Wednesday, June 29, 2011

4th of July and the Arab spring

My column appearing in both the on line, e, and print editions to day in the Sky Hi Daily News...
No one meeting in the Continental Congress in 1776 could have imagined that their Declaration of Independence from Britain would inspire popular revolts and uprisings 235 years later in lands very different and far away.

The young people leading the Arab Spring used the words of the Declaration and the U.S. Constitution's Bill of Rights to rally supporters and to couch their goals as rights to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.

Principles so eloquently put to quill pen in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson were fleshed out and codified in the first 10 amendments of the Constitution (the Bill of Rights) later during its ratification process. Both documents have become the ideals and aspirations of many young leaders in the Middle East and North Africa, which they extolled in text messages, Facebook, Twitter, and oratory.

Elections this fall in Egypt and Tunisia will tell whether the meaning of those words will be fully understood and applied by those going to the polls. There is always the possibility that some non-democratic force will win out, but a semblance of a Jeffersonian democracy is possible in those countries.

The transition from oppressed subject of a monarchy to revolution to democratic self-governance was relatively easy for the newly minted 13 not yet fully united states of America. The colonialists had experience in decades with the practice of self-government through their colonial legislative bodies. They used the English parliamentary procedures as a model, a structure that translated to order of debate, compromise, and law-making. For that reason John Adams and Thomas Jefferson worked effectively in a familiar process, though they were temperamentally and culturally very different.

Colonialists also could draw on a legal system based upon English law. In short, they spoke a common language of governance.

Independence in that hot summer of 1776 was not a revolt against the form of democracy. The patriots were in revolt against a monarchy and parliament that would not let them use the tools of democracy to pass their own laws they themselves could enforce, levy their own taxes, control their own militias or even have representation in the British parliament.

When the colonies attempted to boycott British goods and refused to pay taxes levied on them, the British parliament set about to punish and penalize them, closing their colonial assemblies and dictating their governance. By July 4, 1776, the patriots had already fought at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill and had come to the conclusion that any change in British policies would not happen. Independence was the only option.

Unlike American patriots, those in North Africa who successfully overthrew dictators and monarchies do not have much of a democratic platform on which to build, though Egypt does have a structure in place. Unlike a tribally fragmented Afghanistan where loyalty to a national government is at best secondary and Jeffersonian democracy is not even a dream, Egypt and Tunisia have loyalty to a national identity and a group of activists willing to die for their rights .

Knowledge of the form of democratic government is no guarantee that democracy will take root. I recall a conversation with a Ugandan diplomat attending his first United Nations session on the eve of his country becoming independent. I expressed concern that they would be able to govern themselves. The diplomat assured me that as a former British colony, Uganda would be successful.

Instead, Uganda devolved into 25 years of tribal bloodshed, revolution, ethnic and tribal cleansing. President Idi Amin became the icon of bloody dictatorships that would haunt the rest of the former colonies of sub Sahara Africa for many decades.

We can hope countries throwing off oppression can develop their own democratic institutions and traditions. It will be particularly difficult for those divided by ethnic, tribal, religious differences with a citizenry that puts loyalty to their nation secondary. They can succeed if their citizens unify and do not abandon goals to protect inalienable human rights which our own patriots and founders pioneered.

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Winning the sound bite wars

My column today in all of the editions of the Sky Hi Daily News

I have to hand it to them. Republicans have a knack for finding a few good words that become made for media sound bite icons for campaign talking points.

In unison Republicans utter words or phrases and bank them for future use, coming up with another good word when a new opportunity surfaces. “Greece” evokes fear of the deficit and a reason not to lift the debt ceiling, “Death Panels” played on fears that Obamacare was going to ration elder care. “Jobs” came in vogue when the May report showed a slowdown in growth. It is now the new shorthand for attacking Obama on the economy and every issue from foreign policy to health care no matter how indirect the connection.

The GOP has not been 100 percent successful: Their “Stop blaming Bush” slogan as a way to foist the entire economic mess on President Obama had its limits. The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll this month disclosed that 62 percent of Americans believe the Obama administration did indeed inherit the problem. However, the GOP is blaming the President for not getting us out of trouble so “Obama failed America.” That one will only work if the GOP convinces us their way is better.

