Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Eve Garrard's obituary for Norman Geras

The first notice of the death of Norman Geras in Guardian, a newspaper whose editorial line and biases he often criticized during the past decade or so, was sympathetic and informative up to a point, but thin and intellectually insubstantial. On Sunday the Guardian published a more illuminating tribute to Norman Geras by one of his close intellectual comrades. Eve Garrard is a moral philosopher currently based at the University of Manchester. Among other things, she was a co-editor (with Stephen De Wijze) of Norm's festschrift, Thinking Toward Humanity: Themes from Norman Geras (2012).

—Jeff Weintraub

The Guardian (London)
October 20, 2013
Norman Geras obituary
Leftwing theorist and pioneer blogger with a mission to take on political orthodoxy

By Eve Garrard

Norman Geras started Normblog in order to engage with a wider audience.
It was a runaway success. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

Norman Geras – professor emeritus of government at Manchester University, philosopher, cricket fan, country music lover, Marxist, liberal socialist, democrat, political blogger behind the influential Normblog – has died of cancer aged 70. His interests were rich and varied, but his thought and writings form an integrated whole. He was centrally and always a man of the left, but one who became a scourge of those parts of left/liberal opinion which, in his view, had slid away from commitment to the values of equality, justice and universal rights, and in so doing ended up by excusing or condoning racism and terrorism.

From his perspective, the response to the events of 11 September 2001 was appalling. He found the readiness of many to blame the US for bringing the terrorist attack down on its own head to be intellectually feeble and morally contemptible. He argued that this section of the left was betraying its own values by offering warm understanding to terrorists and cold neglect to their victims. He detested the drawing of an unsupported and insupportable moral equivalence between western democracies and real or proposed theocratic tyrannies in which liberty of thought and speech, and the protection of human rights, would play no part. Norm wanted to engage in this debate and not just with academics. So he went online, to provide himself with a space in which he could express these and other views, and Normblog was born.

It was a runaway success. Thousands of readers all over the world were drawn by Norm's mixture of serious political and philosophical reasoning, and more lighthearted pieces on cricket, Manchester United, country music, films, books – whatever he was currently interested in. The most striking feature of the blog was Norm's distinctive arguing style: independent, rigorous, fair to adversaries, exceptionally clear, always (well, almost always) civil – and that in a blogosphere noted for widespread vituperation and insult.

Although Norm did not abuse his intellectual or political adversaries, he could be scaldingly critical of arguments that in his opinion constituted an apologia for terrorism or tyranny, or one-sided attacks on what he thought was humanity's best shot yet at a just form of political life: the liberal democracies of the west, flawed and in need of reform though they are.

He was born in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). He left to study at Oxford University and graduated from Pembroke College in 1965 with a first in philosophy, politics and economics. He met his future wife, Adele, at Oxford, and they married in 1967. In that year, too, he took up a post at Manchester University, where he remained throughout his working life, latterly as professor of government. He retired in 2003, and in 2010 he and Adele moved to Cambridge to live closer to their children and grandchildren.

Norm's original area of research was Marxist political theory and he produced some highly influential books in this area, including The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg (1976) and Marx and Human Nature (1983), in which he argued, rather against the progressive orthodoxy of the time, that there is such a thing as a determinate human nature, and that Marx himself had recognised this. His work inspired a generation of Marxist scholars. His concern about human nature, especially its darker elements, led him to explore the Holocaust: he was among the first to examine this terrible event from within the discipline of political theory.

Out of this research came his book The Contract of Mutual Indifference (1998), in which he argued that we owe a duty of help to those who are suffering under terrible oppression. He contrasted this duty with the practice of so many who observed the Nazis' genocidal activities and did nothing, suggesting that what we actually believe in is something like a contract of mutual non-assistance: I won't help you in your desperate straits, and I won't expect any help from you either. This, as Norm argued, is morally intolerable: our common humanity makes claims on us, to protect each other from catastrophe, if we can.

There was to be a direct intellectual line from this academic work to his later political blogging, in which he argued in favour of intervention in Iraq, on the grounds of the need to overthrow a tyrant who had been responsible for unspeakable atrocities against his own people and others, and had caused hundreds of thousands of deaths.

One of Normblog's constant targets was the deplorable spread of political double standards, notably in hostility to Jewish self-determination and self-defence, especially in the form of the state of Israel. Norm argued forcefully that some of what was presented as criticism of Israel was a thinly disguised form of antisemitism. Tolerance of this could be found in some of the main organs of liberal/left opinion, he felt, including what was once his own daily newspaper of choice, the Guardian.

He was not religious, but being Jewish was an important part of his identity, and he saw, particularly in the light of the European genocide, the need for a state in which Jews could determine their own future. He also thought that Palestinians needed a state of their own and was always prepared to voice his moral and political objection to Israel's presence in the West Bank, and in Gaza until the Israeli withdrawal.

Norm lost many erstwhile comrades on the left because of his hostility to terrorism and his support for Israel's existence, and this distressed, but didn't deflect, him. His concern about these and related issues led him to work with others in the drawing-up of the Euston Manifesto, published in 2006, a statement of principle calling for an alignment among liberals and the left of those who are committed to democracy and anti-totalitarianism, who unambiguously reject terrorism and tyranny, and who unequivocally support freedom of speech, political liberty and universal human rights. He was one of the four main authors of that document and his academic and blogging work was a major inspiration for it.

Norm's sane and balanced approach to the issues engaging him was a light in a dark time for many. It was once put to him that the provision of scrupulous arguments did not seem to be working too well and perhaps it should be abandoned. His reply was: "We have to continue. What else is there to do?"

Norm is survived by Adele, their daughters Sophie and Jenny, and three much-loved grandchildren.

Norman Geras, political philosopher and blogger, born 25 August 1943; died 18 October 2013

Is freedom of expression a principle worth defending?

I think the answer is yes, though it's clear that a number of people feel otherwise.  That includes many people who wouldn't come out and say so straightforwardly, and who might indignantly deny the suggestion that they fall in that category.  But in practice they make it clear, explicitly or in effect, that they think freedom of expression is not really such a big deal; that it's not a principle worth actively defending if there are costs or dangers or disadvantages for doing so; and that it's often not just prudent, but desirable and praiseworthy, to sacrifice or downplay it fairly readily when it conflicts with other priorities or concerns.

Christopher Hitchens strongly disagreed with such people, and one of his virtues was that he was exceptionally effective at cutting through their obfuscations and moral evasions and calling them to account.  Nick Cohen just retrieved and posted a video clip of one such occasion.  It's an admirably clarifying and exhilarating blast from the past. Hitchens is no longer with us, alas, but his voice is still there.

(Hitchens's main intervention in the discussion, in response to an opening statement by Shirley Williams, runs from about 1:08-3:11. But he comes back again at 7:53 to add some very important points.)

—Jeff Weintraub

Don't let the Iraqi Jewish archive get sent back to Iraq!

I've signed THIS PETITION at Avaaz.Org, and I urge others to sign it, too:
"I call upon the US government NOT to return the Jewish archive to Iraq. To do so would compound the injustice done to the Jews of Iraq, whose property it was before they were robbed of it through a deliberate state policy of persecution and ethnic cleansing. The archive should be returned to its rightful owners and assured of proper care and conservation. We suggest it should go to Israel, where the greatest concentration of Jews of Iraqi descent are to be found."
Further explanation by Lyn Julius is below (with more at her excellent website Point of No Return). See also Bruce Montgomery's article, "Rescue or Return: The Fate of the Iraqi Jewish Archive," in the International Journal of Cultural Property (excerpts here).

—Jeff Weintraub

Don't let the Jewish archive go back to Iraq!

Why this is important

Ten years after the US military found a trove of Jewish books, records and religious artifacts in the flooded basement of Saddam's secret police headquarters in Baghdad, the US government is preparing to ship it back following restoration.

The archive contains holy books, including a rare Bible from 1568, Torah scrolls seized from synagogues, and personal and community documents and records.

