TWiA explores the intersection of policy and politics, and most importantly, how that intersection affects real people. It's dedicated to the proposition that good government is possible, it matters, and taxpayers deserve nothing less. Its starting point is that facts are facts, science is real, data are real, and we can and must learn from history. Below you'll find facts and opinions that derive from fact, informed by a close and careful study of these issues that began in 1968 and has never stopped. Note, when we discuss generic "Democrats" and "Republicans" or "conservatives" and "liberals," etc., we're talking about elected officials, unless otherwise noted. Also, bonus bear news and other awesomeness. We appreciate comments and arguments, so please chime in, and if you like it, spread the word.
This Week in Investment
One of government's key roles in promoting a strong economy for the nation--and yes, despite conservative naysaying, government does, and rightly so, have such roles--is public investment. As just a few well-known examples, government spending launched the first linked network that became the internet, and then helped it spread from just something connecting one university to another to the vast web we know today. The economic benefits that have flowed from the internet have enhanced the lives of millions--possibly billions--around the globe and here at home. The space program, too, was entirely government funded and government run, and yielded technological innovations that are still paying benefits today. Finally, America's public school system has educated generations of children, providing them a strong foundation for our economic growth and advancement.
The other thing conservatives like to complain about is "runaway spending." They're constantly trying to reduce or eliminate spending on the kinds of public investments that create the conditions for an economically sound, technologically competitive future (and although the economy is picking up speed, conservative austerity measures are demonstrably holding the recovery back).
They're wrong. Spending on public investment has been shrinking, not growing, for decades. According to the New York Times:
"President Bill Clinton, too, saw public investment in areas like education and transportation as critical to lifting the stagnation in middle-class living standards that began in the 1970s. Adjusted for inflation, the $283 billion in federal investments in 2000, Mr. Clinton’s last full year in office, was $6 billion lower than it was in the last year of his predecessor, President George H.W. Bush.
“'It has not been possible to significantly shift the needle,' said Laura D’Andrea Tyson, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who headed Mr. Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers. 'We should be raising those levels, and we’re not.
“'I guess the good news,' Ms. Tyson added, 'is that the share hasn’t been plummeting.'
"Over the last half-century, though, it has plummeted. Spending on what the federal government classifies as investments peaked in 1968 at 6.6 percent of the economy, twice the current proportion."
The conservative approach has, by and large, won this war--much to the detriment of the American economy, which still struggles to recover from recession and is finding itself mired in a situation where the new jobs available don't pay as well as the ones that were lost. We should have kept public investment steady, at worst, and at best continued to grow it. Other economies are passing us by in important ways. The conservative philosophy runs counter to the ideas that made the last century "The American Century," and threaten to make this one the century in which the US becomes a bystander to progress instead of a leader.
Side Note: We'd have more to invest if Congress would act quickly on Rep. Jason Chaffetz's (R/UT) proposal to strip the obviously for-profit NFL and NHL of the tax-exempt status they don't deserve: $109 million in new revenue over 10 years, the congressman estimates. Trouble is, Chaffetz wants the result to be "revenue neutral"--in other words, he wants to find some other millionaires to give the money to--which is a bad idea. We need revenue. If Republicans were genuinely worried about the deficit, they'd let us raise some.
This Week in Stagnation
Speaking of the recession, an important new paper shows that a major reason for the slow recovery (as we've reported week after week) is the financial chasm in American life between the very rich and everbody else.
"Consumer spending, which drives 70 percent of the U.S. economy, dropped sharply during the recession. And while it has picked back up in the years since for the top 5 percent of wage earners — which the Census Bureau defines as households making more than $166,000 a year — 'there is no evidence of a recovery whatsoever for the bottom 95 percent,' Fazzari said.
"The paper makes its case by examining the connection between consumer debt, household spending and rising inequality.
"For two decades after 1960, real incomes of the top 5 percent and the remaining 95 percent increased at almost the same rate: 4 percent a year for those at the top, and 3.9 percent for everyone else. But incomes diverged between 1980 and 2007, with those at the bottom seeing annual increases of 2.6 percent, while income growth for the top 5 percent accelerated to 5 percent a year."
