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Do investors really not get it regarding US paying it’s debt?

A question has been nagging me. First, does the rest of the world not get that the republicans are playing a game with the US’ bank account? Does anyone really believe that the US won’t pay as in the renter just skipped out the back door? Or maybe I should say; as in the capital venture company just loaded up the latest purchase with debt, pocketed that money and filed bankruptcy?

Really, the US won’t pay it’s bills? Oh no, the nation is going Detroit?

It’s a game folks. Don’t play it. If you don’t play it then the republicans have no threat because the financial world is not really threatened.

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My answer to the question, “So is Brian Williams really an idiot, or does he just play one on TV?”

In the Comments thread to my post yesterday about a comment that Brian Williams made the day before indicating that he apparently does not know what “the debt ceiling” actually means, reader SW asked: “So, is he really an idiot or does he just play one on the tv?”

I answered:

I hadn’t thought of Williams as a lightweight before, which is one reason I was so shocked that he apparently doesn’t know what “the debt ceiling” actually means.  I rarely watch the network evening news shows anymore, but when I do, It’s his show that I watch.  The CBS and ABC ones seem to have made a concerted effort to play to conservatives, I guess because the audience for these shows these days is so largely white elderly folks.  

There was a good Opinionator piece in the NYT yesterday by a Philosophy prof. named Jason Stanley, called “Philosopher Kings and Fiscal Cliffs,” about how the misleading language used to discuss these things–which actually are specific facts–leads to dangerously false analogies and misunderstandings by the public, fed by deliberate misrepresentations by pols. (The article engages in a misrepresentation of sorts, itself, by equating Repub misrepresentations with Dem ones, but, oh, well.)  But Williams isn’t any old member of the general public. How can the main news anchor for NBC Nightly News not know what the debt ceiling is, and think it’s something that it’s not?

Williams’ Wikipedia bio is surprisingly sparse about his professional background, but my guess is that he’s never been a hard-news reporter on anything really complicated.  He apparently came to prominence by covering Hurricane Katrina for NBC News–hardly a complicated news event requiring knowledge beyond what the general public has.  But it just really surprises me that he apparently doesn’t even read the NYT or the Washington Post on major, complex stories such as the debt ceiling thing.  

Oh, well. This isn’t the era of Walter Cronkite.  So, what else is new?

I watched [Williams’] show again last night, and near the end he did a wonderful story on something dear to my heart: The Puppy Bowl.  The dogs all are rescues, up for adoption. Again, nothing complicated.  But, at least in my opinion, important.

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Oh, do tell us, Rep. Ryan, what exactly you think our spending priorities should be in order to avoid default if the debt ceiling isn’t increased. Pleeease.

Oh, do tell us, Rep. Ryan, what exactly you think our spending priorities should be in order to avoid default if the debt ceiling isn’t increased.  Pleeease.  

Might they be similar to the priorities of the National Review’s editors?

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Apparently, the National Review’s Editors Plan to Swear Off Flying. And Eating Farm Products. And Want to Force the Rest of Us To, Too.

Today, in another step forward, the National Review calls on Republicans to take the threat of default off the table:

Republicans should recognize that the prospect of default is the Democrats’ chief weapon in their campaign of avoidance. That prospect is not a source of Republican leverage in the debt-ceiling fight; it is the primary source of the Democrats’ leverage. It is a way to distract the press and the public from the reality of our fiscal crisis.

The Democrats’ strategy offers Republicans an opportunity. Since the Democrats insist that the prospect of default is the reason they will not negotiate about spending restraint, Republicans should begin the debt-ceiling fight by permanently eliminating that prospect, turning the debt-ceiling debate into an argument about future spending rather than past borrowing.

The House should pass a bill to redefine the debt limit so that it constrains primary spending but not debt service. Under this reform, a Treasury that had hit the statutory borrowing limit could continue to borrow what it needed exclusively for paying interest on the national debt and to roll over existing debt obligations, but it could not borrow for any other government spending until the limit had been increased. This would take default entirely off the table.

The policy suggestion here is a bit puzzling: As one Dem joked to me, is the idea that the GOP will only continue to threaten to prevent Congress from paying out things like Social Security and veterans’ benefits, but not interest payments? That aside, the core point here is that National Review is admitting that the threat of default gives the leverage not to Republicans, but to Democrats.

