Sunday, October 21, 2012

I Owe My Soul to the Company Store

You thought it was 2012? Wrong! If you work for companies like Georgia Pacific (a subsidiary of Koch Industries), Westgate Resorts or ASG Software Associates, you just might be a coal miner living in a company town somewhere in Appalachia a hundred or so years ago. It seems that the Big Boss has certain preconditions for you to keep your job, and they don't end at just doing your job right. Nope, it's your duty to do everything in your power to ensure that Mitt wins the election, because if he doesn't, your next stop could very well be the dole.

It seems that all of the aforementioned companies have instructed their employees in one way or another—but all of them clearly and directly—that a vote for Obama is a vote for shrinking the company and maybe eliminating your job. Of course you shouldn't feel pressured or anything like that, because it's a free country after all, but you should sure consider what's in your own best interest when you step into that booth. You know, just some friendly advice from some of the wealthiest men in America, who always have your best interest at heart.

Besides, it's not like company management somehow cooked this up all on their own. It was Mitt's idea. All in a day's work for Forty-Seven Percent Man!

Hey, I told you I like to fire people… Now take a hike!

Out of Gas

I'm glad that election day is nearly upon us. I'd really like to get this thing over with. I can't take the suspense much longer. Or the campaign advertisements. My mind was made up long ago, so let's just get to it. I don't need another couple of weeks to figure out who should get my vote.

I'm sort of amazed that in the presidential race there are still supposedly large numbers of undecided voters out there. I don't see what there is at this point that anyone thinks he or she is going to learn about either candidate that we don't all know already. Interesting that the second presidential debate was built around undecided voters questioning the candidates directly.

I thought the range of topics covered by the questions was reasonable. Except for the one to Romney about how he is different from George W. Bush, they were the kinds of topics I would have expected. One question, though, really irritated me. It was this one: "Your energy secretary, Steven Chu, has now been on record three times stating it's not policy of his department to help lower gas prices. Do you agree with Secretary Chu that this is not the job of the Energy Department?" It irritated me because it is symptomatic of an attitude toward energy use that shows that nearly forty years after the oil shock of 1973, we Americans still haven't learned a whole lot about energy policy. Our notion of energy policy still comes down to the price of a gallon of gas.

It's symptomatic of this foolishness that as the vital signs of his presidential campaign were growing fainter and fainter, Newt Gingrich decided to focus it on gas prices. Elect me, he said, and I will bring the price of gas down to $2.50 per gallon. I guess that's your proof that Gingrich is a historian and not an economist.

The Fool On His Errand

The honest, and proper, answer to that question would be this: "Yes, I agree with Secretary Chu. The price of gasoline is determined by supply and demand in the world market for petroleum. There is little that the president or the Department of Energy can do in the short run to influence either. In the longer term, we can pursue policies that encourage exploration and technological innovation that can increase the supply. If demand remains stable, that may bring prices down, but not necessarily, because as we extract oil from ever more difficult-to-reach sources, the cost of extracting that petroleum continues to rise, as does the environmental impact.

But we know that demand will not remain stable. As our own economy continues to recover, we know from history that domestic demand will rise. We also need to consider that the combined population of India and China is now about 2.6 billion people out of the world's total of around seven billion, and as those countries continue on a path of rapid development, we know that world petroleum demand is going to steadily increase, keeping pace with, and probably outpacing supply. Moreover, we know that the extraction, transport, refining and consumption of petroleum all take an enormous toll on our environment. And I should also note that a not inconsiderable part of our national defense budget is attributable to the need to ensure that Persian Gulf oil continues to flow unhindered to our shores.

With all this in mind, I believe it should be the policy of US government to raise gas prices, not to lower them. We should impose taxes that reflect the real cost of our continued dependance on oil as an energy source. That will give our citizens an incentive to conserve and our manufacturers of automobiles and home heating equipment an incentive to improve the efficiency of their products. That would be a much more market-oriented approach than trying to directly mandate efficiency standards such as we do with the CAFE standards for automobile gas mileage. Other industrialized countries follow this approach; gasoline taxes in France, Germany or Japan mean that consumers there pay significantly more for a gallon of gas than we do, but their per-capita petroleum consumption is also around half of our own, and nobody who has visited any of those places would seriously claim that their standard of living is lower than ours.

