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“In God We Trust”: In Congress We Stagnate

The House Republican leadership is determined to keep the  chamber’s schedule to important matters, freeing up congressmen to do more  important things, such as attend committee hearings and spend time in the  district. That is largely a good idea, as long as it doesn’t keep members from  spending time together and learning to work together.

What, then, possessed House leaders to allow the  following onto the  Tuesday schedule for bills to be considered “under  suspension” of the  rules?

“Reaffirming ‘In God We Trust‘ as the official motto of  the United  States and supporting and encouraging the public display of the   national motto in all public buildings, public schools, and other  government  institutions,” the resolution says.

Seriously? Is there any practical importance of this  resolution? They  surely can’t force schools or even government institutions to  display  the motto. Schools in particular might be reluctant to do so, rightly   worried about offending students and their families who worship  different gods  or no God at all. Let them worship learning. Let them  trust in scholarship and  study.

But that isn’t the point of the resolution—and bills  considered  “under suspension” (meaning they didn’t got through the committee process and require a supermajority for passage) don’t tend to have  serious  policy implications. They are all about campaigning, often to  convince a voter  group—in this case, religious voters—that Congress is  on their side. And  they are also meant, at times, to convince voters  that the other party isn’t on  their side.

If Congress wants to earn the trust of voters, it might  try something  that requires a bit more heavy lifting—passing legislation  meant to  create jobs, for example, or coming to a compromise on legislation to   avert the automatic cuts in domestic and defense spending set to occur  if the  so-called “super committee” cannot find an alternative. “In God  We Trust”  might be a nice slogan on a coin. But when it comes to  healing the ailing  economy, the vaunted phrase is barely worth the dime  it’s engraved on.

 

By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, November 1, 2011

November 1, 2011 Posted by | Economic Recovery, Economy, Elections | , , , , | Leave a comment

The GOP Conundrum: An Aversion To ‘Too Many Facts’

Republican pollster Ed Rogers recently reflected on “the psychology of GOP activists,” most notably in the context of the presidential nominating contest. (via DougJ)

Our team wants someone authentic, creative, fresh, bold and likeable. And we don’t have much tolerance for too many facts or too much information. In politics, a bumper sticker always beats an essay. Cain’s 9-9-9 is a bumper sticker; Romney’s economic plan is an essay. Perry’s rationale for giving the children of undocumented workers in-state college tuition rates is an essay. No hand-outs for illegal aliens is an effective bumper sticker.

It may seem rather insulting to rank-and-file Republican voters to hear a prominent GOP pollster say they have an aversion to “facts” and “information,” but that only makes Rogers’ candor that much more refreshing. His assessment may be mildly impolite, but it seems fair given what we’ve seen in Republican politics of late.

My larger concern, though, isn’t limited to Republican voters’ discomfort with evidence. The real problem, it seems to me, is that these voters are represented by Republican policymakers who also “don’t have much tolerance for too many facts or too much information.”

I continue to believe the radicalization of the Republican Party is the most important political development in recent decades, but it’s accompanied by a related trend: GOP officials who simply don’t take public policy seriously.

With Rogers’ assessment in mind, it’s tempting to think Republican lawmakers in Congress, for example, simply dumb things down for public consumption. They avoid depth of thought because these officials know their supporters “don’t have much tolerance for too many facts or too much information.”

But are they dumbing things down or are the shallow sound-bites a reflection of their own limited understanding of contemporary debates?

It would seem this dynamic contributes to the “wonk gap” — which has been evident for quite some time — leaving us with conservative “experts” who don’t even fully appreciate the details of policy debates in their own fields.

I’m reminded of something Jon Chait wrote in January, after National Review published a defense of a health care policy argument that was, on its face, ridiculous.

Most people are not policy wonks. We rely on trusted specialists to translate these details for us. This is true as well of elected officials and their advisors. Part of the extraordinary vitriol of the health care debate stems from the fact that, on the Republican side, even the specialists believe things that are simply patently untrue. As with climate change and supply-side economics, there isn’t even a common reality upon which to base the discussion.

