As Mike Konczal of Rortybomb explains, the Reinhart-Rogoff paper “Growth in a Time of Debt,” which argued that high debt-to-GDP ratios stymie growth and has been one of the key economic foundations for recent deficit hysteria, turns out to be fundamentally flawed.
“This has been one of the most cited stats in the public debate during the Great Recession,” embraced by both Paul Ryan and the Washington Post. And it’s totally upside down. As Konczal says, “[t]he past guides us…it tells us that a larger deficit right now would help us greatly.”
Update: Dean Baker weighs in. “If facts mattered in economic policy debates, this should be the cause for a major reassessment of the deficit reduction policies being pursued in the United States and elsewhere. It should also cause reporters to be a bit slower to accept such sweeping claims at face value.”
As Obama — to no one’s surprise who was watching the last two years closely — definitively reveals he wants to go all Nixon-in-China on Social Security, Michael Lind notes the many similarities between Bush and Obama on social insurance. “Both Bush and Obama crafted their Social Security plans solely with an eye to the approval of the bipartisan economic elite, most of whom prefer cutting Social Security benefits, which they don’t need, to raising taxes on members of their class.”
One key difference: When Dubya tried to slash Social Security benefits in 2005, Democrats stood up as one against him. Now that an ostensible Dem is in the White House and wants to enact social insurance benefit cuts for ridiculous reasons, not so much. But this time, we can’t countenance the usual Third Way spinelessness. As PCCC’s Stephanie Taylor said: “‘You can’t call yourself a Democrat and support Social Security benefit cuts…The President has no mandate to cut these benefits, and progressives will do everything possible to stop him.’”
“We’re broke! America is going to be bankrupt! We’re really not. The U.S. Treasury never has to default on any of its debts. That’s because we control our own currency. If we owe debts and don’t have the tax revenue to pay them, we can always just print the money and hand it over. That may not be the best approach, and in the very worst-case scenario this leads to hyperinflation so bad that defaulting is the less-bad option. But we’re so far from that situation today that worrying about it doesn’t seem worthwhile.”
As Obama’s budget is officially released — $2 of spending cuts for every dollar in revenue is NOT a good thing. See also: Austerity in Europe — Robert Borosage reads the administration the riot act. See also Bob Kuttner: “You can understand Republicans wanting to crush government and hoping to slow the recovery in a way that harms the Democrat in the 2014 midterm elections. But what is the president thinking?…Now voters can conclude that they can’t trust either party.”
Oh yeah, and all that happy talk about addressing climate change and raising the minimum wage in the State of the Union? You won’t see it in this budget. Meanwhile, the GOP are loading up the cannons.
I was thinking of starting up the movie reviews around here again for 2013, but having just spent a looong time on another giant project that few if any will ever peruse, I’m not really seeing the point of dedicating myself to spending even more hours of my day writing long-winded reviews that nobody ever reads. It’s just a lot of work with very little gain. I’ve been writing this blog for over 13 years and the reviews for over ten — If either were ever going to gain an audience, they would have done so by now.
As for politics…eh. On the domestic front, all reasonable and common-sense attempts at achieving forward progress have been stymied for years now, mainly because of bipartisan infatuation with a totally fake problem. Sure, Obama (finally) talked a good game last night about climate change, voting rights, infrastructure, equal pay, housing, the minimum wage — things we expected from a progressive president four years ago, and that would undeniably make a profound difference for a lot of American families. But this is year five of this presidency — We know the score by now. When push comes to shove, he’ll be promoting Simpson-Bowles nonsense, extolling the Grand Bargain again, and advocating a chained CPI, all because, presumably, those evil, evil Republicans made him. Good cop, bad cop.
Over on foreign policy, our Hope-and-Change president has accorded himself the power to kill anyone he so desires by executive fiat. And the response? Ostensible progressives back this ridiculous play, and a full 83% of America is totally cool with Death from Above without due process. Awesome.
Speaking of due process, it is flat-out-ridiculous that we live in a world where Aaron Swartz was hounded to suicide by a DoJ-enabled Javert for freeing up JSTOR articles, of all things, and Bradley Manning is kept in a tiny box as Public Enemy #1 for exposing bad behavior by the military. And yet, our national torture experiment has still gone unpunished (because, hey, it worked!), and not a single bankster of note has been prosecuted, despite the massive levels of fraud that have been exposed and that brought the American economy to its knees. To the contrary, the president can’t stop asking self-serving and patently corrupt assholes like Jamie Dimon and Lloyd Blankfein how we can better structure our public policy to cater to their whims.
Admittedly, I partake in it myself semi-often, but I’m just tired of a Twitter-driven political-journalism culture that seems to think that the lulz of Marco Rubio being really thirsty is a more pressing issue to cover than the myriad holes in his obviously stupid, self-serving, and faith-based ideas. Or that Jack Lew having a funny signature is a more vital point to discuss about the probable next Treasury Secretary than whatever the hell he was doing at Citigroup when the goddamned house was burning down.
I hate on the hipster Twitter kids, but establishment journalism is even worse. We live in a world where the totally inane Politico rules the roost and “wins the day”. Where our papers of record will keep warrantless wiretaps and drone bases quiet for years because the powers-that-be asked them to. Where idiot right-leaning “centrists” like David Brooks, David Gergen, Gloria Borger, and Cokie Roberts are queried for their inane views constantly, even though they don’t know anything and have never done anything with their lives but constantly mouth Beltway platitudes as if they were Holy Scripture. Where “journalists” like Chuck Todd, John King, and Jake Tapper — the latter of whom, let’s remember, made it big by kissing-and-telling on his Big Date with Monica Lewinsky — are taken seriously because they tsk-tsk about deficits like Serious People™ and passively nod along whenever obvious liars are lying. This isn’t journalism. It’s Court Stenography, Versailles-on-the-Potomac.
Ain’t no use jiving. Ain’t no use joking. Everything is broken. So, no, I don’t feel particularly inclined to talk about politics these days either, because there’s only so many times you can bellow in rage about it all, especially when nobody swings by this little corner of the Internet anyway. I’m not officially quitting GitM or anything, but let’s be honest. I’m not really what sure when, if ever, it’ll get its groove back. I’m not sure I see the point. And besides, as Richard said, a withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.
“The 39% of Americans with an opinion about Bowles/Simpson is only slightly higher than the 25% with one about Panetta/Burns, a mythical Clinton Chief of Staff/former western Republican Senator combo we conceived of to test how many people would say they had an opinion even about something that doesn’t exist.” Speaking of a different Burns — Conrad, not Monty — a Public Policy Polling survey finds that Simpson-Bowles fares only slightly better than completely imaginary legislation in the public mind. As it should!
Actually, if you’re a looking for a good summary of the Simpson-Bowles plan, it’s hard to beat this one by Kevin Baker (via Past Punditry): “A prescription for hunting down every last remaining vestige of the middle class in this country and beating it to death with a stick…By the way, if the notion of putting a crazy old, obnoxious right-wing coot and Bill Clinton’s chief fund-raiser at Morgan Stanley in charge of a committee to make the very richest people in America still infinitely richer while at the same time ripping open the underbellies of working people in this country from stem to stern seems like a puzzling idea coming from the great avatar of hope and change, you’re onto something.“
Also in PPP’s findings: “49% of GOP voters nationally say they think that ACORN stole the election for President Obama. We found that 52% of Republicans thought that ACORN stole the 2008 election for Obama, so this is a modest decline, but perhaps smaller than might have been expected given that ACORN doesn’t exist anymore.” [rimshot]
Along the same lines, Paul Krugman explains why no bargain is a better option than a bad deal. “Mr. Obama essentially surrendered in the face of similar tactics at the end of 2010, extending low taxes on the rich for two more years. He made significant concessions again in 2011, when Republicans threatened to create financial chaos by refusing to raise the debt ceiling. And the current potential crisis is the legacy of those past concessions. Well, this has to stop — unless we want hostage-taking, the threat of making the nation ungovernable, to become a standard part of our political process.“
So, is the president listening? Well…er…the jury’s out. Right now, White House spokespersons are emphasizing Obama’s flexibility and the president himself has said that we have to “continue to take a serious look at how we reform our entitlements.” Which is horseshit, quite frankly, because, as Galbraith pointed out in 2010, the Very Scary Deficit Projections everyone’s using to keep this slash-Social-Security-and-Medicare train hurtling along are, in a word, bunk.
