December 25, 2010

Happy Holidays!

Have a wonderful holiday season and a joyous New Year! Sensen No Sen will return to regular posting shortly.

December 18, 2010

Seriously Skewed Political Priorities

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)
Earlier this month, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell promised to block any legislation from advancing through the Senate until all of the Bush tax cuts  - including those for the richest Americans - were extended. He and his fellow Republicans made good on that threat, and a number of important bills were stymied.

Among them were the DREAM Act, which presents a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants of good character; the new START agreement, which would reduce global nuclear arsenals; and the repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) policy that prevents homosexuals from serving openly in the U.S. military.  Certainly, some of these bills would have been contentious, but they all address issues of significance to the nation, even if, by apparent Republican reckoning, those issues are of less  significance than ensuring the continuation of policies which have done nothing to create jobs and seriously undermined U.S. financial health.

As if that weren't pathetic enough, another piece of legislation also ran into the brick wall of GOP obstructionism, and it's hard to imagine one which should be less controversial, or which better deserved a vote, no matter the partisan polarization on Capitol Hill.   That legislation was H.R.847, commonly referred to as the Zadroga Bill, which would improve health services and provide financial compensation for 9/11 first responders who have become ill or disabled as a result of exposure to dangerous toxins during rescue and cleanup operations at Ground Zero.

The Zadroga Bill would create a federal program to provide health monitoring and treatment for first responders and provide medical screening for people who were in the area of the World Trade Center when the attack occurred and who might be at risk.  The Zadroga Bill would also re-open the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund to provide compensation for losses and harm instead of forcing affected individuals to work through the current system, which requires costly and time-consuming litigation.  It is a standalone piece of legislation, and as such, it isn't necessary for it to go through a lengthy process of debate and amendment - a simple up or down vote is all that's needed - and it is paid for by closing a tax loophole.

A New York City firefighter at Ground Zero
Republicans like John Kyl claimed that there simply wasn't enough time to get everything done before Congress adjourns for the holidays - except extending tax cuts for the richest among us, of course - and that meant no debate or vote on the Zadroga Bill.  Mr. Kyl, apparently ignorant of the work schedules of most Americans - including 9/11 first responders -  even went so far as to complain that Majority Leader Harry Reid's threat to keep the Senate in session through the end of the year in order to complete its business was "disrespecting" the institution of Christmas.  Mr. Kyl failed to explain, however, the manner in which ensuring wealthy people have low taxes while genuine, working class heroes are left without much-needed assistance pays homage to Christian tradition, but perhaps that's just as well.

Almost as bad as the failure to advance H.R. 847, however, is the national media's near-complete lack of reportage on the fact that it has been held hostage to the conservative tax cut agenda, despite the total, empirical failure of those policies to do anything but crush the middle class and bust the budget.  Republicans have not been shy about using 9/11 imagery in political ads, making the captivity of the Zadroga Bill to their legislative maneuvering even more disturbing than their skewed priorities already are, but almost no one in our national press corps seems to have found that worth discussing.  Meanwhile, the men and women who risked their lives - and often sacrificed their health - in order to respond to the single largest terror attack on American soil continue to suffer.

It's been said often in recent years, but it bears repeating as long as it remains true: the landscape of contemporary journalism is a pretty bleak place, and some of the best and most trustworthy reporting available today is on Comedy Central.  If you know about the Republican stonewalling of the Zadroga Bill, it's almost certainly because you watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, since other national outlets provided scant, if any, coverage to it.

Mr. Stewart devoted an entire show to the tragic state of affairs surrounding H.R. 847 on December 16th (available here), which built on segments on the topic from earlier in the week.  Below is the first such segment, from Monday, December 13th, as well as a portion of Thursday's show focusing on a roundtable with four 9/11 first responders, all of whom are suffering serious, life-threatening illness as a result of their heroism.

Mr. Stewart's frustration and anger were palpable on Monday, and only increased over the course of the week as the Zadroga Bill continued to be blocked by the GOP, and the roundtable discussion is a far cry from The Daily Show's usual satire.  Both are required viewing.

December 11, 2010

The President's Tin Ear

Let us begin by admitting that President Barack Obama took office with a set of challenges whose combined magnitude hadn't been waiting for any incoming chief executive in our lifetime: two ongoing wars, a financial crisis that narrowly missed taking the United States - and the world rest of the world with it - down the tubes, a massive federal deficit, and a public harshly divided along ideological lines.  Let us also admit that Mr. Obama swept into office on a groundswell of popular support demanding change from the disastrous policies of the Bush years that had led to this set of circumstances, and also that he has done a decent job - to date, anyway - of keeping the country from falling off the edge of a cliff.

Having said that, we must also concede that his recent tax cut deal with Republicans in Congress is not just a miserable political failure, but one that is a very real threat to making him irrelevant, while endangering our society and our economy now and in the future.

For those unfamiliar with the particulars, President George W. Bush shepherded into law two enormous tax cuts - one in 2001 and a second in 2003 - that reduced taxes for almost all Americans, but which were weighted heavily to the benefit of the wealthiest among us.  The stated rationale for this policy was that it would free up money for the rich to create jobs; essentially a version of the supply-side theory that first gained popularity in the Reagan Administration.  These tax cuts, however, were a miserable failure; they exploded the deficit, created income inequality unseen since before the Great Depression, and left Mr. Bush with the worst job creation record of any president since Herbert Hoover.  Of all of the major contributors to the federal deficit, the Bush tax cuts are on track to be - by far - the single biggest factor.

