Thursday, December 31, 2009

Are Celebrities News?

The conclusion to 2009 has me wondering; when it comes to trashy journalism, is it the presentation or the subject matter? Do we really care about Tiger Woods, Lindsey Lohan, Michael Jackson, or Paris Hilton? Do we really pass on good informative journalism in favor of gossip and screamed opinion? I have been hearing about the short attention span of our nation for years, but it would appear from blog traffic (not this one's mind you) that we are willing to spend time reading the news. Why then, do we not spend more time on the content (and therefore advertising) provided by solid news sources like the PBS News Hour?

Ratings don't lie when it comes to television (radio is more suspect). CNN picked up steam when Nancy Grace, a walking, screaming, rights-violating banshee of a host moved into a prime slot. There can be no question of the ratings dominance enjoyed by the brash and confrontational opinion merchants on Fox News. Nor can there be any question of the people chosen by Fox News rivals MSNBC to track down the cable news leaders. The obnoxious and loud Chris Matthews, followed by the pugnacious and loud Ed Schultz, and capped by the abrasive and confrontational Keith Olberman represent the most competitive lineup fielded against Fox in recent time.

So our choices in journalism come down to; philandering golfers, abusive husbands who would be in jail if not for their fame, know-it-all ex-DA's poking their snouts in local cases, screaming liberal opinion merchants, or lying conservative gasbags. Most depressing! I would suggest PBS; Frontline, The News Hour, Washington Weekly, Nova, and the Charlie Rose Show comprise a fabulous lineup that delivers more news per minute than all of the other sources combined. The shows are not "fair and balanced", they are well-produced pieces composed of thoroughly researched and responsibly presented reporting. News does not, after all, have two sides; networks and shows that claim otherwise are just trying to sell you dish soap.

After all of this, I am curious. My question is, do you have a genuine interest in sensational journalism and if so, what is the appropriate amount of time a network should devote to this type of story? Is wall to wall coverage of the "balloon boy" in flight necessary? Should networks spend 30 days covering Michael Jackson for 16 hours per day, or two months prosecuting on air the mother of a murdered little girl? The rational middle wants to hear opinions other than the ones bouncing around the author's head. Below the post you will find two tools; a section for comments and three boxes one might check to describe the post. Please comment extensively if you would like, but if you are short of time, perhaps you would participate in an informal poll. If you think that the media, in general, covers the stories that interest you in the quantities and manner that you desire, check "funny". If you think that the media has it all wrong, check "cool". If you believe the truth lies somewhere in the middle, check "interesting".

Anonymity is respected, and comments are appreciated...just keep it classy!

The rational middle waits.......

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Year-End Complaint

It is the hair-splitting that most folks can't stand when they read a column like the Rational Middle. The preachy and often nit-picky focus on details that aren't very important in the grand scheme of things is a turn-off to many of us (yours truly included). We hate it when someone corrects our grammar (is it who or whom?), and we despise it when someone misses the humor in a joke because the joke wasn't "accurate" (just shut up and laugh know-it-all!).

For several generations, we have hated math class and sentence structure with equal zeal. With each succeeding generation, we have forced the status-quo to move ever so subtlety away from precision. As a nation we have become sloppy. Facts are important only when they serve the proper master, and sources are valuable only if they can be manipulated. When a comic does the manipulation in pursuit of a joke, the act has value. When a politician or "journalist" does the manipulating, it has the capacity to slowly destroy the country.

Sometimes at least, I can take some humor from the fall from grace of the manipulators; missing a critical detail can be embarrassing if your argument is supposedly fact-based. Most of society goes through the ritual of "end of decade" and "end of century" analysis in years like this one; a year that ends in the number 9. For most purposes, the reality that the decade does not end until next year (a decade is ten years numbered 1-10, not 0-9), is not important. If however, you are a "numerology" or "prophesy" person, telling the world that your "scientific analysis" indicates the end of the world will happen at the turn of the millennium in 1999 leaves you with something of a problem. (It is after all, only 1,999 years from the birth of Jesus..maybe...if the Romans were correct, and not 2,000. Come to think of it, should not the end of time be in 2033?) Of course, for most of those people, the mistake seems to be easily covered by making the statement that "God told me that He decided to change His mind."

In our society it is the responsibility of all adult citizens to stay informed and vote their conscience in every election. This is the essence of democracy; enlightened citizens participating in self-governance. To the extent that many of us have decided to use bad government as an excuse for their lack of participation is a shame that people living in North Korea and Iran would find unbelievable. Knowing the facts in a political debate is the most important task that citizens have. Reporting the facts in a political debate is the reason that our journalists have such wide-reaching rights. Sadly, many of us do not know, and most of the world of journalism does not report. This goes beyond bias and extends to hubris. Journalists on every side of the issue have made 2009 the capstone year in the quest to drive opinion rather than report facts.

If you regularly get your news from cable channels without benefit of fact-checking or verification, the reality is that you don't know what the politicians have really been arguing. Republicans never debated the health bills that came out of committee in the House and Senate, and the Tea-Party crowds never complained about them either. Both of the above groups argued against elements that never existed in the bills. Things like "death panels" and "the government takeover of health care" went beyond exaggerations or worst-case scenarios, and rose exclusively to the level of lies. Pure and simple. Should John Boehner, Sarah Palin, Dick Armey (the corporate force behind the "grassroots" teaparties), or anyone else care to try, I will easily beat a lawsuit for libel...because all of you lied about the issue repeatedly and for the record.

If you think the Democrats are blameless here, then you are naive. They never had a debate about what was really wrong with the system and what the most efficient solutions to the problem would entail. Democrat Ron Wyden and Republican Robert Bennett crafted a bill that came close to addressing some of the major structural issues, but it died a quick death among the deal-making of Washington liberals. President Obama and the Senate leadership agreed early to shield pharmaceutical companies from real reform because they knew that Big Pharma had more more with which to influence Congress than even the big insurers did. Lobbyists won there without firing a shot.

Nobody in the media, from the GOP owned and operated Fox News to the supposedly liberal network channels pointed any of this out. The "liberal" media actually supported all of the GOP's most far-fetched talking points because most of their news models were too lazy to actually read the bills themselves (and no, it is not hard to do if you are a supposed professional). The news bimbos read the top line of poll results that showed a majority of Americans opposed the bill, but they never read that a third of the opposition came from liberals who did not think the bill went far enough. I don't recall Brian Williams and the allegedly liberal NBC News team ever reporting on the strange case of Americans consistently opposing the bill in general while consistently supporting the idea of government-run competition for private insurers.

This pattern is consistently repeated on items presented for the citizen's review from both sides of the political fence. Politics has become a game of getting journalists on your side, instead of a process for solving national problems. Most citizens seem to see the same things; rising health costs, flattening salaries, rising traffic and pollution, threatening security problems, failing infrastructure, and falling standards in schools. There are different ideas for the causes of those problems, but the commonality of them indicates that we could solve them; if only we agreed that we were looking at the same thing.

For the new year, one of my resolutions is to regain my sense of humor while another is to write shorter posts. I am not convinced that any of my resolutions will fair better than those of my recent past, but I am sure that I will retain my conviction that the details are important. We simply can't afford to not know what we are arguing about. The democracy is not a guarantee, it is a process dependent on participation. Knowing your argument is the first step to being a good participant.

Of course, even I admit there is often humor in ignorance. Glenn Beck released a book full of preachy "founding father" references and patterned on "Common Sense" and its author, Thomas Paine. Paine is a commonly referred to figure on the Tea Party circuit, so Beck's use of him was expected. So what is so ignorant and funny?

Thomas Paine was the liberal spirit of the Revolution and an ardent advocate for progressive taxation. He was also an reviled was he by others in his time for his rejection of God that only 8 people attended his funeral. Way to go Glenn!

The rational middle wishes all a happy, peaceful, and prosperous New Year!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays!

The Rational Middle wishes all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. The year 2009 has, at times, been a year of turmoil and discontent. It is important at times such as these to note that the Earth is still spinning and the Sun is still rising.

For those of you able to spend the season with family and friends in the sharing of food and drink, remember that there are many who do not share in your good fortune. I know that even as I look forward to new challenges and success in the new year, that I am grateful for what the old year provided.

In the new year, the RM will follow the same plan for posts as the author intends for meals; smaller and more frequent. We shall see what fate these resolutions meet in the new year. As always, the rational middle waits for your comments and looks forward to the thoughts of friends from the right, left, and center.

Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Health Care Hold'em

Pot-committed. When you have bet so many of your remaining chips that you feel you must stay with a hand even when you know the odds are against you. This is a very real predicament in the world of high stakes poker, and it is where Senate Democrats and the President feel that they are with the reform bill.

But are they really? They have committed time and energy to this effort, but they have not staked out a real position in a political sense. Most of the members of the House who voted for the bill are safe for reelection, and the Senate hasn't really done enough on the bill to be pinned down. Most of the country tells pollsters that they like the individual elements of the bills presented, even while they tell the same pollsters that they don't like the brand the insurance companies have successfully slapped on the package. Despite this, enough senators have stepped forward to say that they won't let the bill come to a vote without the good stuff being removed. As a result, the good stuff is gone. So why vote for it when it is not a good bill?

