The Next Chapter in our Immigration Story

Have the immigrants changed or have we? There is the part in us that, having edged our way into this society, wants to close the door firmly behind us.

Reports  are trickling in now, via a leak to Politico, that the right is now ready to compromise and come together to pass immigration reform.  It seems divisiveness is a thing of the past and this new Congress is ready to roll up its sleeves and get shit done or as James Wolcott of Vanity Fair put it: stop “legislative constipation.”

Or…

During the RNC Presidential election post mortem—you know, the one where they sat around looking at each other, at the ground, then at each other again, knowing full well that something’s gotta give if they don’t want to remain losers from this point forward—Republicans realized it was time for “Operation Woo the Latinos”.  Marco Rubio will offer up his face as the beacon that sheds light on the Hispanic population, saying “See? We’re with you.”

The Hispanic share of the electorate grew to 10% in 2012. The hard truth that the right had to face, undoubtedly accompanied with some aged and very strong scotch, was that while Romney shored up the white vote just as Reagan did before him, it wasn’t nearly enough.  The Hispanic vote is now five times what it was in Reagan’s time.

And so – immigration reform. Turning a kindly eye to the brown people. Extending a hand.  The main objective behind this bipartisan Senate deal put together by the self-proclaimed “Gang of Eight,” led by Chuck Schumer, would be to offer undocumented workers a path to citizenship.  But will their constituents on the right follow or will they use their votes to slap back Republican candidates in the midterms? If gun control is a hot button issue with right-wing Americans, try selling them on ingratiating themselves to the Hispanic community.  And watch gun sales skyrocket even more, if that’s even possible considering the spike we’ve seen in the weeks following the Newtown tragedy. Americans are arming themselves at a historic pace in anticipation of stricter guns laws.

But expect the gun debate to take a back seat as Facebook memes are undoubtedly being created to vilify the lowest class of non-Americans.  Prepare for talk of more welfare recipients, those “taking advantage” of our system, and well-paying jobs being whisked away right under our noses.  Pay no mind to the fact that these are counter-arguments to each other. One cannot be a lazy freeloader while simultaneously working so hard as to steal work from others.  Watch for this: the folks who decried Obamacare as socialist and unconstitutional  might start looking at it differently in this context.  Might “illegals” be here to take advantage of our healthcare system?  It doesn’t matter – this is an emotional issue, much like gun control, and the arguments are rarely based in thought and sense and has its roots, like so much else, in our collective American culture.

When we broach the subject of immigration, I find that what infuriates us the most is the lack of assimilation. You know the story. Our grandparents worked hard to come here and adopt American customs and spoke quietly and seldomly for shame of their accents.  They taught our parents English and wished for them to be above all else, the picture of white American success. Business owners, college graduates, home owners. Yet, somewhere along the line, we separated into groups with distinctly drawn boundaries and identities.  These lines are drawn along socio-economic and racial lines. And they are etched ever deeper now, instead of dissolving into the melting pot of this country.

It might serve us all well to question why.  Have the immigrants changed or have we?  We talk about American exceptionalism, sometimes as a boon to our nation and sometimes as a scourge.  There is the part in us that, having edged our way into this society, wants to close the door firmly behind us. The part that believes to let others in might dilute what makes us stand out among the world as strong, singular, unique. Have we lost the distinct pride of country and if so, when?  Or is it that because the country is colored differently from our grandparents’ generation, we fail to recognize it as our own? Could the strides that we made in civil rights have opened the floodgates of criticism by giving a microphone to people who said things we did not want to hear?

The voices of the smallest among us are growing louder.  They are issuing demands and asking for consideration.  And it just might be too much. Equal rights and opportunities are to be earned, we chastise.  I picture in my mind the high school bully holding the head of his victim in the bathroom toilet, where he cannot breathe but for foul-stench water.  When he is let up for air, the bully expects profuse thankfulness and deference and is shocked, utterly shocked – to receive that toilet water spit into his own face.  Now the anger is multiplied and the blurry random victim is given a face to direct it to.  Now it’s personal.

Where is the roadmap back?

Could it start with a gang of eight senators, each with an agenda of his own, whether it is a hungry ego that needs his name front and center on a bill, or the strategy of one party that knows it must sacrifice some of its “sure thing” voters in lieu of a growing population?

I’ll wait for the memes to let me know.

 

 

Bill O’Reilly Was Right

Congress, under the watchful and exhausted eye of John Boehner, has to reprioritize, since denying Obama a second term has failed in spectacular fashion. Now they just have to pull out any stops to defeat his legacy.

On the eve of the President’s inauguration, I can safely let the sigh escape from my chest, a deep exhale of relief that we escaped a Romney/Ryan administration and their consequent taking of the country back(wards).  From the administration of Reagan onwards, momentum has been building in a movement to revert the country to its constitutional origins: of, for, and by monied white men.  And while this is certainly nothing new, candidates and elected officials of the past at least had the decency to pretend to equality.  Not so anymore.  With the election of our first black President, it seemed like the country was turning a chapter entitled “post-racism.” Yet what resulted was quite the opposite, with the right digging in their heels and ushering in the “Philosophy of No” and culminating in Mitt Romney’s address to the NAACP in July, blatantly dismissing an entire segment of the population because they could offer him little political capital.   The right said “No” to anything the President proposed, be it fair pay for women or compensation for the first responders of September eleventh.  We could argue that the divisiveness has roots beyond the specific kink of Mr. Obama’s hair, and some of it might be, but not all of it.  Not by far.

It can’t be easy for the Romneys, blindsided by their loss as they were.  The Fox pundits as well, though they’ve had time to recoup now, to double down on their anti-left propaganda.  And Congress, under the watchful and exhausted eye of John Boehner, has to reprioritize, since denying Obama a second term has failed in spectacular fashion. Now they just have to pull out any stops to defeat his legacy, to deny him any legislative victories, and if it continues to come at the expense of the constituency that voted them in, so be it. They have an endgame in mind; they’re looking at the big picture.  If all goes right (right, get it?), they won’t have destroyed the country beyond repair.  And when they get back into office, the magnitude of their success will be two-fold: they can blame the destruction on the Obama administration and exact greater power in creating positions to help clean up the mess.  Hey, it will create jobs, right?  Right?

What stuck in my mind in the days after the election were not necessarily the sputtering of Karl Rove or the disingenuous conciliatory speech of Romney, but a statement uttered by Long Island’s own Bill O’Reilly.  “Obama wins,” he spit, “because it’s not a traditional America anymore.” He went on to speak about the white establishment losing its position in the majority, about the black and hispanic votes, women.  His face mourned the loss of a country he’d known.  I felt for him.

Because he was right.

Traditional society had walls.  It was segregated into sects with borders, color-coded in socio-economic terms.  We had the pride of a country whose leaders were for the most part homogenous and our brown people were cared for as best we could.  But we had expectations: they needed to speak our language, to buck up and to thank the establishment for the spoils of what it meant to be American. Yet, somehow, that wasn’t enough. Some people started to feel “entitled.”

The Internet age ushered in the modern era where people began to see over the walls separating “us” and “them.”  A global economy brought with it the unintended consequences of a global society, multi-languaged, multicolored and multi-ethnic.  The model of success wasn’t the white-bread version of the trust fund baby boy being inducted into his father’s fraternity based on donations to the alumni association, making inbred connections among the masters of the universe.  The pool so small, in fact, that the name Bush is being floated as we speak as a 2016 candidacy. It started to look more Horatio Alger than anybody ever intended.  Black leaders in business and politics started to pave a way, but was America ready for a black man in the white house?

Gone now is the pretense to the political correctness of Clinton’s nineties.  Clinton, whom Nobel prize winner Toni Morrison deemed “America’s first black President” due to the ferocity with which he was hunted and treated by the establishment during the Whitewater scandal, ushered in a time when derogatory language went underground and was whispered behind the backs of hands.  Now, twenty years after he first took office, the culture has shifted so decisively that it is a faux pas not to utter a racist slur, but to accuse someone else of racism.  With commentators like Rush Limbaugh feeling comfortable making statements like, “The NAACP booed Romney because he’s white,” and Bill O’Reilly lamenting the diluting of the power of the white vote, we find ourselves at a crossroads.  We can take this country back(wards) or, as Obama supporters shouted from streets and eaves and stadiums, we can move “Forward.”

Because once upon a time, a brown child of a single mother on welfare with an un-American father, who was raised on a far-away island and spent some formative years in Indonesia, dared to think that maybe this was his country too.  He thought that maybe he had something to offer this modern America, that is neither black nor white, Eastern or Western, monied or in need, but all of it. All of it.

And so America begins a new tradition.  And the Bill O’Reillys of the world live unhappily ever after.

Grand Old Pogrom

The rationale behind their approach is simple and time-tested. Over time repetitious lies begin to have the resonance of truth, no matter how far fetched.

The Republican Convention was going rather poorly. The crowd was homogenous, the speakers were flat and the enthusiasm in the room was manufactured at best. And Clint Eastwood hadn’t even begun a rambling conversation with a chair. The Republican Party’s best hope for the convention was for its candidate to appear “human.”

Although “Eastwooding” would eventually enter the American lexicon and Willard Romney would do his best to connect with his fellow Homo sapiens, it was a quiet delegate from New York who captured the essence of the modern GOP.

Wading in among his fellow delegates, billionaire industrialist David Koch smugly took in the proceedings. Though the convention offered little in the way of celebration, he told a group of supporters at a nearby reception later that he and his brother, Charles, were “in this for the long haul.” Indeed they are. The Koch brothers are part of a well-established movement designed to vilify liberalism and many of the core tenets of democracy.

They are hardly original. But they are unique in that they have elevated their insidious brand of propaganda to a high art form. Groups such as the nativist Know Nothings of the 1850s or the John Birch Society of the 1950s espoused similar hate-filled political messages as today’s GOP but they flamed out as quickly as their stars rose. In terms of longevity, the Kochs and their inspired think tanks such as Americans for Prosperity—busy these days attempting to deny Hurricane Sandy relief funds to our region—have succeeded where their predecessors have failed. For the first time in American history, a small band of angry white men has galvanized a vast number of Americans and irrevocably turned public policy on its ear. The modern American conservative movement has finally arrived. 

Much of this has been accomplished through the elaborate and coordinated messaging emanating from the right-wing propaganda machine. Theirs is a two-part strategy. The first is to consistently contend that the media have a liberal bias when the opposite is true. Talk radio is virtually owned by the right wing. Fox News has become an insanely biased juggernaut and the print media, with few exceptions, has essentially fallen in line with the conservative agenda. Even the majority of the New York newspapers—The Daily News, Wall Street Journal, Newsday and New York Post—endorsed Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. But to hear conservative pundits talk about media bias, one would think the New York Times is the only newspaper on the planet.

The second part of the strategy is to plant false information from seemingly credible sources with patriotic names such as the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and the American Enterprise Institute. Representatives from these organizations, which are funded by billionaires such as the Koch brothers, routinely appear on right wing talk shows spouting bogus statistics. These sources are then quoted in newspaper articles that are again mentioned in on-air reports. This is what is known as “the echo chamber.”

The rationale behind their approach is simple and time-tested. Over time repetitious lies begin to have the resonance of truth, no matter how far fetched. Selling an idea as its exact opposite, a mirrored reality, via the continual amplification of such lies has been an effective strategy employed by tyrannical regimes since time immemorial. For example, Adolf Hitler extolled the virtues of physicality, and gushed over the domineering blond-haired, fair-skinned Aryan, who was tall, reasoned and even-tempered. But Hitler himself possessed none of these traits. He was short, pudgy, greasy, and ill tempered.

Likewise, the right-wing echo chamber has been successful in instilling a backward self-loathing belief system among its followers who blithely campaign on behalf of billionaires.

Witness the retired worker receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits carrying a sign bashing entitlements at a Tea Party rally. Or the middle-income wage earner resisting tax increases on the wealthiest Americans because they’ve been told it smacks of socialism. Or perhaps the enraged grandmother who believes “Obamacare” is a Communist plot, even though the concept was hatched in a conservative think tank and first passed into law by a Republican governor.

Brilliantly, there is no single face of modern conservatism, only a secret cabal of dangerous men such as Charles and David Koch, who work behind the scenes to pull the last remaining threads from our democracy. In another stroke of genius, the GOP has joined forces with Christian Fundamentalists to misappropriate scripture while wrapped in the flag to sell the American people on perverted interpretations of the teachings of Christ.

The GOP has wed itself to fundamentalist leaders such as Douglas Coe who, since 1969, as the head of a secret society known as “The Family,” has presided over several Washington “prayer cells” that have been linked to some of the most deadly despots in modern times such as Indonesia’s General Suharto, Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. Not only have Coe’s associates been linked to some of the most heinous genocidal acts in history, they were all at one time members of Family-sponsored prayer cells. Genocide, it seems, is easily overlooked in Coe’s movement so long as lip service is paid to Christ and oil and other natural resources are provided to well-heeled Family members. 

Beyond warping the Bible to suit the Republican ideology, there are secular issues that have been upended by its truth-twisting dogma. The vilification of labor in this country, for one, is sickening and self-defeating. To wit, only 12 percent of the American workforce is unionized, but conservative pundits would have the public believe that unions are wholly responsible for our employment woes and lack of competitiveness. They would also have us believe that Social Security is collapsing under its own weight even though it is, by design, self sustaining and fully funded.

Equally as disturbing is the malicious stance toward immigrants in the United States. The extent of Republican soul-searching post election was to examine strategies going forward that would deal with the problem of changing demographics: how to woo more Latinos into the fold instead of actually adopting more progressive policies.

In fact, Republicans were anything but contrite in the wake of electoral defeat. Forgotten were the insults to women, equating nearly half of America with system-sucking leeches, and the notion of self deportation. The GOP has built a platform based upon misogyny, fervent nationalism, elaborate propaganda, and suppression of intellectualism—each one a hallmark of fascism. Others include high levels of incarceration, secrecy, militarism, and anti-union rhetoric.

These are the enduring legacies of a party gone horribly wrong. The problem we face is that the men behind the curtain believe this past election was a momentary setback, a bump in the road. But this stands to reason. They are, after all, in this for the “long haul.” 

 

Illustration: Jon Moreno
Book Cover: The Family by Jeff Sharlet. The Family offers an in-depth and never-before seen look at the Christian Fundamentalist movement in America.

Energy and the Environment

If Democrat Barack Obama was Republican Brian O’Malley, his actions and record thus far would place him among the greatest Republican presidents of the modern era; a socially moderate, fiscal conservative with an itchy trigger finger.

The Earth has enjoyed moments as the cause célèbre in America but nothing trumps our good mother like a great recession. To the best of my recollection she even failed to make an appearance during the presidential debates. This lack of information makes deciding which candidate would be better for the environment over the next four years difficult.

We do have the benefit of some information, however. For example, the Republican platform has been virulently anti-environment. Each candidate during primary season took turns trying to out-pollute the other in the name of progress, calling for the abolition of the Environmental Protection Agency, the loosening of drilling restrictions and the construction of a pipeline from Canada to Texas. Green energy was mocked and global warming ridiculed. Republicans eagerly portrayed every Democrat as Jimmy Carter in a cardigan and an eco-zealot.