Paul Krugman added at the time the wonk gap goes well beyond health care: “Monetary policy, fiscal policy, you name it, there’s a gap…. [T]o meet the right’s standards of political correctness now, you have to pass into another dimension, a dimension whose boundaries are that of imagination, untrammeled by things like arithmetic or logic.”

The issue is not just someone on the left thinking those on the right have the wrong answers. Rather, the issue is the lack of intellectual seriousness on the right, making it impossible to get beyond the questions. Much of this, I suspect, is the result of an entire party that doesn’t “have much tolerance for too many facts or too much information.”

By: Steve Benen, Contributing Writer, Washington Monthly Political Animal, October 31, 2011

November 1, 2011 Posted by | Elections, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Crash Lies”: Washington Post Discards All Journalistic Standards In Attack On Social Security

News outlets generally like to claim a separation between their editorial pages and their news pages. The Washington Post has long ignored this distinction in pursuing its agenda for cutting Social Security, however it took a big step further in tearing down this barrier with a lead front page story that would have been excluded from most opinion pages because of all the inaccuracies it contained.

The basic premise of the story, as expressed in the headline (“the debt fallout: how Social Security went ‘cash negative’ earlier than expected”) and the first paragraph (“Last year, as a debate over the runaway national debt gathered steam in Washington, Social Security passed a treacherous milestone. It went ‘cash negative.'”) is that Social Security faces some sort of crisis because it is paying out more in benefits than it collects in taxes. [The “runaway national debt” is also a Washington Post invention. The deficits have soared in recent years because of the economic downturn following the collapse of the housing bubble. No responsible newspaper would discuss this as problem of the budget as opposed to a problem with a horribly underemployed economy.]

This “treacherous milestone” is entirely the Post’s invention, it has absolutely nothing to do with the law that governs Social Security benefit payments. Under the law, as long as there is money in the trust fund, then Social Security is able to pay full benefits. There is literally no other possible interpretation of the law.

As the article notes, the trust fund currently holds $2.6 trillion in government bonds, so it is nowhere close to being unable to pay benefits. The whole point of building up the trust fund was to help cover costs at a future date when taxes would not be sufficient to cover full benefits. Rather than posing any sort of crisis, this is exactly what had been planned when Congress last made major changes to the program in 1983 based on the recommendations of the Greenspan commission.

The article makes great efforts to confuse readers about the status of the trust fund. It tells readers:

“The $2.6 trillion Social Security trust fund will provide little relief. The government has borrowed every cent and now must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more heavily from outside investors to keep benefit checks flowing.”

This is the same situation the government faces when Wall Street investment banker Peter Peterson or any other holder of government bonds decides to cash in their bonds when they become due. In such cases it “must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more heavily from outside investors.” The Post’s reporters and editors should understand this fact.

The article then goes on to incorrectly accuse Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of misrepresenting the finances of Social Security:

“In an MSNBC interview, he [Senator Reid] added: ‘Social Security does not add a single penny, not a dime, a nickel, a dollar to the budget problems we have. Never has and, for the next 30 years, it won’t do that.’

“Such statements have not been true since at least 2009, when the cost of monthly checks regularly began to exceed payroll tax collections. A spokesman said Reid stands by his comments and his view that Social Security is entirely self-financed.”

Of course Senator Reid is exactly right. The system is self-financed under the law. In 2009 it began drawing on the interest on the government bonds it held. That is exactly what the law dictates, when Social Security needs more money than it collects in taxes, it is supposed to draw on the bonds that were purchased with Social Security taxes in the past. This means it is self-financing.

Again, this is like Peter Peterson selling his government bonds to finance one of his political ventures. Just like Social Security, he is drawing on his own money. The Post may have missed it, but there was a big debate last summer over raising the government’s $14.3 trillion debt ceiling. This $14.3 trillion figure included the $2.6 trillion borrowed from Social Security. If Social Security sells some of these bonds and this money is used to pay benefits, it does not raise the debt subject to the ceiling by a penny. This is very simple and very clear.

The article then turns to Morgan Stanley director Erskine Bowles who describes a plan he put forward along with former Senator Alan Simpson, his co-chair on a deficit commission appointed by President Obama [the article wrongly describes this plan as being the commission’s plan. That is not true, the commission did not approve any plan.]

“It would have hit upper-income workers while raising benefits for the most needy, those with average lifetime earnings of less than $11,000 a year. ‘By making these relatively small changes, you make it solvent and you make it be there for people who depend on it,’” Bowles said. ‘I thought that’s what we as Democrats were supposed to be for.'”

Actually the plan put forward by Bowles and Simpson would have implied large cuts for most low-income workers who would not have met the work requirements needed for the higher benefit. The cut would have taken the form of a 0.3 percentage point reduction in the annual cost of living adjustment. This cut would be cumulative, after 15 years of retirement a beneficiary would be seeing a benefit that is roughly 4.5 percent lower as a result of the Bowles-Simpson plan. The plan also phased in an increase in the age for receiving full benefits to 69, which is also a benefit cut for lower income retirees.

For lower income retirees Social Security is the overwhelming majority of their income. This means that the benefit cut advocated by Bowles and Simpson would imply the loss of a much larger share of their income than the end of the Bush tax cuts would for the wealthy. However, the Post has never described the ending of these tax cuts as a “modest” or “small” tax increase.

It is also worth noting that “upper-income workers” who would face benefit cuts under the Bowles-Simpson plan are people with average earnings of more than $40,000 a year. This is not ordinarily viewed as the cutoff for upper income. In reference to the ending of the Bush tax cuts, the Post once ran a front page story questioning whether people earning $500,000 a year were wealthy. Clearly they apply a different standard to Social Security beneficiaries.

To push its line of fat and happy seniors the Post misrepresented research by Gene Steuerle on returns from Social Security taxes. At one point it told readers:

“That return is diminishing, in part because people today have paid more into the system than previous generations. But a two-earner, middle-income couple retiring this year can expect to get $913,000 in Social Security and Medicare benefits over their lifetimes, in return for $717,000 in payroll taxes.”

The trick in this picture is that the return refers to Social Security and Medicare, not just Social Security which is the topic of the article. The Steuerle paper actually has the Social Security returns shown separately in the exact same chart. Steuerle calculated that the two-earner couple referred to in the article would pay a bit less than $600,000 in taxes into the system and collect around $560,000 in benefits.

[This couple will get more back in Medicare benefits than they paid in taxes, but this is primarily because our health care costs twice as much per person as in any other wealthy country. This is a good argument for reforming the U.S. health care system but has nothing to do with the topic of the article.]

This article also repeatedly refers to the debate over cutting benefits as being an “ideological battle.” There is no evidence presented in this piece that there is any ideological issue at stake. On the one hand are hundreds of millions of workers who want to see the benefits that they paid for. On the other hand are many wealthy people, exemplified by people like Peter Peterson and Erskine Bowles who would rather use Social Security money to keep their own taxes low or to serve other purposes.

This is a battle over who gets the money. The references to ideology just confuse the situation.

By: Dean Baker, Center For Economic and Policy Research, October 29, 2011

November 1, 2011 Posted by | Deficits, Federal Budget | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“He Looked Beyond My Fault”: Herman Cain Can Do No Wrong

By an accident of timing, Herman Cain appeared on Monday morning at the intersection of 17th and M Streets, Northwest – the location of the National Restaurant Association, where he is alleged to have sexually harassed two women when he was the group’s chief executive.

The allegations, first reported by Politico, could not have come at a worse time for the front-running Republican presidential candidate: just ahead of a very public day of speeches in Washington. The first was scheduled at the American Enterprise Institute, which happens to be right across the street from the restaurant association. It was, as one political reporter at the AEI event put it, like going into the lion’s den wearing a Lady Gaga meat suit.

And so Cain did what he always does: He turned a devastating situation to his advantage. “By the way, folks, yes, I am an unconventional candidate,” he told the overflowing crowd. “And, yes, I do have a sense of humor. And some people have a problem with that. But . . . Herman is going to stay Herman.”

