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Obama’s courage not in doubt. His judgment sucks.

President Obama, defending his tax-cut deal:

This is the public option debate all over again. So I pass a signature piece of legislation where we finally get health care for all Americans, something that Democrats have been fighting for for a hundred years, but because there was a provision in there that they didn’t get that would have affected maybe a couple million people, even though we got health insurance for 30 million people, and the potential for lower premiums for 100 million people, that somehow that was a sign of weakness and compromise.

Now, if that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves and sanctimonious about how pure our intentions are and how tough we are, and in the meantime the American people are still seeing themselves not able to get health insurance because of a preexisting condition. Or not being able to pay their bills because their unemployment insurance ran out.

Sounds great — gotta give a little to get a little.  But later in the same press conference, Obama refutes his own argument with a beautiful counterexample: congressional Republicans.  They dug in and held out until they got what they wanted:

I have not been able to budge them [Republicans],” said Obama. “And I don’t think there’s any suggestion anybody in this room thinks, realistically, that we can budge them right now. And in the meantime there are a whole bunch of people being hurt. And the economy would be damaged. And my first job is to make sure the economy is growing, that we’re creating jobs out there, and that people who are struggling are getting some relief.”

Shorter Obama: “I was up against people who were smarter than me, more committed than me, more determined than me.  I couldn’t beat that, so I had to grovel a little to keep them from completely kicking my ass.”

I don’t doubt Obama’s belief that extending the tax cuts for the wealthiest is bad policy, and I applaud his willingness to help the “whole bunch of people being hurt.”  I don’t even think Obama is a wimp, like many on the left are saying — it had to take an incredible amount of guts to make this deal, knowing as he must have how he would be attacked for it from the left and given no credit for it on the right.

What I question is Obama’s judgment.  Obama is arguing that the source of danger to the middle class was Mitch McConnell’s refusal to vote for an extension of unemployment benefits, and that because his deal avoided that outcome, that the deal was good for average Americans.  But that’s a profound misunderstanding of what just happened.

I wonder how Obama can actually believe that after thirty years of trickle-down economics, in which the rich have been given a continuous stream financial gifts by the federal government on the theory that if only they can be liberated enough from any actual obligations to the rest of the country, that somehow the rest of us will magically begin to prosper as well, that we have not yet reached that point where these massive giveaways to the wealthy are themselves the main reason why there are “a whole bunch of people being hurt.”  The middle class isn’t being destroyed by their employment benefits running out.  Sure, this is painful in the short run, but it’s not the reason why the middle class is dying.

The middle class is dying because our country has stopped demanding of the wealthy that they contribute their fair share toward the common good.  Over the past thirty years, we’ve relieved the wealthy of their tax burdens at the same time that we’ve allowed encouraged them to outsource jobs without penalty.  We’ve sent our troops overseas to fight enormously expensive and unending wars that are only tangentially related (at best) to defending the nation, if by “the nation” we mean the actual American people who live in Rhode Island and Nebraska and Oregon.  And now, when we begin to take note of the fact that our budgets are seriously unbalanced because our national spending is so much more than our revenue, we get Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson to tell us that the solution is to cut Social Security and to raise the retirement age.  Now those few middle-class people who still have jobs can look forward to more insecurity during retirement.  This is how “trickle-down” economics has actually worked.

President Obama has missed the forest for the trees.  The problem isn’t Mitch McConnell’s threat to vote against an extension of unemployment benefits, the problem is that Mich McConnell’s political opponents, and Mich McConnell’s predecessor’s political opponents, have caved in again and again for the past thirty years to right-wing demands that privilege the rich, regardless of the consequences for everyone else.

I’m one of those people who think that helping the middle class is good for the country.  Every government policy helps some people more than it helps others, and the policies of the last thirty years, I think, have helped the wealthy at the expense of the middle class, and this has gone on for far too long.   This is how America becomes a two-tiered banana republic.  Maybe not today or tomorrow, but eventually.  With little deals like the one Obama just made.

Obama’s deal isn’t cowardly.  It’s stupid.

