Tag Archives: Obama

The Beauty of the Blacklist: In Memory of Pete Seeger

29 Jan

Pete Seeger’s death has prompted several reminiscences about his 1955 appearance before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). And for good reason. Two good reasons, in fact.

First, Seeger refused to answer questions about his beliefs and associations—up until the 1940s, he had been a member of the Communist Party—not on the basis of the Fifth Amendment, which protects men and women from self-incrimination, but on the basis of the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of speech.

While invoking the Fifth was not without its perils—most important, it could put someone on the blacklist; individuals who invoked it frequently found themselves without work—it had the advantage of keeping one out of jail. But the cost of the 5th was clear: though you could refuse to testify about yourself, you could not refuse to testify about others.

So Seeger invoked the First Amendment instead. A far riskier legal position—the Court had already held, in the case of the Hollywood Ten, that the First Amendment did not protect men and women who refused to testify before HUAC—it was the more principled stance. As Seeger explained later, “The Fifth means they can’t ask me, the First means they can’t ask anybody.” And he paid for it. Cited for contempt of Congress, he was indicted, convicted, and sentenced to a year in prison. Eventually the sentence got overturned.

Second, not only did Seeger refuse to answer questions about his associations and beliefs, but he also did it with great panache. When asked by HUAC to name names, he refused—and then almost immediately offered to sing songs instead. Much to the consternation of the Committee chair, Francis Walters, Seeger followed up with a more personal offer.

I know many beautiful songs from your home county, Carbon, and Monroe, and I hitchhiked through there and stayed in the homes of miners.

Parenthetically, I should note that Seeger’s hearings were not the only such circus of absurdity.  If you want to treat yourself to an afternoon of giggles, check out Ayn Rand’s testimony, where she insisted that no one in Russia ever smiled. Or this wondrous exchange between Zero Mostel and two members of HUAC.

Mostel: If I appeared there, what if I did an imitation of a butterfly at rest? There is no crime in making anybody laugh. I don’t care if you laugh at me.
Congressman Donald Jackson: If your interpretation of a butterfly at rest brought any money into the coffers of the Communist Party, you contributed directly to the propaganda effort of the Communist Party.
Mostel: Suppose I had the urge to do the butterfly at rest somewhere?
Congressman Clyde Doyle: Yes, but please, when you have the urge, don’t have such an urge to put the butterfly at rest by putting some money in the Communist Party coffers as a result of that urge to put a butterfly at rest.

But I digress.

While Seeger’s HUAC appearance, and its legal aftermath, is making the rounds of his eulogists, it’s important to remember that HUAC was probably not the most difficult of his tribulations during the McCarthy era. Far more toxic for most leftists was the blacklist itself. From the early 1950s to the mid-1960s (the dates are fuzzy, and it depends on which particular medium we’re talking about), Seeger was prevented from performing on a great many stages and venues. First with The Weavers, and then on his own.

The blacklist did not work independently of the state. It was the transmission belt of the state, both a feeder to, and an enforcement mechanism of, the government. Men and women who didn’t cooperate with the government were subject to the blacklist, so it was a useful means of securing cooperation and providing information. The secret enforcers of the blacklist were often ex-FBI men or ex-HUAC staffers, and the FBI and HUAC supplied critical information to industry executives and their underlings. Who then used it for either political or narrower self-interested purposes.

That said, the blacklist, and the more general specter of private penalties, touched more people than did HUAC or the state. For most men and women during the McCarthy years, the immediate point of contact with political repression and coercion was their employer, their teacher, their therapist, their lawyer, their supervisor, their co-worker.

And that raises a larger question. It is easy today to look back on that time, to read the transcripts and case histories, and tut-tut at all the nastiness or laugh at all the foolishness of the blacklist. With everyone from President Obama to the New York Times delivering warm encomia for Seeger, we forget that the blacklist only worked because so many people like President Obama, like the editors of the New York Times—who refused during the McCarthy years to hire anyone who was a member of the Communist Party—worked together to make it work.

To be sure, there were many hard-right ideologues behind the blacklist: the writers at Red Channels, an anticommunist handbook that named names in the entertainment industry, were conservative propagandists of the first order, anatomized to brilliant effect by a young researcher by the name of Michael Harrington.

But the blacklist would never have had the reach it did—not merely in Hollywood or the academy, but throughout virtually every industry in the United States—had it not attracted a wide range of men and women to its cause. The blacklist was also the work of liberal pamphleteers, executives in the culture industries, influential politicians in and around the Democratic Party, and most prominent of all, J. Edgar Hoover, about whom Arthur Schlesinger wrote:

All Americans must bear in mind J. Edgar Hoover’s warning that counter-espionage is no field for amateurs. We need the best professional counterespionage agency we can get to protect our national security.

Far from being the object of liberal derision that he is today, Hoover was, in his time, thought to be the consummate rational bureaucrat, a professional of the first order who needed, said the liberals, more money, more resources, more power, not less. As Hubert Humphrey declared:

If the FBI does not have enough trained manpower to do this job, then, for goodness sake, let us give the FBI the necessary funds for recruiting the manpower it needs….This is a job that must be done by experts.

For liberals, Hoover, the ultimate impresario of the blacklist, was someone to collaborate with, not contend against.

The blacklist, as Victor Navasky reminded us long ago, was the triumphant realization of a perverse version of Adam Smith’s Invisible Hand. Everyone pursued their own private or personal definition of the good; the result was cooperation, exchange—and coercion. What’s most striking about the blacklist is just how diversely inspired, and collaborative, its various protagonists were. Some were hardcore anticommunist true believers. Others were cold calculators of the bottom line. Some were patriots, others careerists, and still others cowards. There were liberals, conservatives, socialists, ex-communists, atheists, Catholics, libertarians, Jews.

Most amazingly, these differences didn’t matter. Despite what virtually every modern political theorist—from Hobbes to Montesquieu to Madison—maintains, pluralism and diversity did not lead to liberty, anarchy, or disorder. Instead, they provided more avenues and opportunities for collusion, collaboration, and coercion.

