Posts Tagged 'election'

Trumped Up!

There’s an old saying in bridge: “Get your trump out early.”  Apparently, the Republican Party is not populated by bridge players.

In the eight years since I started writing this blog, I’ve tried to find ways to explain the underlying reality or root cause of various issues, often political in nature.  In that time, I have been careful never to tell you how I voted or how I thought you should vote.

I’m changing that now. If you’re reading this, you probably know what’s coming, and maybe this is just piling on.  Please read it anyway.  And then tell your friends.  And ask them to tell theirs.

A while back, my brother asked me what I was going to do in this election.  Here is my answer:

“I have two choices – to hate myself a lot or to hate myself even more than that. When election day rolls around, I will go to The Container Store, buy a bag of 100 clothespins, put all 100 of them on my nose, and go vote for Hillary Clinton.  There’s a lot that I don’t like about her, and I don’t think she’s going to be a great president.  But she doesn’t pose a threat to the Republic. Donald Trump does.”

There.  I said it.

When this mess is over, I hope there will be some soul searching as to how we got to this ridiculous place.  I may have a few comments to offer in a subsequent post or two.  And I hope, but don’t expect, that the deepest soul searching will be done by the Republican Party, with which I used to identify, and which once was the noble Party of Lincoln. Today, it’s the Miracle Party.  The miracle is that they managed to make Ted Cruz look like a rational option.

Whether the soul searching happens or not (spoiler alert – it won’t), here’s what matters now:

  • Trumps lack of impulse control is legendary (see “Three Disastrous Debates” and “Awake at 3 AM Tweeting About a Former Beauty Pageant Winner’s Weight”).  This short article from the National Institutes of Health explains how impulse control is provided by the frontal cortex of the brain, which normally becomes completely developed around age 25.  Trump’s utter lack of such control suggests that this part of his brain either never finished developing or was damaged somewhere along the way.

Add all that up, and here’s what you get:

The Republican Party, in its infinite wisdom, has nominated for President of the United States, an ADHD-addled narcissistic sociopath with a significant brain defect.

I wish I were trying to be funny, but I’m not.  The appropriate response to people like that is to pity them and to help them as best we can.  It is not to elect them to the most powerful office on the planet.

So let’s not do that, OK?

Meet The New Boss

God help me, I swore I wasn’t going to do this, but I just can’t help myself.  At least this time I’ll be brief.

We’ve just come off four years of bitter partisan wrangling that resulted in nothing except the passage of health care reform that was well-intentioned and will be a disaster.  Congress’ performance was so poor that more than 9 out of 10 Americans disapprove of it.  We just wrapped up an election season dominated by the spending of billions of dollars on negative ads loaded with half-truths and outright lies.

And what did we do?  We re-elected the same cast of characters that we all say we’re so dissatisfied with.  The same President, Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader.  The same composition of both the House and Senate, except that each actually moved slightly away from the center, not toward it.  Nothing changed, or if it did, it got marginally worse.

The apocryphal definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results.”  On that basis, we are one crazy nation.

One disagrees with Pogo at one’s peril.  Hope and change?

Who Dealt This Mess?

This is my last pre-election post, and hopefully my last about politics for quite a while.  It’s long and I apologize, but please bear with me.

Almost everyone I know complains that our campaigns are conducted largely through negative, personally-oriented TV ads and that our elected officials pursue the agendas of some set of “special interests” that are not the interests of the American people.  Let’s look at both complaints, and let’s start with a true story.

In 1982, I managed a campaign that resulted in my candidate getting elected to the US House of Representatives.  The primary was the entire race, and my candidate was the sane guy – a moderate Republican, very much in line with the sentiments of the district.  Our chief rival was the chairman of the legislature’s redistricting committee and had gerrymandered the most Republican district he could.  He also was a right-wing nut.  By that I do not mean one of the Pauls – Rand or Ryan.  I mean he was a nut.  That fact notwithstanding, he was well-funded and had unlimited access to direct mail.

We spent months participating in debates, courting the press, and generally trying to foster a reasonably serious discussion of issues.  Had anyone paid attention, that would have worked in our favor because while my guy had his flaws, he wasn’t a nut.  But no one paid attention.  The other guy saturated the district with schlocky, fact-distorting direct mail and piled up a big lead.

