Archive for 2011

Giants-Dodgers Love Fest Offers Hope on Budget

Friday, April 15th, 2011

If the Giants and Dodgers can go all warm and fuzzy on each other in the interest of doing the right thing, we innocents at Calbuzz just have to believe the Reps and the Dems in Sacto can still pull off a similar feat.

The hometown S.F. nine and the dog-ass visiting L.A. club got together before Monday night’s game at AT&T Park as a show of unity for Giants fan Bryan Stow, the Santa Cruz paramedic and father of two little kids who is in a coma after being severely beaten by two Dodger “fans” in the parking lot after the teams’ season opener in SoCal on March 31.

It was a nice, if unlikely, moment in a long and bitter rivalry that reminded everyone that there are at least a couple things in life more important than whether you’re wearing blue or orange and black. (Well, almost everyone – at this point, the late Kam Kuwata would surely remind us of the unbridled idiocy of dogass Dodger owner Frank McCourt ).

For once, we have to disagree with our cartoonist Tom Meyer, a crafty veteran right-hander, who doodle posits today that Governor Gandalf would face a bigger challenge negotiating peace on the diamond than in the Capitol, a tough position to support given the lunatic rantings of Assembly members Jim Nielsen and Diane Harkey, not to mention the tedious whining of menopausal Senator Bob Dutton.

But while the smart money says the most likely budget scenario remains the Hobbesian “war of all against all,” our Department of Rosy Scenarios and Guileless Green Shoots keeps reporting signs aimed at keeping hope alive:

Our friend Adam Nagourney offers an excellent Sacramento situationer which, between the lines, suggests that not having a deal on tax extensions would be worse for all Sacramento pols than having one;  the resourceful Shane Goldmacher provides a nifty, right-place-at-the-right-time report on how the good fellowship feelings needed for a deal were on full display in an after-hours gemutlich bash this week; and Cap Weekly’s Allen Young even shows how such a deal might be structured.

Hey, if the Giants and dog-ass Dodgers can set aside the memories of the Roseboro-Marichal brawl and the Reggie Smith-Michael Dooly duel in the stands, we guess anything is possible.

Meanwhile, if you’re one of those people who do the right thing, the San Francisco Police credit union has set up a fund to help out the family of Bryan Stow. Play Ball!


Taxing times: Kudos to Timm Herdt, our favorite Sacramento-based Ventura County political writer, for yeoman work on answering the eternal question: How does California’s tax burden compare to other states?

Anti-tax, anti-government types never tire of spouting the canard that “California has the highest taxes of any state in the nation,” but as Herdt is at pains to report, the matter is considerably more complex:

One indication that the taxes paid by Californians don’t match the rates, at least on a relative scale, is to measure taxes as a percentage of personal income. By that measure, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, California ranked 15th among the states in 2009-10, at $6.63 in taxes per $100 in personal income.

On a per-capita basis, the national Federation of Tax Administrators ranks California 12th among the states in taxes collected.

Herdt contacted so many sources that we were exhausted and tucked in for an afternoon nap by the end of his piece; those less strenuously inclined may wish to check out “Who Pays Taxes in California,” the hot-off-the-presses report from the California Budget Project. Yeah, we know, CBP goes all bleeding heart about poor people, but it’s sure hard to argue with the clarity of the cold hard numbers and data they present.

The Ayn Rand chronicles: Obama won near-universal huzzahs from center-left pundits for his big speech on federal finances, as he drew sharp contrasts with the Republican long-term budget proposal on three fundamental points: 1) keeping Medicare intact instead of privatizing it; 2) letting the Bush tax cuts on rich people expire; 3) whacking the Defense budget  more than the GOP wants.

Well and good, but as we said in our advancer on the speech, we’ll wait to see whether he walks the talk or once again caves the first time Boehner and McConnell say “Boo.”

In the meantime, Washpost whiz kid Ezra Klein does the heavy lifting on the competing policies and political philosophies behind the two proposals and also gets deep in the weeds for those who just can’t enough about the Medicare issue. Hard-core junkies can find the text of Obama’s speech here while utterly hopeless cases can watch the video here.

Calbuzz: Your full service cure for insomnia.

Calbuzz goes chrome dome: The latest issue of the California Journal of Politics and Policy, published by the good folks at Berkeley Electronic Press under direction of the estimable Jerry Lubenow, focuses on the state’s budget mess and features our very own ruminations on communications and campaign strategems that could redefine the debate.