The good news is that the Bush tax cuts are supposed to expire at the end of 2010.  The bad news is that, while this would help reduce the deficit, letting all tax rates return to their 1999 levels during a pronounced economic downturn could derail the faltering recovery we are beginning to see.  President Obama, who had campaigned on a promise to eliminate the Bush cuts for the wealthiest Americans - and who reduced taxes for 95% of the workforce soon after he took office - gave voice to a desire to extend the redcutions for everyone but the richest, at least temporarily.  The thought behind this approach would be to pare the budget shortfall while keeping cash in the hands of working people, at least until the economy gets back on its feet.

While it didn't please everyone, this seemed like a reasonable, pragmatic approach to many.  The noteworthy exception came from movement conservatives, who have been enraged at the prospect of the Bush tax cuts expiring for anyone, while simultaneously ranting about fiscal irresponsibility, despite the obvious contradiction between the two elements of that position and their central role in creating the budget deficit we have today.  Emboldened by their victories in the 2010 mid-term elections, Republicans promised to block all other pending legislation - including the new iteration of the START Treaty, which has broad, bipartisan support - unless all of the Bush tax cuts were extended, even for the very richest, and despite the empirical evidence that such cuts hadn't produced anything even approaching the promised growth in employment over the nine  years since the first cut went into effect.

Instead of making the Republicans put their money where their mouths are, however, the president caved in pre-emptively in much the same manner as he did with regard to the public option during the health care reform debate early in his tenure.  Rather than separate extension of the Bush cuts from any other legislation in order to force Republicans to defend them direcrtly and openly, Mr. Obama instead tied them up in a neat package that not only gave the GOP the ruinous fiscal policies they want, but which introduced a payroll tax holiday that is clearly the first step in a Republican assault on Social Security.  Then, he threw in a reduction of the estate tax, to boot - all allegedly in exchange for an extension of longterm employment benefits he claimed wouldn't have been possible without this deal.

On top of all that - almost impossibly - the president then made it even worse; berating Democrats upset at his swift and unilateral capitulation, calling them "sanctimonious" and unrealistic ideologues who don't understand the nature of governance and the need to keep the country moving forward rather than cater to political rigidity.  In one fell swoop, Mr. Obama abandoned a campaign promise, needlessly ceded a position of strength to concoct an unnecessary closed-door deal that sets dangerous precedents, and not only insulted the very people who got him elected, but had the tin ear to lecture them for failing to be grateful that the hole he's digging for them isn't as absolutely awful as it could be.

How bad is it for President Obama right now?  Bad enough that Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, took to the floor of the Senate on Friday for an eight-hour mock filibuster of the White House deal.  Bad enough that a senior member of the president's own party publicly rejected the claim that any sort of give-away to the rich was necessary to secure additional unemployment benefits.  Bad enough that, doubtful although it might be, there is now open discussion within the Democratic Party of mounting a primary challenge to Mr. Obama in the next election.

Mr. Obama - whatever the issues he faced as he entered office, and whatever successes he has had to date - richly deserves every ounce of criticism he is receiving for this collosal blunder.  He played it like not just a rank amateur, but an arrogant fool, brokering a deal with the worst elements of his party’s opposition and doing so without even bothering to line up his supporters and his allies.   Somehow, the White House came to the conclusion that it could thoroughly undermine the core principles of Mr. Obama's base, angrily dismiss their concerns when the deal came to light, and everything would be just fine.  Perhaps it was a realpolitik calculation that there is no place else for Democratic voters to go, but it was a major misjudgment that looks increasingly as if it will blow up in his face.

Beyond the political pratfall, however, is the president's thorough misreading of both the public sentiment and the issues at hand.  A clear majority of Americans - 59% - favored letting tax cuts for the wealthy expire, and even Reagan Administration Budget Director David Stockman believes that the country simply can't afford to keep the Bush tax cuts in place.

With the economy foundering, unemployment pegged at nearly ten percent, and the deficit continuing to worsen, it seems pretty clear that we need to drive demand in order to stimulate job creation while protecting the middle class and reducing the budget shortfall.  Instead, Mr. Obama worked with the GOP to re-emphasize a program of tax cuts for the wealthy that has thoroughly and empircally failed to boost employment, and which will balloon the deficit to heretofore unrealized dimensions.  And he did it for something - extended unemployment benefits - he could almost certainly have gotten separately, while laying payroll tax groundwork likely to have dire consequences down the road for Social Security's meager safety net.

The United States continues to face a host of massive challenges as a result of the misrule of the Bush Administration.  Barack Obama has made some headway in overcoming these problems, but he has also surrendered positions of strength for the sake of appearing bipartisan, and as a result, achieved significantly less than he could have.  Early on, this might have been forgiven as a misguided belief that attempts at accomodation would help his relations with the Republicans on Capitol Hill, but the tax cut catastrophe demonstrates either an obstinate ignorance of the GOP's disciplined and declared obstructionism, or a sloppiness that can only be termed incompetent.

