U.S. politics

2010 11 03
Postmortem


Posted by in: U.S. politics

Isn’t the real story that 30% of Oklahoman voters are fine if judges rely on Sharia law in their decisions, or that 6% of Oklahoman voters want English to be the official language but don’t want to ban reliance on Sharia law in judicial decisions?

What, dear readers, are some of your postmortem thoughts on last night’s myriad midterm election results?


Howls of outrage (3)

2010 10 25
What goes around


Posted by in: Economics, U.S. politics

I had occasion recently to reread bits and pieces of the book that turned me into a lefty. There is really no good reason why this should have been the book, but it was on the right used bookstore shelf at the right time.

The book is Frances Fox Piven & Richard Cloward’s The New Class War: Reagan’s Attack on the Welfare State and Its Consequences. I did not really know the name then, but glancing now at the Acknowledgments I see the authors thank, in 1982, a one Paul Wellstone for his comments on a previous version of the manuscript.

In the opening pages of their book, Piven and Cloward address the claim that it was concerns over inflation in 1980 that induced voters to toss out Carter and replace him with Reagan. They cite a Walter Dean Burnham (who?) to explain why that explanation won’t fly:

In both relative and absolute terms, the defections from Carter “were concentrated among those for whom unemployment was the most important problem. Among those selecting inflation, Reagan won by 67 percent, up only two points from Ford’s 65 percent showing in 1976.” By contrast, “among those worried about unemployment, the decline in Carter’s support was fully nineteen percentage points, from 75 percent in 1976 to 56 percent in 1980.”

We are seeing a similar defection away from Democrats now, and for the same primary reason. There is no need to cite the evidence in favor of huge Democratic losses next week. But here is recent polling data showing that concern over the economy and, more specifically, jobs decisively dwarfs concern about the budget deficit and/or national debt. And yet talk of the deficit and “ballooning debt” is all I seem to hear from the MSM and from the GOP candidates here in Wisconsin. Absolutely no one–not even Russ Feingold–is making the point that if we had a smaller deficit, unemployment would be much, much higher.

Of course, the GOP today will be just as eager to address these concerns once they regain (partial) power as Reagan was once he took office. And there is still little reason to rule out a double-dip recession, which would mirror the early Reagan years. Perhaps the only ray of hope is that despite those early trials for Reagan, he was reelected in 1984. Then again, at least Reagan could in 1984 ask the electorate with a straight face if they were better off than they were in 1979.


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2010 09 17
Mark Pauly on (Intra)class warfare


The other day I noted a seemingly bizarre inconsistency in Mark Pauly’s 1995 analysis of why the Clinton health reforms failed politically. I didn’t say, and don’t believe, that Pauly’s endorsement of the inconsistent political explanations was designed to promote a given ideological viewpoint. True, he seemed eager to discount the extent to which monied interests influenced the debate over health care. But at least he was willing to draw attention to those interests in the first place. That said, the following passage from the same text seems much less benign:

I hasten to add that this is not my own personal preference; I would prefer more redistribution. But I realize that I am being out-voted by other middle-class people who do not want to play more taxes. Indeed, I strongly suspect that a major blow to bipartisan health reform was the success of the president’s budget plan, which sopped up (and then some) any surplus willingness of the upper middle class to pay more taxes. We could have had universal insurance coverage or a lower budget deficit, but not both.” (Mark Pauly, “The Fall and Rise of Health Care Reform: A Dialogue,” 1995, p. 12.)

Here Pauly is claiming that it was the “upper middle class” who felt the brunt of the 1993 Clinton tax increases. This made them less willing to pay for health reform. Is this explanation plausible?

No, it is not.

According to economist Robert Pollin, the 1993 Clinton tax increases “increased the levy on [family] incomes over $140,000 from 30 to 36 percent, with an addition 10 percent surcharge for incomes over $250,000″ (p. 26). And according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, these families had incomes in the top 5% of the national income distribution.

