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Monday, March 22nd, 2010

[digg-reddit-me]There are 2 broad lessons to take from last night:

1. Unhinged Anger Makes For Great Ratings.

Hell no!” John Boehner frothed, spittle flying as he cursed on the floor of Congress yesterday.

“This health care bill will ruin our country. It’s time to stop it…We’re about 24 hours from Armageddon,” Boehner had claimed earlier.

Baby killer!” an as yet-unnamed Republican congressman screamed at pro-life Democrat Bart Stupak on Sunday.

Nigger!” a chorus of protesters chanted to Rep. John Lewis, who also heard such things while being beaten nearly to death fighting for civil rights in the 1960s on Saturday.

Faggot!” screeched other protesters at Barney Frank that same day.

Just a few days earlier, a disturbing video recorded a man barely able to walk due to Parkinson’s disease being mocked and ridiculed by anti-health care Tea Party protesters.

A short time before that, a conservative millionaire was promising guns to “patriots” concerned about “what was coming.”

This overheated Manichean good-vs-evil rhetoric in which slight changes in wording transform you from a pro-lifer to a “baby-killer,” in which subsidies for the uninsured constitute a “government takeover,” or in which America is about to be overrun by destroyed yet again eventually must discredit it’s purveyors. At least, it must decrease in its effect over time.

Common sense has taught people that “when there’s smoke, there’s fire.” And Republican operatives epitomized by Karl Rove have taken advantage of this. Top-line Republican operatives have adopted with more vigor than the left ever did the tactics of the radical New Left of the 1960s: from attacks on the legitimacy of political institutions (from the CBO – which Rove accused of Madoff-style accounting this weekendto the Senate Parliamentarian to Congress to the Courts to the media to presidency) to the maxim that the “personal is political.” Unlike the New Left, they have virtually no agenda but to hold onto power and to, having lost it due to incompetence, tarnish the other side enough to get it back. Their hysteric charges represent the triumph of moral relativism. Their escalating outrage is an attempt to fool the American people.

This is how the rage has been created over a bill whose provisions are broadly popular and that is based on a plan offered by Republicans a generation earlier. David Frum cogently explained last night how even those Republicans “who knew better” were driven to bend before this unhinged anger that led the Republican Party to take an unhedged bet against reform, how it provoked them to declare this fight a make-or-break fight, and to take out all stops to their opposition, even though they stood little chance of succeeding:

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?

…Yes [such talk] mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead. The real leaders are on TV and radio, and they have very different imperatives from people in government. Talk radio thrives on confrontation and recrimination. When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.

That’s point #1: Cynical politicos out for short-term partisan gain and entertainers trying to get ratings foment unhinged anger to push their party to make a suicidal unhinged bet against reform.

Point #2. This Was Waterloo.

The Republican Party made a huge wager that they could block health care reform, and lost. Senator Jim DeMint rather infamously declared in a secret call to anti-reform advocates:

If we’re able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him.

Newt Gingrich echoed this point:

This could be the bill that drags his whole presidency down and they look back on it and suddenly the whole thing is unraveled.

Ralph Reed wrote in an email last week:

Our goal: To shock Congress into abandoning Obamacare (which will also effectively end the Obama Presidency and save freedom in America).

That was their game plan, their goal. They wanted a repeat of 1994. Their strategy in opposing the bill presumed it would never be able to pass. They escalated the rhetoric to insane levels. The less hysterical merely called it the “government takeover of 1/6th of the economy.” Bent on manipulating public opinion, the more cynical asked “innocent” questions:

Will America become another failed Cuba-style Socialist state? [Source.]

Do you think your political affiliation might eventually play into the decision on whether you get the life-saving medical treatment you need? [Source.]

A nation of Terri Schiavos with a National Euthanasia Bill? [Source.]

The more hysterical began to panic about legislation containing death panels, killing grandma, forcing government-mandated abortion, euthanasia, and reparations for slavery, authorizing government jackboots invading your home to take your children for socialist indoctrination, and overall, destroying America as we know it unless we arm ourselves and “prepare for what is coming.”

As the American people find out the answer to all of these questions is a resounding, “No!” – as they find out that the claims were made to monger fear for partisan gain – and that the bill that a plurality of people oppose contains mainly provisions that most people support – as the reality of this reform sinks in, the Republican Party will lose traction. As David Sanger quoted David Axelrod in the New York Times:

“This only worked well for the Republican Party if it failed to pass,” David Axelrod, one of the president’s closest political advisers, said at the White House as he watched the vote count for the final bill reach 219 in favor. “They wanted to run against a caricature of it rather than the real bill. Now let them tell a child with a pre-existing condition, ‘We don’t think you should be covered.’”

