Sunday, November 24, 2013

Democracy's Ills

How does that quote go again: "These are the times that try men's souls"? There is a frustrating duopoly at play; in our elections, in civil discourse, in our constitution, and certainly in our strained sense of democracy. We have come to learn, again, that our constitution is flawed and limiting. We, or most of us, say we support democracy, but we can't avoid the question as to why democracy and free elections have led us to the abyss. We speak of equality, think of ourselves, naively, as a classless society, and insist on such time-tested homilies as equal representation, or no taxation without representation (yeah, that's a good one). We have created or inherited a political system that we once urged, or sometimes forced, upon the world but which is now badly failing us.

On the one hand we continue to espouse boilerplate straight from civics class: freedom of expression, free markets makes for free people, a free press is the bedrock of a free society, all this freedom wrapped in a proud belief that minimum government yields maximum democracy --but it's all painfully juxtaposed against the urgently felt need to take back the public arena from the oligarchs, the corrupt, and religious fanatics. We, most of us, value freedom of speech; some of us still venerate the oh-so-learned Supreme Court for protecting our rights, but how many of us really believe Citizens United was a good decision? Or that denying the hyper-wealthy--or corporations--the right to buy elections, politicians, and the media is an affront to their free speech? 

On the other hand, do we know, or care to know, how much voter ignorance and apathy have contributed to our condition? I didn't vote for the jackasses that say we need to cut social security and food stamps from the poor because that's a good way to balance the budget. But millions did.

We may lament that people vote for selfish or irrational reasons, but we must remind ourselves that in the formative years of our republic, universal suffrage was seen as a horrible idea by the aristocracy and most of the founding fathers. The argument always given was that commoners, the illiterate, women, the melanin-enriched, the unpropertied, all of them would make poor voting choices. Specifically, they would vote themselves goods and services that were economically unsustainable, and would destabilize government. They usually left unstated their fear that the power and privileges of the upper class would be threatened by true democracy. 

So it might seem ironic that the most powerful and privileged in society, and among the best educated, are now the ones pushing and protecting policies, practices and legislation that are selfish, reckless, and demonstrably unsustainable. The middle class largely supports the same stabilizing policies of the past, including responsible taxation, support for the self-funding and efficient social security system, regulations that return us to the decades of stable banking we once enjoyed, and more.

And yet just enough people vote for politicians who have made it clear they don't want Americans to have better health care, have no intention of reining in Wall Street, will forever feed the military-industrial gravy train, and consistently vote for the interests of the wealthy and against the poor and working class. 

The real tragedy of American democracy is not just that so many politicians, mostly Republicans, actively support a Dixified nation with a small ruling class at the bidding of corporations. It is that many others, mostly Democrats, claim to support working class folks, but end up going along with the money train; it is they who will settle for scraps and claim progress; it is they who will support legislation so weak, toothless, and watered down as to be useless. They, not all, but too many of them, want you to believe they are fighting for middle America. 

What is depressing about this is though there are many politicians who want to and try to do the right thing, there always seems to be enough politicians, either outright reactionaries or compromised "moderates" who either bitterly oppose anyone who tries to do anything that most Americans actually support, or quietly insist-mostly at election time--that they are for you, but cannot or will not actually promote legislation that is, in fact, popular. Who do they think votes them into office? Why don't they get behind legislation that their base supports? You would think that far-right Republicans would abandon bills that even their Republican base is cool to, just as Democrats should be more enthusiastic about, say, a minimum wage increase. How politically popular does something have to be before Democrats will come out of hiding and publicly support it? It's as if they would rather dodge the attacks from Republicans and right-wing media, and chase Wall Street dollars, than respond to the voters who actually put them into office. It is little wonder that so many of America's poor and working class are disaffected and don't bother to vote. 

But hey, congrats to Harry Reid on filibuster reform; you too Diane Feinstein. It took you a while, but you finally decided that after years of record obstructionism that you should step in and actually do something about it. Too bad it took you five years to notice what Republicans were doing to the economy, the political process, and your party's president.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Wall Street Should Reconsider Its Allies

By now it should be clear that Wall Street money was behind the rise of the Tea Party, a loose ragtag collection that felt empowered enough to attend rallies and hold misspelled signs as they vented and raged. Call them Wall Street's shock troops. It was a deft move; convince the middle class, at least enough of it- the white, disaffected, conservative, Republican-voting, mostly Southern portion, to howl against President Obama and how his radical Marxism was going to destroy the economy. But by all means ignore what Wall Street banks had been doing to the economy and how relentlessly wealth trickled upwards--out of the middle class communities, including those in reliably Republican Red states, and into the hands of banks and the investor class. That the investor class has been able to shield huge amounts of money from taxation, often sending it abroad where it did no good for the middle class communities that once held it, and how this is the primary driver of government debt; its all several dots that teabaggers refuse to connect.

Wall Street appears to be reassessing its strategy. It was never the investor class's intention that a right-wing, pseudo-populist Tea Party would actually win more than a token few seats in Congress. The intention was to deflect government from doing anything to rein in Wall Street's gravy train and to make sure rank and file Republican voters didn't start caring that Wall Street is corrupt and reckless. A couple more dots not connected.

Instead, we are now witnessing, once again, what happens when right-wing extremists, the perpetually-aggrieved sons of the South, actively undermine that which they cannot control. The South with its deeply undemocratic instincts on full display, has proven to us once again that this country has never truly been a united states.

Wall Street may have seriously misjudged Southern animosity towards government, the one that feeds and protects the investor class, but it also misjudged Barack Obama. The instinctive reaction to Democratic presidents, one that is seriously at odds with reality, and one that even the moneyed class makes, is that they are bad for business: They raise taxes and impose regulations. And everyone knows that doing that slows growth and kills jobs. "You can't tax your way to prosperity." "Government just gets in the way." The bromides are endless.

