Obama, Lincoln and Changing the American Paradigm
Some are referring to President Obama’s second inaugural address as his most progressive yet. Perhaps. It would be nice to see President Obama take a more progressive stand in his second termpreferably a more steady, less compromising stand than his first.
Indeed, he hit on the standard progressive fair: economic justice, equality, peace through diplomacy, environmental sustainability. You know, all the stuff that makes conservatives seethe and will almost certainly become the grist of right wing accusations of socialist intrigue.
MSNBC’s Chris Mathews referred to Obama’s speech as Lincolnesque. Certainly this was intentional. Obama’s line, “Through blood drawn by lash and blood drawn by sword, we learned that no union founded on the principles of liberty and equality could survive half-slave and half-free. We made ourselves anew, and vowed to move forward together,” is clearly an invocation of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address in which he said, “
fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue
until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword
so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'” President Lincoln may well have co-written Obama’s speech.
This should not surprise us. President Obama has a similar challenge as Lincoln. President Obama, like Lincoln, is presiding over a noticeably divided nation. Not divided in the context of the Civil War, though it could be argued that our current political discourse shares a polarization not unlike that of the 1850’s. Regardless, our political divisions have been especially vehement of late. We are entering a transition in which the paradigms shaped by conservative think tanks, fostering the Reagan mythos, have clearly failed and are being challenged. The last four years is testament to the fact that the defunct neo-conservatism of the last thirty years will not go quietly into that good night.
E. J. Dionne, in his great book Our Divided Political Heart, describes the unfortunate contest between America’s mutual traditions of individualism and communitarianism. Our history is replete with examples of rugged individualism, but incomplete without recognizing that a successful America is the fruit of communities coming together to make a better future. Traditional liberalism and conservatism embrace both principles. If anything, individualism is a brainchild of classical liberalism, as is free market capitalism.
The last thirty years, however, has seen a conservative version of Randian individualism to the exclusion of any communitarian principles of mutuality and shared responsibility. Ronald Reagan built his political career on the concept that government was not the solution, but rather the problem. This was an easy sell in the era of Watergate, Vietnam, stagflation and impotence in the face of oil embargoes and a hostage crisis. Reagan offered us morning in America and the vision of a shining city on a hill. The only thing holding us back was the government sponsored welfare queen. John Galt became the ideal of the age, and Gordon Gekko the ironic anti-hero.
Economic success became the indication of self-worth, consumerism one’s badge of honor. There were no problems that did not have a market based solution. Those who could not prosper had only their own sloth or stupidity to blame. For thirty years American policy and culture was guided by a nihilistic paradigm of free market capitalism meets Spencerian evolution. Valuable protections were weakened, necessary regulations were rolled back. We became a nation that consumes rather than one that produces. This consumption was fed by debt at the public and private level.
In 2008, this system collapsed. And the safety net was tattered.
President Obama entered the scene during this time of crisis. The last four years was characterized by the struggle of a defunct philosophy against the necessary politics requisite to solving this crisis. Thirty years of individualism was not to be underestimated, and its proponents, facing political irrelevance, could do nothing but obstruct, nothing but ensure failure. The policy fights were a brutal battlefield, a baptism of fire for a new and relatively inexperienced president.
In the next four years President Obama is in a position in which he must do more than work toward policy, more than staunch an economic hemorrhage or end two seemingly endless wars, or even putting people back to work. As Lincoln’s second term challenge was to change the dominant paradigms of his time from one of war and conflict to one of “binding the nation’s wounds
with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right,” so President Obama’s is to change the dominant political paradigm of today from one of ingrained free market individualism to one of mutually responsible community and democratically responsive government.
In 1865, President Lincoln took the podium during his inaugural. Below him, the Mall was a muddy sludge after many consecutive days of rain. Above him was the newly completed Capital Dome. Here he presented his hopes for healing a nation. Almost a hundred and fifty years later, another president placed his right hand on Lincoln’s Bible to take the oath of office, then invoked Lincoln’s legacy in offering his own vision.
Obama’s speech was not just homage to Abraham Lincoln, but was a creed of communitarianism, of working together to make America stronger. Government was not the problem, nor the solution, but rather a partner in satisfying the goals of “We the People.” President Obama reminded us time and again that it is always “We the People,” and government is supposed to be our instrument for justice and prosperity.
So perhaps this is Obama’s most progressive speech. Communitarianism is a centerpiece of progressive liberalism. During the 2012 campaign the brilliant Elizabeth Warren did more to bring this ideal to life than anyone in my lifetime.
There is nobody in this country who got rich on their own. Nobody. You built a factory out there – good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory… Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea – God bless! Keep a hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
President Obama adopted her meme, not always to the greatest effect (“you didn’t build that”), to win a decisive victory against a paragon of the free market. It is now in Obama’s hands to build on that paradigm, as did President Reagan, and change the nature of our cultural conversation back to one of, yes, individual initiative and hard work, but also one of mutual responsibility and common interest.
Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce, schools and colleges to train our workers. Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to ensure competition and fair play. Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.
However, don’t expect a radical departure from the status quo. As progressivism was always a mitigation between capitalism and radical demands for a truly just and sustainable economy, so President Obama is only willing to offer so much.
We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.
No she’s not. The little girl born in the bleakest poverty is always at a disadvantage. She may be free in our eyes or in the eyes of God, but she is not free in any other meaningful way. Bleakest poverty means she will be subject to variables that can only diminish her freedom and opportunity. Pollutants will weaken her body and mind; lack of health care will subject her to illness and disease; inadequate housing; economic desperation; few educational opportunities; crime; family instability; all of the factors endemic to bleakest poverty are heavy chains that bind her, and no amount of lofty rhetoric will change that fact.
It’s a shame that President Obama offers nothing more than freedom in our eyes for this little girl when he should have challenged the very existence of “bleakest poverty” in this, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world.
Perhaps this real paradigm shift awaits a future president.
Why you shouldn’t argue with the data
even if it contradicts your narrative
The greatest victory of the 2012 election? The Data Geeks!
While the pundits, commentators and talking heads were frantically spewing their pre-election doggerel, the statistical prognosticators were humbly working their numbers, diligently calculating probabilities and standard errors. Theirs was a relatively quiet occupation, a first stop for political junkies like me, but certainly not looking for conflict. That is until their algorithms told a consistent story that was contrary to the conservative mantraEverybody hates Obama! Any hint that there is someone out there other than radical, gay, socialist Muslims who does not hate Obama is a plot by the liberal media to smear the conveniently hallowed Mitt.
Indeed, any suggestion that conservatives may be wrong is countered not by equally valid data, but by attacking the legitimacy of data itself. “What? The Congressional Research Service, a highly respected institution with impeccable credentials, publishes a paper contradicting the myth that cutting top marginal tax rates leads to economic growth. It must die! The Bureau of Labor Statistics release positive jobs numbers right before the election. It’s a government plot! Conflict happens.
When professional pollsters predicted an Obama victory, daring to challenge the right wing narrative
with their, you know, facts and stuff
the holy wrath of the right wing-nuts descended upon them. Most noteworthy and exemplary of the non-fact based world of the right was the venom and vitriol spewed at New York Times Blogger, Nate Silver.
The problem with the truth, driven by data, is that eventually the truth will come out. This is true for all worldly phenomenon, but especially testable for election predictions because the exact date in which the truth will be revealed is known. It allows for a perfect test of the Nate Silver Truthers’ hypothesis of biased polling.
For the record, below are the predicted electoral results as published on Nate Silver’s Fivethirtyeight Blog
Here’s what has happened as of this writing.
Ah, Nate, isn’t vindication a wonderful thing? You can be humble before the cameras, but you know it tastes sweet.
Florida is still a toss-up. As of this writing President Obama has the lead, but even if it goes the other way, Nate Silver only gave the President a 50.2% chance of winning the state, a statistical coin toss.
Data has value. I know there’s a school of thought that facts can be distorted by special interests and, therefore, don’t matter. There is some truth to this. We can see it from professional spin-meisters who know how to play the numbers to make them look like they confirm the desired narrative. Eventually, however, the truth wins out (I know, I’m an optimist). Facts have consequences. One can only play against the data so long before having to succumb to inevitable loss.
When it comes to elections, there’s an incentive to play against the facts. Campaigners hope that the truth can be silenced just long enough for the votes to be cast. Then it doesn’t matter
until the next election.
Let’s hope that come 2016, we put a little more faith in the nerds, and less in the pundits.
The green checkmark denotes the projected winner!
Keeping an Eye on Florida
I was surprised to see the Fivethirtyeightblog predicting a slight edge for Obama. That was the first time in a long time I’ve seen Obama up in my state. It’s heartening as the ground game for Florida Democrats has been, from my perspective, pretty good. But all of the polls showed an Obama win without Florida. If Obama takes Florida it’s game over.
Why the most likely outcome of the 2012 election is “more of the same.”
It’s time for a reality check, folks. Like you, I’ve been caught up in election year fever. Yes, I want my guy to win. Yes, I want the other guy to lose. Indeed, I shutter to think what will happen if Mitt Romney wins on November 6th. As I scroll through social media, discuss the election with my high school and college students, listen to the punditocracy and the talking heads of the fourth estate, it is clear that this election, like all elections, is being framed as the most important election in our history. Just like all the elections that preceded it. Each side wants us to believe that the other, if elected, will lead the nation to ruin. We are talking about nothing less than the potential collapse of the United States of America, collapse of the economy (again), loss of American power, the American dream, American values, maybe even the end of the world, if we are to believe the prognosticators.
Look, let’s get real. I would rather not see Mitt Romney’s inaugural address in January, but if that’s the way the election roles, then I will brace myself for some policies that I dislike, but I will not be stocking food and loading my shotgun in preparation for the end of days. Nor will I move to Canada. Nor will I start stockpiling gold, silver, or whatever the precious metal du jour is. I will do just exactly what I’ve done my whole adult life. Do the best I can for my family. Live my life with dignity. Speak out for the things I believe in and stand against the things I think are wrong. It will most likely be a long four years (or not. Mitt has been known to fly in moderate winds), but it will not be the end of the world. After all, we survived eight years of W. It sucked. It was really costly. But we did it.
I offer the same advice to my conservative friends. We’ve survived four years of Obama without the collapse of the United States or of the economy. We still have our guns. We are not a Muslim nation. The black helicopters and concentrations camps that some on the extreme right were convinced were in preparation never materialized. We are, overall, all right. Not great, but all right. Yes, there are some policies I’d like to see reversed, but overall, we are okay. There’s no reason to believe that Obama Part 2 will be any different.
Economically, despite the differences between the two candidates, preservation of the status quo is the underlying policy for both. Since the 1970’s, when the American economy was being de-industrialized, de-unionized and, ultimately, financialized, our economy has been locked in a cycle of bubbles and recessions, punctuated by increased debt and a monstrous trade deficit. To perpetuate the illusion of a strong economy despite stagnant wages we charged our Standard of Living to MasterCard, Visa, Discover and American Express. Consequently, outrageous mechanisms have been designed by the finance industry to profit in America’s most bounteous productdebt. Neither presidential platform offers any real alternative to this unsustainable system.
