…Add Cheese

Taco BellI am mildly curious about my recent ‘fast food’ encounters. Twice, recently, I have been at the final stages of a transaction at a fast food counter… fumbling for those last few coins or an additional bill to pay the total. The first of the two events occurred at Taco Bell, across from Walmart in Rohnert Park, CA. After the morning rush of taking our younglings to their schools, my wife and I found ourselves aimlessly driving and eventually agreeing to try an item from the AM menu and said “restaurant.” We ordered in the facility at the counter and our total was in the 5 or 6 dollar range. At the aforementioned precipice of the transaction, my pocket scurry was cut short by the counter person stating, “It’s okay, don’t worry about a few cents; I adjusted your price for a Senior discount.” I found that odd. (I had just turned a ripe 49, the day before.)

McDonald'sTonight, I was again at the same Walmart… and I was hungry… and wanting of somethingish… but did not want to complete the purchase of a random chip-bag and reshelved the colorful curiosity… then made a bee-line to the in-store Mickey D’s; ordered the diet edition of a name brand dark liquid and something to wash it down with…. and, once again, found myself in the forlorn fumble of those who still engage in the use of cash. And once again, the (em)pathetic employee bid me assurance that the transaction could be concluded sans the presence of the full monetary amount. This time I stood temporarily firm in my assertion that I did indeed have the funds and would take but a moment to produce them… but was told it was only a matter of a few cents (19 to be exact) and the difference, of that and my contribution, was negligible. Okay, two strikes against me in the karma war.

I can’t help but ponder a few things relating to this phenomena… Are the employees sometimes contributing to the till on my behalf? Are the prices negotiable? Isn’t anyone’s job at risk? Is it bad for me to accept unneeded help? How common an occurrence is this price-fixing and where does management fit into this scheme?

McDonald'sMostly, I have found myself, in reflection, thinking back to a time when I was a new transplant to Minnesota. Mankato, Minnesota, to be exact. One day, in my first week or so of residing there, I was out on foot exploring and looking for work opportunities. Also, I was lost. I was returning from what I understood to be downtown (later found out it was Old Town or the old downtown) where I had been unsuccessful in both my quest for finding work and in pawning (read selling) an ex-girlfriends ex-husbands gold wedding band. I had not a dollar on me, but I had a pocket full of change. Well, not exactly full. As I happened across a Wendy’s, I decided to go in and find something temporarily filling. In the pre-economic crunch, I found out the coinage I had fell just short of their cheapest item, with tax. In fact, the only item on the menu in my price range was add cheese. Though initially disheartened, I found some assurance in this latter discovery and attempted the purchase, only to be denied. It seems, you cannot purchase just the upgrade. No adjustment or offer was made to the guy with the California accent.

(re-edited for Bob Portlock)

Will Political Elites Finally Follow the People?

Peter BeinartI was a little bothered to see that Peter Beinart had written, The Rise of the New New Left. My concern was that he had scooped me, because I have been working on book about the New Democratic movement. But there was nothing to fear. For one thing, Beinart seems to buy the existing narrative that the New Democrats were a rational response to the Reagan “Revolution.” While it is undoubtedly true that it was a response, it was not a rational response.

The article is worth reading, because it is downright inspiring. He argues that the liberal future is bright because the Millennials are so liberal, especially on economic issues because during their whole lives, the economy really has not worked for the vast majority of Americans. That’s music to my ears. Even the focus on economic issues is wonderful to hear. And his thesis—America is going to get substantially more liberal in the coming two decades—is almost certainly true.

Where I part company with him is in his (implicit) belief that the political elites follow the people. Sure, to some extent they do. And once the voting public is 65% liberal, you can bet that the politicians will move to the left. But I don’t think that the Millennials are really that much more liberal than their parents were. Sure, if you ask older people whether “socialism” or “capitalism” is better, they will pick “capitalism” in large numbers. That’s because these words have been so propagandized as to be meaningless. But now or 20 or 40 years ago, if you described the systems in the United States and Sweden, large majorities would pick the Swedish system.

We all know how we got the Reagan “Revolution.” Reagan got into power because the economy was bad. He became a hero because he got credit for the economic boom created when Paul Volcker lowered interest rates at the Federal Reserve. That is, not coincidentally, the change from the high interest rates that got Reagan elected in the first place. So Reagan’s effect on the country is almost entirely negative. And that was clear enough by the early 1990s. What I take exception to is the idea that Clinton got elected because he was a conservative Democrat. Almost any Democrat would have won in 1992. Clinton also gets lots of credit for a good economy that had little to do with him.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Americans remained liberal in their economic policy preferences. Unfortunately, both the Democratic and Republican elites learned the wrong lessons from those political successes. Republicans learned that cutting taxes on the rich is great for the economy. (It isn’t.) Democrats learned that being economically conservative allows them to be politically competitive. (It doesn’t.) And so now we have two political parties that are well to the right of the people on economic issues. There is a way forward, however. Maybe Bill de Blasio is its vanguard. It wouldn’t surprise me, because the current situation cannot hold.

