Fund Your Utopia Without Me.™

06 August 2011

The Debt Deal and the Progressive Crack-Up

Liberal contempt for the workings of democracy and for diversity of opinion reflects not just hypocrisy but panic. .


The debt-limit crisis of 2011 brought the federal government harrowingly close to defaulting on its financial obligations. As the dust settles, it is more harrowing still to contemplate the implications of what the democratically negotiated settlement revealed about the panic of the progressive mind.

One might view the debt deal as evidence that democracy in America, though often unlovely in execution, is alive and well. After all, President Obama's $800 billion-plus stimulus package was passed by Congress in early 2009 on a mostly party-line vote. It was followed in April by his $3.5 trillion budget, enacted without a single Republican vote, that contained sizeable across-the-board funding increases for federal departments and agencies. The president devoted the next 12 months to passing costly and unpopular health-care legislation that dramatically increased government's responsibility for regulating approximately one-sixth of the nation's economy. Employment hovered at approximately 9% and still does.

In the congressional elections of 2010, the electorate, led by the tea party movement and disaffected independents, rendered its judgment on the president's priorities. The people dealt him and his party a historic midterm defeat, producing large Republican gains in the Senate and a comfortable majority in the House, including 87 freshmen.

The voters' message was clear: Cut spending, compel the government to live within its means, and put Americans back to work. In short, the president and his party badly overreached in 2009 and 2010; and in 2011 the Republicans, to the extent their numbers in Congress allowed, have effectively pushed back.

But that's not how progressives have tended to see things. They have ferociously attacked congressional Republicans, particularly those closely associated with the tea party movement, with something approaching hysteria.

.Consider the unabashed incivility of progressive criticism, its tone dictated from the top. During and after the budget negotiations, we heard that tea party representatives were content with "blowing up our government" (Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne). Then came accusations that "Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people" (New York Times columnist Joe Nocera), while acting like "a maniacal gang with knives held high" (New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd). At the height of negotiations, Vice President Biden either said, or agreed with House Democrats with whom he was meeting who said, that Congressional Republicans "have acted like terrorists."

In addition, progressive legal scholars concocted a wild theory to justify an executive power grab by means of which President Obama would unilaterally raise the debt ceiling to avoid having to hammer out a deal with Congress.

Prominent among them was Yale Law School Professor Jack Balkin. He called attention to Section 4 of the 14th Amendment, which provides in relevant part that: "The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned." Mr. Balkin argued that this Constitutional provision gives the president authority to raise the debt ceiling on his own, even though neither a debt ceiling nor a default calls into question the U.S's financial obligations under law; indeed, both presuppose the validity of the nation's public debt.

Progressive partisans also displayed economic illiteracy, refusing to recognize the respectability or even the existence of alternative economic views. Instead, they steadfastly insisted that a conservative obsession with reducing debt and curbing spending ignored the real issue, which was putting Americans back to work.

Summarizing the opinion of many progressives on the day after the debt ceiling was raised, House minority leader Nancy Pelosi declared, "Enough talk about the debt. We have to talk about jobs"—as if there was no connection, in the minds of conservatives or economists, between controlling the debt and creating jobs.

Yet the conservative position has been clearly stated by tea party movement activists, congressional Republicans, and House Speaker John Boehner, and it was affirmed in straightforward terms in a February letter to President Obama signed by 150 American economists: Reining in spending is crucial to generating real economic growth, spurring the private sector, and thereby producing jobs.

The use of crude and violent language to condemn conservatives as enemies of the state, the gross manipulation of law to make the Constitution say whatever is politically expedient, and indifference to the actual arguments made by their political opponents—these are all-too-familiar progressive vices. They were exercised with abandon in the fury with which progressives responded to the complex questions raised by the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore, the detention of enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, and the invasion of Iraq. Tea party hatred is the successor of and stems from the same sources as Bush hatred.

Of course, a good bit of progressive vituperation can be chalked up to the ordinary passions of democratic politics, which can be high stakes and is a contact sport. But in the debt-limit crisis, the hypocrisy of progressives reached truly breathtaking proportions.

How often they have haughtily lectured the nation on the vital importance of civility in public discourse, the urgency of constraining executive power under law, and the need for impartial expertise in public affairs to pragmatically weigh competing public-policy options. But in the debt-limit debate the virtues they profess could hardly have been more spectacularly absent.

The evident panic of the progressive mind stems from a paradox as old as progressivism in America. Progressives see themselves as the only legitimate representatives of ordinary people. Yet their vision of what democracy requires frequently conflicts with what majorities believe and how they choose to live.

Add to this the progressive belief that human beings can be perfected through the rule of experts, and you have a recipe—when the people make choices contrary to progressive dictates—for generating contempt among the experts for the people whose interests they claim to alone represent. And not just contempt, but even disgust at diversity of opinion, which from the progressive's perspective distracts the people from the policies demanded by impartial reason.

The progressive mind is on a collision course with itself. The clash between its democratic pretensions and its authoritarian predilections has generated within its ranks seething resentment for, and rage at, conservatives. Unless progressives cultivate the enlightened virtues they publicly profess and free themselves from the dogmatic beliefs that undergird their political ambitions, we can expect even more harrowing outbursts to come.

Mr. Berkowitz is a senior fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution.

05 August 2011

'Lies' About Social Security and Medicare Pandering Politicians Never Told You

M2RB:   Bob Dylan, live

I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I'm finally free,
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me.
You'll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above,
And I'll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love,
And it makes me feel so sorry.

Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats,

Blowing through the letters that we wrote.
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves,
We're idiots, babe.
It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves.

'It is an axiom in the insurance business that insurance is not bought but sold. In 1935 Franklin Roosevelt sold Congress and Congress sold the U. S. the Social Security Act, the biggest, most comprehensive, most expensive mass insurance policy ever written. Since then its purchasers, the nation's taxpayers, have had occasion to read their policy carefully and, if they have detected no outright jokers, their reaction has been such that practically every politician in the U. S. from Franklin Roosevelt down has put revision of Social Security at the top of his must list.'

- "Pie From The Sky," Time Magazine, 13 February 1939 

Fact:  There have NEVER been savings accounts for workers.  Never.   There has never been an account with your name on it and all of your payroll taxes sitting in it earning interest nor is there a Scrooge McDuck-like vault filled with cash.

Fact:   The money has always been paid into the Treasury and is not required to be earmarked in any way.  It can be spent on anything.

Fact: In 2009, the Federal government collected $2.1 trillion in taxes.

Fact: In 2009, the Federal government spent $3.52 trillion.

'We have set up a savings account for the old age of the worker.  [Contributions would be made by employers and employees via payroll taxes, which would be] held by the government solely for the benefit of the worker in his old age.'

- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1936

Fact: In 2009, the Federal government spent $678 billion on Social Security.

Fact: In 2009, the Federal government spent $676 billion on Medicare.

Fact: In 2009, 38.47% of the entire budget went to Social Security and Medicare and the two programmes consumed 64.48% of all Federal tax revenues.

Fact: The 2009 Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports show the combined unfunded liability of these two programmes has reached nearly $107 trillion in today's dollars and Laurence Kotlikoff, a well-known professor of economics at Boston University, puts the real figure over $222 trillion dollars!

'The proceeds of both the employee and employer taxes are to be paid into the Treasury like any other internal revenue generally, and are not earmarked in any way.'

Fact: In 2010, the Federal government collected $2.16 trillion in taxes.

Fact: In 2010, the Federal government spent $3.618 trillion.

Fact: In 2010, the Federal government spent $701 billion on Social Security.

Fact: In 2010, the Federal government spent $793 billion on Medicare.

Fact: In 2010, 41.29% of the entire budget went to Social Security and Medicare and the two programmes consumed 69.17% of all Federal tax revenues.

"I guess you’re right on the economics. They are politics all the way through. We put those pay roll contributions there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program. Those taxes aren’t a matter of economics, they’re straight politics.”

Fact:  Since the Senate last passed a budget (04.03.09), the nation has spent $8.997 trillion–including almost $1,209,543,390,643.65 interest payments–and racked up $3,550,847,957,266.07 in gross federal debt. 

Fact: Beginning 01.01.11, nearly 10,000 Americans each day will become eligible for Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Fact: 78 million Baby Boomers (1/3rd of the population) will retire within the next 19 years.

Fact: Consider a 65 year-old man, who retired in 2010 and had earned an average wage 43,100 dollars. Over his expected lifetime, he will receive an inflation-adjusted $417,000 in Social Security and Medicare benefits compared to taxes paid of $345,000, estimates an Urban Institute study. 

"First, noncontributory old-age pensions for those who are now too old to build up their own insurance. IT IS, OF COURSE, CLEAR THAT FOR PERHAPS 30 YEARS TO COME funds ll have to be provided by the States and the Federal Government to meet these pensions." 

- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1935

Fact:  There were 159.4 workers for each Social Security recipient in 1940.

Fact:  There were 16.5 workers for each Social Security recipient in 1950.

Fact:  There were 5.1 workers for each Social Security recipient in 1960.

Fact:  There were 3.7 workers for each Social Security recipient in 1970.

Fact:  There were 3.2 workers for each Social Security recipient in 1980.

Fact:  There were 3.4 workers for each Social Security recipient in 1990.

Fact:  There were 3.4 workers for each Social Security recipient in 2000.

Fact:  There were 3.3 workers for each Social Security recipient in 2005.

Fact:  There were only 2.9 full-time private-sector workers in the United States last year for each person receiving benefits from Social Security, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Social Security Board of Trustees.  

Fact: Social Security entered permanent deficit mode in 2010 and the CBO reported that Social Security will effectively run a $45-billion deficit in 2011 and continue to run deficits totaling $547 billion over the coming decade.

