The Collected Thoughts and Musings of an Aspiring Political Philosopher

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Newsflash: Progressives Outraged Again, Uncertain Why; Eating Own In Response

I'm not joining in the circular firing squad just yet. I was very, very disappointed at Rachel Maddow's handling of Jared Bernstein on Monday's show, and her Tuesday show was no better. As I said in a previous post, Bernstein, who kept trying to explain the economic proposal to be highlighted in the State of the Union address, was repeatedly cut off by Rachel. And no matter what he said, she kept going back to her original "OMG it's Hooverism!". We lost a good opportunity to hear about what's actually going to be proposed, rather than what we all imagine it will be, and that's sorely disappointing.


Just for the record, I love Rachel dearly, but that interview was way, way over the top (just saying so I don't get slammed with "Rachel is perfect, and you're a lying scurvy dog conservative-in-progressive clothing for saying otherwise" comments as I did with my previous posting). If you disagree and think Rachel was in top form, then you really need to get out more. That was the most horrific display of one-sided interviewing I've seen outside of Hannity or O'Reilly, and Rachel is far better than that. I hope to see some kind of "talking down" on her part, if not for the substance, then at least for her demeanor and complete lack of objectivity (Remember that? It's SUPPOSED to be a trait in which liberals take great pride).

And this goes for just about every liberal blog and news-site in the last 48 hours. The hysteria has been palpable, while the echo-chamber effect has been so evident that nobody really knows anything about anything... it's all just speculation dumped onto opinion based on rumor. My usual daily rounds through HuffPo, Daily Kos, FireDogLake, and others revealed that virtually everything posted there was, with few exceptions, inordinately and overwhelmingly opposed to this "proposal" that isn't, yet. Everyone is fixated on the "spending freeze" part of it (which doesn't take effect for nearly two years... and freezes spending at 2010 levels which are expected to be much higher than 2009 levels, I might add), while getting the vapors about ANY kind of "spending cuts" that might be in the package. It's a roundtable of no-nothingness expounding upon the dire consequences of imagined and unspecific vagaries. People are pissed off, and they don't even know why, much less if they actually have a reason to be.

And I know I'm stepping on exalted toes here, especially since I'm just an economics minor and don't have Ph.D.'s and Nobel Prizes, but frankly this time I'm in full-on disagreement with Reich, Krugman, Stiglitz, DeLong, and others who have weighed in on this as "appalling" or worse. I have no problem with spending cuts during a recession... IF THEY ARE TARGETED AT THINGS THAT DON'T PRODUCE JOBS OR OTHERWISE DON'T IMPACT OVERALL GDP. I think our beloved progressive intelligensia have jumped the shark here, because nobody knows exactly what's going to be proposed yet. How can they possibly opine about the dangers of the proposal, when nobody outside the White House knows what's going to be proposed? They're all harping on an overly-simplistic "look what happened in 1937, OMG!!!" without knowing what the heck they're even talking about.

Entry-level macroeconomics (at least the Keynesian-influenced versions) says don't cut spending during a downturn. Fine. Then you take higher-level macro courses and they say "well, most of the time". If folks only have an entry-level understanding of macro, they'll be screaming about this. If you have a more nuanced understanding of macro, you're not so quick to start screaming. Which is why I'm so baffled by liberal economists getting all bent out of shape over this... if I can understand that, surely they can too!

Not all government spending is stimulative during a downturn, but from listening to both economists and progressive bloggers, it's as though ALL government spending is the same in their eyes, and making cuts in ANY area is absolutely horrific. This is simply ludicrous: even the least politically aware people out there know that huge sums of money go to what amounts to little more than paper-shuffling activities. They don't produce anything more than a few paper-shuffler jobs, so their loss won't even make a tic in the unemployment numbers. However, they cost the taxpayers a huge amount in administrative expenses. Cutting spending in these kinds of things, and then re-routing the savings into job-creating areas, is smart both economically and politically. If, and I stress, IF these are the kinds of things Obama & Co. have planned for their spending cuts, then I'm all for it.

