Lights Out

“The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.”

That’s what Sir Edward Grey may or may not have said on the eve of the First World War. No one’s sure, but he was Britain’s foreign secretary at the time and might have known a thing or two that no one else knew, and he was right. That war ruined Europe. He ended up being quoted for what he may have never said, because in the world everyone soon saw, he should have said that, so he probably did say that. Everyone saw what happened, and shortly after the war, Gertrude Stein told Hemingway that he and his Paris friends were part of a Lost Generation – a phrase Hemingway quickly appropriated. That became his theme. There were the dead and there were the disillusioned lost souls stumbling around in the dark, in the ruins – there was no one else. All was lost, but a decade later we had a new worldwide war, a second one, with a somewhat popular song that was more hopeful – When the Lights Go On Again – as if Vaughn Monroe or Gene Autry could cheer us up. Hemingway had ended his famous novel The Sun Also Rises with the classic rejoinder to that sort of thinking – “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

What people thought that Sir Edward Grey said started something. We may not be stranding on those white cliffs, at Dover of course, watching the lamps go out across the water on the continent, be we are fond of the image. The lamps are always going out all over, everywhere. The world as we know it is ending. It always is. Overwhelming sadness is the only appropriate response, after the requisite anger that people can be so dumb, or evil, or careless. The Tea Party crowd wants their country back, the world of Ozzie and Harriet, but they’re not going to get it. Demographics are cruel. Progressives and union folks may want manufacturing back, right here in America, but they’re not going to get that. Globalization is cruel. Economists want a strong prosperous middle class once again, earning good wages and driving massive demand for goods and services that will make everyone prosper, but they’re not going to get that either. The economy is no longer structured that way – the few trade imaginary assets and debits, making fortunes, and everyone else finds themselves in low-wage service jobs, keeping up by taking on debt they can never repay, like a few hundred thousand in student loans, for a degree that does them no good at all. That creates a new lost generation, one that Stein and Hemingway never imagined. This lost generation – after one more unpaid internship – will be flipping burgers or changing bedpans. Ask any recent graduate. Their talent and intelligence and hard-earned new skills mean nothing now. The lamps are going out all over. We won’t see them lit again in our lifetime.

Much of this could be fixed if we had a fully-functioning political system, where those we elect address these issues, as they should, and as voters expect, but we don’t have one of those either, not any longer. On the last Monday of this month, on the last day of this month, at midnight, the lights go out. That’s not a metaphor. That’s when the government shuts down. Congress hasn’t passed a budget in many years, just one continuing resolution after another, to fund operations at their current levels, because no one can agree on anything. They can no longer afford to agree on anything. Too many were elected by angry Tea Party voters who will toss them out on their ear if they even hint that they might agree on a little give-and-take to get at least some of what their constituents want. It’s all or nothing, and that’s a structural change. There’s no going back.

Now the problem is Obamacare, and Ezra Klein sums up the situation nicely:

The GOP has lost on Obamacare. They didn’t have the votes to stop it from passing in 2010. They didn’t have the votes to repeal it in 2011. They didn’t have the votes to win the presidency and the Senate by campaigning against it in 2012. And they really have no way to stop it in 2013.

Now it’s going into effect, and once it goes into effect and begins delivering health insurance to tens of millions of people, it’s pretty much here to stay.

But conservatives don’t want to believe they’ve lost on Obamacare, and the rest of the Republican Party is scared to admit they’ve lost on Obamacare. So as their situation becomes more desperate their tactics become more desperate, too.

That’s why the government will shut down, or if that doesn’t work, they’ll try something more desperate. The current Republican thinking is that they’ll force a government shutdown unless Obama agrees to defund Obamacare and dismantle it, or else they’ll refuse to raise the debt limit. Unless the debt limit is raised we will default on our Treasury bonds and that would plunge the global economy into total chaos and collapse, because US Treasuries are the one safe place where pretty much the entire world parks its money – the world’s financial system falls apart. Either way, things fall apart, but the idea is that making sure thirty or forty million people don’t have the chance to buy low-cost subsidized health insurance from private-sector parties is more important than any of that.

House Speaker John Boehner has long said he doesn’t want a government shutdown or a default, which would make Americans despise the Republican Party even more than they do already, but he’s now changed his mind:

House Republican leaders said on Wednesday they will move forward with a plan to defund Obamacare in a three-month continuing resolution to avert a government shutdown.

