Thursday, October 10, 2013

Today's Trifecta Features Commentary On Our Dysfunctional Government

Disclaimer: this blog does not furnish barf bags. This blogger could hardly get through all of this talk about rightists and leftists and the great downfall of our government. "The Daily Show" has named this mess "Shutstorm 2013." For the real meaning, subsitute an "i" for the "u" in "Shutstorm." The latest Moron offer is to gut Social Security and Medicare. The truth is that the real source of the deficit is in defense spending. If this is a (fair & balanced) version of rearranging furniture on the deck of the Titanic, so be it.

P.S. Helpful hint from the blogger: click on the bracketed numbers below to hop from one item to another; click on "Back To Directory" to return to the starting point. Thanks be to Vannevar Bush for giving us the idea of hypertext.

[Vannevar Bush HyperlinkBracketed NumbersDirectory]
[1] 3 Laws," Thanks To Ralph Gomery
[2] Good News & Bad News, Thanks To The Krait (Gail Collins)
[3] Big Money Manipulators, Thanks To The Blowhard (Charles Blow)

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In This Crisis It's Not Stupidity, It's The Money: Three Relevant Laws
By Ralph Gomory

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There are three basic laws about discussion, especially political discussion, that are useful in the contentious government situation we have today. The third of these laws is especially relevant because it warns us that what is happening in Congress is not a passing aberration, but in fact a threat to democracy in our country.

Here are the three laws. Almost everyone has suffered through examples of the first two in their own lives.

First Law: It is almost impossible by rational argument to persuade people to believe what they do not want to believe.

Second Law: Almost any argument, no matter how feeble, will convince people of what they do want to believe.

The third law is the non-obvious one; I learned it the hard way, by making mistakes.

Third Law: If you think your opponent's position doesn't make sense, or that he or she is stupid or uninformed or irrational, think again. Almost certainly, YOU are the one who does not understand.

The meaning of the Third Law is this: Your opponent may look stupid or irrational to you, but in fact he or she is probably doing something that does make sense. Most likely you simply don't know enough about your opponent's real motivation; if you understood more, you would see that he is anything but stupid.

The Third Law is violated with great regularity by many pundits. We are used to hearing Democratic pundits say that the Republicans are irrational to cut government spending when people desperately need the jobs that that money pays for. How can the Republicans be so ignorant, so stupid? The Republican pundits are equally clear that it is stupid and irresponsible for Democrats to increase the public debt and hand this debt on to future generations.

The cries of "stupid" from both sides should warn us that it is time to invoke The Third Law and find out what is really going on in Washington. We will find that what is described as stupidity is in fact a sensible but very unpleasant reality: Washington, Democratic and Republican, is being taken over by the power of money.

In Washington the influence of the financial industry and major corporations is enormous on both sides of the aisle, and within the Democratic administration as well. Their political power comes from the well-organized use of their economic power; or put more simply, from money. They have the money to spend on primaries and elections, for lobbying that offers, in addition to persuasion, the promise of future benefits and support. They have money for political advertising and for think tanks to provide legitimacy for the ideas of their sponsors. All this is happening today on a scale that dwarfs historic norms.

What is this activity aimed at in this time of recession? There may be a recession for most people, but the financial industry and major corporations are in fact enjoying record years. They have a work force that won't press for raises and will work long hours just to keep their jobs. Things are good as they are; they don't want an activist government thrashing around trying to create jobs, increase their taxes, or regulate their activities. They prefer something less activist and less expensive focused on what business wants. Reducing government and refocusing it seems sensible to them.

While the financial industry and the corporations aim mainly at controlling the government for their own purposes, many of the right wing and Tea Party Republicans think simply of weakening or crippling it. This group, well-funded by a wealthy few, is especially singled out by liberal pundits and is described as ignorant, stupid, and irrational. But think again.

