Sunday, May 24, 2009

Keith Olbermann's Gay Marriage Stimulus Plan

Alfonzo Rachel considers one of Keith Olbermann's recent contributions to the commonweal.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

David Cook - Permanent

His brother, Adam, died May 2. He had brain cancer. He was 37 years old.

Song property of RCA 19 Records.

Is this the moment where I look you in the eye?
Forgive my broken promise that you'll never see me cry
And everything, it will surely change even if
I tell you I won't go away today

Will you think that you're all alone
When no one's there to hold your hand?
And all you know seems so far away and everything is temporary rest your head
I'm permanent

I know he's living in hell every single day
And so I ask Oh God is there some way for me to take his place
And when they say it's all touch and go I wish I could make it go away
But still you say

Will you think that you're all alone when no one's there to hold your hand?
When all you know seems so far away and everything is temporary, rest your head
I'm permanent
I'm permanent

Is the moment where I look you in the eye?
Forgive my promise that you'll never see me cry.

You can download this song here (via iTunes). All proceeds will benefit ABC2 to fund brain cancer research.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Ruminations, May 17, 2009

Economic actions to save an industry
The newspaper industry is in dire straits. It has given pause to the Democrats in Congress, notably Max Backus (D, MT) and John Kerry (D, MA). How can they save this important American industry?

Their thinking goes that the industry, as well as accompanying jobs, can be saved by reducing the taxes that these industries have to pay.

Hey! Just a thought but do you think that the Democrats are on to something? Maybe they're right: tax cuts can stimulate the economy and save jobs. What if they were to apply that thinking to the rest of the economy?

Just a thought.

Barack Obama, capitalist
Is it possible that Barack Obama is a capitalist? We have pointed out that some of his policies seem close to the fascist economic policies of Benito Mussolini and others seem to follow along with Fabian Socialists. Does that make him a fascist or a socialist? Although American presidents may lean one way or another, seldom, because of political, legislative and judicial pressures, can they be overly doctrinaire. Their economic policies tend to be somewhat pragmatic and borrow from many theories.

So, assuming Obama is true to presidential form and all over the lot, let's look at his capitalist side: does he have one? It appears that he does. In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, Obama had this to say about the American economic system: "We should be asking ourselves what mix of policies will lead to a dynamic free market and widespread economic security, entrepreneurial innovation and upward mobility." Hmmm. That almost sounds like Milton Friedman.

Since the Republican Party is thought to be mostly pro-capitalist, we might ask: has Obama embraced any Republican principles? As we have pointed out before, one of the principles of the Republican Party since its founding in 1856 has been that of "free labor:" the idea that those who supply labor should be free to use their labor to become entrepreneurs or to sell their labor to others. In Audacity, Obama went on to comment on one of his favorite Americans, Republican Abraham Lincoln: "For Lincoln, the essence of America was opportunity, the ability of 'free labor' to advance in life. Lincoln considered capitalism the best means of creating such opportunity."

But Lincoln isn't Obama's only role model. He also admires Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Although some disagree, Obama and others believe that Roosevelt saved capitalism. Obama says that "FDR also understood that capitalism in a democracy required the consent of the people, and that by giving workers a larger share of the economic pie, his reforms would undercut the potential appeal of government-managed, command-and-control systems – whether fascist, socialist, or communist."

That's good capitalist theory but, one may ask, what specific actions has Obama taken in support of these theories? Let's try to relate some of his policies to his stated convictions on capitalism.

One thing we know that capitalism requires is open competition. But, as enterprises become more powerful, they have a tendency to try to close out the competition and establish monopolies. Republican President (1900-1908) Theodore Roosevelt countered this trend toward monopolies (trusts) by promoting antitrust legislation and then using his justice department to force the breakup of large monopolies. In today's world economy, breaking up monopolies is far more complex than it was during TR's day. And what has Obama done about antitrust? He appointed Christine Varney to head antitrust enforcement with a commitment to vigilantly enforce anti-trust laws; last week, Varney said, "I believe that greater coordination with the [Federal Trade Commission] and foreign antitrust authorities is in the best interests of America's business community and consumers." It sounds like she will push for more open competition.

Obama has placed a great deal of emphasis on revising the American healthcare system. The system, as it exists today, has rapidly evolved to one that is effective, expensive and considered by many, as a right. Healthcare became a component of jobs when, during World War II, FDR created the Office of Price Administration to control prices and wages in an effort to hold down inflationary fiscal policies of fighting a war. With workers in short supply and unable to offer higher wages, fringe benefits (such as health insurance) were offered by employers. This method of tying healthcare to employment has evolved and stimulated the healthcare industry to the point where expensive and high technology medical care is now considered to be a component of any good job. With most jobs created by the private sector by small business, healthcare has become heavy burden on small business. If a way can be found to alleviate that burden, entrepreneurs and small businesses will grow more rapidly and provide more opportunities for free labor.