“We’re going to continue to do everything we can to repeal the president’s failed health care law,” Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) told reporters after a weekly conference meeting. “This week, the House will pass a CR [continuing resolution] that locks the sequester savings in, and defunds Obamacare. … We have a plan that we’re happy with. We’re going forward.”

The GOP’s aim is to pass the stopgap legislation out of the House by the end of this week. If and when the Senate rejects it, the backup plan is to pass a “clean” continuing resolution.

“I’ve not watched our conference be so united as we walk into this battle,” said House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA).

John Boehner gave up. He ceded control to Ted Cruz and the Tea Party crowd. A minority of Republicans in the only part of the government in Republican control, the House, will shut down the government unless Obama agrees to dismantle a law that was passed long ago, declared constitutional by the still very conservative Supreme Court, when they challenged it, that is going into effect now – which Obama won’t do, and the Senate won’t take up the House resolution anyway. But that may be the plan:

Part of the new strategy is to hand the fight to their colleagues in the upper chamber and prove to ultraconservatives like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Mike Lee (R-UT) that they’re on a fool’s errand.

“There should be no conversation about shutting the government shutdown,” Boehner said. “That’s not the goal here.”

Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said House Republicans will propose a plan in the next week to delay Obamacare while lifting the country’s borrowing limit. GOP leaders are eying other goodies to bring conservatives on board, such as approving the Keystone XL pipeline.

President Barack Obama reiterated moments later he won’t negotiate on raising the debt limit.

The days of a fully-functioning government are indeed long gone. There aren’t even any lamps to be relit. It’s all darkness:

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) thinks President Barack Obama is the one who should stop threatening to shut down the government, despite a newly announced plan by House Republicans adding language to a stopgap measure that would defund Obamacare in order to avert a government shutdown.

All that Obama has to do is agree to dismantle a law that was passed fair and square, long ago, that survived all court challenges, that survived a presidential election which Republicans said had everything to do with that law, that will help lots of people. Rubio is warning Obama that Americans will punish him severely for being so unreasonable, for forcing a government shutdown. Whatever Rubio’s smoking, you do want some of that.

Rubio may be isolated:

Senate Republicans and the Chamber of Commerce are urging House Republicans to back off their threats of a government shutdown or debt default if President Barack Obama doesn’t agree to defund or delay Obamacare.

The calls intensified on Wednesday after House GOP leaders said they would move forward with a continuing resolution that defunds Obamacare at the potential risk of a government shutdown at the end of the month if Democrats refuse to blink.

There’s the internal:

“I don’t think shutting down the government is going to be productive,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) said Wednesday during an appearance on CNN. “I think we should make every effort we can to make sure we stop this law but I don’t believe they should shut down the government to do so. And I don’t think that is a strategy that is good for America.”

There’s the external:

The Chamber of Commerce wrote an open letter to the House, in reference to the GOP’s stopgap funding bill, urging lawmakers not to risk a shutdown – or worse, a default on the national debt when the government reaches its borrowing limit in mid-October – warning of the economic harm that could result.

“It is not in the best interest of the U.S. business community or the American people to risk even a brief government shutdown that might trigger disruptive consequences or raise new policy uncertainties washing over the U.S. economy,” wrote R. Bruce Josten, a top lobbyist at the Chamber. “Likewise, the U.S. Chamber respectfully urges the House of Representatives to raise the debt ceiling in a timely manner and thus eliminate any question of threat to the full faith and credit of the United States government.”

Republicans generally don’t ever disagree with the US Chamber of Commerce, bur Ezra Klein suggests things are different now:

Here’s the Republican Party’s problem, in two sentences: It would be a disaster for the party to shut down the government over Obamacare. But it’s good for every individual Republican politician to support shutting down the government over Obamacare.

These smart-for-one dumb-for-all problems have a name: Collective-action problems. … The best way to understand the plight of the modern GOP is that the party leadership is no longer powerful enough to solve its collective-action problems.

Stan Collender puts it this way:

Is it possible that we get to the brink on September 30 at 11 pm and everyone decides that a short-term CR and a cooling off period are needed? Absolutely. Is it as likely this year as it has been in the past? Absolutely not.

There’s been a structural change. The lamps have gone out everywhere.

That’s okay. Things were fine in the world where the few trade imaginary assets and debits, making fortunes:

Stocks roared to new all-time highs and bond yields retreated as the Fed defied the market’s conventional thinking by keeping its unconventional bond-buying program intact.

