In Salon, Thomas Frank laments the wasted opportunity of the Obama years. “Why, the visitors to his library will wonder, did the president do so little about rising inequality, the subject on which he gave so many rousing speeches? Why did he do nothing, or next to nothing, about the crazy high price of a college education, the Great Good Thing that he has said, time and again, determines our personal as well as national success? Why didn’t he propose a proper healthcare program instead of the confusing jumble we got? Why not a proper stimulus package? Why didn’t he break up the banks? Or the agribusiness giants, for that matter?”
Frank’s piece is definitely a bit overwritten, with its “mausoleum of hope” and all. That being said, I’m on board with his central thesis, as I’ve said several times before. (In fact, I was glad to see when fixing the old archives lately, that however hopey-changey I felt in 2008, I was more measured in my writing than I remembered, bringing up the ominous example of Herbert Hoover in my post-election post and wondering what the heck was going on within two weeks of Obama’s inauguration.)
Also, to get a sense of what a bad place our party is at these days, just look at Kevin Drum’s ridiculous response to this Tom Frank piece. Drum, mind you, is the official blogger of Mother Jones, named after the famous labor leader. And he writes: “It’s easy to recognize this as delusional…Because — duh — the hated neoliberal system worked. We didn’t have a second Great Depression. The Fed intervened, the banking system was saved, and a stimulus bill was passed…As for Obama, could he have done more? I suppose he probably could have, but it’s a close call.”
A close call? C’mon. As I responded on Twitter: “And all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. This neoliberal horseshit would’ve made Mother Jones blanch. This piece sidesteps O’s GWOT record. 2. It ignores O’s penchant for starting negotiations where they should finish. 3. It presumes filibuster reform impossible. 4. It ignores that financial crisis response grew inequality. And so on.”
And, remember: This fatalistic “Americans are all centrists anyway, Obama did all he could” shrug is coming from the house blogger of one of our foremost progressive journals. It’s pathetic. This is yet another example of we progressive Democrats no longer having the courage of our convictions.
See also this very worthwhile Salon piece on Zephyr Teachout’s challenge to notorious douchebag Andrew Cuomo, by my friend and colleague Matt Stoller, which talks about this exact same phenomenon.
“The basic theory of the ‘New Democrat’ model of governance is that Wall Street and multinational corporate elites produce wealth through the creation of innovative financial practices and technology, and that Democrats should then help middle class and poor citizens by taxing this wealth, and then using some of it to support progressive social programs…This method of running the economy has become so accepted among Democratic leaders that writers like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and Vox writer Matthew Yglesias now argue that there simply is no alternative…
“There is a hunger in the Democratic Party for making the party serve the interest of regular voters, not the rich. In 2008, liberal Democrats decisively broke from the Clinton legacy and voted for Barack Obama, with his mantra of hope and change. Obama, however, stocked his administration with Clinton administration officials like Larry Summers, Tim Geithner and Janet Yellen. A joke going around Democratic circles after the election was that ‘Those supporting Obama got a president, those supporting Clinton got a job.’ Obama broke with the Clinton name, but brought the Clinton intellectual legacy, and Clinton’s Wall Street-backed machine, into governance…”
“The potentially transformative message of the Teachout-Wu campaign is that the problem is not solely one of personalities or tactical political approaches. Rather it is that the New Democrat model itself, and the Democratic party establishment, is fundamentally at odds with the party’s traditional liberalism…Teachout and Wu are trying to place the citizen at the center of policy. They do that through their proposals for public financing, for antitrust, for social insurance, infrastructure and labor.”
Without vision, the people perish. If we ever want to see the real and positive change that Americans were promised back in 2008, we progressives have to stop acting like we have no other option than to fall into line behind the leftiest of the centrists and clap harder for every occasional, diluted-to-all-hell scrap they throw our way. There’s more to life than Rockefeller Republicanism, and it’s not like we don’t have excellent historical templates to borrow from. We need to dream bigger, stop thinking the status quo is all there is, and push back.
Are Zephyr Teachout and Tim Wu going to knock out Andrew Cuomo, a guy who’s quite obviously the poster child for everything that’s wrong with our party? Alas, probably not. But one does not always fight because there is hope of winning. And New York in 2014 is as a good a place as any to start the long uphill slog of taking back our party.
Meanwhile, Blake Zeff thinks Cuomo may have met his match in US Attorney Preet Bharara. “[Bharara] has not only taken possession of the files from the corruption-fighting Moreland Commission that Cuomo recently closed down as part of a budget deal, but has also publicly floated the possibility of investigating the governor’s alleged meddling in its investigations.”
