Monthly Archives: July 2011

Congress: No News Is Good News?

Well, what now? As I opine this early Friday a.m., House Republicans and other miscreants failed to take John Boehner’s advice to “get your ass in line” and support a plan to increase the debt limit and shave government spending. And the Senate still has to vote on the Harry Reid and gang plan — although if and when that happens it’s unlikely to get the necessary 60 votes.

Wonder if Kim Kardashian is having better success with her wedding plans? I digress. But hey. This tidbit of info is in keeping with my now long-established tradition of highlighting good news stories on Friday.

Although, I guess at this point depending on your view of the world, no news from Congress is good news. Or not. And if Tiny Tim Geithner has been fibbing about the consequences of a USA default or credit downgrade then you better get the women and children off the streets next week. Things will get really nasty.

The reason? It’s possible that neither plan currently being floated in the House and Senate will prevent a credit downgrade. And neither really address the big fish in the skillet: unsustainable government borrowing and spending — without corresponding tax increases.

Anyway, here are a couple of thoughtful perspectives on what’s happening Inside the Beltway.

First from Kimberly Strassel in the Wall Street Journal, “Boehner’s Moment of Truth“:

By Thursday evening, Mr. Boehner had moved a significant portion of his conference, though he proved unable to net the final few votes. Some remained wedded to their vow to never vote for a debt-ceiling hike. Some, like presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann, continued to insist, ludicrously, that a failed deal wouldn’t be a problem. It is an open question if Mr. Boehner could have ever won these votes, no matter how big, deep and dramatic a budget-cutting deal he presented.

What he did do this week is position his party to take credit for a bill that averts a crisis, cuts more spending than any Democrat ever thought possible, and exposes the White House’s insincerity on the deficit and economic prosperity. The Republicans who yesterday undermined bill now bear sole responsibility for whatever political fallout comes next.

And the second from Charles Krauthammer in WaPo, “The great divide“:

We’re in the midst of a great four-year national debate on the size and reach of government, the future of the welfare state, indeed, the nature of the social contract between citizen and state. The distinctive visions of the two parties — social-democratic vs. limited-government — have underlain every debate on every issue since Barack Obama’s inauguration: the stimulus, the auto bailouts, health-care reform, financial regulation, deficit spending. Everything. The debt ceiling is but the latest focus of this fundamental divide.

The sausage-making may be unsightly, but the problem is not that Washington is broken, that ridiculous ubiquitous cliche. The problem is that these two visions are in competition, and the definitive popular verdict has not yet been rendered.

We’ll see how this all plays out this weekend. Or not.

In the meantime, I’ll keep checking my snail mailbox waiting for the Kim Kardashian invitation.

Now, for a Friday, that would be good news.

Prez and Congress: “Get Your Ass in Line”

Wow. John Boehner didn’t appear to be a happy camper yesterday. Reportedly he told a meeting of House Republicans — many of whom were frosty to his latest debt reduction plan — that now was the time to “get your ass in line.”

Maybe it’s time for all of us who vote and pay taxes (that means about half of the people living in the USA) to tell the Prez and our elected officials in Congress the same thing: “get your ass in line” and do something that is in the best interests of the country and not your own re-election.

And just so I don’t appear to be a complete Asshat these days, I recognize that there is a wide philosophical difference about what is the right thing to do these days. But it isn’t like this is a problem that just fell on the doorstep like a sack of dung presented as a Halloween prank.

So, with the clock ticking, can Congress pass and the Prez sign legislation that will solve this mess?

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Nah.

That’s unlikely to happen by early next week when the nation’s economy is slated to go face down if the government can’t pay all our bills. Note to those who have retirement accounts and other investments: The stock exchanges appeared yesterday to take a dim view of this Inside the Beltway fiasco, dipping by 2 percent or more. Gold anyone?

In fact, among all the Talking Heads opining this morning on the TV shows while I was chasing the treadmill belt, Dennis Miller on Fox had the best proposal. His idea: Do a reverse telethon. Put the $14 trillion (and change) debt number on the TV screen — and then work back to zero as viewers phone in donations. Warren Buffett. You down with this?

Just an idea — and no worse or unrealistic than some advanced by the policy wonks in DC during the past several months.

So saying all that, it looks like members of Congress and the Prez are in for a long few days and a tense weekend.

