I just read your piece on the London riots, and as a Brit, found it very interesting as always. You talked about, at the end, helping people built connections to their communities. I agree that it is important but I was wondering how exactly you go about it? And I don't mean that in a confrontational, challenging your political views kind of way. I simply don't know how one would go about it, in a purely practical manner, because I suspect one of the biggest reasons for why it isn't done effectively is simply that people and governments don't know how to.
The question you raise is important, but I do not agree with your fatalism. I think we do know how to … we’re just not willing to.
For example: jobs. The simple fact is that people with jobs are far less likely to engage in riots or promote chaos than are those who don’t. And people who are employed appropriately for their level of education are even less likely to protest.
Governments have a role to play in job-making. While we shouldn’t build an economy of nothing but state employees, stimulus packages, reducing barriers to education (which include cost, but also things like day care and remedial education for those who need it), and building and maintaining infrastructure (especially high speed internet) are appropriate government activities.
Indeed, high speed internet has the potential to become as important as rural electrification was in the US during the Depression: it can connect a whole new world to people largely cut off before—from information and from markets.
More, you have to build local institutions for engagement. Particularly in the case for young males (I consider myself genetically incapable of describing the needs of young females in this case), positive, engaged role models, whether fathers (ideal, if they’re “real” fathers and not “here’s some money go away” fathers) or not who can model behavior and lead activities for groups to invest their time in.
The simple fact is we do less of this kind of stuff than we used to. There are good reasons why: people work distant (in space and/or time) from where they live; people bring work home in the evenings; economic times are tight. But this change has consequences.
If you want an engaged people, you have to take the time and trouble to engage them. Instead, we seem to be more concerned about how we can make some more money so we can buy whatever the next widget is that the marketers tell us we “must have.”
So we know how. I just don’t think lots of us can be bothered.
just wanted to say how much i enjoy your blog and thank you for your insights. i have found myself on more than a few occasions reading your blog and having to seriously think through my positions on a few things. this is especially enjoyable to me in that it challenges my preconceived notions on certain topics and forces me to redefine my own stances. this isn't to say i don't find myself agreeing with most of what you post, but those differences are why you are the prof!
Thanks! Aristotle noted that man is a political animal, by which he meant that it was interacting the public space, coming into contact with people you don’t understand and learning to coexist and connect with them, that we become fully human. The point isn’t the disagreeing: it’s the process of learning to address the disagreeing that makes us more than we were when we started.
Indeed, if I have one concern about the new social media era—and I am as guilty of this as everyone else—it is the ease with which we can all get lost in a feedback loop of self-reinforcing rhetoric and experiences. We get what Google or Facebook’s algorithm thinks we want—which is more like us.
So I am thrilled that my thoughts make you think. (With classes barely a week from starting—agggh!—I can only hope it will work there, too.) It’s how we all get to be more than we were! Even, it turns out, me! ;-)
A few months ago, with Texas aflame from more than 8,000 wildfires brought on by extreme drought, a man who hopes to be the next president took pen in hand and went to work:
“Now, therefore, I, Rick Perry, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas.”
Then the governor prayed, publicly and often. Alas, a rainless spring was followed by a rainless summer. July was the hottest month in recorded Texas history. Day after pitiless day, from Amarillo to Laredo, from Toadsuck to Twitty, folks were greeted by a hot, white bowl overhead, triple-digit temperatures, and a slow death on the land.
In the four months since Perry’s request for divine intervention, his state has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Nearly all of Texas is now in “extreme or exceptional” drought, as classified by federal meteorologists, the worst in Texas history.
Lakes have disappeared. Creeks are phantoms, the caked bottoms littered with rotting, dead fish. Farmers cannot coax a kernel of grain from ground that looks like the skin of an aging elephant.
Is this Rick Perry’s fault, a slap to a man who doesn’t believe that humans can alter the earth’s climate — God messin’ with Texas? No, of course not. God is too busy with the upcoming Cowboys football season and solving the problems that Tony Romo has reading a blitz.
But Perry’s tendency to use prayer as public policy demonstrates, in the midst of a truly painful, wide-ranging and potentially catastrophic crisis in the nation’s second most-populous state, how he would govern if he became president.
“I think it’s time for us to just hand it over to God, and say, ‘God: You’re going to have to fix this,’” he said in a speech in May, explaining how some of the nation’s most serious problems could be solved.
Pat Sullivan/Associated PressTexas Gov. Rick Perry spoke at a day long prayer and fast rally on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2011, at Reliant Stadium in Houston.
That was a warm-up of sorts for his prayer-fest, 30,000 evangelicals in Houston’s Reliant Stadium on Saturday. From this gathering came a very specific prayer for economic recovery. On the following Monday, the first day God could do anything about it, Wall Street suffered its worst one-day collapse since the 2008 crisis. The Dow sunk by 635 points.
Prayer can be meditative, healing, and humbling. It can also be magical thinking. Given how Perry has said he would govern by outsourcing to the supernatural, it’s worth asking if God is ignoring him.
Though Perry will not officially announce his candidacy until Saturday, he loomed large over the Republican debate Thursday night. With their denial of climate change, basic budget math, and the indisputable fact that most of the nation’s gains have gone overwhelmingly to a wealthy few in the last decade, the candidates form a Crazy Eight caucus. You could power a hay ride on their nutty ideas.
After the worst week of his presidency (and the weakest Oval Office speech since Gerald Ford unveiled buttons to whip inflation), the best thing Barack Obama has going for him is this Republican field. He still beats all of them in most polling match-ups.
Perry is supposed to be the savior. When he joins the campaign in the next few days, expect him to show off his boots; they are emblazoned with the slogan dating to the 1835 Texas Revolution: “Come and Take It.” He once explained the logo this way: “Come and take it — that’s what it’s all about.” This is not a man one would expect to show humility in prayer.
Perry revels in a muscular brand of ignorance (Rush Limbaugh is a personal hero), one that extends to the ever-fascinating history of the Lone Star State. Twice in the last two years he’s broached the subject of Texas seceding from the union.
“When we came into the nation in 1845 we were a republic, we were a stand-alone nation,” says Perry in a 2009 video that has just surfaced. “And one of the deals was, we can leave any time we want. So we’re kind of thinking about that again.”
He can dream all he wants about the good old days when Texas left the nation to fight for the slave-holding states of the breakaway confederacy. But the law will not get him there. There is no such language in the Texas or United States’ constitutions allowing Texas to unilaterally “leave any time we want.”
But Texas is special. By many measures, it is the nation’s most polluted state. Dirty air and water do not seem to bother Perry. He is, however, extremely perturbed by the Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement of laws designed to clean the world around him. In a recent interview, he wished for the president to pray away the E.P.A.
