Fiscal Funnies

The fiscal cliff theater going on in Washington strikes me as a ton of fun, and I wish I had more time to follow it.

As near as I can tell, the Republicans are refusing to negotiate while complaining that the President is refusing to negotiate. They say the President’s offer is not “serious,” but they have made no offers at all. So what does that make them?

They seem to think that “negotiating” means they can wait until the President offers them a package they like. However, the President has made it plain he is done negotiating with himself. The ball is in the GOP court.

Jonathan Chait says the Republicans are hoping that when the deadline for the “cliff” is nigh, the President will panic and give them what they want, which is to gut Medicare, Medicaid, etc. They are counting on fiscal hawks among the Dems to pressure the President to cave. He might, but I’m betting that he won’t.

Meanwhile, the Republicans are putting out signals that they want John Kerry to be the Secretary of State nominee. Y’know, the guy they swift-boated in 2004 and complained that he was too weak to run foreign policy is suddenly a man of integrity and international experience, as opposed to that Susan Rice bimbo. It’s worth noting that if John Kerry resigned his Senate seat it would be filled through a special election, and Scott Brown looks like a logical choice to run for it.

Ridiculous About Rice

Do McCain and Graham know that lots of people are publicly making fun of them?

The continued hypocrisy/stupidity/absurdity of the pile on of Susan Rice is just plain off the charts.

I agree with Digby, that a lot of this is coming from the Right’s obsession/compulsion for payback.

Just as they convinced themselves that Whitewater was their Watergate, they think Benghazi is their 9/11 commission. I assume they persist in this endless round of idiotic payback politics because it’s just in their nature. It serves a political purpose too, of course. It’s a great distraction and destroys comity and purpose on the other side as even liberals with common sense start abandoning the field either because they buy into the “smell test” theory or figure they should cut their losses.

But in the end, I think it’s just because the right wing personality is one that holds grudges forever and always always hits back, no matter how long it takes.

I also agree with Ed Kilgore that a lot of this is about distracting the base from their recent election humiliation. And I say this sounds like a plan —

If congressional Republicans keep trying to take new hostages for their participation in fiscal talks—you know, the debt limit, Obamacare—at some point the administration might want to retaliate and say the GOP must call off its Benghazi witch hunt if it expects the president to sit down and negotiate with them. The frantic effort to find a “scandal,” not any actual scandal, is really becoming a major embarrassment to the credibility of the United States.

It ought to be an embarrassment to the Republican Party, which is managing to make itself look like a bigger collection of brainless stooges than usual. But they’re too oblivious to reality to be embarrassed.

Republican $acred Cow$

Some Republicans in Congress are putting on quite a show these days, boldly declaring independence from Grover Norquist while still refusing to raise tax rates on the wealthy. For example, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee was widely praised for proposing a bold compromise that amounts to the same right-wing snake oil. After oozing some conciliatory prose, Corker makes this offer —

The proposal includes pro-growth federal tax reform, which generates more static revenue — mostly from very high-income Americans — by capping federal deductions at $50,000 without raising tax rates. It mandates common-sense reforms to the federal workforce, which will help bring its compensation in line with private-sector benefits, and implements a chained consumer price index across the government, a more accurate indicator of inflation. It also includes comprehensive Medicare reform that keeps in place fee-for-service Medicare without capping growth, competing side by side with private options that seniors can choose instead if they wish. Coupled with gradual age increases within Medicare and Social Security; the introduction of means testing; increasing premiums ever so slightly for those making more than $50,000 a year in retirement; and ending a massive “bed tax” gimmick the states use in Medicaid to bilk the federal government of billions, this reform would put our country on firmer financial footing and begin to vanquish our long-term deficit.

In other words, no increase in tax rates for the wealthy; cut salaries and benefits for federal employees; pass Mitt Romney’s version of Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan; and mess with Social Security, which isn’t part of the budget.

I say they can take this “compromise” and shove it where the sun don’t shine.

I’m going to have to check on the “bed tax” issue; I thought it was something some states did to raise matching funds required to receive Medicaid dollars, and while it may be a bad way to raise money, I don’t see how you can call it “bilking.” But maybe I’m misunderstanding it. And it seems to be happening mostly in “red” states, anyway.

