Archive for category Politics
When I started this blog in 2008 I had little trouble describing it’s purpose: “Reflections on culture, politics, philosophy and world events during an era of crisis and transformation.” It was clear to me that the US and indeed the world was on the verge of fundamental change, as the technology and information revolutions made the old order obsolete.
Nearly four years later it’s clear that the world is changing and its caused confusion. Political partisans continue in their comfortable contentions that the other side is to blame for the problems and their side will get it right. Some scream the sky is falling, others worry about the rise of China, Brazil, India and newly industrializing states, and others — though surprisingly few — are still mainly concerned about terrorism and Islamic extremism.
All of these views, I think, suffer from a common flaw: extending 20th Century thinking into the 21st Century. In other words, most people use the categories and theories of the past to extrapolate into the future, trying to figure out how change will impact existing actors and interests. New thinking is required; the world is changing and old theories, ideologies and strategies are increasingly ineffective and counter productive.
Consider Iceland. I recall being in on line debates with true free market ideologues who would point to Iceland as proof that the key to success is let markets work (some tried even to claim feudal Iceland success proved pure capitalism could work which is perhaps the most bizarre argument I’ve ever encountered). They privatized their entire banking structure and opened up the country to virtually unregulated economic speculation. The result is that the country went bankrupt.
As the article notes, when a bail out plan and series of loans was “offered,” with threats of severe reprisals should Iceland default, the people rose up, wrote a new constitution, sought to arrest and punish those involved in destroying the economy, and essentially took back their sovereign and democratic rights. This is an amazing story, an example of what groups like “Occupy Wall Street” want: rejection of control over the economy by international finance.
However, I don’t think the story ends there. Iceland provides one part of what is likely to happen as this transformation continues: The people will seek to reclaim local power and resist global finance and ‘big business.’ More local authority and control is a necessary component of the change that is coming. Without it power gets amassed in the hands of a few large economic actors who can control, influence and penetrate state governments and undermine democratic accountability. It is precisely those economic actors who caused the current crisis and rendered impotent government regulators who tried in vain to put limits on derivative trade, enforce lending standards, and increase capital requirements for big financial institutions.
Yet localization alone is not the answer. Globalization is real. Iceland will be punished for not playing along, and while this is likely better for Icelanders than being stuck in a loan/debt/austerity bind, their shift from radical libertarian principles to regulation and localism isn’t the complete path to the future. Globalization is real, and it is a good thing. But it’s also new, and political and economic structures built around the notion of sovereignty and the state have to be transformed.
One reason global finance has so much power is that regulatory efforts are by definition state-centric. Big money has found a way to game the system by playing states off against each other or shopping for the cheapest tax rates, least regulation or most ineffective enforcement — the so-called race to the bottom. States aren’t impotent and have tried to respond, but usually it ends up with arrangements that cede more power to transnational enterprises and away from states.
States still have the guns, but they just don’t matter as much as they used to, especially for the most advanced economies. The monopoly on the use of force which used to be considered as granting states ultimate power doesn’t work if force isn’t as relevant. Big business doesn’t worry about the lack of a monopoly on force because such force is irrelevant to them. Their influence over governments is due to the new ultimate weapon: capital! Force is structural and economic, old fashioned violence is less effective and crude.
Money and wealth create the capacity to help or harm a state with just a few economic decisions. Besides regaining local control a way has to be found to create global accountability; the sovereign Westphalian system has to give way to a kind of post-sovereign structure of governance that recognizes and can cope with the global identity of modern transnational enterprises (or multinational corporations).
We’ve got a long way to go. The rather dramatic rise in activism globally – and literally out of the blue and unexpected — with the various “occupy” movements is powerful evidence that discontent, anger and desire for change is real and widespread. What happened in Iceland can happen elsewhere; perhaps not in such extreme form, but the long term impact of today’s new social movements is still unknown. The fact that they are global means that a network of social organizations can gather and share information on what corporations and banks are doing, and organize responses. Partnerships between first and third world states through such organization can lead to pressure to use international organizations like the WTO (which has nascent regulatory power) to build a method of holding transnational actors accountable.
We’re not there yet. Our thinking is still mired in the 20th Century world of sovereignty, states, and ideology. The new world cannot reflect any one ideological perspective — it should construct new avenues and venues for debating the path forward. It is not anti-free market to want to limit big money because there is a strong argument that such a powerful position of a few elite companies and institutions is itself a threat to the proper functioning of the market.
So hang on for the ride. It’s only just beginning, and there will be jumps and starts, gyrations to the left and to the right, emotional manipulation, fear, hope and at times anger. However, the future should not be feared. Those who scream gloom and doom lack creativity and an appreciation of what humans can and have accomplished. Those who give simple answers or promise to “fix” things and make things like they “used to be” are deluded.
It’s an exciting time to live, and it’s within our capacity as humans to use technology and our ability to communicate and interact across the globe to solve problems and build a better future. Globalization is what we make of it.
After the 2008 election Democrats were on a high. President Barack Obama had been elected as the first black President, the Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, and demographics seemed to indicate that if anything, their future was brighter than ever. President Bush left office as one of the least popular Presidents in history, being blamed for a dubious war in Iraq and an economic crisis that hurled the US into recession.
Yet the pendulum swung. The depth and severity of the recession proved greater than the Obama White House had anticipated, and with the Democrats in control of government they were blamed for anything that went wrong. After health care reform was pushed through just barely, yielding a compromise that angered conservatives and many liberals alike, President Obama found the honey moon over. The tea party movement achieved amazing success at shaping the political discourse, and a new narrative took hold.
This narrative said that President Obama’s policies were hindering the recovery, that the stimulus was a waste of money and a failure, and that the raw politicking of the health care deal showed the shady side of Democratic politics. Republicans said the real solution to the problems the country faces is smaller government and fiscal conservatism. The hope and change promised by the Democrats was just more tax and spend — more government programs.
In 2010 the GOP achieved dramatic success, something unexpected after two election cycles dominated by the Democrats. Without the drag of the Iraq war and with President Obama “owning” the economy (even though neither he nor Bush ever could control it) the public swung right. Some of it was fear that change was going too fast; others thought the Democrats simply moved farther and faster than the public wanted. President Obama’s approval ratings dropped down below 50%.
Yet even as the Republicans start to lick their chops over electoral prospects in 2012, the pendulum may be swinging again. The President’s approval ratings are still bad, but they are picking up slightly. Don’t forget, President Clinton had 40% approval in early 1995, and Reagan dropped to 38% for awhile in 1983. President Obama is now at about 43%.
The mood seems to be changing. E J Dionne notes this “narrative change,” citing Paul Ryan’s somewhat bitter speech to the Heritage Foundation as evidence that Republicans recognize that the argument is slipping away from them. Occupy Wall Street has shown itself more popular and resilient than anyone expected, and the efforts to paint them as a bunch of spoiled hippies and malcontents has failed. President Obama’s “new populism” is hitting a chord. Americans don’t want massive redistribution and high taxes, but the idea that the system is unbalanced in favor of the wealthy is gaining traction.
Moreover, the Republican party doesn’t seem to have a clear leader, and their primaries have been dominated by sometimes extreme rhetoric that scares independents. Herman Cain wants an abortion ban with no exceptions, not even for rape and incest. That kind of talk scares people. Michelle Bachmann’s call to bring taxes back to the level they were under Ronald Reagan is illustrative. Taxes were much higher under Reagan than they are now; as she had to retreat from that statement it reinforced the idea that Reagan would be far too liberal for today’s GOP. The narrative of an extremist Republican party is building. Rick Perry’s assault on social security addsto that as the GOP Presidential field tries to capture the tea party electorate that vote in early primaries.
Mitt Romney should be a strong candidate. He is clearly a moderate who shouldn’t scare anyone, but his Mormonism and moderation might actually decrease conservative enthusiasm in 2012. He’s benefited from the turmoil in the GOP field, but the Republican party has lost control of the conversation. Instead of Reaganesque optimism the tune from the right is increasingly antagonistic.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the House start whispering that there are a lot of vulnerable Republicans, especially first termers, who are having trouble raising money and whose ideological voting records don’t play well at home. All Democrats expect gains in 2012; the idea of winning back the House is not as far fetched as it used to be.
Right now the conventional wisdom remains that President Obama is, if not the underdog, in a difficult position heading into the re-election fight. But at this point in 2009, when Obama was still above 50% in approval, few people realized that the pendulum had already started a decisive swing away from the Democrats and towards the Republicans.
It’s still too early to know for sure if the pendulum is swinging back in the Democrat’s direction. Obama is getting kudos for success in Libya, he announced the end of the Iraq war, and there may be an end in Afghanistan sooner than people expect. The economic news has become slightly more optimistic. Occupy Wall Street has stolen the attention that the tea party used to enjoy and has spread across the country, gaining a lot of support from Iraq veterans. In states like Ohio, Wisconsin and even here in Maine conservative causes have led to dissatisfaction — ballot initiatives in both Ohio and Maine might be very telling about the way the mood is changing (Ohio’s involves public labor unions, Maine’s is an effort to undo Republican legislation removing same day voting registration).
It feels like the pendulum has switched directions. It feels like 2012 could be for the Democrats what 2010 was for the Republicans. It feels like Obama may join Presidents Clinton and Reagan in the catagory of having their political obituaries written too soon. Time will tell — there is still a lot that could go right or wrong for both parties. The good news about the political pendulum is that if you’re on the losing side of an election, it won’t be that way forever. The bad news is that if you’re on the winning side the same applies.
President Obama’s announcement that all US forces would be out of Iraq by the end of the year, thereby ending the longest and one of the most divisive foreign policy actions in US history.
I still remember the spring of 2003. I was finishing up my book on German foreign policy. Gerhard Schroeder had won re-election as German Chancellor by actively opposing the US decision to go to war in Iraq. I was adding the final pieces to my last edit when the war started on March 20 (19th if you count the attempt to take out Saddam the night before), and on April 3rd I finished for good, sending back the last changes.
I know it was April 3, 2003 because as I was making my final edits my wife came to let me know that it was time to go to the hospital. “Five more minutes,” I said, finishing up. We left at about 5:00 PM, and at 11:47 PM that same day our first son Ryan was born. In that sense, I’ve always had a measure of how long the war dragged on by the growth of my son. He’s now in third grade; the US has been in Iraq his whole life.
I was also teaching American Foreign Policy with a delightfully talkative class which debated and argued with each other in a way that never got mean or nasty. Lance Harvell, now a GOP representative for my state district and neighbor was there, a non-traditional student who’d been in the military. There was Sam Marzenell, Joonseob Park, Christine Rice, Sev Slaymaker and others, debating current events as they unfolded.
I opposed the war, arguing that Iraq’s political culture was not conducive to democracy and rather than be a quick, easy victory enhancing the US role in the region it could turn into a disaster dragging out over years and helping al qaeda recruit. At least one student from that class who disagreed with me has since contacted me to tell me that they had to admit I was right. I think most people who study comparative politics were skeptical of the idea of making Iraq into a model democracy, you don’t just remake societies. This wasn’t like Japan and Germany after WWII, this was a divided pre-modern society with an Ottoman heritage.
Yet what I really remember from that class is how I felt like a good professor in that students were willing and able to debate me using real foreign policy arguments about policy, not fearing that I would somehow punish them for disagreeing (as one told me, some students suspected I gave higher grades to those who disagreed), and making really excellent points. Why can’t all political disagreements be so heated in substance but friendly in form? The day Saddam’s government fell I remember coming to class, tired because of our newborn son, and asked by delighted conservatives what I thought now that Iraq fell so quickly. “Now comes the hard part,” I said, admitting that the war itself had been faster and more effectively than I had expected.
At that point support for the war was high. It was just two years after 9-11, and Afghanistan was seen as a done war, with troops staying just to help the new government get off and running. The next year, in 2004 when Dr. Mellisa Clawson from Early Childhood Education and I taught the course “Children and War” for the first time (we’re teaching it again, for the fourth time next semester) many students were nationalistic and reacted negatively sometimes to our clear skepticism about US policy.
In 2005 for me the tone changed after Vice President Cheney’s “last throes” quote describing the Iraqi insurgency on June 20, 2005. On June 24, 2005 I wrote:
Cheney claimed (still believing his propaganda, perhaps) that the insurgency was in its ‘last throes’ (he defended that by talking about the dictionary meaning of ‘throes’) and — most absurdly — tried to compare this to the Battle of the Bulge and Okinawa. That is the point where the propaganda becomes so absurd that it really had morphed into comedy. This is not a battle against another military superpower where there can be a turning point or where they throw all they have at one battle hoping to turn things around. This is a battle against an insurgency that is building, and which can choose targets, play the time game, and score political victories despite successes in the American/Iraqi military offensives. If they are comparing this to Germany and Japan, they are grasping at whatever they can to try to convince themselves that things will get better. They are out of touch with reality.
By 2006 Iraq slipped into civil war, public opinion shifted against the war, the Democrats took the House, and President Bush’s approval ratings began an inexorable slide to some of the lowest in history. Yet, in 2007 he made the right call. He dumped the original goal of defeating the insurgency and setting up a pro-American government with whom we would be allies and have permanent bases, and embraced a realist notion of making deals with the insurgents, focusing instead only on al qaeda and trying to create enough stability so we could declare victory and leave. It was a retreat from the grandiose vision of the neo-cons, but for me it increased my respect for President Bush. He did something that LBJ couldn’t do in Vietnam: he changed course.
President Obama has taken that policy to it’s logical conclusion. By the end of the year the US will be out completely, and efforts to leave Afghanistan are growing as well. There will be time to reflect on the lessons learned from this war, and how it changed both the US and the Mideast. The challenge of counter-terrorism remains. The Arab world is at the start of a long transition which will no doubt have peaks and valleys, Pakistan and Afghanistan still represent uncertainty, but at least we’re not caught in a quagmire.
For now, it’s a time for a sigh of relief that this traumatic and costly conflict is now truly entering its last phase. President Obama disappointed the anti-war crowd by a cautious winding down of the war rather than a quick exit, but combined with Gaddafi’s death in Libya yesterday, he’s piling up foreign policy success after foreign policy success. And as bad as the economy is, I’d rather the economy be the main issue on the minds of voters than a foreign war.
Listening to Alan Parsons Project during my morning workout, I contemplated the song “Oh Life (There Must be More),” about a woman who has lost hope, whose life is empty and meaningless. I tell students that we live in a psychologically difficult era in history. In the past people didn’t doubt the meaning of life or feel the need to prove their self worth. These things were defined communally and peoples’ identities, values and sense of purpose were part of something greater than themselves.
I wouldn’t want to go back to that more “natural” state — I’m too much a product of the modern world, prizing my individuality and freedom, concepts that emerged as dominant during the enlightenment. Having tasted that fruit, I can’t go back to paradise. The knowledge of the possibilities freedom entails makes it impossible to return to life tied to tradition, custom and community. Pandora’s box has been opened.
Yet this new freedom also creates a sense of despair and uncertainty. What is the meaning of life? Is there a meaning? How do I fit in? Am I lost in the middle of a hopeless world (another APP lyric)? Look at the stress, anxiety and depression rampant in a society with material prosperity beyond what anyone could have imagined just a few generations ago. With no clear answers and with the responsibility to define ones’ own life, people lack the bonds and traditions that gave life clear purpose and meaning. Lacking the deep community and extended family bonds that were a psychological and social support system, it’s easy for people to feel untethered, adrift and without purpose. How do people handle this?
Ideology. One solution is to throw oneself into an ideology, to find a belief about how the world should be and dedicate oneself to living that life and promoting their cause. It could be socialism, anarcho-capitalism, or religious extremism (though religion itself is a separate category). This is an especially appealing solution for those who hate uncertainty and want a clear answer to a question of what life is all about. It gives one a sense of self-esteem (“I have figured out the right way, yet I am surrounded by people either too ignorant or unprincipled to understand or accept the truth) and purpose.
Ideology as a purpose tends to appeal to intelligent folk; they are the true believers. Those who follow along often don’t care so much about the ideology, they’re attracted to the sense of belonging with like minded folk. Ideology creates false certainty, a false sense of superiority, a belief one is more moral and principled than others, and allows one to push uncomfortable questions and dilemmas under the carpet. It’s an illusion (or delusion), but it can be effective.
Religion. Religious extremists tend to be ideological, but most religious folk are not. Rather, they look to their faith for the answer of what life means and how they should live. Yes, they understand that the enlightenment and modern science casts doubt on their beliefs, but they’ve chosen faith. It seems right to them in their heart, it is reinforced by community (people in their church, other believers) and they are able to shut off that part of their brain that might doubt and question their beliefs. This harkens back to pre-enlightenment thought and can give people a profound sense of purpose and meaning. Some who have had a crisis and then “convert” to a religion are so relieved by its capacity to banish doubt about self-worth and personal crises that they are convinced they have found truth.
Throw Oneself Into the World. Some people respond to uncertainty by dashing headlong into life, throwing themselves into the world to experience all they can. Their response to doubts about meaning or self worth is to enhance experience. It might be adventures, traveling, competition in ones’ career, or hedonism. This category includes such diverse folk as those in the business world who compete on Wall Street to try to earn as much money as they can and those social activists to do all they can to help the disadvantaged and alleviate suffering. Whether it’s competition for status or constant efforts to help others, experience in the world defines life for these folk. It can be successful, but also can lead to a kind of hyperactivity syndrome if more experience is constantly needed to quell uncertainty and doubt.
This solution also creates the possibility of crisis. If one defines life by career competition then a career setback or disaster can create personal crisis. Attractive people might define their self-worth by beauty and how others treat them, meaning that as they age they might find themselves unprepared to deal with lifes’ dilemmas. Social activists might end up overwhelmed by the slow pace at which the world changes. People in this category are the movers and shakers, those who change the world. They are not always the most satisfied and content, however.
Friends and family (Community). Other people focus on the more immediate world around them, their circle of friends and family. This is not a mutually exclusive set of “strategies” to deal with modern life. A religious person who also has strong connections with their community can be very resilient against modern psychological ills. Someone who throws himself into the world will be less prone to crisis if that is complemented by a strong sense of community. Like religion this harkens back to the pre-modern support systems that people naturally had; to the extent one can identify with a group greater than oneself, one avoids loneliness and has reassurance of ones’ self-worth and meaning.
Cynical Self-reliance. Many people recognize the inability of the world to provide meaning, reject religion as mythology, and face reality with a kind of cynical “this world sucks, but it’s the only one I have” approach. Such people are honest and critical thinking, meaning they can’t shut down the questioning part of the brain that religious folk silence, aren’t susceptible to ideological dogma, have been disappointed by the world and are too individualistic to lose themselves in community or family/friends. The world has suffering, pain, and despair, yet with a wry sense of humor and resignation to reality — the world won’t change any time soon — they make it through life with their self honesty protecting them from psychological despair.
Uncertain Spirituality. Others believe that there is “something more” to life, and put their faith in a vague undefined spirituality. They are too critical to accept religious dogma or ideology, have decided that the world is transient and offers no deep sense of meaning, tend not to be as connected with community, and yet see the world as beautiful and meaningful. Such people accept uncertainty easily; they may seek an ‘answer key,’ but recognize that it’s OK if they never find it. They are individually resilient, relying on their spiritual faith for their sense of purpose and meaning. Unlike religious folk they don’t claim to have the right belief — if it works for them, that’s all that matters. This includes a lot of so called “new age” thinking. These people tend to be introspective and see life as a way to work on their own emotional (or spiritual) development more than fixing problems in the world.
So my question to my readers: Does this list make sense? Do you fit into any of these categories? What other categories might be added to the list? (I can think of a few, but when a post hits 1200 I try to wrap it up).
Pundits used to 20th Century politics are mystified by the growing “Occupy Wall Street” movement, now spreading to other cities. Like the conservative tea party movement two years ago, its growth comes through new media, a real dissatisfaction with how things are going, and is not centered around specific demands and agendas. Starting small and overlooked in the media, it has grown in breadth and scope and can no longer be ignored.
This creates a problem for President Obama. Obama is a centrist establishment Democrat who despite achieving some significant reforms in health care, finance, stimulus spending and repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” has tried to find common ground with the Republicans. It appeared he was going to succeed too, until the “tea party” movement pushed John Boehner farther right then he originally wanted to go. Fearing wrath from the right, establishment Republicans are running scared and engage in a more ideological and uncompromising rhetoric than any time in the past, including the years of hostility to President Clinton.
Establishment Democrats have responded to this by shifting right; Obama is no exception. He embraced lowering domestic spending to that of any time since the Eisenhower administration, calling for closing of loopholes for the wealthy (like Reagan did) rather than an increase in tax rates on the wealthy, and making regulatory calls which infuriate environmentalists and the left. While his approval rating suffered — probably 15% of the ‘disapprove’ comes from the left — it appeared that liberals had no alternative. There simply is no pressure from the left: no movement, no leader and no alternative.
The calculus in the Obama camp is that an intense campaign combined with fear of the GOP will bring the base home. Republican candidates are weak and vulnerable to negative campaigning that will scare independents into grudgingly vote for Obama as the safer choice. If there is a strong movement on the left, however, Obama might find hostility growing much like Johnson did in the Vietnam war. The most intense protests of 1968 were at the Democratic national convention, after all.
But while the protests are dangerous for Obama, they also represent an opportunity for him to harness the emotion and anger on the street and rekindle the kind of energy that brought him to office in 2008. It won’t be easy — many on the left have become hostile towards a man they believe has drifted to the right of even former President Bush — but it is possible.
The first thing he should do is announce that he is going to Wall Street to talk with the protesters and give a major speech. This should be scheduled for late October, assuring that the protest movement will continue and grow — they won’t give up if the President is planning to visit. In the meantime the President should hone his populist rhetoric to support a key argument: “I tried to meet the Republicans half way, recognizing that we need to work together to solve the problems we face. They refused, saying it was their way or no way. So now I’m taking the argument to the people — I’m asking the American people to send a strong message that things need to change.”
On Wall Street, a place where the Obama campaign raised so much money in 2008, and whose banks have benefited from Obama’s reluctance to anger the business elite, he should declare a new agenda:
1) Reform of the tax code to simplify and make more fair a system that currently taxes the middle class and poor too much, and allows the wealthy to use accountants and tax lawyers to evade paying their fair share. Yeah, he’ll be charged with class warfare, but he should counter by saying it’s not the rich who are at fault, but the politicians. The wealthy are simply acting rationally by trying to pay the legal minimum tax they owe — that’s what almost everyone does, Republican or Democrat. If they aren’t paying their fair share it’s the fault of Washington for making a complex, screwed up and often absurd tax system. The tax system should be made simpler, more fair and clear.
2) A jobs program that aims at rebuilding the middle class and America’s productive capacity. The poor and unemployed aren’t lazy — they want to work. The system that benefited unproductive financial industries who built bubbles based on bizarre financial instruments like Collateralized Debt Obligations and Credit Default Swaps should give way to a system that benefits main street businesses and people who want to produce stuff that other people want. A strong middle class is the determinate of a state’s economic health. Our middle class is battered and torn, and that damages the country.
3) Honest talk about debt. He should tell the young people gathered that their generation will inherit a country that has to sell itself off to foreigners thanks to the massive debt the last generation has built up. Starting in 1982 the US has embraced “borrow and spend,” ignoring increased debt. Government has done this, so has the private sector. For a long time the problem could be ignored because unemployment was low and the bubble economy made it appear wealth was strong. Now we see that global debt has created a crisis as bad as the last great depression, but one that cannot be cured with more debt or dismissing this as just part of the business cycle.
The US has to rethink its approach to everything from foreign policy to domestic programs; we can’t afford the kind of budget we’ve had in the past, but we also can’t afford to just cut, since spending cuts can slow the economy. A smart mix of revenue increases, spending cuts, and investments in jobs can turn this around, though it will require global cooperation.
Obama needs to focus on these themes and embrace a populism that can appeal to independents as well as the youth. The fact is that those who dismiss the protests as meaningless do not understand them. It’s just like the old hands in the Arab world who couldn’t comprehend the changes being pushed by protesters from Egypt to Yemen. This is no longer the 2oth Century. Political activism is changing, and the ideas and energy being generated in New York is not going to dissipate. Energy and activism may wax and wane, but a new movement is being born.
To win re-election, Obama needs to show the protesters that despite his slow start, he understands that the country needs fundamental change. While one can say he’s blown the chance by being so establishment in his first four years, in the campaign he won’t run against Obama of ’08 but a real Republican candidate with whom he can compare himself. He’ll also have a lot of money to get his message out.
Moreover, this message can appeal to independents. Most aren’t ideological — if they were, they wouldn’t be independent. They’ve shown they can vote Democratic or Republican, depending on their mood or assessment of whether what’s being done is working. If Obama can make a credible argument that he stands for simpler taxes, a more ambitious jobs plan, and an honest discussion of debt, then as we get into the dog days of the campaign people currently disillusioned thanks to the economy may decide Obama is their best bet.
But he has to go to Wall Street. He can’t ignore a movement driven by the same emotions and ideals that brought so much energy to his campaign in 2008.
“It should have been evident to clear-eyed observers that the Republican Party is becoming less and less like a traditional political party in a representative democracy and becoming more like an apocalyptic cult, or one of the intensely ideological authoritarian parties of 20th century Europe. This trend has several implications, none of them pleasant.”
– Republican operative Mike Lofgren, upon retirement (full article here)
I have been amazed at the change in the Republican party during my life time. Today’s Republican party looks nothing like what it used to be. That’s also the message of Mike Lofgren’s parting shot at a party he served for over thirty years, driven by his amazement that the GOP could engage in what he called “economic terrorism” in the debt ceiling crisis and other issues. Where once Eisenhower could defend extremely high marginal rates on the wealthiest taxpayers (up to 90% on the highest incomes), now when Obama suggests closing loopholes during a time of crisis to pay to create jobs — keeping taxes on our wealthiest the lowest in the world — some make the claim that’s “class warfare.” More accurately class warfare is refusing to close loopholes so that the poor do all the suffering in a time of crisis!
Here’s another interesting bit from that article:
“A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.”
That kind of cynicism — to try to foster distrust of the institutions of democracy for electoral gain — is profoundly and deeply anti-American and of course anti-democratic (with a small ‘d’). So are the arguments made recently that only those who pay taxes should vote, or here in Maine wild hysterics with no supporting evidence that Democrats were ‘stealing elections.’ Vote suppression has become a tactic across the country, embraced proudly by Republicans who believe that making it harder to register and to vote will help them at the ballot box.
After listing some of the vote suppression efforts, Loftgren notes the purpose – to stop “those people” from voting.
“You can probably guess who ‘those people’ are. Above all, anyone not likely to vote Republican. As Sarah Palin would imply, the people who are not Real Americans. Racial minorities. Immigrants. Muslims. Gays. Intellectuals. Basically, anyone who doesn’t look, think, or talk like the GOP base. This must account, at least to some degree, for their extraordinarily vitriolic hatred of President Obama. I have joked in the past that the main administration policy that Republicans object to is Obama’s policy of being black. Among the GOP base, there is constant harping about somebody else, some “other,” who is deliberately, assiduously and with malice aforethought subverting the Good, the True and the Beautiful: Subversives. Commies. Socialists. Ragheads. Secular humanists. Blacks. Fags. Feminazis. The list may change with the political needs of the moment, but they always seem to need a scapegoat to hate and fear.”
Lofgren charges the media with being complicate in this attempt to subvert democracy. Thanks to Fox news there is pressure to be ‘fair and balanced,’ which means treat each side the same. Be no more critical of one side than the other, and blame both parties when things go wrong. A commenter to my blog (classicliberal) has accused me of the same thing. Beyond that, the far right uses talk radio and emotion-driven media to get their themes through. Having studied German history I find I cannot listen to people like Limbaugh and Hannity. To call them “entertainers” and dismiss their over the top vitriol understates just how much their methods, use of emotion, demonization of whole classes of people and simplification of the world into “us good, them bad” are so much like the tactics of Joseph Goebbels.
The author also blames the Democrats for ceding ground to the Republicans on this (again, echoing classicliberal’s criticisms of Obama’s center-right drift in comments on this blog). The result is a country with dysfunctional politics, a major party that is in the hands of extremists who sound like any taxation is bad, play to fears (of Muslims, the poor needing assistance, Obama, etc.) and refuse to compromise because their goal is not to solve the country’s ills but to take power to realize their ideological vision.
All this coming from a Republican insider who knows what’s happening behind closed doors gives it immense credibility. The author also doesn’t believe that most Republicans, not even most Republican politicians, share such a perverse perspective. In Maine neither of our two Senators, my GOP State Senator nor my state Rep are like that — they reflect the true values of the Republican party. However, at the national level the party seems to have been taken over by extremists who are so caught up in their own cause that they ignore the impact this has on a country that has functioned by competition between two parties who realize solving the nation’s problems is more important than electoral politics.
I am coming around to realizing that classicliberal was right. I still defend Obama’s pragmatism — it demonstrated an effort to treat the Republicans as an opposition that should be taken seriously. Perhaps they spat in Obama’s face more than he should have tolerated, but no one can accuse him of not making trying. And on the debt ceiling Obama had to ultimately give in — the Republicans were crazy enough to sabotage the economy if he did not, the 14th amendment was not a constitutionally valid approach (to do that to win a political fight would have been the equivalent of what the GOP was doing — to save the constitution you can’t abuse it), and it made clear who was at fault for the impasse. It’s no surprise that since then the ratings of Congress and the tea party have plummeted.
But no more. With all due respect to my conservative friends, Republicans who I believe do not represent the extremes and have legitimately skeptical views of many government programs, the Democrats and the President have to go on the offensive. Call it class warfare if you want, but they have to point out the fact I’ve shown in this blog that the middle class have been net losers while the wealthy have had their incomes expand dramatically in the last thirty years. Our taxes are the least progressive, our wealth distribution the worst in the industrialized world, and the wealthy haven’t made jobs with their gains, but produced bubble after bubble as the country went greater into debt and lost its productive edge. Our infrastructure is falling apart — in part because that’s one of the things you need government to do! In education we rank near last in the industrialized world in terms of PISA scores (standardized tests given to 15 year olds), and our country is in serious decline.
Cutting taxes and government won’t solve this. Removing regulations isn’t some kind of simple miracle cure that will magically produce jobs (indeed de-regulation was a major cause of this crisis). Easy, simple, painless answers have been GOP stock in trade (or pain only for those whose benefits are cut — people often dismissed as freeloaders anyway). The Democrats have to shift tone to a more aggressive defense of their proposals, challenging the GOP.
However, they can’t become like their opponents. They can’t ignore the middle ground to pursue their own ideological war. They have to recognize that, as I think President Obama clearly enunciated in numerous speeches, the American people deserve better from their politicians. But he has given the Republicans every chance to compromise and has shown a willingness to work with them to solve problems. They’ve responded with insults, holding the economy hostage, and deriding the President. The Democrats have to fight back. Hard.
Sometimes I run across an article that causes my jaw to drop in amazement that anybody would write such a thing. A recent article at the website “American Thinker” is one of them. In that article they say registering the poor to vote is un-American because the poor don’t pay taxes. The article itself, apparently trying to rationalize voter suppression and create resentment of the poor, is a mess. Most of the time it focuses on hard core Marxists of over forty years ago and even Trotskyists. Apparently the author wants to somehow link these to Barack Obama and current democrats.
There are three especially perverse aspects of that argument.
1. The article suggests that the Democrats want the poor to be poor in order to get votes through bribery. In other words, all the rhetoric about wanting equal opportunity, helping those who have difficulty, insuring people get access to quality education and health care — as well as food for children — is a lie: to them, the Democrats don’t care about the poor except to get votes.
That would be despicable if it were true. But Democrats from hardcore activists to people whose political action doesn’t go beyond voting are motivated by a desire for justice and to help people improve their lives. Now, it may be that the Democratic approach is wrong — there are many good arguments one can make against a myriad of social welfare programs. But the argument made in the article in American Thinker does go that route. They say that the poor are just being bribed, that the Democrats are shaking down the rich to buy off the poor.
That is a fascistic argument. I’m not saying that to call names, but fascism essentially operates by trying to deny the existence of politics. Fascism sees politics as mob rule, destined to fail as politicians play populist games to get votes. Therefore fascists try to deny the legitimacy of political differences and instead paint their opponents are morally depraved or fundamentally dishonest. In the article the real issues of how to deal with social problems are defined away; rather you just have bad Democrats trying to bribe greedy poor people.
It’s also an insane argument. The poor rarely vote. You’re not going to win elections by trying to simply give to the poor. The reason Democrats want to register the poor is to get them involved in the process. The more involved you are in the process the more likely you are going to take your community seriously and improve your life. The poor voter is more likely to work his or her way off welfare than one who is alienated. The writers’ argument is not only wrong, if followed (dissuading the poor from voting) it would make the poor more likely to stay dependent on the state.
2. It is clear class warfare, an effort to breed resentment of the poor and cause middle class folk, especially whites, to think that the Democrats simply represent lazy freeloaders. Some poor folk may be lazy, but most working class poor have recently lost a job, have had unexpected health care costs, or really want to find a way to make it on their own. If their kids don’t get a solid education, health care, and basic nutrition, they won’t have a real opportunity to succeed — meaning a perpetual cycle of poverty and an increased chance of crime.
For the rich to resent the poor is perversion. It’s the “haves” looking down their nose and scoffing at those who do not do as well, and then telling them “you should have no voice in the political system because you’re a loser.” When President Obama wants to close a few loopholes people scream that he’s demonizing the rich — which he’s not. The rich do very well in the US, we have the wealthiest top ten percent of income earners in the world by far. Our bottom 10% are closer to third world states, and even our bottom sixty percent aren’t that well off relative to other countries. If there’s class warfare, it’s coming from the right.
3. The argument ignores reality. Another blogger linked an article the other day from the CATO institute. Like the American Thinker article, it plays rhetorical games but ignores reality. Their claim:
Did you know that in Denmark, the poorest 30 percent pay 14.1 percent of all taxes and the richest pay 48.7 percent, while in the United States, the poorest 30 percent pay just 6.1 percent of all taxes and the richest 30 percent pay a whopping 65.3 percent?
From there the author asserts that our poorest pay less and get more, while our wealthy are bled. Of course, the reality is quite different. First, Scandinavian countries have poor pay in and then get more reimbursement — it’s only the reforms of Ronald Reagan that actually ended the poor paying in first. Reagan was proud to get the poor off the tax roles.
However, to measure progressivity the only way is to look at the GINI index and see the before tax and transfer and after tax and transfer rate. The GINI index measures income distribution. 0 would be everyone earning the same, 1.00 would be one person with everything and another with nothing.
The US pre-tax and transfer GINI index is at .46, while Sweden is at .43, and Denmark and Norway are at .42. That means pre-tax they are slightly more even in income distribution, but not much. Germany has a bigger pre-tax gap between the rich and the poor than the US at .51.
After tax the US GINI index moves to .38 — a modest improvement. After taxes and transfers Denmark is at .23. That’s right, taxes and transfers equalize wealth dramatically, the gap between the rich and the poor is least in all the industrialized world. This means the poor are much more even with the rich in Denmark. Sweden is also at .23, Norway is at .28, while Germany’s disparity narrows from .51 to .30. All of those systems are much more progressive than the US. Most wealth stays with the rich here, the gap between the rich and the poor is higher in the US than ALL other OECD states except Portugal, with which we’re tied. Poland is slightly better at .37 after taxes and transfers.
These arguments are signs that far right are relying on false arguments, based on distortion. They do not have facts on their side. It isn’t bad for the poor to vote, we do have the largest gap between the rich and poor, and our wealthy are doing very well.
This doesn’t mean Democratic programs work. This doesn’t even mean that the Republicans don’t have better ideas. It’s only that people making these kinds of arguments (glibly, talk radio style arguments) don’t even try to engage Democratic ideas or support Republican ones. They evade the real issues and appeal to emotion, often with very misleading information. The left spins as well, neither side is immune from the temptation to twist things their way. But these examples are a bit over the top, especially the desire to demonize the poor in the American Thinker article. It’s another example of how the far right is ‘jumping the shark’ and may be past its peak.
This is perhaps the best Jon Stewart segment ever — or at least in a long time:
It demolishes the argument that slightly increasing the tax on the wealthy is class warfare, or the whining that “half the population” doesn’t pay any taxes. (As Stewart points out, the bottom 50% of the population control only 2.5% of the wealth in the country). This is classic, and it has punch. It amazes me how many people are fooled by the argument that somehow the wealthy are being demonized (the Fox line on what asking for slightly higher tax rates is doing). Middle and working class people are being manipulated into defending the wealthy.
I think that’s going to change. The one quibble I have with Stewart is that he uses pre-tax and transfer GINI index numbers. The post-tax and transfer numbers are even more powerful. Enjoy the clip! (And take it seriously — small tax increases on the wealthy are not in contradiction to true conservative principles).
Lately I’ve written a lot about politics and economics, and I have to remind myself that no matter how important the issues may seem, and how emotional the debates become, politics and economics simply provide the context within which we live our lives and make our choices. If we take it too seriously, we risk losing ourselves. It reminds me of the old Billy Joel song, “Angry Young Man” from Turnstiles, one of my favorite Joel albums:
“I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness & righteous rage
I found that just surviving was a noble fight.
I once believed in causes too, I had my pointless point of view,
Life went on no matter who was wrong or right
And there’s always a place for the angry young man,
With his fist in the air and his head in the sand.
And he’s never been able to learn from mistakes,
He can’t understand why his heart always breaks.
His honor is pure and his courage as well,
He’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell!
And he’ll go to the grave as an angry old man.”
I see political activists on the left or right, socialist or libertarian, centrist or extreme, and realize that while they convince themselves that they are seeking truth and justice, many are deluded – trying to find from an external cause what they lack within. Those with whom they disagree are disparaged – fascist, communist, religious extremist… reminding me of another song, this one by Rush and lyricist Neil Peart — “You bet your life” off the Roll the Bones album.
The song conjures up a vision of a young man in the world, surveying all the different beliefs and lifestyles. The chorus/refrain is a collage of different ways you can bet your life:
“anarchist reactionary running-dog revisionist
hindu muslim catholic creation/evolutionist
rational romantic mystic cynical idealist
minimal expressionist post-modern neo-symbolist
Armchair rocket scientist graffiti existentialist
Deconstruction primitive performance photo-realist
Be-bop or a one-drop or a hip-hop lite-pop-metalist
Gold adult contemporary urban country capitalist
The odds get even – you name the game
The odds get even – the stakes are the same: you bet your life.”
You bet your life. In each person’s life the true reality is not the power games in Washington (or even Madison), nor is it the ideological struggle between various philosophies. It’s not about unions or corporations, or about taxes and regulation. It’s not even about religion. Reality is about friends, family, and daily choices we make about what to do in complex situations where people’s emotions and perhaps life direction is on the line.
It’s a coward’s way out to hide behind an ideology or a political cause. It’s a way of avoiding life, of losing oneself so deep in an abstract reality that one doesn’t recognize the pitfalls of “consciousness and righteous rage.” Life does go on no matter who is wrong or right.
The political and cultural backdrop may change, but each person is confronted daily with the need to make choices on what to do in diverse situations — to help a friend or not, to cheat on a spouse, to lie to a stranger, to steal or even kill. Yes, the backdrop will change, but to go back to Neil Peart and Rush, you have to stick it out (from the Counterparts LP):
Each time we bathe our reactions
In artificial light
Each time we alter the focus
To make the wrong move seem right
When caught up in a cause, a belief or a sense of “righteous rage” as Joel put it, it’s easy to make the wrong move seem right. It may be dramatic like the Hutus feeling they had to eliminate their Tutsi rivals, or it may be trivial, like pulling out an opponents’ election signs from front yards — either way, it’s easy to rationalize doing something wrong. Whenever one is driven by ideology to justify doing things that would otherwise be wrong, that person has lost perspective.
The older I get the more I sense that reality unfolds as it must. The political and economic turmoil that surround us reflects humanity’s inner state — and is a mere stage for the unfolding of dramas about ethical and moral choice which each of us undertakes. To focus on the political quest and lose sight of one’s personal connections, friendships and moral choice can lead to a kind of psychological pathology. It’s why so many political leaders turn out to have personal failings — Senator Craig seeking gay sex in airports though he was a social conservative, Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy’s liaisons with women, or the moral scandals of religious leaders like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker. Whenever one gets more caught up in the abstract cause or game than focused on the moral implications of each individual choice, one risks losing sight of what is right.
Greenpeace attacks whaling ships, “Anonymous” hacks corporate and governmental websites, PETA throws red paint on fur, Timothy McVeigh bombs a Federal Building because America’s government is ‘too oppressive’: any time one uses ideology to rationalize actions that otherwise would be wrong, that’s a sign of moral nihilism: anything for the cause.
When I was 11 years old I bought a 45 RPM with Les Crane reading The Desiderata, written by Max Ehrman back in 1927 – when the world was about to face unpleasant times. It’s wisdom still comes through:
Go placidly amid the noise and the haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible, without surrender,
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even to the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons;
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain or bitter,
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs,
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals,
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love,
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment,
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be.
And whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
(The Desiderata, by Max Ehrman, 1927)
It is now August 2011 panic grips the financial sector. Despite budget cuts and new austerity, Italian bond yields rise and investors flee. Will southern Europe take down the Euro? Can and should the wealthy European states bail them out? In the US politicians fight over simply approving the borrowing of money to pay bills that need paying; and bring the world’s largest economy on the edge of default, and to a credit downgrade. The Dow gyrates at a pace not seen such the crisis began in 2008 as panic sets in on fears of further downgrades and a ‘double dip recession.’
Given my continual bearishness on the global economy, you might expect an “I told you so, now its really going to hit the fan.” Yet I’m starting to think that the worst may be over. Job growth was up in July, especially in the private sector. New unemployment claims came in lower than expected in the last two weeks, under 400,000. Corporations are starting to report plans to hire and that they are seeing an uptick in business.
Governments have recognized the seriousness of this crisis world wide and have proven remarkably capable of compromising and acting to try to change policies and turn the global economy around. The idea that this is ‘just another recession’ has given way to the recognition that it is a ‘depression like crisis’ with no quick and easy answer. Realism is trumping ideology in most of Europe, and I suspect it’s about to do so in the US. Average people are making better choices too. They are saving, planning, and adapting to new conditions in a very practical and sensible way. Hyper-consumerism, rather than being a cultural depravity set to bring down the West, may have simply been a fad that blossomed due to the bubble years.
To core cause of this crisis is crystal clear and easy to understand. We are in a recession that is a natural part of the business cycle. However, this recession coincides with the fact that the accumulated debt of the industrialized West — public and private — has become unsustainable. This debt helped avoid the recessionary corrections necessary in 1991 and 2001, but increases the scope and intensity of the one we are now experiencing. Think of high debt as steroids — we’ve got a recession on steroids!
Originally, people thought the recession was simply another downturn and that much like the ones in 1991 and 2001; a strong stimulus along with cheap credit would again put us back on track. This led to a belief that a stimulus alongside expansionary federal reserve policies would catapult the economy back into overdrive. That didn’t work. Debt had become unsustainable and counter-productive.
Others, mostly on the right, focused on debt as the sole cause of the problem, not recognizing the reality of a deep recession (correcting imbalances that began at the end of the last true recession in 1983) and the fact that spending cuts could spiral us down into depression. To them the solution was to cut spending and get the budget in order. They don’t get that alongside fiscal discipline there is a need for government to actively combat the recession and invest in the country. Even though tax increases harm the economy less than spending cuts, ideology pushes them to demand only the latter, making it more difficult to reach political agreement.
In other words, many have very clearly seen half the problem, but ignore or deny the other half. That’s starting to change. The President embraced a strong and I believe relatively well designed stimulus program which has paid dividends. The country was bleeding jobs in the early months of 2009, now it has gone to creating them.
And compare it with this longer term view:
(See these graphs came from this site, which also had an interesting discussion: Reflections of a Rational Republican.)
A couple of things stand out. First, job growth late in the Bush Presidency (before the recession) was about the same as job growth after we came out o f the recession. The recovery may be weak, but it’s symmetrical. The decrease in job loses was swift in 2009 when the stimulus took effect. With the good numbers for July and new unemployment claims dipping below 400,000 two weeks in a row, the economy is perking up.
Now, if you want it to grow faster you could say “add more stimulus” and expect the numbers to rise. However, that ignores the debt issue, part two of this crisis. There would be no down grades, no fear of defaults, and no difficulty in addding stimulus if the debt to GDP ratio was considerably lower. That means that stimulus is not the answer to the second step of solving this crisis. The budget must be restructured.
I expect job growth to continue into 2012, mostly because cuts will not take affect before then and the stimulus is starting to take hold. Despite the fear and uncertainty on Wall Street, we have reached a point of capitulation where the markets stop reacting out of panic and start truly assessing the state of the world economy.
If the US passes a mixture of tax increases and budget cuts that promise a significant dent in debt, not only will the AAA rating be restored, but private investors will be more comfortable taking risks in the economy. If the Europeans stabilize the Eurozone (or, less likely, make it smaller), countries like Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Norway — all of whom are handling the recession relatively well — can help motor Europe forward. Lost in the whole controversy is that the unhealthy European economies are the minority, dragging the majority down. As a continent, Europe is actually in better shape than the US.
However, the result will be continued slow growth as the global economy rebalances. More power and wealth will shift to countries like China, Brazil and others. Globalization will limit the impact of domestic policies — does a tax cut in the US stimulate the American economy, or does it stimulate the Chinese economy if the money is used to be Chinese consumables? We won’t be partying like we did in 1999 (or 2006) when growth appeared permanent — bubbles create wild illusions! That economy was a house of cards built on sand. But a slow restructuring with jobs dribbling rather than surging back could mean the development by the end of the decade of a strong, restructured stable US and world economy.
Anyone who has read my blog for the last three plus years knows I’ve been pretty bearish on the economy. I was a contrarian back in the heady days of 2006 when people believed that deregulation of financial markets and American innovation had heralded in a new economy. It was debt, the current account deficit and hyper consumerism that caused that view. Now the current account is back to just over 3% of GDP — too high, but tolerable. Consumerism has given way to saving and paying off debt. Both parties are serious about debt reduction. In Europe and the US illusions of this being “just another recession” have given way to recognition that this is a time of systemic transition rivaling the 30s.
It’s always darkest before the dawn. It may well be that August 2011 is remembered as the turning point in restructuring the global economy. We won’t get the rah-rah consumerism and bubble games of the 00s, but we might get a sustainable economy and even learn that community trumps consumption.