This Week in Looming Disaster
The American economy (and therefore, really, the global economy) has been in danger of collapse way too often lately. In the fall of 2008 we were poised on the brink of real disaster, and only swift action on the part of the Bush administration, the Treasury Department, and the Fed (action carried through by the incoming Obama adminstration in 2009) pulled us back. In 2011, the Republican threat to default on our debt again put us in jeopardy, but they gave up their hostage before the worst damage was done (not all the damage--the markets took a serious hit just from the threat, and unemployment numbers jumped, slowing the recovery and genuinely hurting American families).
Now it's 2013. The Tea Party wave of 2010 put a lot of people into Congress who had no experience with governing--with the give-and-take, the compromise, that are the building blocks of our multilayered system of government. Many of these people are stridently, adamantly opposed to any compromise*. They, and their base, want to cut government spending, period. Never mind that they're fighting on behalf of an economic philosophy that has been shown, time and again, not to work in the real world--tax cuts and financial industry deregulation were two of the main reasons for the 2008 crash, and they're not the prescription for getting out of the hole they dug. And our economy, 71% of which is driven by consumer spending, is highly dependent on a strong middle class. That means we need continued employment growth, and well-paying jobs for middle class families. Spending cuts, tax cuts, and deregulation don't get us there.**
But they're married to their ideology. Rand Paul***, one of the movement's figureheads, subscribes to the theories of the Austrian economists (as he understands them). If those policies had been applied in 2008, they would have led to the worst possible outcome, with bank runs and panic in the streets and a real depression instead of just a bad recession, because the Austrians believe that monetary policy and government intervention can't affect economic cycles. (His father Ron Paul wanted to abolish the Fed, which is one of the only institutions, since Congress is so dysfunctional, that has kept the economy on the right track these past few years.) Doing nothing at that time would have been catastrophic. The history is recent, and we know what worked. Likewise, we know what doesn't work. But for some, radical ideology trumps history, and the forces that advocated for inaction then wield considerable power now.
And they want the hostage again. Some of them want to shut down the government in a misguided attempt to deny millions of Americans health insurance (which won't, even their leaders admit, actually block Obamacare from being implemented). Some want to crash the debt ceiling, causing the country to default on obligations we've already racked up.
We don't know yet. All indications are that a lot of them do, though. Whether they'll succeed or not is the great worry of this autumn. Because if they crash the economy over their failed ideology, we could yet see the bread lines and bank runs and high-rise suicide leaps we so narrowly averted before.
This truly is scary.
*Side Note 1: Don't take our word for it. In a letter to very conservative Senator Lamarr Alexander (R/TN), a coalition of Tea Party groups wrote, "Unfortunately, our great nation can no longer afford compromise and bipartisanship, two traits for which you have become famous." To which I can only respond, if you actually honor the Constitution and the intent of the Founding Fathers, then you have to embrace compromise and bipartisanship. Our tripartite system of government, with the legislative branch divided into two separate bodies, was literally fashioned in that way to make compromise necessary. Republicans control one of those bodies, but not the other--without compromise, they are worse than useless; they cost the nation in time and treasure and prestige. They have it backward--we can't afford legislators who won't compromise.
**Side Note 2: For a contemporary, real-world example, just look at the Eurozone, where austerity measures like those recommended by virtually every Republican politician since Barack Obama took office (before that they all had stimulus plans, after that they all hated stimulus) sent Europe into a double-dip recession while our economy was slowly but steadily improving. Spending cuts don't fix recessions, they deepen them.
***Side Note 3: The latest addition to the growing list of policy matters Rand Paul doesn't understand is the problem of racially motivated voter suppression.
This Week in Social Mobility
People in Canada and Australia, as well as in several Northern European countries, have about twice the social/economic mobility today as Americans. That means people born in poverty here have a much harder time getting out of poverty than in other countries. The American Dream used to mean everybody had a shot, but that shot is getting harder and harder.
What connects this story to the previous one is the sad fact that this isn't accidental--it's an unintended consequence, but of very deliberate public policy choices.
Since the Reagan administration, we have--under Republican and Democratic administrations and control of Congress--been engaged in social engineering that redistributes wealth from those who can least afford it to those who least need it--from the poor and lower middle class* to the wealthy. This has been done through tax policy, through spending decisions, through public priorities. We spend less on educating the children of the poor than we do on educating those of the rich, with predictable results. The better health care facilities are found in wealthier areas, and the wealthy have better insurance, leading to better prenatal care, better health outcomes, and so on. Businesses in wealthier areas pay employees better (but still, not always enough that their employees can afford to live where they work). Virtually every advantage goes to those who already have the advantages.
