Monday, January 19, 2009

Ruminations, January 18, 2009

(My friend, Rob Kulak, has been sending out a weekly email column called Ruminations for several years now. He's given me permission to post his articles here.)

The failure in Washington
There are a large number of partisans who make the claim that the administration of President George W. Bush has been a failure. There has undoubtedly been failure in Washington over the past few years but I would not lay that at the feet of President Bush -- Congress has been a failure.

Failures include the 107th, the 108th, the 109th and the 110th Congresses – in fact, their failures seems to have accelerated over time. Their zeal to place all issues in a contentious political light coupled with a short-term desire for popularity has, I feel, rendered them responsible for many of our current and future ills. Here are just a few examples of their low-lights:
  • Failure to address and pass bills. Using the threat of filibuster, routine bills in the Senate could not pass unless the bill received 60 votes – not a 51 vote majority. To maintain power, the Senate (Democrats especially but not exclusively) have made virtually every vote in the Senate one that requires 60 votes to pass. As a result, many issues which could have been discussed and voted upon have been blocked.

  • The failures of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been the single most important factor in causing the financial crash. When President Bush sent a message to Congress in April 2001 (and more than a dozen times after that) saying that, unless their structure was revised, Fannie and Freddie could "cause strong repercussions in financial markets," and upgraded that warning to "systemic risk" in 2005, Congress failed to act. In February of that year, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan added that "enabling these institutions to increase in size – and they will… -- we are placing the total financial system of the future at substantial risk." Representative Barney Frank (D, MA) replied that Fannie and Freddie "are not in a crisis… are financially sound" and later added, "I want to roll the dice a little bit more in this situation." Senator Chuck Schumer (D, NY) added that Fannie and Freddie had "done a very very good job." Representative Maxine Waters (D, CA) said, "we do not have a crisis at Freddie Mac, and in particular at Fannie Mae." Representative Gregory Meeks (D, NY) added "there's been nothing that was indicated that's wrong with Fannie Mae."

  • Congress has failed to act on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. There is no doubt that payments to recipients of these programs will exceed our ability to pay them. Projections by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities say that the Social Security Trust Fund will begin to deplete as pay-outs exceed revenues in 2017. With no change, the Trust Fund will be empty by 2041. (Note: These projections were based on the economy before the current recession; the loss of jobs will reduce payments into the Social Security fund while the number of recipients will continue to increase.) President Bush initially offered a plan with private accounts, which some felt was not workable – fair enough. The President then asked for alternatives and Congress has refused to act. This is irresponsible.

  • Earmark control has failed. Earmarks are congress directed funds to pet projects that generally enhance election prospects in their home district or reward friends and relatives. According to the Office of Management and Budget, an earmark "curtails the ability of the Executive Branch to properly manage funds." In spite of all the political posturing, in 2008, Congress spent $16,501,833,000 on earmarks.

  • Pay-go has failed. When the 110th Congress took office in January 2007, they announced that they would be fiscally responsible by establishing the principle of pay-go – any new spending programs would have to be coupled with cuts in spending. It didn't last a year.

  • Failure to provide support to American troops by rendering aid and comfort to the enemy. We are engaged in a war on terror on two fronts. A loss on either front is unthinkable. Yet Congress, through seemingly endless hearings, nonbinding resolutions and threats to set artificial deadlines for troop withdrawal, has played into enemy hands – especially when the enemy has predicted American withdrawal under just these circumstances. Perhaps the most telling offense occurred when our enemy heard a leading member of Congress declare that "The war is lost"; that has to provide the enemy with comfort if not moral support.

  • Congress failed to make more domestic oil available by thwarting drilling. While alternative energies have been subsidized and have yet to make a dent in our energy supply, Congress has restricted drilling for more oil because of an apocalyptic fear of environmental damage. As a result, we have paid $475 billion in 2008 alone to foreign countries for oil. The dramatic increase in oil prices hurt those on the lower end of the economy most. The very people for whom Congress mandated substandard mortgages; in turn, the gas prices increased the likelihood that these folks could not pay their mortgages and resulted in exacerbating our present banking crisis.

  • Congress has failed to approve judges in reasonable time frames. The judicial approval process has hit an all-time low. Perhaps because Republicans delayed approval of Clinton judicial nominees by an average of 238 days, Democrats decided they need not exhibit maturity and delayed approval of Bush appointees by an average of 348 days. Justice delayed is justice denied.
Maybe we can say that Bush failed to convince Congress to follow his lead. In that sense, maybe he was a failure. Then again, given the self-imposed obstinacy of Congress, it would have been difficult for anyone to lead them. Given all that Bush did accomplish (tax cuts, removal of dictator Saddam Hussein, establishment of a nascent democracy in Iraq, gaining the support of Pakistan for the war in Afghanistan, getting Libya to surrender its weapons of mass destruction, keeping the U.S. safe from terrorist attacks for almost eight years, putting well-qualified people on the Supreme Court, lifting America out of the 2001 economic downturn, etc.), his record unquestionably is better than is the record of Congress.

The right to be manipulated
The Grey Wolves (Серые волки) is a 1993 Russian film dramatization covering the 1964 plot to expel Nikita Khrushchev from power in the Soviet Union. It incorporates some word-for-word conversations from KGB archives and is co-written by Nikita Khrushchev's son Sergei. Of course, in the fashion of a Hollywood blockbuster, it has some gratuitous nudity, a contrived car chase and a dramatically improbable murder. Nonetheless, it is an interesting and informative film.

