Give Them What They Need But Don’t Seem To Want

Eat your spinach! Yeah, kids don’t know what’s good for them – they want pizza or something vaguely like a hamburger, from McDonalds or some such place, with fries and a shake. They also don’t want to be yelled at. They have to be tricked into eating their spinach, which is why those of us who grew up in the fifties were suspicious of those Popeye cartoons. Popeye would be getting the crap beat out of him by Bluto, who was about to ravish Olive Oil – a female character of dubious charm – and Popeye would somehow come up with a can of spinach, from who knows where, rip off the top, pour that spinach down his throat, and immediately turn into a muscle-man and beat the crap out of Bluto. Olive Oil would swoon in admiration. The secondary character, Wimpy, was the one who ate hamburgers, and he was a pathetic nothing. Surely this was a parable of sorts – the Allegory of Spinach – but it seemed as if it was part of a ruse cooked up by the mothers of America, a manipulative deception to get kids to do the right thing. Superman didn’t eat spinach. Hell, Superman didn’t eat, as far as anyone could tell. We were being had. We knew it. We stuck around for the violence.

Then we grew up, but retained a certain resentment of people thinking we were too stupid to know what was good for us, or too childish (or childlike) to know. We would now, as adults, resent anyone trying to fool us, even if it was for our own good, and even if we knew perfectly well it was for our own good. That explains the current outrage about Obamacare playing out mainly on Fox News, where the median age of the network’s viewers is 68.8 and Bill O’Reilly’s median viewer is 72 – the kids who grew up wondering what that Popeye crap was about. Here we go again. Once again someone seems to have decided that we’re too stupid to know what’s good for us:

Three years ago, as President Obama fought for reelection, his team was more than happy to have Jonathan Gruber, a well-known Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor, mouthing off.

Mr. Gruber, a health care expert who helped develop Mitt Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts and later was a consultant for Mr. Obama’s Affordable Care Act, was no stranger to the pundit circuit, and repeatedly called attention to the similarities between the two plans – a politically helpful fact for the Obama 2012 campaign.

“They’re the same bill,” Mr. Gruber declared once, adding an expletive before the word “bill.”

But now, Mr. Gruber’s bluntness is clearly less appreciated by those in the West Wing, thanks to the emergence of a series of videos that show Mr. Gruber calling the American public “stupid” and suggesting that the president’s health care law passed by fooling Americans about how it works.

He admits that:

“This bill was written in a tortured way to make sure CBO did not score the mandate as taxes,” Mr. Gruber said in October 2013, referring to the Congressional Budget Office. “Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the ‘stupidity of the American voter’ or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical to getting the thing to pass.”

Make it seem really subtle and complicated and people will just give up and go along with it? That seems to be the general idea, and the White House wasn’t happy:

Josh Earnest, the president’s press secretary, said he disagreed “vigorously with that assessment,” and insisted that the “process associated with the writing and passing and implementing of the Affordable Care Act has been extraordinarily transparent.”

In short, it was subtle and complicated. No one lied about anything or hid anything, and the walk-back began:

Mr. Gruber, an unabashed supporter of the Affordable Care Act, has expressed regret about his comments, telling MSNBC that he was “speaking off the cuff” and that he “spoke inappropriately” at the academic conference where the video was taken. In an email on Friday, Mr. Gruber declined to comment further.

Yeah, but now there’s a fifth videotape – so he said pretty much the same thing, off the cuff, over and over – and the Republicans pounced:

Republican lawmakers, Tea Party activists and conservative pundits have declared Mr. Gruber to be their new truth-teller, using the videos as contemporaneous evidence that their own critiques of the health care law were supported, even by the most ardent backers of the president’s efforts.

A Twitter post on Friday from Speaker John A. Boehner said simply: “Arrogance + deception = #Obamacare.” A news release from the Tea Party Express said that “Gruber oozes the elitist arrogance of the Obama administration that thinks their ‘superior’ Ivy League backgrounds will allow them to pull the wool over our eyes.”

And Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said on Twitter on Friday that “Jonathan Gruber said what most Americans recognize: that #Obamacare was sold on a lie.” The post linked to a news article with the headline: “ObamaCare Architect Thinks You’re Stupid.”

Yep, those arrogant bastards with their so-called superior Ivy League backgrounds are sneering at the good hardworking folks who dropped out of school in the eighth grade, who are the ones who always know what’s what. Technically, MIT is not part of the Ivy League at all – MIT is a few miles down the road from Harvard and full of nerds, not the children of privilege – but if you’re going to stir up redneck class resentment, details hardly matter. People drive Volvos in Cambridge – enough said. They probably watch obscure French movies too, and you can be damned sure they don’t listen to country music about pick-up trucks and heartache, the music of America. This was a gift to the Republicans, and so was this:

Mr. Gruber also made headlines in July when a video surfaced that showed him agreeing that the health care law’s tax subsidies were supposed to go only to states that set up their own health exchanges. Thirty-seven states chose not to. That put Mr. Gruber on the opposite side of the White House in a lawsuit that is heading to the Supreme Court.

He said at the time that he “made a mistake in some 2012 speeches,” and reaffirmed his belief that the law’s tax subsidies are proper and constitutional. But Republicans have decided to believe what they see on the videos.

“The epic search of the Greek philosopher Diogenes for an honest man is finally over,” Rich Lowry wrote in National Review on Friday. “His name is Jonathan Gruber.”

Good hardworking folks who dropped out of school in the eighth grade have no idea who Diogenes was, but they can look him up, but something strange is going on here, as Slate’s John Dickerson explains:

Before he was causing problems for the Obama administration, the Obama team was using Gruber to unsettle Mitt Romney. In the 2012 campaign, Obama’s camp was claiming that the Massachusetts health care plan was the intellectual model for Obamacare, just as Romney was trying to disavow it. Gruber was essential to this case. In a video produced by the Obama campaign celebrating the anniversary of “Romneycare,” Gruber says, “I helped Gov. Romney develop his health care reform or Romneycare, before going down to Washington to help President Obama develop his national version of that law.” The spot includes old footage of Romney thanking Gruber for his work on the Massachusetts health bill. “The core of the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare and what we did in Massachusetts are identical,” Gruber says. The MIT professor was such an important part of the creation of Obamacare that his association with Romney’s effort proved the link between the two programs. If that involvement in Obamacare was sufficient to condemn Romney in 2012, it’s sufficient enough for Republicans to raise it now over Gruber’s claims about the Affordable Care Act.

Romney won’t be running for president now. He’s on tape praising the guy who called Americans stupid, and there is that other matter that’s Obama’s problem:

Gruber’s name came up earlier this year in another skirmish over the law. In yet another talk, he suggested that the Affordable Care Act was written so that states that didn’t set up insurance exchanges would not also get tax credits. “If you’re a state and you don’t set up an exchange, that means your citizens don’t get their tax credits,” he said. (He since has said that he was speaking off the cuff and didn’t mean to say what he said.) That’s a key argument in the Supreme Court case against the law in which plaintiffs argue that the subsidies that go to states with federal exchanges are illegal.

Still, Dickerson is willing to cut the guy some slack:

One possible defense of Gruber that can be made is that he was merely describing a truth both parties know: that in order to achieve policy objectives, laws have to be written in convoluted ways to avoid political traps, including a politically bad assessment from the Congressional Budget Office. Also, what Gruber describes was a part of the open policy debate surrounding the law. That would return a conversation that is about duplicity back into one about policy differences. The law wasn’t trying to fool the American people, just the Congressional Budget Office.

But that’s not much of a case. Given how often the administration has used the Congressional Budget Office as metaphysical guarantors of truth, this argument just lands you back into hoodwink territory. If the Congressional Budget Office is an institution of such solemnity, why would you want to trick its analysts? The better defense is the one the White House is giving, which is that millions of people are now covered by the law and they seem to like it.

The country ate its spinach and damn, it was good for them, but now that doesn’t matter:

As Republicans try to dismantle the Affordable Care Act from their new position of power in Congress, Gruber will become an oft-cited Oracle of Obamacare. But he confirms a broader critique that conservatives have of the president, which is that he either cynically thinks people can be fooled or he thinks people aren’t smart enough to know what’s good for them. That means we’re likely to hear Gruber’s name in debates over issues like immigration, in which he has played no role at all.

There’s a new meme out there, and Peter Suderman expresses it:

For one thing, it is an explicit admission that the law was designed in such a way to avoid a CBO score that would have tanked the bill. Basically, the Democrats who wrote the bill knowingly gamed the CBO process.

It’s also an admission that the law’s authors understood that one of the effects of the bill would be to make healthy people pay for the sick, but declined to say this for fear that it would kill the bill’s chances. In other words, the law’s supporters believed the public would not like some of the bill’s consequences, and knowingly attempted to hide those consequences from the public.

Most importantly, however, it is an admission that Gruber thinks it’s acceptable to deceive people if he believes that’s the only way to achieve his policy preference.

Philip Klein is more succinct:

Gruber, in a moment of candor, acknowledged what has always been true about Obamacare and liberalism – that the masses have to be tricked into ceding control to those who know what’s best for them.

Tyler Cowen pushes back:

It’s a healthy world where academics can speak their minds at conferences and the like without their words becoming political weapons in a bigger fight. Or how about blogs – do we want a world where no former advisor can write honestly about the policies of an administration? I’ve disagreed with Gruber from the beginning on health care policy and I thought his ObamaCare comic book did the economics profession – and himself – a disservice. But I’m simply not very interested in his proclamations on tape, which as far as I can tell are mostly correct albeit overly cynical. (If anything he is overrating the American voter – most people weren’t even paying close enough attention to be tricked.)

Kevin Drum weighs in:

First, he noted that it was important to make sure the mandate wasn’t scored as a tax by the CBO. Indeed it was, and this was a topic of frequent discussion while the bill was being debated. We can all argue about whether this was an example of the CBO scoring process being gamed, but it has nothing to do with the American voter. Rather, it has everything to do with the American congressman, who’s afraid to vote for anything unless it comes packaged with a nice, neat bow bearing an arbitrary, predetermined price tag.

As for risk-rated subsidies, I don’t even know what Gruber is talking about here. Of course healthy people pay in and sick people get money. It’s health insurance. That’s how it works. Once again, this was a common topic of discussion while the bill was being debated – in fact, one that opponents of the bill talked about constantly. They complained endlessly that healthy young people would pay relatively higher rates than they deserved, while older, sicker people would get a relative break on their premiums. This was no big secret, but the bill passed anyway.

Brian Beutler is on the same page:

Nearly everyone who’s attacking Gruber as if he were a White House political employee or a Democratic senator is simultaneously trying to require the Congressional Budget Office to say that tax cuts pay for themselves…

The people who brought you the phony arithmetic of the Bush tax cuts and Medicare Part D and the self-financing Iraq war are upset about the ACA, which is genuinely fiscally sound. By any reasonable standard, ACA respected budgetary constraints much better than most other laws. That the authors took pains to meet concrete budgetary goals actually underscores the point that they took CBO and budgetary questions in general very seriously. If they didn’t take CBO seriously, they could’ve just ignored it, or fired the messenger.

That’s what the George W. Bush administration threatened to do when the chief Medicare actuary prepared to say the Part D drug benefit would cost more than the White House was letting on.

Jonathan Chait suggests a poor choice of words:

“Stupidity” is unfair. Ignorance is a more accurate term. Very few people understand economics and public policy. This is especially true of Obamacare – most Americans are unaware of the law’s basic functions or even whether their state is participating.

Since people know so little about public policy in general and healthcare policy in particular, they tend to have incoherent views. In health care and other areas, they want to enjoy generous benefits while paying low taxes and don’t know enough details to reconcile those irreconcilable preferences.

Gruber’s error here is that, by describing this as “stupidity” rather than a “lack of knowledge,” he moves from lamenting an unfortunate problem both parties must work around to condescending to the public in an unattractive way.

Yep, no one wants to eat their spinach, but Andrew Sullivan is still unhappy:

I actually think this makes it worse. The only reason Americans are ignorant about the ACA is that they were never clearly told what it was designed to achieve and how it would work. The debate was had among elites, using often technical language – who really knows what a vague “public option” means, for example? – and then sold to the public with either blanket reassurances (if you have an insurance policy, you can keep it) or terror stories about a government take-over (which it wasn’t). The reason for this failure by both sides to lay out the actual plan in ways anyone could understand was political. Neither side wanted a free-wheeling debate with unknown consequences; one was aiming for passage (something never achieved before), and the other was rooting for failure (for rank partisan reasons). Neither side was really interested in a real debate about the pros and cons.

Sullivan thinks that’s the real problem here:

This remains a huge disservice to democracy and it helps explain why our elites are so despised. I mean: why couldn’t Obama or leading Democrats actually make the simple case – we’re going to give subsidies to the working poor to get private health insurance and force insurers to take anyone regardless of pre-existing conditions. We’re going to make this affordable for the insurance companies by mandating that everyone get insurance, thereby including more young and healthy people in the risk pool to offset the costs of the sick. And we’re going to make sure that insurance is better than in the past, and is not subject to lifetime caps or getting booted off the minute you get sick.

That wasn’t that hard, was it?

