Friday, January 30, 2009

Obama's Fiscal Stimulus Plan and FDR's Legacy

The London Independent's Johann Hari pens a brief but mighty piece on HuffPost showing how the massive spending FDR initiated at the outset of the Great Depression was the medicine that our ailing country needed. President Obama wants to do very much the same thing by massive spending on national infrastructure and a low-carbon economy, and Republicans are trotting the same old tired arguments about slashing spending and cutting taxes. The Reaganites of the late 1970s tried to revise history by asserting that the New Deal didn't work. Hari points out, however, that when FDR caved into conservative pressure, the momentum of the recovery reversed itself. He later reimplemented massive public spending and recovery got back on track. It was the onset of WWII that got us out of the Depression (again, more public spending). He ran up record budget deficits (for that time) but his massive public spending launched a huge economic boom period that eclipsed all that.

It was Reagan, and then GW Bush, who ran our economy into the ground by slashing spending and cutting taxes. Investors and wealthy people who enjoyed the benefits of these economic times simply built more wealth for themselves. The rest of us tried to keep up as our real income dropped and our personal debt soared. We mirrored the government's deficit spending and created one hell of a mess. Hence the massive recessions of the late 1980s and now.

Of course, Republicans always want to take credit for boom times that occur during the watch of a Democratic president, and blame that Democratic president when things go south on their watch.

As someone who has made a pretty good living when times were good, I certainly understand the desire to hold onto more of that money by paying less taxes. This is especially true when my government spends my tax money on programs and policies that run counter to my political leanings. But if I were spending as much of my income on debt service than the federal government, I'd sell my house and rent until I could right the ship, as it were.

So when I see Republican leaders in the House and Senate on TV criticizing the Obama plan, I tune it out as just another rerun of a show that failed to connect the first time it ran.

"Out, damn'd spot!" cont.

A reader writes:
My response to Yoo: Live free or die, motherf***er. This is America, and we are Americans, even if you aren't. How's that for an ideal, you UCB-denigrating, Constitution-shredding dickless squid? Our ideals are the only thing that makes America worth saving, you brainless moron.

I usually stop for ped[estrian]s when driving down Telegraph, but I'll gladly make an exception in your case, lest you finally, someday, succeed in getting a UCB student to drink your kool-aid.

Small target, small points, my friend. Aim higher than this worthless piece of excrement.

"Out, damn'd spot!"

John Yoo, the former Bush administration Justice Department official who is now infamous for writing the legal opinions which provided the administration legal cover for their torture policy, pens an insipid and weak op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, in which he tries to criticize President Obama's decision to close Guantanamo.

In the piece he declares as "naive" the statement made by Mr. Obama that we can "reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." This is exactly the kind of politics that lost the Republicans the election. They may call it pragmatic or realistic as they dismiss the resonant message of November's winner, but the real outcome remains: we won.

In a close examination of Yoo's piece, Scott Horton writes for Harper's that Yoo:
... alludes to techniques used by our allies the United Kingdom and Israel which he claims now Obama rejects. What on earth is this about? If we recall his memo, one of its more bizarre passages involves a European human rights court decision in which five specific techniques used by the U.K. on suspected Irish terrorists during the “troubles” are classified as “cruel, inhuman and degrading” rather than torture. Thus, Yoo argues, these techniques have passed international muster and are fine. That’s the sort of answer which would get a law student a failing grade.
Horton also believes that the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) "is looking at serious ethical issues surrounding the issuance of Yoo’s legal opinions. But the OPR probe is far from Yoo’s only or even most pressing worry. The likelihood that he will face a criminal probe and then possibly prosecution is growing."

Yoo is a despicable individual, to be sure, and his memo cascaded into what many legal scholars successfully argue was one of the grossest violations of Constitutional and international law in United States history. In fact, that the University of California (at Berkeley, no less) employs him at all gives me the creeps that I actually graduated from that system.

