A Matter of Debate

Before there was Facebook, and Twitter and Instagram, and blogs (the now increasingly rare personal ones) and fairly easy access to criminal records, college admission folks used to look at high school kids’ “activities” – sports and clubs and, sometimes, travel to odd places. Who should they admit, who would prove to be a credit to the school, and maybe later get rich and famous and send in lots of money? The captain of the high school football team was a good bet – he would be a future leader of men, or a used-up sloppy bubba running a used car lot for the rest of his life. That was a gamble, but the president of the Chess Club wasn’t. The hyper-intelligent with a need to win, by carefully thinking ten or twenty moves ahead of any opponent, always do well, even if they have the social skills of a slug. Volunteer work was good too – someone out to change the world for the better will probably continue to do that sort of thing. They might even change the world, and hey, they went to your humble and unassuming little college, so it must be a fine place.

Computer Club is good too. The kid could invent the next big thing no one ever imagined and become a billionaire ten times over a few months after he graduates. A giant new science building would be nice, and of course he could have it named after him, or her. It might be a young woman, maybe. Literary societies are good too – there might be a future famous novelist or poet in that lot – and amazing high school musicians get points too, as do young entrepreneurs who start their own successful businesses at fourteen. Head cheerleaders, however, get no points. Cute and perky don’t count for much in the real world. That chirpy cheerleader had better have parents who can pay full tuition and fees for four years, and the minimal academic skills to squeak by for four long years, if she wants in – and it would help if her parents are alumni, and donors. That might make her okay. The college admissions process is not terribly forgiving, and now you learn more by scanning social media anyway. Maybe the kid revealed on her Facebook page that she figured out cold fusion. It’s possible.

That’s unlikely. Look at what they did in school, when they weren’t nodding off in class. They made a choice. They jumped into something enthusiastically, for the fun of it or because they were good at it, or both. Their grades matter, and their SAT scores matter, but what they choose is who they are, and that makes the stars of the high school’s Debate Club hard to assess. They’re an odd lot, but debating societies have been around since the early eighteen century – a British invention. In fact, the most famous of these is still around, the Cambridge Union Society – and past officers of that society are legend. They include John Maynard Keynes and Arianna Huffington – the young Greek girl who became a Cambridge scholar and then married a conservative politician out here in California and became a prominent conservative apologist – in the Greek sense – and then, after their divorce, became one of America’s leading liberal voices.

What? That seems odd, but debate competitions are good training for that sort of thing. Each person is given the topic ahead of time, so they can think about it and prepare various arguments, but a coin toss decides who gets to argue which side of the issue. Then the two debaters have at it. You don’t get to argue what you believe, you only have to argue well, with superb logic and solid facts and telling examples, even if you’re stuck with arguing the earth is flat. You lose points for faulty logic and the usual fallacies – appeal to probability, affirming the consequent, denying the antecedent, argumentum ad hominem, circular reasoning, moral high ground declarations and all the rest. No points are awarded for changing anyone’s mind, however, because that’s not the point. The point is to show that you can argue anything brilliantly. The point is to show that you are, theoretically, absolutely convincing – no one should ever mess with you in a war of wits. No one, however, knows what you actually believe. They never will.

So, a college admissions officer considers the application of the star of the high school debate team. Do you want that kid spooking around campus for four years, making the other kids feel foolish and inadequate, unable to argue back? That’s asking for trouble, but you might have a brilliant politician on your hands – a future senator or president. Those are the people who argue brilliantly and change no minds – they rev up those who already know what they believe and want to hear it argued well, with devastating logic, and then go out and vote just the right way, in overwhelming numbers. Debate competition is the perfect training for that. Send the kid the acceptance letter.

It should be clear that no one in America ever changes their mind, as least because of some clever argument. Everyone knows about confirmation bias – people will recognize information that confirms their beliefs as the only relevant information. The information that doesn’t confirm their beliefs must be wrong, if it even exists. Forget various opinions about the facts. No one will even agree on the basic facts – they have different ones on Fox News and MSNBC. Obamacare is an epic failure. Obamacare is a stunning success. Which argument “feels” right?

That doesn’t mean nothing changes. People changed their minds about our Iraq War – the second one by the second Bush – but that wasn’t done through argument. The dismal facts on the ground, eight long years of them, starting with no weapons of mass destruction anywhere to be found, are what changed people’s minds. It was the same with gay marriage. The courts decided what they decided, but public opinion had already changed, because of the facts on the ground. Gay folks, coming out and standing up, just weren’t that scary. They weren’t scary at all – they have the same percentage of jerks as the general population, or maybe even a smaller percentage.

No one had to argue anything in either case – and of course no televised presidential debate ever changed anyone’s mind. Your guy did well and really stuck it to the other guy, which you loved, or he blew it, which had you really worried – but no one then voted for the other guy. Kennedy might have been suave and cool and handsome in that televised debate long ago – and Nixon looked pretty sleazy and shifty, sweating bullets in the close-ups – but the Nixon crowd voted for Nixon and the Kennedy crowd voted for Kennedy. The only thing that mattered was voter turn-out. No one remembers who argued what – and it’s been the same ever since. Arguments aren’t made to convince, only to confirm something or other, flawlessly, in grand style – just like in formal debate competition.

That just happened once again and MSNBC put it this way:

What a difference three months make. The Barack Obama who wore “ACA” like scarlet letters for the last quarter of 2013 sounded like a changed man during Thursday’s press conference on the Affordable Care Act. Rather than re-apologizing for the troubled launch of healthcare.gov, he reveled in numbers well-chosen to undermine the GOP’s 2014 campaign plans.

The first one was 8 million. That’s the number of people who have found private coverage through the new insurance exchanges since October. Only 4.2 million people had signed up by the end of February, and supporters worried that the exchanges would fall short of the 6 million needed to preserve a modicum of credibility. By March 31, enrollment had surged to 7.5 million, and the new figure turns the homerun into a grand slam.

And contrary to the Right’s predictions, the young adults needed to stabilize the risk pool and keep costs down didn’t boycott the call to protect themselves. Fully 35% of the new enrollees are under 35, according to the new figures.

Adding injury to insult for his critics, the president trotted out a series of recent analyses showing that private insurance rates are rising at half the pre-Obamacare pace, that Medicare spending is essentially steady, that the Medicare trust fund is gaining life expectancy, and that the expansion of health care will cost significantly less than expected over the coming decade.

“The bottom line is that the share of Americans with health insurance is up,” he said. “Cost growth is down. People with coverage have more protection. And people are no longer being discriminated against for having pre-existing conditions or being women. This thing is working.”

Give him points for marshaling the facts and presenting them effectively, and then, like any good debater, doing that QED thing:

He admitted that the health care law, like any act of such scale, still needed a lot of fine tuning – and he urged Republicans to stop pouting and pitch in. “I’ve always said that in any big piece of legislation there will be need to improve it over time,” he said. “But you have certain Republicans who think that making the law better is a concession to me. I recognize that their party is going through the stages of grief—anger, denial, all that stuff. We’re not at acceptance yet.”

By focusing so tightly on paralyzing the president, congressional Republicans have left themselves without many accomplishments to run on. But as affordable health care seeps deeper into American life, the crusade to kill it is becoming an ever-riskier venture.

“Millions of people are finally in a position to enjoy the financial security that health insurance brings,” the president sad. “That’s not an abstraction. It can mean that an illness won’t cost you your home, your business and your parents’ home.”

Quod Erat Demonstrandum – it is proven – but as in formal debate, that’s not the point at all:

Democrats, still traumatized by last fall’s embarrassments, have been slow to shout the good news, but Obama’s remarks offered them a script for the campaign season. “I want to talk about our plans for putting people back to work, building an economy that innovates, training people for the jobs that are out there now,” he said. “These endless, fruitless repeal efforts come at a cost. Those 50 repeal votes could have been devoted to infrastructure, innovation, minimum wage, unemployment insurance. The American people don’t want us to spend the next two years refighting the battles of the last five.”

The GOP reaction was true to form. “The White House continues to obscure the full impact of Obamacare,” a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner shot back at the president. “Beyond refusing to disclose the number of people who’ve actually enrolled by paying premiums, the president ignores the havoc that this law has wreaked on private plans that people already had and liked.”

Each side had different facts, and argues from those facts, and only from those facts. A master debater could argue from either set of facts – that’s what a master debater has trained to do exceedingly well – but master debaters don’t seek political power. This is a different matter and that’s where things get tricky, where you may have to play dirty.

CBS’s Major Garrett covers that in the in National Journal – the White House has a new version of what they call their “stray voltage” theory of communication. It’s simple, actually. The president purposefully overstates his case knowing that it will create controversy. Garrett describes the logic – “Controversy sparks attention, attention provokes conversation, and conversation embeds previously unknown or marginalized ideas in the public consciousness.”

In short, it’s sneaky, or as Slate’s John Dickerson writes, it’s a kind of refined cynicism:

The issue last week was the pay gap between men and women. The president issued executive orders to address the disparity, and Democrats pushed legislation in Congress. In making the case, the president and White House advisers used a figure they knew to be imprecise and controversial – a Census Bureau statistic that the median wages of working women in America are 77 percent of median wages earned by men.

Under this approach, a president wants the fact-checkers to call him out (again and again) because that hubbub keeps the issue in the news, which is good for promoting the issue to the public. It is the political equivalent of “there is no such thing as bad publicity” or the quote attributed to Mae West (and others): “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.” The tactic represents one more step in the embrace of cynicism that has characterized President Obama’s journey in office.

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with cynicism! It’s almost always appropriate:

Losing the news cycles between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. doesn’t necessarily matter; if by the end of the saga you’ve got a coherent story to pitch, the frenzy has simply given you a larger audience who will listen to it. “Stray voltage,” the term Obama strategist David Plouffe used to describe this approach, is also a great buzzword that makes it look like you’ve got a theory for what might otherwise look like chaos. But this twist is a new, higher order of deception: creating the controversy for the purposes of milking it.

Dickerson shows that winning the argument on the facts, then, is beside the point:

As long as people are talking about an issue where my party has an advantage with voters, it’s good. So, the theory goes, if I’m a Republican candidate, I benefit from conversations about budget deficits and spending restraint because voters trust Republicans more on the issue of the budget and spending restraint – and it excites Republican voters who care about those issues. Democrats have several reasons to keep stories about equal-pay equity in the news. It excites their voters, attracts female voters, and crowds out whatever the Republicans wanted to talk about (these days, Obamacare). It also sets a trap. The more Republicans have to talk about politically unfavorable issues, the greater chance they’ll slip up and say something dumb like candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock did that can be exploited more broadly.

Even if I’ve overstated the issue, more voters will hear that Democrats are fighting to pay women equally than will hear that the problem is overstated. Even if Ruth Marcus labels the effort “revolting demagoguery,” it doesn’t matter. In fact, equal-pay stories that create more controversy cycles about stories rooted in equal pay are just more opportunities for people to hear the words equal pay. See that? Equal pay!

Obama has learned what debate is really about, debate, not changing minds:

After President Obama took office, his campaign book The Audacity of Hope receded into his past fast. Its sweet, naive, bipartisan “let’s reason together” passages fell away, too. As experience and a determined opposition forced the president to act, his former passages started to read like something a freshman senator would write, then a college graduate, and then a college freshman. With the notion of “stray voltage” in mind, the passages read like they’re from a precocious high-schooler chiding the press for treating facts so loosely that the cumulative effect is to “erode any agreed-upon standards for judging the truth.” It is a pity, writes the author, that politicians prey on press conflict by feeding misleading storylines. “It rewards not those who are right, but those – like the White House press office – who can make their arguments most loudly, most frequently, most obstinately, and with the best backdrop.”

And now he’s doing the same thing, and Salon’s Joan Walsh is fine with that:

Lazy Beltway pundits have discovered a new Obama scandal: The president is telling his base the truth about how Republicans are making their lives worse, and he must be stopped.

Last week, Obama was accused of ginning up his base’s anger over voting rights: The New York Times reduced his Friday speech on the issue to an effort “to rally his political base,” while the Washington Post depicted the Democrats’ focus on voting rights as mere partisan strategy, calling it the party’s “most important project in 2014.”

Then came the National Journal’s James Oliphant, declaring that “Democrats are giving Republicans a run for their money in practicing the politics of grievance.” Oliphant accused Democrats of cynically exploiting anger over voter ID laws and the failure of bills to hike the minimum wage, reform the immigration system and help women achieve pay equity, for political gain.

Yes, but why not do that, because, politics aside, it’s also the right thing to do? That’s Walsh’s point:

The essence of Dickerson’s argument is of a piece with the lazy “grievance” meme spreading among his peers: Obama is doing something wrong by telling a component of his coalition, in this case women, that Republican policies are hurting them. In other words, telling the truth while also, yes, practicing politics.

We can certainly debate which number we should use when debating pay equity, but the notion that Obama is deliberately lying to create “stray voltage” by choosing the wrong number seems cynical, or worse.

This is worse:

Supposedly, the controversy around the White House continuing to use the Census Bureau figure – that women make 77 cents to a man’s dollar – even though other studies find a smaller gap, cements the impression that Republicans oppose measures to close the gap, and may create “stray voltage” to galvanize women voters in 2014 and 2016. Oliphant likewise relies on the pay-gap flap, and the Democrats’ embrace of the doomed Paycheck Fairness Act, as an example of unfair “grievance politics.”

But Republicans do oppose virtually all measures that might close the gap. It’s not just the Paycheck Fairness Act; take the minimum wage. Republicans (and others) say that 77 percent figure exaggerates the pay gap between equally qualified men and women, because women are clustered in low-wage fields. Raising the minimum wage would be a great way to get at that particular pay-gap widener, since two thirds of minimum wage workers are women. But of course, Republicans oppose not only the Paycheck Fairness Act, but an increase in the minimum wage as well.

Oh, but Democrats continuing to agitate for a minimum wage hike? That’s also unfair “grievance politics,” according to Oliphant, because “it may animate minority voters.”

