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Redwood Age: Political Thinking
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Pamela A. MacLean, June 7, 2011

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The bankruptcy reorganization of Medford, Ore. gift basket marketer, Harry and David, is a classic example of one of the frightening things this bad economy is bringing to the doorstep of those on the eve of retirement.  Harry and David wants out of its pension obligations.  It says it can't reorganize and repay creditors unless it ends the pensions of its 2,700 workers and retirees.  The problem is the retirees and older workers can't "reorganize" their pension plans at this late stage of life.  They worked for the pension with the promise it would be there.  Harry and David told the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the government agency that insures private pensions, it needs to terminate its pension plan to reorganize the company.  The PBGC, to its credit, said it wants to work with the firm to preserve the pensions.  (If it doesn't PBGC as insurer has to pick up the tab.  But that also means reduced benefits for retirees.)  PBGC said it believes Harry & David is one of those companies that can go through bankruptcy while keeping its pension in tact.  In addition, PBGC does not insure health benefits at all, so retirees would lose those.  Let's hope they work something out, and that more companies have their feet held to the financial fire to make sure their financial preservation includes preservation of pensions for the employees who built the companies.

Tom Murphy, January 1, 2011

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The new year always prompts thoughts of how we can be better. One way would be to insist on the change that everyone seems to want: an end to cronyism and self-interest in Washington, driven by K Street lobbyists with billions in funding that is nothing less than legal bribery. One example is how the Small Business Administration has looked the other way to let big businesses snag billions in contracts meant for mom and pop firms. Another is the shameless pandering by big banks and political groups tied to the wealthy to cut benefits for Medicare and Social Security, just as the first baby boomers start turning 65. Such a move would thrust millions of older Americans into poverty at a time the middle class has already been decimated by the false promises of trickle-down economics. These folks don't know who they're messing with. Many younger lawmakers weren't around when boomers marched in the streets in the '60s and early '70s to demand civil rights, women's rights, an end to the war and a cleaner environment. Most of those boomers turning 65 have paid into the Social Security and Medicare systems for over 40 years as productive citizens. They were promised benefits that they are now about to start collecting. For the US to try to change the rules would be, well, un-American. If the medical costs are too high, then lower them. But don't try to tell 77 million boomers that they can't have the benefits they've were promised. Instead, we should resolve to do better: in administering the plans, managing costs and keeping promises to our elders. And if Washington needs encouragement, I'm know where we can find 77 million people to march for that cause.

Tom Murphy, November 3, 2010

It doesn't take a political genius to see that Americans are frustrated with their government - both parties. In 2008, they wanted change and put the Democrats in charge. Things didn't change enough. So in 2010, they've given the House back to the Republicans, who promised change but didn't do so well last time around. The Tea Party made points with some angry voters, and the Greens are picking up more votes, too. I'm starting to think people in government are simply incapable of understanding what Americans want. Times are hard and money is tight. Four out of five jobs are now in the low-paying service sector, and even it isn't growing fast. Boomers worry about their once-secure retirement. Health care costs way too much. And the public schools - once the envy of the world - are falling apart in many areas. Meanwhile, government is cutting back services but shielding its workers from the pain the rest of us feel, and charging us more for the effort. In California, voters turned back the clock by electing septuagenarian Jerry Brown as governor. He's been there before, and took a lot of heat in the '70s for saying things like "less is more." Now, that's starting to sound right, and it will be interesting to see if that philosophy has finally come of age.

Tom Murphy, September 1, 2010

The US has ended combat operations in Iraq but the war is far from won. Almost 50,000 US troops remain behind along with tens of thousands of privately employed US contractors. Iraq's legislature can't agree on a new government. More than $5 billion in US aid was squandered on public projects that weren't completed or never used. And the Iraqi people still don't have dependable supplies of electricity or running water - or even an accurate count of how many people died in the war. Talk had turned to developing Iraq's oil supplies, and of the growing threat posed by Iran whose Shiite rulers feel an affinity with the Shiite majority in Iraq. The US has turned its attention towards Afghanistan where the challenge may be even greater. Beyond that, there's growing instability in Pakistan and the rising threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. The war is far from won in Iraq, and US involvement only seems to be getting deeper in other regions of the Gulf.

