Friday, February 18, 2011

Government Shutdown Coming?

The NYT reports that talk on Capitol Hill is increasing the odds of a government shutdown. This brings back some bad memories of my experience in Poland, when the Republicans shut down the government on the day I was being transferred to Italy, leaving me stranded with no place to live and no income.

I wonder what the reaction will be to a government shutdown. Perhaps people will welcome it. I won't because I think there is a better way to resolve these problems of the deficit and the debt. The Congress and the administration should work out some sort of a compromise, either temporary or permanent, without shutting down the government.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Angry Letter to Congressional Delegation

I am disappointed that President Obama and the Democrats have apparently decided to take small steps towards balancing the budget by crushing the middle class, transferring the middle class' money to the super rich.

We see middle and lower class programs proposed for cuts, while taxes are reduced on the super rich. A recent report by ABC News on hedge fund manager John Paulson's multi-billion dollar payday last year indicated that most of his taxes will be at the capital gains rate; so, all the debate about the top tax rate is irrelevant. Rich people don't pay "income tax" (35%) for most of their income; they pay the much lower (15%) "capital gains" tax rate. John Paulson reportedly made most of his billions last year by betting on gold, i.e., against the US dollar. He made his first billions betting against the sub-prime housing market. Are these really socially valuable activities that deserve to be taxed at half the rate that working people pay?

Last night on PBS' Newshour, Sen. Bernie Sanders said that ExxonMobil paid no income tax last year, although it made $19 billion. If the Republicans succeed in cutting off funding for PBS, I won't see that anymore.

The Republicans always argue for a simpler tax code, but that's because they want to avoid paying taxes. Under a simpler tax code, every lunch will be a business lunch; every country club membership will be for business purposes, and every trip to Hawaii will be a business trip. Republicans want bigger swimming pools; they don't want to buy helmets for troops in Afghanistan. I guess Democrats are hoping that the Republicans will invite them over to enjoy the new, bigger swimming pools.

The Tea Party is angry. Well, now I'm angry, too. Unfortunately, I don't have billions to pay a lobbyist to bribe you. I understand that as a politician you have to prostitute yourself to the big money, but remember that even some whores have standards. See Julia Roberts in "Pretty Woman."

Friday, February 11, 2011


The revolution in Egypt makes me think about revolutions in the US. It seems to me that it came surprisingly easily and quickly. Maybe that is a sign of just how corrupt and weak Mubarak's regime had become.

The first American revolution, of course, was the revolution against Britain, led by George Washington and other elites, but supported my most of the common men, although there were some loyalists to the British crown. Although the American revolution was much longer and bloodier than Egypt's, most opinion leaders then were probably equally surprised that the little colonies defeated one of the greatest world powers at that time. Unlike what we know about Egypt at this time, there was a critical mass of intellectual, political and military leaders to take over the government of the newly independent nation. Even then, it was years before we had a Constitution and a fully functioning central government.

Then there was the Civil War. Arguably the Southern states were not trying to overthrow the central government; they just wanted out. But basically that's what the colonies wanted during the Revolutionary War. The Federal Government under Lincoln would not let them go; so, we had an unsuccessful revolution. However, the cost in terms of lives, property, and hardship was astronomical, especially to the South.

One of the closest parallels to the Egyptian demonstration that comes to mind, was the "Bonus Army" march and camp in Washington in 1932 by about 43,000 people, demanding bonuses to help many of the unemployed World War I veterans during the Depression. President Hoover dispersed them by ordering Army units against them. Three of the leaders of the Army units that attacked them were General Douglas McArthur, George Patton, and Dwight Eisenhower, all of who went on to play important roles in World War II. It doesn't sound as if any of the demonstrators was killed in the confrontation, and the protest was broken up.

In my lifetime, several incidents come to mind. One was the assassination of President Kennedy. Although it is probably not true, there will always be some suspicion in my mind that Vice President Lyndon Johnson was responsible for the assassination. If so, the huge Warren Commission investigation was just a cover up, because the idea that there had been a coup in the US would have been too much for the public to bear. But there are tons of conspiracy theories, many of which don't involve Lyndon Johnson, and which are probably more credible, although equally false.

Another possible example was the resignation of President Richard Nixon. In that case, there was not a popular uprising, but he was forced out by a coalition of political elites, provided fuel by the reporting of Woodward and Bernstein. Fortunately his corrupt, worthless Vice President, Spiro Agnew, had been forced out before Nixon was, and solid leader Jerry Ford took over the government. But it was an unorthodox transfer of power for the US. Nixon was not impeached; so, he was not legally forced out of office. Like Mubarak, he left as a result of his own personal decision, albeit under great pressure.

Finally, it can be argued that George W. Bush was not elected in a "free and fair election," but rather was put in office in an extra-Constitutional move by the US Supreme Court. The Supreme Court stopped the legal proceedings about the Florida vote recount and the actual, physical recount. Basically the Supreme Court named Bush the President regardless of what actually happened in the election. It's possible that Bush actually won, but we'll never know for sure.

Thus, the US has had some experiences roughly comparable to what has taken place in Egypt. In every case, however, we had someone ready to assume power. It's not clear to me yet that Egypt has new leadership in place. I guess you could argue that Washington's becoming President after the Revolution was similar to the Egyptian military taking power today, but there were a lot more civilian leaders around Washington -- Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, and the other "founding fathers."

Monday, February 07, 2011

Will Republicans Maintain America's Honor?

The current political situation is bringing back some bad memories from my days in the Foreign Service.

The last time the Republicans took over Congress, with Newt Gingrich in the mid-1990’s, they cut off funding for one of the main scientific cooperation projects I was working on in Warsaw, Poland, although the US had signed an agreement to fund it for five years just before I got there a year or two earlier. A senior official in the Polish foreign ministry used to call me in periodically and berate me because the US had failed to honor its promise. As a Southerner who grew up with a strong dose of the importance of “honor,” I really didn’t like it.

Then the State Department asked me to go to Rome, and the Republicans shut down the government on the very day my wife and I were leaving. We had moved out of our house in Warsaw, had everything in the car ready to drive to Rome, when the Embassy in Rome called at about 4:30 pm and said, “Don’t leave; we don’t have money to pay for the trip.” That left us on the street in Warsaw with no place to live. It turned out that the DCM (deputy chief of mission, the Ambassador’s deputy) in Rome was a friend from a prior tour in Brasilia. When I spoke to him, he said, “Come on, we’ll work it out.” But the whole thing left a very bad taste in my mouth.

Then when we got to Rome, one of my responsibilities was the nuclear agreement with North Korea. Again, the Republicans refused to fund all of the American obligations under the agreement; so, one of my jobs was to go hat in hand to the Italian government, who at that time held the Presidency of the European Union, and ask them to fund some of the things that we wouldn’t, so that the US would not be in violation of its agreement with North Korea.

That’s one of the reasons I retired. I didn’t want to represent a government that would not honor its promises.

Does the current batch of Republicans in the House have any concept of honor? We'll see. Back in the 1990's one of the Republican complaints about the Democrats was that because they had no business experience, the Democrats did not know how to "meet a payroll." Then, it turned out that it was the Republicans who didn't know how to meet a payroll, or honor their legal, treaty obligations.