In the waning days of the campaign, we turned that around by taking advantage of the local papers’ discovery of the other guy’s business relationship with the firm that sent out all the direct mail on his behalf.  I won’t go into how they made that discovery, but will say that after largely ignoring the race for months, both papers reported this juicy story on the front page, above the fold.  We used their coverage as the basis for a 30-second radio ad, the first 15 seconds of which were brutally negative, if reasonably justified.  That ad stopped and then reversed our opponent’s momentum and gave us the win.  It was the only thing we did that people actually paid attention to.

This is how campaigns actually work, and there’s a lesson in it.  The reason political campaigns are dominated by half-truths, distortions and negative ads is that those things work.  If other things worked better, the campaigns would do them instead.  The don’t-go-below-the-surface arguments, the presentation of goals as if they were plans, the distortions of facts and the personal attacks – these are the things to which the electorate pays attention and responds.

“The electorate,” by the way, includes you and me.

As to the agenda of our elected officials, here’s another bit of bad news.  It’s easy to rail at the rascals, to blame our problems on low-caliber elected officials, lack of leadership and the impact of money.  Easy, but mostly wrong.  Again, a bit of personal experience:

After the campaign I described above, I moved to Washington, DC, and spent two years as a legislative assistant to a member of the US Senate, where I got to see the sausage factory from the inside.  I can attest that all of the dynamics that we complain about now were fully in place then.  There used to be a higher degree of cordiality – people on opposite sides of the aisle often were friends and could talk to each other.  That seems largely to have disappeared.  The volume was turned up and the elbows sharpened in 1994, when Newt Gingrich discovered C-SPAN.  And the flood of money unleashed by Citizens United has turned the volume up even further.

But that doesn’t mean the Congress of 30 years ago somehow was better at solving problems than the Congress of today.  Indeed, the underlying dynamics have not changed.  Regarding money, except in the case of abjectly corrupt officials – the kind who have stacks of cash in their freezers – money will get you a meeting, but it won’t get you a vote.  Money flows to candidates whom the moneyed interests expect will be inclined to support them.  That money goes to fund the negative ads we complain about, then use to make our decisions.  We eat the dog food.

There’s a structural problem here as well.  The Founding Fathers did a brilliant job of designing institutions that would apportion growing resources more or less fairly over time.  Those institutions, however, were not designed, and do not have the capacity, to apportion the pain of slower-growing, let alone declining, resources.  That’s why every difficult choice gets thrown to a commission, or Congress puts in place a self-destruct mechanism like the so-called fiscal cliff.

The reason Congress can’t make those tough calls is that it is astoundingly responsive to the short-term will and wishes of the American people.  The parties poll incessantly, so they know what we think, however irrational or poorly informed we may be (for example, something like 70% of people who identify themselves as Tea Party voters oppose cuts in Medicare and Social Security).  I know this will come as a shock, so you may want to sit down, but Congressmen vote in ways that they anticipate will keep them in office.  The rationale is, “If I’m not here, I can’t do any good, so I’ll say what I need to and vote how I need to in order to make sure I stick around.”

In short, however much we may complain about it, the government we have is exactly the government we want.  We could throw all the bums out, and within six months, the new bums would be behaving just like the old bums because we, their customers, tell them what kind of dog food we want.

This is not a game.  We have serious issues to address.  I took the picture below at a Starbucks.  As best I can tell, proceeds from the sale of these bracelets go into a fund that makes micro-loans to American manufacturers.


Micro-lending is the province of third-world countries.  Just down the street from this Starbucks is a large building that used to be a luxury furniture store.  Today, it is a thrift shop.

However much you may believe in American exceptionalism, it is worth remembering that exceptionalism often requires hard choices and sacrifice, neither of which have we been willing to make.

This following graph is from a presentation I gave in 2010 called “Economic Realities of the New Normal.”  It shows the history of the US balance of trade over the past 50 years.

While many factors go into the balance of trade, at the highest level it tells us whether we want to buy more of their stuff or they want to buy more of our stuff.  The answer is obvious, and tells us that the US economy has been fundamentally non-competitive for the past 37 years.  This is an inconvenient and unpleasant fact, but a fact nonetheless.

For that entire time, we have consumed more than we’ve produced.  Consumption feels good, but you have to pay for it somehow.  We’ve done that largely by borrowing back the money we sent to foreign countries to buy their stuff, so that we could buy more of their stuff.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

The biggest portion of that borrowing is Federal debt (this graph doesn’t show it, but the total Federal debt is now over $16 trillion, about two-thirds of which has been borrowed from offshore because that’s where the money is.)