Roald Dahl and the Classics Factory

Roald DahlOn this day in 1601, the Flemish Baroque painter Jan Brueghel the Younger was born. Clara Schumann (wife of you-know-who) was born in 1819. Here is her Pianoconcerto in A Minor:

Good guy plutocrat Milton S. Hershey was born in 1857. As rich guys go, he was one of the best. But there was an amazing amount of paternalism in him. For example, although he always treated his workers well, he was fiercely against unionization. The reason is clear: he wanted to be in control. He liked thinking of his employees as children and he was not keen to see them grow up. Nonetheless, he was a great man. In Hershey, there was no Great Depression. And he founded the Hershey Industrial School, which although changed (it includes girls for one thing) is going strong. But he has been placed on a pedestal that is far too high for any man.

The great but very difficult composer Arnold Schoenberg was born in 1874. Below is an early work, Kammersymphonie Op. 9. This predates his twelve-tone technique by some time. As a result, it is freer, and I think, more playful. But you can definitely hear why people in 1906 thought it was noise. That was a time when most people still had a problem with Debussy. Bearing that in mind, give it a listen:

The great novelist Sherwood Anderson was born in 1876. Novelist J. B. Priestley was born in 1894. Actor Claudette Colbert was born in 1903. I’m not a big fan, but It Happened One Night is one of my very favorite movies. Here is one of the many great scenes from that movie, “A very nice married couple”:

Singer Mel Torme was born in 1925. Actor Nell Carter was born in 1948.

Miss Manners, Judith Martin is 75 today. Novelist Mildred Taylor is 70. Actor Jacqueline Bisset is 69. Film producer Frank Marshall is 67. Political commentator Tavis Smiley is 49. And Fiona Apple is 36. Here is the “Hot Knife” video, which is pretty great:

The day, however, belongs to the great writer Roald Dahl who was born on this day in 1916. When I was a kid, my favorite book was James and the Giant Peach. Of course, I liked many other of his books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Fantastic Mr Fox. And even now, I read his short fiction. He was a great talent. Of course, we would know that anyway; there is no way a bookworm like he could have nabbed Patricia Neal was a wife.

Happy birthday Roald Dahl!

Republicans Must Be Held Accountable

Republicans Are BratsJonathan Bernstein wrote a really interesting article earlier this week, If Obama Wants the GOP’s Help in Syria, He Must Deal with Torture First. His argument is that the Republican foreign policy establishment has never been able to repair itself because the Republican Party has never be required to come to terms with the fact that it was taken over by ideologues during the Bush years. As a result, the ideologues have never been purged from the party. To this day, cable news is filled with stories about what Dick Cheney thinks about the situation in Syria. But it isn’t just him and other media celebrities. Throughout the Republican foreign policy “establishment,” the ideologues are still in control.

And this brings us to the torture issue. It’s funny that everywhere you look, people condemn the idea of allowing bad actors from going without punishment. But when Obama decided that no one in the Bush administration would be held accountable for their torture program, everyone in the mainstream press was on board. We had to look forward not back. But there are a number of problems here. First, just from a political standpoint, does anyone doubt that if the positions were reversed that the Republicans would just “look forward not back”? These are people who impeached a president for lying about an extramarital affair! The only time they’ve decided to “look forward not back” was when Ford pardoned Nixon—one of their own.

But on a much more fundamental level, Obama’s forward looking policy didn’t actually allow us to move forward. The county did a bad thing. And all Obama’s policy did was sweep it under the rug. What we needed was some kind of truth and reconciliation committee. We still need it! Bernstein’s idea is that we pardon everyone so we can get at the truth. That way, no one has to worry about going to jail at the same time that the country can admit error and move on. But of course, that will never happen. It would put pressure on places like UC Berkeley to fire terrible people like John Yoo. And it would require that the Republican Party look in the mirror. That might have happened in 2009, but it ain’t happening now.

As a result of this, what we get from the Republicans on international affairs is the same thing we get on domestic affairs: knee jerk opposition to everything that the Democrats want to do. Of course, in the case of Syria, I think they happen to be right and I’ll accept any ally for any issue, regardless of how screwed up their thinking is. But this was a case when they shouldn’t have been on my side and there is no doubt that if the president were a Republican, they would have been all for it.

I think this all goes a good deal deeper than Bernstein suggests. If the Bush administration had been held accountable for its torture policies, I think it would have removed much of the support for all of their policies. Republicans would have been forced to rethink everything. That doesn’t mean that they would have become liberals, but they might, for example, have supported their very own healthcare reform idea. They might have accepted that it was a good idea even if the Democrats supported it.

