernie, or think it is important to nominate a Jewish social democrat, vote for Bernie.  If you like Martin O'Malley (and he is still in the race when you vote), vote for Martin.  (The Republicans are a whole different story...)

What is odd about about Hillary Clinton's campaign is how bad it is.  This is not the first time this has happened - she had the inside track in 2008, but fell apart in the face of the Obama campaign (which admittedly was brilliant, but more on that later).

Facing a surprisingly strong challenge from the left in the person of Bernie Sanders, Clinton's campaign appears to be freaking out, and at a loss as how to counter Sanders' seemingly growing momentum.  (We still have to see how well a Jewish Yankee will play in the Bible Belt.)  In fact, Clinton's campaign seems to mostly be confirming Sanders' criticisms.

Sanders argues that Clinton is the Establishment candidate, and that if you want to change things, you should vote for Sanders, not Clinton, and he has staked out clear and ambitious (and quite possibly unattainable) positions, like single-payer health care and publicly-subsidized college tuition.  He has been critical of Wall Street, and opposed the disastrous war in Iraq.  As a result, he has attracted a following of potential voters who agree with those positions, and who want change.  Sanders excites people with his passion and boldness, and his willingness to take on the powerful entities that seem to have bought control of our political process.

Clinton got to where she is by playing the conventional insider political game, and doing it well.  She built her resume, gained experience and qualifications and name recognition, cultivated the key players in the Democratic party, raised money for the party (and herself), and avoided taking potentially controversial positions.  She maneuvered herself to be the clear party choice, and her positions mirror those of the mainstream party.  So one problem she faces is that when Sanders accuses her of being an Establishment candidate, he is basically correct.

But the bigger problem she faces is how she has responded to Sanders' campaign.  When Sanders makes bold promises of single-payer health plans and free college tuition, Clinton's response is to say, "No, that is not realistic, you are not going to get those things.  I will get you something else. It won't be as nice, but I can get it for you.  No, I can't tell you what it will be."  That simply does not excite people. 

And it also raises a few questions: 1) If you truly believe in those things, why won't you even try to get them?  Do you really believe in those things?  2) If you don't ask for them, you will never get them.  The Republicans will likely oppose anything that a Democratic President proposes, no matter how moderate it is.  Why start off by compromising your real position when the Republicans will oppose it anyway?  You might as well go after what you really want. 3) What will you actually ask for?  What kind of bargaining leverage will you have, particularly if you have already given up the moral high ground?

Another approach that Clinton has taken is to try to discredit Sanders.  First, she built on the above line of reasoning by essentially accusing him of being naive and unsophisticated on how Washington D.C. really works. This one would make sense against someone like Obama in 2008, or maybe Bobby Jindal or Carly Fiorina, but it is simply weird to make that accusation against someone who was in the House of Representatives from 1990 to 2006 and in the Senate since 2006.

She doubled down on this by focusing on foreign policy, which she considers a strength of hers from being Secretary of State.  But she did this by invoking the name of Henry Kissinger, one of the most Establishment figures there is.  In other words, she just confirmed again what Sanders was accusing her of.  Sanders response was simple: "I don't like Kissinger and his policies, and I am going to do something different."

She tried a light version of the Swift Boat attack, by having John Lewis say he never saw Sanders during the civil rights movement.  Again, Lewis is now part of the Democratic Party Establishment, so that again confirmed Sanders' position. And then, given that Sanders' participation in the civil rights movement was pretty clear, Lewis backed down from the implications of his statement.  And this came just after another Establishment figure, Madeleine Albright, had to back down from her statement in support of Clinton (in which she basically said that women who vote for Sanders would burn in hell).

Clinton's response to Sanders has been: "Look, all the really important people, the people you should listen to, the Establishment people, say you should support me."  Not only does this just confirm what Sanders has been saying, the way that Clinton used them has been incredibly inept.  Albright, Lewis and Gloria Steinem (who I think may be sort of part of the Establishment now, but I'm not sure) all seemed to annoy potential Sanders voters more than persuade them to switch to Clinton, and all of them issued apologies or "clarifications" of their remarks.  So that did not work well for Clinton.

