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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

What Will Dems Do When The GOP Says: “The Deficit Matters”?

The Daily Escape:

Big Ben being cleaned. In order to clean the four clock faces, every 5-7 years, skilled climbers hang down from the belfry on ropes, and they clean the front of each clock face. There is one removable panel of glass on each face, which is removed during the cleaning so that the clock maintenance staff can talk to the cleaners while they’re working. (“you missed a spot?”) Hat tip to Wrongo’s friends at the Goodspeed Opera House!

Yesterday we pointed out that there is a very large program that the country needs to fund if we are to maintain our position in the global superpower competition. The issue at hand is the stunning thought that we might lose up to 75 million jobs to automation in the next 13 years, and that we need to train the out-of-work unfortunates for new jobs in a different economy.

It’s highly unlikely that we would need to train that many, but it could be 25 million Americans. And we have no idea where the money would come from to accomplish that. After all, the Republicans now plan to reduce tax receipts bigly, thus adding to the deficit and thereby, to the total debt of the country.

We know that as soon as the new tax cuts begin accruing to their patrons, the GOP will start talking about reducing the budget deficit by cutting non-military expenses. Ron Brownstein conceives the Republican tax plan correctly:

Gaius Publius observes: (brackets and editing by the Wrongologist)

As they did in the 1980s, Republicans are laying a “deficit trap” for Democrats. As they did before, they’re blowing up the budget, then using deficit [fear] to force Democrats to “be responsible” about cutting social programs — “because deficits matter.”

In the 1980s Republicans ran up the deficit, then insisted that Democrats work with them to raise taxes on the middle class to over-fund the Social Security (SS) Trust Fund. This converted SS from a pay-as-you-go system that increased revenues as needed via adjustments to the salary cap, to a pay-in-advance system. That allowed any excess SS money to be loaned back to the government, partially concealing the large deficits that Reagan was running up.

Today, Republicans are expanding the deficit again, and are already starting to talk about deficits to argue for cuts in what they call “entitlements” — Medicare, Medicaid, and eventually Social Security, even though Social Security can be self-funding.

Fear of deficits is the go-to Republican ploy to try to maim or kill the FDR and LBJ-created social safety net. To the extent that Democrats are willing to accept the GOP’s argument that both parties need to be responsible to decrease the deficits, they will support cuts in social services. Even Obama was willing to consider doing just that in the name of “bipartisanship”. More from Gaius:

The reality — Deficits aren’t dangerous at all until there’s a big spike in inflation, which is nowhere near happening and won’t be near happening for a generation…

Do we want the US government to shrink the money supply year after year after year, by running budget surpluses, or do we want to grow the amount of money in the private sector, making more available for use by the middle class?  The trillions spent on the current GOP giveaway to the already-rich could have been given to college students in debt, or people still underwater in their mortgages since the Wall Street-created crash of 2008. It could have been used to build better roads, airports, seaports or a national high speed internet backbone.

What would be the effect of that re-allocation of money?

Back to Gaius Publius for the final words. Which of these three options would you rather the government choose:

  • Spend money on the already-rich?
  • Spend money on you and the country’s needs, ignoring the pleas of the already-rich?
  • Hoard as much money as possible in a vault and spend the least possible?

The first is the GOP’s current tax plan. The second is a plan for the many, an FDR-style economic policy. The third is the GOP’s wet dream, one that they will ask Democrats to help them accomplish once the already-rich have banked their share of our tax money.

Wrongo’s fear is that at some point down the road, a compromise will be offered up: Cuts to social programs in exchange for a repeal of some of the more onerous tax cuts. The only issue will be the extent of the cuts to social programs.

It will be celebrated as bipartisan sanity returning to Washington.

Our system is revolting. Why aren’t we?

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Democrats Have Failed

The Daily Escape:

Lavender in Provence – 2017 Photo by Fabio Antenore

This week, Wrongo wrote that 50% of US births are paid for by Medicaid, and how worry about hunger and homelessness has never been higher among Americans. Both of these issues are symptoms of how our economy fails low-income and lower middle class Americans, and neither political party is truly interested in addressing the problems.

