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“Calling The Republican’s Bluff”: Who Cares About The Value Of Work?

Finding a way out of our current political impasse requires some agreement on what problems we need to solve. If anything should unite left, center and right, it is the value of work and the idea, in Bill Clinton’s signature phrase, that those who “work hard and play by the rules” ought to be rewarded for their efforts.

This is why one of last week’s most important and least noted political events was the introduction of the 21st Century Worker Tax Cut Act by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. Murray favors a minimum wage increase to $10.10 an hour, but she also has other ideas that would help Americans at the bottom of the income structure to earn more.

Let’s start with principles, and then move to specifics.

There’s a new vogue among conservatives: to talk less about entrepreneurs and to stop talking altogether about “makers” and “takers.” Instead, many of the wisest heads on the right are urging a focus on work. The new emphasis reflects a realization that President Obama won in 2012 in large part because Mitt Romney and his party failed to convey empathy for those who live on wages and salaries.

An early champion of this view was Ramesh Ponnuru, a writer for National Review. “The Republican story about how societies prosper — not just the Romney story — dwelt on the heroic entrepreneur stifled by taxes and regulations,” he wrote shortly after the election. It is, Ponnuru added, “an important story with which most people do not identify.”

Writing earlier this year in National Affairs magazine, Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center was more biting. “Modern conservatives,” he argued, “have tended to discount the moral value of the average person, focusing instead on extolling the moral superiority of the great.”

Two other conservative thinkers, Reihan Salam and Rich Lowry, say the antidote is for Republicans to become “the party of work.” As they see it, work “stands for a constellation of values and, like education, is universally honored.” The GOP, they said, “should extol work and demand it.”

Yes, that last phrase — “demand it” — could lead to a darker kind of politics involving the demonization of those who simply can’t find jobs. Thus did Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., get into trouble for mourning “this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working.”

No matter what Ryan was trying to say, he seemed to be emphasizing the flaws of the unemployed themselves rather than the cost of economic injustice. My Post colleague Eugene Robinson captured this well: “Blaming poverty on the mysterious influence of ‘culture’ is a convenient excuse for doing nothing to address the problem.”

Nonetheless, many conservatives really do realize that they need to embrace hardworking Americans. But the question stands: What are they willing to do about it?

This is where Murray comes in. Her bill would rid the tax code of certain disincentives to work. She notes that “the second earner in a household often pays a higher tax rate on his or her earnings than the first.” Her plan would right this by offering a 20 percent deduction on the second earner’s income up to roughly $60,000 a year. (The benefit is focused on lower-income families, so it phases out at about $130,000 in joint annual income.) For a $25,000-a-year second earner in the 25 percent bracket, she says, this would mean $1,250 “back in their pocket for groceries, child care or retirement savings.”

She’d also expand the earned-income tax credit for workers without children and lower the eligibility age from 25 to 21. The changes would increase their maximum benefit from $487 to about $1,400 a year. It’s hardly nirvana. But it’s real money, especially for someone earning around $15,000 a year. The proposal would cover its roughly $15 billion annual cost by closing loopholes already identified as worthy of being scrapped by the GOP’s leading tax reformer, Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan.

You can, of course, look at what Murray is doing as a way of calling the conservatives’ bluff on the matter of work. But that will be true only if the right allows its bluff to be called.

In making their case, Salam and Lowry quoted Abraham Lincoln on the need “to advance the condition of the honest, struggling laboring man.” If conservatives are serious about this (and about the honest, laboring woman, too) they’ll join Murray in raising the minimum wage and in seeking a tax code more in harmony with the dignity of work.


By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, March 30, 2014

April 1, 2014 Posted by | Jobs, Minimum Wage, Unemployed | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Obamacare Crosses The Finish Line”: The People Who Are In Charge Of Our “Perception” Will Catch Up With Reality Someday

Brace yourself, friends, for the new hate-and-snicker-fest on the right about the Obamacare numbers. It started over the weekend—actually, it’s been more or less ongoing since last fall—but it’s going to crescendo now that the enrollment deadline has been reached. Six million, eh? Bah. A million below expectations, they’ll say, and in any case a fake number. That’s what Wyoming Senator John Barrasso said Sunday on Fox; the administration is “cooking the books.” He didn’t reveal how he knows this, but of course he wasn’t pressed on the point.

As of Sunday morning while Barrasso was speaking, the enrollment figure was edging close to 6.6 million, and by midnight tonight it might well hit 7 million. Conservatives will say it’s all a big con. Two criticisms have some merit. First, it’s certainly true that signing up isn’t the same thing as paying premiums on a month-to-basis. So we’ll have to see about that over time. Second, the percent of enrollees who are young and healthy is apparently a little lower than the most optimistic hopes (it’s around 27 percent).

Those are open questions that can’t be answered for a while. But they provide no basis on which to doubt the raw numbers. There was a similar late rush on Romneycare, when nearly 7,800 Bay Staters signed up in the last month before the deadline, around twice as many as during a typical earlier month. And they certainly don’t demonstrate fraudulence. Unless the photographers who snapped these photos that appear on the White House blog are working under the same orders from Pyongyang as the people who allegedly concocted Barack Obama’s birth certificate, there’s nothing fraudulent going on here, either: What you see here, instead, are long lines of people waiting to enroll at sign-up centers in cities across the country.

It’s still going to be a huge challenge to shift public opinion. Or is it? Maybe it’s shifting already. Consider these numbers from a Kaiser Foundation poll from last week. Percent who like the ACA’s extension of dependent coverage: 76. Percent supportive of the act’s closing of the Medicare drug “donut hole”: 73. Percent favoring “guaranteed issue” of coverage to people who are already sick: 69. Percent who back the Medicaid expansion: 62.

Oh, wait. Those are the Republican percentages. The overall percentages, respectively, are 80, 79, 70, and 74.

It’s the same old disconnect. Just as majorities of even rank-and-file Republicans support things like restricting the gun-show loophole (indeed a majority of NRA members support that), majorities of Republicans back these and other basic common-sense provisions of the ACA. And yet these same Republicans keep reelecting to Congress a horde of dishonest and ideologically driven harlots who’ve voted 50-whatever times to do away with all these positive changes.

And the mainstream media continue to insist that because of one congressional race in Florida in a district Republicans have held since Nixon was president, that this law is going to be the Democrats’ downfall this November. And why is that? Well, because they’ve decided. Obama and the Democrats are forcing this whole thing down people’s throats, and the Republicans’ repeal position represents the will of the besieged people.

Is that so? Here are two other numbers from the Kaiser poll. They gave people four options: keep the law as is, keep it and change it where needed, get rid of it and replace with a GOP alternative, and simply get rid of it and replace it with nothing. The first two and the second two can be reasonably grouped together as “basically support the law” and “basically oppose the law.” The numbers are 59 to 29. Not against—in support of the law.

My main point here is not to argue that Obamacare will be a plus for Democrats this fall. I think, as I’ve often written, that it can be—or that it at least can be a draw if Democrats pound away on the specifics and challenge Republicans to defend a world in which sick people can again be denied coverage and all the rest. That would be a nice little layer of icing, because it would prove the smug conventional wisdom as wrong as it usually is.

But the cake has to do with the way this entire conversation has been framed in the media. Imagine that the Democrats were standing implacably behind a position that had the backing of 29 percent of the people. (This number on repeal, by the way, is in line with most recent polls, which find the percentage favoring repeal to be in the low 30s, like this one; I should note that there was recently one poll, by AP, which put the repeal number much higher, at 41. I bet you can guess which of those polls has received more media coverage.) They’d be murdered in the press. Out of touch elitists.

But it’s one of the key rules of lazy political journalism that Republicans are the heartland and by definition can’t be out of touch with it (rules dreamed up, by the way, mostly by people from the Eastern seaboard who went to private universities and haven’t the slightest idea in the world about the actual heartland). Only Democrats can be. That’s how it can come to pass that liberals and Democrats can be defending a law whose major provisions enjoy broad support, and a law that most Americans have come around to accepting as a part of life that they’ll learn to live with, and be called out of touch. And it’s why John Barrasso can get away with making evidence-free allegations on Sunday morning television. But remember: Unwell people are getting health coverage for the first time in their lives by the millions. The people who are in charge of our “perception” will catch up with reality someday.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, March 31, 2014

April 1, 2014 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, GOP, Obamacare | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Jobs And Skills And Zombies”: Skills Gap, An Idea That Should Have Been Killed By Evidence But Refuses To Die

A few months ago, Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, and Marlene Seltzer, the chief executive of Jobs for the Future, published an article in Politico titled “Closing the Skills Gap.” They began portentously: “Today, nearly 11 million Americans are unemployed. Yet, at the same time, 4 million jobs sit unfilled” — supposedly demonstrating “the gulf between the skills job seekers currently have and the skills employers need.”

Actually, in an ever-changing economy there are always some positions unfilled even while some workers are unemployed, and the current ratio of vacancies to unemployed workers is far below normal. Meanwhile, multiple careful studies have found no support for claims that inadequate worker skills explain high unemployment.

But the belief that America suffers from a severe “skills gap” is one of those things that everyone important knows must be true, because everyone they know says it’s true. It’s a prime example of a zombie idea — an idea that should have been killed by evidence, but refuses to die.

And it does a lot of harm. Before we get there, however, what do we actually know about skills and jobs?

Think about what we would expect to find if there really were a skills shortage. Above all, we should see workers with the right skills doing well, while only those without those skills are doing badly. We don’t.

Yes, workers with a lot of formal education have lower unemployment than those with less, but that’s always true, in good times and bad. The crucial point is that unemployment remains much higher among workers at all education levels than it was before the financial crisis. The same is true across occupations: workers in every major category are doing worse than they were in 2007.

Some employers do complain that they’re finding it hard to find workers with the skills they need. But show us the money: If employers are really crying out for certain skills, they should be willing to offer higher wages to attract workers with those skills. In reality, however, it’s very hard to find groups of workers getting big wage increases, and the cases you can find don’t fit the conventional wisdom at all. It’s good, for example, that workers who know how to operate a sewing machine are seeing significant raises in wages, but I very much doubt that these are the skills people who make a lot of noise about the alleged gap have in mind.

And it’s not just the evidence on unemployment and wages that refutes the skills-gap story. Careful surveys of employers — like those recently conducted by researchers at both M.I.T. and the Boston Consulting Group — similarly find, as the consulting group declared, that “worries of a skills gap crisis are overblown.”

The one piece of evidence you might cite in favor of the skills-gap story is the sharp rise in long-term unemployment, which could be evidence that many workers don’t have what employers want. But it isn’t. At this point, we know a lot about the long-term unemployed, and they’re pretty much indistinguishable in skills from laid-off workers who quickly find new jobs. So what’s their problem? It’s the very fact of being out of work, which makes employers unwilling even to look at their qualifications.

So how does the myth of a skills shortage not only persist, but remain part of what “everyone knows”? Well, there was a nice illustration of the process last fall, when some news media reported that 92 percent of top executives said that there was, indeed, a skills gap. The basis for this claim? A telephone survey in which executives were asked, “Which of the following do you feel best describes the ‘gap’ in the U.S. workforce skills gap?” followed by a list of alternatives. Given the loaded question, it’s actually amazing that 8 percent of the respondents were willing to declare that there was no gap.

The point is that influential people move in circles in which repeating the skills-gap story — or, better yet, writing about skill gaps in media outlets like Politico — is a badge of seriousness, an assertion of tribal identity. And the zombie shambles on.

Unfortunately, the skills myth — like the myth of a looming debt crisis — is having dire effects on real-world policy. Instead of focusing on the way disastrously wrongheaded fiscal policy and inadequate action by the Federal Reserve have crippled the economy and demanding action, important people piously wring their hands about the failings of American workers.

Moreover, by blaming workers for their own plight, the skills myth shifts attention away from the spectacle of soaring profits and bonuses even as employment and wages stagnate. Of course, that may be another reason corporate executives like the myth so much.

So we need to kill this zombie, if we can, and stop making excuses for an economy that punishes workers.


By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, March 30, 2014

April 1, 2014 Posted by | Jobs, Skills Gap, Unemployed | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Line To Kiss Sheldon Adelson’s Boots”: Why Talk Directly To Voters When You Can Get A Billionaire To Help Manipulate Them

It’s hard to imagine a political spectacle more loathsome than the parade of Republican presidential candidates who spent the last few days bowing and scraping before the mighty bank account of the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. One by one, they stood at a microphone in Mr. Adelson’s Venetian hotel in Las Vegas and spoke to the Republican Jewish Coalition (also a wholly owned subsidiary of Mr. Adelson), hoping to sound sufficiently pro-Israel and pro-interventionist and philo-Semitic to win a portion of Mr. Adelson’s billions for their campaigns.

Gov. John Kasich of Ohio made an unusually bold venture into foreign policy by calling for greater sanctions on Iran and Russia, and by announcing that the United States should not pressure Israel into a peace process. (Wild applause.) “Hey, listen, Sheldon, thanks for inviting me,” he said. “God bless you for what you do.”

Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin brought up his father’s trip to Israel, and said he puts “a menorah candle” next to his Christmas tree. The name of his son, Matthew, actually comes from Hebrew, he pointed out.

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey also described his trip to Israel, but then did something unthinkable. He referred to the West Bank as the “occupied territories.” A shocked whisper went through the crowd. How dare Mr. Christie implicitly acknowledge that Israel’s presence in the West Bank might be anything less than welcome to the Palestinians? Even before Mr. Christie left the stage, leaders of the group told him he had stumbled, badly.

And sure enough, a few hours later, Mr. Christie apologized directly to Mr. Adelson for his brief attack of truthfulness.

It would be one thing if these attempts at pandering were the usual ethnic bromides of candidates looking for votes in New York or Florida, a familiar ritual. But the people gathered in Las Vegas were not there as voters — they were there as donors, led by one of the biggest of them all, Mr. Adelson, who dispensed nearly $100 million to his favored candidates in 2012. He singlehandedly kept Newt Gingrich’s candidacy alive with $20 million in checks, and this year he is looking for a more mainstream candidate he can send to the White House on a tide of cash.

“He doesn’t want a crazy extremist to be the nominee,” Victor Chaltiel, a friend and colleague of Mr. Adelson, told the Washington Post. Well, that’s a relief.

But not much of one. The ability of one man and his money to engender so much bootlicking among serious candidates, which ought to be frightening, has now become commonplace. Why talk directly to voters when you can get a billionaire to help you manipulate them with a barrage of false television ads, as the Koch brothers are doing with Republican Senate candidates around the country.

It’s a cynical calculation that is turning people away from political involvement. Mr. Adelson thinks that’s not only terrific, but hilarious. Politico reported that at a party on Saturday night for the Republican Jewish Coalition, Mr. Adelson said he couldn’t give the group the $50 million it requested because its director didn’t have change for $1 billion.

The event was closed to the press, but it’s not hard to hear the fawning laughter and applause from here.


By: David Firestone, The Opinion Pages, The New York Times, March 31, 2014

April 1, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, GOP Presidential Candidates, Sheldon Adelson | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Voter Outreach Is Hard, Voter Suppression Is Easy”: GOP Policies Putting New Hurdles Between Voters And Their Democracy

Every few years, Republican officials will say they need to do a better job reaching out to minorities, women, and younger voters. In each instance, GOP leaders will give every indication that they’re serious and sincere about it, because they arguably have no choice – Republicans realize their base is much older and whiter than the Democratic base, which creates a long-term demographic nightmare.

But in practice, GOP officials actually do have a choice. They could, in theory, adopt a more mainstream agenda and prioritize diversity, or they could manipulate voting laws, as they did in advance of the 2012 elections, making it easier for candidates to pick the voters they like, rather than allowing voters to pick they candidates they like.

And as it turns out, voter suppression is vastly easier than voter outreach.

Pivotal swing states under Republican control are embracing significant new electoral restrictions on registering and voting that go beyond the voter identification requirements that have caused fierce partisan brawls.

The bills, laws and administrative rules – some of them tried before – shake up fundamental components of state election systems, including the days and times polls are open and the locations where people vote.

The so-called “Republican war on voting” in 2011 and 2012 was unlike anything Americans have seen since the era of Jim Crow, but the results were not what the GOP had hoped for. The policies had some of the intended effects – voting lines in several battleground states were, as designed, ridiculously long – but it didn’t prevent Democrats from making electoral gains.

But this apparently has only encouraged many state Republican policymakers to try harder, as we’ve seen of late in Wisconsin, Ohio, and elsewhere.

In the bigger picture, North Carolina poses an especially interesting case.

As we’ve discussed, the voting restrictions imposed by North Carolina Republicans are arguably the most egregious in the nation. Democratic critics have been quick to point out that the new voter-suppression measures, according to the state’s own numbers, disproportionately affect African-American voters.

It’s led opponents of the policy to argue that the policies have nothing to do with addressing voter fraud – a problem that doesn’t actually exist in reality – and everything to do with identifying likely Democratic voters and putting new hurdles between them and their democracy.

A few months ago, as part of a legal challenge to the new restrictions, voting-rights advocates turned up the heat. Zack Roth reported in January:

North Carolina is asking a federal judge to keep secret Republican state lawmakers’ communications as they pushed through the nation’s most restrictive voting law last summer.

 “They are doing everything they can to try to keep us from finding out what they did and how they did it and who was involved,” Rev. William Barber II, the president of the state’s NAACP chapter, which is challenging the law, told reporters Thursday. “It’s time for what was done in the dark to come into the light.”

 Barber’s NAACP, backed by the Advancement Project, wants access to the lawmakers’ emails and other internal communications in order to bolster the case that the law’s Republican sponsors knowingly discriminated against racial minorities. In response, the state argued late last week that the communications are protected by legislative privilege.

Last week, as Roth and Adam Serwer reported, the voting-rights proponents scored a partial court victory.

North Carolina lawmakers who backed the state’s restrictive voting law are going to have to cough up emails and other documents related to the law’s passage, a federal judge said Thursday evening. […]

North Carolina had sought to block a demand by the civil rights groups that the state turn over documentation that could shed light on what the legislators were thinking when they passed the law. In an order released Thursday evening, Judge Joi Elizabeth Peake ordered the state to turn over some of the documents sought by the civil rights groups. […]

Thursday’s ruling didn’t give the law’s challengers everything they wanted, though. It said that emails that were shared only between legislators and their staffers might still be subject to legislative privilege, as North Carolina claims.

Watch this space.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 31, 2014

April 1, 2014 Posted by | Democracy, Voter Suppression, Voting Rights | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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