This legislation is a classic example of the "strawman" argument. The idea is to construct a "strawman" in place of the actual target, tear him to pieces, then declare victory. The insurance lobby has spent almost a half of a billion on advertising, rallies, and direct contributions to build, brand, and destroy their "strawman". For that money, they have received senators and representatives, commentators and writers, willing to lie about the issue. Think about what people are mad at:
  1. A government take-over with a single payer system...not in the bill
  2. An expansion of entitlements through Medicare and the public option...not true since both would be premium buy-in options
  3. Rationing and death-panels...not only not true, but a better description of what health insurance companies are doing right now to your friends, neighbors, or loved ones
  4. A massive debt explosion...CBO projections for the House bill and both versions in the Senate have shown them to be deficit reducers
It doesn't matter anymore, because the ploy worked. Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman, two senators that have taken millions from the insurance lobby, have made excuse after excuse for not supporting a vote on the bill. Nobody asked them to vote for the bill, just to let a vote on the bill happen. Remember, our Constitution (our Founders) provided for majority rule. These two gentleman are the primary reasons that this bill is the worthless heap of dung that it has become.

It appears that some bill will pass anyway. Folks like Sherrod Brown of Ohio have said they will vote even though much of the meaningful reform has been stripped away. The cost controlling elements in the bill, elements that would have used market processes rather than laws to keep prices down, are gone. The regulations still in the bill are as easy to bypass as any other rules that corporations get by every day. With all of the important pieces removed, all that is left is a mandate for all Americans to have coverage. The mandate was originally inserted as much for compromise with the insurance industry as for any real reform purpose.

The bill that is left is a victory for the industry that is crippling the United States. Make no mistake about this fact, and let no fake rally or commentator dissuade you; the delivery of health care in this country will bankrupt us. The very people who are most fearful of a financial destruction of America are the ones who can't see that destruction's real architect. This column has pointed out many times the critical facts of American health care; the best people working in the worst system in the world. Period. Fully 16% of our economy is devoted to a health care construct that is far from world-class. For the last 12 months, the consumer price index has been negative. That is right, we have had the opposite of inflation except, of course, in two areas. Energy and health care costs found a way to climb even through the depths of recession. The big drug companies swung a deal early in the process to avoid regulation by agreeing to provide cost savings based on their 2009 rates. They have spent the last 9 months jacking up their rates. You just have to love big business and their senate enablers.

Companies in the European Union and the Asian Tigers are destroying U.S. firms and eroding opportunities for smaller U.S. enterprise because they don't have to worry about the health of their people or its cost. Yet we in America can't get over our belief that this delivery system is superior. We are the world's great nation...until our lack of investment in infrastructure, education, and health care cripples our competitiveness.

Senator Harry Reid should either move to use budget reconciliation to pass the bill (a move that would require a good old American simple majority for passage), or kill it outright and start over. President Obama should stop kicking this dead horse, acknowledge defeat, and then plan on a comeback. Passing a bad bill will only prove the naysayers correct and allow them to hasten our nation's fall.

The rational middle is listening...

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Misdirection Play

Football and politics have a lot in common; and by football I am mean charged-up and violent American football. Careful preparation and brute force are foundational elements for both "sports". The ability to get the job done, regardless of ethics, feelings, sunshine, or puppy dogs is also prized in each arena. One tactical element existing in both politics and football that I cherish, is the misdirection play. The premise is simple; get the defense moving one way, and go in the other direction. Well-designed misdirection plays often feature another nasty (and fun) ploy, the trap block. The defender chasing the play is influenced into a block that he never sees coming. The hit, properly delivered, can have the tendency of making that player, well, less aggressive for the rest of the game.

Misdirection is run in politics all the time. In fact, it is run by all parties, in every legislative session, at every level of American politics. In football, the play is designed to influence and trap the opposition; in politics, the play is usually designed to influence the voter and trap the opposing lawmaker. Witness the last major funding authorization for the Iraq War under President Bush. Both Democrats and Republicans crafted funding bills, and both contained major items not related to the war. These items were traps for the other party, existing only to force lawmakers into a vote that they would have to defend in the next election. It is certainly something that informed voters should be aware of when considering the next negative ad campaign they see (from either party).

This tactic can definitely backfire on the user. The Republican party has spent 40 years on Medicare, first opposing its passage (see Ronald Reagan's passionate "Medicare is the first step to Communism" speech), then trying to kill or privatize the program. This year, their misdirection play was to "support" Medicare against Democratic attempts to reform it as a means of paying for health reform. The backfire; after months "defending" Medicare against Democratic attacks, they have little or no leverage now that the liberals have settled on a premium-based expansion of the program as a bulwark of reform.

Of course, backfire is bipartisan. Al Gore believed that America was not sophisticated enough to understand the whole package of effects related to massive carbon-dumping, deforestation, and chemical waste that we are inflicting on nature. As such, he focused on something he thought would play well; global warming with a particular focus on its effects on large media markets like South Florida and New York. Branding the whole problem "Global Warming" was bad enough; there is now a plurality in the U.S. who can't or won't separate local weather from terrestrial climate (yes, Virgina, there is a difference). Thanks to that unfortunate label, and the carbon-excessive lifestyle of Gore himself, vast portions of the American public think that this problem is a political debate about polar bears and beachfront property.

All of which leads me back to football. Beating the trap is about "staying home" and sticking to your responsibilities. Voters are called to beat the trap by reading politics the way a good defense reads an offense. Al Gore tried to sell a big play in order to get the public to look at a series of important but obscure facts. Yes, facts. The rational middle is challenging voters to read the offense on the field now; the team fielded by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Exxon Mobile, and the rest of Big Oil. When you are told that a bunch of mild-mannered climate scientists have been plotting world domination through climate change, you have cause to think. When you are told that climate change is a Marxist/Totalitarian plot, you can consider Chavez, Ahmadinejad, Putin, Gaddafi and others. They all rely on oil...not windmills. In any good conspiracy, one should always follow the money, and climate scientists aren't rolling Bentleys.

Film study is critical in football and politics, and we have seen these plays before. When someone is arguing for the middle class while simultaneously voting for a big industrial interest, you know that you are watching the misdirection from inside the play. One argument is about hot air, and the other is full of it.

The rational middle is listening...

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Bull Crap Series

The BCS, or bowl championship series, is upon us again. Every year, the big money schools in the big money conferences go through the exercise of mirror-worship and player exploitation, and every year their media apologists are ready to explain why it is good for sports.

Bull crap! Thirty years ago, when there were a handful of big bowls laced with tradition and meaning, a Division I playoff for college football was a difficult concept for many to swallow. Today that tradition is largely gone, but supporters of the old paradigm remain committed to the place of prestige that their favorite schools hold in the minds of sports fans. Today the BCS, Heisman Trophy, and TV networks in bed with college ball, are committed to ensuring the preeminence of schools from the elite conferences. The Heisman, supposedly given annually to the "best player in college football", is actually awarded to the 'most statistically sexy player on a winning BCS-eligible team whose school has effectively promoted him'. If that sounds like a mouthful, then the sentence does its job.

This is about money. The amount of TV money greasing the palms of those privileged few in this sport is amazing. What is shocking is how little of it gets to the people generating the profits; the players and student fans. Referring again to thirty years ago, a scholarship with a meal plan was a great deal for a commitment to play sports. Most programs then (and quites a few today) lost money, and broadcast fees were enough to help some conferences balance the books. Today, that paradigm is gone. TV rights, video games, and merchandise are making millionaires out of many, but the students who provide the atmosphere and the players who provide the action have missed out on the meal. In the perverse world of college sports, a university spending millions on a coach's contract is business, but a coach taking a kid out to dinner or flying his parents out to a game is "special benefits". Ridiculous!

All of the reasons for not doing a playoff are gone. The eleven game season is a memory and teams that go all the way (at least as far as the BCS "title" game) play in mid-January. Limit the season to 11 plus a conference championship (if they wish), and have an 8 team playoff. You could have six automatic bids (Big Ten, Big East, ACC, SEC, Big 12, Pac-10) and two at-large teams. While they are at it, college football's movers and shakers could push the committee to reform Heisman voting. Create regional boards of fans, retired coaches, and retired broadcasters to nominate a handful of worthy players in October, and then let the voters do their thing.

Finally, the old NCAA rules just don't work. There is too much money in the system, and many older values are gone. NCAA rules should be focused on one category, and one category only. Academics. I am not terribly interested in entrance standards; if a school wants to let a kid in, then they should be able to. While they compete for the school, however, they should be IN SCHOOL. Bring back the freshman ban on intercollegiate participation to give the kids a chance to get up to speed. Audit schools to make sure that players are receiving the academic support they need to do well in their classes, and verify that they are getting grades for their in-class work. I know it sounds strange, but why do we care if some car-dealer wants to give a kid a "job" so that he has money. It is that booster's money, and if it helps that kid take advantage of a college education, so much the better for our country. If auditors spent less time chasing down tax statements, and more time focusing on education and good behavior, college athletics would be a better institution.

These kids deserve a share of the industry they are building. The players and fans deserve a legitimate playoff structure. Let's get it figured out!