Clinton has run a strong conventional campaign, and simply deterred or buried all of the potential conventional opponents, but Sanders is not a conventional opponent, and she seems to be at a loss how to deal with him effectively.  This raises some concerns about how she would do in the general election, depending on who the Republicans eventually nominate.  Clinton may be okay against a conventional opponent, like Jeb Bush.  But given her flailing response to Sanders, how well she could deal with the unconventional but media-savvy Donald Trump is unclear. 

Obama managed to excite people with his soaring rhetoric and inspirational message, while simultaneously not scaring Wall Street and the Democratic Establishment.  That is a difficult maneuver to pull off, and Clinton has not managed to do it.  (Neither did Al Gore or John Kerry, despite their qualifications.) Sanders has not done it either, but he isn't trying to. 

If Clinton wants to solidly win the nomination (without resorting to things like pre-pledged "superdelegates" that will turn off many potential voters), she is going to have to step up the quality of her campaign. So far, her attempts to make Sanders look bad have largely backfired on her.  She should stop those, and focus on making herself look good.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

It's Not About the Guns

My apologies to both sides of the current gun control debate - but in my opinion, it is not about the guns.  Guns are a symptom - and a symbol - of a deeper problem.

Let's look first at the argument that guns guarantee our freedom - that guns, and the right to own guns, are a bulwark against a totalitarian government.  In other words, when the federal troops are sent in to put down dissent and popular rebellion, the people will have the means to fight back.

In practice, however, this has not worked so well.  In large part, this is because government repression in the US generally does not involve sending in troops.  When the government passed the Patriot Act, with widespread abridgment of rights, did anyone take to the streets with their guns to right this wrong?  What about when we found out about the NSA's domestic spying?  When we found out that the justification for the Iraq war was a lie?  When we found out about waterboarding, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib? Did we grab our guns to rise up in defense of Edward Snowden and Bradley/Chelsea Manning, who took huge risks to inform us of government lies and overreaching?

Another problem is that repression usually starts with attacks on those who are unpopular.  I do not recall hearing about armed resistance by the general population when the US shipped its own citizens of Japanese descent off to internment camps.  Where was the armed resistance to protect Blacks and Chinese against lynch mobs (often encouraged by local government officials)?  Was there armed resistance to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act? Hitler started with the Communists and Gypsies and homosexuals and Jews, the Puritans in Salem went after "witches," and now political figures in the US are arguing that we should exclude or expel Muslims. In none of these cases did guns in the hands of citizens stop the repression.  In fact, citizens with guns sometimes showed up to assist in the repression, such as the lynching of Blacks and Chinese.  The main recent beneficiary of an arms-bearing citizenry appears to be Cliven Bundy, the rancher who is resisting paying fees for grazing his cows on federal land.  Grazing fees - yes, that is the type of government repression so extreme that it cries out for armed resistance.

Let's look at the argument on the other side - that the ready availability of guns, and especially military-style guns, are a major cause of violence, and particularly mass shootings.  In other words, if we significantly reduced or eliminated access to guns we could also significantly reduce or eliminate violent attacks, and particularly mass shootings.

The problem with this argument is that there are plenty of societies (including the US) that have historically had plenty of guns, and yet did not have nearly so many shootings (mass or individual).

In Israel, almost every 19 and 20 year old is in the Army.  But when they are off duty, they are still in uniform and they still have their military weapon with them.  So in the mall food court, on the bus, walking down the street, most of the male 19 and 20 year olds are carrying an M16.  In womens' restrooms my wife liked to see the various ways that women soldiers answered the question, "What do you do with your Uzi while you fix your makeup?"  The installer at the local art museum wore a pistol, the family on the kibbutz near Gaza kept the Uzi on top of the refrigerator (so the grandkids couldn't reach it).  While Israel certainly has many issues, domestic mass shootings are generally not one of them.

As Michael Moore pointed out in Bowling for Columbine, Canada (at that time) had a similar level of gun ownership as the US, but a much lower homicide rate.  Likewise, Switzerland has a high rate of gun ownership and much lower homicide rate.  Historically, it has been easy for people to acquire guns in the US as well.  So while the US has lots of guns and lots of gun violence, it does not seem to be the guns themselves that are the problem.  In other words, limiting access to guns will likely not solve the problem.

