Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 22. Why the Democrats Will Win This Election

Next Tuesday, Obama will win. The unemployment rate will still be nearly 8%. The housing market and the construction industry will still be depressed. A record number of people will still need food stamps to feed their families. An unpopular war will still be killing Americans.
Even though he’s black and intellectual, and some people still say he was born in Africa, Obama will beat a blue-blood son born into politics and wealth. He’ll beat billions of billionaire dollars poured over the past four years into an unending campaign of vilification of himself and his policies, and then unleashed in unfathomable amounts during this election, with the blessing of a Supreme Court appointed by Republicans. He’ll defeat an unprecedented congressional campaign of intransigence and obstruction led by a coalition of party leaders and Tea Party newcomers.

How did he manage that? Barack Obama deserves much credit for his first four years as President. Eight years of Republican control of domestic and foreign policy had left the United States in its worst shape since the combined oil crisis, stock-market crash, and Vietnam defeat back in the early 1970s. Two wars raging with no end in sight, an economy beginning to free-fall into an almost great depression, and worldwide opinion horrified at the arrogance, dishonesty and incompetence of American foreign policy.

Each of these crises had taken years to develop. Now all three have been reversed. In two years we will no longer be fighting in the Middle East. The economy is recovering, not as fast as anyone would like, but the last great depression took a decade to recover from. Our standing in the world has rarely been higher – our few enemies are everyone’s enemies.

But I don’t think Obama’s successes will be the deciding factor in this election. It’s Republican failures.

I don’t mean the Republicans I see every day in my small town in central Illinois. There are plenty of them, enough to dominate local elected offices. They are normal people who advocate normal policies. When the state government tried to shut down a historic facility for the mentally ill with which Jacksonville has identified for over 150 years, our local legislators, all Republicans, have pushed back. Although such closings are precisely what would happen everywhere if the congressional Republican budget were passed, here they have fought for the well-being of the patients, the employment of the staff, and the spirit of the town, even if it costs more.

A series of Republican mayors backed by a Republican city council have spent millions and asked the federal government for millions more to make the downtown work again, investing now in our collective future.

My local Republicans are nothing like the cartoon Republicans who have dominated our TV screens for over a year. Their extreme ideology is the big loser. American public opinion has moved on, past gay-bashing, past shoot-first, think-later foreign policy, past the condescending racism of self-deportation, past conspiracy theories about socialists and scientists, past the tried-and-true Republican political tactics of the 20th century.

When someone stands up at a party and says that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by evil scientists or that gays will go to hell or that a woman must deliver her rapist’s baby, people start edging away. The cartoon Republicans haven’t grasped that yet.

The blind wrath that brought a few Tea Party zealots into federal and state offices in 2010 is gone. The economy is getting better. The angry men in Congress and in governors’ houses have accomplished nothing but get other people angry.

Mitt Romney has tried hard to erase the cartoon image he created for himself, in order to defeat the wacky line-up of extremists he faced in the primaries. He almost made it, replacing the “severe conservative” persona he has been working on since 2007 with a reasonable Romney in the last few months. In this final week, I expect him to lurch again in some direction, either to the middle to win some undecided voters or to the right to energize the extremists.

But why vote for a man who just reentered the real world from far right Fantasyland since the Republican convention in August, when the other man on the ballot had been struggling with real-world problems for the past four years with some success?

Obama’s victory is not Romney’s personal failure. The country is moving away from the extreme form of Republican conservatism which has come to dominate the party since Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Obama’s victory in 2008 meant only that the failures of Republicans under Bush were too obvious to ignore. Now, despite the continuing economic disaster, despite lingering racism across white America, despite the daily uncertainties of the world outside our borders, Barack Obama wins again. His victory in 2012 means that Republican ideology is a failure.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 30, 2012

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 21. Ideology and Politics

The ideological differences between Democrats and Republicans are deeper now than at any time I can remember.

Everybody has their own political ideology, created from life experiences, family traditions, and personal beliefs. Although pollsters, journalists and academics like to group people into a few simple categories, the variety of such political belief systems is unlimited.