Fact:  The Social Security "Trust Fund" will go bankrupt in 2013.

"Obviously the government cannot pay adequate pensions if it insists on 'borrowing' most of the old age taxes and spending them to support the government. The whole thing is a disguised tax levied upon the lowest income groups under the pretense of old age pension premiums. No government would dare support itself out of a payroll tax if it honestly proclaimed its purpose . ."

Fact:  The average senior receives in Social Security about a third of what the average worker makes.

Fact:  In 1940, the average worker had to pay only 0.2% of his salary to sustain the seniors of his time.

Fact:  In 1950, the average worker had to pay only 2% of his salary to sustain the seniors of his time.

Fact:  In 2011, the average worker has to pay 11% of his salary to sustain the seniors of his time.

Fact:  In 2031, the average worker will have to pay 17% of his salary to sustain the seniors of his time.  This is a staggering sum, considering that it is apart from all the other taxes he pays to sustain other functions of government, such as Medicare, whose costs are exploding.
Fact:  The Court ruled in Flemming v. Nestor,  363 U.S. 603 (1960), that a person covered by the Social Security Act has "not such a right in old-age benefit payments as would make every defeasance of "accrued" interests violative of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment," pp. 606-08, and "the noncontractual interest of an employee covered by the Act cannot be soundly analogised to that of the holder of an annuity, whose right to benefits are based on his contractual premium payments," 608-10, and "to engraft upon the Social Security System a concept of "accrued property rights" would deprive it of the flexibility and boldness in adjustment to ever-changing conditions which it demands and which Congress probably had in mind when it expressly reserved the right to alter, amend or repeal any provision of the Act," pp. 610-611.

Fact:  There is no "right" to Medicare.

Fact: On our current path there will be "actual" cuts to Medicare of 17% and Medicare would "end as we know it" in 2024, according to the Social Security and Medicare Trustees May 2011 report.

Fact: Medicare hospitalisation, as we know it will end in 2024, absent some change in policy or some change in moving forward.

"The beauty of Social Insurance is that it is actuarially unsound and a growing nation is the greatest Ponzi scheme ever devised. And that is a fact, not a paradox."

 -Nobel Laureate Paul A. Samuelson, Keynesian Economist, "Something for Nothing?"

Fact: For the first time in history, the chief Medicare actuary has disavowed the projections and report made by an administration.

Fact: Cuts to Medicare would average 17% on average annual basis over 75 years.

Projection: In 2024, specifically, cuts would amount to about 10% and that increases, then it becomes 25% by the 2040s.

Fact:  The average American household spends 50 times more today on Medicare than it did in 1960. 

"When the government issues a bond to one of its own accounts, it hasn't purchased anything or established a claim against another entity or person. It is simply creating a form of IOU from one of its accounts to another."

Fact:  Health care spending now equals 17.6% of our economy — a full 11 points higher than the 5.6% it represented in 1960.

Fact:  Since 1970, "health costs apart from Medicare and Medicaid have grown 41%  per patient in relation to GDP, while Medicare's and Medicaid's costs have grown 89% and 91% -- nearly doubling -- as a share of GDP." 

Fact:  "In Medicare, if providers get it right the first time, they get paid once. If it takes them four or five times -- at seniors' inconvenience and sometimes at their peril -- they get paid four or five times as much."

"In short, Social Security is a Ponzi game, a pyramid scheme, a chain letter."

 - Ben Wattenberg, The Birth Dearth, US News & World Report, December 1995 

Fact: There has never been a "lockbox." All payroll taxes have gone into "trust funds" in name only. In truth, they go into the general fund and can be used for anything.   

Fact:  Contrary to rumours and assertions, all LBJ did in 1968 was to make Social Security taxes and spending part of a "unified budget," which is just budget gimmickry that allows politicians like Clinton and Gingrich to be able to claim that they generated a budget "surplus." LBJ's changes had no affect on the actual operations of the Social Security Trust Fund" itself.

"[Social Security] is, in important ways, like a massive Ponzi scheme in which early participants are paid off with money put up by later ones [then he asks if Social Security will collapse] as Ponzi schemes inevitably do." 

- Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist, William Raspberry, "Numbers That Won't Go Away," January 1996

Fact: The Federal government has given the "trust funds" IOUs. The Federal government does not have this money. All IOUs represent future borrowing and taxes. If the Federal government were somehow forced to repay all IOUs, it wouldn't be nor can it be, it would have to go to the bond market - in other words, China.

Fact: The IOUs in the "trust funds" can best be looked as a kind of "gift card" from a store. The gift card is only worth anything as long as the store is not bankrupt.

Projection: By 2020, every penny in tax revenues taken in by the US Treasury will be consumed by Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and debt service, the latter of which will amount to $1 trillion alone.

Projection: When today's college students reach retirement (about 2054), Social Security alone will require a 16.6% payroll tax, one-third greater than today's rate, according to the non-partisan Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform. 

