Wednesday, December 30, 2009

James Howard Kunstler essays Forecast 2010 - Clusterfuck Nation, beginning:
"There are always disagreements in a society, differences of opinion, and contested ideas, but I don't remember any period in my own longish life, even the Vietnam uproar, when the collective sense of purpose, intent, and self-confidence was so muddled in this country, so detached from reality. Obviously, in saying this I'm assuming that I have some reliable notion of what's real. I admit the possibility that I'm as mistaken as anyone else."

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Visionary Incrementalism

Steve Benen at Washington Monthly:
"Obama has not changed the political structure, he's working within it. Accusations about 'politics as usual' are not unfounded -- the agenda and direction of the country changed considerably on Inauguration Day, but the rules of the game haven't. President Obama's m.o., for the most part, seems to be built around choosing the issue, getting the best deal he thinks he can get, and then moving onto the next issue. The focus places an emphasis on problem solving, while leaving traditional power structures in place."

There's a significant split in opinion among Democrats in response to this pattern, and an inherent threat to Obama's legitimacy as a progressive leader.

Steven Benen takes the hopeful, wait-n-see:

"At least for now, that is.

President Obama has unique gifts, but overturning the D.C. political establishment in 11 months probably isn't a reasonable expectation. If/when health care reform becomes law, it will change, at a rather fundamental level, the relationship between the government and the populace, which may in turn create opportunities for re-writing the rules of the game. It's the kind of thing that will take time ... and a genuine, determined commitment. Time will tell."

Is Obama a slow turning, that is just getting started, or a grave, possibly fatal disappointment?

The question creates a natural divide, with many apologists saying that expectations for him were too high, etc.

I am sympathetic to this point of view. I admire pragmatism and a Whig sensibility, that preserves elites, but makes progress.

But, I worry. I don't think Obama can solve problems, and leave the power structure in place, or strengthen it, as Obama has consistently done, because -- fundamentally -- America's problems are its existing power structures.

I don't think a health insurance reform that leaves health insurance company stocks at a 52-year high is a good omen. I don't think a financial policy that grows the already gargantuan, largest banks can be a good thing.

Obama is not building new institutions, or undermining existing power structures. His health reform makes the promise of generous subsidies, but doesn't create a sure mechanism to fund them or deliver them; his health reform revises the rules on health insurance, but doesn't create an agency to enforce those rules.

Trading one futile, pointless, enormously costly war for another seems more like a step sideways, not forward.

It may be that there is wisdom here. Maybe these are baby steps, and one step will follow another, with increasing confidence. I'd like to believe that this health reform really does establish a principle of universal health care in our politics. I'd like to think Obama is committed to withdrawing from Afganistan . . . eventually. I'd like to think financial reforms are coming.

What I fear, though, is another a political storm, as the preservation of what clearly does not work, backfires. And, in that political storm, it will be the promise of progressive reform, which is discredited.

Who is Paying?

At Tiny Rates, Saving Money Costs Investors -
"Experts say risk-averse investors are effectively financing a second bailout of financial institutions, many of which have also raised fees and interest rates on credit cards.

“What the average citizen doesn’t explicitly understand is that a significant part of the government’s plan to repair the financial system and the economy is to pay savers nothing and allow damaged financial institutions to earn a nice, guaranteed spread,” said William H. Gross, co-chief investment officer of the Pacific Investment Management Company, or Pimco."

This is the Obama-Geithner "Plan" to save Too Big To Fail, in action.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Hurtling toward Crisis

Mark Schmitt | The American Prospect:
"any sense of movement or possibility in our political institutions -- and again, I mean mostly the Senate but not only the Senate -- is gone. . . .

I've always argued that Obama viewed his central domestic mission as changing the culture and practice of American politics. The passage of health reform is a revelation of just how desperately that change is needed and how difficult it will be to achieve."

Matthew Yglesias » Hurtling Toward Crisis:
"I think that during the health care debate you can see the outlines of a growing political crisis in the United States. The go-for-broke tactics used in the health care debate were (and are) annoying to proponents of reform. But obviously the country existed without this bill for a long time and can keep on existing. Think about extending this precedent forward to the time when we need to deal with the budget deficit, however, and things start to look very different. You just can’t deal with the country’s fiscal challenges within the political dynamic that currently exists. There’s no way."

Stirling Newberry, July 17, 2009:
"the coalition of catastrophe is gathering . . . What is now is to realize that the fix is in, your leaders are selling you out, and they will present the dregs of capitulation, mixed with little real compromise, and some sparse victories, as great and sweeping. . . . The right is at a low ebb, its ideology discredited, its powerful financial backers -- temporarily -- coopted, its public figures so clearly third and fourth generation. A muscular left would spend this moment to shatter and remake the American consensus. But that is not what is being done. The only people the leadership of the left can bully are members of the left. They have no problem with that.

But can things be different in the future? They must be, it is necessity. And that is the one element that is missing from the present crisis. For all the talk of 1929 redux, the reality is that this crisis was a paper crisis, not a physical one. Once the overheating of Iraq, and the total incompetence of Bush was removed, the world was no longer on the verge of unravelling at any moment. It is not a good present, but . . .

Necessity will come."

Ersatz Health Reform

There's been some celebratory self-congratulation on the imminent enactment of a health care reform. I find myself fearful and deeply ambivalent.

When I was a little kid, my mother once made an 'apple pie' out of Ritz Crackers. It was something she learned to do, during WWII shortages.

This reform is like that apple pie, but less tasty. It's an ersatz form of universal health insurance. Instead of the simplicity of single-payer and tax-financing, we have a Rube Goldberg contraption of taxes, subsidies, regulations without a regulator, and a mandate.

Telling us that this is the best our supposedly democratic system can produce is deeply discouraging.

This is a system that is designed to fail. Deliberately designed to fail: subsidies that will be cut, regulations that will never be enforced effectively, payoffs to insurance companies, pharma and providers that obviate any cost containment. And, a leisurely pace of implementation that puts two general elections between now and the program having full effect.

I'm not saying, 'Kill the Bill', but I am saying it may be political suicide for liberals to celebrate it as the greatest thing since Medicare.

Now, at what may well be the zenith of liberal power in the aftermath of the catastrophe of GWB, this is the best we can do? To fight the plutocracy to a standstill?

This bill puts us up on sharp ridge. The system this bill creates is even less sustainable that the system we had. It is hard to believe such a thing would be possible. Either that basic unworkability will be recognized and the Republicans will start taking it apart; or that unworkability will be recognized, and the Democrats will start repairing the defects. But, the unworkability will be recognized, and action taken on the basis of that recognition.

Every syllable uttered by Democrats concerning how great it will be, is undermining their credibility as repairmen.

The sclerosis of corruption and special-interest politics has the country's political process stalemated, at the very moment when radical change is acutely needed.

The shape and character of this reform is just more evidence.

Confidence in the democratic process is being severely undermined. I cannot celebrate that.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Strategic default

Steve Randy Waldman, proprietor of Interfluidity, hoists a comment, and it is a remarkably good narrative, about the corrosive effect on culture, which the debasement of our institutions is creating.

interfluidity » Strategic default: a soldier’s perspective

The rules of any game evolve out of how the game is played over time. Changing the rules is strategic game-play, as is exploiting the rules in game-play. The rules, whatever they are, are subject to erosion, and that means that all the informal conventions and habits, that make complex institutions work, are also eroding.

The U.S. is at the tail-end of a long period of decadence, that began with Richard Nixon's election and accelerated with Ronald Reagan. Every institutional structure, and the economic foundation of the country's prosperity, as well constitutional democracy -- everything is being ground down, destroyed, wrecked.

Are Americans a Broken People?


Friday, December 18, 2009

Coalition politics

Quite a while back, I took a very simple heuristic analysis from Stirling Newberry, and I have used it, again and again, to get analysis of American politics going.

Stirling Newberry's formula, which I am no doubt distorting and oversimplifying, was that there are always three, generic groups vying for inclusion in a governing coalition. These groups are not necessarily coincident with political Party; the Parties may have other dimensions, and overlap these generic "ideological" groupings, as do interests and various aspects of identity politics. So, politics is more complicated three three groupings of political inclinations, but let's see how far it gets us. These groupings can be labeled, reactionary, conservative and progressive.

The labels suggest the definitions, and anything more I could say would just muddy things up. The basic idea is that it takes two out of three to govern. So, governance is always one leading a second, to the exclusion of the third; and strategy by one group is always aimed at changing partners, or threatening to change partners.

In this simple-minded formula, Reagan-Bush was conservatives leading reactionaries; Clinton was an attempt by conservatives to lead progressives; GWB was reactionaries leading conservatives, and now Obama.

Obama formed a governing coalition by drawing a small number of conservatives (and corporate financial support) out of, or away from the Republican Party, where the many secular conservatives, corporate conservatives have felt alienated by the antics and incompetence of the far Right. (Sarah Palin?)

