Saturday, February 04, 2012

Good Job

The job numbers released on Friday were uniformly good news for the economy.  Employment was revised upward for November and December, and January saw the addition of 243,000 jobs and another drop in the unemployment rate to 8.3%.

This led to the highest stock market total since before the Great Recession began in 2008, and the highest NASDAQ (tech stocks) in 11 years, since 2000.

At the Washington Post Ezra Klein concluded: "The bottom line is that this isn’t just a good jobs report. It’s a recovery jobs report. It’s showing the sort of numbers that win elections."

Rightward Politico quotes a banker: "We appear finally to be in an economy where hiring begets spending, which begets corporate profits, which begets hiring. That’s the virtuous cycle we need.”

 All the internals of the jobs report were good, as jobs were added in all sectors. Though President Obama warned that these numbers "will go up and down" in the coming months, he challenged Congress to feed the recovery and don't "muck it up."  That certainly means passing the middle class tax cut extension and it also means other programs such as the ones for returning veterans
he announced Friday.

Whenever there was an economic downturn, my father would say the same thing: they oughta revive the CCC.  In his 20s he worked in the Civil Conservation Corps and its successor, as the Great Depression met World War II.  Now after all these years he may get his wish: President Obama has proposed a new CCC of sorts, but brilliantly--in political as well as economic terms--he's made it for veterans.  Plus other proposals involve supporting local firefighters (as in Arlington VA, where he spoke on Friday) and others who are endangered by state and local budget cutbacks.  Here's the White House release on the subject:

"First, President Obama is working to help state and local communities hire veterans to work as first responders. The administration will make available $166 million in 2012 Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Hiring Grant funding and $320 million in 2012 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants and award that money with a preference to communities that recruit and hire post-9/11 veterans. The President's budget for the 2013 fiscal year will include additional $5 billion for these grant programs.

Second, the President is working to develop a Veterans Job Corps conservation program that will put up to 20,000 veterans to work over the next five years. They'll work to restore habitats, eradicate invasive species, maintain public lands, and operate public facilities.

Third, President Obama wants to expand entrepreneurship training opportunities for service members and veterans. Back in August, the Administration established a two-day course in entrepreneurship as part of the Transition Assistance Program with the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, along with the Small Business Administration. The SBA also offers an eight week online training program that will teach the fundamentals of small business ownership to more than 10,000 veterans every year."

Friday, February 03, 2012

"I'm Crazy and I'm Right"

Presenting Rick Sanctimonious in the  funniest Bad Lip Reading video since Michelle Bachmann.

The Circus of Overreach

Sometimes the circus act more than fills the big top--it's over the top, and the tent collapses.  That may be happening now, as the extent of overreach becomes obvious. It's becoming especially obvious in the fatal mixture of big money politics by the obscenely wealthy and Rabid Right ideological politics.

For example, the Religious Right Meets Class War of money for poor women's health in a society that makes health depend on wealth. The reaction from the Susan B. Komen Foundation decision to stop its longstanding financial support for Planned Parenthood breast cancer screenings continued to get even stronger on Thursday, with several prominent resignations from the Foundation, protests from U.S. Senators and many individuals--and this story that fleshes out the right wing political agenda behind the foundation's act.  Friday Update: It appears that the Foundation has reconsidered and will continue funding the Planned Parenthood screening programs, although some warn that it's not clear how solid this commitment is now.

The continuing influence of money on political policy got the curtain torn back in Florida on Thursday.  Florida is just one of the states where an extreme Tevangelical plus Big Money agenda has been trying to destroy political, organizing and women's rights since that combination took over their governments in 2010.  It is distinguished only by how the obscenely wealthy Rick Scott (probably the wealthiest pol short of Rich Richney) bought the governorship with his own millions.  And now it has revealed just how organized the changes in these states have been.   The rightward American Legislative Council has been providing direction and "model bills," but though their influence has been hotly denied, that's going to be harder when a Florida legislator forgot to remove their mission statement from their template bill that she introduced as her own.

In the GOPer presidential circus, news organizations continue to study the report of superpac donors, fleshing out the extent to which just a few of the obscenely wealthy--just 41, by one count--are supplying Richney's millions.  But in a revelation that surprisingly didn't get headlines Thursday, the Richney campaign has 14 lobbyists bundling cash for his campaign, including at least one who lobbies for foreign nations--including a Middle Eastern oil-producing member of OPEC.   So big foreign money buying access and self-interest joins big corporate money and big money in general in trying to buy the U.S. presidency.

