Friday, May 25, 2012

The debate over the Bush tax cuts is over. The tax cuts won.

It is a maxim in Congress these days: If high-profile legislation affecting millions of Americans is about to expire, deal with it at the last possible second, preferably with rancor. 
But a major exception is in the offing with the Bush-era tax cuts, which are set to lapse on Jan 1. Both parties in the House and the Senate are eager, perhaps even giddy, at the prospect of voting for their respective versions of an extension of the cuts this summer, well before the due date.
Now, the piece goes on to say that the Democratic package would drop the cuts for high earners and keep them for the middle class. But with a divided Congress and this president in charge, does anybody expect the Democratic preference will become law? Anybody?


Right. We've already seen this movie before. So maybe it's time to end the debate, make the tax rates permanent rather than dickering with them every two years, and start planning for a budget within those revenue limits. Politicians of every stripe and party should be clear with the public: You're going to keep your current tax rates, but you're not going to keep your current services. Something has to give.

The debate over the revenue side is over, and Democrats have lost. The sooner they and their allies admit it, the sooner they can prepare to shape the government that results from the revenue limitations. And the sooner they can decide what, exactly, they can live without.

Michael Barone's cocoon: Just for liberals?

Michael Barone says that liberals only listen to liberal arguments, but conservatives have a more varied diet of ideas because they're forced to be exposed to liberal media culture. The result is that liberals only know how to preach to the choir.
Liberals can protect themselves better against assaults from outside their cocoon. They can stay out of megachurches and make sure their remote controls never click on Fox News. They can stay off the AM radio dial so they will never hear Rush Limbaugh. 
The problem is that this leaves them unprepared to make the best case for their side in public debate. They are too often not aware of holes in arguments that sound plausible when bandied between confreres entirely disposed to agree.
I'm not sure that liberals are uniquely vulnerable to the malady of ideological isolation. Conor Friedersdorf notes the topics that dominate conservative media these days:
In addition to taxes and spending, the rank and file currently spends a lot of time obsessing over trivial nonsense: for example, an imaginary race war against white people; The New Black Panther Party; and a liberal schoolteacher abusing her position somewhere in America. Those are but three stories in conservative news right now, alongside the constant obsessions with liberal media bias, anything involving "God, guns, and gays," statements by Janeane Garofalo-style celebrities, and ginned-up kerfuffles we can't even presently imagine.
 I'm not sure this really helps conservatives make better arguments than liberals, but if Barone wants to think so, perhaps he's indulging in a little cocooning himself.

Politics makes hypocrites of us all

In this week's Scripps column, I argue that Mitt Romney's religious beliefs have some bearing on the presidential campaign—and Ben argues that the issues are more important. Four years ago, we staked out almost precisely the opposite territory:

Ben then:
Yet Obama still insists that what he heard from Wright this week was unlike anything he heard over the past two decades. That simply defies belief. Obama chose Wright. His choice was unwise. His choice should tell voters something important about Obama that his position papers on the Iraq war and health care cannot.
Me then:
But the job of the next president will not be to pick a national clergyman. Instead, the president will have to decide what to do about Iraq, health care and the economy, among other issues. Barack Obama has an argument to make that he'll end the war, extend care to more Americans and save a few of their homes from foreclosure. Given the mood of Americans these days, that could well be a winning argument.
I'm not entirely sure what to do with this; I'm really not interested in being a hack—but there's some evidence here that maybe I am. The only way I can mitigate it is to acknowledge it.

Does Mitt Romney's Mormonism matter?

That's the the topic of my column with Ben Boychuk for Scripps Howard this week. I answer in the kind-of-affirmative:
Let's give thanks for progress: A black man and a Mormon will compete for the presidency this November. More people from more backgrounds than ever can fully participate in our politics -- thanks largely to the efforts of American liberals. 
Romney doesn't get a free pass for his faith, however. 
Don't misunderstand: If you vote for a candidate based on the Nicene Creed, say, then you're being silly and maybe a little un-American. We're electing a president, not a pope. 
But a candidate's policies are fair game, as is the worldview that shapes those policies. Faith often shapes a candidate's worldview. Romney's opposition to abortion reportedly springs from the teachings of his church: That's a topic that can't and shouldn't be avoided in a presidential campaign. 
Other issues in which Romney's faith may be a factor: 
-- Race: Until 1978, the Mormon church refused to ordain black men into the priesthood. Romney was a 31-year-old adviser to the leader of the Boston church when the policy changed: What was his view of it, and how might it affect how he governs a multiracial America? 
-- Feminism: The church long discouraged mothers from working outside the home -- and Romney reportedly refused to help a couple adopt a child until the mother was able to quit her job. How would that viewpoint affect Romney policies on workplace discrimination or child-care tax credits? 
-- Same-sex marriage: Romney's opposition to marriage equality reportedly springs from his faith, and Mormons were big contributors to the campaign for California's Proposition 8 banning gay marriages. Now there are questions about whether Romney would even permit gays to adopt. 
Church membership isn't an immutable characteristic. It's a choice. 
Certainly, Republicans feel that way when the church is led by Jeremiah Wright. The election isn't about Romney's theology -- but it is about his beliefs. Americans deserve a chance to understand them.
Ben, in his response, says that presidents don't set adoption policies, which are the province of the state. True, but only so true: The federal government offers adoption tax credits that gay couples already have a hard time claiming. For better or worse, the feds have a role in the issue—which makes Romney's recent waffling all the more troubling.