Iraq's government, however, is insisting that the archive go back to Iraq: it points out that the US interim administration (CPA) signed a memorandum in 2003 promising its return.

The archive must not be returned.

Here's why:

*The archive does not belong to Iraq, but was stolen from private homes, schools and synagogues in the 1970s. It is the cultural property of the Iraqi-Jewish community.

*According to Jewish law, sacred objects such as Torah scrolls must be entrusted to a living Jewish community.

*The Jewish community in Iraq is virtually extinct. Jews of Iraqi origin and their descendants now live outside Iraq - in Israel and the West.

*When there were Jews in Iraq, the modern Iraqi state showed only contempt for them and their heritage. It did its utmost to persecute and destroy its ancient, pre-Islamic Jewish community. From 140,000, the community has dwindled to five people. To return the archive to Iraq will be to compound a crime: returning stolen property to those who stole it.

*Iraq itself does not have the resources to conserve and store the archive safely.

*Iraq's Jews and their descendants, 90 percent of whom are in Israel, will be debarred from access to original documents and history if the archive returns to Iraq.

*The memorandum drawn up between the US CPA interim government and Iraq in 2003 was signed on a flawed premise: that the archive is part of Iraq's national heritage.

It is not. Unless we challenge this erroneous idea, the return of the Jewish archive sets a precedent for all Arab countries who seized the property of 870,000 Jews to claim back as their national heritage any confiscated items that might have left the country. Indeed these states can claim as their own the property of all oppressed communities.  Web: iraqijewisharchives.org


Monday, October 21, 2013

When does a half-truth become an untruth? (Or, why can't the Economist bring itself to tell the truth about the Republicans?)

Actually, the old Yiddish proverb I have in mind formulates the point a bit more sharply—i.e., that a half-truth is a whole lie. But I'm in a generous mood today, so I'll put it more tactfully.

Here are the first two paragraphs from an article I just read in the latest Economist. The first paragraph is very much on-target:
Imagine you are in a taxi and the driver suddenly turns violently and speeds towards a wall, tyres screeching, only to stop at the very last moment, inches from the bricks—and cheerfully informs you that he wants to do the same to you in three months time. Would you be grateful that he has not killed you? Or would you wonder why you chose his cab in the first place?
Then the next paragraph slips into a mealy-mouthed evasive formulation that is all too typical, and not only in the Economist.
That is the journey Congress has taken the American people on over the past few weeks (see article). The last-minute deal to raise America’s debt ceiling, avoid a default and reopen the government at least until mid-January, which was signed by the president on October 16th, is welcome only compared with the immediate alternative
No, it wasn't "Congress" that took the American people—and the world economy—on this scary ride. Blaming these repeated near-crashes (which cause real and accumulating damage) on an undifferentiated "Congress" is not just lazy, but misleading to the point of being outright dishonest. This latest crisis was engineered by the Congressional Republicans, who deliberately chose to use the threat of a government shutdown and an unprecedented US default as tools of political extortion—just as they did with the threat of default during their last debt-ceiling blackmail in 2011. At the last moment, when it became clear that this tactic was backfiring politically, most Republican Senators voted for a bipartisan deal worked out to avoid a crash (though not Rand Paul, John Cornyn, Charles Grassley, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and some others). But over 60% of House Republicans voted to drive the car into the wall.  (Including Paul Ryan, whom many pundits somehow continue to treat as a "responsible" Republican and a serious policy intellectual.)

This is all so obviously and unambiguously true that trying to obscure it amounts to journalistic malpractice. And in fact the writer of this Economist article knows quite well who was responsible. By the last few paragraphs of the article he or she has gotten around to conceding that the Republicans' unreasonable demands were "the principal reason for a debacle that has embarrassed America." But calling them "the principal reason" is still a weasel-worded evasion. The Republicans' blackmail attempt, and the ludicrously excessive ransom demands that went with it, constituted the reason for the debacle.

Then the very last sentence of the article finally admits the truth of the matter. As long as the Republicans keep acting this way, no one will be "inclined to take a ride in their cab again." Yes, precisely, it's their cab. Why not just come out and say so from the start, instead of trying to pretend otherwise?

As John Stewart admonished the Republicans back on October 8, when they were refusing to take responsibility for triggering the government shutdown and were trying to pretend that someone else (Obama?, Harry Reid?, Democrats, "liberals"?, OJ?) did it:
Look, you think Obamacare is a big enough threat to this country that you need to shut down the government over it?  Fine.  Own it!  Don't fart and point at the dog.
The Economist shouldn't point at the dog either. Nor should journalists and pundits trying to sound "even-handed".  Instead, let's just face reality:  The Republicans are the problem.  Trying to pretend otherwise won't make the problem magically go away.

—Jeff Weintraub

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Congressman Stutzman and the "rational actor" model

Does anyone really take the so-called "rational actor" model seriously (except, perhaps, in a form so hedged and non-committal as to render it vacuously tautological)?

That question often occurs to me.  (For example, it comes to mind whenever someone confidently, but implausibly, predicts what some foreign government definitely will or won't do because its leaders are allegedly "rational actors"—a description which, even if it happened to be true, would tell us nothing substantive.)

The latest item that provoked this question in my mind was a revealing statement by US Representative Marlin Stutzman (Republican of Indiana) on October 2, two days into the recently-ended crisis over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling
As the second day of the federal shutdown comes to an end, hardline elements within the Republican Party have made it clear that they will not budge until their demands are met. But what exactly are their demands? Republican House member Marlin Stutzman, for one, has no idea.

“We’re not going to be disrespected,” said Congressman Stutzman during an interview with the Washington Examiner on Tuesday.  “We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is.”
If Congressman Stutzman were just an isolated loon, this would be an amusing but not very significant incident.  We all say silly things sometimes.  Unfortunately, though Congressman Stutzman may well be a loon (this is the first time I've ever heard of him, so I can't say for sure one way or another), he is definitely not isolated.  On the contrary, as this Time Magazine report suggested, his outburst expressed a more broadly held world-view, motivating a significant subculture in American society and politics, that has real and damaging consequences for our political system.

The practical implications of this outlook for the pathologies of US politics should be clear enough.  As for their conceptual and theoretical implications for social inquiry and explanation ... well, if those need to be spelled out, then I'm not sure it's worth the trouble.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

Friday, October 18, 2013

What Republicans mean when they talk about "compromise"

During the recent crisis over the government shutdown and the debt ceiling, Republicans complained repeatedly that Obama refused to "negotiate in good faith" and was unwilling to "compromise". What do Republicans mean by these terms "negotiate" and "compromise"? It's easy to get confused sometimes.

We can save the interpretive exegesis of "negotiate"—and "good faith"—for another occasion. (For a quick partial illustration, see Boehner's exchange with Stephanopoulos starting about 50 seconds into this video.  To start filling in the rest of the picture, you can also look in the dictionary under "blackmail", "extortion", "stonewall", and "swindle".)

With respect to what Republicans mean by the word "compromise", John Holbo (at Crooked Timber) usefully highlighted two clarifying formulations from earlier this month.

The first clarification comes from the right-wing blogger/pundit/activist Erick Erickson (firing up the troops on back on October 2):
Democrats keep talking about our refusal to compromise. They don’t realize our compromise is defunding Obamacare. We actually want to repeal it.

This is it. Our endgame is to leave the whole thing shut down until the President defunds Obamacare. And if he does not defund Obamacare, we leave the whole thing shut down.

After all, if the government is not spending any money, when we collide with the debt ceiling in two weeks, we should not have to worry since the government is spending so little money.  [....]
And the second comes from the enormously influential anti-tax fanatic Grover Norquist: (almost every current Republican member of the Senate and the House of Representatives has signed Norquist's Absolutely-No-New-Taxes pledge, and so did every candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination except John Huntsman):
The administration asking us to raise taxes is not an offer; that’s not a compromise. That’s just losing. I’m in favor of compromise. When we did the $2.5 trillion spending restraint in the BCA [JW: the Budget Control Act passed after the last Republican debt-ceiling extortion in 2011], we wanted $6 trillion. I considered myself very compromised. Overly reasonable.
All clear now?