Beyond the collusion and collaboration, there’s another dimension of the blacklist worth mentioning: the intense and dense infrastructure of support, at the lowest levels, that made the machine go. When we think about political repression, we tend to focus on elites, officials on high, industry executives, and the like. But the blacklist was the work of hundreds of thousands of men and women, operating at the middling and lower tiers of institutions and organizations.

In some way, we could say that the blacklist is the dark answer to Bertolt Brecht’s poem “Questions from a Worker Who Reads.” Long invoked by the left as a tribute to the anonymous laboring heroes of history, the poem can also be read as a more unsettling account of the invisible but necessary labor that goes into the production of political crimes like aggressive war or imperial conquest.

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

And Babylon, many times demolished,
Who raised it up so many times?

In what houses of gold glittering Lima did its builders live?
Where, the evening that the Great Wall of China was finished, did the masons go?

Great Rome is full of triumphal arches.
Who erected them?

Over whom did the Caesars triumph?
Had Byzantium, much praised in song, only palaces for its inhabitants?

Even in fabled Atlantis, the night that the ocean engulfed it,
The drowning still cried out for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?

Caesar defeated the Gauls.
Did he not even have a cook with him?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada went down.
Was he the only one to weep?

Frederick the 2nd won the 7 Years War.
Who else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?

Every 10 years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.

So many questions.

“Did he not even have a cook with him?” That question is often with me. Not just in the context of the blacklist, but in other, far more terrible circumstances. Like genocide.

This past weekend I watched “Conspiracy” on Youtube. It’s a BBC reenactment of the 1942 Wannsee Conference, at which various officials (many now forgotten) of the Nazi regime gathered to draw up plans for the deportation and mass murder of the Jews. The opening sequence of the film—in which the house staff at the villa on the Wannsee scramble to prepare for the arrival of regime’s elite—does a brilliant job of answering Brecht’s question. Yes, there were cooks at Wannsee. Lots of them. And maids, waiters, butlers, secretaries, transcriptionists, drivers: an entire army of support staff helping to make the conference go off without a hitch. Eichmann, who organized the logistics of the conference, comes off less as an architect of mass murder than as an anxious host of a dinner party, the Martha Stewart of the Shoah.

Hart Crane marveled at the Brooklyn Bridge: “How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!” And like the Brooklyn Bridge, large-scale enterprises like genocide or the blacklist—needless to say, I am in no way equating these phenomena—entail the aligning of choiring strings. Not only through spectacular mobilization of the masses or ideological indoctrination from on high but also through the most mundane and individual calculations of career.

Political crime is work. Whether the crime is mass murder or persecution, someone has to do that work. And to help the people who do that work. So men and women must be hired and paid, supervised and promoted.

At the height of European imperialism, Disraeli wrote, “The East is a career.” So was the Holocaust. So was the blacklist.

While we rightly recall today the heroism of Pete Seeger in refusing to make the blacklist a career—indeed, sacrificing his career in order to unmake the blacklist—we have to ask ourselves how many of us would have chosen the path he did. Particularly in the United States, where the obligations of career are nearly the first item on our list of civic duties.

Socialism: Converting Hysterical Misery into Ordinary Unhappiness for a Hundred Years

10 Dec

In yesterday’s New York Times, Robert Pear reports on a little known fact about Obamacare: the insurance packages available on the federal exchange have very high deductibles. Enticed by the low premiums, people find out that they’re screwed on the deductibles, and the co-pays, the out-of-network charges, and all the different words and ways the insurance companies have come up with to hide the fact that you’re paying through the nose.

For policies offered in the federal exchange, as in many states, the annual deductible often tops $5,000 for an individual and $10,000 for a couple.

Insurers devised the new policies on the assumption that consumers would pick a plan based mainly on price, as reflected in the premium. But insurance plans with lower premiums generally have higher deductibles.

In El Paso, Tex., for example, for a husband and wife both age 35, one of the cheapest plans on the federal exchange, offered by Blue Cross and Blue Shield, has a premium less than $300 a month, but the annual deductible is more than $12,000. For a 45-year-old couple seeking insurance on the federal exchange in Saginaw, Mich., a policy with a premium of $515 a month has a deductible of $10,000.

In Santa Cruz, Calif., where the exchange is run by the state, Robert Aaron, a self-employed 56-year-old engineer, said he was looking for a low-cost plan. The best one he could find had a premium of $488 a month. But the annual deductible was $5,000, and that, he said, “sounds really high.”

By contrast, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, the average deductible in employer-sponsored health plans is $1,135.

It’s true that if you’re a family of three, making up to $48,825 (or, if you’re an individual, making up to $28,725), you’ll be eligible for the subsidies. Those can be quite substantive at the lower ends of the income ladder. But as you start nearing those upper limits (which really aren’t that high; below the median family income, in fact), the subsidies start dwindling. Leaving individuals and families with quite a bill, as even this post, which is generally bullish on Obamacare, acknowledges.

Aside from the numbers, what I’m always struck by in these discussions is just how complicated Obamacare is. Even if we accept all the premises of its defenders, the number of steps, details, caveats, and qualifications that are required to defend it, is in itself a massive political problem. As we’re now seeing.

More important than the politics, that byzantine complexity is a symptom of what the ordinary citizen has to confront when she tries to get health insurance for herself or her family. As anyone who has even good insurance knows, navigating that world of numbers and forms and phone calls can be a daunting proposition. It requires inordinate time, doggedness, savvy, intelligence, and manipulative charm (lest you find yourself on the wrong end of a disgruntled telephone operator). Obamacare fits right in with that world and multiplies it.

I’m not interested in arguing here over what was possible with health care reform and what wasn’t; we’ve had that debate a thousand times. But I thought it might be useful to re-up part of this post I did, when I first started blogging, on how much time and energy our capitalist world requires us to waste, and what a left approach to the economy might have to say about all that. It is this world of everyday experience—what it’s like to try and get basic goods for yourself and/or your family—that I wish the left (both liberals and leftists) was more in touch with.

The post is in keeping with an idea I’ve had about socialism and the welfare state for several years now. Cribbing from Freud, and drawing from my own anti-utopian utopianism, I think the point of socialism is to convert hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness. God, that would be so great.

