Trailing Indicators

The country moved on. It used to be fine to attack those icky gay folks, and now it’s not. Attacking the useless poor, who are poor only because they have no sense of personal responsibility, used to be fine – a staple since Reagan’s talk of welfare queens driving Cadillacs through an hour ago on Fox News – but now that’s not fine. Mitt Romney discovered that. His comments about that awful forty-seven percent sunk him, and talk of the noble captains of industry and the financial wizards who will save America doesn’t fly now either. America now knows better. The ground shifted. It shifted on immigration reform. The ground may even shift on climate change, maybe, but it seems to have shifted on gun control – the majority of Americans want assault weapons banned, and high-capacity magazines too, and ninety percent of us want those universal background checks. America now knows better, even if politicians, Republican and Democrat, are the last people to get it, whatever it is. Dead children, guys, dead children!

Public opinion shifts, but that doesn’t mean much, even if it should in a representative democracy. The will of the people is a tricky thing. No matter what the polling shows, in spite of all the unambiguous signs of real and permanent change in the culture, and in spite of all the mocking from Stewart and Colbert, and what their own wives and children tell them, most politicians are timid. One cannot be too careful. Their own constituents might not feel that way about these specific issues – all politics is local – and the corporations and millionaires that underwrite their careers don’t give a damn about public opinion. They shape it. That’s what money is for after all. They’ll just have to spend a little more now. It’s no big deal.

This leads to an awkward situation. Politicians must decide how much of a show of agreeing that something should be done about this and that they will have to put on. On the issue of gay marriage they have to choose just the right time to suddenly announce that they’ve “evolved” on the issue – but not that much, as there are angry traditionalists out there and they vote too. It’s best to talk about the sad but inevitable need for basic fairness, which usually does the trick. The same sort of thing happens with immigration reform. We can’t deport eleven to fourteen million people – the logistics are impossible and that would ruin the economy, stripping out a massive amount of necessary cheap labor. Lettuce would be three hundred dollars a head and most restaurants and hotels would close – no more kitchen staff or housekeepers – and no one would do the gardening work. Maybe these folks do have to stay, and it seems there’s no way to not grant them citizenship, eventually – even if it’s sad and they’ll end up Democratic voters in the end. It’s a matter of walking a fine line – appear tolerant to the minority community now, finally, in the hope of one day regaining their vote, and seem reluctantly but realistically pragmatic to your base. Offend the most people the least. That’s how change comes about in this country, with politicians dragged kicking and screaming to do the right thing, which they might do, eventually, or not. It’s a slow process.

The Washington Post covers the massive nationwide pro-immigration rallies of April 10:

Organizers of the Rally for Citizenship hope to create a sense of momentum and inevitability for immigration reform, particularly after an election that drove home the growing influence of Hispanic voters.

A bipartisan group of senators is finalizing an agreement on a comprehensive proposal to overhaul the nation’s immigration law for the first time since 1986. It should be made public next week, aides said, and advance to the Senate floor for a vote before Memorial Day. But several hurdles remain, especially in the Republican-controlled House, where most of the GOP has expressed opposition to allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens.

That bipartisan group of senators was dragged kicking and screaming into doing the right thing, eventually – but the last election did clear their minds a bit. Things will be harder in the House, if not impossible. The nationwide rallies are just an effort to drag all these politicians, kicking and screaming, into the real world, to do something useful. The Post item goes on to chronicle the resistance – Republican senator after Republican senator, led by Marco Rubio of Florida, arguing it’s not time for a vote on any of this. This is not the time. There should be more hearings. It might be wise to kick this around for a year or two, and Marco Rubio is caught in the middle. He’s a Cuban-American and wants to be a hero, the man who brought the Hispanic vote back on board, with the Republicans, and he wants to keep the Tea Party crowd happy too. He knows the trick is to move fast on this, and to slow it down as much as possible – to be the hero who saved his party, bringing back that minority vote, and the hero who kept his party firm on amnesty – there’ll be none of that, thank you very much. It’s no wonder he wants all this slowed down. He’s conflicted.

It doesn’t matter. No matter what the Senate does, immigration reform will die in the House, totally controlled by the Republicans, unless they too can be dragged kicking and screaming back into the real world. That’s where the largest and fastest-growing minority now always votes for Democrats, or eighty percent of them do – and where all the gerrymandering in the world won’t keep their own districts from having a steadily growing number of those Hispanic voters. They may bow to the inevitable, or not, or not this year, or next. Congressional action is always a trailing indicator.

The same thing is happening with gun control – or gun safety if you want to put it that way. The same day as those nationwide pro-immigration rallies there was this, which was next to nothing:

Conservative senators from both parties announced their support for expanding background checks for gun buyers Wednesday, giving a burst of momentum to advocates of stronger restrictions. But big questions remain about whether President Barack Obama can push significant gun controls through Congress.

The compromise between Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., boosted the chances that the Senate will agree to broaden required background checks, a step gun-control groups laud as an effective way to keep weapons from criminals and the mentally ill. The senators are among the most conservative members of their parties, both have received “A” ratings from the National Rifle Association, and their endorsements could make it easier for hesitant colleagues to back the effort.

These guys, with an NRA lobbyist in the room at all times, came up with something on those universal background checks everyone wants. The gun-show loopholes would be closed, and internet sales loopholes would be closed too – but sales among friends or family members would be exempt. Forty percent of gun buyers have been able to avoid background checks under the current system and this would fix some of that, but not all. Now anyone can be your new friend, even if you’re a convicted felon or just out of the psyche ward or have a restraining order against you because you beat the crap out of your wife last week. Hey, what are friends for? The proposal for expanded background checks – which includes a requirement for sellers, not the government at any level, to keep records of sales – appears to be the only hope for meaningful gun control legislation now. Forget what happened in Newtown – the idea of once again banning assault weapons, and those large magazines, which is what the majority of the country clearly wants, is dead. That won’t happen now, and there’s this:

The agreement also contains provisions expanding firearms rights, and that concerns gun control supporters. Some restrictions on transporting guns across state lines would be eased, sellers would be shielded from lawsuits if the buyer passed a check but later used a firearm in a crime and gun dealers could conduct business in states where they don’t live.

The idea was to make strict state gun-control laws meaningless. Connecticut just passed one of the tightest of those. Buy your AK-47 in Rhode Island and drive on in.

This was a big nothing, but it did produce this:

The agreement makes it all but certain that the Senate will reject a conservative blockade and vote Thursday to begin debating Democrats’ gun legislation. Besides broader background check requirements, the bill would also toughen laws against illicit firearms sales and provide a small increase in school security aid.

Lead by Rand Paul, fourteen senators and the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, had vowed to filibuster any attempt to open any discussion of anything having to do with guns at all, at any time, ever, in the Senate. They backed down on that, which was a hopeful sign, but later in the day the National Rifle Association denounced this Manchin-Toomey thing. Sure their guy was the third party in the room in all the discussions, but they said the focus of all this should be “on improving the nation’s mental health system and sources of violence like gangs.”

Oh well. Perhaps this was progress. That’s what Obama said. House Speaker John Boehner said this was just two guys, and what two random guys come up with doesn’t matter much at all – there are ninety-eight other senators after all.

Nothing gets done. We have a system that prevents that, or delays it as long as possible. Those who represent us are afraid to represent us. It’s too risky.

That was even more apparent with the third item of the day:

In the first budget of his second term, President Obama set aside the grand ambitions that marked his early days in office and sent Congress a blueprint aimed at achieving a simple goal: ending the long partisan standoff over the national debt.

The 10-year budget request Obama unveiled Wednesday calls for nearly $300 billion in new spending on jobs and public works. That includes a landmark $77 billion expansion of preschool education financed by smokers, who would have to pay an extra 94 cents a pack for cigarettes.

But barely five months after winning a decisive reelection victory Obama proposed nothing on the scale of the $1.2 trillion initiative to extend health coverage to the uninsured that he pursued after taking office in 2009.

Instead, with sharp automatic spending cuts threatening to slow the economic recovery and another showdown over the federal debt limit looming this year, the blueprint establishes a budget deal with Republicans as Obama’s top fiscal priority. For the first time, he is formally proposing to trim scheduled Social Security benefits – a GOP demand that is anathema to many Democrats. He is also offering to make meaningful reductions in Medicare benefits, including higher premiums for couples making more than $170,000 a year.

“With this budget, you can’t say the president isn’t leading. He’s clearly leading,” said Robert Greenstein, president of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Whether one agrees or disagrees with the specific policies, he has definitely stepped up to the plate to try to break the gridlock.”

Someone had to do something, and this is it:

Obama warned during remarks in the Rose Garden on Wednesday that the budget represents his bottom-line offer. Any deal, he said, must not only replace “the foolish across-the-board spending cuts,” known as the Sequester, that are “already hurting our economy” but also raise revenue from “the wealthiest individuals and biggest corporations.”

Of the entitlement cuts, Obama said, “I don’t believe that all these ideas are optimal, but I’m willing to accept them as part of a compromise.” He added: “When it comes to deficit reduction, I’ve already met Republicans more than halfway. So in the coming days and weeks, I hope that Republicans will come forward and demonstrate that they’re really as serious about the deficits and debt as they claim to be.”

The message was clear. Put up or shut up. And Mathew Yglesias notes that the stakes are quite clear here, as now it’s the rich versus the poor:

In a way this is cliché, but it’s also quite important. Paul Ryan balances the budget without increasing taxes or reducing military spending or cutting Social Security or cutting Medicare benefits for people aged 55 and older primarily by cutting spending on poor people. Food stamps? Cut. Medicaid? Cut. Pell Grants? Cut. If the idea of the program is to bolster the living standards of the least fortunate, the GOP budget cuts it. By contrast, Obama expands Medicaid, increases the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credits, makes the Opportunity Tax Credit permanent, and spares the poor from the cuts involved in adopting the chained CPI.

How does he do it? Well, he does it in several ways, but one big part of the story is reducing tax deductions for rich people. Ryan, by contrast, reduces deductions across the board in order to lower rates on the rich.

It’s also the young versus the old:

Ryan’s budget is a masterpiece of coalition politics, managing to cut spending a lot while minimizing cuts in spending on people who are old today – i.e., on Republicans. Obama’s budget, by contrast, doubles down on the kind of Medicare “savings” found in the Affordable Care Act and creates headroom for a large expansion of pre-K services. Ryan keeps the sequestration cuts to education, and Obama reverses them.

And it’s jobs versus austerity:

The Obama administration’s rhetoric has long since abandoned the concept of stimulus, but yet again we have a budget proposal for some meaningful short-term economic stimulus in the form of a $50 billion infrastructure program. Perhaps more importantly, the Obama budget would replace sequestration with alternative deficit reduction that’s phased-in in a more sensible way. The House budget, by contrast, is immediate austerity. I think it’s difficult to gauge the real Federal Reserve policy response function and thus the ultimate impact of this difference, but, broadly speaking, the direction of change is knowable – Obama’s budget would mean more job growth over the next 12-18 months.

And none of it is real:

Now obviously this budget isn’t going to be passed by the House. And at the same time, the White House isn’t going to make the kind of concessions that House Republicans are angling for – a budget that’s all cuts and no tax hikes. So in a sense, delving into the details doesn’t even matter here. What’s important here is the larger ideological clash, and it’s well-captured by those three points of contrast.

Yglesias also argues this is class warfare finally out in the open:

Obama embraces both reductions in Medicare payments and a controversial cost-of-living formula to reduce Social Security benefits while demanding higher revenues. Republicans once again refuse to consider even a small amount of additional tax revenue as their side of a bargain. …The White House wants to substantially redistribute income downward, while the GOP wants to do just the reverse.

On both the tax and the spending side, this fight is really about who gets the money. Democrats want to pare back tax breaks for high-income individuals in order to preserve social services, while expanding a handful of tax credits aimed at the working poor. The GOP concept, by contrast, is to shelter tax incentives for savings and investment from any closure – a move that primarily benefits more prosperous households. The tax loopholes Republicans would close would likely result in higher taxes on many middle-class families in order to finance a big cut in the top marginal-income tax rate – a cut that only helps the wealthy.

There’s this too:

On spending, a similar divergence emerges. The Republican budget savages programs for the poor. Medicaid, SNAP [Food Stamps], Pell Grants, and other programs serving low-income households are singled out for cuts that are disproportionately large relative to the overall scope of spending cuts.

Obama’s budget is just the reverse. The Medicaid expansion and health insurance exchange subsidies included in the Affordable Care Act will be the largest shift of economic resources to the lower half of the income distribution in generations. Even high-profile gestures like Obama’s willingness to reduce Social Security benefits are conditioned on protecting low-income beneficiaries from cuts. Both Obama and Ryan would reduce entitlement spending relative to current projections. Obama does it in a way that makes the distribution of benefits more progressive. Ryan not only cuts more, he structures the cuts to make the benefits less progressive.

Obama is simply clearing the air, and pointing out the fundamental disagreement about the overall economy:

The Obama administration is troubled by decades of growing inequality. Under the circumstances, it sees higher taxes on the rich and more income support programs for the masses as a natural response to globalization and technological change.

Republicans worry about the cost of the welfare state and fear that the American worker has gotten a bit soft. University of Chicago economist and New York Times columnist Casey Mulligan says we’re suffering from a “redistribution recession” in which excessively generous programs have gutted the incentives to work. That’s the impulse behind growing moral indignation over exactly how “disabled” recipients of disability insurance benefits really are. It’s why Mitt Romney said he’d never persuaded 47 percent of the population “to take responsibility for their own lives.” It’s why Newt Gingrich calls Obama the “food-stamp president” and it’s also why Gingrich isn’t totally wrong. Obama’s vision of America really is one in which many people will see their living standards rise thanks to better government benefits rather than higher market wages.

The GOP’s mirror-image agenda of soaking the poor to finance a tax cut for the rich is horrifying. But since neither party seems to really want to discuss its redistributionist agenda, we can’t even debate it properly.

No, now the debate is open. It’s right out there, and maybe a grand bargain is out there, but Ezra Klein wonders about that:

As the White House sees it, there are two possible outcomes to this budget. One is that it actually leads to a grand bargain, either now or in a couple of months. Another is that it proves to the press and the public that Republican intransigence is what’s standing in the way of a grand bargain.

Kevin Drum tries to clear that up:

There will be no grand bargain, not now and not in a couple of months. In fact, as time passes, a grand bargain gets less and less likely. There was a brief period after the election when it seemed as if the adults in the Republican Party might exert a little control over the Tea Party wing and try to reach a deal with Obama. But that moment passed, the tax jihadists have reasserted their dominance, and there’s zero chance that they’ll agree to any kind of tax hikes. So: no grand bargain, and no cuts to Social Security.

Obviously I could be wrong. But anyone who thinks so had better be prepared to explain just how and why I’m wrong – and if you point feebly to Obama’s “outreach” dinners for those Republican senators, you might as well just concede the point now. They’ll eat dinner with Obama, but they aren’t going to vote for any tax increases, and even if they do, the House won’t follow their lead. …

I don’t doubt that Obama’s offer is sincere, but it doesn’t matter. Republicans aren’t going to take it. Obama will get his proof that Republicans simply aren’t willing to negotiate seriously, and who knows? Maybe it will do him some good. But that’s all he’ll get.

It was a nice try but the lesson here is clear. Nothing gets done. We now have a system that prevents that, or delays it as long as possible – and following all this back and forth is no more than following trailing indicators. The country moved on long ago. Look to Washington for where we were long ago, if you like nostalgia.

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 Broken Government, Class Warfare, Gun Control, Immigration Reform, Obama's Budget, Republican Obstructionism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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