Shared Sacrifice

If you relied on The Washington Post’s coverage of President Obama’s speech yesterday to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, you would have missed some interesting messaging that approaches a narrative that could be very successful for the president come 2012.

Conventional wisdom is that the Chamber and the GOP with its relentless “creating jobs at all costs” has a winning message. But we can’t forget that many Americans, including Tea Partiers, are mighty upset with business and the damage Wall St. has done to the economy. Voters would need to be living in a cave if they didn’t realize that the gulf between rich and poor is widening and that CEOs are not held accountable for their failures, instead receiving golden parachutes.

Moreover, a wide swath of Americans have been harmed by the recession. It’s not just the unemployed. It is those who are working art-time when they want a full-time job or those working in jobs that pay a fraction of what those folks made before the recession. It is those who can’t see how they can send their kids to college, let alone retire, except in poverty. In short, there’s no shortage of people who are pissed and who are making a lot of sacrifices.

Asking Americans to sacrifice, while not in fashion since Ronald Reagan made greed an admirable trait, has in the past be fruitful. Americans are willing to sacrifice, especially for the benefit of their children.

Which brings me to these lines from Obama’s Chamber speech, from the AP’s telling of it.

"I want to be clear: Even as we make America the best place on earth to do business, businesses also have a responsibility to America," Obama said.

"As we work with you to make America a better place to do business, ask yourselves what you can do for America. Ask yourselves what you can do to hire American workers, to support the American economy, and to invest in this nation."

Yes, it sounds almost Kennedy-esque: “Ask not what your country can do for you….”

He needs to take the narrative a little further:

Americans have made tremendous sacrifices to help this economy recover. They’ve taken jobs that pay less than they used to get paid or part-time work. Some of course, can’t find jobs at all. College seems out of reach. Retirement is a mirage.

What sacrifices are America’s businesses prepared to make? What can CEOs and company directors sacrifice?

I’ve heard business people say [this is an actual quote from a businessman after Obama’s speech] ‘Bottom line, the most patriotic thing a company can do is ensure it is in business and take steps to stay in business; otherwise everyone loses and more people lose their jobs.’

That’s a cop-out. Sure a company needs to stay in business, but this notion that the only thing a company needs to do is maximize shareholder value is wrong-headed and unpatriotic. American business has a moral responsibility to be a good corporate citizen. After all, if the Supreme Court says corporations are citizens, they need to act like citizens. They need to remember they have a responsibility not just to profits, but to the communities they are in, the workers who make them successful. Continually cutting wages and benefits while CEO salaries go through the roof doesn’t sound very American to a lot of American people.

So let’s get back to the idea that we’re all in this together, and that Americans—all Americans including the titans of commerce—must, as the Constitutions exhorts us, “promote the general welfare.”

Profits are good. Capitalism is the basis for the greatest economy in the world. But capitalists have responsibilities just like everyday Americans.

So the next time your board of directors meet ask, “What sacrifices are we willing to make?”

Regulations Kill Jobs?

In this morning’s Washington Post, writers Phil Rucker and David Hilzenrath write of Rep. Darrell Issa’s plan to hold hearings on what regulations can be eliminated in the name of savings jobs.

Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and his supporters in the business community had remarkable message discipline. At least 13 times in the article were either quotes or attributions that included the word ‘”jobs” and how regulations are hurting the creation of them.

[House Republicans] are taking guidance from industry groups that say the rules threaten jobs.

…Issa asked industry groups to identify regulations that "have negatively impacted job growth."

…He said the probe is "a starting point for the broader discussion that will unfold about the regulatory barriers to job creation.

Thirteen times. You get the picture: Regulations reduce the number of jobs.

Except the writers place this sentence in the middle of the nearly 1,600-word story.

[M]any of the industry groups broadly said that government regulations would cost jobs but did not back up their claims with evidence.

How many times should reporters allow the purveyors of a point of view for which they offer no evidence that said view is true before said reporters refuse to be stenographers at a fantasy convention?

Maybe the claim by Republicans is true.  Then where is the evidence?

