Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

My Favorite Conservative

Is Michael Gerson. My dad likes David Brooks (please no comments on this). I don’t, but also I am quite sure that Brooks isn’t really a conservative anymore. I think he just plays one on TV. He has a column in the New York Times based on their affirmative action conservative quota. There would be no reason to pay any attention to him if he weren’t a relatively reasonable conservative. I think he is, in fact, a remarkably vacuous centrist. It may however be that his penchant for extreme abstraction to the point of vagueness rapidly approach perfect meaninglessness is not the result of an inability to understand which collections of words mean something and which mean nothing. I suspect it is his way of dealing with his recognition of the fact that actually existing conservatism is indefensible. So ring the non changes on the Burkean alarm bells.

I think Gerson is clearly sincere. I think his policy proposals are motivated by strong Christian faith. Oddly for a conservative Christian, his version of Christian principles strikes this atheist as closely related to the example and teachings of Jesus Christ.

He has admitted that he played a major role in convincing Bush to fight AIDS with PEPFAR. He and Bush have saved hundreds of thousands (or millions) of lives (notably with the assistance of outstanding charities including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Family Foundation which is recognized by independent experts as one of the best and extraordinarily transparent too (hmm maybe Bill Clinton is my favorite conservative)).

He also made an eloquent case for promoting Democracy in Iraq, noting that the claim that they were incapable of it was racist. Now he naively imagined that if he could get Bush to say the words, he could get Bush to pay some attention to them, but they were impressive words.

Finally I like his Washington Post columns including this one. His claims are to avoid Trump considering one to be an enemy one has to act as a servant and defend his actions, and that this requires abandoning “morality or rationality or both.” Quite so and definitely worth writing although sensible people know this already.

However, I am puzzled by the two examples he cites. One is Liz Cheney who, he claims, is not prominent because of her name but because of her political skills. Of course Rep. Cheney defends her father Dick Cheney, so she has abandoned both morality and rationality long ago. I don’t understand how Gerson won’t accept Trump telling us born congresswomen to go back to their own country, but was willing to work with monstrous criminal torturers. Trump has committed many crimes, but I am not sure he has committed any nearly as appalling as the crimes Gerson downplayed in his previous job. I don’t understand how he managed it (and won’t get a change to ask him and he wouldn’t answer if I did).

His other example of someone who was damaged by Trump is Paul Ryan. He wrote

Former House speaker Paul D. Ryan’s reputation, for example, was deeply damaged by his service under Trump. Ryan — whatever his intentions — sent a message that the wealth of the country is a “real” issue, while the character of the country is a sideshow. But what brand of conservatism would elevate wealth above rectitude, decency and concern for the common good?

Every actually existing brand of course. I think Gerson uses “conservatism” to mean “good” and contrasts it with an entirely imaginary alternative. As an economist I am disturbed that he almost concedes that Ryan focused on the wealth of the country. In fact, Ryan focuses on Randian ideology. I suspect he supports tax cuts as a matter of principle no matter what the effects. Before Trump was elected, he demonstrated an extraordinary willingness to lie and to lie without shame. In any case, I think someone who really cared about the wealth of the country would look at the evidence. Basically his approach to policy was to lie about what he proposed. I’d say that his reputation should not have been damaged at all by his service under Trump, because I think he had already earned a reputation for complete indifference to the truth displaying an absolute absense of decency.

Now I have a prediction. I think Gerson will continue to call himself a conservative (unlike say original supply sider Bruce Bartlett). He is clearly a man of faith and, I think, he can keep his faith that his values are true conservatism and the fact that almost no powerful conservative shares them is as irrelevant as is the argument that horrible natural disasters suggest that God is not benevolent, not omnipotent and probably nonexistant.

Comments (7) | |

How today’s Democratic ‘Squad’ is a direct ideological descendant of the original 1850s Republicans

How today’s Democratic ‘Squad’ is a direct ideological descendant of the original 1850s Republicans

Nothing is ever really “new.” Today’s ‘Squad’ of young Democrats is the direct ideological descendant of the original 1850s Congressional Republicans. That is one of the important lessons of Joanne Freeman’s “The Fields of Blood,” about the increasing threats of, and actual incidents of, violence in the US Congress between the 1830s and the Civil War.

