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“The Impossible Dream”: Conservative Scolds Have A Vision, But They Don’t Have A Plan

The New York Times‘ two conservative opinion columnists — David Brooks and Ross Douthat — aren’t always in sync. But they certainly agree about the problems afflicting poor and working-class Americans.

Each has written a column in the past week commenting on Robert Putnam’s new book (Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis) about the growing quality-of-life gap between college-educated and high-school educated Americans. Brooks does a nice job of summarizing some of Putnam’s more alarming statistics:

Roughly 10 percent of the children born to college grads grow up in single-parent households. Nearly 70 percent of children born to high school grads do. … High-school-educated parents dine with their children less than college-educated parents, read to them less, talk to them less, take them to church less, encourage them less and spend less time engaging in developmental activity. [The New York Times]

These and related trends are indeed troubling, and it’s good that Brooks and Douthat are highlighting them, are troubled by them, and want Republican politicians to address them. If GOP candidates for high office spent half as much time focusing on such problems as they do promoting tax cuts for the rich, we’d all be better off.

Yet Republican lawmakers don’t slight those issues simply because they’d rather ingratiate themselves to wealthy donors. They also skirt them because the way that conservative policy intellectuals think about class convinces candidates for high office that there’s nothing that can be done politically to address the problem.

As far as Brooks and Douthat are concerned, the primary driver of bad outcomes among the poor and working class is culture, not economics. Yes, life is economically harder for people lacking college degrees than for those who have them, but life was hard — and in many cases much harder — for everyone, and certainly for the poor, in the past. And yet families formed and stayed together at much higher rates than they do today. Here is Douthat’s pithy statement of the conservative view: “In a substantially poorer American past with a much thinner safety net, lower-income Americans found a way to cultivate monogamy, fidelity, sobriety, and thrift to an extent that they have not in our richer, higher-spending present.”

When liberals read claims like this, they freak out. That’s in part because they believe that economics is a much more important variable than culture in explaining the social pathologies of the lower classes.

I’m inclined to give the conservatives the benefit of the doubt on this. Culture does matter. The poor and even middle classes did struggle much more in the past, in purely economic terms, than they do today. And yet they did form families and keep them together at much higher rates.

But what policies follow from this? That’s where I fear Brooks and Douthat go off the rails.

Brooks is a little more strident about it, and Douthat a bit more circumspect, but their advice is roughly the same: We need to combat the libertarian drift of American culture since the 1960s by taking a stand against “relativism,” “nonjudgmentalism,” and “permissiveness.” That’s because, while the upper classes may be doing fine in the easy-going, live-and-let-live culture bequeathed to us by the counterculture and sexual revolution, the lower classes clearly aren’t. What they need is more public shaming and scolding of irresponsible behavior.

What would this look like, practically speaking? This is the sum total of what Brooks recommends: “Reintroducing norms” has three steps. First, an unnamed someone — a newspaper columnist, perhaps? — needs to revive a “moral vocabulary.” Then we need to practice “holding people responsible.” (How we aren’t told.) Finally, because elites aren’t exactly beacons of virtue these days either, we need to hold “everyone responsible.”

That’s it.

Douthat’s proposals, contained in a single sentence, focus exclusively on the moral failings of the upper class “for failing to take moral responsibility (in the schools it runs, the mass entertainments it produces, the social agenda it favors) for the effects of permissiveness on the less-savvy, the less protected, the kids who don’t have helicopter parents turning off the television or firewalling the porn.”

All of this might add up to a plausible strategy for changing pathological behavior if it were wedded to concrete policies or a practical plan of action. But as it is, it’s just a micro-sermon vaguely advocating a bit of paternalism with a dash of noblesse oblige.

(I realize that Douthat has championed specific family-friendly policies in the past, but I don’t see how tweaking the child tax credit would meaningfully effect the kind of complex social pathologies he highlights in his recent column. A few extra dollars a month isn’t going to make it possible for a single mom to become a helicopter parent, let alone make it likely that a media executive will produce more wholesome entertainment.)

Back in the 1970s, founding neoconservative Irving Kristol proposed a more aggressive and explicitly political response to the post-’60s rise in permissiveness: government censorship of pornography and other forms of vulgarity. Nothing like this got enacted, of course, and it would be even less likely to catch on today. (A government-run firewall against porn, anyone?) But at least it was a policy proposal that, if it became law, might have contributed in a modest way to a change in mores.

By contrast, what Brooks and Douthat are advocating is guaranteed to have no such effect, because it can’t even be described as a policy proposal. That makes their writing on the subject an outgrowth of the libertarian drift of American culture rather than a strategy for combating it.

Brooks and Douthat know where they are and where they want to go, but they have no politically actionable ideas for how to get from A to B.

What do the conservative scolds want? The impossible.


By: Damon Linker, The Week, March 17, 2015

March 18, 2015 Posted by | Conservatives, Education, Poor and Low Income | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“What A Gig, And At Your Expense”: Aaron Schock Still Eligible To Collect Taxpayer-Funded Pension

Rep. Aaron Schock, who announced his resignation today under suspicion of misusing public money, will be eligible for more of it in retirement.

Schock, a Republican from Illinois, could eventually collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer-funded retirement benefits, depending on how long he lives.

Starting at age 62, he will be eligible for just under $18,500 annually, according to estimates by the National Taxpayers Union, a conservative nonprofit organization.

Douglas Kellogg, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union, added that members of Congress are also eligible for a 401(k)-style plan, but it’s unknown whether Schock has chosen to participate in it.

According to a June report from the Congressional Research Service, members of Congress who have completed at least five years of service are eligible for taxpayer-funded pensions beginning at age 62.

The amount of a former congressional member’s pension varies, but the payout is based on the number of years of service and an average of the member’s three highest years of salary.

Being a former member of Congress carries other perks, too, including access to the House floor.

Schock, known as perhaps the nation’s fittest congressman and who once posed shirtless for Men’s Health, will also still be allowed to use the House gym — he’ll just have to pay a fee.

In recent weeks, Schock has been hit with repeated questions about his spending.

He repaid the government $40,000, money he spent redecorating his office along a theme inspired by “Downton Abbey,” a PBS historical drama, and fielded inquiries about his charter plane use, luxury overseas travel, personal photographer and concert tickets.

Today, Politico reported Schock has been reimbursed for more in mileage than his car had been driven.

“The constant questions over the last six weeks have proven a great distraction that has made it too difficult for me to serve the people of the 18th District with the high standards that they deserve and which I have set for myself,” Schock said in a statement today.

An email to Schock’s spokesman wasn’t immediately returned.

Schock was first elected in 2008. His resignation will abruptly end ongoing congressional ethics investigations into his activities, although federal prosecutors could conceivably pursue the matter. Schock has not been charged with any crime.

The Federal Election Commission could also probe related accusations that Schock misused campaign money.


By: Paige Lavender, The Blog, the Huffington Post, March 17, 2015

March 18, 2015 Posted by | Aaron Schock, Congress, Congressional Pensions | , , , , | Leave a comment

“Republicans Can Kiss Medicare Privatization Goodbye”: GOP Has A Vice Grip On The House, A Much More Tenuous Grasp Of The Senate

For the last four years Republicans have used their small power perch in the House of Representatives to prime members for the day when they’d control the whole government. During each of those years, House Republicans passed a budget calling for vast, contentious reforms to Medicare, Medicaid, and other support programs. Republicans proposed crushing domestic spending to pay for regressive tax cuts and higher military spending, and then went further by laying out specific structural reforms to popular government spending programs.

Today they control the Senate as well, which represents significant progress toward their goal of complete control over the government. But as Republicans inch toward that goal they’re also growing less committed to their ideas.

Senate Republicans will not include detailed plans to overhaul entitlement programs when they unveil their first budget in nearly a decade this week, according to GOP sources… The GOP budget would balance in 10 years, according to GOP lawmakers familiar with the document, but it will only propose savings to be achieved in Medicare and Medicaid, without spelling out specific reforms as Ryan and House Republicans did in recent budgets.

House Republicans can proceed as they have in years past and pass a controversial budget of their own, but based on this report, it looks like the Senate isn’t inclined to reciprocate. The simplest explanation for the commitment gap is that the GOP has a vice grip on the House, but a much more tenuous grasp of the Senate. Leaving Medicare privatization out of the budget is a simple way to make life easier for embattled GOP incumbents in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and elsewhere.

But that basic political calculation speaks to a much bigger structural impediment facing the kinds of policies conservative activists want to see. The farther and farther you zoom out from the gerrymandered districts most House Republicans represent, the more difficult it becomes to build political support for the House Republican budget. At the swing state level it’s very hard. At a national level it’s probably impossible.

Back in 2012, Republicans hoped to skip directly from controlling the House alone to controlling everything. If Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan had won, the party would’ve been well prepared to implement the kinds of policies Ryan had trained his foot soldiers in Congress to vote for. Instead, the slower process of expanding majorities has exposed basic weaknesses in their position.

In 2012, Grover Norquist could, with some authority, declare: “We are not auditioning for fearless leader. We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We know what direction to go. We want the Ryan budget…. We just need a president to sign this stuff.”

That line of thinking doesn’t hold up anymore. Can Republican presidential candidates run on privatizing Medicare if Senate candidates down the ballot can’t be seen supporting those kinds of reforms? Could they successfully spring a big entitlement devolution on the public in 2017 if they don’t campaign on it aggressively in 2016? George W. Bush tried that in 2005 and it blew up in his face. There’s no reason to think it wouldn’t play out the same way again.


By; Brian Beutler, The New Republic, March 16, 2015

March 18, 2015 Posted by | Federal Budget, House Republicans, Senate | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The 35-Year GOP Budget Dilemma”: Deficits Take Care Of Themselves, As Long As They Are The Ones Running Them Up

One of the more important consequences of the Republican takeover of both chambers of Congress has been the GOP’s inability to paper over internal differences of opinion–or more to the point, to blame the inability to get stuff done on Harry Reid. We may be about to see this dynamic playing out in spectacular fashion when Congress takes up a FY 2016 budget resolution, which Republicans pretty much have to attempt after years of attacking Reid for Democratic Senate refusals to pass budget resolutions (a largely symbolic exercise absent enforcement mechanisms, and unnecessary for a while given the Obama-GOP spending agreements adopted outside “regular order”). As the New York Times‘ Jonathan Weisman describes the state of play right now, there’s a “chasm” between Republicans whose prime objective is to eliminate the sequestration system that has capped defense spending, and Republicans who are still spouting 2009-10 rhetoric about debt and deficits.

“This is a war within the Republican Party,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who has vowed to oppose a final budget that does not ensure more military spending. “You can shade it any way you want, but this is war.”

The divisions will be laid bare Tuesday when congressional leaders unveil blueprints that hew to spending limits imposed by the budget battles of 2011.

Unlike legislation, the spending plan Republicans will be creating this week requires only a majority vote in both the House and Senate, cannot be blocked by a filibuster and is not subject to presidential approval or veto.

The intra-party tension this year has been ratcheted up by three external factors, of course: the general war-lust of Republicans, which is currently reaching early-2000s levels; shrinking short-term federal budget deficits; and an impending presidential election that makes the most likely way out of the GOP’s budget dilemma–Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid cuts–rather perilous.

But it’s important not to think of this problem too narrowly as a current phenomenon. In reality, Republicans have been struggling with this same dynamic for 35 years, since the first Reagan Budget. Given four ideological goals in budgeting–lowering top-end tax rates; boosting defense spending; going after New Deal/Great Society spending; and reducing budget deficits–the one that always gets the short end of the straw is deficit reduction, even if supply-side magic asterisks allow GOPers to pretend, temporarily, that deficits will take care of themselves, as long as they are the ones running them up. And speaking of magic asterisks:

Senator Kelly Ayotte, Republican of New Hampshire, and Mr. Enzi are pressing for a place holder in the budget — a “deficit-neutral reserve fund” — that they say would allow Congress to come back in the coming months with legislation to lift the spending caps.

The idea is to pass a budget this month that sticks to the spending caps, but then negotiate a budget law this summer that ends sequestration. The $540 billion in cuts still to come under the Budget Control Act would be replaced by savings from entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security as well as new revenue from closing some tax loopholes.

To translate, this means an unenforceable promise to come back later and pay for a defense spending boost via “entitlement reform,” which Democrats and the White House have no intention of allowing. By summer, I guess, Republicans will come up with some way to delay the inevitable, and/or to disguise an implicit deal with Democrats to suspend sequestration long enough to give both the Pentagon and domestic programs a fresh drink of water.


By: Ed Kilgore, Contributing Writer, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, March 16, 2015


March 18, 2015 Posted by | Defense Spending, Deficits, Federal Budget | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Why Did Christie Settle With Exxon?”: At This Moment In History, Good Policy And Good Politics Are Not Often Synonymous

Last week, Republican governor Chris Christie’s administration settled New Jersey’s long-standing environmental lawsuit against ExxonMobil Corp. for pennies on the dollar. For a decade, the state had been seeking $8.9 billion in damages for pollution at two refineries in the northern part of the state, and yet Christie’s top officials abruptly proposed closing the case for just $225 million.

In the aftermath, as environmentalists express outrage and legislators move to block the settlement, the question on many observers’ minds has been simple: Why did Christie settle?

One possible answer is just as simple: money — more specifically, campaign cash.

According to federal records, ExxonMobil has donated more than $1.9 million to the Republican Governors Association since Christie’s first run for governor in 2009. That includes $279,000 during Christie’s election and re-election races, and also another half-million when he chaired the organization in 2014. Additionally, one of Exxon’s law firms in the New Jersey case also donated $30,000 to the RGA since 2013.

Another possible answer could be relationships.

Christie’s first attorney general worked for Exxon for seven years. His deputy chief of staff in 2014 left the governor’s office for a job with Exxon’s lobbying firm in Trenton. And weeks before the settlement was announced, one of his cabinet secretaries took a job with Exxon’s New Jersey law firm.

Still another possible answer about why Christie settled the Exxon case could be found in a little-noticed provision his administration slipped into the annual budget in 2014.

The language in question empowers the governor to divert money obtained from environmental litigation away from pollution cleanup programs and into the state’s general fund, where it can be used to fill budget gaps or finance corporate subsidies. The provision explicitly takes precedence over other state laws designed to direct proceeds from environmental lawsuits into New Jersey’s environmental protection programs.

Because the provision is temporary, remaining in force only until a new budget is enacted, critics say that it effectively encourages Christie’s administration to settle cases as quickly as possible to free up cash that the governor can then tap however he sees fit. The most expedient way to accelerate a settlement is to lessen the fines sought from the company facing the lawsuit.

“This is money that rightfully belongs to the people of New Jersey to make up for the injury to the environment,” said Jeffrey Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Instead, the governor is diverting it for other purposes. It’s a twofer: Reduced settlements help the oil companies before Christie’s presidential campaign, and Christie can quickly get more money for the record amounts of corporate subsidies he is handing out.”

So which answer is correct? Is the settlement a product of campaign cash, relationships or budget machinations? It is hard to say for certain, but in all likelihood it is probably a little bit of all three — plus some presidential campaign calculation sprinkled in.

In politics, as rare as it is to see a policy decision made on the substantive merits of an issue, it is even rarer that a decision is only about one thing. Most often, decisions represent a mixture of motivations. In agreeing to such a small settlement in the Exxon case, Christie placates his politically connected colleagues and gets himself some extra cash to spend on his budget’s new tax cuts. He also gives a gift to an oil industry donor just as he starts raising money for a 2016 White House bid.

Sure, the settlement may not be great policy, but it may be shrewd short-term politics. That divergence is hardly surprising — at this moment in history, good policy and good politics are not often synonymous.


By: David Sirota, a Senior Writer at The International Business Times; The National Memo, March 13, 2015

March 18, 2015 Posted by | Big Oil, Chris Christie, Exxon Mobil | , , , , | Leave a comment

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