Saturday, February 07, 2009

Reading The Stimulus Bill

I found a link to H.R. 1, the stimulus package, in the form passed by the House of Representatives. It's a 647 page .pdf file, so I figured I would just link to it and c&p relevant passages as I read. I took a long nap today, so other than a stint getting ready for a big breakfast tomorrow at church, and some time with the wife, I might be up tonight putting this together. Of course, the parts I think are interesting and/or important might not seem so to others, so the link is there for others to use. Have fun! I already am.

Sec 1102 is entitled "Preference for Quick Start Activities", and reads in part:
In using funds made available in this Act for infrastructure investment, recipients shall give preference to activities that can be started and completed expeditiously, including a goal of using at least 50 percent of the funds for activities that can be initiated no later than 120 days after the date of the enactment of this Act.(emphasis added)

So much for "none of the money will be spent right away!"

The next sentence, the last in this section of the Bill, is also important:
Recipients shall also use grant funds in a manner that maximizes job creation and economic benefit.(emphasis added)

So it's an actual law that monies appropriated by this bill will go to job creation. If no government has ever in the history of the universe created a job (according to Michael Steele), then is this just wishful thinking, willful lying, or is Michael Steele full of crap? I'll let you decide that one . . .

Sec. 1104 is entitled "Use It or Lose It Requirements For Grantees", and after outlining the details of what this means, and allowing for unused funds to go back in to a general fund for redistribution under the rules set forth, lists the following types of specific grants that would be funded. While there are no specific dollar amounts here, I thought a list of a few of the grantees might be interesting (BTW, for those of a legal bent, this is subsection (c) of section 1104.
(1) Environmental Protection Agency - State and Tribal Protection Grants
(2) Department of Transportation - Federal Aviation Administration - Grants-in-Aid for airports
(3) Department of Transportation - Federal Railroad Administration - Capital Assistance for Intercity Passenger Rail Service
(4) Department of Transportation - Federal Transit Administration - Capital Investment Grants
(7) Department of Housing and Urban Development - Public and Indian Housing - Public Housing Capital Fund
(8) Department of Housing and Urban Development - Public and Indian Housing - Elderly, Disabled, and Section 8 Assisted Housing Energy Retrofit
(11) Department of Housing and Urban Development - Community Planning and Development - Self-Help and Assisted Homeownership Opportunity Program

All those conservative critics are right. All this is a complete waste of time and money. What jobs are going to be created retrofitting assisted living facilities to be more energy efficient? What possible use would there be in giving monies to municipalities that want to maintain and improve their commuter rail service? Whose going to work on that and get paid for it? No jobs here, a complete waste of time.

My guess is that specific dollar amounts aren't mentioned because they are provided for in other legislation authorizing these programs in the first place. Perhaps they are federal matching funds, or can only be appropriated up to a certain limit. The reason I say this is in section 1107, specific appropriations are made for the offices of Inspectors General in various Departments: $22.5 million for the Office of Inspector General at Agriculture; $10 million for the Commerce Department; $15 million for Defense, among others.

Section 1109 lists prohibited uses, and includes casions, aquariums, zoos, golf courses and swimming pools as not able to be funded with appropriations under this section.

Section 1110 is part of the controversial "Buy American" provisions, in this case, iron and steel. My guess is that this will casue trouble in the WTO.

Subtitle B is entitled "Accountability in Recovery Act Spending" and spells out in detail the transparency and oversight/audit requirements for funds allocated. So, at least it won't be like the post-Iraq War no bid contracts done in camera.

Title II deals specifically with the Department of Agriculture, separate the provisions made in section 1106. Specifically, it refers to "Agriculture Buildings and Facilities and Rental Payments" to the tune of $44,000,000. An additional $209 million dollars is appropriated for deferred maintenance and repairs to agriculture buildings, facilities, and research sites.

Title IV deals with appropriations of $1.5 billion for facilities maintenance, repair, and upgrades.

For the Department of Energy, there is an appropriation of $18.5 billion dollars, specifically for renewable energy research and development. In addition to these outlays, an additional $4.5 billion for upgrading the electrical grid (seems someone remembers the east coast blackout a few years back). There is an appropriation of $2.5 billion for carbon capture and sequestration technology demonstration.

Title VI deals with GSA and other governmental expenses. Of the $7.7 billion appropriated up front, one billion dollars is to go to the upgrade and repair of border facilities and our ports. Since we keep hearing how vulnerable our borders and points of entry are, this seems like a good expense. Another $6 billion will go for construction of energy efficient structures.

Title VII provides $100,000,000 for upgrading security at ports through investment via the Department of Homeland Security. It calls for "non intrusive detection technology" - weird, but OK. There's another one hundred fifty million dollars for construction of facilities at land ports of entry. There's also half a billion dollars allocated for explosive and what the bill calls "emerging checkpoint technologies" at airports. In other words, the kind of thing called for years ago but never implemented by the Bush Administration.

To be continued . . .

Saturday Rock Show

Every once in a while, a pure blues player receives all sorts of accolades from commercial rock radio. It happened to Jimi Hendrix (a bit too much for his own good). Robin Trower suffered the same fate. Eric Clapton's God-like status became an albatross around his neck. Jimmy Page was credited with helping to invent heavy metal, but he was nothing more than a bluesman, right down to his heroin addiction. Even the quintessential rock-and-roll guitar player, Keith Richards, is dedicated to the blues before anything else. Stevie Ray Vaughan was blues through and through, yet he received all kinds of radio air play. The hole left after Vaughan's death, and Clapton's retreat to his roots was filled, in the late 1990's by a very young blues guitarist named Kenny Wayne Shepherd. "Blue on Black" is a wonderful example of a blues tune that people think of as rock. Shepherd's dirty guitar sound on the solo and verse fills is certainly reminiscent of all sorts of guitarists, while at the same time staking out a place all his own. Here's a live video from April, 2007, recorded by a fan at a show at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA.

