Monday, December 27, 2010

If You Haven't Got a Ha'penny, God Bless You

Dear Children:

Get ready. The silliness we’ve learned to endure from Congress is about to go into hyper drive. Here is a hint that might help: Whatever name given to any issue in the 112th Congress, the subtext will always be government debt. Of course, there’s the National Debt pushing $14 trillion. Nearly every state, county, municipality, mosquito abatement district and public transit system is swimming in debt. Not for profit social service agencies are borrowed up to their brow ridge because of deadbeat states, counties, municipalities, mosquito abatement districts and public transit systems. What a mess.
The national debt alone is about a year’s wages for the average adult. Paying the foreign portion alone would cost about $200 per month for 15 years or $35 per month for 35 years from every wage earner.
Whatever the reason (elective wars, ill-advised tax cuts, underfunded entitlements, out-of-control healthcare costs, quantitative easing and stimulus payments) we’re in a fix. No one has a perfect handle on the problem. No one has the power to impose a solution, however brilliant. Congress is the least capable forum for any solution. We are not even agreed on a comfortable level of debt let alone agreed on the major reductions that will be required soon.
There are those who will tell you that spending is the sole problem. That is true if we are prepared to gut the social safety net. The people who say that spending is the sole problem are prepared to do that very thing.
Some will tell you that military expenditures are the problem. That is also true if you are prepared to abrogate treaty obligations of longstanding, have an armed force trimmed to meet only imminent threats; a force incapable of backing up foreign policy goals and, at the same time, throw much of the politically unstable parts of the globe into chaos. There are people prepared to risk that too.
Some will say that we should tax and assess our way out of this jam. That too can be done if you are prepared to risk social strife and contempt for the government on an unprecedented scale. Don’t worry, some of our political leaders will risk as much and more.
There is a sizeable slice of political thought that advocates a hands-off approach. Sooner or later, they argue, we will either grow our economy or shrink our economy until all the forces listed above come into balance naturally. Some of those people would merely cancel the foreign portion of the debt to the tune of $9 trillion give or take. Such an action would queer the idea of ever borrowing another penny from foreigners. Heaven help us if we encounter some emergency that would require an infusion of hard currency.
As we understand it right now, whatever we do must be both effective and palatable to a huge fraction of taxpayers. In other words, once we agree on the debt target, the solution is somehow resident in all of the above solutions; a combination of taxes, entitlement efficiencies, military retrenchment and discretionary restraint. The pain will need to be spread as evenly as possible for as short a period as possible.
I don’t know the answer nor do I know anyone who does. That is why we called this meeting. Beware of those who claim to have the answer especially if it’s a simple or painless one. Beware of political leaders who ask you to trust them without revealing their plans. Beware of those who will sell any natural rights in the name of thrift. Beware of those who will sacrifice the poor and the infirm as a political expedient. Beware of those who would impoverish the wealthy and productive. History teaches that none of these ever work.
As these matters come before the 112th Congress, we will examine each in more detail.
I’m just sayin’

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Ox and Ass Kept Time Pa Rum Pum Pum Pum

Dear Children:

You know the Little Drummer Boy; pa rum pum pum pum?
We all know how this stuff happens: Somebody decides that your delicate sensibilities can’t stand some word or some image and manages to keep it from you.  That somebody is called a bowdlerizer.  A bowdlerizer is not exactly a censor.  He decrees what you should hear or see.  He is someone who would disinfect things for you.  God forbid you should worry your pretty little heads.
What could be more pure-of-heart than to keep from our sweet youngsters what is vile and indelicate.  Make no mistake, what is vile and indelicate should be kept from your ears.
Just be aware that he is a human too with a complex set of motives and anxieties like the rest of us.  Sometimes the stuff that gets cleaned up says more about the cleaner than about the dainty ears of children.  Sometimes she would rather you didn’t giggle during the Christmas Pageant when you hear the word “ass”.  Okay, so “donkey” would be acceptable but doesn’t fit into the songs metric scheme.
So the word gets changed to ‘lamb’.  How very adorable.  Except now the line has been leached of its meaning.  From the very earliest crèches or manger scenes depicting the birth of The Christ Child, an ox and an ass have been present based on the words of the prophet Isaiah:
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.

