Mike Bland

Instigator

Day of Thanks

A few things I'm thankful for this year, especially in the wake of the 2012 United States election

- Newport News and Hampton
Tags: personal, philosophy, politics
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I’m back home in Virginia this Thanksgiving, and it’s astonishing how beautiful it still is down here. The trees are still resplendent with leaves of deep gold, orange, and red, despite the strong winds of Sandy and the subsequent nor’easter. The air is crisp, without drilling into the bones. It feels like mid-October, my favorite time to be in Virginia, has been postponed ’til now. November is supposed to be far more drab and chilly than this.

But the weather and the gorgeous foliage aren’t the only things I’m thankful for. I continue to get settled in Boston, making friends and exploring the territory while still living the car-free lifestyle. It hasn’t grown too bitterly cold—yet. I recently acquired two Fender amplifiers I’m in love with, a Super-Sonic 22 and a Super Champ X2, both in blonde/oxblood—along with a Weber Mini MASS to keep the peace with the neighbors—that make me want to play more and more and more.

What I want to talk about here, however, is how I’m thankful that President Barack Obama won reelection, and that the Senate remains in Democratic control. Guess my idle time between my semi-retirement and pending re-enrollment at Berklee has granted me the luxury of time and energy to have very strong opinions and a huge sense of personal investment in this most recent contest, and its aftermath.

Blue Virginia
Change and Reform
Dodging a Bullet and Christmastime for the 47%
Chicken Hawk
Where were the Job Creators?
Disappointment and Comeback
Facts and Data
Where the People Live
We Are All Together
Hope
Footnotes

Blue Virginia

Even more than President Obama’s sweeping electoral victory, I’m thankful that Virginia remained blue this time around, even though it was declared in Obama’s favor long after the election had been decided, essentially by Ohio. That was the most shocking and uplifting outcome of the entire election for me. Not just that it went for President Obama, but that it also elected Democratic former governor Tim Kaine—over Republican George "Macaca" Allen—to replace outgoing Democratic Senator Jim Webb. It’s really quite shocking, that Virginia proved itself so thoroughly blue this election. Then again, I should say that NoVA, Richmond, Charlottesville, Roanoke, and my own Hampton Roads—in other words, where the people live—stayed sufficiently blue to deny the homogeneous rural population the ability to dictate social, fiscal, and foreign policy to the rest of the Commonwealth. More on this later.

Whoa, and just looking now, President Obama won my hometown of Hampton with 72.1%, one of the highest margins in all of Virginia! w00t! And a lot of the specks of blue amidst the swaths of red are, generally speaking, college towns. Wow, the President even took Staunton and Winchester…sorry, geeking out now. Back to business.

Change and Reform

The impetus for this post was a series of blog posts by a good friend of mine from back home, in which he has been obliquely lamenting that this election was vote against change and reform. My friend frequently grows frustrated at his workplace with what we can all sympathize with as classic mismanagement: A refusal to consider data and cost, and to keep doing things a certain misguided way because that’s the way they’ve always been done, regardless of the inefficacy of the process in question. I’m inclined to believe what he says about the conditions in his workplace, but when it comes to this past election, I have no choice but to call horseshit on his opinion. (Yes, I’ve given him the heads-up over email that I’m posting this.)

I do so for several reasons. For one, as much as I like my friend and enjoy his conversation and company, when it comes to his deeply-held personal opinions, he has a tendency to make broad, stern conclusions without offering much in the way of solid evidence or reasoning. He and I had a face-to-face conversation once about what was, at the time, the upcoming 2012 election, and though I can’t remember the specifics of certain points we argued, I remember him making several assertions that led me to ask on what evidence they were based. He several times just said, “It’s true.” I’d ask how do you know, and he’d say “It’s true.” It’s not that I’m convinced he’s wrong, or that my point of view was correct; I admit to being a political neophyte, perhaps out of my depth when talking about such issues. But, taking my civic responsibility in the form of my vote seriously, I want to know what’s true and what’s not, I want to change my mind when it’s genuinely called for, but I need to be shown the evidence.

