Monday, July 28, 2014

Obama: This Duck Is Still Mobile

You would think, from all the talk about the midterm elections and the final two years of the Obama Administration, that the president doesn't matter anymore or that absolutely nothing will get done in Washington between now and January 2017. While we may be fighting political gridlock, and the possibility that few if any consequential laws will be passed soon, the rest of the wold is not stopping nor is our country's need for attention to our very real problems. The Republicans in Congress have made it clear that they do not want to work with Barack Obama or give him any victories from which the Democrats can claim any advantage going into the 2016 election season. This is no way to run a country, and we will pay a price in the future for our inability to act now.

There is no shortage of media stories purporting to paint Obama as a lame duck before his time, abandoning his legislative agenda in favor of executive orders and agency rule-writing. The problem with this interpretation is that Obama's actions, especially on the environment, will have a profound effect on business and industry. New rules that detail how much a company can pollute and whether they need to clean up their emissions is no small matter. If it was, then the various business groups that oppose these changes wouldn't be making so much noise.

The same is true with the Affordable Care Act. Yes, two Circuit Courts did issue contradictory rulings last week about whether people who buy policies on the federal exchange are entitled to subsidies, but in the end I believe that the law will be upheld and the subsidies will remain in place. I base this not on my fine reading of the law, but on the fact that by the time the Supreme Court gets the case, upwards of 30 million people will be covered by federal subsidies and the cost of ending them will be too much of a disruption to the country. Just as the Supreme Court ruled that police can't search cell phones without a warrant mainly because the justices understood first hand what that would entail, so they will understand what it means to take health care away from people or make it unaffordable. Either Roberts or Kennedy will provide the deciding vote in any future case; the former to maintain his legacy, the latter because he tends to see applicability more than the other conservatives. The result of any case will be the president having to issue orders or to order executive branch offices to maintain the law so that it continues to honor its promises.

The president is never a lame duck when it comes to foreign policy, and Obama will not be an exception. The world is on fire as we speak and the United States will play a role in unwinding many of the conflicts that engulf it. Critics have been unsparing in their denunciations of Obama's seemingly uninspiring handling of foreign affairs, but many on the right are calling for actions that the United States will not, and should not, take, such as sending troops or issuing ultimatums. Economic sanctions will have an effect on Vladimir Putin, and I think he understands this which is why he continues to push for separatist actions in Ukraine. Obama's continuing contact with Benjamin Netanyahu will result in a cease fire and long-term cessation of hostilities because the American president still carries great weight in the region. Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya look hopeless, but a concerted American effort will yield some results. Ultimately, these countries will have to solve problems on their ow, but each will look abroad for help. Obama will be there.

Labeling a president as a lame duck is dangerous business in today's world because technology has made everything faster and response time smaller. The economy is improving, but if the stock market gains prove to be a bubble, then the president will need to act quickly. Any number of natural disasters would require a response. And if the GOP ever gets the message that tax policy, infrastructure improvements and immigration really do need more attention than suing or impeaching Obama, then perhaps we could have a significant bill before the next election.

I can dream, no?

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Christie: If You Want Pain, I'm Your Man

Yes, we have seen this before.

If there was any doubt that Governor Chris Christie wants to be president, let the dispelling commence. His full-throated diatribe against public worker pensions and benefits today marks the moment when he unofficially officially began his run. And if anyone thinks he's a moderate, sensible Republican, then that person is seriously fooling himself.

As opposed to 2011, when Christie was able to use his alliances with key Democrats to get a pension and benefits bill through the legislature, this attempt at making not only current workers but also retirees pay more for their retirements will be a far more difficult sell. The New Jersey Education Association has recovered from its lackluster response three years ago and is now ready to properly defend itself and its members. Representatives of the police and firefighters were protesting outside the hall where Christie was speaking in Belmar, and it's never a good idea to present yourself as a healer and unifying force when the people who fight fires, protect and educate the public are behind the barricades. Christie can make the argument that the 2011 reform was necessary, but this time it has "appeal to the right-wing" written all over it.

From an economic viewpoint, taking more money out of the pockets of middle and working class people makes little sense. Less money means less spending. Less spending means slower growth. What the state's economy needs is an infusion of money to stimulate spending and investment. Remember that only Illinois stands between New Jersey and the terrible 50th ranking on the economic growth charts. This is hardly the economy Christie wants to run on in 2016. There's no New Jersey Miracle; the only miracle is that Christie thinks he's doing a good job.

Christie apparently has not learned the lesson of Mitt Romney's run in 2012, because his plan protects the wealthy from any kind of pain. Christie's argument has always been that if the state raises taxes on the wealthy, that they will then leave the state and take their money with them. Never mind that there's little statistical evidence of that happening. In fact, in New York, more working class people left than wealthy people when taxes went up.