Sorting out whether such boiler-plate corporate talking points are actually true will have to wait for another post (Actually, the data is compelling: Wall Street is a blight on the US and Democrats have a better record on growth, job creation, and the budget). The point here is that corporate America, and especially Wall Street, have much for which to be thankful. In a more just and equitable world, one that believes that equal application of the law is not a mere slogan, many bankers and traders would be doing hard time and not printing their own "get-out-of-for-free" cards.

But prison terms and inadequate legal representation are for the poor and working class. White shoe lawyers, fines, and no admission of guilt are the quite acceptable cost of doing business for the wealthy. This is an arrangement that Obama need not have tolerated, but he did. And the re-imposition of regulations proven to be highly effective in the past, the ones that brought us decades of banking stability? Obama didn't go there either, to the utter dismay of many banking experts.

I don't expect teabaggers to figure it out, but Wall Street should know that energy production in the US has increased dramatically since Obama took office. Remember how Republicans told America that Obama would cave to environmentalists and implement job-killing energy legislation, all because of that hoax called global warming? How we would have $10/gal gasoline, and how it was all part of his socialist plan? The reality is this: "US oil output hit its highest level in 20 years in July in a power shift with big geopolitical consequences." And this: "U.S. To Become World's Largest Oil Producer, Overtaking Russia."

Wall Street knows this and benefits from it. Instead, it feared that Obama would raise their taxes to a level that still would have been lower than that under Reagan, implement sensible regulations that had been in place under Reagan, and, I don't know, uphold the law.

So right wing operatives, financed by Wall Street and others, told a gullible and poorly-informed America that Barack Obama was radically anti-business and therefore anti-American. Two easy marks: Teabaggers, who are predictable prey to fear, uncertainty, and doubt. And President Obama himself, who should have done more to put an end to Wall Street's plunder. If Wall Street were more honest, and if teabaggers were more educated, they would realize Barack Obama has governed like a moderate Republican. 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Dude, Where's My Pension?

One of the most egregiously inaccurate memes in America today is that there is a large class of takers/losers/slackers/Democrats who rake in money, benefits, and services they did not earn so they can continue an indolent lifestyle. They take it, as the story goes, from hard-working Americans, the ones who have jobs, pay their taxes, are pro-family, and vote Republican. I can hear it now: "This country would be fine if it weren't for certain of us getting what they don't deserve."

But as has been so common as of late, redstate angst has been fueled and then redirected by those who jerk their nose ring. One wonders how unequal wealth has to get in this country before all of us, not just some of us, realize how jaw-droppingly wrong the "creators vs takers" mythology really is.

Wall Street continues to play the central role in the trickle-up of assets from the middle class to the one percent. One way not well publicized, no surprise, is how these financiers raid public pension funds.

First a prelude. You have undoubtedly heard how burdensome state and local pension funds have become and how the gap between funded and unfunded obligations continues to grow. It is this growing gap that has conservatives howling about how public employees, goaded on by their reckless unions, are destroying state finances. Underneath it all is the conviction that the teachers and other workers have padded themselves enormous nest eggs they not only don't deserve, but have to be paid by the rest of us. Teachers living high on the hog? Who knew?
That brings us to Matt Taibbi, a journalist among the best at getting at the facts and telling a great story, especially the kind oligarchs would prefer you didn't hear. In a recent Rolling Stone article, Taibbi relates how pension funds are being looted by Wall Street. There is a lot in it, including some background on Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo and her Wall Street-financed role in gutting her state's public pensions and how Rhode Island became a model now being inflicted on the rest of us.

I urge you to read it all, but I'll highlight several points here. Whiz-kid Raimondo helped push through state legislation a cynic would call "pension reform", but financiers call gravy. The new legislation has enabled Raimondo to turn over millions of dollars of pension assets to hedge funds, who have the unmatched ability to generate huge fees, regardless of performance. Worse, the hedgies are run by ideologues who sit on the board of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank that promotes privatizing public pensions. Nice way to get paid.

One implication, as Taibbi notes, is that Rhode Island's public workers are losing control of their assets, where they are invested, and how hefty the fees might be.
The state's workers, in other words, were being forced to subsidize their own political disenfranchisement, coughing up at least $200 million to members of a group that had supported anti-labor laws. Later, when Edward Siedle, a former SEC lawyer, asked Raimondo in a column for how much the state was paying in fees to these hedge funds, she first claimed she didn't know. Raimondo later told the Providence Journal she was contractually obliged to defer to hedge funds on the release of "proprietary" information, which immediately prompted a letter in protest from a series of freaked-out interest groups. Under pressure, the state later released some fee information, but the information was originally kept hidden, even from the workers themselves. "When I asked, I was basically hammered," says Marcia Reback, a former sixth-grade schoolteacher and retired Providence Teachers Union president who serves as the lone union rep on Rhode Island's nine-member State Investment Commission. "I couldn't get any information about the actual costs."
 Taibbi goes on to say:
Today, the same Wall Street crowd that caused the crash is not merely rolling in money again but aggressively counterattacking on the public-relations front. The battle increasingly centers around public funds like state and municipal pensions. This war isn't just about money. Crucially, in ways invisible to most Americans, it's also about blame. In state after state, politicians are following the Rhode Island playbook, using scare tactics and lavishly funded PR campaigns to cast teachers, firefighters and cops - not bankers - as the budget-devouring bogeymen responsible for the mounting fiscal problems of America's states and cities.
Taibbi tells us that the looting began as early as 1974, with the passage of ERISA, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. Not a bad law, as it was intended to protect retirement accounts in sundry ways. Unfortunately, congress saw to that a huge loophole exempted public pensions. And that is when the fun began. The loophole in ERISA is what has allowed politicians of all stripes to raid --they would say "borrow"-- public pensions to redirect funds to more immediate needs, some worthy, some less so. But this is the reason there are unfunded pension liabilities; it's easier to borrow than it is to pay back.

It is not unlike social security, which has grown an enormous surplus-- the opposite of what conservatives tell you--only to see it "borrowed." Paying back the unfunded pension plans, just as putting the money back into the Social Security Trust Fund, is indeed painful, but it is not because the funding requirements have been onerous. Wall Street and mostly Republican politicians want you to think they are, so you will acquiesce to the ongoing destruction of middle class pensions.  