—Jeff Weintraub

P.S.  For some previous efforts to explore and explicate the mysteries of Republican political vocabulary, see What US Republicans mean by "reform" and Jon Stewart on Republican "class warfare" in fantasy and reality.

David Hirsh's "fitting tribute" to Norman Geras ...

... takes the form of linking to some important and valuably illuminating pieces that the man wrote.  One of the many subjects that Norm wrote about incisively was anti-semitism—in its historical and contemporary varieties, guises, and permutations.  (He didn't like it, and didn't think it was either trivial or excusable or "understandable", or that it could render itself immune to criticism by camouflaging itself as "anti-Zionism". He also disagreed with people who were reluctant to face up to its reality and significance.)  Here's David's post at Engage:
October 18, 2013 — David Hirsh

I am sad to report that Norman Geras, political philosopher and writer of normblog, died this morning.

He wrote with clarity, courage and commitment about contemporary antisemitism.  He wrote about lots of other things too.

The most fitting tribute I can think of is to link to things that he wrote:

On Alibi Antisemitism – major piece in Fathom.  (Jan 2013)

On Greg Philo’s work which says that Israel’s view of things dominates the media.  (Jun 2011)

On Jon Pike’s resignation from UCU.  (June 2009)

It doesn’t matter if criticism of and attitudes to Israel are anti-Semitic, so long as they are also anti-Zionist.  (April 2009)

On Antony Lerman and the ‘one state solution’.  (April 2009)

On Seaumas Milne’s apologetics for Ahmadinejad. (April 2009)

On the Israel-Nazi comparison.  (April 2009)

On accusations made against Israel of war crimes.  (Feb 2009)

Why a boycott would be antisemitic (in response to Martin Shaw). (Sep 2008)  More on Martin Shaw.  (September 2008)    And more still on Shaw (Oct 2008).

On resigning from UCU.  (July 2008)

On Tony Judt.  (Feb 2008)

On Norman Finkelstein and academic freedom.  (June 2007)

On Steven Rose.  (June 2006)

On Jews for Justice for Palestinians.  (April 2006)  And also here on JFJFP.  (August 2006)

On singling out Israel.  (June 2005)
Yours for reality-based & morally serious discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

Norman Geras: 1943-2013

A visitor to normblog, the on-line beacon of moral, intellectual, and political sanity run since August 2003 by the political philosopher, public intellectual, and Alpha Blogger Norman Geras, will find this sad and startling announcement:
I am very sad to announce that Norm died in Addenbrooke's hospital in Cambridge in the early hours of this morning. Writing this blog, and communicating with all his readers, has brought him an enormous amount of pleasure in the last ten years. I know that since writing here about his illness earlier in the year he received a lot of support from many of you, and that has meant a great deal to him, and to us, his family. The blog and all its archives will remain online.

Jenny Geras (Norm's daughter), 18 October 2013
I have been a great admirer of Norm's and counted him as a friend, even though we met in person only a few times—we got to know each other through the blogosphere and the on-line polemical debates of the past decade, which sometimes serve as our era's closest approximation to the old 18th-century Republic of Letters. So this news hits me hard, and I'm still processing it. Meanwhile, I will just share the reaction that Shalom Lappin posted on Facebook, since it hits exactly the right notes:
I was devastated to hear that Norm Geras died today, after a long illness. He was a very good friend. He was also a progressive voice of rationality and profound decency in a difficult period of political turbulence. I will miss him.
So will I.

For some other reactions and appreciations, see here & here & here & here & here.

—Jeff Weintraub

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A solid majority of House Republicans just voted to crash the US economy and the world financial system

At the very last moment, the Republicans caved in and allowed their latest manufactured current crisis to be brought to an end. The scenario predicted by analysts like Noam Scheiber turned out to be correct. Facing what was starting to look like a public-relations debacle for the Republican Party, which might do significant electoral damage, the Senate Republicans would work out a deal with the Senate Democrats—amounting essentially to what House Speaker John Boehner had described as "unconditional surrender" by the Republicans—which the full Senate would quickly pass. At that point, Scheiber predicted on Sunday, Boehner would be forced to bring the Senate deal to the House floor for a vote, despite major opposition and anger from within the House Republican caucus.
There is simply no House Republican leader who can resist a bill that many if not most Republicans want to see pass, a bill that has passed the Senate, and to which the only alternative is the complete annihilation of both the Republican Party and the global economy.
That part of Scheiber's analysis also turned out to be correct. The House then passed the deal, the partial government shutdown is over, the debt ceiling was not breached, and economic disaster has been averted ... for the moment.

Before we start to feel too relieved, however, it's important not to ignore some troubling aspects of the situation.

=>  First, this is a reprieve, not a solution. The US government is funded only through January 15, and the debt ceiling has been suspended only through February 7. There is a good chance that the Congressional Republicans will put us through another debt-ceiling crisis within the next few months, and will continue generating more crises indefinitely. This has become part of their normal modus operandi. To borrow one of my favorite phrases from the movie "Performance", expecting them not to do it again is like telling a mad dog not to bite.

=>  Second, even though the most catastrophic outcome was averted in this case, the Republican strategy of government-by-crisis-and-extortion has nevertheless done significant and accumulating damage to the US economy, to the effectiveness and legitimacy of our political system, and to America's position in the world—and will continue to do so. A report in today's New York Times spelled out some of this damage:
Even with the shutdown of the United States government and the threat of a default coming to an end, the cost of Congress’s gridlock has already run well into the billions, economists estimate. And the total will continue to grow even after the shutdown ends, partly because of uncertainty about whether lawmakers might reach another deadlock early next year.

A complete accounting will take months once the government reopens and the Treasury resumes adding to the country’s debt. But economists said that the intransigence of House Republicans would take a bite out of fourth-quarter growth, which will affect employment, business earnings and borrowing costs. The ripple from Washington will be felt around the globe.

“We saw huge effects during the summer of 2011, with consumer confidence hitting a 31-year low in August and third-quarter G.D.P. growing just 1.4 percent,” said Beth Ann Bovino, chief United States economist at Standard & Poor’s, referring to earlier brinkmanship over the debt ceiling. “Given that this round of debt ceiling negotiations” took place during a shutdown, she said, “the impact on the economy could be even more severe.” [....]

Moreover, this latest budget impasse came after years of similar episodes, and the economic ramifications have accumulated over time, analysts say. A new report from Macroeconomic Advisers, prepared for the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, estimates the costs of the fiscal uncertainty of the last few years. Its model suggests that uncertainty since late 2009 has increased certain corporate borrowing costs by 0.38 percentage point; lowered economic growth over that period by 0.3 percent a year, costing at least $150 billion in lost output; and left this year’s unemployment rate higher by 0.6 percentage point. That translates to 900,000 jobs lost.

The unusually rapid pace of deficit reduction, concentrated on goods and services the government delivers, has had a further damping effect on growth, swamping the cost of the relatively brief shutdown, economists said. Macroeconomic Advisers estimated the impact at about 0.7 percentage points of G.D.P. a year, equivalent to over $300 billion in lost output over the last three years. Additional cuts would slow the economy even more, economists say. [....]

The 16-day shutdown itself has already led to the biggest plunge in consumer confidence since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. [....] The gridlock also had ripple effects on many industries that rely on the federal government in one way or another. Import inspections, export financing and the issuance of oil and gas permits all slowed.  [Etc. ....]
=>  And third, even though the House of Representatives did pass the deal ending this crisis, it is important to notice that a solid majority of House Republicans voted against it. The measure passed 285-144, with the votes in favor cast by 198 Democrats plus 87 Republicans. All the negative votes were Republican. This means that among the 232 Republican Representatives in the House, 144 voted to kill the deal versus only 87 who voted in favor of accepting it (with one abstention). (For a detailed picture, see here.) Even at the bitter end, on the last possible day to defuse the crisis before the debt ceiling was breached, over 60% of House Republicans voted to push the US government into default, with incalculable but almost certainly catastrophic consequences. This is a very important point, with very ominous implications, that shouldn't be forgotten or obscured.

