The Cost of Great Expectations

California always surprises you. This month brought us the annual Dickens Festival out in Riverside, way out at the edge of the Mojave. Riverside, the birthplace of Don Imus, Etta James, and Barry Bonds, used to be a citrus town, then a place where, if you worked in Los Angeles, you could buy a new, slapped-together suburban tract home for less than the usual million such a thing would cost here, and commute three hours to work each way, worrying about your subprime mortgage as you sat in traffic. Now half the houses are empty – foreclosed or abandoned – and the miles of new developments sit half-finished.

 

But they have an annual Dickens Festival out there, so toss out all those clichés about Southern California. It’s not all surfers and Beverly Hills brats and rich and shallow housewives and movie folks who become governors and presidents. We may have invented the subprime mortgage out here, but people do read Dickens too.

 

And maybe that makes more sense than ever, as poverty-porn is the hot thing these days, with Slumdog Millionaire set to sweep the Oscars. We feel for the hopeless poor kids of India, and that feeling is delicious – sympathy and outrage and rooting for the underdog makes us feel good about ourselves. Yeah, well, Dickens wrote Oliver Twist in 1838 – serialized in Bentley’s Miscellany with all the twists and hooks to keep you coming back each month to see what happens next to that young fellow in this cruel and dangerous world. The rich are heartless and venal, the system is rigged against you, and no one can get ahead but for luck – after learning very hard lessons. It’s the same story – different settings.

 

These days it might be more appropriate to read Great Expectations – we’re all Pip, chaffing at being thought common, then suddenly rich, without being allowed to ask why, then brought low when all the wealth evaporates, as it came from a criminal with odd obsessions, deep resentments and not much intelligence, although, in the end, a rather nice fellow. Oh, there’s other stuff there – the mad old woman who hates men and catches fire, and the unattainable young beauty of fierce intelligence who has no emotions at all, the noble blacksmith of immeasurable integrity and deep sympathy for all, and so on – but the core of the thing is young Pip desperate to escape being common, saved from ordinary poverty and honest work, only to be forced to give it all up. It’s a tale for our times.

 

Should you read it again – and you probably won’t – pay attention to Bentley Drummle – “so sulky a fellow that he even took up a book as if its writer had done him an injury, and did not take up an acquaintance in a more agreeable spirit. Heavy in figure, movement, and comprehension – in the sluggish complexion of his face, and in the large awkward tongue that seemed to loll about in his mouth as he himself lolled about in a room – he was idle, proud, niggardly, reserved, and suspicious. He came of rich people down in Somersetshire, who had nursed this combination of qualities until they made the discovery that it was just of age and a blockhead.”

 

Bentley, Pip’s schoolmate, drives Pip crazy – old money, privilege, a born bully who loves to mock others and flaunt his power, and dumb as a post. And he wins everything – he gets the girl, too. And you just cannot talk to him – it’s not that that Bentley just doesn’t get it, whatever it might be, he doesn’t see why he should. He laughs at you. Bentley may not be George Bush, exactly, but he’s surely a Republican.

 

Somehow this all came to mind on Friday evening, February 13, as the reconciled and adjusted stimulus bill – an attempt to save the collapsing economy by funding anything possible to get people back to work and get at least some money back into circulation – finally passed in both the House and the Senate. In the House, the Republican leader, John Boehner, threw a copy of the bill to the floor and shouted that “the bill that was about jobs, jobs, jobs, has turned into a bill that’s about spending, spending, spending!”

 

Well, the bill was about spending, to create jobs. That was the point. But it doesn’t matter – the Republicans are hopelessly outnumbered in the House, and although not one Republican in the House voted for it, again, they had no chance to stop it. In the Senate, three Republicans crossed over and broke the filibuster effort there – sixty votes were needed to bring the bill to the floor for a vote, and there were sixty votes, but just sixty. That made it, in the end, a close-run thing.

 

Some think it should not have been, and that the changes made to get it over the cloture rule in the Senate were ill-advised. Earlier, the Washington Post had run an article by Lori Montgomery making the point that the changes Senate “centrists” made to economic recovery legislation will make the package much more ineffective. Being proud, niggardly, reserved, and suspicious cost hundreds of thousands of people their jobs:

 

With the House poised to vote as early as today on the measure, analysts are slashing their estimates of its ability to counteract a deepening recession, with several prominent economists now saying the package will save or create fewer than 2.5 million jobs by the end of next year.

 

At $789 billion, the final package “is just not going to pack the same jobs punch” as some earlier versions, which cost as much as $100 billion more, said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody’s Economy.com, whose analyses have been cited by White House officials as well as congressional Democrats. Zandi estimates the measure will create only about 2.2 million jobs by the end of 2010, leaving unemployment hovering around 10 percent and probably forcing lawmakers to undertake another stimulus plan.