When I was living in Washington, DC, I heard George Will give a talk.  One thing he said that stuck with me is that our fiscal problem is that “every year the American people want $300 billion of services from their government that they’re not willing to pay for.”  He said that in 1983.  A quick look at the graph above shows that he was right, except that we did better in the late Clinton years, and that today, $300 billion has turned into $1 trillion.  (Before my more conservative friends get exercised over Obama and the twin towers on the right, of which two more have now been added, it is worth remembering that the first of those towers belongs to George W. Bush.)

The “American people” who simultaneously demand and refuse to pay for those services include you and me.

And the graph above doesn’t tell the entire story.  To generate cash, we’ve conducted a national garage sale, selling off a net $4 trillion of assets (companies, real estate, etc.).  We’ve generated phantom wealth through a tech frenzy and a real estate frenzy.  States, localities and individuals have borrowed even more.  Total US non-corporate debt is around $22-23 trillion, which means that about one-third of all the capital in the world has been borrowed by. . .us.

In my childhood, my father introduced me to Pogo, Walt Kelly’s swamp cat who had a way of malapropping his way to the truth.  He knows who dealt this mess, and I can’t say it better than he did.


It is far easier to blame the bums and the big money than it is to hold ourselves accountable.  But change starts with accountability.  It is too late to get better choices for this year.  But it is not too late to remember that we are the market to whom this stuff is being sold.  The only way we will get better candidates, better choices and better outcomes is to stop paying attention to the nonsense and start demanding honesty about the challenges we really face and the difficult choices we have to make.

Inconvenient Facts

A week ago, I promised (threatened?) to share a few inconvenient facts.  Here they are, and they’re all about taxes.  They were sent to me by my friend, wealth manager Kris Garlewicz.  (Note – this data is from 2009, which I guess is the most recent available.)

Taxpayer             Share of                Share of                  Effective Income

Segment              Income              Income Tax                     Tax Rate

Top 0.1%                7.8%                   17.0%                           24.8%

Top 1.0%              16.9%                   37.0%                          24.0%

Top 5.0%              31.7%                  59.0%                           20.5%

I’m sure you can look at those numbers and find any story you like.  Here are a couple of stories they told me.

First, the argument that high income taxpayers aren’t paying their fair share is utterly disingenuous and flatly wrong.   Imagine that a comfortably upper middle class family in your neighborhood – a family making about $150,000 a year– announced that in addition to paying for their household, they were going to pick up the tax bill for 15 other families.  Now imagine the family next door to that one.  Earning $350,000 a year, they are distinctly wealthier, although not ostentatious about it.  They announce that in addition to paying for their household, they will pick up the tab for 40 other families.  And now think of the house at the end of the block.  These folks are truly affluent, bringing in $1.4 million a year.  They announce that they are going to pick up the tab for 325 other families.

If they did this voluntarily, we would lionize them for their generosity.  Yet, a little arithmetic shows that, in reverse order, this is exactly what the top 0.1%, the next 0.9%, and the remainder of the top 5% do.  I would respectfully ask my Democratic friends, in what world does this not constitute doing their fair share?  Said differently, how many households would each of these taxpayers have to support in order for you to feel that fairness had been achieved?

The sword of disingenuousness cuts both ways, however.

As you can see above, the actual tax rate paid by these households averages only 20.5%, and is below 25% for the very highest earners.  These figures are based on Adjusted Gross Income, not Gross Income, so the actual effective tax rates these households pay are even lower than what’s shown here.

So I would respectfully ask my Republican friends, in what world is a 20%, or even 25%, tax rate offensively and employment-crushingly high?  There is plenty of theory that raising 20% to, say, 23% would have a dampening impact, but not a shred of actual evidence, at least that I’ve seen, to prove it.  Neither is there anything to prove that reducing it to 17% would unleash a flurry of investment and job creation.

The biggest problem with those tax rates is how little resemblance they bear to the rates everyone is talking about.  The top stated rate is 35%.  An enormous amount of energy, as well as an entire industry of tax lawyers and tax accountants (and, God help us, a few who are both) is devoted solely to the task of converting 35% to 24%.  I count a few of those tax lawyers and accountants as friends (at least I did – they will disown me now), but this activity adds no value.  They collude with a tax code that meets my favorite definition of a Russian novel – thick enough that the author could commit suicide by jumping off of it.

