Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Republicans and Deficits

The Republican Party has recently settled on "we must reduce the deficit" as one of their rallying cries.  The country is going broke, they cry, and it's the Democrats' fault, those "tax and spend" Democrats.

I didn't notice them worrying about the country going broke under the George W. Bush administration, when they approved off-budget funding for two wars.  Did they think the money would fall from the sky? 

George W. Bush inherited a budget surplus from the Clinton administration, which he "gave back to the taxpayers" (mostly to very rich taxpayers) to such an extent that his second administration would have been in the hole even without The Crash.  Republicans never complained about potential deficits when they passed the Bush tax cuts, which I personally think should be allowed to expire for everyone, including the middle class.  Tax rates under Clinton just weren't that high.

Both parties were complicit in the campaign to make everybody a homeowner, even people who couldn't afford it.  But removing the regulations on the financial industry which made the eventual crash so much worse?  Republicans.  Repealing Glass-Steagall, without which move we wouldn't have HAD to bail out the unmentionable banks?  Republicans.  Appointing a Wall Street power as Secretary of the Treasury?  (Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse!)  George W. Bush.  Some Democrats voted for these moves, but Republicans drove them.

I concede that President Obama's appointee as Secretary of the Treasury also leaves a lot to be desired (can't pay his taxes, and sounds like a high school valedictorian - I just can't take him seriously) - but in Obama's defense, he took office in the middle of the worst financial crisis of the last 80 years, and Geithner was in the middle of the mess in his role at the Fed and could hit the ground running.

My point here is that Republicans only worry about the deficit the country has run up when the Democrats want to pass legislation that might help people who are not rich get back on their feet and maybe get a job.  When they want to extend the Bush tax cuts, which would mainly benefit the very rich, they never mention the deficit.  Their whole attitude is, we got ours, now pull up the ladder, anybody who hasn't already got theirs doesn't deserve it anyway.  And it's ugly.  If we want to turn the U.S. into a 3rd world country, this is the road to take - the U.S. Gini coefficient is very close to its highest historical level since they began recording in 1967.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Having been through the Oakland Hills Fire, my heart goes out to the people in San Bruno affected by this terrible fire. As of this morning it's 75% contained.   By all accounts the fire began when a major gas line in the area ruptured - since the thing is still burning, it's likely to be awhile before we find out exactly what happened.  But I have an uneasy feeling.

I've spent the last 30 years or so watching our entire country (diligent individuals excepted) ignoring the issue of maintenance.  Cities, counties, states, the Federal government - nobody wanted to put any money into repairs.  I have no reason to assume that PG&E was an exception to this trend.  How long had that gas line been there?  When was the last time anybody checked on its condition?  We don't know.  I hope we find out some day.

I know this:  if we don't take care of our infrastructure, some day our infrastructure will take care of us.  I drove an acquaintance home last night, over Oakland streets, and the pavement nearly sprang my shocks.  The City of Oakland has an 80 year street repair schedule!  The Oakland Hills fire was caused by an incompletely extinguished trash fire - negligence on the part of the burners and the fire department.  This fire appears to have been caused by a different kind of negligence.  How many other gas mains resemble this one?  We don't know.  I hope we don't find out the hard way.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Hating the Other

We've all heard the rants:  President Obama wasn't really born in America (sorry, Hawaii is part of America).  President Obama is really a Muslim (he attended a Baptist church for 20 years).  President Obama is really a Socialist (usually from people who wouldn't know an actual Socialist if one came up and bit them on the ankle).  A lot of people think the subtext of all this is really, President Obama is black.  It's actually broader than that, and not restricted to race, although race is part of it.  There is, and there always has been, a vocal subset of the American populace which believes that anybody who doesn't look, dress, act and think exactly like them is - the Enemy.  Based on the things they are against, the people who think this way tend to be white (often of northern European stock), Protestant Christian, family in the U.S. for at least a couple of generations, and living in rural areas or small towns.  And they're almost always anti-immigrant.

Full disclosure here:  except for the benefits of a university education and a lot of reading, I am these people:  Scotch-Irish-English, with a reputed but unprovable touch of French and Indian.  Raised Baptist (no longer practicing).  Grew up in a small town.  (Left as soon as I got out of school.)  I know the mindset well.

To this group, anybody who isn't like them is "un-American," obviously out to get them, going to destroy the country, probably a terrorist, taking jobs from good American workers, etc.  You've heard it all. 

The attitude isn't new, either.  The current manifestation is the followers of the wilder Fox News commentators; but Benjamin Franklin, normally a tolerant and liberal man, published a well-known rant about the awful "swarthy, stupid" German immigrants who were going to take over the country if we weren't careful. And this was roughly 1751, which was before we were a country!  In the mid-19th century you had the Know-Nothing party, which was convinced the country was being overrun by German and Irish Catholic immigrants, who were controlled by the Pope in Rome.  Believe me, if you're Irish American now, nobody thinks a thing of it, and a lot of our anti-immigrant folks now are of Irish descent; but in 1850 businesses had signs reading, "No Irish need apply."  Wait long enough and the discriminated against become the establishment; but the anti-Catholic attitude was why the U.S. didn't elect a Catholic (or Irish) President until 1960.  In the early 20th century the Italians (also Catholic) were the immigrant threat.  Have we elected an Italian President yet?  I don't think so.

This parallel may exist only in my mind, but as I drafted this post, I realized slowly that I recognize these people from another recent source.  In the great Prohibition experiment, these people were the "drys."  See my last post, Reading About Prohibition; read Daniel Okrent's book.  See if you agree with me.  I'm not sure what this means, but it's interesting.

The bigger question is, why is the human race, or some of the human race, so hostile to "the other?"  It isn't just Americans.  Look at the hostility to Muslim immigrants in Europe.  Look at the genocide in Rwanda, where the issue wasn't even skin color.  I think it's tribal.  For millennia, the human race lived in very small tribes of hunter-gatherers.  Everybody in the tribe was related. The tribe had their territory, and they lived off it, and anybody who pushed into their territory was a threat to the whole tribe.  Everybody outside the tribe was suspect.  If you don't think this mind-set is still alive today, ask yourself why we have so much trouble in Afghanistan, the poster country for tribalism.  Here we all are in the 21st century United States, living in cities and driving cars; but in the back of our minds, some of us are still afraid that "those people" are a threat to "the tribe."  We've only had "civilization" (or whatever this is) for about 5,000 years; we've only had industrial civilization for about 300-400.  Is it any wonder that part of our minds still reacts as if we lived on the savanna?

I don't have an answer for this.  I don't have a tidy solution.  I've never been any good at changing people's minds; and in any case, the attitude I'm talking about here is not rational.  It's an emotional, fear-based response, from a part of our mind we don't deal with much.  So far we've always managed to overcome the fear of the other, and incorporate these new people into our culture and our country.  I hope we can continue to do that; I think we're better for it.  But we're fooling ourselves if we think this isn't a real problem.