Tom Murphy, July 17, 2010

A friend tried to convince me the other day that the antiwar movement of the late '60s and early '70s only rose up because of the draft. If there was a volunteer army then, as there is now, he said, the antiwar movement never would have gained a following. And, he continued, that is why the Afghan and Iraq wars fail to generate the kind of spirited opposition among younger Americans today. I found this a little hard to believe. Instead, I pointed out that the boomer generation not only opposed the war, but insisted on civil rights, new opportunities for women, healthier food, better consumer products and a serious effort to counter our degrading environment. Conservative or liberal, (Fox or MSNBC), most boomers still demand all those things today. It also made me think what would happen if the Obama Administration went along with GOP attempts to shrink Social Security and Medicare benefits to help reduce the monstrous public debt that the war has generated. Somehow, we've come to a point where military spending is untouchable, but the retirement benefits promised to the largest generation are dispensable. "Sorry, we can't pay you what we promised throughout your 40-year career, because we want to spend it on an un-winable war in Afghanistan."  That, I'm sure, would trigger a new antiwar movement in this country, one that might unite both the boomers and their children, who are increasingly starting to look like the youth of the late '60s.

Tom Murphy, June 29, 2010

The Kagan confirmation hearing helps to illustrate how far we've fallen into bickering and partisanship since the days of, say, Eisenhower or Kennedy. It's hard to imagine the Senate Judiciary Committee of those years divided into two camps, with one unalterably supporting a court candidate and the other ready to attack any candidate nominated by the sitting president.  These candidates who've been nominated to the court are good people. They're smart, independent and open-minded. It is right and just that there be a range of opinions on the court - how else are the justices to argue cases with each other? And it is an insult to the country to focus these hearings on partisan bickering. The rule is that the president gets to nominate these folks and the Senate gets to confirm them. Unless a senator has some true bombshell to drop, let the process move forward without the theatrics of partisan politics.

Pamela A. MacLean, June 9, 2010

Judges face daily challenges over the length of sentences for a given crime, even with federal sentencing guidelines in place. Debate has raged for years over the fairness of draconian terms for sale of crack cocaine over lesser terms for powder version of the same drug. Well, there's an area in the world of crime and punishment that gets overlooked a little too frequently, money crimes. Bernie Madoff gets 150 years for his spectacular Ponzi scheme. Jerome Kerviel, a French rogue trader, costs a French bank $7 billion. But what about the average Joe who gets cheated? Here's a morality play brought to you by Countrywide (now owned by Bank of America) that cost thousands of people their homes. Countrywide profited spectacularly through risky home loans in the boom years and then when the loans failed they charged grossly inflated fees to the very same people behind on loans. This included such things as lawn mowing and property assessment fees or accusing customers of defaulting when they had not. Now Countrywide has agreed to pay $108 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit for the excesses. These are civil charges. A criminal grand jury investigation has been underway for two years, but still no charges. Former Countrywide CEO Angelo Mozilo was accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission last year of misleading investors, again civil charges. Meanwhile, most of the people in prisons across the country are there for drug-related offenses. 

Tom Murphy, May 25, 2010

Most of the Americans who fought in the Korea War are dead now. And when many Americans think about the Korean War, they think of Hawkeye Pierce and the sitcom MASH from the 1970s. But for the millions living on either side of the DMZ, and for the US troops stationed along that artificial divide, the Korean War has been a constant threat for more than half a century. At no time - not even after the capture of the USN Pueblo - has the situation been more strained than now. And the consequences could be catastrophic on a scale that was incomprehensible back in the 1950s. Today, North Korea has nuclear weapons and an army that could virtually destroy Seoul. There are tenuous ties with Iran that could strengthen. South Korea's strong alliance with the US would be tested. And new battles would challenge the fragile relationships between the traditional superpowers, particularly between China and its largest debtor - the United States. The outcome of KWII could alter the lives of hundreds of millions of people, all around the world, not just those within artillery range of the DMZ.

Pamela MacLean, April 22, 2010

Reshaping the Supreme Court happens like global warming, by degrees, at least for now.  ustice John Paul Stevens will be a tough act to follow. But so long as it is a Democratic president replacing a justice from the liberal side of the court's spectrum, it won't change the court that much. Don't get me wrong, things will change on the court. A new justice brings a personality and persuasive powers to the job. But in broad philosophical terms, President Obama's replacement is not likely to shift the court's overall outcomes - unless that justice has the ability to sway Justice Anthony Kennedy. Kennedy is the swing vote and so far the tug has tilted his vote to the Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito end of the scale.  Obama says he won't have a litmus test for the new nominee - as all presidents have said for a couple decades now - but by careful selection, the president may find the Goldilocks who gets things "just right" to bring Justice Kennedy over to try the liberal porridge from time to time.

