Monthly Archives: October 2013

Right Still Leans on Social Darwinism

Conservative and libertarian arguments about social spending are rooted in the discredited Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer and William Graham Sumner.

Social Darwinism was the intellectual vogue of early 19th century sociology. The movement, led by Herbert Spencer, who coined the term, “survival of the fittest.” purported to apply Darwinian principles to the working of society. The attempt was doomed from the start because Spencer also relied on the discredited theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who believed that traits acquired during an organism’s lifetime could be passed down to offspring. Spencer also assumed that society was subject to “natural laws,” rather than being an artificial construction as prominent sociologist Lester Ward argued.

Spencer’s work suited conservatives, because he argued against social reform to help the poor because their poverty was to due to weakness. They were unfit and should be eliminated. He argued against all state intervention, which would impede the natural development and progression of society.

William Graham Sumner became a leading proponent of Social Darwinism, arguing that the wealthy were rich because of natural selection and argued that their wealth was a social service. Sumner argued that hereditary wealth allowed the fittest to pass on their virtues to children. He argued, “Let it be understood that we cannot go outside this alternative: liberty, inequality, survival of the fittest; not-liberty, equality, survival of the unfittest. The former carries society forward and favors all its best members; the latter carries society downwards and favors all its worst members.” That is, people are not shaped by society, but rather have intrinsic qualities and the market should filter out the weak from the strong.

In Sinclair Lewis’s, Babbitt, George Babbitt describes the tenets of social Darwinism,

The first thing you got to understand is that all this uplift and flipflop and settlement-work and recreation is nothing in God’s world but the entering wedge for socialism. The sooner a man learns he isn’t going to be coddled, and he needn’t expect a lot of free grub and, uh, all these free classes and flipflop and doodads for his kids unless he earns ’em, why, the sooner he’ll get on the job and produce—produce—produce! That’s what the country needs, and not all this fancy stuff that just enfeebles the will-power of the working man and gives his kids a lot of notions above their class.

Social Darwinism assumes that markets are efficient and the only just way to allocate resources in a society and that any deviation from the market outcome would stunt society’s development by “coddling” the poor. This sanctification of the market became untenable for most Americans in the wake of the Great Depression.

The backlash against Social Darwinism eventually ushered in a progressive era. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thorstein Veblen exposed the fallacy that the wealthiest had superior scrupules or a strong work ethic. Henry George noted that, “Mr. Spencer is like one who might insist that each should swim for himself in crossing a river, ignoring the fact that some had been artificially provided with corks and other artificially loaded with lead.” Peter Kropotkin, noted that the biological world was rife with interspecies co-operation and that this cooperation in the face of environmental struggle drove progress. The progressive era brought about programs to increase opportunity, shared sacrifice and the social safety net.

In the 1980s, Social Darwinism re-emerged in the form of supply-side economics – the theory that the rich drive society and the poor hang along for the ride. As J.K. Galbraith noted of Reagan’s economic program,

Let us take supply-side theory at its face value, however modest that may be. It holds that the work habits of the American people are tied irrevocably to their income, though in a curiously perverse way. The poor do not work because they have too much income; the rich do not work because they do not have enough income. You expand and revitalize the economy by giving the poor less, the rich more.

The most prominent proponent of the new Social Darwinism was Charles Murray, whoseLosing Ground provided key support for anti-welfare crusaders by arguing that the social safety net has made the poor lazy and that society is splitting in two, between the hard-working and justly rich and the lazy poor. In his essay, “The Coming White Underclass,” Murray exemplifies the hands-off conservatism and “survival of the fittest” mentality of social darwinism:

To restore the rewards and penalties of marriage does not require social engineering. Rather, it requires that the state stop interfering with the natural forces that have done the job quite effectively for millennia… Restoring economic penalties translates into the first and central policy prescription: to end all economic support for single mothers. The AFDC (Aid to Families With Dependent Children) payment goes to zero. Single mothers are not eligible for subsidized housing or for food stamps. An assortment of other subsidies and in-kind benefits disappear… From society’s perspective, to have a baby that you cannot care for yourself is profoundly irresponsible, and the government will no longer subsidize it. (Italics Added)

More recently, Social Darwinism has been embraced by the Conservative wunderkid, Paul Ryan who worries that,

We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into complacency and dependence.

Paul Ryan’s “maker vs. taker” narrative is also resurrected Social Darwinism, where the poor are lazy and the rich are virtuous and all government intervention makes the poor lazier and robs the rich of their deserved rewards.

Although Richard Hofstadter declared social Darwinism dead in the early 20th century, he warned that “A resurgence of social Darwinism… is always a possibility as long as there is a strong element of predacity in society.” With inequality tearing at the social bonds necessary to maintain the welfare state, old Spencerian arguments are being used to justify cuts to the minimum wagefood stamps and Medicaid spending. As the famous Johnson ad goes, “poverty is not a trait of character, it is created anew in each generation, but not by heredity, by circumstances.”

The Empathy Gap

Discussion is growing of an “empathy gap” rooted in our society’s dramatic increase in inequality. As David Madland argues in Democracy, “Studies across U.S. states, of the United States over time, and across countries all find that societies with a strong middle class and low levels of inequality have greater levels of trust of strangers.” This trust brings about economic advantages. Madland cites one study which found, “a 10 percentage-point increase in trust increases the growth rate of GDP by 0.5 percentage points” over five years.” International studies have confirmed this effect.