The Morning Plum: Conservatives surrendering in debt ceiling fight?, Greg Sargent, Washington Post, this morning

Ah. It’s official: The National Review’s editors do not depend on Social Security and Medicare to survive or keep them from bankruptcy.  Nor do they have an elderly parent in a nursing home who, since exhausting his or her financial reserves, remain cared for there by dint of Medicaid. Which is nice for them.

And most of them live in the Northeast, not in Arizona, California, New Mexico, or Texas, so, much as they hate illegal immigration from Mexico, it doesn’t really impact their lives.  Their homes, unlike the Arizona ranchers who elect the state legislators who enact harsh anti-illegal-immigrant laws, their own property, including their winter homes, are probably secured by private guards.

But they probably do fly.  Maybe in their employer’s or their friends’ corporate jets rather than in commercial airliners.  But fly, nonetheless.  They also probably eat produce, poultry, meat and dairy products inspected by–OMG–a federal agency; specifically, the Department of Agriculture.  

So it didn’t occur to them that, by publishing that editorial in which they acknowledge that the Republicans are losing the PR fight on the debt ceiling, and in which they advised the Republicans nonetheless to issue a revised ransom note removing only bond interest payments and already-incurred contractual debts as hostages and leaving the rest with guns to their heads–sorry, Dana Milbank, but that analogy is appropriate even after Sandy Hook, and is utterly irrelevant to Sandy Hook (what a weird claim by Milbank in a thoroughly off-kilter op-ed)–they’re effectively urging the Repubs to commit political suicide.

I say, go for it, Repubs!  Go for it.

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What Dana Milbank’s Stunningly Awful Column Today Reveals About the Washington Press Corps – [UPDATED]

Okay.  There’s no way to do justice to Washington Post centerist columnist Dana Milbank’s column today about Obama’s “presser” yesterday by just summarizing it or quoting a sentence or short paragraph from it.  And justice for that column, titled “President Congeniality talks tough,” is what I want. So here are the first six (blessedly short) paragraphs of it:

“I’m a pretty friendly guy,” President Obama said near the end of his White House news conference Monday afternoon.

The claim might have been a touch more plausible if he hadn’t spent the bulk of the previous hour demonstrating just how adversarial he could be. Indeed, there was no precipitating event that led him to schedule the last-minute session in the East Room — lending credibility to the theory that he summoned reporters so he could bait Republicans.

“If congressional Republicans refuse to pay America’s bills on time, Social Security checks and veterans benefits will be delayed,” the friendly president said, explaining his refusal to negotiate over increasing the debt limit.

Calling the opposition’s stance “absurd,” Obama advised Republicans that they “have two choices here: They can act responsibly and pay America’s bills, or they can act irresponsibly and put America through another economic crisis. But they will not collect a ransom in exchange for not crashing the American economy. . . . And they better choose quickly, because time is running short.”

And that was just the opening statement. The hectoring continued through the Q&A. Exactly one month after the massacre at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., Obama said of debt-reduction talks: “What I will not do is to have that negotiation with a gun at the head of the American people.”

The Republicans’ view, President Congeniality added, “was rejected by the American people when it was debated during the presidential campaign. . . . But if the House Republicans disagree with that and they want to shut down the government to see if they can get their way on it, that’s their prerogative.”

I agree completely.  The president should never summon White House reporters to the White House press room in order to hold a press conference.  Or at least not to bait Republicans.

And, I guess, not even to respond to Republican daily baiting of him by falsely telling the public that a quirk in the law, requiring Congress to authorize the Treasury to pay the government’s already-incurred bills and bond interest, and pay such things as salaries to military personnel, air traffic controllers, Agriculture Department food inspectors, and Homeland Security airport marshals–not to mention not-yet-but-about-to-be owed Social Security payments, Medicaid payments to nursing homes, and Medicare payments to physicians and hospitals–is instead a request by the president and the Democrats in Congress to increase spending appropriations.  

No, sir.  Much better to allow the Republicans to prey on the public’s misunderstanding of the phrase “raise the debt ceiling.”   

Pass the ransom note, Republicans. Just do it through the mainstream media, as you have been doing.  They’ll happily repeat your message, complete with disinformation, without adding their own: a brief explanation of what the debt ceiling actually is.  Apparently, congressional reporters, unlike the White House press corp, don’t mind being summoned as bait.  Nor do the Sunday talk-show folk.  

Worms, all.