You can read it here or download it through the journal’s guest access gateway. We’re also in line for some actual paper copies in the near future, so send us $25,000 and a self-addressed stamped envelope and we’ll try to  to get you one. Suitable for framing autographed editions only $5K more!

In case you missed it: Lady Gaga falls hard on her noggin but doesn’t miss a beat…Carlos Gonzalez and Mike Kepka edit the Giant’s incredible home opener down to a very cool 2:11…Beta version of the Calbuzz laugh track getting close to being ready to go.

One more time: A toast to Kam Kuwata, one of the great ones, who passed this week at 57.


Deficit Politics: Harry S Truman Meets Ayn Rand

Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

We have no clue what President Obama plans to propose in his big speech on  federal finances  today, but before he starts flapping his gums, we suggest that he re-read Harry S Truman’s famous 1952 speech to the convention of Americans for Democratic Action:

I’ve seen it happen time after time. When the Democratic candidate allows himself to be put on the defensive and starts apologizing for the New Deal and the Fair Deal, and says he really doesn’t believe in them, he is sure to lose.

The people don’t want a phony Democrat. If it’s a choice between a genuine Republican, and a Republican in Democratic clothing, the people will choose the genuine article, every time…

Truman’s sage observation came to mind as we watched the recent spectacle of Obama performing a jubilant victory lap on behalf of his agreement with Republicans to cut $38.5 billion from the federal budget.

Once again, the president seemed obsessed with conciliation at any price in the process of politics  — but thoroughly unaware of the difference between accommodation and appeasement on policy, or of the distinction between compromise and concession on matters of principle.

Having caved to Republicans last year by agreeing to extend Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, Obama was at it again last week; rewarding the GOP for its threat to shut down the government, he handed them yet another victory by agreeing to a level of cuts that not only fell beyond the mid-point between the positions of the two sides, but that went beyond what the Republicans had asked for. Bill Clinton 1995, he ain’t.

The triumph of defeat: In both cases, Obama celebrated the mere fact that a compromise was reached, never mind that both “agreements” exacerbated the economic problems they purported to address.

The hundreds of billions in tax breaks that Obama delivered to billionaires  will not only deepen the deficit, but also accelerate the ongoing massive transfer of wealth to a tiny group of the wealthiest taxpayers; the tens of billions in discretionary funding cuts that he celebrated as “historic” will further contract a battered economy in the early stages of recovery, inflicting more pain on those most damaged by the recession.

As a political matter, by far the worst aspect of Obama’s actions is his acceptance of the GOP’s fact-free, ideological narrative about the economy: 1) that the federal deficit represents an imminent “crisis” (the current problem is not the debt, but unemployment); 2) that resolution of this “crisis” requires a heavy dose of austerity in public spending (the government should be putting money into the economy, not taking it out); 3) that all of this together somehow adds up to “shared sacrifice” that will fix the recession in a jiffy (it won’t).  Paul Krugman writes:

More broadly, Mr. Obama is conspicuously failing to mount any kind of challenge to the philosophy now dominating Washington discussion — a philosophy that says the poor must accept big cuts in Medicaid and food stamps; the middle class must accept big cuts in Medicare (actually a dismantling of the whole program); and corporations and the rich must accept big cuts in the taxes they have to pay. Shared sacrifice!

Who is John Galt? In his speech today,  Obama is expected to address the Republicans’ new, uber-austere budget plan, put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., the GOP’s designated Serious Person on this stuff. Among other things, the budget calls for beginning the process of privatizing Medicare.

Whatever contrasts or tough talk the president may trot out about the plan now, however, the clear and present danger is that by the time the deal goes down, Obama will once again accept wrong-headed ideas  from the right-wingers that Ryan represents — all so he can whoop it up over reaching yet another compromise.

The best take on Ryan’s program comes from Jonathan Chait over at Daily Beast, who notes that Ryan is a seriously smitten acolyte of Ayn Rand.

The Tea Party began early in 2009 after an improvised rant by Rick Santelli, a CNBC commentator who called for an uprising to protest the Obama administration’s subsidizing the “losers’ mortgages.” Video of his diatribe rocketed around the country, and protesters quickly adopted both his call for a tea party and his general abhorrence of government that took from the virtuous and the successful and gave to the poor, the uninsured, the bankrupt—in short, the losers. It sounded harsh, Santelli quickly conceded, but “at the end of the day I’m an Ayn Rander.”

