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Partisan Bickering

 

The worst pathology in American journalism is the prevalence of  he said/ she said reporting.  As in, “Democrats argued that the world is round.  In response, Republicans insisted that the world is flat.”  So is the world round or flat?  If all you read or hear is this report from an American journalist, you’re on your own.  You’d think there’d be an obligation to report, in addition to the above, that the world is indeed round.  You might think that, but you’d be wrong.  The norm is to be impartial, which entails reporting the positions of both sides.  But prevailing journalistic norms do not encourage objectivity, which isn’t the same thing as impartiality. 

 

But the worst journalistic pathology after he said/ she said is a phrase: “partisan bickering”.  The problem is that “bickering” is by definition content-free.  Siblings bicker over whose turn it is to vacuum.   Couples bicker over pressing issues such as  “toilet seat – up or down?”

 

So politicians bicker, and it must be over things that don’t matter, right?    Or, if it’s apparent that the bickering is about big, important issues that matter to millions of people, then something's deeply wrong with the system, correct?  And if the bickering is partisan, it must be that the issues won’t be decided on the merits.  And if that’s true, then it must be that those issues are being debated and decided in an irresponsible way.  And obviously if it’s politicians that are doing this, then politicians are an especially irresponsible, selfish group of people.  The bottom line is that a good citizen will declare himself an “independent” and avoid involvement with political parties.  Or, better yet, just give up on the political process all together in a principled and savvy exercise in cynicism.

 

Well no.  No to all of the above.

 

But it’s pervasive.  Here’s a sentence – a single fucking sentence  from the Wall Street Journal that perfectly encapsulates this pathological terminology.

Mr. Obama campaigned on calling for an end to partisan bickering in Washington, but once in office he launched an ambitious agenda that pursued several long-held Democratic goals.

Got that?  He promised not to bicker with Republicans, but he broke that promise by pursuing Democratic policies and principles.  The conflation of the kind of insignificant things about which we bicker with issues of the greatest import, such as health care reform, is complete.  And, apparently, completely unconscious.  To the author, Jonathan Weisman, it is inconceivable that the president would actually believe in or care about these goals.  He is pursuing them solely to insult Republicans.  The obvious question for anyone who reads this is to ask why anyone should take this president – or the presidency in general, or the political process as a whole – seriously?

 

Two other implications are lurking in that sentence.  Here they are, again perfectly encapsulated by Weisman, again in one sentence.  (I’m quoting two only because it’s needed for context.)

The Senate doesn't work the way game theorists think, said Antonia Ferrier, an aide to Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah. A body built on personal relationships is likely to spiral into endless tit-for-tat retaliations in the face of Mr. Obama's new turn, she said.

So it’s regrettable if the Senate turns away from its tradition of operating on personal relationships, because the result of this will be the degeneration of august deliberations into unprincipled retaliation, which is one form of . . .  partisan bickering. 

 

That’s obviously backwards, isn’t it?  Bickering is something couples and siblings do (not to say that only they do it), because it’s a feature of close personal relationships.  If the Senate operates on personal relationships, then bickering’s a feature, not a bug – as everyone knows.   In the actual world, however, the Senate would be better off if everyone weren’t so chummy.  For example, the current “Party of No” strategy of Republicans depends on it.  A single senator’s being able to put a hold on executive branch nominations is a senatorial courtesy, not a constitutional feature of the Senate.  So there was no way to call bullshit on Richard Shelby’s holding up every single Obama administration nomination.  The correct response would be, “Fuck you, Dick.  The effective functioning of the executive branch – no matter who’s in charge of it – is more important than whatever bullshit you’ve got on your mind.”  Even in less colorful language, that would just be rude.  

 

The Senate wouldn’t suffer if it were less chummy.  Civility and principled disagreement don’t require close personal relationships (which, I realize, means that the above is not actually the correct response to Shelby).

 

Weisman’s immersion in the “partisan bickering” trope is so complete, he can’t see contrary evidence when he reports it himself. 

The new tone may be having an impact, though, among some Obama voters who had soured on what they saw as an electric campaigner gone soft.

 

Republicans are getting "better treatment than they deserve," said Don Miller, 68, a California independent and pipe line consultant who said his support for Mr. Obama was rising.

 

"He's not a politician yet, but he's learning fast. As he learns to work the Washington establishment he has become more and more effective," said James Shubert, 83, a transportation-services manager in Tennessee.

 

Robin Moyer, 48, a retired South Carolina school teacher, lamented that the president had been trying to "reach as many people as possible, but sometimes it is overkill."

None of these citizens sees the current state of the national debate as "partisan bickering."  They look at the relationship between Obama and Republicans in substantive terms.  Republican obstruction isn’t business as usual. It’s bad behavior that merits consequences.  Effective government requires standing up to obstructionism, and that’s a quality of a good politician.  Bipartisanship is a good thing, but it’s secondary to actually governing.

 

If this phrase weren't so widespread and persistent, you'd almost have hope for the future.

 

Tue, March 30, 2010 | link

Fred Hiatt's

 

If the world were just and conservatives honest, the editorial page of the Washington Post would put an end to all talk of a “liberal media.”  Fred Hiatt is a neo-con in foreign policy and a shock doctrine operative in domestic policy.  Here’s his latest on the latter.  He says:

 Without health reform, [President Obama] said during a July telephone interview, there would be no hope for fiscal reform. With it, he would be in a position to "start laying out a broader picture about how we are going to handle entitlements in a serious way."

Well, it's been six days since he signed the bill, and he still hasn't saved Social Security.

Just kidding. We can give him another day or two.

But the long-term threat is no joke, as Obama has acknowledged many times. If Obama does not pivot, the country will be in serious trouble.

Why? According to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published last week, Obama's budget plan has the government spending one-quarter of the national economy (25.2 percent of gross domestic product) 10 years from now, while collecting revenue that's less than one-fifth (19.6 percent).

This is dishonest in two ways.  First, the so called Social Security Crisis actually can be solved overnight.  Social Security itself isn’t going broke.  It works on a principle of paying benefits from current contributions, so that the problem is only that current contributions at some point – and all we know about this is that we haven’t reached that point yet – will not cover current outlays, with a shortfall of about 25 to 30 percent.  That problem has already been addressed with the creation of  the SS trust fund in the 1980’s, and it is only this trust fund that’s running short.  That problem is easily cured.  The current contributions of very high income taxpayers are capped.  Remove that cap and voila, the trust fund is put back on track.  The “crisis” in Social Security is the biggest scam going.

 

Second, Hiatt conflates the so-called Social Security Crisis with the overall budget deficit.  Both Social Security and the SS trust fund are separate from the federal budget.  The fact that the trust fund has been “raided” to pay other government expenditures doesn’t change that.  For one thing, revenue is fungible, so the “raid” was built in.  But  more important, the “raid” is by another name using the trust fund as a stopgap measure, a temporary cure, for the deficit.  If we need to resolve a deficit crisis  shouldn’t the program that’s already been used up as a stopgap be the last program cut?  But Hiatt’s first option for curing the overall budget deficit is to cut Social Security, by means of lower benefits and later retirements.

 

He goes on:

Such a gap isn't sustainable for any country. The United States would have to borrow so much money that in interest alone the government would be spending 4.1 percent of GDP -- compared with 1.4 percent this year. Other programs -- for defense, for the poor, for national parks, for everything -- would be squeezed more and more. The United States would be increasingly at the mercy of China, Saudi Arabia and other lenders.

Okay, let’s actually put defense on the chopping block.  It never is, of course, which is yet another bit of dishonesty on Hiatt’s part.  But if we do put it on the block, the defense budget has more than enough money in it to cure the deficit.   Our military budget amounts to 54% of all federal spending.  We spend more on defense than France, the UK, China, Russia, and the next ten countries combined.  (Scroll to the pie chart.)  We spend ten times as much has France, the UK, or Russia, and eight times as much as China.  If our per capita military spending were what it is in any other developed country, we’d have a large surplus.

