With the hour of reckoning on Health Care at last behind us, it’s time to start shifting focus to the other great issue of the next election cycle: America’s credit rating. I’ve never been a big watcher of economic issues: the Clinton years hardly warranted it, and it was just one more tick on the list of things to hate about Bush. But now the combination of a liked (no longer loved) president and a still crappy economy begs a closer look at what exactly the analysts are talking about when they’re not watching the vicious cabaret of David Paterson’s self-destruction. And so I give you an initial, clumsy attempt to analyze what ails the national treasury.

The Reckoning aside, the cause of our fundamental economic problem, namely the Debt of Debts, remains twofold: we want things without paying for them, and our political leadership is only too happy to do so in exchange for votes. And while public consciousness of the problem has increased dramatically in the wake of the crisis, a solution remains politically impossible: the democrats are content to largely pretend the problem doesn’t exist while the GOP is willing to acknowledge it only so far as it benefits them politically. This is hardly the proper atmosphere for the development of a solution, as the shrieking din debate over healthcare amply demonstrates. The citizenry and the politicians have led one another into divorcing benefit from cost, and now attempts at a fix are viewed as unlikely at best, suicidal at worst. A number of proposals are actively being aired by the analytical class, ranging from the inestimable Fareed Zakaria‘s call for a value added tax and an end to homeowner subsidies, while on the other side of the political spectrum Republican congressman Paul Ryan has put forth a plan that basically advocates burning the welfare state to the ground and beginning anew.

So while it’s clear we have no shortage of ideas (not all of them bad) as to what to do about the problem, taking action is, as always, the source of the rub. Now, although this applies equally to both parties I’m going to use the GOP for this illustration as Ryan has more power with them than Zakaria does with the democrats. The GOP, despite having taken it upon itself to both uphold their declared principles of small government and responsible financing and thwart the democrats at every turn, seems bound and determined to ignore Ryan’s ideas almost entirely and continue riling the tea party by calling Obama and anyone who happens to agree with him a socialist (just as democrats accused anyone in the same room as bush a tyrannical lunatic) . Putting aside the many factual errors present in such an argument, it’s indicative of the extent to which the GOP has abandoned policy making in favor of gaining tea party votes by badmouthing the democrats. Given that the democrats did basically the same thing in 2006 with the moveon.org set, this is certainly a valid electoral strategy. As far as actually governing the country though it continues the trend of hyperpartisanship eroding the functioning of the government: nothing important can be accomplished if the minority party does nothing but firebombs the majority with the promise of being swept into power with the next election and their counterparts continue the cycle. A very excellent (and I will warn you now, somewhat lengthy, but I link to the most relevant portion) article from the Atlantic monthly describes the problem thusly: while American society, despite all appearances on cable news, is perfectly fine, the government is growing increasingly incapable of dealing with the problems it faces, especially ones that involve the nigh-inconceivable sums of money it now deals with. The reasons go back to the beginning of this passage: the GOP knows it can’t adopt anything ryan says despite how well it meshes with their stated platform because the political reality is that any party that messes with entitlements would be drawn and quartered. Even the Tea Party is enraged not by the existence of medicare but by the perceived attempt to reduce funding to it. Which is one of the truisms of voter behavior: people hate government bureaucracies, except the ones that benefit them.

So what solution can possibly emerge from all this? Like so many other things, it all depends on time and the ever shifting winds of politics. Unlike healthcare, there’s far more broad based support behind Wall Street regulation in the wake of the Reckoning, and following healthcare momentum is on the democrats’ side. For their own survival the GOP may decide to call of their hissy fit and actually work to give some input into legislation if only to be able to say they actually accomplished something resembling governance in November. As so often happens in American politics, we may yet do the right thing, if only for the wrong reasons.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least breathe a few words about America finally joining the community of nations that do more than pretend to give a shit about effective healthcare, but my understanding of the matters involved has, like the economy, always been imperfect (a post on that matter is also in the works). But something must be said nonetheless, and that something is this: you can think whatever you want about the bill, from the process that created it (horrifying and convoluted), to the democrats’ attempts to sell it (amateurish), whether you’re on the right and think it’s a massive expansion of government power (not really), or on the left and think it doesn’t go too far enough (still better than nothing).  But whatever you do think, several things are true:

1: 32 million more people have insurance coverage, meaning they can afford to get treatment BEFORE it becomes bad enough to require emergency care and costing more for everyone.