To Jews, Muslims, non-believers and even many Christians, the Biblical bully that is Rick Perry must sound downright menacing, particularly when he gets into religious absolutism. “As a nation, we must call upon Jesus to guide us through unprecedented struggles,” he said last week.
As a lone citizen, he’s free to advocate Jesus-driven public policy imperatives. But coming from someone who wants to govern this great mess of a country with all its beliefs, Perry’s language is an insult to the founding principles of the republic. Substitute Allah or a Hindu God for Jesus and see how that polls.
Perry is from Paint Creek, an unincorporated hamlet in the infinity of the northwest Texas plains. I’ve been there. In wet years, it’s pretty, the birds clacking on Lake Stamford, the cotton high. This year, it’s another sad moonscape in the Lone Star State.
Over the last 15 years, taxpayers have shelled out $232 million in farm subsidies to Haskell County, which includes Paint Creek — a handout to more than 2,500 recipients, better than one out every three residents. God may not always be reliable, but in Perry’s home county, the federal government certainly is.
Personally, I’ll buy this the day they draft a corporation and send it to war. The day a corporation has a child who needs medical attention or a good education. The day a corporation can’t breathe the fumes its factories create. The day a corporation cries when the planes arrive at Dover AFB.
Do people work for corporations? Of course—many do. Do corporate profits end up in people’s hands? At least in some persons’ hands.
Will raising corporate taxes raise the cost of goods and services? Most likely.
But then again, not raising them may lead to increases in personal income taxes, or in other fees as government seeks to pay for programs people demand.
I’ve vacationed there several times. I lived there for six months on sabbatical. For whatever reason, I get London, and London gets me.
And not just the nice bits. As it happened, I lived in the remarkably posh neighborhood of St. John’s Wood. Kate Moss lived nearby. I saw Paul McCartney walking down the street as I strolled along in Little Venice, which is not far away. (No, I never saw Kate: I sleep at night. Or, I used to before Babyprof arrived!) I lived just behind Abbey Road Studios (on Alma Square, for those of you who might know it); I’ve been across the Abbey Road crosswalk more times that I can count.
But I never constrained myself to the upscale parts or tourist centers of London. I loved going out into the regular neighborhoods all over the city and wandering around. (How many Nando’s can one city need?) I traced the Jack the Ripper murders through what are now Bangladeshi neighborhoods in the shadow of Canary Wharf. I went to Karl Marx’s grave. (I mean, why not?) I tried to see the whole thing … at least as much of it as I could.
So it hurts to watch London burn.
As I watch news coverage about the riots, and watch partisans of various sides try to account for the violence in short-term political analysis—it was austerity under Cameron! no, it was lax enforcement under Labour!—I’m struck by the utter absence of any social science research informing the discussion. It’s as if all the research that people like me do into riots and social movements and political violence is of no consequence in the partisan shouting match.
So here’s my social science take on the violence. One of the more stable findings in research about the sources of riots and political insurgent violence (violence by the state is another topic) is that societies that have a high percentage of under- or unemployed males between the ages of 14 - 30 (or so) are prone to eruptions of social chaos. That is, if young men seem to find no other way to occupy their time meaningfully, they are likely to engage in antisocial activities like joining gangs and committing mayhem. Then, if a given society has a large population of such disaffected young men, in percentage terms, that propensity to local violence and chaos will likely turn towards social violence at a system level.
This is true across races, nationalities, ethnicities, and religious affiliations. It’s not about creed. It’s about being 14 and disconnected from social structures that infuse meaning in one’s life.
The class-centeredness of the rioting in London has been discussed broadly. (My former neighbors in St. John’s Wood are decidedly NOT rioting.) So, to a sometimes uncomfortable extent, has the racial, ethnic and religious composition of the rioters.
But I think the real insight social science can offer to understanding what is going on in London and other cities in the UK comes in looking at those people who have chosen to go on the street and try to protect their neighborhoods from the violence. They have the same ethnic, class, religous and racial identities as those committing violence. However, they have one thing the looters appear to lack: a commitment to place that frames their identity and shapes their willingness to be members of a community that supports one another.
The answer to solving problems like those that have occurred in London is not be found in a prison or in, as some British people have suggested, in punishments like cutting off the benefits of those who commit violence. It is to be found in helping people build connections to their communities so that, if bad things happen, they come out on the street and defend their fellow citizens rather than abusing them.
Sadly, it seems to me we’re going the opposite way—both in the UK and the US. But on this one I think we’ve got the social science right. Now it’s a matter of connecting it to the real world.
So I find myself in possession of a direct mail solicitation from the Republican National Committee—the peak organization of the Republican Party. It contains a deeply personal letter—not—from RNC Chair Reince Priebus asking the bearer to respond to the RNC’s 2011 Obama Agenda Survey—as well as to send in a contribution to support their cause.
That’s all fine well and good: I assure you that the Democratic National Committee is sending out scadoodles of similar mailings to former and hoped for donors. (Not, as it happens, to me!)
What I find more interesting is the actual survey itself. While I understand that the point of these surveys is to drive donors rather to actually survey opinions in the electorate, the example I have in hand is a useful case study of how NOT to take a meaningful opinion survey.
First, a brief lesson on survey methods. A real opinion survey needs to sample a random distribution of citizens of various opinions. It needs to ask a series of questions in language that is both accessible and understandable to a general audience. It also needs to ask questions that are “fair”: meaning that they do not lead respondents to specific answers.
Unsurprisingly, the RNC mailer doesn’t quite meet these standards.
The survey starts with the question, “Do you believe that Barack Obama deserves a second term as President?” (One can only imagine what the response would be if an answer came back, “yes.”) It goes on to ask if I believe that the federal government has “gone too far” with the bank and auto bailouts. It asks if illegal immigrants should receive amnesty and, if they become citizens, Social Security eligibility … a series of questions interrupted only to ask if English should be made the official language of the United States.
The survey also asks if Obama’s federal judges deserve immediate approval, and whether welfare benefits should be expanded while at the same time eliminating all work and education requirements for eligibility, as, the survey claims, the Democrats in Congress are promoting.
Other hot button issues include asking whether I support a national health care system “run by bureaucrats in Washington, DC”; whether I think union votes should be by secret ballot; whether I think health care and pharmaceutical companies will innovate if they face federal price controls, and whether there should be a national energy tax to force people to move to “costly” green technology.
Two quick comments. First, this is obviously not a real opinion survey. It’s a fund raising appeal. Which is fine. As I said earlier, the Democrats are doing exactly the same thing today.
Second, think about the worldview these questions expose. All of these questions are, presumably, intended to solicit pro-Republican responses. And they’re all premised on the notion that Obama and the Democrats are trying to destroy American businesses, tax wealth out of existence, and impose an alien agenda on “good”—Republican—Americans. It’s quite something.