Walsh is fed up with this nonsense:

So let me make sure I understand. Telling your voters, accurately, that Republicans are trying to make it harder for them to vote, and are blocking action on pay equity, the minimum wage and immigration reform is unfair “grievance politics”? Likewise, any effort to deal with the scandal of $1 trillion in student loan debt? Oliphant compares it to the grievance politics practiced by Republicans under Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But that form of grievance politics mainly relied on inflaming white voters’ fears of cultural and racial change with false or highly exaggerated claims about Democrats.

I would also argue that when one party’s leaders declare upfront that they’re going to block everything the other party’s president tries to do, and when that party even retreats from solutions to problems that it once favored – in the GOP’s case, that includes the individual mandate, immigration reform, cap and trade, the Voting Rights Act, and periodic increases to the minimum wage – the cultivation of anger in order to turn out voters is an excellent and entirely defensible strategy. In fact, Republican obstructionism seems designed at least partly to demoralize the Obama coalition – many of them occasional voters already discouraged by the political process. If you can convince young people, Latinos and women that voting changes nothing, you can make up for your reliance on aging white voters.

That seems to be the plan, and Obama them took his turn and argued the other way – resistance is not futile, voting changes everything. He’s allowed to argue the other way, and he’s not the one who’s cheating:

This new “grievance politics” story line is just one more way mainstream journalism’s weakness for false equivalence, which is intellectually lazy, politically rewards Republicans.

Perhaps so, but mainstream journalism’s weakness may be that it never understood what all debate is actually about. Argument doesn’t change minds. Only the facts on the ground, as they evolve, change minds. Brilliant argument, or sly argument, confirms beliefs, irrefutably, if done well, and makes the other side a bit defensive about their beliefs, and begins to demoralize them. In debating societies, you win prizes when you can do that, repeatedly. In politics, you win elections. In college admissions, you send the kid the acceptance letter. He’ll go far, or she will. Elizabeth Warren is in the wings.

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The Perils of Declaring Victory

Politicians used to be more inventive, or more honest, or more… something. There was George Aiken – one of those old-school “progressive” Republicans of the Teddy Roosevelt sort. Aiken arrived in the Senate in early 1941 and stayed there, with the help of Vermont voters, for thirty-four long years. By today’s standards he wasn’t much of a Republican – toward the end of his Senate career he was all for food stamps and taking care of the poor, and he was big on the environment long before Nixon suggested the Environmental Protection Agency – he had been president of the Vermont Horticultural Society after all – and he was big on infrastructure spending before Eisenhower came up with the Interstate Highway System. There’s nothing wrong with spending money to make things better. There’s even nothing wrong with adding a bit to the deficit to make things better. There’d be no place for him in the Republican Party now, so no one remembers him now, but they do remember what he said about the Vietnam War in 1966 – maybe we should just declare victory and go home.

He was a man ahead of him time, but this was more than a quip. He explained that was what “the United States could well declare unilaterally” – because when you think about it “we have ‘won’ in the sense that our armed forces are in control of most of the field and no potential enemy is in a position to establish its authority over South Vietnam.”

What more do you want? This wasn’t copping-out. This was sensible and pragmatic, because that declaration “would herald the resumption of political warfare as the dominant theme in Vietnam.” That would change everything. People would shout at each other, not shoot each other. Isn’t that more sensible? There’s no need for any more to die. He added there was another feature to consider – “It may be a far-fetched proposal, but nothing else has worked.”

The antiwar left crowd loved it. This was just the sort of bitter surreal joke the Youth International Party – the Yippies - would love, because it exposed the Vietnam War as a bitter surreal joke. But Aiken wasn’t joking, even if his own party and the news media of the day decided he must have been kidding around. You don’t say yep, we’ve won, and walk away. That’s cheating, or dishonorable, or somehow just plain wrong. It doesn’t work that way in sports – the Yankees don’t get to just walk off the field in a tie-game in the seventh inning, declaring they’ve actually won, if you think about it. It can’t work that way in war.

Yes, it can – that’s exactly what we did in Iraq, and what we’re now doing in Afghanistan. The trick is to avoid doing what we did in Vietnam, which was defining what victory would look like – in that case, that would be the commie guys from the north gone for good. The Bush administration avoided that trap in Iraq, by keeping the definition of victory vague, shifting it from one thing to another – from getting rid of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to eliminating Iraq’s “capability” to develop those, from getting rid of Saddam Hussein to establishing a secular democracy there – where being Shiite or Sunni and Sufi or whatever didn’t matter and Iraq recognized Israel and Iraq just pumped oil, fat and happy – to giving them the “space” to work out the religious stuff on their own, while we watched from a safe distance, half a world away. We said we did our job, and we left. We just never really defined what that job was. George Aiken might have pointed out, after our first three weeks there, that we could declare victory and come home – Saddam had fled and wasn’t coming back, and there were no weapons of mass destruction after all – mission accomplished. George Aiken was, however, dead by then, and declaring victory is easier said than done. When you don’t define what winning is, no one believes you when you suddenly say you’ve won.

No one believes you anyway. Declaring victory became one of those stupid things no one should ever do, at least after George Bush landed on that aircraft carrier off San Diego and stood under that big Mission Accomplished banner and said it was all over but the shouting, which would be nothing but cheers for our side. That was alpha-male manly, and Chris Matthews and others said they couldn’t see how the girly-men of the Democratic Party would ever win another election again, and the effete French could just stuff it. Then the manly John McCain lost to the polite and careful Obama, and then Mitt Romney lost to Obama as well, and then manliness itself was discounted as the nation collectively decided that our gay brothers and sisters, and friends and neighbors, were just folks who should be treated as decently as anyone else who’s a citizen here.

Bush screwed the pooch. Manly manliness became tiresome, when it wasn’t a joke, and the only Real Man among us declaring victory was the biggest joke of all – and don’t get Californians started on Arnold Schwarzenegger. We had to bring back Governor Moonbeam, Jerry Brown, to repair the damage and get the state back in the black and humming again. Arnold is now back here in Hollywood, flexing what’s left of his massive muscles in new forgettable action movies, where he can declare victory all he wants, where it’s ironic, as it should be.

The problem now is Obamacare. It’s finally working pretty much as advertised, and Obama and the Democrats could declare victory and run on that in the midterms. They’re the good guys. They finally started us down the road to universal healthcare, where no one will ever again be financially ruined or die, or both, because of unforeseen medical problems. We’re finally on our way to joining the rest of the world, where mechanisms are in place to assure everyone gets basic medical care, as a matter of national interest. Obama and the Democrats did that. It’s just that raising a Mission Accomplished banner is dangerous. People might sneer. Was this a victory, really?

That depends on who you ask. “It’s all over but the shouting: ObamaCare is working!” That’s what Eugene Robinson says in the Washington Post:

All the naysaying in the world can’t drown out mounting evidence that the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s signature domestic achievement, is a real success. Republican candidates running this fall on an anti-Obamacare platform will have to divert voters’ attention from the facts, which tell an increasingly positive story.

A new report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that, despite all the problems with the HealthCare.gov Web site launch, 12 million people who previously lacked insurance will obtain coverage this year. By 2017, the year Obama leaves office, the CBO predicts that an additional 14 million uninsured will have managed to get coverage.

The losers have to acknowledge that it’s all over now:

Many Republican critics of Obamacare know, but refuse to acknowledge, that the reforms are here to stay. Does the GOP propose to let insurance companies deny coverage because of preexisting conditions, as they could before the ACA? Does the party want to re-impose lifetime caps on the amount an insurer will pay? Tell young adults they can no longer be covered under their parents’ policies?

I didn’t think so.

More likely, Republicans will continue to mumble vaguely about “private-sector incentives” and “consumer choice” – without acknowledging that the ACA reforms offer plenty of both. And the GOP will continue to bray about “big government health care,” which is an out-and-out lie.

Obamacare, to the contrary, will leave the present system basically intact. The CBO predicts that a decade from now, the great majority of non-elderly Americans will still obtain health insurance through their employers – an estimated 159 million, as opposed to 166 million if Obamacare never existed. Only about 25 million people are expected to get coverage through the federal and state health insurance exchanges. Even this coverage, mind you, will be provided by private health insurance companies, not the government.

So, to recap: The Affordable Care Act is a cautiously designed set of reforms whose impact on most people is approximately zero. It is well on the way toward its goal of providing coverage to the uninsured.

Ah, but Robinson knows what happens next, which is a matter of framing whatever victory this might be:

There is no sign that GOP strategists intend to let facts get in the way of their story. After spending so much time and effort trying to make “Obamacare” a synonym for “bogeyman,” Republicans have no graceful way to acknowledge that the program is actually a success.

All the apocalyptic end-of-freedom rhetoric that we continue to hear from the far right sounds increasingly ridiculous to moderate voters who have no strong party allegiance. But the GOP’s activist base continues to respond with campaign donations and raring-to-go enthusiasm – factors that can make the difference in a midterm election when moderate voters often stay home.

To do well in the fall, Democrats have to infuse their most loyal voters with similar enthusiasm. The success of Obamacare will help. Already, polls are showing upticks in support for embattled Democratic incumbent senators in Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska. Democrats control their own destiny in November: If they can get their voters to the polls, they’ll win.

On the other side there’s John Podhoretz in the New York Post with this:

Ever since ObamaCare supposedly hit the arbitrary target of 7 million sign-ups by March 31, its supporters have been taking the most premature victory lap since conservative proponents of the Iraq War (like me) crowed about the results of the three elections inside Iraq in 2005 and how they demonstrated the country was on the verge of a historic peace.

Well, that didn’t work out, so Democrats should be careful:

It takes a very special pair of rose-colored glasses to ignore the simple reality that officials almost never resign when the policy they’ve been working to implement has triumphed. But rose-colored glasses are the only ones ObamaCare fans are allowed to buy from Warby Parker these days.

Yes, it’s true that six months after that catastrophe, people can actually sign up for ObamaCare. It’s also likely true that the program’s worst possible fate – in which it literally collapses on its own because its overall insurance pool holds far more sick people than healthy people – has been avoided.

But the idea that, by meeting their obligations under the law, those 7 million signers-up have thereby indicated their support for ObamaCare, or their approval of it, or have ensured its success, is simply delusional.

In the first place, we don’t yet know how many people who didn’t have insurance before now do – which was the entire point of this exercise. But it’s not a lot.

This then is the Democrats’ Iraq:

The pundits on their side of the aisle are telling them they should defend it now because “it’s a real success.”

Such advice must frighten them even more, since it means they’ll be damned by their opponents if they do defend it and damned by their friends if they don’t.

The American electorate’s response to the chaos in Iraq in 2006 was “baked in the cake” months before voters went to vote. The result was a Democratic wave that heralded the coming of Barack Obama.

Take it from me, ObamaCare partisans: We Iraq War partisans didn’t want to take off our rose-colored glasses, either.

In short, don’t declare victory. Take it from an expert on such things, or consider the latest Reuters/Ipsos survey:

Nearly one-third of respondents in the online survey released on Tuesday said they prefer Democrats’ plan, policy or approach to healthcare, compared to just 18 percent for Republicans. This marks both an uptick in support for Democrats and a slide for Republicans since a similar poll in February. …

“In the last couple of weeks, as the exchanges hit their goals, news coverage has been more positive and the support of the Democratic Party on this issue has rebounded,” said Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson.

“It’s not that independents are moving their way, it’s that Democrats who had previously been a little bit ambivalent in their support are coming back to the party,” he said.

Something is up, and Politico reports this:

Health insurers got their first taste of Obamacare this year. And they want seconds.

Insurers saw disaster in the fall when Obamacare’s rollout flopped and HealthCare.gov was a mess. But a strong March enrollment surge, along with indications that younger and healthier people had begun signing up, has changed their attitude. Around the country, insurers are considering expanding their stake in the Obamacare exchanges next year, bringing their business to more states and counties. Some health plans that skipped the new marketplaces altogether this year are ready to dive in next year.

At least two major national insurers intend to expand their offerings, although a handful of big players like Aetna, Humana and Cigna, are keeping their cards close for now. None of the big-name insurers have signaled plans to shrink their presence or bail altogether after the first rocky year. And a slew of smaller health plans are already making moves to join more states or get into the Obamacare business for the first time.

“We see 2014 as just the beginning for exchanges,” said Tyler Mason, a spokesman for UnitedHealth Group, one of the nations’ largest insurers. “As the economics, sustainability and dynamics of exchanges continue to become clearer, we believe exchanges have the potential to be a growth market with much to offer United HealthCare and other insurers and consumers.”

Nurturing this growth and health plan participation will be one of the first tasks of Sylvia Mathews Burwell, assuming she is confirmed to succeed Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of Health and Human Services.

This is bad news for Republicans. When big business goes over to the Dark Side all is lost, and Andrew Sullivan goes further:

There’s simply no denying that the law has been rescued by an impressive post-fiasco operation that did to ACA-opponents what the Obama campaign did to the Clintons in 2008 and to Romney in 2012. Obama out-muscled the nay-sayers on the ground. I have a feeling that this has yet to fully sink in with the public, and when it does, the politics of this might change. (Since the law was pummeled at the get-go as something beyond the skills of the federal government to implement, its subsequent successful implementation would seem to me to do a lot to reverse the damage.) There are some signs that this is happening. …

That’s mainly because of renewed confidence and support from previously demoralized Democrats. But it’s also a reflection, it seems to me, of the political vulnerability of Republicans who have failed to present a viable alternative to the law, and indeed seem set, in the eyes of most voters, merely to repeal ACA provisions that are individually popular. And this bad position is very likely to endure because of the intensity of the loathing for Obama/Obamacare among the Medicare recipients in the GOP base. It seems to me that right now, the GOP cannot offer an alternative that keeps the more popular parts of Obamacare without the air fast leaking out of their mid-term election balloon. And so by the fall, the political dynamics of this may shift some more in Obama’s direction. By 2016, that could be even more dramatic. One party – the GOP – will be offering unnerving change back to the status quo ante [Latin: "the way things were before"] and the other will be proposing incremental reform of the ACA.