And that's what I think Bernstein was trying to say, from what little I could hear over Rachel's constant interruptions and dismissals: that money from the cuts would be re-routed into job-creating programs and stimulative efforts. He was saying that even though there will be a spending freeze... which won't take effect until 2011... that money saved through these immediate cuts will be used to EXPAND THE STIMULUS. Get that, folks?

I'll say this again:

  • We all know the stimulus package was too small;

  • It's too late to ask for more money; the political energy behind more stimulus money is gone;

  • The only way to get more money to stimulate the economy is through cuts in programs that are ineffective, bloated, and that don't produce meaningful job growth;

  • WHICH IS EXACTLY WHAT OBAMA CAMPAIGNED ON IN 2008 (Remember his comment in the debates that across-the-board spending freezes are a hatchet, whereas we need a scalpel?);

  • From what I heard Bernstein trying to say, THIS IS THE SCALPEL, FOLKS.

  • And yet we're crucifying him for using it, because in 2 years time part of what may be in the proposal is that there's a spending freeze (again, frozen at a higher level, and it won't be taking effect until, hopefully, the economy is actually strong again).

    I'm sorry, but is there anyone out there on the progressive/liberal side of things who bothers to take the time to understand the nuances of things before they go off half-cocked and instantly attack something that may actually be beneficial and supportive of progressive goals (like increasing stimulus spending?). I'm including all of the high-falutin' economic wizards in this list too... because unless I missed something, pretty much all of them came out swinging against this as-yet unproposed proposal, and I got little impression they knew any more about what was actually being proposed or what it might entail than anyone else in the blogosphere. And that's a sad, sad day, because these are the folks who are supposed to have a handle on what's going on in the economy from an liberal perspective. In my opinion, they collectively dropped the ball on this in favor of knee-jerk attacks.

    And another thing.

    Jared Bernstein is one of the most liberal economists out there... he's a Democratic Socialist with a Ph.D. in Social Welfare, for g-d's sake! He's written books and papers on allieviating poverty, helping the working class, and reducing inequality in our society. Why would everyone automatically assume that he'd be out shilling for something so entirely alien to everything he believes in? In a HuffPo piece following the Maddow interview, he did a credible job trying to explain how all this is supposed to work; we'll learn more as the details come out in the next few days.

    So unless these folks believe in Pod People and that Bernstein's been converted, it's assinine to toss him under the bus without at least listening to what he's trying to say. If he supports these things, then by g-d we should at least respect the man and his history enough to listen to his reasoning. The blogosphere and yes, Rachel's handling of the interview, have left this man being ripped up one side and down the other as a shill, a toady, a technocrat, and far worse. The same guy that progressives hailed and cheered just a few months ago as he was named Chief Economic Advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. Talk about liberals eating their own; there is no better example than this. Case in point for how unhinged the progressive movement has become, and why we are rapidly throwing away any semblance of the unity we showed in 2008.

    So in the upcoming SotU speech, I'll be listening closely to what's said, and I'll be reading the economic proposals carefully. But until I see something that says outright, in black-and-white, that Obama and his team have completely gone off the rails of reality, then I'm willing to listen, discuss, and even argue about specifics. And who knows, if it makes even a modicum of sense from a liberal-progressive perspective, perhaps I'll even support the ideas proposed.

    And maybe, just maybe, some of my fellow progressives and liberals will quit sticking their fingers in their ears and screaming "HOOVER-HOOVER-HOOVER!!!" long enough to join me in a rational discussion of what is actually proposed, once it IS proposed, instead of making bloody hash of it using their worst nightmare fantasy scenarios.

    Monday, January 25, 2010

    Maddow on Spending Freezes: 1937 Redux? Um, not so fast...

    I had to record the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC, and so I'm late commenting on her Monday show. And I'm sad to say my comments aren't as glowing as they normally would have been. I love her just tons and tons, but I have to say she jumped the shark on the interview with Jared Bernstein at the top of the hour regarding President Obama's announcement of spending freezes (the details of which we still don't know, I might add).

    She was too upset to listen to her guest, who kept trying to explain how the spending would (a) not take effect until 2011, (b) was targeted to non-productive and wasteful areas of the budget that had languished for years without pruning, (c) that areas of the budget that PRODUCED jobs would be, if anything, bolstered (including especially green jobs and energy initiatives), and that (d) they were well aware of the Hoover mistakes and were taking pains not to repeat them.