• • • • • •

There is a deeper, more substantive, case to be made for a left approach to the economy. In the neoliberal utopia, all of us are forced to spend an inordinate amount of time keeping track of each and every facet of our economic lives. That, in fact, is the openly declared goal: once we are made more cognizant of our money, where it comes from and where it goes, neoliberals believe we’ll be more responsible in spending and investing it. Of course, rich people have accountants, lawyers, personal assistants, and others to do this for them, so the argument doesn’t apply to them, but that’s another story for another day.

The dream is that we’d all have our gazillion individual accounts—one for retirement, one for sickness, one for unemployment, one for the kids, and so on, each connected to our employment, so that we understand that everything good in life depends upon our boss (and not the government)—and every day we’d check in to see how they’re doing, what needs attending to, what can be better invested elsewhere. It’s as if, in the neoliberal dream, we’re all retirees in Boca, with nothing better to do than to check in with our broker, except of course that we’re not. Indeed, if Republicans (and some Democrats) had their way, we’d never retire at all.

In real (or at least our preferred) life, we do have other, better things to do. We have books to read, children to raise, friends to meet, loved ones to care for, amusements to enjoy, drinks to drink, walks to take, webs to surf, couches to lie on, games to play, movies to see, protests to make, movements to build, marches to march, and more. Most days, we don’t have time to do any of that. We’re working way too many hours for too little pay, and in the remaining few hours (minutes) we have, after the kids are asleep, the dishes are washed, and the laundry is done, we have to haggle with insurance companies about doctor’s bills, deal with school officials needing forms signed, and more.

What’s so astounding about Romney’s proposal—and the neoliberal worldview more generally—is that it would just add to this immense, and incredibly shitty, hassle of everyday life. One more account to keep track of, one more bell to answer. Why would anyone want to live like that? I sure as hell don’t know, but I think that’s the goal of the neoliberals: not just so that we’re more responsible with our money, but also so that we’re more consumed by it: so that we don’t have time for anything else. Especially anything, like politics, that would upset the social order as it is.

…We saw a version of it during the debate on Obama’s healthcare plan. I distinctly remember, though now I can’t find it, one of those healthcare whiz kids—maybe it was Ezra Klein—tittering on about the nifty economics and cool visuals of Obama’s plan: how you could go to the web, check out the exchange, compare this little interstice of one plan with that little interstice of another, and how great it all was because it was just so fucking complicated.

I thought to myself: you’re either very young or an academic. And since I’m an academic, and could only experience vertigo upon looking at all those blasted graphs and charts, I decided whoever it was, was very young. Only someone in their 20s—whipsmart enough to master an inordinately complicated law without having to make real use of it—could look up at that Everest of words and numbers and say: Yes! There’s freedom!

That’s what the neoliberal view reduces us to: men and women so confronted by the hassle of everyday life that we’re either forced to master it, like the wunderkinder of the blogosphere, or become its slaves. We’re either athletes of the market or the support staff who tend to the race.

That’s not what the left wants. We want to give people the chance to do something else with their lives, something besides merely tending to it, without having to take a 30-year detour on Wall Street to get there. The way to do that is not to immerse people even more in the ways and means of the market, but to give them time and space to get out of it. That’s what a good welfare state, real social democracy, does: rather than being consumed by life, it allows you to make your life. Freely. One less bell to answer, not one more.

WTF Does Obama Think They Were Doing at Stonewall?

9 Oct

Barack Obama, Second Inaugural Address:

We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall….

Barack Obama on the Republicans and the shutdown at yesterday’s press conference:

I was at a small business the other day and talking to a bunch of workers, and I said, you know, when you’re at the plant and you’re in the middle of your job, do you ever say to your boss, you know what, unless I get a raise right now and more vacation pay, I’m going to just shut down the plant; I’m not going to just walk off the job, I’m going to break the equipment — I said, how do you think that would go? They all thought they’d be fired. And I think most of us think that. You know, there’s nothing wrong with asking for a raise or asking for more time off. But you can’t burn down the plant or your office if you don’t get your way. Well, the same thing is true here.

Yep, that’s how we got emancipation, civil rights, unions, feminism, and gay rights in this country: just by “asking.” I mean, what the fuck does Obama think they were doing at Stonewall?

Update (1 pm)

Jim Johnson at the University of Rochester reminded me of this wonderful photo from the 1936-37 sitdown strike at Flint. Mr. President, this is what workers do after they’ve asked for something and not gotten it.

Workers destroying company property at Fisher plant #1 at Flint, 1936-1937

Workers destroying company property at Fisher plant #1 at Flint, 1936-1937

The fiscal cliff is just Act 2 of a 3-Act Play

2 Jan

I’m still mulling over the fiscal cliff deal that’s just been ratified by Congress.

My one thought so far is that part of the reason some progressives are saying it’s not so bad is that the deal, for the most part, focuses on taxes. And while the deal has the unfortunate element of making permanent a great many of Bush’s tax cuts, which were temporary, and not raising nearly the amount of revenue that might have been raised if the tax cuts had simply been allowed to expire ($3.9 trillion over a ten-year period), it does have the benefit that it raises about $600 billion in revenues, eliminates some tax benefits for the rich (though not nearly to extent that allowing the Bush cuts to expire would have), extends unemployment insurance for a year and protects the earned income tax credit for the poor.

But we have to remember that the deal is really only the second act of what seems to be shaping up as a three-act drama.  Act 1 was last summer, when Obama and the Republicans agreed to nearly $1 trillion in non-defense spending cuts over a ten-year period.  That set of cuts is now in place, promising, as the White House said last summer, to “reduce Domestic Discretionary Spending to the Lowest Level Since Eisenhower.”

Act 2 is the fiscal cliff deal. As I say above, it focuses mostly on taxes, and because it didn’t touch things like Social Security or Medicare, which Obama had been pushing for, some progressives feel relief. But it’s Act 2, as I said. If we keep in mind Act 1, what we have so far is $1 trillion in non-defense cuts and $600 billion in tax increases.

Which brings me to Act 3: the debt ceiling and delayed sequester negotiations that are set to begin in late February/early March. Unlike the negotiations over the fiscal cliff, where Obama simply could take away the Republicans’ tax cuts by waiting them out, the debt ceiling negotiations will put the GOP in a much stronger position. Obama wants something, and only the Republicans can give it to him. So now they’ll say to him: all the movement has to be on the spending side. And aside from the issue of cuts to the Pentagon, he’ll have very little to negotiate with.

