Through The Looking Glass

When Alice went through the looking glass she met a giant egg named Humpty Dumpty. After a brief discussion of their names, and what their names must mean, Humpty Dumpty informed Alice that “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Conservatives call Obamacare “socialism.” The main component of Obamacare is the health care exchange, which is a web site where consumers can select insurance policies offered by a group of private insurance providers. The health care exchange is a marketplace of private insurance policies, and was developed as a conservative idea based on free market principles. Socialism began as the idea that the government controls the means of production, but has morphed into the idea that the government provides services once provided by private enterprise. Many countries have a national health service where the government runs hospitals, and therefore provides health services. That’s socialized medicine. A government website for private health insurance is little different than a city government providing a place for a farmers market. The fact that the Lexington Farmers’ market takes place at the city owned Cheapside Park doesn’t make it a socialist endeavor, any more than “Obamacare” is socialized medicine.

Many Republicans, including Representative Andy Barr, said that it was President Obama that shut down the government. This runs directly counter to recent history, which must be known to anyone who pays attention to the news. Conservative Republicans, led by Texas Senator Ted Cruz, said for months that they could extract concessions from President Obama by tying changes to the Affordable Care Act to the fight over funding the government. They explicitly talked about shutting down the government months ago. And then when it happened they blamed Obama. “We’ll shut down the government” became “he shut down the government.” Not only is that supreme chutzpah, it also makes mush of words.

The health care exchanges under Obamacare went live on October 1. On October 3 Kentucky Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul published an Opinion piece in the Kentucky business magazine the Lane Report, with the headline, “Kentuckians Not Buying Obamacare.” In the on-line version of the Lane Report the very next headline read: “Kentuckians file nearly 11,000 applications for health care coverage on kynect.” Kynect, in case you don’t know, is the Kentucky exchange set up under Obamacare. How does thousands buying coverage become “not buying”?

It seems pretty clear that Republicans’ words have no relationship to reality.

Imagine trying to live in a world where words have no fixed meaning. But we don’t have to imagine. We live in a world where the free market health care exchange is socialism, where “we’ll do it” become “he did it,” and where “not buying” means that thousands are buying. Buying is not buying, capitalism is socialism, up is down, black is white. As Alice said, it gets “curiouser and curiouser.”

But it’s not just amusing. There are serious problems when words lose their meaning. How can you agree on anything when the words you use have no fixed meaning? Precise definition of words is the foundation of the law, of contracts, and of most business relations. And, as many conservatives will tell you, a world where rules and values are subject to varying meanings is a dangerous world indeed. Conservatives often complain about moral relativism, or the idea that moral values have no fixed meaning but are relative to the situation or the person. How can values be absolute when the words that define those values are changeable? They can’t be.

Is it possible that Representative Barr and Senators McConnell and Paul are relativists? Anything is possible when you go through the looking glass into a world where capitalism is socialism, where black is white, and where right is wrong.

The Barr Report, Sept 20

The Through the Looking Glass with Andy Edition, in which up become down, black become white, and right becomes wrong.

The Herald Leader published an Opinion piece today by Representative Barr explaining why he was voting for a budget bill that would defund “Obamacare,” a bill that would fail in the Senate, and would likely lead to a government shutdown.

The title of the article was “Obama willing to shut down government over bad health law.”

Anyone who’s been paying attention knows that the Republicans in Congress have hatched this plan to threaten to shut down the government in an attempt to force the Democrats in the Senate, and President Obama, to defund “Obamacare” as the Affordable Care Act is now called. Republicans have been threatening for months to shut down the government, but now Barr suggests that it’s Obama who’s trying to shut down the government. Does he think we’re stupid?

It reminds me of those strange news stories you read of a criminal suing the victim. I saw one a few days ago where a rapist was going to sue his victim because he contracted AIDS during the rape.

Rep. Barr says that the Republicans in Congress reflect the will of the people. But remember, the Affordable Care Act passed both houses of Congress, and was signed into law by the President. The Congress that enacted the law was elected by the people. President Obama was elected by the people, and we re-elected after a campaign where the Affordable Care Act was a major issue. If the public disapproved of Obama’s signature policy initiative they could have turned him out of office. But they didn’t.