Richney is easy enough to parody, simply by sticking to the facts: "you and a few buddies with names like T. Coleman Andrews III made pots of dough by starting up a venture-capital firm with other people’s moolah and then spent the rest of your life living off the "carried interest" proceeds at a low, low, low tax rate of 15 percent, upgrading your $12 million vacation home in the ritzy San Diego suburb of La Jolla and running for president because you can’t get elected to any other office..."

It could be that Richney is getting so defined right now that he won't be able to overcome this impression later.  But a lot can happen, and a lot of bucks are yet to happen. Big money, already way too influential, is trying to buy the place outright, and that campaign is just getting started.

To Whom Much Is Given

Things have changed a lot since I was a student at Sacred Heart School, St. Paul's School, the Most Blessed Sacrament Cathedral School and Greensburg Central Catholic High School.  Though I'm no longer intimately acquainted with it, it seems the American Catholic Church has changed, and the role of religion in politics has vastly changed.  When I was at Central Catholic, the second Catholic in the history of the U.S. to be nominated for President, Senator John F. Kennedy, made a major speech to Protestant clergy asserting that, no, he wasn't going to take orders from the Pope, that he was not going to let his religious affiliation interfere with his oath as President of all the people.  Today, presidential candidates seemingly must prove that they will take orders from their religious affiliation in order to qualify for office.  That's not just a little different.

The Catholic Church's doctrine on contraception hasn't changed, though perhaps their attitudes towards it and other such issues has.  (It was also then, as it is now, the most widely ignored ban among Catholics.)  The federal government decision on requiring American hospitals and other health care institutions caring for the general public, regardless of the institution's religious affiliation must offer insurance that covers contraception I believe one that would have been understood in the Catholicism of my youth.  We used to hear the phrase, you can't legislate morality.  That a Catholic hospital is required to cover contraception services does not require anyone to accept those services if they violate their religious beliefs.  Sin, forgiveness and redemption are individual matters, for freedom to sin or not to sin under any circumstances is pretty the whole point.  (For other views on this recent policy decision, here are some collected by Andrew Sullivan, himself a Catholic, with links to even more discussion.)

In the Catholicism of my youth--and to some extent today as well--there were different degrees of emphasis on moral lessons derived from the teachings of Christ and his disciples, leading to different approaches to public policy and action.  But major lessons were felt to support what may be considered "liberal" policies (and "liberal" was an acceptable and often admirable description then, particularly in the years of Pope John XXIII, one of the great voices of the 20th century.)

I mention this now because the major lessons President Obama described as the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday that drew from his Christian faith were lessons I learned then, through Catholic teaching.  They remain bedrocks for me, especially as they are supported by so many other teachings,  from many religions as well as from ethics that require no divine authority.   Yet these moral statements were either dismissed or ignored, or interpreted only in the politics of Washington.

Love your neighbor as yourself, and the action program resulting from that--otherwise known as the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount--and "the least of these," as well as the verse President Kennedy quoted--"To whom much is given, much is required"--were commonplace in my Catholic education.  Are they so radical now?

There's no question that they are relevant to the moment--that's the point of moral standards, that you apply them to situations of the moment.  And President Obama did that in talking about them, as he said that he does in informing his actions.  The video of this speech speaks volumes.  Wearing soft brown in contrast to his usual dark blue or black, the President was speaking from the heart--speaking strongly, but seeming to know how vulnerable he was being.
Dorothy Day

"We can’t leave our values at the door. If we leave our values at the door, we abandon much of the moral glue that has held our nation together for centuries, and allowed us to become somewhat more perfect a union. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Jane Addams, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Abraham Heschel -- the majority of great reformers in American history did their work not just because it was sound policy, or they had done good analysis, or understood how to exercise good politics, but because their faith and their values dictated it, and called for bold action -- sometimes in the face of indifference, sometimes in the face of resistance."

Dorothy Day--how brave to mention her, and a radical Catholicism that eclipsed even mine in high school, though for some reason a subscription to her newspaper that I never bought, The Catholic Worker, followed me from residence to residence for years. The others he named suggest how his faith informed his community organizing days, and vice versa.  But it is equally important that with each example from the Christian Bible he gave, President Obama noted parallels in other religions (although he neglected to mention the very strong Buddhist call for compassion.) 

"Treating others as you want to be treated. Requiring much from those who have been given so much. Living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper. Caring for the poor and those in need. These values are old. They can be found in many denominations and many faiths, among many believers and among many non-believers. And they are values that have always made this country great -- when we live up to them; when we don’t just give lip service to them; when we don’t just talk about them one day a year."