By that same token, I’m mystified how he can look at the data and evidence that surfaced as a result of this election process and make such a blatantly false claim that this election was against change and reform. Or, perhaps that’s a bit unfair: Maybe it would be more fair to say, how he could make such a statement in light of history beyond the past four years. It’s true, we voted to keep the same President, the same Democratic majority in the Senate, and the same Republican majority in the House. In that sense, nothing much changed, and President Obama’s policies will persist for at least four more years. But that’s a myopic view, focusing on convenient details from an incomplete context.

So, let me run through the evidence. Since the Reagan era, from 1980-1988, tax cuts and deregulation, loosely known as Reaganomics, supply-side economics, and trickle-down economics, have been the stock-and-trade of Republican fiscal policy. The idea being, by making economic conditions more favorable to businesses, they will be incentivized to invest in innovation and hire more Americans, leading to an economic boom.1 Nice theory; problem is that it ignores human nature just as much as state-owned communist business policy. This theory has been put to the test over the decades, and while it seemed to produce a boom in Reagan’s time, war hero George H. W. Bush was out after his first term in 1992 thanks to the sputtering economy that forced him to go back on his famous Read my lips: no new taxes bit. Bill Clinton famously negotiated his way to a budget surplus, only to have it obliterated by George W. Bush, who not only enacted “business-friendly” tax cuts, but launched two expensive and protracted wars when he should’ve just focused in finishing the job in Afghanistan from the start.

And we’re all familiar by now with the fact that millions of jobs, especially in information technology and manufacturing, have been ruthlessly outsourced to foreign countries, for the sake of maximizing shareholder profit. Just as in politics, where the extreme right and extreme left begin to bear an uncanny resemblance to one another, in both the sacred laissez-faire capitalist system of the USA and the evil communist empire of ye olde USSR, it’s always the rich, ruthless, and privileged to who emerge to pull the strings for their own benefit, at the expense of society at large.

Meet the new boss
same as the old boss
— “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, The Who

Then, of course, we saw the house of cards come tumbling down during the 2008 phynancial crisis, when it came to light that tax cuts, particularly on capital gains, and deregulation led to nearly the entire phynancial industry playing tricky games with funny money that didn’t actually exist, paid for by the hard work and dreams of taxpayers and middle-class families living in houses they were convinced they could afford, but really couldn’t. When President Obama first took office, the momentum of the crash was still too great to overcome, and it took time to stop the bleeding, bail out the phynanical and auto industries, and turn the tide towards slow-but-undeniably-steady job growth. Thank goodness the Republicans failed to privatize Social Security before that load hit the fan.

So now, with President Obama, for starters, we’re looking at having the Bush tax cuts expire, reforming tax rates for the 1% to generate much-needed revenue, drawing down long and expensive wars, streamlining both health and defense costs, and making subsequent budget cuts that reflect the political choices and innovation that makes such savings possible. We’re on the verge of putting in place regulations to curb such excess greed and gambling with middle-class American money, not by calling executive cronies to court in a secret star chamber, but by enforcing transparency that should’ve been there all along, not just after the crisis was imminent.

And like I said, that’s just for starters. We did vote for reform, the reform we voted for in 2008, and we didn’t give up on it just as it’s becoming clear, by all phynancial indications, that the big picture is genuinely, steadily improving. And what was Romney’s plan? To presumably cut tax rates by 20% across the board and “close loopholes” to generate revenue that he never specified, and which all independent, non-partisan analysts, even giving him the benefit of the doubt by modeling the closure of all known loopholes and deductions, could not mathematically generate the revenue he claimed it would? To increase the military budget and pursue an aggressive, xenophobic foreign policy stance that could likely draw us into more expensive armed conflict, at the expense of education and social programs that would otherwise inspire and support the population in generating the kind of productivity and innovation we need to stay competitive economically? To prevent or remove regulations intended to avoid a repeat of the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s?

Already, the claim that the reelection of President Obama was a referendum against change and reform is complete horseshit. But wait, there’s more.

