Saturday, January 7, 2012

Reelecting Obama: The Right Thing to Do

America, it's 2012 now.  Apocalyptic nonsense aside, it's time we talked about something important.  There's a presidential election this year, and we as a people have a distressing tendency to act ridiculous whenever we get around to electing people.  We don't think straight.  We respond to outrageous fabrications as though they were truth.  We treat the truth as though it were merely a speculative hypothesis.  We watch a lot of cable news.  None of those things are healthy for our democracy.

This year, barring negative developments I choose not to speculate upon, I will be voting to reelect Barack Obama.  This should come as no surprise, since I am a liberal who believes in liberal things like equality and social justice.  It is a decision, however, that requires some explanation, given the times in which we live.  I have a rather long and thorough explanation which I would like to offer here, in the hopes that others will read it, and possibly come around to my way of seeing things.

The Problems with Obama

I'll start with the two biggest points against him. The obvious one is the state of the economy, which is pretty sad.  I've heard rumblings about recovery and it's also true that we are technically no longer in the recession that began in 2008, at the end of the Bush administration.  However, right now the economy still sucks, with an official unemployment rate of 8.5%, and it's not transparently obvious that it will get much better before November.  The Obama administration has plans and policies designed to improve the economy and generate new jobs for Americans, but in the face of Republican opposition, few of them have been enacted in robust ways.

Republicans, of course, don't believe those policies would work anyway.  Mainstream economists generally accept the Keynesian idea that government spending can stimulate the economy in a recession, though given the nature of economic theory it's not too difficult to find an economist who will endorse any theory you can imagine.  But even granting that his policies would work if fully realized, Obama's failure to fully realize them is a severe mark against the effectiveness of his Presidency.  Yes, yes, the Republicans are being obstructive, but one can't help thinking that more could have been done.

As things are now, the economy is in fact recovering.  It isn't the strong recovery we hoped for or were promised, but it is recovering; in light of all the obstruction from Congress, that's something to be very optimistic about.  Obama's famed stimulus package may not have been enough to prevent recession or high unemployment at the time, but the numbers show that, contrary to portrayals of him as a "job killer," 2011 has seen a considerable drop in unemployment.

The second big point is, in my opinion, much more serious.  In fact, of all Obama's negative attributes, it comes closest to being a deal breaker.  It concerns that broad circle of domestic and foreign policy generally known as "The War on Terror."  Frankly, Obama's conduction of it has been difficult to distinguish from that of George W. Bush.  It is true that troops are coming home from Iraq, and that they are scheduled to do the same from Afghanistan, but our military involvement with those countries is not likely to end completely in the foreseeable future.  In the meantime, we've become meddlers in more countries than I can name, and we're closer than ever to a new war in Iran.  Guantánamo Bay, as I understand things, was supposed to be closed by January of 2010.  It remains open, with all of its "enhanced interrogation techniques" and its lack of any meaningful judicial oversight.

Having come of age in the midst of the era of Bush, being duly horrified by his authorization of torture, warrant-less surveillance, and other crimes against individual rights and the good name of America, I am gravely disappointed that Obama has changed virtually nothing of that system.  Were I any less disciplined, I'd be tempted to withhold my vote on these grounds.  However, there is another uncomfortable, sobering truth that transcends the question of one candidate or another.  Although many people would like to see this system end, there is a complete lack of will among the political class to do it.  If a self-professed liberal won't end it, then I'm at my wit's end.

Credit where credit is due: the Iraq war is essentially over, and Osama bin Laden was killed in a well-planned and well-executed operation.  In addition, several cuts in the military budget are now being planned that will end our capacity to fight two simultaneous ground wars for any extended length of time, restraining us from the kind of overzealous foreign policy pursued by the Bushes.  But the expansion of the power to detain citizens, in defiance of the Bill of Rights, is still a massive problem.  Many forces in Congress, the military, and the private sector have pushed for this expansion, but the President has the choice to accept or reject it.  Thus far, he has not rejected that power.