A late addition to this recent and well-deserved pile-on: Friend and fellow congressional staffer Matt Stoller writes in Vice on Geithner’s Stress Test and the “Con-Artist Wing of the Democratic Party.” “The task of reclaiming democratic power will involve making work at Geithner’s Treasury a black mark on a resume, an embarrassment and a shameful episode…Americans are not stupid, and they saw what Geithner, as the head economic official in a Democratic administration, did.”
In the NYRB, and in very related news, Paul Krugman sings the praises of Thomas Piketty’s new magnum opus, Capital in the 21st Century. “This is a book that will change both the way we think about society and the way we do economics…Piketty has transformed our economic discourse; we’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to.”
As a counterpoint of sorts, CEPR’s Dean Baker — neither a Pollyanna nor a conservative — argues Piketty has picked up some of Marx’s bad habits, and finds the book too deterministic and despairing by far:
“[T]here are serious grounds for challenging Piketty’s vision of the future…the book [suffers from a] lack of attentiveness to institutional detail…In the past, progressive change advanced by getting some segment of capitalists to side with progressives against retrograde sectors. In the current context this likely means getting large segments of the business community to beat up on financial capital…[T]he point is that capitalism is far more dynamic and flexible than the way Piketty presents it in this book. Given that we will likely be stuck with it long into the future, that is good news.”
Update: Galbraith weighs in. “[This] is a weighty book, replete with good information on the flows of income, transfers of wealth, and the distribution of financial resources in some of the world’s wealthiest countries…Yet he does not provide a very sound guide to policy. And despite its great ambitions, his book is not the accomplished work of high theory that its title, length, and reception (so far) suggest.”
In The Guardian, Gary Younge laments anew the missed opportunities of Barack Obama’s presidency. “If there was a plot, he’s lost it. If there was a point, few can remember it. If he had a big idea, he shrank it. If there’s a moral compass powerful enough to guide such contradictions to more consistent waters, it is in urgent need of being reset.”
Sigh. If anything, this was all true of the first term too. As John Maynard Keynes said of another ostensibly progressive president a century ago, “[t]he disillusion was so complete that some of those who had trusted most hardly dared speak of it.”
A day before the big show, Joshua Keating’s consistently funny If It Happened There column at Slate looked at the State of the Union. “Members of the opposition typically do not applaud, though they occasionally join in with approval of paeans to the nation’s powerful military, the leaders of which typically sit stone-faced in front of the gallery.”
Which, of course, is exactly what happened. There are innumerable things Congress could be doing right now to create jobs, spur opportunity, expand the frontiers of knowledge, and generally make life better for families in America. Some of them — raising the minimum wage, ensuring equal pay for women, investing in infrastructure and early childhood education, admitting climate change is happening and proceeding accordingly — were even mentioned in Obama’s remarks, not that we can expect much in Year Six of this presidency (and an election year to boot.)
But with all due respect to Sgt. Remsburg’s sacrifice, when the only thing all of our nation’s legislators can get effusive about is venerating Americans wounded in battle, the republic is in a bad way indeed. As James Fallows put it: “[W]hile that moment reflected limitless credit on Sgt. Remsburg…I don’t think the sustained ovation reflected well on the America of 2014…the spectacle should make most Americans uneasy.” That it should – The last refuge of scoundrels and all that.
ICYMI, If It Happened There has aptly covered the Superbowl also. “The ethics of such an event can be hard for outsiders to understand. Fans, who regularly watch players being carted off the field with crippling injuries, are unbothered by reports of the game’s lasting medical impact on its players. Nevertheless, fans and the national media can become extremely indignant if players are excessively boastful at the game’s conclusion.”
Speaking of the handegg finals — as usual, also not lacking for tawdry paeans to militarism — congrats to the Seahawks on a convincing Superbowl XLVIII win. As I said on Twitter, I had no real dog in this fight – I was just happy to see the two states with sane marijuana laws karmically rewarded for their forward thinking.
In his recent major encyclical, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis calls out the obvious shenanigans that is trickle-down economics, and has some choice words for the financial sector:
“How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” “This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation…To all this we can add widespread corruption and self-serving tax evasion, which have taken on worldwide dimensions. The thirst for power and possessions knows no limits. In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.”
I already sung the praises of this Pope a few months ago, but it can’t be said enough: this Holy Father is such a breath of fresh air. His recent courage in this regard even encouraged our President to make his own quite-good speech about income inequality last week: “So let me repeat: The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for around the globe.”
