January 30, 2010

Barry & the Knuckleheads

Along with most other fair-minded viewers, I came away from Obama's "Question Time" with the National Academy of Nonscientists (a/k/a, the Republican House caucus) with the general impression that the President had cleaned their clock. It put to rest some of the questions I had had about his ability to think and respond on his feet. He slapped these chumps silly, actually. So much so that the Fair & Balanced Network (Faux News) finally cut away from the questioning, much as a Spanish network with delicate sensibilities might cut away from the ultimate stages of a bull fight, I suppose.

"Progressives" are in a state of ecstasy bordering on the priapic, of course. Obama was good, very good. We used to wonder what would have happened if George W. Bush had ever been subjected to a process similar to the British Parliamentary ritual of the "Prime Minister's Questions;" yesterday's American version answered this inquiry where Obama was concerned, emphatically, since even in the British system the Prime Minister's own party breaks up the hectoring with a few soft ball questions. In Obama's situation in Baltimore yesterday, it was 100% opposition, and they never got anywhere with him.

Which leaves me wondering -- why does the O Man spend so much time worrying about these people and their "opinions?" He was, as usual, full of schmaltzy rhetoric about "bipartisanship" and doing the people's work. At the same time, there was no question that Obama "gets" the fundamental dynamic of American politics: the Right Wing plays solely to the home crowd, in Georgia and rural Texas and in the Mormon reaches of Idaho and Utah and in Redneck Florida, and while these Republican Reps might be gushing over their chance to spend so much uninterrupted time with America's Rock Star (and they did seem to be as much in thrall of the O Man as, say, a crowd in Berlin), they aren't going to change their Immediately-Post-Prelapsarian views of the world one iota as a result of this confab. The people in that room (other than Barack) represent the American Theocratic Movement of American politics. They are a cult, and the most extreme expression of their cultist views takes the form of the Tea Party people. Careful polling demonstrates this over and over, although the Tea Party people are often described as if they were a larger, more inclusive cohort of lunatics.

You do not change the views of a cult through reasonable colloquy. One can make this confident statement almost by means of tautological argument: if you could change their views through this method, they would not be a cult. There is a reason that "deprogramming" is such an arduous, difficult, uncertain process. Cults are self-reinforcing. The cult members believe what they believe and are warned forcefully not to challenge the consensus of the group on pain of ostracism, shaming and exclusion. The reward for membership is the feeling of community and strength that comes through surrendering one's rational faculties to obscurantist nonsense.

So Obama was engaging in to-and-fro with people who don't take seriously issues such as climate change (because they see science as a liberal conspiracy), think abortion is murder (because clumps of post-coital cells are injected with a "soul" absent from the sperm and ovum microseconds before), think gay people "choose" their sexual orientation out of plain cussedness, instead of biological necessity, and whole rafts of other happy horseshit.

Since Obama gets this fundamental point so well, and understands that these CultReps have no choice (if they want to remain in office) but to keep spouting this stuff, to keep denying the Copernican Solar System, and the globular shape of the Earth, and the law of gravity, and Newton's Laws of Motion, and the existence of subatomic particles, and the accuracy of carbon dating, and to maintain that the Flintstones are an accurate cartoon history of actual human-dinosaur coexistence within the last 6,000 years because evolution is a "fraud" (propagated by the same Liberal Scientific Conspiracy), one is left with the question: what the hell is he doing?

That part I haven't figured out yet. The only answer that comes to mind now is that Obama is completely aware of the total futility of these feel-good (momentary as the feeling must be) exercises in...talking. And that's the point for him. He is such a pure political animal (as Clinton was before him) that he just likes talking about "issues," and hearing himself talk, and patting people over and over on their shoulders, and beaming big smiles, and joshing, and calling people by their names with his prodigious memory for names, and going on and on in his helpful, hortatory, collegial, nice way because he just likes doing that, whether it gets anywhere or not. And it doesn't, of course. The Republicans all vote alike, en bloc, because they're a cult, and that's what cults do. They subscribe to inerrant belief systems, they never waver, and they're very, very scary.

So have fun, Barack. Keep talking to them, use sweet reason pointlessly, keep "compromising" without picking up a single vote, keep diluting genuine progress with placating sops to your Cro-Magnon colleagues Across the Aisle, but remember one thing: it's utterly useless.

January 27, 2010

My President can dunk over your president

I thought it was a pretty good speech. The O Man brought his A game to the House. He was less deferential, more realistic, and he said a great many things that made sense to me. I think he's beginning to realize that he never got into gear during the first year and needs to make up for lost time.

His outline of an alternative energy future was the most hopeful thing he talked about. An economy runs on energy. We've built up a massive trade deficit and an unsustainable debt burden by relying on imported oil. By contrast, wind and solar energy arrive here in the United States free of charge. I have thought (for what that's worth) for a long time that the only real way to transform the economy so that Americans can go to work again and build wealth (instead of shipping it all overseas) is by fundamentally altering the energy paradigm. Harvey Wasserman has outlined a quite plausible future in his text/comic book Ecotopia (it's the size of a big comic book with lots of colorful pictures), and it's a nice world he describes.

