Lifting the Curse

When something is over it’s over. It’s not news anymore. And so what seemed like the big news story at the time, in twenty-four hours, is forgotten – or if not forgotten merely a curiosity, useful trivia should you find yourself a contestant on Jeopardy one day.

Sports fans know this. For eighty-six years the Boston Red Sox were not going to win a World Series – no way, no how, as it was that dreaded Curse of the Bambino – the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in the off-season of 1919-1920 and sealed their fate. Everyone knew that, and that was the go-to back-story for many decades – a bit of a joke, but, as they say, the stuff of legend. And baseball has its heroic mythic elements as we all know, or have been told. That old musical Damned Yankees was the Faust story, retold, and Bernard Malamud gave us The Natural – a riff on that Fisher King business, about a king ruling over a desolate land, which is saved when a heroic knight returns the Holy Grail or some such thing to the kingdom. Malamud just gave that a baseball setting. And he wasn’t particularly subtle about it – Roy Hobbs’ manager was Pop Fischer after all. But then in 2004 the Red Sox came back from being three games down in the best-of-seven American League Championship Series, and beat those damned Yankees, and then went on to sweep the Cardinals to win the World Series that year. And that was that. The curse had been lifted. And that was the big story, for about a day – or maybe a day and a half in Boston. Then everyone moved on. There was nothing more to talk about. The Red Sox were just another baseball team after that – as they had always been, actually.

The political parallel might be the big Washington story of early April 2011 – the dramatic standoff where the Republican-controlled House said they would shut down the government if the current budget, not yet finalized, did not include thirty-three billion dollars in cuts in federal spending. The administration and the Senate, with its Democratic majority, were reluctant – a lot of this was cutting things like help to the poor and elderly and disabled to pay their heating bills, and cuts to education, and police and fire services, and the Centers for Disease Control and so on. But the House authorizes spending, so they came around, reluctantly.

And then House Speaker Boehner took that back to his caucus, and the Tea Party contingent ripped him a new asshole – they had promised their constituents that, when they got to Washington, they would make sure the government cut one hundred billion in spending. And this was a matter of principle – the national debt, the deficit, was out of control, and that would ruin us – Glenn Beck has said so for months on end on Fox News – and they knew that everyone, all Americans, simply hated government itself, and so the federal government should be dismantled as much possible, so people could be free – government should not do much of anything, other than fight every possible war, anywhere, no matter what it costs, to keep us safe. Everything else was fluff. So they send Boehner back to demand at least forty billion in cuts – but a hundred billion would be better.

And in the middle of this, Eric Cantor, Boehner’s second in command, who wants his job, declared in a press conference that if the Senate did not pass a budget before the current continuing resolution expired, well, the appropriations bill passed by the House on February 19 would then become the law of the land – the Republicans would pass a resolution saying that the February 19 House bill was, in fact, now the absolute law of the land – it did not need to be passed by the Senate and then signed by the president, and it couldn’t be reviewed by the courts – problem solved. There would be seventy to a hundred billion is cuts, no matter what the Senate and the president wanted. There would be no government shutdown. And he’d be the hero of thinking this up – not Boehner. Cool.

And the reaction to that was not pretty – he was called an unpardonable embarrassment and people were sending him that children’s comic book on how a bill becomes law, with others suggesting he might want to read the Constitution. But he didn’t back down. And he was ignored. But it was dramatic – and bold. Who knows? He may next declare himself the final winner of this year’s American Idol.