This is the song in my head today

Ah, early 1980s country music.....

Thursday, May 24, 2012

What's wrong with private equity? Debt. What Mitt Romney and Sam Zell have in common.

A lot of the debate over Mitt Romney's time at Bain Capital has been focused on how many jobs he did or didn't create, did or didn't destroy. That's understandable, given that we're in a time of sustained high unemployment, but I'm not sure that tallying lost jobs really gets to the heart of what might be objectionable about Romney's business practices.

The problem is debt.

In the case of the shuttered Kansas City steel mill at the center of the debate, the chain of events is pretty clear:
• Bain Capital bought the steel mill in October 1993, putting up just $8 million of its own money to gain majority control—even though the total purchase price was $75 million. 
• The next year, Bain had the company issue $125 million in bonds—debt used to pay Bain itself a dividend of $36 million in 1994. Understand again: Bain made a quick profit on its investment, but it wasn't by helping the steel mill earn greater profits—but by having the mill take on a chunk of debt.  
• Now: It's true that Bain used $16 million to buy another steel mill the next year—it's not as though executives were using all the cash to light cigars with $100 bills—but this is also true: The Kansas City mill took on another $125 million in debt to pay for the acquisition and merger. 
• All of which means that the Kansas City steel mill in 1995 had $378 million in debt. Its profit that year was $32 million. You can see where this is headed.  
• When it finally filed for bankruptcy in 2001, the combined company had debts exceeding $500 million. The plant's workers lost their jobs, and ended up with reduced pensions because the retirement funds had been under-funded.
In the wake of the bank bailout, there was a lot of talk about our economy privatizing profit and socializing risk. The problem here is just a bit different: Bain Capital kept the profits to itself, but largely externalized the risks of its business practices. That's smart, on one level, but it certainly belies talk of investors being "risk-takers" and "job creators."

I think I'm a little sensitive on this topic because journalists have been hurt by this kind of activity. Sam Zell bought the Tribune Company a few years back by investing $315 million of his own money—not chump change, I suppose, but a pittance compared to the overall $8 billion purchase price, most of the money borrowed from the employee pension fund. The company went into bankruptcy soon after, and the workers were screwed.

It's a little bit like me buying from you the car your son uses to get around, forcing your son to lend me the money to make the purchase, crashing the car, and getting to keep the insurance check without repaying your son the money he lent in the first place.

The steel industry in America has been dying for years. But Bain's practices hastened the Kansas City mill's demise—and it wasn't Mitt Romney nor Bain Capital that got stuck with the fallout from those practices.

Romney is running for office based largely on his business acumen. So let's be clear: Finance is a necessary component of a market economy, and while a market economy isn't necessarily utopia, it's often the best way of raising the living standards of the most people. Not everything done in the name of the market economy is wise or even good, however, and criticism of those bad acts and bad actors isn't—as some would have you believe—socialist.

There's a problem—for society, for morality—when a company can profit from its bad decisions while sticking the little guy with the consequences. It's wrong, plain and simple.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Say, whatever happened to Strom Thurmond anyway?

Jonathan Chait has a pretty excellent takedown of Kevin Williamson's "the Republican Party has always been the party of civil rights" piece at National Review. Two points I'd like to add:

• Chait doesn't frame it in quite these terms, but Williamson's piece is heavily dependent on him ignoring the history of his own magazine and its founder, William F. Buckley, who opposed civil rights legislation on frankly white supremacist grounds:
The central question that emerges—and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal—is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. … 
National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way; and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.
Emphasis added. Buckley, it's worth noting, later recanted his opposition to civil rights.

Williamson doesn't mention this history because it disrupts his thesis, to say the least. (I imagine he might respond by noting that National Review is a conservative publication, not a Republican one, but—as Chait suggests—that would then undermine his efforts to pin racism on the Democrats, and liberals by extension.)

