Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For

For years, I've witnessed the powerful messaging machine of the right wing in our country. Their exaggerations, threats, and misinformation have long dominated the political debate in America, and while I disagree with their viewpoint I do have to admit that their methods are incredibly effective. Many times when I've seen some crazy tax cut pushed through, or ridiculous cut in social services, I've said to myself, "If only the Democrats would fight in the same way as these Republicans."

I guess I should have been more specific, as it seems that President Obama has made my wish come all-too true. Not only is he fighting for an old Republican tax cut, larded with additional new Republican tax cuts, but he's also employing a Bush-like fear approach to his latest plan: Pass my bill or we'll see a recession!

Personally, I'm not sure we've ever exited the current recession. Unemployment has been at 9% for almost two years. Here in Oregon it's been in double digits for the same amount of time.* The housing market has been in the toilet for a couple of years. Sure, the stock market is up and there are record profits on wall street, but that doesn't mean the recession has ever really ended.

Even if an argument can be made that the recession has ended, what possibly makes you think that these tax cuts will prevent another one?** The evidence that they will do anything to help the economy is questionable at best. Does the President even recall his own arguments on the ineffectiveness of tax cuts? An equally (if not more) valid argument could be made that passing this bill instead of one more robust will lead to a double dip recession.

Every time I think we're as far as we can get into Bizarro World, we take a step further.

* Ignoring the fact, of course, that our method of counting unemployment is far from accurate as it fails to consider those underemployed or unemployed no longer receiving benefits.

** Not to mention the modest tax INCREASE that the very lowest paid Americans will see. Increase taxes on the poor, decrease taxes on the super rich. How is this the policy of a Democrat?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Obama's Compromise Victories? Tax Cuts.

I'll start out by saying that I am disgusted with the "compromise" plan put forth by the President yesterday. I haven't really wanted to post in the last few days, because I am tired of coming on here and just expressing how upset I am with the lack of leadership. As I've made clear, I think tax cuts are absolutely the wrong thing for our country and our economy... they're a lot of the reason we have the deficit we have now* and economists are almost universal in decrying their "stimulative" power.

So you can imagine my disappointment as I looked into the compromise that the President made, and discovered that in order to "temporarily" extend the Bush-Era tax cuts ($380B/year in the deficit) the President has received the following "concessions" from the Republicans.

1. Extension of the Federal unemployment benefits. This is the only real "concession" that I can see, in that this is something that needed to be done for the country. However, there's NO WAY that the Republicans wouldn't have ended up voting for an extension of these benefits by the end of the year. If the Democrats had been able to hold their ground in congress, the Republicans would have given in on the extension, just as they have done time and time again over the last few years.

2. A freeze for the alternative minimum tax. Yes, a tax cut that will affect some middle-class taxpayers, as well as wealthier taxpayers. This is something that needs to be reformed, for sure, but it's not a pressing issue. It's just another tax cut... and considering a tax cut to be a concession from the Republicans is ridiculous.

3. A huge reduction of the Estate Tax. In 2011, the Estate Tax was slated to affect estates of over $1,000,000 in value. Yes, if you left over a million dollars to your heirs, they would have to pay 35% in taxes to the government. The Repulicans were generous enough, however, to allow the President a tax cut for the wealthy on this as well, with the new Estate Tax affecting only estates of $5M or more. WOW! How crafty of President Obama to work another tax cut out of those Republicans.**

4. Additional tax cuts, from college tuition credits to child care credits. Even better, these "tax cuts" were the same tax cuts put into the weakened stimulus package to entice Republican support. That's right, the Republicans conceded and allowed Obama to continue giving them the tax cuts he gave them back in 2008. How very generous of them!

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I've read a number of "democrats" defending the President's position on this compromise, some even calling the $300 billion in additional tax cuts "stimulus." As I've said, they are the same relatively worthless tax cuts from the stimulus package of 2008, but I tend to trust economists when it comes to economic stimulation more than I do the name attached to some paperwork.

Today the President said he's "ready to fight" and that the Republicans can expect him to fight in the future. I'm pretty sure he's said that before. Like, several times. I seem to remember he promised to fight for the Public Option. That never materialized, of course, as he made a deal with the insurance industry and gave us a wishy-washy industry-friendly bill. Hilariously enough, today he compared this compromise to the health care compromise as he was chastising liberals.

I guess he does get it. I guess we liberals are the fools hoping for someone who isn't a corporatist capitulator... apparently the President feels that is what the country needs. Well, that and more tax cuts.***

I had some hopes that we'd eke out a few minor victories in the lame duck congress. I suppose that is still possible, but unfortunately the President will continue fighting against real change and economic improvement.

* In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the housing bubble... but they're still a large portion of our deficit.