Obama's coalition is different from Clinton's, in that Clinton was just trying to retard the migration of (white southern) conservatives out of the Democratic Party, while Obama has brought (northeastern and western) conservatives into the Democratic Party.

One of the tricks of tripartite governance is the mix of substantive (read: dollars) and symbolic goodies distributed. In general, the senior, leading partner gets the big bucks, while the junior partner gets symbolic actions. Under Reagan-Bush, with conservatives at the levers of power, and the reactionary racists and religious right still in the wilderness, the big bucks flowed to the wealthy and powerful freely enough, but the reactionaries got very little of substance. Social liberalization of the country continued on many, but not all, fronts.

In many ways, progressives and liberals were co-opted by the politics of the 1980s -- they were as much the junior clients of the corporate conservative governing coalition as the reactionary right. Both were being kept quiet and marginalized, while the New Deal was taken apart -- unions destroyed, savings and loans destroyed, etc. They were kept quiet, by the provision of costless symbols and the unimpeded forward momentum of social change began in the 1960s: the steady erosion of racial and sexual authoritarian oppression and peace abroad was a gift to the exhausted Left.

But, the tectonic plates of American politics kept moving. The increasing interest in the mechanisms of climate, have revealed that the slow movement of the continents, floating as they do, on the viscous mantle of the earth, has changed the earth's climate over time. Consolidation of continental mass can impede and shape ocean circulation, creating wide-spread drought or ice ages.

Authoritarian conservatives were moving steadily into the Republican Party, making both Parties more purely "ideological" in character, the distinction of partisan identity being almost entirely a matter of personal worldview and attitude. I am using "authoritarian" in its social-psychology sense, as a grouping defined by a particular cluster of attitudes, and suggesting that authoritarians makes up an important part of the electoral base of the "reactionaries". "Reactionary" is the heuristic grouping, I am taking from Newberry, and is a label for a governing policy stance, highly supportive of vested interests and not very imaginative or rational.

Authoritarian "followers" are ready-made for exploitation by demagogues, which is one reason, why they are often so welcomed into a reactionary political grouping. The leadership of a reactionary group can lie with impunity to its authoritarian followers. Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin are tailor-made "leaders" for a reactionary politics, based on an authoritarian electoral base. It's not quite Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns leading peasant farmers and Junkers with bad attitudes, but it could be pretty close, given enough time.

But, too many authoritarians in a room tends to be repulsive to everyone else. They are too gullible, too stupid, too irrational, too prejudiced. A few strengthen an organization, giving any program of action the sinews of willing obedience and group self-discipline: an army needs to have the social impulse to walk in unison. But, too many is dysfunctional. An Army cannot function, either, when it is dominated by martinets; incompetence, then, takes over, and the capacity to deny reality -- which authoritarians have in spades -- becomes a perverse imperative to act stupidly. To invade Iraq, for example, in reprisal for something Iraq had nothing to do with, and to extinguish a threat Iraq could not credibly make, at a cost several times in value, the cost of either offense.

So, the Republican Party's evolution has become toxic, even to conservatives, who have an interest in competent governance. Losing two pointless wars and bringing about a near-collapse of the financial system is too high a price to pay, evidently.

But, these centrist conservatives, basically, remain, well, conservative. For thirty years, they have accepted the slow decline and deterioration of the country, erosion of the economic and institutional base, and their politics consists entirely of imposing the costs of that decline on the poor and middle class.

They have orchestrated the maintenance of a huge military establishment, and its deployment in costly and pointless engagements, shaped not by a striving to achieve strategic ends, but by the shaping the logistical means in a way that creates a maximum of profits for the military-industrial complex.

They have pursued a macroeconomic policy of substituting increasing debt for rising income, in powering the standard of living -- a grasshopper strategy, in place of an ant strategy, if you will. And, they have advocated, ceaselessly, to impose all the pain of declining income on the middle class, eroding pensions, and attacking social security.

Obama has the corrupt centrist conservatives in a governing coalition with the progressives. And, so far, it is not working out.

In the health care reform struggle, as in the financial sector reform debate, as in war policy in Afganistan, the conservatives have shown, again and again, that they are not willing to let the progressives make progress.

Obama has favored the centrists on substance, and offered the progressives symbols.

The dilemma is becoming daily more clear: only the substance really matters. The country desperately needs to change direction, on substance. Continued erosion, with the costs always crammed down on the poor and middle class, is not a stable solution set.

A financial reform that makes the system more fragile, a health care reform that makes health care, effectively, even more expensive for people, who cannot afford it now, a war policy that increases military budgets -- this is not a formula for long-term success or political stability.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

There's something wrong with this picture.

Matt Taibbi has written a polemic -- Obama's Big Sellout : Rolling Stone -- attacking the Obama Administration's lovefest with the financial sector, and expressing the disappointment felt in the Democratic Party, at the absence of progressive change.

Matt Yglesias suggests that the problem, lies more in the Congress than in Obama, more in the centrism of Ben Nelson, Senator from Nebraska and the most right-leaning Democrat in Congress, than in the centrism of Obama, or such leading Obama administration stalwarts as Larry Summers.

Matt's theory of politics is one of continuum, I guess, and if the Congress moves a bit Left, with the mid-terms, the Left sees more of its agenda enacted.

To quote Matt, Matt: "That’s not how things work."

Steve Benen summarizes the emerging political dynamic:
"Over the last several months, the right has come to believe that the president is a fascist/communist, intent on destroying the country, while at the same time, many on the left have come to believe the president is a conservative sell-out. The enraged right can't wait to vote and push the progressive agenda out of reach. The dejected left is feeling inclined to stay home, which as it turns out, also pushes the progressive agenda out of reach."

It'd be great to see the governing majority give Democratic voters a reason to feel excited. It's not like there's a secret agenda needed to make the base happy: finish health care; pass a jobs bill; finish the climate bill; bring some accountability to the financial industry; finish the education bill; pick up immigration reform; repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' Demonstrate that a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president have the wherewithal to tackle the issues that matter and know how to get things done.

But Matt's call for a shift in focus is important here. Remember: nothing becomes law in this Congress unless Ben Nelson and Joe Lieberman approve. Literally, nothing. That's not an encouraging legislative dynamic, and it's not within the power of the White House to change it.

It is within the power of voters to change it.

Obama has asked Congress to deliver on a pretty large-scale agenda. For all the talk about the president's liberalism or lack thereof, the wish-list he's presented to lawmakers is fairly progressive, and it's not as if Obama is going to start vetoing bills for being too liberal.

But Congress isn't delivering.

I personally wouldn't let Obama entirely off the hook. The President's ability to set the agenda rests on his skill in proposing. And, in many ways Obama has fallen short, precisely at the proposing stage.

Moreover, politics is a bit more strategic than counting the same noses, over and over.

But, Steve Benen gets a little more specific than Yglesias about the mechanics:

The two obvious explanations happen to be the right ones: 1) for the first time in American history, every Senate bill needs 60 votes, which makes ambitious/progressive policymaking all but impossible; and 2) there are a whole lot of center-right Democratic lawmakers, which, again, makes ambitious/progressive policymaking that much more difficult."

That filibuster threshold of 60, which didn't seem to trouble the Bush Administration in the years when the Republicans controlled Congress is a mite suspicious. If Ben Nelson is not the 60th vote, his approval is not needed for every bill that passes. He's much less important.

The Constitution says the Democrats need 50 votes to pass legislation thru the Senate. Any supermajority requirement is simply contrary to the Constitution. It is an excuse that Obama and Harry Reid have grabbed onto, in order to govern the country from the corrupt center. The Democratic Majority can break the filibuster rule at anytime. They don't do it, because they don't want to.

American politics has become a single continuum of worldview for the first time in our political history. Every Democrat is more progressive and more liberal than every Republican. In Congress, and pretty much in the country.

And, in this continuum politics, the Left has a hard time reaching anyone on the Right. The Middle, the Center, is feeling its power, and is not listening to reason, because
1.) it has forgotten how;
2.) it doesn't have to (it thinks) to win elections or win legislative battles.
The Center does not feel the need to make concessions to the Left.

And, yes, the Centrist instincts of the Obama Administration are exacerbating this troubling situation.

I don't know what will happen in the mid-terms. If centrist Democrats lose their seats, but the Democrats retain their majority, the progressive agenda might actually get easier to pass, even if the Republican minority increases in size. If corrupt centrism is no longer a winning electoral strategy, the behavior of moderate Democrats in Congress is likely to change. And, the Democrat majority might well become more coherent.

I had this vision of the future . . .

The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs : A not-so-brief chat with Randall Stephenson of AT&T:
"Right here in your own backyard, an American company creates a brilliant phone, and that company hands it to you, and gives you an exclusive deal to carry it — and all you guys can do is complain about how much people want to use it. You, Randall Stephenson, and your lazy stupid company — you are the problem. You are what’s wrong with this country.

