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The Obama Presidency

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The Middle, Sinking.

“Nostalgia is just about the only thing the middle class can still afford. That’s because median wealth is about 20 percent lower today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was in 1984. Yes, that’s three lost decades.”

Wonkblog’s Matt O’Brien briefly surveys the downward pressure on our sinking middle class. “[I]t’s still a heckuva lot better than households in the bottom 25 percent, whose wealth never grew during the good times, and then plunged 60 percent during the bad ones. That’s because, for both the middle and working classes, real wages have been stagnant the past 30 years, and housing equity has taken a nosedive.”

No Labels — Only Roadkill.

It was the dream of a bunch of wealthy and bored coastal elites who’d determined that the biggest problem facing America was ‘partisanship,’ and that the answer was to give up ‘ideology’ and instead pursue a ‘centrist’ agenda composed mainly of moderately conservative budget reforms and gimmicky demonstrations of bipartisan comity. The fact that ‘centrism’ itself is as much an ideology as liberalism or conservatism didn’t matter – the cause was righteous, and the donations were plentiful.”

Building on this recent piece by Meredith Shiner, Simon Maloy eviscerates the quintessentially Beltway idiocy of No Labels. “Their stated intention is to be high-minded ‘problem solvers’ in Washington who will cut through the gridlock, but most of what they do is silly and self-defeating, and most of the money they raise is spent on promoting themselves.”

See also this worthwhile May 2012 post at Driftglass, where I found the handy historical graph above: “The Big Lie of Centrism is the Magic Lie. The Philosopher’s Stone of lies which has transmuted dozens of mediocre hacks into Very Wealthy and Serious Persons…The Maginot Line of the Beltway Media can withstand any assault as long the Big Lie of Centrism remains intact.”

Continued Injuries and Usurpations.

Recent dismal developments on the War on Terror/Civil Liberties Front:

(1) “The court found Poland violated its obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights to prevent torture, ensure the right to liberty, and properly investigate allegations a crime had been committed on its territory.”

The European Court of Human Rights finds that Poland harbored one of the CIA’s infamous black sites — perhaps this is one of the old Soviet compounds? “[S]imilar cases have been lodged with the court in Strasbourg against Romania and Lithuania.”

(2) “The five Americans whose email accounts were monitored by the NSA and FBI have all led highly public, outwardly exemplary lives. All five vehemently deny any involvement in terrorism or espionage, and none advocates violent jihad or is known to have been implicated in any crime, despite years of intense scrutiny by the government and the press.”

Paging J. Edgar: The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain, with help from Edward Snowden, uncover NSA and FBI surveillance of prominent, upstanding Muslim-Americans. “In one 2005 document, intelligence community personnel are instructed how to properly format internal memos to justify FISA surveillance. In the place where the target’s real name would go, the memo offers a fake name as a placeholder: ‘Mohammed Raghead.’”

(3) “Emblazoned with the crests of 19 agencies, it offers the most complete and revealing look into the secret history of the government’s terror list policies to date. It reveals a confounding and convoluted system filled with exceptions to its own rules, and it relies on the elastic concept of ‘reasonable suspicion’ as a standard for determining whether someone is a possible threat…individuals can be watchlisted if they are suspected of being a suspected terrorist, or if they are suspected of associating with people who are suspected of terrorism activity.”

Also in The Intercept, Jeremy Scahill and Ryan Devereaux explain the absurdly broad net that is the terrorist watchlist. “There are a number of loopholes for putting people onto the watchlists even if reasonable suspicion cannot be met.”

(4) “Nearly all of the highest-profile domestic terrorism plots in the United States since 9/11 featured the ‘direct involvement’ of government agents or informants, a new report says…rais[ing] questions about the US criminal justice system’s ability to respect civil rights and due process in post-9/11 terrorism cases.”

And in The Guardian, Spencer Ackerman expounds on the FBI’s apparent excessive leaning on entrapment to conjure up terror cases. “‘In some cases the FBI may have created terrorists out of law-abiding individuals by suggesting the idea of taking terrorist action or encouraging the target to act,’ the report alleges.”

Torture, rendition, secret prisons, spying on Americans, surveillance policies that are obviously, woefully ripe for abuse…We are six and a half years into the administration of a president who promised us definitively this nonsense would end. And yet, virtually every day, we hear of a new outrage, and the only official response seems to be Lock Up the Messenger. So when are we going to get an accountability moment here?

A Wasted Opportunity. | So Now What?

“The task facing the makers of the Obama museum, however, will be pretty much exactly the opposite: how to document a time when America should have changed but didn’t. Its project will be to explain an age when every aspect of societal breakdown was out in the open and the old platitudes could no longer paper it over — when the meritocracy was clearly corrupt, when the financial system had devolved into organized thievery, when everyone knew that the politicians were bought and the worst criminals went unprosecuted and the middle class was in a state of collapse….It was a time when every thinking person could see that the reigning ideology had failed, that an epoch had ended, that the shitty consensus ideas of the 1980s had finally caved in — and when an unlikely champion arose from the mean streets of Chicago to keep the whole thing propped up nevertheless.”