Either way, that’s a losing proposition, and kind of solves the Mission Accomplished problem. There’s no need to be alpha-male and declare victory, in a manly way. All you need to do is reminded everyone the other team never even showed up for the game, and smile slyly. If these guys want to make Obamacare better, welcome them – everything can be made better – everyone’s welcome. Then the other guys have to swallow their pride and join in your game, not theirs.

Sullivan sees a pattern here:

It’s that long game thing again, isn’t it? Like the civil rights revolution of the Obama years, it seemed a close-to-impossible effort to start with, and then was gradually, skillfully ground out. It also seems true to me that the non-event of the ACA for many, many people will likely undermine some of the hysteria on the right. The ACA-opponents may be in danger of seeming to cry wolf over something that isn’t that big a deal. Yes, they may have premium hikes to tout as evidence of the alleged disaster. And every single piece of bad news on the healthcare front will be attributed to the ACA, fairly or not. But the public will still want to know how premiums can go down without people with pre-existing conditions being kicked out of the system, or without kids being kicked off their parents’ plan, and so on. I think, in other words, that the GOP’s position made a lot of short-term political sense in 2010 and even 2012. But it’s a much tougher sell in 2014, let alone 2016. Once again, they have substituted tactics for strategy. Every time they have done that with Obama, they have failed.

There’s more. Gallup had been reporting a drop in the “uninsured” rate among Americans following the rollout of Obamacare, and they just broke down these numbers state by state – states that embraced Obamacare, setting up their own exchanges and expanding Medicaid, versus states that would have nothing to do with either, and Kevin Drum assesses the damage:

The results are no surprise. States that embraced Obamacare – which presumably were more committed to public health in the first place – had lower uninsurance rates to start with and saw bigger declines. The states that resisted were the ones with the biggest uninsurance problems to start with and saw only token declines. In fact, the decline in states that embraced Obamacare was more than triple that in the other states, 2.8 percent vs. 0.8 percent.

These numbers will change a bit over the next couple of months as things settle down and signups are complete, but the relative differences will almost certainly remain huge. Republican governors have been almost unanimously dedicated to sabotaging Obamacare and withholding health care from their own residents, and they’ve been successful. I hope they’re proud of themselves.

Governors withholding health care from their own residents – declaring that a victory over Obamacare, and over the thoroughly evil Obama himself – can raise their own Mission Accomplished banners. They defeated Obamacare, at least locally, and some will cheer. Some will face financial ruin or die, but not the voters who matter, those who believe it’s better to die than participate in a government program that matches up those who want to buy insurance with those who want to sell it to them, and mandates that everyone must get health insurance one way or the other, or pay a small fine. It’s the principle of the thing.

It seems both sides can claim a victory here, but declaring victory has always been problematic. No one took George Aiken seriously way back when. It’s best just to win, and shut up, and smile. People will figure out who really won soon enough.

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Correlations with Patriotism

Post hoc ergo propter hoc – correlation does not imply causation. A correlation between two variables does not necessarily imply that one causes the other – two things just happened at the same time. That your team wins every time you wear that funky old flannel shirt doesn’t mean that funky old shirt causes your team to win – but you wear it anyway. It couldn’t hurt and it feels good to embrace the logical fallacy. Everyone embraces such nonsense because it’s comfortable, or comforting – and it’s cool to see patterns, or at least trends, no one had noticed before. That means you’re supremely aware of the world around you and amazingly insightful, and it probably means you’re a sucker for conspiracy theories. The Rothschild family is not working to take over the world in some vast Jewish conspiracy, no matter what Henry Ford might have thought, even if he ignored the Rothschild clan, and Obama doesn’t seem to be a Muslim-Atheist-Communist-Fascist Kenyan fellow, still mad about British colonial rule back there long ago, who also hates all religion, who wants to make us all worship Allah and abandon capitalism, to fight global warming, because he hates America. That didn’t cause him to push for universal healthcare. Glenn Beck thinks so, as do Donald Trump and a few others, but they’re connecting dots that aren’t there. Glenn Beck even used a whiteboard to do that on national television, before the folks at Fox News got exasperated and they both agreed that he do that sort of thing with his imaginary dots elsewhere. Correlation does not imply causation, and Timothy McVeigh, that fellow who blew up that federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing all those people, probably imagined that all of America’s woes were caused by ZOG – the Zionist Occupation Government that really runs this place – although no one knew what the hell he was talking about most of the time. He just wanted America to wake up. Something really bad is going on – connect the dots, people! There were no dots. He was executed. Glenn Beck lost his gig at Fox News.

All this might be seen as pattern-recognition, a key human skill necessary to survive, in an evolutionary sense, gone wild. We all have to make sense of the world around us, or we’ll get killed, metaphorically or literally, but imagining what’s just not there can get us killed too. After all, a lot of Americans died in Iraq due to faulty overenthusiastic pattern-recognition. Our stern and deadly prudence turned out to be no more than an odd and misplaced paranoia. There never had been any correlation between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, implying causation, and the dots we were connecting – those aluminum tubes and mobile chemical weapons labs and so on – weren’t dots after all.

Oops – but no one lied to us. Key people just forgot anything they ever knew about the easiest logical fallacy to fall into, one where you end up calling anyone who points out your sloppy thinking a coward or a fool, or a sniveling Neville Chamberlain appeaser, or a traitor. It’s easy enough to laugh that off when Glenn Beck is calling you names. When it’s Bush and Cheney and Rice and Rumsfeld, and most of the media, everyone tends to shut up. It’s the patriotic thing to so. Leave discussion of logical fallacies to the French, who have been blithering about such things since Descartes was a pup. We’re patriots. We laugh at your pathetic logic. And we don’t eat snails either.

This can cause no end of trouble each year on the day that Americans must do their patriotic duty – April 15 – Tax Day. That’s the day everyone has to pay their share, more or less, depending on your tax bracket and accountant, to keep the country running, and defended against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Everyone has to chip in by that date, although for most that’s working out what you’ve been chipping in all along for the past year and seeing if you get a refund. Everyone hates that day of course – a lot of the money you earned will be gone forever – but patriots shouldn’t. Few people ever run for office, to set public policy and assure we have a going concern here, but this is the day when everyone else chips in to keep the country running. That’s patriotism, and by a curious coincidence, last year Tax Day was also Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts – but they didn’t plan it that way. It was a random correlation, this year only, implying no causation. People seldom correlate taxes with patriotism.

The two don’t mix. Taxes really are a pain in the ass, and Dick Gregory, in the midst of the civil rights struggles of the late fifties and early sixties, once put it this way – “I wouldn’t mind paying taxes, if I knew they were going to a friendly country.”

The black experience in America changes things – but he did pay his taxes. He loved his country, warts and all, as they say, but it seems different on the right these days. Tea Party Republicans, who say they are the super-patriots, the only ones who really love America, really don’t want to pay their taxes, or pay taxes at the rate that’s been the norm for years. They love America and its system of government so much they think there should be far less of it than ever before, so everyone is free at last. Their avatar has always been Grover Norquist, who famously said he wanted to shrink the size of government so small that it can then be drowned in the bathtub. Who needs government anyway?

Fine, Grover Norquist loves America so much he wants to get rid of what defines it, its government. What would be left is three hundred million armed individuals somehow, by chance, located in a specific geography – but he’s not an outlier. Ted Cruz, who will tell you he’s the most patriotic American who has ever lived or will ever live, says that he wants to abolish the IRS – and the national debt, and he is also sure, if everyone does what they should, he can repeal Obamacare, every last word of it, while making sure everyone is heavily armed. He said all that on just before Patriots’ Day weekend, next door in New Hampshire at the Americans for Prosperity Foundation and Citizens United inaugural Freedom Summit. Everyone cheered.

To be clear, Cruz is not an anarchist – he just sounds like one. He’d replace the IRS with something more sensible, because someone’s got to pay his salary, but the general idea is clear. True patriots hate almost everything their government does, because government, in and of itself, restricts our basic freedoms. The odd thing is that is quite true. Governments, even those of the people and by the people and for the people, create laws. You can’t own slaves anymore. You can’t shoot anyone who vaguely irritates you, except in Florida. You have to wear a seat belt. Governments exist to set boundaries on acceptable behavior, here by mutual agreement when we can work that out, and then they make you pay a big chunk of your income to fund the mechanisms used to enforce those behaviors. Everyone has to chip in, and if you love freedom, that’s a problem. If you love freedom you want to edge your government, which you also love, closer and closer to anarchy, but not quite there, just near Grover’s bathtub, not in it, but that’s when the correlation between freedom and patriotism breaks down. The one does not cause the other.

Jonathan Chait sees it this way:

Nobody likes writing checks to the government. At best, it’s something people tolerate. At worst? It’s a source of resentment and anger. Either way, it’s a political fact of life – one that imposes narrow boundaries on what policymakers in this country can do.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Sure, there are plenty of principled, intellectually honest reasons to think taxes should be lower. But one reason for the rage against them – and the perception that they are larcenously high – is that the act of paying them is so divorced from the act of receiving the benefits that they finance. You might not like paying a lot for groceries, clothing, a car, or a house. But it feels a lot better because, once you’re done with the transaction you know what you’re getting for it. You’ve taken care of a basic need – there’s food on your plate, a roof over your head, and, if you’re lucky and can afford it, a Camaro in your driveway.

Taxes do the same thing. That payroll tax taken out of everybody’s check? It’s buying you Medicare and Social Security, which means a more secure retirement free of crippling medical bills. Your federal income tax? Its effects are a lot more diffuse. But chances are pretty good that you’ve already used some infrastructure today – whether it was a road or railway you took to work, or maybe the information technology connections you’re using to read this article. Federal, state, and local taxes helped pay for that. Is your water and air clean? Are you safe from threats, domestic and foreign? Then you’re getting something valuable from the Environment Protection Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Department of Defense. Your tax dollars paid for those, too.

Sometimes, of course, your tax dollars pay for supports and services you won’t use. And you might resent that. But even taxes that pay for someone else’s benefits can benefit you. Why does the U.S. not have the massive underclass that characterizes many third-world countries – or the incipient danger of violent upheaval that accompanies it? The safety net your taxes purchased, tattered as it is, buys a degree of social harmony, too.

One must consider the downside too:

Simply reducing what government spends on these programs, in order to allow for lower taxes, would mean cutting a lot of people off from supports on which they literally survive. That’s what the Paul Ryan budget would do – end government-provided health insurance, housing vouchers, and food assistance for millions. Maybe you don’t care and maybe think that has nothing to do with you. If the latter is true, you should consider the possibility that, someday, you could be one of “those” people. You could lose your job or suffer a debilitating injury or encounter some other, random act of chance that would throw your life into instant turmoil and make you, too, dependent on the welfare state to get by.

Maybe you have no objection to paying for the welfare state in principle. Maybe you just don’t like the way government does it – by squandering money on poorly designed programs, or giving help to people who don’t need it. That’s fair. Lots of government programs are inefficient. Some are even prone to corruption. But, just so you know, there’s probably less waste than you think. The food stamp program, for example, is a model of efficiency – with low overhead and fraud rates.

Chait goes on from there, in predicable ways which would appall Ted Cruz, who laughs at such logic, and Chait ends with this:

Naturally, there are arguments to be had over how high taxes should go, exactly who should pay more, and what form those levies should take. Personally, I’d opt for some combination of taxes on wealth and taxes on carbon, figuring it’d be good to fight inequality and stop global warming. And while taxes should go up for most people, they should be a little lower for some of the working poor.

But having that discussion feels a little silly, given that higher taxes are nowhere near the political agenda right now. That’s why the first step towards a more sensible conversation about economic policy and our priorities in general is to admit that taxes can be a good thing, as long as they pay for worthwhile things. I still think they do.

But if nothing’s worthwhile because everyone should take personal responsibility, and grab a gun, then what?

Ed Kilgore tries to work that out:

Almost all of us can identify some government activity we would change or terminate if we were given that power. But relatively few of us claim that power, and those who do so without warrant of law are clearly risking a stint in the hoosegow, along with the poor opinion of our fellow-citizens, above whom we are arrogating ourselves. Call it “individualism” or “libertarianism” or whatever you want, but those who declare themselves a Republic of One and raise their own flags are in a very literal sense being unpatriotic.

That’s why I’m alarmed by the support in many conservative precincts for the Nevada scofflaws who have been exploiting public lands for private purposes and refuse to pay for the privilege because they choose not to “recognize” the authority of the United States. Totally aside from the double standards involved in expecting kid-glove treatment of one set of lawbreakers as opposed to poorer and perhaps darker criminal suspects, fans of the Bundys are encouraging those who claim a right to wage armed revolutionary war towards their obligations as Americans. It makes me really crazy when such people are described as “superpatriots.” Nothing could be more contrary to the truth.

To recap, Matt Ford reported on the incident that outraged the folks on the right:

Twenty-one years ago, rancher Cliven Bundy stopped paying his grazing fees.

Bundy does not recognize federal authority over land where his ancestors first settled in the 1880s, which he claims belongs to the state of Nevada. The Bureau of Land Management disagreed and took him to federal court, which first ruled in favor of the BLM in 1998. After years of attempts at a negotiated settlement over the $1.2 million Bundy owes in fees failed, federal land agents began seizing hundreds of his cattle illegally grazing on public land last week.

But after footage of a BLM agent using a stun gun on Bundy’s adult son went viral in far-right circles, hundreds of armed militia supporters from neighboring states flocked to Bundy’s ranch to defend him from the BLM agents enforcing the court order. The states’-rights groups, in echoes of Ruby Ridge and Waco, came armed and prepared for violence. “I’m ready to pull the trigger if fired upon,” one of the anti-government activists told Reuters. Not eager to spill blood over cattle, the BLM backed down Sunday and started returning the livestock it had confiscated. The agency says it won’t drop the matter and will “continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially.”