The rational middle is football-mad and ready for comments...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Its Gold Baby!

Gold. Panned for in '49, coveted by pirates, and sold as a thin film on the worthless coins pushed on late night TV, gold still has control of our imagination. I would certainly love to have gold; about 100 pounds of the stuff would set me up just so. Yes sir, if I had 100 pounds of gold, I would sell it and take the cash.

"But why would you want U.S. dollars, when the dollar is losing value? Gold has a value all its own, dollars are only backed by trust."

The previous statement neatly summarizes my conversations with most people these days. It also sums up the thoughts of a great many TV talking heads. It does have a certain comfortable logic, and fits in nicely with most American's highly pessimistic moods these days. As I have written before though, it is absolutely false! By way of explanation, I have included a list:
  1. A decline in the dollar's value versus a foreign currency IS NOT the same as a loss of domestic purchasing power. Period. The relative values, known as "spot rates", change on the FOREX market all the time, and yet I'll bet that gold you would all like that your favorite fast food value meal costs the same as it did last week.
  2. Inflation is the loss of domestic purchasing power, and it is not in play...yet. Because we printed dollars to finance some of the deficit, inflation will start to set in sometime after the unemployment rate falls enough for folks to start spending again. The consumer price index was actually negative for the previous 12 months, meaning that we were experiencing deflation.
  3. A decline in the dollar's value is actually not a bad thing. I know, I know, we Americans like to be number one, but in this case it is a bad deal. We have a trade deficit in large part because other currencies, namely the Chinese Yuan, are undervalued in relation to our dollar. This means that their exports are less expensive for us to buy, and our exports to them are more expensive for them to buy. As the dollar declines relative to Chinese money, U.S. companies will be able to sell more goods to China. There is a strong cause and effect relationship between the trade deficit and federal budget deficits, so a declining dollar will help us get through this mess.
  4. The dollar is liquid. It is more valuable than gold, because you can use it. Have you tried to pay the restaurant in gold recently? Do you suppose that the ice cream parlor, or pest control guy is going to accept some nuggets in exchange for product and service. The dollar is backed by the "full faith and credit of the United States government". Folks, we have a democracy in this country; we are the full faith and credit of America, and I am not just being sappy.
  5. Why is gold valuable? I keep hearing that gold has intrinsic value and paper money doesn't. The previous point makes the case for the dollar's intrinsic value, where is gold's case? When someone tells you that gold has value, ask them what that value is. It is the substance that the Byzantine Empire used to strike coins in; the Romans before them placed a higher value on salt, and so used it as a common currency (thus was a man "worth his salt"). Gold is valuable because some people believe it to be so. Its cash value is determined by the market (just like the dollar's), and it is largely illiquid. If the average Joe decides to sell his gold, he is likely to do so at below-market rates.
The news shows on the tube just aren't doing a very good job reporting facts anymore. I guess the facts aren't exciting enough to make money. Personally, the rational middle believes the facts to be....good as gold.

The rational middle waits for your comments...

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Climate for Change

Recently, 10 years of emails were stolen from the servers of Britain's East Anglian Climatic Research Unit. In a remarkable feat of opposition research, climate change skeptics have found perhaps two dozen emails that indicate academic impropriety. Since the first release of information, those folks and media outlets with an axe to grind against global warming have had the best days of their lives...and I don't blame them. Most media outlets and political junkies (like yours truly), are more than willing to jump on the scent of scandal if it means scoring a point in a debate that we believe important.

It is important to provide some context to this debate before proceeding. The bulk of the conflict, for most Americans, is caused by a language barrier. Oh I know that all of the news we read is written in or translated to English, but most of the information about environmental issues comes from the field of science. The language of science has become alien to most Americans, and the people most commonly translating the stories are either reporters (who don't speak the language well) or corporate science writers (who are paid well to distort the real science). I would like to make a couple of points about this divide below:
  • Science, when practiced ethically, is a process. What it is not is a belief system. The Catholic priests and lay ministers who taught me high school biology, physics, and chemistry saw no conflict between faith and science. The physicist's search for the fundamental laws of matter and energy, and the biologists search for the origins and interrelationships of the species are not attacks on religious faith.
  • Science is advanced through peer-reviewed literature. Michelle Malkin (right-wing blogger), or Ariana Huffington (left-wing blogger) may be able to establish benchmarks in politics by writing a paper and posting it, but the same is not true in science. Researchers do their observations and experimentation and write their results in articles. Those articles are submitted to journals which have gatekeepers called referees. If the article meets the standards of the journal (for methodology, citation, relevance) then the article is published. But that is just the beginning of the process. A hypothesis expressed in an article will have to stand up over time, and is subject to vigorous critical scrutiny and submitted articles that may explain the data better.
  • Science has become, in the minds of some in 21st century America, something to be used in add campaigns. Many from both sides of the political spectrum are convinced that science and lawyers somehow go together. If you can persuade enough people, regardless of the facts, that they have a stake in your opinion, then your opinion is correct. In the case of climate change, we the American people have become the O.J. jury, with Rush Limbaugh and James Inhofe acting as the "Dream Team" lawyers who get him off.
There is now no doubt that scientists working at the CRU engaged in some very bad behavior. This is the case because some of them tried to game the peer-review system I described above. They tried to get journal editors fired who published articles they did not like, and took liberties when setting up charts and graphs to make them more impactful (that is apparently what was happening with the most publicized email, the one that talked of 'hiding the decline'). For these reasons, many commentators are correct to call for the data and conclusions generated by this center (or based on this center's work) to be scrutinized. Such scrutiny is, I feel, in the best traditions of science. The question that should have been asked by responsible journalists (if there are any left in this country), is what would the total invalidation of this center mean to the theory of climate change?

This question was not, of course, asked. The "journalists" at Fox News ran with the story that climate change was "debunked". They, and others across the media spectrum, have asked questions like, "What will climate change promoters do now that the theory is in question?" Even to a non-scientist, the idea that what was uncovered was definitive proof of a conspiracy is laughable. There is no smoking gun here that demonstrates that CRU data should be invalidated. What is more, the CRU is not the only game in town, as Fox News and others have continued to falsely report. The American people deserve better reporting than this, regardless of its political impact.

So, excluding the CRU, what are the facts?
  1. NASA and NOAA have original comprehensive surface temperature data dating back several decades. The raw data is available to the public via the internet. The data shows a steep increase in average global surface temperatures over the past several decades. These agencies also have satellite acquired temperature data as an additional validation.
  2. Dozens of researchers at universities around the world have conducted two basic types of historical tests; ice core sampling to determine atmospheric CO2 levels, and both tree ring and coral analysis to determine surface temperatures. The body of international work on temperature reveals a graph often called "the hockey stick". Think of historical temperatures from many thousands of years ago following the line of the handle; at the end (the present) the blade curves up dramatically. Remember, this is independent of the CRU work.
  3. On CO2 levels, the evidence is striking. For tens of thousands of years, the level of atmospheric CO2 was very steady at about 280 parts per million. Since the end of WWII, the concentration has been growing at more than 2 ppm, and will by 2050, be double the historical levels. Remember again, this information is coming from many sources, and is highly reliable. It also makes sense to most of us. We know that trees breathe CO2 and make oxygen. We know that burning fossil fuels release CO2. We know we have been burning or cutting down a lot forests around the world. This really is not rocket science.
The previous facts represent the basics not tampered in the slightest by the findings in the emails. I would like to pose a further question on this topic though. Folks that are convinced that global warming is a hoax or conspiracy have failed to answer a critical question. They say that this is all about power; but for whom? Who benefits from this apparently worldwide conspiracy? This topic has been around for far longer than Obama has been on the scene. It certainly can't be the concoction of of Islamic extremists, as the acceptance of the United States of climate change would permanently destroy their meal ticket. It certainly can't be a plot by pseudo-communist enemies of the United States like Putin and Chavez, as again it would pull money out of their pockets. So who? The Democrats are in power, and environmental legislation or a treaty on climate change is not a recipe for staying in power, it is politically dangerous.

I can't answer those questions, but every American knows who actually will benefit from quashing climate change. Exxon Mobile is hurting this year, as its annual profits will probably fall to $20 billion or so. Boo hoo. Over the 2007 and 2008 fiscal years, the firm made almost $86 billion. They are not alone in their industry. Now I am no enemy of business, and I am a big fan of making LOTS of money. Exxon and others in their industry are actually better (from a responsibility side) than other firms in that they do pay their taxes (unlike Fox parent News Corp, who's effective federal rate this decade is under 5% Exxon's in 2007 was just over 41%). I simply state their profits in order to illustrate their motive.

Unlike British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon has been steadfast in its refusal to diversify. Where other firms have embraced their status as energy providers and begun looking into other sources, Exxon has chosen to dig in and fight. They have spent hundreds of millions of dollars supporting think-tanks who generate junk-science. Now, it isn't junk-science because of the results, but because these writers and institutions don't follow a clear scientific methodology. They game the peer-review system every day in ways that the bad boys at the CRU could only dream about, and they send their stuff directly to media hacks and political staffers. The most effective ways to reduce pollution from fossil fuels is to reduce demand, and the best way to do that is to tax the fuels. The Europeans have done that for years, and used the tax revenues to build the best systems of mass-transit (and highways) in the world. This would cost Big Oil big money. There my friends, is a motive for conspiracy...if you are in to that sort of thing.

