Thursday, January 29, 2009

Rush gets schooled by CNBC

There was an item on MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann tonight about an interview that Rush Limbaugh did on CNBC, talking about his "bipartisan stimulus plan," as he called it in today's Wall Street Journal. The interviewer — hardly a wild-eyed commie pinko on what is unmistakably the least liberal of the NBC siblings — made clear his contempt for Limbaugh's sudden epiphany of bipartisanship. Oddly, though, the transcript shows up not on CNBC's web site (video) , but on Rush's own site.

My favorite quote, by Mark Haines to Rush Limbaugh:

I hear hypocrisy. You're saying in this — in this piece, you say, uh, you know, "our economy doesn't know the difference...this is about jobs now...leave politics aside," and yet the first thing out of your mouth is politics! About liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat!

Haines began by pressing Limbaugh on his statement earlier this week that he hopes Obama fails, asking him if he now thought it was "a stupid and mean-spirited thing to say"; Limbaugh, in an act of almost Blagojevichian obliviousness, insisted that it was the right attitude to take with a new President in a time of national crisis. Limbaugh, of course, insists that Haines' skepticism must be rooted in "left-wing liberal sites that take me out of context," but Haines says he doesn't read any of them — he's basing his assessment purely on Rush's own words. Haines goes on to press Rush on his idea of splitting the stimulus money 54/46 (roughly the popular vote margin for Obama), "a refreshing breath of air" [sarcastically], in striking contrast to Rush's ideas on bipartisanship when his side was ahead 51/49.

Of course, Rush wants to use his 46% of the stimulus money for tax cuts — tax cuts for the investor class and the large corporations, specifically. As Rachel Maddow summed up on yesterday's program, a dollar spent on food stamps produces $1.73 in economic activity. A dollar spent on infrastructure produces $1.59. A dollar of individual tax cuts, $1.03. A dollar of corporate tax cuts, $0.30 — the pinnacle of corporate welfare, siphoning money not only out of the taxpayers but sucking it right out of the national economy to the detriment of everyone else. George W. Bush looked like he was about to jizz in his pants every time he said the words "tax cut," but this is a case where what's good for the Fortune 500 is quite different from what's good for Joe Sixpack.

So, why are we still talking about including corporate tax cuts as part of a stimulus plan? The very best tax cuts can do in return-on-investment (ROI) terms is $1.29, for a payroll tax holiday — the most direct way to encourage companies to hire more employees. The ROI for cutting the capital gains tax ($0.39) is only marginally better than the corporate tax. Extending unemployment insurance, on the other hand, clocks in at $1.64. It seems that the conservatives should be red-faced with embarrassment for advocating policies that are overtly counterproductive, but instead they continue to insist that the government waste money on tax cuts instead of spending it on genuine stimulus measures — measures that directly preserve jobs and give the neediest a hand in times of hardship are much more effective at growing the economy than giving tax breaks to the economic elites. (The numbers are from the Congressional testimony of Mark Zandi, one of McCain's economic advisors, House Committee on Small Business, Thursday, 2008-07-24, page 5; hat tips to Media Matters and The Rachel Maddow Show.)

In other words, the Republicans, and especially Rush Limbaugh, are fighting to make "the pie" smaller for our children so that we can eat an even bigger piece of it, before it's even baked.

(cross-posted to my DailyKos blog)

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An executive summary of the interview, with some expanded analysis of Rush's "plan," below the fold....

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Reason and Instinct

I've been thinking about what tomorrow's inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States means. To be sure, Obama's election is a repudiation of many aspects of the Bush era, and particularly the Iraq War and the economic meltdown, but I also see a shift from George W. Bush's "gut instinct" to Obama's thoughtful, reasoned analysis.

Bush values his instincts above all else. Indeed, many of his minions spoke derisively of the "reality-based" critics, who thought that facts somehow trumped ideology. How silly! In the partisan political arena, for the most part, Bush's instincts served him quite well, particularly with Karl Rove's nurturing guidance. However, his instincts also led him to stifle dissent among his advisors (although he is desperately trying to claim the contrary, in his efforts to polish his "legacy"), and to elevate personal loyalty above basic subject-matter competency. Bush's instincts led him to put Cheney and Rumsfeld in charge of what passed for "planning" for the Iraq invasion and occupation, to put "Brownie" in charge of FEMA, to nominate jaw-droppingly underqualified or mismatched candidates for everything from the Supreme Court to the United Nations to the Attorney General. Bush went out of his way to publicly snub those who displeased him, including restricting lucrative reconstruction contracts in Iraq to countries that had supported the invasion. He took pride in not weighing down his decision-making process with lots of facts.

Bush's instincts also told him to never waver, because any lack of absolute moral certitude would appear as weakness of character. As it turned out, though, his steadfastness proved to be more ignorant pig-headedness than stalwart adherence to principles, and history will not be kind.

Obama presents a striking contrast in this perspective as much as in his disagreements on specific policies. Obama seeks to have as much information as possible, and as many knowledgeable assessments as possible, before making a decision. When circumstances change, the decision can be reassessed and then adjusted or even reversed. Obama brings to the job of President his background as a lawyer and a law professor, in contrast to Bush's background as a lackluster and indifferent student, unbothered by self-reflection, guided more by faith than facts. Obama represents a counter-offensive in what Al Gore aptly termed The Assault on Reason.

Barack Obama's religious faith is no less genuine than George W. Bush's, but Obama understands the crucial distinction that sometimes you have to do your own homework, to do your best to understand the choices you face, rather than putting on a blindfold and trusting that Providence will inerrantly guide your hand. It is one thing to pray for the wisdom to draw the right lessons from the facts before you; it is quite another to pray for a deity to give you all the answers by miracles or magic or mystical mumbo-jumbo. Even if God is your co-pilot, you still need to keep your eyes on the road.

Of course, it's easy to go overboard in fantasizing which irrational government policies might disappear under the Obama Administration. Our federal guidelines on sex education are downright criminal, leading not only to higher pregnancy rates, but higher rates of STDs. Our so-called "War on Drugs" wastes billions of dollars fighting a drug that is not a threat to society (marijuana), thereby starving efforts at combating the real threats (for example, crystal meth). Decades of "tax simplification" have resulted in an ever-increasing thicket of regulations, answered only with meaningless gimmicks like the "flat tax." Our military throws out decorated soldiers because their sexual orientation "threatens morale" even more than the shortage of Arabic and Pashtun translators. More broadly, our government mostly refuses to acknowledge the diversity of family structures today, in many cases deeming an orphanage a better option than a loving home with a same-sex couple. The idea that markets will regulate themselves better than the government can, is plainly false, and yet we find that banks are turning their bailout windfall into new loans with the same problems that led to the financial crisis.

One thing I can guarantee is that not all of those irrational policies will be overturned, but at least we can have the audacity to hope that results will trump ideological purity, and that the reality-based community will put the Bush Administration in its rightful place on the ash heap of history.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

Earthquake in Afghanistan

[cross-posted from my DailyKos blog]

No, I'm not speaking in metaphor. There was a magnitude 5.8 earthquake tomorrow morning in Afghanistan, near the borders of Pakistan and Tajikistan. It occurred at 3:43 a.m., 2009-01-05, local time, which was 3:43 p.m. Sunday here on the US West Coast. So far, no one is reporting any significant damage or injuries, although some minor damage will doubtless come to light through the day. Still, as any Californian can tell you, a 5.8 is strong enough that you know you've just been in a quake, and in places like Afghanistan, a magnitude 6 will often have fatalities. There is another reason that I took notice of this quake: the specific region of Afghanistan where it happened, Hindu-Kush.

If the name "Hindu-Kush" is familiar to you more than other places in the region, that might be because of the strain of cannabis or the variety of heroin named for this mountain range that sprawls over the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area. The region is also one of the most linguistically complex in the world, with Farsi (Iran), Pashto (most of Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan), Chinese and Hindi (India) joined by about two dozen local languages. It's also a seismically active area: just a few days ago, on Christmas Eve, there was a 4.6 quake in the wee hours of the morning.

I'm glad this quake was a small one, but it's a reminder of just how little most of us know about Afghanistan. Geography trivia: what two countries border both Iran and Afghanistan? [answer 1, answer 2] More than 90% of the world's heroin comes from Afghanistan, much of it from these mountains — opium poppies are a larger chunk of the Afghan national economy than everything else combined, with the Taliban skimming off enough to fund their resistance for decades.

I haven't decided exactly what I'm going to do, two weeks from Tuesday morning, to mark the end of the Bush Era and the beginning of the Obama Epoch, but most of all I'm glad that there will be someone at the head of our government who will try to make informed, reasoned decisions — somebody who can find Afghanistan on a map, and someone who understands that we need to focus our so-called "War on Drugs" on the point where it intersects with the so-called "War on Terror."

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