He began his remarks with a plea for the relevance of these ethics rather than parading political affiliations with particular ideologies endorsed by particular religious groups. "At a time when it’s easy to lose ourselves in the rush and clamor of our own lives, or get caught up in the noise and rancor that too often passes as politics today, these moments of prayer slow us down. They humble us. They remind us that no matter how much responsibility we have, how fancy our titles, how much power we think we hold, we are imperfect vessels. We can all benefit from turning to our Creator, listening to Him. Avoiding phony religiosity..." 

The heart of his message, simple and yet complex in its rejection of a certain kind of religiosity while grounding his moral beliefs in his faith:

"Now, we can earnestly seek to see these values lived out in our politics and our policies, and we can earnestly disagree on the best way to achieve these values. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Christianity has not, and does not profess to have a detailed political program. It is meant for all men at all times, and the particular program which suited one place or time would not suit another.”

Our goal should not be to declare our policies as biblical. It is God who is infallible, not us. Michelle reminds me of this often. (Laughter.) So instead, it is our hope that people of goodwill can pursue their values and common ground and the common good as best they know how, with respect for each other. And I have to say that sometimes we talk about respect, but we don’t act with respect towards each other during the course of these debates.

But each and every day, for many in this room, the biblical injunctions are not just words, they are also deeds. Every single day, in different ways, so many of you are living out your faith in service to others."

Though I do not share his faith, I share his values, and I recognize their grounding in the Catholic teachings that informed JFK and--though he was either ridiculed or ignored for his statements on faith and works--Senator John Kerry when he ran for President in 2004. 

Certain clergy were asserting that the Constitution is a Protestant document (another way of saying that America is a "Christian" nation within their narrow definition of Christianity) during JFK's campaign in 1960.  Catholics in those days largely saw the separation of church and state as protecting them.  Now it is being challenged in ways I wouldn't have believed possible, with the Catholic Church among the challengers.  But these so-called religious wars should not distort or distract from the moral basis of our public life.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

You know what day it is---no, not that one, Bill Murray fans.  It's James Joyce's birthday, of course.

Never heard of him?  Well, you've heard of him, but...With Ulysses, Finnegans Wake and the books more people are likely to have actually read, A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man and Dubliners, he was once revered as the greatest writer of the modern age.  But his reputation has been in something of an eclipse.  That's partly been due to his own descendants, or at least the ones controlling his estate.  They've apparently raised litigiousness to a high modernist art.  They've reputedly tried to stop or control every excerpt, quote, fact, observation or mention of his name for years.  I read somewhere that his work was dropped from an important anthology of Irish prose because of their mercurial demands.  They apparently drove the scholarly biographer of his daughter Lucia half mad, and seriously weakened her otherwise excellent book--and then they sued her anyway.  That she finally won may or may not have slowed them down.

Joyce did enter popular culture for awhile, with the many Bloomsday readings in June.  And reputedly the family put a stop to that.  Notice I keep saying reputedly.  They've reputedly intimidated everybody, and may have intimidated away their future income in the process.

 It may well be that Ulysses is not the greatest novel of the 20th century after all.  Then again, we're in a philistine age.  A Portrait of the Artist will always remain an important book to me, personally and as a writer.  I revered his dedication to his craft, as chronicled with such grace in the classic Richard Ellman biography.  Now there's a new biography, which sounds pretty awful.  There really aren't many good new literary biographies.

 Maybe Joyce's example did me more harm than good, but so what?  His birthday was important to Joyce--he tried to schedule the publication of his books for this date, and I believe he succeeded with Ulysses at least.   So even if he screwed up my life, got me drunk too often and encouraged me to stay poor, while setting standards I couldn't match so I never published even a little novel. He still was a friend.  So happy birthday, James.  Your day will come again.

Rich Richney and His Class War

How rich is he?  Double the combined fortunes of the last eight Presidents.  But it's not just money.  He's rich in his soul.  And not in a good way.  In the eye of a needle way.  Tough to get into heaven.  Richney can't even get to Earth.

Rich Richney, the likely GOPer candidate for Prez, thinks rich.  This means that he lives in a world where it is accepted, in fact expected, that he would structure a $100 million trust fund for his sons so exactly zero taxes would be paid on it, in defiance of the U.S. gift and inheritance taxes that lesser mortals (including mere millionaires) must pay.

Rich Richney has the eyes and heart of extreme wealth.  He managed to mangle his post-Florida message  about being for the middle class with the immortal statement, "I'm not concerned about the very poor."  It could be called a kind of Freudian slip, except that he repeated it.  Twice.