Here is a graphic from a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland that shows the increase in taxes for families at different income levels:


Given that the the median family income was 54,369 in 1990, and given that only families in the top 3-4% (those above $200,000) really saw an appreciable increase in taxes, it seems to me quite inaccurate to say that the “upper middle class” paid for these increases. One might therefore think that the (upper) middle class should have been willing to pay higher taxes in order to finance universal health insurance for their fellow class-mates. That’s one way to look at it. Another way is to note that ostensibly non-ideological analyses misrepresented the nature of the tax increases, and thereby led the middle class to think their taxes had gone up. The point of such analyses, of course, would be to kill the increases politically. And the main reason one would want to do that is so that the rich would not have to pay higher taxes.

So I am beginning to question the sincerely of such Pauly pronouncements as, “I hasten to add that…I would prefer more redistribution.” That said, I’m still learning a ton from reading and re-reading Pauly’s latest book.


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2010 09 15
Intro, Meet Conclusion (Another in the “right-of-center health care analysis” series)


I recently mentioned Mark Pauly’s recent book on reforming the individual insurance market, which I plan to write more on shortly. But tonight I’m reading an exchange between Pauly and Princeton health economist Uwe Reinhardt from 1995 or 1996, and I’m simply flabbergasted by two claims Pauly makes. One the one hand, we get this statement from the introduction:

It is..probably true in large part, that the health care reform proposed by the president [Clinton] failed because Harry and Louise were more effective at scaring the middle class than were Ira [Magaziner] and Hillary [Clinton].

Then there’s this from the conclusion:

It might be helpful to point out a logical contradiction: if the middle class are so concerned about the welfare of the nonpoor uninsured that they will not force them to pay for the insurance coverage, why are the middle class unwilling to pay for that insurance for them? It appears that a little altruism is a dangerous thing…If we cannot convince the decisive voters of the value of what we value, then I think we need to accept the verdict of democracy.

So let me get this straight. Health reform failed because of a year-long insurance industry-funded campaign to scare the middle class. And it failed because the middle class decided in its infinite and dispositive wisdom that there is no social obligation to aid those without insurance. Huh?

To be fair, there is also this from the introduction:

[It is] a little surprising that two economists are talking about what is essentially a political issue, but I suppose that is the way it has to be.

God I hope that’s not true.

More on Pauly’s more recent book and John Goodman’s way of thinking about health care anon.


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2010 08 19
Kevin Drum Explains Social Security Trust Fund


Posted by in: Economics, U.S. politics

An admirable explanation that hits on the distributional ins and outs I referred to earlier this week.


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2010 08 14
Krugman, Laniel, and Baker on those Gov’t Trust Funds


Posted by in: Economics, U.S. politics

Paul Krugman explains how we should think about all those claims that this or that trust fund is going broke. But one of my favorite explanations comes from Explananda’s friend Steve Laniel from an October 2009 post:

In any case, Medicare is “headed for insolvency” because it works off a fixed budget. Well, Part A (hospital insurance) does. Parts B (reimbursing doctors), C (Medicare Advantage), and D (the drug benefit) are funded out of general revenues, so they can only go insolvent when the U.S. government goes insolvent. Medicare Part A is forced to be responsible in a way that the rest of the U.S. government is not. Why does no one ever talk about the Department of Defense being “headed for insolvency”? If Landrieu is so concerned about the public fisc, why doesn’t she push for the DoD to be funded out of a dedicated payroll tax? Then every few years, we could go through a public rending-of-garments ritual over the DoD’s impending bankruptcy. I would enjoy this very much. At least then we’d have parity: conservative Republicans shedding crocodile tears over how Medicare will have to be cut to keep it afloat, and my party doing the same for the military.

Finally, a point from Dean Baker that I’ve not seen made before:

[W]orkers, and only workers, pay Social Security tax. It is a payroll tax that is capped at just $106,000, so the chairman of Goldman Sachs pays no more in Social Security tax than a senior teacher or firefighter who may also hit the wage cap. By contrast, most of the general budget is financed through personal and corporate income taxes, which disproportionately come from higher income taxpayers. So it matters hugely that the bonds held by the trust fund are repaid from general revenue, as opposed to coming from additional Social Security taxes.

I need to think more about the full distributional implications of this point. But I think the takeaway is that while a regressive payroll tax raised general funds for years under the guise of a medicare or social security “trust fund,” the accounting vehicle of the Trust Fund ensures that the inevitable “fix” when outlays outstrip revenues will not add insult to injury by also being regressive. Instead of increasing the regressive payroll tax, the revenues used to fix program deficits are those supplied by more progressive taxation on upper income individuals and corporations.


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2010 08 12
MLK on Drugs?


Posted by in: U.S. politics

So everyone knows about Robert Gibbs’ remarks quoted in The Hill:

“I hear these people saying he’s like George Bush. Those people ought to be drug tested,” Gibbs said. “I mean, it’s crazy.

The press secretary dismissed the “professional left” in terms very similar to those used by their opponents on the ideological right, saying, “They will be satisfied when we have Canadian healthcare and we’ve eliminated the Pentagon. That’s not reality.”

Today Think Progress has a post documenting many occasions on which Obama himself has insisted that the American people hold him accountable. But they forgot one:

It is also worth noting that in this clip Obama praises the grassroots “agitating” that ultimately “forced elected politicians to be accountable.” This marks an interesting contrast with his Nation magazine interview with David Sirota, in which Obama

gently but dismissively labeled Wellstone as merely a “gadfly,” in a tone laced with contempt for the senator who, for instance, almost single-handedly prevented passage of the bankruptcy bill for years over the objections of both parties.

I’ll admit that I have always wondered whether Obama took the tone and stance that Sirota ascribes to him.


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2009 06 25
Scandal!


Posted by in: U.S. politics

Among the many reasons to look forward to the day when Republicans don’t espouse gay-hostile policies is that when that finally happens Democrats won’t have the excuse of Republican hypocrisy (about marriage, the family, etc.) to point to as they attempt to make political hay out of the infidelities of Republican politicians.


Howls of outrage (2)

2009 05 25
GOP


Posted by in: U.S. politics

The Krugster:

To be blunt: recent events suggest that the Republican Party has been driven mad by lack of power. The few remaining moderates have been defeated, have fled, or are being driven out. What’s left is a party whose national committee has just passed a resolution solemnly declaring that Democrats are “dedicated to restructuring American society along socialist ideals,” and released a video comparing Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi to Pussy Galore.

And that party still has 40 senators.

The plight of the Republican party has me as worried as anything else about the future of the country. The worst part about it is that the rot that has sunk all the way into the core of the Republican party is impossible to contain there. The more confident the Democrats are that they’re entitled to the vote of every non-insane person in the country, the less they’ll do to deserve that vote, the more corrupt, self-satisfied and unprincipled they’ll become.

So long as the country alternates power between the two parties, the US needs a functioning, non-insane Republican party almost as much as it needs a principled Democratic party. Here’s hoping it gets one sooner rather than later.


Howls of outrage (2)

2009 04 27
Recently read: Fear and Loathing


Posted by in: Books, U.S. politics

Hunter S. Thompson. Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72

“What I would like to preserve here,” Hunter S. Thompson writes in the opening pages of Fear and Loathing, “is a kind of high-speed cinematic reel-record of what the campaign was like at the time, not what the whole thing boiled down to or how it fits into history.” This conveys fairly accurately what Fear and Loathing includes, as well as what it leaves out. Except in the most general terms, there is almost no discussion of policy in this book—what the candidates stood for in the presidential race of 1972, whether their platforms were realistic or feasible, how they differed from one another. This isn’t a book about that kind of politics. It’s about the daily horse-race in the polls, about spin and counterspin, about the tedium of campaigning, and the thrill of high-stakes convention maneuvering.

It’s also very much a book about Hunter S. Thompson. “Gonzo journalism,” Thompson’s brand, allowed him the freedom to insert himself in all his frenetic, drugged up glory right smack into the story he was telling. Since Thompson is so consistently strange and funny and out of control, this adds interest to what is already a pretty interesting, if sad and frustrating, story: the rise and fall of George McGovern from an obscure unknown at the outset of the primaries to the crushing defeat he suffered against Nixon on election day.

It wasn’t supposed to end that way. Nixon was a polarizing figure in a time of widespread discontent, committed to an unpopular war, and facing 25 million new potential voters, who could be expected to skew against him. Watergate had only started to penetrate the national consciousness, but there were considerable forces arrayed against Nixon already.