I stopped, then. There was nothing on the line. Silence. I said, Randall? He goes, Yeah, I’m here. I said, Does any of that make sense? He says, Yeah, but we’re still not going to do it. See, when you run the numbers what you find is that we’re actually better off running a shitty network than making the investment to build a good one. It’s just numbers, Steve. You can’t charge enough to get a return on the investment.

Now there was silence again. This time I was the one not talking. There was this weird lump in my throat, this tightness in my chest. I had this vision of the future — a ruined empire, run by number crunchers, squalid and stupid and puffed up with phony patriotism, settling for a long slow decline."

This country doesn't work. We decided to entrust the development of the internet and the cellphone network to American Telephone & Telegraph. Telegraph! Hello?!?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Just the usual . . .

Paul Krugman quotes Ken Rogoff, approvingly: " “The United States is going through a garden-variety severe financial crisis.” "

I think I understand where Krugman is coming from, with this, but I don't understand where he's going.

He's quite right, in the sense that economic analysis of the financial crisis and its economic consequences can go fairly far, by following quite conventional lines. As an economist, Krugman can feel that he "understands" many aspects of the crisis and its consequences, based on well-established theory.

But, seeing recent events in this way requires abstracting away from an historical context, and away from particularities, that make these events "epochal".

This crisis is a re-creation of the Great Depression. It isn't a matter of fatuous, Sunday supplement parallels. It is the consequence of policy, pursued relentlessly by political factions determined to undo the New Deal. And, it also represents the end of post-WWII American economic dominance of the globe.

These are not just rhetorical points about the supposed "meaning" of these events. There are real, abiding problems and political issues, which should not be abstracted away from: the U.S. needs fundamental reform, needs to depart from the course followed over the last 10 to 30 years.

It is not a "garden-variety" financial crisis in this very important sense: the status quo ante is not, in any way, a model of a sustainable "solution" set.

People have tried to say this in a variety of ways. One rhetorical formula was to emphasize that this was a "solvency" crisis, and not merely a "liquidity" crisis.

The importance of deliberate re-structuring puts reform front and center. This is clearly a challenge for regulatory reform. It is also a challenge for fiscal policy, which cannot just be a collection of Federal spending and tax-cuts, but something that begins to change the economic development course of the country. How this crisis is resolved will determine whether the country is able to revive, or continues to deteriorate.

A Word for the Day

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: "Agnotology"

A commenter at Mark Thoma's blog brings my attention to a new word: "agnotology": "the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt".

Contrasted with "epistemology, the theory of knowledge, [which] questions how we know . . . [agnotology] questions why we do not know: "Ignorance is often not merely the absence of knowledge but an outcome of cultural and political struggle." -- a socially-constructed, "structured apathy".

Examples, apparently, abound, including the defensive public relations of the tobacco industry, defending its product and profits against awareness of the risk to life and health, but my immediate thoughts are on "climate-gate", the manufactured scandal around e-mails stolen from British scientists, charged with keeping and interpreting the global temperature record.

John Tierney, the right-wing hack pundit at the New York Times has a column, giving his spin on climate-gate, and both explains and (unintentionally) illustrates the problem. His article leaves the reader knowing less. It is a remarkable performance, really, full of pious nonsense and false equivalence, but effective as strategic political propaganda.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Where the Money is

Bernanke, Chairman of the Federal Reserve: "'Willie Sutton robbed banks because that's where the money is, as he put it,' Bernanke said. 'The money in this case is in entitlements.'"

Bernanke has taken as his mission in life, the repeal of the New Deal.

The return of the plutocrats

Felix Salmon:

The underlying problem here is a fundamental disconnect between the plutocrats and the people. . . .

We’re at a fork in the road right now. People who were comfortable with seven- and eight-figure salaries a couple of years ago have a natural tendency to want to return to the status quo ante; the rest of us see a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to bring executive pay down to the kind of levels which normal human beings can relate to. Given that the pay levels of old clearly did no good and colorably did a great deal of harm, that doesn’t sound like an unreasonable request. But there aren’t any mechanisms in place to make it happen . . .

So the plutocrats, it seems are going to win. They had a nasty couple of years, by plutocrat standards, and in a handful of companies operating under de facto state control they don’t quite have the free rein they would ideally like. But the system as a whole hasn’t changed, and those who thought that it might can’t quite believe how naive they were.

Indeed, the Perfect Storm came and went, and nothing changed.

I like Felix Salmon's writing a lot. I wonder what kind of career he can have, after writing this column. Because things have not changed.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


I got a call from a worker bee at the Democratic National Committee, working to gather funds for an advertising campaign in support of Obama's Health Care Reform.

And, I gave $50.

With very great reluctance, borne of feelings of hopeless futility.

Why would I want to spend my money for a health reform that accomplishes little or nothing of actual benefit to me, or to the mass of people?

The kind of radical, comprehensive re-structuring of health care, which is clearly necessary and desirable would begin with single-payer health insurance, in some form. But, such a proposal was never on the table.

I told the lady I was a very unhappy Democrat. I didn't vote for continuation of war. For secret torture prisons. For financial bailouts that deliver billions to Goldman Sachs, but nothing for foreclosure relief or jobs.

Or, for a health care reform featuring a new and costly mandate placed on working families, but holding Big Pharma secure in its perquisites.

"Bring on the Revolution", I said. And, I meant it. This country needs fundamental change. And, it is getting mindless tinkering with the status quo, with no recognition that the status is bankrupt, economically and morally.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

-- William Butler Yeats, January 1919

This famous poem, and most especially, the lines,

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
. . .
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

haunt me of late. I'm afraid I apply them rather literally to the passionate Right, of teabaggers and birthers, and to the complacent, insensible "center" of conservative Democratic and establishment journalists, academics and pundits.

Many bloggers have noted the Daily Kos/Research 2000 poll, which asked,
In the 2010 Congressional elections will you definitely vote, probably vote, not likely vote, or definitely will not vote?

DEM 27 29 25 15 4
REP 39 42 9 5 5
IND 32 33 15 8 12

The whole theme of this blog has been the "Perfect Storm" that arose in reaction to the destructive policies of the authoritarian Right, embodied in the Bush Administration. I have noted the re-alignment of American politics, which took place as a slice of secular conservatives reluctantly left the Republican Party and joined Obama's coalition. This viewpoint made my sympathetic to the struggle, in the Administration and among Congressional Democrats, to work out a new modus operandi, uniting the Democratic Party in productive governance.

But, the results have been disappointing, and the disappointment has become alarming.

This may still be part of the birthpains of a progressive coalition. But, right now, it looks like a runaway freight train bearing down on a country, whose driver has gotten stuck on the tracks, unable to effect the promised change and move forward or give up, and move back.

The President, who pioneered a new level of modern campaign organization looks, at this moment, to be headed toward electoral disaster -- a product of failing to deliver, and failing to use the participating progressive base to enact good policy.

Right now, speaking for myself, I feel like voting in 2010 for the worst cretin Republican I can find.

My hostility is not to the clown show on the Right, which is the Republican Rump. It is the moderate, muddled political center -- centrist Democrats, in the Congress and the Administration, and ostensible independents, especially as represented in the Media punditry -- who seem to simply not care about the country's problems, or to be aware of root causes in irresponsible elite behavior.

The country has not gotten change it can believe in, has not gotten the change it so desperately needs, morally or economically.

We are still torturing people in secret prisons. Unemployment and underemployment plagues a quarter of the population. Median income is declining. The financial sector remains a prosperous, powerful parasite. Health care reform has been stymied.

It really is hard to see that American Constitutional democracy, or its capitalism, is working. Maybe, it is time to bring the system down.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

America: An Apathy Story

Capitalism: An Apathy Story by Cindy Sheehan:
"Most Americans don't even give a poop, which is incredible to me since almost 1 out of 4 of us who want work can't find any and every 7 seconds someone in this country will lose their homes . . .

Congress will make some squeaks in Goldman Sachs' direction and The Laureate will say something like: “This is not acceptable,” then he will go forward in total acceptance and obsequiousness to his masters that put him in power.

What will the American Public do?

I am afraid that Goldman Sachs doesn't even have to make the empty gesture of one billion dollars in charity because no guillotine brigades will march down Wall Street.

When Goldman Sachs wins the Nobel Prize in Economics next year, we will become mildly annoyed and then yawn in the best American tradition and go on allowing the Robber Class to steal us blind, hoping that there is another juicy divorce or celebrity death that can distract us from reality.

The Robber Class doesn't frustrate me nearly as much as the Robbed Class. Robbers will be Robbers only as long as we in the Robbed Class let them.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Atrios at Eschaton: "People may think of themselves as independent for all kinds of reasons, but in my experience many of the people who do so just don't pay too much attention to politics. When ideology is the reason it's because they're fed up lefties or libertarians."

America has third and fourth Parties, but they're called "independents". One of these days I want to do a post, analyzing the psychology and political functions of "independents" -- electorally, psychologically and in the Media.