It is unclear if the fault lies with the president himself, his advisors, or some combination thereof, but this tax cut debacle is a misfire of gigantic proportions, and one about which we should all be concerned, for reasons both economic and political.  That said, there is certainly time for President Obama to recover and govern as we believed candidate Obama intended.  That doesn't mean he could be expected to embrace every progressive goal wholeheartedly - the president is clearly a pragmatic centrist, despite efforts by conservatives to paint him as "far left" - but at least it would be a return to embracing the positions he stated on the campaign trail and an end to the wrong-headed desire for accomodation in the face of stony opposition.  In the meantime, any hope that President Obama's penchant for unnecessary concessions aren't poor execution but rather part of a grand and subtle scheme, has been confirmed conclusively to be wishful thinking.

Mahatma Ghandi is credited with having once said, in regard to passive resistance, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."  In an excellent analysis, Rachel Maddow finds that President Obama has, tragically, reversed that progression:

December 4, 2010

Simple Questions About Tax Cuts

Back in July, I wrote a post entitled The Land of Greatly Diminished Opportunity, in which I shared a host of quantitative information about wealth distribution, the stagnation of economic class, and reduced spending power to demonstrate that the supply-side paradigm of economic stimulus through the policy of tax cuts is no more than an empty shell game that has produced little - and in many cases, diminished - value for the vast majority of Americans.  

It's not that I believe I have a wide readership or that I'm an influential or even particularly original thinker, but it's striking to me how little of this conversation has even begun to penetrate the national discourse.  Even now, in the wake of the 2010 mid-term elections, as Republicans pledge to block all legislation unless the Bush tax cuts are made permanent for all income levels, almost no one outside the blogosphere seems to be asking a couple of very obvious and very direct questions.

The questions are these: If the Bush tax cuts - the first round of which have been in place since 2001 and the second round since 2003 - are the key to growing employment and prosperity, why did George W. Bush have by far the worst job creation record of any president since Herbert Hoover ushered in the Great Depression?  If the Bush tax cuts mean job growth, why has the country under President Obama - who inherited not only his predecessor's financial collapse, but his tax cuts as well - continued to wallow in unemployment?

Defenders of the tax cuts may note that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) - that favorite shorthand for the robustness of the national economy - rose from 2000 to 2009.  But that's a measure whose use is based on convenience more than anything else, and one that is demonstrably full of pitfalls.  As Cornell University economics professor Robert Frank put it:
When you have a crime wave and people go out and buy more expensive locks for their doors, that makes GDP per capita go up, and it certainly doesn't seem to correspond to an increase in welfare. When pollution goes up and we have to spend more to deal with the problems caused by that, an increase in GDP is reflected in that.
Even if one accepts the premise that tax cuts spur an expansion of GDP - which, given the fact that U.S. gross domestic product was growing at a healthy clip right up until the financial meltdown, ought to give its advocates pause - that's not the claim being made by those backing the extension of President Bush's tax policies.  They continue to tout the necessity of making the Bush tax cuts permanent in order to create jobs despite zero evidence of any correlation between those policies and job creation.

So, again: Why, after 30 years of tax cut-driven, supply-side policy dating back to the Reagan years, does the average American have less purchasing power today than he did during the Carter Administration?  And just how long are we supposed to wait for the now-nine-year-old Bush tax cuts to kick in?

November 20, 2010

Fox News and Glen Beck: Still Digging for Lower Ground

Last week, Fox News performance artist and mercenary dunce Glen Beck devoted an entire hour to a special program entitled "Puppet Master", focused on billionaire hedge fund manager, progressive activist and Holocaust survivor George Soros. In it, Mr. Beck painted Mr. Soros as, essentially, the root of all evil - a man who has toppled governments, decimated economies, persecuted Jews, and who is actively working to sow the seeds of the United State's destruction.

Days later, Fox News chief Roger Ailes sat down for a no-holds-barred interview (part 1, part 2) with Howard Kurtz, in which he accused the leadership of National Public Radio (NPR) of being cut from the same cloth as Adolf Hitler:
They are, of course, Nazis. They have a kind of Nazi attitude. They are the left wing of Nazism. These guys don’t want any other point of view. They don’t even feel guilty using tax dollars to spout their propaganda. They are basically Air America with government funding to keep them alive.
Among people who don't watch the ever-more ludicrous Fox News, both outbursts were roundly greeted with either astonishment that Fox had attained yet another new low, or the scathing disdain they deserve.  The fact of these statements by two of Fox's leading lights, however, begs an important question: Just how divorced from reality, how deeply mired in the language and attitudes of eliminationism, does someone have to be to swallow this kind of tripe? More importantly, what portion of our citizenry is uncritically shoveling down garbage like this on a regular basis and asking for more?

Given Glen Beck's popularity among movement conservatives and the ratings Fox News continues to enjoy in spite of - or perhaps because of - this crass and insulting idiocy, it's fair to say a significant part of America's populace is either astoundingly and willfully ignorant, or meets the medical definition for mental impairment.  People are obviously free to tune in to whatever they want, but it's objectively difficult to understand why Fox News and the ridiculous Glen Beck are watched at all - let alone taken seriously - even in the era of Real Housewives.

In the first video below, Jon Stewart, the nation's best - and funniest - media critic, delves into Mr. Beck's claims about George Soros. In the second, he demonstrates just how flimsy and nonsensical "Puppet Master" is by using Mr. Beck's own methodology. Enjoy...

