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Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), the chairman the powerful appropriates committee, which chooses where to dispense federal funds, has funneled more than $236 million in taxpayer dollars to a network of nonprofit groups he started, according to a new report from ethics watchdog CREW. Rogers’ family members, aides, and donors “have benefited personally” from the Rogers’ largess with taxpayer money.
“My argument with him [President Obama] is when he says ‘88 percent of the budget we’re not going to touch, reform or fix and we’re still going to solve our problems’ is an absolute falsehood. The fact is you can’t have Medicare out of the equation, you can’t have Medicaid out of the equation. And we can’t borrow the money, the $2.6 trillion that we’ve stolen from Social Security, in the international financial market without making Social Security sustainable.”
— Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), April 24, 2011
Let’s deal with Social Security first. The figure that Coburn mentioned — $2.6 trillion — refers to the money that has been placed in the Social Security trust fund. This is a difficult and complex subject that politicians frequently exploit, so please be patient.
IOU, however, is just another way of saying bond. These bonds are backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. No president or Congress would risk defaulting on these bonds because it would ruin the nation’s financial standing.
The bonds are a real asset to Social Security and Medicare, but — here’s where it gets complicated — they also represent an obligation by the rest of the government. Like any entity that issues debt, such as a corporation, the government will have to make good on its obligations, generally by taking the money out of revenue, reducing expenses or issuing new debt. The action taken really depends on the resources available at the time. There is nothing particularly unusual about this, except that the U.S. government is better placed to make good on these obligations than virtually any other debt-issuer.
(Democrats who suggest redeeming those bonds will be painless or that Social Security is not adding to the deficit are making the exact opposite mistake. There is no free lunch when it comes to Social Security.)
Incidentally, it would have been very difficult for the government to have simply parked this money in the bank without affecting the financial markets. So the excess money generated by Social Security has been spent on other government activities and helped mask the overall size of the deficit. Coburn voted for some of those spending bills. To his credit, he did say “we’ve stolen” — including himself among the offenders.
There was a brief period — at the end of the Clinton administration — when the government generated so much money that the surplus was used to pay down the debt, in effect “a lockbox” of the funds. But that surplus disappeared with the advent of recession, war and sweeping tax cuts during the Bush administration. If the extra Social Security money had not existed, then the government would have had to borrow the $2.6 trillion in the public markets, in which case the overall debt would be the same.
Moreover, Obama’s health-care law already is implementing cuts in Medicare (which many Republicans campaigned against) and Obama in his speech he would “build” on those cuts with other cost-saving measures in Medicare. Obama also said he would seek “more efficiency and accountability’ from Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor. That certainly sounds like Obama would touch the programs, if not “reform or fix.”
The state funds that pay pension and health-care benefits to retired teachers, corrections officers and millions of other public workers faced a cumulative shortfall of at least $1.26 trillion at the end of fiscal 2009, according to a new report.
The study, to be released Tuesday by the Pew Center on the States, found that the pension and health-care funding gap increased by 26 percent over the previous year. Pew officials said the growing shortfall was driven by inadequate state contributions, an aging population and market losses that accompanied the recession.
McEntee added that retirees who were AFSCME members earn average pensions of approximately $19,000 per year, of which member contributions and investment returns cover 70 to 80 percent.
“They earn modest benefits after a career of service,” he said.
In the case of Google, according to new research by security analyst Samy Kamkar, an HTC Android phone collected its location every few seconds and transmitted the data to Google at least several times an hour. It also transmitted the name, location and signal strength of any nearby Wi-Fi networks, as well as a unique phone identifier.
Google declined to comment on the findings.
Until last year, Google was collecting similar Wi-Fi data with its fleet of StreetView cars that map and photograph streets world-wide. The company shut down its StreetView Wi-Fi collection last year after it inadvertently collected e-mail addresses, passwords and other personal information from Wi-Fi networks. The data that Mr. Kamkar observed being transmitted on Android phones didn’t include such personal information.
Google’s passive collection of data has come under scrutiny before. In response, it has said the data they collect is anonymous and at least for the data used for traffic information on Google Maps, Google says it deletes the start and end point of each trip.
Google even has a page explaining how to opt out of sending your GPS coordinates to the Google Maps’ My Location. When you first setup an Android phone, it specifically asks if you’d like to send anonymous data to Google. A user has the ability to turn off location services.
Here’s the rub: Turning off location services would in essence take away what makes mobile devices so appealing. It means you couldn’t find your nearest pizza joint on Yelp! or use Google Maps to find your way back home.
What is it about the word “jobs” that our nation’s leaders fail to understand? How has the most painful economic crisis in decades somehow escaped their notice? Why do they ignore the issues that Americans care most desperately about?
Listening to the debate in Washington, you’d think the nation was absorbed by the compelling saga of deficit reduction. You’d get the impression that in households across America, parents put their children to bed and then stay up half the night sifting through piles of think-tank reports on the kitchen table, trying to calculate whether there will be enough in the Social Security trust fund to pay benefits beyond 2037.
President Obama gives signs of beginning to perceive this disconnect. His Republican opponents, not so much.
Two new polls, both released last week, tell the story. A New York Times/CBS News survey found that four out of 10 respondents believe the economy is getting worse — up from three out of 10 last October. Economists insist that things are improving; obviously, not so that anyone would notice.
Obama is being slammed by the deficit hawks for not providing “leadership” on the debt. But it turns out that Obama’s position is much closer to that of the American people. A president’s job is not to lead us off a cliff.
And perhaps Obama has learned a thing or two. He spent more than a year talking about health care reform when people wanted to hear about jobs — and his party paid the price last November. Now, debt-crazed Republicans are returning the favor.
Depressed housing prices, an epidemic of foreclosures, 8 million lost jobs — that’s the reality that Americans face every day. Politicians had better start facing it, too.
