The Gay Marriage Debate — 1 April 2013

This has been a big week for gay marriage – two Supreme Court cases, commentary all over, the cover of Time magazine.   I thought I might add to the clutter.

This is a very difficult and complex issue for me, and for many others, I think.  We would do well to acknowledge that many people of good will struggle with it, and try to debate the issue as dispassionately as possible.

On the one hand, I think there are very strong arguments In favor of promoting stable, committed relationships among a segment of our population that has a history of lamentable promiscuity.  To the extent that monogamy and commitment are validated as norms in our society, we all benefit.

I also think that same-sex couples should have access to the same sorts of benefits that accrue to conventional couples, such as inheritance, hospital visitation, and so forth.  I don’t see how one can deny those treatments without being invidiously discriminatory.

But that doesn’t mean I endorse gay marriage.

I believe there is a reason why the traditional nuclear family – man, woman, child – has survived for millennia as the stable unit of society.  Of course, there is the obvious biological reason: you need a man and a woman to create the next generation.  Our modern science has figured out ways of replicating or abstracting the old-fashioned methods, but until cloning becomes fact, it still comes down to males and females performing their traditional roles.

Traditional families also have the merit of extending the genetics of the parents, which I think we should not dismiss lightly.  The attractions that bring a man and a woman together have at some level an element of this progeniture, which is part of the mystery of life.  Certainly, again, one can create a family using a surrogate, sperm donation or adoption, but that doesn’t invalidate to me the importance of the genetic imperative for the broader society.

Even more important to me is the fact that families with mixed-gender parents are in many ways the best environment for the socialization and upbringing of the next generation.  Children need role models for both male and female behavior, and for the relationships between them.  Men and women are different in many significant ways .  I believe that to raise a child without having the opportunity to see healthy heterosexual behavior every day in the home is to cheat them of something very important.

Now, I’ll be honest – I love Modern Family.  I don’t think I’ve missed a single episode.  The characters are well-drawn and believable, and just enough over-the-top to be very funny.  But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the one thoroughly unpleasant, charmless character in the whole ensemble is the adopted daughter of the gay couple.  Cheap shot?  Perhaps.  But maybe she’s written that way because it strikes a chord of plausibility.  There’s a saying in Spanish: “Entre broma y broma sale la verdad.”  Between one joke and the next, the truth comes out.

Now, let me stipulate that there are without question same-sex couples that can and do make splendid parents.  By the same token, and with zillions more examples, there are countless families where the dysfunction between the parents is crippling.  From Pol Pot to Dylan Klebold, we have seen psychopaths emerge from traditional families.  But nothing is absolute in the infinite variety that is the human condition, and the existence of some – or even millions – of bad examples does not outweigh the larger experience.

The phenomenon of gay parenting is simply too new to have much if any good data on long-term outcomes. The one study that surveyed a large randomized sample and studied grown children rather than the parents themselves found significant disadvantages among those raised in gay households in such measures as depression, educational attainment, and criminal behavior.  This report has been attacked on methodological grounds, and I certainly can’t judge its veracity.  But I think it’s delusional to blithely assume that two men or two women can provide the same upbringing as a traditional couple.  We just don’t know.  It could be the case, but it would be perilous to tinker with an institution so fundamental.

At the end of the day, the question revolves around what marriage is, and what is society’s interest in fostering it.  If, as the “marriage equality” folks would have it, marriage is about public approbation and the express commitment of two people in love, then it’s hard to make an argument against extending it to all comers.  Of course, that makes it harder to limit it to two people as well.  Once you’ve redefined marriage to suit one group of complainants you have swept away any principled argument against any social arrangement being blessed as a marriage.

And if marriage is really about the adults, then what is society’s interest in making it a privileged state?  Apart from the value in discouraging promiscuity mentioned above (and, really, shouldn’t responsible adults be capable of that on their own?), what is it about lovers making a commitment that should attract the interest of the state?  As Joni Mitchell sang, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall…”

But if marriage is thought of as the beginning stage of a family, then the state has a large interest in promoting its formation and well-being, for it is the foundation of succeeding generations, without which a society will fail.  Strong families lead to strong societies, and the state has every right to pass rules that favor those who will contribute to that outcome.  As I’ve tried to make the case above, if it is about families, then at the very least we should be cautious about opening that door, and not rush headlong into something that will undoubtedly have unanticipated long-term consequences.

I believe the Roberts court will heed the mess that followed Roe v Wade forty years ago.    That decision shut down debate on an issue on which consensus was far from being achieved, and had the effect of putting a lid on a boiling pot.  Far better for the question to be worked out through the messy but ultimately legitimate political process.

