Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Republican Ideological Purity Is the Democrat's Great Opportunity

Katrina Vanden Heuvel and Charles Lane of the Washington Post have drawn a bright line around what ails this country in two recent columns. Van Der Heuvel's is about the source of our moral crisis, while Lane's is an object lesson in why ideological purity -- and the frenzy it sometimes awakens -- can backfire on the very people that endorse it.

First, let's look at Lane's enlightening reminder, his "be careful what you wish for" lesson. In his article, Lane sketches out the history leading to the 2003 Supreme Court decision, Lawrence v. Texas, in which Justice Anthony Kennedy did the unthinkable: He sided with the liberal members of the court to overturn Texas' anti-sodomy law. What led to this case was a fanatical pursuit of sustaining a law that never should have been enacted, one that banned private consensual sex if it was homosexual in nature.

As laudable, from a religious, moralistic perspective, the Texas law might have been -- for its narrow constituency -- its clearly unconstitutional overreach set up a cataclysmic event, the granting of gay rights by the Supreme Court. This in turn set up the more recent successes for gays around gay marriage. In fact, one could easily place the passage of the Texas anti-gay law as the beginning of the march to broader gay rights. How beautifully ironic.

The implications from Lane's cautionary tale are as illuminating as they are refreshing, not to mention, reason for hope. More on that later. Now on to Vanden Heuvel. Her column speaks to the "moral crisis" in America as being cut out of whole cloth by the Republican Party. Here she makes it stark:
The real crisis of public morality in the United States doesn’t lie in the private decisions Americans make in their lives or their bedrooms; it lies at the heart of an ideology — and a set of policies — that the right-wing has used to batter and browbeat their fellow Americans.
They dress these policies up sometimes, give them catchy titles like Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity.” But they never cease to imbue them with the kind of moral decisions that ought to make anyone furious. Ryan’s latest budget really is case in point. It’s a plan that says that increases in defense spending are so essential, that massive tax cuts for the wealthy are so necessary, that we must pay for them by ripping a hole in the social safety net. The poor need Medicaid to pay for medicine and treatment for their families? We care, we really do, but the wealthy need tax cuts more. Food stamps the only thing standing between your children and starvation? Listen, we feel your pain. We get it. But we’ve got more important things to spend money on. Like a new yacht for that guy who only has one yacht.
There, she put it in a nutshell -- an apt metaphor. The Republican Party is not about freedom, they're about how ideological purity comes at the expense of freedom, that freeing the individual from regulation and taxation comes at the expense of the least of us, the ones who would benefit from community and what community action can bring to the citizens of that community.

Freedom's just another word...
By the way, the number of citizens thrust into that growing cohort known as "the least of us" is alarming, making it all the more inconceivable that the Republicans would push now for changes in tax law and budget priorities that would increase poverty and weaken the safety net originally provided to alleviate it. But that's exactly what the Republicans are doing.

From Lane's thesis -- be careful what you wish for -- and Vanden Heuvel's declaration -- that the current moral crisis stems from Republican ideology becoming a moralistic feeding frenzy -- we can derive a hopeful scenario: The Republicans are hellbent on self-destruction in an election year that seemed to be one of the largest openings for Republican gains in a decade but now seems one of the biggest opportunities for Democrats to define themselves as the party of all the citizens -- the disinclination of the 1% notwithstanding.

Republicans, driven evermore to the right by tea-party types, the Koch brothers, the NRA, Rick Santorum's haughty rhetoric, and Rush Limbaugh's naughty rhetoric will, it's now likely, so fabulously overreach that they'll achieve what they wish for: an ideological purity that attracts the well-established 28% of America I like to refer to as George W. Bush's dead-enders, you know, those frightening people that considered Bush an exemplary president.

Who doesn't this thin coalition attract? Just about everybody else. Their only cause for hope is that Democrats might fail -- as they often do -- at their messaging and that what's left of the Reagan Democrats and the blue-collar Republicans still fall for the line that individualism should trump community even if it reduces many pocketbooks in America to a frighteningly barren place. It may be empty, but it's my pocketbook!

You might not have liked it, but small ball was all I could play.
I'm with those who believe Democratic principles are hollow structures compared to their grander architecture under FDR, Truman, JFK, and Johnson, and though a supporter of Bill Clinton, I do hold him responsible for contributing to the hollowing-out process. But even Clinton drew the line when it came to decimating the middle class to increase the prerogatives of the wealthy. He may have even crafted the best state he could under the circumstances.

But the catastrophe awaiting the U.S. if the Republican dream survives its spiral into purity is too horrible to contemplate. So let's pull together, Democrats, stay on message, and craft that message positively to take advantage of the stumble the Republicans are currently taking. Let's give them their "be careful what you wish for" moment in 2012.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Ben Bernanke as Mighty Mouse

"Where's that nasty old GDP?"
Okay, an ancient allusion: Mighty Mouse was a cartoon character from my youth, a prodigious rodent patterned after Superman. Ben Bernanke isn't either of them, but as with Mighty Mouse's famous tagline -- "Here I come to save the day!" -- the Fed chairman knows how to come to the rescue, however brief may be the effect.

In a previous post, I suggested that between the possibility that European and Asian investment money might flow into U.S. markets because their own markets might feel the pinch of slow or negative growth and the likelihood that the Fed would ride herd, so to speak, on our own recovery, there lies the possibility of stable if not up markets through the election.

As if to prove my point -- not an ingenious one, I must admit -- Ben Bernanke did as he was told this morning, causing a triple digit rise in the Dow on an otherwise dismal day. Here's Reuters:
The U.S. economy needs to grow more quickly if it is to produce enough jobs to bring down the unemployment rate, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said on Monday, tamping down expectations of a quick reversal of monetary easing.
Bernanke said the recent decline in the jobless rate, which dropped to 8.3 percent in February from 9.1 percent last summer, was "somewhat out of sync" with the rather modest pace of economic growth.
U.S. gross domestic product grew 3 percent in the fourth quarter, but is expected to have slowed to just below 2 percent in the first three months of this year. For all of last year, it grew only 1.7 percent, which would normally be too slow to move the unemployment rate lower.
Bernanke said the recent drop in the jobless rate could reflect an effort by businesses to recalibrate their payrolls after unusually heavy job cuts during the recession. If this is the case, he said, progress may stall.
Mighty Ben

 So this is how it works. Ben Bernanke senses that the economy will stall because growth won't be fast enough to increase unemployment. He said that the Fed should "remain cautious" as it decides future moves.

Translation: We'll pump money into the system rather than risking the shallow recovery. President Obama's campaign team must be cluck-clucking just as Team Romney must be shaking their heads in dismay, sputtering, "How can we win if America doesn't crash and burn?"

I know, when James Carville famously said, "It's the economy, stupid," he wasn't hoping for a miracle spike in the GDP for ole George Herbert Walker, he was quietly praying for another bad Conference Board report. It's hard to tell the white hats from the black ones.

In this case, however, the good guys, from my perspective, are on the right side of America. Er, I mean left. Also, it may mean we can sit passively by as the election year progresses and pay more attention to politics and less attention to our safe -- for now -- portfolios.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

A Serious Attempt to Get It Right: Impossible?

Rupert, you don't make it easy.
No, it's not impossible. As a matter of fact, the truth of the matter -- whatever the matter -- is often expressed clearly by those who recognize it and share it, and the aptness of a public policy position is studied and clarified daily by some of the best reporters in, well, at least the English-speaking world.

As a matter of habit, I seek out these treatises, essays, blog posts, and articles daily, thanks to the great reading room in cyberspace. The truth is out there and recognizable.

The problem is that these days vast echo chambers exist that drive otherwise capable minds into wells of ignorance, where they repeat the echo until it has the ring of truth -- for them.