Most people understand that there are trade-offs in life; most people have insurance of one sort or another and are cognizant of how insurance works – the bigger the pool the better. And to my mind, the trade-offs are worth it. If someone were willing to explain the ACA in simple, clear and honest terms, I think most Americans would back it. What’s maddening is that American politicians never speak this way. A proposal is either all honey or all vinegar. And each side assumes that that’s the only kind of argument Americans are prepared or able to understand. So, it isn’t really ignorance that’s the problem – because that can be fixed. It really is a cynical assumption of most Americans’ stupidity.

That is how things seem to work:

The Republicans are shameless in their deployment of this – Tax cuts always good! No trade-offs ever! But so too are the Democrats. There really is a mentality out there that sees politics as finding a way to deceive voters to give them what they need but for some inexplicable reason don’t actually want. They really do treat people as if they were stupid. If some smidgen of honesty could be used against a politician in a sound-bite, he’d prefer bullshit. The most obvious example was Obama’s categorical pledge that no one with insurance would ever be forced to change – even though the minimal benefits of an ACA plan were greater than those in many existing private sector plans. You can call this a lie – which it was – or you can call it a cheap dodge to get what you want with a little flim-flam. But no one would ever have said such a thing if they had bothered to make the good faith argument that change for the better requires some trade-offs, that some will benefit and others may take a hit. Obama pledged to be that kind of honest, straight-talking president. Often he is. On the most important domestic policy achievement of his presidency, he wasn’t.

This is unacceptable:

I refuse to believe that a democracy has to operate this way for change to occur. Gruber’s arrogance and condescension are just meta-phenomena of this deeper dysfunction. Someone needs to treat Americans as adults again before this democracy can regain the credibility it so desperately needs to endure.

Sullivan can refuse to believe what he wishes, but that doesn’t change matters. Because of Popeye, many kids did eat their spinach, and it was good for them – and that was a cartoon. This is too.

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Why Good Things Are Bad

London burned down in 1666 – it started at a bakery on Pudding Lane – but that was a bad year. The war with the Dutch wasn’t going well either – but we did get some cool insults out of that – Dutch Oven (which isn’t an oven) and Dutch Treat (which isn’t a treat) and so on. Humor helps, but everything was going wrong that September, and that June, across the water in Paris, Molière’s play The Misanthrope opened at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris – the play about the sour man who saw no good in anything. What seemed good wasn’t. Whatever it was, it was going to end in tears.

It was a comedy, although that irritated Jean-Jacques Rousseau no end. A century later, Rousseau was saying that the guy in the Molière play wasn’t a laughable fool at all – that misanthrope had been right about society. We can do better, but we always screw up. It’s wise to assume we will.

Rousseau was a philosopher. He knew. The French Revolution, an effort to fix what was wrong with society over there, followed, and that didn’t go well either. The Reign of Terror from 1793 through 1794 left forty thousand dead in France. Wonderful things were accomplished in the Revolution, and France ended up with Robespierre. These things happen. It’s wise to assume the worst. Let them laugh. They’ll be sorry. It will all burn down.

That’s a conservative position, or perhaps the conservative position. Leave well enough alone. Things are working fine. That’s why Edmund Burke, considered the father of modern conservatism, gave that stirring speech defending poor little Marie Antoinette – any attempt to do good will do very bad things, eventually, or sooner. You can count on it, which is what conservatives here argued about ending slavery, and then about desegregation and voting rights in the South, and about women getting the right to vote, and about Social Security and later about Medicare, and most recently about Obamacare and gay marriage. Sure, these things sound fine, but go there and bad things will follow. It’s best to assume the worst. They are misanthropes, although they call themselves realists. When bad things don’t follow, they have an answer to that too. Just wait. You’ll see. We’re still waiting.

Now it’s the environment, where something good finally happened:

The United States and China pledged Wednesday to take ambitious action to limit greenhouse gases, aiming to inject fresh momentum into the global fight against climate change ahead of high-stakes climate negotiations next year.

President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. would move much faster in cutting its levels of pollution. Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to cap China’s emissions in the future – a striking, unprecedented move by a nation that has been reluctant to box itself in on global warming.

The basics:

The U.S. set a new target to reduce its emissions of heat-trapping gases by 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025, compared with 2005 levels. That’s a sharp increase from earlier in Obama’s presidency, when he pledged to cut emissions by 17 percent by 2020.

China, whose emissions are still growing as it builds new coal plants, didn’t commit to cut emissions by a specific amount. Rather, Xi set a target for China’s emission to peak by 2030, or earlier if possible. He also pledged to increase the share of energy that China will derive from sources other than fossil fuels.

And the misanthrope speaks:

“This unrealistic plan that the president would dump on his successor, would ensure higher utility rates and far fewer jobs,” said incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

Just wait. You’ll see. And Tyler Cowen adds this common perception:

First, China is notorious for making announcements about air pollution and then not implementing them.

This is only partially a matter of lying; in part the government literally does not have the ability to keep its word. They have a great deal of coal capacity coming on-line and they can’t just turn that switch off. They’re also driving more cars, too.

Second, China falsifies estimates of the current level of air pollution, so as to make it look like the problem is improving when it is not. Worse yet, during the APEC summit the Chinese government blocked the more or less correct estimates coming from U.S. Embassy data, which are usually transmitted through an app. A nice first step to the “deal” with the United States would have been to allow publication (through the app) of the correct numbers. But they didn’t.

James West wonders about that:

China has to act on air pollution. If it doesn’t, the country risks political instability. Top Republicans have slammed the US-China deal as ineffective and one-sided. “China won’t have to reduce anything,” complained Sen. Jim Inhofe (Okla.) in a statement, adding that China’s promises were “hollow and not believable.”

But the assumption that China won’t try to live up to its end of the bargain misses the powerful domestic and global incentives for China to take action. The first, and most pressing, is visible in China’s appalling air quality. President Xi Jinping needs to act now, says Jerome A. Cohen, a leading Chinese law expert at New York University. Why? Because “the environment – not only the climate – is the most serious domestic challenge he confronts.”…

Over the past few decades, China has witnessed the fastest and deepest wealth creation in history, hauling millions out of poverty in the space a generation. That growth has been heavily reliant on coal, which makes up roughly 70 percent of the country’s total energy consumption. China is the world’s top coal consumer and producer. All that has come with big cost: toxic air. According to one Lancet study, pollution generated mostly by cars and the country’s 3,000 coal-fired power plants killed 1.2 million Chinese people in 2010.

That’s an incentive. President Xi Jinping wants to keep his job. Millions dropping dead is a problem there, but that aside, Brian Merchant sees an amazingly good thing here:

The two biggest polluters, who have never agreed on much of anything about climate change at all, are issuing a deal that seriously reflects the scope and depth of the problem. The agreement will have a profound effect on the international community, and it’s already sending cheers through the climate circles around the world. The two immobile pillars propping up the bulk of the world’s fossil fuel infrastructure finally feel like they’ve budged.

The challenges in meeting the targets put forward – and pushing them further – will of course be myriad. But in the face of an unfolding planetary disaster that can seem immune to government action, this deal is, at the very least, a much-needed beacon of hope.

That’s a good thing, right? In the New Republic, Rebecca Leber wonders about that:

The administration says this will be achievable under existing law. It assumes the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations to slash carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent by 2030 are in full swing. But there is also intense Republican opposition to the EPA’s plans, and to Obama’s. The new Congress is led by climate change deniers, who will obstruct the president’s plans. The next Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, has suggested he will use must-pass appropriations bills as leverage to force Obama into delaying or weakening his own climate regulations.

They could shut down the government (again) over this, and then there’s the other party:

Xi may not have to deal with Congress, but China has its own challenges ahead. The next step to watch for is specific regulations and goals that are outlined in China’s next five-year plan. It won’t be easy to meet these pledges: Non-fossil fuels made up 9.8 percent of China’s energy sources energy in 2013. To achieve 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuels, China will need to add clean and nuclear energy at an enormous scale.

Nothing is easy, but in the Washington Post, Chris Mooney says that might not matter:

The experts underscore that this deal has a symbolic value that goes far beyond the literal emissions cuts (or caps) that have now been pledged, precisely because the world’s top two greenhouse gas emitters have now both come to the table. If the agreement lays the groundwork for a broader global agreement – one that encompasses other major emitters like India, Japan, and Russia – then that is the real payoff. That agreement could happen in Paris in late 2015, when the nations of the world gather to try to achieve a global agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Cool. This would be widespread progress, and at Bloomberg View, Christopher Flavelle, says the Republicans are in trouble now:

The Republicans’ best argument against regulating carbon emissions from U.S. coal plants has always been this: If China won’t act, what use is it? Why risk harming the U.S. economy if the resulting drop in emissions isn’t enough to slow the worst effects of climate change?

The U.S.-China climate agreement announced last night turns that argument on its head. Under the deal, China will aim to begin reducing its carbon emissions by 2030, and the U.S. will reduce its emissions by as much as 28 percent by 2025, compared with 2005 levels – “reductions achievable under existing law.”

Translation: The U.S. can only honor its commitment if proposed regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, which aim to reduce power-plant emissions 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, are allowed to proceed.

So if Republicans in Congress block those rules, they risk tanking the agreement with China, which in turn gives China a reason to back out of the deal. The EPA rules that previously looked senseless in the absence of Chinese emissions reductions are now, arguably, the single most important thing the U.S. can do to ensure those reductions.

Ed Kilgore isn’t so sure about that:

I heard Mitch McConnell on the radio last night complaining that Obama had gotten too little out of the Chinese in exchange for the terrible things he plans to do to the Great Coal Idol Mitch worships (along with the Golden Calf of political money). And if there’s anything latter-day Republicans hold in contempt almost as much as climate science it’s diplomatic agreements that bind the proud wolf of America’s freedom of action. I suspect the idea that Obama has sold out to the godless Chicomms is going to be a common theme going forward as Republicans gird up their loins to smite EPA.

Brian Beutler is not impressed:

The key thing about the “why should we act if China won’t?!” excuse is a failure of moral imagination. You only say something like that if you’re extremely confident that the world’s developing economies won’t turn around and embarrass you by seeking to limit their own emissions – that they share your particular cynicism, nihilism, or denialism.

Not everyone is a misanthrope:

It’s not just that China is mature enough to grapple with climate science and the GOP isn’t, but that conservatives are so far down these rabbit holes that they’ve convinced themselves no other rational, developing economy (i.e. non-US and EU) would treat this as a problem that needs solving.

But it is a problem that needs solving, even to the calculating, self-interested leaders of the Communist Party of China. Irrespective of the science, there was always some chance that the right’s claims about the political economy of climate change (or, more accurately, the Chinese government’s views about the political economy of climate change) would be vindicated. They have instead been refuted.

That’s because the problems that climate pollution causes are real, and even the least accountable governments in the world understand that they need to be addressed – even if not for the purest, most idealistic reasons. Once you accept the alarming implications of climate science, then trying to avert them becomes ineluctable. And the only way to explain away how wrong conservatives were here is to conclude that they had actually internalized the view that climate change isn’t a big deal, and might just be a big hoax.

Misanthropes see things that way, and in Foreign Policy, Kate Galbraith considers how things might play out:

If a Republican takes the White House in 2016, he or she could reverse or revise the executive orders that form the core of Obama’s climate push. And it’s going to be a hard fight even before the election: Republicans in Congress, newly empowered after recapturing the Senate this month, are already vowing to undercut the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, is already plotting a way out of the U.S.-China deal. He immediately described it as a “non-binding charade.” He also vowed to do “everything in my power to rein in and shed light on the EPA’s unchecked regulations.” Inhofe has limited direct leverage over the EPA, but the Senate could withhold appropriations to the agency.

James Inhofe is a problem and Rebecca Leber is amazed by his leaps of logic:

“Why would China ever agree unilaterally to reduce its emissions when that’s the only way that they can produce electricity?” he later asked. “Right now – and I have talked to them before, I’ve talked to people from China who kind of smile. They laugh at us and say, ‘Wait a minute! You say that you’re going to believe us that we’re going to reduce our emissions? We applaud the United States. We want the United States to reduce its emissions, because if they do that, as the manufacturing base has to leave the United States looking for energy, they come to China.’ So it’s to their advantage to continue with their increases in emissions.”

In his speech, Inhofe called himself a “one-man truth squad” – twice.

The man has a vivid imagination. This is the Molière comedy all over again, even if it’s not funny, and Jonathan Chait is getting depressed:

The Republican Party and its intellectual allies regard close analysis of Chinese internal motivations as a useless exercise. Conservatives oppose taxes or regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions, therefore they dismiss scientific conclusions that would justify such regulations, and therefore they also dismiss geopolitical analyses that would have the same effect. On the right, it is simply an a priori truth that nothing could persuade China to limit its emission. Obviously, the feasibility of a deal with China is far less certain than the scientific consensus undergirding anthropogenic global warming. What is parallel between the two is the certainty of conservative skepticism and imperviousness to contrary evidence. …

It would be nice to think that evidence like today’s pact would at least soften the GOP’s unyielding certainty about the absolute impossibility of a global climate accord. The near-total refusal of the right to reconsider its denial of the theory of anthropogenic global warming sadly suggests otherwise.

