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Thursday, February 28, 2013

When can we end the empire?

by digby

Oliver Stone's Untold History continues to provoke the academic and political establishment into fits of mean girl nastiness. I imagine Stone is used to this, but it's still astonishing to see scholars dismiss documentary work out of hand. The latest is a review of the series and book by Bill Clinton BFF Sean Wilentz in the NY Review of Books which, in a nutshell, defends the US National Security State as if it had been ordained by God and complains that Stone and Peter Kuznick (his collaborator) are doing the devil's work by suggesting that engagement with the Soviets might have yielded benefits that the cold war could not. (I'm being somewhat facetious, obviously, but if you read the piece you'll see what I mean.)

Jonathan Schwarz has written a long piece on Wilentz's review that's well worth reading in its entirety but I'd like to focus on the important observation about the series' documented National Security through-line from the post war period to the Iraq debacle. He points out something that should be obvious to all of us and yet none of us (or very few) have actually noticed:
We can never know what might have come to pass had the U.S. adopted a different posture toward the Soviet Union, either after World War II or during the decades that followed. From the viewpoint of liberals like Wilentz, the answer clearly is: nothing good. The Soviets were determined to export their totalitarianism to the world, and any naive failure on our part to resist would end in disaster. Yes, the U.S. might have gone overboard here and there, but the overall story of the cold war was that the Soviet Union acted and we reacted.

But this is what we can know: if Wilentz's understanding of history is correct, U.S. cold war policies should have ended with the cold war itself. If the leftists were right, U.S. policies would have continued almost completely unchanged – except for the pretexts provided to Americans.

I think we know the answer to that, don't we?

The question reminded me of the many, many times during the past decade that I noted the odd fact that the national security establishment, the neocons in particular, saw everything in the world in terms of the old fight against totalitarianism. Back in 2004, I was complaining about this:

Many people have been writing recently, and some of us quite some time ago, about the fact that the Bush administration, instead of seeing the assymetrical threat of terrorism for what it was, simply applied their cold war tenets of nation state rollback to the new threat. It is an intellectual failure of huge magnitude and it will haunt us for many years to come.

If you look back at the PNAC manifestos of the late 90's that served as the guiding documents of Bush's policy you will see that terrorism per se was not perceived as a threat. Indeed, it was hardly mentioned. Richard Clarke and others have verified that the Bush administration did not take it seriously. But, what is most distressing is that they refused to let go of their erroneous notions of state sponsored terrorism even after 9/11 which led to the mistaken belief that the key to defeating al Qaeda was to overthrow the Taliban, (thus freeing them to go after what they perceived to be a real threat, the totalitarian dictator Saddam Hussein.)

There has been a lot of discussion about the "faith based" nature of this presidency, drawing parallels to unquestioning fundamentalist religion and cults of personality. There are obviously elements of all of this in explaining why the Bush administration has made so many huge strategic errors that were entirely predictable before any action was taken. However, it's more than that. You cannot explain intellectuals like Wolfowitz away with fundamentalist religion and there is no reason to believe that men like Rumsfeld and Cheney are subject to any Bush cult of personality. But, they all have one thing in common that is demonstrable throughout their public careers --- their relentless adherence to their beliefs, no matter what the facts may seem to show. Going all the way back to TEAM B and the Committee for the Present Danger, these people have been proven wrong --- proven, mind you --- again and again and yet they maintain their bedrock belief that the threat of totalitarian nations is the singular overwhelming threat to our country and they must be defeated militarily wherever they occur. These people are stuck in a fringe cold war mindset that nothing can shake. 9/11, it seems, did not change anything.

For instance, their beliefs about Iraq sponsored terrorism were not solely fometed by Laurie Mylroie. She neatly piggybacked her theory that Saddam the Stalinist was the root of all mid-east terrorism onto an earlier theory promoted by Claire Sterling which posited that all terrorism was sponsored by the Soviet Union. Her book, The Terror Network from back in 1980 made the case that terrorism could not exist without the support of a state sponsor and that idea has guided the Republican foreign policy establishment even until this day. Just as it is said that Wolfowitz and Feith encouraged everyone in the DOD to read Mylroie's book, William Casey responded to his analysts assertion that there was no Soviet terrorist conspiracy by saying,"Read Claire Sterling's book and forget this mush. I paid $13.95 for this and it told me more than you bastards whom I pay $50,000 a year." This is, then, an old story.

In those days I saw this as a peculiarly neo-conservative worldview. But the truth is that this was the rationale behind the bipartisan National Security Policy of the entire post-war period, which Untold History documents (and which I should have remembered --- hey,hey LBJ how many kids....) The neo-cons were just more aggressive about it and both sides created the illusion that there was a serious argument about these things for their own purposes.

It was awkward for a while after the cold war, trying to fit that old totalitarian square peg into the asymmetrical terrorist threat. The selling of Iraq was so terribly clumsy, consciously drawing upon Stalinist imagery with lugubrious rhetoric about rape rooms and "gassing his own people," because they were still caught up in their own fantasy, as if it was the only way they knew how to get off. It would appear that the Obama administration has gone a long way toward solving that problem with its antiseptic drone warfare that keeps the threat level high and the risk level low. We have adjusted now and no longer need totalitarianism to sell us on the need for our empire. Today it's all about us needing a "light footprint" on the ground and eyes in the sky all over the planet to keep us safe from the boogeyman.

I didn't see Stone's series saying that the containment theory was wrong in all respects but merely that there were missed opportunities, particularly at the end of the war and the decade following to try to seek a different path. The temptation to be a military superpower was too great and the industrial and political forces that wanted it were too powerful. (And anyway, you can't be a great hero without a great villain, right?) But even if it's absolutely true that the Soviet threat required two generation's worth of global military build up, it's also certainly true that one would have expected the period since 1989 to be one of withdrawal from empire. And that has not happened. Like Jonathan, I can't help but see that as just more evidence that much of the rationale for the National Security State was bullshit from the very beginning.

As he points out:

[E]stablishment historians like Wilentz play the same role today as they did during the cold war: not just refusing to ask critical questions about U.S. history and its effect on the present day, but shouting down those who attempt to do so. That's what Wilentz is doing with his review of Untold History. And it's what he did in October, 2001 when he explained why the U.S. had just been attacked: "To the terrorists, America's crime – its real crime – is to be America."

Or as George W. Bush put it:

I'm amazed that there's such misunderstanding of what our country is about that people would hate us. I am -- like most Americans, I just can't believe it because I know how good we are.

I'm sure the Soviets believed exactly the same thing.

Scalia's originamalism

by digby

Ian Millhiser takes a deeper look at Justice Scalia's rather alarming comments in yesterday's oral arguments:

When Scalia uses the term “racial entitlement” he appears to be referring to the kind of law that entrenches itself because lawmakers are too afraid to vote against it for fear of being accused of racially improper motives. As Scalia puts it, “[w]henever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.” In other words, Scalia believes that the Voting Rights Act somehow “restricts those political processes which can ordinarily be expected to bring about repeal of undesirable legislation,” and thus it is his job as a judge to strike it down.

This is a disturbing idea for many reasons, but one of the biggest ones is that its logic could extend well beyond the Voting Rights Act. There is a common belief among conservatives that welfare programs by their very nature lead to the kind of so-called breakdown of democracy that Scalia finds objectionable in the Voting Rights Act case. Indeed, the most famous articulation of this view was Mitt Romney’s 47 percent remark: “those that are dependent on government and those that think government’s job is to redistribute — I’m not going to get them.” In essence, Romney warned that as the government creates welfare programs, this transforms welfare recipients into a constituency for those programs. And eventually that constituency becomes so large that it is impossible for a lawmaker to repeal those programs, or for people who oppose those programs to get elected.

To be sure, Scalia has never explicitly endorsed Romney’s view of welfare — although I’d be willing to make a $10,000 bet that he agrees with Romney. But it’s not hard to predict how a judge who agrees with both Romney’s view of welfare and Scalia’s view of when judges must destroy democracy in order to save it would react to the modern welfare state. With his racial entitlement comment, Scalia offered a constitutional theory that would allow movement conservatives to strike down the entire American safety net.

Just don't call it judicial activism because that would be very wrong. And unconstitutional.

The White House's cynical email to supporters

by David Atkins

Got this in my email today from Organizing for America (OFA):

David --

Brace yourself.

