On an open marriage

 homosexuality, horrible old man, politics  Comments Off on On an open marriage
Jan 232012

This past weekend, Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina Republican primary by a considerable margin over the putative front-runner Mitt Romney. The victory was due in no small part to Gingrich’s impressive performance in the debate mediated by CNN’s John King, where he made a fiery attack on the moderator for opening the debate with a reference to recent stories in which one of Gingrich’s ex-wives asserted that he had asked her for an open marriage, presumably because he already had a mistress.

In calling King’s effort to broach the subject “despicable”, Gingrich was able to play to the crowd’s distrust of the “liberal media” and brush the issue aside, at least temporarily. King, obviously cowed, tried to walk back the question, which put Gingrich in control of the situation and allowed him to play the victim. Gingrich may be right that King’s bringing up the question was despicable, but he has no right to get offended or to go on the attack. Gingrich owes us an explanation of this open marriage, not because his married life is our business, but because he proposes to make our married lives his business.

There is also a general sense in which Gingrich’s marriages matter to a voter, because it speaks to a larger issue of integrity. Of course an individual relationship has many differences from a government office. Nonetheless, an oath is an oath, and if a man can’t hold to his vows to a single person, how will he handle his obligation to an entire nation? Yet, this does not justify any particularly close examination of marital details. Gingrich’s divorce habit and ethics reprimand tell us all that we need to know about his character. In this regard, the open marriage story adds nothing but shock value.

There it would stay, but for one thing. Like the vast majority of his Republican compatriots, Newt Gingrich opposes gay marriage. Indeed, he opposes it so vehemently that he has stated he would support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman if the “Defense of Marriage Act” were found to be unconstitutional. He even made a video to support California’s odious Proposition 8. Gingrich believes that he should have the right to define marriage for everyone in the country. He therefore owes the people a clear understanding of what marriage means to him, not only as he describes it in prepared speeches and soundbites, but also as he practices it in his life.

Does a man who cannot even commit to the woman he has presently married and not yet divorced have any right to tell a gay couple that their commitment means less than his? I submit that he does not. So, having opened this door, having asserted that he possesses the virtue to tell other people what to do in their lives and relationships, Gingrich has invited us to examine his own affairs. For him to then object when that moment of public examination arrives shows him to be a coward and a first-order hypocrite.

I, however, can object for him, because I do not propose to become America’s marriage-judger-in-chief. The open marriage story is prurient and worthless, intended to increase the stench of Gingrich’s long history of failed marriages without providing any special insight into the man. This attack is beneath us. It is even beneath Newt Gingrich, and considering what a despicable little worm he is, that’s saying something.

Our Emperor, the President

 politics  Comments Off on Our Emperor, the President
Nov 022011

President Obama has been signing quite a large number of executive orders recently, many of them intended to accomplish the same goals as bills that are presently languishing in the various houses of Congress. The orders broadly fall under the theme of “we can’t wait”, and I don’t have any serious complaint with the policies themselves. I am, however, pessimistic about what this means for our democracy.

Part of what I dislike is evident from the title. The spirit of the American system is for the President to handle the details of policy, with the policies themselves being set by Congress. The policies being altered here have been chosen specifically because Congress has failed to follow through on an expressed intention to act. For the President to enact pending legislation by executive fiat subverts the intent of our governmental system, and smacks of dictatorial authority. The past decade has seen an unprecedented concentration of power in the government broadly and the executive specifically. Part of Obama’s appeal was his promise to reverse this encroachment of executive authority, yet here he is embracing it.

Another reason to be pessimistic is that it seems we really can’t wait for Congress to act. The past few years have seen an escalating amount of incredibly stupid brinksmanship in the midst of crisis, driven by voices that refuse to accept any kind of compromise whatsoever. This behavior is driven by rhetoric and ethos that views winning control of the government as more important than actually governing. To this end various candidates for President and sitting legislators have engaged in ridiculous rhetoric like threatening the Fed not to take major steps to improve the economy prior to the next election. As economic growth stagnates, these men threaten a government agency not to do its job lest the country have too good an economy for them to defeat the sitting Democratic president. This attitude only makes sense if one desires power for oneself more than prosperity for others.

The executive orders threaten to enable this mindset. When the executive takes over the functions of the legislature, they are relieved of responsibility and therefore free to bicker as much as they like. Obama seemingly intends to put pressure on Republicans, and his choice to go over Congress’ head may play well with the electorate. However, it is likely to take pressure off of Congress because nobody will now be pressing their legislators on these matters, even if real legislation is necessary. Moreover, the increasing power of the executive promises to worsen the brinksmanship problem.