However, Democrats tend to get lost in the explanation weeds when rebutting attacks, defending, or advocating a policy. Take the health care debate. The case was there to be made, but the Democrats could never articulate it effectively. Democrats must do better in the jobs-economy debate.

What if the Democrats also came up with a few of their own good words? They could force the GOP to prove their formula was better by tagging the GOP as the “trickle down” party. The trickle theory is what the GOP advocates practicing: By cutting the top tax bracket, businesses will invest and hire people, and that will bring the rest along, while increasing tax revenues, too. “Trickle” does not inspire those hurting who want a gusher now. “Trickle down” also implies that the people at the top get the tax break plums first while the middle class eventually gets any leftovers.

Trickle down does not work well, either. Obama could argue with credibility that the stimulus was “the right tool at the right time and trickle down was the wrong one.” Trickle down has never worked well to pull us out of bad recessions. In the '30s Hoover's failed; FDR's worked better. Ronald Reagan's trickle down stalled in the early 1980s so he raised corporate and other taxes and added 60,000 federal workers and added to the debt as percentage of the GDP. Only then were jobs were created.

George W Bush's stimulus attempted to counter a post-Sept. 11 recession with tax cuts to the rich and lost us 757,00 jobs and increased debt. The economy “fell into the hole, the deepest since the Great Depression; the deeper the hole, the harder it is to dig out.”

An analogy could be: “Trickle down is like turning the starter and listening to the clicks, because the private sector had a dead battery in 2008. “The better tool” was a battery charger of government spending coupled with continued low taxes. Proof? More private sector jobs were created in the past 15 months than the Bush trickle created altogether.

Democrats could call the Ryan plan approved by Congressional Republicans and disapproved by 75 percent of voters, “the worst medicine for seniors” since the GOP. Ryan would shrink seniors' retirement living by making seniors pay more from their pockets for Medicare.

Democrats have an opportunity to draw a contrast. They are leaning toward a proposal of cutting $3 of government costs for each dollar in increased taxes. They could claim “good medicine with fewer side effects,” because it would reduce the deficit nearly as much while leaving Medicare guarantees as they are.

What would happen if Democrats find more good words? They might even win the 2012 sound bite wars.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Comments on comments from the right, left and middle

My head is spinning watching Republicans on TV recently.  The first Republican candidate debate was memorable for many reasons, mostly watching a very skilled Michele Bachmann in action. I disagree profoundly with her viewpoints, but she was impressive as a candidate, making news, slipping in her resume, and soundbiting her political points. Bye Bye Palin; Bachmann is Palin with an education.

Howard Cain backing down on some anti Muslim comments, said that he would hire a Muslim on staff if he/she swore allegiance to the constitution.  That was still a backhanded anti Muslim comment that he does not trust  Muslims to be loyal Americans.  Rick Perry of Texas did not appear at the debate because he is still mulling over announcements.  However, one of his most famous recent remarks was made at a Tea Party rally this Spring in which he threatened Texas secession from the United States if the Obama administration would  not quit  trampling states rights.  Perhaps Cain should have Perry swear allegiance to the Constitution as a condition of being a candidate for President since secession would be unconstitutional.  Didn't we fight a civil war over that?
This morning on Fareed Zakaris' CNN GPS program featured a debate between two extremes:  Robert Reich, former Clinton Labor Secretary on the left vs.David Stockman , former Reagan Budget Director  on the right.  Reich was attempting to make a case that we needed a FDR style WPA or CCC works program    to pay the unemployed to work on publicly needed projects to deal with the unemployment problem even though the US would have to borrow money to afford it.  Stockman, countering it,  made the case  for austerity...severe cuts in defense and entitlements such as social security and medicare though
it would lead to 15% unemployment over the next decade.  His solution to unemployment: something we will
justg have to get used to....meaning solving the debt problem in the long term was far more important. I doubt theRepublicans would adopt his platform; they are too busy claiming 9.1% unemployment means Obama has failed the American people.
 Republicans are fond of saying that the US situation is worse than Greece.  . That the US is worse off than Greece is very debatable. Both of us lack the will to pay for what services we demand from government, but at least the US has the means within its economy to afford it and can print money and the US does a better job of tax collection.   As Reich pointed out our debt load in the past has been 125% of GDP but we had the capacity to get out of it and actually flourish. with 15% unemployment is better than some  debt? As a Financial Times columnist wrote (and I cited in previous blog postings), even the GOP Ryan plan is a political fantasy. At least it  would not be as unsettling to civil order as ten years of 15% unemployment  would be. Ye gads, Stockman. Get a grip on yourself.