For those of us living in the real world, I suggest we chill a little — and take the advice of the great American philosopher Zac Brown:

I got my toes in the water, ass in the sand
Not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand
Life is good today, life is good today

But keep your fingers and toes crossed.

Just sayin’.

Unemployed: Don’t Even Apply

I know. Our elected leaders Inside the Beltway remain engaged in their policy making circle jerk while the nation’s economy races toward a cliff and a deep dive to financial ruin. Or not.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, people are still struggling to find a job. And among those who are having the most difficult time are the long-term unemployed. Why? More and more employers are now only willing to consider hiring someone who already has a job or who has just recently lost one. Snort.

This isn’t a new situation, but here’s an interesting update and perspective in the NYT, “The Help-Wanted Sign Comes With a Frustrating Asterisk“:

The unemployed need not apply.

That is the message being broadcast by many of the nation’s employers, making it even more difficult for 14 million jobless Americans to get back to work.

A recent review of job vacancy postings on popular sites like Monster.com, CareerBuilder and Craigslist revealed hundreds that said employers would consider (or at least “strongly prefer”) only people currently employed or just recently laid off.

Unemployed workers have long suspected that the gaping holes on their résumés left them less attractive to employers. But with the country in the worst jobs crisis since the Great Depression, many had hoped employers would be more forgiving.

“I feel like I am being shunned by our entire society,” said Kelly Wiedemer, 45, an information technology operations analyst who said a recruiter had told her that despite her skill set she would be a “hard sell” because she had been out of work for more than six months.

Legal experts say that the practice probably does not violate discrimination laws because unemployment is not a protected status, like age or race. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently held a hearing, though, on whether discriminating against the jobless might be illegal because it disproportionately hurts older people and blacks.

The practice is common enough that New Jersey recently passed a law outlawing job ads that bar unemployed workers from applying. New York and Michigan are considering the idea, and similar legislation has been introduced in Congress. The National Employment Law Project, a nonprofit organization that studies the labor market and helps the unemployed apply for benefits, has been reviewing the issue, and last week issued a report that has nudged more politicians to condemn these ads.

Given that the average duration of unemployment today is nine months — a record high — limiting a search to the “recently employed,” much less the currently employed, disqualifies millions.

And for an even more comprehensive look at this issue, here’s a NYT feature, “The Hiring Bias Against the Unemployed.”

Hey. Maybe the unemployed in this country can move to China where they would have a fighting chance of getting hired by GE. Note: The Prez picked GE CEO Jeffrey Imment to help create jobs in the USA. Oops. I digress.

Oh well. I can think of a number of elected officials in DC who deserve to be among the long-term unemployed following the 2012 elections.

Just sayin’.

And one last brain dropping for the day. I saw on Fox News this morning while chasing the treadmill that the House Republicans during one of their meetings yesterday showed a scene from the Ben Affleck movie The Town to serve as motivation for staying the course. Or not.

Good grief. They can’t even get this right. Here’s the greatest motivational speech in a movie ever. John Boehner, you paying attention?

The Otter Defense: Can Congress Pass Anything?

OK. I’ll admit it. I didn’t watch either the Prez or John Boehner spin the facts and posture for the 2012 elections on TV last night. Instead, I watched Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO.  Admittedly, the debt debacle Inside the Beltway is great farce — but at least with Larry David you can laugh along with the absurdity.

So what if there is no enthusiasm in the House or Senate for either of the plans now on the table? And I wonder if we own the table or are just renting it from China? Oops. I digress.

Anyway, in the midst of all the spin and bullshit over what is happening (or not), David Brooks has a thoughtful article in the NYT this morning outlining how we got into this mess, “Congress in the Lead“:

Some of us like to think big. We thought at the beginning of this debt crisis that it might be possible to reach a Grand Bargain. This deal would make a serious dent in the country’s awful debt problem. It would begin to reform entitlements. It would involve enough revenue to forestall ruinous cuts in domestic programs.

The Grand Bargain would yield obvious political benefits. President Obama would show independents that he could move to the center. Republicans would be able to brag about a big reduction in the size of government.

Alas, the dream of a Grand Bargain died Friday evening for three reasons.

First, it was always going to be difficult to round up the necessary Congressional votes. Republicans didn’t want the tax increases. Democrats didn’t want the entitlement cuts.

