MARCH MADNESS: The Sequester and College Basketball

Let’s look at next month’s Calendar.

March 1st – this Friday: I can find no indication that some sort of deal will be reached by Friday , so the “sequester” figures to go into effect, which means the government will cut about $85 billion between now and Sept. 30, about half from defense and half from other discretionary programs.  This means that roughly 7% of these two areas (by my quick calculation) is projected to be cut over the next few months, with cuts ranging from about 5 to 9%.

Those would be substantial cuts, and the Obama administration, wanting to put pressure on the Republicans, has been playing that up with details of what will be cut and the public pain it might cause, like long lines at the airport.  But the question is how and when will these cuts take place.  Some might not take place at all and others be quickly reversed.  For starters by Sept 30, “the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicts that agencies will reduce actual spending by only about $44 billion, with the remaining cuts carried over into future years.”

So, right there the $85 billion in immediate impact is nearly cut in half.

Also, there will be no immediate impact, or next to none.   The cuts will happen gradually giving Congress the opportunity to make various adjustments in the days ahead, such as refunding elements that have been cut, most likely starting with the military.  Many of the cuts will come in the form of layoffs, which won’t begin to happen until April or so, giving Congress at least a month of flex time to do some horse trading.

It could actually become interesting.

The question is:  Who can find the leverage to get the other side to do what?  Right now the Republicans seem content to let the cuts fall where they may and blame Obama for coming up with the sequestration idea to begin with in August of 2011, even though they voted for it and Boehner made it sound like a good idea at the time (to paraphrase him: I got 98% of what I wanted).  I don’t think it worth arguing the point, but it is my understanding the Obama team did come up with the idea, being that these budget cuts would become automatic if the two parties could not work out a more sensible solution by now.

Furthermore, my guess is that even back then the President could imagine things coming to this point given Congress’s habitual inability to come up with sensible solutions to anything.  So,  if re-elected, he would have the advantage now, and recent polls suggest he does.  However, to speculate some more, I believe he thought the Republicans would have to work out a deal with him in order to keep part of their traditional identity in tact:   a strong military first and foremost.

The stumbling block has been that the Republican Tea Party types are so fixated on cutting spending, they seem willing to cut it from anywhere, even the military.   Or course, hawks like John McCain aren’t on board with that, but the Republican Party is more splintered these days than an old park bench, a topic I will let lay for the moment.

So the sequestration cuts, at least the first tiny slices, figure to begin Friday.

There seems likely little immediate impact of this congressional dilly dallying unless Wall Street gets spooked by it all.  So far they’ve taken it in stride. Teetering-on-the-cliff politics has become old hat.

March 19 – Tuesday:  The NCAA Basketball Tourney begins, a form of madness that is much more fun, at least for me. This year seems particularly wide open as there is no one team that has proven dominant with the #1 ranking bouncing around like a volleyball. For those of you who do pools, give the St. Louis Billikens an extra gander and a  Google before counting them out.

March 27 – Wednesday:   Supposedly the federal government loses its authority to spend money, or perhaps it is March 31 (I’ve read both dates). That means the government shuts down as happened for 28 days when Bill Clinton was President.  This sounds drastic and, given the present Congress, just might prove to be.  Who knows?  But we have a few weeks to take a closer look at this next “cliff”. 

March 31 – Sunday: – Those not really interested in anything said so far might want to know that the  Major League Baseball season begins with the Texas Rangers vs. the Houston Astros.   It also might be the day the federal government shuts down, but I doubt it.

SOTU: SOme Time U need to believe it to see it

I thought I had had enough of the State of the Union (SOTU) address, but reader Stormy Malone’s response merits general consideration.   My position has been I’ll believe it (Obama’s agenda) when I see it working its way through Congressional gridlock.   

However, I do believe that often one needs to first believe in something in order to actually see it happen.  Malone is a liberal activist who believes in President Obama’s vision and in the importance of stating it, as she argues below.  Since she makes her points well and avoids insulting me in the process, I want to give her center stage today.


2013 SotU 50

2013 SotU 50 (Photo credit: Editor B)

For those of us who  are interested in active citizenship and taking the longview, I think vision in the SOTU matters as much as what can happen “tomorrow,” or even this year or this decade. To a progressive, the SOTU is not a piece of entertainment, but a roadmap of cause. We are the ones who canvass, volunteer, tweet, fund raise and blog to move a progressive agenda forward.

It’s why we finally have the ACA and why we will have Climate Change legislation before long, why immigration reform will happen very soon and why gun legislation will stay alive. We activists will not make the same mistake we made in 2010. We will stay on the do-nothing congress until it is extinct as a legislative majority and we will support of candidates in 2014 who can win and best fulfill the SOTU vision PBO laid out. We will be turning out folks to the polls.

Granted there are many like you who are impatient with the march of progress. That’s fine and your voices are as important as the activists’ voices. I can’t blame anyone for being indifferent, or for being frustrated because the President can’t “make it so.” But a legislative body in a democracy is not a sports “team” with a coach or a “crew” on a starship with a captain. There are no absolute voices in a Democracy.

Democracy is designed to be sloooooooow. It is Democracy’s great vulnerability because horrible injustices can happen as elected officials “debate.” At least now we have digital technology that allows the process to speed up, to reach critical mass on issues that have simmered for decades.

Within 4 short years this country flipped completely on gay rights, not because people changed but because a President, for the first time, spoke up. On a variety of gun issues, for the first time in decades, the president will force politicians to go on the record with a vote.

In short, I totally understand why you preferred to have others sum up the SOTU for you, but to an activist, a person who loves politics and cheers for the agenda of PBO, it is about as persuasive an argument as me arguing that catching the highlights of the Super Bowl is the same as watching in real time as the Ravens beat the 49ers.

And how many times have I seen Wisconsin play in the Rose Bowl? Why on earth watch again?

A Little Bit More on the State of the Union Address

George Washington's First State of the Union A...

George Washington’s First State of the Union Address (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A friend chided me for commenting on the State of the Union (SOTU) address without watching it, and I want to speak to that.  A week after the address, I still feel no qualms about not watching.  For one thing I read several reactions to it and saw a number of clips.  Since I am not very interested in what the President says these days, but in what he and the Congress can get done, that seems plenty.

Also, I have found no argument against the most powerful segment being his passionate urging that proposals to reduce  gun violence be voted on in Congress, as I wrote about in my previous post.

One thing I do want to add, though, is the dreary thought that all of this emotion was garnered to simply push our Congress to vote on gun-related proposals, NOT TO ACTUALLY PASS ANYTHING.

That seems the most significant point of all.   Our Congress is so gridlocked that simply getting a vote on a proposal rates as an achievement.   How twisted is that?  Of course, Obama undoubtedly thinks that if votes are taken something will pass, but it still underscores  how the engines of our ship of state are barely working.

It is this gridlock that devalues everything said by the President and members of the Congress.  What matters is what gets done, not what is said.  So, I have been much less interested in SOTU than in the upcoming  “sequester”  deadline March 2 (across the board budget cuts on about 0ne-third of the budget).

Nobody seems confident in predicting what Congress will do about that and if no one can even predict that, most things the president proposed mean nothing to me yet, except again the matter of gun-related proposals, some of which seem to have momentum.

That’s all I have to say.   Those who want to think more about SOTU should find the divergent takes of Ezra Klein and Matt Miller interesting.   Both center-left types whose opinions I respect, they reacted to the address very differently.  Klein saw it as “shockingly bold” – unlike the “nothing new here” reaction of most commentators.  Miller, on the other hand, called it “hollow”, even more disappointing than being old hat.

To sum up his disappointment:  “Even if Obama’s agenda becomes law, after eight years of the most progressive president in memory, America will still be a country in which work is less well-rewarded, college is far costlier, and poor children’s life chances more limited by accident of birth than in virtually every other wealthy nation. American exceptionalism indeed.”

Klein’s video can be found here, while Miller’s column can be found here.  The video begins with the usual short ad, then some intro-clips, so you need to be a little patient.

By the way, though calling the President’s agenda bold, Klein admits he has no idea if any of it will be passed.   Which is why I don’t care about the words, even if they were “bold.”

State of the Union Afterthoughts

My first thought is I am glad I did not watch the speech, nor the Republican

United States Capitol

United States Capitol (Photo credit: lofaesofa)

two-headed response to it.  From reading the opinions of several commentators, it seems the most momentous part came near the end when the President made an impassioned plea to bring up votes in Congress regarding various gun control measures, passion  fueled by the appearance of families of shooting victims in the audience.

Given the intractable nature of federal politics  these days, I cannot disagree with the President’s tugging on the heart strings that remain raw in thoughts of Newton, Connecticut.  But I am not entirely comfortable with it, either.   It is a form of manipulation aimed at our hearts, just as Republicans try to manipulate us with fear aimed at our guts.

Republicans, like Lindsay Graham, always want us to imagine the worst case scenario, the lone woman at home protecting her children who may need an AR15 semi-automatic rifle in case she faces a virtual army of invaders.  In contrast the Democrats want us to never forget those little children cut down in such an incredibly merciless way.  They want to keep that memory burning, so Congress does not remain stuck doing nothing about it.

While I have qualms about playing upon emotions in both cases, the Newton massacre was real (as what happened in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and to Gabby Giffords in Arizona, and…), while Graham’s example is imagined, referring to his general sense of what took place during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992.  In the Senate judiciary committee he referred to roving gangs pillaging and raping, which those who have studied the issue have called “political theater (*1).

We can all easily imagine the worst. That’s what makes playing upon fear so powerful.   And why a simple answer like more guns for the good guys is attractive, until you think more about it as I did in a previous post.

It is much harder to imagine children becoming safer at schools because of less direct steps, like more and better background checks and cracking down on inter-state gun trafficking.  Over time they seem likely to be safer, but not for your child today, and who is to say just when?

Fear tends to have a longer shelf life than love, and its fires more easily fanned and its solutions clear cut, albeit dubious.  For this reason I accept the constant drum beat of “remember Newton”, beat through our hearts to our souls as it will be needed over time to win over the right’s incessant fear mongering.   For something to happen in our largely dysfunctional Congress, the fire of compassion must be stoked hot to overcome the fire of fear constantly fanned by the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre and acceded to by Republicans  like Lindsey Graham.

In these next four years it strikes me we will see no more bi-partisanship in Congress than we did in the last four EXCEPT when one side of any proposal can  accumulate sufficient leverage to force opponents to get something done, as little and infrequent as that may be.

In this case the leverage will hinge upon who has the passion to fight hardest and longest.


(*1)  According to Wikopedia, those riots left 53 dead and over 2000 injured, but Graham takes that scenario and then implies gangs invading homes and pillaging and raping.  Two researchers of those events call his comments “unfounded hyperbole” or, as mentioned above, “political theater.”   In referring to those riots, Graham said:  “What if there’s an earthquake out here and there’s a lawless situation,” the kind of argument regularly made by Wayne LaPierre and other survivalists.

Why My State of the Union Message is Better

It is much shorter.

My Fellow Citizens,

The state of our union is so disunited that I am going to say little about it.

079 Capitol Hill United States Congress 1993

(Photo credit: David Holt London)

I like and respect our president, the latter largely colored by my sense that he has an impossible job, so I judge him less harshly than most.   When hearing him criticized I recall how President Lincoln was widely looked upon as an incompetent fool during most of his presidency.   Even his own cabinet took quite awhile to realize he had a lot more ability than “a well meaning baboon.”

Having said that, I am tired of hearing speeches by our current president.  I don’t have much audacity of hope left and need to see things happening rather than hear them talked about.  Tonight I can’t imagine him saying anything  momentous, and if I’m pleasantly surprised I’ll find out about it tomorrow.

For me it all boils down to what will happen in Congress over the next few months and whatever the President says tonight won’t affect that much one way or another.   According to Bloomberg News:    “The president will offer proposals for spending on infrastructure, clean energy and education, according to a senior official briefed on the speech. ….  He will also stress the agenda laid out in his inauguration address, pushing Congress for action on immigration, gun control, and climate change.”

It  all sounds good to me, but I want to see how it plays out, not hear more about it.   As indicated in my previous post, the across-the-board budget cuts (called the sequester) interests me more because they play out by March 2 (*1).  At least the next act of this ongoing tragicomedy does.   I am interested to see how that will be dealt with because sharp cuts in government spending can slow our economy as shown in the last quarter (*2).

Obama has said he would like the deadline to be pushed back again to the summer, so the two parties could work out a more comprehensive approach.  However, this strikes me as a ploy, for the Tea Party rump of Republicans seem willing to let the sequester go into effect and see what happens.  If it does, Obama will be seen as more reasonable and if the cuts do really make a negative impact on our economy, he can blame the Republicans.   For this reason I wouldn’t be surprised if John Boehner cooperates with the Democrats again and goes along with kicking the can down the road.  But if he does that, I wonder whether it will split the Republicans apart, or more apart than they already are.

That is what I want to see and believe it will be necessary for much of anything to get done in congress.   As long as the Tea Party folks have enough power to veto what they don’t like, which is anything that includes compromise, not a whole lot is going to be accomplished.

With that in mind, I cannot imagine that the President will say anything this evening to make me glad I tuned in, so I think I will watch college basketball instead in preparation for filling out brackets for one of my favorite sporting multi-events:  March Madness (the NCAA basketball tournament for the sports-challenged).  There will be plenty of analysis tomorrow in case I miss something noteworthy.

If I learn something interesting, I’ll write about it later this week.


(*1)   When talking about across the board cuts in spending, we’re really talking about cuts to about one-third of the overall spending, the discretionary part as opposed to entitlement programs and interest on our debt itself, which automatically go into effect each year.   That’s why we often hear someone arguing that to really deal with our debt we must deal with entitlements.

(*2)   In that last quarter, a sharp drop off in military spending was the primary cut back and under the sequester it would be the primary one again because about 24% of our entire budget is spent on the military.  Or think of it as about two-thirds of that one third of the entire budget that is spent on discretionary spending.   Linked here is a pie chart of federal spending.

Dealing with Our Debt Dilemma: Austerity vs. Stimulus

Those paying attention cannot help but feel frustrated by the inability of our Congress and President to come up with a long term debt solution.   According to the Congressional Budgeting Office (CBO), “by 2023,…. the publicly held federal debt will reach almost $20 trillion, nearly double 2012’s $11.3 trillion.” That figures to  stifle our economy and leave a huge financial burden to our descendents.   The trend is not our friend  (*1).

Wipe our Debt

Wipe our Debt (Photo credit: Images_of_Money)

Of course, much of the political wrangling has to do with gaining or losing advantage for either party, but often lost in that are real differences in points of view.  The two parties can’t make a deal because they see the problem differently.  On the right are those who believe the debt is our biggest problem and must be tackled right now (*2), while on the left, the belief is we must first develop a more robust economy and then later tackle the debt using the increased federal income stemming from that economy.   Cutting now would cut too deeply into social programs.

It boils down to those who favor austerity now and those who favor more government stimulus now, even though it adds to the debt.   The latter do not deny the debt issue, but believe it is not our top priority, while boosting the economy and creating more jobs is.   The former, especially the Tea Party, would argue that the promise of tackling the debt down the line is a fairy tale.   Our federal government has grown under both parties, an addiction it can’t break, like a life long smoker.  It needs to stop cold turkey…..or cool turkey.

Of course, there are some who advocate a combination of raised taxes and cuts in spending, a middle ground as represented by the Simpson/Bowles plan which adds revenue and makes budget cuts.  But there are two big flies in that ointment.  The Democrats don’t want to talk about reducing entitlements and the Republicans don’t want to talk about raising taxes, even more so now that the Bush tax cuts have been erased for those making $400,000 or more.   Those cuts were supposed to be temporary, so Democrats think of them as tax restoration, not hikes, but to Republicans, they are tax hikes.

Months back when Simpson/Bowles was introduced into the House hardly anyone on either side voted for it (*3).   That would have meant in upcoming elections, they would have had to defend both raising taxes and cutting spending.   Better to leave sleeping dogs lie, not for the country, but better for individual congressmen and their parties.

The one thing most on both sides can agree upon is that too much austerity too quickly would throw us back into recession.  That’s why Congress keeps working out last minute stop-gap measures, the proverbial kicking the can down the road.  Can we cut deficits without killing the recovery? is the question, and happens to be the title of an editorial by economic journalist Robert Samuelson.    He gives  a good overview of this dilemma in the Washington Post linked here: 

Samuelson sums up the potential problems of not reducing our deficits.   According to the CBO, increased federal debt “poses three dangers. The first is the financial crisis: Lenders might flee from buying Treasury debt. Second, large government borrowing could crowd out private investment and jeopardize future gains in living standards. Finally, the high debt might limit government’s ability to borrow heavily if a new need arises — from war, an economic crisis or natural disaster.

The exit from this dilemma…. is to time deficit reduction with a strengthening private-sector recovery. As private spending improves, cuts in government spending or tax increases would threaten the economy less.”

Nice trick if we can pull it off.   But it is hard to imagine our present Congress pulling off anything that tricky, isn’t it?   If they could, we wouldn’t be facing another “sequester” deadline next month.   The idea of the “sequester” back in August, 2011 was that the threat of across the board cuts in our federal budget would force both parties to come to a more sensible compromise.  But, many months later, all it has forced them to do so far is to extend the deadline for those cuts to March 2.

I imagine the President will address this in his State of the Union speech this Tuesday, but it is guesswork as to what will actually happen between now and the March deadline.   Given recent history, I can’t imagine a real step forward taking place, unless “cutting the budget with an ax rather than a scalpel” (an oft used comparison) winds up being a step forward some how.    I don’t know where it would be a step to.   Perhaps after the cuts were made, Congress could agree on selectively restoring some funding.

On the other hand, putting off the deadline once again would make me recall the fairy tale of the boy who called wolf.   A deadline is supposed to mean something.  If this keeps up “deadline” will become a laugh line.

Whatever Congress winds up doing or not seems likely to add new meaning to the term March Madness.


(*1)   Debt as a share of the economy would rise from 2012’s 73 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) to 77 percent in 2o23.  Though a bad trend, it may not seem as frightening as the other stat, unless one adds that debt/GDP ratio was 36 percent in 2007.  The hay day before the mortgage meltdown.

(*2)  The liberal economist Paul Krugman (note link on my Blogroll above) has argued that Republicans do not really care about the debt, that it has been a political ploy.  Certainly the last  Bush administration wasn’t concerned about the debt.   But other highly respected economists and business leaders think Krugman underestimates the dangers of our deepening debt.

(*3)  Paul Krugman has also argued Simpson/Bowles is a bad plan anyway, but perhaps even a “bad” plan is better than no plan at all, which is where we are.  Also, as I will elaborate upon later, whatever plan Krugman might like would not have a shot of getting through Congress, even though he is a brilliant economist who may be right.  I will return to this in a later post.

Sandy Hook at the Superbowl: Was it as “delightful” as it seemed?

Hearing that a chorus from Sandy Hook Elementary School would be singing at the Super Bowl, I emailed the following to Chris Hayes, host of my favorite political commentary program on Saturday and Sunday morning (minus one sentence that I now think was inappropriate).

The San Francisco 49ers' Super Bowl XXIX troph...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dear Chris,

Is it just me, or is there something just out of kilter with the NFL using these victims as props in the Super Bowl?  I’m sure the NFL people are well intentioned and don’t see it that way, but I do.

