Monday, December 8, 2008

Why the Public Doesn't Want to Bail Out Detroit

For months now, the American public has watched dollars flying out of the US Treasury to rescue businesses in the name of salvaging the US Economy. Billions upon Billions of them. It is politically correct to refer to this money as "taxpayer dollars" but, in fact, they are not. At least they are not the dollars of current taxpayers. No, by and large these are the dollars of the next and future generation of taxpayers.

But why quibble about that?

Isn't it interesting that when it is time to consider similar (though much smaller) bailouts for the Big 3 automakers, the public seems to have even less tolerance than we did for the likes of AIG and Citibank? Why is that when we know how big a job segment the car business represents?

Is it bail-out fatigue? Is it fear of passing a mountain of debt on to our children and on and on? Or is there something else at work here?

I submit that it is all of the above and, further, that the un-named "something else" is born of actual taxpayer experience, not something ethereal or hypothetical.

While relatively few Americans have had a personal relationship with Bear-Stearns or AIG, even Citibank or Merrill Lynch - those that have had a relationship with those companies generally report them as acceptable, if not great. On the other hand, lots of Americans have felt burned by one or more of the US automakers in their lifetime. Think of it this way - when was the last time you saw a disabled brokerage account tying up rush-hour traffic on a Friday afternoon?

Sure, there are GM fans out there, even some who don't get their livelihood from the company. My uncle was a "Ford-man" who proudly stood by the brand and its cars and trucks. Those people, like my uncle, are gone now. They have been replaced by millions of Americans who gave up on the Big 3 a long time ago and developed a relationship with Toyota or Honda or one of a dozen other foreign car makers who won their loyalty by a combination of superior quality and marketing savvy.

When my '92 Chevy died on Roswell Road some years ago, after less than 40,000 miles, I was not a happy camper believe me. Sure, I liked the car enough to spend money to fix it and drove it for almost 55,000 more miles, I never completely regained my trust in that car. And I haven't bought another American-made car since.

Is that fair to today's Big 3? Maybe not. But when it comes to buying something as big and mission-critical as a vehicle, the majority of Americans have been saying, "No" to Detroit for years. Changing our minds right now doesn't seem likely to happen. And, can you blame people?

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Saxby Wins - What Does it Mean?

The nation watched, or rather a hardcore few of the nation watched the returns from Georgia last night. Would this be another Minnesota-style cliffhanger? A Florida-style hanging-chad affair? An Ohio-style "keep the polls open late so that the hundreds still in line at closing time can exercise their constitutional right to vote?"

Not so much, no.

Senator Chambliss easily defeated his Democratic challenger yesterday, winning by double digits in a runoff for the US Senate only made vaguely interesting by two issues: 1) the Democrats, until last night, held a slim chance of attaining a 60-seat majority in the Senate and 2) would the patriotic voters of Georgia stand up and reject the reprehensible politics used in 2002 by our Junior Senator in defeating war hero Max Cleland?

Not so much, no.

Despite the significant numbers of "Support the Troops" bumper stickers and car magnets to be seen along Georgia's highways and byways, Senator Chambliss' refusal to support the new GI Bill of Rights was just fine with Georgians. Despite unwavering support for the horribly mis-guided invasion of Iraq and subsequent bungling of the mission their, Georgians must be fine with it. I always thought that, among those for whom support for the military and for a strong national defense was a paramount issue, failing to support those things here was a political sin from which one cannot recover.

Not so much, no.

In his victory remarks, Senator Chambliss indicated his willingness to work with President-Elect Obama whenever he seeks to help everyday Georgians and fight terrorism. When, on the other hand, the new President demanded socialism (you know, redistributing the wealth like it talks about in the Gospels) he would proudly stand with his fellow obstructionists and say, "NO!". Should the President seek to "mess with" the 2nd amendment, Senator Chambliss and his buddies from the NRA will scream bloody hell (an apt metaphor, I think) and say, "NO!".

It will be interesting how long it takes for last night's declarations by the Senator for when he will support or oppose the incoming President to be violated. Well before inauguration day is my guess.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Gratitude list

For me, Thanksgiving should be part of everyday, not only the 4th Thursday of November. Still, here we are at that designated day and, like so many, I have a long list, so here goes:

My wife is amazing. She is a delightful person who I adore and my sweet love!