This shit gets so depressing. What galls me is not just that Wall Street and the politicians it has bought continue to reshape the country to suit moneyed interests, it's that so many of us don't see it, or believe crap that tries to pin it all on unions, spending, deficits, or those "job-killing" regulations. People at the top, where the money and power are, have convinced people in the middle, where the votes are, that undeserving people at the bottom, where the misery is, are the problem.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Trade Gets No Respect

I posted earlier this summer about international trade and why the US media has little to say about it. I contended that the investor class does not want to talk much about international trade because an informed electorate would threaten the continuance of free trade's role in an inherently unequal economic system on which the privileged and powerful depend.

For some, mostly wealthy, mostly Republican, and mostly on the Right,  there is not much to discuss regarding free trade; for them it is the default position that rarely needs defending, except to marginalize and shame heretics who might be tempted to explore the vast chasm between the orthodox gospel theory of free trade and the brutal empiricism of what the rest of us call the real world. They are rather oblivious to distinctions between global trade, which has many benefits, and unfettered free trade, which doesn't.

There is, of course, the cynical proponent, the paid operative, side by side with the ideologically-committed true believer. The former are less interested in the vagaries of free trade as an economic doctrine, but are determined to crack the whip of orthodoxy because they are, like the true believers, pleased to see global trade increase, but also because ever-increasing global trade contributes to what they view as the proper hierarchy of power, the one that puts corporations, the powerful men who run them, and that ever-astute risk-taking investor on top, and workers and other less morally-deserving hoi polloi on the bottom. Their incessant message is that robust and unfettered trade represents efficiency, choice, and competition, all of which we are told to crave and admire. You can't compete? Don't be weak, it's your fault anyway, so suck it up.

Having said this, it is also true that many on the Left do not have much to say about international trade, as it is currently playing out, despite bountiful data and a well-developed but under-utilized theoretical framework that vividly describes reality: unfettered, global trade impoverishes the working class and enriches (most) corporations and the managerial and investor classes.

Of course, there has been some protest against globalization. There is currently a push-back, one that may be growing, against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, just as there was against NAFTA. Nevertheless, the TPP remains a second-tier concern for the Left.

The Left finds itself once again ideologically divided, its modest resources spread thin. Protesting the ravages of aggressive trade means the Left, to some extent, aligns itself with Corporate America. If you protest, say, Chinese or Korean steel dumping in the US, you not only are taking the ostensible view of the US Chamber of Commerce (e.g., imports are fine, but only at market prices), but you are uniting with the America's economic aristocracy, largely white, Republican, and reactionary.

And this is something the Left cannot abide. It is easier to view the US as economic aggressor. With that as their default position, few are willing to rally against Chinese trade aggression or systemic Korean disregard for American patents, copyrights, or intellectual property. We see occasional outbursts against China's export quality control, such as with food additives, but that is because our health as individuals is threatened. But cheap Chinese products as a growing threat to America's economic interests? Yeah, maybe, but I have a save-a-bug rally to attend, so later, dude.

What the US does in international commerce is considered an existential threat. To report critically about what China does is effortlessly labeled as fear-mongering and bigotry. The Left will do anything to avoid such charges, so any viewpoint that might equate the two countries is embraced very reluctantly. Accordingly, we rarely see any on the Left protesting the systematic circle jerk to which China subjects American companies.

The Left wants to see other nations, at least the non-white ones, as valiantly defending their economic sovereignty. American corporations are the modern exemplars of economic imperialism. The Left too often is content to view avarice as uniquely American (or western); nations whose citizens have brown or black skin are perpetually the designated victim.

To be sure, the American Left opposes oppression of civil rights abroad, be it China, Iran, or Zimbabwe. But when they care to look at the massive, chronic trade deficits the US has with Asia and elsewhere, or when they read how corrupt officials stonewall foreign companies in China, steal technology, or hack our government's computers, the protests are muted. Instead a blame-America-first mentality kicks in. Those on the Right complain about this all the time, and they have a point.

To fairly examine East Asia's neo-mercantilist complicity in America's de-industrialization requires a willingness to confront uncomfortable realities, so most on the Left move on to something less ambiguous, like minimum wage increases, or social security. Others, of course, focus on social issues, such as gay marriage or abortion rights. The dismantling of American industry remains a low priority with purveyors of identity politics.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Republican Welfare States

Here is a factoid/jpeg that began floating around the web recently. It's NJ Governor Chris Christie pushing back against the increasingly strident KY Senator Rand Paul, who can't seem to stop haranguing those --even Republican stars-- who are to the left of him, which is nearly everyone.

This should outrage you. The hypocrisy should disgust you. But I am guessing you did not  hear much about this-- the dust-up between Christie and Paul, but far more importantly, the essential truth Christie made about how federal tax dollars are distributed to the states.

As Christie noted:
“I find it interesting that Senator Paul is accusing us of having a gimme, gimme, gimme attitude toward federal spending when in fact New Jersey is a donor state, we get 61 cents back on every dollar we send to Washington,” Christie said. “And interestingly Kentucky gets $1.51 on every dollar they sent to Washington.”
So it's nice to see Gov. Christie acknowledge what academics, wonkish progressives, and civics teachers have known all along: Red states are America's biggest welfare recipients. It is worth noting that the transfers are normal and legal. A crucial role of the federal government is to redistribute according to votes in congress, e.g., our representatives apportion money to fund or help fund bridges in OH, prisons in KS, scientific research in CA, and schools and military spending just about everywhere.

Conservatives have worked hard to convince Americans that what happens is that hard-working Americans, the real ones who vote Republican, have their income appropriated by communists socialists Democrats, who then hand it out to undeserving ingrates --mostly them there coloreds--living in more urban blue states unwilling or unable to compete in a free market. That's the only reason they voted for Obama, don'tcha know?

Let's be clear: federal tax dollars go where they do because congress votes it that way. It should also be clear not only that some states benefit more than others, but those that garner the most per-capita aid from the federal government are America's reddest, most conservative states.

