Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The shutdown, again

Okay, last post about the shutdown, and then on to more important things. But I think this is starting to convince people, not that my audience needs any convincing, that the United States is falling apart as a functional country. Fracking or not, we certainly seem to be heading for a crackup. First it was Detroit's bankruptcy, and now this. All our major institutions have become corrupt. Our bridges are falling down, and our schools are virtual prisons. Well, I could go on, but you get the idea. So here are just a few of the best articles I've run across. Here's Martin Wolf, pulling no punches:
Is the US a functioning democracy? This week legislators decided to shut down a swath of the federal government rather than allow an enacted health law go into operation at the agreed moment. They may go further; if they do not vote to raise the so-called “debt ceiling”, they risk triggering default on US government debt – a fate far worse than the shutdown or fiscal sequestration. If the opposition is prepared to inflict such damage on their own country, the restraint that makes democracy work has gone. Why has this happened? What might be the result? What should the president do?

The first question is the most perplexing. The Republicans are doing all of this in order to impede a modest improvement in the worst healthcare system of any high-income country. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (known as “Obamacare”) is modelled on one introduced in 2006 in Massachusetts by then governor Mitt Romney. Its apparently criminal aims are to cover 32m uninsured people and ensure coverage of those with pre-existing conditions. True, the programme is complex. But it builds on a defective system. That most working people get insurance through their employers is an obstacle to labour market flexibility since it complicates decisions about leaving a job, particularly for people with chronic medical conditions. It is a form of serfdom.

The idea that one should close the government – or risk a default – to stop universal insurance, which other high-income countries take for granted, seems mad. Maybe this shows how much some Republicans loath Barack Obama. Half of the legislators who called on John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, to defund the health law come from the old south. Its dislike of the federal government may be part of the explanation. Republicans might fear not that the programme will fail, but that it will work, cementing the credibility of government.

At best, a failure to raise the debt ceiling would necessitate a sharp cut in spending. At worst, the US would default. Analysts at Bank of America Merrill Lynch argue that hitting the ceiling would require the US to balance its budget at once, cutting spending by about 20 per cent, or 4 per cent of GDP. That would push the US into another recession – even if there were no default. The consequences of an actual default, particularly one that lasted for some time, are beyond prediction. Unlike a shutdown, there is no precedent, for good reason. The notion is suicidal. So what should the administration do? In a democracy, people overturn laws by winning elections, not by threatening the closure of government or even an outright default. It is impossible to run the government of a serious country under blackmail threats of this kind...
A must-read: America flirts with self-destruction (FT) We've been doing more than flirting, buddy; I think we're taking it home for some sweet, sweet lovin'. And the Germans are hep too:
When it came to the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, the German press was not pulling any punches. "There are fundamentalists within the world's largest democracy: The hardline wing of the Republican Party are once more crippling the United States," writes Nuremberg's Nachrichten. The Tea Party movement, it concludes, "does not engage in democracy, but in dogmatism."

"Here are fundamentalists at work who hold up their country to ridicule to advance their pure doctrine," wrote a commentator in Collogne's Stadt-Anzeiger. "What a tragedy!"

'Self-Destruction' of a Democracy

Munich's national Süddeutsche Zeitung offers a slightly more depressing take, pointing blame at all sides. "What has already been apparent in America for a few years now is the self-destruction of one of the world's oldest democracies. And the great tragedy here is that this work of destruction isn't being wrought by enemies of democracy, greedy lobbyists or sinister major party donors. America's democracy is bring broken by the very people who are supposed to be carry and preserve it: the voters, the parties and the politicians."

The argument? The Republicans who have brought Washington to stillstand are repeatedly and democratically elected by voters and given a mandate to block. The parties themselves are fomenting an increasingly radicalized culture that deepens political, societal and geographic divisions in the country, argues the newspaper. And finally, there are few politicians in America who are willing or capable of thinking beyond their own electoral constituencies.

"At the moment, Washington is fighting over the budget and nobody knows if the county will still be solvent in three weeks," the paper concludes. "What is clear, though, is that America is already politically bankrupt."
German Press Review on U.S. Government Shutdown (Spiegel Online)

Kevin Drum sums this up well:
The Republican Party is bending its entire will, staking its very soul, fighting to its last breath, in service of a crusade to....