The “we can’t wait” campaign may be well-intentioned and certainly seems to be smart politics. All the same, I’m quite concerned that it represents a transfer of power from an ineffective legislature to an unchecked executive. Perhaps this does not strike Obama’s supporters as a serious problem. One wonders whether they would feel the same way if the President were Rick Perry.

May 282010

I can’t imagine how anyone can vote for Rand Paul. I’m not even talking about his moronic take on the Civil Rights Act. I mean, that’s pitiably foolish, and his whole “I”m not a racist, but…” act doesn’t excuse his adopting the position that government must never interfere with private business even in the face of egregious social injustice. But at least if the people of Kentucky are fools enough to elect the man, the CRA is in no danger of being undone by Paul’s idiocy. We might not be so lucky when it comes to his potential choices for dealing with the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, which he recently had the goddamn gall to characterize as an “accident”. Paul even criticized the anger towards BP as un-American. To which I say: Fuck you, sir, and the political philosophy you rode in on.

How, after all, did this “accident” come to happen? BP and other companies like it used their considerable resources to minimize the number of safeguards they were forced to employ on their wells. Of course, they couldn’t lobby their way out of regulation entirely, so of the rules that remained, they skirted or just plain violated any that they found inconvenient. Were they enabled by a lax and easily-bribed enforcement agency? Certainly so, but lax enforcement would not matter if corporations were as civic-minded as Paul’s Libertarianism pretends. The tragedy of the Gulf has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen for the indefinite future, because BP behaved as all corporations do, and did everything in their power to allow themselves to operate as irresponsibly as they could. And why should they not? Irresponsibility always looks profitable in the short term, and the market is intrinsically short-sighted.

Aside from showing up Paul’s Libertarian philosophy as hopelessly naive and mortally dangerous, these facts illustrate that the Deepwater Horizon disaster was not an accident, except to the extent that going all-in on two pair against a straight flush is an accident. The catastrophic oil pollution in the Gulf is the outcome of series of calculated risks. BP, Transocean, and Halliburton all took gambles they thought they could get away with. The result is that 11 people died and the gulf region, and potentially the entire east coast, will suffer incalculable ecological and economic damage as a result.

Is it un-American to attack BP over this? Hardly. There’s nothing more American than retribution. It came to us with the first Protestant settlers. Our country was raised on the stories of divine vengeance against the sinner, the terrible swift sword that would destroy the unjust.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.”

Glory, glory, hallelujah! But, as corporations possess no souls, God cannot judge them. Therefore we must.

In this regard, Paul even falls short of his own political philosophy. Even if we accept that the only function of government is to act as some kind of night watchman, surely this is a case in which its action is warranted. When callous negligence results in nearly a dozen deaths and widespread destruction, the negligent party deserves punishment. The reason Paul can’t advocate for retribution is that in order to do so he must confront the truth that the natural state of any corporation is to operate in bad faith to the greatest profitable extent. The philosophy of laissez-faire capitalism, to which Paul is committed, cannot maintain its superficial appearance of reasonability in the real world of greedy and destructive businesses.

In this country we have adopted the pretense that corporations are people, with the same rights as ordinary citizens. What would you call a person who tries to wriggle out of all responsibility, and happily breaks any law he wants so long as he’s in no danger of being caught, without regard to the danger his actions put others in? If a man behaved like this, at the cost of eleven lives and untold damage to an entire coast, who would defend him? Who would say it’s un-American to bay for his blood?

If we must accept that corporations have the rights of men, if we must accept that the government has the right to take a man’s life, then we ought to at least have the option to give a corporation the death penalty. Maybe Rand Paul wants to cuddle BP, Transocean, and Halliburton and tell them how sorry he is that they had this tragic accident as a direct result of their moral laxity and resistance to necessary safeguards. For me, though, a boot on their throats is not enough. This is the United States, the most powerful nation in the world, and it can blow their heads clean off.

Larry the bilker

 boo, politics  Comments Off on Larry the bilker
Apr 022010

Matt Taibbi has an article about the destruction of Jefferson County up at Rolling Stone. I strongly recommend you read it, but take your blood pressure medicine first. I would like to be able to say that this story, in which crooked banks and corrupt politicians conspire to inflate the price of a public works project more than 1000 percent, saddling a county with billions of dollars of debt it will take a generation to pay off, is an elaborate April Fool’s joke. Unfortunately, as the residents of Birmingham know, it’s all too real. Like countless city councilmen, county commissioners, and mayors before him, Larry Langford played the city like a long con, adding the ruinous sewer project to his other notable failures, such as VisionLand. One wonders how much of his talent for failing upward was due to the assistance of men who knew he could be bought.