Milbank does allow that:

Arguably, Obama’s no-more-Mr.-Nice-Guy approach is good politics. His first-term experience made clear that he gained nothing from Republicans when he took a passive approach. When it comes to getting things done in Washington, there’s no substitute for forceful presidential leadership. Teddy Roosevelt, whose oil-on-canvas likeness gazed at Obama from an East Room wall, probably would have approved.

Actually, not even just arguably, Milbank conflates statements of fact–in this instance, fact about what the debt ceiling is–with politics.  Certainly, correcting the opposition’s campaign of disinformation, and educating the public about a critical but technical statute that almost no one other than Washington pols, fiscal-policy wonks, and journalists who cover these people and subjects are familiar with, is damn good politics.  It is, in fact, absolutely necessary politics.  It’s dereliction-of-duty-for-failure-to-do-so politics.  

But statements of fact, and statements of policy based on the statements of fact, are not themselves mere politics.  They’re statements of fact and statements of policy based on those facts.

What’s most disturbing about this column is not that one high-profile political columnist confuses these things, but that he says that the entire White House press corp in attendance at the press conference yesterday does.  

So I suggest that they get out more.  Milbank, for example, might consider stepping out of Washington and into, maybe, Baltimore.  Not a long drive, really.  There, he could stop in at a coffee shop or mall and maybe ask people whether they had heard or read of Obama’s comments yesterday and, if so, whether they understood more now about the what debt ceiling statute is than they did a day before.

Then he can report his findings to the rest of the White House press corp.  And offer a different theory about the reason Obama summoned them to the press room yesterday.

Or he could just start reading Angry Bear.  

Seriously, I hope Paul Krugman and other “names” will expose Milbank’s argument for what it is. Obama has that tendency to cower whenever a media meme takes hold on fiscal-policy issues. Milbank and the White House press corp don’t read Angry Bear, but they might read Krugman’s blog. 

  Nah; probably not.  It’s not like Krugman’s a centerist, or anything. Still, it’s worth a shot, especially since what matters most is that Obama or someone close to him might.
This Bear is really ANGRY today.

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UPDATED:  Well, I woke up this morning to a few congratulatory emails, including from some Bears, telling me that Paul Krugman linked to my post yesterday in a blog post of his.  Awesome!  (Thanks, Prof. Krugman. And thanks to everyone for the congrats.)  

But I also want to republish here as an update an exchange between Bear JazzB. and me in the comments to the post:

JazzBumpa:   I always thought Milbank was more or less OK.

But this is really stupid.

Me:  Milbank was terrific back when he was the Post’s WH correspondent during the first G.W. Bush term, JazzB. But he rarely writes anything in his column that I think is really insightful or informative, and sometimes he writes a column that’s just baffling. Like yesterday’s.

What really dismays me is that he and some of the other “name” pundits flat-out missed the purpose of Obama’s Monday press conference. Obama was explaining what the debt ceiling law actually is–and what it is not. An explanation that was (and is) necessity because it’s a law that sounds like it means something that it does not, and that means something that it does not sound like it means–a fact that the Repubs have abused nearly every time one of them says anything publicly about it.

Dave Weigel wrote a [Politics article]* on Slate on Monday after the press conference that started out sounding like he missed the point–and then, wham!  He hit the nail on the head, pointing out that back in Sept. Obama said he planned to speak much more, directly, to the public and explain policy issues.  Weigel said that the Repubs mocked that then, but learned on Monday what he meant.  

And it does seem that the Repubs did learn a lot on Monday, because since then, several have publicly acknowledged that the debt ceiling game is over.  Yet Milbank and a few other pundits didn’t catch on.

And as long as I’m updating here, I’ll indulge myself and republish another exchange I had in the Comments to the post–this one with FastCommerce:

FastCommerce:  Worms. You an idiot.

Me:  Oh, dear. FastCommerce, it looks like you took the BAIT.

So sorry, folks.  But I couldn’t resist.

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*In my original comment, I said Weigel wrote a blog post.  Actually, what he wrote was a full-length article, not a comment or short piece on his Slate blog.  (Those of us who are longtime Slate addicts know there’s a difference.)

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Obama: "We are not a deadbeat nation." (But the Republicans are a deadbeat party.)

The issue here is whether America pays its bills.  We are not a deadbeat nation.  … This is the United States of America. We can’t manage our affairs in terms of the way we pay our bills? … I don’t think anyone would consider my position unreasonable.

— President Obama, today

So President Obama does read Angry Bear.  Cool!

