Tuesday, January 22, 2013

It's not anti-semitic if you say "Zionists" instead of "Jews", right?

I've borrowed that heading (with slight modification) from the ever-acute David Hirsh at Engage, who zeroed in on the key point as usual. He was commenting on the item below. It comes from six months ago, via Gene at Harry's Place, but this sort of thing never seems to go out of style, and I'm afraid that David's point is always timely.  —Jeff Weintraub

Gene (Harry's Place)
July 11, 2012
Making it obvious

The following item appeared on the website of George Galloway’s Iranian employer Press TV  [JW: the official Iranian government news service—they were reprinting and circulating a piece that originally appeared on an anti-semitic US website here] ...

...until it was replaced by this:

However, [in the text of the article] they forgot to change “the Jewish Banking Cartel” to “the Zionist Banking Cartel” and “the Jewish Mafia” to “the Zionist Mafia.”

[JW:  E.g., "the IMF serves as an arm of the Jewish Banking Cartel, which itself is the primary component of the Jewish Mafia. [....]  After the nation’s most valuable assets are sold, the Greek people will face an indefinite period of economic extortion and social reengineering at the hands of the Jewish Mafia."  Etc.]


(Via the Coordination Forum for Countering Antisemitism)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

How the NRA and its political lackeys have made it increasingly impossible to enforce EXISTING gun-control laws (#2)

Well, despite my complaints about the failure of political journalists to convey this story to the public in a clear and informative way that cuts through the propaganda, it seems we don't have to rely completely on satirists like Jon Stewart to do that.  Today's New York Times editorial page has a good piece that sums things up very effectively—in print and without jokes.  Some highlights:
By the time President Obama formally unveiled his suite of executive actions and new legislation to aggressively fight gun violence, the N.R.A. and its allies were already on the attack with a familiar gun lobby refrain: The nation doesn’t need any new gun laws, just better enforcement of laws that already exist.

It’s a fraudulent argument, but it has been used effectively again and again over the past 20 years to help block meaningful gun reforms. This time, in the rare opening for change that has followed the massacre in Newtown, Conn., no one should fall for it. The argument that the existing laws would be sufficient if only the officials in charge did their job and enforced them properly is nothing more than a clever diversion. Beyond ignoring deadly loopholes — many inserted at the N.R.A.’s insistence — this poses a false choice between strong laws and strong enforcement. Why should one preclude the other? America needs both.

Some of the steps Mr. Obama has endorsed — making background checks universal and cracking down on illegal gun trafficking — are needed to make existing laws more effective. Other things, like reducing the supply of assault weapons and large ammunition clips that so often figure in mass shootings, will require new laws. Obviously, better enforcement does not help when there is no underlying statute.  [....]

The hypocrisy of the N.R.A.’s argument that the problem is weak enforcement is exposed by its efforts over the years to undercut what enforcement there is. It has tried mightily to ensure that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lacks the leadership, resources and legal authority to do its job properly. Restrictions enacted at the gun lobby’s behest make it exceedingly hard to identify dealers who falsify sales records, for example, and bar the bureau from putting gun-sale records into a central database for speedy tracing of weapons used in crimes.  [....]

Keeping guns out of the wrong hands has never been a gun lobby priority. Its priority has been weak enforcement of weak laws.
But read the whole thing (below).

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

New York Times
January 19, 2013
The Diversionary Tactics of the Gun Lobby
By Dorothy Daniels

