Monday, August 30, 2010

One Last Thought

The Facebook status that started it all...

Matthew Rozsa
I have a question for people who believe any of the following:
A) Obama wanted to create death panels.
B) Obama wasn't born in Hawaii.
C) Obama is a Muslim.
Do you have the courage to publicly pronounce your views to your intellectual betters (i.e. anyone who doesn't believe those things) or will you only bandy about your drivel to gaggles of fellow hatemongers, who you know will reinforce your imbecile dogmatism?

Quick question: do you have any friends that believe any of that? I mean, I'm definitely more conservative than you and I can only name a couple that believe that. On an off note, I got invited to a militia meeting. Mad, huh?

Oh, they have plenty of "courage" my friend...and they pronounce quite loudly.

remember you aren't an intellectual are a Socialist for disagreeing with their dogma...HEY MATT! It's been forever!

I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's mostly fringe elements that believe that. My friends who are conservative don't believe those things. Neither do I.

And yes it has been far too long Ms. Zelda. Hope all is well. I hope to be in NYC more this year. I'm living in South Carolina this year.

That's awesome! I'm in DC for law school - stay in touch. I went to the Tea Party Rally this weekend...we might not be friends with them but there are more of them than I am comfortable with...ignorance is terrifying.

I know people who believe that stuff.

Law school!?!?! Yay you! I'm doing cardiac rhythm management training. And on the ignorance note, yes. That's why I'm an armed moderate. Slice and dice lightsaber FTW.

I have relatives who believe in all of those. We're not in speaking terms.

Matthew Rozsa
To Doc and Joe: I have a couple of friends who have openly declared belief in Opinion A, to say nothing of the ones who I suspect adhere to that position more covertly. While nobody in my social circle (online or real-life) has actually admitted to me that they agree with Opinions B or C, there are several whose general wont to embrace the faux facts propagated by the radical right makes it so that, if I was a betting man, I'd place greater odds on them holding those views than not.

To Zelda: I don't think the Tea Party protesters and other right-wing conspiracy theorists are courageous at all. When I said that they only share their views with "gaggles of fellow hatemongers" who they know will provide validation for their "imbecile dogmatism," I did so because I don't believe there is anything courageous about proudly squawking one's hateful fatuity to fellow dittoheads. Indeed, I don't even think there is anything brave about those Tea Partiers who participate in the protests and other public demonstrations, since there seems to be a direct correlation between the brazenness of their rhetoric and the size of the angry mob they have at their side.

Of course, one point matters far more than any of the others I've just mentioned:

Although Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party movement, and the rest of the radical right loves to claim that they are persecuted, in danger of losing their freedoms, and engaging in valiant campaigns comparable to those waged by the founding fathers and other great American patriots, the reality is that none of them are in any real danger when they engage in their protest movements. No one is ordering law enforcement personnel to drag them off to prison or threatening violence against them (which is more than can be said of how they treat their various targets); no one is jotting their names down on lists to be used to prevent them from getting a job or buying a home, and no government agents are wiretapping their phones or investigating their personal lives in order to find ways of smearing and thereby discrediting them. Their claims of being victims and martyrs notwithstanding, neither the leaders nor the grassroots followers of these movements have ever incurred any real risk as a result of their self-expression.

What's more, none of them are fighting for causes that actually involve their sacred rights and liberties. Some of the evils against which they fight WOULD be very serious if they were real- see the death panels in the health care reform bill, the advent of an Obama-led dictatorship, or the plan to indoctrinate children with Socialist ideas via a presidential back-to-school speech - but invariably their claims are either exaggerated beyond all proportion or fabricated entirely. What few real-life battles are then left in their crusade involve outrage over matters that are remarkable in their pettiness and lack of perspective, like whey they fulminate about having to pay tax increases to help the unemployed and poor because they are in a higher income bracket (and yes, surveys have found that Tea Partiers tend to be more affluent than average Americans) or when they rant because they feel too many Latinos are immigrating to this country and too many people choose secular lifestyles and too many homosexuals are thinking about getting married, raising children, and joining the military.

Now compare all of this with the historic freedom fights with which right-wingers often juxtapose their own silly missions (and in this case I feel deeming them "silly" is pretty objective):

The American Revolution, from which they get so much of their rhetoric and symbolism. The real American revolutionaries were men and women who, if they were lucky, only risked dishonor and disgrace at being forever branded as treasonous rebels; if they were unlucky, the penalty was death on the battlefield or at the end of a hangman's noose. They fought for the cause of democracy and the right to self-rule (not just over higher taxes, as some believe; that was the catalyst, not the cause).

The Civil Rights Movement, including the famous March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King which Beck and his supporters pretended to emulate from their safe perch of historical retrospect and lilywhite affluence. Of course, that wasn't the only battle fought for civil rights - there were countless other protests at diner counters and school courtyards, on buses in Selma and at voting booths in Mississippi. These were people, white and black, who were fighting to end segregation, job and housing discrimination, voter intimidation, laws that prevented black people from marrying whites or from serving in public office, and the countless other manifestations of systemic racism that caused unequal treatment for African Americans. In the name of this cause they risked (and often suffered) death, serious bodily injury, the loss of their livelihoods and homes, and the destruction of their personal reputations.

Now you can see why it's so hard for me to respect the Becks, Limbaughs, Palins, and Tea Partiers of this country. In a way they are incapable of understanding, they don't even respect themselves.

Liana Rozsa Chernoff
I made the hopeless mistake of arguing with some idiot woman on Dan Reagan's page. I think she was demented.


I have a friend who wishes the president would "just show us the birth certificate." I asked how many other presidents' birth certificates needed to be seen.

There was no response.

Also, this same friends, and number of others, are sincerely convinced that President Obama is a hardened socialist.

I'm not sure how to talk to them about anything other than Apple Computer products.