    If she'd not been so focused on her own anger and upset, she might have heard these things, but instead just kept arguing her original position. In doing so, not only did she continually interrupt her guest (which sadly made her sound a lot like a certain other host in a nearby timeslot on MSNBC), but also did a disservice to her viewers, who were unable to get a good explanation from Mr. Bernstein and were instead fed a continual course of "this is bad, horrible, terrifying, disgusting, baffling, what are you people thinking!?!?" from Rachel.

    As I love Rachel and her intellectual approach to these kinds of things, it was actually kind of painful to watch. I was a bit embarrassed to see her so... un-Rachelly.

    I'm not saying she's not right to closely question this announcement, nor to approach it with great skepticism (as we all did when we first heard of it... trust me, my first reaction was to echo Rachel with "what are they thinking!?!?"). Especially troubling to me was the ban on cutting defense spending, which every breathing soul knows is chock-full of waste and contractor abuse. But her apparent black/white understanding of what happened in 1937 shows either that she doesn't really have a good grasp what happened back then, or that she has completely bought in to the overly simplistic idea that "any spending cuts or freezes during a downturn are a bad idea" (which is, in fact, what she said).

    So I'll offer a bit of history; I apologize for over-simplifying in advance, but it's really just a simple point that Rachel should have known: The 1937 debacle that returned a recovering country back to the Great Depression was caused by ACROSS THE BOARD spending cuts and freezes, and worst, among these were the job-creating programs that had helped put so many millions of people to work.

    The public sector employed millions of folks, and though it seemed that the private sector was recovering, they were not yet ready to hire back all those millions of people; when programs like WPA and CCC were trimmed, folks were tossed out of jobs that had no recourse but to return to the breadlines.

    So that's the lesson of 1937. What it tells us is that if you cut spending across the board, including in areas that are proven job-producers, you are shooting yourself and your fellow citizens in the collective foot.

    But targeted, surgical cuts to programs that do nothing to bolster jobs... that basically eat up money but don't produce anything other than paperwork (and perhaps the jobs of a few Miltons and their red staplers)... and then turning some of that money over to reducing the deficit (which makes conservatives happy) while turning the rest of it on investments in current and future jobs (which makes liberals happy) is actually quite helpful to the economy.

    It's trimming the deadwood while planting new trees. It works in forestry, and it works in economics. The only thing you have to be careful about is how many trees you plant and how fast they grow. The very real danger here, to further extend my woodland metaphor, is that if you don't plant the new trees quickly and in great abundance, the soil will erode and the whole thing will turn into a mudslide that'll swallow the entire landscape.

    Rachel is right to be concerned, and it's not that her questions to Mr. Bernstein weren't called for; it is that she entered into the interview with a one-sided, limited point of view and then proceeded to cut him off during his explanations, and worst, completely ignored what he was saying simply to reiterate her own point. And her repeated comment that "responsible economists" say that the stimulus wasn't enough and that spending freezes or cuts during a downturn are generally a bad idea came across (perhaps only to me) as a not-so-subtle personal insult to her guest, who is himself an economist.

    Of course, this is all just my opinion and others may have a much different reaction to that segment than I did, but if Rachel, after she's had time to further study this and get "talked down" about it, agrees then I sincerely hope she issues some kind of retraction, apology to her guest, or both. Or at least maintains her skepticism, but returns to her usual "I'm willing to listen" approach to things. Because in my view, tonight she wasn't willing to listen to anything but her own preconceptions. And frankly, she's a hell of a lot better than that.

    Thursday, January 21, 2010

    It's time to change the rules


    Image from

    "We the corporations"

    On January 21, 2010, with its ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are persons, entitled by the U.S. Constitution to buy elections and run our government. Human beings are people; corporations are legal fictions. The Supreme Court is misguided in principle, and wrong on the law. In a democracy, the people rule.

    We Move to Amend.

    We, the People of the United States of America, reject the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United, and move to amend our Constitution to:

    •Firmly establish that money is not speech, and that human beings, not corporations, are persons entitled to constitutional rights.

