Archive for March, 2009

A Progressive Response to MoveOn

March 21, 2009

(The following post was co-written by my friend and colleague Tim Willard of the MD Green Party.)

News that the Obama Administration will enlist its massive campaign “army” of grassroots activists to push his budget through Congress, along with the current public outrage over the AIG bonuses, have raised the stakes in this already high stakes battle, and reactions to President Obama’s program are hitting the extremes. Republicans raise the specter of socialism while Democrats expect a new FDR, rescuing us from all the problems that have festered for the last thirty years.

While few in the public are buying the reactionary hysteria of Republicans, though, too many progressive organizations are uncritically accepting the hype surrounding President Obama’s plans – a recent MoveOn email message, “10 things you should know about Obama’s plan (but probably don’t),” is a typical example.

We give President Obama credit for the scope of his proposals, and acknowledge that many of his policies are dramatically better than President Bush’s. At the same time, his policies are often less ambitious than the rhetoric would suggest, and fall short of what is needed. At other times, his solutions to problems are constrained by corporate interests that will render them ineffective. And while truly prodigious amounts of money are being spent in the effort – money that must be repaid by us and our children, let us not forget – what is often required is not more money, but deeper systemic changes.

Simply being better than Bush is not a sufficient standard to meet the immense challenges we face today. If we are to solve these problems, we need to face them critically. Unlike the Rush Limbaughs of the world, we want President Obama to succeed. But mere cheerleading will not be enough; an honest look at the Obama proposals – and an appropriate response – is required.

Below is a progressive response to the aforementioned MoveOn email message of March 1st, one which we hope will stimulate a more serious discussion.

“10 things you should know about Obama’s plan (but probably don’t)”

1) Makes a $634 billion down payment on fixing health care that will go a long way toward paying for a more efficient, more affordable health care system that covers every single American.

Response – President Obama said during the campaign that health care is a basic right, and yet he plans to leave our national system in the hands of private corporations that limit or deny coverage in order to maximize their profits. More money for health care is good, but it doesn’t address this fundamental problem. It’s also far from clear where all of the $634 billion to be set aside will come from, and at least some of it will come by cutting good programs, such as squeezing $37 billion from home health agencies. Physicians for a National Health Care Program estimate that a single payer health care system would save $350 billion a year on redundant paperwork alone, and it would be a huge boost to businesses struggling with health care costs – but such a system is “not on the table” for discussion.

2) Reduces taxes for 95% of working Americans. And if your family makes less than $250,000, your taxes won’t go up one dime.

Response – This is appropriate given that tax policies heavily favor the wealthy, but it’s difficult to see how we can spend trillions of dollars on programs and initiatives, however desperately needed, without ultimately placing the burden on those same 95%. It will take innovative new ideas to bring the budget back into balance. One of the most urgently needed taxes is on the rampant trade of exotic financial instruments, such as derivatives, that precipitated our current financial collapse. Given that worldwide trade in derivatives approaches a staggering $500 trillion, with much of it centered in the U.S., a tax of less than 1% would generate hundreds of billions of dollars – enough money to pay for President Obama’s plans… or fund the Wall St. bailout that is now being picked up by taxpayers .

3) Invests more than $100 billion in clean energy technology, creating millions of green jobs that can never be outsourced.

Response – Unfortunately President Obama continues to support the myth of “clean coal” as one of those energy technologies to be funded, along with nuclear power. And the stimulus package allocates approximately three times as much for highways as it does for mass transit. Building a green energy economy must be the centerpiece of a new economy.

Even worse, President Obama and the Democrats in Congress seem to have already made up their mind to implement a “cap-and-trade” program to reduce carbon emissions, as opposed to a much more aggressive carbon tax. A cap and trade plan, which failed in Europe, creates a market for carbon pollution – with the potential for all the lobbying, speculation and corruption plaguing our financial markets. Current cap-and-trade programs have resulted in windfalls for the very companies that are the heaviest polluters. Cap-and-trade is not science-based, it is market-based, and if it delays implementation of much stronger reductions, this one decision could overwhelm all attempts to confront the climate crisis of global warming.

4) Brings our troops home from Iraq on a firm timetable, finally bringing the war to a close—and freeing up almost ten billion dollars a month for domestic priorities.

Response – President Obama declared combat operations in Iraq will end in August of 2010, yet some 30,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq – they will simply be “renamed” or “remissioned.” Pentagon officials concede these “new” missions of support, intelligence and anti-terrorist operations could well involve combat – they are, after all, combat troops, however renamed. President Obama says these troops will be withdrawn by December 31, 2011, a timeline that is twice as long as his promised withdrawal plan of 16 months – and which could easily change over the next three years.