That is depressing, but Kevin Drum says everyone should calm down:

Unlike Obama’s threatened immigration rules, these are all things that have been in the pipeline for years. Obama doesn’t have to take any active steps to make them happen, and Republicans can’t pretend that any of them are a “poke in the eye” or whatever the latest bit of post-election kvetching is. This stuff is as good as done, and second only to Obamacare, this is right up there as one of the biggest legacies of Obama’s presidency.

This is, then, a comedy. The sour misanthrope rails on and on, but everything turns out fine in the end, because it was always going to turn out fine. Conservatives hate when that happens.

That should be good for Democrats, but everyone hates them now, especially the white working class. Noam Scheiber wonders what can be done about that, because they voted Republican by a thirty-point margin in the midterms:

At first blush, the white working class would appear to pose a real dilemma. The set of issues on which the Democratic Party is most coherent these days is social progressivism… But while these issues unite college-educated voters and working-class minority voters, they’ve historically alienated the white working class. …

How to square this circle? Well, it turns out we don’t really have to, since the analysis is outdated. The white working class is increasingly open to social liberalism, or at least not put off by it. As Ruy Teixeira and John Halpin observed this summer, 54 percent of the white working class born after 1980 think gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, according to data assembled from the 2012 election. …

Long story short, there’s a coalition available to Democrats that knits together working class minorities and college-educated voters and slices heavily into the GOP’s margins among the white working class… The basis of the coalition isn’t a retreat from social progressivism, but making economic populism the party’s centerpiece… The politics of this approach work not just because populism is a “message” that a majority of voters want to hear. But because, unlike the status quo, it can actually improve their economic prospects, as Harold Meyerson recently pointed out.

That’s logical, but Kevin Drum argues that it is very wrong:

I agree that social liberalism isn’t quite the deal killer it used to be. … It’s still an issue – especially gun control, which remains more potent than a lot of liberals like to acknowledge – but it’s fading somewhat in areas like abortion and gay marriage. There are still plenty of Fox-watching members of the white working class who are as socially conservative as ever, but I think it’s safe to say that at the margins social issues are becoming a little less divisive among the white working class than they have been over the past few decades.

But if that’s the case, why does the white working class continue to loathe Democrats so badly? I think the answer is as old as the discussion itself: They hate welfare. There was a hope among some Democrats that Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform would remove this millstone from around Democrats’ necks, and for a few years during the dotcom boom it probably did. The combination of tougher work rules and a booming economy made it a less contentious topic.

But when the economy stagnates and life gets harder, people get meaner. That’s just human nature. And the economy has been stagnating for the working class for well over a decade – and then practically collapsing ever since 2008.

Don’t underestimate reflexive misanthropy:

So who does the white working class take out its anger on? Largely, the answer is the poor – in particular, the undeserving poor. Liberals may hate this distinction, but it doesn’t matter if we hate it. Lots of ordinary people make this distinction as a matter of simple common sense, and the white working class makes it more than any. That’s because they’re closer to it. For them, the poor aren’t merely a set of statistics or a cause to be championed. They’re the folks next door who don’t do a lick of work but somehow keep getting government checks paid for by their tax dollars. For a lot of members of the white working class, this is personal…

And who is it that’s responsible for this infuriating flow of government money to the shiftless? Democrats! We fight to save food stamps. We fight for WIC. We fight for Medicaid expansion. We fight for Obamacare. We fight to move poor families into nearby housing.

This is a big problem because these are all things that benefit the poor but barely touch the working class. Does it matter that the working class barely pays for most of these programs in the first place, since their federal income taxes tend to be pretty low? Nope. They’re still paying taxes, and it seems like they never get anything for it. It’s always someone else.

Democrats will just have to accept this:

It’s pointless to argue that this perception is wrong. Maybe it is, maybe it’s not. But it’s there. And although it’s bound up with plenty of other grievances – many of them frankly racial, but also cultural, religious, and geographic – at its core you have a group of people who are struggling and need help, but instead feel like they simply get taxed and taxed for the benefit of someone else – always someone else. If this were you, you wouldn’t vote for Democrats either.

I hate to end this with the usual cliché that I don’t know what to do about it, but I don’t. Helping the poor is one of the great causes of liberalism, and we forfeit our souls if we give up on it. And yet, as a whole bunch of people have acknowledged lately, the Democratic Party simply doesn’t do much for either the working or middle classes these days. Republicans, by contrast, offer both the concrete – tax cuts – and the emotional – an inchoate but still intense rage against a government that seems not to care about them.

There’s nothing comic about that. Any attempt to do some good in this world will, somehow, do very bad things eventually, or sooner, and probably to you, personally. You can count on it. Molière’s misanthrope wasn’t really an oddball. Things can go wrong, and probably will go wrong – unless they don’t. The problem is figuring out which is likely. That’s always the problem. People will laugh at you if you get it wrong. Then it’s a comedy.

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Opening Old Wounds

Those of us who graduated from college in 1969, as the curtain came down on the cultural/political/sexual/musical revolution that changed America and the world forever – if it did – are in our late sixties now. Almost all of us moved on, led a full life, more or less, and retired from that final career in a series of careers that probably had little if anything to do with peace and love and flower power and changing the world. All of that was a long time ago. It ended when everyone went home from Woodstock and took a long hot shower, to wash the mud off, and Richard Nixon settled down in the White House. Even the Vietnam War ended, eventually. Where have all the flowers gone? Disco and polyester leisure suits followed, and then grandchildren.

We let it all go, perhaps because we had won enough. No one now thinks that war in Vietnam was a fine idea. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 corrected a few racial problems, even if, last year, the Supreme Court ruled that significant parts of the Voting Rights Act were now invalid, because things had changed. They suggested a rewrite, as if this Congress would ever do that. Republicans want us to go back to 1962 or so, as black folks and other minorities keep voting for the wrong people – not them. Now there are all the new state-level rules that will make it hard for them ever to vote again – not poll taxes and absurd literacy tests – that would be illegal. Making obtaining the necessary new voter-ID cards an expensive and time-consuming process isn’t illegal – lots of stuff is expensive and time-consuming. Restricting the hours available to vote and not replacing broken voting machines, in certain districts, isn’t illegal either. Times are tough. States don’t have a whole lot of money. This is a prudent use of limited state funds, so they can fix potholes and all the rest. The net effect of all this is to undo what was done in the sixties.

That was a setback, but abortion is legal and no one has a problem with “the pill” any longer – except the Republicans, who do what they can to make it next to impossible to find a clinic that provides either. That also would undo what was won in the sixties, but that was won already. There’s no going back. And although Republicans hated the first bill Obama signed, in the first month of his first term, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act – all about women being able to do something about receiving the same pay for the same work as men – they couldn’t argue women shouldn’t be paid the same as men for the same work – not after the sixties. They had to talk about how this new act would hurt businesses and make trial lawyers rich. They couldn’t argue with the concept. The little woman hadn’t stayed home, and happily dusted the furniture and then made dinner for her man, since the days of June Cleaver, and that was the fifties. These guys should give it a rest. The rest of us have moved on. The arguments are over. They were over a long time ago.

They won’t let go. The latest dust-up, and kind of silly on the face of it, had to do with an HBO Veterans Day concert, the Concert for Valor in Washington, and it went well:

Military veterans and active-duty service members packed Washington’s National Mall on Tuesday night for a free concert featuring Bruce Springsteen, Rihanna and Eminem, among other performers.

The first-of-its-kind Concert for Valor, spearheaded by Starbucks president Howard Schultz, was intended to raise awareness for issues affecting veterans. Hundreds of thousands of people were in attendance, making it one of the biggest events of the year on the Mall.

While tickets were free, organizers hoped to direct fans to ways they can volunteer or donate money to causes helping war veterans. Some in the audience said the gesture had symbolic importance.

“This is the first time since I’ve been back that I’ve felt honored to be back home, and I’m 65 years old,” said Bobby Monk, a disabled Vietnam Veteran from Washington who wore a gray Army T-shirt. “They treated us like criminals when we came back home. They didn’t give us a parade.”

That should have put an end to the sixties, and it was a big deal:

The concert was televised live by HBO, which was making its signal available to non-subscribers. Online streaming was also available. HBO chief executive Richard Plepler said it was possible that the concert could become an annual event.

Schultz, the co-author of a book about veterans, said he hoped the event would help more Americans recognize the importance of welcoming post-9/11 veterans back to civilian life.

“Veterans Day comes once a year. Unfortunately, at times, it’s turned into an annual weekend sale,” Schultz said. “That’s not what it’s about.”

The crowd was large, and well-behaved, and everyone was happy, except the sixties aren’t over, and there was this at the Weekly Standard:

Who would have thought that that Bruce Springsteen, Dave Grohl, and Zac Brown, accomplished musicians all, would be so, well, tone-deaf? But how else to explain their choice of song – Creedence Clearwater’s famously anti-war anthem “Fortunate Son” – at the ostensibly pro-military “Concert for Valor” this evening on the National Mall?

The song, not to put too fine a point on it, is an anti-war screed, taking shots at “the red white and blue.” It was a particularly terrible choice given that Fortunate Son is, moreover, an anti-draft song, and this concert was largely organized to honor those who volunteered to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Talking Points Memo takes it from there:

The Boss has been in the Fox News crosshairs all day, too. On Fox Business Network, Stuart Varney questioned why Springsteen, “an outspoken leftist,” would play politics with the troops.

“So much for HBO’s ‘Concert for Valor,’” Clayton Morris said at the outset of this morning’s “Fox & Friends.”

On Fox’s “Outnumbered,” co-host Andrea Tantaros professed to be a fan of both Springsteen and Grohl, but wondered why they didn’t just go with a different song.

“It’s amazing to me that nobody – think of all the people that are involved in a concert like this – nobody had the brains to stop and say, ‘You guys might want to pick a different song,’” Tantaros said.

The song they picked was this:

Some folks are born made to wave the flag
They’re red, white and blue
And when the band plays “Hail to the Chief”
They point the cannon at you

Some folks are born silver spoon in hand
Lord, don’t they help themselves
But when the tax men come to the door
Lord, the house look a like a rummage sale

Yeah, some folks inherit star-spangled eyes
They send you down to war
And when you ask them, “How much should we give?”
They only answer, more, more, more…

And the chorus:

It ain’t me, it ain’t me
I ain’t no Senator’s son
It ain’t me, it ain’t me
I ain’t no fortunate one

“Fortunate Son” was written by John Fogerty, who was drafted in 1965, and ThinkProgress covers its origins:

Fogerty was drafted when he was 20 years old, in 1965, and came home from active duty two years later. In his own words, he was inspired to write “Fortunate Son” because “I did not support the policy or the war… If you asked anyone in the army at that time why we were going to Vietnam to fight, no one could answer… Probably the real answer was keeping the war machine going, and business. To sacrifice a young man’s life with no real purpose, taking these young men from their mothers and families, was wrong. I was the guy who was living this life… I had very strong feelings about all of this… To me, those soldiers were my brothers. I understood them because I was also drafted into the army just like them. The protest was against the policy, not the soldiers…”

“I had been thinking about all this turmoil… It had been on my mind for some time how sons of certain senators escaped the draft. It was very upsetting to me, as a young man of draft age. In political conventions, many times, states will use the phrase “favorite son,” as they recognize their leader to make a nomination. The songwriter in me thought about this, and I changed the name to ‘Fortunate Son,’ a phrase to describe what we have all witnessed in our time… When the troops came home, Nixon turned his back on the soldiers. As my feelings about this got stronger and stronger, I knew I had to write about it.” Fogerty wrote the music first “without even knowing what the lyrics were.” Later, he went to his bedroom with a pen and paper and wrote the lyrics in twenty minutes. “It was very personal to me.”

Bob Collins states the obvious:

It’s written from the perspective of the young person sent to fight a questionable war by politicians who often isolated their own sons from it. That’s history. It’s not a criticism of the people who went to Vietnam. It’s a criticism of the ones who didn’t.

That’s also partly why the United States dispensed with the military draft, which has led to an ongoing debate – particularly among the military – over whether it’s easier now to forget America’s servicepeople because we’ve isolated ourselves from the wars we wage, convincing ourselves that throwing a little ribbon magnet on the car qualifies as “supporting our troops.”

That would make the song entirely appropriate. Not one of Mitt Romney’s sons enlisted:

There are 58,286 names on a granite wall in Washington. They’re not there to honor the policies that put them there. They’re there to honor the people who were swept up and sent to Vietnam.

By now, we should have been able to understand the distinction.

Conservatives misunderstood what was being presented here. The troops are good men (and women). The veterans are good men (and women). It’s the policy, stupid! If the policy is so damned good, where are your children? That’s a fair question.

This was, however, a minor matter, although it could hurt Chris Christie’s chances of getting the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, to run against Hillary Clinton. Christie is a big Bruce Springsteen fan. He loves the guy. Will he now?

Who cares? The issue always will be policy. Wars produce veterans, who did the right thing. That deserves respect, but were they asked to do the right thing? That’s our problem, not theirs, and now we have a fine mess on our hands, as Andrew Sullivan explains:

The US fought two long, brutal wars in its response to the atrocity of September 11, 2001. We lost both of them – revealing the biggest military machine in the history of the planet as essentially useless in advancing American objectives through war and occupation. Attempts to quash Islamist extremism through democracy were complete failures. The Taliban still has enormous sway in Afghanistan and the only way to prevent the entire Potemkin democracy from imploding is a permanent US troop presence. In Iraq, we are now confronting the very same Sunni insurgency the invasion created in 2003 – just even more murderous. The Jihadism there has only become more extreme under a democratic veneer. And in all this, the U.S. didn’t just lose the wars; it lost the moral high-ground as well. The president himself unleashed brutal torture across all theaters of war – effectively ending any moral authority the US has in international human rights.

