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  • January 27, 2010

    Is there a President in the house?

    Posted by: Kevin


    The New York Times and the Washington Post today seem to have boiled down the meaning of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address tonight.  Or at least they've captured the national mood hanging over the event.  Assembled before him (and for some people, behind him on the dais as well) will be probably the most hated group of people in the United States today.  And given their sweeping campaign finance ruling that stunned everyone this week, that includes several justices of the Supreme Court among some folks.

    The country is in a state of boiling anger that no one person or political party can either take credit for, be blamed for entirely, or truly ride as a wave to unfettered power.  Joel Achenbach in the Post said it best when crunching the poll numbers: "The state of the union is obstreperous. Dyspepsia is the new equilibrium. All the passion in American politics is oppositional. The American people know what they don't like, which is: everything."

    Frankly, it's easy to figure out where all this started.  The U.S. economy is in the toilet.  It's as bad or worse as the most agonizing period of my lifetime, which was the 1990-92 recession, which hit just as I graduated college and saw as many as half of my friends fail to find decent employment for months on end.  The stories of wholesale collapse of businesses, careers, housing situations, marriages and even a few lives have piled up in the past few years, and I haven't escaped the dark news from friends and family even from 5,000 miles and a completely different economy away.

    When Americans feel a sense of hopelessness setting in, they don't go quiet.  They get anxious, for good reason.  And when they open a newspaper or turn on the news every day and see their government (which sends them a regular tax bill, only adding to the anxiety for many) not paying attention to what they say are their priorities, that anxiety turns to anger.  And when the leaders in government have the nerve to push back, to hector them about what their priorities should be instead, that anger turns white hot, and it blows up in the voting booth.

    And to use my native New York bluntness, when things are this bad in everyone's lives, they don't wanna hear whose fucking fault it is -- they wanna know what the hell you're gonna do about it.

    It's not rocket science.  The voters gave a mandate to the current government in 2008 on a wave of hope, the almighty Hope.  It was a hope based in the feeling that their concerns were not being addressed by the previous President, that he had been arrogant, wrong-headed, lost in a fog and incapable of humility in the face of countless disasters and mismanagement.  They were, indeed, sold a package of hope that things would be different, very different.  And immediately.

    Well - say what you will about this government, but the anger boiling out in the country across the whole political spectrum for everyone in power right now is the political equivalent to Rome on fire.  Too many Democratic hacks and pundits are basically fiddling to it -- blaming Fox News, blaming the Republicans, blaming Wall Street and even blaming the American people themselves for not being smart enough to realize what is good for them (which is, of course, what those same hacks and pundits say is good for them.)

    From the narrow perspective of the gay community, the anger is also there.  I don't know of any gay person who has a mild opinion.  They're either fuming mad at the Democrats or they're furiously trying to defend them.  (That's always telling.)  But the bottom line is that the Democrats said they needed the White House and 60 votes and they would enact our agenda.  They lied.  Indeed, they now are trying to claim that it was somehow a ridiculous notion that 60 votes meant anything.  Jeff Zeleny got this version of "I meant to do that!" from Vice President Joe Biden: "When we had 60 votes, there was the expectation left, right and center that we could do everything we wanted to do, which was never realistic. Never.”

    Oh really?  Then how is it that the Republican Congressional majority from 1995 to 2006 got almost everything they ever wanted, whether they had the White House or not, and never had 60 votes?  Indeed, remember George W. Bush and his tie-breaking Vice President in the Senate?  They exercised unrelenting power with a whisker's margin.  This gang of idiots couldn't get anything done with a supermajority.  (And that, my friends, angers a whole lot of Democrats.  So Biden's comment served no purpose other than to raise ire even further.)

    It's particularly galling that so much was promised and so little action has been taken.  Gay Americans have grown so weary of sweet words (lest I remind you, the Clinton presidency began almost 20 years ago), and patience is very thin for good reason.  The staggering lack of courage on display in the Democratic supermajority, and the blaming of others even then (!), was just too outrageous to be spun favorably.  As we say in Brazil, the Democrats "queimou o filme" - or 'exposed the film', which is to say, the damage is done and something very concrete and serious has to happen or the mood will not improve for gay Americans.

