Friday, July 22, 2011

F Day

  "In 2010, Americans chose a divided government, but they didn’t choose a dysfunctional government."-- President Obama, Friday morning at University of Maryland. 

"And I think that one of the questions that the Republican Party is going to have to ask itself is can they say yes to anything?"--President Obama, Friday evening press conference. 

D Day--Debt Day, Deficit Day, Deal Day--turned into F Day, Fail Day, when John Banal walked away from the deal that was apparently far along in its negotiation.

Banal stopped talking to the President Thursday night, didn't return calls, and evidently waited until the stock markets closed for the weekend before announcing he was walking away from negotiations with the White House.  He was pointed in saying he would seek an agreement with congressional colleagues.  His intention was clearly to blame the White House.

The President however effectively countered that in his press conference, as seen above, or here with the partial transcript.  He summoned congressional leaders to the White House Saturday morning to hear their plan to keep the country from defaulting.  He said that he would accept the McConnell concept of shifting the decision to raise the debt ceiling to him, but his condition is that it be sufficient to last beyond the 2012 election.  Later, Speaker Banal gave his conditions: that there be cuts at least equal to the amount of the new debt ceiling--some $2.4 trillion--with no "tax increase."  The only proposal that even looks like that has come, ironically perhaps, from Nancy Pelosi--a plan for about $2 trillion in cuts.  But even though both President Obama and Speaker Banal stated flatly that the debt ceiling has to be raised, there is a lot of pain ahead this weekend, and a deal is by no means a certainty.  If the way is not clear by Sunday, the markets on Monday are likely to go into full panic.

The instant coverage resulted in some astute observations (I was impressed by Major Garrett) and a lot of blather.  Like a lot of what President Obama said "for the first time" in his press conference--when there was almost nothing that President Obama said for the first time in his press conference.  It's one thing that people with actual lives don't listen or read the transcripts, but those people are being paid a lot of money to at least pay attention.

It also occurs to me that while a deficit plan is a political necessity, both in terms of national confidence and especially to reassure credit agencies and other economic entities, that it is all science fiction.  These ten year plans all must be altered even in relatively normal times.  But ten years from now, things are likely to be so different from today that nobody will remember what 2011 was actually like.  And given these events, nobody will want to remember.

President Obama at his press conference Friday evening on the spectre of the U.S. being forced into default by its own legislature:

      That should not be an option. I’m getting letters from people who write me and say, at the end of every month I have to skip meals. Senior citizens on Social Security who are just hanging on by a thread. Folks who have severe disabilities who are desperate every single month to try to figure out how they’re going to make ends meet. But it’s not just those folks. You’ve got business contractors who are providing services to the federal government, who have to wonder are they going to be able to get paid and what does that do in terms of their payrolls.

You’ve got just a huge number of people who, in one way or another, interact with the federal government. And even if you don’t, even if you’re not a recipient of Social Security, even if you don’t get veterans’ benefits or disabilities, imagine what that does to the economy when suddenly 70 million checks are put at risk. I mean, if you’re a business out there, that is not going to be good for economic growth. And that’s the number one concern of the American people. So we’ve got to get it done. It is not an option not to do it.

President Obama on the difference between the GOPer bill and the agreement he tried to make:

The difference was that we didn’t put all the burden on the people who are least able to protect themselves, who don’t have lobbyists in this town, who don’t have lawyers working on the tax code for them -- working stiffs out there, ordinary folks who are struggling every day. And they know they’re getting a raw deal, and they’re mad at everybody about it. They’re mad at Democrats and they’re mad at Republicans, because they know somehow, no matter how hard they work, they don’t seem to be able to keep up. And what they’re looking for is somebody who’s willing to look out for them. That’s all they’re looking for.

And for us not to be keeping those folks in mind every single day when we’re up here, for us to be more worried about what some funder says, or some talk radio show host says, or what some columnist says, or what pledge we signed back when we were trying to run, or worrying about having a primary fight -- for us to be thinking in those terms instead of thinking about those folks is inexcusable.

I mean, the American people are just desperate for folks who are willing to put aside politics just for a minute and try to get some stuff done. So when Norah asked or somebody else asked why was I willing to go along with a deal that wasn’t optimal from my perspective, it was because even if I didn’t think the deal was perfect, at least it would show that this place is serious, that we’re willing to take on our responsibilities even when it’s tough, that we’re willing to step up even when the folks who helped get us elected may disagree. And at some point, I think if you want to be a leader, then you've got to lead."

D Day

It is D Day in Washington--Deal Day, or there's no time left for Congress to act before this country sinks into the economic abyss.  Only a very simple bill just raising the debt ceiling--the kind of bill that is normally passed to raise the debt ceiling as it has been raised every single time before--would then be possible.

There's no point in repeating stories about what did or didn't happen on Thursday, or what might be in or not in any supposed deal that might or might not be close.  There isn't anything that hasn't been denied, whether it's true or not.

In a few hours from now, President Obama is scheduled to talk about the situation in a town hall meeting in Maryland.  The Senate is expected to consider the House's exercise in symbolic surrealism and vote it down, which supposedly clears the way for the parties to make a real deal.  It's likely to be a long day.

Hot Alone

Much of the United States is embroiled in a horrifying heat wave, and today is likely to be the worst day yet.  High temperatures are bad enough, but there is also high humidity, partly fed by remaining flood waters.  Dr. Jeff Masters:  A major reason for the remarkably high humidities accompanying the July 2011 Midwest heat wave is the record flooding the region experienced over the past three months. As pointed out by wunderground's climate change blogger Dr. Ricky Rood in his latest post, with hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland still inundated by flood waters, and soils saturated over much of the Upper Midwest, there has been plenty of water available to evaporate into the air and cause remarkably high humdities. This makes for a very dangerous situation, as the human body is not able to cool itself as efficiently when the humidity is high."   

The lessons of what super-heat does seemingly must be learned again and again: thousands of animals (including cattle) dying, damage to plants, huge demands on power, and of course the dangers to human health--particularly the vulnerable.

And increasingly the most vulnerable are paying the price for the GOPer madness in slashing programs that offer their only protection against such exegencies as these heat waves.  According to the Washington Post: "Many states hit hardest by this week’s searing heat wave have drastically cut or entirely eliminated programs that help poor people pay their electric bills, forcing thousands to go without air conditioning when they need it most." 

This is the result of state budget cuts, and decisions to cut back on administering federal programs--mostly based on ideological rather than economic choices.  It's the kind of thing the GOPers in Congress are doing with the federal budget: cutting back essential programs to help the most vulnerable through emergencies, and even funds for emergencies that affect everyone, such as hurricanes, floods, droughts and tornadoes.

This historic heat is the latest in a series of historically hot summers, and it's all just going to get worse.  The cost of denial is in the life and death of people who have no lobbyists or powerful friends to speak for them.

I'm worried about my friends and family in these heat wave areas.  I fear for the suffering of everyone--for not even air conditioning can counter the effects of heat and humidity over days and nights.  But it is the lack of common decency in the public rhetoric and public decisionmaking in this country that is the source of shame.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

How to Do the 14th on the 24th

If paralysis continues in Washington for just two more days, catastrophe could begin on Monday.  That's the likely reality, as credit agencies issue increasingly dire warnings, and their mid-July date for taking action on downgrading the country's credit rating has already passed.

If by Friday the House leadership cannot tell President Obama that they can deliver a vote on an acceptable bill raising the debt ceiling next week, then it may well be time for the President to do his constitutional duty.

The idea of the President invoking the 14th amendment to ensure that the U.S. will continue to pay its bills is radical enough that the White House has publicly disavowed any interest in even considering it.  But if they haven't been exploring it as a contingency plan, they should be doing it very quickly now.

It has perhaps been unthinkable, but then so is the spectre of the United States not paying its debts or falling helpless before the world.  The 14th amendment option went a long way towards becoming acceptable when a former President of the United States--not a pundit, not a think tank, not an irresponsible blogger--stated that in these circumstances, he would invoke it.

This statement by former President Clinton was barely noted in the media.  But it is very significant, I believe.

I also believe this: that if no congressional action to raise the debt ceiling in an acceptable way is in sight by Friday,  President Obama should alert the media of a White House address on Sunday night, July 24.

The television cameras will be focused on the podium at the end of that long corridor in the White House we often see.  Then a door down the hall opens and President Obama emerges and begins walking towards the podium and the camera.  A split second later another door opens, and two figures walk out: former Presidents George Herbert Walker Bush and George W. Bush emerge.  At the same time, a door on the opposite side opens, and two more figures emerge: former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.

The four ex-Presidents stand behind President Obama as he explains to the American people what will happen if the U.S. government defaults,  and why it is his constitutional duty to not allow that to happen.  When President Obama is finished speaking, the four ex-Presidents shake his hand.  They walk back down the corridor together.

The Gun of August

In one of the most famous works of history in modern times, Barbara Tuchman described the contagious lunacy--the denial, the craven stupidity--that coalesced and gathered unstoppable momentum, to take the world into the abyss of World War I.  Her book was called The Guns of August.  President Kennedy knew it well, and he spoke of it often as he tried to prevent an even worse plunge into the thermonuclear abyss that awaited at the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Now the Republican party is holding the gun of August 2011 to the heads of the United States and the economically interdependent world.  It is in President Obama's words the eleventh hour.  Even before the U.S. government has insufficient funds available to pay its bills on August 2, a couple of international credit agencies can set in motion an economic catastrophe.

Disbelief that officials elected to high office could be so irresponsible is turning to fear, as the clock ticks away.  The New York Times:

    Even though many on Wall Street believe that a default remains unlikely, the financial markets are starting to become agitated. Volatility in stocks has soared, and some investors say stock prices are falling because a United States default could severely raise companies’ costs of doing business.

In the Treasury market, investors are starting to sell, fearing that the government will not make good on some interest payments that will be due next month. And complex financial instruments that will pay out if the United States defaults have become twice as expensive to buy as they were at the start of the year.

Signs in Washington on Wednesday were not encouraging.  The Gang of 6 plan that raised hopes Tuesday was lambasted by House TPers, and even Democratic congressional leaders said that there wasn't enough time to pass it.  White House press spokesperson Jay Carney's suggestion early in the day that President Obama would accept a short-term debt ceiling bill was clarified later as meaning a bridge of a few days to a real agreement already in progress.  Meanwhile, 80 House TPers signed a letter urging the GOPer leadership to not even bring the McConnell plan (the so-called fail-safe) to the floor for a vote.  Carney suggested that President Obama would veto it in its present form.  The only new proposal from the House Rabid Right was for a 60 day extension, until Oct 1.

Polls show that Americans are starting to understand the magnitude of the abyss.  Apart from immediate interest rates rising, huge earthquake-like ripples through the world economy beginning, the federal government (and specifically the Treasury Department) will have to chose which 40% of its ongoing responsibilities to cancel.  If they choose to pay Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, among the things they can't pay for are: air traffic controllers and airport screeners (so forget flying, period,) fuel and supply for the military, federal help for emergencies (like the heat wave, hurricanes, drought, tornadoes, floods, nuclear accidents) and a lot more.

But while more Americans seem to recognize raising the debt ceiling is important, they may not have yet caught up to the fact that a fanatical TPer minority in the House seems immune to any argument, leading observers to suspect that they want the economy to collapse for ideological reasons, or (and this is not mutually exclusive) because they are insane.

So the most cogent news report today comes from The Onion.  Here it is:

Congress Continues Debate Over Whether Or Not Nation Should Be Economically Ruined

WASHINGTON—Members of the U.S. Congress reported Wednesday they were continuing to carefully debate the issue of whether or not they should allow the country to descend into a roiling economic meltdown of historically dire proportions. "It is a question that, I think, is worthy of serious consideration: Should we take steps to avoid a crippling, decades-long depression that would lead to disastrous consequences on a worldwide scale? Or should we not do that?" asked House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), adding that arguments could be made for both sides, and that the debate over ensuring America’s financial solvency versus allowing the nation to default on its debt—which would torpedo stock markets, cause mortgage and interests rates to skyrocket, and decimate the value of the U.S. dollar—is “certainly a conversation worth having.” "Obviously, we don't want to rush to consensus on whether it is or isn't a good idea to save the American economy and all our respective livelihoods from certain peril until we've examined this thorny dilemma from every angle. And if we’re still discussing this matter on Aug. 2, well, then, so be it.” At press time, President Obama said he personally believed the country should not be economically ruined.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The New Face of the GOP

UPDATE: Tuesday's news was of a revival of a bipartisan Senate plan to address longterm deficit and debt as a way to enact the grand deal President Obama called for while also raising the debt ceiling.  This story summarizes, with links. Notably this proposal sets targets but doesn't specify all the cuts, just the categories. Procedurally this might work as a budget resolution in the Senate attached to a previous House bill, which would then go back to the House, all theoretically in time to prevent default.  But though the adults are in the Senate, the House has to go along, and no signs Tuesday that would happen.  Meanwhile the fail-safe McConnell-Reid plan is being refined, though again House support is lacking.  But the most interesting statement of the day came from former President Bill Clinton, who said that as President he would have no hesitation in invoking the Fourteenth Amendment to prevent default and continue paying the bills, because Congress had already voted on the spending and there's nothing in the Constitution about them getting to vote on it twice.  Was this Bill sounding off, or was it with the knowledge and approval of the White House?

Here's your ultimate budget-cutter, cutting down the country, killing it dead.  Nothing less.  That's the new face of the GOP.

There were two trains running in Washington on Monday.  The establishment train involved secret meetings between the President and the House GOPer leaders (Banal and Cant) at the White House, while the House prepared to pass an outrageously suicidal set of conditions attached to a debt ceiling bill that will never pass the Senate and which President Obama promised to veto if it did--that is, the usual partisan face-saving, campaign issue-stoking symbolism.  Meanwhile the Reid-McConnell plan, onerous as it is but at least it raises the debt ceiling with barely acceptable attachments, continues to work its way to what the establishment--and Wall Street--expects will be ultimate passage, in time to avert Armageddon.

But the second train was the Tea Party GOPers suicide express, running on the renewable fuel of denial.  While even past Republican administration figures and elder statemen, along with all major figures in finance and economics continued to warn of apocalyptic consequences of default--one predicting an economy worse than the Great Depression--these TP denialists weren't listening.  The most chilling observation I heard Monday was by a reporter for the Hill newspaper who said that TP intransigence was actually growing, as their institutional support like the Club for Growth pushed back aggressively, insisting that default was the right thing to do, regardless of the consequences.

At least some of their votes will be required in the House.  One of the unnerving elements of this situation is that there's not much press on vote counts.  It suggests nobody has any idea of who will vote for what.

A political analysis explaining this intransigence (that these House members come from safe GOPer districts, and their worry is the primary, which is where the TP is strongest) fails to recognize that if they blow up the economy, no GOPer district will be safe.

This is the very definition of a precipice moment.  Everything is normal as alternatives are debated, but one wrong move and it's off the cliff, and guess what?  No turning back.  We've been in similar places before--I've got my deja vu from just before the bombing began the Iraq war, or just before the tax cut for the wealthy was passed (a temporary tax cut was the excuse, but it was as clear then as it is today that GOPers would characterize ending the temporary cut as a tax hike.)  But this is even worse.  It's much farther down, and the fall will be fast.  We will all be affected.  Suffering will be widespread.

The TPers denial is as complete on this issue as it is on the Climate Crisis.  Facts are not facts unless they come from their true believers.  All experts are suspect except their experts.  Everybody else is lying for political gain, only they are pure and doing God's work.  Meanwhile, the country bakes in their denial, and even a Greater Depression won't make the Climate Crisis go away.  It will just make it so much harder to deal with.

It is a small, power-mad, fanatical and profoundly ignorant group, intent on acting contrary to the wishes of a clear majority of Americans, as well as the interests of all Americans, of America itself.  No terrorist organization could possibly cause as much damage.  This is the defining moment.  And the longer there is uncertainty about whether they are going to be stopped, the more dangerous and unpredictable every day is, in the two weeks left before the United States goes broke because of them.    

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

photo: a full moon morning by BK

"I dread, and I confess it, lest they should at last so entirely give way to a cowardly love of present enjoyment as to lose sight of the interests of their future selves and those of their descendants and prefer to glide along the easy current of life rather than to make, when it is necessary, a strong and sudden effort to a higher purpose."

Alexis de Tocqueville

Sunday, July 17, 2011

As Forests Go, So Goes the Planet

Where's the future?  In the trees.

"Earth's forests, it turns out, play a dominant role in absorbing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, acting like a giant sponge and soaking up on average about 8.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year, the new study led by the US Forest Service shows – or about one-third of fossil fuel emissions annually during the 1990-2007 study period. In the end, about 2.4 billion tons of solid carbon were locked away in wood fiber each year over that period – a surprise to scientists."

“The new information suggests forests alone account for the most significant terrestrial carbon sink, and that non-forest lands collectively cannot be considered a major carbon absorption sink,” said Yude Pan, a US Forest Service scientist and a lead author of the study, in a statement. That finding could have big implications for national forest policies worldwide, implying that as forests go, so too does the planet."

The research indicates that while tropical forests are crucial, forests in temperate zones are playing a surprisingly large part.  Such forests are either stable or growing in Siberia, the U.S. and Europe.  In the U.S. alone, forests with new growth had upped the carbon intake by a third since 1990.

But even when safer from being cut down, these forests are endangered by disease, insects and drought, as in Canada, which is losing net forest.  Particularly as the Climate Crisis permits insects to range farther north and live more of the year, the danger increases.

How's That Hoax Workin Out for Ya?

From Dr. Jeff Masters:

"An unusually intense, widespread, and long-lasting heat wave over the majority of the U.S. continues to set numerous daily record highs. The latest long-range forecasts from the GFS and ECMWF models predict that the ridge of high pressure entrenched over the country responsible for the heat wave will move little over the coming week, and the heat wave should continue for all but the Pacific Northwest through July 23."

"June 2011 global land temperatures were the 4th warmest on record, and ocean temperatures were the 10th warmest on record."

Seriously, my heart goes out to you.  Be safe.