As with Bruce Springsteen, no one wants to hear such things, so they don’t hear them, which makes things worse:

These are difficult truths to handle. They reveal that so many brave men and women died for nothing. And so we have to construct myths or bury facts to ensure that we maintain face. But these myths and amnesia have a consequence: they only serve to encourage Washington to make exactly the same mistakes again. To protect its own self-regard, Washington’s elite is prepared to send young Americans to fight in a war they cannot win and indeed have already lost. You see the blinding myopia elsewhere: Washington’s refusal to release the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture merely proves that it cannot face the fact that some of the elite are war criminals… and that these horrific war crimes have changed America’s role in the world.

What infuriated me about the decision to re-start the Iraq War last August – by a president explicitly elected not to do any such thing – was its arrogance, its smugness, and its contempt for what this country, and especially its armed forces, went through for so many long years of quagmire and failure. Obama and his aides revealed that their commitment to realism and not to intervene in Syria could be up-ended on a dime – and a war initiated without any debate in Congress, let alone a war authorization. They actually believed they had the right to re-start the Iraq War – glibly tell us it’s no big deal – tell us about it afterwards, and then ramp up the numbers of combat forces on the ground to early Vietnam levels.

Sullivan is not a happy camper, and not happy with Obama’s UN ambassador:

Just listen to Jon Stewart calling Samantha Power’s smug bluff last night…

It was one of Stewart’s best interviews in a long while. One telling moment comes when Stewart asks Power why, if the threat from ISIS is “existential”, the regional powers most threatened by it cannot take it on themselves. She had no answer – because there is none. The US is intervening – despite clear evidence that it can do no real good – simply to make sure that ISIS doesn’t actually take over the country and thereby make president Obama look bad. But the IS was never likely to take over Kurdistan or the Shiite areas of Iraq, without an almighty struggle. And our elevating ISIS into a global brand has only intensified its recruitment and appeal. We responded, in other words, in the worst way possible and for the worst reasons possible: without the force to alter the underlying dynamic, without a breakthrough in multi-sectarian governance in Baghdad, without the regional powers taking the lead, without any exit plan, and all to protect the president from being blamed for “losing Iraq” – even though “Iraq” was lost almost as soon as it was occupied in 2003.

My point is this: how can you behave this way after what so many service-members endured for so long? How can you simply re-start a war you were elected to end and for which you have no feasible means to achieve victory?

And this is where he goes full-Springsteen:

To go back in and try to do again with no combat troops what we could not do with 100,000 is a definition of madness brought on by pride. It is to restart the entire war all over again. It makes no sense – except as political cover. I was chatting recently with an officer who served two tours of duty in Iraq, based in Mosul. I asked him how he felt about ISIS taking over a city he had risked his life to save. And I can’t forget his response (I paraphrase): “Anyone who was over there knew right then that as soon as we left, all this shit would happen again. I’m not surprised. The grunts on the ground knew this, and saw this, but the military leadership can’t admit their own failure and the troops cannot speak out because it’s seen as an insult to those who died. And so we keep making the same fucking mistakes over and over again.”

It’s the sixties all over again:

At what point will we listen to those men and women willing to tell the ugly, painful truth about our recent past – and follow the logical conclusion? When will Washington actually admit its catastrophic errors and crimes of the last decade – and try to reform its own compulsive-interventionist habits to reflect reality rather than myth? Not yet, it appears, not yet. Washington cannot bear very much reality.

That’s odd. On April 22, 1971, John Kerry became the first Vietnam veteran to testify before Congress about the war – he spoke for nearly two hours to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, presenting the conclusions of the Winter Soldier Investigation and then discussing the big policy issues. He had his three Purple Hearts and his other medals, but now he had long hair and told them this war was stupid. There was no point in continuing, although ending the thing would be difficult. How do you ask someone to be that last man to die for a mistake? That was his question.

Then he did the unthinkable. The day after this testimony he was part of that demonstration with thousands of other veterans – they threw their medals and ribbons over a fence at the front steps of the Capitol building. It was dramatic. Each veteran gave his name, hometown, branch of service and a statement – no one was hiding anything. Kerry’s statement was this – “I’m not doing this for any violent reasons, but for peace and justice, and to try and make this country wake up once and for all.”

Now John Kerry is Obama’s secretary of state. He certainly forgot the sixties, or he switched sides but one thing leads to another. All our soldiers – and sailors and airmen and Marines too – are heroes now. We all say that. There’s no question about that. We have an all-volunteer military after all, and these folks had the guts to join up to protect and save us and fight and die for us. At least that’s the idea. They may have had other motives of all sorts, but that doesn’t matter. Thank you for your service. The words open and close every public conversation with anyone in the military, and we should thank them.

It’s just that this is not what the antiwar activists of long ago imagined. They imagined reluctant heroes, or at least humble heroes, the ones that Springsteen was singing about. The conservatives were outraged. It was a night the sixties came back to haunt us, even those of us who moved on long ago.

Posted in The Culture Wars, The Sixties, Veterans Day | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Stagnation Nation

Enough has been said about the midterm election that swept the Republicans back into power. The Republicans retook the Senate and increased their majority in the House, to a level not seen since 1928 or so, and they now control more state governments than ever before, so the Democrats are hurting – but more than a few red states voted for a mandated higher minimum wage, some states decided to go with the flow and voted for legal pot and for actual abortion access, of all things – and also voted in Republican senators and congressmen and governors, who have consistently vowed to fight all those things. That was odd. People seem to like those “progressive” ideas that Democrats have, and they voted for the Republican on the ticket. The Republicans won, and they lost, but much of this can be explained by a general sense that the nation is stuck.

Things aren’t getting better for most people – just keeping your job is a worry, and forget getting a raise – and this time around there was Ebola and ISIS and Putin to consider too, and the usual mass shooting every few weeks, and now it’s clear that climate change will end the world as we know it – and all we can do about that is take drastic steps to limit the damage, at least a little, steps no one seems to want to take. The world is a mess. The Democrats have held the White House and the Senate for six years. Maybe someone else should be given a chance to get us out of our troubles. That might have been the thinking, if that’s thinking.

That wasn’t thinking. There’s no evidence the Republicans could fix any of this. They’ve spent the last six years pointing out how stupid everything Obama and the Democrats did, or tried to do, really was. That finally got them the votes they needed to surge back – but they never said what they would do instead. They said they didn’t have to – they were not the ones in charge. Six years after Obamacare was first proposed, and four years after it became law, they still haven’t revealed their awesome alternative to Obamacare. They used to say that would be along any day now, but they stopped saying even that years ago. There was no reason to go out on a limb and risk someone thinking their alternative was stupid, or unworkable, or if workable, pretty much the same thing as Obamacare, with a different name. It was enough to say that they hated Obamacare.

That worked. Everyone hates Obamacare, even if survey after survey shows they like all its provisions. Democrats running for this and that tried not to mention Obamacare, or mention Obama – they told him to stay back in Washington. Send Michelle. And then they lost, but they didn’t want to talk about Obamacare.

Maybe it was its name – few called it the Affordable Care Act of 2010 – because everyone is sick and tired of the cautious and careful and cerebral Obama now. Perpetually calm and reasonable people become a pain in the ass rather quickly, but maybe it was because the wrong sorts of people were getting health insurance, the ones who needed help buying it. People should, after all, pay their own way. Those were not hard-working Real Americans. Mitt Romney called them the hopelessly useless forty-seven percent, whining losers, because of their own moral failings, demanding that good people, who work hard, give lots of free stuff to them.

Romney should not have said that. That comment lost him the presidential election, but comments like that don’t lose midterm elections. The forty-seven percent doesn’t show up for those. They don’t have time. They’re working three crappy jobs, trying to make ends meet, because Republicans are always blocking any attempt to raise the minimum wage. They vote every four years, when it matters.

As for this election, there was what the Associated Press reported from the exit polls:

Most of the Americans voting Tuesday say they are dissatisfied or angry with the Obama administration. But they’re not so fond of the opposition, either.

Exit polls find just 1 in 5 voters say they trust the government to do what is right most or all of the time.

About a quarter say they are dissatisfied or angry with both Obama and the GOP leadership in Congress. Another six in ten are unhappy with one or the other of them.

No one was happy with anyone, and this is curious:

The surveys show voters taking positions that align more with Democrats on many issues. Majorities favor a way for those in the country illegally to stay, for example.

At the same time, most think the government is trying to do too many things – an opinion more aligned with Republicans.

The American people are confused – the government should do things, damn it, but it shouldn’t do things – but they are very angry. They simply don’t like things as they are. Maybe the government is trying to do too many things, but whatever it’s doing, it’s not working. The rich folks are doing fine, but they can’t pay the bills. That must be Obama’s fault. He isn’t running? Okay, vote for the nearest Republican. That’ll show him.

Sometimes that backfires, as Luke Brinker reports:

Less than one week after Kansas voters narrowly reelected Gov. Sam Brownback despite the disastrous budgetary consequences of his massive tax cuts for the wealthy, state analysts announced Monday that the state’s fiscal outlook is even more dire than initially realized.

We’ve known for some time that Brownback’s supply-side experiment has been a big budget-buster. Thanks to the governor’s tax cuts, Kansas collected $330 million less revenue than expected for fiscal year 2014 – $700 million below revenue for fiscal 2013. Despite the Brownback administration’s assurances that the state’s fiscal picture would improve – any day now – the state’s revenue from July to September came up an astonishing 10 percent short of expectations.

And things just got worse:

Kansas’ revenue forecasts have once again proven far too rosy, with revenue estimates for the current fiscal year now $205 million lower than they were in April. State officials now say that lawmakers will need to slash $278 million in spending no later than June to balance the budget. Moreover, the state’s reserve fund – which contained $379 million just four months ago – will be completely depleted, forecasters say. To avert a deficit in the next fiscal year, lawmakers will also have to cut an additional $435 million from a $5.9 billion budget, the Topeka Capital-Journal reports.

“Sam Brownback spent the last six months lying to the people of Kansas. He knew all along that his fiscal experiment had bankrupted our state,” state Sen. Anthony Hensley, the Democratic minority leader, said in response to the new numbers. “Now he and his followers will get exactly what they wanted – to starve public schools, to raid the highway fund and to cut the social service safety net that so many Kansans depend on. All of this for the sake of his own reelection and political aspirations,” he added.

That’s happening now. Brinker provides all the details and adds this:

What makes Brownback’s experiment so repugnant is that the governor and his supporters knew full well that a reckoning was coming. In the final analysis, Brownback & Co. share Grover Norquist’s goal of shrinking the government to the size that it can be drowned in the bathtub. Last Tuesday, 50 percent of Kansas voters gave them the opportunity to do just that.

It was a close election, but just enough people decided the government was always doing too much, and should stop that stuff. Low taxes, especially on businesses big and small and on the rich, would have every corporation in America moving to Kansas soon, and folks would be starting up all sorts of new small businesses too, so things would be small-government wonderful. With the roads falling apart and the bridges falling down, and school after school closing, and the poor dying in the streets, they might rethink that. The citizens of Kansas won’t be living in an Ayn Rand paradise. They’ll be living in Somalia soon. Koch Industries may even have to move its Wichita headquarters to some place with paved roads and running water.

That Kansas election, however, wasn’t an outlier. These midterm elections, and all elections in the future, may be about the rich versus everyone else. They will be about the economy, and Andrew Sullivan has argued, that on the economy, voters should be willing to cut Obama some slack:

No other developed country has achieved the growth that the US has after the stimulus – including austerity-bound Germany. No other administration has presided over a steeper fall in the deficit. The brutal facts of the twenty-first century global economy has meant this has not been felt very much among the beleaguered middle class. But who is offering on either side a real solution to that by-product of globalization, trade and technology? Again, on the actual substance, Obama has a strong record – dented by the avalanche of hostility from the right and disgruntlement from everyone but the very rich. …

He [Obama] never promised us perfection – merely endurance and persistence in substantively changing the nation and the world for the better. He has easily demonstrated that persistence against truly vitriolic demonization. The easy cynicism and cheap piling on are not, in my view, what he deserves.

Maybe not, but something is wrong, and Josh Marshall thinks the Democrats need to wake up:

I tend to agree that Democrats should have run more clearly on their economic record, though I do not think it would have been a game changing move. …

First, more of this than we are inclined to admit at the moment was beyond the Democrats’ control or was so baked into the cake by election time that there was little political strategists could do about them. It’s the sixth year of a president’s term (bad); the president is not popular (bad); most key races were in red or purple states (bad); the current Democratic coalition consistently drops off from voting in non-presidential elections (bad). Putting all these things together, frankly, you almost wonder how they didn’t do worse. What this doesn’t account for, however, is the loss of key governors’ races where Democrats should have or seem to have had a good shot at winning – Illinois, Massachusetts, Maryland, more marginally Florida and Kansas and Wisconsin.