The ultimate irony of this situation lies in the people who most commonly support climate skeptics. Conservatives and evangelicals make up a large portion of climate change skeptics, and they are also the most aggressive in their feelings on how we should deal with threats from the Muslim world. Why is this ironic? Author Thomas Friedman has illustrated a trend that, I believe, all Americans should be aware of. He calls it the first law of petropolitics, and I have linked it here . Essentially, it demonstrates that as oil prices go up, freedom around the world goes down. Oil money supports the petrodictatorships that most Americans rightly worry about; Iran, Syria, Venezuela. It also funds most of the madras's teaching extremist Islam around the world. Lower the price of oil and you improve American security. How do you do that? You lower the DEMAND for oil.

I would encourage all to think about these issues as you watch and listen to the news. These are topics that clearly threaten the American way of life, and we have chosen to remain ignorant of them for too long.

The rational middle is listening...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

I Could Be A Democrat

As promised earlier this month; why I could be a Democrat. In the oldest and purist definitions of the labels, I am a liberal. I believe that the Constitution provides for a strong federal government with a mandate to provide the social and commercial framework for individuals, businesses, churches, and other organizations to succeed.

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Just a little note to John Boehner and Glenn Beck...this is what we call, the Preamble to the Constitution. Take a moment to think about these words in the light of all that has been screamed by some about this country's "departure" from the "founders intent". That may a bit off-topic...but you know how I get sometimes.

Further on in the document we find the Commerce Clause. This allows the Federal Government to regulate matters of interstate commerce. If you like knowing what is in your food, or you wanted something done about tainted Chinese dog food, then you are probably a fan of this clause. In fact, I would argue that many people who think that "liberal" is a curse word, are actually quite liberal themselves. We have fallen into this trap over the last thirty years or so, that has convinced us that since nobody likes taxes, and everybody likes a deal, then we are actually a conservative country.

Perhaps if folks could point to a program that takes up at least 10% of the Federal Budget annually that they would be willing to cut, then I could believe that they were conservative. I will propose a test. I will name a program, and you decide if you (or a super majority of Americans) would be willing to cut it.
  • National Defense...our troops and their equipment
  • Social Security...our retirement, unless the brokers can do better
  • care in our retirement
  • Medicaid and CHIP...half of the money to support health care for (roughly) 45 million Americans monthly (States match the money)
  • Federal and Veterans pensions...self-explanatory

Do you think that we can make major, permanent cuts to these programs? Do you want cuts to these programs? If not, here is a shocking statistic; when you add these costs to the 8% that America spent on debt service in 2008, they totaled 87% of the budget. Now, keep in mind that this budget was projected with a deficit, and that it did not include money for the wars or emergency services (like FEMA). President Bush chose to leave those items "off-budget". For this year, to avoid a deficit without raising taxes, we would have had to cut roughly 50% from the budget. Remember again that the programs above plus debt service equalled 87%.

These are sobering numbers. Transportation, small business support, science and technology, law enforcement, the intelligence agencies, agricultural subsidies, energy, and meat inspectors all occupy the 13% that was left over. How much of that do you feel comfortable cutting? Or perhaps, you think some of those programs are underfunded now? President Reagan made brilliant use of the phrase "tax and spend liberal", but that is politics. The last few paragraphs are reality. The "marketplace" is not going to provide ANY of that stuff unless they are bribed. So where do you cut?

That, I suppose, defines a liberal. I believe that the large uniform marketplace created by a strong federal system is what allowed us to become the strongest economy in the world. That in turn allowed us to become the strongest nation in the world. The Europeans know this, which is why they have spent 60 years trying to get functional central government on their continent. I also believe that governments ought to act like business; and business grows and dominates by raising new capital and reinvesting profits in research and infrastructure. We borrow money and raise taxes as we need to ensure that our infrastructure (people, transportation, energy, resources) is the best.

So why am I not a Democrat? Because, as the Congress is proving now, Democrats are exactly what Republicans accuse them of being...weak! The power that Blanche Lincoln, Joe Lieberman, and Ben Nelson have at this moment, is there because the United States voted in a super majority into the House and Senate. That vote happened on the back of people fighting for health care reform, energy reform, and financial reform. Those were the central issues voted on in 2008, and yet Democrats can't do the job with what they have.

For as long as I have been aware of politics, Democrats have been weak in the knees. Unquestionably a good guy, Michael Dukakis paved the way for liberal's turn into a curse word. When the first George Bush "accused" him of being a liberal, Dukakis ran from the term and so legitimized the usage. Democrats have repeatedly bowed to pressure rather than voting their principles. Democrats with control of either the House or the Senate have forever spent their time "protecting their majority" instead of using it. While I have, at times, been frustrated at the GOP's posture this year, the fact is that they are showing the fight that Americans value in their leaders.

If Democrats ever figured that out! They might actually live up to a few of their promises. The rational middle is open to fighting words....

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Myths About Money and Markets

There is a growing mythology in the United States about money and the "free market". The GlennBecks of the world have a platform to speak, and have set about aggressively using that platform to spread bad ideas to the people that trust them. The facts about these issues are within the grasp of most Americans, so lets correct the misconceptions now.
  1. The falling dollar is a disaster. Wrong. The dollar's value, relative to other country's money, is not an omen of American doom or the end times. Businesses do not raise their prices when the commodity markets show the dollar trading lower, and a fall in value does not cause inflation. Period. As oil is listed in dollars, a fall in value does make foreign oil more expensive, which is another good reason to end our dependence on the stuff. That, however, is the biggest negative attacjed to a falling dollar. Inflation is caused by too much money in the system relative to the amount of products available. This is typically caused when the Fed monetizes our normal English, when they print money to pay bills. Inflation is something we will have to watch over the next few years, but is not now a threat (we have actually experienced some deflation, which is not as good as you might think). So what does the falling dollar do? It makes stuff we make cheaper for foreign consumers to buy, and it makes visiting our country cheaper for foreign tourists. It takes less of their money to buy ours. That is good for U.S. manufacturing and the U.S. tourist industry. It is also BAD for China, which is why they own so much of our debt. You see, the Chinese have been buying up our green to keep its value artificially high. They have done this because it makes THEIR stuff cheaper than what we make at home. If they stop buying our debt, our dollar falls and their stuff becomes more expensive for us to buy. A falling dollar leads directly to a reduced trade deficit, which is a good thing.
  2. The dollar has no worth, so invest in gold. In my hometown, they would roll out the red carpet for you...Las Vegas knows a sucker when it sees one. When the financial crash happened last year, investors around the world pulled their cash out of the markets and invested in U.S. Treasuries. Despite all the crying in this country, foreign investors still place their trust in the "full faith and credit of the United States government". That's us kids. We back the dollar. Still not sold? The dollar has value because we believe it does, whereas gold has value because.....because it is gold. Gold has value because we believe it to be valuable. Its value is just like the dollar's in that it rises and falls with the whims of the market.
  3. The United States is going bankrupt. Ridiculous, breathless, ranting garbage. In the midst of the worst credit crisis since the Great Depression, the United States raised $1 trillion without a hiccup. The debt, as it is constituted now, is unsustainable over a timescale of perhaps two decades. This is not due to the short term investments incurred in the bank and auto sector bailouts as most of that cash will come back. The lack of sustainability is directly related to health care spending in general, and Medicare in particular. It is one of life's ironies that the same Republicans who have, this year, successfully sold themselves to seniors as "Champions of Medicare", were hard at work trying to kill the program completely for the previous four decades of its tenure. They tried to kill it because it is incredibly expensive. It is also increasing its expense exponentially, which is why health care reform was championed by BOTH parties before Republicans decided it was a good way to attack Obama. In the meantime, at least, the debt is not a threat. We will spend more than twice as much on our military this year as we will spend on debt service. Ask yourself this question; is there anything in your personal finances or that of your company's that you spend more on than your charge accounts and mortgages? Didn't think so.
  4. Opponents of reform are protecting the free market. It would be comic if it were not so dangerous. First, free markets are VERY good at managing price and production levels. Artificially controlling either, like what we do in welfare programs like farm subsidies, raises prices and hurts the competitive abilities of the players. But these categories are the only in which the free market helps. I think that the performance of financial institutions, automakers, and others recently is sufficient to explain that point. In any case, the insurance market is not a free market. On this topic, I don't think there are many who would argue against the need for government oversight over the medical marketplace (although there is a very good argument for giving those oversight programs a major face lift!). In terms of economics, the marketplace is, by definition, not free; it has an anti-trust exemption. This is a government license to fix prices, drop coverage, discriminate and otherwise defecate on consumers. That's us kids. The government is also deeply involved with protecting the firms in the medical marketplace. The patent monopolies awarded to drug companies raise raise drug prices by a factor of ten over the rates of other countries. We pay about $250 billion more per year on drugs than anyone else. Everyone reading this knows how crippling those prices are, especially on our older relatives and friends. This is "government regulation" that NOBODY who is "pro-business" seems to ever mention in conversations that involve "keeping the government out of my medicine".
  5. Some people on the cable channel "I" watch are "fair and balanced". I heard a speech given by President Clinton last year in which he described an opponent's point as being a "complete load of hooey". To paraphrase Justice Stewart, I can't tell you what hooey is, but I know it when I see it. I have yet to find a cable outlet that attempted anything resembling traditional journalism. Some newspapers still try, and the major network news programs are better at it than some folks give them credit for. Mostly though, they are all filled with opinions and talking points only loosely disguised as "panel debates". If you want good, strong reporting that gives you a complete picture, try watching your local PBS channel. The "Lehrer Report", "BBC News", and the newsmagazine "Frontline" all give complete, drama-free reporting at a depth that is leagues apart from the frantic chicken-dance of cable news.

There are a plethora of internet sources that can give clarity to the more complicated political issues that informed voters should be aware of, and all of them are just as easy to gain access to as TMZ or Amazon. A good rule of them to use when researching sites; if the story you are reading sounds like it was written by a politician, ignore it. The simple truth is that the real problems our country faces are complicated and are caused by multiple villains.

Conspiracies are the easy way out. The rational middle encourages you to dig a little deeper and take on an American-style challenge....

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The $7 Trillion Question

Over the next decade, this country will lose $7 trillion worth of productivity due to sick days and disability leave. The greatest country on the planet will continue to rank in the middle of industrialized nations in death rate, life expectancy, and infant mortality. Local public hospitals will continue to struggle to meet their obligations, and the states and counties that support them will continue to suffer under massive budget shortfalls due to medical costs.

Nowhere in the industrialized world do businesses have to deal with the costs and consequences of health care that businesses in the United States encounter. Like most of the real domestic issues in our nation today, health care is a matter of deferred maintenance; how long can we go without fixing an issue before it cripples our operations. The American people understand this, and they express it in polling every day.

Dozens of polls over the last two months done by both liberal and conservative leaning pollsters, have come up with a remarkably consistent vision for how we feel about this issue. We are split on the label; if the question asks about "health care reform", or the "plan that Obama...", or the "plan that Congress..." is proposing, the country is generally 45%-48% in favor and 49%-51% opposed. Note that "undecided" plays a roll in those totals. However, when asked about the specific provisions in the plan without the political labels of either party, the results change dramatically. Between 51% and 55% of Americans are in favor of a government-run plan that would compete with private insurers. Between 60% and 75% of Americans are in favor of a mandate that all Americans hold health insurance, provided that mandate includes support for lower income families. For reference, all of the supporting data can be found quite easily at

Not surprisingly, nobody wants to pay for these plans (and by nobody I mean that less than 40% are in favor of the various tax proposals). We Americans have mastered the art over the last three decades of complaining about taxes while demanding services. Because of this tendency, the burden of taxation has shifted to the working family as we have successfully labeled higher taxes on businesses and the wealthy "punitive" or "restrictive". I mention this reality in irony, because it is the businesses and wealthy who will eventually pay for the lack of productive workers that is the obvious outcome of these politics.

All of the plans proposed over the last several months have been attacked as "Socialist" or worse. Politicians and the good senior citizens who have supported them have simultaneously attacked Democrats for proposing Medicare cuts while criticizing the "Public Option" as Socialism. Medicare, of course, is the closest to socialized medicine we get in this country (it is mandatory, after all, where the public option would not be). Medicare has also been opposed, as a matter of party platform, by the Republicans since its inception. George W. Bush tried to privatize it (which would have cut more from the program in 4 years than the Democrats plan in 10), and Ronald Reagan cut his political teeth opposing its creation as....Communism.

The two items in the current bill that are most controversial (outside of the purely semantic abortion amendments) are the anti-trust exemption and the public option. The House included a revocation of the insurance industry's anti-trust exemption because you can't call it a "free market" when an anti-trust exemption exists. The Senate did not because it had to placate Ben Nelson of Nebraska, a Democratic Senator and wholly-owned subsidiary of the nation's health insurers. The CBO has repeatedly scored the public option as a deficit and total cost reducer. The more aggressive the option is, the more the deficit is cut and health care costs are reduced. Period. This is the same CBO that Republicans have pointed to when Cap and Trade was scored as raising costs on the middle class, and the initial health bill in the House (HR 3200) was scored at $1.6 trillion. They were OK with the CBO then, they better not crawfish their bet now.

A well-written compromise bill that reconciles the House and Senate legislation will reduce our deficit by over $150 billion over the first ten years, and over $600 billion over the next ten years. It will increase worker productivity by reducing sick and disability time, and it will pave the way for a small business expansion by providing easy access to health care for entrepreneurs who, right now, can't afford to chase their dreams and risk losing their employer's coverage.

It is time to get over the hysteria and over the top labelling that has pervaded this debate. It is time to pass this bill into law and move on to new challenges.

The rational middle waits for your thoughts...

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The N.o F.un L.eague

Once upon a time, when Pete Rozelle was still commissioner, there was a brash young QB named Jim McMahon. McMahon came into the league after a college career that saw him rewrite the records (in a number of ways) at his university, the conservative BYU. As the QB of the Chicago Bears, he was the leader and chief troublemaker of a fun-loving but tough team on its way to a Superbowl. Of his habits, McMahon's penchant for headbands that advertised products or displayed messages was probably his least dangerous. Rozelle saw the use of the headband to advertise as a breach in the NFL's exclusive control over media partners and "official products", and promptly ordered the young QB to cease and desist.

At the next game, McMahon wore a headband labeled "Rozelle". The commissioner simply laughed and remarked, "nice gag". That, as they say, was then. The NFL really is becoming the no fun league, and its executives seem to be on a mission to use up all of the football watching public's good will. The rational middle is...really struggling to be rational.

I am a huge football fan. I have, for many years, followed the sport religiously in print and on television. A great deal of money has been spent by my household acquiring magazines, expanded cable, and video games all with the intention of feeding my addiction. In this, I am not alone. Billions of dollars are spent by fans annually playing fantasy football, watching television, playing video games, and buying memorabilia. NFL franchises have also pulled up a chair at the all you can eat municipal bond feast, where helpless cities and counties are blackmailed with the loss of their team if they don't cough up several hundred million to build the infrastructure for the billionaire that owns the team.

The insult to the injury for all of this, is that the league is not satisfied. What follows is a list of steps, taken by the league in recent years in the name of "corporate growth" that threatens the game by virtue of the abuse of its fans (customers):
  1. Publicly funded stadiums. Not alone in this offense, the NFL is nonetheless, guilty of blackmail. What other business demands money on this scale for the construction of its sole capital asset? I would support a federal law banning the use of public money for any venue built for use by a professional sports franchise. Such a law would level the playing field.
  2. Exclusive deals with satellite. I don't like satellite TV, so the NFL does not want my business. Ridiculous! The NFL does not sell a prestige product, so the notion of limiting its distribution channels is flat out stupid. Somewhere in the league office in New York, there has to be a marketing MBA that is trying to change this.
  3. The NFL Network. While the idea of a fully committed network for football junkies is not a bad one, the notion of restricting access in other channels to support this one demonstrates how poorly the league understands marketing. This is a good idea done in by pure greed on the league's part. The summer the network spent covering the "Terrill Owens Saga", complete with the whiny and unprofessional Adam Schefter's opinion rants masquerading as reporting, told the audience all it needed to know about its strategic plan... i.e. there wasn't one.
  4. Exclusive deal for Madden NFL to the exclusion of the very competent software done by 2K studios. When NFL 2K was in production, customers could get the new game of their choice every year for $30, as a monopoly, Madden will cost you $60. The price has doubled in five years. Once again, the league (with help from the players union here) tells its customers to suck eggs.
  5. Fantasy football crackdown. The league is doing all it can to control all fantasy football games. It (and the union again) wants the profits from any use of the player's names. This is an enterprise that has no chance of threatening cash flow for players or the league, and actually tends to drive merchandise and TV viewing; but again, greed is driving the league.
  6. NFL films. Most of today's NFL fans grew up watching NFL films productions. The "voice of God", the late John Facenda, and his able replacement, the late Harry Kalas, were combined with fantastic music to create powerful productions that reinforced our dreams of the league. The NFL has steadily eroded the budget at NFL films, and tried to scuttle the excellent "Inside the NFL" series.

This league is operating under the delusion that it can't be replaced. Major League Baseball was once the national pastime, so I am not sure what fantasy the executives in New York are living in, but they need to wake up. I am not advocating a walk-out or fan-strike, I am simply reminding a big business that even loyal customers can get tired of bad service and walk away.

There are just too many other choices these days...

The rational middle is ready to hear angry football fans...

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Strange Case of Germany

Germany is an enigma for Americans. Several articles published in the mainstream media in recent months have contained references to German inability "to address the problems of Socialism" and deal with the "economic threats of labor unions and environmental activism". When an average American looks at Germany (an indeed most of the member nations of the E.U.) they see a political atmosphere that would scare the heck out of Glenn Beck's cardiologist.

Professional level individuals in Germany take home about 50% of their pay after taxes. That is half of their check. Some of that comes from the German version of the VAT (value-added tax); this tax is essentially a sales tax added at every level of production. Corporations are not able to get away from the heavy taxes either.

German companies have already agreed to the carbon reductions that the United States is starting to debate...sort of. Rather than individual companies reducing outputs, we in the United States are going to beg our corporate masters to play with the pollution they produce like a dog bone at an auction. This at least, is how I perceive "cap and trade". Germany and the rest of the European Union nations are a decade ahead or more in every area of environmental management; from clean energy, to environmental managerial accounting procedures, to total resource management, to the gas taxes.

That's right folks...gas taxes. Taxes that are similar to our average price per gallon here in the US of A. Not our taxes per gallon, our TOTAL price per gallon.

German companies have another headache to deal with...labor unions. Powerful unions. Like baseball player union powerful. These unions literally pushed Wal-Mart out of Germany after the Arkansas firm had already made an enormous investment.

So with all of these factors, the U.S. mindset would expect huge, systemic economic problems. U.S. journalists project this impression on German politics, and it would be reasonable to project an economy devoid of competition, innovation, and jobs. It would be reasonable, but it would also be wrong, which is what defies U.S. logic.

Germany is the world's leading per-capita exporter. They make more stuff per person to be sold around the world than any other country in the world. If you are a big total fan, and think averages are for the little guy, they export more outright than the U.S., which is almost 4 times more populous, and are close to number one China, which is almost 15 times as populous. German companies are world leaders in innovation across a huge array of fields. German unemployment rates have always run a little higher than the U.S., but there is something deceptive in those numbers. Germany counts people employed in part-time jobs who desire full-time labor among the unemployed. The United States does not follow this practise, functionally making the two nations unemployment numbers the same.

All of this is written with a simple idea in mind; the best companies in the world benchmark their competitors, so why shouldn't the best nation in the world follow suit? There are many policies in Germany that would simply not translate well, but they are doing something correct. They treat healthcare as a public utility, so individuals and corporations are not burdened with the budgeting issues the subject creates in the U.S. To wit, when GM went belly up, its investors held some $28 billion in bonds which were the residue of decades of poor capital decisions and bad strategy. The firm was also on the hook for $15 billion to the UAW, most of that allocated for, you guessed it, healthcare. There are many, many techniques that a nation can use to handle healthcare as a public utility. Unfortunately for us, the debate in this country on which technique to settle on was hijacked by the pro-insurance/status-quo lobby's $400 million "stimulus" plan for ad agencies and lawmakers.

German firms also have those pesky environmental regs to deal with. The trick there is that they actually do deal with them, rather than using all of their energy trying to cheat or get the regs cancelled. Management guru Michael Porter wrote that companies in markets with tough environmental regulations were pushed to innovate and become more efficient, better competitors. Porter's proof can be found throughout Europe, including the continent's industrial heart in Germany. The math is fairly simple on this point; if more of the stuff your factory buys is turned into saleable product than waste and pollution, then your factory will make more money.

It seems like Germany isn't such a strange case after all...they just haven't given up trying to get better. As an American chauvinist, it irritates me that ANY European nation can look better on ANY scorecard than the U.S.A. Currently, I am irritated a lot. Surely we Americans can get back on top, if only we could hold OUR business community accountable.

We love our kids here in this country, and we love to make them happy. We also, however, know that sometimes we have to make them mad at us to do what is best for them. In that spirit, we should continue to be pro-business...we just can't forget to do those important things that "...they may not like, but someday they will understand."

The rational middle is listening...

Monday, November 16, 2009

I Could Be A Republican...

There is a great deal about traditional conservatism that fits comfortably into my worldview. I was raised in a traditional household by married parents (still going strong after 38 years mind you). I was educated in the Catholic tradition, attended church regularly, served as an altar boy, and was read to from the Bible by my father. The last 15 years of my life have been spent as both manager and student of the world of business, and I am certainly a capitalist. My greatest heroes growing up were soldiers and airmen (there are few children who would list their idols at age ten to be Generals George Patton, Claire Chenault, and Vinegar Joe Stillwell).

That my parents are liberal Democrats who did not force religion on their children or believe in mixing their strong patriotism with xenophobia, remains a powerful force pulling me firmly to the center-left of our often silly political structure. I do believe that a liberal interpretation of the commerce clause of our Constitution is the one reading most responsible for the economic power of our nation. The uniformity of our laws, levels of education, capacity for law enforcement (civil and criminal), and infrastructure have provided the platform for local businesses to grow into world-beaters over the last century-plus. This uniformity ONLY exists with a strong federal system, which by the way, we all have a voting stake in.

So I could be a Republican, if only the party would spend more time working on solving problems, and less time making asses out of itself trying to creatively criticize the President. I will highlight a few examples this week, and attempt to revisit the topic once a month. I will also, of course, pen a similar column about those lovable losers, the Democrats with similar frequency. The Republicans first, though.

Item #1: Terrorist trial misfire

When the Obama administration announced that five terrorists would be tried in federal court in New York, according to our laws and traditions, most of the right went into spasm. While Republicans could have, had they asked questions before they shot, focused on the victims families, most focused on something less noble. The predominant argument, repeated early and often by commentators, was that we should not try these idiots according to our laws and traditions, because the trials might make us targets. The Republican talking point was that America should give up its tradition because we are afraid. Speak for yourselves cowards!

Item #2: GM quarterly earnings report

Michael Steele, the less than stellar "leader" of the Republican Party, came out swinging against the Obama administration on news that GM is still losing money "even after $50 billion worth of taxpayer's money". What? This kind of "analysis" would be comical if it didn't hurt so many people. The pro-business party and its presumably pro-business chair too often demonstrate a complete and comprehensive ignorance concerning how business works. We invested cash to keep them going, and to finance the restructuring while the firm was in bankruptcy. Businesses that size don't turn on a dime, and the federal government (contrary to the tantrums of the Tea Baggers) was not "in control of" that firm. General Motors was and remains a colossal mess wrought by decades of abysmal management, cultural protectionism, and short-sighted union partners. The move by Steele is the kind of purely political fiction that the rational middle dislikes from both sides.

Item #3: The Bow!

With apologies to the family of the brainless Steve Ducey of Fox and Friends, there is not a 200 year precedent of Presidents not bowing to foreign leaders. Conservative commentators and the GOP politicians that have taken to repeating what the commentators say are either hypocritical, dishonest, or stupid. The FLAG must not be lowered below the level of another flag...if President Obama orders our flag to submit at the Olympics, than I will jump in line to scream at him. In the meantime, the same commentators who rightly criticized the left for laughing at George W. Bush (who held hands with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and kissed him) are now criticizing Obama? It is DIPLOMACY...and I wonder how many of these people were critical of Nixon, who bowed to the Emperor that attacked Pearl Harbor?

Come on people...keep your eye on the ball and stop looking for an excuse to attack the President every day. If you are patient, you will capitalize on real opportunity (it always happens), and when you do, the public won't dismiss it as another BS line from the "Party of No".

The rational middle is listening...

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Putting Terrorists In Their Place

Ronald Reagan's administration had its struggles with international terrorism. Early miscalculations in Lebanon combined with the despicable work of the governments in Syria and Lybia captured nearly as many headlines as the Cold War. In the end though, Mr. Reagan and his team had a coherent strategy for dealing with the issue; for the countries that sponsored activity, proportional response and international castigation; for the terrorists themselves, death by special operations or treatment as a common criminal.

Reagan's FBI director put it best when he stated that treating terrorism exclusively as an act of war elevates the terrorists to the level of nations. The administration wanted to debase the individuals by treating them as the worthless criminals that they truly were. They accomplished this by not allowing them to claim a cause. The old saying that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" crumbles in the face of justice fairly (and ruthlessly) dispensed. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his ilk are murderers, nothing more. This fact does not diminish the sacrifice and heroism of the citizens of this nation on September 11, 2001. A finding, in our court of law, that these pieces of garbage are nothing more than murderers worthy of execution reinforces the strength of our nation.

The federal court in New York that is the destiny of these killers successfully convicted the first bombers of the World Trade Center, and the U.S. court system has successfully prosecuted and punished dozens of these criminals on our soil. The argument that this prosecution should not go forward because the prosecutors might fail, or because the trial might make New York a target is despicable. Our presence in the Middle East and our support of our friends in Israel make us a target, and yet we do not yield. Is our nation to believe that we can't dispense our justice for fear of reprisal? Are we to be so frightened of this "sheikh" that we shrink away from our system of justice and our ideals? Are we to be a nation of cowards who choose to abdicate everything we believe in when we are tested?

The same commentators who have spent months crying about the Founding Fathers and bemoaning the loss of our nation are now insisting that we let fear determine how we deal out justice and to whom. Patrick Henry stood two and a half centuries ago and demanded "Give me liberty or give me death". After 9/11, those of us happy to give up freedoms to the Patriot Act seem to have quickly forgot his intent. We must stick to our beliefs ESPECIALLY in times of crisis. A time of war is precisely the moment that our values should be fought for, lest those doing the fighting in distant lands make their sacrifices in vain.

Be proud of our democracy and bring these worthless killers to justice. Their labels do not dictate the level of honor to which their victims are entitled. Do not assign greater significance to these villains than they deserve. When the United States brings this petty "sheikh" to his justice in court, he will attempt to turn it into a grand stage; but the free people of our nation and those of our allies will see him revealed as he really is; another killer looking for an excuse.

The rational middle looks forward to your thoughts...

Friday, November 6, 2009

A Total Loss of Perspective

The images from the protests held Thursday on the steps of the Capitol were disturbing; the (by now) typical Obama-as-Death effigies and confused references to both Fascism and Communism shared the stage with a new twist. One of the protesters decided that graphically comparing the health care bill to a Nazi death camp was a good idea.

"National Socialist Health Care" was the label, superimposed over the emaciated bodies stacked at Dachau. Horrifying.

To protest legislation on the steps of the Capitol is a responsibility as well as a right; it is one of the prices we must pay for freedom. The rational middle contends that those protests should be passionate and pointed, but that they should also stay within some set of boundaries. There was a time when we were able to recognize when those boundaries were violated. Has that time passed?

This space takes no exception to those who believe that the election of Barack Obama or a large Democratic majority in both houses is dangerous; people on the other side of the fence believed the same of George W. Bush. This space also agrees that active and vocal political conflict is appropriate for those who are in the political minority. The difference exists in the scope and tone of the conflict. In an effort to discredit the health care bills, many in the country have built this bill into monstrous proportions. The various bills have been cast as granny killers, communist plots, and insidious Muslim conspiracies.

I definitely miss the tax and spend arguments that Reagan used to win debates. In the case of these bills, Republicans and Populists would have a great deal to question (indeed attack) regarding the spending levels and benefits attached. The great pity is that Republicans had a natural position in health care reform; only recently taking a tiny step towards it in their own version of reform. They could have acted to end anti-trust exemptions, create co-ops and/or exchanges, and provide credits to small businesses. These pro-business positions would have been reasonable and proactive attempts to resolve problems, and would have found wide support. They could have chosen a more aggressive stance, and used the opportunity to go after payroll taxes on small businesses.

The grand ole party chose to drift down to its lowest common denominator, and has missed a golden opportunity. They will vote against a bill that will disappear as an issue until people start benefiting from it. Even the costs now have some justification. The current bill, HR 3692, will end up costing about $100 billion per year over ten years (after the conference work between the House and Senate). While this is a large number, consider this fact: the Bush tax cuts were designed to stimulate the economy and will cost $300 billion per year over the 6 years of the plan. I think we all know what happened to the economy.

The big question is what this bill will or won't do. Here is a list of things the bill will not do:
  • It will not mandate that anyone take Federal insurance. The exchanges and co-ops constructed by the bill rely on the existence and competitiveness of private insurance firms.
  • It will not tell doctors what they can or cannot treat. The doctor-patient relationship is specifically outlined in the bill.
  • It will not cover everyone. The most optimistic estimates make a claim of 96% covered. Some estimates are lower.

What will it do?

  • It takes away the industry's anti-trust exemption, meaning that insurance companies can no longer operate as a monopoly.
  • It creates and provides support for private, non-profit co-ops to allow individuals and small businesses to come together to get better coverage and lower rates.
  • It creates exchanges that will like an insurance "stock market". This is another tactic provided to provide competition in the marketplace. It is within the exchange that the much misunderstood public option exists.
  • It outlaws preexisting conditions and excessive rates for older Americans.
  • It sets a floor at 85% of premiums collected to be returned to clients in the form of services. This industry measure was in the mid 90's during the mid 1990's and has declined since.

A controversial piece is the mandate for individuals to carry insurance. The idea is that many of these measures will reduce per-customer margins for the industry. When margins tighten in business, companies must replace lost margin with increased volume. This combination of directives is designed to turn the health insurance industry into a traditional service provider that is forced to deliver higher quality products at lower prices to be competitive.

Not the worst idea in the world, even if it isn't the best. What this bill represents is entitlement programs for the 21st century. It is public policy used to redefine a marketplace and refocus market pressures to drive private business solutions. Done properly, the result will force more insurers and health providers to find solutions like those used by the Mayo Clinic, Kaiser Permanente, or Intermountain Healthcare; solutions that find these systems with the highest service levels and lowest prices in the country.

Big dollars...yes. Socialism....uh, no. I think that opponents of the President's agenda should continue to resist with courage and passion. It might, however, be advisable for these folks to read the bills they are attacking first. Even better, folks should proactively propose solutions to problems we know are out there. Then we could have a good old fashioned political debate!

The Rational Middle is ready....

Monday, October 26, 2009

Stimulus Creates 10 million Jobs

The kids over at Fox News have been gleefully reporting that the "$787 billion porkulus package is a failure". The first reports from the "liberally biased mainstream media" supported the idea, because they cite the White House as the source that says 30,000 jobs have been created due to the package. Both sets of reporting come from data released on, the government's website for all things stimulus. exists to provide transparency for spending related to the recovery package. Unfortunately, the media did not read everthing they could see on the transparent website. All of the media outlets (Fox News can't shoulder this burden alone) are to blame for what we are hearing. The problem isn't in the writing or even presentation of the information, it is in the lack of research. The website very clearly states that the 30,083 jobs created come from "federal contract spending", which represents about 8% of the total spend to date.

It gets worse....the first big number to think about is $16 billion. $16 billion is the total value of federal contracts awarded to date. The bigger number is $2.2 billion. $2.2 billion is the amount actually paid out for those contracts.

$2.2 billion for 30,000 jobs. A little different than Hannity's claims and all of the hand-wringing on CNN. So I figure it is time to do a little "modern" reporting myself. Here goes:

The Stimulus Package is on pace to create over 10,760,000 jobs! The United States set to enter new era of prosperity! Neoconservative business owners demand Obama pays Mexicans to emigrate to fill needed positions!

I can show more math to support my position than Hannity can....

But that is not what the Rational Middle is all about. Many economists last winter were predicting unemployment to top 10%, but the Obama team ignored them and made public a view that unemployment would only top 10% if the stimulus was not passed. My guess, based on the numbers so far, is that the stimulus will eventually directly create or save a little over 1 million jobs by the end of next year.The criticism of the administration because of its failure to come close on the projection is both fair and relevant, but it does not change the need for action or the results of the action taken.

More money has been "spent" for tax benefits as a result of the stimulus bill than for projects (part of the $288 billion tax cut that every Republican in Congress voted against...unless they were Senators from Maine). Over $63 billion has been spent on an extension of entitlement benefits such as unemployment. The retail sectors in hard hit areas like Southern California, Florida, and Southern Nevada are clinging to life thanks to those benefits.

The media has a responsibility to report the facts so that the people can hold their government to account. The media, in its haste to report a big "story" instead of the facts, failed that obligation.

The rational middle wants to be "stimulated" by your commentary....

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Media Biased

A television spot voiced by Sam Waterston for the political magazine, The Nation, features the line; "...and that famous liberal media bias you just can't get anywhere else." The recent comments by a White House communications staffer that Fox News was not a news company but a propaganda arm of the GOP, has renewed the focus on the question of media bias. The venerable Bill Moyers summarized the problem for media today in a somewhat different manner; Fox is a Republican machine, but the "mainstream" is motivated by ratings rather than Democratic agendas. As Moyers points out, this leaves nobody to do the business of the American people.

Free speech is the most abused right in the Constitution. The concept that is used as a crutch by paparazzi and rabble rousers is meant to protect the speaker (or writer) from government reprisal. It does not protect Rush Limbaugh from accusations of racism, nor does it protect the President from accusations of being a Communist or Muslim. The concept allows a free media or individual to investigate and/or report on the relevant actions of the government and its officers/agents on behalf of the citizens. This notion is, unfortunately, a dying ideal due in large part to the reality of our short attention spans and limited education. Real reporting on government activity is conducted on several of the better organized internet sites in addition to programs on PBS and the BBC. The reporting is fully formed and meticulously cited because the time exists to support the technique.

Network news is able to show less than a dozen stories of less than 3 minutes on a typical broadcast. We have for years been getting our news through a medium that is Twitter like in its brevity. How do you explain health care in less than three minutes? How do you define the parameters of Afghanistan in that time? The less words a news writer is able to use, the more the individuals phrasing and context dominate the story. Last week, I watched several different network and cable news stories on Afghanistan prior to watching a Frontline program on the same topic. The network and cable programs were filled with short sound bites from politicians and pundits from "each side". The Frontline presentation was a well organized compilation that described multiple sides, each with a well defined set of reasons and plan.

The football fans reading this would not likely sit down to watch a game without listening to several minutes of description (complete with graphical aids) of the individual players, coaches, and possible strategies that would be involved in the game. When it comes to national security or economic recovery, we lose interest if the commentator can't identify the good guys, bad guys, and one critical point in less than a couple of minutes.

Now that we have identified the cause for the loss of media accuracy (us), we should look at the reality. When it comes to the battle to label the "mainstream media", the reasons are clear. Stories written and reported from the perspective of working class voters are not likely to favor Conservative thinking. This is because Conservative policies are meant to benefit the working class indirectly (in an economic sense) by enabling the business class to grow rapidly and take the working class with it. There are, I would argue, valid and reasonable points scored in the favor of this "supply-side" economic argument; those points just don't resonate with a voter looking in the short-term. By impugning the reputation of media sources, the Conservative movement has, for the last thirty years in particular, been able to gain ground in demographics not associated with the Republican base. People have begun to distrust the media as much as the politicians. The fact that the same interests have attacked the concept of government in the same terms over the same time period is not a coincidence.

The current label being tossed around, is that the mainstream media is colluding with "Marxist Obama" to lead the nation towards Socialism. That sounds like scary stuff, but it fails a critical test. What is in it for the media? We know why Fox News wants to support Republican policies and personalities; the parent company, News Corp. has paid less than 6% in corporate taxes worldwide since the mid 1990's (at a time during which supposedly liberal ABC parent Disney has paid 31%). Fox News president Roger Ailes was a consultant for Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and the elder Bush. What is not clear is what would make the other companies support a Communist plot?

The "Big Three Networks" are publicly traded, capitalist ventures whose major shareholders and corporate officers all sit in the high tax brackets and pay capital gains regularly. The previous paragraph should have identified why we could expect ABC to have a Conservative bias, rather than a liberal one (see the taxes they have paid). NBC parent GE, famously and repeatedly attacked as an Obama co-conspirator by Fox News, was the firm that launched Ronald Reagan's political career (indeed GE did not pay corporate tax for many years beginning, not surprisingly, after Reagan took office). The multi-billion dollar firm is engaged in a multitude of businesses that are vulnerable to intensive federal regulation; again, the motivation of the corporate parent would indicate for a Conservative bias. CBS is owned by Sumner Redstone, who is in fact a self-proclaimed Democrat. Of course Redstone endorsed George W. Bush against John Kerry in 2004, so I don't think it fair to assign any parent company bias to CBS.

If the corporate parents have a natural Conservative tilt, and the officers and managers are better off financially in a Conservative environment, I find it hard to believe that the networks, and their cable offspring, would be capable of engendering a deep-seeded liberal bias to their reporting. As for a Communist conspiracy, the Soviet Union, as I recall, did have a news service; one news service. It was called TASS, and it is not clear that the reporters and producers were paid very well, nor is it apparent that Communist functionaries have ever had the time or inclination to indulge "personalities".

Where does that leave the members of the rational middle? Most news programs, even the news lineup shows on Fox hosted by Shepard Smith, have value as guides to what needs to be looked at by the citizens of our participatory democracy. The opinion-driven host and panel shows are likely to structure facts in the way an attorney might; they are trying to convince the jury of public opinion. Watch and believe them at your peril. If you are not reading about the news, you probably don't understand the news. That takes time, but I think the country is worth the effort.

The shows today are fancy and entertaining, but most of us learned long ago not to judge a book by its cover.

The rational middle would like to hear YOUR judgement of this column....

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Death Panel For Winter

Back in 2004, when Congress revisited Medicare and tried to deal with prescription drugs, they dealt with a related health care matter. The Schiavo debate was fresh in the public's mind and there was wide agreement that a problem existed with a fairly straightforward fix; educate the nation so that people could make legally binding decisions in order to keep government out of their death. Among the responses to the issue was a clause in the Medicare bill that provided coverage to seniors for counselling on items like living wills, do not resuscitate orders, medical powers of attorney, and final wills. This clause facilitated conversations that would help seniors and their families decide and communicate to doctors their desires; whether they be DNR's for terminally ill patients or an order to keep the tubes in and machines on indefinitely. You may not realize, but if these desires are not clearly illustrated and presented to medical and legal authorities, the state can and does step in to make the decision.

This important and well-stated legislation passed without comment in 2004; in 2009 it was included in the description of services for the public option in HR 3200. In that description (for insurance through the government that would not be mandatory), the steps were called "end of life planning". Insurance company shills quickly dubbed it "granny killing", and Sarah Palin jumped into the fray calling it "killing granny to save money". The more people have actually read the bills moving through Congress, the more they have realized what a bunch of garbage this all was. That said, the time it took away from the issue, and the way that it shifted the focus of lawmakers was a terrible waste.

As fall starts to move away, and the health care issue crawls slowly to conclusion, I have started to wonder what the next great moment of hysteria will be. There has already been some bipartisan work done (by Linsdey Graham (R) of South Carolina and John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts) on carbon reduction and energy independence. Much like health reform, which began with an interesting and unique approach authored by a Republican and a Democrat, I think the Kerry/Graham bill will be the canon fodder for the energy industry. The Insurance Cartel and Big Pharma threw better than a quarter billion at defeating health care before they came out publicly against it. Big energy has half of the world's ten most profitable companies, firms that generate $50-$70 million per day in PROFIT. Imagine how much they will throw at the issue. This winter you can count on it; Glenn Beck will go on his show and claim Barack Obama is trying to freeze Granny into communism! I am serious!

Financial regulation represents even greater fodder for panic. The legitimate public anger that drove the Tea Party car steered by Dick Armey, Karl Rove, and Glenn Beck through the spring and summer, was fueled by two contradictory sources; populists, who were incensed that taxpayers were roped into rescuing corrupt and unregulated businesses that were supposed to know better, and libertarians, who detest the very idea of government intervention in the market. For all practical purposes, there is no side to this problem; economists, bankers, fund managers, politicians, career regulators, and rank and file citizens believe reform is necessary. Of course, we stood at a similar place in the dawn of the heath care battle.

It seems clear, that if business interests have become so large as to upset the balance of the world if they fail, that something must be done. The difficulty is that populist anger will prohibit another bailout so some government intervention is called for; while libertarian forces in the country push back against the notion of regulation. Either the institutions must be made to forgo excess risk, in which case they forgo higher levels of reward, or they must be broken up, in which they competitive advantage driven by scale. There is no Pollyanna solution whereby this marketplace regulates itself; it is driven by profit and will follow the profit to the literal edge of the rules. This is an opportunity for informed, rational debate and discussion. It is an opportunity for creative solutions to be proposed and looked at without fear of political reprisals. It is an opportunity for the new and innovative.

Unfortunately, it is also an opportunity for someone to scream that the Marxist Obama is trying to steal Granny's 401k.

Our financial crisis has a lot of players, including us. Just as on climate change and health care reform, financial reform presents opportunities for we the people to make a difference (the old personal responsibility has a place). The commercial and political sources of our problem however, go back to the Ford Administration and touch every President and every Congress since then. George W. Bush and the Republicans may have done the gift-wrapping and final assembly, but there is heavy blame to be set at the feet of President Clinton and representatives of both parties. This administration, and the Democrat and Republicans in this Congress, can fix it. They simply need to be encouraged to do so in a grown-up fashion.

There is a movie coming out centered on the Mayan calendar's supposed prediction of the end of the world in 2012 (presumably, we ran out of Christian prediction in 1999, 200, and 2001). For most people, the commercial for the film is not a moment of shock and panic. I would submit that the emails and frantic wailing of television commentators you will hear over the next few months could be treated with similar indifference.

The rational middle waits for your comments...

Monday, October 19, 2009

We Call Them Liars in the Real World

I misspoke, or made an error, or omitted a fact, or misremembered, or, or, or, errrr....I am a politician (or a ballplayer). If we said to our parents what these folks say to their constituents on a regular basis, we would be slapped and grounded.

They get to continue pretending to be important.

After spending weeks fighting the stimulus bill as "wasteful big government", Senator Kit Bond of Missouri went on a bus trip to promote projects funded by....the stimulus bill.

Over the summer, it was Congressman Boehner celebrating in June about millions of dollars in road construction funding from the stimulus bill that appeared to be "putting some folks back to work and getting things done". A couple of weeks later he insisted that he hadn't seen any money from the bill and insisted that it hadn't created any jobs. (Note: His home state of Ohio has seen more than $60 million, most of it spent on roads, police, and teachers)

Rep. Jack Kingston from Georgia fought the stimulus bill tooth and nail using the old "Washington waste" card. He issued a press release lauding the nearly $250,000 being spent to retain police officers in Alma and Jessup, Georgia. He pointed out that local efforts work better than attempts by Washington to fix problems from afar. He underlined the point by commenting on the tax savings to the district because the towns would not have to come up with the cash themselves.

He missed the tiny little, almost insignificant point that the money was from...the stimulus bill.

President Obama sold stimulus as a bill that would save or create 1.5 million jobs. So far it has saved tens of thousands of jobs (mostly police and teachers), but hasn't done much in the way of creating. The administration is trying to "stay on message" and "frame the discussion" about how things are going. I tried framing discussions with my parents....they stayed on a very particular message.

The bright side that we are missing is that less than one third of the money has been spent. More will happen in the coming months, although it is clear that Obama's team badly misread the depth of the recession we were in.

The rational middle would have been happy if all of the money spent on food stamps, unemployment benefits, and tax cuts had been funnelled towards infrastructure projects. Moody's has studied the harmonic benefit of federal spending and found that infrastructure creates the largest effect by far (tax cuts, alas, create the lowest). We the people, however, demanded immediate action and quick results. The confused timeline and muddy results have left lots of room for what politicians call "spin".

In our world, we know it as, "lies".

The rational middle looks forward to your straight talk...