One of the more controversial ideas that the Obama Administration has floated has been trying to restrict pay of executives in automotive and financial industries. Typically, we look at government interference in setting salaries as a fascist economic idea. But to put it in context, when the gap between those near the top of the economic pyramid grows wider, those near the bottom feel slighted and demand a closing of that gap. There is no doubt that the economic policies of the United States since the 1980s have increased everyone's wealth but those near the top have seen their wealth increase faster than those at the bottom. While there will always be gaps, there is no economic model I know of that prescribes the optimum gap; so is the gap too big, too small or just right? To Obama's way of thinking, shrinking the gap and "giving workers a larger share of the economic pie" is an important tool for saving capitalism.

So, Obama apparently thinks that he is a capitalist and he wants to save capitalism. Does this mean that all his policies and proposals are right and should be supported? Hardly. What it means is that labeling him a socialist or Marxist is counterproductive and will be thought to be the hysterical rantings of the right wing. We need instead to be pragmatic. Where his policies will work, they should be supported. Where his policies will cause more harm than good, they should be resisted and opposed. As he said in Audacity: "we should be guided by what works."

Marijuana poll
According to Jay Leno on the Tonight Show, a recent poll, showed that half of Los Angeles thinks that marijuana should be legalized. The other half thought that it was legalized.

Quote without comment
The Washington Post in a May 17 editorial entitled, Mr. Obama's War?: "What's discouraging is how quickly many Americans seem to forget the peril of half-finishing wars... too many politicians lapse into the wishful-thinking school of making policy. We worry that there remains a touch of that in Mr. Obama's Iraq timetables and lean defense budget. But for the most part, having accepted the responsibility of keeping America safe, he has recognized that America can't always choose its enemies or its battlefields. His realism deserves support."

Robert J. Kulak
West Hartford, Connecticut

Friday, May 15, 2009

Ruminations, May 10, 2009

To vilify or not to vilify
Carrie Prejean, Miss California in the Miss USA contest, was asked about the expansion of gay marriage. Here is her response:

"Well I think it's great that Americans are able to choose one or the other. We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage. And you know what, in my country, in my family, I think that I believe that a marriage should be between a man and a woman. No offense to anybody out there, but that's how I was raised and that's how I think it should be between a man and a woman."

The responses to Prejean's comments have been almost hysterical. She has been called a "homophobe" (one of the nicer names she has been called) and people have gone into her background (a la Joe the Plumber) all because she said that she "in [her] family ... believe[s] a marriage should be between a man and a woman." (My emphasis). The reaction is really rather puzzling. Beauty contestants do not speak with authority nor are their utterances very influential.

On the other hand, President Barack Obama does speak with authority and is influential. Nine months ago, in a campaign interview in Arizona, candidate Obama was asked his opinion on gay marriage. Here is his response:

"I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian – for me – for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God's in the mix."

The same people who have taken offense at Prejean's assertion that "We live in a land where you can choose same-sex marriage or opposite marriage," have been pretty quiet on Obama's statement that "marriage is the union between a man and a woman." (My emphasis).

Why does this group of people support Obama and vilify Prejean? My guess is that they believe that Obama is dissembling and Prejean is forthright; Obama really believes the opposite of what he says and Prejean believes exactly what she says. If my guess is correct, it puts us in a kind of Orwellian world, doesn't it? If two people say the same thing, one is criticized for honesty and the other is supported for dishonesty.

Fascists are offensive
CNN's Susan Roesgen covered the "Tea Party" demonstration in Chicago on April 15th. Actually, "covered" is not the right word; she confronted and challenged those who disagreed with President Obama's fiscal policies. At one point she confronted a demonstrator who held a sign that called Obama a fascist. Roesgen asked if the demonstrator was aware that his sign was "deeply offensive" to many people.

Roesgen may not have realized it but one of the points of political demonstrations is to be offensive. But a better question might be: what is a fascist? And, is Obama a fascist?

Fascism, created by former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), has evolved to mean many things to many people. It characteristically favors nationalism, censorship, militarism, opposes democracy and promotes statism as opposed to individualism. While some might disagree, most would agree that, based on these criteria, Obama is not a fascist.

But there are also economic aspects of fascism. The four major economic characteristics that define a fascist economic system are:

  1. Free markets are discouraged
  2. Private property and profits are acceptable as long as they support the overall objectives of – and are supervised by – the state.
  3. Councils of workers and employers, with the state acting as umpire, make decisions regarding prices, wages and production.
  4. A protectionist trade policy aims at making and keeping the state self-sufficient.