Just as today, there were differing economic and social divides in America. Economically there was a struggle for power between the merchant class and farmers. Socially the increasingly contentious issue was that of slavery. At least beginning with Andrew Jackson’s 1828 Presidential election victory, the Democratic Party was the voice of farmers. The ex-Federalists and the nascent Whig party became that of commerce.

But there were northern and southern branches of each party, defined in how they stood on slavery. The story of the 1830s through 1850s is how that moral issue moved to the forefront, splitting both parties, and ultimately giving rise to the Republicans. This is very much the same paradigm as the “great sort” that took place between the Democratic Party and the GOP between 1980 and 2016 (if not 2008).

Not only is that, but reminiscent of polls over the past 10 years, in the 1830s and 1840s  northerners, especially northern Whigs, wanted to settle disputes civilly, while especially southern Democrats were willing to threaten, and even use, physical force to get their way.

Comments (17) | |

Bill Black says what if…

(Dan here… Via Real News Network, Bill Black discusses the what-ifs of President Trump’s policies in a spectacular contrast to current expectations…providing. a jumping off point from what we expect from the way it is framed now. I assume the complex interalationships of the wealthy elites (let us see how the Epstein case unwinds for another aspect) plays an important but not so well known role in this drama.  I find his thought his conclusions dismaying if even somewhat accurate.)

BILL BLACK: Sure. The question I ask in the article is why did Trump choose to be so spectacularly unpopular? Because had he done what he promised and had a true middle class tax cut that gave, for example, $5,000 a year to the typical middle class household, he would be spectacularly popular. And almost certainly they would have–the Republicans would have retained control of the House, and quite possibly they would have gained seats in the House. And of course they would have gained seats in the Senate. And Trump would be well positioned for re-election. He would have greatly expanded his base, and he would have paid off to his base, as well. And you know, convinced them that backing him was exactly the right thing.

And that’s the biggest thing. But also, if Trump had done what he promised and had a true infrastructure bill, where he spent $2 trillion on infrastructure, he would have divided the Democratic Party.

Comments (13) | |

A Half Century Since Apollo 11 Launched To The Moon

A Half Century Since Apollo 11 Launched To The Moon

On July 16, 1969, a half century ago today, a Saturn 5 rocket launched from Cape Kennedy on its way to the moon, where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would land on the moon on July 20 before returning successfully to earth.  Recent books have made clear just how close a call it was with many things nearly going wrong that would have doomed them, including such oddities as Aldrin using a felt tipped pen to adjust a minor switch that was needed for them to return.  My late father played an important role in that event, which I have posted about here before.  At that time he and I had many disagreements, but on this matter we were in agreement, and I was pleased to watch the famous landing with him.

The recent book, _One Giant Leap_ by Charles Fishman, argues that JFK was motivated to push the project out of Cold War competition with the USSR.  My late father agreed that this was a motive that provided the support for it.  This does raise the question whether it was really worth it.  I mean, nobody has gone back since 1972, although there is much noise now about maybe going back.

A curious way of looking at this in perspective is to think about what we thought the future would look like from that time period as compared with what has happened.  One way of looking at that is to think about how the moon and human presence there was depicted in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” which came out in 1968, the year before Apollo 11.  I well remember taking very seriously the forecast in that movie, which depicted fairly substantial and established US and Soviet moon bases for 20001, now 18 years in the past.  That certainly did not remotely happen, although some other things shown in that movie have come to pass, such as people being able to see each other while communicating with each other over distances (thank you, Skype!).

Comments (5) | |

Pence’s Potemkin Village on the Mexican Border

Pence’s Potemkin Village on the Mexican Border

Merriam Webster defines a Potemkin Village as:

an impressive facade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition

Mike Pence visited a Potemkin Village in Donna, Texas:

Pence also visited a tent-like temporary detention facility in Donna, Texas, that holds unaccompanied children and immigrant families. The new and mostly clean facility stood in stark contrast to the McAllen station Pence later visited.