This decline in social trust begins a downward spiral. Bo Rothstein and Eric Uslaner note in a fabulous paper for World Politics, “The best policy response to growing inequality is to enact universalistic social welfare programs. However, the social strains stemming from increased inequality make it almost impossible to enact such policies.”

The lack of social trust caused by inequality makes increasing opportunity harder (as I’ve noted above) which further erodes social trust and increases inequality. Wealthy citizens see themselves as “makers” and the poor as “takers,” while the poor see the rich as selfish. Rothstein and Uslaner continue later, “Unequal societies find themselves trapped in a continuous cycle of inequality, with low trust in others and in government and policies that do little to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor and to create a sense of equal opportunity.”

Other research has confirmed this “empathy gap.” Last year, Paul Piff caused quite a stir when he published his finding that upper class individuals were, more likely to break driving laws, take goods from others, lie in a negotiation, cheat and endorse unethical behaviour (this, of course, stands at odd with Charles Murray’s rather naive belief that the rich are rich because of their superior moral scruples). Piff summarizes his conclusions,

While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything, the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people. It makes them more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.

But other developed nations are different. While America abandons (or mocks) its poor, other countries work to establish basic living standards. Switzerland, for instance, will soon vote to establish a guaranteed income of $33,000 a year (roughly twice the U.S. poverty line). Nearly all OECD have higher levels of upward mobility, lower levels of inequality and fare better on indicators of health and well-being than the United States. One of the key factors is a robust safety net, something that is constantly being eroded in America under the guise of “debt reduction.” The EPI finds that the U.S. lags behind other OECD countries in social expenditure as a percentage of GDP, and it shows: the U.S. also leads the OECD in poverty.

The U.S.’s drastic inequality creates the “skybox” effect, where the rich and poor rarely brush shoulders, making it harder for the wealthy and middle-class to empathize with the plight of the poor. Programs like food stamps have taken the poor out of the breadlines and hidden them away in the slums. A less empathetic society is bad news for programs that rely on decency to work.

F. Scott Fitzgerald cautioned in The Great Gatsby, “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone… just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

The Affordable Care Act Is An Okay Law That Has Been Sabotaged

The Affordable Care Act isn’t a perfect law. It’s not even a good law. But it’s better than what we had before and it’s worth fighting for.

The law has not worked as well as expected. Three of the problems with the ACA roll-out were not to due to the law itself, but rather, Republican intransigence. First, the Medicaid expansion was hurt by the Supreme Court ruling that made the expansion optional for states. Twenty-five governors (almost all Republican) have refused to push forward with the expansion, even though it will be paid for almost entirely with federal funds. This leaves millions of poor Americans without health insurance (and will likely end up costing the states more money). Second, many of those same governors refused to set up healthcare exchanges, meaning that the HHS had to for them. The HHS requested an additional $1 billion (far below the $5 billlion the CBO estimated would be needed) to set up the exchanges, which congressional Republicans denied. Third, right-wing organizations have been attempting to persuade young people to opt-out of the program, claiming that they will be better off without healthcare. This is bad for both the young people and the system. The young people will still be treated (just like the poor without Medicaid), but their treatment will place an expensive burden on the system and because they aren’t paying for premiums, meaning the cost of other plans on the exchange may rise.

Even with Republican support, the bill would have trouble. Obama, being a conservative, has tried to modify the system rather than overthrow it. He has followed the advice of Burke, who cautioned legislators to “approach to the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude.”

But conservatives are pretending that the bill is a radical overthrow of the healthcare system, rather than a few minor incremental changes which it is. The bill leaves the health insurance system largely intact, expands already existing programs and implements a collection of pilot projects that can easily be expanded.

Conservatives argue that the failure of Healthcare.gov proves that the government can’t do anything. That strikes me as a little absurd. The argument is that the government that sent a man to the moon, built the Hoover dam and National Highway System, rebuilt Europe, runs the wildly successful and efficient SNAP program and has become the most successful military in the world has lost its legitimacy because of a glitchy website. If anything, the government should be doing more projects in-house and avoiding the costly contractors who screwed up the whole program.

The Human Genome Project cost the government $3.8 billion dollars but generated $796 billion in economic gains. The project is expected to bring about returns of 140 to 1 to the public. Research by Kenneth Flam finds that, “eighteen of the twenty five most important breakthroughs in computer technology between 1950 and 1962 were funded by the government, and in many cases the first buyer of the technology was also the government.”

In every other country, government-run systems produce far better results for far cheaper. The United States spends twice as much of its GDP on healthcare than the OECD average. The U.S. gets little in return; Britain pays 40% less for slightly better outcomes. The U.S. healthcare system leads the industrialized world in administrative costs and wastes and estimated $750 billion dollars each year due to unnecessary procedures, inflated prices, excess administrative costs and poor delivery systems. The system also leaves 40 million people uninsured, which is unique among developed countries.

The fact that the failure of Healthcare.gov has garnered so much press is quite frankly shameful. Especially when there has been so much good news from the program: the rate of uninsured people in Oregon has dropped 10%, the recent Medicaid expansion in Ohio will give 273,000 people access to health insurance, many state-run exchanges are working fine and there is evidence that Obamacare is slowing down the growth of healthcare costs. Guys, even a Fox News contributor  has admitted the programs is working!

So don’t be fooled by all the horror stories. Obamacare is far more than merely a website; the NHS survived for decades before the invention of the internet. The program has already chalked up some important success and will continue to in the future. The hullabaloo about the website is just a reflection of the media cycle. The good parts get ignored while the minor failure of a website becomes front page news. Man bites dog and all.