Tom Murphy, March 22, 2010

Despite what you may have heard, we Americans - especially those of us over 40 - want to reform the health care system. The bill approved by Congress after months of angry debate is a good first step. But it isn't nearly enough. We all know that. Instead of a monumental victory for the people, this is more like the first day of exercise for an obese man who needs to lose weight to save his life. The second step will be hard, too. So will the third. We can't give up until we complete this journey. But, at least, let's be thankful that we're finally heading in the right direction.

Pamela A. MacLean, February 24, 2010

Many people around the country heard that Anthem Blue Cross threatened a 39 percent hike in health insurance premiums for as many as 800,000 Californians. And it would be imposed on individual purchasers, who already pay the highest rates for the worst health insurance. This came as the company made billions in profit in just the last quarter of 2009. Anthem backed off - for now - after the state ordered a review. My question is, why do the Democrats in Congress have such a hard time explaining to the public the potential benefits of health reform? Republicans decry having a "government run" health system, but would they leave us to the tender mercies of the marketplace and the likes of Anthem? And while they dither Medicare rates are going up. It is time for the Democrats to make a better, more intelligent argument to the American public about the need for comprehensive health reform and time for Republicans to sit down and negotiate for real reforms that provide help to the public. Enough of the futile table pounding on both sides. Just do it.

Tom Murphy, January 7, 2010

It's starting to feel like 1994 all over again. Remember? After Bill Clinton was elected to follow Bush pere in office, his ambitious plan to reform health care - with help from Hillary - blew up, causing the mid-term election to swing towards the Republicans.  Here we are 16 years later with Obama following Bush fils, and his ambitious plan to reform health care has drawn heated rhetoric from the minority Republicans. Now, with two Democratic senators saying they won't seek more terms, the delicate balance in the Senate is up for grabs. That said, it's a long way to November and the president's waning popularity could turn the other way if a) the economy rockets higher, b) the war effort gains traction, and/or c) a game-changing event takes place. It was the 9/11 attack that gave George Bush new life in 2001 when it appeared the Republicans were heading for a mid-term loss. Let's see what happens in 2010.

Tom Murphy, December 23, 2009

The actions, an inactions, of governments worldwide never cease to amaze and frustrate the very people those governments were intended to serve. In Iran, tens of thousands march to demand freedom while government militia tear down their posters. In America, conservative lawmakers intervene on private decisions between a woman and her doctor. In Copenhagen, government leaders can't agree to ways to limit global warming. Freedom is a populist concept that isn't hard to understand. Why do so many government officials oppose it? And why do we let those people hold power?

Pam MacLean, December 13, 2009

Overhauling health care, even if everyone agreed on how it should be done, is complicated.  The latest problems with the limited coverage in the Senate bill shows that. But what people want is pretty simple.  Health coverage, at reasonable rates that is not dependant on whether you also have a job. In addition, you shouldn't be denied coverage for an existing health condition or kicked out of a plan when you finally do make a claim. Insurers stand to gain many millions from payments for the millions of new customers. The same can be said for pharmaceutical companies.  et the debate seems stalled in the scare tactic stage among politicians on both sides. This is too important to devolve into jockeying for future elective office at the expense of real health care reform. What we all need is health care and reform.

Wendy Wolfson, November 19, 2009

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Coverage on the Pitts-Stupak Amendment on the healthcare bill banning federal coverage of abortion (except for cases of rape, incest, or saving the life of the mother) has generally been to the effect that not many women will be affected by it, which is probably true. But a particular group certainly will be: women who will buy insurance on exchanges whose fetuses have severe genetic defects. Under these guidelines, a hospital abortion won't be covered. Nor will a situation in which the health of the mother will be compromised. Nor the viability of a pregnancy with multiples where reduction is advised to lower the risk of premature delivery. One never knows in advance if a pregnancy will be successful. Currently because of political compromise, federal employees do not have abortion coverage. Nor do women on Medicaid. A little under half of private insurance plans offer the procedure.  In her healthcare blog, NPR's Julie Rovner wrote about a federal employee who ended up paying thousands of dollars to abort a much-wanted pregnancy because her developing baby had anencephaly. Her insurance company stated that she was capable of carrying a baby that didn't have a brain to full term without endangering her life, hence she owed $9,000 for the in-hospital procedure. The woman negotiated it down to $5,000, but was left feeling betrayed. She said, at least she was employed and could pay for it. Another woman may not have that option.