The Politics Of Duh

I used the above phrase in a comment on another site yesterday, and think it highly appropriate to describe the attempt to muddy the waters around the whole stimulus package. The President did a fine job of cutting through all the nonsense with his, "What do you think stimulus is?" response to the Republican talking point that the bill is really a "spending" bill. By doing so, Mr. Obama showed how easily one can alter the course of the debate by doing something I have felt Democrats have needed to do for years - not accept the terms of the debate set by others.

Duncan Black at Eschaton does much the same thing, pointing out that even "[p]aying people to dig holes and then fill them up again would be stupid spending, but it would still be very effective stimulus." In other words, rather than have a really stupid debate, it might be possible to discuss the merits of various policy proposals; yet, the Republicans insist on keeping the intellectual level of the debate pretty low (Mitch McConnell's whole "We could spend a million dollars a day since the time of Jesus and not reach a trillion dollars" certainly qualifies as among the hallmarks of this kind of thing).

Attempting to discuss these issues with people who are either deliberately refusing to understand, or can't quite comprehend what is really going on becomes impossible. It isn't even Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill; it's more like Sisyphus unable to even get the rock rolling. Since we aren't trapped in hell as he was, I think it far better to give up, and talk to people who grasp what is really going on.

Trying To Sum Up (WARNING: LINK HEAVY)

Trying to close out debate on the economic stimulus package before the United States Senate has been a trying exercise, I am sure, for the Democratic leadership. The Republicans, who have no respect for anyone, are demanding far more power and input than their numbers deserve. Members of their caucus keep trying to introduce alternative "stimulus plans"; others, who claim a lack of ideological fervor, attempt to peel off less liberal Democrats by insisting on "centrist" alternatives to certain provisions of the bill.

And then, there's last year's big loser, Sen. John McCain.
“The whole point, Mr. President, is to enact tax cuts and spending measures that truly stimulate the economy,” McCain said. “There are billions and tens of billions of dollars in this bill which will have no effect within three, four, five or more years, or ever. Or ever.”

The back and forth is more reminiscent of the sharp attacks the two men exchanged on the campaign trail rather than Obama’s hope of moving past partisanship in Washington. And it comes as McCain has positioned himself to becoming a leading opponent of the Senate Democratic plan, which may cost more than $920 billion if major cuts are not made.

McCain’s criticism comes after a significant period of d├ętente between the two campaign rivals and a direct effort by Obama to woo McCain and get him involved in policy negotiations. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), still a strong surrogate for McCain, told Politico that he believed Obama was "AWOL" on bipartisan negotiations on the stimulus, further showing the discontent on the GOP side of the aisle.

In the first place, no one can really be sure, definitively, about the effect this bill would have. It is far too large, far too wide ranging to make any kind of statement one way or another. Anyone who says otherwise can apparently wrap their mind around not the just the concept but the reality of $1,000,000,000,000. Good for them.

Second, as to the timing of the spending, McCain is quite clearly either lying or just taking words he found somewhere and sticking them in the speech; most of the spending covers a two-year period of initial outlays, with other, more long-term spending involved in longer-term contracts (nothing odd about that; since McCain certainly loves his military contracts, what about the on-going boondoggle of the F-22 fighter, still in the development stage after first funded back in the late-1980's?).

Third, so what if the spending is longer-term than this year or the next? For the most part, such is the case with any government appropriation. Also, and this needs to be kept in mind, the current economic forecast calls for several years of economic contraction; what is needed is a sustained effort to counter the weight of a falling economic house. We should neither flag nor fail, thinking that one good shot in the arm can do the trick.

Finally, I would have loved for McCain to point out "tens of billions of dollars" worth of items in the bill that absolutely would have no stimulative effect. Not just his opinion; not just something ripped out of any context, without any explanation. Like Sen. McConnell's example of spending to remove barriers to catfish migration, after a quick thought or two, one realizes there are multiple reasons why this might just be a good idea, and have a stimulative effect on the economy, to boot (this is a good example of Pres. Obama's notion that one can actually do a few things at once, by doing some simple things directly, like replacing the government's fleet of automobiles with hybrids). The reason he can't is simple - there aren't. At most, as Paul Krugman has pointed out, the list Republicans usually hold up and shout about account for a few billion or so dollars. In a nearly trillion dollar spending proposal, this is quite literally meaningless stuff overall. Even if a few proposals could be definitively shown to be nonsensical - cut 'em out, and we are left with a pretty hefty bill nonetheless.

The reality that the economy is poised on the edge of catastrophe has been pointed out recently by Pres. Obama (as I noted yesterday) and, once again, Paul Krugman points out the danger we face, and the irresponsibility of the Republican attempts to derail the stimulus package:
So what should Mr. Obama do? Count me among those who think that the president made a big mistake in his initial approach, that his attempts to transcend partisanship ended up empowering politicians who take their marching orders from Rush Limbaugh. What matters now, however, is what he does next.

It’s time for Mr. Obama to go on the offensive. Above all, he must not shy away from pointing out that those who stand in the way of his plan, in the name of a discredited economic philosophy, are putting the nation’s future at risk. The American economy is on the edge of catastrophe, and much of the Republican Party is trying to push it over that edge.

As I pointed out here, I agree that Mr. Obama's attempt at magnanimity at this point, and his continuing belief - absent any evidence - that he can deal in good faith with those for whom the concept is foreign, has pushed us to the point where the entire debate is more than little surreal. While Mr. Obama's speech before the House Democratic caucus was a nice shot across the Republican bow - and, along with his op-ed in the Washington Post certainly the beginning of a counter-offensive, changing the entire nature of the debate - more needs to be done. There is too much at risk - too many people hurting for real - to sit around and treat nonsensical arguments and talking points as worthy of notice.

Friday, February 06, 2009

What A Difference A Day Makes (UPDATE)

I was busy yesterday on various things, and so I missed this.
In recent days, there have been misguided criticisms of this plan that echo the failed theories that helped lead us into this crisis -- the notion that tax cuts alone will solve all our problems; that we can meet our enormous tests with half-steps and piecemeal measures; that we can ignore fundamental challenges such as energy independence and the high cost of health care and still expect our economy and our country to thrive.