Trump won because he led people who used to vote for Democrats to believe that they had nothing to lose if they voted for him. Below-median income voters had long ago lost faith that Democrats, and Hillary in particular, would ever do anything to change their plight.

Trump said he would look out for them. Whether he does or not, remains an open question, but even before Trump, Democrats had already lost a big swath of America. From the American Prospect:

In the race for the White House, the Democratic presidential candidate has won…fewer US counties with average incomes under the national median and with populations that are more than 85% white in every general election since 1996. Concentrated in the Midwest, Appalachia, and the upper Rocky Mountains, there are 660 such counties today. Hillary Clinton won two of them.

Think about that: The Democratic Party’s influence in mostly white, lower-income America has eroded to nearly nothing since Bill Clinton was president. This chart documenting their fall is stunning:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Parties basically split below-median income counties that were 85% white in 1996. Over a 20-year period, the erosion of the Democrats’ control was steady, and complete. This isn’t just the result of a poor 2016 presidential candidate, it is an indictment of the Democratic Party, its leadership, and its strategy.

The American Prospect article is about Montana’s Democratic Governor, Steve Bullock, who won his state by 4 points while Trump was beating Clinton by 20. Bullock is a rural populist in a party of technocrats. Obama lost Montana by 2 points in 2008. Bill Clinton won Montana in 1992.

But, the electoral failure of Democrats is worse than its showing in these below-median income white counties. The following graphically illustrates the abject failure of Democrats to be competitive in political contests at all levels:

Nothing that Barack Obama did by holding on to the White House for that entire period compensates for these terrible losses.

Democrats remain divided about their Party strategy, many clinging to the thought that if Hillary could have turned about 80k voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where white working-class people are abundant, she would be president.

But she would not control either legislative branch, and she would have had to propose Supreme Court Justices similar to Neil Gorsuch to get one confirmed by the Senate.

The question is where will the DNC be taking the Party in 2018? In a 2018 mid-term election where the president has a historically poor approval rating with independents and Democrats, like Trump has now, victory is possible.

If Democrats want to win back Congress, and the White House in 2020, they need to field candidates who believe in jobs and economic growth first. The candidates need to be authentic people, who listen more than they talk. And when they do speak, they should use PIE as a metaphor for America’s economy, as in: (H/T Seth Godin)

  • How big is the pie?
  • Is the pie growing?
  • What will my share of the pie be tomorrow?
  • Who allocates the slices of pie? Can they be trusted?

When voters think the economy isn’t growing, things begin to feel zero-sum. People begin to think that they may permanently lose their place in our society.

If the Democrats want to win back Congress, they need to describe concretely what they plan to do when they say they support their working-class constituents, regardless of color.

They need to get to be better than Trump on jobs, economic growth and finding a peace dividend.

All of that, and Medicare for all. In Wrongo’s Thursday column, Gallup found that health care concerns ranked highest across all income cohorts.

Shouldn’t these principles be credible with working-class people—including whites?

A song about pie: Here is D’Angelo with “Devil’s Pie” from 1998. It’s a dystopian vision of capitalism, where everybody’s fighting for more of the tasty, materialistic dish. All is fair in pursuit of a bigger paycheck:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Takeaway Lyric:

Fuck the slice we want the pie
Why ask why till we fry
Watch us all stand in line
For a slice of the devil’s pie

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Worry About Hunger and Homelessness Higher Than Ever

The Daily Escape:

White-Faced (Capuchin) Monkey, Costa Rica, 2015 – photo by Wrongo

The American economy has never been very kind to people at the lower income levels. In most ways, since 2008’s Great Recession, the economy has become riskier, and more tension-filled for lower income Americans, those making $30,000 or less per year. Nothing makes this clearer than this Gallup poll conducted March 1-5, 2017. Gallup surveyed 1,018 adults in all 50 US states. From Gallup:

Over the past two years, an average of 67% of lower-income US adults, up from 51% from 2010-2011, have worried “a great deal” about the problem of hunger and homelessness in the country.