The rich are spending money, but they don't spend enough to keep the economy growing. The engine of our economy for most of the past century was a vital middle class. Now that middle class has been squeezed so hard they don't have the money to spend, and as the weak recovery continues to create more low-paying jobs than middle class jobs--in large part due to the lack of public investment described above--growth is anemic at best.
We need economic investment in the country's future. We need public policies that promote a strong middle class, rather than shrinking it. And we need two political parties that both understand the basics of Economics 101. The Republican one-size-fits-all panacea--cutting taxes, cutting spending, and deregulation--is not economic science but magical thinking, and the only effect it's ever had on recessions or depressions is to create or lengthen them.
Side Note: Here are 17 charts that describe/explain the economic inequality we're experiencing today and why it's a problem (especially for women, and even more for women of color).
This Week in Memory
Senator Rand Paul (R/KY) keeps adding to the very, very long list of things he doesn't understand. Now he's demonstrating forgetfulness and lack of understanding at the same time. This week, on Meet the Press, Paul said, "Well, you know, I mean, the Democrats, one of their big issues is they have concocted and said Republicans are committing a war on women. One of the workplace laws and rules that I think are good is that bosses shouldn't prey on young interns in their office.
"And I think really the media seems to have given President Clinton a pass on this. He took advantage of a girl that was 20 years old and an intern in his office. There is no excuse for that, and that is predatory behavior, and it should be something we shouldn't want to associate with people who would take advantage of a young girl in his office.
"This isn't having an affair. I mean, this isn't me saying, 'Oh, he's had an affair, we shouldn't talk to him.' Someone who takes advantage of a young girl in their office? I mean, really. And then they have the gall to stand up and say, 'Republicans are having a war on women'?"
For Paul to pretend that the media didn't thoroughly roast Bill Clinton over Monica Lewsinsky is absurd. The media had a field day with it. They didn't give him a pass, they tried to tear him apart. So did Congress, but maybe Sen. Paul forgets that whole impeachment thing.
The bigger issue, though, is that Paul completely misunderstands the "war on women" concept. He points to an example of an individual who behaved badly, and says, "There's your war on women." But those who argue that there's a Republican war on women are talking about policy matters, not individual behavior (there are plenty of Republicans who behave badly toward women on a personal level). They're talking about opposing pay equity for women. They're talking about opposing an increase in the minimum wage, which would predominantly affect women. They're talking about closing health clinics that provide a wide range of necessary services to women of limited means (the same ones, in many cases, who would benefit from that minimum wage increase). They're talking about restricting reproductive rights, when the ability to control one's reproduction is an important component in a woman's financial security. They're talking about forcing women to undergo unnecessary, invasive medical procedures for purely political reasons. They're talking about prominent Republicans saying that rape really isn't all that bad, or if it is, well, God wanted it to happen. They're talking about prominent Republican pundits claiming that a woman is a "prostitute" if she thinks health insurance policies should cover birth control, and once and possibly future presidential candidates like Mike Huckabee saying that Democrats claim women want "a prescription each month for birth control because they cannot control their libido or their reproductive system without the help of the government."
All week long, Paul doubled down on his nonsensical attack. He can point at Bill Clinton's two-decades-old bad behavior all he wants, but it doesn't take away from the fact that the real issue is his party consistently promoting policies that are damaging to women is. It's a pity (but not a surprise) that the senator doesn't understand that.
Side Note 1: Sen. Paul's misunderstanding of everything related to his job includes the US Constitution, in particular the Second Amendment. In breathless, and utterly nonsensical, prose, legislation Paul is proposing is described thusly:
"Have you ever wondered why you can't pull your pickup truck into the parking lot of the Gillette, Wyoming, post office, go in, and mail a letter -- without giving up your Second Amendment rights?
"The answer is that a bunch of gun-hating legislators -- who are terrified of the very thought of guns -- slammed through a law prohibiting guns in any federal facility.
"But the good news is this: On Wednesday, January 29, Senator Rand Paul will offer an amendment, in committee, to the Postal Reform Act (S. 1486).
"The amendment will allow you to drive into a post office parking lot with your gun, and will allow you to carry it into the post office, to the extent state law would allow you to carry that firearm in any other venue."
A little context, here. In the late 1980s through about 1996, post offices were the sites of a series of workplace massacres--so much so that the phrase "going postal" entered the lexicon. Through a number of measures, including bringing in psychological counselors trained in recognizing people with potentially violent mental disorders, the massacres died down, and postal employees could once again feel safe in their own workplaces.
Still, the last thing a postal employee wants to see walking through the front door is somebody with a gun. And because those massacres are a thing of the past, there's no reason anyone should feel the need to be armed inside a post office (not that armed civilians have ever been effective at stopping active shooters).
Any reading of the Second Amendment that allows a person to think it says that anybody should be able to carry their gun inside any government building is so far off the mark that the mark can't even be seen from there. Even Justice Antonin Scalia, writing the Supreme Court's majority opininon in the District of Columbia v. Heller case (the decision that enshrined the right for private citizens to own firearms without belonging to any organized militia), wrote that guns could properly be banned from government buildings and other public places.
Sen. Paul's legislation will never pass the Senate, and if it did it would never survive a veto. Which is as it should be. For even bringing it up, for demonstrating that he has, apparently, never so much as skimmed the Bill of Rights, Sen. Paul should be deeply embarrassed. And we hope everyone in Kentucky who voted to send him to Washington--unless, you know, they just wanted him the hell out of Kentucky--is equally embarrassed. It's hard to remember a worse or more foolish United States senator.
Side Note 2: A few weeks ago we reported on Rand Paul's complaint about NSA data mining, and how it was really nothing more than an excuse to mine some data himself, for campaign purposes (the lawsuit he promised still has not come to pass; we doubt that it ever will). He's not alone in wanting to amass a big mailing list, of course--politicians and interest groups do it all the time. But some of his Republican brethren have taken theirs to new lows, including 2012 presidential hopeful Herman Cain using his to hock ED remedies. According to this New Republic piece, "Newt Gingrich now pings the e-mail subscribers to his Gingrich Productions with messages from an investment firm formed by a conspiracy theorist successfully sued for fraud by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Mike Huckabee uses his own production company’s list to blast out links to heart-disease fixes and can’t-miss annuities."
Some people are just immune to shame.
This Week in Health Care
For years now, Republicans have chanted the "repeal and replace" mantra regarding the Affordable Care Act, without ever describing what they'd replace it with. Now, finally, they have unveiled a plan. Trouble is, if the ACA were repealed and replaced with their plan, millions of Americans who just got health insurance would lose it. Millions more who get health insurance through employers would find that their plans had disappeared (just like some did under the ACA, and some do every year when insurers revamp their offerings), or that employers would stop offering them (since one of the major incentives to do so is gone), or that their taxes would go up substantially.
So Republicans are offering a plan that has the same disadvantages as the ACA (though new rules have patched over one of those main problems), and some all-new ones, including "the biggest tax increase on the middle class" in decades. Good job, GOP. Let's stick with what we've got.
Side Note 1: In the Republican rebuttal to the SOTU, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers (R/WA) told the sad story of "Bette in Spokane," whose insurance costs were skyrocketing due to the ACA. Only thing is, no they're not. She had a terrible insurance plan before, covering only four doctor visits a year and catastrophic coverage, with a $10,000 deductible. The company told her it was cancelling that plan, and offered its own substitute plans. The one she told Rep. Rogers about was the second priciest of those. She hadn't shopped around beyond that, and she refused to use the state's ACA website. If her health insurance costs go up, it's not the ACA's fault, it's her own. But the coverage she'll have now will be real insurance, regardless of what she pays for it.
Really, if the ACA is the ruination of America, why can't its critics find real horror stories to complain about?
Side Note 2: No, Fox "News," there is no "secret abortion fee" hidden in ACA premiums, and there is no taxpayer funding of abortion. How about a belated New Year's resolution in which you stop lying to the people who turn to you for information? We remember a time when lying was looked down upon, whether by individuals or institutions. We kind of miss it.
This Week in SOTU
President Obama gave his State of the Union address this week. It was, as they tend to be, a laundry list kind of speech, not brilliant oratory and not focused on a single issue, but touching briefly on many. Although his critics refuse to admit it, the speech was conciliatory; he wasn't assigning blame, but trying to address solutions. He could easily have blamed Republican in Congress for shutting down the government, for slowing our recovery from recession, and many other ills. He chose not to:
"The question for everyone in this chamber, running through every decision we make this year, is whether we are going to help or hinder this progress. For several years now, this town has been consumed by a rancorous argument over the proper size of the federal government. It’s an important debate – one that dates back to our very founding. But when that debate prevents us from carrying out even the most basic functions of our democracy – when our differences shut down government or threaten the full faith and credit of the United States – then we are not doing right by the American people.
"As President, I’m committed to making Washington work better, and rebuilding the trust of the people who sent us here. I believe most of you are, too. Last month, thanks to the work of Democrats and Republicans, this Congress finally produced a budget that undoes some of last year’s severe cuts to priorities like education. Nobody got everything they wanted, and we can still do more to invest in this country’s future while bringing down our deficit in a balanced way. But the budget compromise should leave us freer to focus on creating new jobs, not creating new crises."
Side Note: One of the more intriguing proposals in the SOTU--though the president had a hard time enunciating it at first, wanting to say "My IRA"--are what he called MyRAs (the RA stands for "retirement account"). These are aimed at low-wage workers, whose employers don't offer 401(K) plans. Here's what he's talking about. Why is this important? Because 40% of Americans at the bottom of the income ladder have a savings rate of approximately zero, and no mechanisms currently exist to help them save more.
This Week in Executive Orders
Speaking of the SOTU, many on the right are outraged about President Obama's announcement that he'll use executive orders, where necessary, to get around the fact that Congress is utterly dysfunctional. Rep. Paul Ryan (R/WI) accused him of trying to "write laws," when in fact that's exactly the opposite of true. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R/MN) said the president thinks he's a king. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R/KY) suggested that he shouldn't think he can use executive orders to get around Congress, adding, "Ronald Reagan didn’t think that and Bill Clinton didn’t think that.”
Note to Senator McConnell: In 5 years, President Obama has issued 168 executive orders. During his first term, President Reagan issued 231. In his second term he cut it down--to 168 (over 4 years, not 5). During his first tem, President Clinton issued 200, and 164 in his second term (again, a 4-year total that nearly matches Obama's 5 years). Maybe Senator McConnell doesn't know what he's talking about. That's the generous interpretation. Less generous would be that he's being dishonest. We'll leave it up to you.
Maddowblog.com put together a handy chart showing presidential use of executive orders, current as of last week. The result? In the past 125 years, the president who has used executive orders the least (per term in office--some one-termers used fewer) is one Barack Obama. Executive orders are not only not a new invention--even George Washington used them--but they're responsible for some truly historic changes in American life. Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order.
Facts are often inconvenient, because they get in the way of talking points. But the facts are the facts, and Republicans should keep in mind that people can easily check these things.
This Week in Scandal
This could be very bad news for Gov. Chris Christie (R/NJ). Stay tuned.
This Week in Gun Safety
This week--and every week--about 140 kids will be hospitalized from gunshot wounds. That's 20 every single day. According to a new study looking into the problem:
"These figures highlight the importance of firearms safety, said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. 'We've heard figures like that before,' Benjamin said of the 20-victim daily average. 'It's a lot more common than people think, even though that's a pretty robust number,' he added.
"'People have firearms at home for a variety of reasons. Some people think they are safer with them, but the evidence shows that's not the case,' Benjamin said. 'Far too often, there was a firearm under a mattress or a parent who put a firearm up high in the closet, way in the back -- but that's exactly where a child will look.'"
After motor vehicle accidents, gunshots are the most common killer of American children.
Also--though, fortunately, not involving children--we have this. A man shot to death two men who were "shaking the door on his tool shed in his backyard."
Only thing is, it wasn't his tool shed. It was a shed on the property of one of the men who was murdered. The gunman didn't own the shed, didn't own anything that was in the shed. But two men were shaking a door. He didn't warn them, and he didn't call 911 after he shot them.
Rand Paul wants that guy to be allowed to carry his gun into your post office.
If you're so frightened of the world you live in to feel the need to keep a gun in the house, at least keep it unloaded and locked up, with the ammunition stored separately. You're more likely to be struck by lightning than to ever use a gun to defend yourself. But there is one certainty about guns: if there is no gun in the house, no one will accidentally be shot with it, and the odds of an intentional shooting go way, way down.
This Week in Wishes
If only the ghosts of Dickens's A Christmas Carol actually existed, or maybe the angel of It's a Beautiful Life, perhaps one night, one of the many, many conservatives who have recently gone on insane rants, comparing the president, liberals in general, or everyday aspects of American life like the national debt, to either Nazis or slavery could be whisked back to the time of slavery or Nazis, so they could see what it is they're saying. Comparing any of those things to slavery or the Holocaust not only diminishes the unspeakable horror to which human beings were subjected, but it shows those making the comparisons to be shameless, thoughtless fools. When the Wall Street Journal's editorial page writers defend such fools, they come off as fools themselves.
This Week in School
This is "National School Choice Week." That sounds like a relatively benign thing, except that it's not. "School choice" is largely an attempt to underfund public schools by diverting public money to charter schools or private schools, at which it's easier to offer "education" that comes with a particular point of view (and usually one outside the American mainstream). We built a remarkable public school system in this country, one that served us well for generations. Yet, since Ronald Reagan's presidency, there have been those among us who want to tear it down.
"School choice" has never been shown to improve academic performance or to help lift anybody out of poverty. It's really just another right-wing attempt to privatize a function long performed--and performed well--by the public sector. We here at TWiA have no objection to people sending their kids to private schools or charter schools, if they want to. But taxpayers shouldn't have to foot that bill. Tax dollars should go toward restoring the public school system, for our children and for all the generations yet to come.
Side Note: Here's a map showing publicly funded schools that are allowed to teach creationism. Evolution is not just a "theory," it's a known, observable, repeatable scientific fact. Tax dollars should never go to schools that deny known science.
This Week in RIP
In the history of popular music, there are a few individuals or organizations one can point to and with very little argument, make the case that they're the most influential in the field. Elvis Presley blended country, blues, and gospel music into something new (others were working the same turf, but they never had his impact), and today, rock and rollers are still swiping his moves and wishing they had his charisma. The Beatles turned three guitars and a drum kit into the standard rock ensemble, and through one innovation after another, revolutionized the musical form Elvis had largely invented.
When it comes to folk music, that person is Pete Seeger, who we lost this week at the age of 94.
I felt like Pete Seeger was around for my whole life, because he was. In the late 1930s he worked with Alan Lomax, whose efforts on behalf of the Library of Congress's Archive of American Folk Song preserved a huge swath of this country's musical heritage. By the early 1940s, he was making his own records with various groups, and he continued to record and perform live up until the very end of his life. He has always been there; his songs always will be. His influence is heard in the work not just of every folk musician but in virtually every household in the country, through songs like "If I Had a Hammer," "Where Have All the Flowers Gone," "Turn, Turn, Turn," "We Shall Overcome" (which Seeger rearranged and partially rewrote), and so many more.
Seeger, who served in the US Army during WWII, was a dedicated activist. He believed in civil rights, in the necessity of treating all people with dignity and respect, in talking to those with whom one disagrees, in caring for the planet, in avoiding war whenever possible, in storytelling, in peace, in freedom, and in America. He lived those beliefs with a steadfastness most of us never know. He'll be missed, but his music will be remembered as long as there is song.
This Week in How You Can Help
Pete Seeger supported a number of causes and charities, and one of his last perfomances was for Farm Aid. You can help small farmers simply by buying food directly from them at a farmers market, or at a local grocery or co-op that sells it and tells you where it's from. You can donate to the organization. You can promote the annual televised concert. Without farms, there's no food. Please do what you can to honor Seeger, and to help a family farmer survive another year.
This Week in Bears
A profile of movie star and environmental activist Bart the Bear.