Why I read Matt Taibbi

One example: his latest recital of the “Great Silk Road of pseudoleft punditry“:

[The New York Times' Matt] Bai is one of those guys — there are hundreds of them in this business — who poses as a wonky, Democrat-leaning “centrist” pundit and then makes a career out of drubbing “unrealistic” liberals and progressives with cartoonish Jane Fonda and Hugo Chavez caricatures. This career path is so well-worn in our business, it’s like a Great Silk Road of pseudoleft punditry. First step: graduate Harvard or Columbia, buy some clothes at Urban Outfitters, shore up your socially liberal cred by marching in a gay rights rally or something, then get a job at some place like the American Prospect. Then once you’re in, spend a few years writing wonky editorials gently chiding Jane Fonda liberals for failing to grasp the obvious wisdom of the WTC or whatever Bob Rubin/Pete Peterson Foundation deficit-reduction horseshit the Democratic Party chiefs happen to be pimping at the time. Once you’ve got that down, you just sit tight and wait for the New York Times or the Washington Post to call. It won’t be long.

Isn’t this also an almost perfect (if mean-spirited) description of Ezra Klein?

At any rate, the whole Taibbi post is enlightening and you should read it.

Age of Reagan Continues?

I used to believe that the Age of Reagan had ended.

The financial collapse and all the pain and hysteria it caused, I thought, would surely change the prevailing mindset that had ruled over public policy in this country since Reagan.  The election of Barack Obama was a signal that people were finally ready for some hopey-changey stuff.  Surely the mantras of deregulation/tax cuts/small government/free trade that politicians reflexively cited to build a case for their laissez-faire policies would be revealed as the articles of faith that they had become.  Surely our politicians would now start to wrestle with alternative approaches to address the decline of the American middle class that coincided with the past thirty years of unchallenged right-wing policymaking by every Congress and President (including Bill Clinton).

Well, maybe I was wrong.  The right wing, they’re still calling the shots.  If we can’t let the radical tax cuts of George W. Bush expire at a time when everyone is moaning about the deficit, I wonder why we think we’ll be able to do anything that doesn’t entail the continued embrace of far right-wing policies.

Get out of Iraq and Afganistan?  Rebuild a manufacturing base in America?  Reduce income inequality?  Reregulate the financial industry (or any other industry)?  Control health care costs?

No way.

——-

Maybe, though, the age of Reagan is over — we just haven’t replaced it with anything better.  I don’t think anything like Obama’s health care bill could have passed in the Age of Reagan.  It is simply too activist (“big”) government.  But one thing the health care bill is not is anti-big health insurance companies.  It’s too early to fully assess the merits of Obamacare, but I continue to suspect that in ten years, it won’t have followed the path of Medicare and Medicaid and morphed into something stronger that supporters of universal public health care financing want to see.  Instead, I suspect that it will exemplify a growing corporatism (like Italy’s) in America.

——-

I wish Obama had not made this deal to extend the Bush tax cuts, but at least he got a payroll tax cut.

Obama: stick a fork in him?

“Whatever is going on inside the White House, from the outside it looks like moral collapse — a complete failure of purpose and loss of direction.”  -Paul Krugman

“The captors [Republicans] will win this battle, if they haven’t already by the time you read this, because Obama has seemingly surrendered his once-considerable abilities to act, decide or think.”  -Frank Rich

Before the 2008 election, an argument often leveled against Obama was that he wasn’t enough of a fighter, that he was too enamored of compromise, and that the Republicans in Washington (not the compromising sort) would chew him up and spit him out.  Paul Krugman made this argument many times, and — silly me — I just looked at Obama’s anti-Iraq war speech as evidence that Obama really had the backbone to stand up for something in the face of overwhelming opposition.

I should have paid more attention to his FISA vote.  I may have been wrong about Obama.

We’re pretty deep into Obama’s term, and it’s now almost impossible to keep making excuses for him.  Frank Rich and Paul Krugman both went apoplectic over Obama’s performance last week, when he froze federal salaries and refused to take a stand against the Republicans’ disastrous plan to extend the Bush tax cuts for the very wealthy, but last week was just a continuation of what we’ve seen from Obama since the election.  Where is the change?