We have created two radically different versions of America, at least in our rhetoric. Maybe the debt ceiling nonsense is the new normal after all.
“Creating an enterprise strategy and knowledge development resource to support decision-making of functional and operational organizations attempting to achieve enterprise objectives.”—
Bob Lutz’ account of the GM’s North American Strategy Group’s mission statement, pre-bankruptcy.
Lutz, who was brought in to be the guru of new products at GM (having done so successfully at Chrysler, Ford and BMW), pointed out that, tellingly, the mission statement wasn’t “build quality cars and trucks.”
The gobbledy gook cited here is perhaps the clearest explanation I have ever found of why GM failed. I’ve seen worse — but only just. Barely.
From the August 2011 issue of Automobile Magazine.
Can you recommend any good books or writers who write about contemporary politics? Preferably for someone with a more casual interest.
I actually don’t read many of the pop culture books on American politics. Given what I do for a living, the rantings that masquerade as “analysis” in most books one finds on the “politics” sections of Barnes and Noble are basically unbearable to me. It’s the same reason I can’t bring myself to watch CNN any more, or any of the Sunday morning shows: I already know what they’re going to say before they say it, and even if my politics are inclined to be the same as theirs, I have other things to do with my time than sit back and watch them confirm my point of view. Or oppose it.
There are some popular journalists, however, that I think do a really good job of bringing forward perspectives on things that the “political” media seem to miss. Both Fareed Zakaria and Ezra Klein at the Washington Post are must reads. David Leonhardt at the NY Times was this way for me, too, although he has recently been promoted to bureau chief in Washington, so he may not be as active as a writer. Andrew Ross Sorkin at the Times does a great job breaking apart the finance craziness in the US.
Elizabeth Drew at the New York Review of Books does a lot of nice pieces on the Obama administration’s strengths and weaknesses. (Along with the Atlantic, the NYRB is an amazing source for long form analysis of political and social phenomena in an accessible way.) I’d make it a habit to peruse both their sites—and, ideally, subscribe, as I do, to ensure that they kind of work they do can be sustained.
And if you ever want to drive yourself crazy trying to understand man’s inhumanity to man, and the ends that some journalists will go to demonstrate it, Dexter Filkins is always a vigorous read. I am using his “Forever War” in my class this semester for a second time. Just crazy.
Since by now lots of the blogs I follow are going “what about me?,” let me say that I am skipping you folks since the question was aimed at more general stuff. But don’t worry: you’re all cool, too.
Finally, if you want just one, grand, claims to explain everything for ever book, I’d recommend Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. It’s profound. I don’t agree with everything in it, especially his analysis of more recent times, but… . wow.
In the end, my big advice is: read. Then read some more. Read with a skeptical eye, and mimic Reagan’s advice when negotiating with the Russians: “trust, but verify.” But read. The more you read the better you’ll get at it.
In any case, you’re on the right track. Trust your instincts and it will be harder to make you stop than get you started!
If you had complete control of the national budget how would you fix the countries debt crises?
Well give me an easy one, why don’t you?
I’m not really going to answer this question—who could? But I will suggest some thoughts that seem like inevitable starting points.
First, it is important to remember that the federal government spends most of the taxes it collects on five things. About 68% of all federal tax revenue goes to five things: defense, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the debt.
This fact is really important to any budget fix. It turns out that if you cut everything else out of the federal budget—support for schools and roads; drug and food protections; national parks; the FAA and the TSA; the State Department and all foreign aid; all welfare like housing and income support; all federal pensions, whatever—the US would still run a deficit this year. So you can’t fix the budget without looking at those 5—well, really 4, since you can’t mess with interest payments—programs.
As it happens, there are some mathematically simple and effective fixes for many of our problems. You can stop buying overpriced weapons systems that we don’t actually use for combat (I’m talking to you, F-22). You can stop chasing terrorists who use car and underwear bombs with $50 billion battle fleets. You can slowly increase the age of eligibility for SS and Medicare to 68, with “out clauses” for people who get seriously hurt or who do jobs we actually don’t want 62 year olds doing (e.g., line fire fighters). You can means test SS and the prescription drug plan.
Frankly, those fixes go a long way towards balancing our books. But they don’t pay off the existing debt. For that, you need to continue to limit what you buy, and you have to have sufficient revenue and the fiscal discipline to both pay your ongoing bills and have a cushion to pay down what you owe over time. This means you need taxes. And since we have spent the last 30 years collecting less money than we need to run the government services and programs we demand, it follows that as we cut some programs we also have to raise some taxes. It takes the whole package to dig out of a hole this deep.
While these fixes are reasonably effective in terms of the budget math, they are toxic in contemporary American politics. Republicans insist that all cuts to defense will bring jihadists into your living rooms and that under no circumstances should we ever raise taxes to pay for the military that is preventing jihadists from doing that. Democrats are convinced that the slightest change to entitlements programs will lead to your grandmother and/or the poor to being forced to eat cat food in order to survive.
But I think I have a fix for that, too. I propose that from now on, no one proposing a budget fix be taken at all seriously unless their proposals hurt their friends first. That is, we should simply laugh at any one, Democrat, Republican or “Other” who explains that the budget problems of the United States can be solved through someone else’s pain—e.g., tax increases on the rich, or entitlement cuts for recipients. Unless you explain, in detail, how the people you support and who support you will be materially harmed by the proposals you are making, and make advocating such harms the primary focus of your proposal, then we collectively scream “liar” at them until they skulk away in shame.
Then, just maybe, people will take the problem seriously. Until then, we will be trapped in the feedback loop of political position-taking that seems to paralyze our politics today.
I want to suggest that March 19, 1979 was the most important, utterly ignored date in recent American political history.
Why is that date important? It’s the day C-SPAN started broadcasting.
This event, which seemed beyond innocuous at its start—after all, who REALLY wants to to watch Congresspeople give speeches all day long?—turned out to be momentous. It launched the era of the permanent campaign that has made actual governance almost impossible in modern America.
C-SPAN didn’t do this all at once, of course, nor did it do it by itself. But it provided a tool by which the permanent campaign could begin.
Here’s how. At first, C-SPAN was every bit as boring a thing as you would imagine it to be. By rule, the camera in the House of Representatives was fixed on the podium in the front of the room from which elected officials could make speeches. Most of these were unexciting and unengaging—indeed, most were made to an empty House while no business was being conducted on the floor. They were love letters home from elected representatives to their districts.
In 1984, however, a group of insurgent Republicans led by Newt Gingrich realized that since the camera was fixed on the front of the House, they could go up and make whatever speech they wanted about whatever topic was on their mind, and no one would be able to see that the House was empty. Moreover, if they seeded the House with a few loud-mouthed members, they could make it sound like the House—which was controlled by the Democrats at the time—was cheering in response to their attacks on the Democrats who ran Congress.
They realized, in other words, that they could use the camera to advance their agenda regardless of the relationships they made or burned with their fellow Congresspeople.
In response, Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill ordered that the cameras be shifted to show that the House was empty when Gingrich and his allies made these speeches. But the principle was set: any moment of publicity would be exploited to advance one’s political agenda.
What C-SPAN wrought, CNN—and later FOX and its doppelganger MSNBC—turned into an art. Political “analysis” became dominated by partisans of one side or the other taking every chance they could to both advance their cause AND undermine their opponents’ cause. Television coverage of politics became dominated by talking heads discussing/yelling/shrieking/accusing with each other about the wonderfulness of their ideas and the despicableness of their opponents’ ideas.
The internet blogosphere has subsequently expanded the number of people engaging in this death spiral of “analysis,” all while offering the protections of anonymity to encourage the utter debasement of political discourse.
The thing is, elected officials know this is the game. They know that everything—and I mean everything—that they say and do will be treated as laudatory or vile in endless commentaries, blogs and fundraising appeals. They know that everything—and I mean everything—is both public and political in the new political world order.
And it has left many of them paralyzed. Some fear running afoul of enemies who have demonstrated themselves to be willing to say anything about anyone to achieve their goals. Others are paralyzed by running afoul of their friends, losing their support after making the kinds of compromises that are normal in ordinary political life.
In either case, the default condition is inaction.
When you think about it from the perspective of the permanent campaign, the debt ceiling “crisis” makes perfect sense. In creating a permanent political campaign, we have weakened our ability to actually govern.
C-SPAN, of course, isn’t really the bad guy of this story.
The bad guy is Americans’ unwillingness to think three inches beyond their nose, and to recognize that “winning” the moment isn’t the same thing as governing the nation. C-SPAN and its spawn are merely vehicles of stupidity.
“Consider one crucial measure, the ratio of employment to population. In June 2007, around 63 percent of adults were employed. In June 2009, the official end of the recession, that number was down to 59.4. As of June 2011, two years into the alleged recovery, the number was: 58.2.”—
I'm curious because I haven't heard a good argument before.
Republicans are renowned for their support for cuts to the Education budget. Aside from calls for reform, or possibly that teachers are supposedly overpaid... what is the reason behind their consistent desire for cuts in this area?
A lot of left-leaning people just see it as evidence of their intransigence, but I'd like to know how they'd like to convince me that the education budget needs slashing, consistently.
The most common argument, at least at the elementary and secondary levels, for cutting education budgets is the claim that tenure, unions and pensions interact to create a bloated education bureaucracy that focuses on its own needs rather than student learning. Tenure is seen to protect poor teachers, unions are seen to make it difficult to fire those teachers AND to lade pension programs with too-generous budgets, and education bureaucracies are seen to proliferate new assistants this and associates that—all while student performance on various tests seem to go down.
As a consequence, advocates of school reform would reject whole-hand the notion that they are “cutting” budgets. Rather, they claim to be cutting bloat while refocusing budgets on delivery of services to students—e.g., teaching.
It should be noted that there is some truth in this critique. Unions work hard to protect their members—that is, after all, their purpose. As a consequence, many negotiate rules that make it difficult to fire poor or abusive teachers—rules that are backed by the granting of tenure. And education bureaucracies have, in fact, proliferated over the last 30 years. We do spend more per capita on education than we used to, to seemingly less effect.
Where I break with this critique is that little of the proposed “reforms”—e.g., budget cuts—are in any way focused on changing these problems. The easiest way to suggest this is to ask: why are there so many assistant this’s and associate that’s in the system today?
In large measure, it’s because of reporting mandates imposed on schools by legislatures. Legislatures demand that students be tested constantly, so there are testing coordinators. Legislatures demand that there are endless compliance reports written for purchasing, and auditing, and special needs students, and health issue, so there are assistants and associates who oversee all those functions. Someone has to do these things. So positions get created to deal with these issues.
Unfortunately, most “cuts” these days come with increasing, rather than reducing, mandates for oversight. As legislators and citizens demand that they get more for their money, they demand that schools account for how every dollar increases the educational “output” of their students’ achievement. (My skin crawls to type this twaddle.)
Which requires more reporters, and less teaching. Defeating the alleged purpose of the reform.
As for tenure and unions, it would be a lot easier for me to believe that it was a good idea to accept new rules making it easier to fire poor teachers if: 1) budget cuts weren’t a meat cleaver of a tool, rather than a scalpel; and 2) proponents of these changes didn’t seem so insistent that tenured teachers—e.g., older, experienced ones—were poor teachers, while untenured teachers—e.g., younger, less experienced ones—were good teachers. This is nonsense. So it seems to me it’s really about the money: young teachers work cheaper than older teachers, so budget cuts seem intended to make the system less expensive.
Anything related to education in American life is always contentious. We usually see education as the key to building a good life, meaning that what education does and how it does it is of central importance in our society. Unfortunately, education reform has gotten entirely lost in the political wars of the moment. Each side seeks to impose its preferences quite independent of the “facts on the ground.”
“First, some history. The Pentagon’s budget has risen for 13 years, which is unprecedented. Between 2001 and 2009, overall spending on defense rose from $412 billion to $699 billion, a 70 percent increase, which is larger than in any comparable period since the Korean War. Including the supplementary spending on Iraq and Afghanistan, we spent $250 billion more than average U.S. defense expenditures during the Cold War — a time when the Soviet, Chinese and Eastern European militaries were arrayed against the United States and its allies. Over the past decade, when we had no serious national adversaries, U.S. defense spending has gone from about a third of total worldwide defense spending to 50 percent. In other words, we spend more on defense than the planet’s remaining countries put together.”—Fareed Zakaria, The Washington Post.
Just read an article in The Times by Anatole Kaletsky that claims that the deficit deal was a victory for Obama. His main points were:
1, No substantial cuts have been agreed before the 2012 election. In effect, the agreement give Obama $900 billion of new borrowing authority in exchange for $20 billion in cuts.
2, The economy should pick up now as the US should benefit from pent up activity as businesses that were waiting for the deal to go through should now start hiring and putting investments in place.
3, The Republicans have agreed to take half the mandated cuts from the defence, whilst exempting Democratic welfare and medical programmes. More importantly, 'Obama-care' should now be safe from attack as all the Tea Party's political capitol has been used up on the deficit deal.
4, Obama can still introduce higher taxes by vetoing Bush's tax cuts next year, generating more revenue than all the cuts combined.