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.

Update: Right on cue, the NYT delves into Andrew Cuomo’s hobbling of the state ethics commission. “[A] three-month examination by The New York Times found that the governor’s office deeply compromised the panel’s work, objecting whenever the commission focused on groups with ties to Mr. Cuomo or on issues that might reflect poorly on him.”More here.

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.”

The Crisis That Wasn’t.

“It’s hard to escape the sense that debt panic was promoted because it served a political purpose — that many people were pushing the notion of a debt crisis as a way to attack Social Security and Medicare. And they did immense damage along the way, diverting the nation’s attention from its real problems — crippling unemployment, deteriorating infrastructure and more — for years on end.”

In the NYT, Paul Krugman reviews the waning of the deficit witchhunt. “I’m not sure whether most readers realize just how thoroughly the great fiscal panic has fizzled — and the deficit scolds are, of course, still scolding.” Of course they are. Now would be the time for embarrassment, if the Simpson-Bowles types out there were capable of it.

Same Old Hillary.

While working this week on my semi-regular project of fixing the archives around here (something I’d like to complete before GitM’s 15th anniversary in November, but it’s slow, tedious going), I came across this line, from a post on the very first Election 2008 debate back in May 2007:

“As for Clinton, well, it’s not entirely her fault, I guess — unlike Obama, she’s been with us for a decade and a half now, and is nothing if not a known quantity. But she came across to me as the same cautious, methodical, triangulating centrist she’s shown herself to be over the past fifteen years in public life, and it’s getting harder to imagine myself being anything but underwhelmed by her as a candidate in the general election.”

Of course, the 2008 primaries thereafter grew quite heated, and, suffice to say, I didn’t think HRC accorded herself very well. So instead of the cautious, methodical, triangulating centrist we knew, I and millions of others took a gamble on Hope and Change…and ended up with a cautious, methodical, triangulating centrist regardless.

So here we are six years later, with an American electorate that has moved demonstrably to the left, and the former Secretary of State and presumptive Democratic nominee just held her first almost-a-candidate townhall on CNN. And what have we learned so far about the all-new, tanned, rested, and ready, 2016 iteration of Hillary Clinton?

1) She thinks Edward Snowden pals around with terrorists. “I think turning over a lot of that material—intentionally or unintentionally—drained, gave all kinds of information, not only to big countries, but to networks and terrorist groups and the like. So I have a hard time thinking that somebody who is a champion of privacy and liberty has taken refuge in Russia, under Putin’s authority.”

2) Her favorite book is…the Bible. “[T]he Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking. I was raised reading it, memorizing passages from it and being guided by it. I still find it a source of wisdom, comfort and encouragement.” Edgy!

3) She won’t take a position on Keystone. “‘I can’t respond,’ she said…’This particular decision is a very difficult one because there are so many factors at play.’”

4) She was actually against the Iraq War last time around, but just couldn’t come out and say it because she supports the troops. “[I]n fact, in the Democratic Party at that time, the smart political decision, as so many of my colleagues did, was to come out and say ‘Terrible mistake, shouldn’t have done it,’ and you know blame the Bush administration. I had this sense that I had voted for it, and we had all these young men and women over there, and it was a terrible battle environment…So I felt like I couldn’t break faith with them.”

5) By the way, those troops should still be in Iraq right now. “When — President Bush decided, before President Obama became president, that we would leave Iraq in 2011, the United States would end its combat mission, unless the Iraqi government agreed to ask us to stay, under the same conditions that we have all around the world. It’s called a status of forces ingredient. I was involved in a lot of the efforts to come up with what our offer would be. And we made such an offer to then Prime Minister Maliki. And he would not accept the status of forces agreement…[W]e knew Iraq would be quite dangerous for a long time, unpredictable, at the very least — you have to have the host government, in this case Iraq, say, OK, here’s what we want…We didn’t get that done. And I think, in retrospect, that was a mistake by the Iraqi government.”

6) She won’t come right out and endorse paid maternity leave in America. “I think, eventually, it should be, but, right now, we’re seeing some — some very good proposals being implemented in other parts of the country, so that we have answers…I don’t think, politically, we could get it now.” By the way, you know who else doesn’t have paid maternity leave? Lesotho, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland. That’s it.

7) She won’t come right out and say racism may be a factor in anti-Obama sentiment. “Well, I know that — I don’t want to — I don’t want to say that I verify that, because that would be generalizing too broadly. I believe that there are people who have trouble with ethnicity, with race, with gender, with sexual orientation, you name it. And therefore, they are not developing a reasoned opinion — even if it’s an opinion in opposition, but they are a reacting on a visceral stereotypical basis. And that’s unfortunate.” YES, Madam Secretary. The answer here is “YES.”

8) Her family is apparently shielding wealth from the estate tax, a tax both she and the former President support. A common move among 1%’ers, but nonetheless one that doesn’t inspire confidence.

And so on. Secretary Clinton has moved left on immigration (though she wouldn’t badmouth Obama’s draconian deportation policy), on marijuana (though she said medicinal marijuana “needs more research” and gave the “let the states lead the way” hedge on decriminalization), and on gay marriage (she came out in support…last year.) In all of these, she’s lagging behind the country as a whole, much less the Democratic Party.