Obama seems to understand the need for a breakout move in that direction, and his reference to the Chinese and German efforts in the same direction (he should have mentioned the Israelis and Danes, too) injected just the right note of competition into the idea, so that the troglodytic, knee-jerk rejection of the superannuated Republicans lolling in their seats would make them look even more anti-American than they are. A canny touch, because Being #1 in the world is what Republicanism is all about. They just want to do it in the stupidest, most self-destructive way possible, and preferably one that always smells like sulfur as a by-product.

Anyway, Barack threw them a few sops: we'll keep wasting vast amounts of money on a largely irrelevant conventional military establishment, which, although it completely failed to stop 9-11, will surely stop the next 9-11, although no future 9-11 will look exactly like 9-11 anyway. I was just trying to see if I could say 9-11 in one sentence as many times as Dick Cheney can. Also, nuclear power plants, Barack said, looking to his left like a puppy hoping for a Milk-Bone. The Repubs liked that one. They like all the ideas that are antiquated, cost-ineffective and dangerous.

I wonder what Barack could do if he didn't have to deal with that hopeless Congress. As a body, they really are an immensely useless aggregation of frauds, cheats and scoundrels. They are America's Great Work-Around. Obama had to remind the Democrats that they had the largest majorities in decades, and that they might consider, you know, doing something with them. That's how pathetic the Democrats are: they're unaware they're in control. I think it frightens them, and they're secretly pleased they have party in opposition whose basic platform was fashioned during the Bronze Age (particularly John Boehner, although he shades a little toward cordovan, like fine Coreentheean leather.)

It's possible this next decade will be better than the last. It almost has to be; if it's worse, we won't survive as a nation. Obama may have hit on a useful way to tag his opposition, as the party which defines itself solely by obstruction. That seemed to make them squirm a little, being called out as a political organization which works night and day to make certain America can't get anywhere. Keep it up, O Man. You may be getting your shot back in the groove.

January 26, 2010

If the Senate Democrats were an athletic team...

(In the spirit of the old Mad Magazine. Imagine drawings by Mort Drucker. Alas, I'm no Larry Siegel.)

SCENE: Locker room, halftime. Coach Harry Reid is finishing up his pep talk to the Senate Dems, an NBA franchise.

Coach Reid: I just want you guys to know how proud I am of each and every one of you. We came so close...

Dodd (power forward): Coach! We can still win this thing!

Coach Reid (sadly, patiently): No. No, we can't.

Bayh (two-guard): We're up 59-41, Coach!

Coach Reid: I know. That's the problem. This game is lost. But we gave it a shot, and that's all I've ever asked of you guys.

Schumer (point guard, hanging head, forearms on knees): It's because I missed that free throw at the end of the half, isn't it Coach?

Coach Reid: Chuckie, I'm not going to lie to you and say that helped. But it was Hatch hitting that fall-away three that sealed it. If only it could have been 60-40! Now -- the game is over.

Tester (center): Should we even play the second half? With only this 18-point lead?

Coach Reid: Damn right we will! And don't leave anything on the floor, fellas! We don't have a chance, defeat is certain, but let's make this loss one to remember. Now get out there and lose like men!

SCENE: RFK Stadium. The Washington Democrats have the ball on the 9-yard line of the D.C. Repubs. 4th quarter, 5:53 left to go in the game. The Dems huddle up.

QB Max Baucus (in huddle): Okay, guys. This is it. We're up 59-41, first and goal. This is the moment we've been waiting for. We've got to punt.

Casey (WR): Punt? What for? Let's punch it in!

Baucus: Coach Reid has sent in the play. Hasn't he, Nelson?

Nelson (TE) (glumly): Yeah, Max. We've got to punt.

Durbin (HB): I don't think Franken can even hit the coffin corner from here! He'll be kicking from the 20-yard line. What do we got to lose?

Baucus: The game, Dick. Let's stop kidding ourselves. We're going to kick, then they're going to score two quick touchdowns, recover a bunch of onside kicks, make two two-point conversions, kick a field goal, and win this thing. It's good as done.

Merkley (RG): We gave it a shot, though, didn't we, Max? If Lieberman hadn't run the wrong way on that play...

Baucus: You're darn right we gave it a shot, Jeff! Now let's kick it away, roll over and let this game get away from us! I'm so damn proud of you guys!

(Fade out.)

January 25, 2010

Prez O's First SOTU Address, On Deck

Probably the blog post of mine which prompted the most reaction was something I wrote years ago, when W still ruled the land, called "A Guide to Controlling Your Gag Reflex During the SOTU," or something very close to that. It became apparent during Bush's term that his subjects simply reached the point where they couldn't stand the sight or sound of the man. It was a low point in citizen disaffection, you could say.

I don't feel that way at all about Barack Obama. He's having a rough go, that's for sure, but a lot of it, I would say most of it, is that he inherited a country which was way, way down the path toward collapse when he was sworn in. It is part of his conciliatory nature that he doesn't really emphasize this point very often. Compared to the way that another, more aggressive politician (in other words, someone other than a Democrat) would handle the same situation, Barack has been remarkably reticent about assigning blame. Meanwhile, he's attacked from all sides, by the Right for being a Socialist/Fascist/Communist/Muslim/Kenyan Tyrant, and by the Left for selling out.