Second, the White House negotiating process was inadequate. Neither the president nor the House speaker ever wrote down and released their negotiating positions. Everything was mysterious, shifting and slippery. One day the president was agreeing to an $800 billion revenue increase; the next day he was asking for $400 billion more. Spending cuts that seemed to be part of the package suddenly seemed hollow. Negotiating partners disappeared.

It was phenomenally hard to figure out exactly who was offering what. Democrats in Congress were kept in the dark and were understandably suspicious. It was all a recipe for misunderstandings, hurt feelings and collapse.

Third, the president lost his cool. Obama never should have gone in front of the cameras just minutes after the talks faltered Friday evening. His appearance was suffused with that “I’m the only mature person in Washington” condescension that drives everybody else crazy. Obama lectured the leaders of the House and Senate in the sort of patronizing tone that a junior high principal might use with immature delinquents. He talked about unreturned phone calls and being left at the altar, personalizing the issue like a spurned prom date.

Obama’s Friday appearance had a gigantic unintended consequence. It brought members of Congress together. They decided to take control. The White House is now on the sidelines. Democratic and Republican Congressional leaders are negotiating directly with one another.

The atmosphere has changed. It now seems more likely that we will get a deal. It just won’t be as significant as we Grand Bargainers originally wanted.

John Boehner and Harry Reid will continue to verbally abuse each other. But there’s a script to their taunts. Nobody’s feelings are hurt. The old pros are perfectly capable of exchanging clichéd volleys in the morning and then going off and negotiating with each other in the afternoon.

Furthermore, the negotiating process has changed. On Monday, both Boehner and Reid produced proposals. The main points were written down and available for all to see. Each side not only represented its own views, it sent signals about where future agreements could be found.

Boehner released a plan that involved statutory spending caps with an enforcement mechanism to make sure the cuts are real. Reid released a plan involving bigger long-term spending cuts, with much of the heavy lifting done by a bipartisan select committee. These two carefully coordinated plans are different, but they naturally fit together.

With a little imagination, it’s easy to see how they could be merged to give everybody something. Republicans would get some guaranteed spending reductions. Democrats in swing states could campaign on a nominal multitrillion-dollar debt reduction while protecting entitlements. Republicans wouldn’t have to vote on raising the debt ceiling until after some guaranteed spending cuts. Democrats could count the reduced Iraq and Afghanistan war costs as part of the spending reductions.

It’s not clear if an arrangement would really push the next debt ceiling fight until after the 2012 election, but even that could presumably be fudged, especially if Democrats were willing to give the Republicans broader spending cuts and a balanced-budget amendment vote in the Senate.

On the one hand, there has been an outbreak of sanity since Congress took control. On the other hand, the deal they are working on doesn’t come close to cutting the $4 trillion or so many say would be required to prevent a downgrade of the U.S. debt.

This should be a humbling moment for the White House, and maybe a learning experience. There are other people who have been around Washington a long time. They know how to play this game. As a result of their efforts, we may see some debt reduction but nothing big and transformational. Obama won’t get his centrist election boost. Republicans won’t have to wrestle with tax increases. Democrats won’t have to wrestle with entitlement reform.

The Old Guard wins. Obama’s televised campaign speech Monday night was behind the times. The action has moved to Capitol Hill.

Oh, boy. Congress has the ball.

Wonder when China will repossess the table?

And is it just me, or are the leaders in Congress and the administration now adopting the Otter Defense strategy from the movie Animal House as a way to win favor with voters?

Trust, Politics and Third Parties

Well, I figured I would be sitting here this early Monday a.m. opining about some kind of framework to hike the debt limit and control federal government spending. Nope. Yet the clock keeps ticking to what the Sunday talk show pundits say will be financial ruin unless a deal is reached this week.

Yawn.

This strikes me as business as usual Inside the Beltway: meet, talk, posture, spin — and accomplish little or nothing.

Here’s an interesting perspective from Dan Balz in WaPo, “Debt talks show breakdown in governing“:

What the country is watching is a breakdown in governing that could be as corrosive to the political system as the possible financial default looming could be to the economy.

Even before Friday’s collapse in the debt talks, public dissatisfaction with Washington was on the rise. The impasse threatens a further deterioration in public confidence.

There is great disagreement in Washington over the meaning of last year’s midterm elections, but it’s almost certain that most Americans did not vote for the kind of paralysis that surrounds the negotiations over the terms of raising the debt ceiling.

Americans voted for, or got, divided government because the public doesn’t fully trust either party with the reins of power. That means the only way out of this problem is through compromise, or what one administration official called “bipartisanship by necessity,” not by choice.