TL;DR: Secretary Clinton is still, indisputably, the same cautious, methodical, triangulating centrist as ever. And yet, for some reason — even though it’s hard to think of a single solitary stance she’s taken that would move our party in a new and progressive direction — she’s not only the party of the left’s presumptive standard-bearer — For all intent and purposes, she’s running unchallenged!

Politics these days is depressing, and no mistake.

The Grifter Prince.

“Geithner is at heart a grifter, a petty con artist with the right manners and breeding to lie at the top echelons of American finance at a moment when the government and financial services industry needed someone to be the face of their multi-trillion dollar three card monte…After reading this book and documenting lie after lie after lie, I’m convinced that there’s more here than just a self-serving corrupt official. There’s an entire culture, of figures at Treasury, the Federal Reserve, in the entire Democratic Party elite structure, and in the world of journalism, a culture in which Geithner is seen as some sort of role model.”

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.”

Geithner: Wrong on Everything

“At every turn on housing — on mass refinancing, on principal reduction, on leverage for homeowners in the bankruptcy process, on forcing banks to write down mortgages, on a modern-day HOLC–the evidence points to Tim Geithner preferring whatever option put the least pressure on banks, rather than actually helping ordinary people. He made far more excuses to do nothing than any effort to make a difference…In fact, the programs were never meant to help homeowners, designed only to ‘foam the runway’ for the banks, to spread out foreclosures and allow banks to absorb them.”

In the wake of Tim Geithner’s new rehab book tour — currently being aided and abetted by Wall Street’s usual court stenographer, Andrew Ross Sorkin — Dave Dayen says not so fast. “I don’t have to just focus on housing; this is indicative of Geithner’s worldview, which sees protecting the financial system at all costs as the only thing that matters.”

Yves Smith has also ably eviscerated Geithner’s game of “Three Card Monte”: “The entire edifice of the piece is a sleight of hand…The focus on TARP (and to a lesser degree, Lehman) allows Sorkin to omit mention of actions that were clearly Geithner’s doing…The bigger point, which is not lost on the public, was there were plenty of other options for saving the system. The one chosen, that left the banks largely unreformed and no one of any consequence punished, was clearly just about the worst of the available options, unless, of course, you are, like Geithner, a banker.”

And here’re economics and finance professors Atif Mian and Amir Sufi: “Whatever reasons he had for opposing assistance to underwater homeowners, a careful evaluation of the policy effects was not among them. The evidence is pretty clear: an aggressive bold attack on household debt would have significantly reduced the horrible impact of the Great Recession on Americans. The fact that Secretary Geithner and the Obama administration did not push for debt write-downs more aggressively remains the biggest policy mistake of the Great Recession.”

Noam Scheiber has his say in TNR: “[The article] inadvertently highlights something deeper about Geithner, which is the shocking extent to which he’s accepted financialization of the economy as a benign, even admirable, development. The people who spend their days shuffling trillions of dollars around the globe are really just like you and me, except with nicer offices. They deserve the same sympathy and respect, notwithstanding their abysmal track record. That blinkered view colors pretty much every one of Geithner’s utterances as he makes the rounds hawking books.”

Also of note: Geithner doesn’t seem to understand how Social Security works, and, in classic #ThisTown fashion, he — the Secretary of the Treasury! — just parrots the same ignorant Beltway line about zomg out-of-control entitlements as all Very Serious People™ do. To wit, from Geithner’s book:

“I remember during one Roosevelt Room prep session before I appeared on the Sunday shows, I objected when Dan Pfeiffer [a senior advisor to the Obama White House] wanted me to say Social Security didn’t contribute to the deficit. It wasn’t a main driver of our future deficits, but it did contribute. Pfeiffer said the line was a ‘dog whistle’ to the left…code to the Democratic base, signaling that we intended to protect Social Security.”

And here’s the LA Times’ Michael Hiltzik: “But let’s get to the nub. Does Social Security ‘contribute to the deficit’? The answer is, bluntly, no. By law, it can’t contribute to the federal deficit, because Social Security isn’t allowed to spend more than it takes in. Those who claim — as Geithner has at one point or another — both that the program contributes to the deficit yet will be forced to reduce benefits to retirees once its trust fund is depleted are trying to have things both ways: The reasoning behind the threat of reduced benefits is that Social Security can’t engage in spending money it doesn’t have, i.e., deficit spending. Pick one, fellas. If it can contribute to the deficit, then there’s no reason to cut benefits.”

So is there’s anything positive about Geithner’s rewriting of history here? Well, the Sorkin piece does include this telling anecdote: “At another point, [Geithner] cheerfully relayed a story that also appears in his book about the time he sought advice from Bill Clinton on how to pursue a more populist strategy: ‘You could take Lloyd Blankfein into a dark alley,’ Clinton said, ‘and slit his throat, and it would satisfy them for about two days. Then the blood lust would rise again.’”

Could somebody please tell me again why I should be excited about Hillary 2016?

