When New Year’s Day falls on a Wednesday, that Wednesday feels like a Sunday. Everything pauses, but each Sunday is followed by a disappointing Monday with more of the same, and New Year’s Day is followed by, well, an entirely new year. Things will be different – recreational marijuana for sale in Colorado, openly, and no more plastic grocery bags at the supermarkets in Los Angeles. Lots of new laws take effect, like all the new laws in California – guns must be locked up in homes where felons and the mentally ill reside now, instead of being left lying about, loaded. Yeah, we actually needed a specific law for that, but now the state Department of Motor Vehicles is allowed to test the use of license plates with changeable digital screens and wireless capability, so it all evens out. It’s a new year. Things will be different. In fact, out here in California, starting now, abortions in the first trimester may be performed by nurse practitioners, certified nurse-midwives and physicians’ assistants, in addition to physicians. The Republicans out here raised holy hell about that, but there aren’t many Republicans left in California these days. There weren’t enough of them to stop that, or anything else. Now there will be far too many people to shoot dead, claiming justifiable homicide in defense of unborn hypothetical children. This year won’t be more of the same. The Thursday after New Year’s Day won’t be another depressing Monday.
Something is up. The same sort of thing was happening on the other coast:
Bill de Blasio, whose fiery populism propelled his rise from obscure neighborhood official to the 109th mayor of New York, was sworn into office on Wednesday, pledging that his ambition for a more humane and equal metropolis would remain undimmed.
In his inaugural address, Mayor de Blasio described social inequality as a “quiet crisis” on a par with the other urban cataclysms of the city’s last half-century, from fiscal collapse to crime waves to terrorist attacks, and said income disparity was a struggle no less urgent to confront.
“We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love,” he said to about 5,000 people at the ceremony, many beneath blankets on a numbingly cold day.
Mr. de Blasio, 52, the first liberal to lead City Hall in two decades, delivered his critiques as his predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, whose Wall Street pedigree and business-first approach to governance seemed to embody the city’s current gilded era, sat unsmiling a few feet away.
The Age of Bloomberg, the billionaire who knew that billionaires were what kept that city great, is over. Out with the old and in with the new – or back to the future:
Gone was the more solemn air of inaugurations past, replaced by the booming strains of disco, soul, and dance music by the Commodores, Marvin Gaye and Daft Punk, spun by a local DJ stationed high above the audience. (Even Hillary Rodham Clinton, seated onstage, swayed with the music.)
Several of the nation’s pre-eminent Democrats – including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and former President Bill Clinton, who administered the oath of office over a Bible once owned by Franklin D. Roosevelt – appeared with Mr. de Blasio on the dais, celebrating the elevation of a party stalwart with whom they had close ties.
It was back to Bill Clinton’s eight years of jobs for everyone, at good wages, and an actual government surplus, but really, it was back to the New Deal world of FDR, where the government, not the totally unregulated free-market, made sure everyone got a fair shake, but with an angry twist:
The ceremony was filled with an unusually open airing of the city’s racial and class tensions, including a poem bristling with frustration about “brownstones and brown skin playing tug-of-war,” a pastor’s words about “the plantation called New York,” and fierce denunciations of luxury condominiums and trickle-down economics.
Needless to say, there were no lobbyists or Wall Street CEO’s on stage. Michael Bloomberg must have felt very lonely up there. Mayor de Blasio wants to pay for prekindergarten classes by raising taxes on the wealthy, and the wealthy are none too happy about that, and all his other ideas. It was tense:
Letitia James, the new public advocate, delivered what amounted to a blistering rebuke of Mr. Bloomberg’s 12-year tenure as mayor. The first minority woman to hold a citywide elected office, Ms. James invoked images of “decrepit homeless shelters” in the “shadow of gleaming multimillion dollar condos.”
To underscore her message, Ms. James invited Dasani Coates, a young homeless girl featured in a recent series in The New York Times, to stand by her side. Dasani, who sat onstage behind Mr. de Blasio and his family, also held the Bible for Ms. James as she took the oath of office. If Mr. Bloomberg was perturbed by the tone of the proceedings, he did not let on. He sat stoically throughout, his lips pursed. Now out of office, he was headed to Hawaii and New Zealand for a two-week vacation.
Yeah, get the hell out of Dodge, as they say in the westerns – this town isn’t big enough for the two of us. But Bloomberg will feel comfortable in New Zealand, where Peter Jackson shot all those hobbit movies. It’s a place for short people. On the other hand, Bill Clinton said a few nice things about Bloomberg, and the new mayor did urge the crowd to acknowledge Bloomberg’s work in public health and environmental policy, which he called “a noble legacy” – but that seemed to be received with a shrug. It was New Year’s Day, in many senses.
It may be a new year in Washington too, or at least that’s what the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne is thinking:
The reemergence of a Democratic left will be one of the major stories of 2014. Moderates – don’t be alarmed. The return of a viable, vocal left will actually be good news for the political center.
It’s time for rebalancing:
For a long time, the American conversation has been terribly distorted because an active, uncompromising political right has not had to face a comparably influential left. As a result, our entire debate has been dragged in a conservative direction, meaning that the center has been pulled that way, too.