Pamela A. MacLean, November 4, 2009

As the day gets closer for Democrats to actually stick their necks out and vote for a health care reform package - whether Republicans like it or not - the reality of reform may actually set in for most Americans. Imagine switching from one health insurer to another without worrying that some mythical "pre-existing condition" could limit your coverage? Imagine hospital bills that don't require the Rosetta Stone to decipher? But before we get too carried away, let's keep in mind that the much-derided "public option" the Democrats want and Republicans oppose would only have about 2 percent of Americans under 65 sign up, or so say experts. And while the Dems expect to have a 1,900-page bill finished soon,  there's no telling when it will be reconciled with a Senate version, or how watered down. Some Democrats are pushing language that would limit abortion coverage, a problem for poor women and pregnant teens, but unlikely to curtail abortion. Still others want to curb the ability of undocumented aliens from shopping for insurance, an emotional issue for both sides, but when considered logically, only means that without access to insurance, indigent and illegal aliens will get emergency room care and the public will still pay for it, and pay more for it than if those people had been able to choose a policy. Time for the statesmen and women to step up and save the taxpayers' money and health. Time to reform the dysfunction health care system.

John McGowan, October 19, 2009

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Health care reform still crawling through Congress; another jobless recovery even as stocks soar and bankers are giving themselves bonuses; hopes of serious regulatory reform of the financial sector fading.Not a good time for the Democratic National Committee to call me twice in the last three weeks to ask for money.Politely, but firmly, I told the solicitor to call back after the Democrats in Congress do the job we elected them to do - and that I donated money last year for them to do. It says more than you need to know about the corruption of American politics that the response was to tell me those Democratic congress people needed to see the money to do that job.If the health care industry lobbyists and the banking industry’s lobbyists outspent the advocates of reform, nothing would get done. Is it any wonder that I’ve lost my appetite for politics lately?

John McGowan, September 3, 2009

My friend Bob, a medical educator, is going to Kabul to train Afghani doctors. It figures. Bob spent 10 months in Iraq at the height of the insurgency in 2005. He came back highly enthused about what he was able to do for the Iraqi doctors with whom he worked and totally disillusioned with the results of the American invasion. Now that the situation in Afghanistan seems to be spiraling out of control - increased violence and an election that apparently has little chance of being accepted as legitimate - his friends weren’t surprised that Bob was called to intervene. When the going gets tough, who else are you going to call? Bob seems to me a perfect example of the complex mixture of catastrophe and hope that America brings to the countries it focuses its attention on. Such a promise for making the situation better, such unintended and often disastrous results. I did feel like I understood what our Iraqi occupation was like on the ground much better after hearing Bob’s accounts of his time in Baghdad.  So I will pass on in this space Bob’s reflections about the US presence in Afghanistan as his stint there unwinds.

John McGowan, August 18, 2009

The United States spends more on defense each year than the next 20 countries combined. Pentagon projects routinely come in 50 percent over the originally estimated cost. And Congress often insists on funding defense projects that the Pentagon itself says it does not want. The F-22 fighter jet is the latest instance. A savvy defense industry has spread the work on that plane among 42 states and so, in the name of saving jobs, Congress plans to ignore the armed services’ own declaration that it doesn’t need or want more F-22s. Speaking in front of the Veterans for Foreign Wars, Obama bravely claims that he will veto a military spending bill laced with pork. He gets some points for making that threat in front of an audience not likely to view him - or his relation to the military - with sympathy. He’ll get even more points if he actually vetoes a military spending bill, since Democrats in both the Congress and the White House haven’t had the courage to intervene in the mess that is military procurement in this country for fear of furthering their public image of being soft on defense.

John McGowan, August 9, 2009

While the discussion at the top - from Obama’s speeches to official Republican responses - has been fairly civil, the real story has been the orchestrated efforts to disrupt town meetings and spread fear-inspiring lies by movement conservatives. Democratic politicians remain way too vulnerable to such tactics, haunted by over 30 years of conservative electoral successes. But the rank-and-file Democrats need to develop some Obama cool. Throughout the fall campaign, he managed to make the foamy-mouthed right look silly by taking its attacks in stride and then, ever so casually, being a little snide about their hysteria. If that doesn’t work, might I suggest that the Democrats just stand firm against the attempts at intimidation? The right has crossed the line of civility and - remember this one from ever child-rearing maxim you ever heard? - one should never reward tantrums. That just encourages more tantrums.

