Monday, September 29, 2008

Nancy Pelosi Hurts Feelings of Poor Widdle Repubwicans; Stock Market Tanks

Happy New Year to those of us of the Jewish persuasion. Now I have to remember to write 5769 on my checks.

This column is now generally moot (well, at least until tomorrow). But I figured I had to take a stand on the bailout -- and not the one I thought I would take last Monday. Sheesh, I hate being responsible. It’s no longer the mommy party and the daddy party; instead we have the grown-up party and the other party. But I am glad to see that those of you who don’t live in Arizona are starting to see the John McCain that we’ve had to live with.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 28, 2008

It might appear that the current financial crisis is getting worse. The largest bank failure ever, Washington Mutual, happened last Thursday, when usually the regulators shut down failed banks on Fridays so they have the weekend to sort things out. So the previous record failure, IndyMac, lost its title after only a few short weeks. It’s like how the home run record kept falling in the late 1990’s, with poorly-understood and improperly-underwritten mortgage-backed securities playing the role of steroids.

It might appear that while you’re still getting credit card solicitations, the effects of the credit crunch are spreading. Short-term credit markets (overnight Treasury repos, short-term commercial paper, and floating-rate municipal bonds) are showing increasing stress. These are basic commercial markets, where companies with some extra cash park money to earn some extra interest, while companies needing liquidity can borrow relatively cheaply. But the amounts aren’t huge, so if the companies with extra cash get spooked, they’ll just hoard their cash -- and a good business with seasonal or fluctuating results might run short for payroll.

It also might appear that despite the toxic unpopularity of the financial bailout politically, including a huge national case of schadenfreude over letting those Wall Street types get what they’ve got coming, the disease is worse than the cure, and we’re going to have to take our medicine. There are all sorts of reasons why a government bailout is wrong in theory, and the original Paulson plan -- give us $700 billion, right now, and no oversight please, we’re Republicans -- was a 3-page joke. But in practice, we don’t have better alternatives to a bailout. As Steven Pearlstein wrote in The Washington Post, the problem is that we can try to prevent a financial meltdown or try to teach Wall Street a lesson, but we can’t do both at the same time.

And it might appear that here in Arizona, where so much of our economy depends on finance, insurance, and real estate, we shouldn’t get too high-and-mighty about those scoundrels who made and securitized bad loans into incomprehensible financial instruments now worth peanuts. Those same bad lending standards and loose credits powered our own boom in real estate prices. Sure, we talk about climate, our low tax burden, the California regulatory state; we should have been saluting loose lenders, incompetent underwriters, and the greater fools bought, bought, bought both real estate and mortgage-backed securities, because they deserve the credit, not us.

Yeah, Wall Street stinks, but we also had a ticket on that gravy train, given the centrality in Arizona of real estate transactions, construction, and homebuilding. It’s going to take a long time to work off the hangover from the binge that caused home prices to leap past sustainable levels. Based on long-term historical trends, prices still have a way to fall. But getting over our hangover won’t be any easier if the credit markets noisily seize up.

And it might appear that the “conservative” approach to the crisis are merely political fig-leafs to have a “plan,” no matter how incoherent, to justify ideological intransigence. As for government “insurance” of these financial instruments, it’s not clear how insuring securities at face value is better than purchasing them at a discount, but it does hide the cost a bit. And a two-year suspension of capital gains taxes, supposedly to encourage sales of assets, is just nonsense. The credit crunch is due to securities that have lost value, and eliminating the tax makes them harder to sell because those losses can’t be used to offset other gains.

So the bailout stinks, but the alternatives are worse. There, I’ve taken a stand, without (tempting though it was) suspending my column-writing duties due to the crisis. That’s more “straight talk” than you’ve gotten from our state’s senior senator, who was “mostly silent” at the White House meeting he orchestrated, retired to one of his homes by 6 pm, and whose campaign issued a statement that “he did not attack any proposal, or endorse any plan.” Darn, I wish I could show leadership like that.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Dan Saban Town Hall in Tempe Monday 9/29

Dan Saban, candidate for Maricopa County Sheriff, will host a law enforcement Town Hall in Tempe this Monday, September 29, 2008, at The Pyle Center, 655 E. Southern Avenue (southwest corner of Southern and Rural). Doors open 6:30pm, event from 7:00-8:30pm

Friday, September 26, 2008

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Worse Than Being Politically Incorrect? Being Religiously Incorrect

Here's the column that ran this past Sunday. My suggested headline was above, but the editor went for the separation angle instead. I liked "religiously incorrect" because of the way "politically incorrect" has become shorthand for saying, "Yes this is offensive, but I want to say it anyway--especially if you'll find it offensive, now you can't complain."

The small college is Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin, where I went on a Congress-to-Campus visit. People couldn't have been nicer and more sympathetic about our loss and my having to cut short my visit . I also like going to small Catholic schools, because they usually have social work degree programs. My GOP former member colleague expects to sail through a Catholic school, but those social work faculty members keep pinning him down on issues like mental health parity and TANF. I'm now conversant on the different Franciscan orders, which might come in handy if I find myself in Assisi.

Newspaper version here.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 21, 2008

While visiting a small Franciscan college last week, I toured a nearby historic chapel with the college priest, who learned that I was headed to a family funeral. While knowing I wasn’t a Catholic, he offered to say a prayer for the rest of my relative’s soul.

I appreciated his gesture and took comfort. I also figured, what the heck, it couldn’t hurt. But not everybody feels warm and fuzzy about receiving a proffered benefit of another’s religious belief, especially when you’re not asked first.

Take the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints practice of posthumous baptism, where LDS believers represent a deceased non-Mormons in a symbolic baptism (hence it’s also called vicarious or proxy baptism).

Baptism is required to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but under LDS doctrine, the deceased have free agency, the power to accept or reject the proxy baptism. From that perspective, posthumous baptism “couldn’t hurt.” Current LDS Church members can grant their ancestors and relatives entrance to heaven. Yet each person, even after death, may accept or reject the proxy baptism, so the ceremony isn’t binding in any way.

But not everybody feels “it couldn’t hurt,” and controversy erupted in the 1990s with the discovery that LDS proxy baptisms included many Jewish victims of the Holocaust, with some 380,000 Jews killed by the Nazis appearing in LDS genealogical records. In 1995, the LDS Church agreed to stop the practice for Holocaust victims where descendants did not consent.

Jewish groups strongly objected, partly from the sad Jewish historical experience with forced conversions, and partly from the special regard that Jews have for Holocaust victims and survivors. If the victims were killed solely for their religion, a posthumous conversion -- even one grounded in doctrinal free agency, to be accepted or rejected voluntarily-- could appear to rewrite the historical record.

Jewish groups aren’t alone in qualms about posthumous baptism. Armenian Christian and Russian Orthodox leaders denounced the practice, and earlier this year, the Vatican Congregation for Clergy directed Catholic dioceses not to allow the LDS International Genealogical Index to microfilm and digitize information in parish registers. The Vatican wants to stop posthumous baptism of Catholics, which spokesmen called “detrimental” and “unacceptable.”

So sometimes when you think it couldn’t hurt, it actually does. I had some readers who believe differently than I do offer to pray for me because of last week’s column. One guy even seemed pretty sincere. But it points out one pretty big difference between religion and politics, and a problem for those who want more religion in politics: The whole point of politics in a democracy is to argue about what’s best, but with religion, you just can’t do that.

We can argue about whether the problem with health care is caused because people aren’t faced with the economic consequences of their choices, or if health care isn’t like other consumer goods because people don’t respond that way to their own health and their physicians. We can argue about whether we should bail out AIG and not Lehman Brothers. But it’s hard to argue in any productive way about whether my view of the non-divinity of Jesus is better than yours. After all, listing certain dead people on a secret baptismal list makes some who believe differently absolutely furious.