Ed Kilgore describes the upcoming confrontation over the debt ceiling/sequester thus:

So the supposed moment of bipartisan satori that supposedly culminated with the House’s action last night has increased the already formidable sentiment within both parties to make the upcoming confrontation One for the Ages. I would guess that by sundown today about 95% of the Republicans in both Houses who voted for the “cliff” bill will have made public statements swearing bloody vengeance on the Welfare State in exchange for an increase in the debt limit. And even before the deal was sealed in the Senate, the president was already vowing not to make the concessions Republicans will demand.

When it comes to intransigence, whom are you going to believe? The Republicans or Obama. That’s why liberals, even those who aren’t that ruffled by the specifics of the fiscal cliff deal, are nervous.

Regardless of whom you believe, all of the action is going to happen on the spending side. So when the play’s over, what we’ll have is $600 billion in tax increases, and some number of trillions in spending cuts. Some of those cuts will come from the Pentagon, which is good, but…well, you see where I’m going.

Update (noon)

Here’s a good roundup of reactions to the deal.

Update (3 pm)

Digby has a must-read. She also makes an important point in her conclusion:

So you see what a bind we’ve been put it with this ridiculous austerity fetish? We’re going to be arguing about cutting even larger chucks of the budget at a time when we desperately need to be adding to it.

(Oh, and by the way, it’s not as if the tax hikes they just voted for could be used for any of that. Every penny of it is slated to pay down debt incurred during the time when the Republicans starved the beast and spent like sailors. What a racket.)

I didn’t deal with the whole austerity question here, though I have in the past. In a bad economy, tax hikes are always austerity measures. But the one hope is that the monies they provide will go to funding programs. In this case, the money is solely to pay down the debt. And if history is any guide, as soon as the GOP is a position to wreak their havoc, they’ll just run up the debt again. Unless someone finally makes the case for taxes as something other than a way of reducing debt and deficits, we’ll be stuck where we are.

Taxes, and Cuts, and Drones: Obama’s Imperialism of the Peasants

17 Dec

In my very first post as a blogger, I wrote the following:

One problem with liberals in the tax debate is that they don’t realize just how little Americans actually get from the government. When the government doesn’t provide you with universal health care, a decent pension, good schools, or accessible and affordable public transportation, why should you want to pay taxes? The answer, of course, is not for Americans to pay less but for government to spend more. As Thomas Geoghegan explains here, “people are willing to pay taxes that they spend on themselves.”

Ezra Klein is now reporting more details on what the impending fiscal cliff deal between Obama and the Republicans is going to look like: among other things, it includes cuts in Social Security benefits, and if this Dylan Matthews post from last week is correct, tax increases that would be slightly regressive in their effects (I’m not talking here, obviously, about the tax increases that would come from undoing some of the Bush tax cuts).

So that’s the deal: We raise taxes. And what do we get in return? Lower benefits. Genius!

As I wrote in the London Review of Books during the Summer 2011 debt ceiling negotiations:

If there’s a master text for this moment, it’s Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire. Not the over-cited first time as tragedy, second time as farce line, but his astonishingly prescient analysis of the reactionary behaviour of the French peasantry during the Bourbon and July monarchies. Though the 1789 Revolution and Napoleon had liberated the peasants from their landlords, the next generation of peasants was left to confront the agricultural market from small private holdings that could not sustain them. They no longer had to pay their feudal dues, but now they had to pay their mortgages and taxes to a state that seemed to do little for them. What the state did provide, under Napoleon III, was imperial spectacle. That wasn’t nothing, as Marx noted, for in and through the army the peasants were ‘transformed into heroes, defending their new possessions against the outer world, glorifying their recently won nationality, plundering and revolutionising the world. The uniform was their own state dress; war was their poetry.’ This Marx called ‘the imperialism of the peasant class’.

In Marx’s analysis we see the populist underbelly of the debt crisis, indeed of the last four decades of the right-wing tax revolt, from Howard Jarvis’s Proposition 13 of 1978, which destroyed California’s finances by putting strict limits on property tax increases, to the Tea Party. Liberals often have a difficult time making sense of these movements – don’t taxes support good things? – because they don’t see how little the American state directly provides to its citizens, relative to their economic circumstances. Since the early 1970s, with a few brief exceptions, workers’ wages have stagnated. What has the state offered in response? Public transport is virtually non-existent. Even with Obama’s reforms, the state does not provide healthcare or insurance to most people. Outside wealthy communities, state schools often fail to deliver a real education. In such circumstances, is it any wonder ordinary citizens want their taxes cut? That at least is change they can believe in.

And here Democrats like Obama and his defenders, who bemoan the stranglehold of the Tea Party on American politics, have only themselves to blame. For decades, Democrats have collaborated in stripping back the American state in the vain hope that the market would work its magic. For a time it did, though mostly through debt; workers could compensate for stagnating wages with easy credit and low-interest mortgages. Now the debt’s due to be repaid, and wages – if people are lucky enough to be working – aren’t enough to cover the bills. The only thing that’s left for them is cutting taxes. And the imperialism of the peasants.

Will Obama not only take us over the fiscal cliff but also keep us there?

9 Nov

Is it feasible/plausible that Obama will not only take us to the fiscal cliff, but also push us over it and then keep us there? That is, not negotiate any kind of deal with the Republicans at all, not before or after January 1? Unless you assume Obama doesn’t want cuts to entitlements — which I don’t assume; I believe he’s an austerian of Reactionary Keynesianism — think about what he gets if he allows the sequester to go through: higher tax rates, cuts to entitlements, and cuts to defense. That seems like classic New Democrat/Clinton goals. I recognize it would put the economy in danger of recession but Obama’s not up for reelection and modern Democratic presidents have shown remarkably little interest in the fate of congressional Democrats, particularly at mid-term election time, and in party-building more generally. So, I ask: will he take us over the cliff and then keep us there?

