"Do or Do not. There is no try."

“The Silence Of The Austerians”: Here’s Why 2014 Could Be The Year America Finally Ditches Its Inane Deficit Obsession

The year 2013 will be seen as a year of crushing intellectual defeat for advocates of fiscal austerity. There were many smaller victories, but this big one came in April. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts examined the Austerian paper, “Growth in a Time of Debt,” by Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, which said that countries whose debt-to-GDP ratio reaches 90 percent experience dramatically slower growth. The UMass folks found not only dodgy statistics and backwards causation, but a goof in the paper’s Excel spreadsheet. The causation and statistics errors were more serious, but the fact that elites around the globe had gleefully embraced something with a flub any office temp could understand was horribly embarrassing.

It was an intellectual rout that badly wrong-footed the Austerians, who have since been notably half-hearted in the face of a resurgent left now campaigning on economic justice. This includes, for example, increasing Social Security benefits, which was unthinkable two years ago, when the fight to stop benefits from being cut was nearly lost.

The question for 2014, then, will be whether this triumph can be consolidated and expanded into the policy sphere. Because despite the intellectual collapse, Austerian assumptions and reasoning still dominate United States policy, which is undertaking fiscal consolidation at a pace not seen since the WWII demobilization. If the current Austerian death grip on the framework of policy negotiation can be broken, there might be a chance.

The answer to this question turns on how one views intellectual debate. Given the history of the last few years, one could be forgiven for thinking it’s pointless. As the Polish economist Michal Kalecki demonstrated brilliantly, there are powerful cultural and class-based reasons for both political and business elites to favor austerity now.

We see this today, as Steve Randy Waldman has demonstrated, in the blatant double standards applied to austerity as compared to inequality or raising the minimum wage. Consider a recent paper by the liberal economist Jared Bernstein, which, while outlining much excellent evidence about the economic harm of inequality, is stuffed with unnecessary hedging and hesitation. The Reinhart and Rogoff paper, by contrast, was weak even without knowing about the Excel and stats errors (as Paul Krugman, among others, observed at the time), but elites nearly tripped over their own feet seizing on it anyway. Their bogus “90 percent” conclusion was stated as economic fact by everyone from Paul Ryan to the Washington Post editorial board.

However, biased reasoning is different than no reasoning at all. Seizing on a fig leaf paper fulfills a deep psychological need. Current elites may be largely greedy, corrupt hypocrites, but the cultural credibility of science is such that what amounts to outright class warfare must have an “evidence-based” patina. It’s far too gauche to simply ram through one’s favored policies because you want all the money or to kick the poor.

Therefore, fiscal policy in 2014 and 2015 will hinge on whether the Austerian coalition can be split (assuming, as is probable, that progressive Democrats don’t sweep the 2014 midterms).

Roughly speaking, we’re talking about the center and the right, and there are good reasons to suppose that neither will be brought around. For the center, it takes an intellectual defeat roughly akin to the Battle of Trafalgar to get them to grudgingly abandon austerity. (And if some hack economist churns out another pro-austerity paper, they will probably grab it eagerly.) Meanwhile, “straight” reporters have been culturally conditioned to code deficit reduction as a non-ideological good thing, so even very recent straight reporting still contains buried Austerian assumptions.

And on the right, things look especially hopeless. Denial and motivated reasoning are so epidemic that even Mitt Romney believed the “unskewed” polls before the 2012 election. Ivory tower arguments alone are useless here.

However, all hope is not lost. The key is to change what is considered acceptable for budgetary negotiations. Right now, they all assume that any new spending must be “offset” by cuts elsewhere. That aversion to deficit spending is 100 percent Austerian.

So while Republicans are largely immune to evidence, it’s also true they don’t actually care about the deficit in and of itself. They favor reduced taxes on the rich and cutting social insurance. What’s more, conservative reformists at places like National Affairs have gotten louder and bolder in their advocacy of new thinking, even including infrastructure spending.