Anyhoo — Krugman addresses the question of why Republicans are so all-fired determined to not raise tax rates —

The contortions Republicans are going through in an attempt to avoid raising tax rates are quite something, and they pose something of a puzzle: why are they making noises about raising revenue by limiting deductions, while still screaming bloody murder at any hint of a rise in tax rates?

One possible answer is that they’re still imagining that they can pull a fast one — that they can sell supposed revenue raisers that don’t actually raise much revenue, or that they can find a way to renege on whatever agreement might be reached by appealing to the various interests with a stake in particular deductions.

That was my thinking. But there’s another possibility — a proposal is floating around that would effectively stick the upper middle class with higher taxes but protect the genuinely wealthy. Billmon describes it as turning the upper middle class into human shields to protect the wealth of the wealthy. He continues,

So what’s going on here? Well, now that Comrade Norquist has been purged from their ranks, the Republican Politburo appears to have decided that if revenues must be raised, it should be done in the way suggested by their last presidential nominee (the one whose name is currently being methodically erased from the RNC’s official records).

To this end, various GOP apparatchiks are touting the idea of using deduction caps and/or clawback mechanisms (which would deprive high-income taxpayers of the benefit of the lower rates applied to the first few chunks of those incomes) as a substitute for raising the top marginal rate all the way back to the same confiscatory level (39.6%) that prevailed during the Clinton economic hell hole years.

You may recall that during the campaign a cap on itemized deductions (mortgage interest, state income tax, charitable contributions, etc.) was offered up by He-Who-No-Longer-Exists as the solution to his $5 trillion arithmetic problem — except that whereas Mitt wanted to use the money to pay for even lower marginal rates, the GOP Politburo has now adopted the Left Deviationist line that tax increases on the wealthy are OK as long as they don’t harm “incentives” for “job creators” — i.e. don’t raise the top marginal rate.

Billmon explains all this in more detail, as does Nate Silver (lots of math!) and Josh Marshall. Those guys explain the actual proposal better than I can. But it boils down to sticking people who make $250,000 to $400,000 a year with higher taxes as a kind of bait-and switch that would allow the very wealthy to keep their current tax rates on their millions and millions.

What the bleep is wrong with these people?

Personal note — I have sold my co op and signed a lease on a rental apartment, and I am moving on Monday (six days!) and have a ton of other work to do beside that, so posting will be a bit hit and miss over the next few days. Please do drop by and talk among yourselves, though.

The Fake Skills Shortage

From time to time I hear that employers have a hard time hiring skilled workers, which never makes sense to me. Now we know what the problem is. Via Krugman, see Adam Davidson, “Skills Don’t Pay the Bills.”

Eric Isbister, the C.E.O. of GenMet, a metal-fabricating manufacturer outside Milwaukee, told me that he would hire as many skilled workers as show up at his door. Last year, he received 1,051 applications and found only 25 people who were qualified. He hired all of them, but soon had to fire 15. Part of Isbister’s pickiness, he says, comes from an avoidance of workers with experience in a “union-type job.” Isbister, after all, doesn’t abide by strict work rules and $30-an-hour salaries. At GenMet, the starting pay is $10 an hour. Those with an associate degree can make $15, which can rise to $18 an hour after several years of good performance. From what I understand, a new shift manager at a nearby McDonald’s can earn around $14 an hour.

The secret behind this skills gap is that it’s not a skills gap at all. I spoke to several other factory managers who also confessed that they had a hard time recruiting in-demand workers for $10-an-hour jobs. “It’s hard not to break out laughing,” says Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, referring to manufacturers complaining about the shortage of skilled workers. “If there’s a skill shortage, there has to be rises in wages,” he says. “It’s basic economics.” After all, according to supply and demand, a shortage of workers with valuable skills should push wages up. Yet according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of skilled jobs has fallen and so have their wages.

Davidson goes on to say that most of the people who are still doing these high-kill manufacturing jobs are in their 50s. Younger people understandably don’t see the point in getting trained for jobs that don’t pay any better than McDonald’s. And at least fast-food jobs are not going to be sent overseas. So the young folks who have the math and computer skills manufacturers need are looking elsewhere, and the fake skills shortage is likely to turn into a real skills shortage.

Krugman writes,

And this dovetails perfectly with one of the key arguments against the claim that much of our unemployment is “structural”, due to a mismatch between skills and labor demand. If that were true, you should see soaring wages for those workers who do have the right skills; in fact, with rare exceptions you don’t.

So what you really want to ask is why American businesses don’t feel that it’s worth their while to pay enough to attract the workers they say they need.

