How screwed are we? The Trump Administration’s open corruption and contempt for any person or institution, public or private, that challenges its power goes on apace. Republican Party leaders either stay silent or collaborate.Yet, does the Trump Administration really pose a serious threat to American democracy itself? Is the rule of law here really so fragile that it can be toppled by one president and his enablers?
The answer will depend, obviously, on what is meant precisely by the “rule of law” and how strong the institutions and people that sustain it really are. Oh, boy.
I will open our meeting on Monday with a brief soliloquy on what the term can mean and the role that different institution play in maintaining it. Then, we can debate how corrosive Trump’s actions and rhetoric have been, why he’s getting away with it (and is cheered for doing it!), and prospects for unwinding the damage, if any, in the future.
To preview what the topic is trying to get at, consider the words of one legal scholar:
…it is a mistake to focus on [Trump himself] rather than on the institutions that give rise to the rule of law. Leaders with authoritarian personality traits are common, but authoritarian governments exist only when surrounding institutions enable them to express their authoritarian impulses and do not throw up barriers to restrain them…As long as our legal and political institutions remain resilient, we need not worry about Trump becoming an authoritarian leader. And these institutions, ultimately, are made up of the beliefs, attitudes, commitments, and practices of the people who hold official positions.
Of course, in the long run the rule of law in a republic is sustained by a supportive public. Citizens must believe that the law and the political system that creates and enforces the law work for them. See the last two discussion questions, below, for some reasons to worry about that, too. If the tide of anger that Trump rode to the oval office never ebbs and is forever ignored by elites, it is hard to see a fully-democratic, non-authoritarian American future.
Lots of detailed links this week. Except for the recommended ones maybe consider them mainly as a reference source for the future. Thank you in advance for being so civilized during this one.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What is the “rule of law?” Why is it important + how relates to democracy? Which institutions and people are supposed to protect RoL – Congress, courts, political parties, news media, etc.? How important are norms?
- Did we have genuine rule of law before Trump? What/who was missing?
- How fragile is rule of law – lessons from U.S. history and abroad?
- Trump: How damaging have his actions + rhetoric really been to rule of law so far? How so? Evidence? Worst vs. overblown damage?
- Enablers – GOP: Why is the party of Lincoln supporting this?
- Practical/cynical: Electoral calculations, fear of GOP base, fear of Fox News conservative media, etc.
- They are authoritarians themselves.
- Enablers – Others:
- Democrats (centrists or left-wing)? Mainstream media? Social media? Passive voters? Angry voters – why?
- Events: 9/11, Great Recession, Electoral College, Russian bots?
- Future I: How bad will it get + how easily reversed?
- Trump era – Before 11/18, if Dems win in November, next 3 (!) years.
- After Trump: Will lawlessness and authoritarianism be a hallmark of the Party going forward? Will Dems follow?
- Future II: If economic/cultural anxiety persist or worsen (AI/robots, gig economy, rising inequality, rural decline) how can rule of law be…
- Sustained (or restored).
- Consistent with both liberty and social justice?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Trump and the rule of law –
- Our lawless president and his many accomplices. We are in a democratic emergency. Both recommended.
- Trump’s assaults on a free press are unprecedented.
- Trump’s tweets and rhetoric are NOT harmless; they are very corrosive to rule of law.
- House Republicans are actively interfering in Mueller’s investigation to protect Trump.
- Lessons from other countries and from Trump’s first year. Recommended.
Less alarmed POVs –
- So far Trump’s efforts to undermine rule of law have been thwarted. We will survive this presidency, says Joe Scarborough.
NEXT WEEK: Do/should the USA support democracy worldwide?
Leonardo had a good question last week. Is Monday’s topic on resisting Trump about how big D Democrats or small d democrats should do it? I kind of envisioned a “where to now” discussion of issues facing the Democratic Party. CivCon usually avoid partisan strategy topics, since cable news supplies plenty of it. But, I thought this one was too important to avoid.