What’s needed is a radical restructuring of the US economy. Neither candidate offers such vision. Mitt Romney supports a regressive economic austerity policy that would lead to economic stagnation, or at best anemic economic growth like we see in Europe. President Obama supports some moderate measures and government investments that would, if implemented against the stone wall of the Republican Gridlock Strategy, provide for somewhat faster, moderate growth. Paul Krugman may be right when he states that “a slow job is better than a snow job,” but that’s not much to hang a presidency on. Neither candidate is offering a radical departure from the status quo.
Climate change, which according to the Defense Department is the greatest threat to US security, has been a non-issue in this campaign. Mitt Romney’s constituency believes that climate change is hoax perpetrated by the scientific establishment to enable socialist dominance over the world. Yeah! I know! President Obama, on the other hand, has demonstrated his willingness to kick this issue to the curb in the face of opposition. Don’t expect too much movement on this potentially catastrophic issue regardless of who is elected.
As the last debate revealed, both candidates are just giddy about American military power. The difference comes down to Obama’s vision of a streamlined, efficient and focused military establishment capable of killing anyone in the world upon the President’s whim, or Romney’s more bulky and muscular vision of a military establishment capable of killing anyone in the world upon the President’s whim. At this point it is just a matter of cost, but don’t expect that to go down to anything like, oh, a measly double what China spends. And let’s not forget those flying killer robots. Both candidates are just in love with those flying killer robots.
So for anti-militarists, the next four years will offer little progress regardless of who is delivering the inaugural address next January.
Education? Mitt wants to privatize while Obama wants charters. Neither strategy works, but that’s what we have. Neither candidate will work to actually raise the quality of education in public schools.
The intelligence/domestic surveillance complex? That’s here to stay. Big Brother will continue to watch you.
Campaign finance? We will continue to have the best government money can buy.
The sky will remain blue.
The sun will still rise in the east and set in the west.
And it’s unlikely that Jesus will return.
The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf said that “It’s Time to Retire the Phrase, ‘This Is the Most Important Election …'” I don’t know about “retire”. I’d like to think that someday we really will get a chance to vote in a truly momentous election. Of course, we probably won’t know it at the time, since the moment of elections is typically clear only in retrospect, but wouldn’t it be nice. With regard to 2012, however, I suggest putting the phrase on a shelf somewhere. We can dust it off later, when we really need it.
The 2012 Election and the Laws of Institutions
Two years ago, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made a surprisingly forthcoming and honest statement. He stated outright, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” This statement has, on and off, been a centerpiece of Democratic criticism of the Republican Party. After all, shouldn’t service to the nation, making responsible decisions in the best interest of the country and faithfully executing one’s duties in the best interests of the constituency be primary for any elected official? One might even forgive McConnell if he said, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is the promotion of Republican values.” To state that mission one is to take down the President, however, is way out of bounds, or at least should be.
Well, perhaps, but it is not surprising from a sociological interpretation. As a leading member of a powerful institution, McConnell was expressing nothing more than what I call the Second Law of Institutions. Institutions, like the Republican Party, or the Democratic Party, can be looked at as singular actors within a social matrix of power relations. As such, it is the primary function of any institution to perpetuate itself (The first law) and to expand its power (the second law).¹ An institution expands it power by increasing its control and access to the productivity of individuals, hence government institutions, among the most powerful in any given society, are locked in perpetual conflict with each other to maximize their own power. Party control of the executive institutional apparatus of the American government is one of the most powerful positions in the world. So it comes as no surprise that McConnell, with the backing of the Republican Party, wants to unseat President Obama. As it stands, doing so would vouch this vast power conveyance to the Republican Party, as no other institution is in a position to fulfill that role.
It has nothing to do with ethics. This is a purely rational, institutional strategy. It must also be pointed out that the Laws of Institutions holds true for all institutions. They are equally true for Republicans and Democrats, governments and religions, families and businesses, etc.
To accomplish this goal, the Republican Party developed a strategy of complete obstructionism. The gist of this strategy is that all failings of government are attributed to the President, the head of the institution. Shutting down congress, specifically the Senate, may result in the lowest popularity ratings for Congress in history, but the reality is that there is only one Congress. Barring a revolutionary movement that destroys Congress and establishes a new legislative authority, Congress, as an institution, is secureso far! The President, unlike the presidency, however, is fungible. It’s impossible to replace every member of Congress. It’s relatively easy to replace the President. So the President bears the brunt of responsibility for the state of the government.
So Republicans could, with relatively little sacrifice (though there will be some associated costs), gridlock the national government with the hope of unseating the incumbent president. The best data to demonstrate the existence of the Gridlock Strategy is in the number of filibusters in this congress as compared to past congresses. (Click the graph for the source). What we see here is an institutional strategy of gridlock. Because of the filibuster and Republican intransigence the Senate is where ideas go to die. It has gotten to the point that it is understood that a bill must have sixty votes to even be considered in the Senate. And Republicans guarantee that no bills supported by the President or Democrats fulfill that requirement.
Based on the latest polling results, this strategy might just work. Granted, based on Electoral College projections, Obama will likely win on November 6th; it’s a coin toss, however, for him to win the popular vote. A slight nudge one way or another in some key statesindeed in some key countiescould change the course of the election and hand it Gov. Mitt Romney.