Some might read the above and consider what I say to be an attack, on Fox, the Wall Street Journal, on right-wing radio, on Limbaugh and the rest. They'd be right if it weren't for one thing: these "news" and opinion sources aren't serious outlets. They are operated for a purpose other than pursuit of the truth. The people who don't know this are unaware that they're victims of propaganda. A growing number of people, here and in the UK (think of News International's growing cell-phone scandal), are becoming aware that maybe Murdoch isn't a good guy and that Rush's schtick is very much streaming from the heart of darkness.

Best interests of the country at heart? Hardly.
No, I don't attack these outfits, I recognize them for what they are. Once I hear that point of view, I pivot and check out my sources, my inspirations, so to speak, my oracles. I like to listen not just to those who hold my point of view but to the people who have actually shaped my point of view. I don't come back to the well to be deluded. I come back for sustenance. My choice is based on having learned who makes sense and who does not, on who is reliable, and, face it, it's based on their sharing a very particular vision of mine: They demonstrate an avocation dedicated to helping people, to improving the lives of citizens of every stripe.

Here's who I rely on and why:

Paul Krugman
Paul Krugman (link that helps you past the NYT firewall). Krugman, economist, Princeton professor, and Times columnist and blogger, helps me move past the rhetoric at the intersection of politics and economics, where the real matters of society reside. He's not afraid to call out the zombie liars for what they are. He believes forging the truth in the age of partisan allegiances and artful if insincere messaging is akin to war, and he's willing to fight it. In fact, he feels he owes it to his readers. He links to friend and foe alike, urging us to go see for ourselves. I do so often and come back mostly reassured that Krugman has it right.

aka Duncan Black
Atrios at Eschaton. Atrios, an economics PhD and a former professor, is winning on several points. First, he's downright funny, even when dealing with the most serious of issues, and second, his beat is a mix of politics, economics, transportation and urban issues (he's in Philly), and culture. He gets more bang for the buck from one word than I get from ten. I'm envious. But a day doesn't pass when I don't go to his blog for all it provides. My must-read on the Intertubes (a word he crafted from the late Senator Stevens of Alaska after his mischaracterization of the Internet as a "series of tubes.").

Josh Marshall
Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo. Josh's blog is one of the oldest around. It was the first blog I started to follow, I think around the beginning of the debate over the Iraq War. Marshall, like a lot of bloggers, is highly educated -- he's a graduate of the Webb Schools in California and Princeton and has a PhD in American history from Brown -- and has a breadth of experience as a "real" journalist. His site has grown into a combination blog/news aggregator, but he's also developed a staff of writers and editors who produce their own reporting. The site is deep and covers politics in all its aspects, from policy to the horse race to the Battle Royal that is modern political theater. TPM produces a regular stream of videos compressing the news of the day -- sometimes an issue, sometimes for a news organization (Fox comes to mind), and sometimes for a campaign (Mitt is very giving in this regard) -- so the site also offers some lighthearted commentary to keep the chill out of the air.

The everywhere man
Barry Ritholtz's The Big Picture. Barry's shop is called Fusion IQ, where he directs equity research, which is available to clients online. Ritholtz, like Krugman and Atrios, accurately predicted the housing bubble and subsequent financial collapse and now dishes up news and opinion not only at his blog but also practically everywhere, from the Washington Post to Yahoo!, CNBC, Bloomberg TV, and more. I don't know how he does it, some days he seems to be EVERYWHERE! He somewhat sticks to a macro view of the markets, but as with other like minds he sees the intersection with politics. Barry's a good soul, but he's got a bare-knuckles style of prose that cuts through the bull. A feature I like is his AM and PM Reads. I picture him laptopping it on his commuter train, reading to and fro. He always seems to find the beef. Solid guy, solid site, and also filled with his special gritty yet urbane sense of humor.

Marcos Moulitsas ZĂșniga
Marcos Moulitsas' Daily Kos. Another one of the political blogs I discovered early on, Daily Kos is openly supportive of the Democratic Party, though they're not afraid to spank Blue Dogs when they find them. It's long been well past simply a political blog, with great coverage of science, the environment, culture, and society. Kos, as he's called, has created a fabulous resource by allowing one and all to post diaries, some of which are elevated to "recommended" or "community spotlight" status, allowing a depth of reporting, analysis, and opinion unrivaled in the left blogoshere. I regularly post diaries there and am tickled pink by the occasional upgrade. A regular favorite of mine is Bill in Portland Maine's Cheers and Jeers: Rum and Coke FRIDAY! Also, Daily Kos has the most robust presentation of the political universe, regularly chronicling the various races around the country and the inner, day-to-day workings of Congress. Kos doesn't post as much as he used to, but his stamp is still all over the site. Like many bloggers, Kos is well educated, with two bachelor's degrees in Journalism, Philosophy and Political Science from Northern Illinois Univesity and a J.D. from Boston University School of Law. Moulitsas spent his formative years in El Salvador and is a U.S. Army veteran.

For newsy news and opinion, I go to Slate, Huffington Post, and Salon, and of course I have to see what nonsense they're up to daily at the New York Times and the Washington Post. To see my honorable Mentions, just check out my blogroll in the right sidebar. There are actually more sites I rely on and do visit daily, but I've chosen for this post the ones I go to even before the coffee is ready. It's made me a better man, goddamit, and these people help me get it right. Thanks to them, it's not impossible.

Note. It occurs to me that once you get it right -- get your head screwed on straight -- then what do you do? I should explore that in another blog post very soon.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

And Now for Something Completely Different, Again: Investing in the Eurosclerosis Age

He knows what he's doing, right?!?

It's a bit too late for me to act on this recommendation, but that's no excuse to not share it with you. I'm all in money-wise, right now I've got no more. Yet maybe I've already made my plays, we'll see. (Already socked in some high-yields and some cyclicals, etc., fund-wise.)

But...here's the scoop: My first reaction to Europe's Really Bad Horribly Bad Austerity Day was, OMG our stock market is going to tank! Uh, maybe not. How about an alternative scenario?

And...here it is: If Europe's going to austerity itself into a recession (already happening), it doesn't necessarily mean we're screwed in the U.S. Okay, sure, the situation becomes dicey, but, uh, where are the Europeans that can afford to get crazy -- you know who I'm talkin' about, oligarchs! -- going to put all their money? In the Eurotrash bin? I don't think so.

I know, everybody sez it's all global now. But is it? What if smart Europeans say to themselves that maybe now isn't the best time to buy Braun or Daimler or whatnot, especially when we trashing our Euro Zone while America is on the rise? Maybe, the Euro-non-centrics say, wait a minute, I'm throwin' my juice where it might not stink, in America!

Talk amongst yerselves.

Hey, Angela, thanks for the GM tip!

Just to be clear: What I'm saying is that there are reasons to be hopeful that the stock rally that we've had since last fall is not due for a major correction even though conventional wisdom points to one. Not only does the world need some place to put its money and might choose the U.S. because of lowering demand in Europe and Asia, but also there's the fact we're in an election year. Even if the Republicans would like to see us in economic trouble to improve their election chances, institutions like the Fed often make quiet plays to stabilize, even improve markets during election years. QE3, anyone? Or watch President Obama open up the oil reserves to quiet the gasoline market, which also tempers oil prices.

If there is a bottom line, I'd say that the market is due for a long, sideways motion, maybe all the way to November. It's a good time for consolidation and retrenchment, not retreat. So staying in, going for high-dividend, high-yield stocks makes sense. The bond market? I don't know. yields are going up, but prices are coming down. When to buy bonds? Probably when the smoke clears in stocks or after that major correction I'm suggesting won't happen soon. So find a safe way to be 20-40% in bonds. I'm a fan of the Treasury product called I Bonds, which indexes for inflation. Check them out at TreasuryDirect.