Rob is a man that I am deeply proud of. He is kind and generous, smart and dedicated. He is my son, and I love him, pray for him and think of him many times every day.

My sister is my friend, my support and my favorite phone buddy.

My dad is inspiration, loving father and head of our family - thanks, Dad!

Now - I am deeply grateful that our country has turned the corner (please, let it be true) on the philosophy of more for those with the most, blind eyes toward injustice and greed, the military-industrial complex and ideology as idol.

Finally, God bless all those who serve our country both near and far. Those who sacrifice on behalf of others, who - though imperfect - are deeply blessed for their service. May we all find a new way to serve in the coming year.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Cars, Politics and the US Economy

To listen to the soundbites on radio or TV, this whole Detroit bail-out thing seems pretty straightforward. As I have heard it explained, it comes down to some things everyone (a relative term, to be sure) agrees on and some things that no one (again, relative) agrees about.

Agreed: The US car companies have, through a variety of sins, set themselves up in recent decades for a serious day of reckoning.

Disagreed: The current mess (version 25 billion or thereabouts) is more about the unforeseeable credit crisis than it is about car companies not seeking to get better, make fuel-efficient cars, etc.

Agreed: ANY taxpayer money that might, possibly, someday be loaned to US car makers must come with major strings attached.

Disagreed: Bailout money now is throwing good money after bad ... or not. Or put more bluntly, the bailout is a case of beer for the alcoholic - "It might be fun for a day, but it don't solve the problem" vs. this is a viable "Bridge to somewhere".

Agreed: $700 billion just isn't what it used to be. [major sigh]

Disagreed: A far better approach (the Real American, free market approach) says that when bad companies fail, they can and should seek bankruptcy protection via Chapter 11. OR, unlike airlines which provide a service that the pubic has demonstrated a willingness to continue buying despite numerous bankruptcies, the public's likelihood to buy a car from a bankrupt company - risking the unavailability of future service or parts is something approximating Zero. (In other words, Chapter 11 today leads inevitably to Chapter 7 next year and that means liquidation of assets - ugly.)

So here we are. Again. I know that, for now, we need to figure out what to do with this stalwart, if prodigal, domestic industry. But, my god - is not the real problem here that by relaxing regulation in general and approvals for mergers and acquisitions in general, we have created a country dominated by businesses that are "too big to fail"? For all the talk about the importance of small business when it's time to campaign, the 16 years (1995-2007) in which Republicans ruled the Congress seems to have been good for big business at the time, but not even good for big business now. And for the rest of us? Well, thank god those days are over, at least for a while.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Redefined Parties

This morning's Rasmussen Reports indicates the first post-election polling on what they call the "generic congressional ballot". It is a poll which asks voters if they would vote today for an unnamed (generic) democrat or republican for Congress in their district. Prior to the election, democrats held a six point advantage in this poll. Today, that advantage has dwindled to two points. Why?

In the week since election results have been published, many people have heard and read media reports about the new, larger democratic majorities in the US House and Senate. In particular, much attention has been focused on the Senate, where a "super majority" of 60 members from one party can theoretically do whatever it pleases, having achieved the number of votes it takes to prevent a filibuster. The concern regarding this has been amplified by right-wing media and is being sounded daily here in Georgia in ads being run by Senator Chambliss in the lead-up to his runoff election with Jim Martin.

I met this morning with a person who is quite concerned about this issue. Having voted for Senator McCain, he was understandably cautious about what the incoming President might do. What he did not focus on, however, was what the two parties have come to stand for in recent years. In reality, it isn't easy to even know what they stand for unless a person spends a significant amount of energy digesting and analyzing the news and discerning outlying opinions from mainstream ones.

What the Republican party has frequently stood up for in recent years is unbridled executive authority (see also "warrantless wiretapping") ,the Bush Doctrine of pre-emptive war and an economic philosophy based on the belief that free markets will always surpass the economic performance of regulated ones and, further, that watching out for high net-worth individuals and large corporations is, ultimately, good for everyone.

The Democrats have frequently stood for ending the Iraq war because of its flawed origin, of defending the constitution (but often in fuzzy, non-compelling terms) and in opposing pretty much anything that the Republicans want to do. Only since the 2008 primary season kicked off in earnest have democrats begun to articulate a vision with more substance.