Seriously, folks, I’m so happy that Obama’s beginning an intense campaign to educate the public about the quirky statute at issue in the debt-ceiling campaign.  About what “raising the debt ceiling” actually means, technically–that is, an authorization for the Treasury to pay already-incurred financial obligations–and about what the result would be if that authorization is not made.

Now I hope he quickly takes up Boehner’s challenge, repeated today, that “The American people do not support raising the debt ceiling without reducing government spending at the same time.”  As in: Oh?  The American people do think the United States should default on its already-incurred financial obligations?  Really?  Pray tell, Mr. Speaker, what is your evidence of that?

I hope Obama goes further, though, and publicly and specifically addresses the remainder of Boehner’s comments, which were:

The consequences of failing to increase the debt ceiling are real, but so too are the consequences of allowing our spending problem to go unresolved.  Without meaningful action, the debt will continue to act as an anchor on our economy, costing American jobs and endangering our children’s future. The House will do its job and pass responsible legislation that controls spending, meets our nation’s obligations and keeps the government running, and we will insist that the Democratic majority in Washington do the same.

Responding to Mr. Obama’s remarks, the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, said in a statement:

The American people do not support raising the debt ceiling without reducing government spending at the same time. The consequences of failing to increase the debt ceiling are real, but so too are the consequences of allowing our spending problem to go unresolved.  Without meaningful action, the debt will continue to act as an anchor on our economy, costing American jobs and endangering our children’s future. The House will do its job and pass responsible legislation that controls spending, meets our nation’s obligations and keeps the government running, and we will insist that the Democratic majority in Washington do the same.

My suggestion for a reply to that:

Ah.  I see.  That’s why a substantial majority of your caucus insists upon no tax rate increases, no loophole closings, and supports the adoption of the Ryan budget that would add trillions of dollars to the national debt and, by its drafter’s own concession, wouldn’t begin to decrease the debt until … when?  That’s why you folks supported a presidential candidate who wanted to lower tax rates across the board by 20%.  That’s why you and so many of your colleagues supported the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and again, more nearly two years after 9/11 and after the Iraq war began, in 2003?  And that’s why you refuse to identify the specific budget cuts you want, and instead keep asking me to do it for you?

Checkmate.  

We’re not yet a deadbeat nation.  But the Republicans are a deadbeat party.

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Rep. Greg Walden (R. OR) Explains the Debt Ceiling. Good For Him!

Either that or he means that the public understands what the debt-ceiling statute actually is, and will never support Congress’s authorization of payment of already-incurred expenses earlier authorized by none other than Congress itself.

Obama and the congressional Dems should take the ball Walden has handed them and run with it.Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York, signed on to the trillion-dollar coin plan, telling Capital New York: “It sounds silly but it’s absolutely legal. And it would normally not be proper to consider such a thing, except when you’re faced with blackmail to destroy the country’s economy, you have to consider things.”

But he might find resistance from Representative Greg Walden, Republican of Oregon, who said he would introduce legislation to close the loophole and end the debate once and for all.

“My wife and I have owned and operated a small business since 1986. When it came time to pay the bills, we couldn’t just mint a coin to create more money out of thin air,” Mr. Walden said.

A Trillion-Dollar Coin Brings a Jackpot of Jests, Annie Lowrey, New York Times, Jan. 9 H/T Dan Crawford, below

Presumably, Walden and his wife therefore paid the bills their small business had incurred via contracts he and his wife entered into on behalf of the business, such as utility bills for past months, bank loans, labor costs, rent, and inventory or raw-material purchases.  Unless, that is, they decided not to authorize payment of those bills and lost their business, necessitating Walden’s career change.

Walden ought to explain those basics to his party’s House leader, John Boehner, who as recently as two days ago reportedly said the public will never accept a debt ceiling increase without an accompanying spending cut.  

By which, I assume, he means that as long as the Republicans keep playing on the public’s lack of knowledge about what the quirky debt-ceiling statute actually concerns, and keep telling the public falsely that an increase in the debt ceiling is an increase in future spending appropriations rather than an authorization to allow the Treasury to pay already-incurred expenses, the public will never support Congress’s authorization to pay the federal government’s already-incurred expenses and prevent what would be the small-business-analogy causing the collapse of the business for failure to pay its already-accrued operating expenses.