Update: Sheila Bair offers her take. “On his book tour, to explain the need for bailouts, Tim has used a clever analogy of a pilot trying to land a plane that is on fire and in the back, sit the terrorists who started it. He argues that the pilot can’t leave the cockpit to put them in handcuffs. He first has to land the plane. The problem with this analogy is that the plane landed at the end of 2008. And let’s face it, instead of handcuffing the terrorists, we escorted them to the executive lounge.”

“Ronald Reagan’s Benghazi.”

“Around dawn on October 23, 1983, I was in Beirut, Lebanon, when a suicide bomber drove a truck laden with the equivalent of twenty-one thousand pounds of TNT into the heart of a U.S. Marine compound, killing two hundred and forty-one servicemen…Six months earlier, militants had bombed the U.S. embassy in Beirut, too, killing sixty-three more people, including seventeen Americans…In September of 1984, for the third time in eighteen months, jihadists bombed a U.S. government outpost in Beirut yet again. President Reagan acknowledged that the new security precautions that had been advocated by Congress hadn’t yet been implemented at the U.S. embassy annex that had been hit.”

As Republicans continue to lose their minds over Benghazi, to the detriment of all, The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer puts things in perspective by going back to Beirut ’83. “If you compare the costs of the Reagan Administration’s serial security lapses in Beirut to the costs of Benghazi, it’s clear what has really deteriorated in the intervening three decades. It’s not the security of American government personnel working abroad. It’s the behavior of American congressmen at home.”

See also: the Dubya record on diplomatic attacks — there were over a dozen of ‘em. I know complaining about GOP hypocrisy these days is like complaining about the weather. But honestly, what an egregious waste of time this is.

Net Neutrality? Try Net Neville Chamberlain.

“The FCC has a very simple way to create simple, fair and enforceable rules to protect innovation, free speech and commerce. It lacks the courage and (perhaps) political capital to re-grant itself this power. Lacking this power, the FCC is…allow[ing] Verizon, Comcast and AT&T to create slow and fast lanes…The FCC wants to call this ‘net neutrality.’ It’s nothing of the sort and the proposal needs to be killed. It’s a bargain that will kill innovation on the net.”

At Medium, Ryan Singel explains how Obama’s FCC is giving up on Net Neutrality and endangering the future of the Internet. “Simply put, the FCC is too scared of the big telecoms to do the simple thing and reclassify your ISP as a common carrier. (The midterms are coming up.)…We have to make it clear that destroying the internet in order to save it is not an option, and we can’t and won’t let that happen.”

To be clear, Obama’s FCC, under both Julius Genachowski and now Tom Wheeler, has been completely chicken-shit on this issue from Jump Street. The answer is and has always been to reclassify ISPs as telecommunications services, which they obviously are. But, instead, Genachowski tried to placate the Comcasts of the world and split the baby on this issue in 2010. The result was so ridiculous that the Court rejected his entire plan, and now Wheeler — a former cable lobbyist — is completing the cave.

This also counts as a(nother) blatant and egregious broken promise from President Obama — one so bad that Nancy Pelosi has already broken ranks. Here’s Obama in 2007: “‘The answer is yes, I am a strong supporter of Net neutrality.’…Obama added that companies like Google may not have gotten started without a ‘level playing field’ and pledged to make sure Net neutrality ‘is the principle that my FCC commissioners are applying as we move forward.’” (Cartoon by Cagle.)

The New Gilded Age.

“[This] is, as I hope I’ve made clear, an awesome work. At a time when the concentration of wealth and income in the hands of a few has resurfaced as a central political issue, Piketty doesn’t just offer invaluable documentation of what is happening, with unmatched historical depth. He also offers what amounts to a unified field theory of inequality, one that integrates economic growth, the distribution of income between capital and labor, and the distribution of wealth and income among individuals into a single frame.”

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.”

Feingold Follows Fossey.

“Feingold has undertaken a dizzying round of talks in at least eight different African capitals, cajoling leaders face to face, negotiating with skittish rebels late into the night and strategizing with fellow diplomats, all in a very uphill effort to stop a long-running conflict in a region littered with failed peace deals. ‘Without a doubt,’ he said over coffee a few hours after the gorilla trek, ‘this is one of the favorite things I’ve ever done in my life.’

Stuart Reid checks in with former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold at his current job as John Kerry’s special envoy to the Great Lakes region and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. “‘I really wanted him here at the State Department because I saw him operate on the Foreign Relations Committee,’ Kerry told me. ‘He was the Senate’s expert, bar none, on Africa. He knows the region and the players.’”

A Wagonful of Crooks.

“Attorneys, forensic accountants and consumer advocates have long suspected that banks were systematically creating improper documents to prove ownership of loans. Foreclosure defense lawyers use the term ‘ta-da’ endorsement to describe situations in which they say a document appears, as if by magic, in the bank’s possession as needed in a foreclosure case…The manual…appears to provide step-by-step instructions for a Wells Fargo Home Mortgage ‘Default Docs Team’ and foreclosure attorneys if a blank endorsement is in a file and the attorney wants that note executed.”

