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Asking the Right Question July 29, 2010

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Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne asks the right question.

Can a nation remain a superpower if its internal politics are incorrigibly stupid?

I think the answer to that is no. Stupid politics leads to stupid policies that will continue to harm our interests and undermine our way of life.

What stupid politics does Dionne have in mind?

Start with taxes. In every other serious democracy, conservative political parties feel at least some obligation to match their tax policies with their spending plans. […]

That could never happen here because the fairy tale of supply-side economics insists that taxes are always too high, especially on the rich.

The simple truth is that the wealthy in the United States — the people who have made almost all the income gains in recent years — are undertaxed compared with everyone else.

Consider two reports from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. One, issued last month, highlighted findings from the Congressional Budget Office showing that “the gaps in after-tax income between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the middle and poorest fifths of the country more than tripled between 1979 and 2007.”

The other, from February, used Internal Revenue Service data to show that the effective federal income tax rate for the 400 taxpayers with the very highest incomes declined by nearly half in just over a decade, even as their pre-tax incomes have grown five times larger.

The study found that the top 400 households “paid 16.6 percent of their income in federal individual income taxes in 2007, down from 30 percent in 1995.” We are talking here about truly rich people. Using 2007 dollars, it took an adjusted gross income of at least $35 million to make the top 400 in 1992, and $139 million in 2007.

The notion that when we are fighting two wars, we’re not supposed to consider raising taxes on such Americans is one sign of a country that’s no longer serious. Why do so few foreign policy hawks acknowledge that if they lack the gumption to ask taxpayers to finance the projection of American military power, we won’t be able to project it in the long run?

Our discussion of the economic stimulus is another symptom of political irrationality. It’s entirely true that the $787 billion recovery package passed last year was not big enough to keep unemployment from rising above 9 percent. But this is not actually an argument against the stimulus. On the contrary, studies showing that the stimulus created or saved as many as 3 million jobs are very hard to refute. It’s much easier to pretend that all this money was wasted, although the evidence is overwhelming that we should have stimulated more.

Dionne goes on to lament the rules of the Senate which enable a minority of conservative Senators from small states who represent 11% of the population  to block legislation approved by Senators representing 89% of the public. That is not democracy—it is the very definition of tyranny.

The United States used to be the envy of the world, but on almost every dimension of flourishing—life expectancy, literacy, education, healthcare, exports, employment, poverty—the United States is falling behind the rest of the developed world.

And the public seems not to notice.

As I described in Reviving the Left, Republicans have prosecuted a so-called “values” agenda in which, regardless of how corrupt, dishonest, or incompetent they are, they are viewed by the public as authentically American. When that “values agenda” is supported by the financial resources of corporate America, it may be impossible in the short run to defeat the stupid.

Changes in values takes time—and generational change.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Will Responsible Journalism Return? July 28, 2010

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The mainstream media has been inept and quite frankly irresponsible in its reporting on rightwing shenanigans. But there is evidence they are beginning to get a clue.

Here is Time Magazine’s Mark Halperin, surely a representative of the mainstream media, taking issue with the reporting on the Shirley Sherrod matter:

…The Sherrod story is a reminder — much like the 2004 assault on John Kerry by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — that the old media are often swayed by controversies pushed by the conservative new media. In many quarters of the old media, there is concern about not appearing liberally biased, so stories emanating from the right are given more weight and less scrutiny.

Additionally, the conservative new media, particularly Fox News Channel and talk radio, are commercially successful, so the implicit logic followed by old-media decisionmakers is that if something is gaining currency in those precincts, it is a phenomenon that must be given attention. Most dangerously, conservative new media will often produce content that is so provocative and incendiary that the old media find it irresistible.

So the news-and-information conveyor belt moves stories like the Sherrod case from Point A to Point Z without any of the standards or norms of traditional journalism, not only resulting in grievous harm to the apparently blameless, such as Sherrod, but also crowding out news about virtually anything else.

Political discourse in this country will not improve until responsible members of the media push back against the corporate shills who occupy editors’ desks and regain their commitment to telling the truth. Maybe Halperin’s piece is evidence of a nascent return to responsible journalism.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Strawson on Free Will vs. Determinism July 27, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy.
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Philosopher Galen Strawson has a wonderful article on the topic of free will on the NY Times Blog. The article is accessible and brief. It is worth reading for anyone interested in whether we have free will or not. (The comments for the most part are hopeless)

The short Strawsonian  answer is “no” because any choice I make will be based on preferences, values, ideals or some other causal factor that I did not choose.