=> Is it unfair, one-sided, or exaggerated to suggest that the national Republican Party has become a dangerous menace to the republic, with no clearly visible redeeming features? I don't think so.

—Jeff Weintraub

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Republicans' latest manufactured crisis has ALREADY begun to damage the economy and America's position in the world (Felix Salmon)

An excellent piece by Felix Salmon (thanks to Brad DeLong for the tip) illuminates one more aspect of an ever-ramifying subject we might sum up with the title: "Why the US Republican Party Has Become a Threat to the Republic".  Does that statement sound like a facetious exaggeration? It isn't.

Salmon's basic point is the following: Even if some kind of last-minute deal is worked out in the next few days, and the US government is not actually pushed into a full-scale default for the first time in its history, that won't mean the country (or the world economy) gets off scot-free. This crisis has already done considerable damage ... and the accumulated damage from the whole series of crises that the Republicans have been deliberately generating ever since they won the House in 2010 is building up. Nor is there any reason to think that the Republicans are going to stop doing this, over and over, with no end in sight. In short:
The global faith in US institutions has already been undermined.  [....]  The Republicans in the House have already managed to inflict significant, lasting damage to the US and the global economy — even if they were to pass a completely clean bill tomorrow morning, which they won’t.  [....]  The only question is how much worse it’s going to get.
I recommend reading the whole thing, but some highlights are below.

—Jeff Weintraub

October 14, 2013
The default has already begun
By Felix Salmon

The big question in Washington this week is whether, in the words of the NYT, we’re going to see “a legislative failure and an economic catastrophe that could ripple through financial markets, foreign capitals, corporate boardrooms, state budget offices and the bank accounts of everyday investors”. In this conception — and I have subscribed to it just as much as anybody else — the sequester is bad, the shutdown is worse, and the default associated with hitting the debt ceiling is so catastrophic as to be unthinkable.

This frame is a useful one, not least for the politicians in Washington, who seem to have become inured to the suffering caused by the shutdown, and downright blasé about the negative consequences of the sequester. Both of them could last more or less indefinitely were it not for the debt ceiling, which is helpfully providing a hard-and-fast deadline: Congress is going to have to come up with a deal before the ceiling is reached, because the alternative is, well, the zombie apocalypse.

[....]  But at the same time, the situation is less binary than it looks, not least because the US government is already in default on its obligations.

The best way to look at this, I think, is that there’s a spectrum of default severities. At one end, you have the outright repudiation of sovereign debt, a la Ecuador in 2008; at the other end, you have the sequester, which involves telling a large number of government employees that the resources which were promised them will not, in fact, arrive. Both of them involve the government going back on its promises, but some promises are far more binding, and far more important, than others.

Right now, with the shutdown, we’ve already reached the point at which the government is breaking very important promises indeed: we promised to pay hundreds of thousands of government employees a certain amount on certain dates, in return for their honest work. We have broken that promise. Indeed, by Treasury’s own definition, it’s reasonable to say that we have already defaulted: surely, by any sensible conception, the salaries of government employees constitute "legal obligations of the US".

Conversely, if you really do expect zombies to start roaming the streets the minute that the US misses a payment on its Treasury obligations, you’re likely to be disappointed.  [....]
[JW:  Ironically, that situation will carry its own dangers.  When the world doesn't end the day after the US hits the debt ceiling, then the Congressional Republicans who generated the crisis, along with Fox News and the rest of the right-wing propaganda machine, will say that proves it was no big deal after all., so there's no urgency about finding a solution.]
The harm done to the global financial system by a Treasury debt default would not be caused by cash losses to bond investors. If you needed that interest payment, you could always just sell your Treasury bill instead, for an amount extremely close to the total principal and interest due. Rather, the harm done would be a function of the way in which the Treasury market is the risk-free vaseline which greases the entire financial system. If Treasury payments can’t be trusted entirely, then not only do all risk instruments need to be repriced, but so does the most basic counterparty risk of all. The US government, in one form or another, is a counterparty to every single financial player in the world. Its payments have to be certain, or else the whole house of cards risks collapsing — starting with the multi-trillion-dollar interest-rate derivatives market, and moving rapidly from there.

And here’s the problem: we’re already well past the point at which that certainty has been called into question. [....]

The vaseline, in other words, already has sand in it. The global faith in US institutions has already been undermined. The mechanism by which catastrophe would arise has already been set into motion. And as a result, economic growth in both the US and the rest of the world will be lower than it should be. Unemployment will be higher. Social unrest will be more destructive. These things aren’t as bad now as they would be if we actually got to a point of payment default. But even a payment default wouldn’t cause mass overnight failures: the catastrophe would be slower and nastier than that, less visible, less spectacular. We’re not talking the final scene of Fight Club, we’re talking more about another global credit crisis — where “credit” means “trust”, and “trust” means “trust in the US government as the one institution which cannot fail”.

While debt default is undoubtedly the worst of all possible worlds, then, the bonkers level of Washington dysfunction on display right now is nearly as bad. Every day that goes past is a day where trust and faith in the US government is evaporating — and once it has evaporated, it will never return. The Republicans in the House have already managed to inflict significant, lasting damage to the US and the global economy — even if they were to pass a completely clean bill tomorrow morning, which they won’t. The default has already started, and is already causing real harm. The only question is how much worse it’s going to get.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Why it's important that the Republicans don't just lose this confrontation, but lose visibly, decisively, and unambiguously

That's necessary not only from the perspective of Obama, the Democrats, and those of us who disagree with the Republicans' substantive agenda. Even more important, it's also essential in terms of the most fundamental considerations of the public interest. Otherwise, the Republicans will be encouraged to keep generating these crises indefinitely, using the threat of national default as a routine extortion tactic, and at some point they really will blow up the economy in the process. The Republicans have to know that they lost, and lost decisively; and that has to be apparent to everyone else, too. So a cave-in by Obama and the Congressional Democrats (like the one in 2011) would be not just unwise but reprehensible. And Obama also has to do a better job of shaping public perceptions of this crisis and its outcome, and delivering a clear and strong message about what is at stake here, than he has often done in the past. It's a question of defining, and defending, some basic norms of legitimate politics.

On Saturday Isaac Chotiner explained why, with admirable clarity
It is very hard to keep up with developments on the Hill, but it appears that talks between the House of Representatives and the Obama administration have broken down.  Focus is now shifting to the Senate, where perhaps Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell can come to some sort of deal. Since any agreement is almost certain to feature a compromise or fig leaf to ensure Republican support, attention will turn to the details of that compromise. Will there be a repeal of the medical device tax? Will there be entitlement cuts? What about the sequestration?
And now here is the really crucial point:
But the contents of the deal are not as relevant as the perception about who won and who lost. Indeed, the single most important development of the next week—arguably more important than a potential economic calamity—will be whether Republican hostage taking is perceived to have worked.

What was so scary about the Republican position was not merely its substance; rather, it was the idea of holding the world economy hostage. Thus, a number of liberal writers have suggested that it would be better to default than to go along with Republican demands, which, admittedly, have changed. The idea of repealing Obamacare seems to have faded from even some of the Party's most fevered minds. Still, there will be some sort of compromise, and that's where things get tricky.

If Republicans are seen as having won a large ransom, the debt ceiling fight would become a new norm in American politics, with eventually catastrophic results. Hostage-taking would become a regular occurrence. That's why perception means everything. In some undeniable sense, if Democrats fold on the medical device tax, they will have played into the hands of the hostage-takers. The same goes for giving in on spending levels, or whatever bargain is reached. Does this mean any compromise is therefore worthy of grave concern? Not necessarily. If Republicans get a win on the medical device tax but are generally considered to have been routed by the president, future hostage-taking becomes less likely. If the GOP is despondent and depressed, and the media coverage plays up their falling poll numbers, this disaster is unlikely to repeat itself. But if concessions are seen as a GOP win, then expect more hostage scenarios. Remember, Clinton went along with spending cuts as a way of ending the government shutdown in 1995. But the perception was that he had won a major victory over Republicans, and, consequently, we did not witness five more years of shutdowns. Of course a debt ceiling crisis is much more serious than a shutdown (we can be proud to currently face both). But the principle still holds. The medical device tax and cuts to entitlement programs are important on the merits. But in this case, and going forward, perception trumps reality.
—Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Fans of Durkheim will notice that, beyond the immediate political issues, this argument exemplifies a quasi-Durkheimian insight about one way that normative boundaries can be defined and maintained.

Noam Scheiber predicts that the Congressional Republicans will cave in and we will avoid economic disaster

Over the past few days I've posted two items suggesting, among other things, that the Congressional Republicans may actually wind up forcing the US government into default and, potentially, crashing the world financial system.  So it seems only fair to balance those with an intelligent and plausible analysis that suggests a more optimistic scenario (relatively speaking!) for the outcome of this crisis.

That analysis was presented yesterday by the New Republic's Noam Scheiber in an on-line piece titled "The Inevitable Republican Collapse That Will End the Shutdown: The grim, angry, loopy, and predetermined conclusion to Washington's crisis". Basically, Scheiber argues that at this point the Republican Congressional leadership, as well as a critical mass of House Republicans, realize that they face a public-relations debacle and potential electoral disaster if they don't find a way to back off from their present strategy before they push the economy, and themselves, off a cliff. A messy but non-catastrophic solution will be negotiated in the Senate, and then House Speaker Boehner will push the Senate's solution through the House by putting it to an up-or-down vote by the full House (despite the fact that this will provoke outrage among many Tea Party Republicans), at which point it will be passed by a large majority of House Democrats plus a sufficient minority of House Republicans.

Maybe. I hope he's right. But even if that punch-line turns out to be overly optimistic, Scheiber's analysis of the political dynamics of the current crisis and the processes leading up to the crisis is full of insightful and illuminating points. It's worth reading in full. Here are some highlights:
Setting aside the hourly thrust and parry between Democrats and Republicans, here’s how the shutdown is likely to end: Senate Majority Harry Reid is going to strike a deal with his Republican counterpart Mitch McConnell at some point in the next few days. The deal will reopen the government for a medium length of time—possibly till January 15, when the next round of sequester cuts kick in—giving the two sides time to replace the sequester with something more appealing. The deal will also raise the debt ceiling—maybe for as little as a few months, maybe until after the 2014 election. Reid will give up almost no concessions in return for any of this, with the exception of one or two symbolic items, and he’ll probably get some higher-than-sequester level of government funding (a top Democratic priority) for a month or two starting later this year. Pretty much every Democrat in the Senate will vote for the deal, along with at least five and maybe as many as 20 Republicans.

As the minutes tick away toward default this Thursday, the Reid-McConnell arrangement will be the only deal in town. With no alternative to avoiding a default, House Speaker John Boehner will add some small face-saving alteration and bring it to the floor, where it will pass with several dozen Republican votes and a large majority of Democrats. In doing so, Boehner will reprise the same formula he deployed in resolving last year’s fiscal cliff fight. I know this because it’s how the GOP has gotten out of pretty much every self-inflicted PR disaster of the Obama era, and it’s where the best reporting available suggests we’re headed today.

Of course, I could be wrong on the details.  [....]  But those are the basic contours of what a deal will look like, and they’re notable for what they almost certainly won’t include:  anything that has more than a trivial effect on Obamacare, any cuts to entitlements as the price of reopening the government or raising the debt ceiling (though Democrats may give a bit on entitlements in exchange for ending the sequester and some new revenue). Which is to say, the deal will include none the key demands the Republicans were hoping to achieve by shutting down the government.

Or, put differently:  On policy, the Republicans will end up either about where they were when they started this fight, or worse off. Politically, they’ll be in a far weaker place, having seen their public support collapse. Along both dimensions, they are faring worse than they did even in 1995-6, when Bill Clinton accepted some of their key demands, and when their approval ratings didn’t sink as low as the latest polls suggest they’re sinking now.
So that's the (guardedly) optimistic prediction. Next question:
How has it come to this? After all, there were reasons to think Republicans would be in a stronger position today than in the mid-‘90s. As my colleague Nate Cohn and other stats connoisseurs have pointed out, the public is more polarized along ideological lines than it was back then. That means a party can do its level best to piss off the entire country—and the GOP has really thrown itself into the challenge—and still retain the support of 45 percent of voters.

Likewise, most Republican House members represent such conservative districts—the average House district is 11 points  more Republican than the rest of the country—that they can simply disregard national poll numbers. [....]

Taken together, the data suggested there was a floor of public support below which Republicans simply wouldn’t drop, no matter how insanely they behaved, and that there would be no particular sense urgency driving them to strike a deal. These forces seemed likely to push the outcome of the conflict toward stalemate rather than toward a clean victory for the Dems.
Nevertheless, the Republicans managed to overreach pretty disastrously this time. The interesting questions have to do with how and why they did so—and although Scheiber doesn't really put it this way, why they're likely to do so again in the future.
What this analysis missed is that even in an age of hyper-polarization and geographic segregation, there are some tactics that go too far, alienating even voters who are ideologically or politically sympathetic to the GOP. And, unfortunately for Republicans, one of those tactics was extortion. Going into the shutdown, more people opposed Obamacare than supported it. But the idea of shutting down the government or threatening a debt default to undo Obamacare was massively unpopular. Most polls showed roughly three times as many voters against the idea as in favor of it.

Worse, precisely because the House GOP was so insulated from public opinion—because the average GOP congressman is much more concerned about a Tea-Party challenger than a general-election opponent—conservative Republicans couldn’t see that this tactic was completely counterproductive. Which is to say, the very forces that made Republicans better able to withstand a public backlash drove them to pursue the one tactic guaranteed to produce a backlash so intense even they couldn’t withstand it.

On top of which—and this is the biggest difference between today and the mid-'90s—the Republican Party is itself deeply, perhaps irreparably, split. In the ‘90s, we heard rumblings that Bob Dole, the GOP Senate majority leader, was unhappy about Newt Gingrich’s scorched-earth tactics. But there was nothing approaching the level of animosity that exists between today’s House and Senate Republicans, and between pragmatists and jihadis in the House. This time the divisions spilled into public view long before the shutdown started, and they only widened after that. As Jonathan Chait has pointed out, we no longer have a Democrat-versus-Republican showdown, as we did in the '90s. We have a Democrat versus Republican versus Tea Party free-for-all. And at times the poisonousness between sane Republicans and the jihadis overwhelms the contempt either side has for Democrats. [....]
On the other hand, as Matt Yglesias perceptively pointed out, the disagreements between the Republican right (those "pragmatists" mentioned by Scheiber) and the Republican ultra-right are mostly about political tactics. In terms of domestic issues (foreign policy is a slightly different matter) there is a pretty monolithic right-wing ideological consensus on substantive policies and goals.

The really key point is that the so-called "moderates" in the national Republican Party have been largely eliminated or marginalized, and the center of gravity in the party has been pushed so far to the right that people like McConnell or Boehner (and, lately, even some of the more intransigent right-wing extremists like Ryan or Cantor) start to look like "pragmatists" by comparison to the most ultra-right zealots. As Ronald Reagan once quipped, "Sometimes our right hand does not know what our far right hand is doing." However, to amend the metaphor a bit, this is a Frankenstein monster that people like McConnell and Boehner did a lot to help create and encourage.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see how we ended up here: The Tea Partiers, high on their own apocalyptic fantasies, force the GOP down a strategically catastrophic path. For a few days, they are convinced that victory is at hand. The feedback they get from their constituents is overwhelmingly positive. The right-wing media urges them on. They are convinced providence is on their side. “This is about the happiest I’ve seen members in a long time because we’ve seen we’re starting to win this dialogue,” Michele Bachmann told Sean Hannity on Day Two of the shutdown.

At this point, the Tea Partiers are so convinced of their own impending success that sober Republicans, mainstream reporters, even liberals begin to wonder if there isn’t something to it—if they haven’t badly underestimated the public’s appetite for thuggery. At which point it all collapses. The polls trickle in and they are horrific. The pragmatic wing of the party is completely demoralized. It lashes out more violently than before. The national media both encourages and adds to their derision of conservatives. Suddenly every Republican in town is shopping his own terms of surrender. [....]
In short:
The problem for the GOP is that, as insulated as the House jihadis are from national trends, Senate Republicans and House pragmatists emphatically are not. When the approval rating for Republicans drops nationally, these people are badly exposed. They begin to fear for their jobs. They become desperate to cut a deal—any deal—that will end their political pain. And once they do—once there is a deal that a large chunk of Republicans either explicitly sign onto or tacitly endorse—then it is game over for the House. There is simply no House Republican leader who can resist a bill that many if not most Republicans want to see pass, a bill that has passed the Senate, and to which the only alternative is the complete annihilation of both the Republican Party and the global economy.
As I said, this scenario is not inherently implausible, and it may actually turn out to be correct.  But it may also prove to be excessively optimistic.  We'll find out pretty soon.  And even if this particular crisis is resolved along the lines that Scheiber suggests, that will just be a reprieve, and not a real solution to the very deep pathologies of our political system.  (Among other things, those "pragmatic" and allegedly "sane" Republicans have been doing enormous damage on their own.  And if the zealots of the Republican ultra-right are deprived of the opportunity to blow up the world economy this time around, they and their supporters will undoubtedly charge that they were stabbed in the back by a RINO leadership and will look for another chance to try again.)  But in the meantime, let's hope Scheiber's analysis is correct, because the alternatives look pretty terrible.

Hoping for the best,
Jeff Weintraub

The Republican threat to crash the world financial system (finally) begins to send ripples of panic through the leading circles of world capitalism

To many people in the US financial and business elites, as well as major figures and organizations in international finance, it probably seemed inconceivable that the US would voluntarily throw away the enormous advantages it derives from the fact that the US government has never defaulted on its debts.  The "full faith and credit" of the US government is considered rock-solid, and US Treasury bonds are almost universally considered the safest investments in the world.  For these reasons among others, the US government can borrow money at ridiculously low interest rates—practically for free—and the benefits of this exceptional credit-worthiness, plus the central role of the US dollar in the world economy, cascade through the rest of the US economy.  A country might be willing to relinquish these enormous advantages, which took centuries to build up, for reasons of supreme emergency—in connection with an existentially threatening war or a revolution, for example.  But would one of the two major US political parties (and the one which is usually most solicitous of business interests, though there's stiff competition there) be willing to do it carelessly and recklessly, in the absence of a genuine emergency, merely in pursuit of partisan advantage?  No, the financial and business elites in the US and abroad seem to have felt that it would never actually happen, and that some solution would be worked out at the last moment.

Clearly, they underestimated the degree of radicalization and hyper-partisan fanaticism in the current Republican Party—and, in particular, the degree to which the Congressional Republicans are in thrall to their most extremist far-right elements.

Well, now that the last moment before imminent disaster is upon us, they seem to be starting to realize just how dysfunctional the US political system has actually become, and they are beginning to show some signs of panic.  Contrary to some of the debt-ceiling denialism that was starting to be fashionable in some right-wing circles here, they have started to issue public warnings that a US default really would be a Big Deal, with unpredictable but almost certainly disastrous consequences.  (Of course, they can't really come out and say explicitly that the Republicans are the problem, and some of them may not even be quite willing to face that reality themselves, but they're clearly hoping that the Republicans will pay attention to what they're saying.)  Too little, too late?  Quite possibly ... but we'll see.

Here are some highlights from a wrap-up in Sunday's New York Times ("World Leaders Press the U.S. on Fiscal Crisis"):
Leaders at World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings on Sunday pleaded, warned and cajoled: the United States must raise its debt ceiling and reopen its government or risk “massive disruption the world over,” as Christine Lagarde, the fund’s managing director, put it.

The fiscal problems of the United States overshadowed the official agendas for the meetings, with representatives from dozens of countries — including two of Washington’s most important economic partners, Saudi Arabia and China — publicly expressing worries about what was happening on Capitol Hill and in the White House.

The leaders came to Washington to talk about the international recovery, Ms. Lagarde said in an interview on the NBC News program “Meet the Press.” “Then they found out that the debt ceiling was the issue,” she added. “They found out that the government had shut down and that there was no remedy in sight.”

“So it really completely transformed the meeting in the last few days,” Ms. Lagarde said.

With only three days left before a potential default, Senate leaders failed on Sunday to reach agreement on a plan to reopen the government and raise the debt limit.

Many leaders at the World Bank and I.M.F. meetings said they believed the impasse would be resolved before Thursday, when the government would be at severe risk of not having enough money to pay all its bills on any given day going forward.
Of course, that's what they would like to believe; and this is probably what they feel they should say in public, even if they're secretly worried that it's wishful thinking.
But they pressed Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew and the Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke — who were both at the I.M.F. meeting — on the issue, predicting that even a near-default would lead to higher borrowing costs and a slowdown of the global economy.
The problem, of course, is that people like Lew and Bernanke know this already. They're not the ones who need to be convinced.
“This cannot happen, and this shall not happen,” Baudouin Prot, chairman of the French bank BNP Paribas, said at a meeting of the Institute of International Finance also being held in Washington. “The consequences of this would be absolutely disastrous.”

Mr. Lew acknowledged the threat. “Our work begins at home,” he said. “We recognize that the United States is the anchor of the international financial system. With the deepest and most liquid financial markets, when risk rises, the flight to safety and to quality brings investors to U.S. markets. But the United States cannot take this hard-earned reputation for granted.”

Participants at the meetings remained on edge, given the gravity of the threat. Ms. Lagarde said “that lack of certainty, that lack of trust in the U.S. signature” would disrupt the world economy.

Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, issued his own urgent appeal. “The fiscal standoff has to be resolved without delay,” he said in a statement released by the I.M.F.
Plutocratic circles here in the US also seem to be waking up to the danger, though at this point it's a little late.
Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, painted a bleak picture of the days ahead if there is no resolution.

“As you get closer to it, the panic will set in and something will happen,” Mr. Dimon said at the international institute event. “I don’t personally know when that problem starts.” [....]

Many of the high-ranking officials present in Washington for the meetings made open appeals to Congress, with warnings coming from many of Washington’s allies and creditors.
That formulation about "appeals to Congress" is understandable, but once again, it is important not to forget that "Congress" in general is not the problem here. The Congressional Republicans are the problem. And since it would be tactless for world financial leaders to say this bluntly, the rest of us need to do so.
Ms. Lagarde’s counterpart at the World Bank, the American physician Jim Yong Kim, said the world was “days away from a very dangerous moment.”

“The closer we get to the deadline the greater the impact will be for the developing world,” he said. [....]

Concern over the impasse has already led to a slide in stocks — including the worst two-day dip in months. American economic confidence has taken the worst hit since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. And investors have dumped certain short-term Treasury debt because of fears that the Treasury might not pay them back on time.

Markets ended last week with a burst of optimism, after House Republicans took the first steps toward a compromise. But that optimism faded over the weekend. On Sunday, with negotiations in the Senate stalled, the value of the dollar was sliding.

In the Asia-Pacific region early Monday, stock markets moved lower in Singapore, Taiwan and Australia. Markets in Hong Kong and Japan were shut for holidays. [....]