Much has been made of this over the last couple millennia. Ox is kosher; donkey meat is forbidden.  Many scholars have taken the verse to foretell the Jew/Gentile debate of the early church.  Others have contrasted the gentle ox with the obdurate ass.  The juxtaposition has also been used in quite judgmental terms toward Jewry.  In any case: You got your baby Jesus, you got your ox and you got your ass.

This is a rather mild example to be sure.  After all, what harm does it do?  No real harm has been done except you get to be ever-so-slightly cheated of a carol’s richness.  This is in the name of foregoing a few giggles at the Christmas Pageant.

Political talking points are cut from the same cloth.  A talking point serves up a sanitary, unambiguous and easily repeatable bit of humbug for the home folks to toss about at dinner.  Talking points usually involve a tautology (self-referential reasoning) in the hope that enough repetitions will crowd out whatever nuance might otherwise exist.  Some recent examples are:
            We don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.
            We’re giving tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires.
Here again, a couple of mild examples that, in the scheme no things, don’t amount to much.  This is not a partisan post.  The partisan ones will curl you hair.

In the first instance, we are avoiding the word “debt” because at $14 trillion there is no power on earth capable of denting it in our lifetimes.  It is merely lip service to an ideology that long ago has been stripped of its political muscle.

In the second instance, we make reference to something that happened eight years ago.  The question at hand is whether we should raise taxes on one group or another.  And besides, taxes are levied on earnings not net worth.

As bad as talking points are, the outright vending of ignorance ranks just below the bald-faced lie.  Senators from South Carolina and Arizona used words like “sacrilegious” and “disrespectful” to describe their obligation to work during the week between Christmas and New Years.  That sort of thing is way beyond cant.  Maybe he just misspoke, but the plain text of the junior Senator from Arizona suggests that the very day (December 15) was Christmas.

So what?  Senators bloviate – that’s what we expect of them.  They’re giving you what you need to hear without much in the way of thought or care.  The Senator was bowdlerizing for your benefit.

All the polls show it: the electorate has a low opinion of Congress.  That low opinion cuts both ways.   Congress has low opinion of the electorate.

I’m just sayin’,


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Catch XXII

Dear Children:
This is going to be difficult. It is difficult because life is difficult, the exercise of power is difficult and accepting the consequences of both is difficult. One should hasten to add that whatever subtracts from life is also difficult and whatever shrinks from power imposes difficulty.

For a certain generation, nowhere was this little maxim better embodied than in a work of fiction called Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. Published in 1961, the book explores the reach of bureaucratic power over the individual and the reach of power of one individual over another. Our hero, Captain Yossarian, is a bomber pilot operating out of a backwater during World War II. He is approaching his promised 40-mission limit and wants out. Cynical, inept and foolish superior officers along with minor functionaries conspire to prevent it. Catch-22 is the pretext:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
Eventually, we come to learn that Catch-22 is notional. Cruelly, it makes no difference. Whether the catch exists is irrelevant. It is so widely believed to exist and quoted often enough to have the force of law, if not truth.

Then there’s Senate Rule XXII. You may remember we discussed this matter before in the December 5th post, “Chicken Crap”.  We looked at the filibuster.

As the 112th Congress constitutes itself on January 3, 2011 and only on January 3rd, Rule 22 may come up under a parliamentary mechanism called The Constitutional Option. (If The Constitutional Option is aimed at the minority, it’s referred to as The Nuclear Option.) At the risk of simplifying too much, the Senate can change its rules on the first day of the session employing a simple majority required for passage; or so goes the theory. The mechanism would be for the purpose of amending the Cloture Rule -- limiting the length of a filibuster or force a filibustering senator to truly stand in the well of the Senate in person or some combination of ingredients.

While we contemplate whether the Democrats can pull it off and eventually pass constitutional muster, we should consider the question of whether they ought to try.

The text of the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in the Senate for confirming treaties (Article 2, Section 2), expelling one of its members (Article 1, Section 5), and concurring in the proposal of Constitutional Amendments (Article 5). In all other matters, the Constitution gives the Senate the power to make its own rules (Article 1, Section 5). Starting with the first Senate in 1789, a simple majority could move to bring any matter to a vote. In 1806 a motion to call the question was eliminated. The filibuster became possible. A single Senator could now block a vote, 100% support was required to bring the question to a vote. In 1917 cloture was introduced requiring a two-thirds majority of those present to end debate. Cloture was amended in 1975 requiring three-fifths of the entire Senate.