It also seems clear – though just how to measure it is difficult – that the rise of ISIL and the Ebola scare created a general feeling that the country was adrift and threatened. That further depressed the President’s popularity and that spilled over to his party.

All of these things fit into the mix and others too.

Sure, but forget all that:

Democrats have toyed (and I use that term advisedly) with the issue of rising inequality for the last two elections. But let me suggest that as a political matter inequality is a loser. What is driving the politics of the country to a mammoth degree is that the vast majority of people in the country no longer have a rising standard of living. And Democrats don’t have a policy prescription to make that change.

Marshall reviews a lot of data, but it comes down to this:

The gist is that while productivity growth has been relatively consistent through the post-war period, productivity became unchained from wages in the early 1970s. Despite a modest bump up in the 90s and another small one in the aughts it’s really never come back.

He points out that wage growth “has basically flat-lined” since the economy collapsed at the end of the Bush years and the job numbers again and again show no signs of that changing:

If you follow macroeconomics you know all this stuff like the back of your hand. And when I say that this is the issue rather than ‘economic inequality’, this is obviously one side of the equation which is driving rising inequality. You might even say this is the same thing, only expressed in a different way. But it’s a critical difference.

Fundamentally, most people don’t care particularly how astronomically wealthy people are living their lives. It is a distant reality on many levels. They care a great deal about their own economic circumstances. And if you are not doing any better than you were 5 years ago or a decade ago or – at least in the sense of the hypothetical median wage earner – 40 years ago, that’s going to really have your attention and shape a great deal of your worldview and political outlook.

So, let me sign up with those who are saying that it was a mistake not to run more clearly on the President’s (and the Democrats’) economic record. Unemployment is back down to something like normal levels (under 6%); the deficit has fallen consistently and is now back to pre-crash levels judged as a percentage of GDP (which is the only meaningful way to judge it); the stock market has done incredibly well. Yes, totally.

But here’s the thing: As long as most voters are still just treading water in their own economic lives, Republicans can say, “Oh yeah, they say the economy’s doing great with all their fancy numbers. But that’s not what I see!” To an extent that will be just another Republican paean to innumeracy. But it will resonate because rising employment is not leading to rising wages. And that’s the core economic experience of wage earners who make up the overwhelming number of people in the country.

That is true to them, and that’s the problem:

The great political reality of our time is that Democrats don’t know (and nobody else does either) how to get wage growth and productivity growth or economic growth lines back into sync.

We know a fair amount about why they got out of sync. Decreased bargaining power resulting from the steep decline in the labor movement, a whole series of vast structural changes in the economy we put under the heading of ‘globalization’, rapid changes in technology which play a big role… and a bunch of other things. What complicates the question is that at a certain point economic trends that concentrate wealth at the top magnify themselves as the winners use the political power derived from that wealth to lock down and expand their gains. …

But what are the policies that would change this corrosive trend? And how do you run on them as a party if you don’t know what they are? Minimum wage increases help those at the very bottom of the income scale and they have a lifting effect up the wage scale as the floor gets pushed up. But it is at best a small part of the puzzle. Clamping down on tax dodges by the extremely wealthy claws back some resources for the treasury and sends an important message, as might some restrictions on ridiculously high CEO pay. But again, these are important changes at the margins that do not fundamentally change the equation. Economic populism or another comparable politics with a different tonality won’t get you very far if you can get beyond beating up on the winners to providing concrete improvements to those losing out in today’s economy.

Again, a stark reality: Democrats don’t have a set of policies to turn around this trend. Republicans don’t either, of course. But they don’t need to. Not in the same way. As a party they are basically indifferent to middle class wages. And their policies stand to make the situation even worse.

We’re stuck:

Tax cuts as an elixir for every problem in the American body politic may be running out of steam. But it wasn’t so potent because of its policy merits, which haven’t made much sense for decades. It was potent because a generation of activists and politically minded people were reared on the idea and a vast political coalition was built around them. So find the policies, if there are any, build a political coalition around them. And then, don’t forget: the spiraling rates of wealth concentration have created a political economy in which organized wealth is extremely well positioned to beat back any challenges to its gains.

Yes, they will, and the New York Times’ David Leonhardt sees the same stagnation:

A quiz: How does the Democratic Party plan to lift stagnant middle-class incomes?

I realize that liberal-leaning economists can give a long, substantive answer to this question, touching on health care costs, education and infrastructure. But most Americans would not be able to give a clear answer — which helps explain why the party took such a drubbing last week.

The Democratic Party’s short-term plan to help the middle class just isn’t very clear. Some of the policies that Democrats favor, such as broader access to good education, take years to pay off. Others, like reducing medical costs or building new roads, have an indirect, unnoticed effect on middle-class incomes.

The fact remains that incomes for most Americans aren’t growing very fast and haven’t been for years. Median inflation-adjusted income last year was still $2,100 lower than when President Obama took office in 2009 – and $3,600 lower than when President George W. Bush took office in 2001. That’s not just because of the financial crisis, either: Last month was another solid one for job growth and another weak one for average wage growth, the latest jobs report showed.

We’re living through the great wage slowdown of the 21st century, and nothing presents a larger threat to the Democrats’ electoral fortunes than that slowdown.

That’s what the next election will be about:

As the 2016 presidential campaign begins to stir, the central question will be how both parties respond to the great wage slowdown. Neither has offered a persuasive answer so far – let alone a solution – which is why the public mood is so sour and American politics has been so tumultuous lately. The partisan makeup of the Senate has seesawed more over the past decade than in any time since just after World War II. The Republicans won big victories in 2004, 2010 and 2014, the Democrats in 2006, 2008 and 2012.

All the while, incomes keep stagnating, and nothing influences the national zeitgeist quite so much as income trends, for understandable reasons.

And there may be nothing anyone can do about this:

Washington could definitely do more to help growth: better infrastructure, a less burdensome tax code, a less wasteful health care system, more bargaining power for workers and, above all, stronger schools and colleges, to lift the skills of the nation’s work force. Countries that have made more educational progress over the last generation have experienced bigger income gains than the United States, and even here the pay gap between college graduates and everyone else has reached a record high.

Yet no mix of these policies is likely to end the great wage slowdown anytime soon. “This is not a silver-bullet issue,” says Gene Sperling, a longtime adviser to Bill and Hillary Clinton and Mr. Obama, “and that’s part of what’s frustrating to people.”

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum adds this:

Growing income inequality per se isn’t our big problem. Stagnant wages for the middle class are. Obviously these things are tightly related in an economic sense, but in a political sense they aren’t. Voters care far less about rich people buying gold-plated fixtures for their yachts than they do about not getting a raise for the past five years. The latter is the problem they want solved.

Needless to say, I agree, but here are the two key takeaways from Marshall and Leonhardt and pretty much everyone else who tackles this subject: (1) nobody has any real answers, and (2) this hurts Democrats more than Republicans since Democrats are supposed to be the party of the middle class.

Anyone can see what happens next:

Sure, Republicans are the party of business interests and the rich, but voters blame their problems on whoever’s in power. Right now, Democrats have gotten the lion’s share of the blame for the slow economy, but Republicans rather plainly have no serious ideas about how to grow middle-class wages either. They won’t escape voter wrath on this front forever.

That wrath seems to be what the midterm elections were about, and what future elections will be about, until we no longer live in a stagnation nation, which seems unlikely. There’s no reason to raise anyone’s wages. There’s globalization – someone, somewhere, will do the job for less, and probably better. There’s automation – almost any job can be done by a tireless gizmo of some sort. Both have been going on for decades, and that will accelerate. If you have a job, you’re lucky to have a job – so don’t press your luck. The world really doesn’t need a whole lot of workers. It probably doesn’t need you. Wage stagnation was inevitable. It’s a feature, not a bug. The Democrats incurred the wrath of the voters for that this time.

They’ve been tossed out. It’s the Republicans’ turn now. Things aren’t getting better for most people, and neither party knows what to do about that. People hate stagnation, but they’d better get used to it.

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The War Machine

The past can be pretty creepy, if you live long enough. Los Angeles has one of the best oldies stations in the nation, with a sideband HD service where you can listen to everything from 1965 or so, with no commercials at all, which is fine if you liked that year. The British Invasion was peaking – the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and Herman’s Hermits and Petula Clark too, being held off by the Beach Boys and Sonny and Cher. The British were winning, and that was the soundtrack of the summer when high school was over and it was time to move on, to those four years that actually changed America, that Cultural Revolution that still pisses off Republicans. There’s no reason for that. The decade ended with the Beatles gone forever and Richard Nixon in the White House. John and Bobby Kennedy were dead, and so was Martin Luther King. Those riots in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention ended with the Democrats offering up the hapless Hubert Humphrey, as a gift to Richard Nixon. The Summer of Love in San Francisco came to nothing, and there would never be another Woodstock, and all the demonstrations in the world weren’t going to end the war. They had their war, the one Lyndon Johnson had handed to them.

They won, and the summer of 1965 was when the creepiness started. The music was amazing, but that was the year we sent the first combat troops to Vietnam – 3,500 Marines landed near Da Nang in March. We would have 180,000 troops there by the end of the year. The draft was ramping up. On July 29, 1965, in the middle of a fine summer, Lyndon Johnson announced that he had ordered an increase in military forces in Vietnam, from the 75,000 to 125,000, and announced that the monthly draft calls would be raised from 17,000 to 35,000 – because that was what was necessary. That was also the soundtrack of that summer. Sure, there were draft deferments for college students back then – being sent there to die wasn’t an immediate worry – but the world was turning very dark.

That complicates nostalgia. The songs of that summer have an odd context, even now on the car radio here in Los Angeles, blasting away, while stuck in traffic on Sunset Boulevard. They all turn a bit creepy. That July, the Rolling Stones couldn’t get any sort of satisfaction. Maybe they knew something. There was something in the air.

It’s in the air again. Andrew Sullivan senses it:

Let’s say you wanted to construct a narrative that perfectly fits the definition of mission creep. How could it improve on the following: at first you insist you are not going to be dragged into a new war in Iraq and Syria; then you rush military aid to avoid a humanitarian disaster; then you find that you need to make sure Kobani doesn’t fall; then you commit 1500 troops to “advise” the Iraqi “military”; and then you have the Pentagon announce “that it had received authorization from Obama to send an additional 1,500 U.S. personnel to Iraq over the coming months”, which would double the number of American boots on the ground there – but no worries – nothing to see here.

That was the announcement:

The new troops will be placed under the same noncombat restriction as those already deployed, but they will be moved closer to the front lines. … According to a senior administration official, 630 of the new troops will be performing an advise-and-assist mission – similar to the one being conducted today – primarily in Anbar in the west of the country. The Pentagon plans to establish “two expeditionary advise and assist operations centers, in locations outside of Baghdad and Erbil,” to provide support for the Iraqis at the brigade headquarters level and above. The remaining 870 troops will be doing a more traditional training mission at locations across the country, the senior administration official said. Both missions will move U.S. troops out of Iraq’s major cities and closer to where battles are currently being waged and where a likely counteroffensive would begin.

But these are NOT combat troops, you see. They’re only being sent to combat zones. Sullivan is not impressed:

What if combat comes to them? What if one of them is killed? Are we not to respond and defend ourselves? One US soldier captured by the IS and we have a huge emotional story that could guarantee even more of a commitment. This is exactly how this operation with a few advisers becomes an unstoppable war in an unwinnable desert.

Peter Van Buren remembers that summer long ago:

The latest American war was launched as a humanitarian mission. The goal of its first bombing runs was to save the Yazidis, a group few Americans had heard of until then, from genocide at the hands of the Islamic State (IS). Within weeks, however, a full-scale bombing campaign was underway against IS across Iraq and Syria with its own “coalition of the willing” and 1,600 US military personnel on the ground. Slippery slope? It was Teflon-coated. Think of what transpired as several years of early Vietnam-era escalation compressed into a semester.

He’s not happy:

In that time, what’s gone right? Short answer: Almost nothing. Squint really, really hard and maybe the “good news” is that IS has not yet taken control of much of the rest of Iraq and Syria, and that Baghdad hasn’t been lost. These possibilities, however, were unlikely even without US intervention.

And there might just possibly be one “victory” on the horizon, though the outcome still remains unclear. Washington might “win” in the IS-besieged Kurdish town of Kobani, right on the Turkish border. If so, it will be a faux victory guaranteed to accomplish nothing of substance. After all, amid the bombing and the fighting, the town has nearly been destroyed. What comes to mind is a Vietnam War-era remark by an anonymous American officer about the bombed provincial capital of Ben Tre: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

Calm down, Peter – our folks aren’t burning down villages there to save them, yet. We’re just arming some folks, and bombing some others, and we’ll be training Iraqis. We’re not in combat there yet. This is 1963, not 1965, for now, although the famous Middle East expert Juan Cole suggests that we are being spun this time too:

That these troops will be sent with Iraqi soldiers to al-Anbar Province belies the administration’s repeated denial that it will put boots on the ground. There will soon be 3000 US troops in Iraq. They will be at the scene of battles, embedded with Iraqi units (apparently in the hope that the Iraqi troops will be too embarrassed to run away en masse again in front of foreign guests). …

If there are US troops on the front lines in al-Anbar, where ISIL has been expanding its reach in recent months, then unfortunately there are likely to be US casualties. These are boots on the ground, even if there are not combat platoons going into battle by themselves.

