TWiA explores the intersection of policy and politics, and most importantly, how that intersection affects real people. It's dedicated to the proposition that good government is possible, it matters, and taxpayers deserve nothing less. Its starting point is that facts are facts, science is real, data are real, and we can and must learn from history. Below you'll find facts and opinions that derive from fact, informed by a close and careful study of these issues that began in 1968 and has never stopped. Note, when we discuss generic "Democrats" and "Republicans" or "conservatives" and "liberals," etc., we're talking about elected officials, unless otherwise noted. Also, bonus bear news and other awesomeness. We appreciate comments and arguments, so please chime in, and if you like it, spread the word.
This Week in Deals
Senator Patty Murray (D/WA) and Representative Paul Ryan (R/WI) have reached the deal required by the legislation that ended the government shutdown in October, just before the December 13 deadline. It's a bad deal by anybody's standards, which means both sides gave a little--compromise, in other words. Democrats gave more than Republicans did (although some disagree), because the deal doesn't extend unemployment insurance for the long-term unemployed who are about to lose it*, nor does it increase revenue by raising any taxes (though it does increase some fees) or closing any loopholes. It maintains about 90% of the automatic sequester cuts that Republicans loved to blame on President Obama**, until they decided how much they loved them, but rolls back a few in specific areas. It cuts the take-home pay and pensions of some federal workers. And it takes as a given the necessity of deficit reduction--when in fact, the deficit is already shrinking fast, and more government investment, not less, is still needed to spur the ongoing recovery. On the plus side, we'll spend $45 billion more next year than we would have without the deal, restoring funding to some vital programs, and Social Security and Medicare weren't slashed. Here's a quick explainer describing what's in it. Here's why although deficit reduction remains a drag on the economy, with this deal it's slightly less of a drag than it might have been.
It's a small-bore deal, not a grand bargain. But given the Republican opposition to any kind of legislation at all, we probably won't see any truly meaningful compromises until the current batch of right-wing radicals is voted out of office and the grown-ups take back the Republican Party.
Any compromise, in this toxic, dysfunctional congress, is to be applauded. Murray and Ryan are both winning complaints from the extremes in their parties, which probably means what they came up with is as good as we're likely to see. Not good, but with the worst Congress in history still in place, "good" is far too much to hope for.
As an added bonus, pushing the deal through the House gave Speaker John Boehner (R/OH) an opportunity to act like one of the most powerful politicians in the country and third in line for the presidency--which he is, but which he hasn't been displaying lately. Admitting that he was bullied into supporting the government shutdown by far-right groups like FreedomWorks and Heritage Action--via the iron grip those groups have on the House's demolition crew, AKA the Tea Party caucus, who show no interest in governing but utter joy at tearing things down--he rallied enough of his Republicans to vote with enough Democrats to easily pass the budget deal. One can only hope this is a sign of things to come; that having broken with those groups and reminding the extremists of his caucus that they were elected to govern, not obstruct, he will continue to govern in a responsible manner. The only open question on the budget deal now is whether enough Senate Republicans will go along with it.
* The proportion of Americans unemployed for five weeks or less has dropped back to where it was before the Great Recession, which is one of the little talked-about aspects of the recovery. But the long-term unemployed face exceptional problems, including the fact that some employers don't want to hire them simply because they have been out of work for so long. 1.3 million of them will lose their unemployment insurance three days after Christmas. That's bad--bad for them, and bad for the economy, because every dollar they get goes back into the economy and creates around $1.55 in economic activity. The conservative American Enterprise Institute agrees with congressional Democrats that their unemployment insurance should be extended, and offers some other suggestions to help address the problem--making it doubly unfortunate that congressional Republicans*** are so opposed to it that the concept was a non-starter in the Murray/Ryan negotiations.
**For months, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R/KY) nearly always preceded the word "sequester" with "Obama's." It was "Obama's sequester" right up until the point that McConnell decided the sequester was brilliant policy. Now he's threatening to vote against the Murray/Ryan plan, because it rolls back too many of the sequester cuts he used to blame on the president.
***Including McConnell's junior colleague, Sen. Rand "Crybaby" Paul (R/KY), whose comment on the issue demonstrates once again how little he understands virtually any of the topics that come before him for consideration in his Senate career. Paul said, “When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy.” Wrong, Senator. They're already part of the perpetual unemployed. They want to work. They had jobs before they were unemployed, and they were laid off, not fired for cause, or they wouldn't be eligible for unemployment. But there aren't jobs available to them--and your party has done everything possible to block job-creation bills from passing through Congress. Cutting their benefits now creates a further drag on the economy, making it less likely that jobs will be created (the CBO's estimate is that extending those benefits would create 200,000 jobs). It's lose-lose for them, and only a win for those more concerned about right-wing ideology than economic reality or the suffering of real Americans.
This Week in Money
1) Conservative writer Michael Gerson (long-time chief speechwriter for President George W. Bush) weighed in this week on the bubbling Pope Francis (TIME's person of the year)* vs. the far right controversy, and his take is worth reading:
"Defenders of market economics — and I count myself one — should recognize that global capitalism is the most powerful force of modernity, with a mixed influence on traditional ideals and institutions. It has taken hundreds of millions of people out of poverty; it has also encouraged individualism and loosened bonds of family and community. It has produced innovation and extended lives. But in the absence of certain social conditions — the rule of law, equal opportunity, effective public administration — capitalism can result in caste-like inequality.
"As my colleague E.J. Dionne Jr. points out, the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere naturally has a more skeptical take on globalization. He empathizes with the marginalized: exploited migrants, bonded laborers, people in sexual slavery. This is the dark side of markets — the sale of life and dignity. And Francis vividly warns against the 'globalization of indifference.'”
* In new polling, Pope Francis gets very high marks among American Catholics, and the Catholic Church is gaining in popularity. Among non-Catholics, he scores considerably better with self-described liberals (72%) than conservatives (59%).
2) Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke has been watchdogging the economy for years, beginning during the Bush administration and continuing to the present day. He and his Fed cohorts have done a good job, helping the Obama administration pull us out of the plunge that began near the end of the Bush years and continued until the stimulus took effect. Despite obstruction by Republicans in Congress (opposition to making the stimulus package larger, to launching a second one, and to any reasonable jobs programs), the economy has continued to grow and jobs have been added in the private sector every month. This week, the administration sold off its final shares of GM, for a total loss of $10.5 billion--not pocket change for you and me, but a small price to pay for saving more than a million jobs, keeping the American automobile industry alive, and keeping us out of a full-blown Depression. (And we've made that up elsewhere--overall, we've recovered $433 billion from the Troubled Asset Relief Program, on an investment of $422 billion.) The Fed has played a crucial role in that recovery, and we need an active Fed to continue to pay attention to economic growth, especially while we continue to have a Republican-dominated House of Representatives that can only say no to sensible economic proposals and that has no understanding of how the real economy works.
Republicans, from the loony Paul family's desire to abolish the Fed to warnings about inflation and soaring deficits, have been wrong about the economy and the Fed's role therein at every stage. (They were equally wrong about the auto bailout.) Our central bank has been a reasoned and important part of keeping the recovery humming, while Republican proposals would have stopped recovery in its tracks, maybe before it even started (see, for example, 2008 presidential nominee John McCain's plan for a nearly across-the- board freeze of all federal spending, which would unequivocally have dropped us into a full-on Depression--every American should be thankful he didn't win the election). Now that Chairman Bernanke wants to retire from the Fed, President Obama has nominated the Fed's current vice-chairwoman, Janet Yellen*, to take his place. And Republicans are gearing up to make her Senate vote a referendum on the administration's handling of the economy. Of course, their theories are bunk and their conclusions fatally flawed--what they don't understand about the economy could fill Wikipedia. But they're planning to spout those theories anyway, and perhaps to try to block Yellen from filling that crucial role. Anyone represented by a Republican senator should contact that person and tell him or her to approve Yellen's nomination without making a stink. She's smart and hard-working, and she deserves the job, and we need a strong Federal Reserve. As long as Republicans rule the House, we'll continue to need one, because it has tools that Congress can't block.
