Tuesday, April 19, 2011

If We Can't Get Some Working Class Gang Members Into The Gang Of Six... How About A Reasonable Conservative Like David Frum?


Trump Change was on TV bragging the other day how he's much, much richer than Mitt Romney. All those bankruptcy restructurings worked out well for sleazy the blowhard. And Romney... being in the vulture-capital business brought in hundreds of millions of dollars. Most members of Congress are millionaires, even if not on a level of serial auto thief Darrell Issa (between $303,575,011 and $451,100,000 according to his 2009 reports). Does it make any difference what a politician is "worth?" You bet... but that depends how you define "worth." We talking about talent, intelligence, moral fiber? Or, the way worth is commonly used in our culture, financial assets? I was talking with someone-- a decent guy-- from the Wisconsin Democratic Party over the weekend. He was trying to convince me that a candidate with no record was good and the first thing out of his mouth was an assertion that the guy is wealthy. In this case, I don't think he was even trying to say-- as Trump Change had been insinuating-- that wealth in and of itself was an allure to the average voter. I think he meant the guy could finance-- between himself and his wealthy associates-- his own campaign.

Open Secrets asked the question rhetorically when they reported the net worth of members of Congress. "Why should Americans care about the personal finances of their federal lawmakers? There are several key reasons"

• Thousands of companies and special interests groups have business before Congress each year or lobby Congress directly. Some of these businesses may also find themselves the targets of congressional scrutiny for questionable business practices, accidents, even disasters. All the while, lawmakers themselves sometimes have stock holdings or other financial relationships with these corporations and associations, raising the specter of conflicts of interest.

• About 1 percent of all Americans are millionaires. In Congress, that number regularly hovers between 40 percent and 50 percent, meaning elected leaders generally need not worry about the economic pressures many Americans face-- from securing gainful employment to grappling with keeping a family financially afloat. Decide for yourself if these congressional millionaires are adequately representing your financial interests.

• Congressional members' personal wealth keeps expanding year after year, typically at rates well beyond inflation and any tax increases. The same cannot be said for most Americans. Are your representatives getting rich in Congress and, if so, how?

The self-selected Gang of Six-- Richard Durbin (D-IL), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), Kent Conrad (D-ND), Tom Coburn (R-OK), Mark Warner (D-VA), Michael Crapo (R-ID)-- is trying to set the overall policy path for this country right now, even deciding whether or not to hang onto Medicare and Social Security in some form and who should be taxed and how much. They're all wealthy men, half of them fabulously wealthy.

Mark Warner is the second richest member of the Senate, with something north of $170 million in assets. Coburn reported his net worth in 2009 between $1,174,164 and $4,616,000-- #49th richest senator and just above fellow gang-member Kent Conrad ($1,456,035 to $3,376,000 ). Durbin might be a millionaire; hard to tell from his report. I'd feel more comfortable in the Gang was dominated by working class members instead of by men overly sympathetic to the wealthy. (Might be nice to have a woman or three in there too.) Over the weekend, conservative pundit David Frum wrote, from a conservative point of view, why shredding the social safety net-- as the House-passed Ryan budget would do-- is such a terrible idea.
Since the economic and electoral disasters of 2006-2009, Republicans have veered in a sharply libertarian direction. Why not put that new direction to the test of democracy? Perhaps Paul Ryan is right, and Americans (or anyway: voting Americans) have abruptly changed their minds during this economic crisis about their expectations from government.

I’ll admit: I’ve also changed my mind during this crisis, but in the opposite direction.

...The radical free-market economics I embraced in the late 1970s offered a trade:

Yes, there would be less social provision. In return, Americans would receive an economy that was simultaneously more dynamic and also more stable.

There would be less inflation (because the Federal Reserve would have one job: price stability).

There would be fewer and milder recessions (because the Federal Reserve would no longer have to extinguish the inflation it did not create).

The financial sector could finance faster growth with less risk (because risks would be cushioned by diversification rather than prohibited by regulation).

Economic growth would accelerate (because the reduced tax burden would induce entrepreneurial innovation).

Faster growth would raise incomes for all (because a rising tide lifts all boats).

More opportunity in the private economy would abundantly offset the curbing of welfare benefits (because the best social program is always a job).

More opportunity would end the caste-like isolation of the poorest of the poor by drawing them out of the underclass into paid employment (because all human beings respond more or less rationally to positive incentives).

This was the trade, and it was engineered jointly by Republicans and Democrats: in fact some of the most important elements of the trade were adopted during the Clinton years.

Some of the terms of that trade were honored. From 1983 through 2008, the US enjoyed a quarter-century of economic expansion, punctuated by only two relatively mild recessions. In the late 1980s, the country was hit by the savings & loan crisis, the worst financial crisis to that point since the 1930s – and although the S&L crisis did deliver a blow, the country rapidly recovered and came up smiling. New industries were born, new jobs created on an epic scale, incomes did improve, and the urban poor were drawn into the working economy.

But of course, other terms of the trade were not honored.