Dodging a Bullet and Christmastime for the 47%

Watching Mitt Romney’s concession speech on election night, I was completely floored. It was short and gracious, and emphasized the need to pull together as one nation to overcome the enormous challenges we all face together. Where was that Mitt Romney during the previous eleven months? It seemed too good to be true, to hear such a calm and dignified, tolerant, conciliatory message from the defeated Republican candidate.

And then, precious few days later, it proved too good to be true after all: At a post-election event for donors, Romney once again made it out to sound like the President of the United States bought the votes of women and minorities via his health care, contraception, and immigration policies. Talk about a facepalm of epic magnitude. He. Still. Doesn’t. Get it. Really?

President Obama isn’t so cynical to buy votes from minority groups. His commitment to the welfare of America as a whole, not just white male Christian America, has been clear and consistent throughout his political career. Turns out that serving as a community organizer, lending his leadership to people who are not fortunate enough to be born into money and power, to help make an improvement in their lives, was a pretty valuable preparation for the office of President. He’s not a Machiavellian vulture capitalist who’s too afraid to release his public tax returns while bald-facedly asserting that he’s sympathetic to middle-class America and the unemployed, and who’s willing to shift shapes depending on the whims of his immediate political audience. He’s remained steady in his positions, and stood by them throughout the campaign.

Perhaps by a vote “against change and reform”, my friend was referring to a vote against the ongoing change and reform of the Republican candidate’s position on every issue, in perpetuity?

What would America actually have gotten with Romney as President? I think this post-election blunder—I mean, why stop making them now?—and the “47%” video filmed immediately after the Republican primaries, taken together, demonstrates pretty clearly that his contempt for people outside his rich, white Christian demographic was the only issue on which he remained consistent throughout the election.

Chicken Hawk

Well, that, and screw foreigners! Romney pledged to pick a fresh fight with China on day one by recklessly labeling them currency manipulators, when that issue has already been addressed and remedied to some extent, and such a brash, unnecessary move could backfire terribly. He’d’ve started assaulting Syria, with no regard for the consequences, given the fractious state of the rebel opposition and the tacit interests of Russia and China in making Syria a proxy battleground if we went in. He’d probably go in and team up with Israel to attack Iran, despite the fact that the crippling sanctions imposed on Iran have probably done more to erode its nuclear progress and internal cohesion that any bombs or bullets ever could. Oh, and yeah, Britain sucks as an Olympic host compared to him, and the Palestinians suck because they’re dirtier and less cultured than the Israelis. Nyah.

Again, the more measured foreign policy of the Obama administration is a clear change from his predecessor’s policy. I love America, and I want to see it strong, but that doesn’t mean we have to be arrogant bullies to achieve that goal. The rest of the world doesn’t have to lose, economically or militarily, for America to win; zero-sum thinking is backwards, uneducated, harmful, and dangerous. As polls indicate, most of the rest of the world understands that President Obama sees things the same way.

Where were the Job Creators?

If Romney really wanted to make a solid case for returning to trickle-down economic policies, where were the magical job creators he could point to? Where was all this money unleashing America’s productivity and innovation as solid proof that what we needed was less taxes and less regulation? Turns out that when you look at this “Job Creator” myth, the whole issue becomes a Catch-22.

For starters, Romney couldn’t even point to himself as an example, at least not in any detail. He made a big deal of his “business experience”, but it still remained pretty clear that that consisted of buying up troubled companies, and selling off and outsourcing as many of the operations as he could to maximize his own profits and those of his fellow vultures. Not much actual job creation in his history, only shareholder profit maximization. I guess the shareholders are then supposed to run out and create jobs with all their money, most of which is taxed at only 15% these days?

Again, in light of the Bush tax cuts, and particularly on capital gains, where did all the jobs go by the time Bush left office in 2008? Oh, right…

OK, so I won’t go down the alleged blame-everything-on-Bush route. In fact, there’s no need for that. It was abundantly clear throughout the course of the election that all the “Job Creators” did have loads of money burning holes in their pockets. How do I know? Look at the hundreds of millions of dollars donated to each campaign. Rather than actually making genuine capital investments in jobs and innovation, the 1% saw fit to fill Romney’s coffers to guarantee their own favorable treatment once he assumed office.