There has been much debate about how quickly problems will ripple through the economy before and after the deadline. [....] Much of the attention has been on the enormous outstanding pool of Treasury bonds and bills. Short-term government bills are used to grease the wheels for many financial transactions and provide a benchmark from which other assets are priced. If the value of that debt was suddenly drawn into question, markets could quickly seize up. [....]
It might seem incredible to imagine that the Republicans will really go through with their threat to force the US government into default and, potentially, crash the world financial system. But that outcome doesn't look at all implausible at this point. As I noted yesterday, a lot of the far-right zealots in the House Republican caucus, along with some Republican Senators like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, genuinely believe that pushing this apocalyptic strategy to the bitter end would be a good thing ... and some of the more reality-based elements in the Republican Congressional leadership, who have followed these extortion tactics out of cynical political calculation and irresponsibility rather than genuine zealotry, may well find they have backed themselves into a corner they can't easily get out of. Or perhaps some deal will be worked out that simply prolongs and extends this crisis for another month or so? Stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub

Sunday, October 13, 2013

As the latest manufactured crisis drags on ... we sometimes need to remind ourselves that the Republicans have proposed NO serious alternative to the Affordable Care Act

In a few items I posted back in mid-September, I considered what was then a looming question, "Will Congressional Republicans shut down the US government or blow up the economy?" It's clear in retrospect that I should have added the phrase "or both?"
As I noted yesterday, there is a very strong possibility that the near future the Congressional Republicans, not content with doing everything they can to sabotage the painfully slow recovery from the economic crash of 2008, will once again threaten to send the US government into default and disrupt the world economy by using a manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling for purposes of crude and irresponsible political extortion. Some analysts are predicting that this time around the Republican leadership will find a way to avoid a destructive full-scale crisis—not because it would be harmful to the country, but because they worry that it might be politically damaging to the Republican Party. But as I also noted, there are good reasons to worry that those predictions will turn out to be wishful thinking.
Wishful thinking, for sure. The Republicans did (partly) shut down the federal government, they did provoke a totally unnecessary and extremely dangerous crisis ... and they may wind up actually forcing the US government into default, with potentially disastrous consequences.  (As it is, they've already done real damage to the credibility of the "full faith and credit" of the US government.)

If some way is found to avoid this particular disaster on this particular occasion, it will only be a reprieve, not a real solution to the increasingly alarming pathologies of American national politics. As long as the Congressional Republicans continue to regard these blackmail threats as a promising and legitimate tactic for routine politics, and as long as they don't suffer any decisive political costs for doing so, then we can expect this series of cliffhangers to continue indefinitely.  In 2011 they used the threat of a blowing up the economy to demand contractionary fiscal policies whose predictable consequences were to sabotage the economic recovery.  This time, they have used this threat in order to undermine or destroy health care reform (along with pressing for a collection of other goodies from the right-wing wish-list).  Next time, it will be something else.  One can't help thinking of old-time movie serials like "The Perils of Pauline". But a better title for this long-running series that might be "Why the US Republican Party Has Become a Threat to the Republic" ... or perhaps, more mildly, "Let's Face It, The Republicans Are the Problem".

This latest crisis generated by the Congressional Republicans (let's not pretend that either Obama or the Congressional Democrats share any of the blame) brings together so many unpleasant, bizarre, and depressing elements that it's hard to deal with them all at once.  So for the moment I'll just focus on one aspect of the issue ostensibly driving this confrontation.  The Republicans have partly shut down the federal government, and are threatening to force the US government into default for the first time in our history, as tactics of political extortion in order to force Obama to cripple, or even abandon, the health care reform passed in 2010—technically called the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare.  Some of the main provisions of the Affordable Care Act just began going into effect, and Tea Party zealots of the Republican far right, dragging the rest of the Party with them, saw this as the moment for an apocalyptic last-ditch fight to prevent health care reform from being implemented by "defunding Obamacare".

=>  In the last few days there have been signs that at least some House Republicans, including figures in the Republican leadership like Paul Ryan and Eric Cantor who are certainly dangerous right-wing extremists but who don't have the kamikaze inclinations of Tea Party true believers, have begun to worry that this overreaching may have been a tactical error.  One factor that undoubtedly caught their attention was a series of recent polls showing widespread public disapproval for what they've been doing, leading them to fear that the government shutdown could turn into a public-relations debacle for the Republican Party (on an even bigger scale than the Gingrich shutdown in the 1990s).  Some House Republicans may be in the process of deciding that, in terms of their re-election chances, they are more afraid of voters' anger about the government shutdown than of the threat of a Tea Party primary challenge from (even further to) their right.  There have also been indications that some key figures of the plutocratic right were beginning to wake up to the potential dangers of the Tea Party Frankenstein monster they had helped to create.  So the Republicans began to get public warnings from figures like the Koch brothers, and even from op-eds in the editorial section of the Wall Street Journal, the premier propaganda organ of the plutocratic right, warning them that playing Russian roulette with the threat of a US government default "invites catastrophe".  (The Wall Street Journal's own editorials, which had previously been encouraging the Congressional Republicans to weaponize the debt ceiling and threaten to use it as a tool of political extortion, have recently been expressing such concerns in more coded language.)

So at least some of the Congressional Republicans may be looking for ways to get out of the corner they've painted themselves into.  But it would be wrong to feel prematurely optimistic about this.  The latest offer they've presented to the Obama administration and the Senate is un-serious and un-constructive to the point of absurdity.  They still refuse to pass a "clean" Continuing Resolution to re-open the federal government without attaching partisan conditions.  And they propose to lift the debt ceiling for just six weeks, while adding a provision that would deny the Treasury some of the flexibility necessary to delay default the next time this happens, and with a further debt-ceiling extension conditional on negotiations with the White House—which would mean that within a few weeks we would be back in this same blackmail/crisis situation we're in now, under even worse conditions.

The only reasonable solution to the crisis would be for the Republicans to agree to a long-term, unconditional raising of the debt ceiling.  (It would be nice if this were accompanied by a promise never to play with dynamite this way again, but I'm not holding my breath.)  And it would be reprehensibly unwise and irresponsible for Obama to agree to any deal short of this.  On the other hand, from the Republicans' perspective this reasonable solution to the crisis they've manufactured would look like "unconditional surrender" (to quote a phrase recently used by House Speaker John Boehner), and that's certainly a charge that will be hurled against the Republican leadership by the Tea Party and much of the far-right propaganda machinery.  So I think it's quite possible that they will choose to push the country into default rather than losing face.  That's what Saturday's news suggested.  We'll see.

=>  Meanwhile, back to the central pretext used by Congressional Republicans for this latest round of brinksmanship, "defunding Obamacare".  Let's put aside, for the moment, the fact that the Republicans are (once again) using extraordinary, irresponsible, and dangerous tactics in this fight that should not be accepted as legitimate or regarded as part of normal politics.  Do their hysterical criticisms of Obamacare, which they are using to justify their actions, actually raise valid substantive concerns.  The simple answer is no.  The more fleshed-out answer is even more damning.

Let's begin by recognizing that the health care reform embodied in the Affordable Care Act does have various flaws, limitations, and aspects that might be improved. Actually, some of the reasons for that have to do precisely with the moderate, limited, and insufficiently ambitious character of the reform that was actually enacted in 2010.  It is at heart a modified and nationalized version of RomneyCare—a half-Republican compromise solution in many respects.  Those compromises, which include retaining a key role for (profit-seeking) private health insurance companies and a very gradual phasing-in of some key provisions, account for some of the features that make the resulting package so complicated and so hard for many Americans to understand.  Some people would prefer to see a less complicated and more straightforwardly universalistic single-payer system. I'm one of those people.  It seems likely to me that, if it had been a realistically available option, some sort of single-payer system would be better than the Obamacare compromise—not to mention a huge improvement over the existing situation.  But the hard fact is that this was not a realistically available option, and under the circumstances something along the lines of Obamacare was probably the best package that could actually have been enacted.  (Though I do still wonder sometimes whether the White House gave up too early on the possibility of adding on a public option.)

