‘For on his brow I see that written which is Doom’

December 24, 2013

XmasCarolCover

Today’s reading is from Charles Dickens’ 1843 classic, A Christmas Carol.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “ I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides — excuse me — I don’t know that.”

“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.

“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned. “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s. Mine occupies me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!”

***

XmasCarol“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw!”

“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.


GOP extortionists offer no credible alternative to health care law

October 7, 2013

Any discussion of the Affordable Care Act cannot ignore the elephants in the room.

Republicans fought passage of what they call Obamacare in Congress and were outvoted. They challenged its constitutionality before the Supreme Court and lost. They made it their central issue in last year’s elections and lost again.

Having exhausted all legitimate means for getting their way, Republicans resorted to extortion. Demanding that the nation’s new health care law be “defunded,” they forced a shutdown of the federal government. The shutdown put hundreds of thousands of people out of work, inconvenienced millions more and stopped vital services to some of America’s most vulnerable people.

The GOP insisted that President Barack Obama “negotiate” to sabotage his proudest achievement, a 3-year-old law that a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives ruled was constitutional.

If Obama doesn’t cave in, Republicans threaten to not raise the federal debt ceiling — in other words, refuse to pay bills that they already have rung up. The last time they did that, the economy suffered. If they do it this time, economists say, the results could be catastrophic.

This isn’t just another partisan dispute or Washington gridlock as usual. It is an unprecedented act of hostage-taking by a minority party that doesn’t seem to care who gets hurt.

For four years, Republicans have waged an ideological crusade against the health care reform law based on lies and distortions: death panels! Government takeover! They claim it will explode government deficits, even though nonpartisan analysts predict it will shrink deficits.

Gov. Steve Beshear wrote in The New York Times recently that Obamacare will, for the first time, make affordable insurance available to every Kentuckian. Currently, he said, 640,000 Kentuckians are uninsured.

Beshear also pointed out that a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Urban Studies Institute at the University of Louisville found that expanding Medicaid as part of the reform law would add $15.6 billion to the state’s economy during the next eight years and create almost 17,000 jobs.

The irony, of course, is that the new law is based on conservative ideas.

The philosophy behind Obamacare — requiring everyone to buy coverage from private health insurance companies — was first promoted by the far-right Heritage Foundation as an alternative to government health insurance. It combined market-based solutions with personal responsibility. But once Democrats embraced the idea, Republicans rejected it.

As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney instituted just such a system. One reason Romney lost the 2012 presidential election was that he couldn’t make a logical argument for why the health insurance system that has been good for Massachusetts would be bad for everyone else.

Republicans are desperate to stop the Affordable Care Act not because they are afraid it will fail. If that were the case, they would simply let it fail and then capitalize on that in the next elections.

No, the GOP’s biggest fear is that Obamacare will succeed, just as Social Security and Medicare succeeded. Republicans opposed those programs when Democrats created them, and some factions of the GOP have been trying to undermine them ever since.

Republicans have tried to justify their extortion by claiming that Americans don’t want Obamacare. But when asked about the things the law will do, opinion polls show, most people approve of it. And a substantial majority of Americans tell pollsters they oppose the Republicans’ “defund Obamacare” crusade.

Many Democrats are dissatisfied with the new health care law because it doesn’t go far enough. They think the United States needs a single-payer insurance system, much like Medicare, to provide universal coverage. It works for the elderly; why not Medicare for everyone?

Still, Obamacare is much better than what we have had. It will provide coverage to millions more Americans than were covered before, through more-affordable private insurance and an expansion of Medicaid for the poor (except in states where Republicans refused to accept federal funding for it).

One thing you will not hear from Republicans is a credible alternative to Obamacare for getting this nation closer to universal health insurance coverage. That’s because they don’t have one.


Occupy Wall Street strikes a chord with many

October 16, 2011

Businessman Richard Knittel joined pickets Wednesday evening as part of Lexington's Occupy Wall Street on Main Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

The casually dressed Occupy Wall Street protesters in downtown Lexington last Wednesday evening looked curiously at one another when Richard Knittel approached wearing a suit and tie.