One of the key players in the plot against Khrushchev was Alexander Shelepin. Shelepin at the time was a former head of the KGB and still exercised control over the secret police agency and its new head and fellow conspirator Vladimir Semichastny. As such, during the plot against Khrushchev, they were able to monitor all Khrushchev's phone calls and even stop some calls from making a connection. Whenever anyone in the film wanted to convey confidential information, he would automatically suggest a walk outside so as to avoid ubiquitous listening devices. It must have been, upon reflection, enervating to live in a society where outside the legitimate government there was another government with enough control to overthrow the legal power. It's even more troubling that the people were accepting of that overthrow.

The Grey Wolves came to mind as I read an article by George Friedman on the death of Mark Felt, the former FBI agent better known as "deep throat." (The full article by Friedman may be found here.) Felt was the source of incriminating evidence that led to President Richard Nixon's downfall. Friedman says that in order for Felt to have all the information that he fed to Washington Post reporters Bernstein and Woodward:
"he needed to know a great deal of what the White House had done, going back quite far. He could not possibly have known all this simply through his personal investigations. His knowledge covered too many people, too many operations, and too much money in too many places simply to have been the product of one of his side hobbies. The only way Felt could have the knowledge he did was if the FBI had been systematically spying on the White House, on the Committee to Re-elect the President and on all of the other elements involved in Watergate. Felt was not simply feeding information to Woodward and Bernstein; he was using the intelligence product emanating from a section of the FBI to shape The Washington Post's coverage."
So Felt, whatever his motivations, ran an intelligence operation similar to that of Alexander Shelepin; he spied on the legitimate government and caused it to fall. Whereas Shelepin used his information to the advantage of an inner circle cabal that seized power, Felt used his information to mold the opinion of the general public and of the power brokers of Congress. The result was the same.

The point is not being made that either Khrushchev or Nixon was pure as the wind-driven snow, that either was a nonpareil leader or that their respective countries would have been better off had they remained in power. They were what they were.

And Felt and Shelepin were what they were. And we citizens are what we are.

"A lot of people"
On This Week with George Stephanopoulos, last Sunday, President-elect Barack Obama had this to say on closing Guantanamo: "It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize. Part of the challenge that you have is that you have a bunch of folks that have been detained, many of whom may be very dangerous, who have not been put on trial or have not gone through some adjudication. And some of the evidence against them may be tainted even though it's true."

It seems to be reasonable but I want to examine the first sentence in his statement: "It is more difficult than I think a lot of people realize," and in particular, the phrase "a lot of people."

When politicians use the phrase "a lot of people" or something similar, what they sometimes mean is "me." Other times, the phrase really means "what I want a lot of people" to believe or think. And still at other times, it may mean something else.

So, to whom was Obama referring when he used the phrase "a lot of people?" Could he have been referring to himself? Maybe, but I don't think so. He obviously realizes how difficult it will be to close Guantanamo.

Could he be saying that he wants "a lot of people" to not realize how difficult it will be to close Guantanamo? That doesn't make sense since he believes it will be difficult and doesn't want to simplify the situation or build opposition.

To whom was he referring? In this case, he is politely referring to people have misread the situation and need to have their thinking corrected. Obviously, people who don't realize how difficult it would be don't understand the situation and are perhaps ill-informed; or maybe they don't understand the situation because they are thinking with their hearts and not their heads and have been just deluding themselves. Maybe.

Maybe these "lot[s] of people" belong to a particular political group. They certainly are not conservatives, most of whom don't think it would be easy to close down Guantanamo. In fact, conservatives are quite concerned that Guantanamo may be closed down with little or no thought given to those inmates who Obama calls "very dangerous." So, it's obviously not conservatives who are ill-informed or deluded. Hmmm. That leaves … who does that leave as ill-informed or deluded?

It's always dangerous to put words in someone else's mouth but could "lots of people" in Obama's statement be a polite way of saying: "It is more difficult to close Guantanamo down than I think a lot of self-deluded liberals realize?" Just asking.

Kiner's Cadillac
Ralph Kiner was a home run hitter for the perennially last-place Pittsburgh Pirates back in the 1940s and 1950s. The story goes that after a particularly productive year, Kiner met with the Pirates' president Branch Rickey. Kiner, expecting a big raise to pay for his new Cadillac, was dumbfounded to see that Rickey was proposing a pay cut for the coming year.

"But Mr. Rickey," Kiner said, "I hit .310 last year. I led the league with 54 home runs and 127 RBIs. I was expecting a big raise."

"Ralph," Rickey replied, "where did our team finish last year?"


"Exactly. Heck, Ralph, we could have done that without you."

Last month, GM CEO Rick Waggoner was saying that unless GM received a big bailout, they could file for bankruptcy. So we the people gave him $9.4 billion with a promise of $4 billion more.

Last week, Waggoner said that GM may still file for bankruptcy.

To paraphrase Branch Rickey: Heck, Rick. You could have done that without us.

Quote without comment
Henry Kissinger writing in The White House Years: "The pledges of each new Administration are leaves on a turbulent sea. No President-elect or his advisors can possibly know upon what shore they may finally be washed by that storm of deadlines, ambiguous information, complex choices, and manifold pressures which descends upon all leaders of a great nation."

Robert J. Kulak
West Hartford, Connecticut

1 comment:

CultMan said...

Thanks Z:

You answered part of my post. CM