Most major Wall Street banks and firms expected the Fed to slightly pare back its $85 billion monthly bond buying program, by $10 billion to $15 billion. But the Fed said it wasn’t ready to cut back, citing a tightening in financial conditions that it said could hurt the economy and employment.

The economy still stinks, which is a bad thing, but there will be more free money sloshing around, and that’s a good thing, and Republicans, as Kevin Drum notes, are in an odd spot:

Congressional Republicans have been critical of the Fed’s loose monetary policies for quite some time. Today, the Fed announced that monetary policy would stay loose for the foreseeable future, and Fed chair Ben Bernanke explained that part of the reason for this is… the austerity crusade of congressional Republicans! The Fed’s official statement noted bluntly that “fiscal policy is restraining economic growth.”

Republicans can’t catch a break, and the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, went further in his press conference later in the day:

Federal fiscal policy continues to be an important restraint on growth and a source of downside risk… and upcoming fiscal debates may involve additional risks to financial markets and to the broader economy. In light of these uncertainties, the Committee decided to await more evidence that the recovery’s progress will be sustained before adjusting the pace of asset purchases.

Bernanke was telling the Republicans that they were playing with fire, and Drum notes that in the session that followed, he added even more warnings:

A factor that did concern us in our discussion was some upcoming fiscal policy decisions. I would include both the possibility of a government shutdown, but also the debt limit issue… I think that a government shutdown, and perhaps even more so a failure to raise the debt limit, could have very serious consequences for the financial markets and for the economy. …

Our ability to offset these shocks is very limited, particularly a debt limit shock, and I think it’s extraordinarily important that Congress and the administration work together to find a way to make sure that the government is funded, public services are provided, that the government pays its bills, and that we avoid any kind of event like 2011, which had, at least for a time, a noticeable adverse effect on confidence on the economy.

Drum:

There’s nothing new here. Bernanke has said all of these things before. The bottom line is simple: If Republicans really want to see monetary policy get back to normal, then they need to stop sabotaging the economy with spending cuts and debt ceiling debacles. If they do that, the recovery will strengthen and the Fed will no longer be forced to sustain loose monetary policy as a way of offsetting stupid fiscal policy.

The lights don’t have to go out, really, except that people can sometimes can be so dumb, or evil, or careless.

It’s odd that it has come to this. It’s odd that the Tea Party is a new and unique problem, but three years ago Drum argued it was neither:

It’s a problem because too many observers mistakenly react to the tea party as if it’s brand new, an organic and spontaneous response to something unique in the current political climate. But it’s not. It’s not a response to the recession or to health care reform or to some kind of spectacular new liberal overreach. It’s what happens whenever a Democrat takes over the White House. When FDR was in office in the 1930s, conservative zealotry coalesced in the Liberty League. When JFK won the presidency in the ’60s, the John Birch Society flourished. When Bill Clinton ended the Reagan Revolution in the ’90s, talk radio erupted with the conspiracy theories of the Arkansas Project. And today, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, it’s the tea party’s turn.

From FDR to JFK to Clinton, something like the tea party fluoresces every time a Democrat wins the presidency.

There are, of course, differences between each of these movements. The Birchers were single-mindedly obsessed with communist infiltration, a fear that’s largely gone out of style; the Arkansas Project crowd seemed motivated more by cultural issues and a burning personal hatred of the Clintons than by policy matters. And there are structural differences, too. The Liberty League and the John Birch Society were formal groups with formal leadership. The anti-Clinton brigade was chaotic and leaderless. And the tea party movement is somewhere in between: funded and inspired partly by formal organizations (FreedomWorks, the Tea Party Patriots) and specific personalities (Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck), but with a membership that, in practice, is an agglomeration of hundreds of local groups that often compete with each other and hotly insist that they take direction from no one.

But these differences are superficial. The similarities are far more telling, and the place they start is a shared preoccupation with the Constitution.

Yeah, yeah – the constitution is always under assault, whatever that means. It’s a catch-all:

The recurring themes are creeping socialism and a federal government that’s destroying our freedoms. In the ’30s this took the form of rabid opposition to FDR’s alphabet soup of new regulatory agencies. In the ’60s it was John Birch Society founder Robert Welch’s insistence that the threat of communism actually took second place to the “cancer of collectivism.” Welch believed that overweening government had destroyed civilizations from Babylonia to 19th-century Europe, and he said his fight could be expressed in just five words: “Less government and more responsibility.”