Economically, Obama has been nothing more than pedestrian at best.  Forget for the moment my pet peeve that he failed to do what I would have done, and fire John Dugan.  He surrounds himself with retreads like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, argues for a one-time stimulus bill that was too small and that would probably have been on the order of what George W. Bush would have argued for had he still been President (TARP, remember, was all GWB), doesn’t push very hard for anything specific in the financial reform bill, much less for actually bringing back something like Glass-Steagall and for actually breaking up the too-big-to-fail banks, doesn’t fight for Elizabeth Warren, and now freezes federal salaries and makes a show of wanting to compromise with one of the most perverted and extreme cohorts of legislators that the Republican Party has sent to Washington in many years.  Thinking about all this, the tone of Rich’s and Krugman’s columns makes more sense.

But it’s not just economics.

Foreign policy: yep, still in Iraq, still in Afganistan.  No end in sight to either of those wars.  Escalating military force in Yemen.  Still remotely possible that we’ll give Netanyahu what he wants, and attack Iran.  Gates still the secretary of defense. Where is the change?

What about executive power?  Just like Bush, Obama’s Justice Department is still abusing the “state secrets” privilege to prevent victims of torture and other executive branch lawlessness from even having a day in court.  Obama is cracking down on government whistleblowers more than Bush did.  Guantanamo?  Still open.  Obama supports and indefinite detentions not only in cases where there has been no trial, but even in cases where the detainee has been acquitted at trial, on the grounds that the President knows that the imprisoned is a Terrorist.  Like Bush, Obama says, “Trust me,” but what’s worse than Bush is that now, both the left and the right in this country say “ok, we will.”  Worse than Bush, Obama says that he can kill American citizens on Presidential say-so alone — no evidence or trial required.  You don’t have to be Glenn Greenwald to figure out that the rule of law in America has not seen a renaissance under Obama’s leadership. Where is the change?

In the recent past, I have sometimes been right when many of my colleagues and friends who disagreed with me have been wrong.  That the Iraq war turned into such a quagmire isn’t something to gloat about, but it did remind me that sometimes I have been the only one in the room that was making any sense.  It’s good for the ol’ self-esteem.

Then, there’s Obama.  I’m afraid I may have been woefully wrong about him.  Oh, well… being wrong is good for the ol’ humility.

Before the election, people like Daniel Larison said that Obama was a garden-variety politician that people were too willing to project their own hopes and desires onto.  I thought that was a petty and cynical way of looking at my guy from Hyde Park, but I’m afraid Larison will be proven right in the end.  I feel let down, and maybe it is because I projected what I wanted to see onto Obama.  I certainly didn’t fantasize about Bill Clinton Lite, but it seems like that’s the Obama we’ve got.

So maybe I’m going to have to eat a bunch of crow.  It won’t be the first time.  I’m sure I’ll survive it.

—–

Despite my disillusionment about Obama, I still think it’s absurd that someone like Hillary Clinton would have been much better.  Apart from being a woman President (certainly a good thing), there’s nothing to suggest that Clinton would have done anything to significantly alter the status-quo.  Even more than Obama, Hillary exemplifies the late-imperial American status quo.  Although Obama’s been a disappointment, that doesn’t mean that I should have voted for Hillary.  You should read this ex-Hillary supporter’s description of their Obama disappointment though.

An alternative economic model: Germany

Living in the USA, it’s difficult to escape the influence of a constant stream of commentary by our pundits and political leaders telling our citizens that “you must suffer now, to avoid greater suffering tomorrow.”  The offshoring of jobs and the weakening of unions is required for our firms to be competitive, we’re told, because without competitive firms, our economy will collapse and our workers will be far worse off.  It’s the argument for a hands-off approach to the economy in a nutshell, and it’s been so ubiquitous for so long that it now no longer even needs to be argued — it’s simply presumed, as a starting point for subsidiary arguments about a narrow range of policy choices.

