Book Review

Posted February 7, 2015 by alexvisotzky
Categories: Uncategorized

Briefly emerging from the darkness to urge all humans NOT to read Peter Pomerantsev’s “Nothing is True and Everything is Possible” despite the fawning reviews it is getting from an obtuse press eager to view Russia as ‘absurd’ and ‘dangerous’ as opposed to actually trying to understand it as a place with a unique history, culture, politics. It is a terrible book that views Russians and Russia as little more than cartoon characters. Should we be surprised, given that it’s written by a reality TV producer?

I’ll be back once I finish grad school, dear readers.

Fare You Well

Posted April 23, 2013 by alexvisotzky
Categories: Uncategorized

Farewell from the Senate, Max Baucus. You won’t be missed by me. Now the Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, if Democrats hold the majority will be a Rockefeller. That’s just silly.

Know Thy Country: Vermont’s ViTriol for Capitalism?

Posted September 18, 2012 by alexvisotzky
Categories: Music, Politics

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Vermont is Home to Many Socialist Meese.

Congress’ current economic discourse is framed in laissez-faire capitalism–even some of the more liberal Democrats in Congress have accepted this format for debate. They rail against the Tea Party for being, as the Economist called them, ‘economically illiterate’ in their calls for spending cuts without any increases in revenues from taxes. But Democrats, while the more reasonable partner in the splintered marriage of the legislative branch, have ultimately ceded to this narrative. It’s a narrative where it is irresponsible to call for bolstering of the social safety net–the most a state or even federal government can do is maintain basic protections for the middle class and those in poverty while cutting spending as much as possible elsewhere. Democrats throughout Congress seem to agree that the country is overburdened with regulations that need to be ‘simplified’ and stripped away.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a Democrat utter the word ‘socialism’, unless he were decrying the failure of European socialism. But we don’t need to look all the way across the pond to see a socialist politician and what the effects of a more ideologically-tolerant mindset amongst constituents can have on a state.

Enter Bernie Sanders, independent Senator from Vermont and self-proclaimed socialist. Sanders is running for re-election after sixteen years as Vermont’s only representative in the House followed by his first six-year term in the Senate. In spite of being unabashed in his identification as a socialist, he is sure to roll to victory this November. He is so unabashed, that when Spencer Bachus, a Republican House Member from Alabama (and Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee), ominously announced that there were at least 17 socialists lurking in Congress in 2009, Sanders spoke up, saying,

I bet I’m the only socialist he knows. I’m certainly the only one the congressman from Birmingham could name after darkly claiming that there are 17 socialists lurking in the House of Representatives. I doubt that there are any other socialists, let alone 17 more, in all of the Congress. I also respectfully doubt that Spencer Bachus understands much about democratic socialism.

Bernie Sanders’ talking points, his whole career, have been the talking points that the Democratic Party vainly adopted for this current campaign. Sanders really seems to mean it, since he harped on economic inequality and the needs of working people and poor people (whose problems and growing constituency are notably absent from the current debate as both sides pander to the imaginary middle class) even outside of election cycles:

Sanders, as Mayor of Burlington in the 1980s, made Burlington the first city in the country to fund Community Land Trusts, a form of affordable housing which has become much more widespread in recent years and prevents foreclosures. Sanders has also been a firm advocate of single-payer health care, which Vermont became the first state to adopt in May 2012 and plans to implement by 2017.

Consistent with Sanders and his socialist views, Vermont’s taxes are high and the climate is not all that friendly to businesses. Vermont has the sixth-highest income tax rate in country, and it is ranked as the 38th best state for business in the union. Not particularly promising numbers.

So how have high taxes, a socialist Senator, the prospect of socialized health care, and a thicket of regulations affected business, employment, and recovery from recession in tiny Vermont?

Not too badly, apparently. Unemployment, the big issue of the campaign, is at 5.0% in Vermont (and was as low as 4.6% in May 2012). Furthermore, an economist from the Harvard School of Public Health estimates that the single-payer health care law will “create 3,800 jobs, result in annual savings of 25.3 percent, cut employer and household spending by $200 million, and boost the state’s overall economic output by $100 million,”–when considering these numbers, recall that there’s only 626,000 people in Vermont. Not too shabby for an ideology that’s supposedly left a lazy, bloated Europe in smoking ruins.