By the time President Obama formally unveiled his suite of executive actions and new legislation to aggressively fight gun violence, the N.R.A. and its allies were already on the attack with a familiar gun lobby refrain: The nation doesn’t need any new gun laws, just better enforcement of laws that already exist.
It’s a fraudulent argument, but it has been used effectively again and again over the past 20 years to help block meaningful gun reforms. This time, in the rare opening for change that has followed the massacre in Newtown, Conn., no one should fall for it. The argument that the existing laws would be sufficient if only the officials in charge did their job and enforced them properly is nothing more than a clever diversion. Beyond ignoring deadly loopholes — many inserted at the N.R.A.’s insistence — this poses a false choice between strong laws and strong enforcement. Why should one preclude the other? America needs both.
Some of the steps Mr. Obama has endorsed — making background checks universal and cracking down on illegal gun trafficking — are needed to make existing laws more effective. Other things, like reducing the supply of assault weapons and large ammunition clips that so often figure in mass shootings, will require new laws. Obviously, better enforcement does not help when there is no underlying statute.
It is true that the Justice Department should prosecute more people who lie or deliberately provide inaccurate information about their criminal histories on background checks. Studies show that those who lie are more likely than the average person to commit violent crimes after they are denied a firearm purchase. Mr. Obama is trying to correct this with a presidential memorandum encouraging “supplemental efforts” by United States attorneys around the country to prosecute felons who lie to evade the background check.
This sort of common-sense strategy has long been recommended by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the group co-founded by Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York. Yet in 2010, the latest date for which figures are available, just 44 of the nearly 80,000 Americans who flunked backgrounds checks because they lied or gave incorrect information were charged with a crime. That’s an indefensibly low number even given competing prosecutorial priorities (though consistent with the record of the Bush administration). But insufficient prosecutorial attention is hardly a reason to oppose new federal gun laws that would make Americans safer.
Nevertheless, the N.R.A.’s cynical effort to shift the debate to lax enforcement continues without letup. An N.R.A. official, Andrew Arulanandam, intoned recently that the government’s failure to aggressively investigate people who failed their background checks meant that people who should not be buying guns in the first place were escaping justice — in his words, "getting away scot-free.” He failed to mention that it is only because of the 1993 Brady Act, which the N.R.A. vehemently opposed, that the nation even has a system that can identify prohibited buyers and those who lie.
The hypocrisy of the N.R.A.’s argument that the problem is weak enforcement is exposed by its efforts over the years to undercut what enforcement there is. It has tried mightily to ensure that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives lacks the leadership, resources and legal authority to do its job properly. Restrictions enacted at the gun lobby’s behest make it exceedingly hard to identify dealers who falsify sales records, for example, and bar the bureau from putting gun-sale records into a central database for speedy tracing of weapons used in crimes.
Further details of the N.R.A.’s anti-enforcement efforts were revealed by Dennis Henigan, a former vice president of the Brady Campaign, a leading gun-control group, in his 2009 book “Lethal Logic.” It recounts how the N.R.A. campaigned in the 1980s to weaken the 1968 Gun Control Act that President Lyndon Johnson pushed through after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The result was the Firearm Owners’ Protection Act of 1986, a misnamed law that has made it difficult to investigate and prosecute gun trafficking to this day. For example, it protects unscrupulous gun dealers by prohibiting A.T.F. agents from making more than one unannounced inspection a year. It also makes it hard to revoke their licenses. Those and other damaging provisions from the 1986 law should be tossed out as part of the new, still only hazily defined anti-trafficking measure Mr. Obama has pledged to fight for. The N.R.A.’s opposition won’t make that easy.
Keeping guns out of the wrong hands has never been a gun lobby priority. Its priority has been weak enforcement of weak laws.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

How the NRA and its political lackeys have made it increasingly impossible to enforce EXISTING gun-control laws

What would we do without political satirists and comedians? If we had to rely exclusively on so-called political journalists, a great deal of what's actually going on in US politics would remain obscure to people who aren't already specialists or obsessives. I mean that seriously, not facetiously.

Whenever any serious gun-control measures are proposed, one standard slogan trotted out by opponents of gun control is that before we pass any new laws, we should enforce existing laws more effectively instead. Any sensible person would be wise to suspect that this propaganda line is dishonest and hypocritical ... and, of course, that would be right. In the real world, pro-gun fanatics, their lobbyists, and the politicians who do their bidding have put a lot of effort into making it difficult or impossible to actually enforce the laws that are supposedly on the books. In a recent Daily Show episode, Jon Stewart did a nice job of explaining how this scam works—or at least one aspect of it, because this is only part of a bigger story (Watch the two video clips in sequence.)

[UPDATE: There's a follow-up HERE.]

—Jeff Weintraub

Watch part two:

"Time to stop demonizing the banks" (The Colbert Report)

What more is there to say? —Jeff Weintraub

Thursday, January 17, 2013

NRA Fights Legislation That Would Ban Gun Sales To Those Currently On Killing Sprees (The Onion)

I've discovered that not everyone knows The Onion is a satirical operation, and this pseudo-news report sounds all too realistic, so it might be worth noting explicitly that it's a PARODY!  But reality is pretty bizarre in this case, too.

(The ad that comes before the video clip is unfortunate, but just suffer through it.)

NRA Fights Legislation That Would Ban Gun Sales To Those Currently On Killing Sprees

=> UPDATE:  One response to this post was an e-mail message from my friend Jim Robins, which I quote with his permission:
You might be interested in an experience I had a few years ago.  I ordered some boots from an outdoor catalogue operation that mainly sells gear to hunters and fisherman.  A couple of months later, I received a letter welcoming me to NRA membership with a regular membership card enclosed.  No requests for dues, not a solicitation to join.  I had simply been made a member.

People would do well to be a bit more wary of the NRA's claimed multi-million member base.  I have no idea how many names they have bought and enrolled.
Yes, that should make us more curious.
I wonder if they got the idea from Mormon posthumous baptisms of holocaust victims?
I suspect that NRA supporters won't like that analogy (or Mormons, either), but it's an intriguing (though undoubtedly ironic) hypothesis.