But Yoo is but one small cog in a much bigger machine. A machine that looked like George W. Bush; ticked like Donald Rumsfeld; was oiled by David Addington and Doug Feith; was sold to the public by Colin Powell and Condi Rice; but was designed, created, and powered by Dick Cheney. If offering Yoo immunity would get him to tell the truth, I'd probably argue for it, but he's a True Believer in the "near dictatorial powers" of the Executive. He wouldn't crack unless someone beneath him had direct knowledge that Yoo was specifically instructed to find a way to make it "legal" to torture people.

Some of my readers have responded that torturing Gitmo detainees is no big deal. Aside from the fact that most of the people detained there are likely "enemy combatants" in name only, the ability of any American to forget basic human rights is repugnant to me. We are talking basic here -- the fact that some may wish for the destruction of America (and/or Israel) is irrelevant. One need not care if these people live or die, but what we as a country stand for, above all else, is freedom. Suspending freedom to secure freedom is a bullshit idea. That's a cynic's view; that is not a view of the America that I live in.

Monday, January 26, 2009


Bill Kristol has left the NY Times after a brief experiment with publishing a column from a rabid anti-liberalist in an essentially progressive publication. He departs leaving a few parting shots, including the following warning to Obama:
Still, there will be trying times during Obama’s presidency, and liberty will need staunch defenders. Can Obama reshape liberalism to be, as it was under F.D.R., a fighting faith, unapologetically patriotic and strong in the defense of liberty? That would be a service to our country.
Uh, yeah right.

Harry Truman dropped two atomic bombs in defense of liberty and sent troops to Korea to help stop the spread of Maoist communism. Kennedy had a famous stare-down with Kruschev. Johnson sent men to die in Vietnam to defend their liberty, and committed political suicide in the process. And Bill Clinton forged some of the strongest ties ever with a resurgent Europe, ushering in an age of global prosperity that his successor recklessly squandered. These are strong, patriotic liberals. Even Carter was a patriot, and if not for his weak leadership, he might have succeeded as well. He was unfortunately hamstrung by Nixon's heinous deeds and Ford's ineptitude. Barack Obama, I believe, has more of a backbone than Carter, and he's going to need it to avoid being hamstrung by the worst presidential administration in US history. But this is typical Kristollian writing, propagandizing conservatives and trying to write history without the benefit of hindsight and objectivity.

Now, I won't pretend that I was a regular reader of Kristol's column. I prefer my conservatism packaged with a healthy dose of reality. Andrew Sullivan, George Will, even Reihan Salam at times. Whenever I would read Kristol's column, I got the same shudders of nausea I used to get when I'd read Jonah Goldberg, and to some extent even that skinny blonde who must not be named. So for reasons of self-preservation I skipped his column. But his smirk never escaped my attention. Now it won't have to be displayed on the NY Times website anymore.

Crawl back into your Weekly Standard hole, Bill.

War Crimes Prosecutions?

Sullivan's been at this for a long time, and I tend to agree with him. This morning I read this Sunday evening post where Andrew argues for prosecutions. Money quote:

I do not believe in a witch-hunt in the CIA, whose many hard-working officers deserve support not censure. I do believe in holding responsible those high elected officials who broke the law and violated the Constitution in authorizing war crimes. It should take as much time as needed for a thorough accounting; it should be meticulously fair; it should be geared solely to ensure that the rule of law is no longer in question; and that only those truly responsible at the top of the chain of command are held liable. But if we do not hold these men to account, the precedent they set is alarming.

They have, after all, argued that the executive branch can do anything to anyone to defend the nation's security as defined and measured by that executive branch itself. They have argued that that power is permanent and not restricted to a discrete length of time. They have declared the Constitution to be entirely subject to the executive's will, checked only by a four year "moment of accountability". And they are unrepentant - even boastful of their actions. We cannot leave that precedent in place.
Today he posts a snippet from Anonymous Liberal's blog about the counter-productivity of actual prosecutions for war crimes. A.L.'s contention is that prosecutions can result in acquittals, which can be used by Republicans and the conservative media, not only to exonerate those prosecuted, but to justify torture, warrantless searches, indefinite detention, suspension of habeas corpus, and God knows what else.