But the current continuing resolution to keep the government up and running was set to expire at midnight on April 8 – and something has to be done. But complicating this was all the policy riders the Republicans wanted to attach to whatever budget was finally passed. The budget had to contain the defunding of Planned Parenthood and NPR, and defunding any and all of the Dodd-Frank financial reform, and defunding every aspect of the new healthcare act, and stripping the EPA of any authority to establish any regulations much less enforce them, and defunding all school lunch programs and all sorts of things. If you cannot get the one hundred billion in cuts you want, at least you can do something about abortion and that global warming business they were all convinced was a hoax anyway – and you can stop all this regulating of banks and Wall street dead in its tracks, and that healthcare business too. Yes, they didn’t have the votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and apparently never will, but with no funding to implement it that would get the job done – same thing. And one of the policy riders had to do with defunding the new consumer protection agency and all such schemes to make it hard for business to do what they want, without any tort liability at all. A few wags suggested what they really wanted to include was Obama going on national television and apologizing for FDR and the New Deal. But they could shut down the government, so they were in the cat bird’s seat. They could make Obama roller-skate in a funny hat if they wanted.

But of course Obama had an ace up his sleeve – the Republicans had forced a government shutdown in 1995 – actually two of them – to get their way with Bill Clinton, on quite similar budget issues. And that had been a disaster for the Republicans, and particularly for the instigator, Newt Gingrich. They all came off as jerks, shutting down the government because they couldn’t get their way with enough votes that might override any Clinton veto – and folks didn’t like their government shutting down. There’s something about rigid ideological jerks that most Americans, beyond the wholly committed party base of each party, find tiresome. Clinton won reelection easily, and the Republicans lost the House for a generation. Now all Obama had to do was say 1995 – think about it. That works too.

So it came down to the wire – actually the last hour before midnight that night. And a deal was stuck – a tad under forty billion in cuts, and all the policy riders tabled for consideration later. Obama made his statement on the budget agreement, saying was all good – he was “pleased to announce” the breakthrough, the result of “Americans of different beliefs coming together.” And of course he listed all the good things that happen when the government stays open, and said that this is a “worthwhile compromise” that resulted in “the largest annual spending cut in our history.”

But Ezra Klein sees this as the wrong message:

Obama bragged about “making the largest annual spending cut in our history.” Harry Reid joined him, repeatedly calling the cuts “historic.” It fell to Boehner to give a clipped, businesslike statement on the deal. If you were just tuning in, you might’ve thought Boehner had been arguing for moderation, while both Obama and Reid sought to cut deeper. You would never have known that Democrats had spent months resisting these “historic” cuts, warning that they’d cost jobs and slow the recovery. …

So why were Reid and Obama so eager to celebrate Boehner’s compromise with his conservative members? The Democrats believe it’s good to look like a winner, even if you’ve lost. But they’re sacrificing more than they let on. By celebrating spending cuts, they’ve opened the door to further austerity measures at a moment when the recovery remains fragile. Claiming political victory now opens the door to further policy defeats later.

Paul Krugman parallels that:

It’s one thing for Obama to decide that it was better to give in to Republican hostage-taking than draw a line in the sand; it’s another for him to celebrate the result. Yet that’s just what he did. More than that, he has now completely accepted the Republican frame that spending cuts right now are what America needs.

And Steve Benen adds this:

The president seemed to make a point not to make spending cuts look like the actual goal, emphasizing “investing in our future,” and “investments in our kids’ education and student loans; in clean energy and life-saving medical research. We protected the investments we need to win the future.” (He used the word “invest” four times in four minutes.) Obama even made a subtle distinction between cutting spending on the one hand, and “creating jobs and growing our economy” on the other.

The celebration of “the largest annual spending cut in our history” was discouraging, but it’s not as if the president’s remarks were Republican.

But Benen sees Klein’s point:

This White House, in particular, hates to come up short, but really hates to let folks know they came up short. So, they put the best possible spin on negotiations that didn’t exactly go their way. Why? Because the president couldn’t deliver a national address and say what he might have been thinking: “Look, I’m not thrilled with how this came together, but I was negotiating with rabid conservatives and didn’t want a shutdown. If folks wanted a better outcome, voters shouldn’t have elected intemperate children to run the House of Representatives. Don’t blame me for your bad decisions.”

The candor wouldn’t have gone over well. Call it a hunch.

