Monday, December 30, 2013

2013 - it's a wrap

So, 2013 is coming to a close. What to say about it?

I think to me the most significant political thing that happened this year is that the Tea Party has lost it's death grip on the Republican Party and thus on the government. After stupidly shutting down the government, at a cost of about $24 billion, they lost credibility to the point that the beleaguered House Majority Leader, John Boehner finally exploded calling them "ridiculous."  

Speaking of ridiculous, of course, Obamacare has gotten off to a ridiculously incompetent start, but I think that is probably fixable going forward. A reordered health care system for a country of this size will have new problems needing solving, and I have hopes that it will end up working good enough. At least the three main problems of the pre-Obamacare health system are mostly gone.  That is: most of the poor now can have health coverage, those with pre-existing conditions can't be denied coverage, and a catastrophic illness will no longer bankrupt a middle class family. This ends up costing those who make decent money working for themselves more for their insurance, but I guess that's one of the trade-offs. 

I am glad that the United States has managed to stay out of the religious and civil wars in the Middle East, notably staying out of Syria.  We still need to provide some leadership there, but I hope we can contain that leadership to areas of diplomacy and finance, plus maybe some military training and weapons. 

The Outrage Industry on talk radio, blogs, and cable TV continue unabashedly, but I am hopeful that those captured by them will start to wonder if life is as simply explained as their media leaders are saying. After all, it is one thing to present simple ideas that can be easily understood, that capitalize on people's sense of injustice and frustration, and create an audience for their own massive incomes, but is something else altogether to actually come up with doable and workable political solutions that recognize that in a nation of over 300 million people not everyone will ever agree. 

Ultimately, I choose to trust that the American people will work things out, stumble haltingly forward, make incremental improvements in America and around the world, and continue in actualizing it's destiny of being a significant force for good in the world. We always have. We will continue to do so. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Outgoing Fed Chairman's criticism of Republican austerity

Ben Bernanke made a final appearance yesterday to discuss the economy and the role of the Fed in trying to keep the economy running.  I think he gets a lot of credit for keeping the country and the world out of a second Depression.  The Great Recession has been quite painful, but we did avoid going over a much more cataclysmic cliff.

Bernanke apparently made frequent comments about how he did the best he could to stimulate the economy in the face of fiscal austerity measures imposed by Congress which had the effect of depressing the economy.  Obviously, he thinks that the Republican choices to impose austerity and spending cuts have harmed the economic recovery.

I know that the Republican dogma is that the way to stimulate the economy is to cut taxes and shrink the government, and I used to believe that myself.  But, quite frankly, the data of the last thirty years just doesn't support that belief. 

Reagan cut taxes and the government and over his 8 years there was an 18% increase in jobs and a 12% increase in family income.  So, back in my Republican days I thought that was pretty good proof that the thing to do was cut the government, unfetter the markets, and stand back and let the economy roar, and everyone benefited.

Then, Clinton raised taxes and over his 8 years there was also an 18.6% increase in jobs and also a 12% rise in medium income.  Oops, the Reaganomics dogma was not looking so certain.

Then, George W cut taxes and it all went south – over his 8 years there was 1.6 million fewer jobs and a 2.7% decline, not increase - decline in family income.  You can try to explain away W’s economy by excusing it as being the victim of the financial crash of 2008, but the reason there was a financial crash of 2008 is that the Reaganomics ideology was to deregulate the financial industry, and a deregulated financial industry turned the financial industry into a greed monster that sucked billions from the middle classes with a manufactured housing bubble that bankrupted and unemployed millions while making multimillionaires of a few thousand financial manipulators.

By the way, the financial catastrophe ended my Republican days.  As many have said, there is no education in the second kick in the head from a mule.  (It didn't start me on a new era of Democrat days, I am now officially independent)

So, it is now apparent to me that economic growth is a function of many forces, and that cutting taxes and the government does not produce jobs and economic growth.  The experiment of the last thirty plus years just doesn't support the ideological belief in cutting taxes and government austerity as something that grows the economy.

And, indeed, Bernanke is quite clear in his criticism of Republican austerity policies.  He points out that the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Republicans’ budget cutting reduced the country’s economic growth by 1.5%.  That’s millions of jobs.

It’s a painful thing to change your political beliefs.  I have done it twice in my lifetime, and other changes may be ahead of me, but I no longer believe in Reaganomics or austerity as a way to grow the economy and jobs.  It’s an obsolete ideology to my mind. 

The data just doesn't support the belief.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Republicans --- gasp --- negotiate a budget deal!

In a hopeful display of sanity, Republican House deficit hawk Paul Ryan successfully negotiated a budget deal with Senate Democratic liberal Patty Murray.  And then he and Speaker of the House, John Boehner, sold it to House Republicans.  

They did this in order to avoid another suicidal attempt to shut down the government or default on American debt.  They did this to try to undo some of the damage created the last time they shut down the government and threatened a government default.  They did this to try to demonstrate that they were actually capable of governing the country, that is, actually capable of committing acts of politics, that is, actually capable of negotiating, compromising, cutting a deal, that is actually acting like grown ups rather than adolescent absolutists unwilling to see beyond their own ideological imperatives.