More from Gallup:

Concern about hunger and homelessness now ranks as high as, or higher than, concern about most other issues tested in Gallup’s annual Environment survey. The only issue with a significantly higher “worried a great deal” percentage in this year’s poll is the availability and affordability of healthcare, at 57%.

People’s perspectives are based on their experience, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Gallup found that people making more than $75k/year had other concerns, and ranked hunger and homelessness much lower, at 37%. Still, even that number is up substantially from 23% in 2001.

The survey asks participants to rank their concern about 13 elements, and the differences between the concerns of the $30k or less cohort and the $75k or more cohort are stark.

  1. Americans making $30k and less rank their top seven worries in this order:
  • Hunger/homelessness
  • Crime/violence
  • Healthcare
  • Drug use
  • Terrorism
  • Social Security
  • Economy
  1. Americans making $75k or more ranked their top seven in this order:
  • Healthcare
  • Budget deficit
  • Economy
  • Social Security
  • Environment
  • Race relations
  • Hunger/homelessness

One reality is that the lower income Americans list “terrorism” in their top five, while it does not appear at all as a top worry of higher income Americans. Lower-income Americans worry more in general than those with higher incomes; everything is riskier and tougher for them. But nothing compares to the worries about hunger and homelessness. Gallup:

On average, across the 13 issues, the percentage of lower-income adults who worry a great deal is seven percentage points higher than among middle-income Americans, and 17 points higher than among upper-income Americans.

Here is Gallup’s chart showing the relative degree of “worry” by economic group:

No surprise that more money brings one fewer big worries. No individual worry of the $75k+ cohort was felt by as many people as the seventh-ranking worry by the $30k or less cohort.

In fact, the greater than $75k cohort sees the “budget deficit” as its second-most worried about item. Of course, this dooms any chance for the people making less than $30k to have greater security in life. Congratulations to Pete Peterson and the GOP deficit hawks on a job well done! Their decades of propaganda have made austerity a political obsession for the well-off, because government must tighten its belt, and cut its way to greatness.

Paging Dr. Maslow! Your theory of the hierarchy of needs is again demonstrated in the real world by Gallup. Here it is 2017, near the twilight of the empire. Physiological and safety needs are in the top five of the major worries of a population that is hanging on to our society by their fingernails.

Tighten your belts. Lower your dreams. Ignore the fact WE live in 10,000 sq. ft. mansions. We deserve it, and you don’t.

The American dream is a fallacy. Free markets are a fallacy. They are propaganda used to fool those poor Americans who live every day in all-too visible peonage.

Here is a 2005 tune by Coldplay, “Fix You” from their album “X&Y”. It gives a few words of empathy:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

Takeaway Lyric:

When you try your best, but you don’t succeed
When you get what you want, but not what you need
When you feel so tired, but you can’t sleep
Stuck in reverse
And the tears come streaming down your face
When you lose something you can’t replace
When you love someone, but it goes to waste
Could it be worse?

 

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Saturday Soother – March 18, 2017

The Daily Escape:

(Ancient Pagoda in Myanmar – photo by Steve McCurry. McCurry is best known for his iconic 1984 National Geographic magazine photograph “Afghan Girl”.)

This isn’t the millennium we thought we’d have. The 21st century was supposed to be a time of enhanced social justice, and a push toward further global integration. We thought that the arc of history bent unmistakably toward a bright Information Age.

Instead, where are we? Lurching forward towards the second decade of the century with the reins of government in the hands of an ultra-nationalist, someone who wouldn’t shake hands with Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany at the close of their meeting. We also learned more about the tin ear that Republicans have when it comes to enacting a health insurance program. Here is the topper: In a conversation with the National Review’s Rich Lowry, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-WI) bragged about how conservatives now have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take health coverage away from the most vulnerable Americans:

So Medicaid…sending it back to the states, capping its growth rate. We’ve been dreaming of this since I’ve been around — since you and I were drinking at a kegger…I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time. We’re on the cusp of doing something we’ve long believed in.

Not the college experience that most of us had, but for Ryan, it was a time to dream about how, someday, he would take health care away from millions of poor people. The media thinks that this guy is the best and brightest that the Republicans have, and cover him like a serious, sober policy wonk focused on reducing deficits and poverty in market-oriented ways. They refuse to believe that a major elected official would devote his life to the Randian belief that the poor deserve what’s coming to them because they lack the brilliance of a John Galt. It’s one thing to have these thoughts at 20, and an entirely different thing to still have them at 47 years old.

To reiterate what we talked about earlier this week, Speaker Ryan’s health bill, if enacted, would lead to 24 million fewer people having health insurance by 2026, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Of those 24 million, 14 million would lose health coverage because of the changes Ryan wants to make to the Medicaid program.

No wonder Charlie Pierce calls Ryan the “zombie-eyed granny starver”. Many Americans voted for this. Perhaps they now understand buyer’s remorse.

Time to get soothed, if it is possible this week. Grab a cup of Hula Daddy Kona Coffee (just $100/Lb. via the web), sit in the sun room with Wrongo, and watch the 20” of snow melt on the fields of Wrong.

We’ll listen to Dvořák’s “Romance for Violin and Orchestra” performed by Tanja Sonc with the Slovenian Philharmonic, conducted by Keri-Lynn Wilson. Dvořák originally composed this in September and October 1873 as the slow movement of a string quartet in F minor. He re-scored it for violin and orchestra sometime before December 1877. Here is Romance of Violin and Orchestra, Opus 11:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Trump Knows Budgeting

The Daily Escape:

(Iowa State Law Library)

Trump’s first budget proposal was released on Thursday, and it hews closely to both Trumpian and Republican orthodoxy:

Trump’s first budget…would increase defense spending by $54 billion and then offset that by stripping money from more than 18 other agencies. Some would be hit particularly hard, with reductions of more than 20% at the Agriculture, Labor and State departments and of more than 30% at the Environmental Protection Agency.

The White House blueprint does not address major safety net programs such as Social Security and Medicare, which the Overlord has promised to protect. While there are too many deep cuts to detail fully, here are a few from the WaPo:

It would also propose eliminating future federal support for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Within EPA alone, 50 programs and 3,200 positions would be eliminated.

Trump’s budget will eliminate thousands of government jobs, and that is a serious problem for Washington, DC. Moody’s chief economist, Mark Zandi, estimates that Trump’s proposed cuts would impact the Washington area bigly. It will reduce employment in the region by 1.8%, slash personal income by 3.5% and lower home prices by 1.9%.

Zandi reasons that cuts in non-defense spending would fall disproportionately hard on the Washington region, while the increase in military spending would be spread across the nation. Good paying defense jobs in your district, mostly non-union, and a defense contractor who kicks back to your campaign fund while building weapons that kill the baddies. What’s not to like?

The budget chops funding for the NIH by $5.8 billion, or close to 20%, and low income Americans will also lose:

And the Trump administration proposed to eliminate a number of other programs… [Including] the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, which disburses more than $3 billion annually to help heat homes in the winter. It also proposed abolishing the Community Development Block Grant program, which provides roughly $3 billion for targeted projects related to affordable housing, community development and homelessness programs, among other things.

Some of this represents Trump’s campaign agenda. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney explained on Wednesday:

In fact, we wrote it using the president’s own words. We went through his speeches. We went through articles that have been written about his policies…and we turned those policies into numbers.

You know, things like cuts to the State Department, because diplomacy is for wimps.

But most of Trump’s budget is just a Republican’s wet dream of a “drown the government in a bathtub” program. Having said that, Trump’s recent executive order to restructure the entire executive branch means the White House has broad latitude to make these huge cuts effective by simply shifting priorities of what to actually do with the money.

This budget represents fundamental change. Medicine, education and defense have received the lion’s share of government spending in the past. Any town with a hospital, a college, or a defense contractor had a stable income base upon which to grow their local economy.

Now, the Republican Party no longer believes the government has any role in the first two, so defense contractors will become the only Keynesian game in town.

This will be a terrible new baseline for Democrats to work from, assuming they ever get back into power. Trump means to end all of the New Deal era programs, and growing the tax base to support a return to higher levels of government spending will take decades.

Now, another Irish musical selection for St. Patrick’s Day. Calling modern Irish music “punk” sounds redundant, but there are quite a few punkish Irish bands. Black 47 is Wrongo’s favorite, but today we feature Thin Lizzy with “Whiskey in the Jar”, a traditional Irish song that they updated in 1972.

Phil Lynott was the front man for Thin Lizzy. He was once asked how it felt to be black and Irish, and he answered: “Like a pint of Guinness”. Lynott lived fast, and died at 36 from heart failure in 1986. Here is “Whiskey in the Jar”:

This makes Wrongo want a bottle of Bushmills 21 year old single malt. Oh wait, here’s one!

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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February 23, 2018

The Daily Escape:

(Yukon Bear before hibernation)

From the WSJ:

The Trump administration has drafted preliminary economic growth forecasts for its federal budget planning that rely on assumptions that are far rosier than projections made by independent agencies and most private forecasters, according to several people familiar with the discussions.

Imagine. The Trump Team ordered government economists to cook up rosy economic forecasts upon which to base the latest Republican fantasy sales pitch about trickledown economics.

Trump’s “the economy will be great” promises made during the election are now turning into policy and legislation. The problem is that the future they are cooking up for us is most likely unobtainable. Consider that recent GDP growth has been around 2%, while Trump is telling us to expect growth of between 3.0% and 3.5% for the next 10 years. But the Trumpets have a plan:

Trump officials believe a regulatory rollback and a tax-code revamp will unleash growth that drives a recovery in productivity, sends business investment higher and draws idled workers back to the labor force. They also assume interest rates would remain low because the US would become a more attractive place to park money.

Most economists believe sustained growth at more than 3% will be difficult to achieve unless there is a sharp rebound in productivity growth, while the US labor force also grows. Few are projecting that both of those will happen. Worker productivity growth has slowed to 0.7% a year since 2010, a sharp slowdown from rates exceeding 3% in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

So the simultaneous equations to achieve growth include increased spending on military and infrastructure, tax reform, cuts in regulations, and not touching granny-starver Paul Ryan’s favorite target of cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

The WSJ says that the Trump team gave the Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) staff the growth targets that their budget should produce, and asked them to backfill other estimates to justify those numbers.

Business school logic says that could work if the baseline target is realistic. Matt Yglesias at Vox points out that under Trump’s budget, the deficit would be larger; but the economy would be 17% larger and therefore, the deficit as a percentage of GDP would be smaller (perhaps small enough for the GOP to again say “deficits don’t matter?”).

So, Trump has an overly optimistic budget based upon phenomenal growth which no one else believes will happen, and he will hand off this budget grenade to Congress. If Congress balks, or does not find a way to make Trump’s budget happen, accusations will be tweeted from The White House regarding how Congress can’t get anything done.

It will be everybody’s fault except the Donald’s.

This reminds Wrongo of his days in the Fortune 500. Corporate HQ orders an extremely aggressive budget number. The number is missed, and people are terminated. Things continue to slide, and a new CEO is hired, who gets another “stretch” budget that is again missed.

How many times do we need to watch this movie? Trump has declared bankruptcy six times.

Will this make seven?

Here is Alex Dezen with “A Little Less Like Hell”:

Lyric:

Tell me who I gotta talk to
Tell me who I gotta kill
Just to make this place
Feel a less like hell

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Make Social Security Great Again

A senior House Republican is circulating a proposal that would make major cuts and changes to the Social Security system.

Insiders think this is a move to contravene President-elect Trump’s vow to leave the retirement program for 61 million retirees and their families untouched.

The proposal was drafted by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX), chair of the subcommittee on Social Security of the House Ways and Means Committee. It was formally introduced as a bill last Thursday. It includes two measures that might attract some interest from Democrats. One would increase retirement benefits for lower-income workers, and another would increase the minimum benefit for low-income earners who worked full careers.

OTOH, other provisions put in place a series of highly controversial measures long debated by both parties. Those measures include:

  • Gradually raising the retirement age for receiving full benefits from 67 to 69.
  • Adopting a less generous cost of living index than the current one.
  • Inaugurating means testing by changing the benefits formula to reduce payments to wealthier retirees.
  • Eliminating the annual COLA adjustments for wealthier individuals and their families.

Democrats think that Johnson’s plan, if adopted, would cut current benefits. From Nancy Pelosi:

Slashing Social Security and ending Medicare are absolutely not what the American people voted for in November…Democrats will not stand by while Republicans dismantle the promise of a healthy and dignified retirement for working people in America.

Rep. Johnson is 86 and has both a military pension and a congressional pension, so Social Security is far less important to him than it is to you.

For Republicans, Johnson’s bill is the opening salvo in a much larger conversation about Medicare and Medicaid in the coming year. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and House Budget Committee Chair Tom Price (R-GA), who will be the next secretary of health and human services, are both on record as wanting major changes to Medicare and Medicaid.

Democrats see the 2017 GOP plans as a frontal assault on the nation’s social safety net.

The argument has been that the Social Security trust fund will run out of money, but it is not in imminent danger. The Trustees Report in March warned that the fund will begin running out of money in 2034 when beneficiaries will have to face a 21% benefit cut.

Last week, Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma, a House Republican, and Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, a Democrat, renewed their support for a plan to create a bipartisan, 13-member panel to recommend to Congress ways to prevent the massive trust fund from running out of money while extending its solvency for another 75 years.

They envision that the new commission would operate along the lines of one created 35 years ago, in the Reagan administration. That commission helped pave the way for legislation that extended the life of Social Security by 50 years. Some possible proposals, such as raising the retirement age, increasing federal payroll tax revenues or altering the cost of living adjustments to save money will trigger strong opposition from the AARP, progressive activists and Democrats.

It’s long been a GOP theme that since Social Security needs a fix by 2033, we need to cut benefits now. Never mind that a minor upward adjustment to the income limit for the Social Security tax would resolve the problem with no cuts to benefits.

We’ll see if President Donald J. Trump supports this bill, after saying very loudly during the campaign that he was against touching Social Security.

Maybe the J stands for “just kidding.”

Since we’re on the verge of becoming “great” again, or, at the very least, having the trains run on time, maybe El Jefe can get the GOP to leave Social Security alone?

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Know Your Constitution – Monday Wake-Up Edition

Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers refused to stand for the national anthem at 49ers preseason game vs. the Green Bay Packers on Friday.

Like most Americans, Wrongo stands with hand over heart during the playing of the national anthem. But, for most Americans, playing of the national anthem is largely a ritual, and like most rituals, its true meaning has become vague, with many people simply going through the motions.

Until someone like Kaepernick won’t play along with the ritual. He was protesting what he thinks are wrongdoings against African Americans and other minorities in the US by the police:

I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.

Not surprisingly, some of the reaction to Kaepernick’s silent protest was…not so silent. Nor was it particularly reasonable, or rational. You can imagine the “love it or leave it” crowd’s twitter comments, baked with a generous helping of racism.

But, for those that know anything about the US Constitution, he is exercising his right as an American citizen. As such, his actions are by definition patriotic, for they’re a celebration of what it means to be an American. This tweet captured the right spirit:

FireShot Screen Capture #120 - Alphonso on Twitter-page-001

While refusal to participate in the anthem can call one’s patriotism into question, standing for the National Anthem never has been a requirement. Most stand as a sign of respect for the country they love, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

To insist that others respect this custom in the same way you do, is to deny them their constitutional rights.

Sometimes free speech can be objectionable, or even offensive to some. Perhaps it’s time we all reconsider what the National Anthem actually means, and the rights and freedoms it celebrates.

So wake up you faux patriots, you blind Exceptionalists!  To rouse you from your slumbers, here is the Boss with “Born in the USA”:

Some only hear lyrics discussing economic destabilization, political gridlock, and hollow national pride. St. Ronnie Reagan mistakenly tried to make the song’s message into a jingoist anthem, but the Boss would have none of that.

Perhaps the true meaning of the song is as an anti-war song and a patriotic song, with the message: “Remain proud to be an American, despite some of our terrible actions at home and abroad.”

For those who read the Wrongologist in email, you can view the video here.

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Capitalism, It’s Not You, It’s Me

There is a meme that has gone global since the early days of the Occupy movement. Here it is as a wall graffiti from Greece that uses the same meme we first saw in NYC in 2011:

Capitalism Lotek

Just kidding capitalism, it really is you.

The artist is a Greek who styles himself as Lotek. The name Lotek is derived from the short story (and later, a film) by William Gibson called Johnny Mnemonic. The story is set in 2021, in a world ruled by corporations. An anti-authoritarian gang that are called Lo-Teks, fight the power. They are in fact not low tech at all, but are high tech hackers. Sound familiar?

Greece is surely a place at war with neoliberalism and free market capitalism. So is it also time for us to reconsider capitalism?

Consider this from Mark Blyth in Foreign Affairs:

An inherent tension exists between capitalism and democratic politics since capitalism allocates resources through markets, whereas democracy allocates power through voting.

The compromises both systems have struck with each other over recent history shapes our contemporary political and economic world. Blyth observes:

  • In the three decades that followed World War II, democracy set the rules, taming markets with the establishment of protective labor laws, restrictive financial regulations, and expanded welfare systems.
  • Starting in the 1970s, a globalized, deregulated capitalism, unconstrained by national borders, began to push back.

And today, capital markets and capitalists are setting the rules, and democratic governments follow them.

Some background: Cutting taxes in the 1980s caused government revenues to fall. Deficits widened, and interest rates rose as those deficits became harder to finance. At the same time, conservative govern­ments, especially in the UK and the US, dismantled the regulations that had reined in the excesses of the financial service industry since the 1940s.

The financial industry began to grow unchecked, and as it expanded, investors sought safe assets that were highly liquid and provided good returns: the debt of developed countries.

This allowed governments to plug their deficits and spend more, all without raising taxes.

But the shift to financing the state through debt came at a cost. Since WW II, taxes on labor and capital had provided the foundation of postwar state spending. But, as govern­ments began to rely more on debt, the tax-based states of the postwar era became the debt-based states of today.

This transformation had pro­found political consequences. The increase in government debt has allowed capitalists to override the preferences of citizens:

  • Bond-market investors can now exercise an effective veto on policies they don’t like by demanding higher interest rates when they replace old debt with new debt.
  • Investors can use courts to override the ability of states to default on their debts, as happened recently in Argentina
  • They can shut down an entire country’s payment system if that country votes against the interests of creditors, as happened in Greece in 2015.
  • Citizens United dictates who runs for office in the US, and in many cases, who wins.

Now that the financial industry has become more powerful than the people, should we blindly follow capitalism’s meme as the only way forward?

Free-market rhetoric hides the dependence of corporate profits on conditions provided for, and guaranteed by, governments. For example:

  • Our financial institutions insist that they should be free of meddlesome regulations while they depend on continuing access to cheap credit from the Federal Reserve.
  • Our pharmaceutical firms have resisted any government limits on their price-setting ability at the same time that they rely on government grants of monopolies through our patent system.

To use a sporting metaphor, it’s as if the best football team purchased not only the best coaches and facilities, but also bought the referees and the journalists as well. Those responsible for judging economic competition have lost all authority, which leaves the dream of ‘meritocracy’ or a ‘level playing field’ in tatters.

In our country, the divide between the business oligarchs, the political class and “the people” increasingly appears unbridgeable, marked by hostility and deep distrust. When people are told for a generation that government mustn’t make decisions that interfere with free markets, it is inevitable that people will lose faith in democratic governance, and in government’s capacity to help them solve their problems.

Capitalism in its current form no longer works for the people. We have seen a reaction in the start of movements by Occupy, by Bernie, and by others in Europe.

Remember that the greatest prosperity in living memory in the US came during the brief social democratic moment, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the constraints on business were the greatest.

More democracy and more economic justice are the necessary foundations for the path to a more prosperous, and sustainable economy.

A reformed capitalism must be a part of what emerges from that fight.

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How Not to Cut the Deficit

Congress returned from the Independence Day break on Monday. They will leave again on Friday, and won’t return until after Labor Day. From The Hill:

Congress is poised to leave Washington…without passing funding to combat the Zika virus or completing work on spending bills to avoid a government shutdown.

One bill that might get passed is the re-authorization for Federal Aviation Administration programs that expire on Friday. Since Congress likes to fly, most think they will pass an extension that will last through September 2017.

If you’ve taken a flight this summer, you’ve likely been tied up in long TSA security lines. But you may not have focused on the real reason: Funding for the TSA has been sliced by 8.5% over the past five years, leading to a 5.5% drop in the number of screeners.

Yet, in the same period, the number of air travelers has increased by more than 15%. And those business wizards in Congress should be forced to tell the rest of us how a labor-intensive business can successfully process increasing numbers of customers with a smaller work force.

Steven Rattner in the NYT:

This year, discretionary spending — which encompasses airport security, infrastructure, education, research and development and much more — will be lower than it was in 2005. (Adjusted for inflation.

The discretionary portion of the federal budget, including education, research, infrastructure and other programs, has been falling, while spending on mandatory programs (including Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) has been going up. Rattner reports that total government spending is up by 23% since 2005, while mandatory spending is up 45% in the same period, and discretionary spending is down 3%.

Here are some examples:

  • Since 2003, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have seen their funding fall by 23%, forcing an 8% reduction in grants to researchers even as grant applications were rising by 50%.
  • In the past 10 years, spending on all education has fallen by 11% percent.
  • Since 2010, the IRS’s budget has been slashed by about 18%, even as the IRS was given new duties in connection with the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The result: The enforcement staff has shrunk by 23%, leading to a similar reduction in the number of audits. Fewer audits have meant additional uncollected taxes, estimated at $14 billion over the past two years. And almost a million pieces of unanswered correspondence from taxpayers need responses.
  • The EPA’s budget has been cut by an enormous 27% — about $3 billion since 2010. As a result, the agency had to eliminate more than 2,000 workers, bringing its staffing to the lowest level since 1989.

Last fall, a bi-partisan group added $80 billion in new discretionary spending over the next two years. Then, Congress doubled the cost of the deal by giving more money to the military and to Medicare, taking the deal to $154 billion while paying for about half the tab with legitimate savings.

A few months later, Congress retroactively extended a raft of expired tax provisions — without even a pretense of paying for them.

As a result of Congress’s fudging, the projected 2017 deficit rose to $561 billion, from the $416 billion that was estimated just six months earlier.

We shouldn’t expect that Congress will make any big decisions involving taxes or spending in an election year. But at the least Republicans need to stop using the appropriations tool to take aim at agencies such as the IRS and the EPA, whose missions they reject.

In the case of the TSA, Republicans want it privatized. Not because privatizing will save any money or make the TSA more effective, but to help a few of their corporate sponsors have another feed at the government trough. Republicans want to see schools, prisons, and the postal service privatized. The people who are employed by these private, profit-making companies will not be paid as well, and will not receive benefits they have today.

This is what you get when you believe that government should be “run like a business.” Certainly, we need a more efficient, better managed bureaucracy, but the deficit-cutting value of their fix is peanuts compared with the simple act of generating revenue.

You know, that would be raising taxes sufficient to pay for the critical tasks we require of the government.

The GOP would like you to think that Donald Trump represents a threat to Republican tax and deficit-cutting orthodoxy. To the extent Trump has revealed his thinking on tax policy, it looks consistent with the Republican Party. Trump’s grand accomplishment is to create an alliance between the true economic interests of the Republican Party and that segment of the American electorate largely marginalized and displaced by the actions of that same elite.

Welcome to the Republican paradise.

 

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