 

But Bentley Drummle would have it no other way, as the facts didn’t matter:

 

Many analysts had been more optimistic about the House version of the stimulus bill. At $820 billion, it was not much bigger than the final package agreed to Wednesday by a House-Senate conference committee. But the House version contained about $50 billion more in direct government spending – such as payments to state governments and cash for school construction – which economists say is spent quickly and ripples broadly through the economy. The final package, by contrast, is weighted more heavily toward tax cuts, which have a less powerful effect, according to many economists, because taxpayers tend to save a portion of the money.

 

Yeah, screw what the economists say, and just grab what you can, as you have the Democrats over a barrel:

 

Most of those changes originated in the Senate, where Democrats needed the votes of three moderate Republicans to clear a procedural hurdle. Among the biggest changes: the addition of a $70 billion provision to protect millions of taxpayers from the alternative minimum tax, a measure Congress was universally expected to approve anyway.

 

In the New Republic, Jonathan Chait says it would have been nice of the Post to make this point back when it could have made a difference:

 

What frustrates me is that the Post didn’t write this when it could have made a difference. It’s possible that none of the economists the Post consulted were able to make models before today. But I suspect that the story fell victim to the conventions of objectivity. Writing a story that says, “Centrist Changes Hurt Job Growth, Economists Agree” would be partisan. Writing it after the bill is done, and in a context that downplays the specific actors responsible for the changes, is the kind of thing newspapers can do without feeling like they’re being “biased.”

 

Matthew Yglesias adds this:

 

It’s also worth saying that the “centrists” aren’t the only ones to blame. There are dozens of Senate conservatives who could have said “I don’t believe in the idea of Keynesian stimulus, but as long as you guys want to do a Keynesian stimulus you may as well do one properly, thus even though I’ll vote ‘no’ on the final bill I’ll agree to vote ‘yes’ on cloture if you undo the damage done by Sens. Specter, Collins, Snowe, and Nelson.”

 

Well, none of that was possible. And the Republicans threw their tantrum over earmarks, and that frustrates Yglesias:

 

One of the odder aspects of recent American politics has been the bipartisan fervor against so-called “earmarks.” These are, it’s true, a less-than-ideal method of budgeting. But the U.S. budget process has a lot of flaws and I see no real reason to think that earmarking is high on the list. But John McCain and Barack Obama both hate ’em and now they’re public enemy number one, so the Obama administration has made a big deal out of its earmark-free stimulus. But I wonder, has this really been a good feature on net?

 

He asks us to think of it this way:

 

As is well-known, in order to secure the votes of the handful of Republican Senators necessary to overcome the 60-vote hurdle, Obama had to make some non-trivial concessions. Those concessions have made the stimulus much less effective than it otherwise might have been and will lead to hundreds of thousands of people being unemployed who could have been engaged in productive labor. Suppose that instead of making this sort of large, substantive concession Obama had just been able to offer pointless pet projects for Pennsylvania and Maine. It seems to me that because those projects would have had locally concentrated benefits you could have made the deal worthwhile to Sens. Specter, Collins, and Snowe for a much lower bottom-line cost and ultimately better-served the public interest.

 

In other words, simply eliminating the most effective means of buying votes in the legislature doesn’t eliminate the practical necessity to do it. It just ensures that the vote-buying gets done in less efficient ways.

 

That’s a thought, but it gets tricky, as in this from Senator DeMint’s office:

 

The President has a point that taxpayer money should not be used to pay for Wall Street fat cats to fly to Las Vegas – but why is it okay for taxpayer money to be used to help pay for Hollywood elites to get there on a fancy gambling train? And why are we subsidizing leisure in a stimulus bill rather than encouraging work and greater productivity?

 

Yes, there is money in the bill for high-speed rail, and out here we’ve been toying with the idea of a high-speed super-train between here and Vegas.

 

Yglesias comments:

 

One – there’s no such provision in the bill. Two – there are two million people in the Las Vegas metro area, so it’s not as if taking the train to gamble is the only conceivable use of such a route. Three – lots of people go from L.A. to Las Vegas, it’s not an “elites only” option.

 

It makes you wonder what the real problem is, and Yglesias offers this:

 

The larger rhetorical theme here seems to be that DeMint believes there should be no infrastructure projects of any sort in Southern California because any such project would, per se, be a taxpayer subsidy to “Hollywood elites.” It’s a pretty repugnant sentiment. For whatever reason, conservatives are constantly allowed to get away with this business of summarily dismissing vast regions of the country as unworthy and never get called on it. But this sort of thing is leading the movement on a direct (albeit, non-rail) route to a Dixie-only ghetto.