Obama should cut the crap:

If ISIL really is a dire threat to US security, as administration officials maintain, then they should go to the US public with the news that they are going to have to put thousands of US forces on the ground in Iraq. So far they are trying to spin us, and to pretend that there are just some trainers and advisers. It is far more than that; US special operations forces will be operating in Iraq brigades, likely in part to paint lasers on targets for US warplanes to bomb.

In an age of weasel-words and Orwellian diction, it would be refreshing to hear Mr. Obama call this escalation what it is. It is not as if he will be running for office again or needs to win a popularity contest.

On the other hand, an aide to ISIS “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was reportedly just killed in an airstrike and Baghdadi himself may also have been injured at the same time – or maybe he’s dead now. The Pentagon can’t confirm that – we do these things remotely – but the Iraqi army is making real gains against ISIS in the northern city of Beiji:

Exclusive images obtained by Al Jazeera on Monday showed government forces pushing ahead into the rebel-controlled city, with ISIL flag covered in an Iraqi security forces slogan. Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from Baghdad, said clashes continue and the armed rebels are fighting back. He said the oil refinery, located about 50 km from the city centre, is the next big target. ISIL fighters remain in control of parts of the facility. The military advance is seen as a significant victory for the government, as Beiji and its nearby oil refinery were one of the first territories swept by ISIL in June.

This is a good thing. Take back those oil refineries and that will take away their funding, and maybe we won’t have to send in ground troops. German intelligence believes that’s working:

According to German English-language publication The Local, the BND (German equivalent of the CIA) estimate was obtained by several German news agencies. The BND estimate suggests that ISIS may make less than $100 million this year from oil – under $274,000 per day. Obviously, that’s still a lot, but it is way lower than what most public estimates suggest. …

There are two big reasons the BND thinks most estimates are inflated. The first is coalition airstrikes: the United States and its allies have pounded the oil extraction rigs, which are after all right out in the open, and hit ISIS smuggling lines. As such, the BND believes that ISIS has gone from producing its highest oil production of 172,000 barrels per day to 28,000 in October. … The second reason the BND believes ISIS oil revenues are inflated has to do with ISIS governance itself.

They were never that organized. They’re rebels and severe idealists, not bureaucrats, and now they’re running out of funds.

Wait. If this is true, why is Obama sending more troops? Sullivan offers this:

This is never enough. Now, the US has to fight the Iraqis’ fight for them – and somehow regain the territory lost to the IS. The goal will determine the forces. And whatever restraints this president tries to put on this will soon be busted – either by him or his successor.

This is exactly what we elected Obama to prevent, not to enable. But the war machine outlasts any president. And it has too easily co-opted this one already.

Sullivan may be right:

President Barack Obama isn’t ruling out sending additional troops to fight the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) jihadists in Iraq.

“You know, as commander-in-chief I’m never going to say never,” Obama said in a Sunday interview with CBS’ Face the Nation…

That’s a bit creepy, but Obama did explain himself:

Obama also dismissed critics who say the US is misleading the public by insisting these troops are not engaged in an active combat role. On Saturday, Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-New York) told Business Insider that such claims are “insulting” to veterans risking their lives for their country. And Kurdish officials have told the Daily Beast they’ve seen US Special Forces fighting on the ground.

“What hasn’t changed is our troops are not engaged in combat,” Obama said. “Essentially what we’re doing is we’re taking four training centers with coalition members that allow us to bring in Iraqi recruits, some of the Sunni tribes that are still resisting ISIL, giving them proper training, proper equipment, helping them with strategy, helping them with logistics.”

The president further said US troops could dispatch the Islamic State but militants would simply come back after the US withdraws. The only solution, Obama maintained, is for Iraqi troops to win the fight on the ground.

That’s what we intended in Vietnam too. That seems to be what Kennedy intended, in a halfhearted way, and then he managed to get himself shot. Johnson gave up on that idea. He sent in hundreds of thousands of troops, and then he gave up. He refused to run for president for another term. He’d had enough. Nixon bombed everything in sight, and then invaded Cambodia too, and then he was forced to resign over another matter. Gerald Ford ended that war, or just let it end. The communists finally had all of Vietnam, and we learned to live with that, and then Gerald Ford lost to Jimmy Carter, of all people. An effort to get an existing government in shape to fight its own fights, fights we wanted them to fight so we didn’t have to, or we really shouldn’t fight because we weren’t the main player in the region, turned into a decade of disaster for multiple presidents. Obama is at the Kennedy stage now, but Sullivan may be right. The war machine outlasts any president.

Who’s next? On the Republican side, Ross Douthat can’t quite decide between Marco Rubio and Rand Paul:

I admire Paul’s outreach to minority voters, and I was very skeptical of the immigration bill Rubio shepherded through the Senate last year. But I have agreed with practically every domestic policy stance the Florida senator has taken since, and his reform agenda seems more sensible on substance and more plausible as politics than Paul’s more stringent libertarianism.

But then on foreign policy my sympathies reverse. Paul’s ties to his father’s more paranoid worldview are problematic, but the realism and restraint he’s championing seem wiser than the GOP’s frequent interventionist tilt.

Douthat sees how this might play out:

Paul casts himself as the heir to the realist tradition in Republican foreign policy, while Rubio’s record and statements are more in line with the neoconservatism of the Bush era. To use specific Obama-era examples, a Paul-led GOP would presumably oppose Libya-style humanitarian interventions and eschew gambits like our effort to aid Syria’s rebels, while a Rubio-led GOP might be willing to put American boots on the ground in both situations. These are not small differences, and they might be magnified in larger crises.

Conor Friedersdorf argues here that it’s “too risky to put another Iraq hawk in the White House, especially when they’ve given no indication of having learned anything from that historic debacle.” Just imagine:

Rubio would fill his White House with people who still regard the Iraq War as a good idea. Paul will tap people who believe it to have been an ill-conceived mistake. Rubio will ally with people who sing, “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran.” Paul represents the opposing foreign policy faction in the GOP.

It comes down to the nascent war in question:

Iraq is clarifying. Douthat may believe that a Rubio domestic agenda would serve America better than a Paul domestic agenda. But is the difference so great as to outweigh the risk of a Rubio war that kills 4,489 Americans, wounds tens of thousands, exposes hundreds to chemical agents, and triggers a PTSD epidemic? Is Rubio’s tax plan so good that it’s worth risking another $6 trillion war tab?

The war machine must be fed, after all, and on the other side there’s the pro-war Hillary Clinton, who wanted to arm the Syria rebels in the first place, if we could find any that weren’t al-Qaeda affiliates and vaguely pro-western. There were none, but she is big on resolving these things through brutal force. She wants to seem strong, not some girly-girl bit of fluff.

Sullivan thinks she’s in trouble:

I do think that the mid-terms have hurt Clinton somewhat. Why? Because they were run on classic Clinton lines: don’t really stand for anything controversial, deploy demographic-style campaigning without giving those demographics any positive thing to support, assume a get-out-the-base over a new-agenda strategy will be enough, and, er, hope for the best. The election was a classic Democratic defensive crouch – at which the Clintons are experts. And it didn’t work. It turns out you need real issues and sometimes divisive causes to win an election – and yet those are exactly the kind of themes the Clintons have always been uncomfortable with.

At Politico, Matt Latimer likes her chances:

No longer will she have to worry so much about gaining distance from President Obama – though that’s certainly on her agenda. No longer will she have to defend or explain her position on issues pushed by a Democratic Senate.

No longer will she have to subtly run against her husband and his scandals. Instead, she can run squarely against the circus that will preoccupy Congress and the media with every passing day. The calm voice of wearied experience. The wizened wife and mother – now grandmother – who can keep those rambunctious boys in line.

She’s probably just about the only person in Washington today who’s even happier than Mitch McConnell.

Paul Waldman argues the other way:

Clinton can argue that a Republican president and a Republican Congress would be a terrifying combination, and some of us might believe she’s right. But if the only alternative is four more years of bitterness and gridlock, lots of voters could chose to give the GOP the chance to do its worst. If Clinton doesn’t already have a persuasive description of how she will govern if faced with a legislature controlled by Tea Partiers and Republicans afraid of Tea Partiers, who will fight her on every single thing she wants to do, Clinton sure ought to come up with one soon.


But that would mean taking a political risk. And that is something Clinton has taught herself never to do.

That’s why she likes wars. Or maybe she doesn’t but knows she must be a “tough” lady in this man’s world. That’s a risk assessment, but the world is changing. Ryan Lizza explains:

The 2016 Presidential primaries will be the first fought by Democrats since the Supreme Court opened the door for individuals to spend unlimited sums of money on an election. In 2012, those new rules almost cost Romney the Republican nomination, when nuisance candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, who in previous years would have never survived their early losses, were propped up by rich allies. Before 2012, it would have been difficult to find interest groups that might help fund someone like O’Malley, Webb, or Sanders. Now all it takes is a billionaire who cares about gun control, climate change, war, or inequality.

“What if you decided to have a really strong antiwar person run?” one Democratic strategist told me. “Don’t you think four or five crazy rich people from the Democracy Alliance” – a network of wealthy Democratic donors – “would be funding that?”

That’s possible, but unlikely. You’d have what might be called a vanity candidate, who would lose, however well-funded. The war machine seems to be unstoppable. That’s what was playing in the background back in the summer of 1965, so long ago. Listen to that oldies station while stuck in traffic here in Los Angeles and smile at all those old tunes. The smile won’t last. Bad things were happening back then. They’re happening now too.

Posted in ISIS, Mission Creep | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Hero Business

Andy Warhol had it wrong when he idly lisped that, in the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes – everyone, without exception, will have his or her fifteen minutes of fame. Maybe it was joke. The enthusiastic response to his paintings of all those soup cans, which even he must have known were nothing much, deserved a quip. It really is too easy to generate fame, but now what he said about fame is seen as a brilliant cultural insight, used to explain Kim Kardashian. Hollywood is filled with people famous for nothing in particular, and they somehow seem to grab more than their allotted fifteen minutes – and then they’re gone. This makes late lunches down on the Sunset Strip here a bit surreal. Is that pretty or handsome or totally wasted person sitting at the next table someone, or no one? How can one tell? What are the criteria that make a no one into someone? No one knows anymore. That may be what Andy Warhol was getting at.

But everyone doesn’t get to be famous. Hardly anyone does – there are too many people in the world and not enough time or fame to go around, in spite of whatever you decide to post to YouTube. Fame is impossible for most everyone. Warhol would have been on firmer ground had he said that, in the future, everyone will be a hero, because we call everyone a hero now. And that’s verifiable. Stay-at-home moms are the real heroes now, or single moms, or working mothers – or they all are, as are the ordinary guys who go to work every single day and do their job, as they’re the real American heroes, as we’ve been told. Or teachers are the American heroes – underpaid and overworked and doing their best for our kids, unless they’re useless whiners with big salaries and massive pensions, who do little work at all, or insignificant work in a world where those who “do” matter far more. Maybe the real heroes are politicians like Scott Walker and Chris Christie, who want to bust their unions and take away the pensions, and make sure those leaches don’t drain the rest of us good people dry – because we’re the real heroes, not them. It gets confusing.

Maybe the confusion started back on 9/11 with all that death and destruction. The New York Fire Department performed heroically, saving lives, and hundreds of those firemen died. They were heroes. The same with many of the police on that day – but no one now is sure about the mayor at the time, Rudy Giuliani. He saved no one, but he did say the right things. Keeping people’s spirits up might be heroic, if you stretch the term a bit. Then he did the unforgivable. He ran for president as the “Hero of 9/11″ – and he couldn’t win even one Republican primary. One does not use previous heroism, or something like it, to become rich or famous or powerful. It’s simply not done. Heroes are humble. Everyone knows that.

But it got stretched further. Anyone who died that day is now referred to as an American hero, even if they just went to work that day and were in the wrong place at the wrong time. We’ve decided that helpless and passive victims are heroes too. And then many on the right decided they themselves were heroes for heroically pointing out that these victims were heroes too, and anyone who said they weren’t heroes was siding with the terrorists, and was just as evil as any terrorist. Somehow everyone became a hero, and the designation kept widening to the point that the word means little now. Everyone’s a hero – but then we all like to think that about ourselves. It staves off existential despair.

That’s unfortunate. We can’t all be heroes. The term “hero” had been used sparingly and carefully before this, and now it somehow morphed into an all-purpose term for anyone who walks around and doesn’t bump into walls all that much. Even some heroes are not heroes at all. An Army staff sergeant during the Vietnam War explained this odd situation – “I was told I did heroic things in Vietnam, but I have only a vague memory of them. I did many un-heroic things in Vietnam: mostly hiding and waiting for danger to pass me by.”

He’s still a hero, perhaps. All Veterans are. Anyone who joins our now all-volunteer Army, to serve the country, is, on the face of it, doing something heroic – even if they’re joining to play tuba in one of the military bands. They didn’t have to do that. On the other hand, those of us who have family in the military know that the military, like any large organization, has its share of total jerks – and some of them die. They choose to face that, and yes, some of them do bad things – torture and the occasional civilian massacre. We call them heroes anyway. It’s just what we do but this is still an odd business – the hero business – as it seems much of our political discourse now consists of arguing just who are the Real American Heroes these days. We’ve become a nation obsessed with the heroic, trying to find it everywhere.