Now Leo, I’m not so sure we should limit the scope. It’s not just Democrats anymore that peer out from the wreckage of Trump’s first month and see a genuine threat to our constitutional democracy. Maybe our topic – and Dems’ strategy in general – should be to focus on finding ways to rally all of the other small d Republicans and independents American institutions to stand together to restore a functioning govt and oppose Trump’s movements towards strongman rule. Even if you disagree with this characterization of our new President and worry that any effort to unite elites against him would itself endanger democracy, Democrats have pretty much united around a strategy of total resistance to Trump.
For CivCon, I think that leaves us with three big questions to mull over at this meeting. (Four, if you want to debate whether Trump really poses an existential threat to our democracy). First, who and what exactly should we be resisting; everything Trump says/does or just the damages democracy/checks ‘n balances stuff? If Democrat self-limit this way, will they find any allies in the GOP and in other institutions, like the Media, the courts and the bureaucracy? Would it be worth the costs?
Second, does any bigger-than-usual opposition extend to congressional Republicans and their entire agenda? Progressives think some of them endanger our democracy all by themselves by tilting the electoral system towards permanent one party rule: Restricting voting rights, removing all remaining restrictions on campaign finance, crippling labor unions, and welcoming authoritarian White nationalists into the fold. Maybe this is overblown. Yet, Democrats bitterly oppose it all, as well as GOP plans to transform practically every area of national policy, like taxes, immigration, health care, the social safety net, and education.
Third , how specifically can resistance be implemented and maintained? Where’s the plan, the decision makers, the priorities, the resources, etc.? A large-scale resistance has sprung up quickly. How can it be used to maximum benefit in the months and years ahead? How can it translate into a revived Democratic Party?
My expertise is in federal-level policy and institutions, not activism. So, I will open our meeting with a few quick comments on where the opportunities will come in the near future (budget process, nominations, special elections, etc.) to stop or dilute the Trump/Republican agenda. Then, in discussion I hope to learn from our more activist-type members what they think The Plan is, and from our more conservative members.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Is he really so different as to merit total “resistance?”
- Do Dems have areas of agreement with him? If so, should they cooperate w/him, even if it normalizes him?
- Where should Democrats draw the line? Rhetoric? Personnel? Policy? Foreign policy? Anti-democratic actions?
- Resist to the max everything they do, like they did to Obama? Or, horse trade on highest priorities?
- What are those top priorities and which will resonate with the voters?
- Resisters: Who will do this resisting? Who’ll make the decisions? Federal versus state and local level Democrats.
- Resistance: What strategy and tactics might work? How can you plug into the movement/get involved?
- Pro-Trump/conservatives: How should your leaders respond to Dem “resistance” and how should you defend him/GOP?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Is there hope for Democrats?
- Yes, because Trump is so unpopular and can be made more unpopular.
- Yes, because 2020 is the election that really matters and Dems are likely to win it. Recommended
- Why did trump win? An honest assessment of Dems’ mistakes. Recommended.
- A basic, 10-step strategy. Recommended.
- Resisting autocracy:
- The 25th Amendment option, explained.
- GOP: How to resist the GOP agenda since fighting Trump is not enough.
- Maybe stop calling it a “resistance.”
Republican/conservative POVs –
- The GOP Congress should do what it was elected to do – without overreaching. Recommended.
- Democrats should oppose within normal limits but not “resist.” Opposition should be inclusive not further divide us.
NEXT WEEK: What is religion’s proper role in politics?
The Constitution made Congress the preeminent branch of the federal government. Even in an age of an imperial presidency, our govt was not designed to function with a paralyzed national legislature.
Yet, we have had one for many years now. Congressional dysfunction began to grow to dangerous levels in the 1990s, as our two main political parties polarized and as the Gingrichian philosophy of treating routine politics as Manichean warfare migrated from the House to the Senate. Yet, even then Congress still was able to perform most of its basic functions most of the time: Passing annual an budget, enacting new laws and needed amendments to old laws, confirming executive and judicial nominees, ratifying treaties, overseeing the executive branch, etc.
On January 20, 2009, that changed too. In a strategy unprecedented in American history, the Republican Party decided the day Barack Obama took office to paralyze Congress completely so as to deny him any chance to pass any of his agenda. Universal filibusters. Refusing for months or years to confirm routine nominees. Negotiating in bad faith and refusing to follow established legislative procedures. Manufacturing budget and debt payment crises and using them to blackmail the president and the country. Non-existent or sham oversight of federal agencies. I could go on and on about the details, and I just might at our meeting.
The non-partisan part of my point is an uncomfortable one to face. Our democracy’s smooth functioning depends less on formal laws or rules or checks and balances than it does on the willingness of our politicians to value the institutions they serve; accept the other side’s legitimacy when they lose elections; and follow informal rules and norms of conduct when they govern, including simple self-restraint.
Obama has used executive power to get around some of this total obstruction. As we’ve discussed, this poses a problem in and of itself. Still, I consider congressional paralysis to be one of the worst problems of our political age. I’ve made sure we talk about it periodically; e.g., 2015 (Who runs the GOP?), 2014 (Can our political system still solve problems?), 2013 and 2012 (GOP congressional brinkmanship), and even six years ago in 2009 (What’s wrong with Congress?)
Why do it again? Because we have entered an even more dangerous stage of democratic deterioration. The Republican Party is now itself broken and that has made Congers doubly-dysfunctional. Since at least 2014, a rump faction in the House, egged on by talk radio and others, has routinely used the same brinkmanship and blackmail tactics on its own leadership. The House “Freedom Caucus’s” demands cost Speaker John Boehner his job and, as I write, his successor Paul Ryan is desperately trying to prevent another govt shutdown on December 11.
Is this our new normal? How can the leading country in the world disable its own national legislature? Can something be done to fix The Broken Branch? On Monday, I’ll go over some of the competing diagnoses for what is driving this car wreck, and then I’ll list a few of the possible solutions. Not all of them involve just changing which politicians and party control Washington.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What do people mean when they say Congress is broken/dysfunctional? How is “broken” different from “not doing what [insert speaker] wants?”
- Why has this happened? Is it a problem of leadership, rank and file members, political parties, interest groups, the news media, or voters?
- How is congressional dysfunction related to our broader political struggles, like partisan polarization and the rise of Trumpism?
- What can be done to repair our national legislature?
- What if Congress can’t be fixed or isn’t fixed? How will we be able to govern ourselves and cooperate to solve national problems?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
Congress’ role –
- Congress is the first branch of govt and presidents cannot magically force it to do anything. Recommended.
What Broken Means –
- Basic problem. Or, try this explanation. Either recommended if you don’t know basic story.
- UPDATE a must-read: Oversight of executive branch activities is one of Congress’s most vital functions. But the GOP disgracefully formed a special committee to “investigate” the Benghazi attacks and mutated it into a smear committee that’s sole purpose was to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton. This is one of the most disgraceful abuses of power in congressional history. A must read.
- The Constitution is the problem – but not for the reasons you think! Interesting.
- Extreme ideological polarization in the Republican Party and only in it.
- Worse, “procedural extremism” has followed political extremism. Recommended.
- Republican voters demand their leaders never compromise.
Solutions (??) –
- Speaker Paul Ryan may unify the House and the Senate GOP might get rid of the filibuster entirely.
- If GOP wins in 2016, problem solved!
- Forming a coalition govt – seriously! A must-read.
- An American soft dictatorship is one possible future. Carl mentioned this worry – recommended.
Next Week: Is their a constitutional right to privacy?
Well, I think “post-mortem” was the appropriate title. But, what have we really learned about American politics from the mid-term results? How big was the Republican victory last Tuesday, and its mandate? How big a repudiation of the President and Democrats was it, really? And, what are the implications for the:
- next two years of national policy and gridlock
- 2016 presidential election
- likelihood that either major political party could build an enduring political coalition that can get things done
- state/local governance, which is now overwhelmingly in Republican hands?
I’ll open the meeting by summarizing (1) who won what and (2) why it happened, on which there’s a fair amount of consensus. Then, I’ll list some of the implications of the election outcome, not just on the next two years but also on what this election might tell us about the future of our political wars.
Results and Causes/Meaning–
- Why did the Republicans do so well? Recommended. Why did Democrats lose the Senate?
- 15 lessons from the election. (good conservative POV)
- For Democrats:
- For Republicans:
- It’s a huge vindication of their strategy of total obstruction.
- The GOP landslide in state/local elections is the real prize and matters most of all. Recommended.
- But, winning the Senate could cause the GOP to splinter and/or winning in 2014 could lead to GOP defeat in 2016.
- [NEW[ For Minorities: A huge loss of power, and influence, especially in the now completely White and Republican South.
- Open partisan warfare will continue as before. Recommended
- GOP Senate will keep trying to destroy Obama’s legacy. Recommended
- Judges: SCOTUS and judicial appointments matter the most.
- Foreign policy (the GOP hawks are back) and climate (oh, boy).
- Gridlock of our national government will continue until at least 2022. Recommended
Next Week: A fun break! What one event in U.S. history would you change??
This is a corker of a topic idea from Ron, although a hard one to get a handle on since it could include most everything that’s happened in national politics in the last six years. Criticism of President Obama from the left gets very little mainstream news media coverage compared to the hurricane of opposition from the right. Yet it has been steady and fierce, even as the President’s critics acknowledge the extraordinarily awful situation he inherited, like a collapsing economy, failing wars, large budget deficits, a broken immigration system, etc. To simplify somewhat for discussion purposes, here’s my take on what arguments Obama’s progressive critics and his defenders make.
THE PROSECUTION’S CASE –
POLICY – Obama is not and never really was a true progressive. In fact, on domestic policy he has governed as just another centrist Democrat like Bill Clinton, trying to push small, incremental changes in a country that’s problems are now so huge that small reforms achieve little. In foreign policy, Obama is little better than Bush-lite. He’s adopted all but the worst of W.’s policies in the war on terror and continued the permanent war footing of the Cold War. Despite Obama’s soaring campaign rhetoric, he has never wanted to be – much less tried to be – a transformational president.
Examples: Bank sector bailouts (too big, no strings attached, let the banks off the hook and more regulatory weak tea). Stimulus (too small) and the budget (too austere and he offered to put entitlements on the chopping block). Obamacare (too timid, not even aimed at single payer as the goal). Domestic spying and assassinations (flatly unconstitutional). War (too much). Immigration (the “deporter in chief’). Education (too anti-teacher). Climate (too little too late). Etc.
TACTICS – Obama naively believed his own rhetoric of post-partisanship. During his entire first term, he mainly negotiated with himself, pre-compromising every proposal instead if realizing no compromises were possible with a fanatical GOP dedicated to destroying him and letting the country burn down so they could inherit its ashes. Had Obama been more realistic earlier and/or been a tougher negotiator, and/or better used the bully pulpit to rally the public to his cause, then he could have accomplished a lot more to help the country by moving it in a progressive direction.
Examples: Obamacare (pre-compromised to get imaginary GOP and blue dog Democrats’ support). Stimulus (too scared to propose a trillion dollar one, even though it was needed). Budget cuts and taxes (accepted large spending cuts which rewarded GOP blackmail). Cap and trade (gave up without trying to rally Hill or public support).
STRATEGY: Obama has failed to do all he can to wean the country off of the conservative framing/paradigm that says government is bad and regulation and taxes are evil. Nor has he done enough to cement the emerging Democratic coalition of White liberals, non-Whites, young people, and women.
Examples: In 2011, he allowed the national conversation to change from creating jobs and economic growth to counterproductive fiscal austerity. He never explained in simple language why austerity is a bad idea. Plus, what has Obama actually done to improve the fortunes and futures of young people and Americans of color?
THE DEFENSE’S CASE –
Historical: All presidents disappoint their most leftward or rightward wing. Most presidents also make any major accomplishments in their first couple of years and then spend the rest of their terms defending them from being reversed. Big, transformative progressive change is almost impossible in our constitutional system and only happens rarely. On foreign policy, all the post-WWII presidents have followed the same basic policy of U.S. dominance and policing of global hotspots, even if you hate it.
Examples: FDR and LBJ had huge congressional majorities and giant crises that mobilized public opinion, and even FDR spent most of 1934-39 playing defense. All but one 20th century presidents have lost seats in Congress in year 6 of their presidencies. Conservatives worship Reagan now, but considered him a moderate sell-out at the time. Everybody compromises when they must to advance the ball forward.
Inheritance: Obama had to make saving us from another Great Depression his top priority. This was destined it be a thankless task because the financial system had to be bailed out. Worse, the public was never going to reward Obama for preventing something (depression) that did not happen. Winding down Bush’s wars and slowly extricating us from an open-ended “war on terror” would never be called victories, either, even though they were very important. Much of Obama’s affirmative agenda was swallowed while he put out these fires.
Power of the Opposition: Obama had 60 Democrats in the Senate for only 184 days in his presidency, and that “majority” included a half dozen conservative Democrats that he had to compromise with on everything. This was because Republicans effectively altered the Constitution by filibustering every bill and every routine task of legislating. No president, not Lincoln or Reagan or FDR ever had to play by these rules.
Add these completely new rules for governing and a scorched-earth opposition party to the vastly powerful societal forces that fight all big progressive policy changes (corporations, right-wing media institutions) and you get guaranteed gridlock that no amount of presidential soapboxing could break.
And, lest we forget, liberals are a minority – around 20% at most – of American voters! Many support progressive policies when they understand them. But, most voters reflexively oppose most liberal ideas because they are liberal; i.e., unless and until someone clearly explains to them why they are good ideas. Oftentimes, not even then.
Obama Didn’t Fail: Finally, despite all of these obstacles, Obama has achieved a lot of progress towards progressive goals. That’s why conservatives hate him. Obama has now kept all of his major campaign promises (recommended) in foreign and domestic and has a long, long list of impressive achievements. He is building an enduring coalition, too, that turns out to vote for Democrats every four years. This president is playing a long game and he is winning it. See here or below for a full explanation.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- Who has been criticizing Obama from the Left? What do they want and expect from a Democratic president?
- What are these criticisms, in terms of, say, disagreement with Obama’s (1) policies and priorities, (2) tactics, and (3) long term strategy?
- Have any of these criticism had any impact on the course of action the Obama administration has pursued? Why/Why not?
- What are the major defenses to these criticisms? What more could Obama actually have accomplished if he had listened to his liberal critics? If you think he could not have gotten more out of Congress, what about with his foreign policy decisions or executive actions?
- Could Obama have done more in defeat? That is, by more fiercely attacking conservatives to change the conversation in a more progressive direction?
- What will happen to progressivism after Obama?
Note: There have been dozens of major pieces criticizing Obama from the Left. Here are a few of them and some rebuttals and defenses of the guy.
- Has Obama done a good job? Compared to what? Recommended.
- Attack #1: Obama is obstructing a progressive majority (by Thomas Frank, the What’s the matter with Kansas guy). Recommended.
- Rebuttal to Attack #1, plus another one. Recommended.
- Attack #2: Obama is really a conservative. Recommended.
- Attack #3: Obama has not used his rhetoric to change the story (by Drew Westin, the psychologist and language expert).
- Rebuttal to Attack #3.
- Other important or at least interesting points, IMO
- Obama’s long game will prove his critics – from both sides –wrong. Recommended.
- No, Wall Street has eaten the Democratic Party’s soul, Obama included.
- Obama’s timidity is a response to the huge forces arrayed against progressive change. Recommended.
- The Left is being unrealistic and does not understand the limits of presidential power.
Next Week: The News Media’s Bias
I hope our meeting on the “supercommittee” will be helpful as we watch the process unfold between now and the end of the year. To me, the key takeaways are:
- Will the GOP budge an inch on taxes in order to get Democrats to go on the record as wanting to cut Medicare? As we discussed, the House Republicans have realized they made a mistake in voting almost unanimously a few months ago for the “Ryan budget;” i.e., a budget that would privatize and phase out Medicare. They may want to neutralize this problem so much that they would be willing to compromise on taxes.
- But, I highly doubt it. As we also discussed, every GOP presidential candidate has gone on record opposed to any tax increases at all, as has, naturally, every member of the congressional Republican leadership and almost every rank and file member, too.
- Even if the Supercommittee fails to reach agreement, the lame duck Congress over the winter may still decide to cut a grand bargain with the White House. Remember, Democrats have more leverage this time around because the Bush tax cuts automatically expire in January unless renewed and there’s no debt ceiling for the Republicans to hold hostage.
- Liberals are furious, nonetheless, that the Dems on the Supercommittee have reportedly offered to cut entitlements in exchange for tax increases. Why? For one thing (this is new information for us), the new Democratic proposal is more conservative (i.e., cuts spending more and raises fewer taxes) than the draconian Simpson-Bowles plan, the “Gang of Six” plan, and anything ever offered to the GOP by President Obama.
- Second — and this is key! — any concessions the Dems make now, even tentatively, the GOP can throw back in their faces later (I.e., “the Dems once proposed to slash program X, so now we agree; doing sobecomes a “bipartisan,” “centrist” position, even though the Dems only meant it as a concession to be traded for something they wanted.)
Other Information –
As promised, here’s a list I came up with of ideas for changing the ways we hold elections in this country. I know it’s as 3-day weekend, but if anyone wants to hear more about any particular ones of these (or others I’ve overlooked) in my intro next Thursday, please let me know in comments.
Ideas for reforming our elections kind of naturally fall into two categories: Those that would change (1) how we vote, versus (2) what we’re voting for. But, since we kind of agreed we wanted mainly to discuss reforms that have some chance of actually happening, I’ve divided them into those that would require changes to
- The Constitution: More interesting and bold, but non-starters.
- Federal law: Not doable in the present, insane climate, but possible later on.
- State law: Some might be quite doable in CA and other states.
Some other changes would/might require court decisions, too, but I haven’t done any research yet so I’m not going to try to specify here which ones. Here is a list of some of these ideas:
- Most changes to what we’re voting for in federal offices.
- Terms (length) of office:
- For president, Senate, and House
- For Supreme Court — but not for lower federal courts; Congress controls how many there are and their terms of office.
- Term limits.
- Changing size of Senate or House
- Age and citizenship requirements (only president must be a citizen).
- Electoral College changes (but see workaround idea, below).
- A Constitutional right to vote – Does not now exist.
- [There are many other ideas for reforming the Constitution that
are not election changes – veto, war powers, etc. – so we needn’t consider them
Federal Law Changes
- Create a single, national voter registration database.
- Requirements to make voting for federal offices more uniform (courts might have to rule on whether feds can do this or the Constitutional amended, depending on specifics.).
- Plow more federal money into state election process so they’re not so outdated.
- Mandate whether/when/how states can hold primary elections (maybe req. Constitutional change)
State Law Level – Can Or Must Be Done Here
- Federal Offices:
- Shape of House districts (but not population size).
- Who draws the districts (legislature vs. commission)
- When to redistrict (every 10 years or whenever legislature wants).
- Primaries: Whether and when to hold them for president and Congressional races.
- Whether and when to hold primaries.
- Electoral College: Who’s on it, and whether they are required to vote winner take all (the “interstate electoral compact” idea)
- Federal judges: Nothing; all under Federal control.
- Election mechanics and procedures: Lots of discretion.
- Whether and when to hold primary elections and whether they are open or closed.
- Types of ballot (paper vs. electronic); Counting procedures.
- Whether to use absentee voting or vote by mail.
- Voter ID requirements, location of polling places, and other “reforms”– unless the courts strike them down as discriminatory.
- States CANNOT change the federal general election day. The first Tuesday in November is mandated by the Constitution.
- State offices: A state can do pretty much anything it wants, with a few exceptions like they must preserve the one-person-one-vote non-discrimination standard. So, a state could:
- Change terms of office or begin/end term limits.
- Enlarge or shrink # of legislative seats.
- Change who/when draws state house or senate districts.
- Make state judges elected or appointed.
- Make other offices elected or appointed (e.g., attorney general)
- Change election mechanics and procedures.
- Primaries: Whether and when. Open or closed.
- Initiative process: Begin or end it, change it to give legislature more or less authority to modify or overrule them.
Supreme Court Must Act
- Courts frequently get involved in stuff like this. But, obviously, SCOTUS would need to overrule recent rulings in order to allow feds or states to:
- Shorten the campaign season for any office –state or federal.
- Limit campaign spending by rich candidates or by “independent” groups.
- Publicly finance campaigns.
Well, this got to be a long list! I’ll simplify this a lot when I give my 15-minute opening. Let me know if you want me to focus on any particular ones.
Look for a Part II This Week post by Tuesday evening.
Have a nice weekend.
Apropos of tomorrow’s meeting, The Onion discovers the nexis:
Reducing the federal budget deficit has become priority #1 in our political system. Not jobs or the fragile economy or Wall Street reform or any of our other looming problems. Deficits. One way or another, by the end of the summer a deal will be in place to slash spending brutally and raise taxes slightly, all in the name of fiscal probity.
Fine. Let’s talk about deficit reduction. But, let’s do it in a way that sheds light on what the real choices are and their consequences. Who really will sacrifice? Who should? What should guide our choices?
(Other than raw blackmail of course. I just don’t know what to say about the hostage taking over the deficit ceiling. Nothing so reckless has ever been done in all of American history. Failure to raise the ceiling could cause a huge recession, an immediate cut in federal spending of 44%, force cuts in either programs for seniors or war spending, and damage the country’s credit rating for years to come. Worse, winning this round of blackmail ensures that the blackmail will be repeated, over and over.)
(Further, you all know that the political debate has nothing to do with the deficit, right? If it were, the Republicans would not have supported every single Bush tax cut and spending addition during 2001-08. N or would they still be demanding more huge tax cuts for the wealthy and. For example, the House GOP [Ryan] budget plan would cut social spending by something like $2.4 trillion and give it ALL back as tax cuts for the rich, by ending the estate tax, capital gains taxes, etc. The Ryan plan would not balance the federal budget for 60 years. This debate is and always has been about the size of government and who government should be in the business of helping. That’s a great debate to have, but since the public doesn’t know we’re having it, they aren’t really participating.)
Okay, okay, back to Thursday. I’ll open with some facts on:
- How big a problem deficits really are. Liberals – they are a real problem and we
will always be playing defense until they are brought under control.
- What’s causing these deficits in the short run and the long run. Conservatives – This is the part you won’t like.
- The moral dimensions of different ways to reduce government debt. Deficit reduction is NOT just about the math; It’s about what kind of country we’re going to be in the next century and what kind of…wait for it…social contract we’re going to have.
Here’s background on some of this. It’s just two charts.
HOW BIG IS THE DEFICIT PROBLEM?
Annual federal deficits are very large now, as is the accumulated debt from past deficits. Annual deficits are running above 10% of GDP –which is large – and total debt is around 100% of GDP, a level not seen since WWII. Also, Forty-two states face fiscal shortfalls this year, and, since they can’t borrow the difference like the federal government can, they’re slashing spending left and right.
But, the interesting part is what has caused these deficits.
WHAT CAUSED THE BIG DEFICITS?
It’s not rocket science, really. Cutting taxes repeatedly in the midst of two wars, adding an expensive prescription drug benefit to Medicare, and the effects of the biggest recession since WWII have pretty much done the trick, as the chart below shows.
Notice that, without the recession, the Bush tax cuts, and the extra spending, we would still have a federal deficit (the grey area). But, it would be flat as a percentage of GDP;
i.e., as compared to our nation’s ability to afford to pay it off. For more details, see this article.
State budget shortfalls are mainly the result of the recession’s lower tax revenues and higher social spending. But, some states, including California, have such out of whack balance between taxes and spending that they have “structural” deficits. They drown in red ink even in good years.
Back to pissing off liberals. After about 2020, the causes of the deficit change. Why? The recession and the Bush wars wind down and end. What’s left? As the next chart shows, basically, it’s rising health care spending by Medicare and Medicaid.
Of course, the Bush tax cuts remain a cause of the deficits, and, as the Boomers retire, Social Security starts to contribute a little bit. But, in terms of spending, it’s liberal health care programs that do the long-term damage.
None of these facts I’ve mentioned are a secret or controversial. Our politicians know all of them.
Great meeting last night, I thought. We’ve suddenly had a turnover thing where about one-half of our regulars are new to the group. We now have Margaret, Mike, a new Gary, Joan, and others. It was also good to see Joe, our Reader profiler, again.
We covered a lot of ground. Does anyone have anything else they’d like to add in comments?
For me, I’d like to follow-up on one point I made: That the crumbling consensus on what the common good is has allowed the public interest to be carved up by special interests and ideological extremists. Here are links to just two days worth of outrageous assaults on the very idea of a shared, common good. Really, all of these I found in the course of my regular reading on-line on Thursday and today.
- Senate Republicans announced that they will filibuster (refuse to allow a vote on) ANY nominee to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the new federal agency that is supposed to protect the public from predatory financial products, unless Democrats agree to gut the agency’s powers. They also want to slash the agency’s funding and opposed its very creation.
- Wall Street lobbyists lie about a new regulation that would make mortgage lenders assume a tiny bit of the risk of subprime mortgages they originate (rather than sell 100% of the note to securitizers, because, hey, that worked out so well).
- 54% of Americans report that they have had trouble accessing health care services because of cost concerns in the past two years. In the U.K., 13% have had this problem; in Canada, 26%.
- States are slashing unemployment and other safety net benefits, which are most needed in times like these.
- In Wisconsin, GOP Governor Walker slipped a provision into the budget that would screw over the state’s craft beer makers, probably because MillerCoors lobbied him to.
- Texas’ House has passed a bill to phase out the state’s Medicaid program and privatize Medicare in the state. Fun fact: On-quarter of Texans have no health insurance, the highest rate in the nation.
- Speaking of fun facts, here are 10 of them about Texas Governor Rick Perry, who just said he’s “90%” sure to enter the GOP presidential race. The famous one is him saying that Texas might have to secede from the Union if federal tyranny gets much worse, which, IMO, is how you run for president of the Confederacy, not of the united States. But, all 10 fun facts speak to his view of the common good.
- Since 1990, the tax rate paid by millionaires has fallen by one-third. On average, they now pay only 22% of their income in federal taxes.
- Evidence is mounting that oil and grain prices are now driven by speculators, not market forces.
- The U.S. Senate is spending a record one-third of its time this session doing literally nothing.
- And finally, liberal conceptions of the public good can get screwed up, too. See this hilarious critique of San Fransico’s efforts to ban circumcision!
You’re lucky I didn’t do a week’s worth.