Monday, January 14, 2013

The political divide: informational, not ideological?

I'll get to that video clip in a moment, since I want to focus on this claim by Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, that America's political divide is informational, not ideological:
The Washington political crowd often claims that political gridlock is the result of ideological extremes dominating the two major political parties. For the Democrats, spending on programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is sacrosanct. For the Republicans tax increases are strictly verboten. With one side refusing to accept spending cuts and the other side refusing to accept tax increases, deficit reduction is impossible.

That’s a cute story with which to fill news articles and opinion pieces, but it is almost completely wrong – and not just because it exaggerates the need for deficit reduction. While it is absolutely true that the vast majority of Democrats strongly oppose cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, so do the vast majority of Republicans, including self-identified supporters of the Tea Party.

This is not a debatable point. Poll after poll consistently shows that huge majorities across the political spectrum strongly support these programs and do not want to see them cut. While the support is somewhat lower among more conservative voters, any politician would be delighted to enjoy the same approval rating with potential voters as Social Security enjoys among Tea Party conservatives. This one is not a close call, even the most conservative voters are huge supporters of the big three social programs. ...

As a practical matter, most conservatives actually approve of the vast majority of federal spending. The problem is that they don’t realize that most of the federal budget is actually spent on programs they support. They have been led to believe by conservative politicians that there are vast areas of the federal budget devoted to fraudulent or ridiculous spending programs.

This is perhaps best typified by the $1 million Woodstock Museum, which served as a major prop for John McCain’s 2008 presidential race. To most of us $1 million is a lot of money. However for the federal government $1 million is inconsequential. It amounts to less than 0.00003 percent of all federal spending. If Congress were devote 1 minute of debate for every Woodstock Museum sized expenditure (i.e. 1 minute of debate for every million dollars spent on a program), and stayed in session 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, then it would get through debating the 2013 budget some time in 2020.

Whether or not the $1 million grant for the Woodstock Museum was a good use of public money, it simply was too small to be of much consequence. The media’s response to McCain’s making this sort of expenditure the centerpiece of his campaign should have been ridicule. The Woodstock Museum and other comparable items most certainly are not where the money is. Yet instead of ridiculing McCain, the media lionized him. He was routinely praised for his courage and regularly feted in public forums for standing above narrow partisanship to serve the greater good.

This treatment of McCain and other “deficit fighters” who focus on trivial items in the budget has helped to encourage the belief that spending is driven by quirky projects of questionable value – instead of the social insurance programs that enjoy overwhelming support. This misunderstanding creates a fundamentally different problem from the seemingly irreconcilable ideological conflict hyped by the Washington media.

I must say, this reminds me of previous political battles over earmarks. As Gail Collins once said, "Earmarks are one of those easy-to-attack Congressional weaknesses, and in a perfect world, they would not exist. But they cost approximately two cents in the grand budgetary scheme of things. Saying you're going to fix the economy or balance the budget by cutting out earmarks is like saying you're going to end global warming by banning bathroom nightlights."

But in this case, Republicans know very well that Americans - even their own supporters - widely support Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid (certainly, for the latter, those who realize what Medicaid does).

That's why, before the election, Republicans claimed they would protect Medicare from the Democrats. Indeed, they hammered Barack Obama over and over again about a savings to Medicare costs - pretending that it was a cut to Medicare, rather than an attack on waste and fraud - that Paul Ryan had included in his own deficit-cutting plan, too.

And then, immediately after the election was over, they went back to trying to cut Medicare again! Well, if you knew anything at all about this, you had to know that was coming, right? How could even the most diehard Republican believe that their party would defend Social Security and Medicare from the Democrats - or need to?

And now, they're threatening to shut down our government, and even to default on the debts America already owes (as a result of laws passed by Congress, of course, not presidential whim), if Barack Obama and Congressional Democrats don't agree to cut these programs.

(Note that they refuse to specify any cuts themselves. That's right, they won't even say what cuts they want, since the American people disagree with them. Instead, they want Barack Obama to specify the cuts which Republicans want him to make, so that they can hammer the Democrats, on those very budget cuts, in future elections. And if Obama won't do this, they threaten to harm America. Incredible, isn't it?)

Now, you have to wonder about a lot of this, not just the gall of campaigning on exactly the opposite of what you plan to do. (Why does anyone still believe them?)

Admittedly, they're careful to say that nothing they do will affect their own elderly supporters, but only younger Americans. But even if you assume that's true - again, they don't exactly have a stellar record of being honest - they must clearly believe that the elderly don't care what happens to their children and grandchildren, as long as their own benefits aren't cut. (I don't think that's true, is it?)

And note that video clip I posted above. The great patron saint of the GOP, their beloved Ronald Reagan himself, pointed out that cutting Social Security does nothing for the budget deficit. Social Security is paid for by the payroll taxes on working people, and it runs a surplus. But that surplus goes into the Social Security Trust Fund, so even if you increased it, that wouldn't help the deficit one bit.

So, as I say, you have to wonder about a lot of this. But here's the point I want to make now: Congressional Republicans are seriously thinking about defaulting on America's debt and/or shutting down our government - at a time when our economic recovery is already fragile - just because they're angry.

They lost the recent election big-time (even in the House of Representatives, which stayed under Republican control, more than a million more Americans voted for Democrats than Republicans), and they've been hysterical and... well, butt-hurt over that ever since.

They couldn't convince a majority of American citizens to support them, so they plan to throw a tantrum to get our attention:
“I think it is possible that we would shut down the government to make sure President Obama understands that we’re serious,” House Republican Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state told us. ...

House Speaker John Boehner “may need a shutdown just to get it out of their system,” said a top GOP leadership adviser. “We might need to do that for member-management purposes — so they have an endgame and can show their constituents they’re fighting.”

In effect, Republicans plan to stomp their feet and hold their breath until they turn blue. Then they plan to trash the place, our place. Just to show how mad they are that they lost the election and can't get their own way in everything! Incredible, isn't it?

If you're wondering, here's Barack Obama's response, so far (from today's press conference):

Note that this isn't about spending. Barack Obama is required to spend what Congress authorizes. And he can't tax at a higher level than authorized by Congress, either. Despite what you may have heard from your loonier relatives, he's not a dictator.

No, this is about blackmail. This is about Republicans taking hostages to get what they want. They lost the election, and they're still pissed about that. Well, tough shit! I had to put up with eight years of George W. Bush, but I didn't throw a tantrum over it (and I didn't threaten to start shooting people, either).

In a democracy, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Almost always, you have to accept compromises. But Republican politicians are fanatics. Many of them won't compromise under any circumstances, and if they can't get their own way in everything, they'll pull a gun and hold it to America's head.

Well, they're faith-based, not evidence-based. They have their dogma, and they know they're right (even though most of it failed dramatically - and disastrously - during the Bush years). Even their own supporters don't agree with them about Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, so they have to mislead them. They have to lie.

And as I say, when they still lose, they decide they have the right to do what they want, anyway. If America doesn't agree, America will pay the price. They'll shoot, rather than accept reality.

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