At the same time President Obama withdraws troops from Iraq, he is sending them to Afghanistan – 17,000 so far, with more deployments likely. And President Obama is also asking for an increase in the already astronomical military budget, even larger than the one suggested for 2009 by President Bush.

5) Reverses growing income inequality. The plan lets the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans expire and focuses on strengthening the middle class.

Response – Income inequality has been growing in the U.S. for the past 30 years. While letting the Bush tax cuts expire is a step in the right direction, much more fundamental changes will be needed to actually reverse growing income inequality, including a re-evaluation of trade policy which has encouraged manufacturers to move overseas to exploit cheap labor and led to a “race to the bottom” for US workers.

6) Closes multi-billion-dollar tax loopholes for big oil companies.

Response – True, but the Obama Administration is also continuing the Bush policy of opening our coastlines to oil and gas drilling, as well as promoting the development of oil shale in Western states, an environmentally dangerous process that consumes huge amounts of water in an already drought-stricken west.

7) Increases grants to help families pay for college—the largest increase ever.

Response – The total cost of tuition and fees for everyone currently enrolled in public colleges and universities is approximately $25 billion a year – what the Pentagon spends in about two weeks. If higher education is truly a priority, why not make college education free?

8) Halves the deficit by 2013. President Obama inherited a legacy of huge deficits and an economy in shambles, but his plan brings the deficit under control as soon as the economy begins to recover.

Response – President Obama’s long-term budget can halve the deficit by 2013 only because he and Congress are dramatically increasing the deficit in 2009 with the stimulus package and increases in budget spending. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office determined that the budget deficit could be nearly halved simply by winding down the war in Iraq and allowing some of Bush’s tax cuts to expire. Also, the ability to deliver on this so-called “halving” is based on revenue, spending cuts and tax increases yet to be approved, or in some cases even determined, as well as some very optimistic projections for economic growth in the out years.

9) Dramatically increases funding for the SEC and the CFTC—the agencies that police Wall Street.

Response – And yet, the Obama Administration continues to pour billions of dollars into failing financial institutions, in spite of the fact that no one can say where the first $350 billion in bailout money went to, or what it did. They are also refusing, so far, to reinstitute fundamental regulations – such as the Glass-Steagall Act, which until its repeal in 1999 had for more than 60 years kept the activities of local commercial banks (where your money resides) and Wall St. investment firms safely separated.

10) Tells it straight. For years, budgets have used accounting tricks to hide the real costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush tax cuts, and too many other programs. Obama’s budget gets rid of the smokescreens and lays out what America’s priorities are, what they cost, and how we’re going to pay for them.

Response – Well, sort of. While the Obama budget is more honest than Bush’s, and includes spending (such as the Iraq war) that Bush and Congress kept off-budget, it still relies on “a few well-worn budget tricks,” according to the February 26th Washington Post article “In President’s Budget Plan, Broad Agenda and a Few Gaps.” For instance, about half of the $2 trillion in “savings” President Obama has identified are actually tax increases. Additional savings are counted against unrealistic scenarios, such as money “saved” by not continuing Iraq war spending at $170 billion a year indefinitely. And hundreds of billions of dollars would theoretically come from the cap-and-trade program, which might face significant revisions before being enacted and is, as noted above, terrible policy to begin with.

Postscript – MoveOn and others are now asking for our money so they can fight the battle of this budget against the lobbyists and special interests swooping in to dismantle it. Here’s a better idea – how about if the Obama Administration and Congress enact full public campaign funding for all federal elections? It would cost an infinitesimal fraction of what their current budget plans do, yet would dramatically reduce the power of lobbyists overnight, since politicians would no longer depend on the contributions from the lobbyists’ corporate bosses and networks to bankroll a campaign. Why isn’t MoveOn fighting for that bold policy?

#     #     #

Thanks also to Kevin Zeese, David Gaines and Maria Allwine for their comments and contributions to this piece!

Jon Stewart Does It Again

March 15, 2009

There is a reason that The Daily Show is the most watched news program for 18-35 year olds (as well as those of us a tad beyond that demographic!), and it was on full display again Thursday night, as Jon Stewart conducted a scathing, almost full-show length interview with CNBC’s premiere financial analyst, Jim Cramer.

Expressing the outrage and insight that is rarely if ever seen among the “serious” broadcast journalists and news anchors (what does it tell you that a guy running a comedy show is the most trusted newsman in America?), Stewart methodically and emphatically took apart his guest, CNBC, and the whole array of financial analysts who so completely missed the current meltdown – in large part because they were helping to create it by encouraging everyone to buy buy buy!