Up until now, enough lawmakers haven’t been ready to accept that in order for a deal to be struck. So the clock ticks.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Wonder how much this has to do with trust? It doesn’t appear that there is any level of trust between the Prez and the administration and members of Congress from both parties. A lot of us voted for Obama with the hope that this would change. It hasn’t. It’s gotten worse, more partisan and defined by gridlock where Congress and the administration don’t appear able to accomplish anything.

Sigh.

And I’m sure that before the clock strikes 12 (or whatever) there will be an agreement: long term or short term, with or without revenue increases, and something that will send people on Medicare and Social Security reaching for the barf bags — or not.

Who know? After seven months of dithering, there are plenty of words but almost no specific details. And sorry. I don’t trust either party or the Prez to get this right at this point.

Would a third, fourth or fifth political party help? Probably not. But something tells me that the idea of additional parties, platforms and candidates starts to get plenty of attention — and perhaps some action.

Here’s from Chris Cillizza in WaPo, “Voters’ renewed anger at Washington spurs formation of third-party advocate groups“:

The numbers are startling.

Eighty percent of people in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll described themselves as either “angry” or “dissatisfied” with the way Washington works — the highest that number has been in nearly two decades.

Additionally, 63 percent said they would prefer to vote for someone other than their current member of Congress in the 2012 election, a historic high in Post-ABC data on that question.

The poll was taken before the “grand bargain” on debt reduction being crafted by President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) collapsed late last week amid the sort of acrimony and public name-calling sure to further sour voters on the ability of the two political parties to get nearly anything done.

Given all of the above, advocates of a third party — or at the very least another viable option in the 2012 presidential race — seem to be sprouting up all over.

The two most prominent are Americans Elect, a group aimed at winning ballot access for an eventual third-party candidate, and No Labels, an organization filled with high-profile names — including former George W. Bush media consultant Mark McKinnon and former Kentucky state treasurer Jonathan Miller — designed as an online home for the politically disaffected. “If you build it (ballot access), they (candidates and voters) will come,” McKinnon said in an e-mail.

No Labels says it advocates for bipartisan solutions to problems and not a third-party presidential candidate.

There are others. Votocracy allows virtually anyone to run for president. Ruck.us, a site developed by two former Democratic operatives, sorts people by common interests rather than political leanings. The Centrist Alliance, the newest entrant into the field, formed officially on July 4.

Those who closely monitor these third-party efforts say that not only is there an array of groups with similar goals but there also is money flowing to them from wealthy individuals trying to change the two-party dynamic.

“Politics has lagged our social and business evolution,” said Scott Ehredt of the Centrist Alliance. “There are 30 brands of Pringles in our local grocery store. How is it that Americans have so much selection for potato chips and only two brands — and not very good ones — for political parties?”

The Potato Chip Party.

Now that’s something we could sink our teeth into.

C’mon.

It’s early.

And we’re teetering on the brink of financial ruin.

Or not.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates: Back on Top in the City of Champions

Even for a pajama-clad citizen journalist encased in an air conditioning dome it’s too hot and humid today to fret about the Beltway deficit debacle and similar matters. So I’ll continue my now long-established tradition (two weeks and counting) of trying to find good news to report on Fridays.

And this might not be good news for everybody, but I noticed while scanning the NYT the other day that the Pittsburgh Pirates are at or near the top of the heap in the National League Central Division. Whoa, big guy. The Pirates have been the worst team in baseball for decades so how did this turnaround happen? It’s akin to Congressional Republicans reneging on Grover Norquist’s mandate to never increase taxes.

I don’t follow baseball — or any professional sports for that matter — much these days. And the closest I’ve been to a Pirates’ game in 30 years came this May when I ran the half-marathon in Pittsburgh and crossed the Roberto Clemente Bridge and passed Bill Mazeroski Way on the road to the finish line at Heinz Field.

Still, that brought back some great memories of growing up in the Steel City, taking the street car from my home on the North Side to Forbes Field in Oakland, and spending many a day and night huddled around the radio listening to Bob Prince and Jim Woods call the action on KDKA.

Ah, the good old days.

Anyway, here’s the NYT article that got me heading down memory lane, “Over .500, Pirates Get Back in the Mix“:

PITTSBURGH — For 18 years, baseball teams have known where to shop for help in the pennant race. The Pittsburgh Pirates have finished each of those seasons with a losing record, and by July, things are usually so hopeless that they trade veterans to contenders. The last two World Series winners have each included two players acquired from Pittsburgh for prospects.