The list below illustrates my point. There are several variations of this as the rankings will vary a bit over time. This one is from the Tax Foundation and it measures the amount of money received from the federal government compared to $1 paid in federal taxes.

The first 10 are the heaviest recipients of federal largess: They are mostly low-tax havens, and they all use out-of-state tax dollars to pay their bills. They are also overwhelmingly red states.

New Mexico  $2.03
Mississippi  $2.02
Alaska  $1.84
Louisiana  $1.78
West Virginia  $1.76
North Dakota  $1.68
Alabama  $1.66
South Dakota  $1.53
Kentucky  $1.51
Virginia  $1.51 

The list below is the 10 states that received the least in federal spending for each $1 of federal taxes paid. Federal taxes taken from these states are used to help pay the red state bills.  As you can see, these states are overwhelmingly blue. 

Colorado  $0.81
New York  $0.79
California  $0.78
Delaware  $0.77
Illinois  $0.75
Minnesota  $0.72
New Hampshire  $0.71
Connecticut  $0.69
Nevada  $0.65
New Jersey  $0.61

You didn't think those southern conservatives were actually trying to save you money, did you? You know, by getting government off your back? By letting you keep more of your hard-earned money? You earned it, you keep it, right? The bromides are endless, but only the hopelessly naive does not realize all politicians are in Washington to bring home the bacon. What is less well-known, but obvious if one only looks, is how well red state Republicans enrich their states with "other peoples' money," as the expression goes. As you can see from the chart, the tax dollars tend to come from higher wage states, the workers of which earn more and pay more taxes. If anyone has a reason to complain, it is blue states, the liberal ones that voted for Obama, for they are subsidizing the red ones. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Cheaper Still

Low wages are the prime reason the US economy continues to be sluggish for most of us. Suppressed income, of course, is not to be found on Wall Street, Corporate America, and the rentier class, but it has come to define much of the middle class even as the number of working poor continues to rise.

The US economy depends on consumer spending as the core of economic activity: if there is enough spending, it spurs GDP growth, if not, growth stagnates or even declines. We are, for better or worse, a consumption-driven economy. All economies are, to one extent or another, but the US is especially dependent on it.

For most of the post-war period, Japan, to give one comparison, has depended far less on consumer spending to fuel its own GDP growth. The difference was that Japan emphasized capital investment over consumption. Citizens there consumed less and saved more. All that capital investment created massive over production. That's where exports, disproportionately to America, came in. We consume, Japan saves and exports excess capacity. China and Korea have adopted this model.

Accordingly, some economists argue against policies that encourage savings. A dollar saved means a dollar not spent. While the argument is still made that Americans should save more, the counter argument says that doing so will only slow down the economy: Corporate America, small companies, and the employees that work for them all want everyone to buy their products and services. No customers means no sales, so no profits. It also means no employee paychecks and no tax revenues either.

All of which brings us to low wages; not jobs, not investment, not savings, not manufacturing capacity, but the wages Corporate America pays to the millions of jobs that already exist--it is those low wages are the at the heart of our national decay. Low wages are killing the American dream for many. Wages not only have not kept up with productivity for literally decades, but for many of us, wage declines are accelerating.

As compelling as it is, the specifics of America's evolution into a low-wage nation, complete with an overclass and mandated inequality, seem of little concern to many of us, even as we sense we have been victimized by a rigged system. It has taken years, decades actually, but the cumulative effects of neo-liberal, trickle-down policies, and their southern variation, what I call Dixification, have come home to roost.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Cheap Labor Only, Please

Manufacturing and trade news do not get much coverage in our mainstream press. Japanese obsess over trade data, as do the Chinese, Koreans, and most others who take manufacturing seriously. This is obvious from reading any of the mainstream and  business-oriented newspapers overseas.

Ours? The focus is more on Wall Street, corporate profits, and finance. Our corporate media does not want to spend much time on the implications of large, chronic, and structural trade deficits, except for the predictable paeans to free trade, how much we benefit, and how boorishly stupid you are if you are not a committed free trader. Honest analyses of how we arrived at our current condition are rare; most commentary is ideologically driven tripe that contends workers are overpaid and investors need more profits. 

To be sure, we have all read of the decline of American manufacturing. And for those who are determined to know, many websites and blogs, especially those hosted by academics, cover these subjects very well. But while complaints about Chinese currency manipulation and the hazards of doing business in China do get coverage, little is said in the mainstream media about the role of American corporations and how they turned over technology and manufacturing to China and other trade competitors, all in an effort to tap cheap labor, ignore the challenges and capital requirements of advanced manufacturing, boost short-term profits, and please the investor class.

As Chinese wages continue to climb, we are now seeing some evidence of a pick-up in US manufacturing. But a central conundrum remains: Should it be a matter of policy to promote the return of manufacturing to the US? Or is the market going to resolve domestic manufacturing, and perhaps give a boost to exports, without policy intervention?

It is hard to get enthusiastic about an improving manufacturing sector, especially in the face of new data. I once would have welcomed it more openly, but it is becoming increasingly clear that a global economy or neo-mercantilist trading partners are only secondary reasons. In other words, less blame should be attributed to cheap labor in China and more to the desire for cheap labor in the US. The current condition of the US, complete with massive trade and current account deficits, is the direct result of wealthy and well-connected purveyors of neo-liberal free markets. It is they who have hobbled government's essential regulatory role (derivatives anyone?) and facilitated the dominance of finance and the rentier class.

So there is little reason to think that newly created manufacturing jobs are going to pay very well. Neo-liberal policy wonks, along with right-wing politicians, have had a 30+ year run promoting ideas, policies, and legislation that has weakened labor unions, kept minimum wages low, undermined workers' rights and put into place an elaborate tax code that ensures that corporations will largely avoid taxes. All of that in addition to the glories of free and unfettered international trade.