 "These [Trust Fund] balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures-but only in a bookkeeping sense. These funds are not set up to be pension funds, like the funds of private pension plans. They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury, that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures. The existence of large trust fund balances, therefore, does not, by itself, make it easier for the government to pay benefits."

Projection: When Medicare Part A is included, the payroll tax burden will rise to 25.7% - more than one of every four dollars workers will earn that year.

Projection: If Medicare Part B (physician services) and Part D are included, the total Social Security/Medicare burden will climb to 37% of payroll by 2054 - one in three dollars of taxable payroll, and twice the size of today's payroll tax burden, according to the non-partisan Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform.

Projection: More than one-third of the wages workers earn in 2054 will need to be committed to pay benefits promised under current law. That is before any bridges or highways are built and before any teachers' or police officers' salaries are paid.

Projection: By 2030, about the midpoint of the baby boomer retirement years, the Medicare will require nearly half of all income tax dollars, according to the non-partisan Peterson-Pew Commission on Budget Reform.

Projection: By 2060, Social Security and Medicare will require nearly three out of four income tax dollars.

"Ponzi Game Needs Equitable Solution"

- Stanford University economists,Victor Fuchs and John Shoven, Los Angeles Times, April 1999

Fact: On average, every year since 1970, Medicare and Medicaid spending per beneficiary has grown 2.5% points faster than per capita GDP.

Fact: In 1966, the House Ways and Means Committee projected that the total amount spent on Medicare in 1990 would be $12 billion dollars. Actual expenditures were $107 BILLION.

"Social Security has become less and less attractive as the number of current recipients has grown relative to the number of workers paying taxes, an imbalance that will only get bigger. That explains the widespread support for individual investment accounts. Younger workers, in particular, are skeptical that they will get anything like their money’s worth for the Social Security taxes that they and their employers pay."

- Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, The Biggest Ponzi Scheme on Earth, Hoover Digest, 30 April 1999

Projection: By 2052, Medicare spending alone would consume nearly the entire federal budget...if it were still in existence.  It won't be.

Fact: The CBO also found that if federal income tax rates are adjusted to allow the government to continue its current level of activity and balance its budget, the lowest marginal income tax rate of 10% would have to rise to 26%. 

"So by all means, let's have a vigorous national debate about reforming Social Security; it can't be sustained in its present form."

- Paul Krugman, "Two Cheers For The Welfare State," Fortune, 1 May 1995

Fact: The CBO also found that if federal income tax rates are adjusted to allow the government to continue its current level of activity and balance its budget, the 25% marginal tax rate would increase to 66%.

Fact: The CBO also found that if federal income tax rates are adjusted to allow the government to continue its current level of activity and balance its budget, the current highest marginal tax rate on 250,000 dollars (35%) would rise to 92%.

Fact: "In the fall of 1995, Robert J. Shapiro published an article called "Rethinking Social Security: The New Deal's Crowning Achievement Has Fallen and It Can't Get Up," in The New Democrat, a forum for the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. Shapiro was a co-founder and vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute, an undersecretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, and the principal economic adviser to Bill Clinton's 1991-92 presidential campaign. Shapiro was also a senior economic adviser to the presidential campaigns of Al Gore and John Kerry, and advised the presidential campaign and transition of Barack Obama as well."

"National Ponzi Scheme"

 - The New Democrat, Democratic Leadership Council, September 1995

Fact:  Shapiro's 1995 article complains that Social Security, as currently structured, is crowding out funding for young children, who suffer poverty at twice the rates of the elderly. Shapiro proposes reforms including mandatory private savings accounts, and calls on Americans to "end our long collective silence about the character and problems of Social Security." The first section-heading in Shapiro's piece reads "National Ponzi Scheme."

"A Ponzi scheme is a fraud where in the end the whole pyramid goes bust a bunch of people wind up with no money at all." 

- Matthew Ygelsias, Think Progress, 8 September 2011 

Fact:   In June, Mr Ygelsias and Think Progress were highlighting a report by the "bipartisan" Policy Center, which purported to have studied the Treasury Department receipts and expenditures from August 2009 and 2010 and determined that the government likely would not have enough revenue to pay the full $23 billion payment to Social Security recipients due on 3 August 2011.

"On that day, according to the analysis, the government would take in about $12 billion in taxes and other revenue but would owe $32 billion, creating a $20 billion shortfall. It happens to be the first Wednesday of the month — the day a majority of Social Security recipients get their checks."

Question:  Isn’t that a scenario where “a bunch of people wind up with no money at all," Mr Y?

Fact: If you raised taxes to 90% on the wealthiest Americans, you would still not be able to eliminate the budget deficit.

"Only a grinch could grumble about the most effective anti-poverty program in history; but only a fool would fail to ask whether the Ponzi scheme is sustainable, and at what price...[Social Security's actuarial tables are] Ponzi's Revenge."

