A Modest Proposal

Most people don’t realize it yet, but if there is no deal to raise the debt ceiling by August 2, a massive shift of political power from the legislative branch to the executive branch will take place.

If Republicans fail to act responsibly and agree to increase the debt limit, they will in effect give President Obama and the Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, the authority to pay the nation’s bills with limited income.  Thus, Geithner and Obama will be forced to choose which bills get paid and which won’t. (Geithner’s already doing this now.)

Reportedly, after August 2  the Treasury Department will be about $120 billion short of paying our bills each month, if the debt ceiling is not raised.

Given that reality, here is a proposal (not  original) for how to operate in a post-August 2, no-deal environment. Call it political triage:

♦ Immediately gather a list of the reddest Republican counties in the United States, according to the 2010 “tea party” elections.

♦ Prepare to withhold all federal payments to those Republican-red counties, including Social Security and Medicare benefits to the residents of those counties.

♦ Then, should Republicans refuse to raise the debt ceiling, first pay all interest due to bondholders, then begin withholding federal funds to those red counties in descending order of redness until enough money is saved to prevent further borrowing.

There. That should do it.

I feel better already.

 

Obama’s Ace?

Yesterday,  regarding the debt ceiling negotiations, I mentioned that President Obama is a “shaky negotiator,” but I held out hope that, “he has an ace up his sleeve that would explain his willingness to give Republicans nearly everything they want…

Last night on The Last Word, Lawrence O’Donnell discussed what he thinks is Obama’s ace, a segment that is a must-see for every liberal, if nothing else, to give some comfort that there may be a method to the madness:

Punt, And Let The People Decide

“Eric Cantor did most of the talking.”

— Sen. Dick Durbin on Sunday’s 75-minute debt ceiling talks

Now that we have had today’s dueling press conferences, just before Obama and the Republicans gather once again to hear GOP leaders explain why they will not act responsibly on the debt ceiling issue, it’s time to understand exactly what is going on here.

♦ Republicans, long on talk about doing a big deal to meet head-on a big, falling-off-a-cliff debt crisis, are slinking back toward the smaller $2 trillion deal.  Obama favors doing “something big,” although it appears he can’t convince Republicans to follow him. Thus, the $4 trillion deal is likely history.

♦ John Boehner is perhaps the weakest Speaker of the House in history.  In fact, he’s not actually Speaker.  That job is now in the hands of Eric Cantor, who though he doesn’t have the title, does have a horde of wild teapartiers behind him who trust him to remain irresponsible by insisting that tax increases remain off the table. 

♦ Obama, a shaky negotiator, essentially ceded so much early ground to the Republicans, that instead of taking the deal of a political lifetime, GOP leadership senses that they can get Obama to blink at the last minute and they can get it all.  Let’s hope he has an ace up his sleeve that would explain his willingness to give Republicans nearly everything they want in exchange for, for, for….well, we’ll see.

♦ The Fourteenth Amendment escape hatch appears to be locked from the inside.  Last week, Tim Geithner reportedly told budget negotiators that the administration cannot constitutionally continue to keep the debt train going past the debt ceiling limit.  Thus, on the other side of the August 2 deadline awaits default and the economic naughtiness that goes with it.

♦ Republicans insist that it’s not wise to raise taxes on “job creators,” which is the way party spokesman refer to those with great wealth who have done very well through this otherwise anemic recovery.  Now, it’s not true, of course, that those alleged job creators will stop creating jobs if they get a tax hike. If it were true, we would right now have a thousand jobs for every applicant because taxes are at an all-time low. If there were an indisputable causal relationship between low taxes on the wealthy and overall employment, then it would also be hard to explain the boom during the late 1990s, when tax rates were higher on everyone.

♦ And besides that, as Obama made clear today, any tax increase would not take effect until 2013 and beyond.

♦ If Republicans do come to their senses and accept the deal of a lifetime, it will be difficult for Obama and the Democrats to sell it to the faithful, including me.  Mr. Obama used this phrase today:

We have agreed to a series of spending cuts that will make the government leaner, meaner…

I think most Democrats would agree that a government shaped by conservative recalcitrance would, indeed, be “meaner.” 

