Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

24 August 2010

In Bed With Boehner?

[For those readers who wonder whether I may have missed the Beck-Palin travesty and desecration of national values Saturday, I didn’t. I simply thought it unworthy of comment. Here is a response to Beck and Fox that I can get behind. Please send the link to everyone you can.]

Talk about aghast! Today I became aware that Minority Leader John Boehner―whom I loathe―has called for the resignations of Summers and Geithner, just as I have in my previous post.

Politics sometimes makes strange bedfellows, but this is ridiculous. The very fact that such a world-class liar and Olympian demagogue could second my suggestion makes me doubt my own carefully considered opinion. Not one word (however untrue) escapes Boehner’s mouth except as carefully calculated to put the President in a bad light and induce the ignorant and uniformed to blame the President for problems that arose in Dubya’s administration or whose roots go back decades.

So lest I be deemed a “useful idiot” and accomplice to the biggest (or most venal) idiot in Congress, I feel the need to explain my views and point out how they differ from Boehner’s.

First of all, there’s a small matter of timing. My last post appeared one week ago, long before Boehner’s speech on the same subject. Not only that: I made the very same suggestion regarding Geithner on February 24 of last year, eighteen months ago. Two weeks before that, I wrote a post questioning Geithner’s commitment to transparency and accountability. So if Boehner is copying me and others of like mind, he’s a bit late.

Second and more important, my reasons for wishing Summers and Geithner gone are exactly the opposite of Boehner’s. Boehner wants to return to the policies that got us in our current state, namely, lower taxes for the rich, less regulation for banks and businesses, more dirty coal and more drilling off our coasts. I want exactly the opposite: a more progressive tax structure, heavy regulation of banks and finance (to avoid, among other things, another derivatives meltdown), a rapid phasing out of coal, and heavy emphasis on alternative energy and other infrastructure as means of economic recovery, atmospheric relief and reducing our abject economic dependence on the Saudi-Iraq-Iran Axis.

In a detailed post, I explained why I think heavy investment in infrastructure is the only sound solution to our sluggish economy that won’t unduly disturb the international balance of trade so painfully developed over several centuries of military and economic upheaval. In contrast, Boehner consistently derides any hint of stimulus as more “big government,” even as we slip into a double dip.

So on every point of substance, my approach to solutions is the polar opposite of Boehner’s. Why, then, do I agree with him that Summers and Geithner should go?

Well, the first point is that Boehner hears the music but not the words. Like an hyena scavenging for every morsel of rotting flesh, he homes in on any criticism of the President, however muted and subtle. It doesn’t matter whether that criticism coheres with his own simplistic ideology or whether his parroting of it makes any sense at all.

Either Boehner is too stupid to follow the logic, or he is confident those he demagogues will not. He is counting on those who believe in him hearing only the criticism and none of the reasons. If his brand of demagoguery is effective for more than a quarter of voters, the game is over: we have already lost our democracy and are just waiting for its death throes.

Having said that, I stand by my call for replacing Summers and Geithner, but for entirely different reasons. Like Rumsfeld on invading Iraq, they have no plan. At least if they have one, they have not disclosed it.

Boehner calls the President’s policies “job killing.” But the fact is there are no jobs to kill. According to the Wall Street Journal, non-financial business in our nation is sitting on a cash hoard of $ 8.4 trillion (that’s trillion dollars, with a “t,” two-thirds of our entire national debt). If the private sector wanted to, it could end this recession overnight , just by using that cash hoard to invest and hire. But it isn’t and it won’t.

Our private sector seems fresh out of ideas, innovation, and moxie. That’s not surprising, seeing as how recently 41% of its collective profit was tied up in finance. Or our business leaders may be cynically holding back to influence the coming elections in the hope of getting lower taxes and less regulation from a change of political winds.

To the extent they speak on national issues at all, private-sector leaders are wallowing in self-regard, self-pity and finger-pointing. Besides Warren Buffett―who’s an investor, not an industrialist―there is not a single business leader of national stature today who has any ideas for helping our economy. There is no one who even reaches the knees of men like Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Ford, Andy Grove, or Bill Gates.

Under these circumstances, government is all we’ve got. Yet government, too, is strangely silent. Perhaps it’s been cowed by Boehner and his Party of No. Perhaps it believes, as I do, that massive public investment in infrastructure could move us off the dime but just won’t say so. If that’s the case, then I suspect Geithner’s penchant for secret manipulation has played a part.