But it’s not just a matter of buying favorable treatment. If you’re familiar with the saying that someone “cut off her nose to spite her own face”, you’ll recognize the fact that, if indeed these “Job Creators” had invested their hundreds of millions in jobs and businesses, that would’ve only accelerated the economic improvement that we’re already seeing as a result of President Obama’s policies. Can’t risk making Obama look good by actually helping the economy, can we? Hand-in-hand with Republican political obstructionism in Congress, Republican donors were all too comfortable with practicing economic obstructionism with their own money.

It’s true, President Obama did begin to match Romney’s fundraising numbers, and even surpassed him in the end. But how? In the New York Times link from above, notice that 68% of Obama’s funds came from direct donations, compared to the significant amounts Romney received from his party and primary Super PAC, comprising 56% of his funds. Notice that 56% of Obama’s direct donations were under $200, and only 11% over $2500, compared to Romney’s figures of 23% and 42%, respectively. The top three Romney Super PAC donors each gave $10M; the top three Obama donors, $3.5M, $3.5M, and $3.0M. What I get from this is that much more of the middle-class supported Obama’s campaign phynance operation because they understood the threat of the 1%’s economic superiority, and the economic and foreign policy catastrophes that would result if Romney won.

Disappointment and Comeback

I will admit, President Obama’s performance up to this point in his presidency is disappointing relative to what it could have been, and what he himself originally promised. I do blame him for his naïvete in succumbing to the bald obstructionism of the Republicans to his presidency, displayed in most spectacularly cynical fashion by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell’s declaration that the number one goal of the GOP was to ensure Obama would become a one-term president.2 Really? There aren’t rules to get ejected from the Senate for such blatant disrespect and distortion of priorities from one privileged to hold such a high public office? Such statements are tantamount to treason in my view.

Still, the President thought that by playing it cool, trying to appeal to data and facts and reason, and basically taking an academic stance on the issues would be enough to get things done in Washington. It’s understandable that he would stick to the strategy that enabled him to rise so quickly into the Senate and then into the Presidency, but it’s inexcusable that he remained so above the fray, in his own mind, that he didn’t deal head-on with the reality that people were out to get him, and were willing to take the country down just to make him personally look bad. And he didn’t seem to get the final wake-up call until the first debate with Mitt Romney—and risked losing the election as a result.

That said, perhaps one may hope that this set of Presidential debates will mark a breakthrough in President Obama’s political strategy and tactics. Perhaps now he understands that, as The Man in the Arena, he can’t just stand there and think about how to outmaneuver his opponent; he’ll have to throw a few solid punches. By maneuvering alone, even if he goes the distance, he’ll lose the fight on score alone. Thank goodness that first debate, and Crazy Uncle Joe’s solid example in the Vice Presidential debate, woke him up in time to hit back and score for a decisive win in the final round.

Facts and Data

So let’s talk hard numbers for just a moment, to shine a light on Obama’s accomplishments rather than Romney’s failings. First of all, it’s widely recognized by now that unemployment has been on a steady decline for nearly three years. You just can’t say with any degree of rational fairness that Obama’s lost jobs during his term when he spent the entire first year trying to hold back the asteroid plummeting towards the earth since late 2008. Unemployment is shrinking. Not as fast as anyone’d like, but still falling steadily. That is a good sign. Period. No argument.

It’s also being reported lately that home sales and construction have begun to rise steadily. Resale values are up. That’s not human reasoning, but hard numbers. Again, you can’t argue that a housing recovery is a housing loss.

As Crazy Uncle Joe said, Bin Laden is dead, General Motors is alive. Fact and fact. Obama not only got Bin Laden, but massively stepped up drone attacks on Al Qaeda leaders, gravely weakening its influence and impact. Letting General Motors slide into bankruptcy wouldn’t only have just taken down the GM execs, and shareholders, and direct employees, but given the massive presence of GM cars and related businesses throughout America, it would’ve taken a huge number of associated businesses down with it, along with towns whose livelihood largely depends on those associated businesses. Saving GM was the right thing to do under the circumstances. Perhaps if the rest of the economy wasn’t so screwed, letting it go bankrupt would’ve been the right thing, but if you don’t let the government work to save the economy under such extreme circumstances, what good is having a government in the first place?