    It was also the Democrats' choice of priorities that sent a lot of Americans scattering to the barricades, not for ideological reasons, but out of sheer desperation.  When unemployment was hitting double-digits and the nation's fiscal deficit was plunging towards Hades, the Democrats chose two battlefields to die on: climate change and a massive health care reform bill.  And as of today, barring some incredible turn of political events, both initiatives appear dead in the water despite the gynormous majorities they continue to enjoy in the Congress.

    At the end of the day, the idiots of both parties in that chamber are not the focus of tonight's event.  They are just the peanut gallery, which will elicit plenty of angry scorn hurled at TV sets across the nation.  No, the one this all revolves around is someone about whom many of us are wondering - where did he go?  Where is that galvanizing figure who presides from atop a bully pulpit, with a clear, undisputed mandate to lead? 

    Indeed, where is the President of the United States?  Where is the leader amidst this spiraling disaster of unfocused time-wasting in the government?

    In that sea of loathsome characters filling the House chamber tonight, he should be easy to spot.  It would take so little lift to soar above their heads in the public eye.  The mood is so low, so sour, that should Obama manage to seriously reconnect with that anxious, fearful public out there - not only with promises, but with accountability, humility, determination and details - and even manage to inspire, it could set our hair aloft with its electricity.  But given the crater he'll be speaking from, it's a high hurdle to jump. 

    If he blows it entirely tonight, it will be as if Ronald Reagan, in the nadir of the 1982 recession, gave a speech about malaise rather than spoke confidently of a morning in America, a shining city on a hill, all the things he sold the country when they embraced him in 1980.  Had he veered off that road, Reagan's presidency would have largely ended in one term, deservedly so.  As might Obama's.

    Mr. President - where are you?  Or better yet, where the hell have you been?  Here's hoping we find out tonight.
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    August 10, 2009

    What Obama can learn from gay marraige in VT (re health care reform)

    Posted by: Andoni


    What does trying to pass health care reform legislation have in common with trying to pass gay marriage in Vermont? Answer: in both cases there was/is a very vocal and energized opposition spewing lies about what passage would mean.

    There is probably nothing one can say or do that would change the minds of the core people who find either gay marriage or health care reform repugnant. But there is something that can be done to immunize against those lies and help put a firewall in place between the liars and the public.

    In Vermont one huge lie causing fear among the population was that if gay marriage passed, all churches would be required to perform them even if their core beliefs were against recognizing gay marriages. The solution to this problem was the inclusion in the bill of specific language saying that churches that did not recognize same sex marriages would not be required to perform them or recognize them. Although most of us who read this blog know that the First Amendment already protects churches on this, it was very helpful to be able to point to this specific provision to counter the arguments of the those lying to try to prevent gay marriage in Vermont. There is nothing wrong with putting in writing something that is already true.

    The inclusion of this language in the Vermont bill swayed enough concerned and fearful minds, that it passed.

    Similarly, opponents of health care reform are spewing lies about what is in the bill in order to excite people into opposing this legislation. If President Obama and Congressional leaders were smart, they could defuse a lot of the spreading fear by adding language to the bill that specifically addresses these concerns.

    For instance, they can add a preamble saying that euthanasia is not part of this bill, there are no provisions for euthanasia and no one will be forced have euthanasia. After that, they can say the government will not nationalize the insurance companies, hospitals or your doctor's office.

    I think you get the idea. Opponents of health care reform are stoking the flames of ignorant people by telling them things are in the bill that are not. Considering all the bills are over a thousand pages in length, no ordinary person can read them for himself to determine the truth or falsehood in the opposition's statements. But if all the falsehoods are addressed head on and on page one of the bill, proponents of health care reform will have something to point to, to counter the lies.

    If I were advising President Obama, I would tell him to go on national television and say that he hears the public's concerns loud and clear, and that although what they fear is not in the bill, to prove it, he will ask Congress to add a preamble to all legislation guaranteeing that the points they fear are not part of the legislation. Then he can go through the points one by one and cite a web page for people to go visit to see the guarantees in writing. He could also say that he will not sign any bill that does not include these guaranteed protections in it.

