Democratic viewpoints on politics, policy and activism

On Holding Down The Conversational Fort, Or, Jobs, Republicans, And Hooey

As the next Congressional fight over payroll tax extensions and unemployment benefits and pipelines gets set up in the next few weeks for either its final chapter or to be kicked down the road a bit farther, one or the other, you’re going to hear a lot from our Republican friends about how much they value work and workers; most especially, they’ll tell you, they value American jobs for American workers.

After all, they’ll say, creating American jobs is the most important thing of all.

But if we were to look back over just the last few months, some would tell us, we could quickly find examples of how Republicans promote ideas that don’t seem to value work or workers at all, much less American jobs.

Well as it turns out, “some” seem to be right; to illustrate one of those examples we’ll look back a month or two or three to a time some Republicans might wish was long, long, ago, in a galaxy far, far away.

A successful comedian usually becomes more megalomaniacal as the success barometer rises. Initial success might be achieved from stand-up but then the comedian envisions a sitcom, then Broadway, albums, extended tours, Europe, and then his or her own production company.  These things are all fine. Don’t do dinner theater. Don’t open stuff, like shopping centers or bowling alleys. Don’t do fairs, especially if you follow the pig contest.

–From the book “How To Be A Stand-Up Comic”, by Richard Belzer

So…the House Republicans went and promoted and passed out their payroll tax cut plan, and within that plan was a demand that the Junkie XL Pipeline – sorry, that should be Keystone XL Pipeline – get special “expedited” approvals, despite the objections of those who are worried about their water supply, and we have to do this, right now, those same House Republicans tell us, in order to put more or less 6500 folks to work getting the thing built.

And as we mentioned above, this is because the House Republicans care about American jobs and American workers.

So…it may strike you as a bit odd that the exact same House Republicans sent to the Senate in September the “Protecting Jobs From Government Interference Act” (HR 2587),  which has only one purpose: it tells the National Labor Relations Board (the “NLRB”) that if workers at a company decide to form a union, or the company even thinks a union might be coming, and the company, in retaliation, decides to move work from that plant – or, for that matter, decides to move the entire plant – then neither the NLRB nor the United States Courts shall have the authority to do anything about it.

All of this stems from an effort by Boeing to move work from Washington State to South Carolina in retaliation for union activity by the Puget Sound workforce; the NLRB has ruled that Boeing cannot move the work, and the Company and its friends in Congress have joined forces with other anti-Union Members of Congress to move this legislation.

Need a third-party expert opinion to help make sense of the NLRB’s involvement and remedies? Consider this comment from University of Pennsylvania Law Professor Ellen Dannin, via Dennis Kucinich:

The NLRB has decades of experience with cases of this sort, and the National Labor Relations Act is clear that employer actions like Boeing’s violate the law. If this were a murder case, it would be a case in which the police found a person saying : “I did it,” while standing over a fresh corpse with smoking gun in hand.

Decades of experience, did she say? Yes she did – and she was right. In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that the NLRB had the power to order remedies that include making companies “bring work back”, the relevant case being Fibreboard Paper Products Corp. v. Labor Board, 379 U.S. 203.

The 250 law professors who wrote a letter explaining why HR 2587 is such a bad idea point out that it’s not just about Boeing: companies will no longer have any reason to even bargain with unionized workers (or those who wish they were) before closing plants and moving work overseas, as they have to do now under the law; again, that’s because no one will have the power of enforcement in these cases anymore.

As you might imagine, that’s going to accelerate the departure of jobs overseas, and it won’t take very long to get to 6500, which makes all that Republican fussin’ and fightin’ and sanctimoneoussin’ about Keystone look a bit hollow, eh?

Let’s jump to the side track, as it were, and take a moment to talk about why the question of which Party controls Congress matters: HR 2587 was introduced into the House, and if the Democrats controlled the Chamber it would have died in Committee, and that would have been that…but they don’t, and it didn’t, so the bill made it to the House floor, where it passed with no Democratic “aye” votes and six Republicans voting “nay”.

Then it went to the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Sometimes Frustrating) has a bit more power than a Speaker of the House to kill any bill before his Chamber, if he’s so inclined; in this case the bill sits on the Senate Legislative Calendar, and unless he says otherwise, that’s where it’ll stay. Of course if Mitch McConnell (R-Hates Obama With The Fire Of A Thousand Suns) were Majority Leader, he would have that bill on the Senate Floor in a heartbeat – and it would pass with a Republican majority, unless Democrats were willing to stand firm and filibuster the thing or the President was willing to use the veto pen, neither of which seems particularly certain.

A companion bill, S 1523, was introduced by Lindsey Graham; it was referred to Committee, possibly to never be seen again – which is also thanks to Harry Reid, with an assist from Tom Harkin, who is the relevant Chair.

At this point I was going to move on to the “what have we learned today” part of the deal, but before I do, I want to take a moment to show you just what kind of legislation our GOP friends will bring to the table, given the chance:

S 1720, the “Put All Your Crazy Eggs In One Basket Act” (not the real bill title, but close enough), was introduced by John McCain just before Halloween (it’s now on the Legislative Calendar, not doing much), and it’s a classic.

This one single bill calls for a Balanced Budget Amendment vote, a semi-flat income tax, repeals “ObamaCare”, repeals Dodd-Frank (Wall Street reform), says you basically can’t sue for medical malpractice anymore, says that if Congress fails to approve any Federal Agency regulation in 90 days, it’s invalid, and then says no Agency can pass any regulation, of any kind, until unemployment hits 7.7%…and there’s a lot more besides, including, I kid you not, forbidding the EPA from regulating the discharge of pesticides into water.