If only that were true.

The fact of the matter is that the Democrats have little to point to in the way of environmentalism themselves. Sure the pipeline was stalled and fuel efficiency standards were increased, but that’s about it.

Our understanding of the environment and our relationship to it through food, water, air and energy is far more sophisticated than our politics and policies. But no matter how broad the consensus on climate change is in the scientific community or how widespread the anecdotal evidence of our decaying Earth and corrupt food supply is, we are all guilty of willful blindness with respect to the urgency required to face our challenges.

President Obama talks a good game, which indicates he is aware of both the seriousness of our environmental peccadillo and the political reality that prevents meaningful change. And, in fairness, when presented with a clear opportunity to affect change he did so by sending billions of dollars flowing into the clean energy research field when the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009, aka “Obama stimulus,” was passed. Of course, the only thing people now associate with this act is the failure of Solyndra despite the fact that the funding mechanism for this particular company was established during the Bush administration. The stimulus simply added liquidity to an existing plan.

But it was Obama’s calculated risk against overtly touting this investment into clean energy that blew back on him in two ways. The first is that the American public, particularly those who consider themselves champions of the environment, have little idea these investments were made and therefore believe he failed them. Compounding this sentiment is that these investments have little short-term payoff and are therefore less tangible. The second is that the opposition was able to make Solyndra synonymous with the stimulus, thereby presenting it as the rule instead of the exception.

This risky decision of quiet messaging does, however, make political sense. After all, any attempt on the part of the White House to put the environment in the spotlight before the economy would have had terrible repercussions to Obama’s polling figures. He is already derided by paranoid right-wing conspiracy theorists (with national talk shows) as being a closet Muslim and a socialist who sympathizes with terrorists and apologizes for America every chance he gets. Oh, and was born in Africa.

But as I have often contended, if Democrat Barack Obama was Republican Brian O’Malley, his actions and record thus far would place him among the greatest Republican presidents of the modern era; a socially moderate, fiscal conservative with an itchy trigger finger. But, he’s a black Democrat whose re-election is for many in this nation a sure sign of the Apocalypse.

So, politically, I get it. Below-the-radar environmental work is better than installing solar panels on the White House roof again. There’s proof that this is a bad reelection strategy. Morally, however, I was hoping for what everyone else who voted for Obama was hoping for: that he would enthusiastically champion a progressive social and environmental agenda—one that took aggressive action against oil companies and Wall Street speculators and fought evil agra-giants like Monsanto and ConAgra.

Unfortunately, any hope we had of Obama challenging the Koch brothers to a duel on Pennsylvania Avenue or executing a hostile takeover of ExxonMobil were dashed when moderate policy Vulcan Barack Obama took the Oath of Office instead of liberal cigarette smoking Chi-Town radical Barry Obama.

To really confuse matters, no one pressed either guy into stating plans to protect the environment. Moreover, they have both adopted this mantra of “all of the above” with respect to energy policy. Nothing bold, sensible or sustainable. Just “yes” to everything and deal with the consequences later.

So what makes this week’s topic so hard to dissect is that no one seems to care much about it. Perhaps more than any other topic I’ve covered thus far in this election series, the fight over Mother Earth has been reduced to choosing between the lesser of two evils. I know it’s a hackneyed phrase, but it’s appropriate, nonetheless. Essentially it boils down to this: Mitt Romney’s “all of the above” plan includes eliminating the EPA and letting oil companies drill in Central Park if they want to; whereas, Obama’s “all of the above plan” stops just short of that.

Sorry, Mother Earth. When unemployment dips below 5 percent and the Dow reaches 15,000, we’ll be sure to call and check in. Until then it’s the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon.

Slight edge to Obama.

Obamacare

On myriad levels, Obamacare is a good plan, and ultimately I am in favor of seeing it fully implemented. But if we eliminate emotion and politics, it’s fair to say Obamacare is only half of what is required.

Affordable? Maybe not. Necessary? Likely so.
Part 6 (of 8) of the Off The Reservation special election series in the Long Island Press

It has been said that death and taxes are the two irrefutable realities of our existence. By declaring the act that seeks to prolong death for every American to be a tax, the U.S. Supreme Court has neatly fused them together, making the debate surrounding Obamacare an inescapable reality unto itself.

My election series of columns has thus far made clear arguments in favor of re-electing Barack Obama with respect to the stimulus, deregulation, foreign policy and appointing justices to the Court, with Obama winning three of the four topics convincingly and a split decision on Wall Street regulation. When it comes to healthcare, I must admit that I am struggling a bit. Perhaps you can help.

Intellectually, I am a fan of a single-payer healthcare system. In America, this would essentially mean Medicare for all, with no option for private health insurance. The administrative cost and paperwork associated with patient care would be a fraction of what they are today and with the advent of electronic medical records an argument can be made that there are significant efficiencies to come. Practically, however, this is essentially the Canadian system and it is far from perfect.

My family is originally from Canada and most of my relatives still live there. While there is no question that general care is indeed more affordable, available and efficient, critical care is a problem. My aunt died prematurely due to the ridiculous lengths she had to go through to receive a proper and thorough diagnosis. But this painful anecdote belies statistics that suggest the mortality rate from disease in the US and Canada is nearly identical.

Doctors in the United States are compensated much higher than doctors in Canada; but this applies mostly to specialists and not general practitioners. Therefore, in Canada there are far more general practitioners per capita than in the United States. Perhaps this implies that although critical care is less available, greater access to preventive care mitigates the severity and incidence of diseases that require critical care. Frankly, I don’t know. But I do know, just looking at Long Island for example, that we have universal healthcare because the emergency room at Nassau University Medical Center is just about the busiest place on the Island. This is why I am in favor of an attempt to cover every individual in the United States and, for the most part, a proponent of the Affordable Care Act, or “Obamacare.”


When I began working for my father 18 years ago, we covered 100 percent of healthcare costs for our employees. Now, we can only afford to cover half. Moreover, this “half” is far more expensive than the entire amount was almost two decades ago even on an adjusted basis. It’s why I find it insulting when people suggest that Obamacare is crushing small businesses already. The fact is, Obamacare hasn’t been fully implemented yet, but this is the first year that two very significant things happened to our business:

  1. We were reimbursed several thousand dollars by our insurance company because they had failed to meet the minimum standards under Obamacare for the amount of money that must be allocated to actual care, and not administrative costs.
  2. This is the first year the insurance company didn’t attempt to raise our premiums by double-digits.

So, as a small business owner, I have already benefitted from a plan that hasn’t even been fully implemented. Moreover, it puts my business on a level playing field with other small businesses I know that skirt the rules by paying their people as independent contractors simply to avoid offering them health insurance.

There are other great parts of this legislation such as extending dependent care, outlawing the practice of declining coverage for anyone with a pre-existing condition, closing the Medicare “donut” hole for seniors, mandating electronic records, and identifying best practices across the nation. But I have heard time and again that Obamacare will ultimately result in a massive decrease in reimbursements for physicians— forcing them to see more patients to sustain current income levels—thus jeopardizing the quality of care.

This is a practical sentiment that I can sympathize with, but many of my friends who are physicians have been complaining about this for years. This isn’t an “Obamacare” phenomenon; this is a “healthcare-as-it-currently-is” phenomenon. And while I agree that adding millions of additional people to the insurance pool is beneficial for insurance companies and detrimental to the earning potential of physicians, access to preventive care and wellness visits is undoubtedly a positive step for America. I’m hoping my physician friends weigh in on this to express their viewpoints because I know many of them are tired of being businesspeople and accountants and simply want to get back to caring for patients and growing as doctors.

