Friday, February 06, 2009

Remember Us?

Hey Senators, remember us? While you play your disgusting politics in Washington, more than another half million of us lost jobs last month--the same month these folks gathered in Washington. (Official U.S. gov figures say nearly 600,000.) We're watching you. We're waiting for you to listen to President Obama: "If we do not move swiftly to sign the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law, an economy that is in crisis will be faced with catastrophe. Millions more Americans will lose their jobs. Home will be lost. Families will go without health care. Our crippling dependence on foreign oil will continue. That is the price of inaction... The scale and scope of this plan is right... Let's put Americans to work doing the work that America needs done."
For more on what President Obama said Thursday, check out the video and more quotes at American Dash. For more about the plan and the future, see the post here below. And for the best photographs you're ever likely to see of the Inauguration, do yourselves a favor and check this out at And click on this photo to really see something.

Remember the Future

Forgetting the future is how we got into this mess.

In the 80s, taxes were cut to give people more money to spend in the present--particularly wealthy people. It started in California and went to Washington with Reagan. And for awhile, nothing bad seemed to happen. But the future was starved and wounded. And now that's our present.

California went from the best schools in the nation to among the worst. Lots of people knew that would happen when education was starved of funding, and eventually it did happen.

Taxes were cut in many states and by the federal government from the 80s on, so there was less money to fix bridges and roads. They didn't fall down immediately. But we're now faced with over $2 trillion in needed repairs. We're living the future that they forgot.

Cutting taxes, especially for corporations and the wealthy, meant less money for the federal government, which was part of the point for people who advocated lower taxes and "less government." But what less government meant was fewer people to safeguard America's health and safety, and prepare for emergencies.

For awhile few connected bad things that happened with these changes. If you were poor and services for your immediate needs were cut, you noticed. Or your schools were falling apart. But then came Katrina, and the whole country sat up and took notice.

Less government meant less regulation and fewer people to enforce regulations. For awhile, it didn't look like there were bad consequences But first the unregulated savings and loans, then the unregulated Enrons hurt a lot of people, and now the unregulated banks and Wall Street are hurting almost everyone.

All of those things looked good in the present, especially to the people who benefited the most. But they forgot the future, and their future is our present.

It wasn't just the government. Corporations became more and more fixated on their stockholders and the quarterly earnings report. They cared less about the communities that supported them long-term (they could always go offshore) or even about their own futures. The businesses that traditionally take the longest view--the banks--joined in a present-centered feeding frenzy.

All this is selfishness not only of the moment but in time. That's why the old stories warn against greed. It destroys the future.

Now we are presented with the need to stimulate our economy through spending. Some say we should give people money by cutting their taxes, and let them spend it. Others say we should spend money on creating jobs right this minute, by funding only those projects that are ready to go.

The first proposition, argued by Republicans, is opposed because people--particularly well-off people--don't spend so much of the money they get back from tax cuts. The second proposition is supported because it will get money into the economy, and it multiplies the effect of the money government spends by employing people who spend their pay on products and services that employ other people, etc.

President Obama doesn't agree with the first proposition. To depend on tax cuts alone, he says correctly, is part of how we got into this infernal mess. "Don't come to table with the same tired arguments and worn ideas that helped create this crisis," he
said Thursday. He has offered a plan that stimulates the economy with spending--almost 80% of it in the next year and a half. It creates jobs. As he said: "Let's put Americans to work doing the work that America needs done. "

But different theories on how to get money into the economy isn't the only issue that separates these approaches. The first is all about the present, and damn the future. The second remembers the future while rescuing the present.

The ordinary sort of infrastructure spending is future-oriented. Fixing roads and bridges is work in the present that has good consequences for the future. Some 75 years later, we are still using bridges and roads, post offices and parks, that were built during the Depression with federal money. Some 50 or more years later, we are still driving on interstate highways built with federal money. Their future is our present.

But even infrastructure spending can get fixated on the present--on repairing existing infrastructure the same old way. The Obama plan remembers the future even more dramatically and directly, and this cannot be allowed to be dropped from this plan: alternative energy, a 21st century electrical grid, more energy-efficient schools and homes, and other projects to end our enslavement to oil and move towards saving the planet. Computerized medical records, rural broadband and other projects that build for a more efficient and better future.

This future will someday be our present, and especially the present of our children and succeeding generations. As bad as things are now, if we don't make these kinds of investment, life will be far worse in the future. And not just the distant future.

If we don't build now for that future, with this recovery and reinvestment money, I fear we never will. There's been a lot of talk about wasting money. What could be a greater waste of money than not to use it to build a better future?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009


On Tuesday, President and Mrs. Obama visited a Washington school. But the President was educating the country for the next two days, on responsibility. See post below.


On Tuesday, President Obama did what George Bush could never bring himself to do: he took responsibility for a mistake. He was talking about his appointment of Tom Daschle to be Secretary of HHS, but who withdrew his name after tax problems came to light. But the President's larger point was about responsibility.

"I'm here on television saying I screwed up, and that's part of the era of responsibility," he said. "It's not never making mistakes; it's owning up to them and trying to make sure you never repeat them and that's what we intend to do."

While repeating his belief that Daschle was the best person for the job, he added: "But I don't want my administration to be sending a message that there are two sets of rules. One for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes everyday. I think I messed up, I screwed up, in not recognizing the perception that even though this is a honest mistake, I believe, on Tom's part, that, you know, ordinary people are out there paying taxes everyday and whether it's an intentional mistake or not, it was sending the wrong signal."

Then on Wednesday, he affirmed the responsibility of government to protect taxpayer investment in bailed-out banks by insisting that these immense bonuses stop and super-high salaries be trimmed. He said:

"But in order to restore our financial system, we've got to restore trust. And in order to restore trust, we've got to make certain that taxpayer funds are not subsidizing excessive compensation packages on Wall Street.

We all need to take responsibility. And this includes executives at major financial firms who turned to the American people, hat in hand, when they were in trouble, even as they paid themselves their customary lavish bonuses. As I said last week, that's the height of irresponsibility. That's shameful. And that's exactly the kind of disregard for the costs and consequences of their actions that brought about this crisis: a culture of narrow self-interest and short-term gain at the expense of everything else.

This is America. We don't disparage wealth. We don't begrudge anybody for achieving success. And we believe that success should be rewarded. But what gets people upset - and rightfully so - are executives being rewarded for failure. Especially when those rewards are subsidized by U.S. taxpayers."

But Obama's most important statement was to Congress, which needs to stop playing politics and discharge their responsibility to address this economic crisis as Americans. They need to stop trying to score points, especially with misleading and downright false statements about the economic recovery bill, and get it done.

" A failure to act, and act now, will turn crisis into a catastrophe and guarantee a longer recession, a less robust recovery, and a more uncertain future. Millions more jobs will be lost. More businesses will be shuttered. More dreams will be deferred. That's why I feel such a sense of urgency about the Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Plan that is before Congress today. ..

Now, in the past few days I've heard criticisms of this plan that echo the very same failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis - the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems; that we can ignore fundamental challenges like energy independence and the high cost of health care and still expect our economy and our country to thrive. I reject that theory, and so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change."

Steeler Nation Comes Home

Population of the City of Pittsburgh: 312,000.
Population of downtown Pittsburgh on Tuesday for Steelers Super Bowl Victory Parade: 350,000.
Sixth World Championship: priceless.
Photo: Lake Fong, Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Recover the Future

President Obama's plan is called Recovery and Re-Investment. Both elements will immediately stimulate the U.S. economy. That's clearly confirmed by a real (as opposed to fictional) Congressional Budget Office Report that says nearly 80% of the money in the plan will be spent during the year and a half after it becomes law. But both elements are important.

Maybe we're in danger of hearing too often that we're in uncharted waters with a hole in the side. If we get numbed to it, there's the temptation of politics as usual. But we are in uncharted waters etc. Preventing the country from really sinking, and taking a lot of the world with it, is not going to be easy.

Right now Republicans are complaining, giving courage to conservative Dems to also say the plan is too big, while governors etc. are trying to make sure they get as big a slice as possible. But as this article in the NYTimes Magazine Sunday narrates, getting us through this is a delicate matter, and major changes could sink the whole enterprise. The article is called The Big Fix, which can mean both the plan and the situation, the big fix we're in.

So here are the principles that Team Obama cannot compromise: the plan has to be big enough--spend enough--to have a chance to be effective. And it must keep its focus on the future.

If you believe the latest news chatter, the first principle is in danger, but this second principle is also under attack. Nearly everyone must agree on this: that huge amount of money can't be misspent or wasted. But that means different things to different people. Obama has the right idea: spend on infrastructure that really needs attention, but build new infrastructure to meet the needs of the future as well as the present. Which means the new economy and the new jobs of the future, as well as the only kind of world that will be livable in the future.

Infrastructure isn't just roads and bridges. It's a new, smart energy grid, built to use sustainable green energy generation. It's infrastructure, and it needs attention--ask the folks without power from the kind of storm that's likely to happen more often. But throwing away money on infrastructure that isn't sustainable, that will have to be replaced anyway, is the Halliburton in Iraq solution: spending just to make some corporation wealthy.

Some conservatives complain that big government is the problem, and that private enterprise with little regulation brings prosperity. Hey, look around you. We've tried it that way to an extreme not seen in this country since long before World War II, and that's why we're in this big fix. Once when it happened before it took the Republican they don't like to talk about, Teddy Roosevelt, to bust the trusts. Meanwhile, our educational institutions are falling apart, while Europe and the fast-developing nations are catching up and moving ahead. Many of them have better health care now. America is fading. We're first in greedy bankers and decadence. That's about it.

Some say government shouldn't be picking winners and losers in the economy, and so shouldn't be supporting alternative energy. There's two problems with that nice theory. First, government has picked winners, and second, those winners are now so powerful that they kill actual competition. Government picked the automobile and oil industries by building the interstate highway system, and now the oil trust is so huge and powerful that it has smothered alternative energy businesses. It's killed fuel efficient cars, not to mention alternative energy transportation. It's the same monopoly trust scene as TR faced, only worse.

Over time--but not too much time--I trust that the folks in Treasury will develop the regulations necessary to control the excesses, especially of the banks, though it looks like it may be too late for the solution to be that simple. I trust that the folks at Justice will contribute by enforcing laws already on the books. This will all create a new financial infrastructure.

But the Obama recovery and reinvestment plan is absolutely eesential if we're going to have a chance at recovery that is sustainable. If we throw away this money on useless tax cuts for the wealthy, and on too many projects that aren't sustainable while not paying enough attention to the future, we may not have the resources to change when we must. We're going to be left behind economically. Which I suppose is okay, because the planet will be uninhabitable. Let's get the bullshit under control, and pass this thing. Spend and invest to recover the future.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Congratulations, Steelers!

Steeler Nation rejoices--Pittsburgh Steelers win their sixth
Super Bowl, more world championships than any other team.

Game Day for Steeler Nation

The First Fan leads Steeler Nation for the Super Bowl today. See more below. Go Steelers!

Steeler Nation

Its capital is Pittsburgh, of course. While the population of the country has doubled in my lifetime, the population of Pittsburgh is less than half--one of the things actually that makes it a livable city. But since the 70s, when the Steelers became a great football team at the same time as the steel mills were closing, the Steelers have been the city's heart and soul.

My last visit was two Mays ago. It was spring. There was no football, not even training camp. But the kid cleaning up at the cafe where I went for wifi wanted to talk about the Steelers draft day. At a bar and restaurant where one of my high school friends was playing guitar, an unseen stranger from inside a stall began talking about the Steelers the second I entered the men's room. At a grocery store a woman wore a t-shirt that said, "If you ain't a Steeler fan, you ain't worth shit."

You want to try to imagine what it's like there today? I remember in the 70s, a young teacher complained of the impossibility of sorting boys to their jackets when there were 25 identical Steelers jackets in the closet. This year, that's probably my niece.

"Would you like your coffee black," the waitress will ask, "or gold?"

To take a slightly different view of it, the Steelers are about the only consistency in Pittsburgh (now so far from Steeltown days that a diversified economy--hospitals, universities, even high tech and strong nonprofit and arts-- along with its no bullshit tendencies that didn't get swept up in the mortgage boom may bring some security during this economic slide), and people may talk passionately about the Steelers partly because they have little else in common.

But the connection between the whole Pittsburgh area and the Steelers has only grown. "I feel that sometimes we're the heartbeat of the city," said defensive captain James Farrior. "They love us to death, and we love them the same way. We definitely feel like they're a part of this team. They want to win as badly as we do."

Even the years of contraction have been good for the Steelers, as families left for jobs elsewhere, individuals followed their careers where they led, and kids sought their fortunes in other parts of the country. That helped depopulate the city, but it helped populate Steeler nation--and gave it an authentic core. Like President Obama, you don't have to be from Pittsburgh to love the Steelers. But it helps.

In Pittsburgh it's called the diaspora, and so now Steeler fans are everywhere, from the White House to the Steelers bar in Moscow. It means that somebody in a Steeler cap (me) who usually goes to a certain theatre on Sunday, goes earlier this time to review the play, and talks to the theatre's new exec director--who turns out to be from western PA-- who says she's cancelling a rehearsal of another play Sunday so she can watch the Super Bowl. It means that on another day earlier this year, the guy in the next car at the recycling center sees my cap--it may even have been a Pirates cap-- and he's from Pittsburgh, too. But there's no expression of surprise--we're only 3,000 miles away--or small talk about the area. We talk about the offensive line. That's what it's about: Steeler nation is Pittsburgh as a movable feast.

The Steelers know it and notice it. Steeler Nation shows up at Steeler games everywhere, sometimes even outnumbering hometown fans, or at least out-enthusing them. "Everywhere we go, it's going to be a home game," said Hines Ward, the MVP of the last Super Bowl.

Today, Tampa is the place, a National Football Conference city, and the NFC team today is the Arizona Cardinals. But you won't have any trouble seeing the Terrible Towels. It's a Steeler Nation home game. (I actually saw Myron Cope first announce his idea of the Terrible Towel on his TV sports segment in the 70s. I thought he was nuts.)

As for the Steelers this year, here's a summary of their season, from a story about Coach Mike Tomlin: A shoulder separation sustained by his $100 million quarterback in the season opener. A knee injury to his Pro Bowl running back in Week 4. Four new starters on an offensive line that has been adequate at best, disorganized and ineffective at worst. Three different punters. A secondary in which one cornerback had a broken forearm and a safety had two dislocated shoulders. And the league's toughest schedule.

And look what happened: The second-best record in the NFL. One of only two teams -- Arizona is the other -- to finish undefeated in the division. An AFC championship game victory at Heinz Field ... finally. A seventh Super Bowl appearance, second most among NFL franchises.

The toughest schedule in the NFL this year may be a positive factor today. So is the strength of the AFC. The Steelers have been tested. They are by most measures the better team. If they played 3 games against Arizona, the Steelers would definitely win 2. But this is just one game. When the Giants beat the New England Patriots, the Patriots were the better team. The Giants just had a better day, and the Patriots were just a little flat. That's all it takes.

But with the best defense in the league, and a quarterback who can carry the load, this has the makings of a big day for Steeler Nation. So far this season it's seldom been pretty or easy. But they get the job done.

Besides, I've saved a little Heinz Jerome Bettis Mustard from the '05 Super Bowl win. Warm up the TV. Here we go, Steelers, here we go.