In the aftermath of the 2008 elections, both parties need to do a better job of deciding and then consistantly expressing what they are FOR and how that translates into the lives of real people, rather than generic ("millions of jobs" or "country first") terms.

Care for a suggestion? Republicans - stop trying to resurrect Ronald Reagan and the 80's. We're sooo over that "government is always bad" mentality. It's a losing formula just as it was in 1932 when FDR was inaugurated. Instead, look at how limited government and private partnerships can provide real solutions to 21st century problems like global warming, global trade, inequality of work force and environmental protection and the challenges of terrorism in a world where we are not the only country with a stake in the outcome.

Democrats? Enjoy the victory for about one more day and then forget it. While President-Elect Obama has a mandate of sorts, there was no overriding congressional mandate articulated during the election cycle that turned this into a "national" election rather than a state by state or district by district one with the exception of a general repudiation of the Bush Administration. In other words, democrats did not completely sell a philosophy to the American people that has now been embraced by the electorate. They did not convince the public of a better approach to the role of government in anything close to specific terms. To believe otherwise will lead to significant over-reaching and a likely losing 2010 mid-term cycle.

No matter what else happens, the days of democrats as pure tax and spend liberals or of republicans as social and fiscal conservatives is gone - at least for now.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Prop 8 post script

The news this morning is that gay activists are downright baffled a week after the passage of Proposition 8 in California which has, in effect, re-illegalized gay marriage in that otherwise progressive state. Reports out today suggest that leaders in the movement may be contemplating a strategy which abandons, at least for now, the effort to bring equality to same-sex marriage.

This is sad but understandable for three reasons. First, the tide has been well established now - wherever constitutional amendments to specifically ban gay marriage appear on the ballots, they pass. Second, the chasm between those who advocate for gay marriage and the "moderate" position of civil unions does not seem to be closing. Finally, there is a growing risk of alienating more Americans on this issue, making it harder for other gay rights issues to find success in the near future.

But then I heard this idea expressed (I'm paraphrasing) on a recent cable news show, "The problem with pursuing civil unions as an alternative to continuing the fight toward acceptance of gay marriage is that you can barely come to the end of the sentence without some implicit support for the old 'separate but equal' strategy that postponed civil rights from being codified in the 1960's." That's the problem in a nutshell. We have learned through hard experience that separate but equal is inherently NOT.

The religious objections of many faith-filled people from a variety of faith backgrounds are real and genuine. The problem is not with them or with their faith-based objections -- not ultimately. The problem is that the government got into the business of legalizing a religious ceremony (marriage) and never got back out of it. In other words, by referring to the process outcome of a church wedding in the same terms as a justice of the peace ceremony or a Las Vegas chapel party as being the same, rather than calling the religious ceremony one thing and the legal status another, we have linked and muddled the two. In reality, they do not have to be the same thing forever.

Said another way, it strikes me as a violation of the spirit of separation of church & state to legislate who the church has to marry. Similarly, it is a violation for the church to tell the government who gets certain rights and benefits. If a church decides to bless the union of a man and his beagle, does the state of Georgia have to call them married? If the state of Georgia allows the marriage of a same sex couple, does the church have to recognize it?

Unraveling long traditions is never easy and may not be the right approach. Still, until we can see this situation differently, we are bound to keep repeating the same hardened positions over and over with little room for understanding, much less progress.

Look, I support gay marriage and had hoped that California would have upheld the rights of that state, but they did not. Rather than abandon hopes for equality altogether, maybe we should take this time to question some old assumptions on which our current thinking is based. Even if we acknowledge that those assumptions were valid once, we may find that they just don't serve a 21st century America.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Chambliss vs Martin

It is all-but-official - there will be an early December runoff election to determine who will represent Georgia as our United States Senator beginning in January. The incumbent, Saxby Chambliss, has been a reliable Republican vote and strong supporter of both domestic and foreign policy programs of President Bush.

Consider Senator Chambliss' record:

On education: Senator Chambliss supported the interests of the National Association of Elementary School Principals 0% of the time in 2005.