The politics surrounding Obamacare have drowned out any and all reasonable debate surrounding this issue. The mere fact that the GOP vehemently opposes this plan that was originally crafted by a conservative think tank, touted by Republican legislators and actually adopted fully by a Republican governor now running for president should indicate how toxic our politics are. On myriad levels, Obamacare is a good plan, and ultimately I am in favor of seeing it fully implemented. But if we eliminate emotion and politics, it’s fair to say Obamacare is only half of what is required. The real drivers of cost in the system are the high-cost liability insurance, rampant pharmaceutical dependence encouraged by advertising that is unnecessary and unethical, an overly-litigious culture that forces physicians to order unnecessary tests simply to thwart potential claims, paying doctors and hospitals per procedure instead of paying for the care the patient requires, and the extraordinary cost of end-of-life care. If over the next decade, Obamacare is married with serious attempts to tackle these issues, then it has a shot at not just succeeding but being a model system. If not, it will likely lumber along as a quasi-failure but no worse than had we done nothing at all.

WEEK 6 goes once again to the POTUS.

PHOTO: Barack Obama signs the Affordable Care Act into law, March 23rd, 2010. The act is the most sweeping healthcare reform since Medicare and based largely on initiatives created by conservative think tanks. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Justice

Sorry to be morbid but there’s a strong statistical possibility that one of the current justices will move on—whether retiring or expiring—in the next four years and that the next president will once again be called upon to nominate someone for the highest Court in the land.

Preamble
We’re a few weeks away from the presidential election and at the halfway point in this series of columns. Therefore, before we tackle this week’s issue, it’s appropriate to pause and assess the current situation.

In the first election column I referred to this series as a summit quest; a challenge to leave more nonsensical items of the campaign silly season behind and equip ourselves only with the truth as we tackle important issues. In it I also laid out a few irrefutable facts and circumstances that would serve as underlying assumptions, or “base camp,” for our climb and warned that the closer one gets to the summit, the thinner the air would become. Little did I know how prescient this analogy was; even former Vice President Al Gore blamed President Obama’s horrific debate performance in Colorado on altitude sickness.

Whether it was his fumbling answers or Mitt Romney’s Cosa Nostra-like threats to public television—kissing Big Bird on one cheek while plunging a knife beneath his wing—our ascent must take into consideration current events and the candidates’ performance. As far as the first debate is concerned, Romney took command of the evening and ran the proceedings as though he was giving a Power Point presentation. He was concise, efficient and direct, never once allowing the facts to stand in his way. Obama was riddled like Sonny at the Causeway as jubilant Romney fans took to the airwaves and social media to pounce on bewildered liberals.

Great fun.

As stunned as I was by this turn of events, it changes nothing with respect to my analysis of the election because both President Obama and Gov. Romney have substantial records and demonstrated beliefs that are far more illuminating than the debates. Moreover, our country’s challenges remain the same, as do the circumstances in which we live. It’s why policies and issues are more important than one’s ability to annunciate them in less than two minutes. I’m not questioning the importance of the debates as far as campaigning is concerned, but nothing said between the two men can alter what they have done in the past or where we are today.

But the home stretch of a campaign puts everything under a microscope, and no one can predict what might become a turning point. The tragic event that occurred at our embassy in Libya on Sept. 11th was immediately and inappropriately politicized by the Romney camp. The White House followed up with its own (ongoing) gaffe by not forthrightly acknowledging the strong possibility that this was an organized terrorist attack and not an impromptu protest that spun out of control. But, here again, as maddening as Obama’s reticence in this matter is, his patience demonstrates why his approach is more preferable to the blustering rhetoric coming from the right.

Here’s why: As the evidence mounts from that night, it seems increasingly clear that this was indeed an organized terrorist attack. Therefore, it should be dealt with in the same covert manner that we have been conducting our affairs for the past four years. Overreacting in this part of the world, particularly in a state as fragile as Libya, can have devastating repercussions. If we had responded with immediate force like the George W. Bush “shoot first, look for WMD’s later” approach when the images first appeared of Ambassador Chris Stevens’ body being carried by unknown Libyans, then we would have missed that they were actually Libyan civilians who had found the ambassador alive and were calling for help. When none were found, they put Stevens into a car and took him to a hospital.

The world around us is so fragile. What some regard as callousness on the part of the president should be viewed as his understanding of this reality.
With that consideration, let us soldier on to this week’s chosen issue. The first few columns in this series took a detailed and practical look at the economy, deregulation, foreign policy and the stimulus. This week is more personal and I will keep it brief.

Justice
One of the most important aspects of the presidency is the opportunity to nominate justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. For some presidents, it has been their most enduring legacies. Four of the justices are currently in their 70s, and the average American lifespan according to the Centers for Disease Control is 78. Sorry to be morbid but there’s a strong statistical possibility that one of the current justices will move on—whether retiring or expiring—in the next four years and that the next president will once again be called upon to nominate someone for the highest Court in the land.

While we believe the collective American conscience has evolved beyond horrifying decisions such as Dred Scott, even the current Court is capable of alarming incompetence. Consider the Citizen United decision or simply read the following remarks made recently by conservative Justice Antonin Scalia at the American Enterprise Institute:

“The death penalty? Give me a break. It’s easy. Abortion? Absolutely easy. Nobody ever thought the Constitution prevented restrictions on abortion. Homosexual sodomy? Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state.”

This type of spiteful and irresponsible attitude must be quelled by stacking the Court with thinking and feeling individuals.

Hopefully, Citizen United will someday be repealed. Ironically, perhaps an Obama Court will someday reverse one of his most dangerous acts thus far, which was to sign into law the indefinite detention provision of the NDAA 2012 bill last year, one of the greatest encroachments on our civil liberties in decades. Lastly, as the father of two daughters, I have no choice but to take the Republican Party at its word with respect to its desire to take away a woman’s right to choose. Sticking our heads in the sand and saying, “Oh, that will never happen,” ignores the Republican platform, their campaign promises and actual bills Republicans have put forward in Congress.

Because Obama has already demonstrated his tendencies with respect to the Court through his appointments of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, we know where he stands. During his political career, Mitt Romney has stood on all sides of virtually every issue and therefore offers little insight into the type of nominee he would proffer. But his acquiescence to the most radical conservative wing of the Republican Party is troubling enough to inform my decision in this case.

This court once again sides with the incumbent.

 

Wall Street Regulation

Glass-Steagall has made somewhat of a comeback with help from the Occupy movement and rising political stars like Elizabeth Warren… The only two political insiders you won’t catch talking about reinstating Glass-Steagall both happen to be running for president.

Part 4 of the Special “Off The Reservation” Election Series in the Long Island Press.

The Banking Act of 1933, commonly known as Glass-Steagall, was established to tame the harmful speculative behavior of an industry run amok in the early part of the 20th century; behavior many observers at the time credited for the market crash that precipitated the Great Depression. For some, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999, was the deathblow to financial prudence on Wall Street.

 In reality it was simply the formal recognition of careless financial practices that were largely in place already. Since the near-collapse of the banking industry in 2008, Glass-Steagall has made somewhat of a comeback with help from the Occupy movement and rising political stars like Elizabeth Warren, the former federal consumer protection advocate now running for Senate in Massachusetts. The only two political insiders you won’t catch talking about reinstating Glass-Steagall both happen to be running for president.

Wall Street reform is as important as it was in 2008 but both President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney have taken great pains to avoid talking about it too much. For his part, President Obama seems content to rest on the laurels of the Dodd-Frank Act, Congress’s attempt to rein in Wall Street excess, which had enough support to pass but not enough to be properly funded or enforced. According to Romney’s platform, he would “Repeal Dodd-Frank and replace with streamlined, modern regulatory framework.” That’s the extent of his vision for the future of Wall Street according his platform. Ten words.