I went looking, of course, via Google. I entered the search term: do regulations hurt job creation [no quotes]. By page 17 in the results I had found no article that made the case that the GOP assertion was false. In fact, most of the results were the same article about Obama calling for relaxing some regulations or GOPers making their claim if not their case. Yet, I didn’t find a clear explanation of how regulations hurt job creation.

I then searched the same term with quotes around it. No results? No where in the entire World Wide Web has someone asked that question!

I then put in the term “regulations don’t hurt job creation” [with quotes].  No results. No one has made that claim.

Sure, people will argue, rightfully, that regulations often cost businesses. And we can all tell stories of how silly regulations waste time and don’t really stop much bad from happening. But costing  businesses money doesn’t mean it costs jobs. How do we know that the money or time saved would result in more jobs? What business would like us all to believe is that with the money they’d save they will invest it by hiring more people. But that it not a proven conclusion. It taint an ipso facto. The money saved could go to shareholders in higher dividends or to senior executives in higher pay.

Is the GOP claim true that regulations hurt job creation?   There appears no evidence easily found.

Maybe Messrs. Rucker and Hilzenrath could, you know, do a little reporting and find out.

Strong Statement and Weak Words

No more stark contrast in messaging styles can we have than these few paragraphs from The Washington Post’s online report today about the employment statistics. The stats, which come from two different sources, paint a contradictory and completely opposite picture of what experts expected. Most thought we’d actually see a bump up in the unemployment rate as more workers, encouraged by improving economic signs, re-enter the job market, while the number of jobs created would increase by nearly 150,000.

Instead, the unemployment rate dropped but few jobs were created, although “the number of people who described themselves as employed rose by 589,000.” The Post’s Neil Irwin does a good job of explaining why this surprise may have occurred.

But, this being Washington, he needs a quote from both sides on the significance of these numbers.

The White House called the the decline in the jobless rate a "welcome development" but generally refrained from celebrating the numbers, given the uneven picture they paint.

"The overall trajectory of the economy has improved dramatically over the past two years, but there will surely be bumps in the road ahead," White House Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Austan Goolsbee said in a statement. "The monthly employment and unemployment numbers are volatile, and . . . estimates are subject to substantial revision. . . . It is important not to read too much into any one monthly report."

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), however, said the weak job creation shows that the Obama administration’s push to speed the economic recovery isn’t working.

"The spending binge is hurting job creation," Boehner said in a statement, "eroding confidence, draining funds away from private investment and spreading uncertainty among job creators."  [emphasis added]

Note the White House, inhabited by Democrats who clearly don’t understand the 24-hour news cycle, hedge their bets, afraid that they will have egg on their faces if the trend isn’t a straight line.  As if anyone will remember.

Boehner, however, isn’t worried about what will happen next month and ignores the good news in the reports. You know he already had his talking points before the report came out. “Spending binge hurting job creation,” even though there is no economic connection between the two. In fact, most economists, both conservatives and progressives, will say government spending is critical to creating jobs in a soft economy. But we’ve left that conventional wisdom in the dust. And we can’t expect journalists to point out the contradiction. That’s not their job. “Truth is relative. We’ve only got our steno pads.” 

“Eroding confidence, draining away funds…spreading uncertainty.” All are strong images, even though it is unclear how the government spending less will cause “private investment” to increase.

Meanwhile, the Dems focus on “bumps in the road ahead,” volatile numbers “subject to substantial revision.”

No wonder we lose the message wars.

Taking It Down a Notch to Raise It to a New Level

The president’s speeches can sound canned, a tutorial on oration without passion, empathy or connection. But this one today at the National Prayer Breakfast was something different. He lowers his voice and comes off more humble and sincere. While it was about faith, he took a moment to defend government’s role, saying that churches, charities and the private sector can’t do all that’s necessary to help those who need it. But doing so it in that quieter tone made it that much more effective.