Just a couple days ago, I read a news article reporting that the US is on-track to become a bigger oil producer than Saudi Arabia and Russia by 2017, and energy self-sufficient by 2035. Doesn’t sound like Obama and his Democratic Senate is doing anything to block that progress; quite the contrary. And while there are environmental concerns associated with such production, the resulting economic savings should, hopefully, translate into the ability to invest in alternative energy sources and even more efficient vehicles, and the infrastructure necessary to support them.

In light of the changing demographics of the American population, that means that, as a Republican, one has to take a serious, hard look at one’s political message and decide whether one is headed for survival and extinction. That, and take a look at what you’re so afraid of anyway. More on that below. But in terms of the numbers, it’s also widely agreed that the growing percentage of the non-white electorate played a significant role in President Obama’s electoral victory. Romney and his fatcat, fundamentalist Christian supporters scared the hell out of the vast majority of people of color or of the female gender. Again, hard numbers. Fact.

One of the other ironical bits of data that floated around without drawing too much attention to itself for some reason was that most of the historically "Red" states consume more federal tax resources than they produce, while the exact opposite is true for the historically "Blue" states. For a population endorsing an ideology that professes to reject “big government”, that sure seems hypocritical, to point fingers at the more diverse urban population as a bunch of “takers”, while personally benefiting from the redistribution of wealth collected by the federal tax system.

OK, that last bit isn’t data speaking to Obama’s success or Romney’s failings. Poignant nonetheless, since it’s a huge inconsistency in the Republican campaign message. But here’s an interesting factoid I just saw in the most recent Rolling Stone, in a sidebar to an interview with James Carville reflecting on the 2012 election: The only candidate to receive more popular votes than Obama in 2012, in terms of actual votes, was Obama in 2008. Really, how any conservatives can remain standing to claim that Obama’s reelection was really a failure, or that Romney wasn’t “conservative enough”, or that there exists no mandate to enact the tax reforms and other platform policies on which Obama ran, is explainable only by the by-now well-understood phenomenon of stubborn denial in the face of overwhelming evidence.

And, oh yeah, Iraq is over for our military. Afghanistan will be done soon. Drawing down those wars and avoiding entanglement in new ones, combined with ever-advancing technology, means we can safely cut the military budget without compromising military advantage or security. The efficiencies provided for by Obamacare will result in hundreds of millions in health industry-sanctioned cuts to Medicare, while saving individual health insurance customers money and providing for long-term health that will avoid illnesses and other medical complications that drag on the US economy over the long-term. Those numbers are not hard, as they’re fuzzily hovering over the horizon. But as we draw closer, they’re more likely to take the shape I’m expecting. At least, as opposed to the proposed Romney/Ryan “plan”, we have a good idea what the numbers actually will become.

Where the People Live

To expand on the discussion of demographic data: Where the people live, the people voted for Obama. This map (click on “County results” to the left of California) makes that abundantly clear; don’t be fooled by the massive swaths of red territory relative to the less-than-impression fraction of blue. The election results, I’m guessing, are a reliable measure of population density as well.

The demographics of the country are changing, and as a white Southern man, I think that’s fantastic. Diversity is a wonderful and life-affirming experience, not an existential threat. When someone different from us comes to this country to share their dreams, their passion, their ambition, their food, their music, their culture, it’s an exhilarating experience. I can think of plenty of worthless white people I’d like to pack on a boat and ship out to sea, and plenty of hard-working, decent foreigners I consider fortunate to have participate in the economy and society of my beloved country. White people aren’t about to become an endangered species just because Blacks and Asians and Latinos are growing in numbers, and the younger generations are fortunate enough to have enough exposure to other cultures to grow up understanding this.

