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?