** This $5M cap isn't enough for some Republicans who are still complaining about the existence of any estate tax at all. These complaints are somehow supposed to justify the "compromise" as they're the example of the right being upset about the tax bill.

*** Is it just me, or does all this tax cutting sound like a tea party agenda? It's like the President has adopted their point of view, but left all the personal anti-Obama rhetoric aside.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Comments, the Internet, and China

Last night on "The Office" there was a subplot about an argument between Michael and Oscar regarding China.  Michael had brought a magazine to the office after a visit to the dentist, an issue of Newsweek with the cover story "China is on the Move" and started alerting the workers to the threat of China.  Oscar replied with a more sensible approach, taking apart many of Michael's arguments in a manner I found somewhat familiar.

The politics of the show weren't important (it's "The Office" and I don't expect them to have a fair discussion about China, although they did have a more reasonable approach than you'd find on Fox or likely even CNN) but one thing I did find amusing was the cover of the Newsweek issue Michael had brought back.  It looked familiar, and judging from the dentist office connection I guessed it was going to be old.  You can see it in the screenshot of the clip below (which also has an amusing political angle in Michael's fear) and maybe it looks familiar to you too.

I wanted to find out how old, exactly, that issue was, so I did a little internet searching and found a Newsweek story from 2005 with the headline "China is on the Move."  Ha!  Five years old!  I felt pretty good finding that meta joke within "The Office" and thought I would show off my awesomeness by leaving a comment on the Hulu page for this episode.

Now, I've only commented a couple of times on Hulu, and have found that generally it's a barren wasteland of commentary, so I figured my little link to this old story would stand alone.  Imagine my surprise when I found fifteen pages of comments, mostly arguing about China!  Even on Hulu, even on a silly show like "The Office", there are people viciously calling each other names and spreading fear.  It was a real surprise and, to be honest, a bit of a downer.

So rather than leave a comment there, I thought I'd come here.  Man, people really do like to argue, even over ridiculous things in ridiculous places.  Seems like there's nowhere for a guy who remembers some magazine cover from half a decade ago to find friends anymore. :)

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Obama's Pay Freeze Helps Keep Frivolous Tax Cuts

Yesterday President Obama called for a two year pay freeze for federal workers, estimated to save the government up to $6 billion a year for the next ten years.*  This bit of preemptive capitulation hasn't pleased anyone, angering the President's supporters while emboldening his detractors who believe that the pay freeze is merely a first step. President Obama gave up this negotiating chit the day before meeting with Repulican leaders in their "Slurpee Summit."

I think this pay freeze is terrible policy for several reasons, especially with the dire state of our economy.  Using the projections of the President's economic team, this pay cut will cost the country 25,000 private sector jobs over the next two years. Despite what Eric Cantor and the Republicans may say, federal employees currently earn 22% less than their private sector counterparts according to the 2009 Office of Personnel Management report.

2009 pay disparity

How can we expect the government to do a better job than it is currently doing when we don't even want to pay the employees a fair wage?  How can we expect to retain the best people we currently have when they are now more open to recruitment to fill jobs in the private sector?** 

Meanwhile, the President still seems determined to allow the tax cuts to be extended permanently*** costing the country $370 billion per year.  He's covered the 2% the cost of these tax cuts with this middle class pay freeze... how will he cover the other 98%?

In 2012, President Obama will be running for his reelection, and the right will have two new memes to press in their campaign.  "President Obama wants to increase the pay of federal workers and raise your taxes."  Follow this up with equally untrue stories about his $2B trip to India, lack of birth certificate, and Muslim faith, and we'll be looking at a serious GOP tea party in November.

* I have seen some conservative commentators wondering how a 2-year freeze can equal ten years worth of savings, I can see how it'd be difficult to accept that not getting a raise this year will make the raises in the future relatively smaller.

** This fits into the long-term plan of the Republicans to shrink the federal government and hand it over to the private sector; as the best employees leave, the quality of work will drop, which tends to feed into more cuts/firings, which tends to lead to private contractors filling in at a much higher cost.

*** There's no doubt in my mind that if they are extended for even a year that they will be extended permanently when they come up to expire next.  If we can't allow them to expire with our large current majorities, what possibility will we have in 2011 or 2012?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Chase Bank - Preying on the Poor

Two decades ago, I opened a bank account at Washington Mutual, a regional bank here in the northwest.  At the time, they were a responsible and accountable institution and I was proud to be associated with them.  As time passed, they fell into the trap of so many banks and involved themselves with mortgage securities and eventually overextended to the point that they found themselves nearly bankrupt.