All of which was always the goal. To the extent that corporations locate or relocate manufacturing in the US, it will only be in response to low wages, obscene tax giveaways from states, the absence of unions, and elaborate agreements with government officials that ensure corporations will continue to privatize the benefits and socialize that costs. If manufacturing does meaningfully increase in the US, it will only be because wages have been driven down. If wages go up, even in accordance with productivity gains, corporations will threaten to off-shore production once again.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Change and Reaction

Much has been written about how the Republican Party has moved ever further to the Right. Even Bob Dole just said his party, the same party that nominated him to be their presidential candidate, "needs to be closed for repairs."  It is clear that the party's pols and operatives have become stridently right-wing; to call them mere conservative no longer seems sufficient. Moderates, which once dominated the party, no longer feel welcome. Republican primaries have become a testing ground to see who can appear more strident and uncompromising, a chance to swagger and sneer at people not like themselves. On this see Mike Lofgren's The Party Is Over: How Republicans Went Crazy, Democrats Became Useless, and the Middle Class Got Shafted (2012).

On a deeper level, not much has changed. Conservative politics has always had, and appealed to, far-right elements. Circumstances in recent years, and that certainly includes the election of President Obama, have merely aggravated an attitude that has always there, never hidden for long. On the varying but ever-present influence of America's deeply anti-democratic and intolerant right wing, see  Geoffrey Kabaservice, Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party (2012); Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: the Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (2008); and The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right, by Arthur Goldwag (2012).

For generations, indeed from the earliest days of the republic, the American Right generally had its way on the issues that gnaw at the authoritarian personality; and they weren't the national debt, tax rates, or regulations. There is resistance on those issues, to be sure, though primarily from Wall Street and the investor class. What really galls middle America's true reactionaries are the range of social changes that have allowed various people not accustomed to fair treatment --women, blacks, Hispanics, gays and more more-- to a more equitable share not only of the American Dream in some abstract sense, but of the right to visible public space, public office, and public prominence, whether it be as a priest, a CEO, a teacher, or the American President.

The American Right has always promoted an inequitable, unfair, and discriminatory creed, with select white males on top. And that meant if you could not be a corporate big shot, at least you were in charge of something; a small business, your church's policies, or the pecking order at your favorite bar. And failing that, you were master of your home and everyone in it had better know their place.

Reactionism at its core is an ideology of hierarchy, privilege, obeisance towards authority and established order, and, it must be noted, condemnation and violence to those who challenge it. It is, as I have noted earlier, the social economics of the Old South, a plantation mentality that has defined Dixie from colonial times. The Right is currently reacting, as it always has, to changes in society that offend its moral code, e.g., too many people, other people, are getting and becoming something they don't deserve. And they, meaning liberals and Democrats, are doing it with the wrong-headed and corrupting influence of government, mostly at the federal level.  
The current response of the Republican Party was predictable. The moral issues that animate the deeply conservative, whether it be the politicians or their voter base, have not changed much. The difference is that they see their world slipping away from them. As they confront the reality of say, a black president or gay marriage, they react once again with fear and loathing. Their forbears of just a few decades ago enjoyed the wholesale discrimination of women and minorities. Gays were brutalized and Jim Crow ruled throughout much of rural and small-town America. Republicans didn't need to scream and threaten. Even when they were in the congressional minority, their world seemed intact.  

That world is ending and Republicans are not handling it well.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Presidential Limits

It is difficult to overstate the steaming shit pile that was handed to Barack Obama on his first day of office. Those who choose to ridicule the President for pointing this out have forgotten the "yeah, that's right," chorus line that Republicans sang so heartily when Reagan took office and how he would fix all the terrible things Carter had done. They, and Reagan, knew what they were doing; every positive snippet of news was to accrue to Ronnie; any bad news was obviously the legacy of his Democratic predecessor.

Don't let your brain take the lazy way out on this. Don't say both parties do it and leave it at that. Both parties throw blame at their opponents, to be sure. but it is an insipid and unhelpful observation. Let's not forget that the federal budget deficit, the national debt, and the trade imbalance were all relatively modest when Reagan took office. Our infrastructure at that time was viewed around the world as excellent, and manufacturing played a proportionately far larger role. We had the world's largest current account surplus when Carter left office. When Reagan left, we had the world's largest deficit.

The point here is not to claim that Carter did such a wonderful job. But we must remind ourselves how much this country, and this economy, have changed in recent decades. When President Obama took the oath of office in a ceremony that Chief Justice Roberts screwed up, he faced the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. He also inherited two long and costly wars that served little purpose except to get men killed and enrich defense contractors, as war always does.

But even if you support(ed) the war(s), and choose to not blame Bush (or Cheney), the point remains that the US fought those wars without paying for them. That much is indisputable. Instead, the horrendous costs, separate and addition to the Defense Department's already mammoth budget, were added to our federal debt. That was George Bush's decision, not Obama's.

And need I remind anyone that those wars came after Bush passed his huge tax cuts for the wealthy, thereby giving back the budget surplus carefully built up during the Clinton era when tax rates and economic growth were both higher.

The real point here is the severe constraints Barack Obama faced when he took office, many of which John McCain would have also faced had he won. Taxes, primarily for the rich, had been reduced so much early in Bush's tenure that it has become arithmetically impossible to meet our relatively modest social spending needs, our huge military appetite, our substantial and neglected national infrastructure, and also balance the budget. And this is on top of a massive trade deficit, a declining manufacturing base, and most jarringly, the fallout from Wall Street's casino capitalism.

I have posted before on the overwhelming challenges Obama faced on inauguration day, challenges that would be huge even if Congress decided to, you know, work together and solve some problems. Unfortunately, President Obama has had to face an additional challenge that a President McCain would surely not have--unprecedented obstructionism. Along the way, Americans have come to learn, to their disgust or delight, the surprising flaws of our federal government and how determined ideologues can lay bare the constitutional limitations of the executive branch.

Republicans control only the House; Democrats control the Senate, despite all appearances, and, of course, the White House. And yet Dems in the House are helpless to stop the unending stream of bills that Tea Party reactionaries promote.  Well, you might say, Republicans control the House, so it figures they would dominate legislation. In the Senate, however, Democrats are in a clear majority, but it usually makes little difference because of the Senate's self-imposed 60 vote supermajority "requirement."

Thus, even flaccid and feeble legislation, mere tweaking, has little chance of being enacted. Anything that does pass is so watered down as to be useless. And that is not because most members of Congress, or even all Republicans always want to oppose the President; it is sufficient that only a determined minority, the Tea Partiers of the House and Senate, choose to obstruct, as they so often have. Let me put it this way: the seemingly intractable John Boehner would not be making those asinine, vapid, and breathtakingly stupid comments on economic policy if teabaggers in his party did not have such a tight grip on his nuts.

Historians are at pains to find a period when the flaws of the federal government were so transparent. Parliamentary governments around the world are taken back by the inability of America's two-party presidential system of government to tackle the most basic tasks, such as properly regulated banks, appropriate tax revenues, a modern infrastructure, and demographic well-being, such as on health care, child mortality, and housing. All of these are becoming a national embarrassment, instead of world-leading, as they once were.

We are now seeing with increasing frequency that even legislation large majorities of Americans want, such as background checks on gun purchases, cannot get passed. There are just enough Republican reactionaries in the House, sometimes helped out by pandering Democrats in the Senate (I'm looking at you, Max Baucus), to derail even the most popular legislation. This can happen, mind you, even when a majority of both houses of Congress and the president favor such legislation. This is not majority rule, it is not even checks and balances as the founding fathers envisioned. It is the tyranny of an ideologically-driven minority.

This is new territory for America.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Our Free Press is Failing Us

As a kid growing up, long before the Internet, I thought that any bit of substantive news that made it out of one source, such as a big-city newspaper, would inevitably get widely disseminated by other sources, another newspaper, then another, then the 6 o'clock news, the weeklies. It would all happen quickly and efficiently, whether you liked it or not.

Now, and only partly because of the Internet, several uneasy trends have become apparent:  1) that bit about "substantive news" getting widely disseminated was probably never true, though arguably more so than now, 2) news is more shallow and dumbed-down now than in the past, and 3) though the Internet has opened up numerous sites to tap for data and commentary, and has given us unprecedented opportunity to explore ever further afield, it has also made it easier for us to pursue our preferences and ignore the rest. In so doing, we have erected philosophical, ideological, and religious filters that tend to confirm our world views rather than challenge them.

Nor has the Internet compelled the mainstream media to be more balanced, or to even cover stories, viewpoints, and evidence that discerning readers--and alternative news enthusiasts-- know exist. And that can happen--is happening--with major subjects that affect us all.

Ask yourself how many corporate-owned news organizations are covering the efficacy of raising the payroll tax cap on Social Security. Over and over we hear the major outlets argue for, or repeat the talking points of the investor class on Social Security: it is in trouble, it is a big part of the budget deficit, and we need to cut benefits to those who desperately need it because doing so will narrow the federal deficit and somehow spur growth. Here is an example of how our feckless media allows conservative politicians to misrepresent Social Security.

The reality is that over the years Social Security garnered a roughly $2.5 trillion surplus, a surplus that Congress has tapped to fund other programs. And now Congress does not want to pay it back. Doing so would draw attention to ethically questionable action; messing with people's retirement. And yes, the claim that social security is nearly bankrupt, wrong in the first place, is especially galling given the surplus it ran up which Congress then "borrowed." The real kicker is that a simple tweak like raising the payroll tax would also reveal the viability of social security, which contradicts the mostly Republican narrative that Social Security is failing us. It should be clear now that Republicans don't actually want to strengthen social security. This is why they seem so tone deaf to simple solutions: They are not looking for solutions and they don't want talk of solutions to enter the debate. Policy experts, economists, and so many others have, often in great detail, made it clear the "sky-is-falling" talking points are egregiously inaccurate. Here are some facts on social security.

One may disagree on complex policy issues while acknowledging that there is room for alternative views. Our media should be asking why Congress does not remove the Social Security cap. Let opponents defend their refusal publicly. Challenge their insipid talking points. But we are not even having that debate, not publicly, not with any consistency or honesty.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Reactionaries Still Win

There has been a recent spate of triumphalism from Democrats that is more than a little disconcerting. It sounds too much like 2009: Republicans are hurting, they have offended far too many women, gays, and immigrants. Demographics are inexorably turning against the mostly white, anti-science, anti-everything, etc.

While I think that is mostly true, it's worth remembering that similar analyses were widespread after Obama won in 2008. And then the 2010 mid-terms got in the way and we got hit with a gaggle of the most ideologically-strident reactionaries to occupy the House in generations.

Liberals have a point, to be sure. Just a few years ago, Republicans seemed to be on the cusp of a permanent majority in Congress. Then came a voter backlash against Republicans in 2006, 2008, and in 2012, which seemed to send a message to Republicans that the politics of hate, fear, and exclusion had run its course.

And yet Republicans seem to be doing pretty well at exercising power, certainly when you consider their low approval ratings in most polls. They may be out of sync with voter preferences on many policies,  but there is more to winning elections than actually appealing to the voters, as common-sensical as that may seem to most Democrats. I have always argued that Republicans do unusually well in elections, winning seats and influence all out of proportion to what data on voter registration and party identification would suggest.

That trend seems as strong as ever. It may surprise some to see how many ostensibly blue states are dominated by Republican governors and state legislatures. As for governors, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico come to mind. People who gloat, or despair, over the Republican Party's poor showing in recent national elections, to Obama primarily, forget how well the party has done in the House of Representatives as well as in state elections.

One can argue that many Republican victories have more to do with money, gerrymandering, and voter apathy than it does with true popularity and fair elections, (except in the US Senate, which is constitutionally guaranteed to give a huge advantage to small, rural states have over large states, no gerrymandering required). But to focus on these realities will always be interpreted by the false equivalency crowd  as sour grapes.