I understand that for some lower-income Americans, who have no alternative to driving in order to get to their jobs or to care for their families, any increase in the price of gasoline does represent a genuine hardship, and we need to address that. We can do so indirectly by using some of those increased tax revenues to make smart investments in public transportation where it makes sense to do so, and some of them to provide commuter mileage tax credits or other subsidies to lower-income Americans for whom public transportation is still not a realistic option.

Whatever happens, we need to recognize that focusing our national energy policy on keeping down the price of a gallon of gas is not the right answer for our country. We need to develop creative, market-driven policies to reduce our dependence on petroleum, especially petroleum that comes from some of the most politically unstable places on the planet, but also petroleum that is extracted in ways that represent a huge risk to the environment. It may be a very long time before we can fully wean ourselves from our dependence on petroleum as an energy source, but we need to start that process, and recognize that it is not a problem we can drill our way out of."

That's the answer I wanted to hear from Obama, but I didn't get it. At least in his answer, Obama did make a case for developing alternative energy sources along with the more traditional ones. Romney sort of paid lip service to that, but in the end, he also said, "I'll get America and North America energy-independent. I'll do it by more drilling, more permits and licenses. We're going to bring that pipeline in from Canada. How in the world the president said no to that pipeline, I will never know. This is about bringing good jobs back for the middle class of America, and that's what I'm going to do."

And notice that line about "America and North America". I'm not sure what the difference is in Romney's mind. Romney likes to talk about North American energy, which is apparently Romnese for "energy from sources that are in North America but not in the US". That oil that's somehow going to usher in a new era of mass consumption is in Canada, not the US. In Romney's mind that may be "our" oil, but in reality that oil is going to go wherever it brings the best price. That may be to refineries in New Jersey or Texas or California. It may also be to customers in Shanghai or Mumbai. That's just how markets work.

For a guy who likes to go on and on about his successful career in business, market economics somehow doesn't seem to be Romney's strong suit. You'd think he'd really know better than to point out that at the beginning of Obama's term, gas was selling for less than $2 per gallon. "It's because the economy was in the toilet!", I found myself screaming at the TV (I'm not normally one for screaming at the TV—that function is normally performed by My Favorite Wife, when she watches the German national team in some soccer match). So there's that old supply-and-demand thing again. I'm glad that Obama made exactly the same point (though he didn't use the word "toilet").

When he moves a few more inches to the left, I pounce!

Romney's peculiar notions about economics, and mathematics, are also apparent in his tax proposals. I was glad to see Obama being a little more articulate this time around in dissecting Romney's plans for mending the budget. For my money, neither candidate has put a credible plan on the table. But Romney's plans to substantially reduce tax rates, vastly increase defense spending and pay for it all by closing some as-yet unspecified loopholes is simply insulting; it's Romney's "read my lips, no new taxes" moment. Don't take my word for it, ask the Tax Policy Center.

Hey Dad! Kind of reminds you of your tax policy, doesn't it?

The one area in which Romney sort of scored a point or two in my book was during the discussion of the attack on the consulate in Beghazi. The undignified yes-I-did-no-you-didn't exchange regarding whether and when Obama uttered the magic words "act of terror" that was clarified in Obama's favor by narrator Candy Crowley made Romney look a little ridiculous, but it doesn't change the fact that a lot of very confused and contradictory information was (and continues to be) disseminated about what happened. Sure, Obama did use those words in his Rose Garden statement the day after the attack, but in his statement he also connected "efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others" to "this type of senseless violence", i.e., he was putting events in Benghazi in the same category as riots that resulted from the insulting (and just plain stupid) film about the prophet Mohammed that had appeared on the Internet shortly before (something I commented on ranted about previously).
Did so! Did not! Did so! Did not! Did… Moooommmmmm!

But the real issue, that of whether this attack on the Benghazi consulate could/should have been foreseen and prevented, still does not have any satisfactory answer from Obama. I find it sort of curious that Romney chose not to drill down on that, but instead preferred to split hairs over whether or not the president called it an "act of terror". I also reject his assertion that "this calls into question the president's whole policy in the Middle East"; to conflate this potentially preventable tragedy with what is happening in Syria or Iran, as Romney went on to do, is just incoherent and stupid.