So the women who filed the complaints didn’t get his sense of humor? And that’s the end of it?

It just may be. This sort of scandal would end the career of many a politician. But the usual rules don’t apply to Herman Cain. He survives gaffes and scandal the way he beat colon cancer – and whatever doesn’t kill him makes him stronger.

He says he would negotiate a swap of terrorists at Gitmo – then claims he misunderstood the question. He claims abortion should be an individual choice – then again says he misunderstood. He proposes an electrified border fence that could kill immigrants from Mexico – then says people didn’t get the joke.

Evidence that he has said something dumb, or offensive, only confirms to his supporters that he is not another polished pol like Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. And so Cain doesn’t need to know what a neocon is, he can weather campaign-funding irregularities, he can have his campaign manager blow cigarette smoke in a campaign ad, he can skip the early primary states in favor of a book tour of the south, and he can sing about pizza to a John Lennon tune. If Herman Cain were found to be a serial killer, his supporters would take this, too, as reassuring evidence that he is not just another career politician.

This allows Cain to perform as a self-parody on the campaign trail, confident that whatever absurdity he comes up with will only add to his outsider mystique. Arriving on stage for the AEI speech, he began by asking his microphone be turned down because “I’ll blow this thing to smithereens.”

He then proceeded to blow up the usual political constraints. He responded to a British reporter with a phony English accent. When asked about energy policy, Cain said he’d get to it on day two of his administration. “Day one, I’m going to take a nap.” Asked about his prospects to remain a top-tier candidate, he replied: “This flavor of the week is now the flavor of the month, and it still tastes good.”

Cain’s hosts at AEI forbid any questions about the sexual harassment claims; ABC’s Jonathan Karl had the microphone taken from him and shut off when he tried to ask about the “big cloud” over Cain.

That had the effect of moving the reporters’ interest to Cain’s second appearance of the day, at the National Press Club. “I have never sexually harassed anyone,” the candidate said. If the trade group paid a settlement, “I hope it wasn’t for much.” (Later in the day he acknowledged remembering one of the settlements.)

So would he ask for records of the investigation to be released in order to shoot down the allegations? “No, there’s nothing to shoot down,” he replied, and “the policies of the restaurant association is not to divulge that information.”

Nothing to see here. Move along. And Cain did. He had more fun with his signature policy proposal (“How did we come up with 9-9-9? Why not 10-10-10, why not 8-8-8?). And he asserted his belief that life imitates the pizza business. “The way we renewed Godfather’s Pizza as a company is the same approach I will use to renew America.”

When asked to go beyond the slogans, Cain requested a lifeline, inviting advisor Rich Lowrie to answer the question for him. Though letting his aide field the tough stuff, Cain was happy to handle the final question himself – a request for a song. This time, Cain crooned a few bars from the hymn “He Looked Beyond My Fault.”

For Cain and his forgiving supporters, it could be a theme song.

November 1, 2011 Posted by | Immigration, Women | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Michele Bachmann’s Mis-statements May Be Catching Up To Her

Michele Bachmann was laying out a tough immigration policy recently when she  veered off script to make a point that she said underscored the national  security implications of a porous border.

“Fifty-nine thousand this year came across the  border, as was said in the introduction, from Yemen, from Syria. These are  nations that are state sponsors of terror,” the Minnesota congresswoman and  Republican presidential candidate said, citing a report she had heard. “They’re  coming into our country!”

There were two problems with Bachmann’s passionate assertion. Yemen is  not a state sponsor of terrorism, according to the State Department. And the  Border Patrol report to which Bachmann referred said that while 59,000  apprehended illegal immigrants came from countries other than Mexico, only 663  had ties to countries with links to terrorism.

Voters here frequently say they are drawn to support Bachmann’s  presidential campaign by the litany of statistics and facts that stud her  speeches. Yet what she says is often inaccurate, misleading or wildly  untrue.

