Friday, May 27, 2011

The Problem With Paul Ryan's Medicare Plan

Ezra Klein -- he of MSNBC, Newsweek and The Washington Post, is one of the best writers covering politics in Washington, largely because he's a policy wonk with the uncanny ability to explain complex legislation in such a way that non-wonks (read: just about everyone else) can understand it.

Today, I read on his Washington Post blog a detailed (yet easy-to-read) rebuttal of the Medicare proposal put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) -- you know, the one that would dismantle Medicare and replace it with a voucher program to help senior citizens purchase health insurance.

Rather than engage in partisan talking points (I get the sense that Klein's a fairly liberal dude), he sticks to facts and details. He even supplies charts!

Read Klein's post here -- and feel free to make this thing viral.

Deficit and Unemployment Linked

Even with America still facing an unemployment crisis -- the latest numbers continue pointing toward the narrative of a "jobless recovery" -- politicians in Washington and the media which covers them have instead focused on the deficit.

Whenever federal and state lawmakers argue against extending unemployment benefits, they often frame the argument in terms of the deficit. Instead of focusing on jobs, Congress (including a newly-elected Republican majority in the House) shifts its attention to matters related to the deficit.

The budget plan forwarded by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), which would replace Medicare with vouchers for seniors to purchase insurance from private companies, was introduced in an effort to rein in the deficit.

The debate over the Bush tax cuts that took place back in December was framed around the deficit -- because raising taxes (even on a small percentage of the population) would mean more revenue, which is half the federal budget formula.

Republicans' refusal to raise taxes -- and in some regard, their insistence upon lowering taxes even more -- has made the revenue portion of the deficit debate a dicey one.

The current debate over raising the debt ceiling, which is necessary by August to prevent the country from defaulting on its debts and likely causing another recession, has been accentuated by Republican lawmakers requiring more spending cuts -- you guessed it -- in the name of deficit reduction.

Even debates over America's military action -- officially, we're only at war in Afghanistan (even though we still have troops in Iraq and we're doing who the hell knows what in Libya) -- are framed, in part, along the deficit. Proponents for ending America's wars argue that ending military action would save billions of dollars the country doesn't have.

They're not wrong.

But there's one thing that will help the deficit that almost no one is talking about: lowering the unemployment rate.

Remember what I said earlier about revenue being half the budget equation? Well, taxes are government revenue, and with almost 10 percent of American's working population not working, that's less taxable income available to local, state and federal governments.

It's really quite simple: put more people back to work, that means more people are earning paychecks -- which also means more people are paying taxes. A lower unemployment rate translates into more government revenue.

Think back to when President Clinton was in office; it's no coincidence that he left office with a massive budget surplus while he saw unemployment dip to 5.6 percent. His 1993 Economic Plan, which raised taxes on the wealthiest earners, also had a lot to do with it, but don't discount the simple formula of putting people to work and collecting taxes from their paychecks.

Look at your pay stub; though different states have different tax laws, everyone sees taxes taken out for federal, local and state governments, for Medicare/Medicaid and Social Security. If you don't collect a paycheck, you're not contributing tax dollars to those revenue streams.

If you're out of work for a lengthy period of time, you might even be taking money from the government, in the form of unemployment benefits. Also, debates over the solvency of Social Security and Medicare have been steeped, in part, on how many people are working, and thus paying taxes into those programs.

I'm not saying this is the only fix; putting people back to work will not solve all, or even most, of our problems. But if we're taking on the federal deficit, every option that doesn't unnecessarily burden the middle class and/or the elderly deserves consideration.

I realize that job-creating programs will require government spending -- and thus borrowing. Stimulating the economy in this way requires a certain amount of investment, and you know conservative deficit hawks will scream over it, like they scream over everything else.

But a short-term investment would go a long way toward putting Americans back to work (which was the intent behind the stimulus package, and an argument for why it should've been more robust); tax cuts for the wealthy do not create jobs, but economic stimulus does.