I recognize that the public is deeply divided over the issue. But I also understand that it was properly enacted. What Republicans are trying to do now is unprecedented. Having failed to stop a piece of legislation they are now trying to stop its implementation by using the power of the purse to deny funding. That isn’t democracy, that’s an end run around democracy. But we now live in a world where words have lost all meaning. We now live in a world where a Republican votes to shut down the government, then claims that it’s his opponent that’s doing it. A strange world indeed.

The Barr Report, September 8, 2013

In his weekly e-mail to constituents, Representative Barr addressed a number of topics, but the most current and relevant was the situation in Syria.

Rep. Barr said that “I will continue to be guided by my belief that any use of military force must materially advance the national security of the United States, have a clear strategic objective, and have a clear strategy for victory. I will not support military intervention in Syria unless and until these criteria are met.”

The one point that I would take issue with is the idea that we should only use military force if and when it “materially advances the national security” of the nation. (I agree that there needs to be a clear objective and a strategy for success, though I’m not sure how to define “victory” in this sort of situation.)

The United States has long use the military to protect and advance the national interest, not just the nation’s security. Our Navy patrols the world’s oceans not just to keep peace and to keep the nation safe, but also to keep the world’s shipping routes safe and open, because that is in the national interest. We have defense treaties with far-flung nations, like South Korea, not because an attack in South Korea would directly threaten our national security but because an attack on South Korea would threaten a key regional ally and an important international economic power. Protecting South Korea doesn’t necessarily protect the United States, but it certainly protects the national interest. We have pledged our support for Israel because we have long believed that it is in the national interest to have a democratic ally in the Middle East, not because an attack on Israel would be a direct, or even tangential, threat to our national security.

I do not know, and am not suggesting, that Rep. Barr is saying that our foreign policy should be guided narrowly by concerns about national security. But there are many in the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party that clearly feel that way. That, in my view, is the road to isolationism, and that is a road we went down before, with tragic results.

The reality is that the modern world is far too interconnected for any nation to be isolationist. If we want to be connected to the rest of the world economically, we also need to be connected diplomatically. That means we are part of the larger world, whether some people like it or not. And because ours is the largest economy on earth we are a major player, whether some people like it or not.

That does not mean that we should be cavalier in our use of our military, or in the use of military power. We should be willing to use military power, but only after careful and thorough consideration of tactics used and desired objectives.

The Barr Report August 29

The Belated Barr Report Aug 29

Representative Barr wrote a lengthy Op/Ed that was published in the Herald Leader this past Monday. It is available here.

Barr was responding to news reports from the New York Times that noted that he was one of the most prolific fundraisers on the House Financial Services Committee. The report was rebroadcast by the Herald Leader, and is available here.

I was surprised by the length of the response, and my initial impression was to paraphrase Hamlet: “Me thinks the Representative doth protest too much.” He was clearly stung by the criticism, and his need for a lengthy response seemed to indicate that the criticism hit close to the mark.

His response was voluminous, but I want to address two specific things that he discussed.

The first was that additional financial reforms were needed because Dodd-Frank failed “to fix Fannie May and Freddie Mac, the giant government-sponsored enterprises whose reckless policies were at the epicenter of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.” This is a common conservative trop, repeated often by Republican politicians, but not supported by any reputable economists. There is no doubt that government support of mortgages helped some people qualify for mortgages that were not qualified, but the main culprit in the collapse was the esoteric financial instruments known as derivatives, which allowed banks to move mortgages off their balance sheet and magically transform them from a debt to an asset.

The New York Review of Books has a lengthy analysis of Fannie and the Crisis. Did Fannie Cause the Disaster?

The Atlantic Magazine notes that the housing crisis occurred at the time that Fannie and Freddie’s market share of high risk mortgages dropped. For the Last Time, Fannie and Freddie Didn’t Cause the Housing Crisis

The best and most data filled (through links) analysis is from the Rortybomb blog: What Can We Say For Certain Regarding the GSEs?

Fannie and Freddie accounted for less than 5% of the subprime losses, and 84% of subprime loans were issued by private lending institutions. Certainly federal support for mortgages had a minor contributing role, but to say it was the main cause is to ignore the effects of the free market and to clearly expose your anti-government bias.

