Sunday, December 14, 2014

Criticism of The Newsroom... and the sexual assault conversation we can't have.

In his 1993 essay, E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction, David Foster Wallace riffed on the futility of TV criticism. Simplified, his assertion was that no longer does anyone view a TV show and either enjoy it or not enjoy it. Instead, we "metawatch": we're watching ourselves watch. We have become conscious of what our entertainment choices say about us, so in effect we consciously decide what to like, as opposed to letting what we viscerally enjoy drive our choices.

The critical revolt against Aaron Sorkin and the penultimate episode of The Newsroom was swift and near-unanimous. But the degree of anger directed at a single episode of a television series feels outsized. Even if the criticisms are 100% valid... does it warrant this degree of righteous indignation? 

When you filter the critical response through the lens of Wallace's "metawatching", however, the response begins to make more sense, because Sorkin forced upon the viewer a conversation about sexual assault that no one, in any corner of the public discourse, wants to have. 

Acknowledging that the episode's story arc featuring Don Keefer (Thomas Sadoski) trying to talk a rape victim (Sarah Sutherland) out of going on TV may have even provoked thought means crossing an ideological Rubicon that no one is interested in stepping across willingly. Sorkin pushing that button and sneaking this conversation on us set off a wave of fury among generally-liberal Sorkinites and critics alike.

In the episode, Keefer, a news producer, is sent by his network to invite Mary, a college rape victim, to confront her alleged rapist on TV. The reason Mary is being invited is because she has started a website for anonymous rape victims to name those who assaulted them.

Don badly wants her not to do it, as he knows that the audience will tear her apart. Rather than finding the justice she seeks, she'll only be violated again.

What ensues is a debate between Don and Mary over the wisdom of her appearing on TV after the system did not give her justice, and the ethics of a website that can easily be used for revenge by anyone with a grudge - with risk-free anonymity.

From Don and Mary, we get a blunt, honest discussion of the difficulties rape victims face in seeking justice, and the ugliness they face if they take that fight public.  

The critical backlash against this story arc was pronounced.

Libby Hill, in her review for the A.V. Club, castigates Sorkin...
Sorkin thinks that women need protecting, especially if they have a target on their back. What he fails to realize is that every woman has a target on her back.
Hill objects to men thinking women need protecting... after spending the first half of her piece railing on how the system is not adequately protecting women!

Eric Thurm's review for Grantland is similarly indicative of the critical response. Thurm writes...

Others will write more in-depth about the reasons this story — in which Don attempts to convince a rape victim at Princeton not to go on the air and confront her rapist — is grotesque and anti-feminist. Suffice it to say that a middle-aged white man telling a collegiate rape victim how best to go about responding to her rape, without even actually having the young woman in the room, is atrocious. For all of Sorkin’s attempts to soft-pedal what he’s doing here — having Charlie yell that there’s an “epidemic” of collegiate sexual assault, and having Don repeatedly claim that he has the victim’s best interests at heart — there is just no way this could have worked. Sorkin’s dialogue is too artificial and singular to address real, emotional trauma, or to allow a victim room to have her voice be heard. 

"Grotesque".  "Anti-feminist." There is so much embedded in this passage.

For starters... we're calling Don "middle-aged"?  Sadoski is 38, and while his age is never overtly revealed in the show, his stylish dress and career path suggest he may be even younger, and at very least is not older. Characterizing Don as "middle aged" suggests Thurm is either seeing what he ideologically wants to see in Don, or is creating a straw man to validate a critical narrative. I'll give him credit for the former.

And viewing Don as merely an older man lecturing a young female rape victim on how to best pursue justice is unfair to Sorkin. Don is a skilled TV producer giving Mary an honest appraisal of what will happen when she appears on the show. Is he supposed to lie to her?

The number of sexual assault victims who see their cases never even make it to trial because a prosecutor tells them that they can't get a conviction is very much like the grim appraisal Don is giving Mary. Prosecutors often bear the brunt of our anger for the same reason Don takes it here: calling a difficult reality "grotesque" is far trickier than just slapping the label on a person.

The central value of our justice system is the "reasonable doubt" standard - the notion that it is better that 100 guilty men go free than one innocent man be convicted.

Of course, these numbers do not play out for any other crime. But the tragic truth is that these numbers DO play out for sexual assault, for the simple reason that in many if not most rapes, there is no physical evidence that will establish that sex was not consensual. Most rapes do come down to "he said/she said". 

Don believes Mary. Indeed, we all watch the scene unfold and believe Mary, so we feel what she feels when Don is just another person with power who will not help her find the justice she needs. 

Disturbingly - but unsurprisingly - viewer rage here is directed at Don (and Sorkin) because we still don't want to confront the reality that a reasonable doubt standard is going let the vast majority of rapists go free. We find Mary credible, just as we find most rape victims credible. But we can't do anything about it most the time.

So we shoot the messenger.

Thurm throws "anti-feminist" into the discussion, and this, too, is something we should explore. 

Ideology is important to the Wallace "metawatching" effect here. Todd VanDerWerff's review on read much like Thurm's Grantland piece...
Sorkin is a diehard liberal, but one with a conservative view of society. He wants freedom and equality for all, but do we have to agitate for it?

Wallace would point out that VanDerWerff is clearly aware of the ideological position that Sorkin has injected into the discourse, and thus is vetting the storyline for its author's ideology. Or, more to the point, VanDerWerff is searching for an ideological foundation for explaining away Sorkin's position.  

(To his credit, VanDerWerff was more willing to acknowledge the validity of even having the discussion than most other critics.)

"Anti-feminist", as Thurm called the story arc, implies a degree of misogyny on Sorkin's part. I would guess that this is what Thurm intended to convey here. However, the literal meaning of the term is probably more appropriate, as Sorkin's voice in the story arc does, indeed, stand opposed to the position of many feminists.

Many of the radical feminists in the blogosphere - think Amanda Marcotte, Kaili Joy Gray, and their ilk - approach any rape claim with the presumption of guilt. And in fairness to them, they aren't a part of the justice system. They are advocates. That's the role they choose to play.