In another example of banksters taking notes on a criminal f**king conspiracy, the NY Post get their hands on Wells Fargo’s How-To-Manual for ginning up fraudulent foreclosure documents. “Foreclosure experts called these procedures shocking. ‘It’s an explosive document,’ said forensic accountant Jay Patterson.” Hey, can somebody go to jail now?

Update: Nope, doesn’t look like it. “Four years after President Obama promised to crack down on mortgage fraud, his administration has quietly made the crime its lowest priority and has closed hundreds of cases after little or no investigation, the Justice Department’s internal watchdog said on Thursday.”

But We Didn’t.

“Barack Obama has now been in power for longer than Johnson was, and the question remains: ‘What the hell’s his presidency for?’ His second term has been characterised by a profound sense of drift in principle and policy. While posing as the ally of the immigrant he is deporting people at a faster clip than any of his predecessors; while claiming to be a supporter of labour he’s championing trade deals that will undercut American jobs and wages. In December, even as he pursued one whistleblower, Edward Snowden and kept another, Chelsea Manning, incarcerated, he told the crowd at Nelson Mandela’s funeral: ‘There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.’”

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.”

Rolling in the Deep.

“The Deep State is the big story of our time. It is the red thread that runs through the war on terrorism, the financialization and deindustrialization of the American economy, the rise of a plutocratic social structure and political dysfunction. Washington is the headquarters of the Deep State, and its time in the sun as a rival to Rome, Constantinople or London may be term-limited by its overweening sense of self-importance and its habit, as Winwood Reade said of Rome, to ‘live upon its principal till ruin stared it in the face.’ ‘Living upon its principal,’ in this case, means that the Deep State has been extracting value from the American people in vampire-like fashion.”

In very related news, and in a somewhat overwritten but otherwise worthy piece, former GOP Congressional staffer Mike Lofgren summarizes the problem of America’s Deep State (a term Lofgren did not coin, borrowed from Turkey.) Think the military-industrial complex, now infused with financial sector/Pete Peterson-style rent-seeking. “[This] is not an exposé of a secret, conspiratorial cabal; the state within a state is hiding mostly in plain sight, and its operators mainly act in the light of day.”

Room in DC.

“Emblematic examples of his work, the two paintings…capture the strong sense of atmosphere and light as well as the empty stillness that characterize much of Hopper’s imagery. They also demonstrate Hopper’s fascination with the various forms of this country’s vernacular architecture — a subject he would return to again and again, resulting in some of the most enduring images of American art.”

By way of a friend, the Oval Office gets some Hoppers on loan (apparently to replace a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, which needs to get out of the light for awhile.) “Cobb’s Barns, South Truro, and Burly Cobb’s House, South Truro — oil on canvas works painted in 1930-33 on Cape Cod — have been lent by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the world’s largest repository of Hopper’s works.”

With Friends Like These.

“If the reporter’s own mother was losing $90 of foods a month out of an already-meager allotment, or the reporter’s son or daughter, I very much doubt that reporter would describe that loss as merely symbolic. I don’t know that reporter thinks their own breakfast, their own lunch, or their own dinner is merely symbolic. This is real money coming out of the grocery carts of real families.”

In Salon, former USDA official Joel Berg reads the riot act to lazy journalists and spineless Dems over the soon-to-pass Farm Bill, which cuts Food Stamps for the poor while expanding crop insurance subsidies for wealthy farms. “It infuriates me, that we live in a country with tens of thousands of actual loopholes that benefit the ultra-rich, [whereas] this is a provision authorized by law, perfectly legal, perfectly sensible, that governors of both parties have utilized…[Calling Food Stamp cuts "closing a loophole" is] basically a fabricated excuse. And it’s a smokescreen to obfuscate the fact that they’re taking food away from hungry families.”

Berg goes on: “George W. Bush proposed a billion dollars in cuts to SNAP, and virtually all these people were aghast at how horrible it is. For them to then turn around and justify cuts that are [eight] times as large as what George W. Bush proposed is a little hard to swallow. I do think our political system is basically evil versus spineless now.”

This. It’s the same dynamic you see on the NSA, on the Grand Bargain, and on countless other issues. And this is why I hard to find it to take so many Dems seriously anymore. Here’s the bill passage pablum from Senate Ag Chair Debbie Stabenow: “Congress is on the verge of taking bipartisan action that will create jobs and help reduce the deficit. This is not your father’s Farm Bill. It implements major reforms and ends unnecessary subsidies…Congress can pass a bipartisan bill that helps take us into the future and beyond the policies of the past.” And here’s the missing subtext: “Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) has received more contributions from the crop production industry than any other senator.”

Ain’t no use jiving, ain’t no use joking. Everything is broken, and we need to stop enabling it or it will never, ever get better.

Not Too Distant Mirror.

“The ritual, by now, is well-established. President Barack Obama will travel to the lower house of the national legislature from the executive mansion, and…give a long speech extolling the nation’s virtues and present circumstances — the state of the union is invariably described as ‘strong’ — and laying out the regime’s priorities.”

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.

“This Sunday, the eyes of millions of Americans will turn to a fetid marsh in the industrial hinterlands of New York City for the country’s most important sporting event — and some would say the key to understanding its proud but violent culture.”