    President Obama needs to gain control over the health care reform discussion. By going on TV and saying he is asking Congress to specifically address these fears, I think he can do it. And he might even get credit for listening to the public.

    If something is not true and you know it,you shouldn't be afraid to put it in writing. And when you do, you get a lot of credit for being an honest broker.

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    July 30, 2009

    Harvey Milk to receive Medal of Freedom

    Posted by: Andoni


    The White House announced today that slain San Francisco gay rights leader Harvey Milk will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom - America's highest civilian honor. The award will be made posthumously at a ceremony on August 12.

    Lesbian tennis star Billy Jean King will also be among the 16 recipients of this award on August 12

    Other recipients will be Senator Edward Kennedy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, Race for the Cure founder Nancy Brinker, physicist Stephen Hawking, and civil rights activist Rev. Joseph Lowery.

    Former Rep. Jack Kemp, who died in May will also be honored posthumously.

    I would say that two LGBT people out of 16 (12.5%) is quite nice for our community -- about our proper share of the medals. I really appreciate President Obama's broadening the definition of who is included in American heros.

    A full list of the recipients is here.

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    July 12, 2009

    UPDATE: President Palin (not an obituary)

    Posted by: Andoni

    Anyone who read my original post should check out New York Times columnist Frank Rich's take on Palin today. It's worth a read.

    He makes the following points:

    1. the Palin phenomenon is largely emotional, not rational
    2. almost 75% of Republicans say they would vote for her for president
    3. this gives her a really good shot at the Republican nomination in 2012 if she wants it
    3. Americans have very short memories
    4. she could track Nixon's comeback after supposed death
    5. it was Democratic divisions and failures that gave Nixon that opening

    Palin is not dead politically. As I said in my post, only two things need to happen for her to become president: A.) she gets the nomination and B.) Obama is perceived as a failed president.

    A.) doesn't seem like a problem for her. And B.) ....... we don't know yet, but I would bet that everything rides on the economy. Since Obama isn't a world renowned economist on his own, that puts him in the position of only being as good as the people around him who advise him, and right now, I'm not sure he is getting the best advise. Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman agrees.

    So whether you support health care reform, gay rights, global warming, energy independence, banking reform, immigration reform or some other interest, the long term success of all of these, depend on the economy improving starting very soon, then significantly before 2010 and greatly before 2012.

    The public will not support all these great plans unless they start seeing improvement on the horizon. And if he convinces us that improvement is on the horizon, and it doesn't come, then he (and those who support these programs) are in serious trouble.

    A large majority of the bloggers who are joyously dancing at the supposed end of Sarah Palin's political career were not even born in 1962 when Nixon supposedly fell. I was in high school and remember it clearly ....and how it felt. The overall Sarah Palin picture feels the same way that the Nixon exit felt. And that's scary.

    I'm not going to lose sleep over the thought of President Palin for the time being, but I want everyone to know that it is more possible than you currently think it is.

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    July 09, 2009

    GM goes beefcake gay, then pulls ad

    Posted by: Andoni



    GM developed an ad aimed at gay buyers with two hunky guys in briefs washing a Camaro (read the original story here) then without explanation while I was writing this post, pulled it from YouTube (read the subsequent story here). The ad was online, cute and entitled "Bumble Bee Boys in Briefs."

    Apparently, as the ad became more and more popular on YouTube (I would think this is the very purpose of an advertisement -- to be seen by as many people as possible), GM pulled it.

    My advice to GM: If you want to be our friend, you can't just be our friend in private, then disown us in public. Sorry it doesn't work that way. Our self esteem as a community has grown a lot since those days. If we are your friend only in private and not in front of everyone, we are not truly friends. Nice try GM, but get with the 21st Century. Meanwhile, I am not tempted to buy your products.

    P.S. Sorry for the fuzzy photo, but that's the only remnant left on the internet of the original ad where the two guys were teasing and spraying each other as the washed the car.

    UPDATE: GM explained the pulling of the ad by saying that it had not been properly vetted before posting. If all the people who were supposed to vet it had done so, it would probably never have been posted in the first place.

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    June 29, 2009

    White House hosts gay reception today

    Posted by: Andoni

    Gay flag

    UPDATE:  Watch a video of the speech here.

    To commemorate the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, President Obama has invited 250 LGBT leaders from across the country to the White House for a cocktail reception today. Brian Bond, Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, makes note of this event on the official White House web page. And if you wish to be a witness to history, you can tune in to a live stream of the event here starting at 4:25 pm.

    Can anyone imagine such an event ever taking place under President Bush? The message that this event sends to the American people is incalculable. President Obama is saying that LGBT Americans are a valued part of the American fabric. Certainly there is a lot of work to be done to achieve equality, but this is definitely a good first step. I thank the president and look forward to his leadership on ensuring that gay America gains its equality during his administration.

    Now for the second step..........

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    June 27, 2009

    Credit card scams (again)

    Posted by: Andoni


    I've reported before on the various shady ways credit card companies and currency exchangers (posing as ATM machines) are using to bilk customers and earn questionable extra profits.

    Well, last night at a restaurant at the Bangkok Airport, I encountered it again in an even more blatant fashion.

    Our food bill came to 609.90 Baht, and I decided to pay by credit card. However, when the charge slip arrived for my signature, I noticed the 609.90 Baht in big digits and then in tiny almost illegible digits was "USD 19.65." This alerted me that something wasn't right, so I asked if they had indeed charged me in Thai Baht or US dollars. The waiter answered that they charged me in Thai Baht. My next question was, "Well why does it have something in dollars here?" and he replied that it was there so I would know about how much to expect on my credit card statement. Then seeing that I was objecting, another person came over to assure me that the transaction had indeed occurred in Thai Baht (the proper way).

    I believed what they said, so I proceeded to sign ----- until midsignature, my eye caught the following statement at the bottom of the slip:

    "Please debit my account with the total amount in USD. I accept the I was given a choice to pay in Thai Baht and understand that the selected transaction currency is final. I understand that the currency conversion is provided by SCB."

    I was livid. This was an outright lie and they wanted me to put my signature to it. I was not given a choice. And they lied to me when I asked. I had expressly asked that the transaction be in Thai Baht. Yet I was about to sign an "informed consent" that said I had requested the charge in USD after being informed of my options. This signed slip would be their proof in any court that I was totally informed and aware of what was happening and that I made that choice - when in fact the whole thing was a lie.

    I immediately tore up the charge slip and simultaneously stood up, yelling at the waiter to call the manager, who by now had already heard me and had come out. My partner (a Thai national) was so embarrassed that he tried to shrink under the table.

    Quite frankly I don't know exactly what I said from that point on because I was so mad, but I do remember telling my partner to tell them in Thai that I was going to call the Tourist Police.

    That got their attention and they immediately starting working to calm me down. Everything was OK they said, and they would undo the transaction. After they undid transaction and gave me all the paperwork that goes with that, they presented me with a proper charge slip in Thai Baht. Needless to say there was no tip and as we stomped out of the place, with the manager and 3 waiters all at the door bowing in humility (maybe humiliation, who knows).

    I encountered this kind of thing in London -- everywhere. Even Harrod's did it, but they at least they really did ask if you wanted the transaction in USD or Pounds Sterling. Most places just do the transaction in dollars -- resulting in an extra 10% profit for them (which probably gets split between merchant and currency trader) - and when you sign the slip, it looks like you were given the choice and chose dollars. You've just signed an "informed consent" even though you weren't informed and they did it without your consent.

    All I can say is beware of this scam and it's variations. It's everywhere now. It's fraud. In fact it's more than fraud, it's outright stealing. When someone takes $100 from you for every $1000 you spend they are stealing real money from you. Now that I see this is global, this represents millions, no billions of dollars of ill gotten profit by banks, credit card companies, and currency exchange dealers.

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    May 01, 2009

    After 100 days, still 0% LGBT Equality

    Posted by: Andoni


    eQualityGiving, an organization of major LGBT donors and activists, is keeping track of President Obama's progress on LGBT rights. To date, the meter is still at 0%, although the Hate Crimes bill is making its way through Congress and may be on the president's desk soon.