Make sure that the working poor don't have access to affordable health care. I just thought I'd mention that in plain language, since it seems to get lost in the fog fairly often. But that's it. That's what's happening. They have been driven mad by the thought that rich people will see their taxes go up slightly in order to help non-rich people get decent access to medical care.

That's a pretty stirring animating principle, no?
I should interject that I'm hardly a supporter of Obama's health care plan, and it's rather pathetic that a giveaway to the predatory health insurance industry counts as "reform," but such is the nature of U.S. politics. But I'm still in awe of the fact that the Republican party has become so radical that they are willing to shut down the government and risk default to stop a health care plan that was devised by right-wing think tanks!!!

Why? Well, I agree with this assessment - they are afraid it will succeed and become popular, just like every other government insurance program:
Paul Krugman says I told you so:
    Health Care Panic, Again: Eduardo Porter is getting a lot of attention for his piece in today’s paper suggesting that what Republicans fear most is that Obamacare might succeed. ... I’m surprised that so many people seem to find this a surprising and new insight. I thought it was obvious. Here’s a column I wrote back in July predicting more or less what is now happening, for exactly the reason Porter gives: GOP panic over the prospect of successful health reform.

    And let’s be clear: the health reform fight has always been about more than health reform. Liberals have long viewed health reform as the opening wedge, a sort of proof of concept, in a campaign to strengthen the US safety net and reduce income inequality; that was basically what I was urging in Conscience of a Liberal, which gave its title to this blog.

    Conversely, the right has long opposed health reform for exactly the same reason: it might, in the public’s mind, legitimate further government intervention to increase economic security.

    But let’s also be clear that these positions are not symmetric. Liberals favored health reform both because it would work and because it might enhance their ability to push for other policies; conservatives were and are determined to kill health reform ... precisely because it would work — because it might weaken the rest of their agenda. ...

    So my plot is working, mwahahahaha. Although I didn’t consider the side effect — benefit or cost? — that health reform would drive conservatives stark raving mad.
I think the idea that this is about more than just health reform, it's about stopping Democrats from strengthening social insurance protections and reducing inequality more generally, is an important and correct point. If Obamacare did not exist, I'd guess we'd still be having a fight over the funding of other social programs conservatives want to scale back or eliminate. But it's also important to note that, as Paul Krugman recently explained, at the heart of it all is class warfare:
    ...many of the rich are selective in their opposition to government helping the unlucky. They’re against stuff like food stamps and unemployment benefits; but bailing out Wall Street? Yay!

    Seriously. Charlie Munger says that we should “thank God” for the bailouts, but that ordinary people fallen on hard times should “suck it in and cope.” AIG’s CEO — the CEO of a bailed out firm! — says that complaints about bonuses to executives at such firms are just as bad as lynchings (I am not making this up.)

    The point is that the superrich have not gone Galt on us — not really, even if they imagine they have. It’s much closer to pure class warfare, a defense of the right of the privileged to keep and extend their privileges. It’s not Ayn Rand, it’s Ancien Régime.
Despite what conservatives want you to believe, this is not a fight about the role of government. Conservatives have no trouble with government interventions they benefit from. But ask them to give up a dollar to help the less fortunate and it's another story.
Health Care Panic, Again (Economist's View)
Yes, the "Tea Party" Republicans don't like Obamacare. And, yes, Obamacare is far from perfect. (We have plenty of frustrations with it ourselves.) But the way to change laws you don't like is not to shut down the government at the expense of the entire country. The way to change laws you don't like is to persuade Americans that the laws are bad, build a consensus in Washington, and then change the laws.

Frustrations with Obamacare, by the way, aren't the exclusive property of "Tea Party" Republicans. Lots of Americans would prefer a basic national health care system to Obamacare. And they would certainly prefer it to the terrible status quo championed by the "Tea Party." (The U.S. spends vastly more on health care than any other country in the world—and our overall health isn't even close to the top of the charts.) But, unlike the "Tea Party," those who would prefer basic health care insurance for all Americans aren't shutting down the government to protest the fact that they don't have it. They're working within the system.

The "Tea Party" Republicans like to present themselves as brave revolutionaries—a heroic band of modern-day colonists who are standing up to the tyranny of an oppressive government. They like to think of themselves as the 21st Century version of John Adams or Paul Revere.

Please.

The brave colonists who stood up to the English king in the 1770s were protesting something very specific: Taxation without representation. The "Tea Party" Republicans, and the small minority of American voters who support them, are not the victims of taxation without representation.