Now that the bill has been passed, we can focus on whether the health care plan’s tinkering with our dysfunctional system is making things better or not – as Ross Douthat says. And we can focus on the 10 things health care legislation will do right away. Obama can make his case for what he is doing (again to Sanger): “to sell the government’s oversight role over doctors and insurance companies the way he is trying to sell financial regulation: as a leveling of the playing field, in favor of consumers.” The passage of the bill re-shapes the coverage from “what could happen” to “what it is doing.” And the Democrats are more comfortable with that argument. Perhaps most frightening of all for Republicans, if this bill accomplishes what its supporters claim it will, it will re-shape the political landscape – as Bill Kristol explained in warning Republicans against cooperating in 1994:

It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle-class by restraining the growth of government.

This won’t necessarily benefit the Democrats. Republicans don’t need to keep doubling down on their anti-government rhetoric; but for the present, it seems they will.

Today, the most profound effect though is a different one. By passing this bill, Obama has proved he has yet again broken the backs of the idiocrats who threw every rhetorical, legislative, and political obstacle at him. He has showed the patience and passion which won him the presidency can be translated into presidential achievements. The bill only tinkers. It isn’t dramatic reform. But it’s core accomplishment is dramatic: a change to our core social bargain; as explained by James Fallows:

[T]he significance of the vote is moving the United States FROM a system in which people can assume they will have health coverage IF they are old enough (Medicare), poor enough (Medicaid), fortunate enough (working for an employer that offers coverage, or able themselves to bear expenses), or in some other way specially positioned (veterans; elected officials)… TOWARD a system in which people can assume they will have health-care coverage.

This is an historic achievement. It is a moral one, and it is, counter intuitively, an important step towards controlling societal spending on health care.

[Image not subject to copyright.]

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Posted in Barack Obama, Criticism, Election 2008, Health care, History, Politics, The Opinionsphere | No Comments »

Why the Republicans Don’t Want to Go to the Obama Health Care Summit They’ve Been Demanding

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

[digg-reddit-me]When Obama agreed to the Republicans’ demand for a televised summit to discuss health care, Republican leadership was faced with a quandary: How could they say no and not look like the bad guys?

Their solution is apparently to demand that Obama preemptively give up the reforms he has been working for the past 8 months on (the framework of reforms that is broadly popular even though the legislation creating the framework doesn’t poll well). To make their demands even more unreasonable, they also demand that he tell everyone in advance what he plans on proposing to allow Republicans “at least 72 hours beforehand” to figure out reasons to oppose it and give up his only way to push his agenda without Republican support.

Eric Cantor and John Boehner – the Republican Whip and Leader – made these demands in a letter that didn’t include an ultimatum that they would boycott the summit if their demands weren’t met. But their tone was clearly meant to agitate. They must know that they didn’t come off well in their last televised back-and-forth with the president – and they must also know that despite recent polling, Democratic health care ideas are far more popular than Republican ones. But they also suspect – rightly in my opinion – that whoever the public blames for scuttling these talks will hold this against them.

The White House is eager to go forward – because it is difficult for them to lose this: The public largely believes reform is needed. The Republicans so far do not agree on an alternative. The Democrats – after great struggle – have coalesced around a “next step,” which is undoubtedly part of the reason the Republicans want this “next step” off the table. This plan the Republicans are trying to scrap is – indeed – similar to the Republican alternative to Bill Clinton’s plan, a point which the president has made. Yet the Republicans cannot endorse this – or any – alternative offered by the Democrats for partisan reasons because it will hurt their prospects in the 2010 midterms, giving Obama and the Democrats something to run on in 2010 and 2012. And in the long term, Republicans have even more to fear, as Will Kristol explained in a confidential strategy memo on the risks of allowing Clinton’s health care plan to pass:

It will revive the reputation of the party that spends and regulates, the Democrats, as the generous protector of middle-class interests. And it will at the same time strike a punishing blow against Republican claims to defend the middle-class by restraining the growth of government.