I’m pretty sure he’s wrong even about that, since polls indicate that a majority of the public does not want the types of spending reductions that the Republicans want. Which, of course, is why the Repubs are refusing to actually specify to the public what, exactly, the do want cut, and by how much. But this much is certain: the public will support congressional authorization to pay already-incurred financial obligations. Just as Walden and his wife thought it best for them to pay their small business’s bills rather than default on them and lose the business.  Even if that meant taking out a small-business bank loan in order to do that.  

And here’s betting that, at times, it did.

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Call This Spade a Spade: The ‘DEADBEAT’ Threat. I.e., Deadbeatism.

[I]sn’t it paramount the president explain to the public what the debt ceiling issue actually is, rather than allowing the Republicans to keep misinforming the public that it’s an increase in budget allocations rather than a payment for budget allocations already made?  This quirk in the law–the requirement that Congress authorize payment of costs already budgeted, already promised (e.g., in bond interest, Medicare payments, Social Security payments, veterans benefits)–is something that almost no member of the general public knows.

Obama keeps saying, in a single sentence, that he won’t allow default on money already appropriated and owing.  That’s nice.  But does he really not understand that this goes right over most people’s heads, because the Repubs keep telling them the opposite, and because the debt ceiling law is a technicality that most people simply don’t know about, and because that technicality has no counterpart in, say, normal living experience?

This is beginning to seem to me like the 2009-2010 ACA debate, redux–with the rightwing misinforming the public, and Obama thinking that the public knows specifics that the public flatly does not know.

So here’s a suggestion: Obama’s shown a fondness for adopting the Republicans’ messaging by analogizing the federal government to a family’s finances, even though this analogy, when it involves economic stimulus and other fiscal-appropriations issues, actually amounts to a misrepresentation of fact.  But on the debt ceiling matter, the government-is-similar-to-families analogy is exactly apt.  If someone already runs up large credit card bills, he owes the money even if he decides to rip up his credit cards and stop running up personal debt.  If he doesn’t pay the credit card bills he’s accrued, he’s DEFAULTING on those debts, and his credit rating will plunge.  And if someone owes monthly mortgage payments, he can’t simply stop paying them, and expect to keep his home.  He’ll lose the home in a foreclosure proceeding.

See? Not hard to explain.  But if Obama can’t or won’t explain this, some other Democrat who can garner the public’s attention should.  My suggestion: Bill Clinton.  And if Clinton won’t, then maybe Joe Biden can.

I opened that post on Monday by quoting from a Greg Sargent blog post from that morning, and so I “tagged” Sargent by name on my post.  I think he read my post.  And maybe maybe Nancy Pelosi did, too.  (Nah.  The post didn’t get that many hits.  Although I did post something similar as a comment to a Dave Weigel article in Slate, and Weigel “liked” the comment using the “like” button on the comment. Maybe Pelosi read the Weigel article and my comment.)

Anyway, here’s what Sargent wrote in his Morning Plum blog piece this morning:

It is one of the most remarkable GOP spin jobs in recent memory : Republicans are painstakingly redefining raising the debt ceiling as something that would constitute giving something to the President, when in fact it is something that is necessary to avert financial disaster for the whole country.

Republicans are being very transparent about the goal of redefining the debt limit on these terms. For instance, the Hill reports today that Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are diverging on how to handle the next round of fiscal talks. Senate Republicans want a more aggressive approach to debt ceiling hostage taking than House Republicans do, in the belief that it is the GOP’s primary leverage point to get the spending cuts they want. John Boehner recently said he believes the sequester gives Republicans more leverage than the debt ceiling does, but Senate Republicans disagree:

Boehner said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that the automatic spending cuts known as the sequester give Republicans their best opportunity to push Obama to accept reforms.

But Senate Republicans think the debt ceiling is a stronger lever.

“The debt ceiling has a fair amount of leverage. It’s the only thing that I can think of for the foreseeable future that the president needs Congress to do,” said a Senate Republican aide. [Sargent’s bolddface.]

Get the trick here? Senate Republicans are describing the eventual hike in the debt ceiling as something the president needs from Congress, not something the whole country needs from Congress. Of course, Boehner is already on record admitting in 2011 that not raising it would constitute “financial disaster,” which may explain why he is backing off the claim that the debt limit gives GOP leverage. McConnell, apparently, disagrees.

This is only the latest sign of GOP disarray around the party’s debt ceiling strategy. Even if the party is struggling with their strategy here, however, it’s worth noting that it has been successful in redefining the meaning of debt ceiling hikes. Note that this subtle redefinition of lifting the debt limit as something that would constitute a favor to Obama has passed almost entirely unnoticed, and has essentially been internalized and accepted by many political observers. Which brings us to the next item.