It’s the same with gay marriage.  There seems to be a rapid movement toward acceptance, and four referenda in the last election came out in favor.  If so, and we gradually adopt gay marriage nationwide, then at least it is an outcome we are all a party to.  That’s much better than having the Supreme Court decide for us.

And if in our haste we enshrine a practice that, two or three generations hence, contributes to negative consequences for our society, well, it won’t be the first time.

I don’t have the answer to how we include gay couples in our society in a way that recognizes their commitment and treats them fairly, while at the same time preserving what I think is the innate “specialness” of a traditional marriage.  I only hope we take it slowly; as Justice Alito said, this whole subject is newer than cell phones.

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“Sustainable” Debt — 18 March 2013

I am not terribly optimistic about the President’s recent conversion to bipartisan effort.  Not when, only a week beforehand, the White House strategy was leaked to a friendly press: they are playing for 2014.  President Obama is planning on getting nothing done for the next two years and blaming it on the Republicans, so as to take control of the House again and press the liberal agenda in his last two years.

So the outreach to the GOP is pure gamesmanship, a chance for the President to burnish his “nice guy” credentials, and blunt the perception that he is a hard-edged partisan.  The bald cynicism of this was underscored by a White House aide: “This is a joke. We’re wasting the president’s time and ours,” complained a senior White House official who was promised anonymity so he could speak frankly. “I hope you all (in the media) are happy because we’re doing it for you.”

Bu in truth, there are deeper reasons to believe the charm offensive will go nowhere, and these reasons would exist in the absence of official cynicism.  I was alerted to this recently when the President said to interviewer George Stephanopolous: “we don’t have a debt crisis.”  We don’t?  Then we’re all excited about nothing?

If you look at the statements from Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and others, you’ll notice that they speak in terms of “sustainable” debt position.  Just what is a sustainable debt position?  I did a little research, and found this article by James K Galbraith, a liberal economist and one who I think helped lay the groundwork for the President’s “what me worry?” attitude.  In it, he tells us what a sustainable debt load is: it’s one that’s not getting worse.

In an attempt to sound clinical and non-political, Galbraith lays out a formula developed by economist Willem Buiter, which says essentially this: the growth of the federal debt is a function of both the budget deficit and interest rates.  Here it is simply: say we have existing debt of 100% of GDP (we’re getting there), and a deficit of 5% of GDP.  You’d think that the debt next year would be 105% of GDP.  But if GDP grows by 3% (we’d love to have some of that these days), and the cost of financing that debt – interest rates – is only 1%, the growth in our public debt will be not 5%, but 5% + (1%-3%) = 3%.  This is because the denominator, or GDP growth, is growing faster than the cost of financing the debt.

So far, so dry.  What’s the big deal?  Galbraith says that interest rates, not the deficit, are the key: if interest rates stay below the rate of economic growth, then we can actually run a deficit and still not increase the overall debt.  This is doubtless true, but the assumptions have to be heroic: if we have a 5% deficit – it’s currently about 7% – we would have to have interest rates five percent below the rate of growth in order to keep the debt from rising.  Right now, of course, interest rates are only 1% lower than GDP growth, which is why that debt clock keeps ticking.

Nevertheless, if you take the long view, and make these big assumptions, you can say with some confidence that all we need is an extended period of ultra-low interest rates and some normal economic growth, and a return to normal deficit levels, and our federal debt stabilizes.  That means all these dogfights about spending cuts and tax increases are unnecessary.  All we have to do is lean on Ben Bernanke and his successors to keep interest rates well below the rate of GDP growth.

This is just the sort of claptrap an ivory tower economist would love.  One can say with numbers – supposedly liberated from the passions of political contest – that the deficit can be made manageable in the long run if we just do a few things right.  But there are just a few chinks in that argument:

First of all, how high does the debt burden go before these magic stabilizers work their effect?  Galbraith actually says that the larger the debt level, the easier it is to get under control, because the interest rate factor works on a larger multiplier.  A 3% favorable interest rate gap when the deficit is 100% of GDP offsets a 3% deficit; but a 3% gap when the deficit is 200% of GDP offsets a 6% deficit.  See what I mean?

What he doesn’t discuss is what happens to the economy when our debt is that high – even if it is not getting any worse.  Think of the amount of tax revenue that must be diverted to pay interest on the debt – even at low levels.  That’s a pure drag on economic growth.  Think also of the interest rate risk imposed by debt at that level.  If the Fed decided it had to raise interest rates to fend off inflation, with the debt at, say $20 trillion, every 1% hike would increase our deficit by $200 billion – that’s about a quarter of this year’s deficit.