Further, one of the core goals of these health care reforms finally agreed to by the Democrats is to cut the long-term growth of health care costs. The rapidly growing health care costs are the largest part of the unsustainable deficits America will be facing in the long-term. The prospect of this deficit though is one of the driving forces motivating the anti-Democrat and largely pro-Republican Tea Party. At the same time, the fiscal catastrophe that would result from failing to deal with the deficit is the conscious goal of the more ideological Republicans with their “starve the beast” strategy. The ideal outcome for the Republicans would be for the Democrats to force this plan through and for it to fail miserably, either as its implementation is sabotaged by the Republicans or on its own.

There is – in other words – absolutely no fundamental incentive whatsoever for the Republicans as a party to endorse any health care reforms Democrats might want.

The Democrats alternatively will be faulted for the perceived shortcomings of the bill should it pass or not in the 2010 elections, and stand to gain significantly if the bill does anything like what it has promised. Passing such a significant piece of legislation also gives them something to rally their base around, even if some portion of the Democratic base is disappointed with the bill itself.

The fundamental politics of this situation has determined what has happened and will happen: that the Democrats will seek a compromise, and be strung along by the Republicans who will never come to an agreement. The President’s summit on health care with the Republicans and Democrats seems the perfect venue to demonstrate these fundamentals to the public – which is exactly why the Republicans are seeking a way out.

Update: Ezra Klein suggests a brilliant counter-proposal for the White House to offer:

I think the administration should release a counter-proposal. They will agree to literally every one of the GOP’s demands — including the ones that don’t make any sense — in return for one, simple promise: The final legislation is guaranteed an up-or-down vote in the House and the Senate. No filibusters. No delays. No procedural tricks. If the GOP wants a clean process, I bet a deal can be struck here.

The problem is that this type of proposal would muddy the waters – and cause those individuals paying less attention to not know who to blame. Whatever the last deal offered was will be the primary focus of attention. Better it be this sham of a Republican proposal.

[Image by talkradionews licensed under Creative Commons.]

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Posted in Barack Obama, Domestic issues, Health care, Politics, The Opinionsphere | No Comments »

John Boehner on Global Warming: Cow Farts, Carcinogen, and a Pained Expression

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Watching John Boehner demonstrate his ignorance when asked about global warming on This Week with George Stephanopoulos was surprisingly painful:

The huge amount of waste gasses from livestock do in fact contribute to global warming significantly; and of course it is silly to call carbon dioxide a carcinogen – but that’s very different from calling it a potentially dangerous greenhouse case in significant quantities. The fact that Boehner doesn’t even know the basic terms of this debate is disturbing if telling – as the only way to explain his rejectionist position is a combination of ignorance and greed for fundraising dollars.

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Posted in The Opinionsphere, Videos | 13 Comments »

The 7 Layers of Opposing Obama’s Response to the Financial Crisis

Wednesday, March 4th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]Opponents of Obama’s response to the financial crisis have taken a number of approaches their disagreement. As with all political opposition, these approaches begin with a seemingly common-sense question or objection – and use it as a lever to attack their opponents. Governor Bobby Jindal for example used a bit of each of the following approaches to go after Obama – though not quite committing to any of them fully. I’ve paired many of these approaches with the most prominent individuals who have become associated with them – and tried to respond to them. What is common among them all is a desire to tap into the inchoate rage that this crisis is engendering among all Americans – and to try to focus that rage on Barack Obama. What is lacking among these approaches is a compelling or plausible alternative.

I. Do we need to do anything at all? (James K. Glassman)

George Will memorably attacked this point as a strawman on This Week. But it’s not, even if it is unfair to attribute this view to most Republicans. James K. Glassman (hereinafter called “Dow 36,000” after the book he coauthored) wrote a much-talked about piece for Commentary making the argument that nothing need to be done. The article was cited by House Minority Leader John Boehner among others – and was perhaps the first anti-Obama argument to gain traction in the stimulus debate. Mr. Dow 36,000 made the argument that the Austrian business cycle best explained our current mess – and that our best option would be to do nothing and hope things got better, that we trust the market to provide if only we have enough faith in it’s benevolence and restrain our sinful (government) interference.

What Mr. Dow 36,000 failed to account for was that the stability of societies around the world is dependent on economic growth and the opportunity this brings. The opiate of the masses unhappy with their governments is no longer religion – it is the hope that results from economic growth, the miracle and curse of rising expectations.

Mr. Dow 36,000 believes that if our economic heart seems to have stopped beating, the answer is to have faith that our blood will continue to flow. “We don’t need stimulus – we need to calm down,” he says. But the only rational response is to shock the heart back into action, to stimulate it.