Financial giant Chase Bank swept in and bought out WaMu over a weekend, and before we knew it our friendly local bank became a cog in a cold international machine.  We customers received letters assuring us that our accounts would remain unchanged, aside from the drops in savings interest rates, CD rates, checking interest, and other changes.  Still, my free checking remained free, and I kept my account open with them as I had a number of automatic withdrawals funneled through my account.

Today, however, I received a letter from the bank announcing some changes to my "free" checking account.  No longer a free account, my new "Total Checking" account now carries a $10 monthly fee.  You can avoid this monthly fee if you meet one of the following conditions.

1: $1,500 minimum daily balance
2. $5,000 average monthly balance
3: $25/month other fees
4: One direct deposit of $500/month

Now, at first, the fourth option did seem to be somewhat reasonable... until you realize that it's not $500 worth of deposits per month... it's ONE deposit of that much.  So if you're an average person making an average wage and get a weekly paycheck - even if you deposit the entire post-tax amount - you'll still have to pay the $10 monthly fee.  That is, unless you happen to have a $1500 cushion in your account.

It's not even "poor" people who take home less than $500 a week.  That's nearing the median income, if you consider that $500 take-home is about $700 gross (or $35k/year) in the best case scenarios.  Take home $475 per week, every week?  Tough luck, that's going to cost you.

Shame on you, Chase Bank, for finding a way to screw over the hard-working middle class customers who manage to keep their checking accounts in positive territory and avoid ridiculous fees.  I've already made the calls necessary to cancel all of my direct payments through this account, and will be walking down to my local branch to close out my account as soon as this is posted.  I've had a savings account with my credit union for some time now, looks like they'll be receiving all of my checking business as well.  A change I'd say is long overdue.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Attempted Domestic Terror Plot Thwarted in Portland

Fox Tower At Christmas

Last night, Portland held their annual downtown lighting of the Christmas tree at Pioneer Courthouse Square.  As usual, I considered going, but didn't bother to cram in with the crowds for no particular reason.  The tree will remain lit up for the next month, and I'll have plenty of opportunity to see it, like I did in the above photo from 2007.  There's no need to jam into the square with thousands of fellow Portlanders to see it turn on.

As most of you have probably heard, the tight crowd also brought an attempted domestic terror attack, as a Corvallis man drove a van bomb to the area and attempted to kill some of the festival-goers.  Luckily, the FBI had foiled his plan and the bomb he tried to ignite was a dud.

I'm glad that nothing came of this, as from what I've read it could have killed some of the people in the area, and certainly would have injured many and traumatized my fair city.  My brother and I passed through the area on a MAX train last night as the festivities were underway, and the crowd was packed shoulder-to-shoulder, filling a block and a half.  I haven't seen any official estimates, but similar crowds are usually estimated at 10,000 or so.


From the details in the story, it doesn't sound like it would have been a particularly effective bombing anyway.  Pioneer Square is somewhat isolated from traffic, with MAX lines running along each side, with limited parking mostly on the opposite side of the street.  The one street with square-adjacent parking was closed off, so that means the van had to have been parked across the street from the square, with a lane of traffic and the MAX line between the square and the bomb, and the majority of the crowd further protected by a thick brick wall separating the sidewalk from the square.  These details a downtown Portlander would know, but a Corvallis resident probably wouldn't.

Either way, thank goodness nothing happened and everything went well at the square.  Congratulations to the FBI for catching this guy and likely saving lives, it's good to see law enforcement keeping people safe.

The details are still unclear at the time, but the story indicates that emails from the suspect to a contact in Pakistan were what tipped the FBI off in the first place.  When the Corvallis man was unable to get assistance from the foreign contact, the FBI stepped in and an undercover agent worked to help the bomber prepare for his attack.  While there may be some question as to whether the bomber could have gotten as far as he did without the FBI informant "assisting," the quotes from the bomber indicate he was determined to carry out the attack and maximize casualties, so it does seem likely that he'd have looked for a way to carry out the attack even if the FBI informant hadn't been involved.

Unfortunately, this attack has brought out the usual hateful anti-Islam commentary in the message boards.  Portland (and Oregon in general) isn't exactly the cultural melting pot you see in other parts of the country, so the modest community of Muslims and/or Africans in our city are probably going to face unwarranted discrimination over the next few weeks and months.  I don't really expect any sort of violence or serious vandalism in their communities, but I'd hate to be a Somali or Muslim reading any online commentary on the Oregon Live website over the next few months.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Cenk Uygur's Plea to President Obama

Sometimes I regret not having cable.  While there's a lot of great television available over the internet, Cenk Uygyr's MSNBC Live is not available in its entirety.  Cenk is passionate and independent-minded, and has had some of the most on-point criticism of our President's reluctance to stand up for Progressives.  Here's an excellent example, really capturing the frustration I have with the current administration.