John McGowan, August 1, 2009

Sigh. After the House compromise with the Blue Dogs, the chances that Congress will get some kind of health care reform bill to the president’s desk to sign this year are probably 80 percent. Obama has succeeded in making the pressure to do something strong enough to bring just about the whole dysfunctional and heterogeneous Democratic Party to accept that some kind of bill is needed. But what a bill! Watching the “debate” (an overly polite word for the deals being made) over this legislation reveals why we have such an absurdly complicated tax code. Every legislator, it seems, insists on getting something for his favorite client before agreeing to vote for the bill. We will end up with something byzantine, costly, irrational and incomprehensible. In other words, something like the current mess. At this point, the best we can hope for, in my humble opinion, is that the new mess - as contrasted to the current mess - won’t leave 50 million Americans on the outside looking in. Extending coverage to the currently uninsured would be a significant achievement even if we will, as a nation, have blown one more opportunity to create a sensible health care system.

Tom Murphy, July 23, 2009

It's all-too-easy to forget the US is at war. The human toll in Iraq and Afghanistan has been staggering, particularly to Iraqis and Afghanis, but also in terms of American casualties. The economic costs keep rising, too. A House committee just approved another $128 billion for the wars as part of a $636 billion defense bill, and more money will be needed by Spring. The US has now spent over $1 trillion on what Bush used to call the War on Terror, and there is no end in sight. Although US troops have withdrawn from major Iraqi cities, 130,000 active-duty troops remain in the country. The US is raising the number of troops in Afghanistan. Troops in Korea remain on alert as tensions rise there. And the situations in Pakistan, Iran and parts of Africa are worrisome at best. The US has "charged" most of this spending at a time the economy is shrinking and a health care eats up 17 percent of the American GDP. The question isn't whether we should continue to fund the wars. The question is which represents a greater threat to the American people: the nations of Iraq and Afghanistan? The specter of a failing health care system? Or the dangers of soaring rates of unemployment and debt? Individually or collectively, Americans must learn to live within their means if security is truly the long-term goal. That is the war we must win.

John McGowan, June 30, 2009

I’ve just read four books - I'm reviewing them for an academic journal - that bemoan how the president’s power increased throughout the 20th century.  All of the authors agree that focusing power in the executive branch undermines our system of checks and balances, while our cult of the presidency undermines democracy itself. We look to a strong leader to save us rather than to ourselves, the empowered people. All true enough. Most of us citizens don’t pay enough attention to more local affairs - or extend our civic engagement beyond going to the polls every once in a while. Yet it is also hard not to crave presidential leadership when our legislative process is so completely broken. The total meltdowns in California and New York and the spectacle of a Congress bungling meaningful health care reform or climate change legislation are the latest proofs that we cannot expect our legislatures to solve - or even meaningfully engage - our society’s problems. Yes, it is bad for presidents to act unilaterally, but Congress calls forth the executive’s power grabs by so often doing nothing, and by doing badly what it manages to do at all.

Tom Murphy, June 19, 2009

Once, when I was upset about my sick dog and the general state of the universe, a neighbor told me: "Don't worry. Everything will work out. Why wouldn't it?"  I couldn't answer the question. But she was right. My dog got better. The universe got better, for a while anyway. I've come to understand since then that it's pointless to try to control the course of events that are truly beyond our control. Since the early Bush years, we've heard a lot about the axis of evil and how we have to take it on. Well, we took on Iraq and we're still trying to let go. Today, there's talk about what we must do about Iran and North Korea. But can we really have an impact? Or will the world keep spinning without us? The events unfolding in Iran show that the country is ultimately controlled by Iranians - we learned that in 1979, but somehow forgot. And North Korea? It has an enormous army, and each member of that army has a family they care about. What all those North Koreans do to determine their own destiny has a lot more to do with the future of that country than Kim Jong Il or the United States. It will all work out. Why wouldn't it?

John McGowan, June 5, 2009

It’s good to see that the Senate is taking up the question of regulating the financial industry. For some mysterious reason, we are in what I think is a period of false hope at the moment.  The stock market is stable, while some major banks are recapitalizing and hope to repay their TARP debts sooner rather than later.  The danger is that we will let the moment for regulation pass as the sense of urgency and crisis fades.  Yet the abuses were very real, while the lesson that the government won’t let you fail will have terrible consequences in both the short and long terms. Basically, what is needed is a firm leverage limit on what the feds will insure; past a certain point (about 15 to 1 would be reasonable) investors would be on their own, so that the “risk” capitalists like to tout would be real instead of the current system which has the investor reap the profits when the gamble works and the government cover the loss when it does not. More complete transparency is another necessity, while some kind of limits on size might also prove a good idea.  In short, the whole financial system needs careful scrutiny and some serious regulatory reform is in order.  I don’t, in fact, believe the banks are out of the woods yet, but I certainly could be wrong. But whether we have turned some kind of corner or not should not impede fixing some obvious failings of the current system.