For this right wing, failure to reach agreement in Congress is itself a triumph. That failure shows our people that their government is dysfunctional and ineffective; which is exactly their point. The sequester was a happy event for them; failure to reach agreement on a budget would be even better, it would mean no budget, and will deprive the annoying and interfering government of the breath of life.

When these two moneyed groups are on the same side, they effectively control the government. The failure to implement the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, years after they became law, is an excellent example of their power. When the two groups disagree, there is continuing struggle and uncertainty. But in Washington today conflict is conflict between the moneyed groups; the voice of the people is far away and only dimly heard.

The present budget struggle is only a skirmish in an ongoing battle. Despite all the talk about stupidity, the situation we face is not a mistake or an aberration, but rather an evolving effort by a plutocracy to take over a democracy and run it in their interest.

This is far from the first time that important emerging events have been mistaken for stupidity; The Third Law is as old as history. A painful example is provided by Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France before the French Revolution. Legend says that when Marie Antoinette looked out at the hungry people crowding the streets of Paris demanding bread, she thought they made no sense. "Let them eat cake," she said.

Unfortunately for Marie Antoinette, it was she who did not understand.

We should not repeat her mistake. In Washington we are not seeing stupidity or ignorance, but rather economic power eroding effective democracy. We should acknowledge this reality and actively attempt to change it. Ω

[Ralph E. Gomory graduated from Williams College, studied at Cambridge University, and received his Ph.D. in mathematics from Princeton University. He has been a research mathematician for IBM and after retiring from IBM, Gomory became President of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. After 18 years as President of the Sloan Foundation, Gomory became a Research Professor at New York University's Stern School of Business.]

Copyright © 2013 The Huffington Post

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First, the Good News
By Gail Collins

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Good news: The people who track killer asteroids for NASA are still on the case, despite the government shutdown.

Bad news: A lot of the people who inspect food aren’t. The folks from the Department of Agriculture who check meatpacking plants are still working. But the guys at the Food and Drug Administration who make routine appearances at, say, the nut-shelling factory to look for vermin, are on furlough. Not to mention a lot of the people who check shipments of seafood or vegetables from outside the country.

“They’re not doing run-of-the-mill import inspections,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “The F.D.A. is really falling farther behind with every day.”

The House of Representatives has passed a bill to refund the F.D.A. This is part of a Republican strategy to approve the financing of things they like, one by one. It’s not entirely clear how popular the agency was before recent news of a salmonella outbreak erupted, but now it’s right up there with the national parks.

This is how members of Congress fill up their time during the current crisis. The Republicans introduce bills to fund a particularly sympathetic sector of government. The Democrats respond with a proposal to fund the whole government. Then the Republicans say the Democrats are the enemy of veterans, parks, national guardsmen or food inspections.

“Why don’t we open the parts of government that we agree to?” demanded Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky.

“We’ll be here in December, doing agency by agency,” responded Dick Durbin, the assistant majority leader.

And the Environmental Protection Agency would still be on furlough. Also the Labor Department. And the Internal Revenue Service.

The I.R.S. would probably be the last to return. That would be very tough on people who have serious issues they need to resolve. For instance, my husband, Dan, recently received a notice from the agency announcing that he was dead. Apparently this is a fairly common error, but Dan wants to be bureaucratically resurrected, and there’s nobody on the other end of the phone to talk to.

Really, it’s all personal. In fact, a good way to think about the current standoff is that it’s a war between people who just want to have the government back and the people who want a new version of government with the priorities of Representative Ted Yoho of Florida.

I am using Ted Yoho because he’s a voluble figure in the caucus of right-wing hard-liners in the House who caused the shutdown in the first place. Also in part because I really enjoy writing “Ted Yoho.” Also because he has also been one of the leading lights in the new crisis over whether to let the country go smashing though the debt ceiling.

