Going Mad! Be Back April 9

Congress take its Easter/Passover two week recess next week and President Obama has gone to the mid-east to shore up our relations there, so this seems a good time for us to take a break from thinking about the torturous budget SNAFU, too.    Congress comes back April 8,  which just happens to be the final game day of March Madness, so the following day seems a good time to post again.

Unlike Congress, the NCAA basketball version of March Madness has a plan in place to get something accomplished, namely decide a national basketball champion.

Warmup before the 2006 NCAA Men's Division I B...

Warmup before the 2006 NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament National Championship Game (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The time off will allow me to clean up that red row of Page  categories across the top, which seemed a good idea at first but I haven’t had the time to build them up as sources of information, so they have been neglected for months.  I’m not sure what I will put up there instead, but will go with the notion less is more.

Another thing I will work on some is my attitude.   I am a class half empty kind of guy and dwelling on our federal fiscal follies has drained the glass further.

When I was in my 20s – those  olden times when people still pecked on clunky typewriters, actually received letters and not all bills and junk mail, and spoke into phones attached to a wall – I saw a quote which I wish I still had.   It was from one of those wise ancient ancients and it went something like this:   Do not  dwell on the worries of the world.  The world is not worried about you.   Shrink the world to suit your daily life and you will be happy.

This was succinctly summed up more recently by another philosopher:  “Don’t worry be happy.”   That’s easier said then done, but below is a TED talk by Shawn Achor that might help.   A student of the  “science of happiness,” he wittily asserts that the problem is we have this pursuit of happiness thing backwards.   We tend to think success brings happiness, while it is actually the reverse.  Happiness brings success.

So, give him a gander when you have about 18 minutes for a few chuckles and some thought provoking.  (Those signed up to be emailed posts  may need to go to the web site to see the video.  Click the red and white symbol in the top left corner of the emailed post).

See ya two weeks from this coming Tuesday.

The Arrogance of Power: Iraq 10 years Later

As you probably know, this week is the 10th anniversary of the U. S.  invasion of Iraq.  Frankly, I don’t feel like writing about it, but feel compelled to say something, not just let it pass by.   Recent polls indicate two-thirds of us don’t feel the war was worth “the effort and cost”.   Iran seems the biggest winner, as Iraq used to be a counter balance to their strength in the region, but not now.   Beyond that point, I will leave it to others to go into the costs and gains  in two articles I link you to below.  However, I want to make a few points first about the use of national power in general.

M1A1 Abrams pose for a photo in front of the &...

M1A1 Abrams pose for a photo in front of the “Hands of Victory” in Ceremony Square, Baghdad, Iraq. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Arrogance of Power is a book by Senator William Fullbright, who became a staunch critic of the Vietnam War.   What he wrote regarding Vietnam seems equally applicable to the Iraq war:

“Power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is particularly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God’s favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other nations – to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them, that is, in its own shining image. Power confuses itself with virtue and tends also to take itself for omnipotence. Once imbued with the idea of a mission, a great nation easily assumes that it has the means as well as the duty to do God’s work.”

You know the old expression “pride goeth before a fall?”.  The above is the pride.  Ignorance is what makes the fall hurt like hell.  The famed American diplomat Richard Holbrooke, whose  career stretched from Vietnam to Afghanistan before his death in 2010, once said something to this effect:  The makers of American foreign policy know very little about the countries they are making policies for.   He undoubtedly said it better, but that was the gist.

That is a jaw dropping statement from someone who was in a great position to know.   We emerged from World War II the most powerful nation on earth and we have often employed this power like the proverbial bull in a china shop, largely because our policy makers could only feel our power and not see the complexities we were throwing it at.

Former Secretary of State Collin Powell had an inkling about Iraq when he stated his now famous pottery analogy prior to the invasion.  We ” broke it” and owned it for most of the last 10 years, an analogy that could be extended to Afghanistan as well, only we still own that broken pot as much as we’re trying to give it back, still in pieces.

