Thursday, September 08, 2011

The Essential Obama

In his address to a joint session of Congress on Thursday evening, President Obama challenged Congress to immediately pass the American Jobs Act, which brings together bipartisan proposals which would produce immediate effects to cause and stimulate employment and economic renewal.  He will be talking about the specifics all over the country in the coming days and weeks.  (Here's Ezra Klein's breakdown of the proposals.) But his address to Congress was exceptionally clear, focused and passionate.  It was the essential Obama.

For those who missed it and want more than soundbites, here is an enhanced version which includes sidebars of supplementary information.  Here's a transcript of the prepared address.

Congressional GOPers, perhaps mindful of their 87% disapproval rate and fresh from an earful from constituents, did not dismiss the President's proposals out of hand.

Others praised the speech for its forthright passion, and for the likely effectiveness and size of the American Jobs Act itself.  President Obama began by naming the urgency: "Tonight we meet at an urgent time for our country. We continue to face an economic crisis that has left millions of our neighbors jobless, and a political crisis that’s made things worse."  Everything he said followed from this premise.  His proposals were shrewdly targeted-- for example, the incentives for hiring the long-term unemployed, when stories have appeared that employers are refusing to consider hiring anyone who has been unemployed for six months or more.  But together they added up to a package that was broad and deep as well as specific and targeted.  The construction and repair programs are needed anyway, the President said, and now is the time to do them.  Roads, bridges, airports, schools--for now and for the future.

Andrew Sullivan: "This was indeed a speech directed at independents and also at those who fear that America is in terminal decline. It was rooted in patriotism; it was framed to portray Obama as the pragmatic centrist he actually is. And it was not dishonest - these are the choices, short-term and long-term, that we have to make. And we should not be required to wait for another year and a half for action...

Game on, in other words. Except this isn't a game. And any politician who acts like it is in the next year or so will pay a price."

And here are some of the more entertaining responses from Sullivan's readers. Along with Sullivan's comment: "He seems utterly unafraid of the GOP."

As Ezra Klein says, the ball is in the court of Congress now.  While Paul Krugman joins the conventional political wisdom that not much of it will be passed, he concludes:  "The good news in all this is that by going bigger and bolder than expected, Mr. Obama may finally have set the stage for a political debate about job creation. For, in the end, nothing will be done until the American people demand action."  Getting that demand communicated to Congress is what President Obama will be doing now. He's going to the grassroots.  That, too, is the essential Obama.


from the photonovel, Ruins of Detroit

Later today President Obama gives his speech before Congress outlining his proposals to spur job growth.  The Democrats at least are likely to keep pushing the jobs issue to the forefront, though how successfully remains to be seen.  Despite persistent high unemployment and underemployment, there wasn't a lot of prominent and consistent attention towards the jobs issue until now, as several commentators have noted.

In a way this inattention was surreal, but telling.  Apart from the attention focused on health care costs--a huge drag on the economy and the finances of small businesses and families--and apart from the distractions fomented by GOPer politicians, the seeming invisibility of unemployment pain was a reflection of the current corporate economy.

With financial corporations bailed out by huge government loans, the world economy avoided a catastrophic implosion in 2008 and 2009.  Banks and then major corporations based in the U.S. recovered quickly.  They have been rolling in cash for well over a year.  Apart from a very slowly recovering housing market (due to part to banks thwarting efforts to settle foreclosures),  the economy has been slowed by a lack of corporate investment in the U.S.

 That investment has gone overseas, where production is, and increasingly, where consumers are.  American corporations are prospering because they have new markets in the rest of the world, as something like a middle class grows in places like India and China.  U.S. corporations don't have to hire Americans because they can hire workers elsewhere who work cheaper, and they are closer to growing markets.  U.S. corporations don't have to worry about impoverishing a U.S. middle class, because they no longer depend on Americans to buy their products and services.  For these corporations, the U.S. supplies infrastructure, some skilled and professional labor not so readily available elsewhere (at least temporarily), and increasingly, the U.S. serves as a tax haven.  If corporations could just get rid of regulations and environmental restraints, they could complete the process of turning the U.S. into their ideal, a Third World country on a hill.

That's the U.S. economy in the fall of 2011.  It is unsustainable and it's temporary--perhaps very temporary.  Everyone knows this, or at least suspects it is.  Fear of the future may not be a conscious component of the denial that has become the increasingly aggressive posture of U.S. corporations, especially in fossil fuels.  But it is itself the fuel.