 

And here Yglesias is appalled by “the right-wing’s crusade against a mythical high-speed rail to Las Vegas project that Harry Reid is alleged to have snuck into the stimulus bill.

 

The key quote:

 

“Tell me how spending $8 billion,” asked House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) on the floor, “in this bill to have a high-speed rail line between Los Angeles and Las Vegas is going to help the construction worker in my district.”

 

Yglesias:

 

For one thing, if we stuck by the standard that members of congress should only agree to fund infrastructure projects located in their own districts, then obviously we’d have no infrastructure at all. This is a debate that I thought we settled in the days of Henry Clay. But beyond that there is no such provision in the bill.

 

Yglesias reviews the language of the bill, in detail and adds this:

 

In a last-minute change, the total quantity of funds available was increased. But there’s no special plan for Las Vegas. The money will be spread all across the country. As it happens, I think an LA-Vegas HSR line is a perfectly reasonable project. But in practice the areas that will get a leg up should be the Federal Railroad Administration’s officially designated high-speed rail corridors. As it happens, LA-Vegas doesn’t even make the cut. But guess who does have such a corridor? Ohio!

 

That list of high-speed train corridors is here, if you want to look it up, and Yglesias is amused:

 

Indeed, the existing plan is a bit freakishly Ohio-centric, offering both a Cleveland-Toledo-Chicago line and a Cleveland-Columbus-Cincinnati-Indianapolis corridor while leaving things like Houston-Dallas and Orlando-Jacksonville (and, indeed, LA-Vegas) off the list.

 

Long story short, John Boehner doesn’t know what he’s talking about and his position on this issue would imperil both short term jobs for Ohioans and an opportunity to substantially improve Ohio’s long-run capacity for economic growth.

 

But it doesn’t matter to Bentley Drummle. And in fact, we see in Politico that Republicans, having that Gregg fellow embarrass Obama by withdrawing from the cabinet, are feeling pretty good about themselves:

 

By citing reservations about the economic recovery package, Gregg reinforced widespread GOP criticism about wasteful spending that has less to do with reviving the economy than rewarding Democratic constituencies. And by noting his differing view on the census, Gregg breathed life into Republican charges of a White House power grab over a critical Commerce Department function.

 

Both issues are part of an emerging GOP case against Obama and the ruling Democratic Party: Strip away the new face, the lofty rhetoric and the promises of post-partisanship and you’ll find the same big-spending party of old, bent on politicizing government to consolidate its hold on power.

 

Even with the stimulus package on the verge of passing later this week, the unanimous GOP vote against the bill in the House and the near-unanimous opposition in the Senate revealed a Republican Party surprisingly united in direction and in message for perhaps the first time since losing its congressional majority in 2006.

 

Yglesias also considers that:

 

At the time, what Republican optimism about the drilling issue reminded me of was Republican optimism about the immigration issue. At one point, conventional wisdom held that taking a moderately pro-immigrant, pro-immigration line was necessary for a political party hoping to appeal to Hispanic voters. But the conservative base didn’t like that idea and scuttled it. These things happen. But then as more and more congressfolks got swept-up in the far-right maw, they became convinced that this bit of base pandering was going to deliver them to electoral nirvana. Then in November 2006, they took it on the chin.

 

Then you flash forward to 2008. At one point, conventional wisdom held that offshore drilling was a bad issue for its proponents – the only people who really cared about it were the people whose livelihoods and lifestyles would be imperiled by it – which is why even friend of the oilman George W. Bush never previously campaigned on offshore drilling. But the base wanted to drill offshore. So “drill, baby, drill” it was. And this, too, was supposed to be not just base pandering but brilliant politics. Then in November 2008, they took it on the chin.

 

Now they’ve convinced themselves that lockstep opposition to economic stimulus is the way to go. And the press, which mostly keeps believing that the right is politically brilliant despite two blown elections in a row, is inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

 

But there are the Gallup numbers – Obama still wildly popular and the Republicans widely and wildly reviled – which prompts this from Yglesias:

 

I’ll be the first to tell you that none of this will matter very much if the economy is in the toilet in 2012. But the fact remains that what conservatives are doing is moving in lockstep opposition to a popular initiative backed by a popular congress and a Democratic congressional leadership that, while not particular popular, is still more popular than they are. And if you think back to what serious people thought Republicans’ electoral problems were two months ago, it’s very hard to see how complaining that the stimulus bill was insufficiently weighted to corporate and capital gains tax cuts is expanding the party’s appeal to non-whites or to the younger cohort of voters or demonstrating that it’s an effective custodian of the economic interests of lower middle class traditionalists.