Religion is all about fundamental belief -- and even bringing it up in any discussion is an invitation for everybody to take offense. One man’s pithy comment another man finds politically, and religiously, incorrect. And why would we want more of that in politics?

So maybe the separation of church and state makes sense after all. Those who took such umbrage at religious discussion, stated more in terms of my beliefs than theirs, or of the precise religious content of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, should think long and hard about my overall argument against putting more religion into politics.

And thanks to Prof. Mark Kleiman at UCLA, I now have a non-religious way to make the same initial point: Martin Luther King was a community organizer. George Wallace was a governor. Now pick your side of that argument.

Got Your High Holiday Tickets?

Monday, September 22, 2008

Hey, "Real Americans," Suck on This!

This week’s column is an attack on white people identity politics -- using religion only on their terms, and only as they approve, and only by people whose politics they like. We attack other groups for playing this card; when these guys do it, it's evil for us to point it out.

The Thomas Friedman reference in my suggested headline above wasn’t appreciated by my editor, so he redid it. Also, “pulp” in the last line was the editor, not me; I had something stronger, but I’m going with his edit to attempt to avoid filter programs. I did get one email with a home address from a sarcasm-impaired 'winger, but otherwise I heard a lot from those whom the Republicans have read out of the religious community. They were righteously angry and appreciated the column.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 14, 2008

Hey, Republicans, tell Sarah Palin and Rudy Giuliani: Jesus was a community organizer. Pontius Pilate was a governor.

But I’m not allowed to make that joke. You see, I’m Jewish, so I don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus. He’s one of yours, not mine, and apparently there really isn’t anything universal about his teachings. Instead, you must belong to the club, and I don’t. So, say certain ‘wingers, I have no business trying to find common ground by talking about Jesus.

These same people complain that we’ve driven religion out of the “public square,” but they actually have very specific and exclusive ideas about just how public that square should be. I can visit the square, but can’t speak. Somebody not of their religion has no right to talk about their religion, or any religion other than his or her own. When they talk about universal civic values, or the moral underpinnings of our culture, they’re not really trying to find common ground. It’s their ground, their yard, and you kids get off my lawn!

Religion has less to do with the moral teachings of Jesus and more to do with the rally-the-base, 50-percent-plus-one political teachings of Karl Rove.

The Republicans have distilled religion down to its pure essence. They’ve gotten rid of the parts that aren’t, shall we say, supply-side, like ending poverty and promoting social justice. Instead, being religious means (1) opposing abortion and (2) attacking gays you don’t know. (This latter refinement is a recent development; you now can be decent, even protective, toward homosexuals whom you know personally, like the vice president’s daughter. You’re only required to bash total strangers, which helps avoid those oh-so-awkward moments at social and family occasions.)

That’s what the attacks on Barack Obama as a (gasp!) “community organizer” mean. It’s not just that those same community organizers used to be part of the “thousand points of light” that 20 years ago a different generation of Bush told us to applaud and emulate. Current Republicans now mock anyone who doesn’t rush out from grad school and try to amass as much money or power as quickly as possible.

Because that’s what Obama didn’t do after law school. Instead, he spent three years working the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, a project of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in the south side of Chicago. Churches in the area were trying to help their parishioners. As the steel mills closed, the unemployed needed help getting job training, housing, and assistance. The Catholic Church tried to help -- and Obama tried to help the churches help the community.

This is obviously scandalous, self-indulgent behavior in the extreme. When John McCain talks about serving “a cause greater than yourself,” he certainly doesn’t mean helping people who need it (if you don’t know them personally). Instead, the only cause that today McCain thinks is greater than himself, is himself. Why else would he and his allies now scorn community service, and the Catholic Church’s efforts to help serve the poor, heal the sick, and comfort the afflicted? Why else would McCain’s campaign wallow in the trivial, the divisive, and the out-and-out falsehood – just like George W. Bush?

But can I point this out? Not to conservative bloggers and their ilk. Because when Republicans talk about religion, they really mean their religion, their stripped-down, anti-abortion and anti-gay “real American” religion. It’s not just Jews who can’t play in this particular sandbox because of that whole divinity of Jesus thing, but now Catholics are suspect, too, because too many bring along suspect ideas like opposing the death penalty and helping the poor.

Because “real Americans” don’t believe in that namby-pamby stuff. “Real Americans” are white evangelical Protestants who live in small towns. The rest of us may think we’re Americans, but we’re not “real.” And if you really do believe that, then send me an email with your home address, so I can show up and beat the pulp out of you.

Because isn’t that how "real" Americans are supposed to settle these things?

Monday, September 08, 2008

Highly Illogical

I thought we should call this column "Political Illogical" but the editor went longer (and better placement!). I also got TV in the first line instead of "TeeVee," too colloquial or something (for those of you aware of all Internet traditions). This column is what I wanted to yell at the 2 R talking heads with whom I was matched up on ch. 12 after McCain's speech but ran out of time. The "Iraqis like us" line did get in, as well as the "tell Sarah Palin that Jesus was a community organizer, Pontius Pilate was a governor" line. Anyway so much for "balance" in Arizona, 2 Rs and 1 D.

East Valley Tribune, Sep. 7, 2008

I tried yelling at the ol' TV at two out-and-out howlers I kept hearing repeatedly at last week's Republican National Convention. But the television never heard me, so here's my column instead.

Two GOP claims, repeated more times that I could count, just don't make sense. The first is about the "surge." I kept hearing how the surge is -- without qualification -- a success.

But if the surge's been such a success, and we've snatched victory out of the jaws of defeat, and thanks to the surge we've won, then why aren't we leaving Iraq? Because the same people who call the surge an unqualified, victorious success then say in the next breath that it's too soon to leave, that we have to stay, that the situation is too precarious, that our gains could turn to sand at any moment.

Even if you grant all the assumptions packed into calling the surge a success (that the surge really was a change in strategy; that everything good, or at least less bad, that's happened has been due to the surge, and only the surge; that stopping a downward spiral is success), how could both statements be true?

If the surge a success, why can't we leave? If it's too soon to tell, then how is the surge a success?

The current Iraqi government, which we've installed and cultivated and invested in at great expense of blood and treasure, is asking us to leave. Maybe this logical paradox (Success! But not like the way you use the word!) is keeping us from realizing that Iraqis aren't that different from us. They also don't like having somebody in Washington running their lives.

The other howler is the GOP perennial demand that to spur the economy, we need to cut taxes. Here's the problem with this one. The Bush tax cuts -- the ones John McCain was against before he was for them -- are phased in over a 10-year period. Taxes are still being cut this year, significantly. Taxes are already going to be cut in 2009, 2010, and 2011, too; that cake is already baked.

And we're talking pretty huge tax cuts, too. The phasing of the tax cuts, a legislative gimmick to make them fit within congressional budget rules, means that the last few years have the biggest cuts.

Think about it. We're doing right now what Republicans say they are going to do. A program of tax cuts, which still has more than 3 years to run, is currently in place. Big, steaming tax cuts, tax cuts still on the horizon and yet to arrive, are in place. These tax-cutting policies are giving us the economy we have today.

Oh, some Republicans say when you point this out, lots of factors have a say in how the economy performs, it's not just taxes. But you'd never know that from the rhetoric, because they have no other ideas except for tax cuts. Tax cuts are the most important thing -- except when you show how they aren't working today.

These same Republicans wrongly predicted in 1993 that a tax hike would cripple the economy -- which then went on a seven year expansion, generating multiple times the growth in jobs and real wages of the so-called "Bush boom." They also claimed that Bush's tax cuts would create a boom. Too bad you missed it. And now the GOP diagnosis for the economy still consists of exactly the economic medicine that isn't working now.