Supporters of the right to filibuster argue that the Senate has a long tradition of requiring broad support to do business, due in part to the threat of the filibuster thus protecting the minority.

On the other hand, the Senate is not a seriously representative body. The people of California have the same number of votes as do the people of South Dakota. The Senate is designed to cool the passions of the majority as well as queer the will of the occasional nutcase. So, when we say minority, we mean a minority of senators who might all be from small states or all be from more populous states, southern states, manufacturing states … you get the idea.

Finally, when they have been in the minority, both parties have abused the filibuster. Particularly in the appointment of judges, the minority rises in purple outrage. Federal courts stay short-handed for years.
Rather than a rule change, a culture change might be in order. That’s the hard part. Just because it’s possible to employ a weapon hardly gives license to use it. The potential for more conflict and more resentment -- however it plays out -- is very, very high.

We ought to favor an arrangement where the minority, after having aired their objections fully, accepts the will of the majority. Under this arrangement, it is up to the people to decide come the next election. No rule can impose the adoption of a principle.

For no one should rule out the capacity of the mean-spirited to abuse any rule, game any system or confuse childish petulance with healthy debate. After all, that is what we have experienced: an undignified muddle unworthy of confidence.

There is no catch-22.

I’m just sayin’,

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Blind Man's Bluff

Dear Children:
If you ever get the chance, read the book A Beautiful Mind about Nobel Laureate John Nash and his battle with paranoid schizophrenia. It’s only covered tangentially in the book, but John Nash also helped popularize Game Theory, a branch of mathematics that examines the success, or lack of it one experiences because of the decisions of others in strategic situations. Game Theory is quite powerful in modeling decisions to cooperate with or resist the actions of others.

Some of our best minds are at work in this field including my personal favorites, the guys who figure out what’s going on in Texas hold ‘em. You may know the game. Its poker, we’re assured, but so esoteric, spooky and cultish that it’s super stars qualify as an alien life form.
In game theory, the concept of equilibrium is the goal. Please allow some over-simplifications here: The best we can do is to set up a circumstance under which one has a 50/50 chance of a satisfactory outcome. In no other human endeavor is this idea more manifest than the poker bluff. The best poker minds, using the snazziest computers and the latest social science research* have confirmed that among equal players, using the best bluff techniques to maximum advantage will not put one additional chip on the pile. The best one can do with a careful bluff strategy is to prevent an opponent from overwhelming one’s overall strategy. In a zero-sum game like poker, that is no mean feat.
So what is Congress doing with all this bluff and counter bluff? Certainly there’s more at stake here than some chips in a zero-sum game. The calculus is impossible. There is no way to model or understand it. There are no experts for this state of affairs. There are not likely to be any winners. Right on this spot is where paranoid schizophrenia meets alien life.
We now have abundant evidence that all the parties to this mess are thrashing about in a furious game of blind man’s bluff. In this case, the blind fold is ideological intransigence and injudicious bluffing. If it weren’t so serious (watching our leaders trip over the furniture and crash into the walls) this might be something we could look forward to laughing about later. That is, all the possible outcomes (save divine intervention) are unattractive.
If that weren’t enough, we have rioting in the streets outside Whitehall of all places. The natives are restless in Greece, Ireland and France over many of the same issues. We have some vandal spilling the contents of diplomatic pouches all over the countryside. Iran and North Korea are about to get strapped with a nuke or two. Pirates and slavers are operating openly at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Public education sucks. There are several troublemakers lying in the weeds ready to run for president two years hence. Oh, and lest we forget, Oprah’s last show is just months away.
I’m just sayin’,
*Eight Nobel economics prizewinners use some form of game theory

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Dear Children:

Don’t accuse me of being partisan; not this time.  The cloture vote in the Senate that thwarted the majority on the issue of extending Bush-era tax cuts had an interesting sideshow.  The first vote was 53 to 36 and the second vote was 53-37.  So, depending on which vote we mean, either 11 or 10 Senators did not vote.  All of them happen to be Republicans and all of them happen to be weenies.
A principled no vote is acceptable in a republic; an unprincipled no-show is not.  This is on the heels of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform vote where three Republican House Members ‘phoned in no votes but didn’t bother to be on hand.  The Democratic House Member who voted no was there and showed some spine.
For our purposes it’s not important who these gutless guys are.  Their names are in the record.  The real question is: What sort of contempt for the people’s business does it take to gin up a scheduling conflict?
Legislators miss votes all the time.  What makes this different is that it appears to be a bloc in both cases.  The Senate non-vote sported nine southerners.  The Debt Commission no-show had to have been colluded.  It is truly saddening to contemplate that urgent business in Texas or Alabama trumps the requirements of national public office.
Let’s get some pride together.  You’re stinking up the joint.
I’m just sayin’,

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wang Dang Doodle

Dear Children:
We have too many professional political operatives. There are too many people whose livelihood depends on advocacy. Here’s a shiny new dime for the person who can name any issue for which there are no advocates in Washington. A quarter goes for anyone who can name any advocate that does not have a sworn professional enemy. A crisp new dollar bill goes to anyone who can justify this scrum of professional advocates and opponents as a zeitgeist rather than in the particular.
Advocates thrive on extremes. We believe in tough, unyielding advocates who will fight ‘til the last nickel to support them has been exhausted
Everyone likes his own advocate and despises each advocate’s evil twin. It’s just human nature. We want to know that someone is watching out for our money or our sensibilities or our prejudices or our diseases or our religious and moral scruples. Just so, we like to know if some group is jonesing for what is rightfully ours, their grasping hands will be slapped.
The problem is that they’re making a mess. Our laws are overly long and complex because of it. Our regulations are a crazy quilt of insufferable and minor distinctions. Our courts are clogged with ever-finer particularities made on ever-less important matters.
We write the most mind-numbing descriptions of the word fresh. We have ten or so kinds of embezzlement. If you’ve ever made an attempt to parse the school lunch nutritional standards you have yet to test your capacity for torture. Toilet seats conform to a standard. There’s an outfit that proscribes dirty words. Picture a committee meeting with hundreds of chairs all clamoring for attention. You get the idea.
And yet, no matter how silly or timid, it’s always a result of good intentions informed and confused by our advocates.
Let’s say we have a rash of robberies where the robber threatened her victim with a whisk. Is that armed robbery? Is the whisk covered under the statute? Is a woman wielding a whisk during a robbery suffering from some delusion as yet unbeknownst to medical science? How long and how heavy is the whisk? Should we have Armed Robbery with a Whisk in both the first and second degree? What if the victim had a smaller or larger whisk?
The answer is that armed robbery was committed. The important part was “rash” of robberies. Some politician, no doubt egged on by WANGS (Whisks Are Not Good Society), vows to put a stop to it. So we get a new sort of crime over which legislators must meanly debate; about which regulations must be written and after which the courts must rule endlessly.
We go through all this effort to achieve … what? We certainly don’t get a lessening of robberies.
People in authority no longer have authority. No one seems to be in charge so no one need take responsibility. We have traded the idea that we elect people to represent us for a system of rulemaking among all the other people who claim to represent us. All those definitions of fresh do not come from the legislature. They come from bureaucrats who are left to deal with the WANGS of this world and who have their own rules to follow. They have an impossible job. The legislature kicks the ball to the bureaucrat’s court where the other representatives of the people snarl and bully their way to this present predicament.
No wonder people are frustrated. We have a system that doesn’t trust politicians, doesn’t trust regulators and doesn’t trust courts. We put our trust in WANGS who are constantly being thwarted by politicians, regulators and courts as well as the anti-WANGS lobby.
Come to think of it: Can we really trust WANGS?
I’m just sayin’,

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Chicken Crap

Dear Children:

Chicken crap is nasty stuff. Oh sure, it’s a great fertilizer; chock-a-block with nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. But, peeuw, the stuff fresh out of the bird is toxic to plants, animals and people. It’s the ammonium. Amononium burns, blinds, suffocates and kills. To be useful, chicken crap needs to be composted in such a way as to mitigate amononium's intensity; thinned and diluted.

We can appreciate that in-coming Speaker John Boehner was frusrated. The Democrates just didn't get it. The people had spoken. The people, he asserted in his annoying narcissistic way, wanted Republicans to run things; not Democrats. But here we are in the lame duck session extending the Bush Era tax cuts for those who earned less than $250 thousand and allowing the tax cuts to expire for those who earned more. He called the vote chicken crap.