And the more people work, the more taxes they pay. Which reduces the deficit, all without cutting necessary programs.

See how simple that is?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Common Sense or Courage?

If it seems like the modern Republican Party (the elected officials and those who represent them in the media, not necessarily everyday people) is tacking further to the right by the day, you're not imagining things. It is in fact happening.

In a way, it represents a Catch-22 for Republicans; in today's political climate, being a moderate Republican isn't going to win you the party's nomination (in some districts and states, it won't even win you an election). However, being so far to the right will make you virtually un-electable for the vast majority of the population in a general election.

So you might win a nomination, but never an election. Meanwhile, the moderate Republican who might have a chance in a general election would never win a primary.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Newt Gingrich found that out this week after an appearance on NBC's Meet the Press. On the program Sunday, Gingrich -- who hasn't held public office in almost a decade -- criticized the budget plan proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), which would effectively end Medicare and replace it with a voucher program. He called it "right-wing social engineering" and said it went too far.

Seems sensible enough; why throw out Medicare and leave seniors to fend for themselves in the private insurance industry, where some experts say their health care costs would double? Whatever you think of Gingrich's politics, it was a sensible argument.

Which is exactly why practically the entire GOP establishment lambasted him.

Apparently, Gingrich was hounded so much that he apologized to Rep. Ryan on Tuesday. That's right; Gingrich, essentially, had to apologize for making sense. Only in the current Republican Party would you have to apologize for making sense.

That's not even taking into account for the fact that Gingrich was once a supporter for an individual mandate for health insurance; you know, before President Obama endorsed the idea as part of his health care reform package in 2009. It also ignores a host of statements for the former Speaker of the House has made relating to President Obama that can be seen as racially-charged.

But if you want to look for courage within the GOP (which Gingrich doesn't have, since he can't seem to stick to one position), how about the Senators from Maine? Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, both Republicans, bucked their party on Tuesday when they joined 48 Democrats to vote in favor of ending multi-billion subsidies to Big Oil.

That Sens. Collins and Snowe voted against the Republicans isn't anything new; the two women are viewed as moderates within the party -- a dying breed, to be sure. Their votes were not enough to overcome a filibuster, though, as the other Republicans voted in lock-step and had the help of three Democrats: Mary Landrieu (La.), Mark Begich (Alaska) and Ben Nelson (Neb.).

In explaining her vote, Sen. Collins wrote, "Reducing or eliminating unnecessary subsidies and outdated tax breaks is a commonsense step toward deficit reduction." Sen. Snowe added: "It is difficult to justify oil development incentives given the current level of crude oil prices, and the fact that the U.S. government has to borrow money to pay for these incentives."

It all seems perfectly sensible, doesn't it? Well, then it wouldn't surprise you to know that Sen. Snowe is being primaried from the right, nor would it surprise you if either woman threw her name into the GOP presidential race and found herself flailing at the polls, regardless of how electable either Senator might seem to the country as a whole.

To the modern Republican Party -- and its media enablers -- making sense and acting responsibly within the confines of government is not the goal. Right-wing social engineering and trying to make President Obama a one-term president are the goals, and everything else -- deficit reduction and job creation included -- be damned.

The way things are going for the GOP these days, I don't see 2012 turning out very well for them, because the party is reaching a point where even some of its voters won't want to support it anymore. And when you lose your base, then you're really up a creek without a paddle.

Simply Despicable

Anyone who follows this blog knows I am no fan of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Not simply because he's a Republican (that, I can live with) -- but because of his constant flip-flopping over the years over various positions, as well as the egregious lack of judgement he displayed in picking former Alaska governor Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential race.

That said, I would never question Sen. McCain's love for this country, nor would I take issue with his record as a military man -- and I certainly wouldn't presume to know more about Sen. McCain, a POW during the war in Vietnam, about torture.

