Reaction to President Obama’s Inaugural Speech (continued)

My prior blog bagan an examination of several aspects of President Obama’s inaugural speech and this blog continues that examination.

III. Military Spending
I said before that military spending is tied to bringing people out of poverty. According to budget analysis groups such as the National Priorities Project, Inc., military spending accounts for 57 percent of discretionary spending — the spending that Congress actually votes on. When President Obama released his 10-year projection of Pentagon spending, it came to just under $6.5 trillion; furthermore,as an ultimate result of the debt ceiling talks, both major political parties came to an agreement to cut $1.2 trillion in spending over ten years, half to come from military spending. Obama said he would hold Republicans — many of whom were chafing at the military spending sequestration — to their agreement. Yet when the newly appointed Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, testified before Congress, he said the military sequestration would seriously damage the Defense Department’s mission. Why would Obama promise to honor the military spending sequestration and then send his Defense Secretary to Congress to condemn the sequestration? Note that a $500 to $600 billion cut over ten years would be less than a ten percent cut in projected military spending.

The “Pacific Pivot,” or “Asia-Pacific Pivot,” adds a whole new dimension to military spending, further reducing the money available to fund domestic needs. Both Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have said that 60 percent of U.S. military resources are being shifted from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region.

The U.S. already has 219 bases in the Asia-Pacific region to China’s zero. The island of Jeju off the southern tip of South Korea is the planned site of a joint South Korean-U.S. naval base that is is being heavily protested by the Tamna people of Gangjeme village. Jeju will be a major geostratgetic point in a growing constellation of militarized points focused around China.

China, which was once labeled the “yellow peril” to keep the big money flowing to the military-industrial complex, is now serving the same function with the “Asia-Pacific Pivot.”

IV. Civil Liberties
Civil liberties are a major concern of progressives; however, the inaugural speech provided no indication that Obama will change his very restrictive civil liberty views, adopted virtually full-blown from those of George W. Bush. Obama spports extraordinary detention, indefinite detention, warrantless wiretapping and the Patriot Act. Although he claims to be hell-on-wheels against torture, when he led the effort to amend the Military Commissions Act of 2006 to give detainees more legal rights, he didn’t try to delete the provision which gives the president the power to permit the CIA to use torture under national secrity grounds. There is also good reason to believe that torture has been employed in Afghanistan during the Obama administration: Afghan detainees have testified to sleep deprivation and subjection to extremely cold temperatures as being two of the interrogation tactics being used against them.

President Obama has also signed bills which allow indefinite detention of U.S. citizens, based on ambiguous language in the bills; however, his most unforgiveable action is his assumption of the right to order the murder of U.S. citizens. Reportedly, every Tuesday, Obama sits down with his top national security advisor, John Brennan, the nominee to be CIA chief, and draws up a “kill list.” Besides the targeted killing of the U.S. cleric in Yemen, two other U.S. citizens have been killed as a result of collatral damage.

Footnote
[1] Koohan Paik and Jerry Mander, “Blowback in the Pacific,” The Nation, January 21, 2013.

President Obama’s Inaugural Speech Deceives Progressives Again

President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech is being praised to the skies by progressives, who view it as a blueprint for progressive political dominance. Bill Press of the Bill Press Show has emphasized the frequent use of “We, the People” and the grounding of the speech in the Constitution. Yet much of the speech was an echo of promises made in Obama’s first run for the presidency and then not fulfilled, or repudiations of what Obama did or believed in previously.

I. Immigration Reform
In his inaugural speech, Obama mentiooned his admiration for immigrants who have come to the United States and helped build a better society. He has promised to achieve immigration reform as a major priority in a second term. Obama had promised to achieve immigration reform in the first year of his first term, yet he never introduced a bill nor made much use of his bully pulpit to promote reform. Indeed, when he issued executive orders to limit the conditions under which undocumented aliens could be sent back to Mexico and enact a temporary version of the Dream Act late in his first term, he had deported more of those here illegally than had his predecessor.

At the time Obama signed the executive orders, he condemned the practice of breaking up families through deportation, yet he was condemning his own past activities. I remember a cartoon appearing at the time of the executive order signings: two forlorn-looking, brown-skinned children are standing on the side of a road as an Immigration and Customs vehicle drives away their waving, brown-skinned parents.

President Barack Obama is now saying that if the Congress doesn’t act on immigration, he will send up his own bill and demand that it be signed immediately. Obama had made the same kind of demand in regard to taxation legislation; however, any major piece of legislation should go through the committee system, where the pros and cons of it can be debated.