So while the rest of the country is suddenly talking about a law enacted almost 80 years ago, these guys aren’t going anywhere near it. The truth is, Wall Street reform and, more specifically Glass-Steagall, is more complicated, making it easy for Obama and Romney to be evasive.

So let’s answer two questions. What would actual Wall Street reform look like and what exactly was Glass-Steagall?

The purpose of the original act was to establish a barrier between traditional banks and the risk-taking investment firms, denying investment banks access to consumer deposits and secure, interest-bearing loans. The unwritten effect of Glass-Steagall, however, was to establish a culture of prudency in the consumer and business banking realm, leaving sophisticated professional investments to more savvy financiers who had the ability to calculate the inherent risk of a financial instrument. For decades to follow, the merits of Glass-Steagall would continue to be debated, but it nevertheless drew a marked distinction between the function of a consumer bank and an investment bank.

Today reinstating Glass-Steagall is a common rallying cry among those who decry the bad behavior of Wall Street. Its repeal has become the fulcrum of nearly every debate surrounding deregulation. Actually accomplishing this, of course, is easier said than done.

The best way to reconcile the debate over whether to reinstate Glass-Steagall is to appreciate that the culture of Glass-Steagall was more important than the act itself. Over time the restrictions placed on bankers under the act were chipped away, but the culture that governed the banking industry endured beyond its measures. Eventually, savvy bankers and politicians found ways to loosen its screws and interpret the act to their own benefit.

Don’t Just Blame Republicans

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter oversaw the passage of the International Banking Act, a bill that should probably receive as much, if not more attention than Gramm-Leach-Bliley. Essentially, the act allowed foreign banks or entities that engaged in “banking-like activities” to participate in domestic financial markets. For the first time, foreign investment firms were able to make competitive loans so long as they didn’t compete for consumer deposits; initially individual states could determine whether their regulatory structure could support this new activity. The government would go on to loosen restrictions governing the competition for consumer deposits and allowing bank holding companies to treat money markets like checking accounts.

In his book “End This Depression Now,” economist Paul Krugman argues that perhaps the most influential step with respect to the banking sector came with Carter’s passage of the “Monetary Control Act of 1980, which ended regulations that had prevented banks from paying interest on many kinds of deposits. Unfortunately, banking is not like trucking, and the effect of deregulation was not so much to encourage efficiency as to encourage risk taking.”

 By 1987 the bank holding companies, including foreign companies allowed to operate within the U.S. banking system, were granted access to mortgages to create a package of investments called mortgage-backed securities; the threshold for the amount of investing activity in instruments such as these was also increased, paving the way for the growth of investments backed by the strength (or weakness) of the consumer market.

During that same year, members of the Federal Reserve began calling for the repeal of Glass-Steagall as then-chairman Paul Volcker was providing the tie-breaking resistance. But this was a mere formality because by this time, Glass-Steagall was effectively over.

Yet even though most of the threads of regulation had been pulled from the overcoat that protected consumers from risky banking practices, the culture of prudent banking still existed to an extent; maintaining the Glass-Steagall Act on the books was an indication of this sentiment. Throughout the decades when regulations were steadily eroding, powerful national figures such as Paul Volcker under Carter and Reagan, and Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady under George H.W. Bush managed to temper the enthusiasm of the movement.

That George Bush Senior heeded their admonitions was an admission that the public’s appetite for deregulation was actually beginning to wane in the post-Reagan hangover. Richard Berke’s New York Times article of Dec. 11, 1988, on the eve of the Bush presidency, encapsulated this feeling. Berke wrote, “Lawmakers and analysts say the pressure is fed by a heightened public uneasiness about deregulatory shortcomings that touch the daily lives of millions of Americans: from delays at airports and strains on the air traffic control system to the presence of hazardous chemicals in the workplace to worries about the safety of money deposited in savings institutions.” Alas, these four years would prove to be a momentary hiccup in the deregulation movement.

During the Clinton years, the nation’s leadership was largely comprised of proponents of deregulation. In fact, by his second term, Clinton was almost entirely surrounded by rabid free market enthusiasts. A former chairman at Goldman Sachs, Robert Rubin, was Secretary of the Treasury, Alan Greenspan was still at the helm of the Federal Reserve and Phil Gramm was the head of the powerful Senate Banking Committee. All of these men had close ties to Wall Street and made no secret of their intention to release bankers from the burdensome shackles of regulation and oversight.

Reforming Reform

In 2008, economist Joseph Stiglitz warned of the enduring negative consequences of deregulation. At a hearing held in front of the House Committee on Financial Services, Stiglitz invoked Adam Smith saying, “Even he recognized that unregulated markets will try to restrict competition, and without strong competition markets will not be efficient.” One of Stiglitz’s solutions was to restore transparency to investments and the markets themselves by restricting “banks’ dealing with criminals, unregulated and non-transparent hedge funds, and off-shore banks that do not conform to regulatory and accounting standards of our highly regulated financial entities.”

For emphasis he noted, “We have shown that we can do this when we want, when terrorism is the issue.”

Still, the nagging question remains as to what reform might look like. After all, not all deregulation is irresponsible. Most of the discussion in the media surrounding deregulation revolves around the concept that our banking institutions are “too big to fail.” Thus the rallying cry for reinstating Glass-Steagall and separating banks from investment banks. I’m in tepid agreement with the underlying principle, but the reality of the situation is far more complicated. The fact is banking has gone global and the deregulation genie is out of the bottle.

As I said earlier, Glass-Steagall was as much about instilling a culture of prudency to the banking world as it was about erecting a barrier between commercial banks and investment banks. Advocates like Elizabeth Warren like to say that prior to 1999 and the repeal of Glass-Steagall, the economy functioned through periods of both prosperity and recession since 1934 without the banking sector once collapsing. It’s a fair, but oversimplified assertion that overlooks the fact that Glass-Steagall was on a ventilator in 1978 and dead by 1980. A 30-year run of prosperity from 1978 to 2008, with a few brief recessions in between, is nothing to sneeze at.

Restoring balance to the banking sector does not necessarily require separating the banks. Not yet at least. It begins with transparency and reestablishing the culture of prudency that has been conspicuously absent over the past decade. After all, you cannot value what you cannot see; nor can you mitigate risk unless you first manage reward.

What this really boils down to is accountability, which is ultimately a behavioral issue. Allowing investors to actually see how a bank behaves by viewing the size and scope of their transactions would theoretically assuage their appetite for risk. Given these conclusions, it’s easier to make the case that our current president would provide more accountability and inspire behavioral changes on Wall Street, particularly given Romney’s intransigence when it comes to considering financial reform. But tough talk against Wall Street has all but disappeared from Obama’s rhetoric leaving little hope that a second term will elicit any further positive change. So this week, while neither man seems serious about financial reform, the status quo is better than further deregulation and letting bankers rule the roost.

Tie goes to the incumbent.

Leader of the “Free” World

Romney’s platform is devoid of nuance. For instance, his plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan asserts, “The United States enjoys significant leverage over both of these nations. We should not be shy about using it.” Only on Planet Romney does America have leverage over a nuclear Pakistan and Hamid Karzai.

 

LEADERSHIP

Part 3 of the Special “Off The Reservation” Election Series in the Long Island Press.

Vice President-elect Joseph Biden traveled to Afghanistan during the transition to the Obama presidency to gauge the war effort on the ground. After meeting with Afghan leaders, American field generals and soldiers who had served multiple deployments, he returned home to report his findings to the incoming president. His synopsis confirmed what most suspected about America’s forgotten war; there was no good news. We were losing the war.

