Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Political battles do not occur in a vacuum, and the current scrum features several highly familiar elements. If you've been following the "austerity bomb" / "austerity crisis" news (better terms than "the fiscal cliff"), one of many striking features is the colossal bad faith of the Republicans. Steve Benen devised the nifty chart shown above breaking down how lopsided the current "deal" is. He also notes that some conservatives are complaining that this deal, despite being both bad policy and massively skewed toward the losers of our recent huge election, doesn't go far enough in conservatives' favor. From "The plan the right is pretending not to like":

So, as far as the right-wing GOP base is concerned, a debt-reduction deal in which Republicans make no concessions at all represents an enormous sellout.

Except, in this case, I don't really believe the base is sincere.

We'll probably never know for sure what leading far-right activists are thinking, but by complaining about a deal in which GOP gives up nothing, they seem to be engaged in some political theater.

In other words, the Koch brothers' operation and the Heritage Foundation's lobbying wing are trying to offer some cover for House Speaker John Boehner and the Republican leadership -- if the left and right both claim to oppose the GOP's so-called "counteroffer," then maybe it's the moderate solution between two extremes.

As for the "merits" of the latest offer from John Boehner and the Republicans, Greg Sargent provides a good summary of the latest exercise in Republican magic math in "Magical thinking in new GOP fiscal cliff plan":

So yesterday, House GOP leaders offered up their own fiscal cliff proposal. In exchange for substantial spending cuts, the big concession Republicans would make is that they would agree to $800 billion in new revenues. They would not raise tax rates, they would lower rates through tax reform, and produce the new revenues by closing unspecified loopholes and deductions, to be worked out later.

Is this even possible?

The plan is too lacking in detail to say for sure whether the numbers can even be made to work, according to a tax expert I spoke to this morning. He added that based on what we know now, it would require the elimination of so many loopholes and deductions as to be extremely impractical, and probably politically impossible, though the GOP goal is theoretically attainable under certain very narrow conditions.

Republicans have said that the $800 billion in new revenues would come from eliminating loopholes and deductions in a way that only targets those over $250,000. That way, Republicans can argue that their plan doesn’t hit the middle class, only the rich.

The problem, though, is that you’d have to eliminate virtually every significant loophole and deduction that benefits the wealthy to make this possible, according to Roberton Williams, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center. Worse, if you also want to lower tax rates, as Republicans say they do, it would become even harder.

“If the tax rates are going to be lowered significantly, it’s harder and harder to hit that revenue target,” Williams told me, adding that until Republicans specified what sort of rate cuts they have in mind, it’s impossible to say whether this is even doable.

Williams added that to come within the ballpark of raising $800 billion in new revenues in this fashion, you’d probably have to pare back substantially or eliminate an enormous range of deductions, from the write-offs for employee provided health insurance, interest from municipal bonds, and money invested in retirement plans, to itemized deductions for charitable contributions, state and local taxes, and mortgage interest payments.

Good luck waiting for Congress to eliminate all of those.

Not that any of this is new, but this latest political battle shows once again that:

1. Republicans do not care about good policy or responsible governance.

2. Republicans do not care about public opinion. (Numerous polls show that the public supports raising taxes on the rich.)

3. Republicans do not care about election results (unless they win).

4. Republicans do not believe in fair dealing and good faith.

5. The media will not report political disputes accurately if doing so means criticizing one party significantly more.

A country cannot function well given this state of affairs, but as usual, the corporate media will not assess blame accurately or fairly, and the Beltway "solutions" offered are tend to be plutocrat-friendly measures that screw over the middle class. (Not to mention the poor. Remember them?)

We'll consider other aspects shortly, but more good pieces on this whole affair, see:

Ezra Klein's Wonkblog: "The White House reveals their tax math," "Boehner’s latest tax offer is $150 billion less than he offered in 2011" and "Yesterday’s tax revenues can’t support tomorrow’s America."

Jonathan Bernstein: "Boehner’s offer: A start, but it’s still unclear whether it’s real."

Paul Krugman: "Fighting Fiscal Phantoms," "Class Wars of 2012," "What Defines A Serious Deficit Proposal?" "The Full McConnell," "Operation Rolling Tantrum," "It’s Health Care Costs, Stupid" and "Why People Are Confused About the Fiscal Cliff"

Josh Barrow at Bloomberg: "What's Wrong With the Republican Fiscal Cliff Counteroffer"

Jonathan Cohn: "The Fiscal Cliff Is Better than Boehner's Lousy Offer"

Digby on the so-called grand bargain and fiscal cliff (and don't forget David Dayen).

Meanwhile, it's worthwhile to look at some of the other overarching dynamics.

Republican Sabotage

Republicans decided from the very beginning they would try to sabotage Obama's presidency. Despite their whining and accusations that Obama rebuffed them, they have always been acting in bad faith. Dan Balz provided one of the best accounts back in September in a Washington Post feature. It's worth reading in full, but this section in particularly sticks with me (emphasis added):

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who fought with and compromised with President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, believed the country was hungry for an end to political conflict and was invested in the success of the nation’s first African American president. On Inauguration Day, Gingrich said recently, he told his wife, Callista, that if Obama followed through on what he had said throughout the campaign, “he will be Eisenhower and he will split the Republican Party.”