And remember, Galbraith is talking about stabilizing the debt at that level, not reducing it.  So those interest bills become a permanent annual feature in our budget.  But at least it’s sustainable!

There’s another, even bigger problem, and it comes from the “be careful what you wish for” department.  Interest rates that are significantly lower than the rate of growth are dangerous.  When interest rates are below growth rates, you get inflation.  If you hold rates below growth for years at a time, you get not just inflation but asset bubbles.  That’s what the Greenspan Fed did in the first decade of this century.  Interest rates were held well below GDP growth, and the stock market – and infamously, the housing market – shot upward.  Until, that is, they shot downward.

So the notion that our debt problems can be cured if we just have patience and work gradually over time to bring our deficit down to a sustainable level is fraught with peril.  To the extent that Galbraith’s logic is driving policy, we are targeting an environment in which we will lock in high and permanent levels of debt and inviting an inflation that will decimate the savings of seniors and hobble the economy.  And of course, with high inflation comes higher interest rates and lower growth, and there goes your sustainability.

President Obama may be right that we are not in a crisis now – certainly not like Greece or Cyprus – but complacency like he is showing is one sure way to get us there.

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Lessons from Abu Ghaith — 11 March 2013

Sulaiman Abu Ghaith is going to face a judge and jury.  This man, son-in-law to Osama bin Laden, was part of the 9-11-era al Qaeda leadership, and was seated next to OBL in the video in which the latter claimed credit for the worst terrorist strike on American soil.

The fact of this one man’s arrest and indictment is not terribly important.  He was by now a bit player in the al Qaeda cast, living under house arrest in Iran for much of the past few years.  However, the tendrils that snake out of this story are interesting to follow, and add up to utter policy incoherence on the part of the Obama administration.

In the first place, it is worth noting that he was arrested a month ago by Turkey, where he had gone for undisclosed reasons from Iran.  Ankara refused for a month to release him to the US, opting instead at the end to deport him to Kuwait.  At a stopover in Jordan, US agents boarded his plane and took him into custody.  Point one: what kind of dividend is our President’s vaunted “reset” with the Islamic world paying, when we can’t even get the most Westernized country of the lot – and a NATO ally to boot – to assist us with the capture of a sworn enemy?

Secondly, Attorney General Eric Holder intends to try SAG in lower Manhattan – the same court in which he had earlier ambitions to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged (by his own boasts) mastermind of the 9-11 attacks.  That plan, readers will recall, was scotched when bipartisan outrage rose up against the idea of giving an al Qaeda big shot a global stage from which to spout his venomous rhetoric.  Not to mention the security nightmare, and the temptation to every half-crazed zealot who might want to stage a spectacular event to try to spring him.

But the worst thing about the criminal-trial idea is that, if it’s the least bit of a fair trial, there has to be some chance of the accused going free.  Holder was practically guaranteeing a guilty verdict for KSM, and I’m sure they have similar confidence with SAG, but a good defense lawyer ought to be able to find some kind of technicality to argue and possibly win.  If the court process is a mere formality, and the fix is in, doesn’t that make a mockery of the notion that we’re being true to our ideals by submitting him to a trial?

Of course, KSM did not go to trial in Manhattan’s Southern District Court.  He is going to undergo a military tribunal in Guantanamo.  Which begs another question: if that’s good enough for one al Qaeda leader, why not another?  Why US criminal justice for SAG but military tribunal for KSM?  The jumbled standards indicates that the administration has no real legal policy to distinguish the cases, but is improvising on the basis of what it thinks it can get away with.

While we’re on the subject of Guantanamo, it’s worth asking why we didn’t send SAG there.  That’s precisely why it was built, and the military tribunals being held there are precisely the right venue to try illegal combatants and sworn enemies.  Abu Ghaith will be according full civil protections in our court system, when in fact he does not merit even the protections of the Geneva Conventions. Al Qaeda routinely breaks the rules of war – indeed, their strategy is built upon violating civilized standards – so there’s no justification for affording him habeas corpus and all the rest.

One of those protections is, of course, the right to remain silent.  Apparently SAG gave investigators an extensive statement after his arrest, but one can be sure that’s the limit to any intelligence we’ll get from him once he gets lawyered up.  Is that wise?  One of the keys to assembling intelligence is to be able to go back to prisoners with new bits of information so they can – either by affirmation or by avoiding the question – confirm its validity.  That’s how we identified the courier that led us to bin Laden.  That’s gone with Abu Ghaith.