His cattle had been illegally grazing on public land for years and years, and he refused to pay the required fees for using public land for that, but he had his reasons – “I abide by all of Nevada state laws. But I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”

That’s what he said, and folks on Fox News are cheering him on, and Kilgore add this:

Painful as Tax Day might be, and however unhappy we may be with this or that policy or practice of the federal government, this is indeed our government, and there’s no “country” beyond its jurisdiction to which we may pledge allegiance. So today’s a day for flag-waving, not just tax-paying, and one for rededicating ourselves to engagement in the civic and political processes, not seceding to some imaginary Republic of our own devising.

Kevin Drum takes it from there:

The details of the Bundy case have gotten a lot of attention at conservative sites, but the details really don’t matter. Bundy has a baroque claim that the United States has no legal right to grazing land in Nevada; for over a decade, every court has summarily disagreed. It’s federal land whether Bundy likes it or not, and Bundy has refused for years to pay standard grazing fees – so a couple of weeks ago the feds finally decided to enforce the latest court order allowing them to confiscate Bundy’s cattle if he didn’t leave. The rest is just fluff, a bunch of paranoid conspiracy theorizing that led to last week’s armed standoff between federal agents and the vigilante army created by movement conservatives.

The fact that so many on the right are valorizing Bundy – or, at minimum, tiptoeing around his obvious nutbaggery – is a testament to the enduring power of Waco and Ruby Ridge among conservatives. The rest of us may barely remember them, but they’re totemic events on the right, fueling Glenn-Beckian fantasies of black helicopters and jackbooted federal thugs for more than two decades now.

Mainstream conservatives have pandered to this stuff for years because it was convenient, and that’s brought them to where they are today: too scared to stand up to the vigilantes they created and speak the simple truth. They complain endlessly about President Obama’s “lawlessness,” but this is lawlessness. It’s appalling that so many of them aren’t merely afraid to plainly say so, but actively seem to be egging it on.

MSNBC’s Krystal Ball tries to connect the dots here:

Mr. Bundy denies the legitimacy of our republic. And though he’s been found guilty twice by courts in Nevada, he seems to want to pick and choose the laws that he feels like obeying. But to many on the right he’s a hero, a patriot. In fact, the word patriot has become almost synonymous with right-wing anti-government views. On the fringe, “patriot” groups are grounded in extreme anti-government doctrine, conspiracy theories and fear of impending government violence. They have names like 22nd Field Force Alabama Militia, American Patriot Party and the John Birch Society.

Many of the protesters drawn to Cliven Bundy’s ranch with firearms ready to do whatever it takes to keep Cliven Bundy from complying with federal law were militia members, part of that patriot movement. In more mainstream political thought, the word patriot has become so closely associated with the political right that it was on the now infamous IRS BOLO list, the implication being where you find the word patriot you will likely find a politically active conservative group.

In fact, though, a lot of what is done under this banner of patriotism is really anything but. Cliven Bundy is no patriot for threatening armed insurrection over his refusal to pay money for his use of our land. The Wisconsin Republican party is not patriotic for supporting a resolution, enabling the state to secede from our union.

And the contempt that some on the right feel for their fellow citizens – Mitt Romney’s famous 47%, the takers, the welfare queens, the young bucks buying T-bone steaks, Paul Ryan’s generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work – that contempt for your fellow country men and women is anything but patriotic.

We on the left should not allow conservatives to get away with appropriating patriotism, bastardizing it and claiming it as their exclusive domain. We should not accept their loaded rendering of the term because real patriotism should be grounded in the recognition that from the highest heights of power down to the homeless veterans sleeping on the street, we are all Americans bonded together through our citizenship in a country that at its best day stands at its tallest as the land of opportunity.

Real patriotism is grounded in striving to make more perfect that ideal, that ideal of a fair shot for all so your station at birth does not determine your station at death. And real patriotism means making the country ever more democratic so that the franchise is expanded and power is distributed to all the people, not just the ones who can afford to buy into the system. These are all liberal ideals that are frequently undermined by those claiming the mantle of patriotism.

And so on and so forth – but she’s fighting a losing battle here. Bundy is a hero on the right now, where correlation and causation long ago got all confused, regarding freedom and patriotism. But the two never could coexist easily. Remember the Patriot Act the folks on the right loved so much, that systematically stripped away lots of freedoms? Logic is hard, and fallacies are easy.

Posted in Patriotism, Taxation is Tyranny | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Evidence Piles Up

Some wag once said that the plural of anecdote is not data. That three teenage girls in Akron decided to shave their heads and wear giant black plastic bags to school every day means nothing much – it’s not a fashion trend. There’s no data there, just kids being kids, and it’s the same in the news. All the anecdotes about how Obamacare ruined this person’s life, or this other person’s life, say nothing much about the millions of folks who never had health insurance but have it now – and most those horror stories turned out to be not true anyway. The Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity suddenly stopped running ad after ad in all the major markets that featured these devastating tales of woe.

Legions of fact-checkers kept embarrassing them. They learned their lesson. Even anecdotes should be true, and even then, they’re still not data. The ethereal pundit Peggy Noonan, once a speech writer for Ronald Reagan, found that out. She saw the lawn signs here and there, and she felt what was in the air, from all the anecdotal information, so all the polling and all the analysis Nate Silver had done was wrong, and Romney was going to win the presidency – and Romney got clobbered. Anecdotes don’t mean much, but then she had been the voice of Ronald Reagan for a time, the man who lived in an anecdotal America, a place of heartwarming stories of rugged individualism and personal responsibility, and happy generous white folks who always did the right thing, which had little to do with the America everyone else knew. It was a dangerous pleasantness, but the nation finally figured out it’s always best to know what’s actually going on. An anecdote about plucky young Jane from Peoria, and her cute little puppy and her wildly successful lemonade stand, a business she built all on her own with no government regulations messing things up, isn’t the last word on economic policy. Wall Street isn’t a lemonade stand.

That said, there’s such a thing as mounting evidence. A friend, who must remain nameless, who works at the highest levels of Wall Street and with the top regulatory agencies and often with Congress, has mentioned that in casual conversations with the most Republican of Republicans, he often hears them sigh that the party is full of folks who are simply bat-shit crazy, and a real embarrassment, and really, Obamacare isn’t that bad and was never a bad idea in the first place – but don’t tell anyone they said that. Something is up, although there’s the deadly Peggy Noonan Trap. That’s just a few people saying things.

There is, however, mounting evidence of bat-shit craziness:

Some conservative media figures are openly wondering if Hillary Clinton staged an incident during a speech in Las Vegas on Thursday in which a woman in the audience threw a shoe at her. The shoe appeared to miss the rumored 2016 presidential hopeful, who ducked and made light of it, while the reported thrower, Alison Michelle Ernst, was booked by the authorities.

A blog post published Monday at the website of Fox News commentator Bernard Goldberg speculated that Clinton probably “calculated it beforehand,” as is “almost always true” with things that happen to her.

“So it would not be stretching logic to suppose that Hillary arranged to have the shoe thrown at her,” wrote Arthur Louis at Goldberg’s site. “Remembering the Bush incident [when an Iraqi journalist threw two shoes at President George W. Bush], she may have calculated that this would make her seem presidential. This would explain why Ms. Ernst was not pounded to a pulp by Hillary’s bodyguards, and why she seems on the verge of getting off scot free. Don’t be too surprised, the next time you visit Phoenix, if you see her sitting at a table in a downtown Hillary-for-President store front, stuffing and sealing envelopes.”

Rush Limbaugh was at it too – “I don’t know why anybody would be throwing a shoe at Hillary unless maybe it’s an attempt to make the Benghazi people look like nuts and lunatics and wackos.”

There’s more:

“What one clearly sees in this video is that Hillary Clinton makes no effort whatsoever to actually ‘dodge’ the shoe,” wrote Sonny Bunch at the Washington Free Beacon. “Rather, she flinches after it has gone whizzing by her head. A far more accurate headline would’ve been ‘Hillary Clinton Luckily Unharmed by Her Slow Reflexes.’ Typical liberal media, covering up the truth for their favored candidates… Whereas Hillary reacts well after the danger has passed, George W. Bush preemptively sees danger coming and positions himself to avoid it.”

She’s no George Bush, but we knew that, and that may be a good thing. There’s a reason her favorability ratings are off the charts, but his is a minor matter. Matt Ford reports on the real thing that outraged the folks on the right:

Twenty-one years ago, rancher Cliven Bundy stopped paying his grazing fees.

Bundy does not recognize federal authority over land where his ancestors first settled in the 1880s, which he claims belongs to the state of Nevada. The Bureau of Land Management disagreed and took him to federal court, which first ruled in favor of the BLM in 1998. After years of attempts at a negotiated settlement over the $1.2 million Bundy owes in fees failed, federal land agents began seizing hundreds of his cattle illegally grazing on public land last week.

But after footage of a BLM agent using a stun gun on Bundy’s adult son went viral in far-right circles, hundreds of armed militia supporters from neighboring states flocked to Bundy’s ranch to defend him from the BLM agents enforcing the court order. The states’-rights groups, in echoes of Ruby Ridge and Waco, came armed and prepared for violence. “I’m ready to pull the trigger if fired upon,” one of the anti-government activists told Reuters. Not eager to spill blood over cattle, the BLM backed down Sunday and started returning the livestock it had confiscated. The agency says it won’t drop the matter and will “continue to work to resolve the matter administratively and judicially.”

This is odd. His cattle had been illegally grazing on public land for years and years, and he refused to pay the required fees for using public land for that, but he had his reasons – “I abide by all of Nevada state laws. But I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing.”

Sean Hannity and everyone else at Fox News are cheering for him, and Mike Huckabee is outraged, but Ford cites the Nevada constitution:

All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for the protection, security and benefit of the people; and they have the right to alter or reform the same whenever the public good may require it. But the Paramount Allegiance of every citizen is due to the Federal Government in the exercise of all its Constitutional powers as the same have been or may be defined by the Supreme Court of the United States; and no power exists in the people of this or any other State of the Federal Union to dissolve their connection therewith or perform any act tending to impair, subvert, or resist the Supreme Authority of the government of the United States. The Constitution of the United States confers full power on the Federal Government to maintain and Perpetuate its existence, and whensoever any portion of the States, or people thereof attempt to secede from the Federal Union, or forcibly resist the Execution of its laws, the Federal Government may, by warrant of the Constitution, employ armed force in compelling obedience to its Authority.

Bundy is not abiding by Nevada’s constitution, but everyone on the right now, and all Republican politicians, are busily aligning themselves with the man who doesn’t recognize the United States government as even existing. There never was one. Each state is its own nation, just like we started out back in 1776-77 with the Articles of Confederation, before that stupid Constitution thing a decade later, but that explains this:

Wisconsin Republicans will vote at their convention next month on a proposal affirming the state’s right to go it alone, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Daniel Bice reported Monday.

The state party’s Resolutions Committee has voted in favor of a so-called “state sovereignty” measure stating the party “supports legislation that upholds Wisconsin’s right, under extreme circumstances, to secede,” according to the Journal-Sentinel. The resolution came out of one of the state party’s regional caucuses and was edited and adopted by the committee despite top GOP officials’ efforts to quash it.

Gov. Scott Walker (R) dismissed the unconventional proposal last week.

“I don’t think that one aligns with where most Republican officials are in the state of Wisconsin – certainly not with me,” Walker said Friday at a press event, as quoted by the Journal-Sentinel.

These folks have moved from “limited government” to “no government” in the blink of an eye, but if the folks in Texas grabbed Foot Hood and Fort Bliss and all the other military installations there so they’d have their own army, taking all our troops prisoner, and seceded from the union, so to speak, as they have often threatened, no one would miss them much. It’s just that we had that Civil War to settle the matter. States don’t have that right. Lincoln, one of the guys who created the modern Republican Party out of the wreckage of the Whigs, made sure that was so – and thus the evidence is mounting that these folks are bat-shit crazy.

And then they all got together:

The Americans for Prosperity Foundation and Citizens United labeled their inaugural Freedom Summit – held Saturday in Manchester, N.H. – a 2016 “cattle call.” However, the event proved most useful in reminding us how far away the presidential primaries are, and how much Republicans will need to decide before the Iowa caucuses.

After the 2012 presidential election, the GOP performed an audit on its electoral performance and announced it might have to change some things if it wanted to attract more votes in four years. Two years later, not much has changed. Most Republican elected officials have not softened their stance on social issues, and attempts to reach other demographics haven’t changed the party’s base.

Yep, still crazy after all these years:

The crowd laughed at jokes about Obamacare, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee noted that sometimes he feels like North Korea is more free than the United States. Donald Trump said that President Obama must have been incensed when Zach Galifianakis asked him if he were from Kenya. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz cried out about abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and was met with cheers. New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte wondered what Daniel Webster would have thought of Lois Lerner and the IRS.

There wasn’t much new here, or much news here, save for Rand Paul:

Paul’s speech seemed to be a carefully constructed proof of how the Republican Party can “hit those who haven’t been listening” without diluting its message, a proposition that seems impossible but is essential for candidates who want to please the unforgiving tea party and far right, whose members are certain to turn out at every primary. Unsurprisingly, his prescription for how to move the party forward includes adopting his ideas on civil liberties – a renewed focus on privacy in light of the National Security Agency leaks and distance from the drug war and mandatory minimum sentences, which he told the audience would help the party appeal to the young minorities most likely to receive jail time for drug possession.

“Your kids and grandkids aren’t perfect either” Paul said. “The police don’t come to your neighborhoods. You get a better lawyer. These are some injustices. We’ve got to be concerned about people who may not be part of our group, who may not be here today.” Paul also talked about how his ideas about how to help the unemployed have resonated with twentysomethings on the right and the left.

He was met with puzzled silence, and things went as one would expect:

Ted Cruz also briefly mentioned how the party could appeal to minorities and single mothers who have suffered during the recession, and he cast his economic platform under the labels of “growth and opportunity,” the lingo now favored by Republicans who want to counter the left’s focus on income inequality. These ideas received much less praise than Cruz’s call to abolish the IRS.