Leading Wall Streeter: We’re Greedy

Bill Gross is almost a saint on Wall Street. As the managing director of PIMCO bond funds, he’s a great investor and usual suspect on CNBC. So when he says something like this

As a profession we have failed miserably at our primary function – the efficient and productive allocation of capital [emphasis original]: The S&L debacle of the early 1980s, the Asian crisis, LTCM, dotcoms, subprimes, Lehman and the resurrection, instead of the reformation, of Wall Street, are major sins of the modern era of money. Hang your heads, moneychangers. And no, it is not yet time to move on, as many banking CEOs suggest. How can bond traders make ten, one hundred, one thousand times more money than an engineer or social worker given their dismal historical performance? Why is it that some of today’s doctors are using food stamps while investment banking executives complain about millions of dollars in compensation that might be deferred in case of a future bailout?

Financiers have lost their high ground and, if truth be told, we began to lose it a long time ago when we figured out that money was more than a medium of exchange or a poor substitute for a store of value. We figured out a turbocharged way to make money with money and proclaimed ourselves geniuses in the process. Well, we’re not. We may be categorized as “opportunists,” to be generous, but society’s “paragons” and a legitimate destination for a significant percentage of college graduates? Hardly. To paraphrase Paul Volcker, the only productive invention to come out of the banking industry over the past generation was the ATM.

This country desperately requires a rebalancing of priorities. After readjusting the compensation scales via regulation and/or free market common sense, America needs to anoint a new set of Mensans who can create something more than a cash machine and make this country competitive again in the global marketplace. We need to find a new economic Keynes or at least elect a chastened Congress that can take our structurally unemployed and give them a chance to be productive workers again. We must have a President whose idea of “centrist” policy is not to hand out presents to the right and the left and then altruistically proclaim the benefits of bipartisanship. We need a President who does more than propose “Win The Future” at annual State of the Union addresses without policy follow-up. America requires more than a makeover or a facelift. It needs a heart transplant absent the contagious antibodies of money and finance filtering through the system. It needs a Congress that cannot be bought and sold by lobbyists on K Street, whose pockets in turn are stuffed with corporate and special interest group payola. Are record corporate profits a fair price for America’s soul? A devil’s bargain more than likely.

…maybe somebody should listen.

Does Larry Sabato Just Make It Up?

I just received the latest Larry Sabato newsletter assessing Obama’s reelection chances.  I didn’t get but a few sentences into it when I came across this:

Yet presidents riding high—such as Ronald Reagan in 1984, Bill Clinton in 1996 and George W. Bush in 2004—often find themselves surrounded by good fortune.

Yet when you look back at the polls in the months leading up to the 2004 election, Bush’s favorability ratings were often under 50%.  That’s riding high?

GOP on Egypt: Call Us Monday

This article about why the GOP is not criticizing the Obama administration’s handling of the Egyptian crisis goes through all the reasons except for the real one: They want to wait to see how it turns out and then Monday morning quarterback.

So, Why Are the Rich Getting Richer?

The income chasm between middle class America and the richest Americans has grown enormously over the past 50 years. Few would dispute that. Harold Meyerson lays out the stats.

From 1947 through 1973, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s State of Working America report, released this week, the incomes of the poorest 20 percent of Americans rose 117 percent, while the middle 20 percent saw a rise of 104 percent and the wealthiest 20 percent a rise of 89 percent. From 1973 through 2000, however, the income of the bottom fifth increased by a scant 9 percent, the middle fifth by 23 percent and the richest fifth by 62 percent. Since 2000, the concentration of income gains at the very top has grown only more pronounced. The share of income going to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, which was less than 10 percent in the early ’70s, reached 23.5 percent in 2007 – the highest level on record save for 1928. (Note: Both years preceded epic crashes.)

No doubt conservatives don’t think this is a problem. And they are given a pass by progressives, who decry the income gap but don’t put the question to conservatives—Why? Meyerson and others have offered some reasons—the demise of labor unions, globalization and financial schemes that add nothing to the economy but line the pockets of the few. All perhaps true, but why don’t progressives keep hammering the GOP with actually two questions:

Why do you think this is happening? Give them a chance to explain the phenomenon. By forcing a explanation, there’s a good chance progressives will get fodder for a strong counter-narrative to the second question:

Do conservatives think this income gap is a good thing?

