Saturday, December 24, 2011

Tales of Christmas Past

Elsewhere I've posted two tales of Christmas past that coincidentally are exactly 60 and 30 years ago respectively, this Christmas.

"Christmas 1951" is a fictionalized account of Christmas with my family in that year.  That's been posted for a few years, right here.

The other is an account of the decorating of Greengate Mall in Greensburg, PA, in 1981, with photos I took of the results in the days after.  I did that for my book, The Malling of America (which still makes a fine last minute Christmas gift, which you can order from your favorite online bookseller.)  An account of that all-night decorating appears in that book.  But I've just reposted excerpts from that chapter, along with photos (some posted on another blog, others never posted before) and more about Greengate and Christmas there (apparently a subject of ongoing nostalgia back home.)  It's all on Kowincidence, my repository for articles and reviews published long ago (though not always in this form.)    The direct link to Greengate Christmas is here.

So happy holidays, Merry Christmas, and see you back here after.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Sneak Previews

The spectre of one caucus in one house of Congress being thoroughly and inexorably isolated while being thumped on the head continuously in the media was a kind of amazing spectacle to watch, but House GOPers got it, with further consequences to come.

The payroll tax cut continues, as does unemployment insurance, for the next 60 days.  Speaker Banal told his GOPer caucus he would sign off on it (reportedly in a conference call that was electronically rigged to be only one way), the House and Senate voted by "unanimous consent" (so they didn't actually have to come back to Washington) and the President signed the bill into law, and went off to join his family for Christmas in Hawaii.

But right after New Years, Congress has to consider extending both provisions for a full year.  Most pundits assume the House GOPers will meekly submit so this issue goes away, but no one knows really.  Whether John Banal can survive as Speaker is another question.  Some analysts suggest he will if only because the GOPers don't have anyone ready to replace him. 

The political consequences for the 2012 elections are even more interesting to contemplate.  President Obama did several things for himself.  He fought irrational and extortionate GOPers and won.  He bolstered his claim to be fighting for the middle class, which was already becoming effective, according to new polls.  GOPers demonstrated their hypocrisy and obstructionism.  There's little disagreement on this right now.  The question is whether this will all be forgotten (remember when all Democrats had to say was that GOPers voted to kill Medicare, and the election would be over?)  or whether this is one of those instances that a party's image is fixed in the electoral mind, and is taken into the voting booth even 10.5 months from now. 

There are two examples that come to mind, one very recent.  That's Barack Obama as the candidate who promised to end the war in Iraq.  The primaries made this clear.  And after all the rest of the campaign, and all the noise and polls and more noise, that probably was still the issue that won him the presidency.  (And oh, by the way, he just ended the Iraq war--and his poll numbers went up.)

The other example, perhaps more apropos, was when Speaker Gingrich and his GOPer extremists shut down the government in a fit of arrogant extortion.  It's conventional wisdom now that this doomed the GOPer Congress and re-elected Bill Clinton, despite scandal.  But there was considerable time between the shutdown and the election.  In that case, the electorate got that GOPer image fixed, and it stayed. 

This example also suggests something else.  Some pundits claim that if the economy is bad, the electorate blames the President because they don't know or care who is actually responsible.  But voters did not blame President Clinton for the government shutdown.  They blamed the GOPer Congress.

Here's one other byproduct of this payroll tax cut fight, according to a brilliant analysis at TPM by Kyle Leighton: it made voters aware of the existence of that tax cut.   As he says, they heard President Obama fighting to keep a tax cut they didn't know they had.  One of the many ironies has been that GOPers have seemingly gotten away with accusing President Obama of raising taxes when he has actually cut taxes for most people--for the 99% or a good portion of them-- and more than once.  Media broadcast these charges and never both to correct the lies.  So many voters didn't know that President Obama cut their taxes.  Now more of them do.  And this can turn around some other perceptions as well.

