Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why the fiscal commission's report is a house of cards

A preliminary report released by President Obama's fiscal commission last week proposed spending cuts, tax reform and dramatic changes to Social Security. The report was approved by the panel's co-chairmen, former Republican Senator from Wyoming Alan Simpson and former Clinton Chief of Staff Erksine Bowles. (Pictured above with the President at the White House when he initially announced they would co-chair his commission).

This was just the first volley in what will prove to be one of the most important and contentious policy debates between now and the 2012 election cycle. Nothing should take the nation's attention away from solving the national debt crisis. Perhaps the stunning rise of the Tea Party and it's "mandate" to downsize federal spending will provide enough incentive for both parties to take this issue seriously and for policy wonks in the press to keep it on their agenda.

The report released on Nov. 10th, was merely the "chairmen's mark," a draft of the proposal that has not yet been approved by all 18 members of the panel. So much of what passes for politics is really a question of "how should we spend the nation's tax dollars?" Conservatives tend to want to spend it on defense. Liberals think social programs should be the priority. Forgive me if I have some doubts anything substantive will get done any time soon. Hear me out.

The chairmen's mark report proposes capping discretionary spending, raising retirement age from 65 to 67 and instituting tax rate reductions while broadening the tax base. It made five broad recommendations:

1) Enact tough discretionary spending caps and provide $200 billion in domestic spending and defense "savings" by 2015.

2) Pass tax reform that simplifies the tax code, dramatically reduces tax rates, broadens the base and reduces the deficit.

3) Addresses the Medicare "doc fix" by payment reforms, malpractice reforms and long term measure to control future health care costs.

4) Achieve mandatory cuts from farm subsidies and military and civil service retirement.

5) Ensure Social Security solvency for the next 75 years while reducing poverty among the elderly.

These are all worthy, but ultimately unachievable, goals because of the way politics is presently conducted in Washington and especially in light of the recent Supreme Court decision to allow large corporations to pour money into congressional campaigns.

We are a country with trillions of dollars of national debt, much of it owed to the Chinese because China has been the primary lender for our costly foreign wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite this, the United States is still the world's most bellicose policeman. U.S. defense spending is not just out of control, it is outrageously out of proportion to what other nations spend on defense. Yet it drives the U.S. economy in ways that make it hard to stem. What would happen to unemployment rates if we made substantial cuts to defense spending?

Here are the figures for 2009 defense spending among the world's top ten spending nations, from India (at number 10) down to the USA, by far the world's biggest spender on defense:

10) India, $36.6 billion
9) Italy, 37.4 billion
8) Saudi Arabia, $39.2 billion
7) Japan, $46.8 billion
6) Germany, $48 billion
5) The Russian Federation, $61 billion
4) France, $67.3 billion
3) The United Kingdom, $69.2 billion
2) China, $98.8 billion
1) The United States.......

.....$663.2 billion!!!!

You read that right.

We are a nation with two large oceans on our eastern and western borders and friendly nations to the north and south of us, yet we spend seven times more in defense spending than our closest rival. Did you know that? Are you upset by this figure? Do you wonder how this is possible? Did you know the United States spends even more on defense than is officially listed in the federal budget? The federal budget includes another $50 billion that is not counted among our defense expenditures and that has no Congressional oversight. This comes comes out of the so-called "black budget" and is controlled by the CIA and the Pentagon.

Yet you hear no member of the Tea Party, no Republican congressman and even very few Democrats -- aside from that "wacko Commie" Dennis Kuchinich -- talking about these staggering defense figures. Is there any wonder why?

In a nutshell, our Congress no longer represents we, the people, who vote. Congress now represents large corporations who control almost every facet of American life, from defense contractors to food production to the media. It is incomprehensible to believe these same politicians will willingly tackling federal spending and try to get the federal budget under control. They are the hired pawns of defense contractors, armament manufacturers and food production conglomerates. If they want to stay in office, you can bet they will do the right thing for their corporate masters.

Who will benefit from the upcoming fight over the federal budget? We can cross our fingers and hope the people get mad enough to make a difference and tell their elected representatives how to vote. Don't bet on that happening.

There will be very few "real winners." I'm putting my money on these folks: The CEOs and the stockholders of those very large corporations where so many of our precious tax dollars are being spent.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Pop culture alert: Jamey Johnson's new double album is a rare country gem

I developed a taste for old-school, hard-ass honky tonk country music when I was working as a feature writer for a Knoxville magazine company in the late 1970s. It's hard to avoid country when you're living in Tennessee. Knoxville was a just two hour drive east of Nashville, the country music capital of the world.

I lived there for two years but never made it to the Grand Ole Opry. Those traditional hat acts that Nashville churns out by the dozens never really appealed to me. I tend to favor bands or artists who would probably be classified in a record store as "alt-country."

Artists like Lucinda Williams, Emmy Lou Harris, and Texans Robert Earl Keen and Joe Ely are who I stick in the CD player when I am cravin' a country fix. Bands like the Drive-By Truckers, the Bottle Rockets and the Jayhawks also catch my ear from time to time. They're all bands that have been to school on Lynyrd Skynrd's licks and that crank out guitar blasts that can knock walls down.