And that probably explains the email that arrived here in Hollywood from Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta:

I have become almost absolutely convinced that we should not be allowing any budget cuts at all, at least while the economy is recovering, since any cuts in government spending represent money not going to the private sector, and that means, if anything, jobs will be necessarily lost, and the economy will be hurt. The Republican argument, that hurting the economy will create an atmosphere that encourages job creation, is such complete nonsense that it’s surprising that Obama and the Democrats are not holding it up as an example of Republican knuckleheadedness on a twice-daily basis.

As for the whole idea of a shutdown, he said this:

Yes, I think both parties will take a hit for allowing the government to shut down, but I also think eventually people would see that the Democrats allowed the shutdown despite not wanting it to happen, while the Republicans actions are the way they are because they do wanted it to happen. And so, at least temporarily, the Democrats and Obama would be seen as the adults in all of this.

But the idea was kind of nuts. Hurting the economy will create an atmosphere that encourages job creation? That’s an interesting theory. Yes, it really shouldn’t work. The logic is not there. And it’s never worked before – ever. But why not give it just one more try? Yeah, right. Hurting the economy will create an atmosphere that encourages job creation.

Rick added this:

Okay, maybe I’m misquoting them. I suppose they believe, and it goes without saying, that cutting government spending just naturally helps the economy. But the key here is “it goes without saying,” since if they were to say it out loud, they might be forced to think about it, and thinking about it is what might get them to realizing that any cutting of government spending whatsoever would, almost by definition, make a weak economy weaker.

But one must deal with the underlying notion here, which Obama clearly buys into, that removing forty to eighty billion dollars from the economy – money people would use to, you know, buy things – is the right thing to do. And that prompted Rick to add this:

I guess the idea of “removing” money from the economy would mean, according to the “other side,” folks paying less taxes and therefore being able to spend their own money the way they choose, rather than government spending it for them, and maybe even rich folks using that extra cash to build a factory and hire workers to build something. But in truth, I think what they would do with that money is what most people always do with money in a bad economy – that is, nothing. And in the meantime, what that money is doing now is keeping people employed, and people who are employed spend money, which is exactly what we need going on right now.

I do think the question does come back to the choice of which is the better way to deal with a sick economy: (a) Should we, conforming to the theory that “what does not kill us makes us stronger,” let the disease run its course, and maybe – but only “maybe” – come out stronger on the other side? Or (b) should we treat the disease, trying to keep up the patient’s strength until it can get back on its own feet?

I choose (b), partly based on my own belief that “what does not make us stronger can actually kill us” (and, in this case, maybe bring down the whole world’s economy with us), but also because it’s the one that doesn’t bring collateral damage to the weakest among us, those who don’t have the resources on their own to survive. After all, as I keep saying, we already decided back when we wrote the preamble to the constitution that we consider it our collective responsibility to “promote the general welfare,” which means looking out for the whole group, the weak as well as the strong.

It seems that Eric Cantor isn’t the only one who hasn’t read the constitution.

But you do know that if families have to tighten their belts, so should Washington, and if the American people have to do more with less, so should Washington. To which Digby offers this:

It’s kind of an odd family that goes into debt so mom and dad quit their jobs and bring in even less money in order to pay it off, but hey, what do I know about finances anyway? I guess in good Real American families when you bring in less money and beat the children the debt magically vanishes somehow. I suppose God provides.

But people have used the family metaphor over and over, and it works. The president does now and then. And the word is that “you have to tighten your belt so the government should have to do it too.” But Digby notes Obama, on the other hand, says “everyone needs to tighten their belts including the government except for needed investments, plus Planned Parenthood and stuff.”

Meanwhile, I’m going to move into my car, empty out my bank account and give the money to a rich person so he’ll win the future for me. Isn’t that what all responsible families are doing right now?

It is a bit nutty. But it’s over. Like the Curse of the Bambino – done.

And John Dickerson offers a postmortem:

In evaluating the moment, though, we have to keep in mind that the politicians in Washington made it far harder for themselves than necessary. Democrats wimped out last year by not passing a budget. They decided making tough choices would have been too political in an election year. The president agreed with this strategy. This year, as members of Congress tried to clean up last year’s unfinished business, conservatives prolonged the process by insisting on too many cuts in too short a time period. House leaders warned their most conservative members that they were in danger of over-reading their mandate from the last election. Republicans hadn’t won as much as Democrats had lost. Going on a “spending jihad,” as one senior GOP aide put it, would repeat the overreach that undid the Gingrich Congress the last time the GOP was in control.

If John Boehner had more wiggle room from his right flank, the process might not have been brought to the brink. On the other hand, it’s hard to argue with the tactical success of the Tea Party position. It’s a classic negotiating ploy. Ask for the moon, act like you’re willing to do anything to get it – including harm yourself and all around you – and the other side will come your way. In the end, Democrats agreed to more cuts than even House GOP leaders had first proposed. House Speaker John Boehner won those concessions from Democrats while also teaching his raucous absolutist members the benefit of taking yes for an answer.

But that’s just a preview:

We’re going to see if this strategy works when it comes to the fight over raising the debt ceiling in May and the fight over the larger budget. Paul Ryan, the House budget chairman put out a plan that looks as unworkable and doctrinaire as the spending cuts that Republicans wanted at the start of the budget negotiations that almost caused the shutdown. If Republicans get two-thirds of what they want on the budget, it would be a big success.

Republicans lost on some hot-button issues like defunding Planned Parenthood. In the accounts of the negotiations, the valiant intervention of the president and Joe Biden on that issue was amply represented. Democrats may wonder, though, if removing the most restrictive provision of all the ones Republicans offered was something worth getting that excited about. The president and Harry Reid also protected other Democratic priorities by replacing GOP cuts to education with cuts to defense and other areas Democrats care less about, but the process was a fundamentally defensive one. It was John Boehner’s world, and they were playing in it.

Obama may have come off as the reasonable man in the middle, helping the two sides come to an agreement, and if you want to see compromise and government trimmed with a bit of balance and common sense, Obama’s your man, but not for long:

The president has cast himself in a slightly different role for the larger budget fight to come. He has already taken sides. In the State of the Union and in a series of speeches in the last several months, he has made the case for balancing the need for deficit reduction against the need for investments in education and infrastructure and energy innovation. When Obama was criticized for not engaging in the budget fight that just ended, his aides said he was saving his powder for the one to come. Now it’s here. The landscape has changed now. Will Obama manage a process driven by the House of Representatives as he did in this case, or will a larger process call for a larger public role from the president?

And there’s this assessment:

The best that can be said for the dramatic near-shutdown is that it’s the best that can be expected as politicians switch from the easier task of giving voters things to the harder one of taking them away. Compromise in a time of political extremes is also encouraging. But all the bickering left little time or public oxygen for the larger issues that might have been debated about the underlying economic and moral benefits of the cuts being made.

Well, that is this issue, and this is up next:

The federal government will exhaust its ability to borrow money under current law during the second week of July, the Treasury Department said in a letter sent Monday to members of Congress.

The government will hit the debt limit – the maximum amount that it can borrow – “no later than May 16,” the letter said; after that, “extraordinary measures” can create roughly eight weeks of wiggle room.

“The longer Congress fails to act, the more we risk that investors here and around the world will lose confidence in our ability to meet our commitments and obligations,” Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner wrote in the letter, sent to leaders of both parties in the House and the Senate. …

Mr. Geithner closed the letter on a dry note. “I hope this information is helpful as you plan the legislative schedule for the coming weeks,” he wrote.

So Republicans might want to prevent this global financial disaster – or we say to all who hold our treasury notes, well, we’re not good for the face amount, or the interest. We’re simply unable (or unwilling) to meet our meet our commitments and obligations. Go fish.

That should be interesting. Maybe what doesn’t kill us, and everyone else too, makes us stronger.

Wanna bet? It’ll be fun to see.

As for the story of the great government shutdown of 2011 – that was averted, heroically, at the very last moment – that is old news now. Like that Curse of the Bambino, it has passed into forgotten history. But there still may be a curse here.

About Alan

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