Will Voters Punish Republicans for Punishing the American People?

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

By Josh Marks

Republicans are the problem. That is the conclusion of the excellent new tome “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism” by congressional scholars Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. Mann is a liberal from the Brookings Institution and Ornstein is a conservative from the American Enterprise Institute, so they can hardly be accused of a partisan agenda.

“It’s Even Worse Than It Looks” labels today’s GOP as an “insurgent outlier” in American politics that “contributes disproportionately to its dysfunction.” The Republican leadership made it clear from day one President Obama took office that their mission was to make sure he spends only one term in the White House. Then in 2010, the House of Representatives was overtaken by right-wing extremists with a take-no-prisoners approach to (un)governing.

Anti-government Republicans have a strategy to “starve the beast” with damaging cuts to the public sector so the federal government has a difficult time of doing their job. They want the American people to lose faith in Washington institutions and it appears to be working given the low approval ratings of Congress. The mainstream media contributes to the anti-Washington sentiment by trying to be “fair and balanced” and blaming both sides for the dysfunction rather than squarely aiming at the Republicans for their relentless filibustering obstructionism.

So it is quite clear that for the past nearly two years, Republicans in Congress have put President Obama, congressional Democrats and by extension the American people through hell by refusing to even consider legislation that would put people back to work. Teaching and national service positions remain unfilled. Construction workers sit at home while infrastructure projects are idle. Global warming continues on a dangerous course while many Republicans refuse to even acknowledge the reality of man-made climate change let alone attempt legislation to tackle the problem.

But will the average voter punish the Republicans for punishing them? Historically, when times are tough there is the urge to “throw the bums out of office.” Mann and Orenstein provide a dire warning if we want to find our way out of the current dysfunction. First they  warn that “voters often treat elections as referendums on the performance of the party of government,” meaning that this gives Republicans an incentive to obstruct President Obama’s agenda because they cynically plan on the American people blaming Obama for the economy.

There is also the danger that swing voters who don’t pay close attention to the everyday workings of Congress and how the Republicans have made every little decision into an epic battle, will “simply bet that times will improve with different leaders.” This is what happened in 2010. The economy was (unrealistically) not improving fast enough so many voters chose Tea Party Republicans hoping something, anything different would make things better. Instead it made things worse.

Thankfully, the book is not all doom and gloom. Mann and Orenstein are actually optimistic that today’s deeply dysfunctional political situation will change. They go over specific proposals such as expanding the vote (and fighting Republican-led efforts to restrict the vote), modernizing voter registration, moving election day from Tuesday to the weekend so it is easier to get to the polls, and following the Australian system by making attendance at the polls mandatory.

There are many other excellent ideas, such as restoring majority rule in Congress and limiting filibusters, but the most immediate change needs to be made within the Republican Party and by the American voter. The authors argue that change must come from within the GOP. The hard swing to the right must be countered by an uprising from pragmatic moderates and centrists who used to have more of a say in the Republican Party but now look in horror at the uncompromising extremists who have taken over the GOP.

The longer term fix is a transition to a Westminster-style parliamentary system that “provides a much cleaner form of democratic accountability than the American system.” More importantly in the short term regarding this November’s election, the authors provide the following recommendation to voters:

“Punish a party for ideological extremism by voting against it. (Today, that means the GOP.) It is a surefire way to bring the party back into the political mainstream.”

Weekend Reading List

Sunday, June 17th, 2012

For this weekend’s reading list, we have an analysis of conservative efforts to use school textbooks to indoctrinate children in conservative fantasies, President Obama’s recent economic speech in Ohio, and historical overview that the Founding Fathers did not found the US as a “Christian Nation,” a report about the expense of housing more than 125,000 elderly prisons in prisons in the US, and a call from former-Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold to reverse Citizens United.

 

How Texas Inflicts Bad Textbooks on Us - The story of how, given the large grade school student population in Texas, that state’s standards for school textbooks are typically followed by other states,  and of how conservatives have actively worked to take over the Texas Board of Education, which decides the state’s standards, so they can promote their right-wing agenda in our nation’s school textbooks.

Remarks by the President on the Economy – the transcript of President Obama’s campaign speech last week in Ohio in which the President laid out in detail his support for progressive economic policies, and explained how Mitt Romney is offering nothing more than a repeat of the failed policies of George W. Bush.

The Truth About Religion in America - an historical overview of how the Founders did not establish the US as a “Christian Nation” or base the country on “Christian values.”

At America’s Expense: The Mass Incarceration of the Elderly – a report on the rapid rise in the number of people in prison in the US who are over the age of 55, from 8,853 in 1981 to 124,900 today, largely because of the implementation of harsh sentencing laws in the 1980s and 1990s.  Each such prisoner costs $68,270 per year to house (double that spent per prisoner under the age of 50), and continues to be held even though recidivism rates are very low for the elderly.

The Money Crisis - an essay from former Senator Russ Feingold explaining how Citizens United has corrupted our political system and how a pending case regarding a Montana state ban on corporate financing of campaigns gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to fix some of the damage done by the misguided Citizens United decision.

Book Review: Paul Krugman’s ‘End This Depression Now!’

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012

(By Josh Marks, cross-posted at Green Forward)

Right now the disconnect between Washington’s political-media class and the American people is astounding. Somehow in the midst of this economic catastrophe, the conversation steered away from fiscal stimulus and job creation to deficits and spending cuts. Meanwhile, millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans continue struggling to make ends meet.

Along comes Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman with his new book “End This Depression Now!”. Since 2008, Krugman (and a few other courageous individuals like former Obama economic adviser Christina Romer and economist Joseph Stiglitz) has been a voice in the wilderness calling for bigger and bolder government intervention to stimulate job growth while political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic fail to meet the challenge of this economic crisis with timid half measures and awful austerity. In America, the Republican Party is ruled by anti-government hysteria and free-market fundamentalism.

Krugman is a disciple of 20th century British economist John Maynard Keynes, who advocated against austerity measures and for public spending to tackle unemployment during an economic downturn. Keynes’ magnum opus was “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” and his ideas came to a successful realization during World War II when the U.S. government borrowed money and started massive wartime spending that eliminated unemployment and brought the economy roaring back.

WWII is what plowed America out of the Great Depression and shut up the deficit hawks of the time, the Hooverites who feared government intervention and put their faith in private industry to solve the Great Depression. No one wants another war, so Krugman often jokes that we need a fake alien invasion to rally the public behind more fiscal stimulus (although Krugman glaringly omits climate change and global warming as the very real threat that could be used to justify expansionary fiscal policy).

Krugman is critical of American and European leaders for failing to learn the lessons of the Great Depression. Of course Republican free market radicals like Alan Greenspan are hammered for deregulating Wall Street to the point where the bankers brought down the entire global economy. But also Ben Bernanke is singled out for not being forceful and creative enough at the Federal Reserve. And Krugman criticizes the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 for not being big enough and not making a large dent in unemployment. He argues this made it harder to pass a second stimulus package because Republicans would wrongly argue that public spending doesn’t work. And President Obama is criticized for at times going along with the Republican narrative that deficits and spending cuts must be dealt with now, even though there is no evidence that approach works. In fact, spending cuts can actually prolong the recession and even potentially create a second recession.

But Krugman argues that there are simple solutions to these problems, and that if the right policies are put in place, unemployment could be significantly reduced in less than two years.

The first solution is a federal aid package to states and localities so they can start hiring back teachers, firefighters and other public employees. Krugman writes that with federal aid to reverse budget cuts, state and local governments could be spending $300 billion a year that would create more than a million direct jobs and possibly up to three million jobs when indirect effects are taken into account.

Upgrading the nation’s crumbling infrastructure is another area that could create millions of jobs. There are many delayed or canceled projects that could be restarted with fiscal stimulus — roads, bridges, rail, airports, water pipes, broadband cables and more. And of course if we are capable of still thinking big, there are visionary projects like clean energy, the smart grid and high-speed rail that could transform our inefficient passenger rail system into the best in the world (the Recovery Act committed $8 billion to high-speed rail, but more federal money is needed).