Not that our administration seems all that interested in intelligence these days anyway.  Our current chosen method of dealing with terrorist targets is the antiseptic method: vaporize them with a Hellfire missile from a passing drone.  That suits President Obama right down to the ground.  It enables him to look tough on terrorists, without putting at risk our own troops by making them do the unpleasant work of hunting down the bad guys to kill or capture.

What you don’t get when you dispatch the enemy that way is any opportunity to interrogate them, and find out what they can tell you about the next attack – on a consulate in eastern Libya, for example – or any other pertinent data point.  Mr. Obama appears willing to dispense with intelligence like that; it gives me the sense that we are eating our seed corn – blowing up the sources that could help us catch the next generation of Islamic fanatics.  They’ll still be out there, but we’ll just have less chance to figure out who they are.

One thing the civil liberties folks should mind much more than they do is that these drone strikes inevitably kill not just the target – at which they are very good, make no mistake – but also anybody else who has the misfortune to be standing or riding in the vicinity of the target, including the terrorist’s children.  I can only imagine the storms of criticism if George W. Bush had that cavalier an attitude toward collateral damage.

While we’re on the subject of drone attacks, it’s worth mentioning Rand Paul’s old-fashioned filibuster in protest of Holder’s evasive answer to a simple question: does the administration think it can decide unilaterally, as prosecutor, judge and jury, to attack a US citizen on US soil from a drone if he is not engaged in war against the US?  That question might seem far-fetched; after all, while the President’s war-making powers are vast, Holder’s rules of drone engagement specifically state that one condition is that normal methods of capture are not available.  As Holder said, that situation is hard to imagine in our country.

Until you think of Waco.  Is it beyond imagination that the US government might have used a drone strike to settle that standoff?  After all, their chosen method of resolution led to the deaths of 76 men, women, and children.  Or the one at Ruby Ridge, in which one of the first victims was a fourteen-year-old boy shot in the back by a Federal agent?  It gives one pause.

So the case of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith gives us an opportunity to reflect on a government that a) has utterly failed to improve our standing in the Muslim world; b) doesn’t have a coherent policy about how, when and where to try captured terrorists; c) gives illegal combatants legal rights that should inure only to US citizens; d) by giving those rights, explicitly foregoes the ability to conduct lengthy interrogations of high-value prisoners; e) still doesn’t know what to do with Guantanamo; f) is enamored of drone strikes as a counter-terrorist weapon, despite the inevitable deaths of bystanders and the loss of intelligence value.

And the Attorney General still isn’t sure if the President can declare you a combatant and drop a Hellfire on your head.

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The GOP: Party of Governance — 4 March 2013

I have been thinking quite a bit since the election on how the Republican Party can reposition, or re-brand, or re-something itself to return to electoral success.   Within the last week I realized that the answer has been on display since the beginning of the year.  It’s simple.  Promise to do what our current President has utterly failed to do: govern.

This failure to govern has been most evident in the farcical demonstration that passed for negotiations about the dreaded spending sequester.  Having just won a hard-fought battle over tax increases that averted the Fiscal Cliff at year-end, President Obama came back to the table in the recent discussions demanding something he knew was a deal-breaker: more taxes.  

And rather than use that opening bid as a bargaining chip with the House, he took to the road and campaigned.  In rally after rally, he described the fiscal havoc that would ensue if the across-the-board spending cuts occurred, and excoriated the Republicans – with whom he supposedly intended to deal – over their unwillingness to raise taxes, even while the ink on the other tax increase was still drying.

One suspects that the President thought he had a win-win deal going: either the Republicans caved again on taxes, which would unleash a civil war within the party and usher in a decade of left-liberal dominance in Washington; or they would refuse to deal, in which case he could blame any subsequent economic pain from the sequester on them and work to return an unassailable Democratic majority in 2014.  Either he gets a deal on his terms, or he gets no deal and it’s their fault.  The latter suggestion gains credence when one considers that the Republicans proposed giving the President unprecedented authority to direct the sequester cuts to areas that would harm the economy least, and Obama promised to veto it.

So it’s all politics, with the dire financial position of the country, and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of American workers, used as pawns in Mr. Obama’s game.

But the lack of leadership goes beyond the failed sequester negotiations.  Since at least 2010, our fiscal deliberations have been characterized by an unending series of crises, threats, and last-minute half-deals instead of sober, stable, policy-making.  It’s a hell of a way to run a country.  And it’s not just the President: the Democratic-controlled Senate has not passed a budget – something they are obligated to do by law – in four years.  Four years of running the country without a budget, without a blueprint for the managing of the federal enterprise, and in the midst of serial trillion-dollar deficits – no wonder the economy is limping along like a wounded cow.