Aware of the difficulty of persuading people like me that he is right, Obama said this:

And so, yeah, we’re going to have a sales job; this is not pleasant.  It is hard to persuade people to do hard stuff that entails trimming benefits and increasing revenues.  But the reason we’ve got a problem right now is people keep on avoiding hard things, and I think now is the time for us to go ahead and take it on.

Okay. I can be persuaded.  If “trimming benefits” indeed means trimming and not scalping, and if “increasing revenues” means, among other things, eventually raising taxes on the wealthy to Clinton-era levels, then I am in. As the president said,

We have a system of government in which everybody has got to give a little bit.  

Yes. That is our system.  Or at least that was our system until it was hijacked by a band of teapartying brothers whose scorched earth economic policy allows no room for compromise, for giving even “a little bit.”

Look, President Obama is obviously trying to do the responsible thing for the American people, in terms of keeping Republicans from completely tanking the economy.  His presser today demonstrated that beyond question.  He is driving a clunker in these negotiations, thanks to the American people who put the Tea Party in charge of Washington. 

His main problem is that he is the executive in charge of the government and he has the most visible responsibility to make sure the full faith and credit of the United States remains intact, a responsibility he obviously takes very seriously.

I, as only one liberal, hope that he has the guts to say no to a bad deal, to a deal that only furthers the irresponsibility of the Republicans.  I have previously argued that the best deal to be made at this time is something that will get us through the 2012 elections.

Let’s punt it to the American people.

Then, both sides can present their plans and, with so much at stake, the American electorate can decide what kind of country they want to live in.

Betty Ford, R.I.P.

“More than most first ladies, Betty Ford contributed to the reshaping of American society.”

—David Frum

Nearly every day, in some form or another, I point out the horrid condition of the Republican Party, its movers and shakers being so far removed from reality that it defies explanation.

Betty Ford, though, far from being detached from reality, gave Americans a full dose of it, routinely. She spoke her mind about her need for psychiatric help, her drug addiction, her understanding and public admission that her children were “perfectly normal” human beings who may have had sex and smoked marijuana.  Radical stuff in those days, the ancient 1970s.

In 1974, just after her husband had become president due to Richard Nixon’s resignation, she found out she had breast cancer.  At the time there was much shame and silence connected with the disease.  But the shame and silence would soon yield to the new First Lady, as she realized the power of that White House position to make a difference, to do good.  She made the decision to be honest about her condition, about what she was going through, about the treatments available. 

She revolutionized the way we all, men and women, see that disease. Thus, countless numbers of women today are the beneficiaries of her courage, of her willingness to rewrite the conventions of Washington politics.

An avid supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment, Mrs. Ford worked the telephone and wrote letters to state legislators, as the ERA made its way through the amendment process. Here in Missouri, as the fear mongers on the right bussed in anti-ERA protestors to lobby wobbly legislators, she telephoned some of the wavering Missouri House members, and the ERA eventually passed in that chamber in 1975, although Missouri eventually failed to ratify it. To help strengthen dwindling support for the ERA among Republicans, at the party’s national convention in 1980 Ford joined protestors as they marched in support of the amendment.

Mrs. Ford, as hard as it is to believe these days, was a pro-choice Republican, and an advocate for women’s issues in general.  According to her son, Jack, she reviewed with the President briefing papers on issues related to social programs and those affecting women and wasn’t afraid to lobby her husband on behalf of those in need of social equity.

Naturally, such views were intolerable to the right-wing of her party, in those days a definite minority. Phyllis Schlafly, still a guardian of right-wing Christian morality to this day, initiated a public campaign against Mrs. Ford, essentially suggesting that she was illegally using federal resources to do her dirty work.

A prototype of today’s Tea Party House Republican, an unhinged California congressman named Robert Dornan, also criticized her.  Fortunately for Dornan’s wife, though, the Betty Ford Center was available to help her with her drug addiction, no doubt exacerbated by being married to the former legislator and one-time guest host for Rush Limbaugh.

Today’s Republican Party, dominated by Dornan-types, does not welcome any Betty Fords into its fold.  Instead, we have Sarah Palins and Michele Bachmanns, the only acceptable models for conservative feminine behavior. 