I reject these theories, and so did the American people when they went to the polls in November and voted resoundingly for change. They know that we have tried it those ways for too long. And because we have, our health-care costs still rise faster than inflation. Our dependence on foreign oil still threatens our economy and our security. Our children still study in schools that put them at a disadvantage. We've seen the tragic consequences when our bridges crumble and our levees fail.

--snip--

These are the actions Americans expect us to take without delay. They're patient enough to know that our economic recovery will be measured in years, not months. But they have no patience for the same old partisan gridlock that stands in the way of action while our economy continues to slide.

So we have a choice to make. We can once again let Washington's bad habits stand in the way of progress. Or we can pull together and say that in America, our destiny isn't written for us but by us. We can place good ideas ahead of old ideological battles, and a sense of purpose above the same narrow partisanship. We can act boldly to turn crisis into opportunity and, together, write the next great chapter in our history and meet the test of our time.

Well, it seems he can be roused a bit after all. If you go here there's a video clip of a speech the President gave to House Democrats yesterday, and in it, he is quite fired up. At one point, addressing a Republican talking point, he says that one criticism of the bill is that it is a "spending bill" not a "stimulus bill". His response? "What do you think stimulus is?"

All I have to say is that I wish there was more of this, and more often. I liked the speech, and there are reports he will have a prime-time news conference on Monday night, a nice opportunity to make his case before the American people.

I have to admit I have been deeply frustrated with the way this debate has gone, and I had been willing to give the President the benefit of the doubt. The, as time passed, and far more Republican nonsensical talking points got aired than were rebutted by either the Administration or Congressional Democrats, I wondered if giving him the benefit of the doubt was wise. While the game isn't over yet - the Senate has yet to vote on its version of the bill, and we still have the conference committee to deal with - if Obama keeps up this kind of talk, pushing back hard on all the ridiculous stuff floating around out there, I may change my mind.

May.

But, I am encouraged a little bit by the op-ed and the speech. I would like to see more.

UPDATE: Thanks to Talking Points Memo, here's a transcript of the President's remarks, in full:
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you, Democrats. (Applause.) Thank you. Please, everybody have a seat. Everybody have a seat. It is great to be here with so many friends. Thank you for giving me a reason to use Air Force One. (Laughter.) It's pretty nice. (Laughter.)

I'm glad to see the House Democratic Caucus is getting by just fine without my Chief of Staff. (Laughter.) I don't know how many of you were at the Alfalfa dinner, but I pointed out, you know, this whole myth of Rahm being this tough guy, mean, is just not true. At least once a week he spends time teaching profanity to underprivileged children. (Laughter and applause.) So he's got a soft spot.

I want to thank John Larson for inviting me here tonight. This is John's first conference as Chairman of the Democratic Caucus, so we're both new at this. John, congratulations. (Applause.)

I want to acknowledge the great Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. (Applause.) She is our rock who's proven to be an extraordinary leader for the American people. And I want to thank Nancy and Steny Hoyer and Jim Clyburn, and the entire caucus -- (applause) -- Javier Becerra -- all the leadership working so hard, all the chairmen like David Obey, who've worked so hard in passing an economic recovery plan that is so desperately needed for our country. (Applause.)

All of you acted with a discipline that matches the urgency and the gravity of the crisis that we face. Because you know what's at stake. Every weekend you go home to your districts and you see factories that are closing and small businesses shutting their doors. You hear from families losing their homes; students that can't pay their tuition; seniors who are worrying about whether they can retire with dignity, or see their kids and grandkids lead a better life.

So you went to work, and you did your job. For that, you have my appreciation and admiration. And more importantly, you've got the American people's thanks, because they know it is time to get something done here in Washington. (Applause.)

As we meet here tonight, we know that there's more work to be done. The Senate is still acting. And after it has its final vote, we still need to resolve differences between the House and Senate bills. So we're going to still have to work, and I'm going to urge you to complete that work without delay. And I know that Nancy and Steny, all the rest of the leadership is committed to making that happen.

Now, I just want to say this -- I value the constructive criticism and the healthy debate that's taking place around this package, because that's the essence, the foundation of American democracy. That's how the founders set it up. They set it up to make big change hard. It wasn't supposed to be easy. That's part of the reason why we've got such a stable government, is because no one party, no one individual can simply dictate the terms of the debate. I don't think any of us have cornered the market on wisdom, or that do I believe that good ideas are the province of any party. The American people know that our challenges are great. They're not expecting Democratic solutions or Republican solutions -- they want American solutions. And I've said that same thing to the public, and I've said that, in a gesture of friendship and goodwill, to those who have disagreed with me on aspects of this plan.

But what I have also said is -- don't come to the table with the same tired arguments and worn ideas that helped to create this crisis. (Applause.) You know, all of us here -- imperfect. And everything we do and everything I do is subject to improvement. Michelle reminds me every day how imperfect I am. (Laughter.) So I welcome this debate. But come on, we're not -- we are not going to get relief by turning back to the very same policies that for the last eight years doubled the national debt and threw our economy into a tailspin. (Applause.)

We can't embrace the losing formula that says only tax cuts will work for every problem we face; that ignores critical challenges like our addiction to foreign oil, or the soaring cost of health care, or falling schools and crumbling bridges and roads and levees. I don't care whether you're driving a hybrid or an SUV -- if you're headed for a cliff, you've got to change direction. (Applause.) That's what the American people called for in November, and that's what we intend to deliver. (Applause.)

So the American people are watching. They did not send us here to get bogged down with the same old delay, the same old distractions, the same talking points, the same cable chatter. (Applause.) You know, aren't you all tired of that stuff?

AUDIENCE: Yes!

THE PRESIDENT: They did not vote for the false theories of the past, and they didn't vote for phony arguments and petty politics. They didn't vote for the status quo -- they sent us here to bring change. We owe it to them to deliver. This is the moment for leadership that matches the great test of our times. And I know you want to work with me to get there. (Applause.)

