Not So Bad After All

There’s a common theme to Christmas movies – life isn’t that bad if you stop being a greedy asshole and look around. Alastair Sim nailed that in that 1951 version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – and Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra’s 1946 It’s a Wonderful Life was the guy who found out his life wasn’t useless at all. He had done good, good of all sorts. He just didn’t realize it. He wasn’t thinking clearly. There was no need to jump off that bridge. He had lost all perspective.

Charles Dickens is responsible for this sort of thing. Maybe Dickens invented modern Christmas, as the holiday where some folks simply need to get slapped around, to wake them up. Dickens put it this way – “I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round, as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.”

Dickens doesn’t mention Jesus. He moved Christmas beyond that. He enlarged it – everyone, even stone-cold atheists, were welcome to pause and consider that, while life is hard, we’re all in this together, and we’re all going to the same place, so we might as well cut each other some slack, and we might consider that things aren’t really that bad. The useless poor aren’t going to ruin everything, and take everything away from those who have most of the goodies – those goodies they earned by hard work, because of their sense of personal responsibility, that only they have. Good for them – it’s fine to cut them some slack – but they should cut the poor some slack too. They’re doing their best, and everyone is going to wind up dead anyway. The poor are not another race of creatures bound on other journeys – and neither are black folks and neither are Hispanics, and neither are gays, and neither are idealistic Democrats and hard-ass Republicans. We’re all on the same journey, to the same destination.

There’s no need to jump off that bridge either. This year, what might have seemed like the end of the world wasn’t. Ebola didn’t kill half the population of Dallas – the panic was absurd, even if it was politically useful to the Republicans. Obamacare didn’t stop all job growth in the country cold either, or ruin the economy, because it was socialism, and there were no death panels. More than ten million people got health insurance for the first time, and insurance standards were tightened, so there were no more trick policies that covered nothing, and healthcare costs are starting to come down, saving the nation billions. What’s the problem? There was nothing to scream about, for all the screaming – and now it may be impossible to get voters excited by vowing that, if elected, you’ll make sure those ten or twelve million who have their new health insurance have that health insurance taken away from them, immediately. What good would come of that? It’s probably best not to play Scrooge, and Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning and decided to provide full healthcare coverage for Tiny Tim after all. Everyone knows the story. You really don’t want to cast yourself as Scrooge, before the three ghosts visited him and slapped some sense into him.

Obama didn’t ruin the economy either. That rather meager stimulus in his first year, while it did bump the deficit up a bit, because there was a bit more government spending without offsetting tax revenues coming in, didn’t send interest rates soaring and cause runaway inflation. Neither thing happened. The economy slowly got better and, as the tax revenues poured in from that, the deficit went down and down and down, to normal levels. The world didn’t end, and along the way the seven hundred billion dollars in debt we took on with that TARP thing was repaid to the government, and all the flaky assets the government had purchased were, this year, finally sold – at a more than fifteen billion dollar profit – so we actually made money on what once seemed like the end of the world, to some. There was no need to jump off the bridge then, and there’s no need to jump off it now.

In fact, two days before Christmas there was this:

The U.S. economy roared into overdrive in the third quarter as consumer and business spending fueled the biggest expansion in more than a decade.

Gross domestic product grew at a 5 percent annual rate from July through September, the biggest advance since the third quarter of 2003 and up from a previously estimated 3.9 percent, revised figures from the Commerce Department showed today in Washington. The median forecast of 75 economists surveyed by Bloomberg projected a 4.3 percent increase in GDP.

Consumer spending is poised to grow in 2015 as stronger employment and lower gasoline prices boost household buying power, one reason why the Federal Reserve will probably raise interest rates next year.

This must have surprised those who despaired, because that tax-and-spend Obama fellow had ruined the economy, and the Nobel economist Paul Krugman addresses that:

That was a seriously impressive GDP report – 5 percent growth rate, and it’s all final demand rather than an inventory bounce. But what does it mean?

It does not necessarily mean that now is the time to tighten; that depends mainly on how far we still are from target employment and inflation, not on how fast we’re growing. Remember, the US economy grew 10 percent in 1934, which didn’t mean that the Depression was anywhere near over. …

What the report should do, however, is further discredit the “Ma, he’s looking at me funny!” theory of the Obama economy. Remember, we were supposed to be having the worst recovery ever because Obama was a Kenyan socialist who scared businessmen. Actually, it’s a better recovery than the alleged Bush boom…

Of course, you can count on hearing, any minute now, from people claiming that the numbers are cooked – we really have plunging output and double-digit inflation, plus they’re stealing our precious bodily fluids.

That’s a different movie – but the point is the same. There are sour people out there who have lost all perspective, and Steve Benen considers the new data using the standards of Republican promises from two years ago:

The Romney Standard: Mitt Romney said during the 2012 campaign that if Americans elect him, he’d get the unemployment rate down to 6% by 2016. Obama won anyway and the unemployment rate dropped below 6% two years faster.

The Gingrich Standard: Newt Gingrich said during the 2012 campaign that if Americans re-elected the president, gas prices would reach $10 per gallon, while Gingrich would push gas down to $2.50 a gallon. As of this morning, the national average at the pump is a little under $2.38.

The Pawlenty Standard: Tim Pawlenty said trillions of dollars in tax breaks would boost economic growth to 5% GDP. Obama actually raised taxes on the wealthy and GDP growth reached 5% anyway.

Benen says this of the sour Republicans – “By the party’s own standards, Obama is succeeding beautifully. They established the GOP benchmarks and now the Democratic president is the one meeting, and in some cases exceeding, the Republicans’ goals.”

Oops. Kevin Drum considers what this means:

The downside of all this is that in the past Democrats haven’t promoted their own economic policies plainly enough to get credit now that the economy has finally turned around. Republicans, by contrast, simply cut taxes and then loudly and relentlessly repeat their promise that the economy will improve. Eventually it does, of course – maybe not a lot, and maybe not for long, but economies always improve eventually. If Kansas ever manages a quarter or two of decent growth, for example, you can be sure that Gov. Sam Brownback will be crowing about it for the rest of his political career.

That may not be true:

Fresh off a re-election bid that he nearly lost because of the disastrous impact of his massive income tax cuts, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback now says he regrets his triumphant prediction that the tax cuts would be a “shot of adrenaline” to the state’s economy.

“I probably would have chosen words better at different times, because you go through a campaign where you’ve got to eat the words you inartfully said,” Brownback told the Topeka Capital-Journal.

Besides his “shot of adrenaline” sound bite, Brownback also regrets calling the tax cuts an “experiment.”

The experiment didn’t work:

Brownback’s post-campaign contrition comes as dire new figures will force the governor to make some painful budgetary choices. In order to close a projected $280 million revenue shortfall by a June deadline, Brownback has reduced state contributions to Kansas’ pension fund – already one of the worst-funded in the nation – and cut highway funding. In an ironic twist, the vociferously anti-health reform governor is also relying on Obamacare to help fill the state’s budget gap; Brownback is transferring $55 million in revenue from a Medicaid drug rebate program expanded in the Affordable Care Act into the state’s general fund.

But those measures won’t suffice to make up Kansas’ budget shortfall, and with education and health services already cut virtually to the bone, Brownback may have no choice but to rethink his tax cuts.

Oops again, but Drum looks at the bigger picture:

To some extent, of course, Democrats were stymied in their economic policy, which gave them less to brag about back in 2009. And five years is a long time to wait for a recovery. Still, Dems did pass a stimulus; enact a payroll tax holiday; extend unemployment benefits; pass Obamacare; reform Wall Street; raise taxes on the rich; and pass several jobs bills. It’s true that this laundry list doesn’t quite have the simple oomph of “Tax cuts will bring the economy roaring back to life!” But it is an economic program, and eventually it got us to where we are today: a pretty good recovery and one that looks like it might be sustainable since it’s not built on the sandy foundations of tax cuts and deficits. Democrats should be louder about demanding more credit for all of this.

Should one take credit for common sense? Perhaps, but the markets responded for the Democrats – the Dow ended over 18,000 for the first time ever, and will stay there for a bit, or move higher. The sour Scrooges were wrong, and there’s this too:

Improving views of the economy have helped hike President Barack Obama’s approval rating to a 20-month high, a new CNN/ORC poll showed Tuesday, as markets climbed to record levels at news of an economy in overdrive.

More Americans still disapprove of the job Obama is doing as President. But at 48%, Obama’s approval rating is at its highest point in CNN polling since May 2013.

The gains were driven by newfound backing among women, independents and millennials – groups where Obama’s approval numbers jumped 10 percentage points from a month ago.

That’s not an outlier either, as according to the latest Washington Post/ABC poll sixty-four percent of the American public supports establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, and even more of them want to get rid of the trade embargo. Maybe all these folks are feeling the Christmas spirit, and by one consent deciding to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys – just Cubans we can start to talk to, and do business with. Marco Rubio, and the rest of the Republicans who are appalled by all of this, are Scrooge, the night before. Obama is Scrooge the morning after, giddy but seeing things clearly, for a change.

That’s cool, but here, Keven Drum isn’t hopeful:

Those are remarkable numbers. Everyone supports an end to the embargo by wide margins, even Republicans. I checked all the other crosstabs, and it turns out that ending the embargo is supported by all parties, all ideologies, all sexes, all ages, all races, all education levels, all incomes, and all regions.

The only subgroup that opposes it – barely – is conservative Republicans, who make up about 17 percent of the population. So naturally that means the embargo will stay in place. It no longer really matters what the other 83 percent of us think.

Yeah, things do work that way. The Scrooges of the world get what they want, and the giddy Scrooge that wakes up on Christmas morning, seeing things entirely differently, is entirely fictional – a bit of wishful thinking on Dickens’ part. Dickens knew better. That was a pleasant fantasy – or maybe it wasn’t. Andrew Sullivan considers what’s really going on here:

There has long been a pattern to Barack Obama’s political career on the national stage. There are moments of soaring moral clarity and inspiration; there are long periods of drift or laziness or passivity; and there are often very good fourth quarters. The 2008 campaign was an almost perfect coda: the sudden initial breakout, then a strange listlessness as he allowed the Clintons to come back in New Hampshire, turning the race into a long and grueling battle for delegates, then a final denouement when he made up with the Clintons and stormed into the White House. Or think of healthcare reform: a clear early gamble, followed by a truly languorous and protracted period of negotiation and posturing, and then a breakthrough. Or marriage equality: an excruciating period of ambivalence followed by a revolution. On climate: a failed cap and trade bill … followed by real tough fuel emissions standards, new carbon rules from the EPA and an agreement with China.

If you were to track this pattern – strong start, weak middle, winning final streak – throughout his entire presidency, you might have expected his worst year to be the one when he was just re-elected and had the wind at his back. And you would be right. 2013 was truly awful. But you’d also expect his final years to be strong. Until recently, much of the Beltway was engaged in a rather sour judgment on this score. He was an anachronism, shellacked for the second time by the midterms, a crippled fowl hobbling toward mediocrity. The future belongs to … Mitch McConnell!

Yeah, well, it’s Christmas, and the sour can become sweet at Christmas:

The latest reports on economic growth suggest that Obama is now presiding over the strongest economy in more than a decade. Back in 2009, this was in no way predictable, or even likely. Compared with America’s international competitors, this is powerful evidence that Obama’s early measures to save the US economy from the abyss were more successful than many will concede. The country, meanwhile, has experienced an energy revolution – a win-win (apart from the planet) which has also given both Putin and Khamenei the collywobbles. Sure, this was not an Obama initiative, but he didn’t get in the way. The potential for solar power has also never seemed brighter.

Crime remains at historic lows; the deficit has been slashed; healthcare costs – the key indicator of future debt – have been falling; inflation remains low; interest rates have not soared as many conservatives predicted; and unemployment is half what he inherited.

And that’s not all:

Millions more have reliable and portable health insurance coverage in a program performing somewhat better than anyone predicted a year ago. Although the right-wing media noise machine has done its best to obscure all of this, it will surely eventually sink in, even though polarization has made big shifts in opinion highly unlikely. And on the politics of it all, Obama’s coalition remains a demographically formidable one as you look ahead. His bold unilateral move on immigration turned out to be a political winner (against my judgment at the time). Latinos, African-Americans, gays, unmarried women all remain a powerful base for the GOP to counter. And Obama’s persona was and is critical to keeping that coalition together.

And that’s not all:

On foreign policy, we end the year with Putin reeling, Netanyahu facing re-election, Syria’s WMDs removed and destroyed, withdrawal from Afghanistan almost completed, and a nuclear deal with Iran still possible. Yes, we have one huge step backward – the decision to re-engage in the sectarian warfare in what remains of Iraq. But so far at least, the engagement has been limited, the Islamic State has been contained, a new Iraqi prime minister holds out more hope than Maliki, and the Kurds and the Shiites have a much better relationship. The new relationship with Cuba is also a mile-stone toward a saner, less ideological foreign policy.

Other than that, his presidency has been a failure, not that there’s not more work to do:

President Barack Obama will use his State of the Union address to roll out an agenda aimed at tackling stagnating wages and helping Americans who feel left out of the economy’s surge, and he’s planning to use the first few weeks of January to travel the country promoting a new economic message.

The White House planning reflects a dilemma for the president on the economy: With the Dow breaking 18,000 on Tuesday, buoyed by the fastest GDP growth in more than a decade, Obama wants to tout the bigger picture successes without looking insensitive to people who are still struggling. Yet he doesn’t want to ignore the bullish data and miss an opportunity to tell the story of the American economic recovery.

Changing Americans’ sense of the economy is Obama’s critical project for the next two years, and he and his aides know it. His own legacy depends on it – neither health care, immigration reform, opening an embassy in Cuba nor anything else is going to add up to much if most people feel like they’re worse off than the day of his inauguration.

Tiny Tim is still hurting, not to beat the metaphor to death. But tomorrow is Christmas Eve. One can hope.

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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.
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2 Responses to Not So Bad After All

  1. Dick Bernard says:

    Back in the day (the 2008 Primary horse race for President), I supported Hillary Clinton because, I reasoned, she had more relevant experience than Senator Obama.
    I’ve been immensely impressed by President Obama ever since.
    My business was union organizing. That was what I did. I didn’t think of it in those terms for the 27 years I did it, but an “organizer” I was. So is President Obama.
    Organizers play with the cards they’re dealt. They have no choice. Their members can fire them, but they can’t fire their members.
    Of necessity, they have no choice but to assess the environment as it is, and by bits and pieces – an idea here; a word there; a bit of standing their ground somewhere else…by bits and pieces stuff starts to happen, and either comes together or falls apart, and they mostly don’t receive credit for the good, but always the blame for the bad. They know the nature of humans, odd as that nature can be.
    Good ones (I think I was, but then, and now, I’m full of self-doubt) manage to steer their small or large “ship of state” in a new or more effective direction. But the operative word is “slight”. There is no “turning on a dime” in organizing; the pace is much more tortoise than hare. From within the rank and file, and not from the person whose picture is in the newsletter.
    The best laid plans can go to hell, and they’ll be blamed if it does, even if they weren’t responsible for the failure. In the worst case scenario, they dust themselves off and start organizing again….
    But some day they look back on what things were like at the beginning, and they can say, as President Obama certainly can (but in a very nuanced way), “this place (the U.S. and world) is a better one for my having been here”.
    Democrat leaders, consistently, seem to have a better sense of organizing than Republicans. Maybe they’re just aware of their own particular headache-inducing reality of leading a party who Will Rogers once so aptly described: “I am not a member of any organized party. I am a Democrat.”
    The idea of a consistent message for Democrats is almost laughable. I know. I’m amongst them every day as an individual citizen.
    Republican leaders, on the other hand, seem adept at offering candy as an alternative to spinach, but in the end tend to come up with neither…and blame their opponent.
    In the end – the next one 2016 – the last remaining verdict will come from those who actually vote in the next election, increasingly the few.
    As a nation, we get what we deserve.
    But the huge numbers who voted for President Obama in 2008 and again in 2012 made a very good choice, and can be thankful he’s at the helm.
    Merry Christmas.

  2. Dick Bernard says:

    PS: Last night, when I was trying to get to sleep, and in a Nyquil-induced fog due to a bad cold, I was listening to one of the MSNBCers – Chris, Rachel or Lawrence – and somebody asked an African-American lady from somewhere, whether it was time for a 2014 version of “The Talk” on race given to the nation by Obama in 2008.

    As I recall – remember I was in a fog – the lady rightly responded that another Talk wasn’t necessary; what would make the difference was action by people everywhere. Spoken like a true organizer.

    Another bit – I think it was Maddow – was about the Ferguson Public Library which heroically stepped up to the plate to do its part to calm the waters in that Missouri community. “How can I help?” communications flooded in and continue. So far, $400,000 in money, but the money is less important than the books and the volunteers who help in the library.

    This is what organizing looks like.

    MLK and his group knew this drill as well.

    I see hope.

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