A lot of Media pundits assign themselves to the "independent" Party, as a matter of role -- sometimes cynically or dishonestly, sometimes with idealistic notions about a journalist's commitments to objectivity. And, the Media's political "independence" and "objectivity" becomes a model for the political "independence" of much of the politically under-informed and under-involved general electorate.

digby at Hullabaloo asserts: "The number of independents out there is quite large and all national politicians need to reach them in elections in order to win. But the knee jerk assumption that they are always more moderate than everyone else is probably wrong. They might just be more cranky, more cynical, more uninformed, more skeptical or more impatient. There are a lot of reasons why someone might be an independent in American politics but I suspect that ideology is at the bottom of the list."

I don't know that "ideology" has much to do with American politics, or partisan alignment, so it is difficult for me to assign a meaning to digby's use of the word. But, identifying with a political Party does have consequences for people's opinions: it's not unlike the way people tend to start coordinating their strides, when they walk in a group. And, being an "independent" also has consequences, in attitudes and opinions and openness to persuasion and openness to compromise or alliance.

"Moderate" might not be the right word in every respect, but there's legitimacy in believing that most self-proclaimed "independents" -- even though they do not share opinions with each other, do, in fact, by virtue of their identification as "independents" do have in common -- again not opinions themselves -- an alignment of opinions and attitudes oriented "between" the positions of the two Parties. Whether its an alignment of hostility to both, or of middle-of-the-road compromise and "some truth in both positions", it is still an alignment. On the open political issues -- the issues of active controversy and choice -- this is just the way it is going to be.

On the latent issues, it is harder to tell. The tendency of many of the independents to be politically disinterested and uninformed will be more telling. But, there are a lot of latent issues -- most issues are latent at any one moment.

It is in the transition from latency to active, that propaganda has its biggest impact. The Right is much better prepared to exploit latent issues becoming active, and the Media, and its nominally "independent" punditrocrisy, is part of the apparatus for making the exploitation of ignorance among the "independents" possible and cheap.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Great Recession Marches On

Calculated Risk: "the current employment recession was already the worst recession since WWII in terms of percent of job losses"

And, then, they revised the data.
Percent Job Losses During Recessions

There are two scary things in this chart.

One is how deep goes the employment loss in the current recession.

The other is how prolonged was the job loss in the previous recession.

The long rot of the structure of the American economy is showing, here, in collapse.

Shall I continue?

Consider this item from "Despite signs that the economy has resumed growing, unemployed Americans now confront a job market that is bleaker than ever in the current recession, and employment prospects are still getting worse. Job seekers now outnumber openings six to one . . . "

And This!
"The recession has hit middle-income and poor families hardest, widening the economic gap between the richest and poorest Americans as rippling job layoffs ravaged household budgets.

The wealthiest 10 percent of Americans -- those making more than $138,000 each year -- earned 11.4 times the roughly $12,000 made by those living near or below the poverty line in 2008, according to newly released census figures. That ratio was an increase from 11.2 in 2007 and the previous high of 11.22 in 2003.

Household income declined across all groups, but at sharper percentage levels for middle-income and poor Americans. Median income fell last year from $52,163 to $50,303, wiping out a decade's worth of gains to hit the lowest level since 1997.

Poverty jumped sharply to 13.2 percent, an 11-year high."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Center cannot hold

I've tried to make a general point about the current obsession of everyone with the antics of the Right, and its tea-baggers, birthers, tenthers, and the rest. Some highly visible part of the Right has been displaying their literal craziness.

But, the scary thing is not that the Right is crazy -- they've always been crazy.

What's scary, and needs critical attention is the complacency of much of the Middle, which acts as if the Right are not-crazy. This is true, both of some politicians, who should know better, and a lot of Media personalities.

Mark Kleiman takes on the fake controversy over "czars":
"The gullibility of the national political press corps has seldom been on more hideous display. Glenn Beck and his tame dogs in Congress have managed to make “czars” an issue without anyone’s ever bothering to define the term “czar.”

Then, after 287 words, in which he himself seems to succumb to playing the straight man in this political, Groucho Marx "secret word" fest, Mark finally comes to the real point:

"Again, the astounding thing isn’t that Republicans are pulling this stupid pet trick, but that reporters are covering it rather than asking basic questions about it."

Mark Kleiman shouldn't have to be arguing this silliness. The Media should not even let it take up our time or attention, and the politicians, who promote it should pay a high price, in derision from non-partisan journalists and pundits. That that is not happening is extremely worrisome. The poor functioning of Media journalism has been a serious, serious problems since Clinton and Whitewater; but, we need to notice the failures of journalism more, and the antics of the Right, less.

As if to illustrate, Matthew Yglesias points to this Newsweek story:
"Anyone who watches cable news surely knows that conservatives are getting themselves all hot and bothered over the Obama administration's appointment of so-called czars. Today, the Democratic National Committee is going nuts in response. I've got more e-mails from them about this today than I care to count. This whole debate is descending into complete partisan hackery: GOP operatives are fanning ridiculous fears while Democrats are proffering inflated claims to counter them."

Matthew Yglesias restates the Newsweek complaint:
"Silly Democratic National Committee, boring reporters by tediously pointing out that the central political argument being made by their opponents is totally dishonest! What partisan hackery! How sad that the debate is “descending” to this level! But who’s to say who’s to blame for this situation? Maybe the DNC should have just turned the other cheek and not annoyed Newsweek with its pesky emails."

Kevin Drum pretends to be David Broder

Why Bipartisanship Matters | Mother Jones:
"Bipartisanship is in bad odor these days because it's associated with a knee-jerk, David Broderish tendency to assume that the answer to any policy dilemma is automatically halfway between the liberal position and the conservative position. But that sells bipartisanship short. Where it shines is its ability to allow politicians to make tough decisions.

If all you want to do is hand out goodies — tax cuts, prescription drugs, defense contracts — life is easy. Everyone loves goodies. You don't need help from your opposite numbers to get stuff like that through Congress.

But what if you want to pass something tougher? Something that takes as well as gives? If you have bipartisan support, you can do it right: you can stand up to special interests and K Street lobbyists and enact real reform. But you can only do this if you have political cover and plenty of votes."

But, of course, this is the David Broder argument. David Broder does NOT argue for split-the-difference; David Broder argues for leaving "partisan ideology" and "partisan bickering" at the door, and having the "adults" just "get together" and "solve problems" like there are no legitimate partisan or ideological differences about policy.

The problem of assembling a governing coalition is always the same: how to enable the rational and sane to cooperate, against the corrupt and crazy.

When the rational and sane, and the corrupt and crazy, were both split between the Parties, bi-partisanship made sense, to the extent that it meant assembling the rational and sane from both Parties, to govern together. That's how Civil Rights got passed: liberal Democrats and moderate Republicans voted together against reactionary southern Democrats: voila!

And, that's how bi-partisanship got a great reputation, in a now lost era, when political polarization between the Parties was minimal, and both Parties had extremist nutcases in approximately equal measure.

The Parties are divided differently today, in case you haven't noticed, but, in the end, the motivation for assembling a governing coalition of the sane and rational remains the same: policy has consequences.

You don't want politicians to "make tough decisions" because it sounds dramatically satisfying. You want them to do so, because the consequences are serious.

The people in Congress, who are genuinely responsible and not hopelessly corrupt or stupid, are all in the Democratic Party. And, outside of the Congress, almost all of the remaining responsible conservatives are allied closely with the Administration.

If you want good policy, the governing coalition has to be assembled, within the Democratic Party. The "bi-partisan" gambit just won't work. The marginal, semi-corrupt or semi-stupid vote has to be afraid of the consequences of policy failure, sufficiently afraid that they will compromise their greed with people they recognize are smart and care about the consequences. Only a handful of such marginal votes will come from nominal Republicans; most Republicans are committed to the politics of the shock doctrine and bringing on Armegeddon, or simply don't believe in reality and policy consequences.

Now, you can argue that governance from within the majority Party simply cannot work, but the problem is not the lack of consensus, or even the lack of party discipline, which would enable those "tough decisions" of which the Village Pain Caucus among the punditocrisy has become so fond. The problem must be that responsible governing by a single Party cannot be successfully "branded" and the brand marketed. FDR managed it with a very unlikely Party, but nevermind.

We've had a remarkable experience over the last 16 years: a responsible, albeit fairly conservative President followed by an irresponsible, conservative President, from different political Parties. Now, we're back to a responsible, conservative President from Party Number 1.

I have my doubts about whether this contrast can be brand-marketed. But, my doubts concern the role of the news Media, as fair and sensible tribunes.

If Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are going to judge what constitutes responsible government, and what consequences are to be blamed on what policy, then we are in a lot of trouble.

Have a Nice Day

Tom Friedman - Have a Nice Day - "if you like importing oil from Saudi Arabia, you’re going to love importing solar panels from China."

Tom Friedman is an ass. But, he makes a good point. Change we can believe in? Where the hell is it, already?

The compromise without the cover.

I've been writing about how the re-alignment of American politics, ratified in Obama's election, and the marginalizing of the Republican Rump, will require a shift in the composition and habits of the governing coalition.