The hysterical nature of the criticism reflects the hysterical fear rampant in the country. Very strange and unprecedented things are going on. For example, the Brookings Institution recently published a somewhat astounding social analysis which demonstrated that the fastest growing areas of poverty in America are in its suburbs.

By 2008, suburbs were home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country. Between 2000 and 2008, suburbs in the country’s largest metro areas saw their poor population grow by 25 percent—almost five times faster than primary cities and well ahead of the growth seen in smaller metro areas and non-metropolitan communities. As a result, by 2008 large suburbs were home to 1.5 million more poor than their primary cities and housed almost one-third of the nation’s poor overall. http://www.brookings.edu/papers/2010/0120_poverty_kneebone.aspx

Did you see that one coming? The suburbs are supposed to be where you go to escape, or rise above, the poverty of the inner cities, right? Wasn't that what Leave It To Beaver and Father Knows Best were all about? It's another example of what I have called, during Blooging moments, the parallax of nostalgia. Reality keeps going out of focus; we look at it through dated lenses, like glasses with an obsolete prescription. Lots and lots of poor people are filling up the burbs.

You can get a sense of that sometimes when driving through the conjoined and contiguous towns and cities of Southern California, through housing tracts which were built to last maybe 50 years and are now in their six or seventh decade. South Central L.A. and East Oakland are both suburban slums, really. As all the other old housing tracts age, they undergo a similar devolution. They go down in the world. And now with the blight of foreclosure, the process of decay has been accelerated.

You can't blame all this stuff on Barack Obama, to say the least. There isn't a lot that can be done, in fact, except very gradually re-orient the country toward... something else. Most of his critics don't see it that way. Most of his liberal detractors are Cornucopians who believe, in their hearts, that there are no fiscal restraints on the U.S. Treasury. Oddly enough, many of these kibbitzers are also the main detractors and opponents of Ben Bernanke, but it is Gentle Ben who has devised nine or ten sleight-of-hand tricks to prop up the U.S. Treasury auction business so that despite falling demand from the countries who used to fund our debt (Japan, China), the auctions keep right on humming at interest rates approaching zero.

As the fellow over at The Automatic Earth archly notes:

Kyle Bass’ Hayman Advisors estimate that 45% of the $4.5 trillion in sovereign debt to be issued in 2010, or $2.025 trillion, will be American. Multiple voices have expressed grave doubts about the true identity of the buyers of US debt. There are serious suspicions that most of it has anonymously been bought by the Federal Reserve, simply for lack of other buyers. And that would mean the country buys its own debt, presumably in an effort to keep Treasuries attractive internationally.

You can be assured that Prez O does know who is actually buying American debt, and you can also be certain that he's not going to be talking about such a delicate subject on Wednesday night. The jabbering critics (like the guy at "Waldenswimmer") prattle on endlessly (and irresponsibly) about where Obama should be spending the money we don't have, but Obama actually has to deal with this simple, implacable reality: we're broke, tremendously in debt, and we may actually have resorted to conjuring trillions out of thin air to keep the game afloat.

Those are deeply disturbing ideas, and I think Obama is caught in a kind of cognitive dissonance where he must keep a sunny, optimistic mien for public consumption while he conducts closed-door meetings with his money people where they tell him about stuff like the Fed's program of buying up all the toxic garbage (mortgage-backed securities) on the books of insolvent banks, on the understanding that the "payments" (printed money) paid to the banks will in turn be used to participate in Treasury auctions. And the "Primary Dealer" participation in recent auctions supports the idea that this is what is going on. When you think about it, it's an enormously clever game. The Fed's balance sheet has become an elephant graveyard - it's where the bad debt goes to die, and where its worthless nature is forever hidden from view. And at the same time, by treating this garbage as real value, it gives the Fed a cover story for giving the banks "money" (which the Fed simply prints), and which in turn funds the U.S. deficit. C'mon, folks: give it up for the Bernank; could you have thought that one up?

Although: it is, however, a high-wire act with no net, and may end in the utter worthlessness of the dollar.

The hope, the dream, of the Obama Administration and its designated Merlin at the Fed is that all this levitation will reinflate the housing bubble, and then, in some magic moment, the mountain of debt on the books of American banks and Fannie & Freddie, and on the Fed's own balance sheet as it takes on more and more of this toxic sludge, will be made "good" as the underlying equity in the houses again approaches loan values. And then the mighty American consumer can again drain out the "wealth" and the buying fiesta can resume.

Well, hell, the cavalry used to arrive right after the first of the conestogas caught fire, and the Indians circled tighter and tighter, and Ol' Jeb had an arrow sticking out of him just below the clavicle - not mortal, just indicative of how desperate things were getting. This is pretty much what the Obama Administration is hoping for now. Barack will give the whole thing a different name Wednesday night - "jobs," I think he'll call it, but that's way too slow. Ol' Jeb will bleed out before that can happen. He's waiting for that bugle sound.

So let's give the guy a break, ya think? Meanwhile, jes' keep firin'.