Especially after 2000, incomes did not much improve for middle-class Americans. The promise of macroeconomic stability proved a mirage: America and the world were hit in 2008 by the sharpest and widest financial crisis since the 1930s. Conservatives do not like to hear it, but the crisis originated in the malfunctioning of an under-regulated financial sector, not in government overspending or government over-generosity to less affluent homebuyers. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bad actors, yes, but they could not have capsized the world economy by themselves. It took Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and-- maybe above all-- Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s to do that.

In the aftermath of the catastrophe, the free-market assumption and expectation that an unemployed person could always find work somewhere has been massively falsified: at the trough of this recession, there were almost 6 jobseekers in the US for every unfilled job. Nothing like such a disparity had been seen since the 1930s. The young faced the worst job odds. But some of the most dismal outcomes were endured by workers in their 50s, laid off from middle-class jobs likely never to see middle-class employment again.

GK Chesterton once wrote that we should never tear down a fence until we knew why it had been built. In the calamity after 2008, we rediscovered why the fences of the old social insurance state had been built.

Speaking only personally, I cannot take seriously the idea that the worst thing that has happened in the past three years is that government got bigger. Or that money was borrowed. Or that the number of people on food stamps and unemployment insurance and Medicaid increased. The worst thing was that tens of millions of Americans-- and not only Americans-- were plunged into unemployment, foreclosure, poverty. If food stamps and unemployment insurance, and Medicaid mitigated those disasters, then two cheers for food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid.

Which does not mean that I have become suddenly indifferent to the growth of government. Not at all. Paul Ryan is absolutely right that the present trend is unsustainable and must be corrected. The free marketeers of the 1980s were right that taxes on enterprise must be restrained to leave room for private-sector-led expansion. Over-generous social insurance has all kinds of negative consequences. Private saving must be encouraged. Work must pay better than idleness. The job of designing the right kind of social insurance state is hugely important and hugely difficult, and the conservative sensibility-- with its respect for markets and less sentimental view of human nature-- is the right sensibility for that job.

Yet that same conservative sensibility is also properly distrustful of the fantasy that society can be remade according to a preconceived plan. We have to start from where we are, and we have to take people as we find them. Ronald Reagan liked to quote a line of Tom Paine’s, “We have it in our power to make the world new again.” George Will-- although a great Reagan admirer-- correctly complained at the time, “No, we don’t.”

I strongly suspect that today’s Ayn Rand moment will end in frustration or worse for Republicans. The future beyond the welfare state imagined by Yuval Levin will not arrive. At that point, Republicans will face a choice. (I’d argue we face that choice now, whether we recognize it or not.) We can fulminate against unchangeable realities, alienate ourselves from a country that will not accede to the changes we demand. That way lies bitterness and irrelevance. Or we can go back to work on the core questions facing all center right parties in the advanced economies since World War II: how do we champion entrepreneurship and individualism within the context of a social insurance state?

UPDATE: Dick Durbin Picks Sides-- And It Isn't The Same Side Bernie Sanders Is On

Yesterday I was reading some apologia about how six self-selected wealthy white men-- AKA- The Gang of Six-- was deciding the social and political future of America in the most profound ways. The only excuse the article could make about this not being a complete takeover by the wealthy was that one of them, Dick Durbin is "friends" with Bernie Sanders, a socialist. No one thought to have Sanders in the Gang. The fact that he speaks for the other 95% who the Gang doesn't speak for seems irrelevant. As irrelevant as Dick Durbin's "friendship" with him. Durbin has often been identified with some worthy causes and may liberals saw him as a more progressive successor to Harry Reid than Wall Street-dominated Chuck Schumer. I was always ambivalent. Until this morning-- when Durbin unmasked himself. Is this what he's always been down deep or did zombies capture him and suck out his brains and replace them with pig shit?
Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., says the bi-partisan group of senators working to find a way to reduce the deficit-- the so-called "Gang of Six"-- is near agreement on a plan that will chart a middle ground between the House Republican budget and the plan outlined last week by President Obama.

And while other top Democrats say Social Security should be untouched, Durbin says Social Security changes should be made now.

"You have the House Republican budget from Congressman Paul Ryan, who I know and like, which is going to be placed somewhere on the right side of the spectrum. You have the president's suggestion, which will be on the other side of the spectrum. And if and when we reach an agreement, it will be in the middle, a bipartisan effort, which I think has a chance to succeed," Durbin said in an interview for ABC News' Subway Series.

So now we have a "friend of Bernie" wanting to split the difference between Obama's very conservative plan and Ryan's wildly insane reactionary plan. God forbid anyone mention a progressive plan-- you know, like the only kind of plan that has ever worked to lift up this country and make it great and powerful and empower the middle class.
Durbin criticized a resolution put forward by Sen. Bernie Sanders, a liberal independent from Vermont, that says Social Security should not be cut under a deficit reduction plan. Durbin said he would not vote for such a resolution.

"I think Bernie is going too far with his language," Durbin said.

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At 12:23 AM, Anonymous me said...

Trump is loudmouthed and offensive, but if he convinces me that he will prosecute Bush-era criminality (the kind Obama swept under the rug) I'll vote for him.

I won't vote for Obama again under any circumstances.


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