Which makes what presumptive GOP presidential nominee Rick Santorum's comments to a conservative radio host on Tuesday both baffling and disgusting. In speaking with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt (sounds like a DC Comics character), Santorum claimed that torture was in fact a big part of gaining the intelligence that eventually led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Never mind the fact that people like Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA, and Sen. McCain both said the intelligence never came from the use of "enhanced interrogation techniques."

So what did Santorum have to say regarding McCain? Read:

"Everything I've read shows that we would not have gotten this information as to who this man was if it had not been gotten information from people who were subject to enhanced interrogation. And so this idea that we didn't ask that question while Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was being waterboarded, he (McCain) doesn't understand how enhanced interrogation works. I mean, you break somebody, and after they're broken, they become cooperative. And that's when we got this information. And one thing led to another, and led to another, and that's how we ended up with bin Laden,"

That's right ... Santorum expects us to believe that Sen. McCain knows nothing about torture -- never mind all that bugaboo about Sen. McCain spending five and a half years as a POW in north Vietnam. Never mind that Sen. McCain was subject to such vigorous physical treatment that he can never raise his arms above his head again (which is why I will never make fun of the way he moves his arms).

You're right, Rick Santorum; there's no way in hell John McCain knows more than you do about the effectiveness of torture. You are the all-knowing one when it comes to "enhanced interrogation techniques," aren't you?

All this time, I thought you were nothing more than a bigot who likened same-sex marriage to bestiality, adultery and bigamy. Here I thought you were just some self-righteous blowhard who just so happened to have a really disgusting last name (seriously; Google the word "santorum" -- fair warning, it is both disgusting and NSFW).

But no; apparently, you're a national security and torture expert. You're so good, you know more about torture than someone who was tortured for half a decade while serving his country!

Do us all a favor, Mr. Santorum, and go away. It's bad enough you're a bigot and hypocrite, but once you start spouting shit like that about someone who fought for this country, who nearly gave his life for this country, you lose what tiny sliver of credibility you had left. You already had no shot at the presidency, but by speaking so ignorantly of someone who so proudly served this country, you are sure as hell not fit to be our Commander-in-Chief.

I realize Sen. McCain's office refuses to dignify Santorum's slime with a response, but part of me wants Sen. McCain to drag him behind the Capitol and knock out a few teeth -- after giving Glenn Beck a swift ass-kicking for mocking daughter Meghan McCain for her appearance in a recent skin cancer PSA.

Show some damn respect, Santorum -- if you even know what that word means.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Sickening ...

Remember back in 2009, when the legislation in Uganda introduced legislation that would make homosexuality illegal -- and even punishable by death? Remember when Rachel Maddow, with help from Jeff Sharlet, linked American politicians to the legislation -- primarily through the secretive religious group The Family?

For a variety of reasons, that story fell off the proverbial radar in recent months, but the bill returned to the news this week. On Wednesday, MSNBC reported that Uganda was likely to drop the legislation. Quoting MSNBC:

The future of the bill remained murky. Wednesday was parliament's last scheduled day of session, and President Yoweri Museveni was scheduled on Thursday to be sworn in after his February re-election. It wasn't clear if the bill could be carried forward to the next session or if the bill's author would have to offer a new bill, which he has said he will do if needed.

Despite that burst of good news, Maddow theorized that the bill would still see the light of day at some point, because David Buhati, the man who drafted the legislation and has strong ties to The Family, remained steadfast even in the face of international condemnation.

There wasn't even any guarantee Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni would sign the bill if it passed, so good news all around, right?

Well ... maybe not.

Box Turtle Bulletin is now reporting the bill could be up for a vote on Friday -- and that it might pass. That's right ... we're once again staring at the prospect of a nation declaring that homosexuality is illegal. Not just being a homosexual, but knowing someone is homosexual and not turning them in, knowing someone is homosexual, but giving them a job.

We're talking jail time. We're talking the death penalty. Simply for being homosexual.