—Jeff Weintraub

Monday, January 14, 2013

Two basic points that should be part of all discussions of the debt ceiling (James Fallows)

James Fallows usefully boils down two central points that should be obvious but that many pundits, politicians, political journalists, and ordinary citizens seem to find difficult to grasp:
Here they are:

  • Raising the debt ceiling does not authorize one single penny in additional public spending.
  • For Congress to "decide whether" to raise the debt ceiling, for programs and tax rates it has already voted into law, makes exactly as much sense as it would for a family to "decide whether" to pay a credit-card bill for goods it has already bought.

  • That is all. [....]
    Failing to raise the debt ceiling  means refusing to let the US government issue bonds with which to pay for expenses that have already been mandated by Congress and signed into law.  It means refusing to allow the US government to meet financial obligations it has already incurred.  Refusing to pay bills that you've already incurred is a good way for an individual, a family, or a country to undermine its financial credibility.  Sometimes countries find themselves in extreme situations where they have to do that, but there are long-term costs when they do.  However, the US government has never defaulted on its debts—which is one reason why people around the world are willing to lend us money at absurdly low rates—and right now the US is not remotely near a situation where necessity would require considering such a step.

    So when the Republicans threaten to block raising the debt ceiling unless they get their way on other issues, they are threatening to destroy the financial credibility of the US government, with all the consequences that would follow, and they are using that threat as a tool of crude political extortion.  They've explicitly threatened to keep doing this indefinitely.

    There may be some of you out there who believe there are serious reasons why this kind of recklessly dangerous political extortion is legitimate and appropriate right now.  (I think such people are not only mistaken but delusional, but let's imagine that they might have serious arguments to offer. And let me say that I can hypothetically imagine historical situations in which policies that radical and extremist might be justified, though this certainly isn't one of them.) But one way or another, it's important to be clear about what's really going on here.  This is not normal political bargaining, nor is it "fiscally conservative" or "fiscally responsible," and no one should pretend that it is any of these things.

    For a few additional remarks by Fallows, see here. For more extensive explications of what's involved in this continuing crisis, see here & here & here.

    —Jeff Weintraub

    Friday, January 11, 2013

    Some interesting facts you can learn from reading the newspapers

    A small selection from a larger roundup, with thanks to Ruchika Garga, who passed them on. —Jeff Weintraub

    Wednesday, January 09, 2013

    The UN now puts the death toll in Syria at 60,000

    The current struggle for Syria began in January 2011 with a few months of largely peaceful protests that were met by violent repression and then, starting roughly in March, turned into a brutal, murderous, and massively destructive civil war that has generated increasing sectarian polarization within Syria and is fueled by increasing amounts of outside aid and support for the warring forces. The civil war is now approaching its two-year mark, with no clear prospects of being settled one way or another. Since March 2011, estimates of the death toll, all of which are necessarily very approximate, have been going up steadily.  The latest attempt at a systematic assessment, in the form of a UN-sponsored study whose results were released on January 2, estimates that 60,000 people have been killed so far, overwhelmingly civilians. As Spencer Ackerman pointed out, that figure is probably too low.
    The brutal truth is that no one really knows how many Syrians have died in dictator Bashar Assad’s brutal crackdown: Warzone death estimates are notoriously imprecise. By its own admission, the death toll compiled by the human rights tech group Benetech, on behalf of the UN, is inaccurate. But its assessment has the virtue of specificity, a factor that preempts some of the doubts raised about mortality estimates in other warzones. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, called the study "a work in progress, not a final product.”

    Benetech’s report(.pdf), released on Wednesday, dives into databases of the dead compiled by six Syrian organizations — several of them tied to the rebellion, such as the Syrian Revolution General Council — and one by the Assad government. The firm sifted through over 147,000 records to identify and exclude duplicated mortality accounts. Only the “unique” accounts of “identifiable victims” fall into Benetech’s count. If the records don’t show someone’s name, date and location of death, Benetech doesn’t count it.

    That data sift leads to a more precise picture of the Syrian civil war than the rougher estimates previously on offer. [....]

    Benetech’s study suffers from selection bias, as its researchers concede up front. The patterns it finds cannot account for “unobserved and unidentifiable” killings. If the seven databases do not document a death, or do not document it with sufficient specificity — say, a name is only partially recorded, or a location of the death is absent — then Benetech discounts it from the study. Nor does Benetech have a means of fact-checking what’s in each dataset, as brutal wars do not lend themselves to such analytic rigor, so an element of faith is unavoidable here. Duplicated information is useful for establishing patterns in documentation of the killings, but shouldn’t be confused with a verification mechanism for the dead, nor for establishing the true statistical patterns of deaths. Accordingly, “the statistics presented in this report should be considered minimum bounds,” Benetech specifies. [....]
    Of course, the war has also generated large and increasing numbers of refugees, many of whom are living in miserable conditions. The estimates I've read lately for Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries range from half a million to three-quarters of a million so far, and those numbers continue to go up.  In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people within Syria itself, with some estimates running well over a million.