Governing coalitions are always shifting and morphing. But, a basic dynamic, for 40 years, has been conservatives in both Parties, conspiring against the bases of their respective Parties. This "bipartisanship" of conservatives has been continuously blessed by the corporatist Media and its punditocrisy.

It broke down in the Bush years, as the reactionary and radical base of the Republican Party came to dominate that Party's conservatives and throw out the moderates. The dominance of reactionary radicals undermined confidence in the ability of conservatives (aka "the adults") to control things.

Since the election, there's been a tremendous effort to restore conservative "bi-partisan" government, but the Republican reactionary base is having none of it.

The obvious alternative is cooperation between the Progressive and Conservative wings of the Democratic Party. So far, conservatives in the Democratic Party have not embraced the obvious. We're getting close to the cliff, here, folks.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller Dumps on Baucus' Bill and No Snowe Yet - George's Bottom Line: "the fundamental problem is that Democrats “are being asked to support a bipartisan bill that doesn’t have bipartisan support.” The compromise without the cover."

It's a bad bill. It's a bad bill, because it is a "conservative" bill, designed without meaningful concessions to progressives. Bad policy, for not respecting principles. Bad politics, for not empowering progressives.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Republican Extremism

Mark Kleiman hopes extremism among Republicans becomes repulsive: "the key question is whether the public comes to identify the Teabaggers as a lunatic-fringe group, to the point where Republican office-seekers are afraid to be associated with them."

Ah, yes, the public.

Kleiman recalls how LBJ was able to tar Goldwater as an extremist, and win a massive landslide election.

Of course, Goldwater was an extremist, even if he did distance himself from, say, the John Birch Society. That helps.

But, LBJ also had Walter Cronkite and Huntley and Brinkley and a great Middle, which could recall World War II, and took politics seriously enough to actually worry about the lunacy of the extreme Right.

Our current dysfunction is not at the extremes, but in the Middle, among the professional non-partisans in the ranks of celebrity journalism and punditry, and among the apathetic, mis-informed mass of Americans, who take their cues from the corporate propaganda machine, which is cable news, radio talk, and failing newspapers.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Truth and Facts

US Census Press Releases:
"The U.S. Census Bureau announced today that real median household income in the United States fell 3.6 percent between 2007 and 2008, from $52,163 to $50,303. This breaks a string of three years of annual income increases and coincides with the recession that started in December 2007.

The nation’s official poverty rate in 2008 was 13.2 percent, up from 12.5 percent in 2007. There were 39.8 million people in poverty in 2008, up from 37.3 million in 2007.

Meanwhile, the number of people without health insurance coverage rose from 45.7 million in 2007 to 46.3 million in 2008, while the percentage remained unchanged at 15.4 percent."

Lies and lying Liars

PolitiFact | Statements we say are Pants on Fire!

The St. Petersburg Times,, has a list of egregious lies.

It is quite an interesting list. Nearly all are from, or on behalf of, the Republican Right.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

tristero at Hullabaloo makes a critically important point, today:
Many Top Democrats, today, are Conservatives.

And, what does that make top Republicans?

they are not what we think of as conservatives. . . . , but the standard term, when being polite to them, is "movement conservative." Whatever you call them, they hate liberalism with a passion. And by "liberalism" I mean liberalism as in the Englightenment and the American Founders such as the Jefferson of the Declaration and the letter to the Danbury Baptists. These are people, who are still fighting the battles lost by the Federalists in the earliest days of the United States. These are very, very strange people and there is no common ground to be reached between liberals and them. They can only be defeated and their ideas relegated to the margins of modern American political discourse, where they belong. Fortunately, as powerful as they are, there are not too many of them. Unfortunately, they are extremely good at disguising their extremism; many decent Americans have been bamboozled.

Among the most important ways to defeat movement conservatives is to refuse to take their bullshit seriously, even for a moment. In fact, when they are given undeserved influence and respect, as they were in the months before Bush/Iraq, innocent people die.

On the other hand, dialogue with conservatives, genuine conservatives, is not only possible, but something liberals are having right now, every day. A prime example is the intense argument many in the blogosphere are having with the current president of the United States. I'm not kidding or being a smarty-pants: Whatever his personal beliefs, Obama governs as a centrist and even, in some areas, like a conservative. Therefore, it is no surprise at all that it has been very, very difficult to introduce genuinely liberal ideas into this administration, . . . .

That said, the Obama administration has not heaped the kind of eliminationist scorn on us that [Robert Stacy] McCain and his fellow brown shirt wannabes have. It is with Obama and other Democrats that you will find the discussions you want to have. You may not like what they're doing, but they are not in the grip of a genuinely creepy ideology.

Indeed, most top Democrats adhere to what used to be called "conservatism," including the Clintons, Reid, and of course the even-more-conservative blue dogs. It has been noted, often with amazement, that today's Democrats are to the right of Nixon on many issues; needless to say, that is pretty damn far right.

A governing coalition can be had, between conservatives and progressives, within the Democratic Party and its adherents controlling the Executive and Congress. But, beyond the bounds of that coalition, there be dragons . . .

The Failing Center

Our politics is failing at the center. The focus on the telegenic freak show put on by the extreme Right is distracting us from the reality, that the Center, complacent and corrupt, is failing the country.

The functional task of the elite Center is to resolve conflict into pragmatic choice. The duty to compromise invites contempt from idealists, but a functional center wields the awesome power to marginalize as extremists those, who would attack the legitimacy of the Center's pragmatism and practicality.

A dysfunctional Center cannot exercise its power to marginalize the crazies, or chooses to marginalize people of good will and good sense, instead. A dysfunctional Center cannot manage the intellectual coherence to construct policy compromises that remain functional, creating Frankenstein corpses, instead of possibly ugly, but supremely useful camels*.

That's where the U.S. is at, politically. The elite Center is dominated by people, who are wrong about everything, who have no understanding of what can work, who, in their complacency and corruption, are intent on marginalizing good will and good sense.

Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck are the by-product, not of their audience, but of the corporate executive elite, that cannot, or will not, set any reasonable standard for the conduct of their journalistic enterprise.

The University of California cannot muster the will to fire torture-attorney, John Yoo.

And, health care is suffering the tender mercies of "fiscal conservative" "moderates" for whom only a dysfunctional health reform makes "sense".

*A reference to the insight that a camel is a horse designed by committee.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

$30 billion

There's been a lot of attention in the news media devoted to the far-Right extremists and nutcases, upset with health care reform (and the President giving pep talks to young students). Birther, Deathers, and Tenthers.

My concern, though, is that the Center is failing. The antics of Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs are symptoms of a failing elite Center -- for one thing, the elite Center, which includes the corporate executives, who head major Media corporations, are unwilling to fire Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck. The University of California will not fire torture lawyer John Yoo, let alone uber-econ-hack Lee Ohanian.

The trick in all politics, as I learned from Stirling Newberry, is to create a coalition of the sane, decent and rational against the crazies. And, key to such an elite coalition is a moderate Center of pragmatists, concerned with what is possible, what works. Barack Obama presents himself as the embodiment of such a Center.

The danger is that such a Center does not hold, that the Center lacks all moral conviction, abandons all intellectual effort for complacency and corruption.

That's what I see looming in the fate of health care reform. Not reform killed outright, by the extremism and nuttiness of the Right, but health care reform killed by the corruption of the Center.

Ezra Klein - What If They Had a Health-Care Reform Bill and Nobody Could Support it?:
"I'm firmly on the record as being willing to support all manner of compromises on health-care reform. Policy dogmatism has not, over the long history of this issue, proven a successful strategy. But there's an increasingly evident path by which health-care reform begins to hurt the very people it's meant to aid. . . . , making health-care reform affordable for the centrists in the Congress could make it unaffordable for the people.

The basic structure of the bill has three main planks working in conjunction with each other: The individual mandate creates a mechanism for a universal, or near-universal, system. A universal, or near-universal, system creates the conditions for insurance market reform. The subsidies make the individual mandate affordable for people to follow.

There are a few ways to destabilize this system. The most likely way is to reduce the subsidies so that the individual mandate isn't really affordable.

The happy news is that the difference between a plan with decent benefits that's affordable for people and a plan that's not affordable for people and doesn't offer decent benefits is not that large. Optimally, you'd want to spend about $1.3 trillion over 10 years. You could probably do it for $900 billion to $1 trillion. But you can't do it for, say, $700 billion, which is a number I'm hearing fairly frequently.

The difference between doing this right and doing this wrong is, in other words, about $30 billion a year, or $300 billion over 10 years. To put that in perspective, many of the legislators who are balking at the cost of health-care reform voted for the Kyl-Lincoln bill to reform the estate tax at a cost of $75 billion a year, or $750 billion over 10 years."