In the white trunks, Ronald Reagan; in the red trunks, Mikhail Gorbachev
I had an interesting exchange the other day on the merits of Ronald Reagan versus Mikhail Gorbachev and which one was more instrumental in ending the Cold War. I maintained that Reagan was more influential and the other fellow held for Gorbachev. He did have some good arguments.

In brief, the case for Gorbachev is that through glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring), he opened up the Soviet Union. He was instrumental in getting Eastern Europe to democratize, by opening borders and by ending the Brezhnev Doctrine of playing whack-a-mole any time the eastern Europeans raised their heads for democracy. The case for Reagan can be made in that he pursued a policy of negotiating from strength, supported the mujahedeen against the Soviets in Afghanistan, saw the economic weakness of the Soviet Union and forced them into an arms race that pushed them over the precipice to their ultimate collapse.

Who was more influential? I thought that the best way to settle the debate was to apply scientific experimentation technique to the discussion. I readily admit that applying the scientific method to a political/historical problem is bogus but bogosity never prevented me from anything before, so here goes.

In a scientific experiment with two variables, we hold one constant while changing the other and see what results. Okay, for the first part of the experiment we'll keep Reagan constant and speculate what would happen if we changed the Soviet leader to someone other than Gorbachev. What would that person be like and what would he do? It couldn't be someone just like Gorbachev because that begs the question. It would have to be someone different and that person would probably be something like his predecessors Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko. Andropov was the former head of the Soviet secret police (KGB). He had been serving the Soviets in Hungary at the time of the abortive Hungarian Revolution in 1956, approved of the harshness with which the revolution was suppressed and thought that harshness was required to keep Eastern Europe in line. Chernenko was very much a Party man and would have probably carried out the policies of his predecessors. Both believed in concentrating Soviet power in Moscow, and extending its domination in Eastern Europe and anywhere else it could. They believed that the Soviet Union was strong militarily and should continue to build its strength and continue the fight in Afghanistan. They never thought that the Soviet Union was in any serious trouble economically.

The conclusion drawn from this is that someone other than Gorbachev would probably have continued the policies of the old Soviet Union. This person would not have had Gorbachev's insight that without change the Soviet Union wouldn't survive (survival of the Union and communism were certainly Gorbachev's aim). Another Soviet leader almost certainly would not have instituted glasnost and perestroika. More important, Gorbachev could see that the Soviet Union was failing economically and failing rapidly; his replacement from the Politburo would more likely have been oblivious to the pending economic catastrophe and would not have tried to reign in spending. In conclusion, someone other than Gorbachev would probably have hastened the Soviet Union's downfall by not making any changes to correct the rapidly deteriorating situation – although, given the quickness of the collapse, the collapse could not have come too much sooner. Whether Gorbachev or someone else, collapse was imminent.

Now for the other side of the experiment. What if Mikhail Gorbachev had assumed power and someone other than Reagan had been the U.S. President? Let's parallel the rationale that we used for the Soviet side and posit that a different U.S. leader could not have been anyone like Reagan. Someone different would probably be something like his predecessors Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter. Nixon was the author of détente. Détente was, essentially, the policy of live and let live; although the U.S. and Soviets would disagree, the two would work together and the U.S. would even help the Soviets. Further, Nixon would probably have economically aided the Soviets by extending their credit line, allowing them to purchase wheat and other goods – and it seems likely that he would not have opposed the Soviet venture in Afghanistan by aiding the mujahedeen. Carter was idealistic and placed great stock in human rights. Seeing Gorbachev's policy of glasnost and perestroika, Carter would probably have assumed good intentions and worked with the Soviets to tide them over the rough spots. Neither a Nixon nor a Carter would have forced the Soviets into an arms race and both would have worked to reduce arms, thus reducing the economic pressure on the Soviets.

This scientific experiment leads us to the conclusion that had Reagan not been President, the Soviet Union would not have collapsed when it did and may have been still in existence today. Another U.S. president would like as not assumed the Soviets to be a robust on-going state and provided assistance where necessary. Had someone other than Gorbachev been in office, it is likely that the Soviet state would not have fared any better than it did.

Reagan's policy toward the Soviet Union was, "we win, they lose" – and we won and they lost. It's hard to see the same outcome with any other person serving in the White House at the time. Were there other circumstances that contributed to the Soviet disintegration? Of course but it's hard to imagine the same outcome without Reagan.

Quote without comment
President Barack Obama at his April 29th press conference responding to a question on abortion: "I think abortion is a moral issue and an ethical issue. I think that those who are pro-choice make a mistake when they – if they suggest – ... that this is simply an issue about women's freedom and that there's no other considerations."