Michael Moore attributed the problem to a culture of fear, and I think he may have something there. Israel and Switzerland have high levels of military participation, which means a couple of things.  First, gun owners there are likely to have significant training in proper gun handling.  In Israel, the soldiers never had a clip in their M16 (except those on guard duty in very dangerous locations, who also had on flak jackets, and tended to look very unhappy).  They were not parading around the fact that they had an assault rifle.

Second, that higher level of military participation may contribute to a feeling of belonging to a larger society, as opposed to the US emphasis on the individual.  The NRA, in its efforts to further the interests of gun manufacturers, has gladly helped stoke the fears of those already afraid because of job losses, economic uncertainty, rapid societal changes, and a black President.  Their pitch: "Are you scared? Buy a gun!" seems to be working, especially when coupled with the extra dose of fear ladled out by Fox News.  Gun sales skyrocketed as the odds improved that Obama would be elected President.  The fear drives the gun sales, meaning that the guns are the symptom, with fear being the underlying cause.

So how to counter fear? With confidence and community, and with actions that address (at least some of) the root causes of fear.  Reducing the economic pressures on the middle and working class would be helpful - if you know that you will have a secure, well-paying job that will allow you to buy a house, support your family, and send your kids to college, you will be a lot less scared.  Making health insurance and college education affordable and ceasing to threaten social security would help, too. Addressing climate change would be helpful - given that there are a lot of credible people saying we have a serious problem, the fact that we are not doing much about it creates anxiety.  Taking steps to increase community and reduce isolation would be helpful - maybe we could have universal service (not just military service) for all high school graduates, where they not only do work for the public good and contribute to local communities, but they can also develop connections and friendships. And finally, turn off the scary movie - don't watch Fox News and the other similar "news" sources whose real message is to be afraid.  We must be able to think rationally and calmly, instead of reacting in fear, which drives bad decisions and lashing out in violence.

If we don't get rid of the fear and isolation, neither buying guns nor banning them will solve our problems.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Congress Gives Gifts to Corporations (at our expense) Again.

Congress, as part of the omnibus spending bill, just voted - on a bipartisan vote - to repeal the oil-export ban.  This is only good for the oil companies (and maybe a minor help to oil-importing countries), but bad for the US and the world.  It confirms that Congress is fundamentally a corporate kleptocracy.

Here are the reasons why repealing the oil export ban is a bad idea:

1) It will become harder to leave oil in the ground.  If you don't leave oil in the ground, you can't prevent it being burned.  If it is burned, it contributes to climate change.

Even if the US goes to mostly or exclusively electric or hydrogen powered vehicles, US oil could be (and most likely would be) exported to countries that are still using gasoline or diesel powered vehicles, as the oil companies look for new markets.  The pressure on those countries to switch away from fossil fuels is reduced, as US oil would provide an additional source of supply, and likely put downward pressure on global oil prices.

The result: more money for oil companies (who make most of their money by just pulling crude oil out of the ground), more oil burned, and an additional contribution to climate change.

2) More trashed and ugly places. By increasing the demand for US oil (because there would suddenly be many more potential buyers), there will be an incentive to extract more oil from US sources.  But since oilfield production declines over time, you can't just turn up the flow from existing fields - you need to drill more, and in new places.  Resource extraction activities, like oil and gas production, mining, and timber production, tend to trash the local environment, creating scarred and desolate wastelands.  So if you increase oil production (which is the intent of this legislation) you trash more of the US landscape.

In addition, resource extraction is generally a low-value activity. Think of coal towns, other mining towns, lumber towns, oil towns - those are not the places with high-value economies like Silicon Valley or Los Angeles or New York.

3) Energy security.  If you believe that it is important for the US to have domestic supplies of oil that it can turn to in case of a disruption of overseas sources, the repeal of the export ban eviscerates that.  Oil is a finite, non-renewable resource.  Oilfield production declines over time, and we have already depleted many of our domestic fields, in Pennsylvania, Texas, and California.  If US oil prices are competitive (and they likely will be), Japan and Korea and China and India and Germany and Italy and France will be buying US oil.

With that increased demand, US oilfields will be depleted more rapidly.  Once they are empty, they are empty, and are no longer available to provide oil to the US if there is a disruption in overseas supply. (You could try to drill more - but see #2.  And then those new fields would be depleted as well.) So energy security from domestic oil will be reduced.

4) Corporate kleptocracy. The trade-off that the Democrats got for supporting repeal of the oil export ban is an extension of tax credits for renewable electric generation; while these tax credits have helped expand the use of renewable resources, they are also a corporate subsidy (albeit for renewable energy developers rather than oil companies).

So instead of doing something of real benefit, such as passing a carbon tax, or a federal requirement for a minimum amount of renewable generation, Congress just added one corporate subsidy onto another corporate giveaway. Feh.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

After Santa Barbara

After the (most recent) mass shooting in Santa Barbara, I posted the following on facebook; I am reposting it here for continued accessibility.

So we live in a surveillance/military state, where the NSA knows who we are talking to and when and for how long, where to get on a plane we must leave our water bottles and put our toiletries in clear bags, where our bus passes and bridge passes and phones track our whereabouts, where the local cops have armored personnel carriers and assault weapons, where we spend massive amounts of our tax dollars on the most advanced weapons ever made.

But are we safe? All of this "war on terror" - at a huge cost to our finances and our freedoms - has done nothing to protect the victims of attacks at Sandy Hook or Washington Navy Yard or Santa Barbara.

Maybe that is because we looking for terrorists in the wrong place - all of our money and resources are focused on protecting us from "the other," those bearded and turbaned 9/11-style terrorists. But these terror attacks (a "mass shooting" must count as a terror attack) are not by others, but by us - the fellow student, the co-worker, the neighbor, the relative.

Yet we keep focusing on and fearing the other, taking action to counter the latest moves (that we deem suspicious) by Iran or Russia or China or North Korea or al Qaeda or Venezuela or Cuba, and doing little to even think about the source of the domestic shooters (or bombers) who have killed far more Americans, and most of whom having boring, "American" names like Harris or Rodgers.

There is a problem with our society (and it is deeper than, but connected to, guns and misogyny), and I think Michael Moore was partially on the right track when he focused on an American culture of fear. (Which is ironic given our wealth and power.)

But it is not just that - the erosion of a sense of community, or society, or civilization has added to that. The emphasis on the individual, the cult of celebrity and wealth worship, the "greed is good/grab what you can" mentality, the naked use of power and influence, all erode social cohesion and remove barriers to profoundly selfish, fame-seeking acts that harm others, with the killings being an extreme form.

If we were less isolated from each other, less encouraged to victimize each other for our own personal gain, we would be less afraid. There would be fewer guns, less misogyny, and most importantly, fewer killings. Let us strive for connection and overcome fear. Peace to all, and peace to ourselves.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Nanny State

Some folks on the rightward end of the political spectrum seem to like to use the phrase "the nanny state," and while their application of that label seems to somewhat arbitrary and scattershot, I actually kind of like the phrase.

It seems to me, however, that we get most into a "nanny state" when dealing with social welfare programs for low-income folks.

For example, you can get what used to be called "food stamps" (now WIC), but there are very detailed requirements about what foods you can and cannot buy.  For example, only certain species of canned mackerel can be purchased, and no olives or pickled vegetables or imported cheeses are allowed.  Check it out:

Likewise for housing assistance or "Section 8" housing.  You have to provide the government all sorts of information about your family and income, and they have to inspect the housing you find to make sure it is acceptable.

For unemployment insurance, you need to provide the government specific information about why and how you left your last job (among other things), and then they will determine if you are eligible for unemployment:

So we have all these huge bureaucracies that exist to look in detail at every person who wants help buying a can of mackerel or renting an apartment, and will tell that person what food they can buy and what apartment they can rent and if they left their job for the wrong reason.  If you want small government that is not intrusive into peoples' lives, it would make sense to eliminate these bureaucracies.  It would certainly reduce the "nanny state."

So how can we do that?  Provide a basic minimum income to everyone - enough money for basic housing, food, clothing, medical care, utilities, etc.  And then leave it up to the recipients how they want to spend it - they can spend it smart or spend it stupid, just like everyone else, with no government oversight over what food they are buying, what apartment they are renting, or why they left their last job.  And we could get rid of all of those administrative "nanny" bureaucracies...