Friday, September 4, 2009

A strange madness

Paul Krugman -
"I get spitting, incoherent rage over articles on, um, health care economics or macro modeling. What enrages people so much about these pieces? Usually, it’s impossible to tell — in fact, I often have the sense that the enraged correspondents haven’t read the things at all. But that’s OK — they know that I’m corrupt, a liar, a Nazi, and have been spewing my evil in my writings.

The point is that whatever is driving all this doesn’t have anything to do with the realities of what I, or, much more important of course, Obama say or do. Obama could have come in proposing to pursue an agenda identical to Bush, and he would still be a socialist/Commie/fascist, with those of us who don’t see it that way lying Nazis ourselves.

Something is going very wrong in the heads of a substantial number of Americans."

Cable news? Glenn Beck?

Too much television, generally?

Too much change, technological and social?

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Struggle for Realignment

Matthew Yglesias:
". . .in the wake of Barack Obama’s election the main reason to be hopeful about the prospects for universal health care wasn’t so much the election of a new progressive president as the fact that Max Baucus, one of the most conservative members of the Democratic caucus and also Chairman of the Finance Committee, had essentially adopted the main outline of Hillary Clinton’s universal health care plan.

One natural question to wonder is what happened to this? Does Baucus still think those were good ideas? If he does, I would be eager to see him write them up as legislation and see what kind of support they can garner. Maybe 60 votes aren’t there. But I’d like to see. Nobody can accuse Baucus of being a wild-eyed liberal or a member of the “left of the left.” It seems to me that we’re stuck in a dysfunctional dynamic where you have a powerful centrist senator lay some ideas out (including, for example, a public option), which leads progressives to embrace them as a realistic path to reform, which leads the centrist ideas to be rebranded as left-wing ideas which, in turn, leads to the ideas being abandoned by centrists. Very hard to accomplish anything that way."

There was a lot of speculation after the 2006 Congressional elections gave Democrats control of Congress, whether a political realignment was underway. Earlier, Karl Rove, rather famously, had speculated on whether a realignment akin to that accomplished by McKinley's 1896 election, and the split between the Populists and the Gold Democrats, which ushered in Republican dominance that lasted until 1930, might be accomplished in 2004. If you like the 36-year cycle theory of American politics, then 2004 would have been the year of expected realignment (1788-Founding, 1824-Jackson Democrats, 1860-Lincoln, 1896-Republicans, 1932-FDR, 1968-Nixon); of course, this leaves out 1800-Jeffersonian Republicans; 1828-the year of Jackson's actual election; 1876-the "election" of Rutherford B. Hayes by Election Commission and the End of Reconstruction; 1912-Woodrow Wilson wins, due to the Bull Moose split; 1964-LBJ landslide enacts Civil Rights legislation and War on Poverty, initiates Liberal Social Revolution.

Every election matters, but the search for political realignments also matters. Realignment marks a shift in the composition and habits of the governing coalition, as much or more than the composition of partisan political Party identification, per se.

In 2006 and 2008, propelled by repulsion as much as anything, a small slice of the electorate, and of the political elite, moved from strong identification with, and loyalty to, the Republicans to openness to supporting and working with a moderate Democrat. Partly, it was nostalgia for Clinton, which only a moron like Bush could engender, and partly it was the deft way Barack Obama positioned himself, using every asset of personality and personal identity.

This small slice of moderate/conservatives changed partisan identification and voting habit, but not personal philosophy. The country did not become more liberal. Liberals did not increase in number, although they may have gained a bit of credibility with youth.

"Bi-partisanship" has been the dominant pattern of assembling governing coalitions since WWII. FDR built up the internationalist wing of the Republican Party, under Tom Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller, to oppose the old Main Street reactionary conservatives, under the Taft dynasty. The extreme Right of the Republican Party was excluded from Power, by this form of bipartisanship, which featured moderate Democrats reaching out to moderate Republicans to form "consensus compromises" that just happened to coincide with the needs of the Center.

Gradually, "bi-partisan" shifted under Nixon, who, though personally popular, still led a Party incapable of achieving Congressional majorities. Nixon's particular personal gifts, allowed him to establish "triangulation" as a propaganda tactic, aimed at spliting the moderate from the Democrats within the Democratic Party. Reagan continued the pattern. Conventional and mainstream Republicans continue to dominate their own Party, and to take the lead into forming compromises with, and governing with, the Democrats in Congress.

Things shifted a bit with the Gingrich Revolution and a House majority for the Republicans. A far more extreme brand of reactionary conservative arose, and insisted on dominance within the Republican coalition, and a "take no prisoners" attitude toward the Democrats.

Many Americans still "expect" cooperation between the Parties, a cooperation of good will and common loyalty to the country, which never really existed. But, it simply is not possible.

To govern the Democrats have to form a coalition almost entirely within their own Party.

It's a new pattern, for forming a governing coalition. It remains to be seen how, or if, it will work.

Health care is proving to be an interesting test case, precisely for the reasons the astute Yglesias notes: as long as the centrists have no real principles, and define themselves in contradistinction to the liberals, it will be very hard for centrists and liberals to agree on governance.

Simple Questions, Simple Answers

David S. Broder - Accountability, but at What Cost?: "Looming beyond the publicized cases of these relatively low-level operatives is the fundamental accountability question: What about those who approved of their actions? If accountability is the standard, then it should apply to the policymakers and not just to the underlings. Ultimately, do we want to see Cheney, who backed these actions and still does, standing in the dock?"


Monday, August 31, 2009

Feeling Superior, Feeling Alarmed

Save_the_Rustbelt at Economist's View leaves a comment on something I said there:

Shorter Bruce:

People who aren't like me are stupid.

That is not such a good way to build political momentum for anything.

I suppose blogging, and blog-commenting is essentially a narcissistic activity. Look at me! Here's my opinion!

But, that wasn't the point I was trying to make, when I mourned the state of American democracy, and the dysfunctional stupidity of the politically "independent", middle-of-the-road American public, in a way that provoked rusty's rebuke.

That's not my analysis of what's wrong, at all. It's not about me. I am not expressing this opinion about the grave stupidity of the moderate, centrist Middle of American politics, to feel superior to the ordinary people in "the Middle".

In my view, ordinary people "in the middle" are not natively stupid; they just have other priorities.

For the vast majority of the electorate and population, politics is a question of specialization and trade, like any other economic problem. Most people don't pay as much attention to politics as I do. Most people don't have advanced degrees, or the experience of working in government.

And, they shouldn't have to. They have other things to do with their time. Their jobs, for example. Raising families.

Some people might complain that Americans would get more survey questions right, if the survey was about American Idol, than about health care or Iraq. But, that *should be* OK. People should be able to play golf, do macrame, attend concerts, watch professional wrestling on teevee, without democracy falling apart.

But, functioning democracy is not "free". The People have to be pay *some* attention. Things can be organized to make it easier, quicker. I can buy canned soup and frozen vegetables, to minimize the time spent preparing meals, so that I can do other things with my 24 hours. Whether that "works" well depends delicately on a complex net of specialization, which includes, for example, government regulation of food processing, so that I don't pick up food poisoning from bad practices at some faraway ranch. It actually helps, if there are specialist food critics and teachers to worry about whether there's too much salt in canned soup, or to promote alternatives. There has to be enough competition of the right kind, so that I have choices, when I go to the supermarket. And, it helps, in keeping prices reasonable, if lots of people at the margin actually do know how to cook, and can, say, substitute fresh veggies from the produce section or the farmers' market, if the price of frozen veggies gets out of line.

What used to be called "public opinion" -- the collective views and values of the mostly well-intentioned moderate "Middle" of the electorate -- is vital to the functioning of democracy. But, given that those people have lives and other things to do, they have to conserve the time and attention they devote to forming their opinions and views. Popular political opinion in a democracy in a developed country is a lot like canned soup or frozen vegetables. Possibly nutritious, possibly tasty, but not something one ordinarily spends a lot of time preparing from scratch.

The complex net of specialization and organization, in whatever area of social and economic life, is organic, subject to general entropy and in varying need of repair and reconstruction and tending. Things fall apart. There's a crisis. Repairs are made. Just when frozen TV dinners in an aluminum tray threaten to dominate the culture, Julia Child comes along with a cookbook and a television cooking show. Or, Michael Pollan comes along with a critique of industrial agriculture. Or, Upton Sinclair gets a job in a meatpacking plant. New agencies of government are created, or old ones reformed.

Just as people do learn to cook, even in a world of McDonald's and Campbell's Soup, and that's a good thing, so a fairly massive investment still must be made in political understanding. I think we used to make more of the need for an educated populace, of the value of having people, say, attend college, where they would do more than "major in business" or "pre-med", they would learn something about political economy and culture and science and the larger world.

And, while day-to-day, most people would not have to pay much attention, the demand for attention would vary, with the season and the times.

A lot of what people do to stay minimally informed about political controversy is like canned soup or frozen vegetables. They have informational strategies, that allow them to have opinions, without working very hard at it, just like I have a microwave oven to "prepare" my Green Giant frozen veggies. (Very good, by the way.)