In the meantime, the 2011 iteration of the Grand Bargain has leaked, and it’s as terribad as you might imagine.
All things considered, it was a great night, and all the more for what it portended about elections to come. Ever-growing in recent years, the Rising American Electorate — unmarried women, people under 30, people of color — showed its power on Tuesday night, displaying its centrality as the backbone of our new Democratic coalition and sending Karl Rove, Bill O’Reilly, and other White Men of a Certain Age into very public paroxysms of despair. (Good times. Enjoy that 2004 experience, y’all.) And while the Republican base is looking long in the tooth these days, our Democratic coalition is only continuing to grow.
As I noted in 2010, even despite the dismal showing then, demography is destiny, and the rest of the country is and will continue to experience Californication. Today we got the first taste of what a really multicultural America will be like at the polls. See also David Simon of The Wire and Treme on this: “A man of color is president for the second time, and this happened despite a struggling economic climate and a national spirit of general discontent. He has been returned to office over the specific objections of the mass of white men. He has instead been re-elected by women, by people of color, by homosexuals, by people of varying religions or no religion whatsoever. Behold the New Jerusalem. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a white man, of course. There’s nothing wrong with being anything. That’s the point.“
So, all in all, 2012 was a great victory for we progressives, and things are suddenly looking up. But, of course, we’ve been here before.
I really hope President Obama and his closest advisors are looking at the same demographic realities as the rest of us, and that he decides to spend his second term governing closer to what he promised back in 2008. But I trusted in hope last time around, and, needless to say, that didn’t get it done.
The fact of the matter is our Democratic standard-bearer, at least up to this point, is behaving and governing in a fashion that is clearly to the right of the growing Democratic base that got him elected and now re-elected. No more benefit of the doubt: It is up to us to put pressure on this administration to make sure they hold to the promises they’ve made. That work has to begin right now.
We all know what’s coming up first, and Glenn Greenwald already laid out the dismal pattern we can expect — and need to break — on the Grand Bargain front. True to form, Peter Orszag — and what does it say about our president’s priorities that he staffed up his first administration with this kind of jackass? — has already sent out the let’s-fiddle-with-social-security trial balloon. Erskine Bowles’ name has been aggressively floated as the new SecTreas and High Inquisitor in the matter of the Deficit Witches. By all accounts, President Obama seems to think he can play Nixon-in-China on Social Security and Medicare. But this is not at all why voters gave him a Democratic mandate, and that’s exactly the sort of wrong-headed notion, coupled with Katrina, that turned the electorate against Dubya in 2005.
In his victory speech on Tuesday night, President Obama continued his recent turn toward the progressive rhetoric of citizenship and self-government. He said: “The role of citizens in our Democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government. That’s the principle we were founded on.”
On one hand, I should be overjoyed that the President has taken this rhetorical turn, since it’s something I’ve been pushing for here for as long as GitM has been running. At the same time, President Obama has shown over the years an irritating penchant for co-opting progressive rhetoric only to serve centrist, corporatist, and/or neoliberal ends. It would be a shame if we let that happen again.
A presidency really concerned with fostering civic responsibility and self-government would look quite different than the one we have experienced up to this point. In the strictest and most literal sense, it would acknowledge, sometime before the second-term election night, that both our voting and campaign finance systems have been broken for decades, and require a significant overhaul. But, even more than that, a philosophy of encouraging citizenship and self-government presupposes different priorities and different policies.
First and foremost, to paraphrase Franklin Roosevelt, it would recognize that necessitous men and women are not free men and women, and work harder to ensure everyone has the basic economic liberty to choose their own path through life. It would not, to take just one example, make the center of their housing reform a foreclosure program designed to help banks rather than homeowners.
An administration advocating citizenship and self-government would do more to emphasize the fundamental importance of education at all levels, and invest mightily not just in schools and teachers but in after-school programs, early childhood education, anti-poverty and anti-hunger initiatives, and all the other efforts that can help alleviate the various and persistent environmental factors limiting children’s potential in America. That requires a significantly different and more comprehensive approach to the education issue than simply competitive grants that reward grant-writing skills and teaching to the test.
It would mean emphasizing a conception of citizenship that is broader and richer than just a world of workers, consumers, and automatons — one that, as per Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herbert Croly, encourages introspection, critical thinking, and self-exploration. This is a hard nut to crack, of course. But at the very least we could fight to give more men and women freedom from the necessities of work to do whatever it is they want to do. We are not just our jobs, or at least we shouldn’t be, unless that’s what we want. That means pushing for a higher minimum wage, equal pay for men and women holding the same job, increasing access to affordable child care, more worker protections, and a shorter work week.
Emphasizing self-government only works if the political system remains accountable to its citizens. That means, along with voting and campaign finance reform, working to break the hold of any particular special interest over the political process — namely, corporate power. But as Matt Stoller, Glenn Greenwald, and others have noted, this administration has perpetuated and even accelerated a two-tiered system of political and economic justice in America. The losses of bankers and corporate elites have been subsidized by the public, even when they clearly broke the law. Meanwhile, the average homeowner and debtor has been disparaged and left on their own underneath a crushing burden — so much so that inequality has actually increased over the last four years. Similarly, the Bush-era torture regime has been swept under the rug, while whistleblowers have been aggressively prosecuted. This will not do.
Meanwhile, even though Obama himself has been a user of illcit drugs, as have the last several presidents, there has been no attempt at all by this administration to undo the drug war destroying communities and putting so many in jail — Quite the contrary, in fact. Nor has this administration done anything to stop the reprehensible practice of private prisons selling their “workforce” as forced labor.
Citizenship is a bond — Being a citizen means that one is part of a larger community and has a stake in it, a sense that we’re all in it together. So emphasizing citizenship means investing in big projects and big ideas that bring the American community together in larger purpose, from a massive rebuilding of America’s infrastructure to a re-energized space program to a WWII-sized response to the climate change crisis. Instead, this administration has trafficked in deficit hysteria for several years, and clearly plans to bring another dose of it in the months and years to come. Meanwhile, the biggest project we have been involved with as a people in recent years is expending blood and treasure on remaking Afghanistan and Iraq. This, it is now clear, has been not just a considerable waste of public resources, but a policy that has resulted in thousands and thousands of lives lost around the world.
Especially in America, where we are tied together not by blood but by an idea, being a citizen also means agreeing on a story — a shared narrative that ties the members of the community together. Because our connection is a story — even a fiction, some might say — it is all the more important that our government uphold the founding values of that story. (As Charles Pierce eloquently argues here, this is why Obama’s re-election is important independent of everything else — it reaffirms our conviction that race is no longer any barrier to the highest office in the land.) But, quite obviously, this administration has not lived up to our founding ideals in many ways, especially with regard to how it has prosecuted the War on Terror. As Mark Danner says in the piece I just linked, “President Obama has taken a position so strongly in favor of unremitting military violence that he has left his Republican rival, struggle though he may to shoulder his way past him, no place to stand.” And let’s be honest: As a party, we Democrats utterly failed to call the president out on this.
So, yes, an emphasis on citizenship and self-government could very well be the basis of a new progressive politics. But, unless he makes a marked shift from his first term, I fear this president is just going to use these words as a new rhetorical toolbox to push for more half-assed, neo-liberal Third Wayisms and lousy Republican ideas from the mid-80′s. We face dire problems in this country, and yet this administration is somehow afraid to even consider the time-tested New Deal ideas, from public works to the HOLC, that worked in the past.
The only way President Obama will make that progressive shift, it is now clear, is if the American people push him in that direction. In this, what Obama said on election night is absolutely correct. No matter what the president has said on the campaign trail, we can no longer hope this administration will bring change we can believe in. He is going to have to be forced into it by a Democratic electorate that refuses to accept anything less. It’s not a coincidence that the two progressive reforms Obama finally embraced this year — same-sex marriage and the DREAM Act — were ones that had passionate, vocal, and uncompromising reform movements behind them.