Despite the gentle prodding from Paul and Cruz, much more time during the Freedom Summit was devoted to bashing Republicans who were not present for abandoning stances the tea party holds dear. When Trump blasted former Florida governor Jeb Bush for saying illegal immigration could be an act of love, the crowd booed and shook their heads. When several speakers mentioned Common Core – another policy supported by Bush, a potential presidential candidate favored by the party’s more moderate donors – the disdain grew even louder. Trump also criticized Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan for his budget proposal, which would cut Medicare in an effort to balance the federal budget.

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, however, doesn’t see these folks as being crazy enough to ignore this third Bush:

Each speaker made his pitch. Paul focused on civil liberties and promised to expand the GOP tent with a hands-off approach to gay marriage and other issues. Cruz billed himself as an avatar of conservative orthodoxy – an economic conservative, a social conservative, and a national security conservative. Huckabee indulged in right-wing hyperbole… and Donald Trump said Donald Trump things.

But insofar that there was a rhetorical constant, it was open disdain for Jeb Bush, as candidates responded to his sympathy for undocumented immigrants and praise for federal education standards. “Get rid of Common Core and replace it with common sense!” said Tennessee Rep. Marsha Blackburn, taking a swipe at Bush’s support for the reformed curriculum standards. “I think what Jeb was trying to say was that many people come to the United States to look for opportunity,” said Huckabee, commenting on Bush’s support for comprehensive immigration reform. “I don’t personally support amnesty. I think we ought to have a secure border.”

Trump also riffed on Bush’s immigration comments, mocking the notion that immigrants come to the United States out of “love.” “That’s one I’ve never heard of before,” Trump said. “I’ve heard money, I’ve heard this. I’ve heard sex. I’ve heard everything! The one thing I never heard of was love. I understand what he’s saying, but, you know, it’s out there, I’ll tell you.” More importantly, the mere mention of Bush’s name drew boos from the crowd, who oppose the former governor’s immigration leniency.

The standard take is that Bush’s weak support among grassroots conservatives is nearly fatal for his presidential chances, and there’s no doubt that it puts him at a disadvantage. Bush has been out of the game for so long that he’s out of step with the base of the party. They want a full-scale assault on the welfare state, not compassion or empathy.

It’s the same old same old, but Jeb will be fine:

If Jeb Bush has anything on his side right now, it’s this – the establishment stamp of approval. Just read this Washington Post story from late last month, where a parade of Republican donors and officials showed their enthusiasm for a Bush candidacy. Yes, there are still arguments and divisions among Republican elites, but one thing is clear: If Bush steps into the ring he’ll begin the race with key victories in the “invisible primary,” where candidates fight to win influence and endorsements from the party’s most moneyed supporters.

That friend on Wall Street was hearing this too, that the crazies can’t be allowed to win this time, although Bouie says they’ll get something:

No, the Republican base isn’t strong or influential enough to drive a candidate to the nomination or to kill the candidacy of someone with establishment support. What it can do, however, is extract concessions in the form of policy promises and rhetorical strategies. This is what happened to Mitt Romney. Strong elite backing made him the favorite for the nomination, but he still had to appeal to rank-and-file Republican voters. After all, you still need to win primaries. So, he disavowed his previous self, condemning the Affordable Care Act as an abomination of public policy and dashing to the right on immigration. He gave his full commitment to the priorities of the Republican base, which – along with the help of the establishment – won him the nomination. In other words, for Mitt Romney the Republican presidential candidate to become Mitt Romney the Republican presidential nominee, he had to go back in time and effectively destroy Mitt Romney, the moderate Massachusetts governor.

“Jeb Bush, former Florida governor” is much more conservative than Romney was at the same stage of his career, and he won’t have to shift gears on health care reform or abortion. Still, if Bush has appeal to Republican elites, it’s because of his moderate affect – he’s not a fire-breather – and pragmatic approach to immigration and education, legacies of his tenure in Florida.

And that’s the “Jeb Bush” that has to go. To win the invisible primary and prevail with voters, Bush will have to sacrifice the most moderate aspects of his persona and commit to the main concerns of the rank and file. Or, put another way, there’s a good chance that any Jeb Bush who represents the entire Republican Party will be a Jeb Bush who opposes comprehensive immigration reform, shows strong skepticism for federal education programs, and adopts the usual bromides against President Obama and the Democratic Party.

It’s a Jeb Bush who – if he truly wants to win the nomination – may have to disavow his brother and father, too.

He may not want to do that, and the evidence is mounting that the crazies will get crazier, so it’s back to them:

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) on Sunday insisted that even though Republican Senators blocked the Democrats’ equal pay bill last week, her party is fighting for women’s rights.

“I find this war on women rhetoric just almost silly,” she said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” when asked if Republicans opposed equal pay for women. “It is Republicans that have led the fight for women’s equality. Go back through history, and look at who was the first woman to ever vote, elected to office, go to Congress, four out of five governors.”

When asked why she opposed the most recent equal pay legislation specifically, Blackburn said the bill would merely increase litigation, the line that most Republicans have been touting.

“The legislation was something that was going to be helpful for trial lawyers and what we would like to see happen is equal opportunity and clearing up some of the problems that exist that are not fair to women,” she said. “We’re all for equal pay.”

That must be why Blackburn voted against the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009, so Salon’s Joan Walsh lowers the boom:

Blackburn, you’ll recall, became the public face of the House GOP’s 20-week abortion ban last year when Rep. Trent Franks said the bill didn’t exempt cases of rape because “the incidence of pregnancy from rape is very low.” She had earlier become a GOP hero for insisting on NBC’s Meet the Press that women “didn’t want” pay equity laws. “I’ve always said that I didn’t want to be given a job because I was a female, I wanted it because I was the most well-qualified person for the job,” she told David Gregory. “And making certain that companies are going to move forward in that vein, that is what women want.” In fact, women overwhelmingly want pay equity, and they support laws to achieve it, according to public opinion polls.

Now that pay equity is back in the news, thanks to Democrats pushing the Paycheck Fairness Act, Blackburn is in demand again. She told CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday that “we’re all for equal pay.” But the GOP supports neither the Paycheck Fairness Act nor the minimum wage, which would hugely help women, who make up two-thirds of minimum wage workers. “I would love for women to be focused on maximum wage,” Blackburn bizarrely explained. She went on to insist “I have fought to be recognized with equality for a long time. A lot of us get tired of guys condescending to us.”

Walsh is not pleased:

This is what Republicans hope they can reduce this debate to: complaining about “guys condescending to us,” not guys being paid more, or guys paying less for insurance (as they did before the Affordable Care Act) or guys making laws that tell women what they can do with their bodies.

Okay, okay – Marsha Blackburn is just one woman, not all Republican women, or all Republicans. They’re not all this bat-shit crazy. They just seem to have chosen her as their spokeswoman, and the anecdotal evidence keeps piling up. Hillary arranged for someone to throw a shoe at her so people would forget Benghazi, and the guy who says the federal government doesn’t even exist finally said what everyone already knew, and states can secede any old time they’d like, and talk of compassion is for losers, and women really don’t want equal pay for equal work, they want to prove they deserve that, slowly, over the years, if they can, with no law guaranteeing it. And at some point all the evidence piles up, in a smoldering wreck on the side of the road. Don’t trust one odd item here and one odd item there. Those could be anomalies, until they’re not, and then you have your data. That’s where we are now.

Posted in Republican Attraction to the Extreme, Republican Framing Devices, States' Rights | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Every Man a King

“Whereas it has long been known and declared that the poor have no right to the property of the rich, I wish it also to be known and declared that the rich have no right to the property of the poor.” ~ John Ruskin

“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” ~ John Steinbeck

Few remember The Kingfish. That would be Huey Long – the governor down there in Louisiana from 1928 through 1932, who then became one of their two senators in Washington, who was assassinated in 1935, a month after he announced he would be running for president. The assassination had nothing to do with any presidential run, however. It was a local Louisiana dispute over redistricting and getting rid of a judge Huey Long despised, and the judge’s son-in-law did the deed – and this Kingfish wasn’t going to be president anyway. Huey Long was a bit of a buffoon and a crude rabble-rouser who liked to play dumb, or innocent, pointing out all the simple truths that all the smart people – pretentious politicians (not him) and bankers and economists and big thinkers – missed entirely. These days he’d be Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, not a politician at all, just someone gleefully causing as much trouble as possible – except this guy was on the other side of things. Huey Long was an FDR man, enthusiastic about the New Deal. He just wanted to take it further. In 1935 he teamed up with Louisiana State University band director Castro Carrazo to write a song about sharing the nation’s wealth – pure redistribution with no apologies, in the form of a net asset tax on corporations and individuals – and announced that if he ran for president Every Man a King would be his campaign song. He even arranged to have it recorded for a national newsreel service by Ina Ray Hutton and Her All-Girl Orchestra – except he ended up dead, so nothing came of it. There is this clip of him singing the thing himself with more enthusiasm than skill, and the curiously tentative preliminary Ina Ray Hutton version – with Senator Long introducing the number with a righteous rant, and then sitting off to the side, grooving on the words – it all belongs to you – you can be a millionaire – every man a king, every woman a queen and so on. It was the ultimate populist anthem, long forgotten now.

No one believes that sort of thing now, not even the rural poor down in Louisiana – or especially the rural poor down in Louisiana, where nothing ever seems to go right. Katrina knocked the stuffing out of them, the final indication that no one was going to do much of anything to make their lot in life any better. Huey Long was wildly popular down there, and had a bit of national fame, because at one time that wasn’t so. What he was proposing seemed vaguely possible. FDR’s New Deal did get people back to work. There were roads and bridges and schools and dams to build, improving the infrastructure of the country and putting money in workers’ pockets, to spend to jump-start the dead economy. No one became a millionaire, but that was a start. The rich and the business community screamed bloody murder, because this was the government distorting the naturally self-correcting marketplace and destroying capitalism itself – but FDR clearly said he “welcomed their hatred” and they could just stuff it. Huey Long thought he could be even more direct, and just take their stuff, by taxing it, heavily. But those days are long gone. The rich and the business community are the “job creators” now, even if they’d rather move imaginary assets around in complicated ways than create any new jobs. Workers, demanding good pay and benefits, and workplace safety and reasonable hours and all the rest, are such a bother, aren’t they? Most everything can be offshored or automated, and there are unpaid interns too. Huey Long wouldn’t recognize this world. Everyone would laugh at his little song now.

Jeff Madrick – the economist whose latest book is The End of Affluence – has been looking into this, and he and his colleagues have a new report, A Bold Approach to the Jobs Emergency that is full of ideas on how to get people back to work, even if they don’t become millionaires, which are New Deal ideas, but which present problems:

There are taboos among policymakers that are holding us back. Above all, we must take fiscal stimulus seriously again. Today’s economy operates far below its growth potential. The fiscal stimulus we need should not only make the social safety net whole but also be tied to aggressive investment in transportation, communications, and clean technologies that have been badly neglected. …

The repressive effect on jobs and wages that results from aggressive Wall Street practices is all but invisible in Washington. Academic economists are almost as bad as the Washington think tanks in paying too little attention to how big finance can undermine both jobs and wages. Our report highlights the findings of researchers such as Eileen Appelbaum, formerly of Rutgers, and Rosemary Batt of Cornell, who show that the leveraged buyout and privatization crazes have on average led to many lost jobs and significantly less spending on R&D. It also showcases the work of William Lazonick of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who has long called attention to how massive corporate stock buybacks may help shareholders in the short run but hurt the American economy by diverting investment.

Yes, fiscal stimulus is taboo now, and no one wants to say that the job creators aren’t creating jobs, but the idea here is that the decline of work is not inevitable:

But bankrupt ideology, narrow politics, and bad economics are robbing the nation of its confidence and hope for the future. A comprehensive jobs plan is not even being attempted in America. Failure becomes contagious.

Failure actually became contagious. There may be no reversing things now, and Anat Shenker-Osorio (see Don’t Buy It: The Trouble with Talking Nonsense about the Economy) offers some curious observations:

In focus groups I’ve helped run across the country among folks at or below the poverty line, the stigma around admission of poverty is formidable. When you ask, “You often hear talk of the ‘haves’ and have nots’… which are you?” respondents subsisting on as little as $12,000 per household tell you they’re a “have.”

One mistake being propagated by well-meaning liberals is to shorthand it as a “gap between rich and poor.” (Similarly, the discrepancy between what men and women workers get is termed the “gender pay gap.”) But if even those deemed as “poor” by our measly federal standard don’t think that they are, there’s no way describing a chasm between groups will rally those troops. When most everyone considers him or herself a “have” – because the alternative is an appellation too reviled to claim – hearing there’s a division between them and some non-existent other is no big deal.

Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires? That seems to be the case:

In an experiment using metaphorical priming, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Oberlin, Paul Thibodeau and his colleagues give respondents one of two prompts about inequality. … The first formulation, “income inequality has split the economy” and “the gap between rich and poor has widened” got three quarters of the sample disagreeing that “income inequality is bad for the country as a whole.”

But the other half of the sample had inequality likened to an internal imbalance – with a prompt that included “income inequality has destabilized the economy.” In this condition, the split between those who saw inequality as an overall problem and those who didn’t was exactly the reverse – 75 percent of these respondents declared inequality an issue.

This indicates that language like “destabilized” as well as “off kilter” “out of whack” and so on is a more effective way to frame the problem.

“Every Man a King” just isn’t going to cut it:

We need to underscore that we live in a single, connected, financial system that’s now completely off balance and thus can’t be expected to fly straight, much less pick up speed. No matter how much the rich wall off in their enclaves, we harm our cause when implying there are multiple self-contained economies. It’s time to insist that a handful of people having so much throws the entire system off course.

Admittedly, getting folks to realize inequality is troubling for the whole economy isn’t sufficient to build the political will to change the rules that enabled and ennobled this reality. However, without a sense that there’s something fundamentally wrong and effects every one of us, it’s hard to get people to listen, let alone act. We ought to pair talk about equity with a bit more about equilibrium.