Robert J. Kulak
West Hartford, Connecticut

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Ruminations, May 3, 2009

Politics and poker

In the opening act of the 1959 Musical Fiorello!, Republican Party leaders lament their prospects in the song "Politics and Poker":

Gentlemen, here we are, and one thing is clear:
We gotta pick a candidate for Congress this year.
Gentlemen, how about some names we can use?
Some qualified Republican who's willing to lose.

With the defection of Arlen Specter to the Democrats, the prospects for present-day Republicans look as bleak as they did to the stage Republicans in the musical. According to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 21 percent of voters consider themselves to be Republicans. That's down from 29 percent a year ago. In Connecticut in 2006, three of the five congressional seats were held by Republicans; today, it is zero – in fact, there are no Republicans representatives in any of the six New England states.

Things do look bleak for Republicans and many are predicting that they will get worse. But, informed prognosticators don't always get it right. The late historian Theodore Paulin told me that after the Roosevelt landslide of 1936, "Many people, including me, predicted the demise of the Republican Party." Obviously, Paulin and his cohorts were wrong.

Republicans can, however, take heart from another statistic: even fewer people identified themselves as Republicans in 1983: 19 percent. The next year, Ronald Reagan carried 49 states, Republicans maintained control of the Senate and they gained 16 seats in the House of Representatives. Of course, as the political cronies of Fiorello! remind us in "Politics and Poker":

Bless the nominee, and give him our regards
And watch while he learns that in poker and politics
Brother, you've gotta have ... the cards!

Chavez's book of the month club

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez presented President Barack Obama with a book at the Summit of the Americas two weeks go. "It's an extraordinary book," Chavez said, "that helped me understand Latin America when I was young, our history, our reality."

Some people think that Obama should not have accepted the book. Practically speaking, under the circumstances Obama had no other choices except for throwing a temper tantrum and storming out – not very presidential.

Chavez's presentation was loaded with symbolism. He knows that Obama does not read Spanish and yet Chavez made a point of giving him a book written in Spanish. The message was that the predominant language of the Americas is Spanish and not English. The rest of the message was plainly said by Chavez, that the book represents, for many, Latin American "reality."

What is the reality represented by the book, Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent? Eduardo Galeano, the author, is definitely anti-American, anti-capitalist and firmly believes that Latin Americans are losers while North Americans are winners. You don't have to read far into the book to get Galeano's perspective. The second sentence reads: "Our part of the world, known today as Latin America, was precocious; it has specialized in losing ever since those remote times when Renaissance Europeans ventured across the ocean and buried their teeth in the throats of Indian civilizations."

Galeano's winner-loser take is interesting. In North America, we regard winners with esteem and losers are to be encouraged to become winners. In Galeano's world, winners are the bad guys – real bad – while losers are their victims.

More a student of polemics than of economics, Galeano equates capitalism with slavery – another reason to be against capitalism, if you accept his premise. Without a foundation in economics, Galeano cannot see that slavery is antithetical to capitalism; without labor being free to sell their services or to begin new enterprises, capitalism falters.

He attributes the "Great Depression of 1929" solely to the United States. Although the Depression was world wide, we would have to admit that as the world's preeminent economy, the United States did play a significant role in the downturn; but, by placing all blame on the United States and capitalism, the victim (loser) can claim to be pure as the driven snow.

Galeano quotes Che Guevara (a doctor by training and a revolutionary by experience) on economics: "The nation that buys, commands. The nation that sells, serves." This simplistic aphorism ignores the supply demand price curve but is consistent with the notion that capitalism and the United States, by buying raw materials from Latin America, are the winners that exploit the losers.

Is the book worth reading? It depends on why you read it. If you read it for a historical construct of Latin America, you will get a distorted picture. If, on the other hand, you read it to understand the way many in Latin America view history and their perspectives vis-à-vis relationships with the United States – their "reality" -- it can be informative.

Mea culpa

My mother told me that when you do something wrong, admit it, apologize for it and go on. She never told me to do what politicians seem to be doing.

More and more, American politicians seem to be traveling the world and apologizing. Have you noticed, though, they never apologize for what they have done; they apologize for what someone else has done.

When you admit no culpability for anything but point to what others have done as wrong and apologize for them, isn't this a form of self-aggrandizement? Of making yourself look good in comparison with others whose acts require apologies?

Mom never told me to apologize for others and never told me to engage in self-aggrandizement. Of course, Mom was not a politician.

Quote without comment

Comedian Rita Rudner: "Thanks to the baby boomers, 30 million women are now going through menopause; that's a billion hot flashes a day. Do you think that could be the cause of global warming?"

Robert J. Kulak
West Hartford, Connecticut

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Bill Whittle Eviscerates Jon Stewart

If you haven't seen this yet, go here. It's 17 minutes long but well worth your time.

Go now. See what Whittle has to say.