II. Raising the Poor From Poverty
In a moving statement in the inaugural speech, President Obama said he wanted an America in which a girl born in the deepest poverty would be able to achieve in society the same as everyone else. This is not only a highly unrealistic dream, except in very extraordinary circumstances, but Obama himself has bragged about the fact that discretionary domestic spending is at the lowest level since the Eisenhower administration.

There is a link to Obama’s willingness to starve domestic spending to what he feels about payment reductions and eligibility extensions to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. According to reports, President Obama’s “Grand Bargain” offer to House Speaker John Boehner during the debt ceiling negotiations included the following: 1) a change in the Social Security COL formula that would lead to future reductions in payments to recipients, affecting the most economically deprived the most severely; 2) an increase in the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, meaning that those in the 65-66 age bracket would need to get higher priced private insurance coverage for those two years; and 3) a cut of $100 billion from Medicaid over ten years. Obama still believes in the Grand Bargain.

What some don’t understand about raising the eligibility age for Medicare, possibly including President Obama, is that there is a savings for the national government but the overall medical care costs increase. One published benchmark is that the national government would save $4 billion but the overall medical care costs would increase by $11 billion.

In the next blog or two I will continue to examine a few other aspects of President Obama’s second inaugural speech.

The Bygone Days of Majority Rule in the U.S. Senate

The days when a bill could be passed by a vote of less than 60 senators is becoming a relic of a saner past. It is not just controversial matters but virtually all matters that now require a three-fifths vote in the U.S. Senate.

The ways for a minority to defeat a detested bill are so far-reaching that it is a virtual miracle for a bill to traverse the gauntlet of obstacles to achieve final passage. Two days are needed to vote on the motion to end the filibuster. If the vote is successful, the minority is still guaranteed thirty hours of further “debate;” however, a single bill can be filibustered several more times. The motion to proceed to a filibuster can be filibustered, as can the effort to amend the bill. Then the vote on the amendment can be filibustered. The vote to go to conference with the U.S. House can be filibustered, as can the motion to disagree with the conference action. The vote on the post-conference action can be filibustered and then every further step can be filibustered. [1]

Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Manual of Parliamentary Practice that “where not expressly provided,” the “voice of the majority decides.” The Constitution expressly specifies the occasions in which majority rule is considered to be insufficient: removing the President, expelling members, overruling a Presidential veto of a bill or a resolution, ratifying treaties and amending the Constitution. Later amendments have added a few specific exceptions. [2]

The first filibustewr — not called so at the time — took place in 1841 over the awarding of a printing contract. Until the First World War, as Gregory Wawro and Eric Schickler contend in “Filibuster: Obstruction and Lawmaking in the U.S. Senate,” filibusters were not “pushed to the extreme of killing priority bills favored by a clear floor majority.”

From 1841 to 1917, the majority sought cloture of a filibuster 58 times; however, since the start of President Obama’s first term, it has sought cloture more than 250 times. This is likely an undercount, as it misses all of the times a majority just gave up before a vote. [3]

Senate Republicans love of the filibuster is a recently consummated affair. In 2005, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), threatened to use the “nuclear option” and exempt all judicial nominees from filibusters. Both of George W. Bush’s major tax cuts were passed by simple majority vote.

At the center of the filibuster controversy is Rule XXII, which originally established a two-thirds vote to end a filibuster — later changed to three-fifths. There is, however, an out on Rule XXII, because if the Vice-President, acting as presiding officer of the Senate, has the agreement of 51 senators, he can override Rule XXII and permit changes to be made in Senate rules by a simple majority. This can be done on the first day a new Congress meets or any day thereafter.

The latest effort to change filibuster rules ended with a whimper, not a bang, according to many progressives outside the U.S. Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reached an agreement with Mitch McConnell that permits the minority party to present at least two amendments to a bill, allow lower-level judicial appointments to pass through without a filibuster and make some other procedural changes. Even fervent supporters of a major lowering of the bar to end a filibuster, such as Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR), the leader of the anti-filibuster effort, tried to find some good in Reid’s compromise by calling it a step forward. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was the only member of the Democratic caucus to vote against the filibuster compromise but even he called it a step forward.

Bill Press, host of the Bill Press Show, was a prominent voice in calling Reid’s efforts a sellout. Virtually all the callers and twitterers to the show agreed with Press.