Jamey Johnson is a lot like those Nashville traditionalists who never stoked my fire much back in my Knoxville days. But for reasons I can't quite fathom, I can't get enough of Johnson's new album, called The Guitar Song.

I first noticed his new album was getting some acclaim while looking at a website called "", one of my favorite websites. It posts composite scores and critical reviews of recently released CDs, movies, books, and TV programs. For me, it's a good way to keep my finger on the pulse of popular culture. If a handful of critics are jumping on the bandwagon of a new compact disc, it usually means it's worth hearing. Whenever a CD hits the 80 mark or higher, it lands on my wish list.

Johnson's The Guitar Song is sitting at the top of this year's CD offerings with a composite score of 90. For a country album to be earning those kind of high marks is unusual to say the least. I had to hear it.

I've been playing it for about a week now and the critical raves are justified. It's an audacious undertaking simply because these days few bands or artists have the artist vision or the sheer chutzpah to release a double album. Johnson's latest is a two-for. It offers a "black" album of 12 great songs that plum the darker regions of his heart and a "white" album with 13 songs that are more upbeat and deliver an optimistic take on life. You can play which ever suits your mood. But taken as a whole, it's a compelling package that's impossible not to admire, even if you don't enjoy country music.

Johnson covers a lot of ground on his new album. Even within the confines of standard verses/chorus song arrangements he's constantly changing the tempo and engaging his listener with snippets of hard-earned wisdom. One moment he's lowered his gravelly baritone to softly sing a meloncholy heart-tugger like "That's Why I Write Songs", dispersing life lessons:

I remember all the times I felt/
like somebody knows me too well /
'Cause it was my life story I was listening to /
I don't know about you /
But I've buried some family and a few good friends /
And held a brand new baby in my hands /
Cause it's not just what I do, it's who I am /
And that's why I write the songs

Then, two songs later, he's singing a humorous ode to Macon, Georgia.

I'm headed back to Macon /
middle of the Georga pines /
gotta keep these big wheels rolling /
to that sweet little thing of mine

When he lifts his voice into a plaintive wail in the song's chorus: "I gotta get back to Macon..." a gospel choir answers his lonesome call with: " all night!" This line adds a hilariously jaunty twist to what would have been a pedestrian lyric in the hands of a less accomplished lyricist.

Songs like "Good Times Ain't What They Used to Be" and "Playin' the Part" crackle with the confidence and energy of a hard-core honky tonk band intent on making booties shake on the dance floor. Johnson's voice lacks range, but it's steeped in hard-earned wisdom and is as steady of a bowl of oatmeal. You never get a sense he's less than dead sure of his own sentiments. The best songs are those when Johnson scales back the dance-floor pomp and dispenses with quiet, nearly philosophical, versions of truth and justice. There are plenty enough of them to keep you coming back to this record for repeated listenings.

If you like country music, especially the kind Nashville serves up, you'll love this two-disc package. And even if you don't, you'll come to admire a country artist plying his trade at the top of his game. Look for this one to land on my top ten list at the end of the year.

Here's a link to the L.A. Times review of this great collection of songs:

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Addressing the Tea Party


You didn't get mad
when the Supreme Court stopped a legal
recount and appointed a President.

You didn't get mad
when Dick Cheney allowed Energy company
officials to dictate Energy policy and push us to invade Iraq.

You didn't get mad
when a covert CIA operative got outed.

You didn't get mad
when the Patriot Act got passed.

You didn't get mad
when we illegally invaded a country that posed no threat to us.

You didn't get mad
when we spent over 800 billion (and counting) on said illegal war.

You didn't get mad
when Bush borrowed more money from
foreign sources than the previous 42 Presidents combined.

You didn't get mad
when over 10 billion dollars in cash just disappeared in Iraq.

You didn't get mad
when you found out we were torturing people.

You didn't get mad
when Bush embraced trade and outsourcing
policies that shipped 6 million American jobs out of the country.

You didn't get mad
when the government was illegally wiretapping Americans.

You didn't get mad
when we didn't catch Bin Laden.

You didn't get mad
when Bush rang up 10 trillion dollars in combined budget and current account deficits.

You didn't get mad
when you saw the horrible conditions at Walter Reed.

You didn't get mad
when we let a major US city, New Orleans, drown.

You didn't get mad
when we gave people who had more money
than they could spend, the filthy rich, over a trillion
dollars in tax breaks.

You didn't get mad
with the worst 8 years of job creations in several decades.

You didn't get mad
when over 200,000 US Citizens lost their
lives because they had no health insurance.

You didn't get mad
when lack of oversight and regulations
from the Bush Administration caused US Citizens to lose 12
trillion dollars in investments, retirement, and home values.

You finally got mad

....when a black man was elected President
and decided that people in America deserved the right
to see a doctor if they are sick. Yes, illegal wars, lies, corruption,
torture, job losses by the millions, stealing your tax dollars to make the
rich richer, and the worst economic disaster since 1929 were all okay with you,
but helping fellow Americans who are sick...Oh, Hell No!!

This email has been making its way around the internet for the past few days. A former colleague sent it to me. The best way to address the hypocrisy implied by the these sentiments is to go vote!