So now let’s get to “what have we learned?”

How about this:

We are going to hear a lot over the next 60 days about how the GOP loves you, the Ameri
can worker, but at the exact same time they are looking to…well…put all the crazy eggs in one basket, if they can get away with it, and at the same time they’re looking to make it easier and easier to send more jobs to more countries than ever before, even to the point of trying to tell courts and regulators that they can no longer enforce laws Republicans can’t get repealed.

As our GOP friends stand before you, these next couple months, professing their undying love, remind them of this conversation today, and HR 2587, and S 1720, McCain’s “Crazy Egg Basket” bill, and then ask them if they think the GOP really cares about American jobs, or if they’re just getting hustled by slightly-slicker versions of used-car dealership credit managers?

Then you lean in close, look ’em in the eye, smile just a bit, and you say to ’em: “And hey, while you’re here…what do I gotta do to get you into a slightly used 1993 Buick Roadmaster Estate Wagontoday?”

Then you can both have a little laugh – while you take their money and run.

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On Helping Republicans, Or, Next Time You Need A Bad Idea, Try These

I have spent a number of years complaining about the interactions between Democrats and Republicans, but after the recent events involving the Keystone XL and civil liberties cave-ins, I’ve decided it’s time to stop complaining and embrace the madness.

But I also feel like there’s an ugly edge to all this…that hasn’t really been fully exploited.

I mean, Republicans have tried to force through a lot of disgusting ideas this Congress as they’ve held various bills hostage, but it seems like, if they really tried, they could do so much more.

But I’m not here to complain, I’m here to help; that’s why today we’ll be trotting out a few ideas of our own that Republicans can attach to bills throughout 2012, with the assistance of certain errant Democrats.

It’ll be fun, it’ll be festive, but most of all…it’ll be an exercise in Civic Responsibility, and in these difficult times, that’s something we could sorely use.

1) Above all, the needs of the army need to be taken into consideration. For instance, it will scarcely be possible to avoid, here and there, leaving behind some trade Jews who are absolutely essential for the provisioning of the troops, for lack of other possibilities. But in each case the proper Aryanization of these enterprises is to be planned and the move of the Jews to be completed in due course, in cooperation with the competent local German administrative authorities.

–From a planning document written in 1939 by Reinhard Heydrich, as reported in the book Documents of the Holocaust, edited by Yitzhak Arad, Israel Gutman, and Abraham Margaliot

So let’s start with the economy: the Census Bureau tells us that nearly half the population is now poor or near-poor, and something needs to be done. With that in mind, I’d propose the “Economic Freedom and Upward Mobility Act” (HR 4377), which would establish a series of military catapult sites along the US border where carefully selected poor folks would be given, literally, economic freedom and upward mobility, even as we instantly reduce the number of impoverished persons in the United States.

Civil rights are important, but not at any cost; that’s why the “Election Cost Control Act” (HR OU812) would allow States to empower local officials to preselect winners in various elections, saving the taxpayer the time and expense of having to count the votes for all those losing candidates.

Messaging matters, and there’s no reason Republicans have to be the bearers of all the bad news: Mississippi Congressman Hatesem Lotsabunch confirmed to me in a phone call yesterday that he will take my suggestion and introduce the “Voter Education Act”, which would require President Obama to wear a giant red, white, and blue dog whistle on a thick silver chain every time he appears in public between the date of passage and November of 2012. (For the record, I actually suggested a gold chain; he thought that was a bit “uppity”.)

We have a serious immigration problem, but I think we can take a page from the Newt Gingrich playbook and introduce the “Guest Worker Protection and Identification Act” (GWIPA).

Here’s the idea: Gingrich has proposed creating a class of persons (“worker residents”?) who are allowed to live and work in the USA, but are never going to be allowed to have US citizenship. The problem is that it will be impossible to quickly tell who is a legal worker resident and who isn’t. Under GWIPA, government-issued armbands would be provided for all legal worker residents to hold their photo ID; as long as they always wear the armband, they’ll be protected from having to show papers to law enforcement officials as they go about their daily business.

Governors as diverse as Rick Perry, Jan Brewer, and Robert Bentley have demanded that the Federal Government finally get serious about “securing the border”; the “Nuclear Assault Mine/Border Legislation Act” (NAM/BLA) is my “if you’re crazy enough to support Rick Santorum, why not this?” proposal to make that happen. The new law would order the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense to work together to develop, manufacture, and deploy small “assault-sized” nuclear land mines along the Mexican border as a way to deter illegal immigration.

“Well you look perfectly idiotic in those clothes!”

“These aren’t my clothes!”

“Well, where are your clothes?”

“I’ve lost my clothes!”

“Well, why are you wearing these clothes?”

“Because I just went GAY all of a sudden!”

–Cary Grant, as David Huxley, from the 1938 movie Bringing Up Baby

Finally, let’s take a moment and consider one of the vital social issues of the day.

It is apparently still possible to lock down some GOP votes by going “hard negative” on the LBGT community, if what I’m hearing from the candidates is to be believed (I was particularly struck by Mitt Romney’s ability to twist on this issue: in the last GOP debate, in one single sentence, Romney said he felt there should be no discrimination against the LBGT community…but that there should be no same-sex marriages), and I have a proposal that allows the GOP to appear to be moving to a better place while ensuring that nothing ever changes at all:

The “Mitt Romney Legal Access Beyond Intimidation Act” (MRLABIA) would do two things: it would repeal the Federal Defense of Marriage Act – and, in the Mitt Romney tradition, it would also add a new provision into law that prevents same-sex couples from entering into contracts for the purposes of marriage, thus ensuring “a perfect flip-flop, every time”, as they might say on an infomercial somewhere.