Some people are troubled by this, thinking that without free will we cannot be responsible for our actions. But Strawson shows why that conclusion does not follow.

He quotes the novelist Ian McEwan.

I can’t do better than the novelist Ian McEwan, who wrote to me: “I see no necessary disjunction between having no free will (those arguments seem watertight) and assuming moral responsibility for myself. The point is ownership. I own my past, my beginnings, my perceptions. And just as I will make myself responsible if my dog or child bites someone, or my car rolls backwards down a hill and causes damage, so I take on full accountability for the little ship of my being, even if I do not have control of its course. It is this sense of being the possessor of a consciousness that makes us feel responsible for it.”

I think Strawson is right. The important question is “Does it Matter?” Would our ethics or politics be better if we gave up the illusion of free will?

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Have You No Shame? July 26, 2010

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Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship appeared at the National Press Club last week. If you remember, Blankenship is the owner of the coal mine that exploded in April killing 29 mineworkers while exposing numerous safety violations and irresponsible business practices. Blankenship is also a vocal opponent of climate change science and an anti-union demagogue. Blankenship told the assembled reporters that industry needs less regulation and fewer legal obstacles because such safeguards are impeding the ability of businesspersons to “pursue their careers or their happiness.”

I guess the pursuit of happiness by those 29 mineworkers just doesn’t count.

Blankenship’s cluelessness motivated Dana Milbank’s Washington Post column on the conflict between the pursuit of profit and government regulation.

Poor CEO Blankenship. That mean federal government is not allowing him to pursue his happiness, just because his employees are dead. It brings to mind the sad plight of the BP CEO, Tony Hayward, who visited the Gulf Coast that his company has wrecked and complained that “I’d like my life back.” Happily, Hayward got his wish and returned to yachting.

It’s easy to paint Blankenship as a villain, with his moustache, double chin and rough edges (he twice lamented the “abstract poverty” in the world). But his theme — and his complete absence of corporate responsibility — is very much the message corporate America has adopted in this mid-term campaign year: If you’ve got a problem, blame the government.

Consider the efforts this month by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, once a center of moderate Republicanism that worked with both parties but now a sort of radicalized corporate Tea Party, spending $75 million this fall mostly to defeat Democrats. The chairman of the group’s board — on which Blankenship served until recently — accused the Obama administration and congressional Democrats of a “general attack on our free enterprise system.” Specifically, the chamber accused the Democrats of “an ill-advised course of government expansion, major tax increases, massive deficits, and job-destroying regulations.”

Taxes? The nonpartisan Tax Foundation in May described Americans’ tax burden in 2009 as the lowest since 1959. Job-destroying regulations? The lack of regulation on Wall Street led to a financial collapse that killed millions of jobs. Massive deficits? One of the biggest causes of the gap is the $800 billion stimulus package supported by — wait for it — the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. And the chamber wants the government to spend even more: It demands that Congress “quickly pass a multiyear federal surface transportation bill.” That would costs hundreds of billions more. And let’s not forget the chamber’s desire to “get the money from the government” to help pay for the BP oil cleanup.

Milbank accuses corporate culture of having “lost its sense of shame.”

Indeed. But it is not just corporate culture. As long as the public views government as the problem, there will be no one to push back against sociopaths like Blankenship and his ilk.

We get the democracy we deserve.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Why Any Rational Person Must Wish for the End of the Republican Party July 25, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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No doubt a healthy democracy requires competition between multiple parties. And although I am avowedly liberal in my political views, I recognize the value of conservative thought and the necessity of keeping the worst liberal instincts in check.

But this point of view requires an opposition party that has the good of the country as its aim and is capable of rational action.

Via Brad Delong, Martin Wolff, economics columnist for the Financial Times, makes the case that this does not describe today’s Republican Party.

My reading of contemporary Republican thinking is that there is no chance of any attempt to arrest adverse long-term fiscal trends should they return to power. Moreover, since the Republicans have no interest in doing anything sensible, the Democrats will gain nothing from trying to do much either. That is the lesson Democrats have to draw from the Clinton era’s successful frugality, which merely gave George W. Bush the opportunity to make massive (irresponsible and unsustainable) tax cuts…. Indeed, nothing may be done even if a genuine fiscal crisis were to emerge. According to my friend, Bruce Bartlett, a highly informed, if jaundiced, observer, some “conservatives” (in truth, extreme radicals) think a federal default would be an effective way to bring public spending they detest under control….