My biggest fear, should this happen, is that a Romney win would be the end of effective governance in the United States. Given the laws of institutions, if the Gridlock Strategy works, Democrats would be foolish not to use it for their own advancement. If Democrats lose the Senate, which will almost certainly not happen (a cost to Republicans for the Gridlock Strategy) they could use the filibuster just as effectively as Republicans. Republicans would be foolish to allow the filibuster to continue into the 112th congress under such conditions. With Republicans in control of the House and White House, Democratic proposals go nowhere. So the United States reaches an impasse in which the federal government is incapable of action. How long can such a destabilizing culture last before the nation faces a severe political crisis?
Government, as an institution in the modern world, perpetuates itself through a veneer of legitimacy. Once this veneer is torn away, the results can be profoundly destabilizing as citizens feel that they are on their own facing an uncertain future. Republicans embraced a strategy for institutional empowerment, but may well have torn the very fabric of legitimacy which they need to exercise the power that they win.
¹ I am currently working on a project called “Democracy is of the Streets” in which I elaborate the Laws of Institutions. I might even finish it. For now, the Laws of Institutions are as follows: 1. The Primary Function of an Institution is the perpetuation of the institution. 2. The Secondary Function of an Institution is to empower itself. 3. All other goals, including the expressed manifest function of the institutions (eg. Good governance) is tertiary.
There are alternatives for those who are fed up with the cowardice, pandering and balderdash of the mainstream political parties and their stacked political process.
Why do Republicans Hate the Stimulus? Because it Worked!
In fact, we could use another one.
Here’s a screen shot of employment from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I added the stimulus and outlier graphics. Out of fairness, the huge increase in employment in 2010 reflects the huge number of people hired to conduct the census. That was short lived. However, even controlling for this outlier, the trend is clear. An upward trend. Yes, since the census job growth has been rather flat. This shows the bias of choosing your starting dates for the graph. That being said, it’s clear that another stimulus should be in order. Perhaps the American Jobs Act, which Republicans will not allow out of Congress.
What happened to GDP? Well, here it is (year.quarter). Real GDP, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, has been steadily increasing. We can argue that it hasn’t increased fast enough. Perhaps another stimulus is in order.
But what would happen to the deficit? The graph below suggests that there might just be an uptick in the deficit
temporarily. Notice that before the end of Obama’s first year in office, the deficit started going down. And no, you can’t credit a Republican congress for this turnaround. The turnaround started in 2010. The Republican Congress did not take their seats until 2011.
And the debt? It looks like a stimulus would do nothing to decrease the growth of the debt. However, it doesn’t look like it increases the growth of the debt. Yes, the debt grew. But it grew at exactly the same rate as it was before Obama took office.
It’s Just Not True
It’s enough to say the deficit has increased. In fact, if you are talking about the “deficit” rather than the “debt” it’s actually decreased.
The Obama Presidential Rubric Making it Easier to Assess the President Objectively[ish]
In January of 2009, back in the Agitate days before I caught up with the twenty-first century and started blogging, I posted a commentary on the importance of holding the new president accountable for the state of the United States. The reality is that citizens participating in representative government often vote for the person they like rather than make their decisions based on qualifications, platform or accomplishment. When we decide whether or not we wish to re-elect that candidate, we continue to make our choice based on whether we continue to like them.
Yes, perhaps external variables such as the state of the economy, or social stability may factor into the candidate’s “likeability” status, but for many of us, if we like the candidate, we tend to make excuses for their failings. It was the Republican’s fault that the economy hasn’t gotten better, or the deficit grew faster under Reagan than Obama. Okay. These may be true. I’ve made similar claims myself. However, to paraphrase Truman, the buck stops at the Oval Office. Maybe the Republicans did follow an outrageously obstructionist strategy, however, that should not have come as a surprise to Obama, and it was up to him to find ways around such shenanigans.
On the other hand, when we don’t like someone, it’s easy to impute guilt unto them for everything that may go wrong. For instance, President Obama has no control over gas prices. His fiscal policies have done very little to increase the deficit as compared to two unpaid for wars, a recession and unpaid-for tax cuts. It’s also easy to believe negative statements about the candidate that don’t happen to be true, such as Obama ending the work requirement in welfare.
To mitigate some of the subjective nature of assessing the President and his performance, I created a rubric for the top things that I was looking for from the new President. The rubric is broken down into categories such as “The Economy” “Education” “International” etc. Each category is further broken down into benchmarks for which the President could score 0-3. Zero indicates that there was no progress or that his leadership has gone in the wrong direction (I decided against negative points). A score of 1 indicates that he has advocated for progress in that area, but was unsuccessful in implementing policy. To score a 2, Obama had to institute a policy for positive change. A perfect score of 3 indicates successful implementation with measurable progress. Each benchmark is measurable, at least as much as possible.
Of course, this does not completely control for subjectivity. No grading system is purely objective. But it’s beats making our decisions based on how well coifed the candidate is (advantage Romney) or who is more “likeable” (advantage Obama). My idea of what is important and positive may be very different from yours. I would like to have seen a federal jobs program modeled after the WPA. Others might have believed that was too much government intervention. Also, such a program, despite the benefits that I see, is simply politically untenable. How much can I, or should I, blame Obama for not making it happen.
Regardless, I think the Obama Rubric is an adequate tool for assessing his first term. I welcome all readers to use this tool or to create their own. After doing this, please feel free to share by e-mailing your results to The Journal of a Mad Sociologist. I’d like to compile the results by the middle of October.
A Visual Snapshot of the People the Romney Campaign has Written Off
I was planning a commentary on Mitt Romney’s infamous 47% assertions. As I started my research, however, I discovered that much of what I would have added to the conversation has already been adequately covered. Since it’s my goal that this blog serve as a source of innovative thinking on the issues, rather than as an echo chamber for the commentariat, I scrapped my original idea. However, I did find many graphs and charts (and you know how I love graphs and charts) and tidbits of information on the subject that I think are important for highlighting the insulting misconceptions perpetuated by the Romney campaign and his 1%er patrons.