But all that is hypothetical.  Do any of the criticisms of Obamacare actually being made by Republican politicians and pundits and the right-wing propaganda machine actually hold water?  No.  For example, they have been endlessly repeating the line that Obamacare is a "job killer" which will be catastrophic for small businesses and devastating to the economy—in fact, many right wing politicians and pundits have been claiming lately that Obamacare is already destroying the the economy, even though most of its provisions haven't even been implemented yet.  Is there any reason to take any of these claims seriously?  Not really, as James Surowiecki carefully explains in the latest New Yorker.  In reality, "Obamacare may well be the best thing Washington has done for American small business in decades."  (If we want to speak frankly, the biggest "job killer" in this country for the past four years has been the Republican Party, which has, in effect, been doing everything it could to sabotage the economic recovery and prevent unemployment from coming down.)  How about those "death panel" scares we kept hearing about a few years ago, the skyrocketing insurance premiums that Obamacare would produce, and so on?  All bogus.  And I haven't even touched on the wildest and most alarmist claims that have been flying around lately.

Of course, it is legitimate to ask whether, in principle, an alternative health care reform plan might be designed that is better than the one that emerged from the legislative sausage-grinder in 2009-2010 (in the face of monolithic and unremitting Republican obstructionism, sabotage, and mendacity).  I'm sure that, in principle, the answer is yes.  But as I've already noted, whether there was any realistically available alternative that had any politically credible chance of getting passed is a different question.  In practice, the alternative to passing the Affordable Care Act, in something close to its actual form, was almost certainly enacting no health care reform at all.  And that, in turn, would almost certainly have meant that for another decade or more no one would have been willing to make another serious effort to reform our highly unfair, costly, wasteful, and otherwise dysfunctional health care system—as happened after the defeat of Clinton's health-care initiative in the 1990s.

But it's important to emphasize that all these considerations of whether it might be possible to design a health care reform that would be better than Obamacare are, once again, purely hypothetical.  In the real world, neither the Congressional Republicans nor any other Republican figure of any consequence have ever proposed any serious, concrete alternative health care reform plan.  Yes, various right-wing think tanks and policy intellectuals have occasionally tried to come up with alternative plans and approaches intended to look serious and constructive, though none of them really looks very convincing.  (And if any elements from these plans were ever accepted by the Democrats and had a chance of getting passed, we can presume that the Republicans would then reject them—just like the right-wing bait-and-switch on the "individual mandate", an idea originally pushed by Republicans and right-wing think tanks that they now they now denounce as unconstitutional and tyrannical.)  But the point is that, so far, all this has remained in the realm of idle speculation and the occasional op-ed.  In the decades since the defeat of the Clinton health care reform, the Republicans have never actually proposed a concrete health care reform plan of their own.

I think this fundamental point needs to be re-emphasized, since Republican politicians and pundits sometimes try to pretend (or insinuate) otherwise.  The Republicans have proposed no serious alternative to the Affordable Care Act.  For a while they tried to obscure this embarrassing fact by claiming that they wanted to "repeal and replace" Obamacare.  But the "replace" part of that claim turned out to be empty, and in practice many of them found it difficult to keep pretending otherwise.  One especially revealing moment was provided by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in a TV interview in July 2012.  McConnell, who had been regurgitating the standard propaganda talking-points against Obamacare, was repeatedly pressed by Chris Wallace of Fox News, no less, to explain what the Republicans would do instead, if they controlled the White House and Congress, to provide health care coverage "to the 30 million people who are uninsured".  McConnell ducked the question several times, trying to run out the clock on the interview, and finally blurted out, "That is not the issue."  This gave the game away.

Later that month a column by the dissident conservative Republican Josh Barro (who has increasingly been turning into an ex-Republican) incisively spelled out the implications.  People who believe, or who try to pretend,
that undermining Obamacare is part of a long game to get a better health reform are mistaken. If there is Republican enthusiasm for "a health system reform that seeks to contain cost growth through progressive cost-sharing, deregulation designed to facilitate business-model innovation, and other market-oriented measures," [JW: Barro was quoting from a piece by  Reihan Salam that tried to concoct a speculative pseudo-sophisticated defense of Republican governors who were blocking Medicaid expansion to poor people in their states] then where was that reform (or even serious legislative action toward such a reform) when Republicans ran the federal government between 2001 and 2007?

The alternative to PPACA is nothing. Mitch McConnell’s comments last weekend were instructive -- Republicans in Congress have no meaningful plan to replace Obamacare and think that 30 million uninsured Americans is “not the issue.”

Conservative health wonks will object to my characterization. They will say they have many plans to use markets to drive down costs so that affordability is less of an issue. They may even advance plans that spend money to subsidize some sort of coverage for some expanded group of Americans. But Republicans have not taken them up on those plans when they have had the chance. That’s partly because expanding coverage costs money, and Republicans aren’t willing to spend money on it. And it’s partly because achieving significant cost control, even though market mechanisms, goes against the interests of groups that support Republicans, such as doctors and seniors.

There’s a reason Representative Paul Ryan’s plan to cut Medicare costs doesn’t even start affecting anyone for 10 years. The Republicans’ best electoral strategy on health care is to talk a good game but not implement reform with meaningful effects. If Republican governors refuse expanded Medicaid, those federal incentives won’t change.

This is a shame, because Reihan is right about one thing: There's a lot that’s undesirable about the PPACA model. [....]

Those are all things Republicans could have gotten if they had been willing to play ball on reform. But instead, they hunkered down and decided to throw everything they could at the law. [....] Turning down the Medicaid expansion [JW: as many Republican-controlled state governments have done] would be just another component of the obstruct-everywhere strategy.

Republicans might succeed in throwing enough wrenches in the law to prevent it from working, though that looks less and less likely following last week’s court decision. But nobody should fool himself into thinking the endgame is a sleeker, better reform that expands coverage and controls costs. If Republican lawmakers in the states decide to turn down Medicaid funds, the main effect will be many of their constituents going without health insurance.
=>  And that brings us back to the current crisis.  The great cause for which the Congressional Republicans have decided to engage in political blackmail and extortion, for which they are willing to bring the country to the edge of a constitutional crisis and to risk damaging not just the US economy but the whole world financial system, is to deny adequate, affordable, and reliable health care coverage to millions of Americans who currently don't have it.  That's really what's involved.  It's not that the Republicans have a better plan for reforming the health care system, a superior alternative to Obamacare.  There is no serious Republican alternative to Obamacare.

It's true that from time to time Congressional Republicans still try to go through the motions of pretending that they have a concrete alternative, or that they are working on coming up with a concrete alternative.  But whenever they do, the things they say turn out to be unserious and incoherent.  Back on September 17 Matt Yglesias noticed, and skewered, one particularly comical example:
Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., is supposedly ready to unveil House conservatives' long-awaited replacement for the Affordable Care Act. Based on this description, I'm very curious to see what they come up with:
“We address that to make sure that people with pre-existing conditions cannot be discriminated against,” he said.

He promised, however, that it would not “put in place mandates that increase the costs of health care and push people out of the insurance that they like.”
So here's one example of the kind of costly mandate that a free marketeer might want to avoid—a mandate that insurance companies not discriminate against customers with pre-existing conditions. Insuring a sick person, after all, is a lot more expensive than insuring a healthy person. So normally you want to charge sick people more. Discriminate against them, as it were. But if that's not allowed, then you'll have to raise prices across the board. And yet those higher prices are going to push people out of the insurance they like, leaving you with an even sicker group of people in your pool. That's the famous insurance "death spiral" that the Affordable Care Act is supposed to break with the injection of subsidies and penalties.

My strong suspicion is that Rep. Scalise is not in fact some kind of public policy prodigy who's thought his way out of a dilemma that's gone unsolved by the governments of all 50 U.S. states and every industrialized country on the planet. But maybe I'm wrong and we're all about to learn that 100 percent of the thorny political difficulties of Obamacare can just be waved away. That'd be nice.

Matthew Yglesias is Slate's business and economics correspondent. He is the author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.
We can laugh, and we should, but the joke may be on us.  The Republican Congressional leadership now seems to be trying to erase the bit about "defunding Obamacare" from the ransom note they presented with their blackmail threat.  But they've backed themselves into a corner they may not be able or willing to get out of—so in the end they may blow up the economy after all.  Stay tuned ...

—Jeff Weintraub