- Matthew Miller, a senior writer for The New Republic, 1996



"Social Security: From Ponzi Scheme to Shell Game"

 - Michael Kinsley, Slate Magazine, 14 December 1996

Fact: The federal government spends about 6.85 million dollars per minute.

Fact: The United States borrows 5 billion dollars per day.

Fact: In April, while the WH & Congress were negotiating budget cuts in the amount of 38.5 billion dollars, the United States added $54 billion to its national debt.

"Critics of the system call it a giant Ponzi scheme. But as long as the economy and its tax base keep growing, there is nothing wrong with taxing current workers to finance current retirement." 

- Robert Kuttner, The Washington Post, January 1997

Fact: Bush added $4,899,100,310,609 dollars to the national debt (including off-budget items) or deficit spent $1,677,199,695.52 dollars per day.

Fact: As of 3.13.12, Obama has added to the national debt: $4,901,104,747,205.59 or, in other words, deficit spends $4,264,553,856.29 per day.  

“In the public debate, ‘solvency’ means keeping the trust funds from exhausting their balances.  Federal trust funds, however, are merely accounting mechanisms established to link receipts that the government collects or assigns to specific uses with the expenditures of those resources; the balances of the funds are not assets of the government.   And there is no relationship between the balances in a trust fund and its future obligations.   In other words, the government will face claims whether or not the fund has sufficient balances, and it will need to acquire actual resources from the economy to meet those obligations when they come due.” 

- Congressional Budget Office, April 2000

Projection: According to the IMF, US PUBLIC debt will equal 100% of GDP in 2015.  

Fact:  As of 3.13.12, the Debt-to-GDP ration was 102.23%.

Fact:  The US PUBLIC is now more than $10 trillion and has risen from 40% to 71% and will continue to rise.  US public debt is a critical national security issue.

GDP (trillions)
Public Debt (trillions)
Public Debt as % GDP










Fact: Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are unsustainable. It will take a country of rational grown-ups to understand that very hard choices must be made to address what will be the death knell of the United States, if ignored.

If you are interested in learning why Social Security was always a Ponzi scheme, read "Sorry, But You're No Aunt Ida."

"...turned out to be strongly redistributionist, but only because of its Ponzi game aspect, in which each generation takes more out than it put in. Well, the Ponzi game will soon be over, thanks to changing demographics."

 - Paul Krugman, What Consensus?, Boston Review, December 1996 - January 1997

In 1939, Harper's Magasine published an article that, essentially, called Social Security a "swindle.."

I could be wrong. Maybe, Santa Clause, Tinkerbell, and the Easter Bunny will bring universal health care, universal education through grad school, universal housing, minimum income guarantees, high-speed rail from Bumfuckus, Alaska to Thongsareus, Florida, 100% green energy, "renewable" meat (Don't ask me! I have a legal background, not a scientific or governmental bio. To me, meat by definition is not renewable, but there are those in Britain that claim it is possible), an Aishwarya Rai for every straight man, Cristiano Ronaldos in every Cougar's bed, a Ricky Martin for every gay man, a Portia de Rossi for every lesbian, fully-electric Maybachs in every garage, David Beckhams on every kid's soccer field, Anthony Bourdains in every kitchen with geese that can continue to lay golden eggs even after the pot, silver bullet diet pills that melt 2 stone off overnight, and a closet-full of Chanel and Christian Louboutins for every fashionista in the morning, but I doubt it.

As Sir Alan Greenspan said before the Senate Budget Committee on 21 April 2005:

“I fear that we may have already committed more physical resources to the baby boom generation in its retirement years than our economy has the capacity to deliver…[Regarding Social Security and Medicare], I do not see how we can avoid significant curtailment of the benefits currently promised.”

One question for "Sir Alan":  Ya think?

Idiot Wind - Bob Dylan

Someone's got it in for me, they're planting stories in the press
Whoever it is I wish they'd cut it out but when they will I can only guess.
They say I shot a man named Gray and took his wife to Italy,
She inherited a million bucks and when she died it came to me.
I can't help it if I'm lucky.

People see me all the time and they just can't remember how to act
Their minds are filled with big ideas, images and distorted facts.
Even you, yesterday you had to ask me where it was at,
I couldn't believe after all these years, you didn't know me better than that
Sweet lady.

Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your mouth,
Blowing down the backroads headin' south.
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You're an idiot, babe.
It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

I ran into the fortune-teller, who said beware of lightning that might strike
I haven't known peace and quiet for so long I can't remember what it's like.
There's a lone soldier on the cross, smoke pourin' out of a boxcar door,
You didn't know it, you didn't think it could be done, in the final end he won the wars
After losin' every battle.

I woke up on the roadside, daydreamin' 'bout the way things sometimes are
Visions of your chestnut mare shoot through my head and are makin' me see stars.
You hurt the ones that I love best and cover up the truth with lies.
One day you'll be in the ditch, flies buzzin' around your eyes,
Blood on your saddle.