The last pre-Christmas news was significant, especially in terms of what it may portend politically for 2012.  The U.S. Justice Department has blocked the new voter ID law in South Carolina for being discriminatory, in that it would disenfranchise a high proportion of African Americans.  This doesn't mean that Justice will stop the many other such laws enacted by GOPer state governments trying to disenfranchise people who may be part of groups that mainly vote Democratic.  Justice can do this in South Carolina because it is one of the states covered by Civil Rights laws that gives the federal government this oversight.  Apparently the only other state covered that has a new law like this is Texas.

Some advocates believe that Justice can use other laws to at least sue states for discriminatory effects.  But the political and psychological effects of this action are likely to be large.  South Carolina's governor and attorney general are vowing to fight this, which will keep it in the news, and make more people aware of how GOPers are trying to take away the right to vote from people they don't like.   In both situations, what happened this week may be like a sneak preview of 2012.       

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Elected Extortionists

GOP Speaker of the House John Banal

The House Republicans have outdone themselves.  Having taken the United States and the world to the brink of economic catastrophe in the debt ceiling crisis they created, and having made extortionist demands by threats of bodily harm against the nation and its institutions, House GOPers have now refused to pass the bill that continues the middle class tax cut and extends unemployment insurance, if only for two months.  This bill, which passed the Senate on an extremely rare bipartisan vote of 89-10, must pass the House or millions of Americans will see their paychecks decline starting January 1 (an average of $1000 a year, and for an income of $50,000, some $40 a week), while longterm unemployed will see their benefits end. This also withdraws millions of dollars from the economy and will increase unemployment.  Merry Christmas.  Happy New Year.

The most insidious element of this latest GOPer-created crisis is that if Speaker John Banal just allowed this bill to be voted on, it would most probably pass, because a majority of the House supports it.

This is the House version of the Senate system of extortion, which requires 60 votes rather than the simple majority of 51, because of their chronic misuse of the filibuster.  If the Senate GOPers hadn't used their form of extortion, this tax cut would have not only been extended for a year but broadened, so more Americans would see more of a tax cut, along with extending unemployment insurance.  It would all be paid for by a 3% surcharge on Americans making more than $1 million a year.  That bill passed the Senate with a majority.  But GOPers killed it by requiring a two-thirds vote to override their filibuster.

The filibuster and other such procedures seek to provide a minority with some check against excesses by the majority, but they are meant to be invoked rarely, not regularly.  Basically, legislation that passes by a majority vote is democracy.  Subverting this democracy to get your goodies is extortion.
The Senate GOPers succeeded in their extortion, by requiring that the tax surcharge for the very wealthy be dropped, and that an unrelated requirement be added to force President Obama to decide on the Keystone tar sands pipeline.  And that was simply to extend the tax cut and unemployment for 60 days.

That's not a big enough ransom for the House.  They want a long list of demands, including shortening unemployment benefits, means-testing and drug-testing, dropping some environmental regulations, etc.  So far the White House, the Democratic leadership in the Senate and House, and even Senate Republicans, are refusing to negotiate with these terrorists.

There is lots of talk in Washington about the fury of Senate GOPers directed at House GOPers, and about the hypocrisy of GOPers refusing to vote for a tax cut which they claim is what they want to be doing, as well as their specific hypocrisy in claiming to want to pass a year long extension when they've been publicly opposed to it.   But what no one is saying loudly enough is that congressional GOPers are subverting the Constitution, attempting to extort public officials, and undermining not only the economic recovery, the economy and the economic lives of millions of Americans, but the United States itself.    Merry Christmas.  Happy New Year.

President Obama in front of the counter that is counting down the days until the middle class tax cut expires.  At a press briefing on Tuesday he said: "I just got back from a ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base, where we received the flag and the colors that our troops fought under in Iraq, and I met with some of the last men and women to return home from that war. And these Americans, and all Americans who serve, are the embodiment of courage and selflessness and patriotism, and when they fight together, and sometimes die together, they don’t know and they certainly don’t care who’s a Democrat and who’s a Republican and how somebody is doing in the polls and how this might play in the spin room. They work as a team, and they do their job. And they do it for something bigger than themselves."