• It's also fascinating to me that Williamson's piece has exactly one mention of the late, great Strom Thurmond:
In Congress, (Lyndon) Johnson had consistently and repeatedly voted against legislation to protect black Americans from lynching. As a leader in the Senate, Johnson did his best to cripple the Civil Rights Act of 1957; not having votes sufficient to stop it, he managed to reduce it to an act of mere symbolism by excising the enforcement provisions before sending it to the desk of President Eisenhower. Johnson’s Democratic colleague Strom Thurmond nonetheless went to the trouble of staging the longest filibuster in history up to that point, speaking for 24 hours in a futile attempt to block the bill. The reformers came back in 1960 with an act to remedy the deficiencies of the 1957 act, and Johnson’s Senate Democrats again staged a record-setting filibuster.
Well, say. Whatever happened to Strom Thurmond anyway?

Well, he didn't stay a Democrat. He jumped to the Republican Party on Sept. 16, 1964.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had been enacted two months earlier, a resounding defeat—by a coalition of Democrats and Republicans, yes—of legislation Thurmond had spent a career opposing.

Of course, correlation doesn't equal causation. Why did Thurmond switch parties at that point?

According to the New York Times' contemporaneous coverage, Thurmond's move was widely seen as leaving the Democratic Party for passing the Civil Rights bill—and as the beginning of an effort by Southern Republicans to woo Democrats disaffected over the issue.

Thurmond officially came out at a Barry Goldwater rally. The New York Times noted this:
Leander Perez, the ultraconservative Louisiana political leader who was excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church for his violent opposition to integration of schools, attended the rally. 
Mr. Perez sat with Senator Thurmond throughout the speech applauding frequently.
Put it this way: Thurmond—whose political career was built on a defense of segregation and white supremacy—didn't leave the Democrats because he thought the Republican Party was a vigorous supporter of civil rights.

Williamson never deals with this—the only mention of Thurmond is to call him a "Democrat." He never deals with Jesse Helms and his conversion to the Republican Party.

I don't think being a Republican makes you racist—certainly not in the 21st century. But I think it's beyond factual dispute that the Republican Party made electoral hay out of Southern racial resentments in the first few decades following the 1964 bill. Williamson usually strikes me as one of National Review's smarter, more intellectually honest writers. But his failure to deal with some key issues—and even some misdirection, in the case of Thurmond—is contrary to that reputation.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dennis Prager, Big Business, and Big Government

At National Review today, Dennis Prager says that the left is dangerous because it craves power instead of money—and power in the service of Big Government leads to the Holocaust, Mao, and Stalin. Sure, some big corporations may not always "play by the rules," but they don't have the power to send you to a concentration camp.

Key graph:
There is yet another reason to fear big government far more than big corporations. ExxonMobil has no police force, no IRS, no ability to arrest you, no ability to shut you up, and certainly no ability to kill you. ExxonMobil can’t knock on your door in the middle of the night and legally take you away. Apple Computer cannot take your money away without your consent, and it runs no prisons. The government does all of these things.
Prager's diagnosis, of course, misses the concern that most liberals have about Big Business—which is that money and power are not separate things: Money purchases power, which can give (oh hell, let's use the phrase) "moneyed interests" an outsize influence in the lives of individuals.

Sometimes, that even translates into the ability to arrest you, shut you up, and kill you. Shell, the oil company, has been accused of funneling payments to militants in Nigeria, for example. In the United States, doctors in Pennsylvania are prohibited from telling patients about the "fracking" chemicals that might be poisoning them. The list of examples is endless.

A smart conservative friend often says the problem is bigness itself—a problem that exists whether that bigness is in government or in the business sector. That sounds right, or close to it anyway. It's certainly much closer to right than Prager, whose hatred of Big Government leads him to make pronouncements about benign activities of Big Business that make him either extremely naive or simply a shill.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Is it 'bigoted' to oppose gay marriage?

