Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Open Letter to House Republicans

Dear House Republicans –

You need to pass a comprehensive budget and debt ceiling increase ASAP.

Stay in Washington and work seven days a week until a budget and long term debt ceiling resolution is passed.  Disprove your reputation as a bunch of right-wing ideologues and show American that you can step up and make the hard decisions that the White House and Senate have failed to make for years.  In other words, stop the posturing and govern.     

Sitting on your hands while also lamenting how irresponsible it is for the Senate to have not passed a budget in more than 4 years is weak and hypocritical.  Take the lead and put the ball in the hands of the Senate and President.

Take Paul Ryan’s budget that you’ve previously passed, amend it so that it further reduces the deficit through significant spending cuts and slight increases in tax revenue (proving your serious and show compromise), and pass it.  Any budget must significantly reduce deficit growth in order to normalize the debt to GDP ratio to a reasonable percentage (and be scored as doing so by the CBO).  Sell it as the balanced approach that the President wants and call his bluff.

The slight increase in tax revenues should come from tax reform, not further increases in marginal tax rates.  Reforms should reduce complexity in the code and must eliminate the carried interest loophole and reform credits and deductions (get rid of some, limit others in the aggregate).  Corporate taxes should be similarly reformed by eliminating or limiting special credits and deductions in conjunction with lowering our internationally uncompetitive rates.  The rate should be lowered to an amount that significantly offsets any gain in revenue so that the reform is ultimately deficit reductive.  These reforms may not generate huge amounts of additional revenue, but they will deflect any “fair share” and “balance” rhetoric from the Democrats – rhetoric that has proven very successful over the past two years.

The bulk of the deficit reduction could come from rationalizing federal government spending.  Once and for all, cut government programs that are redundant and ineffectual and freeze all other spending at 2012 levels (including defense, entitlements, and other domestic programs).

You will be labeled as slashing funding for teachers, firefighters, policemen, Medicare, Medicaid, the poor, children, Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny, but a clear explanation by Paul Ryan in a press conference should highlight that all programs will continue to be funded at the historically large 2012 levels.  Anytime you’re challenged about cutting programs, there is a simple answer:  “Every dollar that was spent on these programs in 2012 will be spent again in 2013 and 2014.  We are not cutting programs, we’re simply asking them to live within their means until our fiscal situation is stabilized, just like every household in America is forced to do.”   This is a very important fact that gets lost in the public debate on budgets, but if everyone sings from the same hymn sheet - frequently and loudly - the public just might applaud the serious effort to address our problems in a responsible manner.    

Please ignore the primary challengers to your right, and any previous “pledges” and worry about what your voters sent you to Washington to do, and what every American needs you to do.  Kicking the can slowly towards Europe is to betray our children, grandchildren and every vote cast in your name.  Do what’s right, and Americans will thank you at the ballot box.

Not only is this the right thing to do for the country, but it’s also a political slam dunk.  By doing your job, you’ll force the President and the Senate to do theirs.  The Senate hasn’t passed a budget for years because it knows it can’t keep its promises without significantly raising taxes on the middle class or exploding the debt.  Force Harry Reid and President Obama to make the tough decisions required to balance a budget.

There is no alternative and time is running out.  Playing games with the debt ceiling and our borrowing costs by threatening to shut down the government is the wrong approach.  Rise above the fray and govern.  We know that’s a foreign concept in Washington these days, but the first group of people (NoLabels??) who are seen to be solving the problem instead of creating it will get rewarded in 2014 and 2016, and will set the agenda going forward.  

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Problem with Priorities - Redux

We hate guns and have no interest in exercising our Constitutional rights to bear arms.  The odds of an accident occurring with any gun bought for protection, especially in a house with kids, far outweighs the odds that it will ever be needed for protection. 

But we respect the Constitution, and we respect the right to bear arms responsibly. 

Should a family have the right to own a handgun and a couple bullets to protect their families from home intruders?  Yes.  Do we think 30-round clips and GI Joe looking military rifles should be protected under the second amendment? No.  Do we think a ban on such weaponry make sense?  Yes.  Will it reduce the senseless acts of violence we have seen recently?  Doubtful.  