The election results showed that progressives are and can be ascendant in America. But we need to be much tougher on this administration than we have been in the past. Lip service to good intentions and progressive ideals is no longer satisfactory. And that hard work of keeping this administration in line has to begin right now, before the tentpoles of our current social insurance system are chipped away at by way of Grand Bargain.
Democrats just elected this president for a second time, and we don’t want to see any more compromising with and capitulating to economic terrorists. It is past time for this president and this administration to do right by us.
Hey all. Haven’t given up on the blog again, but I am in the midst of the final ascent on the old dissermatation. (With two more hopefully brief chapters to go, I just rounded page 1055. Yes, I know. This whole thing has just gotten out of hand. Ohhhh well. Everybody needs a coping strategy.) Anyways, between that and work GitM is back to being neglected for a few weeks. In the meantime, I strongly endorse this Esquire piece by Charles Pierce on exactly why Obama stunk up the bed so badly in the first
Republican primary debate general election debate.
Basically, if you give America a choice between a Republican and a Republican, the Republican will win every time. The problem wasn’t Obama had an off night. The problem is this former great hope of the left actually believes Simpson-Bowles is a good idea (it isn’t) and that the deficit is a huge problem (it’s not.) Even while the Obama campaign is trying to convince us to get more than just a wee bit cult-y “For All”, the Grand Bargain train is already leaving the station.
In short, we seem to have reached a point where so many top Democrats have spent so many years doing the protective camouflage thing that they’ve completely forgotten which way is up. As a party, we are now clearly to the right of Nixon and verging on being right of Reagan. The president’s stinker of a performance on Wednesday was just a clearer-than-usual, real-time manifestation of the Democratic Party’s deeper dilemma: We have lost our way.
Change you can believe in? If you relished the first term but really wished the White House would fold a winning hand even more often, the president has your back for Term 2. Because, in the face of 8% unemployment, 15% poverty, and rising seas, what America really needs right now is more mealy-mouthed centrism, hysteria about a fake problem, and rank capitulation to domestic terrorists. Real Democrats please. Our party has lost its way — We’re now rather clearly to the right of Nixon and coming up on Reagan these days.
Unfortunately, Mitt choosing Paul Ryan this morning means we’re probably going to be stuck with the media treating the Congressman from Wisconsin like he’s a Very Serious Person™ for at least the next three election cycles. But on the bright side, I’ve already said everything I need to say about this clownshoes, so I’ll just direct you to my post on Ryan from last year. And if you don’t particularly feel like clicking through, here’s the meat of what I said, below.
“For months, as you all know, the Serious People in the media have been banging the drum of the deficit witchhunt even though, from an economic perspective, austerity at this hour makes about as much sense as Birtherism. And, in the past few weeks, they have doubled down on this idiocy by trying to elevate the most recent flavor of the month, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, as a Serious Man, come to tell us hard truths about the need for sacrifice.
In fact, Congressman Ryan is scarcely any less of a huckster than the Donald. This is a guy who laments the intrusions of the welfare state at every turn, but only made it to college thanks to Social Security benefits received upon the passing of his father. (To be fair: Ryan is only emulating his hero with this sort of hypocrisy.) This is also a guy who, when confronted with the Clinton budget surpluses of a decade ago, then lamented that the debt was too small.
And this is a guy whose budget proposal — which he was quick to deem not a budget, but a cause — is basically the same vile, stale concoction of malice and magical thinking that the right has been peddling for decades. It uses made-up numbers to argue that privatizing Medicare (and leaving seniors with the bills), slashing the social safety net, and lowering taxes on the rich will somehow end deficits and save America. (Short answer: It won’t.)
By any reasonable standard, the Ryan budget should have been laughed out of the room as soon as it dropped. But, no, the press needed A Serious Man™ on the right for its lazy he-said, she-said approach to any political story. And, so Ryan got the Trump treatment and the rest is history. Ostensibly liberal pundits fell over themselves praising Ryan’s budget. In response, the president eventually drew progressive kudos for pitching his own deficit reduction plan. (More on that in a sec.) With both sides established, the press can now continue to happily indulge in the usual medley of content-free, he-said, she-said inanities that, to them, constitutes political journalism. And everyone in Washington can continue to ignore the fact that, actually, more spending, not cutting the deficit, is what is needed to fix the economy right now. Win-win!
Regarding President Obama’s deficit proposals, he delivered an eloquent speech on the subject last month, to be sure — one of his best as president. But, even if we hadn’t already been burned far too many times by his rhetoric not matching up to his policies, it’s hard for me to take his remarks as some great moment of the left just because he finally articulated what should be pretty basic principles of American government. Particularly when you consider that the Obama plan is, of course, center-right-leaning, and yet it has nevertheless become the left pole in an exceedingly narrow economic debate.
(By the way, if you’re really worried about the long-term deficit, the answer isn’t rocket science. Try raising taxes on the rich. Or passing real health care cost controls. Or going where the money’s at. Or growing the economy and putting people back to work. Or, y’know, doing nothing — that would work too.)
In sum, the Trump boomlet of last month was not the exception. It was a clear and distilled expression of the rule, a sideshow to a sideshow. And because the Village press is so terrible, our entire politics is distorted — We are living out the consequences of this disaster yet again in the deficit debate. Only the sheer amount of money flooding the system right now is a bigger political problem than the broken state of the newsmedia.“
Er…Not a single one of those are pluses. And neither the Republicans nor the media are in any way serious anymore, and they haven’t been for close to two decades. So why cater to them? In any case, Ezra Klein starts floating Erskine Bowles, one of the high priests of the deficit witchhunt, as the second term Treasury Secretary. Actually, Ezra, that’s a fucking terrible idea, because guess what? The deficit is not and has never been a real problem, and you should know that. Nonetheless, folks, start girding yourself for the Grand Bargain…Our president has made it patently clear that that’s the direction he plans to head should he be granted a second term. And this is pretty much why I won’t be posting about Election 2012 here all that often.
James K. Galbraith, who warned of the deficit witchhunt a year ago, weighs in on the debt ceiling endgame currently playing out in Washington, as well as Obama’s role in it:
“[W]hat do we have, from a President who claims to be a member of the Democratic Party? First, there is the claim that we face a fiscal crisis, which is a big untruth. Second, a concession in principle that we should deal with that crisis by enacting massive cuts in public services on one hand and in vital social insurance programs on the other. This is an arbitrary cruelty. Third, a refusal to stand on the strong ground of the Constitution, against those whose open and declared purpose is tear that document and the public credit to shreds.“
Yep, that’s about it. When it became clear that Obama had fully inhaled voodoo economics and was once again going to give away the store in these needless negotiations, I said on Twitter: ““I’ll take [Boehner/Cantor/Lannisters/Littlefinger] at his word!” I just realized: Obama negotiates like Ned Stark. Now, winter is coming.“
But, really, that gives this president too much credit. He’s not a nobly deluded sap. He’s getting exactly what he wants: a Third Way-approved Grand Bargain that takes money out of a sputtering economy and needlessly slashes our social insurance system, all in response to a problem that is basically imaginary.
But, of course, the chatterers and the Serious People™ will applaud this bargain as being wise, centrist, and independent no matter what damage it causes — hey, only Nixon can go to China! And all the while the economy and labor market will continue to tank. What a fucking fiasco. [Rorschcat via here.]
In keeping with his informative interview with Alex Lawson last fall, former Wyoming Senator and co-head of the president’s deficit commission Alan Simpson — while railing against AARP — proves once again knows as little about Social Security as he does about hip-hop. So, yeah, by all means let’s put him in charge of social insurance “reform.”
“Simpson’s forceful gesture came after an extended diatribe against Social Security, which he said is a ‘Ponzi’ scheme, ‘not a retirement program.’ Simpson argued that Social Security was originally intended more as a welfare program.” Um, no. But, in Simpson’s defense, the president who appointed him also harbors some misunderstandings about Social Security. And at least the Senator is right on public financing of elections. So, there’s that.