The most surprising revealing information I found was that much of the reason why many in the 47% pay no federal income taxes is because of exemptions and tax credits passed or expanded under Republican administrations. Notice the sharpest increases of those who do not pay federal income tax (according to the conservative Heritage Foundation) happened under Ronald Reagan, and the Bushes. We might also note that the 47% quoted by Romney, which is actually just over 46% according to the most updated research, is lower than the 49.5% who did not pay federal income taxes when President Obama took office. According to Ezra Klein, at the Washington Post, the reason for such compassionate conservatism was a clear case of political compromise. Republicans needed these credits for low income earners in order to justify tax cuts for the wealthy. Now that tax cuts for the wealthy are secured, it’s time to pull the rug out from under the poor.
As you can see in the graphs above (Click the images for the sources) the majority of the 47%, whom Romney so blithely brushed aside, are old people, children and poor people. Those deadbeats and free-loaders!
Of course, the word “deadbeat” might need to be amended. It turns out that the majority of those who do not pay federal income taxes actually pay Payroll Taxes. This means that they
have jobs. Play the ‘awkward moment’ music now.
And what of that percentage of 47%ers who don’t work? Well, as it turns out, they almost all have a history of working. More often than not, they are simply regular folks, like you and me, who have fallen on hard times. Above is a graph you will find on the Krugman Blog at the New York Times. It shows that, except for old people and young people, between seventy and eighty percent of people between 25 and 60 pay federal income taxes and eighty percent pay both income and payroll taxes. Those who are not paying income taxes when they are thirty-one are likely to pay when they are thirty-two, just as they paid when they were thirty.
Also among the 47% are the wealthy. According to Dailyfinance.com, “About 162,000 people among the top 10% of earners have found ways to avoid paying any federal income tax.” This includes about three thousand members of the exclusive .1% of income earners. They are able to do this because of federal law that allows them to write off losses from the year before against their current gains. Perhaps some of this number were sitting in that very room, watching Romney bewail the deadbeat old, young and unfortunate. For all we know, it may have included Mitt Romney at times during the last ten years.
It’s Romney’s claim that this section of the population not only represents a significant portion of Obama’s supporters, but, almost all of them if recent polls are to be believed. Really? Is this an attribute of tax avoiders overall, or does Romney exclude those at the top end of the economic spectrum? Hmmm! In fact, about half of low income earners do not vote. Among those who do, about a third actually vote Republican. Among the elderly, a majority often vote Republican. As the chart above indicates, those states that have the most “deadbeats” in Mitt Romney’s eyes are actually consistent red states.
Despite the overwhelming amount of data calling “balderdash!” to the inane Romney statements on the 47%, don’t expect an apology or an adjustment in the conservative rhetoric. Romney, like Todd Akin before him, is guilty of nothing more than revealing to the public what Republicans say only in private. In this case, Romney didn’t know that he was speaking to the general public, but in the YouTube generation elitist plutocrats pretending to popular appeal must be more careful. This was not a gaffe in the traditional sense of the word. It was a revelation on video of what we’ve always known the Republican Party believes. According to conservative dogma, there is a small knot of people at the top of the socio-economic spectrum who deserve government largesse, namely the investor class. Those of us who work for a living are lucky to have such investors around, the so called job-creators, and should be prepared to sacrifice ourselves at the capitalist altar. As far as the investor class is concerned, it’s us against them. We are “those people”, the hangers on in their world.
You Don’t Have to Settle for the Same Old Candidates
The Democrats and the Republicans are the default political parties in the United States. That is one of the most depressing statements of modern American politics. The truth is that those of us who are interested in social and political change can get no satisfaction from either the Democratic or Republican parties as they stand. Both parties are entrenched in a plutocratic, corporatocratic system that lauds benefits among the economic elite and limits working people to whatever scraps are left. The political parties have been incorporated into the elite system and, at this point, it is unlikely that such a development will change in the near future.
Perhaps it is too radical to say that there is no difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. Indeed, this is not true. But the differences are more periphery than central. Issues of abortion, guns, drugs and the centrality of Christianity are issues in which one will find the most divergence in ideology between the two parties. The status of existing entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid offer another venue for divergence, with Republicans striving to immediately dismantle these lifesaving programs completely while Democrats demonstrate their willingness to compromise these programs away little by little so that they die of attrition.
In matters that are foundational to the systemic problems of our society, however, there is general consensus among Democrats and Republicans. Neither party will challenge the established elite. Neo-liberal principles like such as lauding the free market when it comes to labor while quietly perpetuating the corporate nanny state behind closed doors and the asserting the glories of globalized free trade that does nothing but impoverish workers and despoil environments are central to both parties. Progressivism, which once had strong roots in both parties, has been abandoned to third way politics as espoused by Libertarian Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats.
That’s why I’ve always been an advocate for third parties. I’m currently undergoing an internal debate with regard to this position; one that I will, no doubt, play out on this blog site. Is the future of liberalism in the formation of a third party, like the Greens, or in incorporating the existing Democratic Party as conservatives have so effectively done with the Republican Party? I really can’t say right now. It appears that the Occupy Movement has fanned flames from the dying embers of progressivism in the Democratic Party. We are a long way from a New Deal or a Great Society. We are a long way from having a President who proclaims that he “embraces [the] hatred” that the corporate class has for him (or her), but there may be an opening in the Democratic Party for a true, progressive resurgence.
