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“Real Vs. Republican Populism”: How To Win The War On Inequality

So Republicans are going populist, or at least two of them are, reports The Daily Beast’s Patricia Murphy. And perhaps it’s only in the sense that unlike Mitt Romney and many in the House GOP, they’re not speaking of working people with contempt. Well, it’s a start. But I wish they’d pick up copies of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Oh, of course Ted Cruz and Rand Paul would find ways to pooh-pooh the book’s findings and conclusions, but it’s nice to think of them merely having to immerse themselves in empirical reality for a few hours instead of the magical economic fairy tales that undoubtedly constitute their usual diet.

If you’ve not heard of Piketty or Capital, it’s certainly the economic book of the year, and probably of the decade so far. (You can read Paul Krugman’s rave in The New York Review of Books here.) I admit I’ve only waded into it so far, but I went to see the author, a French economist, speak at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington to a room full of people who braved a hideous, monsoon-ish rain Tuesday morning. (The video of the event is here.) What Piketty has done, my economist friends tell me, is nothing short of revolutionary and deserves to change the way we think about wealth and inequality. Much more important, it also deserves to alter what we do about them.

Here’s the story in a ridiculously small nutshell. Thirty scholars collected data from 20 countries over about 100 years. Piketty pored over the data trying to pinpoint salient reasons for our insane levels pf income inequality, which is worse in the United States, where the richest 1 percent own nearly 40 percent of the wealth, than in most other advanced countries but hardly endemic to America.

The one key: In all times and places under study, the rate of return on capital increases at a faster rate than general economic growth. Growth averages 1, 1.5 percent. Rate of return averages 4 or 5 percent. So presto, the people with the capital—money and assets of all kinds, land and equipment and what have you—are getting richer a lot faster than the rest of us. And as Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert Solow, a panelist at the event, pointed out: “Note that this is not a market failure.” This disparity (r > g, in wonk-speak) is a feature, not a bug, as they say, and it’s just our fate, and on and on it shall go, as the rivers roll to the sea.

And is there anything we can do to mitigate this? Three things, said panelist Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute: 1) Make sure more people enjoy more access to r; 2) raise g; 3) lower r.

Now, if you are reasonably conversant in our economic debates, you already have some idea of what all this means. It means what Cruz and Paul would call “socialism” and what I would call “the kinds of reasonable, worker-focused economic policies this country had for about 40 years that were, on balance, the best years this country ever had.” We had large-scale public investment, near full employment at times, a more heavily unionized work force, a minimum wage that until 1968 kept pace with productivity, a more progressive tax system, a much more heavily regulated financial sector in which banks couldn’t gamble against themselves, and all the rest. Even with all these measures in place, r still grew faster than g, but not the way it does in today’s America.

In other words, Piketty makes the case that inequality will just grow and grow unless societies take affirmative steps to reduce the gap between the rate of return on capital and overall economic growth. The problem is the old one: In our present political climate, there’s not a chance of that happening.

As I sat there Tuesday morning, I kept wondering to myself: Is there any way a politician, a presidential candidate, can turn these concepts into plain English, something that can capture people’s imaginations—an answer to the right’s vacuous “a rising tide lifts all boats,” but which happens to have the benefit of being true? We now have ample evidence that the “rising tide” of the better part of the last 30 years has not lifted all boats. The ocean liners are getting farther and farther away from the pack.

I think there must be a way, but before we ponder that question, we first have to wonder whether the presidential candidate I have in mind (it’s not Cruz or Paul) even believes all this. I think she does, or most of it. But this is class politics—not “class warfare,” just class politics—and that hasn’t exactly been Hillary Clinton’s game over the years. The great question looming over her expected campaign is the extent to which she’ll address the inequality crisis head on.

Given the 1 percent’s ownership of our political system these days, we’re probably stuck with living out this crisis for a very long time, until even the 1 percenters are finally forced to agree that something has to be done. We seem a long way away from that. But things do change sometimes. “In 1910 in America, everybody would have said a progressive income tax was impossible,” Piketty said Tuesday. “It could not be permissible under the Constitution, and so forth. But, you know, things happen.” Three years later, we had one. So it’s not impossible. And if trickle-down could start on a dinner napkin, surely the process of reversing its malignant effects can start with a book.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, April 16, 2014

April 16, 2014 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Populism, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Wink, A Smile And A Voice Vote”: The House GOP’s Down-Low, Backhanded Endorsement Of Obamacare

It’s not all that often that the lead piece on the Drudge Report attacks Republicans, so it’s worth a little savoring when it happens, and this one is especially delectable. The link was to an AP story reporting that two weeks ago, House Republicans stealthily voted for a measure that changed an aspect of the Affordable Care Act.

