Saturday, April 16, 2011

Aurora in Flight

A two minute video compiled from still shots taken every two minutes by a camera mounted in an empty seat on a commercial Air France flight from San Francisco to Paris, that includes flying through an Aurora.  It's mind-blowing to see it in the middle of an otherwise normally wondrous flight, so it's a neat video. (There's a music track, too.)  But it reminds me why I get a window seat at least one-way on long flights--there's nothing, not even this video, to compare with what you can see live: clouds, sun and moon, mountains and waters and landscapes that can't even be described yet alone identified.  You don't get much of a sense of flying on those big planes, but you do get a much different experience of the planet.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Screeching, the Deatheaters Take Off Their Masks

I'm not sure that I'd call it a Harry Potter budget plan (as this congressperson did) but it clearly is a sincere expression of the party of Voldemort.  As every Democrat in soundbite sight pointed out (echoing President Obama in the speech generously excerpted below), the Ryan budget the GOP now owns "ends Medicare as we know it."

 Some believe this vote will nail the coffin shut on the GOPer attempt to keep a House majority in 2012.  It does appear to be unpopular already--and the more people learn about it, the more they dislike it.  Without a creditable opponent so far, President Obama now has an issue to use as central to his campaign.  This analysis is interesting: that it allows him to return to meta-themes of 2008, this time centered on "compassion."

Before GOPers overwhelmingly passed their budget in the House on Friday (which will have no effect except politically), they were busy bleating about President Obama's speech.  Was Obama's Speech Too Fiery? the CS Monitor asked, responding to copious GOPer leaders' expressions of hurt feelings.  But Joe Klein at the Time blog called it Wounded Elephants Screeching."    "Republican World has become a very self-referential place, only vaguely in touch with reality," Klein writes:

Here is the reality: the Republicans have spent the past 30 years creating deficits and the Democrats have spent the past 30 years closing them. The unimportance of deficits became an article of faith during the second Bush Administration: "Reagan proved that deficits don't matter," Dick Cheney famously said. It has been rather hilarious for those of us with even a minimal grasp of recent history to watch these folks pull fierce 180-degree turns on the issue--and it is even more hilarious to watch them accuse Obama of hyper-partisanship after the dump-truck full of garbage they visited upon his head these past few years.

"Indeed, the sheer hatred that Republicans have for Obama has led them to overreach, to latch onto Paul Ryan's well-outside-the-mainstream budget plan," Klein continues, but it's a particular kind of hatred. In her blog piece about "Pouty Republicans" responding to President Obama's speech, Joan Walsh at Salon noted the remarks of Senate GOPer leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky,  "he sounds like a headmaster correcting an errant schoolboy about "not only his tone but his direction." He's actually the president, Senator, not a schoolboy...

Other GOPers were dismissive in a particular way.  My favorite such response to the President's speech was from a House leader from Texas: "I missed lunch for this?"  These remarks owe something to payback for the disrespect many expressed for President GW Bush, although no Dem leader was ever as utterly dismissive of Bush as these GOPers are of President Obama.  In this regard, they owe a lot to racism. There's really no getting past that. They can't help themselves.  It must be hard for them not to call him boy in public.

So even if President Obama wins re-election and Congress returns to Democratic control in 2012, there's no reset button in life, history or politics.  We're losing precious years.  There may be benefits--perhaps some purgation of mean spiritedness and racism, though that's a lot to hope for.  There may well be changes that won't be reversed, so that the corporate bosses running this party will have gotten what they really want, perhaps at the level of law, particularly state law.  But in any case we're losing precious time and wasting resources for the fight of the future as the Climate Crisis takes hold, and all the current projections for the next 20 years of budgets or anything else become vain fantasy.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

President Obama: The Kind of Future We Want

While the process was underway leading to the necessary agreement to keep from a potentially disastrous government shutdown, President Obama kept his own counsel while the House Republicans talked loud and long.  On Wednesday, President Obama had his say on budgets and deficits.  Typically he put it all in context, from the past to the future, and especially in the context of values.

I'm going to quote extensively from this speech, which as usual was more discussed than heard even on the day it was given.  Then that's probably going to be it for awhile around here on these topics, because in Washington it's just going to be a lot of sound and fury signifying not very much, for the foreseeable future.  And it will all be about numbers that have no meaning to me whatsoever.  I'm still surprised that I can spend $30 at the grocery store and carry home so little.

But I will note a few last news items on these topics.  It turns out (surprise surprise) that the vaunted $38 billion in budget cuts actually cut much less.  One measure says a bit less than half, the Congressional Budget Office says much less than that.   According to polls, voters give Democrats and the President credit for averting the shutdown and a majority approve of President Obama's handling of the situation, while a Public Policy Poll finds that "after a little more than 3 months in charge House Republicans have fallen so far out of favor with the American public that it's entirely possible Democrats could take control of the House back next year."  Plus there is no great call for more budget cuts--slightly more Americans in this Gallup poll favor no more cuts.

Okay, now the speech--from the top (of the speech, and of this page)...

President Obama began by setting the context of American values in American history: 

"From our first days as a nation, we have put our faith in free markets and free enterprise as the engine of America’s wealth and prosperity. More than citizens of any other country, we are rugged individualists, a self-reliant people with a healthy skepticism of too much government.

But there’s always been another thread running through our history -– a belief that we’re all connected, and that there are some things we can only do together, as a nation. We believe, in the words of our first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, that through government, we should do together what we cannot do as well for ourselves.

And so we’ve built a strong military to keep us secure, and public schools and universities to educate our citizens. We’ve laid down railroads and highways to facilitate travel and commerce. We’ve supported the work of scientists and researchers whose discoveries have saved lives, unleashed repeated technological revolutions, and led to countless new jobs and entire new industries. Each of us has benefitted from these investments, and we’re a more prosperous country as a result.

Part of this American belief that we’re all connected also expresses itself in a conviction that each one of us deserves some basic measure of security and dignity. We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, hard times or bad luck, a crippling illness or a layoff may strike any one of us. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we say to ourselves. And so we contribute to programs like Medicare and Social Security, which guarantee us health care and a measure of basic income after a lifetime of hard work; unemployment insurance, which protects us against unexpected job loss; and Medicaid, which provides care for millions of seniors in nursing homes, poor children, those with disabilities. We’re a better country because of these commitments. I’ll go further. We would not be a great country without those commitments."

Then the President reviewed more recent history, in connection with the federal deficit: how in the 1980s the deficit and cumulative national debt began to grow and threatened to get out of control.  How "...our leaders came together three times during the 1990s to reduce our nation’s deficit -- three times. They forged historic agreements that required tough decisions made by the first President Bush, then made by President Clinton, by Democratic Congresses and by a Republican Congress. All three agreements asked for shared responsibility and shared sacrifice. But they largely protected the middle class; they largely protected our commitment to seniors; they protected our key investments in our future."

Then how after the 2000 election  "we lost our way in the decade that followed. We increased spending dramatically for two wars and an expensive prescription drug program -– but we didn’t pay for any of this new spending. Instead, we made the problem worse with trillions of dollars in unpaid-for tax cuts -– tax cuts that went to every millionaire and billionaire in the country; tax cuts that will force us to borrow an average of $500 billion every year over the next decade.

To give you an idea of how much damage this caused to our nation’s checkbook, consider this: In the last decade, if we had simply found a way to pay for the tax cuts and the prescription drug benefit, our deficit would currently be at low historical levels in the coming years.

But that’s not what happened. And so, by the time I took office, we once again found ourselves deeply in debt and unprepared for a Baby Boom retirement that is now starting to take place. When I took office, our projected deficit, annually, was more than $1 trillion. On top of that, we faced a terrible financial crisis and a recession that, like most recessions, led us to temporarily borrow even more."

Then the President outlined in stark specifics why it is important to control deficit and debt.  His twin conclusions: ultimately, all this rising debt will cost us jobs and damage our economy.  It will prevent us from making the investments we need to win the future...  Here’s the good news: That doesn’t have to be our future. That doesn’t have to be the country that we leave our children. We can solve this problem. We came together as Democrats and Republicans to meet this challenge before; we can do it again."
Then President Obama spoke in plain terms about common attitudes concerning the government and its budget, and how politicians exploit these feelings: "But that starts by being honest about what’s causing our deficit.  You see, most Americans tend to dislike government spending in the abstract, but like the stuff that it buys... And without even looking at a poll, my finely honed political instincts tell me that almost nobody believes they should be paying higher taxes. (Laughter.)

So because all this spending is popular with both Republicans and Democrats alike, and because nobody wants to pay higher taxes, politicians are often eager to feed the impression that solving the problem is just a matter of eliminating waste and abuse. You’ll hear that phrase a lot. “We just need to eliminate waste and abuse.” The implication is that tackling the deficit issue won’t require tough choices. Or politicians suggest that we can somehow close our entire deficit by eliminating things like foreign aid, even though foreign aid makes up about 1 percent of our entire federal budget."