Wow. This might be the first sign of Republican sanity since the Tea Party took over the Republican Party in 2010.  

Apparently, and not unexpectedly, the expected hard core conservative activist organizations - Heritage Action, Americans for Prosperity, and Club for Growth - tried to pressure Republicans to oppose the Ryan-Murray deal.  But, as John Boehner so eloquently exclaimed:

"You mean the groups that came out and opposed it before they even saw it?  ... They - they're using our members and their using the American People for their own goals, this is ridiculous!"

The Speaker's long standing patience with the extremists of his party seems to have finally come to an end. His outburst seems to have allowed House Republicans to join in open defiance of the threats from the Tea Party vigilantes.  

Republicans may actually start moving away from the grip of talk radio and the hard core activist organizations.  I believe they need to in order to survive.  

The details of the deal are fairly minor, but the deal itself could well be momentous.  As Dana Milbank wrote:

"And yet Ryan achieved something monumental this week: He persuaded his fellow conservatives to compromise,..."

And as Ryan said:

“We understand in this divided government, we’re not going to get everything we want.”

Wow.  There is hope for this government yet.  What the heck, the Republican Party might even survive the assaults from their extremist wing Tea Party.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Outrage Industry is making our country ungovernable

The authors of a new book, "The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility" by Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj, have an article in that does a good job of outlining the characteristics of the Outrage Industry that has taken over our media over the last twenty or so years.  It really shows how our country is becoming ungovernable as a result of this media industry.

The outrage industry is on both the right and the left.  It is stronger on the right these days, and it has spawned the right wing extremist political Tea Party movement.  But it is on the left as well, trying mightily to spawn a left wing version of a Tea Party movement.  God help us all if they succeed.

Here are some of the characteristics of outrage tactics:
  • charismatic, personality centered voices of outrage
  • personal attacks
  • vitriol
  • moral indignation
  • name calling
  • offensive language
  • venom
  • vilification
  • fear mongering
  • ad hominem attacks
  • creation of scandals
  • conspiracy theories
  • sensationalism
  • belittling ridicule
  • mockery
  • hyperbolic forecasts of impending doom
  • rude behavior
  • incivility writ large
  • ideological selectivity
  • hyperbolic reinterpretations of current events
  • vilification of opponents
  • over-generalizations
  • communication designed for maximum emotional impact
  • reactive to events to reinterpret and reframe events to fit an ideological view
  • presenting themselves as brave and admirable
  • ideological vetting of candidates for ideological purity
  • labeling open mindedness, collaboration, and compromise as weakness
  • communication designed evoke righteous emotions of anger, indignation, fear
  • sense of inclusion and belonging in a tribe of like minded outraged people who care about how awful it all is
  • overly simplified stories that show opponents as fundamentally different than you
The article includes an example of these tactics used by the right wing Outrage Industry operative, Rush Limbaugh, and the left wing Outrage Industry operative Lawrence O'Donnell.  

The short summary, to me, is that the outrage industry is designed to create an audience for the media-outrage personalities.  It is most definitely not designed to discuss current events and foster thinking about events or politics.  It is designed to give a safe harbor for alienated and fearful people to go to in order to feel that they belong.  It is a tribal call to like minds to see the world as extraordinarily dangerous because of the existence of other tribes who must be fought, vilified and ridiculed.  It is political correctness - both right wing and left wing political correctness - exaggerated to a level of open civil war.

A simple thought experiment:  could Rush Limbaugh on the right or Bill Ayers on the left be elected president?  Of course not.  They are extremists who create an audience, not politicians who can create legislation.  So, why would anyone take their advice on whom to vote for?  They can only recommend unelectable extremists, or those who if elected would be unable to engage in the politics of governance.

So, why is there such an audience for the outrage industry?  I think there are a couple of reasons.  First it is a response to the nature of reality, which is change.  Everything changes, always.  And fear of change can be tapped into by clever media to create a very lucrative audience.  (Right wing Rush Limbaugh is said to have an annual income of $70 million, right wing Glenn Beck is about the same, left wing Rachel Maddow is a paltry $7 million but still pretty good).

Second, I think that people who are carrying unresolved issues of anger and fear and low self esteem are drawn to venues that stoke righteous emotions about how awful "others" are rather than do the personal, intimate, and sometimes unsettling work of dealing with and releasing their own unresolved emotional issues.  It is a lot easier to be outraged by the evils of the "others" than face your own internal fears and uncertainties.

The solutions?  

  • Realize that we are being manipulated by the Outrage Industry so that we can feel the safe emotions of righteousness and get a sense of belonging to our Tribe of Good People Bravely Fighting the Tribes of Bad People.  
  • Realize that the purpose of the Outrage Industry is to make lots of money and not to help us improve the country's governance.
  • Realize that we can only govern ourselves through the subtle, complicated arts of politics - which means cooperation, compromise, collaboration, deal making.  
  • Deal with our own personal fears and uncertainties in the privacy of our own hearts and minds, and avoid the lure of the easy substitutes of righteous emotions to distract us from our own personal issues.
One can hope for and expect positive change.