As the above suggests — and as polls confirm — Dems need to better educate the public about what the debt ceiling is and what default would actually mean. The GOP has successfully spun their intransigence as synonymous with holding the line against spending, when in fact it amounts to nothing more than threatening to default on debts that have been already been incurred.

Yes.  And I have one further suggestion: In explaining what the debt ceiling actually is, and what will happen if the Repubs do what they threaten to do, Obama and the other Dems should use a word that chrystalizes the Repub threat: Deadbeat.

Call this spade a spade.  The threat is to force the federal government to become a deadbeat.  And point out that deadbeatism–I just coined that word, but I won’t copyright it; the Dems can use it, if they’d like–is now part of the Republican policy playbook.

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The Continued Necessity of Explaining to the Public What the Debt Ceiling IS

It’s already clear that Republican congressional leaders now recognize that the Republicans actually have no leverage at all on the debt ceiling matter; they’re not going to pull that trigger, and everyone knows it.  But Obama (or other prominent Dems) still really, really need to explain to the public that the debt ceiling concerns authorization for the Treasury Department to pay already-accrued bills, not an authorization to increase appropriations.  Otherwise, the Republicans will have most people believing that the Democrats forced an increase in future budget appropriations.  And that gives the Republicans a head start (if only an initial one, before the public learns what the Republicans consider “wasteful spending”) in the “sequester” negotiations, the crisis on which the Repubs now pin their leverage hopes.

My bet, and my hope, is that the sequester negotiations result in only a short-term resolution, expressly for the purpose of allowing the 2014 midterm elections determine the outcome of the revenues-vs.-dramatically-cutting-federal-spending war.  The Democrats have (in my opinion) a better-than-even chance of regaining control of the House in that election, despite the extreme gerrymandering since 2010.  

It’s been reported recently that to gain control of the House, the Dems would have to win the nationwide vote by somewhere between 7% and 8%.  But according to an article I read a few days ago (I can’t remember where), that’s what they did in 2006 and 2008.  And I think it’s likely that large numbers of seniors who voted in House elections in 2010 and 2012 for the Republican in their district will switch parties in 2014, now that the Repubs have made their safety-net position clear.  

At least as important, I also think that large numbers of so-called working class whites in various parts of the country who for decades now have automatically voted Republican, will no longer do so, automatically.  That began, in some rust belt states, in the last election.  And as I’ve watched footage of the devastation of Sandy in Staten Island and Queens–New York City’s two more-conservative boroughs–and on Long Island, I keep wondering how many of the storm’s victims supported Republican presidential and congressional candidates in recent elections before the post-Sandy one.  

Just as I wonder, as I read news accounts of the frantic efforts of the Army Corps of Engineers to keep Mississippi barge traffic flowing despite the record drought in the Midwest, how many Missourians and Iowans who vote Republican will rethink their views about the necessity of properly funding the federal government, and whether the problem, as Mitch McConnell recently diagnosed it, is really not inadequate revenue.

Add to that the obvious: that the public is, overwhelmingly, I’m pretty sure, just plain sick of these nihilistic pseudo-adults. (Although it’s still really important to ensure that the public actually knows just how nihilistic these people are.)

So, if the proverbial can is again kicked down the real road, and the inevitable screams of indignation from the punditry are heard, my rhetorical question to them will be: Why not try to actually analyze the situation rather than just use autopilot mode?

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Will the Republicans’ The-Debt-Ceiling-Is-About-Appropriating-NEW-Spending-Measures Disinformation Campaign Succeed? (Well, only if Obama lets it.)

In the wake of the fiscal deal raising taxes only on income over $450,000, Republicans are declaring that the debate over taxes is finished. The next fiscal deal will contain nothing in new revenues. Yesterday, Mitch McConnell said:

“The tax issue is finished. Over. Completed. That’s behind us. Now the question is what are we going to do about the biggest problem confronting our country and that’s our spending addiction. We didn’t have this problem because we weren’t taxing enough.”

As Jonathan Cohn notes this morning, this talking point may have some potency: Hey, we just raised taxes on the rich, so the next bite at the apple should be focused on spending cuts, right? So it’s worth putting the GOP demand in clearer perspective. What Republicans are saying here is that they intend to use the debt ceiling as hostage to ensure that all of the deficit reduction in the coming “grand bargain” is paid for by spending cuts — such as cuts to entitlements and other social programs — with not a penny coming from new revenues via the closing of loopholes and deductions enjoyed by the rich.

