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“Sequestration Stupidity”: By All Measures, Austerity Policies Are An Unmitigated Disaster

A Mediterranean diet, the New England Journal of Medicine reported Monday, can lengthen one’s lifespan. So inhabitants of southern Europe can look forward to long lives — of anxiety and privation.

Already mired in a depression comparable to that of the 1930s, Spain, Greece and Portugal are going to see things grow worse this year, according to an annual economic forecast released by the European Commission on Friday. Unemployment rates in both Spain and Greece — where a quarter of the populations are unemployed and the share of jobless young people exceeds 50 percent — will rise to 27 percent.

At least the leaders in power in 1930 had an excuse when the economy began to collapse. Then, there was genuine bewilderment among economists and governmental chieftains across the political spectrum about how to induce a recovery. From British Laborite Ramsay MacDonald to the German centrist Heinrich Bruning to American conservative Herbert Hoover, leaders cut spending to bring their budgets into balance.

These austerity policies proved an unmitigated disaster. By reducing government spending while business and consumer spending were tanking, these heads of government constricted all economic activity. In turn, unemployment continued to soar. Frustrated with the inability of mainstream political parties to stop the collapse, voters in some nations turned to extremes — most notably, of course, in Germany.

Unlike their predecessors, today’s leaders have models on how to revive depressed economies. The example of Franklin Roosevelt, whose public investments in jobs and defense turned the U.S. economy around, and the writings of John Maynard Keynes, who demonstrated that the solution to depression is boosting demand, are plain for all to see. Seeing isn’t believing, however, when ideology dims the eye.

Today, in the spirit of the Bourbon kings who reclaimed power in post-Napoleonic France, having learned nothing during their years in exile, many European leaders are repeating the mistakes that their predecessors made in the ’30s: demanding that governments reduce spending even as their private-sector economies limp along. Only this time around, the miracle of the euro has greatly the reduced the autonomy of many continental nations while giving their creditor, Germany, control over their destinies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is imposing austerity budgets on other nations, even Spain, which had a string of balanced budgets before the 2008 collapse.

The economies of Mediterranean nations, the Merkelites complain, lag behind the productivity rates of their northern European neighbors. But boosting productivity — a goal that everyone embraces — requires more, not less, public investment in worker training, education, new industries and unemployment support. The relationship between austerity and heightened productivity, whose existence Merkel continually proclaims, is real enough — but in Europe’s current economy, the association is inverse.

As in the 1930s, despair about the economic options before them has driven many voters to bizarre extremes. A quarter of Italian voters cast ballots this week for the anti-austerity xenophobic party of a professional comedian. In Spain, a movement for Catalonian separatism is growing. More ominously, in Greece, an avowedly racist, fascist party involved in numerous instances of violence has won a bloc of seats in parliament. You might think Merkel would be cognizant of the links between economic hopelessness and the rise of fascism — but if she is, it hasn’t affected her austerity economics by so much as a pfennig.

The euro zone isn’t the only part of Europe where austerity is turning out to be a disaster. Britain is the one European nation that, since Prime Minister David Cameron’s conservatives came to power in 2010, has deliberately opted for punishing austerity to bring its budget into balance. As a result, the British economy has slowed to a crawl, and its budget remains in the red. Last week, Moody’s stripped Britain of its AAA credit rating. In anti-Keynesian theory, austerity economics are supposed to protect one’s triple-A rating, not endanger it. So much for anti-Keynesian theory.

The United States isn’t immune to Europe’s madness. The sequester slated to begin taking effect Friday is a particularly mindless form of an already stupid policy, poised to inflict a kind of blindfolded austerity at a time when unemployment remains high. Republican opponents of government spending, not to mention tea party activists, like to think of themselves as true-blue Americans while disparaging the Democrats as Euro-socialists. But it’s the Republicans who are embracing Europe’s failed economics while Democrats attempt to adhere to the American success story of the New Deal. Republicans might want to bone up on American history; it contains all kinds of valuable lessons.


By: Harold Meyerson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, February 26, 2013

February 28, 2013 Posted by | Sequester | , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“A High Tech Filibuster”: Congressional Hazing Of Chuck Hagel Was A Waste Of Time

Chris Dodd was a new, young senator in 1982, when C. Everett Koop was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to serve as the nation’s surgeon general. A lot of liberals like then-Senator Dodd didn’t like Koop, who was anti-abortion, and saw him as the embodiment of the Moral Majority conservatism they despised. Dodd, who was then in the Senate barely a year, voted against Koop’s nomination. The surgeon general was approved by the Senate anyway, 60-24.

Dodd matured as a legislator, and Koop developed into a surgeon general Democrats had not expected him to be. Despite heavy pressure from social conservatives, Koop refused to declare that abortions performed by a qualified medical doctor were bad for a woman’s health. He was a leader in the battle against AIDS—a no-brainer now, but in the considerably more conservative ’80s, when it was seen as a gay man’s disease, something of a scandal. Koop, who died this week at 96, also was aggressive in the fight against tobacco use, particularly among children.

Koop may have forgotten Dodd’s vote against him. Dodd didn’t. Years after the confirmation, Dodd wrote a letter to Koop apologizing for his “no” vote. “He did a wonderful job as Surgeon General of the country, and I voted against him over issues that I didn’t really think through very carefully. And I regretted that,” Dodd told an NBC interviewer.

Fast-forward to this week, and the world of the U.S. Senate looks much different. Threats to hold up nominees for a slew of offices, from cabinet secretary to U.S. Marshall, are appallingly common. Sometimes the filibuster threat is a means to another end, a way to pressure Democrats or the Obama administration to give in on an unrelated topic. And sometimes the holdup hinges on an argument that is difficult to defend: The nominee isn’t who the minority party would have picked, so he or she can’t have the job. It’s remarkable that anyone in the Senate could presume to tell the president who he should hire to advise him, even when the paychecks come from public funds. It would be wrong for a Democratic senator to attempt to withhold funding, say, for the payroll of a GOP colleague who hired like-minded staffers to advise him or her. So why can’t President Obama pick his own cabinet, short of selecting someone corrupt or blatantly incompetent?

Chuck Hagel has been on both sides of the equation, serving in the U.S. Senate, where he had to vote on numerous nominations, and facing a battle to be confirmed as defense secretary. Hagel is a Republican, he won two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, and served two terms in the U.S. Senate. But he was nominated by Obama, which is enough to taint any nominee in the eyes of some Republicans. They grilled him in the Armed Services Committee, which was to be expected. Some questioned whether he was anti-Semitic, based on a cheap and pejorative interpretation of comments Hagel had made about a pro-Israel lobby. And one senator, Ted Cruz of Texas, had the audacity to suggest, with zero evidence, that Hagel had received income from North Korea.

Hagel went through a high-tech, waste-of-time hazing before he was finally confirmed Wednesday evening, 58-41. In coming years, will any senator write a note of apology to the new defense secretary?


By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, February 27, 2013

February 28, 2013 Posted by | Senate | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Discrimination Is Real”: Section 5 Is Still Crucial To Maintaining Americans’ Right to Vote

Alabama gave us the Voting Rights Act when it violently suppressed peaceful marches in 1965, dramatizing the need for a strong law guaranteeing every American an equal right to vote regardless of race. Now, less than 50 years later, an Alabama county is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate the central provision of that law—Section 5. The court should decline the invitation.

The Voting Rights Act is widely acknowledged as the most effective piece of civil rights legislation in American history. It was passed to make real the promise of political equality in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Section 5 ensures state and local governments with a history of voting discrimination don’t implement new laws or practices that deny Americans the equal right to vote. Unfortunately, it is still sorely needed.

Our nation has made great progress toward racial equality since 1965. But discrimination is still real and distressingly widespread in jurisdictions covered by Section 5.

Leading up to the 2012 election, states passed a wave of restrictive laws that, had they gone into effect, would have made it harder for millions of eligible Americans to vote. These laws—which ranged from voter ID requirements to registration cutbacks to curbs on early voting —would have fallen most harshly on minorities.

Section 5 was critical in turning back the tide and stopping real discrimination. It blocked a discriminatory photo ID requirement in Texas, which required a kind of ID more than 600,000 eligible voters did not have. It required Florida to restore some early voting hours used especially by minority voters. And it blocked Texas redistricting maps after a federal court found they intentionally discriminated against Latino voters.

But Section 5 did much more: It deterred states from passing discriminatory laws in the first place. In South Carolina, lawmakers rejected a highly-restrictive voter ID requirement because they knew it wouldn’t pass muster. Instead, the state passed a law that was more flexible for the 216,000 registered citizens without driver’s licenses or nondriver’s IDs. A federal court approved the less restrictive version.

The last few years have seen some of the biggest fights over voting in decades. After an election marred by discriminatory voting laws and long lines in which minorities had to wait twice as long as whites, Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act is needed more than ever. Now is not the time to get rid of America’s most time-honored voting rights protection.


By: Wendy Weiser, Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, U.S. News and World Report, February 27, 2013

February 28, 2013 Posted by | Civil Rights, Voting Rights | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“In The Mosh Pit”: The Self-Centered Political Media

With many Americans alternately bored and infuriated by the latest made-for-TV fiscal melodrama in Washington, something highly unusual happened. A prominent, name-brand pundit published a column about the “sequestration” battle that was not merely smug, lazy and condescending, but factually false.

So what else is new, right?

What’s newsworthy is that when somebody he couldn’t ignore called him out, the columnist was forced to publicly eat his words. Newsworthy for two reasons: first, because regardless of what they claim about their strict code of professional ethics, Washington political journalists normally cover for each other like cops and Roman Catholic clerics.

It’s been going on for a generation, and worsening as TV stardom and the lecture circuit have made celebrity pundits wealthy.

Second, because of what David Brooks’ blunder says about the “fever swamp of the center,” as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait calls it: a mindset reflecting the desperate pretense that “both sides” are equally responsible for Washington’s endless budgetary crises, and all that’s necessary to resolve them is a mature spirit of compromise.

And maybe too what the whole charade says about the audience for such piffle: an American public that’s better informed about Tom Brady’s new contract and Kim Kardashian’s cup size than the national budget deficit.

How New York Times editors waved David Brooks’ column into print is a mystery. One had the impression things had improved there since the heyday of Jeff Gerth and Judith Miller—whose inept reporting helped bring us the Whitewater hoax and the Iraq War, respectively.

“The DC Dubstep,” Brooks called the column; the joke being that budget sequestration gave Democrats and Republicans alike a chance to do “the dance moves they enjoy the most.”

“Under the Permanent Campaign Shimmy,” Brooks wrote, “the president identifies a problem. Then he declines to come up with a proposal to address the problem. Then he comes up with a vague-but-politically-convenient concept that doesn’t address the problem (let’s raise taxes on the rich). Then he goes around the country blasting the opposition….The president hasn’t actually come up with a proposal to avert sequestration, let alone one that is politically plausible.”

Ha, ha, ha! See, Obama’s failure to lead then encourages Republicans to do the “Suicide Stage Dive,” working themselves “into a frenzy of self-admiration,” and leaping “into what they imagine is [sic] the loving arms of their adoring fans” only to “land with a thud on the floor.”

Probably a sober-sided fellow like Brooks shouldn’t attempt satire, which requires a subversive imagination. Also a regular on PBS and NPR, he plays a non-carnivorous Republican—conservative, yes, but not somebody who’s going to carry an AR-15 to a Washington cocktail party.

But the problem with Brooks’ column is more basic. Because love it or hate it, the White House long ago presented a detailed plan for averting sequestration. President Obama has been flying around the country talking it up every day. You can read it here.

Kevin Drum neatly summarized the contents: “specific cuts to entitlements, including the adoption of chained CPI for Social Security and $400 billion in various cuts to healthcare spending, along with further cuts to mandatory programs as well as to both defense and domestic discretionary programs. Altogether, it clocks in at $1.1 trillion in spending cuts and $700 billion in revenue increases, mostly gained from limiting tax deductions for high-end earners.”

In short, you can call the White House plan anything you like. But you can’t call it non-existent. The entire premise of Brooks’ column was false; the political equivalent of criticizing Bill Belichick’s poor coaching in the 2013 Super Bowl. (His team didn’t get there.) A sportswriter would be laughed out of the press room; maybe out of journalism.

But hey, it’s only national politics, and only the New York Times.

Enter Ezra Klein, the Washington Post’s ubiquitous blogger. An ambitious lad of 28, Klein had the temerity to pick up the phone. Apparently, the youngster didn’t understand that these things simply aren’t done. His column, he informed Brooks, was rubbish. Would he like to talk about it?

To his credit, Brooks did, but not before adding an online postscript to his column explaining that he’d “written in a mood of justified frustration over …fiscal idiocy,” and “should have acknowledged the balanced and tough-minded elements in the president’s approach.”

A transcript of Brooks’ deeply embarrassing conversation with his younger rival was posted online. Give him this much: Brooks definitely faced the music. So frank an admission of error rarely appears in the high-dollar press.

And what about you, dear reader?

Recently Bloomberg News published a poll. Asked if the nation’s budget deficit was growing or shrinking, only 6% answered correctly: it’s going down. This year’s projected deficit is $600 billion smaller than when President Obama took office.

If you didn’t know that, maybe you’re also part of the problem.


By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, February 27, 2013

February 28, 2013 Posted by | Journalists, Media | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Ending The Permanent Crisis”: These Problems Are Really Republican Problems

This has to stop.

Ever since they took control of the House of Representatives in 2011, Republicans have made journeys to the fiscal brink as commonplace as summertime visits to the beach or the ballpark. The country has been put through a series of destructive showdowns over budget issues we once resolved through the normal give-and-take of negotiations.

The old formula held that when government was divided between the parties, the contending sides should try to “meet in the middle.” But the current Republican leadership doesn’t know the meaning of the word “middle,” so intimidated by the tea party has it become.

Here is a way out of permanent crisis: President Obama should demand the repeal of all artificial deadlines and tell both houses of Congress that he won’t make further proposals until each actually passes a replacement to the sequester — not a gimmick or something that looks like an alternative, but the real thing.

With everyone on the record, normal discussions could begin, and Washington would no longer look like the set of a horror movie in which a new catastrophe lurks around every corner.

The solution to the problems of democracy is more democracy, so let both houses hold votes on all the potential remedies — on Obama’s own proposal, on packages put forward by Democrats Chris Van Hollen in the House and Patty Murray in the Senate, and on anything the Republicans care to proffer, including the sequester itself.

Let the House Republican majority show that it can come up with a substantial alternative or, failing that, allow a plan to pass with a mix of Republican and Democratic votes.

In the Senate, ditch the unconstitutional abuse of the filibuster and let a plan pass by simple-majority vote. Misuse of the filibuster is a central cause of Washington’s contorted policymaking. Let’s end the permanent budget crisis by governing ourselves though the majorities that every sane democracy uses.

The air of establishment Washington is filled with talk that Obama must “lead.” But Obama cannot force the House Republican majority to act if it doesn’t want to. He is (fortunately) not a dictator.

What Obama can do is expose the cause of this madness, which is the dysfunction of the Republican Party.

Journalists don’t like saying this because it sounds partisan. But the truth is the truth, whether it sounds partisan or not.

And a staunch conservative has succinctly explained why this problem really is a Republican problem. In an admirably candid interview Monday with Ezra Klein on MSNBC, Ben Domenech, a conservative blogger, said the new tea party Republicans in the House don’t want their leadership to sit down with Obama to talk because “they have their doubts about the ability of Republicans to negotiate any better situation.”

Read that carefully: We are in this mess because Republicans don’t trust their leaders to bargain. Domenech added that many conservatives “don’t buy this distinction between smart cuts and dumb cuts,” a distinction that is not “all that critical.” This is astonishing: Government is bad, so all cuts are more or less the same. And you wonder why we have a crisis?

House Speaker John Boehner keeps saying that the House has twice voted for ways to replace the sequester. What he doesn’t say is that those votes were held in the last Congress, so the bills are dead. If they are so good, why doesn’t the speaker bring them up again and pass them now? The answer is almost certainly that he doesn’t have the votes. If I’m wrong, Boehner can prove it by calling the question. I’m not worried.

One proposal Republicans are floating would give Obama more flexibility to administer the sequester. Thus, a party that says it can’t trust Obama enough to negotiate with him would trust him so much as to grant him exceptional power.

The contradiction is so glaring that Republicans are split on the idea, and it’s foolish anyway. As a senior administration official suggested, it’s like being told that two of your fingers will be cut off but you could choose which fingers. How is it a “concession” to ask Obama to organize the cuts he says would be a disaster?

The nation is exhausted with fake crises that voters thought they ended with their verdict in the last election. Those responsible for the Washington horror show should be held accountable. And only one party is using shutdowns, cliffs and debt ceilings as routine political weapons.

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, February 27, 2013

February 28, 2013 Posted by | Democracy, Sequester | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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