Cynical Synapse

Tue, 18 Oct 2011

Smoke and Mirrors Bus Tour: Tax Cuts That Aren’t

Filed under: Congress, Deceit, Economy, Employment, Government, Language, Politics, President, Stimulus, Taxes, Unemployment — cynicalsynapse @ 8:24 pm

Pres. Obama and his stealth bus

Pres. Obama has been traveling around North Carolina and Virginia in his Stealth Bus, the all-black $1.1 million Canadian-American customized luxery coach, the Death Star of the roads. Republicans claim the trip is a taxpayer-funded campaign tour, a charge the White House denies. Let’s face it, anything a politician—of any party or persuasion—does or says in public has a campaign element to it. So, all you Republicans who felt Pres. Bush got chastised by the media for everything he did, get over it, stop pointing at Obama, sit down, and stop saying “but, but, but…”

Features in the American Jobs Act, uncannily similar to 2009’s $720 billion Stimulus, seems like a half-hearted attempt, at only $448 billion. More troubling is the fact it’s not really a new idea and, if Big Stimulus didn’t work, why would anyone think Baby Stimulus will? Maybe that’s why Senate Democrats didn’t take up Obama’s bill, but saw their own version defeated last week. Even so, it gives the President political mileage: “100 percent of Republicans in the Senate voted against it [the Jobs bill]. That doesn’t make any sense, does it?”

Pres. Obama in Jamestown NC

One of the points in Obama’s jobs plan is payroll tax cuts, intended to put more money into workers’ pockets and encourage employers to hire at reduced costs. What the President doesn’t tout is he wants to extend the current worker tax cut, due to expire at the end of the year, and increase it from 2% to 3.1%. That’s just half of the normal 6.2%. He’s already blaming Republicans if this doesn’t happen and he can just see jobs withering away from less money in your pocket.

Fact Check: First, the current extra pocket money is not making it into the economy as most people pay down debt or save it. Something else no one is talking about is the payroll tax holiday reduces contributions to the Social Security Trust Fund. Has anyone forgotten the dire predictions for the immenent collapse of Social Security?

Wizard of Oz

Smoke and mirrors: here are a few coins for your pocket today, but they won’t be there when you retire. In this case, paying it forward doesn’t make any sense to me. In his speech in Jamestown NC today, Mr. Obama obfuscated the matter (emphasis added):

So don’t be bamboozled. (Laughter.) Don’t fall for this notion that somehow the jobs act is proposing to raise your taxes. It’s just not true. Under this—here’s what will happen. If we don’t pass the American Jobs Act, if we do not pass the provision in there that extends the payroll tax cut that we passed in December, most people here, your taxes will go up by $1,000. So voting no against the jobs bill is voting in favor of middle-class families’ income taxes going up. And that’s a fact. Don’t take my word for it—all the reporters here, they can check on the facts on this thing. That’s the truth.

Are any reporters fact-checking the only payroll taxes the Federal government collects are Social Security (FICA) and Medicare?
 

Previously on Obama’s jobs bill:

Fri, 07 Oct 2011

Global War on Terror 10 Years Later

US 10th Mountain Div. Soldiers in Afghanistan

Today marks the 10th anniversary since US forces began fighting in Afghanistan. It marks the start of the Global War on Terror and was a direct result of Taliban refusal to turn over Osama bin Laden, an issue that predated the 9/11 attacks. Al Qaeda’s leader was already wanted by the international community for embassy bombings in Africa and other terrorist acts.

I was glad I had not voted for Al Gore in the 2000 Presidential elections. There’s no doubt he wouldn’t have responded as decisively as George W. Bush, who started off right. (Concerning the distraction that became Operation Iraqi Freedom—which I was no in favor of—that’s for another post.) In Afghanistan, US forces, along with those from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, completely ousted the Taliban from power within 2 months. The hunt for bin Laden was on and efforts to build a stable Afghan government began.

Pres. Karzai opens session of Afghan Parliament

What do we have to show after 10 years at war?