Tom Murphy, May 30, 2009

There was a time, like most little kids, that I dreamed of being president. Not now. The job looks like a nightmare and - no matter what you think of him - you have to give Obama credit for keeping his cool. The situation in North Korea was infamously predicted by Joe Biden prior to the election when he said he expected Obama would be tested by North Korea during his first six months in office. This is a serious issue that will only get worse if swept under the table. Virtually nobody wants to see Kim Jong Il get his hands on a nuke. And it's all a dry run for Iran, because - similarly - nobody wants to see Ahmadinejad get a nuke. Biden was right: this is a test for Obama.  I'm just glad he's facing it with the poise he's brought to the job.

John McGowan, May 20, 2009

The Democrats, especially those in Congress, are proving themselves slow learners. On the defensive for years, they've been afraid of their own shadows, convinced at every turn that the Republicans would clean their clocks for even the slightest move to the left, even the tiniest bit of progressive thinking.  Hence their delay in closing Guantanamo. And, hence, Pelosi’s all-too-ordinary lack of courage when it came to torture. Who cares when she knew about torture? The fact is that she certainly knew prior to the 2004 elections, but was paralyzed by the fear of being characterized as “soft” on terrorism. Obama is facing the same habitual Democratic timidity when he brings his energy plan and his health care proposals to Congress. He needs to go to the Hill and give his party some backbone. He needs to convince them that the times have changed.  he Democrats need to stop looking over their shoulders and start acting like a ruling party. They need, in other words, to recall how the Republicans in 2002 acted as if they would be in power for 40 years. That’s a formula for getting something done.

John McGowan, April 30, 2009

With Arlen Spector on board in the Senate and the House moving full speed ahead,it looks like President Obama will get most of what he wants as the budget process unfolds over the next eight to 10 months. The good news is that meaningful health care reform might actually happen. The bad news is that the nation’s finances are a complete mess. The Republicans are fully justified in complaining that the budget numbers are largely fiction and completely unsustainable. Of course, they would have more credibility on that front if they had spoken the same truths when their guy was in the White House. Still, no matter how the politicians lie and who is doing the lying, the bill must come due some day. In short, our government’s finances are as broken as our nation’s health care system - and require a comparably drastic revision. And the place to start is our arcane, over-complicated, and completely dysfunctional tax code. We need to scrap the whole existing system and simplify, simplify, simplify. 

John McGowan, April 20, 2009

Frozen capital is waiting on action from our frozen capitol. That, at least, is the takeaway message from a New York financier I spoke to last week. His take was that we will be just fine once the Obama administration does its thing. But, he said, no one if going to put capital anywhere before knowing what the rules of the game are. What are the tax rates going to be? What is the regulatory environment going to look like? How are the toxic assets going to be valued and then liquidated? So long as there is uncertainty, capital will sit on the sidelines. Many historians have come to a similar conclusion about the famous first 100 days of the Roosevelt administration. It is hard to know what specific Roosevelt programs “worked,” if indeed any of them did. What was important was that Roosevelt was doing something - and the basic framework of the economy and the terms of the government’s involvement in it were set. So let’s get going guys.

John McGowan, April 15, 2009

Get those airline tickets! Cuba, once one of America’s favorite playgrounds, is open for business. The shades of Papa Hemingway and Adam Clayton Powell will be there to greet you as you get off the plane. Otherwise, I’m afraid, Cuba is only a ghost of its former self. Which, like most changes, is both a good thing and a bad thing. Still, I do believe the Cuban people (without a doubt) and the American people (possibly) would have been better off if our government had treated the Cuban Revolution far differently. Castro, like all tin-pot dictators, used American belligerence toward him to secure his power and to justify political repression of internal dissidents. Communist Eastern Europe fell in response to the influx of American blue jeans and Frank Zappa’s music, not through military intimidation and economic sanctions. We should have treated Cuba like Poland, understanding that the people were captive to a tyrant, instead of granting Castro legitimacy as the true representative of his people. But when it comes to the minor players in world politics - Central American republics, dysfunctional Arab states - the US has an irrepressible knack for playing it entirely wrong, for over-reacting and swaggering about in ways that only reveal our inability to shape the world in our desired image.

Tom Murphy, April 09, 2009

Take me to the moon, said JFK, and we did. There was no way of knowing if we could get there when the young president set that goal during the tense days of the cold war, but nine years later, America landed men on the moon - and brought them back safe. It was gutsy and inspiring, and it showed what the US does best: employ brains and money to achieve a difficult but important goal. Today, we face a much bigger challenge in reversing the trends of global warming that came, in large part, from American technology and consumption. It's only fitting that another young president should set another tough target: using our technology to end the threat of global warming. If it can be done, it will probably do the same thing that putting a man on the moon did in 1969 - show the world that the US is capable of taking great leaps for all mankind.

John McGowan, March 17, 2009

Why do the big banks and AIG seem to have the government over a barrel, even as the little guys are now homeless, living in fast-growing tent cities? Too big to fail goes the mantra. But that seems to actually mean too big to be accountable, even as they take billions. Meanwhile, the Obama administration dithers. Let’s accept that there is a lot of toxic debt out there. That debt needs to be cleared out of the system. The cleanest solution would be to move that debt into a “bad bank.” Since the government would be assuming those bad loans, the government should have all the upside as well as all the downside. Yet, by raising the specter of “nationalization,” the financial industry keeps angling for the government to assume all the downside while leaving the upside to the banks. Heads I win, tails you lose. Obama and his minions have to get past their fear of Wall Street and of the commentators who will call them socialists. Only that way can we get past the crisis and, with luck, not bankrupt the nation in the process. There is still a big risk here since the bet is that some of the toxic debt will prove, in the long run, not so very toxic that the US will be left destitute. But refusing to make that bet - or, worse, making that bet half-heartedly - is even riskier.

John McGowan, March 4, 2009

Recession? Depression? What’s in a name? In one sense: nothing. Events will unfold in their own way whatever we call them. But even though we cannot control events absolutely, how we respond to events does matter. And that response is often highly influenced by what exactly we think we are facing. Call a man misguided and you try to educate him. Call him a sinner or a criminal instead and different actions toward him are suggested. There is plenty of evidence that our current economic woes have been underestimated for quite some time now. We’ve become used to short recessions, the kind that last 18 months or so, and provide some fairly painful, but never very radical, readjustments in the economy. But there’s a good case to be made that, during those recessions of 1991-1992 and 2001-2003, the fundamentals of our economy were allowed to continue on a disastrous path. We didn’t pay the real price in those recessions for our profligacy, our growing trade imbalances and our general addiction to debt, both private and governmental. So dropping the term “recession” in favor of a more dramatic term at this moment is akin to admitting that the fundamentals need to be addressed, and that there is not going to be a quick fix.

P.A. MacLean, February 09, 2009

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In the haggling over the economic stimulus plan, Congress axed money for school construction and repair. But one area of tax cuts has fell into the background - funding of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Congressional Budget Office, that nonpartisan financial watchdog for Congress, projected in a February report that funding current  Department of Defense requirements would increase spending beyond the rate of inflation. Indeed, spending levels - adjusted for inflation - would surpass the heyday of Ronald Reagan's cold war buildup. This stems from plans to purchase more equipment, new weapons systems, increasing pay and benefits, and the rising cost of maintaining existing complex systems. Meanwhile, the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are rising, costing $170 billion in 2007 and $186 billion in 2008 - 28% of defense spending for the year. And that's just the budgeted costs. The CBO projected the unbudgeted items would raise long-term defense funding to an annual average of $652 billion through 2026. That's 26% more than funding in the Bush Administration's final defense budget request.  Maybe fewer weapons systems and more schools would make more sense.

John McGowan, January 29, 2009

So much for the new bipartisanship. Not a single Republican in the House voted for the stimulus package. The Republicans’ thinking here is straight-forward. They aren’t going to get any credit if the stimulus works. But they could benefit if it fails - and if they can say “We told you so.” As usual, Rush Limbaugh is saying out loud what most Republicans can only say in their hearts, “Let’s hope that the Obama presidency fails.” The only risk they take, so far as I can see, is cementing the party’s Hoover reputation for being willing to stand by idle while the country goes to hell in a hand basket. Do recall that after the past two elections there are just about no moderate Republicans left in the house. Their caucus has moved, hard as it is to believe, even further to the right. In the Senate, Collins, Specter, Snow and others from blue states are more likely to play with the Democrats at least some of the time.

Tom Murphy, January 26, 2009

It's somewhat ironic that just two weeks after George Bush left office Iraq will be casting ballots that will help determine how he is remembered. The Iraqi national election will ultimately decide if the government he put in place will remain in charge, whether US troops are really welcome in Iraq and whether the country is even stable enough to hold honest, open elections at this point. Every sane person prays for peaceful balloting. And anyone who believes in democracy knows that, whatever the Iraqis decide, a fair election will be a victory unto itself in a country that has lived too long under the long shadows of Saddam Hussein or George Bush.