In contrast to Powell’s sense of complex problems awaiting to unfold in Iraq,  Dick Cheney said he expected the Iraqi’s to throw flowers at us when we invaded.  Some of that did happen, but only for a few days.  Then it became bombs thrown and IED’s buried.  That is the extent to which Mr. “Often-wrong-but-never-in-doubt” understood Iraq.  Not surprisingly, he remains certain to this day that invasion was the right decision given what he knew at the time.  However, many would argue he only knew what he chose to believe, dismissing all evidence to the contrary.

These days we don’t seem to have the money to be quite as powerful as we have been and I would say that’s a good thing, since the arrogance of power wheeled ignorantly tends to spring up whenever possible like crab grass in an Illinois summer.

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Brad Knickerbocker assesses the costs of the war in Iraq War 10 Years Later:  Was is Worth It?.    His article links to another by Dr. Andrew Bacevich, “a West Point graduate who served in Vietnam, a career US Army officer who retired as a colonel, and a professor of history and international relations at Boston University.”  Also,… ” Bacevich’s son, a 27-year-old US Army 1st Lieutenant, was killed in Iraq by a roadside bomb. ”

So, when Bacevich asks:  Ten years after the invasion, did we win the Iraq war?, he brings a unique combination of historical breadth and personal depth to the question.

Obama’s Charm Offensive: Hope Springs Eternal

I don’t know about you, but my previous post depressed me.   When it comes to figuring out a way for congress to actually come to grips with our federal fiscal problems, what comes to mind is the phrase:  You can’t get there from here.

However, I do recall the advice of someone who said:  “Look for the good in everything,”  words that come to mind during situations like this.  So, trying to buck myself up this morning, I’m looking for the positive wherever I can find it.

Paula Abdul Joins Papal Conclave

Paula Abdul Joins Papal Conclave (Photo credit: Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com)

In terms of the president working with Congress, he has publicly reached out to members of both parties through meetings and dinners.   A common criticism of him from both sides of the aisle during his previous administration was that he made few outreach efforts to congress.

Having Rahm Emmanuel as his chief of staff didn’t help in terms of Republicans those first two years, as his attitude was:  “We have the votes, so F…. them.”   Sure, I know the Republicans didn’t exactly have their hands stretched out, either, and “no” soon became the only word they did no (ah, know).    But these days, I am holding out hope that  “no” may be maybe.

Despite skepticism continuing to abound, the two sides are talking nice, or somewhat nice for the moment.   Also, for once under Obama, both the House and the Senate are pulling together budgets, which is called “regular order”, because it used to be done regularly.  If both come up with budget proposals, at least it provides a place for negotiations to begin  (*1).   The Obama team tried to skirt this process and negotiate directly with House Speaker Boehner in 2011, but those talks broke down which led to the sequester which led to those forced meat clever budget cuts  recently because the two sides could not agree on a reasonable alternative to prevent them from going into effect.

The two new budgets outlined thus far are about as far apart as the edges of the Grand Canyon, with Representative Paul Ryan (R) including the elimination of Obamacare as part of his calculations and Senator Patty Murray (D) outlining a trillion dollars in raised revenue over the next ten years.   Both ideas are non-starters for the opposition.  Those who remain optimistic hope those are just bargaining positions which include hidden flexibility.   Pessimists see those as true positions with little wiggle room and continued stalemate.

As for me, I am hoping for some kind of miracle, but miracles happen some time don’t they?   One group that has a whole list of them is the Catholic church, whose members just happen to be celebrating the election of a new pope, which is what brought the possibility of miracles to mind.

I’m willing to suspend judgement for the time being, and instead ponder the idea of Paula Abul at a Papal Conclave.   Don’t ask me what she’s doing there.  The sight just made me smile.

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(*1)   One reason the Senate has not come up with a budget proposal like the House has been doing each year is that anything the  Democrats would want to pass would be  filibustered by the Republicans, so why bother.   Yes, there were 60 Senate Democrats for about the first 18 months of Obama’s first term, but they could barely muster enough votes in the Senate to prevent a filibuster and pass the stimulus plan in 2009 and Obamacare in 2010.    In terms of the stimulus, of the 61 votes in favor, three came from Republicans and two from independents.