However, in their shrill proclamations about "rape culture" and denouncement of anyone, be it a proscutor or Don Keefer, who delivers the ugly news on the prospects for justice, feminists make clear (without saying it in so many words) that they wish to cast aside the reasonable doubt standard for rape beacause of its inadequacy in achieving justice. They want an accusation to more or less be enough.

So what does Sorkin do? He puts the issue right there on the table, and forces those who share feminist ideology to stop dancing around what they want to say but know they can't.

Don confronts Mary with the likelihood that her website will be used as a weapon against innocent people, and amazingly, Mary comes right out and says: "I have weighed the cost-benefit."

Mary is willing to accept some innocents being taken down as collateral damage in the effort to scare college men out of committing sexual assault.

And Mary is allowed to feel this way. After all, she is a victim. But as Don points out to her: no matter how much he believes her (as we all do as we watch the story unfold)... he's not allowed to feel that way. Nor is the justice system.

A rape victim can say: I am OK if a few guilty men get taken down if we can get more of the guilty.

And in fiction, this conversation can be had openly.

But can you imagine someone like Marcotte or Gray - or an elected policy-maker - making such a statement on CNN? They cleary feel that way. But they know it's wrong, and know they can't say it.

Sorkin put the issue front and center and said: sorry, we're going to talk about this.

VanDerWerff believes that Sorkin is not letting the complexity of the issue speak for itself.  In fact, the opposite is true: he lets us see the entire debate - albeit in the voices of two characters who are probably both too eloquent to be fully believed. But while Don has to make a decision - there IS a plot here, after all - we get to see an evenly-matched tug-of-war between Don's (some would say cold) pragmatism and Mary's impassioned quest for justice and safety.

Many viewers, in their heart of hearts, are angry that Don was probably right, even if a good guy had to wear a black hat to settle this round.

Uncomfortable with what this would say about us, we rage against where Sorkin took us rather then acknowledge and confront an issue that may be morally unambiguous but is, in practical terms, a giant conundrum.

Anti-feminist? Absolutely. But let's not mistake feminism's righteousness with feminism always being right.

Those who were made very uncomfortable with last week's episode of The Newswoom:  you're right to be angry.

Just be angry at the right things.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Right's Corrosive Tribalism Summed Up In One Tweet

Republican strategist Michael Murphy often tends to be one of the rational voices from the right, and has grown perturbed with the Ted Cruz/Tea Party-led tantrum that has paralyzed the nation and now has a gun to the head of the global economy.

Taking a position against the radicals has earned him some new liberal followers on Twitter, but Murphy warns them...

Note, Murphy isn't concerned that the "Stupid Wing" is imperiling the nation.  Murphy is only concerned that the "Stupid Wing" is keeping people with like beliefs from controlling the entire government.

This is emblematic of perhaps the most fundamental difference between American liberals and conservatives:

Liberals want to solve problems, and they see the government as a mechanism for doing so. Oftentimes they overreach, and tinkering with the system ends up exacerbating rather than solving things.  Oftentimes they get it wrong. But at the end of the day, the motivation is to remedy specific issues - inequality of opportunity, rising health care costs and the uninsured, climate change, education, and so on.

Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to view everything first through the twin lenses of ideological purity and tribal victory. Making America healthier, safer and more prosperous for all its citizens are secondary motivations to the validation of the conservative movement and victory for the party that purports to represent it.

Watch a Democratic presidential debate. You won't see candidates volleying over who is more liberal. Yet when you watch a Republican debate, you see open arguments over whether each candidate is conservative enough, with each presenting their ideological bonafides.  Democrats debate who would best work across the aisle and get things done, while Republicans assail one another for being the slightest bit willing to compromise.

There are no watchdog groups on the left rating whether Democrats in Congress are "liberal" enough the way the American Conservative Union rates Republicans.

On the right, ideological purity comes before country. Any policy that is not appropriately conservative is not a policy option at all.

Republicans know full well that the sequester is hurting the economy and costing jobs. They simply don't care.  Anything that shrinks government is good, even if it helps no Americans and hurts millions.   So long as it is conservative, that makes it virtuous... even if it's wholly destructive.

By the same token, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, in moments of accidental honesty, have expressed their true issue with Obamacare: they're not worried that it's going to damage the country.  They're worried that it will actually work and an apparatus that is anathema to their world view will be actively helping people, the same way Medicare and Social Security do.

The fact that Medicare and Social Security have been incredible stabilizers of our economy and enhancers of American quality of life does not make the right wing hate the very concept of social insurance one bit less.

Worse yet, the success of any expansion of government further undermines conservatives' claim that their ideology is what is best for the country.  They, themselves, do not care if their approach is actually better for Americans.  I have yet to see any evidence that Ted Cruz has even a passing interest in improving the American economy or the lives of Americans. His only concern is the triumph of his world view.

But independent voters do care, and at the end of the day even Cruz and Rubio know they still need to sell it.

Read this column from Washington Post neoconservative Jennifer Rubin. It's entirely about the damage done to the GOP and the conservative movement by our current mess and those who engineered it. Health care for the uninsured and bending down the cost curve on health care for the rest of us isn't even on the periphery of Rubin's thoughts. This is the post-policy GOP, crystalized.

The Clinton years should have been an era of political harmony, with falling deficits, soaring employment, and few foreign entanglements.  A pro-business centrist occupied the Oval Office. This should have been a time when things got done in the long term interest of the country.  Instead, the GOP shut down the government simply because Bill Clinton was a Democrat and, in their eyes, that made him an illegitimate leader of the nation.  And one way or another, they would keep him from governing.

Policy, the country... not even part of the equation.

So as we come back to Murphy's tweet about his concern that Ted Cruz and his band of wackjobs are costing the GOP the Senate (not that they're hurting America), we're left with the following conclusion about the tribal right:

If forced to choose between living in a peaceful and prosperous America run by Democrats, or a struggling, declining America run by Republicans... many if not most on the right would choose the latter.