“You can practically break a search engine if you start looking around the Internet for those words. They’re used repeatedly with reference to our local, state and federal governments, almost always to make a case for slashing programs — and, lately, to go after public-employee unions. The phrase is designed to create a sense of crisis that justifies rapid and radical actions before citizens have a chance to debate the consequences. Just one problem: We’re not broke.“
Swimming upstream against a tide of misleading soundbites and outright idiocy — from Republicans and Democrats both — E.J. Dionne tries to explain the obvious: America has plenty of money right now. “A phony metaphor is being used to hijack the nation’s political conversation and skew public policies to benefit better-off Americans and hurt most others.”
In very related news: In The Hill, Heather D. Parton of Digby fame rails against establishment media’s complicity in the deficit witchhunt. “It’s very easy to prescribe ‘shared sacrifice’ when you will not personally sacrifice anything at all.”
“What is at stake in the long run? Two things, mainly, in my view. First, it seems to me that we as progressives need to make an honorable defense of the great legacies of the New Deal and Great Society — programs and institutions that brought America out of the Great Depression and bought us through the Second World War, brought us to our period of greatest prosperity, and the greatest advances in social justice. Social Security, Medicare, housing finance — the front-line right now is the foreclosure crisis, the crisis, I should say, of foreclosure fraud — the progressive tax code, anti-poverty policy, public investment, public safety, and human and civil rights. We are going to lose these battles- get used to it. But we need to make an honorable fight, to state clearly what our principles are and to lay down a record which is trustworthy for the future.“
In a hard-hitting address to the Americans for Democratic Action from last November, economist Jamie Galbraith puts the current situation of progressivism in perspective. His steely resignation may sound fatalistic, but it’s hard not to feel thus these days. “Recovery begins with realism and there is nothing to be gained by kidding ourselves…We need to lose our fear, our hesitation, and our unwillingness to face the facts. If we thereby lose some of our hopes, let’s remember the dictum of William of Orange that ‘it is not necessary to hope in order to persevere.’“
The best place to do business? Um…how about the best place to live, create, raise a family, be a community? Ah well, Win the Future!™ At this point, my thoughts on the the president’s State of the Union address probably don’t matter much, since I pretty clearly wasn’t the intended audience, and the intended audience apparently dug it quite a bit. But, as for myself: Suffice to say, the “fetal position fallacy” that characterized the 2010 SotU seems to now be in full bloom. This speech, highly reminiscent of Dubya’s 2006 address, basically made Barack Obama seem like the best Republican president we’ve had in years.
It wasn’t just the bland corporate seminar tagline — Win the Future!™ — that rankled. Here we have a Democratic president — the great hope of the left only two short years ago, imploring us all to clap harder for a five-year budget freeze (only in non-defense, discretionary spending, of course, and still not enough for the GOP), a promise to review regulations that put an “unnecessary burden on businesses,” and a lower corporate tax rate. WTF, indeed.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with national goals like increasing competitiveness and doubling exports (provided you aren’t suppressing wages to do it), and I’ve speculated here on getting rid of corporate taxes in the past. (10/12/00 — Arguably, they’re redundant.) But, really, what a thin gruel to offer the American people at this hour. Is there no other way to answer the challenges of the future than a Tony Robbins slogan and generous heapings of business seminar pablum? Have things gotten so bad for the Left that we’re supposed to applaud a president simply for not explicitly threatening Social Security?
Alas, it looks like that may be the case. In his address, the president made sure to make obeisance once again to the deficit witchhunt: “Every day, families sacrifice to live within their means. They deserve a government that does the same.” What you didn’t hear was any attempt to explain that family and government budgets are not the same, or that cutting spending in the midst of a fragile economic recovery is actually a terrible idea. It’s like Keynesianism never existed.
This administration — and all of Washington, really — is now so prisoner to Republican message-framing that “bring[ing] discretionary spending to the lowest share of our economy since Dwight Eisenhower was President” is somehow considered a great thing. Woohoo! Austerity we can believe in! It’s not the most inspiring peg to hang your hat on, to be sure.
Speaking of Ike, Obama also tried to inject some historical cachet into the speech by talking of one of the Eisenhower Era’s signature events: “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” he said, and it probably is.
But, as Fred Kaplan (and others) has well pointed out: “The lesson from the 1950s is that it takes more than private enterprise to revive American innovation. It takes lots of government spending.” And I’m not seeing how the president is going to be able to pull that off anymore, now that he’s willingly enclosed himself — and all of us — in the Republicans’ deficit-scare paddock. To really Win the Future!™, it’s going to take a lot more from this administration than a zippy corporate rebranding and a string of hoary, Third Way cliches.
“Now, if that’s the standard by which we are measuring success or core principles, then let’s face it, we will never get anything done. People will have the satisfaction of having a purist position, and no victories for the American people. And we will be able to feel good about ourselves, and sanctimonious about how pure our intensions are and how tough we are…That can’t be the measure of how we think about our public service. That can’t be the measure of what it means to be a Democrat.“
As I’m sure most of y’all know by now, the president decided to indulge in some cathartic lefty-bashing at his tax cut deal press conference earlier in the week. [Transcript.] At this point, the fact that Obama feels this way about progressives is not at all a surprise, and I feel like I’ve already responded to his appalling penchant for this sorta thing at length. So, here’re just a few numbered points about this latest sad window into Obama’s “pragmatic” mindset:
1) Alex Pareene at Salon cut right to the heart of the fallacy on display here: “[Obama] continues to imagine that his liberal critics are upset with the idea that compromises need to be made in order to accomplish progressive policy goals. Some of them are that stupid. But lots of them are actually critics of the White House’s legislative strategy, and their apparent willingness to preemptively compromise before the negotiations have already begun.” Yep.
2) See also Paul Krugman: “Leave aside the merits for a moment: what possible purpose does this kind of lashing out serve? Will activists be shamed into recovering their previous enthusiasm? Will Republicans stop their vicious attacks because Obama is lashing out to his left? It was pure self-indulgence; even if he feels aggrieved, he has to judge his words by their usefulness, not by his desire to vent…[W]hat we really don’t need right now is a president who blames everyone but himself, and seems more concerned with self-justification than with sustaining the alliances he needs.“
3) As I noted on Twitter, the president’s argument here is inherently contradictory. He began his presser by saying he had to make a bad deal because the Right, however wrongheaded, held stubbornly to their convictions. Then he verbally abuses the Left for…holding stubbornly to their convictions. Uh, it seemed to work pretty well for the GOP.
4) Speaking of Twitter, the Twitterverse response to the presidential presser is well worth perusing for gallows humor and hard truths. Take for example, “Obama: This is like the public option fight all over again where I caved and opposed the thing that reduced the deficit.“
5) As many have pointed out now, the president is also wrong on his New Deal history. In the presser, he claimed Social Security was only for widows and orphans. Wrong. He’s thinking of the civil war pension system, circa 1862. I know that law degrees are considered the be-all, end-all of our civilization these days, but an ostensibly progressive president not understanding the origins of Social Security is sort of a big effing deal. (And he didn’t just misspeak — He’s said it before.)
6) As historian Thomas Ferguson noted several weeks ago, this is not the first time the president has badly screwed up the history of the New Deal in a way that was ultimately self-serving. (As an aside: Given they they chose to structure a major policy speech around a fake Lincoln quote, his communications staff isn’t much better.)
7) As Dan Froomkin pointed out, Obama’s argument about the public option is also contradictory. He argues that Social Security and Medicare started out small, than belittles the public option because it “would have affected maybe a couple of million people,” i.e. it would’ve started out small.
8) Obama also no longer seems to understand how the public option was supposed to work. Here’s Froomkin: “What the president conspicuously disregarded was that the central point of the public option was that its existence would exert enormous competitive pressure on the private insurance system. The goal was not to serve a particularly large number of people directly — that would only happen if the private offerings were terribly inadequate. The goal was to keep the private sector honest. So no matter how many people it enrolled, ‘the provision,’ as Obama put it “would have affected” tens of millions.” In other words, the public option was designed to be a yardstick. So, even in terms of recent history, there are some serious revisions going on.