The resources of planet Earth cannot support a world of 7 billion people with the lifestyles of middle class Americans or Europeans.  We would need several more planets for that.  That's just the math.  If peak oil hasn't been reached already, it will be soon enough.  The global Climate Crisis is already wreaking havoc on food costs and supply, and in drought areas, even on human water supply.  Huge populations remain available for the kind of low-wage labor and virtual (if not actual) slavery that capitalism apparently demands. But wages for skilled labor will go up, and quickly approach U.S. standards.  So costs will go up for the currently deliriously wealthy global corporations.

In the short term, the U.S. economy still has a lot of residual strength.  Some of it may even spark an upturn next year.  Buried in the dismal employment numbers last month were continuing growth in health care jobs--a sign that the affordable care act is not depressing employment, and may be spurring it, as its major provisions unfold.  There are other positives that may pay off.

But that residual strength can also mask a situation that may well be worse than it might appear.  America is still awash in cheap stuff.  People don't look like people looked in the Great Depression.  They are better clothed, they have TVs etc.  Food is still plentiful, even if what's cheaply available is bloating people to a grotesque degree and creating long-term health problems.  The first visible sign of trouble now is housing, and that's likely the first to become very obvious.  We've somehow learned to live with a degree of homelessness that was unthinkable between the Depression and the 1980s.  But it could get more obviously worse.

All that Americans have to hang their hopes on at the moment is their vote, and GOPers are aggressively trying to take their right to vote away from them.  It's hard to see how an election can be really decisive, since 2008 turned out not to be.  But it was always going to take more than one election.  Then there's some hope in the demographics, which is what's driving a lot of current politics: it's the last of the white supremacists, now driving the GOP.  The economy itself may spring a few surprises, but when corporations seem so blindered that they don't care about the catastrophic future they are creating--along with the equally cynical fostering of present pain--they can't be counted on to do anything but evil.             

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

B.S. Detector Hits the Shelves

The beauty of Bullshit Studies is that it applies not only to the hugely pretentious.  For one thing, the Bullshit Detector would go into overload at something like the GOPer candidates debate.  No, to be a comprehensive field of learning, Bullshit Studies must also go home.

Where I am calling bullshit on three products I've used for years, which have suddenly decided, without provocation or warning, to make themselves worse.

I've been pouring a small envelope of Emergen-C Super Orange into a glass of water every morning for decades.  (In fact, if you go back even further, I virtually invented the name "Emergen-C" in a short story published in 1970 or so.  Only it was the name of a spaceship. Actually it was Emergent-C, but that's even better!)

So here's the box--with its blue border and orange center, it was a delight to look for on my shelf--it was part of the experience.  But now the bs Alacer company has gone and changed it to a bright ugly uniform sickish yellow orange box, and matching envelopes.  Plus they've changed Super Orange itself!  It's not even orange anymore.  It's yellow.  That's bullshit!  Three hems worth on the BS Detector.

I've been drinking Stash tea since I got a sample of its organic brand sometime in the 90s.  I added it to my regular breakfast (it's the next drink after Super Orange) at least a decade ago.  I alternate the selections: one day English Breakfast, the next Earl Grey, then when they run out, maybe Irish Breakfast alternating with Chai Spice.  They all came in these nice sized attractive boxes that lined up together, with the teabags accessible from a slot near the bottom.  Perfect!

But why stop at perfection when you can fuck it up?  That's just what Stash is apparently doing.  The only boxes of English Breakfast I found recently were bigger, uglier and without that slot.  The whole system is ruined.  It's bullshit!

But just to make sure that breakfast is not my only meal of the day to be ruined, there's Ovaltine.  I lost track of Ovaltine when Captain Midnight left the air, and Nestles Quick replaced it on the shelf (let's face it, Quick tasted better.)  But several years ago, when I was pondering a selection of very expensive protein health drink mixes, I remembered Ovaltine.  Okay, it may not have all those healthy ingredients, but it does have a lot--and malt alone is a significant boost.  So I started up with Ovaltine again, first as an energy drink (with milk and some protein powder, banana for body, a few seconds in the blender.)  I went as far as mixing and matching: the old basic Malt flavor, the Chocolate Malt ("chocolate-flavored Ovaltine" of my youth) and the new Rich Chocolate, which is maltless, but can be mixed with the malt flavor to taste.  Eventually it became a nighttime hot chocolate as well.

I was pleased that the label and packaging hadn't changed much since Captain Midnight days.  Then a few years ago, the brown glass container was replaced by brown plastic.  Not great, but I got used to it.  But now they're changing everything: the color (another bright yellowish monstrosity--the same color consultant as Emergen-C, apparently), the shape and the size.  And to add injury to insult, they've got an "all new formula!" for the chocolate malt--and it's terrible.  Ovaltine was never that great tasting to begin with, so the margin for error was never very great.  So now they've done this New Coke thing.  Awful!
And bullshit!  But it doesn't stop there.  In the new Ovaltine jar, there's no inner seal!  Imagine!  No inner seal to carefully tear out so you can enclose it with your quarter--I mean, how else are kids going to get their Captain Midnight Decoder Ring?  Or their Captain Future Bullshit Detector?

I'm not giving in.  I've kept a few blue Emergen-C boxes, and I empty the new envelopes into them so I don't have to look at that bullshit new package.  I am bypassing the chocolate malt Ovaltine and mixing my own using classic Malt and Rich Chocolate. I don't have a fix for the Stash packages, except to try to reuse the old ones but that probably won't work for long.  That's what makes it more than stupid, more than an inconvenience.  It's bullshit.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The End of Moderation

Human civilization flourished in several thousand years of moderate climate.  American civilization flourished with several decades--and arguably, several centuries-- of moderate politics. 

These days the weather is either very wet or very dry, though some places like New Orleans go from one to the other.  And these days politics are extreme, at least in a functional sense, or in the way that caricatures compare to paintings.

I doubt that these are unrelated.

But even in moderate political times, a little change could cause convulsions.  There was a pretty broad consensus in the Eisenhower years--a consensus foreign policy, a consensus on building the highway system, providing housing loans, on funding health and education, and on government regulating business for safety and to protect everyone (the businesses included) from the galloping perils of unrestricted and lawless competition.

But there were bitter political struggles in the Kennedy years over raising the minimum wage, over augmenting Social Security with medical care for the aged, the program that became Medicare.  And especially over segregation, integration, and equal rights for black Americans--even equal voting rights.  That alone was enough to drive some people mad with anger and hatred.

In some ways President Barack Obama has positioned himself politically in an enviable way.  His adherence to bipartisanship and to at least the explanation for what he advocates places him in the left/center to center/right chunk of the political spectrum, which should have wide appeal.  Even his full-throated advocacy for unions on Labor Day was from the premise that unions and good wages created the American middle class.

  This has forced his opponents who prefer ideological caricature to nuanced differences on policy or administration to move entirely to the extreme right.  They've gotten themselves in a small corner, as far from moderation as it's possible to be.  They are daily redefining how extreme they can be and still be taken seriously within legitimate political discourse.

But because of hard economic times--created by the GOPer presidency of Bushcheney (or Cheneybush), enforced by GOPer-supporting corporate and financial interests and a Do-Nothing but Screw Things Up Congress--the extreme Right, the Rabid Right, may take advantage of immoderate emotions.

That's not all that's involved in the current hysteria.  There's the still powerful powder keg of racism.  There's a newly hysterical greed among corporate interests, particularly the ones that see the writing on the wall of their extinction--the fossil fuel interests, but also the most abusive financial interests.  But hopelessness and fear due to an economy that corporations and financial institutions appear to be deliberately strangling are potent and unpredictable forces in the electorate.

The Left is screaming for President Obama to become FDR.  But in the 1930s there was an extreme right (to the point of Fascism) with lots of money and ignorance behind it, but also an extreme left, with several varieties of revolutionary changes that had substantial support.  And there were populisms that took bits from both extremes, and jumped wildly from one to another (Father Coughlin being a prime example.)

President Obama does not have an extreme or even a Hard Left.  Much of the time this helps him.  But there are times when it doesn't.  The Rabid Right can try to make him seem like a socialist because there are no real socialists around.

Still, there's a certain craziness that may or may not last.  I can't help thinking of Cowboy Rick, ostensibly still the governor of Texas.  Much of Texas is currently in extreme drought.  The number of extreme fires about to reach populated areas including big cities have forced Cowboy Rick off the bloviating campaign trails and back home to the range.  Whether they can force him to face reality is doubtful.  But they might suggest that to everybody else.