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A New Tax System

I have been thinking about taxes, particularly about what we tax.  And I have been listening to some of the right-wing criticisms of classic liberal tax concepts, such as the progressive income tax.  And frankly, I think the right-wingers have some valid criticisms, although they don't seem to have any actual solutions. ("No new taxes" is not a solution, unless you think the existing tax system is perfect.)

First, it seems odd to tax things that we want to encourage.  It is generally a good thing for the economy if people have an income, and if that income goes up.  So why would we tax income?  Similarly, like it or not, we have a consumption-based economy - we want people to buy stuff.  So why would we tax sales of stuff?

Second, it seems like we should tax things that we want to discourage.  We already do to a small extent  with "sin taxes" on tobacco and alcohol, but that is not really my focus.  I would prefer resource extraction taxes - you take something out of the ground, like oil or gas or minerals or lumber or water, and you pay a hefty tax for doing so.  After all, once you have taken it, no one else can take it, and eventually we will run out of those things.  It seems like a good idea to discourage folks from depleting resources too easily and cheaply.

Similarly, I don't have a problem with property taxes.  Real property is finite, so the more you accumulate, the less there is for anyone else.  Maybe property taxes should be progressive, so owning a little property to live on doesn't cost you much, but the more you own the higher rate you pay.

In addition to resource extraction and property taxes, I would like toxics taxes.  Less poison in our food, water, and air would be good.  Hey, it might even reduce the incidence of cancer. (I would really like it if fewer people died of cancer, wouldn't you?)  So if you produce or use a toxic substance, you would pay a hefty tax for doing so.  That would likely reduce the number of toxics that are used just because it is cheap or easy to do so.

One right-wing complaint about high income taxes is that the people who are making those high incomes deserve those incomes because of their unusual hard work or special skills - in other words, they have earned that money, and it is not fair to take it away.  (Presumably lobbying skills count, too.) To ensure that this is in fact the case, it would make sense to have a high estate tax, at least on larger estates (whatever large is).  After all, inheriting money does not entail much work or skill (stay alive, don't annoy your relatives too much), so those who inherit large chunks of money have not earned that money.  And besides, Thomas Paine and Warren Buffett both support this idea.

So here is the basic outline: no income tax, no sales tax.  Progressive (with quantity of land) real property tax.  Sharply progressive estate tax.  Steep resource extraction and toxics taxes.

Monday, November 26, 2012

We Are Rich!

Really, we are rich.  As a country (USA) and as a state (California).  You can tell just by looking around - the expensive restaurants are crowded, there are BMWs and Range Rovers on the street, there are lots of high rises cloaked in polished stone, we have Armani and Tiffany and Hermes stores, houses in San Francisco and Marin and La Jolla and Malibu are still expensive, everyone is using an electronic gadget unknown just a few years ago, from smartphones to tablets to ebooks to flat-screen monitors and TVs.  There is money here - lots of money.

If you look further, it only becomes clearer how phenomenally rich we are.  Not just stuff - we have resources: human resources, natural resources, design and engineering and manufacturing resources.  California produces oil and gas, tons of food, wine, clothing, biotechnology.  Apple and Google and HP and Chevron and Levi's and Disney and Pixar and Tesla are here.  We have world-class universities and research institutions and art schools.  In short, we have a lot - money, assets, and resources.

But Stockton and San Bernardino have gone bankrupt, Oakland laid off police officers, Berkeley closed two public swimming pools, 20,000 teachers got pink slips earlier this year, course offerings at community colleges and public universities have been cut, state parks have been closed and infrastructure is not being maintained.  This only makes sense if we are poor.  Why would we want to lay off teachers and police, not maintain our roads, and reduce the quality and quantity of education?  These things - education and infrastructure and public safety - are investments, not costs.   You would only not invest if you did not have the money to invest.  But we have the money.

There is enough money for another dinner at Gary Danko ($75-100) or a Hickey Freeman suit ($1500) or a BMW X5 ($60,000) or tearing down and rebuilding a La Jolla oceanfront home ($12 million).  But there is not enough money to pay for police officers or school teachers or college professors?  Nah, there is enough money.  It just is not in the right place - it is an issue of how the money is distributed, rather than how much there is.  The problem is with how the pie is sliced, not the size of the pie.

More later on re-slicing the pie...