But, like Andrew, I believe that we either apply the law to those who are alleged to have violated it, or we don't. If we do, then we have to do it with the full knowledge that our imperfect system of justice may shed a light on this subject that we don't want shed: namely, that some we think may be guilty are not guilty, according to the law. If we don't, then as a nation we are collectively guilty of turning a blind eye to our obsessive pursuit of "safety." Doing whatever it takes to ensure no further attacks is one thing; vesting unlimited, unchecked power in the hands of a few is tyranny. Is that what we want for this country?

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

More Bye-bye's

This one from a toddler on YouTube.

Kids say the darndest things!

Iconic Image

This one is for the history books:

As the Obamas and Bidens wave fare-thee-well to the Bushes on January 20, one can only imagine the dialogue occurring between those powerful men and their wives (or the thoughts in their heads that they'd like to utter but don't):
"I can't believe he's finally gone."

"Ah, but his 'legacy' remains, doesn't it?"

"When do we sic Patrick Fitzgerald on him?"

"As soon as we have enough of his staff to give him up."
Or the conversation occurring on board Marine One:
"What's for dinner tonight, Laura?"

"Well, dear, you've eaten enough humble pie today. How about a liquid dinner?"

"I gave up drinking, remember?"

"Oh, that's right. Silly me."

"'We thank him for his service.' That's all he could manage to say?"

"Well, that's more than Dick got."

Monday, January 19, 2009

Christianist Humor

Sarah Palin is invited to meet with the Pope while he is vacationing south of Venice.

The liberal press reluctantly watches the semi-private audience, hoping they will be able to allot minimal coverage, if any.

The Pope asks Governor Palin to join him on a Gondola ride through the canals of Venice.

They're admiring the sights and agreeing on moral issues when, all of a sudden, the Pope's hat (zucchetto) blows off his head and out in to the water.

The gondolier starts to reach for the Pontiff's cap with his pole, but this move threatens to overturn the floating craft.

Sarah waves the tour guide off, saying, 'Wait, wait. I'll take care of this. Don't worry.'

She steps off the gondola onto the surface of the water and walks out to the Pope's hat, bends over and picks it up.She walks back across the water to the gondola and steps aboard.

She hands the hat to the Pope amid stunned silence.

The next morning the topic of conversation among Democrats in Congress, CBS News, NBC News, ABC News, CNN, the New York Times, Hollywood celebrities, and in Franceand Germany is:

'Palin Can't Swim.'
(hat tip: David Adams)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Not the Same Thing At All

Glenn Greenwald, a progressive blogger with whom I frequently agree (even if it means I criticize Barack Obama), has been getting it wrong of late about Israel's actions in Gaza. Today he levels a scathing attack against Thomas Friedman, a columnist for the NY Times, who defends Israel's actions. In his Times piece, Friedman even goes so far as to support the collateral damage Israel inflicted on civilians in Lebanon during her 2006 war with Hezbollah:
Israel’s counterstrategy was to use its Air Force to pummel Hezbollah and, while not directly targeting the Lebanese civilians with whom Hezbollah was intertwined, to inflict substantial property damage and collateral casualties on Lebanon at large. It was not pretty, but it was logical. Israel basically said that when dealing with a nonstate actor, Hezbollah, nested among civilians, the only long-term source of deterrence was to exact enough pain on the civilians — the families and employers of the militants — to restrain Hezbollah in the future.
Now, I'm certainly not one to say "who gives a shit" about civilian casualties, even when one is engaged in a military conflict with a terrorist army like Hezbollah. But if a central strategy of Hezbollah is to hide out in civilian neighborhoods, knowing full well that Israel's military will likely kill civilians trying to engage the enemy, then those poor civilians are going to pay a dear price for not getting out of the way (or, worse, standing their ground and letting themselves get shot at). Hezbollah shrewdly knows that the international media love to take pictures of dead civilians in the streets (and some bloggers like to use those photos to illustrate their points -- WARNING, VERY GRAPHIC). This is precisely why Israel is restricting media access to Gaza, by the way. Anyway, I digress a little.