November 13, 2010

Remember This, the Next Time an American Soldier is Tortured

President George W. Bush shuffled back onto the national stage last week, just long enough to shill his new memoir, Decision Points, and remind everyone exactly why he is justly regarded as one of the worst disgraces to ever hold the highest office in the land.  Saying "After I sell this book, I'm going back underground," Mr. Bush made it clear that, in his own mind, he remains blameless for the economic meltdown, and that he retains almost every ounce of the appalling, self-centered stupidity that was the hallmark of his administration.

Perhaps the single best example of Mr. Bush's persistent, hollow machismo lay in his declaration during a recent interview that he not only authorized the waterboarding of three prisoners, but that he'd do it again because "that decision saved lives" both in this country and in the United Kingdom. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, swiftly disavowed the ex-president's claim, but as has been America's consistent shame, Mr. Bush was neither pressed to present evidence supporting his belief, nor even vaguely threatened with the legal consequences for his public admission to violations of both domestic and international law, and the commission of a war crime.

Calling George W. Bush a war criminal is not hyperbole or crazy, partisan, hysteria.  There is no controversy - flatly, whatsoever - about the legality of waterboarding.  Rather, there is merely a dismal and pervasive cowardice when it comes to prosecuting the political class for deeds and policies that would land any ordinary American either in jail or in front of a tribunal at The Hague.  At the time he takes office, every president swears not to "keep us safe," but to uphold and protect the Constitution - a document which explicitly states that the law must apply equally to everyone.  Mr. Bush is either equal to anyone else in the eyes of justice, or he isn't; if he isn't, then he is a member of a protected class; and if a protected class exists in the United States, then our entire legal system is an utter sham.

If another country failed to bring to justice a former leader who publicly confessed to authorizing torture, they would be roundly condemned by our politicians, our pundits and our press corps.  The hypocrisy of our collective, shoulder-shrugging inaction is not only the deepest of stains on our national character, but corrosive to our foundational principles of equal justice and fuel for the fires of our enemies.  Our use of torture eliminates our moral standing to condemn the violation of human rights by others, and puts our own military personnel at risk of what is so pathetically called "harsh interrogation techniques."

We are either who we say we are - even in the most trying of circumstances - or we aren't, and for the past decade - as Mr. Bush reminds us - we have not been who we claim to be.

November 6, 2010

A 20-Year Look at Minimum Wage Effects on Unemployment

Traditionally, proponents of a livable minimum wage have argued that putting money in the hands of workers at the lower end of the economic scale can help drive the economy, since such people are unlikely to save much, and will spend most of their earnings on goods and services that must be produced, putting money into the pockets of others and expanding the economic pie. Those in opposition believe that jobs will be lost because employers, forced to pay each employee a higher wage, will reduce staffing in order to offset higher payroll costs.  New research may finally put this debate to rest.

At the end of September, a 20-year study grippingly entitled Minimum Wage Effects Across State Borders: Estimages Across Contiguous Counties (*.pdf) was released by a team of economists from the University of Massachusetts, the University of North Carolina, and the University of California.  In it, the researchers examined communities adjoined across borders between states with different minimum wage laws to determine what employment effects, if any, were driven by these regulations.

As it turns out, effects on employment by increases in minimum wages were generally negligible, and where they were noticable, they had a positive influence. The driving factor of this somewhat counter-intuitive result is the ubiquity of the wage laws. Since everyone is affected equally within a region, the cost to employers is easily offset by slightly higher prices, which are passed along to consumers, effectively creating a level playing field, and therefore, no incentive to reduce payrolls.

This might in turn, however, be expected to suppress demand from end users, but such price increases tend to be very small - almost always just a few pennies by the time they are distributed across the entire customer base - and the researchers found no evidence that consumers travel to neighboring, lower-wage regions to make purchases.

A fast food restaurant, for example, would, in fact, be likely to reduce its employee ranks when the minimum wage goes up, but only if it is the sole restaurant to raise pay rates.  If most, or all, employers in a sector raise their compensation - as happens with state mandated minimum wage laws - the added cost is passed to the consumer who generally absorbs it without diminshing demand.

So, there you have it: a two-decade study of empirical evidence providing conclusive evidence that a small government intervention in the market provides not only economic benefits, but societal ones as well.  Want to bet that's still not going to convince some people?

October 31, 2010

More of This, Please

Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear took place yesterday, and an estimated crowd of 215,000 - almost two and half times the 87,000 that came to see Glen Beck a few months ago - was treated to a beautiful autumn day of music, comedy and reasonableness.

Nothing better exemplified the last better than Mr. Stewarts's closing remarks, which were classy, smart, and inspiring, all at the same time.  While both The Daily Show and The Colbert Report - as two of the sanest outlets for news analysis and media criticism available today - perform a genuinely valuable service, it's in some ways too bad that Jon Stewart appears to have no interest whatsoever in public office.  The country could use more of this:

October 29, 2010

Back in the Saddle

First and foremost, let me apologize that my planned 1-2 month sabbatical from blogging ended up stretching out longer than planned. Unfortunately, as of the end of September, my position at work was eliminated, and my sole focus since then has been finding a new job.

I'm happy to report that I have landed at another company - I'm extremely lucky, I know - and I started work two days ago. My new position involves a significant increase in responsibility, so although I am writing again, posts are going to be less frequent than before, and potentially a bit more sporadic.