If we do not move swiftly to sign the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act into law, an economy that is already in crisis will be faced with catastrophe. This is not my assessment. This is not Nancy Pelosi's assessment. This is the assessment of the best economists in the country. This is the assessment of some of the former advisors of some of the same folks who are making these criticisms right now.

Millions more Americans will lose their jobs. Homes will be lost. Families will go without health care. Our crippling dependence on foreign oil will continue. That is the price of inaction.

This isn't some abstract debate. Last week, we learned that many of America's largest corporations already laid off thousands and are planning to lay off tens of thousands of more workers. Today, we learned that in the previous week, the number of new unemployment claims jumped to 626,000. Tomorrow, we're expecting another dismal jobs report, on top of the half a million jobs that were lost last month, on top of the half a million jobs that were lost the month before that, on top of the 2.6 million jobs that were lost last year.

For you, these aren't just statistics. This is not a game. This is not a contest for who's in power and who's up and who's down. These are your constituents. These are families you know and you care about. I believe that it is important for us to set aside some of the gamesmanship in this town and get something done. (Applause.)

Now, I believe -- I just want to repeat, because I don't want any confusion here. I believe that legislation of this enormous magnitude, that by necessity we are moving quickly -- we're not moving quickly because we're trying to jamb something down people's throats. We're moving quickly because we're told that if we don't move quickly, that the economy is going keep on getting worse, and we'll have another 2 or 3 or 4 million jobs loss this year.

I'd love to be leisurely about this. My staff is worn out, working around the clock. So is David Obey's staff. So is Nancy Pelosi's staff. We're not doing this because we think this is a lark. We're doing this because people are counting on us. So legislation of this magnitude deserves the scrutiny that it's received, and all of you will get another chance to vote for this bill in the days to come. But I urge all of us not to make the perfect the enemy of the absolutely necessary.

Understand the scale and the scope of this plan is right. And when you start hearing arguments on the cable chatter, just understand a couple of things. Number one, when they say, well, why are we spending $800 billion -- we've got this huge deficit? First of all, I found this deficit when I showed up. (Applause.) Number one. (Applause.) I found this national debt doubled, wrapped in a big bow waiting for me as I stepped into the Oval Office.

Number two, it is expected that we are going to lose about a trillion dollars worth of demand this year, a trillion dollars of demand next year because of the contraction in the economy. So the reason that this has to be big is to try to fill some of that lost demand. And as it is, there are many who think that we should be doing even more. (Applause.) So we are taking prudent steps.

But you talk to Ted Strickland and what's happening in Ohio, and you ask him whether they need some relief in terms of the unemployment insurance rates that are going sky-high, and him having to pick up all kinds of folks who are suddenly seeking food stamps who had been working all their lives -- and he'll tell you that this not something that we're just doing to grow government. We're doing this because this is what the best minds tell us needs to be done. That's point number one.

Point number two: When they start talking about, well, we need more tax cuts -- we started this package with a healthy amount of tax cuts in the mix, recognizing that some tax cuts can be very beneficial, particularly if they're going to middle class and working families that will spend that money. (Applause.) That's not me talking; that's the economists talking, who insisted that they're most likely to spend and get that money into circulation and stimulate the economy.

Now, in fact, when we announced the bill, you remember -- this is only about, what, two weeks ago? When we announced the framework -- and we were complimented by Republicans, saying, boy, this is a balanced package, we're pleasantly surprised. And suddenly, what was a balanced package needs to be put out of balance? Don't buy those arguments.

Then there's the argument, well, this is full of pet projects. When was the last time that we saw a bill of this magnitude move out with no earmarks in it? Not one. (Applause.) And when you start asking, well, what is it exactly that is such a problem that you're seeing, where's all this waste and spending? Well, you know, you want to replace the federal fleet with hybrid cars. Well, why wouldn't we want to do that? (Laughter.) That creates jobs for people who make those cars. It saves the federal government energy. It saves the taxpayers energy. (Applause.)

So then you get the argument, well, this is not a stimulus bill, this is a spending bill. What do you think a stimulus is? (Laughter and applause.) That's the whole point. No, seriously. (Laughter.) That's the point. (Applause.)

So -- I mean, I get carried away. (Laughter.) We've got to leave some time for questions and answers. Here's the point I'm making. This package is not going to be absolutely perfect, and you can nit and you can pick, and that's the game we all play here. We know how to play that game. What I'm saying is, now we can't afford to play that game. We've got to pull together.

There are going to be some things that don't get included that each of us would like to see included. All of us are going to have to make some sacrifices. And we have to accommodate the interests of a range of people. And the House is going to have to work with the Senate. But let's think big right now. Let's not think small. Let's not think narrowly.

Just as past generations of Americans have done in trying times, we can -- and must -- turn this moment of challenge into one of opportunity. The plan that you've passed has at its core a simple idea: Let's put Americans to work doing the work that America needs done. (Applause.)

This plan will save or create over three million jobs -- almost all of them in the private sector.

This plan will put people to work rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges; our dangerously deficient dams and levees.

This plan will put people to work modernizing our health care system. That doesn't just save us billions of dollars, it saves countless lives, because we'll reduce medical errors. (Applause.)

This plan will put people to work renovating more than 10,000 schools -- (applause) -- giving millions of children the chance to learn in 21st century classrooms, and libraries and labs -- creating new scientists for a new future.

This plan will provide sensible tax relief for the struggling middle class, and unemployment insurance and continued health care coverage for those who've lost their jobs. And it will help prevent our states and local communities -- it will help Governor Ritter and Governor Strickland not have to lay off firefighters and teachers and police. Because when they get laid off, not only do we lose services, but maybe they can't make payments on their home. Maybe they get foreclosed on and the economy goes down further.

And finally, this plan will begin to end the tyranny of oil in our time -- doubles our capacity to generate alternative sources of energy, like wind and solar and biofuels. And it does it in three years; saves taxpayers billions of dollars; makes federal buildings more efficient; saves the average working family hundreds of dollars on their energy bills. After decades of empty rhetoric, that's the down payment that we need on energy independence.