John McGowan, January 16, 2009

A plane crash in which everyone survives brings many things to mind. Everyday heroism combined with the everyday competence of someone who knows how to do his job right. The welcome experience of people rising to the occasion, from the passengers who didn�t panic to the ferry operators who knew exactly what to do. That I had just flown home from Tucson, and had just read a headline about how it has been two years since anyone died in a commercial airline crash. Some years back, I went to Egypt. At the end of my visit, my host said to me: �We have so many good people in Egypt. And yet we have such problems.� It was not the people, he insisted. It was the corrupt government, and stubborn global economic and political realities, that made so many Egyptians� lives truly miserable. The Hudson River story reminds me how much we can rely on our fellow Americans� basic decency and goodness. Now if we could just have a society and a government that lived up to the people at their best.

John McGowan, January 5, 2009

Fixing the economy looks like a simple three-week job compared to making any progress in the Middle East. Forgetting everything they supposedly learned two summers ago in their invasion of Lebanon, Israel has now invaded the Gaza Strip.  Israel can no more destroy Hamas than it could Hezbollah.  So, in both instances, it just grants legitimacy to the extremist groups while undermining the �moderates� it always claims that it wants to support and work with.  If the moderates have no way of getting Israel even to allow Gaza to be a place where an actual meaningful life can be lived - not to mention a place where one can stay alive at all - then they have nothing to offer Palestinians as an alternative to eternal defiance.  The United States is more than waist deep in this big muddy.  Blocking UN resolutions, while supplying Israel with endless weapons and huge injections of foreign aid, is not a path to peace or to progress. Obama has his work cut out for him.  In many ways, disengagement seems the best option. Wash our hands of the mess and refuse to deal with the nuts who are all too numerous on both sides. Unfortunately, disengagement is not a realistic option.  The US is inextricably involved and needs to act constructively. And putting some real pressure on Israel to withdraw its troops would be a good start.

Rebecca Rosen Lum, January 3, 2009

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A new survey released by AARP offered up some sobering stats: In the past year, 15 percent of adults cut back on medications, or declined to fill prescriptions, because their budgets would not allow it. A separate survey released earlier this month revealed women are skipping routine health exams because the tab is too steep. We can't argue that such "savings" can lead to costly - and preventable - health crises further down the road. But discouraging women from economizing at the expense of their health raises bitter questions for those without health care, and that is a rapidly increasing number. The number of jobless Americans drawing unemployment checks has skyrocketed from 2.7 million a year ago to 4.5 million today, and experts predicts the unemployment could reach 10 percent by the end of 2009. The maximum amount a person can collect does not allow for the high cost of Cobra, which extends health coverage after a layoff. During the presidential campaign, then-Sen. Barack Obama placed a high priority on overhauling the nation's ailing health care system. Reform cannot wait until the economy turns around. Universal coverage will insure the nation's women will see doctors and receive mammograms, PAP smears and other critical screenings swiftly - and save millions of health care dollars and lives lost in the bargain.

Tom Murphy, December 20, 2008

It would be great if the $14.7 billion bridge loan program for the automakers would save the industry, but it won't. It will give the Big 3 enough breathing room to plead their case again, this time to Barack Obama's White House - giving the freshman president his first major economic battle. Relatively few Americans have much sympathy for an industry that churned out gas-guzzlers while the Japanese, Koreans and Europeans were focused on more fuel-efficient models. But that course can be reversed. There's still time for the US to take a lead in producing the best cars in the world. Allowing the industry to fail would simply put millions of Americans out of work, raise the costs of cars in the US and place an added weight on foreign carmakers, which depend on US companies for parts. That said, it isn't up to the American people to provide the cash flow to keep Detroit humming. The carmakers must right their wrongs, or the bailout will turn out to be nothing more than a bridge to nowhere.

John McGowan, December 10, 2008

During the Great Depression, groups of farmers would show up at auctions of their neighbors� foreclosed farms to discourage (by various tactics, some of which were close to physical intimidation) anyone but the former owner from bidding. At these so-called �penny sales,� farmers re-bought their farms for a few dollars. The practice became so widespread that seven Midwest and Great Plains States outlawed real estate auctions. This week, workers refused to leave the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago after it was shut down. Hard economic times are driving ordinary Americans to actions that are finding wide-spread sympathy. Their obvious question: How come there are bail-outs for the big guys, but none for us? Aside from the justice of their cause, these workers are also paving the way for millions of other Americans who are facing similar situations. Our workers are going to need every strategy they can think of to dramatize their cause is these hard times.



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