More troubling, according to Biden, was that nearly everyone he spoke with had a different impression of what our mission was. Intelligence confirmed that al-Qaeda hadn’t operated in Afghanistan in more than two years, perhaps longer. The Taliban was prepared to return at a moment’s notice, having found safe harbor in neighboring Pakistan. The Afghan economy was devastated and any efforts to train Afghani-led forces were futile due to the overwhelming rate of illiteracy among the population and the underwhelming amount of resources being given to our troops on the ground.

The provisional government under Hamid Karzai’s tepid and erratic leadership had not yet been affirmed by a national election and his administration was becoming increasingly corrupt. A combination of protracted war and drought had shattered the local economy and secular tensions and age-old blood feuds among various ethnic groups made the politics impossible to navigate, particularly with no clear objective as to why and whom we were still fighting. These factors, along with an impossible terrain, made an Iraq-style surge improbable and unnecessary in the eyes of many advisors. Nevertheless, in 2009 Obama was now Commander in Chief and it was time to make good on some campaign promises.

For months, Obama frustrated generals, media outlets, Democrats and Republicans—anyone with a stake in the outcome of the war. Even his most ardent supporters derided his Vulcan-like demeanor and refusal to commit to a plan of action. Not only had Obama received full cooperation from the Bush administration during the transition, he possessed a surfeit of intelligence information, an experienced team of advisors, and the support of the American public. And yet, days turned to weeks, which turned to months.

None of the options before him were good. All carried risk. But in order to place the risk in its proper context, there was one piece of critical information that the president was missing—something that no briefing could possibly clarify.
Shortly before midnight on Oct. 28, 2009, President Obama traveled to Dover Air Force Base. As midnight passed and the calendar turned a page, he stood in the darkness flanked by military personnel as the bodies of 18 dead soldiers whose calendars ceased turning somewhere on the desert battlefield were carried from a military cargo plane. In his book, Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward describes how after saluting the fallen and meeting privately with the families for the next four hours, the president of the United States “slipped back in the helicopter, switched off the overhead light. No one said a word during the 45-minute flight to the White House.”

No fanfare. No flight suit. Just a solemn acknowledgement that this mission was far from accomplished and that there were human beings beneath those fatigues.

Shortly after this trip, Obama would reveal the strategy for the war in Afghanistan under his presidency. One by one, he delivered his orders to his senior officials, including Gen. David Petraeus. According to Woodward, “When [Petraeus] later learned the president had personally dictated the orders, he couldn’t believe it. ‘There’s not a president in history that’s dictated five single-spaced pages in his life.’”

THE “FREE WORLD”

The world is a big place and Afghanistan occupies only a tiny sliver of it. What I appreciate about the president’s thought process is the scope of it, which stands in stark contrast to the single-mindedness of the Bush administration. We are still losing the war in Afghanistan, but our troops are withdrawing. Our operation in Iraq is finally coming to a close. And despite the most recent wave of anti-American sentiment fueled by an inflammatory film about the Muslim prophet Muhammad, we are balancing foreign affairs. While Obama’s nuanced approach has been marked by miscalculations, it takes into account the whole field of battle, which may not always include armed conflict.

The ground is shifting beneath us. African nations are beginning to subdivide like cancer cells and we may even witness the reconciliation of North and South Korea in our lifetime. In surveying Afghanistan, Obama understood that the real war was with Pakistan. Moreover, our relationship with Pakistan has always been built on half-truths and double-dealing. The Pakistani secret police, the ISI, serves up lies to our operatives half of the time; the trick is to figure out which half. Obama also knows that our presence is virtually meaningless to Pakistan compared to its long-standing feud with India. Deftly managing this dynamic results in better intelligence on al-Qaeda members who move between Pakistan and Afghanistan and as far as Yemen and Somalia with impunity; just as breaking the back of the Assad regime in Syria is more devastating to Iran than drawing artificial lines in the sand.

This is only a fragment of the backdrop against which we are being asked to elect our next Commander in Chief. From dangerous encroachments to our civil liberties at home to the casual over-reliance upon drone strikes abroad, there is plenty of criticism to be hurled Obama’s way. But like so many issues this campaign season, foreign policy is yet another area where Mitt Romney falters.

Romney’s platform is devoid of nuance. For instance, his plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan asserts, “The United States enjoys significant leverage over both of these nations. We should not be shy about using it.” Only on Planet Romney does America have leverage over a nuclear Pakistan and Hamid Karzai, a man whom the CIA admits is a chemically imbalanced, erratic manic-depressive. He lambastes Obama for allegedly refusing to support uprisings in Iran, calling it a “disgraceful abdication of American moral authority,” while at the same time condemning Obama’s support of the uprising in Libya.

Mitt Romney is already promising to write checks we can’t cash. From empty threats of force against Pakistan to declaring he will aggressively “disarm North Korea,” Romney has already displayed a remarkable ignorance. He’s also playing a dangerous game with Benjamin Netanyahu, pitting the Israeli Prime Minister against Obama in an effort to woo the Jewish vote at home. Romney ignores the success both the Bush and Obama administrations have had covertly disrupting Iran’s nuclear ambitions and he underestimates the galvanizing effect a unilateral attack on Iran would have in the Arab world against both Israel and the US.

Even more troubling is the team of foreign policy advisors Romney has assembled, which includes several Bush administration retreads, two members of the Heritage Foundation—the sham conservative think tank supported by the Koch brothers—and former CIA Director Michael Hayden, an enthusiastic supporter of rendition.

Despite several initial missteps on the world stage by the Obama administration, it is imperative we maintain continuity with a nuanced approach and maneuver to achieve greater stability abroad; if for no other reason than to prevent the catastrophic return of Bush-era foreign policy that a Romney administration would bring. The world has had enough of American bluster, particularly when we no longer have the financial wherewithal or popular support to back it up.

PHOTO: President Barack Obama and Maj. Gen. Daniel Wright (r) salute the remains of army sgt. dale r. griffin of terre haute, ind. during a dignified transfer at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Del., Oct. 29, 2009. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

To Spend or Not To Spend

To examine the effect the stimulus had on the economy, it’s necessary to understand the economic philosophy behind it while parsing the figures. The conflict between Democrats and Republicans on this issue is largely a debate over the economic theories of two men: Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes.

Mitt Romney called it “the biggest, most careless one-time expenditure by the federal government in history.” Paul Ryan characterized it as “a case of political patronage, corporate welfare, and cronyism at their worst.”

“It” was the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, colloquially known as the “Obama Stimulus.” The Republican narrative is that Americans would have been better off not taking on more debt and allowing the omniscient markets to work themselves out. (This argument was noticeably absent in 2008 when President George W. Bush signed a stimulus bill for more than $150 billion.) Before  Obama signed his stimulus bill into law, House Republicans had voted against it. Every single one of them. In the Senate, only three Republicans approved the bill.

So we know where the parties stood in 2009—pretty much where they stand today. Democrats largely believe that the stimulus prevented the complete, Depression-like collapse of the economy. Republicans believe it had no effect on the economy and, furthermore, the additional debt will be our ultimate undoing. Republicans are correct to say that the stimulus had few offsetting revenues and blew yet another enormous hole in the budget deficit. They did not make this argument, however, when our country decided to wage two decade-long wars abroad while simultaneously reducing taxes. But the reality of the unfunded stimulus expense exists. So the question remains: Did the stimulus work?

Both Democrats and Republicans point to FDR’s New Deal to answer this question historically. Republicans take the short view that FDR’s programs had little effect on the nation’s economy as the economy double-dipped in 1937. Democrats take the long view that this date coincided with the Roosevelt administration’s decision to back off federal spending and that a resurgence of federal funding ultimately mitigated the decline. There is general consensus that the tipping point that put the nation back on a path toward prosperity was World War II and the wartime economy. Despite this philosophical harmony, Republicans are still loath to admit that the top marginal income tax rate in 1941 was 81 percent, and by 1945 it was 94 percent. That’s how you pay for war.