This presumption insulates our leaders from having to answer hard questions about why they are doing essentially nothing to stop the erosion of America’s middle class, as manufacturing jobs are outsourced and replaced either by nothing or by much less well-paid service jobs.  It allows our leaders to avoid confronting the problems that our finance-centric economy creates for the “real” economy, as hedge funds and other investors demand that firms they invest in sacrifice their long-term futures for short-term stock-price gains.

Although it’s hard to escape from this received dogma in this country, it is possible.  All you have to do is read a little about Germany.

The Germans are doing it differently than we are in the USA, and they are being rewarded for it.  Their manufacturers are globally competitive, despite employing high-paid German workers and despite having strong unions with seats on corporate decision-making boards.  BMW and Siemens are proving that manufacturers can thrive in a national environment that imposes obligations on them which protect a healthy domestic middle-class.  Harold Meyerson in the WaPo belatedly calls our attention to this ringing counterexample to American economic dogma:

Germany’s economy is the strongest in the world. Its trade balance – the value of its exports over its imports – is second only to China’s, which is all the more remarkable since Germany is home to just 82 million people. Its 7.5 percent unemployment rate – two percentage points below ours – is lower than at any time since right after reunification. Growth is robust, and real wages are rising.

It’s quite a turnabout for an economy that American and British bankers and economists derided for years as the sick man of Europe. German banks, they insisted, were too cautious and locally focused, while the German economy needed to slim down its manufacturing sector and beef up finance.

Wisely, the Germans declined the advice. Manufacturing still accounts for nearly a quarter of the German economy; it is just 11 percent of the British and U.S. economies (one reason the United States and Britain are struggling to boost their exports). Nor have German firms been slashing wages and off-shoring – the American way of keeping competitive – to maintain profits.

Meyerson points out several features of the German economy that are anathema to our economists and political leaders — the subsidies from the German government to manufacturers that enable them to avoid firing workers in downturns, the municipally-owned banks that lend to small manufacturers in their communities and are restricted from combing the globe for profit-making opportunities, and their system of corporate boards that include significant numbers of union representatives.  Tom Geoghegan’s new book describes the German system in more detail and argues that, with the possible exception of those at the very tippy top of the income distribution in this country,  we’d be better off in the German system.

High-wage Germany, which offers the most bottom-up worker control of any European country, nearly ties with China as the leading exporter in the world, well ahead of the United States. But in China and America we work until we drop while in Germany, they take six weeks off a year (with a shocking number of four-day weekends along the way). It’s not just that the Germans can outcompete us, but they seem to be doing it with one hand tied behind their backs.

I’d like to think that our economic collapse would trigger some serious discussion among policymakers in this country about incorporating some aspects of the German system here, but alas, the chances of that happening are zero.  Barack Obama’s been in office for two years now, and he has shown no sign that his vision of the future of America extends beyond his memories of the halcyon days of the last Clinton admistration, circa 1997.

R.I.P., Laurent Fignon

Fignon-LeMond

French cyclist Laurent Fignon died today of cancer.

I remember watching Fignon in his battle with Greg LeMond at the 1989 Tour de France.  Fignon lost that battle by only eight seconds.  I didn’t know he was fighting cancer; it’s a shock to hear that he died.

Rush live, for only the fourth time in about 27 years

Tomorrow, I’m going to see Rush for the fourth time.

Signals: the Rush album I've loved the longest

Signals: the Rush album I've loved the longest

It’s surprising that I haven’t seen them live more often, since I’ve been a fierce fan since way back in the early 80s when a redheaded kid named Sean introduced me to their Signals album in elementary school music class. I don’t remember which song finally hooked me into Rush — was it Subdivisions?  Might have been.  I remember one of my friends that year was obsessed with one-hit wonder Toni Basil, and went around singing:

Oh Mickey, you’re so fine
You’re so fine you blow my mind
Hey Mickey, hey Mickey.

In that context it’s less surprising that my elementary-school self would appreciate a song like Subdivisions which tended to be a bit more… sociological:

Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order
An insulated border
In between the bright lights
And the far unlit unknown

Anyway, I remember the music class.  We were supposed to try to play some popular music, in some kind of effort to make music education a little more personal for the students, or something.  Well, we get split up into pairs, each group of two with a xylophone, and my partner Sean suggests that we learn to play Subdivisions on the xylophone.

