Alternatives to Anger

Extroverts don’t understand introverts. Free-spirited Greeks and passionate Italians just don’t understand those silent coldblooded Scandinavians, or the ironic Czechs who do no more than smile, knowingly, much less those Keep-Calm-and-Carry-On Brits with their stuff upper lips. That’s what that 1964 movie Zorba the Greek was about – the earthy and impulsive and direct Zorba, played by Anthony Quinn, a Mexican by the way, finally gets the uptight prissy Brit, played by Alan Bates, to loosen up and live life, damn it! This seems to involve a whole lot of male line-dancing to strange bouzouki music in odd tempos, but one can imagine the mirror-opposite movie. That would be the movie where the Brit, a man of discretion and honor, gets the free-spirited Greek to get a grip, and get a job, and get serious about one’s responsibilities in this hard and cruel world – kind of like what the Germans are now trying with the Greeks on economic issues.

That wouldn’t be much fun, but the misunderstanding is universal. On Star Trek, Captain Kirk never did understand Spock – who could never get angry, only more thoughtful and efficient, and even calmer, and then subtlety ironic. That was maddening, and of course that’s what drives everyone on the right, and particularly Rush Limbaugh and his cohorts on talk radio, crazy about Obama. He doesn’t love America!

How do they know? Obama does his job thoughtfully and carefully, and when things get especially tough, he gets even more thoughtful and careful. Disagree with his policies, and the assumptions that underlie them. That’s fine, but faulting Obama for a lack of sufficient overt passion, displayed on cue, seems a bit silly. Why should that be important? And how does anyone know what he “feels” anyway? Some folks like to keep their passions to themselves. They only get in the way of getting the problem solved, so perhaps Zorba was wrong. Greece and Italy are a mess now, aren’t they? Where did their openness and passion get them?

This is the sort of thing that splits liberals and conservatives. Liberals have preferred guys like Adlai Stevenson – the thoughtful and calming egghead who ran for president, and lost twice – all the way through the thoughtful and calming Barack Obama, who won twice. Conservatives seem to prefer the outraged and passionate. Now it’s the Tea Party crowd – all passion and little sense, because passion is what matters. They have a simple question for the rest of America. Aren’t you outraged?

They seem puzzled when they hear the answer from most Americans. No, we’re not particularly outraged. Yes, there are big problems to solve, but outrage, even if justified, won’t solve those problems. Careful thinking and hard work, and folks of all sorts working with each other, will solve those problems. Talk of who loves America, and who doesn’t, won’t. That’s why the polling shows that Congress is now viewed less favorably than root canals, head lice, colonoscopies, traffic jams, cockroaches, Donald Trump, France, Genghis Khan, used-car salesmen and Brussel sprouts. Congress not only gets nothing done, it does it with intense passion. Outrage and anger are not only tiresome, they’ve ruined everything. The public has spoken.

Liberals have long known this, and liberals usually don’t get angry. They don’t even get even. Don’t get angry, get even? What’s the point in that? Solve the problems at hand. Get your folks elected. Solve the problems. That was the dynamic that played out in the 2008 presidential election. McCain was the outraged angry man. Anything would set him off. Sarah Palin was all outrage, without discernable focus, unfortunately. Obama was cool and calm – we can fix this, and we can fix that, so you two rant all you want. If he was angry about anything he kept it to himself. He still does. Anger never did do anyone any good. That’s Tea Party stuff.

That’s why it’s odd that the New York Times’ Paul Krugman has just called for everyone to be angry, and the proximate cause is this:

By now it’s a Republican Party tradition: Every year the party produces a budget that allegedly slashes deficits, but which turns out to contain a trillion-dollar “magic asterisk” – a line that promises huge spending cuts and/or revenue increases, but without explaining where the money is supposed to come from.

But the just-released budgets from the House and Senate majorities break new ground. Each contains not one but two trillion-dollar magic asterisks: one on spending, one on revenue. And that’s actually an understatement. If either budget were to become law, it would leave the federal government several trillion dollars deeper in debt than claimed, and that’s just in the first decade.

You might be tempted to shrug this off, since these budgets will not, in fact, become law. Or you might say that this is what all politicians do. But it isn’t. The modern GOP’s raw fiscal dishonesty is something new in American politics. And that’s telling us something important about what has happened to half of our political spectrum.

Krugman recommends this backgrounder on the magic asterisk on spending and this one on the magic asterisk on revenue – but he’s an economist and likes dense analysis of dry numbers, so he gives us a break, and a quick summary of that raw fiscal dishonesty:

So, about those budgets: both claim drastic reductions in federal spending. Some of those spending reductions are specified: There would be savage cuts in food stamps, similarly savage cuts in Medicaid over and above reversing the recent expansion, and an end to Obamacare’s health insurance subsidies. Rough estimates suggest that either plan would roughly double the number of Americans without health insurance. But both also claim more than a trillion dollars in further cuts to mandatory spending, which would almost surely have to come out of Medicare or Social Security. What form would these further cuts take? We get no hint.

Meanwhile, both budgets call for repeal of the Affordable Care Act, including the taxes that pay for the insurance subsidies. That’s $1 trillion of revenue. Yet both claim to have no effect on tax receipts; somehow, the federal government is supposed to make up for the lost Obamacare revenue. How, exactly? We are, again, given no hint.

And there’s more: The budgets also claim large reductions in spending on other programs. How would these be achieved? You know the answer.

This, then, calls for anger:

It’s very important to realize that this isn’t normal political behavior. The George W. Bush administration was no slouch when it came to deceptive presentation of tax plans, but it was never this blatant. And the Obama administration has been remarkably scrupulous in its fiscal pronouncements.

Okay, I can already hear the snickering, but it’s the simple truth. Remember all the ridicule heaped on the spending projections in the Affordable Care Act? Actual spending is coming in well below expectations, and the Congressional Budget Office has marked its forecast for the next decade down by 20 percent. Remember the jeering when President Obama declared that he would cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term? Well, a sluggish economy delayed things, but only by a year. The deficit in calendar 2013 was less than half its 2009 level, and it has continued to fall.

So, no, outrageous fiscal mendacity is neither historically normal nor bipartisan. It’s a modern Republican thing. And the question we should ask is why.

Why? Krugman offers this:

One answer you sometimes hear is that what Republicans really believe is that tax cuts for the rich would generate a huge boom and a surge in revenue, but they’re afraid that the public won’t find such claims credible – so magic asterisks are really stand-ins for their belief in the magic of supply-side economics, a belief that remains intact even though proponents in that doctrine have been wrong about everything for decades.

But I’m partial to a more cynical explanation. Think about what these budgets would do if you ignore the mysterious trillions in unspecified spending cuts and revenue enhancements. What you’re left with are huge transfers of income from the poor and the working class, who would see severe benefit cuts, to the rich, who would see big tax cuts. And the simplest way to understand these budgets is surely to suppose that they are intended to do what they would, in fact, actually do: make the rich richer and ordinary families poorer.

But this is, of course, not a policy direction the public would support if it were clearly explained. So the budgets must be sold as courageous efforts to eliminate deficits and pay down debt – which means that they must include trillions in imaginary, unexplained savings.

Does this mean that all those politicians declaiming about the evils of budget deficits and their determination to end the scourge of debt were never sincere? Yes, it does.

If so, only one response is appropriate:

Look, I know that it’s hard to keep up the outrage after so many years of fiscal fraudulence. But please try. We’re looking at an enormous, destructive con job, and you should be very, very angry.