The GOP and Tea Party Are Heading for a Split

The conventional wisdom right now is that, although there appears to be a rift in the Republican party, it’s not going to break-up. The Slatepitchy proposition is that Republicans disagree about “tactics not goals.” To quote Jonathan Chait,

Mainstream Republicans and the tea party have fallen out almost entirely over political tactics. Tea partiers and conventional Republicans alike want to abolish Obamacare, cut taxes, eliminate Dodd-Frank, stop any regulation of carbon emissions, and impose cuts to social programs for the poor.

Matthew Yglesias writes in Slate essentially the same thing as Bernstein in Salon, “The tensions between Ted Cruz and John Boehner and Peter King and Mitch McConnell and whomever are all about tactics.”

But this overstates the case: the Tea Party is a nationalistic fringe right-wing party and will inevitably have to split with the GOP.

I realize the World Net Daily is a crazy website, but I think this op-ed by Joseph Farrah summarizes my argument here, and provides definitive proof that the Tea Party and GOP are never, ever, ever getting back together:

There are groups and individuals who would like to constrict the tea-party movement to fiscal issues.

That would be a huge mistake.

It’s not just about government spending, even though it was government spending that precipitated the unprecedented, spontaneous, grass-roots uprising.

More precisely, it’s about the law of the land and the will of the people.

It’s about a nation whose government has lost its moorings.

Remember the list of policies that Yglesias and Chait think the Tea Party and Moderate Republicans agree on? Maybe they should consult TeaParty.org where these fifteen non-negotiables are dilineated:

1. Illegal aliens are here illegally.

2. Pro-domestic employment is indispensable.

3. A strong military is essential.

4. Special interests must be eliminated.

5. Gun ownership is sacred.

6. Government must be downsized.

7. The national budget must be balanced.

8. Deficit spending must end.

9. Bailout and stimulus plans are illegal.

10. Reducing personal income taxes is a must.

11. Reducing business income taxes is mandatory.

12. Political offices must be available to average citizens.

13. Intrusive government must be stopped.

14. English as our core language is required.

15. Traditional family values are encouraged.

Those goals aren’t at all in line with the policies pushed forward by the GOP. They are not the goals of a major political party, but rather a fringe nationalistic movement. In fact, similar nationalist movements are cropping up all over Europe, fueled by the influx of immigration, especially of Muslims.  Such movements are not historically unique either.

We can see a similar movement in Britain in the 1960s. when Britain’s Conservative Party faced the same struggle the GOP face today. In 1964, Peter Griffiths, a Tory, won a seat with the slogan: “If you want a n*gger for a neighbour, vote Labour.” In 1966, when the moderate Conservative party lost, A.K. Chesterton (winner of the creepiest lips award), along with John Tyndall decided that they would be better off splitting off from the Tories and forming their own National Front, which later evolved into the BNP.

The Conservatives worked to create a more center-right party and worked, haltingly, to rid itself of racist past and towards a more centrist agenda. In contrast, the BNP is pro-life, pro-capital punishment,  a strictly anti-immigration pose, reject any government spending that doesn’t serve British interests, teach the British heritage in schools, support stand your ground laws and believe all races are equal, but they just shouldn’t mingle. Sound familiar? Try to see if you can tell the difference between a Tea Party manifesto and the BNP manifesto.

Viewed in the light or the BNP, the Tea Party’s odd desire to maintain farm subsidies while cutting aid to the poor makes sense: any government program which supports the “other” is bad. Programs to support middle-class (read: white) farmers or homeowners are fine, supporting the poor hispanic and black population is terrible. The goal isn’t to shrink government, it’s to cleanse government. This also helps explain the Tea Party fascination with birtherism, strange theories about neo-colonialism, and they are absolutely terrified of the U.N.

The Tea Party has all of the hallmarks of a nationalist xenophobic (dare I say Fascist) movement:  89% white, 58% keep a gun in their house, a faction believe that violence  against the government is justified, most believe America is a country in decline, they are anti-immigrant, authoritarian, opposed to social progress, anti-gay and anti-abortion. overwhelmingly support the death penalty, really dislike Muslims, very much dislike immigrants (to the point of militarizing the border) and they’re really, really racist. Obviously, the Tea Party is not a single cohesive group, but it’s clear that the anti-immigrant wing holds major influence in the coalition of crazy. Sinclair Lewis summed up the situation a century ago, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

While the “Tea Party” sentiment has existed for a long time in the Republican party, but it has remained dormant, largely placated by the race-baiting language of Republican candidates. Reagan promised to cut benefits for the welfare queens (black women) and imprison crack addicts (black men). The recent rise of the Tea Party was ignited by three things:

1. The failure of the George Bush Presidency

The Republican has courted racial votes for a long-time, but recently has failed to deliver what they desire. George Bush’s push for immigration reform, his pivot toward India and China, embrace of compassionate conservatism and focus towards nation-building abroad all frustrated the nationalist right.

2. The election of Barack Obama

The election of Obama and his re-election provided both racial animus (s is it any wonder that the enemy of the Tea Party is not a liberal, but rather an immigrant black Muslim), but also the hopelessness of trusting the establishment. The reason for the National Front splitting with the Tories is disturbingly prescient: A.K. Chesterton was convinced that a purer party would  more successfully compete in national elections.

3. The destruction of the Middle Class

The middle class got screwed in 2008, and they saw their government support the wealthiest and the poorest and leave the middle-class out in the cold. If you look at the economic policies of the Tea Party, it’s broadly similar to that of the BNP – government support isn’t inherently bad, it’s bad if it goes to support immigrants, poor or blacks. Thus, the bailout of banks was not bad but the bailout of poor homeowners (who were, in the Conservative narrative, because of the Community Reinvestment Act were primarily minority) ignited the anger and fear.

If America was a parliamentary democracy (as it should be), the current split would have happened a long time ago. We would have four parties: a nationalistic “Tea Party,” a center-right “Rockefeller Republican” party, a center-left “New Democratic” party and a green party. Instead, we have two parties that . On the left, the green party has been so terrified of the right it grasped for the Clintons,  and Kerrys (and the center-lefties sat through McGovern and Dukakis). The right has had to grapple with something far more difficult. Middle-class and working-class nationalists have watched Republican presidents work towards immigration reform (to win the votes of Hispanics), send jobs overseas, work tirelessly to export American ideas to the Middle East and give up the fight on social issues. Now, they also have something else none of the other far-right movements in America have had, the mobilization capacity to shut down the government. The GOP has tried to placate the Tea Party while also bringing the party into the 21st century. How long will it be until the Tea Party decides, like A.K. Chesterton, that they’d be better off on their own? How far will the GOP go to win over the votes of disenchanted Southerners, afraid of the increase of secularism, the infiltration of foreign peoples and races into their society and the decline of the white middle class? To quote the Gospel of Mark, “A house is divided against itself cannot stand.”

How the Media Caused the Government Shutdown

Conspicuously absent from the media discussion of the government shutdown and debt-ceiling fiasco has been, unsurprisingly, the media’s responsibility for the whole sordid affair. By sacrificing truth on the altar of “objectivity,” creating narratives and bowing to any “authority” with a suit, the media has become a slave to the elite and done a disservice to the nation’s people.

Part of the media’s problem is its blind adherence to “objectivity.” When I interned at a news organization my boss would proudly announce, “we know we did the story right, because we got both the left and right wing crazies angry at us.” That’s right comrades, accuracy is not determined by objective facts, but whether the subjective reaction of various demagogues are equally feverish.

That’s why a government shutdown brought on and explicitly desired by one party finally occurred, both parties are “responsible.” When Paul Ryan puts together an absurd and radically right-wing list of Democratic concessions and calls it “bipartisan,” our slavish news parrots declare it to be “bipartisan.” If Ted Yoho claims breaching the debt ceiling wouldn’t be so bad but Jack Lew (and logic and lots of economists) say it would be awful, it’s time to sit down and have a “debate.”

There is no denying that the media creates and then perpetrates absurd narratives that serve to narrow the field to two corporate friendly establishment candidates. Any candidates that don’t fit within this narrative (say, a Dennis Kucinich, Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren) will be quickly written off as unelectable.

Don’t believe me? Here is how you end a politician’s Presidential ambitious without discussing his merits:

Howard Dean, off a disappointing showing in the Iowa caucuses, let loose with a primal scream Monday night that seems to have inspired a generation.

None of these articles even mention a single policy proposal from Dean.

We live in a sad Orwellian world in which, “Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

As Gore Vidal noted shortly before his death:

Our only political party has two right wings, one called Republican, the other Democratic.  But Henry Adams figured all that out back in the 1890s.  ‘We have a single system,’ he wrote, and ‘in that system the only question is the price at which the proletariat is to be bought and sold, the bread and circuses.’

The government shutdown should be seen as a “bread and circuses” affair, one which the media is cynically drawing in viewers while exploiting the suffering of millions of Americans.

Anyone who has been paying attention should note how coverage of sports and politics have converged, each borrowing strategies and tactics from each other. Veteran football stars graduate to ESPN where they pontificate and debate. Veteran politicians graduate to Fox News and CNN to do the same. Having watched a debate on ESPN about Tony Romo’s performance and a Crossfire debate about the government shutdown I can say, without irony that the ESPN debate contained more statistics, fewer soundbytes and less cynically fallacious thinking. Pundits can lie when they talk about healthcare, but dare not bullshit when discussing football.

Investigative journalism is a dead art. Studios realized long ago that it’s far cheaper to sit four overweight and undereducated “pundits” around the table and have them don tin-foil hats and spew vile bullshit then send a journalist overseas to “investigate” about the “truth.” Journalists who do leave the country to go to a warzone tour through Potemkin villages fabricated to obscure any sense of reality. Journalists, who are certainly educated enough to know what is going on simply prance around like trained seals waiting for whatever scraps of fish their trainers toss them.

After years of voraciously gobbling up any press release flung to them, they have lost all power of critical thinking. They can’t discern facts or truths or evaluate logic or arguments. They see only Ph.Ds, fancy resumes and billfolds (being British doesn’t hurt). This may explain why Niall Ferguson is still taken seriously even though he’s entirely full of shit. As it happens, they could save money by just letting Niall Ferguson debate himself.

Journalists have treated the possibility of default the way Puritanical housewives treat an illegitimate pregnancy – a horror certainly, and one that should be discussed frequently but without any positive action. How long would Cruz & Company hold out if they knew the press would actually do its job and report on the families that are suffering while Republicans play politics. The press has abrogated every sense of duty or morality it ever possessed.

It may be hard to remember (I certainly don’t) but I’ve been told on good authority that anchors used to actually call out politicians on their bullshit. The debt ceiling debate could be over tomorrow if a news anchor had the balls to stand up to Ted Cruz the way Edward R. Murrow stood up to Joe McCarthy. I’ve even written up a script, based on the Murrow reporting (okay, I just replaced McCarthy with Cruz, easy as pie):

This is no time for men who oppose Senator Cruz’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

The actions of the junior Senator from Texas have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

Good night, and good luck.

The Demise of the Left (and How to Revive It)

Although most polls indicate that Americans are putting the blame on Republicans for the government shutdown in terms of actual politics, the Republicans are winning. The government shutdown/debt ceiling is a quintessential example of the failure of leftism under both the Obama and Clinton administrations.

Obama has lost Waxman-Markey (climate change), Manchin-Toomey (gun control and the Gang of Eight (Immigration). Dodd-Frank (finance reform) has been dismantled and hasn’t even begun to correct the damage wrecked by Gramm-Leach-Bliley (which repealed Glass-Steagall) and the Commodities Modernization Act (deregulating derivatives).

Obama’s healthcare reform was supposed to include a public option, universal Medicaid expansion and exclude the Cadillac tax (which will hurt union workers who negotiated good healthcare plans). Ideally, of course, we would move to single-payer or socialized medicine, but this is America! We’re exceptional! In 2008 Obama mocked the idea of an individual mandate: “I mean, if a mandate was the solution, we can try that to solve homelessness by mandating everybody to buy a house.” His agenda has been so decimated that he’s literally having to pass of old moderate Republican ideas as genuine leftism, and he’s still being called a commie!

Obama has been negotiating with sociopaths for the last five years. He came in ready to bargain, but has instead met a party immune to compromise. Obama has gained almost nil in revenue, while spending has been cut drastically (and foolishly). Now, he’s being asked to give up his major (only?) legislative victory for absolutely nothing in return. In fact, the Democrats position right now is to beg for a “clean-CR” that would cut spending below Paul Ryan’s first budget and basically to the level he proposed for 2014. That’s right, the current Democratic position is to cut funding roughly to the level of what the psychotic Rand Acolyte/Republican “idea” man is asking for. Dear readers, let me restate this one more time. The Democratic position right now is to keep in place a law based around a Republican idea and cut spending below what Republicans wanted in 2010.

The Republican quest to cut spending and taxes while not actually doing anything hasn’t been stalled by the fact that they lost the presidency, the senate and got fewer votes in the House than the Democrats. They’ve so dramatically shifted the conversation that they are still winning.

The truth is, Republicans have been winning since the 80s and haven’t stopped. The Clinton/Obama domestic agenda is right of Nixon/Eisenhower. There is no left in America. Democrats would qualify as center-right in any other country, while the Republicans would constitute a fringe right-wing nationalist party that generally takes in 10% of unemployed alcoholic racists with free time to come up with crazy conspiracy theories. The Tea Party patriots would be bunkered underground prepping for a coming apocalypse. In America, they are a major national party, holding the government hostage for even more draconian spending cuts (and maybe some tax giveaways for their rich friends). As long as they keep gerrymandering districts, make sure blacks don’t get to vote and take a never-compromise position, Republicans will keep winning.

The left in America needs revival, and there is certainly hope. Young people, according to Pew Research Center, actually have a slightly positive view of socialism (+3) and a slightly negative view of capitalism (-1). Poor Americans also grown disenchanted with capitalism (-8), as have blacks (-10) and hispanics (-23). There is a large untapped reserve of populist fervor that will quickly turn to disillusionment as the corporate and finance controlled neo-liberal arm of the Democratic party fails to address the issues that matter to them: environmental degradation, rampant inequality, the rise of greed and the lack of empathy in our society.

But all of this populist energy will remain under the surface as long as money drives the political system, there is no way for a leftist movement to foment – there will be no Koch-like donors supporting an anti-corporate pro-environment movement. To quote Marx: “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of their dominance.”

Martin Giles and Larry Bartels have both done extensive research on the political system’s responsiveness to poor voters. The results are not good. In 2005, Larry Bartels examined how responsive Senators were in the 101st, 102nd and 103rd congress to the preferences of various constituents. His findings are summarized in the chart below.

While neither party is particularly responsive to the needs of poor Americans (the number is negative, meaning that if poor Americans desire the policy, it’s actually less likely to happen), Democrats are marginally better than Republicans at responding to the desires of the middle class. Even after controlling for political knowledge and voting behaviour, the results held, indicating that wealth, not education or political activism, is what makes politicians respond. Martin Giles has developed such research into a book, Affluence and Influence, which records similar findings.

Frederick Solt researched political responsiveness and participation internationally and found that higher levels of inequality decreased voter turnout and narrowed the political discussion, with poor and middle class voters becoming disenchanted.

The best way to revive the left is to focus on two key issues: economic equality and political access. Economic equality, while it garners lip from the left has never been the center of a real legislative agenda since the Great Society. That’s because, although improving access to education and providing universal health care are all small steps towards alleviating inequality, the only way to truly make a difference would be a stronger, more vibrant union movement, an increased minimum wage and higher taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

Economists Steve Temin and Peter Levy argue in Inequality and Institutions in 20th Century America that the decline in unions was an institutional phenomenon, one driven by politics, not an inevitable consequence of the changing economy. David Blanchflower and Richard B. Freeman point to Canada as a country where labor has remained strong because of favorable public policy:

Canadian labor law substantially limits what management can do to oppose unions… Canada does not permit management to engage in the massive union prevention campaigns that pervade the United States… and the two major provinces, Ontario and Quebec, have gone a long way to protect unions as institutions.

This decline in unions has been disastrous for American workers. Bruce Western and Jake Rosenfeld find that, “the decline in organized labor explains a fifth to a third of the growth in inequality—an effect comparable to the growing stratification of wages by education.” There is a correlation between union representation and inequality within the U.S. and internationally.

The effort to end inequality can also be aided by higher levels of redistributionary taxes. U.S. tax rates are low by international standards and research from Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez shows how progressivity has declined in the U.S. tax system.

Research suggests that tax rates have to be around 60 – 70% before there is any impact on economic growth (the highest marginal tax bracket right now is 40%). The U.S. could easily increase tax rates and distribute more money downward, thereby reducing inequality. Increasing the minimum wage would also put downward pressure on inequality and give workers more dignity.

The second aim of the left will be even tougher than alleviating inequality: getting money out of politics. The Roberts court has dealt numerous blows to the U.S. campaign finance regime and may again this year. A system of stricter campaign finance would free candidates from the demands of corporations and the financial sector. Part of the reason Democrats are wary of limiting corporate power and the influence of finance may be the fact that their campaigns are bankrolled by these donors. Powerful corporate lobby groups like ALEC, the Chamber of Commerce and the various “astroturf” groups push the domestic agenda to the right.

With a rigorous system of campaign finance reform, a reinvigorated left would actually have a chance to mobilize. This recovery has been drastically unequal: Emmanuel Saez finds that 93% of the gains over the past 2 years have accrued to the richest 1 percent of Americans. There’s certainly room for a new left movement, the question is whether it will happen.

Term Limits Are Not the Answer

One of the popular refrains after any government crisis or leadership failure is the call for “term limits.” The debt-ceiling/government shutdown debate is no different. Not at all.

But, unlike other reforms, which would improve the U.S. political system (campaign-finance reform, more earmarks, open primaries, a shortened campaign season, redistricting reform, actual journalism) or scrap it all together – parliamentary systems are way better – “term limits” would do nil to make our political system better. Instead, term limits would just shorten the time period politicians would have to wait before hopping into a cushy lobbying position.

Here’s a quick primer on how Congress works. A new congressperson comes in ready to change the world and learn that they ain’t shit. They learn that it’ll be a long time before they do anything other than voting up or down on bills other people have proposed. After a while, they get on a committee and actually start doing something. It’s something like that (my source for this is House of Cards).

So, being something of an armchair journalist, I decided to see how long each of the 32 House Republican dumbasses in charge of shutting down the government had been serving.

Here’s a rundown:

Justin Amash (2011) – 2 yrs.

Michele Bachmann (2007) – 6 yrs.

Marsha Blackburn (2003) – 10 yrs.

Mo Brooks (2011) – 2 yrs.

Paul Broun (2007) – 6 yrs.

John Carter (2003) – 10 yrs.

John Culberson (2001) – 12 yrs.

Ron DeSantis (2013) – < 1 yr.

Scott DesJarlais (2011) – 2 yrs.

Jeff Duncan (2011) – 2 yrs.

John Fleming (2009) – 4 yrs.

Scott Garrett (2003) – 10 yrs.

Phil Gingrey (2003) – 10 yrs.

Louie Gohmert (2005) – 8 yrs.

Tom Graves (2010) – 3 yrs.

Vicky Hartzler (2011) – 2 yrs.

Tim Huelskamp (2011) – 2 yrs.

Jim Jordan (2011) – 2 yrs.

Steve King (2003) – 10 yrs.

Paul Labrador (2011) – 2 yrs.

Tom Massie (2012) – 1 yr.

Tom McClintock (2009) – 4 yrs.

Mark Meadows (2013) – < 1 yr.

Randy Neugebauer (2003) – 10 yrs.

Matt Salmon (1995) – 18 yrs.

Mark Sanford (1995) – 18 yrs.

Steve Scalise (2008) – 5 yrs.

Dave Schweikert (2011) – 2 yrs.

Steve Stockman (2013) – < 1 yr.

Marlin Stutzman (2010) – 3 yrs.

Randy Weber (2013) – < 1 yr.

Ted Yoho (2013) – < 1 yr.

171/32 = 5.3 yrs.

Average in House = 9.1 yrs.

So almost all of the “cuckoo birds” who are in charge of the shutdown are juniors. They don’t have any relationships with the Democrats or moderate Republicans with whom they need to bargain.

I honestly think the most ironic article about the shutdown so far is “Ted Cruz shows need for term limits.” That’s right folks, the junior Senator who is bucking his party’s leadership to shutdown the government shows the need for term limits. Seriously. Someone said that (that someone is also happy about the shutdown, which may indicate the intelligence of his position).

Term limits would change the motivations. Instead of working on building relationships and working up the totem pole, Representatives and Senators would be inclined to spend time preparing for their life outside of Congress, rather than guarding their legacy. That means even more power for the bureaucrats, staffers and lobbyists swarming around the capitol.

If a politician is doing well, let them keep their job. The best way to weed out the gold from the dross, wheat from the chaff (or any other analogy you would like to use) is to actually make districts competitive, allow competitors access to public financing and open up primaries. Term limits, ironically, would leave us only career politicians, those interested in making a buck, rather than a difference. The problem isn’t career politicians, it’s career lobbyists and politicians more concerned about trying to get re-elected than actually governing. The problem is politicians who know their district is safe and therefore have no interest in compromising. Like the dummies who shut down the government.

The Four “Grand Bargains” That the Republicans Turned Down

You have heard the pleas from Boehner and Republicans to end the “Democratic shutdown” by coming to the table and bargaining. If you have been trapped in alternate-reality GOP echo chamber, you might be starting to believe it’s true. “Why won’t Obama bargain?” you may ask yourself. Well, here’s one reason: he’s tried. Obama came to the table in 2011 offering entitlement reforms in exchange for higher revenues (through, say, cutting the Bush Tax Cuts or closing the huge number of loopholes in our sieve-like tax system). Republicans, having foolishly signed over their hearts, souls and minds to perpetually homeless-looking Grover Norquist, declined these bargains. As I’ve noted before, the Republican position here is: you get nothing. That’s my narrative: Obama comes to table, Republicans turn down every offer. You may believe something else. Let’s take a look at the facts.

Offer 1: Bowles-Simpson (Aka National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform)

In 2010, Obama established the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform to produce a plan that would achieve long-term fiscal sustainability. He appointed Alan Simpson (R) and Erskine Bowles (D) to head the commission. On December 1st the commission released its proposal.

What would have happened?

The proposal included 1,661 billion in discretionary cuts, $341 billion in healthcare (Medicare and Medicaid) cuts, $215 billion in other mandatory spending cuts, $995 billion in new revenues, $673 billion in interest savings and $238 billion in Social Security cuts between 2012 and 2020.

Why did it fail? Paul Ryan opposed the deal (and worked behind-the-scenes to get an even more radical proposal to block-grant Medicaid) and combined with the force of the Norquist no-tax pledge, the proposal was DOA. The vote was 11 – 7 in favor of the plan (short of the 14-vote threshold necessary to move forward to congress). All three Republican representatives on the commission (Paul Ryan, David Camp and Jeb Hensarling) voted “No.” Later, in a move so cynical it baffled the imagination, Ryan accused Obama of causing the plan to fail.

Offer 2: The United States Congress Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction (The “Supercommittee”)

Established by the Budget Control Act on August 2, 2011 and aimed at ensuring that the idiotic and job-killing “sequestration cuts” would be avoided.

What would have happened?

Democrats proposed 3 trillion (twice as much as the 1.5 trillion the commission set out to find) including 1.3 trillion in new revenues. Republicans sought 1.2 trillion in deficit reduction (that’s lower than 3 trillion for those keeping track) with 300 billion in new revenues. However, being Republicans, they also proposed lowering the top marginal tax rate from 35% to 28%. The commission ended without a deal with the majority of Americans blaming Republicans for the failure.

Why did it fail?

This failure was again due to the Republican refusal to countenance tax cuts. Instead, they aimed to keep the Bush Tax Cuts permanent. That’s right. When Republicans go to bargain for deficit reduction they put forward a plan to increase the deficit. Then, they savagely cut discretionary programs for the poor and call it a day.

Offer 3: The Senate “Gang of Six”

An informal group of Senators (three from each party) that began meeting in July 2011.

What would have happened?

The Senate “Gang of Six” produced a plan in July 2011 to cut deficits by $3.7 trillion through a combination of new revenue ($1 trillion) and spending cuts.

Why did it fail?

From Jennifer Rubin: “Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) often provides the details and the ammunition for conservatives to combat bad ideas; last night he dropped what one Republican Senate adviser called a “bomb” on the Gang of Six…”

Offer 4. Biden Working Group

During the same time the Senate “Gang of Six” committee was being squashed by Paul Ryan, the Biden working group was running into what would become a perennial problem: Democrats offered entitlement concession and Republicans refused to budge on new revenues. Many proposals were floated, but the demise of the “Gang of Six” spelled doom for the Biden meetings.

Allow me to make a few more observations.

1. Obama worked tirelessly to make the Affordable Care Act revenue-neutral, which is why he added in the Medical Device Tax and Cadillac Tax he opposed into the bill.

2. The National Review only cares about deficits while Democrats are in office.

3. Q. Who said this: “You know, Paul, Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter. We won the mid-term elections, this is our due.”

A. Dick Cheney

4. Paul Ryan has single-handedly ruined almost every attempt to work toward a bipartisan agreement.

5. Last time Obama bargained with Republicans over default, his concessions angered fellow Democrats, but Boehner still walked away.

6. It’s worth noting that in place of comprehensive entitlement reform and revenue increases, we’ve gotten economy-destroying discretionary cuts (i.e. what neither party wants).

All of these plans failed because the most powerful Republicans (Boehner, Cantor, Ryan) and the Tea Party Caucus are not looking for a compromise. They want unilateral concessions. 19. Remember that number. It’s how many times the Democrats tried to bargain with Republicans before the shutdown/debt ceiling. In The Price of Politics, Bob Woodward quoted Obama as constantly feeling like he was King Solomon and the Republicans kept trying to get him to chop the baby in half. It certainly seems like that. Remember in the Republican Presidential debates when all the candidates said they would turn down an offer of 10 – 1 spending cuts to revenue increases? That’s the problem we’re facing right now. Yeah, that’s why nothing is happening.

A Quick Primer on Why The Debt Ceiling Debate is Absolutely Insane

House Republicans originally shut down the government to defund the Affordable Care Act (because the 46 votes to repeal it and numerous efforts to under fund it have already failed). Now, they want a debt-ceiling increase to be tied to a “grand bargain” to reduce the federal. Both of these developments give us insight into the actual goals of Republicans. They don’t want to cut the deficit; they want to shrink government down to the size where the can drown it in the bathtub. And their not going to let reason, empathy or constitutional procedure stop them.

Let’s start with the plan to defund Obamacare or shut down the government. The premise here is that the ACA will represent and unprecedented government takeover of a private institution (read that twice, it’s wrong on three counts). But the new story is that the ACA will cause the federal debt to spiral out of control. This argument is even worse.

Dean Baker and Peter Rosnick have shown that if U.S. healthcare costs were in line with healthcare costs of other developed countries the U.S. federal deficit as a percentage of GDP would decrease over the next 80 years.

Healthcare costs are the most important driver of the deficit, and the Affordable Care Act represents a significant step towards reigning in healthcare costs. This isn’t just liberal propaganda, it’s the assertion of non-partisan groups like The Urban Institute, Kaiser Family Foundation and CBO. Certainly the recession has played a large role in the slowdown in healthcare cost growth, but the Affordable Care Act is also responsible, only three years after being signed into law.

 All of this is happening despite the fact that Republicans have constantly worked to undermine the program by rejecting Medicaid expansion, underfunding the program and refusing to set up healthcare exchanges. Threatening to defund the ACA to get deficit reduction is akin to closing gyms to reduce obesity. But that’s the catch: the GOP isn’t trying to reduce deficits (“they don’t matter,” said Dick Cheney) they’re trying to reverse Obama’s signature legislation. In their war to destroy Obamacare, Republicans are shutting down the government, denying millions of poor people Medicaid and fomenting a constitutional crisis. But the debt-ceiling hostage negotiations are even more absurd.

Republicans are also holding the debt ceiling hostage in exchange for an insane list of demands (essentially the Romney/Ryan presidential platform). The idea here is to force Obama to tackle the “out of control deficits” that are, well, already falling at the fastest rate in 60 years.

But the entire idea is absurd prima facie. The reason that most economists worry about high levels of federal debt are three-fold: the threat of default, a risk of high interest rates and the need for distortionary taxes. But a default on the debt would instantly bring about all the negative consequences. A default would instantly increase the interest rates at which the U.S. can borrow in the future as well as bringing about another recession. A recession would only push the federal debt higher by reducing tax revenues and increasing the number of workers relying on the social safety net.

These observations can point to only one logical conclusion: Republicans aren’t actually worried about the deficit or debt. If they were, they would have accepted one of the many grand bargain offers that Obama put forward, one that would have reformed entitlements while raising revenues. But they’re not. Republicans are fighting an ideological war against government, the deficit is just a means to an end.

4 Right-Wing Talking Points Debunked with Charts

With the possibility of the government defaulting on its debt looming, it’s worth critically examining some of the more popular far-right talking points.

Myth 1: Americans are Overtaxed

The basic Republican argument is that out-of-control spending is driving deficits (we’ll get to that below) and that higher taxes would destroy the economy. Republicans give the impression that taxes have never been higher. However, in reality, tax revenues as a percentage of GDP in the U.S. have remained remarkably stable over the past 40 years. In other OECD countries, tax revenues have increased by about 10%. It’s highly unlikely that taxes are holding back the recovery and suspect that cutting taxes for wealthy people would do anything other than simply drive deficits even higher. Research suggests that tax rates have to be around 60 – 70% before there is any impact on economic growth (the highest marginal tax bracket right now is 40%).

Myth 2: Government Spending is Out of Control

What about government spending? The IMF data on government spending as a percentage of GDP are clear: not only is government spending in the U.S. relatively low by international standards (the average among the 34 countries surveyed was 43% of GDP, in the U.S. government spending is 41% of GDP). Government spending in the U.S. is lower than the austere Germany and is not projected to increase dramatically over the next four years.

Myth 3: Democrats Don’t Want to Negotiate

 

Really? There have been three deficit deals so far, the “fiscal cliff” deal, the sequester and the Budget Control Act. In each case, Republicans (who want lower spending and lower taxes) have gotten what they wanted while the Democrats (who prefer higher revenue) have gotten almost nil.

A small faction of Tea Party members have sabotaged the national dialogue from the beginning. Throughout negotiations with Obama and Biden, Boehner and Cantor constantly cited their rabid tea party caucus as the underlying reason for their intransigence. From the beginning Obama has put forward a simple offer for a grand bargain: entitlement reform, sustainable cuts to defense spending and comprehensive tax reform that raises revenue. This is what essentially every deficit commission (Domenici-Rivlin, Bowles-Simpson and the “supercommittee”) has ended up recommending, and every time these deals were shot down by Republicans (every time citing revenues as their bone of contention). The problem isn’t that Democrats won’t negotiate, it’s that they won’t let Republicans hold the economy hostage in exchange for unilateral concessions.

Myth 4: The Problem is Lazy People Sapping Off Government

The truth is actually far simpler. There is one major driver to U.S. deficits: healthcare. Unless we reign in the excessive cost growth, we’ll have to savagely cut almost everything. To see how bad healthcare is in the U.S. consider that each year the healthcare system wastes $750 billion dollars (for comparison: total federal discretionary spending was $1.3 trillion in 2012).

Dean Baker and Peter Rosnick have shown that if U.S. healthcare costs were in line with healthcare costs of other developed countries the U.S. federal deficit as a percentage of GDP would decrease over the next 80 years.

Healthcare costs are the most important driver of the deficit, and the Affordable Care Act represents a significant step towards reigning in healthcare costs. This isn’t just liberal propaganda, it’s the assertion of non-partisan groups like The Urban Institute, Kaiser Family Foundation and CBO. Certainly the recession has played a large role in the slowdown in healthcare cost growth, but the Affordable Care Act is also responsible, only three years after being signed into law.

The reason Republicans want to bargain over the debt-ceiling is because they want unilateral concessions from the Democrats. They’re not concerned about deficits or debt or economic growth. They are fighting an all-out ideological war on government, and we’re all pawns on their chess board.