Monday, March 04, 2013
Yes the GOP is nuts. But so are the Democrats who play their game.
I know that anyone who has been reading the blog regularly since January of 2009 knows all about this, but this piece by Dean Baker just lays it all out so crisply:
Now that we are counting up the days of the sequester instead of counting down, it would be a good time to cast blame. And my candidate is President Obama.
He goes on to explain why that is and how the emphasis on deficits has been a terrible mistake:
I'm not blaming Obama for the reasons that Bob Woodward came up with in his fantasyland. I am blaming President Obama and his administration for trying to be cute and clever rather than telling the public the truth about the economic crisis. The result is that the vast majority of the public, and virtually all of the reporters and pundits who deal with budget issues, do not have any clue about where the deficit came from and why it is a virtue rather than a problem.
We will never know if President Obama could have garnered support for more stimulus and larger deficits if he had used his office to pound home basic principles of economics to the public and the media. But we do know the route he chose failed.
Well, he did signal from the very beginning that he saw himself as the president who would solve all problems for all time with his Grand Bargain, which he explicitly defined as health care reform, "entitlement" reform (including Social Security and medicare) and tax reform. He said we needed to "take a look at our structural deficit, how are we paying for government" and that we'd all have to have "skin in the game." This project pre-dated the inauguration and certainly pre-dated their excuse that there was no way to get any more stimulus. In fact, when he was saying this the administration was in the midst of a delirious honeymoon in which even hard core adversaries like Sarah Palin were (temporarily)so cowed they were saying they hoped the president would succeed.
He apparently thought the best route to get more stimulus was to convince the deficit hawks that he was one of them. He proudly announced the need to pivot to deficit reduction following the passage of the stimulus and then appointed two deficit hawks, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, to head a deficit commission.
This set the ball rolling for the obsession with deficit reduction that has dominated the nation's politics for the last three years. Instead of talking about the deficit of 9 million jobs the economy faces, we have the leadership of both parties in Congress arguing over the debt-to-GDP ratios that we will face in 2023.
This would be comical if lives were not being ruined by the charade. The unemployed workers and their families did not do anything wrong - the people running the economy did.
Now the sequester comes along, throwing more people out of work, worsening the quality of a wide range of government services and denying hundreds of thousands of people benefits they need. Yes, this is really stupid policy, and the Republicans deserve a huge amount of blame in this picture.
But it was President Obama who decided to play deficit reduction games rather than be truthful about the state of the economy. There was no reason to expect better from the Republicans in Congress, but we had reason to hope that President Obama would act responsibly.
And let's take a look at the assumption that there could be a Grand Bargain on those terms in the first place, shall we? Liberal wags everywhere have suddenly discovered that the Republicans are obstinate ideologues. Stop the presses. (In fact, they are writing columns that could have been lifted verbatim from the average liberal blogger's daily posts circa 2006 --- of course, at the time we were dismissed by many of the same people as shrill gadflies, polluting the discourse.)
Anyway, Rick Perlstein takes us into the wayback machine to look at what an absurd assumption the Obama "post-partisan healing" conceit really was:
I wonder how many folks within the White House, gaming out whether Republicans might not just call the bluff, bothered to consider the fact that an embrace of heedless, profligate, across-the-board budget cuts to all manner of popular government programs is a key component of hardcore conservative ideology. That, when Barry Goldwater proclaimed in his 1960 manifesto Conscience of a Conservative, "I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size...My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them...And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents' 'interests,' I shall reply that I was informed that their main interest is liberty," that Barry Goldwater—and the future millions for whom his sentiments became an ideological touchstone—meant what he said.
Read on for a fascinating historical note featuring none other than Saint Ronnie arguing for 10% across the board cuts as Governor of California. He didn't get them all. But his spending cut crusade left its mark. They always do:
Did anyone in the White House notice how many conservatives, including ones in positions of governmental power, after Mitt Romney's recorded back-room admission that he couldn't get elected because 47 percent of the electorate is addicted to suckling on the federal teat, responded that what he said was absolutely correct? (Even if they admitted it was unfortunate a public unready to handle it had to hear it.) That conservatives, as an article of faith, see breaking the link between citizens and their government benefits as the only sure way to break the link between voters and the Democratic Party? And that severing that same link is also the best way way to restore the broken moral fabric of the nation? (Which is one explanation Republican governors use to defend their determination not to accept free federal money to qualify more of their poor citizens for Medicaid under Obamacare: they are saving their citizens from wicked dependency. Their other explanation is that Obama must necessarily be lying to them—but that will have to be the subject for another post).
In 1967, it happened, inconvenient political reality spiked his administration's hope to decimate (literally!) the entire state budget. He did, however, decimate where he could. For instance, in the the state's Department of Mental Hygiene, which seemed a practical notion at the time because, as Lou Cannon noted in his book on Reagan's governorship, "the population of the mental hospitals was declining, thanks to tranquilizing drugs and new medical procedures." Although, oops: "the numbers were deceptive. The patients leaving the hospitals were the ones who responded best to tranquilizers; those who remained were more apt to need intensive care. And the state's mental hospitals had never been adequately staffed."
I think it goes without saying that our state's mental health system has never recovered and we are living with the consequences of that disastrous policy even now. Perlstein predicts we will see similar results on a national scale as a result of this current deficit obsession and I think he's right.
And also this, which I think is a brilliant observation:
Another prediction: sequestration will cause greater budget deficits down the road—because of the simple fact that there are certain things government has to do, and making it harder to do those things at any given moment makes it more inefficient and expensive for government to make up the ground down the road. This conservative retreat from a simple understanding of government spending as investment that pays off down the road is one of the reasons—there are others—Republican administrations end up creating bigger deficits than Democratic ones. Reagan's gubernatorial administrations, for example: inheriting a $4.6 billion state budget in 1967, he left behind a one in 1975 that cost $10.2 billion. The average individual Californian's tax burden when he took office was $426. When he left it was almost double that, at $728.
I knew they had a habit of running up deficits on wars and other preferred conservative projects and left the Democrats to clean up the mess but I've always wondered how they squared their spending habits in their own minds with their stated small government philosophy. I think that explains it. It all works out in the long run.
But how did we keep them from completely destroying the New Deal programs before now? Well ...
Back then, Democrats instinctively and successfully fought what Reagan was up to. This season's budget decimation, on the other hand, has been underwritten by Democrats—by Democratic naiveté. By a simple refusal to absorb and accept the lesson of history: that some conservative Republicans will always be constitutionally incapable of acknowledging that a cut in government capacity can ever be a bad thing. The fact that they now can claim, even if disingenuously, that the cuts were Barack Obama's idea in the first place may make their triumph politically only the sweeter.
Indeed it will be. The problem is presidential hubris and a Democratic Party that foolishly ignored one simple truth about the conservative movement: give them an inch and they'll take a mile.
digby 3/04/2013 12:09:00 PM