    •Guarantee the right to vote and to participate, and to have our votes and participation count.

    •Protect local communities, their economies, and democracies against illegitimate "preemption" actions by global, national, and state governments."

    Sign the Motion:

    It's time to change the rules

    Friday, January 15, 2010

    Letting them know, "Help is on the way!" in Haiti

    I keep hearing reports of people in Port-au-Prince and elsewhere getting frustrated because they see no signs of aid coming (mostly because help can't get through to them yet); it seems like a good idea for teams of helicopters with loudspeakers to flyover the city constantly broadcasting messages that help is on the way, and where to go for help. Some reports have indicated that people have died just blocks away from groups of aid workers simply because they didn't know they were there.

    Otherwise, reports of gangs and violence are only going to go up as people begin to think, with no other information available, that they've been abandoned. No electricity, no water, no food, no shelter; no working radios or TVs, much less Internet. I understand that some cell phone carriers are functioning again, and they should perhaps be sending out text messages to disseminate information. The folks in Haiti need to know that a massive effort to help them is underway, and that they have NOT been abandoned.

    Anyone have any contacts with folks on the ground down there to pass this idea along, or perhaps know if this is already something being done? I haven't seen any reports that indicate anything like this is going on.

    Tuesday, January 12, 2010

    A Progressive Purity Test is No 'Revolution'

    A Progressive Revolution. I admit it's an enticing thought; we NEED some kind of non-violent, progressive revolution in this country to return power to the electorate instead of the monied interests and career politicians. However, as JFK said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable", and we are increasingly finding it difficult to effect revolutionary change through peaceful means with corporations and their paid puppets running just about every level of national government, including voting. The system is rigged, those who rigged the system are in charge, and many people on the left are feeling as though we had better get our groove on fast or we'll lose the whole thing. I tend to agree with this position, but it seems that many want to take it further: they consider the system too broken to fix, and want to bypass efforts to work with what is left of it and just start a real-live revolution... "Damn the torpedos!" style.

    American Revolution Drummers

    Not to bore anyone, but I think a little bit of history is in order. We all know the story of the American Revolution: the oppressive British monarchy finally goaded Colonials too far, and the 1775 "Shot Heard 'Round The World" set off a battle that finally resulted in freedom from British rule. What most folks tend to gloss over, if they even know it at all, is that in the decades leading up to the revolt, the Colonial government repeatedly tried to "work the system from within". Representatives made the long ocean voyage back and forth many times trying to get the King and Parliament to see things their way. Sometimes they succeeded, but more often not. And more importantly, EVEN AFTER THE FIGHTING BEGAN, there were still attempts to work within the system, to bring about a peaceful settlement. It was only after such attempts were rebuffed and more and more violent acts by the British and their hired mercenaries occurred that such attempts slowed to a crawl; independence became the goal, rather than remaining under colonial rule. Even so, diplomatic efforts continued and even increased once France and others joined the American cause. Eventually, as we all know, the war ended and our country was born.

    One lesson I take from this is that while many actively desired a clean break from British rule, many others were not quite so quick to want such dramatic change. For some it was loyalty; for others it was economics and business; and for others, it was simply that though things weren't all that great, they weren't all that bad, either. In other words, it wasn't a revolution made up of revolutionaries, it was a revolution made up of enough people who agreed with certain goals or ideas that they were willing to work together, even if they disagreed with, or were ambivalent to, some of the other goals or ideas held by their fellows.

    We're fast approaching something similar in our time. The frustration among many progressives over what seems to be blatant corruption and systemic failure of our democracy at every turn has led to a number of calls for a Progressive Revolution, which may not sound like anything new, but there is increased pressure given today's severe problems to do SOMETHING. This frustration often turns against itself, however; many progressives, growing impatient for change, call for progressives to "throw out the bums": mainstream liberals, moderates, or even "pragmatic" progressives who seek change through incremental or "within the system" means.

