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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

NORWAY: TRAGEDY AND REALITY

The "analysis" of the horrific events in Norway have begun and the distinct tendency among some analysts has been to tie the actions of the Norwegian perpetrator, Anders Behring Brievik to conservative political parties and religious groups in Norway.  These groups are identified as "right wing" or “fundamentalist Christian” and "anti-immigrant".  It should be clear from the outset however that these were the acts of a deranged individual.  No matter how virulent the rhetoric of some of these groups, none advocate mass murder.  If Brievik was somehow inspired by their beliefs, he, like Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh from whom he apparently borrowed the formula for his  fertilizer based explosives, made his own warped judgments about the issues and pursued his own twisted response. 

While a logical analysis of the process which led Brievik to cold blooded murder of scores of young Norwegians is not possible because it would assume some level of linear thinking on his part, of which he has demonstrated he is not capable, the context of this terrorist act should not be ignored.  

The focus of Brievik's onslaught was immigration, especially that by Muslims. This is a political issue across Western Europe.  Anti-immigration parties and groups have sprung up in Germany, Switzerland, France, England, and Holland as well as Scandinavian countries. This is also not an exclusive political issue of the "right wing fringe".  French President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Merkel have both publicly declared that the prevailing European social policy of "multiculturalism" has failed.  Multiculturalism is the celebration by some and the rationale by others, of liberal immigration policies.  At the heart of these social policies for opponents are two main issues; the impact on traditional national cultures and the economic costs of immigration which are enhanced by liberal welfare programs.  The cultural impact comes about by the lack of assimilation by large numbers of immigrants who are essentially economic and political refugees who have seek to preserve and even expand their own cultures within their host countries.  The failure to assimilate has produced a two way negative reaction in some countries.  The riots in Muslim sectors of Paris were a reaction by immigrants against claims of discrimination and high unemployment.  Also in France the issue of face covering veils has produced anti-face covering legislation.  In Switzerland a ban of the construction of minarets associated with Islamic mosques caused much hand wringing by immigration supporters and multi-culturalists but is an important, if largely symbolic issue to Swiss who did not want to see their unique landscape come to resemble that of Baghdad. 

A proliferation of mosques, some providing a place of influence for anti-Western militancy on the part of angry mullahs, especially in Great Britain; the occurrence of terrorist attacks in France, Spain and London by “home grown” terrorists, and the perception by local populations that there is a basic contradiction between the precepts of Islam and those of Western liberal democracy, all have contributed to the acute discomfort of growing portions of these indigenous  European populations.

Such discomfort provides a fertile ground for extremist demagoguery and may indeed stimulate aberrant behavior among the mentally impaired. But the question of responsibility for irrational acts, be they immigration policies, immigrant communities, nationalist opponents, or violent perpetrators themselves, cannot be definitely or consistently assigned.  It seems inevitable however, that immigration and welfare policies in several Western European states will be modified as the strength of anti-immigration parties grows.

The situation in the United States is different in many respects.  Muslim immigration is relatively small and Muslim populations seem to have been more successful assimilating than in Europe. However strains have arisen against the background of 9/11 and the wide spread perception that America’s “moderate Muslims” have been reticent in publicly  speaking out against extremism in Muslim communities.  The issue of immigration however is an unresolved political controversy in the U.S. that has been diminished temporarily by the focus on the recession but which will have to be addressed soon. 

Immigration itself in the U.S. is not the major issue.  Illegal immigration is the issue and is the focus of legislation in various states, and the danger of demagoguery while still relatively small remains a slowly growing threat.  As in Western Europe, the prominent issues have to do with economic impact and changes to the national culture.  Successful assimilation seems to many to have been replaced, or at least deferred, by the concept of multiculturalism.  To many in the academic and political worlds bi-lingualism, ethnic based revisionism of American history and the promotion of self perception of immigrants as hyphenated-Americans instead of just Americans is all part of some mythical “social enrichment” process instead of a socially and politically divisive phenomenon similar to the more extreme situation in Europe. 

The world will always have the Timothy McVeighs, Gerald Loughners and Anders Brieviks and public policy cannot be formulated in direct response to their irrational and immoral acts but it would be wrong to ignore the broader political context and the strength and value of national identity

Thursday, July 14, 2011

THE BACHMANN BUBBLE

A few political pundits on both the Left and the Right are advising, or warning, the politically attuned public to start taking Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann "seriously".  If that is a warning about a potential threat,  like put on plenty of sun block before going to the beach, it makes sense.  If it is a call for voters who want to deny Obama a second term to consider her a "serious" choice for the office of the presidency it's pretty hard to do.

The impetus for all this unlikely interest appears to be threefold.  First there is the notion that Bachmann "won" the first Republican debate. The reasons cited for this conclusion are that Romney didn't offer anything new, Pawlenty was suffering from an acute case of the blahs and the other candidates looked like the fringe candidates that they are.  Bachmann on the other hand is said to have separated herself from her evangelical and Tea Party twin Sarah Palin, by showing an ability to speak in complete sentences while offering the standard Tea Party criticisms of Obama and listing her "qualifications" for president.

