Monday, August 15, 2011

2012 Political Predictions

Rick Perry wins easily in the Iowa caucus. Then he scores a narrow victory in the New Hampshire primary. This effectively ends the GOP primary and Governor Perry is the GOP nominee.

Perry chooses Governor Nikki Haley as his running mate.

Obama wins the general election with 52% of the votes.

Democrats gain seats but Republicans remain the majority in the House.

Republicans gain a narrow majority in the Senate.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Republicans Can't Do Anything

Republicans can’t let the country reach the debt ceiling! That would trigger a US debt default, an economic collapse, a constitutional crisis, and a deep depression. Republicans will have to raise the debt ceiling...

Republicans can’t vote to raise the debt ceiling! The government already borrows too much money. Republicans can only raise the debt ceiling if there is also a comprehensive plan to reduce the deficit by trillions of dollars...

Republicans can’t vote for a comprehensive deficit reduction plan! A deficit reduction agreement will require us to increase revenue. Republicans are the anti-tax party. They can’t vote to raise taxes. Republicans will have to let the country hit the debt ceiling.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Debt Ceiling Explained

One problems with the current debt ceiling debate is that there appears to be widespread confusion about what exactly we are talking about. Much of the reporting focuses on the horse race and the daily-back-and-forth of the negotiations. Less effort has been expend trying to explain what the debt ceiling is, why we might wish to see it raised, and what will happen if we do not. It’s boring. It’s complicated. It involves absurdly large sums of money that we can’t really relate to. Worst of all, the topic is, currently, very political. Just wading in to try and understand it means getting caught in the crossfire of accusations.

But it’s important we understand what’s going on and what is at stake. Really important.

At the basic level, the debt ceiling is a pretty simple concept. The US government borrows lots of money to meet its various obligations. The debt ceiling was created by a law passed in 1917 and it determines the total amount of debt the government can have. It’s the limit on the US government’s credit card. It’s a self-imposed limit. The debt limit was created by an act of congress. It can be, and regularly is, increased by congress.

The US has reached the limit. We’ve borrowed all of the $14.3 trillion allowed. Unless the debt ceiling is increased, or a portion of the debt is paid off, the United States government can not borrow any money, at any rate, for any purpose. Ever.

Is that such a bad thing? If I’ve maxed out my credit card shouldn’t I try and pay some of it off instead of trying to increase my limit? Shouldn’t government balance its budget and live within its means?

In general, the answer is “yes”. The government should try to balance its budget. But it is also vitally important that government not cut off its own ability to borrow. There are times when we’re going to want to run a deficit.

For example:

Suppose the United States were to become involved in a war in another country. We might want to be able to conduct the war, and incur the inevitable expenses, even if we have not collected the taxes to pay for it all in advance.

Imagine we had an economic crisis. We might want our government to be able respond to that crisis and borrow money to support institutions that are essential to our economy and our future prosperity.

What if we had a period of very high unemployment? When the economy is in bad shape people need more government support but tax collection is falling as people lose their jobs. Without deficit spending the government has to cut back sharply just when people need it most.

Maybe we think that low taxes are a good idea in and of themselves. If we think low taxes increase liberty and prosperity and are important to economic growth, we might decide to keep taxes low and run a deficit rather than increase taxes to balance the budget.

How will we handle advances in medical science? We can live longer and healthier lives. But medical advances come at a considerable cost. We might choose these advances that improve and extend our lives and livelihood over a clean balance sheet.

Nature can be full of surprises. When there is a tornado, or a flood, or a drought we look to government to help mitigate the disaster.  A government that can’t borrow money won’t have the resources to deal with the unexpected.

And of course there is no guarantee that these issues will crop up one at a time. We might have to deal with several problems all at once.

A government that can not borrow money will be unable to deal with military conflict, ideological rigidity, an aging population, or any form of natural or economic calamity. This will create long-term difficulties.

There are times when we will want to run a deficit. Both of our major national parties agree that right now is one of those times. This spring the Republican controlled House and the Democratic Senate agreed to an annual budget that calls for $1.3 trillion in deficit spending.

That $1.3 trillion represents 44% of the federal budget. For every dollar the government spent $0.56 came from taxes and revenue and $0.44 was borrowed. If the debt ceiling is not raised then the United Stated government will not be able to meet 44% of its obligations.