What? I know. In other words, Congress amends bill it passed a few years ago. In a normal moral universe, this would scarcely qualify as news. But when we speak of the House of Representatives, we are in the modern Republican Party’s moral universe, and there, the rules are different.

You see, by agreeing to amend Obamacare, Republicans are acknowledging the law’s existence and legitimacy. The only things they’re supposed to be doing with Obamacare are burning copies of it on the Capitol steps and voting to repeal it. But here they’ve done the exact opposite. And what made it even worse was the way they did it. The change was very quietly tucked into a larger bill, the Medicare “doc fix,” which helps payments to doctors who serve Medicare patients keep pace with inflation. Only House majority leadership—the Republicans—can do that. And then, to make matters still worse, the yellow-bellied quislings passed the thing by voice vote, so no one had to be on the record.

The change, by the way, removes deductible caps from certain plans small businesses can offer their employees. This allows the employers, according to the AP, to offer cheaper plans to individuals who also have health savings accounts, which conservatives have been pushing for 15 or 20 years. Only around 30 percent of American businesses offer HSAs, and large employers are more likely to include them than small ones. Hence, the target of opportunity for HSA partisans. So the change accomplished a GOP policy goal. But funny thing: apparently not a single Republican member of the House trumpeted the change or even said a word about it when the vote took place March 27.

It hardly matters what the change was. It could have been that the purchase of armor-piercing bullets was now covered under Obamacare and it wouldn’t help: The fact that Republicans used the ACA as the vehicle with which to make this change was the crime. Oh, did I have a jolly afternoon reading through the comment thread at Free Republic:

“The uniparty at work!”

“Appeasement Weasels.”

“Voice vote.”

“And I’ll say it right now: The Republican Party does not want Obamacare to be repealed and will not support candidates who do. I’d love to have someone come back around November 1, 2016 and show me that this prediction was wrong.”

“The G.O.P. (GAVE OBAMA POWER) is the party that created RomneyCARE/ObamaCARE
and imposed it FOR ALL, FOR ROMNEY, FOREVER.”

“Bastards!”

You get the picture. So what do we take away from this?

I think we take away from it that some of these “Freepers,” as they’re called on that site, are on to something. Republicans don’t really want to repeal Obamacare. Or no: they almost certainly want to, but they know they probably can’t. So even while they froth away for the cameras and town-hall meetings, there’s another, smaller, darker part of them that knows the truth, or the likely truth, which is that Hillary Clinton appears likely to be the next president, the Democrats will recapture the Senate in 2016 or vastly increase their majority if they didn’t lose it in 2014, and by the end of the next President Clinton’s first term, Obamacare will be nailed to the floor.

Remember, this happened on March 27: four days before the ACA’s enrollment deadline arrived, and therefore well before anyone knew the number would hit the target of seven million. So they were out there, on Fox and on all those acidic radio shows they do, talking about what a world-historical failure Obamacare was going to prove to be in just a matter of days, while meanwhile, with no one recording the roll call, they were buying shares of it.

This brings to mind some things I’ve read about civil rights and the Dixiecrats. The liberal Northern senators used to chat among themselves in the early and mid-1960s, wondering which of their Southern colleagues really and truly believed the racist pollution that poured out of their mouths. The consensus at the time was that Strom Thurmond really did. Richard Russell. Most of them, however, sorta-kinda believed it but just said it, because they knew that as long as they were 110 percenters on what they called “the n——-r question,” they could get reelected ‘til the end of time provided they weren’t caught with the proverbial live boy or dead girl.

There’s a story in Phil Hart’s biography—Hart, of Michigan, was one of the Senate’s most liberal members, and one of the key movers of the Voting Rights Act—about an encounter he had with Mississippi’s James Eastland. Eastland was as hard-shell as they came. But somehow, he and Hart became friends anyway. And so one day on the Senate floor, after delivering himself of a hideous racial tirade, as he walked back toward his desk, Eastland caught his friend Hart’s eye and winked.

Who knows how much of that kind of winking is taking place on the House floor now? “Hey, Steny, I don’t really mean everything I say ’bout y’all, but old so-and-so from the next district over just gave one helluva stemwinder about health care the other day, and I can’t let myself be out-Obamacared, know’ut I mean?” Oh, of course some Republicans are fire-breathers and diehards. But others seem to understand that if you’re going to try to have actual policy impact in the real world, you have to play ball in the real world. And the real world is Obamacare.

