1+1=2, water is wet, and default is bad

Some good news for those in the reality-based community following the debt ceiling discussions in Washington: House Republican leaders are getting their head-in-the-sand brethren prepared to do the responsible thing and vote for a debt ceiling increase.  Amid reports of continuing private negotiating sessions—which, frankly, is how the negotiating should be done—Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan explained to the Republican conference the realities of what would happen if the U.S. government were to default on its loan payments, and it appears to have worked with some of them:

“He said if we pass Aug. 2, it would be like ‘Star Wars,'” said Rep. Scott DesJarlais, a freshman from Tennessee. “I don’t think the people who are railing against raising the debt ceiling fully understand that.”

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not wanting to raise the debt ceiling, with wishing it weren’t necessary; but there’s everything wrong with refusing to do it, with denying the overwhelming evidence that it will lead to serious economic problems for most of the country, because you’re trying to prove the validity of a discredited economic theory.  Extremists have co-opted the once-proud name of “Republican Party” to pursue their radical ends with some cover of respectability, and every one of us who didn’t do enough to shine the light of reason on their goals and tactics must take part of the blame for their current power.

Paul Krugman put some perspective on this in a column this week:

A number of commentators seem shocked at how unreasonable Republicans are being. “Has the G.O.P. gone insane?” they ask.

Why, yes, it has. But this isn’t something that just happened, it’s the culmination of a process that has been going on for decades.

(snip)

As The Times’s Nate Silver points out, the president has offered deals that are far to the right of what the average American voter prefers — in fact, if anything, they’re a bit to the right of what the average Republican voter prefers!

Yet Republicans are saying no. Indeed, they’re threatening to force a U.S. default, and create an economic crisis, unless they get a completely one-sided deal. And this was entirely predictable.

(snip)

Supply-side voodoo — which claims that tax cuts pay for themselves and/or that any rise in taxes would lead to economic collapse — has been a powerful force within the G.O.P. ever since Ronald Reagan embraced the concept of the Laffer curve. But the voodoo used to be contained. Reagan himself enacted significant tax increases, offsetting to a considerable extent his initial cuts.

(snip)

Recently, however, all restraint has vanished — indeed, it has been driven out of the party. Last year Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, asserted that the Bush tax cuts actually increased revenue — a claim completely at odds with the evidence — and also declared that this was “the view of virtually every Republican on that subject.”

(snip)

…those within the G.O.P. who had misgivings about the embrace of tax-cut fanaticism might have made a stronger stand if there had been any indication that such fanaticism came with a price, if outsiders had been willing to condemn those who took irresponsible positions.

(snip)

…there has been no pressure on the G.O.P. to show any kind of responsibility, or even rationality — and sure enough, it has gone off the deep end. If you’re surprised, that means that you were part of the problem.

I hope the report of House leadership having a “come to Jesus” meeting with the GOP conference is a sign that there is still some responsibility and rationality there that can be accessed to do what’s right for everyone.

Hypocrite or Liar

For a lot of you those are the only choices available to characterize your U.S. representative for his/her vote yesterday on the repeal of the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act.  I am not one of you (this time), but that doesn’t mean you can’t play the game.

The Republican Party majority in the House and Speaker John Boehner made it a top priority to vote on repeal of last year’s health care insurance reform.  They did it even though they know that the Democrats who control the Senate won’t bring it up for a vote there, and that even if the Senate voted for repeal the president would use his veto.  But they wanted to make a political point, get members on the record on this issue, and keep one promise in that Pledge to America many of them took last fall.  I don’t have an issue with any of that.

I do have an issue with a party that claims to be a champion of fiscal responsibility and deficit lowering voting for repeal after they all but covered their eyes and ears and refused to believe the Congressional Budget Office report which found that repeal would actually increase the deficit and leave more than 30 million more people without health insurance.  Boehner said CBO is entitled to its opinion!

If a CBO report is an opinion, it’s the considered opinion of the experts employed by Congress to provide lawmakers with numbers that are not influenced by political needs and desires…it’s the closest thing to a truly non-partisan statement you’ll find in Washington, D.C.  What’s more, a group of independent experts found that the Republican claim that the new health insurance law will kill jobs is not justified by the facts.  The GOP offered an analysis that claims the new law “may” make the nation’s fiscal situation worse; among others, economist Paul Krugman doesn’t think much of that report’s reasoning or logic.

OK, game time.  Here’s a list of how the members of the House voted on repeal of Obamacare; check to see if your rep, who campaigned as an agent of deficit reduction, got to Washington and started off by voting for a bill that would raise the deficit (if it ever became law, which it won’t).  Then you can  ask him/her what they hell they think they’re doing.

Why we are so polarized

A man opens fire on a crowd in front of a grocery store; six are dead and 13 more are wounded.  A quick and easy explanation that somehow blames a political enemy would be nice, right?  Not so fast…

doc4d290f6a042817218110492This discussion got jump-started last week after the Tucson shootings thanks to the rampant news media speculation that accused gunman Jared Loughner was encouraged in this crime by violent rhetoric from the political right.  It turns out, most Americans aren’t buying: in a CBS News poll nearly 60% say there is no connection at all.

But Loughner is mentally disturbed, and according to his friends his view of the world, and his imagined grudge against Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, were influenced by extremist conspiracy theories (read about a couple of them here and here).  And so, some argue, Loughner is responsible for the crime but was influenced by a world in which violent rebellion against those who would hijack “our America” is seen as an heroic act.

…if you decide to go kill a bunch of innocent people, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re not a picture of mental health. But that doesn’t sever the link between you and the people who inspired you, or insulate them from responsibility.

The quote is from Robert Wright’s Opinionator blog entry on Tuesday about the growing demonization of “the other” in our society.  He makes the point that any demagogue can whip up a fear frenzy among the gullible, that today’s technology allows each of us to shield ourselves from any competing point of view if we choose to, and that it’s easy to think the worst of people “you never communicate with, and whose views you never see depicted by anyone other than their adversaries.”

It feels true: most of us rarely discuss political issues with people who hold different views.  There seems to be no common ground from which to start a discussion, no one wants to hear what the other side has to say, and we end up beating each other over the head with talking points rather than exchanging ideas.

Paul Krugman attributes this to a deep divide in American political morality:

When people talk about partisan differences, they often seem to be implying that these differences are petty, matters that could be resolved with a bit of good will. But what we’re talking about here is a fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government.

He does a good job identifying the roots of today’s ballistic political tone, attributing it to a morally-based difference of opinion about what is appropriate, or constitutional, for our government to be doing.  A disagreement stemming from moral belief, as Krugman believes this one is, would be a disagreement not easily reconciled.

That doesn’t give us permission to stop talking to each other, or stop trying to find common ground, or to subtly encourage violent means to win the moral struggle.  Because then nobody wins.

Hard economic truth for $2000, Alex

If only that were the figure—the real issue on deck in Washington, D.C., the issue that drove last week’s election results, is economic recovery: when will the economy get stronger, when will job growth get stronger.  It’s the issue that all of most of the nation’s journalists largely ignored, except for predictable emotional pitches.  Alan Mutter recently pointed out the reasons why: the economy is a hard story to tell, and it has nothing to do with easy stories like who is the new president and what will he do, and why do we think he’ll do it, and what do the polls say about what the people think about what he’ll do.

…the myopic press stuck to covering the inside-the-Beltway story of the day – health care, Afghanistan, Supreme Court picks – instead of zeroing in on the things that really mattered to all but the very wealthiest Americans.  Things like: Will I keep my job? What will I do if I get fired? Can I keep my house? Will I be able to send my kids to college? How can I afford to retire?

It’s anybody’s guess if the myopia will be cured soon; the prognosis is not encouraging, but there’s always hope.  There are some trying to sound the alarm: Mutter points out Paul Krugman at the New York Times as one good example (and notes that the good professor is, in fact, not a journalist in the usual sense of the word, but an economist).  I’ll give kudos to Loren Steffy, the very good and very readable business columnist at Houston’s Leading Information Source.  He’s written an excellent summary of where we stand, and it’s not pretty.  Quoting the Congressional Budget Office,

“Unless policymakers restrain the growth of spending substantially, raise revenues significantly above their average percentage of (gross domestic product) of the past 40 years, or adopt some combination of those two approaches, persistent budget deficits will cause federal debt to rise to unsupportable levels.”

Some of the people crying about the national debt these days come off as wacky, but there is a scary kernel of truth in that cry and our government is going to have to address the problem—and blindly rubberstamping an extension of tax cuts followed by another round of collecting campaign donations from lobbyists is not the answer.

The national economy, at its core, is subject to the same rules as your household economy and mine.  If you spend more than you take in, you go into debt; reducing your income doesn’t magically translate into higher revenues; you pile up enough debt and most of your payments are going to the interest and very little to principal, and you never get out of debt.

I’m not saying you and I, or the government, should never borrow money, although it would be sweet not to have to.  But you borrow money to buy a house or a car; sometimes you have to charge to your credit card, like when the extra thousands it takes to buy a replacement air conditioner are not just sitting there in your savings.  But you can never borrow enough to repay all of the principal—ask Bernie Madoff.  At some point you have to bite the bullet and make unpopular choices.

Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka writes today about how the economic rescue plan known as TARP catches flak as an example of big government run amok, despite (a) the fact that it was dreamed up and implemented during the Bush Administration, allegedly a conservative regime that believed in small government, and (b) is costing less than one-tenth of the advertised $700 billion.  TARP was the best thing the administration could come up with to save the whole economy, and if some of the bad guys who caused the collapse got caught up in the rescue then we’re going to have to learn to live with that.

What will Congress and the president do to get this country’s economy headed in the right direction?  I hope more news agencies commit the resources to dig into the question and produce some journalism that will help the economic illiterati like me understand what’s going on.

For that to happen we need more of them to adopt the idea Jack Shafer discusses today in Slate: we don’t need journalists to be unbiased in the sense of not having an opinion on issues, we need more who are honest and curious and hard-working and are committed to using an objective process to reach some verifiable conclusions.

As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their 2001 book, The Elements of Journalism, traditionally, it was the journalistic method that was supposed to be objective, not the journalist. As long as the partisan journalist comes to verifiable conclusions, we shouldn’t worry too much about the direction from which he came.

This will require an agreement that there are—as a…well, as a matter of fact—certain verifiable truths, and abandoning the current craze of dismissing as biased any “facts” that don’t conform to one’s current opinions.  How about we start with a little optimism about each other on that score.

Sgt. Schultz would have been proud

It was Daniel Patrick Moynihan who said (that I first heard) that while a person is entitled to their own opinion, they are not entitled to their own facts.  The annoying trait among so many people lately–to accept as fact only that information which supports their beliefs, and to reflexively deny the…the factualness of what does not–is nicely addressed in today’s piece by Leonard Pitts, Jr.

[I] can remember a time when facts settled arguments. This is back before everything became a partisan shouting match, back before it was permissible to ignore or deride as “biased” anything that didn’t support your worldview.

If you and I had an argument and I produced facts from an authoritative source to back me up, you couldn’t just blow that off. You might try to undermine my facts, might counter with facts of your own, but you couldn’t just pretend my facts had no weight or meaning.

But that’s the intellectual state of the union these days, as evidenced by all the people who still don’t believe the president was born in Hawaii or that the planet is warming.

(snip)

To listen to talk radio, to watch TV pundits, to read a newspaper’s online message board, is to realize that increasingly, we are a people estranged from critical thinking, divorced from logic, alienated from even objective truth. We admit no ideas that do not confirm us, hear no voices that do not echo us, sift out all information that does not validate what we wish to believe.

I submit that any people thus handicapped sow the seeds of their own decline; they respond to the world as they wish it were rather [than] to the world as it is.

Do you know what you call a person who does see the world as it is, and doesn’t like what he or she sees, and despite having the responsibility and the power to do something about it, doesn’t?  Yep: a member of the United States Congress.   Paul Krugman accuses Republicans, but they’re not alone on this.

At this point, then, Republicans insist that the deficit must be eliminated, but they’re not willing either to raise taxes or to support cuts in any major government programs. And they’re not willing to participate in serious bipartisan discussions, either, because that might force them to explain their plan — and there isn’t any plan, except to regain power.

Know-nothings, and do-nothings.  What worries me the most is the growing number of people in this country who have one foot in each camp.