Monday, August 2, 2010

Looking for serious, well-intentioned Republicans

One of the uglier strains of modern conservative thought is pervasive anti-intellectualism. As Faiz Shakir noted today, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) offered a rather classic example on "Fox News Sunday."

Host Chris Wallace noted that "a number of top economists" believe that the nation, right now, needs "more economic stimulus." Boehner replied, "Well, I don't need to see GDP numbers or to listen to economists; all I need to do is listen to the American people."

That's actually kind of crazy -- the "American people," en masse, lack the qualifications and background needed to make sweeping decisions about complex economic policies. It's why our system is built around the notion that voters will choose sensible representatives to do this work for us -- evaluate a situation, consider the judgment of experts, and ideally reach a wise decision about the way forward.

If Boehner were facing a serious ailment, would he say, "Well, I don't need to see lab results or to listen to medical professionals; all I need to do is listen to the American people"? Maybe so, but at this point, the serious ailment is our national economy, and it affects us all.

When Wallace pressed Boehner on how he'd pay for trillions of dollars in tax cuts, the would-be Speaker eventually concluded, "This is the whole Washington mindset, all these CBO numbers."

I don't even know what this means. "All these CBO numbers"? Boehner loves those CBO numbers, when they're telling him what he wants to hear. But when tax cuts for billionaires are on the line, suddenly objective, independent budget data is deemed useless.

There's just no seriousness here. Boehner comes to the debate with all the sophistication of a drunk guy yelling at the TV from the end of a bar. He hasn't thought any of this through, and seems prepared to argue that he shouldn't think things though because forethought is part of "the whole Washington mindset."

If I thought Boehner was just playing for the cameras, throwing out garbage on Fox News, when in reality he actually takes reason, evidence, and arithmetic seriously, I wouldn't be scared of his leadership role. But all available evidence suggests Boehner simply doesn't know what he's doing and he believes his own nonsense.

As political hackery goes, it's the worst possible combination of traits.

As we've been talking about over the last couple of days, President Obama's decision to rescue American auto manufacturers looks awfully good with the benefit of hindsight. Republicans were apoplectic at the time, but more than a year later, we now know the GOP was wrong and the Obama White House was right.

The more amusing angle, however, is watching Republicans scramble to justify their enormous mistake. At a moment of crisis, and with the GOP's credibility on the line, Republicans made the wrong call -- but with a little revisionist history, they're hoping you won't notice.

Early last year, as this clip helps make clear, the GOP saw the bailout of the auto industry as a policy that wouldn't, and quite literally couldn't, work. It was deemed wholly unacceptable for practical reasons (it would waste money and the industry would fail anyway) and for ideological reasons (it was "Marxism" in practice). Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) proclaimed Obama's actions "truly breathtaking" and said the government ownership roles at Chrysler and GM "should send a chill through all Americans who believe in free enterprise."

Now that this same policy has been deemed an unqualified success, most Republicans are biting their tongue, embarrassed about having been wrong once again. But some GOP officials are nevertheless still talking -- and taking partial credit for the policy they perceived as the end of American capitalism.

"The ideas [Republicans] laid out there were followed through," Corker told the Washington Post. "I take some pleasure out of helping make that contribution."

Got that? Corker hated the policy last year -- it offended his notion of how the government should operate on a fundamental level -- but now that it worked, and the evidence is clear that Obama was right, he wants the public to think the president succeeded thanks to the Republican "contributions" to the policy.

This is not only a reminder of just how shameless this crowd really is, it's a reminder how fortunate America was that Republicans weren't calling the shots when the pressure was on.

As David Broder sees it, the White House is already preparing itself -- mentally, emotionally, strategically, substantively -- for expected Republican gains in the midterm elections. The columnist quoted an insider who told him, "If you asked the president what he would really like for Christmas, it would be a smart loyal opposition."

Anyone who's watched congressional Republicans at all since January 2009 knows how unlikely this is. Broder highlights some GOP leaders of years past -- Dirksen, Dole, Baker -- who "mostly opposed Democratic presidents but made common cause with them on certain national and international issues." Though Broder doesn't mention it, these senators came from eras when Republicans had grown-ups in leadership positions, a dynamic that has sadly disappeared.

That said, the column identifies a few areas where President Obama might be able to work with congressional Republicans, including a South Korean trade deal and the administration's education policy, which the right does not reflexively hate. This assumes, of course, that a GOP majority would have any interest in governing at all in 2011 and 2012, which strikes me as highly unlikely.

But one Broder observation stood out.

As the problem of long-term joblessness has drawn increasing White House attention, thoughts have turned again to the need for large-scale investment in all kinds of infrastructure projects, electronic as well as physical. Obama has set staffers to searching for innovative ways to finance such projects, with some form of public-private partnership, and has asked them to invite Republicans to come forward with ideas that could significantly reduce the ranks of seemingly permanent unemployed construction workers.