He concludes by arguing that whilst Obama may seem weak at present, come election time he will be able to argue that he can pay for adequate pensions and public services by raising taxes on corporate jets, oil companies and rich bankers, each of which were vetoed by the Republicans in the negotiations. In response, the republicans will offer cut pensions and healthcare so as to reduce taxes for millionaires.
Bear in mind the article was far better written than my synopsis above, I wondered what your thoughts were? My only concern is that all this seems to point to a never ending cycle of election campaign followed by re-election campaign. My one hope is that should Obama get re-elected he can actually get stuff done because he's free from the burden of another election.
There is perhaps more in the deal for Democrats than Democrats initially supposed. There are certainly numerous Republicans who are making exactly that argument. Of course, I can find any number of progressives who are in despair over the debt ceiling deal.
In general, I don’t get lost in the details of daily politics. Historical experience has shown that, whenever Congress (Democrats and Republicans both) face that moment when they have to make brutal political decisions about sacrosanct domestic programs (Social Security and/or Defense), they change the law that would force them to make draconian cuts. To their credit, the tea party Republicans seemed to understand that, and thus concentrated all their efforts on cutting programs today, now, when they could guarantee something would be done about it.
As it happens, I don’t blame Congress for this as much as many other people do. I blame the unrealistic expectations of the American people that they can have all the programs they want without paying for them. Congress has certainly been complicit in promising that they can deliver the goods for their constituents “free of charge,” but it is also true that if they don’t make those promises, we would elect people who did make them instead.
Additionally, Obama once again lost control of a major political debate. It happened with healthcare; it happened with the stimulus, and it’s happened with the debt ceiling. He seems oddly passive about fighting for policies he claims to favor, and seems unduly willing to let Congressional enemies set the terms in which debates about policies will be enacted. He plays defense as opponents frame arguments.
Every such exchange leaves Obama’s supporters enervated and the Obama administration reflexively reactive as new policy disputes arise.
(To be fair, it doesn’t help to have a Senate majority “leader” as profoundly weak as Harry Reid is. With “help” like that, Obama’s job has been harder than it needed to be. Of course, as I noted in my post this morning, if one chooses to play, one plays the hand one is dealt. Obama is a much worse player to executive politics than I had hoped he would be, especially since he has a magical rhetorical ability he might deploy to serve his interests as Reagan and Clinton did.)
In the end, I still expect Obama to be reelected. Liberals and progressives have nowhere else to go, and the Republicans seem bound and determined to nominate a fringe candidate who satisfies the passions of the tea party rather than the broader voting public. But if it wasn’t for the horror of the alternative, I am increasingly wondering why it matters if he is reelected or not.
Does it amuse (or annoy) you to see Robt Reich featured in progressive aggregators - esp his message to “Organize & Mobilize”? You must remember what he and Bill Clinton did to the anti-sweatshop uprising of the mid- to late-90s: strangled it in its cradle (I can send u photo of Bill Clinton w/ Phil Knight & Kathie Lee…also, I saw first-hand how Reich dissembled when some smart old priest @ Bosto College asked him about “worker rights” provisions written into our trade law [Generalized System of Preferences].) Thanks & b/rgds, Jeff ——————————-
Hypocrisy is one of those things that’s easy to find and easy to rationalize. Otherwise there wouldn’t be so much of it!
I’ll offer three comments about when evident hypocrisy may not be entirely hypocritical.
First, everyone who chooses to join an administration that they themselves do not manage has to make a decision to adapt their views to that of the administration. (George HW Bush’s adoption of supply side economics and anti-abortion politics in order to become Ronald Reagan’s VP stands a famous example.) This is, of course, a moral choice, and one does not have to make it. But if you want to join an administration, that’s one of the rules.
Like it or not, Bill Clinton was President when Reich was in government, not Lyndon Johnson. Just as, like it or not, Barack Obama is President today, not, say, Paul Krugman. If one decides to play, one plays the hand one is dealt.
Second, it is entirely possible for people to change their minds. I’ve done it. My guess is that you and everyone else reading this post has done it. We learn things, we change, we grow. As a political matter, this often leads to the accusation of being a flip-flopper: of not having fixed and firm opinions that voters can rely on you to implement in office. But in the real world, we all get to change our minds and adopt new politics that fit our new understandings of the world.
Third, while we often fail to recognize this, politics is a highly ritualized practice. Mantras are repeated time and again; genuflections are made to various gods (say, tax cuts or the welfare state); totems are laid as symbols of community togetherness (flag pins on lapels, etc.).
One such ritual is the majority-opposition dyad. Once one has chosen to get in the game, one expresses one’s team’s rituals depending on one’s position as in power or out of it. And whenever one’s position changes—say, from in power to out of it—one articulates to the exact same “out of power” mantras that one’s opposition used to fire at you.
So do I, personally, wish that Robert Reich and Bill Clinton had been more aggressive in supporting global workers’ rights movements than they were? Yes. Can I understand why both failed to? Yes. Even Reich, who was substantially more progressive than Clinton BEFORE Clinton became President? Absolutely.
The stronger criticism of Reich is not that he may be a hypocrite. At some level, all of us are. The better criticism is that he, like, I think, Colin Powell under George W Bush, lent their names and their reputations to an administration that deviated so far from their views as to impugn their motives and their credibility. I am immensely critical of Powell for lending his imprimatur to the ridiculous Iraq War. My sense is, you feel the same about Reich.
"My understanding is that the Bush Tax Cuts were supposed to be Temporary, there was an end date, and that end Date was determined specifically by a actuarial prediction based upon a ratio projection: number of jobs possibly created/outside length of time the US could stay solvent with reduced tax revenues.
Now, if the Bush Economic Advisers themselves, planned this termination of the Tax Cuts with the Economy in mind, WTF is wrong with the Current Republican Leaders that they are overlooking the very necessity to have a tax-cut end-date?”
I think it is important to remember that the 10 year time limit on the Bush tax cuts was an entirely cynical political ploy, for at least three reasons.
First, the 10 year expiration date allowed Republicans to treat the tax cut plan as a matter of budget reconciliation—the exact tool that Republicans were outraged at the Democrats for using to make health care reform happen last year. Technically, budget reconciliation measures can only be in force for 10 years, unlike regular laws, which are permanent until overturned or amended. However, budget reconciliation acts are not subject to filibuster, and so only require a simple majority to pass. Republicans used this tool in 2001 to pass the tax cuts, just as Democrats used it to reform health care.
Second, the 10 year automatic expiration allowed the advocates of the tax cuts to claim that they would likely not have a profound effect on the long-term US deficit. This is because the long-term costs for the United States lie in entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, and it would not be until after 2011 that the Baby Boom generation would really be retiring in huge numbers. Hence we would only “need” the money that was forgone under the Bush tax cuts after 2011. Add that money back in after 2011, and the projected deficits would go down in the long term.