I know it's hard to believe, but I've got your back.

Message to GOP: Dance with the People that Brung Ya

Matt Miller of the Washington Post wrote the essential column on the new fiscal 2013 budget proposal of conservative darling Paul Ryan. It's entitled "Paul Ryan's Budget to Nowhere," and it nails the key fabrication of the budget's premise:
Because we can’t keep doing everything for everybody in this country,” [Ryan] said. “We should trim down a lot of other stuff we’re doing.”
This was unintentionally revealing. Ryan has sounded this theme before. “We are at a moment,” Ryan said in his State of the Union response in 2011, “where if government’s growth is left unchecked and unchallenged . . . we will transform our social safety net into a hammock, which lulls able-bodied people into lives of complacency and dependency.”
But what hammock is Ryan talking about? The only thing slated to grow the size of government in the years ahead is the retirement of the baby boomers. The doubling of the number of people eligible for Social Security and Medicare is what is driving all the increase in federal spending — along with the spiral in system-wide health costs, which afflicts Medicare along with all privately financed health care.
If those programs for seniors haven’t been a “hammock” until now, simply doubling the number of people eligible for them can’t turn them into a “hammock” tomorrow. When it comes to fiscal policy, we have an aging population challenge, and a health-cost challenge. We don’t have a “hammock” challenge.
That's the key to understanding just what the GOP attack on American citizens is: It's not what it purports to be. Most GOPers repeat the meme that "we will transform our social safety net into a hammock" when what they really want is to take away the services that have existed for generations and have been paid for by the very participants that need them and have earned them at exactly the time they are set to receive them -- retirement. Retirement may indeed be a "hammock," but it's intended to be. It's meant to be that moment when the body, usually already starting to fail a bit, gets to rest, refresh and be attended to after forty years or more of labor.

And this moment in time has been paid for by a lifetime of social security and Medicare taxes as part of a social contract: You pay into the fund, and when it's your turn, you get to rest, relax and enjoy what time you've got left. What does the Republican Party want, an extra decade of work, often in pain and diminished capacity -- especially for those who've worked with their hands and their backs -- just before the folks croak? In a word, yes.

Why? So that we can cut taxes on the wealthy even though we've been cutting taxes on the wealthy for the better part of thirty years? Yes.

So that we can continue to fund wars that have been sucking our blood and treasure without apparent success or efficacy or real rationale? Yes.

Heaven forbid we should cut defense spending in order to meet our contractual obligations to our citizens.

I could go on, but this isn't meant to be a line-by-line analysis of Ryan's budget, which in any event is impossible because there is no line-by-line there anyway. As with many GOP proposals there's just an "end Medicare and Medicaid as we know it and while we're at it raise eligibility age on all social programs and change the COLA calculations so that benefits go down even though those doing the actual math point out that this actually raises costs" proposal that protects defense spending, massively cuts taxes on the wealthy and corporations while not spelling out the other areas of cuts required to get us anywhere near a balanced budget.

No, Ryan's proposal isn't a serious one, it's just a bomb being lobbed into the the public sphere to set up the messaging of Ryan's cohort. Pure and simple. That's his job. Conservatives can now cite Ryan's plan as if it's an authoritative study upon which to draw. It's not, but that won't stop the Jon Kyles, Tom Coburns, and John Boehners from saying things like "Paul Ryan's the first Congressman to have the courage to admit that our present spending is just not sustainable." Right, it isn't, especially if we continue to cut off the sources of revenue we've been using for taking care of our citizens.

Matt Miller points to what really happening: The baby boomers are going to retire in record numbers at a time when we as a nation are failing to control healthcare costs. In other advanced nations, populations are aging, as well. They are, however, more prepared to deal with the crisis because they've already made the commitment to single-payer healthcare and are thus in better control of costs. Only in personal-responsibility-obsessed America are we definitely screwed. Why? Because even though our citizens have been paying into the system all of our lives, personal responsibility ends at the legislature's door.

To be fair, I need to mention a key exception among advanced nations: the austerity-crazed Tories in the UK who are wreaking havoc on their economy with lower taxes, savage cuts, and plans to privatize its reasonably well-functioning healthcare system. Currently the Tory experiment has thrown the UK back into recession and actually expanded deficits, as most non-partisan economists warned would happen. But that's another, if compelling, story.

No one among the U.S. citizenry are asking for a bigger, better hammock. They're only asking for the hammock they paid for. But the perilous experiment in the UK might be pointing to a greater truth, that trimming government spending while cutting taxes will bankrupt the country, leading to a downward spiral of services to the public and protection of the infrastructure that has underpinned the economy to begin with.

Once the elderly lose their autonomy and their healthcare protection, someone has to pay for it, and historically that's been the children. When that happens the whole society will begin to spiral down, as housing costs and medical bills are borne by subsequent generations. Then the middle class, already under assault, will be decimated.

Only the wealthy will be left standing. Hummh. I'm beginning to understand Paul Ryan now. I wish millions of so-called middle-class, blue-collar Republicans would figure this out in time. Sorry to be cynical, but fat chance.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Will the Real Mitt Romney Please Go Viral?

(Update below.)

Yes, if I can help it.

Please go viral, please go viral. (h/t Slate.)

Bonus point since I've got your attention -- and not completely off-point: Romney's troubles don't end when he clinches the nomination.

The conventional wisdom has long been that, like most presidential candidates, Mitt Romney would tack to the right to get the nomination and then pivot and head back to the center for the general election. I've always thought the entire exercise was pointless because most voters would know the tactic inside and out by now and account for it. The above video depends on two things: that most Americans know that Mitt Romney is nearly the greatest practitioner of the tack-right--pivot-back maneuver and that most Americans get that Mitt Romney has, at best, a sincerity problem.

Today's announcement by Paul Ryan, the Republican Party's go-to guy for fiscal matters, of his 2013 budget proposals demonstrated that Mittens will receive no such lucky break. How does Romney move away from radical conservatism? First, the party is so far right and so constantly testing the loyalty of both the members of Congress and its leaders that Romney may find it impossible to pivot to the center (what center?). And second, those who feel that there's trouble down-ticket because of Romney's weakness as a candidate will use their own tactics to get reelected whether or not it's to the detriment of the top of the ticket. Thus Mitt Romney will jump out of one frying pan into another one. Paul Ryan's budget, though remarkably unpopular with establishment Republicans nevertheless throws down a marker that the Tea Party Caucus will embrace, although the far right have indicated that Ryan's radical plan doesn't go far enough!

Mitt Romney ignores these little -- and repeated -- tests at his peril. It hardly matters if gadflies like Santorum and Gingrich go away. As a matter of fact, after the way Romney and his Super Pac money have treated them, how do they sidle back up to the nominee who treated them so brutally? Maybe they don't, which also breaks with tradition.

Exit polls in the various primaries show that many in the Republican base are uneasy with Mitt Romney. How do he keep excitement going for his candidacy? He won't manage it by pivoting to the center, a center that just might not exist anymore.

Update. Top Romney advisor Eric Fehrnstrom spoke on CNN and said that of course Romney can hit a "reset" button after the bruising primary battle:

For the reasons above and the batshit crazy that seems to be driving GOP conservatives down their path moving forward, I have a hard time believing Romney gets of the hook. Can't blame a campaign for trying.

(h/t Atrios)

Milquetoast Democrats Right on the Issues, Republicans Slowly Losing Their Minds

(Update below. Update 2 below. Holy Crap, Update 3 below.)

The point of my headline was actually an attempt to critique our parties on policy and perception simultaneously. For let's face it: Every policy pronouncement in the political sphere is either clouded by or clarified by its purpose.