* And it's looking like Stanley Fischer will be appointed to take Yellen's place in the #2 spot. He seems to be an excellent pick.
3) Another area where conservative thinking is wrong is on our nation's social safety net. For decades, they've been looking for ways to cut or kill Social Security and Medicare. A major new study from Columbia University released this week shows that the safety net has helped to reduce the percentage of Americans in poverty, lowering it from 26% to 16% since 1967, and helped keep that rate from spiking when the Great Recession threw so many Americans out of work. What it hasn't done is to lift people out of poverty. But then, that was never its purpose--it was intended to make poverty easier to survive, to reduce the numbers of hungry children and seniors, and to provide basic medical services to those mired therein. Our safety net is cutting the numbers of the poor and it's making sure those who are poor have minimal services. This is no time to be talking about shredding that safety net. When programs work, they should be kept in place as long as they're needed. Here's a good look at those who receive help from these programs--and those who would demonize them (hint: they're often the same people).
Side Note: On the subject of General Motors, they've just appointed a new CEO: Mary Barra, the first female CEO in the American automobile industry. Good for them. It's about time.
This Week in Meaningless Hitler References
Speaking of the senior senator from our home state (and losing presidential candidate) John McCain (R/AZ), we understand that Vietnam was his war, and that he demonstrated exceptional courage during his time as a POW. For that, we salute him.
But it would be nice if he could remember who Adolph Hitler was, what he stood for, and what he meant to people around the world, including GIs like my father who went to Europe to fight the Nazis and liberate concentration camps and occupied territories.
This week, President Obama paid stirring tribute to one of history's great leaders, Nelson Mandela. It was a beautiful speech, delivered by one of America's best orators. Near the end, Obama said, "After this great liberator is laid to rest, and when we have returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search for his strength. Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, when our best-laid plans seem beyond our reach, let us think of Madiba and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of his cell: 'It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.'”
But what captured John McCain's imagination was Obama's brief handshake with the president of Cuba, Raul Castro. This was not, by all reports, a planned event or a diplomatic overture (although diplomatic overtures might well be paying large benefits with Iran; a reality that also upsets McCain), but one human being acting in a polite manner when encountering another human being at a memorial service for a man whose life was dedicated to the proposition that people who don't agree on much can still come together for the common good.
Nonetheless, predictably, voices on the right howled in protest of the handshake. And McCain's reaction was the worst of the lot. "“Why should you shake hands with someone who is keeping Americans in prison? I mean, what's the point? Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler.”
If McCain is worried about people keeping Americans in prison, he should start at home, since we are the most incarcerative society in human history. And going straight to Neville Chamberlain and Hitler shows no understanding of history at all. Raul Castro is not Hitler (nor was Fidel Castro when Bill Clinton shook hands with him, back in 2000). And a polite handshake is not handing over Czechoslovakia. The two acts are so vastly different that the comparison just makes McCain look like a fool. It's an insult to every American who fought in that war, as well as to every human who fell victim to Hitler's atrocities.
And as MSNBC's Steve Benen points out, "But let’s put all of that aside and instead focus on an event from recent memory: in August 2009, McCain traveled to Libya, where he personally visited with Muammar Gadhafi, shook the dictator’s hand, praised him publicly, and even bowed to him, all while discussing delivery of American military equipment to the Libyan regime.
"McCain later described Gadhafi as a modern-day Hitler. By his own reasoning, wouldn’t that make McCain … Neville Chamberlain?"
That might be expecting too much consistency from Senator McCain. At this stage of his career, we can't hope for him not to contradict himself on an almost daily basis. We'd all be better off, though, if he'd just shut up.
This Week in Your Tax Dollars at Work
Congress normally meets in Washington, but at the end of last week, Congress came to the home state of TWiA World Headquarters for a subcommittee meeting. Except subcommittee meetings typically involve members of both parties, and often (though not always) some sort of legitimate selection of people who will testify before said subcommittee. So what do you call an "official congressional hearing" that takes place in Arizona, to which only Republican members of Congress were invited and at which only people who agreed with the policy position (on the Affordable Care Act, to no one's great surprise) already held by said members were allowed to testify?