It's too bad that with so much at stake in this election, the most memorable thing from this debate seems to be the "binders full of women" quote. Apart from the awkward peculiarity of the expression itself, it turns out to be yet another application of the Romney/Ryan facts-don't-matter approach. The source of the binder (not "binders") in question, the non-partisan group MassGAP, has made it clear that it was not Romney who reached out to them to recruit potential candidates; on the contrary, MassGAP provided the information to all of the gubernatorial candidates prior to the election.

Tonight's Bedtime Story: Mitt and the Terrible, Horrible,
No Good,Very Bad Debate

So now we're down to one last presidential debate. I'll be glad when that's behind us. It's all about foreign policy. I hope that the niveau of the discussion is going to rise above, "I got Bin Laden!" "You always apologize for America!"
Meanwhile, let's check in on what the VP candidates have been up to while their bosses have been duking it out on stage. It turns out that Joe Biden can read babies' minds! He demonstrated this neat trick recently at a campaign rally.

Paul Ryan is staying fit on the campaign trail! Apparently these pictures published in Time Magazine were actually shot some time ago, but I find them immensely inspiring. Congressman Ryan's own little Rocky montage!

Wants To Be Vice President—Doesn't Know How To Operate A Hat

The congressman is also apparently feeling himself drawn back to his fictional working class roots (we previously reported). He recently turned up at a St. Vincent De Paul Society soup kitchen in Youngstown, OH with his family and photographers in tow and proceeded to waste everyone's time with an unwanted and unneeded demonstration of his dishwashing prowess. Apparently the only lasting effect of this little stunt is that some of the organization's donors have pulled their funding because it is supposed to be strictly apolitical. Gee, Paul! I'll bet there are a lot of poor people in Youngstown who are grateful for your terrific charity work!

Dishwatergate Conspirators

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

One Big Happy Biblical Family

I came across an interesting story today as I was perusing my usual news sources. You may have heard of Dan Cathy, president of the Chick-fil-A fast food chain and funder of Christian organizations with anti-gay policies. There was something of a brouhaha in the media over the summer as the result of an interview with the Baptist Press in which he talked about the Christian underpinnings of his company's management style and made statements like, "We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit." Gay rights activists took that as a signal to call for a boycott of Chick-fil-A restaurants and stage a "national same-sex kiss day at Chick-fil-A". 

I didn't really pay much attention to the whole thing, not in the least because Chick-fil-A restaurants are few and far between here in New England, so whatever nonsense their president may be up to doesn't register so strongly with me. I probably wouldn't patronize their restaurants if I did come across one, partly because I am now aware of, and disagree with, the anti-gay stance of their management, but also because I just don't care much for fast food restaurants and generally only eat in them on rare occasions when I find myself someplace like an airport or a highway rest stop and don't have anything else to choose from if I need to eat. 

But I was reminded of the whole thing today when I came across this story about Dan Cathy giving his first interview since the controversy erupted. He evaded questions about the topic per se, but did reiterate that, "Families are very important to our country… and they're very important to those of us who are concerned about being able to hang on to our heritage. We support biblical families, and they've always been a part of that."

So what exactly is this "biblical family" that Dan is always on about? I can hardly claim to be a bible scholar, but I have read it, and I can't think of any passages that explicitly lay out a blueprint for what a family is supposed to look like. I guess that leaves us to look for examples of families in the bible and live as they did. The only families I can think of off the top of my head that are discussed at any length are in the book of Genesis—Adam and Eve, Noah and his sons and, of course, the patriarchs.

Among the patriarchs is Jacob. Remember Jacob? He's the guy who had six sons with his wife Leah, two more sons with his other wife (and Leah's sister) Rachel, and another two sons each with Zilpah and Bilhah, the "handmaids" of Leah and Rachel. One big happy family! Jacob and his mates and their progeny aren't exactly obscure, minor figures in the Old Testament—they're pretty central to the whole narrative, with their saga taking up a couple dozen chapters of Genesis. From this I guess I can deduce that the Jacobean model is at least one acceptable version of a "biblical family"; it's all right there in black and white, without any kind of warnings or "don't try this at home" disclaimers. On the contrary, the descendants of Jacob's twelve sons became the twelve tribes of Israel, so clearly the Big Man in the Sky was cool with the whole arrangement.

Family Outings of the Patriarch

So am I now to conclude that Dan Cathy thinks it's OK for me to have two wives plus two semi-wives? Somehow I don't think that's what Dan had in mind, but it is right there in Genesis. It just goes to show that before you go waving the bible around as the operations manual for how we should all live, you should probably read what's in it.