This came to mind this weekend, when I watched Mitt Romney and his wife Ann give their first post-election interview on Fox News Sunday (something, by the way, to which the New York Times, supposedly publisher of  “all the news that’s fit to print”, failed to devote even one word).  And I thought, “is it even conceivable that a President Romney would allow the very fiscal skeleton of the country to stagger from one crisis to the next?  

Whatever his other faults, Romney is a deal-maker.  He proved it in both government and private business.  He would realize that a partially-satisfactory deal is far superior to a wholly-unsatisfactory non-deal that only defers the problem to a later and less-opportune moment.  And so he would craft the best deal he could, picking off as many individual Democratic legislators as he could persuade, get legislation passed, and then move on.  And he would develop that all-important aura for a President – a winner.

Obviously, the GOP is not going to fall in behind Romney as their standard-bearer for the next cycle.  But they don’t have to.  There is a wealth of talent among Republican state governors who have done much the same thing – governed.  Mitch Daniels of Indiana, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and more – all of them to a greater or lesser degree have pursued classic conservative principles to resolve intractable problems.  Meanwhile, Democratic-controlled states like California and my own sorry Illinois meet their problems with higher taxes and increased out-migration.

I would like to see the GOP put a program of principles behind this promise to govern.  We will lose if we continue to be seen as the party that taketh away, whether it is on spending,  acceptance of immigrants, or other social “rights.”  But we don’t need to be.  There is a powerful argument to be made that the current path of spending and deficits is not only not sustainable but is deeply immoral – we are robbing our children and grandchildren to make our own lives easier.

We need to be unabashedly the party of freedom and free markets, and not be apologetic about it.  Markets are the best way to apportion scarce resources; when government does it, it leads to many pathologies, inefficiency and waste being just the beginning.  The more a government inserts itself into the economy, the more businesses will thrive based on their access rather than their products or service.  Their lobbyists will assist in the writing of regulations, which will end up protecting the established, connected interests and keeping out the upstarts.  Obama’s expansion of government and increased regulation leads inevitably to this kind of crony capitalism, which is at its heart corrupt.

Regulation is necessary – but the more detailed the regulations are the more loopholes will be found and the more they can be manipulated.  Regulations should be simpler and results- rather than process-oriented.  Regulation is like a weight on the economy; the lighter the weight, the greater the prosperity.  Finding that balance should be the principal job of regulators.

Similarly, the environment needs protection.  Republicans don’t favor dirty water any more than do true-blue liberals.  But we should be clear that environmental protections have costs, and those costs need to be recognized.  When a conflict arises between the next snail darter and prosperity, we should vow always to take the side of prosperity.

Above all, Republicans should be the party for all Americans who aspire.  We have been unfairly tagged as the friends of the moneyed interests – and in today’s political economy, that’s likely to be the crony capitalists.  We should be as opposed to that as we are to big government, promising to clear away plodding government and its restrictions as well as the big-money players who tilt the playing field in their own favor.  Neither are in tune with the principles of a true conservative.

If we promise to govern, and to govern by affirming principles such as these, we should be able to get people to listen.  If we can get the New York Times to print it.

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Sequester Follies — February 25, 2013

The posturing and demagoguery of our President surrounding the Great Sequester Debate is infuriating.  More than ever, he gives evidence that he has little interest in governing, and is much more engaged in politicking and campaigning.

Virtually every day in the past week, he has been in front of the cameras, usually with useful human props such as first responders behind him, to describe the fiscal Armageddon that will occur if a deal is not reached by Friday’s deadline to avert the sequester’s across-the-board spending cuts.  And of course, his is the voice of reason when he says the Republicans bear the blame if the sequester goes through, all because of their intransigence, and their unwillingness to agree to any sort of tax increase on their rich friends.

So a little history might be useful for perspective.  Back in 2011, when the President and Congress were arm-wrestling about raising the debt ceiling, the idea of sequestration became part of the Budget Control Act of that year, mostly as a Sword of Damocles to make sure that real cuts would be negotiated – nobody liked the across-the-board spending cuts, which seemed to offer strong motivation to find a better solution.   The arbitrary cuts of $1.2 trillion applied bluntly to discretionary spending would apply if the “Super Committee” had not by Thanksgiving come up with a solution; of course they failed, and sequester loomed.

