Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Republicans won't Blink before the Election

There's been lots of breathless reporting this week about the "fiscal cliff". In 6 months, the Bush Tax Cuts expire just as the budget sequestration begins. People wonder if the two parties will be able to work out a compromise on taxes and spending before the twin axes fall. 

It can't happen before the election.

Six months from now, the country is scheduled to "fall off a fiscal cliff". The Bush Tax Cuts will expire, resulting in a $3.8 trillion dollar tax blow to our barely ambulatory economy. At the same time, $1.2 Trillion dollars in automatic budget cuts will go into effect, starving the economy further. It is important to realize that these things will happen without any additional action by Congress. Congress must act to prevent them. And for the last 2 years, Congress (particularly the Senate) has seemed unable to act.

It is worth remembering how we got to this point... in 2010, voter turnout changed drastically from what it had been in 2008. The electorate was older and whiter. Many in this demographic were energized by a Tea Party movement more radical in its ideology than establishment Republicans in Congress. This mobilization of a more extreme slice of the electorate became  evident in the primaries, when a number of incumbent members of the Republican Conference were defeated by challengers claiming to represent the Tea Party.

Tea Party nominees prevented the Republicans from taking the Senate, as Tea Party candidates proved to be unelectable at the State level. But with the lower level of scrutiny and vetting faced by House candidates, Tea Party amateurs managed to win, the Republicans took the House and the House became much more conservative.

(This and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons)

The Lame Duck session between the election and the creation of the new Congress left a very small window for the Democratic majority Congress (if one counts tools of the Plutocracy like Ben Nelson and Blanche Lincoln) to enact any final legislation. But the Republicans vowed to block all legislation unless the Bush Tax Cuts were extended. Democrats wanted to partially extend them as well, but given the absolute ass-whipping the GOP was giving the Dems on the deficit, Dems were insisting on additional revenue, as well. Specifically, they wanted to end the cuts for those earning more than $250k per year. 

The Republicans wouldn't go for it. 

The Democrats came back with a proposal for ending the cuts only for people earning more than $1 million per year. 

The Republicans wouldn't go for it

Finally, to avoid a major tax increase while the economy was still recovering from the Bush Collapse, and to keep President Obama's campaign promise not to raise taxes on the Middle-Class...

the tax cut was extended for ALL income groups. (I will leave the topic of the GOP's utter hypocritical dishonesty on the topic of the deficit to Dr. Krugman.)

But the extension, like the original cuts, had an expiration date...

in two years. To expire in January of '13.

The month following the tax extension, the new Congress was sworn in. The Tea Party represents the exact same element of conservative populism formerly represented by the John Birch Society and the Moral Majority. The first thing these self-educated "constitutionalists" did was pick a fight over the debt-ceiling increase. The resulting power struggle over the normally routine measure came within a few days of forcing the nation's default and caused a (meaningless, as it turned out) downgrade in our credit rating.

The price of getting these newly elected Republican extremists to permit the debt ceiling increase was the creation of a "Supercommittee", composed of key members of both parties, from both chambers, who would meet with the goal of reducing the budget deficit. And to insure that committee would carry out on its mandate, REALLY draconian budget cuts were scheduled to go into effect, automatically... 

in January of 2013.

(This is a Mayan Calendar. I am told the metaphor is obscure. Sorry.)

The supercommittee failed to agree on anything of course. Over Republican opposition to raising any revenue, whatsoever. And we are confronted with the prospect of massive tax increases taking place at the same time as massive spending cuts, in an economy stuck above 8% unemployment, and Europe sliding into recession ahead of us.

In January of 2013.

The timing on these deadlines is intentional. Both these fights got scored as a couple of short-term "wins" for the Republicans. The GOP got an extension of the tax cuts for their wealthy constituents, and the Tea Party Freshman got to pose as implacable deficit hawks. Even supporters of the President were accusing him of caving in.

But almost immediately smart people noticed what the Republicans had given away to get their wins. They were going to have to defend keeping those tax cuts for millionaires during a Presidential campaign. And half of those draconian budget cuts caused by the Supercommittee are coming out of Defense. NONE of them are coming out of Social Security or Medicaid.

People have speculated (and been mocked for it) that the President has been engaged in "3 Dimensional Chess" with the Republicans, suckering them into turning themselves into campaign fodder for the Obama Reelection Campaign. 