2: Insurers can’t deny coverage for preexisting conditions, granting access to healthcare for thousands who would otherwise be on their own.

3: Those who are concerned about federal funds going to (indirectly) fund abortions can take heart in that the effort to win the heart vote of ardent pro-life democrat Bart Stupak consisted of Obama issuing an executive order specifically preventing such a thing. To those worried that such a thing holds less weight than it would if it were included the law, the GOP is already out to disprove that theory.

4: Many of the bill’s more hideous deals, such as the infamous Cornhusker Kickback that basically gave Nebraska free healthcare in exchange for Senator Ben Nelson’s vote, were stripped out in reconciliation.

More benefits are provided in list form over at Crooks and Liars, but the bill does come with one singificant caveat: while it does have a great up front cost, one of the main benefits is that it’s been designed to actually reduce the deficit to the tune of a trillion dollars over 20 years. The caveat, as the CNN article explains, is that this hinges on congress being strict in applying promised tax increases at the required intervals, and as I’ve said before Congress is only too willing to sacrifice long-term planning in the name of expediency. This passage is by itself a rare (and encouraging) bucking of that trend, but it’s only meant as a first step on a longer path, and if congress deviates from that path many of the bill big pluses will evaporate.

In the meantime, the GOP has promised to ride to victory on the backs of the vote in November, but much analysis is emerging from the newscloud casting various aspersions on that prediction. I could go into that right now but there’s enough material there for the subject to command another blarg entry later this week. In the meantime suffice to say there’s still better than 6 months between us and november and the electoral landscape is hardly immutable. Let us not forget how quickly McCain went from sacrificial lamb, to serious challenger, and back again 18 short months ago. In the meantime, the Great Game of the Republic continues.

In our continuing series, Iran’s not doing so good economically. Which is the equivalent of having “the sky is blue” appear as a breaking news item in a ticker. The economic incompetence of Iran’s theocrats is so pervasive I can only address them in bullet form:

  • Iran exports vast amounts of oil, yet has to import equally vast amounts of gasoline as it has painfully limited refining capabilities. Thus, gasoline is routinely rationed. It’s like the 70’s gas crisis every day in Tehran.
  • Inflation is at a level only Zimbabwe could envy.
  • Unemployment is at a level that should make any government of a country with a population as young as Iran’s nervous if not starkly terrified.
  • Ahmadinejad only won the presidency the first time on the promise to shower wealth on the poor. You can guess how well that went.
  • The Reckoning has hit everyone. EVERYONE.
  • On top of everything else, Sanctions Sanctions Sanctions

Against this backdrop, Iran’s nuclear plans can be viewed less as a threat and more as a desperate attempt at job creation. But seriously, if half of what Time’s article says is true actually is then the blue collar labor element so far missing from Green Movement protests may soon materialize, to the Mullah’s continuing detriment.

Meanwhile, back in the realm of politics, it would seem Senator Jim Bunning (R-KY) has gone quite insane.

I enjoy video games. As a child of the 90s I grew up with them, and as they’ve matured in the ensuing years (in every sense of the word) the culture has now absorbed them to the point that I can still say I enjoy them as a man in my mid 20’s without being labeled a socially-withdrawn malcontent. I just wish to give you some context as to why I would wish to use this space to highlight the recent (and hopefully temporary) implosion of the PS3. Thanks to a hardware glitch which is variously being blamed on the system’s clock/calender having a Y2K-esque, leap year triggered meltdown to corrupted trophy information, most of the consoles currently in use can neither access the PlayStation Network nor even play many games on or offline. As these are two of the system’s primary functions, this makes this particular glitch rather disconcerting. This isn’t due so much to being denied the ability to play, as while this is certainly annoying everyone’s fairly certain Sony will either have this fixed fairly soon or have their programmers commit mass suicide. It’s more due to the way in which this underlines the dark side of having a console that integrates so much with the internet. The benefits of such a system are many, as for the first time in my gaming life I’ve been able to play online with a great degree of reliability. However the recent fall of PSN has uncomfortably reminded us all of just how fragile this arrangement is: remove internet connectivity, and everything else goes straight to hell. Offline games won’t work if they can’t sync trophy info or confirm copyright validity, undermining one of the main reasons people bought the damn thing in the first place.

It also underlies the fact that, as consoles grow to have more capabilities in line with PCs, they’re also becoming plagued by many of the same issues. A large userbase and internet connection makes it both a target for hackers as well as a way for companies to impose the same internet-mediated copy protection assurance that plagues many PC games. Until recently consoles were thought to be an oasis from such shenanigans, but as always the internet brings with it the potential for both good and evil. As for corporate shenanigans, the cynical part of me wants to think this is some kind of veiled forced obsolescence plan on Sony’s part as only the older “fat” models of the PS3 are afflicted, but then given even debug models used by developers and the press are also screwed this would stand to leave them joining the rest of the user base in screaming for Sony’s blood in the event a fix is not forthcoming by this evening, and stands to lose all parties an amount my friend Kevin from Saint Superman characterized as “a hojillion dollars”.

At any rate, I’m happy as long as I can still mute other players on my microphone, though I’m hoping PSN is fixed soon enough for that to even be an issue.

Somehow, through the force of what can only now be described as divine intervention, the health care bill survives. Obama today unveiled a newly reworked compromise proposal in hopes of reviving what is still the signature issue of the first half of his first term, and the one on whose vote the democrats will likely live or die by come november. For as much heat as the health care debate has generated, the bill continues to have a chance in hell of actually passing: even having been denied the magic 60, without the public option the likelihood of wooing moderate republicans rises significantly. And I’m not just talking about the Ladies from Maine: what was touted as the biggest political blow to the Democrats since their last ascension may in fact turn out to be their biggest boon: Scott Brown may yet save healthcare reform. As the daily beast points out, Brown was elected less by a wave of tea party fervor as much as being the alternative to a particularly crappy democratic candidate. And being the senator from a still rather liberal Massachusetts limits the extent to which the tea party can influence him, as if he wants to get reelected he can only go so far right before his constituents punish him, especially considering Massachusetts has its own form of public healthcare on a state scale, passed under Governor Guess Who. This makes the passage of an actual bill possible, if still unlikely: liberal house democrats (notably Pelosi) haven’t stopped bristling over the ejection of the public option as they have their own radicalized constituencies to worry about, and the GOP is still more interested in gaining political points by blocking the bill at every turn. Then again as the CNN article states there’s a live GOP vs. Obama news conference planned for Prime Time Thursday, and considering how round one went the White House’s recent maneuvers are likely making them very nervous indeed.

The Saga of Healthcare is Far From Over…

Between My travels, my job, and the atmosphere’s many attempts to destroy Washington DC, the Blarg has been on a temporary hiatus that will continue until next week when I finally get a free moment to myself.

So last Wednesday night, as I did before for the last presidential debate, I sat down and took notes in order to more effectively blog about one of the biggest set-pieces of American political pageantry, the State of the Union address. Thankfully CNN was blessedly hands off about ancillary analysis/data during the actual address this time, which made for a refreshingly focused experience. What I got out of it was a sense that the speech generally achieved it’s goals: while it hasn’t singlehandedly saved his presidency (to the extent it really needs to be this early on), but it has probably successfully broken the media narrative of a political tailspin that took hold following the Brown victory and the inevitable speculation on the death of healthcare reform.  In that way it’s bought him some valuable breathing room in which to dig his administration out of a still-deepening rut of public opinion.

Obama vs the GOP: The most obvious target of the president’s carrots and sticks, as he alternately offered to cooperate with them while browbeating them for stonewalling. He actually did throw them several bones:  a willingness to drill baby drill (an effort as useless as it is expensive) and expand the use of nuclear power (which is actually a good idea), and emphasizing his record/plans for tax cuts (to surprisingly mixed results in terms of applause). Meanwhile they raced to get out of their seats at the mention of the jobs bill, and while I know they can’t afford to be seen as so much as being in the same neighborhood as anything that isn’t job creation, I wonder if they realize they’re basically applauding the second stimulus bill.  At the same time they refused to join Obama in some of the more gleefully populist portions of the speech (esp the early bank bashing and Obama’s proposals to stop outsourcing), which begs the question of just how concerned about the perceptual power of applause they really are. Also, I’m not sure attempting to browbeat the GOP in this forum, pleasurable though it is, is how we move past the era of hyperpartisanship. Finally, as much as I join many in wanting to see Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repealed, I don’t see him being able to work with republicans on the issue since they’re still in the process of being eaten alive by cultural conservatism and reigniting the culture wars hardly makes matters easier.

Obama vs the Democratic Party: Neither were the Democrats spared from a bit of “encouragement”, which has become painfully necessary as their natural reflex to run and hide at the first sign of adversity has unfortunately asserted itself in the wake of the Brown election. It’s especially sad when a party has to be reminded it actually still holds a substantial majority. Several wakeup calls especially resounded: while recognizing the rout, Obama has refused to surrender the day on healthcare (and let’s be honest, its not as if he could afford serving the GOP that huge of a political victory at this point). In creating a budget commission by executive order where the senate already rejected it, he has given congress the bitchslap it has so richly deserved, caught as it is between democratic fecklessness and GOP intransigence. Finally, talk of the spending freeze made Nancy Pelosi almost visibly squirm, and while she’ll be able to placate her constituents somewhat with the Don’t Ask push, rallying the democrats will be nigh impossible in the midst of trying to take away the one power that makes them worth hiring in the first place in the eyes of many voters.

Obama vs The Economy: And of course there’s the other great issue of our time, and probably the thorniest: trying to sell the benefits of the economic recovery even though many of those benefits have yet to materialize. Yes it’s great that the banks didn’t collapse and we’re not in a depression, but that’s cold comfort to a nation still saddled with debt at every level and facing a merciless jobs market. Trying to sell yourself on a platform of  “At least things aren’t WORSE!” isn’t going to woo any but the wonkiest of voters, and people are going to ask the fundamental question: Am I better off now than I was 2-4 years ago? In addition, some of his specific proposals were a tad worrying: vowing to increase exports is great, but what exactly are we going to be producing? Factories can’t just be willed from the earth, as the Midwest knows only too well. Also he proposed using the recovered bailout money to give loans to small businesses, which sounds great except for the part where loosening the credit spigot is what caused this whole mess in the first place. Finally, a bit of disingenuous speech on his part  in saying he’s “not interested in punishing banks.” Yes you are and you’re even banking a polling increase on it (no pun intended).

And now a quick runthrough of the peanut gallery:

Tim Geithner looked constipated, and not without due cause.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden fulfilled the OTHER critical role of the Vice President: Presidential Bobblehead.

Michelle Obama continues to be the most stainless woman in Washington, which makes her a trump card if she’s played in the cause of a healthcare PR offensive.

I know I wanted to get a full workup on the SotU up by today, but just had a very severe brush with career doom. After a reassuring chat with my boss I’m still in the process of coming down off the adrenaline rush of fear. Regularly scheduled blogging will resume monday.

As anyone with a cable or internet connection should know, the State of the Union speech is tonight amidst much political turmoil for the Obama administration. I’ll leave the substantive analysis for later as I plan to blog the speech itself, but for now we can expect that while the president is going to have to tack right in a few areas to regain credibility among independents and open some kind of bipartisan door to the GOP, David Axelrod has informed CNN that the liberals can expect to be soothed with some candy of their own.