So there you go: instead of relying on the usual “poison pills”, I’m challenging the GOP to try out a few of these ideas – and I’m also challenging much of the American media to try and tell the difference between some of these ideas and the present reality; just at the moment that won’t be easy, and, all humor aside, I think that might actually be the saddest part of this whole exercise.

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On The Question Of Virginity, Or, "Starter? I Can't Make Her Stop!"

I got a weird little story about my friend Blitz Krieger to bring to you today.

He’s had a crazy car problem, he has, and over the past few months he thought he had found a solution – in fact, he thought he had found the solution of his dreams – but in the end, he’s discovered that the things you dream about often don’t go according to plan.

The way it’s worked out for him so far, it’s been a lot of anticipation followed by a sudden wave of frustration, but I feel like he’s a lot better off having his particular problem with his car…because if he’d had cancer instead, he’d surely be dead by now.  

The community is always embarrassed by the drag queens because straight society says, “A faggot always dresses in drag, or he’s effeminate.” But you got to be who you are. Passing for straight is like a light-skinned woman or man passing for white. I refuse to pass. I couldn’t have passed, not in this lifetime.

–Sylvia Rivera, describing the founding of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), quoted in the book Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-Century America

So here’s what happened to Blitz: he waited forever to buy his first car because he wanted, more than anything else in life, to drive his “perfect” car: a 1982 American Motors Eagle SX/4.

It’s a wild car: it was designed as a small hatchback…with a V-8 engine…and “switchable” 4WD…which allowed it to travel easily in snow in a way that virtually no other passenger car at the time could manage.

So he waited all this time, and two years ago, in California, he literally found a little old lady from Pasadena who sold him his “Dream Car”, which, ironically, was the same brown color as Al Bundy’s Dodge.

It drove great for about six months, but it’s been suffering from a strange malady that presents as a horrible grinding noise when he tries to start the car. He has no idea what to do – and standing in the way of a solution is an obsession that I find a bit strange:

He is absolutely determined that he is not going to go to just any mechanic.

Instead, Blitz told me that since it’s the first time the Dream Car needs to be repaired, he intends to go to a mechanic who has never worked on any car before his – and he says he wants to do this because he feels the experience of having the work done this way will make it more “special” for the both of them.

It took him almost a year to find someone, but when he did, it was truly perfect: he met a woman named Jenna Talia who wanted more than anything to be a mechanic.

She’d been studying through one of those “learn at home” programs, and, amazingly, she had an attitude similar to my friend Blitz’s: she knew about how to fix a car from what she’d read in a book, but she refused to actually repair one until she got the chance to work on her Dream Car – and even more amazingly, her Dream Car…was a 1982 American Motors Eagle SX/4.

They actually met on the bus (Blitz, naturally, refused to drive any other car except the Dream Car), and after a few months of knowing each other, Blitz proposed that Jenna might work on his car in his garage, and she agreed.

Fun Fact I Just Made Up: In a recent poll, 32% of voters thought the Iowa Caucuses were a country located near the former Soviet Georgia.

So we’re going out last Saturday night, and I get a call from Blitz asking if I could come by and pick ’em both up there at his house, and I’m OK with that, because with two drinks in a night being a big evening for me I’m more or less a permanent designated driver.

I was wondering how it was going with the car, and what I saw was stunning: the upper half of the engine was sitting in the living room, entirely disassembled. There were rockers and rods and all kinds of stuff there, neatly arranged for easy reassembly, and it looked like they had really put a lot of effort into the thing, but it was clear that they just couldn’t get it quite figured out…which isn’t surprising, considering it was the first time for both of them.

And you could see, in just that first second, that the two of them were some kind of frustrated. But it gets worse: Blitz told me that this was her third “diagnosis”, and that, now that she was actually face-to-face with a real car, she seemed to be entirely confused about exactly what to do.

Apparently things had gone so bad that Jenna wouldn’t even leave his house at night to go home until she could get things figured out…and, from what he’s telling me, he’s ready to throw her out, buy a different car, and get that car fixed by a mechanic who’s been there and done that – a lot.

To put it another way, he’s ready to dump his virgin mechanic…for a slut.

Now here’s the really crazy part of the story: I’ve had a bit of experience with cars breaking down over time, and I knew what was wrong from the beginning, as many of you probably did, too: the starter was bad – and that’s located on the very bottom of the engine, not the top, which means everything they’d been doing was pretty much pointless.

But I couldn’t tell them that in the beginning…because, again, it would’ve just spoiled the experience…and I sure wasn’t gonna say “I told you so” now…so even though I could have offered them both useful advice about how ignorance ain’t bliss, they surely didn’t want to hear it.

So look, folks, we could have a lot more fun following out this comic premise, but there’s a bigger point: I don’t want a virgin mechanic, and surely not a virgin doctor – and they don’t even allow virgin pilots to carry passengers.

What is it about sex (and politics, for that matter) that makes people think they’ll be able to simply “get it” with no experience at all? What is it that makes them think that celebrating their own ignorance is the best way to show they’re ready to take on something that, frankly, requires a bit of trial…and error…before you really get it right?

I don’t know the answer, but the next time someone tells you how their ignorance makes them a lot smarter about something, do me a favor and think about Blitz and Jenna and the Dream Car – and the living room full of engine parts – and if that person’s running for office, run the other way. Quickly.

I’d appreciate it; so will you – and if I know Blitz, he will, too.