But I’m losing patience, however. President Obama and national Democrats have, for a long time, taken the liberal vote for granted. This backfired on them in 2010, when liberals didn’t bother to show up, choosing to vote with their ambivalence than to pull the lever for a candidate who will only disappoint them. President Obama ran for office offering false platitudes to a public option health care plan, and the employee free choice act, but abandoned both. When labor was marching in the streets of Madison, Obama was nowhere to be found. It’s wrong to say that the Obama administration has been a complete failure for liberals, but it’s not too much to suggest that it has been a disappointment. It’s also fair to say that liberals are far from inspired by hope and change today.
Obama has been tacking left of late. He’s echoed Elizabeth Warren and embraced the Occupy premise of the 99%. But is it enough. For myself, I’m not sure. Perhaps liberals can get Obama’s attention by looking into alternatives. Alternatives like Jill Stein, running on the Green Party ticket. Democrats need to be reminded that liberal votes do not belong to them. They belong to us, and we can use them how we see fit. Al Gore did not lose in 2000 because Ralph Nader stole his votes. Gore lost because he didn’t earn those votes that went to Nader. The same holds true for Democrats in 2010. Give us someone to vote for, someone who will stand for what we stand for, and we will give that person our vote.
The same holds true for conservatives. I hear a lot of conservatives who bemoan the fact that Romney is the candidate. With his moderate conservative past he is a questionable commodity for conservative voters. Indeed, there’s little reason for moderate conservatives not to vote for President Obama. After all, Obama’s presidency has been a mirror of Romney’s governorship. This is a thorn in the side of conservatives, and understandably so. If choosing a Tea Party running mate isn’t enough for a conservative to actually pull the lever for Romney, there’s always Gary Johnson, running on the Libertarian ticket.
During any given year there are many more parties with presidential aspirants on the ballot. Since Ross Perot in 1992, the major parties have been unwilling to allow such candidates to get a fair hearing on the political stage. According to a Pew Research Poll, the state of politics in the United States has turned off large segments of a now politically fractious electorate. Participating with third parties is one way that the many ideas and voices in this country can find expression.
it has nothing to do with class.
Yes, the title is part of a direct quote. No, the subtitle is satire, not a continuation of the quote. However, the theme of class has never been more evident and more blatant than during the Koch Brother’s Mitt Romney Fund Raiser in the Hamptons as described by the Los Angeles Times (LAT). Remember, in the United States, talk about class is bad form. America is a meritocratic land of opportunity. If you do not have wealth, power and influence, it is your own fault. Any suggestion to the contrary is pandering to class warfare.
Yet class talk rolls from the mouths of the so-called “VIPs” waiting in line for entrance to the aforementioned Romney fundraiser. This article makes it clear that the wealthy are very conscious of class and the benefits that higher class offers. It is also clear that the attendees feel that they are entitled to their status and that their position is threatened.
So let’s return to the full quote used in redacted form for the title of this essay. According to the LAT reporter, the woman quoted above actually said, “I don’t think the common person is getting it
Nobody understands why Obama is hurting them
We’ve got the message
But my college kid, the baby sitters, the nails ladies — everybody who’s got the right to vote — they don’t understand what’s going on. I just think if you’re lower income — one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.”
See. It has nothing to do with class at all. It’s just that lower income people are ignorant and uninformed about how the system works. Not to worry. The wealthy have the message. They understand why Obama is hurting them. Nails ladies and baby sitters and everyone else who has the right to vote (read unfortunately has the right to vote?) just “don’t understand what’s going on.” Nothing elitist about that observation.
It’s clear that these folks, paying as much as $75,000 to scarf food off of the Koch’s fine china, feel that they are entitled to their position. After all, they are the “engines of the economy” while the working class are “the people who rely on that engine.” Working peopleeverybody who’s got the right to vote–should just do what they are told, accept what pittance they get from the caviar class and shut up. After all, they are the ones with the education to know how the system works.
And clearly Romney is one of them. A man who can spend $77,000 on 1/3 of a dancing horse (of course, of course), who has a Swiss bank account[s], and a demonstrated talent for private equity, is certainly cut from the same cloth as those attending the Koch hosted fundraiser. He clearly understands how the system works. There’s some logic to this. He certainly does know how the system works. Specifically, he’s the man whom the 1% knows will perpetuate the system and even tilt the inequalities even further on the side of the VIPs.
The problem is that the system sucks. Oh, the system is awesome if you happen to be among those in attendance in the Hamptons. However, if you are among the other 99% (eh, 80% to correct the meme), the system simply sucks. The system is stacked against any progress on your part. What’s more, the “common people”, despite their presumed lack of education, understand the system very well. They know that it is not designed to work for them.
The bottom line is that people like the Kochs and the their Hamptons guests are not the “engine of the economy.” They are passengers, and they are trying to ride for free. They know it. They know that the true engines of any economy are the workers and employees who actually turn the screws and set the stone, and push the pencils and file the papers. Ultimately, the common people support the system on which their wealth is based. Their risks are guaranteed by us. They need us to keep the engine running, on minimal fuel, zero maintenance and no repairs, and (at the risk of over-extending this metaphor) they are more than willing to drive us into the ground. After all, they can always jump on a Chinese vehicle.
Their hope is that Mitt Romney is the guy who will best protect their class interests.
At the same time, they are hoping that we ignorant common people stop all of that class warfare talk. Of course they do. Unfortunately, a $75,000 a plate fundraiser is not the best venue for trying to convince the “common people” that class privilege isn’t an issue.