Greenwald takes Friedman's words and basically calls it the very definition of terrorism, according the the U.S. State Department:

No one definition of terrorism has gained universal acceptance. For the purposes of this report, however, we have chosen the definition of terrorism contained in Title 22 of the United States Code, Section 2656f(d). That statute contains the following definitions:

The term "terrorism" means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant (1) targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

(1) For purposes of this definition, the term "noncombatant" is interpreted to include, in addition to civilians, military personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed and/or not on duty.

Emphasis Greenwald's. Notice, that he doesn't emphasize the six words in the middle of that definition. He asks, "Other than the fact that Friedman is advocating these actions for an actual state rather than a 'subnational group,' can anyone identify any differences between (a) what Friedman approvingly claims was done to the Lebanese and what he advocates be done to Palestinians and (b) what the State Department formally defines as 'terrorism'?" Well, this is a BIG distinction. Israel is taking the conflict to the enemy, where the enemy resides. This, to me, is a war, not a terrorist campaign.

I'm not suggesting that when a country engages in behavior that resembles terrorism that it's not terrorism by virtue of its being conducted by a country. What I'm saying is that there is a significant context to understand and to consider in Israel's case. First is Israel's 60 years of existence under nearly constant attack by its neighbors. If anything can justify preemptive action to avoid further attack, I think this does. Second is the Palestinians' choice to elect Hamas, which is the wish to eradicate Israel turned into a movement, to govern them. Third is the choice groups like Hamas and Hezbollah make to turn women, children, and the elderly among them into human shields. If I'm Israel, I say, "If I've got to weigh protecting Israeli citizens against Hezbollah or Hamas attacks, or unintentionally causing civilian casualties because our enemies like to hide behind civilians, then we're going to issue some warning, and then we will open fire. If anyone is responsible for civilian casualties, it is Hezbollah and Hamas."

Unfortunately, Friedman misses a point. In the real world, the Palestinians are not going to knuckle under and turn against Hamas so that they are voted out in the next election. If anything, it appears as though Hamas is stronger now. That's to be expected. Israelis aren't going to turn against their own government because they are being attacked by an enemy, either. No, they're going to defend themselves and hit back. So the solution to this problem is not to bomb Hamas out of existence or terrorize Israelis into giving up their country. As Tom Segev, a controversial Israeli journalist noted today on PRI's The World radio program, it is preferable to think in terms of conflict management rather than peace. As someone who came to adulthood in the wake of the Six Day War in 1967, Segev said he is no longer a believer in peace with Israel's Arab neighbors. Rather, he believes that there are people on both sides who wish to avoid further bloodshed. And it is the proper thing to do to sit down with one's enemies and negotiate a way for two sides to manage something over which they are going to have deep disagreement. In the best of all possible scenarios, both sides stand facing each other, armed as necessary, and refrain from pulling the trigger for as long as possible. Dialogue continues and further understandings are reached. Segev, however, did not mention peace, or a road map, other than to refer to them as "fictions" of the Bush administration that needed to be abandoned by the incoming Obama administration.

Monday, January 12, 2009

What it Feels Like

I'm writing this post today because it's taken me about this long to come to terms with the news I'm about to share with you.

On New Year's Eve, I lost my job. I know, sucks, right? Working for one of the strongest banks in the country, no danger of bad loans bringing the company down, and I lost my job.

Well, it gets worse. See, I wasn't laid off. I was given the choice to resign immediately or be "separated" from the company. Now, that sucks even more, doesn't it? Seems that, although I had hit all my goals with regard to developing a strong customer base and what we sales types call a "book of business," it wasn't enough.

See, as a loan officer, I work 100% on commission. If I don't close a deal, I don't get paid. And I didn't close enough deals for the company to believe 1) I could do a better job than what I'd been doing, and 2) they could recover their investment in me. Wow, it feels humbling to write those words. And I thought I'd processed all of this already.