The most calming bit Sunday was Defense Secretary Roberts Gates on Candy Crowley's CNN interview. Not  only did he make news confirming negotiations  were underway with the Taliban, but he made a very good case for the Obama policy of responsible withdrawal from Afghanistan vs. an immediate draw down. He also supported the Libyan action, acknowledging that the conflict did not affect the US's interest so much as it did our NATO  allies.  We owed one to NATO allies for helping us out in Afghanistan.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Oil and politics, a volatile mix

My column appearing in the print edition of the Sky Hi News, June 15, 2011
The 2012 election outcome will depend upon the shape of the economy and who gets the blame. The emerging GOP field smells blood because high oil prices are hurting job creation and giving consumers gas pains. If they can pin the problem on Obama, they think they have a hot issue ready-made for attack ads.

Darrell Issa, Republican chair of the House Oversight Committee, released a “report” claiming the Obama administration had conspired to raise prices by purposefully instituting administrative and environmental roadblocks to keep domestic oil production down, thereby causing prices to rise.

He tried to make the case that Obama wanted high prices to force Americans to invest in alternative energy. Grilled by Elliott Spitzer on CNN, Issa backed down on his claim that current high prices were due to administration policies, shifting to an argument that Obama's policies would impact future prices. He got the long mixed up with the short of it.

It makes no political sense either. The last thing a president running soon for re-election wants is high gas prices.

Ed Wallace, writing in Bloomberg Business Week, put the blame for current high prices on oil speculators, who were driving up the prices beyond $60-$70 a barrel to the stratosphere of over $100 with predictions of $140 later this year. He blamed the Obama administration by not pushing for laws that would control such speculation, but he also shot his argument in his foot by mentioning that both John McCain and Obama had advocated the same laws in 2008 and nothing had happened. It was a bipartisan failure, not just an Obama one. Oil speculation is a worldwide problem, too, so US regulation alone would not suffice.

Saudi Prince Ali-Waleed bin Talal, in an interview by Fareed Zakaria on CNN, also blamed speculation, claiming that high prices were not in their interest either since Europe would switch to alternative energy forever, implying that would be bad for his business.

The truth is Obama has little control over oil prices in the short term. The Middle Eastern cartel of oil producing countries, OPEC, controls 40 percent of the world's supply. Domestic prices are determined by their production and cartel price setting, and not very much by U.S. production. The OPEC cartel last week voted not to increase production, though the Saudis said they would increase their output anyway.

Obama also ran into a bit of unanticipated bad luck: the Arab Spring. Libyan production reduced supplies by 1.2 million barrels a day and investors have become jittery about the stability of other producers in the region. These fears only fed speculation.

Obama's tool box to influence prices in the short term is pretty sparse. He can release strategic reserves and his spokesman last week said the administration was considering that. He needs to take care, though. U.S. reserves in total account for a month's supply and usually are kept in our hip pocket in case foreign supplies are cut off, not an unrealistic possibility given the situation in the Middle East.

Most of his weapons are long term: He has already opened up more federal leases. Permitting more drilling in the Gulf to recheck concerns about safety and environmental damage did cause a delay in resumption of drilling, but that too is a limited , longer term solution. Drill, baby, drill lost some credibility in 2008 when Americans realized the U.S. has only 2 percent of the world's oil reserves, yet we consume more than 20 percent of the world's oil.

Our dependence on foreign oil is also not in U.S. interests because it has forced us to lick the boots of some bad actors. It is now coming back to haunt us in revolutions and terrorism. Obama is right: In the long term, we just have to kick the oil habit. In the short term, we should take Republican finger-pointing with a grain of salt.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Appointing Katherine Archuleta to be political director of the Obama re-election campaign is a brilliant move

I have had the pleasure of serving with and under her in the Pena administration when he was Mayor of Denver. Katherine later served as chief of staff to three cabinet members in the Clinton and Obama administrations. Not only does she have impressive administrative talent, her greatest skill is in organizing and strategizing political campaigns.   She should be credited with intense voter registration and getting out the Hispanic vote drives that caused Colorado and other southwestern states to change from red to blue in 2008 and which carried over to Democratic Senate wins as well in 2010. Katherine will be helped by the propensity of the GOP in these critical swing states of the southwest to take the hardest line possible on immigration and wasting  any gains in that community Bush had made with his more reasonable approach to comprehensive immigration reforms.
It is easy to see where the Obama campaign is heading by dramatizing the fact that his stimulus saved the US auto industry in the rust belt and by zeroing in on the Hispanic vote in the Southwest. Both areas will be critical swings in the 2012 election. By contrast, the GOP fought the auto bailout and has appeared to be anti Hispanic with unreasonable hard line immigration policies.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Timing, politics, and Mitt Romney

Republicans want voters to forget the mess the Bush administration left for Obama, the seriousness of which was not evident until the first quarter of 2009, but the damage was caused prior years by government policies of deregultion, failure to enforce regulation, and loose credit standards. A little bit of folk wisdom: the deeper the hole,the harder it is to dig out. To ignore the Bush mess is to deny history.  The Romney announcement pins 100% of the blame on Obama and failed to do more than outline goals for the economy which even Democrats approve.  My column appearing on the on line edition of the Sky Hi Daily News today goes into more thoughts on the Romney announcement speech:
Timing in politics can be a matter of astuteness. Mitt Romney launched his presidential campaign the same day economic reports were released that showed an increase in joblessness and the housing sector's double dip. His single-issue pitch was that Obama had failed the American people on economic issues.

Romney's opening announcement was mostly an attack ad against the Obama administration. He latched on to the negatives and failed to accent any positives. While setting goals for the economy, Romney was MIA on the hows and whats he would do better, only asking voters to trust him because he had a great resume. The time is going to come when his political opponents are going to demand that he presents his business plan for the nation in detail.

President Obama carefully timed his rebuttal by visiting a Chrysler plant in Toledo soon after to visually dramatize how he had created jobs by bailing out the auto industry, claiming that if the Republicans had the majority vote in Congress, the U.S. auto industry and one million jobs would have gone down the drain. Obama was inferring that without the stimulus, the hole we are climbing out of could have been much deeper.

Pundits hyped the economic dip as a probable backslide in the recovery. Time will tell if this is a bump or a downward trend. What will count will not be what the economy was in 2011; it will be what the economy is in 2012.

As the Bible says, there is a time to sow and a time to reap. No one on either side of the aisle disagrees we need to sow intermediate and long-term plans to reduce the deficit, but given the lingering fragile nature of the economy, real fear exists that cold turkey austerity at this time as Republicans want could kill off economic growth, delaying the time for any economic harvest.

Republicans holding any agreement on raising the debt ceiling hostage to their ideologically based plan for cuts beginning now are already causing jitters. This may be an effective legislative strategy, but they have created uncertainty about Congress' ability to resolve this. Their actions do nothing to encourage industry and banks to invest the abundant cash they hold are holding in reserve to expand. If Republicans dare carry out their threat to block raising the debt ceiling, interest rates will rise on everything for which consumers use credit, whacking job creation and business recovery in the knees.

Obama had already enacted cutting payroll tax deductions, reforming some job killing regulations, extending the Bush tax cuts, and offering business investment tax credits. These are all short term measures geared to bolster private sector job creation and they are just taking effect.

He had also proposed a long term plan to reduce the deficit by nearly as much as GOP'S much-panned Ryan plan that would have caused seniors to pay more from their own pockets for health care. Instead of running away from the plan, Republicans have decided to defend it. Polls show it will be a hard sell.

Obama's long term plan includes tax increases of a dollar for every three dollars of cuts, saving Medicare as we know it.  While the GOP stubbornly opposes any tax increases down the line on ideological grounds, all commissions studying the deficit problem have concluded deficit reduction will not work without them. The Republicans will have to buck nonpartisan experts on that issue.