Ayn Rand, of course, was a kind of politicized L. Ron Hubbard—a novelist-philosopher who inspired a cult of acolytes who deem her the greatest human being who ever lived. The enduring heart of Rand’s totalistic philosophy was Marxism flipped upside down. Rand viewed the capitalists, not the workers, as the producers of all wealth, and the workers, not the capitalists, as useless parasites.

John Galt, the protagonist of her iconic novel Atlas Shrugged, expressed Rand’s inverted Marxism: “The man at the top of the intellectual pyramid contributes the most to all those below him, but gets nothing except his material payment, receiving no intellectual bonus from others to add to the value of his time. The man at the bottom who, left to himself, would starve in his hopeless ineptitude, contributes nothing to those above him, but receives the bonus of all of their brains.”

In 2009 Rand began popping up all over the Tea Party movement. Sales of her books skyrocketed, and signs quoting her ideas appeared constantly at rallies. Conservatives asserted that the events of the Obama administration eerily paralleled the plot of Atlas Shrugged, in which a liberal government precipitates economic collapse.

One conservative making that point was Ryan. His citation of Rand was not casual. He’s a Rand nut. In the days before his star turn as America’s Accountant, Ryan once appeared at a gathering to honor her philosophy, where he announced, “The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, one person, it would be Ayn Rand.” He continues to view Rand as a lodestar, requiring his staffers to digest her creepy tracts.

The class tinge of Ryan’s Path to Prosperity is striking. The poorest Americans would suffer immediate, explicit budget cuts. Middle-class Americans would face distant, uncertain reductions in benefits. And the richest Americans would enjoy an immediate windfall. Santelli, in his original rant, demanded that we “reward people [who can] carry the water instead of drink the water.” Ryan won’t say so, but that’s exactly what he’s doing.

Amid widespread criticism of the Ryan plan, it’s  instructive that even mainstream conservative economists — who nowadays risk being tagged as liberal sell-outs by the wing-nut zealots whom Obama and the Democrats have allowed to redefine the mainstream far to the right – are highly critical of the Ryan budget.

As David  Stockman, President Reagan’s first budget chief, described the plan in an interview with Talking Points Memo:

“It doesn’t address in any serious or courageous way the issue of the near and medium-term deficit,” David Stockman told me in a Thursday phone interview. “I think the biggest problem is revenues. It is simply unrealistic to say that raising revenue isn’t part of the solution. It’s a measure of how far off the deep end Republicans have gone with this religious catechism about taxes.”

A neo-con Manchurian Candidate: Amid the constellation of possible reasons, psychological and political, for why Obama folds so easily – he doesn’t have stomach for conflict, he’s a born academic and badly miscast as a chief executive, he really is the Manchurian Candidate…for the Republicans – the most charitable comes from Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones:

I suspect Obama really is a long-term deficit hawk and figures that the current budget battle, though not really of his choosing, can be turned to his advantage. He’s agreed to cuts but has also shown that he’ll fight against crazy cuts, and he thinks that will help him take the high ground when he unveils his own long-term deficit program on Wednesday.

Well maybe, but in any case, there are several other, much broader issue at work here as well.

In our recent discussions of the growing inequality of wealth distribution to the richest 1% people in the U.S., a key point that we haven’t raised is this: much of the elite political class involved in forging the policies that have aided and abetted this vast economic shift are themselves members of the privileged 1% – from the billionaire club of the U.S. Senate to former members of congress who strike it big on K Street and the insufferable unctuous pundits who drone about the need for sacrifice by union workers while pulling down multimillion-dollar salaries.

In his signal essay on the subject, Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz writes:

Wealth begets power, which begets more wealth. During the savings-and-loan scandal of the 1980s—a scandal whose dimensions, by today’s standards, seem almost quaint—the banker Charles Keating was asked by a congressional committee whether the $1.5 million he had spread among a few key elected officials could actually buy influence. “I certainly hope so,” he replied. The Supreme Court, in its recent Citizens United case, has enshrined the right of corporations to buy government, by removing limitations on campaign spending.

The personal and the political are today in perfect alignment. Virtually all U.S. senators, and most of the representatives in the House, are members of the top 1 percent when they arrive, are kept in office by money from the top 1 percent, and know that if they serve the top 1 percent well they will be rewarded by the top 1 percent when they leave office. By and large, the key executive-branch policymakers on trade and economic policy also come from the top 1 percent.

When pharmaceutical companies receive a trillion-dollar gift—through legislation prohibiting the government, the largest buyer of drugs, from bargaining over price—it should not come as cause for wonder. It should not make jaws drop that a tax bill cannot emerge from Congress unless big tax cuts are put in place for the wealthy. Given the power of the top 1 percent, this is the way you would expect the system to work.