"The people in this town need to learn something from them. We have more important things to worry about than politics right now. We have more important things to worry about than saving face, or figuring out internal caucus politics. We have people who are counting on us to make their lives just a little bit easier, to build an economy where hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded. And we owe it to them to come together right now and do the right thing."

The New Waltons Story

There once was a television series called The Waltons.  It began with a Christmas story in 1971, then a weekly series that ran for nine seasons.  This drama was about a small town rural family in the Great Depression and during World War II.  With three generations living under one roof, they were poor but hard-working, with intimate connections to others in their town, and connections as well to the wider world.  They remain the image of the American family.

A real life Walton grew up in the same era, and became the entrepreneur who created the Walmart empire, now a global empire.  His family has reaped the benefits.

But this is a different America.  Courtesy of the Rachel Maddow Show, consider just this one statistic:  the net worth of the bottom third of the American population--some 93 million people--together equals the net worth of six members of the Walton family.   So those three people there have more money than at least 47 million of their fellow Americans, put together.     

Monday, December 19, 2011

Emerson for the Day

"Make the most of your regret deeply is to live afresh."


Going Postal on the Post Office

From the steps of the Post Office in Greensburg, PA, it was possible to watch the parade of Buffalo
Bill's Wild West Show, and a lot more of this town's life.  This building now houses the public library, but the "new" post office (probably 50 years old by now) is across the street.  This photo was in 2010 and posted here by someone who identifies himself as Burgh15. Takes me back.

It's easier to start a war than to end one.  But it is easier to end a postal system than it is to start one.

The U.S. Postal Service predates the Constitution, though it wasn't called that then.  It is yet another system that has worked and has been the envy of the world, that shortsighted politicians and greedy (therefore non-sighted) business types can't wait to destroy.

The USPS is especially important for four specific reasons.  First, other businesses (and the USPS these days is a business that turns a profit) depend on it--including Fedex and UPS.  Second, it provides relatively secure, good paying jobs all over the country, which are secured through merit(basically by passing a test.)  Therefore it has been one of the least discriminatory employers for at least the last half century.  I suspect the first reason may get Congressional attention, and the second one will focus the attention of Democrats in Congress, to fix the idiotic problems that Congress has imposed on the USPS.

The third reason it is vital is that it goes everywhere, not just the most profitable urban corridors.  It is one of those institutions that holds the country together at the same time as it links all parts of it.  It is a foundation institution in small places, which is losing its others--such as the railroad station and the public library.  This is of even greater importance in the computer age, which encourages decentralization of businesses.  Without USPS, small businesses out in the country would find moving products impossible or prohibitively expensive.  But the role of the Post Office as a civic institution should not be overlooked.  In many small towns it is the prime representative of the federal government, a benevolent symbol of one nation.

The fourth reason is redundancy.  It is dangerous for a nation to put all its eggs in untested or vulnerable baskets.  New technologies may be more fragile than the hubristic new technologists realize.  Other fully privatized systems for moving mail and packages are subject to the same unpredictability as all corporations: they can go bust, they can be done in by financial manipulation, or they can cut so many "unprofitable' services that the country as well as the economy is helpless.

Having a system in place which is both centrally controlled and decentralized, in which the nation and every village and town have a vested interest in operating it efficiently, and which has worked--not always too well, but overall with remarkable consistency--for hundreds of years, could turn out to be extremely vital, especially in the times of emergencies that we are inevitably going to enter.

It's been fashionable to badmouth the Post Office.  People have legitimate gripes but amplified and simplified by the twittering media monomind, it's added up to a crippling image which is out of proportion to the facts.  USPS takes no government money, for example.  Did you know that?  It costs nothing in taxes.  And its services have improved to a pretty competitive level, at least where I live.

The announced cutbacks are being held off for now--let's hope that our otherwise entirely clueless Congress can eke out a moment of sanity to remove the barriers to a successful USPS continuing to improve into the future.