The tasks for the coming year for both the GOP and Democrats are straightforward. Dems should and can make a strong case that GOP's cure for the deficit and the economy is worse than the disease and another formula will work nearly as well without the side effects. The GOP will need to assert with credibility that their past judgment calls that events and results have proved wrongheaded are not an indicator of their future performance. The game clock is running."

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Joplin..lessons learned from Katrina

Pres. Obama's walking  through the wreckage in Joplin and in Alabama and his very appropriate and enthusiastically received rhetoric at the memorial services  in Joplin is a  contrast with Pres. Bush's flyover and "good job brownie" detachment from reality on the ground post Katrina, New Orleans' devastating hurricane. Obama has also been tagged with being detached and failing to connect with just plain folks.  He showed another side of him, or at least he demonstrated lessons learned from the Katrina bungling, the  low point of the Bush administration. Obama's promising that his administration would not abandon the rebuilding and recovery of Joplin until the job was done was also a response to past disappointments suffered by New Orleans.  Like the tsunami in Japan, it is taking time for Joplin to count the dead, though the scope of the loss of life is minuscule compared to the tsunami and nuclear meltdown. Unlike both the tsunami and Katrina, federal government response was quick, devoid of political wrangling, accusations and finger pointing.

 I have a very personal reaction to Joplin and it appeared in the online version of the newspaper today.

"I was born and raised in tornado alley so spring was a time of terror for me. The pictures of Joplin, Mo., brought back some familiar pains in the pit of my stomach and memories.

My home town, Muskogee, Okla., is 125 miles south west of Joplin, and Joplin was on the way to grandmother's house in southwestern Missouri. My 1940s childhood memory of Joplin was a pit stop to fill up the gas tank.

When tornado season came I huddled in my bed on the second floor of our wood frame house, waiting for death to come. It never did, but I resolved never to live near tornado land again.

The Wizard of Oz story never had much credibility with me. I never thought I would wake up from a fantastic dream because I knew I would be sucked up and die in a funnel cloud.

Looking back on those times, I probably was realistic. There were no tornado sirens, no Doppler radar, and no storm shelters. The closest cellar was in a neighbor's home nearly a block away. All we were educated to do was to go to the southwest corner of the building. We knew no more than that. We were just sitting ducks waiting to be plucked up. The myth had always been that Muskogee was immune because it sat down in the Arkansas valley. One April day in 1945 the myth was blown away by a tornado that devastated the east side of the town. Two children were killed and my father, a telephone company executive, took me on a tour of the destruction, which only reinforced my terror of spring.

Two years later the Woodward tornado in the southwestern corner of the state killed more than 100 people. I remember the radio reports, newspaper's screaming headlines, and my parents talking about it. It was since that terrible episode that records began to be kept of death and destruction caused by tornadoes in the U.S. Joplin 2011 was the worst.

My life brought me to Colorado 15 years later and for once I breathed a sigh of relief, though springtime at the edge of the Rockies was a brief, windy, late and cold matter. Through the thin, clear and dry air we saw many of the funnel clouds, and some farther out on the eastern plains of Colorado were also devastating. Limon and closer to Denver, Windsor, were names that took on special meanings from destructive tornadoes that ravaged them ... the rest near us were baby sized, compared to Oklahoma's.

I have made a few brief trips to Oklahoma where a funnel cloud is now plotted and followed block by block on local TV thanks to Doppler radar. When a siren warns us, it is to a closet, a bathroom tub immediately. I am the first there, believe me. Bless the storm chasers, the weather broadcasters, the attention given prediction and causes by both the weather service and the universities.

The closest I have ever been to the devastation that tornadoes can cause was the destruction I saw in the wake of a category 5 hurricane accompanied by 26 tornadoes. Even then, only two people died because there was time to evacuate and go to well organized shelters. It was no miracle; it was a matter of time to warn in advance.

Every day I count my blessings that I now live high the mountains where we do not have a spring … just mud and a chill wind, a bit of unpleasantness until a glorious summer arrives. The only fears we have here are forest fires and blizzards. Fires we can deal with and pay our insurance premiums, make our homes defensible, and get out of the way. And blizzards bring our bread and butter for the ski area — snow.

For every one, I suppose, there are preferred rankings of degrees of fear of whatever Mother Nature dishes out. For me nothing equals the terror of those springs in Oklahoma.