Here in America, we worry about marriage equality and benefits for same-sex partners that equal those for heterosexual couples. We worry about same-sex couples being able to adopt children. Until recently, homosexuals couldn't even serve openly in our military.

In fact, they technically still can't.

The problems facing homosexuals in America are numerous, and they are not to be taken lightly. But at least our country is not in the business of legally sanctioning jail time and murder for people simply because of their lifestyle.

Bigotry is abhorrent and dangerous regardless, but Uganda is taking it to the extreme -- and the fact that we have members of Congress who are linked to Buhati and his allies is a sickening reality.

Uganda could legalize an act that would be considered a hate crime in most other civilized countries. I honestly do not have the words to describe how vile and sickening that truth is.

CREDO Action has crafted a petition in an effort to stop the bill in its tracks. You can read the petition, sign it and share it on various social media platforms here.

This is not an instance where we can sit back and ignore the problem because it's not on our shores. Buhati's connections to The Family -- and the American politicians who secretly call themselves members -- make this an even more disturbing problem.

But more than that, this is an issue of human dignity and fairness. If Uganda can legalize the killing of a man for loving another man, what stops the next nation that wants to do it? The potential domino effect is horrifying, almost as much as the legislation itself.

This bill is evil, and it must be stopped. Hatred and bigotry have no place in this world, and they certainly have to place in a national legislature.

Monday, May 2, 2011

After 10 Long Years ...

... Osama bin Laden is dead.

President Obama announced in a rare Sunday night announcement that U.S. forces -- reportedly Navy SEALs -- raided a mansion outside Islamabad, Pakistan on Sunday, and that bin Laden was killed in a firefight by a bullet to the head.

In a sense, the news brings a finality to America's decade-long mission in Afghanistan -- even though no one can seriously suggest that we bring the troops home now that bin Laden is dead. I would love that (for a number of reasons), but a complete troop withdrawal at this point isn't feasible.

Political maneuvering will undoubtedly take over, if it hasn't already. Some will note that President Obama managed in three years what President Bush never accomplished in two terms; others will claim that 2012 is now in the bag for President Obama.

At this point, I'll simply call this a victory for America. Regardless of his current status within al Qaeda, bin Laden was the mastermind of the worst terrorist attacks ever perpetrated on U.S. soil, and the fact that American forces brought him down is a cause for celebration.

Is it a bit skeevy to be, in effect, celebrating the death of another human being? A little, but when one considers what bin Laden did in his life -- not just masterminding 9/11, but also being responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole, and a number of other atrocities -- it takes some of the sting out of it.

Besides, imagine the circus if he'd been captured alive and we faced the prospect of trying him. As crass as this sounds, this was never going to end with bin Laden being brought in alive. He was always either going to be killed, or he was going to hide out long enough that he died of natural causes before forces could get to him.

One thing this does do (despite the myriad of questions going forward -- ranging from what do we do now in Afghanistan to what were we doing in Pakistan to how we prepare for a potential backlash from al Qaeda) is solidify President Obama's stance on the War of Terror. Being a Democrat -- and someone who's long chastised "dumb wars" -- the president has often been criticized for his stance on foreign policy.

But in the span of six weeks, he deliberated with his senior staff on actionable intelligence regarding bin Laden, then on Friday, he gave the order to conduct the mission. Sunday night, bin Laden was dead and Americans were celebrating.

Does that sound like someone who's weak when it comes to military operations?

Either way, bin Laden's death is a significant chapter in American history, and it is a cause worthy of celebration. We should not, however, overreact and proclaim the end of combat missions in Afghanistan or the War on Terror.

Don't get me wrong: I would be elated if tomorrow, we announced that every combat troop serving in Afghanistan and Pakistan was coming home and that we were ceasing operations -- both because it would mean fewer American casualties and because it would save us a boatload of money.

But it's not that simple. It should be, but it's not.