I hope you'll bear with me, and I'm looking forward to hitting the keyboard again!

August 19, 2010

Taking A Breather

I'm taking a short breather from posting for a month or two.  The last year has been a very busy one, encompassing not only my normal work and teaching schedule, but training for my godan test  and getting back in good enough shape to take it.  All of that paid off - I passed my exam last weekend - but I am, frankly, a bit pooped, and we're entering budget season at the ol' grind, so a small breather is in order.

Regular posting at Sensen No Sen will resume in the next 1-2 months, or whenever I feel caught up - whichever comes first...

August 11, 2010

2010 Summer Gasshuku

Regular posting will resume next week. In the meantime, I am attending the Japan Karate-Do Ryobu-Kai 2010 Summer Gasshuku, and hoping that my various injuries are healed enough for me train hard!

August 6, 2010

Signs It's Time to Clean House

For those of you who don't know me - or who have only been reading Sensen No Sen for a short time - it may come as a surprise that I do not consider myself particularly liberal. I am certainly left of a lot of people, but I am also to the right of a good many as well. I believe that private enterprise can and does serve a vital purpose - albeit in a far from perfect manner - but I believe the same of government, too.  I understand the tremendous value of a market economy and have seen it fuel unprecedented success.  I have also watched the market produce booms and busts that incur terrible human costs, and am convinced that well-structured and consistent regulation is key to producing gains which do not rely on the perpetual exploitation of one group of citizens by another.

I do not believe that one political party or another has all the answers, and while I voted for Barack Obama, it certainly wasn't because I think he's some kind of savior.  As I wrote on the eve of the 2008 election:
Barack Obama is certainly not perfect and he's not the messiah, but he has never claimed to be either of those things. For me, he is simply a better candidate than his opponent on the issues... and in the larger picture, the GOP very definitely needs some time in the wilderness to regroup as a viable and respectable party of opposition.
I am not party or brand loyal, and I vote by issue.  I have cast my ballot for Republicans on occasion in the past, and I will again in the future if the GOP presents compelling candidates. The fact of the matter is, however, that that doesn't look like it's going to happen again anytime soon; the worst elements of the American right remain at the head of the contemporary conservative movement.

Don't think so?  Watch the clip below and contemplate that Glenn Beck is not just the second highest rated political talking head in all of television, but a man capable of mobilizing significant protest action, and to whose followers conservative politicians are held accountable:

Mr. Beck is a man who, like it or not, speaks for and to a lot of people, and it's not just those outside the GOP and the political right who understand that he is bad for both the country and conservatism. Conservatives may claim that the Becks and Palins and Limbaughs and Bachmans and Angles of the world don't represent them and aren't "true" conservatives, but at the end of the day, conservatism is what conservatism does.  After all, Kremlin leadership of the Soviet Union hardly toed the lines of true Marxism, but no one tries to argue that the U.S.S.R. wasn't communist.

Clearly the role played by Mr. Beck and others like him alarms David Klinghoffer, a senior fellow at the very conservative Discovery Institute:
Once the conservative movement was about finding meaning in private life and public service. But it has undergone a shift toward demagoguery and hucksterism.
[William F.] Buckley's
National Review, where I was the literary editor through the 1990s, remains as vital and interesting as ever. But more characteristic of conservative leadership are figures on TV, radio and the Internet who make their money by stirring fears and resentments. With its descent to baiting blacks, Mexicans and Muslims, its accommodation of conspiracy theories and an increasing nastiness and vulgarity, the conservative movement has undergone a shift toward demagoguery and hucksterism. Once the talk was of "neocons" versus "paleocons." Now we observe the rule of the crazy-cons.
Conservative law professor and writer Stephen M. Bainbridge - a member of the Federalist Society no less - agrees, and says simply that It's Getting Embarrassing To Be A Conservative:
Let's tick off ten things that make this conservative embarrassed by the modern conservative movement:
  1. A poorly educated ex-sportwriter who served half of one term of a minor state governorship is prominently featured as a - if not the - leading prospect for the GOP's 2012 Presidential nomination.
  2. Tom Tancredo calling President Obama “the greatest threat to the United States today" and arguing that he be impeached. Bad public policy is not a high crime nor a misdemeanor, and the casual assertion that pursuing liberal policies - however misguided - is an impeachable offense is just nuts.
  3. Similar nonsense from former Ford-Reagan treasury department officials Ernest Christian and Gary Robbins, whose IBD column was, as Doug Mataconis observed, "a wildly exaggerated attack on President Obama’s record in office." Actually, it's more foaming at the mouth.
  4. As Doug also observed, "The GOP controlled Congress from 1994 to 2006: Combine neocon warfare spending with entitlements, farm subsidies, education, water projects and you end up with a GOP welfare/warfare state driving the federal spending machine." Indeed, "when the GOP took control of Congress in 1994, and the White House in 2000, the desire to use the levers of power to create “compassionate conservatism” won out over any semblance of fiscal conservatism. Instead of tax cuts and spending cuts, we got tax cuts along with a trillion dollar entitlement program, a massive expansion of the Federal Government’s role in education, and two wars. That’s not fiscal conservatism it is, as others have said, fiscal insanity." Yet, today's GOP still has not articulated a message of real fiscal conservatism.
  5. Thanks to the Tea Party, the Nevada GOP has probably pissed away a historic chance to oust Harry Reid. See also Charlie Crist in Florida, Rand Paul in Kentucky, and so on. Whatever happened to not letting perfection be the enemy of the good?
  6. The anti-science and anti-intellectualism that pervade the movement.
  7. Trying to pretend Afghanistan is Obama's war.
  8. Birthers.
  9. Nativists.
  10. The substitution of mouth-foaming, spittle-blasting, rabble-rousing talk radio for reasoned debate. Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Hugh Hewitt, and even Rush Limbaugh are not exactly putting on Firing Line. Whatever happened to smart, well-read, articulate leaders like Buckley, Neuhaus, Kirk, Jack Kemp, Goldwater, and, yes, even Ronald Reagan?
At some point, things have to change, and at some point, reasonable conservatives need to regain their voice, either by reclaiming the Republican Party or striking out on their own.  In the meantime, the ideologically impure are being driven from the ranks, even when they have what just a few years ago would have been considered unassailable conservative credentials.