Friday, October 4, 2013

My Obamacare Experience... And Why The Shutdown Was Never About Obamacare

Being self-employed, I have had to buy my own health insurance for several years now.  I have been subject to the faster-than-inflation escalations in my premiums, and got a nice 40th birthday gift from Blue Cross in the form of a $50 per month premium hike.

Additionally, thanks to a nerve impingement in my right shoulder that needed a couple of months of physical therapy to work out in 2004, anything having to do with that shoulder is a pre-existing condition. So when I injured that shoulder playing sports in 2012 - eight years after a completely unrelated condition - Blue Cross would not pay for the office visits or the MRI to even find out what was wrong, let alone cover the arthroscopic surgery to fix the torn labrum.  As a result, I have had to live with some degree of pain for the last 18 months.

While the world waited breathlessly as the Republicans demanded ideological concessions just to keep the government open, I was actually most interested in whether the new insurance exchange launching at the same moment would lower my out-of-pocket health care costs, no longer leaving me at the mercy of Blue Cross actuaries.

As it turns out, Blue Cross themselves saved me some effort by e-mailing me a link to check out which plans they were offering in the ACA marketplace.

I currently pay $348 per month for health insurance, with a $1500 deductible.  For a plan with the same level of coverage, I will now pay $297 per month, with a $1000 deductible.  This will save me $1100 in 2014. That's $1100 that I will spend on something other than health care, money that will stimulate the economy and create jobs and tax revenue. That money did not come from other taxpayers. The savings came as a result of setting up an exchange that would allow everyone to access group buying power.

No, Mitt, you don't need to be a private equity magnate to be a job creator. In fact, the greatest engine of job creation is entrepreneurship. In fairness to Romney, he got that part right. We want people starting businesses, because their subsequent growth is what creates jobs. And now people will be freer to start new businesses, no longer tied to the security of their current employer's group health care plan.

Maybe that's what the Governor of Masachusetts was thinking when he reformed health care to achieve universal coverage in that liberal, highly educated state. Go figure.

As a bonus, my pre-existing condition will now be gone, so next fall I can have the surgery to repair the cartilage in my shoulder so it doesn't eventually end up arthritic.

Of course, the reason insurers can no longer discriminate against me for my pre-existing condition is because of the individual mandate. If healthy people were not driven into the risk pool, then everyone would simply wait until they were sick to get coverage, and the entire insurance system would collapse.

Irony of ironies, the mandate was a Heritage Foundation idea from the '90s, forcing "personal responsibility" on people so they wouldn't be such a drag on the system by showing up in emergency rooms. The individual mandate was a conservative answer to Hillary Clinton's quest for a single-payer system.

In any case, the Teahadists will scream about losing our freedoms, but as best as I can tell, the only freedoms I'm losing here are the freedom to be in pain and the freedom to overpay for health insurance.

Sorry, Senator Cruz, but contrary to what you wailed no fewer than 100 times during the course of your 21-hour fake filibuster/ideological hissy fit... Obamacare is working.  

Cruz and Marco Rubio, among other wingnuts, had forewarned during the course of the buildup to the latest unnecessary crisis that Obamacare would be near-impossible to get rid of once it rolled out, and that's why it had to be killed in its cradle.

Pardon my French, but what incomprehensible bullshit that is. If everyone truly disliked ACA as much as Cruz would have you believe when he repeated endlessly that Washington wasn't listening to the American people, then eliminating or at least eviscerating it would be easy and a great wedge issue to run on in the 2014 midterms and beyond. It would be a supreme exemplar of liberal overreach.

There are two things that conservatives truly feared...

1) Millons of people, including their own right-wing followers, would have the same experience with ACA that I just had and learn that Republicans have been lying to them about it for years. Once ACA rolled out, there would be no way to hide the truth anymore. And once the cat is out of the bag, the result is a huge defeat on the issue, and a potential backlash from their own base. Not only did Cruz and his acolytes promise that they could stop Obamacare (they could not)... but it's not even the deficit-expanding, freedom-killing menace it was advertised to be!  With each passing day, Cruz and the Tea Party have more and more 'splaining to do.

2) During the entire 2012 election cycle, we heard "Repeal and Replace" from Republicans without even a hint of a proposal on what to "replace" it with. Ideologically, the Ayn Rand wing of the party is fundamentally OK with the status quo: tens of millions uninsured and the rest of us paying too much.  Even if you skip past the moral issue of the richest nation on earth leaving so many people uninsured, it's brain-dead economic policy that slows growth by creating a feedback loop of rising health care costs even for those with coverage. The uninsured showing up in emergency rooms cost the rest of us money, and people like me who pay too much for health care are not spending that money on other things. Still, it's easier to argue against extending coverage than it is to argue for taking coverage away from people. At the same moment they shut the government down, the GOP also lost the ability to continue screaming "Repeal and Replace" without having a health care idea of their own. Once known as the "Party of Ideas", solving any kind of problem has not been the Republican way for a quarter century now - especially when a Democrat is in the Oval Office. 

We can now observe some clear patterns at work, so we can get at the heart of what the shutdown is truly about. Obamacare is just today's excuse to do what they wanted to do anyway. This shutdown isn't about Obamacare, and it's barely even about Conservative ideology.

And sorry, liberals, but while there are certainly millions of Confederates south of the Mason-Dixon Line who don't love the idea of a black man living in a house that they believe was named the White House for more than one reason... this isn't about race, either.

The Republicans are Ohio State; thus the Democrats, like Michigan, must be existentially bad and battled relentlessly in a zero-sum game.

This is not remotely about principle. It's purely tribal.

Let's take a walk through history...

In 1993, Bill Clinton raised the top marginal tax rate to 39.6%. Apparently un-moved by the fact that the Reagan tax cuts did not, in fact, trickle down and pay for themselves, every Republican in Congress voted against the hike. Republicans frantically told the American people that these tax hikes would slow down the economy and be a job-killer.