    The only problem with exclusionary rhetoric is that progressives NEED liberals, moderates, and "pragmatic" progressives in the same boat, not cast overboard. Just like in the American Revolution, there just aren't enough progressives in the entire United States, even if they were gathered in one place, to effect any real change based solely on "pure" progressive idealism. We spend a lot of time in our progressive echo chambers patting each other on the back and thinking we're part of a huge movement, listening to Thom Hartmann or watching KO and Rachel and getting all fired up, but if we were really that numerous we'd have no problem enacting changes like real universal single-payer healthcare, stopping the wars, repealing DOMA and DADT, implementing same-sex marriage, ending corporatism, enacting real climate change reforms, etc. Compared to the overall United States adult population, though, we're just a handful. We NEED others who at least agree in part with our goals and ideas to get anything accomplished.

    And in today's gilded age of Internet Activism, getting enough people out from in front of their computer screens and marching in person in the streets, and especially in the National Mall in D.C. is a real challenge. When hundreds of thousands showed up to protest Vietnam, not for one big event but on a regular basis; when the Million Man March filled up the Mall; when President Obama was inaugurated and there wasn't a patch of grass more than a foot across without someone standing on it... that's the kind of real activism that gets national attention. If you gathered all the progressives in the nation in one big march, you would have the largest such march in history; but logistically, that simply isn't going to happen. And unless we as progressives work to reach out to, rather than exclude, mainstream liberals, moderates, and those among us who are more "pragmatic", then we never will have such a march... or anything even approximating it.

    Which is why I choose to work with, even if grudgingly, the "incrementalists" and "work the system from within" folks. Because they outnumber us ten to one, for one thing... and because by doing so, we can pull more and more of them into the progressive camp rather than excluding them and making them see us as too radical, too "noisy", to work with. For moderates and most liberals, progressives have, until recently, been seen as the "looney fringe". But we're achieving some inroads into becoming "mainstream".

    And that goal is being met without anything we're doing as progressives, per se; outside forces are doing much of the work for us. The economy continuing to trudge along precariously, more and more jobs still being lost, globalization and free trade agreements sapping what jobs are left, corporate money blatantly corrupting politics, a healthcare crisis that doesn't seem to have any end, a housing crisis that shows no sign of recovery, and on and on. All of these are helping people see that our progressive message, that "IT DOESN'T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY", makes more and more sense, and they are able to break out of their status-quo thinking. Once they do, even if they don't become overnight progressives, they find themselves willing to support progressive causes.

    But when some of us continue the rhetoric of "FU, we don't need you, you worthless sheeple" (as is the implied (and sometimes explicit) message being put out by many on the left), it shuts down this process and leaves potential allies seeing all progressives as, once again, the "looney fringe".

    The Progressive Revolution, to succeed, will require people from all camps, and all across the spectrum, to come together and work for change. If they disagree in part, that's fine, as long as they support the overall goal. As in the American Revolution, we might have our equivalent of Jeffersonians on one side and Hamiltonians on the other, but they managed to work together, and so can progressives, "pragmatic" progressives, liberals, moderates, and perhaps even some conservatives and libertarians. Calls by some to "purify" progressivism will only lead to a complete failure of the progressive cause, just as efforts by conservatives to "purify" the GOP are leading to its irrelevance and imminent demise. The trite but true statement that "there is strength in numbers" has never been more true than today; but some progressives who call for a purity test, instant rather than incremental change, and working outside the system threaten to sap the growing strength of the progressive cause.

    So it's no capitulation to progressive ideals and goals to "work the system from within"... it is in fact the only way that we will ever get enough people in this country over to our side. Without it, we will continue to be nothing but a tiny handful of folks on the left who want fundamental change in our government, but who are too intransigent to be seen as viable partners in enacting change by the vast majority of the rest of the country. Exclusionary rhetoric will ensure that our message is lost, and that our country will continue the slide into corporate fascism while a growing majority of Americans lose themselves to reality shows, mindless entertainment, and the meaningless, powerless distractions of partisan bickering.

    For a revolutionary movement to succeed, it must have the people on its side. And that only comes about when we are willing to accept that some who join our cause may not agree with us on everything, or perhaps may even oppose us on many things. What is important is that our goals are clear, our methods are understandable and focused, and our message is inclusive.