So if the center, especially including President Obama, can be persuaded to drop their deficit obsession (and again, it’s hardly possible to overstate how badly this debate has been lost), we could trade tax cuts for some austerity relief, like re-extending unemployment benefits and food stamps. And, it’s important to note, both spending increases and tax cuts count as austerity relief. Tax cuts, especially on the rich, aren’t very good stimulus, but they still put money into people’s pockets.

But the main point is to shift ground for negotiation. This strategy of “tax cuts for more spending” has been suggested many times in the past few years and gone nowhere. But before that, it had been the basis for many successful bipartisan deals, including expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and the CHIP program in the 1990s.

So while the deck is stacked against the anti-Austerians, continuing the intellectual battle is by no account useless. It’s highly possible to influence even a crooked debate.

By: Ryan Cooper, Web Editor of The Washington Monthly; Published in The New Republic, January 5, 2014

January 7, 2014 Posted by | Austerity, Deficits, Economic Inequality | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Bad History And Bad Policy”: The Hidden Consequences Of Snowden’s NSA Revelations

There is more than a little hypocrisy to the outcry that the government, through the National Security Agency (NSA), is systematically destroying Americans’ right to privacy. Edward Snowden’s revelations have been stripped of their social, technological and historical context. Unless you’ve camped in the Alaskan wilderness for two decades, you know — or should — that millions upon millions of Americans have consciously and, probably in most cases, eagerly surrendered much of their privacy by embracing the Internet and social media.

People do not open Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram accounts because they wish to shroud their lives in secrecy. They do not use online dating services or post videos on YouTube because they cherish their anonymity. The Internet is a vehicle for self-promotion, personal advertising and the pursuit of celebrity.

The Pew Research Center’s surveys confirm that these behaviors are now entirely mainstream. In 2013, 85 percent of Americans used the Internet. Of these, almost three-quarters (73 percent) belonged to social media sites (the biggest: Facebook). Almost one-fifth of adult Internet users have posted personal videos, many hoping, says Pew, that “their creations go viral.” Among people “single and looking” for mates, nearly two-fifths (38 percent) used online dating.

If Americans think their privacy is dangerously diminished, there are remedies. They can turn off their PCs, toss their smartphones and smash their tablets. Somehow, this seems unlikely, even though another Pew survey finds that “86 percent of adult Internet users have taken steps . . . to avoid surveillance by other people or organizations.”

To these conscious sacrifices of privacy must be added murkier, collateral losses that are orchestrated by the world’s Googles, Facebooks, service providers and “data brokers,” writes Alice Marwick of Fordham University in the New York Review of Books. They scan users’ digital decisions (sites visited, products and services purchased, habits and hobbies favored) to create databases, often merged with other socio-economic information. These target advertising, improve political appeals — President Obama’s campaign excelled at this — and influence hiring decisions, as Don Peck notes in the Atlantic.

The NSA’s damage to privacy is dwarfed by the impact of market activity. The sensationalism surrounding Snowden’s revelations obscures this. Case in point: The disclosure that U.S. telephone calls are open to NSA monitoring. Suddenly, Big Brother looms. In our mind’s eye, we see the NSA’s computers scouring our every phone call. We’re exposed to constant snooping and the possibility that the government will misuse the information it finds.

The reality is far more limited. The NSA is governed by legal restrictions. It does not examine the full database. It searches individual numbers only after it has determined there’s a “reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a number might be linked to terrorist groups. In 2012, there were 288 of these findings. After one is made, the NSA can retrieve three items about the number: the dates of calls made and received for five years; the other phones’ numbers; and the calls’ length. The NSA is not entitled to listen to conversations, but it can order similar searches on the other numbers involved. Thousands of calls are caught in the dragnet, but the total is puny compared with the untold billions of annual calls.

Whether these searches are effective in fighting terrorism is disputed. The NSA says they’re valuable. A panel of experts appointed by Obama concluded that the monitoring “was not essential to preventing attacks.” But more important for civil liberties and privacy, the panel found that present practices don’t approach past abuses. During the Vietnam War, the panel noted, the CIA investigated 300,000 anti-war critics. The government also sought to “expose, disrupt, and neutralize their efforts to affect public opinion.”

By all means, let’s debate the NSA. Some policies seem suspect, spying on the heads of friendly governments topping the list. It’s also important to recognize that government can coerce and punish in ways that private markets cannot. The potential for abuse is greater. But let’s also keep the debate in perspective.

In a digitized world, spying must be digitized. Then there’s cyberwarfare. Our electronic systems remain vulnerable, as the recent theft of data from millions of credit and debit cards at Target demonstrates. Government and the private sector need to collaborate more closely to protect vital systems. But these “efforts are as good as dead for the foreseeable future,” says Dmitri Alperovitch of CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity firm. The NSA controversy has “significantly damaged the trust between the private sector and government.” This may be the Snowden affair’s most insidious (and overlooked) consequence.

Vilifying the NSA — letting Snowden dictate the terms of debate — promotes bad history and bad policy. It’s bad history, because the most powerful assaults on privacy have originated in markets. It’s bad policy, because weakening the NSA leaves the United States more exposed to cyberattacks.


By: Robert Samuelson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, January 5, 2014

January 7, 2014 Posted by | Civil Liberties, Edward Snowden, National Security | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“A New Meaning Of Volunteerism”: Wisconsin Lawmaker Wants To Take Away Workers’ Weekends

Wisconsin state Sen. Glenn Grothman (R) is pushing to undo the state’s law that employers have to provide their employees with at least one day off a week, the Huffington Post reports.

The Huffington Post obtained an email Grothman sent to other state lawmakers on Friday in which he proposes legislation that “would allow an employee to voluntarily choose to work without one day of rest in seven.” State Rep. Mark Born (R) is sponsoring the legislation in the state Assembly.

Wisconsin is somewhat unique in having the law on its books. “Right now in Wisconsin, you’re not supposed to work seven days in a row, which is a little ridiculous because all sorts of people want to work seven days a week,” Grothman told The Huffington Post. But workers don’t have to get a day off every seven days, as they could work for up to 12 in a row “if the days of rest fall on the first and last days of the 2 week period,” according to the law. Grothman called the law “goofy” and called undoing it a matter of “freedom.”

While he argues that the law would ease workers’ ability to work overtime, it’s possible that employers would force their employees to work the extra time, making it less than voluntary. “It’s a very hard thing to know whether something is truly voluntary or not,” Vice President of the Economic Policy Institute Ross Eisenbrey told the Huffington Post. “If the employer puts pressure on people and lets them know they will be unhappy if workers exercise their right to have a day off, that might be enough so that no worker ever does anything but volunteer to work seven days a week.”

In fact, the power usually lies with employers and instances of them abusing labor laws are already on the rise. In 2009, two-thirds of low-income workers said they had experienced a wage law violation in the previous week alone. Wage theft, where an employer illegally withholds overtime pay or makes its employees work off the clock, robs low-wage workers of more money than is stolen from banks, gas stations and convenience stores combined. Actions filed in federal court alleging wage and hour violations increased by 400 percent between 2000 and 2011.

And the law doesn’t always come to workers’ rescue. In California, workers recovered less than half of what was taken from them from 2008 to 2011, and, worse, 83 percent of those who actually proved a case of wage theft still never got what they were owed.

American workers already put in more hours and are guaranteed less time off than most other developed peers. We work more than in any other industrialized countries. Unlike in the United States, it’s illegal in six of the 10 most competitive countries in the world to make workers put in more than 48 hours a week. The United States also lacks laws guaranteeing that workers can take time off if they or their family members are sick, will get vacation or holiday time off, or can take paid time off for the arrival of a new child. Many other developed and competitive countries, on the other hand, do guarantee these things.

Grothman would also go further and take away the national holiday for government workers on Martin Luther King, Jr., day. He was a sponsor of the country’s first preemption bill that blocked cities and local communities from enacting paid sick days legislation in Wisconsin.


By: Bryce Covert, Think Progress, January 5, 2014

January 7, 2014 Posted by | Wages, Wisconsin | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Social Justice Majority”: We Are Far More United Than Our Politics Permit Us To Be

Why are we arguing about issues that were settled decades ago? Why, for example, is it so hard to extend unemployment insurance at a time when the jobless rate nationally is still at 7 percent and higher than that in 21 states ?

As the Senate votes this week on help for the unemployed, Democrats will be scrambling to win support from the handful of Republicans they’ll need to get the required 60 votes. The GOP-led House, in the meantime, shows no signs of moving on the matter.

It hasn’t always been like this. It was not some socialist but a president named George W. Bush who declared: “These Americans rely on their unemployment benefits to pay for the mortgage or rent, food and other critical bills. They need our assistance in these difficult times, and we cannot let them down.”

Bush spoke those words, as Jason Sattler of the National Memo noted, in December 2002, when the unemployment rate was a full point lower than it is today.

Similarly, raising the minimum wage wasn’t always so complicated. The parties had their differences, but a solid block of Republicans once saw regular increases as a just way of spreading the benefits of economic growth.

The contention over unemployment insurance and the minimum wage reflects the larger problem in American politics. Rather than discussing what we need to do to secure our future, we are spending most of our energy re-litigating the past.

A substantial part of the conservative movement is now determined to blow up the national consensus that has prevailed since the Progressive and New Deal eras. The consensus envisions a capitalist economy tempered by government intervention to reduce inequities and soften the cruelties that the normal workings of the market can sometimes inflict.

This bipartisan understanding meant that conservatives such as Bush fully accepted that it was shameful to allow fellow citizens who had done nothing wrong to suffer because they had been temporarily overwhelmed by economic forces beyond their control.

The current debate is flawed for another reason: It persistently exaggerates how divided we are. Of course there are vast cultural differences across our nation. It’s not just a cliche that the worldview of a white evangelical Christian in Mississippi is quite distant from the outlook of a secularist on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. African Americans, Latinos, Asians and whites can offer rather diverse interpretations of the meaning of our national story.

But on core questions involving social justice, we are far more united than our politics permit us to be. A survey released at the end of December by Hart Research, a Democratic polling firm, found that Americans supported extending unemployment insurance by a margin of 55 percent to 34 percent. Several recent surveys, including a Fox News poll, found that about two-thirds of Americans support an increase in the minimum wage.

This leads to two conclusions. The first is that most Americans broadly accept the New Deal consensus. We may disagree about this or that regulation or spending program. We may squabble over exactly how our approaches to policy should be updated for a new century. But there is far more agreement among the American people than there is among Washington lobbies, members of Congress or political commentators on the core proposition that government should help us through rough patches and guarantee a certain level of economic fairness.

The second conclusion is that we have to stop letting the politics of culture wars so dominate our thinking that we forget how much we share when it comes to life’s day-to-day struggles and what we can do to ease them. Disputes over personal morals and lifestyle choices may get more page views or rating points, but they do little to improve anyone’s standard of living.

The minimum-wage increase is typically labeled a “liberal” idea. Yet many grass-roots Republicans see respect for those who work hard as rooted in sound conservative principles demanding decent compensation for a day’s labor. An evangelical might see fair pay as a biblical imperative while a secularist might view the question through a more worldly philosophical prism. Nonetheless, their distinctive reasoning processes lead them to the same place.

President Obama’s old line challenging the idea of red and blue Americas unalterably opposed to each other seems terribly outdated or naive. Electorally, at least, those divisions are still painfully obvious. But on matters of economic justice, we shouldn’t let a defective political system distract us from what we have in common.


By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, January 5, 2014

January 7, 2014 Posted by | Minimum Wage, Unemployment Benefits | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Snowden Conspiracies Are The Left’s Benghazi”: Much Ado About Terrible Crimes That Haven’t Actually Happened

Moscow has always been hard on idealists. So it’s no surprise to find the world-renowned civil libertarian Edward Snowden feeling shaky midway through his first Russian winter. In a televised Christmas message recorded by Britain’s Channel 4, Snowden waxed alternately as grandiose and apocalyptic as a Dostoyevsky character.