Footnotes

[1] Ezra Klein, “Let’s Talk,” The New Yorker, January 28, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

The Law-Abiding Citizen Is as Rare as a Flesh-and-Blood Unicorn

During the raging debate over firearms control there have been frequent mentions of the law-abiding citizen. Yet the law-abiding citizen may be as rare as a flesh-and-blood unicorn.

It is estimated that four out of every ten U.S. citizens have probably tried marijuana at some point in their lives. When you add in those who have used cocaine, heroin, meth and any other prohibited substance, the number rises to five or more out of ten.

Those who drive automobiles or other road vehicles for a number of years have probably exceeded the speed limit dozens of times, or have gone down the wrong way on a one-way street or road. Arresats for DWI are a frequently reported item on local newscasts. In New Mexico, the Albuquerque Journal does a special insert about every six weeks, which shows four pages of closely-spaced color photos of those convicted of DWI. Jurisdictions with jaywalking ordinances frequently experience persons crossing streets at other than designated crossings.

How many homeowners have residences that meet all building codes in all their specifications? A personal anecdote applies here: When we replaced the float in our toilet because the toilet was taking too long to flush, we learned that there was a city of Albuquerque ordinance which specified that the distance between the top of the overflow pipe and a designated line near the top of the float assembly must be one inch.

Switching to pets, how many pet owners comply with all registration, medical shots and other animal control ordinances? Recently in Albuquerque, four dogs escaped back yard containment and mauled to death a very young boy. The back yeard fence was in jviolation of an Albuquerque ordinance.

There are also laws still on the books from a bygone era that most people don’t know about but could get arrested for a violation.

Besides these governmentally-instituted laws and regulations, there are hosts of rules in professional associations that the rule-abiding professional is expected to follow.

When we consider how many laws, ordinances and rules the public is expected to follow, it is clear that the law- or rule-abiding citizen my be as rare as a flesh-and-blood unicorn.

F-35s Losing Favor in Other Countries

Canada is reconsidering its promised purchase of 65 of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, because an independeent auditor put the combined purchase and maintenance price of the order at $46 billion over the 42-year life of the project. Canada thus joins Britain, Italy, Australia and the Netherlands among the countries that have revised or backed out of plans to buy the planes.

The Pentagon is projected to spend $396 billion on nearly 2,500 planes but the price could rise further with fewer foreign purchasers joining in the development costs. Besides these development costs, during the past year, the Pentagon upgraded its 30-year maintenance cost of the air wing of the F-35s to $1 trillion.

Defense spending analysts have found that there is what almost amounts to an iron law that the cost of sophisticated warplanes doubles over an eight- to ten-year period. Besides these likely steep rises in the development cost of each F-35, the compatibility of parts to accomodate the three major military services is proving to be far less than initially projected. Given that the F-35 is the most expensive weapons system ever built, President Obama could make a big step toward future deficit reduction by proposing substantial cuts in the size of the F-35 air wing.

On a closing note: One thing the media never seems to mention in its coverage of U.S. major arms sales to other countries is that these recipient countries are then forced to spend more of their resources on building their military strength.

Democratic Leadership Heads Rightward on Appointments and Policy

I. Faulty Defense and CIA Appointments
The appointment of Chuck Hagel, former U.S. senator from Nebraska, to be the new Secretary of Defense brought some cheer to those who feel the nation needs some fundamental changes in national security policy. Politico’s release of the contents of a letter earlier this week that Hagel sent to Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) dispells any hope of new directions in major policy.

Chuck Hagel has previously opposed the use of military force against Iran, because he felt it would be counterproductive. He now supports the Obama administration position on use of military force against Iran if it crosses certain red lines in the development of its nuclear program. As a U.S. senator, Hagel voted against several rounds of sanctions against Iran, arguing that unilateral sanctions are ineffective. His new position is that “further unilateral sanctions against Iran could be effective and necessary.”

While a U.S. senator, Hagel made it clear that he represented the state of Nebraska and not the state of Israel. Hagel has now characterized his prior use of the phrase “Jewish Lobby” as a poor choice of words, because he now recognizes that non-Jewish individuals and organizations are involved in lobbying for Israel; furthermore, he is “overwhelmingly supportive of a strong U.S.-Israel strategic and security relationship.” He has promised to deepen military cooperation with Israel.

When Chuck Hagel met with Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Schumer reported that Hagel had tamped down his former views on the militant Islamist groups Hezbollah and Hamas, and gays — I believe that Hagel had opposed the ambassadorial appointment of an openly gay person but later apologized for his opposition. Schumer believes that Hagel is sincere in his changes of position.

Whereas Chuck Hagel had seemingly represented a refreshing change in a bellicose policy toward Iran and a skin-tight collaboration with Israel’s foreign/military policy, he now appears to have become a tamed member of the reservation.

Although President Obama has claimed the elimination of the use of torture as a major achievement, his nominatiuon of John Brennan to head the CIA has, as CREDO phrases it, placed the “assassination czar” in the top seat of the nation’s premier intelligence agency. Brennan was the chief of staff to Bush II’s CIA Director and became deputy director when the CIA was running a kidnapping and “rendition” program — transferring detainees to countries that practice torture. Brennan has publicly embraced and defended the use of torture by the U.S. government.

In 2011, John Brennan made the extraordinary claim that there had not been a single collateral death during the preceding year, “because of the exceptional proficiency, precision of the capabilities we’ve been able to develop.” Although Brennan later moderated that claim, he has remained a prominent voice in minimizing the civilian death and injury toll from drone strikes and raids hunting suspected terrorists.

Brennan was Obama’s top advisor in formulating “kill lists” for drone strikes and he pushed for CIA authority for “signature strikes,” also known as “crowd killings,” which are strikes based solely on suspicious behavior.

II. Democratic Leadership Heads Rightward
One of the most concise statements of the Democratic leadership’s rightward march comes from Norman Soloman. Soloman says the leadership “makes cutting Social Security doable, puts a bull’s eye on Medicare, protects the military from major cuts, takes a dive on climate change, reinforces perpetual war in sync with “kill lists” for routine drone strikes across continents, throws habeas corpus and other civil liberties under the bus and promotes far-reaching austerity measures.” Also, he castigates Nancy Pelosi for saying that a cut in Social Security cost of living increases will strengthen Social Security.

Soloman cites a New York Times report that the recent tax deal “would have been a Republican fiscal fantasy just a few years ago.” Soloman goes on to say that the tax deal locks in virtually all the Bush tax cuts, exempts almost all estates from taxation, and enshrines the former president’s credo that dividends and capital gains should be taxed “equally and gently.”

The Rich Are Different onTaxes Too

Harold Meyerson, opinion writer for the Washington Post, has made a strong case that the newly enacted tax hikes on the wealthiest Americans have affected them hardly at all. The reason for this is that they get about a quarter or less of their income from wages and salaries.

In 2006, the bottom four-fifths of U.S. tax filers got 82 pevcent of their income from wages and salaries, a Congressional Research Service (CRS) study found. The richest one percent got 26 percent of their income that way, while the richest one tenth of one percent got just 18.6 percent. The bottom four fifths of tax filers got just 0.7 percent of their income through investments. The wealthiest one percent realized 38.2 percent of their income from investments and the wealthiest one tenth of one percent realized more than half: 51.9 percent. Under the newly enacted tax laws, capital gains and dividend income are taxed a maximum 20 percent. The newest economic royalists, hedge fund managers, label most of taxable income as capital gains. [1]

Taxing investment income at a lower rate than labor presumably fosters more investment in the U.S. economy, but since virtually every major U.S.-chartered corporation is a global company, we reward a company like GE for, in effect, sending money overseas. The GE employee who produces wealth entirely within U.S. borders, may be taxed at a higher rate than a GE investor. Globalization has completely changed the investment patterns of American corporations.

Taxing wages and salaries at a higher rate than investment income means that the tax code is taking a bigger bite out of a steadily shrinking share of Americans’ income. The St. Louis Federal Reserve has documented that income from wages and salaries as of July 7, 2012, constituted the smallest share of GDP since Worle War II. The earned-income share of GDP peaked in 1969 at 53.5 percent, whereas in 2012 it was 43.5 percent. This ten percent loss (about $1.5 trillion a year) went, in significant part, to corporate profit. In the third quarter of 2012, after-tax corporate profits constituted the largest share of U.S. GDP since World War II: 11.1 percent. [2]

The shift from wages to profits is called redistribution. It is the primary reason that economic inequality in the United States has skyrocketed. Besides creating economic inequality, this shift from wages to profits rewards offshoring more than work done in the U.S. and deprives the governmnent of needed revenue.

Footnotes

[1] Harold Meyerson, “A tax deal only the utra-rich could love,” The Washington Post, January 8, 2013.

[2] Ibid.