II. But do we need to spend all this money?

Yes, if not more. The basic theory of Keynesian stimulus is that when the aggregate market demand for goods and services enters into a decreasing spiral.

Less demand = Lower prices = Less supply = Less jobs = Less demand = Lower Prices = etcetera

When an economy enters this cycle, Keynes believed, the government must step in and increase demand by spending more than it receives in taxes. (If it taxed to make up for it’s increased spending, it would not be adding demand but merely redistributing it.) Projections indicate that the US gross domestic product will fall by $2.1 trillion in the next two years. Which is why some Nobel-prize winning economists were frustrated that Obama’s plan was so small that it will not be able to make up for the drop in demand.

Joe Scarborough pointed out on Meet the Press last Sunday that, as all deficit spending is stimululative, the last eight years of the Bush presidency have been Keynesian stimulus too:

Scarborough uses this point to make out Obama’s stimulus to be more of the same, except with the stimulus directed towards the bottom 95% of Americans instead of the top 2%. He’s not entirely wrong, but to continue the metaphor above – if someone’s lifestyle choices have put enormous pressure on their heart, as they snort cocaine or take speed or otherwise constantly overcharge their heart, the first step to getting them healthy is usually to get them to stop putting so much pressure on their heart. But if their heart beat is dropping rapidly, or their heart has stopped, then the first step is no longer to remove the cocaine from their system but to inject them with someone that will energize their heart. This is a stimulus. And this is the reason Obama’s economic team is increasing our deficit in the short term.

III. What about tax cuts? (Eric Cantor)

The Republicans proposed a $3.1 trillion dollar permanent tax cut as their alternative to Obama’s $780 billion dollar spending/tax cut stimulus. That they continued to criticize Obama for fiscal irresponsibility and accused him of “generational theft” while supporting this bill aptly demonstrates that this was a pure political play. But if nothing else, the sheer size of the Republican alternative stimulus suggests what the reports of the nonpartisan Congressional Research Office concluded: tax cuts work slower and have less stimulative effect than almost any kind of spending measures. This is why more than half of Obama’s bill is spending.

IV. Fine. But even if this works, the deficit will be out of control! (John McCain)

Damn right it will. Hell – after eight years of rapidly decreasing taxes coupled with the largest increase in domestic spending since the War on Poverty and two large and seemingly unending wars, the deficit was already out of control. Even before that, as Bush failed to respect the “lockbox” that Al Gore promised to protect with the extra funds raised by Social Security taxes, we were in trouble. But even if we had saved all of this money paid into the Social Security program which is owed to me and you in a few dozen years (or less) the rapidly escalating cost of health care would leave our government with a deficit of over $60 trillion dollars over the next few decades.

Which is why Obama has been talking about dealing with America’s long-term fiscal problems since he was on the campaign trail – and especially since he was elected. In the weeks before his election, Washington was taken with his idea of a “Grand Bargain.”

But none of this will matter if the economy doesn’t begin growing again. If the first step to recovery is deficit spending to get the economy going again – continuing the above metaphor, using paddles, injections, whatever to get our economic heart functioning again – the next step is to clean up our act and take a fiscally responsible approach to governing and entitlement spending – in other to stop the irresponsible behaviors that helped create the crisis. If our economy is still stagnant, we will need to dismantle a good portion of our federal and state governments. But if the stimulus works, and the economy begins to grow again, adjustments can be made. Another point that Obama and his Director of the Office of Management and Budget Peter Orzag have made clear is that the first step to solving America’s long-term fiscal problems is tackling the problem of our rapidly escalating health care costs – which thanks to their rapid growth make up an ungodly percentage of our unmet future commitments. This is why Obama sees health care reform as one of the first steps that needs to be taken – to stop the rapidly escalating costs of health care.

V. Do we really need to help all these losers? (Rick Santelli)

Yes, we do. Obama has described his economic team as a bunch of mechanics who are trying to fix the machine that is our economy. When a mechanic sees that a spring or a lever or a cog isn’t functioning properly – and this piece is preventing the machine from working – the mechanic knows the problem will not be fixed by lecturing the piece or letting it fail for not properly doing it’s job. The correct thing to do is to replace it or glue it or do whatever is necessary to make the piece function as it must. Yes, the bankers whose job it was to properly calculate risk and make money instead spectacularly failed to understand the risks they were taking and lost money; and yes, the liars and idiots who took our mortgages they couldn’t afford should be punished too. But while one bank failing is just, a failure of our banking system could paralyze the economy. And while an idiot who took out a loan he couldn’t afford should get his house foreclosed upon, too many foreclosures will take down a neighborhood. Both of these are part of systemic problems which has resulted in downward spirals.

