There is no better story to explain the true insanity of American politics than the fiscal cliff.
The Media is Ignorant and it’s Making Everyone Else Ignorant Too
An explanation of the strangeness of this whole debate has to start with pointing out that the name itself is wrong. It’s the product of the 24 hour news cycle which has produced a shockingly ignorant TV press corps that cannot possibly go several months without running around screaming about the latest invented apocalyptic crisis. There is no “cliff” of economic doom we’re about to plunge over on January 1st like Wiley Coyote. It’s really a gradual slope.
But slowly going down that slope would still be bad. Why? Basic economics says governments are supposed to run deficits during economic downturns. They borrow rather than raising taxes to spend money on things like bridges, schools, the military, creating jobs for construction workers, teachers, and death-machine manufacturers. The “fiscal cliff” is the large increase in taxes and cuts in spending scheduled to happen in 2013, which could put us back into recession.
Yet the media has created the perception among people that this is some kind of “debt crisis”, and we therefore need take this moment to deal with our national debt. In fact, it’s the opposite. Going over the fiscal cliff will almost completely eliminate the deficit (graph on right). Yes, that’s right. We could literally lock Congress in a big cage for the next year and the deficit would pretty much go away. But that’s a bad thing, because it would tank the economy.
The Tea Party is Seriously Insane
So why aren’t the Tea Party crazies who are so obsessed with reducing the deficit cheering about the fiscal cliff?
If, as they’ve bizarrely insisted, the deficit under Obama is what’s been holding back job growth, shouldn’t the fiscal cliff be the Biggest Stimulus Ever?
In fact, a large part of the fiscal cliff is because of the automatic trigger budget cuts that they demanded when they held the debt ceiling hostage and almost caused the US to default.
So did they stop believing in austerity and suddenly become true believers in Keynesian economics? No, apparently they don’t really believe anything and are just fucking crazy and angry about anything Obama does.
Congress Either Doesn’t Know or Doesn’t Care What Regular People Want
The truth is, right or left, no one wants to go over the cliff. In fact, normal people (read: not members of Congress) are mostly in agreement. A wide majority supports allowing the Bush tax cuts for the rich to expire on schedule. And although Republicans like spending cuts in theory, when you ask them about the specific cuts their congressional representatives are talking about, they no longer support them.
The fiscal debate has featured all kinds of ridiculous antics from Congress. We may have officially entered the Twilight Zone, when Senate Minority Leader McConnell (who has led more filibusters than anyone in history) I shit you not, filibustered his own bill.
But at a deeper level, this shows who Congress is really accountable to. Even though Congress agrees on tax rates for 98% of Americans, the debate is stuck because House Republicans are holding the whole thing hostage over tax cuts for the richest 2%. And although the fiscal cliff cuts to the military are much more widely supported than cuts to Medicare, Congress is stumbling over themselves to protect the defense budget and fairly willing to throw grandma under the bus. Why? Because death-machine manufacturers have really good lobbyists and old poor people don’t.
Not Just the Tea Party, but the Republican Party in General is Seriously Insane
Clearly a significant portion of our country has become utterly unhinged from reality. Not only were they convinced there was no way Obama could win, they still have trouble believing it even after the election is over.
You don’t get to lose elections and then make demands. Especially because Obama can get what he wants by doing nothing, letting all the tax cuts expire on January 1st, then asking Congress to vote for a tax cut just for the lower 98%, which they’ll all vote for.
Truth is, people are tired of the GOP’s shit. That’s why Obama won. That’s why in polls Americans overwhelmingly say they will blame Republicans in Congress if the fiscal cliff happens.
But here’s the best part. If they don’t get their way, Republicans are threatening to start a whole new hostage situation over the debt ceiling. The only thing that could make this more crazy is if as a compromise for raising the debt ceiling, Republicans demand another Supercommittee, which fails again, leading to automatic budget cuts that become another fiscal cliff that needs to be averted.
Maybe we’ll just be trapped in an infinite loop until we die.
Like many people working for progressive organizations in California, I’m spending most of my life right now trying to pass Prop 30 and defeat Prop 32. Prop 30 is simple– tax the rich, prevent cuts to schools. But to understand what’s at stake with Prop 32, you have to step back and look big picture. Politics is about winning, but the real winners are those who control the rules of the game. And the right-wing is particularly good at thinking two steps ahead, winning the battles that change the rules.
I imagine people like Karl Rove and David Koch to be kind of like two kids I met during my very brief flirtation with Speech and Debate in high school. In fact, these guys actually looked a lot like young versions of them.
It was the first debate tournament I ever attended. I realized something was wrong with these pudgy 17-year olds when they began pacing around before the debate, performing what appeared to be a pre-rehearsed intimidation routine, casually talking to each other about the high scores they had gotten on their AP tests.
The topic we had been given was “Is Russia a threat to American national security?” At the beginning of a debate, you can set definitions for each of the words in the prompt. This is the point where I, being a typical teenager, tune out and think about sex or drugs or something. I zoned out as Koch and Rove Jr. defined the word “Russia” as “Present-day Russia or the Soviet Union” and defined the word “Is” as “Is, was or will be”. You can imagine how the rest of this story goes.
Guys like this grow up to write things like Prop 32.
Prop 32 claims to be campaign finance reform– it bans corporations AND unions from using payroll-deducted dues for political campaigns. The thing is, ONLY UNIONS are actually affected by this– they have membership dues which workers vote to have deducted from their paychecks. When Exxon Mobil wants to spend money on a Super PAC to promote environmental destruction, they don’t need membership dues– they just use the money you pay them at the pump.
Why are conservatives pushing this? Unions are the main contributors to the Democratic Party in California. They’re also the only formidable opponent to big corporations on issues like health care or the minimum wage.
Prop 32 is a perfect example of how conservatives make it a priority to define the rules of the political game.
All over the country, conservatives are trying to silence unions, who have always been the strongest institutions of the American left. They’re passing voter ID laws to suppress young, poor, and immigrant voters to turn back the clock on the demographic shifts that favor Democrats. They’re working to take down powerful liberal-leaning organizations like ACORN and Planned Parenthood. And conservative interests funded the Citizens United Supreme Court case, creating a money-megaphone for the voice of corporate America.
Sometimes it feels like we’re playing one of those rigged carnival games where you’ll never get the giant stuffed bear. Why are our efforts for Prop 30 constrained by dividing our resources to fight bullshit like Prop 32 at the same time? Why aren’t we two steps ahead? Progressives could be focused on defining the rules of the game right now, rather than playing a game whose rules were written by the other side.
Here’s a Two-Steps-Ahead Agenda for the Democratic Party
1) Reform immigration. First off, it’s the right thing to do. But it also means millions of progressive-leaning people who live in the US but can’t vote would gain that right. The Obama administration dropped the ball by giving up their bargaining power from the start– cracking down on enforcement first, rather than trading that for a path to citizenship.
2) Get money out of politics. We’re seeing a flood of corporate money in politics, and although it’s going to both sides, (Hedge fund managers like to hedge their bets) it’s decisively favoring conservatives. Democrats should be constantly bringing up new campaign finance proposals and endlessly hammering Republicans in the media every time they filibuster them. At least Republicans will be exposed for being corporate lackeys.
3) Make voting easier. The national Democratic Party should look to California. Our new online voter registration system has resulted in record voter registration. By the next presidential election in 2016, you won’t even need to register before Election Day– you can just do it at the polling booth. The GOP knows that higher voter turnout is bad for them. As Republicans push to make voting harder, Democrats must be stupid for not pushing just as hard to make voting easier.
Mitt Romney’s awkwardly-phrased “binders full of women” statement unfortunately captured more attention than his non-answer to the question about the wage gap between men and women. (Also the story is a lie– Romney didn’t ask the women’s organizations for the binders, the organizations presented them to both Romney and his opponent during the campaign as a challenge)
But I think the real story here is that progressives don’t really have a unified agenda for how to address wage inequality either.
The Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act signed into law by Obama is a good policy, but just nibbles at the issue. So what now?
Solutions are tricky because the problem is tricky.
Although women make 77 cents for every dollar that men make, economists chalk up about 9 cents of that gap to unexplained factors such as pure discrimination of the “I don’t think you’re smart/strong/skilled enough because you have a vagina” variety. The other 14 cents are due to things like women having less work-experience or education or being in lower paid industries.
Some people think it’s only the 9 cent “unexplained factors” that we need to go after. I think that’s stupid. The true burden of gender inequality isn’t from a few mean boss men being meanies to women workers. It results from a compounding of one layer of deeply entrenched inequality on top of another on top of another.
It’s the cleaning lady who makes less money than her construction worker husband, who loses seniority by leaving the workforce for a few years to take care of the kids, which is influenced by the fact that society pays construction workers more than cleaning ladies (due to historical expectations of “women’s work” not needing as much pay), which is also influenced by the husband never being taught how to cook and clean and take care of other people when he was a boy, and is also influenced by her parents who didn’t encourage their daughter to become a construction worker instead, and it’s all influenced by our whole damn society’s obsession with macho cutthroat competition.
For example, it’s not like the lack of women engineers just fell from the sky from the fucking Math Gods. It’s in large part due to documented discrimination within the sciences in academia. So when policy wonks say “Well, if you read the STUDIES, the REAL wage gap is only 91/100,” I say they just don’t get how inequality really works.
But what they’re really saying is that there are some parts of the gender wage gap due to sexism, and some parts due to choice. (Choice of lower-paying careers or college majors, choice of being a stay-at-home-mom for a few years, etc.) However, if most of the wage gap is due to choice, that gap should theoretically be eliminated and even reversed within a generation.
On the other hand, I’m not sure it’s a good thing that women increasingly value making money over other priorities like their families. It’s not that men care less about money than they did a generation ago, but only that women care more. I think Americans of all genders could use a little more focus on their families over their careers. But I digress.
The point is despite that women of my generation are apparently more career/money driven than men, I doubt my generation will see the wage gap magically vanish.
I don’t think changes in personal preferences will erase the wage gap because I don’t think personal preferences are the reason the wage gap exists now. Personal choices don’t exist in a vacuum– they’re affected by laws, institutions, culture, resource constraints and power dynamics. More women choose to be teachers. But women don’t get to choose the fact that teachers make less money than other jobs with similar education levels. If you happen to like teaching, you just gotta suck it up.
Some solutions I can think of:
- Mandating companies give paid maternity leave (we’re one of the only countries without it)
- Unions focusing on women-dominated industries like domestic work, food service, garment work, childcare
- Raising the minimum wage (minimum wage-earners are mostly women)
- A cultural shift towards greater acceptance of men also taking off work to raise children (paid paternity leave might help)
- A turn away from the budget cuts that have disproportionately hurt women working in public-service jobs like teaching and social work
But the larger issue here is that I’m just throwing out random thoughts. We’re not on the same page with a real agenda for how to address the gender wage gap. And I’m not holding my breath that the gap will be closed unless we come together with something real and move it forward.
I recently had a discussion about the weirdness of Romney blasting Obama in the debates for cutting $716 billion from Medicare. Aren’t Republicans all about cutting spending? Medicare is about as close as the US government gets to socialism and its creation was vehemently opposed by Republicans in the 1960’s. And the Medicare Advantage program, where Obamacare makes that $716 billion cut from, is widely acknowledged as a wasteful failed program, the kind of thing conservatives are always talking about cutting.
So is it simply that Mitt Romney will literally say anything to make Barack Obama look bad?
I think there’s a deeper explanation: Political ideology is mostly bullshit.
Very few political actions are actually motivated by a sweeping ideology about something abstract like the appropriate size of government. Politics is really about winning power battles to serve the interests of different groups of people.
In this case, the key fact is that suburban white retirees are an important constituency of the Republican Party. They have no particular interest in limited government, but they’re a foundation of the conservative coalition because they tend to be relatively wealthy and less government usually means they get to pay less taxes. It would be political suicide for the GOP to propose cutting their Medicare benefits, even though it fits with their ideological principle of smaller government. That’s because suburban white retirees don’t want limited government when it applies to them. That’s why Paul Ryan only proposes cutting Medicare benefits for everyone under the age of 55. And it’s also why conservatives can feign outrage when Obama “cuts” Medicare—not because it violates their heartfelt values—but because it’s something they can organize a political coalition around.