The sequester became one part of the dreaded Fiscal Cliff that was due to capsize the economy on January 2nd, 2013.  The other part was the set of tax increases, both from expiration of the Bush tax cuts, and from new taxes due to Obamacare, which also came into force at the same time.  Despite Republicans’ insistence that these issues be dealt with jointly, the President pushed for, and won, action on the tax question alone – as readers will remember, taxes went up for “the wealthy,” (and other taxes went up for the decidedly not-wealthy), but the bulk of the Bush rates were preserved.  In all the tax deal resulted in $620 billion in new revenue for the government over the next ten years.  It was a major concession by Republicans, who concluded that a tactical retreat would leave them in a good position to bargain for spending restraint later.

The President, once again offering substantial justification for his opponents’ mistrust, pocketed the concession and came back demanding more.  Blithely ignoring the separation of revenue and spending that had been negotiated just weeks ago, he is again insisting on what he calls a “balanced approach” – which he now says has been agreed in principle by the Republican side – making it look like they are the ones negotiating in bad faith.  

The worst of it is that he is a very gifted demagogue.  And the press love him (my goodness, the Hollywood folks are so gaga that they had Michelle Obama award the Oscar for Best Picture), so few stand up to take him to task for the way he abuses the truth in these campaign events.  But without an opposing voice, his “truth” becomes the accepted one.

It might not be a bad use of Republican National Committee funds to run a nationwide ad campaign to counter the Obamaisms that we hear too much:

1.  Although Obama describes this as the “Republican” sequester, the undisputed fact – verified by Bob Woodward of Watergate fame – is that it was suggested by Jack Lew of the White House (currently nominee to be the next Treasury Secretary).  When Obama said in debate with Mitt Romney last fall that Congress proposed it, he was flat-out lying. He mischaracterizes it to this day.

2.  Not only was it the President’s idea, he was so enamored of the sequester that in November 2011, as the supercommittee approached failure and Congress sought to soften the provision, he said:  “Already, some in Congress are trying to undo these automatic spending cuts. My message to them is simple: No. I will veto any effort to get rid of those automatic spending cuts – domestic and defense spending. There will be no easy off-ramps on this one.”

3.  The Republicans in the House have at least twice passed legislation to redirect the spending cuts to allow the Executive Branch more flexibility in how they are applied, sparing Defense some of the worst cuts and applying them instead to domestic programs. That legislation, as with so much else that has passed the House, disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle known as Harry Reid’s Senate.  (Incidentally, it should be emphasized that to the extent that Congress is dysfunctional, it is due to the Senate’s failure to enact legislation; the House has passed plenty of bills but the Senate hasn’t even satisfied its legal obligation to pass a budget for the last four years, never mind offering alternative versions of the House bills.)

4.  The President campaigned on a ratio of $2.50 in spending cuts for every dollar of new taxes.  With the passage of the Fiscal Cliff tax hikes on January 2, he owes the American people detail on $1.55 trillion in spending cuts to match it.  What has he said instead?  He wants to raise yet more revenue from the wealthy, this time by enacting “tax reform” as he describes it – which means nothing more than changing the tax code so that certain people pay more.

5.  Most egregiously, instead of trying to work with Congress to arrive at a solution, Obama does what Obama does best: stand behind a microphone in front of adoring crowds, blaming Republicans for his failure to lead.  The other day, it made news that the President actually picked up the phone and called Senate Minority Leader McConnell, and Speaker Boehner.  Big deal.  A phone call.

Regardless of whether the lapdog press makes the case, it is at the end of the day the President’s responsibility to see that the nation’s problems are managed.  This means among other things paying our bills, providing services to the people, caring for the fiscal health of the nation for this generation and succeeding ones.  If he can’t get the deal he wants out of Congress, he should get the best deal he can.  What he should not do is pick up his ball in a huff and stalk off the field, complaining that if things all go to hell it’s the other guys’ fault.

What he doesn’t seem to realize is that all this brinksmanship is what is holding the economy back.  If he was truly interested in jobs, jobs, jobs, he’d focus more on doing his own job.



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Snapshot Commentaries — 18 February 2013

Much has gone on in the last week, and there is much to comment upon.  Rather than do an in-depth discussion of any one  item, I’ll try to give something more than a soundbite to several topics.  

To start, I’ll take the unusual tack of praising something President Obama said.  Last Friday, he was in Chicago, addressing the epidemic of gun violence that has plagued the poorer neighborhoods of our fair city.  And while he said what you would expect about gun control, he also said, importantly, that a key factor in the collapse of civilized norms in Chicago’s West Side and South Side is the absence of fathers.

Citing his own experience as a child growing up without a father present, he acknowledged the gap that that absence creates.  “There’s no more important ingredient for success, nothing that would be more important for reducing violence, than strong, stable families,” Mr. Obama said, “which means we should do more to promote marriage and encourage fatherhood.”  