Academicians and Democratic policy wonks may understand what is at stake, and do their best to draw attention to our deeply undemocratic system of government,  But in the end, and for whatever reason, Republicans continue to win numerous elections. The fact that they increasingly resort to various ploys, such as voter suppression or clever gerrymandering, is of little concern to them.  Republicans never give up and incessantly plan for the next election and how they can win. And if it looks as if they are constantly scheming for a legislative or legal advantage, it is because they are. Republican politicians learned long ago that winning elections is something quite different from good governance or effective policy. Authoritarian personalities in particular place little emphasis on fairness. All that crap about voter fairness and the will of the people is for principled losers and civics teachers.

As for unequal representation in the Senate, the pictures below provide a glimpse of the disparity.  The Republican Party is surely in trouble, but various built-in advantages, along with a fickle and confused electorate, make it likely that America's right wing will find a way to retain power.

This group of senators, 62 of them, represents about a fourth of America


 So does this group of 6

source: NY Times.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

You Don't Need No Stinkin' Education

On December 24th I wrote about tea party policies on education in Texas and how concerned many conservatives are about teaching kids to think critically. I wish I could say that was just an aberration, a temporary victim of the current partisan climate. Unfortunately,  it reveals a fundamental conservative willingness to educate but not empower. Such, of course, is not education but vocational training.  

Sara Robinson captures the contradiction embedded in the wholly false belief that conservatives and progressives alike support education because it is non-partisan:
The education of our children is a core cultural and political choice that reflects the deepest differences between liberals and conservatives.

The Conservative War On Education continues apace, with charters blooming everywhere, high-stakes testing cementing its grip on classrooms, and legislators and pundits wondering what we need those stupid liberal arts colleges for anyway. (Isn't college about job prep? Who needs to know anything about art history, anthropology or ancient Greek?)
Amid the din, there's a worrisome trend: liberals keep affirming right-wing talking points, usually without realizing that they're even right wing. Or saying things like, "The education of our children is a non-partisan issue that should exist outside of any ideological debate."
The hell it is. People who say stuff like this have no idea what they're talking about. The education of our children is a core cultural and political choice that reflects the deepest differences between liberals and conservatives -- because every educational conversation must start with the fundamental philosophical question: What is an education for?
Our answers to that question could not be more diametrically opposed.
Robinson proceeds to explain that difference: conservatives, especially the more authoritarian variety, have been pushing education, from grade school through college, as a training ground where one can acquire skill sets corporations want and are willing to pay for. This might seem reasonable to some; after all, why study in a field that offers poor employment prospects? However, it is a market-oriented interpretation that says the value of a college degree depends on the salary it commands. As such, your value to a corporation should be your prime educational motivation. Don't waste your time on anything that doesn't impress a potential employer.

It should be obvious, though apparently it isn't, that education-as-vocational-training is deeply contrary to one of the proudest achievements of the Western intellectual tradition; an authentic education that empowers individuals to think critically, evaluate complex issues, and to appreciate learning and scholarship not only because it gives meaning to the lives of individuals but because it is what makes us a civilization and not just employees.

Recently North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory, you can guess his party affiliation, publicly denounced certain educational choices students are making at state universities. It was as if he was reading from the "The Authoritarian's Guide to Education."
In a national radio interview Tuesday with Bill Bennett , U.S. Education Secretary during the Reagan administration, McCrory said there's a major disconnect between what skills are taught at the state's public universities and what businesses want out of college graduates.
“So I’m going to adjust my education curriculum to what business and commerce needs to get our kids jobs as opposed to moving back in with their parents after they graduate with debt," McCrory said, adding, "What are we teaching these courses for if they're not going to help get a job?"
McCrory said he doesn't believe state tax dollars should be used to help students at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill study for a bachelor's degree in gender studies or to take classes on the Swahili language.
“If you want to take gender studies that's fine. Go to a private school, and take it," McCrory said. "But I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job."
Where to begin? McCrory seems to think that broadening one's mind and learning real-life skills are mutually exclusive. For most students, they merely take a course or two; they don't major in subjects he disdains. It's called exploring new fields, expanding your mind, A.K.A an education. His argument, increasing voiced by conservatives, is that middle-class students--primarily those who attend state universities--should abandon scholarship as academic pretenses and just make themselves attractive to employers. He is telling the middle class to get a certification, not a diploma.

McCrory suggests that anyone wishing to study more academic subjects--he facetiously suggests Swahili, should attend a private college. Apparently only the wealthy should dabble in rarefied subjects; public schools are for training one to be a useful cog in the corporate wheel.

Swahili? Governor, your racism is showing. How many people at North Carolina public universities, which includes the excellent UNC-Chapel Hill, does he think actually study Swahili? Or gender studies, where he shows his sexism. And given the relatively poor showing of Americans with foreign languages and world affairs, you would think public officials would want to encourage our students to learn more about the outside world. 

He also reveals a distrust in the market mechanisms Republicans so often adore. Cannot students decide which courses are of value? Are not they best suited to decide what's best for themselves? The market will speak without meddling politicians interfering with individual choice. Isn't that the sermon conservatives preach?

Governor McCrory may want us to think he is just being practical, but he is promoting a social hierarchy that Southern whites have always favored, what I have called Dixification. If you really want to study for the personal enrichment, he says, do so at a private college, and have lots of money. Public colleges apparently should be relegated to vocational training. He has such a restrictive interpretation of what education is and what it should do that he thinks that offering serious academic choices to middle-class students is elitism.

He has it backwards.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Class Warriors Explain Those Horrible Taxes

The picture below recently ran in the Wall Street Journal. It is a clumsy attempt to show us how horrible President Obama's taxes policies will be for us in 2013 what with those massive, job-killing tax hikes set to kick in.

I should not have to explain this, right? It is laughable, yes?

What? You're not laughing? OK, perhaps you cannot read the fine print, so here is my point. I will assume the Journal's calculations are correct. After all, taxes usually do go up when taxes are raised. However, the only way one can come up with attention-getting tax increases of up to $21,608 is to use outlandish income examples, as the Journal has done.

A single parent, with two children--and a $260,000 income. Uh, yeah, that is pretty typical. And that sad face she has; her kids look like they are out of a Dickens novel. The rest of them look as bad. The young single women in the bottom left will also be financially ruined; she only makes $230,000 per year, while the family of six squeezes by on $650,000.  Great time to be retired, I guess; no tax increase and hey!, $180 grand a year.