Dr. McCain's prescription of more tax cuts, heavily weighted for those at the top of the income distribution, is exactly the medicine that Dr. Bush currently is giving us. We're swallowing it now, and have three more years to swallow. And doing more of the same -- more of the same that we're already doing, getting all hepped up to cut taxes in 2012 -- is change?

As an old "Star Trek" fan would say, it's worse than crazy. It's illogical.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Advice Columnists

My suggested headline for this week's column was apparently was too cryptic. And this is pre-Palin, too.

East Valley Tribune, Aug. 31, 2008

Alan Wolfe, in The New Republic, noticed that even the most partisan conservative hack occasionally feels compelled to give oh-so-sincere-sounding advice to Democrats. Like we’re supposed to take advice from Karl Rove or Robert Robb seriously.

The sick part is that because we’re Democrats, we feel compelled to listen, even though we know that conservative pundits all play for the opposing team and have the same regard for the public welfare as do casino owners for their patrons’ wallets.

Wolfe noted that the reverse rarely happens; liberal pundits don’t offer this faux-sincere advice to Republicans. As Wolfe wrote, “Republicans are rarely offered advice because there is not much to advise them on. Republicans do not need to be told whether to take the high road or the low because they always take the low road. They do not ponder whether brutal campaign tactics will affect their ability to govern, since they care so little about government.”

So I have a plea for these advice-dispensing conservative pundits. If you want to play this game, then tell us the secret of how your nominee keeps changing his positions solely to get elected and still gets celebrated by the media as “authentic” and a “straight talker?” Now that would be useful advice.

I talked last week with a Republican friend who considers the Bush administration a complete disaster, who still can’t understand what we’re doing in Iraq (and why we can’t agree to leave if that’s what the Iraqis want), but who still supports McCain. He’s not entirely happy with McCain’s negative campaign, but still supports him because he somehow “knows” that McCain “just can’t believe” the stuff he’s saying these days.

How does McCain simultaneously convince people that he’s a straight talker and that he doesn’t really believe what he’s saying? That’s the advice we Democrats really want, but do the conservatives tell us that one? Of course not.

The candidate of “straight talk” has changed a multitude of his positions to align himself with GOP orthodoxy (the foreign policy neocons, the religious right theocons, and the cut-my-taxes moneycons) to get the nomination, but he’s still a man of principle even if the actual principle is saying absolutely anything to get elected? Whether it’s overturning Roe v. Wade, tax cuts, “enhanced interrogation,” negotiating with Syria, lobbying reform, global warming, closing Guantanamo, Social Security, or the rest of a list that’s now up to 75 reversals, the “original Maverick” has flipped to the duly orthodox position. As Bush’s popularity declined, McCain’s support of Bush has increased; it’s like McCain decided that his support of the incumbent President should mirror the number of Americans who think the country is on the wrong track.

Quick quiz: What’s John McCain’s position on immigration? Remember, to get the GOP nomination, he announced that he wouldn’t vote for his own bill. But once the GOP nomination is confirmed, does he change his position back? Either way, it’s straight talk, my friends, straight talk! We’re supposed to be reassured, because McCain’s not selling his soul, merely renting it.

The conservative pundits (plus loads of liberals, too) also have plenty of advice for Obama that boils down to being less gosh-darn eloquent. Stop giving such good speeches that connect with people and remind them of the best parts of being an American!

This advice is interesting, because basically what they’re telling Obama is that he speaks too well. He’s too articulate. The bottom line: Obama has a problem, he’s just too great a communicator.

This is odd advice from people who revered Ronald Reagan’s speaking abilities, who called him the “Great Communicator.” Reagan had a knack for touching people with words, and that used to be a good thing to these same people. If Obama’s eloquence and charisma is a problem, what’s left of Gipper worship?

So conservative columnists, if you really long to write an advice column for Democrats, forget the advice about being less like Reagan. Give us the real secret, how McCain gets away with it his “straight talking” hypocrisy. Please?