Granted, much of what Obama wants to do is in the way of more government programs to encourage fathers to stick around, when a big step would be to restructure existing programs that positively encourage fathers to disappear, or mothers to have their babies alone.  But at least he touched on the key issue.  “This is not just a gun issue,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s also an issue of the kinds of communities that we’re building.”  Hallelujah.

But the plaudits stop there.  There is so much else that the President has said and done over the last week that makes me just roll my eyes.  For instance, raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9.00.  This is a classic in the liberal library of ideas that are great on the surface and do serious damage in reality.

The simplistic view is that if people made a higher wage, they would have more money to spend, which in turn would make the economy grow faster.  The wage-earner would be able to afford more stuff, the business owners would sell more goods, they would hire more people earning that higher minimum wage, and a virtuous circle would begin.

Virtually no professional economist – even among those of a decidedly liberal bent – believes that claptrap.  It takes only a little deep thinking to realize that raising the minimum wage will price the low-skilled out of the market.  You cannot pass a law and make the teenager with no work history a more valuable employee than the market is  already paying.  Moreover, business owners will see their most sensitive costs go up and respond in one of two ways: either raise their prices or cut back on the number of people they hire.  Both will work to the disadvantage of the poor in the neighborhood.

But the economic ignorance of the left continues undeterred.  I sometimes wonder if they truly are so cynical that they want to pass such laws to cement their political credentials and don’t really care if the poor suffer because of it, or if they are misguided enough to believe in such fairy tales.  And they say the Republicans are the ones who let ideology blind them to the dictates of science.

Here’s another one that left me open-mouthed last week: both the President and Harry Reid were out there insisting that the next round of fiscal talks be addressed with a “balanced approach” which includes more revenue (they don’t actually want to say “higher taxes”) as well as spending cuts.  Reid, for his part, has been insisting that we must “ask the wealthy to pay a little more.”

Excuse me?  Didn’t we just get done “asking” the wealthy to pay “a little more” in the form of a $620 billion tax hike at the end of the fiscal cliff drama?  If I had any respect for the Senate Majority Leader’s integrity I would be astonished at the glibness with which he ignores that deal completely and comes back to the table asking for more, using exactly the same verbiage.

The President, as well, as taken to calling for “tax reform.”  Now for most of the last few years, Republicans have been calling for real tax reform, which means a root and branch revamp of the tax code, ridding it of the accumulated barnacles of deductions, special provisions, credits and other economics-distorting provisions, in exchange for a clean, fair, simple set of tax rules.  Essentially, the trade was eliminating tax breaks to get lower rates, all on a tax-neutral basis.

In the Obama lexicon, however, only one side of this exchange is on the table: eliminate the deductions for the wealthy, so they end up paying higher taxes.  And he continues to play the GOP as friends of the rich, saying that they can’t find “one little deduction for the rich that they are willing to eliminate.”  

This is all so sad.  It shows to the least discerning observer two things: first, that the Democrats’ main objective is finding ways to finance their spending, not putting the government fisc on a sustainable path.  Second, they really have no interest in coming to resolution with Republicans.  The revenue side of any viable deal has been done; we must now look to spending.  By insisting on more revenue, the Democrats are putting a spending deal out of reach.

It could be the same with immigration reform.  Here at least is an issue upon which both parties, for their own reasons, want to come to a compromise solution.  Indeed, the bipartisan Group of Eight in the Senate, notably including the GOP’s new leading light, Marco Rubio, have come up with a set of principles around which major reform could be realized.

So what does the President do?  While giving a nod of encouragement to the Senate effort, he offers his own thoughts which include a certain deal-killer: a quick path to citizenship for the 11 million illegals already living in this country.  If he doesn’t know that’s a poison pill for the conservative side of the aisle, he is poorly advised, which I don’t believe.

It remains to be seen how hard he will push for this provision.  Whether he presses it will be a clear indicator of his plans for the next two years: he can either try to get things done, which by definition means reaching some accommodation with House conservatives, or he can maintain a state of constant conflict and hope to regain his majority in 2014 for his last two years.

From what I’ve seen in the last four years, I’m not optimistic.

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What Difference, At This Point, Does It Make? — 11 February 2013

Back in 2008, during the Democratic presidential primary contest, Hillary Clinton famously posed this question – “when the call comes at 3:00 am, who do you want answering it?” – the implication being that the inexperienced Barack Obama would not be up to the task of managing a sudden crisis.

