Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Dude needs to come to Vegas and get a poker lesson!!

Obama's bad poker

On page 116 of “The Promise,” Jonathan Alter describes President Obama's approach to the stimulus as "bad poker." "Instead of holding his cards close, and then sweetening the pot for Republicans with tax cuts in the final negotiations, [Obama] offered nearly $300 billion in tax cuts at the front-end of the process. ... It was a big bargaining chip left off the table."

Obama has since admitted as much. "It might have been better for us not to include tax cuts in the original package, let the Republicans insist on the tax cuts, and then say, O.K., you know, we’ll compromise and give you your tax cuts," he told Peter Baker. So why does he keep including the tax cuts?

Annoyed congressional staffers and baffled strategists rattle the list of concessions the White House has unilaterally made to Republicans from memory. There were the $300 billion in tax cuts, of course. The non-security discretionary spending freeze, a longtime Republican demand that the Obama administration simply announced during the 2010 State of the Union (Republicans responded by demanding discretionary spending cuts back to 2008 levels).

During the climate-change debate, the administration gave away an expansion of offshore drilling, loan guarantees for nuclear power plants and delay of EPA regulations until 2011 -- all Republican demands that Lindsey Graham, John Kerry and Joe Lieberman were hoping to trade for GOP support. "Obama had served the dessert before the children even promised to eat their spinach," reported Ryan Lizza. "Graham was the only Republican negotiating on the climate bill, and now he had virtually nothing left to take to his Republican colleagues." And most recently, there's the two-year freeze in federal pay.

Different parts of the White House give different answers when asked about this strategy. Some argue that these decisions were simply good policy, and the president is right not to treat them as bargaining chips. The whole theory of legislative politics as some sort of negotiation is wrong, they say. The Republicans were never going to negotiate, and so holding these as chips would've simply meant never doing them. Better to do them unilaterally and get the credit.

Some will defend certain policies but not others. The tax cuts were done unilaterally because the administration was committed to a particular design that it thought would do more for the economy, though this doesn't get mentioned much because it makes them look less bipartisan. And some staffers just laugh ruefully when you use the word "strategy."

"The best negotiator I ever came across was [former Reagan and Bush chief of staff] Jim Baker," says Paul Begala, who served as an adviser to President Clinton. "He began every negotiation with this sentence: 'Nothing is agreed to till everything is agreed to.' So no one can pocket anything, and no one suffers for making the first move." To many Democrats, Republicans have simply proven the wisdom of Baker's strategy: They keep pocketing these gains without giving the White House any credit, while both the Democrats and Obama take lashings from their base for being insufficiently principled and tactically incompetent.

"You don't go out and say you're going to freeze federal pay on your own," says one angry Hill staffer. "You go sit across a table from someone, say, ‘I'm willing to do this, but this is what you’ve got to give me.’ That’s how this works."

The going theory -- which you hear both inside and outside the White House -- is that this is what happens when a president who wants to be bipartisan gets stuck in a partisan moment. Obama remains intent on proving his interest in working across the aisle but impatient with negotiations that will go nowhere and produce nothing. It's worth sitting down with drug companies because concessions might buy their support. It's not worth doing it with Republicans because concessions don't attract their support, as the Gang of Six, among other negotiations, proved.

But the White House's critics think the proof is in the election. Democrats just got "shellacked." Obama gained absolutely nothing by seeming more reasonable than his opponents. In fact, the Republicans ran some notably unreasonable candidates and still won the election. The question, they say, isn't why Obama wants this strategy to work. It's when he'll admit that it's failed.

Will Congress & YOU have the balls to pay our way?!

Commission's final deficit report preserves controversial spending cuts

The leaders of President Obama's fiscal commission released a final report Wednesday that is full of political dynamite, recommending sharp cuts in military spending, a higher retirement age and reforms that could cost the average taxpayer an extra $1,700 a year.