9) Politico’s catty analysis of the president’s relationship with Chuck Schumer offered more insights on Obama’s thinking today: “Obama himself warned Schumer that the millionaire strategy could sink the stock market. When a vote on the millionaire plan came up short last Saturday, the administration gloated.” The vagaries of the stock market? Is that really what we’re basing our tax policies on these days? (Also, I don’t think Chuck Schumer, of all people, needs to be informed of when and how Wall Street will balk. I think he has his finger pretty solidly on that pulse.)
10) A day after the president’s remarks, Larry Summers solemnly informed us that not passing the millionaire tax cut would lead to a double-dip recession. This is basically the economic equivalent of the terror, terror, terror, 9/11, 9/11, 9/11 argument. And, as David Dayen and Jon Walker both pointed out: If the economy is resting on that sort of knife’s edge, why’s the White House just reduce purchasing power by announcing a federal worker’s pay freeze? Something does not compute.
11) Obama at the presser again: “Look at what I promised during the campaign. There’s not a single thing that I’ve said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do. And if I haven’t gotten it done yet, I’m still trying to do it.” Um…do we really want to go there? Because I’m sure this would be news to Maher Arar. In any case, as a friend pointed out, this isn’t kindergarten — You don’t get a gold star just for “trying.”
You were just elected in the midst of a worsening economic crisis, one that demands bold action and decisive leadership to confront. Fortunately, you enter office with an historic wind at your back: You enjoy unprecedented enthusiasm and goodwill from millions of new voters, a clear mandate for change, and, most importantly, sizable majorities in both the House and Senate.
You also know that the political opposition — who hold a long and storied record of being ruthless, craven and despicable to get what they want — will try to prevent your agenda by any means necessary.
And, being a student of history, you know that, particularly in the face of a poor economy, this political opposition is very likely to pick up congressional seats in the next election (with a few notable exceptions, one of which I’ll get to in a moment.) In other words, a pendulum swing against you is highly probable, and so the majorities you have are probably as big as they are ever going to get.
Basically, you have two years, and likely two years only, to do pretty much anything you want in order to grapple with this economic crisis. Do you [a] take a page from FDR’s 100 Days, go big, and push hard for the progressive agenda you laid down in your election campaign, which has the added benefit of enthusing the “rising American electorate” that got you elected? Or do you [b] try to ingratiate yourself with people who will always hate you, water down your signature legislative initiatives from the outset, and seemingly go out of your way to depress the lefty base that got you elected?
I think you see where I’m going with this.
First things first, let’s be clear about why the Republicans took back the House so decisively two days ago.
1) It’s the Economy, Stupid. Though it may be mostly Dubya’s fault, the economy is obviously still in terrible shape. The official unemployment rate hovers just under the double-digits, and real unemployment and underemployment levels are much higher. Household incomes are down, consumer debt is up, millions of homeowners are stuck with underwater mortgages, and millions more feel in danger of slipping under. As everyone knows, when economic times are bad, the party in power suffers.
Compounding the situation, families are feeling under the gun at exactly the same time that those same wealthy few who precipitated the Great Recession are now rolling in dough. Having evaded pretty much any and all serious consequences for the meltdown they created, the Big Brains on Wall Street are instead giving themselves record bonuses, and trying to profit from even more rampant corruption on the foreclosure front. To no one does this ugly sight look like change we can believe in.
2) Republicans voted, Democrats didn’t. Again, not rocket science: Democrats lost because Republicans came out and Democrats stayed home. Look at the breakdown of exit polls: As per the norm in midterms, the 2010 electorate was older than the population at large. (23% of the vote versus 13% of the population.) And 57% of those seniors, worried that the threat of Creeping Socialism might somehow interfere with their federal retirement security and universal health care, pulled the lever for Republicans.
Conversely, 29 million Obama voters did not show up to vote. “Hispanics, African Americans, union members and young people were among the many core Democratic groups that turned out in large numbers in the 2008 elections…In 2010, turnout among these groups dropped off substantially, even below their previous midterm levels.” Take voters under 30, for example, who vote Democratic at about the same rate seniors vote Republican. They went from 18% of the electorate in 2008 to 11% this year. Obviously, that’s a problem.
So, working back from these factors — economic performance and voter turnout — it follows that the two best things the administration could have done to improve Democrats’ standing this year would have been to get the economy moving again and to get the Democratic base fired up and ready to go. So what happened? Let’s look at the tape.
The Economy: As Paul Krugman has already pointed out, much of the story of this election was written way back in February 2009, when the Obama administration chose to settle on a stimulus package that was watered-down to appease Republicans who would never, ever vote for it. In fact, thanks to Larry Summers, the stimulus was low-balled from the start — Summers made sure Christina Romer’s higher-end projections for the amount needed never even made it to the president’s desk.
So the crystal was in the steel at the point of fracture, and mainly because Obama, doing the President Goldilocks routine that would become a trademark, watered down the Recovery Act early-on to appease an opposition that was unappeasable.
By late 2009, the warning signs that ARRA was probably too small were all over the place — not the least in the growing state budget crises seen all across the country. But even as Republicans throttled congressional attempts to remedy the situation, the Obama administration remained mostly passive…or, in the case of food stamps, worse. Many in the White House took up the standard of the deficit witchhunt. (Yes, there was some rhetorical urging of the tsk-tsk variety eventually, but that, as on so many other fights, was after the chips were already down.)
Going along with this frustrating passivity was the increasing sense over time that this administration, elected to be change we could believe in, was more than a little cozy with the Wall Street yokels who caused the economic disaster in the first place. Yes, TARP was originally Dubya’s baby — not that very many voters seemed to remember that fact. (And it’s hard to blame them when folks like Geithner keep touting its merits.) Still, acceding to the $700 billion bailout for Wall Street — with little to no strings attached — was an extraordinarily inopportune way to kick off an administration theoretically premised on fundamental change.
I have to confess that, at the time, I thought TARP was unfortunate but probably necessary. Two years later, I’m thinking I probably just just got railroaded, and didn’t know what I was talking about. (Hey, it wasn’t the only thing I was wrong about in 2008.) But, even back then, I argued that TARP had to come with game-changing restrictions on Wall Street’s behavior. Those, clearly, were not forthcoming.
Yes, Congress did pass financial reform — But let’s remember, Team Obama worked openly to weaken the bill, and even now certain admin folks are clearly trying to derail Elizabeth Warren, the best chance the financial reforms, however tepid, have at working as intended for consumers. (Or, to quickly take another example, there’s the matter of the HAMP foreclosure program, which, as David Dayen has documented, seems more concerned with recouping money for lenders than helping families in trouble.)
As on the finreg bill, so too on other fronts — and this is where we get to the suppressing turnout issue.
On health reform, which thank god eventually passed, we now know that the administration cut deals early on to kill drug reimportation on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry (even after Sen. Dorgan reintroduced the idea) and, more egregiously, to kill the public option on behalf of AHIP and the hospitals. Looking back, the president signaled the public option’s expendability in his September 2009 health care address, another classic example of the wait-too-long-then-try-to-swoop-in-and-save-the-day legislative strategy usually preferred by the White House. And by the eve of the midterms, he was openly mocking public option supporters at fundraisers.
But, even those fundamental breaks with real reform aside, the entire health care process got badly screwed up when the administration, in a misguided attempt to curry bipartisan favor for reform, let Max Baucus dink around for weeks on the Senate Finance Committee. While Republican Senators Snowe and Grassley played Lucy to Baucus’ Charlie Brown and kept moving the football, the Tea Party August of 2009 took shape, and almost a year in legislative time was lost. And, by the time Baucus finally released the durned thing, the bill had once again been watered down to gain imaginary Republican votes that were never, ever going to be forthcoming.
The litany of Obama’s other sins by now are well known. As noted before, this administration has been absolutely egregious on civil liberties, all the while telling us to “look forward, not backward” on Dubya’s torture regime. (But different rules for everyone else, it seems.) Meanwhile, Gitmo is still open, and DADT is still enforced. Immigration reform did not happen. Nor did energy reform, despite House Democrats going out on a limb to pass a bill way back in June of 2009. (Yesterday, Obama the “shellacked” buried this bill for good.) And so on.