Or Why This Year’s Campaign Fund Raising Calls the Lie to the Myth of a Broke America
I like to use what I call the “Hire-a-Teacher” (HaT) scale when looking at obscene money expenditures. The HaT scale assumes that a teacher will be hired for about $40,000 a year in pay and benefits. Perhaps the actual amount is a little more in some places, less in others, but for now I think $40,000 is a realistic sum.
So when I see folks, like Sheldon Adelson, who is willing to spend $100 million to defeat President Obama, I think, ‘Wow! That’s a HaT score of 2,500.’ In other words, $100 million dollars could be spent to hire 2,500 teachers, or it could be used to express personal animus toward one man. I think this is an effective way to analyze the values of those spending gobs of money. It is also a great way to assess the waste in a particular system. After all, maybe there are some folks out there who would suggest that there are already just too many darn teachers in the country, but I’d like to think they are a small minoritythey are also wrong.
This will be most expensive election in the history of the our nation. What will be the result of this massive movement of money? Will we have a better quality governing system? Unlikely. Will we have any more politicians? No. After the ads are discontinued and the signs, buttons, pamphlets and other paraphernalia are delegated to the scrap heap will there be any enduring contributions to our culture? Our society? Science? Or any other mechanism for the progress of man? Not at all. If anything, the progress of man will most likely take two backwards steps as a result of this election. Some media companies will prosper like crazy, but overall, the hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars spent this election cycle will be wasted.
However, what could be gained if that money was spent to hire teachers? Or nurses? Or to improve roads? Or
(insert your socially redeemable project or profession here)__________.
So far, as of June 21, 2012, over $250 million has been spent on just the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. This is not including Congressional elections, the Republican Primary, third parties, etc. With the money spent so far, over six thousand teachers could have been hired. Or over six thousand young people could have had their four year college tuitions paid for in part or even in full.
Yet the reason we are given for not hiring teachers, or paying for college, or hiring nurses, police officers, firefighters, EMS, construction workers or making investments in clean energy or science or the arts is that the United States simply cannot afford these luxuries. Really? Do you think that massive amounts of money shelled out by big donors to both parties are an indication that there’s just not enough money among the poor, unfortunate wealthy in the US?
Do you think that the large donors are ‘giving until it hurts’ in order to get rid of the rabidly anti-business Barack Obama? Or are the likes of Adelson and the Koch brothers or, for that matter, George Soros to include a conservative bugaboo, making investments in which they intend to be rewarded with access and monetary/regulatory returns?
To put this in perspective, according to Forbes Magazine, Sheldon Adelson is worth $24.9 billion. He has claimed that he is willing to spend $100 million to defeat President Obama. That means he’s willing to spend .4% of his net worth in this endeavor. According to CNN/Money, an average family’s net worth is $77,300. Adelson is willing to contribute the equivalent of about $300 to this year’s election.¹ How do you think Adelson would feel about a .4% tax on net worth to help hire some teachers?
This reality calls the lie that there’s just not enough money in the US for major investments. It also calls the lie to another elitist myth. The lie that it’s just too risky, with the threat of higher taxes and all, for the wealthy to hire people. If only the poor unfortunate wealthy had less of a tax burden, they might, just might, deign to hire a few peoplebut oh, the risk, the risk.
The risk that they are trying to avoid is a return to the pre-Bush tax brackets for men like Sheldon Adelsonabout a three percent increase. According to the Huffington Post, Adelson makes $7 billion a year. Returning to the pre-Bush tax brackets would cost Adelson $210 million. Yeah, that’s not chump change. That would leave poor Sheldon with a paltry $6.79 billion a year. How could he be expected to live on that? But here’s the point. He’s already declared that he’s will to spend half of the potential tax increase on one man
with no real guarantees that that man would get elected.
For the wealthy, politics has always been an extension of business and investment. After Citizen’s United, it’s now big business with big stakes. If the average family spends $300 on a candidate, they do so because they believe that that person represents what they themselves stand for. They don’t expect access. They don’t expect their representative to even take their calls. They just hope that their contribution might make a little bit of a difference for someone whom they believe in. When the Sheldon Adelsons of the world throw millions of dollars into an election, they could give a damn about politics and good government. They are making an investment. They are buying access. They are letting even their opponents know that it is best to not piss them off because there’s virtually no limit to the amount of money that they can spend.
Just don’t expect them to spend that money on anything that does the country any good.
¹The comparison to net worth is a flawed measure, as most of the average family’s net worth is tied up in their houses and not available for contribution. The same could be said, to a lesser extent, of billionaires.
The Ironies of Republican Rhetoric and History
I was watching Mitt Romney’s victory speech from Illinois. Well, I was washing dishes at the time, so I’m not really in a position to give an in-depth analysis. Overall, I think it was a well written and well delivered speech considering the audience.
One comment, however, stood out. Romney, of course, offered the requisite, mindless blather about big government, capitalism and “economic freedom.” He affirmed as historical fact that “Economic freedom is the only force that has consistently succeeded in lifting people out of poverty. It is the only principle that has ever created sustained prosperity.” So, it was no surprise that he assured his audience that he was “going to get government out of the way.”
The irony appeared shortly thereafter when he said, “We once built an interstate highway system and the Hoover Dam. Now we can’t even build a pipeline.” Leaving his reference to the Keystone XL issue aside for now, I was perplexed by his reference to the interstate highway system and the Hoover Dam in the same breath as he extoled eliminating government “interference” in the economy.
Of course, the obvious irony was that the Hoover Dam and the interstate highway system were government infrastructure projects. Romney castigated government for holding back the economy, suggested that he would get government out of the way, then punctuated his point by offering a counter-example to his own rhetoric. Hell, the Hoover Dam was largely built during the New Deal!