Yeah, but Huey Long understood you don’t talk about macroeconomic theory, you talk to temporarily embarrassed millionaires who wonder what the hell happened, and tell them they’ll be millionaires as they should be and are underneath it all, one day, somehow. And they won’t believe it for a minute, at least not now, even if they want to believe it, wishing it were true. They’ll buy lottery tickets.

Michael Lind has another take on this, thinking about what FDR and then LBJ were up to:

The New Deal was the American version of the social reforms that transformed other advanced industrial democracies in the twentieth century. All of the other English-speaking countries as well as the democracies of Western Europe at some point adopted worker-protective legislation, social safety nets and – following World War II and the horrors of Nazi racism – the outlawing of white supremacy. In this wave of twentieth-century reform, the U.S. was mostly a laggard, not a leader. In the late nineteenth century, Imperial Germany pioneered workers’ compensation and Social Security, and before World War I Britain adopted many reforms that were delayed in the U.S. until the 1930s.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the essential goal of twentieth-century reform was similar: extending the benefits of industrial capitalism to two groups that had been left out of the first wave of industrialization, namely farmers and industrial workers. This historic task was performed in Sweden, for example, by the Social Democrats, on the basis of the “cow deal” – an alliance among industrial workers and small farmers.

In the United States, the situation was complicated by the division of the agrarian population between the small farmers of the Northeast and Midwest and the landowners of the South, who lorded it over first slaves and then tenant farmers. Lincoln’s Civil War coalition united Northern industrialists and Northern farmers against the Southern planter oligarchy. Had history taken a different course, an enlightened, reformist Republican Party might have carried out social and economic modernization in the U.S. Like Theodore Roosevelt, many progressives were Republicans, and the Democrats had long been dominated by Southern reactionaries.

But by the 1920s, the progressives within the Republican Party had been defeated by business-class conservatives. So when the system crashed during the Great Depression, it was rebuilt by the Democrats…

But that was odd:

Industry-specific measures – agricultural price supports and pro-union legislation – helped bring family farmers in the South and West and industrial workers in the factory belt into the middle class. Industrial unions often supported employer-based benefits, as opposed to the universal social insurance that many socialist and progressive intellectuals favored. Deposit insurance, a New Deal reform usually attributed to Roosevelt (who hated the idea and signed the bill only reluctantly), was designed to stabilize small Southern and Western local banks, which were protected from being absorbed by large banks by anti-branch banking laws that lasted until the late twentieth century. And the influence of Southern segregationists in the Democratic Party led to the initial exclusion of farm workers and household servants (the two main occupational categories of blacks at the time) from Social Security, along with racial discrimination in federal housing programs. Likewise, with the exceptions of Social Security and Medicare, federal social insurance programs like FDR’s unemployment insurance and LBJ’s Medicaid were crafted as federal-state hybrids in part to appease powerful neo-Confederate Southern supporters of states’ rights.

The New Deal and Great Society, then, did not create universalist social democracy of the kind dreaded by the right and favored by the left. Instead, like similar mid-twentieth-century “settlements” in Canada and Western Europe, New Deal era reforms gave white male workers and farmers, in societies still stratified by race and gender, a “piece of the action” of industrial capitalism. New Deal liberalism was essentially a profit-sharing scheme to shore up capitalism among mass constituencies that, in other societies, had responded to their exclusion from the benefits of growth by turning to socialism, fascism or various kinds of illiberal populism.

In short, toss a few crumbs out there to keep the rabble quiet, which worked well enough then but may not work now:

The New Deal and similar reform movements in other mid-twentieth-century democracies effected a massive redistribution of income within large industrial corporations, from managers and shareholders to workers in the same firm, who were paid higher wages thanks both to unions and wages-and-hours regulations. But today’s rich and today’s working poor are seldom in the same company – or even in the same industry. Unlike the Big Three auto companies at the height of the New Deal/Great Society era, Wall Street financial institutions and Silicon Valley corporations make enormous profits while employing relatively few people. Meanwhile, many of the firms that employ growing numbers of Americans – say, nursing homes – don’t make big profits, even if the profits they do make could be shared more equitably. A higher minimum wage can help. But if most Americans in the service sector are to share the gains from productivity growth, channels of redistribution other than wages will be necessary, such as subsidies for the private purchase of important goods and services or alternately their public provision.

By the private purchase of important goods and services Lind might mean Obamacare, or by their public provision Lind might mean Medicare for everyone, but there are other matters to consider:

The political order is also radically different than it was in the age of Roosevelt and Johnson. Between the 1930s and the 1960s, American politics was still organized as it had been since Martin Van Buren and others developed the political party system in the 1830s. The Democrats and Republicans were national federations of state and local political machines, in which millions of ordinary Americans took part not only as voters but also as party officials and volunteers. The political machines were supplemented by other organizations in which rural and working-class Americans had influence, like the Grange, veterans’ clubs and ethnic clubs in immigrant-rich cities.

Today the parties are mostly free-floating labels that are up for grabs by gangs of plutocrats, rather than mass-membership organizations. Most candidates are either self-financed or backed by partisan or ideological organizations. Funded by the rich, these groups could not be further from the dues-paying, membership-based parties of the era of Roosevelt and Johnson.

The whole sociopolitical ecosystem changed:

This, then, is the situation in all of the Western democracies in the early twenty-first century: a workforce increasingly dominated by relatively poorly-paid workers in the service sector, with a large college-credentialed minority, and a political system dominated by big donations rather than widespread membership. Put this in the context of the ongoing third industrial revolution based on IT and the catastrophic failure of the most recent attempt to create a global economy, and the challenge of achieving something like the results of the New Deal and Great Society by different means in new conditions becomes even more complex.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, following Barack Obama’s departure from office, there will still be an opening for a twenty-first century version of FDR or LBJ.

Let’s hope we don’t get another Huey Long. That little song was rather awful, but Mark Robert Rank, Thomas Hirschl and Kirk Foster have a different musical way of framing things in Chasing the American Dream: Understanding What Shapes Our Fortunes as seen in this this excerpt:

Let us imagine a game of musical chairs in which there are ten players but only eight chairs. The players circle around the chairs until the music stops. Who is most likely to find a chair? If we focus simply on the characteristics of the individual winners and losers, those more likely to find a chair will be in a better position when the music stops, perhaps possessing more agility, greater quickness, and so on. All of these attributes help to explain who in particular is able to find a chair.

However, given that there are only eight chairs for ten people, these characteristics only explain who in particular wins or loses in the individual game, not why there are losers in the first place. That question can only be answered by understanding that the structure of the game ensures that two people will not be able to locate a chair. Even if everyone were to double their quickness and agility, two people would still lose out.

Similarly, while greater or lesser levels of skills and education help to determine who in particular may be more likely to find better opportunities, they cannot explain why there may be a shortage of such opportunities in the first place. In order to answer that question, we must look to the structure of the game.

In thinking about the overall availability of opportunities, they vary over time and place. In periods of robust economic growth, when plenty of good-quality jobs are being produced, the mismatch may be that there are nine chairs for every ten players competing in the game. On the other hand, during periods of economic downturn, such as the recent Great Recession, it may be that there are only six or seven chairs for every ten individuals looking for a decent opportunity.

Likewise, the size of one’s birth cohort can play a role in this mismatch. A larger birth cohort entering the labor market will be at a greater disadvantage than a smaller birth cohort. There can also be a spatial mismatch between opportunities and individuals. For those living in impoverished inner city or remote rural areas, there is clearly a mismatch between available job opportunities versus the pool of labor in need of such opportunities. The game itself is therefore fluid over time and place. But the bottom line is that in order for Americans to get ahead and achieve the American Dream, there must be enough good opportunities for all who are in need of them.

There aren’t. Not now. Things changed:

When we met Edgar Williams, he had just arrived home from work, still wearing his dark blue janitor uniform. Edgar, who is in his late fifties and African American, worked at Walmart for several years and is currently employed at Sam’s Club … His working conditions epitomize the changes that we have discussed at the lower wage level. Sitting in his living room, Edgar talked about these conditions.

This is his tale:

What they’re trying to do now is kill all full-time work like Walmart did and make it part-time so they don’t have to pay benefits. So that’s their goal.

You don’t know when they’re going to let you go. Because they want to replace you with part-time people. They gonna hire two part-timers for one full-time. I only make $11.60 an hour, and I’ve been there all this time. Then they’ve got a ceiling where some of the people that have been there 20, 22 years, they’ve gone as far as they can go, they can’t go no further in salary. They cap the salary.

They used to be a good company to work for. They used to give merit raises. Now, if you get a 60 cent raise a year, you’re doing good. If they give you 40 cents, you’re doing alright, and a lot people don’t get none. And it’s bad. It’s bad. But the public don’t know it [chuckle].

And this is the thing, the worst part – they make you have open availability. Where they can schedule you any kind of way, so that don’t give you no room for another job. You know, because you don’t have a set schedule.

Sometimes I get really, really irritated. And I don’t curse or nothing, but I tell them how I feel. They get up in the morning and they do their little Sam’s cheer. And one time they asked me, “How come you don’t cheer?” I said, “I will when ya’ll stop lying. When you said, members are number one, because that’s not true.”

You remember that commercial that used to come on years ago when the man got stuck in the revolving door [laughter]. That’s the way you feel. You’re just going around and around and around. It’s cruel. It’s cruel. We supposed to be the richest country in the world, and you want to help somebody, but in this country, you want to cut out everything for the lower income people.

That’s just a taste of it. There are other tales, tales of folks who don’t see themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires at all, and who would laugh at someone like Huey Long telling them every man will be a king if the right people, like him, get elected. They know there’s no hope, so they do the best they can. But no one is turning to socialism, fascism or various kinds of illiberal populism. What’s the point of any of that? Each of those is a rigged game too, also run by big shots with money.

That’s where we are. The poor have no right to the property of the rich – everyone knows that – Republicans say that all the time and Obama is always careful to say no one begrudges anyone their success – but it does seem that the rich do have the right to the property of the poor now. There’s a reason no one remembers Huey Long and his little song. He’s ancient history, and he’s dead. And he was never a very nice person in the first place.

Posted in Income Inequality | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Constructive Dismissal

Elections should be about clear choices, and back in January 2012, with everyone assuming Mitt Romney would be the Republicans’ nominee for president, while enjoying the Trump-Bachmann-Gingrich-Cain-Perry-Santorum clown show that was developing, it was clear that Mitt Romney was not Barack Obama:

“I like being able to fire people who provide services to me,” Romney told a breakfast forum of the Nashua Chamber of Commerce. “You know, if someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say, ‘You know, I’m going to get someone else to provide this service to me.’”

The remark immediately provided campaign fodder to Romney’s Republican rivals a day before the New Hampshire primary, and Democrats began circulating video clips of it. Romney later accused political opponents of taking his remark out of context.

That was taken out of context. Romney had been talking about an ideal totally unregulated free-market healthcare system, where the government kept its nose of the whole thing and didn’t even insist on any standards on anything at all, where folks bought what insurance they could with their own money, and no one else’s, and could “fire” any insurance company they felt wasn’t doing right by them. If that were the case, Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand – competition among those who want to get filthy rich selling something – would drive down prices, and thus all healthcare costs, and assure the highest quality health care anyone had ever seen before, anywhere. If you want to make big bucks, you’d damned well better have the best product at the lowest price. Yes, he had a dream – but all people heard was a rich guy, who made his money borrowing money to disassemble healthy companies and sell the parts for a hefty profit for him and his investors, saying he liked to be in that enviable position of being able to fire people, any old time, just because he felt like it.

Perhaps the idea was that he thought that everyone in America should be able to feel like that – in charge and happy and giddy at being able to just fire anyone who displeased them at all, on the spot – but at the time unemployment was a record levels and tens of millions of Americans couldn’t find a job anywhere, doing anything. Romney’s timing was off. This was not the time for the man who had fired so many people – inadvertently, as regrettable but unavoidable collateral damage from all the leveraged buyouts and reorganizations of this company or that – to be talking about the joy of firing people. There are other ways to discuss laissez-faire economic theory – gleefully firing folks who offend you is only one minor implied goodie such an economic system might offer certain personality types, now and then.

That’s not to say Mitt Romney was a psychopath. He was just a man blissfully unaware of the lives of others around him, without the pathologies that sometimes develop from that condition, while Obama was a mensch. After Hillary Clinton sputtered and imploded, Obama was out there saying the oddest things about Republicans. Obama didn’t doubt their good and noble intentions. He knew they just wanted what was best for the country, just as he did – he just disagreed with them on the best way to get there from here. But he was willing to discuss all of that with them, any old time they’d like. The issue was public policy, not intention.

Many on the left were appalled that Obama was giving “those guys” the benefit of the doubt – especially after all the birther and secret-Muslim and pals-with-terrorist nonsense – but Obama kept saying everyone has to understand where these guys are coming from, and that they’re not bad people, really. Obama ignored the personal attacks and kept working on what he thought was best for the country, willing to make any reasonable compromise to get something useful done. These Republicans were men of good will, after all.

They weren’t. They’d compromise on nothing, or not be allowed by their angry base to compromise on anything, so it was one crisis after another – threats to shut down the government or force the United States into default, collapsing the world’s economy, unless Obamacare, which had been passed fair and square and then found quite constitutional by a very conservative Supreme Court, was defunded if not repealed entirely. After a few not-that-reasonable compromises, like that sequester nonsense, Obama gave up. He finally refused to negotiate on the debt ceiling. Republicans may have wanted major policy change without anywhere near the votes to get anything they favored passed, but that had nothing to do with the Full Faith and Credit of the United States Government. Some said that the threats to refuse to raise the debt ceiling, that came up again and again, were blackmail, but the Obama administration got them right – they were bullshit. Republicans were not going to take the blame for ruining the world’s economy for a generation or two, to get rid of a law they didn’t have the votes to block in the first place, and still don’t have the votes to defund or repeal. They backed down, and Obama let them shut down the government over the matter – and they ended up looking like fools. The economy took a big hit and they got nothing they wanted, unless they wanted some kind of noble lost-cause martyrdom that might be useful with the base in upcoming campaigns – the Ted Cruz model.