A pet peeve of mine is having to listen to someone say the Democrats “controlled” both houses in Obama’s first two years.   They “controlled” the House, but only “managed” the Senate, in the way one tries to manage a stampede.

The Big Picture of our Federal Fiscal Problems

Rubik's Cube Français : Rubik's Cube Bahasa Me...

Rubik’s Cube Français (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Typing the above title made me laugh.  The idea of me saying anything useful about the “big picture” in the space of an itty bitty post makes no sense at all.  On the other hand, it doesn’t feel worthwhile to keep tracking a congress which struggles to just keep the government funded on an almost month by month basis.

Common sense would suggest the issues of the sequester and whether to continue funding the federal government past March 27 shouldn’t be issues at all.  Solving those are the bare minimum while the real issues, the REALLY BIG fiscal  issues are not being touched upon.  It’s as if we are busy trying to agree on shoring up some levees while a tsunami is coming at us a few miles away, or in years, 10 or so.

Doug Elmendorf is the Director of the Congressional Budget (CBO) which acts as a kind of referee examining budget proposals developed by congress and the president and “scoring” them as to their actual cost.   I have come to realize this is a sophisticated guestimate at best since there are so many variables involved, but a good faith guestimate is better than nothing, I guess.

According to Elmendorf we are headed towards very rough waters in our fiscal future.  Last year the CBO chief said that even if congress could come together on various tax hikes and spending cuts offered by both sides – A REALLY BIG IF since they barely can agree to keep the government operating for a few months – they might cut around $250 billion annually from our growing yearly deficit (not touch the overall debt, mind you, but just stanch our full speed towards the iceberg field of insolvency dead ahead).

While that would be a plus, Elmendorf  envisions the need for $750 billion annually in tax hikes and/or spending cuts by 2022 to prevent out national debt from climbing to the point of being equal to about 90% of our GDP, a level which scares most economists.   To reiterate:  Under what seems a best case scenario, we still fall  $500 billion short annually of swinging this big ship of state away from a treacherous ice flow in the 2020s. (*1)

Of course, Elmendorf’s vision would be challenged by some on the left and the right, with economist Paul Krugman the poster boy on the left and, let’s say, Congressman Paul Ryan on the right. (*2)   However, if Elmendorf is close to being right, certainly those on the right who see a solution shaped by only cutting taxes and spending are particularly delusional.

Our ship of state seems to be heading directly towards a huge iceberg in 10 years, or so.  And both parties have their hands on the wheel trying to pull it left or right, which keeps us going straight forward towards, if not disaster, to an America that is no fun to imagine.

Considering the complexity of all this reminds me of Rubik’s Cube, a puzzle I tried unsuccessfully to solve as a young man.  This seems infinitely harder to solve, and so complex it is hard to know even where to begin.  But I’m willing to put in much more time.

There is something about the impossible that has always attracted me.

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(*1)   I drew the Elmendorf material from Red Ink, a book by WSJ economics editor David Wessel.   Short (162 pages) and easy to read, it provides a good ball park sense of our fiscal Rubik’s Cube.

(*2)  In case you haven’t bumped into him, Paul Krugman is a liberal, Noble laureate economist who probably has more influence than most in his trade because in addition to knowing his stuff he’s everywhere, through his column at the New York Times, frequent political chat show appearances, several books and a blog which he updates sometimes three times a day, which can be found in my Blogroll to the upper left.   He’s sharped tongued to say the least and argues that while the debt is important, we should forget about it right now and deal with unemployment and strengthening the economy first.    A stronger economy would generate more federal income and begin to reduce our yearly deficits.  Then we could work on cutting down spending.