But once, when adults ran the GOP and its members had some necessary affection for responsible government, Betty Ford demonstrated that Republicans could be forces for good in America, even forces for good for women’s rights.

Obama, Tomcat

Republicans, because they rightly don’t trust other Republicans, like to create—and force their candidates to sign—pledges. 

Forget the standard, the old allegiance-to-the-flag pledge (with, of course, the necessary “under God” language). That’s old school.

Nowadays, there are no-tax-increase pledges, anti-choice pledges, “Cut, Cap, And Balance” pledges, and the latest way to demonstrate Republican unseriousness, the it-was-better-to-be-a-negro-slave-than-an-Obama-era-negro pledge.

That last one is a creation of the Iowa Christian Taliban, better known as The Family Leader, a group headed by gay-gripped Bob Vander Plaats, a man every bit as obsessed with enforcing Allah’s God’s word than any member of al Qaeda, living or, thankfully, dead.

The Family Leader’s pledge, which Republican presidential candidates Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum have duly signed, featured this:

Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA’s first African-American President.

You see?  It is more important for kids to have both parents, even if they happen to be the property of wealthy white conservatives, than it is to be born “after the election” of Barack Obama, who is, when he’s not otherwise engaged in destroying America, responsible for every out-of-wedlock birth among American blacks today.

Obama is quite a tomcat, don’t you know.

Now, it is true that these religious zealots in Iowa—who have a mind-boggling amount of clout due to the state’s first-up primary—have “removed the language from the vow,” under pressure from people in their right minds.

But what kind of mind is it that would put such language in a pledge in the first place?  And, more important, what kind of presidential mentality would actually sign it?

On goes the 2012 conservative circus.

Tea Party Tongues

The jobs numbers are out for June and it is becoming clear that the Tea Party has paralyzed not only the government, but it has gone a long way toward freezing in place a weak recovery.

Oh, I know the right-wing is proud of its achievements.  After all, they have managed to bring Democrats to the budget-cutting table; they have all politicians now talking in Tea Party tongues; they have managed to change the debate from what to do about the struggling economy and jobs to how much to cut entitlement programs and other staples in the Democratic Party and American diet, like, say, education.

They have done a lot those teapartiers. But they certainly can be most proud of contributing significantly to stagnating economic growth and keeping unemployment high—both of which just happen to be politically deadly for Barack Obama in 2012—and they show little sign of relenting.

Their continued opposition to government stimulus—in any form—and their continued insistence that we can cut our way to prosperity, including cutting taxes even further than the government-starving ratios in place now, is the most significant contributing factor in our inability to escape the black hole of the Great Recession.

The unemployment rate has now crept up to 9.2% and job growth has been essentially flat the last two months.  But the worst of the news is summarized in this sentence from CNN:

So far, the nation has only gained back about a fifth of the 8.8 million jobs lost during the recession.

And while Tea Party Republicans in Congress have spent a good deal of time fretting over Planned Parenthood and National Public Radio and other non-jobs concerns, they have managed to do what many of them said they wanted to do when they ran for office. From Bloomberg:

Employment in government continued to trend down over the month (-39,000). Federal employment declined by 14,000 in June. Employment in both state government and local government continued to trend down over the month and has been falling since the second half of 2008.

Yep, they can be proud of this accomplishment, as thousands upon thousands of teachers and other “government” workers join the millions of other victims of the kind of Republican economics that ruled the day not so long ago and a kind of economics that will—if Mr. Obama is defeated in 2012 because of the bad jobs numbers this year—rule our tomorrow.

David Brooks Goes Far, But Not Far Enough

David Brooks, noted conservative columnist (although not many current conservatives note him or claim him, such has been the deterioration in conservative taste since the Age of Limbaugh), has put into words what most old-timey Republicans surely know in their hearts:

If the debt ceiling talks fail, independent voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not. If responsible Republicans don’t take control, independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern.

And they will be right.

The joke, of course, is on David Brooks.  Other than himself, “responsible Republicans”—once part of a respectable class of politicians in this country—have shipped away not just American jobs but American common sense from our political shores.