Sen. Chambliss supported the interests of the National PTA 0% of the time in 2003-2004

On Children: Senator Chambliss supported the interests of the Childrens' Defense Fund 9% of the time in 2003-2004, 0% in 2005, 0% in 2006 and 40% in 2007.

We know he has been a rubberstamp supporter of the Iraq war, failing to question, failing to assess, failing to lead on this crucial issue.

Finally, Senator Chambliss continues to support the national sales tax despite the repeated calls from economic and tax experts to abandon it as unworkable and unfair to lower income people.

As for Jim Martin, I join many of you in the belief that he is an uninspiring candidate. Still, he has a strong record of service, is a thoughtful and hard working public servant and is the only choice for any of us seeking change in our country. He believes as I do that unfettered, unregulated big business is part of the problem we now find ourselves in, not part of the solution. Jim Martin agrees in the priority of helping the middle class, not the top 2%.

Still, turning out significant numbers of progressive voters for a December runoff won't be easy.
I hope that others remember the shameful campaign of 2002 that first elected Saxby. There is no forgiving his negative, destructive treatment of a triple-amputee war veteran as being "unpatriotic". There is no excuse for such tactics in Georgia politics. None.

Friday, November 7, 2008

69% of GOP Says Palin Helped? Kidding, Right?

Of all the things that went wrong for Senator John McCain's general election campaign, polling suggests that the selection of Governor Sarah Palin was near the top of the list, right below the financial crisis which - by the way, could have played to his so-called "experience advantage" had McCain demonstrated actual expertise on the subject.

After weeks of polling, not to mention water cooler laughter over the near-perfect SNL parodies of Gov. Palin, it was clear to anyone paying attention that the Alaskan who provided a short-term sugar rush to a previously staid campaign was a long-term drag on the GOP ticket. So what does it say to the rest of the country when 69% of GOP voters are revealed today by Rasmussen Reports to believe that Sarah Palin actually helped Senator McCain's campaign. They weren't asked if they liked her (which they clearly do), they were asked if she helped!

My conclusion is that this is just the latest indicator of the up-hill climb facing Republicans hoping to return to majority status anytime soon. Sure, Gov. Huckabee or any number of others could have motivated the social conservative base without cornering the GOP into only being competitive with the plumbers and six pack drinkers who, like it or not, should never confuse likeability with governing ability.

Do We Care Whether Indonesian School-kids Get Excited?

The pictures from around the world in recent days have been interesting, even stunning in a way. The American election results are less than 72 hours old and already we hear of a national holiday being declared in Kenya and school children cheering at an elementary school in Indonesia. Sure, the french are all excited but don't they care more about the quality of the food than the leader of the free world? What difference does ANY of this make and, if it does, aren't the downsides of a global infatuation with PEBO (President-Elect Barack Obama) at least as great as the upsides?

We saw during the campaign wild crowds in Berlin chanting, "Yes We Can!" and, only a moment later, heard crowds in this country shouting about elitism and unamerican-ism. Which is it - is this a rock-star ego trip or something with real benefit to regular Americans.

Listening to "The World" this week on NPR, I heard a cogent explanation about why this matters and why this is profoundly helpful to Americans. The adoring crowds are almost certainly setting themselves up for disappointment, it's true. But political leaders around the world will, for at least a time, be powerfully drawn by the enthusiasm of their own people to be seen as cooperative with the new American President -- to "get some of that Obama dust on me", if you will.

What other tool has the strength without the accompanying collateral damage that global goodwill has? How much good in the world could be done by harnessing a new spirit of desire for cooperation with the United States? Just remember the position we held in the world on September 12 and think about what we could have done with that global approval rating.

Does potential count on the scoreboard? No. Will the score in 2012 reflect the potential of this moment? Maybe. Can we use the power of a global motivational seminar called the 2008 Presidential Election to get some important stuff done?

Yes we can.

Beginning, Always Beginning

The world seems different this week, doesn't it? Regardless of one's political sentiments, waking up each morning to news of "President-elect Barack Obama" still surprises me a bit.

This blog is born from that place of beginning anew. As the country adapts to a new political reality, so too do we each in our own way find moments of beginning, moments of hopefulness or fear, moments of meaning beyond the readily apparent.

As they say in church sometimes, "Come, the feast is ready."