So here’s the truth. Around two-thirds of our budget -- two-thirds -- is spent on Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and national security. Two-thirds. Programs like unemployment insurance, student loans, veterans’ benefits, and tax credits for working families take up another 20 percent. What’s left, after interest on the debt, is just 12 percent for everything else. That’s 12 percent for all of our national priorities -- education, clean energy, medical research, transportation, our national parks, food safety, keeping our air and water clean -- you name it -- all of that accounts for 12 percent of our budget.

Now, up till now, the debate here in Washington, the cuts proposed by a lot of folks in Washington, have focused exclusively on that 12 percent. But cuts to that 12 percent alone won’t solve the problem. So any serious plan to tackle our deficit will require us to put everything on the table, and take on excess spending wherever it exists in the budget.

A serious plan doesn’t require us to balance our budget overnight –- in fact, economists think that with the economy just starting to grow again, we need a phased-in approach –- but it does require tough decisions and support from our leaders in both parties now. Above all, it will require us to choose a vision of the America we want to see five years, 10 years, 20 years down the road."
President Obama then examined the Republican plan for dealing with the budget.  It is the plan offered by Rep. Paul Ryan, though the President didn't name him.  He was not shy about describing this plan's intent or its effects.  And he made clear what changes he would not accept as President.

"But the way this plan achieves those goals would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we’ve known certainly in my lifetime. In fact, I think it would be fundamentally different than what we’ve known throughout our history.

A 70 percent cut in clean energy. A 25 percent cut in education. A 30 percent cut in transportation. Cuts in college Pell Grants that will grow to more than $1,000 per year. That’s the proposal. These aren’t the kind of cuts you make when you’re trying to get rid of some waste or find extra savings in the budget. These aren’t the kinds of cuts that the Fiscal Commission proposed. These are the kinds of cuts that tell us we can’t afford the America that I believe in and I think you believe in.

I believe it paints a vision of our future that is deeply pessimistic. It’s a vision that says if our roads crumble and our bridges collapse, we can’t afford to fix them. If there are bright young Americans who have the drive and the will but not the money to go to college, we can’t afford to send them.

Go to China and you’ll see businesses opening research labs and solar facilities. South Korean children are outpacing our kids in math and science. They’re scrambling to figure out how they put more money into education. Brazil is investing billions in new infrastructure and can run half their cars not on high-priced gasoline, but on biofuels. And yet, we are presented with a vision that says the American people, the United States of America -– the greatest nation on Earth -– can’t afford any of this.

It’s a vision that says America can’t afford to keep the promise we’ve made to care for our seniors. It says that 10 years from now, if you’re a 65-year-old who’s eligible for Medicare, you should have to pay nearly $6,400 more than you would today. It says instead of guaranteed health care, you will get a voucher. And if that voucher isn’t worth enough to buy the insurance that’s available in the open marketplace, well, tough luck -– you’re on your own. Put simply, it ends Medicare as we know it.

It’s a vision that says up to 50 million Americans have to lose their health insurance in order for us to reduce the deficit. Who are these 50 million Americans? Many are somebody’s grandparents -- may be one of yours -- who wouldn’t be able to afford nursing home care without Medicaid. Many are poor children. Some are middle-class families who have children with autism or Down’s syndrome. Some of these kids with disabilities are -- the disabilities are so severe that they require 24-hour care. These are the Americans we’d be telling to fend for themselves."
Then came the heart of his message about the GOPer budget and his own vision for America: 

"And worst of all, this is a vision that says even though Americans can’t afford to invest in education at current levels, or clean energy, even though we can’t afford to maintain our commitment on Medicare and Medicaid, we can somehow afford more than $1 trillion in new tax breaks for the wealthy. Think about that.

In the last decade, the average income of the bottom 90 percent of all working Americans actually declined. Meanwhile, the top 1 percent saw their income rise by an average of more than a quarter of a million dollars each. That’s who needs to pay less taxes?

They want to give people like me a $200,000 tax cut that’s paid for by asking 33 seniors each to pay $6,000 more in health costs. That’s not right. And it’s not going to happen as long as I’m President. (Applause.)

This vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. Ronald Reagan’s own budget director said, there’s nothing “serious” or “courageous” about this plan. There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don't think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill. That's not a vision of the America I know."