Unfortunately — like Obama’s Osowatomie speech in 2011 and his election night speech in 2012 — this seems to be just another example of Obama’s rhetorical tourism on the progressive front. He’s talked a good game — on the occasions when he’s not hippie-punching or parroting Third Way — for close to five years now. But where’s the action to back this rhetoric up? After years of his touting grand bargains and deficit hysteria and allowing sequestration, and looking at the emerging budget deal, I’m not holding my breath. Whatever happens the next three years, it’s already past clear that the tremendous, once-in-a-generation opportunity granted to Obama in 2008 to effect real and positive change has, unfortunately, been wasted.
Of course, Social Security had rollout problems too. And progressives at the time definitely lamented the concessions that were made as Social Security evolved from bill to law, including the exclusion of agricultural and domestic laborers [re: African-Americans] from the law. (Frances Perkins: “The whole thing has been chiseled down to a conservative pattern.”)
That being said, I think it’s important to keep this in mind every time the right starts complaining about byzantine complexities in the Affordable Care Act: We could’ve avoided many of these issues if this change-bringing administration hadn’t immediately ruled out the obvious progressive solution to the health care problem — a single-payer system of Medicare-for-all, like most other advanced industrialized nations enjoy, perhaps phased in with an immediate voluntary buy-in and a gradual lowering of the coverage age.
Instead, we adopted the Republicans’ proposal, the marketplace/exchanges plan originally conceived by the Heritage Foundation and enacted by Mitt Romney, without even including a public option to keep the insurers honest. And what’d we get for this ginormous unforced concession to the right? Nothing. Republicans still didn’t support the health care law in 2010, and they’ve screamed holy hell that it’s tyrannical government socialism for the past three-odd years — even though it was their plan to begin with.
Now, they’re deliberately sabotaging implementation of the ACA and trying to pin every misstep, including this rather sad website #fail, as a failure of the liberal project. As Konczal aptly points out, what’s failing here is the NEO-liberal project — the desire to embrace public-private, technocratic conservative ideas of a generation ago (see also: cap & trade), in the hopes that today’s conservatives will somehow be intellectually honest enough to support them too. That is a sucker’s bet every time.
One other important takeaway from this article: “[I]f all the problems are driven by means-testing, state-level decisions and privatization of social insurance, the fact that the core conservative plan for social insurance is focused like a laser beam on means-testing, block-granting and privatization is a rather large problem. As Ezra Klein notes, ‘Paul Ryan’s health-care plan — and his Medicare plan — would also require the government to run online insurance marketplaces.’”
In other words, here again conservatives are decrying exactly what they ostensibly espouse. Perhaps a better way forward on fundamental pieces of legislation, instead of playing Lucy and the football with the Republicans, is to try to enact our own ideas from now on.
Update: In Foreign Affairs, Kimberly Morgan makes much the same argument: “The real source of Obamacare’s current problems lies in the law’s complexity. A straightforward way to assure coverage would have been to extend an existing, well-worn program to more people…In the United States, [due to] political antipathy to government programs…policymakers regularly rig up complex public-private, and often federal-state, arrangements that are opaque to the public, difficult to administer, and inefficient in their operation.”
In other words, the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Or put another way: “It’s a Madhouse…a Madhouse!” So, yeah, this is my day job, and, sad to say, it’s mostly been like this since 2010: Two-to-three days out of the week, the House votes to repeal, defund, delay, or otherwise hamstring the Affordable Care Act. On the off day, it usually pays homage to some other deeply stupid and destructive Republican shibboleth, like, say, scrapping literacy programs, gutting the EPA, or kicking four million poor people off of Food Stamps.
That’s business as usual ’round these parts, and this idiotic, self-inflicted shutdown is just the apotheosis of the creeping crazy that has afflicted the House over the past three years. On the off-chance that people just might get better access to affordable health insurance — from a free-market-based plan originally conceived and enacted by Republicans, mind you — the GOP have now completely shut down the federal government. And since it’s looking like America just isn’t backing their play on this, the GOP already have their eye set on a bigger hostage: the nation’s credit rating. Here’s Clownshoes Ryan on this: “I think it will fold into the debt-ceiling fight. I think that’s inevitable, and preferable in my opinion…I like combining all of our leverage, which is sequester and the debt limit.”
That Ryan quote brings up an important and often-overlooked point about this current madness: There is a method to it, and for the GOP — however bad the headlines — this is mostly going according to plan. For, absent all the Sturm und Drang surrounding the Affordable Care Act, when it comes to the actual budget situation: The Democrats have (once again) already caved, and the Republicans will almost assuredly be getting the Austerity Economy they so desire. To wit:
Dave Dayen: “The new fiscal year, which begins October 1, is the natural moment to assess the harm sequestration has wrought, and fix it to prevent more damage. But the extreme nature of the House Republican demands has made a ‘clean’ budget resolution with spending cuts intact the compromise position in the debate.”