The measure went to the Senate. In that body, even in the lame duck session, the Republicans had a weapon called filibuster. Just in case you haven't looked it up for yourself recently, the word has an interesting etymology.

The word started out as Dutch (vrijbuiter ) and was filtered through the French used originally to refer to pirates or freebooters. Later, it applied to freelance military adventurers originating in the United States trying to destabilize governments in Central and South America for sport and profit. They were called by their hapless victims Filibusteros. The phrase, “Yanqui go home.” was said to first be hurled at these mangy characters.

Starting about 1851, the term was used to describe those who attempted to hijack debate by holding the floor until the majority came to its senses. The great orator Cato used the tactic twice in ancient Rome by the simple expedient of speaking past dusk. Henry Clay, Wayne Morse, Huey Long and Strom Thurmond showed some good filibustering skillz in the past. The most famous fictional filibuster was portrayed by Jimmy Stewart in the film: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Of course, the practice is now codified into the Senate’s rules (Senate Rule XXII). No exertion is required to hold the floor. Still, it takes 60 votes to break a filibuster. That procedure is called cloture.

By the time the measure got to the Senate it was no longer chicken crap. It was called theater and a waste of time. It was a waste of time because the Majority Leader and Torquemada successor already knew he lacked the 60 votes needed for cloture. For a body that wastes time so prodigiously so often, an epithet crafted out of that cloth is asinine on its face.

Okay, kids. What have we learned? There was a disquisition on chicken crap and one on the word filibuster. What about the debate? Was it principled, elevated and civil? Did the parties engage one another’s arguments? Was the republic served?

Not hardly. We had anger, pandering and cynicism galore. What could be more obvious, quoth the Republicans? It’s wrong to raise taxes during a recession. They offered no evidence, but neither did the democrats make any particular attempt to refute. The democrats argued that the wealthiest of Americans could afford the tax and, besides, the government needed the money. Republicans never laid a glove on it. The parties talked past each other.

Both parties seem to be at sea -- unsure and spineless. There’s plenty of schoolyard bravado alright but neither nub nor root. After all we’ve been through this year, it’s still silly season on the Potomac. Chicken crap.

I’m just sayin’,


Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Dear Children:

A couple of you have written me privately about the sequence that’s followed to get from grievance to un-redressed grievance to frustration to revenge. Good question. It’s a good question, not only because the answer eludes me, but also because it points to the difficulty with discussing these matters. Let’s see if we can, at least parse the question.

As has been pointed out, there never seemed to be an opportunity for North Korea to be satisfied with an outcome different than the one she sought; that of unification under a Soviet-style system. The grievances, however, begin long before that in the 2nd century CE when china cruelly colonized the peninsula as a buffer against the Japanese. That horrible condition existed until the 20th century when Japan visited its own brand of cruelty and occupation on the people starting around 1910.

Skip to WWII. In what is now a laughable bit of statecraft, Mr. Truman allowed the surrender of Japanese forces to the Soviet Union north of the 38th parallel and accepted surrender on behalf of the United States in the south.

The North, with Stalin’s rule in the USSR as a guide and Stalin’s active connivance, immediately attempted a forced reunification on the South. They nearly succeeded. Mr. Truman and the UN intervened attempting to force reunification under US hegemony. They nearly succeeded before Mao Zedong intervened. They nearly succeeded but fought to the stalemate that exists today.

By then, grievance was piled upon grievance upon grievance with no way to sort it out. In cases like these, wars usually settle things for awhile. Stalemated wars solve nothing and harden the grievances to boot.

Today, North Korea is a police state that cannot feed its population, has no access to hard currency, isolated diplomatically and militarily as well as falling behind in almost every area of human progress. It has two assets: a nuclear weapons program and thousands of artillery pieces pointed at Seoul. Its leadership is paranoid beyond belief and rules from behind a curtain worthy of The Great Oz.

History judges all of the parties to this tragedy harshly. At no time did the great powers care one whit for the gathering frustration of the Korean people. Check out the 8th chapter in the book of Hosea. We have every reason to expect that what we have sown will ripen to a whirlwind.

Hosea’s prophecy reminds us that we can never really escape the consequences of actions. And, even in the face of a situation like Korea where there is plenty of blame to go around, we cannot escape our own part in it.

I’m just sayin’,