Take, for instance, the case of Republican Representative Bob Inglis of South Carolina, a politician with a 93 percent lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union.  Mr. Inglis recently lost his state's Republican primary in a landslide, defeated by an opponent who claimed he was not far enough to the right.  Now a man without a job, the lame-duck congressman hasn't been shy about the problems he sees within modern conservatism:
While he was campaigning, Inglis says, tea party activists and conservative voters kept pushing him to describe Obama as a "socialist." But, he says, "It's a dangerous strategy to build conservatism on information and policies that are not credible... This guy is no socialist." He continues:
The word is designed to have emotional charge to it. Throughout my primary, there were people insisting that I use the word. They would ask me if he was a socialist, and I would always find some other word. I'd say, "President Obama wants a very large government that I don't think will work and that spends too much and it's inefficient and it compromises freedom and it's not the way we want to go." They would listen for the word, wait to see if I used the s-word, and when I didn't, you could see the disappointment.
Why not give these voters what they wanted? Inglis says he wasn't willing to lie:
I refused to use the word because I have this view that the Ninth Commandment must mean something. I remember one year Bill Clinton - the guy I was out to get [when serving on the House Judiciary Committee in the 1990s] - at the National Prayer Breakfast said something that was one of the most profound things I've ever heard from anybody at a gathering like that. He said, "The most violated commandment in Washington, DC" - everybody leaned in; do tell, Mr. President - "is, 'Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.'" I thought, "He's right. That is the most violated commandment in Washington." For me to go around saying that Barack Obama is a socialist is a violation of the Ninth Commandment. He is a liberal fellow. I'm conservative. We disagree... But I don't need to call him a socialist, and I hurt the country by doing so. The country has to come together to find a solution to these challenges or else we go over the cliff.
The fact of the matter is that the leadership of today's GOP has failed, and continues to fail, both its rank and file and the nation it claims to serve.  Instead of working in good faith toward compromise - rather than demanding their policies be adopted completely despite having been voted into the minority - Republicans in the Senate have attempted to foul the gears of government with a record number of filibusters.

Principles are important, but given, for instance, the willingness of Republican legislators to oppose the stimulus bill but still claim credit for funding it delivered to their states and districts, principles are clearly not what's at work here.  The team-first zealotry in evidence has no place in politics, which in the words of Otto von Bismarck, is "the art of the possible."  Without leaders who are willing to compromise, little at all is, in fact, possible, and given the sorry state of the country, we cannot afford the paralysis of ever deeper polarization driven by fear-mongering and demonization from pundits and extremist politicians.

When one of the most popular public figures in movement conservatism links the President of the United States to The Devil - The Devil! - he is setting expectations for the behavior of politiians among the electorate (just ask Bob Inglis) that are both untenable and profoundly detrimental to the country.  It's time for reasonable conservatives to disown craven fools like Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Tom Tancredo, and it's unquestionably time for the GOP to clean house.

The entire story on Bob Inglis - Confessions of a Tea Party Casualty - can be found at the link. It's well worth reading for a picture of what conservative politicians who don't operate at the extremes are facing.

July 31, 2010

Maintaining the Undue Influence of Wealth

In a 5-4 decision back in January, the Supreme Court found that the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) exceeded its authority when it barred Citizens United, a conservative organization, from running ads for a movie attacking Hillary Clinton during the 2008 presidential campaign.  As a result of this ruling, corporations, labor unions and advocacy groups are no longer forced to funnel money through political action committees to pay for advertising, and all restrictions on the amount they can spend have been lifted.  Although the Court upheld disclosure requirements that corporations spending $10,000 or more producing election-season ads must disclaim the source of that funding, the floodgates for outsized corporate, union and interest group influence were unquestionably thrown open.

Last Tuesday, an attempt to address some of the concerns raised by this ruling died in the Senate.  H.R. 5175, the DISCLOSE Act, sought to increase transparency around the role of corporate and special-interest money in national elections.  It required organizations involved in political campaigning to disclose the names of large donors and reveal their identities in any political advertising they funded. It also forbade foreign corporations, government contractors and recipients of TARP funds from making political expenditures.

It was not perfect legislation by any means, as, in order to advance it, compromises were made, including one that exempted long-standing, large non-profit groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA).  Its aims were fairly modest; it did not even attempt to curtail funding or campaign contributions from companies, unions or advocacy groups. The  DISCLOSE Act simply required that they state who was paying for their political activities.