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On The Emergence Of China, Or, Zhou Knew This Was Coming

After doing a bit of mountain hiking a few days back, I had a chance to get involved in a great afternoon conversation with the Alliance for American Manufacturing’s Mike Wessel, who also serves as a Commissioner with the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission; the conversation was about how we’re doing when it comes to our relationship with China.

As it turns out, the two events went well together, because what I’m hearing from these guys is that we have a great big ol’ mountain to climb if we hope to get back to a level playing field in our interactions with this most important country.

There’s news to report across a variety of issues; that’s why today we’ll be talking about trade, human rights, cybersecurity, poverty and development, and the methods by which you can apply “soft power” to achieve hard results.

The entirely unanticipated result: all of this will reveal the naïveté of Ron Paul when it comes to foreign policy; we’ll discuss that at the end.  

The King of China’s daughter

So beautiful to see

With a face like yellow water

Left her nutmeg tree

–From the song “The King of China’s Daughter”, by Natalie Merchant

So let’s start with the background stuff: the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission exists today because of the legislative wars surrounding China being granted Most Favored Nation status back in the day.

At the time, there were concerns about the way China does business on the international stage, and the Commission provides a follow-on monitoring program to examine questions regarding the Chinese human rights record, issues related to economics, cybersecurity issues, the intentions of the Chinese military, and lots more.

The Commission issues annual reports to Congress, and this year’s report has just been released.

Now normally I would present a point of view, followed by a counterpoint; today, we’ll do the opposite: there are folks I listen to out there, including Thomas P. M. Barnett, who would tell you that you are not going to be able to keep spending $900 billion a year on the defense budget if you can’t find an opponent worth $900 billion a year, and China looks like that kind of opponent, in a number of ways that Al Qaeda never could…even if, in Barnett’s opinion, China is a great big paper tiger.

Al Qaeda will never build aircraft carriers, or intercontinental ballistic missiles; they’ll never put to sea in submarines or build a stealth fighter, and they darn sure aren’t going to be mounting military operations in space or engaging in cyberwarfare.

And yet, if you’re a defense contractor, a General, or an Admiral, that’s where all the money is; naturally, if the money goes away, some of those Generals and Admirals are not going to have the chance to “graduate” from the military and become defense contractor representatives themselves.

Put it all together, and some would tell you that the biggest battle facing the Military/Industrial Complex today…is making sure we’re always nervously looking under our beds at night, just to be safe.

You should also know that our first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, convinced his brand-spanking-new country to put in place a series of protective tariffs. The intent was to foster manufacturing in the then-agrarian United States; this was intended to create a climate favorable for non-farm businesses and to allow a far more disparate group of immigrants to come to the new Nation than what would have occurred if the only major business activities around the country were farming-related.

So with all that in mind, let’s talk China.

The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (the USCC) wants you to know that China is very much on a knifedge: the country is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (the CCP) and the People’s Liberation Army (the PLA).

The USCC would tell you that the primary goal of the CCP and PLA leadership is to “protect their phony-baloney jobs” and the corruption that goes with ’em (thanks for the line, Mel Brooks), and that they have to do a few things to keep those jobs safe: they have to find a way to make 900 million near-peasants into a middle class, quickly, because the peasants have seen how the other 300 million live, to secure markets and resources China has to begin to project power around the world, by military or other means, and they have to make extra sure that nobody in China, except the CCP, gets the opportunity to take over the political conversation – in other words, ensure that the “Arab Spring” doesn’t become the “Jasmine Spring”.

There’s more: in a country without something like Social Security, China’s population will age faster than any in history, and many of the 900 million seem to want to move from the country to the city in numbers so large that they literally can’t build cities fast enough.

So how does the Chinese Government deal with all this?

What China has been doing is seeking internal “quietude” by growing the economy through manufacturing, and they have decided to choose certain industries as the linchpin of “valuing up” that growth, so that China’s low-tech manufacturing becomes more high-tech. (Think computers and telecommunications, space, alternative fuel vehicles, aviation, green energy technologies, that sort of thing.)

China has decided that virtually the only way a foreign company can do business in any of the “chosen” areas is to mandate technology transfers that allow Chinese companies to obtain the methods and tools needed to compete with the foreign supplier down the road. (This is officially against WTO rules; China disputes that assertion. The USCC says they now make these demands in subtle ways that are less “enforceable”.) Chinese buyers are told to give preference to “state-innovated” technologies.

China also uses their currency as a way of “preferencing” the local economy. The Renminbi (RMB) is, according to most observers, deliberately undervalued in order to make Chinese goods cheap overseas and imported goods expensive at home. Mike Wessel would tell you it’s about 40% undervalued, and that that “trade tax” (my term, not his) costs the US budget about $500 billion a year, with a similar impact on State budgets. Despite much USA pressure and some recent upward valuation (roughly 6% last year), it looks like China is not going to move much on the RMB anytime soon.

Wessel anticipates China will spend about $1.5 trillion on anti-poverty subsidies to quell unrest over the next 5 years; that would become a lot more difficult if a revaluation were to occur.

During the 1990s China began to move to a free-market model that emphasized the growth of privately-owned businesses; Wessel says today China is going back to promoting the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) to the detriment of a free market.

This has been bad for our own industrial strategy, such as it is, which assumed we would be selling China lots of high-tech goods, even as they sold us cheap goods. That has not worked out; in fact, China is now the largest market for cars and cell phones, among other products…and those products are not being manufactured in the USA.

It’s reported that the theft of intellectual property is the normal way business is done in China; as an example Wessel notes that something like 80% of the software on Chinese corporate computers is stolen.

We are told that the PLA is looking to create an “area of influence” that extends from the South China Sea to space; to this end the first Chinese aircraft carrier is being readied for service, a stealth fighter is in development, antiship missile systems are being upgraded, and a “counterspace” capability has been demonstrated. (The idea is that Chinese satellites explode near other satellites, thus disabling them. The USA and Russia seem to have similar capabilities.)

Chinese military doctrine, Wessel tells us, advocates shutting down the “network-centric” model of US military operations; it is believed that a significant campaign of computer-based intrusions and attacks on the USA have already taken place, including two events that took place at Department of Defense-operated satellite-control facilities that seem to have been external attacks.

Wessel anticipates that a war with China would begin with China attempting to disable various USA computer networks and infrastructure; the resulting confusion would be used to China’s advantage.

Beyond that, Wessel worries that we’re buying so much of our telecommunications and computing infrastructure from China that we may be vulnerable to being spied upon by our own laptops; he cited two examples of this problem: a computer sale to the State Department that involved Lenovo laptops and classified data, and a sale of network equipment by Huawei to Sprint that might have allowed classified computer traffic to be compromised.

Chinese spying, Wessel would tell you, is widespread and not limited to government: trade secrets are up for grabs in a big way, and even the US Patent and Trademark Office had to upgrade its security after it discovered patent applications were being snatched out of the system and appearing as Chinese products, with Chinese patents, before the applications could even be acted upon in the USA.

Wessel also wants you to understand that China uses “soft power” to advance its interests: there are lots of “hosted” opportunities to study in China, former military officers of various nations, including the USA, are recruited as “representatives”, and there are lots of “get to know us” opportunities that have been created around the world; all of this is intended to “sell” China in ways we do not.

And with all that said, let’s talk about Ron Paul.

Paul’s attitude toward China seems to be that we should allow free, unimpeded trade, and that the currency manipulations about which many complain would not exist if we went back to a gold standard. Paul stated in 2001 that:

Concern about our negative trade balance with the Chinese is irrelevant. Balance of payments are always in balance. For every dollar we spend in China those dollars must come back to America. Maybe not buying American goods, as some would like, but they do come back and they serve to finance our current account deficit.

Free trade, it should be argued, is beneficial even when done unilaterally, providing a benefit to our consumers.

If I’ve been paying attention during the recent Republican debates, this is still what Paul believes about China, and here are a couple of thoughts about how he’s got it entirely wrong:

Paul may not like it, but Hamilton succeeded when he used tariffs to jump-start a manufacturing economy in this country, and not having free trade is working pretty well for China as well. Unfortunately, it’s working very badly for us.

On the one hand, Wal-Mart and all the others who import less-expensive products from China have done a great job of masking the fact that incomes have been either stagnant or declining for about 99% of us, but Wessel would say that’s been at the cost of sending millions upon millions of jobs to a country that is working hard on every level to ensure we can never again compete as a manufacturing nation – and while we thought we would make up that difference with our high-tech advantages, theft and spying and a devalued currency and “partnerships with benefits” and protectionist “state-innovation” rules have made sure we don’t.

A gold standard won’t fix this, and simply advocating that we allow China unfettered access to USA markets while they rob us blind seems a bit like suggesting everyone leave their houses unlocked so that the market can more efficiently decide which ones are the best for burglars.  

So we’ve covered a lot of ground today, and let’s wrap this thing up with a summary of where Commissioner Wessel says we’ve been:

We have a competitor in China who will do more or less anything to keep its current political leadership in power, even as that leadership is forever worried that 900 million of its citizens will discover that you can overthrow a government.

The PLA is busy as well, with the South China Sea and everything above being the “area of influence”; computer warfare seems to be the next phase.

“Soft power” is also being applied; we have former military officers and Chinese language students and lots of other folks either hearing or telling China’s story all over the world and we don’t do a good job of answering back.

All the while, the CCP is working hard to create a higher-tech Chinese economy, by hook or by crook, and that’s putting the future of our own economy at risk, not to mention the operations of our government.

We, as a people, seem to be unaware of all of this, and that plays out in the form of ignorance in our politicians, with Ron Paul being a recent prominent example.

So now it’s up to you to figure out what all this means: is this really a substantial threat that we have to defend against (and there’s lots of evidence to suggest it is), or is this an effort to find a way to keep spending that $900 billion every year?

My take: Wessel’s not a defense lobbyist, even as he is trying to promote manufacturing in the USA, and there is a lot of evidence to support his thinking; with all that in mind I’m more inclined to believe he’s sending a warning we better pay attention to than he is seeing Commies under the bed.

Nonetheless, there are lots of folks who would like to keep stackin’ that big cheddar, at your expense, and even as we think very hard about China, we better also keep in mind that Northup Grumman could be just as dangerous.

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On Punishing The Job Creators, Or, "The Poor Have It So Good Today"

You know what the problem is with America?

The poor don’t get just how great they have it.

I’ve hear this a lot lately; the basic thrust of the discussion is that all those cars, TVs, DVD players, refrigerators, and stoves that have found their way into the homes of the economic underclass are proof there’s really no such thing as “poor” in America.

If they were truly poor, the argument goes, well…think recycled corn.

And if the poor want things to get better, let ’em pull themselves up by their own bootstraps – and if they can’t, then let ’em rot, because that’s the best thing for the economy.

But I don’t buy all that, and by the time we’re done today, I hope to have given you a whole new perspective on how jobs get created in this country.

There isn’t a rich man in your vast city who doesn’t perjure himself every year before the tax board. They are all caked with perjury, many layers thick. Iron-clad, so to speak. If there is one that isn’t, I desire to acquire him for my museum, and will pay Dinosaur rates.

–From the letter A Humane Word From Satan, by Sam Clemens

We must have completely misjudged how many Americans live here about 15 years ago, because everywhere I go I see vacant buildings.

Empty retail space, empty office buildings, empty factories, and all of it apparently just thrown up for no reason whatsoever.

But then I recently saw some historical pictures from the 1990s, and it turns out a lot of those buildings used to have businesses operating within their now-abandoned walls – businesses which have since gone away.

And that’s when I began to get confused.

You see I’ve always known, just as you have, that it’s all about capital; that’s why it’s only the very wealthiest people who can create jobs in this country.

And I’ve always known that they can only do that when they are 100% certain that nothing was going to hurt their current economic condition, and that any sacrifice on our part, no matter how large, was crucially important to keep this very special source of economic vitality full and happy and creating jobs for America’s future.

And when I look at the statistics, I know we’ve been doing our part: the wealthy have been getting wealthier, faster, over the past 30 years than at any time in memory…and yet, for some reason, all those businesses were closing down.

So many, in fact, that I began to question whether America actually understands how jobs get created. It even began to cross my mind that maybe we’ve been coddling the wrong people.

I mean, what if the actual job creators…are the people who no longer work in those empty buildings?

It makes sense, if you think about it.

The common argument is that those with capital make investments, which creates jobs.

But why would anyone invest capital unless there was perceived demand for a product, or a need to do research to meet perceived future demands?

That seems to suggest demand drives investment; a good way to “prove” the point would be to consider what happens to capital without demand: building factories and ships and warehouses does no good if there are no buyers at the store.

Of course, I’m not the first to think workers drive demand: Henry Ford famously paid his workers double the prevailing wage; part of the idea was to create demand for all those Model Ts he was cranking out in his new factories.

So now that we know who the job creators really are, and we established years ago that we have to do every single possible thing on the face of the Earth to keep the job creators happy, happy, happy…how do we get started?

Well, here’s an idea: the Fed willingly gave more than $1.5 trillion to banks for bailouts, mostly by simply “creating” money; now I’m proposing we do the same for homeowners.

If you have a loan backed by Fannie Mae or Freddy Mac, let’s allow you to apply for a one-time $200,000 markdown on your mortgage – and let’s allow the first “tranche” of any markdown to apply to any back-due loan payments.

The amount of “haircut” (fancy technical term) you might impose on each loan could vary, but $1.5 trillion would allow 7.5 million writedowns at $200,000 each; if you limited the haircut to 50% of the loan value many would be less than $200,000. (It’s estimated that 11 million homes in the USA from are underwater; $2.5 trillion or less would cover all underwater loans.)

Since Fannie and Freddy back $10 trillion or so in mortgages, and you probably won’t be able to write down every loan, how would you decide who gets writedowns?

One way would be to create a “triage score” that incorporates things like the odds an applicant/borrower can pay off a restructured loan and the amount of foreclosed or underwater homes in any given community; the 7.5 million highest (or lowest) scores get the writedowns.

(One caveat: many who are having trouble today with home loans are also laid off; unless we can find ways to keep those folks in homes until they can find work, we’ll still have a substantial foreclosure problem.)

Writing down mortgages does several things: it quickly applies a “moral hazard cost” to those who deliberately lent to unqualified borrowers, it turns millions of “underwater” loans into homes with equity, it turns millions of “nonperforming” loans into “performing” loans, keeping millions out of foreclosure, it gives communities a chance to either stabilize or recover from “mass foreclosure-itis”, and it finally breaks the deadlock between banks and regulators over who will blink first on loan “haircuts” versus bank recapitalizations.

Wait? What was that last one?

Banks are scared to death that if they write down all these loans they will have to find new capital to make up the losses – and they probably won’t be able to raise that new capital by charging a $5 fee to have a debit card.

That could mean a few things: it could mean big banks are going to have to more sneakily raise lots of other fees and sell things to raise capital, or, perhaps, the Feds ease back a bit on capital requirements.

Or…it may mean that the banks end up having to get smaller. Consider this scenario: a forced haircut of significant size, followed by regulators who stand firm on capital requirements, followed by a less-than-stellar round of stock offerings or asset sales; next thing you know, “too big to fail” becomes “we have to spin off some part of the retail business for reasons related to the rules governing capital requirements”.

This could happen without the passage of new regulations or legislation beyond the initial bailout authorization – and even that might be within the power of Federal regulators already, since Fannie and Freddy, as the owners of many of these loans, have the power to forgive some or all of that debt, and capital requirements are not set by legislation.

And where does all that leave you?

Well, you’d have 7.5 million families that could more easily afford to make house payments than before, and those folks will probably take that money and spend it on things they haven’t been buying for several years: home improvements, cars, appliances, and the travel and entertainment markets could all see substantial bumps in sales.

Many, if not most of those families, would immediately go from being “underwater” to having equity, which always helps turn reluctant consumers into willing consumers.

Cities could begin to recover as well, as the number of foreclosures bottoms out; once banks are forced to write those properties down from “2006 value” t
o today’s market value they’ll be looking to sell ’em at bargain prices; that’ll help soak up today’s housing supply “overhang”. All of this is good for beleaguered new home builders, who are today in a holding pattern.

And here’s the best part: if you get a handle on foreclosures, and put some cash back in some pockets, and start selling stuff…well, that looks like a bit of a jobs program, even if Congress might not be willing to sign up for one just at the moment.

So how about that?

If we make an effort to give to the actual job creators the same level of incentives that we gave to the “demand responders” since November of ’08, we could actually find ourselves creating actual jobs with our money – and doing it by the millions, just when we need ’em.

Considering how fast we were able to find ways to create TARP, QE1, QE2, an alternative auto industry bailout, and anything else a banker could ask for, including, I’m sure, partridges in pear trees…well, we should be able to knock this out over a weekend, assuming we can either make a really convincing argument – or do like the banks do, and lay out a million a day for lobbyists until it gets convincing enough to get things done.

Of course, if we have to we could also start Occupying the Offices of reluctant Members of Congress to help make the point; as long as the end result is some serious pampering of the real job creators, I’m all good.

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On Common Ambitions, Or, Occupy Wall Street Likes Capitalism – Sort Of

Well I’m finally back here at work after another recent series of personal adventures; in the middle of all the fun I’ve been finding time to get down to my local “Occupy” event, and for those of you who have not been keeping up I thought we’d take a moment today to compare a bit of Fox-driven perception to the reality I’ve been seeing.

What I’ve been told to expect, at least in certain quarters of the public space, are dirty filthy hippies with no jobs or ambitions hoping to destroy America while having deviant public couplings fueled by the free distribution of dangerous psychotropic drugs.

Sadly, I’ve found that there’s not really much truth in that description, even as tiny bits of it do ring true; but with a manifesto in hand and a few conversations under my belt we’ll see what we can do to create a picture that will surprise a lot of the 99% who already support Occupy Wall Street, even if they don’t know it yet.

Individuals or individual states may call themselves what they please: but the world, and especially the world of enemies, is not to be held in awe by the whistling of a name. Sovereignty must have power to protect all the parts that compose and constitute it: and as UNITED STATES we are equal to the importance of the title, but otherwise we are not.

— From The Crisis, by Thomas Paine (emphasis is original)

So before we go any farther, let’s set a few conditions to this analysis: I have only been down to Occupy Seattle in person for a total of about six hours over three visits, and even though I try to follow things nationwide on the twitter and the various Livestreams, there’s obviously a lot being missed that’s not going to be reflected here.

Beyond that, we need to recognize that there is a lot of “frogs jumping out of the wheelbarrow” within the Occupy movement; by that I mean people with a lot of different grievances have come together, and even as many agree on one issue or another, many do not – which probably sounds familiar to many of the folks who populate the Tea Party movement as well.

And I’ll tell you something else, just to get the conversational ball rolling: despite what Glenn Beck might imagine in his wildest fantasies, there are a lot of folks in the Occupy movement who are indeed capitalists, even as they may eschew the term themselves; as evidence to support that proposition we’ll have a look at the statement adopted by The General Assembly.

If you know nothing about the Occupy events, let’s start with the setting: in the case of Occupy Seattle, the event has been taking place at Westlake Park, which is dead square in the middle of downtown; the 1/10th acre triangle is home to a couple of speaking platforms, a fountain, a big feeding and medical tent, and then several smaller groupings of sleeping bundles and a single group with a tarp over their sleeping bags (since I last visited, that “tarp over sleeping bag” tent is gone, thanks to the Seattle Police Department; 10 were arrested in the process).

You can’t use bullhorns to be heard above the street noise, and that’s why you’re seeing those videos of people chanting in unison whenever anything’s said: the “speaker” offers a sentence, then the members of the crowd (who are, collectively, “The General Assembly”) repeat the phrase for everyone else (it’s called “the people’s microphone”); hand signals are used to offer immediate feedback to what’s being said, and votes are used to make decisions, just like an old-style New England town hall meeting.

For The General Assembly to adopt anything, from a plan of action to a Statement, requires great deliberation and discussion, and on my second visit there was an ongoing deliberation as to whether the group should negotiate with the Mayor to move the encampment to City Hall.

Out of the New York City process, as we’ve mentioned before, came a Statement; right off the bat it would tell you this:

We come to you at a time when corporations – which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality – run our governments.

That doesn’t seem like a ringing endorsement of capitalism, and neither do the parts of the Statement that reference taking bailouts “with impunity”, even as Executives receive “exorbitant bonuses”, nor the comments about the destruction of the farming system or the issues raised regarding “the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless nonhuman animals”; there’s a whole lot more I could cite to make this point, but what you need to take away from this couple of paragraphs is that there is a lot to be said against how we do capitalism, and these folks are voicing some of the same complaints we’ve all had lately.

Despite all that, there are some very telling portions of the statement for those who think Occupy Wall Street is intent on recreating Mad Max in Manhattan; here are a few (not in their original order):

They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.

They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.

They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.

They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.

They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.

They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.

They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.

They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantive profit.

They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.

They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.

They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.

They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press.

They have donated large sums of money to politicians supposed to be regulating them.

So what am I reading here?

I believe I’m reading something created by a community of people who expect to get an education, find work, and own a home. I believe they expect to find equal pay and safe working conditions at that job, and then they’d like to have some say in how the economy of our country works.

I believe they expect safe products, and access to reasonably priced, but still profitable medicine, and a safe environment that they might be able to pass along to future generations.

I believe they don’t like it when the rules of the game are written by referees who have been bought off by one of the teams.

And if you put all that together, my nervous Conservative friends…I believe you’re looking at a bunch of capitalists who want to take The American Dream and make it work a whole lot better than it does today.

I believe, when you hear them talking about corruption in government, and bank bailouts, and the need for affordable health care, and making American jobs available for an American future, they’re looking to do something about the same kinds of problems that also keep nice Conservative folks up late at night –
and when you put all that together, I think you’re gonna find out that, Conservative or Liberal, Progressive or Tea Party, we, all of us, really are the 99%.

So put aside all that Fox “fear porn” stuff for a few minutes, think about the things that are making you upset about this country today, look at what these folks are saying about a lot of the same issues, and see if you can’t find a place for yourselves in this 99%.

Then get down to an Occupy event near you and see where it goes (and by now they are, almost literally, everywhere, including Taipei, Taiwan): ask questions, join The General Assembly for a session, maybe even move the conversation a bit yourself.

It’s free speech, it’s people seeking a redress of grievances in a peaceful assembly, there’s voting…hell, the only way this could be more representative of Truth, Justice, and The American Way is if everyone down there was wearing a Superman suit; so go on down there, be a patriot, speak your piece, do some listening, make some new friends, and let’s see if we can’t build a better planet, one Occupy at a time.

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On Protecting The Innocent, Or, Is There A Death Penalty Compromise?

I don’t feel very good about this country this morning, and as so many of us are I’m thinking of how Troy Davis was hustled off this mortal coil by the State of Georgia without a lot of thought of what it means to execute the innocent.

And given the choice, I’d rather see us abandon the death penalty altogether, for reasons that must, at this moment, seem self-evident; that said, it’s my suspicion that a lot of states are not going to be in any hurry to abandon their death penalties anytime soon now that they know the Supreme Court will allow the innocent to be murdered.

So what if there was a way to create a compromise that balanced the absolute need to protect the innocent with the feeling among many Americans that, for some crimes, we absolutely have to impose the death penalty?

Considering the circumstances, it’s not going to be an easy subject, but let’s give it a try, and see what we can do.

Let’s Fix An Error Dept.: Apologies are in order, because in our last story we identified The Riverside Church in Manhattan as the place where George Carlin learned to be Catholic – and that could not have been more incorrect.  Bad research was the culprit here, and it’s something that we’ll obviously be working to improve. So, once again: sorry, and my bad.

Now if all the states want to limit the imposition of the death penalty to just the guilty (and after what we just saw in Georgia, that’s no longer 100% certain), one way you could do it would be to make it a lot harder to prove guilt – and that’s what we have in mind for today’s proposal.

As you may recall, we convict today with a “burden of proof” that is described as “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt”; as we now know, it is possible to prove guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt, even when there’s a whole lot of reasonable doubt to be found.

In Davis’ case, he was given a chance on appeal to prove his innocence, and despite this conclusion from the Judge hearing the case…

“Ultimately, while Mr. Davis’s new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors…”

…Davis was still executed.

So the way I would get at this problem would be to change the burden of proof in these cases: if you want to execute someone who is facing an aggravated murder or other capital charge, instead of “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt”, I would require “guilt beyond all doubt”.

If you can’t get to guilt beyond all doubt, but you can prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then you could impose no sentence harsher than life without parole.

If this proposal had been in effect in Davis’ case, there could have been no execution after he argued that he was denied the effective assistance of counsel, because that would have erased “all doubt”; after that he would have had the rest of his life to demonstrate that he was wrongly convicted.

There are going to be a few reasons people might not like this proposal, and I’ll try to address some of them briefly:

Right off the bat, many will complain that because of the new burden of proof it will be virtually impossible to have executions at all; I would tell those folks that if that were to occur…then the system is working. The entire purpose of this plan is to make executions an extraordinarily rare occurrence and to move just about everyone on Death Rows nationwide to a “life without parole” future.

Beyond that, many will say that capital punishment is morally unacceptable under any circumstances, and to those folks I would respond that y’all make a pretty good point…but at the moment there are a lot of Americans who do not hold that moral position – and they have strong feelings too – and unless we can move them to a different point of view, then the best chance we have to prevent the innocent from being executed is to find some sort of compromise like this one.

(Don’t believe me about that “strong feelings” thing? How many of the readers here would be OK with the death penalty for Osama Bin Laden, if he were proved “beyond all doubt” to have been the person behind 9/11?)

A similar line of thought is expressed in the idea that we are seeing more and more voters who do oppose capital punishment, and with a bit of patience, this problem will go away.

After what happened to Troy Davis, I think there’s more urgency now than there was in times past, and that’s because we now see that at least one State will quickly kill a prisoner in order to “clear the case”, suggesting to me that patience is not as good an option as it was before.

Finally, I suspect many will feel that the effort to pass a proposal like this one would distract from the effort to end the death penalty, which is, again, a pretty good argument.

To those folks I would respond that we may get some states to end the death penalty today, but there are a lot of other states that are not going to want to give up the death penalty for some time to come (remember the people who cheered Rick Perry’s execution record?), and if we aren’t going to be able to end the death penalty completely, then I think we have to offer some sort of compromise; a compromise based on the concepts of “killing the innocent isn’t The American Way” or “you could still execute Osama” could appeal to voters who simply won’t give up on the death penalty altogether.

So that’s what we have for you today: even though I personally would prefer that we end the death penalty and just go to life without parole for all these crimes, I don’t think we’re going to achieve that in a lot of states; with that in mind I’m proposing a compromise that would protect the innocent by ending virtually all executions, even as it allows an extraordinarily difficult to reach exception that could satisfy those who absolutely do not want to see the application of the death penalty come to an end.

It’s an imperfect compromise, I’ll admit – but in a big ol’ swath of America that runs from roughly Florida to Idaho, it may be the best compromise we can make right now, and right now, in those places, that might have to be good enough.

Entirely Off The Subject Dept.: We are still trying to get signatures for the petition to change the name of Manhattan’s W 121st St (one block from Seminary Row) to George Carlin Street, and we need your help; you can sign right here. The goal is to reach 10,000 signatures by Monday, so…get to it.

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