Digby: “The Democrats already folded. Sequestration is now the ongoing law of the land and Paul Ryan’s budget wet dream is considered the ‘clean’ continuing resolution…the Democrats have been losing on policy every step of the way since these budget battles began, even as they seem to be winning the politics. What could be more telling than the fact that the numbers in Paul Ryan’s budget are now considered the starting point in any new negotiations to end the shutdown?”
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA): “It’s baffling to me that the Republicans aren’t claiming victory. I’ve talked to a lot of them, privately, and a lot of them say, ‘Yeah, this is what we want. We should call it a day.’”
The point being, and with the caveat that a crisis situation has its own dangerously combustive logic — who knows what happens once ambitious, patently amoral dudebros like Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan call the shots? — the ACA fight is mostly a big shiny object to keep the fringiest of the right-wing loons happy and everyone else distracted. However much further down the rabbit hole the Republicans intend to take us — and it seems like they now want this to bleed right into the debt ceiling fight for maximum destructiveness — they’ve already got what they wanted in many of the ways that matter. They’re happier than a pig in slop whenever government seems broken. They rejoice every time lazy Beltway media pundits shrug and publish he-said, she-said stories about DC dysfunction. And they for all intent and purposes won their Austerity budget the moment Senate Democrats sent back and began pushing a “clean”-CR — meaning a government funded at sequester levels — as the compromise solution.
So, yeah, it’s a demoralizing time in Washington and no mistake — especially since, if anything, we’ll be lucky if the White House doesn’t try to step into the breach with another social-insurance-slashing Grand Bargain at some point. Hope and Change! But ah well, at least they keep making movies.
Per Mike Konczal of Rortybomb, writing over at Next New Deal: In 2012, the Top 1% (notwithstanding capital gains, which only slightly changes the picture) took home the largest share of the national income since 1928. Socialism!
In a less-than-positive review of the administration’s recently-proposed higher education reforms — in short, Race to the Bottom for colleges — Tim Burke attempts to explain the madness behind Obama’s technocratic method. “Technocrats live in the wonderland of the question marks in the Underpants Gnomes business model, endlessly fussing over the exact terms of Point #1 and certain that the Profit! of #3 will follow.”
Also, I said this in the Virtually Speaking chat the other day, but we’ve tried this sort of business-minded technocratic leadership before in America — It didn’t pan out. (Burke post by way of Tropics of Meta.)
Ask yourself: If you could steal $125 million, with the only downside being that if you got caught you might have to give the money back and lose a single day’s income, would you give it a go? Me too.”
It’s tempting to hate on FERC for agreeing to this sucker’s deal, but let’s face it, this type of wink-and-a-nod, Potemkin oversight is endemic across our supposed regulatory agencies. (See also: the (lack of) fallout from JP Morgan’s Whale Trade.)
It used to be, not even all that long ago, people and companies who engaged in systemic energy and financial fraud went to prison. Now…not so much. Today, they not only continue to be treated as esteemed citizens by the highest levels of government — They even have the temerity to complain they’re being over regulated.
Meanwhile, our ostensibly progressive administration spends much of its days trying to prosecute whistleblowers and poor people to the fullest extent of the law. Some system. Honestly, if you’re not disgusted at this point, you’re not paying attention.
After four years of inaction, CEPR examines the costs of a stagnant minimum wage. Conversely, raising the minimum to $10.10 an hour — as supported by 80% of Americans — would create an estimated 300,000 jobs and add $33 billion to the economy. So you’d think Congress would get on that, yes? Umm…
In very related news, a new AP poll finds that, as a result of stagnant wages, income inequality, and a deteriorating job market, fully 80% of Americans experience poverty, unemployment, and deprivation at some point in their lives. “By 2030, based on the current trend of widening income inequality, close to 85 percent of all working-age adults in the U.S. will experience bouts of economic insecurity.” The American Dream, now with Vegas casino odds.
CEPR’s Dean Baker, one of the only economists to anticipate the collapse of the housing bubble, calls out his many colleagues currently collaborating in the deficit witchhunt. [Y]oung people today can expect many more years of dire labor market conditions, because the remedies that could turn around their job situations have been blocked by nonsense spewing from economists. Incidentally, this situation works out very nicely for those on top, who are enjoying the benefits of record-high profit shares, which have also helped to fuel a soaring stock market.”