The Republican Party may no longer be a normal party,” Brooks observes.  It has been “infected by a faction” we all know as the Tea Party, members of which:

“…do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms.” (And, as Brooks points out, the terms are very sweet indeed, thanks to less-than-stellar Democratic negotiating.)

“…do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities…” (Brooks was speaking of the gazillion economists who have told the GOP that their stance on the debt limit is nuts, but I prefer to think of how some teapartying folks disregard the intellectual authorities regarding evolution and climate change and other such “hoaxes.”)

“…have no economic theory worthy of the name…” (But they do have what Brooks calls a “sacred fixation” on tax policy, which is important, but not all important, and certainly not important enough to ruin our economic future.)

“…have no sense of moral decency…” (They are willing to “stain the nation’s honor,” Brooks says, by not acknowledging ” the “sacred pledge” we made when borrowing money.  That pledge, in case anyone with teabags hanging from their foam ballcaps has forgotten, has to do with paying the lenders back.) 

The problem with Brooks’ analysis here is that it doesn’t go far enough.  He says, obviously referencing the Tea Party, the faction that has infected the GOP and that is responsible for the irresponsibility of Republicans, happened “over the past few years.”  Not so.

The Tea Party movement is just the latest incarnation of the kind of distorted, perverted conservatism practiced for a generation now by wildly popular Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck and promoted by Fox and the Murdoch empire. 

Talk radio and later Fox enabled those who infected the Republican Party and continues to push the idea that compromise—especially with a “socialist” in the White House—is a dirty word;  that scholars and intellectuals have a hidden “liberal” agenda and are not to be trusted; that during this era of historically low taxes, taxes are still too high; that moral decency means gays can’t get married, but fiddling with the full faith and credit of our country is okay.

Brooks claims the Republican Party is infected, when, really, the entire country—from “sea to shining sea,” as the ubiquitous Limbaugh says on his three-hours-a-day-five-days-a-week radio show—is to some degree or another ravaged by the disease.

Oddly, Brooks himself demonstrates just how far the sickness has spread, when he makes this point about Democrats:

Republican leaders have also proved to be effective negotiators. They have been tough and inflexible and forced the Democrats to come to them. The Democrats have agreed to tie budget cuts to the debt ceiling bill. They have agreed not to raise tax rates. They have agreed to a roughly 3-to-1 rate of spending cuts to revenue increases, an astonishing concession.

Astonishing, indeed. And what have Democrats received for giving up so much ground to Republicans?

Nothing.  Nothing except more Republican irresponsibility, as they push Democrats, and more important, the economy to the brink of collapse.

What Deficit Problem?

“In short, there isn’t much of a constituency for deficit reduction.”

—David Leonhardt, The New York Times, July 5, 2011

 

Most of Morning Joe this morning involved discussions on the impending or not impending crisis brought on or not brought on by the fast-approaching drop-dead or not drop-dead date to raise the debt ceiling. Democrats claim all hell will break loose and Republicans, at least in this narrow case, don’t believe in hell.

I suppose we shall find out, one way or the other.  But behind the debt ceiling discussions and, it seems, behind nearly everything that happens these days in Washington, looms our burgeoning national debt, a problem so serious that few people actually take it seriously.

Along those lines, David Leonhardt made a point in The New York Times yesterday that bears repeating: Most people talk a good game about the long-term debt crisis we face, but not many talk a good specific game about it.

One example is the Business Roundtable, a big-business support and lobbying group. Leonhardt:

When roundtable officials talk about the deficit, they use sober, common-sense language that can make them sound more reasonable than either political party.

But the roundtable is actually part of the problem.

Rhetoric aside, it consistently lobbies for a higher deficit. The roundtable defends corporate tax loopholes and even argues for new ones. It pushes for a lower corporate tax rate. It favors the permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts. It opposes a reduction in the tax subsidy for health insurance, a reduction that was part of the 2009 health reform bill. Oh, and the roundtable also favors new spending on roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Leonhardt points out that “a group of top corporate executives” called the Business Council, along with the roundtable,

released a 49-page plan that simultaneously warned that projected deficits would “retard future growth” and called for policies that would add hundreds of billions of dollars a year to the deficit. That’s the essence of roundtable syndrome.