Does anyone think any of the four examples represents anyone other than the 1%? With massive deficits, rising poverty, and a right wing that howls incessantly about balancing the budget, how many Americans think that tax increases running from 0% to 3.3% on people earning in the range of a quarter million and more are where we should direct our tears of outrage?

The Journal could have used income figures of say, $40,000-$60,000, a range far more representative of most Americans. The problem is that the thousand dollar tax hikes it portrays would no longer hold true, and that, of course, is why the Journal didn't use them. It had to willfully and crudely mislead, and hope that we wouldn't notice.

Does the Wall Street Journal think it is being clever?  Or is it even more tone-deaf to America's reality than I thought?

Hat tip to Avedon Carol. Another read, with maybe a clearer picture is here.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Who's this Jerry Mander guy?

Republicans have gone through through a lot of hand wringing after last November's election losses. Many operatives were criticized for not doing better. After all, the money just poured into Republican campaign coffers; "we paid for this election fair and square." But party faithful cannot complain too much, not when you consider how deeply unpopular and reviled Republicans in Congress are. It is a wonder they won as many seats as they did. Let's just say Republicans did well, though for the wrong reasons.

Republicans were never in the running for the White House, not really. Despite hopes, and indeed, firm convictions they would prevail, Republicans paid the price for nominating a deeply flawed candidate.

And though they lost a few seats in the Senate, Republican pols and voters remain dramatically over-represented. The reason why there are so many Republicans in the Senate-whether they actually control it or not, is simple enough; the reason has been with us since the very beginning of the republic. The US Senate is not designed to reflect proportionate representation. As every civics class ought to teach, only the US House of Representatives sends members in accordance with each state's population; big states have more representatives in the House than do small ones. It's only fair, you see.

The Senate, on the other hand, was designed at the outset to counter the potential for big-state tyranny. So each state sends two senators regardless of size. Sounds kind of, sort of, reasonable, maybe. Except that what we now have is small-state tyranny. One result is that a state such as Alaska, with population of about 750,000, or Wyoming, with population of about 570,000, have equal voting power with California, with over 38 million, or New York, with over 19 million. And wouldn't you know it, AK, WY, and several other small, rural states reliably send Republicans to the Senate.  Of course, there are small blue states that benefit as well, including Vermont, Delaware, and Hawaii. But taken together, Republicans win senate seats with fewer votes, sometimes far fewer, especially in the rural, ranching and farming states. The fact that millions more Americans actually vote for Democratic candidates than they do for Republicans, and have less to show for it, reflects systemic electoral misrepresentation that skews the Senate towards Republicans, rural farmland, and Dixie.

This disproportionate representation, you may say, is regrettable, but worth it because it helps offset the proportional representation in the House, which obviously favors large states. And besides, proportional representation is written in stone, or at least the US Constitution. So yeah, there's that.

Now we see, pace the Constitution, that Republicans are overrepresented in the US House as well. Color me not surprised.

Here's how Bill Berkowitz, writing in Alternet, puts it:
Tens of millions poured into a stealth redistricting project before the 2012 elections kept dozens of GOP Districts safe from Democratic challengers.

If somewhere in the recesses of your mind you were wondering how, despite President Barack Obama’s re-election victory and the Democratic Party’s gains in the Senate, Republicans continue to control the House of Representatives, think redistricting.

Redistricting is the process that adjusts the lines of a state’s electoral districts, theoretically based on population shifts, following the decennial census. Gerrymandering is often part and parcel of redistricting. According to the Rose Institute of State and Local Governments at Claremont McKenna College, Gerrymandering is done “to influence elections to favor a particular party, candidate, ethnic group.”
Over the past few years, as the Republican Party has gained control over more state legislatures than Democrats. And, it has turned redistricting into a finely-honed, well-financed project. That has virtually insured their control over the House. “While the Voting Rights Act strongly protects against racial gerrymanders, manipulating the lines to favor a political party is common,” the Rose Institute’s Redistricting in America website points out.
Dana Milbank writing on Jan. 4, also acknowledged the important role of gerrymandering:
The final results from the November election were completed Friday, and they show that Democratic candidates for the House outpolled Republicans nationwide by nearly 1.4 million votes and more than a full percentage point — a greater margin than the preliminary figures showed in November. And that’s just the beginning of it: A new analysis finds that even if Democratic congressional candidates won the popular vote by seven percentage points nationwide, they still would not have gained control of the House.
The analysis, by Ian Millhiser at the liberal Center for American Progress using data compiled by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, finds that even if Democrats were to win the popular vote by a whopping nine percentage points — a political advantage that can’t possibly be maintained year after year — they would have a tenuous eight-seat majority.
In a very real sense, the Republican House majority is impervious to the will of the electorate. Thanks in part to deft redistricting based on the 2010 Census, House Republicans may be protected from the vicissitudes of the voters for the next decade. For Obama and the Democrats, this is an ominous development: The House Republican majority is durable, and it isn’t necessarily sensitive to political pressure and public opinion.
According to the Jan. 4 final tally by Cook’s David Wasserman after all states certified their votes, Democratic House candidates won 59,645,387 votes in November to the Republicans’ 58,283,036, a difference of 1,362,351. On a percentage basis, Democrats won, 49.15 percent to 48.03 percent. 
This in itself is an extraordinary result: Only three or four other times in the past century has a party lost the popular vote but won control of the House. But computer-aided gerrymandering is helping to make such undemocratic results the norm — to the decided advantage of Republicans, who controlled state governments in 21 states after the 2010 Census, almost double the 11 for Democrats.
Gerrymandering has been with us from the republic's beginnings, and it certainly isn't just Republicans who jockey for advantage.  But the most recent redistricting results are ominous. The country is divided more than it has been in generations; Republican indifference to voter preferences, along with some clever insulation from the voters themselves, come at a time of breathtaking extremism in that party's politics.

"He who controls redistricting can control Congress." Karl Rove