"The America I know is generous and compassionate. It’s a land of opportunity and optimism. Yes, we take responsibility for ourselves, but we also take responsibility for each other; for the country we want and the future that we share. We’re a nation that built a railroad across a continent and brought light to communities shrouded in darkness. We sent a generation to college on the GI Bill and we saved millions of seniors from poverty with Social Security and Medicare. We have led the world in scientific research and technological breakthroughs that have transformed millions of lives. That’s who we are. This is the America that I know. We don’t have to choose between a future of spiraling debt and one where we forfeit our investment in our people and our country.

To meet our fiscal challenge, we will need to make reforms. We will all need to make sacrifices. But we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in. And as long as I’m President, we won’t."

"So today, I’m proposing a more balanced approach to achieve $4 trillion in deficit reduction over 12 years...It’s an approach that puts every kind of spending on the table -- but one that protects the middle class, our promise to seniors, and our investments in the future."

President Obama outlined four steps.  First, to keep domestic spending down, "but I will not sacrifice the core investments that we need to grow and create jobs. We will invest in medical research. We will invest in clean energy technology. We will invest in new roads and airports and broadband access. We will invest in education. We will invest in job training. We will do what we need to do to compete, and we will win the future."

Second, to cut defense spending--not only by getting rid of unneeded programs, but (in a little noticed assertion): "We need to not only eliminate waste and improve efficiency and effectiveness, but we’re going to have to conduct a fundamental review of America’s missions, capabilities, and our role in a changing world."

Third is to reduce health care spending, but not by the GOPer budget's idea: "Now, here, the difference with the House Republican plan could not be clearer. Their plan essentially lowers the government’s health care bills by asking seniors and poor families to pay them instead. Our approach lowers the government’s health care bills by reducing the cost of health care itself."  This can be accomplishment by implementation of the health care reform bill and by "building on these reforms" to dramatically lower the costs of Medicare and Medicaid.  But the President was also clear on what he would not do:

"But let me be absolutely clear: I will preserve these health care programs as a promise we make to each other in this society. I will not allow Medicare to become a voucher program that leaves seniors at the mercy of the insurance industry, with a shrinking benefit to pay for rising costs. I will not tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves. We will reform these programs, but we will not abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations. That includes, by the way, our commitment to Social Security."
 "The fourth step in our approach is to reduce spending in the tax code, so-called tax expenditures. In December, I agreed to extend the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans because it was the only way I could prevent a tax hike on middle-class Americans. But we cannot afford $1 trillion worth of tax cuts for every millionaire and billionaire in our society. We can’t afford it. And I refuse to renew them again.

Beyond that, the tax code is also loaded up with spending on things like itemized deductions. And while I agree with the goals of many of these deductions, from homeownership to charitable giving, we can’t ignore the fact that they provide millionaires an average tax break of $75,000 but do nothing for the typical middle-class family that doesn’t itemize. So my budget calls for limiting itemized deductions for the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans -- a reform that would reduce the deficit by $320 billion over 10 years.

But to reduce the deficit, I believe we should go further. And that’s why I’m calling on Congress to reform our individual tax code so that it is fair and simple -- so that the amount of taxes you pay isn’t determined by what kind of accountant you can afford.

I believe reform should protect the middle class, promote economic growth, and build on the fiscal commission’s model of reducing tax expenditures so that there’s enough savings to both lower rates and lower the deficit. And as I called for in the State of the Union, we should reform our corporate tax code as well, to make our businesses and our economy more competitive."

So this is my approach to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 12 years. It’s an approach that achieves about $2 trillion in spending cuts across the budget. It will lower our interest payments on the debt by $1 trillion. It calls for tax reform to cut about $1 trillion in tax expenditures -- spending in the tax code. And it achieves these goals while protecting the middle class, protecting our commitment to seniors, and protecting our investments in the future."

Then the President dealt with the objections he anticipated to his plan and his vision.

There will be those who vigorously disagree with my approach. I can guarantee that as well. (Laughter.) Some will argue we should not even consider ever -- ever -- raising taxes, even if only on the wealthiest Americans. It’s just an article of faith to them. I say that at a time when the tax burden on the wealthy is at its lowest level in half a century, the most fortunate among us can afford to pay a little more. I don’t need another tax cut. Warren Buffett doesn’t need another tax cut. Not if we have to pay for it by making seniors pay more for Medicare. Or by cutting kids from Head Start. Or by taking away college scholarships that I wouldn’t be here without and that some of you would not be here without.

And here’s the thing: I believe that most wealthy Americans would agree with me. They want to give back to their country, a country that’s done so much for them. It’s just Washington hasn’t asked them to."

President Obama was sympathetic to those who believe the current recovery will be hampered by reduced spending, and that's "why we have to use a scalpel and not a machete to reduce the deficit, so that we can keep making the investments that create jobs. But doing nothing on the deficit is just not an option. Our debt has grown so large that we could do real damage to the economy if we don’t begin a process now to get our fiscal house in order."

He is also sympathetic to those who say that any talk of reforming Medicare etc."will immediately usher in the sort of steps that the House Republicans have proposed. And I understand those fears. But I guarantee that if we don’t make any changes at all, we won’t be able to keep our commitment to a retiring generation that will live longer and will face higher health care costs than those who came before."

He acknowledged that especially in today's toxic Washington, the parties coming together to deal with these issues is very difficult, but he believes it is possible, because Americans in dire times have done it before.  He said--as he has before--that the argument over the size and role of government is as old as America and can be a healthy one.  

"But no matter what we argue, no matter where we stand, we’ve always held certain beliefs as Americans. We believe that in order to preserve our own freedoms and pursue our own happiness, we can’t just think about ourselves. We have to think about the country that made these liberties possible. We have to think about our fellow citizens with whom we share a community. And we have to think about what’s required to preserve the American Dream for future generations.

This sense of responsibility -- to each other and to our country -- this isn’t a partisan feeling. It isn’t a Democratic or a Republican idea. It’s patriotism."

"The other day I received a letter from a man in Florida. He started off by telling me he didn’t vote for me and he hasn’t always agreed with me. But even though he’s worried about our economy and the state of our politics -- here’s what he said -- he said, “I still believe. I believe in that great country that my grandfather told me about. I believe that somewhere lost in this quagmire of petty bickering on every news station, the ‘American Dream’ is still alive…We need to use our dollars here rebuilding, refurbishing and restoring all that our ancestors struggled to create and maintain… We as a people must do this together, no matter the color of the state one comes from or the side of the aisle one might sit on.”

“I still believe.” I still believe as well. And I know that if we can come together and uphold our responsibilities to one another and to this larger enterprise that is America, we will keep the dream of our founding alive -- in our time; and we will pass it on to our children. We will pass on to our children a country that we believe in."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Don't Bother Me, Dahling, I'm Defending the Poor

She's always seemed to me to be a strange candidate for dahling of the left, despite her Gabor sisters accent.  Arianna Huffington first became visible as the face of her very wealthy and decidely right wing husband's campaign for U.S. Senate from California.  Her ideology-change operation happened little more than a decade ago.

Lately she's been running the Huffington Post, which was the first to apply the Rupert Murdoch journalism principle to an online magazine: a combination of heavily ideological politics and tabloid entertainment.  She tilted Huffpo to Hillary as hard as she could in 2008 but despite that failure the site emerges as probably the most powerful of its kind.  Even the Daily Beast couldn't kill it.

And possibly because she kept the overhead down so well with the simple expedient of not paying writers.  This was pretty common for even the name blogs at first, and of course remains common for those of us dumb enough to contribute or do this on our own.  It also owes a certain lineage to the alternative press, where just getting published was supposed to be the reward.  Plus some swag (as it's called now.)

 Some of the alternative press, which includes some papers more prosperous than the so-called established press, continues to exploit its freelancers.  I'm being exploited by one such right now.  But Arianna has taken this to a whole new level.  First she doesn't pay anything, and brags about it.  Second, she announces a multimillion dollar deal with AOL at the Super Bowl.  Champagne all around.

So now some of her writers are suing her, and I'm here to cheer them on.  Heading the suit is Jonathan Tasini, who I remember as the president of my union--the National Writers Union--back when I could afford dues.   Tasini still has a way with words--he calls her a slave owner.

Huffington counters that she pays a staff of reporters and editors, she just doesn't pay mere bloggers, who get exposure.  It's familiar stuff--for newspapers who don't pay for opinion pieces, and for the general treatment of freelancers.  Publications may depend on us, tell us they can't afford to pay more, but staff gets salaries and health care, and suddenly they've got spanking new offices to go to, while freelancers are paid what freelancers were paid in the 1970s--not adjusted for inflation mind you, but literally the same dollar amount.

Of course Arianna might have to pawn some of her jewels to pay her bloggers, but life is tough all over.      

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"It Was Green & Blue OK" by Georgia O'Keeffe

"Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is the tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.”

Jose Luis Borges