The latter group is probably a minority now. But I’m betting that one day they’ll be the majority, and that that day is going to come sooner than most people think. Maybe even—although they sure won’t admit it—before November.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, April 7, 2014

April 8, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, House Republicans, Obamacare | , , , | Leave a comment

“Thinking Small”: Liberals, If You Really Want Your Activism To Have Impact, Set Your Sights Lower And Be In It For The Long Haul

There’s a discussion starting to bubble up in some corners, one that will grow in intensity as we approach 2016, asking where the left should go as Barack Obama heads for the exits a couple of years hence. In the latest issue of Harper’s, Adolph Reed offers a critique from the left of not just Obama but the liberals who support him. Our own Harold Meyerson offered a typically thoughtful criticism, to which Reed responded, but I’ll just add briefly that one of the many things I didn’t like about Reed’s piece was the way he poses a dichotomy for liberals between investing too much in winning presidential elections even if the Democrat is imperfect (not a complete waste of time, but close) and building a movement (much better), but doesn’t say what, specifically, this movement-building should consist of.

That’s a common problem. Movements are great, but creating and sustaining them is hard work, work most of us would rather not do. It also takes skill, timing, and a bit of luck. Most of us would agree that the decline of labor unions has been disastrous for the country in many ways, and I sometimes hear people say that what the left needs is a revival of the labor movement. That’d be great! If you have any ideas about how to do it, we’d all like to know.

Eight years ago I wrote a manifesto for liberals, and though not very many people read it, whenever I would speak to an audience about it, someone would always ask, “So what should we do? This isn’t an easy question to answer, but since the theme of the book was that liberals should learn from what conservatives had done right over the prior couple of decades, my best answer was to think nationally and act locally, in the same way conservatives do. Get a couple of friends together and stage a coup of your local Democratic committee. Run for school board, or dog catcher, or whatever office you think you can win. If you want to push the Democratic party to the left, trying to get Bernie Sanders to run for president isn’t going to do it. (Remember what a profound and lasting impact Kucinich for President had? Yeah.)

Reed would object that that sees activism only in relation to the Democratic party, which is true. It’s not the only kind of movement-building, but it’s a kind that works. Think about it this way: Mitch McConnell isn’t scared of the National Right To Life Committee; he knows that if they think he isn’t doing enough to outlaw abortion, there isn’t much they’re going to do about it. But over the last five years, he and every other national Republican have been absolutely terrified of the Tea Party. Why? Because the Tea Party has actually gotten Republican scalps.

Now the Tea Party is a unique case in the speed with which it accumulated power. But the principle of starting electorally at a low level still holds. The trouble is, the state rep race just isn’t as glamorous as the presidential race. Andrew Sabl gives an excellent account of why that is. He was responding to Markos Moulitsas’s argument that since Hillary Clinton is all but unbeatable, there’s no point in getting behind some kind of challenge to her from the left, and instead liberals should accept that Clinton is going to be the 2016 presidential nominee and focus on getting strong progressives elected in down-ballot races. I’ve weighed in on the presidential primary question (short version: HRC might be beaten by somebody, but not by an ideological crusade), but Sabl hits the nail on the head:

… the larger problem, not unique to progressives, lies in the incentives and capabilities of presidential campaigns, in their systematic, structural (and rational) attempts to obscure the above lessons in the service of driving donations and turnout. National campaigns, through the best technology and psychology money can buy, persuade us that giving them our money and time means becoming part of something important. (True! But it’s a small part.) They portray the consequences of every election as more epic and final than they are likely to be. They encourage the Hollywood fantasy that the presidential speeches that inspire partisans have the potential to sway huge numbers of moderate, and inattentive, voters. They crowd out our background awareness of how much policy that really matters—regarding taxes, roads, public transportation, schools, colleges, policing and public safety, public health, Medicaid coverage, and now health exchanges—is set by states, counties, and cities, not primarily by the President, nor by Congress. And the media, desperate to attract mass readers and viewers whose attention is drawn to the excitement and pageantry of national campaigns, have an interest in reinforcing these distorted impressions.

Indeed. And like Sabl, I’ll admit that I’m part of the problem—in 2016, I’m going to spend a lot more time writing about the presidential race than I will about anything else. But if you really want your activism to have impact, you have to set your sights lower, and be in it for the long haul. There’s a not-very-old saying that Republicans fear their base, while Democrats hate theirs. If you’re a liberal and you want to change that, the answer is to make high-ranking Democrats fear you. The reason they don’t isn’t that there haven’t been enough left-wing populist presidential campaigns. It’s that, unlike the right, the left hasn’t taken over the grass roots and started climbing up the tree, hurling off those who displease them along the way until the people at the top look down and conclude they have no choice but to give the base at least part of what they want.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, March 13, 2014

March 14, 2014 Posted by | Democrats, Elections, Liberals | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Batter Up”: GOP’s Whack A Mole Addiction

While the Republican presidential contenders were kumbaya-ing at CPAC, evidence continued to mount over which of them gets to suffer the embarrassment of winning 180 electoral votes. A USA Today poll found that 59 percent of respondents said they will or might vote for Clinton. It showed enormous improvements in personal qualities (Is she likeable? Is she honest?, etc.) since the first time she ran for president. Respondents even thought that she was six years younger than she actually is!

What the CPAC goings on tell us, combined with a burst of polls showing Clinton wiping out Chris Christie and just mopping the floor with Jeb Bush, is that as they face 2016, the Republicans are in a situation that has almost no precedent in the party’s modern history. In practically every nomination battle going back to Tom Dewey—I’m not even going to tell you the year, but trust me, that’s going back!—the Republicans have had a chalk candidate. The establishment guy, the early front-runner.

Dewey, Dewey, Eisenhower, Eisenhower, Nixon, Rockefeller, Nixon, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, Reagan, Bush Sr., Bush Sr., Dole, Bush Jr., Bush Jr., McCain, Romney. These were the establishment nominees. You could make a case for William Scranton instead of Rocky in ’64, and you might argue, I guess, that at the start of the 1968 cycle, it wasn’t Nixon but George Romney, although he imploded in the pretty early innings. And anyway, I’m not sure Romney ever led Nixon in the polls. So these were the GOP establishment choices. You’ll have noted that only one of the whole bunch of them, Nelson Rockefeller, failed to capture the nomination.

Today? No chalk horse. Wide open. Christie was, but clearly isn’t anymore (by the way, Clinton leads him by 10 points—in New Jersey). Those who think Jeb Bush can step in and play this role are going on name and history, but they obviously aren’t looking at the numbers—Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee do just about as well against Clinton as Bush does. Establishment money might chase Bush if he got in, but there’s no evidence that votes would.

So this time it really could be almost anyone. The CPAC straw poll results suggest as much. It doesn’t mean much that Rand Paul won going away with 31 percent. He’s engineered to win CPAC straw polls. They’ll always overstate his support, although he is certainly among the front rank of aspirants right now. But look at the other numbers: Cruz, 11; Christie, 8; Rick Santorum, 7; Scott Walker, 7; Marco Rubio, 6. It’s a good bet that the nominee is going to be one of these people (counting Paul), and they’re packed in there pretty tight. That’s not a bad number for Rubio, whom the chattering classes have spent the last few weeks writing off (except Ross Douthat, who just yesterday suggested that a Rubio nomination was a distinct possibility.) I remember telling people in 2006 that I thought there was no way the GOP would nominate McCain in 2008, although I also said the opposite the following week.

It’s fascinating that this is happening at the precise time that the GOP establishment looks to be asserting control over the party at the congressional level. After two congressional election cycles during which the insurgent radicals started to take over, the establishment conservatives have said enough and started their own organizations to beat back Tea Party challenges to incumbents (the Times ran a good summary on this Sunday). The early sense is that for the most part, the establishment will succeed at this task. No more Christine O’Donnells on ballots. Most of the GOP incumbent senators being challenged from the right are probably going to end up winning their primaries. All those senators needed to see was what happened in Indiana in 2012, when the Tea Party wingnut beat the establishment Republican and then lost in the general, giving the state a Democratic senator even as Mitt Romney was beating Barack Obama there by 10 points, to conclude finally that they’d better clamp down on can’t-win-in-November extremism.

But it turns out they can’t contain it completely. It’s whack-a-mole, GOP style: They move to solve the problem at the congressional level, but lo and behold the mole pops up out of the presidential hole. If Christie is cleared, maybe matters will revert to normal. But even if he is cleared, he can’t turn back time; his image just isn’t what it was and never will be. He is already not quite Dole/McCain/Romney, the troika calumniated as sellouts by Cruz at his CPAC speech last week.

And thus the odds are strong that the GOP, for only the second time since 1944, is going to nominate an anti-establishment insurgent. Because, you know, they only lost in 2008 and 2012 because they failed to offer voters “a real choice.” Or so some of them say. So let them offer voters that choice. As they did in 1964, the voters will know what choice to make, and she’ll be a fine president.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, March 10, 2014

March 11, 2014 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, Republicans | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Cultivating The Right Wing”: Rand Paul Woos The Base With Hot Monica Lewinsky Talk

What on earth is Rand Paul thinking, bringing up Monica Lewinsky? On cable TV, they shake their talking heads: ancient history, irrelevant, etc. Quite true, it’s all those things. But in terms of intra-GOP presidential-positioning politics, I think it’s actually quite shrewd, and another sign that he is not to be underestimated in terms of possibly nabbing the GOP nomination. Unfortunately for Paul—although fortunately for America—it’s only shrewd in terms of intra-GOP politics. Among the rest of the electorate, responses will range from indifference to hostility, and the “GOP War on Women” narrative won’t suffer a scratch.

Here’s what Paul is doing. First, he’s getting right with the base. As a devolutionist-libertarian, he takes some unorthodox positions from the conservative point of view—his neo-isolationist, anti-neocon foreign policy views, his comparatively soft-line views on same-sex marriage (he’s not for it, but he’d leave it to the states). There are reasons, in other words, for hard-shell conservatives to give him the gimlet eye.

Given that, what are some ways to make conservatives think you’re “one of us” without having to alter those positions, which he surely knows would be a disaster for him, destroying the very basis of his appeal as principled and so on? Find something conservatives hate and say you hate it too. What bigger something than the Clintons? Well, there’s Obama, but hating on him is old hat. Dredging up Lewinsky, on the other hand, shows that some care was taken to cultivate conservatives. As Paul knows, Clinton-hatred is still mother’s milk for that crowd.

He is also, as Peter Beinart noted, aiming specifically at the Christian Right. He’s been doing this for some time now, talking, for example, of the persecution of Christian minorities around the world. His father never bothered much with evangelicals, an error the son, recognizing their importance in the Iowa GOP caucuses, clearly hopes not to make.

I think there’s a final reason, which emotionally is the most important of all. When Muhammad Ali was Cassius Clay, when he was still months away from a title shot against champ Sonny Liston, he’d knock out the latest second-rater in three rounds and then, when they stepped into the ring to interview him, carry on about how all he wanted was a fight with Liston: “I want that big brown bear!” The more he talked, the more promoters and fans were able to visualize a Clay-Liston fight.

The more Paul talks about the Clintons, the more he sets up the mental picture in the brains of Republican primary voters of him being the logical guy to step into the ring with them. After all, they’ll think, he’s sure not afraid of them!

It’s very smart (all this assumes of course that Hillary Clinton runs and is the Democratic nominee). All the other Republican candidates laying into the Clintons will look like Johnny-come-latelys. Paul spoke up first.

But the good it does him ends there. Here we return to the age-old Republican blind spot on issues relating to groups that don’t vote for them. Republicans think they can make everything better with words and symbolism. Just get our candidates to stop saying these stupid things like Todd Akin did. Speak respectfully. Sensitively. Appoint more women to high-profile thingies. It’ll be fine.

That isn’t how politics works. How politics works is that people actually care about substance to a surprising degree, and they know which party is representing their interests and which party is not. And women, by 12 percentage points at last count, know that Republicans are not. All right, it’s slightly more complicated than that—married women vote Republican, as do white women. But last I checked, African American women and Latina women and single women are women, too, and each of them has the same one vote that a married white woman has.

And overall—don’t take it from me, take it from the numbers—the women of America have decided that the GOP isn’t on their side. And it’s not because of the offal that flows out of the mouths of Todd Akin and company, really. It’s because of policies. And Rand Paul supports every one of those party policies.

Funny, but his libertarianism does not extend to giving a woman the right to decide whether to have an abortion. It did, however, in March 2012, extend to the “freedom” of religious institutions that were fighting the expanded requirement for contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act. You may remember the Blunt Amendment, which sought vast conscience exemptions from the coverage requirement. Paul voted for it.

I could keep going and going. Just last month, Paul floated the idea of a federal cap on welfare benefits for women who have more children. It is true that 16 states have such caps, and it’s not necessarily an ill-intentioned thought that saying “no more money for another child” might produce the desired effect of women not having those children. The problem is that in real life there seems to be no correlation. So the net effect is really just to increase the number of women and children living in poverty.

Then there’s little gem of a quote: “The whole thing with the War on Women, I sort of laughingly say, ‘yeah there might have been,’ but the women are winning it.” He said this two weeks ago. Let’s just say I doubt many professional women would agree.

If Paul really thinks that he can get women to overlook this record (and there’s much more) and decide to vote for him because Bill Clinton made some yakahoola with an intern, he’s as clueless as Reince Priebus is with his Latino and gay outreach. This is a case where the better scenario is that he’s just being cynical for the sake of snagging GOP votes. If he actually believes what he’s saying—well, God help us, but it does make him a natural to become the nominee of that party.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, February 12, 2014

February 14, 2014 Posted by | Rand Paul, Right Wing | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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