My gut says the goal should be to return these survivors to normalcy as best as possible. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t have great insights into how, but this can’t be a good way to do it.

How does this help in that regard? What’s normal about elementary kids plucked out of nowhere and suddenly put in front of thousands under mega watt lights in America’s biggest event of the year?

There is something wrong in this even if I cannot quite explain what it is.

Richard Farrell


On Super Bowl day, watching the children sing and smile while singing, it did feel heart warming, but I wonder what was going through their minds and what will in the future.  They were 3rd and 4th graders, so not in the classes with the 1st graders who were shot to death.  Not that I know what that means to them as opposed to the younger children, who apparently weren’t at this game.   Maybe watching in supportive gatherings back in Newtown?  I don’t know much about this at all, but still feel that the aim for everyone would be to struggle back to some form of normalcy to the extent possible.

I would think the inclination would be to shelter these children.  To thrust  them into the limelight of American pageantry seems just the opposite of that.

I’ve seen the NFL praised for keeping the events at Newtown alive in the American mind, which may help get gun violence legislation passed, but I have trouble believing the ongoing public attention is good for the children themselves.

The media reaction I have seen is completely positive as illustrated in the article listed below, but I have expressed my view to a few friends who see something out of kilter here as well, though perhaps not as much as I do.   Now I would  be curious what other readers think, at least those who aren’t eager to call me an idiot for questioning the positive public sentiment.  There is a Leave a comment button below, at the end of the list of tags, etc.

U. S. Economy Slows to a Standstill: THE SKY IS FALLING!

No it’s not.  Economic  growth did shrivel to slightly less than nothing in

Economist letters

Economist letters (Photo credit: viralbus)

the fourth quarter as reported Wednesday, which surprised most everyone.   But it must have put smiles on the faces of  Obama haters throughout the land.  See we told you so!   As is so often the case, a closer look reveals a different picture.

According to various sources several factors came into play.   Reuters sums up the main downward drivers this way:   “If it were not for the hit from slower inventory growth and the deepest plunge in defense spending in 40 years  (*1.), the economy would have grown at a respectable 2.5 percent rate. In addition, economists said Superstorm Sandy, which struck the East Coast in late October may have reduced GDP by about half a point. “

So, that accounts for 3.0% of our lost growth  and you can learn a bit more about other factors if you click the link to Reuters above.  Or you could just accept the conclusion of  Mark Zandi, chief economist for Moody’s Analytics. “I don’t really read anything into the number…  I don’t think anything has fundamentally changed in the economy.”

That’s not good news, but it is not such bad news, either.  In addition, according to the Washington Post:   “Economists also cautioned that Wednesday’s report was the government’s first crack at measuring economic activity in the fourth quarter and that the data are often revised.   An updated report is slated for release Feb. 28, and many economists predicted it will be more upbeat.”

Not among that number is Steve Ricchiuto, chief economist at brokerage firm Mizuho Securities:   “The preliminary number is negative,” said Steve. “But the recovery is supposedly gaining momentum. Sorry, I don’t see it.”

And in the weeks ahead we might encounter some rough fiscal waters in the form of  Sequester and Debt Ceiling battles in Congress.   In pondering our economic Titanic slowly  sputtering forward amidst the swells, I recall a quote I like:  “Pessimists are cowards and optimists are fools.” (*2.)


(*1.)   Business Insider offers a striking chart  depicting what they call a “Jaw-Dropping Decline In Military Spending That Clubbed GDP” (this comes compliments of reader MB).

(*2.)   This expression was often stated by a little known German philosopher, Heinrich Blucher, the husband of the much better known political theorist, Hannah Arendt, who both escaped Nazi Germany.  I also like the expression:  “While the pessimist may prove right in the end, the optimist has more fun along the way.”  I combine them into:  Hope for the best but plan for the worst.  Not that I always follow my own advice, of course.