    The figure of (roughly) 60,000 deaths is horrifying in itself. But we can also view that death toll from a few comparative perspectives, all of which have unpleasant implications. Let's assume that Syrian civilians have been getting killed at the rate of about 30,000 per year. That's pretty awful. But in February 1982 Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez al-Assad, in the course of putting down a Muslim Brotherhood insurgency against his regime, massacred 10,000-20,000 civilians in the city of Hama in less than a month (with some estimates ranging up to 30,000 or higher). And the other Ba'athist regime, the one in Iraq headed by Saddam Hussein, slaughtered between 100,000 and 200,000 civilians in just one of its many episodes of large-scale mass murder, the "Anfal" genocide campaign of 1988 in Iraqi Kurdistan. These comparisons and other bits of evidence may suggest that the murderousness of the Syrian regime is still operating within some significant restraints, both internal and external. (For example, there do seem to be plausible grounds for believing that in November 2012 the Syrian regime really was on the verge of escalating to the use of poison gas, but was deterred by outside warnings that this would mean crossing a red line. Saddam Hussein didn't face that kind of inconvenience in the 1980s.) On the other hand, that may also imply that things could still get a lot worse, especially as the regime and its supporters become convinced that they are facing total defeat.

    At all events, we should bear in mind that the civil war in Syria has been going on for less than two years, and nobody really knows how much longer it will continue. It could be that either the Assad regime or the rebellion will crack within the next year or so, but a prolonged and increasingly bloody stalemate is a plausible alternative. And even if, or when, the Assad regime is decisively overthrown by the rebels—who are by no means unified themselves—that wouldn't necessarily guarantee an end to the killing and destruction. (Again, think of Iraq after 2003.)

    So the prospects are not encouraging, though one can always hope for the best.

    => And speaking of Iraq, it might be worth adding one more comparative reflection. Since the political upheavals of the so-called "Arab Spring" began a few years ago, some people who think that the 2003 Iraq war was a terrible mistake and an unmitigated disaster (a position for which there are certainly good arguments, given what happened to Iraq and the Iraqis after 2003) have wondered whether these developments provide additional evidence that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his regime by external force was simply unnecessary.  If Saddam Hussein had just been left alone, and his regime had survived into the present decade, wouldn't some Iraqi version of the Arab Spring have led to his overthrow in a way that was less painful and costly to Iraqis, to Americans, and to everyone else?

    It's hard to answer that question for certain, of course.  But based on the historical record, including the bloodbath with which Saddam Hussein crushed the national revolt against his rule after the 1991 Gulf War, I think it's possible to offer some plausible predictions.  If the Ba'ath regime headed by Saddam (or one of his psychopathic sons) had still been in control of Iraq during the past few years, and had been faced with a serious challenge to its grip on power, it's probably safe to expect that the response would have made what's happening in Syria now pale by comparison.

    Would the results have been even worse than what happened in post-Saddam Iraq during the past decade?  Again, one can't say for sure, and no one should pretend otherwise, but that possibility certainly shouldn't be dismissed.  Let's even be extra-optimistic and assume that a hypothetical Iraqi Spring would have overthrown the regime. In the very best of circumstances, the death throes of the Iraqi Ba'ath regime, along with the aftermath, would almost certainly have been extremely gruesome.  Does that supposition strike you as unlikely, far-fetched, or groundlessly alarmist?  Then think about what's happening in Syria today, bearing in mind that what we've seen so far may just be the beginning.

    (And, of course, that best-case scenario overlooks everything else that Saddam Hussein would have been doing, between then and now, after the rapidly unraveling sanctions-and-containment system had fallen apart completely and he was out of his box.)

    =>  Meanwhile, the struggle for Syria continues. The likelihood of outside military intervention, now or any time in the immediately foreseeable future, strikes me as very slim. (Of course, that doesn't include the involvement of Sunni jihadists on the side of the rebels and of small numbers of Iranian and Hizbullah fighters on the side of the regime, along with funding and arms for the warring factions from a range of sources.)  So the struggle will mostly play itself out within Syria.  It's hard to imagine any outcomes that don't look bad (for two plausible speculative overviews, out of many possible examples, see here & here), but I guess we'll see. And we should all be paying attention, because the outcome of this struggle will have major implications, not only for Syria itself, but across the region and beyond.

    —Jeff Weintraub

    Monday, January 07, 2013

    "A broken system, a lousy deal, and no end in sight ...."

    That line comes from the cover of the latest Economist.  What country's political system do you suppose they're talking about? Actually, there are a lot of plausible candidates, but the country they have in mind is the US, and they're right. That description nicely captures our situation in the wake of the last-minute stop-gap non-solution to the artificial crisis generally referred to as the "fiscal cliff".  (The analysis spelled out inside the magazine is more uneven in quality, but one can't have everything.)

    Joe Nocera captured the same point in his New York Times column on Saturday.  Some elements of his analysis are problematic too, and I'll get to those in a moment, but this part is absolutely on-target:
    On Thursday, the Capitol was full of happy people. The trauma of the 112th Congress — which ended 36 hours after yet another frenzied round of kick-the-financial-can — was starting to lift. It was a new day. Hope sprang eternal.

