Financial Floortime – Meeting the Country Where it’s “At”


My younger brother Ezra was diagnosed with autism when I was five years old. Because the neurological disorder puts a damper on socialization, I’ve actively searched for ways to connect with him on an interpersonal level since I was little. Trough trial and error, research, and experience, my family learned about a technique for building relationships with special needs kids called the “floortime” method. It’s the idea that, in order to connect with a child, you have to “meet the child where he’s at.”

Over the past few days, President Obama’s proposed budget has incurred some tough criticism from the left – and justifiably so.

The budget suggests rolling back half of a $700 million community service grant program, cutting a significant portion of funding to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (which, according to the Program’s mission statement, is intended “to assist low income households, particularly those with the lowest incomes that pay a high proportion of household income for home energy, primarily in meeting their immediate home energy needs”), and upping interest rates on students’ college loans.

This budget (or at least its discrepancy with past budgets proposed by Democratic administrations) has been portrayed as an unprecendented onslaught of policies that sympathize with neo-conservative ideals. Liberal pundits have expressed disgust. Members of the president’s own party have pinned him as a Judas-esque figure – a traitor to both his political allies and his own personal narrative.

Through lenses of morality and ideology, they all seem right. This proposal doesn’t align with Obama’s past promises, nor is it in tune with the song of his über-publicized family history that he’s been singing for so many years. But to fully understand the gravity of this budget’s implications, it’s important to recognize one principal idea: he’s trying to win reelection.

Barack Obama is me, America is my little brother Ezra, and this moment is floortime.

The president has identified where Americans are “at” – economically, socially, and culturally – and he’s attempting to meet us there.

From a strictly political perspective, Obama is trying to court conservative democrats, liberal republicans, and middle-of-the-road independents who have been alienated by the dominant party system as a result of America’s polarizing political culture. With a increasingly rapid rate of voters registering as independents, it is clear to the president that he must not associate himself with the country’s already-inflamed political dichotomy, but rather must make an ostensible effort to support compromise.

From a strictly retaliatory perspective, Obama is trying to uncover the nature of the right’s inherent hypocrisy. The proposal is a dare for the Republicans to blink: look, he’s telling them, I’m cutting the programs that you have deemed superfluous. Obama is showing the American electorate that even when he heeds the Republicans’ demands, they still reject his proposals. He’s trying to expose their conscious obstruction of progress.

And from a strictly symbolic perspective, Obama is trying to plead and reason with the American voter. He’s trying to show the average voter that everyone is hurting – and, therefore, he must sacrifice causes that he knows are important – programs that he personally benefited from. There a lot that’s wrong with this method of association, but the president is making it look as though he’s bringing the White House some proletariat anguish.

The president is gauging America’s interests and responding accordingly, though sometimes overly-politically. It’s okay to disagree with his decisions (I do) and it’s healthy to doubt his motives (I do that, too), but amidst any questions of morality we may have, we must remember: Barack Obama is trying to get reelected.

Report Card – A Brief Response to SOTU


Substance

He had a few different jobs to do from a few separate perspectives.

In the Eyes of the Left

He had to lay out his agenda in a definitive manner and avoid digressing from the party script. He had to concede little and give the Republicans much to mull over. He had to acknowledge the presence and potency of the new House majority, but suppress its voice to the best of his ability. He had to talk about guns — in light of Tucson — and talk about civility in light of the political climate. He had to promise to veto a healthcare repeal and vow to protect the middle class. He had to win over the “green” people, make education a priority, and address immigration reform. The list was endless. From the outset, the Democrats were not likely to be pleased.

From this perspective: B+

He covered most issues and did, in fact, present his agenda. Contrary to White House spin before the event, his speech was pretty partisan. It was sprinkled with a unifying tidbit here and there, which made it seem like somewhat “kumbaya”-esque. He neglected some key social issues (evidently for political purposes), but for the most part, his speech didn’t concede too much.

In the Eyes of the Right

Was there anything that the president could have said that would have pleased the right? Well, he could have said that he supports full gun-ownership rights and would be more than willing to sign a repeal of the healthcare bill. He could have said that taxes on the rich needed to be lower and that the issue of the declining quality of public education should take a backseat to more ‘important’ problems like regulation. He could have said that our two wars needed to be continually waged until every building in Baghdad and Khartoum is burned to the ground. In other words, to please the Republicans, he would have had to become a Republican.

From this perspective: D

He was partisan in one direction.

Appearance

I haven’t seen a whole lot of coverage of this element of the speech but I thought that the way the chamber looked during the speech was fascinating. For example, because the members were so intermingled, even when Obama spoke a line that only Democrats stood or applauded for, it looked as though the entire House chamber rose.