Ben and I debate gay marriage in this week's column for Scripps. Rather than give you my take in this space, I want to offer Ben's—because I find it somewhat troubling:
At a certain point -- long before the president concluded that the political benefits of supporting gay marriage this election cycle outweighed the disadvantages -- millions of Americans concluded that it's important affirm that marriage is exclusively a union between one man and one woman. 
Those people are called bigots, and worse. 
Be wary of those national polls showing a majority now supporting a redefinition of marriage. People who don't like being called bigots might just lie to pollsters. Pre-election polls in North Carolina predicted the vote on that state's constitutional amendment would be closer than the 20-point blowout it turned out to be. 
For the partisans of gay marriage, North Carolina's vote was an expression of bigotry and hatred, plain and simple. No other explanation could possibly suffice. 
Only bigotry -- and nothing else -- could explain similar votes in 29 other states. 
Only bigotry -- and nothing else -- could explain how six in 10 black voters in California voted in favor of Proposition 8, the 2008 constitutional amendment reaffirming the traditional definition of marriage, and cast their ballot for Obama at the same time. 
Maybe "bigotry" isn't the sole property of one side of this argument.
What Ben's argument does this week is replace any debate about the merits of gay marriage with familiar-if-tired conservative martyrdom-making. "They're calling us bigots!" doesn't really tell us why heterosexuals should get to exclude homosexuals from the legal right to civil marriage. (To be fair: This kind of martyrdom isn't usually Ben's rhetorical style, and he has made more substantive arguments about this in our previous debates on the issue.)

I myself think opposition to same-sex marriage comes from too many sources to reduce simply to "bigotry"—though that certainly is the motivation of some opponents. But I do think that many opponents of same-sex marriage have justified their religious opposition to a civil right by creating a counter-narrative of victimology.

Rights aren't a zero-sum affair: I myself would be content to live in a country where my gay friends could get married and my Christian friends express their disapproval. And contra Ben's statistics, the ability to get millions of people to vote against rights doesn't really tell us much about the legitimacy of those rights.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

About the Philadelphia Inquirer's augmented reality app

I missed the debut of the Philadelphia Inquirer's "augmented reality" app over the weekend—you point your mobile device at the newspaper, and the device starts playing a video linked to that particular story in the newspaper—but the Daily News' Janathan Takiff says it's getting an "undeservedly bad rap." But it sure doesn't sound like it. Listen to Takiff's explanation:
The naysayers clearly didn't read the instructions (spelled out in the Inky yesterday but not in the app) about how the Aurasma AR technology works in practice. This ain't rocket science. Once you've installed the free Inquirer AR app on your camera-equipped iPhone or iPad, you look for a photo or advertisement in the paper that has a little gothic "I" symbol in the corner. You then point your Apple device's camera lens at the same image. A few seconds later a companion video starts playing on the Apple screen and speakers. Here comes the HARD part. You have to TAP TWICE on the screen, AFTER the video starts to play, so you can then move your iPhone or iPad away from the page and continue to watch the mini-production. If you DON'T tap twice, the video stops as soon as you move the device's lens away from the coded image. Oh, and to then get the video to stop running, you DOUBLE TAP on the screen again. There's also the option with some of the triggered mini-videos/commercials to then jump to a connected website - like the busy home page of the National Constitution Center. To perform this feat, tap just ONCE on the website bar in the corner of the video. Tap twice and the magic trick doesn't work.
Oh sure, that's easy then.

 I'm dubious about a mobile app whose main purpose is to get you to read the newspaper. But I'm even more dubious of an app that's complicated and doesn't come with in-app instructions of how it should be used. That's unlikely to bring mobile users to the newspaper, but it might bring newspaper readers to their mobile devices. Is that what the Inky was aiming for?

 As it happens, there are three reviews of the app at iTunes. Two of the reviews are one star. The third is five stars—posted by "ScribeJT." I'm guessing that's Takiff himself (a writer with the initials "JT"?)which seems a little cheesy—since this app he's reviewing was created by his employer.

As I've said before, the Inquirer needs to keep experimenting. Experiments are often going to end in failure. And the idea here is kind of cool. But if the audience is giving you a bad rap, Takiff, it's most likely deserved. Telling them they're wrong probably won't fix your problems.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Obama: It could be worse

I was at a neighborhood festival over the weekend when a Democratic activist approached and asked if he could count on my vote for President Obama this November. "Well," I said, "I haven't been too thrilled with him on the civil liberties front." "Nobody's perfect," the man shot back. "The other guys would be worse." In today's Boston Globe, John McCain steps forward with a reminder that my activist friend was probably right:
“How is it that Assad is still in power?” Wiesel said. “How is it that the Holocaust’s number one denier, [Iran’s Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, is still a president? He who threatens to use nuclear weapons to destroy the Jewish state. Have we not learned? We must. We must know that when evil has power, it is almost too late.”
Under John McCain, then, the United States would definitely be going abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Don't get me wrong: As The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf pointed out last week, Obama has been by any measure a hawk in office. I wasn't all that happy with his handling of Libya; but I must admit that his actions there were characterized by a level of restraint. With John McCain as president—assuming he's not just an aging blowhard, but reflecting his real policy choices—military restraint would seemingly be non-existent. I'm cynical about the accomplishments of our current president ... but the other guys would be worse.