The blogger Zandar, at Balloon Juice (a counter to the hard-right site Hot Air) is fine with anger:

Well, the “why” part seems pretty obvious. “Break the government, and then blame the government for being broken” has been the game at least since Reagan, and the solution is always to take a larger hammer to the federal machinery. Rolling back everything since the New Deal seems pretty much par for the course for these guys, if not cynically burning out the last of America’s consumerist resources before going on to new markets in China and India to exploit. It’s always been about pillaging the treasury and setting the place on fire on the way out the door. …

And our problem is that we’re always finding new and exciting ways to direct that outrage at President Obama and the Democrats rather than the Republicans trying to talk us into self-immolation.

Digby (Heather Parton) digs a bit deeper than that:

It must be springtime since all of the Village is once again excitedly poring over the Republican budget plan. As usual they are searching for reasons to praise its responsible agenda of slashing benefits for poor, old and sick people in order that we all be forced to “take our medicine” and recognize that “we are all going to have to sacrifice.” (Of course the millionaire celebrities who are saying won’t feel any pain, but you can be sure they have your best interests at heart.)

In years past, the star of the show was Very Serious Person, Paul Ryan, the Republican budget savant who everyone agreed was so spectacularly serious that even though his budget numbers never added up, he was still worthy of deep respect and rapt attention just because he was so darned… serious.

No, really, and she recommends this 2012 piece by William Saletan to show what she means:

Ryan is a real fiscal conservative. He isn’t just another Tea-Party ideologue spouting dogma about less government and the magic of free enterprise. He has actually crunched the numbers and laid out long-term budget proposals.

Even back then Paul Krugman was astounded by that:

Look, Ryan hasn’t “crunched the numbers”; he has just scribbled some stuff down, without checking at all to see if it makes sense. He asserts that he can cut taxes without net loss of revenue by closing unspecified loopholes; he asserts that he can cut discretionary spending to levels not seen since Calvin Coolidge, without saying how; he asserts that he can convert Medicare to a voucher system, with much lower spending than now projected, without even a hint of how this is supposed to work. This is just a fantasy, not a serious policy proposal. So why does Saletan believe otherwise? Has he crunched the numbers himself? Of course not. What he’s doing – and what the whole Beltway media crowd has done – is to slot Ryan into a role someone is supposed to be playing in their political play, that of the thoughtful, serious conservative wonk. In reality, Ryan is nothing like that; he’s a hard-core conservative, with a voting record as far right as Michelle Bachman’s, who has shown no competence at all on the numbers thing.

What Ryan is good at is exploiting the willful gullibility of the Beltway media, using a soft-focus style to play into their desire to have a conservative wonk they can say nice things about. And apparently the trick still works.

Digby sees it still working:

For years, no matter how tragically misguided the proposed tax cuts for the rich and benefits cuts for the poor and whatever hare-brained “reforms” he pretended to propose the commentariat acted as if the yearly Republican budget had been delivered directly from Mt Sinai. This year proves that they will greet every braindead, extremist GOP budget with similar excitement regardless of Ryan’s involvement. The 2015 Budget Committee proposal under the new chairman Tom Price, for instance, has garnered tremendous coverage even as it’s acknowledged by everyone that it has as much chance of passing as a ban on flying American flags at political events.

After much hemming and hawing and jockeying between the defense hawks and the fiscal hawks with the Tea Party vultures pacing around with a ravenous look in their eyes, the House GOP budget committee finally managed to pass a document. Passing the budget in the full House and then coming together with the Senate in reconciliation is a long shot to say the least, despite the fact that they are promising to lard the reconciliation process with as many offensive proposals as they can muster. It would be entertaining if it weren’t such a stale and boring storyline by now. But the beltway wags can’t stop themselves from writing breathless story after breathless story, even as they acknowledge that the budget features draconian cuts to necessary services has little chance of passage and no chance of being signed by the president. The fact that the numbers never add up is barely mentioned.

She seems beyond anger now and into bitter resignation, but she does note that every year the Congressional Progressive Caucus releases what they call The People’s Budget – with numbers that actually add up, that also reduce the deficit reduction and offer protection for “the most vulnerable” – all paid for by higher taxes on the wealthiest folks, and cites Katrina vanden Heuvel describing it in the Washington Post:

On the investment side, the CPC expands investments in areas vital to our future. It would rebuild America, modernizing our outmoded infrastructure. It would invest to lead the green industrial revolution that is already forging markets and creating jobs across the globe.

The CPC understands that we must do the basics in education. It would provide pre-K for every child, the most important single reform we can make in education. It calls for increasing investment in our public schools, helping to mitigate the destructive inequality between rich districts and poor. It would provide students with four years of debt-free college education, and pay for renegotiating existing student loans, relieving the burden now crushing an entire generation.

The CPC recognizes that more seniors are facing a retirement crisis. On budget, it would adopt an inflation measure for Social Security that reflects the rising costs seniors face in areas like health care. Off budget, the CPC calls for expanded Social Security benefits, paid for by lifting the income cap on Social Security payroll contributions. No longer would Donald Trump pay a lower rate in Social Security taxes than the police who guard his palaces.

The CPC would also expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, giving a break to low-wage workers and to parents struggling with the costs of childcare. And needless to say, the CPC would defend Medicare and Medicaid, not privatize it, and strengthen health-care reform, not eliminate it.

Digby adds this:

With the exception of a few scattered liberal writers, that proposal might as well have been released underwater for all the attention it gets. If it is mentioned by the mainstream cognoscenti it’s usually accompanied by eye-rolling and barely suppressed giggles as if this proposal was found on the back cover of Angela Davis’s copy of Das Kapital. Meanwhile, the dead-on-arrival GOP slash-and-burn budget is discussed endlessly on every cable network.

That’s something to be angry about, and there’s Paul Waldman with this:

Today, the Economic Policy Institute – a liberal think tank that gets support from labor unions – released an 11-point “Agenda to Raise America’s Pay,” and it’s worth paying attention to because something like it will probably become Hillary Clinton’s economic plan. Conservatives would probably look at it and say this is the same old thing: Increase the minimum wage, lower barriers to collective bargaining, invest in infrastructure, reform immigration, raise taxes on the wealthy, and so on. … But the fact that many of these ideas are familiar doesn’t diminish the degree to which they’re both popular and aimed directly at income inequality. And some of the proposals, such as increasing the availability of overtime pay and sick leave, or encouraging the Fed to prioritize lowering unemployment over protecting against future inflation, haven’t been as commonly discussed among regular people sitting around kitchen tables.

Digby:

It’s doubtful that most Americans have discussed more than a few high profile proposals like the minimum wage at the dinner table. Why would they? The media never mentions them. Now, if Clinton wins the nomination and does adopt this agenda as her own, they will certainly get more play. But it starts at a disadvantage compared to the GOP budget plans because people have heard all these conservative proposals again and again being discussed respectfully in the media while the liberal agenda sounds like something jarring and odd.

The People’s Budget and the Agenda to Raise America’s Pay are mainstream programs that would be eminently achievable if the Republicans and the moneyed elites would allow taxes on the people who are reaping all the benefits in this economy to be raised to a level that makes sense. They do not need all the money, they really don’t. If they are taxed at the rates people of vast wealth have historically been taxed they will still have vast wealth. But this is considered crazy talk in the political world.

Perhaps Krugman is asking everyone to be angry at the wrong thing. Don’t be angry at these two Republican budgets. Be angry that they’re the only ideas being taken seriously – or don’t be angry at all. Be calm. Be cool. Be ironic if that’s your thing. But get your own ideas out there. Make the other guys angry. They’re good at it, and it will sink them. Everyone is tired of righteous anger now. And that Zorba fellow was a real loser, by the way.

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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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One Response to Alternatives to Anger

  1. Rick says:

    Once again, various observations, starting with Zandar at Balloon Juice:

    Rolling back everything since the New Deal seems pretty much par for the course for these guys, if not cynically burning out the last of America’s consumerist resources before going on to new markets in China and India to exploit. It’s always been about pillaging the treasury and setting the place on fire on the way out the door.

    That may sound extreme, but he’s actually mostly spot on.

    You’d think most Republican voters (and by that I mean, them that aren’t robber barons), along with Independents, would realize sooner or later that so-called “fiscal conservative” policies are destroying our home economy. But in fact, at least the very very rich apparently don’t care if they’re paying their workers enough to buy their products, since, first of all, they’re making out like bandits even with a sub-par economy, and second of all, once this field is played out, they know they can just move on to more fruitful pastures overseas. Of course, the whole world could eventually go barren in the process, but by the time that happens, it will be their offspring’s worry.

    After all, in the words of John Maynard Keynes, “In the long run, we are all dead.” (Not that any of these guys are Keynesians, mind you.)

    ———-
    Digby contemplates the dilemma of how to get the word out on those liberal budget proposals:

    If it is mentioned by the mainstream cognoscenti it’s usually accompanied by eye-rolling and barely suppressed giggles as if this proposal was found on the back cover of Angela Davis’s copy of Das Kapital. Meanwhile, the dead-on-arrival GOP slash-and-burn budget is discussed endlessly on every cable network.

    But the main difference between their budgets and our budgets is that theirs enjoy the advantage of having passed through the legislative process, which pretty much compels pundits to weigh in.

    Since journalists don’t like to be proactive in suggesting topics worthy of discussion, preferring instead to take their cues from the so-called “real” world, it might help if House and Senate Democrats tried to somehow force a vote on either or both the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ and the Economic Policy Institute’s budget, the failed attempts at which might just cause enough fuss to get noticed.

    But if Democrats can’t persuade some network news show or other to discuss these, they have to somehow find a way to get these budgets into the news.

    ———-
    And it almost looks like Krugman took inspiration from my comment from the other day (although he rightly substituted “magic asterisks” for my “perpetual motion machine”), which says to me that I was probably right!

    Although I do have a slight difference of opinion with Krugman on this:

    What you’re left with are huge transfers of income from the poor and the working class, who would see severe benefit cuts, to the rich, who would see big tax cuts. And the simplest way to understand these budgets is surely to suppose that they are intended to do what they would, in fact, actually do: make the rich richer and ordinary families poorer.

    Not that I don’t agree with him that these parts of the Republican budgets are bad, it’s just that I have a hard time seeing cuts in benefits to the poor and tax cuts for the rich as “transfers of income” from the poor to the rich.

    But yes, there’s always some transfer (a.k.a., “redistribution”) of income that is inevitably part of any government social program that attempts to reinsert some balance into the economy, after those who “own” the means of sucking value from their surroundings try to hoard too much of it, keeping it out of the hungry reach of those they hired to do their dirty work. But I’d say it’s a stretch to claim that, after those reform programs are put into place, any attempt by counter-reformers to either cut back or abolish them is a “transfer of income from the poor and the working class to the rich”.

    Still, it wouldn’t be out of line to call that original rich-folk “hoarding” an unjust “transfer of wealth”, to begin with. Just because you’re strong enough to get away with it doesn’t make it right, especially if your “strength” is bought with wealth you “liberated” from your victims.

    But if you’re one of those people that believes the fact that the richest people in America are that rich because they “earned it”, or even that it’s a mere coincidence, then I’m about to piss you off by calling you “naive”. (I know this, because it always pisses me off when someone calls me naive.) Robber barons get rich because the economy gets knocked out of kilter, and just as when the tires on your car get out of balance, things get out of balance because of human neglect, not because both God and Mother Nature prefer it that way.

    And so the solution to this problem just might be the liberal complement to that old well-worn conservative maxim:

    “If it’s broke, fix it!”

    Rick

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