For that reason, political parties usually include a wide range of political positions. Although the job of party leaders in Congress is to convince every member to vote the same way on legislation, strictly party line votes are rare. When the House approved the North American Free Trade Act in 1993 under President Bill Clinton, about 40% of Democrats voted for it and 25% of Republicans voted against it. In the Senate, Democrats split right down the middle for and against. The voting was similarly split for the U.S.-China Relations Act of 2000. Even the Senate vote to impeach Clinton showed the Republicans divided: one-sixth voted not to impeach.

Under President George W. Bush, there were many such divided votes. His signature education legislation, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, attracted more Democratic than Republican votes in the House, where one-sixth of Republicans voted against it. Late in his presidency, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 was written by a bipartisan group of Senators, but eventually failed because of a Republican filibuster. In the key cloture vote, about one-third of Democrats sided with two-thirds of Republicans to kill it.

Not all votes showed such crossing of the party lines. Clinton’s Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1993 passed Congress without a single Republican vote.

Since Barack Obama was elected President in 2008, the Republican Party has become more ideologically uniform. Obama’s first piece of legislation, the Lilly Ledbetter Act of 2009, allowing women to more easily sue for equal pay, passed the House with only 2 Republican votes. No House Republicans voted for the Stimulus Act in early 2009. In 2010, only 5 Republicans voted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. The most controversial piece of legislation under President Obama, the Affordable Care Act, received only one Republican vote in the House and one in the Senate, even though Massachusetts Republicans had supported a nearly identical bill when Mitt Romney was Governor.

The Democratic Party continues to include a wide variety of political positions on every possible issue.

Considerable pressure has been brought on Republicans at the federal level to make ideological promises which exclude political compromise. The most notable is the Taxpayer Protection Pledge not to raise taxes ever on anyone, promoted by Grover Norquist. As of May 2011, all but 7 Republican Representatives and 7 Republican Senators had signed on, as well as other leading Republicans, including Romney and Paul Ryan. When the many Republican primary candidates for President were asked during a debate in August 2011 whether they would accept a hypothetical legislative compromise that included $1 in tax increases for every $10 in spending cuts, they all said no.

The increasing ideological purity of the Republican Party at the national level has pushed moderates away. Senator Olympia Snowe from Maine, one of the Tax Pledge non-signers, announced this year that she would not seek a fourth term. She cited the “dysfunction and political polarization” of the Senate, and in particular, “the overly rigid language on abortion in the GOP platform”. Another Republican non-signer, Rep. Richard Hanna from New York, complained about being “frustrated by how much we — I mean the Republican Party — are willing to give deferential treatment to our extremes”.

Republicans considered too likely to make compromises with Democrats have been challenged by more conservative candidates in primaries. John McCain, who had worked in bipartisan fashion more than most Republicans, survived such a challenge in 2010. Senator Richard Lugar from Indiana was defeated this year by Richard Mourdock.

Yet the ideological purity of the national Republican Party is not reflective of their own voters. Two polls in August showed that one-third of Republican voters believe the rich should pay more in taxes, and nearly one-third believe that abortion should be permitted beyond just cases of rape, incest, or to save a woman’s life.

The ideological purification of the Republican Party led Mitt Romney to reject his long moderate history on issues of abortion, climate change, health insurance, and taxes, in favor of ideological commitments to “severe conservatism”. Since his nomination, Romney has been veering back to the center.

But the problem for voters is not whether Romney is a flip-flopper, or whether he has any ideological commitments at all. With virtually all national Republican politicians rejecting any possibility of compromise on key issues, the gridlock in Congress, which has caused its approval rating to stay below 15% for the past year, will continue. Rigid adherence to ideology makes practical politics impossible.

What is practical politics? In a candidates’ debate for local office, I recently heard a Republican incumbent say that the biggest problem was insufficient revenue to accomplish what needed to be done. That was an honest, frank, and hopelessly non-ideological statement.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 23, 2012

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 20. Truth in Advertising

    I am writing this on Tuesday night, right after the second presidential debate. So this will be just a first impression.

    Two weeks ago, Mitt Romney was judged by most commentators to have been successful in the first debate. Since then his poll numbers have gone up, nearly reaching parity with President Obama. So Romney tried to do the same thing in this debate – engage Obama directly, look energetic and glad to be in front of the TV cameras, repeat the talking points he has developed over the past few months.

    Obama has been heavily criticized for his performance two weeks ago, so he came out much more aggressively, looking into the camera more, smiling occasionally, and being much more directly critical of Romney’s positions and his words. The debate format, which encouraged the candidates to walk around rather than stand behind a podium, worked in favor of a more energetic Obama.

    Right after the first debate the TV talking heads discussed each candidate’s “performance”. How much energy did they display? Who had the best lines? Who looked more comfortable?

    Missing was any serious attention to what Romney and Obama actually said. Unlike campaign rallies, speeches to donors, or interviews with friendly journalists, in the debate candidates lose control of the dialogue. They are contradicted and called untruthful. Evidence they don’t want to deal with is thrown in their faces. The unique town hall format of Tuesday’s debate introduced even more uncertainty, because voters asked their own questions.

    Much more important than the debaters’ demeanor is what they say. Instead of focusing on the way the candidates looked in the first debate, the highly paid commentators should have analyzed substance. It was important that Romney repeated his charge that Obamacare will reduce medical benefits paid to Americans by $716 billion, even though independent fact-checkers have shown that to be untruthful months ago. It was important that Obama insisted that Romney was proposing a $5 trillion tax cut, when Romney had been saying for months that he seeks tax reform that is revenue neutral.

    So what did Obama and Romney say in this debate that is worth paying attention to? What did the candidates say that could help a voter choose between the differing policy visions of Democrats and Republicans?

    I think the many untruthful claims that Romney made were the most notable feature of this debate, because he got called out on most of them.

    Romney’s first statement was that he would “make sure we keep our Pell grant program going”. But he means, according to his published education plan, to “refocus Pell Grant dollars on the students that need them most”, which means cutting. Paul Ryan’s House budget would severely cut the Pell grant program. Obama has increased the total money in Pell grants, and intends to continue that support.

    When Romney said that Obama and his administration did not call the attack on the Benghazi consulate an act of terrorism for “many days”, Obama corrected him, noting he had said it was terrorism the very next day. Romney refused to believe that, but Candy Crowley, the strong moderator, assured use that this was true.

    In answer to a question about getting assault rifles off the streets, Romney said that assault rifles were already illegal, which is not true. Then he said he would oppose any new gun legislation. Obama was somewhat vague, but said he supported a ban on assault weapons.

    Romney said that health insurance premiums have gone up $2500, but the Labor Department says that the average American household pays about $270 more.

    Romney said that the program “Fast and Furious” gave guns “to people that ultimately gave them to drug lords”. But no guns were given at all. Government agents allowed guns to be bought without intervening, a terrible idea, but not at all what Romney claimed.

    Romney said he didn’t support the harsh new Arizona immigration laws, but his immigration advisor wrote them.

    Romney said that oil “production on government land is down”, as an attempt to paint Obama as insincere about increasing production. But in fact oil production on government land has increased since 2011. All Romney could point to was that oil and gas leases have been reduced under Obama, which the President succinctly explained as terminating leases that were not being used at all.

    I counted at least eight times that Romney said, “I know what it takes” to balance budgets, to create jobs to make our economy work. Maybe, but he hasn’t told the truth to us about how that might work. He avoided saying how he would deal with the long-term unemployed, although Republicans in Congress voted against extending their unemployment payments. He offered nothing to a woman who asked about gender inequality in pay, although Republicans voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Act to help women equalize pay.

    Forget how they looked or whether they were aggressive enough. What they said and didn’t say was the crucial thing. Romney was unable to present his ideas without being misleading or untruthful. That’s significant.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 18, 2012

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 19. Individuals and Collectives

    I met Justin at the track early the other morning. Whenever I’m there, he is running hard. I asked him what sport he was training for. Justin said he wasn’t doing it for a team, his effort was for his own “personal benefit”. I respect his motives and admire his drive for individual improvement.

    Other efforts toward personal benefit are not so worthy. Bernie Madoff in New York, Allen Stanford in Antigua, Tom Petters in Minnesota, and Gerald Payne of Greater Ministries International are just a few of the high-flying criminals who enriched themselves by robbing others of personal benefits.

    More characteristic of our age are the financial wizards who took wild risks with millions, even billions, of other people’s dollars, like Angelo Mozilo of Countryside Financial, or the many executives of Goldman Sachs. They often win these gambles and enrich themselves with unimaginable sums of money. But they often lose, too. Then they take home a bit less, while the fortunes of thousands of others disappear. A few are so careless that they end up in jail, but most of these seekers after personal benefits just walk away from the scene of the crime. Mozilo had to pay back $67.5 million to settle SEC charges that he misled mortgage buyers. But he had pocketed over $400 million playing with others’ money, and he admitted no guilt.

    The individualist quest for personal benefit is not in itself admirable. Individualism must be judged by its relation to the collective or it is just selfishness. How does one person’s drive for personal benefit affect others? We might think differently about Justin’s workouts if he neglected parental responsibilities in order to stay fit.

    Conservatives have tried to make “collective” a dirty word. Anyone who thinks about the collective good must believe in “collectivism”,  meaning the tyranny of the masses, loss of freedom, the Soviet collective farm model. That attitude might be upsetting to those Americans who have banded together in collectives during our history, from volunteer fire fighters to dairy farmers to union workers to religious congregations.   

    The person who does not belong to some group engaged in collective action is rare and often lonely. Disdain for people pursuing a worthy goal, just because they pool their ideas, time, and money into a collective, is silly.

    Collectives can become tyrannical. Some are designed to be dictatorial, as in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Some begin with democracy, idealism and familial intimacy, but eventually decline into hierarchy and even criminality, like some labor unions in the 20th century. In those cases, the few who benefitted ignored the collective welfare of the collective.

    Collectives are living organisms. Some disappear, as their members go their separate ways. Others endure for generations or centuries by preserving the allegiance to each other that motivates the sacrifice of personal benefit for the collective good.

    The presidential candidates only address the conflict between individualism and collective welfare to defend themselves from attack. Republicans say that liberal policies, like the Affordable Care Act, and liberals like Obama, are socialist, meaning too collective. Democrats say that conservative policies, like cutting taxes on the wealthy, and conservatives like Romney, are selfish individualists.

    But the political philosophies of the parties are deeply influenced by which side of this divide they are on. For years, Paul Ryan lavished praise on Ayn Rand’s extreme individualist philosophy. She wrote, “Collectivism requires self-sacrifice, the subordination of one's interests to those of others.” The individual should “exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself.” She condemned altruism and wrote a book entitled “The Virtue of Selfishness”. Emphasizing only individual rights, she considered government support of education, health care, farming or aid to the poor as a form of “looting” by “parasites”.

    In a 2005 speech to the Atlas Society, a collective of Rand adherents, Ryan said: “I grew up reading Ayn Rand and it taught me quite a bit about who I am and what my value systems are and what my beliefs are. It’s inspired me so much that it’s required reading in my office for all my interns and my staff.. . . . In almost every fight we are involved in here, on Capitol Hill. . . . usually comes down to one conflict: individualism vs. collectivism. . . . there is no more fight that is more obvious between the differences of these two conflicts than Social Security. Social Security right now is a collectivist system.”

    Lately Ryan has disavowed his former self. In April he said it was an “urban legend” that he adhered to her ideas. That’s not surprising, since she was an adulterer and a drug addict, who completely rejected all forms of religion. Until recently, though, Rand’s immorality and atheism were irrelevant to Ryan and other Republicans, including Ronald Reagan, because of her total commitment to unfettered capitalism.

    This election won’t decide a winner between Ayn-Rand-style egoism and generous collectivism. But it will push our national balance in one direction or the other, as Americans swing between caring about their fellow Americans and caring about themselves.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 16, 2012

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 18. Politics, Lies, and Videotape

    The internet has exploded again with righteous outrage. Barack Obama was videotaped giving a speech at Hampton University in 2007, in which he criticized the federal government for not treating the 2005 disaster in New Orleans from Katrina as generously as it had treated New York City after 9-11 and Florida after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. In those two earlier crises, provisions of the federal Stafford Act were quickly waived, which required local governments to contribute $1 of relief for every $10 of relief provided by the federal government. Obama complained that it took nearly two years to waive these Stafford Act provisions for New Orleans.

    But here’s the deep secret which is now coursing through the virtual politics of the right, proving what they have always insisted on, that Obama is a lying hypocrite: just before he gave that speech, he voted in the Senate against waiving the Stafford Act for New Orleans! Can you believe it?

    It’s true, but a lie at the same time.

    Bills in the Congress are often voted on many times, because their content is frequently changed by amendments and compromise between House and Senate versions. Bills get loaded up with sometimes unrelated provisions, so that legislators end up voting for things they support and things they don’t support at the same time. Occasionally someone will vote against what they believe in order to become part of the majority, so they can bring up the bill later for another vote, a confusing provision of Robert’s Rules of Order. For these reasons, looking at one vote may be misleading about a legislator’s intentions.

    In January 2007, Obama joined Senators Lieberman and Landrieu to push for more help for New Orleans. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco pushed for a federal law eliminating the 10 percent match. The House passed the bill in March. Obama was one of the main proponents of the bill in the Senate, but it stalled, and President Bush threatened to veto it.

    Different versions of the bill emerged. On May 24, Obama voted against the final version, named the U.S. Troop Readiness, Veterans' Care, Katrina Recovery, and Iraq Accountability Appropriations Act, because it did not have a timeline for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. In a statement that day, he explained his vote: “With my vote today, I am saying to the President that enough is enough. We must negotiate a better plan that funds our troops, signals to the Iraqis that it is time for them to act and that begins to bring our brave servicemen and women home safely and responsibly.”

    The right-wing opinion makers in the press, on TV, and on the internet are busy promoting a deliberately misleading version of these events to prove the utter hypocrisy, demagoguery, shamelessness, and mendacity of the man they love to hate, President Obama. When you read these pieces or listen to them on FOX News, you hear the same words, the same sentences, quoted over and over again. They tell about that one vote and not about Obama’s advocacy for New Orleans. They talk about how Obama voted against a bill that had $6.4 billion for hurricane relief efforts, but don’t mention that the bill, according to the US Congress Votes Database of the Washington Post, “primarily focuses on funding for the Iraq war”, to the tune of $100 billion. They say he lied to the mainly black Hampton University audience that the Stafford Act had not been waived, when he was talking about why it had taken so long to waive it. They imply that they have just unearthed this bombshell, ignored by the liberal media, when Obama’s speech was fully covered by all the media at the time.

    If the Obama campaign can criticize Romney for his videotaped remarks about the 47%, then the right has now found its video proof that Obama lies, too. Except the liars here are the right-wing pundits, who cut and trim and edit the facts until they fit their preferred narrative about “Barack Obama: Phony in Chief” (from conservative economist Thomas Sowell’s contribution to this chorus).

    Modern media can spread lies across the world instantaneously. Those who allow partisan liars to form their opinions, and who refuse to listen to anyone else, end up inhabiting an alternative political universe, where their candidates are anointed by God and their opponents do the Devil’s work.

    But the internet itself is non-partisan. A bit more digging, a bit of research on both sides, and the whole story can be discovered. Then you find out whom you can trust.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 11, 2012

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 17. How to Win the Debate on Taxes

    TV commentators say Mitt Romney won the first presidential debate. He won it on taxes: “I don’t have a $5 trillion tax cut . . . . My number one principle is there will be no tax cut that adds to the deficit. . . . I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans. . . . I will not, under any circumstance raise taxes on middle-income families. I will lower taxes on middle-income families.” Should we believe that?

    Tax cuts for the wealthy are fundamental Republican economic dogma. Conservatives have made this policy the centerpiece of their economic theory: 1) the wealthy are job creators; 2) the more money they have, the more jobs they will create; 3) therefore lower their taxes. Which came first, the desire to enhance the household economies of rich Americans, or the theory that we all are better off when the rich get richer, is hard to say. They fit together so neatly.

    Tax cuts for the poor do not fit into this economic theory. Republican proposals in the Senate and House, created mainly by Romney’s VP selection, Paul Ryan, lower taxes on the wealthy in two whopping chunks: the top tax rate drops from 35% to 25%, and all taxes on capital gains disappear. The taxes paid by millions of low-income families would rise, because tax credits that help them are reduced, such as the Child Tax Credit, Earned Income Tax Credit, and American Opportunity Tax Credit.

    Last year, Romney’s “Believe in America” manifesto had no plan to reduce income tax rates. He supported the extension of George Bush’s tax cuts for everyone. Lower income tax rates might be the subject of a future “fundamental reform”. He did push a different tax reduction for the wealthy by eliminating the estate tax, benefitting individuals with estates worth more than $5 million.

    Then in the January Republican debate in South Carolina, Romney said he wanted to reduce the top tax rate: “More than 25%, I think, is taking too much out of our pockets. . . . 25 is where I would like to see us go.”
    In February, Romney said that he wanted to cut rates for all individuals by 20%, which would bring the top rate down to 28%. The cuts would be offset by reducing deductions, exemptions and credits for high earners, producing the same total revenue.

    Romney did not explain how this could happen until April, when he proposed to eliminate the mortgage interest deduction for wealthy people who have second homes. “By virtue of doing that, we’ll get the same tax revenue, but we’ll have lower tax rates.”

    Of course, removing that deduction comes nowhere near balancing the 20% reduction in tax rates, so Romney has been repeatedly asked what other deductions he would eliminate, without any answer.

    In August in Las Vegas, Romney was clear: “My tax policy will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans.” At the September Republican convention, he asserted, “I want to lower taxes on middle-income people.” But he also said in Ohio that middle-class people would not pay lower taxes under his plan.   
    What Romney said about taxes during the debate is merely the latest version of his constantly changing proposals, still full of contradictions. Although the wealthy pay the same, and middle-class people pay less, “we keep taking in the same money, when you also account for growth.” In fact, by eliminating the estate tax, the alternative minimum tax, and the Medicare surtax on high incomes, his plan significantly reduces taxes paid by the wealthy.

    A bigger contradiction is that Romney has been claiming since April to get the benefits of a tax cut without it. In the debate with Obama he said, “And you think, well, then why lower the rates? And the reason is that because small business pays that individual rate. . . . And if we lower that rate, they’ll be able to hire more people.” This will happen just because the tax rate is lower, even if their tax bills are the same. That makes no sense.

    In September the Congressional Research Service, working for the House and Senate, released a report on Taxes and the Economy. Their conclusion was “that changes over the past 65 years in the top marginal tax rate and the top capital gains tax rate do not appear correlated with economic growth. . . . However, the top tax rate reductions appear to be associated with the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution.”

    Doesn’t matter. Romney promised to create 12 million jobs in his first term. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the normal processes of this recovery will create 12 million new jobs. He said that we could become energy independent under his plan, but earlier this year Citigroup said that would happen anyway by the end of the decade. Romney promises us nothing.

    Romney’s New Economic Policy won the debate. Maybe he’ll be elected President. When a Republican-dominated Congress sends him the big tax cut for the wealthy that every Republican in Congress has been voting for, and that his Vice-President has staked his career on, what will President Romney do?

    Will he veto it? I’d like to hear him say that.

    But I still wouldn’t believe him.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 9, 2012

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 16. Poverty of Thought

    Everyone knows what Mitt Romney said about poor people.  The half of Americans with the smallest incomes are sponging on the rest of us, “dependent upon government”. They “believe that they are victims, believe the government has a responsibility to care for them.” He has given up on them, because “I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

    Romney said it in May and hasn’t made any correction since then, except to wish he had said it better.

    There was no slip-up here. Mitt was expressing conservative dogma about the 47%, which you can listen to on any conservative radio show, read on any conservative blog, and hear from any conservative politician when they think they’re not in front of a camera.

    Conservatives do offer poor people one way out: get a job. They promise that lowering the taxes of rich Americans, reducing regulations on industry, and shrinking the number of government jobs will create private sector jobs galore, jobs for everyone.

    My brother-in-law David Booth, a singer-songwriter-professor in Minnesota, said something very different about poverty. He wrote me that Romney’s frequent use of Staples as the best example of how he created jobs through his leadership of Bain Capital “qualifies as irony.”

    Staples was Bain’s first success. Bain invested about $2 million in 1986. Staples went from one store to become an office supplies giant. Bain got back $13 million a few years later and Romney sat on Staples’ board of directors for 15 years. His campaign says that Staples contributed about two-thirds of the new jobs that Romney claims to have created at Bain.

     What kind of jobs did Romney create? According to glassdoor.com, which publishes job data for thousands of companies, salaries for entry positions at Staples are under $9.00 per hour. A 40-hour week and a 50-week year means a yearly income less than $18,000. Even with an income up to $26,400, a couple with two children would pay no federal income taxes.

    So Romney thinks that the people who got the jobs he says he created are those irresponsible parasites who are hopelessly dependent on government. That is ironic.

    Here is more recent evidence about the views of the two candidates on poverty.  The Circle of Protection, leaders of Christian organizations and churches across the religious spectrum, who are concerned about the moral issue of poverty, asked the two candidates in July to make short video statements about how “to provide help and opportunity for hungry and poor people.” These videos, released in September, avoid specifics, but do define the parties’ differences.

    Obama emphasized the value of government assistance to the poor and his unwillingness to reduce it. “My faith teaches me that poverty is a moral issue. The Bible calls on us to be our brother’s keeper and our sister’s keeper. And I believe that as a public servant, I must do my part to answer that call. . . .  That’s why I’ve fought to keep this a country where everyone who works hard has a basic sense of dignity and a chance to get ahead. . . . I believe that even as we work hard to get ahead, we also have the obligation to reach back and help others to get ahead, too. . . . We cannot balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable. We certainly cannot ask the poor, the sick, or those with disabilities to sacrifice even more. . . That’s not just bad economics. It’s morally wrong. . . . We are all in this together, as one people, one American family, one nation under God.”

    Romney emphasized both the jobs he would create over four years and the need to cut the domestic budget now. “Coming to the aid of those in need is a critical mission. . . . My vision for recovery starts with jobs, a lot of jobs. . . . But at this point budget cuts are also going to be necessary. . . . Here you have my word: I’ll proceed carefully. . . . entitlement programs now account for more than half of federal spending.”

    Although Romney used this opportunity to note that a record number of Americans are on food stamps, an implicit criticism of Obama’s economic leadership, the Republican Party wishes to cut the food stamp program, because it encourages the dependence that conservatives deplore. Republicans in the House have passed legislation, without any Democratic support, that reduces eligibility for food stamps. This is what Romney means when he said to the Circle of Protection that he would cut the federal budget carefully, but cut it nevertheless.

    The same party divide showed up when Congress considered extending compensation for the long-term unemployed. In 2009, virtually all Democrats voted for and virtually all Republicans voted against extending these payments through 2010.

    The parties differ on poverty policies because they differ in their views of the poor. Republicans suspect the poor of dependency and irresponsibility, and seek to reduce the government programs that aid them. Democrats wish to protect and extend those programs. No matter who wins in November, it will be a long time before enough new jobs are created to lift millions out of poverty. Until then, the winner’s vision of what the poor deserve will determine how much the poor eat.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 4, 2012

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Election Primer 2012: 15. Running out of Energy

When you drive through northern Illinois near Peru, 50 miles southwest of Chicago, hundreds of tall windmills appear on the horizon, slowly turning in unison. They produce electricity with no pollution.

Forests of windmills also change the rural landscape. Their clean white industrial lines seem out of place in the cornfields, among the wooden barns. But we need their output and every other productive energy source, because we are the world’s energy hogs.

The US is the second greatest producer of oil and natural gas, just behind Russia. But we are the fourth largest importer of natural gas, and by far the largest importer of oil. We account for about 20% of the world’s total energy consumption with 5% of its population, more than twice as much per person as other highly industrialized countries. We rely on oil, natural gas and coal far more than other fully modern nations, who use more power from water, wind, and sun.

The only bright spot in our energy picture is that we use a bit less energy per person than 20 years ago. But in China and India and a host of other nations energy usage is increasing at an accelerating pace, as they raise their standards of living. The price of our imported energy can only go up as demand multiplies. Staying in place means a very expensive energy future.

The two parties approach that future very differently, because energy and environmental politics are intertwined. The clash of energy philosophies has been symbolized for decades by the huge Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska. Republicans have pushed to open the ANWR to oil drilling, while Democrats have resisted. Bill Clinton as President vetoed a bill passed by the Republican-controlled Congress. Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House clashed during the presidency of George Bush, who supported drilling there. The latest vote in the House in February saw nearly 90% of Democrats vote against drilling and 90% of Republicans vote for.

New energy sources have transplanted this conflict to new locations. In the controversies over offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, retrieving gas in the shale under the Midwest states through fracking, and the proposed Keystone pipeline from Canada to Texas, the same argument remains unresolved. Democrats want to lessen the threats to the environment, and study the health of people who live in affected areas, while Republicans want to forge ahead, repeating their mantra “Drill, baby, drill.”

While Republicans stress increased production of oil and gas, Democrats favor using government funds to encourage renewable energy sources. Republicans have gleefully used the failure of Solyndra, a solar manufacturer supported by the Obama administration, to criticize the idea of shifting to renewables. But nobody wants to keep government out of energy production. The US government, in our names, from 2002 to 2008 gave $72 billion in subsidies to fossil-fuel based sources and $29 billion to renewable sources, according to a study by the Environmental Law Institute.

Shifting this balance cleanly divides the parties. A Democratic bill in the Senate to reduce the subsidy to the 5 largest oil corporations by about $2.4 billion per year came up for votes in May 2011 and March 2012. Both times nearly every Democrat voted for it and nearly every Republican voted against it, so there were not sufficient votes to prevent a Republican filibuster. To put those numbers in perspective, those corporations made $134 billion in profits in 2011.

How much energy do we need? What would reducing our energy usage as a nation look like?

The reduction in American per capita energy usage comes from a major increase in the gas mileage of automobiles and trucks, which has already saved billions of gallons of oil imports. When the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards were first enacted by Congress in 1975, in the wake of the Arab oil embargo, cars averaged under 13 miles per gallon. Mileage was doubled by 1985, but then Republican presidents or Republican congressional majorities blocked further legislation proposed by Democrats. However, the rise in gas prices and the competition from highly efficient Japanese cars forced American car manufacturers to raise their fuel efficiency without government regulation.

In 2007, the Democratic Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation to raise CAFE standards to 35 mpg by 2020. One of President Obama’s first legislative successes was to move that forward to 2016. This August, the Obama administration announced that the U.S. auto fleet will average 54.5 mpg by 2025, a goal endorsed by both industry and environmentalists. Mitt Romney has said that he would repeal these standards.

Regulations and subsidies are not the only governmental actions that could help solve our energy problems. Communicating useful information could also contribute. For example, few people know that three-quarters of the electricity used by home electronics is consumed while the products are off. Unplugging appliances or using power strips between electronic devices and power sources could save us all money and reduce electricity demands.

Maintaining our wasteful national lifestyle and relying on underground sources of energy means watching other nations take the lead toward an affordable energy future. With the right policies, the US could eventually become an exporter of both fuels and energy technology. Doing nothing now means falling further behind over the next ten years.

Steve Hochstadt
Jacksonville IL
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, October 2, 2012