The word "boondoggle" is the first one that comes to mind. Followed by the phrase "obscene waste of our tax dollars." Multimillionaire congressman Darrell Issa (R/CA) decided to take a little tour, bringing his small contingent of like-minded pals to Arizona, after holding a similar one-sided dog-and-pony show in North Carolina (where people were told if they did support the law and tried to say so, they would be removed from the premises).
What's the value in having representatives who oppose the ACA hearing from citizens who also oppose the ACA, while declining to allow any of the citizens whose health and financial futures are in better shape because of it to address them? We would have to say there's no value at all--no minds are changed, no light shed, by people of the same opinion telling each other how right they are. There's a compound word used to describe a bunch of folks sitting around and pleasuring themselves together, and it starts with "circle-" but this blog is far too classy to provide the second part.
So, no value. But what are these junkets costing us? Are the congressmen riding Greyhound and staying at Motel 6? Highly unlikely. If only the party running the House cared about fiscal responsibility, maybe they would investigate what kinds of bills Darrell Issa is running up in his desperation to make the ACA look bad. Is the wealthiest member of congress footing the bill himself? Yeah, right.
This Week in Depravity
Speaking of the ACA, Kevin Drum looks at the states that have refused the generous Medicaid expansion offer made by the federal government, and comes to this conclusion: "The refusal of Republican states to accept Obamacare's Medicaid expansion surely ranks as one of the most sordid acts in recent American history. The cost to the states is tiny, and the help it would bring to the poor is immense. It's paid for by taxes that residents of these states are going to pay regardless of whether they receive any of the benefits. And yet, merely because it has Obama's name attached to it, they've decided that immiserating millions of poor people is worth it. It's hard to imagine a decision more depraved.
"Conservatives hate it when you accuse them of simply not caring about the poor. Sometimes they have a point. This is not one of those times."
He's right. There's no good reason to refuse the Medicaid expansion, which is demonstrated by the feeble excuses Republican governors are offering. As the link above demonstrates, the people in those red states whose leaders refuse expansion are suffering while, for purely ideological reasons, their red states--which tend to be poorer than the blue states, and therefore to take in more government money than they contribute--will be shifting wealth away from their states, where it's needed, to the already-better-off blue states. And they'll suffer worse health outcomes, and more bankruptcies, than people in the blue states that have accepted the expansion.
And it's not just Medicaid, as this study points out. In red states with anti-ACA leadership, the exchanges aren't working as well (or the states refused to build them, leaving that up to the federal government), and enrollment is nowhere near what it is in blue states where the plan has been better instituted. Which means those red-state governors aren't just hurting the poor people in their states, but also self-employed people, who are the most likely to need to buy their health insurance on the private market, and part-time employees.
Republican governors and legislators are, for no particular reason they can define, punishing the residents of their own states, simply because those states had the bad judgment to elect them. It truly is shameful.
This Week in Gun Safety
In a rare display of bipartisanship, both houses of Congress actually passed legislation this week. That legislation extends a ban on guns that can pass through metal detectors. Unfortunately, an amendment to bring the law in line with current reality was shot down by Republican legislators, who were heeding the NRA's demands. In their statement, the NRA wrote: "We would like to make our position clear. The NRA strongly opposes ANY expansion of the Undetectable Firearms Act, including applying the UFA to magazines, gun parts, or the development of new technologies."
Just to be crystal clear, what the NRA is arguing here is that the law should not be expanded to cover guns made on 3-D printers (which didn't exist when President Reagan signed the law the first time, or any of the times it's been extended since)--guns that require only one small, detachable metal part to be made fully functional. So they're fighting for the "right" to carry a gun through the metal detectors at an airport, a stadium, a courthouse, even the halls of Congress or the White House. How long until someone does just that, and uses that gun to murder innocent human beings? And how long after that event until the accessories to mass murder who run the NRA claim that if more people had been carrying more plastic guns through metal detectors, that killer could have been stopped?