Christie's math must then assume that middle class residents will not be able to leave the state because, with their houses under water literally and figuratively, they'll be stuck. The workers pay more so that the wealthy can stay. That's been his position ever since he became governor and that's going to be his downfall.

What complicates Christie's position even further is that the New Jersey Pension system is seeing larger than expected gains because of the rise in the stock market. While this will not last, it supports the Democrats' arguments that if Christie had only authorized full state pension payments since the reform law was passed, then there would be even less of a shortfall. But the Republican argument since the economic crash of 2008 is that the country needs radical fiscal restructuring on taxes and the debt. A growing economy works against them because it means a lower deficit and more money in people's pockets. GOP scare tactics don't work when consumers feel better.

In the end, my sense is that this proposal is dead on arrival at the Democratic legislature's door, but I've been wrong before. This sounds like a campaign platform pure and simple, and one that will not only not solve the problem, it will make it worse. If the GOP-controlled House of Representatives has taught us anything, it's that supply side economics is alive and well in the country and is holding back the recovery. Electing Christie would be a disaster for the middle and working classes.

Let the campaign begin.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Silly Season Gets Serious

I took my talents to South Beach over the weekend for a relative's surprise birthday party, and on the plane to and fro I had the opportunity to...think. Love airplane mode. Phones and tablets should have other modes, such as marriage mode, play-with-children mode, just-watch-one-screen mode, or perhaps physical media mode, where you would be forced to consume news and entertainment using a newspaper or magazine. I know, I know. I'm old and out-of-touch.

Not really.

Consuming news over the past 10 days has been a wild ride. The Middle East is blowing up again, Malaysia Airlines underwent another tragedy. U.S. courts are issuing contradictory opinions on the same set of facts. We have reached a news critical mass.

I am worn out about the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian war and the war over which press outlets are too pro-Israel (FOX) and too pro-Palestinian (The New York Times). Terrorist groups and organizations have for too long molded the narrative and have sabotaged every attempt at peace in the region. And the governmental authorities in the warring camps have let it happen. Clearly, Benjamin Netanyahu is not the man who will lead Israel to recognize a two-state solution and there is no current Palestinian leader with the credibility to make peace with Israel. As long as countries in the region refuse to recognize Israel's sovereign right to exist, there is no basis for meaningful talks. As long as Israel continues to blow up Palestinian homes, the world will continue to paint it as an immoral country.

And speaking of leaders with no credibility and few morals, Vladimir Putin has almost succeeded in building his neo-Soviet state out of the ashes of the USSR. Covering up the shooting of the Malaysian airliner, then having his thugs block access to the crash site is right out of the Chernobyl 101 textbook. The problem is that textbooks are so passe and the technology we have now has laid bare his claim that it was Ukrainians, not pro-Russian separatists, who perpetrated this horrific deed. I don't believe that this will lead to Putin's downfall in the short term because he's still very popular in Russia and he controls the media. Some Russians even believe that Putin himself was the target as he was flying in the general vicinity at the time the Malaysian plane was destroyed. Next up to blame will probably be the Israelis. Putin loves the Israelis.

As for the latest domestic squabbles, the Third Circuit Court in DC upheld the ACA subsidies and the Fourth Circuit in Richmond struck them down. Gotta love our judicial system. Both sides can claim victories, but my sense is that the ultimate decision by the Supreme Court, either next year or the year after, will uphold the subsidies that people get when buying insurance on the national exchange even though the law says that subsidies should only be given to people who buy on the state exchanges. Of course, the last time we tried to parse the ACA arguments in the court, the general consensus was that the law was toast. Ouch. And even if the Republicans win the Senate in November, which they won't, the law will still survive.

Meanwhile, sleep tight America. Rick Perry's got the border covered. 

But don't worry; he'll never be president.

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Sunday, July 13, 2014

Stupid Costs More

I know, I know: Money is the answer, plain and simple. School districts don't want to pay teachers for advanced degrees and right wing politicians don't want public schools to begin with, so it makes sense that Texas and North Carolina are both in the forefront of starving their states of effective teachers in an effort to...well, I'm not sure.

The debate over whether teachers who earn advanced degrees and credits that allow them to earn more money on the salary scale are actually better teachers than those who don't, or are better themselves than if they had just stuck with their Bachelor's degree credits, is becoming louder and more intense. As any teacher can tell you, though, there really is no debate. Teachers who continue their educations, broaden themselves or even go in  a new educational direction tend to be more effective. There is no question that teachers should be encouraged (required?) to take courses in content or pedagogy.

So why the screed? Because  a few states, most notably Texas and North Carolina, have decided that paying teachers more for advanced degrees doesn't necessarily lead to high student test scores. And they might be right, but that's exactly what's wrong with the current push for test scores to evaluate teachers. Earning a higher degree makes the teacher more knowledgeable and exposes them to more effective teaching methods. Students are then exposed to a greater variety of teaching methods and more expansive content. That's the point of an education. Equating the tests with teacher effectiveness is a terrible idea whose time, unfortunately, has come.

Even worse is the fact that public leaders continue to say that we need the best and brightest college graduates to become teachers (as if we don't have a significant majority of them in classrooms right now). What the best and brightest know, and being one of them allows me to represent their argument, is that educating yourself is the best practice any teacher can follow. The best and brightest also know that motivating people to push themselves should be recognized monetarily. Isn't that what law firms, banks and other corporations do?

The best and brightest are not swayed by specious arguments from elected officials who are not, in most cases, the best and brightest. For proof, consider the reaction in North Carolina: 
In April, the Wake County Public School System – the largest in North Carolina with about 150,000 students – said more than 600 teachers had left since the beginning of the school year, an increase of 41 percent over the same period the year before.
One district official blamed a lack of a significant pay raises in recent years, along with the phasing out of tenure and extra pay for advanced degrees. Human Resources Superintendent Doug Thilman called the figures “alarming” but “not surprising.”
Not surprising? If your best teachers are leaving the schools, why continue the policy? And who, might I ask, is taking the place of these best and brightest? People with no interest in getting advanced degrees? These are not the best people to have in your classrooms. This is the kind of lazy thinking that will rule the country if conservatives are elected to the Senate and the White House.

Something to seriously think about this fall and for 2016.

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Monday, July 7, 2014

Uncompromisingly Wrong

The Fourth of July is always a great time to revisit what makes the United States a great nation, and I always come back to the same characteristic: Compromise. There is probably nothing more American than our genius for compromise, even more so than apple pie and motherhood, both of which were invented by people who didn't live here in the first place. But compromise? We are good at that, and the reason I think we're in the political quagmire we find ourselves in today is because we've stopped compromising, and I blame the Tea Party for this situation.

I know the right wing likes to blame President Obama or Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid for not compromising when the Democrats had the majority from 2009-2011, but the truth is that all three of them did offer opportunities for the Republicans to support the health care law that, after all, was the brainchild of conservative scholars who thought it a far better idea than what the Clintons were peddling in the 1990s. The same is true for the Dodd-Frank bill and the stimulus package, which had far too many Republican tax breaks and not enough in grass-roots spending to be fully effective. But at least those laws got passed.

The problem today is that the Tea Party-inspired GOP has become the party that has consistently traded the good for the perfect and has come up empty each time. They could have had a grand bargain twice that cut social programs and the deficit, but because it didn't go far enough, the Tea Party faction in the House wouldn't support it. The same is true of the ACA, which the right still wants to repeal, and a whole host of other issues where we could actually have made some progress and then improved the legislation down the road, but because the bills required compromise, the Tea Party was not interested.

I fully understand that this is sometimes the way politics goes in this country, but this time it seems different because now the right is saying that they, and only they, interpret the Constitution as it should be analyzed, so anything that runs afoul of that reading is wrong and un-American. This is the dangerous part of their agenda and the one that runs directly against their reading of American history, because they reject compromise of any sort.

This country, plain and simply, was built on compromise. The Declaration of Independence was a compromise that mentioned freedom and equality but didn't mention slavery. The Constitution was a compromise over commerce, slavery and representation. The run-up to the Civil War included a number of compromises that in the end could not satisfy the southerners who decided that slavery was a protected right and got the Supreme Court to agree with them. Financial legislation, social legislation, immigration laws and even US foreign policy in the era of the great world wars had elements of compromise.

FDR compromised, as did every other president we've ever elected. You'd think that Ronald Reagan was some great pillar of conservatism who blocked everything the Democrats sent him over eight years, but he compromised too. He cut taxes and then raised them. He signed a compromise immigration law and a tax overhaul that had both liberal and conservative elements. He bargained with terrorists after saying he would never do that. George H.W. Bush, who I think will be rehabilitated once historians get into the meat of his administration, did the absolute right thing by raising taxes to fight the budget deficit in the early 1990s.

You get the picture, I presume.

Lack of compromise is political suicide, and that's a lesson that the Tea Party will ultimately learn. The more savvy politicians know that you need to get what you can given the political mood and realities of the times. Then you run on your successes and build on them. That's how the Republicans ran the country until the 1930s and how the liberals ran things until the 1990s. Since then, what has government really accomplished? It's so bad now it took the threat of massive disruptions to get a Farm Bill. Bob Dole couldn't even convince his fellow Republicans to back a measure that would support people with physical disabilities.

We'll get through this and people will look back and wonder how it ever got so bad. If the Tea Party persists, though, they will become a historic party.

Like the Federalists and the Whigs.

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