Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Extremism in Defense of Nihilism Is a Vice

The current debt ceiling "negotiations" – really a hostage situation – illustrate very starkly the extreme recklessness of the Republican Party, and the cowardice of far too many journalists covering the story. The Republicans' actions are unprecedented – no party before has ever openly threatened to damage the country's economy if it didn't get what it wanted. Add to that that the Republicans created most of the mess they now decry, have actively fought measures to fix it, and that most of their proposed measures will make it worse, and "shameless hypocrisy" is too tame. "Sociopathic" and "treacherous," while terribly rude, are more accurate, and certainly more on-target than the usual, willfully gutless "both sides are equally to blame" bullshit you'll often get from reporters and pundits. If you doubt that assessment, stop to consider how many mainstream media pieces you've seen that have questioned the legitimacy of the Republican's stance, or put that stance in historical context of their past legislative actions, or analyzed the actual positions of the parties, or suggested (however gently) that for once, perhaps the solution isn't total and utter capitulation by the Democrats, but sober, responsible action by the Republicans. A recent Onion article satirized the situation, but threatening to default on the national debt never should have happened in the first place. However, it's hardly the first time Republicans have threatened measures which should be routine or the basic functioning of the government.

Once upon a time, there were sensible, civic-minded Republicans, and if one looks hard enough, one can still find them occasionally, but they have been hunted to near extinction, and hold no power in the Party as it exists today. Movement Conservatism – and a very nasty strain at that – reigns supreme. The GOP's sins are many, but chief among them are dishonesty, extremism, nihilism, corruption and cruelty.


Last night, President Barack Obama and Speaker of the House John Boehner both spoke about the debt ceiling. I'd say Obama was accurate but pulled his punches, not naming the scoundrels outright. Meanwhile, Boehner just flat-out lied outrageously. He's hardly the only one in his party to do so. Let's put some of their claims, and this whole debate, in greater context.

Among Boehner's many claims was a familiar one from Republicans, that government spending is out of control. This is blatantly false. Paul Krugman has pointed this out many, many times (most recently when David Brooks parroted the lie), but the chart from this Krugman post is especially helpful:

(Click any chart for a larger view.) Basically, government spending has remained roughly the same, but because of the economic downturn and taking in less revenue, the deficit (and the debt) have grown. You'll notice, in the vein of Karl Rove, that Republicans like to talk about the deficit in terms of percent of GDP because it obfuscates the real problem. They also like to ignore that Bush roughly doubled the national debt, adding roughly five trillion to it.

Where did all that money go? Well, we've used this CBPP chart before:

Here's another, from The New York Times:

For all their posturing, Republicans were the chief force behind all of this. Bloomberg reports:

Yet the speaker, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell all voted for major drivers of the nation’s debt during the past decade: Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts and Medicare prescription drug benefits. They also voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, that rescued financial institutions and the auto industry.

Together, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News, these initiatives added $3.4 trillion to the nation’s accumulated debt and to its current annual budget deficit of $1.5 trillion.

Let's be honest; if the Republicans really cared about deficits, they never would have passed the deficit-busting Bush tax cuts in the first place, and they certainly wouldn't have threatened to grind the government to a halt last December if Obama and the Democrats didn't extend tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. As these Congressional Budget Office charts show, letting the Bush tax cuts expire is probably the single best move Congress can do to decrease the deficit:

As for Boehner's bold, debt-cutting plan:

Over the course of a decade, CBO estimates the plan would reduce deficits by $851 billion. Those are big numbers. But they're less than Boehner's $1 trillion in promised cuts, and would thus make it hard for him to stand by his demand for a dollar-for-dollar match between deficit reduction and new borrowing authority...

Exempting war spending -- which goes untouched in Boehner's plan -- the legislation would reduce spending by only $5 billion next fiscal year. And its impact on the deficit is even less -- a paltry $1 billion.

The Republicans current game is classic shock doctrine and starve the beast strategy. Run up the debt (funneling most of that money to the rich), create a crisis, then use that crisis to try to justify cutting the social safety net. Thom Hartmann gives a great short history of this movement, but the evidence of bad faith is considerable. Reagan roughly tripled the national debt, and Republicans abandoned fiscal conservatism for Reaganomics' fiscal recklessness and plutocratic agenda. (As we examined in "Attack of the Plutocrats," they've been extremely successful.) Reagan's budget director David Stockman admitted that the true goal of their supply-side economic pitch was to lower taxes on the rich. Neocon Irving Kristol said he didn't care about fiscal irresponsibility if it gave Republicans more power. Dick Cheney infamously said that "Reagan proved deficits don't matter."

You have to look awfully hard to find a fiscally responsible Republican these days. Most congressional Republicans either support fiscal recklessness and don't worry about the consequences, or support fiscal recklessness as a means of destroying the parts of government they don't like. Regardless, it's horrible, irresponsible governing. They keep fighting to make America into more of a plutocracy, and refuse to raise taxes even a tiny fraction on the rich, even though that's where the money's gone:

Rich Republican donors have actually told Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor it's okay to raise their taxes, and he told them no. (The positions of the Republican leadership keep shifting somewhat, but their opposition to raising taxes even slightly has been quite firm.)

The current Republican proposals to balance the budget don't hold up to scrutiny. The same goes for Paul Ryan's earlier, fraudulent, cruel budget built of supply-side fairy dust. In contrast, The People's Budget, introduced by the Progressive Congressional Caucus, actually does balance the budget and creates a surplus by 2021, while protecting the social safety net and investing in jobs programs. Conservatives refuse to use the solutions it employs, though. Occasionally, Republicans have given up the game, and openly admitted to not actually caring about the deficit. As Krugman has often pointed out, they are phony deficit hawks:

So, just to summarize: Republicans are deeply, deeply concerned about the budget deficit; they believe that our nation’s future is at stake.

But they’re willing to sacrifice that future, not to mention risk the good faith and credit of the federal government, rather than accept so much as a single penny of tax increases as part of a deal.

Given all that, it seems almost redundant to mention that federal tax receipts as a percentage of GDP are near a historic low...

So what’s it all about? The answer, of course, is that the GOP never cared about the deficit — not a bit. It has always been nothing but a club with which to beat down opposition to an ideological goal, namely the dissolution of the welfare state. They’re not interested, at all, in a genuine deficit-reduction deal if it does not serve that goal.

And everyone who has preached bipartisanship, who has called for a meeting of minds on the subject, is either a fraud or a chump.

Despite thirty years of fiscal irresponsibility and recklessness from Republicans, and ample evidence of bad faith through their public statements and voting records, the mainstream press insists on taking GOP claims about balancing the budget at face value, with nary a scrap of skepticism. It's pathetic, and does the public a grave (and in this case, dangerous) disservice. The Republican story on our current budget woes is shamelessly dishonest, intentionally omitting crucial context and their own massive culpability.

It's important to also remember that theirs is a cruel agenda, by design or simply default. Lobbying for a favored policy is one thing, but simultaneously lobbying to funnel money to the most privileged while trying to cut aid to the middle class and poor is unconscionable. It's also indefensible in terms of such quaint notions as representative government. The same Republicans who would not budge on tax cuts for the rich in December are the same people who fought to deny umemployment benefits to millions of Americans, and who have fought to fire teachers, nurses and firefighters. Effectively, they've chosen to represent 2–5% of their constituents at the expense of the other 95% plus.

It can't be repeated enough: Overall, Republicans do not care about responsible governance. They do not care about deficits or fiscal responsibility. They do not care about the social contract. They do not care about all Americans, only the wealthy, corporations, and a few other interest groups. Pretending otherwise is naïve at best, cowardly and dangerous at worst.


As Nate Silver notes, the GOP's no tax position is far outside the political mainstream. Based on a recent poll, Americans favor a mix of spending cuts and tax increases:

Few Americans, however, take the view that spending cuts alone should be made in a deal, with no tax increases at all. In fact, only 26 percent of the Republican voters surveyed in Gallup’s poll took that position, along with 20 percent of voters overall...

The average Republican voter, based on this data, wants a mix of 26 percent tax increases to 74 percent spending cuts. The average independent voter prefers a 34-to-66 mix, while the average Democratic voter wants a 46-to-54 mix:

Numerous polls show that Americans would prefer raising taxes on the rich first before cutting social spending. Support for that would likely shoot up drastically if more people knew about the massive increase in wealth inequality over the past decades.

Silver continues:

Now consider the positions of the respective parties to the negotiation. One framework that President Obama has offered, which would reduce the debt by a reported $2 trillion, contains a mix of about 17 percent tax increases to 83 percent spending cuts. Another framework, which would aim for twice the debt reduction, has been variously reported as offering a 20-to-80 or 25-to-75 mix.

With the important caveat that the accounting on both the spending and tax sides can get tricky, this seems like an awfully good deal for Republicans. Much to the chagrin of many Democrats, the mix of spending cuts and tax increases that Mr. Obama is offering is quite close to, or perhaps even a little to the right of, what the average Republican voter wants, let alone the average American.

Stop to consider this for a moment. Republicans could have gotten a deal favoring them 75 to 25, or even as good as 87-13, and they rejected it. Meanwhile, many press accounts, true to form (as we explored in a recent post), have ignored the actual positions of the two parties and blamed them both equally, or even worse, excoriated the Democrats for not making a deal. Democrats have been willing to compromise (in fact, Obama has been far too willing).

Why haven't the Republicans taken one of these generous deals? Silver continues:

However, all but 7 Republicans in the House of Representatives, or 97 percent of them, have signed the pledge of Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform stating that any net tax increases are unacceptable. One might have believed this to be simply a negotiating position. But the proposal that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell floated yesterday, which would give up on striking a deal and instead rely on some procedural gymnastics to burden Mr. Obama with having to raise the debt ceiling, suggests otherwise. Republicans in the House really may be of the view that a deal with a 3:1 or 4:1 or 5:1 ratio of spending cuts to tax increases is worse than none at all.

If we do take the Republicans’ no-new-taxes position literally, it isn’t surprising that the negotiations have broken down. Consider that, according to the Gallup poll, Republican voters want the deal to consist of 26 percent tax increases, and Democratic voters 46 percent — a gap of 20 percentage points. If Republicans in the House insist upon zero tax increases, there is a larger ideological gap between House Republicans and Republican voters than there is between Republican voters and Democratic ones.

Silver provides another chart:

It's striking, isn't it? This general pattern extends on many other issues. Even a few years ago, some Republican politicians acknowledged global warming existed, even if they advocated only modest action to combat it. Fewer of those halfway-honest souls exist now, and several GOP presidential candidates "are running away from their past positions on global warming, driven by their party's loud doubters who question the science and disdain government solutions." Congressional Republicans have become more extreme on the issue, although they aren't as far to the right of average Republicans on it as they are on taxes. However, as we've explored before, on a multitude of issues, the Republican base believes things that simply are not factually true – and they believe these things because their leaders lie to them, and have done so for several decades.

In a subsequent post, Nate Silver shows that "G.O.P. Governors Swing Right, Leaving Voters Behind," and observes that "moderate Republican governors, a thriving species before last year's elections, are all but extinct." The same is not true of moderate Democratic governors.

Meanwhile, the two parties are not equivalent when it comes to the core concept of negotiation itself. When it comes to the current debt ceiling issue:

A new Pew Research poll finds 68% of Americans say that lawmakers should compromise on the debt ceiling debate, even it means striking a deal they disagree with. Just 23% say lawmakers who share their views should stand by their principles, even if that leads to default.

Breakdown: 81% of of Democrats and 69% of independents favor a compromise to avoid default, but Republicans are more divided: 53% favor a compromise, while 38% say lawmakers should stand by their principles even if it leads to a default.

Once-respectable conservatives have downplayed the dangers of default, or even endorsed it, and many GOP freshmen in the House, a very right-wing bunch, think defaulting on the debt is no big deal. As John Cole notes (and do read his whole short post), they think they are revolutionaries and they are insane. Shockingly, stupid people are more likely to make stupid decisions.

Corruption and Nihilism

When looking at the destructive words and actions of politicians, it's hard not to wonder what mix of stupid, evil or crazy fuels them. With Grover Norquist, the answer's mainly evil, with a bit of crazy. For his devotees and pledges, it may be more precise to speak of corruption and nihilism. Overwhelmingly, they're extremists, but Norquist leads the pack in that regard.

Grover Norquist is most well-known for being president of Americans for Tax Reform (ATR), and for pressing Republicans to sign his pledge never to raise taxes, ever, even in the face of Armageddon – which appears to have arrived. He's infamous for saying that his goal is to shrink government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub." Norquist, a rich man by now, is a zealous proponent of Starve-the-Beast. He doesn't care about the social contract, balancing the budget, or a more functional government. Whether essential social program will be cut, or Americans will suffer, is not Norquist's problem. He doesn't give a damn. He always wants to lower taxes, regardless of the situation. In an amazing coincidence, this would personally benefit Norquist, and presumably his anonymous donors. (The obvious factors, money and power, should never be discounted, particularly with a well-connected player such as Norquist.)

Norquist recently clashed with some other Republicans over cutting an ethanol subsidy. They argued that it interfered with the free market, but Norquist claimed cutting it would amount to a tax increase and would break his pledge... because it lead to more revenue for the government. (Norquist later backtracked and claimed Republicans could eliminate the subsidy as long as they made a corresponding cut elsewhere.) The incident exposed his bad faith; while some conservatives sincerely want "small government," Norquist wants to destroy government altogether. The negative effects of doing so are someone else's problem. Norquist has always been peddling irresponsible fantasy. As Will Bunch documents in Tear Down This Myth, Norquist played a key role in selling the counterfactual mythology of Saint Ronnie Reagan to America after Reagan left office. (Among other things, Reagan raised taxes several times, and would fail Norquist's own pledge.)

Meanwhile, Norquist isn't just a zealot; he's hyper-partisan and corrupt as well. Talking Points Memo has a good summing up of his activities, but he used the (officially) non-profit ATR as a lobbying organization. Working with his close friends Karl Rove and Jack Abramoff, Norquist was one of the driving forces behind the K Street Project, a lobbying scheme to enrich Republicans, and punish and de-fund Democrats. (Tom Delay and Rick Santorum were also key players.) Think Progress gives a good quick overview:

HOW THE K STREET PROJECT WORKED: In his dealings with K Street lobbyists, DeLay explicitly stated he would operate by “the old adage of punish your enemies and reward your friends.” (To gain influence over legislation, trade associations and corporate lobbyists were ordered to do three things: 1) refuse to hire Democrats, 2) hire only deserving Republicans as identified by the congressional leadership, and 3) contribute heavily to Republican coffers.) Despite being admonished by the House Ethics Committee numerous times for his conduct, DeLay’s pay-to-play machine continued to plow full-speed ahead. With federal benefits up for sale, corporations quickly identified the need to need to hire more lobbyists, giving rise to one of the greatest growth industries in America. Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, proudly proclaimed in 2002 that [conservatives] “will have 90-10 [percentage advantage in staffing] on K Street and 90-10 business giving.”

(As Eric Boehlert notes, most of the press did a poor job covering the K Street Project and the Abramoff scandal.) Like his pal Karl Rove, Norquist has worked to permanently de-fund and destroy the Democratic Party. ATR is also a member of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council), a conservative group of corporations and right-wing activists who draft up corporate-friendly legislation that Republican politicians then try to pass into law. Far from being some fringe figure, Norquist is one of the most influential conservative figures in the country, and as Nate Silver notes, a staggering 97% of House Republicans have signed his no-new-taxes pledge.

Why this matters should be obvious, but let's consider how far the Norquist model of governance strays from the ideal. If we had a sane, adult, responsible Congress, they would approach the issue of the budget by looking at both spending cuts and tax increases. The goal would be fiscal responsibility, not solely spending cuts, which is a childish, absolutist stance. Voters and their representatives would decide what services they wanted government to provide, and then they would make sure they were paid for. If voters and their representatives wanted lower taxes, they would look at what should be cut. Voters would be mature and reasonably informed, and wouldn't simultaneously demand more services and lower taxes.

If we had adults in charge, they'd consider the strong public support for taxing the rich more, and how a very slight increase in taxes on the wealthy worked very well under Clinton, while the tax cuts for the wealthy under Bush accomplished nothing for the country as a whole (and were a huge contributor to our current woes).

If we had adults in charge, in economic slumps, as we have now, Congress would recognize that fiscal responsibility is not always the same thing as fiscal conservatism. It would use Keynesian spending – stimulus measures, unemployment benefits, jobs programs, infrastructure spending, New Deal-type programs – to invigorate the economy. It would remember the mistakes of the Great Depression, and not repeat them.

Insisting on no new taxes, ever, is childish at best, and downright nihilistic at worst. Politicians are supposed represent all their constituents, not just the rich ones, and not one, unelected rich activist. But somehow, Norquist rarely gets criticized in the press. It's a classic example of IOKIYAR (It's OK If You're a Republican), because if the situation were reversed, both conservatives and the press would raise holy hell. As Ed at Gin and Tacos notes:

Let's say that through a combination of fund-raising prowess, ideological militancy, and personal charisma, Jesse Jackson Sr. is able to assume a position of considerable behind-the-scenes power in the Democratic Party. His sway over elected Democrats is such that he manages to get 95% of the Democratic Congressional delegation, House and Senate, to sign an oath of personal loyalty to his policy goals. Specifically, they pledge that under no circumstances will they ever support cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and other social welfare programs. Jackson believes that any such cuts will affect the poor and people of color disproportionately. Throughout the debate over the budget and debt ceiling, House and Senate Democrats refuse to even consider any proposal that touches any of those programs. It is a non-starter. Full stop. Because they swore an oath to Jesse Jackson that they wouldn't.

I'm sure you can see through this thin shoe-on-the-other-partisan-foot analogy to Grover Norquist's "Taxpayer Protection Pledge" that currently holds sway over the GOP. I do think it's interesting to draw out the hypothetical scenario, though, to underscore a point: Can you even imagine the sheer violence of the pant-shitting that the GOP, Teatards, and Beltway media would be engaged in if the shoe really was on the other foot? If every Democrat had signed a personal oath to an interest group and private citizen that took precedence over their oath to the American people and Constitution?

As The New York Times notes, Republicans are signing away the right to govern – and Norquist's pledge isn't the only one they've signed. There's also the Susan B. Anthony pledge (trying to ban abortion and cut off funds), the horribly unrealistic and irresponsible "cut, cap and balance" pledge (its follies are explained here), and the far right, social conservative Marriage Vow (opposition to same-sex marriage, and, until recently, an implicit claim that black children were better off as slaves than they are when raised by a single parent). Consider again how conservatives outsource legislation-writing to ALEC, and the corruption entailed by corporations doing this (as opposed to engaging in strictly-regulated lobbying). Steve Benen has more on all this in "Governing is Not for the Faint of Heart," and Jared Bernstein also weighs in. As I've often written, the Democratic Party is partially plutocratic and corrupt, and the Republican Party is entirely so. The Republican approach to governing is lazy, irresponsible, and corrupt – and at its worst, absolutely reckless and nihilistic. The present debt ceiling hostage situation renders this very starkly.


We've covered media inaccuracies and cowardice before, and shall again. The liberal blogosphere criticizes the Democratic Party all the time, and will continue to do so. However, the debt ceiling threats from the Republicans to tank the American economy (and by extension the global economy) are unprecedented, and the blame in this case is extremely one-sided. It would be refreshing if more of the press showed the basic integrity and courage to call it straight. (It is in fact possible to do so without writing an op-ed.)

To close, let's turn once again to Paul Krugman, who perfectly captures the sins of the centrism cultists, who traffic in false equivalencies and recite the holy scriptures: "Both Sides Do It" and "Both Sides Are Equally to Blame." As Krugman writes in "The Cult That Is Destroying America":

Watching our system deal with the debt ceiling crisis — a wholly self-inflicted crisis, which may nonetheless have disastrous consequences — it’s increasingly obvious that what we’re looking at is the destructive influence of a cult that has really poisoned our political system.

And no, I don’t mean the fanaticism of the right. Well, OK, that too. But my feeling about those people is that they are what they are; you might as well denounce wolves for being carnivores. Crazy is what they do and what they are.

No, the cult that I see as reflecting a true moral failure is the cult of balance, of centrism.

Think about what’s happening right now. We have a crisis in which the right is making insane demands, while the president and Democrats in Congress are bending over backward to be accommodating — offering plans that are all spending cuts and no taxes, plans that are far to the right of public opinion.

So what do most news reports say? They portray it as a situation in which both sides are equally partisan, equally intransigent — because news reports always do that. And we have influential pundits calling out for a new centrist party, a new centrist president, to get us away from the evils of partisanship.

The reality, of course, is that we already have a centrist president — actually a moderate conservative president. Once again, health reform — his only major change to government — was modeled on Republican plans, indeed plans coming from the Heritage Foundation. And everything else — including the wrongheaded emphasis on austerity in the face of high unemployment — is according to the conservative playbook.

What all this means is that there is no penalty for extremism; no way for most voters, who get their information on the fly rather than doing careful study of the issues, to understand what’s really going on.

You have to ask, what would it take for these news organizations and pundits to actually break with the convention that both sides are equally at fault? This is the clearest, starkest situation one can imagine short of civil war. If this won’t do it, nothing will.

And yes, I think this is a moral issue. The “both sides are at fault” people have to know better; if they refuse to say it, it’s out of some combination of fear and ego, of being unwilling to sacrifice their treasured pose of being above the fray.

It’s a terrible thing to watch, and our nation will pay the price.

(See also driftglass and driftglass.)

Once again: Republicans do not care about responsible governance. They do not care about deficits or fiscal responsibility. They do not care about the social contract. The Republican Party has lied about the nature and source of America's budget woes. They've lied about their central culpability. Their "solutions" are cruel to the poor and middle class, their positions are inflexible and extreme, and their conduct is rife with corruption. The most extreme of them are happy to loot the Treasury and watch the country burn; the most insane of them genuinely think this would be a good thing, and would allow them to remake the country more in their image. Drunk with power, ignoring the advice of reality-based experts and the will of the people, they have eagerly fought to a stance of sheer nihilism – threatening to deliberately and deeply wound the country they claim to love. As always, they arrogantly claim the mantle of righteousness and patriotism, but another word describes them much more accurately – traitors.


mediabob said...

Bat, good analysis, and strong links to corroborate. I'm not strong on Political Science but see a comfortable comparison in your post to Medical Science. Movies and entertainment have long associated Politics with parasitic relationships and your article points strongly to a Central Nervous System (government) attack by any number of parasites (special interests). Also, it would seem that the Press and News Media represent another set of organisms feeding off the same body so I don't see them aligning with another that doesn't support its interests. In the end, to bring this body back into balance and health, we may need to excise some of the parasites and strengthen the immune system. Good work.

Batocchio said...

Mediabob, you have a good post going there!

completelybaked said...

Well said. Thanks for the details and the recognition of Republicans for what they are: lying wankers (as the title one of my blog posts declares: Republicans are lying wankers...).


Peter John said...

The media by not calling the Republicans out when they lie legitimizes them. This misleads the American public into believing the Republican lies. The media has become the Republican Party's propaganda machine.