Subdivisions would sound fine on the xylophone.  Oh, yes.  Sean, you were one ballsy motherf*%cker.

Signals will always be my favorite summer album, perhaps because I played it so much that first summer when I stumbled into Rush, or because of the reggae vibe on so many of those songs, or because of the summertime lyrics on songs like Analog Kid:

A hot and windy August afternoon
Has the trees in constant motion
With a flash of silver leaves
As they’re rocking in the breeze

The boy lies in the grass with one blade
Stuck between his teeth
A vague sensation quickens
In his young and restless heart
And a bright and nameless vision
Has him longing to depart

So many of the reasons that I’ve become a lifelong Rush fan, and a fan of almost all their work, is because I started off, as a kid, with Signals.

Think about what I had to do after I’d fallen in love with Signals.  I had to listen to more Rush, of course, and that meant checking out their previous albums.  So I immediately started listening to the album that came out just before Signals.  This was Moving Pictures, which was, and is, Rush’s most popular album.  It’s is an album that caps off most of what I think of as “early” Rush — the epic-rock Rush, the Rush of Fly By Night and 2112.  That Rush was a lot of guitar and headbanging drums and screaming vocals, which on Moving Pictures was refined into classic hits that every rock fan knows even if they don’t know Rush at all — Tom Sawyer, Limelight, Freewill.  As a kid, once I’d digested Moving Pictures, it was a short leap to digesting Permanent Waves and Hemispheres and Caress of Steel.  So I did, and I became a fan of all of that stuff.

Meanwhile, as I was learning about the older music, Rush was releasing their first post-Signals album, the dystopian but oh-so-awesome Grace Under Pressure.  They were changing their s0und, using more keyboards, getting the reputation of being a “prog-rock” band.  Many of the older fans that had already spent years listening to 2112, or that had been hooked by Tom Sawyer, weren’t really thrilled by what Rush was doing in the mid- to late-80s with Grace Under Pressure and Power Windows.  Songs like Mystic Rhythms were being played as background music on episodes of ABC’s news show 20/20, and that just wasn’t very head-bangy rock and roll.

But for me, as a kid entranced with Signals and carrying none of the baggage that old Caress of Steel fans probably had, I didn’t care.  All I cared about was how cool Alex Lifeson was in the VHS video of one of their Grace Under Pressure shows.  He had the Miami Vice look down cold.  I liked Duran Duran too, of course, but who could touch Rush?  And if those guys were playing stuff like Middletown Dreams, I was not going to object.  It would be incoherent for any fan of Subdivisions to object to the Power Windows album when it has Middletown Dreams:

The middle-aged madonna
Calls her neighbour on the phone
Day by day the seasons pass
And leave her life alone
But she’ll go walking out that door
On some bright afternoon
To go and paint big cities
From a lonely attic room

For me, then, Rush was always both hard rock and prog rock.  They couldn’t ever disappoint me when they made an album like Presto, which came out during my first year of college and managed to rope in a whole new generation of fans that hadn’t ever been real fond of Tom Sawyer.  And unlike those fans who might be lost by the band’s current turn back to hard rock, I can say that songs like Earthshine are as good as any they’ve ever done.

My youthful choice of Rush fandom has turned out pretty good for me.   I’m glad they keep recording and touring.  And now I can browse YouTube for hours and hours of concert bootlegs (of varying quality) from the past thirty years.

For example, this is a mellower song from an energetic show in Albany in 1991:

And from when the current tour stopped in Chicago on July 5th:

Stomp!

Here’s Luka Bloom:

…and here’s James McMurtry:

Hope you like ‘em.

What happened to the dog?

One of the many crashes in Stage 1 of the Tour de France was caused by a dog running out into the middle of the peloton.

I want to know what happened to that pup.  I’ve read that he “survived” but I want to know how he is.  Where is the press on this story?

Congratulations to my peeps in Chicago

UofCuofchicago1Congratulations to the University of Chicago Emergency Medicine Residency Class of 2010!

And for the Class of 2011, only one more year left.  It’ll go quickly, so enjoy yourselves.