“If the president doesn’t get serious about the need to address our fiscal nightmare, yeah, there’s a chance it could not happen,” John Boehner told Politico. “It,” in this case, isn’t a golf game, or a bipartisan potluck. It’s a vote on the debt ceiling before the Treasury runs out of room to cover our debts. Properly understood, what Boehner actually said is “if the president doesn’t get serious about the need to do what the Republican Party wants on fiscal policy” — note that allowing the Bush tax cuts to elapse would cut the deficit substantially, but wouldn’t calm Boehner – “yeah, there’s a chance I am prepared to trigger a fiscal nightmare.”
So Boehner is saying he’ll shoot the hostage — because how else can he demand a ransom? The danger in this is that as the rhetoric ramps up, the market may not realize this is all just more of Washington’s fun and games. Brinksmanship runs the risk of misjudging what is the last minute, or the maximum amount of uncertainty, that the market will accept before it reevaluates the American government’s capacity to pay its debts back in a timely and smooth way. Remember that the danger here isn’t simply that we don’t make our payments. It’s that we run such a terrifying and uncertain process that we make the market think it’s more likely that we won’t cover our debts at some point in the future. Giving the market a demonstration of exactly how we could fail them is almost as bad as actually failing them.
Just last month, congressional Republicans defeated a Democratic effort to end lucrative subsidies to extremely-profitable oil companies. The GOP is eager, at least in public, to reduce the deficit, but not if it might inconvenience those who really matter — folks like ExxonMobil.
Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney noted that oil companies are showing huge profits, making it “simply crazy and unsustainable” to keep giving the industry billions of dollars worth of tax incentives.
In a pleasant surprise, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pointed yesterday to some new-found flexibility on the issue.
Congress should consider cutting multibillion-dollar subsidies to oil companies amid rising concern over skyrocketing gas prices, House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said on Monday.
“It’s certainly something we should be looking at,” Boehner said in an ABC News interview. “We’re in a time when the federal government’s short on revenues. They ought to be paying their fair share.”
“Everybody wants to go after the oil companies and frankly, they’ve got some part of this to blame,” he said.
This was no small concession. Boehner’s own caucus, just six weeks ago, had a chance to end taxpayer subsidies to oil companies that don’t need them, but Republicans refused. Indeed, how many GOP members broke ranks and voted with Dems to end the incentives? Zero.
What’s more, Boehner and his party have argued, repeatedly and passionately, that the federal government doesn’t need a dime of additional revenue, and his comments yesterday suggested the exact opposite.
So, this is a sign of progress, right? Maybe Boehner’s feeling some heat and sees this as a chance for his party to do something popular, oil lobbyists be damned? I’m afraid that’s not the case — despite the Speaker’s own on-air comments, which didn’t leave much in the way of ambiguities, his office soon after walked this back. “The speaker made clear in the interview that raising taxes was a nonstarter, and he’s told the president that,” Boehner’s spokesperson said. “He simply wasn’t going to take the bait and fall into the trap of defending ‘Big Oil’ companies.”
I don’t really know what that means, but I guess the Speaker’s encouraging remarks weren’t intended to be a factual statement.
According to a new Harvard study, “the share of renters who spend more than half their income on housing is at its highest level in half a century.” The study “offers the latest in a series of grim statistics about the scarcity of rental housing, especially for the working poor.”
There was a big positive movement in satisfaction with the country’s direction after 9/11, despite a deteriorating economy; there was another positive spike with the capture of Baghdad. After that, however, despite a genuinely improving economy, public perceptions slid steadily — reflecting, I believe, the sense of betrayal over the Iraq war, and also the Katrina disaster.
But I don’t think we need to look for deep reasons for our current malaise; it’s still a lousy economy, which has not created enough jobs to do more than keep up with population growth:
Yes, the unemployment rate has declined, but that is entirely the result of fewer people looking for work (you’re not counted as unemployed unless you’re actively searching.)
And the plight of the unemployed has worsened, as prospects for finding a new job get ever more remote:
Add in the rise in gas prices — which always has a strong effect on public perceptions, even though presidents have virtually no influence on the matter — and there’s really no mystery here.
American educators work the most hours of all industrialized nations, but are the fifth lowest paid after 15 years on the job
In the last decade, as evangelical Christian leaders increasingly became involved in conservation, “creation care” and taking action against global climate change, the alarms went up in corporate America that many traditional members of the conservative coalition were becoming advocates for environmental protection. To counter the rise of the faith-based environmentalist Evangelical Climate Initiative, the Interfaith Stewardship Alliance emerged. The ISA, propped up by business interests including Exxon Mobil, has peddled misleading and false claims to make the case that climate change is a myth. In 2007, the ISA was renamed the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation and became more belligerent and zealous in its anti-environmental activities.
Jonathan Cohn rightly slams a little-noticed feature of the Republican plan — a rise in the Medicare eligibility age.
In general, the fervor with which Washington types call for raising eligibility ages is a “tell”: it shows how disconnected they are from the way the other half lives (and dies). For in our increasingly polarized society, life expectancy is more and more a class-related issue. As the Social Security Administration has shown, the gap between life expectancy in the top and bottom halves of the wage distribution has risen sharply:
And by the way, Social Security eligibility has already gone up one year, and is scheduled to rise by another.
Add to this what I believe to be true, which is that rising life expectancy has not gone hand in hand with a rising age before costly conditions become common; Cohn shows that adding 65 and 66-year olds to the private insurance pool would cause a devastating rise in costs.
And then there’s the wisdom of Peter Cook:
All in all I’d rather have been a judge than a miner. And what is more, being a miner, as soon as you are too old and tired and sick and stupid to do the job properly, you have to go. Well, the very opposite applies with the judges.