Really, if you live on a ranch in western Virginia with your nearest neighbor three miles away, and you see the whole town at church every Sunday, what does it matter to you that people with a different skin color or ethnic background or spiritual faith are trying to make a good life for themselves in Hampton, or Richmond, or Charlottesville, or Roanoke, or Alexandria? What does it matter to you if two people who love and are committed to one another, who live in an urban area but who happen to both have lady-parts or man-parts, are afforded basic social and economic rights? Especially if, as I understand it, the homosexual population has remained at about 10% throughout history, a product of biological inclination over personal choice? How does opportunity and dignity bestowed upon people unlike you translate into a personal loss or disruption in your own lifestyle? How do you lose if they gain?

Don’t try to give me any line about God or the bible. If God exists, and is so opposed to such human transgressions, by the precedent set in your beloved literature, He’d’ve not hesitated to turn all the US cities and most European nations into gigantic pillars of salt long ago. I’d be a smouldering pile of ash left behind from a well-placed lightning bolt by even thinking this, much less writing and publishing it.

We Are All Together

Isn’t it strange how those who proclaim such wild fear of big government interfering in the lives and personal freedoms of individuals are the very same who assert the necessity of big business and big religion to do exactly that?

This election was a glorious vindication of the notion that we are all in this situation together; it is not a matter of rich or rural, white, fundamentalist Christians vs. the rest of the world that wants to destroy America. We all want America to succeed, and to do so, all Americans must succeed. While I like to see fiscal conservatism and smaller government take shape as a general principle, I recognize that there are certain social protections that the government can provide for—given transparency and a sound democratic process to keep checks on government power—which are impossible for the free market to provide given the basic fact of human self-interest. The rich and powerful don’t get rich and powerful and stay rich and powerful by following the rules, but by crafting the rules to their advantage. Government by and for the people is the single best way to keep a check on the ruthless self-interest of bad actors who feed on society for their own pleasure.

Hope

I’m thankful that enough people saw through the obstructionism, handwaving, and outright lies of the Republican political machine to thwart its political agenda, despite the fact that the House remains under Republican control. I’m thankful that the American people, and Virginia in particular, didn’t let Daddy Warbucks buy and lie his way into the White House after all. I’m glad that hard data, solid reason, and acceptance of cultural and ethnic diversity was victorious against racism, corporate greed, and religious fundamentalism driven to extremes of dishonesty and denial.

And I’m borderline hopeful that at least some leaders within the Republican party—Boehner, Christie, Jindal, and, for chrissakes, Gingrich—have the good sense to declare that ye olde xenophobic, fundamentalist conservative strategy isn’t working anymore, especially in light of the increasing ethnic and cultural diversity of the nation. One can dream that this is the first slip of the Tea Party/Christian fundamentalist death grip on the Republican party. It’d be lovely to have a truly valid two-party system, where there are equally viable alternatives between right and left. It’s about time that leaders within the GOP had the stones to tell the crazies to STFU and get out, and get back to the business of governing the country in a responsible manner, in cooperation with those of a different political perspective, rather than trying to roll over them with righteous anger, by any means necessary, no matter how cynical and dishonest.

The sooner the Republican party can take this message to heart, the sooner, I hope, we can return to an era of relatively civil discourse based on real issues and opposing, but genuine, principles. The sooner the crazies and elitists are purged from the public forum, the sooner the country can get back to making rational arguments and decisions and feeling like a nation, where citizens respect each other despite differences in opinion, where equal opportunity is provided for all without eliminating incentives for individual responsibility. The sooner we can put the greed and the lies and the fear behind us, the sooner we can act like the nation we believe ourselves to be, the nation that the rest of the world believes we can be, that we must be.

Footnotes

1Wow, in digging up links, I discovered the wonderful horse and sparrow theory.

2Yeah, that article makes a case that McConnell’s comments weren’t as extreme as Democrats made them sound. Again, horseshit. If McConnell was really interested in seeing the president change and succeed, he’d’ve made that point in an explicit, sensational fashion, and not throw out that singularly unhelpful “one-term president” gem.