Politics may also be playing a part. Perhaps the President and his team are reluctant to make concrete proposals that Boehner and his Party of No will deride as “more big government,” especially so close to an election. But without concrete proposals, the nation seems rudderless and the Administration feckless. That’s no way to win an election.

I would love to see the President drive a Chevy Volt up to the White House, point commandingly toward it, just as JFK did at the Moon in 1962, and say “we Americans are going to be the world leaders in electric cars and fast-charging infrastructure in five years.” I would love to hear him set a goal of retiring 40% of our coal-fired power capacity (20% of our total electric power production) by 2020. JFK energized our nation and rebuilt our confidence with his push to the Moon in 1962. We need something like that to get us moving again.

Maybe Summers and Geithner have ideas like these. But I’ve never heard or read them. No doubt they are extremely bright men, well trained and expert in their fields. But they are also cloistered men―one from academia and the other from the austere halls of central banks. Neither seems to have any idea how to re-energize the American public and instill a new sense of confidence, let alone to best a grizzled street fighter like John Boehner.

Paul Volcker does. Although in his early eighties, he had a simple plan: his “Volcker rule,” which prohibits banks from making speculative investments contrary to their customers’ interests. He brought it before Congress and the public, and he got it passed into law. Without it, the huge financial reform act would be little more than a charade.

At 83, Volcker is a little old to be duking it out with the much younger Boehner, who seems to have an inexhaustible supply of energy and lies. But that’s the idea. We and the President need economic advisors who have good, new ideas that will work, and who can sell them to the public and the Congress or goad the President into doing so. Grey hair and some battle scars would help.

The way to beat the Party of No is not to mimic its policy stasis, but to renew the kind of dynamism and optimism that got the President elected. Summers and Geithner have had nearly two years to do that and have come up short. So they should make way for new blood. If Boehner seconds the motion for his own venal reasons, perhaps he hopes that his endorsement will be the kiss of death for an otherwise good idea.

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17 August 2010

The Summers/Geithner Team: Obama’s McNamara or Rumsfeld?

[For a post on ten reasons to vote Democratic this November, click here.]

One of the deepest mysteries of politics and governance is why presidents cling to misguided advisors long after it becomes apparent to everyone else that they have not just outlived their usefulness, but have become liabilities. The names of these advisors dot the arc of our nation’s descent from greatness: McNamara, Rumsfeld, and now the economic team of Summers and Geithner.

These advisors kept their presidents from seeing the big picture until it was too late. McNamara had his industrial outlook, his paranoid “domino” theory and his quantitative obsession with body counts. With these persuasive but misguided ideas he prevented Lyndon Johnson from putting the War in Vietnam in proper perspective. In hindsight, we can now see that war for what it was―one more inevitable step in the worldwide process of de-colonization that occupied most of the last half of the twentieth century.

With his hyper-aggressiveness and manic optimism Donald “they will greet us with flowers” Rumsfeld kept Dubya from seeing the big picture in Iraq. It was (and still is) immensely difficult to keep a pressure-cooker of a dictatorship from boiling over once the dictator is gone. Someone with perspective and judgment might well have discerned this simple truth with the example of Yugoslavia so recently in mind. But Dubya lacked those qualities, and Rumsfeld had none.

Just so, the President’s economic team of Summers and Geithner, with their monomaniacal focus on the finance sector and saving it from imminent collapse, ignored the disastrous long-term trends undermining our economy and our future. Financialization, the wasting away of our manufacturing base, the slow death of our middle class, the decay of our education and other infrastructure, and the insidious abrogation of the ruling class’ social contract with workers―these are the things that most threaten our culture and our way of life. They have been threats for a long time. Yet Summers and Geithner, while patting themselves on the back for avoiding short-term disaster, have come up with no good solutions for any of them.

To see how far we’ve fallen, you need only consider two facts. In just a few years, our federal government has accumulated a thirteen trillion dollar debt. Over the same time, our business community, in the aggregate, has accumulated an 8.4 trillion dollar cash hoard. Someone has to explain to the American people, especially those losing jobs and homes, how the net result of the last several years of economic policy has not been to borrow money from China at taxpayers’ expense and give two-thirds of it to our private business sector, which has sat on it and done nothing to stop our fall.