In a small way, I’m sorry that it came to this. Larry Langford had vision. It was a stupid vision, and he pursued it stupidly, but his allure came from the fact that he had it. After decades of politicians who seemed to be content to let the city be a place that only existed in history books, Langford articulated the view that Birmingham could be a place worth visiting on its own, present merits. He gave people the feeling that he believed Birmingham really could be a great city, a social and economic rival to Atlanta. Even if it was an empty dream, built on hokum like an unaffordable domed stadium, at least it was some kind of dream. Langford was a buffoon and a flim-flam artist, but despite all the damage he did, I’m going to miss the show.

As for the banking institutions whose complicated scams sent the county into punishing debt, their incredibly corrupt behavior in this case puts the lie to their oft-repeated claim that the mortgage crisis is the result of foolish borrowers living beyond their means. The economy collapsed because the banks’ con game unraveled, end of story. The Bernie Madoffs of the world weren’t isolated bad actors in a fundamentally honest profession. They were, rather, the paragons of an industry which prides itself on maximizing revenue no matter what the cost to the borrower, the lender, or their own integrity. But the investigations have barely touched these institutions, and the fines they have been made to pay are trivial in comparison to the magnitude of the damage they inflicted. In every way that matters to shameless creatures such as these, the banks will walk away unpunished, and we will be left with the bill, paying down the debt for decades to come.

The politicians, instead, will rot in jail. They deserve it, to be sure, but the blame doesn’t all rest with them. In this sense, the banks out-conned the cons. J.P. Morgan got away with the loot, and Larry Langford got caught holding the bag.

Oct 302008
Ballot Question 1: A YES vote would reduce the state personal income tax rate to 2.65% for the tax year beginning on January 1, 2009, and would eliminate the tax for all tax years beginning on or after January 1, 2010.

I know, I know. I hate paying income tax, too. I dislike government waste, too. It would be nice to have a little extra money in my pocket. It would be nice to see the state get leaner. In a world full of magical money fairies that preserved essential state programs in the absence of revenue, the Question 1 proposal might be a good idea. But there are no magical money fairies, and the only rational vote in response to question 1 is No.

I freely admit that I don’t dislike taxes as much as the next guy might. The State provides me services that protect my meager wealth and support my standard of living. Accordingly, I favor the support of those services through fair taxation and fiscal responsibility. However, virtually every state in the nation, in addition to programs that support the public good, also funds programs that do little more than support public servants. Massachusetts, like any other state, is beset by waste, corruption, and appalling incompetence. Perhaps if we put the state on a starvation diet by squeezing off one of its chief revenue sources, it would force the government to trim unnecessary programs and waste.


But you, and I, and anyone who has ever encountered government in any of its forms, know that’s not going to happen. Oh, there may be some trimming here, some squeezing there, but the deep cut, the major restructuring, is not going to happen. What’s going to happen instead is a restructuring of the tax system. Money that used to flow into state and community coffers from the income tax system will now be obtained via increased sales and property taxes.

“Higher sales taxes don’t matter,” you say, “I’ll just drive up to New Hampshire to shop.” And maybe you will, but that’s not an option for everyone. Those who do their shopping in-state will end up paying more for less. Retailers will either have to cut prices to compensate, or just accept reduced sales. More people go out of state to shop, and those who stay will have reduced purchasing power.

“Property taxes don’t matter,” you say, “I rent, anyway.” But somebody owns the property you lease, and when their taxes go up, so will your monthly rent. The heightened cost of ownership will drive some people to sell their property, increasing demand in the rental market and driving up prices that way. And even if your landlord doesn’t hike your rate, the squeeze means something, be it maintenance, landscaping, or snow removal, will have to go. Moreover, the higher property taxes will be passed along to Massachusetts businesses that own or rent their stores. Higher prices or staffing cuts will follow.

The government of Massachusetts could and perhaps should be smaller. The tax burden of state citizens should perhaps also be lower. Getting there by eliminating the income tax, however, is akin to trying to lose weight by cutting off your legs. Precipitous, intemperate action of this kind will only raise the cost of living in Massachusetts, while adversely affecting the economy and standard of life. No matter how much you hate taxes, the only responsible vote on Question 1 is “No”.