The "Tea Party" Republicans are taxed, yes, but they are also very much represented.  They have made their arguments to the nation, and the nation has listened and disagreed with them. And now that the "Tea Party" Republicans have hijacked the U.S. political system to advance their own selfish pet cause, they are arguably way too represented.

To be clear: The "Tea Party" Republicans are no longer even creating a pretense that their anti-American behavior is about debt or government spending—the issues they staked their last hijacking campaign on. Now, the "Tea Party" hijacking is based solely on their dislike of one law that many other Americans think doesn't go far enough.
There's Nothing 'Partisan' About Trashing The Selfish Extremists Who Just Shut Down Our Government (Business Insider)

And according to this post from Matt Yglesias, the United States is doomed because of its system of government:
In [Juan] Linz’s telling, successful democracies are governed by prime ministers who have the support of a majority coalition in parliament. Sometimes, as in the British Commonwealth or Sweden or post-Franco Spain, these prime ministers are formally subordinate to a monarch. Other times, as in Germany or Israel or Ireland, there is a largely ceremonial, nonhereditary president who serves as head of state. But in either case, governing authority vests in a prime minister and a cabinet whose authority derives directly from majority support in parliament.

When such a prime minister loses his parliamentary majority, a crisis ensues. Either the parties in parliament must negotiate a new governing coalition and a new cabinet, or else a new election is held. If necessary, the new election will lead to a new parliament and a new coalition. These parliamentary systems are sometimes very stable (see the United Kingdom or Germany) and sometimes quite chaotic (see Israel or Italy), but in either case, persistent legislative disagreement leads directly to new voting.

In a presidential system, by contrast, the president and the congress are elected separately and yet must govern concurrently. If they disagree, they simply disagree. They can point fingers and wave poll results and stomp their feet and talk about “mandates,” but the fact remains that both parties to the dispute won office fair and square. As Linz wrote in his 1990 paper “The Perils of Presidentialism,” when conflict breaks out in such a system, “there is no democratic principle on the basis of which it can be resolved, and the mechanisms the constitution might provide are likely to prove too complicated and aridly legalistic to be of much force in the eyes of the electorate.” That’s when the military comes out of the barracks, to resolve the conflict on the basis of something—nationalism, security, pure force—other than democracy.

It used to seem as though Linz’s theory had one enormous and obvious flaw: the United States of America. The success of American democracy seemed to show that institutions were not the key. Old-fashioned Anglophone pluck and liberal values triumphed under both presidential and parliamentary systems. If something was going wrong south of the border, blame some aspect of Latin culture or economic development. But Linz always did have an answer to this objection. In the 1990 paper, he said that a full explanation of America’s success was complicated, but that “it is worth noting that the uniquely diffuse character of American political parties—which, ironically, exasperates many American political scientists and leads them to call for responsible, ideologically disciplined parties—has something to do with it.”

That was 23 years ago. Today, of course, we have ideologically disciplined parties that are “responsible” in the sense that they make a serious effort to deliver on their stated policy agendas. We also have a government shutdown, a looming debt ceiling breach, and a country in which regular order budgeting is an increasingly distant memory.
Juan Linz's Bad News for America (Slate) I'm reminded of one of my favorite theories for Rome's collapse: that the government designed to govern a small-scale agrarian republic was simply unable to effectively govern a vast empire and broke down over time, with incompetent leaders, an impotent senate, countless civil wars, unjust taxation and a political culture based on patronage and bribery. I'll leave this comment to a different article as the last word:

I’m curious, how do you get people who were elected to fight the United States government to fund it properly? They don’t want to tax people with money. Or corporations. They don’t want to fund anything that isn’t related to the military or spying... 

Okay, one more:
The right-wing agenda is pretty much independent of, and generally opposite to, their professed goals. For the past thirty years or more, it has consisted completely of reducing the financial, personal and family leverage of the great majority of Americans to the point where they cannot steer their own nation or profit from their own efforts.
Looked at through this lens, everything comes into focus. The weird contradictory policies (for instance, their hatred of abortion AND birth control and reproductive education) end up with ordinary people having and raising children at times and under circumstances not of their own careful choosing. Their rabid need to move everything into the private sector, while refusing to regulate, simply serves to expose ordinary Americans to the fleecing of profiteers.
If you can come up with a right-wing policy which does not point in this direction, please let me know. But I haven't found one yet.

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