Decision Day: Justifying Their Existence

Today we find out what nine Americans think of the Affordable Care Act, the signature achievement of the Obama Administration.  And the punditocracy has worked itself into a veritable lather over what might happen.  Some think the whole thing could be overturned.  Some think it might stand.  What’s Kennedy going to do?  Will Roberts author the majority opinion?  What’s this going to do to the presidential race?  And so on, and so forth, ad nauseam et absurdam.

We don’t know what’s going to happen.  The speculation over the course of the past week has reached a fever pitch, and the fact of the matter is that there’s no way of knowing what nine people, who are essentially professional bullshit artists, will do when it comes to the biggest piece of legislation seen in the past three decades.  These are people who are trained to cloak their opinions in the respectable parlance of The Law.  They present themselves as above the fray, and while they get all dolled up in pretty black dresses to distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi of the rest of politics, they’re essentially still the same, political operators, though insulated from the foibles and follies of the masses, aka, ‘We the People.’

I’m not going to guess what’s going to happen, but I will say this.  The most contentions part of the law is the individual mandate.  If that goes, that still leaves us with all of the good stuff: the preexisting condition stipulations, the ban on lifetime caps, the option to keep family members on your policy for longer periods of time, etc.

So, if that happens, we get rid of the individual mandate, what’s the problem?  Well, none, basically, other than the fact that insurance companies are left holding the bag, as the mandate is what makes profitability possible after you put into place all of the good stuff.  Any rate, brace yourselves for maximum idiocy today.

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Your Drapes Have It In For You

This may be the byproduct of a slow news cycle, but I read this article on Bloomberg about the state of regulating chemical substances these days, and it’s not good.  We’ve been hearing more and more about the side effects that many chemicals we use.  Case in point: flame retardants.  These substances prevent the materials that we have in our homes from catching on fire.  Good, right?  Well, yes, but they’re not all that great when it comes to preventing fires, and it’s what they do that they’re not intended to that concerns many.  They have a track record of lots of side effects.

The substances in question usually have carcinogenic properties, and also cause problems in connection to reproduction and behavior.  Yet, they’re still around all of us. Why?  Because we have a very well organized and financed chemical industry lobby that effectively blocks any action from being taken against flame retardants.  They’re the ones that stand to lose the most if we were ever to regulate or ban them outright, as many states think we should.

So, here’s a rather practical exercise in politics.  Is government regulation desirable?  No, not always, but in cases such as this, those ‘job killing’ regulations conservatives love screeching about would likely save lives, all things being equal.  But that’s not going to happen for the foreseeable future, because reactionary factions in our Capitol have effectively blocked any such regulations from coming into effect, a direct result at suckling at the teat of the big chemical companies.  And there you have it: Republicans block a regulation that could save lives, the base of the party is happy, and people needlessly suffer because industry is financing the lie, and in the meantime we all suffer.  Such is the state of regulatory-industry relations in the US.

Pensions: Remember Those?

Pensions are one of those things that millenials, such as myself, will likely have heard over, but never actually see, like top hats or slide rules.  In a bygone era, pensions were instituted in order to provide retirees from many enterprises, be they public or private, income security.  The idea was great, as it mandated a certain basic income that retirees were eligible to receive.  The problem with pensions, as has always been the problem with pensions, is that they’re easy to promise, but they’re hard, hard, hard to fund.

Most of us likely have self-funded (with partial contributions from our employers) retirement accounts in the form of 401(k) accounts (or some such other IRS designation similar to a 401(k)).  The bottom line is that the worker, and noone else, is responsible for funding those accounts.  Pensions are generally referred to as ‘defined benefit’ plans, and the rest generally fall under the heading ‘defined contribution.’

So the problem that inevitably arises, as with nearly every single pension fund in the United States, is that the total commitments to retirees far outstrip the pool of cash made available to pay out.  Basically, they promise far more than they’re able to deliver.  Pension funds are usually raided when budgetary matters get rough, and they need a quick fix.  Probably the biggest offender would be the federal government, who has systematically switched out cash assets from the Social Security Trust and replaced them with Treasury bills, which is equivalent to putting an IOU in the cookie jar.

Wayne County, the home of Detroit, has just such a mess on its hands.  There are about 5,000 retirees that are eligible for pensions, and a rapidly shrinking pool of money with which to pay them.  The stock market has battered the county’s finances, and it’s likely that total liabilities will outstrip the available assets by a country mile when all the liabilities come due.

It’s not that I’m against pensions, it’s just that there’s no good way to pay for them.  Making individuals responsible for their own retirement savings (along with partial contributions from the employer) is much more efficient, not to mention fair, than pensions.  Because, at the end of the day, what will happen is that the taxpayer is going to be stuck holding the bag on a pension for a retired public servant when they’ve been struggling to fund their own retirements.

I also don’t think that we should renege on the commitments that we’ve made to retirees either.  They worked their jobs with the expectation that they’d be able to retire in a certain way.  In many cases, this is the only retirement income that individuals have.  Going forward, however, I think that retirements ought to be self-funded.

And another word on retirements.  Whenever economic times are tough, there’s a certain amount of vitriol that enters the public discourse. Yes, times are tough, and the times that it becomes necessary to address these issues, when they become most pressing, are at the precise moment when it becomes the most difficult as well.  This too, shall pass.  When the economy recovers, and it will, this will become easier to fix.  Until then, expect the absolute worst when it comes to discussing this, let alone taking action.

Romney’s Democratic Doppelganger

Want to get someone who can play Mitt Romney during debate prep for President Obama’s team?  Hmmm…interesting, it has to be a very specific character.  Tall to the point of being gangly, with an odd, offbeat way of talking.  Being rich certainly would help, along with a tendency to say things that the rest of us find off-putting, and he has to be a Democrat so they’ll be willing to help the President.  So, who do you turn to?  Well, you’re left with none other than onetime presidential hopeful Senator John Kerry, of course.

Kerry has made a study of Mitt Romney, and claims that he can mimic the former governor, as he’s tracked his career trajectory, and is able to embrace the same style of speaking, postures, and other personal tics that characterize the GOP’s nominee.  While I think this may be the case to the certain extent, I think that what we have here is basically a case that they’re alter egos on different ends of the political spectrum.  Both from Massachusetts, rich, kind of weird, they (theoretically) should be able to be an incumbent, and prone to saying things that are just, well, kind of odd.

So, it makes, at least to me, abundant sense, that the Democratic campaign would look to Romney’s doppelganger, Kerry a man that, aside from political affiliation and policy orientation, is pretty much cut from the same cloth.  Odd, but logical.

Silver Hoof In Mouth Disease

The eminently quotable F. Scott Fitzgerald said this of the rich in his book ‘The Rich Boy’ (1926): ‘Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.’  Case in point: Mitt Romney.  Despite his attempts to come off as just a regular guy, they fall far short of what’s required to make him seem just like another regular Joe.  There are some Republicans who succeed at this very well, such as George W. Bush, who probably owed his election to his Everyman qualities over the much more wooden, weirder, former Vice President Gore.  He seemed like just a regular guy with whom you could have a beer (if Bush still drank) as opposed to dissecting who deserves credit for inventing the Internet with Al Gore.

But Romney does have this problem, and it’s one of the biggest obstacles his campaign faces.  To remedy this, the campaign staged an appearance at the Daytona 500 this past February.  When in front of reporters, he was asked if he actually followed NASCAR, which, given the venue, is a pretty fair question.  His response: ‘Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans. But I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners.’  Hardly the kind of response that one would think would make it easier to relate to Romney.

And, as the campaign rolls on, it seems the Romney family aren’t doing themselves any favors.  Ann Romney’s horse, Rafalca and its trainer, Jan Eberling, earned a place on the US Olympic equestrian team, specifically in the dressage competition.  Now, for those of you that aren’t aware of what exactly dressage is (which included me up until I looked it up on Wikipedia a few minutes ago), it’s one of those very rare, very expensive, esoteric competitions that rich people adore.  You buy a staggeringly expensive horse, get a European trainer to coach it, spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment and clothes, and basically have a rider dress up like he’s going on a fox hunt to have the horse do what’s the equine ballet.

I’ve tried to hold off on this pronouncement for about as long as I’ve been able, but Mitt Romney is probably the most tone deaf presidential candidate that we’ve had since George H.W. Bush.  The elder Bush, in my estimation, was a superb President.  His foreign and fiscal policies were the culmination of decades of experience in the private sector, foreign service and Congress.  He was a very skilled legislator, and he had the policy chops to prove it.  In 1992, however, in a race that included (at the time big ol’ hayseed) Bill Clinton and Twangy Texan Ross Perot, Bush, the incumbent, lost narrowly to Clinton.

By all accounts, Bush should have sailed to a second term.  But the fact of the matter was that Bush demonstrated an aloofness, a significant lack of self-awareness that cost him the election.  There was one time he was asked how much a gallon of milk cost, and the only response that he could muster was a blank stare.  Ann Richards, the Democratic Governor of Texas at the time, said this of Bush: ‘Poor George, he was born with a silver foot in  his mouth.’

And while we’re still rehashing the same themes twenty years later, they still count.  Probably the biggest single obstacle that Mitt Romney faces in his campaign is that he seems like an asshole.  President Obama, for whatever his perceived failings are in the recent past, still has a significant leg up on Romney, because, whether or not it’s fair, Obama, at the end of the day, is much more likely to understand your life than the guy who hangs out with Roger Penske rather than watch the race on the tube.

The End Game in Syria

For over a year now, we’ve heard about the chaos that has been growing in fits and starts in Syria.  It has a lot of the same themes to which we’ve become quite accustomed to hearing about over the course of the Arab revolutions.  A despotic government begins to lose control over the country, government forces react, first with demonstrators demanding more accountability and growth, and those forces react as they always have, with violence and repression.  Such reactions have the inevitable tendency to fan the flames of dissent, thus escalating demonstrations to a more structured response on the part of the populace.  In the case of Syria, the process has been a slow, albeit consistent build-up to a full blown civil war, and reports of government atrocities continue to mount.

So what’s going to happen in Syria?  There’s no reason to think that conflict is going to resolve itself in a peaceful fashion.  Syria, backed by its diplomatic patrons in Moscow, Beijing and Tehran have all but dismissed the possibility of ceding power to a transitional government that would allow the Assad regime a route of exiting.  The fact of the matter is that the Assad regime will only be able to cling to power through more violence and repression, and that has the result of escalating what has thus far been a low-grade civil conflict into an all out civil war.

A civil war in Syria could take a few forms, but what’s looking increasingly likely is a sectarian conflict, pitting the country’s elite Alawite minority sect, the crew that’s running the show, against everyone else.  There could be parallels with the conflict in Yugoslavia from the 1990s which would lead to ethnic cleansing and genocide, as groups jockey for power (read: the beginnings of mass killings between Christians, Alawites, Sunnis and Shia) which would lead to an escalation of violence between all of the constituent populations within the country.

The fact of the matter is that China, Russia and Iran, in backing the Assad regime with such gusto has no other logical outcome than to foment the forces that will inevitably blow the lid off of Syria, which would prompt much, much more violence than what we’ve seen thus far.  In defending their client state, those countries are assuring its total and utter ruin.  And unlike a place, like, say, Libya, a civil conflagration in Syria will have far more serious and far reaching consequences that what we ever contended with in North Africa.

As Opposed To A Bridge to Nowhere

At first glance, you wouldn’t think of Detroit as one of the biggest centers for foreign trade in the US, but it is.  Over a quarter of US trade with Canada, our largest trading partner, passes through the area, making it an often overlooked hub of international trade.  We have a tunnel (jointly owned by the cities of Detroit and Windsor) and the Ambassador Bridge (owned by crusty old gazillionaire Matty Moroun).  Tomorrow, the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Michigan Governor Rick Snyder are set to announce the construction of a second bridge to ease bottlenecks in transit between the two countries and to facilitate trade.

The Canadians are (generously) offering to finance the entire deal, saying basically that Michigan can pay them back out of the tolls that accrue once the project is finished.  It seems like a relatively uncontroversial idea, on the face of it, and, frankly, it is.  But, as per usual, Michigan Republicans have their undies in a bunch over what they view as ‘out of control government spending.’  Michigan House Republicans have passed a measure that would prohibit Snyder from using any public money to build the bridge.  Snyder has been able to circumvent this by accurately saying that this is all going to be on the Canadians’ dime.

I understand wanting to have a semblance of fiscal sanity prevail.  I understand not wanting to have runaway government spending upset the carefully arranged columns of the state’s financial ledgers.  But the fact of the matter is that this legislative roadblock that the GOP is trying to throw up in the path of the Governor belies the underlying view that Republicans these days view government spending, any government spending, no matter what the cause or the goal, to be the very incarnation of Karl Marx himself.  One would think that a proposal to fund a bridge to facilitate trade with our largest trading partner and create thousands of jobs would be a relatively uncontroversial prospect, and one that would provoke little, if any opposition?

Such thinking would be reasonable, but not entirely accurate.  This funding spat reveals fundamental differences between the way that Republicans and the rest of us see the world.  In their minds, a bridge to Canada is just one more step on the road to government enforced slavery.  For the rest of us, a bridge is, as it is, just a bridge; another government infrastructure project that’s worthy of our financial support.  Lucky for us, we’re getting this one financed by those socialists across the river.  Thanks Canada.