Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Is George Will Morphing Into Bill Kristol?

In the May 5, 2008 issue of Newsweek, George Will posed a handful of questions for Barack Obama. Alas, like so many on the right, Will took Obama statements out of context and then set up straw dog premises that led to questions along the lines of “Have you stopped beating your wife?”

In many respects, what Will did is what New York Times columnist Bill Kristol does all the time: Make up “facts” and then demand an answer to a non-existent question.

Here are the questions Will posed of Obama, along with answers that provide context and meaning. No wonder the Obama for President website has an anti-smear page.

Q – "Senator, concerning the criteria by which you will nominate judges, you said: 'We need somebody who's got the heart, the empathy, to recognize what it's like to be a young teenage mom. The empathy to understand what it's like to be poor, or African-American, or gay, or disabled, or old.' Such sensitivities might serve an admirable legislator, but what have they to do with judging? Should a judge side with whichever party in a controversy stirs his or her empathy? Is such personalization of the judicial function inimical to the rule of law?”

A – Mr. Will, you're taking Obama's comments out of context. He was talking about Supreme Court judges who, rightly so, must look at how statutes and their Constitutionality apply in the context of 21st century America. He never said or implied that a winning party in a dispute should be the side that does the best job of playing on a justice's sympathy.

Q – “Voting against the confirmation of Chief Justice John Roberts, you said: Deciding 'truly difficult cases' should involve 'one's deepest values, one's core concerns, one's broader perspectives on how the world works, and the depth and breadth of one's empathy.' Is that not essentially how Chief Justice Roger Taney decided the Dred Scott case? Should other factors, say, the language of the constitutional or statutory provision at issue "matter?”

A – Roger Taney and Clarence Thomas have a lot in common. Beyond that, Mr. Will, if you had bothered to read the Federalist Papers and other writings of the Framers, he would have seen great concern amongst the founders that future generations would understand that the Constitution was not intended to be frozen in time. Yes, the language of the Constitution is crucial. So, too, is putting the issue at hand in the context of what the Constitution intended and what life is like in the 21st century.

Q – You say, 'The insurance companies, the drug companies, they're not going to give up their profits easily when it comes to health care.' Why should they? Who will profit from making those industries unprofitable? When pharmaceutical companies have given up their profits, who will fund pharmaceutical innovations, without which there will be much preventable suffering and death? What other industries should 'give up their profits'?

A – Out of context, again, Georgie boy. Obama never said the drug companies should "give up their profits." In the context of the speech he was making, Obama referred to the extraordinarily high profits phara companies make in the US, much higher than they happily earn in Canada, Britain and the EU. Drug prices are negotiated and regulated in every Western economy except the US, setting a fair margin that the drug companies are happy with based on the fact that they keep doing business in those nations. Moreover, Obama was also talking about giving Medicare authority to negotiate drug prices -- just as the VA does.

Q – ExxonMobil's 2007 profit of $40.6 billion annoys you. Do you know that its profit, relative to its revenue, was smaller than Microsoft's and many other corporations'? And that reducing ExxonMobil's profits will injure people who participate in mutual funds, index funds and pension funds that own 52 percent of the company?

A – ExxonMobile's profit annoys everyone because it was a windfall resulting from as yet-unexplained rocketing upwards of oil prices (which ExxonMobil and other oil companies drill, sells to itself to refine and then sells to itself to put in mostly company-owned gas stations (as well as stations owned by others). If one carefully follows the footnotes in Exxon's 10K and other SEC filings, one will notice that Exxon, like BP, Chevron and other majors, operate an elaborate web of holding companies inside subsidiaries inside divisions, the purpose of all of them being "petroleum trading and storage." In other words, hoarding and pure speculation -- much like Enron. In fact, the McCain sponsored "Enron exemption" allows oil companies to do this. By contrast, CITGO, owned by Penevesa, has maintained its typical and healthy profit margins despite giving away heating oil to poor nations around the world -- including in the Northeast and Gulf Coast US where people have been especially hard hit by rising prices.

Q – You say John McCain is content to 'watch [Americans'] home prices decline.' So, government should prop up housing prices generally? How? Why? Were prices ideal before the bubble popped? How does a senator know ideal prices? Have you explained to young couples straining to buy their first house that declining prices are a misfortune?

A – George, you really ought to look up the words "taken out of context." Obama made that statement in the context of McCain opposing a bill that would financially assist families who are in danger of losing their homes due to mortgage lender fraud and abusive practice. (See last week's FBI arrest of 409 mortgage traders, brokers and real estate agents; the FBI says the investigation is continuing and that "hundreds, perhaps thousands, more arrests may follow."

Q – Telling young people 'don't go into corporate America,' your wife, Michelle, urged them to become social workers or others in 'the helping industry,' not 'the moneymaking industry.' Given that the moneymakers pay for 100 percent of American jobs, in both public and private sectors, is it not helpful?

A – I'm getting really tired of putting things in context for a nationally published columnist. Obama, and his wife, have said repeatedly that Obama would propose a program to pay for university. In exchange, recipients of the tuition grants, would be required to work X-number of years in their community: Teaching, doing social work, community organizing, whatever, as the means of paying back the country.

Q – Michelle, who was born in 1964, says that most Americans' lives have 'gotten progressively worse since I was a little girl.' Since 1960, real per capita income has increased 143 percent, life expectancy has increased by seven years, infant mortality has declined 74 percent, deaths from heart disease have been halved, childhood leukemia has stopped being a death sentence, depression has become a treatable disease, air and water pollution have been drastically reduced, the number of women earning a bachelor's degree has more than doubled, the rate of homeownership has increased 10.2 percent, the size of the average American home has doubled, the percentage of homes with air conditioning has risen from 12 to 77, the portion of Americans who own shares of stock has quintupled. Has y our wife perhaps missed some pertinent developments in this country that she calls 'just downright mean'?

A – Figures can lie and liars can figure. Let's look at numbers that are more relevant. Since 2000, real per capita income has declined markedly; the spread between those earning at top levels and those at the middle level has widened dramatically; since 2000, wealth has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a shrinking number of people as the middle class shrinks;' infant mortality declined but remains the highest in the Western world, home ownership fell dramatically over the past 18 months. If I were you Mr. Will, I would not brag about the spread of "McMansions" because they are way beyond the price range of typical income earners. Mrs. Obama is right: The country has become downright mean for much of its citizens.

Q – You favor raising the capital gains tax rate to '20 percent or 25 percent.' You say this will not 'distort' economic decision making. Your tax returns on your 2007 income of $4.2 million show that you and Michelle own few stocks. Are you sure you understand how investors make decisions?

A – Repeated studies show that investors make buy-and-sell decisions on what they see as profitable opportunities, not the marginal tax rates.

Q – During the ABC debate, you acknowledged that when the capital gains rate was dropped first to 20 percent, then to 15 percent, government revenues from the tax increased and they declined in the 1980s when it was increased to 28 percent. Nevertheless, you said you would consider raising the rate 'for purposes of fairness.' How does decreasing the government's financial resources and punishing investors promote fairness? Are you aware that 20 percent of taxpayers reporting capital gains in 2006 had incomes of less than $50,000?

A – Actually, the percent of taxpayers you site is 17.87% but let's not quibble about a bit of rounding up. What you fail to mention is that 70% of taxpayers reporting capital gains had incomes in excess of $250,000.

Q – You favor eliminating the cap on earnings subject to the 12.4 percent Social Security tax, which now covers only the first $102,000. A Chicago police officer married to a Chicago public-school teacher, each with 20 years on the job, have a household income of $147,501, so you would take another $5,642 from them. Are they undertaxed? Are they too rich?

A – Social Security and Medicare won't pay for itself.

Q – This November, electorates in four states will vote on essentially this language: 'The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.' Three states, California, Washington and Michigan, have enacted such language. You made a radio ad opposing the Michigan initiative. Why? Are those states' voters racists?

A – When he announced opposition to the ballot initiatives, Obama explained that the measures are carefully coded ways of doing away with anti-discrimination laws; just look at the background of the organisations that got the measures on the ballots.

Q – You denounce President Bush for arrogance toward other nations. Yet you vow to use a metaphorical 'hammer' to force revisions of trade agreements unless certain weaker nations adjust their labor, environmental and other domestic policies to suit you. Can you define cognitive dissonance?

A – Can you, Mr. Will? I wouldn't call Canada a "weaker nation," nor would I use that term to describe China, Japan, India or South Korea.

Q – You want 'to reduce money in politics.' In February and March you raised $95 million.

A – Again, a little context, please. Obama has said repeatedly that the money he raised during the entire campaign has come from small contributors -- 100 million of them, in fact, and the average donation was just over $10. He has spoken repeatedly of ridding campaigns of money from lobbyists, bundlers, etc.

Clearly, Republicans are so desperate to rescue John McCain’s campaign they won’t be content with the usual racial and ethnic slurs. As George Will demonstrates, the right will also try using out-of-context statements to subject Obama to policy smears, as well. They should be ashamed but we shouldn’t be surprised.

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