Is our national security better off? The verdict is still out, and it’s a subject for much debate. From my view, we’re about even. China’s rise as a world power and the Arab Spring have certainly changed the geopolitical landscape, on which Russia is still a somewhat contrary power not to be discounted. We have less to fear from international terrorists and terror organizations, but a growing trend in so-called homegrown radicals means we must stay vigilant. To counter international and domestic threats, we have willingly surrendered freedoms in exchanged for a perception of security.
 


 

Sat, 01 Oct 2011

Hey, Due Processers: Here’s the Smoking Underwear Bomb

remnants of underwear bomb

Almost before the smoke cleared after Friday’s Predator drone attack on US-Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, there’s been a popular uprising questioning the legality of killing the jihadist cleric. Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul blasted Obama for violating al-Awlaki’s Constitutional right to due process. With just 8% support in a recent Florida poll, Paul was joined by 1%-er Gary Johnson in crying fowl in “assassinating” al-Awlaki. Gag me with a spoon. Al-Awlaki was an enemy combatant, pure and simple. Citizenship is not part of the equation.

Since that’s clearly not sufficient for the “due processers”, consider Ibrahim al-Asiri was also killed in the Predator airstrike. Al-Asiri, then, was in the same motorcade with al-Awlaki, so there is a definite connection. And the FBI pulled al-Asiri’s fingerprint of the underwear bomb remnants. How can there be any question about al-Awlaki’s active engagement in jihad against the US, which clearly makes him an enemy combatant?

al-Asiri's cargo bomb threat

The killing of al-Awlaki, Samir Khan (also a US citizen), and al-Asiri, all members of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), is both lawful and justified. They were enemy combatants engaged in the fight against our way of life.

Kudos to Republican candidate Rick Perry’s praise for Pres. Obama’s commitment to hunting down terrorists. That’s a radical, and welcome, departure from Paul, Johnson, and those who thought Obama would be soft on terrorism.
 

After seeing the video, I hope the disconnect between Paul’s call for due process in al-Awladi’s case, but no need for same for 9/11 accused becomes apparent. And, forgive me, but every time I hear of Ron Paul, I can’t help but think of Ru Paul.

Update:

03 Oct 2011

It almost seemed too good to be true when I first heard al-Asiri was killed in the Predator strike on al-Awlaki and Khan. Alas, it seems it was more than we should hope for. Yemeni officials said AQAP bombmaker al-Asiri was not killed with al-Awlaki in Friday’s aerial targeting of the terrorist cleric’s motorcade. While there may no longer be a smoking underwear link, the fact remains al-Awlaki served AQAP and was at war with his native country.

Al-Awlaki’s value to AQAP was his knowledge of US culture and his ability at radicalizing, enabling, and recruiting to the jihadist cause homegrown extremists like MAJ Nidal Hassan and the Times Square bomber. Ironically, if he’d stayed in the US, he’d be a criminal (can you say conspiracy?), but since he moved in with AQAP in Yemen, he was an enemy combatant.
 

Fri, 23 Sep 2011

Obama Grandstands for Stimulus 2.0 Jobs Bill

Filed under: Budget, Economy, Employment, Government, Politics, President, Take action — cynicalsynapse @ 10:50 am

Obama pushing his jobs bill in Cincinatti

Pres. Barack Obama was in Cincinatti yesterday to push for passing his jobs bill, which is really just the Stimulus on diet pills. At $447 billion, Obama’s proposal is just over half the $850 billion economic stimulus package of 2009. Like the original Stimulus bill, Obama’s jobs bill focuses on infrastructure.

Behind us stands the Brent Spence Bridge. It’s located on one of the busiest trucking routes in North America. It sees about 150,000 vehicles cross over every day. And it’s in such poor condition that it has been labeled functionally obsolete. Functionally obsolete. It’s safe to drive on, but it was not designed to accommodate today’s traffic, which can stretch for a mile.

If the Brent Spence bridge is in such bad shape, why didn’t it get fixed by the original stimulus bill? Why is Obama advocating for it as part of his jobs bill? Could it be, oh, I don’t know, the bridge links House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-OH-8) district with Kentucky, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s home? Why, yes; yes it does. In his remarks, Obama said:

Mr. Boehner, Mr. McConnell, help us rebuild this bridge. Help us rebuild America. Help us put this country back to work.

will code for food

Obama’s jobs plan focuses on construction, which had 13.5% unemployment in August, compared to 9.1% overall. The the President talks about putting unemployed construction workers back to work. Unfortunately, his jobs bill won’t help the right people. Jobs grew over the last year in every construction sector except residential; they’re not the ones who build bridges. And what about all the unemployed in other industries? Less than chickenfeed for them.

Considering its questionable effect, Big Stimulus was very costly with little benefit. Unemployment was at 7.3% before enacting the stimulus bill; it’s 9.1% today. The government reports stimulus saved or added about 2.4 million jobs which means taxpayers spent $288,000 on each of them. That equates to 976 weeks (almost 19 years!) of unemployment benefits at the averge US amount of $295 per week. Seriously?

Tell your Senators and Congressperson we cannot afford Stimulus 2.0. It’s too costly and it won’t fix unemployment.
 

Previously on the stimulus bill:

Wed, 21 Sep 2011

Obama Photobombs President of Mongolia

Filed under: Behavior, Diplomacy, Good job, President — cynicalsynapse @ 7:51 pm

Obama photobombs the President of Mongolia

Way to go, Barack! This was just too amazing—and funny—to pass up! Why would US Pres. Obama wave in a picture like this in the first place?

Mongolia might not be a major player on the world political stage. Still, any bets on political fallout, nonetheless?
 

Fri, 09 Sep 2011

Déjà Vu: Obama’s Jobs Plan is Just Stimulus 2.0

Filed under: Budget, Business, Congress, Economy, Employment, Government, Life, Politics, President, Stimulus — cynicalsynapse @ 5:00 pm

the new homeless

Déjà vu is the feeling of experiencing what’s going on now repeats some previous similar event or activity. President Obama’s jobs speech to Congress, in an 8 September 2011 joint sesssion, feels like that. Some other concepts that come to mind:

  • “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.”
    Winston Churchill
  • “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”
    Henry Ford
  • “Hope is not a method.”
    Gordon R. Sullivan
  • “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
    John Heywood

The size of Obama’s proposed $447 billion jobs bill is over half that of 2009’s stimulus bill. Like its predecessor, the jobs bill includes tax cuts designed to spur private sector jobs and give working class people more take-home pay so they can spend it and create a need for more workers. It also includes money for education and infrastructure projects, just like the stimulus bill. Counterintuitively, both the stimulus and jobs bills also called for extended unemployment benefits.

Pres. Obama makes his jobs bill speech

Obama urged Congress to pass his jobs bill, pointing out it includes proposals from both parties and will be fully paid for:

There should be nothing controversial about this piece of legislation. Everything in here is the kind of proposal that’s been supported by both Democrats and Republicans—including many who sit here tonight. And everything in this bill will be paid for. Everything.

With no plan for where the bill’s nearly a half trillion dollar cost will come from, Mr. Obama tasked the bipartisan deficit reduction supercommittee to pay for jobs on top of the deficit reduction they’re already charged with. Since unemployment is now 9.1%, compared to less than 8 (7.6%) prior to 2009’s stimulus package, why does anyone think “Stimulus Lite” will work? If they do, they’re part of the Chain of Fools (meaning no disrespect to Miss Aretha).
 

Previously on the stimulus bill:

Thu, 08 Sep 2011

Guardsmen Shot; Crickets From NGB, DoD, and White House

Filed under: Crime, Global War on Terror, Military, Paradoxes, Politics, President, Rants, Terrorism — cynicalsynapse @ 7:56 pm

Nevada IHOP crime scene

Just two days ago, on 6 September, Eduardo Sencion shot 5 Nevada National Guardsmen, killing 3 of them and a civilian, and wounding 5 civilians before taking his own life in a Carson City NV IHOP (International House of Pancakes) restaurant. Authorities still don’t know why Sencion, 32, whom family members say had mental health issues, opened fire at the IHOP with an AK-47, but Sencion doubled the Nevada Guard’s death toll in the Global War on Terror:

One [Maj. Heath Kelly, 35, Reno] was an Iraq War veteran who loved military history. Another [Sgt. 1st Class Christian Riege, 38, Carson City] was an Afghanistan war vet and fitness buff. The third [Sgt. 1st Class Miranda McElhiney, 31, Reno] would bring in cupcakes for colleagues when they got promotions.

All of them were National Guard members and they were sitting at a table at a Nevada IHOP when a gunman burst in and began shooting.

All three died in the attack, a death toll that matched the total number of Nevada guardsmen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan over a decade. A patron was also killed.

Eduarco Sencion

While Sencion’s motive for the shootings remains unclear, it is equally uncontestable he shot toward the back of the restaurant where the Guardsmen were seated.

Here’s what bothers me. Whether Sencion targeted the military or not, it took 2 days for a “news item” to appear on National Guard Bureau’s website and there is nothing about this incident on the Army, DoD, or White House websites. Not even condolences to the families. They were in uniform, so they were in a duty status. If this had been on Fort Hood, it would be big news, but shooting 5 Guardsmen in Nevada doesn’t even warrant any comment from senior military officials, even at Guard Bureau? That’s lame and disconcerting. Don’t talk to me about Soldier care if you have nothing to say about this incident.

For those who want to help, the Nevada Support Alliance provides a way to support the Guard family and its fallen, particularly regarding this incident.
 

Tue, 06 Sep 2011

Irony: Arethra Franklin Sings Chain of Fools Before Obama Speech

Filed under: Detroit, Economy, Government, Michigan, Politics, President — cynicalsynapse @ 8:55 pm

Aretha Franklin in Detroit

President Barack Obama spoke in Detroit on Labor Day about the comeback of the Big 3 automakers and the importance and significance of labor unions. The warm-up before the speech included Aretha Franklin singing Chain of Fools. Is anyone else seeing the irony here?
 

Mon, 05 Sep 2011

In Detroit: Obama’s Jobs Plan? Just Stimulus 2.0

Filed under: Budget, Detroit, Economy, Government, Politics, President, Stimulus — cynicalsynapse @ 7:31 pm

black hole

Sen. Debbie Stabinaw (D-MI) was there. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI-14) led cheers for jobs. Seriously? Can anyone see Conyers cheering for anything? His speaking style is the most depressing I’ve ever seen or heard. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) rode with the President on Air Force One to Detroit. It was like a black hole of hope amidst the ruins of reality.

Obama speaking in Detroit

At a Labor Day speech in Detroit, President Obama praised unions, which isn’t a surprise considering the event he spoke at was an AFL-CIO rally. But, Obama fell back on the meme of the failed Stimulus bill:

We’ve got roads and bridges across this country that need rebuilding. We’ve got private companies with the equipment and the manpower to do the building. We’ve got more than 1 million unemployed construction workers ready to get dirty right now. There is work to be done and there are workers ready to do it. Labor is on board. Business is on board. We just need Congress to get on board.

So, while unemployment remains at 9.1% and there were zero jobs added to the US workforce in August, Obama’s solution is just a repeat of the ineffective Stimulus from 2008. It didn’t work then, so why would it work now?
 

Fri, 26 Aug 2011

Citizenship by Proxy?

2d BN 503d IN Scouts pull overwatch above the Chowkay Valley in Kunar Province, Afghanistan

Regular readers know I’m a member of the Michigan Army National Guard. I personally know a lot of people who have served on the front lines in the Global War on Terror. Some have had 3 or more deployments. So, for me, this whole thing is personal.

My personal view is I don’t believe we had any business in Iraq. I think it was a personal vendetta of George W. Bush’s to avenge his father’s failure to kill Saddam Husein. That said, once we went there, it became critical we saw it through. There are plenty of analogies of “unfinished business” requiring considerable follow-up action.

As for the warfight in Afghanistan, it’s more clear to me, even 10 years after the Global War on Terror began. As far as I’m concerned, the Taliban cannot have any significant measure of power. These are, after all, the same clowns that allowed Bin Laden and his cronies to launch their 9/11 attacks.

While, for me, it’s easy to view the issues in such clear black-and-white, the reality on the ground is more gray. And, so it is from the political perspective, as well. William Deresiewicz raises such concerns in his essay An Empty Regard:

No symbol is more sacred in American life right now than the military uniform. The cross is divisive; the flag has been put to partisan struggle. But the uniform commands nearly automatic and universal reverence. In Congress as on television, generals are treated with awed respect, service members spoken of as if they were saints. Liberals are especially careful to make the right noises: obeisance to the uniform having become the shibboleth of patriotism, as anti-Communism used to be. Across the political spectrum, throughout the media, in private and public life, the pieties and ritual declarations are second nature now: “warriors,” “heroes,” “mission”; “our young men and women in uniform,” “our brave young men and women,” “our finest young people.” So common has this kind of language become, we scarcely notice it anymore.

There is no question that our troops are courageous and selfless. They expose themselves to inconceivable dangers under conditions of enormous hardship and fight because they want to keep the country safe. We owe them respect and gratitude — even if we think the wars they’re asked to fight are often wrong. But who our service members are and the work their images do in our public psyche, our public discourse, and our public policy are not the same. Pieties are ways to settle arguments before they begin. We need to question them, to see what they’re hiding.

The new cult of the uniform began with the call to “support our troops” during the Iraq war. The slogan played on a justified collective desire to avoid repeating the mistake of the Vietnam era, when hatred of the conflict spilled over into hostility toward the people who were fighting it. Now the logic was inverted: supporting the troops, we were given to understand, meant that you had to support the war. In fact, that’s all it seemed to mean. The ploy was a bait and switch, an act of emotional blackmail. If you opposed the war or questioned the way it was conducted, you undermined our troops.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have dragged on, other purposes have come into play. The greater the sacrifice that has fallen on one small group of people, the members of the military and their families, the more we have gone from supporting our troops to putting them on a pedestal. In the Second World War, everybody fought. Soldiers were not remote figures to most of us; they were us. Now, instead of sharing the burden, we sentimentalize it. It’s a lot easier to idealize the people who are fighting than it is to send your kid to join them. This is also a form of service, I suppose: lip service.

The cult of the uniform also bespeaks a wounded empire’s need to reassert its masculinity in the wake of 9/11. “Dead or alive,” “bring it on,” “either you’re with us or you’re against us”: the tenor of official rhetoric in the ensuing years embodied a kind of desperate machismo. The war in Iraq, that catharsis of violence, expressed the same emotional dynamic. We’d been hit in the head with a rock; like a neighborhood bully, we grabbed the first person we could get our hands on and beat him senseless. Mission accomplished: we were strong again, or so we imagined, and the uniform — as George W. Bush understood when he swaggered across the deck of the Abraham Lincoln in a flight suit — was the symbol of that strength. The soldier is the way we want to see ourselves: stoic, powerful, focused, devoted.

This helps explain why the souring of the wars failed to tarnish the military’s reputation. There seems little doubt that our armed forces today are more professional, and at the small-unit level, at least, more effective, than they were in Vietnam. Still, Iraq descended into stalemate, and Afghanistan gives little hope, 10 years on, of ever being anything else. Does the fault lie with our civilian leadership alone, or with our client states? Do “our brave young men and women fulfill every mission we ask them to,” as the catechism goes? These are not rhetorical questions; these are the real questions that we haven’t been willing to ask ourselves. At the very least, our generals ought surely to come in for some criticism — as they did, when it was appropriate, in other wars. And yet the cult of the uniform has immunized them from blame, and inoculates the rest of us from thought.

There are other questions. Has the military really ceased to be the big, bumbling bureaucracy it was always taken to be? And if it is supremely efficient now, is that because there’s something uniquely effective about its command structure and values — a frequent implication these days — or rather because we’ve given it a blank check? Is America the world’s cop, as we like to say, or is our military something more like an imperial police force? (When it comes to places like Darfur or Ivory Coast, which are not felt to threaten national security interests, we leave the dirty work to someone else.)

It seems extremely unlikely anything like My Lai has taken place in Iraq or Afghanistan, but there have been some terrible crimes: the abuses at Abu Ghraib; the premeditated gang rape of a 14-year-old girl in Mahmudiya, Iraq, and the murder of her family; the executions of Afghan civilians by the self-described “kill team” from the 5th Stryker Brigade. Only the first has been widely discussed, likely because there were pictures. How many more of these have there been? Maybe none, maybe a significant number: until we ask—until we want to ask—we’ll never know.

As the national narrative shifts from the war on terror to the specter of decline, the uniform performs another psychic function. The military is can-do, the one institution — certainly the one public institution — that still appears to work. The schools, the highways, the post office; Amtrak, FEMA, NASA and the T.S.A. — not to mention the banks, the newspapers, the health care system, and above all, Congress: nothing seems to function anymore, except the armed forces. They’re like our national football team—and undisputed champs, to boot—the one remaining sign of American greatness.

The term most characteristically employed, when the cult of the uniform is celebrated, is “heroes.” Perhaps no word in public life of late has been more thoroughly debased by overuse. Soldiers are “heroes”; firefighters are “heroes”; police officers are “heroes” — all of them, not the special few who undoubtedly deserve the term. So unthinking has the platitude become that someone referred to national park rangers on public radio recently as “heroes” — reflexively, in passing — presumably since they wear uniforms, as well. Stephen Colbert picked up on this phenomenon long ago, which is why he slyly refers to his viewers—and now, to the donors to his Super PAC—by the same term.

“Heroes,” like “support our troops,” was also deployed early, in Iraq. Within a couple of weeks, we were treated to the manufactured heroism of Jessica D. Lynch, the young supply clerk who was rescued from an Iraqi hospital a few days after her capture by enemy forces (both events turning out to be far less cinematic than initially put out) and who finally felt compelled to speak out against her own use as an instrument of propaganda. In the case of Pat Tillman, the former professional football player who died the following year in Afghanistan by friendly fire, not in an ambush as originally claimed, it was left to his family to expose the lies with which the Army surrounded him. The irony is that our soldiers are the last people who are likely to call themselves heroes and are apparently very uncomfortable with this kind of talk. The military understands itself as a group endeavor. As the West Point professor Elizabeth D. Samet recently noted, service members feel uneasy when strangers approach them to—as the well-meaning but oddly impersonal ritual goes—thank them for their service, thereby turning them into paradoxically anonymous celebrities. It was wrong to demonize our service members in Vietnam; to canonize them now is wrong as well. Both distortions make us forget that what they are are human beings.

What is heroism? What kind of psychological purpose does the concept serve? Heroism is bravery and selflessness, but more than that, it is triumphant action, and in particular, morally unambiguous action. In most of life — and certainly in public life — there is scarcely such a thing on either count. Politics is a muddle of moral and practical compromise. Victories are almost always partial, ambiguous and subject to reversal. Heroism belongs to the realm of fantasy—the comic book, the action movie—or to delimited and often artificial spheres of action, like space exploration or sports.

The Marine who saves his buddies in a firefight, the cop who rescues a child from a well—the challenges they face are clear and simple and isolated from the human mess. Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III, the pilot who successfully landed an airliner in the Hudson River, was, everyone agreed, a hero. But note how frequently the element of salvation or rescue comes up when we talk about heroism. It was a beautiful coincidence that Captain Sullenberger’s moment came just five days before the last presidential inauguration, for heroism and rescue were the subtext of Barack Obama’s campaign, especially for his legions of young believers. He was the one we’d been waiting for; you could almost imagine the “S” on his chest, underneath the suit. (Once in office, of course, he descended into the muddle, and showed himself a mortal after all.) Heroes are daddies: larger-than-life figures, unimpeachably powerful and good, who save us from evil and hurt.

“America needs heroes,” it is sometimes said, a phrase that’s often uttered in a wistful tone, almost cooingly, as if we were talking about a lonely child. But do we really “need heroes”? We need leaders, who marshal us to the muddle. We need role models, who show us how to deal with it. But what we really need are citizens, who refuse to infantilize themselves with talk of heroes and put their shoulders to the public wheel instead. The political scientist Jonathan Weiler sees the cult of the uniform as a kind of citizenship-by-proxy. Soldiers and cops and firefighters, he argues, embody a notion of public service to which the rest of us are now no more than spectators. What we really need, in other words, is a swift kick in the pants.

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