You might say they, like many Americans, want it all but don’t want to pay for it. 

Labor unions, in a sort of false moral equivalency, were also the target of Leonhardt’s keyboard:

Public sector labor unions have fought changes to pensions and work rules that could lead to less expensive, more effective government. Private sector unions — along with the roundtable — have defended the huge tax subsidy for health insurance, which drives up health costs.

At least, Leonhardt says, labor unions have “been willing to push for some tax increases.”

Yes, and those meager tax increases are at the heart of Republican resistance to any solution for not just the debt ceiling problem, but the larger debt problem. 

As many have pointed out, time and time and time again, there is no balanced-budget arithmetic that doesn’t include revenue increases.  And, as labor unions insist, the first place to begin in bringing in new revenue (which should really be seen as merely a restoration of the pre-Bush revenue stream) is with those who have benefited most from the economy these past 30 years.

Yet, all we have coming from business and Republican Party leadership—whose constituency includes those who can afford modest tax increases—is just another version of the voodoo arithmetic they used to get us into this mess: cut taxes and the free-market gods will do the rest.

Meanwhile, the debt monster created by such policies looms.

George Will Proves Himself Wrong About The Constitution

On Sunday’s This Week With Christian Amanpour, the Constitution, naturally on Independence Day weekend, was the topic.  The panelists were Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown, Jill Lepore of Harvard, and Richard Stengel, editor-in-chief of Time magazine, and, of course, conservative commentator George Will, whose views on the nature of the Constitution I want to discuss.

Will’s position can be fairly summarized in two excerpts from his commentary on the show, beginning with this:

It’s one thing to say it’s open to interpretation, which it obviously is. It’s very open-textured language. On the other hand, I mean, when you say unreasonable searches and seizures, what’s reasonable? We argue about that. But to say that the Constitution is a living, evolving document, as you did, is almost oxymoronic. A Constitution is supposed to freeze things. It is an anti-evolutionary device as Justice Scalia said. It is intended to put certain things beyond the reach of transient majorities.

Here is another selection from later in the program:

The framers were not narrowed and blinkered men. They were men of the enlightenment. They believed in progress, to which end they included in this document an amendment provision. They said there will be changes made.

The difference is, do you amend the Constitution by the casual weak interpretation of it, or do you candidly, when you want to change the structure of the government, change it by the amendment process they provided?

Now, these two sections seem to me to be a fair representation of the general conservative understanding of the nature of our Constitution and of constitutional interpretation.  They certainly represent the view I held as a conservative, and one reads or hears a variation of this idea from the lips of most conservative thinkers today.

The problem is that the conservative view is simply mistaken.  And George Will proved it during the subsequent discussion.

Will ask the following question, in the context of the health insurance mandate, of his fellow panelists, a question he no doubt thought would prove the superiority of his position:

Let me ask the three of you. Obviously, obesity and its costs affect interstate commerce.  Does Congress have the constitutional power to require obese people to sign up for Weight Watchers?  If not, why not?

Two of the panelists eventually answered the question, sort of:

RICHARD STENGEL: If something is unconstitutional, people out there tend to think like some alarm will go off if something is unconstitutional. It’s unconstitutional if the Supreme Court decides it’s unconstitutional. And by the way, this can go to the Supreme Court, and we can see whether that happens.

GEORGE WILL: Well, does Congress have the power to mandate that obese people sign up for — do they have the power to do this?

RICHARD STENGEL: I don’t know the answer to that.

GEORGE WILL: You don’t know.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, the beauty of that is, the not knowing…The basic foundation is set.

GEORGE WILL: Is that a yes, Congress does have the power to mandate?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: It’s open. If they decide that they will, they will have the power to do so.