    I don't think eQualityGiving believes Obama should ignore the other major problems facing the country in favor of LGBT rights. They just believe that the president should not forget about LGBT rights. And to make sure, they will keep score with the above Waiting for LGBT Equality Index. To the best of my knowledge, no other LGBT organization is looking at the entire spectrum of LGBT rights and publicizing the progress the way eQualityGiving is.

    eQualityGiving has proposed an Omnibus Gay Rights Bill called the Equality and Religious Freedom Act that would achieve all of the above rights in one bill. Whether this is possible or not is debatable, but the Omnibus bill certainly is the gold standard against which all other legislation can be measured. And the above chart represents all the components of the Omnibus Bill. Thus our progress toward equality can be measured.

    Right now, folks, we are 0% equal.

    These are exciting times. We have a conducive Congress and a willing president. But in order to get things done, it is we who have to get into action. There is a lot of work to do.

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    April 27, 2009

    Beware: latest scam from banks

    Posted by: Andoni


    I've been reading about this scam now for two years, but it's the first time it has happened to me. Although I did not see it once in the UK countryside, it was present at almost every turn in London.

    The way the scam works is that when you are overseas and you purchase something with a credit or debit card, the merchant informs you that "for your convenience" you can pay in US dollars (USD) instead of the local currency (in this case Great Britain pounds - GBP).

    Note: when outside the US, never pay in USD, always pay in the local currency.

    Under most countries' laws, only its own currency can legally be used for transactions within that country. That means that in the US, only USD can be used and in Britain only GBP can be used. So if you choose to pay in USD in England, the merchant must use a middleman currency trader who is willing to do the transaction. It's all done internally behind the scenes on the computer - and you never see what's happening. But once that middleman gets involved the exchange rate goes from the pre-set international banking exchange rate of less than 1% (plus 1 to 3% that your card company may tack on) to 10% or more that these private middlemen may charge. That's an extra 3 to 10% profit that is probably split between the merchant and the behind the scenes private currency exchange banker just to see dollars on your receipt.

    The problem now is that many merchants in London aren't even giving you the choice of GBP or USD. When they see a US credit, debit or ATM card, they simply put the charge through as USD, raking in an extra 10%.

    The first time it happened to me was at an ATM machine upon arrival at Heathrow Airport. The only thing that tipped me off as to what happened was the receipt which read like a legal document. It said that I had been given the choice to do the cash withdrawal (from my own checking account back in the US) in USD or GBP and that I chose dollars. It then said that the transaction is final and cannot be disputed or changed.

    That was a blatantly false statement, but there was no one to protest to. I called my bank in the US, but the money was already gone.......at a 10% premium over what my banker (a friend, actually) told me was the international exchange rate for that day. I paid an extra $46 to get 300 GBP out of an ATM because of this ripoff.

    Upon returning my car to Heathrow Airport, Hertz gave me a choice of paying in GBP or USD and I chose pounds. At Harrod's on our first visit, my partner fell for the gimmick and chose dollars when asked, and he ended up paying an extra $4 on a 20 GBP purchase.

    On the last night of our stay in London, I paid our hotel bill and the charge came out in dollars. I objected, but the night clerk said that was the only way the machine would allow with a US credit card. I ended up waiting for the manager to arrive the next morning and insisted on being charged in pounds. After it was done, by paying in pounds, my bill was $50 less than it had been the night before.

    As Paul Krugman points out in today's column, many of today's money people know only how to make money on unnecessary paper transactions that makes money for them but doesn't do anything for anyone else or for the economy in general. Even though I'm an experienced traveler and a savvy buyer, I got taken. The only way to stop this sort of thing is that if everyone is informed and super cautious.

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    March 24, 2009

    Selling insurance to A.I.G. executives

    Posted by: Andoni


    A.I.G.'s main business is selling insurance to others. Now however, in a sort of perverse role reversal, we are selling life insurance to executives at A.I.G. Let me explain.

    When A.I.G. paid bonuses to people in their credit-default swap division (the division that ruined the company and brought the world's financial system to the brink of collapse), this outraged the public so much that Congress tried to pass a questionably constitutional targeted and punitive tax law to claw back the money.

    However, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo came up with a better way. He simply subpoenaed the names of those executives who received the bonuses and threatened to make them public.

    Due to the public outrage, busloads of people took tours of the homes of some known A.I.G. executives this past weekend, protesting. These were simply A.I.G. executives, not the people who got the bonuses. I'm sure the release of all the names of the people who received the unpopular bonuses would lead to more than tours of their homes. Web pages would appear with their names, addresses, photos and maps of where they live. It certainly would not be pretty.

    What Attorney General Cuomo has done is offer these bonus recipients a neat little specialized insurance product that protects them from this happening. The premium for this insurance? It just so happens that the coverage costs the exact dollar amount of each person's bonus. Return the bonus money and your name won't be released. I guess you could call this a "your life for your bonus default swap."

    So far 9 of A.I.G.'s top 10 bonus recipients have purchased Attorney General Cuomo's insurance product.

    As I pointed out in a previous post, about half of the bonus recipients are UK citizens and cannot be touched by US law.

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    March 18, 2009

    A.I.G. and Congressional blowhards

    Posted by: Andoni

    It's amazing to see the tirade in Congress over the $165 million in bonuses that have been paid to employees of A.I.G.'s credit swap derivatives division in London. That's the division that took the company to insolvency and the world to the brink of financial disaster.

    Am I happy about these bonuses? Absolutely not. I'm very angry about it. In fact I'm sick over the whole A.I.G. mess. But what I suggest is that what we see going on in Washington over A.I.G. is 535 adults acting like children.

    Consider the following:
    1. these A.I.G. employees are based in London. Unless any are U.S. citizens, all the proposals to claw back 99% of the money by raising the income tax on them won't apply. These people are British citizens. You would have to get the British government to go along and pass similar laws. This is a feel good solution that won't work.

    2. many of the same individuals who are now advocating for the heavy hand of government to get that money back, just a few weeks ago were screaming that we shouldn't convert our government to the heavy hand of nationalism or socialism. Is there a short term memory problem among these people?

    3. to get the money back, these people are willing to write new laws that apply only to a very small subset of people who have angered them to put the full force of the United States government to go after them. Any reading of the new law makes it very transparent that this was not a general law for all, but a targeted law to get specific people. Is this constitutional? I don't think so. Is this the type of government we want- one that crushes people out of anger? No. If we do this once, I guarantee we will go down this path again and again for more and larger groups of people who get us angry.

    I think most of the Members of Congress spewing their hot air realize the above three points.

    That makes them irresponsible panderers, hypocrites, and opportunists. They are not rational thinking leaders. They are one celled animals simply reacting to external stimuli. And that's sad to see.

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    March 17, 2009

    Gay rights are civil rights; cafeteria Christians

    Posted by: Andoni

    This may be the best speech you will ever hear in support of gay rights.

    NAACP Board Chair Julian Bond addressed the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) Dinner in Los Angeles last Saturday night and made one of the clearest and most compelling cases for gay rights ever. It is definitely worth your time to hear what this dynamic African American leader has to say on gay rights. In his speech, he makes innumerable good points, including:

    1. Gay rights indeed are civil rights.

    2. Like race, our sexuality isn’t a preference. It is immutable; it is unchangeable.  And the constitution protects us against prejudices and discrimination based on immutable differences.

    3. Too many Christians are cafeteria Christians. They choose item A from the Bible, then go on to ignore items B through Z (minute 14:30 of the speech).

    4. It isn't special to be free from discrimination. It is our ordinary entitlement of citizenship.

    It's wonderful to hear Bond, a straight black male, support gay rights with such credibility and grace.

    After watching this speech twice, I had the following random thoughts:

    1. Wouldn't it be great if we had a gay leader with Bond's gravitas who can speak as eloquently and passionately about our rights?

    2. Thank God that my friend Winston Johnson came out to Coretta Scott King back in 1988 and asked her to support our cause (minute 24 of the speech).

    3. Wouldn't it be nice if we could get a movement going to send thousand of copies (DVD, CD, tape) of this speech to the justices of the California Supreme Court to encourage them to grow a backbone to make their decision on Prop 8 more like Brown v Board of Education rather than the Dred Scott Decision.

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    March 15, 2009

    Prohibition and gay rights

    Posted by: Andoni

    AAA prohibition

    History repeats itself. That is the theme in Frank Rich's wonderful Op Ed The Culture Warriors Get Laid Off in today's New York Times.

    According to Rich, we are entering a new period where the public has again tired of the anti-science, let me impose my values on you crowd. After the major economic downturn we have experienced over the past year, the culture wars are a luxury we can no longer afford. The same sort of cultural reversal happened in 1933 during The Great Depression.

    In the period leading up to the Depression fundamentalists pushed for Prohibition and anti-evolution legislation - succeeding on both counts. The Depression ended all that nonsense. In the period leading up to today's great recession, the fundamentalists peddled an anti-gay, anti-stem cell research agenda and also succeeded broadly.

    Now history is repeating itself. Anti-stem cell research was reversed last week by President Obama with only a whimper from the religious right and public opinion is showing majority support on most of the crucial gay rights issues - employment, the military, and our relationships.

    We need to take advantage of this moment in history. FDR demonstrated that a president can lead a nation to reform on cultural issues when the country's mood changes. Obama should follow that example. As the saying goes - it is his moment, it is his time.

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    March 13, 2009

    Will he or won't he?

    Posted by: Andoni

    AAA Barack
    The New York Times says President Barack Obama is in a tough spot with regard to whether he should allow the federal government to provide health insurance benefits to partners of same sex couples as two California federal appeals court judges ruled yesterday.

    The Office of Personnel Management has instructed insurers not to obey the judges' order because of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). And of course religious conservatives such as Gary Bauer, president of American Values, are threatening (in an almost gleeful manner) that if Obama provides these benefits it will reinvigorate the conservative coalition. To complicate all this further is the fact that Obama's designated, but unconfirmed, new director of the Office of Personnel Management is M. John Berry, a gay man.

    The judges' ruling was not the result of of a lawsuit but as part of a ruling as employers resolving employee grievances.

    I don't think Obama is in as tough a position as the Times says he is. He should simply say this is not about marriage, it's about equal pay for equal work. The partner benefits are part of the pay package for federal employees and the federal government cannot and will not be part of discrimination that pays some employees less than others for the exact same work. He can even say, "Let me be clear about this" so we know he means business.

    There really is no other way to provide equality, because the insurance package is more than just the money involved to pay for the partner's insurance; a major benefit is the access to that insurance as well. In most instances the partner would not be able to buy this good insurance on their own.

    Unfortunately, the IRS will tax this insurance benefit as income, which is patently unfair, but that's a different matter that is best left to fight about on another day.

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    March 09, 2009

    Wise ... or crazy idea to solve the housing problem?

    Posted by: Andoni

    AA burn house

    In what I took as a joke, my financial adviser suggested the other day, that the answer to the current housing mess is for the government to buy up all the foreclosed houses......... and then burn them down. Fewer houses, higher prices.

    Would this work and if yes, how evil is it?

    Most people would agree that falling housing prices is at the heart of our current economic crisis. When housing prices were going up, people used those rising prices like ATM machines, taking the money from the increased value of their house and spending on just about anything they wanted. Right or wrong, real wealth or fake wealth, they were spending money and that kept the economy purring.

    Now housing prices are crashing. The ATM machines are out of money. People aren't spending, businesses are hurting -- laying people off, and the economy is tanking. On top of this, falling housing prices have caused the mortgages held by our biggest banks and insurance companies to become toxic assets and as a result the entire financial system is teetering on collapse.

    If only housing prices could change course and increase in value a little bit, things would markedly improve. I'm not advocating that prices rapidly rise to the bubble levels. However, just a little increase would help a lot...  and that would begin a major turn around for the economy.

    President Obama's $75 billion housing plan focuses on keeping the people who are about to lose their house or cannot afford their mortgage any more to refinance and remain in their house. It does nothing to take the 2 million houses that are already foreclosed off the market. However, it does prevent another 9 million houses from joining those 2 million. Eleven million houses on the foreclosure market would result in an unprecedented housing collapse. Obama's idea is to keep more houses from going into foreclosure, thereby hopefully putting a floor under the price of houses. This floor will not result in higher housing prices anytime soon, which is what we really need at this point. Under Obama's plan that won't happen until demand starts outstripping supply, and we don't know when that will be.

    The plan in paragraph one, decreases supply, and would have an immediate effect beginning to increase housing prices.

    The median price of a US home is about $200,000, but at foreclosure the banks are are lucky to get 50% of that and in many areas only 25%. In the Detroit area, foreclosed houses are selling for $1. How many foreclosed homes can the government buy if they decided to put another $75 billion into a plan to buy foreclosed houses and "burn them down?"  They could easily take about one million houses off the market with this amount of money, causing the average price of a house to rise, thereby taking the pressure off our financial institutions holding toxic loans.

    Can the government actually institute a program to burn houses down? I don't really think so. Burning down a house that a family used to live in would be politically impossible. Can you imagine the public outcry of such a scene on TV when the former family has no place to live?

    Secondly, the minute the government starting buying these homes on a grand scale, winning bids at auction would begin to rise because everyone would know that the government is in there bidding now. But isn't that exactly what we're trying to achieve - higher home prices? So the government could actually stop entering the market when it is clear that housing prices are on the rise. This could actually happen before they buy up a million homes.

    Certainly burning a foreclosed house down to decrease supply wouldn't fly politically. But what if the government bought these house and then sold them for scrap?

    How crazy an idea is this?

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    March 04, 2009

    Equal opportunity pork

    Posted by: Andoni

    AAA pork

    I watch the news every night, follow the Sunday morning talk shows, and try to catch bits and pieces of both CNN and Fox News during the day. From all of these sources, I have learned over the past couple of weeks that the $410 billion dollar Omnibus Budget bill is loaded with earmarks ... or so called pork. Furthermore, from listening to the Republicans complain on TV, I got the impression that it was all (or mostly) the Democrats' fault.

    Now Jamie Dupree points to a study from Taxpayers for Common Sense showing that the Republicans are just as much into pork as the Democrats are. The truth is that a few Republicans are anti-pork and are very vocal about it, but as a whole both Democrats and Republicans are equally into pork.

    As an example, here is a list of Senators who have the most earmarks (along with the number of earmarks) in the Omnibus bill:

    Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) - 134
    Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) - 71
    Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) - 65
    Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) - 64
    Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) - 60

    And here is a list of Senators with the most total dollar amount of earmarks:

    Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) - $122 million
    Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) - $114 million
    Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) - $85 million
    Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) - $76 million
    Sen. Thad Cochran (R-AK) - $75 million

    You can slice this pie any way you want, but the bottom line is that both Republicans and Democrats are guilty of writing pet projects into legislation.

    And when it comes to Senators who did not ask for any earmarks, there are six, 3 Democrats and 3 Republicans:

    Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) - $0
    Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) - $0
    Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) - $0
    Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) - $0
    Sen. Clare McCaskill (D-MO) - $0
    Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) - $0

    It's just that the Republicans are the vocal ones, criticizing earmarks - making it an issue, and giving the impression that all Republicans are against earmarks. Not true.

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    February 27, 2009

    The 90% tax bracket

    Posted by: Andoni

    Tax brackets

    There is consternation in some quarters this morning because President Obama's budget proposes to raise the top income tax bracket on people who make more than $250,000 per year to 39.6% from the current 35% . I'm not one of the worried ones.

    I'm old enough to remember the 1950's when the top income tax bracket was 90%. Yes, 90%. It got reduced to 70% in the 1960's. During both these periods, between 1950 to 1970, the economic growth for the country and individuals, rich and middle class alike, was excellent.

    Since WWII, the top bracket has gone from 92 to 77 to 70 to 50 to 33 to 28 to 31 to 39.6 (Bill Clinton) to 35 (George W. Bush). When graphed, this sort of looks like an oscillating curve trying to find its proper equilibrium. Clearly the trend has been downward, but in trying to achieve the right top tax rate for growth but also for government responsibility in being able to pay for things, maybe we have gone to far -- overshot.

    Obama is simply proposing to go back to the Clinton tax rate, and the Clinton years were some of the best economic years this country has ever seen. In trying to find the sweet spot between what will stimulate growth, but not be irresponsible, maybe 39.6% or somewhere near there is a good place to be. Certainly 35% didn't turn out that well, did it?

    Time, of course, will tell where the best spot is. But right now, count me as not worried about Obama's tax increase.

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