Three decades later, Newt Gingrich rode into the speaker’s office on the Contract with America’s small government promises and promptly shut down Washington in a fight with Clinton that mostly revolved around conservative desires to slash a laundry list of social programs. And today, tea party rhetoric is shot through with charges both that the president is a closet Marxist (“Obama isn’t a US socialist,” thundered Fox News commentator, Steven Milloy at a tea party convention earlier this year, “he’s an international socialist!”) and that the federal government has become a multi-tentacled monster that needs to be crushed before it enslaves us all. In an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, the Times’ Barstow diagnosed the “idea of impending tyranny” as the tea partiers’ deepest and most abiding nightmare: “I was struck by the number of people who had come to the point where they were literally in fear of whether or not the United States of America would continue to be a free country.”

It’s hard to respond to that, or this:

The growth of the tea party movement isn’t really due to the recession (in fact, polling evidence shows that tea partiers are generally better off and less affected by the recession than the population at large). It’s not because Obama is black (white Democratic presidents got largely the same treatment). And it’s not because Obama bailed out General Motors (so did George W. Bush). It’s simpler. Ever since the 1930s, something very much like the tea party movement has fluoresced every time a Democrat wins the presidency, and the nature of the fluorescence always follows many of the same broad contours: a reverence for the Constitution, a supposedly spontaneous uprising of formerly nonpolitical middle-class activists, a preoccupation with socialism and the expanding tyranny of big government, a bitterness toward an underclass viewed as unwilling to work, and a weakness for outlandish conspiracy theories.

It’s just a little different this time:

The Birchers were limited to mimeograph machines and PTA meetings to get the word out, while the tea partiers can rely on Fox News and Facebook. Beyond that, though, it’s also a reflection of the mainstreaming of extremism. In 1961, Time exposed the John Birch Society to a national audience and condemned it as a “tiresome, comic-opera joke”; in 2009, it splashed Glenn Beck on the cover and called him “tireless, funny, self-deprecating… a gifted storyteller.” And it’s the same story in the political community: The Birchers were eventually drummed out of the conservative movement, but the tea partiers are almost universally welcomed today. “In the ’60s,” says Rick Perlstein, a historian of the American right, “you had someone like William F. Buckley pushing back against the Birchers. Today, when David Frum tries to play the same role, he’s completely ostracized. There are just no countervailing forces in the Republican Party anymore.” Unlike the Birchers, or even the Clinton conspiracy theorists, the tea partiers aren’t a fringe part of the conservative movement. They are the conservative movement.

That was from October 2010, and now these have taken over the House and the whole of the Republican Party, and have effectively broken the government. What they couldn’t get through the normal processes of democratic government they’ll get some other way. There will be a shutdown that slows or stalls the economy. There will be a default that destroys it. This is the opposite of democratic government.

Sir Edward Grey would understand. The lamps are going out everywhere. All one can do is watch them flicker and die. That’s absurdly melodramatic, and maybe he said no such thing, but there’s a reason we think we remember those words.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Lights Out

  1. Rick says:

    “There should be no conversation about shutting the government shutdown,” Boehner said. “That’s not the goal here.”

    So the latest Republican plan seems to be to shut down the government, but carefully to not mention out loud that this is what they’re doing.

    I saw some forgettable (but aren’t they all?) Republican congressman being interviewed yesterday on MSNBC, and whenever the anchor asked him if he and his fellow Republican congressmen really want to shut down the government, he said something like, “No, nobody’s talking about shutting down the government here” — as if they think that will let them off the hook, as if they don’t really realize (which might be true) everybody knows the reason government is being shut down: Because the good guys refused to pay the ransom.

    One of these days, if we’re lucky, we won’t be hearing so many people blame everybody in Washington for not getting anything done, because it will finally dawn on the public that the reason the government isn’t doing anything is because too many who are supposed to be running things don’t LIKE government, and think that “government is not the ‘solution’ [whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean], it’s the ‘problem’.” The truth is, of course, government isn’t really the problem, Republicans are.

    One of these days, Americans will stop being cynical and realize that the founders of this country created our government as a way of, well, governing the country, and not to serve as the punching bag of some future brain-dead political party. And they certainly didn’t intend this new nation-state they created to be governed by an anti-government minority, employing extortion.

    I blame the schools. If the schools had only been doing their job like they should have been, we wouldn’t have ended up with a country filled with so many block-headed anarchists with too much time on their hands.

    Rick

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