It was an extreme pleasure to watch, and if you haven’t already you definitely should – just click here. (The interview is in three parts in the center column, or you can watch the entire episode – which is, again, mostly the Cramer interview – with the “Full Episode” button in the right column.)

At the risk of angering the comedy gods, I want to suggest that there were two important elements largely missing from Stewart’s otherwise beautiful tirade.

One, which he did at least mention, is the American populace’s willingness to go along with the whole charade. At the end of his wonderful book about the world of rare wine forgeries, The Billionaire’s Vinegar, author Benjamin Wallace points out that, in all successful cons, the marks and the grifter are essentially collaborators. One sells the illusion that others are desperate to buy.  And so desperate are most Americans to get rich, apparently, that many of us will simply look the other way when reaping outrageously, completely unrealistically high earnings in the stock market or other investments. As Stewart noted, we seem to have forgotten that value comes from actual work, not simply trading money  (or other forms of paper) back and forth.

The second is the role of our government.  And it’s hard not to conclude that our political leaders are, like the supposedly objective financial analysts, actually co-conspirators in the massive financial fraud that has been perpetrated against us.

I’m not just talking about the corporation-loving Republicans, either.  The long road of financial deregulation that has led us to our current crisis arguably started under a Democratic Congress in the 1980’s. Some of the most serious deregulation, such as the repeal of the Glass-Steagall act, happened under President Clinton’s watch, and with his approval. (For more than 60 years the Glass-Steagall act had maintained a firewall between commercial banks, where your money resides, and Wall St. investment firms.)  Interestingly enough, neither President Obama nor the Democratic Congress have talked yet about reinstating it, even as they continue to dump billions of dollars into failing banks.

Does anyone remember Enron?  If you watch the film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (and I strongly recommend it), you will find out that some of the very same financial institutions involved in the current shenanigans (Citigroup, J.P. Morgan, Merrill Lynch) knowingly aided and assisted in Enron’s fraud.  And do you know what the SEC regulators did about it? Gave them a financial slap on the wrist.  And forced the banks to promise  – I don’t know whether to laugh or cry over this one – that they would reform their behavior so it wouldn’t happen again. Encroyable.

The reason for the light to non-existent punishment?  The government regulators were concerned the banks were “too big,” and that significant punishment might cause unpleasant repercussions in the financial world.  Sound familiar?

For any order to be returned to the financial world – and to prevent this all from happening again a few more years down the road – the regulations need to be reinstated.  And criminal CEOs need to be prosecuted and jailed. But it is hard to imagine this happening in any serious way while members of Congress, Democrat and Republican alike, continue to take millions of dollars in contributions from the financial industry. (As did the Obama campaign.) And that – the idea that our representatives in government can safeguard our interests while simultaneously taking money hand over fist from the very folks they are supposed to be watching – may be the greatest self-delusion of all.

Until Jon Stewart gets to that one, though, watch and enjoy as he takes down the world of financial analysts. Click here to watch.

Is the War on Terror Over?

March 6, 2009

The new President made big news when on his second day in office he signed an executive order to close our legal black hole in the Caribbean, Guantanamo Bay Prison, as well as nullifying all Bush Administration legal orders and opinions on interrogation.

Obama’s move was huge, both domestically and internationally, and rightly so.  Some nettlesome problems remain, including the fact that some people who had been falsely imprisoned in Guantanamo for seven years might have to wait another year to get out, but these orders struck at the symbolic heart of Bush’s boundless war on terror.

So much so that the very next day the Washington Post ran a front page, above-the-fold analysis entitled “Bush’s ‘War’ on Terror Comes to a Sudden End.”

And then, the very next day after that, the Post announced on the same front page (albeit below-the-fold) “2 U.S. Airstrikes Offer a Concrete Sign of Obama’s Policy.”

The irony of these back-to-back headlines was not noted in the article.

The strikes in Pakistan were carried out by unmanned Predator drones, over the past year or so the preferred new method of attacking suspected terrorist bases in the rugged terrain of Afghan/Pakistan border. The Post reported without further explanation that the 20 people killed were “suspected” terrorists, or at least they were at a “suspected terrorist hideout.” As was the case during the Bush Administration, simply being a suspect, or just near someone who is, makes you fair game for a missile strike.

So – is Bush’s “war on terror” really over? The news following the airstrike hasn’t been encouraging.