My guess, and that’s all it is, is that if those tax rates were transparent and the top 1% were asked to simply pay 27% instead of 24%, they would shrug and write the check.  The corollary, of course, is that we could tax the daylights out of these people and it would make only a small dent in the deficit.

We have hard choices to make.  We should be talking about them, but that would be much less fun than railing about imagined unfairness or championing attractive but unproven theory.

I’m glad the election is near.  I’ve been writing more about politics than I ever intended but it seems important.  I have one more left in me.  Later this week, I will share a perspective on the question of “Who Dealt this Mess.”

Choose Your Pet

A week or two ago, CNN published a column by Republican consultant and pundit Alex Castellanos in which he got the upcoming election right.  Obama, he said, squandered 20 years of New Democrat centrism and led like an Old Democrat.  He left it to Bill Clinton to remind America what a centrist Democrat looks like, in hopes that we’ll remember it, want it, and vote for it, even thought that’s not what we have.

Romney, meanwhile, provides no compelling reason to vote for him other than to make Obama go away.  And, sadly, he keeps giving us reasons to question his effectiveness as a leader, which is supposed to be his long suit.  Two weeks ago, he said that he doesn’t care about 47% of America.  That may be true, and it’s probably right that for him, those people are an electoral lost cause.  But he’s a smart guy who should know better than to say it.  Last week, he tried to distance himself from that gaffe by pointing out that he enacted a health plan which covered 100% of the people of Massachusetts.  That’s the same plan he’s been running away from ever since it went national and was renamed for his opponent.  He’s running away from himself as fast as he can, but he can’t run fast enough.  He will lose and I will collect on the steak dinner that I bet my friend Dave last December.

Castellanos summed the race up this way:  “The resistible force meets the moveable object.”  A line so good I sure wish I’d thought of it.

The word that comes to mind is feckless.  That’s “feck” with an e.

Whatever “feck” is, we don’t have enough of it.  I’ve been looking for an image that sums up this election, and I think I found it:

Four weeks from now, each of us will have the chance to choose our favorite Chia Pet.

Pain In The Ass -Ism

I was in Seattle on election day and happened to see this display at the 5 Spot restaurant on Queen Anne hill.  Elephant on the right, donkey on the left.  Note the elephant’s salacious leer and the donkey’s defiant-yet-submissive posture.  Looks to me like the Democrats had a pretty good idea what was about to happen to them.

That trip to Seattle, which is where I grew up, had me standing in the security line at what was once my home airport.  And that took me back to Thanksgiving Eve of 1971.  That night, we were all glued to the radio as a man later known to the world as D.B. Cooper hijacked a Northwest Airlines 727, forced it to land in Seattle, collected $200,000, made the plane take off, and then leapt into both oblivion and history.

That was the event that brought metal detectors to airports.  There is a direct line starting with Cooper that extends through people who were crazy enough to hijack planes in order to get INTO Cuba, then through the Lockerbie bombers and 9/11.  It ends, at least for now, with that Nigerian knucklehead who got arrested last Christmas because he clearly misunderstood what those spam emails meant when they suggested that he should “put some dynamite in his underwear.”

The espoused purpose of terrorism is to inspire terror.  On that count, the people on this dishonor roll have failed.  I’m certainly not terrified to fly – at least no more than any of us should be by the prospect of climbing into an aluminum tube and going six miles up in the sky.  What I am is weary.  Air travel used to be exciting.  Now it’s a pain in the ass.  The people who made it so have failed at their effort to become terrorists.  Based on the feeling they actually inspire, what they are is pain-in-the-ass-ists.  Let’s applaud them for their accomplishment.

Years ago, I heard an interview with Mel Brooks in which he was asked how he justified wrapping “The Producers” around the fictitious musical “Springtime for Hitler.”  His answer, more or less, was that one of the best ways to deal with evil is to recognize it for what it is, and then laugh in its face.

In that context, I would like to recognize and applaud the TSA team at Milwaukee’s Mitchell Airport, who put this sign up at the back end of the security area.

Clearly, they’ve got their heads screwed on straight.

Electrons

To paraphrase Jimmy Buffett, it’s Election Day someplace.  Looking back over the last two years, the observation that strikes me as most interesting is that throughout the entire course of the primary season, more than a year and a half, I never actually met a Hillary Clinton supporter.  Not one.  I met people who told me they knew Hillary supporters.  But I never actually met one in the flesh.

This leaves me believing in Hillary supporters more or less the same way I believe in electrons.  That is, lots of smart people have told me they exist, but I’ve never actually seen one myself.


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