Unfortunately, my compensation (or lack thereof) is a bit more complicated. Because I work in California, the law states that the company has to pay me something just for being an employee. In sales terms, they call this a "draw." The company paid me this draw -- which, by the way, didn't even cover the cost of my grocery bills -- in semi-monthly installments. When I closed deals, the commission I received went against this draw, so I was actually paid the draw plus the remainder of the commission.

It gets a little more complicated still. After a brief period where they actually "guaranteed" me the draw, the draw became "recoverable." That means, if I didn't close any deals in a given month, I still got the draw, but now I owed the company that money until I closed enough deals to pay it back. This was called a "deficit." I got the draw again the next month, but if my commissions weren't enough to pay back two months' draws, I still owed money.

Well, September was a horrible month for me. Even though I'd been working the phones and going to realtor's open houses every week (including Sundays), the business just wasn't coming in. I closed nothing that month. The next month was even worse, because I actually had deals to close. They were all declined. Call it bad luck, but now I was two months in deficit. To make up that amount, I would have had to have my best months at the worst time of the year. Remember the economic meltdown? Happened at the start of October. Customers I had lined up for November and December decided that they didn't want to buy those houses after all. At least not until the dust settled. If any of you pay attention to those "consumer confidence" statistics each month, you'll understand that these customers were demonstrating a serious lack of confidence in the economy. Rates were up; open houses were largely quiet; my referral network was growing, but there were no deals yet. And what I did have in my pipeline was thin.

I managed to close some deals in November, but only enough to put a small dent (about 20%) of my deficit. The election was over, and people seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The phone started ringing. My referral sources were calling me. I took a record number of applications that month. December also looked great at the beginning: I had enough business scheduled to close that would have cut the deficit down to 10% of where I was at the beginning of November, and applications were rolling in now that the election was over and rates were down to ridiculously low levels. A customer I'd closed in August called me to lower her rate. A couple more of those and I had an actual good January too.

Then, one customer called me -- his mother-in-law got sick and he would have to travel to Mexico with this wife in two weeks. I told him I could still close before he left, but he didn't believe me, and he cancelled his loan. Another two couldn't get their paperwork in order quickly enough and were pushed into January. These are normal occurrences in the mortgage business, by the way. But with my "deficit" situation, I couldn't afford to have this happen.

Then my manager starting calling me every day to get progress on my pipeline. It was after a week of this when I realized my job was on the line. He was clearly reporting this up to his managers and they were discussing whether it was worth it to keep me on for another month.

When the end came, it felt so cold and impersonal. My manager, with whom I'd spoken for three long hours over two days when I interviewed for the job, suddenly had nothing to say. In fact, he wasn't even there; he was on vacation, and he had me on speakerphone while his assistant handed me paperwork. He gave me exactly sixty seconds to decide on resignation or termination. I chose to be terminated because it made unemployment easier to get.

Now, I've only been fired from one job before because of performance. At that time, I was much younger, had virtually nothing at stake, and since I was also facing the end of my first marriage and the loss of my home due to the 1994 Northridge earthquake, it seemed at the time that there were more crucial issues to deal with than losing my job.

But now, you all know my family situation. A wife who works part time with no health benefits, and two young kids. I had the same kind of year you all had with your 401ks, IRAs, and 529 plans. Luckily, we have savings, but that's now running out a little more quickly. And we now have to pay for health insurance until I get another job. Have you priced COBRA lately? Last time I checked, it was about $1,100 a month. Ouch.

Thankfully, today I found out that another large bank wants to hire me. After the background check I hope to be getting an offer. At the same time, I hung my real estate license with a good friend who is a successful mortgage banker. I hope to be able to direct my clients in either direction and keep juggling those balls. With things beginning to return to a semblance of normalcy, I feel somewhat more confident that I'll return to peak earnings form.