I also found a somewhat disheartening irony in the appearance of the House chamber. For the sake of unifying around a common cause, each member of Congress (among others working on the Hill) wore a white and blue-striped ribbon on his or her lapel. This was intended to honor the victims of the shooting in Tucson and keep Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — who was shot in the head — in Congress’ thoughts.

Here’s the irony: each Democrat wore the ribbon on his or her left, each Republican on his or her right. Nice job, Congress.

Implications

Ostensibly, the SOTU was a call for unity. If ever there was a place where the idea of unity and cohesion could take precedence over partisan gridlock and resistance to compromise, it would not be Capitol Hill. And Barack Obama knows that, which is why he sugar-coated his speech with a bipartisan flare. But the agenda that he set out in his speech covered left-wing talking points. The vitriolic mood is going nowhere.

An Electorate on Edge – The Role of Patience in the Healthcare Debate


I drove to a coffee shop earlier today in an attempt to seclude myself from the minute-to-minute shuffle that accompanies the process of moving houses (that my family is currently wrapped up in). I had pages and pages of history notes to sift through — so I just needed a place where I could clear my head and forge forward.

A few minutes after I’d sat down at a table and started looking though my notes, I realized that I’d forgotten to retrieve one last bit of information on the North’s Civil War strategy. So I opened up my laptop, dragged my cursor down to the blue ‘Safari’ icon, and waited as the tiny clock-like pinwheel on the URL bar twirled and twirled.

But I quickly became impatient and within seconds found myself wearing out my index finger by tapping incessantly on my keyboard’s ‘enter’ key. I couldn’t stand the seven-second wait for my browser to load. I needed immediate gratification at the risk of my own sanity.

And then I had one of those ‘a-ha’ moments (the ones that used to be depicted in old Tom and Jerry reruns when a giant lightbulb would appear above a character’s head): I realized that my agitation wasn’t an isolated incident. I’m a junior in high school, so it’s no secret that patience isn’t my forte; but neither is it that of the American populace. We’re an electorate on edge, a country whose thirst for instantaneous indulgence usurps any bit of willingness to roll with the punches when the going gets tough.

Last week, the House — sporting its fresh coat of red – voted to repeal the landmark healthcare bill that promised to to insure over thirty-two million additional people, end health insurance companies’ implementation of lifetime coverage limits, forbid discrimination against patients with pre-existing conditions, and — in essence — overhaul the broken healthcare system and its tired regulations.

Healthcare was (as most issues in this presidency are) a highly partisan battle. It further polarized Washington. It created enemies out of friends. But, of course, one side won, and the bill’s policies began to take effect in the weeks and months after its passage. The White House website says that all of the aforementioned policies among “other changes including new benefits, protections and cost savings will be implemented between now and 2014.”

Hold on a second. So does that mean we have to wait?

And now America’s fuse is lit and Congress’ spiral of reverse gratitude is already spinning. Republicans have long been tapping their feet and anxiously looking at their watches; and as soon as they got into power, they pounced.

Michele Bachmann wants to “repeal [the] president and put a president in the position of the White House who will repeal this bill.” Despite the gravity of that demand and — in my opinion — its breach of both civil and human rights, Bachmann represents a growing mass who expect something from nothing. It’s the same portion of the population who expected the economy to be “fixed” within months of Obama’s election and are “shocked” to find out that he’s done “nothing” to repair the economy.

Things take time. Long-run investments are what sustain economies. If the United States (or even my family, for that matter) only made short-term economic choices and divested from every stock or venture that didn’t immediately yield a massive positive result, it would be in a much downgraded position. When healthcare hasn’t finished coming into effect and Republicans already decide that it hasn’t quite done the trick, that’s an irresponsible decision.

Patience.

Common Interest – Finding Empathy in Greed


When we hear the whistle of a distant siren or a see a flash of red zoom through our periphery, each of us knows what to do. It doesn’t matter how long ago we were supposed to be at that meeting. It doesn’t matter how desperately we needed to make it through that light. In that critical moment – the moment in which someone is in dire need – we transcend our sectionalized society and create a cohesive, automotive exodus.

The siren makes us human. It momentarily levels the playing field. A billionaire in a Bentley is on the same mental wavelength as a low-income gardener in a beaten down pickup truck. Class is rendered obsolete, race becomes trivial, and when that emergency vehicle whirls by, something clicks in the American psyche: a shared interest in each others’ well being. If I were in that ambulance, or if my house was burning down, we think to ourselves, I’d sure as hell want traffic to come to a halt.