While the Buzzfeed story focused on the McAllen station, which depicted horrific conditions, I’m sure Trump’s favorite “news” outlets will highlight the facility in Donna, Texas. In other words, part of Pence’s visit to the border was designed to con the American people that immigrants are being treated well. Leon Panetta is right:

Trump treats Americans like we’re chumps

Since Pence is a Christian, we have to wonder how he can still support Trump’s racist immigration policies after seeing how God’s children are being horribly abused. Here’s a little challenge for Mr. Pence – how many of the Ten Commandments are you violating? Certainly the first two with your idol worship of Donald Trump:

1. You shall have no other gods before Me. 2.You shall make no idols.

This abuse of God’s has led to many deaths, which of course violates the Commandment not to murder. OK – Mike Pence has not committed adultery even if his idol has many times. But cheating on one’s wife is sort of routine for powerful politicians. The serial abuse of innocent people solely based on their race and mainly for partisan purchases is not only unAmerican but also against everything Pence’s religion stands for.

Comments (19) | |

Destroying Social Security to Save It

Connecticut Representative John Larson Proposes Plan To Destroy Social Security In Order To Save It, by Dale Coberly

Connecticut Congressman John Larson introduces H. R. 860, Social Security 2100 Act which will cuts taxes, strengthen benefits, prevents anyone from retiring into poverty, and ensure Social Security remains strong for generations. larson.house.gov

It sounds good, but of course he wants it to sound good. In the past we have had to be worried mostly about plans from the “Right,” the crazy people who want to Save Social Security in order to destroy it. Their plans sounded good, too.

To make it easier on myself, I am going to just list Larson’s points and offer a few words about them in the hope you will think twice.

Larson: The Social Security 2100 Act Expands Benefits

There is a benefit bump for current and new beneficiaries — Provides an increase of 2%.

Me: A 2% increase in benefits would mean nothing to beneficiaries. Unlike the reduced inflation indexing the bad guys were proposing, this increase will not accumulate over time.

What Social Security faces is a potential 20% cut in benefits if the payroll tax is not increased to keep up with increases in life expectancy. The increase needed would be about 2% of payroll. 2% of payroll becomes 20% of benefits because the 2% you pay is matched by 2% your employer pays for. That extra 4% over 40 years of working becomes 8% over 20 years of life expectancy, and that 8% becomes roughly 20% due to the effective interest that arises automatically from pay as you go financing.

Larson: Protection against inflation. Increases the COLA formula to better reflect costs incurred by seniors.

Me: Probably a good idea. But the “normal” inflation adjustment, if paid for by that 2% increase in the payroll tax, will provide increased benefits that may be adequate. The question is how are we going to pay for a higher COLA? My suggestion is that a tiny bit larger increase in the payroll tax would not be felt, and would avoid the politically suicidal “make the rich pay” part of Larson’s plan unnecessary.

Larson: Protect low income workers. A new minimum benefit will be set at 25% above the poverty line.

Me: Again, probably a good idea. But not if it changes the “worker paid” feature which is so important to Social Security’s political future.

If the workers want to pay more for a higher benefit dedicated to those who paid for the insurance against ending among the poorest, then that’s fine. It’s not so fine if the increase is paid for by “the rich,” because the rich will not pay for it. And it’s not so fine if it becomes subject to increased hiding of income to free-ride on others paying the tax. Not to mention the costs of managing the means testing that this implies.

Larson: Cut taxes for beneficiaries.

Me: Social Security is supposed to be insurance against ending up poor. Currently no one pays taxes on their Social Security income unless they have other income over $25.000 per year. Combined with their SS income this would suggest an income in retirement of about $45,000. This is not poverty.

There are other ways to jiggle around the SS ‘break points” or taxing of benefits. The tax on part of SS income for those with enough other income to stay out of poverty turns out to be the simplest and fairest. Might be important to remember that SS is not only “what you paid in,” but is about double what you paid in because of the effective interest of pay as you go.