It didn’t work quite as expected, because the financial meltdown and Great Recession radically depressed the economy, and hence economic growth, suppressing tax collections. But it was the mathematical reason for the 10 year limit.
Third, it was perfectly clear 10 years ago that it would be very contentious, politically, to let the Bush tax cuts “expire.” It was perfectly clear that, in 2011 (or 2010, as it happened), Republicans would scream that failure to extend the Bush tax cuts would mean imposing the giantest most horrificest and business crushingest tax increases on “the American people” in US history. In 2001, Republicans hoped they would be able to extend the tax cuts going forward after 10 years; Democrats hoped that they would have enough to votes to let the cuts expire. Both parties kicked the can down the road 10 years. The Republicans were on the winning side of that decision.
So, in the end, I don’t think the Bush tax cuts were scheduled to expire in 10 years to help future Americans pay for things like their parents’ and grandparents’ retirements and health care. I think they were scheduled to expire in ten years in the cynical hope that they would keep being extended afterwards.
That’s what I thought 10 years ago, and I have seen nothing to the contrary to change my mind since.
“The first round of cuts include “only” about $22 billion in reductions in 2012 spending — the same as the bill proposed last week by Representative John A. Boehner, which provided some of the outlines for this deal. That would reduce 2012 G.D.P. by just 0.1 percent, other factors being equal.”—
Hmm … only $22 billion in reductions in a presidential election year. Everything else backloaded to after the presidential election. That, my friends, is the kind of political courage one can really get excited by. Or, you know, not.
There’s an old saying that “only Nixon could go to China.”
The notion was that only someone with the strong anti-Communist record that Nixon had amassed could open relations with China. Because Nixon had spent much of his political career attacking Communism, particularly in the US (he was associated with Congressional investigations of Communists in America when he first went to Congress and then the Senate), many presumed that he would never make a deal that sold out the United States. If Nixon the Anti-Communist said it was okay to deal with Red China, then maybe it was okay to deal with Red China.
A more contemporary version of this adage is that “only a Democrat could end welfare.” Democrats, after all, had made the creation of the social welfare state a central tenet of their platform since at least the New Deal. Republicans had largely resisted it and worked to undermine it. Thus, if the public at large were to trust someone to fundamentally reform the modern welfare state, it would have to be Democrats: Democrats could be trusted to reform welfare to make it work, while Republicans would likely only kill it.
Thus it was Bill Clinton who ended “welfare as we know it” in 1996.
This time, it’s Keynesian economics. The notion that government should run deficits in order to stimulate growth in bad economic times has been the heart of Democratic economic policy-making since Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency. It has worked well and badly in turn ever since, but it was the consistent heart of Democratic party economic thought.
Until Barack Obama agreed to the debt deal this weekend. Now, in a weak economic time, a Democratic president has decided to end stimulus-based economics in favor of the mystical hope that, despite 30 years’ evidence to the contrary, rich people will spend us to prosperity as a favor for low taxes.
Now, we’re not all Americans. Now, we are all supply-siders. God help us, everyone.
See Gramm-Rudman-Hollings and every other “future-based” model of budget reform. Ilya has this entirely right. Although I’d add that Medicare will get exempted the same way too as society ages… . which will make the budget-busting that much worse. (Politicalprof)
I'm wondering if you think that the very wealthy and corporations will ever have to pay their fair share of taxes? I mean, if we just let the Bush tax cuts end and close some of the loopholes surely we could reduce the deficit without cutting services. What are you're thoughts?
As for the Bush tax cuts, it seems to me that come December 2012 they’re toast so long as Obama is reelected. He won’t be running for anything anymore, and will likely veto their extension should Congress pass one.
As for the other part of your question, that’s a tough one. That term “fair share” is, of course, unanswerable. You may think the rich don’t pay enough; the rich might well respond that people in the top 20% or so of incomes pay something like 80% of all US income taxes. (Which is a signal as to just how rich the rich really are.) To which someone else might reply, sure, but the top 10% of wealth-holders (wealth is not the same as income) control something like 90% of the wealth of the United States. Which is also true.
So what’s fair?
The same holds true for the corporate tax question. The US has relatively high marginal corporate tax rates. However, it has fairly low effective corporate tax rates—what corporations pay after using the tax advantages available to them in the tax code. (Lots of corporations have offices that are little more than PO boxes in Cayman Islands, for example, since this lets them shelter a great deal of their earnings from US taxes. It’s quite legal.)
As it happens, I think Americans think about taxes upside down. We think about them in terms of what “the government” takes, not in terms of what we get in return. We would do better to have an honest national conversation about the things we want—how big a military? how big a social safety net? how “free” a public school system? etc.—and then think about the kinds of taxes we wish to pay to fund that system. If we refuse to fund the system we want, then we cut it. If we have to raise taxes to fund the system we want, we raise them.
This won’t happen, of course. Many recipients of government services—schools, water, Medicare, home mortgage deductions, a functioning legal system, and the like—don’t see themselves as beneficiaries of government programs. The talking and screaming heads that shape political discourse today make too much hay by being extremists; actual thought gets drowned out. And interest groups fight hard to create and protect exemptions in the tax code that favor their constituents—whether retired persons, corporations, or, like me, homeowners.
As I suggested yesterday, Americans have become utterly convinced that they can have everything they want without sacrifice, while any sacrifices (whether in program cuts or higher taxes or both) ought to be borne by others.
It’s an exceedingly stupid time in American politics. We’ve been stupid before and managed. One can only hope we can prove resilient again.
I'm curious as to what your position is on the president invoking the 14th amendment to avoid default. Constitutional or not? A friend and I have been debating this for over 2 weeks and would really appreciate your input. Thanks
This is a massive “horns of a dilemma” problem.
Invoke the 14th Amendment and continue to pay the United States’ bills, and the government won’t default. Tens of thousands of vendors will get paid for services they have provided. The entire income of the federal government won’t go to bond holders, meaning that actual things might get done, rather than paying interest on our debt.
Don’t invoke it, and chaos ensues. American credit ratings collapse; the economy likely tanks (again), and rather than paying for roads and schools and bridges, the entire tax revenues of the federal government will go to pay interest on the debt.
However: if Obama invokes the 14th, the tea party mad House will surely impeach him. (The Senate will not convict, again making this an exercise in political madness.) Obama will never get another piece of legislation through this House, and will spend the next two years fighting lawsuits he may or may not win. And the credit rating of the US may collapse anyway, since bond buyers might demand higher rates of return as compensation for the ridiculous way the United States is handling its finances. Which may well tank the economy regardless of whether we pay our bills on time this time.