He didn’t want to argue with them. He wanted to join them.

Knittel, 69, of Versailles, explained that he isn’t against capitalism — among other things, he is chairman of a Canadian company that uses environmentally friendly technology to mine metals. But he agreed with the protesters that big money has too much influence in America, especially when it comes to profit-driven disregard for the environment.

“I want people to see that even people with suits on are joining this,” Knittel said before picking up a spare protest sign and waving to passing motorists on Main Street.

Since Occupy Wall Street protests began Sept. 17 in New York’s financial district, similar demonstrations have sprung up in more than 1,300 American cities.

The Lexington protest began Sept. 29 on the sidewalk outside Chase Bank Plaza. Protesters — whose numbers have ranged from two to two dozen — said they have tried to be polite and not make a mess. They have appreciated Lexington police for keeping drunks and troublemakers away. Supporters bring them food, and Gene and Natasha Williams let them use restrooms in their restaurant across the street.

Some people have cast Occupy Wall Street as liberals’ answer to the conservative Tea Party. Both movements include average, passionate people waving protest signs and American flags. Both also have their share of crackpots, are fuzzy about their goals and solutions and are easy for critics to lampoon.

Still, both movements have struck chords with the public because, for so many people, the American dream seems to be slipping away. People on the left, right and in the middle think the system has been rigged against them.

I visited Lexington’s Occupy Wall Street protesters several times last week. Most were 20-something students and low-wage workers, although the group included teachers, retirees, a veteran, a local food activist, an unemployed computer programmer and a man who said he is homeless. Some talked idealistically, but most just seemed worried about the future.

The protesters said they are concerned about economic injustice and political corruption. They aren’t against capitalism, just the crony capitalism and greed that they blame for the financial crisis and widening economic disparity.

Among common themes: The rich have gotten exponentially richer while middle-class workers have lost economic ground for three decades. Financial speculators, who largely caused the 2008 crash and were bailed out by taxpayers, haven’t been brought to justice. Politicians of both parties receive so much corporate cash that they are only looking out for business interests.

“This is about shaping the national discourse so it is more people-based than profit-based,” said Robert Wilhelm, 24, a University of Kentucky student. “People who were part of the Tea Party before it got corporate sponsorship have even come by and said they agree the system is broken.”

Janet Tucker, 64, a retired nurse, said she thought it was important to come out and protest. “But I don’t spend the night here; I leave that to the younger folks,” she said.

“We’re spending trillions on wars overseas, and we can’t afford to deal with all the problems we have here,” Tucker said. “It’s not that there isn’t money; it’s where it is. We need to look at our priorities as a nation.”

Protesters said they have been encouraged because, for every obscene gesture or shout of “get a job” they receive from a passerby, they get 10 thumbs-up or honks of support.

“A lot of folks are struggling, and I think they’re making these connections,” said Greg Capillo, 23, a college graduate who works in a coffee shop. “The ultimate issue is corporate involvement in democracy, because it speaks to the structural elements of democracy itself.”

It is hard to predict the future of Occupy Wall Street. The demonstrations will surely wane as winter comes. Protesters say they don’t want to be co-opted by the Democratic Party the way the Tea Party movement has been by the Republican Party.

The significance of protest movements is never the movements themselves, but how they shape public opinion over time. A national poll last week by Time magazine found that 54 percent of respondents viewed Occupy Wall Street favorably. That compared to 27 percent who viewed the Tea Party favorably, down from 41 percent in December 2009.

Comparing Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party might not be the best analogy. Better ones might be the Bonus Army veterans who occupied Washington during the worst of the Depression, or even the civil rights movement of a generation ago.

Throughout history, this nation has been forced to address obvious injustice and inequity when enough people objected. The protesters on Wall Street — and on Main Streets across America — seem to be hoping that this time will be no different.