It is difficult to overstate the implications of a sudden 44% federal contraction. Every month the federal government makes around 80 million payments to a wide variety of individuals and institutions. Soldiers, senior citizens, hospitals, doctors, contractors, federal employees, suppliers, researchers, law enforcement, holders of public debt, etc...  Every one of these recipients is getting money from the federal government because a law was passed saying they are entitled to it. Behind each of these payments is a program, an appropriation, a law or a budget agreement that is just as real, lawful, and binding as the debt ceiling law.

If the debt ceiling is not raised then 44% of those obligations can not be paid. Each one of those recipients is entitled to the money. They are entitled to sue the government seeking the funds that we are contractually obligated to pay them. The government will have no means of meeting its obligations and it will default.

In addition to national default. All the people expecting to get all of those billions of dollars will, suddenly, not be getting them. Employers won’t be able to make payroll, hospitals will not be able to pay their bills, federal employees won’t get their paychecks and won’t be able to pay their mortgages.

Running up against the debt ceiling would not be one-time event. It would be a permanent condition. The debts, obligations, and needs we have in 2011 are not going to go away in 2012 or 2013. Millions of federal contractors and employees who are not getting paid and are suing the government will make things worse. The international community will rapidly withdraw its funds from the US. They will invest in other nations that have not abandoned their obligations.

Failure to raise the debt ceiling would be like the economic collapse of 2008 combined with a permanent government shutdown.

So... we should raise the debt ceiling.

The good news is that the economic cataclysm can be averted by calling a vote to avert it.

The bad news is that many of our elected representatives are refusing to do so.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Debt Ceiling End Game

The Washington Republicans have taken our economy hostage, threatened to kill it if their demands are not met, and walked away from the negotiations. How should the President and the Democrats respond to this? The clock is ticking towards disaster. How is the standoff going to end?

The GOP seem to think that since the President cares about his country, and would prefer not to see an economic cataclysm, that the he will give into their demands. The debt ceiling vote is the only chip they are willing to put on table. They think it should be worth several trillion dollars in spending cuts.

As chips go, the value of the debt ceiling increase has to have a value of precisely nothing. Regardless of who gets the blame, a US debt default and sudden federal contraction will be devastating to futures and fortunes to Americans regardless of party. The Republicans have made a threat they can’t possibly follow through on.

This doesn’t mean the deficit reduction talks can’t be productive or that they shouldn’t resume. But it needs to be a negotiation and not a hostage situation.

There are a few ways this can play out. In order of desirability they are:

1. Congress and the President reach an agreement on long-term debt reduction. They also vote to increase the debt ceiling.

2. The debt ceiling is simply raised without any any other agreements.

3. There’s no agreement on anything. Obama claims the debt ceiling is unconstitutional and resumes borrowing. The US does not default on its debts. There is no sudden economic collapse. The US political system is demonstrated to be deeply dysfunctional.

4. The Democrats give in the GOP’s economic extortion and just given them whatever they want in exchange for an debt ceiling increase. The terrorists win.

5. There’s no agreement. There’s no debt limit increase. Obama accepts this. The US defaults on its debt. The federal budget is immediately slashed by 44%. The economy collapses. Again.

What will really happen?

Despite the current impasse. I’m going to bet on #1. There will be a negotiated solution.

The administration has already agreed substantial spending cuts. And they should. We’re in our third year of trillion dollar deficits. We need a path towards a sustainable budget and we’ll need spending cuts to get there. We’ll also need revenue increases. The President to right to insist on those. The GOP is being childish to assert revenue can’t be part of debt reduction solution. It has to be.  But a long term deficit agreement this summer can be lopsided in favor of cuts over revenue. The major Bush/Obama tax cuts are expiring after 2012. This affords us time to reconsider long term tax policy. If no agreement is forged the outcome is higher taxes and lower deficits.

The other likely outcome is #3. The GOP has painted itself into a corner with it’s own rhetoric. It’s not clear that House majority can, or will, consider a negotiated solution to the crisis they have created. They may steer the country towards deliberate bankruptcy. If that happens then President Obama must ignore the debt ceiling legislation and assert his authority to insure the nation does not enter insolvency.

This outcome has certain advantages for Washington Republicans. They avoid a vote on the debt ceiling. They don’t have to vote to increase revenue or to close tax loopholes for oil companies or jet owners. The GOP and it’s enablers will howl that the President’s actions are illegal. It will require considerable chutzpah to demand national disaster. But I’m confident the right-wing propaganda machine is up to the task.