So while it can be instructive to look back and apply historical lessons to the present, the picture is incomplete because the circumstances are vastly different. To examine the effect the stimulus had on the economy, it’s necessary to understand the economic philosophy behind it while parsing the figures. The conflict between Democrats and Republicans on this issue is largely a debate over the economic theories of two men: Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes.

Born in 1912, Friedman would come to be recognized as one of the great economic minds of the modern era. A Nobel Prize-winning economist who taught at the University of Chicago, Friedman held a wide range of core libertarian views and is often credited as one of the principals of the ideology. Throughout his career he argued the benefits of monetary policy and the folly of fiscal policy. Think TARP versus stimulus. In other words, maneuvering liquidity through the system in a centralized fashion was an appropriate measure of government intervention whereas providing government funding for programs via the Treasury was not.

This is not to say that Friedman would have approved of President George W. Bush’s TARP “bailout” of the banks (Friedman died in 2006 before the financial world came unraveled) or even of the Federal Reserve itself. In a perfect world, Friedman would have abolished the Federal Reserve altogether, which is a common rallying cry among Libertarians who also promote a return to the gold standard no matter how economically or politically impossible this would be. Again, the theory being that private markets would be more efficient, accurate and apolitical with respect to pegging the value of currency in real time.

But if Friedman’s economic policies have dominated the years since Gerald Ford was in the White House, it was English economist John Maynard Keynes who dominated the years prior, beginning in 1933 with his paper, “The Means to Prosperity.” Keynes’ recommendations for dealing with recessions and depressions would fundamentally alter Europe and America’s approach to the Great Depression. Keynes’ first assumption, considered revolutionary at the time, was called the “paradox of thrift.” Simply put, if businesses and consumers collectively tighten their belts during difficult times, the effect would be a downward spiral in the demand for goods and services.

Under Keynes’ theory, this self-perpetuating loop of plunging demand would necessarily result in a decline of both profitability and confidence. Keynes believed the antidote was government spending. Specifically, the further the funding went down the economic chain the better. Businesses and consumers, those with the greatest need for liquidity, were likely to circulate government funds through the economy faster than institutions such as banks that might be more prone to hold onto liquidity. The net result, due to what Keynes coined the “multiplier effect,” would be spending that works its way through the normal economic channels via the purchase of goods and services at the consumer level, labor and equipment at the business level.

A great deal of attention is paid to the short-term effects of spending on infrastructure as large public works projects during the Depression became the most visible and lasting testaments to Keynesian economy theory during the Roosevelt era. But many Keynesian theorists argue that these types of projects also contribute to the long-term health of the economy, with the best possible result being partnership with, and ultimately transition to, private industry. A great example of this is the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) established under FDR, which ultimately became a private utility. But long-term infrastructure projects don’t have the immediate effect of direct government spending at the bottom levels of the economy.

Larry Summers, the notoriously prickly economist, has had a remarkable career serving in both the Clinton and Obama administrations (Summers was Treasury Secretary briefly under Clinton) and as one-time president of Harvard University. Tapped to join Obama’s transition team, he is credited with determining the strategy for bailing out the faltering American economy. In his book, The New New Deal, Time magazine senior staffer Michael Grunwald writes, “At Brookings, [Summers] proposed a technocratic approach to Keynesian stimulus that has dominated the debate ever since. A stimulus package, he argued, should be timely, targeted, and temporary.”

This guiding philosophy would result in a three-tiered approach to Obama’s stimulus. The first would be accomplished through tax breaks for the vast majority of Americans. The second would be through entitlement spending such as extending unemployment benefits and prolonging health insurance coverage for laid-off workers. It also provided direct aid to states to help plug budget gaps to prevent the layoffs of teachers and reductions to Medicaid. The third was investment in programs deemed “shovel-ready.”

This last point is somewhat controversial because few, if any, infrastructure projects can begin work at a moment’s notice. But on this, Obama was clear that funds would be found to target America’s aging infrastructure and invest in new projects on the drawing board, even if their timetables weren’t immediate.

Keynesian economists such as Joseph Stiglitz quickly lauded Obama’s plan, though most of them  believed the $787 billion package was only about half of what was required to properly address the crisis. Another Keynes disciple, Nobel Prize-winning economist and columnist for The New York Times, Paul Krugman, has been extremely vocal that the stimulus, while swift and necessary, was “woefully inadequate.” Nearly everyone on Obama’s transition team would concur, but the thought of a stimulus package topping $1 trillion was politically radioactive. Besides, almost everyone involved at the time hoped for a second crack at stimulus funding in Obama’s first term. And while most of Obama’s political advisors understood how difficult this would be, no one could have predicted how hard the Republican Party was preparing to fight against any new proposal from the Democrats.

Perhaps the most astounding revelation in Grunwald’s book is how Obama’s inner circle — especially the most cynical among them like the explosive Rahm Emanuel or acerbic Larry Summers — understood that the package was political suicide. In fact, they were prescient in this regard as the stimulus provided the freshly-routed GOP with a rallying cry and a strategy to take back control of the House of Representatives during the 2010 mid-term elections.

In reality, the Recovery Act did more than just pump taxpayer dollars temporarily into the economy and drive up the national debt. It put federal funds into the hands of agencies and consumers who had the ability to spend them in a timely fashion. This came in the form of tax cuts for the middle class, an extension of unemployment benefits and medical coverage, state aid to support endangered Medicaid programs, healthcare and student loans. It was the ultimate return to Keynesian philosophy.

Opposition to blanket stimulus funding isn’t fundamentally misguided. After all, no government can sustain unlimited subsidies without someday having to recoup these costs. This brings us to the second half of Keynes’ theory. If the government is supposed to aid a recovery during a recession by pouring funds through the economy, then it must likewise increase revenue during the boom times that follow. There are only two ways to do this: raise taxes or cut spending. Or both. The problem is that we haven’t meaningfully done either in decades.

While cutting spending is very much a part of the Republican narrative, increasing taxes is anything but. In a perfect world of no government intervention or regulation, the markets would simply figure it out and restore balance because recessions and depressions are, after all, bad for business in the long run. Having said that, this type of “boom and bust” behavior creates great potential short-term benefits, as volatility is a savvy investor’s best friend. But Keynes never meant to eliminate the boom and bust nature of the economy. His policies were intended to mitigate the depths and the peaks.

Shedding all government spending and letting the markets work it out was precisely the advice President Hoover received from Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon after the market crashed in 1929. Hoover didn’t actually follow his advice. Instead, he set in motion many of the public works projects and federal spending plans continued by Franklin Roosevelt. The Depression was hung around Hoover’s neck in part because he chose to portray an aura of calm and confidence even though Rome was indeed burning.

Hoover fought vigorously behind the scenes for some of the programs that would make Roosevelt one of the most popular presidents of all time. Hoover’s biggest problem was actually Roosevelt. Because Hoover rarely took the opportunity to point out that the economy collapsed as a result of his predecessor’s policies and then failed to defend himself against Roosevelt’s subsequent attacks, he became unfairly synonymous with the Great Depression. This little bit of history was not lost on Obama.

Today, comparisons abound between the circumstances surrounding both the Great Depression and the (dare I say) current depression. Politicians and historians will forever debate their similarities and how they both arrived. But there are also current comparisons we can draw relating to Keynes’ paradox. In Europe today, where austerity is the mainstay of the economic recovery attempt, unemployment remains untenably high. In both Spain and Greece it hovers around a bruising 24 percent. Before the stimulus, the US economy shed 800,000 jobs in January of 2009 and GDP growth was negative. Since the beginning of 2010 America has added an average of 143,000 jobs every month and experienced positive GDP growth, although everyone acknowledges it’s a slog. But this kind of forward momentum amply defends the stimulus.