A hallmark of the Romney campaign was its pathological tendency to make bald misrepresentations of fact and to reiterate and reiterate the misrepresentation even after almost everyone knew it was false.  Sometimes everyone knew the statement was false as soon as the statement was made; it contradicted what everyone already knew.  Other times–or at least one other time–everyone knew the statement was false after, say, the CEO of the auto company that Romney said was closing a major plant in Ohio and moving the jobs to China said in a highly-publicized statement what everyone in or near the locality of the plant already knew: that the story was false and that the plant had recently expanded and was about to increase its workforce there.  And still other times, everyone learned that the statement was false because the Obama PAC corrected the misrepresentation with TV commercials, or the news media pointed out often enough that the statement was false.

But those misstatements of fact didn’t concern technical matters of law or economic fact that almost no one actually knows.  Which is why the debt ceiling matter is so susceptible of misrepresentation that “raising the debt ceiling” means increasing budget appropriations, when actually it means making available enough money to pay bills already accrued from earlier budget appropriations.  This is a technical issue made in Tea Party heaven, albeit many decades before the Tea Party was born.

So, isn’t it paramount the president explain to the public what the debt ceiling issue actually is, rather than allowing the Republicans to keep misinforming the public that it’s an increase in budget allocations rather than a payment for budget allocations already made?  This quirk in the law–the requirement that Congress authorize payment of costs already budgeted, already promised (e.g., in bond interest, Medicare payments, Social Security payments, veterans benefits)–is something that almost no member of the general public knows.

Obama keeps saying, in a single sentence, that he won’t allow default on money already appropriated and owing.  That’s nice.  But does he really not understand that this goes right over most people’s heads, because the Repubs keep telling them the opposite, and because the debt ceiling law is a technicality that most people simply don’t know about, and because that technicality has no counterpart in, say, normal living experience?

This is beginning to seem to me like the 2009-2010 ACA debate, redux–with the rightwing misinforming the public, and Obama thinking that the public knows specifics that the public flatly does not know.

So here’s a suggestion: Obama’s shown a fondness for adopting the Republicans’ messaging by analogizing the federal government to a family’s finances, even though this analogy, when it involves economic stimulus and other fiscal-appropriations issues, actually amounts to a misrepresentation of fact.  But on the debt ceiling matter, the government-is-similar-to-families analogy is exactly apt.  If someone already runs up large credit card bills, he owes the money even if he decides to rip up his credit cards and stop running up personal debt.  If he doesn’t pay the credit card bills he’s accrued, he’s DEFAULTING on those debts, and his credit rating will plunge.  And if someone owes monthly mortgage payments, he can’t simply stop paying them, and expect to keep his home.  He’ll lose the home in a foreclosure proceeding.

See? Not hard to explain.  But if Obama can’t or won’t explain this, some other Democrat who can garner the public’s attention should.  My suggestion: Bill Clinton.  And if Clinton won’t, then maybe Joe Biden can.

And after this success, maybe they can begin to torpedo the Republicans’ “Greece” canard by actually providing the public with facts.  Such as that Greece has a much smaller, less comprehensive social safety-net system than the U.S., than Germany, than Holland, than Canada, than Australia, than ….  It also has a deeply embedded culture of low rates of taxes, tax payments and tax collections.  Unlike Germany, Holland, Canada, Australia ….  

Which might suggest that McConnell didn’t know what he’s talking about when he said we didn’t have this problem because we weren’t taxing enough.  Especially since we didn’t have this problem when, say, during the Clinton years, we were.

That spending addiction of ours, of course, goes by the some familiar names.  Those names include Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid (including nursing home payments for incapacitated elderly who’ve exhausted their savings), and unemployment insurance.  They also include the Defense Department, Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, air traffic controllers, the National Transportation Safety Board, the Centers for Disease Control, medical research grants, supplemental aid to states for education, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, the Agriculture Department (food safety), and farm price supports.  Not to mention “tax expenditures” to, say, ExxonMobil.

All of which the president should mention in his two big speeches this month: the inaugural speech and the State of the Union address.  Maybe then the Republicans will suggest what parts of our spending addiction they want us to confront, and how–exactly–they think we should confront them.  

Since, unlike Greece, we didn’t have this problem because we weren’t taxing enough.

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