Split-the-difference, middle-of-the-road, both-sides-have-a-point is an informational strategy for conserving intelligence and attention, like a microwave oven, simple, quick and easy.

So, is listening to the pre-processed, canned opinion of a nominally non-partisan journalist, who is specialized in "covering the issues".

The thing is, that the complex, organized net of specialization can break down, and then the individual's strategy goes from being simply economical of time, energy or expense, to being dangerously stupid. This is easy to see with food processing and distribution. If entropy in the organization of industrial food processing methods means that bacteria in a field in California contaminate and poison my frozen veggies, I'm a fool to keep eating them. (I was upset to learn, recently, that frozen pot pies, which I loved as a child, can no longer be made safe to cook at time and temperatures, which leave them still edible; industrial processing is so complex and poorly regulated, that the makers cannot trace and eliminate contamination and the only "safe" alternative is for consumers to overcook them the product to the extent that they are no longer palatable.)

Most people are getting their political opinions from the Media in an easy preparation form, liked canned soup.

I get my political and economic opinions from more boutique sources. Partly, this is a function of my making politics into a hobby, akin to following a sport like baseball. Partly, it is because I'm highly educated in history, politics and economics, and, therefore, can be more discerning and analytical. I depend on Mark Thoma, and Paul Krugman, and Steve Benen and digby and Mark Kleiman and Sterling Newberry and billmon and Arnold Kling and many others to taste-test and prepare sauces and chop celery.

The point of this extended metaphor is that, no, my mournful pessimism about the doleful state of public opinion and democracy in the U.S. is NOT about my feeling morally superior. My understanding is superior -- that's a given; just like Julia Child was a better cook, and better eater, than I am, with my Green Giant.

From my superior perspective, I am shouting: YOU ARE POISONING YOURSELVES! YOU ARE POISONING ALL OF US!

Ordinarily, I would just complain about the quality of the political news Media, in much the way Michael Pollan might criticize agriculture and food processing.

But, at some point, ordinary people have a responsibility, as consumers, to notice that they are being fed poisonous cardboard.

"Obama wasn't born in the U.S." "Health care reform will mean Death Panels for old people!" is pretty obvious poison, I would think. But, we cannot, apparently expect corporate Media to eject Lou Dobbs or Glenn Beck from the business of delivering pre-processed political opinion to the masses.

But, the slippery idea that there is some ambiguity about whether the law prohibits torture and murder of captives by CIA agents, is also, to my mind, pretty obvious poison as well. And, we, apparently cannot expect the denizens of Washington Week in Review to acknowledge it.

This isn't about my feeling superior. This is about American democracy dying from ingesting poisonous ideas and not being collectively willing or able to generate enough popular interest or outrage, to reform the system by which political opinion is generated and distributed, consumed and processed into policy, in ordinary times.

These are no longer ordinary times; they cannot be ordinary times, if American democracy is to survive. People are going to have to give up some of their easy methods of forming political opinions for a while, and do a bit more critical thinking. We need more choices in the supermarket of ideas. We need better quality, certified quality if you like.

People like me, who spend more time and attention on politics than is really sensible, have to be the ones, who sound the alarm: American Democracy, you are poisoning yourselves! What you are eating tastes terrible! Pay attention!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ignorance spreads

Steve Benen: "Ignorance seems to be spreading like a virus, which makes the discourse stupid and constructive debate nearly impossible."

Paul Krugman: "we’re having a crucial national policy debate in which the great bulk of the news coverage tells people nothing at all about the policy issues."

Poll, TPMDC:
"A new national survey from Public Policy Polling (D) illustrates the profound levels of ignorance that currently interfere with the debate over health care.

"One question asked: 'Do you think the government should stay out of Medicare?' . . . Among Republicans, 62% say the government should stay out of Medicare, compared to only 24% of Democrats and 31% of independents who agree."

John Cole, The Stupid Leading the Blind:
"the media in this country has really turned into a failed experiment. No matter what channel you turn to, you are exposed to outright liars, political hacks, or . . . just complete fools who are in so far over their head that they don’t even have any idea how much they don’t know."

Ignorance and stupidity is a strategy. Apparently, it works.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Reaction

I want to write something on the Right-wing reaction -- the birthers, the "death panel" fanatics, etc. But, I'm not ready, and may never be ready. This pithy little remark is just too precious not to save, though.

JohnG commenting on Paul Krugman's NY Times blog: "Hopefully, the attempt to restore 1953 American will not turn into an attempt to impose 1933 Germany."

Friday, August 21, 2009

It is, after all, the inevitable result of the way the media do their jobs.

The great political storm came and went, but it failed to overthrow the corporate news Media, an institution, which has become increasingly pernicious, in fostering America's political dysfunction.

Jamison Foser | Media Matters for America:
"The most striking aspect of this summer's political insanity isn't the frothing at the mouth of a loud minority of Republicans that President Obama is a secret Kenyan bent on subjecting an unwitting American public to government death panels, or the mass confusion among the rest of the public about health care reform.

It's that any reporter who has been paying the slightest bit of attention is surprised by any of this. It is, after all, the inevitable result of the way the media do their jobs. . . .

The last time America had a Democratic president, right-wing activists, with the help of some in the media, said he was responsible for the murder of his close friend and aide, Vince Foster -- and dozens of other murders, too. Why would anyone think that people who are willing to baselessly and falsely accuse one president of murder, drug smuggling, and an assortment of other crimes be unwilling to claim that the current president was born in Kenya?

Conservatives buried the last serious effort at universal health care under an avalanche of (media-abetted) lies. And they won the 2000 election on the strength of (media-abetted ... and sometimes media-invented) lies. And they took us to war in Iraq based on (media-abetted) lies. And ... well, you get the point. When was the last time conservatives approached a big fight without relying heavily, if not exclusively, on misinformation and deception? Why would anyone have thought this time would be different?

Likewise, the increasingly obvious fact that conservatives aren't actually interested in working toward bipartisan reform -- this seems to have taken reporters by surprise. But when was the last time conservatives made significant concessions in order to win bipartisan support for anything?

What makes all this shock really amazing is that so much of political journalism consists of pontification by people who have supposedly been around and understand how things work -- and yet they're constantly stunned when history repeats itself in the most predictable of ways.

And the latest realization that has so many reporters flabbergasted: the misinformation has worked! People believe falsehoods about health care! Many people don't even know basic facts about the current system!

Gee, you don't say? Many people don't know the basic facts about anything. That's one of the basic facts of American democracy. And when people are repeatedly told things that aren't true by people they trust, they tend to believe those things. That's one of the basic facts of ... people.

Surely reporters -- whose jobs, after all, involve communicating with the public -- are aware of these basic facts of life? Surely they've heard the expression about a lie making it halfway around the world before the truth has time to get its boots on? So why are they so surprised? Particularly when they've spent the bulk of the health care debate talking about politics and polls and chattering endlessly about who is "winning the message war" rather than repeatedly and clearly explaining to viewers the facts about health care.

Just look at the way much of the media have reacted to the belated realization that the public is woefully misinformed: By speculating -- sorry, "analyzing" -- why this is the case, and guessing -- sorry, "analyzing" -- whether the White House can develop a "message" that "works." And what aren't they doing in reaction to this realization? Clearly and repeatedly explaining the facts. And they're surprised people don't know the truth. Unbelievable.

In fact, it is the media's behavior that has made this summer's madness inevitable. When they let the loudest yellers and most audacious liars drive the discourse, they guarantee that people who can't win on the merits will yell and lie. When they focus on politics rather than policy, they guarantee the public will remain in the dark about basic facts. When they repeat false claims, or treat them as he-said, she-said situations, they guarantee that those false claims will sway confused citizens. When they continue to give a platform to people who have a history of lying -- and assume those people are telling the truth this time -- they guarantee those people will continue to lie.

As long as the media approach their jobs this way, we're going to see the same thing play out over and over again. And each time, the media will be shocked -- shocked -- that some people lie, and other people believe lies.

Or they could do things differently: They could set aside the punditry and the "analysis" and the polls and the freak show and dedicate themselves to explaining the facts about health care. And explaining the facts means more than calling a lie a lie -- though that is hugely important. It also means proactively telling people how the health care system works, and what the proposed reforms are, how they would work, and what the likely effects would be.

If they won't do that, at least they could stop telling us how shocked they are at the inevitable results of their behavior. It's getting old. "

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Stupid is as Stupid Does

The Hunting of the Snark: Tired:
"This nation is simply too stupid to survive and I can't deal with any more today. . . . reason and evidence don't matter any more--stupid will win the day.

"I believe that the economy is far worse off than people want to admit and that we will be permanently poorer; at least, some of us will. We will degenerate further into violence and ignorance until we are so badly off that at last the ignorant and stupid are marginalize, something I can't imagine ever happening at this point. I don't expect an apocalypse or a return to 1800s bucolic splendor; I think we'll just gradually get poorer and poorer, while telling ourselves that everyone else in the world has it much worse whether it is true or not."

Pretty much how I see the most likely outcome. I hope for better. But, that's how things are going.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The State of the Economy

Peter Boockvar at The Big Picture summarizes: "S&P 500 back to 1000 after a rally of 50%, the 10 yr bond yield at 3.70% versus its 47 year average of 6.90%, inflation expectations over the next 10 years below 2% according to the TIPS, an expected July CPI reading of -2.1%, the biggest drop since 1949 and a Federal Reserve that is made up mostly of those who think inflation is subdued and will be for the next few years."

Tim Duy's Fed Watch puts it into narrative context: Is a Jobless Recovery Your Best Friend?:
"Never underestimate the power of money. Especially lots of money coming on top of a cyclical recovery that is almost textbook at least as far as the timing is concerned. To be sure, you can question the sustainability of the recovery, the breadth or health of the recovery, the nature of job growth. I have questioned all repeatedly and fail to see that the conditions that have dominated the US economic story for the past 25 years - primarily, a continued reliance on consumer spending to propel growth - can continue in the face of massive household debt burdens and stiffer (or, more accurately, realistic underwriting conditions). But regardless of these concerns, evidence is clearly pointing to a shift in economic conditions for the better. . . it seems likely the appetite for risk will continue to climb, and all the liquidity - liquidity fueled by new guarantees that massive financial institutions are too big too fail - has to go somewhere.

"Which is to say that no matter how pessimistic you are in the medium and longer term, you need to recognize the potential for massive moves in markets as risk taking perpetuates more risk taking. And as long as that risk taking flows in directions that do not fundamentally change the US jobs and, by extension, wage picture, it is difficult to imagine the Federal Reserve will do anything but let the party role on. . . .

"Wages and salaries for private workers climbed a scant 0.2%. To be sure, this raises concerns about the durability of consumer spending going forward, especially when combined with fears of a jobless recovery. Indeed, I have argued that most if not all of the jobs in the manufacturing sector simply are not coming back. My suspicion is that firms will use the recession to expand overseas supply chains wherever possible. Moreover, firms will not be in a rush to hire back without a clear resurgence of growth, which seems unlikely to occur given precarious household debt burdens.

"Now comes the tricky part - what does the evolving economic dynamic imply for financial markets? I am increasingly of the mind that although a jobless recovery will be a dreary fate for the American people, it offers the best outcome for financial markets for one simple reason: The jobless recovery offers the greatest probability that the Fed remains on the sidelines. The jobless recovery is what keeps the Fed goose laying the golden eggs."

OK, so what's the punchline?

Tim Duy: "When will that bubble burst? Possibly 2012, . . . "

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Or we could try democracy

I've been meaning to write some posts on the aftermath of the perfect storm that came and went, leaving too little changed. Benign Brodwicz, at Animal Spirits, summarized my pessimistic view of current trends.

The Animal Spirits Page: On the coming neo-feudalism:
"It does seem as if the vast majority of people in the United State of America are going to become like medieval serfs, living at what feels in the post-gilded-age new realities like subsistence, watching a small slice of society from a distance as they jet in and out of the country, monopolize the ski resorts, continue to live in big houses with two or three thousand square per person, and so on.

The Baby Boom doesn’t have enough money to retire (quaint notion) and will be working till they drop, which will actually extend their lives. The Gen X’ers will continue to live on scraps. The Millennials are idealistically waiting their turn to be heroes while trying to find a way to support themselves in a workforce that is top-heavy with whining Boomers and cagey Gen X’ers. Most of us will work for large or small corporations at a wage that is enough to support a modest lifestyle, but holidays will be spent close to home. We will worry that we may be next to join the ranks of the unemployed, many of whom and whose stories we know—stories of lost jobs, houses, children’s sense of security in forced moves to strange communities. The health consequences of the current crisis are no doubt predictable. In a PBS special on other countries’ health programs, a German was asked if unemployed people lose their health benefits there. Of course not, he said. They are under great stress and risk to their health. They need health benefits more than anyone.

For a developed nation, America is a barbaric place.

Demand will not recover. The Stimulus, piling upon preexisting terrifying trillions in deficits courtesy of Bush, will not work. Spending will be cut to satisfy our external creditors. The sheer weight of the debt will slow the economy. The narrow U3 unemployment rate will rise into the double digits and stay there through the president’s term. The “real” under- and unemployment rate U6 will hit twenty percent, and stay in the high teens.

The poor and disenfranchised may even take to the streets at some point. Americans are pretty timid now, worried that they’ll be called terrorists and disappear in the night or be put on the no-fly list. Habeas corpus is gone. Last September Hank Paulson said we may need martial law. The government has been preparing for it. There are empty prison camps standing ready, according to reliable reports. (Many were built by Halliburton, allegedly.) The Katrina experience showed us what to expect: mercenaries will disarm the public; impose martial law; tell you to stay in your house or get shot. FEMA’s National Level Exercise scheduled for late July is supposedly a counter-terrorism drill, but I would bet it involves practicing how to impose martial law. Some believe the true purpose of the exercise itself will be to disarm the public. Lots of luck with that. That might provoke the first shots of a revolution. But perhaps that is the intent, to show force and discourage any further dissent. Like Iran now. Like China twenty years ago.

Will President Obama be able to prevent this? I don’t think so. His government has thrown trillions at financial institutions, but we don’t even have workfare or income support for the long-term unemployed, and not everyone is even covered by unemployment insurance. There are 25 million people in the U6 category today. What happens when there are 50 million? Will the government help them, or try to lock them all up? We have a higher percentage of our population behind bars than any other developed country. Will the fortunate just sit in their houses and hope that the Xe guys (formerly Blackwater—great name for a mercenary outfit) will protect them and their property from roving gangs?

Americans have lost confidence in their government and themselves. Their elected representatives do not listen to them. The President is an agent of the status quo. He has enabled the largest wealth transfer to a privileged elite in American history during the financial crisis, at the expense of the American taxpayer for years to come. Does any American believe the new financial regulations will break the grip of the rich upon the resources of the nation? Will we all come together all can-do, gung-ho style and pitch in together and the income distribution suddenly become more equal as it did in World War II and pull ourselves out of this?

It ain’t happening.

These problems, of course, are replicated in many other countries, including our ostensible long-term rival and enemy, China. Which is why the next ten years are a breeding ground for fascism around the world, and for the seeds of war. We went into Iraq to build military bases to protect “our” oil, if push comes to shove. But our military policies are backward-looking to the last war, as John Robb and others point out. We will look pretty stupid when someone pulls off what Robb calls a systempunkt right here at home while we’re blowing billions in Afghanistan. We don’t require our kids to get educated well. Obama is backing off a single-payer health insurance plan, the one preferred by the American people and the one that makes the most sense from an insurance point of view. The American social contract is broken.

People say Europe will be a museum in a decade, a lot of pretty castles and tourist attractions and mamoni hanging around at cafes. America might be like a ski resort, with some beautiful neighborhoods in the cities and trailer parks outside where the workers and retired people live. The Chinese will buy up real estate and companies and immigrate in large numbers, as they did to Vancouver from Hong Kong, having bought enough members of Congress to get their way. They won the financial war, fair and square. They might even teach us how to make state capitalism work, as the Japanese taught us how to make quality automobiles.

Or we could try democracy, for a change."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Change we can believe in?

Yves Smith at naked capitalism asks the classic question, "Quis custōdiet ipsōs custōdēs?"

I love Obama, but his economic team are foxes, working for wolves, and we, the American Public, are the sheep and the chickens.

Yves Smith has a great example.

Quoting the foxes' PR: "The Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), [formerly, National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) -- clever name change, for one of "our SROs", don't you think?] is the largest non-governmental regulator for all securities firms doing business in the United States. All told, FINRA oversees nearly 5,000 brokerage firms, about 173,000 branch offices and approximately 653,000 registered securities representatives. . . . FINRA is a trusted advocate for investors, dedicated to keeping the markets fair, ensuring investor choice and proactively addressing emerging regulatory issues before they harm investors or the markets."

It seems the FINRA, with a $3 billion balance sheet, at one point held roughly $800 billion in Auction-rate securities. Trouble was on the horizon in the Auction-rate securities market. FINRA sold all its holdings. Six months later, in February 2008, the auction-rate securities market froze-up, making these previously high-rate liquid securities into low-rate illiquid, long-term bad investments on a death march. Turns out the auctions, in which auction-rates were set, were rigged, by the market-makers, who were making big underwriting profits. The market-makers are the giant brokerages that own and run FINRA.

FINRA, by the way, runs the arbitration process through which an individual investor must appeal the fraud, under which he was sold these bad investments.

But, here's the kicker.

Obama made the FINRA Chair and CEO, the lovely lady, who, as a well-informed institutional investor, sold her organization's holdings, without disclosure, chair of the SEC.

Wolves: Merrill Lynch and friends.

Foxes: Mary Schapiro, SEC and formerly, FINRA.

Chickens and Sheep: Us.