Testing the Melissa Harris-Perry Thesis

7 Nov

Remember when Melissa Harris-Perry claimed last year that white liberals were abandoning Obama because of their racism?

She didn’t cite any polls at the time. But now we have the definitive poll. And what does it tell us about the Harris-Perry thesis?

I couldn’t find exact data from yesterday’s election (the polls I’ve seen don’t do cross-tabulations by race and political ideology). But here’s what we’ve got so far: Obama won 86 percent of the liberal vote. The only other group that gave Obama a higher percentage of their vote were African Americans (93%).

But ah, you might say, in 2008 Obama won 89 percent of the liberal vote. That 3 percent must have deserted him because of their racism.

But guess what? In 2008 Obama got 95 percent of the black vote. How are we going to explain that 2 percent drop among black voters?

The basic truth is: Obama did extremely well among liberals and African-Americans in 2008.  And he did almost as well with those exact same groups in 2012.

Things Obama Says When Famous People Die

21 Oct

Obama’s statement on George McGovern’s death seems awfully anodyne, begrudging, and brief:

George McGovern dedicated his life to serving the country he loved. He signed up to fight in World War II, and became a decorated bomber pilot over the battlefields of Europe. When the people of South Dakota sent him to Washington, this hero of war became a champion for peace. And after his career in Congress, he became a leading voice in the fight against hunger. George was a statesman of great conscience and conviction, and Michelle and I share our thoughts and prayers with his family.

There’s no mention of the fact that McGovern was the presidential candidate of Obama’s party. That he led the fight against the Vietnam War. There’s just some oblique reference to the life of a man whose presidential campaign, for all its flaws, was one of the most transformative in Democratic Party history and which helped set the stage for the campaign and presidency of none other than Barack Obama.

Now compare what Obama had to say when Neil Armstrong died.

Michelle and I were deeply saddened to hear about the passing of Neil Armstrong.

Neil was among the greatest of American heroes–not just of his time, but of all time.  When he and his fellow crew members lifted off aboard Apollo 11 in 1969, they carried with them the aspirations of an entire nation.  They set out to show the world that the American spirit can see beyond what seems unimaginable–that with enough drive and ingenuity, anything is possible. And when Neil stepped foot on the surface of the moon for the first time, he delivered a moment of human achievement that will never be forgotten.

Today, Neil’s spirit of discovery lives on in all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploring the unknown–including those who are ensuring that we reach higher and go further in space. That legacy will endure–sparked by a man who taught us the enormous power of one small step.

Okay, that’s Neil Armstrong, about whom people in this country have strangely strong and sentimental feelings. But listen to what Obama had to say when Arlen Specter died.

Arlen Specter was always a fighter.  From his days stamping out corruption as a prosecutor in Philadelphia to his three decades of service in the Senate, Arlen was fiercely independent – never putting party or ideology ahead of the people he was chosen to serve.  He brought that same toughness and determination to his personal struggles, using his own story to inspire others.  When he announced that his cancer had returned in 2005, Arlen said, “I have beaten a brain tumor, bypass heart surgery and many tough political opponents and I’m going to beat this, too.”  Arlen fought that battle for seven more years with the same resolve he used to fight for stem-cell research funding, veterans health, and countless other issues that will continue to change lives for years to come.  Michelle and I send our thoughts and prayers to Joan and the rest of the Specter family.

I mean: Arlen Fucking Specter!

I get it: McGovern was a loser, and Obama’s heading into the final stretch of a close campaign; the last thing he needs is any reminder of McGovern’s defeat. But for God’s sake…Arlen Fucking Specter!

H/t Jordan Adam Banks for McGovern and Specter statements.

Might We Not Want a GOP Congress Come November?

7 Sep

This post from Digby makes me wonder: is the only thing stopping Obama from getting his desired Grand Compromise of cutting social programs in order to reduce the deficit the GOP’s refusal to raise taxes?  If so, might we not want the GOP to hold onto Congress this November?

Things you think about at midnight.

We’re Going To Tax Their Ass Off!

30 Aug

This past Sunday, I appeared on Up With Chris Hayes, where I spoke briefly about the rise of austerity politics in the Democratic Party (begin video at 2:13). My comments were sparked by Bruce Bartlett’s terrific piece “‘Starve the Beast’: Origins and Development of a Budgetary Metaphor” in the Summer 2007 issue of The Independent Review. Barlett is a longtime observer of the Republican Party, from without and within. He was a staffer for Ron Paul and Jack Kemp, as well as a policy adviser to Ronald Reagan and a Treasury official under George HW Bush.  Now he’s a critic of the GOP, writing sharp commentary at the New York Times and the Financial Times. He and I have argued about conservatism before. When it comes to fiscal policy, however, he’s one of the savviest analysts of the GOP out there. What follows is an extended summary/riff on Bartlett’s piece and what I said on Hayes’s show: to understand how austerity works in (and for) the Democratic Party, you have to understand how it once worked for the Republicans. Long story short: not so well.

• • • • •

Growing up in the 1970s, I had an almost primal association to the GOP as the party of the thrifty and the flinty. Republicans were the grownups at the table, forever cautioning the children against taking that extra piece of cake. Averse to spending money the country didn’t have, they were as leery of deficits as they were of rhetoric. Plainspoken, economizing men of austerity: that was the GOP.

There was some truth to this picture, extending back several decades. Herbert Hoover helped send the Republican Party into twenty years of exile via his ill-timed effort to balance the budget with a hefty tax increase in 1932. One of the first things Eisenhower did upon coming into office was to insist on balancing the budget. Thanks to the Korean War, tax rates were high, and many Republicans wanted Eisenhower to reduce them. He refused, saying “we cannot afford to reduce taxes, reduce income, until we have in sight a program of expenditures that shows that the factors of income and of outgo will be balanced. Now that is just to my mind sheer necessity.” Upon taking office, both Nixon and Ford pursued similar paths, and resisted similar tax-cutting calls from their party.

But by the time I was in middle school, that picture of the Republican Party had become a faded sepia print. During the 1970s, a new breed of conservative had emerged, calling into question the wisdom of balanced budgets. Men like Jude Wanniski, Milton Friedman, and Alan Greenspan took the lead in challenging the frugal dispensation on the right, claiming that Republicans had become what Newt Gingrich would later call “tax collectors for the welfare state.”

Interestingly, the most salient arguments of these new conservatives were less economic than political, focusing on the enabling dynamic of shitfaced Democrats being shepherded to safety by their designated drivers in the Republican Party, only to resume their drunken revels the following evening.

Here’s Friedman writing in Policy Review in 1978:

By concentrating on the wrong thing, the deficit, instead of the right thing, total government spending, fiscal conservatives have been the unwitting handmaidens of the big spenders. The typical historical process is that the spenders put through laws which increase government spending. A deficit emerges. The fiscal conservatives scratch their heads and say, “My God, that’s terrible; we have got to do something about that deficit.” So they cooperate with the big spenders in getting taxes imposed. As soon as the new taxes are imposed and passed, the big spenders are off again, and there is another burst in government spending and another deficit.

What was the takeaway for Friedman? In Newsweek, he wrote: “I have concluded that the only effective way to restrain government spending is by limiting government’s explicit tax revenue—just as a limited income is the only effective restraint on any individual’s or family’s spending.”

Greenspan made a similar claim before the Senate Finance Committee in 1978: “Let us remember that the basic purpose of any tax cut program in today’s environment is to reduce the momentum of expenditure growth by restraining the amount of revenue available and trust that there is a political limit to deficit spending.”

But it was probably Wanniski, more than anyone, who best understood the political ramifications of a shift away from deficits and balanced budgets. With an almost Schmittian attention to what he called “the political tension in the marketplace of ideas,” Wanniski insisted that conservatives frame the Glaubenskrieg of the two parties as a struggle “between tax reduction and spending increases.” Without that stark choice, he wrote, the Republicans would forever play the part of the disappointed, disapproving, and ultimately powerless parent: “As long as Republicans have insisted upon balanced budgets, their influence as a party has shriveled, and budgets have been unbalanced.”

Bartlett shows how this argument—the so-called “starve the beast” theory—got support from a surprisingly diverse array of voices on the right: James Buchanan’s public choice theory, the Proposition 13 movement, and the Kemp-Roth tax proposals.

Politically, it came to a head under Ronald Reagan. Unlike his Republican predecessors, Reagan did not resist the calls for tax cuts first, balanced budgets later. Having internalized the new thinking of the 1970s, he declared in a February 1981 television address:

Over the past decades we’ve talked of curtailing government spending so that we can then lower the tax burden. Sometimes we’ve even taken a run at doing this. But there were always those who told us that taxes couldn’t be cut until spending was reduced. Well, you know, we can lecture our children about extravagance until we run out of voice and breath. Or we can cure their extravagance by simply reducing their allowance.

In his 1982 State of the Union Address, Reagan doubled down on that claim:

Higher taxes would not mean lower deficits….Raising taxes won’t balance the budget. It will encourage more Government spending and less private investment…So I will not ask you to try to balance the budget on the backs of the American taxpayers.

Defenders of the Reagan-the-pragmatist thesis (with its corollary complaint that post-Gipper, the GOP has become a nest of anti-tax ideologues, fanatics, and zealots) like to point out that despite his philosophical opposition to taxes, Reagan repeatedly raised taxes throughout his administration—11 times no less.

But what’s often forgotten in these laments is that Reagan came to regret his tax increases, declaring them a colossal mistake. After he left office, he wrote in the Wall Street Journal:

Despite the “assurances,” “promises,” “pledges” and “commitments” you are given, the spending cuts have a way of being forgotten or quietly lobbied out of future budgets. But the tax increases are as certain to come as, well, death and taxes.

In 1982, Congress wanted to raise taxes. It promised it would cut federal spending by $3 for every $1 in new taxes. Being a new kid in town, I agreed to this. Unfortunately, although the new taxes went into effect, Congress never cut spending by even a penny.

James Baker came to a similar conclusion as Reagan. And taking to the Senate floor in 1993, Republican Bob Packwood—another moderate GOP declinists like to hold up against the anti-tax fundamentalists of today—spoke out against Bill Clinton’s proposed tax hikes on the same grounds.

The history of the U.S. Government is that when we increased taxes, we spent them; we did not apply it to the deficit. It does not matter that the President has stated, “Let us have a deficit reduction trust fund.” We have never followed that; we instead spent it. I predict that if we raise these new taxes, we will spend them, also. We will not cut spending. We will spend it on new programs or expansion of existing programs.

Of course, Packwood was proven wrong. By the end of the Clinton presidency, there was a surplus, and Gore ran on a platform in 2000 of using that surplus to—among other things—help pay down the debt.

Despite the record of austerity the Democrats had accumulated during the 1990s, George W. Bush refused to hold onto the surplus. Having come to maturity—to the extent one can say Bush ever matured—in the party of Reagan, Friedman, and Wanniski, he thought it imperative that any money the government had be returned to the tax payers. Neither debt nor deficits mattered. Tussling with Alan Greenspan over whether the surplus should be saved or spent, Bush insisted that “Mr. Greenspan believes that money around Washington, D.C., will be spent on a single item—debt reduction. I think it will be spent on greater government. He has got greater faith in the appropriators than I do.”

So we got tax cuts. Big time. If Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society was an extension of the New Deal, George W. Bush’s tax cut was the fulfillment of Reaganism.

• • • • •

Almost all of the above—the quotations, chronology, and narrative—comes from Bartlett.  But here are my three takeaways.

First, as I already suggested, we need to rid ourselves of the notion that the anti-tax fundamentalists of today’s GOP are somehow new arrivals, alien imports from the land of Grover Norquist. The anti-tax position in the GOP has been gestating on the right for decades. Whatever temporary concessions Reagan might have made, the forward thrust of the party has been in the opposite direction for nearly a half-century. The assault on George HW Bush for renouncing his no tax pledge was not a dramatic turning point; it was the consummation of a tendency decades in the making.

Second, the “starve the beast” argument sits uneasily with the basic claim of supply-side economics: that tax reductions will spur growth and generate revenues, which will pay not only for the tax cuts but also for other expenditures, ultimately leading to a balanced budget. The two arguments don’t contradict each other—indeed, both are designed to lend support for tax cuts—but they press in different directions: towards a balanced budget in the case of supply side, toward shrinking government in the case of starve the beast. The Republicans, of course, haven’t been terribly good at the former, but they haven’t been terribly bad at the latter. Today, the ratio of public-sector employees to the overall population is the lowest it’s been since 1968. That, of course, isn’t the only measure of the size of government, but it’s a pretty damn good one.

Third, though Bartlett’s piece is about the GOP, it’s hard not to see how the Democrats have come to play the same role in the contemporary political order that Republicans once played under the New Deal.

Starting with Walter Mondale’s famous pledge in 1984 to raise taxes in order to bring down the deficit—one of Barlett’s footnotes reveals this delicious and disturbing anecdote: just after announcing his tax pledge at the DNC convention to wild applause, Mondale turned to Dan Rostenkowski and said, “Look at ‘em. We’re going to tax their ass off.”—Democrats have become the party of austerity. (Doug Henwood, Josh Freeman, and David Harvey have shown that that process actually began in 1975, during the New York City Fiscal Crisis, when Wall Street Democrats successfully pushed for drastic cuts in government spending. But it was the Mondale campaign that crystallized the shift at the national level.)

[Mondale's pledge is at 1:25, and check out a very youthful Rich Trumka at 1:38.]

Like Republicans of yore, the Democrats have repeatedly sought to reduce the debt and deficits, only to find themselves held hostage to the other side’s designs of depriving the welfare state of much needed cash.

Consider the two major presidential cycles of the last three decades: Reagan/Bush-Clinton and Bush-Obama.

During the 1980s, the Republicans cut taxes and ran up huge deficits. Then Bill Clinton came into office and announced his intention to reduce deficits. Anxious to appease Robert Rubin and the bond market, he abandoned whatever pretense of a progressive economic agenda he had set out during the campaign. He and the Democrats raised taxes and allowed government spending to decline dramatically as a percentage of GDP. By the end of his second term, Clinton had managed to generate a surplus—with the explicit purpose of not only reducing the debt but also shoring up Social Security—only to have the Bush White House squander that surplus through massive tax cuts and increased military spending.

When Barack Obama assumed office in 2008, he faced a similar conundrum as Clinton. The Bush Republicans had run up massive deficits and debt. Though the financial crisis (and his overwhelming victory) seemed to give Obama the warrant to spend—remember when we were all Keynesians again?—he was constrained by congressional Republicans and conservative elements in his own party, including the Wall Streeters who had been among his earliest supporters and happened to have a disproportionate influence in the White House. All of these forces seemed to worry more about the deficit than they did about the recession. The result, of course, was a much smaller stimulus package than many progressives had hoped for.

Then came the health care bill, which also has to be understood in the context of—indeed cannot be separated from—the politics of deficits and debt reduction. Throughout the health care negotiations, Obama took great pains to stress that his bill would not increase the deficit (CBO scores became as important to the national conversation as health care itself). Incredibly, this was an entirely Democratic, and self-imposed, constraint, which made the passage of health care reform more difficult than it might have been. As Jonathan Chait pointed out in 2010:

“Paygo” was a reform imposed by the 1990 budget agreement that required Congress to offset the cost of any new entitlement program or tax cuts with entitlement cuts or tax hikes. It was a significant factor in the decline of the deficit through the 1990s. Republicans hated it because it required them to offset the cost of tax cuts with either spending cuts or increases in other taxes, thereby making the trade-offs of tax cuts explicit. When they took control of Congress in 2001, Republicans ended the Paygo rule, which allowed them to pass a series of tax cuts along with a Medicare prescription drug benefit without any offsetting measures. The structural deficit exploded.

When Democrats recaptured Congress, they re-imposed pay-go rules, leaving an exception for extension of the Bush tax cuts for income under $250,000. That’s one reason why the Affordable Care Act had to be offset with hundreds of billions of dollars in politically-painful Medicare cuts, rather than financed solely through borrowing like the Medicare prescription drug law. Naturally, this made the Affordable Care Act much harder to pass through Congress as well as less popular — bills that hide their cost pass more quickly and with less complaint than bills that make make explicit who is going to pay for their costs.

Just as the White House and Congress were wrapping up their negotiations on the health care bill in the early months of 2010, Obama announced that the great challenge of the age was debt reduction. Though it’s often argued that Obama was pushed into that position by the Republican takeover of the House in November 2010, the fact is that he created the Bowles-Simpson Commission in February 2010, with the declared purpose of balancing the budget by 2015 and reducing the debt. The committee’s membership, chosen by Obama, included on the Democratic side deficit hawks like Max Baucus and on the Republican side…Paul Ryan.

At every step, then, of the two major initiatives of his administration—the stimulus and health care bills—Obama shouldered the load of debt and deficits. Whether that was by default or design remains the subject of much debate. But what’s not in dispute is that the debt has become the Democrats’ burden and/or vocation, which the Republicans are free to flout at will.

This became especially clear during the debt-ceiling crisis of 2011 and since. Once the Republicans began to threaten a default in the spring of 2011, Obama made one concession after another in a desperate attempt to make a deal. He offered to cut Social Security benefits, raise the Medicare eligibility age to 67, increase premiums, and more. Thankfully, GOP intransigence saved those proposals from becoming part of the deal.

The final deal, announced at the end of July 2011, included $1 trillion in cuts, divided evenly between defense and non-defense spending. There would be no tax increase. Instead, the White House tellingly emphasized that the cuts would “reduce non-defense discretionary spending to its lowest level since Dwight Eisenhower was President.” The deal also created a bipartisan congressional super committee tasked with coming up with an additional $1.5 trillion in savings. If the committee failed, an automatic process of savings measures would be triggered, which would include tax increases and spending cuts, with Social Security, Medicaid, and a few other programs exempted from the cuts.

Since the announcement of that deal, we’ve seen two developments. First, the congressional super committee tried—and failed—to come to an agreement. At each phase in the negotiations, which ended in November, the Democrats played the responsible adult, the Republicans the wild child. The Democrats came in with a proposal to raise taxes by $1.3 trillion and cut spending by $1.7 trillion (including cuts to Medicare and Medicaid). The Republican response: $2.2 trillion in cuts (not much more than the Democrats) and no tax increases. By the end of the negotiations, the Democrats had reduced their tax increase proposal to $400 billion and were offering nearly a $1 trillion in spending cuts; the Republicans tendered $640 billion in spending cuts and $3 billion in tax increases. In other words, not only were the Democrats promising to cut far more than were the Republicans, but they also promised to reduce the debt overwhelmingly through spending cuts rather than tax increases.

Second, now that that the super committee has failed, the GOP has predictably begun to balk at the defense cuts mandated by the deal. (I say predictably because just after the deal was announced, I got into a heated argument with a political scientist over that very issue. Where he was elated by the defense cuts, I warned that the Republicans would almost certainly renege on them.) Throughout this past summer, the GOP promised to make the so-called sequester a major issue in the election, and the 2012 Republican Party platform (see page 40) enshrines their opposition to it:

Sequestration—which is severe, automatic, across-the-board cuts in defense spending over the next decade—of the nation’s military budget would be a disaster for national security, imperiling the safety of our servicemen and women, accelerating the decline of our nation’s defense industrial base, and resulting in the layoff of more than 1 million skilled workers. Opposition to sequester is bipartisan; even the current Secretary of Defense has said the cuts will be “devastating” to America’s military. Yet the current President supported sequestration, signed it into law, and has threatened to veto Republican efforts to prevent it. If he allows an additional half trillion dollars to be cut from the defense budget, America will be left with the smallest ground force since 1940,the smallest number of ships since 1915, and the smallest Air Force in its history—at a time when our Nation faces a growing range of threats to our national security and a struggling economy that can ill afford to lose 1.5 million defense-related jobs.

So here we are, entering a campaign with Obama begging the media to recognize him and the Democrats as the party of austerity—for being willing to make difficult and deep cuts to Medicare and Social Security—and Republicans happily calling for a constitutional amendment requiring congressional super majorities for tax increases (see page 4).

• • • • •

Ironically, it was during the heyday of the New Deal that we first got a glimpse of the way we live now—from none other than John Kenneth Galbraith. As Bartlett shows, when Galbraith learned of Kennedy’s plans for a large tax cut in 1962, he shrewdly observed in his diary that “lower tax revenues will become a ceiling on spending.” Though the economics of the tax cut were impeccably Keynesian, Galbraith was far more concerned about the politics, which he thought were dangerous. As he explained in his testimony to Congress in 1965:

I was never as enthusiastic as many of my fellow economists over the tax reductions of last year. The case for it as an isolated action was undoubtedly good. But there was danger that conservatives, once introduced to the delights of tax reduction, would like it too much. Tax reduction would then become a substitute for increased outlays on urgent social needs. We would have a new and reactionary form of Keynesianism with which to contend.

What Galbraith could not have foreseen—ensconced in the New Deal consensus as he was—was that that the real ceiling on social spending would be set not merely by the Republicans but also, and perhaps more fatally, by the Democrats.

Once upon a time Republicans were tax collectors for the welfare state. Now Democrats are the austerians of reactionary Keynesianism.

• • • • •

This post has been cross-posted at Crooked Timber of Humanity, where I am now also blogging.

Update (3 pm)

Digby has a great follow-up to this post, which includes this lengthy quote from an interview Obama just gave to Time‘s Michael Scherer.

My message to Democrats is the same message I’ve got to Republicans and independents, and that is, I want a balanced approach to deficit reduction that combines additional revenue, particularly from folks like me who can afford it, with prudent cuts on both the discretionary side and the mandatory side but that still allows us to make investments in the things we need to grow.

And that means I’m prepared to look at reforms in Medicaid. I’m prepared to look at smart reforms on Medicare. But there are things I won’t do, and this is part of the debate we’re having in this election. I do not think it is a good idea to set up Medicare as a voucher system in which seniors are spending up to $6,000 more out of pocket. That was the original proposal Congressman Ryan put forward. And there is still a strong impulse I think among some Republicans for that kind of approach.

I’m not going to slash Medicaid to the point where disabled kids or seniors who are in nursing homes are basically uncared for. We’re not going to violate the basic bargain that Social Security represents.

Now, the good news is, if you’re willing to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires, then you can make modest reforms on entitlements, reduce some additional discretionary spending, achieve deficit reduction and still preserve Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid in ways that people can count on. The only reason that you would have to go further than that is if there’s no revenue whatsoever. And that’s a major argument that we’re having with the Republicans.

As Digby observes:

Well hell. I’m sure glad he isn’t willing to cut Medicaid to where the disabled aren’t “basically” cared for. And, you know, it’s good that he’s not going to violate the “basic bargain” that social security “represents.” Big relief.

Vote Obama/Biden 2012 — We won’t cut your benefits quite as much as the other guys.

Update (August 31, 12 pm)

Two follow-up posts you should check out.

Alex Gourevitch offers a fascinating take on the incoherence of the Democrats’ austerian position:

Now, the Democratic Party is a mere pastiche without purpose….With no welfarist project, maintained by a contingent set of historical forces, what is left? The project of responsible government, of taxing mainly for the purpose of balancing budgets….Even the Buffet Rule is not so much an invocation of a principle of social justice as it is an acknowledgement of indecency in the tax code. Only the party of Romney-Ryan can make that elemental act Mugwumpery look like more than what it is – an empty, election year gesture.

David Dayen drives home the political costs of the austerian position:

The fact that you can draw a line in inverse proportion between what party embraces austerity and what party has the dominant position in the politics of the age should tell you what you need to know about its importance. By and large, we saw a liberal era in the 1950s and 1960s (regardless of what party actually ruled) followed by a conservative era in the 1980s that stretches to this day. And the factor of austerity politics plays a big role in that.

Over time, Republicans stopped trying to be the responsible “tax collectors for the welfare state,” and started becoming the starve-the-beast Republicans we know now. These theories are flawed – cutting taxes does not, actually, lead to cutting spending, at least not when Republicans are in office – but politically they force the other side into an extremely disadvantageous position.

Update (August 31, 8:30 pm)

Thomas Nephew alerts me to the fact that today’s Democrat and liberal actually embraces the identity of being an Eisenhower Republican. I did not know that.

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