The bottom line question: Viewed in this way, the debate over economic issues in Congress goes far beyond how or whether to cut the deficit, the implications of competing tax policies, and even projections about the future viability and operation of Social Security and Medicare.

Rather, it is fundamentally about whether the U.S. will be a society of common interest and unity, or a society of Ayn Rands.

The current confrontation between parties and ideologies is over the role of government. But even more deeply it is a foundational disagreement over whether we are a society, a community, or whether we are a collection of individuals inhabiting the same geographical space…

In a perfect world we would have a great debate throughout the nation, not just in Washington, over the issue of whether we are a society, a national community, and, if so, what role we wish the national government to bear in maintaining that community.

Alas, we do not live in a perfect world. So we let our elected officials struggle over budget cuts that are but symbols of our deeper dilemma and our unresolved definition of who we really are. Two hundred and twenty years should have been enough time to have resolved this question.

Not even close.

Kam Kuwata, RIP

Monday, April 11th, 2011

Kam Kuwata, one of the smartest, most effective and beloved political consultants in California, has died, friends in Los Angeles said this morning. He was 57.

In a business filled with rats, skunks and rattlesnakes, Kuwata was a gentle bear of a man. Politically, he was relentlessly determined, intense and fierce on behalf of his clients and causes, but always did his work with a civility and kindness that reflected the compassionate and humanistic perspective he brought to the business.

Among his many clients in California and Hawaii were Senators Dianne Feinstein and Daniel Akaka, and the late Senator Alan Cranston. He also worked as a consultant for Gray Davis, Jane Harman, Bob Matsui, Jim Hahn and Leo McCarthy, among others. In 2008, he served as the program director for the Obama campaign at the Democratic National Convention.

Kam was a valued and trusted source for political reporters throughout California and the nation, an extraordinarily plugged-in guy, an insightful analyst and a world-class communications operative who never insulted journalists’ intelligence with his spin.

Details of his passing are still unclear, as are plans for a service. We’ll update as we can.

Update 12:26 PDT: Mark Barabak just posted and has more reporting on the circumstances and Kam’s background.

Update: 20:11 PDT: Formal statements are coming in from all over now, from Kam’s clients, colleagues and friends. Here’s Dianne’s:

I am deeply saddened at the passing of Kam Kuwata.  California has lost a sharp political mind, and I’ve lost a loyal and dear friend of more than 20 years.

Kam managed my first Senate campaign in 1992.  We went through a lot together in those days, and no matter the circumstances, I could always rely on Kam’s great sense of humor, his good advice and his compassion for the people of California.  He was respected by people in politics and journalism, something I always thought spoke volumes about the kind of person he was.

I am shocked by Kam’s death and reminded at how short life is.  There will never be another like Kam, and I will miss him.

And here’s the statement from President Obama:

I was saddened to learn of the passing of my friend Kam Kuwata. Kam’s brilliance as a political strategist was matched by his passion for our country and the process by which we govern ourselves.

I’ll never forget the critical contribution Kam made to our efforts in 2008, planning an open, vibrant convention that really captured the spirit of our campaign. Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to Kam’s extended family of friends and to so many in California who mourn his passing.

Update 4/12, 2:45 pm: Over at the Facebook page that’s been created “Remembering Kam Kuwata” there’s a comment from Peter Sears that’s so poignant, we had to add it here:

So you walk into the bar and Kam’s face lights up and he grabs your hand solidly, yanks you to him and affectionately squeezes your arm, unabashedly making sure you know how happy he is to see you. Now you can’t stop smiling. Then, although he’s only asking you questions, he makes you feel like you’re the most interesting person he’s talked to that day even though, given the circles he travels in, there’s almost no chance that’s true. Now you’re thinking you’re warm and kind and witty and whip smart when really, it’s him. And now that he’s gone you think to yourself, “Boy, that’s how to be a human.”

Alan Cranston campaign bus, November 1986

D.C. and Sacto: A Tale of Two Political Universes

Monday, April 11th, 2011

After speaking in Los Alamitos last weekend, Gov. Jerry Brown labeled as “pathetic” the last-minute deal on the federal budget that averted a government shutdown.

“You’re not the superpower of the world if you have to stay up half the night trying to make a few decisions over a fraction of your budget,” Brown said.

Krusty the Governor should know from pathetic: he’s surrounded by it in Sacramento. That’s not to mention what seems to have been his own feckless attempts to quietly persuade a handful of Republicans to do what they have no inclination to do: give voters the right to decide whether to extend some taxes instead of slashing another $15.4 billion from the California budget.