Dionne’s main point is that how we’ve been talking about things is absurdly distorted, as with healthcare:
Obamacare is not a left-wing program no matter how often conservatives might say it is. Its structure is based on conservative ideas. The individual mandate was the conservatives’ alternative to a mandate on employers. The health-care exchanges are an alternative to government-provided medicine on the Medicare model.
Obamacare is complex because the government is trying to create a marketplace in which people shop for private insurance and receive government subsidies if they need them. It goes to a lot of trouble to preserve the private insurance market. The system does not even include a government plan as one option among many.
That’s why, as our new and fresh year began, even Michael Moore was saying Obamacare was bullshit – “The Affordable Care Act is a pro-insurance-industry plan implemented by a president who knew in his heart that a single-payer, Medicare-for-all model was the true way to go.”
A government plan as one option, at the very least, is what is needed. Moore wants the states to set up such plans, as Vermont and a few other states are doing. Forget Washington. Obama tried to please everyone, including the private for-profit insurance industry, and pleased no one. A few million people will finally get health insurance, which is a fine thing, but our healthcare system is now a kludgy Rube Goldberg mess, only marginally better than it’s free-market get-rich-or-die predecessor. Maybe, because it’s now so complex, it’s worse. Michael Moore is not happy, and everyone on the right is now happy with Michael Moore. The icon of the left said Obamacare was “awful” – they like that sort of thing. They didn’t consider what he was actually proposing, which would appall them.
It’s hard to talk about these things sensibly when one side distorts the conversation, and Dionne notes how this happened in regard to joblessness:
After the crash of 2008, the country desperately needed government to step in to bolster mass purchasing power, the point of stimulus efforts. With interest rates near zero, there was no better time to borrow in order to rebuild a decrepit national infrastructure and make other long-term public investments.
Instead, relentless pressure from the right made the initial stimulus smaller than it should have been – and then prevented any further expansion of government spending. In the blink of an eye, the public discussion was engulfed by an obsession with the deficit as millions languished without a job. Even Republicans are frustrated over how ideological fears about government’s size have stalled transportation bills that were once the stuff of bipartisan concord.
This pattern was repeated over and over on other issues, and the new militancy on the Democratic left is a consequence of a slowly building backlash against the skewed nature of our politics.
That’s what explains Bill de Blasio’s unashamed attack on inequality in his campaign and his inauguration on New Year’s Day. Enough is enough, and Dionne sees how this is trending:
Take the most recent flash point. Discussions about entitlements have revolved almost exclusively around the question of how much to cut them. By contrast, progressives such as Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) say we must begin dealing with a coming retirement crisis fostered by the near disappearance of traditional private pensions.
They argue that Social Security is not providing enough for low- and middle-income retirees and that making the program financially secure will necessarily involve lifting the cap on income taxed for Social Security. That cap requires middle-income Americans to pay a much larger share of their income than the highest earners do. Ask yourself: Are these unreasonable concerns?
More generally, the Democratic left is animated by the battle against growing inequality and declining social mobility – the idea, as Warren has said repeatedly, that “the system is rigged for powerful interests and against working families.” She and her allies are not anti-capitalist. Their goal is to reform the system so it spreads its benefits more widely. Warren has argued that everything she’s done on behalf of financial reform has, in fact, been designed to make markets work better.
Is that so hard to understand? Apparently it is, and Dionne thinks he knows why:
When politicians can ignore the questions posed by the left and are pushed to focus almost exclusively on the right’s concerns about “big government” and its unquestioning faith in deregulated markets, the result is immoderate and ultimately impractical policy. To create a real center, you need a real left.
That’s what this year may be about, because the last year ended with unemployment benefits expiring for 1.3 million Americans:
A record-low 25 percent of unemployed Americans will receive benefits now that Congress has allowed the federal program to expire, according to data from the Department of Labor compiled by House Democrats on the Ways and Means Committee.
The number is the lowest since the Department of Labor began keeping records in 1946. Before Congress let the federal unemployment benefit-assistance plan expire on Dec. 28, 38 percent of unemployed Americans who paid unemployment taxes were receiving unemployment insurance either through their state or the federal government.
Three-quarters of those who paid into the system won’t get anything back at all, and unless Republicans agree to extend benefits, the number who get what they paid for will continue to fall:
Nearly 72,000 people will lose unemployment benefits each week on average in the first half of 2014, according to new estimates released by House Democrats. Roughly 1.3 million Americans no longer receive those benefits as of Saturday. In total, an additional 1.9 million Americans could lose their benefits in the first six months of the new year, according to the estimates, if Congress doesn’t vote to extend the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. Congress has voted to extend the program 11 times since its inception in 2008.
They won’t do that again, because, up until now, as Dionne argues, Republicans controlled the terms of the argument, as Ryan Cooper reinforces here:
The debate over “paying for” an increase in benefits – that is, finding spending cuts elsewhere in the budget to offset an increase on unemployment benefits – highlight the extent to which Democrats have caved to the Republican mindset on spending. Democrats are right to advocate for extending benefits – but they shouldn’t fear to propose a straightforward spending increase.
And, in this new and fresh year, they may not fear that:
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told The Associated Press in an interview that the Senate will vote Monday on a three-month extension of federal unemployment benefits.
Calling the House a “black hole of legislation,” he offered no prediction on whether the lower chamber would take up the extension as well.
This is an in-your-face gesture. The House, controlled by the Republicans, will demand offsets, but this may not be the year to make such demands. Something is up, and Jonathan Chait explores the dynamic of the situation:
The position of Democrats in Washington, backed by a growing mountain of economic research, is that macroeconomic and humanitarian considerations alike both argue for an extension of unemployment benefits.
The position of Republicans in Washington is rather strange – less a moral or economic argument than an expression of indifference. “These have been extraordinary extensions, and the Republican position all along has been ‘we need to go back to normal here at some point,’” argues Representative Tom Cole. “What we did was never intended to be permanent. It was intended to be a very temporary solution to a very temporary crisis,” echoes Representative Rob Woodall.
Of course nobody intended for the crisis of mass unemployment to last five years. Nobody intended for the crisis to happen at all. It is simply weird to argue that, since the problem has gone on longer than intended, the response to the problem must end as well. The fire trucks don’t shut off the hoses simply because the fire should have been put out by now.
Something else must be going on here:
The most obvious thing, of course, is a general lack of concern for the fate of the unemployed – or, at least, a casual assumption that the unemployed themselves must be to blame for their plight. But even a more generous reading of the Republican position, taking its most serious defenses at face value, reveals an intellectual hollowness. Half a decade into the economic crisis, the Republican Party has no serious ideas about the Great Recession.
One of the few Republicans to directly defend his party’s refusal to extend unemployment benefits is Rand Paul. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, Paul’s ideas about unemployment insurance are cracked. Paul has repeatedly cited studies that show that employers discriminate against job candidates who have been out of work a long time. Paul simply assumes that people are staying unemployed so they can continue collecting unemployment benefits. But the economics paper Paul cites, according to the economist who wrote it, suggests the opposite of his conclusion.
There is no way to be kind about this:
It is true that some research has shown that cutting off unemployment benefits can force the unemployed to search more aggressively (or desperately) for work – say, an out-of-work machinist might take a job for lower wages at the 7-11. But those studies all take place in the context of a normal economic cycle, not the mass unemployment we see today. The conditions of mass unemployment from the Great Recession dictate that cutting off benefits from the unemployed simply immiserates them because there are no jobs.
Republicans in North Carolina proactively demonstrated their party’s stance by cutting off benefits to the unemployed before it was tried elsewhere in the nation. The result was dismal: The state’s labor force is shrinking. Rather than getting jobs, the unemployed have simply stopped looking for them, because they don’t exist.
If Dionne is right, given what’s happened here in California over the last several years, and given what just happened in New York, and 2014 is the year of the resurgent real left, the year when economic populism returns in full force, to the howls of all Republicans, those Republicans will be left behind. That’s Chait’s thinking. They’ve got nothing:
It’s certainly possible to reconcile conservative doctrine about the size of government with specific plans to address mass unemployment. But Republicans in Congress have not bothered to adopt any of these alternative proposals. Nor have conservatives in general displayed much of an interest in the topic of unemployment benefits. There’s an asymmetry of partisan interest on the subject somewhat akin to Benghazi, which obsesses the right and bores the left. Republican thought on mass unemployment is a restaurant with tiny portions that taste terrible.
Or, looking at it another way, this is a problem of not even knowing what year this is:
Both parties have fairly well-defined ideas about the general role of taxes, spending, and regulation. The difference is that the Democratic Party also has a policy agenda that is specifically related to the special conditions of high unemployment and low interest rates. The Republicans are still merely asserting that their normal agenda applies just as well now as ever. The unique, dire conditions of the Great Recession shouldn’t be expected to undo all the party’s program, or to alter its general long-term ideas. (Democrats have not, and should not, give up their preference for universal health insurance, reduced greenhouse gas emissions, and so on, nor should Republicans have to abandon their preference for the opposite.) What they lack is any legislative response to the economic crisis. They just want to get back to normal, and since normality has not arrived, they’d just as soon pretend it has.
They’ll pretend this isn’t 2014, which Matt Bruenig (and everyone else) sees this way:
If it was the case that unemployed people are just refusing to take jobs, then you would see a great deal more reported job openings. The number of unemployed people would be high and the number of job openings would be high as well. In that case, you might force the two to come together by trying to starve out the unemployed, as the conservatives support. But when jobs are scarce because of a weak economy, starving out the unemployed won’t put them in jobs that simply do not exist.
That’s 2014 as it begins. Deal with it or get left behind. It’s not “normal” in any way at all – and the utterly unique condition of high unemployment and low interest rates is the least of it. California Republicans disappeared. Mike Bloomberg left for New Zealand. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and Sherrod Brown are riding high, and even half of all Republicans despise Ted Cruz, and the other half despises those who do, and the country has moved on. Pretend what you will. It’s a brand new year for the rest of us.