The second issue regards the Dodd-Frank bill which was supposed to reform the financial services industry in the aftermath of the crash. There are numerous criticisms of Dodd-Frank, most involving the way it has restricted commercial lending on the local level. This is a serious concern and needs to be addressed. But Barr’s proposed bill (which he mentions in his article) addresses consumer lending practices, which were (1) at the heart of the collapse, and (2) not the main complaint by banks and the financial industry about Dodd-Frank.

The conservative commentator Michael Barone had an interesting analysis based on a book review at the National Review Online [] The problem with Dodd – Frank is that is creates a separate set of rules for big banks and smaller banks. It allows larger banks to borrow at a lower rate than smaller banks, and creates a system to bailout larger banks that is not available for smaller banks. The idea is that large banks have such a major impact on the economy that their failure would harm the overall economy; i.e. they are too big to allow to fail.

Other criticism of Dodd-Frank is that it is a massive warren of regulation that make it hard for financial institutions to know what is allowed and what is not. See

These regulations create a far bigger burden on small banks than on large financial institutions that have massive legal teams to interpret the rules, and highly paid lobbyists to modify them in their favor. It is fairly well documented that these regulatory burdens put more directly harm the lending practices of small and regional banks that large banks, and that this mostly impacts commercial lending than consumer lending.

Finally, here’s a good Forbes Article with an overview of the problems and possible solutions to Dodd-Frank, and there is nary a mention of problems in consumer lending.


Usually by about the middle of October of an election year I feel like I’m going insane. I hear things on TV that have no relationship to reality. Lots of things. Most of those things are political advertisements. But there’s also a great deal of discussion in the news media about the election and the campaigns that have no relationship to reality. Political writers and commentators talk about what candidates are saying, and the ads they run, as if there is some substance or some value to the message conveyed, when in fact there is not. There are literally a gazillion examples, but here’s one from my Congressional district from the 2012 Congressional campaign.

The election pitted the incumbent, Ben Chandler, against a Republican challenger named Andy Barr. Barr ran a couple of ads with a guy dressed like a coal miner who was talking about how the coal industry has been shrinking and mining jobs have been lost, all because of what the ad (and conservatives) call “Obama’s war on coal.” The ad was shrill and silly and completely missed the reality of job losses in the coal industry: the steep decline in the price of natural gas. I rolled my eyes at the ad. It was typical Republican nonsense. But then Ben Chandler ran a competing ad where the “miner” in the ad is circled, and the word “liar” is written next to it. It turns out the guy in the ad is not really a coal miner, but a coal company executive. It also turns out that the guy has a miners’ certificate because he actually worked in the mines during college. So he’s sort of a coal miner. He doesn’t work in the mines now, but he is in the coal industry, he did work as a miner, and he still has his certificate. So clearly he’s not a liar, but just as clearly the Barr campaign fudged a bit by implying that he is a miner.

That became one of the major issues in the campaign. Not the decline in mining due to changing economic conditions. Not the need for environmental regulations. Not what to do long term for Eastern Kentucky counties beset with job losses. All the media could talk about was Barr’s use of the sort-of-miner in his ads, and Chandler’s claim that they guy was a liar. And because the media was talking about it, that was about all the campaigns talked about as well. Nothing of substance; it was all nonsense, all the time. And it was insulting.

The ads treated the voters as if they were idiots. Both campaigns avoided discussion of the difficult issues, and instead ran stupid and demeaning ads. And they repeated the stupidity in sound bites and slogans. My only conclusion is that both campaigns actually thought the voters were idiots.

The term is condescension. Those ads were condescending. They talked down to the voters. They treated the public like they were unable to understand a serious discussion of serious issues.

I’m sick of political campaigns being condescending. I’m tired of politicians running ads that act like people are ignorant and ill informed. I’m tired of the sound bites, the silly slogans and the misleading commercials. Its all so condescending.

Why can’t politicians treat us – the voters, the public – like adults? Could it be that they don’t think we are smart enough to understand?

The Barr Report Aug 11

Financial Services Committee Edition

Representative Andy Barr made the front page of the New York Times. For Freshmen in the House, Finance Panel is a Money Seat. The Herald-Leader also reprinted portions of the story. Committee seat has Andy Barr surrounded by industry cash.

The article notes that members of the Financial Services Committee are prolific fundraisers, particularly from the financial industry. I should note that this applies to both Republicans and Democrats. The Democrats raise less than the Republicans, but the Democrats on this committee still raise far more that Democrats on other committees.

That’s right, the Congress members who are charged with drafting laws to regulate the financial industry raise huge amounts of money from the financial industry. And Mr. Barr apparently leads the pack.

The article notes that Mr. Barr introduced a measure that would eliminate the requirement that banks verify that the people they are loaning money to have the ability to repay the money. That provision was part of the Dodd-Frank bill that was enacted in 2010 in the wake of the financial meltdown of 2007 and 2008. That provision was included in Dodd-Frank because most economists and regulators believed that one of the reasons for the financial melt-down was that banks were giving out loans to people who could not afford to repay them. One of the reasons that banks did this was that they were able to sell those loans to other financial services companies, and those companies bundle those loans and sold them as an investment vehicle called a Derivative. When the loans went bad, as surely they would when you lend money to people who can’t pay, the derivative market crashed, and nearly brought down the entire banking system.

But banks don’t like having to spend time and money investigating whether or not the people seeking loans have the ability to repay those loans. One would think that this would be a minimum level of prudence, but apparently the banks don’t like it.

Representative Barr is certainly a friend to the banking industry, and they are friendly in return. In just six months Mr. Barr has raised roughly $150,000 from them. Curiously, just after hosting a meeting with credit union lobbyists, Mr. Barr promised to protect a federal tax break work over $500 million a year to the industry.

I know there are wide spread complaints from both banks and small businesses that some provisions of Dodd-Frank have made it difficult to loan money. This is a situation that must certainly be addressed, but I haven’t heard anyone suggest that the problem is verifying the ability of individuals to repay mortgage loans.

It would be nice if our representatives would make the news for good things, not slightly icky things. I realize that Mr. Barr is just playing the game, but the game stinks.

The Barr Report July 29

This week Rep. Barr talks about his work on the Financial Services Committee to reform the government supported mortgage system, stopping furloughs at the Blue Grass Army Depot, and funding for the NSA. One of the common themes in all three notes is his desire to get a good swift partisan kick in at every opportunity.

Lets start with his comments on the so called PATH Act, which is an attempt to reformulate government support for some mortgages, and to replace the Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Barr says that this committee “took decisive action to build a responsible housing finance system that will help ensure hardworking Kentucky taxpayers are never again asked to bail out corrupt government enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.” I do not doubt that there are problems with the Federal home mortgage system, but I have never heard either Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac described as corrupt.

Next he talks about the furloughs at the Blue Grass Army Depot that are part of the sequestration, which required across the board cuts to both domestic and military programs. The sequestration was purposefully designed to eliminate discretion in programming the cuts, but Barr insists on blaming Obama for not using his discretion in the cuts.

Finally, Barr notes that he voted against cutting funding for certain NSA programs that currently acquire phone records from all Americans. This program came to light with the leaks from former NSA contract analyst Edward Snowden, and shocked most people, even supporters. In response to these leaks Representative Justin Amash, Republican of Michigan, offered an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill that would prevent the NSA from obtaining these phone records, except when a person is a legitimate subject of an investigation. The problem is that the NSA needs to have data on all phone calls beforehand so that they can learn who a subject has called. It is a complex problem, and the main opponents of the program have been libertarian and Tea Party Republicans, like Rep. Amash. Barr opposed the cuts. (I should note that so do I, and I wrote about the issue a few days ago on the blog.). But here’s where Barr’s politicized nature comes in. Barr calls the amendment the Amash/Conyers Amendment. Conyers refers to Democratic Congressman John Conyers on Michigan, who is also a supporter of the Amash Amendment. But apparently Barr cannot miss the opportunity to note that a liberal Democrat also supports this bill, and imply that liberals are not patriotic and don’t want to protect America. It’s meaningless, but a nice bit of political theater.

The Barr Report July 21

The Uncertainty Edition

Representative Barr often says that uncertainly is one of the key problems stiffing economic recovery. This is a fairly standard conservative line, which says that businesses are unwilling to expand due to the uncertainty of future taxes or regulation. One of the key complaints by conservatives, like Rep. Barr, is that there is a great deal of uncertainly regarding Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act. Businesses are afraid to hire, according to this theory, because they are uncertain about the impact of the new law on their health care costs for their employees.

What is Barr’s solution to this uncertainty? Create more. Barr has voted with the majority Republicans many times to repeal Obamacare. This week he voted with the majority to delay implementation of various aspects of Obamacare. In other words, delay and extend out the uncertainty.

Read Barr’s Press Release here.

The reality is that the only way to prevent uncertainty is to never allow anything to change. Change is the foundation of uncertainty. But change has been a constant in human history. (Perhaps some day I’ll address the irony of that statement, but not now.) The other way to deal with uncertainty is to get past it. Once you are past it you will no longer be uncertain. Once Obamacare is implemented there will no longer be uncertainty about its impact. All of the speculation, all of the dire warnings, will then have to be weighed against the actual impact.

The reality is that Obamacare will be implemented. Unless Obama is removed from office the law will move forward. Even if Republicans sweep out the Democrats in 2014, various aspects of the law will already be in effect.

The insurance exchanges (AKA the free market in action) will begin operating in October. By November there will no longer be any uncertainty about the impact of the exchanges. The individual mandate will go into effect next year. And so by the 2014 elections in November, we will know the impact of Obamacare, and there will no longer be any uncertainty.

So if you don’t like uncertainty it would seem that you would want to find out the reality. But it is possible that what conservatives really fear is that reality. We will find out in a few months.


Spare Me The Sanctimony

After Lexington businessman Joe Palumbo announced his candidacy for Congress in the Sixth District, Representative Andy Barr’s office issued a statement saying that Rep. Barr was focusing on serving the interests of the people of the district. The implication was clearly that he was not interested, or involved, in petty politics.

This is clearly absurd. I receive Rep. Barr’s weekly e-mail report, and while much of it is devoted to describing his work on behalf of his constituents (as it should be) much of it involves politics. When he describes his votes on various issues he engages in political attacks on his opponents. And he has been actively involved in fundraising, which is clearly a political act. No one doubts that elected officials have to balance their official duties with political activity. That is the nature of the beast, and no one should be naïve that it happens. So no one needs a sanctimonious lecture on how Rep. Barr is some how above petty politics.

The Barr Report, July 14

The – Da*n if you do, Da*n if you don’t – edition

In this week’s Sixth District Report Representative Barr spends most of his time talking about various Constituent services of his office. This is a very important part of being an elected official, and one that gets very little discussion during a campaign. From what I have seen and heard, Representative Barr takes these duties seriously, and has worked with people from across the district regardless of their views and political orientation. Barr has also worked on a number of bills dealing with industries with a major presence in the Sixth District, and this week he mentions his support of the most recent farm bill, which includes provisions to expand research on industrial hemp, which should be a good first step in the elimination on current restrictions on the production of industrial hemp in this country. I agree with Rep. Barr (and most of the Kentucky Congressional delegation, including Senators McConnell and Paul) on the need to eliminate current prohibitions on hemp production.

What Rep. Barr doesn’t mention is that his vote for the Farm Bill was also a vote against Food Stamps (actually SNAP). Republicans say that they simply want to vote on Food Stamps separately, and not as part of a comprehensive farm bill, but we shall see if they ever get around to actually voting on the issue.

Rep. Barr also takes the opportunity to criticize President Obama over the sequestration. He calls it “Obama’s Sequestration” even though the bill was enacted as a compromise by both parties to force both parties, and the executive and legislative branches, to work honestly to resolve budget issues. So it is disingenuous to call it “Obama’s Sequestration.” He then says that “the Department of Defense has borne more than its share of the burden.” This is also disingenuous since the sequestration bill specifically set out cuts on both the civilian and military side of the budget. So the DOD has borne precisely the share of the burden that was set by Congress in the Bill. In any event, he then complains that the sequestration would impact firefighters at the Blue Grass Army Depot, and notes that he worked with the DOD and the Army Depot to exempt firefighters from sequestration cuts.

Rep. Barr complains that the sequestration imposes across the board cuts (which is what it was designed to do), but I suspect that he would complain if President Obama tried to use some discretion in programming those cuts. Had Obama (actually his Treasury and OMB personnel) tried to go through the budget to target programs for cutting and saving, Republicans would be screaming that he was violating the law. So they condemn him for following the law, while holding out the threat of condemning him for not following the law. Pretty slick.