McNamara and Rumsfeld were secretaries of defense. Summers is Director of the White House National Economic Council, and Geitner Secretary of the Treasury. At first glance, it looks as if their respective fields have little in common. McNamara's and Rumsfeld’s involved the nitty-gritty business of preparing for and winning wars, an exercise in industrial-scale killing. Summers’ and Geithner’s, it would seem, involves the more rarefied atmosphere of banks and financial councils, an abstract domain devoid of dust and blood. But there are parallels. Bear with me.

Both military affairs and high finance are matters of expertise outside most presidents’ ken. Except for the rare general who became president (as after the Civil War and World War II) most of our presidents from recent memory have had scant, if any, direct experience with military affairs. The last three presidents did not even serve in the military, unless you count Dubya’s hiding from Vietnam in the Texas Air National Guard as service.

Banking and finance are similar to military leadership in this respect. I cannot think of any chief executive who rose from president of a bank to our nation’s highest office. Like J. Pierpont Morgan, bankers have always been shadow leaders, pulling the strings from behind the scenes.

The consequences of these facts are much the same, despite the superficial dissimilarity between fighting wars and handling large amounts of money. Both are obscure specialities, steeped in mystique, as unfamiliar to the average politician as space or climate science. Both are matters on which political leaders have to―and generally do―rely on experts.

The results are “perspective gaps,” or blind spots, if you will, in presidents’ vision. In an incredibly diverse and complex nation of 307 million people, our presidents are generalists. They have to be. We elect them, if we are wise, for their perspective and mastery of the big picture. So they fear (sometimes wisely) to tread on the domains of advisors on military and financial affairs, which are narrow specialties requiring unique training and experience. And of course the advisors exploit this laudable presidential humility in an egotistical effort to increase their personal power and influence.

These are the origins of our most grievous national errors of the last sixty years. Today McNamara’s “domino theory” (that Russian or Chinese Communism would sweep Southeast Asia) seems ludicrous, as our cruise ships dock in Hanoi and Saigon and our multinational corporations avidly switch their factories from China to Vietnam in search of lower-cost labor. Yet to Lyndon Johnson’s eternal infamy, that ludicrous theory was responsible for the loss of over 50,000 Americans in a war that never should have happened.

In retrospect that Idiot Rumsfeld’s failure to prepare for the aftermath of occupying a very foreign land, with millennial grievances only recently suppressed, now seems equally suicidally stupid. But at the time, it all seemed so simple: just remove the nasty dictator and the sophisticated, secular Iraqis would find their own way. No one seemed to have brought to bear the necessary perspective: a little knowledge of history, including the millennial religious differences that the dictator had suppressed with bloody ruthlessness for only thirty years.

Summers’ and Geithner’s errors of perspective were more subtle, but equally grave. They did a good job keeping the economic house from burning down. But they utterly ignored the storm surges eroding its foundation and pressing its structure to the point of breakage.

In fairness to these economic advisors, I should add that the storm surges were a long time in coming. Globalization, the commoditization of labor, middle-class erosion, and the decaying of our education and infrastructure are long-term trends that neither started nor apparently will end on Summers’ and Geithner’s watch. But by limiting their attention to the fire in the attic and ignoring the slow storm surge battering down the front door, they have showed a breathtaking lack of perspective. And their self-evident narrow expertise, plus their own cocksureness, led a president rightly famous for his sense of perspective to take his eye off the ball.

There is yet one more insidious force behind this growing disaster: personality. In every case, it was not just expertise that led a president to abdicate his control over the big picture. Similarities in personal style motivated presidents to place too much trust in advisors who were too much like them.

With the help of his father’s enormous wealth, JFK had had the most meteoric rise to the presidency since Lincoln’s, later eclipsed by Dubya’s and Obama’s. Just so, McNamara had risen meteorically through the industrial establishment, becoming CEO of Ford Motor Company at an impossibly young age, largely for being good with numbers. Both JFK and McNamara were smart, superbly educated, and proud of their education and brains. In these respects they were blood brothers. Lyndon Johnson, a man of much humbler education and intellect, remained in awe of both of them, even after JFK’s assassination.

Dubya was far too stupid to see how stupid Rumsfeld was. But the two men likewise had something big in common: both were bullies.

From his first moment in office, Dubya abandoned his campaign pledges for a “humbler” foreign policy with no “nation building.” He sought to govern with an iron fist and a 50.1 percent “mandate.” Just so, Rumsfeld played the bully in the Pentagon. He micromanaged everything with his infamous “snowflake” memos. He scared the public and allies alike with angry and nonsensical rants to cover his self-evident mistakes (“Stuff happens!”). He even terrorized hardened generals, earning Dubya’s undying admiration as the biggest bully on the block.

