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

10 December 2011

Why Obama Should Win (and Why I’m Donating Again)

[For a brief note on my hero for today, which is uncannily apropos of the following post, click here.]

A little less than half a year ago, I wrote a post entitled “Why Obama Will Win Again (and Why I’m No Longer Donating).” That post was largely about politics, not substance.

People who are homeless, out of work, underemployed, or working harder for less may soon begin to think about substance. So may people like me, who wonder whether our precipitous national decline has an end, or whether we will soon see the banana standard replace the Stars and Stripes. In the hope that politics-as-entertainment can’t last forever, I think it’s time to remind people what’s at stake in 2012. I’ll be as brief as I know how.

Here, in rough order of importance, are real, substantive national issues that we must resolve, or at least begin resolving, if people younger than I are to have any realistic shot at a decent life in this country, let alone the “American Dream:”

1. Our oil “tax.” At present prices, we spend about $950 million per day on imported oil. That’s about $347 billion per year, or $3.47 trillion over a ten-year period. That “tax” directly affects every American. It could get dramatically higher if there’s another revolution or a war in the Middle East, or simply if the global economy recovers strongly.

2. Our decaying infrastructure. In 2009, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimated that we needed to invest $2.2 trillion [see page 7] within five years, in our infrastructure (roads, bridges, railroads, airports, and water and sewer systems) just to fix dangerous and longstanding deficiencies.

3. Our economic inequality. Virtually complete control of our finance sector by Wall Street has produced the greatest economic inequality since the Gilded Age a century ago. That inequality is in the process of destroying our productivity and our social cohesion. And Wall-Street’s stranglehold on our nation has given us a $600 trillion unregulated derivatives casino that could replay the Crash of 2008 at any moment, perhaps triggered by a sovereign default in Europe. The opposition party’s response to this risk overhang has been to filibuster a universally admired candidate (Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray) in order to “re-litigate” the organization of a new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as it had passed with bipartisan support last year.

4. Our national debt. The Congressional Budget Office estimates [see table page 2] that our public debt will be 73.9 percent of our GDP at the end of fiscal year 2012. If we don’t reveal a credible plan to reduce it, our credit rating will suffer and our deficit will increase with debt service. The only reason this isn’t happening right now is that much of the rest of the world, including Italy, Japan and Spain, is in as bad or worse shape.

5. Our education. Once among the best in the world, our primary system of public schools now ranks 14th among OECD countries in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math. Our colleges and universities are daily losing ground to comparable institutions in Europe and Asia. If we don’t fix this decline quickly and decisively, nothing else will matter. We will continue to lose ground on all the rest of the problems described here, both in real terms and in comparison with competing nations.

6. Our endless wars and our alienated troops. We are winding down our eight-year war in Iraq, but we won’t wind down our ten-year war in Afghanistan for another three years. Over a hundred thousand troops will come home, many wounded, to a society of scarcity in which scoundrels will try to skimp on their dearly earned care. They will be at odds with the society they have risked all to protect, which doesn’t know what they did and didn’t share and therefore doesn’t appreciate their sacrifice. Unlike their earlier counterparts (who were drafted and therefore perhaps less qualified), these troops are overwhelmingly conservative and Christian. Some are angry, and many have good justification. If you don’t think these facts could produce social upheavals, maybe even revolution, you’d better read some history.

7. Our immigrants. We have twelve million illegal immigrants in this country. While nearly all are gainfully employed and pay taxes, they have become a political and economic football, exploited by businesses for economic advantage and by politicians for electoral advantage. Under the wrong circumstances, this national shame could produce social unrest or exacerbate an economic downturn.

8. Our decaying science establishment. We have ceded the fields of high-energy physics and human space travel to other countries. Now that the Hubble Telescope is finished, our space science is in abeyance. We have relegated most other fields of science to private industry, with its short-term profit mentality and quarterly reports. Our excellence in basic science, which helped us win World War II and made us the global leader for most of a century, is waning. Even medical science, at which we still excel, suffers budget cuts virtually every year. If we continue on this course, we will be a second-rate power in science by the end of the 2020s.

9. Our broken government. Congress isn’t working. The presidency has no power to fix the country and all power in the world to make foreign wars without anyone’s consent. Our judiciary approves rich people’s and corporations’ control over our broken political system. Our press is a joke, which no longer even tries to report and expose the things that matter, including the other problems outlined here.

10. Global warming. Meanwhile, global warming of human origin continues inexorably, without our leadership or even our participation in a solution. Extreme weather is becoming the norm. Tropical pests and diseases march relentlessly northward. And at any moment the Ross, Antarctic or Greenland Ice Sheets could shift or break, converting this vast product of human neglect from a slow-moving train wreck to an immediate catastrophe. The only reason this problem is last on the list is that we only suspect (but don’t actually know) that it could impact terribly the lives of people now living, both here and abroad. By the time we know for sure, it will be far too late.

Clever readers will note that none of these problems has anything to do with abortion, gay marriage, the Ten Commandments on courthouse lawns, the use of languages other than English in our country—or any of the other irrelevancies that demagogues have used to distract us from what really matters and win elections.

We have words for people who “hold out” for an ideal spouse. We call them “spinsters” or “bachelors.” They don’t reproduce. Recent medical research tells us that they suffer poorer health, have lower income, and die earlier than married people. The winners in the marriage game are those who pick a real spouse from real candidates and make the inevitable compromises to make their marriages work.

Just so in politics. While the right has spent the last three years bashing Obama just because he’s there (and because, you know . . .), much of the left has piled on because he’s not the ideal. If the left continues that course of action, we’ll find out what happens when an entire country becomes figurative spinsters and doesn’t reproduce.

I’m not worried for myself. I’m 66 and in comfortable retirement. By the time the shit really hits the fan, I’ll probably be dead.

But if you’re younger than I am, you have more than an even chance of finding out from personal experience what the Great Depression, Germany’s hyperinflation, or even the Russian Revolution were like. Take it from me, whose proudest vote was for Hubert Humphrey against Richard Nixon, that voting for “the lesser of two evils” is better. (Today Nixon, who proudly raised taxes and signed the Clean Air Act into law, would be far to the left of anyone running for the Republican nomination.)

And as you consider who’s the lesser of two evils, recall a few points. Mitt Romney’s last political experience, as governor of Massachusetts, ended three years ago. It constituted a single term as governor. Were Mitt elected president, that record would make him the least experienced president in American history.

President Obama had a learning curve, but he’s three years in. Do you really want a newbie with even less (and less recent) experience to be running our nation at the most critical time in our post-war history?

No doubt Mitt is a smart guy. But he’s not smart enough to see that the health-care plan he put in place in Massachusetts, which everyone acknowledges is working just fine, is a dead ringer for so-called “Obamacare.” He thinks if he lies often enough and flip-flops long enough, people will forget the truth.

Mitt’s much-lauded business experience as a consultant was mostly in downsizing failing companies. And we know he wants to downsize government; that’s his and his party’s mantra. Do we really want him to downsize our failing nation? Shall we sell off Mississippi or California?

And as for Newt, all I can say is anyone who would even think of voting for a man who kissed off his wife in the hospital where she was being treated for what turned out to be terminal cancer deserves what they get. If Newt gets the nomination, take a good, close look. Examine his wretched character, his Jupiter-sized ego, and his obnoxious smirk. Then have a nice vomit and reconsider.

As for me, I’ve started contributing again, to the campaigns of Elizabeth Warren, Senator Claire McCaskill in Missouri, and the President. I’m not doing it for me; I’m doing it for you. I have this quaint idea that, because this country has been good to me, I ought to try to leave it in better shape when I go.

I hope you’ll all do the same. But for God’s sake, don’t stay home. Just read the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V (or my own modified version from 2008) and vote.

Voting is less dangerous and bloody than battle. And anyway history doesn’t reward bystanders. You wouldn’t want to say they stole your country and your birthright and you didn’t even show up. Would you? Make up your mind right now and go register, if you aren’t registered yet.

Endnote: My Hero for Today (12/12)

My hero for today is a gay, smoking Vietnam veteran named Bob Garon, from Epsom, N.H.

He’s 63, a bit younger than I. But he’s obviously just as skeptical of politics in general and Mitt Romney in particular. As reported today in a New York Times blog, Garon got Mitt Romney to admit that, because he believes marriage is “between a man and a woman,” he does not support marital benefits for gay servicemembers or veterans.

Only then did Garon reveal his own point of view. He is gay and legally married to another man under New Hampshire law. And he berated Mitt for wanting to deprive him of his constitutional rights.

If you love politics and hate what it has become here, you must read the story. Garon’s simple human dignity, in contrast to the pol’s sliminess, will make you smile, maybe even laugh out loud.

For me, it illustrated three essential truths. First, most politicians are slimy bastards, and you have to be cagey if you want to find out what they really think. In this respect Garon did better than nearly all of our media (the reporter who wrote the piece excepted), and much, much better than the spineless nebbishes who moderate so-called presidential debates.

The second truth is even more important: you can’t have it both ways. Politicians can only flip-flop, prevaricate and evade “hypotheticals” for so long. Hats off to Garon for making Mitt-the-Olympic-class-flip-flopper take a clear position on at least one issue.

The final truth is why neither Mitt nor any Republican will be elected president next year. The GOP has become a party of extremists, of all stripes, on this issue as on so many others. A healthy—and I do mean healthy—majority of Americans support the rights of Americans to marry whom they want and do what they want between the sheets. Even those who are a bit uneasy about it recognize that gay marriage won’t destroy the Republic, whereas the problems I’ve listed above might.

So no Republican can win today because he or she has to take extreme views on most issues in the primary. Then he or she must justify that miserable and all-too-recent record to the entire electorate in the general.

As Garon said to Mitt, “Good luck.” I’m still eager to see how Democratic ad makers will use that neat vignette of all Republican candidates raising their hands to oppose a budget-deficit solution with ten parts spending cuts and one part tax increases.

After Garon said he wouldn’t vote for Romney, the reporter asked him whether he agreed with Romney on any issues. “I kind of liked his health care plan in Massachusetts,” Garon said. He didn’t have to say what most New York Times readers already know: it’s much the same as the President’s plan for the nation.

God bless you, Mr. Garon. You do your state and its first primary honor, as well as your country. Merry Christmas and long life to you and your spouse! And may reporters everywhere take notice of your courage and your techniques.

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  • At Tuesday, February 7, 2012 at 11:48:00 PM EST, Anonymous Scott said…

    Imported oil and taxes fees are really expensive that we spend a lot. Majority of countries has experience this. This is just one of the problems we experience a lot.

  • At Friday, February 10, 2012 at 5:12:00 PM EST, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Scott,

    I respectfully disagree with most of your short comment.

    First of all, as this graph shows, the majority of countries don’t depend on oil as much as the US and Canada. Oil dependence is worldwide, but the problem is particularly acute in North America.

    Second, taxes and fees vary widely. Europe and Japan tax gasoline (petrol) at about twice the rate the US does. The extra taxes discourage the use of gasoline as compared to other fuels, and the tax revenue helps subsidize more efficient uses of energy, such as high-speed intercity trains.

    Finally, I disagree strongly with the fatalistic tone of your comment. Nothing requires us to accept the abysmal current status of energy policy, especially in North America. Intelligent politics, science and engineering built the fossil-fuel economy on which much of the world now depends. Intelligent policy, science and engineering can find reasonable substitutes that are more sustainable and do less damage to the environment.

    For some discussion how, see this post on the economics of various energy alternatives, this post on using the Chevy Volt’s and similar batteries as a solution to the intermittency problem of wind and solar power, and this post on one possible future of nuclear power.




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