You know, there's a lot about running for President that is tough -- especially I don't miss sleeping in motels and hotels, and I don't miss not being with my kids as much as I'd like. But the best thing about being a candidate -- and all of you know this because those members of Congress who are here, you've run, you know what it's like -- you get to see the country. You get to know the character of the American people. Over the last two years, I visited almost all 50 states. I've got to admit, the one I missed was Alaska. (Laughter.) We're going to get there. I've been in so many of your districts. I've passed through towns and cities farms and factories. And I know what you know -- people are hurting. I've looked in their eyes. I've heard their stories. I've sensed their deep frustration.

And they're just hoping that we're working for them. They're so strong and they're so decent, the American people, and those struggles haven't diminished that strength and that decency. We hold in our hands the capacity to do great things on their behalf. But we're going to have to do it by not thinking about ourselves, not thinking about how does this position me, how am I looking. We're going to have to just think about how are we delivering for them.

It starts with this economic recovery plan. And soon, we'll take on the big issues like addressing the foreclosure problem, by passing a budget, tackling our fiscal problems, fixing our financial regulation, securing our country. And we won't approach these challenges just as Democrats -- because we remember the look in the eyes of our constituents. We know even though they've been cynical, that they're thinking, maybe this time is going to be different. They know we've got to overcome all these problems as Americans. And that's why we have to work in a serious, substantive, and civil way, and we will keep working to build bipartisan support for action.

I promise you that my door is always open, and my administration will consult closely with each and every one of you -- the people's representatives -- as we take on these pressing priorities.

Already, you've made a difference. Nancy mentioned -- I'm so proud of that day that we signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act -- (applause) -- to see Lilly Ledbetter on the stage, representing the American people, representing all the women out there who want their daughters to have the same opportunities as our sons. And then we signed Children's Health Insurance to provide coverage for 11 million, and make a down payment on comprehensive health care reform. (Applause.)

And it wasn't easy. You worked hard to make it happen, which means we can work hard to make sure that we've got jobs all across America, and energy independence all across America. And we will not stop until we deliver for our constituents. (Applause.)

That's what the Democratic Party is all about. That's what this caucus is all about. That's what my presidency is all about. (Applause.)

Thank you, guys. I love you. (Applause.) Thank you. (Applause.)

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The Multiplier Effect

From Galatians 8:14-21:
14 Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. 15 And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” [11] 16 And they began discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. 17 And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” 20 “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” 21 And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

Trying to understand a miracle is like trying to understand wind. One can see its effect, but what it is in and for itself remains invisible. I have heard many attempts at a rational explanation for the feedings of the multitudes in the Synoptic Gospels, and I have reached the point where such explanations miss the point. Trying to figure our how, exactly, a medium-size village was fed with a few loaves of bread is a bit like figuring out the color, size, shape, and texture of wind without any reference to what the wind is doing. Even here, Jesus is calling on his disciples to think about what has happened in the feeding of the multitudes, not in and for itself, but for what it means. What it means concerning who Jesus is. What it means for the potential of the Kingdom of God.

The holy mystery of the loaves and fishes can certainly be seen as an allegory for all sorts of things, but it is first and foremost an allegory about the Kingdom of God, about the power of the Holy Spirit moving through a community of believers, transforming their meager supplies and even lack of sustenance in to a bounty for all. Yet, bare hours after the second demonstration of this power of God to take our little and create excess, the disciples display their usual cluelessness, whining about a lack of bread. Reducing the mystery of the miracle to a singular event, to this or that demonstration of Divine power is a betrayal of what has been demonstrated. The feeding of the multitudes is what is possible, not just some event in need of explanation. We need to remember that the faith that can feed multitudes is also the faith that can sustain us in our time of need.

This is not to deny the reality of scarcity and want, especially now as we face an ever shrinking economic outlook and the threat of real privation, even among those elements of our very rich society that have never had to go without. Yet, in the face of these two realities - that of our economic mess and the revelation of the bounty of God available to all who come in faith - we need to remember that we Christians are not called to be profit-takers, good investors, or successful sales persons. We are called to offer God our meager rations, and have faith that God will take these simple things and create an overabundance for all to share. When those in need come forward, we should not turn them away, poor-mouthing our way out of our responsibilities. Nor should we, in the face of the multiple threats to our sense of composure and equanimity, pull up the planks and retire to our little Holy boat on the river, then wonder why we have so little. We have been offered a wonderful gift to share with the world, and in this sharing there turns out to be more than enough for any and all who wish to partake.

This is the miracle of the loaves and fishes. It is the prodigal love and grace of God demonstrated in loving community, taking our little-to-nothing and making an abundance for all of us, indeed for any who wish to partake.

Have To Agree (UPDATE)

. . . with Theda Skocpol:
Obama is, sadly, much to blame for giving the Republicans so much leverage. He defined the challenge as biparitsanship not saving the U.S. economy. Right now, he has only one chance to re-set this deteriorating debate: He needs to give a major speech on the economy, explain to Americans what is happening and what must be done. People will, as of now, still listen to him -- and what else is his political capital for?

Speaking as a strong Obama supporter who put my energies and money into it, I am now very disillusioned with him. He spent the last two weeks empowering Republicans -- including negotiating with them to get more into Senate and his administration and giving them virtual veto-power over his agenda -- and also spending time on his personal cool-guy image (as in interview before the Super Bowl). The country is in danger and he ran for president to solve this crisis in a socially inclusionary way. He should be fighting on that front all the time with all his energies -- and he certainly should give a major speech to help educate the public and shape the agenda. That is the least he can and should do. Only that will bypass the media-conserative dynamic that is now in charge.

Sums it up quite nicely.

UPDATE: . . . with Duncan Black, too:
Republicans will scream until they get their way and then still not vote for it.

People who listen to Rush Limbaugh and then call Democratic offices to scream at them will never vote for a Democrat.

Without a good stimulus bill, we're pretty fucked.

Unless Dems make a relatively forceful and united case, they're pretty fucked.

That about sums it up. Fight for your agenda. Tell the Republicans to go cry to somebody who cares.