 

And there’s more:

Here's one measure of the challenge: The president touts health reform in part because it will reduce the deficit -- according to the CBO, by $143 billion in the next 10 years.

That sounds pretty good, until you consider that Obama would need the equivalent of 70 additional health bills to undo the $9.8 trillion that his budgets will add to the deficit during the next 10 years, according to the CBO.

(Actually, it would take something like 220 health-care bills of deficit reduction, because the true savings from health care are more like $44 billion, once you subtract $70 billion in premiums that people will pay for long-term-care insurance and $29 billion they will pay into the Social Security trust fund, all of which will have to be paid out later. But either way, it's a frightening picture.

The problem here is that the health care law is not, amazingly enough, a deficit reduction law.  So to say it is so ineffective at reducing the deficit that we’d need 70 of them is ridiculous on its face; a category error.  Furthermore, that CBO estimate does not include the effects of the health care law in actually improving health, which will result in lower Medicare and Medicaid outlays – this being a principal feature of the law’s design.  And finally, what’s the logic of including the insurance premiums paid  by private individuals in the calculation of the federal deficit?  As explained above, contributions to the SS trust fund shouldn’t be in there either.

 

Is there no end to this guy’s duplicity?  Or is it just stupidity?

 

Mon, March 29, 2010 | link

Coburn in Bizarroland
 
Paul Krugman wrote a column recently in which he argued, correctly, that today's conservatives have been so radicalized that they simply inhabit a different moral universe from liberals and moderate conservatives.  Exhibit A: Jim Bunning's one-man filibuster (he denied unanimous consent on a procedural motion) against the extension of unemployment benefits for millions of Americans.
 
The word at the time was that the rest of the R senators didn't back him on this, but the issue of an extension has come up again, and apparently they are adopting the Bunning approach as the party line.  It's hard to know what to make of this.  My first reaction is that it's more pouting over their loss on health care.  Or it might be an equally petulant but more deliberate generalizing of the Party of No strategy that worked so well with health care.  Some of the R senators seem to want to take that approach - Lindsay Graham threatened to yesterday -- but there's also evidence that some of them realize they thoroughly fucked themselves with it on heatlh care.  But in the end I don't think it's strategic or petulant.  It's just how things work in that alternate universe. 
 
Suppose a senator started talking about the issue of extending unemployment benefits and made the point that the president and congress have it easy and might have lost touch with ordinary people's concerns.  The point would be that the benefits need to be extended, right? And if the senator pulled out a picture of a little girl, the point would be that she shouldn't suffer if her parents are unemployed, right?
 
Wrong.  This is what Senatory Coburn had to say on taking the Bunning approach to the issue.

 "You see it is easy to spend other people's money," Coburn said on the Senate floor, according top the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Especially if you're sitting up here with a good pension, drawing a good salary."

Defending his blockade on the floor today, Coburn turned to the other political stand by, placing a giant photo of an adorable little girl from Oklahoma on an easel next to him as he went on and on about how he was blocking the benefits extension for her.

Do you know what's the worst thing about this?  It's not just that he thinks the abstraction of deficit spending is a bigger problem than the concrete misery of a family's unemployment benefits running out.  It's not just that he's a hardhearted dick.  The worst thing is that he actually believes he's doing unemployed families a favor.
 
He has to know that, given the choice, and unemployed father or mother would take the benefits and screw the deficit.  He can't be that out of touch.  No, here's what he's thinking.  "I'm doing this for your own good, and you'll thank me later."  Or maybe, " Sure you're suffering, but you need to be a little more public spirited."
 
Truly, beyond hardhearted dickishness. 
Fri, March 26, 2010 | link

The Progressive View From The Top
 
The so-called crisis in Social Security isn't one at all.  It's not the system that faces a financial short-fall, it's the trust fund -- a side-car program instituted in the 1980's to deal with a genuine shortfall in Social Security itself. 
 
Social security works by paying the taxes collected by current active workers out to current retirees.  When the baby boomers retire, there will be more going out than coming in.  This problem was addressed in the 1980s by setting up a trust fund -- paid for with a nominal increase in Social Security taxes -- to fill that gap.  We still haven't reached the point where the trust fund is needed.  The current estimate is that that will happen in 2016.
 
The so-called "crisis" is a projected shortfall in the trust fund -- which will happen on a day well beyond 2016, when we first begin to draw on it.  It's a lot easier to fix that shortfall -- collect a little more for the trust fund -- than it is to reconfigure SS itself.   But the idea of a "crisis" blocks out the simple solution and makes radical, entirely unnecessary, surgery look inevitable.  (One wrinkle is that the trust fund hasn't been segregated from general revenue, so that it will have to be borrowed, like the rest of the money we borrow to cover the annual federal deficit.  Why this is a special problem requiring the fundamental overhaul of SS escapes me.)
 
So if the trust fund isn't collecting enough, collect a little more, right?  How could we collect a little more?  High earners -- say the top 1% who make over 200K a year -- don't pay SS taxes on income above about 170K.  That means their SS contributions just stop coming out of their paychecks sometime in the summer or fall, whereas the money comes out of everyone else's paycheck all year long.
 
My wife and I are lucky enough to be in this category.  When we reach the point at which the SS contribution stops coming out of our paychecks, what happens? 
 
Nothing.  We don't even notice it.  Why?  Because it's a tiny amount given the size of our paychecks. 
 
So in a roundtable blog in the NYT on how to fix the SS "crisis"  two contributors make the sensible and the non-sensical proposals.  Teresa Ghilarducci of the New School -- across 13th street from where I work -- writes:

Since most of the earnings growth in the last two decades went to the top paid people, those earning much more than the Social Security taxable salary of $106,800 the system lost revenue. A quick fix is to gradually increase the taxable earnings base from current coverage of just 85 percent of earnings to 100 percent by 2045. That would solve the entire predicted Social Security deficit for 75 years. Done.

In contrast, Andrew Biggs of AEI says:

Finally, I would minimize the role of tax increases. Higher taxes will encourage people to work less (due to lower after-tax pay), save less (since they’ll have less disposable income) and retire earlier (since Social Security benefits will be higher relative to their take-home pay).

Top income tax rates are already slated to rise above 40 percent, with the recent health care legislation increasing the Medicare tax for high earners. That’s enough. We need a vibrant economy as the nation moves ahead.

It would be better, he says, to make us retire later with less generous benefits.
 
Seriously, dude?  You think that a lot of people -- way more than the top 1% who'd be affected the Ghilarducci proposal -- should be substantially disadvantaged so people like me can avoid paying a few hundred bucks that we'd never miss?  Seriously?
 
The idea that tax increases are always the worst option drives common sense right out of the guy's head.  That, and the Randian notion that high earners contribute proportionately more to society, and won't do it if they are taxed. 
 
It's dogma on autopilot. 
 
 
Thu, March 25, 2010 | link

You'd Expect More, But You'd Be Disappointed
 
I can remember when Lamar Alexander was a serious candidate for President.  At the time, it was possible to be a moderate Republican, and he fit that description.  Given that he's still in the Senate, you'd expect him to have moved to the right, and he has.  But in the process, he seems to have been carried along with the Right's descent in to complete incoherence.
 
Remember the idiot at the town meeting last summer who told his Republican congressman to "keep your government hands off my Medicare" ?  Medicare, of course, being not only a government program, but a single payer health care system of the kind progressives favor, and that most resembles the UK's National Health -- a favorite boogie-man of the Right Wing.
 
So here's Alexander on the provision of the reconciliation bill that takes private banks out of student loan lending.  It abolishes a federal program under which private banks issue government guaranteed loans, giving the profit to the bank and all the risk and losses to the government. 

“The Democratic majority decided, well look, while we’re at it, let’s have another Washington takeover,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee and a former federal education secretary. “Let’s take over the federal student loan program.”

That's right.  He's condemning the federal take-over of a federal student loan program.  Not only that, the federal take-over of the federal loan program consists of dissolving it.

 

Sheer genius.

 

Thu, March 25, 2010 | link

An Ominous Sound
 
According to TPM, the Tea Party crazies are still out on front of the capitol, shouting "Kill the Bill!"
 
But they're also chanting "Nan-cy! Nan-cy!"  It's not a cheer, it's a threat.  Show your face, Nancy, and we'll kill you.
 
They are, after all Beck's minions. 
Just three days after imploring his viewers to refrain from "violence," warning them that "just one lunatic, like Timothy McVeigh, could ruin everything," and saying that "it is your patriotic duty to stop" someone who is thinking or talking about turning violent, Glenn Beck staged a scene in which he gave a glass of wine to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then said, "I put poison in your -- no, I -- I look forward to all the policy discussions that we're supposed to have.

If you can stomach Beck's sanctimonious, ignorant ramblings, watch the video.

 
 

 

Sun, March 21, 2010 | link

Ezra Klein Has It Right
 
Ezra Klein's column in the Washington Post today is titled "Twilight of the Interest Groups," and the title is unfortunate because it's led both Glenn Greenwald and Matthew Iglesias to argue against something Klein doesn't say. 
 
Klein's point is not that health industry interest groups were shut out of the process or failed to get what they wanted.  Of course Obama and the Democrats paid them off early in the process -- the pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies themselves.  Klein doesn't dispute that, and he says so outright.  "You can take that [Obama's deals and concessions] as a critique of the bill."  But then he goes on to make an entirely different argument.
 
His point has to do with the industry groups' pull with the Republicans -- that's what's in the twilight.  He says that the GOP set the complete stonewalling and defeat of the bill as its goal from the outset, but this wasn't the health industry groups' objective.  Those  groups would rather have had the GOP play ball, because they could have got everything the health care industry wanted. 
 
What they wanted above all was a law saying everyone in the country has to buy the insurance companies' products -- and they got that.  But if they'd had the Republicans on their side, they would have got more.  They wouldn't have had to surrender the right to deny coverage, terminate coverage, and to gut coverage with co-pays.  But they didn't get any of that because the party wanted to kill the bill entirely.
 
And the reason the Republicans didn't team with the health industry was that they are listening more to their Tea Party/ Glenn Beck base.  Hence the health industry interest groups falling into twilight.  Klein means their influence on Republicans is fading.
 
I don't understand why Greenwald and Iglesias went with the headline instead of reading Klein's column.
 
 
Sun, March 21, 2010 | link

Beyond Arrogance
 
The meltdown of the world financial system had seven parts. 
First, Banks were allowed to act as investment companies and investment companies were allowed to act like banks,. 
Second, both bank holding companies and investment companies new to lending created bad mortgages in the search for higher returns on their money. 
Third, these bad mortgages were bundled and sold as securities -- like stocks and bonds - under the theory that the risk of the few bad mortgages in the bundle would be spread over the good mortgages  in the bundle.  Unfortunately, most of the mortgages in these bundles were bad. 
Fourth, credit ratings agencies like Moody's Inc. gave top ratings to these bad securities.
Fifth, companies like Goldman Sachs leveraged these securities -- used them as collateral on loans greater than the value of the securities themselves. 
Sixth, companies like AIG insured these loans.  When the loans at the bottom of this pyramid went bad, the whole thing collapsed. 
Seventh, the US and other industrial countries had to borrow more money to support demand by consumers, which is the principal step that needed to be taken to avoid collapse of demand an ensuing depression.
Look again at Step Four above.  Among the major enablers of this disaster were the credit rating services that gave high ratings to the securitized mortgages.  They were no more valuable and no less risky than the bad loans that had been bundled to create them, but the rating agencies gave them top marks.  Moody's Inc. is a credit rating service that gave these high ratings, and so contributed significantly to the disaster. 
 
After the meltdown of the world's economy -- including the complete bankruptcy of Iceland --- you'd think Moody's would have lost some of its credibility and a lot of its influence.
 
But how's this for arrogance and irony?  Moody's issued a threat yesterday to downgrade the bonds issued by the very countries it helped to damage.  Why the downgrade?  These countries have taken on too much debt.  That would be Step Six above.
 
Sun, March 14, 2010 | link


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