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 militarismcongrats 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.

Wilentz Remains a Hack. | Snowden’s Body.

“Long time readers of Sean Wilentz will remember him for greatest hits like his notorious piece on…[Obama in 2008 being] ‘the most outrageous deployment of racial politics since the Willie Horton ad campaign in 1988‘…[This article,] perhaps the purest exercise in even-the-liberal-New Republic-ism that the magazine has published since its change in ownership…[is] so obviously intellectually shoddy and incoherently argued that you’d have thought that any half-way competent editor would have decided that no amount of contrarianism was worth the damage to the magazine’s brand.”

Doing the world a great service, Crooked Timber thoroughly and quite rightly eviscerates historian Sean Wilentzbeing hackish again — for his comically terrible TNR expose of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Glenn Greenwald, as if their opinions on other matters, or Greenwald’s propensity for scorched-earth arguing, had anything to do with the legality, constitutionality, or desirability of the surveillance state.

“This paragraph is the cornerstone of the big, teetering edifice that Wilentz is trying to construct. And it’s made out of straw and horseshit…It’s shoddy hackwork, a kind of underpants gnome reasoning…It’s sad to see someone who considers himself (and is considered by many of his colleagues) to be a serious historian shoveling this kind of tripe in public; it’s the sort of thing that gives public intellectualism a bad name.” (Photo via here.)

Along similar lines, also worth noting in this arena is the recent anonymously-sourced statements of senior defense officials about Edward Snowden. “I would love to put a bullet in his head,” one Pentagon official, a former special forces officer said bluntly…’[H]e is single-handedly the greatest traitor in American history.’…’His name is cursed every day over here,’ a defense contractor told BuzzFeed, speaking from an overseas intelligence collections base. ‘Most everyone I talk to says he needs to be tried and hung, forget the trial and just hang him.’” And that sort of semi-official fantasizing about murder by DoD brass is exactly why these assholes have to be reined in.

Pope and Change.

“It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new…In this context, some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

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.

Update: Pope Francis is TIME’s Person of the Year. A worthy choice, though I would’ve probably have gone with Edward Snowden.

The Wisdom of the Elders.

“Does this rollout failure discredit the core goals of a liberal project, including that of a mixed economy, a regulatory state, and social insurance? Conservatives in particular think this website has broad implications for liberalism as a philosophical and political project. I think it does, but for the exact opposite reasons: it highlights the problems inherent in the move to a neoliberal form of a governance and social insurance, while demonstrating the superiorities in the older, New Deal form of liberalism.”

Assessing the failure of the healthcare.gov rollout, Mike Konczal makes the case for returning to the old ways. “[T]he Category B grouping, which we associate with the New Deal and the Great Society…creates a universal floor so that individuals don’t experience basic welfare goods as commodities to buy and sell themselves…My man Franklin Delano Roosevelt may not have known about JavaScript and agile programming, but he knew a few things about the public provisioning of social insurance, and he realized the second category, while conceptually more work for the government, can eliminate a lot of unnecessary administrative problems.”

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.”

Got to Have Kaya Now.

“Support for legalization has jumped 10 percentage points since last November and the legal momentum shows no sign of abating. Last week, California’s second-highest elected official, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, said that pot should be legal in the Golden State, and advocates of legalization are poised to introduce a statewide referendum in 2014 to legalize the drug.”

As a follow-up to this post, Gallup finds that support for legalizing marijuana has shot up to 58%, following a similar pattern as gay marriage in recent years. Again, if they want to mitigate the usual midterm electorate problem, Dems should follow the Rove playbook on this, and get weed on the 2014 ballots ASAP.

The End of Easy Hypocrisy?

“The deeper threat that leakers such as Manning and Snowden pose is more subtle than a direct assault on U.S. national security: they undermine Washington’s ability to act hypocritically and get away with it. Their danger lies not in the new information that they reveal but in the documented confirmation they provide of what the United States is actually doing and why. When these deeds turn out to clash with the government’s public rhetoric, as they so often do, it becomes harder for U.S. allies to overlook Washington’s covert behavior and easier for U.S. adversaries to justify their own.”

In Foreign Affairs, Henry Farrell and Martha Finnemore argue that, as a result of whistleblowing, the US is “no longer able to rely on easy hypocrisy in our foreign policy. “Secrecy can be defended as a policy in a democracy. Blatant hypocrisy is a tougher sell. Voters accept that they cannot know everything that their government does, but they do not like being lied to.”

Note: The link is behind a paywall, but Digby has an excerpt and thoughts up, as does Farrell in the Washington Post. This also reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s Neo-Victorians in The Diamond Age, which I presume is the tack a defender of our obvious diplomatic double-standards would take: “That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code…does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”

The Neverending Shutdown.

“[W]ith recovery still perilously weak in 2010, the obvious response would have been a second dose of stimulus spending. But the political world was already moving in the opposite direction…In the end, for reasons both political and ideological, Obama decided that he needed to demonstrate that he took the deficit seriously, and in his 2010 State of the Union address he did just that…The Beltway establishment may have applauded Obama’s pivot to the deficit, but much of the economic community saw it as nothing short of a debacle.”