    The new Congress was being sworn in. The 14 new senators and 84 new members of Congress walked around the Capitol in a giddy daze.[....]

    I bumped into Hawaii’s new senator, Brian Schatz, who replaced the late Daniel Inouye toward the end of the last Congressional session. “The fiscal-cliff vote shows that it is possible to have a bipartisan vote,” he actually said.

    If only.

    What the fiscal cliff vote showed, in fact, is just how rudderless and polarized Washington has become. The only way Congress could end the last debt-ceiling crisis was by creating a cliff so steep — with its combination of tax increases and deep spending cuts — that both parties would be forced to find an acceptable middle ground.

    Instead, they punted again. Though President Obama got a watered-down version of his tax hikes for the wealthy, the spending cuts were pushed off into the future, infuriating many Republicans. Because Republicans will no longer negotiate with Obama, he had to outsource the negotiations to his vice president, Joe Biden. Speaker John Boehner was humiliated by his own party, of which two-thirds voted against the deal in the House. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, quickly promised a new fight over the next debt-ceiling vote.

    That’s less than two months away. After which, we’ll hit the fiscal cliff — again. [...]
    Then the biggest weakness of Nocera's column is brought out by the next two sentences, where he slips into the lazy and misleading formulas of supposedly 'responsible' mainstream political punditry:
    They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same action, and expecting a different result. By that measure, Congress has lost its mind. [....]
    Some major players in US national politics have gone bonkers, for sure. But attributing this condition to an undifferentiated "Congress" is deeply misleading and harmful to public discourse, because it obscures the actual roots of the problem, lets the real culprits off the hook, and makes it harder to hold them politically accountable. Putting the matter that way, without distinguishing between Democrats and Republicans, does have the advantage of sounding even-handed, 'bipartisan, 'sober', and 'objective'; unfortunately, it has the disadvantage of being unrealistic and objectively false.

    Any honest assessment of the current dysfunctions and pathologies of our political system has to acknowledge that there is plenty of blame to go around, and that Republicans and right-wingers don't deserve all of it. But anyone who tries to pretend that there is moral and practical equivalence between the two major parties in these respects is simply not facing reality, or is being deliberately disingenuous, or both.

    Ever since the 2008 election the Obama administration, which is basically a very moderate just-slightly-left-of-center administration, has shown itself willing and eager to compromise with the Republicans, even to to an excessive degree; but the Congressional Republicans have almost uniformly responded with immovable and escalating intransigence, making small-scale tactical accommodations only in last-ditch looming-end-of-the-world situations like the one in December 2012—and even then the House Republican caucus overwhelmingly rejected the Obama-McConnell compromise package. The Senate Republicans, not the Democrats, are the ones who have brought systematic, indiscriminate, and monolithic obstructionism to a historically unprecedented level that makes it increasingly impossible for the Senate to function as a serious legislative body. It was the Congressional Republicans, not the Democrats, who took the historically unprecedented and breathtakingly irresponsible step of weaponizing the debt ceiling and turning it into a routine tool of political blackmail and extortion that they threaten to keep using indefinitely and without compunction, despite the fact that every time they create one of these artificial debt-ceiling crises they are (cynically or mindlessly) putting the financial credibility of the US government at risk for partisan advantage. And so on.

    No, any honest analysis of these issues must explicitly face up to, rather than evading or obscuring, a key reality that was spelled out reluctantly in 2012 by two quintessentially sober, centrist, and knowledgeable long-term analysts of US politics, Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein:  Fundamentally, the Republicans are the problem.

    I've quoted from their analysis before, but it's worth quoting some highlights again:
    [....] We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. [....] It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

    When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

    “Both sides do it” or “There is plenty of blame to go around” are the traditional refuges for an American news media intent on proving its lack of bias, while political scientists prefer generality and neutrality when discussing partisan polarization. Many self-styled bipartisan groups, in their search for common ground, propose solutions that move both sides to the center, a strategy that is simply untenable when one side is so far out of reach.

    It is clear that the center of gravity in the Republican Party has shifted sharply to the right.[....] The post-McGovern Democratic Party, by contrast, while losing the bulk of its conservative Dixiecrat contingent in the decades after the civil rights revolution, has retained a more diverse base. Since the Clinton presidency, it has hewed to the center-left on issues from welfare reform to fiscal policy. While the Democrats may have moved from their 40-yard line to their 25, the Republicans have gone from their 40 to somewhere behind their goal post.

    What happened? Of course, there were larger forces at work beyond the realignment of the South. [....] But the real move to the bedrock right starts with two names: Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist.

    From the day he entered Congress in 1979, Gingrich had a strategy to create a Republican majority in the House: convincing voters that the institution was so corrupt that anyone would be better than the incumbents, especially those in the Democratic majority. It took him 16 years [....]

    Ironically, after becoming speaker, Gingrich wanted to enhance Congress’s reputation and was content to compromise with President Bill Clinton when it served his interests. But the forces Gingrich unleashed destroyed whatever comity existed across party lines, activated an extreme and virulently anti-Washington base — most recently represented by tea party activists — and helped drive moderate Republicans out of Congress. (Some of his progeny, elected in the early 1990s, moved to the Senate and polarized its culture in the same way.)

    Norquist, meanwhile, founded Americans for Tax Reform in 1985 and rolled out his Taxpayer Protection Pledge the following year. The pledge, which binds its signers to never support a tax increase (that includes closing tax loopholes [without an offsetting tax cut—JW]), had been signed as of last year by 238 of the 242 House Republicans and 41 of the 47 GOP senators, according to ATR. The Norquist tax pledge has led to other pledges, on issues such as climate change, that create additional litmus tests that box in moderates and make cross-party coalitions nearly impossible. For Republicans concerned about a primary challenge from the right, the failure to sign such pledges is simply too risky.

    Today, thanks to the GOP, compromise has gone out the window in Washington. In the first two years of the Obama administration, nearly every presidential initiative met with vehement, rancorous and unanimous Republican opposition in the House and the Senate, followed by efforts to delegitimize the results and repeal the policies. The filibuster, once relegated to a handful of major national issues in a given Congress, became a routine weapon of obstruction, applied even to widely supported bills or presidential nominations. And Republicans in the Senate have abused the confirmation process to block any and every nominee to posts such as the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, solely to keep laws that were legitimately enacted from being implemented.

    In the third and now fourth years of the Obama presidency, divided government has produced something closer to complete gridlock than we have ever seen in our time in Washington, with partisan divides even leading last year to America’s first credit downgrade.

    On financial stabilization and economic recovery, on deficits and debt, on climate change and health-care reform. Republicans have been the force behind the widening ideological gaps and the strategic use of partisanship. In the presidential campaign and in Congress, GOP leaders have embraced fanciful policies on taxes and spending, kowtowing to their party’s most strident voices. [....]

    The results can border on the absurd: In early 2009, several of the eight Republican co-sponsors of a bipartisan health-care reform plan dropped their support; by early 2010, the others had turned on their own proposal so that there would be zero GOP backing for any bill that came within a mile of Obama’s reform initiative. As one co-sponsor, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), told The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein: “I liked it because it was bipartisan. I wouldn’t have voted for it.”

    This attitude filters down far deeper than the party leadership. Rank-and-file GOP voters endorse the strategy that the party’s elites have adopted, eschewing compromise to solve problems and insisting on principle, even if it leads to gridlock. Democratic voters, by contrast, along with self-identified independents, are more likely to favor deal-making over deadlock.
    It's worth noting one feature of the recent "fiscal cliff" drama that helps underline the points in that last paragraph. Over the last generation, the Congressional Republicans—but not the Congressional Democrats—have achieved a level of party discipline that I believe is unprecedented in US political history, and that is usually seen only in parliamentary parties.  (Unfortunately, in a non-parliamentary system like ours, that kind of down-the line party discipline can make effective governing close to impossible.)  And on those rare occasions when Congressional Republicans break with party discipline, the reasons almost never involve an impulse toward moderation or a desire to seek pragmatic compromises with the other party. Instead, it's almost always because they think the Republican leadership is not being extremist or intransigent enough. Thus, it's not really surprising that almost two-thirds of the House Republicans voted against the Obama-McConnell compromise package, which passed the House only because the great bulk of House Democrats voted in favor.
    Democrats are hardly blameless, and they have their own extreme wing and their own predilection for hardball politics. But these tendencies do not routinely veer outside the normal bounds of robust politics. If anything, under the presidencies of Clinton and Obama, the Democrats have become more of a status-quo party. [JW: Too true, alas.] They are centrist protectors of government, reluctantly willing to revamp programs and trim retirement and health benefits to maintain its central commitments in the face of fiscal pressures. [....]

    We understand the values of mainstream journalists, including the effort to report both sides of a story. But a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon distorts reality. If the political dynamics of Washington are unlikely to change anytime soon, at least we should change the way that reality is portrayed to the public.

    Our advice to the press: Don’t seek professional safety through the even-handed, unfiltered presentation of opposing views. Which politician is telling the truth? Who is taking hostages, at what risks and to what ends?

    Also, stop lending legitimacy to Senate filibusters by treating a 60-vote hurdle as routine. The framers certainly didn’t intend it to be. Report individual senators’ abusive use of holds and identify every time the minority party uses a filibuster to kill a bill or nomination with majority support. [....]

    In the end, while the press can make certain political choices understandable, it is up to voters to decide. If they can punish ideological extremism at the polls and look skeptically upon candidates who profess to reject all dialogue and bargaining with opponents, then an insurgent outlier party will have some impetus to return to the center. Otherwise, our politics will get worse before it gets better.
    At the moment, the latter outcome looks more likely, at least for the medium term. But if we're ever going to improve things, a necessary first step is for everyone to start facing up to some unpleasant realities.

    —Jeff Weintraub

    Wednesday, January 02, 2013

    Well, we may not go off the "fiscal cliff" just yet ... but the crisis is far from over

    Right up to the last moment, it seemed most likely that 2012 would end without a deal between the White House and the Congressional Republicans to avoid going over the so-called "fiscal cliff".  That's become the shorthand term for the simultaneous expiration of all the Bush tax cuts; the onset of across-the-board spending cuts that were pre-scheduled, in the hope they would never actually take effect, as part of the negotiated solution to the (artificial Republican-engineered) debt ceiling extortion crisis of 2011; and the ending of various temporary measures enacted over the past four years, including a payroll tax cut, emergency unemployment extensions, etc. This combination threatened to trigger a sudden contraction of the federal deficit (not an increase in the deficit, as most of the public seems to believe), so it would be more accurate to describe it as an austerity bomb than a fiscal cliff.

    When I wrote about this on December 28, I was sufficiently careful, or cautious, to say that we were "almost certainly" about to go off the fiscal cliff.  I acknowledged the hypothetical possibility of a last-minute stopgap solution that would postpone the full-scale detonation of the austerity bomb for a little while.  I didn't expect that to happen, but it did.  On December 31 a last-minute deal was worked out between the White House and the Senate Republican leadership (the House Republicans having bailed out before Christmas).  This deal resolves some of the key issues—mostly having to do with tax issues, along with extension of emergency unemployment funding and a few other odds and ends—while evading and postponing others.  Ezra Klein has a run-down of its provisions here.

    Technically, the deal came too late to keep the country from going over the fiscal cliff.  The compromise package was not passed by the Senate until after midnight on January 1, and the House didn't vote on it until the evening.  For much of the day, in fact, there seemed to be a genuine possibility that the House Republicans might scuttle the whole arrangement; and in the end almost 2/3 of them voted against the Obama/McConnell deal, 151-85.  But the Republican Speaker, John Boehner, brought up the deal for a straight yes-or-no vote despite the fact that most of his caucus would oppose it, which marks a departure from what has become standard Republican practice.  So the Obama/McConnell compromise was passed largely by the House Democrats, many of whom gritted their teeth and voted for it despite severe reservations, along with a minority of the Republicans (including Boehner but excluding some other prominent figures in the House Republican leaderhip).

    So why were Obama and Mitch McConnell (aka Dr. No) willing and able to make this deal?  Part of the reason is that although the Senate Republicans are certainly extremist, intransigent, and monumentally irresponsible, most of them are not quite as crazy as the predominant bloc of House Republicans. So when the chips were down, they were willing to break the decades-long Republican taboo against raising any taxes for any of the wealthiest Americans.  Whatever their own commitments in this matter, they recognized that public opinion is overwhelmingly against them on this issue, and they were aware of all the polls indicating that Republicans would get most of the blame if they caused taxes to go up for 98% of Americans in order to protect lower taxes for millionaires.

    The other reason is that in the final rounds of negotiations Obama and his administration made some major concessions that they, and the rest of us, will probably come to regret. One glaring example is the fact that, although income taxes will go back to Clinton-era rates for some of the wealthiest taxpayers, this will affect only the top 1% (roughly speaking), not the top 2%—which was already a pretty minimal proposal.  (Meanwhile, since the Republicans refused to extend the temporary cuts in payroll taxes enacted as an economic stimulus measure, payroll taxes will now go up a few percentage points for almost all of the bottom 98% of taxpayers.)  Obama and his team also caved in to the Republicans on maintaining preferential tax rates for dividend income and capital gains, accepted a bad deal on estate taxes, and so on.  Why did they make these and other significant concessions? Was it because Obama and his administration are more moderate, more willing to compromise, and less rigidly intransigent than the Republicans, or because they're simply more timid?  The answer probably involves some combination of all those factors, and there are already heated arguments about the details of how this happened—and about the larger substantive question of whether, on balance, making this deal with McConnell was better for the public interest than the realistically available alternatives, or a monumental blunder, or something in between.

    We won't be able to fully assess the consequences of this deal until we see how events play out over the rest of 2013.  But in the meantime, it's important to be clear about some crucial things that this deal did not do.  The automatic spending cuts were not addressed at all, and although the Obama administration wanted to postpone them for another year, the Republicans would only agree to a two-month postponement.  So we can expect several more months of political crisis as that deadline looms closer.  And the deal did nothing to resolve the question of raising the debt ceiling, which is another bomb set to detonate in just a few months. As the dissident fiscal-conservative Republican economist Bruce Bartlett correctly insists, "The Debt Ceiling is the Real Fiscal Cliff".  And leading Republican figures have openly threatened to plunge the country into yet another political crisis, with the potential for real financial disaster, every time the debt ceiling comes up for renewal.

    In short, the "fiscal cliff" crisis is far from over.  There has been a temporary reprieve, but the US economy is still hanging over the edge by its fingernails.  (Or, to use another image, it's still tied to the tracks with the Republicans bearing down on it in their locomotive.)  Stay tuned for the next episode ...

    =>  As I said, it will be a while before we can fully assess the consequences of this Obama/McConnell deal.  But for the moment I feel inclined to agree with the skeptical assessment offered by John Cassidy (and others who have argued along similar lines).  Some highlights:
    It’s a shoddy compromise that does credit to nobody involved, and it raises questions, once again, about President Obama’s willingness and ability to face down the Republican extremists.

    About the best that can be said of the deal is that it avoids a hasty shift towards big spending cuts, which could endanger the recovery. But that’s only because the deal punts most of the big questions about federal spending into 2013, when the G.O.P. ultras will be eager to exploit the fact that the Administration once again needs their support to raise the debt ceiling. Anybody who was hoping that the fiscal-cliff negotiations would settle the issue of deficit reduction for the next ten months, let alone the next ten years, will be disappointed.

    Come February or March, when the debt ceiling will be breached, we could well be back to the summer of 2011, with the G.O.P. holding the economy hostage and demanding big cuts in Social Security and Medicare. The President has said that he won’t negotiate with the Republicans over the debt ceiling, but will he have any choice? Even before that showdown, there will be questions about the concessions that his negotiators made to reach this deal. [....]

    In order to prevent a few days of confusion and possible turmoil in the markets, the Administration agreed to raise the income threshold at which the higher top rate kicks in, from $250,000 to $450,000. (For individuals, it will be $400,000.) That was a big concession. [....] The median household income is about $50,000 a year. Four out of five American families earn less than $100,000 a year. Fewer than one per cent of households earn more than $450,000.

    Having lambasted the Bush tax cuts as reckless when they were first introduced, Obama and the Democrats have now conceded that, under no circumstances, should anybody but members of the one per cent—the very richest Americans—be asked to pay higher income tax rates. [....] It virtually concedes the Republican argument that, going forward, the burden of deficit reduction should fall on spending cuts.

    And that wasn’t the only surrender on the White House’s part. In giving up on extending payroll-tax cuts it introduced in 2010 and 2011—a concession it made weeks ago—it gave lie to the claim that middle-class families won’t face a tax increase. For the past two years, American workers have been paying two percentage points less than usual in payroll taxes. Now the rates will go back to normal. For a family earning $60,000 a year, this will mean a tax hike of about a thousand dollars.

    Taken in isolation, there were sound reasons for restoring the payroll tax to its normal level. (The proceeds are used to pay for Social Security and Medicare.) But the feeling grows that, somehow or other, President Obama didn’t make the most of the situation he found himself in. In addition to raising the top tax threshold, he agreed to a very modest raise in the tax rate on dividends and capital gains—from fifteen per cent to twenty per cent. If the Bush tax cuts had been allowed to expire, dividends would once again have been treated as ordinary income, which means that the very rich—who receive most of them—would have paid a rate of 39.6 per cent.

    That’s a big plus for the one per cent, as is the agreement to exempt the first five million dollars of inherited wealth from the estate tax. (In the old days, the exemption was $1 million.) And in an even bigger win for the members of the 0.001 per cent, there doesn’t appear to be any mention in the agreement of eliminating the earned-interest deduction used by hedge-fund and private-equity managers, or of enforcing the Buffett rule. So much for cracking down on the loopholes enjoyed by Mitt Romney and his cronies.

    To be sure, the Republicans in Congress aren’t easy to deal with, and, as I said earlier, Obama didn’t have as much leverage as it first appeared. But he always had the option to walk away from the talks, let the Bush tax cuts expire, and then sit down after the New Year with the Republicans and talk about restoring some of them on a selective basis in return for an extension of the debt ceiling. Unfortunately—and this was something I noted early on—the President never really appeared willing to play this card, which encouraged the G.O.P. to be its obstreperous self. [....]
    To be fair to Obama and his team, one could make a plausible argument that they were right to worry that failing to reach any deal at all (which might have set off mass hysteria in the financial markets) was risky enough that it was worth making major concessions to avoid it, despite the fact that doing this strengthened the hand of Republican extremists. That kind of argument may or may not be correct, but as far as I can tell, it's worth considering. And whatever criticisms of Obama and his team one might want to make, it's important not to lose sight of the really crucial point here: fundamentally, the Republicans are the problem ... and the fact that they retained control of the House in the latest elections (mostly due to gerrymandering) significantly undermined the possibility for any constructive solutions.

    Nevertheless, any informed citizen with a serious concern for the public interest (and I'm not restricting that to Democrats) should feel at least some disappointment about this deal and its likely consequences.

    How will the rest of the still-ongoing "fiscal cliff" drama play out?  Stay tuned ...

    —Jeff Weintraub