The problem is Americans. We have come to believe that one can have benefits without paying for them. We continue to demand benefits AND low taxes. We demand our politicians achieve this goal, protecting Medicare and SS and defense and parks and roads and schools and food safety, all while having the lowest overall tax rates since the Second World War. We demand that they square the unsquareable circle. So long as this is the case, the chaos in DC will remain an intensified and churlish version of the chaos that lives in the American electorate.
“The 2-income family gives a shocking amount of the extra money they scramble to earn to the government. I’m no tax expert, but my suspicion is that this happens because liberals like more taxes and conservatives like subsidizing the traditional family with a stay-at-home parent. Put those 2 forces together and we get the (perverse?) burdening of the 2-earner family. Why don’t more couples do the math and figure out that they should not do all that extra work for the government? … (Go to Jeff Miller’s link to read the whole thing.)”—
Gosh darn it this is an easy question to answer: because most people don’t make child care decisions based on the tax code.
Despite libertarian and conservative claims to the contrary, I have never met a single person who ever, ever got married for a tax benefit, or failed to get married because of a tax burden. I have never met anyone who ever, ever had a child for tax benefit, or failed to have a child because of a tax burden. (I know people who had children to stay out of Vietnam, but that’s quite a different thing.) And while I know people who decided to have one part of a working couple stay home after the birth of a child, no one has ever claimed that taxes were why.
Real people don’t make decisions like that based on the tax code.
And as an aside, any quote about the way that the tax code ought to shape family behavior that starts, “I’m no tax expert, but,” deserves to be ignored, not reblogged. Only my sense of the absurd compelled these comments.
As anyone who studies the American constitution knows, at least part of the reason for the Constitution’s elaborate system of divided institutions and checks and balances is to limit the power of faction in political life.
The notion was that in separating powers, staggering elections, building in the representation of different constituencies, insulating the Senate, the Presidency, and the Courts from direct democratic, electoral pressure, and shaping the interests of one branch of government to delimit the powers of the others, a system of governance would emerge with enough power to govern, but without so much power that it could abuse its citizens’ rights and liberties. The Framers thus sought to balance their sense of the good things government could do and was needed for—just read the Preamble for a list—against their fear of the kinds of abuses of government that led them to declare independence in the first place. (Really read the whole Declaration of Independence if you want to get a sense of what I mean: it is mostly a list of complaints about how terrible the King is.)
Among other things, the Framers sought to avoid the kind of “elected dictatorships” that they saw dominating European parliaments—particularly the English one. In the parliamentary model, at least in theory, whatever party has a majority of seats in the legislature can run the government on its own terms. A majority can be a democratic dictatorship.
The thing is, this hope was always misbegotten. As Madison noted, “the latent seeds of faction are sewn in the nature of man” (Federalist #10). There is no way to either prevent factions from forming or from expressing their preferences in social and political life. It is certainly true that the US constitutional system makes it hard for factions to dominate political life. But it does not make it impossible. (It’s also worth noting that the Framers knew this: there were factions at the Constitutional Convention, and Federalist and Anti-Federalist sentiments were rife in 1788.)
Since the Framers believed factions couldn’t dominate the system they designed, they built a Constitution in which political parties are absent and unconsidered. After all, what is a party if not a broad faction? Consequently, unlike the constitutions of most other democracies, the term “political party” does not appear in the US Constitution.
The Constitution’s silence about parties means that they are “extra-constitutional.” They’re not unconstitutional, but rather than being an integrated, intentional part of the system of checks and balances, they exist in the space “around” the Constitution.
This matters because American political parties formed to cheat the system to checks and balances, not serve it. Parties formed on the principle that if one party, sharing a relatively common political program, could capture all three branches of government (and those of the states as well), the American system could be made quasi-parliamentary: that party could get its legislative and other agendas through a political system designed to make it hard to get such agendas passed.
Notably, parliamentary systems usually have an option to deal with periods in which no party dominates the system: new elections. If the governing party or coalition falls apart, voters can have a chance to elect new people to office, reinforcing the current majority or replacing it. In either case—hopefully—the paralysis is broken and action can be taken.
The United States lacks this mechanism. Our elections are fixed in time, and if one part of government refuses to cooperate with others on ideological grounds, there is no mechanism by which the nation at large can choose to either support the rebels or the establishment. Instead, one or more branches of government dominated by one party that is in opposition to the political preferences of the other branches of government can cause political paralysis across the system. Paralysis, even in the face of impending crisis, is the default choice. (Think of the years before the Civil War, even after Southern states started to secede, or of US inaction on the Depression, as examples of such systemic paralysis.)
The tea party’s defiant dominance of the House of Representatives is, in part, the consequence of the Framers’ 224 year old decision to assume that no party could form and control American politics, and thus that there was no need to build mechanisms into the US Constitution by which the government could hold new elections in times of political paralysis. Maybe the tea party would win these new elections, and maybe it wouldn’t. But for now, the tea party is a faction the Framers didn’t prepare for.
The US stands on the edge of a cliff the Framers simply refused to see.
There is something to be said for having our racists out in the open, in their own political parties; we know who they are, and they have to directly answer for their views. A case in point is Nick Griffin, the leader of the BNP and a particularly odious individual, who managed to get himself onto Question Time. During the furore surrounding his appearance, he managed to pose in front of an image of a Spitfire from WW2, spouting his usual racist/fascist gabble, and then the press picked up upon the fact that the spitfire in question was being flown by a Polish pilot...
Then during Question Time, he was made to look a fool, his ideas firmly demolished, and the entire BNP lost a lot of its credibility. I recommend a quick YouTube search for Nick Griffin and Question Time.
It's one of the joys of an unbridled press, once they can sense weakness, they can exploit it, and it easier to do if racist parties are out in the public domain. Though I can quite easily see this as a double edged sword...
Yeah , , , I don’t know. It is lovely to see people like Griffin taken apart, of course, but the far right and racist parties in much of Europe have been gaining in strength for some years. They seem to garner more votes and more seats as time passes. At least overall. So it hasn’t seemed that publicly identifying oneself or one’s party as racist has undermined racist parties across the board.
It’s disturbing in either its American or its European variant. I am simply hopeful that the need to play coalition politics in US parties will tamp down the racist policies some factional subset might prefer—something that doesn’t have to happen if a European party doesn’t wish to join a governance coalition, but is simply satisfied with seats in the legislature.
I may well be wrong in this hope, but it’s what I have at the moment!
Why Does Europe Have Explicitly Racist Parties, and the US Doesn't?
In the aftermath of the horrors of the Norway murders—and the rush to judgment of so many to the conclusion that it “must have” been the act of an Islamic terrorist—I am struck by a point that I have yet to see addressed: why Europe has numerous, electorally-represented, explicitly racist political parties, while the United States doesn’t.