There are other reasons one might choose not to vote for Obama.  However, it's worth remembering a few things for sanity's sake.  Obama was not born in Kenya, or Indonesia, or the moon, or the USSR; he was born in Hawai'i, which is a U.S. state on an equal constitutional basis with states like Iowa or Pennsylvania, or even Texas.  Obama is not a socialist; it's my understanding that many of America's real socialists have their doubts as to whether he's even a liberal.  Obama is not a crypto-Muslim or any other sort of subversive or sleeper-agent, planted to undermine our cherished values and deliver us into the hands of our enemies.  That's only a ridiculous paranoid fantasy, and if it were true he certainly would have done something really nefarious by now.  If you plan to vote against Obama, and your rationale for doing so includes any of the allegations in this paragraph, I suggest you go back and check your work.

The Case For the Reelection of Obama

Now, I'd like to get into some real, positive reasons to vote for Obama.  In three years, his administration has in fact achieved several laudable, progressive achievements.  These will only seem like achievements if you are sympathetic to their goals; many anti-government conservatives these days see any type of government action as tyranny, and there's just no convincing those people.  For the rest of us, it's worth remembering what Obama has done, and what Republicans have threatened to roll back if they regain the presidency.

First of all, Obama and the 111th Congress (that's the one that served from 2009-2011 and was controlled by Democrats) passed the Affordable Care Act, which made several improvements to the health care system in the United States.  Its provisions increase access to insurance for over thirty million people, and disallows some of the insurance industry's most loathsome practices, like denying coverage for preexisting conditions.  It also reduces the deficit, contrary to bold-faced attempts by Republicans to depict it as a budget buster.  It isn't the Canadian-style single payer system progressives have dreamed of, but it will improve many people's lives, and an improvement is better than stagnation.  The Republicans contributed nothing to the health care reform, except to take ideas they had once espoused (the so-called individual mandate chief among them) and brand them as communist plots.  Healthcare reform is in serious trouble if Republicans take back the White House.

Obama and the 111th also created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau as part of an attempt at financial reform.  The recession and the financial crisis were caused by failures in the private sector: Wall Street entities, emboldened to seek maximum profits in environments with few to no effective rules or regulations, embarked on elaborate schemes that collapsed when all of the bubbles burst. They invested billions in risky schemes, confident that they would be bailed out if things went sour.  They were, at a tremendous cost to taxpayers; now they wish to resume those same risky behaviors.

The CFPB was created to regulate banks, securities firms, and other institutions which generate profit by handling other people's money.  It exists to ensure that they handle it wisely and without unnecessary risks, and that they do not engage in punitive or fraudulent practices against their customers.  Republicans, for their part, have attempted to stall the bureau and prevent a director from taking office.  With a director finally in place (thanks to a convenient recess appointment), the CFPB now has a chance to put the brakes on some of Wall Street's worst habits.  Republicans, however, continue to maintain that financial institutions are the "job creators" and saviors of our economy, and are determined to undo these reforms.

In the field of civil rights, Obama's administration has done many good things.  The first bill Obama signed as President, in fact, was a civil rights law, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which made it easier for women to sue when paid discriminatory wages.  Most notably, Obama oversaw the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell, a policy which had preserved the principle of discrimination against homosexuals in our military.  His Justice Department has also dropped the legal defense of the Defense of Marriage Act, a law which prohibits federal recognition of homosexual marriages in any state.  Republicans have opposed all of these measures, particularly those related to gay rights.  They instead continue to feed on the resentment of conservatives, who see every step toward equality as an imposition of "special rights."  As Secretary of state Hilary Clinton recently made clear, the idea of "special rights" is totally bunk: this is an issue of human rights.

One issue on which Obama is frequently misrepresented is taxation.  There is a stereotype that Republicans apply to Democrats automatically and without exception, that they always raise taxes.  This lie is so pervasive that many otherwise rational people actually believe Obama has raised taxes on them.  As a matter of fact, Obama cut taxes for middle class families, though the effort was eventually undone by the Republicans in Congress. His only effort to raise income taxes has been aimed at the wealthiest members of our society, who benefited from a massive tax cut under George W. Bush.  The effect of the Bush cut, which conservatives at the time argued would increase revenue (somehow), was to become the single largest component of the present budget deficit.  Obama has called for the cuts on only the wealthiest earners to expire, preserving the cuts for average earners.  Republicans call this "class warfare."

Obama has been criticized for not being liberal or progressive enough, or not pursuing his goals with enough energy and leadership.  Some liberals have expressed a lack of enthusiasm or desire to see him reelected.  This is ludicrous thinking.  Someone who truly believes in equality and reform should not vote for a candidate who has vowed to preserve inequality and roll back reform, and neither should they allow such a candidate to come to power by withholding their vote in protest.  Obama might fairly be said to have not done enough, but he has pursued liberal policy on these and many other issues, and it is conceivable that liberal activism could spur greater achievements in a second term.  Under a Republican administration, those reforms would certainly be smothered.

The Republicans

With the economy struggling and Obama's approval numbers unsteady, there is a considerable chance that one of the Republicans running this year will be our new President in January of 2013.  I'd rather not get hyperbolic in forecasting doom, but a Republican victory would be a very negative development for this country.

The biggest problem we face as a nation is money.  Specifically, those with money are the ones who control this nation.  They can make unlimited contributions to political campaigns, and the politicians they help to elect can enact laws that tilt the table even further in their favor.  Thanks in part to Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United, corporations enjoy ridiculous privileges as legal "persons" that prevent firm attempts at regulation.  They subvert our democratic system with loud voices and large pockets.

Both parties are, to a disgusting extent, in thrall to this system.  Even Obama has been unduly influenced by men in suits who made their fortunes on Wall Street.  It's likely that the tension between democracy and corporate interests is a perennial problem that will never fully be resolved.  That is not, however, an argument to accept the primacy of corporate interests simply because of the power they hold.  We should resist corporations, rather than coddling them: if they're too big to fail, they're more than big enough to take care of themselves.

In all likelihood, Mitt Romney will be the nominee for the Republicans this year.  Aside from being governor of Massachusetts, he has been a businessman and a CEO, and today he is backed by staggering amounts of corporate cash.  He has argued that America's problems stem from not being friendly enough toward the interests of large-scale businessmen, even though America has been quite friendly to them indeed.  A vote for him is an endorsement of that state of affairs.

A vote for Obama, on the other hand, represents the hope of further reforms and an opportunity for continuing struggle against moneyed interests.  Obama isn't perfect; nobody is.  But that opportunity will not exist with Mitt Romney, or just about any other Republican, in the White House.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

So this is the New Year...

Frankly, it doesn't look all that different.  I'm sure the differences will become apparent after a few months of wear and tear.

Greetings, Universe, and welcome to a new year.  The concept of a "year" may not mean much to you (you being the Universe and all), so allow me to explain.  A year is a period of time characterized by the revolution of the planet Earth around the sun; it takes about 365.25 days.  We usually round that down, then add an extra day every four years or so to keep things nice and even.  That day usually gets stuck at the end of February, presumably where it's least likely to get into trouble.

If you're like me, you probably think it's a little odd that the year ends and begins when it does, on the division between  December and January.  Anyone with basic knowledge of Latin can see that the last four months of the year (September, October, November, December) don't so much have names as numbers (seven, eight, nine and ten).  But with twelve months total, it would appear that somebody messed up the count a while back.  If there are twelve months, and December is the tenth, then it makes more sense for the year to begin around March.  Funny thing about that...

Back in the days of Ancient Rome, before the Empire (or even the Republic, for that matter), there actually were ten months on the official calendar: Martius, Aprilis, Maius, Iunius, Quintilis, Sextilis, September, October, November, and December.  The first four are named after various deities, and months five and six would eventually be named after Julius and Augustus Caesar, but it's clear that the Romans were not especially creative when it came to naming months.

Altogether these months only made for about 295 days, leaving about seventy days in winter that were not assigned to any month.  The King of Rome, recognizing that this was silly, added two more months: Ianuarius (after another god) and Februarius, from a word meaning "purification."  It might have made more sense to add them to the end of the year, but instead they were placed in the beginning, thus ruining the official count forever.

The point is this, Universe: like most things we do, the naming of months and the counting of years essentially make zero sense, while simultaneously being perfectly reasonable if you're willing to submerse yourself in arcane trivia, or at least learn a dead language.  It's that little touch of insanity, we hope, that makes us special, and makes each new year worth looking forward to.