But the GOPer class war for which Richney is the poster boy goes beyond Richney's announced tax reforms, which would mainly benefit him and his insulatedly superrich ilk.  For example, another Wednesday story that seemed to be about the culture war, or the war against women: the major foundation (run by a GOPer, the senior vp of which is a Rabid Right pol) that cut off funds to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screening.  Of course it is Rabid Right politics and culture war and war against women, but it is also and perhaps more basically class war.  Because rich women will still get their breast cancer screenings.  They don't need Planned Parenthood. The women who won't get breast cancer screenings are poor women who depend on Planned Parenthood--but who don't concern Rich Richney.  Class war is a subtext elsewhere as well.
Not that all this is new.  We've been here before.  Only now much, much worse, and getting worse than that.

Superpacs reporting their funding sources showed many million dollar donations to Richney's superpacs, especially from the Wall Street class.  They helped Richney crush the otherwise execrable but merely sort of rich Casino Newt with three or four times the few millions Newt got from his sole Casino daddy (who is himself so rich, somebody figured out, that the $10 million he threw Newt's way works out to be a proportion of his income that for someone making the U.S. average would amount to $45.)  Brute money as brute force.  Welcome to Obscenely Rich Guys United.

The class war of the Richney class, which plays the poor GOPer Tevangelical base like a fiddle (a base fiddle?), adds geometrically greater warping to the already skewed values of our decadent "democracy."  The rich may be different from you and me.  But the Richney rich are different from you and me and the Vulcans and Klingons. 

How all this plays out is described in this classic commentary by Lawrence O'Donnell, which uses an interlocking tale involving American Airlines, pensions, the federal government, and Bain Capital to expose the values universe we're trying to navigate.            

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Enjoy Your Planet

Yosemite HD from Project Yosemite on Vimeo.

As part of our after-circus cleansing, here's this video.  It's pretty spectacular full screen, the bigger the better.  Personally the time lapse was sometimes too much--I'd rather linger in some of those spots, with this gorgeous resolution.  But when it gets to the meteor shower--well, the experience wouldn't be the same without the waiting in the cold, the looking in the wrong place and looking back too late, the sudden surprise, the hot tea, etc. but I have to say, it was very satisfying to see a night's worth of shower in this compressed form.  Anyway, enjoy your planet.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

At the Circus: Total War

With a turnout lower than the last presidential primary, Florida GOPers favored juggler Richie Richney over high wire artiste Casino Newt.  About 40% of Richney's voters also wished for a different candidate.  Newt Gingles took the Tevangelical north of the state, while Richney prospered in places that will probably go Dem in the general.

But the move of the night was Gingles talking about his Inauguration Day, unveiling "46 States to Go" signs, and failing to congratulate Richney in his speech, or concede that Richney had won, or to call Richney afterwards.  In case you didn't get the message, that's tripling down on common courtesies he meaningfully violated.

Richney slimed Gingles with $16 million in negative ads ( over 90% were negative, and less than 1% made any positive case for Richney.) It was an ultra rich man's demonstration of the power of money to destroy someone (It turns out that Richney is twice as rich as the last eight U.S. Presidents were at their richest, put together.)  It's the cynical horror to teach a merely rich man like Gingles where the real power is.

 Gingles clearly is in no mood to forgive or forget.  If there was doubt that the revenge thesis offered yesterday by several pundits was accurate, it's looking pretty certain now.  Gingles got the deeply Rabid Right vote, did his racist dog whistles in his speech to further confirm his hold on the Grand Old Confederate White Southerners Party, which votes on Super Tuesday in March.  By asserting that this was a campaign of People vs. Money, he signaled that even if the Casino millions falter, he'll keep going, debate by debate.  Rick Sanctimonious and Ron St. Paul seem comfortable in staying in the race as well.

Though some MSNBC commentators thought Gingles was suggesting he might run anyway if the GOPers don't nominate him, I'm less certain of that--he spent the first part of his speech talking about the need to have a conservative GOPer majority in Congress.  But it is hard to see Gingles endorsing Richney. Even former McCain pro Steve Schmidt, not exactly a raver, predicted that the nomination process was now "total war" in the GOP.

Now the action goes to arcane caucuses,  maybe leaving a few weeks for circus goers to wipe the elephant shit off their faces.  On the other hand, this is a circus without limits--it probably doesn't even seem all that weird anymore than FOX news would slime the latest Muppet movie for being anti-capitalist, and the latest critique of the credibility of FOX News would come from Miss Piggy.      