Everyone knows Paul Ryan, who generally speaking, is the polar opposite of Paul Krugman.   He is all about reducing our annual deficits and later our debt.  He has just unveiled a 10 year plan to balance our budget which seems like a Tea Party fantasy.  For one thing, it assumes Obamacare will be abolished, which is definitely not going to happen over the next four years and quite likely never (though I do think it will be altered over time).   Krugman, though rough tongued to make an impression, seems to be arguing what he believes.   I don’t know what Ryan is up to.

Four Things to Know About the Next Big Budget Battle

Now that the sequester is working its way into effect, the next act of our fiscal follies takes place March 27, when the federal government will sort of shut down (it takes quite awhile to fully shut down)  if congress doesn’t act to continue to fund it.   They can avoid a shut down by passing a continuing resolution (CR), which will fund the government for another stop gap period. CR’s are a regular part of the way they operate, as there are parts of each budget that they continue to rangle over until finally funding them.

English: Al Gore and Newt Gingrich applaud to ...

English: Al Gore and Newt Gingrich applaud to US president Clinton waves during the State of the Union address in 1997. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A failure to refund everything at once is unusual, though it happened under President Clinton back in 1995.  The two parties could not come to an agreement about continued funding, so the government “shut down” for a few weeks.  That is unlikely to happen this time around seemingly due to what has been called “fiscal fatigue”.  Congress seems as tired of these budget battles as most of us.  Not so tired as to really fix anything, but tired enough to take a little break.

The CR ties to the sequester in that in developing a continuing resolution, both houses are also talking about making sequester  cuts more flexible, with the Republicans most interested in doing that with the defense spending and the Democrats with the social programs.   I imagine they will refund a number of the cuts as well, so it will take awhile to see what has really been cut.

All of that together isn’t going to have much impact on solving our deficit and overall debt problems, but it will keep  our creaking ship of state above water for the time being and allow me to concentrate on the other form of March Madness.

By the way, I unashamedly stole the title for this post from a fuller explanation by Ailsa Chang of NPR,    The link connects to an audio that takes less than four minutes, while there is also a written version for the hard of hearing.   She adds much clarity to my thumb nail version.

Perhaps the Sequester Isn’t All Bad

What do former Vermont governor, full fledged liberal Howard Dean and the Tea Party have in common?   They both welcome the sequester.   The Tea Party because any cut in government spending is a good cut,  and Dean because while “tough on things that I care about a lot…  the fact of the matter is, you are not going to get another chance to cut the defense budget in the way that it needs to be cut.”

Certainly Dean’s opinion is not the common liberal view, which is more along the lines of the sky is falling, with the President publicizing details of various losses  and the pain and reduced safety they will cause (*1).  What makes this all murky is that much  of the money cut could be refunded or the cuts be delayed for years to come.

While Dean and the Tea Party make for strange bedfellows, the gathering looks odder still when some like minded military experts are included.  On Feb 22, retired Adm. Gary Roughead and some others with strong military credentials gathered for a discussion of military spending at the Brookings Institute Feb 22.   Not that they favor these across the board cuts, but as Roughead stated:  “the Defense Department could absorb the pending $500 billion sequester reduction in planned Pentagon spending over the next 10 years if it had ‘the latitude to rebalance its own spending.’ ”

English: Graph of the global military spending

English: Global military spending from several years ago, but relative comparison remains roughly the same. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Somewhere between 18 and 24% of our federal budget goes for military spending (depending on how a given chart breaks it down), so the idea that the sequester cuts will weaken our defense is mostly a matter of their heavy handed nature.   Of course, wiser cuts might be “politically incorrect”.   As Roughead noted, “It is a matter of public record, many times over, that the military infrastructure [bases, air fields etc.] exceeds need,” but Congress has balked at closing facilities.”  Apparently government waste is money spent in congressional districts other than ones’ own.

Another aspect is when talking about military spending, the underlying issue is what we expect our military to do, tied to what we see our role in the world to be.   I believe America does have a unique role as world leader, but to paraphrase Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), a former chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, it’s time to restore the idea that the United States would help countries, but those countries must help themselves.  As another panelist put it, we should be “a catalyst for common action”, implying an active but less dominant role than has been our American way over the past 70 years.

But could Congress come around to allowing the military to suggest the best cuts to make?   Hmm…  At least this forces the issue to some extent, and how it will play out could get interesting, as some Republicans oppose the military cuts while the Tea Party views them as a victory.

Since Defense, along with Social Security and Medicare make up about 60% of federal expenditures,  spending cuts take on the “guns vs. butter” dynamic, so the fundamental question is:  How much defense spending is really enough?  (*2).  As David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal has pointed out, our military expenditures are greater than  the next 17 nations combined, our navy is larger than the next 13 nations combined and we have 11 carrier strike groups while no other nation has more than one.   We replace a carrier with a new one every few years, and they costs about 11 billion each?   Could we get by with 10 or even nine? (*3).

So maybe letting the sequester happen will become  a good thing when it comes to military spending.   Now that the size of the cuts is no longer the  issue, but how they are to be made, the two parties might actually come to a sensible agreement.

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(*1)   It will be interesting to see the public reaction as the cuts unfold and the kind of impact it will have on altering them.   Here’s one  place to start, a story about a small Kansas airport planning to cut out its control tower.

(*2)  A problem of talking about cutting “defense”  spending is the word itself.    “Defense” raises the issue of safety.  How safe is safe enough?  I wonder if the debate would be of a different nature if we were talking about cuts in the War Department, as it was called  until the late 1940s.

(*3)  The Wessel facts come from either his book Red Ink or from a video I borrowed for a previous post.  Greg Mankiw, a highly regarded right leaning economist  has praised the book, so I believe the facts to be fairly presented.

An Alternative to Thinking About the Sequester

Happy Sequestration Day, or Eve as it begins at midnight, I think.   According to the Huff Post, there will be a White House meeting today between President Obama and top congressional leaders, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner.   I will be shocked….shocked I say….if it produces anything except more animosity, though it is hard to fill a jar that is already full.

For those who have forgotten, this whole sequester thing was the result of a series of discussions, primarily between the Obama team and the Boehner team back in mid-2011.  Discussions on a fiscal compromise that went nowhere, so in August of that year they came up with this gun-to-the-head scenario called the sequester.   Surely, the threat of across the board meat cleaver type cuts would make both sides come to some agreement.   Well, no.

It seems widely agreed upon that the key stumbling block is the Tea Party wing of the Republican House.  It has been said politics is the art of compromise.  They apparently didn’t get the memo.  They are thrilled that they can do nothing and still get some budget cuts.   It is not that they are so powerful as a block, maybe 30 or 40 of them in the House, but the well funded Tea Party threatens other members with campaigns against them in the next election.  It has come to be called “being primaried,” and to my mind a cancer in the Republican Party.

So, Boehner, who is actually a pretty flexible guy, is very limited in what he feels he can agree to in negotiations, especially if he wants to remain Speaker.  That’s not the whole problem, but it is a big part of it.

According to Bob Woodward, on July 6, 2011 the President and Speaker Boehner met while still trying to make a deal.  “But at the end of the meeting, despite their previous discussion about pressing staff to find an agreement, they remained far apart on the key issues of taxation and entitlement reform (the emphasis my own).

That split remains wide and intractable.  At this point, I agree with MSNBC’s Chuck Todd that both sides seem “willing to just let the sequester happen as long as they don’t get blamed for it.”

NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

Thank you Monty Python for the above intro.   I can only think so much about our congressional gridlock before getting brain cramps, so as a form of refreshment I suggest TED, which produces an ongoing series of great lectures, showing nearly infinite human potential, in contrast to that reflected in Congress.   Anyone familiar with Ken Robinson?   I wasn’t until recently, but now I know he is recognized internationally as an expert on the subject of creativity, something I’d love to see Congress show a bit of.

He is much more interesting than the sequester and funny, too,  as I think you will agree.  Do note, though, it is an 18 minute talk, so put some time aside or prepare to listen in nibbles (I know it’s a mixed metaphor.  I love to mix metaphors if you haven’t already noticed).