Certainly high taxes, a culture of regulation, a mothering state, and a socialist Senator haven’t been the only causes of Vermont weathering the recession well and keeping people working, and they may not have helped much, either. But it should lay to rest the laissez-faire myth that taxes, regulation, and social programs are inherently bad for growth and employment and will scare ‘job-creators’ away. That’s just a canard that politicians spin to make their buddies richer.

Tell it, Mr. Spear:

Know Thy Country: DiSDain for Redistricting

Posted September 3, 2012 by alexvisotzky
Categories: Politics

Tags: , , , , , ,

Elbridge Gerry, the father of gerrymandering, strikes a B-Boy stance.

There’s a lot made over gerrymandering, the age-old congressional art of redistricting voters to the advantage of a particular candidate or party. With particularly poisonous rhetoric the last couple election cycles, pundits have pointed fingers at the cable news cycle to campaign finance reform to recent redistricting in light of the 2010 census–a recent battle in Texas over redistricting went as high as the US Supreme Court.

As the argument goes, once a district becomes more heavily weighted to one side of the aisle, candidates no longer need to pander to centrist, moderate voters. With districts filled to the brim either entirely with Republican voters or Democratic voters, the conversation is less and less about compromise within the actual business of governing, and more and more based in a fantasy of what partisan voters want to hear.

But how can one test if it’s really true, or how much of a factor redistricting is against the other factors of cable news or campaign spending? One possible way is to look at a state where there’s only one district: South Dakota. With only three electoral votes, South Dakota may not play a hefty role on the national stage, but its one district and lone representative make for some interesting politics.

South Dakota has a strong Republican tradition–the last time the lower Dakotans voted for a Democratic presidential candidate was 1964, they also elected staunch Republican John Thune to the US Senate in 2004, and most recently sent Tea Party candidate Kristi Noem to the House in 2010. But South Dakota is also the home of Democratic lion George McGovern, former Democratic Senate minority Tom Daschle, and current Democratic Senator Tim Johnson.

So what happens when you put together Tea Party incumbent Kristi Noem and a Tim Johnson staffer, Matt Varilek, to fight over a House seat?

A surprisingly civil discussion about the actual machinations of government, that’s what happens, or at least that’s what happens in South Dakota. The two candidates, who are polling neck-and-neck for the House seat, held a debate two weeks ago where they mostly discussed the stalled farm bill in Congress, which South Dakotans desperately need to pass to get federal drought relief. Instead of discussing the issues with a myriad of platitudes, Noem and Varilek argued over the mechanics of a bill being stuck in committee and whether or not Noem would lend her signature to a discharge petition to get the bill out of committee. What’s the likelihood we’ll hear that kind of technical conversation in the presidential debates?

Over the course of the debate, Noem also veers far left of the normal tea party dogma–she talks about increasing federal subsidies for crop insurance (while the rest of her tea party colleagues want to cut every dollar they can). Noem talks about protecting food stamps and the social safety net (although she means it euphemistically), and even says she is a proponent of clean energy (South Dakota is, after all, a producer of corn ethanol, which isn’t really ‘clean’, but hey, we’ll take what we can get).

Kristi Noem and Matt Varilek.

So why is Noem being so reasonable while other tea party candidates continue to thrive on less-than-reasonable talking points? She needs votes! With a state with a single district that while conservative, relies on federal subsidies and insurance to subsist, Noem needs at least a handful of moderate voters to get herself re-elected.

Were South Dakota cordoned off into two districts, with more Pierre and Rapid City Democrats in one area and Republicans in another area, the debate might be a little different. Noem wouldn’t need to answer to the moderates and Democrats.

It’s difficult, looking at a lone example of a one-district state to say that gerrymandering has a pernicious influence on the rhetoric when there are so many other forces debasing politics. But when you look at South Dakota, it’s hard not to think that more evenly divided districts might help us all get along.

Know Thy Country—How to MounT an Offensive in Montana

Posted August 23, 2012 by alexvisotzky
Categories: Politics

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Montana has only three electoral votes, but it is by no means a small state. Although its population hovers around one million, it is the fourth largest state in the union, and its local issues are sizable ones for the West—fierce debates over how to increase tourism revenues without destroying Montana’s natural wonders and how to exploit resources without entirely depleting them for future use rage on throughout the state. Ranchers and farmers, their incomes ravaged by the worst drought in years, are debating the necessity of federal action.

A Dry Riverbed in Parched Montana.

So you’d think, especially given that incumbent Democrat Jon Tester and Montana’s Republican (and sole) Congressman Denny Rehberg are polling neck and neck for Tester’s Senate seat, there might be some real debate.

But you’d be wrong. Unsurprisingly, Citizen’s United has a lot to do with it, but the reason Citizen’s United is spoiling the Montana race is not what you’d expect. Sure, corporate money is pouring into the races in unprecedented amounts–an American Prospect article from June outlined the extensive amounts of money Karl Rove’s CrossRoads PAC has funneled into Montana, making an interesting parallel with the extensive meddling of copper barons in Montana’s politics in the early 20th century, which prompted a slew of state campaign finance laws.

But the pernicious effect of Citizen’s United isn’t that the candidates are dodging issues or being hacks for corporations, it’s that the actual issues of Citizen’s United, coordination between candidates and PACs (which is illegal under the new law), and the arrival of money from around the country have become bigger issues themselves. These issues, in the case of the Tester and Rehberg campaigns, have become so bloated within the campaign rhetoric that they’ve pushed the important distinctions between the candidates to the margins.

Instead of talking about how they’d solve the drought, or what kind of access they’ll give corporations to Montana’s mineral-rich environment, or even their vision for the role of federal government in state politics, Tester and Rehberg are trading barbs about whether or not their campaigns are coordinating with the PACs.

When they’re not sniping about possible incidents or coordination, they’re accusing each other of being influenced by people and dollars from outside Montana, instead of being real Montanans. It’s of course ridiculous, since they’re both lackeys, but instead of talking about the issues that effect Montanans, they’re just trying to out-Montana each other by arguing over who spends more time farming and their records of raising cattle (as opposed to their records on legislation that affects cattle ranching).

R-Congressman Denny Rehberg.

It’s a shame they aren’t talking about the issues and where the candidates stand on them. Denny Rehberg, in lieu of waxing on campaign finance and calling Tester an outsider, could elucidate his hatred of the gray wolf, his disdain for free school lunches and Pell grants, or his disgust for homosexuality, or even his intriguing view of health care. Rehberg in 1994:

The problem with AIDS is: you got it, you die. So why are we spending money on the issue?

Maybe instead, Rehberg could discuss how he sued the Billings Volunteer Fire Department in 2010 after wildfires damaged his ranch, putting strain on the Fire Department budget and taking volunteers (yes, he sued a VOLUNTEER Fire Department) off the lines during wildfire season.

Or Montanans could get to know Jon Tester–the one-term senator and former music teacher is known to be enthused about many issues, including beef, beef, and more beef, as the New York Times wrote earlier in 2012 (really, New York Times? This is all you have to say about a US Senator? That he loves beef?).

Neither candidate is particularly adroit at talking about the issues that matter, but with Citizen’s United giving them additional ammunition for inane harping, they don’t have to. Given Rehberg’s record when he goes on the record, maybe that’s exactly Karl Rove’s strategy.


Know Thy Country–Hi, I’m in Delaware.

Posted August 17, 2012 by alexvisotzky
Categories: Politics

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

You know the old saying—as Delaware goes, so goes the nation.

Delaware may not be the most representative case when it comes to the rest of the country. It’s staunchly Democratic–Joe Biden’s old stomping grounds feature two Democratic senators, Chris Coons, who replaced Biden, and Tom Carper, who won his 2006 election by a forty point margin and whose Republican opponent may end up being Christine O’Donnell. Remember O’Donnell? The tea party candidate who said that AIDS and school shootings were the result of taking prayer out of public schools and that masturbation was adultery and that Obama is a socialist? It doesn’t make for a particularly potent candidacy. Their lone Congressman, John Carney, is also a Democrat.

Yet what Delaware and its three electoral votes offer is a picture of how the Democratic party has changed.  From Governor Jack Markell to Senators Coons and Carper and down to Rep John Carney, these are not your parents’ LBJ Democrats. These are not Democrats who fundamentally believe in a welfare state that helps the poor and middle classes get on their feet, but Democrats who believe in market-based solutions and balanced budgets.

Governor Markell is a case in point. Prior to entering state politics, Markell had a long career in business, working as a banker at first Chicago and a consultant at McKinsey before climbing the ranks at Comcast and eventually becoming the senior VP of Nextel (he’s actually responsible for rebranding it as Nextel—prior to 1993 it was called Fleetcall).

Just Because We Both Went to Jewish Summer Camp Doesn’t Mean We Agree on Everything.

Armed with a successful business career and the standard liberal beliefs about issues like abortion, the environment, and gay marriage, Markell took to politics in 1998, becoming the treasurer of Delaware. In a largely democratic state, it’s not hard to look good—all a candidate needs to do is espouse reasonable views on such issues. This becomes especially true when folks like Terry Spence, who Markell will face in the general election for governor in November are the Republican nominees.

Spence was an ardent supporter of the Contract with America and, loyal to his out-of-touch beliefs of the 1990s, endorsed Newt Gingrich in this past year’s Republican primaries. Needless to say Spence will find it hard to win the gubernatorial race, having lost his last two races for state representative. Markell is primed for another term in Dover.

When Markell took won the governorship in 2008, he proceeded to run the state as he would a business–saddled with an $800 million deficit, he cut 1,000 state jobs and trimmed salaries, including giving himself a haircut of 20%. He boosted revenues by legalizing sports gambling and taxing it, among other vices. His motto was budgets, budgets, budgets, even going so far in 2009 as to criticize the Obama health plan for the strain it might put on state coffers. Markell, in a supposed attempt to bring jobs to Delaware, offered tax breaks to wind turbine companies looking to develop offshore facilities, as well as wooing PBF Energy to take over a large oil refinery that Valero was in the process of abandoning. These are just a couple of many examples of Markell offering tax breaks to big business to get them to open up shop–deals that often fail to bring jobs back in a substantive, systematic way. This blogger wonders if they’re killing two birds with one stone; first, symbolic placation to make the public believe you’re serious about job creation, and second, currying favor with big business.

Under Markell’s watch, Delaware has become one of the United States’ leading tax havens, which the NYTimes illustrated in all its worrying detail back in June. The Governor has preached fiscal responsibility, raising taxes on most while cutting them for businesses. But for all of his wizardry with budgets and his socially liberal views, is Markell making everyday Delawareans better off, or is he just scratching his old business friends’ backs?

This may be the reality of the Democratic Party today–no longer the party of Barney Frank, but the party of Chris Dodd. Most Democrats look progressive when their rhetoric is lined up against the zealots running amok on the other side of the aisle. But if you compare their politics against the Democrats of an earlier era, they’re much more similar to the liberal Republicans of the 1960s and 1970s or politicians from an earlier era like Wendell Wilkie–politicians who support civil rights for all Americans, but are ultimately servants of the banks and big business at the expense of the working classes. And that may be scarier than anything you’ll hear out of Christine O’Donnell’s mouth.

Know Thy Country–But WhY?

Posted August 14, 2012 by alexvisotzky
Categories: Uncategorized

Gasp, So Much of It Government-Owned!

We are constantly prone to referring to ‘the national discussion.’ But what really makes up the national discussion? Are we, as Americans, discussing the same issues in relatively the same ways, as the media might have us believe? The national discussion, or how different issues and events will be perceived nationally, receives particularly heightened attention during election season. What will American voters think about Romney’s refusal to disclose his tax returns? How will Americans perceive Obama’s stance on gay marriage?

Frankly, the whole concept of things being perceived ‘nationally’ is wishful thinking. The United States is just that—a collection of states that are all undergoing their own struggles for power, political debates, and election season jockeying. Every state will see national events through its own lens, colored by local issues and local political races, which are how voters most directly interact with the issues. And even if none of that mattered, local politics is where the power and resources are really doled out—it’s local and state governments handing out contracts for patronage, making policies that hurt or soothe unions, or massaging local interest groups and lobbyists.

Given my views on local politics being the real dominant source of wrangling for power, we can only really determine what course the big, old, wooden skiff of national politics will take if we examine state politics. State by state. So I’m diving into a research and writing challenge. I’m going to write fifty posts, each one about a race, either for senate, house, or the governor’s mansion in each state. Consider it a fifty stop tour of this country in order of electoral votes.

I’ll start with Wyoming, with three electoral votes. On August 21, 2012, Wyoming will be holding its Republican primaries—for all intensive purposes, this is the election for heavily-Republican but sparsely populated northwestern state. Republicans make up 63% of Wyoming’s registered voters against just 24% identifying as Democrats.

There’s three candidates—the favorite is incumbent John Barrasso, who has never actually faced the voters in a regular senate election. A former orthopedic surgeon, Barrasso was appointed by former Wyoming governor Dave Freudenthal to serve out the remainder out the remainder of Craig Thomas’ term after Thomas passed away from complications from leukemia.

Dave Freudenthal May Look Unexceptional, But a Jewish Democratic Governor of Wyoming? OK, Fine, He’s Episcopal.

With less than a full term under his belt, Barrasso has proved an able player of the political game—he’s maneuvered his way onto both the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Both committees are key to Wyoming’s economy, as the state is the fifth largest crude oil producing-state, the second largest natural gas-producing state in the country, and, cue the drumroll, the largest producer of coal in the United States.

As a reliable keep-your-taxes-and-regulation-away-from-me conservative with a stake in natural uses and land use, it should come as little surprise that his campaign is bankrolled by oil and gas companies. His campaign has only raised $6.5 million, but that’s no small sum when you remember Wyoming has only half a million people.

And yet oil companies aren’t nearly the largest campaign contributors to Barrasso’s coffers—health care cand pharmaceutical companies have contributed almost twice as much to Barrasso’s campaign as oil and gas companies, reflecting the nearly unlimited sums that the health care and pharmaceutical industries pour into lobbying across the board. I guess it shouldn’t come as a shock that Barrasso voted against the Affordable Care Act (although the man was pro-choice until changing his tune somewhere down the line—sound familiar, Mittens?).

Even with Barrasso providing a fascinating microcosm of special interest politics, one of his opponents in the primaries provides a much more interesting look into the colorful cast of characters that make up the political landscape of the United States. Although  the 36-year old real estate agent and Republican challenger Emmett Mavy deserves a special tip of the cap for attempting the real estate business in a state where 48% of the land is owned by the government, my interest is far more piqued by the other challenger.

He goes by the name of Thomas Bleming. While Barrasso worked as an orthopedic surgeon and Mavy toils as a real estate agent, Bleming has put together a long and illustrious career as a mercenary. There’s plenty of folks in the Senate who fought in Vietnam. But how many joined guerilla armies in Burma and Panama? A rabid anticommunist, Bleming fought as a soldier-for-hire against a Rhodesian communist uprising in the 1970s.

What Did You Expect?

Sure, Bleming is a gun nut and a strident defender of the second amendment (and actually has the background to start a well-regulated militia). But the camo-loving conservative is also a fierce enemy of the Patriot Act, an ardent supporter of civil liberties, a firm believer in public education, and a defender of pensions.

And hey, he’s also visited 72 countries and fought in 12 wars. That’s 11 more than lazy war heroes like John McCain.

Oh Thomas Bleming, you’re so charming. Except for the little tidbit about agreeing with Hitler and Goebbels about the destructiveness of the Jew.

Here’s to you, Wyoming, Wyoooo:

Ms. Clinton’s Carrot Salad

Posted July 5, 2012 by alexvisotzky
Categories: Uncategorized


Hillary Putting Her Dukes Down

Well I’m finally back, dear readers (all two of you). I apologize–it’s been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you with a strong post to step to.

Last week, Secretary of State and internet-meme sensation Hillary Clinton hit the newspaper, specifically the Wall Street Journal, praising Russia’s pending accession to the World Trade Organization and calling on Congress to repeal the Jackson-Vanik amendment (for those of you who aren’t hip to what Congress was up to in 1974, the Jackson-Vanik amendment restricted trade with countries that limited emigration rights–such as Russia.

Clinton argues that, by extending an olive branch of normal trade relations to Russia and letting Russia into the WTO, the US will benefit economically, more American jobs will be created, and all of this will lead to Russia becoming more democratic and more humane towards its long-abused citizens. In short, Clinton wants to take away a somewhat out-of-date stick and shower the Russians with carrots.

The logic is flawed for reasons both economic and political. First the economic: Clinton argues that repealing Jackson-Vanik will open Russian markets to American goods. Ms. Clinton, who has been shuttling around the world for the last three years, probably has a keener sense of geography than I do, but she seems to be forgetting that Russia borders China, rubs elbows uncomfortably with Japan, and nuzzles with several European borders–the EU is Russia’s largest trading partner, both in terms of imports and exports. The US, on the other hand, is across the ocean. There’s not all that much that we make in the United States that can’t be made better in Europe and far cheaper in Asia–not sure how much of a market there is for US exporters to tap into there, Hillary.

The political flaw comes with the reasoning that letting countries into clubs and giving them favored trade status somehow encourages them to clean up their acts. It’s not flawed logic if you force them to reform before joining, but letting Russia waltz into membership and expecting them to right the ship after becoming a member is rather deluded. It’s been clear in recent history that repressive countries don’t democratize once they join or receive prominent roles in international institutions. In fact, it often has the opposite effect–Kazakhstan, for example, after assuming chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) amid much fanfare about their liberalization, ignored the rule of law all-the-more brazenly while chairing the OSCE. Joining the WTO hasn’t exactly cleaned up developing countries records, either. Members like Gambia have been persistently wretched abusers of human rights since joining in 1990s. A more recent example in backsliding is Ukraine, which joined in 2008 and has since peeled back most of the progress made during the Orange Revolution only a couple years prior.

There is indeed a flourishing of democratic spirit happening in Russia right now. It’s unexpected given the ossified political culture but refreshing given the rich intellectual society. It’s the most genuine expression of democratic solidarity in Russia seen since the fall of Soviet Union. But giving Putin political and economic handouts won’t give the protestors momentum–it may just give Putin carte blanche to break out the baton all the more fervently.


Posted February 6, 2012 by alexvisotzky
Categories: Uncategorized

Yes, yes, I am a Jets fan, but let me revel in the defeat of Brady and Belichek nonetheless:

Russia, The Good

Posted December 10, 2011 by alexvisotzky
Categories: Politics, Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , ,

'No Voice'--well of course not, fool, you have tape over your mouth.

I’ve always been a cynic about Russia. I often chalk up stories about the Russian opposition and discontent with the Putin era to Western media painting a picture of what they hope exists rather than what really is. I’ll admit, up until a couple days ago, I was poo-pooing the current protests on parliamentary elections.

But something has changed. Up until very recently, any protest of this nature would have been stamped out before it could’ve gathered momentum. The police wagons would’ve outnumbered the protestors by day’s end, and the names of arrested dissenters like Aleksei Navalny and Ilya Yashin would’ve been hushed. But now, much to my surprise, there are at least 20,000 people braving the cold in Moscow–and they’re not scared, as the video below shows:

RFERL Russia Protests

So what’s changed? Perhaps, after four years of Medvedev the mannequin spouting liberal values, people started listening. It was all a masquerade; Medvedev talked about democracy, while Putin and his lackeys ran around and did the opposite, muffling any voice of dissent, from Yuri Luzhkov to now Aleksei Navalny, while stealing more and more from the state and creating an ever-more inept system of subordinate ministries competing for their favor at the expense of ordinary Russians. But maybe, just maybe, while Medvedev dangled democratic ideas before the noses of the perpetually disappointed Russians, people liked the sound of some of the ideas they heard.

Russians are too well-educated, and for the first time, too wealthy to treat them like absolute fools (though the bulk of Russians suffer in poverty). Yet that’s precisely what Putin did with the sham of having Medvedev assume the Presidency and play his part while Putin the strongman cavorted only to return and ‘save the day’ after a global recession. But the Kremlin doesn’t have the money it had when Putin left the Presidency. The budget continued to swell every year, but an economy that’s overly dependent on oil prices failed to find any alternative sources of revenue before prices started falling.

It’s easy to treat people like idiots when you can stuff money down their throat. But when you run out of things to stuff down, they’re bound to clear their throats and say something.