American governance is like a dysfunctional family. Everyone knows that something is really wrong with the Republican Party, but we keep pretending that it is just the loyal opposition. If they say that their own healthcare law is socialism, well that must be a reasonable opinion. If they want to cut off food stamps for the poor and give even more money to millionaire farmers, that must be a reasonable position. If they want to force the government to default on its debt, that’s just a reasonable political ploy, even if no one has ever used it before.

As long as the Republicans are not held to account for what they’ve done, they will continue to act badly.

Boehner Wants Help

Please HelpDepending on my mood, I find the whole John Boehner Debt Ceiling government shutdown soap opera amusing or infuriating. I haven’t yet had my tea, so this morning I am angry, but I can still see the farcical elements to it. As I discussed yesterday, Boehner can’t even get his caucus to vote for a continuing resolution (CR) without simultaneously defunding Obamacare. That in itself is extremely frustrating. What is the House Republican Caucus—a kindergarten class? Since when do legislators think that just because they don’t like some law, it gives them carte blanche to not do their jobs until they get their way? Clearly, the Republicans have worked themselves up into an unsustainable froth over what is after all their own fucking law. And it may very well end in their destruction, even if they don’t go quietly.

Since Boehner couldn’t get his caucus to make a reasonable deal, now he is turning to Obama and the Democrats. What he wants is a deal that will maintain the support of a majority of his caucus that enough Democrats will vote for to allow passage. As such, he wants to link the CR with the Debt Ceiling. But this isn’t a negotiation—at least in the common sense of the word. According to Boehner, the federal debt is killing the country. In fact, the Treasury Department released figures yesterday, and the deficit is down to its 2008 level—the level before the financial crisis. But facts don’t much matter in this case; the deficit is killing us because the Republicans think the deficit is killing us. What’s more, this killer deficit can only be stopped with spending cuts. There can be no tax increases. And the spending cuts must come only from programs that Republicans don’t like. So there cannot be any military cuts, even though it is the most bloated program we have. By Boehner’s definition, negotiation means that the Democrats agree to do everything that he wants.

The administration and the Senate Democrats are playing hardball:

[Treasury Secretary Jack] Lew and Congressional Democrats held firm that they would no longer negotiate on raising the debt ceiling, which they see as the duty of the party in power in the House. And they made it clear to the speaker that they would never accept Republican demands to repeal, defund or delay Mr. Obama’s signature health care law. White House officials dismissed it as “a nonstarter.”

“I had to be very candid with him and I told him directly, all these things they’re doing on Obamacare are just a waste of their time,” said Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and the Senate majority leader. “Their direction is the direction toward shutting down the government.”

To add insult to injury, both Reid and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said they felt sorry for Boehner. I agree. But it is hard to feel too sorry for him or any of the less crazy Republicans. They are, after all, reaping what they have sown. You can’t set up your own alternative “think” tanks and media outlets, tell all your base that Obama is a Kenyan Manchurian Candidate, and not expect that they aren’t going to believe the scare stories. John Fleming, the Louisiana Republican said, “Obamacare is the most dangerous piece of legislation ever passed in Congress. It is the most existential threat to our economy… since the Great Depression…” I doubt that Fleming could explain why it is so dangerous. It is just that he’s been told by important thinkers like Rush Limbaugh and Grover Norquist.

So buckle your seat belts because it is going to be a bumpy month. My best guess at this point: government shutdown; country wide freak out; Republicans cave; mostly clean CR; clean Debt Ceiling; Republicans lose a few more seats in the House in 2014.

Update (13 September 2013 11:11 am)

Ed Kilgore has a great take on what’s going on:

We have arrived, friends and neighbors, at a big-time teachable moment for the Republican Party, if only the White House and congressional Democrats will recognize it. They need to slowly and clearly, using hand puppets if necessary, make it clear that the pleasure of getting to deal with John Boehner is not so great that they are willing to “compromise” between sanity and insanity on the fiscal front to help him out of his jam. Boehner’s effort to distract his troops from hostage-taking on appropriations to hostage-taking on the debt limit—a vastly more dangerous gambit—should have been the final sign that he’s no better than the “wacko birds” who have mainly become a hobgoblin he can use to scare Democrats into concessions. “Help me,” he cries. “Give me spending cuts or they’ll shut down the government. Give me an Obamacare delay or they’ll destroy the economy!” No more, please. Democrats have the leverage of controlling the White House and the Senate, and won’t gain any more leverage via a phony partnership with John Boehner that just puts off the day when conservatives come to grips with the fact that losing two consecutive presidential elections means they don’t get to call the shots.

If Boehner’s not willing to risk his position by truly standing up against the destructive habits of his conference, then don’t throw him a life preserver as he flounders; throw him an anvil. The sooner his double game comes to an end, the sooner we can have either serious fiscal negotiations or a real fight that makes everyone’s true position clear.