Well, it turns out that President Obama’s 3:00 am call actually came around 5:00pm, and we know what he did:

He told his military top brass to do everything they could, and then he went to bed.

It really seemed for a while that the Benghazi debacle would well and truly pass from the scene.  Hillary Clinton’s long-deferred Congressional testimony about it revealed nothing so much as her ability to outwit her questioners, and perhaps the reticence of Republicans to probe too deeply into the inconsistencies of her story.  For instance, when asked why she didn’t read the urgent cables from Ambassador Stevens asking for better security, she said she gets a million cables a year from the field, and can’t expect to read all of them.  When asked why the unprepared, uninformed, and – according to the President himself – irrelevant Susan Rice graced five Sunday talk shows instead of the Secretary herself, her reply was that doing news shows was not her favorite thing.

And famously, when Senator Ron Johnson asked how it came about that Ambassador Rice spent all of that Sunday morning spewing nonsense about what was a lethal terrorist attack, she indignantly shot back, “what difference does it make?”

All those dodges passed unchallenged, and the press largely sided with the pugnacious Clinton.  Not long afterward, she and President Obama had a love-fest of an interview on Sixty Minutes, during which Steve Kroft lobbed such puffballs as, “Why did you want her as secretary of state?” and “How would you characterize your relationship right now?”

Nobody but Fox News and a handful of blogs seemed to care about the catastrophe that was Benghazi.  And then we got the Senate testimony of outgoing Defense Secretary Panetta and General Martin Dempsey.  They informed us that they had precisely one conversation with the President about Benghazi, and that was at 5:00 pm at a meeting that had already been scheduled.  The President told them to do everything they could to get help to the embattled diplomats, and then checked out.  There were no further contacts with the President or any of the senior White House staff, nor with the Secretary of State for that matter.

It’s hard to find words to express adequately how shameful this is.  Put yourself  in that position.  People on your payroll are under attack in a foreign country – including a top diplomat.  Don’t you even want to know first-hand how it is going down?  Don’t you want to keep tabs on the safety of your people?  They’re dying out there, and you don’t follow up to get the latest?  The President, according to sworn testimony, was AWOL.

This testimony raises anew all the questions many of us have had about the Benghazi attack, questions that are still unanswered.  For instance, why was there no military support for the embattled annex in Benghazi, which was under sustained attack for hours after the consulate was torched?  Secretary Panetta insists that it is military doctrine that you don’t send troops blasting their way in unless they know what is happening on the ground, but that is nonsensical – it is the military’s job to move into unstable and dangerous places with scant information – and also untrue, since one of the special ops guys had “painted” an attacking installation with a laser range finder.

Also, who told the operatives in the annex to “stand down” and not come to the aid of the consulate – not once, but twice?  And why?  Fortunately for the lives of some of the consulate staff, they disobeyed those orders.  Which brings up another question – why have we never seen any of the survivors of that attack interviewed on the news?  Days after the seizure of the Algerian oil complex last month we saw witnesses giving their accounts.  Why nobody who was at Benghazi?

I’m still highly bothered by the nonsense they gave Susan Rice to disseminate on the Sunday talk shows.  Rather than ask who knew that it was really an act of terrorism, I would ask, who really thought it was a mob incensed by a video, and why?  Why have we never had an adequate explanation of how this fiction about the offensive video became the official line for two weeks afterward, in the face of facts that the Administration knew about within hours?

For the record, let’s dispense with the President’s sleight of hand regarding this interpretation: at the debate with Mitt Romney, he insisted he called it an act of terror the next day.  Here is what he actually said about the Benghazi attack:

“Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths.  We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.  But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.  None.  The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts. ”  Sounds like Susan Rice, there, doesn’t it?

Later, Obama describes the original 9-11 attack and the devastating effect that had on our country.  That’s when he went on to say “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”

You decide.

My own view is that something was going on at the annex that was so secret and risky that it had to be hidden from view.  One report I read about suggests that a special operations team taking orders from John Brennan in the White House was running attack missions against Islamist factions outside the normal command structure – and that the Benghazi attack was retaliation.  Other reports indicate that agents in Benghazi were involved in gathering weapons left by the Ghadaffi government and arranging shipment to Syrian rebels in Turkey.

Whatever it was, the Obama White House has been eager to keep the truth hidden.  It suited their campaign rhetoric to paint the attack as something other than the work of the Islamic terrorists that were supposedly on the run.  It certainly helped that the press was largely, accommodatingly, disinterested.

But the reports of the President’s inexcusable dereliction of duty when diplomats were under attack means that this story will carry on.  Perhaps some day we will actually get answers.

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