The setting convinced many that the Democratic nomination would be harder to win than the Presidency, since any Democratic nominee was expected to have great odds against Nixon. The Democratic nomination went to McGovern, who beat out party insiders Hubert Humphrey and Ed Muskie in the course of a grueling struggle through the primaries by campaigning as a principled outsider, a refreshing and authentic voice for substantive change in a party that many felt offered a poor alternative to the Republican option.

But after a promising start, the McGovern campaign crashed in a messy convention, and a string of disasters that kept the campaign on the defensive right up until the vote. The worst of these was McGovern’s decision to back Thomas Eagleton, his (first) Vice-Presidential running mate, “1000%” after the news broke that Eagleton had been hospitalized several times with fairly serious psychiatric difficulties (for which he had undergone shock therapy)—only to reverse course later and dump Eagleton in favour of a new running mate. The stunning reversal following an agonizing period of indecision badly tarnished McGovern’s image as an unusually candid politician. It was a terrible shame. As Thompson points out a number of times, McGovern was a decent candidate whose faults and considerable missteps were hardly worth mentioning in comparison with the sins of his opponent in the White House.

After years of complaining about horse-race coverage of political campaigns, I was a bit chagrined to find Thompson’s account of the ’72 campaign so gripping. The superficiality of the approach makes it a poor substitute for a serious discussion of how a society ought to organize itself. But there really is a place for accounts of the machinery of political life and for accounts of life on the campaign trail, especially when they’re this strange and original.


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2009 02 25
Bobby Jindal and Kenneth from 30 Rock


Posted by in: U.S. politics

I just watched a bit of the Bobby Jindal response to Obama’s pseudo-SOTU speech. Jindal’s voice resembles the voice of the character Kenneth from the show 30 Rock with such creepy precision that I assumed at first that the video was some kind of spoof. Take a look. Apparently I’m not the only one who noticed.


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2009 01 20
Inaugural address


Posted by in: U.S. politics

I thought this was a classy touch in Obama’s inaugural address:

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and non-believers.

Damn straight “non-believers.” Without intending any disrespect to Hindus, they appear to comprise 0.4% of the country, whereas “Unaffiliated” (broken down into Atheist, Agnostic, and Nothing in Particular) make up a whopping 16.1%, according to the same source. If I’m not mistaken, they also make up 100% of this august blog.

I watched the address on the video feed of the NYT side. Some cheeky producer made the decision to flash over to the camera trained on Bush during this bit:

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience’s sake.

It was a nice, though not terribly subtle, acknowledgment that Obama was taking a good swipe at Bush and his legacy with those words—though it also clearly wasn’t the only swipe in the speech. I hope Obama remembers those words, and I hope you do too.


Howls of outrage (12)

2008 11 26
Cool it?


Josh Marshall tells those of us wringing our hands over some of his (potential) appointees to cool it. Appointees implement policies; they don’t set them.

Maybe Josh can forgive us for taking Obama at his word:

One of the great economic minds of our times, Larry [Summers] has the global reputation for being able to get to the heart of the most complex and novel policy challenges. With respect to both, our current financial crisis and other pressing economic issues of our time, his thinking, writing, and speaking have set the terms of the debate. I am glad he will be by my side, playing the critical role of coordinating my administration’s economic policy in the White House and I will rely heavily on his advice as to navigate the unchartered waters of this crisis.

Obama tells us that Larry Summers, who argued that regulating financial derivatives markets would “cast[ ] a shadow of regulatory uncertainty over an otherwise thriving market,” will be a guiding force. Why shouldn’t we believe that?


Howls of outrage (9)

2008 11 08
Seating arrangements


Posted by in: Books, U.S. politics

Matthew Yglesias scoffed recently about Obama’s press staff’s decision to release a seating chart for Obama’s Economic Transition Advisory Board. James Wimberley points out in response that seating arrangements can actually be highly significant.