Of course, we all know what happened next: the largest peacetime economic expansion in history, unemployment fell to record lows, and the deficit disappeared and became a surplus. The tax hike was not even a tiny economic speed bump, but did improve the budget situation. Forced to choose between lower taxes on the wealthy or a balanced budget, we got a definitive look at which the GOP would choose.

Once trickle-down economics had been shown for a second time to be no more than a Randian fantasy, Republicans needed a new battleground on which to fight Clinton and the Democrats. They had no serious policy qualms with him. The economy was booming, the deficit was dwindling to nothing, and Clinton himself was a pro-business centrist whose governing bent was not dramatically different from his Republican predecessor.

Rodney King could well have been talking about the GOP rather than the LAPD when he cried, "Can't we all just get along?!"

Clinton had to be taken down.  Because freedom!

If you think the current shutdown is senseless, the shutdown of 1995 seems particularly absurd.  The defict that year was only a quarter of what it is today, and would continue falling.  Unemployment was at a low 5.6% and falling.

When public opinion logically turned against the GOP, costing them 8 House seats in the 1996 midterms, they opened up a new front in the tribal blood feud. Ken Starr, who had been appointed Special Prosecutor to see if he could make some political hay of the death of Vince Foster (a 1994 analog to Benghazi), had his mandate expanded to simply investigate Clinton's entire life in an effort to find anything at all that might keep him from governing.

All they found was a stained dress.

But remember this pattern: lose a fight on tax policy, have their position again be proven wrong, then escalate the tribal war into the realm of the pointless and ludicrous - throw a tantrum.

Clinton gave way to Bush, who blew the surplus and cut taxes (mostly on the wealthy) in the hope that the third attempt to validate trickle-down would be a charm. By the time we had finished putting two wars on a credit card, the budget surplus Clinton left us had turned to record deficits. Vice-President Dick Cheney, second in command of a party that purports to be the fiscally-responsible outfit, now hilariously said "deficits don't matter".  

Predictably, the Republican position on this reversed on January 21, 2009. Overnight, deficits now did matter, and the Tea Party was born.

Not having learned the lessons of the Clinton years, Obama idealistically - and foolishly - began his presidency believing that if he reached across the aisle, someone there would take his hand. Swept into office as a "movement" candidate, Obama harbored dreams of being a post-partisan leader, but the Republicans would have none of it. 

In January of 2009, House whip Eric Cantor and Senate leader Mitch McConnell led quasi-secret meetings where the decision was made to blanket-oppose all Obama attempts to govern. Chuck Grassley famously said he would not vote even for a good health care bill. McConnell, even more famously, said that the Republicans' top objective was to make Obama a one-term president.

Such blanket obstructionism was unprecedented. But wIth the bitter taste of the Bush legacy still in their mouths, damned if they were going to allow Obama to be Reagan to Bush's Carter.  Creation of a sect of "Obama Republicans" to mirror the "Reagan Democrats" would politically realign the country and force a wholesale reinventon of the GOP lest they cede total control of the government to the Democrats for a decade or more.

A successful Obama presidency would be an existential threat to the GOP, and they responded accordingly.  The GOP proceeded to employ Fox News in a massive campaign of misleading, hypocritical and oftentimes outright false propaganda to stir up as much tribal hate and fear as possible.

Remember the Birther campaign, anyone? Death panels? The whole GOP Greatest Hits album.  

Pouring gasoline on the intellectually bankrupt but tribally vital Tea Party movement in order to re-take the House in 2010, Republican obstructionism progressed into wholly toxic territory. Ted Cruz, Mike Lee and 40 or so Tea Party House members have paralyzed the legislative branch - indeed, they have passed less legislation than the famed "do-nothing" 80th Congress during the Truman years. They did not go to Washington to govern the country better than their predecessors had. With Obama in the White House, they went there to make sure the country could not be governed at all. This is how Congress can defy 90% of the country's desire to see expanded background checks on gun sales.

Obama made yet another mistake in negotiating over the 2011 debt ceiling raise, an episode that remains stunning on multiple levels.

First, Obama allowed the Republicans to engage in hostage-taking as he actually negotiated with John Boehner - a mistake he has smartly not repeated. Such tactics cannot become accepted political process if America is to be governable. How would the Republicans view the same tactic if Obama refused to sign any Federal budget unless Congress passed comprehensive gun control?  My guess is they would call such hostage-taking treasonous and impeachable.

So Obama and Boehner worked out a "grand bargain" featuring $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in revenue... and incredibly, the Republicans rejected it.

For some of the hardened Teahadists, any compromise whatsoever, even one weighted overhwelmingly to the right, was unacceptable. If the other side is evil, how can you compromise with them? And anyone who expressed a willingess to do so would face a primary challenge from the right. Jim DeMint has pushed Congress further to the right while in charge of Heritage Action then he ever did in the U.S. Senate.   

Can you imagine any Republican today working with Obama the way Ted Kennedy worked with George W. Bush on the well-intentioned but ill-conceived No Child Left Behind?  A Republican can't even go to the White House for movie night without fear of being primaried.

Thus, in the Republican deliberations on the "grand bargain", Paul Ryan espoused the real reason for rejecting the deal: Obama would be seen as a bipartisan deal-maker and problem-solver, willing to put country first. It would all but seal his re-election. 

The GOP would not even accept what they had asked for if it would help Obama!

The debt they claimed to care so deeply about was still a secondary consideration to re-taking the White House, even if having a Democrat in the White House did not prevent them from getting the debt deal they claimed to want. This was simply the latest instance of the GOP not caring nearly as much about deficit and debt as their bumper stickers would have you believe.

So here we are today. The Bush tax cuts for the top bracket have expired, and that hike has once again not slowed down economic growth as the Republicans had claimed it would. Further, the deficit has continued to fall, just as it did under Clinton. We're now 4-for-4 on trickle-down proving not to work in practice. It is, unquestionably, as George H.W. Bush called it in 1980: "voodoo economics". It's settled science, like climate change, evolution, and other things conservatives don't believe in.

Remember our pattern: lose the fight on tax policy, have their position shown to be wrong, then embark upon a pointless tantrum to obstruct government with no clear, realistic objective or endgame beyond the shutdown itself. This is not, and has never been, about Obamacare. We've seen Republican descension into zero-sum tribal madness before, so we know what this is about. This was eminently predictable. 

This latest showdown is about the modern Republican Party's steadfast refusal to even participate in the government at all if there is a Democratic president.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Kermit Gosnell and the Malkin/Breitbart Psychosis

The irony of the right wing's sudden outrage over Kermit Gosnell is that making abortion illegal will lead to way more horrific Kermit Gosnell situations. This is EXACTLY why abortion needs to be legal and safe: because people with no other option will seek out secret, last-chance options like this. The right's unwillingness to acknowledge this reality is almost a form of dementia.

Malkin and Breitbart are spewing tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories about the "liberal" media covering up the true evils of abortion, attempting to use Gosnell as an example of the evils of the pro-choice position.

The reality is the exact opposite: what most rational people - even those who are uncomfortable with abortion - want is to have abortion be sufficiently safe and available so that we don't have to read these sickening stories ever again.

And what's borderline comical is that the wing nut set likes to use the rationale that no gun control will work since those inclined to want a gun will break the law and get one anyway... but they aren't so quick to accept that the same thing would happen if ABORTION were banned.

It's just the latest example of the insane hypocrisy of "pro-lifers" selectively choosing just which lives they consider sacred... and of the right wing living not in the world as it is, but the world as they wish it were.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Marco Rubio, meet reality. Reality, meet Marco Rubio.

After a State of the Union speech in which President Obama passionately presented a litany of common sense policies in a Clintonesque, meat-and-potatoes style that was a clear departure from his past professorial performances, the Republicans chose Marco Rubio to deliver the traditional response. The GOP was apparently under the impression that Mitt Romney's ideas will actually sell if delivered by a young and charismatic - if dehydrated - Hispanic voice... and the words "middle class" were inserted repeatedly to make up for their absence at the Republican Convention.

The result was a speech that, much like Romney as a candidate, offered little in the way of actual ideas, and instead focused on creating straw man arguments and blatantly false premises to assail liberalism and the President. It was a speech that was completely disconnected from the State of the Union address it was ostensibly meant to rebut, disconnected from concepts like math, science and economics... disconnected from facts. It was little more than a manifesto restating that, despite the civil war that has begun within the GOP, their official platform is still a province of wingnuttery.

Let's go over a sampling of Rubio's absurdities...

This opportunity – to make it to the middle class or beyond no matter where you start out in life – it isn’t bestowed on us from Washington. It comes from a vibrant free economy where people can risk their own money to open a business

This is Mitt Romney tone-deafness at its best: the lionization of the business owner, the idea that the only ticket into the middle class is start your own business. Most people, however, only have the desire and wherewithal to hold down a good job and make a living. Not everyone can start a business; not everyone should start a business. And those who simply work for a living have been getting squeezed, both by the natural forces of globalization in the free economy Rubio seems to think exists in the world (it never has), and by a system that has for the last decade or more been sticking it to those who just earn a paycheck. Saying the words "middle class" doesn't equate to understanding the realities of entry into the middle class, or making it in the middle class.

But President Obama? He believes (the free market is) the cause of our problems. That the economic downturn happened because our government didn’t tax enough, spend enough and control enough. And, therefore, as you heard tonight, his solution to virtually every problem we face is for Washington to tax more, borrow more and spend more.

This is a manufactured straw man here. At no point has President Obama even nodded in the direction Rubio speaks of here. It's contrived to the point where you can scarcely believe Rubio could deliver it with a straight face.

And it's interesting to hear Rubio talking about Obama taxing more, spending more, and borrowing more. This is another area where the rhetoric has literally been wired into the Republican autonomic nervous system, to be repeated ad nauseam regardless of whether it's remotely true.

The fact of the matter is that the growth of government spending has been lower under President Obama than it has been under any President in the last 30 years - which includes Reagan and both Bushes.

Any time we have a deficit, we borrow to cover the gap. But Obama inherited a $1.4 trillion deficit from the Republicans four years ago, and has nearly halved it. (We'll talk more about this later.)

And in every year of Obama's presidency, tax revenues as a percentage of GDP have been under 16% - lower than any year under Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Bush 41 or Bush 43.

This narrative of tax-and-spend Democrats and fiscally responsible Republicans has no historical basis in fact - at least in the lifetimes of anyone born since WWII. It is nothing short of mind-boggling that anyone who purports to care about deficit and debt would choose to support Republicans, given the two parties' respective records. Bill Clinton left a budget in surplus - which George W. Bush and a Republican Congress immediately gave away, literally writing checks to people in an effort to buy votes. Bush left Obama a deficit well in excess of a trillion dollars, and Obama has nearly cut it in half.

Yet Republican rhetoric, as exemplified by Rubio here, drones on, blissfully oblivious to facts.

And the idea that more taxes and more government spending is the best way to help hardworking middle class taxpayers – that’s an old idea that’s failed every time it’s been tried.

This one is nothing short of hysterical.

Bill Clinton raised the top tax bracket to 39.6%, and Republicans uniformly opposed it. The move earned not a single Republican vote in Congress. They screamed that it would slow down the economy and cost jobs.

What actually happened?

We spent the rest of the decade in the largest peacetime economic expansion in history. Unemployment hit historic lows. Middle class living standards skyrocketed. We eliminated the budget deficit entirely. The move to raise taxes did not create the economic boom, but the tax increase also did absolutely nothing to slow it down. Every single Republican got it wrong, voting purely on ideology, not economics.

Yet on the flip side, when both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush lowered the top tax rate, deficits skyrocketed, debt exploded, and the tax cuts did not pay for themselves as the fringe orthodoxy of "trickle-down economics" would have you believe it would. THAT has failed every time it has been tried. The entire reason that the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute exist is to conjure up fringe theories to support their ideology where time-tested macroeconomics says such ideas are poorly-conceived.

It's hard to believe Rubio doesn't know the basic history of the 1990's. And I'd like to give him enough credit to think that he didn't just look in the camera and blatantly lie to the American people. At best, you can say that he is so blinded by ideology; he, like most of his party, has been in a hermetically sealed bubble for so long that he has lost the ability to distinguish fantasy from reality.

When we point out that no matter how many job-killing laws we pass, our government can’t control the weather – he accuses us of wanting dirty water and dirty air.

This is a straw man. No one is accusing Republicans of wanting dirty water and dirty air. What we accuse Republicans of is not CARING about the environment if it in any way inconveniences their corporate benefactors.

Rubio squarely aligns himself with the rank ignorance of the climate change denier set here. And "ignorance" really is the only appropriate word here. If you're still a climate change denier, you are ignorant - because you have chosen not to learn about the issue, because you have been grossly misinformed by politicians at the beck and call of the oil industry, or because you're stupid.

Upton Sinclair wrote: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends upon his not understanding it."

The reason Republicans are the pro-oil party is because Texas has been the cornerstone of their electoral coalition ever since the Civil Rights Act realigned the country, politically. With the other two electoral behemoths, New York and California, squarely blue, Republicans cannot ever win a national election without Texas - and oil is the state's biggest industry. This GOP/Big Oil symbiosis is why over 90% of the oil industry's political money goes to Republicans, and why the Republicans repay them by moving heaven and earth to keep their followers in scientific ignorance (in addition to chipping in billions of dollars in corporate welfare in the form of taxpayer subsidies to an industry currently making record profits).

This is why we're the last country in the developed world still debating whether climate change is real. Almost every Republican's job depends upon not understanding that 98% of scientists agree on climate change. The jury is not out on this. Anyone who suggests otherwise is simply wrong. We're past it being a matter of opinion. It's no less silly than it would be to suggest the world is flat - and I don't mean in the Tom Friedman sense. Global temperatures rose a full degree in 2012 - an INSANE one-year rise. Storms are already getting bigger and more damaging. Droughts are getting worse. Ecosystems that we depend upon for our very survival are in decline.

Lest we forget Rubio's "I'm not a scientist, man!"/"It's one of the great mysteries" response on the age of the Earth. Marco Rubio wants America to follow a party that not only accepts - but promotes and in fact relies upon - scientific ignorance.

When we suggest we strengthen our safety net programs by giving states more flexibility to manage them – he accuses us of wanting to leave the elderly and disabled to fend for themselves.

So, like, when President Obama let states manage welfare-to-work requirements themselves, and Rubio and other Republicans excoriated him for dismantling those requirements?

In fact, this was the subject of the most dishonest ad of the 2012 election cycle, panned by fact checkers.

Rubio, representing his party, is now having some real honesty issues here.

And tonight, he even criticized us for refusing to raise taxes to delay military cuts – cuts that were his idea in the first place

The sequester was put in place by BOTH parties on the premise that it was such a bad idea that neither party would ever go through with letting it occur.

And the only reason that agreement was made was due to the Republicans holding the entire nation at gunpoint during the contrived debt ceiling fight in 2011, in order to extract ideological concessions.

Republicans like Rubio were busy telling their constituents that the debt ceiling was a mechanism for borrowing more money, when in fact it is merely procedural, authorizing the government to pay the bills it has already incurred. It was done 17 times during the Bush years, never once making the front page. Republicans contrived a crisis by threatening to default on our debt and touch off a global economic meltdown if they didn't get concessions on spending. Mitch McConnell himself said it was a "hostage worth ransoming". Indeed, many Republicans, in their ideological and tribal fervor, were in favor of defaulting if they thought it could be blamed on Obama. When John Boehner and the President agreed to the 10-for-1 "Grand Bargain" - $10 in spending cuts for every $1 in revenue increases - Paul Ryan was among the Republican leaders who rejected it, not merely because it gave the Republicans only 90% of what they wanted, but because an agreement would allow the President to sell his bipartisanship in averting the (made up) crisis and would help him get re-elected.

Republicans were very willing to default rather than hand Obama a political win. Which is why Rubio playing the victim card - "mean Democrats questioning Republican motives" - is nothing short of offensive. Republicans DID put party and ideology over country in 2011, and that's why we're dealing with the sequester now.

The tax increases and the deficit spending you propose will hurt middle class families. It will cost them their raises. It will cost them their benefits. It may even cost some of them their jobs.

This is the identical refrain we heard from the GOP when Clinton raised the top tax rate. History showed it to be wrong then. Our tax rates are already low by historical standards in the United States, and by the standards of other advanced democracies. Modest increases in this range have proven - PROVEN - to have no adverse effect on the economy, but do help the budget situation.

Anyone who advocates tackling the long-term debt issue without putting historically-low tax rates
on the table cannot claim to be serious about the issue. If you fall into that category, you don't actually care about the debt. You're just falsely using the debt as an ideological bludgeon.

And it will hurt seniors because it does nothing to save Medicare and Social Security.

From the party that opposed the creation of Medicare, has attacked it at every opportunity, and sought to privatize Social Security.

Economic growth is the best way to help the middle class. Unfortunately, our economy actually shrank during the last three months of 2012.

This was courtesy of the Budget Control Act of 2011 - the concessions your party extracted by using the debt ceiling to hold the nation hostage.

A brief macroeconomics lesson for the uninitiated....

During tough economic times, government SHOULD run a deficit. Balancing the budget during a recession is destructive because government spending supports demand and keeps the "job creators" in business. You extend unemployment insurance because that money gets spent on food and clothing and housing. You expand Medicaid because it keeps people from going bankrupt. You keep money circulating in the economy, then pay it back when economic conditions improve.

If you impose austerity during a time of high unemployment, you weaken demand and put the economy into reverse.

This is not a theory. This, too, is time-tested economics. The UK went the austerity route and, predictably, their economy went right back into recession. Ditto in Spain.

In 2011, the United States took a trillion dollars out of the economy, and what happened a year on? Predictably, the economy contracted. This is like a doctor knowing that an antibiotic will help strep throat, and trying to explain to a Scientologist that it will work. Republican efforts to put ideology over reality is tantamount to economic Scientology.

Instead of wasting more taxpayer money on so-called “clean energy” companies like Solyndra, let’s open up more federal lands for safe and responsible exploration.

"So-called" clean energy? Nice to appeal to the climate deniers again.

And didn't the country render a verdict on "Drill, baby, drill!" in 2008?

Do you know what else God blessed America with? A university system that turns out scientists who can read data that proves conclusively that carbon belongs in the ground, not the air!

God gave us brains, so we don't have to pretend to be criminally stupid for political purposes.

God gave us the Earth (although he did so much longer ago than Rubio believes)... and he gave us the scientific means to be good stewards of it.

Raising taxes won’t create private sector jobs. And there’s no realistic tax increase that could lower our deficits by almost $4 trillion. That’s why I hope the President will abandon his obsession with raising taxes and instead work with us to achieve real growth in our economy.

No, raising taxes won't directly create private sector jobs. But as we learned during the Reagan and Bush years, lowering taxes on the top bracket, on people who will not spend much of it and will thus not circulate it in the economy, will not create private sector jobs, either. But those cuts do create deficit and debt - something Republicans would like you to believe they care about (at least when a Democrat is in the White House).

Rubio then creates yet another straw man: since tax increases won't completely solve the problem on their own, then why bother?

And as for Obama's obsession with raising taxes (to levels that are still historically low), it would not take an "obsession" unless Republicans were not absolutist about never, ever raising them, even if sound economic policy (and eighth grade mathematics) says you should. Remember, Rubio's party TURNED DOWN the 10-for-1 deal in 2011.

The President loves to blame the debt on President Bush. But President Obama created more debt in four years than his predecessor did in eight.

This is a lie. Rubio is just saying something he knows to be untrue here.

When George W. Bush took office, the Federal debt was roughly $5.7 trillion. When he left office, it was $10.7 trillion - an increase of $5 trillion.

During Obama's four years, the debt has risen by about $4 trillion.

So just on its face, Rubio lied. However, it gets even worse when you dig into the numbers. Bush took over at the tail end of an economic boom, with a budget in surplus. So in his first year, when his policies had nothing to do with the state of budget, the debt essentially stayed the same.

Obama, on the other hand, took over in the midst of an economic crisis, and instead of inheriting a budget in surplus, inherited a $1.4 trillion deficit - which he has nearly cut in half (as he promised to do).

Of the $4 trillion of debt that has been added since the day Obama took over, half of it came in his first year, when he had little control over events. The stimulus added to the debt, but also abruptly stopped the hemorrhaging in the job market and ended the recession.

Obama's net effect on the debt, in the context of what he inherited from the Republicans, has been positive.

Rubio's statement here is not just a lie on its face, but he piles on with massive lies of omission

And we agree with the President that we should lower our corporate tax rate, which is one of the highest in the world, so that companies will start bringing their money and their jobs back here from overseas.

Rubio strategically leaves a couple of things out here.

While our base corporate rate is higher than many other developed countries, we have a byzantine series of loopholes that have virtually been written by special interests. A company that can afford lobbyists to buy this kind of corporate welfare, and an army of accountants and lawyers, can manage to pay little to no corporate tax, while smaller businesses without those means pay the full rate.

Rubio and the Republicans want to lower the rate... but have repeatedly gone to mattresses to avoid giving up the loopholes for their campaign contributors.

We need to give all parents, especially the parents of children with special needs, the opportunity to send their children to the school of their choice.

The term "school choice" has always been a tool for selling a fictional idea to those who don't know better. Public schools are not-for-profit institutions, so the notion that free-market capitalistic competition will somehow improve schools is a fantasy.

Again, remember the Civil Rights Act and how it realigned the country. That's when the GOP became all about GOD. The "choice" the Bible Belt wants is one where taxpayer money will be used to indoctrinate their children in a non-secular manner: no sex education, no evolution, creationism taught in science class. They want the "choice" to have their children be as ignorant about science as Marco Rubio is.

The problem with vouchers has always been that if you allow any significant percentage of students to leave the system - and take their percentage of school funding with them - the public school system completely collapses. What were once the world's best public schools are what built the middle class in this country - and an educated and skilled middle class with buying power is what separates a rich country from a poor one.

Not to mention those inconvenient first ten words of the Bill of Rights:

"Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion."

If you want your child to be educated at a religious school and not learn about science, that is your right. It's not your right to do it with tax dollars.

When I finished school, I owed over 100,000 dollars in student loans, a debt I paid off just a few months ago.

Would you have it paid off yet if there weren't Medicare and Social Security to support your parents? Because supporting them yourself would be expensive...

The real cause of our debt is that our government has been spending 1 trillion dollars more than it takes in every year. That’s why we need a balanced budget amendment.

Again, math and economics, Marco.

Our tax receipts are already low - roughly 15% of GDP. Lower than they have been under any Republican president in a half century. And tax rates are at historic lows, too.

The rise in government spending is driven mostly by Medicare - and THAT is driven by the overall skyrocketing of health care costs. Yet health care reform is something that the Republicans bitterly opposed during the Clinton and now Obama presidencies, and Republicans did exactly nothing to address during the Bush years.

As for a balanced budget amendment... this is one of the most patently moronic ideas in the public discourse. If the government cannot run a deficit during an economic downturn, recessions become depressions. During bad economic times, the government must step in to support demand. This is standard, time-tested economic practice, done this way everywhere in the world. Your ideology may fixate on balanced budgets at all times, but it doesn't make it anything other than proven bad economic policy. Anyone who has taken more than a freshman econ class in college knows this.

Instead of playing politics with Medicare, when is the President going to offer his plan to save it? Tonight would have been a good time for him to do it.

From a party that adopted Paul Ryan's plan to voucherize Medicare, this is pretty rich, for Rubio to accuse the president of playing politics with Medicare.

When is he going to offer his plan to save it? Ummm... anyone remember Obamacare? Or the 2012 campaign?

Just because you don't LIKE his plan doesn't mean he hasn't offered one.

And the truth is every problem can’t be solved by government.

Ah yes, the old Reagan straw man. No one has suggested this, ever.

Many are caused by the moral breakdown in our society

Some might characterize imposing austerity on the poor and middle class while giving the fortunate the best deal they have ever had as a "moral breakdown". Just sayin'.

Friday, February 1, 2013

David Brooks rebuts half of my immigration argument.

In today's New York Times, David Brooks writes that even low-skilled immigrants are a net positive for the economy.

That said, I'm still unconvinced that when you really game it out, it ends up a net positive, since I am not sure that adding more low-skilled workers into an economy that already has a shortage of low-skilled jobs accomplishes what he thinks it will.

During a booming economy, he may be right. But I'm not fully sold yet.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses...

At the urging of several friends, who suggested that 140 characters and retweets are insufficient for me to make a point (what were the odds?), I decided it was time to dust off the proverbial typewriter and resume The Perpetual Campaign with some thoughts on America's welcome mat.

So let's talk immigration, and start by doing something almost no one in the public discourse has been doing: try to see the forest for the trees in as non-ideological a way as possible.

Immigration reform is going to happen. As if you needed any more evidence that John McCain is not The Straight Talk Express but is, is fact, just another opportunistic political huckster, when asked what changed in the immigration debate, he offered: "Elections."

Of course, The Maverick is right. Perhaps Marco Rubio can convince himself that if the GOP gets on board with immigration reform, everything will be hunky dory between his party and the 7 in 10 folks that look like him who voted for Obama in November. That may or may not be true. Likely not. But what's undeniable is that the GOP knows that it cannot survive as a party if they continue to piss off Hispanic voters.

Ever since the Civil Rights Act realigned the country, Texas has been the bulwark of the GOP coalition. With New York and California solid blue, the Republicans cannot win a national election without Texas. This is why they became the God-and-Guns-and-Oil party in the first place. If the Republicans even had to invest time and money fighting for Texas, it likely spreads them too thin to fight for North Carolina, Virginia and Ohio. Without Texas, it all crumbles.

But guess what? In an increasingly Hispanic Texas, it's no longer only oil and guns the GOP needs to worry about. It's immigration.

So don't mistake this outburst of collegiality on immigration for an actual trend in the direction of legislative comity. It's simply a lone intersection between the winding roads of political interest. We'll be back to Republican tribal intransigence and Democratic discomfort with the zero-sum game after this word from our sponsors.

The thing is, we're so caught up in why this is happening and identifying the low-hanging fruit of policy band-aids that no one seems to be really looking at what the virtues - and pitfalls - of immigration actually are.

I'm not going to offer a comprehensive immigration plan. There are people who understand the ramifications of each policy idea better than I do. But I do want to take a pass at looking at the big picture.

When the inscription was carved into the Statue of Liberty, it was meant to convey the distillation of the American ideal: we were a country comprised of everyone else's rejects who came here and were able to reach some level of prosperity in ways the Old World simply did not enable us to. How old were you when you learned the term "melting pot"? Not very, I'll wager. And that diversity of cultures and ideas was considered to be the distinguishing chromosome in the American DNA. In many ways, I think it still is.

At the time this idea crystallized and was enunciated, America was a land of limitless resources - resources that far exceeded our ability at the time to utilize it all. We needed the bodies - the raw manual labor - to come here and farm and mine and log and fish and otherwise create value and, ultimately, American power.

And the same was true after the Industrial Revolution: we needed more manual labor to make those raw materials into manufactured goods. More value created, more American power built and projected.

Your tired, poor, huddled masses were the seed corn that grew into an ever-expanding American harvest.

But Houston, we have a problem...

In the post-Industrial era, our economy can no longer support your tired, huddled masses. Manual laborers and service workers don't create value like the farmers and factory workers of centuries past did.

Send us, instead, your graduate students, your tech geeks, and especially your math and science teachers. Because we're running short on those, and that's what will drive the American economy now.

I went to business school with 11 cohorts from other countries, and most of them had to go back from whence they came because they could not find employers who would sponsor them. These are the people we need. These are, I daresay, the "job creators". They will be tax-paying, law-abiding knowledge workers. And we're kicking them out while trying to figure out how to continue welcoming the tired, poor, huddled masses.

We need a paradigm shift here.

This is an uncomfortable idea. It's runs counter to the American ideal that we want everyone to come here and make it. But it's a harsh reality, that we may need to actually decide who we can and can't welcome into the family. We need to start looking at whether those who we let in will grow and strengthen our economy, not strain it for the people who are already here.

The other sticky, uncomfortable issue is what to do with the people who are already here and undocumented. I think everyone has long since abandoned the notion of rounding them all up and sending them home, like Roman Morone to Sweden.

We have seen ideas on what the path to citizenship should look like, including paying back taxes and going to the back of the line. These kinds of punitive measures may satisfy Jan Brewer, but they're really counterproductive.

What would be a path to citizenship that would actually lead undocumented families to start adding more value to the economy than they draw? Start with an idea that originated with my mother. She was a first grade teacher, a grade school principal, and later taught college at UNLV - and Las Vegas is a city that has been dealing with a full range of immigration-related issues...

If your child graduates high school, you get a green card.

If your child graduates from college, you're a citizen.

If at least the second generation can add value to our economy, and hopefully help care for you in your old age so we don't have to carry that burden ourselves, then your family has earned its way into being a part of ours, no matter how you got in here.

Immigration needs to be less about the ideal of America turning the world's "wretched refuse" into self-actualized beings, and more about America strengthening itself so it can remain the world's indispensable nation.