But as commission co-chairmen Erskine Bowles and Alan K. Simpson unveiled the plan at a Capitol Hill hearing, it was unclear whether they would be able to build a convincing bipartisan consensus before the panel's 18 members - 12 of them sitting lawmakers - are scheduled to vote on the report Friday.

Two panel members - Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) - immediately came out in strong support, saying that although they don't like everything in the package, it charts a responsible path away from the abyss of rising debt and potential fiscal crisis.

"America is in danger. And we can either look the other way, hope somebody else does something, or we can act," Conrad said. "I'm going to support this plan and support it strongly. Because I don't see another alternative. I just don't."

Still, after two days of one-on-one meetings with their members, Bowles, White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, and Simpson, a former Republican senator from Wyoming, said that it will be difficult to assemble the 14 votes that would allow them to issue official recommendations.

"I don't know if we can agree on a plan. I know we're going to get two votes. Maybe we'll get five. Maybe we'll get 14," Bowles said. "But I know the world is moving in our direction. ... There's no turning back now. The era of debt denial and its consequences are over."

The final blueprint for rebalancing the federal budget hews closely to an earlier plan released before Thanksgiving. Like the original, it offers an aggressive prescription for reducing deficits by nearly $4 trillion by the end of the decade, in large part by slashing domestic and military spending.

In hopes of satisfying the concerns of the panel's Republicans, those cuts would be even deeper than in the original document, slicing more than $1.6 trillion from Obama's proposed budgets by 2020 and reducing overall government spending to just under 22 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.

Among the most painful of those decisions, Bowles said, is a recommendation to reduce the federal workforce by 10 percent by the end of the decade, eliminating 200,000 jobs.

Still, two of the three House Republicans on the commission - Reps. Paul Ryan (Wisc.) and Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) - indicated that they were unlikely to lend their support, primarily because of the plan's embrace of Obama's newly enacted health-care law and what they view as excessively high levels of taxation.

The plan recommends raising taxes by nearly $1 trillion by 2020, primarily through tax reforms that would eliminate or reduce cherished reductions including the deduction for home mortgage interest; the tax-free treatment of employer-paid health insurance; and preferred rates for capital gains and dividends.

It also calls for a 15-cent hike in the federal gas tax. The top income tax rate for both individuals and corporations would be dramatically lowered, however, from 35 percent to 29 percent or less. And the report recommends a legislative trigger that would raise taxes automatically unless a comprehensive overhaul is approved by 2013.

Future retirees would also face significant sacrifices, including higher Medicare premiums and a retirement age that would rise to 69 by 2075. The early retirement age would rise from 62 to 64.

In deference to liberal concerns, however, Bowles and Simpson have strengthened protections for workers in physically demanding jobs who might find it difficult to delay retirement, recommending that the Social Security Administration be directed to develop a hardship exemption for up to 20 percent of new retirees.

The report, titled "The Moment of Truth," makes an array of other changes designed to lure the support of commission members, including $50 billion in immediate spending cuts to improve government efficiency, recommended by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), and endorsement of an immediate payroll tax holiday to spur job creation, requested by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), among others.

However, the chairmen made good on their pledge not to "water down" the sweeping deficit-reduction package that provoked such an outcry from activists across the political spectrum when it was released last month.

The final package would balance the budget more quickly than the original, wiping out annual deficits by 2035. And although the nation's soaring debt would continue to rise in the short term, the plan would bring it down to a more manageable 41 percent of gross domestic product over the next 25 years.

Since Obama created the commission in February, the report says, "the urgency of our mission has become all the more apparent. The contagion of debt that began in Greece and continues to sweep through Europe shows us clearly that no economy will be immune. If the U.S. does not put its house in order, the reckoning will be sure and the devastation severe."

Durbin, perhaps the most influential liberal lawmaker among the panel's members, signaled that the plan might do too little to protect society's most vulnerable to win his vote.

But in a surprising rebuke to progressive groups and advocates for the elderly, Durbin pronounced the plan to raise the retirement to 69 by 2075 "acceptable to me."

That idea "is not radical," Durbin said. "These things are sensible and we've got to accept sensible alternatives to move forward, on the left and on the right."

Despite a series of very late nights, the commission's exhausted staff has been unable to draft the plan in legislative form, Simpson said, meaning it would be impossible for Congress to stage a vote on the proposals before the end of the year, even if 14 commission members agree to support them.

Bowles has acknowledged that lawmakers are likely to pick the plan apart and tackle it in pieces, if they tackle it at all.

On Tuesday, the White House backed the decision by Bowles and Simpson to delay the panel's vote from Wednesday to Friday.

"The president established this bipartisan commission to tackle our medium and long-term fiscal situation, and we believe they are taking this mandate seriously and working together in a constructive way," White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage said. "We support the chairs' decision to slightly delay the vote to build consensus and ensure that members have the time they need to thoroughly consider all proposals."

A bit more vitamin D is good, not too much

WASHINGTON -- Got milk? You may need a couple cups more than today's food labels say to get enough vitamin D for strong bones. But don't go overboard: Long-awaited new dietary guidelines say there's no proof that megadoses prevent cancer or other ailments - sure to frustrate backers of the so-called sunshine vitamin.

The decision by the prestigious Institute of Medicine, the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences, could put some brakes on the nation's vitamin D craze, warning that super-high levels could be risky.

"More is not necessarily better," cautioned Dr. Joann Manson of Harvard Medical School, who co-authored the Institute of Medicine's report being released Tuesday.

Most people in the U.S. and Canada - from age 1 to age 70 - need to consume no more than 600 international units of vitamin D a day to maintain health, the report found. People in their 70s and older need as much as 800 IUs. The report set those levels as the "recommended dietary allowance" for vitamin D.

That's a bit higher than the target of 400 IUs set by today's government-mandated food labels, and higher than 1997 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine that ranged from 200 to 600 IUs, depending on age.

But it's far below the 2,000 IUs a day that some scientists recommend, pointing to studies that suggest people with low levels of vitamin D are at increased risk of certain cancers or heart disease.

"This is a stunning disappointment," said Dr. Cedric Garland of the University of California, San Diego, who wasn't part of the institute's study and says the risk of colon cancer in particular could be slashed if people consumed enough vitamin D.

"Have they gone far enough? In my opinion probably not, but it's a step in the right direction," added prominent vitamin D researcher Dr. Michael Holick of Boston University Medical Center, who said the new levels draw needed attention to the vitamin D debate and encourage more food fortification.

Vitamin D and calcium go hand in hand, and you need a lifetime of both to build and maintain strong bones. But the two-year study by the Institute of Medicine's panel of experts concluded research into vitamin's D possible roles in other diseases is conflicting. Some studies show no effect, or even signs of harm.

A National Cancer Institute study last summer was the latest to report no cancer protection from vitamin D and the possibility of an increased risk of pancreatic cancer in people with the very highest D levels. Super-high doses - above 10,000 IUs a day - are known to cause kidney damage, and Tuesday's report sets 4,000 IUs as an upper daily limit - but not the amount people should strive for.

And Manson pointed to history's cautionary tales: A list of other supplements - vitamins C and E and beta carotene - plus menopause hormone pills that once were believed to prevent cancer or heart disease didn't pan out, and sometimes caused harm, when put to rigorous testing.

Stay tuned: To help settle the issue, Manson is heading a government-funded study that's recruiting 20,000 healthy older Americans to test whether taking 2,000 IUs of vitamin D really will lower their risk for heart disease, a stroke or certain cancers.

In the meantime, it's hard to consume 600 IUs of vitamin D from food alone. A cup of D-fortified milk or orange juice has about 100 IUs. The best sources may be fatty fish - some servings of salmon can provide about a day's supply. Other good sources are D-fortified cereals.

But here's the report's big surprise: While some people truly are seriously deficient in vitamin D, the average American in fact already has enough circulating in his or her blood - because we also make vitamin D from sun exposure, and because many people already take multivitamins or other D-containing dietary supplements.

Wait a minute: Headlines in recent years have insisted the opposite, that a majority of people don't get enough vitamin D, especially during the winter. What explains the contradiction?

Most testing laboratories are using a too-high cutoff for those blood levels, said report co-author Dr. Clifford Rosen of the Maine Medical Center. The report says at least 20 nanograms is adequate for bone health, while many labs instead list people as low if their blood levels are below 30 ng. Serious vitamin D deficiencies are diagnosed when levels dip well below 20, something that hasn't changed.

Rosen called the state of vitamin D testing "the wild, wild West," and said he hoped that "with this report, we can at least temper people's enthusiasm for just taking tons of supplements."

As for calcium, the report recommended already accepted levels to go along with your daily D - about 1,000 milligrams of calcium a day for most adults, 700 to 1,000 mg for young children, and 1,300 mg for teenagers and menopausal women. Too much can cause kidney stones; the report said that risk increases once people pass 2,000 mg a day.

It's true that most studies link poor health to vitamin D levels that are below 20 ng, said preventive cardiologist Dr. Erin Michos, a Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine professor who wasn't part of the study.

But, "I'm not sure I'm going to dramatically change my practice," said Michos, who pushes her patients to boost their levels until they're between 30 and 50 ng. LAURAN NEERGAARD The Associated Press

HOW can the heartless Republicans keep doing this to real people without paying a price? POOR PEOPLE HAVE NO POWER IN THE USA! AND what about the people OVER 99 weeks without jobs? Who cares? Nobody!

2 million lose jobless benefits as holidays arrive

Extended unemployment benefits for nearly 2 million Americans begin to run out Wednesday, cutting off a steady stream of income and guaranteeing a dismal holiday season for people already struggling with bills they cannot pay.

Unless Congress changes its mind, benefits that had been extended up to 99 weeks will end this month.

That means Christmas is out of the question for Wayne Pittman, 46, of Lawrenceville, Ga., and his wife and 9-year-old son. The carpenter was working up to 80 hours a week at the beginning of the decade, but saw that gradually drop to 15 hours before it dried up completely. His last $297 check will go to necessities, not presents.

"I have a little boy, and that's kind of hard to explain to him," Pittman said.

The average weekly unemployment benefit in the U.S. is $302.90, though it varies widely depending on how states calculate the payment. Because of supplemental state programs and other factors, it's hard to know for sure who will lose their benefits at any given time. But the Labor Department estimates that, without a Congress-approved extension, about 2 million people will be cut off by Christmas.

Congressional opponents of extending the benefits beyond this month say fiscal responsibility should come first. Republicans in the House and Senate, along with a handful of conservative Democrats, say they're open to extending benefits, but not if it means adding to the $13.8 trillion national debt.

Even if Congress does lengthen benefits, cash assistance is at best a stopgap measure, said Carol Hardison, executive director of Crisis Assistance Ministry in Charlotte, N.C., which has seen 20,000 new clients since the Great Recession started in December 2007.

"We're going to have to have a new conversation with the people who are still suffering, about the potentially drastic changes they're going to have to make to stay out of the homeless shelter," she said.

Forget Christmas presents. What the so-called "99ers" want most of all is what remains elusive in the worst economy in generations: a job.

"I am not searching for a job, I am begging for one," said Felicia Robbins, 30, as she prepared to move out of a homeless shelter in Pensacola, Fla., where she and her five children have been living. She is using the last of her cash reserves, about $500, to move into a small, unfurnished rental home.

Robbins lost her job as a juvenile justice worker in 2009 and her last $235 unemployment check will arrive Dec. 13. Her 10-year-old car isn't running, and she walks each day to the local unemployment office to look for work.

Jeanne Reinman, 61, of Greenville, S.C., still has her house, but even that comes with a downside.

After losing her computer design job a year and a half ago, Reinman scraped by with her savings and a weekly $351 unemployment check. When her nest egg vanished in July, she started using her unemployment to pay off her mortgage and stopped paying her credit card bills. She recently informed a creditor she couldn't make payments on a loan because her benefits were ending.

"I'm more concerned about trying to hang onto my house than paying you," she told the creditor.

Ninety-nine weeks may seem like a long time to find a job. But even as the economy grows, jobs that vanished in the Great Recession have not returned. The private sector added about 159,000 jobs in October — half as many as needed to reduce the unemployment rate of 9.6 percent, which the Federal Reserve expects will hover around 9 percent for all of next year.

"I apply for at least two jobs a day," said Silvia Lewis, of Nashville, Tenn., who's also drained her 401(k) and most of her other savings. "The constant thing that I hear, and a lot of my friends are in the same boat, is that you're overqualified."

JoAnn Sampson of Charlotte hears the same thing. A former cart driver at U.S. Airways, she and her husband are both facing the end of unemployment benefits, and she can't get so much as an entry-level job.

"When you try to apply for retail or fast food, they say 'You're overqualified,' they say 'We don't pay that much money,' they say, 'You don't want this job,'" she said.

Sampson counts her blessings: At least her two children, a teenager and a college student, are too old to expect much from Christmas this year.

Shawn Slonsky's three children aren't expecting much either. The 44-year-old union electrician in northeast Ohio won't be able to afford presents or even a Christmas tree.

His sons and daughter haven't bothered to send him holiday wish lists with the latest gizmos and gadgets.

Things used to be different. Before work dried up, Slonsky earned about $100,000 a year and he and his wife lived in a three-bedroom house where deer meandered through the backyard. For Christmas, he bought his aspiring doctor daughter medical books, a guitar, a unicycle.

Then he and his wife lost their jobs. Their house went into foreclosure and they had to move in with his 73-year-old father.

Now, Slonsky is dreading the holidays as he tries to stretch his last unemployment check to cover child support, gas, groceries and utilities.

"You don't even get in the frame of mind for Christmas when things are bad," he said. "It's hard to be in a jovial mood all the time when you've got this storm cloud hanging over your head."

Hanukkah, Rekindled

TONIGHT, Hanukkah begins. The word — Hanukkah — is lovely, but what’s the festival itself for? What does it do?

As a rule, Jewish holidays are marvelous affairs. Passover relates the great narrative of the Jewish flight from Egypt in a form that lends itself to rumbustious family dinners — those who want to recite every word of it in Hebrew contesting with those who want to get it over and done with expeditiously in English, but everybody coming together in exaltation to visit boils and locusts on the ancient Egyptians.

Purim gives us a pantomime villain in Haman the Jew-murderer and the chance to eat hamantaschen, the delicious little fruit and poppy-seed pastries, spiced with anger and made in the shape of the scoundrel’s dastardly three-cornered hat. Food and vengeance: that’s what you want from a festival.

And of course Rosh Hashana tolls the bell of the preceding year, each day pregnant with the sins we hope to expiate on Yom Kippur, on our knees to the fearful mountain God of the Torah. Food, vengeance, terror and guilt.

But Hanukkah?

Everyone knows the bare bones of the story. At Hanukkah we celebrate the Maccabees, also known as the Hasmoneans, who defeated the might of the Syrian-Greek army in 165 B.C., recapturing the desecrated Temple and reconsecrating it with oil that ought to have run out in a day but lasted eight. Indeed, Hanukkah means “consecration,” and when we light those candles we are remembering the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

But how many Jews truly feel this narrative as their own? I’m not asking for contemporary relevance. History is history: whatever happens to a people is important to them. But Hanukkah — at least the way it’s told — struggles to find a path to Jewish hearts.

Those Hasmoneans, for example .... The Maccabees are fair enough: they sound Jewish. Scottish Jewish but still Jewish. There was a sports and social club called the Maccabi round the corner from where I was brought up in North Manchester, and as a boy I imagined the Maccabees as stocky, short-legged, hairy men like the all-conquering Maccabi table tennis team. But “Hasmoneans” rang and rings no bells.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that Hanukkah doesn’t draw on events described in the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Maccabees, from which the story comes, is in the Apocrypha, the non-canonical, more esoteric books of sacred scripture. There’s a reason it never made it out of there: I won’t say it’s spurious, but it doesn’t quite feel authentic.

Isn’t there something a touch suspicious, for example, about our defeating the Syrian-Greek army? It lacks equivocation. Escaping from bondage in Egypt by dint of magic and smart talk is comprehensible: Exodus played to our strengths. Similarly, Esther — who had married out of the faith, remember — turning the tables on Haman. In our best stories, we lose a little to gain a little. We use our heads. Trouncing the Syrian-Greeks sounds worryingly like wish fulfillment, and the story of the oil that should have run out after one day actually lasting eight feels too much like parable.

I’m not suggesting that lighting the candles isn’t fun. A menorah can be beautiful and calling the ninth candle — with which, in ascending order, you light the other eight — the “shamash” has a nice edge of wit to it. A “shamash” is a servant, usually the person who looks after the synagogue, and there is something about personifying this humble candle as a beadle that amused me as a child. There is even a lesson in it: sometimes we do not burn for ourselves alone. But then again you don’t want that to turn into one of those excruciating rabbinic banalities that Hanukkah encourages because there is so little else for the rabbi to talk about.

I’d like it if we had better songs to sing at Hanukkah, too. Something to rival the Christmas oratorios or passions, the hymns, the carols, the cantatas, Bing Crosby even. But all we ever sang was “Maoz Tzur,” compared to which “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” seemed musically complex.

And there’s another way — for it is supposed to be a children’s festival, after all — in which Jewish children celebrating Hanukkah feel short-changed alongside their Christian friends gearing up for Christmas. The presents. Or rather, the lack of presents. No train sets or roller skates for Hanukkah, no smartphones or iPads. Just the dreidel, the four-sided spinning top with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet on each surface.

How many years did I feign excitement when this nothing of a toy was produced? The dreidel would appear and the whole family would fall into some horrible imitation of shtetl simplicity, spinning the dreidel and pretending to care which character was uppermost when it landed. Who did we think we were — the Polish equivalent of the Flintstones?

The cruel truth is that Hanukkah is a seasonal festival of light in search of a pretext and as such is doomed to be forever the poor relation of Christmas. No comparable grandeur in the singing, no comparable grandeur in the giving, no comparable grandeur in the commemoration (no matter how solemn and significant the events we are remembering), in which even the candles are small and burn out pretty much the minute you light them.

In countries that turn snowy in December, Christmas has been brilliantly marketed. We see the baby Jesus shivering in his wintry crib, admire the twinkling lights in the Norwegian pines, and go out on to the snow on the new toboggan Santa brought us. It’s of a piece.

Compared to this, no matter how conscientiously we go on reinventing Hanukkah for the electronic age, exchanging animated Hanukkah messages by e-mail and sending one another links to Hanukkah YouTube videos, those Hasmoneans — who sound too hot for this time of the year — don’t have a chance of engaging our imaginations.

So what’s to be done? Either Hanukkah should merge with Christmas — a suggestion against which the arguments are more legion even than the Syrian-Greek army — or it should be spiced up with the sort of bitter irony at which the Jewish people excel. Instead of the dreidel, give the kids their own cars for Hanukkah, in memory of the oil that should have run out but didn’t.

Maybe we should also dedicate each candle to one of the more recent narrow escapes of Jewish history. The Spanish Inquisition candle. The Russian Pogroms candle.

I’ve seen it argued, too, that those Christmas doughnuts that Germans call “Berliners” in fact are direct relations of the oily cakes and fritters Jews bake at Hanukkah to celebrate “the miracle of light.” That Hanukkah would thus have gone on being unknowingly remembered in Germany even when all the Jews had gone from it is a victory of sorts. I’d light two candles to that.

Howard Jacobson is the author of “The Finkler Question,” which won this year’s Man Booker Prize.