Pet Sounds

People's feelings about each other are often conflicted.  But people's feelings about their pet animals mostly are not. They may have complex feelings about their dogs or cats, but mostly those feelings are strong, direct and pure.  Especially under stress, almost everything can come down to that relationship---as it did in this story about a young actor who felt forced to have his dog put down, and soon after ended his own life.

  People have very direct relationships with their pets, and they tend to judge other people on how they behave towards pet animals. So while the politics of pets is presented lightly, people don't take the topic lightly.  It's a test of basic humanity.

The story of Mitt Romney's summer vacation many years ago has been quietly making the rounds.  He drove 12 hours with his family in the car, and the family dog in an air-tight carrier on top of the car.  The dog got sick, and his diarrhea dripped down the car windows, so Romney pulled off the highway at a gas station, hosed down the car and the dog in the carrier, and resumed driving.

The reaction has been growing, with stories often referring to this Dogs Against Romney website. 

That was the context when David Axlerod tweeted a photo of President Obama with his dog Bo with the message, "How loving owners transport their dogs." 

Cute, right?  But another story suggests how potentially powerful this really is--a story of wanton cruelty that explains the mindset of the Rabid Right to those who don't get it when illustrated by stories involving just people, or even less impressive, politicians.  I won't reproduce the photo here, but it's in the story: the children of a campaign manager for an Arkansas Democratic congressional candidate came home to discover their pet cat dead on their front porch, obviously murdered (the story gives the graphic details) and with the word "liberal"written across its body.

What this says about what humans are capable of is depressing enough, or how far we have not come in being civilized and empathetic.  But the message of where Rabid Right politics are is pretty clear.  It says it for some people perhaps even more directly than attempted assassination, or the vile and racist words of Republican officials including their party chair, or the implications of the cruel policies these folks favor. 

How we treat animals is often better than how we treat each other, and certainly better than we treat the rest of life and the future of life on this planet that provides us with our life.  So the effects of certain policies and beliefs, as well as the hearts of those that sell them, is exposed through attitudes and behavior towards the pets that bless us with their presence.      

Monday, January 30, 2012

At the Circus: Now It's Personal

His Romneyness is ending his Florida campaign with triumphant condescension, while Casino Newt is continuously livid.  Though some observers suggest the race has tightened in the past 48 hours (the final tracking poll has Romney's margin down to single digits from the 10 to 15 points most recent polls average) it seems that the relentless attacks on Gingles have again taken their toll.

And it has been one seriously ugly circus down there.  Romney spent 16 million dollars trashing Gingles, who spent 5 million dollars trashing Romney.  Romney had five media ads for every one of Newt's.  He trashed Newt in person as well as through his superpac millions.  And Newt is not taking it well.  By several accounts, it's gotten personal.  No fellow candidate has ever expressed much affection for Romney, but Newt is channeling as much hate as he can possibly muster for a white non-Democratic non-President. 

So despite the expected Florida loss, Gingles has vowed to go on to the convention--and though all candidates say this, John Heilemann suggests he means it, for one central reason : "so much has he come to despise Romney and the Republican Establishment that has brought down on him a twenty-ton shithammer in Florida, and so convinced is he of his own Churchillian greatness and world-historical destiny. The same antic, manic, lunatic bloody-mindedness that has made him such a rotten candidate in the Sunshine State may be enough to keep him the race a good long time."   Chris Matthews at MSNBC expects Casino Newt to stay in "long enough to exact revenge."

Though the "establishment" attacks were fierce again last week, they may have goosed Tea Party types to coalesce around Gingles.  Herman Koch-Cain endorsed him, as did Queen Sarah and her chancellor/court jester Todd.  She even said something about Romney being Stalinistic.

So two things are happening here: the Final Conflict between the establishment GOP and the Tevangelist neolithic conservative GOPers, and since these folks are so used to scorched earth tactics and getting off on Armageddon, it could be like Biblical.  That's unlikely to enhance their chances in November.

The second thing is already hurting them, in poll after poll: the mudfest, plus the actual mud they are feasting on, is sending negative ratings for all the candidates and GOPers in general soaring.  Not to flip flop or anything but soaring negatives means positives falling down down down, all the way to hell. 

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"We shall never achieve harmony with the land, any more than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people.  In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive."

Aldo Leopold

photo: NASA's latest hi def photo of Planet Earth, which scientists believe may harbor intelligent life.  In the oceans anyway.  The top land animal is rubbish.