Obama, in taking this approach, seems to be combining some elements of Hayek’s warnings about the limits of the discipline of economics and the failure of the best-laid plans with Keynes’s fierce urgency of now – a kind of trial-and-error, scientific approach to financial crisis management as opposed to a more ideological, morality-driven approach associated with partisans of the left and right.

VI. Obama’s plan sucks. It isn’t working yet!

The stimulus money hasn’t begun to be spent. And the banking and mortgage fixes have yet to be fully implemented – so  of course it’s not working yet. Obama recently explained that the ups and downs of the stock market are a flawed indicator – just as the ups and downs of campaign polling is often flawed. Obama bet his campaign on a strategy of ignoring the day to day and conceding the daily media wars and never trying to boost his daily poll numbers. Instead, he focused on the fundamentals. And he won. His economic team’s approach to the financial crisis is similar. The falling stock market is merely a symptom of the crisis. It is a waste of time to treat a symptom when the root cause is not being addressed – but if one is able to treat the root cause, the symptom will be cured as well.

Obama has elected to do what needs to be done to fix the economy as a whole – and this means helping people whose decisions were poor, people who were greedy, people who were stupid, and yes, losers too. No matter how distasteful, the situation bankers and mortgagees must be helped in order to fix the economy.

To reiterate, the Obama plan has several steps:

  1. Fixing the mortgage and banking mess.
  2. Arresting the downward economic spiral touched off by these messes with government spending to stimulate demand.
  3. Put our government on a fiscally sane path by tackling the enormous gap between our spending promises and revenue generation in the area of entitlements – and at the same time, reigning in deficit spending as soon as this crisis has passed. (These steps are necessary to prevent those who we currently owe from panicking.)

VII. I hope he fails! Socialist! Communist! Marxist! Terrorist! Black Hitler! The Antichrist! Nobama! (Rush Limbaugh)

In fairness to Rush, he’s only publicly expressed a few of these sentiments. I’m not sure that he’s called Obama a black Hitler yet – but I’m sure he’s joked about it. This approach presumes that Obama has a quasi-secret agenda he is trying to impose on America – and that this agenda is so awful, it would be better to suffer another Great Depression or worse than to capitulate. Rush has described Obama as acting in bad faith, as being deranged, as having a mental illness (which Rush diagnoses as liberalism), and as all manner of awful and un-conservative things. Rush is a true propagandist and ideologue – and he has become the rallying point for movement conservatives.

His critiques now have power as the anticipatory fear of what Obama might do overwhelms the sense of what Obama is doing – and if Obama fails, Rush will be hailed as a visionary and a leader. But if Obama continues to display the conservative temperament and pragmatism that won him the election, then he will be as little remembered as Father Coughlin with his anti-Roosevelt screeds.

Rush – like proponents of failed ideologies everyone – continues to maintain that the conservative movement did not fail, but rather that it never truly had the power to achieve it’s agenda.

(more…)

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Posted in Barack Obama, Economics, Financial Crisis, Politics, The Opinionsphere | 1 Comment »

James Glassman’s Debatable History

Friday, February 13th, 2009

James K. Glassman is the brilliant journalist and opinion-maker whose Dow 36,000 was published just before the tech boom crashed. In this book, he claimed that stocks were woefully undervalued and would rise sharply, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average reaching 36,000 by 2004 – at the latest. This prescient thinker has now written what is turning out to be an influential piece in some circles. For one, House Minority Leader John Boehner cites it on his blog.1 I even saw some people reading print-outs of the article on my train – which is fairly unusual. It strikes me as an article written for those who already want to agree with the conclusions – and that it’s premises aren’t defended as much as stated as implicitly true.

For example, Glassman makes five historical claims which are – at best – debatable. I am not an expert on economic history – and I am sure Glassman can find an economist who will agree with each of these claims. But my understanding is that they are contrary to the general consensus.

  1. “Wait, he has a blog?” “Yes, he actually does.” []

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Posted in Economics, Financial Crisis, History | 2 Comments »

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