In the meantime, I've talked to a lot of friends and family members who have all offered their support, their encouragement, and their confidence in me. For that I am very grateful. For my wife, who sometimes doesn't handle bad news very well, I am so thankful that she has managed to get around the fear; now we are working together to get things done. It wasn't an easy transition -- I didn't realize at first that I was shocked, and felt terribly humiliated. Her words of support and encouragement didn't sound that way while I was in that state of mind. But now I hear her and I realize that she's giving me what I need: reality checks, love, and trust. And for those, I cannot be more thankful.

I will update this blog in the coming weeks as things develop. In the meantime, rejoice in the changes that will take place in our country starting next Tuesday. On that day, say a prayer for America, for the new president and his cabinet, and for the outgoing administration (they're all really going to need it), that they all get what they need and deserve. Most of all, however, find a way to step and up and help, in any way you can.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What Will Bush 43's Poll Numbers Be in 2036?

Nearly 30 years after Jimmy Carter was defeated by the early neocon movement led by Ronald Reagan, his approval numbers are somewhere in the 64% range. When he left office he was at 34%. Similarly, George H.W. Bush (Bush 41) left office in 1993 with a 34% approval rating; now he's viewed by 60% of the American public as positive.

That was way before the advent of the Internet.

Hopes in the Bush 43 camp are high that 20-30 years from now, he'll receive a similarly favorable rating, which would be better than the 27% he "enjoys" right now.

Fat chance. So fat that it should be on "Biggest Loser."

An Oral History of the Bush "Error"

Vanity Fair compiles comments from an assortment of Bush insiders and assorted critics to provide context to a chronology of the most disastrous presidential administration in US history. My conservative friends will disagree and blame liberal media bias, liberal elites, secularists, atheists, the homosexual "lifestyle," and a host of ANYTHING BUT a Republican cabal of massive, epic failures.

Appropriate titled, "Farewell To All That," there were so many choice quotes I could highlight here, but this one in particular -- March 19, 2003, when the Iraq War officially began -- stands out:
March 19, 2003 The Iraq war begins. Two weeks of “shock and awe” bombard- ment herald the invasion by ground forces. U.S. and British troops make up 90 percent of the “international coalition,” which includes modest support from other countries. The defeat of Iraqi forces is a foregone conclusion, but within days of the occupation Baghdad is beset by looting that coalition forces do nothing to stop. Rumsfeld dismisses the breakdown of civil order with the explanation “Stuff hap- pens.” Kenneth Adelman, a Rumsfeld-appointed member of a Pentagon advisory board, and initially a supporter of the war, later confronts the defense secretary.

Kenneth Adelman, a member of Donald Rumsfeld’s advisory Defense Policy Board: So he says, It might be best if you got off the Defense Policy Board. You’re very negative. I said, I am negative, Don. You’re absolutely right. I’m not negative about our friendship. But I think your decisions have been abysmal when it really counted.

Start out with, you know, when you stood up there and said things—“Stuff hap- pens.” I said, That’s your entry in Bartlett’s. The only thing people will remember about you is “Stuff happens.” I mean, how could you say that? “This is what free people do.” This is not what free people do. This is what barbarians do. And I said, Do you realize what the looting did to us? It legitimized the idea that liberation comes with chaos rather than with freedom and a better life. And it demystified the potency of American forces. Plus, destroying, what, 30 percent of the infrastructure.

I said, You have 140,000 troops there, and they didn’t do jack shit. I said, There was no order to stop the looting. And he says, There was an order. I said, Well, did you give the order? He says, I didn’t give the order, but someone around here gave the order. I said, Who gave the order?

So he takes out his yellow pad of paper and he writes down—he says, I’m going to tell you. I’ll get back to you and tell you. And I said, I’d like to know who gave the order, and write down the second question on your yellow pad there. Tell me why 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq disobeyed the order. Write that down, too.

And so that was not a successful conversation.

Earlier in the piece, Canadian Defense Minister Bill Graham called Rumsfeld, "obviously an extremely intelligent person." I didn't get the gist of that statement until I read the Adelman quote. Rumsfeld had the balls to portray himself and sell himself as intelligent, but when push came to shove and he got called on his bullshit, he gave himself up as an incompetent boor.