Can't Lose What You Never Had

Ah, the complaints of the privileged.
Today, President Obama announced that top executives’ pay at companies accepting TARP funds would be capped at $500,000, with any additional compensation coming only in the form of stock options that could not be cashed until the government had been repaid.

As news of the plan leaked last night, wealthy Wall Street went into panic mode, insisting that the caps would ruin the financial industry.

Folks, the financial industry is a scrap heap right now. Yet, the money quotes, so to speak, pour in, showing that these folks are not only tone deaf to public opinion, but also clueless about the fact that the current crop of CEOs might just bear a bit of responsibility for the forty-mile derailment that is the train-wreck of our economy.
“If I didn’t pay [bonuses], the people were going to go. … These people didn’t choose to cure cancer. These people didn’t choose to do public service work…These people chose to make money.” [Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric]

“The consequences of it are going to be a massive brain drain of senior talent from those companies that have taken TARP money to those companies that have not.” [Donald Straszheim, managing principal at Straszheim Global Advisor]

“Companies that need the most talented people to fix their problems won’t be able to pay them.” [Jamie Dimon, JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer]

Yesterday, financial writer Roger Lowenstein was on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition", addressing this very issue (couldn't find a written transcript, story about 4:30 long). Lowenstein calls the pay of huge amounts amount of money for failure as "infuriating". Lowenstein also calls for administrative rules, such as requiring stockholder approval for any compensation package above a particular limit. On the current crop of CEOs, he says, "I don't know how you could envision a class [of CEOs} that has performed worse than the current class has." In other words, these people are afraid to face the consequences of their shepherding of the banking and financial products industry to the brink of oblivion.

While I will admit I'm a bit uncomfortable with the kind of government regulation that would set salary caps for anyone, it seems to me the kind of whining going on here shows a peculiar lack of awareness, not only for the public's outrage over private companies getting huge amounts of what can only be described as welfare even as average folks struggle to make their mortgage payments, but for the reality that, while the Bush Administration certainly has much to answer for by creating an atmosphere in which bad and stupid people made many bad and stupid decisions that led to our current mess, the CEOs, especially of our financial industry, also bear more than a modicum of responsibility, and should be a little more humble. Americans are pretty fair-minded people; they believe if you get paid a whole lot of money, it might be nice to actually have done something to earn it.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

For God Alone

Psalm 62:
62:1 For God alone my soul waits in silence;
from him comes my salvation.
2 He only is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be greatly shaken.

3 How long will all of you attack a man
to batter him,
like a leaning wall, a tottering fence?
4 They only plan to thrust him down from his high position.
They take pleasure in falsehood.
They bless with their mouths,
but inwardly they curse. Selah

5 For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence,
for my hope is from him.
6 He only is my rock and my salvation,
my fortress; I shall not be shaken.
7 On God rests my salvation and my glory;
my mighty rock, my refuge is God.

8 Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your heart before him;
God is a refuge for us. Selah

9 Those of low estate are but a breath;
those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
they are together lighter than a breath.
10 Put no trust in extortion;
set no vain hopes on robbery;
if riches increase, set not your heart on them.

11 Once God has spoken;
twice have I heard this:
that power belongs to God,
12 and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love.
For you will render to a man
according to his work.

One of the more annoying habits of the right is the constant, reference- and reality-free invocation that we who voted for Barack Obama, and who support his major policy goals, view him as some kind of super-human figure. He is called "Obamessiah", as if either he thought of himself that way, or we who support him did so.

As a Christian, I find this not just really kind of stupid, but more than mildly offensive. As I rarely take serious offense, I think it important to make this point again. To claim that anyone would believe our current President is anything more than a human being, and a politician to boot, and that those of us who have followed politics for many years would somehow view the incumbent to the office as of greater worth than any other human being is not just stupid. It is offensive. Those making the claim do so without reference to anything, any statement, any opinion. Apparently, it was alright to hail George W. Bush's constant invocation of "evildoers" as some profound theo-political message, absent any serious follow-through, and in the face of myriad violations of domestic and international law, to say nothing of the shredding of our Constitution. To support Barack Obama, however, is somehow to engage in idolatry. Not just weird. Not just stupid. Offensive.

Psalm 62 has always been a favorite of mine, and should stand as my one, only, and final response to any person who might wish to accuse me of this kind of thing. This Psalm is a hymn to the board-clearing that comes with worshiping the God who calls Israel His people; the God whom Jesus called Father. Indeed, it is a nice reminder that we should be careful in all the identities we either choose or have thrust upon us by circumstances; both the high and the low, the rich and the poor, stand before God as equal, of little value in and for themselves, and equally facing the ultimate leveler of all distinctions, death.

For God alone I wait. For God alone. God alone is my strength and my refuge.

Period.

Monday, February 02, 2009

St. Paul On Scientism

From the Epistle to the Galatians:
8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

It was the summer before my senior year in high school that I first read Carl Sagan's collection of essays, Broca's Brain: Reflections On The Romance of Science. It was there I first encountered the notion that contemporary science has the possibility of increasing the awe one feels as one contemplates the diversity of the universe. Imagine a mathematics where 2+2 does not equal 4!

Since then, we have been inundated with the idea that the wonders of this world are enough to bring about all sorts of ruminations and spiritual thoughts. Black holes that can take one to other universes. Bell's Theorem, in which all possible universes exist in neighboring quantum state universes. Even the sublime idea that natural selection could very well not have led to human beings, thus increasing one's appreciation for the fragility of human existence.

All these things are indeed wonders. Yet, what have they to do with us, really? One certainly gets a sense from sitting and thinking these things through that they must mean something. Yet, as scientific facts, they are nothing more than bare facts, without "meaning" in the sense of having ethical or moral substance. One can certainly impute such to pretty much any set of facts, yet scientific facts are nothing more or less than bare reports of phenomena.

2006 presented us with two works purporting to "prove" that "religion" was nonsense. One, by British geneticist Richard Dawkins, was so profoundly badly reasoned, that even other scientists were reluctant to do much more than say the effort to show religion to be bunk, and to rid the world of it, was akin to living in a fairy tale. The other, by a graduate student in neurology, Sam Harris, was an exercise in immorality so profound I still wonder how anyone took him seriously. Yet, both based their arguments, in part, on the superiority of science. Superior in what way? Why, the same answer small-minded folk have been saying for half a millennia - it's better because it talks about how neat the world really is! Except, of course, that's what science is supposed to do; it describes the world and how cool it is. Which has always left me wondering - so what?

St. Paul describes those who worship idols as worshipers of "weak and worthless elementary principles of the world". What a nice retort. With the exception of gravity, which people still don't really understand, the other elemental forces - the EM force, the weak nuclear force, the strong nuclear force - really are quite weak and worthless. Those contemporary pagans who insist we need look no further than the sub-atomic particle or the nearest event-horizon for wonder and meaning are really no different from those who abased themselves before the anthropomorphized elementary powers of the ancients. Whether one calls them "quantum states" or "Zeus", my won reaction to either one is - big deal. This isn't what I consider "religious" anyway, which is kind of Paul's point here.

Indeed, Paul brings out a point that is important, a difference between the God who whom Jesus called "Father" and all those statues that used to sit in temples and now sit in museums - this God knows our names and calls us by name. Those who see something of more than passing interest in General Relativity are missing the point in a couple ways. First, while it is certainly revolutionary and important, it has little to do with how we human beings should live our lives, or organize our societies. There is nothing of "love" in the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. The spin of an elementary particle does not call us by name.

Now, one can say, "All this nonsense about being called, prove it." First of all, it isn't something one proves the same way one proves, say, that gravity decreases in a ration the inverse square of the distance between two particles. It is, rather, something one discovers for oneself over time, in faith.

It is a category mistake to consider the "starry heavens above", to quote Immanuel Kant, and think there is anything "more" about them than they are big, hot balls of gas. One can certainly consider the relative unimportance of humanity in the face of all the wonders of the Universe, but even a Psalmist did this same thing, in Psalm 8, and reminded hearers that even with all the wonders of creation, we are still a little less than the angels.

The crucial difference between a Christian and someone who thinks there is something sublime and profound in the contemplation of elementary eigen-states is that the latter does not know us or call us by name. The former is the author of the latter and, yet, does indeed call us by name.

Music For Your Monday

With a generous hat-tip to Dr. Music (thanks for the email, Scott!), I thought it would be fun to highlight a far more rare breed than the one-hit wonder - the two-hit wonder. The first one is difficult to call such, because this was the first musical vehicle for a very young prodigy named Stevie Winwood, but, technically, the Spencer Davis Group did have only two chart hits. Here's one of them, "I'm a Man".

Extreme was one of the last hard-rock bands at the end of the whole hair-band phenomenon. Their big album, Pornograffiti, was a pretty rocking affair, and in the midst were two songs, "More Than Words" and "Hole Hearted" that were different. Here's the second one:

One of my dirty little secrets is that I really liked Vertical Horizon. Not a whole lot of interesting, ideas, perhaps, but I liked them anyway. This song, "You're a God", has always intrigued me. I like sarcasm, especially when it pricks the overinflated ego of those who think a bit too much of themselves. A nice, "Go Cheney Yourself" song, if you know what I mean.

For the record, I couldn't bring myself to listen to, let along post, Corey Hart.

Who Cares What They Think?

I am reaching the end of my tether with some things. This morning's drive home from work, listening to NPR, I wondered if the national press realizes that we had this thing called an election a couple months back, and the Republicans lost?
The Senate this week debates President Barack Obama's economic stimulus bill. Republicans want unnecessary spending taken out of the bill — while adding housing and tax cuts.

While it would certainly be nice in a fluffy-bunny, hands-across-America, "We Are the World" kind of way for the Democrats in the United States Senate to listen to what McConnell and the Republicans are saying, they don't need to do so. They can introduce the bill, set aside a cloture vote, and pass the thing. Period.

I was also surprised, not so much by the comment itself, but by the fact that someone, somewhere, thought it newsworthy to point out that the guy who lost the Presidential election doesn't agree with the guy who won. Since McCain lost kind of big - as Duncan points out, the dude lost Indiana - isn't it kind of irrelevant what he thinks? It's time for Democrats to stop worrying about governing, and for the press to grab a clue. The country doesn't want them screwing things up any more.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Twenty-One Years Ago

I was trying to remember the number, and Oliver Willis reminded me. It was late-January (the game was played a bit earlier then), but the day was warm - mid-60's - and presaged a hot, dry spring and summer to come. I was living in the upstairs apartment in a house in Rochester, NY. It was a mostly unhappy time, at least in my memory, and certainly I wasn't very happy at the time, but that day . . . that game.

The Washington Redskins seemed outmatched, and Doug Williams was just faltering through the first quarter. It wasn't just me; the announcers had all but given up on the 'Skins. Then, in quarter number 2, something happened. Williams threw a touchdown pass. Then, after four-and-punt from the Broncos, he did it again. Then, they forced a turnover and scored again. The Broncos kept reeling as the Redskins scored and scored and scored some more. By half-time the game was all but over.

When I look back on that time in my life, that game, that day, stand out for me because everything in my life would change before the calendar turned, and that Super Bowl Sunday was a hint, a clue, perhaps even a sign that things are not always what they seem, that time doesn't stand still, that things can turn around in a blink of an eye.

I remembered the game, and the day, just not the Superbowl number (although, if I had just done a little subtraction I would have come to it, I suppose). Anyone else have any Super Bowl memories they would like to share (after the game, of course)?

Some Thoughts On A Sermon

That's the preacher lady I'm married to. Today, she took as her text the Gospel story, in St. Mark's Gospel, Chapter 1, verses 21-28:
21They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. 22They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. 23Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” 25But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. 27They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee.

She said some really remarkable things in this sermon. One really brave confession. If we can get up to date, you can even hear it, or down load it here, scrolling down the right-side menu and clicking on the tab that says "Sermons 2009".

One point I would like to draw out was the picture she painted. She challenged the idea that the demoniac here in Capernaeum was similar to the demoniac living in the graveyard in Ganesaret. Rather than a crazed lunatic cut off from all social contact, she offered the suggestion that perhaps this was an individual who attended Shabbat every Saturday, a pillar of the local community, nodded his head in all the right places during the reading and expounding of the texts by the local scribe or rabbi.

Then, along comes Jesus. What authority does he have to speak on the text? He's not learned! He's no scribe, no rabbi-trained teacher! The demon within this man shouts out, "What have you to do with us?"

If this idea doesn't make you squirm, maybe you aren't paying attention . . .

I've Got Your Bipartisanship Right Here


Help me, folks. Seriously. The guy is called the Dean of political reporters, yet this column is written as if he had no idea what has been happening for the past few weeks, or even the past fourteen years.
When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced in early January that there would be no mid-February recess for Congress unless the giant economic stimulus bill demanded by Barack Obama were on its way to the White House, she accomplished two things.

On the positive side, she clearly signaled to Republicans that delaying tactics could cost them vacations and campaign time in their home districts. But conversely, her hard line was a tacit green light to her fellow Democrats to ram the staggeringly expensive piece of legislation through, no matter the objections the GOP raised.

Last week the $819 billion tax and spending bill passed the House with all but 11 Democrats supporting it and not a single Republican voting yes. The first important roll call of the Obama presidency looked as bitterly partisan as any of the Bush years.

It was not for lack of effort on the part of the new president. Obama went to the Capitol to visit Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers, and he encouraged the Democratic draftsmen to scrap a couple of egregiously irrelevant spending programs they had penciled into the bill.

With the economy sinking like the Titanic - breaking up, dragging those trapped in the hold to the frozen depths, with the only difference being the captain who brought us to this point no going down with the ship but escaping - it would seem that speed was of the essence. While details of the proposal were time-consuming to read, the general outline of the bill and its intended effects have been bandied about since the campaign. The Republicans have been signaling since before the election that any kind of stimulus bill would face a fight, not on principle, but simply because the Republicans wanted to put up a fight.

Those "egregiously irrelevant" parts of the stimulus bill included Medicaid support for states (including family planning help as well as treatment and prevention help for the poor) and a revitalization plan for the National Mall in Washington, DC, which would have provided hundreds of jobs to the Capitol area. Obviously irrelevant putting people to work during a recession. . .
This bill, so much larger than ordinary legislation, even the wartime defense appropriations, is almost certain to be the biggest, if not the last, weapon the government employs to halt the sickening economic slide that has gripped the country in the past five months. So much is uncertain, and so much is riding on it, that it's worth taking time to get it right.

Professional economists from both the right and left have raised questions that are anything but frivolous about its design. Martin Feldstein, a top Reagan adviser, has questioned the efficacy of the current menu of tax cuts and spending proposals to generate consumer demand and produce jobs. Alice Rivlin, who played a similar role for Bill Clinton, has called for a sharper focus on short-term job growth as distinguished from slow-acting steps for energy independence or health-care quality. Even the Congressional Budget Office has challenged how quickly this massive infusion of dollars will be felt in family budgets and the marketplace.

Beyond these policy challenges, there are political considerations that make it really important for Obama to take the time to negotiate for more than token Republican support in the Senate.

Nothing was more central to his victory last fall than his claim that he could break the partisan gridlock in Washington. He wants to be like Ronald Reagan, steering his first economic measures through a Democratic House in 1981, not Bill Clinton, passing his first budget in 1993 without a single Republican vote.

The first way leads to long-term success; the second foretells the early loss of control.

This vote will set a pattern for Obama, one way or the other. He needs a bipartisan majority because, tough as this issue is, harder ones await when he turns to energy, health care and entitlement reform.

The Democrats have to give the Republicans, who as a party lost the past two national elections, what they want, because the Democrats, who have vast majorities in both Houses of Congress and have an extremely popular incumbent President, because otherwise people might think the Democrats aren't serious about bipartisanship. Obviously. Except, of course - and everyone outside Washington seemes to understand this - it is the Republicans who aren't serious. Obama and Pelosi tossed Boehner's boys and girls every bone they could; Obama even tossed Pelosi's Medicaid support out, promising to put it in another bill, if it would induce Republicans to vote for it. They didn't. They never intended to. They just wanted to see how far they could push Obama and the Congressional Democrats.

The Senate's turn will be interesting, because Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had previously indicated that there would be no problem ending debate on the bill. Then, a couple days ago, Charles Grassley of Iowa indicated that, yes, indeed, the Republicans would filibuster any attempt to bring the bill to a vote. This should be the point where Obama does a couple things. First, he reinserts all the stuff he pulled out of the House version. Then, he holds a press conference or delivers a speech to the nation, outlining the events of the past couple weeks, naming names and calling people out. Then, he lets the Republicans decide - do they crew the American people in the name of some non-existent principle, or do they go along to get along? My guess is even with public pressure being brought to bear, the Republicans would be obstructionist.

Let them. The Democrats have no need of them, not even in the Senate. The cloture rule can be set aside by a simple majority, and if it comes to that, the Democrats should remind the Republicans who is in charge and why.

Unlike Broder, I believe the American people want results. They want action. They want the Democrats to do what the voters sent them to do. Some mythical ideal of bipartisanship, achieved by people negotiating in good faith isn't going to happen because the Republicans do not now, and have not for almost a decade and a half, dealt in good faith. Rather than show little yellow, or even a little leg (as it were), Obama should put the keys in the steamroller, and hand the driving over to Speaker Pelosi and Majority Leader Reid (although, God knows the Democrats could do much better in a majority leader than Harry Reid). When the bill passes and is signed with not a single Republican standing behind the President, Obama should simply smile for the cameras, and claim all the success for himself and the Democrats in Congress.

Now that's bipartisanship I can believe in. Credit where credit is due. Make those who stand in the way of helping the American people pay the price for their obstructionism.

Virtual Tin Cup

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