This intensifies at this time of year. The armistice signed between the Allies and Germany, at Compiègne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front in World War I, took effect on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918, so November 11 is Armistice Day – which turned into Remembrance Day in the UK and Canada and Veterans Day here. Twenty million died and we remember the heroes, and now that covers the heroes from both World Wars, and here we now honor all veterans of all wars, and all who served, even when there was no war.

We expanded the concept, or diluted it. We also moved the actual holiday to the Monday closest to November 11, even if November 11 is still Veterans Day, for reasons of commerce and convenience. All national holidays now fall on a Monday, because a three-day weekend works out best for everyone. We can’t move the Fourth of July – it has a damned number in it – and Christmas is a bother – the government can’t do anything about the nation’s de facto state religion – but we detached Veteran’s Day from its origins.

We may have done more than that. We may have made it mean nothing much. It’s that heroes business. Four years ago, William J. Astore, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, put it this way:

Certainly, military service (especially the life-and-death struggles of combat) can provide an occasion for the exercise of heroism, but simply joining the armed services does not make you a hero, nor does the act of serving in combat.

Still, ever since the events of 9/11, there’s been an almost religious veneration of U.S. service members as “Our American Heroes” (as a well-intentioned sign puts it at my local post office). But a snappy uniform – or even dented body armor – is not a magical shortcut to hero status.

A hero is someone who behaves selflessly, usually at considerable personal risk and sacrifice, to comfort or empower others and to make the world a better place. Heroes, of course, come in all sizes, shapes, ages and colors, most of them looking nothing like John Wayne or John Rambo or GI Joe (or Jane)…

Whether in civilian life or in the military, heroes are rare – indeed, all too rare! Heck, that’s the reason we celebrate them. They’re the very best of us, which means they can’t be all of us.

We need to be careful about generalizing:

By making our military a league of heroes, we ensure that the brutalizing aspects and effects of war will be played down. In celebrating isolated heroic feats, we often forget that war is guaranteed to degrade humanity as well.

“War,” as writer and cultural historian Louis Menand noted, “is especially terrible, not because it destroys human beings, who can be destroyed in plenty of other ways, but because it turns human beings into destroyers.”

When we create a legion of heroes in our minds, we blind ourselves to evidence of destructive, sometimes atrocious, behavior. Heroes, after all, don’t commit atrocities. They don’t, for instance, dig bullets out of pregnant women’s bodies in an attempt to cover up deadly mistakes, as the Times of London recently reported may have happened in Gardez, Afghanistan. Such atrocities, so common to war’s brutal chaos, produce cognitive dissonance in the minds of many Americans, who simply can’t imagine their “heroes” killing innocents and then covering up the evidence. How much easier it is to see the acts of violence of our troops as necessary, admirable, even noble.

Ah, no one remembers Gardez, if they ever heard of the place, but that’s not the point:

In rejecting blanket “hero” labels today, we would not be insulting our troops. Quite the opposite: We’d be making common cause with them. Most of them already know the difference between real heroism and everyday military service. … Whatever nationality they may be, troops at the front know the score. Even as our media and our culture seek to elevate them into the pantheon of demigods, the men and women at the front are focused on doing their jobs and returning home with their bodies, their minds and their buddies intact.

So, next time you talk to our soldiers, Marines, sailors or airmen, do them (and your country) a small favor. Thank them for their service. Let them know you appreciate them. Just don’t call them heroes.

This year it was Benjamin Summers, a captain in the Army, speaking only for himself:

I have worn an Army uniform for the past eight years and deployed twice to Afghanistan. This doesn’t make me a hero.

Many veterans deserve high praise for their heroism, but others of us do not. Infantrymen who put their lives on the line for a mission, aircrews who flew into harm’s way to evacuate the wounded, servicemen and women who made the ultimate sacrifice – these are some of the heroes I’ve been privileged to know. Applying the label “hero” to those of us who haven’t earned it diminishes the service and sacrifice of those who did. It also gets in the way of constructive debate and policymaking.

Over the past decade, a growing chasm between military and civil society has raised the pedestal upon which the United States places those who serve in its military. Too much hero-labeling reinforces a false dichotomy that’s commonly heard in our political discourse: You’re either for the troops or you’re against them. We badly need to find ways to bridge this civilian-military gap to cultivate a more nuanced appreciation of service and to produce better policy in Washington.

He doesn’t appreciate being used, and gives this instance:

Too often, policymakers frame discussion of whether to cut the military budget as being for or against the troops; the political battle over the military portion of the Sequester is an example of this black-or-white mind-set. But any bureaucracy – particularly one that doesn’t function with a profit-and-loss mentality – can innovate and gain efficiencies when it’s forced to do more with less. If we’re not searching for opportunities to fix, clean and trim our organizations, we’re not being good stewards of them. When we can’t have political discussions that dig beneath the blanket of “for or against the troops,” palatability wins over stewardship. And one of our nation’s most precious resources suffers the long-term consequences.

That’s one of his many examples, but the item that’s now getting a lot of buzz is from David Masciotra in Salon. He seems to think that our childish insistence on calling soldiers heroes deadens real democracy:

Put a man in uniform, preferably a white man, give him a gun, and Americans will worship him. It is a particularly childish trait, of a childlike culture, that insists on anointing all active military members and police officers as “heroes.” The rhetorical sloppiness and intellectual shallowness of affixing such a reverent label to everyone in the military or law enforcement betrays a frightening cultural streak of nationalism, chauvinism, authoritarianism and totalitarianism, but it also makes honest and serious conversations necessary for the maintenance and enhancement of a fragile democracy nearly impossible.

We need to rethink this:

It has become impossible to go a week without reading a story about police brutality, abuse of power and misuse of authority. Michael Brown’s murder represents the tip of a body pile, and in just the past month, several videos have emerged of police assaulting people, including pregnant women, for reasons justifiable only to the insane.

It is equally challenging for anyone reasonable, and not drowning in the syrup of patriotic sentimentality, to stop saluting, and look at the servicemen of the American military with criticism and skepticism. There is a sexual assault epidemic in the military. In 2003, a Department of Defense study found that one-third of women seeking medical care in the VA system reported experiencing rape or sexual violence while in the military. Internal and external studies demonstrate that since the official study, numbers of sexual assaults within the military have only increased, especially with male victims. According to the Pentagon, 38 men are sexually assaulted every single day in the U.S. military. Given that rape and sexual assault are, traditionally, the most underreported crimes, the horrific statistics likely fail to capture the reality of the sexual dungeon that has become the United States military.

Chelsea Manning, now serving time in prison as a whistle-blower, uncovered multiple incidents of fellow soldiers laughing as they murdered civilians. Keith Gentry, a former Navy man, wrote that when he and his division were bored they preferred passing the time with the “entertainment” of YouTube videos capturing air raids of Iraq and Afghanistan, often making jokes and mocking the victims of American violence. If the murder of civilians, the rape of “brothers and sisters” on base, and the relegation of death and torture of strangers as fodder for amusement qualifies as heroism, the world needs better villains.

That’s harsh, but this guy wants to be fair:

It is undeniable that there are police officers who heroically uphold their motto and mission to “serve and protect,” just as it is indisputable that there are members of the military who valiantly sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. Reviewing the research proving cruelty and mendacity within law enforcement and the military, and reading the stories of trauma and tragedy caused by officers and soldiers, does not mean that no cop or troop qualifies as a hero, but it certainly means that many of them are not heroes.

Acknowledging the spread of sadism across the ranks of military also does not mean that the U.S. government should neglect veterans, as they often do, by cutting their healthcare options, delaying or denying treatment, and reducing psychiatric services. On the contrary, if American politicians and pundits genuinely believed that American military members are “heroes,” they would not settle for sloganeering, and garish tributes. They would insist that veterans receive the best healthcare possible.

Of course, but then there’s this leap:

Improving and universalizing high quality healthcare for all Americans, including veterans, is a much better and truer way to honor the risks soldiers and Marines accept on orders than unofficially imposing a juvenile and dictatorial rule over speech in which anything less than absolute and awed adulation for all things military is treasonous.

That seems an unnecessary aside, but this isn’t:

One of the reasons that the American public so eagerly and excitedly complies with the cultural code of lionizing every soldier and cop is because of the physical risk-taking and bravery many of them display on the foreign battleground and the American street. Physical strength and courage is only useful and laudable when invested in a cause that is noble and moral. The causes of American foreign policy, especially at the present, rarely qualify for either compliment. The “troops are heroes” boosters of American life typically toss out clichés to defend their generalization – “They defend our freedom,” “They fight so we don’t have to.”

No American freedom is currently at stake in Afghanistan. It is impossible to imagine an argument to the contrary, just as the war in Iraq was clearly fought for the interests of empire, the profits of defense contractors, and the edification of neoconservative theorists. It had nothing to do with the safety or freedom of the American people. The last time the U.S. military deployed to fight for the protection of American life was in World War II – an inconvenient fact that reduces clichés about “thanking a soldier” for free speech to rubble. If a soldier deserves gratitude, so does the litigator who argued key First Amendment cases in court, the legislators who voted for the protection of free speech, and thousands of external agitators who rallied for more speech rights, less censorship and broader access to media.

Wars that are not heroic have no real heroes, except for the people who oppose those wars.

Masciotra goes on like this, making good points but undercutting them with overheated rhetoric sure to anger everyone with a yellow ribbon on the bumper of their SUV or pickup truck, but he persists:

Far from being the heroes of recent wars, American troops are among their victims. No rational person can blame the soldier, the Marine, the airman, or the Navy man for the stupid and destructive foreign policy of the U.S. government, but calling them “heroes,” and settling for nothing less, makes honest and critical conversations about American foreign policy less likely to happen. If all troops are heroes, it doesn’t make much sense to call their mission unnecessary and unjust.

That seems to be the main point here. This hero business shuts down conversation. It stops rational thought. No distinctions are possible:

Calling all cops and troops heroes insults those who actually are heroic – the soldier who runs into the line of fire to protect his division, the police officer who works tirelessly to find a missing child – by placing them alongside the cops who shoot unarmed teenagers who have their hands in the air, or the soldier who rapes his subordinate.

It also degrades the collective understanding of heroism to the fantasies of high-budget, cheap-story action movies. The American conception of heroism seems inextricably linked to violence; not yet graduated from third-grade games of cops and robbers. Explosions and smoking guns might make for entertaining television, but they are not necessary, and more and more in modern society, not even helpful in determining what makes a hero.

What makes a hero? The situation is much like those sunny afternoons at that vaguely French bistro at Sunset Plaza here on the Sunset Strip. It’s Hollywood. Assume everyone you see is famous. It makes things easier for everyone.

And then there’s this:

According to Robert O’Neill – the former Navy SEAL who claims he shot Osama bin Laden – the Al Qaeda leader “died like a pussy” and “knew that we were there to kill him.”

In a previously unreleased audio interview aired last night on CNN, O’Neill told freelance journalist Alex Quade that he had used details of bin Laden’s death to bring closure to the families of 9/11 victims, saying “One thing I tell them is ‘All right, Osama bin Laden died like a pussy. That’s all I’m telling you. Just so you know. He died afraid. And he knew that we were there to kill him.’”

O’Neill now makes a lot of money giving talks about heroism to those 9/11 families. This is his marketing gimmick, and he’s doing fine:

On Tuesday, Fox News will air a highly-anticipated documentary about a former Navy SEAL named Robert O’Neill, who claims to be the man who fired the shot that killed Osama bin Laden. Several of O’Neill’s former brothers-in-arms are coming forward to say his story is way, way off…

Fox, where Rudy Giuliani is still a regular, will draw a huge audience for this, but it seems that those who know the truth believe the “point man” – the first man up the stairs in the compound – fired the shot that killed bin Laden, and has since stuck to the SEAL code and remained anonymous, while many in the SEAL community grumble about O’Neill’s grandstanding and declare his version of events “complete bullshit” – and a dangerous lapse in operational security. No one is supposed to know how any SEAL team works, or even who they are. O’Neill doesn’t care:

“You can quote me on this bullshit,” said O’Neill.

Bin Laden’s alleged killer also told Quade that SEAL Team Six was sent after the Al Qaeda leader “because they wanted him dead” and that “it doesn’t matter anymore if I am ‘The Shooter.’”

“I don’t give a fuck,” said O’Neill.

Is this guy a hero? Fox News thinks so. Those who pay him his big speaking fees think so. His unit thinks he’s a jerk, and a liar, and dangerous to them. But he’s having his fifteen minutes of fame. Somewhere, Andy Warhol is smiling.

Posted in American Heroes, Everyone a Hero, Veterans Day | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ridding the Nation of Moral Hazard

Nothing is over until it’s over, and even if it’s over, it really isn’t over. Republicans didn’t have the votes to stop the Affordable Care Act 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, explicitly. The law was passed fair and square, long ago, by both houses of Congress, and survived a Supreme Court challenge too. The rules of the system were followed, scrupulously, and there are explicit rules for repealing a law. You find the votes to pass something else in its place. If you don’t have the votes, you don’t have the votes – but the Republicans were willing to shut down the government, crippling the economy, or force the United States into default, collapsing the world’s economy for a generation or two, unless the Affordable Care Act, already being implemented, was defunded or delayed for a year, or two, or three, or forever. That didn’t work either, but they did seem to want to change our system of government, to change it to a new system where laws duly enacted and upheld in the courts can just go away, if a small group of people in just the right place at just the right time can mount a credible and deadly threat about something else entirely. The threats backfired, or they got cold feet. They couldn’t sustain a prolonged government shutdown until Obama just gave up – even people who hate big government want some government, doing what it does, daily – and they decided against default. That was an idle threat, or so extreme a threat that it suddenly occurred to them that this kind of talk didn’t make them look heroic and principled. It made them look like unhinged and rather dimwitted terrorists. They dropped it. Senator Ted Cruz, who led these efforts, called them squishes, but they let it be known that they thought he was a fool. Obamacare wasn’t going away. They’d have to live with it. There’d be other issues.

Even the 2014 midterms didn’t change that. The Republicans may have taken back full control of the Senate, and achieved record overwhelming numbers in the House, but almost thirteen million more Americans, who couldn’t afford it before, now have health insurance, thanks to Obamacare. Taking that away from them would be bad politics. They’d remember who did that, so the best the Republicans could do was to refuse that Medicaid expansion thing in the states where they were in charge. That expansion was free, already paid for by previous and ongoing payroll taxes, but state after state turned down the offer. Across the nation, three or four million people would miss out on healthcare other states were providing their citizens, but that was good politics. No one was taking anything away. Large numbers of the poor and disabled and elderly never got the Medicaid their neighbors in the next state over were getting.

They’d probably never find out, so at least in that instance, the lazy bums who made nothing of their lives had gotten what they deserved – nothing. That was a partial victory for the principle of personal responsibility. Give people help and they begin to expect help, and then they demand help, and stop doing things for themselves, and then they are ruined, and totally useless, demanding that good people who work hard give them lots of free stuff. That’s what Romney’s forty-seven percent comment was about, and it all starts with what these folks call moral hazard. Giving people stuff, even if they need it, creates that moral hazard. That may be the underlying reason they hate Obamacare. The structural and administrative details of Obamacare are just details. They really do think Obamacare will ruin America. Obamacare is one more thing that will create a nation of do-nothing whiners, expecting everyone else to take care of them. Ronald Reagan said pretty much the same thing about Medicare in 1964, and every Republican was saying the same thing about Social Security in 1934, so maybe we were ruined a long time ago – but Republicans hate Obamacare. They have their reasons. Why introduce even more moral hazard now?

Now they’re stuck. Stuart Butler explains that:

Some of the Republican faithful imagine the party’s capture of the Senate means repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) – or Obamacare. But, given filibuster rules the notion that a full repeal bill could pass the Senate, let alone be signed into law, is unthinkable. So what can we expect after the election turnover?

One view is that a Republican Senate, in tandem with the House, will rip out the vital organs of the ACA. By attaching key ACA changes to must-pass bills, the argument goes, Republicans would so weaken the central core of the ACA that it would essentially fall apart. On the hit list are the individual and employer mandates. Also vulnerable is federal funding for insurance “risk corridors” – a subsidized cross-subsidy that encourages insurers to take part in the ACA because it reduces the financial risk of ending up with costly enrollees. Weaken that provision, some believe, and many insurers would pull out of the ACA health exchanges altogether, causing the whole edifice to crumble.

Nope, that’s not the way to go, because there’s another way:

That’s an unlikely scenario, mainly because these organs aren’t so vital anymore. For one thing, the Administration recognizes that the mandates will likely have to be watered down to maintain much public support. But as individuals and businesses adapt to the law, and more Americans obtain often-subsidized insurance, the mandate stick is less necessary to achieve enough coverage for the ACA to be viable. Meanwhile expect worried insurers to pressure the GOP enough to prevent adjustments to the risk corridors from causing a collapse.

A lethal blow is unlikely to come from the Republican Congress. Rather a more likely threat is from the Supreme Court’s Halbig case. If the Court does strike down federal insurance subsidies in states with federal rather than state-run exchanges, that would be quite a body blow. At the very least it would eliminate a central plank of the ACA in over 30 states.

Nothing is over until it’s over, and that is now happening:

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a new challenge to the Affordable Care Act, potentially imperiling President Obama’s signature legislative achievement two years after it survived a different Supreme Court challenge by a single vote.

The case concerns tax subsidies that currently help millions of people afford health insurance under the law. According to the challengers, those subsidies are being provided unlawfully in three dozen states that have decided not to run the marketplaces, known as exchanges, for insurance coverage.

If the challengers are right, people receiving subsidies in those states would become ineligible for them, destabilizing and perhaps dooming the law.

And it all rests on a minor detail:

The central question in the case, King v. Burwell, No. 14-114, is what to make of a provision in the law limiting subsidies to “an exchange established by the state.” (If states do not establish their own exchanges, the health care law requires the federal government to run them instead.)

The challengers say the provision means that only people in states with their own exchanges can get subsidies. Congress made the distinction, they say, to encourage states to participate.

But the Internal Revenue Service has issued a regulation saying subsidies are allowed whether the exchange is run by a state or by the federal government. The challengers say that regulation is at odds with the law.

In response, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. told the justices that the IRS interpretation was correct, while the one offered by the challengers was “contrary to the act’s text and structure and would render the act unrecognizable to the Congress that passed it.”

Proofreading matters – the Republicans found an ambiguity, perhaps a typo. The intent of the law is clear, but someone phrased one part of one sentence badly:

In July, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Richmond, Va., ruled against the challengers.

Judge Roger L. Gregory, writing for a three-judge panel of the court, said the contested phrase was “ambiguous and subject to multiple interpretations.” That meant, he said, that the IRS’ interpretation was entitled to deference.

“We reach this conclusion, frankly, with reluctance,” Judge Thomas B. Griffith wrote for the majority. “Our ruling will likely have significant consequences both for the millions of individuals receiving tax credits through federal exchanges and for health insurance markets more broadly. But, high as those stakes are, the principle of legislative supremacy that guides us is higher still.”

In dissent, Judge Harry T. Edwards said the case was a “not-so-veiled attempt to gut” the health care law.

Of course it is, and Kevin Drum sees it this way:

In case it’s slipped your mind, this is the case that hinges on whether a typo in one sentence of the Affordable Care Act should wipe out health care subsidies in every state that uses the federal exchange. If the challengers win, subsidies will be available only in states that run their own exchanges.

Given the facts of the case, I’d normally say the whole thing is laughable. The intent of the law is, and always has been, crystal clear. But the current Supreme Court really doesn’t seem to care much about laughable. If they want to cripple Obamacare, they’ll do it. The shoddiness of the argument doesn’t much matter to them.

So this is going to be a nail-biter. If it goes the wrong way, six million people or more will lose access to affordable health care – and half the country will cheer giddily about it – because there’s just nothing more satisfying than denying decent healthcare to millions of your fellow citizens.

That’s unfair. They will cheer giddily because a real moral hazard will have been removed. Those six million people will now have to learn a bit about personal responsibility. The country will be better for it, but Jonathan Chait wonders just what’s going on here:

On the legal merits, the suit is utterly preposterous. The plaintiffs argue that the drafters of the law actually intended for the federal exchanges to deny tax credits to their customers. Of course, such exchanges would be utterly disastrous, and the insurance unaffordable. The drafters of the law all explain that they did not intend such a preposterous result. Contemporaneous documents show the same thing. Numerous other provisions in the law also support the obvious conclusion that the law was intended to provide tax credits to federal as well as state-based exchanges. The standard tool to resolve ambiguous wording in a statute is to examine its context, and as law professor Nicholas Bagley writes, “In context, Congress used the phrase as shorthand for an exchange, whether established by the state (the default) or the federal government (the fallback).”

Even if the meaning of the law were ambiguous, which it isn’t, legal principle also holds that the government can choose the meaning it finds most plausible. As Neil Siegel concludes, “The plaintiffs’ case is so weak and transparently political that it is dismaying to see it be taken seriously.” The lawsuit is not much different from arguing that Obamacare is invalid because you can’t prove Barack Obama actually exists.

Ah, but there is this Supreme Court:

John Roberts ultimately decided that destroying Obamacare would blow up his public credibility in an election year, and decided to let the law stand. That is, both sides agree that the Court’s actions need to be understood in political terms and not merely as a straightforward legal interpretation.

And the politics can be understood in two ways. On the one hand, if Roberts decided not to blow up Obamacare two years ago, why would he change his mind now? On the other hand, this lawsuit gives him another chance to blow a major hole in the law without destroying it completely. In that way, it may fit with his apparent goal of advancing the conservative movement’s legal goals without instigating a massive public backlash.

The massive public backlash would be on six million people, and those who foolishly sympathize with inveterate losers. Perhaps the Republicans think that’s a manageable number, or think those six million folks would now never vote for a Democrat again, ever – because they’re bad at proofreading. That’s possible. So is winning the lottery, but the Republicans did keep three or four million folks from getting Medicaid and no one much cared. The number of folks upset with them in this case might be just as manageable.

Chait doesn’t think so:

Medicaid beneficiaries are extremely poor. The very poor vote at the lowest rates and Republican budget proposals tend to saddle them with the steepest cuts. They are, in other words, a constituency most Republicans are willing or even eager to target.

The exchanges, on the other hand, reach well up into the middle class. Many of their customers are middle-income professionals who can’t afford insurance because they or a family member has a preexisting condition. Taking away their insurance would trigger a big ruckus. Conservative activists would be willing to endure the political damage, but the calculation for Republican elected officials might not be so clear-cut. The lawsuit, if successful, might have the contradictory effects of handing conservatives a policy victory while handing Democrats a political advantage.

Perhaps so, but it’s hard to tell now. Paul Krugman, on the other hand, doesn’t understand what’s wrong with these people:

First, there’s economic policy. According to conservative dogma, which denounces any regulation of the sacred pursuit of profit, the financial crisis of 2008 – brought on by runaway financial institutions – shouldn’t have been possible. But Republicans chose not to rethink their views even slightly. They invented an imaginary history in which the government was somehow responsible for the irresponsibility of private lenders, while fighting any and all policies that might limit the damage. In 2009, when an ailing economy desperately needed aid, John Boehner, soon to become the speaker of the House, declared: “It’s time for government to tighten their belts.”

So here we are, with years of experience to examine, and the lessons of that experience couldn’t be clearer. Predictions that deficit spending would lead to soaring interest rates, that easy money would lead to runaway inflation and debase the dollar, have been wrong again and again. Governments that did what Mr. Boehner urged, slashing spending in the face of depressed economies, have presided over Depression-level economic slumps. And the attempts of Republican governors to prove that cutting taxes on the wealthy is a magic growth elixir have failed with flying colors.

In short, the story of conservative economics these past six years and more has been one of intellectual debacle – made worse by the striking inability of many on the right to admit error under any circumstances.

Then there’s health reform, where Republicans were very clear about what was supposed to happen: minimal enrollments, more people losing insurance than gaining it, soaring costs. Reality, so far, has begged to differ, delivering above-predicted sign-ups, a sharp drop in the number of Americans without health insurance, premiums well below expectations, and a sharp slowdown in overall health spending.

The country wasn’t ruined, but they did what they did, and rode that to triumph in the midterms:

The biggest secret of the Republican triumph surely lies in the discovery that obstructionism bordering on sabotage is a winning political strategy. From Day One of the Obama administration, Mr. McConnell and his colleagues have done everything they could to undermine effective policy, in particular blocking every effort to do the obvious thing – boost infrastructure spending – in a time of low interest rates and high unemployment.

This was, it turned out, bad for America but good for Republicans. Most voters don’t know much about policy details, nor do they understand the legislative process. So all they saw was that the man in the White House wasn’t delivering prosperity – and they punished his party.

And now, because of four misplaced words, that party has messed up your health insurance too. It’s gone.

On the other hand, that’s good for you. Ed Kilgore explains that way of thinking:

One of the hardiest of conservative memes over the last few decades has been about the moral hazard created by The Welfare State: Helping people who are poor or sick may have some social benefits, but they are far outweighed by the dangers of rewarding personal irresponsibility, you see. People – and sadly, their children – need to suffer visibly and painfully for their failure to achieve success in this, the greatest country in the history of the world, where anyone with some initiative and persistence can do well. Then they’ll shape up or perish, and others will be warned.

This has always been more than a little self-serving for those who thereby celebrate their own righteousness, while often confusing privilege and luck with virtue. But I do see their point a bit better today in thinking about the moral hazard created by the Republican midterm victory of 2014.

That would be this:

You’d better believe that if Republicans are ever in the position Democrats were in when McConnell and company decided on this scorched-earth strategy, this lesson of 2014 will be remembered – because after all, personal irresponsibility was rewarded.

They were and are responsible for the needless misery of millions of people, and that’s personal responsibility too. It’s the fault of each of those people in dire straits and not their fault? We’ll see about that, if they successfully use a minor typo to prove that only the right sort of people should have health insurance.

Posted in Obamacare, Personal Responsibility | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment