America: The Bravely Incompetent

that-tattered-old-flag-mike-hendren

Crisis averted, sort of. But sort of seems to be the best we can do these days. The fact the Government only ever pass Continuing Resolutions now, rather than real Budgets, is only one of many examples.

But the true ‘sort of’ of the deal passed Wednesday night regards the question: is governance through crisis the new norm?

Although the attentive portions of the World may have breathed a collective sigh of relief at the House’s acquiescence to reality, the stage is set for a repeat in January. The CR passed only extends Government operations until 15 January and the debt-ceiling will need to be re-negotiated on 7 February.

Ted Cruz ominously pronounced on ABC News following the agreement that ‘[He] would do anything, and [he] will continue to do anything [he] can to stop the train wreck that is ObamaCare.’

The one kernel of hope is that, unlike the previous debt ceiling debates, the Democrats did not cave. The Republicans were not whole-heartedly rewarded for their actions. ObamaCare lives.

But this perception of utter failure is not entirely true because despite obviously losing the present battle, the Republicans may still be winning the war, and terroristic obstanancy is still their most powerful weapon. The Senate CR finally passed by the House is $37 billion lower than the draconian 2011 Paul Ryan [R-WI] Budget.[1]The budget delineations are not strictly uniform with Ryan’s proposal  –welfare and domestic spending took less of a hit, and more came out of Defense– but in many ways the Republicans have managed to achieve their budget goals even though they lost the Presidency.

Yet they still ask for more, Ryan’s 2014 proposal is $19 billion lower than the Senate Bill, making it $56 billion lower than his wish-list from 2011.

The situation may resolve itself if this latest debacle causes enough lasting popular anger to lose the Republicans control of the House in 2014, even in the currently gerrymandered condition most Congressional Districts languidly reside.

But this may be a fantasy. Historically, the Party that controls the Presidency loses House seats in midterm elections. Democratic voters also have a poor track record of turning out for non-Presidential elections, which are often dominated by those of the political extremes, which can only help the Tea Party.[2] Further, according to a YouGov/HuffPost poll, although Ted Cruz’s unfavourability among Republicans almost doubled to 17% during the shutdown, his favourability rating stayed virtually unchanged at 60%.[3] Meanwhile, according to the same poll, both Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio)  and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have lower favourability ratings, and higher unfavourability ratings than Cruz among Republicans. But fundamentally, midterm elections are more than a year away, and anger can fade.

Regardless of any hope of a totally Democrat controlled Government in 2014, one still cannot help but feel we have been duped. That we exist in a good-cop/bad-cop single party state tricking us into swallowing corporatist policy.

Things probably aren’t that contrived, they almost never are. But it still seems that we live in a Single Party state, or at least two separate Single Party states. We no longer have political choice. In the political bubble-worlds that have arrived, either you think the Democrats are crazy, or the Republicans are crazy. And no matter in which world you reside, you are offered no choice over viable candidates for office.

The arrival of this reality seems to have accompanied a Rightward shift in American political dialog. This is probably not the only contributing factor. My pet guess is that the continuing degrading of campaign finance regulations is leading to greater and greater influence by the inherently Right-leaning group of people, due to their operating codes, known as corporations. Helping fuel the new-Right-American political reality.

But lack of viable political choice would logically seem to exacerbate the issue. The politically active have less ability to influence political dialog through their vote if they are automatically placed into two classes, there is muted outlet to voice political descent.

And a Rightward shift is undeniable. That ObamaCare has become the epitome of Liberalism and that the Democrats are now writing and endorsing budgets that would have been hard-line Republican proposals three years ago, are but the most recent examples of this phenomenon. To cite another example, the beloved Ronald Regan, placed in the contemporary Republican Party would both fail to win a Primary election and be derided as a Socialist overlord if elected as a Democrat. Reagan raised taxes eleven times, including the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982 –the largest peacetime tax increase in American history– he supported amnesty for immigrants and was the head of a labour union: the Screen Actors Guild.[4]

This shift seems only to be worsening, with the moderate Republicans losing standing the Tea Party seems to be coming to speak ever more readily for the GOP and the Democrats are simply scrambling to implement Republican policies from twenty years ago.

This is highly distressing to someone of my political leanings. But regardless of this, the dysfunction and obstinacy of the new-American politics is the true terror. Even the recent actions, which saw the worst possible scenario averted, were estimated by Standard and Poor’s to have cost the US economy $24 billion, leading them to slash their growth forecast for the US by 0.6%.[5] The tentative nature of the resolution is warned to have further negative consequences on consumer confidence, with people’s fear of a repeat leading them to save rather than participate in consumer capitalism.[6] Like Standard and Poor’s, Fitch has only scathing remarks for our actions, placing the US on a ‘rating watch negative’ in preparation for a possible credit downgrade on the basis that ‘political brinkmanship and reduced financial flexibility could increase the risk of US default’ –i.e. for being self-absorbed incompetents.[7]

China has been similarly scornful of the debacle. Although these statements must be taken in the propaganda fueled context in which they were released, the following excerpt from the Chinese state controlled News agency Xinhua sheds some light on how the World’s second largest economy views our actions.

‘It is perhaps a good time for the befuddled world to start considering building a de-Americanized world… a self-serving Washington has abused its superpower status and introduced even more chaos into the world by shifting financial risks overseas…Such alarming days when the destinies of others are in the hands of a hypocritical nation have to be terminated, and a new world order should be put in place.’[8]

But the real fear is that if the Government is forced to apprehensively grasp at retaining its existence and preventing a default, no positive movement towards addressing any of the major issues facing the Nation and the World can be made. We are rendered incompetent by the breadth of divide in American political culture, by the exacerbating tendencies of gerrymandering and campaign finance deregulation, by the obstinacy of the new-Right.

– My personal reaction to this has been an ever greater detachment from reality. I felt it exaggerate during the run up to the potential debt ceiling breach. An attempt to dull the horror I felt as every day ticked by. An attempt to pretend that what was occurring in American politics was a fictional satire, a television show contrived for my amusement. This is a disturbingly recurrent disassociation.

I have long felt that News-junkies suffer from a form of masochism. And although I am not sure I would find it so fascinating if we were not so submerged in the solidly dystopian world that the twenty-first century has become, attentively tracking our probable slide towards self-immolation certainly chews at the soul I probably don’t have: I can never truly forget it is real. Maybe I don’t even like it. Maybe I just have the personality of someone who should be obsessed with Reality TV. But because I already decided Reality TV is for the stupid, for those helping to perpetuate the problem, I’m stuck with the News. I’m stuck with paying attention.  

But for dedicated followers of News, things have reached a new high. This has been creeping up upon us since Obama took office. For Conservatives, the election of a secret Muslim, immigrant, anti-Christ as President was clearly a traumatic event. For Liberals, the cage of jaded depression has been slowly closing all along. If a black man from Chicago, running on a platform of ‘Change’, turned out to be a proponent of the status quo, how can we ever trust a mainstream politician again? I can’t. The Democrats are dead to me. I might still vote for them, but I will never again be excited by their campaign promises. Fool me once ass-holes.  

Fuck it, all hail King Kardashian. Too bad I’m too lazy to learn Mandarin.      

[1] http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/budget/news/2013/09/30/76026/the-senate-continuing-resolution-is-already-a-compromise/

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/17/shutdown-ends-heres-whats-next_n_4117386.html

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/19/ted-cruz-ratings_n_4124957.html

[4] http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Columns/2012/06/15/Why-Ronald-Reagan-Would-Not-Lead-Todays-GOP.aspx#page1

[5] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/16/government-shutdown-cost_n_4110818.html

[6] Ibid.

[7] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/15/fitch-us-credit-rating_n_4102262.html

[8] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/china-wants-to-de-americanize-the-world-2013-10-14

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Dancing Dumb: The American Tea Party Movement and Historical Hysteria

cruz and palin

Dancing Mania was a perplexing social phenomenon that intermittently griped widespread sections of the European mainland between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. It often began with single individuals and spread to dozens or even thousands of men, women and children who proceeded to uncontrollably dance for days, or even months, often until many collapsed and sometimes died from exhaustion, heart attacks and strokes.[1]

One well documented occurrence in Strasbourg –The Dancing Plague of 1518– began in July when Frau Troffea took to the street in fervent dance. Within a month, some four-hundred had joined her. As the dancing consumed more and more of the populous, concerned nobles sought advice of local physicians who decided the plague was caused by ‘hot blood’. Although we now know that this conclusion is humoral nonsense, the authorities ignored this cutting-edge diagnosis and instead of prescribing bleeding, encouraged more dancing, even opening two guildhalls, a grain market and constructing a stage for the afflicted, believing continuous dancing would cause an end to the episode. The specific number is unknown, but through the course of the summer and autumn of 1518, dozens danced themselves to death.[2]

The exact cause of Dancing Mania still escapes modern Historians. Ergot, a psychedelic mould that grows on damp rye has been proposed as a contributing factor. But it is a point of contention, and social forces are generally assumed to have played a role. It has also been noted that outbreaks often coincided with times of natural disaster and economic hardship. Moreover, source documents note that observers who refused to join in were treated violently by the dancers and although some who partook reached apparent euphoric states, many were gripped with looks of desperation and fear as they danced.[3] Despite disparate attempts to make sense of these events, multiple Historians concur that fear of reprisal was a general contributing factor to the participation of at least some dancers.[4] Thus, regardless of the initial source, its social penetration radiated beyond direct causal proportion due to its force as a social presence: individuals engaged in the eccentric behavior to, ironically, blend in.

Dancing Mania has not returned. But I find parallels to the contemporary American Tea Party movement and current debt ceiling, government shutdown and ‘Obamacare’ debates to be inescapable.

The House Republicans seem to live in a world of their own. Poll numbers show that the current strategy to hold government funding hostage as a means to prevent enacting health-care legislation passed three years ago is highly unpopular. 72% of Americans, and 49% of Republicans disapprove of this action, and by a margin of 10%, Americans blame the GOP as the main entity responsible for the shutdown.[5] The strategy has led Republican approval ratings to drop from 38% to 28% since the shutdown began, and this derision is even reflected within the Party: 27% of registered Republicans now view their own party unfavourably. [6] Numbers for the Tea Party faction are even lower, with only 21% of Americans expressing a positive view, and 70% saying the Republicans are putting politics ahead of the country.[7] While, at the same time, approval for Obama and the ACA have risen to 47% and 38% respectively.[8]

Yet all the while some Republicans still scream they are speaking for the majority of Americans, only 5% of whom now approve of the job being done by Congress as a whole.[9] And this claim to speak for America is all the more absurd given the Republicans lost the House in popular figures by 1.4 million votes, only taking the House through gerrymandering antics.[10]

The question is becoming, why are Republicans embarking on such a seemingly suicidal mission in regards to their future electability? This is a point so obvious it has even been taken up by some Conservative pundits and politicians.

Bernie Goldberg, a man who has made a career appearing on the O’Reilly Factor and complaining about Liberals, penned ‘it would be great if [Ted Cruz] could succeed, but he can’t… Standing up for your principles is one thing. Committing political suicide is something else altogether.’[11]

Last week Republican Senators met with Cruz to discuss his end-game plans for the government-shutdown he spearheaded. When allowed to talk with anonymity during a post-conference closed-door meeting with the press, the general tone came off scathing.

One Republican Senator is quoted as saying, ‘It was very evident to everyone in the room that Cruz doesn’t have a strategy – he never had a strategy, and could never answer a question about what the end-game was.’

Another Senator went on to say ‘I think he’s done our country a major disservice. I think he’s done Republicans a major disservice.’[12]

Yet when speaking publically, most continue to march in line. But this is indisputably bad for the GOP. Beyond poll numbers, corporate America is decidedly against this action. Prior to the shutdown, the Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to Congressional lawmakers signed by hundreds of businesses stating ‘We respectfully urge Congress to raise the debt ceiling in a timely manner’.[13] This is coming from an organization that last November put its full funding force behind attempting to unseat President Obama.[14]

What is going on? Most likely, it seems, the Republicans fear Primary elections. The country is against them and much of their party is against them, but there is a sizable minority of fervent believers shifting the Republican dialogue. The grassroots Tea Party movement cannot swing general elections, but is a force to be reckoned with during Republican Primary season. This dialectic was observable in the shift in rhetoric by Mitt Romney after he won the Republican Primary in 2012.

It is not unreasonable to assume many Republicans fear appearing moderate could lead them to be usurped by more radical Republicans in the Primaries, leading many to commit actions that will doom them in the general election out of desperation to make it to the general election. It seems un-coincidental that almost half of those Republicans who have pledged to vote for a clean Continuing Resolution [CR], would it come to the House floor, occupy the most vulnerable Republican Congressional districts.[15]

John McCain [R-AZ] summed up the issue with disturbing clarity on CNN, stating ‘We started this on a fool’s errand, convincing so many millions of Americans and our supporters that we could defund Obamacare, which obviously wouldn’t happen until we have sixty-seven Republican Senators to override a Presidential veto’[16]

Republicans are dancing to their doom out of fear. Some believe, sure. But it seems inconceivable that the two-hundred-and-seven House Republicans who are uncommitted to passing a clean CR truly think preventing Obamacare is worth defunding the Government and allowing America to default.

And this is what is most perplexing to Progressives about this issue. Obamacare is not what we wanted. It is not single payer, it is not socialized medicine. Its origins are with the Republicans, Newt Gingrich and the Heritage Foundation as an alternative to the Clinton health-care proposals in 1993.[17] And when the specifics of the law are looked at, this is not surprising. It is market based and does not cut out insurance companies. It is simply an attempt to solve the issue with the reigning American health-care policy of allowing the poor and irresponsibly uninsured to use the Emergency-Room as their sole source of health-care, without resorting to European style socialized medicine. We already had socialized medicine, it was simply socialized emergency medicine that often bankrupted those who received it, but nevertheless passed those costs onto the population at large and raised overall health-care expenditure because people were prevented from accessing preventative care.[18] Some Republicans might be so ill-informed as to think Obamacare represents a Liberal apocalypse worth anything to prevent, but it is hard to imagine all are so naive.

This point is driven even further home when looking at Republican complaints over Government finances in general, and specifically the claim that Democrats refuse to negotiate over the budget. The CR passed by the Senate that is currently being held up in the House is $133 billion lower than the 2014 Obama budget. And even more strikingly it is $37 billion lower than the 2011 Paul Ryan [R-WI] budget, which was, at the time, derided as draconian and unreasonable.[19] The specific funding delineations of the Democrat budgets are not uniform to the Ryan proposal, but it is absurd to suggest the Democrats have not compromised.

Through budget compromises and caving on the previous debt ceiling standoffs, the Democrats have acted like the concerned nobles of 1518, they opened the guildhalls to allow the insane to dance in hopes that they would eventually come to their senses. And like in 1518, the numbers of deranged appear inflated because of all those who have joined in out of fear. But in addition of dancing themselves to death, they are going to dance the entire global economy off a cliff. We can only watch and hope those whose dancing is contrived avert course in the next few days.

[1] Sirois, F., ‘Perspectives on Epidemic Hysteria’, In M. J. Colligan, J. W. (eds.), Mass Psychogenic Illness: A Social Psychological Analysis, (New Jersey: Pennebaker, & L. R. Murphy, 1982), (pp. 217-236).

[2] http://web.archive.org/web/20121013075434/http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/08/01/dancing-death-mystery.html

[3]Bartholomew, Robert E., Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns, and Head-hunting Panics: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Illness and Social Delusion, (North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2001) pp. 132, 139; http://web.archive.org/web/20121013075434/http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2008/08/01/dancing-death-mystery.html

[4] Waller, John (July 2009). “Looking Back: Dancing plagues and mass hysteria” (PDF). The Psychologist (UK: British Psychological Society) 22 (7): 644–7

[5] http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-250_162-57605822/poll-americans-not-happy-about-shutdown-more-blame-gop/

[6] http://www.gallup.com/poll/165317/republican-party-favorability-sinks-record-low.aspx

[7] http://tv.msnbc.com/2013/10/10/gop-plummets-obamacare-soars-in-shutdown-standoff/

[8] http://www.forbes.com/sites/rickungar/2013/10/11/boomerang-poll-reveals-gops-government-shutdown-bolstered-obamacare-popularity-by-20/

[9] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/09/congress-approval-rating_n_4069899.html

[10] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/03/opinion/sunday/the-great-gerrymander-of-2012.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[11] http://www.bernardgoldberg.com/real-conservatives-on-a-suicide-mission/

[12] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CQcMLrz0Kxo

[13] http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2013/10/02/think-budget-impasse-is-bad-wait-until-debt-ceiling-battle/

[14] http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2013/10/obama-business-time-start-worrying-about-government/70135/

[15] http://www.ontheissues.org/Vulnerable.htm#Republicans; http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics-live/liveblog/live-updates-the-shutdown-4/?id=207dd6e1-30d1-42fb-9457-466a9bfa96e2

[16] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y0lDcT9aQdA

[17] Wilkerson, John, Smith, David, Stramp, Nick, ‘Tracing the Flow of Policy Ideas in Legislation: A Tet Reuse Approach’, (New Directions in Text as Data Workshop, London School of Economics, 2013) p.2. http://www.kenbenoit.net/pdfs/NDATAD2013/PolicyIdeas2013TextasData.pdf

If academic articles aren’t good enough for you, FOX News even backs up this point: http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2012/03/28/5-reasons-obamacare-is-already-good-for/

[18] OECD Health Division (October 29, 2012). “OECD Health Data 2012 – Frequently Requested Data”. Paris: OECD.

[19] http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/budget/news/2013/09/30/76026/the-senate-continuing-resolution-is-already-a-compromise/

American Self-Harm:

1607-35_Pesttafel_Augsburg_anagoria

The ongoing fight over ‘Obamacare’, aka the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, blatantly highlights that America has chosen a path of self-harm by means of boggling confusion.

Take the most recent Republican talking-point regarding the probable entwining of the debt ceiling negotiations with the resolution of the partial shutdown of the Federal Government and the ‘Obamacare’ squabble. These comments have splattered the news but are perhaps most succinctly summed up by Senator Tom Coburn [R-Okla] who stated on CBS This Morning ‘There’s no such thing as a debt ceiling… I would dispel the rumor that’s going around that… if we don’t raise the debt ceiling, we’ll default on our debt — we won’t.’[1]

This balks common sense, the Treasury Department and historical precedent. It is possible for the United States to default on loans. The US defaulted on approximately $122 million worth of Treasury Bills in 1979 due to unanticipated demand and a computer glitch. This quickly rectified accident led to a drop in confidence and a rise of 0.6 in national borrowing costs in an era when America played an indisputably larger role in global affairs.[2]

When more nuance and explanation is added, the claim is even contradicted by those who support the notion. Senator Richard Burr (R-N.C.) justified his denial of Treasury Secretary Jack Lew’s warning of pending default through stating ‘the federal government still has about 85 percent of the revenues that we spend coming in, and all they have to do is prioritize that we’re going to pay debt service first.’

Since when is 85 percent 100 percent? And without credit, where does the Government get the funding for the remaining government services even if debt service payments are prioritized? Nor would prioritization protect the full faith and credit of the United States. It might soften the impact to the bond market, but the nation would still be defaulting on assigned financial obligations.

And even if this was not true, what is supposed to go? Non-military Discretionary spending only makes up 17 percent of the budget, almost all of that would have to be cut to meet the deficiencies caused by this plan.[3]

But the Republicans seem to miss the fundamental point entirely. The October 17th date is the estimated time at which we run out of money. It is not an arbitrary date. We have already spent the money, most of it is gone, and October 17th is when the Treasury Department predicts that it will all be gone. To continue funding our governmental obligations, as of that date, including debt service payments, the debt ceiling must be raised.[4]

Regardless of the validity of any of this, the markets speak for themselves. The Dow Jones, NASDAQ, and Standard and Poor’s 500 Index all closed Monday at the lowest levels in a month.[5] It is ironic that the ‘Party of Capitalism’ seems to have forgotten that the economic reaction to a debt ceiling breach is fundamentally not up to the Government. It depends on how businesses will react to viewing our moronic Legislatures playing with fire. And as it seems, even the prospect of a debt ceiling breach is having negative market consequences.

Yet what is most confusing about this crazy-speak is it seems to undermine the Tea Party’s plan. If the debt ceiling is meaningless, why should the Administration negotiate with the GOP in order to secure its increase? I thought the plan was to hold the entire global economy hostage in order to strong-arm out of existence the centre-right legislation known as ‘Obamacare’. The Republicans are conjuring a way to blame the Administration for the catastrophe they are creating, but through doing so are undermining the leverage they need to avoid the catastrophe and get their way.

Perhaps this represents a psychotic break from reality. An attempt to feel better about the irreparable harm they intend to inflict on the global economy by way of a temper tantrum over the fact the Democrats have taken credit for a Republican health care plan.[6]

The other option is that the GOP thinks their constituents are dumb, and that everyone who is smart enough to see through this already opposes them, and maybe they are right about that. But the insanity must end. America is giving democracy a bad name. No wonder the Chinese are still fake Communists.

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/07/tom-coburn-debt_n_4056976.html

[2] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/07/debt-ceiling-breach-1979_n_4058492.html

[3] http://cbo.gov/publication/43904

[4] http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-09-25/business/42373223_1_debt-limit-treasury-secretary-jack-lew-house-republicans

[5] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/07/stock-market-default_n_4059585.html

[6] Wilkerson, John, Smith, David, Stramp, Nick, ‘Tracing the Flow of Policy Ideas in Legislation: A Tet Reuse Approach’, (New Directions in Text as Data Workshop, London School of Economics, 2013) http://www.kenbenoit.net/pdfs/NDATAD2013/PolicyIdeas2013TextasData.pdf