The audience applauded his astute observation.
That Republican administrations initiated these projects was the second irony. In 1928, Republican president, Calvin Coolidge, the guy who said, “the business of America is business,” signed The Boulder Canyon Project Act. This approved $163 million dollars to build what was then known as the Boulder Dam as well as associated engineering projects. According to measuringworth.com, that’s the equivalent economic cost of a $24 billion project today (2010 dollars). Almost 70% more than current expenditures on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (dreaded welfare). Ultimately, the Boulder Dam was named after Republican president Herbert Hoover, whose administration was instrumental in the engineering and bidding process of the project.
In 1956, Republican president Dwight Eisenhower signed the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act. He allocated $25 billion for the first forty-thousand miles. This is the equivalent economic cost of $830 billion in today’s dollars (2010). That’s comparable to President Obama’s hated stimulus package. It was the single largest government program ever up to that time.
Now these Republican presidents, Coolidge, Hoover and Eisenhower, didn’t approve these expenditures because they were closet socialists intent on destroying freedom in America. They certainly did not support such massive government intrusions in the economy because they were anti-business. They approved these projects because they were good ideas regardless of ideology. A conservative in the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1950’s was able to embrace good ideas such as significant government investment in infrastructure because they did not have to conform to a mantra. Until recently, Eisenhower’s status as a conservative president was never in question as a result of the interstate highway system. Coolidge was not considered a closet communists because he spent tax revenue on massive public works project.
Republican candidates today must follow the “free market good, government bad!” mantra at all times. Yet history clearly demonstrates the inadequacy of this mantra. So the truth is revealed in campaign speeches even though the candidates have absolutely no intention of telling the truth, or have little awareness of what the truth is. In this case, the truth is that the government can and should be an active motivator and investor in the future of our nation. Shrinking government to the point where it is no longer functional is counter-productive.
Rick Santorum, in his speech from Pennsylvania, highlighted his experiences growing up in the working class in that very state. He highlighted his admiration for those, “who worked and scraped and clawed so their children and grandchildren could, yes, have a better quality of life. Yes, maybe even go to college and not have to work in tough manual labor.”
Note: I use the “Economic Cost” category when quoting my results from measuringworth.com. This, according to the cite, use “the relative share of the project as a percent of the output of the economy. The website offers other comparisons that result in lower numbers. For instance, Historic Opportunity Cost for the interstate highway system comes in at $162 billion in 2010 currency. This is significantly lower than the economic cost quoted in the essay above, but the does not take away from the overall point that the interstate highway system was a huge investment by any measure.
Because Poor People Don’t Vote!
The political machine known as Mitt Romney has a few bugs that need to be tweaked in his circuitry. Namely, the political circuitry that is Mitt’s brain sometimes glitches and a little tiny byte of truth escapes from his mount. I don’t know if this is something in his wiring or just bad programming. Either way, his handlers better get some engineers to work trying to figure out the problem before the general election.
The short-circuit in play now is Romney’s statement that he is “not concerned about the very poor.” The circuitry in the campaign regions of his mind responded as demonstrated below:
Romney: “I’m not concerned about the very poor ”
Romney’s Brain: Zzzzt. Warning. Warning. Unauthorized Random Statement of Truth (URST) release. Initiate damage control protocol.
Romney: “We have a safety net there ”
To give the Romneybot credit, this transition happened seamlessly. It’s as if he really knew what he was saying. After all, there is a safety net. Why worry about the very poor?
The inconvenient truth for Romney, however, is that he has no regard for the social safety net and has even less intention of “fixing” any aforementioned holes unless any more than destroying a village actually saves it. Let us not forget that Romney not only endorsed Paul Ryan’s vivisection of the social safety net, but actually one-upped the notorious neo-con in cruelty toward the poor. So the immediate default to the safety net was nothing more than an automatic rerouting of political circuitry.
Indeed, Romney isn’t concerned about the very poor because they will have very little influence on his goals. Romney wants to be president not out of a sense of patriotism or public service, not because he wants to represent all Americans or because he believes in any grandiose vision for the nation. No. Romney wants to be president because, doggonit, it’s his turn to be president!
Toward that end, the very poor play a minimal role. Poor people don’t vote, at least not in any appreciable way. According to the US Census Bureau, in 2008 only about half of poor and low income citizens registered to vote. Of that ~50% only about 40% actually showed up at the polls. So, in any real sense, only about 20% of poor people will vote in 2010.
So when it comes to politics, the poor are empirically irrelevant. They are especially irrelevant to the Republican Party. According to the Pew Research Center, only about 15% of low income Americans identify themselves as Republicans. A few years back CNN noted that over 60% of low income Americans vote Democratic. So, at best, Romney can predict that only around 10% of low income Americans are going to pull the lever for Romney in 2012.
So of course Romney isn’t concerned about the very poor. If you want him to be concerned, then the goal is to turn the poor into a viable voting bloc. Of course, the Republican Party has done everything it can to ensure that this does not happen. From the assassination of ACORN to the disfranchisement of poor voters throughout the country, the Republican Party has demonstrated its commitment against democracy in favor of an autocratic stacked deck. At the same time, the juridical nightmare Citizens United has entrenched a monolith of millionaire manipulation into the democratic process that makes both parties dependent upon the wealthy and encourages both parties to turn their backs on the poor. That the Democrats have, for the most part, done nothing to confront conservatives on these issues only demonstrates that they have not woken up to the powerful potential of being a party for the people.
But, at the very least, we caught a glimpse of the truth from Romney’s robotic mouth.