Through it all, however, Obama never seemed the kind of guy who would ever fire anyone, on the spot, who somehow displeased him. He did fire General McChrystal – but he kind of had to. Any general who lets a reporter listen in as he goes on and on to his staff about how the civilians in Washington who set policy are all jerks and fools, has to go, unless America would prefer a military junta to a constitutional democracy. But that was about it. Heads don’t roll in the Obama administration. Barack Obama is not Mitt Romney. Everyone gets the benefit of the doubt, for as long as possible. They’re doing their best, after all. It’s not like they’re Republicans being pussy-whipped by the Tea Party, just down the street. The White House is different.

If so, it’s hard to know what to make of this:

Kathleen Sebelius, the long-embattled secretary of Health and Human Services who was at the center of the disastrous rollout and implementation of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, is stepping down this week after five stormy years in the administration.

The New York Times reported Thursday evening that President Obama has accepted the former Kansas governor’s resignation and will nominate his budget director, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, to replace her.

Did Barack Obama turn into Mitt Romney? Was she fired? It’s hard to tell:

Sebelius, 65, made the decision to leave on her own, according to officials, and was not forced out. Nevertheless, Obama had been under pressure for months to fire her. He had resisted, in part because he did not want HHS to undergo more upheaval amid all the problems plaguing HealthCare.gov, and in part because of his general reluctance to publicly rebuke top officials, according to media reports.

Still, there was little doubt that tensions had grown between the president and his secretary, and the news media made a lot about body language and Obama’s propensity to keep Sebelius in the background at cabinet meetings and other events promoting Obamacare.

That might be what is known in employment law as constructive dismissal – a deliberate and systematic but tacit way of making someone feel so useless and disliked that they quit on their own – the basis of more than a few wrongful discharge lawsuits. It’s just that that sort thing doesn’t seem Obama’s style, but something was going on:

Obama had little good to say about her during an interview with NBC News last November in which he, too, had to apologize about the Obamacare website, which had been crudely designed and which had thwarted the efforts of many Americans to enroll for health insurance for months after the formal launch last October.

Asked by Chuck Todd if he still had “full confidence” in Sebelius in the aftermath of the hobbled launch of HealthCare.com, Obama said, “I think she’d be the first to admit that, if we had to do it all over again, there would have been a whole lot more questions than were asked in terms of how this thing is working.”

Still, he added, she “doesn’t write code; yeah, she wasn’t our IT person.” As recently as last week, Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, rejected any suggestion that Sebelius would be fired.

That might remind people of another time long ago:

In the hotly contested 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Obama relied early and often on his charisma to win over voters still on the fence about the freshman Senator. Cracking jokes and smiles at the numerous debates, he was able to distinguish himself from the frequent stern looks and sober policy explanations of his rival, Hillary Clinton. But Obama’s charm fell short in the last debate before the New Hampshire primary. When the moderator asked Clinton whether she had the personal appeal to best her opponent, Obama interjected with, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” The backhanded compliment may have drawn nervous laughter in the auditorium, but it prompted a major backlash in the days to come. Clinton supporters painted Obama as cruel and insensitive, and voters handed him a stunning defeat in New Hampshire just a few days later.

Oops, Obama did it again, for no good reason:

Ironically, Sebelius’ departure comes amid the first really positive news about the health insurance program since its inception.

Sebelius testified on Capitol Hill on Thursday morning that more than 7.5 million people have signed up for Obamacare. The latest enrollment tally includes the 7.1 million Americans who signed up through the exchanges before midnight on March 31 – the official end of the open enrollment period. It also includes an additional 400,000 people who have taken advantage of the special enrollment period for health insurance shoppers who had trouble signing up through the online exchanges. That special enrollment period is scheduled to end April 15.

The president is hoping that Burwell, 48, a Harvard and Oxford educated West Virginia native with a background in economic policy, will bring an intense focus and management acumen to the department, according to The Times. The budget office, which she has overseen since April of last year, is deeply involved in developing and carrying out health care policy.

“The president wants to make sure we have a proven manager and relentless implementer in the job over there, which is why he is going to nominate Sylvia,” said Denis R. McDonough, the White House chief of staff.

Sebelius did fine, in the end. Now go away and let a real professional do the job, except Ezra Klein sees it differently:

Obamacare has won. And that’s why Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius can resign.

Calls for Sebelius’ resignation were almost constant after Obamacare’s catastrophic launch. The problem wasn’t just that Sebelius had presided over the construction of a fantastically expensive web site that flatly didn’t work. It was that she didn’t know healthcare.gov was going to instantly, systemically fail. And so the White House didn’t know that healthcare.gov was going to instantly, systemically fail. The demands that Sebelius to step down – or be fired – were as deafening inside the building as outside of it.

But President Obama refused. As National Journal’s Major Garrett reported, Obama believes that “scaring people with a ceremonial firing deepens fear, turns allies against one another, makes them risk-averse, and saps productivity.” Moreover, there was too much to be done to fire one of the few people who knew how to finish the job. Sebelius would stay. The White House wouldn’t panic in ways that made it harder to save the law.

It’s all in how you frame things:

The White House says Sebelius notified the President in March that “she felt confident in the trajectory for enrollment and implementation,” and that once open enrollment ended, “it would be the right time to transition the Department to new leadership.”

In other words, the law has won its survival. The Obama administration can exhale. Personnel changes can be made. A new team – led by Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Matthews Burwell, who the White House calls a proven manager – can be brought in to continue to improve the law. And Sebelius can leave with her head held high. She can leave with the law she helped build looking, shockingly, like a success.

That’s the word now. The woman is not Stanley McChrystal, but Greg Sargent points out that nothing is ever that easy:

Republicans are already salivating at the prospect of confirmation hearings for her successor, and their response to the resignation says a lot about the current state of the debate over Obamacare. In short, as enrollment continues to mount, Republicans are retreating to a fallback position, which is that Obamacare cannot work by definition.

Here’s Eric Cantor: “I thank Secretary Sebelius for her service. She had an impossible task: nobody can make Obamacare work.”

Here’s Chuck Grassley: “Anybody put in charge of Obamacare would be set up to fail.”

Here’s Mitch McConnell: “Sebelius may be gone, but the problems with this law and the impact it’s having on our constituents aren’t. Obamacare has to go too.” As always, with McConnell, the law’s beneficiaries simply don’t exist.

Sebelius was fine, likable enough, but she wasn’t the problem:

Last fall, as the law got underway and as the website then crashed, the Republican position was essentially that the law was fatally flawed (nobody wanted it, supposedly) and thus would inevitably fail to fulfill its own goals. Now that the law has hit enrollment targets, and evidence comes in that it is for now on track, the Republican position is that the law is a failure even if it is more or less doing what it was designed to do — cover a lot more people. Indeed, one way to describe the GOP position is that Republicans think the law is an inherent failure precisely because it is doing what it was designed to do.

There’s no pleasing these people:

The Republican position – that the law can’t work by definition – is essentially an admission that Republicans simply don’t support doing what Obamacare sets out to do: Expand coverage to the number of people the law hopes to cover, through a combination of increased government oversight over the health system and – yep – spending money. The GOP focus on only those being negatively impacted by the law, and the aggressive hyping of cancellations into “millions” of full blown “horror stories” – combined with the steadfast refusal to acknowledge the very existence of the law’s beneficiaries – is, at bottom, just another way to fudge the actual GOP position: Flat out opposition to doing what it takes to expand health care to lots and lots of people.

And that’s a trap:

Sometimes Republicans are candid about this position, such as when Paul Ryan forthrightly admitted that once Obamacare is repealed, its popular provisions should not be restored because it would be too expensive. Others, however, recognize the political problem here, and continue to say they support Obamacare’s general goals while declining to detail how a replacement would accomplish them. The problem for Republicans is that they want to persuade folks that they, too, support these general goals – hence the perpetual promise of vague alternatives – but this posture is fundamentally incompatible with the idea that Obamacare cannot work by definition, because there’s no alternative way to accomplish those goals at the law’s scale.

There’s a bit of delusion here:

Politico reports this morning that Republicans are convinced that the Sebelius resignation opens the door for confirmation hearings that will shower them with political riches. I believe that, despite persistent disapproval of the law, the bulk of the polling suggests the American mainstream generally agrees Obamacare is the only set of solutions we have (with single payer being a political impossibility), wants to give it a chance to work, and doesn’t believe there is any Republican alternative. Majorities (except for Republicans) want to move on from the Obamacare debate. More hearings aren’t going to change that.

Why do they even want to fight his battle? Kevin Drum is puzzled:

Obamacare is a great example of the famous hack gap.

Don’t get me wrong. We lefties generally try to portray Obamacare as a success. You won’t find Diogenes on either side. But I read lots of lefties who write about health care, and they’ve generally been willing to acknowledge Obamacare’s problems. The federal website rollout was a disaster. The insurance pools so far seem to have fewer of the young and healthy than we’d hoped. Narrow networks are a significant problem, especially in some states. We don’t know yet how many Obamacare enrollees were previously uninsured – and in any case, the number appears to be less than CBO projected earlier this year…

But unless I’m reading the wrong conservatives, you simply see nothing of this sort on the right. Their coverage of Obamacare is simply an endless search for increasingly strained ways to deny that anything even slightly positive has happened. The Obama administration is lying about its numbers. If they’re not lying, the figures are meaningless anyway until they’ve been un-skewed. Premiums are skyrocketing. People are being tossed off their plans and thrown in the street. The budget projections are a joke. Cancer patients are dying for lack of doctors to see them. Hours are being cut back and part-time workers are being fired. Fewer people have coverage now than before Obamacare started up.

I could go on. And on. And on. This is the hack gap in all its glory. There’s simply no willingness on the right to acknowledge any success at all. And even when they’re forced to concede that maybe there are a few people benefiting from Obamacare, it’s just an opportunity to rail about Democrats handing out bennies to inner-city moochers like a modern-day Boss Tweed. Welcome to America, ladies and gentlemen.

Yes, and it took Obama five years to figure this out. Still, it’s best to understand the other side, to see the lives of others, and Paul Waldman gives it a go with one subset of those who despise this president and everything thing that’s been happening:

Liberals should acknowledge that for more fundamentalist Christians, there’s a genuine feeling that underlies their fears. In many ways, the contemporary world really has turned against them. Society has decided that their beliefs about family – in which sex before marriage is shameful and wicked, and women are subordinate to their husbands – are antiquated and worthy of ridicule. Their contempt for gay people went from universal to acceptable to controversial to deplorable in a relatively short amount of time. If you are actually convinced that, in the words of possible future senator and current congressman Paul Broun, “I don’t believe that the Earth’s but about 9,000 years old,” then modern geology is an outright assault on your most fundamental beliefs. And so are biology and physics and many other branches of science.

Kevin Drum goes further:

It’s not just changing culture. Over the last half century, various branches of government have also taken plenty of proactive steps to marginalize religion. Prayer in public school has been banned. Crèches can no longer be set up in front of city hall. Parochial schools are forbidden from receiving public funds. The Ten Commandments can’t be displayed in courtrooms. Catholic hospitals are required to cover contraceptives for their employees. Gay marriage is legal in more than a dozen states and the number is growing rapidly.

Needless to say, I consider these and plenty of other actions to be proper public policy. I support them all. But they’re real things. Conservative Christians who feel under attack may be partly the victims of cynical politicians and media moguls, and a lot of their pity-party attempts at victimization really are ridiculous. But their fears do have a basis in reality. To a large extent, it’s the left that started the culture wars, and we should hardly be surprised that it provoked a strong response. In fact, it’s a sign that we’re doing something right.

As far as I’m concerned, the culture wars are one of the left’s greatest achievements. Our culture needed changing, and we should take the credit for it. Too often, though, we pretend that it’s entirely a manufactured outrage of the right, kept alive solely by wild fantasies and fever swamp paranoia. That doesn’t just sell the right short; it sells the left short too. It’s our fight. We started it, and we should be proud of it.

And Kathleen Sebelius should be proud too, even if she screwed up badly at critical times, and let’s go back to 2008 again:

Barack Obama was forced onto the defensive at the weekend over unguarded comments he made about small-town voters across the Midwest.

Obama was caught in an uncharacteristic moment of loose language. Referring to working-class voters in old industrial towns decimated by job losses, the presidential hopeful said: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

That comment caused Obama no end of trouble at the time, but looking back, after seeing Obama in action for five years now, those don’t seem the words of an elitist snob. Those are words of sympathy – he “gets” these people and understands their frustration, which he implies is more than justified. He understands the lives of others, and now we know he really doesn’t like firing people. That was Mitt Romney, the functioning borderline psychopath, from the party of the same, the party that wants to take away the health insurance that seven or eight million people just got for the first time, and the health insurance that three times that many will have in hand by the time of the next presidential election. Luckily, elections are another form of constructive dismissal.

Posted in Kathleen Sebelius, Obama's Management Style, Obamacare | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Revenge of Captain Obvious

If you want to see a Gutenberg Bible or two, you head to the Morgan Library – 225 Madison Avenue at East 36th Street over in Murray Hill. It’s pretty cool, for a One Percent thing. It used to be the private library of J. P. Morgan, but it was made a public institution in 1924 by his son – in accordance with his father’s will. The old man thought everyone should be able to see the amazing rare books, and there’s the Madison Bistro across the street – very French – very nice. Madison Avenue is okay. Murray Hill is, however, considered rather dull and hopelessly not-hip, even it once was a wonderful place – but Mrs. Astor held her last Murray Hill Ball for the Four Hundred in 1892 and that’s all gone. Morgan is gone, the Astors are gone, and the only Vanderbilt left in Manhattan now is Anderson Cooper – and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, is leaving him nothing – by mutual agreement. That particular Gilded Age is over. Madison Avenue is just another street now.