So, why did a relatively simple and straightforward bill with such laudable goals fall?  Democrats were unable to break a Republican filibuster - all 40 GOP senators present stood against it - preventing the legislation from coming up for a vote.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's justification for the GOP position was that H.R. 5175 would effectively tilt the next election cycle in favor of Democrats by forcing conservative action groups and corporations to reveal their influence.  In Senator McConnell's eyes, this was somehow equivalent to an assault on free speech.

The truth is that this bill would have been a worthwhile first step in giving Americans a view into just who is funding what and who is backing whom.  Corporations are indeed more likely to make bigger donations, while union members and their smaller donations would have been protected (below a threshhold of $600) from disclosure.  But the same is true in reverse: unions donating at the organizational level would have to reveal themselves, and corporate employees donating individually could remain anonymous.

One of the fundamental aims of campaign finance reform is to encourage large numbers of small donations from a broad spectrum of donors, while diminishing the undue influence of wealth. This is not  - or at least it shouldn't be - an ideological proposition.  Rather, it is foundational to ensuring fairer elections, and Tuesday's defeat of the DISCLOSE Act is a loss for anyone who thinks influence should come from building consensus rather than from having deep pockets.

July 25, 2010

The Land of Greatly Diminished Opportunity

On Saturday, the Obama Administration announced that, although it is forecasting robust economic growth of 4% annually in 2011 and 2012, it also expects unemployment to remain at close to 9% over the same period.  Given that demand is the engine that drives the economy, with nearly 1 in 10 Americans out of work for the next 24 months, it is entirely reasonable to ask just who will be fueling this healthy expansion of GDPChristina Romer, who chairs the president's Council of Economic Advisers, said the White House believes business investment and an emphasis on exports will lead the way. 

Leaving aside for the moment just what we can expect to happen to the long term unemployed during the next two years, this focus on growth driven by consumption from outside the United States is revealing.  In many ways, it is the logical culmination of the tax cut mania that has been part and parcel of national political discourse since Ronald Reagan was elected, for these policies have not - despite conventional wisdom - been the engine that drives growth for the country as a whole.  Rather, they have driven growth almost exclusively at the top of the economic ladder and been the root cause of the middle class' slow strangulation. 

As the graph below shows, the gap between the richest and poorest Americans is the widest it's been since World War I.  The largely boom years from the end of the second world war - which fueled an enormous expansion of the American middle class - have been replaced by a period in which the very rich have gotten  staggeringly wealthy, the poor even poorer, and those in the middle have been forced gradually downward.

[Click image to view at full size]

This concentration of wealth has been driven by tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.  Since the Reagan Administration, it has been accepted wisdom that cutting taxes frees up money for investment by private individuals and corporations that would ordinarily be used by the government in a less efficient or effective manner.

The theory - basically the supply side economics of the Reagan years - says that letting people hold onto more of their money will allow them to make greater investments in a wiser fashion, since they are far more expert in their fields of endeavor than any government bureaucrat could hope to be.  These investments are in turn expected to spur economic growth and job creation that makes everyone better off.

While there is no question that for many people - myself included - the idea of having greater control of one's earnings is highly appealing, the truth of the matter is that, in aggregate, the promised effects of tax cuts haven't materialized in any sustainable fashion.  The concentration of wealth that has resulted has actually depressed real wages per capita - described in the graph below as an average in 1982-1984 dollars - which are lower now than they were in 1979.  That's right; purchasing power today - what one can buy with one's paycheck - is actually less than it was during the Carter Administration, despite steady growth in GDP.  So much for trickle-down theory:

Likewise, job growth doesn't track with tax cuts as one might intuitively expect.  Since 1992, the largest increase in employment to population ratio (the percentage of the populace that has a job) occurred after President Clinton's tax increases of 1993. By contrast, President George W. Bush's tax cuts - the very hallmark of his administration - appear to have reduced employment if they had any effect at all:

Job creation spurred by the investment of dollars that would normally go to taxes simply didn't occur at anywhere near the rate promised:

The reason?  In the wake of tax cuts, what seems to occur among the wealthiest is not enterprise re-investment or job creation, but profit-taking.  No longer incented to "protect their money from the government" by plowing it back into their businesses, the rich instead either save it - often in overseas tax havens - or spend it elsewhere.  Such spending does drive some level of growth, but on a scale altogether far inferior to that from reinvestment or even public sector spending.  It also results in a distribution of wealth that sees ten percent of the population controlling over two-thirds of the wealth in the United States:

For the bottom 90%, what appears to happen in the wake of tax cuts is a brief boom that develops into a bubble, which inevitably bursts. Worse, this illusion of growth seems to have a psychological effect on the vast majority of the population that isn't in the top-earning tier.  "Keeping up with the Joneses" drives people to live well beyond their means - apparently unaware that almost everyone else is doing the same thing - with the result that the personal savings rate plunges:

Author Larry Beinhart decided he'd check into the accepted wisdom of tax cuts, and found some very startling things:
  • Large income tax cuts are followed by a bubble and then a crash.
  • High income taxes correlate with economic growth.
  • Income tax increases are followed by economic growth.
  • Moderate income tax cuts are followed by a flat economy.
  • All of this is especially true as applied to the top tax rates, the amount paid on income that exceeds the highest bracket.
Mr. Beinhart describes the data in the following manner:
... I constantly see and hear tax cuts, particularly at the top, described as "pro-growth." So I went and looked at the numbers - tax rates, tax cuts and tax hikes - and placed them alongside job growth, the Dow Jones, growth in the GDP and median income.