Other solutions include environmental regulations boosting the renewable energy sector and incentivizing energy efficiency upgrades; Bernanke’s Fed having “Rooseveltian resolve to do whatever is necessary” by being “aggressive and experimental”; fully addressing the housing crisis with robust debt relief for homeowners, “a program of mass refinancing”; and taking a tougher stance on China and other currency manipulators.

But what about the political will? It isn’t there right now, but can it be? Krugman devotes the last chapter to this subject. And he has some timely advice for President Obama as he enters a tough reelection fight:

“The experience of Obama’s first term suggests that not talking about jobs simply because you don’t think you can pass job-creation legislation doesn’t work even as a political strategy. On the other hand, hammering on the need for job creation can be good politics, and it can put enough pressure on the other side to bring about better policy too. Or to put it more simply, there is no reason not to tell the truth about this depression.”

 

The Republican Brain, Part I: “What We Know That Ain’t So”

Monday, May 28th, 2012

(By NCrissie B)

This week I’ll be looking at Chris Mooney’s The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality.  Today we consider some of the false beliefs held by Republicans, and whether Democrats are equally committed to false beliefs.  In the next post, we’ll explore the research on why the two parties are not mirror-images, each stubbornly clinging to opposing false beliefs.  Finally, we’ll conclude with a brief interview with Mooney, and his proposals for bridging the partisan gap.

Chris Mooney is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and a contributing editor for Science Progress. In 2009, he was a visiting associate at Princeton University’s Center for Collaborative History. In 2009–10, he was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mooney begins with an in depth review of the psychology of motivated reasoning and studies that show the persistence of motivated reasoning correlates to two of the Big Five personality traits: Openness (for which liberals typically score higher than conservatives) and Conscientiousness (for which conservatives typically score higher than liberals). We’ll discuss that more tomorrow, but I’ll start by reviewing Mooney’s argument on the comparative prevalence of false beliefs. I chose to start there for two reasons. First, it’s important to establish a problem exists before exploring possible causes and solutions. Second, Mooney laid much of that groundwork in a previous book – The Republican War on Science – and wrote The Republican Brain after and as part of reviewing research in psychology to better understand the ‘why’ of his previous book. So while I’m taking The Republican Brain book out-of-sequence, doing so follows Mooney’s own path of discovery.

Does the Problem Exist?

Mooney’s review of the research suggests that Republicans are, in fact, more likely to hold false beliefs. For example, a 2010 study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes interviewed voters on several factual issues:

  • The Track of the Economy – 72% of Republicans (vs. 36% of Democrats) said most economists agreed the economy was getting worse in November 2010. In fact most economists agreed the economy had begun to recover.
  • The Affordable Care Act and the Deficit – 73% of Republicans (vs. 31% of Democrats) said the consensus of economists was that that the ACA would increase the federal deficit. In fact the consensus of economists was that the ACA would decrease the deficit.
  • The Stimulus and Tax Cuts – 67% of Republicans (vs. 42% of Democrats) said the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act did not include tax cuts. In fact tax cuts comprised 28% of the stimulus package.
  • Scientific Consensus on Climate Change – 62% of Republicans (vs. 26% of Democrats) said most scientists have not agreed that climate change is occurring. In fact the scientific consensus supporting climate change is overwhelming.
  • President Obama’s Citizenship – 64% of Republicans (vs. 17% of Democrats) said it was not clear that President Obama was born in the U.S. In fact the State of Hawaii had already certified that he was born in that state.
  • Chamber of Commerce and Foreign Money – 57% of Democrats (vs. 9% of Republicans) believed the U.S. Chamber of Commerce had used contributions from foreign sources to support GOP candidates. In fact the Chamber of Commerce did not use foreign contributions.
  • Democrats and TARP – 56% of Democrats (vs. 14% of Republicans) believed that Democrats in Congress mostly did not support the Troubled Asset Relief Program proposal. In fact Democrats in Congress supported TARP.
  • Troop Levels in Afghanistan – 51% of Democrats (vs. 39% of Republicans) believed President Obama had not increased troop levels in Afghanistan. In fact he had.

Voters in both parties were misinformed, but Republican voters were more misinformed. Of the ten questions in the PIPA survey, only 18% of Republicans (vs. 32% of Democrats) answered at least seven correctly.

The Fact Checkers

Although Mooney criticized PolitiFact’s conclusion on a claim by Jon Stewart, he concedes that PolitiFact and FactCheck are generally rigorous and reliable. A review by the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics blog found Republicans drew “False” or “Pants on Fire” ratings in 39% of the statements reviewed, vs. only 12% for Democrats, and statements by Democrats were rated “Half-True,” “Mostly True,” or “True” 75% of the time vs. only 47% for Republicans. Although the Smart Politics writers suggest this reflects selection bias among which statements to review, Mooney argues a simpler explanation: Republicans are more likely make false statements.

That explanation was supported by Mooney’s own review of The Washington Post‘s Fact-Checker, which uses “Pinocchios” to grade false or misleading statements. He and a colleague reviewed the Post‘s Fact-Checker stories over a four-year period, and found that statements by Republicans were given a total of 361 Pinocchios vs. 243 for statements by Democrats. The average rating for statements by Republicans was 2.46 vs. 2.09 for Democrats, a statistically significant difference. In assessing the number of Pinocchios given, he found:

  • Four Pinocchios – Republicans 27, Democrats 11
  • Three Pinocchios – Republicans 33, Democrats 24
  • Two Pinocchios – Republicans 67, Democrats 46
  • One Pinocchio – Republicans 20, Democrats 35

From this Mooney concludes:

What this suggests is that the Post was giving Democrats a lot of wrist-slaps for relatively minor sins, even as the most egregious falsehoods were clearly clustered at the Republican end of the distribution.

Again, the conservative response to such data is to suggest that Fact-Checker, like PolitiFact, is biased against Republicans. Again, Mooney suggests the simpler explanation: Republicans are simply more wrong, more often.

Science, Economics, and History

Mooney then presents other evidence of Republican orthodoxy in science, history, and economics which contradict prevailing data. For example, Republicans are less likely to accept scientific evidence on evolution, more likely to believe children raised in LGBT families suffer harm as compared to children raised by heterosexual couples, more likely to believe sexual orientation is a choice, and more likely to believe abstinence-only sex education produces fewer teen pregnancies.

In economics, Mooney quotes at length from an interview with Bruce Bartlett, a former Republican who worked for Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Bartlett was fired from the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis after writing How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy, and he uses words like “kooks” and “nuts” to describe Republicans’ belief that tax cuts always increase federal revenues and that defaulting on the federal debt would be harmless or even beneficial for the economy. Bartlett calls the latter “the most monumental insanity that I can even imagine.”

Mooney then addresses Republican historical revisionism, beginning with Sarah Palin’s infamous account of Paul Revere’s ride. He also discusses Mike Huckabee’s American history cartoons, Michele Bachmann’s claim that the Founding Fathers ended slavery, and the Wallbuilders headed by David Barton, a Dominionist group who argue the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation despite manifest historical evidence to the contrary.

What About the Fracking Democrats?

Mooney concludes by considering some false claims commonly believed by Democrats, such as that pumping chemicals into natural gas wells – hydraulic fracturing or fracking – pushes toxins into the water supply. In fact, Mooney set out to prove that in an article for Scientific American, and came up dry. While there is evidence of water contamination around fracking sites, the research so far suggests that contamination comes from other parts of the drilling process such as not properly cementing pipes and not properly storing chemicals at the drill sites. There is as yet no evidence that fracking causes the gas or the chemicals to leech up through a mile of rock into the water table. He also addresses false beliefs about the risks of nuclear power plants and the connection between immunization and autism, both of which are more often held by Democrats than by Republicans.

But in all three cases, Mooney points out two key distinctions. First, when presented with the scientific evidence, educated Democrats are more likely to change their minds and accept that fracking and nuclear power are not as risky as first believed, and that there is no reliable scientific correlation between immunization and autism. And second, while some Democrats do cling to one or more of these beliefs, elected Democrats who have reviewed the scientific evidence do not encourage or base policy on those false beliefs.

Conversely, educated Republicans are more likely to cling to false beliefs, and more likely to be confident they already have enough information and don’t need to consider new evidence. As we’ll see in the next post, the reason may lie in the different personality traits of Republicans and Democrats.

 

(Crossposted from Blogistan Polytechnic Institute (BPICampus.com))

 

Book Review: Bill Clinton’s ‘Back to Work’

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

By Josh Marks

Many progressives will never forgive former President William Jefferson Clinton for the sin of signing away the Glass-Steagall Act. Also called The Banking Act of 1933, Glass-Steagall separated commercial and investment banking activities after the Great Depression in order to prevent another economic catastrophe. In 1999 Clinton signed the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act because Citibank merged with Travelers Insurance a year earlier and a law needed to be passed to make the merger legal. While repealing Glass-Steagall didn’t directly lead to the 2008 financial crisis, it was one of a series of post-Depression financial industry regulations stripped away, starting when Ronald Reagan took office, that allowed Wall Street to bring the world to the brink of another Great Depression. (Click here to read an appeal by former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich to bring back Glass-Steagall).

Could Clinton have known how ruinous to the economy repealing Glass-Steagall would be when the financial industry went into a tailspin more than a decade later after years of risky bets? How many countless Americans have lost their jobs and their faith in the American system after this economic collapse?

Well, I’m here to tell you that Clinton is making amends and his new book “Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government For a Strong Economy” is a must read. There is a lot for progressives to like about Clinton’s approach to solving the big issues of the day.

That said, Clinton still doesn’t take full responsibility for the damage done when he repealed Glass-Steagall, however he does point out that he regrets not making a bigger push to regulate financial derivatives, although he was up against a Republican Congress hostile to any regulations.

Clinton starts out “Back to Work” with an impassioned defense of the important role government plays in society and calls out the Tea Party wing of the GOP for its irrational and self-destructive hatred of the public sector. What Clinton does in this book is give a global perspective to America’s political paralysis and inability to work towards solutions to our problems. This, I believe, is a result of the humanitarian work Clinton has done around the world through the Clinton Foundation, where he has helped poor people around the world improve their health care and be economically empowered. Through the book, Clinton compares the United States to other countries, giving perspective to our problems. In the opening chapter he lays out his vision for a more prosperous and fair society.

“I believe the only way we can keep the American Dream alive for all Americans and continue to be the world’s leading force for freedom and prosperity, peace and security, is to have both a strong, effective private sector and a strong, effective government that work together to promote an economy of good jobs, rising incomes, increasing exports, and greater energy independence. All over the world, the most successful nations, including many with lower unemployment rates, less inequality, and, in this decade, even higher college graduation rates than the United States, have both. And they work together, not always agreeing, but moving toward common goals. In other countries, conservatives and liberals also have arguments about taxes, energy policy, bank regulations, and how much government is healthy and affordable, but they tend to be less ideological and more rooted in evidence and experience. They focus more on what works.”

This is Clinton’s framework to set up a scathing rebuttal to the anti-tax, anti-government ideological extremists who have hijacked the political system in this country for the past thirty years.

Clinton is very effective when he uses charts and figures to explain our positions relative to other nations. For example, the United States spends only 1.7 percent of GDP on infrastructure, compared with 4 percent in Canada or 9 percent in China. And the World Economic Forum ranks the United States 24th in the quality of overall infrastructure, right behind Malaysia (Switzerland ranks first). Also, the U.S. ranks 15th in broadband connection speed, just behind Luxembourg. No. 1 South Korea’s broadband connections is four times faster than ours. And Clinton points out that the U.S. spends a whopping 17.4 percent of GDP on health care compared to France at 11.8 percent and Japan at 8.5 percent.

Not everything Clinton writes will please progressives. For example, he isn’t critical of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for not being big enough in stimulating job creation. Clinton believes that the $800 billion stimulus (only a third went into direct job projects) “was designed to put a floor under the collapse and begin the recovery.” That’s all well and good, but economists like Paul Krugman were warning that the stimulus wasn’t big enough and that the Republicans would manipulate the slow job growth that follows as saying that government spending doesn’t work. Now it is nearly impossible to pass a second stimulus, as President Obama tried to do with the American Jobs Act. So it would have been helpful if Clinton would have admitted the stimulus wasn’t big enough and that we need more fiscal stimulus to plow our way out of this depression (I’m reading Krugman’s excellent new book “End This Depression Now!” and plan to write a review).

Clinton also devotes an entire chapter to the debt (Krugman makes a compelling case that deficit hawks are misguided and that the debt is blown way out of proportion when the focus should be on the government creating jobs). However, Clinton does acknowledge that dealing with the deficit needs to be delayed until full employment is achieved and healthy economic growth is restored. With the ridiculous obsession with the debt and deficits among the political and media class in Washington, it is encouraging to hear a voice of reason like Clinton’s saying that, yes, we need to tackle the deficit (although again, Keynesian economists like Krugman would argue that deficits aren’t as bad as people think), but right now the sole priority and topic of conversation should be focused on how government spending can create jobs and grow the economy.

Ultimately Clinton is optimistic, and he is confident America will get past this current state of dysfunction and ideological warfare.

“We’re in a mess now. At the dawn of the new century, after years of strong job growth, rising incomes, and declining debt, we abandoned a proven path to shared prosperity in favor of doubling down, once more, on anti-government ideology. Now we’re paying for it. The only sensible thing to do is for all of us to take some responsibility for changing things. The world is moving on, and if we want to stop falling behind, we have to get back in the game. Let’s ditch the stale certainty of ideology and bring our values, ideas, experiences, and dreams to a real debate about the future. Think how exciting it would be if all of us — Democrats, Republicans, and independents, conservatives, liberals, progressives, and libertarians — had real arguments based on real facts that produced real results through principled compromise based on what works.”

 

 

Weekend Reading List

Saturday, May 5th, 2012

For this weekend’s reading list we have a website urging North Carolinians to vote Against the anti-LGBT Amendment One on May 8, an excerpt from Paul Krugman’s new book, an accounting of the SEC’s increased criminal and civil prosecutions of financial fraud, a report on the importance of immigration to our economy and fiscal future, and essays on how coalitions and strategies around the fight for LGBT equality can provide instructive examples of how progressives can win in other policy areas.

 

Know and Love – A collection of videos of North Carolinians speaking out against Amendment One, the anti-LGBT state constitutional amendment that is on the ballot on Tuesday, May 8.  Many North Carolina voters appear to be unaware that Amendment One would bar not only marriage equality but also legal recognition of all civil unions and domestic partnerships.  If you know people in North Carolina, please urge them to vote Against Amendment One on Tuesday, May 8.

The SEC: Outmanned, Outgunned, and On a Roll - the story of how the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) has undertaken an unprecedented number of criminal and civil actions against financial malfeasance over the past few years.  In 2011 alone, the SEC filed a record 735 enforcement actions and collected $928 million in penalties, almost four times the amount it collected in 2008.

How to End This Depression – an excerpt from Paul Krugman’s new book End This Depression Now! on how we can achieve government policies that would finally bring economic recovery and strong job growth.

How Organized Labor Helped Win Marriage Equality in Maryland and Washington, And What We Can Learn – how SEIU, UNITE HERE, UFCW and other unions worked with LGBT activists to achieve marriage equality in Maryland and Washington, and how labor and LGBT groups can continue to work together on achieving labor victories for both groups.

America’s Secret Growth Weapon: Why Immigration Really, Really Matters – an accounting of how immigration is critically important to economic growth in the US, and in keeping our population younger so that Medicare and Social Security can stay afloat.

What Gay Rights Activists Can Teach the Left About Winning - the story of significant progress on LGBT equality during the Obama Administration demonstrates the importance of progressives figuring out how to constructively pressure the Administration to take progressive stands, rather than either assuming the Administration will do so on its own or pretending like President Obama is no better than the Republicans.