You pay taxes on gains from every other investment. So there is nothing immoral or counterproductive about taxing part of SS benefits for those who otherwise have sufficient income. This tax is returned to the Social Security trust fund and is part of what helps pay those increased benefits for the poor.

Larson: Strengthens the Trust Fund

Have millionaires pay the same rate as everyone else.

Me: This is the bit that destroys Social Security. Currently millionaires pay the same rate as everyone else: 12.4% of the first $130 thousand per year. This is enough for them to pay for what they get from Social Security… an effective real interest of around 1 or 2 percent, plus the insurance value in case their millions of dollars disappear before they retire, or when they become disabled or die leaving dependents.

They only get that 1 or 2% compared to your 2 or 3% and the poorest up to 10% or more because the money they would get if everyone got paid the same interest is what enables SS to pay the bigger “interest” needed to pay for basic needs of the poorest.

“Making” them pay 12% on ALL of their income would be a huge tax increase they would get nothing out of. They would fight it forever.

It would be like having a cop watch the check-out line at the grocery and demanding every customer show their tax returns and “making” anyone with “too much” income pay for the groceries of the next ten people in line.

This sounds fair to some people who think that the “rich” stole their money from the “poor.”
Maybe some did, but this is not the way to fix that problem. If you want to tax the rich more, fine. If you want more welfare, fine. But don’t do it to Social Security, which works, and has worked for eighty years exactly because it is NOT welfare. NOT “soak the rich.”

Larson: 50 cent per week to keep the system solvent. Gradually phase in an increase in the tax by an average of 50 cents per week.

Me: Sounds familiar. Question is why stop at 50 cents when a dollar will keep the system solvent forever without the political dangers of “make the rich pay”?

Do we think an extra 50 cents per week out of an income of 50k per year is going to be felt? Note that for the poorest people making 20K per year, the “dollar per week” turns out to be 20 cents per week (The increase needed to keep SS solvent forever is one tenth of one percent of income per year.)

This is mindless greed. Greed so stupid it defeats itself.

Tags: Comments (31) | |

I Think, Therefore I Know: San Francisco Edition

I Think, Therefore I Know: San Francisco Edition

Strange as it may seem, the biggest stumbling block on much of the left may be a crude philosophical error, dogmatic subjectivism.  This is a position that holds that subjective experience is the highest form of knowledge, whose claims can’t be challenged by “lesser” criteria like logical analysis or empirical observation.  To the extreme subjectivist, if I feel something to be true there is no legitimate counterargument: I think (or feel), therefore I know.

This is at the heart of the current blowup over the mural at George Washington High School in San Francisco.  It was painted in the 1930s by Victor Arnautoff, a member of the Communist Party and acolyte of Diego Rivera, under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration.  To make his point about the centrality of racism and oppression in American history, he portrayed Washington as the slaveowner he was, with a group of slaves toiling away to make him rich.  He also showed pioneers headed westward past the body of a dead Indian.  Not surprisingly, Arnautoff got into trouble during the McCarthy era and was effectively hounded out of the world of public art.

But several groups and individuals who claim to speak for today’s oppressed think the mural glorifies racist violence and makes the high school an “unsafe” environment.  The San Francisco School Board’s advisory group, The Reflection and Action Working Group, deemed Arnautoff “glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, Manifest Destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc.”  One of the Board members said that efforts to save the mural from being painted over were reflective of “white supremacy”, since the artwork some want to save is “white property”, while its effects are harmful to “Black and Brown ppl [people]”.  The head of the high school’s Indian Education Program asserts this and other Arnautoff murals “glorify the white man’s role and dismiss the humanity of other people who are still alive….”  Others bring up the triggering effect of images that remind us of the brutality that permeates American history.

Comments (7) | |

Elliott Maraniss

Elliott Maraniss

It’s with more than average interest that I just read a review of David Maraniss’ new book about his father Elliott, A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Father.  I knew Elliott during my years in Madison as a contributing writer to his newspaper, the Capital Times, and as an informal sounding board for his thoughts on the New Left.  The period in question was the early 1970s.