In fact, conservatives are for big government in a lot of situations, as long as it doesn’t affect the constituencies that make up their coalition:
- They’re down with big government all up in a woman’s uterus
- They like big government profiling Muslims at the airport
- They’re cool with big government stopping and frisking black teenagers on the street
- They love big government telling gay people who they can’t marry
- They’re all about big government asking random Latinos for their immigration papers
The disguise of political ideology is exposed at the local level, where politics gets batshit crazy. Take this recent incident in my city: Residents of the affluent conservative east side opposed the construction of a new apartment complex. Over 50 people, self-organized as far as I can tell, stayed at a hearing for four hours waiting to speak. Listen to their frothing-at-the-mouth-anger:
“I’m in shock,” resident Christopher Fries said. “We’re not going to give up. We’re going to file a lawsuit.”
“You’re not getting our vote,” yelled Nadia Emen, who earlier had said she got married Saturday and cut the festivities short to speak out against the project at the hearing.
Now you might be thinking: “Wait a minute… Wouldn’t a city planning commission blocking a developer from freely buying private property and building whatever type of business enterprise they chose be an intrusion of big government on the liberty of job creators and whatnot?”
But these folks don’t really care about small government. They care about their own group interests. And in this case, they are a bunch of suburbanites who really really really don’t like the idea of poor people living near them.
Although ideology is mostly bullshit, I don’t think this is a bad thing.
I’m progressive, but I don’t like big government for its own sake. I had a high school American history teacher who talked a lot about the legacies of Jefferson and Hamilton. I consider myself a Jeffersonian even though Jefferson hated the growth of the federal government. But back then, government was funded by a regressive tax system whose burden fell on the 99%—the rural farmers—and was mostly used to benefit wealthy urban manufacturing elites. If I lived in Jefferson’s time I would have been against big government too, because what I really care about is using politics to serve the interests of struggling working-class people.
I just wish we could be a little more honest and stop pretending we give a shit about philosophy.
The Chicago teacher strike has sparked a heated debate about how much to blame teachers for America’s failing schools. I think this totally misses the point. American public schools aren’t failing in general, American public schools are failing poor people.
It’s time we start considering something a bit more uncomfortable. Maybe generations of education reforms to improve schools in low-income communities haven’t worked because the problem… is poverty itself?
The much-hyped failing schools you see in documentaries simply don’t exist in wealthy communities. There’s a reason they didn’t film Waiting for Superman at Bel Aire Elementary School. An unwitting viewer might then accidentally reach the conclusion that teachers unions were producing outstanding results in public schools.
In fact, even rich kids in failing urban school districts succeed. Despite the miserably low test scores of average Chicago public school students that have become a media feeding frenzy, for white children from non-poor English-speaking households, test scores in Chicago public schools are actually higher than the average school district. So if you’re a middle-class white parent in Chicago, you really should send your kids to those awful public schools– they’ll probably turn out great.
I’ve attended a low-performing public school in a low-income community and an outstanding public school, serving mostly middle and upper-middle class students. Both had teachers unions, tenure, bureaucratic school districts, and like any workplace, some people were just good at their jobs and some just weren’t.
So why the inequality? I want to get up on a mountaintop, grab a megaphone and yell “It’s the POVERTY, stupid!”
We’ve reached an odd consensus in Washington, where both Democrats and Republicans believe that teachers unions are the main barrier to improving the American education system. (Credit to Michelle Rhee for single-handedly permanently shifting the American political debate— not something most people can claim).
Yet only about one-third of the achievement gap can be explained by in-school factors. The remaining two-thirds are the result of factors outside of the school. When kids have poor nutrition or untreated health problems or unstable housing or parents who don’t have the time/education to read/talk to them in high vocabulary or they’re ducking bullets on the way to school, it makes an enormous impact on their ability to learn. Yes, teacher quality is the largest in-school variable affecting education outcomes, but most of the real difference is coming from influences outside the classroom.
I believe the reason the American education system has such a large disparity between rich and poor is because America has such a large disparity between rich and poor.
America’s education system is exceptionally bad compared to other countries at educational opportunity for low-income children. Not like that one country that attaches its own name to the word “Dream” to symbolize how they’re the land of opportunity. Oh wait. Fuck.
Well, at least there are other countries doing worse than us. Suck on that, Czech Republic!
Not only do we have high inequality in education between rich and poor students, unlike racial achievement gaps, it’s actually getting worse. Note that the big growth of this achievement gap has pretty closely mirrored the widening gap between rich and poor in the US from the late 70’s until today.
This all leads to what might seem like a dismal conclusion: Poor kids will never have high-performing schools. Even if Michelle Rhee personally teaches every one of them herself, spurred to work extra hard by the incentive of being constantly watched by a panel of parents who can drop her into a pit of spikes below the classroom with the pull of a lever.
Yes, that sounds depressing. But is it really?
I’m not saying we can’t close the achievement gap. I’m saying to address a problem, look at its root. And most of the root cause of this problem lies in factors outside the classroom related to poverty. Our political debate is totally ignoring the biggest root of the problem.
Yes, eliminating poverty in America seems harder than just converting all our schools to charter schools or replacing all teachers with TFA kids or some other education reform idea that hopefully doesn’t cost any money.
But we’ve made huge reductions in poverty before, during the War on Poverty in the 1960’s. We know how to do it, we just stopped caring a couple decades ago. In fact, I would say we know how to reduce poverty better than we know how to turn around failing schools.
Sure, we can still figure out how to make schools as effective as possible. But debating the best method of getting better schools for poor kids gives up on the radical idea that maybe those kids don’t have to be poor.
Although most of the chatter around Paul Ryan and his radical budget proposals has focused on his attacks on Medicare, the more brutal cuts he put forward are actually to Medicaid. The key distinction is that while Medicare is a universal social program whose benefits go to all elderly Americans, Medicaid provides healthcare primarily to low-income people, and thus must be extra offensive to people like Ryan.
In his convention speech Bill Clinton stressed how these cuts to Medicaid will actually affect many middle-class families too, because it includes funds for nursing homes and disabled children of all income levels.
Why would he say this? Because it makes strategic political sense. Because large swaths of Americans at all income levels consider themselves middle-class, entitlements that benefit the middle-class like Social Security are politically difficult to cut. Meanwhile slashing benefits that go to the poor, (as Bill Clinton should know after gutting the old welfare system) is much easier for the public to accept.
Knowing that the right-wing will always regain political power at some point and want to start slashing social programs, progressives should push for universal programs that also benefit the middle-class rather than means-tested programs that only low-income people qualify for.
For example, this would mean arguing for lowering college tuition for all students rather than expanding financial aid. (It also suggests single-payer healthcare would be much harder to get rid of by future conservatives than the subsidies provided by Obamacare.)
But wait– isn’t the whole point of social programs to redistribute wealth to those most in need? Why add a large extra cost to help people who aren’t poor?
First, there’s the strategic/political reason. If we really believe things like healthcare or education or retirement security are human rights, then when we score major victories to expand access to them, we have to make our victories last. The best way to prevent future cuts is to create universal programs that people actually see as one of their basic rights as Americans, like Social Security.
There’s also an economic/policy reason. Low-income families are essentially punished when they manage to struggle their way into the middle-class because they lose government benefits they no longer qualify for. This is the precarious reality of being lower-middle-class in America, where your family faces extra burdens just as you are barely beginning to achieve the American dream. If you instead make things like college education or healthcare guaranteed at all income levels, the government is no longer essentially penalizing people for making it into the middle-class.
One potential problem is that making a program universal necessarily makes it more expensive and thus creates political challenges to passing it in the first place. However, most middle-class families already pay for things like college and health insurance, so are likely to accept paying taxes to get them for free from the government, in the same way that most people don’t mind payroll taxes to fund their Social Security benefits, because they would have had to save for retirement anyway.
On the other hand, many middle-class people might prefer privately financing education or healthcare rather than publicly financing it because of their negative views towards government. But those negative views towards government have mostly been created in the last few decades by right-wing messaging that stirred up middle-class resentment towards low-income people for being dependent on government aid (“welfare queens”, etc.) The only way to counter it is by showing middle-class voters that the universal provision of economic rights like education and healthcare is not just about helping the poor, but about stopping the rise of economic insecurity being experienced by all Americans.