No one remembers any of those folks now anyway. Madison Avenue became something else in the fifties and sixties – the center of the advertising industry, where all national campaigns to sell us stuff we hadn’t known we needed, and which we didn’t really need at all, were planned and produced. These Madison Avenue folks, mostly men, shaped the consumer culture, and thus the culture itself, for decades. That’s what the television series Mad Men is about – who we are is what we have been convinced we must buy, by a group of desperate strivers who hope they got the zeitgeist right. They have to know Americans’ insecurities, which might or might not be theirs too, and Americans’ fantasies, which they might be able to extrapolate from their own, and if they pull that off they can sell you lots of deodorant, or, back then, a slow wallowing car with big fins. This calls for a bit of creativity, but that might not be the right word. Machiavellian cleverness is probably a better term – and they’re still at it. It just gets harder all the time. Have it your way. Where’s the beef? You deserve a break today. Just do it. Their job is to stick such words in our heads. J. P. Morgan, the man who collected the first printings of the most important books ever created, would not approve.

Morgan, were he still around, wouldn’t read their trade journal AdWeek either, but that’s where you find what these Mad Men have found works to dislodge cold cash from the pockets of Americans, at the moment, and there you’ll find a discussion of the hot new ad campaign for hotels.com – endless variations on a hapless Captain Obvious saying stupid things about hotels that everyone knows, as if they’re big discoveries. The conceit is that there are some things everyone just knows, and by some sort of transference, everyone just knows that the website they’re touting is obviously the only way to book a hotel room – which may or may not be working.

The ad campaign does, however, tap into the current zeitgeist. All argument in America has become dismissive. No one listens to anyone else, they just shrug and smile. Some things are so obvious that it’s not even worth talking to the other side. “They” just don’t get it, and they never will. Hey, everyone knows… fill in the blank. Conservatives know what they know, which liberals will never get, and liberals know what conservatives could never understand in a million years. That’s something to work with. Both the Democratic National Committee and the Republican National Committee now might be trying to secure the rights to Captain Obvious to use in upcoming political ads, a bit of humor to drive home the notion that some things are so obvious that any dispute about, say, food stamps or Obamacare, is a joke in and of itself. If it works for that hotel-booking outfit it’s sure to work for any number of politicians. Make the other side feel dumb, or at least make everyone else think they’re dumb, for never seeing the obvious. That could work.

It might not come to that, given the probable licensing fees and the risk of tainting the underlying brand, but some things are obvious. We’ve split in America, and that was driven by demographics. In fact, a recent study found something both interesting and obvious – white people get more conservative when they’re told they are becoming a minority:

The authors, Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson of Northwestern, use data from two main experiments. In one, a group of survey respondents was told that California had become a majority-minority state, and the other group was told that the Hispanic population was now equal in size to the black population in the US. Then, all respondents were asked what their political ideology was. The group that was told whites were in the minority in California, identified as more conservative than the second group.

In another experiment, one group of respondents read a press release saying that whites would soon become a minority nationally in 2042, while a second group read a release that didn’t mention race. The group primed by race then endorsed more conservative policy positions.

Any threat to one’s status as the demographic “in-group” increases political conservatism, and Slate’s Jamelle Bouie digs deeper:

Using a nationally representative survey of self-identified politically “independent” whites, Craig and Richeson conducted three experiments. In the first, they asked respondents about the racial shift in California – if they had heard the state had become majority-minority. What they found was a significant shift toward Republican identification, which increased for those who lived closest to the West Coast.

In the second experiment, they focused on the overall U.S. shift with census projections of the national population. Again, they found that white Americans became more conservative – and more likely to endorse conservative policies – when they were aware of demographic changes that put them in the minority.

The final experiment – where questions were further refined and targeted – saw similar results.

Exposure to any majority-minority shift “increases whites’ endorsement of conservative political ideology and policy positions” – because some things become so obvious. Captain Obvious says so, and Bouie adds this:

Even if there’s no minority-majority it’s still true that the United States is becoming browner, with whites making up a declining share of the population. And if this Northwestern study is any indication, that could lead to a stronger, deeper conservatism among white Americans. The racial polarization of the 2012 election – where the large majority of whites voted for Republicans, while the overwhelming majority of minorities voted for Democrats – could continue for decades.

That would be great for Democratic partisans excited at the prospect of winning national elections in perpetuity, but terrible for our democracy, which is still adjusting to our new multiracial reality, where minority groups are equal partners in political life. To accomplish anything – to the meet the challenges of our present and future – we’ll need a measure of civic solidarity, a common belief that we’re all Americans, with legitimate claims on the bounty of the country.

With extreme racial polarization – and not the routine identity politics of the present – this goes out the window.

That flew out the window a few years ago, and the Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore is reminded of something:

This morning I read an excerpt from Stony Brook University Prof. Michael Kimmel’s book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era… This particular excerpt focused on the Aryan Nation and white supremacists, but the book looks at angry white men in general. What he found was a strong correlation between white men failing to inherit any significant wealth or to achieve a status commensurate to their father’s, and a sense that white people are getting a raw deal.

Here’s Kimmel on that discomfort and anger that has festered:

That such ardent patriots are so passionately antigovernment might strike the observer as contradictory. After all, are these not the same men who served their country in Vietnam or in the Gulf War? Are these not the same men who believe so passionately in the American Dream? Are they not the backbone of the Reagan Revolution? Indeed, they are. The extreme Right faces the difficult cognitive task of maintaining their faith in America and in capitalism and simultaneously providing an analysis of an indifferent state, at best, or an actively interventionist one, at worst, and a way to embrace capitalism, despite a cynical corporate logic that leaves them, often literally, out in the cold – homeless, jobless, hopeless.

Finally, they believe themselves to be the true heirs of the real America. They are the ones who are entitled to inherit the bounty of the American system. It’s their birthright – as native-born, white American men. As sociologist Lillian Rubin puts it, “It’s this confluence of forces – the racial and cultural diversity of our new immigrant population; the claims on the resources of the nation now being made by those minorities who, for generations, have called America their home; the failure of some of our basic institutions to serve the needs of our people; the contracting economy, which threatens the mobility aspirations of working class families – all these have come together to leave white workers feeling as if everyone else is getting a piece of the action while they get nothing.”

They say that’s obvious, and Kilgore adds this:

Maybe in a parliamentary system we would have some kind of ultranationalist party that could serve as steam-vent for this kind of anxiety, but in our two-party system it is inevitable that the more conservative party will take on a significant part of it. It’s this anxiety that explains why the Republicans cannot pass immigration reform even though they have constituencies (the evangelicals, the agricultural industry, the Chamber of Commerce, and Wall Street) clamoring for it. They have actually been captured by this racial anxiety and now are held hostage to it.

What’s also interesting is that so much of this has little to do with policy preferences and how much it is mixed up in simple racial identity. These folks don’t like Wall Street or big corporations. Huge numbers of them benefit directly from federal aid and subsidies, including from ObamaCare, welfare, and food stamps. Given that, I wonder how their opinions might shift if confronted with a Democratic Party led by Hillary Clinton (with her family’s Bubba factor) rather than Barack Obama. Certainly, they would not find her so immediately alienating, which is not to say that the far right didn’t freak-out for the eight years of the Clinton presidency, because they did.

These folks are going to have to decide what is so obvious only a fool would not see it, and the problem is that can get confusing. In fact, the Heritage Foundation’s Jim DeMint has just said that “people of faith” ended slavery, not “big government.” He says that’s obvious:

Well, the reason that the slaves were eventually freed was the Constitution; it was like the conscience of the American people. Unfortunately there were some court decisions like Dred Scott and others that defined some people as property, but the Constitution kept calling us back to ‘all men are created equal and we have inalienable rights’ in the minds of God. But a lot of the move to free the slaves came from the people; it did not come from the federal government. It came from a growing movement among the people, particularly people of faith, that this was wrong. People like Wilberforce who persisted for years because of his faith and because of his love for people. So no liberal is going to win a debate that big government freed the slaves. In fact, it was Abraham Lincoln, the very first Republican, who took this on as a cause and a lot of it was based on a love in his heart that comes from God.

Salon’s Joan Walsh is flabbergasted:

Where to start? Far from granting enslaved Americans “inalienable rights,” the Constitution had to be amended by “big government” several times in order to end slavery and grant African-Americans citizenship. (It would take another 100 years to secure their civil rights, including the right to vote.) While Abraham Lincoln no doubt had “love in his heart,” he brought the power of the federal government down on the side of the enslaved, fighting a bloody Civil War to free them.

Why is DeMint even talking about this?

She suggests this:

DeMint’s remarks show that the right is on the defensive on race – they at least know they have to be against slavery and applaud its abolition – and that’s a good thing, I guess. … But the fact is, African-Americans (and women, and children, and workers, but that’s for another piece) needed government to secure their freedom and their basic rights. The one area where we could expect Americans to agree on a role for government – that it was necessary to stop the practice of cruelly enslaving human beings – nah, they want to fight about that too.

Does that make them racist? A lot of people on the right and left actually agree: The word “racist” has probably outlived its usefulness. We just don’t have another term yet. The real debate should be about institutions, policies and actions, not divining what’s in someone’s heart. The problem for the U.S. today is that a whole set of institutions and policies and practices have deliberately advantaged one group over another, and continue to do so to this day.

If you can’t see that, if you won’t see that, if you deny the evidence and even make up false stories to explain the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow terrorism, legal racial discrimination and its present-day manifestations, you have a problem. You are at best indifferent to the persistence of racism and racial disadvantage and uninterested in what might end it.

She is, therefore, cutting this guy no slack:

DeMint’s first intellectual product at Heritage, recall, was authored by a white supremacist who regularly writes about Latino moral and intellectual inferiority. From the blight of birtherism (mostly un-repudiated by mainstream GOP leaders) to routine slurs about Obama as “the food stamp president” with a “Kenyan, anti-colonial” mind-set and “a deep-seated hatred of white people” who wants to “create dependency” because “as an African-American male” he received “tremendous advantage” from government programs, today’s GOP has taken every opportunity to play on the racial fears of white Americans to discredit this president and his party.

Yes, but they said all of that was obvious, and not open to discussion, and anyway, Jim DeMint wasn’t talking about race at all here, just small government, or that there’s no need for a government, really, or at least no need for a federal government.

Jonathan Chait offers the condensed version of the DeMint exegesis – “Everybody knows the slaves were freed by Ronald Reagan, and he did it by cutting taxes.”

Yep, that’s nutty, and Ed Kilgore knows why:

DeMint’s rap is based on a series of palpable falsehoods that are extraordinarily common in the exotic world of “constitutional conservatism:” the deliberate conflation of the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution (this is how they sneak God and “natural rights” – meaning property and fetal rights – into the latter); the idea that the Civil War was about everything other than slavery; and the claim of Lincoln’s legacy, even though the Great Emancipator was in almost every respect a “big government liberal” as compared to the states’ rights Democrats – DeMint’s ideological and geographical forebears who touted the Constitution even more regularly (and certainly more consistently) than today’s states’ rights Republicans.

The obvious ain’t obvious, and Commentary’s Pete Wehner suggests that it may be time for these guys to pipe down:

I would argue that conservatism and the cause of limited government are undermined by loose talk and an excessive animus toward the federal government. These days, in fact, conservatives would be well served to focus a good deal more attention on the purposes of government, not simply its size. I say that because during the Obama era the right has been very clear about what government should not be doing, or should be doing much less of, and for understandable reasons. But it has not had nearly enough to say about just what government should do. That needs to be corrected – and in the process conservatives need to be careful to speak with care and precision about our Constitution and the role of the federal government in our history.

Good luck with that, as Andrew Sullivan notes:

This is more than a debate. DeMint now runs the Heritage Foundation, and has run it into the ground with know-nothingism and partisanship.

What was once a right-of-center oasis in rigorous social science, economics, social policy, science proper and other academic disciplines, is now a purely political operation, run by ideologues. And the consequences of replacing solid research with ever-more abstract ideological posturing are dire. A major political party is flying blind a lot of the time.

Look at the response to the ACA. Heritage once innovated, inventing several features of Obamacare; now the GOP scrambles to produce anything as a real alternative that can grapple with some of the same issues. Paul Ryan issues a report on poverty that rests on fatal misunderstandings of social science. Another rightwing “intellectual”, Allen West, puts out a book with fake quotes pulled off the Internet. And the seriously smart ones – Ted Cruz, for example – specialize and revel in demagoguery they must know is irrelevant to governing.

This is the mark of a party more interested in selling books to a devoted audience, not a party capable of actually running a government. Which is why, in my view, the GOP is increasingly conceding the full responsibility of running a country in favor of a constant stream of oppositional pirouettes and rhetorical excesses. That may win a few midterms; but it will never win a general – nor should it.

But what about the obvious, that it wasn’t the government, of and by and for the people as Lincoln put it, but the people who freed the slaves? Here, Jamelle Bouie looks at history:

The point of DeMint’s history lesson – and constitutional conservatism writ large – is to place liberals outside the narrative of American history, and to make liberalism a deviation from the norms of American thought. But the opposite is true – constitutional conservatism is foreign to liberals and conservatives – and the truth is ironic. If there was any period in our history where so-called constitutional conservatives held sway, it’s during the brief life of the Articles of Confederation. Under the Articles, national government was extraordinarily weak – it could not tax, mint coins, or pay collective debts – and states held near-total sovereignty. The result was economic disaster – several states were gripped by depression in the 1780s – and revolt. The failed Articles led American elites to convene a constitutional convention, where they would rethink their approach to national government.

These elites were opposed by the “anti-federalists,” who saw strong government as the prelude to tyranny. Their rhetoric was as hyperbolic as any Tea Partier’s. “A conspiracy against the freedom of America, both deep and dangerous, has been formed by an infernal junta of demagogues,” wrote one.

Indeed, if Jim DeMint wants to sharpen his broadsides against the president, he could do worse than to pick up the Anti-Federalist Papers. Sure, he reveres the founders, but he has much more in common with their opponents.

Perhaps that’s too arcane, if you believe it’s obvious that the founders, who were always right, actually hated the government they carefully created, on the second try, with the Constitution. Where is Captain Obvious when you need him? And who are the Mad Men here?

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