And that’s why I think Democrats are wrong about Republicans and Republicans don’t have their priorities straight.

We liberals hurl all sorts of vitriolic accusations at the GOP — they don’t care about the little people, we say. They’re only looking out for themselves. And, yes, it looks that way from the outside. But a dominant pillar that carries much of the modern Republican platform is an oft-skewed hodgepodge of “American values” — the things that make Americans American; the flavors in the melting pot.

What are the quintessential American values? Mitt Romney would tell you that competition — economic opportunity — tops the list. He’d cite the “American Dream” and the hope of attaining a better life than one’s parents, the potential to ascend the ranks and make something from nothing.

Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express might say that the traditional “family” supersedes all values. The “sanctity of marriage,” they would explain, that “eternal institution between a man and a woman.”

It’s important to note, of course, that some values are more deeply rooted in specific regions of the country. Proponents of conservative macrocosmic economic values might make more noise around Wall Street than in East Los Angeles. “Family” values would surely carry more weight in red-coated areas like Arkansas and Mississippi than they would in Massachusetts.

But in their heady convolution and “ethical” assertions, Republicans seemed to have lost their identity; they’ve misplaced that famous moral compass of theirs. And here’s why Republicans have some soul searching to do: they’ve forgotten a key value.

Empathy, the idea of associating with another’s hardship and coming to their aid — a value that is put to the test each and every day on the streets of cities and towns nationwide — is an American value. The New Deal was an empathetic institution. The Civil Rights Act was steeped in empathy. (And, for the record, the Bible — from which Republicans derive so many of their values — commands each family to give a tithe, a tenth of its income as a tax.) The unique aptitude of Americans to sympathize, to momentarily and hypothetically walk in someone else’s shoes, stems not from partisan debate, but purely from human instinct.

Perhaps Republicans have a of “tough-guy” complex of sorts; something compels them try to paint themselves as living a more distant and apathetic existence than they actually do. When humanity becomes a factor in the equation of values, life transcends the petty arguments.

Republicans believe in American values. Empathy is an American value. Therefore Republicans believe in empathy.

Republicans believe in empathy. It is empathetic to care for those who are in need, those who cannot afford to pay major taxes. It is empathetic to extend unemployment benefits to those who are unemployed during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. It is empathetic to give a portion of one’s own share to make sure that someone else can buy another loaf of bread, have another week to find a job, live another day.

When the road moves again and the piercing screech of the siren dwindles, we know that we are cared for. We know that we’re not alone. It’s a matter of putting two and two together.

Republicans are inherently empathetic. I just wish they knew that.

Civil Disobedience – What if the Democrats Had Compromised Less?


It’s time to admit that the ship of any sparse hope of party unity has sailed long ago.

There no such thing as “typical” in Washington anymore. The crossroads at which we find ourselves is one of many options, many grim and fatalistic prospects. Capitol Hill is a grab-bag, a random potpourri of eclectic figures, off-color parties, members of those parties who don’t necessarily fit any particular mold.

The right has moved right-er, the left has moved left-er, and the center–well, the center’s slowly evaporated into the already polluted air. Polarizing figure after polarizing figure has made the front page. For every thousand people who follow a radical Republican, a thousand more follow a deranged Democrat.

Harmony’s ship has sailed.

And so the question becomes: what are the practical implications of the emergence of such an atypical political climate? (Warning: I’m about to commend the Democrats. This may sound unusual, as they haven’t done anything right in quite some time. If this is not something that you can handle, please stop reading here.)

Today, in the wake of President Obama’s compromise with Republicans (that got the middle class out of the doghouse and extended unemployment insurance at the expense of allowing the top two percent of income earners off the hook), Democrats in Congress, understated as they may have been, displayed a distinct type of civil disobedience.

The Republicans held the middle class hostage. Why? Because they could. The White House put an apologetic stamp of approval on the Republican tax plan. Why? Because they had to. But today–knowing full well that in just a few short weeks, the tables will take a very sharp turn–Democrats stood on principle.

America, on this crazy journey over the past two years–during which steady duplicity has replaced morality and a dark blanket of fear has shrouded any remaining hope–we’ve lost our sanity. Like water from a sponge, politics has been drained of its conscience. But today the Democrats finally grew a pair and stuck to their principles. If they had committed themselves to their values–started protecting the middle class at a lesser expense–would we be in this position today?

A Puzzled Republic – What this Tax Deal is Really About


Puzzles are arduous to assemble. It’s challenging to pinpoint each individual component to construct the perfect fusion. Each piece gives rise to its own struggle, its own weight. Setbacks ensue, distractions pop up. Different people exhibit different levels of devotion to the puzzle. Building puzzles takes forever. But destroying them only takes a moment.