As is so often the case, this observation led me to ask: why?
I think that there are at least two answers to this question: the structure of the American party system versus the European party system, and the differences in US and European racial history.
As to the comparative differences between US and European parties, it is roughly correct to say that whereas the United States has been dominated by a two party system, most European countries have multiparty systems.
The reasons for this difference are complex, and are not in fact at all important here. Rather, what matters is the way this difference allows different factions of society to express their preferences.
In the US model, factions end up linking themselves together in one master party. The “party” shares a name, and some values, but lacks a true ideological core. Thus, for example, the Democrats have both conservative and liberal wings. (So, once, did the Republicans … and not all that long ago, either.)
In the European model, each faction can form its own party and, if the system has a sufficiently accessible electoral process, can win seats in the legislature. Thus, rather than create a master party of only limited ideological coherence, parties can proliferate in line with society’s ideological schisms. It’s akin to the sectarian-ness of Protestantism: new religions—or parties—can be formed over almost any difference.
The structural difference between the US and European party models has profound consequences for the way racist policies and programs play out in electoral politics. In Europe, racist parties can form and have a credible chance to win seats in the legislature all on their own. They do not need to join with mainstream parties to have a chance at electoral success—and, importantly, no mainstream party needs to compete for racist votes to enhance their chances in the larger system. In the US, by contrast, racists seeking to influence the system need to link themselves to a major political party—and major parties need racially-tinged voters to enhance their electoral coalitions … whether they admit it or not.
Thus, there is nothing like the National Front (France) in the US, but the Democrats were a racist party for 100+ years, and now some Republicans use racialized language and imagery in their contemporary politics.
As for history (point two), this is one I think the US has the better side of. The simple fact is that most European nations have never gone through anything like the civil rights movement—much less a racially-embedded civil war in which dominant cultural groups ended up fighting and dying in large numbers for members of an oppressed, indeed enslaved, racial minority. In fact, quite the opposite is true: more often than not, dominant groups in Europe have engaged in racial and ethnic oppression—even genocide—in asserting and maintaining their cultural and political dominance. Imperialism and colonialism, for example, rest on assumptions of racial and ethnic superiority on the part of the colonizer over the colonized. (If anyone needs to get seriously depressed about the savageness Europeans can enact on one another on religious, ethnic, racial and ideological grounds, I can commend Timothy Snyder’s staggering book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin to their attention.)
As a consequence, the United States has developed a cultural ethos such that even while one might BE a racist, you know you’re not supposed to ADMIT you’re a racist. Americans are generally ashamed, at least in their public rhetoric, by slavery, racism, and the abuse of Native Americans across the scope of American history. In Europe, no such cultural ethos is as deeply established. There are certainly lots of European progressives, but the culture is not as instinctively anti-racist.
Together, the limited cultural strictures on the expression of racist attitudes, mixed with the electoral opportunities available to European racists to form their own parties, has created conditions that promote racial parties in many European nations. By contrast, American racists (and racialists) have to link themselves to established political parties—a link that both constrains their ability to express their views, and which allows them a real chance at affecting policy should their party come to power.
Put another way, the US political system compels racists to integrate with mainstream parties to have any influence in the system, whereas the political systems in most European systems allow racists to form parties and seek to influence the political system directly. In the end, today, I think the US way is more likely to mitigate against a rise of racist parties than is the European way.
It’s not that we don’t have racists. It’s that we force the racists we have to integrate (and yes, I chose that word deliberately) with the rest of us, where maybe they might learn something about how to be a decent human being.
In a negotiation between people who insist that “we must do this or the universe will come to a crashing end,” and people who insist “I don’t care,” you can be pretty sure that the people who claim “I don’t care” will get either everything they want that’s needed to purchase their concern, or absolutely nothing will happen.
There is no crisis over the debt ceiling. At least, there’s not a real one.
A real crisis is an unanticipated event of cataclysmic consequences. Hurricane Katrina was a crisis. The Japanese tsunami and nuclear reactor fiasco were crises. The attack on Pearl Harbor was a crisis. A heart attack is a personal crisis. In each case, it could be clear after the fact why some should have seen it—or some version of it—coming, but there was little anyone could do to prevent it.
Moreover, real crises have to be dealt with NOW or their consequences will be catastrophic. Failure to act will leave untold numbers of persons hurt or killed; it will leave communities and individuals at substantial risk of further harm. Something has to be done to ameliorate the crisis or things will be much, much worse.
Think about it this way: had the response to Katrina been even slower, even more people would have died, and even more people would have suffered worse than they did. Had the Japanese not managed to get the nuclear reactor under control, a nuclear meltdown of catastrophic proportions may well have ensued. And had the United States not responded to the attack on Pearl Harbor, it might well have lost the Pacific War.
None of this is true in the case of raising the debt ceiling.
Note that the debt ceiling “crisis” is being propagated by people who insist that the United States’ deficit problem—which is real, serious, and requires actual attention—is so severe that it has to be fixed NOW, or cataclysmic consequences will ensue. It is, they insist, a crisis.
But this is plainly nonsense.
That it’s nonsense is easy to demonstrate. Let’s imagine that the political system did this time what it usually does with the debt ceiling: just raise it, with no strings attached. What are the immediate consequences of this business as usual?
Well, nothing other than pretty much what’s been going on. Bills would be paid; Social Security recipients would get their checks, and the US would keep dropping bombs on people for various reasons. We’d simply have a bigger payment to keep up with interest and principle on the loans we’ve taken. (Maybe. Interest rates are so low today we actually save money by borrowing money and refinancing old debt. Notably, low interest rates are a sign that there is no immediate debt crisis all on their own: people who struggle to make their payments have to pay high interest rates. That the US pays low ones means markets generally find the US a safe bet to loan money to.)
As a practical matter, then, whatever one thinks about the federal budget, it’s not in “crisis.” It is absolutely true that the United States spends too much, taxes too little, and generally behaves irresponsibly economically, but it is also true that if we simply pass an increase in the debt ceiling, the United States will continue to meet its bills—sort of like most of us do when we add a car payment to a house payment. It’s debt, and it needs to be controlled, but in the near term, it’s manageable.
(Having recently had to add a “family car” to the mix, Politicalprof is quite sensitive to the debt v. income dynamic!)
The “crisis” over the debt ceiling is not a real crisis. It’s manufactured. It’s a tool by which tea party activists are seeking leverage to achieve their ideological goals.
So let’s agree to never refer to what is going on in Washington as a “crisis.” It’s not. It’s a ploy.
The thing is, sometimes when you say, “or else,” you get stuck in a position from which you can’t back down. Even when it blows up in your face.