And wouldn’t you know it, it’s the judges — and the politicians, who are similar — who think it’s a great idea to raise the Medicare age.
I bet most of you didn’t know undocumented immigrants contributed more – much more – to the national treasury last year than General Electric. Surprised? Yet it’s true.
While GE – which earned a whopping $14 billion last year – is reported to have paid nothing, nada, zero in taxes (GE denies it), the undocumented paid billions in state and local taxes in 2010.
No, it’s not me talking; it’s the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy (itepnet.org), a prestigious, nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that works on federal, state and local tax policy issues.
Ironically the vilified undocumented population, among the poorest and most vulnerable in the country, does its part when it comes to taxes.
They pay sales taxes and property taxes – even if they rent, ITEP said. At least half of them pay income taxes. And, I believe, if they were ever legalized, close to 100% would do the same. “Add this all up,” ITEP said, “and it amounts to billions in revenue to state and local governments.”
The Department of Justice has concluded its investigation into New Orleans’s notoriously corrupt police force and concluded that it is so bad, so rotten from top to bottom, that the police have been placed under the supervision and authority of a fed judge. Next, the feds will take control of the city’s hellish jails. The New Statesman’s report on NOLA’s version of justice sounds like something out of Baghdad or a Mexican border town or a wild west novel about corrupt frontier towns. Or Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Arizona.
That the police force in New Orleans is “a significant threat to the safety of the public”, as the DoJ says, is obvious. But the same problems can be seen all over the South, from Miami to Mississippi to Alabama; and the same nationwide, according to Paul Craig Roberts, a former editor of the Wall Street Journal and former assistant secretary to the treasury under Ronald Reagan, who wrote recently: “Police in the US now rival criminals, and exceed terrorists as the greatest threat to the American public.”
In a published op-ed [Monday], former Gov. Mitt Romney (R) slammed President Obama for launching “one of the biggest peacetime spending binges in American history.” It’s a bizarre argument for several reasons, not the least of which is that this isn’t peacetime.
After this caused a bit of a stir yesterday afternoon, the presidential candidate’s team walked it back. As it turns out, Romney’s claim wasn’t intended to be a factual statement.
That word “peacetime” doesn’t really jibe, does it? Team Romney has an explanation for that: It was a mistake.
“He meant to say since World War II,” said Romney’s PAC spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, in an e-mail.
Before we move on from this little flap, I was curious to see how (and whether) the media picked up on this. The DNC pushed the story yesterday afternoon, and Vote Vets released a rather scathing response.
Would it be enough to get political reporters’ attention? Not really; major media outlets generally didn’t care. If Google News and Nexis are accurate this morning, Reuters ran an article, but the AP ignored the story. Politico had a short piece, but the major dailies — WaPo, NYT, WSJ, LAT, USAT — didn’t mention it in their print editions. I couldn’t find any mentions in broadcast media at all.
I’m curious — if an inexperienced Democratic candidate with no background in foreign policy or military affairs described a time of multiple wars as “peacetime,” would he or she ever live it down? Or would it be seen as evidence that Dems lack credibility on international affairs?
From The Week:
1. Osama bin Laden, broke and on the run, passed off control of al Qaeda
“On Sept. 11, 2001, the core of al Qaeda was concentrated in a single city: Karachi, Pakistan,” reports The Washington Post. They watched the attacks on New York and Washington on TV from a safe house. Bin Laden and his key lieutenants then spent the next three months traveling in Afghanistan, preparing for war and further terrorist attacks. Bin Laden escaped to his cave complex in Tora Bora in November 2001, then fled to Pakistan in mid-December. He was so desperate for money that he had to borrow $7,000. Also that month, apparently fearing capture or death, bin Laden passed off control of al Qaeda to the group’s Shura Council. The documents don’t specify when bin Laden retook control.
2. Detainees vowed a “nuclear hellstorm” if bin Laden were killed
Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — the self-proclaimed 9/11 mastermind best known as KSM — told interrogators that, should bin Laden be killed or captured, al Qaeda would unleash a “nuclear hellstorm” on the West. Another senior al Qaeda commander claimed the group had planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in Europe.
3. Some terrorists used drugs to promote impotency
Abd al-Ramin al-Nashiri, the accused planner of the USS Cole attack, says he reported directly to bin Laden and was “more senior” than KSM. And in a sign of his dedication, Nashiri “reportedly received injections to promote impotence and recommended the injections to others so more time could be spent on the jihad (rather than being distracted by women).”
4. At least 150 innocent people were sent to Gitmo
Of the 779 people detained at Gitmo over the last decade, at least 150 were found to be innocent men — shepherds, chefs, farmers, and drivers, for example — who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, or just plain wronged. Another 380 were deemed low-level foot soldiers, many of whom have been repatriated.
5. At least 160 “high risk” detainees got out of Gitmo
Of the 600 or so detainees who have been released or transferred to another country, at least 160 were labeled “high risk” by military interrogators. These include at least 10 detainees who turned (or returned) to terrorism. But it’s not all bad. Abu Sufian Ibrahim Ahmed Hamuda bin Qumu was found to have close ties to al Qaeda after his release; and he’s now reportedly training Libya’s rebels. Indeed, the designation of risk level appeared to be somewhat haphazard, NPR says.
6. Lots of countries had a crack at Gitmo detainees
The documents don’t discuss the controversial interrogation techniques used at Gitmo, but they do note that several other nations sent their own agents to the prison camp to question detainees. China, Russia, Tajikistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait, Algeria, and Tunisia all sent over agents, as did Britain. In one case, a Saudi prisoner watered down his incriminating testimony after talking to his own country’s agents.
The Koch brothers are launching a recruiting blitz on Facebook for maintaining the plutocracy.
In the last few days, I have encountered endless paid ads in the right-hand column of Facebook for a program called “Liberty at Work.” “Looking for Work?” the ad asks. It then describes positions throughout the country for advancing “conservative and libertarian” causes.
Clicking through the “Liberty at Work” ad brings you to an eponymous Facebook site (see “Welcome” on the Facebook page) that announces, “You no longer have to come to DC to advancing [sic] economic freedom.” In the “likes” section on the left-hand side of the page are listed a few of the local right-wing think tanks that an April 25 Mother Jones article discusses: “Inspired by Ronald Reagan and funded by the right’s richest donors, a web of [national] free-market think tanks has fueled the nationwide attack on workers’ rights.”
Many of these institutions are funded by the Koch brothers.
Furthermore, by clicking libertyatwork.org (on the Facebook info page), you are redirected to the Charles G. Koch Foundation Liberty at Work application page.
The Kochs are so brazen that they do not try to hide their effort to beef up and expand local right-wing propaganda. They boast about it. Take a look around the full Koch Foundation web site and see for yourself, beginning at the Liberty at Work program description:
Washington isn’t the only city where change happens; important public policy decisions are made everyday in states across the country. From Chicago to Atlanta, the Koch Associate Program has grown to include organizations both in and outside of DC, but the need for effective advocates for liberty continues to expand on the state level. This was the impetus behind the launch of Liberty@WorkTM.
The invasion has begun.
What is this American exceptionalism Republicans so venerate? After interviewing many Republican leaders, Washington Post Reporter Karen Tumulty concludes it is the belief that America “is inherently superior to the world’s other nations”. It is a widely held belief. Indeed, most Americans believe our superiority is not only inherent but divinely ordained. A survey by the Public Religious Research Institute and the Brookings Institution found that 58 percent of Americans agree with the statement, “God has granted America a special role in human history.”
When asked to identify the single most important difference between the Old and New World, renowned historian Henry Steele Commager responded, in the New World your baby survived. The New World had an abundance of cheap land which meant the New World, unlike the Old World, was largely populated by self-reliant property owners. Coupled with a moderate climate and rich soil, immigrants could grow all the food needed for their families, livestock and horses. There was plenty of clean water and sufficient free or low cost wood to build and heat one’s house.
The fact that Americans could choose to live on a farm also gave them significant bargaining power with employers. As a result wages in the New World were much higher than in the Old World.
The United States also benefited enormously from tens of millions of immigrants who, through a Darwinian-like process of natural selection, were among the most driven and entrepreneurial and hardy of their native countries. And on the dark side of the immigration picture, we also benefited immensely from millions of involuntary immigrants who provided an army of unpaid labor for southern plantations.
American exceptionalism must also include our unique advantage in having two oceans separating us from potential enemies.
The central tenet of that culture is a celebration of the “me” and an aversion to the “we”. When Harris pollsters asked US citizens aged 18 and older what it means to be an American the answers surprised no one. Nearly 60 percent used the word freedom. The second most common word was patriotism. Only 4 percent mentioned the word community.
To American exceptionalists freedom means being able to do what you want unencumbered by obligations to your fellow citizens. It is a definition of freedom the rest of the world finds bewildering. Can it be, they ask, that the quintessential expression of American freedom is low or no taxes and the right to carry a loaded gun into a bar? To which a growing number of Americans, if recent elections were any indication, would respond, “You’re damn right it is.”
What makes us exceptional is our response to the next question. “It is the responsibility of the government to reduce the difference in income”. Less than a third of Americans agreed while in 26 other countries more than two thirds did.
Citizens in other countries are as critical of their governments as we are. But unlike us they do not criticize the importance of government itself or the fundamental role it plays in boosting the general welfare. They do not like to pay taxes, but they understand the necessity of taxes not only in building a public infrastructure but also in building a personal security infrastructure.
Far more than other peoples, Americans believe that skill and hard work are the keys to success and wealth is a measure of how hard you work or how skilled you are. Which leads us to believe that people should have the right to amass as much wealth as they can and view a graduated income tax as a punitive penalty on success and a sturdy social safety net an invitation to slothfulness, reduced productivity and an overall slowdown in economic growth.
For many Americans even means tested benefits are unwelcome. The term “welfare” is a pejorative a handout given to undeserving people who will use it in unworthy ways. Ronald Reagan’s lethal phrase “welfare Queen” accurately captured that mindset.
The new influence of Tea Party conservatives has taken this anti-social attitude a step further best reflected in the speeches of Representative Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee and made concrete in his recent budget. Ryan believes that helping the poor represents a “collectivist” philosophy. His heroine is Ayn Rand, the God of libertarians. He requires his staffers to read Rand’s novel, Atlas Shrugged and calls Rand “the reason I got involved in public service.”
Jonathan Chait sums up Rand’s moral philosophy, “The core of the Randian worldview, as absorbed by the modern GOP, is a belief that the natural market distribution of income is inherently moral, and the central struggle of politics is to free the successful from having the fruits of their superiority redistributed by looters and moochers.”
To Republicans, inequality is unimportant because of another aspect of American exceptionalism, the unparalleled opportunity in the United States for those with ambition and grit to move up the economic ladder. They insist, and most of us firmly believe, that America is still the land of opportunity, that the probability of a rags to riches saga is much higher here than abroad.
But recent data contradicts that fundamental tenet of American exceptionalism. A Brookings Institution report comparing economic mobility in the United States and other countries concludes, “…”Starting at the bottom of the earnings ladder is more of a handicap in the United States than it is in other countries.” And more broadly notes, “there is growing evidence of less intergenerational economic mobility in the United States than in many other rich industrialized countries.”
But American exceptionalism has bred a culture and value system that have in turn embraced policies that have made the pursuit of happiness exceedingly difficult.
America has been and continues to be exceptional. At first we were exceptional because of circumstances that conferred on us enormous advantages over other nations. Today we are exceptional because of our culture, a culture born of our unusually fortunate history and now perhaps the single biggest handicap to our collective survival and prosperity in the less favorable circumstances of the 21st century.
Charting American Exceptionalism
I recently posted an article (you can view it here) on the Examiner entitled, “Grady Warren and the Tea Party movement: Dumb and dumber meets Jim Crow.” It was transcribed text and a video of a recent racist diatribe by tea party activist Grady Warren, who says he speaks for the tea party movement. After sharing the article on Facebook, I received horrified comments from conservatives and tea party members, decrying Warren and saying he doesn’t speak for them. That may be true. It may also not be true.
As a follow-up to my article, I e-mailed the Tea Party Express, asking, “Does your organization have a response to Grady Warren’s video, in which he professes to speak for the tea party? If no response is received to this e-mail, I am going to assume that the tea party stands by his sentiments.” Oddly, I was unable to find a direct contact e-mail for Amy Kremer, the de facto leader of the Tea Party Express, so I e-mailed press relations. I have received no response to my e-mail, but in fairness, I just sent it this evening. I may hear back – or not.
It’s not enough that tea party members express horror at blatantly racist sentiments such as those expressed by Warren; it’s not enough that the tea party whines about being accused of being racist (as I heard a speaker at the Chicago Tax Day Tea Party rally do); it’s not enough that the propaganda arm of the tea party, Fox News, denies racism in the tea party ranks and fails to show clips that indicate otherwise. None of this is enough.
America is mired in three wars. The past decade was the hottest on record. Unemployment remains stuck near 9 percent, and there’s a small, albeit real, possibility that the U.S. government will default on its debt. So what’s dominating the news? A reality-television star who can’t persuade anyone that his hair is real is alleging that the president of the United States was born in Kenya.
Perhaps this is just the logical endpoint of two years spent arguing over what Barack Obama is — or isn’t. Muslim. Socialist. Marxist. Anti-colonialist. Racial healer. We’ve obsessed over every answer except the right one: President Obama, if you look closely at his positions, is a moderate Republican from the early 1990s. And the Republican Party he’s facing has abandoned many of its best ideas in its effort to oppose him.
If you put aside the emergency measures required by the financial crisis, three major policy ideas have dominated American politics in recent years: a health-care plan that uses an individual mandate and tax subsidies to achieve near-universal coverage; a cap-and-trade plan that attempts to raise the prices of environmental pollutants to better account for their costs; and bringing tax rates up from their Bush-era lows as part of a bid to reduce the deficit. In each case, the position that Obama and the Democrats have staked out is the very position that moderate Republicans staked out in the early ’90s — and often, well into the 2000s.
Take health-care reform. The individual mandate was developed by a group of conservative economists in the early ’90s. Mark Pauly, an economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, was one of them. “We were concerned about the specter of single-payer insurance,” he told me recently. The conservative Heritage Foundation soon had an individual-mandate plan of its own, and when President Bill Clinton endorsed an employer mandate in his health-care proposal, both major Republican alternatives centered on an individual mandate. By 1995, more than 20 Senate Republicans — including Chuck Grassley, Orrin Hatch, Dick Lugar and a few others still in office — had sponsored one individual mandate bill or another.
The story on cap and trade — which conservatives now like to call “cap and tax” — is much the same. Back then, the concern was sulfur dioxide, the culprit behind acid rain. President George H.W. Bush wanted a solution that relied on the market rather than on government regulation. So in the Clean Air Act of 1990, he proposed a plan that would cap sulfur-dioxide emissions but let the market decide how to allocate the permits. That was “more compatible with economic growth than using only the command and control approaches of the past,” he said. The plan passed easily, with “aye” votes from Sen. Mitch McConnell and then-Rep. Newt Gingrich, among others. In fact, as recently as 2007, Gingrich said that “if you have mandatory carbon caps combined with a trading system, much like we did with sulfur . . . it’s something I would strongly support.”
As for the 1990 budget deal, Bush initially resisted tax increases, but eventually realized they were necessary to get the job done. “It is clear to me that both the size of the deficit problem and the need for a package that can be enacted require all of the following: entitlement and mandatory program reform, tax revenue increases, growth incentives, discretionary spending reductions, orderly reductions in defense expenditures, and budget process reform,” he said. That deal, incidentally, was roughly half tax increases and half spending cuts. Obama’s budget has far fewer tax increases. And compared with what would happen if the Bush tax cuts were allowed to expire in 2012, it actually includes a large tax cut.
The normal reason a party abandons its policy ideas is that those ideas fail in practice. But that’s not the case here. These initiatives were wildly successful. Gov. Mitt Romney passed an individual mandate in Massachusetts and drove its number of uninsured below 5 percent. The Clean Air Act of 1990 solved the sulfur-dioxide problem. The 1990 budget deal helped cut the deficit and set the stage for a remarkable run of growth.
Rather, it appears that as Democrats moved to the right to pick up Republican votes, Republicans moved to the right to oppose Democratic proposals. As Gingrich’s quote suggests, cap and trade didn’t just have Republican support in the 1990s. John McCain included a cap-and-trade plan in his 2008 platform. The same goes for an individual mandate, which Grassley endorsed in June 2009 — mere months before he began calling the policy “unconstitutional.”
This White House has shown a strong preference for policies with demonstrated Republican support, but that’s been obscured by the Republican Party adopting a stance of unified, and occasionally hysterical, opposition (remember “death panels”?) — not to mention a flood of paranoia about the president’s “true” agenda and background. But as entertaining as the reality-TV version of politics might be, it can’t be permitted to, ahem, trump reality itself. If you want to obsess over origins in American politics, look at the president’s policies, not his birth certificate.
Previously betting on President Obama and Democrats in 2008, hedge-fund managers are now “actively supporting Republicans” because of Obama’s “populist attacks on Wall Street” and “Democrat-led efforts to raise their tax bills.” A majority of hedge fund contributions went to the GOP in 2009-1010 election season, “a pattern not seen since 1996, when the industry was much smaller.”
So far, the GOP race has been notable for its slow start and the absence of a front-runner. It has been marked by unhappiness among potential voters. The most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that barely four in 10 Republicans and Republican-leaning independents said they are satisfied with the current field of candidates — about 20 percentage points lower than at this time four years ago.
Obama, too, is less popular than he was when he was sworn in two years ago. But he comes to the race with the significant advantages of incumbency. As he steams ahead with fundraising and organizing, Republicans are under growing pressure to tamp down concerns about whether they can find a candidate capable of defeating him.
Romney, the nominal front-runner, has more space to try to corral establishment support. But there are doubts about his candidacy in some quarters because of his support for a health-care plan in his state that strongly resembles Obama’s health-care law, and because of continuing questions about his authenticity.
Pawlenty, who has feet in the establishment and the conservative grass-roots camps of the party, will look to expand his appeal among both and will quickly reach out to Barbour’s fundraisers.
Some possible candidates could be affected by Barbour’s decision. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who is at the top of many national polls of Republicans but who has been putting off a decision until later in the summer, could see the South opening up even more to him with Barbour on the sidelines. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) may go hunting for some of Barbour’s financial supporters.
What if these voters are just a clueless horde?
That is certainly the impression one gets from dipping into the finer details of a mid-April survey of 1,000 likely, registered voters conducted by Democracy Corps, the outfit run by Stan Greenberg and James Carville. Beyond the usual questions about Obama’s job approval and that of House Republicans, this poll performed the valuable service of reading out each party’s talking points about the current budget debate and then asking respondents which ones they found convincing.
The results are mildly hilarious. By a margin of over 20 points, voters agree with these GOP lines: “Both Democrats and Republicans have run up deficits, but now they are out of control under President Obama and threatening our economy”; Paul Ryan’s plan “changes the reckless path of over-spending and borrowing”; and, “Over-regulation and high taxes punish companies for success.” At the same time, by slightly higher percentages, they also agree with the Democrats that Ryan’s budget would “eliminate guaranteed Medicare and Medicaid coverage”; “force seniors to negotiate with private insurance companies, which are free to raise rates and deny coverage”; and “decrease taxes for CEOs and big corporations, giving millionaires another huge tax break.”
Since avowed Republicans and Democrats line up consistently behind whichever arguments come from their side, it is the independents who are responsible for the contradictory results: Almost 50 percent agreed first with the GOP positions, and then, with those of the other party. As the pollsters observed, “[I]ndependents … move in response to the messages and attacks tested in this survey.”
To a sympathetic eye, this result might connote a pleasant openness to contrasting opinions, perhaps a desire to give each group of partisans the benefit of the doubt. But I think it demonstrates a basic thoughtlessness. At a time of economic peril, when one party wants to protect the essential structure of our limited welfare state and the other party seeks to destroy it, most independents, according to this poll, appear to be seduced by the last thing they have heard. Scariest of all, come 2012, they just might be the ones to decide the future course of the republic.
But then, there are independents, many of whom, according to the Democracy Corps poll on some of the most pressing matters facing the country, seem to be more myopic than moderate. Either they believe, in their ignorance, that slashing the budget and cutting taxes can be accomplished without touching any entitlement program they favor. Or they care little about politics and so are willing to consent to whatever messages get thrown their way, however contradictory they may be. As former Rep. Richard Gephardt once put it, only half-jokingly, “We have surveys that prove that a good portion of the American public neither consumes nor wishes to consume politics.”
Independents vote in lower numbers than do party loyalists, but, in close elections, they nearly always cast the deciding ballots. As in other recent polls, the one conducted by Democracy Corps shows President Obama in a neck-and-neck race with Mitt Romney; it finds the same result for a hypothetical contest between a generic Republican and a generic Democrat running for Congress. This means that, unless the political dynamics change fundamentally over the next 18 months, independents will be critical again in 2012.
Of course, the dynamics could change, giving one party or the other a landslide victory. But I wouldn’t count on it. Indeed, the Democracy Corps poll reveals that our next holders of state power might end up being chosen by a minority that seems to stands for very little—or, perhaps, for nothing at all.
This summarizes everything you need to know about the modern Republican Party:
“Meat Loaf, should I run for president?” Donald Trump on his show
The Republican Party: Silly, Self-Satirical, Unserious.
Michelle Goldberg, left, of The Daily Beast and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review debate whether Republicans should be worried about the conservative fringe.
Although Dems have spent weeks attacking the GOP Medicare plan, USA Today/Gallup finds that the public is evenly divided between the approaches offered by Paul Ryan and President Obama, and the GOP is more trusted than Dems on the budget and the economy.
And yet, at the same time, the poll finds that two thirds are afraid the GOP plan will cut Medicare and Social Security too much.
Republicans have held their political base intact, he says, but the nation is still polarized along partisan lines, and spending cuts are easier when they’re discussed in the abstract. “Everybody can find something they don’t like,” he says, “but that doesn’t mean there’s a majority to cut anything in particular.”
When it comes to a plan to curb the deficit, Americans have qualms about both parties:
•Nearly three-fourths of those surveyed, 71%, worry that the Democrats’ plan “won’t go far enough to fix the problem”; 62% fear they might use the deficit as an excuse to raise taxes.
•Nearly two-thirds, 64%, fear the Republicans’ deficit plan will take away needed protections for the poor and the disadvantaged and will “protect the rich at the expense of everyone else.”
By more than 3-to-1, those surveyed say the deficit stems from too much spending, rather than too little tax revenue.
When it comes to solving the deficit problem, about half of Americans, 48%, want to do it entirely or mostly with spending cuts. Some 37% support an equal mix of spending cuts and tax increases; 11% prefer mostly tax hikes.
Republicans hold a 12-percentage-point edge over Democrats as the party better able to handle the budget, and a 5-point edge on the economy in general. On a list of six issues, Democrats hold a narrow advantage only in handling health care.
Fifty percent of Americans, including 31% of Republicans, say Trump would make a “poor” or “terrible” president.
His possible bid faces broad resistance: 63% of Americans, including 46% of Republicans, say they definitely will not vote for Trump for president. In comparison, 46% of Americans say they definitely will not vote for President Obama — significantly lower but itself a hurdle to winning the 2012 election.
Though Trump initially got attention by expressing doubts whether Obama was born in the USA, that issue is not driving his support. Among those who say they definitely or might vote for Trump, only about a third question whether the president was born in the USA.
Obama’s approval rating is at only 39 percent among those who see rising gas prices as a “serious financial hardship.” And 60 percent of independents who say they’re struggling at the pump say they definitely won’t support Obama for reelection.
Physics blogs are alive with chatter about a possible sign of the Higgs boson – or perhaps an entirely unexpected particle – in data from the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, Switzerland. But the claim has not gone through the experiment’s vetting process and could easily turn out to be wrong, physicists say.
The LHC, which smashes beams of protons together, was built largely in the hope of netting the first observational evidence of the Higgs, which is thought to endow other particles with mass. The Higgs is the last undiscovered particle in the standard model of particle physics, which for three decades has reigned supreme in explaining how particles and forces interact.
The AFL-CIO has launched the 2011 version of its Executive PayWatch Web site and is urging investors to help rein in CEO pay by participating in the advisory votes on compensation that all large and mid-cap companies will hold this year. “Although non-binding, it’s the first time that shareholders have had this opportunity,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, said at a press conference on Tuesday. The labor federation is analzying corporate pay disclosures and plans to vote against the compensation practices at some companies, but hasn’t publicly identified those firms. An AFL-CIO affiliate, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, has launched a “vote no” campaign against the pay practices at Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.
The PayWatch site features a searchable database that includes CEO pay information from 299 S&P 500 companies that have filed proxy materials. According to the labor federation, the average 2010 compensation at those firms was $11.4 million, up 23 percent from 2009. On average, these pay packages included $3.8 million in stock awards, $2.4 million in stock options, $2.4 million in non-equity incentive plan compensation, $1.2 million in pension and deferred compensation, $1.1 million in salary, a $251,413 bonus, and $215,911 in other compensation. Trumka said the average total compensation for S&P 500 CEOs is now about 343 times that of the average American worker, up from 42 times in 1980. “We believe that executive pay has gotten out of whack,” he said.
At the start of 2011, as the energy corporations, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the Tea Party right launched their assault on environmental protection and the EPA, it looked like public opinion and organized labor might just be swept along. Instead, much of the public and the labor movement have rallied in support of EPA and environmental regulation. The result has been a standoff on legislation to decimate EPA authority to protect the environment. But whether it will be possible to prevent the backdoor effort to gut the EPA by cutting its budget hangs in the balance.
In a March 14 article titled “EPA Tangles With New Critic: Labor,” the Wall Street Journal reported that “several unions” are demanding that the EPA “soften new regulations” that “could put thousands of jobs in jeopardy.”
While the article gave the clear impression that labor was turning against the EPA, it did acknowledge, “not all unions take a dim view of the EPA’s moves.” It cited the Plumbers and Pipe Fitters, whose general president said that the EPA’s mercury rule could create thousands of jobs for workers who build and install pollution control equipment.
But in fact, union support for the EPA goes far beyond that and is growing.
The BlueGreen Alliance includes the Steelworkers, Communications Workers, Service Workers, Laborers, Utility Workers, American Federation of Teachers, Transit Workers, Sheet Metal Workers, Auto Workers, and United Food and Commercial Workers.
On March 17, three days after the Wall Street Journal article appeared, the UAW gave a stirring defense of EPA regulation before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. Legislative Director Barbara Somson told the Committee, “What our experience shows us is that the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from vehicles under the Clean Air Act is good for our industries and good for American jobs.”
The attempt to gut the EPA has now moved to the far murkier arena of the budget debate, where anti-EPA forces can act with far less scrutiny from a pro-EPA public. In the just passed continuing resolution that will fund the government until September, the EPA budget was slashed by 16 percent. All funding for NOA’s climate science service and for the White House energy and climate change adviser was eliminated.
Abortion politics could take a new twist in Kansas with a budget plan that would make the state the first in the nation to strip funding from Planned Parenthood.
Budgets winding their way through the Legislature would redirect about $300,000 in federal family planning funds from Planned Parenthood to state and local health clinics.
The move is similar to one in Washington that almost led to a government shutdown early this month, when Republicans wanted to shut off federal funding to Planned Parenthood in the belief that it provided indirect support for abortions.
Now, the battle is trickling down to the states, and funding assaults on Planned Parenthood are moving forward in Kansas and Indiana.
“Well, you know, it seems to me that we have talked about this issue now going on probably two years, and that I believe that most people have reached out and they did their investigations, and it’s become such a huge distraction. I for one, I believe that what I have seen, and after speaking with governor — or the prior governor of Hawaii — that indeed he [Obama] was born in Hawaii.
It’s just something that I think is leading our country down a path of destruction, and it just is not serving any good purpose.” ~~Governor Jan Brewer
AND IN OTHER NEWS…
Last week, The Lies of Sarah Palin author Geoffrey Dunn published a lengthy piece—spiked by the Huffington Post, then acquired by the traffic-hungrier Business Insider—going over the same turf. His argument was blown to smithereens by Justin Elliott at Salon as well as by other reporters who sighed and decided to engage with one of the duller conspiracy theories of all time. (A serious conspiracy theory should seem less like a General Hospital subplot.)
It’s a familiar rationale for conspiracy theorists: They investigate as much in sorrow as in anger. They are always just one confession away from the truth. This kind of logic is much more understandable, if no more sensible, after reading Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground, a smart and serious new book by Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay. His book shows why Americans are becoming so willing to believe lurid fantasies about the government or politicians they don’t like or vaccines or the theory that the federal government was behind the attacks of 9/11 (these believers are the “truthers” of his title). And you realize that the world of conspiracies is only going to get larger.
There are basically two reasons for this, and they’re entwined. The media, as Kay points out, is more fragmented than ever. Information is easier to come across, and bogus information has a way of jumping to the top of Google’s search pages. That fragmentation is happening at a time of intense partisan anger and economic angst.
All of those facts are well-known, and thoroughly studied. The Gallup Poll asks an annual question about whether voters trust the government. In 2010, only 19 percent said they did, and only 43 percent—a record low—said that they trusted the media. That same year, the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of Americans got most of their news online, 54 percent got it from the radio, and only 50 percent got it from newspapers. The more people read news online, the easier it is for them to find news that jibes with their ideology.
Kay’s book is half reportage and half evidence. Both halves demonstrate that mistrust in institutions—which aren’t doing the best job of running things right now—is driving a wave of conspiracy-mongering. To a man, the leading 9/11 Truthers that Kay interviews say that they found their obsession because they didn’t trust the government and they sought out information from some samizdat source. Richard Gage, the best-known member of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, tells Kay that he tuned into the lefty KPFA northern California radio station one day and caught a terrifying, authoritative-sounding—and bogus—interview with 9/11 Truther icon David Ray Griffin.
The Truthers who Kay quotes here are the leading lights of the movement. They’re dug in more than the average Web surfer. But they started to dig because they felt uneasy, and they surfed the Web, and they found a whole alternate history (and occasionally, alternate science) that looked and felt more comfortable than the one they were living through. And so did a lot of other people. They were motivated by mistrust in their “leaders.” And the motivations weren’t always wrong.
A 2006 poll conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio State University famously found that 36 percent of all Americans, and more than half of Democrats, suspected that “people in the federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted to United States to go to war in the Middle East.” There’s some room for misunderstanding here. After all, most Americans are now aware of the intelligence failures that preceded the attacks. But the numbers remained high when respondents were pressed on other, darker conspiracy theories. They found that 21.1 percent of Democrats, and 18.5 percent of liberals, said it was at least somewhat likely that “the Pentagon was not struck by an airliner captured by terrorists but instead was hit by a cruise missile fired by the United States military.” And 24.8 percent of Democrats, and 21 percent of liberals, said it was at least somewhat likely that “the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York was aided by explosives secretly planted in the building.”
You can see what they were thinking. You can see what a large number of today’s conservatives are thinking when they admit to pollsters that they’ve got some doubts about Obama’s citizenship. Kay sums it up: “If the mainstream media isn’t willing to investigate the dirt about Obama we do know to be true … who knows what other dirt is out there?” How and when do people stop thinking like that if they don’t trust the media, and if “unreported facts” about their obsessions are a click of the “I’m feeling lucky” button away? They don’t stop.
Kay’s research is reassuring, in its way, because by taking all these obsessions seriously, he can diagnose their origin. The problem of the conspiracy theorist is the problem of the “failed historian.” Kay gives an example. For a while, Sigmund Freud believed that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet after his father died. When Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams, he cited the play as a key Oedipal work. But in 1919, historians discovered that Shakespeare wrote the play before his father died. How did Freud respond? He became obsessed with the conspiracy theory that the 17th Earl of Oxford had written the plays credited to “William Shakespeare.”
Are the paranoid Democrats of 2006 and the unhinged Republicans of 2011 following in the footsteps of Sigmund Freud? Maybe. They might even argue that the stakes are higher for them: All Freud had to do was defend a thick chunk of his book. They’re on the cusp of losing their country. In that sense, these modern-day political conspiracy theories may actually be comforting: They assume that our political leaders are hyper-competent. They’ve developed, then covered up, Rube Goldberg designs to get what they want and maintain their power. This is no small achievement. If, on the other hand, the conspiracy theorists are wrong, well, that means the world is random, and the people who wield power or influence can screw up like everyone else. No one wants to believe that.
Members of Wesleyan Uncut, Wesleyan University’s new student group which promotes sexual dialogue on campus, released a video March 10 in support of Planned Parenthood‘s federal funding.
The video has since received more than 320,000 views on YouTube and brought the creators, Jacob Eichengreen and Su Park, all the way to Washington, D.C., for the Planned Parenthood Day of Action, where they were presented with the 2011 Walk the Talk Award.
Dold said closing tax loopholes will eliminate the tax anomalies that let GE off the hook, and there are multiple benefits to lowering the tax rates.
“You’ve got to lower corporate taxes to make us more competitive in the international marketplace,” Dold said. “Some people want to penalize companies for moving their businesses off short. A lot of companies out there say, ‘Fine, I’ll take all my jobs overseas.’ We want an environment where we keep them on shore.”
Even that statement didn’t win favor with the crowd, which responded with multiple people yelling, “Let them leave!”
QUOTE OF THE DAY:
As a child my family’s menu consisted of two choices: take it or leave it.