Along very similar lines, here’s James K. Galbraith on the state of economics in 2002:
|“Leading active members of today’s economics profession, the generation presently in their 40s and 50s, have joined together into a kind of politburo for correct economic thinking. As a general rule — as one might expect from a gentleman’s club — this has placed them on the wrong side of every important policy issue, and not just recently but for decades. They predict disaster where none occurs. They deny the possibility of events that then happen. They offer a “rape is like the weather” fatalism about an “inevitable” problem (pay inequality) that then starts to recede. They oppose the most basic, decent, and sensible reforms, while offering placebos instead. They are always surprised when something untoward (like a recession) actually occurs.
And when finally they sense that some position cannot be sustained, they do not re-examine their ideas. Instead, they simply change the subject. No one loses face, in this club, for having been wrong. No one is disinvited from presenting papers at later annual meetings. And still less is anyone from the outside invited in. Only the occasional top-insider-turned-dissident — this year the admirable Stiglitz — can reliably count on getting a hearing.
Put another way, when it comes to our elected representatives, the best lack all conviction while the worst are full of a passionate intensity. A new study finds politicians consistently overstate the conservatism of the American electorate. Which may be why we’re all very busy discussing ridiculous cuts to everything in Washington right now, instead of working harder to create jobs and foster economic growth.
In very related news, the Dow reaches a new high — 14,164 — even as household income hits a decade low. “As a percentage of national income, corporate profits stood at 14.2 percent in the third quarter of 2012, the largest share at any time since 1950, while the portion of income that went to employees was 61.7 percent, near its lowest point since 1966.”
As CERN in Switzerland becomes the new frontier in particle discoveries, physicists worry the United States is falling behind. “How such efforts will fare in this age of sequestration and federal cutbacks is unknown, he admitted, but particle physics has produced important spinoffs into medicine, including imaging devices and beams to treat cancer, and in materials science.”
It’s not just pandas and sea lions: Chris Good of ABC News lists fifty-seven terrible consequences America can expect from the looming sequestration, the deep automatic cuts resulting from the August 2011 debt ceiling deal that — unless action is taken — are set to go into effect on March 1st. Among the probable damage: 700,000 jobs lost. “With the House in recess and with Obama playing golf [with oilmen] over the weekend, a deal does not appear imminent.”
There’s a lot of back-and-forth going on in Washington right now about whose fault these lousy sequesters are. Clearly, the GOP loved the idea back when, and they’re the ones preventing any action on averting the cuts now. So make no mistake — if these deep and indiscriminate cuts go into effect, it’ll be because the GOP wants them. It’s the same reason they hold up disaster relief constantly, and are currently holding the US Postal Service hostage — Because they seem to get an ideological kick out of seeing Big Guvmint fail at its basic responsibilities.
That being said, let’s remember: The president handed House Republicans a loaded gun. It takes a very short-term view of things to forget how, throughout 2010, 2011, and 2012, President Obama actively fomented the deficit witchhunt, and continued to promote both Simpson-Bowles and a deadly Grand Bargain even as it became patently obvious that investment, spending, and economic growth should be the order of the day. (By the way: Not in the Simpson-Bowles package of deficit-defeating awesomeness? The corporate tax loophole that just made Erskine Bowles $114,000.)
In short, this lousy sequester is the GOP’s baby, yes. But it’s also the ultimate consequence of both parties trafficking in unresponsible hysteria over a phantom problem for years one end. Now the chickens have come home to roost, and our fragile economic recovery, weakened by several years without any serious stimulus, faces a real crisis. Let’s be clear: This crisis was not caused by the illusory danger of deficits, but because Republicans and the administration both, when the chips were down in August 2011, elided over basic economic sense and instead embraced the nonsense of austerity.
In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi explains how and why the Justice Department refused to prosecute HSBC for sundry violations of the law. In short, they were Too Big to Jail. “An arrestable class and an unarrestable class. We always suspected it, now it’s admitted. So what do we do?”
In related news, Wall Street bankers throw one of their customary hissyfits over a gaggle of fully complicit, bought-and-paid-for regulators finally being asked a hard question or two by the Senate Banking Committee — thanks to its and our new champion, Senator Elizabeth Warren. “The anonymous banker followed up [with Politico, naturally]: ‘Elizabeth Warren and Ted Cruz are dueling for the title of ‘most extreme fringe freshman senator.”
Anonymous Banker, let me choose my words carefully: Go fuck yourself. If this administration’s promises of change-we-can-believe-in were worth a dime, you and so many others would be doing hard time right about now.