There are downsides to the GOP for an Obama-averted default. Deficits would continue to rise. This outcome would be the ultimate abdication of legislative responsibility in the service of rigid ideology.

Will the GOP choose it anyhow? We shall see...


In the 1998 Micheal Bay thriller Armageddon there’s this giant asteroid on it’s way to destroy the earth. Naturally, it’s up to Bruce Willis and his plucky, quirky companions to saved the world. But before they do, they have some demands.

“We don’t want to have to pay taxes. Ever.”

When I first saw this scene I thought to myself: Well, that’s pretty stupid. In the face certain calamity nobody could possibly be so petty. If there’s a pending disaster that will destroy you and everyone you hold dear, how could someone with the power to avert this catastrophe refuse to so? So they can argue over tax rates? Who could be that craven and stupid?

After watching the debt ceiling debate in Washington, we have our answer. The entire Washington GOP is precisely that craven and stupid.

First the GOP took the incredibly irresponsible step of taking the US economy hostage. They are threatening to destroy it by refusing the raise the debt ceiling unless the Democrats agree to trillions of dollars in spending cuts. Now, the Republicans have walked out of the negotiations, after trillions of dollars of spending cuts have been agreed to, because the Democrats has also suggested revenue increases.

This is madness. Unlike, Bruce Wills the GOP isn’t even being asked to climb a rocket and blow up a giant asteroid. If they want to avoid economic armageddon all they have to is call a vote to avert it. The fact that they refuse to do so tells you how irresponsible they have become.

Friday, April 29, 2011

An Evening With My Congressman

Last night I attended a Town Hall meeting hosted by my Congressman, Rep. Frank Guinta. Guinta won his seat last November defeating Carol Shea-Porter. I did a little volunteering for the Shea-Porter campaign and remain a fan. I haven’t been such big fan of the Frank Guinta.

Guinta the former Mayor of Manchester. He rode into office on the Republican wave with Tea Party support and has had a predictable Republican voting record his first few months in office. I was curious how he would represent that record.

A good sized crowd of several hundred people filled much of the Exeter High School Auditorium. The crowd skewed to towards senior citizens and I recognized some faces from the last Town Hall I attended. Judging by the volume of cheers and boos I would guess three quarters of the attendees were not there to support the Congressman.

I enjoy the Town Hall meetings.  I like taking the measure of my representatives as they try out their talking points on the rowdy, messy crowds. I like the democratic spirit of these events.

The tone was set with the first question about the Ryan Budget Plan. The question was “Why in the world did you ever vote for the Paul Ryan Medicare plan?” which got substantial applause. Guinta’s vague, half-hearted defense of his vote did not generate similar enthusiasm. The crowd showed outright hostility to the Congressman’s assertion that “the plan won’t have any effect on people over 55.”

Maybe he was just responding to the audience, but most of the event Rep. Guinta was a picture of bland equanimity. Everything was a good idea, or something he would be happy to look into, or something he wanted to work on with his friends across the isle. He was calm but slippery. He gave the general impression of someone more interested in running out the clock than in defending his votes or articulating his principles.

This is the tragedy of American democracy*. In Washington, the parties will refuse to agree to blindingly obvious. When you get finally get someone in front of you they won’t admit to any disagreement.

I didn’t get to ask any questions.  I do have some I would like to have answered. Here are a few:

On the deficit:

In 2000 we had a budget surplus. Since then we have cut taxes multiple times. We have gotten involved in 2 (or more) wars and run up defense spending. We have watched as medical costs rapidly increase. We had a massive financial crisis that had a devastating effect on private enterprise and government revenue. We now have an annual budget deficit of $1.4 trillion.

Congressman Guinta, in your few months in office you have voted to reduce taxes further. You have opposed serious cuts in defense spending. You have voted to eliminate government cost control measures for health care. And you have voted to to eliminate the recent financial regulations.

Why, exactly, should we regard you as someone who is serious about deficit reduction?

On the debt ceiling:

Congressman Guinta, you voted for the budget deal that calls for $1.4 trillion in deficit spending this year. And you voted for the Paul Ryan budget plan that calls for another $6 trillion in deficit spending over the next decade. All of that deficit spending, that you voted for, will require the government to borrow money.

Furthermore, if we don’t raise the debt ceiling the U.S. government will default on it’s debt obligations. Our nation’s place as the world’s financial leader will be forever destroyed. And our economy will collapse. Again.

In light of these facts will you reconsider you position on voting to raise the debt ceiling? If you will not, how can you justify your position as anything but a display of reckless disregard for your country and your constituents?

Event video:

This video isn’t from our Town Hall meeting. It’s pretty great though and shows Guinta at his most slippery:

* I bet I’ve said this before about something else. Maybe I should say “Among the great tragedies of American democracy...”

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Democratic Majority Rejects Democratic Rules

Last week the Senate, which still has a Democratic majority, abandoned their effort at rules reform. They elected to continue to allow the elected minority party to control the agenda and decide what is the Senate is allowed to vote on. This an astounding and pointless capitulation given the experienced of the last two years.

When the 111th congress began in 2009 the Republicans has been soundly rejected in a succession of elections and where down to only 40 senators. At that time, Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, made the deliberate decision that the best way for their small minority to exert influence would be to exploit the byzantine rules of that body and try to obstruct everything. They could not win votes, they had no interest in working towards solutions. So they would drag their feet, and gum up the works. Rather than trying to influence legislation they would try and make legislating itself impossible.

In this, they were remarkably successful. They insisted that each and every piece of legislation would require 60 votes. Then they held together and tried to pour enough poison into each process to to peel off a wavering Democrat or independent. Illness, absenteeism, Ted Kennedy's death, and the Massachusetts special election meant that often there where not 60 votes to be had.

Despite the largest senate majority in a generation, Obama’s appointments went unfilled. His judicial nominations were blocked. Health care reform was caught in endless delays, watered down, and stuffed with embarrassing kickbacks in pursuit of a 60th vote. The DISCLOSE act was killed, gutting campaign reform and opening the door to unlimited secret corporate cash. The DREAM act, which would have a provided a path to citizenship for immigrants willing to server their country, failed despite majority support. Legislation to address catastrophic climate change withered and died. When it came time to debate tax policy, Obama didn’t bother to invite Democratic senators into the room. Their 58 votes were meaningless in the face of the Republican’s 42.

Initially, the Democratic majority was taken by surprise the the extent of Republican obstruction. The filibuster and associated tactics had been used before. The most famous case was when the Democratic minority was blocking 9 of Bush’s judicial appointments. The Republicans  threatened a “nuclear option” of summoning Dick Cheny to force a rules change in the middle of the session. But in this session, the GOP took the relentless use of these tactics to a whole new level. The Democrats decided, not without some reason, that it would be inappropriate to try and change the rules in the middle of the health care debate. The focused on trying to round up a 60th vote to advance legislation. Sometimes this worked and sometimes it didn’t.

Time and again, crucial legislation passed in the House and languished in the Senate. Rather than blaming the Republicans for their obstruction, the public punished the Democrats for their dithering, apparent spinelessness, and failure to act. The Democrats where handed a massive electoral defeat. The minority learned that majority will take the blame for failing to address the nation’s problem. Politically motivated, relentless, unprincipled obstruction works.

By the end of the session it was obvious that the Senate rules where broken. It was so obvious that all 53 returning Democratic senators signed a petition supporting rules reform. A number of proposals were written. The most popular proposal maintained the filibuster. It just added the common sense requirement that a senator who wished to filibuster a piece of legislation would actually have to rise, and speak, and hold the floor in order to do so. This minor, obvious change would have had a sweeping effect and gone a long way towards restoring democracy in the Senate and in the U.S.

The start of the 112th congress was the perfect time to alter the rules. Only 51 votes were required to end the tyranny of the minority. The obligation was clear. Their opportunity had arrived. And they blew it. After years of collective abuse at that hands of the minority, Harry Reid was unable, or unwilling, to find 50 senators in favor of rules reform. Instead, Reid settled for handshake a with McConnell and a shared agreement that the obstruction would continue.

This is a great agreement for McConnell. It’s easy to be against majority rule while you’re in the minority. Someday the GOP will be in majority. When they are, they may decide that majority rule is a good idea after all. I hope they have the guts to see it through.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

We Did Big Things

After the President’s State of the Union address President Obama was kind enough to send me an email that suggested that, with a small donation, I might be entitled to a t-shirt emblazoned with the their new slogan. I noticed it is a limited edition t-shirt. That’s probably appropriate. I fear the doing of big things will to be limited to Obama’s first two years and unlikely to continue into the next two.

I found the speech to be solid, agreeable, and well delivered. I didn’t disagree with his tone or topics or priorities. But I don’t think it will it serve as a rousing call to action. The reasons for the pending era of inertia are political and financial.

On the political side, the President’s large Democratic majorities were swept away in the last election and replaced with addition representative from the party of NO. This was partially an electoral reaction to rapid change during an uncertain time. The people have demanded gridlock and they shall receive it. But if the last two years were about using legislative majorities to get get stuff done, the next two years might actually be about changing the tone in Washington and finding common ground. The mixed seating at the speech was a good start. I’ve always believed in Obama as facilitator-in-chief. If the new GOP majority actually wants to address any of our problems they will find a willing partner.

Of course there isn’t any money to do big things. We’re still running trillion dollar deficits. And the big tax-deal-giveaway during the lame duck really needs to be the last big splurge. Closing that trillion dollar difference is a worthwhile focus for our government. With taxes too low and spending too high we can look forward to less money, more public-sector layoffs, and a protracted battle as everyone clings to what they already have.

Some of the things that are broken in America could be fixed without additional costs. We could institute a guest worker program that rationalized our immigration policy. The millions of undocumented people living and working in the US could be offered a legal status in a way that increased revenue. We’re sleepwalking in the face of catastrophic global climate change. A carbon tax is an overdue and obvious money-maker. Our corporate and personal income taxes could both be restructured in a way that radically simplified reporting, reduced rates, eliminated loopholes, and increased revenue.

There are plenty of big things left for us to do. But the “we” will not be the Obama administration or a Democratic congress. “We” means all of us now, left and right, Democrats and Republicans. If we can agree on the problems and work towards the solutions, then we’ll do big things. If not, the big things that bedevil us will remain undone. And they will only get bigger.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Building a Better Superhero MMO

My experience with DC Universe Online has me daydreaming a bit more about what would make a great Superhero MMO. So, I decided to write down my design notes. If I ran the circus, here is what I would do...

Design the heroes and villains that will populate this world. Create about a dozen of each. Give each a name, an origin, an identity, a bit of back-story, and a general power set. Each character also gets a general arc. The character’s destiny may be to become earth’s greatest defender, or to have his revenge, or to rule the world, or to become king of the underworld. Each character starts at the beginning but has a different destination. Players will be able to edit their costumes, and choose how a character’s powers evolve. But you you choose to start as one of these predefined heroes or villains.

There is also a set of core NPCs that operate in the world. Some of them might be mob bosses, and dark overlords. But mostly they will be the normals: kindly neighbors, classmates, love interests, brilliant scientists, dogged detectives, intrepid reporters, hired muscle, and other reoccurring characters.

The game runs a number of these worlds in parallel. When a player signs into a game session he gets added to one of the worlds. The engine has the general mandate to get one (and only one) of each of the predefined characters into each instance. Social networking algorithms would be used to keep groups of players together and let you play with your friends. But your Mongoose is the only Mongoose. On a given day, your archenemy the Master Mime might be a low-level frustrated artist being played by a new player. Or he might be a high level criminal mastermind holding the city hostage.

In-game missions are generated by pulling players together with a matchmaking algorithm. A villain is given the chance to embark on some criminal enterprise. Selected heroes are alerted via sky signal, news bulletin, or thought bubble. They can decide to take the case and try to stop her. There would be some environmental adversaries run by the game - thugs, mercenaries, security guards etc.. but they would all but added as part of a dynamic ongoing mission, and not as an eternally respawing part of the scenery. The core of the action would be when the player-piloted heroes and villains square off. Then they succeed or fail, stand or fall. No dying and respawning for them either.

Because the game knows the hero’s name and identity, the NCPs can be woven into each of the missions as informers, hostages, and plot devices. The game can track the each character’s relationship with each of the other characters. It can go beyond costumed adventuring and explored the characters underneath the costumes as well.

Most MMOs pit a vast supply of bland characters against an unchanging environment. The game isn’t about the characters because it doesn’t know who they are. The rich potential of an MMO comes from the interaction and relationships between the players. I want a game that combines engaging characters, played by real people, with an actual storyline that recognizes these characters and lets them tell the story of their journeys together. That game might not exist yet. But I can dream.