It's hard to be optimistic about this. As Digby noted, "What a great idea. I have no doubt that the Republicans are going to step up with all kinds of great ideas for this. I know, how about some tax cuts for rich people?"

There's still a temptation among many in the political/media establishment to pretend that congressional Republicans are a credible major-party caucus capable of problem-solving, creative solutions, and bipartisan compromise. I haven't the foggiest idea why anyone would believe such a fanciful notion.

Look at Broder's paragraph again -- there's talk of large-scale infrastructure investment, which contemporary Republicans reject out of hand. There's talk of public-private partnerships, which the GOP of late has found offensive. There's talking of inviting Republicans to "come forward with ideas," but that invitation was extended nearly two years ago, and all the GOP can offer is a combination of tax cuts and deregulation -- and in several instances, Republicans haven't even been willing to accept tax cuts.

Broder's column makes it seem as if President Obama may still be able to get some things done working with serious, well-intentioned Republicans. I'd be more inclined to agree if I could find some serious, well-intentioned Republicans.

Krugman: Defining Prosperity Down

I’m starting to have a sick feeling about prospects for American workers — but not, or not entirely, for the reasons you might think.

Yes, growth is slowing, and the odds are that unemployment will rise, not fall, in the months ahead. That’s bad. But what’s worse is the growing evidence that our governing elite just doesn’t care — that a once-unthinkable level of economic distress is in the process of becoming the new normal.

And I worry that those in power, rather than taking responsibility for job creation, will soon declare that high unemployment is “structural,” a permanent part of the economic landscape — and that by condemning large numbers of Americans to long-term joblessness, they’ll turn that excuse into dismal reality.

Not long ago, anyone predicting that one in six American workers would soon be unemployed or underemployed, and that the average unemployed worker would have been jobless for 35 weeks, would have been dismissed as outlandishly pessimistic — in part because if anything like that happened, policy makers would surely be pulling out all the stops on behalf of job creation.

But now it has happened, and what do we see?

First, we see Congress sitting on its hands, with Republicans and conservative Democrats refusing to spend anything to create jobs, and unwilling even to mitigate the suffering of the jobless.

We’re told that we can’t afford to help the unemployed — that we must get budget deficits down immediately or the “bond vigilantes” will send U.S. borrowing costs sky-high. Some of us have tried to point out that those bond vigilantes are, as far as anyone can tell, figments of the deficit hawks’ imagination — far from fleeing U.S. debt, investors have been buying it eagerly, driving interest rates to historic lows. But the fearmongers are unmoved: fighting deficits, they insist, must take priority over everything else — everything else, that is, except tax cuts for the rich, which must be extended, no matter how much red ink they create.

The point is that a large part of Congress — large enough to block any action on jobs — cares a lot about taxes on the richest 1 percent of the population, but very little about the plight of Americans who can’t find work.

Well, if Congress won’t act, what about the Federal Reserve? The Fed, after all, is supposed to pursue two goals: full employment and price stability, usually defined in practice as an inflation rate of about 2 percent. Since unemployment is very high and inflation well below target, you might expect the Fed to be taking aggressive action to boost the economy. But it isn’t.

It’s true that the Fed has already pushed one pedal to the metal: short-term interest rates, its usual policy tool, are near zero. Still, Ben Bernanke, the Fed chairman, has assured us that he has other options, like holding more mortgage-backed securities and promising to keep short-term rates low. And a large body of research suggests that the Fed could boost the economy by committing to an inflation target higher than 2 percent.

But the Fed hasn’t done any of these things. Instead, some officials are defining success down.

For example, last week Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, argued that the Fed bears no responsibility for the economy’s weakness, which he attributed to business uncertainty about future regulations — a view that’s popular in conservative circles, but completely at odds with all the actual evidence. In effect, he responded to the Fed’s failure to achieve one of its two main goals by taking down the goalpost.

He then moved the other goalpost, defining the Fed’s aim not as roughly 2 percent inflation, but rather as that of “keeping inflation extremely low and stable.”

In short, it’s all good. And I predict — having seen this movie before, in Japan — that if and when prices start falling, when below-target inflation becomes deflation, some Fed officials will explain that that’s O.K., too.

What lies down this path? Here’s what I consider all too likely: Two years from now unemployment will still be extremely high, quite possibly higher than it is now. But instead of taking responsibility for fixing the situation, politicians and Fed officials alike will declare that high unemployment is structural, beyond their control. And as I said, over time these excuses may turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the long-term unemployed lose their skills and their connections with the work force, and become unemployable.

I’d like to imagine that public outrage will prevent this outcome. But while Americans are indeed angry, their anger is unfocused. And so I worry that our governing elite, which just isn’t all that into the unemployed, will allow the jobs slump to go on and on and on.

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