One book I’m almost finished relates.  It’s The Soul of Capitalism by William Greider. But rather than explain the gap, the book is really more about the book’s subtitle, “Opening Paths to a Moral Economy.” I’ll have more on it in another post.

Another waiting to be read promises to offer another reason. It’s Perfectly Legal: The Convert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich—and Cheat Everybody Else by David Cay Johnston, a former New York Times tax reporter. This has always intuitively made sense to me. The folks who love to hail free enterprise ignore the fact the problem is not free enterprise versus a planned economy. It’s whether our free enterprise is really fair enterprise. Or are the rules, including tax rules, slanted to favor the wealthy?

Still, if progressives would demand answers from conservatives re why our economy increasingly seems to help only the few, they could set the foundation for the “free and fair narrative” that I think Americans would respond to.

Post Writer Equates Muslim Brotherhood with ‘Radical Islam’

What would come next in Egypt after Hosni Mubarak? Few know whether this seemingly democratic populist movement will result in true democracy, let alone a Western style and friendly democracy.

I profess to be no authority on the Muslim Brotherhood, arguably the largest (though not majority) political force in Egypt, that has clearly play a role in the demonstrations. There is no clear picture of what the country would look like if the Brotherhood gained power. The views of the organization are all over the map.

Even American neo-cons don’t seem all that concerned, warning, as Eliot Abrams did in a Washington Post article this morning, that Israel shouldn’t be defending Mubarak. After all, he is 83 years old.  There’s not much future there. And if the neo-cons aren’t concerned….

"There’s been an Israeli position which is, ‘We love Mubarak,’ that permeates their whole society, the political class," said Elliott Abrams, who was deputy national security adviser in the last Bush administration. "That certainly differs from many of us in the pro-Israel camp in the United States."

Abrams said he has made the case to wary Israelis that they would be foolish to build a future relationship with an aging ruler who has served for decades and "presided over unprecedented anti-Semitism in the media" in Egypt, rather than to take a gamble on a potentially more liberal and popular government.

Other neoconservatives in the United States have agreed. "Obviously there are a million problems: Transitions are hard, and you have to worry about who takes over," said conservative commentator William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. "But I think it’s a mistake for people to hang on to a false, quote, ‘stability’ with an 82-year-old dictator. There are complicated short-term issues, but at the end of the day, being pro- Israel and being pro-freedom go together."

No one denies the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood. So if it were clear that the Brotherhood was a threat, neo-cons would sing a different tune. But that doesn’t stop Post writer Anne Kornblut from labeling the group as such.

Earlier this week, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu likened the situation in Egypt to that of Iran, making the menacing prediction that a post-Mubarak Egypt could join other "repressive regimes of radical Islam." The sentiment has been widespread in the Israeli press – and roundly dismissed by prominent American Jewish neoconservatives, who do not see a takeover of the Egyptian government by the Muslim Brotherhood as inevitable. [emphasis added]

The only way to read this short paragraph is: Muslim Brotherhood equates with other “repressive regimes of radical Islam.” It clearly leaves that impression with the reader.

As I say, some think it’s a true statement. But many others do not.  So it seems unfair and a “radical” departure from good journalism to suggest it is uncontroverted fact.

Mark Herring’s Wishy-Washy Stance

The GOP has made a market in the deficit this past year. Borrowing is simply bad business that passes the buck to our children, and they won’t have anything of it. Except of course, when they do like borrowing. Such as Gov. McDonnell’s plan for transportation.  He borrows money that gets us some of what we need for the next three years but saddles taxpayers with debt for the next 20. Debt that will come from funds that would have gone to education and social services. McDonnell looks like he solved the problem. He forecloses any other transportation funding for years to come because the GOP will say we’ve already dealt with it. In the election this year, the GOP will appear to be heroes and likely consolidate further its hold on the House and probably take over the Senate.

And we have legislators like Mark Herring saying on the one hand he doesn’t like borrowing, but on the other hand transportation needs are great, so he lays the groundwork in this video to capitulate to the GOP view of things, proving once again Dems don’t know how to play politics and that they have absolutely no principles that ground them. Voters will see them as weak and again ignore them at the polls.