Beyond facts and figures, be sure to listen closely for what you cannot hear. Perhaps the most incredible aspect of the stimulus is the lack of fraud associated with the spending. The oversight has been so rigorous and the process so astoundingly transparent that almost no one is crying foul at the veracity of the disbursements. Instead, opponents gnash their teeth and shout at the rain about Solyndra, the failed California solar plant manufacturer, at every turn. And that’s about it. Forget the fact that the mechanism for funding Solyndra was established in 2005 and Solyndra was selected to participate in the program in 2007; if opponents of the stimulus want to make this their Alamo, so be it. Out of nearly $800 billion invested, one failed solar manufacturer is all you’ve got? Even Bain Capital would have relished this level of success.

So, did it work? I side with Krugman. The answer is that the stimulus package was a good start, but it should have been bigger. Nearly all of those involved in creating the stimulus recognized at the time that it would prevent catastrophe but fall short of prosperity. Unfortunately, our politics are so poisoned today that uttering the phrase, “should’ve been bigger,” is truly the third rail. There is no more room for a reasoned debate in America. But the fact remains that without the stimulus several state budgets would have collapsed, all but bankrupting Medicaid, far more roads and bridges would have fallen further into disrepair, middle-class Americans would have had less in each paycheck and millions more people would have fallen off of the unemployment rolls and into poverty.

All told, Ryan’s claims of  “patronage” and “cronyism” fell apart the moment he lobbied to divert federal funds to his district; Romney’s claim that the stimulus was “careless” underscores either a deep misunderstanding of the shrewd, tactical and successful nature of the program or a further illustration of his belief that no person, corporation or municipality deserves financial support, even under the most severe economic circumstances. Romney’s recent disdainful comments about “47 percent of Americans” may give weight to the latter sentiment, which should give us all pause.

Putting the “Fun” in Fundamentalism

For those who insist on God as part of the original intent in America, allow me to disabuse you of the most commonly mistaken beliefs. To begin, there are no references to God in the Constitution.

The “my-perverted-form-of-Christianity-is-crazier-than-yours” show will be coming to New York soon when the GOP candidates come-a-barnstorming through our blue state. I have already received a lovely letter from Willard Romney asking for my support as if things aren’t bad enough with Tebow-mania sweeping the region.

My pitiful Jets. Sigh. That’s for another day.

Recently, my wife and I were fortunate to procure tickets to The Book of Mormon on Broadway. As one would imagine, it was delightfully wicked and painfully funny. (Unless, of course, you’re a Mormon, in which case I wouldn’t recommend it.) But its brilliance isn’t necessarily its provocative humor as much as its ability to bring the audience from uproarious laughter to dead silence within seconds. For all of its entertaining vulgarity, this Broadway show is a cautionary tale against the evils of forcing a belief system down the throats of others. If nothing else, it will leave you wondering how this particular sect became so powerful and accepted as to produce the odds-on favorite for the GOP nomination.

On the same side of the bizarro-spectrum is the new breed of Christian fundamentalist personified by Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator. In addition to the many things I find loathsome about him and other sanctimonious politicians is their annoying habit of twisting the words of the Constitution and, in particular, the Founding Fathers.

The rise of the conservative Christian fundamentalist clutching the Bible in one hand and the Constitution in the other is one of the more intellectually insulting developments of our time. The Founding Fathers were undoubtedly brilliant. But many of their flaws such as their racism and infidelity have been whitewashed over time, explained away as unfortunate characteristics of the era instead of the morally reprehensible traits they have always been. By claiming ownership of their ideas and intentions, the conservative fundamentalist movement has completely distorted the spirit of the Constitution. In everything they did the Founding Fathers—many of them downright heathens if ever there were any—took great pains to eradicate the role of God in governance. After all, these were men who knew and understood that America was settled by people fleeing, not seeking, religious persecution.

One needs to look no further than the Constitution itself to discover that our form of government was intended to be an entirely secular affair. Moreover, The Federalist Papers, which offers the greatest insight into the intentions set forth by the most scholarly of the Founding Fathers, explicitly denounced religious influence over government.  In his portion of the introduction, James Madison credits the “zeal for different opinions concerning religion,” among other things, with having, “divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” The majority of the writings proffered by our forefathers echo this sentiment. While freedom of religion among citizens was indeed a critical aspect of their collective philosophy, so too was freedom from religion.

This doesn’t mean they weren’t men of faith. In fact, my guess is that if they heard Rick Santorum profess that JFK’s insistence upon separation of church and state made him want to throw up, the Founding Fathers would likely vomit themselves.  After a good laugh at Santorum’s expense and a few hits of opium, Benjamin Franklin would take off with one of his several prostitute paramours, Jefferson would go back to chasing Sally Hemmings around her slave quarters, Washington would return to bidding on a few more colored people, Hamilton would resume paying hush money to the husband of his 20-something-year-old mistress, Adams would continue attempting to imprison reporters under the Alien and Sedition Acts, and Aaron Burr would get back to his target practice.

These guys would have fit in perfectly today with the likes of former Nevada Sen. John Ensign and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who both called for President Clinton’s impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal while simultaneously carrying on extra-marital affairs of their own— the former with the wife of his best friend.

But enough about those God-fearing noblemen; let’s get on to the oft-abused phrases that seemingly comprise the bulk of Middle America’s knowledge of American history.

For those who insist on God as part of the original intent in America, allow me to disabuse you of the most commonly mistaken beliefs. To begin, there are no references to God in the Constitution. Period. Furthermore, the phrase “under God” was not part of the original Pledge of Allegiance, which was written by a socialist, by the by; it was formally adopted by Congress in 1954 as a reaction to the rise of secular Communism. I’ve also heard the argument the president serves the Almighty first and foremost because the Oath of Office closes with the phrase: “so help me God.” This is true, but you should know that it was ad-libbed by George Washington, not originally written as such. And finally, “In God We Trust” is neither from the Constitution nor the Declaration of Independence. It’s on our money. How very Christian of us.American history is fascinating and the work of our Founding Fathers is legendary and enduring, but it’s important to get it right. So too is it important to understand the origins of the modern Christian fundamentalist movement. In a nutshell:

A couple of babbling prophets roamed the country in the 1800s and early 1900s selling a new shiny brand of Jesus with little attention paid to them. Then, in the 1920s, Bruce Barton, best known as one of the “B’s” in the BBD&O ad agency, published The Man Nobody Knows. It was a self-help book about Corporate Jesus that spread like wildfire, and the fundamentalist movement latched on immediately with the thought that if you’re successful in this life, then Jesus must love you. Of course, the flip side of that coin is that if you’re poor through no fault of your own, it must be because Jesus hates you. Fundamentalists don’t like that side of the story much, though.

That’s right; the babbling nomadic Christian fundamentalists who evangelized throughout the United States were universally recognized as the crazy people they were until they got a makeover by the Don Draper of the 1920’s. The result: Rick Santorum. And the people who believed Jesus buried golden tablets (that no one ever actually saw) in the three days between dying on the cross and rising again only to later tell an angel named Moroni to let Joseph Smith know that the plates were buried in his back yard…in Rochester…New York…? I give you, Mitt Romney.

These are the GOP frontrunners that shall walk among us next month in a primary that looks like it actually might matter. And since I have maintained my Republican registration, I get to weigh in on this contest. Any thoughts on which one I should pull the lever, er, fill in the bubble for? Can I just go all the way and write in “Tim Tebow?” What the hell, right? Oops! There I go again.