Does anyone honestly believe that if 30-bullet magazines were wiped off the map, that a deranged individual who is inclined to fire off 30+ rounds in a crowded area wouldn't just buy and load three 10 bullet magazines?  It’s like banning 24 ounce sodas – wouldn't a very thirsty individual just buy two 12 ounce cans? 

It’s a very emotional topic, particularly in the aftermath of some horrific events, but let’s set aside emotion for a minute and think rationally. 

For the sake of argument, let’s assume we throw out the second amendment and hover a huge magnet over the entire country and suck up every last gun.  Voila, our 30,000+ gun deaths per year just vanish right?  Perhaps, but it doesn’t mean we’ll have less tragedy.  Almost 20,000 of those deaths are suicides, and I’m guessing the vast majority of those individuals will have just as much courage (or lack thereof) to jump off a bridge or swallow a bottle of sleeping pills as they would have had turning a gun on themselves.  That leaves the remaining 10,000+ deaths which are primarily criminal homicides, most of which a result of gang and drug violence, and a very small percentage of which causes international headlines as “mass murders” of innocents.  Do we really think gang members, drug dealers and deranged individuals will stop being violent because one of their tools has been taken away? 

They won't...and that’s in the fantasy land where guns don’t exist.  That barn door has been open for hundreds of years and there are 300 million guns in homes across the US. When deranged individuals in the real world decide to commit mass murder, the worst of all crimes, do we really think they are more concerned with gun control laws than murder laws?  Will they just sit in their dark basements sulking at the fact that they can’t buy a GI Joe gun and abandon their psychotic thoughts?  Handguns are for all intents and purposes illegal in New York City, yet New York’s Finest still get murdered by criminals with illegal handguns.  Bad people will do bad things.  Legislating against one of the tools used by sick people to commit crimes is treating the symptom not the disease.  We need to treat the sick people.       

In the end, the best possible outcome of gun control legislation would be that shooting deaths will decline marginally, but would homicides decline?  If not, what’s the point?    

It’s also a cost/benefit question.  In 2012 it’s widely reported that roughly 150 people were killed in “mass murders.”  That's 150 too many, and while each innocent life lost is its own tragedy, spending enormous amounts of political capital, time and taxpayer dollars to craft, debate and enforce gun control legislation – legislation that is unlikely to reduce tragedies - is foolish.  

For some perspective on the problem, twice as many people die from falling off a ladder each year than in mass shootings.  Could you imagine Piers Morgan debating a crazy N.L.A. (National Ladder Association) member on Ladder Control or Congress spending enormous amounts of time, effort and money trying to reduce the number of deaths by ladder?  We have incredibly strict drunk-driving laws, yet those laws don’t prevent millions of people from driving drunk, nor do they prevent the 10,000 drunk driving deaths each year. 

Our gun culture is shameful, but we need to pick our political battles.  We have a country that is struggling to pay its debts, has millions unemployed, and millions more under-employed.  We need to focus on improving the economy by addressing the debt limit, spending cuts and our budget.  In fact, there is a strong argument to say that getting our fiscal house in order, growing our economy and lowering unemployment would do more to curb gun violence than any gun control legislation - especially any gun legislation that could pass the Republican and NRA controlled House.

Two years ago we urged Congress to fix their priorities, our concern is unchanged, as we said at the time:

Too many of our elected representatives believe it’s more important to debate and pontificate about issues that affect 0.01% of Americans, rather than focus on the tough issues that affect all Americans (high unemployment, weak economic recovery, exploding deficits and spending, etc.).

The legislative effort required to pass any form of gun control in the current Congress, while admirable, can wait.  

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Hall of Fame or Hall of Morally Infallible Baseball Players?

Politics is fun, but baseball is our original passion.

With the Cubs continuing their 105 year swoon, we focus our attention on the growing controversy surrounding the impact of the “steroids era” on the Baseball Hall of Fame. The members of The Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) have submitted their ballots and tomorrow at noon the Baseball Hall of Fame, Class of 2013 will be announced.
The ballot consists of 13 previously-eligible candidates who received at least 5% of the vote in 2012, and 24 first-time candidates. Voters may cast votes for up to 10 players, and anyone that receives 75% of the votes will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown on July 28th.