The puerile notion that a proud and ancient nation could be subdued and pacified in a few weeks after a few tank battles was well in character for both men, because both, at some level, were little more than schoolyard bullies. It took Dubya’s chief Republican rival McCain (also something of a schoolyard bully) to be first to recognize the type in Rumsfeld and decry the extraordinary damage he had done.

The same process of personal affinity seems to sway the President. Like him, Larry Summers and Tim Geithner are wunderkinder. By dint of superb education, brains and a bit of brashness, they each attained an extraordinary position unusual for their age and experience. They no doubt recognized each other as kindred spirits, brilliant, self-confident, and trained to rule.

But the president seems to have forgotten something crucial. Of the three, only he has any experience with real people at the street level, from his community organizing days. Larry Summers spent his career as an academic with brief stints in government service, mostly as an understudy, plus two years as Treasury Secretary under Clinton. His sole experience in actually running anything, as president of Harvard, was hardly an unqualified success. Similarly, Geithner cut his teeth in the rarefied atmosphere of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve System, apparently without giving much thought to the big picture. I have seen no evidence that either man ever thought deeply about the ineluctable historical forces eroding the pillars of our nation’s greatness, let alone the fate of common Americans caught in their grip.

And so we have the perspective gap. Although possessed of superb perspective generally, the President has abdicated his economic leadership to two brilliant but narrow and cocksure specialists, who no doubt remind him of himself. Despite the chasm between the military and high finance, the outcome of that approach threatens to be the same as Johnson’s retention of McNamara and Dubya’s retention of That Idiot Rumsfeld.

The solution is obvious and simple in principle, but perhaps against the grain of habit and personal style. Drop the wunderkinder and go for grey hair. Jettison Summers and Geithner, who’ve saved the attic but left the foundations crumbling. Get some people on board who’ve thought deeply and for decades about the historical forces battering our economic foundations, who have some new ideas, and who are prepared to take a holistic view. The model should be Paul Volcker, without whose thinly disguised attempt to resurrect Glass-Steagall financial reform might well have been ineffective.

Unless the President retakes the reins of perspective, the prognosis is clear. Some time in the future―perhaps in as few as ten years―the American people will look back in wonder and anguish at the Administration’s economic program, devoid as it has been of a decisive cure for any of our long-term ills. And they will ask them the same plaintive question they now ask about the War in Vietnam or Rumsfeld’s planless invasion of Iraq: “Why in hell did the president approve that?”

Saving the financial sector from self-induced ruin is not enough. Even John McCain might have done that, on the advice of men like Hank Paulson, although perhaps too late to save the nation.

If the President wants to earn an honored place in history he must tackle the really hard problems. And for that he needs economic advisors who can do more than calculate. He needs men and women with a keen sense―born of rich experience―of the historical forces shaping our world and driving us deeper into decline with every passing day. Most of all, he needs men and women with the wisdom and compassion to understand that our greatness flows from the strength and happiness of our common people and will not survive their fall.

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14 August 2010

Ten Reasons to Vote Democratic in 2010

This post has two predecessors, published respectively before the midterm election of 2006 and the presidential election of 2008. Many of the reasons for voting Democratic in those elections still apply.

But in this midterm election, American democracy itself may be at stake. The question is whether a massive, concerted program of lies and propaganda, over television and the Internet, can get common people to vote against their own economic interests. If it can, American democracy has little long-term chance of success, especially bogged down (as it is) with the filibuster and the Great Compromise, which allow the few to rule the many.

Here are ten reasons to vote Democratic in November:

1. To avoid even more gridlock in Congress as an emboldened Party of No plays “chicken” with the presidential veto, just to score political points, without the faintest hope of actually accomplishing anything.

2. To postpone an immediate start to the 2012 presidential campaign, which will likely involve the most outrageous lies and negative campaigning in our history.

3. To elect legislators who believe in government and want it to work, not to “drown it in a bathtub.”

4. To increase the number of legislators who respect facts and evidence more than ideology, political posturing, and party discipline.

5. To give our new government a little more than twenty-four months to correct the mistakes of three decades of misguided policy.

6. To reduce government’s financial rewards to the folks (especially on Wall Street) who crashed our economy for personal gain.

7. To let census-based redistricting correct the gerrymandering that has disenfranchised many minority voters and given the weaker party power grossly disproportionate to its real popular support.

8. To reduce the risk of the Tea Mob entering the hallowed halls of Congress.

9. To avoid rewarding out-of-control commercial media for trying to seize the reins of government by brainwashing uneducated and ill-informed voters.

10. To put a political price on a consistent pattern of lies, corruption and obstructionism, on the part of many members of Congress, for no other purpose than to maintain their personal political power at the nation’s expense.

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07 August 2010

An American Allegory

[For a brief comment on Michelle in Spain, click here.]

Once upon a time, a special people lived on an island. They were a very clever people. One of them figured out gravity and planetary motion. Another figured out economics. A third conceived how different species of living things came to be. No single people, even the learned Jews, had ever contributed so much to human understanding.

These islanders were generally happy. They also had discovered the principle of “fairness.” Treat people fairly and they treat you fairly back. It was sort of an islanders’ version of the Golden Rule.

The islanders practiced this fairness among themselves, less so among “savages” that they encountered in their voyages around the world. But they were industrious, and the rest of the world hadn’t yet discovered the principle of “fairness.” So they prospered.

Driven out by religious wars and persecution, some of the islanders went across the sea to live. In time, they developed their own society across the sea, based on the knowledge and fairness that the islanders had discovered.

But the islanders who stayed behind were not so smart or fair in dealing with their cousins in the new land. Eventually there was a war, and the cousins split off to go their own way.

Because the islanders had not dealt with them fairly, the cousins across the sea distrusted the islanders’ society, which they called “government.” When they wrote down the principles of their own new society, they limited government in many ways. They didn’t think to limit the power of people outside of government, no matter how rich or powerful they might become.

Time passed, and the islanders’ cousins across the sea prospered and became mighty. Their society and culture, based on the principles derived from the islanders, came to dominate the world. But they never lost their distrust of government, or their strict rules that limited its power and operation.

As more time passed and industry developed, a few people outside of government began to accumulate great wealth and power. They got control of land and raw materials and factories that made things. They provided work on which the common people depended for their livelihoods. They bought up the new machines that provided transportation and made new products that enriched people’s lives. Control over all these things gave a few people enormous power over common people and society’s affairs.

Despite their distrust of government, the islanders’ cousins in the new land across the sea at first relied on it to curb the power and influence the favored few. They assessed taxes on all income, including their own. They passed laws to prevent the favored few from combining or conspiring to increase their power. And workers banded together to assert their strength of numbers.

These tactics didn’t work very well. The favored few continued to dominate the islanders’ cousins’ society across the sea. That is, they did so until their mistakes drove the whole world into economic collapse. Then the cousins across the sea began to assert themselves even more. They passed laws to regulate the economy. Workers banded together even more closely to demand fair treatment. And the government, run by a popular new leader who couldn’t walk, approved and assisted all these changes.

Just about this time, a great war came. Powerful enemies at the ends of the earth threatened to conquer the globe. They actually did conquer much of it. The brave islanders and their cousins across the sea, along with others, worked together to defeat this menace, in a rare display of worldwide cooperation. The favored few, fearing that the would-be conquerors would take away their wealth and power if they won, joined the effort.

It was a long, hard, disastrous war. Many, many millions died. In the end, the would-be conquerors lost and the rest won. But the long, hard war sobered up the cousins across the sea and even the favored few among them. For a long time, everyone worked together, and the new rules and the old principle of fairness prevailed. The islanders’ cousins across the sea grew prosperous and powerful, and everyone everywhere paid them heed.

But as time went on, the favored few grew dissatisfied. They weren’t content just to live in a society that had the admiration of the entire world and owned most of the wealth in it. They wanted more.

So they conceived a plan to turn the cousins’ inbred fear of government to their advantage. For a long, long time, they taught the people that the government that had formerly curbed their power and had won the great war was the people’s enemy.

For the ones who had fought in the great war and had seen what caused it, this new teaching was hard to understand. But they got old and died, and their children were more amenable to new ideas. Soon the notion grew widespread that government was the enemy of the people and the cause of most of their ills.

As time went on and the people grew to like this new idea, they began to relax their vigilance and control over the favored few. They no longer enforced the laws that kept the favored few from conspiring. Workers stopped banding together to assert their power of numbers. Everyone trusted the favored few to know best and to provide for the rest.