If all these compromises and capitulation — which were never political necessities so much as unforced errors — weren’t enough to depress the base, the administration’s press arm continued a steady diet of hippie-punching. “Left of the left“, pajama-wearing bloggers, the “professional left” — time and again, “senior advisors” and press flaks went out of their way to scorn the people who sweat blood and tears to get them elected. I already mentioned Obama ridiculing public option supporters — Well, where did folks ever get the notion that a wonky, badly-named fix like the public option was the ground to fight on anyway? Because the president told us it was important.
To be clear: I am not arguing that Obama hasn’t accomplished anything (although, in almost all cases — including health care reform, much more credit should really go to the very unfairly maligned Speaker Pelosi — she’s the one who made it all happen.) But, at every point down the line, for every piece of legislation that did pass, you have to factor in the opportunity costs that were lost. And consistently, this administration has pursued the politics of the lowest common denominator. To quote the prescient Drew Westen once again:
“I don’t honestly know what this president believes. But I believe if he doesn’t figure it out soon, start enunciating it, and start fighting for it, he’s not only going to give American families hungry for security a series of half-loaves where they could have had full ones, but he’s going to set back the Democratic Party and the progressive movement by decades, because the average American is coming to believe that what they’re seeing right now is ‘liberalism,’ and they don’t like what they see. I don’t, either. What’s they’re seeing is weakness, waffling, and wandering through the wilderness without an ideological compass. That’s a recipe for going nowhere fast — but getting there by November.“
And, hey, look what happened.
Remember how I mentioned a midterm outlier way up at the beginning of this post? That was 1934 — when, in an economy even worse than the one America faces now, Roosevelt managed to pick up seats in both the House and Senate. FDR gave us the 100 Days, a flurry of political activity we haven’t seen before or since. Now, granted, the Roosevelt team did not have to contend with either unfettered money corrupting the system or a pathetic Fourth Estate in a death spiral — both severe problems with our current political culture that must be addressed. Still, when elected in the midst of a similar economic crisis, with similar expectations, this administration did not bring about a 100 Days. It gave us Three Months of Max Baucus dicking around to appease intractable Republicans.
So why did the 2010 shellacking happen? Because of the economy, yes. And because of low turnout, yes. And also because of troubling trends like corrupting money everywhere and a national press in severe decline — The fact that the media followed Christine O’Donnell more than any other 2010 candidate tells you all you need to know about that broken-down disaster we call the Village these days.
But, nonetheless, all of these determining factors were exacerbated in the wrong direction by the administration’s fatal addiction to the Fetal Position fallacy. As I said of this year’s State of the Union address, “people were not looking to President Obama for this sort of deficit tsk-tsking and small-bore, fiddling around the margins. You’d think we Dems would have learned this by now. But curling up into a fetal position and mouthing moderate GOP-lite bromides will not stop the Republicans from kicking us, ever.“
Some argue politics is the art of the possible. That’s true, but I believe much, much more was possible if this administration had actually deigned to fight for it.
Some say the president can only do as much as Congress lets him — he needs 60 votes, yadda yadda yadda. I’d say that he had 60 votes, and even then did not push to make things happen as much as he could. I would also argue that the presidency of the United States is actually a remarkably powerful position these days, that Obama has showed no inclination to act progressive on crucial matters like civil liberties that are totally in his bailiwick, and that, even now with a Republican House, the administration could move forward with a progressive agenda, if it so desired.
Some say it is time to go for the Dems to embrace a more “centrist”, GOP-lite Third Way from now on. I think we’ve been experimenting with that sad sack of failure for decades now — it’s our First Way — and it’s been proven over and over again not to work. (Just ask the Blue Dogs, who got eviscerated on Tuesday. Why vote for Republican-lite when you can have the real thing?)
Basically, it comes to this. Without vision, the people perish…and vote GOP. And because this administration did not go big, because it did not produce the change people so desperately desired, and because it forsook the possibility of real progressivism early and often to indulge their fantastical belief in the magical unicorns of High Broderism, the Democrats have now lost the House — ironically the one branch of government that, under Speaker Pelosi, actually tried to get done what had been promised.
Now, matters are worse.
“‘They’re snuffing out the America that I grew up in,’ Boehner said. ‘Right now, we’ve got more Americans engaged in their government than at any time in our history. There’s a political rebellion brewing, and I don’t think we’ve seen anything like it since 1776.” In case you missed GOP leader John Boehner’s inadvisable, Barton-like unveiling of his true thoughts this morning, the Minority Leader gave an interview to the Scaife-owned Pittsburgh Tribune, and it’s actually an open question what the dumbest thing he said was. Was it:
1) Arguing that the avarice and fraud-fueled Wall Street meltdown that destroyed 8 million jobs was merely an “ant” Dems were trying to kill with a nuclear weapon? (Say what you will about this financial reform legislation, I wouldn’t call it nuclear-powered.)
3) The pathetic dabbling in Tea Party self-aggrandizement posted above? From what I remember of the history books, 1861 was a pretty banner year for political rebellion. Also, here’s a tip, Mr. Boehner: Read Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland. The Tea Party is not only not a new phenomenon, it’s not even a particularly special one. The only difference now is the media covers these John Birch Society wannabes like they’re actually a real political force in America. For shame.
And I’ve even skipped over stuff like the usual “repeal health care reform” inanities. Once again, the Majority Leader proves that one of the best assets Democrats have going into the fall midterms are the Republicans themselves. They’re just not ready for prime-time anymore, if in fact they ever were.
They used to tell me I was building a dream…In the NYT, Paul Krugman calls out the deficit peacocks one more time before the wheels come off around the world. “[This is] the victory of an orthodoxy that has little to do with rational analysis, whose main tenet is that imposing suffering on other people is how you show leadership in tough times. And who will pay the price for this triumph of orthodoxy? The answer is, tens of millions of unemployed workers, many of whom will go jobless for years, and some of whom will never work again.“
In very related news, from the bowels of the Fed comes a taxpayer-paid response to Krugman, DeLong, and others sounding the alarm about the deficit witchhunt: Quiet, you nasty bloggers! You have not sufficiently mastered our economickal arts! “[W]riters who have not taken a year of PhD coursework in a decent economics department (and passed their PhD qualifying exams), cannot meaningfully advance the discussion on economic policy…[T]here is extremely low likelihood that the speculations of the untrained, on a topic almost pathologically riddled by dynamic considerations and feedback eﬀects, will oﬀer anything new.“
Having spent much of the past decade in academe, I’d like to point out that this is a pretty classic overreach by the writer here. I mean, you spend all those years chasing down a degree that’s not particularly useful anymore…there must be some upside to it, right? Am I not now part of the intellectual — in this case, macroeconomic — Elect? No, Mr. Athreya, I’m afraid not. Sometimes people spend so much time examining, say, the myriad variances in an oak leaf (or worse) they miss the forest for the trees.
Update: In an attempt to move past the entitlement-cutting hysteria out and about in DC at the moment, the Center for Economic Policy and Research offers up handy tool: The People’s Deficit Calculator. “The budget options in the calculator include ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, adopting a carbon tax, reduction in the size of the health care subsidies created by the health care reform bill, progressive price indexing of Social Security, adopting a financial speculation tax and others.“
Update 2: James K. Galbraith reads the riot act to the deficit witchhunt tribunal. “You are plainly not equipped, either by disposition or resources, to take on the true cause of deficits now or in the future: the financial crisis.”
As the recent wave of deficit hysteria hits the G20, prompting a frightening and idiotic retreat back into Hooverism (As Krugman put it: “Utter folly posing as wisdom“), economist Brad DeLong explains once more the the case for deficit spending during a recession. THIS IS NOT ROCKET SCIENCE, people (which is why 3/4ths of voters already get it.)
“What’s the greatest threat to our still-fragile economic recovery? Dangers abound, of course. But what I currently find most ominous is the spread of a destructive idea: the view that now, less than a year into a weak recovery from the worst slump since World War II, is the time for policy makers to stop helping the jobless and start inflicting pain.” The NYT’s Paul Krugman weighs in on the deficit hysteria afflicting Washington right now. Honestly, this is Keynes 101, people — you don’t dial back government spending at a moment of incipient recovery, or else you end up with things like the 1937 Roosevelt Recession.