Incredibly, on their first year of eligibility, two of the best, most feared, players of all time - Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens – are unlikely to be elected into the Hall of Fame. In addition to the all-time leader in home runs (Bonds), we also predict that five of the top-50 sluggers of all time - Sammy Sosa (8th), Mark McGwire (10th), Rafael Palmeiro (12th), Jeff Bagwell (36th) and Mike Piazza (44th) - will also get passed over by the holier-than-thou BBWAA.

The only possible explanation for excluding these individuals from the Hall is their alleged (and in some cases confirmed) use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) at some point during their careers.

Here is a summary of their statistics, all of which strongly suggest each is worthy of the Hall of Fame:
Career WAR/
Rank by Position*
158.1 (1st)
58.7 (16th)
58.8 (18th)
66.1 (13th)
76.7 (6th)
56.1 (5th)
OPS = On-Base % + Slugging % - know as a better measure of production than batting average.  An OPS of .900 of higher puts the player in the upper echelon of hitters, with league leaders usually around 1.000
WAR = Wins Above Replacement Value - a measure of incremental wins attributable to a single player above that of a replacement player, the rank by position is the all-time rank when compared to other Hall of Famers at the same position.

These players are some of the most prolific hitters of all-time.  #3 on the home run list is Babe Ruth, who was born in the 19th Century and played his first game 99 years ago.  Tens of thousands of professional baseball players have played millions of games, and we currently have 4 of the top 12, and 7 of the top 50 home run hitters of all time on the ballot (Fred McGriff (26th) is the other).  

We realize home runs is not the end all and be all of what makes a Hall of Famer, but each player above is also in the top 20 at his position in WAR, which is a more balanced approach to a players value.  If being one of the twenty best players at your position - ever - is not good enough for the Hall of Fame, what is?   How can we not have these sluggers, and their pitching equivalents like Roger Clemens and Curt Shilling in the Hall of Fame?  

We're not condoning steroid use, but from a practical perspective, Major League Baseball did not test for PED’s until 2004.  How can we possibly exclude players from consideration when no conclusive proof exists that one player was using PEDs and another wasn’t?  Do we assume the entire generation was using and exclude everyone, or does each writer arbitrarily decide whether or not there is enough circumstantial evidence to determine if a candidate used PEDs?  Does one cycle of PEDs forever disqualify you from the Hall of Fame, or must there be long term use?  There are simply too many unknowns from this era for a single sportswriter to know who did what and when.
There is only one rational solution to the problem.  

The Hall of Fame must ignore any and all PED allegations prior to 2004 when determining Hall of Fame eligibility.  The BBWAA should be instructed to judge players from that era on their accomplishments on the field, not their alleged moral character off the field, whether it be PED use (currently deemed a problem by many) or just being a bad guy (not a problem).  The cloud hanging over this generation can be addressed prominently within the Hall itself, noting that it is widely considered that PED use during this period was rampant, but unproven due to a lack of formal testing.  
It's not the Hall of Morally Infallible Baseball Players, it’s the Hall of Fame.  Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have had some of the best careers in the history of baseball.  In addition to their numbers, McGwire and Sosa’s epic home run battle in 1998 single-handedly brought Major League Baseball back into the public conversation after it was all but left for dead after the 1994 strike that cancelled a World Series.
I’d love to be able to visit the Hall in 40 years with my grandchildren and talk about how ESPN cut into every Barry Bonds at-bat as he approached Hank Aaron's career home run record, about how I was glued to the TV watching Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire chase after the elusive Roger Maris single season home run record, and how I was in New York for the Subway Series featuring Roger Clemens angrily throwing a broken bat at Mike Piazza.
History is what makes baseball great.  It would be historical negligence to exclude an entire generation of baseball players from the Hall of Fame based on incomplete and speculative information about who may or may not have used PEDs. 

