If This Is The Beginning, God Help Us At The End

Once again, President Obama has taken a rather strange path on the way to negotiating with Tea Party-drunk Republicans.

His latest budget proposal—which includes marrying Social Security to so-called “Chained CPI,” a way to measure inflation that pleases folks at the reactionary Heritage Foundation—may or may not make an acceptable compromise at the end of the budget process and the back-and-forth with the opposition party, but including Chained CPI as part of his initial proposal is no place to start.

And no one summed it up better than the incomparable Robert Reich:

Democrats invented Social Security and have been protecting it for almost 80 years. They shouldn’t be leading the charge against it.

That is exactly—exactly—right. As the former Secretary of Labor notes, Chained CPI is a “stingier” formula for calculating inflation adjustments to Social Security payments than even the current stingy formula. Reich also points out:

Social Security benefits are already meager for most recipients. The median income of Americans over 65 is less than $20,000 a year. Nearly 70 percent of them depend on Social Security for more than half of this. The average Social Security benefit is less than $15,000 a year.

Yet, at the start of budget negotiations with never-give-an-inch Republicans in Congress, a Democrat in the White House is proposing a formula for calculating adjustments to future Social Security payments that, again as Reich reminds us, Paul Ryan didn’t even include in his rayless and Randian budget. That is a weird and seemingly defeatist posture to take at the beginning of what will obviously be some difficult, if not nasty, budget negotiations.

Now, all that having been said, there may be a way to make Chained CPI work as a method to reduce future costs to the Social Security program, but that way must—must—include protection for those folks who, as Reich put it, get relatively “meager” benefits under the program.

Time will tell whether Obama’s relatively solid legacy will be tarnished by his rush to compromise with uncompromising Republicans, but he’s not exactly off to a good second-term start by offering Chained CPI at this point in the budget process.

But the press, always anxious to push the Republican Party’s false but widely believed the-debt-is-killing-us meme, will give the President much credit for pissing off liberals, and perhaps pissing off liberals is exactly why Obama’s budget has that stingier cost-of-living adjustment in it. He can now tell Republicans: “See, look how serious I am about entitlement reform and look at how much anger among my base I have created. Now, let’s dance.”

And Republicans, smelling blood, will say: “Dance? Why, sure, we’ll dance. Especially now that you’re dancing to our music.”

Oh, by the way. One of those Republicans who gets mostly undeserved credit for being “sensible” on budget issues, Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, called President Obama’s budget plan,

A beginning point.

Yep, a “beginning” point. As this White House has done almost from the start, it begins in the middle and the rest, like the public option-less ObamaCare, is history.

Meanwhile, the economy continues not to produce enough jobs for Americans, wages are stagnant or declining, and wealth inequality is increasing. And just about the only talk about public policies that would help create jobs, increase wages, and narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, is coming from the left, those whom the President has, purposely or not, just pissed off with his Chained CPI proposal.

If You Don’t Learn Anything Else About Social Security “Reform” Learn This

A frequent contributor to this blog (HL Gaskins) sent in a fantastic and informative clip from MSNBC’s The Last Word that aired last November. I am posting it here because the five-minute essay by Ezra Klein needs to be seen by anyone who gives a damn about Social Security and what it means to so many working people. And after you watch it, pass it on to others.

My parents, both gone, are the kinds of folks Klein is referencing in his piece. When I hear knuckleheads on TV and radio, fretting over the national debt or pretending they want to “save” Social Security and Medicare, saying that we ought to raise the retirement age or the Medicare eligibility age or otherwise penalize working folks for the sins of Wall Street gamblers, I think of my parents. And then I get pissed.

Fortunately, Ezra Klein expresses my outrage in a much more civilized manor:

Fiscal Cliff Frustration

Watching cable news during this fiscal cliff flop can be frustrating.

I actually heard a talking head say on MSNBC this morning that he, a man who held political office as a Democrat but who now works for a Wall Street bank, that there is no way he should get Medicare when he is 65. He should have to wait until he is 67, he proudly said.

That is just part of the talk I have heard everywhere on TV about how Democrats need to cave on “entitlements,” finding some way to get Republicans to make a “deal” before The End of the World comes.

But, again, let’s quickly review what is going on here. From January 2001 until January of 2009, Republicans held the White House, and for a substantial part of that time had effective control of Congress. Thanks in part to Democrats responsibly raising taxes in 1993, Republicans inherited budget surpluses in 2001.

Then, Republicans cut taxes, initiated two wars, cut taxes some more, created a new entitlement program that was a sweet deal for their pharmaceutical industry campaign contributors, and then looked the other way while the economy was looted by reckless, greedy bankers who brought on the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. While all that was going on, the federal debt soared, and, thanks mostly to those past Republican policies, keeps soaring.

As if that wasn’t enough, when the public, sensibly, put Democrats in control of Congress and the White House, Republicans suddenly found Jesus on the issue of government spending, just when we needed the government to keep spending to save the economy and to keep Americans working.

After finding Austerity Jesus, Republicans decided that the best way to save the country from “big-spending” Democrats (!) was to sabotage the economic recovery and hold the country hostage over the debt ceiling (!) until Democrats gave them what they wanted.

Then, because Democrats wouldn’t give them everything they wanted, they decided to create a situation that eventually led to this fiscal cliff fiasco, which amounts to a job-killing sword of Damocles hanging over the economic recovery.

But before we had to face the fiscal cliff, the parties had to face an election. Republicans didn’t do very well. In fact, Democrats gained seats in Congress and the hated Barack Obama was reelected, substantially, it turns out, because he ran on restoring those 1993 tax rates on the wealthy, those to whom Republicans had handed a rather large gift when they were in charge, a gift about to run out at the end of this year.

So, here we are. The fiscal cliff, which we have because Republican hostage takers needed assurance that Democrats would cut our social insurance commitments and not take away that tax gift from wealthy folks, is getting closer. And after that, yet another debt ceiling fight awaits, as Republicans have threatened to hold the country hostage again.

And some chattering schlemiel on television, a former Democratic congressman who now works for a big bank, says Democrats should be willing to raise the eligibility age for old folks, essentially to pay for the profligacy that Republicans inflicted on the country, old folks and all, during their years of governance. The right-wing drowned us in debt via tax cuts and war spending and a new entitlement program, and they want Democrats to tell old people they will have to pay for it.

It is psychotropically frustrating is what it is.

Chuck Todd, host of MSNBC’s The Daily Rundown, said this morning that “the pubic is craving a compromise.” He said that because of a new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that found the following:

nbc poll

That poll supposedly indicates that people are beginning to blame “both sides” for the current impasse, which, if true, is a reflection of news coverage and not of reality.

But the poll did confirm a reality that journalists, and pundits on television, ought to pay attention to:

positive negative poll

As you can see, Democrats enjoy relatively strong public support. And look at the bottom of that list. Republicans are 15 points—15 points!—underwater. And looking deeper at those numbers, only 9% of respondents said they had a “Very Positive” view of Republicans, compared to 21% who viewed Democrats very positively.

The bottom line is that the public trusts Democrats to do the right thing during these fiscal cliff deliberations and any deal making that might come from them. And the right thing is not giving political cover to Republicans in Congress—who after recklessly running and ruining the economy, now feverishly want to cut social insurance benefits to rectify their malfeasance.

Word To Democrats: Be Careful On Entitlement Reform

A few Republicans are publicly divorcing themselves from Grover Norquist, which is a good sign. But not enough Republicans are yet ready to absorb fully the meaning of the GOP’s defeat on November 6.

As President Obama has said several times now, if the last election had one clear message, it was that the wealthiest Americans, those who have been doing pretty well despite a sluggish economic recovery, need to “pay a little more” in taxes and thus get things started in terms of fixing our long-term fiscal problems.

On Sunday, John McCain’s lap dog, Sen. Lindsey Graham, clearly abandoned Grover Norquist and his infernal tax pledge. I have heard replayed numerous times the following excerpt from Graham’s appearance on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos:

I will violate the pledge, long story short, for the good of the country, only if Democrats will do entitlement reform.

In context, though, Graham was not endorsing an increase in marginal tax rates (“I agree with Grover, we shouldn’t raise rates,” he said), but only an increase in revenues by other means, like capping deductions for wealthy families (“If you cap deductions around the $30,000, $40,000 range, you can raise $1 trillion in revenue,” he claimed). But, so be it. In whatever form, it is clear that some Republicans, feeling the heat of November 6, are starting to warm up to an increase in federal revenues and it seems likely that more, perhaps enough to get a deal done, will follow.

Now comes the “if Democrats will do entitlement reform” part.

Appearing with Lindsey Graham on ABC’s This Week was Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat who signed onto the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan.

He said a couple of things that illustrate the problems for President Obama and the Democrats, in terms of getting a deal that Democrats like me can support. First, Durbin suggested that Social Security shouldn’t be part of a larger budget deal since it is funded separately and “does not add one penny to our debt.” It’s pretty clear that most Democrats feel the same way. They believe that the relatively simple fixes for Social Security don’t belong in the discussion going on now. So, leave that program out of it.

Then we have this:

DURBIN: Medicare is another story. Only 12 years of solvency lie ahead if we do nothing. So those who say, “Don’t touch it, don’t change it,” are ignoring the obvious. We want Medicare to be there for today’s seniors and tomorrow’s, as well. We don’t want to go the Paul Ryan route of voucherizing it, privatizing it, but we can make meaningful reforms in Medicare and Medicaid without compromising the integrity of the program, making sure that the beneficiaries are not paying the price for it, except perhaps the high-income beneficiaries. That to me is a reasonable approach…

STEPHANOPOULOS: Does that include raising the age for Medicare eligibility?

DURBIN: Here’s my concern about that, George. What happens to the early retiree who needs health insurance before that person’s eligible for Medicare? I had it happen in my family, and I’ll bet a lot of your viewers did, as well. We’ve got to make sure that there is seamless coverage of affordable health insurance for every American. My concern about raising that Medicare retirement age is there will be gaps in coverage or coverage that’s way too expensive for seniors to purchase.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Is that a fair point, Senator Graham?

GRAHAM: Not really. I don’t think you can look at entitlement reform without adjusting the age for retirement, like Tip O’Neill and Ronald Reagan did. It goes to 66, 67 here pretty soon for Social Security. Let it float up another year or so over the next 30 years, adjust Medicare from 65 to 67 over the next 30 years, means test benefits for people in our income level. I don’t expect the Democrats to go for premium support or a voucher plan, but I do expect them to adjust these entitlement programs before they bankrupt the country and run out of money themselves. So age adjustment and means testing for both Social Security, Medicare I think is eminently reasonable. And all those who’ve looked at this problem have done that over time.