First, Elliott was the most visibly nervous person I had ever met.  He talked quickly in a loud but skittish voice, and his usual facial expression was a half-smile that seemed to reflect a deep uncertainty about everyone and everything.  Of course, he held a position of authority—editor—and he was able to make decisions rapidly and with conviction.  Still, it always seemed there was something more going on; I had no idea.

Comments (0) | |

The New York Times: A Propaganda Machine for Trump

The New York Times: A Propaganda Machine for Trump

The Times thinks it’s leading the forces of reason and light against Donald Trump, but it doesn’t have a clue.  Every day their front page is festooned with the latest noxious Trumpian remark, followed by paragraphs of commentary on how unprecedented it is for a president to talk this way and how appalled most politicians and political observers are.  They think Trump is making one mistake after another, and if their readers are exposed to the whole lot of them, they will turn against the Donald.  But his pompous bullying is not a mistake at all; it’s pretty much all he does.

Trump has been nothing but consistent during his first run as a reality-show business tycoon and his second as a national politician.  He presents himself as a sort of alpha male, bigger, badder and sexier than anyone else on the block.  People don’t support him because they think he’s nice or sophisticated in his reasoning; they want someone who can get the job done, and Trump presents himself as willing and able to bash his way to success.  Threats and insults are standard operating procedure.

The irony, of course, is that once you get past his mouth he turns out to be an uncommonly weak and ineffectual president.  True, his allies and cronies are securing judgeships and eviscerating regulations, but Trump himself is 99% PR.  He was a fake business kingpin the first time around, and now he’s a fake president.  His only job is to distract you from what the real movers and shakers are doing.

So the Times, by giving us megadoses of Trump’s mouth are playing right into his strategy.  If they secretly want him to be re-elected, they should go on doing it.  On the off-chance that they want to defeat the guy, however, here’s a better way:

1. No, absolutely no, front page news on Trump unless he actually does something—and saying stupid or mean stuff doesn’t qualify as doing.

2. Have a regular section deeper in the paper, on page 8 say, devoted to the man’s various harangues and tweets.  Record his weird and ugly babbling for posterity.  Provide reputable internet sources for factual correctives.  But keep it small and tucked away.

3. Change the ruling meme from “He is upending the world through his threats and insults” to “He is a blowhard who actually does almost nothing.”  Treat him not like an alpha but more like an omega with endless vocalizations, best ignored.

Comments (5) | |

Kevin Drum Talking ’bout my generation

(Dan here…lifted from Robert’s Stochastic Thoughts)

Kevin Drum Talking ’bout my generation

Kevin Drum has a funny but also genuinely interesting post on how boomers are not really to blame for messing up America (he half tongue in cheek blames the silent generation). I don’t think the defensiveness is entirely an act. He does concede

Now, if you want to blame boomers for welfare reform, sure. Bill Clinton was (barely) a boomer. If you want to blame boomers for the Iraq War, I guess so. George Bush was (barely) a boomer—though the real force behind it was Dick Cheney (b. 1941). If you want to blame us for screwing up Obamacare, that seems sort of churlish, but whatever. Barack Obama was (barely) a boomer—though the real roadblock to a public option was Joe Lieberman (b. 1942) and his centrist pals.

I comment

One interesting thing, you list welfare reform with invading Iraq (and also the ACA but call that churlish) and admit that it was a boomer misdeed (blaming Cheney for Iraq and Lieberman for weaknesses of the ACA which was still a great step forward). This interests me, because our one point of regular disagreement was over how horrible welfare reform is (it is current policy so the present tense is necessary).

Oddly, I learned of the association with a sharp increase in deep poverty here (I think your second post of the series in which you briefly conceded that welfare reform was severely damaging). I never understood your motivation . Now I see how important 2 years can be (also this post makes me feel young — thanks). I was born in 1960 so late boom (or between boomer and gen X). I definitely do not consider Bill Clinton to be from my generation. Welfare reform is something old guys did to my country.

Comments (10) | |