In Bachmann's mind these qualifications include serving as one of 435 members of the House of Representatives for the past four and a half years, and being one of 200 members of Congress and 1,116,967 Americans who are lawyers. For those who still weren't impressed, there was the claim that she has "executive experience running a small business."  This would be her husband's Christian counseling service. And of course Bachmann never fails to mention the fact that she had five children and offered short term foster care for twenty-three others.  That's it.

So with a resume' this light why has Bachmann risen in the early polls enough to get the attention of the pundits?  Essentially, as a declared candidate, she has replaced Sarah Palin as the foremost Obama basher and source of goofy comments. This gives her constant media coverage and plays well with the red meat seeking Republican faithful on the stump. Meanwhile the other main contenders for the Republican nomination, former governors Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty are having trouble getting the media's attention talking policy.

 Bachmann has also been helped by the ridiculous political tradition of awarding the state of Iowa the first electoral contest in the nation.  Iowa is a fairly homogeneous state with a small population of a little over three million and a large agricultural component.  But it is the large proportion of Iowans who are hard right protestant evangelicals who have driven Bachmann's poll numbers in that state and have recently pushed her into a slight lead over Romney.  Bachmann has made her religious beliefs a part of her campaign by constantly telling voters that she asks God to make decisions for her.  He apparently cooperates according to Bachmann and gave her the go ahead to marry her husband, then  to go to law school, then to become a tax lawyer, to run for Congress and now run for President. To cement her popularity with Iowa voters who are similarly inclined, and for whom religion and social issues are more important that presidential qualifications, Bachmann has recently signed a pledge put out by local religious/political figure Bob Vander Plaats which would commit the presidential candidates to:

 " . . .remedy the “great crisis” in the institution of marriage" by avoiding "quicky divorces" and support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage".  It also seeks to " protect soldiers from “intrusively intimate commingling among attracteds,” i.e. gays.  "There’s a commitment to protect women and children from “seduction into promiscuity” as well as from porn.  Signatories swear to recognize the benefits of “robust childbearing” to American “demographic, economic, strategic and actuarial health and security.” It also demands the rejection of “Sharia Islam” which it labels a form of “totalitarian control.”

What any of this has to do with the duties of the President has not been explained but it plays well in Iowa and has contributed to Bachmann's "surge".  No other Republican candidate has signed the pledge. 

This same evangelical/social issues demographic led to the upset victory of former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee in the Iowa caucuses in 2008.  Bob Vander Plaats was the  Chairman of Huckabee's Iowa campaign.  Thus it is not surprising that Bachmann would find a welcome site for her views in Iowa, which may, as in the case of Huckabee, carry over to a few other states with large conservative evangelical populations. 

Much is made by the media and political observers of a victory or poor showing in Iowa, but by itself it has little predictive value for the outcome of the national campaign. Huckabee, a popular three term governor with actual presidential qualifications, unlike Bachmann, withdrew from the contest two months after his Iowa victory.  He had won  only 12.8% of Republican delegates to the national convention in the following primaries with more diverse Republican voters.  He's now strumming a guitar on his Fox News show.

Bachmann actually refused to sign a more public policy oriented pledge put forth by some members of her Tea Party Caucus in the Congress.  These members pledged not to vote to increase the federal debt limit.  Bachmann's refusal however was not based on common sense; she refused to sign it because it didn’t contain a requirement for a "balanced budget amendment" to the Constitution and a repeal of ObamaCare.  The practical impossibility of securing either of these two requirements in time to avoid a default on U.S. debt or even ever, seems to have eluded her (amendments require a 2/3 vote in both houses of Congress and an affirmative vote in 3/4 of the state's legislatures; the Democrat controlled Senate and Obama's veto pen make repeal of his health care law currently impossible).

So how seriously should voters take this candidate?  Setting aside her wafer thin resume' and the fact that the major percentage of her supporters seem to be values voters instead of policy voters and who are geographically concentrated, a look at Bachmann's policy pronouncements so far don't seem to help her credibility.

On the contribution of human produced carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to global warming:  ". . .there isn't even one study that can be produced showing that carbon dioxide is a harmful gas."

On education in science:  "There are many scientists holding Nobel Prizes who believe in intelligent design." 

On low employment numbers:  "Do away with the minimum wage."

On Medicare and Social Security:  "Phase them out."

On dealing with Iran:  A nuclear strike against Iran "shouldn't be taken off the table."

On participation in the international economic forum, the Group of Ten:
"I don't want the United States to be in a global economy where our future is bound to that of Zimbabwe. . ."

After Iowa, Bachmann must go to New Hampshire where voters are more concerned about serious proposals to fix the economy than moral posturing and simplistic pronouncements. The current (6/14-7/11) polls reflect the change in the nature of the electorate with Romney leading Bachmann 35% to 12% in New Hampshire.  Nationally Romney leads Bachmann 23% to 13%.  Currently Obama leads Romney in a hypothetical match-up nationally 47.6% to 43% but leads Bachman 50.8% to 37%. 

So like Palin before her, Michele Bachmann is largely a media creation because of her incendiary style and propensity to make flakey statements.  Publicity and large amounts of money from the faithful may increase her popularity, and the race horse nature of the primary battle which the media favor will keep speculation alive about her chances until the reality of primaries with voters seeking thoughtful answers from more experienced and qualified candidates sends her back to Minnesota, or to Fox News, Huckabee might want to form a group.


Tuesday, July 5, 2011

DEBT LIMITS AND POLITICS

 
 
The clock keeps ticking towards the forecast August 2, 2012 point when the nation's debt will exceed the legal limit. So far, negotiations between the Obama Administration and Senate Democrats and the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives have resulted only in stalemate. A failure to pass legislation to raise the governments legal limit for federal debt would, most economics and financial experts agree, create market conditions for U.S. debt instruments, which would range from highly negative to disastrous, with significant ripple effects throughout the domestic and international economies.

The political stalemate, in simple terms, involves the ideological divide over the solution to the long term financial health of the nation. Obama and congressional Democrats believe that budget deficits and their impact on the ever growing federal debt can only be reduced by a combination of spending reductions and revenue increases i.e. taxes. Republicans, including many elected with the help of the "smaller government" Tea Party activists in 2010, reject the notion of any tax increases outright and demand much higher levels of spending reductions than the Democrats are willing to approve. The Republicans have said there will be no debt limit increase without an agreement for significant spending reductions.

The situation is like an impending train wreck while the engine crew argues about which side rail to take. It is thus ripe for compromise. The danger is the current "game of chicken" might go on to long for a compromise to be constructed by the statutory dead line.

The President has admitted that spending must be brought under control but his past proposals have been woefully inadequate given the astronomical character of the numbers involved. Obama is a compromiser by nature as the previous continuing resolution to keep the government running without a budget has shown. In that compromise, Obama agreed to extend the current tax rates of the so called "Bush tax cuts" and to several billion dollars in spending cuts. Republicans should remain strong in their demands for more significant spending cuts. However, the enormous numbers involved also should make it obvious that revenue increases must also play a part if the deficits and debt are ever to be reduced.

Now is not the time for a full scale redesign of the federal tax code which is indeed needed. But the President's 2010 Bipartisan Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform contains some suggestions which the House Republicans should, and could, agree to while still adhering to their basic philosophy of "no tax increases", if accompanied by the Commission's ideas on spending reductions. The President and congressional Democrats have largely disowned the Commission's report, largely because of their suggestions on reforming entitlements (Social Security and health care), and the Republicans have essentially ignored it. But it could, in part offer a way out of the current debt increase stalemate. Here is an excerpt from the Commission's final report.

 First, on spending:
"Over the past decade, base discretionary spending (excluding war costs) has grown by 34 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars (64 percent in nominal dollars), and the President’s Fiscal Year 2011budget projects it to grow by an additional 6 percent to $1.26 trillion in 2015. In order to bring down the deficit, Washington will have to rein in discretionary spending."

"RECOMMENDATION 1.1: CAP DISCRETIONARY SPENDING THROUGH 2020. Hold spending in 2012 equal to or lower than spending in 2011, and return spending to pre-crisis 2008 levels in real terms in 2013. Limit future spending growth to half the projected inflation rate through 2020." 
Under the Commission proposal, discretionary spending would be frozen at 2011 levels.
The estimated budget saving for discretionary spending only are 1 trillion, 760 billion dollars through the year 2020.

On taxes:
"Lower rates, broaden the base, and cut spending in the tax code.

"2.1.2 Dedicate $80 billion to deficit reduction in 2015 and $180 billion in 2020. In additional to reducing rates, reform must be projected to raise $80 billion of additional revenue (relative to the alternative fiscal scenario) in 2015 and $180 billion in 2020. To the extent that the dynamic effects of tax reform result in additional revenue beyond these targets, excess funds must go to rate reductions and deficit reduction, not to new spending. "The Commission's recommendations need not be addressed in their totality as part of the debt limit discussions but these key portions offer a sensible place to start meaningful negotiations. "Tax expenditures" refer to legal deductions in the current tax code. Many of these deductions are referred to as "loopholes" and their elimination should not be identified collectively as "tax increases". When combined with lower tax rates, the reform both simplifies the tax code and makes it more efficient. The point is that the huge spending cuts demanded by the Republican negotiators will not be accepted by the Democrat controlled Senate unless accompanied by some revenue enhancement which could be made both ideologically more palatable and which make good sense in the form of reduced deductibles and lower rates.


The current head banging demagoguery by the President and the by the congressional leadership on both sides just makes this vital legislative action more difficult and further enhances the current level of cynicism by the public on the willingness and ability of their elected officials to serve the public interest. The President's current job approval rate stands below half, at 47.5% and the Congress's job approval is practically off the bottom of the chart at 17.2%. This latest exercise in political an ideological obstinacy is just another example which explains these numbers.

D.C. ZOO