FWIW, the deficit witchhunt may be rolling in DC, but the bond markets aren’t listening. “On Friday, they were willing to hand over their cash to the Treasury for 10 years for 3.3 percent interest, a level so low it implies they consider the United States among the safest investments in the world.“
“Is our huge deficit a problem today? Not if you think people should have jobs. Private sector demand has plunged because of the collapse of the bubble. If the public sector does not fill the demand gap with deficit spending, then we have less demand and fewer jobs. That’s worth saying a few hundred thousand times since the deficit hawks have filled the airwaves and cyberspace with so much nonsense.“
The CEPR’s invaluable Dean Baker rails anew at the deficit hysteria currently in Beltway vogue. I’ve said this several times already now, but I just cannot take anyone seriously who froths and frets about looming deficits, but then says nary a word about out-of-control defense spending. And right now, when it comes to such deficit peacocks, DC is a full-fledged menagerie.
Update: “The danger posed by the deficit ‘is zero. It’s not overstated. It’s completely misstated.’” Ezra Klein talks with James Galbraith, son of the venerable J.K. Galbraith and originator of the great witchcraft metaphor, about the deficit hysteria seizing Washington:
“[W]e should be focusing on real problems and not fake ones. We have serious problems. Unemployment is at 10 percent. if we got busy and worked out things for the unemployed to do, we’d be much better off. And we can certainly afford it. We have an impending energy crisis and a climate crisis. We could spend a generation fixing those problems in a way that would rebuild our country, too. On the tax side, what you want to do is reverse the burden on working people. Since the beginning of the crisis, I’ve supported a payroll tax holiday so everyone gets an increase in their after-tax earnings so they can pay down their mortgages, which would be a good thing.“
As more troubling details emerge about its funding and backers, and as commission member Andy Stern, late of SEIU, settles into a troubling Lanny Davis-ish “those fringe liberals are ruining everything” mode, The Huffington Post‘s Sam Stein reports in on the early doings of Obama’s deficit commission.I went over my thoughts on deficits and this commission in my SotU post a few months ago, but to repeat myself:..
On deficits: “We know exactly what happens when you cut spending too quickly after a virulent recession — It was called the 1937 Roosevelt recession, and it would be flagrantly idiotic to repeat it. Just because the GOP doesn’t seem to understand basic Keynesian economics doesn’t mean we should follow them down the rabbit hole of flat-earth thinking, just so we can look bipartisan…[Besides, p]eople were not looking to President Obama for this sort of deficit tsk-tsking and small-bore, fiddling around the margins.“
On this commission: “It’s clear to everyone involved that the entire point of this commission is CYA: i.e, to create political cover for raids on entitlement spending, while once again ignoring the grotesquely swollen defense budget…In other words, this commission will basically just be a chance for deficit peacocks to pretend they’re Serious People and ‘make tough decisions,’ while in fact the one really tough idea that actually needs to be tackled — reining in defense spending — will be completely avoided.“
What I said then still stands. At best, this commission always sounded to me like centrist kabuki theater for deficit peacocks, and, given what we’re learning about some of its backers, it could end up being much, much worse.
“I know that we haven’t agreed on every issue thus far, and there are surely times in the future when we will part ways. But I also know that every American who is sitting here tonight loves this country and wants it to succeed. That must be the starting point for every debate we have in the coming months, and where we return after those debates are done. That is the foundation on which the American people expect us to build common ground.“
They do? I thought they expected change we can believe in. But worn-out nods to an elusive, ephemeral, and, given the current GOP, often undesirable bipartisanship does not constitute such. In any event, so concluded the President’s State of the Union address last Thursday. This is old news at this point, so I’ll keep it brief. Suffice to say, while it got better as it went along, I thought the speech was merely ok, and often troubling. Throughout the evening, the president’s remarks had that excessively-poll-tested, small-bore feel that conjured up grim odors of 1995 and 1996. Throw on a flannel and fire up the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, y’all: One year into the Obama era, are we already back to V-chips and school uniforms?
Part of the president’s problem is that the Senate is looking like the elephant’s graveyard of progressive-minded legislation right now. The president called for an energy reform bill. The House went out on a limb to pass one last June. The president called for a financial reform bill. The House passed one in December. The president called for a new jobs bill. The House also passed one in December. All of these bills, and many, many others, are languishing in the Senate right now, as Sen. Reid and others try to figure out how to somehow get something — anything! — passed with a larger majority than Dubya ever enjoyed.
The Senate issue aside, there were other problems in the President’s speech, including far too many nods and feints in the direction of ridiculous deficit peacocks like Judd Gregg and Evan Bayh. First off, at the risk of sounding like Dick Cheney, I tend to think that deficits are troubling, but, even in the best of times, they shouldn’t really be the foremost driving concern of our government policy. If we run a deficit to invest in education now, we’ll save money down the road and improve Americans’ quality-of-life to boot. (Put in somewhat ugly fashion, it’s invest in schools now or prisons later.)
And that being said, right now is emphatically not the best of times. We know exactly what happens when you cut spending too quickly after a virulent recession — It was called the 1937 Roosevelt recession, and it would be flagrantly idiotic to repeat it. Just because the GOP doesn’t seem to understand basic Keynesian economics doesn’t mean we should follow them down the rabbit hole of flat-earth thinking, just so we can look bipartisan.
No, the problem with deficits isn’t necessarily the running of a deficit. It’s the running-up of massive deficits for patently stupid reasons — like, say, prosecuting a war of choice in Iraq, or doling out excessive tax breaks to multi-millionaires. And that’s why some of the President’s nods in that direction were so irritating last Thursday. Calling for a spending freeze on discretionary spending, without touching the exorbitant “security-related” budget (cute euphemism, that), is kabuki theater at best. And at worst, you’re balancing the books at the expense of our most vulnerable citizens. (I tend to agree with Candidate Obama on this issue anyway.)
Similarly, this deficit commission which the president plans to foist on Congress by executive order after the Senate killed it, is, again, at best kabuki theater and at worst trouble. It’s clear to everyone involved that the entire point of this commission is CYA: i.e, to create political cover for raids on entitlement spending, while once again ignoring the grotesquely swollen defense budget. (Altho’, to be fair, Secretary Gates has at least tried to rein in growth in this sector.) In other words, this commission will basically just be a chance for deficit peacocks to pretend they’re Serious People and “make tough decisions,” while in fact the one really tough idea that actually needs to be tackled — reining in defense spending — will be completely avoided.
In any event, all this discussion of the deficit ignores the larger problem. Obviously, one of the president’s biggest charges coming into office was to restore economic sanity after eight years of Dubyaite excess. That being said, people were not looking to President Obama for this sort of deficit tsk-tsking and small-bore, fiddling around the margins. You’d think we Dems would have learned this by now. But curling up into a fetal position and mouthing moderate GOP-lite bromides will not stop the Republicans from kicking us, ever.
We have a Democratic president, an 18-seat majority in the Senate, and a 79-seat majority in the House. In short, we Dems need to keep thinking big or we will pay dearly at the polls this November. Perhaps the dysfunction of the Senate is the central problem Obama faces right now, but his speech nonetheless suggests that we’re getting dangerously close to Eisenhower Republican territory now, and not even in the good “the military-industrial complex is completely frakked” kinda way. Without vision, the people perish. So too will our party, if we keep up with this thin gruel, triangulation schtick. At the advice of the careerist DLC-types over the years, we have tried this path several times over — Put simply, it does not work.
Well, it was a nice republic while it lasted. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court finally hands down its Citzens United verdict, and it is ugly. [Full Text] Basically, the distinction between corporations and individuals has been erased, and, by the already dubious proposition that money is speech, unlimited corporate expenditures in campaigns is now just good, old-fashioned government. Welcome to the new Lochner era, y’all.
By the way, this is a much, much bigger deal than Scott Brown or the effing Edwards baby. Not that you’d know that from watching the news right now.
Update: More reactions:
Fred Wertheimer, Democracy 21: “Today’s Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case is a disaster for the American people and a dark day for the Supreme Court…With a stroke of the pen, five Justices wiped out a century of American history devoted to preventing corporate corruption of our democracy.“
Bob Edgar, Common Cause: “The Roberts Court today made a bad situation worse. This decision allows Wall Street to tap its vast corporate profits to drown out the voice of the public in our democracy. The path from here is clear: Congress must free itself from Wall Street’s grip so Main Street can finally get a fair shake.“
Robert Weissman, Public Citizen: “Shed a tear for our democracy…Money from Exxon, Goldman Sachs, Pfizer and the rest of the Fortune 500 is already corroding the policy making process in Washington, state capitals and city halls. Today, the Supreme Court tells these corporate giants that they have a constitutional right to trample our democracy.“
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI): “[T]his decision was a terrible mistake. Presented with a relatively narrow legal issue, the Supreme Court chose to roll back laws that have limited the role of corporate money in federal elections since Teddy Roosevelt was president. Ignoring important principles of judicial restraint and respect for precedent, the Court has given corporate money a breathtaking new role in federal campaigns. Just six years ago, the Court said that the prohibition on corporations and unions dipping into their treasuries to influence campaigns was ‘firmly embedded in our law.’ Yet this Court has just upended that prohibition, and a century’s worth of campaign finance law designed to stem corruption in government. The American people will pay dearly for this decision when, more than ever, their voices are drowned out by corporate spending in our federal elections.“
President Obama: “With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans. This ruling gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington–while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates. That’s why I am instructing my Administration to get to work immediately with Congress on this issue. We are going to talk with bipartisan Congressional leaders to develop a forceful response to this decision. The public interest requires nothing less.“
Slate‘s Dahlia Lithwick: “Even former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist once warned that treating corporate spending as the First Amendment equivalent of individual free speech is ‘to confuse metaphor with reality.’ Today that metaphor won a very real victory at the Supreme Court. And as a consequence some very real corporations are feeling very, very good.“
“‘We can’t afford to be anti-, against everything,’ Mr. Vilsack said. ‘America is waiting for us. They are desperate to know what we are for.’” Democratic presidential hopefuls — including Hillary Clinton, Mark Warner, Evan Bayh, and Tom Vilsack — sound centrist themes and an end to internecine conflict before the DLC. And, in related news, congressional Dems finally propose an alternative to Dubya’s Social Security privatization plan with Amerisave. The plan would “increase incentives for middle-class workers to participate in 401(k) retirement accounts and individual retirement accounts [and] create tax credits for small businesses that set up retirement accounts for their employees.” Update: So much for Dem unity.
With Social Security privatization going nowhere and Bolton still in mothballs until the White House coughs up the requested info, Dubya gets testy about Democratic “obstruction” at a GOP fundraising affair. Well, it’s good to hear the right-wingers are rattled, but at some point, the Dems do need to get a proactive agenda on the table, so the “road block” schtick doesn’t stick.
“When is it time to start referring to Bush as an unpopular president? When his approval ratings are solidly below 50 percent for at least three months? Check. When his approval ratings on his signature issues are in the red? Check. When a clear majority of Americans say he is ignoring the public’s concerns and instead has become distracted by issues that most people say they care little about? Check.” Dubya’s numbers continue to plunge. Want some unsolicited advice, Mr. President? Let’s hear more about Third World debt relief, and fewer blanket endorsements of the Patriot Act. Update: In not-unrelated news, faith in the newsmedia also hits a low.
“‘There is a growing sense of frustration with the president and the White House, quite frankly,’ said an influential Republican member of Congress. ‘The term I hear most often is “tin ear,” ‘ especially when it comes to pushing Social Security so aggressively at a time when the public is worried more about jobs and gasoline prices. ‘We could not have a worse message at a worse time.’” The WP wonders aloud if Dubya’s already in lame duck territory. One can only hope. Update: Dubya pushes back.
“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are…a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower, 11/8/54
In a “major shift in legislative strategy” aimed at preserving Dubya’s ill-advised privatization plan, the White House turns Social Security legislation over to House Ways and Means chairman Bill Thomas. “The California Republican saved President Bush’s tax cut in 2003, [and] has never lost a vote on the floor…Thomas, a mercurial lawmaker and former college professor who relishes a challenge, ‘wants to get in the game,’ whether or not the GOP leadership wants him to, said one corporate lobbyist with close ties to House leaders.“
“Even among many influential conservatives, there has been a growing consensus that the Bush governing theory, at least on Social Security, has been proved wrong.” 100 days into the second term, the Dubya White House starts to realize they may not have received a mandate after all. Meanwhile, on the Left Coast, the Governator is learning much the same lesson.
I missed Dubya’s press conference last night — I taught my two last sections of the term, then headed for an arts fundraising shindig downtown (where I picked up a celebrity sighting in Chiwetel Ejiofor) — but, frankly, it doesn’t sound like I missed much. “With two in three Americans disapproving of the way Bush has handled Social Security, many political observers thought it would be prudent for Bush to cut his losses and negotiate a bipartisan compromise on Social Security…Instead, Bush held a prime-time news conference and doubled down on his bet.” Dubya tries to regain the Social Security initiative by declaring he’ll cut benefits for everyone but the poor. Privatization and lower benefits? Hey, what a deal!
“Social Security became the bedrock of support for seniors in my state precisely because it’s defined and guaranteed,”[Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME)] said. ‘What cost and what risk is it worth to erode the guaranteed benefit?’” With both Sens. Snowe and Craig Thomas (R-WY) voicing their doubts on the GOP side, Day 1 of the Senate Finance Committee’s discussion of Dubya’s Social Security plan seems to indicate serious trouble ahead for Dubya’s privatization scheme.
“Bush is supporting DeLay as ‘strongly as he ever has, which is strongly,’ McClellan said.” While trying once again to salvage his Social Security privatization plan (which even Republicans on the Senate Finance Commitee are now shying away from), Dubya struts beside Boss DeLay for all the world to see. Well, Mr. President, if he’s really the type of fellow you want us to associate with your administration…
“[F]or many investors Thatcher’s plan has fallen flat. Many investment funds charged huge commissions and fees, leaving contributors worse off than they would have been in the state system. The stock market collapse four years ago compounded their losses. Meanwhile, many private pension plans have gone bust, after companies drained those plans to pay off rising debts.” As England’s experience since Margaret Thatcher suggests, Dubya’s desired privatization of Social Security will likely cause more problems than it solves. (Somebody tell the nation’s business associations.)
“He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” Or is quoting Orwell too shrill? Well, you tell me — A coalition of women’s groups are blocked from holding a forum on Social Security at the FDR Library in Hyde Park because none of the attendees wanted to support Dubya’s ill-conceived privatization plan (Two Republican representatives were invited to speak — both declined.)
I’m just going to go out on a limb here and say that, despite the lies of Brit Hume and FOX News, ole FDR himself would probably have agreed that dismantling one of his most enduring achievements so that Dubya’s Wall Street cronies could pad their wallets is a lousy idea. (For what it’s worth, FDR’s grandson agrees.) At any rate, the new head of the National Archives, Allen Weinstein, is trying to mitigate the damage. And, well he should, for after all: “Weinstein has been on the job for six weeks. Several historical organizations opposed his selection, fearing he would politicize the archives. Bush removed the previous archivist without providing a reason to Congress.”
Christie Todd Whitman may refuse to name names, but Episcopal minister and former GOP Senator John Danforth got the general point across last Wednesday in the NYT: “By a series of recent initiatives, Republicans have transformed our party into the political arm of conservative Christians.” It’s gotten to the point where even Rick Santorum feels he may have to modulate his right-wing schtick in order to get re-elected in 2006.
A tip for Santorum: Being a moderate these days means occasionally taking tough stands against your own party, as Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) is proving with his compromise Social Security plan. “Graham’s plan would raise Social Security taxes for high-income earners, and reduce their eventual retirement benefits.” So, naturally, “the free-market group Club for Growth, meanwhile, is running TV ads in South Carolina attacking Graham for proposing tax increases.”
In a moment of clarity, House Speaker Dennis Hastert joins his GOP colleagues Frist and DeLay in declaring what now seems obvious, that Dubya’s Social Security privatization plan probably can’t pass this year. For their part, the White House immediately disagreed.
© 2013 Ghost in the Machine. All Rights Reserved.
Powered by WordPress. Designed by