To understand modern Republican thinking on fiscal policy, we need to go back to perhaps the most politically brilliant (albeit economically unconvincing) idea in the history of fiscal policy: “supply-side economics”. Supply-side economics liberated conservatives from any need to insist on fiscal rectitude and balanced budgets. Supply-side economics said that one could cut taxes and balance budgets, because incentive effects would generate new activity and so higher revenue…. Supply-side economics… allowed them to promise lower taxes, lower deficits and, in effect, unchanged spending. Why should people not like this combination? Who does not like a free lunch?… [T]he Republicans were transformed from a balanced-budget party to a tax-cutting party. This innovative stance proved highly politically effective….

[T]he theory that cuts would pay for themselves has proved altogether wrong. That this might well be the case was evident: cutting tax rates from, say, 30 per cent to zero would unambiguously reduce revenue to zero. This is not to argue there were no incentive effects. But they were not large enough to offset the fiscal impact of the cuts…. Indeed, Greg Mankiw, no less, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under George W. Bush, has responded to the view that broad-based tax cuts would pay for themselves, as follows:

I did not find such a claim credible, based on the available evidence. I never have, and I still don’t.

Indeed, he has referred to those who believe this as “charlatans and cranks”. Those are his words, not mine, though I agree. They apply, in force, to contemporary Republicans, alas….

The evidence shows, then, that contemporary conservatives (unlike those of old) simply do not think deficits matter…. But this is not because the supply-side theory of self-financing tax cuts, on which Reagan era tax cuts were justified, has worked, but despite the fact it has not…. So, when Republicans assail the deficits under President Obama, are they to be taken seriously?… Yes, they are politically interested in blaming Mr Obama for deficits…. But no, it is not deficits themselves that worry Republicans, but rather how they are caused: deficits caused by tax cuts are fine; but spending increases brought in by Democrats are diabolical, unless on the military. Indeed, this is precisely what John Kyl (Arizona), a senior Republican senator, has just said:

[Y]ou should never raise taxes in order to cut taxes. Surely Congress has the authority, and it would be right to — if we decide we want to cut taxes to spur the economy, not to have to raise taxes in order to offset those costs. You do need to offset the cost of increased spending, and that’s what Republicans object to. But you should never have to offset the cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans

What conclusions should outsiders draw about the likely future of US fiscal policy? First, if Republicans win the mid-terms in November, as seems likely, they are surely going to come up with huge tax cut proposals (probably well beyond extending the already unaffordable Bush-era tax cuts). Second, the White House will probably veto these cuts, making itself even more politically unpopular. Third, some additional fiscal stimulus is, in fact, what the US needs, in the short term, even though across-the-board tax cuts are an extremely inefficient way of providing it. Fourth, the Republican proposals would not, alas, be short term, but dangerously long term, in their impact.

Finally, with one party indifferent to deficits, provided they are brought about by tax cuts, and the other party relatively fiscally responsible (well, everything is relative, after all), but opposed to spending cuts on core programmes, US fiscal policy is paralysed. I may think the policies of the UK government dangerously austere, but at least it can act.

This is extraordinarily dangerous. The danger does not arise from the fiscal deficits of today, but the attitudes to fiscal policy, over the long run, of one of the two main parties. Those radical conservatives (a small minority, I hope) who want to destroy the credit of the US federal government may succeed. If so, that would be the end of the US era of global dominance. The destruction of fiscal credibility could be the outcome of the policies of the party that considers itself the most patriotic.

In sum, a great deal of trouble lies ahead, for the US and the world.

Where am I wrong, if at all?

As Delong notes:

Nowhere. He is not wrong.

I think that there is little doubt that, should Republicans come to power, the global dominance of the U.S. will come to an end. The public is simply unwilling to bear any costs to keep our infrastructure, educational institutions, and social capital healthy. And that ignorance and lack of will is constantly reinforced by the Republican Party. The so-called tax revolt that Republicans have been exploiting for years is a cancer that will eviscerate our prosperity.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

More Racism from the Right July 22, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, politics.
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Anyone who doubts the fundamentally racist appeal of the Republican Party must watch this episode from Rachel Maddow.

The latest right-wing tactic is to scare white people into thinking blacks pose a threat to America. In the fever swamp of right wing imaginations, the fact we have a black President means they are taking over. But, as Maddow explains, this is not a new tactic—it harkens back to the 1960’s with the campaign of Alabama Governor George Wallace and Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy”.

The deliberately misleading video posted by right-wing provocateur Andrew Breitbart that led to the firing of Department of Agriculture official Shirley Sherrod is just the latest in a long sequence of racist publicity stunts perpetrated by a party that apparently is capable of any indecency.

But the fact that the Obama Administration responded by firing Sherrod without checking the facts shows that many Democrats including Obama still do not grasp the fact that conservatives are not a loyal opposition party intent on doing what is best for America.

A known right-wing provocateur, whose dishonesty is public knowledge, posts a short clip of a Sherrod speech on the Internet and the Administration fires her without trying to learn more, without talking to Sherrod, without even viewing the rest of the speech? I don’t think I have ever witnessed a more striking example of cowardice and stupidity.

And what does the media do? Instead of castigating Breitbart for being a liar and a bigot he is treated as a responsible member of the press while reporters focus on the Administration’s apology to Sherrod. As Steve Benen writes:

The media isn’t excoriating Breitbart, digging to find the original source of the video, or noting the racist themes in far-right attacks of late. Instead, it seems news outlets are fascinated by process, demanding to know who knew what when. Rather than quoting conservative Republicans in Congress going after the White House, the media has taken to highlighting concerns raised by liberal bloggers who are going after the White House.

It is hard to accept that 50 years after Jim Crow was put to rest racism returns as the official ideology of a mainstream political party.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Clueless July 21, 2010

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Education, politics.
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Last week, a coalition of civil rights organizations, students and parents filed a lawsuit charging California with an unconstitutional failure to provide adequate education for its K-12 students.

Meanwhile, the California Budget Project’s report on the state of our schools asserted that California’s school spending per pupil is near the bottom when compared to other states; it is last in school spending as a percentage of personal income;and  last in the number teachers, counselors, librarians, and administrators per student.

So what is Arnold Schwartzenegger’s solution. As reported by Peter Schrag:

A few days before, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had offered his contribution to improving the schools. As one way to streamline the state bureaucracy, he suggested, eliminate the post of the elected superintendent of schools. (Yes, it’s ironic, but it’s true).

“In California we elect a Superintendent of Public Instruction,” he said. “But why? We already have a Secretary of Education and a Board of Education. Why do we need a Superintendent of Education?”

That is it? That solves the problem of underfunding education?

As Schrag points out, Arnold is just not serious.

It’s not a new idea, in fact it’s antique, a staple of constitutional reformers for the past two decades. We have a stupid, convoluted system with an elected superintendent supposed to administrator policies established by a board appointed by the governor. And of course it’s the governor who, as much as anyone, controls the budget.

So the problem isn’t with the superintendant who has little independent power and little control over the budget.

Schwarzenegger does have a secretary of education – in fact he’s had many, too many to count, a revolving door of secretaries — but he hardly notices them. If there are any Throttlebottoms in his administration, the secretaries of education are among the leading candidates.

And Schrag goes on to shred California politicians for their negligence:

It’s hard to decide what’s most deplorable in this picture. Is it the additional hardships and disadvantages imposed on the state’s poorest kids, who have long been consigned to the poorest schools and, in a disproportionate number of cases, to the weakest teachers, and sometimes to no regular teachers at all?

Is it the fact that even the state’s white, middle-class students achieve lower scores on national tests than their peers in other states? Is it the fact that California’s college graduation rates are low in a nation whose own graduation rates have been steadily falling behind those of our economic competitors?

Or is it the short-sightedness of state policy where almost no one has the courage to point out that our overall tax burden compared to other states is about average, and  that contrary to myth, our great periods of economic growth coincided with higher taxes?

Of course Arnold is on his way out. What is Meg Whitman’s solution? More mass layoffs of public employees and further massive cuts to public services.

Yup. That will solve it.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Silver Linings July 20, 2010

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The Republican strategy in the upcoming mid-term elections is curious. As political analyst Ed Kilgore writes:

It’s been obvious for quite some time–dating back at least to the fall of 2008–that the Republican Party is undergoing an ideological transformation that really is historically unusual. Normally political parties that go through two consecutive really bad electoral cycles downplay ideology and conspicuously seek “the center.” Not today’s GOP, in which there are virtually no self-identified “moderates,” and all the internal pressure on politicians–and all is no exaggeration–is from the right.

This move to the right is bad for the country. The emergence of ideas that are bizarre, offensive, and delusional does not help our political process; it only poisons the discourse. But there is a good chance that this strategy may backfire. In addition to pushing into the limelight candidates like Sharon Angle and Rand Paul that are too far out of the mainstream to win elections, there may be long-term prospects that Democrats can exploit.

If, as is almost universally expected, Republicans have a very good midterm election year after a highly-self-conscious lurch to the right, will there be any force on earth limiting the tactical radicalism of conservatives going forward? I mean, really, there’s been almost no empirical evidence supporting the “move right and win” hypothesis up until now, and we see how fiercely it’s embraced by Republicans. Will 2010 serve as the eternal validator of the belief that America’s not just a “center-right country” but a country prepared to repudiate every progressive development of the last century or so?

That could well be the conviction some conservatives carry away from this election cycle, and if so, what would normally pass for the political “center” will be wide open for Democrats to occupy for the foreseeable future.

It is difficult to hope for the continuation of the lunatic ravings of Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann. The embarrassment of them being nominally American outweighs whatever comic possibilities they create. But if they continue to push the rightwing off the political map, the embarrassment might be assuaged by their increasing irrelevance.

Today is Wednesday, one of my optimistic days.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Sign of the Times July 19, 2010

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The United States’ technological development and infrastructure used to be the envy of the world. But no more. It is so much more important for each of us to save a few pennies on taxes than to make sure our roads are paved.

In North Dakota, they can no longer afford to repair their road surfaces:

“When [counties] had lots of money, they paved a lot of the roads and tried to make life easier for the people who lived out here,” said Stutsman County Highway Superintendant Mike Zimmerman, sifting the dusty black rubble through his fingers. “Now, it’s catching up to them.”

Outside this speck of a town, pop. 78, a 10-mile stretch of road had deteriorated to the point that residents reported seeing ducks floating in potholes, Mr. Zimmerman said. As the road wore out, the cost of repaving became too great. Last year, the county spent $400,000 on an RM300 Caterpillar rotary mixer to grind the road up, making it look more like the old homesteader trail it once was.

Paved roads, historical emblems of American achievement, are being torn up across rural America and replaced with gravel or other rough surfaces as counties struggle with tight budgets and dwindling state and federal revenue. State money for local roads was cut in many places amid budget shortfalls.

And not only in North Dakota:

In Michigan, at least 38 of the 83 counties have converted some asphalt roads to gravel in recent years. Last year, South Dakota turned at least 100 miles of asphalt road surfaces to gravel. Counties in Alabama and Pennsylvania have begun downgrading asphalt roads to cheaper chip-and-seal road, also known as “poor man’s pavement.” Some counties in Ohio are simply letting roads erode to gravel.

Hey. There are very few paved roads in Haiti. Think of the money they save.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com

Good News, Bad News July 15, 2010

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Kevin Drum is right on point, so I will let him speak for me today:

I’ve got some good news and some bad news for you today:

A broad overhaul of the nation’s financial regulatory system, intended to address the causes of the 2008 economic crisis and rewrite the rules for a more complex — and mistrustful — era on Wall Street, cleared one last procedural hurdle in the Senate on Thursday as it headed for final Congressional approval later in the day.

….With the Senate poised to send the bill to President Obama for his signature, the White House was already planning a ceremony — sometime next week — to mark completion of another landmark piece of legislation, following the enactment of the historic health care bill in March and last year’s major economic stimulus program.

Here’s the good news: this record of progressive accomplishment officially makes Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. And here’s the bad news: this shoddy collection of centrist, watered down, corporatist sellout legislation was all it took to make Obama the most successful domestic Democratic president of the last 40 years. Take your pick.

In any case, I think this probably marks the end of Obama’s major legislative agenda. I don’t give Congress much chance of passing a climate bill, and after the midterms the Democratic majority will either be gone or significantly reduced, making large-scale legislation just about impossible.

Still, if you’re a liberal, this is the best you’ve had it for a very long time. Whether this is cause for cheer or cause for discouragement is, I suspect, less a reflection on Obama than it is on America writ large.

Say what you will about Obama’s political strategies, he and the Democrats have indeed accomplished a lot. The fact that the American public disapproves of these accomplishments and is ready to throw the Democrats out of power, bringing back the minions of George Bush, tells us a lot more about the American people than it does about Obama.

book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com