So popular was this notion that it thrived even after the favored few crashed the economy with their money-lending schemes. The crash was not as bad as the first time, before the great war, because hated government stepped in to prevent the worst damage. But this only made the people hate the government even more. They had been well trained.

A new leader promised to make things better using the power of government. But the people did not trust him because he had an unusual family background, and he wanted to work with hated government. So after his early efforts won only partial success, the people gave control of their society back to the ones who hated government, that is, to the favored few. After that, the favored few thrived.

Now the favored few had a Darwinian, dog-eat-dog culture. They did not support the principle of fairness. They believed in winner take all. Each sought to become the biggest fish by eating all the others.

So a long, private economic struggle ensued. In the end, the biggest fish of all bought all the others’ property. Everyone else worked for him, including the favored few whom he had bought out.

Some thought this big fish looked just like J. Pierpont Morgan. Others thought he resembled John D. Rockefeller—the big fish who had cornered the market in oil long, long ago. Some thought his voice sounded tinny, like Bill Gates’.

But in fact, no one really knew. Although the big fish owned everything and employed everyone, he was secretive and private. No one even knew exactly what he looked like. All they knew is that everyone worked for him, and every big project required his personal approval.

If you wanted a job, or if you wanted to keep the one you already had, you dare not cross the big fish. For he controlled everything in the islanders’ cousins’ land across the sea.

After a while, things there began to change. Travel back across the sea became difficult and expensive. Work and life got harder. People began to notice that the old fairness principle no longer seemed to work. But they couldn’t do anything about it, because everything required the big fish’s approval, and everyone worked for him.

The big fish also used a marvelous new communication system, called the Inet, to spy on everyone. He knew everything about everyone, including things they’d rather not have most people know. So if the big fish’s power over your livelihood were not enough, his knowledge of your every move and every life’s mistake helped persuade you to knuckle under.

By this time, of course, government was nowhere to be found. The big fish had taken over all its functions. The people hardly noticed, although a few of them missed the chance of having something so easy to hate.

No one hated the big fish. You might as well hate the weather or the Sun that gives you warmth and light and chills you with its disapproval on cloudy days.

Like the all-powerful Sun, the big fish was a life-giver. Some people loved him, even though they didn’t know what he looked like or his name. The ones who loved him called him Big Brother.

Michelle in Spain

Offering unsolicited advice, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd today castigated the First Lady for taking Sasha to Spain. I submitted the following response as an on-line comment, very early this morning, but Dowd didn’t publish it. Is it “abusive” or just too close to home? You decide.
This column is one of the most wrongheaded and least gracious ever to come from Dowd’s pen.

I don’t know the Obamas personally. But just from reading the news, it’s pretty clear that Michelle made a difficult bargain three years ago, when she and the President decided to run.

She would hold down the home front, educate and raise the kids, give up her high-powered Harvard-Law-School-initiated career, and become First Lady--a commitment of likely eight years. She would do all this, during her kids’ tenderest years, so that her husband could become president and serve the people. What she probably couldn’t imagine then, even with her keen mind, was how vituperative, mean and over the top the political and social opposition to her husband would be.

For any president’s family, the White House is a bubble, a prison and a refuge. While confining, it is probably the only place that they can feel safe and somewhat private. The Secret Service is less obtrusive there, and the press is generally absent. But it’s also a place where the nation’s troubles and passions are always just a few footsteps away.

For this president and his family, there are constant reminders of the virulent savagery that passes for political discourse these days. The White House may be our leader’s residence, but it’s also a building under siege.

Under these circumstances, it would be astounding if Michelle did not want to take the kids away from time to time, especially to foreign venues where racism is just a dull ache, not a stabbing pain. And it bears repeating---again and again---that the Obamas have plenty of honest money, in the form of royalties on the President’s books, to afford these short getaways.

As for the political strategizing, get a grip! The rough one-third of Americans who believe that the President wasn’t born here, that he’s a “socialist,” and that they have to take “their” country back from him are not going to change their minds no matter how many pelicans Michelle and the girls clean. In fact, it’s becoming increasingly clear that these folks will never, ever change their minds because their outlooks are based on deeply held prejudices and constant, virulent propaganda, not facts or reason.

So please lighten up on Michelle! Those of us who support the First Family are happy to see her broadening the girls’ horizons and getting them out of the siege fortress, if only for a weekend at a time. The Tea Mob could hardly get any madder (in every sense of that word), so forget about them.

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