On January 28th, a lead article in the New York Times entitled “Aides Say Obama’s Afghan Aims Elevate War Over Development” explained how the U.S. is going to focus on “the fight against insurgents” while leaving economic development and nation-building primarily to our European allies. This, from the President who during his inauguration instructed adversaries that “Your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you can destroy.”

On January 31st, hundreds of Afghanis demonstrated in Kabul after the latest U.S. military raid, which the protestors claimed killed two innocent civilians. (The raids, deaths, and protests have been repeated in the five weeks since then.)

On February 2nd, Eric Holder was confirmed as U.S. Attorney General, where he will play a key role in determining legal guidelines for interrogation practices and future claims of executive power.

On February 9th, Holder’s Justice Department invoked the “state secrets” privilege in a court in San Francisco; it did so to oppose reinstatement of a lawsuit by former C.I.A. detainees who claimed a Boeing Co. unit flew them to other countries where they were tortured – so called “extraordinary renditions.”  The “state secrets” argument was identical to that presented to the court by the Bush Administration in the same case.

And just a few days earlier, in his Congressional confirmation hearing, new CIA Director Leon Panetta left the door on torture more than a little open. While stating (the obvious) that water boarding is torture and an Obama Administration would not violate anti-torture statues, he also noted that if approved interrogation techniques were “not sufficient” in certain cases, he would seek “additional authority.” He further said the C.I.A.’s extraordinary rendition program might continue in some form, but that he would depend on diplomatic assurances of good treatment – the same ineffective (and ridiculous) safeguard used by the Bush Administration.

In a somewhat more soberly titled February 18th story in the New York Times, “Obama’s War on Terror May Resemble Bush’s in Some Areas,” ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero wondered if Obama might end up continuing “some of the most problematic policies of the Bush presidency.”

Of course the people of Afghanistan don’t need to wonder, as amid the current bombings and raids President Obama ordered an additional 17,000 troops to their country. In the words of Global Fund for Women President Kavita Ramdas, “Afghanistan needs troops–but it needs troops of doctors, troops of teachers, troops of Peace Corps volunteers, and troops of farmers to go and replant the fruit orchards.”

But Afghanistan will get more military troops, even though civilian deaths from U.S. military actions in Afghanistan (many of them nighttime raids) have increased significantly in the past two years. This has led to numerous protests and the plummeting popularity of President Harmid Karzai, while no doubt increasing the popularity of the Taliban for some. A recent poll determined that about 1/3 of Afghans think it is okay to attack U.S. troops – a percentage that has been rising. Talk about losing the battle for hearts and minds.

There is also little question the attacks on Pakistan will continue, and possibly even increase. The head of the Obama campaign’s Defense Policy Task Force, Peter Singer, appeared on The Daily Show recently to hawk his new book, “Wired for War.” Although his book supposedly discusses the “moral” issues involved, few ethical qualms were evident as Mr. Singer crowed  enthusiastically about the “historic revolution” of high-tech warfare, noting that current Predator drones “are like Model T Fords compared to what’s coming.” (He also mentioned his interview with “a 19 year old drone pilot.”  That’s right, these unmanned killing machines dispatching “suspected” terrorists from afar are operated by teenagers.)

But what, finally, about President Obama’s recently announced timetable of withdrawal from Iraq, with an end to all combat operations in August of 2010?

This so-called “end to the war,” which a media and public long-tired of Iraq are hailing as a done deal, includes the “renaming” or “remissioning” of up to 50,000 troops that will be stationed in Iraq after that date, even though military officials concede that these new missions of support, intelligence and anti-terrorism operations  – virtually identical to what President Bush outlined as long ago as 2007 (and thanks to Jon Stewart again for producing the video tape!) – could well involve combat.  They are, after all, combat troops – even if the administration has “renamed” them.

President Obama says those remaining troops will be withdrawn by December 31, 2011, a timeline which would be more than twice as long as his promised withdrawal plan of 16 months, and which could easily change over the next three years, as many military officials predict it will. In addition, he has said nothing about the U.S. military bases in Iraq, nor the 100,000+ U.S. contractors left behind.

And in case you haven’t read or heard it in the mainstream press, President Obama’s budget also calls for an increase in our already astronomical military budget – an even larger increase for 2009 than the one suggested by President Bush. And he plans to increase the size of the armed forces by 90,000 troops.

What does it all add up to? A month and a half may not be a long time to make a judgment, but waiting another year to see what happens is not an option either.  And if ending Bush’s “war on terror” is high on the list of major changes we’d all like to see, well, after a promising early start the Obama Administration now seems to be veering back decidedly in the wrong direction.

#     #     #

With thanks to Code Pink for their always helpful alerts –