So at the moment, the Republicans find themselves in an uncomfortable position. The Defense lobby is raising hell with their pet congressmen on the Armed Services Committees. Defense contractors are looking at a MAJOR revenue hit beginning in 2013 if the cuts Republicans agreed to actually go through. But Defense Hawks in Congress can't reverse the cuts without Democratic cooperation. Meanwhile the whole country, including Republican campaign donors are looking at a major tax increase. Which Republicans agreed to.

And thus nothing can happen until after the election. If the Republicans win the Presidency and the Senate, their problems are solved. The very first thing they'll do is end the filibuster.  Then, they'll reset the tax rates, probably cutting them for Mitt's friends at the country club. And they'll simply legislate away the defense cuts. Deficits are NEVER a problem when Republicans generate them.

If the Republicans win the Senate and not the Presidency, then President Obama has left himself in a very good negotiating position; no conceivable Republican victory leaves him in office and also elects a Senate that can over-ride his vetoes. The tax plan that replaces the expiration of the Bush rates will have to be to his liking, or he can just do nothing and watch all the rates go back to the Clinton levels. That solves the deficit "problem" over-night. He can save a lot of his signature programs from the Republican axe by threatening to allow the defense cuts to go through. If the Democrats hold the Senate, which is tough but perhaps do-able...

all of that negotiating leverage can be brought to bear on the House. 

Until we know what the balance of power is going to be AFTER the election, though...

no policy can be made on taxes OR spending.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Conservative Slander Machine, Part 2: Crying Wolf

Every Wednesday, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform hosts a weekly meeting of the "Leave Us Alone Coalition". This is a collection of conservative activists and politicians who use the time to discuss current issues and coordinate their message and response to those issues. They are an important source of the seemingly unending string of outraged accusations, pure slander and fictitious talking points that our current President has had to weather from the moment he took the oath of office. Many of these controversies have involved accusations about the President himself; others have been phony controversies unrelated to the President personally, but used to oppose his policies and delegitimize his Presidency.

(This and unlabeled images from wikimedia commons)

Norquist's meeting is not the only source, of course. Americans for Prosperity plays an important role as well, disseminating tactical advice and talking points to numerous local Tea Party groups around the country. Conservative talk radio hosts serve not only to echo the outrage, they make up new accusations, sometimes as simple on-air improvisations. And of course the Conservative blogosphere invents new "crises" out of whole cloth. These are repeated on radio and FOX television using the disingenuous "Some people are saying..." throw away line, followed within a few days by "Why isn't the mainstream media reporting..." intimidation tactic.

The system works. If the Clinton administration was the test run for the conservative slander machine, the Obama Administration is the machine's operational deployment. The last 3 and a half years have been an unending string of phony charges, fake outrage and distractions. All of them have originated on the Right. Virtually all of them have been shown to be without substance. Some of them have been outright frauds, promoted by people who know they are false. Consider some of them...

President Obama was born in Kenya, and is a secret Muslim

I start with this one, because it has more lives than Michael Myers. The President's release of his short-form birth certificate in 2008, confirmation of the document's legitimacy from the State of Hawaii, verification from the hospital in which he was born, birth notices placed in the local papers at the time of the birth and the President's release of his long-form birth certificate in 2011 have all been rejected by the "Birthers"

Related to this claim is the idea that President Obama is secretly a Muslim. Interestingly, this delusion is often held by the same people who claim that Christian clergyman Jeremiah Wright is Obama's "spiritual advisor and mentor". The President's public statement that he is a Christian, his Christianity based "sermons" at the National Prayer Breakfast, his occasional discussion of the importance of his Christian faith in interviews, have failed to prevent adherants of this myth from repeating it.

We will "draw the curtain of charity" over the poor stupid bastards who insist the President is actually the anti-Christ.

The utility of the Birther controversy in undermining the Administration has been marginal. No one sane ever really believed it, although the lazy false-balance of some in the Beltway Press prevented them from calling it what it is: a crazy conspiracy theory. After the release of the president's long form birth certificate, the main-stream media became more openly dismissive of Birtherism. It became harder for Birthers to get air time. But the full embrace of Birtherism by Donald Trump served to revive the story. Birtherism still isn't respectable, but it is news once again. 

The Administration's use of policy "Czars" represents an unprecedented and unconstitutional expansion of Executive power

This was a favorite Glenn Beck crusade in the early days of the Administration; his panic has since subsided as other boogeymen have arisen. It should be noted that there is no such thing as a "czar"; the term is one invented by the press to denote officials in the Executive Office of the President with responsibility for oversight of specific policy areas.

The EOP should not be confused with the Cabinet, which is a body described within the text of the Constitution. The EOP works directly for the President; most of its staff is not ratified by the Senate. The EOP was created in 1939 and has steadily increased in size since then, in tandem with the increased size and complexity of government. Since there's actually no such thing as a "czar", Right Wing conspiracy mongers have felt free to apply the totalitarian sounding title to anyone in the White House whose area of policy oversight they didn't like. 

(Czar Alexander III)

The whole Czar controversy culminated with the firing of Van Jones, widely viewed as a win for Glenn Beck. After his subsequent campaign to get Cass Sunstein fired went nowhere, Beck quietly moved on to new irresponsibilities and the Czar issue became less of a rallying cry for conservatives. The approach of the election has revived this phony issue, at least to some extent.

Health care reform would create "Death Panels" which would deny care to elderly, terminally ill and handicapped patients

This particular calumny was started by Conservative activist Betsy McCaughey (note: the linked Wikipedia article badly overstates the influence of her Committee to Reduce Infectious Deaths. I think she must have edited it herself.) in an attempt to duplicate the career bump she enjoyed from helping torpedo the Clinton Health Care Plan.

Sarah Palin picked up on McCaughey's ravings, using the term "death panel" to describe different provisions of the bill at different times. The phrase created a firestorm of controversy, leading to the contentious town hall meetings vividly depicted on television, and nearly killing the bill before the myth was finally debunked.

Since then various politicians, including Palin have attempted to recapture the moment, applying the term to the Medicare Independent Payment Advisory Board, with only marginal success.

The Obama Administration targeted Republican donors in "deciding" which Chrysler dealerships to shut down as part of the auto industry bail-out

This one failed shortly after launch, providing a cautionary tale to non-statisticians who attempt to use statistical methodologies. Some conservative blogger announced that a large percentage of all the car dealerships being closed as part of the automotive industry's bailout and restructuring were Republican political donors. This charge was immediately adopted by conservative talk radio, FOX news and the Washington Examiner before someone with an education pointed out that the vast majority of all car dealers, closing or staying open, were Republican campaign donors. The outrage was quietly dropped. But the beauty of this type of accusation is...

it NEVER dies.

Twenty years from now, it will be easy to find an aged ex-Tea Bagger who will swear to you that the dealership myth was true. Just like you still find people who insist Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Moslem fundamentalists are building a "victory mosque" at Ground Zero.  

This one was started by Pam Geller and Robert Spencer, and is a good example of the most overtly racist views being mainstreamed by FOX.

This started with the announcement of a proposed Islamic Center at Park Place in Manhattan. The facility was to include a fitness center, a theater, a pool, a daycare... in fact, it sounds one hell of a lot like the JCC. But it also included a prayer space, which racism entrepreneurs immediately mischaracterized as a "mosque".

But these kind of manufactured controversies must be elaborated on in order to stay in the news cycle. So there were attempts to link the public face of the mosque, Feisal Abdul Rauf, to Islamic extremists. There were rumors that extremist money was behind the project. Then, the politicians saw an issue and started exploiting it, with Sarah Palin famously calling on peaceful Muslims to "refudiate" the project.

I am happy to point out that my President, Barack Obama, refused to demagogue on this issue, saying: 

"Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."

Finally, as it became clear that this big, elaborate vanity project was going nowhere very quickly, the controversy died down. Last September the prayer center opened in the existing building. No terrorists were inspired.

I could go on for this like hours. Remember Obama's trip to India, that was going to cost $200 million a day? Except, it didn't cost a fraction of that? The story went from rumor to Drudge to Limbaugh to the Tea Bagger caucus in the House within days. They claimed that the President was taking 507 hotel rooms and a carrier battle group of 35 vessels. The main stream media started asking about it...

and then realized how nutty all this was (with some help from the White House) and quietly dropped it.

Remember Shirley Sherrod? The black civil servant who was videotaped saying that "She hadn't done as much as she could have" for a white farmer, because he was white? From  a video blogger to Andrew Breitbart to FOX, and even the Department of Agriculture bought into it, forcing Sherrod to resign before it was revealed that the videotape had been deceptively edited so as to convey the OPPOSITE meaning of what Ms. Sherrod had actually said.

Or that Beau Obama had been flown back from Hawaii on his own airplane?

Or that the President didn't wear a flag pin?

Or that the BP spill was Obama's Katrina?

This stuff isn't true. It's not even convincing. But the rise of new media has given political entrepreneurs tools to disseminate falsehoods to willing and eager listeners that they haven't had since the media became professionalized at the end of the 19th century.

There was a time when the repetition of so much inaccurate information would destroy the credibility of anyone repeating it. But outlets like Brietbart, and FOX, and Drudge don't have a business model involving accuracy, they have a business model involving partisan orientation. Their credibility with their consumers stems from their partisan orientation, not their veracity.

And finally, the purpose of this stuff is not to convince anyone, of any single thing. Each new crisis, each new display of theatrical, feigned outrage...

is only a single bullet, being fired from a battery of slanderous machine guns. It's great if one or more of the bullets actually draw blood, but mostly the purpose is to make the other guy keep his head down.

Each lie needs only to dominate a single news cycle to be succesful. If it can dominate 6 or 7 consecutive news cycles, and perhaps one round of the Sunday morning talk shows, the lie will have served its purpose. The Democrats will be responding rather than initiating. They'll be getting funny looks from constituents. There'll be vid of them answering questions about embarrassing things, even if those things have no substance.

Conservative media news items currently serve the exact same purpose as negative campaign spots. Combined with the coming tsunami of conservative special interest money, Republican Air Power may be an insurmountable advantage this Fall.

Remember Wisconsin.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Rick Scott stars as Prince Prospero in Poe's The Masque of the Red Death

This is the 16th Street Bridge, here in Pittsburgh:

The image is from here

This is a close-up of the sculpture on top:

Image from here

It's a fascinating piece of art, although it's hard to appreciate with rush hour going on around you. It's one of hundreds of works of art hiding around our public architecture here. Discovering them is one of the delights of living in this very cool city. You go out, you walk a few miles, you're healthier, and meanwhile you've discovered some nifty piece of artwork, or found some incredibly detailed architectural feature located a hundred feet above the sidewalk, or enjoyed a particular vista for the first time...

Image from here

Big Steel was good to this place, for a long time. If you discount the lung disease.

But finding the sculpture on top of the 16th Street Bridge got me wondering...

what will its replacement look like, someday?  

Can you imagine the reaction of the State Legislature if the City of Pittsburgh tried to build a similar structure today?

"What the hell are these things on top? They're BRONZE? Do you know what they cost? Why are they up there? They CAN'T be structurally necessary. What's the maintenance cost? Do you really expect my constituents to pay for fancy statues on a bridge in Pittsburgh?"

This image is from Wikimedia Commons. Its a picture of Mike Turzai, who is my candidate for the single biggest prick in the PA state legislature since Jane Orie went to jail. He's the guy who admitted that PA's voter ID program would deliver the state to Romney this Fall. He's going to be governor, some day.

Mike Turzai would flip out at the notion of paying for public art on the taxpayer's dime. He wants government just barely large enough to serve the financial interests of the 1%. He's nothing special; his views are those of literally thousands of Tea Bagging politicians all over the country, controlling state legislatures, and Governorships and a big slice of the House Republican Conference in DC.

These people acknowledge absolutely no role for the "public interest". They do not share a common identity with the rest of us, most of the time. Their primary identity is founded on the closely related bases of class and ideology.

So, we won't be seeing cool decorative features on our public architecture any time soon, because the identity they hold and promote is a smaller sub-group than "America", or "Pennsylvania", or "Pittsburgh". (Especially Pittsburgh. These people hate cities like they hate evil. They think cities and evil are synonymous.)

(this and unlabeled images from Wikimedia Commons)

But the implications of this particular identity configuration go way beyond public art. These people don't think of themselves as part of "our" community. They believe they have no vested interest in the community's health or well-being. Indeed, they think of our community as being largely parasitical

They truly believe that "their" resources are unfairly taxed to support less productive, less "deserving" members of the community.

This belief (the salient value here is "property") is loaded with assumptions of course. It assumes that everything they have, they "earned". It ignores the extent to which their membership in the community they so disparage has allowed them to "earn" what they have. They ignore the inconvenient fact that they were educated at the community's expense, as were their employees and customers. They ignore the community financed infrastructure of roads, and fire protection, and public health which provides them the basis for "earning" what they have.

And they ignore the provision of public safety and the legal system which allows them to enjoy their property in security. (They would tell you they're protected by their personal firearms, of course.)

Since they erroneously don't believe the community benefits them, they attempt to contribute as little as possible to it. It's classic primate thinking, of course, The short-term tangible benefit of a tax cut this year is a more effective behavioral motivator than the long-term, abstract benefit of a thriving and healthy community, full of well-educated potential employees and prosperous potential customers.

It's also primate thinking with foreseeable consequences. At least, if you're a more sophisticated thinker than a Homo Habilis trying to scare off a rival band from the good watering hole.

Those consequences are on display, right now, in the State of Florida. The current Governor of Florida is Medicare Fraudster and Skeletor impersonator Rick Scott.

(not sure where I heard the Skeletor comparison. Not mine, though)

Rick Scott perfectly embodies the value "property". He ran on a campaign of cutting government, and cutting taxes. He wants fewer resources devoted to the community, and more devoted to whatever individuals have current possession of those resources.

Among the areas Scott has targeted for cuts is the State Department of Health. Public Health and Sanitation didn't used to be a controversial government expense. Liberals and Conservatives alike could agree on the desirability of minimizing epidemic disease. They'd LIVED through some of them, you see?

This was before all the cutbacks to public education, so people had some inkling of the historic consequences of epidemic disease. Epidemic disease has destroyed entire civilizations at various moments in human history. It is *not* something to fuck with.

(image from here)

But again, avoiding an epidemic is an abstract benefit, not always tangible even in the long term. Cutting the state budget, lowering taxes, obtaining the approval and support of your key political constituencies (as opposed to the inattentive and apathetic electorate that put you in office) is a tangible benefit in the immediate term.

And so we come to the most astonishing news out of Florida since the zombie attack. Rick Scott has apparently covered up an outbreak of Tuberculosis in Duval County. 

Scott has implemented massive cuts to various programs in the Department of Public Health, many of them targeting urban communitiesHe also eliminated the State's last tuberculosis hospital. The money saved was then used to cut taxes for corporations. 

It's important to be accurate about the timing on this. A schizophrenic transient contracted the disease in 2008, and went untreated for 8 months. During this time he infected at least 17 other people as he shuffled between shelters, soup kitchens and a mental health facility. 

When the number of outbreaks of TB spiked this year in Duval County, they requested CDC help. CDC discovered at least 3000 contacts for the sick man, only a fraction of whom have been screened for the disease. CDC issued its report in April of this year. 

No one in the legislature which had just passed the public health budget cuts ever saw it. But subsequently, Scott's administration ordered the state's only specialized tuberculosis facility, A.G. Holley state hospital, closed 6 months ahead of the date set forth in the budget.

As the disease has continued to spread, thirteen people have died in Jacksonville. Still, the report became public only in June.  The sponsor of the legislation cutting the State's health funding claims to have been unaware of the report's existence.

There's always push back on budget cuts, of course. Conservatives hate to admit this, but public sector jobs are real jobs. And these are real voters being inconvenienced. Closing down the state's only tuberculosis hospital is a big step.  The state legislature has to be convinced not to revisit the issue, even in light of the worst tuberculosis outbreak of the last 20 years.

So Scott suppressed the news of the TB outbreaks. The Department of Public Health buried the report.  It seems a bit bone-headed, in retrospect...

but this is the essence of conservative public policy in this era.  It has its roots in the inability of political conservatives to identify with the larger community in the current social context of early 21st century America. They don't fund public health for the same reason they don't fund public art. It's not "for them". It'd take a threat to national survival to make these people start thinking of themselves as our countrymen, rather than as "entrepreneurs", or "conservatives", or "job creators".

(image from here)

Whether our conservative citizens get it or not, they are part of the larger community. We're in the same tiny lifeboat. And no matter how rich they get, and how low their taxes are, and how high the gate is in their community...
the health of the community affects their health. There IS no scenario in which their privately funded, zero tax, libertarian, "I got mine, to hell with you" health system treats emerging diseases in the homeless population.
And there's no way in hell those diseases don't eventually hit the 1%. Edgar Alan Poe even wrote a story about it.

(Image from here)
 Update: I thought I was terribly clever using Poe's Masque of the Red Death as a metaphor for Scott's approach to public health. But it turns out Andy K at Crooks and Liars thought of it before I did. Just wanted to acknowledge his priority on this.