Democrats would, of course, agree to means-testing entitlements. No doubt about that. But raising the eligibility age for retirement and old-age health care? Not so fast.

Paul Krugman, a leftish economist, is definitely opposed to the idea, as he indicates in this short post, his generalized objection based primarily on the differences in life expectancy between economic classes (folks with lower earnings don’t tend to live as long as those with higher earnings, thus raising the eligibility age would have a disproportionately harmful effect on lower wage earners).

There have been more specific objections to raising the age, including these:

  • folks with physically demanding jobs would likely be forced to hang on another few years to keep their insurance;
  • cost-shifting to retirees who won’t have adequate income to absorb the increase;
  • an increase in the number of uninsured Americans (especially among low-income groups, including African-Americans and Hispanics);
  • the obvious increase in the cost to those employers who offer health care benefits to retirees (the employer plan would become the primary payer), which would, among other things, discourage employers from offering such retirement plans.

Now, an astute reader might suggest that some of these objections could be answered by provisions already in place in the Affordable Care Act. In fact, I heard a commentator this weekend suggest that raising the eligibility age for Medicare was no big deal since ObamaCare will provide coverage for those seniors who can’t afford it.

Well, that turns out to be partially true, at least according to a study done by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which looked at raising the age in the context of the Affordable Care Act (it assumed an increase in the Medicare eligibility age to 67 that would go into effect in 2014, just for simplicity). I suggest all those interested in this topic read that study, but its conclusion was as follows (highlights mine):

Previous studies conducted prior to the enactment of the 2010 health reform law concluded that raising the age of Medicare eligibility would produce significant federal savings, but would also increase the number of uninsured older adults and shift risk and additional cost onto retirees who lack health insurance and onto employers that offer retiree health plans. Our analysis, which takes into account the coverage expansions and subsidies in the ACA, finds that net federal savings to the federal government would be considerably lower than previously estimated because the federal government would incur new costs associated with expanded coverage for 65- and 66-year olds under Medicaid and premium tax credits and cost-sharing assistance for lower-income individuals in the new health insurance Exchange.

We estimate that nearly one-third of the 65- and 66-year-old adult population who would be affected by an increase in the age of Medicare eligibility [about 5 million people]—those with low incomes who would qualify for Medicaid or generous premium tax credits and cost-sharing assistance through the Exchange—would face lower out-of-pocket costs than they would have paid under Medicare in 2014 as a result of this policy change –generally those with incomes below 300 percent of the FPL [federal poverty level]. However, two-thirds would face higher out of-pocket costs, on average, due to higher premium contributions for employer-sponsored coverage and for coverage in the Exchange. The shift of adults ages 65 and 66 from Medicare to the Exchange is also projected to increase premiums that would be paid by adults younger than age 65 in the Exchange, as older adults enter the Exchange risk pool. In addition, Part B premiums paid by the elderly (ages 67 and over) and by disabled Medicare beneficiaries would be expected to increase, as the healthiest and lowest-cost segment of the Medicare population is removed from the Part B risk pool and shifted to the Exchange or to employer-sponsored plans. States and employers are also expected to see increased costs.

The study warns:

Given the magnitude of the changes that we estimate would occur by raising the Medicare eligibility age, this analysis underscores the importance of carefully assessing the distributional effects of various Medicare reforms and savings proposals to understand the likely impact on beneficiaries and other stakeholders.

It’s just not as simple as Republicans, like Lindsey Graham above, make it. And Democrats need to be careful about getting giddy over a possible Republican retreat on raising revenues and under the influence of such giddiness make a bad agreement on entitlements.

In short, Democrats need to remember who their constituents are.

How Conservatives Subvert Self-Government

The entire modern conservative movement consists of an ongoing attempt to sever the relationship of a self-governing people to their government, to break down the concept of a political commonwealth.”

—Charles Pierce

n Sunday’s Joplin Globe appeared a column from a local college professor (of finance) named Richard La Near. Suffice it to say that, although I have lately ignored him, I have previously taken on this union-hating, learned man—God, how I wish I could put “learned” in quotation marks.

But this shouldn’t be ignored: Arguing for “partially and slowly” privatizing Social Security, the “Honorary Chairholder of Free Enterprise at Missouri Southern State University” butted in a long line of melodramatic conservatives by falsely calling the wildly popular social insurance program a “legalized Ponzi scheme.”

And while that should have been dreadfully ditsy enough, he wrote the following, presumably in reference to “Obamacare”:

The passage of one more entitlement program will prove that too much democracy can be devastating to a great nation. Again, the takers will outnumber—and outvote—the makers, and more people will vote for a living rather than work for a living.

Ah, how clever. And how cynical.

Now, I’m not one to extol the virtues of ignorance and bigotry that sometime (okay, often) accompany the exercise of our democratic heritage, but we are what we are. Abraham Lincoln called the American people his “rightful masters.” If La Near’s “too much democracy” brings about our national extinction, if we find that self-government by America’s rightful masters will one day lead to our ruin, then so be it.

As a bona fide member of the rightful masters class, I’d rather go down as the victim of people in welfare hammocks than of conservative capitalist carnivores like Mitt Romney, a man who has successfully preyed upon the working class such that he can bulldoze a $12 million, 3,000-square-foot beachfront house only to replace it with an 11,000-square-foot beachfront house.

Charles Pierce wrote recently:

In modern conservative thought…and in the mindset it seeks to ingrain on the people of the country, the government is the ultimate Other.

In doing so, the corporate masters of the conservative movement are good with all of this because they seek a wary, frightened and insecure people.

Yes, Amen! Yes! Conservatives seek a “wary, frightened and insecure people.” People suspicious and afraid of too much democracy, afraid, for God’s sake, of their own government! That’s the message Dr. La Near is trying to send.

Thomas Frank, in his book, The Wrecking Crew: How Conservatives Ruined Government, Enriched Themselves, and Beggared The Nation, essentially documents the attempts by right-wingers to take over government only to undermine it, to subvert it, to, as Charles Pierce so aptly described it, break down the concept of a political commonwealth.”

You see, conservatives talk of a “commonwealth“—”a group of persons united by some common interest“—mainly in terms of war, of fighting terrorism or some other common enemy. There isn’t much of a sense of political commonwealth worth preserving here at home, beyond the small commonwealth of the wealthy.

Conservatives these days, for instance, see no pressing domestic need to provide an affordable college education to our kids or to keep sick folks from going bankrupt, but they do see a pressing need to keep taxes low on the rich.

John Dean, whose book, Broken Government: How Republican Rule Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches, is a must read, said of contemporary conservatives:

they are radicals more interested in power for themselves and other Republicans instead of serving the general public interest.

There simply is no “general public interest“—no national commonwealth—that a conservative can love, so long as it is tied up with an effective, domestically-interested government. But we have to ask ourselves just what the Constitution means by its splendidly pithy preamble:

We the People  of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Clearly this government—our government—was established as an instrument of the People that would go about the sometimes messy business of forming a “more perfect Union” and creating fairness and peace at home, protecting ourselves from external enemies, promoting “the general Welfare,” and fortifying our Liberty.

It’s not possible to neatly separate the domestic duties of our constitutional government from its duty to defend us, as so many on the right are wont to do. The two are tightly bound together and Americans should also be tightly bound together around the idea that we are all-in on a we-the-people government.

And by using language like “legalized Ponzi scheme,” in reference to the old age fear-killer we call Social Security, or saying that too much democracy can be devastating” to, uh, a democratic nation, Richard La Near, and others like him, are sadly pulling apart the bonds that hold us—we the people—together.

In La Near’s final paragraph, he wrote:

In conclusion, I would note that every great nation must periodically deflate to remain competitive. Those with flexible economic and political systems can do so…

America must “deflate to remain competitive”? I wonder just what segment of our society he has in mind that will have to do all the deflating? The deflated poor? The deflated sick? The deflating middle class? You will search La Near’s “financial Armageddon is coming” writings in vain for any kind of sign that he believes the wealthiest Americans should get in on the deflating, at least by paying a little more in taxes.

But you will find much wariness, much fear, and much insecurity about our democracy, about self-government, about America’s rightful masters. In short, you will find the philosophy of contemporary conservatism.

More Falsehoods About Social Security And Medicare

By now everyone has heard the news:

WASHINGTON – The Medicare and Social Security trust funds are both on “unsustainable paths” — as they have been for years — and will be exhausted by 2024 and 2033, respectively, a trustee report released Monday said.

And by now maybe you have heard the misinformation.

Joe Scarborough said this morning that Social Security will be “bankrupt” three years earlier than projected last year and it will just keep ratcheting up until it will be no time until it is gone. “It’s going down,” he said. In fact, here was the graphic on the screen as the panel discussed the issue:

Social Security benefits to be depleted by 2033.” What tommyrot that is. Benefits, far from being depleted, will continue long after 2033, even if nothing is done.

But first, let’s look at Medicare. As the USA Today story noted:

The trustees have predicted the depletion of the Medicare Trust Fund every year since they first began issuing reports in 1970, and they ultimately extend the deadlines out a few more years.

Yes, look at this from the Congressional Research Service:

As you can see, since such reports have been created, the projections of insolvency have been fairly imminent. Consider this from Sarah Kliff at Wonkblog:

…the trust fund doesn’t really decide Medicare’s fate. Instead, it’s an accounting term. When we talk about the Medicare Trust Fund, we’re pretty much referring to where our payroll taxes to finance the insurance program get stored. If the Trust Fund runs out, that means it can no longer cover everything it’s supposed to pay for. But Congress could — and, many think, would — make up the difference by borrowing, cutting spending elsewhere and using the savings to plug the hole, or finding new sources of revenue.

“The fund is a fiscally neutral element in the goods and services of Medicare finances,” Theodore Marmor, Spencer Martin and Jonathan Oberlander wrote in one article on the topic. “Congress can change the taxes that finance Medicare if it has the will. Likewise, it can change the benefits and reimbursements of the program.”

So, you can easily see that Medicare won’t be “bankrupt” in 2024, even though there is a definite problem with its financing that has to be soon addressed (apart from just shifting the cost on to future seniors, as the Romney-Ryan budget plan does*).

Likewise, Social Security is not now bankrupt and won’t be in 2033. Why? It is simple, as John Harvey at Forbes pointed out:

It is a logical impossibility for Social Security to go bankrupt.

Here’s how the Social Security Administration explains it:

The current Social Security system works like this: when you work, you pay taxes into Social Security. The tax money is used to pay benefits to:

  • People who already have retired;
  • People who are disabled;
  • Survivors of workers who have died; and
  • Dependents of beneficiaries.

The money you pay in taxes is not held in a personal account for you to use when you get benefits. Your taxes are being used right now to pay people who now are getting benefits. Any unused money goes to the Social Security trust funds, not a personal account with your name on it.

Because wage growth has been slow, and because the economy hasn’t exactly been great, money going into the trust funds has slowed down, but Social Security is not—not—paying out more in benefits than it is bringing in. Payroll taxes, along with interest from the special issue Treasury bonds the program holds, plus taxes on Social Security benefits paid by high-income taxpayers, all add up to an increase in the Social Security surplus.

Get that? The program’s surplus is still growing.

But even though Joe Scarborough got it wrong about Social Security and bankruptcy, he did get something right. He said the program’s future finances could be fixed in about twenty minutes.

One way of doing that—without cutting benefits—would be to eliminate the Social Security tax cap, which is currently set at $110,100. Eliminating the cap would mean that those who make more than that (about 6% of wage-earners) would then have to pay Social Security taxes on all their wages. Just this simple move would guarantee payment of full benefits for at least 75 years.

So, although we will hear a lot of Republicans talking about the demise of the two most important social stabilizers we have, using trust fund projections as tools to severely weaken, if not destroy, our safety net, the truth is that the future of both programs can be fixed without dramatically altering their nature, if there is the political will to do so.

And it is up to voters to impregnate the Republican Party with that will.

_________________________________

* Sadly, Willie Geist, a fixture on “liberal” MSNBC from 4:30am until 8:00am, defended the GOP budget plan and Paul Ryan, saying,

He doesn’t do this because he likes throwing old people out on the street; he’s trying to make it solvent. He’s trying to save it in the long term…he’s trying to do something big…

Willie, of course, will never have to worry about surviving his old age on reduced Social Security benefits or worry about how he is supposed to come up with the thousands upon thousands of dollars to get health care when he is too old for television.

Social Security And Journalism’s Failure To Inform

Journalists are supposed to inform us.

What one means by “inform” is, I suppose, in the news consumer’s mind, but the point is that anyone who regularly partakes of American journalism should at least understand the basics of any given issue in the news.

Alas, that is not the case. Journalism, and journalists, are letting us down.

As just one example, Trudy Lieberman of Columbia Journalism Review points out the gross deficiencies in media coverage of “the Social Security debate”:

For nearly three years CJR has observed that much of the press has reported only one side of this story using “facts” that are misleading or flat-out wrong while ignoring others. Whatever the reason—ideology, poor understanding of how the program works, gullibility, or plain old reportorial laziness—news outlets have given the public a skewed picture of the financial health of this hugely important program, which is the sole source of retirement funds for millions of Americans and will continue to be for decades to come.

Lieberman points out that Social Security, while “not in perfect financial health,” is nevertheless a tweak or two away from extended solvency, a fact which has not “been discussed much in the press.” The reason it hasn’t, Lieberman suggests, is “because it doesn’t fit into the doom-and-gloom narrative that has proved politically expedient to tell.”

The result of this misreporting or underreporting or non-reporting is that people—many of them young people—are losing their faith in Social Security, which plays right into the hands of right-wingers, who have always hated it:

“The elite press repeatedly quotes the commentary of the devoted opponents of social insurance retirement programs,” says Yale professor emeritus Theodore Marmor. “But they appear unaware of how they are supporting a strategic attack on social insurance that has been going on for years.”

Singled out for bad reporting and bad journalism is The Washington Post’s Lori Montgomery, the once-respectable paper’s budget correspondent. Montgomery pushes a narrative that fits nicely in with the narrative pushed by conservatives in the Republican Party: in order to come to grips with our financial problems, federal social programs—including Social Security—have to be sliced. There is a “surprisingly broad consensus” for that view, Montgomery’s reporting insists.

The Post’s Robert Samuelson is also specifically cited as pushing the “popular message” that Social Security is a welfare program that “is slowly and inexorably crowding out the rest of government.”  Other journalist at other outlets have done the same thing, which leads Lieberman to surmise:

With that kind of news reporting, young people…can be forgiven for misunderstanding the concept of social insurance and believing Social Security is almost dead. Over the decades since the passage of Social Security in 1935, the media have used the term “social insurance” less and less, which of course keeps people in the dark about what it really is. In 1930, The Washington PostThe New York Times, and the Chicago Tribune together published nearly eighty articles with the words “social insurance” in the headline. In 1990, there were at most two—one in the Times and one in the Post. By then the Cato Institute and other conservative think tanks were well on their way to changing the media’s narrative and description of Social Security. The program was no long to be described as social insurance, but as an investment that fell short of what people could achieve on their own by saving and managing their payroll tax contributions. It was not a good deal for younger workers.

Lieberman tells us how the right-wing Heritage Foundation has “systematically” attacked “the country’s most popular social program” by deliberately using a “Leninist” strategy, including “guerrilla warfare against both the current Social Security system and the coalition that supports it.” Part of that guerilla warfare involves gaining “the support of key individuals in the media as well as to win over vital constituencies for political reform.”

Sadly and disturbingly, not only have individuals in the media been won over, many Democrats have been compromised, too:

The media haven’t reported much about how the nuts and bolts of proposals to fix Social Security would affect ordinary people, but they’ve done a super job of showing how Social Security’s opponents have brought one of the biggest segments around to their way of thinking—Congressional Democrats, including the second ranking member of the Senate, Dick Durbin, who is often the media’s go-to guy for the progressive perspective. It’s kind of a validation of Cato’s manifesto…

“We used to have Democrats speaking out (in support of the program) which we don’t have today, “ says Eric Kingson, co-director of the advocacy group Social Security Works.

Well, I still hear some Democrats speaking out, but I admit their voices are not as loud and aren’t heard as often as they used to be. And part of the reason for that is because journalists have largely bought into the Social-Security-is-dying propaganda and are failing to inform the public as to what is really going on.

Thankfully, one outstanding journalist, Trudy Lieberman, is trying to do something about it.

Debt Hysteria Housecall

A conservative Globe blogger is in serious need of some timely counsel, and, being a conscientious public servant, I am here to provide it. He commented on my recent post, Let’s Agree:

We, all of us, in America, today are facing a $65 Trillion HOLE (Ok, plus or minus a “little bit”). Said another way…each and every American is “in hock” for about $550,000 due and payable some day.

And the crazy thing is NO ONE talks about that number nor does ANYONE propose how to fix it, “on bite at a time”.

And:

Well it is possible for a man to eat an elephant. But he must do so one bite at a time. But while we all argue, the NUMBER just keeps on going up and up. THERE, Duane, is the curve that MUST be bent, NOW. Just how deep is a $65 Trillion “cliff” I wonder?

Richest nation in the world my hind foot. Not with that kind of balance sheet!!!

Anson 

Dear Anson,

Because I hate to see you in such a state, as your Doctor of Tranquility, I am offering my limited help (I’m not a Doctor of Finance, remember) in treating the unfortunate hysteria you are suffering over the issue of the alleged “65 trillion” dollar financial “HOLE” you claim the country is about to disappear into. (Or are we going off a cliff? Or eating elephants? I forget.)

You should know that people who make that frantic $65 trillion charge (or any of the other various amounts) in the way they do are using what I consider to be the accounting equivalent of junk science:

First of all, the term “unfunded liabilities” has normally been used in right-wing, fear-generating blogs and articles and Fox “reports” on this very long-term wild speculation you mention, but that term has been lately discredited (because a “liability” is more of a legal term and promises made by the government are not actually legally binding on it). I notice now many folks are using the proper term, “unfunded obligations,” which is more accurate, but still junk, when used in the kind of analysis you referenced.

To put it as simply as possible, what you are referring to with your scary high number is the difference between projected federal financial commitments under current law and the projected revenues available to cover those commitments—over a completely arbitrary time horizon of 75 years.

These obligations are not technically “debt,” since Congress is free to pass legislation that would eliminate them altogether (don’t try doing that with your debt, by the way). And it is beyond silly to say “each and every American is ‘in hock’ for about $550,000 due and payable some day.”

Second, that time horizon (did you even know what it was?) could just as well have been 750 years and that big and fat and scary number would have been even bigger and fatter and scarier. (Let me see, what comes after “trillion”?)

The truth is that no one—or almost no one—actually believes these numbers are accurate for a lot of reasons, most notably that policies and situations change quite frequently over even short periods of time (just look at budget surpluses under Clinton and deficits under Little Bush), and 75 bleeping years is sort of a long time, don’t you think?  Go back 75 years (1936?) and imagine a bureaucrat in the government, perhaps Newt Nostradamus, estimating “unfunded obligations” in 2011. It is absurd on its face.

And while we’re at it, the Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees have said that

Projected Medicare costs over 75 years are about 25 percent lower because of provisions in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act…

Do you believe that? Of course you don’t.

The reason some conservatives promote hysterical talk about such things as unfunded liabilities and use such frightening language is because they seek to dismantle or sharply reduce our social commitments and scaring the public is one way, they believe, they can do it. 

While it is true that Medicare funding is a big problem in the out years, it is not, as I demonstrated recently, an insurmountable one, if policies to control health care costs are implemented and other things are done, like, say, raising revenues.  And they will get implemented and revenues will get raised, in some way at some time. So, get some sleep and stop worrying about it, for God’s sake. (Or, if you can’t sleep, use the up time to write your favorite Republicans and urge them to get real about taxes.)

Third, there is a comparative fallacy involved in these numbers. The gap, instead of being put in the form of aggregate unfunded dollar commitments, should be put in the form of percentage of projected GDP, which would attempt to account for economic growth over the time period. That way future gaps could be more fairly compared with today’s gap.  But then those numbers wouldn’t look or sound so damn scary, would they?

Fourth, let’s look at those “unfunded obligations” in a way that conservatives won’t like.  Let’s discuss Pentagon spending in those terms.  Is defense spending an obligation? Yeah, sort of (see the Constitution). And, like Social Security and Medicare, is there a Pentagon tax dedicated to our national defense? Huh? Nope, there’s not.  So, using the analysis you are advancing, every single dollar of necessary future military spending is an unfunded obligation, right?  That means, projected over 75 years, the gap between revenues specifically dedicated to the Defense Department and the projected military spending is, well, it is more money than God, or even Mitt Romney, has!

This stuff the right-wind peddles is analytical junk, Anson.  There really are no such things as “unfunded” obligations because the government has the power to tax to meet them. And using such language in the context you and others use it unnecessarily scares people who don’t know any better, and it doesn’t help arrive at rational solutions to our very real problems with long-term debt. 

The fact is you don’t need those misleading large numbers to make the point—which nearly everyone understands by now—that some important changes in Medicare (and a tweak or two in Social Security) are necessary to keep us fiscally sound.  Indeed, distorting the picture so grossly tends to lead away from careful, reasonable solutions in favor of distinctly reactionary and irrational ones. (Of course, as I said, some folks on the right wouldn’t mind that one bit, as long as the New Deal fell victim to such panic.)

But I am under no illusion that you, in your zeal to save the country, will stop worrying and stop trying to scare the bejesus out of people because you are fixated on our debt problem and therefore welcome uncritically any analysis that generates fear over it.  And I am certain you will not now listen to,

Your  Doctor of Tranquility,

Duane

Let’s Agree

Let’s stop subsidizing the wealthy. Stop crony capitalism. Stop corporate welfare. Means-test our entitlement programs.”

The above quote was not said by some wild- or starry-eyed liberal. It was said by the Buddha of budgetary knowledge on the right, Paul Ryan, on ABC’s This Week last Sunday. 

In the spirit of the New Year and New Beginnings, let us end this year with a note of agreement. I agree with Mr. Ryan that we should stop crony capitalism—the only kind there will ever be without adequate public attention—and stop corporate welfare—corporations are doing just fine, thank you—and we should means-test our entitlement programs—especially Medicare, which is, as Paul Ryan knows very well, the biggest driver of our long-term debt problem. 

And Paul Ryan also knows very well that the plan he advanced earlier this year—which nearly every Republican this side of the Asteroid Belt voted for—would end the system created in 1965, even if the name would live on. (No matter what Politifact says.) Let’s all at least agree on that. 

And let us agree that the current Medicare system, which took more than 50 years to bring into reality, should be preserved. After all, it was signed into law by a Texan, Lyndon Johnson, and was supported by almost half of the Republicans in Congress at the time. 

So sensitive are Americans to perceived government interference, that even the sainted FDR dared not force the issue of public health insurance—which he supported—before the enactment of his social security bill was assured in 1935. And despite Missourian Harry Truman’s efforts to get the job done—President Johnson would eventually credit “the man from Independence” for those efforts and make the 81-year-old fighter the program’s first enrollee— it took another generation before folks without means could rest a little easier knowing they had at least basic health insurance they could afford, when they were on the unprofitable side of life. 

And among those who could rest a little easier were my parents. My dad, who was 56 years old when Medicare was passed, worked all of his pre-heart attack life. My mom worked full-time at home and part-time at what she called the “dime store.” Were it not for Medicare, well, the alternative for them would have been and, for me, remains, unthinkable.  Let’s agree that, for them and millions of  people like them, access to affordable government health insurance made—and for now, still makes—America a better place in which to live.

Truman, in a special message to Congress in November of 1945—1945!—said there were “certain rights which ought to be assured to every American citizen.” One of them, he said, was “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.” What a shame, more than 65 years later, we are fighting over The Affordable Care Act, which guarantees Americans, sick or well, rich or poor, the right to health insurance, or rather the right to purchase health insurance from profit-minded private insurers. It is, by no means, a fulfillment of the vision of liberals, old or new. But it ain’t nothing. 

And yet we fight. Let’s agree to stop fighting about something so necessary. 

Truman said: 

In the past, the benefits of modern medical science have not been enjoyed by our citizens with any degree of equality. Nor are they today. Nor will they be in the future—unless government is bold enough to do something about it. 

People with low or moderate incomes do not get the same medical attention as those with high incomes. The poor have more sickness, but they get less medical care. 

He didn’t must make that statement in 1945 without evidence to back it up. And he had plenty: 

The people of the United States received a shock when the medical examinations conducted by the Selective Service System revealed the widespread physical and mental incapacity among the young people of our nation… 

As of April of 1945, nearly 5,000,000 male registrants between the ages of 18 and 37 had been examined and classified as unfit for military service. The number of those rejected for military service was about 30 percent of all those examined. The percentage of rejection was lower in the younger age groups, and higher in the higher age groups, reaching as high as 49 percent for registrants between the ages of 34 and 37. 

Think about that. And think about the health of those back then who were in their forties and fifties and sixties and beyond. Truman, understanding that the child is father of the adult, said that it is “important to resolve now that no American child shall come to adult life with diseases or defects which can be prevented or corrected at an early age.” 

Let’s agree that health care involves inter-generational agreements. Old folks, let’s make sure the young are cared for, even if their parents are not rich. Young folks, let’s make sure the old are cared for, even if they lack wealth. All of us are either young or getting old. The Affordable Care Act is simply a part of these inter-generational agreements—without which any modern and civilized society cannot continue to be modern and civilized. It ought to be without controversy, or at least without animus. 

But it’s not. We have folks around the country, and folks in Congress, who are fighting for the repeal of the Affordable Care Act with a kind of religious zeal, as if to lose the battle would mean the end of a God-blessed America. There are even some radicals who would move us back to not only 1964, before Medicare, but to 1934, before Social Security. They would leave the non-rich at the mercy of charities or family and friends, of whatever means. 

But if we can’t finally agree, as Paul Ryan seemed to suggest last Sunday, that entitlements—Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—are a permanent part of our social fabric and that in order to afford them we may need to, among other things, means-test them, then I’m not sure there is anything we can agree on as a civilized nation.

As Harry Truman said so long ago, our government needs to be “bold enough” to do something about inadequate health care in our country.  All he was really saying was we-the-people need to be bold enough.

Bold enough to agree.

It’s Only Called Class War If We Fight Back

More than a week ago, economist and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich gave a speech at the “Summit for a Fair Economy” in Minneapolis and addressed several “downright bald-faced lies” told by conservatives and Republicans about the economy.  He ended his speech with this:

The greatest enemy we have is mass cynicism. When people really get to the point where they think nothing can be done, then the other side wins. That’s what they want by the way. That’s what they want…[The other side] wants government at all levels to function so badly that people say government can’t work…they also want politics to be so bad and so paralyzed that most Americans say nothing can be done…

It’s easy, when they are scared and disorganized, for people to be subject and vulnerable to demagogues who come along and say to them, “You know…the reason you’re in trouble is because of government, or it’s because of immigrants or it’s because of the poor or it’s because of blacks,” or it’s because of a number of scapegoats that are always offered up, the same scapegoats.

But in reality, we are all struggling over a smaller and smaller share of a bigger and bigger pie. And they are deflecting and diverting attention from the story which is that more and more of the income and wealth is going to big corporations and to the very, very super rich in this country and that is what has to be reversed and that is why we have to take back America.

Class warfare?  Yes, that’s what it is called if someone on our side fights back.  Pay attention today to the criticism of President Obama today as he announces his debt-cutting plan that includes taxes on the rich.  His plan has already been called class warfare by Republicans this past weekend.  Ask yourself why it is called class warfare if a champion of the middle class and poor decides to fight back?

Finally, as ammunition in the effort to fight back, here are some of Reich’s compact responses to the “downright bald-faced lies” told by the Right:

“DOWNRIGHT BALD-FACED LIE” #1: Giving tax cuts to the rich and corporations will trickle down to everyone else

A lie! it has not happened; it has never happened. They don’t need more tax cuts. Big corporations are now sitting on more than 2 trillion dollars of cash. There are higher corporate profits now than we have seen in 35 years. ‘s not happened and The ratio of corporate profits to wages is now higher than it’s been since before the Great Depression of the 1930s.

“DOWNRIGHT BALD-FACED LIE” #2: Shrinking government creates more jobs

I debate a lot of…conservative economists and others on television who keep on saying this and I keep on saying, “Tell me your theory. How is it that if you lay off teachers and social workers and firefighters and police officers, that you have fewer people building the roads, building the highways, building the infrastructure, fewer people rebuilding our schools, fewer people doing all of the public’s work, how can that create more jobs?”

And the answer I get is, “Government always gets in the way.”  I say, “But tell me exactly how is it that if you shrink government you’re going to get more jobs, particularly when consumers are holding back because they can’t do it?”

And the answer I get is, “Government always gets in the way.”  In other words, there is no intellectual basis for the ideology…If you shrink government you get fewer jobs…

“DOWNRIGHT BALD-FACED LIE” #3: Taxing the rich hurts the economy

Under Dwight David Eisenhower—who nobody would call a socialist, I don’t believe—["Some would now," said someone in the audience]—some would now? Yes—the top marginal income tax rate on the top earners was 91%.  And even with deductions and tax credits, that still meant that they were paying an effective tax rate of hugely higher than they are today.  And yet the economy grew faster.

That lie about trickle down, the lie that we must not tax the rich because that would deter them from working hard and investing and creating jobs is nothing but a bald-faced lie, based on ideology rather than facts.

“DOWNRIGHT BALD-FACED LIE” #4: Medicare and Social Security and other spending is the cause of the long-term debt problem

It’s not! The long term debt out there is because of rising health care costs. Medicare is the most efficient system we have…the administrative costs of Medicare are so tiny relative to private insurance, that what we really need, if we want to get Medicare and medical costs down in the future, is Medicare for all.  And then we can move from a fee-for-service system to a fee-for-healthy-outcome system…

“DOWNRIGHT BALD-FACED LIE” #5: Social Security is a Ponzi scheme

Can you imagine the irresponsibility—putting partisanship to one side—I’ve never heard a public official running for national office who lies through his teeth by saying that the Social Security system is a Ponzi [scheme]—I was a trustee of the Social Security trust fund, I know exactly what the actuaries project.  For the next 26 years Social Security is purely solvent, completely solvent; there’s no problem. 

Beyond 26 years the only reason there is a problem with potentially being to pay out everything Social Security owes beyond 26 years… is because of rising inequality, because so much money has gone to the top that the portion of income subjected to Social Security taxes is not going to be enough.  And that’s why the easiest most direct response to the post-26 years from now is to raise the cap on incomes subject to Social Security.

“DOWNRIGHT BALD-FACED LIE” #6: Tax reform should include raising taxes on even the poor

Real tax reform is that we’ve got to expand the earned income tax credit…we’ve got to reduce taxes on the middle and lower middle, and we’ve got to increase taxes on the top—and more tax brackets…go back to where we were before.

Admittedly, this was Reich’s weakest response, as I don’t believe tax rates on the middle income need to come down any further, but otherwise his speech was flawless.

Here is the video:

Apathy Is Not An Option

I lifted some graphics from My Budget 360 and from MSNBC to encourage folks—scare, really—who may be frustrated with President Obama or Washington politics, and are a little indifferent to next year’s election or who may be thinking about sitting it out and not voting at all.

Bottom line: There’s too much at stake to simply do nothing. The income gap between the rich and everyone else is—for a democratic and capitalist society—dangerouslywide and widening.

The first graphic shows the distribution of household income in 2009:

The next one shows just how much of 2009 income went to the top 1% compared with nearly 50% of the lower-income earners:

Next, let’s look at the inflation-adjusted mean household income since the 1960s and see what’s been happening over time:

As Melissa Harris-Perry pointed out last night on MSNBC, those two flat lines at the bottom of the graphic essentially represent constituents of the Democratic Party. And that’s just it. That’s the source of much of the frustration among Democrats. While those in the upper income brackets have seen their fortunes rise and rise, the working class has pretty much been treading water.

That frustration, however, cannot lead to apathy.  Because look what has happened to the Republican Party:

Notice not only that Rick Perry—who has branded Social Security a Ponzi scheme and badmouthed both Social Security and Medicare as unconstitutional—is leading this frightening pack of politicians, but look at the support for some of the other candidates. Palin? Bachmann? Ron Paul? Cain?

Are you kidding?

As for Mitt Romney, his famous flip-flopping always serves to put him on the side of many of the extremists in his party, so I see little difference between him and them, except that he may be more electable in the general election.

And speaking of more electable, if Romney doesn’t come out swinging soon against Rick Perry and distance himself in some way from the Texan’s tall extremism, instead of a Romney-Obama battle, we may have the following matchup, which should guarantee that every Democrat in the country, disaffected or not, will run not walk into the voting booth in November of 2012:

If that scary, too-close-for-comfort graphic doesn’t scare the apathy and frustration out of Democrats, I don’t know if anything will.

Obama, Lincolnesque

It’s hard to know what it happening behind the scenes regarding negotiations over the debt ceiling, but we know that folks on the outside looking in—liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans—are worried about negotiators on their side giving up basic principles in order to make a deal.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  There is no moral equivalency here.  Liberal Democrats are worried that “the big three,” Social Security, Medicare, and Medicare, are under attack, and they don’t much appreciate that President Obama seems willing to at least consider unpleasant cuts to those social programs. 

But that can’t be compared morally with Republicans worrying about keeping taxes low on the wealthy, whether individuals or corporations, or their willingness to risk incapacitating the economy in order to get their tried-and-failed way.  They are a disgusting group, this hard-headed, ideologically-centric band of know-nothings.

How this debt-ceiling thing turns out in the end is unpredictable at this time.  And I know liberals are starting to squirm, and some are starting to squawk, about President Obama’s deal-making skills, and his commitment to hard-bargaining with non-compromising negotiators in the House. 

I feel their pain.

But President Obama’s nature is not to gamble irresponsibly with such things as the full faith and credit of the United States, even if his political opponents are.  His nature is not to risk an economic calamity, that would harm most the very people that liberals want to protect, even if Tea Party Republicans don’t give a flying puck about that economic calamity.  In short, he is seeking the best compromise possible in order to save our economic system from the reckless, ideology-crazed conservatives in Congress.

His discussion this morning at a Town Hall event in Maryland included talk of Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.  He has used Lincoln’s willingness to compromise on the issue of slavery before, so it’s a good bet he has Lincoln’s example at the top of his head, as he seeks to avert economic catastrophe.   He pointed out that Lincoln was willing to settle for only outlawing slavery in rebel states as a means of preserving the union and finishing the fight,  a fight which eventually ended with not only the preservation of the Union, but slavery completely abolished.

I think Obama sees this fight much the same way:  Advance things by compromising, even to the point of making some supporters—like me—angry, in order to keep fighting—fighting that will continue through the 2012 campaign—because he believes he can ultimately win the fight for the Democratic vision of the country.

We shall see about that. Much of it will depend on how far he goes to appease unappeasable opponents.

Some things we are not willing to sacrifice,” Obama said today, but “In the mean time, we have a responsibility to do our job.”  Like Lincoln who gave the South every chance to avoid the Civil War, Mr. Obama is giving Republicans every chance to avoid the catastrophe that what would follow a loss of confidence in America’s fiscal sanity.

It’s easy, and understandable, for liberals in the Democratic Party to voice their concerns over what is happening.  After all, most of this fight is taking place on conservative ground.  But what would they—we—have Obama do?  A majority of the American people—including those who didn’t vote—put radical conservatives in charge of the House and gave them filibuster power in the Senate.  The American people.

This is a delicate situation, both economically and politically.  If Obama sent the signal that he was completely dug in on his side, the markets would react negatively and the economy would already start sinking.  He has to be the grownup. He has to be the pea-eater.

In the end, though, there has to be a line he won’t cross.  Lincoln had his, and the South called what turned out to be not his bluff.  Let’s hope that, as Obama said two weeks ago, Republicans won’t call his bluff.

All liberals can do is hope he is not bluffing, and that he will not surrender.

“Let The Date Come And Go,” Says Billy Long

Colonel Ozark Billy Long has spoken and there is no need to worry about any darn debt default.

An article in the Springfield News-Leader quoted Southwest Missouri’s Tea Party Republican representative as saying,

“We are not going to raise the debt limit and they need to know that now instead of August 2nd,” Long said, accusing Geithner of picking that date “out of the clouds.”

Out of the clouds.  Geithner just picked that date out of the clouds.  Except that the story reported this:

Long and others have suggested that picking a date right before the recess was a political move.

Well, that doesn’t sound like it was picked out of the clouds, does it?  Sounds like Geithner picked it off the congressional calendar. 

In any case, facts are unwelcome guests in Ozark Billy’s world because it isn’t just Tim Geithner who believes the threat of default is real.  Wall Street bankers and investors and the Chamber of Commerce and even Karl Rove admits there is trouble coming, if nothing is done.

But Long doesn’t care.  He doesn’t care that interest rates will rise, costing our country uncountable billions in debt service. He doesn’t care that significant parts of the government would have to shut down in order to keep paying Social Security and Medicare benefits for the month, as well as interest to bondholders.

Nope. He doesn’t care:

“Let the date come and go,” Long said, brushing off the threat of a default and comments President Obama made earlier this week about the nation being unable to pay its bills, including Social Security checks to seniors.

“That’s going to be on the president,” Long said. “There is money there. He can pay what he wants to pay, and if he doesn’t pay, that’s his bluff.”

Bluff?  You see it’s just another poker game to Ozark Billy, who has a special place in his heart for gambling. It’s easy to play games with the lives of others, if you have nothing personal at stake.  If Social Security checks don’t go out to residents of Southwest Missouri, the Colonel won’t feel a thing. Or, more likely, if other essential agencies of the federal government shut down, what is that to Ozark Billy?

And certainly if interest rates rise—not just for the country but for individual borrowers—what does it matter to an independently wealthy congressman from a blood red district whose voters hate the government anyway?

Well, God would that we could test Long’s theory of indifference to a debt default.  God would that Obama, if there is no deal on the debt limit, would have the unthinkable audacity to stop payment of Social Security and Medicare benefits to registered Republicans in Southwest Missouri.  Wouldn’t that be fun, Tea Party fans?

Long’s glittering ignorance was captured by the article:

“When I went home last weekend, everyone came up to me and said, ‘Don’t raise taxes. Don’t raise the debt ceiling. Don’t raise taxes. Don’t raise the debt ceiling,'” Long said. “All the congressmen are hearing the same thing in their districts. We’ve spent too much money that we don’t have and there has to be a comeuppance.”

Raising the debt ceiling, however, doesn’t authorize future spending; it allows the government to pay existing obligations. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and a host of economists have warned that if the U.S. were to default on its loans, the result could be catastrophic.

Long said 51 percent of all calls, emails, and letters coming into his office are opposed to raising the debt ceiling under any circumstance,” the article reports.  I suppose if a majority of calls coming in were in favor of, say, stifling free speech, then Ozark Billy would be on board the Repeal the First Amendment bandwagon. 

Anyway, if you want to make your voice heard on this matter, whether or not the Colonel will listen, you can contact him via his website here, or here:

Washington Office
1541 Longworth HOB
Washington, DC 20515
Phone: (202) 225-6536
Fax: (202) 225-5604
Mo-Fri 8AM-5PM CT

Springfield Office
3232 E. Ridgeview St.
Springfield, MO 65804
Phone: (417) 889-1800
Fax: (417) 889-4915
Mo-Fri 8AM-5PM CT

Joplin Office
2727 E. 32nd St. Ste. 2
Joplin, MO 64804
Phone: (417) 781-1041
Fax: (417) 781-2832
Mo-Fri 8AM-5PM CT

You can also contact Senator Roy Blunt, who also isn’t that worried about the debt ceiling, here or here:

Washington, D.C. Office
260 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, DC 20510
Phone: (202) 224-5721
Fax: (202) 224-8149

Springfield Office                                                                                                                     2740 B East Sunshine
Springfield, MO 65804
Phone: (417) 877-7814
Fax:(417)-823-9662

Or, there is another way: You can go to ProgressMissouri and follow the directions, and while there possibly contribute.

Is This Crisis Going To Waste?

Jim Wheeler, Globe blogger and frequent commenter here, wrote a piece (Into The Abyss) in which he severely criticized Republicans and mildly rebuked Democrats for their failure to use “a threatened national default” as motivation to tackle entitlement reform.

In other words, Mr. Wheeler doesn’t want this crisis to go to waste.

Here is my reply:

Jim,

I’m glad you singled out the President as the only “adult” in this mess.

Mr. Obama said on Monday,

Now is the time to do it.  If not now, when? 

He also made to liberals what I consider to be a powerful argument in favor of entitlement reform:

…if you’re a progressive who cares about the integrity of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, and believes that it is part of what makes our country great that we look after our seniors and we look after the most vulnerable, then we have an obligation to make sure that we make those changes that are required to make it sustainable over the long term.

So the argument I’m making to my party is…if you care about those things, then you’ve got to be interested in figuring out how do we pay for that in a responsible way.

The problem with all that is that those on our side who respect Obama and Obama’s argument, don’t believe he is dealing with honest brokers on the other side.

Mitch McConnell has expressed several times his real priority, which is to oust Obama from office. John Boehner is too weak to make a deal, and Eric Cantor is after Boehner’s job and thus is motivated to thwart any genuine efforts on Boehner’s part to do the right thing.

That is why Obama’s position is a hard sell to liberals. We can’t fathom getting a “balanced” deal from the other side. We think Obama will have to cut way too deep and otherwise give away too much of what we value just to get Republicans to raise the debt limit. It’s last year’s hostage situation all over again, with more at stake this time.

And that is why I resent the use of defaulting on our debts as leverage to make a deal of this magnitude.  It’s not honest, as McConnell’s recent move revealed. Obama has made an unbelievably large offer that would cause him great difficulty among those who trust and support him, if Republicans chose to accept it.  But because Obama made the offer, because it came from his tainted lips, it is unacceptable. Republicans essentially want the cuts without giving anything in return.

Finally, if we believe in democracy, then we ought to let the people decide such large matters through elections. As I have argued before, both parties should cast the 2012 elections as a referendum on what kind of country voters want to live in.

Here are the choices on the domestic spending side:

Smaller government and lower taxes: Which means reduced Social Security and Medicare benefits and a rather severe reduction in Medicaid, reduced funding for education and infrastructure, etc.  Paul Ryan’s dissolution of the Medicare program for those under 55 is just one example of what the country would look like, if people choose this option.

Larger government with higher taxes: Which means making investments in education and infrastructure, etc., and tweaking Medicaid and Social Security to ensure their solvency. That leaves the real driver of long-term deficits and debt: Medicare. How do we fix it under this choice?  Well, more on that later, but suffice it for now to say this: Cost shifting of the kind Paul Ryan outlined is unacceptable; so, too, is perpetual tax increases, which could not keep up with the escalating costs.  Democrats will have to propose a fix along the lines of what Kevin Drum outlined:

We need something…that genuinely has an effect on healthcare costs. Something that reduces the amount we pay doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies. Something that provides incentives for difficult end-of-life decisions. Something that makes credible tradeoffs between the cost of new treatments and the likely benefits. And something that gives taxpayers and patients alike a reason to care about all this. 

I’m in tune with your desire to do something about entitlements, Jim, but I’m skeptical of using the threat to ruin our credit (which would increase our debt problems through the increased cost of borrowing) and reversing our barely-discernible economic recovery as the way a democratic nation solves its problems.

Surrender, Thankfully

“I hoped to do good; but I refuse to do harm.”

—Sen. Mitch McConnell, defending his new plan to raise the debt ceiling

 

Now, we see who appears to be serious about cutting the deficit.

I have followed the politics over the debt ceiling issue fairly closely on this blog, including posting yesterday what I thought was a fairly fanciful take on President Obama’s negotiating strategy authored by Lawrence O’Donnell.

It appears that O’Donnell, who claimed Obama’s “go big” budget-cutting strategy was  meant to make Republicans blink, was at least partly right, what with Mitch McConnell’s and John Boehner’s cave-in yesterday—a surrender obviously meant to send a signal (which McConnell acknowledged) to Wall Street types that Republicans are not seriously considering wrecking the economy by refusing to agree to an increase in the debt ceiling.

That surrender was summarized in one sentence by Sam Stein:

Congress would give up its power to raise the debt ceiling and effectively transfer that authority to the White House for the remainder of Obama’s current term.

Whether McConnell’s plan, which was indirectly endorsed by John Boehner—”I think Mitch has done good work”—ever becomes reality, it will serve to stabilize the markets as things move forward.

Essentially and thankfully, the Republican surrender means there will be no debt default.

And that surrender was caused, purposely or serendipitously, by the fact that Barack Obama, contrary to O’Donnell’s theory, appears to be damned serious about cutting the budget and the national debt, even if his Republican colleagues are not, a fact that even a casual observer of politics—including the independents Obama needs for reelection—can now see.

Obama, as he said in his press conference the other day, is willing to take the heat from his own party for tackling entitlements, inexplicably even including Social Security, if—and this is the crucial part of his strategy, whether it is a bluff or real—Republicans will come to their senses about taxes.

They won’t.

It’s obvious now that keeping taxes historically low on the wealthy and yielding to Tea Party ignorance means more to the GOP leadership than taking Obama’s unbelievably generous offer to actually address our mid- to long-term budget problems. 

Sam Stein’s reporting on Tuesday’s debt talks between Democrats and Republicans reveals that Democrats now believe the debt ceiling crisis has abated and reveals just how serious Obama is regarding the long-term debt crisis:

For all its talk of the importance of averting a debt default, the White House is signaling that major deficit reduction has become more than just a bargaining chip to bring Republicans aboard a debt deal.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner opened Tuesday’s meeting not by focusing on the perils of debt default, but instead with a “vivid” presentation on “what happens if you don’t cut the deficit,” according to a Democratic source familiar with the talks.

Geithner warned the group that ratings agencies are actively watching both the debt ceiling debate and the ability of Congress to turn around the nation’s growing deficit and debt. He pointed to the economic unrest in Europe as evidence of what could happen in the United States if the White House and Congress don’t tackle the deficit in a serious way.

As Stein reports, and as Obama himself told the country the other day, the President wants to go “big” on cutting the deficit, so big that it is scaring the base of the Democratic Party, a fact that seems to be lost on knuckleheaded conservatives—who have universally and hysterically condemned McConnell—who don’t seem to know that Obama is essentially offering them most of what they claim they wanted in terms of cutting the budget.

Instead of urging their leaders in Congress to take the deal Obama is offering, conservatives insist on ideological purity, even if it means getting nothing.

And nothing is pretty much what they will get, if they stick to their religious doctrine of no tax increases.

Let’s summarize:

(1) Both sides agree that default is not an option.

(2) Both sides agree that budget cuts are necessary in the future, and there appears to be some agreement on the nature of those cuts.

(3) Republicans refuse to budge on taxes and Democrats cannot sell budget cuts, especially entitlement cuts, without getting Republicans to budge on taxes.

Therefore, the only thing possible is (1).  The debt ceiling will get raised and the rest will apparently be left to the American people in 2012, as it should be.

Finally, all of this depends, of course, on whether Obama means it when he says that he will not even consider significant entitlement reform without Republicans agreeing to some revenue increases, which Obama mistakenly calls a “balanced” package.

I believe him, even though his balanced package is really quite an unbalanced one.

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.

 

Dave Ramsey: “I’m Doubt Free!!!!!!”

Dave Ramsey is famous for telling people to get out of debt and live like paupers until they do. Of course, if everyone followed his advice, our economy would look quite different today.  But never mind that.

Ramsey should know something about the subject of debt since he had to file bankruptcy in the late 1980s due to creditors demanding that he pay them back a lot of money he owed them. 

So, how did he become so famous, and so rich, today?  Why, naturally he started counseling folks on how not to end up in bankruptcy like he did, that’s how.  And he wrote books.  And he started a radio show, which is on hundreds of stations around the country.  People call him up and sometimes scream, “I’m debt free!!!!!!

As far as that goes, more power to him.  Everyone should profit from their mistakes in life, as far as I’m concerned.  I wish I could figure out a Ramsey-esque way to handsomely profit from years of slurping up conservative nonsense, but nothing comes readily to mind.

Anyway, along with Ramsey’s mostly common-sense advice, he often mixes in a little Christianity and a lot of dead-certain right-wing political philosophy.

His financial advice column in today’s Joplin Globe was no exception:

Dear Dave,

I recently lost my job due to layoffs. I’m luckier than most, because I’m debt-free except for my house, and I have three months of expenses saved. I’ll also receive a severance package from my former employer, and my wife still has her job. I’m struggling with whether or not to file for unemployment compensation. Do you think it’s morally okay to do this?

Brent

Now, I’ve always been curious as to why folks like “Brent” would write a complete stranger and ask him for moral advice.  I find that a little weird.  It seems to me that if you’re morally confused or conflicted about something, you might want to talk to someone close to you, who knows you and your situation a little better than a guy sitting behind a microphone, or who might be hunched over a keyboard in his dark basement clad in Scooby-Doo skivvies with a bag of cheese puffs pecking out Iron Age wisdom with carrot-colored fingers.

In any case, here is part of Ramsey’s reply:

Dear Brent,

I don’t have a problem, morally or otherwise, with accepting something I’ve already paid for. The Social Security system in this country is a complete and abysmal mathematical failure. It’s proof that socialism doesn’t work. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to take my money out. The government took it from me in the first place!

You will note that poor Brent did not ask for a lecture on the evils of Social Security or socialism, nor did he ask for commentary on government “taking” taxes like a common thief.  He simply wanted to know if it were moral, given Brent’s obvious sympathy with Ramsey’s Christian world view, to apply for an unemployment check.

No doubt, Ramsey gave Brent the assurance he was probably looking for, despite his internal conflict.  Brent knew that his personal right-wing quasi-biblical philosophy obligated him to reject taking “something for nothing,” and getting unemployment benefits seems like getting something for nothing.  But Dave made it okay for him to indulge, just this one time at least.*

But I have the response that Ramsey, if he followed the logic of his worldview, should have given Brent:

Dear Brent,

What kind of deadbeat are you?  You sound like an Obama supporter to me. No wonder your boss cut you loose.  You should just be grateful that your kind and godly employer gave you a parting gift and not participate in that socialistic unemployment compensation scheme.  That’s for losers.

And by the way, that’s what’s wrong with this country.  People like you who want to live at other people’s expense. Why don’t you go find a job?  And don’t tell me there aren’t any jobs out there.  Go down to McDonald’s and ask them if you can clean their toilets for three bucks and hour.  That’s better than sitting around on your liberal keister soaking up funds you don’t deserve.  How long do you think the producers of this world are going to keep taking care of lazy people like you?

God bless,

—Dave

____________________________

* Oddly, the Dave Ramseys of the world, who presumably believe in the sacrificial efforts of Jesus to save the world, have no problem with taking salavation–which they didn’t earn themselves–from the Savior.

America: A Center-Left Country

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, unfortunately for Republican budget-slashers, teacher-bashers and union-trashers, indicates the following:

           Positive Feelings Toward:  Negative Feelings Toward:

Teachers                        73%                                  10%

Teachers’ unions            47%                                  30%

Public Employee unions  38%                                  34%

Labor Unions                  38%                                  36%

 

Government should do more:   Government doing too much:

                       51%                                      46%

 

Top issue for government to address:

Job creation and economic growth  56%

Deficit and government spending….40%

Health care…………………………………..   28%

National Security and terrorism……. 20%

Energy and the cost of gas………….  20%

Iraq and Afghanistan……………………  13%

 

Tea Party Supporter?

    Yep:  29%     Nope: 61%

Favor right to collective bargaining for public employees?

    Yep: 77%      Nope: 19%

Cut Medicaid to reduce the deficit? 

    Nope: 67%    Yep: 32%

Cut Medicare to reduce the deficit?

    Nope: 76%    Yep: 23%

Cut Social Security to reduce the deficit?

    Nope: 77%    Yep: 22%

Cut K thru 12 education to reduce the deficit?

    Nope: 77%    Yep: 22%

Cut unemployment insurance? 

    Nope: 55%     Yep: 43%

Raise income taxes on millionaires? 

    Yep: 81%       Nope: 17%

Eliminate tax credits for oil and gas industry?

    Yep: 74%       Nope: 22%

Reduce Medicare and Social Security benefits for wealthy?

    Yep: 62%      Nope: 37%

Eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood?

    Nope 53%     Yep  45%

Judging by the chutzpah of Wisconsin and Ohio and Indiana Republicans—a Wisconsin GOP Senator has referred to the protesters in the Capitol building as “slobs” and “a different breed“— one would think that public employee unions, including teachers’ unions, were hated by a strong majority of Americans. Nope.

Judging by the chutzpah of national Republicans—cutting spending and cutting taxes—one would think that a strong majority of Americans were pining for a smaller government, for government to do less. Not so.

This is a center-left country, as I have said repeatedly.

Obama On Entitlement Reform: Patience!

As I listened to President Obama’s press conference this morning, which was dominated by budget issues, I thought of the recent criticism coming from the Right regarding Obama’s alleged unwillingness to address entitlement reform, typified by a comment by the GOP’s star quarterback on budget issues, Congressman Paul Ryan:

Presidents are elected to lead, not to punt. And this president has been punting.

Hmm. “Punting.”  Why do coaches punt?  Often in a game, when fans and quarterbacks are clamoring to “go for it,” wise coaches punt.  They do so in order to preserve field position, so as to have a better chance of scoring later.  And it is thinking about that “later”—the long-term—for which coaches get paid, not giving in to “the moment.”

As Obama said today:

I’m looking forward to having a conversation, but… the key here is for people to be practical not to score political points. That’s true for all of us.  I think if we take that approach we can navigate the situation in the short term and deal with the problem long term.

Now, that’s  wise coach-talk, no matter what quarterback Ryan says.

In the case of entitlement reform, President Obama said today that “this is going to be a process” and that we need to have patience—something the press doesn’t have, he suggested—much like a coach would tell his star quarterback, who almost never wants to punt on fourth down. 

But the point here is not that the President or his team wins a political game, but that real entitlement reform happens, both to preserve entitlements for future generations and to ensure that they remain safety nets for the most vulnerable among us.  That’s the touchdown in this scenario.

Here was his full response to NBC newsman Chuck Todd’s question about entitlement reform and the President’s debt commission:

Part of the challenge is here is that in this town let’s face it, you guys are pretty impatient…

I think there’s a tendency for us to assume that if it didn’t happen today it’s not going to happen. Well, the fiscal commission put out a framework. I agree with much of the framework, I disagree with some of the framework. It is true that it got 11 votes. That was a positive sign. When it is also true is that the chairman of the House Republican budgeteers did not sign off. He’s got … concerns. I will need to have a conversation with him, and with those Democrats that did not vote for it.

There are some issues in there, that as a matter of principle I do not agree with, where I think they did not go far enough or they went too far. So, this is going to be a process in which each side in both chambers of Congress go back and forth and start trying to whittle their differences down until we arrive said something that has an actual chance at passage. And that is my goal. My goal is to actually solve the problem. It is not to get a good headline on the first day. My goal is that a year from now, or two years from now, people look back and say we started making progress on this issue.

The key to achieving an agreement on how to reform entitlements is, as Mr. Obama put it, to make sure that both parties get “in the boat at the same time, so it doesn’t tip over.”  In other words, to prevent demagoguery by leaders in either party, nobody is going to go it alone.  

Obama’s latest budget, which he knows is not the final word on the subject, was an attempt to send a signal to everyone that he is serious about tackling deficit spending—”stabilizing the current situation,” as he put it—even though it dealt only with discretionary budget reductions. 

Today’s press conference was designed to send the message that he is willing to compromise on entitlement reform, as long as there is someone reasonable on the other side to deal with.  He thinks there will be, although he expects “all sides will have to do some posturing on television” before it’s all said and done.

Far from the hysteria surrounding our deficit and debt issues—many conservatives routinely refer to failure to radically cut spending as America “going off the cliff”—Obama’s demeanor and his conversation today was reassuring.  He was calm, sober, and free from the anxiety that characterizes much of the debate, particularly among those who want to use the debt problem as an excuse to kill government.  He was also confident about progress and its ancillary benefits:

In terms of the markets, I think what the markets want to see is progress. The markets understand that we’re not — we didn’t get here overnight and we’re not going to get out overnight. What they want to see is that we have the capacity to work together. If they see us chipping away at this problem in a serious way, even if we haven’t solved 100% of it all in one fell swoop, then that will provide more confidence that Washington can work.

And more than anything, that’s not just what the markets want, that’s what the American people. They just want some confirmation that this place can work. And I think it can.

The underlying message from Coach Obama is that it’s not necessary to panic.  Act like adults, get in the huddle together, and get the job done. 

Time will tell whether the President will give away too much in any possible compromise with seemingly unbending House Republicans, but I was encouraged by his statement that his deficit commission did recommend some things that he disagreed with on principle. And he reaffirmed today his opposition to tax cuts for the wealthy.  Although those tax cuts contribute to the deficit, more than that they symbolize the Republican duplicity on the deficit issue. Obama said,

… when it comes to, over the long-term, maintaining tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires, that will mean additional deficits of $1 trillion. If you’re serious about deficit reduction, you don’t do that.

Finally, the President essentially challenged Americans to have an “adult conversation” about national priorities, about “what’s important, and here’s how we’re going to pay for it.”  You want a strong military?  Veterans Benefits? Health care for seniors?  Want to help your neighbors during a natural disaster?  That stuff requires taxes. At one point he said,

If we’re cutting infant formula to poor kids, is that who we are as a people?

Ultimately, the answer to that question of identity rests with the American people. Those things do need to be discussed, and Mr. Obama and the Democrats need to keep reminding all of us that we will have the kind of government we are willing to pay for or else we will see a gradual decline—not a precipitous drop—in American fiscal and social well-being.

And for my money, President Obama is the leader in these times of choice, even though Republicans in Congress—and ultimately the people who sent them there—may very well choose decline over progress.

Republicans Believe In Socialism Too

Paul Broun, a Republican congressman from Georgia, tweeted the following last night as part of his running commentary on Obama’s State of the Union speech:

Now, that’s not really surprising, considering that Broun, a proud tea partier, has compared the President to Hitler, has claimed Obama has shown signs of being a Marxist, and has assured us previously that Obama is a socialist.

Oh, yeah. Broun is also part of the Republican Party Death Panel Brigade. He wrote the following in 2009 during the long hot summer of the health care reform debate:

Sadly, it’s senior citizens who will be hit hardest by Obama’s new plan…

When mama falls and breaks her hip, she’ll just lie in her bed in pain until she dies with pneumonia because her needed surgery is not cost efficient.  [emphasis in original]

So, that gives you an idea of what kind of guy Dr. Paul Broun is. 

But let’s return to his tweet.  He said,

Mr. President, you don’t believe in the Constitution. You believe in socialism.

Keep that in mind as you read the following paragraph from the Republican rebuttal last night, delivered by the GOP’s Budget Czar, Congressman Paul Ryan:

We believe government’s role is both vital and limited — to defend the nation from attack and provide for the common defense … to secure our borders … to protect innocent life … to uphold our laws and Constitutional rights … to ensure domestic tranquility and equal opportunity … and to help provide a safety net for those who cannot provide for themselves.

Get that? “Government’s role is…to help provide a safety net for those who cannot provide for themselves.”

To paraphrase Paul Broun’s tweet,

Mr. Ryan, you don’t believe in the Constitution. You believe in socialism.

Lawrence O’Donnell was the first to point out this now-glaring admission by a GOP spokesman.  He cited Ryan’s safety net principle and said it was,

…a socialistic notion advanced first by Bismarck now adopted in full embrace—full official embrace—by the Republican Party: “We believe in a safety net for those who cannot provide for themselves.”  That’s not in the Constitution but it’s now Republican doctrine.

So, even though Paul Ryan’s response last night was otherwise full of half-truths, quarter-truths, and falsehoods, it is nice to know that we can stop arguing about whether America is a center-right country. It’s not. Mr. Ryan has acknowledged the truth: Americans, including Republican Americans, like their socialistic government.

Just in case any doubt remains about that truth, here is a Gallup poll conducted less than two weeks ago:

As you can see, there is no difference between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to cutting Social Security: only one in three would support cuts in the program.  In other words, nearly two-thirds of all folks say, “Keep your hands off my socialism.”

Likewise, there is very little difference between red staters and blue staters when it comes to supporting cuts in Education and Medicare, both socialistic endeavors. Most folks don’t want to cut them.  And although the biggest difference between the two parties comes under “Anti-poverty programs,” it is amazing to me that a majority of Republicans—many of whom have been weaned on Welfare Queen propaganda –don’t want to cut those programs either.

Socialism now!  Socialism forever!

America Is Not A Center-Right Nation—Just Ask Tea Party Leaders

Joe Scarborough, of Morning Joe, often talks about how America is a “center-right” nation.  And he often talks about how Barack Obama should recognize that fact and govern that way.  Here is a typical example from the other day:

…he’s got some great opportunities, but he’s going to have to come to the middle. And if he comes to the middle where America is—not the middle as defined by left-wing bloggers and other people. If he comes to the middle where America is, he’ll be just fine.

Well, Scarborough is a conservative Republican, so it’s understandable how he might project his politics onto the whole country, but he uses polling to support his point. He claims, based on a Gallup poll, that 40% of the public think of themselves as conservatives and only 21% call themselves liberal.

But since most people aren’t political junkies, and since it’s hard for even junkies to accurately define what it means to be a liberal or a conservative, the simple truth is that it is impossible to say the country—in whole or in part—is this or that based on what people tell pollsters.

And even if it were the case that one could call the country this or that politically, what does that have to do with how President Obama–or any president–should govern the country?  Is that Scarborough’s definition of leadership?  To simply lead people where they are already going? 

Thankfully, the Founders didn’t feel that way or we all might be speaking London Cockney today.  And thankfully Harry Truman didn’t feel that way or we might still have an all-paleface military to match our all-paleface Tea Party.

The truth is that our ideological national identity cannot be defined by what people tell Gallup or any other polling group about their ideological preferences. Over time, what it means to be a conservative or liberal has changed and keeps changing, and people just don’t keep up with the changes. 

I can make a good case that, if anything, the country is more center-left than center-right, just by noting what people who call themselves conservatives believe about ideas that used to be thought of as liberal ideas.

For instance, it’s no secret that conservatives abhor any hint of socialism, and frequently attack liberals for being socialists.  Yet, it’s obvious that you won’t find much support among conservatives these days for abolishing Social Security and Medicare.  And there is absolutely no doubt that those two programs represent the closest thing we have to socialism in America. They represent, to date, the crown jewels of liberalism.

And so it is that we have people who identify themselves as conservatives who often vigorously defend those socialistic programs and certainly won’t vote in droves for candidates who propose their demise.

Even Tea Party fanatics—the right wing of the right wing—won’t touch the socialistic programs.  Last night on The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, a fascinating segment with four major Tea Party leaders revealed just how slippery the terms liberal and conservative are, as well as how unfocused the Tea Party movement is in general.  

Watch the following video clip and ask yourself just what the term “conservative” means, if uber-conservatives aren’t willing to acknowledge, not to mention abolish, socialism, as it is practiced in the United States:


It may be true that twice as many people call themselves conservative as call themselves liberal, but what that means is not as clear as people like Scarborough think.

As Lawrence O’Donnell demonstrated, when hard-core conservative activists either don’t see or don’t care that Social Security and Medicare are socialistic endeavors, then conservatism certainly doesn’t mean what it used to.

Springfield Paper Endorses The Mystery Man

Well, the Springfield News-Leader has “strongly” endorsed Billy Long.

The paper said:

Long promises to bring common sense to Washington.

Is that what you call Long’s “fed up” simplicity? Common sense?

And the paper noted the most salient fact about Long’s campaign:

His platform and public explanations of it during the primary and general campaigns have at times generated questions and claims of contradiction.

At times? And “claims” of contradiction? His move to get the endorsement of an anti-Social Security group called Conservative Congress was successful. They endorsed him. Why? I tried to find out from the group but they aren’t talking.

Here is Conservative Congress’ position on an issue that should be of utmost importance to voters here or anywhere:

Conservative Congress supports candidates who are committed to de-regulating and dismantling wasteful federal social agencies and programs. Specifically, Conservative Congress supports candidates who seek to dismantle the Department of Education and Social Security, by and through constructive reforms…

Conservative Congress endorsed Long because it believes he is “aligned with” their Issues Statement, from which the above language comes.

Yet Long has pretended he doesn’t know what the fuss is all about. He has denied knowing anything about it.

The News-Leader defends Long with this:

He’s new to this. He’s learning. He listens. He’s willing to modify his views.

Yes, that’s the point!  He is willing to modify his views, at least until after the election. He led Conservative Congress to believe one thing about his views on Social Security and he is leading 7th District voters to believe something else.

With this discrepancy in his position hanging out there, how can a reputable newspaper endorse him, “strongly” or otherwise?

The Case Against Libertarianism, Against Fear

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 

—1 Corintians 13:11

I have often chided libertarians and libertarian-ish conservatives for embracing a “childish” philosophy, one that worked well when we were cutting and shooting our way to the Pacific, living out our self-serving Manifest Destiny.

But it’s time we put away childish things.

America has matured; it has blossomed into the most powerful nation in the history of civilization.  And as it has developed and gained world prominence and dominance, its Constitution has remained the preeminent document guarding liberty and justice for all Americans, partly because courageous interpreters dared to understand it in terms conducive to life in the modern world.

For the moment, libertarians and social conservative zealots and haters of either our progressive or pigmented president—take your pick—are playing nice as they join together to rout the Democrats this November.  But as the conservative fanatic Richard Viguerie suggested the other day in the New York Times, after November 2, the Peace Train will collide head-on with the Soul Train—the fight will be on in earnest for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.

But for now, let’s look briefly at libertarian philosophy through the eyes of one of its most famous national proponents, Barry Goldwater, whom George Will married to the Tea Party movement in today’s Joplin Globe:

In 1964, the slogan of the Republican presidential nominee, Barry Goldwater, was “A choice, not an echo.” Forty-six years on, the tea party is a loud echo of his attempt to reconnect American politics with the tradition of limited government.

I have owned a copy of Goldwater’s, The Conscience of a Conservative, for more than 25 years. The book was first published in 1960, four years before Goldwater was overwhelmingly rejected in his run for the presidency.  The following is an excerpt from the book that sounds eerily similar to what one might hear today, as teapartiers temporarily coalesce around demands for a drastically smaller government, some even calling for an end to what libertarians love to call the Welfare State: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid:

The long range political consequences of Welfarism are plain enough: as we have seen, the State that is able to deal with its citizens as wards and dependents has gathered unto itself unlimited political and economic power and is thus able to rule as absolutely as any oriental despot.

Unlimited political and economic power“?  “Oriental despot“?  Keep in mind that was in 1960, and Medicare and Medicaid were still liberal dreams, not to come until 1965.  One would think that after 50 years of even greater “Welfarism” than Goldwater could imagine in 1960, today we would all be bowing to our oriental despot, given a 50-year reign with “unlimited political and economic power.”  

But there just isn’t any oriental despot around, and as our elected President Obama struggles to use the federal government to lift us out of our economic doldrums, one can hardly say the feds have “unlimited” anything, especially “political and economic power.”

Such extremist talk was silly in 1960 and its just as silly today coming from platforms at Tea Party rallies or from 30-second television spots.  In fact, it is embarrassingly immature talk, and fortunately we have half a century of evidence that such fears are cynical and baseless.  Despite an increase in the role of government in overseeing our social well-being, our government is not tyrannical and we still enjoy our liberties.

In 1960, not only was there no Medicare and Medicaid, but the top marginal tax rate was a whopping 91%. Today’s top marginal rate is 35%. Hardly a sign that we are slouching toward oriental despotism.

As far as Social Security, always an object of libertarian and conservative angst, in 1960 the government only taxed the first $4,800 of income at a rate of 3%.  Today, the tax rate is more than twice that and it applies to all earnings up to $106,800. Yet despite that increase, which would have terrified the 1960 Goldwater, there still is no oriental despot on the horizon. 

In fact, Social Security is wildly successful—USA Today reported that the program “kept 14 million seniors above the poverty level” last year. Yet, despite that success, anti-government sentiment is as thick today as when Goldwater wrote in 1960:

Let welfare be a private concern. Let it be promoted by individuals and families, by churches, private hospitals, religious service organizations, community charities and other institutions that have been established for this purpose.

You hear this argument a lot from libertarians and conservatives.  In fact, it is one of their core beliefs that taxing citizens to pay for social programs is illegitimate, amounting to “theft.” The idea that taxation is stealing is creeping into the minds of otherwise sober Americans, who have begun buying into the notion that the government has no business in promoting the general welfare by establishing government social programs. 

Yet what we don’t hear from liber-cons is, what happens if we leave to private concerns all the needs of the needy and those private concerns aren’t all that concerned?  Before Social Security—when private concerns were free to promote the welfare of the poor—seniors were likely to die in poverty. The estimated poverty rate for the elderly was between 70 and 90%.  By 2008, it had dropped to less than 10%.

And whether one thinks that improvement was because of or in spite of Social Security and other “entitlement” programs—programs that are now threatened by Tea Party hysteria—there is simply no denying that the fears that have always accompanied an increased federal role in promoting the general welfare—that promotion rooted in the Constitution itself—are never realized.  Never.

We are not ruled by a despotic federal government, oriental or otherwise.  Goldwater’s State does not have “unlimited political and economic power.”

And contrary to libertarian assumptions, federal involvement in the well-being of the less fortunate, in the well-being of the elderly, has not led to less freedom, but to more.

Because thanks to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, more Americans enjoy the “blessings of liberty” today than at any time in our history.

If Democrats Blink, Social Security May Be Gone

Tea Party nuttery isn’t that funny anymore. The real players are starting to move in and take control. 

For anyone who cares about Social Security and what the current wave of anti-government hysteria may mean for the future of that wildly successful program, here is a segment from last night’s St. Rachel Maddow Show:   

 

Why Republicans Need New Ideas

Cal Thomas poked a little fun at the Republican Party through his column, which was published yesterday in the Globe

It seems that House Republicans have put up a new website to solicit “ideas for a new policy agenda.”

Now, since I can’t improve much on what Cal Thomas wrote about the latest scheme to impregnate the GOP with new life, here it is:

If they have run out of good ideas that work and can improve the country, maybe it’s time for them to leave office and allow people with good ideas to serve in their place.

It’s too bad he didn’t stop there, but unfortunately he continued:

We know what works and what doesn’t. Is there any doubt that we are under a crushing load of debt because we spend too much on “entitlements” that are really just bribes for votes? Aren’t individual liberty and economic independence good ideas?

Let’s leave aside the fact that all of us—Republicans and Democrats—make the claim that “individual liberty and economic independence” are “good ideas.”  What matters is how we think we can achieve them for as many people as possible.

But Thomas’ dumb statement that somehow “entitlements” are “just bribes for votes” is indefensible, though not uncommon among the Limbaughtomized legions on the right.

I wish Republicans would have the guts to conduct a nation-wide campaign against Social Security and Medicare by standing on their Tea Party podiums and telling the elderly that those programs are nothing more than enticements to win votes.

I wish the GOP would adopt a platform that made the claim that Medicaid was designed to give poor children medical care in exchange for the votes of their parents.

How about the Department of Defense? Do we increase its budget every year just to get, historically, the anti-communist vote, and, these days, the anti-terrorist vote?  Or is there a real threat out there and thus a real need for a strong defense?

But just to illustrate how deeply Cal Thomas drinks from the well of contradiction, here is what he said—in the same damn column—on the issue of education:

Eliminate the Department of Education…Allow for school choice. The initial focus will be on disadvantaged children who have proven that they can learn in the right environment and with the proper encouragement and motivation. The cycle of poverty will be broken and African Americans, especially, will thank Republicans by returning to their pre-Roosevelt roots and voting for them out of gratitude for saving their children.

What?  In the first place, if there is no Department of Education, how can there be an “initial focus” on anything, much less “disadvantaged children“?  Who’s going to do the focusing, Cal?  The states?  You mean those same states that had separate schools for blacks and whites?  Those guys?  And in any case, we are talking about state “government,” right?

Second, like most of the conservative “solutions” to our problems—cutting taxes, for instance—they are nothing more than ideology masquerading as hope. If breaking the “cycle of poverty” were as easy as sinking the Department of Education and opening up the schools to “choice,” who wouldn’t be in favor of that?  Do conservatives really think that liberals value government bureaucracy for its own sake? Do conservatives believe that liberals don’t care about the poor? Huh? 

That kind of thinking is why I am The Erstwhile Conservative.

As President Obama told Republicans during the healthcare reform debate, if the simple solutions they offered would work, who wouldn’t want to do them?  And a better question is: Why didn’t Republicans do them when they had the power?

But unbelievably galling is the unmitigated hypocrisy of Thomas declaring that entitlement programs (mostly Democratic ideas) were merely bribes for votes and then declaring that abolishing the Department of Education and allowing school choice (mostly Republican ideas) are noble attempts to improve the lives of the disadvantaged—which just happen to create grateful black Republican voters.

If this is the best that Republicans can do,* no wonder they need a website to solicit new policy ideas.

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 *Look, I know that Cal Thomas wouldn’t necessarily claim to be a Republican. However, he can run from the party whose general ideas he has defended for years, but he can’t hide.
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