The brute facts say the opposite of the myth.
But what about self-determination, hard work and success on the basis of merit - some of the core values on which Americans pride themselves? Aren't people free to pull themselves up by their bootstraps to acheive the station they deserve through industriousness and ingenuity? Aren't tax cuts a mechanism to make that happen?

Unfortunately, while that element of our national character remains strong in the hearts of the citizenry, it has become more folklore than truth. The likelihood of anyone moving from the bottom half of wealth-holders to the upper middle class has shrunk dramatically since World War II, as has the probability of anyone moving in the opposite direction.  In other words, the American class structure has become increasingly rigid:

So, does this mean that the government automatically knows best and that taxes should always be high?  No, it does not.  What it does mean is that the roles of government and private enterprise are out of balance.  Tax dollars may not always be spent efficiently, but they are at least spent, rather than squirreled away overseas or used to buy limited luxury goods.  Likewise, the success of the private sector does not come without the assistance of public assets such as infrastucture, law enforcement and market regulation.  We need to re-recognize the true relationship between these two elements of our economy. 

The idea that private enterprise is always better than public sector effort has been ingrained in our national psyche over the last three decades to such a degree that it has become accepted without question.  Almost everyone has a government horror story they can use to support that contention, but we have become a country which generally ignores or forgives similar tales associated with private malfeasance, or at least one which doesn't ascribe such misdeeds to the very character of capitalism.

Further, we have become a nation that seems to rarely bother looking at the actual results of policy.   (This goes far beyond taxation, but that's a topic for another time.) The fact that someone like Senator John Kyl can not just advocate a $678 billion tax cut that would benefit the rich, but actually deny the need to offset that cut, should tell us all we need to know about the rigor with which macro policy positions are often developed.  (And the claim by people like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that tax cuts actually increase government revenues is a fantasy.)

According to a new study (PDF) by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP):
  • In 2007, the share of after-tax income going to the top 1 percent hit its highest level (17.1 percent) since 1979, while the share going to the middle one-fifth of Americans shrank to its lowest level during this period (14.1 percent).
  • Between 1979 and 2007, average after-tax incomes for the top 1 percent rose by 281 percent after adjusting for inflation — an increase in income of $973,100 per household — compared to increases of 25 percent ($11,200 per household) for the middle fifth of households and 16 percent ($2,400 per household) for the bottom fifth. 
  • If all groups’ after-tax incomes had grown at the same percentage rate over the 1979-2007
    period, middle-income households would have received an additional $13,042 in 2007 and
    families in the bottom fifth would have received an additional $6,010.
  • In 2007, the average household in the top 1 percent had an income of $1.3 million, up $88,800
    just from the prior year; this $88,800 gain is well above the total 2007 income of the average
    middle-income household ($55,300).
The middle class - the engine that drives the economy - is withering, and withering at an accelerating pace. The truth of the matter is this:  The current distribution of wealth and the socio-economic stangnation that comes with it are unsustainable if we wish to remain a country that is truly a land of opportunity.  Tax-cut driven policies have demonstrably failed to deliver what they have promised, and the belief that social mobility can be achieved through the mechanism of hard work is increasingly just that: an article of faith unsupported by actual fact.

It will take careful, well-considered effort - not to mention strong political will - to bring the relationship between the public and private sectors back into equilibrium.  In the meantime, however, one thing is for certain: despite the fever dreams of people like Glen Beck, olicarchy (or "oligarhy") in the United States will not arrive cloaked in the the mythological socialism of Barack Obama; it is already here, and it was delivered by Reaganomics.

AUTHOR'S NOTE:  Thanks to Gus Lubin at Business Insider for a number of the charts used here.  Mr. Lubin's 15 Mind-Blowing Facts About Wealth and Inequality in America lives up to its billing.

July 19, 2010

The Explosive Growth of a Secret, Unaccountable and Self-Perpetuating Bureaucracy

The Washington Post's Dana Priest won a Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for her reporting on "black sites" - secret prisons used by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to torture and interrogate foreign prisoners - and, along with two colleagues, brought another Pulitzer to her paper in 2008 for an expose of the conditions under which American combat veterans were receiving treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  In short, she is one of the best investigative journalists working today.

This morning, Ms. Priest and fellow reporter William Arkin unveiled a project two years in the making: Top Secret America, a holisitic and deeply disturbing view into the explosive growth of not only a secrecy-driven culture in the wake of the September 11th attacks, but a vast bureaucracy with far-reaching powers and little accountability:
The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.
The investigation's other findings include:

  • Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
  • An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
  • In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings - about 17 million square feet of space.
Perhaps even more troubling than the implications for fiscal responsibility, privacy and civil liberties, however, is the fact that this vast, poorly-defined entanglement of overlapping agencies is very likely making the country less safe.  The overwhelming volume of information collected, along with the sheer number of projects and initiatives undertaken, means that only a few people have any sense of the big picture, when they are able to focus on details at all. 

Below is an introductory video for Ms. Priest and Mr. Arkin's project.  Please take some time to check out Top Secret America.

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