Idiot wind, blowing through the flowers on your tomb,
Blowing through the curtains in your room.
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You're an idiot, babe.
It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

It was gravity which pulled us down and destiny which broke us apart
You tamed the lion in my cage but it just wasn't enough to change my heart.
Now everything's a little upside down, as a matter of fact the wheels have stopped,
What's good is bad, what's bad is good, you'll find out when you reach the top
You're on the bottom.

I noticed at the ceremony, your corrupt ways had finally made you blind
I can't remember your face anymore, your mouth has changed, your eyes
don't look into mine.
The priest wore black on the seventh day and sat stone-faced while the building
I waited for you on the running boards, near the cypress trees, while the springtime
turned Slowly into autumn.

Idiot wind, blowing like a circle around my skull,
From the Grand Coulee Dam to the Capitol.
Idiot wind, blowing every time you move your teeth,
You're an idiot, babe.
It's a wonder that you still know how to breathe.

I can't feel you anymore, I can't even touch the books you've read
Every time I crawl past your door, I been wishin' I was somebody else instead.
Down the highway, down the tracks, down the road to ecstasy,
I followed you beneath the stars, hounded by your memory
And all your ragin' glory.

I been double-crossed now for the very last time and now I'm finally free,
I kissed goodbye the howling beast on the borderline which separated you from me.
You'll never know the hurt I suffered nor the pain I rise above,
And I'll never know the same about you, your holiness or your kind of love,
And it makes me feel so sorry.

Idiot wind, blowing through the buttons of our coats,
Blowing through the letters that we wrote.
Idiot wind, blowing through the dust upon our shelves,
We're idiots, babe.
It's a wonder we can even feed ourselves.

03 August 2011

The Progressive Crisis

2 August 2011
The debt ceiling compromise is the end of the liberal dream that the Obama presidency would do for the left what Ronald Reagan’s time in office did for the right.

Stanley Greenberg, one of the best pollsters anywhere and a leading intellectual light of the Democratic party, has a must read in the NY Times on the mysterious inability of Democrats to turn widespread public support on individual issues into a stable governing majority.
It’s perplexing. When unemployment is high, and the rich are getting richer, you would think that voters of average means would flock to progressives, who are supposed to have their interests in mind — and who historically have delivered for them.
Yet they don’t.  Why, Greenberg asks, do so many voters tune the Democrats out.  And what can the Democrats do to win them back?

That he’s asking these questions at all is a testament to the colossal failure of Democrat hopes in the aftermath of the 2008 presidential election.  The “transformational President” failed to bring about the Great Realignment Democrats thought they saw.  Healthcare was a poisoned chalice; the debt ceiling bill was a disaster.  The electorate keeps trending right and the Democratic establishment, more than thirty years after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, is no closer to solving the problem of the New Right than it was when Jimmy Carter turned the White House over to the Gipper.

Ronald Reagan (Wikimedia)
Greenberg, a man who studies American voters with great care and who combines a deep knowledge of American politics with decades of experience interpreting the nuances of voter opinion, lays out a clear though incomplete vision of the Democrats’ problem.  The difficulties he finds in outlining even superficially plausible ways for the party to recapture the political high ground illustrate the depth of the Democrats crisis.
Greenberg diagnoses the problem as a crisis of legitimacy:
Just a quarter of the country is optimistic about our system of government — the lowest since polls by ABC and others began asking this question in 1974. But a crisis of government legitimacy is a crisis of liberalism. It doesn’t hurt Republicans. If government is seen as useless, what is the point of electing Democrats who aim to use government to advance some public end?
Voters like Democratic ideas and policy proposals, notes Greenberg, and on a wide range of issues, the public prefers Democratic positions to Republican ones.  The problem is that they don’t think the Democrats can or will make their ideas work.  The rhetoric inspires; the reality disappoints.
Government operates by the wrong values and rules, for the wrong people and purposes, the Americans I’ve surveyed believe. Government rushes to help the irresponsible and does little for the responsible. Wall Street lobbyists govern, not Main Street voters. Vexingly, this promotes both national and middle-class decline yet cannot be moved by conventional democratic politics. Lost jobs, soaring spending and crippling debt make America ever weaker, unable to meet its basic obligations to educate and protect its citizens. Yet politicians take care of themselves and party interests, while government grows remote and unresponsive, leaving people feeling powerless.
Greenberg is right to call this a crisis of legitimacy for liberal and progressive thought.  A strong and active federal government is the cornerstone of progressive politics.  If voters lose faith in the power of more government to better their lives, the progressive era has come to an end.
Attentive readers of these essays will recognize Greenberg’s legitimacy crisis as part of the larger plight of the blue social model Via Meadia and its readers have been analyzing in so many posts. 

The progressive, administrative regulatory state and more broadly the technocratic and professional intelligentsia who operate it sold themselves to the public as an honest umpire in charge of American life.  No more corrupt urban bosses robbing city hall to feather their nests, they said.  No more robber barons of the Gilded Age buying and selling legislatures and congresses.

Instead, we would have government by philosopher kings, or at least by incorruptible credentialed bureaucrats.  Alabaster towers of objectivity such as the FCC, the FDA, the EPA, the FEC and so many more would take politics out of government and replace it with disinterested administration.  Honest professionals would administer fair laws without fear or favor, putting the general interest first, and keeping the special interests at arm’s length.  The government would serve the middle class, and the middle class would thrive.

Plato, from Raphael’s “School of Athens”. Plato’s utopian city Kallipolis was ruled by philosopher kings (Wikimedia)
That was the theory; as Greenberg eloquently tells us, fewer and fewer voters believe it describes the actual government in our actual world.  The next questions for Democrats are obvious: what is the cause of this problem and how can it be treated?

Greenberg’s answer is a more sophisticated and comprehensive version of a classic progressive idea.  It is not simply, Greenberg points out, that special interests fight progressive initiatives; special interests have actually managed to subvert the institutions of the government itself.  The progressive state has been taken captive by those it was supposed to keep in check.

The weak point is the electoral process.  The administrative state and its professional managers don’t sit in a vacuum.  Elected politicians write the laws that the regulatory agencies enforce.  Those politicians like to get re-elected.  They depend on the campaign contributions the fat cats can give; that money power means that the state becomes the catspaw of the greedy few rather than the honest guardian of the toiling millions.  The bulwark of justice has become the arsenal of plutocracy; the public is skeptical of government because a cash hungry political class has turned the state over to the rich.

This is not, I fear, a complete account of the problem, but it is not without merit.  And the argument has the honesty and decency to acknowledge that disillusioned voters are responding to real shortcomings in Democratic governance — not to mention the gaping venality of so many “progressive” progressive politicians.  Greenberg is not one of those progressives who rails about the stupidity and backwardness of those bitter clingers who are too stupid, too poorly educated and too culturally crippled to understand their real interests.

If that’s the diagnosis, what is the fix?  There are several items on the to-do list, but since the crux of the matter for Greenberg is the influence that special interests exercise over the electoral process, his solution begins with campaign finance reform.  This is where the essay begins to go seriously wrong.
The Democrats have to start detoxifying politics by proposing to severely limit or bar individual and corporate campaign contributions, which would mean a fight with the Supreme Court. They must make the case for public financing of campaigns and force the broadcast and cable networks to provide free time for candidate ads. And they must become the strongest advocates for transparency in campaign donations and in the lobbying of elected officials.
All parties ought to embrace the ideas in the last sentence; sunshine remains the best disinfectant.  But the rest of the paragraph is a recipe for comprehensive failure.  There are so many things wrong with the idea that campaign finance reform can revitalize the Democratic party that even one of the most persistent writers in the blogosphere cannot can’t deal with them all.  But here’s a start.

1.  It’s a political no-hoper.  It’s inconceivable that the current Supreme Court or any court like it would approve the sweeping restrictions on political speech that an effective, publicly-financed campaign system would require to work.  To get a Supreme Court willing to accept the wholesale limits on political speech that would nullify the power of money in election campaigns, Dems would have to control the White House and Senate to name and confirm a Court majority far more resolutely progressive than anything we have seen.  The GOP has been chasing the Holy Grail of a court majority to overturn Roe vs. Wade for almost thirty years and doesn’t have it yet.

2.  But let’s suppose that progressive Democrats managed to build this kind of political dominance and, with secure control of the White House and the Senate far into the future, they were able to nominate and confirm justices committed to this project.  This is an enticing prospect for many — but remember that our premise was that the purpose of campaign finance reform was to build a progressive majority.  But it turns out that the only way to get effective campaign finance reform is to have that majority already.  If we had some eggs we could have some ham and eggs if we had some ham.  This is a wish list, not a political program.

3.  In any case, any new campaign finance laws would have to be written by legislators who got their seats under the old system.  Wouldn’t the same vested interests who, Greenberg tells us, control the way Congress writes laws also control drafting of new the campaign finance laws?  If all the other bureaucracies have been perverted into special interest fiefdoms and incumbent protection agencies why wouldn’t a campaign finance regulatory system be equally if not more perverse and corrupt?  Or will the special interests be so stupid and obliging as not to notice that its bought and paid for legislators are plotting to kill their power?

Greenberg is telling voters who deeply distrust the nexus of power and money swirling around Washington to give that nexus even more power: power to regulate and control the process of competition for office.  They would be fools to take him up on it; I don’t think they are that stupid and forty years of well funded efforts to get effective campaign finance reform have abysmally failed.

The campaign finance system Greenberg envisions has to come about by immaculate conception: born without taint even though its parents were mired in corruption and sin.  The Catholic Church teaches that this is what happened to the Virgin Mary; few would suggest that the possibility is open to an Act of Congress.  The election law and the election regulatory system will be written under the same crummy conditions that Greenberg believes are responsible for the comprehensive crisis of liberalism.

This is not a hopeful political road: a decades long hunt for an uncatchable unicorn will not inspire a new progressive era in American politics.

4.  Meanwhile, Greenberg has not yet come to grips with the deepest and most difficult aspect of the crisis of liberal legitimacy.  He roots the dangerous and corrupting special interests outside the state: with their money and their lobbying the corporations and the fat cats influence and pervert the state. But the state and its servants do not, in Greenberg’s story, constitute a special interest of their own.

This is not how voters see it.  For large numbers of voters the professional classes who staff the bureaucracies, foundations and policy institutes in and around government are themselves a special interest.  It is not that evil plutocrats control innocent bureaucrats; many voters believe that the progressive administrative class is a social order that has its own special interests.  Bureaucrats, think these voters, are like oil companies and Enron executives: they act only to protect their turf and fatten their purses.

The problem goes even deeper than hostility toward perceived featherbedding and life tenure for government workers.  The professionals and administrators who make up the progressive state are seen as a hostile power with an agenda of their own that they seek to impose on the nation.

This perception, also, is rooted in truth.  The progressive state has never seen its job as simply to check the excesses of the rich.  It has also sought to correct the vices of the poor and to uplift the masses.  From the Prohibition and eugenics movements of the early twentieth century to various improvement and uplift projects in our own day, well educated people have seen it as their simple duty to use the powers of government to make the people do what is right: to express the correct racial ideas, to eschew bad child rearing technique like corporal punishment, to eat nutritionally appropriate foods, to quit smoking, to use the right light bulbs and so on and so on.

Progressives want and need to believe that the voters are tuning them out because they aren’t progressive enough.  But it’s impossible to grasp the crisis of the progressive enterprise unless one grasps the degree to which voters resent the condescension and arrogance of know-it-all progressive intellectuals and administrators.  They don’t just distrust and fear the bureaucratic state because of its failure to live up to progressive ideals (thanks to the power of corporate special interests); they fear and resent upper middle class ideology.  Progressives scare off many voters most precisely when they are least restrained by special interests.  Many voters feel that special interests can be a healthy restraint on the idealism and will to power of the upper middle class.

The progressive ideal of administrative cadres leading the masses toward the light has its roots in a time when many Americans had an eighth grade education or less.  It always had its down side, and the arrogance and tin-eared obtuseness of self assured American liberal progressives has infuriated generations of Americans and foreigners who for one reason or another have the misfortune to fall under the power of a class still in the grip of a secularized version of the Puritan ideal.  But in the conditions of late nineteenth and twentieth century America, the progressive vanguard fulfilled a vital and necessary social role.

The deep crisis of the progressive ideal today is that it is no longer clear that the American clerisy is wanted or needed in that role.

At bottom, that is what the populist revolt against establishments of all kinds is about.  A growing section of the American population wants to think and act for itself, without the guidance of the graduates of ivy league colleges and blue chip graduate programs.

The fight for limited government that animates so many Americans today isn’t a reaction against the abuses and failures of government.  It is a fight to break the power of a credentialed elite that believe themselves entitled by talent and hard work to a greater say in the nation’s affairs than people who scored lower on standardized tests and studied business administration in cheap colleges rather than political science in expensive ones.

In the progressive era, the hierarchy of American adult life came to look more and more like the opposite of the social hierarchy in a typical high school.  There, the unpopular and awkward smart kids were marginalized by the jocks and the cheerleaders.  In adulthood the nerds ruled the roost and the ex-jocks pumped gas.  Or if they sold cars or developed real estate, the nerds looked at them as if they pumped gas.

One way of encapsulating the aims of people drawn to figures like Sarah Palin is to say that these are people who want adult America to look more like high school, with intellect less highly regarded and rewarded, and people smarts and character counting for more.  There might have been a time when the regular kids were in awe of the special knowledge of the brainiacs, but the serial policy failures of recent years have dramatically eroded the prestige of the smart kids.

To understand the populist anger that seethes in a significant portion of the electorate (not, I think, a majority, but a group large enough that it’s hard to build a stable majority without at least a fair share of them), policy wonks and political intellectuals need to go back to those dark adolescent days and think about the resentment and anger they sometimes felt when the social hierarchy seemed hostile and unfair.  Think about that resentment slowly ripening and deepening for a decade and more.  Think about it tied to a sense of economic grievance and compounded by the (perceived at least) serial failures of brainiac policy on matters like immigration, health care, multiculturalism and trade.  This anger feeds the energy that a Sarah Palin is able to tap; it is part of why the jocks and cheerleaders on Fox News so consistently outdraw the nerds on CNN — to say nothing of PBS.

This is the new Jacksonian surge, and progressives will have to dig deeper than even Stan Greenberg has yet done to figure out how to come to terms with it.

- WALTER RUSSELL MEAD, Editor-at-Large of The American Interest magazine, Progressive, Yale University Professor, recognised as one of the leading authorities on American foreign policy, writes for several journals, magazines and newspapers such as Foreign Affairs, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, registered Democrat, and Barack Obama voter and supporter