Since the Sandy Hook tragedy, this country has passed 109 state gun laws. Largely thank to NRA intervention and the gun industry's successful effort to make people believe they need guns and have a right to carry any gun anywhere (after every mass shooting, gun and ammo sales increase; the industry relies on a certain number of mass murders a year to keep profits increasing. The number of guns owned in the country continually climbs, even though the number of people who own guns doesn't--they have to sell more and more guns and ammunition to the same people, except when they can use well-publicized tragedies to hook new customers), 70 of those 109 laws have loosened restrictions on guns, and only 39 have tightened them, despite public opinion* being on the side of more restrictions. Pro-gun death advocates like to claim that those laws don't work, but Colorado's new background check law took effect in July, and during the 5 months since, 72 people under domestic restraining orders, or charged with or convicted of "homicide, sexual assault, assault, dangerous drugs and larceny/theft" were prevented from buying guns. For the law-abiding rest of the buyers, the background check “went through without a hitch.” The law worked, and didn't overburden anyone or interfere with their Constitutional rights. So what's the harm?
There isn't any. They just want you to believe there is.
How long until Americans understand that the NRA's leadership is interested only in the profitability of arms and ammunition manufacturers, and they just do not care how many Americans have to die to guarantee those profits?
* Although public support of tighter gun restrictions has dropped since the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings**, it's still on the side of stronger laws, not weaker ones. In the most recent polling on the topic, 52% of Americans say they want tougher gun laws. 38% say they should stay where they are. Only 8% say the laws should be weakened. And yet, the vast majority of laws passed in states around the country this year weaken restrictions. The NRA leadership (not their membership, which also supports things like expanded background checks) and their elected stooges have too much power, and not enough concern for what the people want. In particular, what we want is not to get shot.
** Tragic coincidence? We can't know yet, but we suspect not. A school shooting in Colorado ended with only the apparent shooter dead, fortunately, but a couple of students injured, one critically. The Arapahoe High School incident took place a day before the anniversary of Sandy Hook. Mass shooters study previous mass shooters, and this one was not only almost exactly a year after Sandy Hook (the actual anniversary would have been a Saturday, so the school wouldn't have been occupied), but not far from Columbine. We've studied a lot of mass shootings, and this one sounds like it was thought out in some detail.
This Week in Hypocrisy
President Obama campaigned on a promise to make his administration the most transparent in history. In many ways, it has lived up to that promise. But in the realm of photojournalism, it has failed miserably. The only photos of official but private events that most of us see are those taken by official White House photographers. Public events are a different story, but in past administrations, photojournalists were often allowed within the White House and given access to the president for at least a little while on occasions when he met with world leaders, members of Congress, etc. Since Obama took office in 2009, the press has been barred from those events, and the result is that we're only seeing the sanitized images the White House wants to release. Photojournalists are becoming ever more outspoken about this policy shift, as they should. A democracy needs a free press to survive, and part of press freedom includes the possibility that the public will see photographs that catch the president in human, unstaged moments. There are three years to go in President Obama's second term, and we'd like to see his White House reverse course on this and let photojournalists do their job.
This Week in How You Can Help
Poverty is a tree with many roots, but one of them is a lack of education. Children growing up in poverty don't hear as many words as children who are better off, their schools are worse than those in wealthier neighborhoods, and they're not exposed to as many books. They're inflicted with health problems as a result of their surroundings, and the food choices available in low-income neighborhoods, and more. They're more likely to live in single-parent households, and to have a parent incarcerated. It's a complicated set of problems, and it can hold a child back for life. But literacy helps, and reading books can help kids overcome any number of structural disadvantages. Here's a list of 10 charities (with links) that focus on literacy. Send $10 to one, or a buck to each, or whatever you can do. Your gift could help a child reach for the stars.
This Week in Bears
This week, Gawker.com ran a feature on "The Year in Bears," so we'll defer to them (even though they missed some of our favorite bear stories). Just don't watch the bear vs. monkey bicycle race video unless you have a strong stomach, because . . . uhh, there's a clown in it. (Also, spoiler alert: the bear eats the monkey. You've been warned.)