Liana Rozsa Chernoff
I gave up. I try to avoid having long conversations with irrational people.

Matthew Rozsa
The next time people accuse Barack Obama of being a hardened socialist, feel free to borrow liberally from the arguments I use in one of my old blog posts on that subject.

On a tangential note...

As of today, America's military presence in Iraq is over. President Obama has fulfilled one of the defining promises of his 2008 presidential campaign and pulled out all of our armed forces (leaving behind only a contingency of 50,000 advisors).

Even though I am critical of Obama's performance in many areas (especially the scope of his economic policy), the reality is that he has racked up an impressive array of substantive achievements during his White House tenure. Among them:
- He passed a health care reform bill that will provide insurance coverage to 32 million Americans, reduce the budget deficit by more than $1.3 trillion over the next twenty years, and eliminate various forms of injustice perpetrated by insurance companies (including charging higher premiums or denying coverage to individuals with pre-existing medical conditions, establishing annual spending caps, dropping policyholders once they become sick, charging co-payments or deductibles for Level A or Level B preventive care and medical screenings, etc.)
- He passed a Wall Street reform bill that gives regulators the authority to liquidate large financial firms that are failing, creates a council of regulators to be watchful for risks in the financial system, and establishes a consumer financial protection bureau within the Federal Reserve to write and enforce regulations regarding lending and credit.
- He passed a financial stimulus package that prevented the rapidly worsening economic crisis with which Obama was confronted when he was inaugurated from further deteriorating, and resulted in unemployment merely plateauing rather than continuing to rise.
- He passed a series of other important economic measures, including bills that helped struggling homeowners avoid losing their houses, protected credit card users from exploitation (viz. arbitrary interest rate increases, due date gimmicks, misleading language in credit contracts, etc.), and extended federal programs to help citizens afflicted with AIDS.
- He has worked diligently to repeal the military's homophobic "Don't ask, don't tell" provision and allow homosexuals to openly serve in our nation's armed forces. In addition, he passed a bill to expand federal hate-crime laws to include offenses influenced by an individual's actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability, making it the first bill to protect the rights of the transgendered.
- He has improved our relationships with many of the countries who felt alienated from the United States during the Bush presidency, particularly those in Europe and the Middle East.
- He has made great progress toward global nuclear disarmament, which was one of the main reasons he won the Nobel Peace Prize.
- He ended President Bush's policy of prohibiting the use of federal dollars for embryonic stem cell research.
- He has worked diligently toward closing down the military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay (although his initial effort to shut it down completely was stymied by a military judge at the facility, he has still significantly reduced the base and is moving toward a date when it will be completely shut down).
- He has successfully handled international fiascoes from the Somali pirate hostage incident to the earthquake in Haiti.
- He was able to get British Petroleum to provide compensation for Gulf Coast residents whose livelihoods were negatively impacted by the oil spill.
- He passed legislation to protect two million acres of wilderness and a thousand miles of rivers, establish new national trails and parks, and provide legal status to the National Landscape Conservation System.
- He appointed as many women to the Supreme Court as all of his predecessors combined, as well as appointing the first Latina to that body and the eighth Jew.
- Oh, and yes... as of today, he ended the war in Iraq.

The major errors of Obama's presidency are that he has been too timid in his economic policies, thus causing an unnecessary prolongation of this recession; he has failed to get us out of the military quagmire in Afghanistan even as he has succeeded in doing so in Iraq; he has failed to capture Osama bin Laden; he was too slow in dealing with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; and as a result of these various failures (most important the economic one), he has allowed for a weakening of both his own political clout and of the ability of Democrats to reshape America's ideological-political paradigm. Yet despite these mistakes, he has achieved more lasting good in less than twenty months than his four predecessors did during the sum total of their administrations (and I am including Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as well as the two Bushes).

If nothing else, Obama deserves better than Glenn Beck.

Dude, you can write.

Matthew Rozsa
Thank you. I can also sing, dance, and act.

Oh wait. Scratch all of that. But I can write.

I often sing. I like to sing about about Glenn Beck. But I also like to read your status updates.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Obama's Great Failure

There is a sad irony to the prevalent charge about Obama being too far to the left - namely, that if he loses in 2012, it will almost certainly due to the fact that his policies weren't adequately liberal.

Let me back up.

When I discussed potential scenarios for the 2012 presidential election last September, I divided the possibilities into two categories:

1) A political climate in which the election takes place against the backdrop of economic recovery (as well as the presumed absence of any serious paradigm-altering catastrophes).

2) A political climate in which the election takes place while the economy continues to flounder.

Although most of that piece focused on what would happen in the case of the first hypothetical situation, my prediction regarding the second deserves to be quoted, for reasons that will soon be made clear:

In a situation where the economy is still struggling by late 2011/early 2012, Romney will be the obvious candidate. His extensive background as a fixer-upper in the business community and sterling personal integrity will be exactly what the Republican base and American public crave in such an environment - the former because of his unwavering loyalty to the oligarchy of wealthy Americans and big businesses that rule the Republican party, and the latter because his business background can be sold very easily as a prime qualification for getting us out of our economic turmoil...

If the economy is still flailing in 2012, and Mitt Romney is consequently selected to be the Republican presidential nominee, I do not know who he will choose to be his running mate (apart from the fact that he or she will be a candidate pre-approved by the Christian Right), but I can say that he will win.

The reason this excerpt has become sadly prescient is because, barring the socio-economic equivalent of a deus ex machina, the odds seem extremely good that the economy will not have improved (at least not significantly enough to make a meaningful difference) by the time the 2012 election rolls around. As such, the likelihood seems to be that Willard "Mitt" Romney will become President of the United States on January 20, 2013.

For this, President Obama has no one to blame but himself.