If congressional Republicans don't act by tomorrow, we're going to be hit by a series of devastating, automatic budget cuts called the sequester.

It's a sledgehammer to the budget, our economy, and millions of Americans across the country -- and the most frustrating part? It doesn't have to happen.

The majority of Americans support President Obama's balanced approach to deficit reduction -- add your name if you do, too.

So far, congressional Republicans are refusing to compromise -- all because they don't want to close tax loopholes for millionaires, billionaires, vacation homes, and corporate jets. Seriously.

This has very real consequences.

On the chopping block are 10,000 teaching jobs, more than 70,000 kids' spots in Head Start, $35 million for local fire departments, $43 million to make sure seniors don't go hungry, and access to nutrition assistance for 600,000 women and their families. That's just a few of the things we'll lose.

President Obama has put forth a balanced deficit reduction plan with smart spending cuts that protect the critical investments needed to strengthen middle-class families and our economy.
Clicking on the link in the "ask" leads to this:

Right now, Republicans in Congress are prioritizing tax loopholes for the wealthy over crucial investments that help the middle class. Starting March 1st, unless the Republicans compromise, we'll be forced to cut services for seniors, children, our troops, and small business owners, among others. Tens of thousands of Americans will be affected.
The cynicism and couched doublespeak here should amaze. The talking points to the President's most active volunteers and committed Democrats claim to want "smart spending cuts" and oppose cutting "services for our seniors." But we all know that the President has been actively seeking cuts to "entitlements," including to Social Security and Medicare. The President isn't a fan of the sequester per se--but the sequester itself was designed to be so horrid that Republicans would come to the table and agree to the President's Grand Bargain, every public version of which has included slashes to America's most cherished social safety net programs. One of those changes is chained CPI for Social Security, which is only a "smart" cut in the sense that it's smart for politicians who will have had several intervening elections before Americans start to notice the severity of the cuts.

The Obama Administration knows that while the public does indeed want leaders to compromise in theory, the public also specifically opposes cuts to Medicare and Social Security. So the maneuver here is to accuse the Republicans of failing to compromise while talking about "smart cuts" and a "balanced approach" without specifying what either of those phrases actually means to the White House.

The people who wrote that email know all of this. On some level they have to know that this manipulation of hard-working Democratic activists and volunteers is wrong. It speaks to a quite conservative assumption on the part of the White House that the American public--and the core constituency of Democrats in particular--is too immature to eat their vegetables and learn to love austerity. It's not just the White House, of course. The Republicans are also doing the same: insisting on sequestration while calling it the President's fault abdicating their own authority to choose the cuts in the hopes that they can blame the White later.

This is a game theory problem for both sides. If both the White House and the Republicans believed that slashing cherished spending was essential, the best outcome for both sides would be to smile and join together on a Grand Bargain. The President is no longer up for re-election, and Republicans would get good press for accomplishing their legislative agenda without coming across as angry obstructionists. But both sides know that's not the case. Both sides know The People's Budget reflects the most popular set of policy proposals, even among registered Republicans. Republicans simply refuse to enact it because it's against their core principles. And too many Democrats also refuse to stand by it, either because they're bought off or because they're true believers in neoliberal economics, or because they believe in a political ethic that only seeks to support what seems to be in the realm of the politically possible. There is no need for either sequestration or a Grand Bargain, particularly in the face of a rapidly shrinking deficit.

The White House's mobilization and media arms may not have much respect for the Congress, the opposition or the press. But it should at least have some respect for the hard-working activusts who worked so hard to help get them elected.

Repeal that mess

by digby

It appears that quite a few more people are recognizing that the only way to save the president from himself is to blow up this dangerous runaway train altogether

Today we have Altman and Kingston from Social Security Works calling for repeal:

The "sequester" poses an unnecessary and huge danger, potentially inflicting deep wounds to the economy and to our nation's communities and families.

The sequester is not a hurricane, a tornado, a flood, or some other natural disaster. It is not the collapse of a bridge (though it could result in that). This potentially devastating, self-imposed wound could be eliminated in less than five minutes! All it would take is the political courage to admit a mistake and then agree to its cancellation.

Senator Jeff Merkley:

“We need to end the sequestration, and once and for all stop lurching from manufactured crisis to manufactured crisis. This is no way to run a country... The sequester is a D.C.-created disaster in the making. It’s time to take Congress’s foot off the economic brake, make some smart choices about how we build for the future, and spare Americans from a politician-induced recession.”

Congressman Alan Grayson:

Since we now know that the sequester was designed to get congress to agree to cut at least 1.2 trillion dollars in some combination of cuts to Social Security and Medicare and tax hikes it will be more important than ever to push for total repeal not a replacement. Since defense cuts are not going to happen and straight up tax hikes will be impossible I think we can see the writing on the wall. It must be repealed.

In the midst of all this sturm und drang, let's not forget the most salient fact, which is that the deficit is not a crisis in the first place. Here's a little reminder that's worth thinking about as we look at this utter nonsense taking place in Washington over projected deficits decades from now:

On the other hand, the CBO is much more accurate at telling us what's happening in the moment. Think Progress analyzed its latest report earlier this month:

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its latest budget projections today, which show that the U.S. has made substantial progress towards getting its deficit and debt under control. However, the flip side of that reality is that CBO projects economic growth will be sluggish for the next several years, meaning that unemployment will only come down slowly. Here are the four biggest takeaways from the report:

1. The deficit has been reduced by a lot. 

2. The debt is stabilized. Thanks to the fiscal cliff deal and previous budget agreements, most of the country’s debt problem is solved. The CBO’s report shows debt will now peak at 77.7 percent of GDP in 2014, then drop to 73.1 percent in 2018, then rise back to 76 percent in 2022. (See graph below.) According to the Economic Policy Institute, flattening out that second rise from 2018 to 2022 will only require $670 billion in additional deficit reduction — $580 billion in actual policy savings, plus $90 billion in resulting interest savings. That’s less than half the $1.5 trillion in additional deficit reduction President Obama is calling for.

3. Austerity is killing the recovery. The CBO anticipates that economic growth will be slow this year, which “reflects a combination of ongoing improvement in underlying economic factors and fiscal tightening that has already begun or is scheduled to occur — including the expiration of a 2 percentage-point cut in the Social Security payroll tax, an increase in tax rates on income above certain thresholds, and scheduled automatic reductions in federal spending.” Large austerity efforts in Europe have been stifling economic growth and causing continued economic contractions. 
4. Jobs aren’t coming back fast. Due to a pronounced output gap — the gap between what the economy is producing and what it could be producing — unemployment will remain elevated for several years.
Don't worry, they say that we're likely to come down to 7.5% unemployment by the end of the year. I'm so old that I remember when 7.5% unemployment was considered a crisis that required all hands on deck.

We are working ourselves into a frenzy over problems that aren't problems, while millions upon millions of Americans cannot find work and the economy is moribund. Talk about fiddling while Rome burns.

On the other hand, while the president was never explicit about their plan to force entitlement cuts through the sequester, he did warn us just four months ago that it was going to be messy:

Q: Mr. President, we know that John Boehner and the House Republicans have not been easy to work with, and certainly you’ve had some obstacles in the Senate, even though it’s been controlled by the Democrats. At the time, whenever -- we talked a lot about, in 2008, hope and change. I’m curious about what you see your role is in terms of changing the tone and the perception that Washington is broken. But particularly, sir, if you were granted a second term, how do you implode this partisan gridlock that has gripped Washington and Congress and basically our entire political structure right now?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, Rick, let me answer you short term and long term. In the short term, the good news is that there’s going to be a forcing mechanism to deal with what is the central ideological argument in Washington right now, and that is: How much government do we have and how do we pay for it?

So when you combine the Bush tax cuts expiring, the sequester in place, the commitment of both myself and my opponent -- at least Governor Romney claims that he wants to reduce the deficit -- but we’re going to be in a position where I believe in the first six months we are going to solve that big piece of business.

It will probably be messy. It won’t be pleasant. But I am absolutely confident that we can get what is the equivalent of the grand bargain that essentially I’ve been offering to the Republicans for a very long time, which is $2.50 worth of cuts for every dollar in spending, and work to reduce the costs of our health care programs.

And we can easily meet -- “easily” is the wrong word -- we can credibly meet the target that the Bowles-Simpson Commission established of $4 trillion in deficit reduction, and even more in the out-years, and we can stabilize our deficit-to-GDP ratio in a way that is really going to be a good foundation for long-term growth.
 Now, once we get that done, that takes a huge piece of business off the table.

He then said that once he gets that done along with immigration reform, they can tackle the "non-ideological" agenda:

Now we're in a position where we can start on some things that really historically have not been ideological. We can start looking at a serious corporate tax reform agenda that's revenue-neutral but lowers rates and broadens the base -- something that both Republicans and Democrats have expressed an interest in.

So, once all this messiness is over, never fear, we'll start lowering tax rates. It's all good.

Some in the UK think the severely disabled are no longer affordable

by digby

The United Kingdom has, as you know, doubled down on its austerity program telling the people recently that it will not be back to anything like normality until 2018 at least. What this means in practice is that they are slashing the hell out of their government support systems, those required for the severely disabled among them:

The [Independent Living Fund] was set up in 1988 as a standalone fund which people with severe disabilities could apply to for extra money to pay for added care and support. That additional funding made it possible for people to live independently in their homes, rather than in residential care. For some people, the ILF paid for entire care packages. For others, ILF money was used to top up council funding for care. Most of the people who appear in these videos require round-the-clock care which – unsurprisingly – comes with a price tag.

In 2010, the Independent Living Fund was closed to new applicants.

Then in 2012, the coalition government announced that it would “consult” on the future of the fund for the ILF’s 19,000 existing users. The upshot of this was, towards the end of last year, an extremely unpopular decision to close the fund and devolve it to local authorities.

“In terms of independent living, this is the single most regressive action that the Condems could have taken,” DPAC’s Linda Burnip emailed to say. Indeed.

The money will not be ringfenced. It will be left to already cash-strapped councils to fund care for people with the most complex – and expensive – needs. That makes the whole prospect a complete shambles. Councils can’t meet demand as it is. Many are tightening eligibility criteria for care and have been taken to court for trying to restrict services, or for capping the amounts that they spend on claimants. Last year, as an example, Worcesterchire county council came up with a so-called maximum expenditure policy – meaning that if paying for someone to live at home with carers cost more than residential care, the individual would have to make up the difference themselves, or go into residential care – the sort of idea which would, as Sophie Partridge says in the video below, take everyone back to a time when people were hidden away in homes and made to sit around in incontinence pads.
So, what's the better answer? Well, some people have an idea:
A CORNWALL councillor has apologised but refused to resign after telling a disability charity that all disabled children “should be put down”.

Collin Brewer, independent councillor Wadebridge East, made the comments to Disability Cornwall at County Hall when the group had an information stand at an event to allow councillors to meet equalities organisations and understand some of the issues they face.

At the event, which took place in October 2011, Mr Brewer approached the stand and was told how the group helps parents of children with special educational needs.

He responded by saying: “Disabled children cost the council too much money and should be put down.

It reminds me of the cheering Republicans at the presidential primary debate who endorsed the idea that people should just die if they don't have insurance. It would seem that certain common moral values of western civilization have become quite old fashioned in the age of austerity.

QOTD: Andrew Sullivan

by digby

On Pope Benedict:

e did not just fail; his papacy has been a rolling disaster for the Church in the West.

He lost Ireland, for Pete’s sake, if you’ll pardon the expression. His version of Catholicism entered the public square and has been overwhelmingly refuted, rejected, and spurned by not just those outside the Western church but by so many within it. And in his inability to rise to the occasion of unthinkable evil in the child-rape conspiracy – to clean house by removing every cardinal and every bishop and every priest implicated in any way with it – he has presided over the global destruction of the church’s moral authority. By his refusal to face the fact of huge hypocrisy in the church over homosexuality – indeed to double down on the stigmatization of gay people, reversing previous gradual movement toward acceptance – he has consigned the church to what might well become an institutional tragedy.

Other than that, he was awesome.
Cutting entitlements is "in the DNA" of the sequester

by digby

I agree with everyone in the universe that Bob Woodward is a jerk. But then I have tried to ignore him as much as possible at least since he wrote the hagiographic leak-fest Bush at War, which pretty much sealed Junior's reelection. So yeah, he's a purveyor of Village conventional wisdom and a servant of power and has been for many years. What else is new? (And needless to say, the idea that he felt threatened by Gene Sperling is simply laughable.)

But nobody seems to have noticed something very important in the substance of the Sperling emails. He wrote to Woodward:

The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back to try at a big or grand bar[g]ain with a mix of entitlements and revenues (even if there were serious disagreements on composition) was part of the DNA of the thing from the start. It was an accepted part of the understanding -- from the start. Really. It was assumed by the Rs on the Supercommittee that came right after: it was assumed in the November-December 2012 negotiations. There may have been big disagreements over rates and ratios -- but that it was supposed to be replaced by entitlements and revenues of some form is not controversial. (Indeed, the discretionary savings amount from the Boehner-Obama negotiations were locked in in BCA [Budget Control Act of 2011]: the sequester was just designed to force all back to table on entitlements and revenues.)

I don't know that anyone's ever admitted that in public before or that the president was completely, shall we say, honest when he ran for his second term about that specific definition of "a balanced approach". I haven't heard anyone say publicly that the sequester "deal" as far as the White House was concerned was to cut "entitlements" in exchange for new revenues. I wonder how many members of congress were aware of this "deal" when they voted for the sequester? The public certainly wasn't.

I wish I could understand why it is so important to Barack Obama to cut these vital programs before he leaves office. It seems to be his obsession. But there you have it. It's not just in the DNA of the sequester, it seems to be in the DNA of this White House.


Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Justice Scalia stands up for the oppressed

by digby

It's nice to see a Supreme Court Justice finally stand up for the little guy:

This Court doesn’t like to get involved in — in racial questions such as this one. It’s something that can be left — left to Congress.

The problem here, however, is suggested by the comment I made earlier, that the initial enactment of this legislation in a — in a time when the need for it was so much more abundantly clear was — in the Senate, there — it was double-digits against it. And that was only a 5-year term.

Then, it is reenacted 5 years later, again for a 5-year term. Double-digits against it in the Senate. Then it was reenacted for 7 years. Single digits against it. Then enacted for 25 years, 8 Senate votes against it. And this last enactment, not a single vote in the Senate against it. And the House is pretty much the same. Now, I don’t think that’s attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It’s been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.

I don’t think there is anything to be gained by any Senator to vote against continuation of this act. And I am fairly confident it will be reenacted in perpetuity unless — unless a court can say it does not comport with the Constitution. You have to show, when you are treating different States differently, that there’s a good reason for it.

That’s the — that’s the concern that those of us who — who have some questions about this statute have. It’s — it’s a concern that this is not the kind of a question you can leave to Congress. There are certain districts in the House that are black districts by law just about now. And even the Virginia Senators, they have no interest in voting against this. The State government is not their government, and they are going to lose — they are going to lose votes if they do not reenact the Voting Rights Act.

Even the name of it is wonderful: The Voting Rights Act. Who is going to vote against that in the future?

The little guy in this case is, of course, the poor, put-upon, white supremacists who would really like to end the Voting Rights Act but are being bullied by the "racial entitlement" police into continuing it. Someday they shall overcome.

The money pit nobody's talking about

by digby

Your little factoid 'o the day:

The American-led military coalition in Afghanistan backed off Tuesday from its claim that Taliban attacks dropped off in 2012, tacitly acknowledging a hole in its widely repeated argument that violence is easing and that the insurgency is in steep decline.

In response to Associated Press inquiries about its latest series of statistics on security in Afghanistan, the coalition command in Kabul said it had erred in reporting a 7 percent decline in attacks. In fact there was no decline at all, officials said.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who is among the senior officials who had publicly repeated the assertion of an encouraging drop-off in Taliban attacks last year, was disturbed to learn of the error, said his spokesman, George Little.

“This particular set of metrics doesn’t tell the full story of progress against the Taliban, of course, but it’s unhelpful to have inaccurate information in our systems,” Little said.

So the Afghan surge isn't a rousing success after all? Who knew?

And as we consider all this talk about budgets and cutbacks, perhaps we should take a moment to consider this from Joseph Stiglitz:

The direct costs of the war are already $700bn. The original mission was to root out al-Qaeda and the Taliban. But in 2003, the US shifted nearly all of its attention and resources to Iraq. The Taliban regrouped and strengthened in Afghanistan, making the conflict far more expensive. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda shifted operations into Pakistan, Yemen and Mali, where France this month sent troops.

US forces have struggled in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain, where getting supplies and munitions has been a complex logistical exercise. Then came the ill-fated “surge” strategy, which put 30,000 more US troops on the ground with little if any military gain. There were 3,000 attacks on US and allied forces in 2012 – a figure little changed from 2009, when President Barack Obama’s administration decided on the change in strategy.

The surge itself was expensive. But the way we conducted the war unnecessarily increased its costs. For instance, the closure of the land route through Pakistan for eight months in reprisal for a US drone attack in November 2011 that inadvertently killed 24 Pakistani soldiers added billions to the transport bill. Another $90bn has been devoted to “reconstruction” aid in Afghanistan – the largest amount spent by the US since the Marshall plan, with little to show for it. Endemic corruption among local contractors and officials has drained money from the budget.

Much of this red ink will dry up once Nato troops withdraw. But the true cost of the war is only just beginning. Indeed, the costs after withdrawal may exceed those during the war. Choices made in the past decade mean high costs for years to come – and will constrain other national security spending.
In 2008, when we wrote The Three Trillion Dollar War , our book on the costs of the Iraq war, we predicted that costs of disability and healthcare benefits for recent war veterans would grow enormously. With nearly one in two returning troops suffering some form of disability – ranging from depression to multiple amputation – the reality far exceeds our estimates. The number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans receiving government medical care has grown to more than 800,000, and most have applied for permanent disability benefits. Yielding to political pressure, the White House and Congress have boosted veteran’s benefits, invested in additional staff and technology, expanded mental health treatments and made it easier to qualify for disability pay. But the number of claims keeps climbing. The Department of Veterans’ Affairs struggles to cope with its backlog.

The VA’s budget is likely to hit $140bn this year from $50bn in 2001...Meanwhile, there is a huge price tag for replacing ordinary equipment that has been consumed during the wars – not least because of our policy of outsourcing maintenance to sometimes dodgy local contractors. There is also the US pledge to help prop up the Afghan police and army for the next decade – expected to run to $5bn-$8bn a year. The legacy of expensive commitments will force the Pentagon to make difficult choices – for example, reducing the size of the army and investing in more unmanned robotic weapons.

The US has already borrowed $2tn to finance the Afghanistan and Iraq wars – a major component of the $9tn debt accrued since 2001, along with those arising from the financial crisis and the tax cuts implemented by President George W. Bush. Today, as the country considers how to improve its balance sheet, it could have been hoped that the ending of the wars would provide a large peace dividend, such as the one resulting from the end of the cold war that helped us to invest more in butter and less in guns. Instead, the legacy of poor decision-making from the expensive wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will live on in a continued drain on our economy – long after the last troop returns to American soil.

With all this soul searching about "what we can afford" and "sacrifice" and all the rest, I haven't heard much discussion about this. Considering the vast sums involved you'd think someone would at least put it up for debate. Could we at least talk about whether it was worth it?

More on the success/failure of the surge, here.

The inconvenient fact of the shrinking deficit

by David Atkins

It's a truism of centrist pundits that we live in a mirrored partisan media world. In this fanciful construction of reality, MSNBC sits on the extreme left and Fox News sits on the extreme right.

The problem with that version of reality, of course, is the inconvenience of fact. MSNBC tends to report fact, while Fox News tends to report fiction.

Case in point, Rachel Maddow's segment yesterday on the nation's shrinking deficit:

The fact is that the deficit is shrinking. The fact is that Americans don't know that the deficit is shrinking. And the fact is that the only major news outlet actually reporting the facts is MSNBC.

When it comes to politics, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But no one is entitled to their own facts. If the facts tend to come down squarely on the left side of the aisle, then the reporting should as well.

Guess which "extreme" the public agrees with?

by digby

If you want proof that the Villagers are out of touch, get a load of this:
Most Republicans don't actually support the House Republican plan to avert the spending cuts known as the sequester, according to a new poll conducted for Business Insider by our partner SurveyMonkey.

The poll asked participants to consider the core points of three sequester replacement proposals in Congress, without telling them the partisan affiliation of those plans. It found that in some cases, both Democrats and Republicans actually opposed their own party's plans and/or backed their adversaries' proposal.

Here are the three plans we tested:
  • The Senate Democratic plan cancels the $85.3 billion in 2013 sequester cuts and replaces them with a mix of spending cuts and tax hikes. The plan saves $27.5 billion by cutting farm subsidies and raises $55 billion by cutting tax deductions for oil companies and by implementing the Buffett Rule, which sets a minimum tax rate for incomes over $1 million. 
  • The 2012 House Republican plan would cancel the $55 billion in sequester defense cuts for 2013 and replace them by shrinking funding to food stamp programs, cutting $11.4 billion from the public health fund in the Affordable Care Act, and cutting the Social Services Block Grant program, among others.
  • The House Progressive Caucus plan replaces the entire sequester with a new plan with equivalent savings. It accomplishes this by ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies, closing several tax loopholes, cutting the corporate meal and entertainment tax deduction at 25 percent, and enacting a 28 percent limit on certain tax deductions and extensions.
Surveys have found that asking people about just titles of plans or telling people who proposed policy, changes the results, so the point of this poll was to see what people thought of the plans when they were fully explained, but also stripped of partisan labels.

SurveyMonkey's poll, which surveyed 550 people, focused on congressional proposals exclusively. Here are some interesting findings of the poll:
Surprisingly, the plan that polled the strongest was the House Progressive Caucus plan. More than half of respondents supported it compared to sequestration and just a fifth of respondents were opposed.
A plurality of people — 28 percent — believed the House Progressive Caucus Plan would have the least financial impact on them personally. This makes the most sense, as only 14 percent of respondents reported having income over $150,000.

Shockingly, 47 percent of Republicans preferred the House Progressive plan to the sequester. This means that Republicans supported the House Progressive plan just as much as they supported their own party's plan.

Support for the Senate Democrat plan was weak, with just fewer than half of respondents preferring that plan compared with the sequester.

Opposition to the House Republican plan was strong, with 57 percent preferring the sequester to that plan.

Twice as many Republicans supported sequestration as Democrats.

One-fifth of Democrats prefer the sequester when compared to the Senate Democrats' sequestration replacement plan. About one-quarter of Republicans prefer the Senate Democrat plan to the implementation of the sequester.
It shouldn't come as any surprise to you to know that the Progressive Caucus Plan is also the one that's considered so kooky and outside the mainstream that Andrea Mitchell and her pals can hardly keep from rolling their eyes when they mention them --- on the rare occasions they even bother. And yet, if what you care about is the deficit, the House Progressive caucus plan reduces the deficit just as much as the other plans and doesn't even put a dent in our status as a global military empire and world's policeman. And it's clearly something the people would prefer (although they undoubtedly wouldn't if they knew the Dirty Hippies were the one's proposing it.) Yet, it's literally not even being discussed in any of the non-stop sequester blather-fests on TV.

And I hate to say it, our allegedly progressive White House is equally dismissive. And that's because it isn't progressive. It's "centrist" which means that it's one of the architects, not victims, of,the deficit brinksmanship we're now using as an excuse to slash the hell out of government.

This excellent commentary by political scientist Joseph White explains why it's facile to simply blame the crazy Republicans for the mess we're in:
Who is to blame for this deficit brinksmanship? It may seem logical to finger Congressional “extremists.” In fact, Tea Party-oriented Republicans have recently shown the most enthusiasm for holding the nation’s credit and economic prospects hostage. Yet fiscal brinksmanship is nothing new, and it has been pursued at least as much by “centrist” budget hawks. Since the 1980s, a large segment of the Washington policy world has acted as if all other concerns are less important than shrinking the deficit, equating budgetary terrorism to “responsible government.”

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget is a prime example. Its board includes many former budget officials along with leaders of the House and Senate budget committees. As a leading cheerleader for hostage-taking and brinksmanship, the Committee viewed the 2011 debt ceiling hostage crisis as an “opportunity” not to be wasted. It endorsed the threatened sequester, worrying only that it might not be tough enough. In December 2012, the Committee argued that Congress and the President did not have time to work out a detailed package of big deficit cuts, and called for any deal to include “enforcement mechanisms” such as yet another sequester...

In 2011, the Financial Times editorialized that, “sane governments do not cast doubt on the pledge to honor their debts – which is why, if reason prevailed, the debt ceiling would simply be scrapped.” Yet instead of endorsing this common sense, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget has called the debt-ceiling “an effective lever… to require law makers to enact debt reduction legislation.” This promotion of budgetary extremism, however, is nothing new:
 In 1985, two centrists – Democratic Senator Ernest Hollings of South Carolina andRepublican Senator Warren Rudman of New Hampshire – joined with ultra-conservativeRepublican Phil Gramm of Texas to block a debt ceiling increase until Congress passedthe Gramm/Rudman/Hollings law requiring crude automatic cuts to domestic and defense programs – with no deliberation about which cuts made sense given national needs. 
 In 2009-2010, the centrist Senate Budget Committee Chair, North Dakota Democrat Kent Conrad, first blocked sensible budget process reforms and then objected to a debt ceiling increase in order to force appointment of a special Fiscal Responsibility Commission. 
 In November of 2010 former Senator Alan Simpson, co-chair of the deficit commission,boasted that the co-chairs’ recommendations could succeed even though not supported by the required number of commission members. “I can’t wait for the blood bath in April,” declared Simpson, pointing to the next Congressional decision on the debt ceiling. Simpson is a Republican long viewed as very conservative, but he now is considered a centrist by Washington DC reporters (and apparently also by President Obama, who appointed him).
Centrist hawks have systematically exaggerated the economic risks of deficits, predicting high interest rates for the past five years and continually being disproven. They also have promoted a biased and inaccurate view of the causes of budget imbalances. Forecasts show that spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid will increase, while taxes at current levels are not projected to cover the costs. Although most American voters are willing to pay for health and retirement programs, budget hawks proclaim the deficit “crisis” is due to excess “entitlements.”  It would be just as logical to say that valuable health care and pension programs need more  funding. The report of the chairs of the Fiscal Responsibility Commission called for an artificial  ceiling on federal spending to be set at 21% of Gross Domestic Product forever. This is an  arbitrary political move – and one that simply encourages right-wing extremists trying to force unpopular cuts in social spending that could not be enacted in normal proceedings. 

That it is an arbitrary political move is proven by the fact that the House progressives have come up with a deficit reduction plan that does not cut the so-called entitlements and reduces the deficit by the same arbitrary number the president and the Republicans agreed upon. And if said deficit must be cut, the public prefers that it be done in this way! And yet, it is dismissed out of hand.  At this point we know that deficit reduction per se is a secondary concern. It's about cutting government.

This is largely a result of centrist deficit hawks (and the presidents of both parties who bought into their hackery.) Don't forget that the first item of business the new Democratic president initiated, once he passed the stimulus plan at the beginning of his first term, was to convene a "fiscal responsibility summit" that was to include Pete Peterson as a featured speaker (until the shocked outcry of Democratic allies made them rescind the invitation.) And they have never really wavered from that goal.

Here's Joan Walsh today:
[I]t’s worth remembering that according to Noam Scheiber and others, Obama himself opened the door to hostage-taking Republicans by agreeing to negotiate over a debt-ceiling hike, which had until that point been a pro-forma ritual: partisans from the out of power party, like Sen. Barack Obama, might cast a symbolic vote against it, but it always went up. In his excellent book “The Escape Artist,” Scheiber reveals that some administration officials knew that would change under the new Tea Party-led House GOP elected in 2010, and they pushed to include a debt-ceiling hike in the December, 2010 deal Obama made to extend the Bush tax cuts. But when Republicans (predictably) balked, it was dropped.

The White House was already looking for a way to craft a big deficit-reduction plan, thanks to the warnings of deficit hawk Peter Orszag, with political advisors like David Plouffe insisting it would make good politics in 2012 after the “shellacking” of 2010. As one administration official told Scheiber, about a crucial deficit-cutting meeting: “Plouffe specifically said, ‘We’re going to need a period of ugliness’—he meant with the left—‘so that people in the center understand that we’re not wasting their tax dollars.” (Funny, Plouffe said the same thing publicly right after Obama’s 2012 victory.)
"Deficit reduction" is becoming to centrist Democrats what "tax cuts" are to Republicans -- and all-purpose cure for what ails us.

This powerful centrist faction in the nation's capitol has been creating a sense of ongoing crisis for decades and its effects on our politics cannot be overstated.  It's strangled the social safety net and empowered the most extremist members of our government to use it for their own ends. Combined with the nonsensical insistence that adding "revenue" is akin to signing on with Al Qaeda and you have a recipe for the dysfunction we see today. Don't blame the Tea Party.  They're just playing their designated role in this.

After all, as everyone in Democratic circles keeps shouting to anyone who will listen:
[T]he federal deficit has fallen faster over the past three years than it has in any such stretch since demobilization from World War II.

In fact, outside of that post-WWII era, the only time the deficit has fallen faster was when the economy relapsed in 1937, turning the Great Depression into a decade-long affair.
If U.S. history offers any guide, we are already testing the speed limits of a fiscal consolidation that doesn't risk backfiring. That's why the best way to address the fiscal cliff likely is to postpone it. 
While long-term deficit reduction is important and deficits remain very large by historical standards, the reality is that the government already has its foot on the brakes.

It certainly looks to me as if the deficit hawks are doing very, very well. And they obviously aren't done yet.


Huzzah! Congratulations to Tom Tomorrow

by digby

Great news:

WASHINGTON, DC, February 25, 2013 – Dan Perkins, pen name Tom Tomorrow, was named the winner of the 2013 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning. 
Perkins is the creator of the weekly political cartoon, This Modern World, which appears in approximately 80 papers, mostly altweeklies. He is the editor of the comics section he created in April 2011 on Daily Kos. His cartoons have been featured in The New York Times, The New Yorker, U.S. News & World Report and The Economist. He lives outside of New Haven, Connecticut with his wife and their son. 
The prize is awarded annually by The Herb Block Foundation for “distinguished examples of editorial cartooning that exemplify the courageous independent standard set by Herblock.” The winner receives a $15,000 after-tax cash prize and a sterling silver Tiffany trophy. Perkins will receive the prize April 25th in a ceremony held at the Library of Congress. 
Jack Ohman, the editorial cartoonist for The Sacramento Bee, was named this year’s finalist and will receive a $5,000 after-tax cash prize. 
Gwen Ifill, moderator and managing editor of “Washington Week” and senior correspondent for “The PBS Newshour,” will deliver the annual Herblock Lecture at the awards ceremony. Previous speakers have included Ben Bradlee, then-Senator Barack Obama, Sandra Day O’Connor, Tom Brokaw, Tim Russert, Ted Koppel, George Stevens Jr., Jim Lehrer and Garry Trudeau. 
Judges for this year’s contest were Matt Bors, a nationally syndicated cartoonist in altweeklies and winner of the 2012 Herblock Prize; Jenny Robb, curator of the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University; and Steve Brodner, satirical illustrator who has covered eight national political conventions for Esquire, The Progressive, and others. 
The judges felt there were many strong portfolios in this year’s contest, including several animated-only entries and other alternative multi-panel submissions. 
Bors said Tom Tomorrow’s portfolio included “hands down, some of the smartest political cartoons of the year.” Subjects included “consistently hilarious takedowns of women-bashers, gun culture and the president’s abuse of executive power.”
“Tom Tomorrow is both fearless and funny, two qualities that make him a first-rate editorial cartoonist,” Robb said. “He has developed a unique graphic style that perfectly suits his wry and clever assaults on politicians, political parties, and bad policies while also making his work instantly recognizable.” 
Brodner said, “Dan Perkins’ output for the year was consistently strong, intelligent and witty. The work discussed the most important issues in a way extremely compelling and illuminating. The sequential political cartoon is a vivid and powerful form in his hands.”
The judges also had strong praise for the work of Jack Ohman, the finalist. 
Robb said, “In addition to producing strong traditional editorial cartoons, Jack Ohman has developed a unique and effective multi-panel strip that is part journalism, part memoir and part satire. He courageously used the format and his platform at The Oregonian to effect change in his local community and to focus attention on issues of both local and national importance.” Brodner added that Ohman’s work is “politically brave, formalistically daring and artistically free, while retaining great design and draftsmanship.” 
The Herb Block Foundation seeks to further the recognition and support of editorial cartooning.

This Modern World isn't just brilliant, it's indispensable. Seriously. It's one of the very few political commentaries to which I know I can consistently turn to test whether I'm losing my mind or if what I think I'm seeing truly is what I am seeing. It's a touchstone --- and largely unacknowledged as the precursor to everything we've developed as a liberal media counter-culture over the last decade in the blogosphere. Tom Tomorrow was saying it all long before any of the rest of us were.

"Repeal the Sequester" gains steam. Labor's on board.

by digby

Greg Sargent reports that the "repeal the sequester" movement is gaining some steam on the left. Finally:

With Washington mired deep in the manufactured crisis known as sequestration, one option for resolving the crisis is getting almost no attention: Simply repealing the sequester.

That may now change. The AFL-CIO is coming out today for a repeal of the sequester. The labor federation will press the case in the days ahead that the sequester perpetuates destructive government-by-crisis, and that more austerity — replacing the sequester with other spending cuts — is exactly what the country doesn’t need at a time of mass unemployment and lackluster growth.

“We need to repeal the sequester,” Damon Silvers, the policy director of the AFL-CIO, told me in an interview this morning. “It’s bad economic policy, and it feeds a dynamic that encourages hostage taking. We are calling on elected officials not to play this game of substituting one bad thing for another bad thing. We’re insisting that our elected officials not buy into this inside Washington game of manufactured crises.”

Read the whole post. The interview with Silvers is a breath of fresh air and Greg's conclusions are solid. The left, whatever it is, is a little bit slow on the uptake here, but it's finally come to understand that if they don't take a position against these cuts, the Obama administration's "offer" to cut vital programs and otherwise degrade the Democratic party's slim hold on its principles will be the leftward pole of any negotiation. Hopefully, with labor on board the Dems in congress will feel they have the backing they need to stand up to the centrists if, for some reason, the Republicans come to their senses and realize the administration is not only offering up even more in cuts, but they're offering to politically cut their throats in the bargain. It's not a good idea to just assume they'll stay as dumb as they have been.

Smelling salts alert! Keith Ellison was very, very rude to that nice man Sean Hannity

by digby

Oh my goodness, someone needs a fainting couch stat:

Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison attacked Fox News host Sean Hannity on-air tonight in what is surely one of the most explosive and contentious interviews between an anchor and a politician in recent history.

Rep. Ellison began the interview by calling Hannity "the worst excuse for a journalist I've ever seen." He went on to accuse Hannity of violating "every journalistic ethic I have ever heard of" and called him "a shill for the Republican Party."

Hannity calmly endured the attacks from the Minnesota congressman and tried in vain to assure him that he was not a registered Republican, but rather a registered conservative. He finally gave up and told Rep. Ellison to "keep ranting."

The congressman's remarks came after Hannity aired footage of President Obama giving two similar interviews about the looming effects of sequestration, set against a soundtrack of "O Fortuna," from the Carmina Burana. Hannity said the President was "more concerned with fearmongering than finding a solution to the problem he created."

(WATCH: Team Obama drives home sequester messaging)

Rep. Ellison cited the background music as evidence of Hannity's "yellow journalism."

"For you to say the President is to blame here is ridiculous," the congressman said.

Roughly three minutes later, Hannity tried to ask questions and was consistently interrupted by Rep. Ellison. Finally, more than six minutes after the interview started, Hannity ended the interview
Now watch the video from the beginning and ask yourself if Ellison was the screeching lunatic described above.  Once you're done laughing at the stupendously ridiculous notion that Hannity isn't a Republican, ask yourself why the Politico is so upset about the bad manners of someone who actually challenges the lies of the right wing.

Here's a highlight reel if you can't bear to click over to Fox:

I do take issue with Ellison for one thing: calling Hannity a journalist.  He's a propagandist.

I do wonder, however, why Politico doesn't know that. It's not as if he isn't on TV telling lies and slandering his enemies every night. His guests often get perturbed. Indeed, rather than this being "one of the most explosive and contentious interviews in history" this sort of reaction is commonplace on Hannity's show. (And apparently, poor Mother Byers has never even heard of Bill O'Reilly.) You can look it up. Here's one example:

By the way, our good man Sean can get a little hot under the collar himself at times.

Cardinal Mahoney is still feeling very sorry for himself

by David Atkins

Cardinal Mahoney, member of one of the most judgmental institutions on the planet, continues the pity party on his blog:

I can't recall a time such as now when people tend to be so judgmental and even self-righteous, so quick to accuse, judge and condemn. And often with scant real facts and information. Because of news broadcasts now 24/7 there is little or no fact checking; no in-depth analysis; no context or history given. Rather, everything gets reported as "news" regardless of the basis for the item being reported--and passed on by countless other news outlets.

We have ended up with a climate in which it's the norm to instantly pass judgement on one another, taking in and repeating gossip, sharing someone else's judgment as the truth, no regard for other people who may be harmed. Whatever happened to the norm of giving others the benefit of a doubt until hard evidence proves otherwise?

Witness the hatred which has boiled up across the Middle East and other conflicted parts of the world, and the deep emotions which do not allow for understanding or love to emerge at all.

But Jesus calls us to something far different and much more difficult: we are to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us. In today's world, to follow Jesus and his Gospel message means to "be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." That's a really high bar for all of us, and certainly for me.

My daily prayer list includes both loved ones/friends, as well as those who dislike or even hate me. One prayer group involves those suffering from cancer and other illnesses, those who have been sexually abused by clergy and others in our Church, those who can't find a decent job, those in danger of losing their homes, our immigrants who live in the shadows of society.

But another prayer group includes individuals who cannot forgive me for my past hurts or offenses, those in the media who constantly malign me and my motives, attorneys who never focus on context or history in their legal matters, groups which picket me or otherwise object to me, and all those who despise me or even hate me.

If I don't pray for all of these people, then I am not following Jesus' specific discipleship demand.
The narcissistic hubris of Mahoney, a man who deliberately misled police to cover for pedophile priests, in praying for those who can't quite forgive him for his actions is amazing.

But it's not altogether different from the unapologetic austerity peddlers who have wrecked Europe's economy while wining and dining at Davos and tut-tutting over those nasty, angry populists in Italy. Or the media elite in Washington who wag their finger at the American public for not wholly embracing cuts to Social Security even as 1% of the nation controls almost 50% of the wealth.

Elites at nearly every stratum of society have lost touch with reality and failed. Their response to that failure has not been to apologize and recalibrate, but rather to double down and wallow in judgmental petulance.

Cardinal Mahoney is merely a symptom of a much larger disease.


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

"We have to buy our own president"

by digby

Howie wrote a great post yesterday about the last gilded age and the robber barons choosing their own president. It features this fascinating video from the History Channel's series "The Men Who Built America."  Howie wrote:

Let me introduce the essential video [below] with a tweet from Sen. Bernie Sanders yesterday: "93% of all new income generated between 2009 & 2010 went to the top 1% while the bottom 99% split the remaining 7%.

One of the most memorable moments in the History Channel's rabidly pro-capitalist series, The Men Who Built America, came when predatory titans John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie decided to make Republican Party hack William McKinley president and destroy the political career of populist Democrat William Jennings Bryan ("the Great Commoner," his day's version of Bernie Sanders). J.P. Morgan: "We have to buy our own president." Watch the video above; you'll love it. It sums up the real history of the post-Lincoln/pre-Tea Party Republican Party.

Plus ça change and all that jazz.

No, Beppe Grillo isn't a cheap Italian restaurant chain

by digby

There's a lot being written about the Italian election results yesterday, but the most interesting has to be the profiles of comic Beppe Grillo, whose party surprised everyone by taking 25% of the vote:

Once effectively banished from TV after sending up politicians, he has created a brand of politics all of his own, one that has propelled Five Star to third place in both houses of parliament.

Dissatisfaction with the traditional political class, both right and left, drives a party which has made the internet its medium of choice, and has sought out relative unknowns for its candidates.

At 64, the bushy-haired comic leading this new third force can still work a crowd in a piazza and inspires a wide following on social media, tickling the Italian funny bone with his jokes. He called former Prime Minister Mario Monti, for example, "Rigor Montis" for his deadly serious manner.

However, his ability to engage ultimately in the business of government in one of the eurozone's biggest economies is less clear.

Yeah, no kidding. But the election as a whole is a fascinating story and one that holds rather substantial ramifications for Europe according to Paul Krugman:

[T]he Italian election signals that the eurocrats, who never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, are getting very close to the edge...

The fundamental fact is that a policy of austerity for all — incredibly harsh austerity in debtor nations, but some austerity in the European core too, and not a hint of expansionary policy anywhere — is a complete failure. None of the nations under Brussels/Berlin-imposed austerity has shown even a hint of economic recovery; unemployment is at society-destroying levels.

This failure came close to destroying the euro twice, in late 2011 and again last summer, as debtor nations threatened to enter a doom loop of plunging bond prices and failing banks. Each time Mario Draghi and the ECB stepped in to contain the damage, first by lending to the banks buying sovereign debt (LTRO) then by announcing a willingness to buy sovereign debt directly (OMT) ; but rather than taking the near-death experience as a warning, Europe’s austerians took the ECB-engineered calming of markets as a sign that austerity was working.

Well, the suffering voters of Europe just told them differently.

Krugman supposes that they were all so wrong because the VSPs assumed that the little people would just follow their cheerleading regardless of the conditions in their own lives.(I thought they'd been there and done that during the 1790s, but old habits die hard.) Krugman writes:

Wolfgang Münchau has a great lede in his column today, that gets at the essence:

There was a symbolic moment in the Italian elections when I knew that the game was up for Mario Monti, the defeated prime minister. It was when in the middle of the campaign – in the midst of an anti-establishment insurgence – he took off to Davos to be with his friends from international finance and politics. I know his visit to elite gathering in the Swiss mountains was not an issue in the campaign, but it signalled to me an almost comic lack of political realism.
What Europe’s VSPs fail to get is that the public perception of their right to lead depends on achieving at least some actual results. What they have actually delivered, however, is years of incredible pain accompanied by repeated promises that recovery is just around the corner — and then they wonder that many voters no longer trust their judgment, and turn to someone, anyone, who offers an alternative.

Let's just say that Europe has a bad track record in that regard. As the Shrill One archly observes, "there may be worse figures than Beppe Grillo lurking in Europe’s future."

There is an alternative to the sequester for deficit hawks

by David Atkins

It hasn't received much discussion in recent months, but it's worth noting that the best plan for revitalizing our economy and eliminating our deficit is still out there. It was put together by the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and it's called The People's Budget. We've written about it here before, but let's look at it again:

The People’s Budget eliminates the deficit in 10 years, puts Americans back to work and restores our economic competitiveness. The People’s Budget recognizes that in order to compete, our nation needs every American to be productive, and in order to be productive we need to raise our skills to meet modern needs.

Our Budget Eliminates the Deficit and Raises a $31 Billion Surplus In Ten Years
Our budget protects Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and responsibly eliminates the deficit by targeting its main drivers: the Bush Tax Cuts, the wars overseas, and the causes and effects of the recent recession.

Our Budget Puts America Back to Work & Restores America’s Competitiveness
• Trains teachers and restores schools; rebuilds roads and bridges and ensures that users help pay for them
• Invests in job creation, clean energy and broadband infrastructure, housing and R&D programs

Our Budget Creates a Fairer Tax System
• Ends the recently passed upper-income tax cuts and lets Bush-era tax cuts expire at the end of 2012
• Extends tax credits for the middle class, families, and students
• Creates new tax brackets that range from 45% starting at $1 million to 49% for $1 billion or more
• Implements a progressive estate tax
• Eliminates corporate welfare for oil, gas, and coal companies; closes loopholes for multinational corporations
• Enacts a financial crisis responsibility fee and a financial speculation tax on derivatives and foreign exchange

Our Budget Protects Health
• Enacts a health care public option and negotiates prescription payments with pharmaceutical companies
• Prevents any cuts to Medicare physician payments for a decade

Our Budget Safeguards Social Security for the Next 75 Years
• Eliminates the individual Social Security payroll cap to make sure upper income earners pay their fair share
• Increases benefits based on higher contributions on the employee side

Our Budget Brings Our Troops Home
• Responsibly ends our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to leave America more secure both home and abroad
• Cuts defense spending by reducing conventional forces, procurement, and costly R&D programs

Our Budget’s Bottom Line
• Deficit reduction of $5.6 trillion
• Spending cuts of $1.7 trillion
• Revenue increase of $3.9 trillion
• Public investment $1.7 trillion
It's also worth remembering the balance of power in Washington. The White House is controlled by a Democrat who just won a resounding re-election victory and is regularly accused of being a radical socialist. The Senate is controlled by a healthy 10-vote Democratic margin. The American People just cast over four million more votes for House Democrats than House Republicans nationally--so though Republicans still hold the House, they do so on fairly illegitimate grounds due to gerrymandering.

The public polling shows the President with strong favorability ratings, even as public's opinion of the Republican Party is cratering to at or near all-time lows.

The public wants increased spending on Social Security, opposes cuts to Medicare, supports an increase to the minimum wage, and despises the Tea Party and strongly supports higher taxes on the wealthy.

There is no reason, then, that the People's Budget shouldn't be the starting point for negotiations. There is no reason that the People's Budget shouldn't be discussed in major media outlets. And there is no reason that the Republican Party (and many Democrats) shouldn't be forced to explain every day why they would rather force seniors to eat cat food than make the sensible moves demanded by the stated opinions and votes of the American People.

Playing chicken with the defense hawks

by digby

I think Brian Beutler has this right:

The most important factor in this fight is probably the reality that Obama doesn’t have to face voters again and thus is willing to veto sequestration replacement bills if they’re composed of spending cuts alone. Congressional Democrats are fully aware of this, too, and that creates a powerful incentive for them to hold the line.

So sequestration will begin. Obama won’t cave. And then the tension sequestration was intended to create — and in fact has created — between defense hawks and the rest of the GOP will intensify and actually splinter the party. If that doesn’t happen quickly enough, then the sequestration fight will become tangled up in the need to renew funding for the federal government at the end of March. If Republicans don’t cave before then, they’ll precipitate a 1995-style government shutdown, public opinion will actually begin to control the outcome, and it’ll be game over.

So there are real dynamics at work here that can break the GOP’s resolve in this fight but that can’t easily be turned against Obama. Which means even though months of sequestration and a government shutdown followed by Obama folding outright is a theoretically possible outcome, there’s very little about the nature of the fight to make me think it’s likely to happen.

I'm not quite as sure as Beutler that the White House won't fold in some way, but I certainly agree that the whole point is to divide the Republicans between the defense hawks and the debt fetishists. You can see the tension in the Senate already with Graham and McCain calling for revenue to avoid defense cuts. That's where the action's going to be. But I would also point out that the Democratic party has a share of defense hawks who can be counted upon to exert pressure for some kind of a deal as well. If it gets too uncomfortable I can see the White House throwing in the towel on their one demand for revenue and giving the GOP even more cuts to discretionary programs. (They could even throw in the Chained-CPI as a luscious slice of foie gras to the elite Villagers.)

Obviously, it doesn't have to happen that way, but I think it pays for liberal groups to continue to assume it could. I'm hearing far too many members of the liberal cognoscenti saying that the "entitlement" cuts aren't too bad and that "tax reform" can be done at a later date. Hopefully the White House isn't listening to them.


Villagers on hiatus, have no clue

by digby

Apparently Ron Fournier has no clue what the president has proposed as a replacement for the sequester:

Here are three paths to a deal:

Congress gives the administration flexibility on how to impose the $1.2 trillion in cuts. This would allow the White House to mitigate dangers and inconveniences. To the public, that might seem like a good thing. To Obama, it could be a trap: Accept the GOP's compromise and lose his leverage, or be seen as the guy holding out for the worst-case scenario.

Republicans agree to a deal that includes new revenue from closing loopholes favoring the rich. This would be a victory for Obama, essentially ceding to his demands. The president could help Republicans save face (a critical element of any compromise) if he agreed to use some new revenue to reduce military cuts. A senior White House official who described this potential path said “it’s not exactly an accident” that Obama traveled to Virginia on Tuesday with Rep. Scott Rigell, a Virginia Republican who bills himself as a problem-solving lawmaker. Rigell’s district relies heavily on military spending.

Modest entitlement cuts could be mixed with loophole closures to produce a “win-win” package. Obama has already put “chained CPI” on the table for long-term debt reductions. He might prefer to wait to adjust the cost-of-living formula for Social Security, but taming the debt was always going to require more sacrifice from Americans than tinkering with one formula. In exchange for entitlement cuts, Republicans could swallow new revenue through closing loopholes on the rich—a concept they reluctantly accepted not too long ago.
To be sure, anything short of an absolute victory will anger liberal and conservative commentators, a prospect that Obama and Boehner hope to avoid. But risk is a part of leadership, and compromise is an ingredient to success.

Right. The win-win package he describes (and I do not agree that it's "win-win"  --- for the people anyway) is exactly what the president is proposing. But Fournier either doesn't know that or can't bring himself to acknowledge it. The White House should be thrilled, though. He makes it sound as if this is a compromise position instead of the president's opening bid. Maybe the Republicans are dumb enough to believe that too --- but I doubt it.

Repeal this idiotic law

by digby

Certain members of the left, including yours truly, have been saying that we should simply repeal the sequester for many moons.Campaign for America's Future initiated a petition calling for just that. Today, Keith Ellison of the Progressive Caucus wrote this:

If Congress cannot come up with a replacement to the sequester before the end of the week, we should eliminate the sequester entirely. One million working Americans should not be forced to pay the price for Republican stubbornness. If this goes into effect, it will be one of the most irresponsible legislative failures in the history of the Republic.

We would prefer to replace the sequester with a balanced approach to deficit reduction. The Progressive Caucus already introduced a bill called the Balancing Act that reflects what the American people voted for in November. It replaces the sequester with a fair approach to new revenue and necessary Pentagon budget cuts, and it creates jobs all over the country. It equalizes the budget cuts we've already made with revenue by closing tax loopholes for America's wealthiest individuals and corporations. We shouldn't sacrifice our economic recovery because Republicans are unwilling to vote for a penny in new contributions from their billionaire friends.

The sequester was a temporary face saving ploy that came out of the disastrous 2011 debt ceiling negotiations in which President Obama proposed massive spending cuts that have permanently moved the goal posts into the austerity zone. (And needless to say, the Republicans demanded even more. That's how they roll.) So here we are.

The conventional wisdom has it that we are going to go through with the sequester because neither side is willing to slash entitlements to the bone --- which everyone knows is the only responsible way to deal with a projected deficit that may or may not even be accurate. But more and more the VSPs are saying that the sequester isn't really so bad so why not just go with it. Indeed, they are saying that nothing is more important than cutting --- cutting anything, cutting everything, cut, cut,cut. At this point there is almost no discussion anywhere that doesn't begin with that premise. Sure the president is asking for some vague (and obviously temporary) "loophole closing" which is laughable on every level, but as his press secretary said, "the president believes we have a spending problem" so I think we know where the emphasis is going to be.

Chuck Todd just announced on MSNBC that there is a growing consensus among the House GOP to allow the sequester to proceed but give the president more flexibility about what he's going to cut. The idea is to blame him for the fallout. The president, on the other hand, feels confident that he can successfully blame the GOP. But one thing that I think they all agree upon is that defense contracting will not be seriously cut.

So, if this happens, it's going to be a pain and blame fest. I'm guessing that the Republicans will get the worst of it since everyone knows they love cuts while the president is a closet socialist. But it's going to be unpleasant for everyone. At some point I would guess they can come together and decide to cut those nasty entitlements and spare everyone any further inconvenience. After all, the "entitlement" cuts won't be felt for a good long while. Most of the politicians can cash in long before anyone actually gets hurt. Win-win.

Update: GP at Americanblog has more.

Village leaders complain that the president isn't more enthusiastic about making people suffer

by digby

So, according to the Village media leaders at the Washington Post editorial board, the Republicans have been irresponsible in their budget negotiations but the real problem is that the President hasn't been working hard enough to rally the country to the Republicans' position:

The Republicans are right when they say that the sequester was Mr. Obama’s idea, in the summer of 2011, and that he agreed to a deal that was all spending cuts, no tax hikes. He is correct that he hoped the sequester would never go into effect but would be replaced by a 10-year bargain that would raise revenue and slow the growth of entitlement costs. He is correct, too, on the larger point: Such a deal is what’s needed, and the Republicans are wrong to resist further revenue hikes.

But if that’s what’s needed, why is Mr. Obama not leading the way to a solution? From the start, and increasingly in his second term, Mr. Obama has presented entitlement reform as something he would do grudgingly, as a favor to the opposition, when he should be explaining to the American people — and to his party — why it is an urgent national need.

They also say that it's the congressional Democrats' fault for saying they are against these "entitlement" cuts in the negotiations. Because everyone knows that the only thing that really matters is cutting the hell out them. That should be obvious to any Very Serious Person. And while the President has obviously offered many cuts to these entitlements and pledged his intentions since before he was elected, he hasn't done it with the relish and enthusiasm that's required to satisfy these ghouls. After all, if you can't enjoy blaming the middle class and working people for all the nation's ills --- and then gleefully telling them must suffer for it when they get old and sick --- you really aren't much of a leader.

You know, I have no idea how much the editorial board of the Washington Post makes. But this fascinating article about media paychecks from 2005 still haunts me whenever I see something like this. At that time Bill Keller of the New York Times was taking home 650k a year. That was eight years ago. And perhaps the WaPo never paid that much and still doesn't. But I'm going to guess that the people who wrote that editorial are doing vastly better than more than 90% of the nation and will never have to worry about whether they'll have enough money for food and medicine.

Chris Hayes' theory about social distance is more relevant than ever as we watch the entire establishment elite of this nation scream bloody murder at the idea their taxes might rise a very tiny bit even as they insist that it's no problem to cut the already shamefully meager monthly stipend for the elderly because they can buy cheaper food. That's basically what they want the president to enthusiastically go forth and sell to the people. Shocking that he's not excited about doing that, although I have to say they aren't giving him enough credit for doing the very best he can.


Our healthcare system is still insane

by David Atkins

From a lengthy, superb Time Magazine (!) article on the appallingly inefficient and immoral U.S. healthcare system:

What are the reasons, good or bad, that cancer means a half-million- or million-dollar tab? Why should a trip to the emergency room for chest pains that turn out to be indigestion bring a bill that can exceed the cost of a semester of college? What makes a single dose of even the most wonderful wonder drug cost thousands of dollars? Why does simple lab work done during a few days in a hospital cost more than a car? And what is so different about the medical ecosystem that causes technology advances to drive bills up instead of down?

Recchi’s bill and six others examined line by line for this article offer a closeup window into what happens when powerless buyers — whether they are people like Recchi or big health-insurance companies — meet sellers in what is the ultimate seller’s market.

The result is a uniquely American gold rush for those who provide everything from wonder drugs to canes to high-tech implants to CT scans to hospital bill-coding and collection services. In hundreds of small and midsize cities across the country — from Stamford, Conn., to Marlton, N.J., to Oklahoma City — the American health care market has transformed tax-exempt “nonprofit” hospitals into the towns’ most profitable businesses and largest employers, often presided over by the regions’ most richly compensated executives. And in our largest cities, the system offers lavish paychecks even to midlevel hospital managers, like the 14 administrators at New York City’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center who are paid over $500,000 a year, including six who make over $1 million.

Taken as a whole, these powerful institutions and the bills they churn out dominate the nation’s economy and put demands on taxpayers to a degree unequaled anywhere else on earth. In the U.S., people spend almost 20% of the gross domestic product on health care, compared with about half that in most developed countries. Yet in every measurable way, the results our health care system produces are no better and often worse than the outcomes in those countries.

According to one of a series of exhaustive studies done by the McKinsey & Co. consulting firm, we spend more on health care than the next 10 biggest spenders combined: Japan, Germany, France, China, the U.K., Italy, Canada, Brazil, Spain and Australia. We may be shocked at the $60 billion price tag for cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy. We spent almost that much last week on health care. We spend more every year on artificial knees and hips than what Hollywood collects at the box office. We spend two or three times that much on durable medical devices like canes and wheelchairs, in part because a heavily lobbied Congress forces Medicare to pay 25% to 75% more for this equipment than it would cost at Walmart.
Be sure to read the whole article, of which this section is but a small excerpt. The essence of the problem is that our nation's long-term deficit problem is largely a healthcare problem. And the healthcare problem is that insurance companies and providers are bizarrely overcompensated in a seller's market without the buying power of a national single-payer system.

If the so-called deficit hawks truly cared about our nation's finances they would work to institute a Medicare-for-all system that brings per capita costs in line with those of other countries. But, of course, we all know that the Very Serious People don't really care about the deficit. They care about slashing earned benefits for the middle class as a moral crusade against "government dependency." The nation's finances and well-being are beside the point.