All politicians occasionally shade the facts to their advantage. The  danger for Bachmann is that her misstatements are so pronounced and so numerous  that they erode her effort to regain footing in the presidential race. (Asked  for reaction, a campaign aide provided information unrelated to the statements  in question.)

Some of her misstatements have registered as eye-rolling blips, such as  when she confused actor John Wayne with serial killer John Wayne Gacy on the day  she entered the campaign in June. Others have damaged her candidacy.

She won points in a September debate when she assailed Texas Gov. Rick  Perry for supporting a proposed requirement that young girls be vaccinated  against a sexually transmitted disease. But then Bachmann told a post-debate  television audience that the vaccine had caused mental retardation, a conclusion  drawn from a brief meeting with a weeping mother. Bachmann’s hit against Perry  was lost in howls of dismay from physicians who said her untrue remarks would  discourage vaccination and endanger children.

On recent campaign swings through Iowa, she continued to trip over  matters large and small.

In Sioux Center, Bachmann said high corporate taxes and crushing  regulations had made the United States less competitive than other countries, a  mantra common among GOP candidates. But then she went further.

“If you want to have a business in China today, if you want to build a  building, you just build it, you don’t go through all the permitting process  that we do here,” she said.

Businesses have to apply for multiple permits in China. A 2008 World  Bank publication found that China was among the most difficult places anywhere  to obtain construction permits, ranking No. 176 of 181. The publication ranked  the best and worst places, and the United States fell in neither category.

At a rally in Denison, Bachmann touted her plan to slash federal taxes  and implied that taxes are higher now than when she was young.

“How many of you think that the taxes are too high in the United States?  We got any takers on that?” she said as the crowd roared in approval. “I grew up  in this wonderful state and I’ll tell you, the tax rate was completely different  years ago from what it is now, wasn’t it? They’re very high.”

In 2011, a married couple filing jointly would have paid 35 percent of  their income in taxes if they made $379,150, the lowest income in the top  bracket, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation. Fifty years ago, when  Bachmann was a child, the same couple would have paid 59 percent in federal  taxes. The lowest federal tax bracket today is half what it was then.

The candidate bases at least some of her assertions on obscure  conspiracy theories.

In Estherville, after a supporter asked her position on the Second  Amendment, Bachmann said she supported Americans’ rights to own guns and that  she had a permit to carry a concealed weapon.

But then she added: “I don’t believe in the U.N. taking that right away  from us, as well. There are international treaties that want to do that.”

The United Nations is drafting an arms treaty, but it is aimed at  stemming illegal international gun sales. While many gun manufacturers are  concerned that such a treaty could lead to broader gun registration, only a  narrow fringe purports that Americans could see their guns taken away by the  U.N., which has no authority over constitutional rights.

Bachmann’s mistakes predate her entry into the presidential race. In  November, she told a national television audience that a trip by President  Barack Obama to India cost $200 million a day. The report was based on an  anonymous quotation in an Indian newspaper.

The White House does not release cost figures for security reasons, but  people involved in travel by presidents from both political parties said the  number was grossly exaggerated.

An embarrassing correction also marked a recent Bachmann move on Capitol  Hill. Earlier this month, she introduced a bill requiring any woman considering  an abortion to undergo an ultrasound that pinpoints the heartbeat of the  fetus.

“A study by Focus on the Family found that when women who were undecided  about having an abortion were shown an ultrasound image of the baby, 78% chose  life,” Bachmann said.

That prompted a news release from the conservative organization, which  said that while it supports the legislation, it had produced no such report.

“We don’t have any ‘studies,’ and we don’t publish any percentages like  that,” Kelly Rosati, Focus on the Family’s vice president of community outreach,  said in a statement.

A Bachmann aide said the candidate got the statistic from a Des Moines  clinic. The aide also cited a report that appeared in the Rocky Mountain News of  Denver that cited a Focus on the Family statistician for a similar claim.

By: Seema Mehta, McClatchy-Tribune News Service, October 23, 2011

November 1, 2011 Posted by | Conservatives, Elections | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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