If I can just take this up a notch in geekyness, I’ve had a healthy respect for the complexities of seating arrangements ever since I was present to hear George Steiner’s lecture series, Two Suppers (reprinted in his book No Passion Spent). The two suppers in question are the last supper as described in the Gospels and the dinner party depicted in Plato’s Symposium. Where each person sits and why is an important but easy to miss issue in the literary depictions of both suppers, and my recollection is that Steiner has an interesting and challenging discussion of the topic.

Steiner can be a bit annoying, but if you’re interested in the issue of seating arrangements, those lectures are one place to start.


Howls of outrage (4)

2008 11 06
Burke on conservatives


Timothy Burke writes:

It’s schadenfreudey fun to read the ongoing psychotic meltdowns at various far-right sites like the Corner, I agree. But there’s little need to take the really bad-faith conservatives seriously now. For the last eight years, we’ve had to take them somewhat seriously because they had access to political power. You had to listen to the hack complaints about academia from endlessly manipulative writers because it was perfectly plausible that whatever axe they were grinding was going to end up as a priority agenda item coming out of Margaret Spelling’s office or get incorporated into legislation by right-wing state legislators. You had to listen to and reply to even the most laughably incoherent, goalpost-moving, anti-reality-based neoconservative writer talking about Iraq or terrorism because there was an even-money chance that you were hearing actual sentiments going back and forth between Dick Cheney’s office and the Pentagon. You had to answer back to Jonah Goldberg not just because making that answer was arguably our responsibility as academics, but also because left alone, some of the aggressively bad-faith caricatures he and others served up had a reasonable chance to gain even further strength through incorporation into federal policy.

There are plenty of thoughtful, good-faith conservatives who need to be taken seriously. And the actual conservatism of many communities and constituencies (in Appalachia and elsewhere) remains, as always, a social fact that it would be perilous to ignore or dismiss.

There are plenty of criticisms of academia which retain their importance and gravity, or which will continue to inform policy-makers in an Obama Administration. Don’t expect pressure for accountability and assessment to go away, for example. It doesn’t matter that Chuck Grassley is a Republican: a lot of the muck he’s raking up deserves to be raked.

But I think we can all make things just ever so slightly better, make the air less poisonous, by pushing to the margins of our consciousness the crazy, bad, gutter-dwelling, two-faced, tendentious high-school debator kinds of voices out there in the public sphere, including and especially in blogs. Let them stew in their own juices, without the dignity of a reply, now that their pipelines to people with real political power have been significantly cut.

Making fun of or arguing with crazy ideologues is sort of the intellectual equivalent of junk food: bad for you and addictive at the same time. But as Burke points out it was at the same time often necessary during the Bush years because so many of the crazy ideas floating around the right were popular with extremely powerful leaders and opinion makers. Part of the excitement I wrote about the other day with politics now comes from the hope of moving to a more intelligent and substantive political discourse. And of course I agree with Burke that we would do well to include disagreements with good-faith conservatives as part of that conversation.

But the more I think about it, the more I think sensible, decent people are going to have to brace themselves for a serious storm of resentment-driven insanity, especially on cable television, but also in the print media. Ignoring this is simply not going to be an option. Even though the crazy talk will not be, for the moment, coming from the mouths of the powerful or their proxies, it will be aimed squarely at destroying anything constructive that the Democrats attempt to accomplish. Its electoral setbacks mean that for the next two years at least, the right’s principal focus is going to have to be on shaping, as much as possible, the media’s presentation of the Obama administration.

This is important: Right now, aiming at the media and shaping public discourse as much as possible is all they’ve got. And we already know the basic strategy. You work hard to create an alternative reality on the fringes. You then present a slightly more moderate version of this, call it “moderate,” and then howl that it doesn’t get equal play in the media. When it does get play, you win. When it doesn’t, you strengthen your narrative of resentment. The degree of success in this venture is going to make an enormous difference to how much Obama is able to accomplish.

I do believe that the recent election opened an incredibly exciting space for substantive debate about political issues, but I also think that the most prominent part of American political discourse is about to get much, much uglier and stupider than it has been in my lifetime. I don’t have the time, the temperament, or the inclination for this kind of garbage clean up, but I’m very glad that other folks do.


Howls of outrage (3)