Our ballot, if we had one:
  1. Barry Bonds
  2. Roger Clemens
  3. Jeff Bagwell
  4. Curt Schilling
  5. Tim Raines
  6. Rafael Palmeiro
  7. Mark McGwire
  8. Sammy Sosa
  9. Mike Piazza*
  10. Lee Smith
*       * Who I think will get inducted, along with Jack Morris.  There is also a good chance nobody gets inducted this year.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

When Will This Game of Kick The Can End??

A couple of quick thoughts after the latest political can-kicking exercise...
  1. Once again, it's our children and grandchildren who get screwed.  Not a single entitlement reform or reduction in spending, in fact, the bill will add $3.6 trillion to the budget deficit.  After all, its much more important that the average family can buy a couple of iPads in 2013 than it is for our children to have a stable economy and low taxes in the future.  Remember, despite what you might hear from Krugman and others, borrowing money to fund large deficits today is not free.  Sure, the debt service is currently cheap, but only until it's not.  If a $20+ trillion debt needs to get refinanced after it changes from cheap to not cheap, we're in deep trouble.  We would rather atone for our sins by paying more today in the hopes that our children and grandchildren inherit a country with a strong fiscal foundation, low taxes, a robust economy.          
  2. We're very happy to see the payroll tax cuts expire, and an attempt, albeit feeble, at reforming the tax code by reducing deductions and credits.  We've discussed these points ad nauseam on these pages, so won't get into it again. 
  3. Democrats had the leverage, the Republicans knew it and fought as long as they could, but ultimately had to compromise.  Hopefully this ends the mantra that Republicans are the party of "no" and we can get on with negotiating in good faith.  What exactly did the Democrats compromise on?  The definition of rich being $400k instead of $250k?  Yes, but that's it.  The Republicans compromised on pretty much every single principle they hold by passing a bill with no entitlement reforms, no spending cuts, higher taxes and increased spending on welfare, energy subsidies, etc.  
  4. After 4 years and yet another legislative "victory" it would be laughable for President Obama to continue to blame others for our current and future economies.  President Obama now owns this economy, for better or worse.  Maybe the economy continues to improve as a result (or most likely, despite of) this administrations policies - an improvement that the President will undoubted take credit for (see #4 below).  But what if we continue to struggle through low growth and high unemployment?  Will it still be President Bush's fault?  Will voters buy that excuse in 2014 and 2016? 
  5. Throughout this process, the President's behavior has been repulsive.  He should have saved the taxpayers millions of dollars, and the environment tonnes of CO2 emissions, by staying on vacation in Hawaii.  Permanently.  What exactly did he accomplish for the American people during the last week?  Biden accomplished in a weekend what Obama (and Harry Reid) couldn't in four years, yet the President goes on national TV ripping into his political foes and acting more like Stalin than the President of the United States - "I will not have another debate with this Congress about whether or not they should pay the bills they have already racked up."  Incredible negotiating skills.  His insistance that this deal still doesn't make everyone pay their "fair share" is like my son at dinnertime when he hasn't had a nap.  He spends the entire meal begging for dessert but won't eat his vegetables, and when we finally give in and dessert arrives, he's not satisfied and wants more.  Unsurprisingly, he continues to showcase his repulsively self-centered approach to everything.  Patting his own back for each "achievement" - "I will sign a bill that...", and placing the blame elsewhere when it's a problem - "they should pay the bills they have already racked up."  As for his leadership skills, Robert Samuelson at the Washington Post does a better job than we could in highlighting the President's vacuous leadership. 
  6. Every piece of legislation should be permanent.  We have plenty of evidence to prove that temporary measures don't work and are a complete and total waste of precious taxpayer dollars and legislative time.  Write a law, and it's permanent.  If the next Congress doesn't like that law, change it with new legislation if you have the votes, but it remains the law of the land in the meantime.  How much political capital and angst has been wasted on temporary legislative band-aids to extend this tax break or that welfare program (which were only temporary to make the budget numbers look acceptable)?
Overall, this deal isn't terrible, but it's still just a tiny band aid over our nations huge fiscal fracture.  We can't wait to give our thoughts on the various other band aids sure to pop up in 2013 (sequestration, debt limit, etc.)