That isn't to say that he is responsible for causing the recession, or even that he's wrong for frequently pointing out that many of its most pernicious attributes (rising unemployment, stagnating wages, soaring budget deficits) actually took off under his predecessor. Indeed, the selective amnesia of the right-wingers who are now trying to claim that the recession is Obama's fault - despite the fact that the recession itself began fourteen months before he took office and was caused by the deregulatory and anti-labor policies of Ronald Reagan and his three successors - provides yet another example of how ideological dogmatism, when blended with partisan zealotry, causes even intelligent people to draw blatantly illogical conclusions (liberals are not exonerated from this tendency either, as indicated by the deification of Obama during the 2008 campaign or the insistence by many on the left that the Fort Hood shooter was something other than an Islamic terrorist).

Yet even though the start of the recession can't be ascribed to Obama's policies, the failure of our economy to turn around is entirely his own.

When he was inaugurated almost nineteen months ago, Obama had an abundance of political capital. He had been elected almost three months earlier with the largest popular mandate of any president in twenty years; as a result of his personal charisma and the enthusiastic grassroots movement that propelled him to power, he had a staggeringly high 64% approval rating; and he had majorities in both houses of Congress that, combined with his personal popularity and the nationwide demand for drastic action, were more than sufficient for him to successfully initiate even highly ambitious legislative measures.

Even better, Obama had templates from recent history to which he could refer for guidance. The last president who had to deal with a similar economic crisis, Franklin Roosevelt, recognized that the root of the problem was high unemployment and declining incomes; as such, he alleviated much of America's suffering during his first two terms with a series of programs known as the New Deal, which put millions of people to work (see the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933) and helped raise average income levels by empowering labor unions (see the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938). Indeed, the fact that unemployment and poverty weren't reduced even more during the first eight years of Roosevelt's tenure was due to the reluctance of even liberal Democrats to spend too much money on his New Deal policies. Once World War Two began, and Roosevelt was able to use the war effort as a pretext for increasing the budget and scope of his program of national economic mobilization so that it could reach its fullest potential, unemployment dropped dramatically, from as high as 14% in 1940 to less than 2% three years later.

Yet despite the fact that Obama knew what had to be done and had the tools at his disposal with which to do it, he failed.

The reason for this is as simple as it is devastating: Barack Obama's historical memory did not go back far enough.

To briefly elaborate:

1) From the beginning of Franklin Roosevelt's presidency in 1933 to the beginning of Ronald Reagan's presidency in 1981, the prevalent assumption in American economic life was that the government had an obligation to intervene in economic matters on behalf of middle-class and working-class citizens, from curbing the excessive power of big business and Wall Street to protecting the rights of consumers, stimulating job growth, and fighting for livable wages and humane working conditions. What's more, Democrats insisted on winning elections through the aggressive use of economic populism, depicting themselves as friends of the working and middle classes and characterizing Republicans as tools of the wealthy and a corporate oligarchy. As a result of the beneficence of their policies and the shrewdness of their political strategy, Democrats won two-thirds of the presidential elections from 1932 to 1976, dominated both houses of Congress during that same period with only a handful of brief interruptions, and presided after the end of World War Two over more than three decades of virtually unbroken economic growth (only briefly hiccuped by the oil crisis of the '70s). Roosevelt himself became so popular that he earned the distinction - never matched before or since - of being elected to more than two terms, each time with his popular support never falling below 55%.

2) The last Democratic president to be elected as an unabashed liberal was Jimmy Carter in 1976. Following the failures of his presidency - particularly his difficulty in solving the Iranian Hostage Crisis and fighting the economic effects of the oil shortage - Carter was defeated in the election of 1980 by a Republican named Ronald Reagan, who came from what was then the extreme right-wing of his party. Since that time, conservative economic assumptions had dominated American political life. The Republican Party abandoned the position of the moderates who had dominated their party post-FDR (as seen by every candidate from Alfred Landon to Gerald Ford, with only Barry Goldwater briefly interrupting that string) and instead subscribed to the notion that government spending on the economy to protect consumers and the jobs and wages of the working classes was always bad, if not downright un-American (although they did not object to spending increases for the military, the war on drugs, culturally conservative programs, and tax cuts and financial giveaways for wealthy individuals and businesses, and the consequent exploding of the budget deficit that came as an inevitable result of all of this). This philosophy was not inherently helpful for Republicans: Despite running against an incumbent who was reviled for his perceived ineptitude, Reagan only received 51% of the popular vote against Jimmy Carter during his first run for the presidency in 1980; when he implemented his conservative economic agenda during his first term, it triggered the worst recession in decades, one that lasted two years and was only relieved by the technological boom brought on by the PC revolution and its resultant temporary recovery; this stroke of good luck (unrelated to any Republican policies) helped Reagan recover his abysmal approval ratings and get resoundingly re-elected in 1984; and then his party had further good luck in 1988, when the Democrats nominated a weak candidate, Michael Dukakis, whose naivete about national politics caused him to turn a 17-point lead over Reagan's heir apparent (George H. W. Bush) into an eventual 9-point loss.

3) Then, in 1992, the Democrats chose as their standard-bearer Bill Clinton, who promptly waged a campaign based on the erroneous premise that the last three presidential elections had been lost because Democrats challenged the ascendant Reaganite economic assumptions as opposed to embracing milder versions of them. Because Clinton's opponent, President George H. W. Bush, was saddled with a terrible economy and a third-party spoiler who siphoned off huge chunks of his base, Clinton wound up winning the election despite receiving only 43% of the popular vote (the lowest amount to go to a victorious candidate in twenty-four years). Clinton in turn pursued economic policies from the center-right, in what he believed was a politically viable halfway point between the FDR liberalism that worked and the Reagan conservatism to which he believed Democrats had to make automatic concessions. Like Reagan before him, Clinton lucked out; a technological boom that had nothing to do with his own policies caused economic growth and led to his re-election (ironically, that techno boom was directly connected to the actions that his vice president, Al Gore, had taken while he was still a Senator from Tennessee; see the High Performance Computing and Communication Act of 1991). By the time Clinton's re-election in 1996 had given way to the scandals that marked his second term, the message had nevertheless been sent to Democrats with faulty historical memories - the way to win elections was to abandon, or at the very least serve as apologists for, economic liberalism.

Hence Barack Obama's mistake: He looked to history for guidance and learned from the age of Bill Clinton when he should have learned from the age of Franklin Roosevelt. As soon as he was sworn into power, Obama should have declared that he was pursuing a policy of national economic mobilization akin in structure and scope to that pursued by Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, or at least during the early stages of the New Deal. Instead he chose the Clinton strategy of finding a middle ground between what would work and what the prevailing Reaganite paradigm would accept.

The reasons for following in the Roosevelt path were great: It would undoubtedly have caused a significant reduction in unemployment, increased wages, caused an economic recovery, and gone a long way toward getting Obama re-elected in 2012. Because Democrats had supermajorities in both houses of Congress, Obama could easily have passed all of the legislation needed without any Republican support. The worst with which he would have had to grapple were the gripes of conservative Democrats, but (a) given his high popularity at that time, it is doubtful that many of them would have wanted to oppose him when he was at such a peak and (b) had they managed to thwart his initiatives, or had they fought too aggressively to water them down, Obama could have easily turned to his advantage by characterizing conservatives Democrats as obstructing recovery in the name of their allies on Wall Street, thus parlaying his own popularity and the growing hatred of Wall Street into populist pressure on conservative Democrats to tow the party line, which would have not only guaranteed the passage of the necessary legislation but enhanced Obama's image as a strong political leader. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it would have solidified Barack Obama's place in history as a transformative president; since his actions would have undermined the ideological assumptions that had kept the previous dominant political coalition (i.e. the one forged by Ronald Reagan in 1980) in its ascendant position, he could have reshaped the American ideo-political paradigm in his image, as had the other transformative presidents before him (Thomas Jefferson, who shaped the political era from 1800 to 1828; Andrew Jackson, who shaped the political era from 1828 to 1860; Ulysses Grant, who after the interlude of the Civil War and the Andrew Johnson debacle shaped the political era from 1868 to 1901; Theodore Roosevelt, who shaped the political era from 1901 to 1920; Warren Harding who shaped the political era from 1920 to 1932; Franklin Roosevelt, who shaped the political era from 1932 to 1980; and Ronald Reagan, who shaped the political era since 1980).

The arguments for avoiding the Roosevelt path were almost pathetically weak: Those who asserted that it would deny Obama bi-partisan support ignored that the post-Gingrich Republican Party has made refusing to work with Democratic chief executives a tactical imperative, thus making any effort to win their support inherently doomed; those who claimed that it would have led to Obama being accused of socialism forgot that (a) the regular voters who would say that are right-wingers who would never vote for a Democrat anyway and (b) conservatives make that charge of Democrats regardless of their ideology, as seen by the fact that they claimed this of the centrist Bill Clinton just as they did of left-wingers from Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter, which means that Obama was guaranteed to be attacked on that basis no matter what he did; and finally, those who pointed out that Obama's policies would have raised the budget deficit (the one quasi-legitimate claim) overlooked that (a) the long-term harm caused by increasing our budget deficit is much less than that caused by persistent high unemployment and low incomes and (b) once the economy had recovered, taxes could be increased (especially on big businesses and the wealthy) so as to gradually pay off the deficit, since by then the economy would be able to afford it.

Yet instead of following both common sense and the lessons of recent history to their logical conclusion, Obama chose the Clinton path instead of the Roosevelt one:

1) Although he passed a stimulus package to create jobs, he watered it down in order to win the support of conservative Democrats (which he mostly got) and Republicans (which he did not get), thus reducing it to a size that still guaranteed its ability to prevent more severe economic decline (which it did indeed do, a feat that has not received adequate credit from either ideological side) but rendered it woefully inadequate to the task of fostering actual economic growth and recovery.

2) He shifted his focus away from the issue of creating jobs and improving working class conditions and instead spent the remainder of his political capital on health care reform. Although this was undeniably an important issue, and one to which Obama's ultimate legislation has made great strides toward resolving (once again, much more so than many on the left as well as the right are willing to acknowledge), it was not the central issue confronting his presidency, and as such should have been tackled by him later in his administration.

As a result of Obama's failure, the economy is still faltering, the American people are still suffering, and the likelihood that these variables will lead to the nomination and election of Mitt Romney becomes larger every day.

This doesn't mean that political salvation is impossible for Barack Obama. A recovery could occur at the last minute for him, due to a technological revolution or some other external stimulus, much as one did just in time to get Ronald Reagan re-elected in 1984 and Bill Clinton re-elected in 1996; an unrelated crisis could cause people to rally around Obama and overlook his failures on the economic front; he could, after suffering terrible losses in the mid-term elections of 2010, be confronted with a Congress so bloodthirsty in hounding him that he could receive de facto support from a sympathetic public, or likewise have a Congress so radical and/or obstructionist in its actions that he can then pass blame for our economic woes onto them.

Of course, the sad truth made evident in all of these hypothetical scenarios is that none of them would be the result of any actions Obama himself had taken. When an individual in power finds that his actions can no longer impact his fate, it is proof that he has failed as a leader.

The reality is that it is too late for Obama to pass the drastic legislation necessary for our economy to experience a meaningful recovery by 2012. While the law of boom-and-bust in economic cycles does guarantee that, eventually, we will get out of this muck on our own, there is no telling when that will happen, although history suggests a recovery will probably naturally occur in the middle of this decade, in what would either be Obama's second term or his successor's first. Either way, Obama's hopes in 2012 rest on the occurrence of a miracle, and while miracles are always possible, they are hardly variables which should be factored into serious political forecasts.

As such, the prediction with which I am compelled to leave this blog is that:

a. Republicans will wisely nominate Mitt Romney as a candidate whose business resume makes him the ideal opponent to a Democratic incumbent dealing with a weak economy (incidentally, his pro-business policies will also help him create a formidable fundraising apparatus to propel his candidacy, an invaluable asset in any successful presidential campaign). Helping his cause will be the fact that independent voters, who will no doubt be turned off by the radicalism of the Tea Party movement and further dismayed with what I expect to be the rabid political bloodlust of congressional Republicans (see, will perceive Romney as an ideological moderate and advocate of political stability, thus making him far more attractive in a general election contest; this factor will not go unnoticed among GOP primary voters when they compare him to his two chief opponents, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee.

b. Mitt Romney will run a campaign that focuses on Obama's failures in addressing the economic issues confronting most Americans and contrasts that record with Romney's undeniable acumen as a business guru (which he will argue recommends him for a political job requiring successful economic policies), as well as his success in balancing the state budget of Massachusetts and implementing other fiscally conservative programs in that bastion of liberalism.

c. As such, the presidential election of 2012 will become a showdown between Mitt Romney and his running mate (someone pre-approved by the Christian Right, palatable to the Tea Partiers without being viewed as in their pocket, and with federal experience in contrast to Romney's considerable lack thereof, such as Richard Burr (my personal pick), Fred Thompson, Sam Brownback, Jeb Bush, or - if Romney's an idiot - Newt Gingrich) and Barack Obama and Joe Biden (despite rumors to the contrary, I doubt Biden will be replaced, as the process of purging him from the ticket would provide more drama than it'd be worth). Unfortunately, if things continue on their current track, the probability is that Romney-Thompson/Brownback/Bush would defeat Obama-Biden in that contest.

Unfortunately, should any this scenario come to pass, the only person to be blamed for the president's current plight would be himself.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Masterpiece of Fatuous Indignation

Matthew Rozsa

Here is a choice quote from Sharron Angle, the Tea Partier chosen by Republicans to oppose Harry Reid in the Nevada Senate race:

"The nation is arming. What are they arming for if it isn't that they are so distrustful of their government? They're afraid they'll have to fight for their liberty in more Second Amendment kinds of ways? ... If we don't win at the ballot box, what will be the next step?"

Matthew Rozsa

I await the masterpieces of fatuous indignation that invariably come from right-wingers as they object to my characterization of Angle and her ideological kin.

Lydia Keaney

She scares me. Didn't she make some statement which (directly or indirectly) advocatec shooting elected officials who aren't Second Amendment zealots??

Cliff Smith
What characterization is that? You don't seem to be characterizing her at all. You just quoted her.

Again, your problem is assuming most Americans disagree with her. I don't think anybody, including Angle, thinks you start shooting when you lose at the ballot box. But the Second Amendment was a direct response to the British trying to keep the colonels from having guns so they couldn't fight back against a tyrannical government. Merely saying that Americans recognize this fact and aren't willing to give that up doesn't seem particularly alarming to me and I doubt, frankly, most people outside of a few big cities.

Is it an inartful characterization that Timothy McVey types could use to justify wrong deeds? Maybe. But I tend to think those kinds of people don't need much encouragement. If you're suggesting Angle is one of them, you're just wrong and any attempt to say otherwise will ultimately help elect her because it'll just make her opponents look like idiots.

Angle wasn't my choice for the nomination, but her position on this issue isn't outside mainstream America.

Matthew Rozsa
I find it amusing that you open by claiming that I "don't seem to be characterizing her at all" because all I do is "quote her", only to follow that up by arguing against the position you assumed I was making by posting that quote. You can't have it both ways, Cliff; either you recognize that I put that quote up there as an implicit means of exposing what I believed to be the heinous views therein articulated (which is precisely what you did in every following sentence in your post) or you stick by your guns in that I was wrong for putting up a quote without adding clarification as to why I was doing so (in which case your ability to immediately discern certainly inherent moral and ideological flaws in its content, without any guidance from me, ought to be pretty revealing). Which logical trap do you wish to fall into? I don't even need to construct one for you; you have given yourself such a luxury of options.


1) It's remarkable to me that you can be so confident in asserting "your problem is assuming most Americans disagree with her" and that "her position on this issue isn't outside mainstream America." First, I never claimed that most Americans disagree with her; I don't feel the need to represent a majority view in my positions, since as William Penn succinctly put it, "Right is right, even if everyone is against it; and wrong is wrong, even if everyone is for it." That said, I do happen to believe that most people feel she is wrong on this point, and I challenge you to back up your assertion to the contrary with some evidence. Can you prove that most people hold Angle's radical opinions on this subject (and the ones she actually states in that quote, not the ones that you read into it)?

2) You blatantly mischaracterize what Angle wrote in order to justify it (and before you try to accuse me of doing the same thing, remember that you boxed yourself in by saying that I hadn't characterized her at all but only quoted her; by your own early admission, I am the objective one here). Now let's dissect what she said, shall we?

"The nation is arming. What are they arming for if it isn't that they are so distrustful of their government?"

OK, she hasn't mentioned the Second Amendment yet. Instead she opened by pointing out that more people than usual are buying weapons (I don't know even if that's true, but for the sake of making this reasonably brief, I won't contest her on that). Then she asserts through a rhetorical question that they are doing this because they don't trust the government (implicitly due to the leadership of the current administration).

"They're afraid they'll have to fight for their liberty in more Second Amendment kinds of ways?"

She does cite the Second Amendment here, but more as an artful way of illustrating another point, rather than because she's actually discussing issues relevant to it. That statement doesn't say "This is why we love the Second Amendment" or "I support the Second Amendment" or "We need more flexible gun regulations because of the importance of the Second Amendment" - no, what she says there is that "they" (the state) is afraid of people "fighting for their liberty" in "Second Amendment ways". It doesn't take a rocket scientist to read that as an artful way of claiming that people will use their guns to protect their freedoms from the state... and it takes deliberate refusal to see the truth for what it is in order to deny that.

"If we don't win at the ballot box, what will be the next step?"

Yes, that statement is harmless if taken out of context, but in light of the bellicose rhetoric which preceded it, it's pretty hard to not interpret that as advocating that Tea Partier start an armed revolution if they don't win their desired elections (such as Harry Reid vs. Sharron Angle).

3) I'm actually going to be nice in my last point and just say that I owe you a debt of gratitude. I was actually worried that Angle's bloodthirsty pandering to the most vile element of America's right-wing was so overt that no conservative friend of mine would dare defend it; you, however, were kind enough to provide me with exactly the kind of "masterpiece of fatuous indignation" for which I was hoping. Thank you.

Addendum: August 30, 2010

Much to my surprise, Cliff did not provide a response to my last statement. After waiting for more than two weeks, I think it's fair to say that this exchange ended with the post you just saw.

I'd like to end with an interesting piece about Harry Reid, the man I hope will defeat Sharron Angle (in part due to his own underappreciated but substantive legislative record as Senate Majority Leader). This was written shortly after his selection to replace Tom Daschle as leader of the Senate Democrats:

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Happy Ending?

The following is an excerpt from Six Crises, the bestselling memoirs penned by Richard Nixon during the period between his vice presidency (1953-1961) and his presidency (1969-1974). This section describes a conversation he had in 1958 with the president of Bolivia.
While reviewing Bolivia's economic plight, President Hernan Siles pointed to the pictures of his two predecessors on the walls of his office. One, he said, had become despondent at the futility of his own efforts and had committed suicide. The other had been taken by a mob and hung from a lamppost in the street outside the window of the President's office. "I often wonder what my fate will be," he said with a wry smile.

For those who are curious:

- The first leader to whom Siles referred was German Busch (1937-1939), a brilliant but hotheaded war hero who (1) led numerous coups that deposed not one, not two, but three different Bolivian presidents, (2) eventually became president himself, (3) launched an ambitious plan to democratize his country, reform its corrupt government and save its collapsing economy through what was dubbed "Military Socialism", (4) restored the old Bolivian constitution and thus transformed the state into a democracy, (5) scrapped the new free government and declared himself dictator when he found that it was impossible to get anything done in a democracy, (6) succumbed to hopelessness as he realized that it was just as impossible to get anything done even when he was an authoritarian ruler, and (7) killed himself.
- The second leader was Gualberto Villarroel (1943-1946) whose important progressive reforms (such as having the government officially recognize labor unions and the right to voluntarily retire with a pension) caused Bolivia's right-wing, led by wealthy mining corporations, to stir up resentment against him from the general public, a development exacerbated when the newly-empowered left-wing workers movements also began making demands that Villarroel viewed as excessive and thus brutally repressed. After a particularly bloody incident in which Villarroel's government executed various members of Bolivia's intelligentsia and then pushed their bodies off a cliff, a revolution was launched against him, leading to his being shot, thrown from a balcony, and lynched on the aforementioned lamppost.
If it makes you feel any better, though, Siles himself stayed in power for an additional two years after this conversation with Nixon. What's more, he managed to stay alive for long enough after leaving the presidency that he wound up serving another term from 1982 to 1985, a full twenty-two years after his first term ended. That said, this only came about after he had already won three earlier presidential elections (in 1978, 1979, and 1980), had the presidency stolen from him all three times by a military dictatorship, and then had that same military dictatorship personally beg him to take over the country and relieve them of power after they concluded that Bolivia's problems were more than they could handle. After Siles's miserable tenure came to an unwanted close, he decided to spend his remaining years in the country he loved most... Uruguay.

At least Siles lived a long and (mostly) successful life. As you can see, even leaders in a nation like Bolivia can have happy endings.

Sort of.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Facebook Musings on Economic Policy

What I had intended to be some brief musings on the state of America's economy circa August 2010 wound up becoming a much more comprehensive and all-encompassing stream-of-consciousness on the policies we ought to pursue. I have reposted that material below.

Matthew Rozsa - Status Update
According to second-quarter earnings reports, American big businesses are earning record profits; indeed, the five hundred largest non-financial firms held almost one trillion dollars last quarter, an amount that is growing.

So why isn't this leading to increased hiring and a decline in unemployment? See below for my answer.

Matthew Rozsa
According to conservative economists, the best way to stimulate economic growth is by cutting taxes on America's largest corporations, since (according to their argument) the expected increase in their profits will prompt them to create jobs. What is happening instead, however, is that big businesses are using their expanding gains to (1) pay dividends to their shareholders and buy back their own stock, thus driving up the share prices, (2) invest in potentially lucrative overseas markets, and (3) increase the salaries of their CEOs and other high-ranking corporate officials. What's more, instead of creating jobs, the American plutocracy is (1) using technological innovations to reduce the number of workers they need to employ and (2) forcing those workers they DO employ to work longer hours (this, incidentally, leads to a chimerical "increase in worker productivity", although that reflects not greater American output but the simple fact that fewer workers are being forced to perform the same amount of labor that used to be carried out by greater numbers). In short, if conservative economic theories were correct, the extraordinarily profitability of American businesses should have already triggered a period of high employment, rising wages, and overall prosperity; instead it has created a lopsided pyramid, one in which the wealthiest Americans are becoming richer while the incomes of the middle-class stagnate, the plight of the working poor becomes increasingly precarious, and the unemployed enter a period in which their status as economic undesirables risks becoming permanent (a fact worsened by the growing trend, as reported in "The New York Times", of big businesses to refuse to hire jobless Americans, apparently on the assumption that their unemployed status must reflect personal weaknesses rather than the larger health of the economy).

Matthew Rozsa
One of my main criticisms of American liberals is that, while we are frequently extremely astute in diagnosing the causes of major problems in this country, we are just as likely to come up short when we are called upon to offer solutions to those problems. That is why I am going to offer my own thoughts on how to resolve these matters below.

First, I need to confront the two main arguments presented by right-wingers whenever they try to put the kibash on liberal economic policy proposals:

1) They'll be too costly.

There is some legitimacy to this claim; our multi-trillion dollar budget deficit poses a grave threat both to the borrowing capacity of American businesses, the vitality of our bond markets, and the ability of our children and grandchildren to have a fiscally sound future. As such, there is a decent argument to be made that left-wing economic plans which are egregiously expensive (even including Obama's stimulus package) do more long-term harm than good and shouldn't be pursued. At the same time, there is a great level of dishonesty in Republican claims about being "deficit-oriented"; after all, it stands to reason that if you shouldn't spend money helping the middle-class and poor, you likewise should avoid spending money on the privileged and downright wealthy. Instead, Republicans and conservative Democrats are among the most adamant defenders of maintaining President Bush's $1.3 trillion tax cut on the wealthy (which cost half a trillion dollars more than Obama's stimulus package), as well as continuing to pour trillions of dollars into the military-industrial complex (through increased spending to corporations that manufacture military hardware and as a result of our ongoing military engagements) and such culturally-oriented programs as the war on drugs (indeed, legalizing and regulating marijuana alone would single-handedly transform billions of dollars of waste into an equal or greater amount of revenue). Indeed, even some of the much-maligned social welfare programs that Republicans frequently attack are often covertly supported by them when the interests of the well-to-do wind up being at stake; for example, while the largest chunk of our federal budget is spent on Social Security checks - the majority of which goes to recipients who do not fall below the poverty line - Republicans often oppose saving trillions of dollars which could be done, very simply, by excluding Social Security payments from all beneficiaries who earn(ed) more than $100,000 a year. In short, while I agree that we need to reduce our budget deficit - and that some liberal programs (like the stimulus package) may have to go in the name of deficit reduction - true deficit hawks should also focus on axeing wasteful spending that is near and dear to the hearts of the GOP. Until both policies are discussed in the same breath, any dialogue on spending reduction is inherently disingenuous. What's more, although I agree that Obama's stimulus program is dangerously costly, if conservatives persist in impeding the measures that would truly create a more egalitarian economic infrastructure, then policies such as the stimulus package will be rendered necessary in lieu of better alternatives.

2) Any government attempts to regulate the economy or control the practices of big businesses constitutes "socialism" or "communism".

This ignores four vital points: (a) The American government has fought against the excesses of America's corporate oligarchy since before Karl Marx ever penned his notorious texts (see Andrew Jackson and the war against the Second National Bank or Martin van Buren and the establishment of an independent treasury), (b) Even after the dawn of Marxism, presidents whose commitment to capitalism is beyond dispute often used the power of the federal government to fight for economic egalitarianism by increasing taxes on the wealthy and curbing the power of big businesses (see the trust-busting and corporate responsibility legislation of Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, the policies proposed by Theodore Roosevelt after his presidency during his third-party campaign in 1912), (c) There are many important areas of our economic and social life that are controlled by the government without claims of socialism - police officers, firefighters, public schools, state colleges, and DOT-financed roads and bridges, for example, are all entirely run by the government, even though they used to be completely in the hands of private enterprise, and none of them have led to the creation of a socialist state; likewise, agencies such as the FDA and SEC, which exist to make sure that our food is clean, our drugs are safe, and our financial markets are run on sound business principals, have not led to the loss of any of our liberties (and when those agencies fail to do their jobs, it is invariably because the private businesses they're supposed to be regulating have corrupted the officials working for them to ignore the responsibilities of their job), and (d) Most important of all: Claiming that government regulation of private enterprise is socialistic commits a classic logical fallacy known as "The Straw Man Argument", which is defined in the following way by The Nizkor Project (an organization dedicated to debunking Holocaust denial, and thus all-too-familiar with illogical arguments that pass themselves off as legitimate): "The Straw Man fallacy is committed when a person simply ignores a person's actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position. This sort of 'reasoning' has the following pattern: Person A has position X; Person B presents position Y (which is a distorted version of X); Person B attacks position Y; Therefore X is false/incorrect/flawed... One might as well expect an attack on a poor drawing of a person to hurt the person." Because Socialism and Communism are very specific ideologies, and because simply arguing that businesses should be regulated by the government is NOT automatically in keeping with one of those ideologies, labelling all liberal proposals as socialistic or communistic is a straw man fallacy.

I complete my argument in the third comment.

Matthew Rozsa
The primary domestic and social problem confronting today's policymakers is, in the immediate, figuring out how to create well-paying jobs for all Americans who are willing to work and, in the long-term, figuring out how to minimize or even prevent the widespread suffering caused by massive unemployment and wage declines in the future.

There are several ways of doing this:

1) Pass legislation that makes businesses legally responsible to their employees. Although such measures would no doubt raise a firestorm of controversy, it should be remembered that corporations are ALREADY legally beholden to their stockholders (as a result of the stock market crash of 1929, dishonest practices that betrayed those who invested in the stock of big businesses were outlawed, and agencies exist to this day making sure that corporations are straightforward and beholden to their investors) and, to a lesser extent, to consumers (hence the creation of agencies that prevent companies from selling dangerous products without the public's knowledge and legislation requiring that businesses are honest both in how they characterize the goods and/or services they provide and the methods in which they expect their customers to pay for them). Considering that job security, workplace safety, and pay consistent with the national cost of living are just as vital to the rights of employees as fair dealings are to the rights of stockholders and consumers, it isn't too much of a logical leap to argue that the same rationale which allowed for the creation of the aforementioned laws also be used to make employers beholden to their employees. This should happen in several ways:
i. Their should be a guarantee that, once someone receives a job, his or her employment will not be terminated except when it is as a direct result of criminal activity and/or demonstrable (emphasis on that word) performance-related issues. This includes shipping jobs overseas, replacing workers with technological innovations in the name of "efficiency", trying to let some workers go and force others to carry their load as a cost-saving measure, punitive measures due to efforts to unionize, and layoffs due to declines in corporate profits (the last one isn't as tricky to actualize as some may argue - if a company has genuinely lost all money, then obviously they have no choice but to fire their workers, but if it is reasonable to assume that cost-cutting measures can be worked out without shedding jobs, such as by having the higher-ups take salary cuts, then those should be required in advance of layoffs).
ii. Likewise, there should be a guarantee that a job, once received, will pay enough within a forty-hour workweek so as to ensure that an employee will be able to afford the necessities of life (food, shelter, clothing, medical care, and a certain amount of discretionary money) in accordance with that year's cost-of-living. Although conservatives may claim that this will make it too expensive for would-be small business owners to create their own establishments, the reality is that the increase in purchasing power resulting from an overall rise in salaries would inevitably result in consumption growth, the resulting revenue from which would more than offset the additional start-up expenses business owners would incur from the salary increases. Indeed, this last point is perhaps the most important one of all - i.e. not only would raising the minimum wage dramatically improve the standard of living of America's most disadvantaged citizens, but it would prompt millions upon millions of citizens to greatly increase their spending, which has - without exception in history - led to periods of economic growth and prosperity.

2) Once you make it so that those who work can afford the necessities of life, all that remains is the obligation to help the unemployed. Here, the solution is two-fold: (i) Cut excessive costs on unemployment welfare by making it mandatory for those receiving such benefits to report every day to an agency - either in person, over the phone, or via Internet - where they meet with a representative who actively assists them in finding work, from drafting resumes and coaching them through interviews to using connections with their agency to recommend given clients; those who fail to do this should not be able to receive benefits, without exception (ii) Empower the aforementioned unemployment agencies to provide economic incentives and use other means to encourage preferential treatment in hiring for businesses on behalf of the unemployed, so that those who are currently on the rolls can be removed from them as expeditiously as possible. Indeed, just as the Department of Veterans Affairs uses a quote from Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address as their mantra, so too should America's unemployment agencies adopt as their credo this passage from Franklin Roosevelt's first nomination acceptance speech:

"The task of government in its relation to business is to assist the development of an economic declaration of rights... Every man has a right to life; and this means that he has also a right to make a comfortable living. He may by sloth or crime decline to exercise that right; but it may not be denied him."

3) To resolve future economic problems that result from corruption in our private banking system - from the shenanigans that led to our current economic crisis to more systemic issues such as racial discrimination in both housing (redlining) and providing fair access to credit - we should follow a proposal made by Rexford Tugwell, a member of President Franklin Roosevelt's legendary Brain Trust - i.e. have "the postal savings system... take over the deposit and checking transactions of banks", as well as the job of assuming commercial credit (that latter half is my own additional, as Tugwell believed that could be safely left to private banks and financial industries).

I tried posting this comment, but Facebook told me it was too lengthy, which is a first even for me! The second half is contained below this one.

Matthew Rozsa
There are four more points related to this subject which need to be made:

1) With the exception of the banking sector, not one of these plans involves the government taking over a business that is currently in the hands of the private sector. While some may object even to taking over the banks, those institutions have already demonstrated why their power is too great to be unaccountable to the people through their recent actions; what's more, the reality is that - after the bailouts of 2008 and 2009 - American taxpayers have already incurred the high costs that would follow a takeover, so if we already own them anyway, we might as well reap the rewards that normally come with having control of an institution.

2) Critics of these socially liberal economic plans often point out that, if implemented, they would cause large businesses to flee the country, taking with them the jobs they could offer and the goods and services they provide. First, the aforementioned legislation would make it illegal for them to eliminate jobs without good cause once it is in effect; as for businesses that may try to eliminate those jobs PRIOR to the bill's implementation, the government could retaliate by banning the sale of all their goods and services in this country. Considering that Americans consume BY FAR more goods and services than citizens of any other country in the world (and our population is only growing), a bill that punishes companies which take away American jobs by denying them access to the American marketplace would ultimately cost them more money than they earn, compelling them to stay. Even if a few did decide to leave, only the goods and services they provide are indispensable; the individual companies themselves are not. As such, Americans could create new native businesses to replace the ones that fled.

3) There are those who claim that this is unjust to the wealthy. While these policies would admittedly cause the gap between the wealthiest and poorest Americans to diminish - which in my mind is an inherent good, but which in the minds of supporters of a corporate oligarchy is wrong, given the strong emotional investment many of them have in an economic infrastructure that invests them with so much disproporationate power and social status - it would ultimately benefit the wealthy as well as the poor, since it would create a more stable economic model throughout the future. After all, the greatest long-term threat to the wealth of the upper class lies in the possibility that their riches will decline because the middle-class and poor won't be able to spend as much money on their goods and services. In an economic system that guarantees that the middle-class and poor will always have enough income to spend that money, that threat would be removed.

4) Although many criticize liberal policies for being too expensive, one of the beautiful things about these proposals is that they would actually cost LESS money than the panoply of social welfare programs currently in place (which are, at best, erratically effective). Although money spent to create and maintain the agencies needed for iniitally implementing and then rigorously maintaining these programs, far more would be saved from cutting now-superfluous social welfare programs.

I'm done pontificating... for now. ;-)