Later that evening, Gingrich joined a dozen or so other Republicans for a dinner at the Caucus Room restaurant. Their conversation about how to plot a comeback was described in some detail by author Robert Draper in his book “Do Not Ask What Good We Do.”

When Gingrich left the dinner, he told his colleagues, “You’ll remember this as the day the seeds of 2012 were sown.”

Asked recently to reconcile his feelings on the afternoon of the inauguration and his conclusions after the dinner, Gingrich’s response encapsulated both the promise of the Obama presidency and the obstacles he would encounter trying to fulfill it.

“Our job was to design the optimum GOP strategy,” Gingrich said. “Obama’s job was to govern so our strategy would fail.”

Said Axelrod, “If on inaugural night, leaders of the Republican Party are meeting to talk about how they could thwart the president, it belies the notion that they are waiting patiently by their phones for a call from the president to see if they could work together.”

Balz (and Draper, in his book) go into far more detail, but the evidence is damning, and several elements are notable here. One, Gingrich was and remains one of the people most responsible for "political conflict" and hyper-partisanship in America. He's still despicable, and given his pandering racism during his presidential run, he certainly wasn't "invested in the success of the nation’s first African American president." Two, the Republicans are acting in bad faith even by the degraded standards of this account; despite being beaten, despite the failure of their "strategy," they're still opposing Obama… and good policy, and the will of the people. Three – Gingrich doesn't seem to realize how incriminatory this account is. In a corrupted D.C., perhaps it's nothing too shocking, but this story is further proof of the Republican Party, of movement conservatives, putting their party before their country. It is unpatriotic. It is sabotage. It may not be treason in the technical, legal sense, but it is (or comes close) in the everyday sense. It is contemptible to harm one's country, to screw over one's own constituents, all to try to acquire more political power. Sincere conservatives exist who champion polices I strongly disagree with, but I don't doubt their basic patriotism, that they're working for what they believe to be their country's best interest. That is not the case with this breed of conservatives, and they are dominant in the Republican Party. (Consider all the conservatives who attacked anyone who dared to question an unnecessary war under Bush as a traitor. Bush certainly had his detractors, and earned many more, but congressional Democrats worked with him, and liberals and moderates generally wished him well in office, because, contrary to Rush Limbaugh, the country can't really do well if the president doesn't.)

Norquist Victory

Ezra Klein makes an excellent point in "Grover Norquist is winning"

Don’t take Norquist’s pledge at face value. It’s an absurdity. From a budgetary standpoint, it’s an obscenity. And everyone — Norquist included, because he is very, very smart — knew it would eventually fall. It’s how it falls that matters. And right now, it’s falling exactly according to plan.

For decades now, Norquist has asked lawmakers to pledge to oppose any and all taxes. That’s a ridiculous pledge. Ronald Reagan, a president Norquist considers such a conservative inspiration that he’s embarked on a quest to name every airport and park bench in the country after him, raised taxes time and time again.

But that’s the point. The severity, even extremism, of the commitment demanded by the pledge has helped entrench a public impression that tax increases are a no-man’s land for conservatives. As recently as Reagan’s day, it was pretty much a given that cutting the deficit meant, in part, increasing taxes, even for Republicans. Today, Republicans who believe the debt is the greatest threat our nation faces — the new “red menace,” in the words of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels — get plaudits just for being willing to consider the idea of a tax increase, no matter how small.

Norquist and his pledge changed more than the conversation. They changed American politics. The question isn’t how we’ll increase taxes and by how much. It’s whether we’ll increase taxes. For a Republican to simply consider a tax increase is considered a massive concession. That helps them ultimately agree to less in taxes, as having conceded so much philosophically and politically, they’re expected to do less as a matter of policy.

The true test of Norquist’s pledge wasn’t whether a Republican ever voted for another tax increase. It was whether it held tax revenues below where they’d otherwise be. It’s whether it increased the political cost of raising taxes. And today, you can see how well his pledge has worked.

I've made this basic point before, that the Norquist framework falls far short of sense. Streamlining tax returns would be a good idea, but we should debating how much we should raise taxes on the rich, how many brackets we should add and at what level and rate, not debating whether or not to raise taxes on the rich at all. Norquist is an excellent, dark example of an Overton window success story. (And while Obama and congressional Democrats certainly have their faults, and some awful "Grand Bargain" is still a threat, Romney would have moved the taxes issues significantly further to the right.)

(It turns out that Bill Moyers' show tonight has two segments dealing with Republican intransigence on taxes and the Norquist pledge.)

Media Complicity

Michael Grunwald recently wrote a fantastic piece that violates the code of silence among Beltway reporters, titled "Fiscal Cliff Fictions: Let’s All Agree to Pretend the GOP Isn’t Full of It":

It’s really amazing to see political reporters dutifully passing along Republican complaints that President Obama’s opening offer in the fiscal cliff talks is just a recycled version of his old plan, when those same reporters spent the last year dutifully passing along Republican complaints that Obama had no plan. It’s even more amazing to see them pass along Republican outrage that Obama isn’t cutting Medicare enough, in the same matter-of-fact tone they used during the campaign to pass along Republican outrage that Obama was cutting Medicare.

This isn’t just cognitive dissonance. It’s irresponsible reporting. Mainstream media outlets don’t want to look partisan, so they ignore the BS hidden in plain sight, the hypocrisy and dishonesty that defines the modern Republican Party. I’m old enough to remember when Republicans insisted that anyone who said they wanted to cut Medicare was a demagogue, because I’m more than three weeks old.

I’ve written a lot about the GOP’s defiance of reality–its denial of climate science, its simultaneous denunciations of Medicare cuts and government health care, its insistence that debt-exploding tax cuts will somehow reduce the debt—so I often get accused of partisanship. But it’s simply a fact that Republicans controlled Washington during the fiscally irresponsible era when President Clinton’s budget surpluses were transformed into the trillion-dollar deficit that President Bush bequeathed to President Obama. (The deficit is now shrinking.) It’s simply a fact that the fiscal cliff was created in response to GOP threats to force the U.S. government to default on its obligations. The press can’t figure out how to weave those facts into the current narrative without sounding like it’s taking sides, so it simply pretends that yesterday never happened.

The next fight is likely to involve the $200 billion worth of stimulus that Obama included in his recycled fiscal cliff plan that somehow didn’t exist before Election Day. I’ve taken a rather keen interest in the topic of stimulus, so I’ll be interested to see how this is covered. Keynesian stimulus used to be uncontroversial in Washington; every 2008 presidential candidate had a stimulus plan, and Mitt Romney’s was the largest. But in early 2009, when Obama began pushing his $787 billion stimulus plan, the GOP began describing stimulus as an assault on free enterprise—even though House Republicans (including Paul Ryan) voted for a $715 billion stimulus alternative that was virtually indistinguishable from Obama’s socialist version. The current Republican position seems to be that the fiscal cliff’s instant austerity would destroy the economy, which is odd after four years of Republican clamoring for austerity, and that the cliff’s military spending cuts in particular would kill jobs, which is even odder after four years of Republican insistence that government spending can’t create jobs.

I guess it’s finally true that we all are Keynesians now. Republicans don’t even seem to be arguing that more stimulus wouldn’t boost the economy; they’ve suggested that Obama needs to give up “goodies” like extending unemployment insurance (which benefits laid-off workers) and payroll tax cuts (which benefit everyone) to show that he’s negotiating in good faith. At the same time, though, they also want Obama to propose bigger Medicare cuts, even though they spent the last campaign slamming Obama’s Medicare cuts and denying their interest in Medicare cuts. I live in Florida, so I had the pleasure of hearing a radio ad from Allen West, hero of the Tea Party, vowing to protect Medicare.

Whatever. I realize that the GOP’s up-is-downism puts news reporters in an awkward position. It would seem tendentious to point out Republican hypocrisy on deficits and Medicare and stimulus every time it comes up, because these days it comes up almost every time a Republican leader opens his mouth. But we’re not supposed to be stenographers. As long as the media let an entire political party invent a new reality every day, it will keep on doing it. Every day.

While these general insights aren't new in the liberal blogosphere, it's a well-written piece… yet what's really striking and depressing about it is that such subjects are rarely written about by Beltway reporters. In the corporate media, pointing out the outrageous bad faith of the Republican Party (or the actual consequences of their policies) is considered terribly uncivil and "partisan." (Despite their faults, the Democrats simply aren't remotely as bad.) It's as if the so-called liberal media had been forced to swear an oath of omertà to movement conservatives not to give the game away.

Political scrums do not occur in a vacuum. It's hard to get anything productive done when honest. accurate discussion is precluded on the national stage. (For some political players, that's certainly by design; in other cases, it's laziness.) It's a radical thought, but maybe we could discuss the actual merits of policy (without Beltway class bias dominating), uphold the results of elections, and insist on responsible governance and fair dealing from all sides. Contrary to the Beltway conventional wisdom, which is almost invariably wrong, America isn't suffering from a lack of compromise – it's suffering from idiocy, corruption and cowardice.

(For previous posts on Republican extremism, American plutocracy, and the preponderance of bullshit in political coverage, see "Extremism in Defense of Nihilism Is a Vice," "The Four Types of Conservatives," "Attack of the Plutocrats" and "Partisanship, Policy and Bullshit.")

1 comment:

Retired Patriot said...

Great post Botacchio. It helps when the title reminds me of a new song by a great singer (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62SfBbSpxxM)!!

Maybe someday history will record what is truly happening - the flat out ascendancy of REVOLUTIONARY, RADICAL politicians of the modern Republican Party. They do not compromise and they get their way because they are radicals absolutely willing to subvert the basic nature of compromise that makes our political system run.

Unless, and until the Democrats in political power understand and act on this premise, we will continue to see "caves" by those with the political (and electoral) power against those who put them in power. And perhaps until the public at large comes to the same realization, we'll continue to see the steady slide towards serfdom.