It’s the Austerity, Stupid: In Mother Jones, Kevin Drum surveys the rise of deficit hysteria in the Beltway over the past several years, with particular attention paid to the Reinhart-Rogoff debacle. “It’s not as if we needed the skills of Nostradamus to predict the consequences of austerity. It’s pretty much textbook economics.” (Rhino via here.)

“It was an awful time. Federal employees had to take unpaid furlough days. Beneficiaries were thrown off of federal programs. Courthouses had to be sold. Federal agencies like the FBI, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health strained to meet commitments, leading to more crime, more outbreaks of disease and less basic research, among other horrors. This may sound like a description of the recent government shutdown, which ended October 16. But this describes the fallout from sequestration, the across-the-board cuts to discretionary spending that took effect March 1—arbitrary reductions that closely parallel the effects of the shutdown.”

Meanwhile, as David Dayen recently noted in The New Republic, the deficit witchhunt is continuing to wreak havoc across America, in the form of the sequestration budget. “Sequestration and artificial spending caps have become the new normal, and it’s redefining the role of government, rolling back the ambitions of the past, and constraining needed investments in the future. So let’s call it what it is: a government shutdown that’s infinitely worse than the one that just ended.”

Nihilists, Dude.

“‘It’s imperative to act now, Cruz warns, before the full benefits of Obamacare kick in and Americans get “hooked on the sugar, hooked on the subsidies.’ His plan: Yoke the defunding of Obamacare to the must-pass budget bill the House will take up in September. The endgame? To force a government shutdown so painful and protracted that Barack Obama would have no choice but to surrender the crown jewel of his presidency. ‘As scary as a shutdown fight is,’ Cruz insists, ‘if we don’t stand and defund Obamacare now, we never will.’”

Another dispatch from the madhouse: In a fine piece of reporting, Rolling Stone‘s Tim Dickinson delves inside the Republican suicide machine. “Having backed the GOP into a shutdown fight that congressional leaders never wanted, the insurgents are winning, and establishment leaders are running scared. America is now careening toward a catastrophic voluntary default on our debt because no one in the Republican Party with the authority to put on the brakes has the guts to apply them, for fear of being toppled from power.”

An important point Dickinson makes here that cannot be emphasized enough: We didn’t just stumble into this crisis: Taking the government and the debt ceiling hostage was the strategy all long, and the right-wing insurgents have been planning for this for months. “They’d drawn a dangerous lesson from the previous battle: Brinksmanship works…In February, the House temporarily suspended the debt ceiling — intending to give the president’s poll numbers three months to come back to earth.”

Hey, speaking of polling numbers coming back to Earth

In any case, see also the NYT on this: “To many Americans, the shutdown came out of nowhere. But interviews with a wide array of conservatives show that the confrontation that precipitated the crisis was the outgrowth of a long-running effort to undo the law, the Affordable Care Act, since its passage in 2010 — waged by a galaxy of conservative groups with more money, organized tactics and interconnections than is commonly known.”

So we’re not in this hostage crisis by accident. The GOP even changed the House rules so they could maximize this confrontation. Republicans saw Obama fold in December 2010 on the Bush tax cuts and in August 2011 on the last debt ceiling hike. They think they can make him fold again here, and on every subsequent debt ceiling hike, and sadly, history is on their side on this. As Ted Cruz put it a few months ago: “If you have an impasse, you know — one side or the other has to blink. How do we win this fight? Don’t blink.”

Another small digression: If, like Ralph Nader this morning, you’re wondering why the right-wing of the GOP always seems to pull these sorts of stunts off while the left-wing of the Dems are usually completely marginalized, two quick answers: 1) The lefties don’t have billionaires backing their plays, and 2) we’re the People’s Front of Judea. They’re the right, they’re inherently better at the goose-stepping.

That being said, this whole episode also illustrates why it’s useless for Democrats to try to meet these fools halfway on policy: Republicans have now spent almost three years voting constantly to end the Affordable Care Act. To break a health care law originally penned by the Heritage Foundation and enacted by Mitt Romney, they have shut down the government and sent us to the brink of an economic default. So, how, exactly, would things be different if we had just passed Medicare for all, and/or a public option? They were going to lose their shit regardless, just like they did on Social Security, on Medicare, and any other progressive issue you can think of. There’s no point in trying to placate people who aren’t bargaining in good faith.

Anyway, as it happens, and as Andrew Sullivan recently pointed out, we’ve seen a minority party in America rejected at the polls try to take the entire nation hostage before. Here’s Abe Lincoln in 1861:

“What is our present condition? We have just carried an election on principles fairly stated to the people. Now we are told in advance, the government shall be broken up, unless we surrender to those we have beaten, before we take the offices. In this they are either attempting to play upon us, or they are in dead earnest. Either way, if we surrender, it is the end of us, and of the government. They will repeat the experiment upon us ad libitum. A year will not pass, till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they will stay in the Union.”

So too here: This time the scalp the GOP wants is the Affordable Care Act, or the Ryan budget, or social insurance cuts, or Malia Obama. “‘The girl. Bring us the girl,’ said Congressman Steve King (R-IA)..’The bill may pass, but the firstborn shall be ours.’” It’ll be something else the next time and the time after that.

That’s why John Judis is calling this “one of the worst crises in American history“, and why Jon Chait wrote that “Allowing Republicans to default on the debt now is better than trading something that allows them to threaten it later.” Because if Obama buckles this time — and, let’s remember, we already gave the GOP their sequester-funding-levels — the Republicans will just keep taking the American government and economy hostage to get whatever they want. And quicker than you can say he-said, she-said, the rest of the lazy Beltway media will come to treat this sort of hostage-taking as politics as usual. It has to end here, or it never will.

Dispatches from the Madhouse.

“There have been lazier Congresses, more vicious Congresses, and Congresses less capable of seeing forests for trees. But there has never been in a single Congress — or, more precisely, in a single House of the Congress — a more lethal combination of political ambition, political stupidity, and political vainglory than exists in this one…We have elected an ungovernable collection of snake-handlers, Bible-bangers, ignorami, bagmen and outright frauds, a collection so ungovernable that it insists the nation be ungovernable, too. We have elected people to govern us who do not believe in government.”

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.

Party Like It’s 1928.

“Most of the coverage has focused on the rate of change for incomes of the top 1 percent, particularly the fact that the top 1 percent have enjoyed 95 percent of all income growth from 2009 to 2012. But I want to focus on levels. I’m going to modify one of Saez’s charts to show something I don’t think has been pointed out.”

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!

The Black Budget, Revealed.

“The summary provides a detailed look at how the U.S. intelligence community has been reconfigured by the massive infusion of resources that followed the Sept. 11 attacks. The United States has spent more than $500 billion on intelligence during that period…The result is an espionage empire with resources and reach beyond those of any adversary, sustained even now by spending that rivals or exceeds the levels reached at the height of the Cold War.”

Thanks to info provided by Edward Snowden, the WaPo builds on their earlier Top Secret America coverage with a first-ever detailed summary of the “Black Budget.” “The document describes a constellation of spy agencies that track millions of individual surveillance targets and carry out operations that include hundreds of lethal strikes.”

Among the revelations here: “Spending by the CIA has surged past that of every other spy agency, with $14.7 billion in requested funding for 2013. The figure vastly exceeds outside estimates and is nearly 50 percent above that of the National Security Agency, which…has long been considered the behemoth of the community…The CIA’s dominant position will likely stun outside experts.”

Also of note: This multi-billion-dollar, post-9/11 technological terror we’ve constructed “remain[s] unable to provide critical information to the president on a range of national security threats..A chart outlining efforts to address key questions on biological and chemical weapons is particularly bleak…The intelligence community seems particularly daunted by the emergence of ‘home grown’ terrorists who plan attacks in the United States without direct support or instruction from abroad.”

In other words, what we have here is a resource-swallowing, clandestine intelligence-industrial bureaucracy that’s nonetheless incapable of actually doing what it’s ostensibly being funded to do. You can see why they’d want to keep this sort of thing secret.

Update: “Since 2007, we’ve known how much the total Black Budget is (before that, with some years excepted, we didn’t even know that), but not how much is spent on specific things. Now we know that too.” Eleven budget charts to help make sense of it all.

The Guns of August.

“The direction of events in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran should keep us awake at night. History is taking a dangerous turn…The region certainly cannot sustain two wars — Syria’s bloody insurgency and a near-civil war in Egypt — without wrecking established peace treaties and the normal mechanisms for defusing conflict.”

As armed US intervention in Syria seemingly passes the point of fait accompli — despite the fact that, as usual, any desirable outcome is unlikely, and blowback almost inevitable, from such a campaign — veteran Mideast correspondent Roger Boyes voices his concerns about the imploding Middle East. (Paywall-free summary here.) “In August 1914 there was a lot of grouse shooting going on. In August 2013, politicians prefer to read doorstopper biographies in Tuscany and Cornwall. Yet the spreading Middle East crisis, its multiple flashpoints, is every bit as ominous as the prelude to war in 1914.”

Strange Voices Are Saying…

“I don’t think there’s much hope at this point in blocking the nomination from the outside; apparently a chief executive can make terrible choices for dodgy reasons whenever he wants, as we’ve learned time and again…It’s good to be the king, especially when the court is so cowed (and by court I mean the professional DC liberal class).”

As rumors fly that — despite the obvious terribleness of the pick — Obama has virtually settled on Larry Summers as Fed Chair, David Dayen wonders aloud if this is all part of a Grand Bargain redux:

“You’re a President with a very tough set of fiscal fights coming up. You’ve wanted entitlement reforms for five years, but cannot get it worked out. You’ve been playing footsie with the Senate Republican caucus all year. Now you’re in a situation where you need Republican votes…I mean, any rational human would have given up on grand bargaineering by now…[but now] the White House can argue that they simply had to go along with, I don’t know, the chained CPI measure they put in their own budget, because it was a way to ‘get’ Larry Summers, among other things.” Frighteningly plausible.

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