When I listen to my Democrats (a painful affiliation), I hear a philosophy closer to my own, but I observe a gang of hand wringers, as if they know in advance how they're going to fail at what should be both persuasive and appealing ("We know tax rates need to be restored to historically higher levels in order to provide the social structure that allows more opportunity for our citizens and a better shot at social justice, but we think it's more likely that during negotiations we'll telegraph a willingness to sell out, thus ceding victory to those money-grubbing Republicans. But don't worry, we'll be really pissed when it happens!"), and when I listen to those Republicans, it seems as if I'm listening to a group of conspirators whose brazenness is mesmerizing ("We've been forcing tax rates down for so long and preaching economic zombie lies that only zombies believe, while the rich get richer, that we're amazed we're still getting away with it, but we're doubling down, tripling down!! Job killers! Death taxes! Personal responsibility!") and yet we not only still let them into the public conversation but we also let them continue to dominate the Sunday political talk shows.

(I believe that sentence is parsable, if that's a word.)

Next, our roundtable: Lindsay Graham, Jon Kyle, David Brooks, and Ruth Marcus!

I imagine this is why election years are referred to as the silly season, but this time it's different. How could the Republicans put forth the budget plan and the tax scheme they did? And yet they did, and The Fix's Chris Cillizza thinks it's nuts:
The debut of the House Budget Committee chairman’s vision for what conservative governance could and should look like might win him kudos from the conservative policy class, but it elicits only groans from GOP political professionals.
“As a campaign issue, the budget is a significant challenge for GOP candidates,” said Bob Honold, a GOP strategist and partner at Revolution Agency. “As a campaign strategy, it is so much more difficult for Republicans to communicate their responsible solutions than it is for Democrats to spook seniors with rhetoric.”
Another senior GOP strategist was far more blunt. “Didn’t they learn their lesson?” the source asked. “House Republicans are still under the mistaken impression they have to lead. It’s a presidential election year; they’re along for the ride.”
I can't believe they ate the whole thing!

Essentially, Paul Ryan's 2012 budget plan (actually fiscal 2013, but who's counting?) slashes both taxes and federal spending, and aims to gut Medicare and Medicaid. But he's not talking much about that, except to say that those at or near retirement shouldn't worry. Of course, when you hear Paul Ryan reassure you, you should not just check your wallet, you should also check your future. Even moderate Republicans (who?) don't like it:
House Republicans on Tuesday will propose a dramatic reshuffling of the tax code, suggesting collapsing individual tax brackets into two brackets with lower tax rates and slashing the top corporate tax rate.
The plan also would slash trillions of dollars in federal spending, a move likely to appease conservative, tea-party-backed GOP lawmakers but infuriate the White House, congressional Democrats and some Republicans concerned that spending disagreements could spark threats of a government shutdown just weeks before the November elections.
 Wow. Who would have thought that the House Republicans would double down on Ryan's 2011 plan -- that never happened but gave everyone heartburn -- during an election year? TPM's Brian Beutler breaks it down:
Add in a contentious presidential election and you have a recipe for an unusually clear-eyed ideological debate over whether New Deal and Great Society-like federal programs are in the country’s best interest, or whether they were errors that ought to be unwound.
This will manifest in scores of smaller fights. But the three biggest of those will mark the coming year: the Republicans’ goal of phasing out traditional Medicare and replacing it with a subsidized private insurance system; their twin goal of repealing the health care law, which creates a similar subsidized private insurance system for uninsured adults; and the nearer-term question of how deeply to cut into other federal programs — and thus of whether there will be a government shutdown less than two months before the November election.
The Medicare fight will by and large be a replay of the Medicare privatization fight that played out last spring. This time around, the GOP is expected to propose a more modest version of the same plan. Medicare would still be phased out for future seniors, and replaced with a subsidized private insurance market. But future seniors could theoretically use those subsidies to buy into traditional Medicare. In proposing to reconfigure the existing system so dramatically, the plan would end the decades-old benefit guarantee that defines the current program.
 By the way, as I write this Tuesday morning, Paul Ryan has yet to debut his plan. Let's see how the chattering classes react to it later in the day.

Meanwhile, Rick Santorum and his older, smarter, and smarmier brother Mitt Romney continue to duke it out on the stump. Newt Gingrich has become essentially irrelevant, as has Ron Paul. What eclipsed the latter pair was the contraception/abortion/fetus/personhood brouhaha. Gingrich has needed much too much birth control during his life, and Ron Paul is a supposed libertarian and thus isn't supposed to believe that the government should get involved in much of anything, especially what to do with our womb-servant class (I mean, uh, women) and how many babies the government should let them/make them have. Kudos to Paul on that one, I'll grant.

My religion calls for non-stop pregnancy, while Mitt also believes in tithing. Stark differences!

Meanwhile, the Democrats are wringing their hands and huddling in their smoke-filled rooms -- or, I guess, nowadays, their bottled-water-filled rooms -- trying to see if anyone will pay any attention to Barack Obama's more sensible fiscal 2013 budget. It's hard these days to get people to pay much attention to anything sensible. It's much more fun to blow up the debate.

The bottom line for now, of course, is that both the president's budget plan and Ryan's are DOA, period. They're election-year documents meant on the Democrat's (wringing) hand to be an actual budget while on the Republican's other (back) hand a placation of the Tea-Party Republican base. Which begs the question: Is this any way to run a country? Neither side would suggest that it is, although the Republicans are happier about this gridlock status quo because, as Grover Norquist might say, the government is ever-shrinking toward that sought-after bathtub size, as in drowning.

From where I sit, my one fervent (atheist) prayer is that the electorate will actually read the news, and that women and seniors will freak out, and the Republicans will be tossed out. But as Chris Hayes has said, asking the voters where they stand on the issues is like asking them what their favorite prime number is. Sheesh.

Update. firedoglake blogger David Dayen catches a story in the WaPo showing that we (assumed liberals) may already be screwed:
The Washington Post has a first draft of history piece about the debt negotiations last year that tells us mostly what we already knew: that the White House was ready to sign onto a document that increased the Medicare eligibility age and instituted chained CPI, which would cut Social Security cost-of-living increases.  In exchange would be $800 billion in new taxes, roughly the cost of letting most of the high-end Bush tax cuts expire (though this would be achieved by actually lowering rates and broadening the tax base).
...The deal could have easily become a reality were it not for the troublesome appearance of the Gang of Six. And it could still become a reality. It says right there in black and white at the end of the article: “White House officials said this week that the offer is still on the table.” What’s more, despite the change in attitude from the President, who’s in election mode, from a conciliator to a fighter, there’s a signifying event coming at the end of the year that will force a number of these same choices to be negotiated again.
...And remember, “White House officials said this week that the offer is still on the table.”
 Read it all. Dayen is rarely, if ever, anything but understated. So, pretty much, we're screwed, unless, unless... Does anyone remember Mighty Mouse?

Update 2. The White House is all "What deal is still on the table? That Boehner-Obama deal? Nuh-uh." TPM has the vague details. I hope TPM is right. But progressives will be -- and should be -- on edge until, well, maybe forever at this rate.

Update 3. Well, kiss my grits, Paul Ryan. Word is spreading Republicans are a little aggrieved that you're making them look bad in an election year. They are not pleased, sez Daily Kos. Oh Oh. It gets worse. TPM reports that GOP conservatives think it's not good enough! Holy crap.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Will Obama/Biden 2012 Master the Art of Messaging? Let's Hope So

George Lakoff
First, a little background: George Lakoff, a Cal Berkeley linguistics professor, has long championed the idea of properly framing messages and has taken pains, as a liberal himself, to point out that conservatives successfully mastered how to frame and thus control the policy debates in the public sphere. Liberals, Lakoff contends, have been dismally ineffective at message control. In fact, he claims, liberals perversely and unknowingly support conservative messaging by saying, in effect, "No, you're wrong about that!" while actually repeating conservative distortions.

Lakoff has written a number of very informative books on the subject, including Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, and Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America's Most Important Idea. I recommend them all.

"Death panels, death taxes, job killers!" Crude but effective, and deadly on target.

I first ran into George Lakoff at an English teachers' conference five years or so ago at Asilomar Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, CA, where he was keynote speaker (and I was a much more modest tech presenter). Quite by accident, I ended up having dinner with him one night and drinks with him another. He was more than happy -- most teachers are -- to talk about his ideas. I was instantly taken by his message about messaging. it's both compelling and vital.

Here he is on the job a few days ago in a Huffington Post blog:
The same naiveté about messaging, public discourse, and effects on brains is now showing up in liberal discussions of the Republican presidential race. Many Democrats are reacting either with glee ("their field is so ridiculously weak and wacky." -- Maureen Dowd), with outrage (their deficit-reduction proposals would actually raise the deficit -- Paul Krugman), or with incredulity ("Why we're debating a woman's access to birth control is beyond me." -- Debbie Wasserman Schultz). Hendrik Hertzberg dismissed the ultra-conservatives as "a kick line of clowns, knaves, and zealots." Joe Nocera wrote that he hope Santorum would be the Republican candidate, claiming that he is so far to the right that he would be "crushed" -- an "epic defeat," "shock therapy" that would bring back moderate Republicans. Democrats even voted for Santorum in the Michigan primary on the grounds that he would be the weaker candidate and that it would be to the Democrats' advantage if the Republican race dragged on for a long time.
I mention these liberals by name because they are all people I admire and largely agree with. I hope that they are right. And I hope that the liberal discourse of glee, scorn, outrage, incredulity, and support for the most radical conservative will actually win the day for Democrats at all levels. But, frankly, I have my doubts. I think Democrats need much better positive messaging, expressing and repeating liberal moral values -- not just policies-- uniformly across the party. That is not happening.
 At least, perhaps, not until yesterday. Here's a report, entitled "Privileged Sector Versus Private Sector," from today's Daily Kos on what amounts to Joe Biden's campaign 2012 kickoff speech yesterday:
Based [on] this anecdote reported by Molly Ball in The Atlantic, Mitt Romney and his team are genuinely oblivious to the political dangers inherent in his brand of plutocratic capitalism:
One Washington-based Republican adviser recounted an interaction in which a senior member of the Romney team, asked what the campaign planned to do to soften the class-based criticism of Romney, gave a blank look and snapped, "Nobody cares about that crap."
Contrast that attitude with this line from Vice President Joe Biden's campaign kickoff speech yesterday:
Simply stated, we’re about promoting the private sector, they’re about protecting the privileged sector.  (Applause.)  We are for a fair shot and a fair shake.  They’re about no rules, no risks, and no accountability.
I'd say that Biden had sprung a trap, but I think Romney and his team genuinely believe that their brand of plutocratic capitalism is the one and only true form of free enterprise and that anyone who doesn't buy into is guilty of socialism, communism and un-American loathing of the private sector.
In his speech yesterday, Biden dismantled their narrow world view. Democrats do want a strong and growing private sector, and they don't expect government to do everything. Unlike Republicans, however, Democrats are realistic enough to know that you need government to establish and enforce rules of the road to make sure that competition is fair, that sometimes you need to the public sector to step in and support the private sector when the economy is in crisis, and that a strong safety net to prevent poverty makes us a stronger and freer nation.
The key here is that Joe Biden takes it to Romney with a positive frame around the Obama administration's positive support of the public sector as opposed to Romney's negative behavior in support of the "privileged sector" where there are "no rules, no risks, and no accountability."

Now, repeat after me—Romney: me, me, me! Biden: us, us, us!

I have a feeling that George Lakoff would smile if he heard Joe Biden's remarks, and I hope Obama/Biden can keep to positive messaging while framing conservative behavior in the negative light it deserves. Here's the thing: Democrats and liberals can't win with negative attacks on conservative Republicans' cockeyed moral stances. We need to articulate a positive vision with consistent positive language, with an underlying set of moral values that supports it.

That's not as hard as it sounds. More George Lakoff:
The basic moral values in the progressive moral system are empathy and responsibility, both for oneself and others. This leads to a view of government as having certain moral obligations: providing protection and empowerment for everyone equally. This requires a vibrant commitment to the public -- public infrastructure (roads, buildings, sewers), public education, public health, and so on. No private business can prosper at all without such public provisions. The private depends on the public.
These values follow from certain ideal progressive family values, as projected to larger institutions. The progressive family has parents of equal authority. Their central moral role requires empathy with each other and their children, it requires self-responsibility, and responsibility for the well-being of other family members. This means open communication, transparency about family rules, shared decision-making, and need-based fairness.
 Now, can you imagine a more positive, gifted orator than Barack Obama to spearhead this positive articulation of the liberal message to America? I can't. And Joe Biden's a capable sidekick in this epic struggle, not to redeem America, but to convince America that the liberal vision is a moral position worth fighting for.

The jury won't be in until election night 2012. But I for one am hopeful.

That's the spirit.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Language of Lies, the Language of Truth

People who consider themselves intelligent, savvy, or at least somewhat in the game, like to believe that they can recognize the difference between a lie or a truth. In fact, political speech can be defined as the attempt to distort meaning in such a way as to make the listener assume something not in evidence. That may be the harsher of the two meanings, the second one being words that are used to gain a policy advantage in a debate leading to political decisions.

John Boehner might use his version of the truth in a way that helps him in a policy debate; Barack Obama might use his version of the truth in a way that helps him prevail in the same debate.

However, there are statements, often repeated, that are, to most sensible observers, best defined as being of the language of lies, while other statements feel, after serious reflection, to merit being called the truth.

Let's examine a few to see if we can find a pattern:

Okay, well said. We don't want to burden our job creators with taxes and stuff. And yet, during this same time frame in which John Boehner is decrying how we mustn't hurt the job creators -- those wealthy enough to invest in new jobs -- what has been happening to these wealthy, job creators?

Does this chart shed any light?

By god, it just might! As far as I can tell from this chart, when we were growing our economy out of the Great Depression, the bottom 90% of Americans grabbed 8.8% of the new wealth, and the richest 1% slipped 3.4%. Ah.

But wait. coming out of the Great Recession of our day, the bottom 90% slipped .4%, and the top 1% garnered 21.5% of the new wealth in the same period. (Actually, that means that the top 15,700 families in America, out of 114 million total households, gathered 37% of the new money.)

Here's the question: When you go back and listen to John Boehner's statement, which language is he using, the language of lies or the language of truth? Oh, and who is creating all those jobs, eh? You know, when he's saying, "Where are the jobs?" Ah, you know, the one's he's saying the job creators are, ah, creating.

Here's another example:

I don't know about you, but when I listen to John Boehner, and when I listen to Barack Obama, and I look at that chart of who is doing well in America and who isn't, it's really apparent who is looking in his heart for true words and who is looking for lies.

Here's another one:

Mitt is so at ease, isn't he? Or is it the case that he's dripping with weasel words? A fair listen says he's not the friend of truth in that interview. On friendly Fox News!

Now, let's see if we can find an example of the language of truth:

I listen to that six ways to sundown and I wonder: Who would hear anything but the resounding ring of truth, the language of truth, the heart of truth in Elizabeth Warren's words? If you actually know someone who watches that statement by Elizabeth Warren and doesn't hear what is actually good about America, then report them to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or to the Daughters of the American Revolution. Okay, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was like South Africa or something, but the point stands: Elizabeth Warren told us the truth, one we must take to heart.

So, here's another one to pass muster:

Let's make this an animal question: Is Newt here a weasel or an owl? That's too kind a question. Gingrich just weaseled his way out, amid high dungeon and hrrrumphh, of a pointed reference to his quirky, at best, and unfaithful, almost cruel, at worst, sexual proclivities before, during, and after this statement:

Now, I'm a fan of Bill Clinton and decidedly not a fan of Newt Gingrich, but whaddya think? Weaselly on the part of both about their sexual proclivities? As Sarah Palin might say, "You betcha." Now, Clinton said that fifteen years ago. Newt offered his spiel about a month or so ago. Who is the weasel, now, Newt, who tried to impeach Clinton while Newt was serially philandering, or Bill Clinton, who has gone on to be one of the most popular ex-presidents of all time? The French have a word (or two?) for that: J'accuse!! Monsieur Gingrich! J'accuse!! (Which for those who don't know French means, ah, sorta, STFU.)

Now, let's try to go out on something that rings true:

Wow! That's so nice (and true), let's try it again!

Now, I don't know whether George Carlin was using the language of truth or -- wait a minute! -- of course he was, because we know it when we see it, right?

Monday, March 12, 2012

War Doesn't Work Anymore

To posit that war, as a tactic, doesn't "work" anymore doesn't mean to suggest that war has worked in the past. It has never been a positive proposition, period.

However, I concede that engaging in wars to stop the likes of Napoleon and Hitler or, in our most famous case, to gain independence from Britain, have been apparently necessary. That "success" in those wars came at such a cost cannot be understated. Also, history has a way of distorting itself: The United States required a war to rid itself of British rule, while Canada gained its freedom peacefully. Which country was right? Did we really need war in that case?

We can't know because our cause succeeded, and our history supports our mythology.

However, our most recent wars, since Korea, have been dismal failures. Korea remains divided some sixty years later. Vietnam was, historically, one of the most violent and expensive wars in our history, and yet, what did it accomplish besides killing millions? Nothing. Our Iraq and Afghanistan adventures have contributed mightily to our long-term debt and have lowered our standing in the world. There is little evidence to suggest good outcomes in either theater. The Iraq War strengthened the Shia, increasing Iranian influence in the region, and Afghanistan has again proved itself the destroyer of empires while our efforts there succeeded mainly in heightening militancy in neighboring Pakistan. When we leave -- and leave we will and soon -- we'll leave an Afghanistan barely better off than before, if at all. Well done, America!

In limited military actions, we have had some successes. Our belated efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo halted ethnic cleansing and led to stability that holds to this day. That model may have helped end the bloodshed in Libya, though we don't know what the outcome will inevitably be. I can't fault the effort, however. And I'd be remiss if I didn't speak to the apparent success of the Persian Gulf War. What tempers me there is that, years later, Saddam was up to his usual tricks. Also, diplomacy was not seriously tried. Could Kuwait have been freed without violence? It's now unknowable.

What has to be acknowledged is the overwhelming arc of history and how it speaks loudly to the obsolescence of war. We needed to help Libya because Qaddafi engaged in an obsolete tactic, just as we may need to intervene in Syria because al-Assad is doing the same. I can reject war and violence as a tactic while conceding that in its waning days as an option there are times when military action is still inevitable.

Obviously, the saber-rattling concerning Iran is what brings this discussion to mind today. The situation there is tailor-made for a diplomatic solution driven by effective sanctions, sanctions that are clearly biting. If we attack Iran, we strengthen the mullahs. If we don't, we undermine them. It's as clear a case for not resorting to war.

We will continue perhaps for a century or so to reach for the gun rather than the telephone, even though stable relations among the remaining great powers -- the U.S., Europe, China, Russia, and Japan -- will steadily reduce the need for large militaries and massive defense spending. It will also reduce the number of interventions and police actions that annoyingly continue to spring up.

Someday, Russia, China, and the U.S. will run out of client states whose dictatorships we foolishly support, and when we do, proxy struggles will come to an end. That's when peace can finally start to reign and the higher calling -- to end disease, hunger, and poverty in the blighted areas of the globe -- will at last be heard.

Until that time, governments and political parties need to come to accept the pleasant notion that war is and should be a vanishing option. It simply doesn't work anymore.

It's impossible not to end on a frightening, dystopian note: War can only become obsolete if we solve global warming, prevent large-scale famine, and avoid conflicts over shrinking resources such as oil, metals, and water. If we can't deal with that, human history may seal itself in a final epic struggle that historians might not be around to record.

What a dismal outcome that would be. Let mankind know that moment and realize that only by working together do we survive these monumental challenges.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Conservative Republicans: Listen to Rush Limbaugh, Please!

We liberals (I am one) have it all wrong. We want Rush Limbaugh to go away. He's so obnoxious, he's completely full of it, he's misogynist, he's over the top, and, let's face it, he constantly makes shit up. It pleases his audience, obviously, because he's got a substantial one.

If he's so full of crap, why do we want conservative Republicans to stop listening to him? I say, please, white Christian males (and occasional females), tea partiers, George W. dead-enders, Karl Rove fans, suckers for Americans for Prosperity, Club for Growth, and so on, please, please get all your news and views from Rush.

And, while you're at it, watch only Fox News.

And go to church every Sunday, or, if you wish, twice every Sunday. Go to Bible studies on Wednesday evenings. Send your children to Bob Jones, or Liberty, or Oral Roberts universities. Please.

Or don't send them to college at all, as Rick Santorum suggests.

Let's get some sound bites from the font of wisdom Rush Limbaugh provides:

Limbaugh reports that first-time unemployment claims were up in February, which was true. They actually rose some 8,000 when they were expected to decline about 2,000. He uses this to illustrate how the media is in bed with Obama, since most media outlets reported that the trend was still good. What he didn't mention, which at the time of his broadcast was already known, was that 227,000 jobs were created during February, marking the sixth straight monthly increase and the best three-month stretch since 2006.

This is good, but not great, news. To hear Limbaugh tell it, we're in dire straights, and Obama's media hounds are slanting things his way as usual. Please, conservatives, listen to Limbaugh. That way you won't know what's actually happening. If ignorance and righteous anger gets you off, please indulge yourselves.

Now, what kind of guidance will our conservative brethren get from Fox News? How about this:

Here's the myth being promulgated: When insurance companies are required to include contraception with no co-pay in all insurance packages, as called for in the ACA healthcare act, it's not an entitlement. Not only do the companies and institutions that include these benefits in their employees' compensation packages pay for them the same as they always did -- with the employees inevitably earning them through their work -- but two facts are ignored. One, insurance companies save money in other women's healthcare areas by providing contraception -- a well-established fact -- but, two, religious organizations under Obama's regulations are not required to pay for the contraceptive services, the insurance companies are. And Georgetown University fits in this category. What's more, it's not an entitlement there, either. Students pay for their health packages through fees and tuition.

So, there is no entitlement involved. But if conservatives wish to think so, by all means, get your info from Fox News. Please.

Finally, just for fun:

Or this:

So, please, conservative Republicans, get your news and views from Fox and Rush. We'll be glad you did. But will you? (Click chart for larger view)

Worth thinking about, right?

Update. Now, I know I call my blog The American Human because I'm a humanist and an American. And, yes, I also know I have a hard time resisting snark because, well, I find conservative stances on public policy possess that special combination of funny and troublesome that makes clear-minded, analytical responses almost impossible. So I have to leave that to more sensible people like Paul Krugman and Steve Kornacki.

However, my main point underneath the snark should be clear: Let the conservative Republicans continue their support of Rush Limbaugh and Fox News at their peril. Why is it at their peril? The manipulated and misinformed lack that special quality in their speech that prevents them from ultimately winning in the sphere of public discourse: the ring of truth.

I, as a human, want all of my fellow man to succeed. But I, as a partisan, want my opponents to be what they are increasingly becoming: staggeringly bankrupt of real ideas and monumentally batshit crazy.

You've been advised, and forewarned.

Who Would You Rather Have a Beer with, Mitt Romney or Barack Obama?

It was said, too often, that the thing about George W. Bush was that he's the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with. I admit I never felt that way. Neil Degrasse Tyson, yeah, for sure.

But, if it's a test of electability -- as the question was always framed -- let's engage in that test. Now, conservatives and liberals alike, look at these clips with an open mind and decide, if the premise were true -- that you'd vote for the guy you'd rather have a beer with -- which one would you choose? I for one think the answer is clear.

 First, here's Mitt Romney:

Now, Barack Obama:

Yeah, that's what I thought.

Update. I can be dense. Romney's Mormon. He doesn't drink. Of course, neither did George W., after years of abuse. So, point's the same. Who would you rather have a beer with, Obama, or a Republican who doesn't drink? Okay, fine, then, power smoothie. (Make mine a beer.)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

And Now for Something Completely Different, Again: Picking Your Own Stocks

There is almost an entire field in investment journalism that lives to tell you, "Don't even try to beat the professionals, they're not only better than you, they're not even that good." I'm not even going to look for all the links to articles and charts that show that for every successfully managed mutual fund, there's five that actually lose you money when compared to that index fund you should have bought.

So, conventional wisdom -- and, I suppose, actual wisdom -- tells me to buy something like the Vanguard 500 Index Fund and sit back and watch my money grow the way it always has: slowly over time with the inevitability of the Dow's march toward the next threshold.

But I don't listen. Instead, I manage a lot of my own money. I use TD Ameritrade because I started with it when it was known as eBroker and was, back in 1996, the best of the fledgling, newfangled online brokerage services. I've also dabbled in E-Trade, and I have an insurance broker where I've parked some of my stock picks. I say find an online brokerage you're comfortable with, whose commission structure is cheap, and use it. I like Ameritrade.

Here it is in front: I made money leading up to the dot-com bubble and had enough to still have profits after the carnage. Did I get out when I could have made a bundle? Nah, unfortunately. But I realize why it didn't matter. If I had sold everything in 2000 just in time to make that bundle, I would have reinvested it in 2001 when the carnage seemed over and yet there was still some downside left. So, I rack up some profits, paying some sales commissions, then wait a while until I think I'm out of the woods and then pay a bunch of purchase commissions to get back into the market just in time to catch Act Two of the popping bubble. Real smart. Instead, I hung on and finally took profits five years later when I was healthier and wanted to buy a house.

This leads to my number-one rule: even with self-managed stock portfolios, buy and hold, period. This runs counter to the number-one rule of actual professional traders: set your levels for taking profits and set your levels for selling to stop the pain. This is discipline, for chrissake. I don't know how to do that, so I solve my problems in a different way: I make enough smart picks to begin with that will counter my stinkers.

What does this mean for us supposedly savvy non-professionals? It means for every share of Citigroup that I foolishly bought, I bought a share or two of IBM, and for every share of Nokia (why do I always buy Nokia??) I purchased, I grabbed a few shares of AT&T, Verizon, and Deutsche Telekom. Now these three telecoms are often in the red in my portfolio, but they pay dividends, and good ones, like clockwork.

So, here's my rule number two: Like Warren Buffett, I buy what I know. Telecoms I get. We're going to be using cell phones and handhelds until the end of time -- or until we start having chips installed in our heads, which is neither far-fetched nor that far off, so watch for that trend and jump on.

I also get technology well enough. I have a rule there, too. Don't always buy the big names (though I do own Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Dell (oops), etc.) but instead buy the big names most people don't know. So instead of owning chip makers, own the companies like Applied Materials that make the machines that chip makers use. Buy something like Taiwan Semiconductors, not the firms that need the semiconductors.

As another example, don't buy oil companies (though I do own some of the usual suspects) but instead buy oil services companies and oil exploration companies. These are the companies that service the oil companies, companies like Enterprise Products Partners, Baker Hughes, and Sunoco. I've done well with them and enjoyed their dividends.

There's another area I almost want to keep for myself, but that's stupid. It's just that it was my greatest success and, as far as I know, I thought it up myself. It's healthcare REITs, especially those serving seniors.

 REITs are Real Estate Investment Trusts, companies that are in the business of buying, selling, managing, and developing real estate properties. There are hotel REITs, commercial REITs, shopping center REITs, rental property REITs, and so on.

Here was my rationale. What are the baby-boomers going to need as they begin to retire? Healthcare services. Who is going to profit from this, besides healthcare providers and drug companies? Why, I thought, how about the companies that build, buy, and manage healthcare properties? Real estate, back in 2007 when I made these investments, was in the doldrums big time because of the housing bubble, which affected commercial real estate, too. REITs really took a hit.

But as our society ages, we're going to need more medical offices, diagnostic centers, convalescent hospitals, assisted living complexes, and long-term care facilities. So I searched, and sure enough, there were at least a dozen healthcare REITs, and I bought them. And here's the best part of REITs: they have to return 90% of their taxable profits to their shareholders. So, like clockwork, the money comes in, even as the share prices, by and large, have gone up.

I won't list them; that'll take too long. Look for them yourself and research them. You'll be glad you did.

Oh, an important note: Use Yahoo! Finance, MSM Money, Google Finance, or whatever your favorite financial portal is, to research, research, research. And go ahead and visit Motley Fool, The Street.com, Seeking Alpha, MoneyWatch, Bloomberg, or any of the stock market advice and news sites on the Web. And I highly recommend PBS' Nightly Business Report and Bloomberg TV. But remember: Don't just listen to advice and then pull the trigger. Somebody's hot pick is often tomorrow's big loser. Does anyone remember Sun Microsystems? I bought it back in the day, and, boy, do I want to forget it and whoever recommended it to me. Take stock advice with a grain of salt and do research to back it up.

Then, of course, are the must-haves in any stock portfolio: Procter and Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Pepsi and Coke, General Electric, Dow Chemical, Dupont, Gillette, and the sort. These perennials are reliable and often deliver in the dividend department. Many of these stocks are referred to as consumer staples, cyclicals, etc. They ride the business cycle, pay good dividends, and generally rise over time as the population and GDP increase.

I have to mention utilities, like Con Ed in New York, and drug companies, like Pfizer and Merck. Prices go up and down, especially when drug companies lose their most prized patents or get sued for a crappy drug. But in the end, seniors and everyone else will need their drugs, and we'll all need our gas and electric.

I admit I've dabbled in foreign stocks, like Nissan, Toyota, Honda, and Diageo, and I've gotten mixed results. The rule still applies: Buy what you understand. In the end, I'll probably be happy I bought and kept them. Who anticipated the tsunami, for heaven's sake?

There's an important technical decision, and that's concerning dividend reinvestment. Your portfolio can either build up dividends and payouts, which you can use to buy new stocks, or you can tell your brokerage that you want to automatically reinvest your dividends. In that case, when a stock pays out a dividend, it's automatically used to buy new shares. Over time, the number of shares you have in each company grows and in turn pays even more dividends that are then reinvested and so on. That's a passive and smart way to go. Of course, not all stocks pay dividends, and not all that do participate in the dividend reinvestment program, but the vast majority do.

When should you not reinvest dividends? When you want the money as income, like during retirement.

Okay, almost done. There's another area called ETFs, or exchange-traded funds. These are mutual funds that trade in the stock market. I've got a slew of them, mostly index funds that specialize in high-yield, high-dividend stocks, plus a couple of REIT plays. I also have QQQ, which is a NASDAQ 100 fund that tracks that high-tech stock exchange. It's a passive way of investing in technology without having to do the heavy lifting.

This is what I've done to actively play the stock market. The big boys play by different rules and have significant advantages, such as engaging in high-speed, high-volume trades where they can manipulate a price and pull a millionth of a cent profit out of thin air. If they do that with a billion shares, you're talking serious money. We can't do that. But what we can do is buy what we know, diversify (you noticed, didn't you?), stay calm during the panics, buy during bottoms, sell during peaks, or generally just hang on until, years later, you sell to buy a home, or just take your dividends as income in retirement like I'm doing.

Good luck. The stock market is really The Big Casino. But you can win, as long as you can afford the risks, are willing to change the odds in your favor with research, and stay in the game till the chips pile up. I've done it, and so far, so good.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Conservative Republicans Go Out of Their Way to Be Backward and Just Plain Ignorant. Why?

Santorum has been called one of the greatest minds of the 13th century.

On the subject of religion, more particularly religious freedom, the Republicans, from almost any intelligent perspective, seem to insist on having it backwards. We in the United States have felt that if there is anything at all to the idea that we are an "exceptional nation" it's because we have an exceptional history rooted in the very foundations of our country: we have the world's greatest document underpinning our creation, the U.S. Constitution.

Conservatives are famous for wanting to have it both ways: The ideal candidate to assume the office of Justice of the Supreme Court must be a Strict Constuctionist, by which is meant someone who does not swerve from the Constitution's original intent, in spite of all the intervening years. Yet in almost all the ways I've seen this demonstrated, conservatives actually mean that they want justices to violate the Constitution in very particulars ways, in ways that conform to what conservatives want.

Conservatives don't want the religious freedom granted by the First Amendment. No, they want to impose Christian dogma on the citizens of the United States. Pure and simple. If you doubt the veracity of this statement, here's a simple test: name a conservative that has sought to shape the laws of the U.S. to further the free and pure expression of a non-Christian religious dogma. Can't think of one, can you?

What religious freedom is Mitt Romney protecting by supporting the Blunt Amendment?

In the current controversy over the president's decision to make sure contraception is included, with no co-pay, in all employer insurance packages across the country, the conservatives and the religious-right constituency they're serving are ignoring exactly what it is Obama is basing his decision on. Here's what they're ignoring:
  • The first principle Obama is speaking to is prevention, which is at the heart of the ACA. Insurance companies readily admit that contraception is beyond cost-effective or fiscally neutral. It's actually a money saver because it reduces other required services to women that are more expensive, such as pregnancy, obstetric, neonatal and other types of care.
  • Conservatives, most notably Rush Limbaugh, have loudly, even disturbingly, taken offense at taxpayers having to foot the bill for women's contraception while ignoring the fact that, by and large, it isn't taxpayers who are picking up the tab. In fact it's not even the employers. It's the employees themselves whose benefits are considered part of their compensation packages. How or why this fact is ignored has been one of the great mysteries of this absurd debate.
  • Even in the case of religious institutions, where they are involved in their central religions functions, i.e. their churches and other bodies actively involved in the expression of their beliefs and dogma, they are exempt. It's only when they offer services to the public at large, such as health services, hospitals, and educational institutions where the employees and consumers are in no way limited to their congregations are they required to provide insurance packages that include women's reproductive services, with the proviso that insurance companies offer these services at no charge to the institutions themselves. How insulated do these institutions need to be from these services? There is no active participation at all, not even an actual passive role. The institution does nothing except not actively demand that non-members of their faith be subjected to what might be required of the faithful by its dogma.
 Here is Rush Limbaugh's wrong-headed, factually incorrect, mean-spirited response to Sandra Fluke's plea that contraceptive needs -- even among married law students -- can cost over $3000 during the course of law school and can bankrupt students already burdened with high tuition costs:


 One, "we" don't pay for it and neither does Georgetown. A student would pay for it through their tuition or fees, and an employee of Georgetown would pay for it as part of their compensation package. Benefits, healthcare-wise or not, are compensation as part of a salary or wage package. Second, and most laughably, when Limbaugh maintains "she having so much sex so frequently that she can't afford all the birth-control pills she needs?" (A woman takes exactly the same number of pills a month, whether she has sex or not, duh!) What part of "Rush Limbaugh is an ignoramus or a zombie liar" don't conservatives understand when they listen to him?

This photo needs no caption.
In an interesting side note, Rush Limbaugh has been married four times and has no children. What's more, he was famously detained and searched at Palm Beach International Airport returning from the Dominican Republic and had a stash of Viagra confiscated after it was determined that the prescription was not in his name. A fan of Viagra, young wives, and a father of no children, Rush Limbaugh is also, obviously, an apparent fan of both sex and birth control. This, of course, would not make Limbaugh a hypocrite, right? Before you say, "But he pays for his," remember that no one is asking him to pay for anyone's birth control. He's making that shit up.

Apparently, though, a good zombie lie is irresistible. Bill O'Reilly enthusiastically piles on:


Did you spot the zombie lie? Of course you did.

Sean Hannity decided to make it a pundit zombie lie trifecta by weighing in:

 How many lies can Hannity string together in three minutes of airtime? Plenty. There it is, the myth that taxpayers (good, decent, hardworking carpenters, plumbers, etc.) are on the hook for the student health plan at a private university that the students pay for! That there is something wrong with students having contraception in their health plans because even though they're broke now and living on a tight budget, a day will come, as he says, when they will have finally paid off their student loans and will eventually make buckets of money as a Washington DC fat-cat lawyer and will be able to afford buckets of birth control at some eventual point in the future. Hannity, a man of incalculable vision and understanding of fundamentals of time and space: pay for your own birth control now because you'll eventually be able to afford it at some perceivable moment in the future.

And just for some irresistible fun, here's how Fox News unfurls its usual true colors on the issue:


Rick Santorum weighs in with a backhanded dismissal of Rush Limbaugh while surreptitiously supporting his point:


Mitt Romney deigns to speak:

The "not language I would have used" is a weasel tactic, implying that he would have used different language to make the same point. Coward.

Newt Gingrich avoided getting caught on video but used the opportunity to avoid criticizing Rush Limbaugh but instead turn the subject into an attack on Barack Obama:

After Limbaugh described Fluke as "slut" and "prostitute" for advocating for subsidizing birth control, Obama contacted Fluke personally. Numerous conservatives and other GOP presidential candidates have rebuked Limbaugh to varying degrees, but the former House speaker said he saw the issue much differently.
"I think the president will opportunistically do anything he can," Gingrich said in response to a reporter's question after a rally Saturday morning in Hamilton. "I think the most important use of language in the last week has been the president's apology to religious fanatics, and I want to stay focused on what the president has said, and I think what he said was inexcusable and is exactly the wrong policy at a time of life and death, and playing political games is irrelevant as far as I'm concerned."
Gingrich said the debate over requiring certain institutions to provide insurance coverage to cover contraception -- something that prompted Fluke's complaint involving Georgetown, a Jesuit-run institution -- should be over governmental interference in religion.
"It's not about contraception. It's about religious liberty," he said. "It's about the attack on the Catholic Church, and the attack on every right-to-life institution and whether or not the government has the power to dictate to religious organizations."
 Not about contraception, right. Then why is it about contraception? The Obama administration is not being attacked for forcing Catholics to ride tricycles.

Let's end this by remembering that this began because Darrell Issa wanted to have a committee hearing about contraception. Remember his panel of experts?

When Issa refused to allow Sandra Fluke a chance to testify at the same hearing, he made her a celebrity, for at least fifteen minutes. And he gave his fellow Republicans and their media minions a chance to make fools out of themselves. Let's see who's laughing in November.

Update. Rush Limbaugh, buffeted by serial pullouts by advertisers on his show, has apologized. He said, in part:
My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices.
 For many this non-apology apology wasn't enough, as it was quite similar to Mitt Romney's weaselly reaction, in that it blamed the incident on "word choices." The sentiment clearly remains, and advertisers continue to pull ads.

As for Barack Obama, he called Sandra Fluke to personally offer his support.

We have a weird country.