“Everybody talks about how destabilizing doing this will be on the markets. And you’ll see that initially, but heck, I’ve seen that in my business,” Yoho told Jonathan Weisman of The New York Times. “When you go through that, and you address the problem and you address your creditors and say, ‘Listen, we’re going to pay you. We’re just not going to pay you today, but we’re going to pay you with interest and we will pay everybody that’s due money’ — if you did that, the world would say America is finally addressing their problem.”

Representative Yoho was one of the very first members of Congress to verbalize the what-the-hey theory of global finance, possibly because he had all that background in debt management from his business, which is being a large-animal veterinarian.

A number of Republicans have begun using their life sagas to support similar theories. “We have in my household budget some bills that have to be paid and some bills that we can defer or only pay partially,” Representative Joe Barton of Texas said on CNBC. “I think paying interest on the debt has to be paid. I think paying Social Security payments have to be paid. But I don’t think paying the secretary of energy’s travel expenses have to be paid 100 cents on the dollar.”

This sort of suggests that some members of Congress regard the Department of the Treasury as a vast warren of people with checkbooks, sorting through the mail and writing apologetic notes to Delta and JetBlue explaining the problem. It most definitely suggests that you do not want to lend money to a lot of people in the House of Representatives.

But back to our list:

Good news: The Congressional gym is open.

O.K., possibly only good news if you are a member of Congress. Or a person who enjoys making fun of members of Congress.

Good news: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called back some of its furloughed employees to try to control that salmonella outbreak.

Bad news: Most of the C.D.C. is still at home, including the ones who work on flu.

And our moral is: Get your flu shot, people. Cook your chicken well. Cross your fingers and pray. Ω

[Gail Collins joined the New York Times in 1995 as a member of the editorial board and later as an op-ed columnist. In 2001 she became the first woman ever appointed editor of the Times editorial page. At the beginning of 2007, she took a leave in order to complete America's Women: 400 Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates and Heroines. Collins returned to the Times as a columnist in July 2007. Collins has a BA (journalism) from Marquette University and an MA (government) from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Gail Collins’s newest book is As Texas Goes...: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda (2012).]

Copyright © 2013 The New York Times Company

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Big-Money Manipulators
By Charles M. Blow

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The dysfunction in Washington is incredibly dispiriting.

We are constantly being reminded that we are a nation torn seemingly beyond repair, divided into irreconcilable camps, endlessly clashing over diminishing common ground.

And the culpability of big money in our current condition cannot be underplayed.

Rich conservatives are out to bend government to their will or break it in the attempt to discredit this Democratic president and ensure that there won’t be another soon.

This week the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission. Shaun McCutcheon is an Alabama Republican who wants to give more to his preferred candidates than is currently allowed by law. The Republican National Committee has joined McCutcheon in the case. If the court agrees with them, the already significant influence of big money in our politics would have no limits. The legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin wrote an article about the case in July for The New Yorker entitled “Another Citizens United — but Worse.”

At the same time that Republicans want to increase the influence of the rich on our elections, they want to decrease the influence of the poor at the ballot box by passing a raft of new voter restrictions.

This is a sinister, last-gasp move of gangsterism: when you’re losing the game, tilt the table.

You must understand this larger plot to fully appreciate the Republicans’ current budget ploy. This is not so much about limiting government as it is about measuring power. Rich Republicans are reaching for the edges so that they can redefine the limits.

As The New York Times pointed out this weekend, Republicans — financed by the billionaire Koch brothers — began plotting this government shutdown over Obamacare soon after the president began his second term.

If they couldn’t win in a fair electoral fight, they’d win in an asymmetric legislative one.

Earlier this year, John Boehner hashed out a deal with Harry Reid — or at least had “several” conversations about a deal — in which the Democrats would accept the Republicans’ budget numbers ($70 billion below what the Democrats wanted) in return for the speaker’s voting on a continuing resolution with no strings attached.

The Republicans had won. But the speaker later reneged. He told George Stephanopoulos this weekend: “I and my members decided the threat of Obamacare and what was happening was so important that it was time for us to take a stand. And we took a stand.”

To be clear, his far-right members in their bright red districts — and their deep-pocketed backers — forced him to reconsider.

Boehner is fighting his own battle — for his job and his legacy. He wants to appear in control of a caucus that is uncontrollable. The man who said last week of the government shutdown, “this isn’t some damn game,” is playing games. In fact, Politico reported Tuesday that many Republicans believe a massive budget deal is the best way to solve the current crisis, but Boehner has resisted, saying he wants to “put points on the board.”

The president, for his part, has deployed a list of metaphors as long as his arm to describe the Republicans — from hostage takers to deadbeat homeowners — to get more of the public to understand his principle of not negotiating on keeping the government open or paying the government’s bills. He wants to break the crisis cycle while simultaneously defending the Affordable Care Act. He wants to rescue the government from the clutches of the nihilists.

But many Americans are too frustrated to ferret out the details. They see dysfunction in the system as a whole and they’re fed up with it.

According to a Gallup poll released Wednesday, a third of Americans now cite dysfunctional government as the most important problem facing America today. That was the highest level ever recorded by Gallup, whose trend on the measure dates back to 1939, and dysfunction now ranks higher than the economy in general or unemployment and jobs in particular.

This is not a “both sides at fault” issue. It is a tremendously partisan one.

And according to the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Republicans believe the president should agree to a deal that includes changes in his health care law, and 75 percent of Democrats believe that Republicans should agree to a deal with no health care changes. Independents are nearly evenly divided between the two.

Now the shutdown is beginning to bleed into the debate about whether to raise the debt limit, a debate that has brought out the Republican default deniers to further muddy the waters.

The government shutdown, as costly and futile as it is, would look like child’s play compared with a default.

According to a Tuesday report in Bloomberg/Businessweek, one global market research firm estimates that the government shutdown “cost $1.6 billion last week in lost economic output” and “the office closures are now draining an average of $160 million each workday from the $15.7 trillion economy.”

And if you think this is bad, consider that a default could trigger a full-blown recession. In a Wednesday report, CNN quoted the International Monetary Fund economist Olivier Blanchard as saying: “If there was a problem lifting the debt ceiling, it could well be what is now a recovery would turn into a recession or even worse.”

And yet, a growing number of Republicans are questioning the possibility of default. Unbelievable.

Some Republicans have never met an inconvenient fact that they weren’t determined to deny. Evolution: didn’t happen. Climate change: not so much. Obama’s faith: doubt it.

In some parts of the Republican universe, facts and fantasy merge, the truth doesn’t surface, it’s shaped, data must be made to conform to doxology, and accepted science borders on the heretical. This is how the money-rich are able to prey on the knowledge-poor.

This denial is sinking in among the Republican rank and file. A Pew Research Center report issued Monday found that most Republicans believe that we can go past the debt limit deadline without major problems.

This is bigger than Obamacare. This is about rich conservatives seeking to exert unlimited influence on our political system, and employing far-right Republicans who are animated, to varying degrees, by an innate hostility to this president, fear of diminishing influence and a disavowal of disagreeable truths.

This is about the fragility of our democracy: the possibility that a government by the people may swiftly give way to a government dominated by dark money and dark motives. Ω

[Charles M. Blow is The New York Times's visual Op-Ed columnist. His column appears every other Saturday. Blow joined The New York Times in 1994 as a graphics editor and quickly became the paper's graphics director, a position he held for nine years. In that role, he led The Times to a best of show award from the Society of News Design for the Times's information graphics coverage of 9/11, the first time the award had been given for graphics coverage. He also led the paper to its first two best in show awards from the Malofiej International Infographics Summit for work that included coverage of the Iraq war. Charles Blow went on to become the paper's Design Director for News before leaving in 2006 to become the Art Director of National Geographic Magazine. Before coming to The Times, Blow had been a graphic artist at The Detroit News. Blow graduated magna cum laude from Grambling State University in Louisiana, where he received a B.A. in mass communication.]

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