The truth is—putting Stengel’s and Dyson’s thoughts together—that Congress does have the power, in Will’s formulation, to “require obese people to sign up for Weight Watchers,” if, and only if, the Supreme Court says it has the power.*

In the case of the health insurance mandate, if the Supreme Court ultimately rules that Congress has the power under the Commerce Clause to tell Americans they have to purchase health insurance, then they have to purchase health insurance or suffer the consequences.  Period.  There is no appeal from such a ruling, except via the formal amendment process. Likewise, if the Court says that Congress doesn’t have that kind of power, the Affordable Care Act’s mandate would be dead.

You see, this is the way it works, under a genuine, small “c” conservative understanding of the Constitution: The Congress acts, the Supreme Court decides if congressional action is constitutional, and we move on.  This dynamic is why liberals rightly call it a living, breathing document.

And despite the fact that conservatives like George Will believe our founding document is designed to “freeze” in time certain principles, the truth is that the Constitution gives—through Chief Justice John Marshall’s bold assertion in 1803 of an otherwise only implicit constitutional power—the Supreme Court the right to judge whether Congress’ actions shall stand or fall.

And, more controversially but unmistakably, it gives the justices—even conservative justices who pretend to believe in something called originalism—the de facto right to interpret the document in novel ways (see, for instance, the 2010 Citizens United decision in which corporations became people with free speech rights).

Finally, George Will really undermined his own claim about a frozen Constitution with this remark:

In the first decade of the 21st century, that 18th century amendment—Second Amendment—pertaining to bearing arms, was settled in this sense — the Supreme Court finally said, based on extraordinary scholarship on both sides, that it does protect an individual right, not the collective right of militias.

Think about that. It took 217 years to “finally” settle the meaning of the Second Amendment? Remember what Will said before:

…to say that the Constitution is a living, evolving document, as you did, is almost oxymoronic. A Constitution is supposed to freeze things. It is an anti-evolutionary device as Justice Scalia said. It is intended to put certain things beyond the reach of transient majorities.

But what about transient majorities on the Supreme Court?  How can anyone argue, “a Constitution is supposed to freeze things,” when it has taken so long for us to understand what the Second Amendment means?  How about the First Amendment, the crucial meaning of which is still debated as it applies to twenty-first century life?

The point is that we know the Constitution is alive because new or nuanced interpretations of it keep breathing into its 18th century lungs the breath of life. And nothing confirms that truth more than the recent decisions by the conservative majority on the Supreme Court, notwithstanding the phony constitutional philosophy championed by those conservative justices and their defenders on television.

__________________________________

* This, of course, overlooks Congress’ power to define and therefore limit the apellate jurisdiction of the Court and preclude constitutional challenges to some of its actions. Article III, Section 2 of the Constitution says in relevant part:

…the supreme [sic] Court shall have appellate Jurisdiction, both as to Law and Fact, with such Exceptions, and under such Regulations as the Congress shall make.

Many conservatives see this provision as a check on “judicial supremacy,” and advocate that Congress pass laws that contain restrictions on judicial review, thus legislating the courts out of the mix.  So much for “separation of powers.”

In fact, none other than Missouri’s Todd Akin, the extremist congressman from the 2nd district who wishes to replace Claire McCaskill as our senator, introduced a famous jurisdiction-restricting bill in 2004 involving protecting the Pledge of Allegiance. The bill, which ultimately didn’t become law, did pass the House.  It had an amazing 226 co-sponsors, as conservatives in both parties couldn’t help but jump on the side of God and the Pledge.

Here is how Akin’s official House site, bragging about House passage of his bill, describes it:

Congressman Todd Akin (R-MO) praised its passage of his bill to protect the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. “This is an essential step in stopping the overreach of activist judges and will free the vast majority of children and adults who wish to use the words ‘under God’ in the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance from the threat of censorship,” said Akin…

Exercising Article III of the Constitution, the Act (H.R. 2028) protects the Pledge of Allegiance by removing from the jurisdiction of the federal courts the question of the Pledge’s constitutionality.

Here are some notable Republican co-sponsors of Akin’s bill, who not only put themselves on the side of “under God” in the Pledge, but also believe that Congress should from time to time limit the jurisdiction of the courts:

Roy Blunt, Sam Graves, Tom DeLay, John Boehner, Eric Cantor, Jim DeMint, Jeb Hensarling, Paul Ryan, Darrell Issa, Ron Paul, Tom Tancredo, Pat Toomey, Joe Wilson.

In my experience, it is usually religious conservatives who want to limit the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction on “vital issues” like the “under God” in the Pledge, and also over display of the Ten Commandments and the “defense of marriage.”

The Safety Net: A Sign Of Strength, Not Weakness

“Randy,” a frequent commenter on this blog, wrote the following in response to my post, “President Obama, Are you Listening?,” in which I claimed that the Democratic Party “is historically associated with protecting the blind, the elderly, and the poor“:

Well Duane, it all depends on how you define “protecting.” If you consider creating dependency “protecting” or “helping” – then yes, one party certainly has an historic record of enlarging the dependency roles. However if your idea of protecting or helping someone is to give them the tools they need (education) and an opportunity, and freedom… and provide them with a path to self sustainment and self pride – then that would lead you to a different party. I realize I am simplifying this that that both sides of this debate have pro’s and con’s. But once again, your analysis is one sided and disingenuous. Once again, you are part of the problem, and not part of the solution. Don’t be what you don’t like about the some of the Republican politicians (and if you were honest some of the Democrats too). Be the light. Be different. Be honest. You have a platform, you have a voice, use it wisely.

Since Randy has been a thoughtful commenter, and a good debater, I have chosen to use his comment—which contains a fairly common complaint—to make a larger point:

Randy,

My analysis is “one sided and disingenuous“?

There is no good argument—no good argument—against the claim that the modern Democratic Party has historically been vitally linked with the disabled, the poor and the elderly, in terms of providing them a safety net.  No good argument, Randy.  In that sense, I suppose my analysis is “one-sided.”  

And as for disingenuous, I’ll leave that for the readers to decide at the end.

You brought up “dependency.”  We can argue all day whether that social safety net has made folks dependent, which is the line I used to use when I was a conservative Republican.  But how do we measure such dependence?  Is it the amount of help received? The duration? A combination? Are the 30% of welfare recipients who work also dependent?  Are the people who have been forced on welfare due to the Great Recession dependents?

And why is dependence a dirty word?  Sometimes you and I both are dependent on others for help for lots of things. So what?  Is it a moral failing to need help?  To ask for it? To take it?

The welfare overhaul in the 1990s put an end to the dependence “hammock” (to use Rush Limbaugh’s phrase) that Republicans claimed the welfare system had become.  With time limits on benefits and “welfare to work” requirements, the cases of dependency in the long-term sense you apparently mean it have all but disappeared.  So, there is little in the way of evidence to support your suggestion that dependency is a problem.

And even if it were a problem, do you really think the relatively stingy benefits that some people on welfare get are the cause of such dependence? From The Wall Street Journal we learn that “a family of three earning more than $636 a month is ineligible” for welfare, in New Jersey of all places.  Imagine: If a family of three in New Jersey earns—earns!—about 160 bucks a week, they are ineligible for benefits.  How long could you or I live on that?

 And from that same article we find:

The average monthly welfare benefit in 2006, which reflects the most current data collected by the government, was $372.

Is that what is wrong with such people? They are selling their souls for $372 a month?

And even if—if!—that were the problem, what’s the alternative for such unmotivated folks?  Is it, as you say, education, opportunity, and freedom?  Huh?  Do you really think people who would rather get $372 a month for free than work for a lot more would avail themselves of the proper education that would “provide them with a path to self sustainment and self pride“?

It would be more likely that such people—to the extent they exist—would, if they had zero benefits, undertake  a life of crime, wouldn’t it?  Therefore, wouldn’t it be cheaper to give such undeserving folks a few food stamps each month than put them in prison for stealing bread—or cars?  Randy, it comes down to this: What kind of society do you want to live in?  One with a large prison in every community or one with a welfare office that might occasionally give help to folks who don’t need it or don’t deserve it?

And by dependency do you mean to include, say, some 70-year-old folks who no longer can do productive work and can’t get health insurance?  Are they part of the “dependency” problem?  Many are essentially dependent on Social Security and Medicare—two Democratic Party-inspired programs—to stay alive and well.  Is that what you mean by dependency?  If it is, I say thank God—and the Democratic Party—that there is something to be dependent on, something one can count on to avoid an ignominious and painful death.

You see, Randy, it really isn’t as simple as you suggest.  There are lots of dependent folks, dependent on each other, the government, their churches, and so on.  It’s not a sign of weakness, but a sign of cultural strength that there are places to go for help, whether short-term or long-term. 

And the only question is whether the American people, at least in the case of government, are willing to pay for such strength.

President Obama, Are You Listening?

As I said on Thursday, the government shutdown in Minnesota eerily calls to mind the larger national fight over the budget, which also features Republican recalcitrance on raising taxes on the rich.  But it may also be the microcosm of national Democratic resolve to call the Republican bluff on the debt ceiling issue.

Here is how the Associated Press reported the Minnesota story late Friday night—under the headline,  “Vulnerable feel the pinch of Minn. gov’t shutdown“:

ST. PAUL, Minn. – The blind are losing reading services. A help line for the elderly has gone silent. And poor families are scrambling after the state stopped child care subsidies.

Hours after a political impasse forced a widespread government shutdown, Minnesota’s most vulnerable residents and about 22,000 laid-off state employees began feeling the effects on Friday. With no immediate end in sight to a dispute over taxes and spending, political leaders spent the day blaming each other for their failure to pass a budget that solves the state’s $5 billion deficit.

Get that? The blind, the elderly, and the poor. Now, you tell me who a majority of independent voters in this country will blame for the hardships suffered by the blind, the elderly, and the poor, should it come to that on the federal level?

You tell me which party is historically associated with protecting the blind, the elderly, and the poor? 

And you tell me which party is historically protective of the welfare of public employees?  Republicans? Are you kidding?

Governor Mark Dayton, after attempts at compromising with the uncompromising, rejected a last-minute offer to temporary avoid the mess because he wisely saw that it was only postponing the inevitable: Republicans absolutely refuse to consent to any tax increases on those who can afford it—Minnesota’s top 2 percent of income earners—no matter whom it hurts, the blind, the poor, or the elderly.

And in May, with this shutdown looming, what were Republicans in the Minnesota legislature doing?  They were passing a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage!  Does this social-issues-trump-economic-issues stuff sound familiar?

Governor Dayton has suggested that Republican legislators take some time over the next few days and listen to their constituents, presumably and hopefully those whose income is somewhat less than a million bucks.  And a couple of weeks ago, he said this about his Republican colleagues:

The only solution they offer is for me to give in entirely to them.

Campaigns can rely on rhetoric, but governing requires facing reality. The responsibilities of shared leadership require compromise, which means agreeing to some things you don’t agree with. A “My Way or No Way” attitude makes it impossible to govern responsibly — or to govern at all.

If the Republican legislators continue to demand to have it all their way or no way, Minnesota’s state government will have to shut down on July 1. The effects of the shutdown on many Minnesotans’ lives will be very hard. But far worse would be the hardships that the Republican budget would impose on even more people during the next two years….

What does it say about politicians who would rather protect the richest 2 percent of Minnesotans than serve thousands of our citizens with serious needs?

That’s tough talk.  And it is tough talk that our Democratic President should pay attention to.

Does Obama Have The Power To Ignore Republicans On The Debt Issue?

Previously, I’ve briefly mentioned the idea that there is another way around the game of chicken that Republicans are playing in Washington relative to the debt ceiling.

Today I am offering, courtesy of MSNBC’s The Last Word, a quick primer—enough to make some of us dangerously opinionated—on the issue of Republican recalcitrance on the debt ceiling issue and how it relates to a provision in the Fourteenth Amendment that could end the controversy.

Of course, ending that controversy by using the so-called “nuclear option” in the Fourteenth Amendment would start another one, possibly involving Republicans trying to impeach the President or other such nonsense, but at least that wouldn’t directly endanger the economic recovery or send interest rates through the roof, which would be the least amount of damage done should August 2 come and go without an agreement.

In any case, the idea—admittedly quite un-Obama-like—embedded in a little-discussed provision in an old constitutional amendment is an intriguing one and I bid you happy speculating as you consider the following: 

 
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