What about the competition of overseas labor? Krugman addresses that, too in an essay he wrote several years ago. As he says elsewhere, this area of the impact of global competition on wages is his “home field.”

War on Christmas: Lock ‘n’ Load

A few years ago I stopped doing Christmas. No cards, no decorations, no cookie baking, just a few presents bought mostly online, so no mall shopping. It was liberating.

If you really enjoy doing those things that’s fine, but I had come to think of the Christmas season as an ordeal. I remember one Christmas day I was so exhausted I spent most of the day napping while the kids played with their new presents. Once the chicks had flown the nest, I just stopped doing it. Maybe someday I’ll take Christmas-ing up again, but now I’m happier blowing it off.

Still, there’s no escaping it. Even the neighborhood nail salon run by cheerful Vietnamese ladies has swapped its usual piped-in romantic oldies for really awful Christmas pop music, including endless variations of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “The Little Drummer Boy.” It is painful.

Again, if you actually like the tinsel and the shopping and listening to Jimmy Boyd sing “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” while you stand in line to get a present wrapped, I’m happy for you. Enjoy. Just leave me out of it.

Christmas season is now officially upon us. The best thing I can say so far is that nobody was trampled to death on so-called Black Friday. The worst thing that’s happened so far is that a man dressed as a clown had a heart attack and died during the Macy’s Parade, which I never watch.

(An onlooker said “I saw that, he was acting a little funny before he died.”)

Still, it’s depressing to read about people acting like swarms of rabid rats to snag Christmas presents.

Yet amid these protests, people still talked about feeling powerless beneath the moment — as if they had no choice but to shop.

“You have to have these things to enjoy your children and your family,” said Jackson’s friend Ebony Jones, who had secured two laptops ($187.99 each) for her 7 and 11 year olds.

Why must we buy? To demonstrate our love for others? To add a few more inches to our televisions? To help America recover from a vicious recession that itself was born of the desire for more?

Such questions make Jones wince. “It shouldn’t be that way, but in a sense there’s no way around it,” said Jones, a nurse. “Everything ends up with a dollar amount. Even your happiness.”

The black, rotting heart of American consumerism, indeed.

That said, I do not consider myself to be anti-Christmas. I contribute in my own way. I have sung in more Christmas Handel’s Messiahs than I can count. This year the chorale is doing a Bach advent cantata (the great “Wachet Auf”) plus the exquisite Christmas Oratorio by Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns. Yes, I am actually conspiring to lure people into a church to listen to sacred music of the season, when they could be using that time to shop. Shoot me.

But by Fox News standards, I’m the enemy. To them, the meaning of Christmas is forcing everyone to say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” even if they aren’t Christian, or merry. I think of them as the Noel Nazis.

Christmas has become a monstrous beast made of avarice covered in cheap glitter. And every year the beast eats December, and much of November, and I don’t see it making many people over the age of 12 or so very happy. Mostly it just makes them greedy and frantic. If it could be chopped down to a reasonable size it would be so much nicer.

And if the piped-in music would at least include some traditional carols and not the pop-muzak crap, I’d be happier, too. I might even sing along with them. I love the old, traditional Christmas carols, and I hardly ever hear them any more, much less get to sing them.

If there are any devout Christians out there who would like to start a war to take Christmas back from Walmart, please do so. I’ll contribute to the cause.

On Creating Our Own Reality

There’s a New Age-y saying that we create our own reality. This is sometimes interpreted to mean that if we try hard enough, we can create a reality in which we have superpowers and look like Jessica Alba or Brad Pitt, or whoever is considered hot these days. I lose track.

What it really means is much more mundane. In Buddhism, and probably some schools of Hinduism, it’s understood that the way we interpret and experience our lives and the stuff around us is mostly a creation of our own psychological projections. Most reasonably mature people notice this sooner or later, I suspect, or they at least notice when someone else’s projections are entirely different from theirs.

Modern neurological science is taking this further, I understand. Sensations, or the way things look, feel, sound, smell, etc., are largely experiences being created in our own heads. For example, our senses take in a particular combination of light and pigment, and our brains interpret this as “red.” So we “see” red. But red is not a quality intrinsic to what we are looking at; it’s something being created in our brains. Really.

So if a tree falls in a forest and there is no one there to hear it, it really doesn’t make a sound. There may be sound waves, but to manifest as “sound” requires that the waves be interpreted by a particular combination of sense organs and neurological wiring.

Back to psychological projections — Buddhism has a cosmology of different worlds called the “Six Realms.” A lot of people believe literally in the Six Realms, and I don’t, but I find them fascinating anyway. If you understand the “realms” as projected realities, you can classify most people as living in a particular realm, or sometimes flitting between two or more of them.

So, Paris Hilton is a deva. Mitt Romney is a classic asura. Ann Romney seems to flit between the deva and asura realms. Drug addicts are pretas, or hungry ghosts. The hell realm contains many kinds of hells; people who are always angry are projecting a fire hell, while psychopaths project an ice hell. Teabaggers and bigots mostly project an animal realm, where they live in fear of being preyed upon. Also, the late Chogyam Trungpa said that animal realm beings (as opposed to biological animals) have no sense of humor, which explains a lot.

Finally, there is the human realm. Humans are the only ones capable of perceiving the unreality of their psychological projections. That doesn’t mean they don’t have psychological projections, but that they have the capacity to understand such projections for what they are. There’s a much better explanation of the Six Realms at a site called Nyoho Zen that I recommend highly — “Staying Human.”

As I said, it’s common for people to travel between realms, even in the course of a day. But it seems to me most of us have a “home” realm, and it isn’t necessarily a human one.

I bring this up because this morning I’ve been finding one article after another on the general theme of Republicans avoiding reality. Of course, a lot of us noticed this phenomenon years ago, but now it’s being noticed in mainstream media, which is a positive development.

Although we all live within a complex of projections, the capacity to be open to change, the ability to expand one’s consciousness beyond the projections, to learn and appreciate how other beings live, is the mark of a human. And most of the reason for our ongoing political dysfunction is that an entire political party has been taken over by non-humans.

This is not to say that all Democrats are wise and insightful, because a lot of them just plain aren’t, and I bump into plenty of self-identified progressives who appear to be projecting something very different from the human realm also. But at least some of the Dems in Washington appear to be human, and I can’t think of a single human Republican any more, or at least none currently holding office. They can’t be reasoned with; they can’t learn. They just react blindly to their own projections.

For example, let’s look at the Republicans and the Benghazi attacks. This is in WaPo (and when WaPo notices teh crazy, you know it’s blatant):

Though the Benghazi attack involved clear failures of U.S. security, Republicans have concentrated on a dubious subsidiary issue: the alleged failure of the administration to publicly recognize quickly enough that the incident was “a terrorist attack.”

And this begs the question — why is labeling Benghazi as “terrorism” more important to righties than actually understanding what happened there? Why are they so all-fired determined to find a connection to al Qaeda or some other jihadist movement to establish a global caliphate? (As the WaPo editorial says, evidence so far suggests that the attackers were a local group who may have had no connection to a larger organization.)

This makes absolutely no sense to someone living in the human realm. To a human, whether the President did or did not label the Benghazi attack “terrorism” as soon as it happened is simply not significant. In fact, most of us would prefer that he hold his tongue until facts are clarified, which can often take a few days.

WaPo continues,

The oddity of the Republican response to what happened in Benghazi is partly this focus on half-baked conspiracy theories rather than on the real evidence of failures by the State Department, Pentagon and CIA in protecting the Benghazi mission.

That’s because in the projected world the Republicans live in — I see most of them as living on the border of the animal and hell realms — it is enormously significant to be able to sort predators from prey. It’s the primary thing, in fact. They see wolves, and they expect everyone else to see the wolves, too. People who say, well, maybe they aren’t wolves; maybe they’re wolverines, must be trying to trick them. So, they get obsessed about it.

Really, if you look at politics in the context of the Six Realms, it all makes a lot more sense.

I’m not entirely sure why Susan Rice so infuriates them when she played only a peripheral role in the Benghazi attacks. The obvious reason is racism, which even WaPo (again, I am astonished) acknowledges:

Could it be, as members of the Congressional Black Caucus are charging, that the signatories of the letter are targeting Ms. Rice because she is an African American woman? The signatories deny that, and we can’t know their hearts. What we do know is that more than 80 of the signatories are white males, and nearly half are from states of the former Confederacy.

So you can’t rule out racism, but I also think part of the hysteria comes from her being a messenger. She was trying to trick them. She was trying to lure them out of their safe places so that the wolves can tear them apart. They hate her for that.

Happy Thanksgiving

Much going on around the world. Not all of it is bad.

It appears yesterday’s cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinians was brokered by Hillary Clinton and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. The Daily Caller is calling the deal “friendly to Hamas,” although the BooMan argues that the whole episode benefited Bibi Netanyahu more than anyone else.

Predictably, Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, plus Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), issued a statement heaping praise on Mohammed Morsi and Bibi Netanyahu that didn’t mention Hillary Clinton at all. Because, you know, if they were to ever acknowledge anyone connected to the Obama Administration had done something right, their lips would fall off. The statement ends,

“Above all, the recent fighting in Gaza underscores that this is a moment in history when the future of the Middle East has never been less certain – and when the actions or inaction of the United States will be critical to determining what path this vital region takes. From the worsening civil war in Syria to the security vacuum in Libya, and from Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons to heightened tensions in Iraq, what happens in the Middle East will impact America’s vital national security interests for the foreseeable future, and stronger, smarter American leadership is desperately needed. There is no pivoting away from that fact.”

Guys, the election is over. You lost. Please stop being dicks about it.

Speaking of dicks, you might enjoy this clip of Soledad O’Brien taking apart Rep. Michael Burgess (R-TX), who opposes Susan Rice’s possible nomination for Secretary of State.

A bit of the transcript:

O’BRIEN: I have asked others before how this does not compare, the Susan Rice issue, to the Condoleezza Rice issue on weapons of mass destruction. She was also wrong when she was the national security adviser, right? … Fast forward three years in 2005 when she was up to be secretary of state, it was Lindsey Graham who was furious that the Democrats were pushing back. It was Sen John mccain who were furious that the Democrats were pushing back on Condoleezza Rice to be Secretary of State. She was wrong on weapons of mass destruction. How is this different?

BURGESS: The difference is the scrutiny provided by our free press in this country. Condoleezza Rice was exposed to withering criticism by the press. I don’t see that happening now. Maybe I’ve missed something in the talking points, but I don’t see that happening. ….

O’BRIEN: So you’re confusing me there for a moment. When you say the scrutiny on the press — are you saying five days after comments of weapons of mass destruction, you feel like the media was picking apart Condoleezza Rice? I don’t think that’s true, Sir. Most people say that’s not the case. It took a long time. …. Hey, I’m all about scrutiny. I guess I like consistency, too. You were not calling for more scrutiny and you weren’t saying that the fact that Condoleezza Rice was wrong on weapons of mass destruction was going to damage her credibility as secretary of state. Again, McCain and Lindsey Graham were supporting that. It seems contradictory to me.
BURGESS: You’ll have to take that up with Senator McCain and Senator Graham.

Grandpa John has sort of backed off blaming Susan Rice for whatever he was blaming her for, sort of. But he still doesn’t like her.

And again speaking of dicks, House Republicans still are whining about Fast and Furious, for pity’s sake, and still are calling for a repeal of Obamacare. Here’s a clue for you, House Republicans: Ain’t gonna happen.

In the department of Good Cheer, Paul Krugman himself endorses this interview with Bill McBride, who says the economy really is getting better.

In other news, residents of Brookline, Massachusetts, are being terrorized by turkeys.

So far, no one has had to take shelter in a phone booth while wave upon wave of killer turkeys smash themselves against the glass. But they may not have phone booths in Brookline.

Enjoy your day.

Krugman, Klein, Twinkies, and the Dragon of Inequality

Ezra is so good at explaining things:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Executive Summary: The American Way of Business — increase profits by squeezing employees and suppliers to lower cost — amounts to an economic death spiral. See also “How Obamacare Affects Bad Business Practices.”

Paul Krugman:

Along the way, however, we’ve forgotten something important — namely, that economic justice and economic growth aren’t incompatible. America in the 1950s made the rich pay their fair share; it gave workers the power to bargain for decent wages and benefits; yet contrary to right-wing propaganda then and now, it prospered. And we can do that again.

Can’t say that often enough.

The Bain That Ate Clear Channel

This is rich. Clear Channel Communications, associated with such programming wonders as Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, was taken over by Bain Capital in 2008 had apparently has been disintegrating ever since. Clear Channel is having to lay off staff wholesale to stay afloat. However, last year they were careful to lay people off in small numbers at a time so as not to make Bain Capital look bad.

Let’s hope Mitt at least sends them a cheap Christmas card.