So now Brown is on a belated bully-pulpit tour of California, hoping to build pressure on Republicans to make a reasonable deal on the budget. “You got to wear people down,” Brown told reporters. “You have to persuade them, and you have to go out to as many parts of California to create the mood, the momentum, and the environment where people are ready to face the music.”

But even Gov. Gandalf now admits he’s facing dark forces that may be too strong for his wizardry.

“Getting some of these Republicans to let the people vote for taxes or cuts is like asking the pope to let Catholics vote on abortion,” he said. “Highly unlikely.”

Passive aggressive behavior: In Washington, House Republicans – who were in danger of over-reading their “mandate” – and Senate Democrats – who were in danger of placing their genitals in a mason jar – finally made a deal because not making a deal was seen by both sides as too politically perilous.

How that’s different from Sacramento is this: In Washington, the party leaders in Congress can actually make a deal because a) they want to, and b) they have the power.

In Sacramento, not only do the passive aggressive Republicans have no incentive to allow a vote on taxes – since the 2/3-vote requirement on taxes allows them to accomplish their goal by sitting on their hands – but their leaders have no power to make a deal.

This is something Calbuzz has hammered on for some time. As we explained back in July 2009:

The governor and the Legislature fulminate and flounder simply because no one in the Capitol in 2009 has the stature, clout or influence to cut a deal like Ronnie and Jesse or Pete and Willie once did.

Strip away all the policy wonkery, weed whacking and egghead analysis  and you find that a combination of term limits and politically-safe, gerrymandered legislative seats has created a political atmosphere in which every legislator is an army of one – and none of them fears the governor, the speaker or any other leader in the Legislature.

For the moment, the Democratic leaders appear to have a bit more sway over their members than the Republican leadership. But that too may disintegrate if Brown’s terms for a deal include a spending cap or pension reforms that the jefes in the California Teachers Association, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association or Service Employees International Union don’t find acceptable.

Reapportionment and the top-two election system may mitigate the wing-nut intransigence of Sacramento in coming years – perhaps replenishing the Legislature with lawmakers who don’t believe compromise is capitulation. But until term limits are eliminated, leadership will remain a huge impediment to deal-making in the public interest.

Talking to reporters on Saturday, Brown also argued that President Obama faced “the same problem I do, only worse.” He likened the need for supermajorities to overcome filibusters in the U.S. Senate to the Legislative votes needed to raise taxes in California.

Caving in to bullies: But there is a more important way in which Sacramento and Washington are alike, as outlined in a compelling essay by Robert Reich, professor of public policy at UC Berkeley and former secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

“The right-wing bullies are emboldened. They will hold the nation hostage again and again,” he wrote the other day, urging Obama and the Democrats to take a stand.

All the while, he and the Democratic leadership in Congress refuse to refute the Republicans’ big lie – that spending cuts will lead to more jobs. In fact, spending cuts now will lead to fewer jobs. They’ll slow down an already-anemic recovery. That will cause immense and unnecessary suffering for millions of Americans.

The President continues to legitimize the Republican claim that too much government spending caused the economy to tank, and that by cutting back spending we’ll get the economy going again.

Even before the bullies began hammering him his deficit commission already recommended $3 of spending cuts for every dollar of tax increase. Then the President froze non-defense domestic spending and froze federal pay. And he continues to draw the false analogy between a family’s budget and the national budget.

He is losing the war of ideas because he won’t tell the American public the truth: That we need more government spending now – not less – in order to get out of the gravitational pull of the Great Recession.

Likewise, Democrats in Sacramento – including Gov. Brown – seem to have conceded the argument that public employee pensions, extravagant state spending on social services, over-regulation and over-taxation are the causes of California’s deficit. All of which is simply not supported by the facts.

Bottom line: Jerry Brown won a huge mandate in large part because he said he would bring order to the chaos in Sacramento and that he would not raise taxes without a vote of the people. He did not win by promising to slash teachers’ pensions, eviscerate environmental regulation or cut taxes on rich people.

In Washington, the Republicans – now talking about eliminating Medicare — are overinterpreting their electoral mandate, as analyst Charlie Cook has noted.

But the Republicans in California have no such mandate to misread: what they have is the power of a minority veto in the Legislature. Still, they seem to think they’ve got the voters on their side; Brown and the Democrats need to  disabuse them.

But please, spare us the White House’s obnoxious new mantra — “winning the future.”