 

But John McCain says here that President Obama needs to work on bipartisanship – Obama blew it and everyone around the nation is outraged that he insulted and ignored the Republicans. There seems to be no evidence for that, and a lot of evidence that this just is not so, but if you say it a lot….

 

Josh Marshall carries this forward:

 

I just heard a reporter on MSNBC say that the Republicans have emerged from this battle with their reputation for fiscal discipline strengthened while Obama has had his reputation for bipartisanship tarnished.

 

As annoying as it is to hear this stuff, I can’t say I’m losing a lot of sleep over it. Because in addition to being nonsensical on its face, I really don’t think most people around the country are seeing any of this that way. The primary aim of this is to work the refs, the refs being DC political reporters, who are usually pretty easy to work. And they seem to be so in this case. But I don’t think this is what most people see. I think the number of people who are into bipartisanship is greatly overstated. However, the number of people who are into it are heavily correlated with those who are politically gettable. So it’s not nothing. But Obama has made repeated overtures to Republicans and included probably more of their goodies than I’d like in his bill. And he’s been greeted by a phalanx of opposition, nonsense and trash talk.

 

That’s supposed to be a win for the Republicans. Marshall simply thinks that’s an inside the beltway thing:

 

It’s true that many voters without strong partisan attachments want to see politicians “get some things done” and not just get into political fights. I think what most people see here is one side of the equation trying to put together a bill with big majorities, which means necessarily ones that wouldn’t be his own parties wish list. The other party has used the overture exclusively as a vehicle for scoring political points and, more poetically put, being dicks.

 

For my part, I don’t think there’s any problem with having party line votes where both parties really fundamentally disagree on the policy question at hand. But to the extent that there’s a question of who’s making an effort to operate in a bipartisan manner, this one is really not even close. Reporters’ idea that the entire “bipartisan” enterprise is Obama’s responsibility, as though Republicans, in their depleted state, actually get to dictate the content of bills – I don’t think people buy that – which is probably why Obama’s still really popular and congressional Republicans are extremely unpopular.

 

And Mark Murray brings up an interesting point:

 

With zero House Republicans voting for the stimulus – and with just three Senate Republicans expected to vote for it later this afternoon – it’s worth noting that 28 House Democrats and 12 Senate Democrats voted for the final passage of Bush’s big tax cut in 2001. (And remember, too, that Bush had barely won the presidential election the year before.) The size of that 2001 tax-cut package? $1.35 trillion.

 

Andrew Sullivan:

 

Bipartisanship means nothing if it is only ever respected by one party. The GOP is borderline autistic in its understanding of the necessary to-and-fro of democratic government. Or rather: its ideological nature prevents it from engaging in the actual tasks of pragmatic government – or from seriously thinking of the long-term national interest rather than the short-term partisan one.

 

And Arlen Specter blurts out the truth:

 

When I came back to the cloak room after coming to the agreement a week ago today, one of my colleagues said, “Arlen, I’m proud of you.” My Republican colleague said, “Arlen, I’m proud of you.” I said, “Are you going to vote with me?” And he said, “No, I might have a primary.” And I said, “Well, you know very well I’m going to have a primary.” … I think there are a lot of people in the Republican caucus who are glad to see this action taken without their fingerprints, without their participation.

 

Sullivan on that:

 

The GOP has passed what amounts to a spending and tax-cutting and borrowing stimulus package every year since George W. Bush came to office. They have added tens of trillions to future liabilities and they turned a surplus into a trillion dollar deficit – all in a time of growth. They then pick the one moment when demand is collapsing in an alarming spiral to argue that fiscal conservatism is non-negotiable. I mean: seriously.

 

The bad faith and refusal to be accountable for their own conduct for the last eight years is simply inescapable. There is no reason for the GOP to have done what they have done for the last eight years and to say what they are saying now except pure, cynical partisanship, and a desire to wound and damage the new presidency.

 

Well, that’s the point, although Ta-Nehisi Coates is hopeful:

 

Bringing Republicans on board will not be achieved simply by inviting them over for drinks – though that is a critical step. It will be achieved by being right. If the stimulus works, I’m betting that Obama will find himself with a lot more GOP allies in Congress.

 

Digby says don’t hold your breath:

 

Fake outrage is an American pastime. People love to gossip and they love to judge others for sins they themselves commit. But the Republican Party has been as successful at using that for political purposes as any group in history. It remains to be seen when, if ever, the American people are going to step in like “The Nanny” and force the Democrats to put these monsters into a time-out chair and leave them there until they stop destroying the country with their tantrums.

 

Well, in the end Pip just couldn’t handle Bentley Drummle. You just have to let things play out, and take your lumps. And the bill did pass.

 

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About Alan

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

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