The puzzle of our fundamental framework — the multifaceted ideological (and more than pragmatic) enigma of the structure of our representative republic — is ever-rapidly sliding off of the table. Our government’s foundational principle is in peril. Forget about “taxation without representation.” What’s happening right now is under-taxation as a result of over-representation.

Let’s break this down so it is clear how I’ve arrived at my seemingly austere conclusion. Assume, for the time being, that the two central issues on Washington’s agenda are 1) the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the upper class and 2) the extension of the Bush tax cuts for the middle class. In very simplistic terms, the “upper class” is comprised of the top two percent of income-earners in this country; that is, the people in the ninety-ninth and hundredth percentile of income earned. The “middle class,” in a matter of words, is almost everyone else.

In the consummate representative government — isn’t that America? — the populations that carry the most weight (the groups that make up larger slices of the American pie) yield more representation in Congress. That, of course, is not to say that minorities and underdogs should go unaccounted for on the national stage. But when ninety eight percent of the country’s wage earners can be classified under one category, the remaining two percent’s voice in Congress should not transcend the overwhelming majority’s.

The culmination of Washington’s latest deliberations seems to entail a “compromise” to extend a tax credit for the two percent of the country who can afford to forgo precisely that credit. That two percent is entitled to the same representation that the rest of the country is; it is not, however, entitled to disproportionate influence on the Hill.

The puzzle is sliding off of the table. The pieces are falling out of place. The slope is a slippery one. And in the wake of the impending critical Congressional term, the question that Americans need to start asking vehemently is: whom do our representatives really represent? We need to ask because puzzles take centuries to build, but they only take one pivotal moment to destroy. Without that question, that moment is now.

Backward Benevolence


“But daddy,” sobbed the little boy, faint tears trickling down his face, “You promised!”

It’s a familiar scenario–one that we’ve all faced at one point or another. The child is at the will of the parent–who is disinclined to keep his word–launches into a lecture on the powerful art form of “no means no.” But this scenario, derived from the microcosm of family life, has been blown out of proportion: “Daddy” is President Obama and the little boy is none other than us–the American people.

My auspicious political outlook is the type that makes cynics cringe. In October, I was still pulling for Sestak and Conway. Even after Lieberman had put his foot down, I had hope that a single-payer plan would still be accomplished. Optimism, in all my ostensible naïveté, has kept my mood somewhat positive and upbeat. I’ve grown to swallow the truths of the Obama administration with a grain of salt. But the very thin thread that has been carrying the weight of my disappointment in the president’s policy decisions is on the verge of snapping.

The quasi-messianic, wet behind the ears, charismatic, and, if nothing else, promising young man whom we sent to Washington two years ago had (and still has) quite a bit on his plate. There are, of course, aspects of the various markets and the economy that change and fluctuate in their own right–the invisible hand at work. But the potential policy shift that is on the verge of breaking my thread is what differentiates a Democratic presidency from a Republican one. It’s a quintessential distinction between the two parties’ platforms. Obama ran as a Democrat. 63.7 million people voted for a Democrat.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs, February 26, 2009: “The President said in the campaign that health care reform would be achieved through some additional spending, largely by rolling back tax cuts for the very wealthy, and coupled with some savings in the amount of money that we spend on health care.”

Tax Policy Center, Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, An Updated Analysis of the 2008 Presidential Candidates’ Tax Plans: Revised August 15, 2008: Obama would “repeal the cuts in the top two marginal income tax rates ahead of their scheduled expiration,” and, “in addition, upper-income households ultimately (would) bear most of the burden of the corporate tax increases that Senator Obama proposes.”

Obama the Senator promised tax breaks for the middle class, not for the super-rich. Obama the Candidate promised tax breaks for the middle class, not for the super-rich. Obama the President promised tax breaks for the middle class, not for the super-rich.

As Americans, it is our responsibility to care for those who cannot care for themselves–even if it means an additional exerted effort. It is a fundamental difference between the right and left of this country. Some believe that the ideal path to sustaining a prosperous society is to take from the little people and give, give, give to the big guys. I have confidence–as does the whopping mandate that put the president in the white house–in the notion that those who cannot afford to pay high taxes shouldn’t pay high taxes; they should give back in other forms. Those who can afford to pay higher taxes should pay higher taxes. Taking from the poor and giving to the rich? It’s like Robin Hood in reverse. It’s backward benevolence.

President Obama is on the verge of compromising his sociopolitical integrity and redirecting his moral compass. And I feel like a helpless little boy.