Will Rand Paul be a work horse, or just a show horse?

April 23, 2011

Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell chat last August before the political speaking began at the Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County. Photo by Tom Eblen

There are two kinds of people in Congress: work horses and show horses. Few show horses have pranced and preened as much as Rand Paul has during his first months as a United States senator.

The Kentucky Republican’s election last November came amid a perfect storm of voter discontent with the political establishment. Otherwise, Paul never could have defeated an accomplished secretary of state in the primary and an accomplished attorney general in the general election.

Paul has become one of the most high-profile members of the Tea Party movement in the freshman class of Congress. He owes much of his celebrity status to his father, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who has been a gadfly presidential candidate for both the Libertarian and Republican parties.

His appeal may also have something to do with his first name, which reminds people of the late novelist Ayn Rand, whose fairy tales of libertarian utopia still enthrall some conservatives.

Paul has spent a lot of time in front of cameras and microphones this year, especially on friendly venues such as talk radio and the Fox News Channel. He has been busy promoting his new book, The Tea Party Goes to Washington, and flirting with a run for the presidency, even though the Bowling Green eye doctor has no previous political experience or apparent qualifications for the job.

Much of the attention Paul has received from media not in the business of promoting right-wing politics has come because of his controversial statements. Those include a rant against water-saving toilets during a congressional hearing and last week’s complaints about government over-regulation of dairy farms that were based on information he should have known was not true.

The most significant thing Paul has done so far as a senator is to propose a budget-balancing plan that has no chance of ever happening. It would slash $4 trillion in spending by basically doing away with much of the federal government.

Like a somewhat less-radical plan by Rep. Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, it is based on the same tax-cutting, anti-regulation philosophies that caused the economic crisis and ballooned the federal deficit in the first place. Both of their schemes would be good for corporations and wealthy people and bad for everyone else.

Paul also has endorsed the idea of a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget. That sounds good in theory, but most economists think it could be disastrous. That is because it would prevent the government from acting to minimize damage from an economic crisis.

Public opinion polls show little support for radical spending cuts, just as they show declining support for the Tea Party movement. A CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll last month found that 47 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of the Tea Party movement, an increase of 21 points since January 2010.

Both the political left and right like to claim a mandate from the “American people,” but the truth is that the nation is pretty evenly divided. What most people want is for both sides to work together to solve problems, not battle over ideology.

If Paul has any desire to become an influential member of Congress — and not just a show horse — he should take some lessons from the Senate’s Republican leader and his fellow Kentuckian, Mitch McConnell.

Even those who don’t agree with McConnell’s politics or admire his values acknowledge that he is a master politician. He can aggressively push his agenda but still find ways to achieve beneficial compromise. McConnell knows how to work with opponents and get things done. So far, Paul has shown little interest in or talent for that.

The media will eventually find another show horse to ride, especially if the public continues growing weary of the zealots of the Tea Party movement. Unless Paul can find ways to serve his constituents and actually accomplish something in the Senate over the next six years, I suspect Kentucky voters will be quick to put him out to pasture.


‘Watson’ lawmakers might pull us out of jeopardy

February 19, 2011

Since the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that corporations are people, why can’t computers be politicians?

Watson for president! Better yet, let’s make clones of Watson – the computer IBM engineers built to clobber two human Jeopardy! champions last week – and put them to work in Congress and state legislatures.

Machines programmed to make decisions based on facts and logic would be an improvement over many of the human robots controlled by special interests who now run our government.

Big-money influence has always been a problem in politics. But the floodgates were opened last year when an activist Supreme Court majority expanded the legal idea that corporations are people. They overturned decades of campaign finance law and allowed corporations and unions to spend huge amounts of often-anonymous money to influence elections.

Computer politicians could help solve this problem, because they lack human greed. All computers really need is a cool room for their servers and a little maintenance. As long as they have a steady supply of electricity, they aren’t hungry for power.

Engineers could design computer politicians much the way they did Watson. They could fill their electronic brains with rich databases of facts and experience. Then they could write decision-making algorithms based on human logic and American ideals. You know, ideals that human politicians laud in speeches but often ignore in practice – fairness, justice, public good.

Consider how a computer politician could help with deficit-reduction. IBM named its Jeopardy! computer after the company’s founder, Thomas Watson. Let’s call our computer politician Webster, after that great 19th century statesman, Daniel Webster.

Webster could begin by analyzing how we got into this mess. His database would tell him that federal surpluses turned to huge deficits between 2000 and 2008 primarily because of massive tax cuts and more than $1 trillion borrowed to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Public debt was compounded by a deep recession caused largely by a housing bubble and irresponsible Wall Street speculation. With Wall Street now back to record profits, Watson might suggest a transactions tax on financial speculation to bring in billions to help balance the budget.

Many members of Congress act as if budgets can be balanced and debt eliminated by simply cutting discretionary, non-military spending. Free from human ideology, Webster would use facts and logic to conclude that any serious attempt to solve our financial problems will require ending the wars, curbing health care costs and raising taxes.

Webster’s database would show him that today’s income tax rates are the lowest in decades – lower than during the boom years of the 1990s, and far lower than during the economic boom that followed World War II. His electronic brain would dismiss the “taxed enough already” crowd, because facts show they are taxed less than in the past.

That is especially true of the wealthiest Americans. Because data show that assets held by the richest 5 percent of Americans have grown from $8 trillion to $40 trillion since 1985, Webster would logically conclude that they can afford to pay more in taxes. And that it would be in the best interest of the nation that created the environment that allowed them to prosper.

Webster’s database would show plenty of wasteful government spending to trim – much of it in the huge military budgets that some human members of Congress don’t want to touch.

I suspect Webster’s electronic brain would recognize the folly of slashing low-cost, high-value government programs such as public broadcasting, Teach for America and AmeriCorps.  He would conclude that cutting education is no way to build a more competitive economy. The logic of maintaining oil and coal subsidies while cutting investment in developing the energy technologies that must eventually replace fossil fuels just wouldn’t compute.

Decision-making algorithms based on American ideals would never allow essential aid to the poor, sick and elderly to be slashed, while preserving billions in wasteful military spending and subsidies for industries that don’t need them.

I’m sure some people will argue that machines can never replace human politicians, because even the best computers lack essential human traits, such as empathy. They have no heart.

I don’t see that as a big problem. Many of our current politicians don’t seem to have hearts, either.


While praising coal, UK must tell the whole story

February 12, 2011

Rendering of what the proposed Wildcat Coal Lodge may look like.

Not only will the University of Kentucky’s proposed Wildcat Coal Lodge honor the mining industry, it apparently must praise it.

UK has agreed to create an exhibit in the new basketball dormitory’s main lobby to serve as “discussion of and tribute to the importance of the coal industry to the Commonwealth of Kentucky.”

Who must approve the tribute’s content? Joseph W. Craft III, the head of Alliance Coal Co., who organized the donors who gave UK at least $7 million to build the lodge. Craft also was a major donor to the Joe Craft Center, which houses UK’s basketball practice facility and athletics offices.

The Wildcat Coal Lodge has stirred controversy ever since UK’s Board of Trustees agreed in 2009 to accept the donations and the strings attached to them. (The name itself is ironic: in addition to being UK’s mascot, “wildcat” is an old nickname for irresponsible mining.)

Critics have accused UK of selling out to the coal industry to create an even more lavish athletics program, which often seems to overshadow the university’s academic mission. The writer Wendell Berry, a retired UK English professor and critic of mountaintop-removal coal mining, withdrew his academic papers in protest.

But the public learned this latest wrinkle in the deal only last week, after Herald-Leader reporter Linda Blackford used the state Open Records Act to obtain a copy of the agreement between UK and the Craft group.

It made me wonder: assuming this tribute provides less than a complete picture of Kentucky’s coal industry, how does UK plan to tell the rest of the story? Should a second exhibit be planned elsewhere on campus to provide balance?

Perhaps UK could memorialize Kentuckians who have died in mining accidents by putting each of their names on a seat in Rupp Arena. Or it could dedicate a wing of the new UK Hospital to miners who have suffered and died from black lung disease.

Water in one of UK’s fountains could be made to run orange occasionally, to remind people of what surface mining sometimes does to Eastern Kentucky’s streams.

E-mail me any suggestions you have, although I’ll say up front that I don’t think it would be a good idea to strip-mine The Arboretum.

Seriously, UK’s apparent willingness to cuddle up to the coal industry in return for money — as it did years ago with the tobacco industry — raises questions of intellectual honesty and independence, which is something a university should care about.

Kentucky has an old and complex relationship with coal and the industry that mines it. It is a story complicated by tradeoffs.

Coal really does “keep the lights on,” as the industry says. Mining provides many good-paying jobs in poor mountain counties, although the number has been declining for years. Because we have never accounted for coal’s true costs, cheap electricity rates have enabled Kentucky to develop important manufacturing industries.

But coal mining also has damaged Kentucky’s land, water and people — often irreparably so. The industry has created some multi-millionaires, but it also has contributed to some of the nation’s worst pockets of poverty.

Can UK tell a balanced story of coal? It can, and it has. One of the best summaries of this complex story is a documentary film, Coal in Kentucky, produced last year by UK’s College of Engineering and the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments. If you haven’t seen it, you should, no matter which side you are on.

Somehow, though, I don’t think this is the kind of “tribute” the coal industry has in mind.

Pork futures

It is ironic, and in an odd way reassuring, that the Kentucky Republican known as the “Prince of Pork” has become chairman of the House Appropriations Committee at this moment in time.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers

The GOP’s Tea Party wing in Congress seems to want to all but eliminate taxes, spending and government regulation to create some kind of Ayn Rand fantasy land of right-wing economic theory. Their pledge to immediately slash $100 billion in federal spending, if enacted, would wreck the country.

Rogers’ new job is ironic because his skill over the years at securing earmarks for his southeast Kentucky district is just the sort of thing GOP hotheads are now vilifying — with some justification. Still, Rogers also knows how important much of the government’s spending actually is to public well-being.

Here’s hoping Rogers can give the Tea Partiers some much-needed adult supervision.


Cutting spending shouldn’t shortchange investment

January 30, 2011

As I was watching President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech on TV Tuesday night, I got a text message on my cell phone from Mayor Jim Gray: “Geez I think the prez is gonna start talking abt Henry Clay next!”

Obama had just been saying that, while huge deficits require some cuts in federal spending, the nation must renew its commitment to investing in the research and infrastructure needed to ensure long-term economic prosperity.

The president did not mention Clay, the U.S. senator, House Speaker and four-time presidential candidate from Lexington who lived from 1777 to 1852. But Gray had referred to him repeatedly a few hours earlier when he delivered a similar message in his first State of the Merged Government speech.

Gray said that while Lexington government must stop spending more than it takes in, the city still must find ways to make smart investments for the future.

“In order to make our city a center of economic innovation, we must keep growing our quality-of-life infrastructure,” Gray said, noting the city’s recent investments in downtown streets and sidewalks, rural land preservation, the arts and recreational trails.

He also called for a privately financed study to assess the costs and benefits of renovating and expanding Rupp Arena and the adjacent downtown convention center. Those facilities are important drivers of Lexington’s economy, and they must remain competitive, he said.

“Business men and women recognize there are times when we have to spend money to make money by investing in the brand,” Gray said.

Nobody embodied that economic truth more than Henry Clay.

Clay is best remembered as “the great compromiser” for his ability to cut deals with opposing political factions. But perhaps his greatest legacy was what he called the “American System.” That involved federal investment in roads, canals and other infrastructure to promote both economic development and national security.

Clay argued that public infrastructure was essential for American industry to compete with foreign imports, which then came from Britain rather than China. Then, as now, free-market extremists objected. Clay’s nemesis was Andrew Jackson, who if he were alive today would probably be trying to lead the Tea Party.

Their big showdown came when President Jackson vetoed federal funding for the road between Lexington and the Ohio River at Maysville — essentially what we now know as U.S. Highway 68. Clay said the road was important for interstate commerce in the growing West, but Jackson thought federal funding for it was unconstitutional. Over time, Clay’s beliefs prevailed. Had they not, the union would not likely have survived the Civil War.

In their zeal to slash most “government spending,” Tea Partiers also want to stop decades of public investment in infrastructure, education, social welfare, health care, the arts and quality of life. But where would American free enterprise be today without that investment?

How could businesses have prospered without roads, bridges, airports and public education — not to mention all of the federally funded basic medical research and that government project now known as the Internet?

Free markets are good. But if everything were left up to the ebb and flow of the marketplace, Americans would be less healthy, less educated and have far less economic opportunity.

The strong cities and nations of the future won’t get that way by private investment and individual effort alone. That is why, for example, China and other nations are investing billions in clean energy research and technology while many American companies prefer to fund political and public relations campaigns to deny both climate change and inevitable change.

Government taxing and spending is a delicate balance that must constantly be debated and adjusted. But just as excessive public debt and wasteful spending are bad for the economy, so is a failure to make sufficient public investments in the future.

People who call for simplistic solutions to complex problems put America’s economic future and national security at risk, as Clay recognized nearly two centuries ago.

History may not repeat itself, as the saying goes, but it sure does echo.


Unless economy improves, GOP’s wave will ebb

November 8, 2010

This “wave” election was all about the economy. Republicans would be wise not to make the same mistake Democrats did two years ago and think it was about them and their ideology.

An increasingly frustrated electorate doesn’t really want conservatives or liberals to “take back” America. It just wants them to fix the economy. Now.

That will be hard, and not just because our complex economic problems were long in the making. Republicans and Democrats are too concerned about their own political power to work together, make tough choices and tell voters the truth.

Neither party has the political courage to say we must cut wasteful spending, invest in physical and social infrastructure, and, yes, raise taxes if we want a strong, sustainable economy unencumbered by debt.

A recent McClatchy-Marist Poll of registered voters found that, by a 77 percent to 22 percent margin, most want Republicans to work with President Barack Obama to solve problems rather than stand firm to the point of gridlock.

Don’t hold your breath. Many of the Democrats and Republicans swept out of office this year were moderates. Hard-liners on both sides have now been joined by a handful of Tea Party conservatives, who will make compromise even more difficult. Besides, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said his top priority is making Obama a one-term president.

“I’m afraid we’re in for a period of deadlock over the next couple of years,” said Charles Haywood, retired dean of the University of Kentucky’s Gatton College of Business and Economics, who has helped shape economic policy in this state for decades.

“My expectation for the next two years is that it’s just going to be a campaign for the presidency,” Haywood said. “I hope I’m wrong.”

For one thing, the economy is unlikely to see new stimulus spending. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated in August that federal stimulus spending increased the number of people employed by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million and lowered the unemployment rate by between 0.7 and 1.8 percentage points.

But Republicans campaigned against stimulus spending, citing deficit fears. Now they control the House of Representatives, where spending bills originate. That new political reality led the Federal Reserve last week to launch a stimulus of its own, essentially pumping $600 billion into the banking system.

Liberal economists such as Nobel laureate Paul Krugman have argued that the stimulus wasn’t more effective because it wasn’t big enough. Haywood thinks a problem was that federal bureaucracy kept stimulus money from being spent quickly or efficiently enough.

“The anti-government political movement may be right for the wrong reason,” he said. “It’s not that government programs are bad. It’s the failure to get them implemented efficiently.”

Tea partiers’ calls for a balanced-budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution are foolish, Haywood said. Deficit spending is a vital tool for reviving a weak economy; the problem comes when it persists in good times.

Rather than being worried about the federal deficit now, Haywood said, politicians should focus on bringing down the nation’s international trade deficit. That will be hard to do politically, because Americans have become hooked on cheap foreign imports.

Reducing the trade deficit would likely mean allowing the dollar to fall in value, Haywood said. It also would mean changing tax rules to encourage companies to keep manufacturing jobs here — strengthening the middle class and average people’s ability to fuel the economy with consumer spending — rather than shipping manufacturing jobs overseas, where cheap labor boosts corporate profits.

American history shows that neither the political right nor the left have all the answers to creating long-term prosperity. Both Republicans and Democrats must figure out how to temper their ideologies and political ambitions and work together for the good of the country.

If the economy hasn’t improved substantially two years from now, we could see another “wave” election. Republicans and Democrats should both know this by now: the thing about waves is that they go out just as surely as they come in.


Coffee Party prepares for convention in Louisville

August 14, 2010

Conservative anger boiled over in response to the financial crisis, the bailouts and President Barack Obama’s election. A rant on cable television by CNBC personality Rick Santelli helped focus that anger into what became the Tea Party movement.

But when some Tea Party activists began turning town hall meetings about health care reform into shouting matches, documentary filmmaker Annabel Park went on a rant of her own.

“Let’s start a coffee party,” she wrote on her Facebook page in February 2009, “and have real political dialogue with substance and compassion.”

Like Santelli, Park inspired an anxious public, and it led her and others to start the Coffee Party movement. The loose coalition of Facebook friends now numbers more than 277,000. The Coffee Party USA’s first national convention will be in Louisville, Sept. 24-26.

The Coffee Party “gives voice to Americans who want to see cooperation in government,” the group’s mission statement says. “We recognize that the federal government is not the enemy of the people, but the expression of our collective will, and that we must participate in the democratic process in order to address the challenges that we face as Americans.”

In short, Park said in an interview last week, the group wants to change the tone of our national political conversation.

Park, who volunteered in Obama’s campaign, said that because of the Coffee Party’s origins as a reaction to the Tea Party, it has appealed more to liberals and moderates. But an increasingly diverse group of members is emerging, and she hopes libertarians and conservatives also will attend the Louisville convention.

One day-long session will discuss the U.S. Constitution and whether it should be amended in response to the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that opened the way for more special-interest money in politics. That session will be led by Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor, and Mark McKinnon, a former communication strategist for former President George W. Bush and John McCain, the 2008 GOP presidential nominee.

Aside from promoting civil dialogue and cooperation, the Coffee Party organizers’ main concern is lessening the influence of special interests in politics and government so individual citizens have more say, Park said.

Another discussion topic will be independent voters. “Why is it that so many people are leaving both parties and registering as independents?” Park wondered. “To me, it’s a statement about the two-party system itself, not just the state of the two parties.”

Park said Coffee Party organizers, who promoted get-togethers in coffee shops across the country in March, wanted to hold their first convention in the Midwest. “We wanted to get away from the East Coast-West Coast mentality,” she said.

Kentucky has an active Coffee Party chapter, and its members worked hard to put together a good convention proposal, said spokesman Trent Garrison, a college geology teacher who lives in Frankfort.

“We’ve found these kinds of discussions helpful,” Garrison said. “Our liberal and conservative members find they have more in common than they think.”

Park said she has no idea how many people will attend the convention at the Galt House. Early registrations are being taken online (CoffeePartyUSA.com) at a cost of $150 ($40 for students and $120 for seniors.) The Coffee Party has no major funders, but relies on small online donations from individuals for what little money it needs, she said.

Park doesn’t know what will come out of the convention. Her vision for the Coffee Party is to rally people of all political persuasions around the idea of more effective problem-solving.

“There is a constructive way, and it requires being respectful and civil, and not impugning each others’ motives and calling each other names,” she said. “If citizens can learn this, hopefully it will affect the people in Washington. They’ve got to change their culture, because we’re losing respect for them.”