This is not a Republican vs. Democratic thing, nor is it an attack on the rich for being rich. It's a fact of American life in the 21st century. Democrat Bill Clinton, after all, signed the repeal of Glass-Steagall, which gave big banks the freedom to take the deposits of regular Americans--people who live in the "real" economy--and use them to play in the rarified atmosphere of the Wall Street economy. Larry Summers, who has been one of Obama's chief economic policy advisors, was instrumental in that decision and in other financial industry deregulation. The history of the Clinton economy is clear--those were boom years, with a budget surplus and many people, at all levels of society, doing well. The rich did very well, as they do whenever the middle class is strong and healthy. But that pattern of deregulation, beginning under Reagan, then Bush, then Clinton, then the other Bush, set the table for the collapse of 2008.
Here's the key fact--elected officials listen to the rich. The poor have no lobbyists, and whatever special interest groups take up their cause are largely ineffectual. Money buys access and influence. The more expensive campaigns become (and they have become very pricey indeed, even before the Citizens United ruling), the more politicians of both parties look to the wealthy to fund their races. Democrats are just as beholden to the wealthy, to those Wall Street milionaires and billionaires created by deregulation, as Republicans are. Both parties love the rich (though the Obama campaign of 2012 perfected a method of scoring small online donations of around $3.00 from millions and millions of people--in theory giving those people a voice, except that they don't speak with one voice and don't have organizations or lobbyists to speak for them), because the rich put them in office and keep them there.
But the result of policies that make the rich richer at the expense of the rest of us is ever-greater income inequality. Which is bad for the economy as a whole (and even bad for the rich, though at the same time this has been happening, the economy has become much more globally interconnected, giving the rich and the corporate world more potential customers and income streams to make up for the fact that the American middle class can no longer afford to spend as much on goods and services as they once did. The result is that the rich don't feel the immediate pain of a worsening economy--they just shift more of their focus overseas, and park more of their gains overseas, exacerbating the problem all the more).
Income inequality has always been bad for economies--look at how the Gilded Age led into the Great Depression. Same thing with the Great Recession. We have an economy dependent upon middle class spending. When they can't spend, the economy tanks. The recession was more complicated than that, but again largely tied to Wall Street playing risky games with the mortgages and bank accounts of regular folks. The recovery, on the other hand, has been great for those Wall Street types (most of Obama's recovery efforts, especially at the beginning, were focused in their direction, and they've made out like kings while the rest of us waited for our turn). But the real economy needs middle class spending, so recovery for us has been much slower than we'd like. Also making the problem worse is that the rich and big corporations are hoarding cash instead of spending it (an option that doesn't exist for the middle class and the poor, who tend to spend what they get).
So we--through our voting decisions, through public policy made by the people we've chosen to represent us, Democrat and Republican alike--have done this to ourselves. Both parties cater to the rich. The partisan difference is that Democrats would like to address the problems resulting from that catering, beginning a mild corrective redistribution from the rich to the poor, while today's Republicans denounce that as "class warfare" and seem to believe that the problems arising from income inequality and the lack of social mobility are fictional. They're not. In the past, some Republicans have understood this--Jack Kemp is just one notable example. But moderate elected Republicans are a nearly extinct species, and the radicals controlling the party now are ever more determined to keep the nation's wealth flowing in just one direction.
That's not healthy for the American economy. It's not healthy for American families. It's a decades-long trend that needs to be reversed--not just to keep the American Dream alive for all of us, but for the long-term economic security of everyone, rich and poor and in between.
*Side Note: In Iowa this week, once and future presidential candidate Rick Santorum said, "Don't use the term the other side uses. What does Barack Obama talk about all the time? The middle class. Since when in America do we have classes? Since when in America are people stuck in areas or defined places called a class? That's Marxism talk." Which really should disqualify Rick Santorum from taking part in any debate on the American future, since he is so clearly out of touch with reality. We do have classes. We always have. And they are becoming ever more distinct, more divided from one another.
This Week in the States
Professionally political Republicans know that their chances of winning national elections are slender at best--they continue to alienate racial minorities (which are becoming less "minor" and closer to "major" all the time), students, women, and the elderly, and they focus their campaigns on middle-aged white men while focusing their policies on improving the financial lot of the wealthy. If they run Governor Chris Christie, they might have a shot in 2016, but he's not popular with the base because he doesn't burn with the appropriate hatred for President Obama.
But what those professionals also know is that the presidency doesn't matter so much if they can win in the states. They've been able to enact their priorities across vast swaths of the country these last few years, despite a Democratic presidency and Senate. The latest fundraising figures are in, and the Republican Governors Association (thanks largely to donations from a handful of very, very rich guys) are way outraising the Democratic Governors Association, $25 million to 13.4 million.
What happens in the states matters a lot...as, for instance, North Carolina's "abominable" new anti-voting law demonstrates.
This Week in Science
One of the things government ordinarily does well is fund scientific research. Business does it too, but business is less inclined to support pure research projects, preferring instead projects that will fairly immediately turn a profit. Government is free from that consideration, and can therefore do things like sending people to the moon and rovers to Mars (and private industry profits handsomely by developing different applications for the breakthroughs made by the public sector--witness, for example, Google and Facebook and Amazon, none of which would exist if the government had not, through ARPANET and the National Science Foundation, invented and built the internet).
But sequestration is slashing research budgets across the country. America has long been the world's leader in research and discovery, and all Americans have benefited from that--from cancer and heart attack survivors to computer users to corporate CEOs. Unless we turn off the sequester--which could be easily done in a couple of lines of legislation--we run the risk of losing that position for a generation or more. We need to look ahead, beyond this month and this year (and, for so many elected representatives in the House, looking beyond the current two-year election cycle seems impossible), and think about what we want America to be. Will we remain a great country, a place of innovation and opportunity? Or would we rather be small and backward, hopping into an empty boxcar when the railroad bulls aren't looking, instead of being the engine that pulls the train?
I know which I'd prefer.
This Week in It's About Time
The Pentagon will make same-sex spouses of legally married military personnal eligible for benefits beginning on September 3. And if they can't get legally married in the state they're in, they can get up to 10 days leave so they can get married somewhere else. This is another way of ensuring that our military remains the world's best, as opposed to just a few years ago when qualified, trained, professionals had to leave its ranks when it was discovered that they didn't love according to somebody else's guidelines. My only caveat is that if same-sex couples get 10 days leave, then opposite-sex couples should, too. I get that they don't have to leave the state to be married, but it smacks of preferential treatment for one group, which the military generally tries to avoid, and rightly so.
This Week in Flying Dogs
For Mitt Romney, it was the story of Seamus, the dog on the station wagon roof, that got him in trouble. At least in that case, though the story might have been overblown, it was something that had actually happened. This time, the right-wing blogosphere is up in arms over stories that Bo, the Obama family dog, traveled alone on a very expensive Osprey helicopter to join the clan on their Martha's Vineyard vacation (many, as predicted here a couple of weeks ago, are also blasting the vacation itself, apparently forgetting that compared to President Obama's 95 vacation days total so far, George W. Bush had taken well over 300 vacation days (399 by some counts--either way, shattering all records for presidential vacation time) by this point in his presidency. Also forgotten in the ruckus is the fact that the presidency is a stressful job, and anything that lets the president unwind a little is doubtless a very good thing).
The truth, of course, is very different. Bo arrived via Osprey helicopter, it's true, but not alone--he came with members of the White House staff, the media, and the Secret Service. All of whom, since a president is never truly off the clock, are absolutely necessary. (And yes, there were two Ospreys--the USMC's standard protocol is that whenever the president travels by chopper, at least two, and sometimes as many as five, identical helicopters take off to disguise which one is carrying the president.)
So settle down, right-wing punditry. Let the man and his family take a break. Soon enough, you can go back to slamming him over actual policy matters.
This Week in Really, Truly Insane
Back in February, I wrote a post defending writer Orson Scott Card, who wanted to write a Superman comic book story. I disagree with Card on just about everything, but I don't think a writer's social and political views should enter into the discussion about whether he can tell a good story.
Likewise, Card has every right to post the most insane nonsense I've seen in years, from anybody, of any political stripe. Yes, toward the end he tries to tell us he's engaging in "fictional thinking." But the guy is way off the deep end, here. Get help, Scott. (Also, Card posted this craziness in May, but we here at TWiA World Headquarters don't follow his postings, so we didn't know about it until Dave Weigel mentioned it.)
Also truly insane this week, right-wing radio host Brian Fischer.
Also, too, George Will.
Realistically, any president hated by this trio must be doing a pretty good job.
This Week in Hypocrisy
Oh, Arizona Republicans... Both Republican Senators from TWiA's home state of AZ, John McCain and Jeff Flake, along with AZ's Rep. Paul Gosar, voted against emergency relief funds after Hurricane Sandy devastated the east coast. Now they're all complaining that the feds aren't ponying up emergency funds for communities affected by Arizona wildfires, even though the damage to homes and other structures was not even in the same continent, much less the same ball park.
Side Note: Rep. Gosar, a climate science denier, doesn't think climate change has anything to do with the fact that our climate's been changing and wildfires are (as predicted) becoming more intense and destructive. No, Gosar blames environmentalist groups for that. Genius...
This Week in Typos
We all make them, but sometimes they're more ironic than others. Take, for example, Virginia Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli's tweet: "My #1 goal is to secure VA's economic future, including for our children & that beings with education: http://buff.ly/1eHkFgF #VAGov"
This Week in Geography
MSNBC puts up a map of President Obama's forthcoming bus tour, and gets literally every single city in the wrong place. Smooth.
This Week in Gun Safety
What does $1 million in firearms and ammunition look like, anyway? And if you've got all that around the house, do you really have to hire a hitman to kill your family?
This Week in Awesome
Photo via the Smithsonian