“You’re happy for them individually, because that’s why every one of us does this,” said Neal Huntington, the Pirates’ general manager. “You love to win.”

But now it is the Pirates (51-45), of all teams, who are winning again, tied for the lead in the National League Central after Wednesday afternoon’s 3-1 loss to Cincinnati. It is the latest they have led their division since winning it in 1992.

The subsequent streak of losing seasons is a record for the four major professional sports in the United States. It has bruised a proud city that has claimed two Super Bowls and a Stanley Cup since the Pirates’ last winning season.

“Times before that I’ve been here, it’s been hard to go out to dinner,” said Joel Hanrahan, the Pirates’ closer, who joined the team during the 2009 season. “You didn’t really want to go out because you didn’t want to have somebody come up and go, ‘Why don’t you ever win?’ Now, you can go out in town and not feel embarrassed. They’ll clear off the table for you real quick.”

OK. Long way from July until the World Series in December (or whenever it’s being played these days). And for my friends and family in Europe, I know we’re not talking about snooker here, but wouldn’t it be great to see the Cleveland Indians and the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series?

Well, you can dream. And as I shuffled past Bill Mazeroski Way in May, I thought about the seventh game of the World Series in 1960 when Maz hit the greatest home run ever. I’ll leave it at that as we head into the weekend where we can expect more hot, humid weather and nothing but good news.

The Heat Dome and Swimming With the Sharks

OK. I’ll admit it. I can’t swim. Well, that’s not totally true. If I fell into the shallow end of a pool I could probably tread water long enough for my feet to find the bottom. So I won’t be heading to the beach or pool like millions of others to get some relief from the heat dome that has settled over the nation.

And at 5 a.m. it’s already hot and humid enough that I figure I might as well just go to the gym and chase the treadmill belt. Might as well sweat in the relative comfort of air conditioning.

I’m sure Diana Nyad would consider me a wuss.

She’s a marathon swimmer who is planning to swim from Cuba to Key West without any real protection from the sharks that apparently consider this to be their pool. Here’s from the NYT, “Ready to Swim 103 Miles With the Sharks“:

KEY WEST, Fla. — Any day now, Diana Nyad will set out to do something no athlete has ever done: swim all day and all night, then all day and all night, then all day again.

She will swim about 60 hours in the churning sea, 103 miles across the Straits of Florida from Cuba to Key West. Every hour and a half, she will stop to tread water for a few minutes as she swallows a liquid mixture of predigested protein and eats an occasional bit of banana or dollop of peanut butter. She will most likely hallucinate and endure the stings of countless jellyfish. Along the way, sea salt will swell her tongue to cartoonish proportions and rub her skin raw.

“She is up against the most outlandish, outrageous, unbelievable physical endurance activity of, certainly, my lifetime,” said Steven Munatones, a champion open-water swimmer who runs the organization Open Water Source and will serve as an independent observer during Ms. Nyad’s swim. “I can’t imagine being in the ocean for 60 hours. I can’t imagine doing anything for 60 hours. It is inconceivable. It simply is.”

“Especially,” he added, “at her age.”

Her age is 61. Ms. Nyad attempted this swim once before, unsuccessfully, in 1978 at the age of 28. She swam inside a shark cage for 41 hours 49 minutes until the raucous weather and powerful current pushed her far off course and she was forced to give up. She had traveled only 50 miles. (One year later, she swam 102 miles from Bimini, in the Bahamas, to Jupiter, Fla., without a shark cage. She still holds the record for the world’s longest ocean swim.)

And about the sharks:

If Ms. Nyad makes it from Cuba to Key West, she will be the first person to have done so without a shark cage. In 1997, an Australian woman completed the swim inside a shark cage. But with a boat pulling the cage, the swim is easier and faster; the woman completed it in less than 24 hours.

“I’m in uncharted territory,” Ms. Nyad said.

Well, I guess I better stop carping about the heat and humidity and just go run.

And I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it would be to swim from Cuba to Key West — with or without sharks tagging along. So good luck to Nyad on that.

But if something happens that she has to postpone or call off the swim, maybe she could head to D.C. this weekend as some real sharks hover under the hot air dome on Capitol Hill trying to reach an agreement on the debt ceiling and government spending.