On one hand, the former NSA analyst who stole a hoard of classified documents from the spy agency and passed them around to selected journalists sees himself as a world historical figure.

“The mission’s already accomplished,” he told the Washington Post. “I already won. As soon as the journalists were able to work, everything that I had been trying to do was validated … I wanted to give society a chance to determine if it should change itself.”

On the other hand, we’re all doomed. Even George Orwell had no clue. Snowden insists that government surveillance has far outstripped anything dreamed of in the dystopian novel 1984.

“The types of collection in the book — microphones and video cameras, TVs that watch us — are nothing compared to what we have available today. We have sensors in our pockets that track us everywhere we go,” Snowden said. “Think about what this means for the privacy of the average person.”

“A child born today,” he lamented, “will … never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves (or) an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.”

Probably not, because they’ll post it on Facebook, along with kitten videos and photos of their lunch.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Frankly, I wonder if Snowden actually read 1984, which is less about surveillance techniques than the police state mentality: Big Brother, “War is Peace,” the Two Minutes Hate, children informing on their parents, etc.

Indeed, Snowden himself appears to exhibit a classic case of what Orwell called “doublethink.”

“To know and not to know,” Orwell wrote, “to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic … to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy.”

Or, to put it another way, to flee the totalitarian excesses of the U.S. government while taking refuge in countries where the concept of “privacy” scarcely exists. To condemn NSA snooping while handing its secrets to China, the world’s leading practitioner of computerized military and commercial espionage.

This is “mission accomplished”?

So no, I’m not buying Edward Snowden the savior. Whatever the man’s motives, he’s a traitor. The real scandal is how he got a security clearance to start with.

Anyway, despite the melodrama, it’s not technology that threatens freedom of conscience. Quite the opposite. While in Russia, Snowden should read Vasily Aksyonov’s Generations of Winter to understand the repression Stalin achieved with gadgets even more primitive than Orwell depicted.

Something else that didn’t exist in George Orwell’s day, of course, were jihadist websites exporting criminal conspiracies worldwide. It was also much harder to transfer money and to communicate from halfway around the world, and in nothing like real time.

Bomb-making instructions weren’t easily available on the Internet, making mass murder harder to bring off from remote locations. International terrorism existed, but on a far less dangerous scale.

Certainly the terrorist threat can be exaggerated. However, unless you really don’t want your government doing all it can to prevent mass casualty strikes, most of what the NSA does appears both necessary and inevitable.

Here’s something else the melodramatic Mr. Snowden said: “Recently we learned that our governments, working in concert, have created a system of worldwide mass surveillance watching everything we do.”

This is such sheer, self-dramatizing humbug I can’t think why anybody pretends to believe it. At worst, your telephone “metadata” and mine are stored in a huge NSA database, where it will be purged after five years unless you start dialing 1-900-HotVirgins in Yemen — at which point the FBI might seek a search warrant to check you out.

That sensor in your pocket tracking your whereabouts 24/7? It’s the GPS function in your cellphone. You want to hide from the government (or your wife)? Shut it off or hang it from the dog’s collar.

“I don’t know what he’s up to, Sergeant, but he’s still under the front porch.”

For that matter Amazon and Citicard know a lot more about me personally than the NSA, using information I’ve willingly given them. So do Verizon, Facebook and my bank. But nobody makes me read on a Kindle or pay for things with a credit card. As long as the data exists, it can theoretically be abused.

NSA would be a rare bureaucracy if it didn’t overstep its bounds. However, until I see genuine victims of government abuse, I’ll keep thinking the Snowden affair has become the left’s equivalent of the Benghazi delusion: much ado about terrible crimes that haven’t actually happened.


By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, January 5, 2014

January 7, 2014 Posted by | Benghazi, Edward Snowden, National Security | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: