What’s Happening Now

Most of the interesting news today was generated by a presidential press conference —

Obama Promises to Try Closing Guantánamo Again

Obama cautions against rush to action in Syria

Permission Structure: Getting deals done with congressional Republicans

Elsewhere: Jonathan Chait has a critique of a David Brooks column. I don’t have the strength to make it through a Brooks column today, but Chait says —

The latest offensive, or counter-offensive, in the passive-aggressive Cold War between David Brooks and Paul Krugman has taken the form of an entire Brooks column not very subtly lambasting Krugman as a tired partisan hack while justifying his own work as thoughtful, elevated, and intellectually independent. It’s unfortunately muddled and self-serving in a way that obscures some pretty important questions about how political commentators ought to do their job.

If Chait’s description is accurate, Brooks may have produced one of the purest samples of distilled bullshit of all time.

Dems With Vertebrae

Ben White and Tarini Parti write in Politico that some Dems are finally pushing back against the “debt crisis” myth.

These Democrats and their intellectual allies once occupied the political fringes, pushed aside by more moderate members who supported both immediate spending cuts and long-term entitlement reforms along with higher taxes.

But aided by a pile of recent data suggesting the deficit is already shrinking significantly and current spending cuts are slowing the economy, more Democrats such as Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine and Maryland Rep. Chris Van Hollen are coming around to the point of view that fiscal austerity, in all its forms, is more the problem than the solution.

I’ve always thought of Kaine as something of a milquetoast, so good for him.

Joe Weisenthal of that socialist rag Business Insider writes,

You might wonder what, exactly, is the big deal here. After all, Democrats haven’t been the ones pushing for spending cuts. Republicans have. But most of the time, Democrats have ceded the general point to Republicans that debt is a major problem, and that in some form or another, fiscal policy should focus on reducing that debt. The realization that growth is how you close the deficit and that austerity (because it saps growth) is counterproductive allows Democrats to form a counter-argument that doesn’t cede to the GOP’s premise. And that in itself is an important change in the debate.

Make no mistake that the data supports this concept.

He has line graphs. Do look.

Jared Bernstein writes,

Now, it’s surely the case that the spell isn’t as broken as all that–the force has been disturbed, the U-Mass team sprayed a heavy hose on the hair-on-fire austerions. But neither is Keynesianism about to break out all over.

Still, you gotta love the incredibly juicy irony of what’s going on. Nobel laureates, former Treasury officials, think tankers, yours truly and zillions of others have been trying to break through on this for years. Some bespectacled twenty-something comes along, and for a term paper–a term paper!–tries to replicate Rogoff and Reinhart’s study, he perseveres, gets some solid guidance from his profs, who happen not to genuflect at either the alter of austerity or the academic hierarchy (I’m afraid other profs might have shut the young man down)–and BOOM!

Somebody really needs to make a movie out of all of this someday.

I don’t think the debunking of Reinhart/Rogoff all by itself caused the partial collapse of the austerity myth. There were signs of disillusionment elsewhere, especially in Europe. The debunking may have been a tipping point, though. The myth isn’t dead, of course; it will be with us for a long time. But it’s nice to see the myth being challenged.

I disagree with White and Parti that this is going to hurt President Obama. The more Dems tell Republicans they can take their austerity and shove it, the weaker the Republican position. My sense of things is that the President is less pro-austerity than pro-get something passed, even if it isn’t what he wants.

See also “What if Simpson and Bowles threw a debt-reduction party and nobody came?

Update: Krugman

Angry, Alienated, and Stupid

You might remember that, shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing, a Saudi man injured at the scene was identified as a “person of interest” but cleared the next day. Since then, several of the dimmer bulbs of the Right have gone overboard smearing this guy as a dangerous terrorist with connections to the White House. They have evidence he has taken the White House visitors’ tour! He also was visited by the First Lady while in the hospital (along with the other victims of the bombing)! He posted photos of himself and the FLOTUS on his Facebook page! Obviously, there’s a dangerous cover-up going on!

(Why doesn’t anyone ever bring a defamation suit against these bozos? I suppose they don’t have enough assets to make it worthwhile, but still …)

On to the real alleged perps — By now it should be obvious to anyone else that the Tsarnaev brothers were not exactly a crack terrorist unit. As Charles Pierce says,

As the days go by, we learn more and more that what we were dealing with here, as deadly as their actions were, was a plot by the Wayne and Garth of terrorism, a couple of guys who could screw up a two-car funeral if you spotted them the hearse.

It’s unlikely these guys were being directed by any global jihadi movement; more likely they were angry and alienated young men acting out their anger and alienation. Which is not to say that angry and alienated men don’t join actual global jihadi movements.

GOP Legislation Theater

Today House Republicans pulled a bill from the floor that was intended to embarrass Democrats and undermine the Affordable Care Act. Majority Leader Eric Cantor had sponsored the “Helping Sick Americans Now Act,” which

… would siphon $3.6 billion from the Affordable Care Act’s $10 billion prevention and public health fund, aimed at combating disease and promoting wellness, into an underfunded short-term plan to cover people with preexisting conditions until 2014, when the law will begin to ban insurers from denying coverage based on health status.

But the legislation doesn’t reflect a serious long-term effort to address the problem of sick Americans lacking access to health care or getting thrown off their insurance plan. It would shore up a costly and temporary high-risk pool under Obamacare — called the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan — which expires at the end of 2013. Beyond that, Republicans continue to support repealing the rest of the Affordable Care Act, and lack economically feasible plans to address preexisting conditions.

Note that for years Republicans have promoted the idea of dumping people who need lots of medical care into high-risk insurance pools, so that people in the “normal” pool didn’t have to pay so much for insurance. The Affordable Care Act provided for something like that as a temporary fix until 2014, after which insurers can no longer refuse to insure people with pre-existing conditions. The problem is that the high-risk pools sucked up money the way a black hole sucks up matter, so that plan wasn’t really working. Naturally, that was the plan some Republicans decided to like.

However, other Republicans believed the bill would actually strengthen “Obamacare,” and who cares about sick people anyway? So it was scrapped.

The larger point is that the bill had absolutely no purpose except to give Republicans a bogus talking point to use against the President. Even if the Senate were to pass such a bill, the President would veto it. And then the GOP could say he vetoed a bill to help people with preexisting conditions, never mind that Obamacare actually does help people with preexisting conditions.

In other legislative theater news — Republicans have whined for some time that Democrats have not submitted a budget. Evan Soltas writes for Wonkblog,

For the last two years, congressional Republicans have argued that the real problem in the budget debate is that Democrats have abandoned “regular order.” By regular order, Republicans mean — well, I’ll let Sen. Jeff Sessions, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, explain it.

“Secret deals have not worked and are an affront to popular democracy,” he argued in January. “The right process is the regular order. The House produces its budget–as it has–and the Senate passes its budget, all in accordance with the Budget Act of 1974. Under that law, the Senate Budget Committee must approve a budget resolution by April 1st. From there, the law requires the budget to be considered on the Senate floor where it must receive 50 hours of open amendment and debate. A budget cannot be filibustered and is adopted by a simple majority in both committee and the full Senate. Then, once the issues and differences are clarified by this open process, the work of conferencing must begin.”

Soltas writes that “regular order” became a sacred totem among congressional Republicans. Well, until the Senate Democrats passed a budget. Now Republicans want to scuttle “regular order” in favor of backroom deals.

Selective Outrage

Eugene Robinson writes,

Since the 9/11 attacks, we have demonstrated that when alienated young men who are foreign-born and Muslim kill innocents, we will do anything in our power to keep such atrocities from happening again.

Shamefully, however, we have also shown that when alienated young men who are not foreign-born or Muslim do the same, we are powerless.

Robinson was talking about the failure of the Senate to pass a gun purchase background check law, but it goes further than that. The Texas plant explosion that killed 14 people and injured about 200 is fading from memory even as media are obsessing over every detail of the Boston bomb case. Mike Elk writes,

On Friday, as cable news networks sought desperately to fill airtime while waiting for the latest news in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, a friend asked me, “How come there’s no manhunt for the owner of the Texas factory, which did far more damage than the Boston bombers?” He was right to wonder. …

…After all, while it remains difficult to deduce what may have been the motives of the alleged Boston bombers, it is not so difficult to postulate what was behind the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company’s plant: the failure to follow the science of workplace safety. The plant had 1,350 times the legally allowed amount of highly explosive ammonium nitrate, yet hadn’t informed the Department of Homeland Security of the danger. Likewise, the fertilizer plant did not have sprinklers, shut-off valves, fire alarms or legally required blast walls, all of which could have prevented the catastrophic damage done. And there was little chance regulators would learn about the problems without the company reporting them: Not only had the Occupation Safety and Health Administration not inspected the plant since 1985, but also, due to underfunding, OSHA can only inspect plants like the one in West on average once every 129 years.

One suspects the factory owner is a native Texas white guy, so no, nobody cares. Had he been an immigrant from the Middle East or Latin America, however, he’d be a public enemy now.

Getting back to alienated young men … there does seem to be something that drives some young men to do damnfool things, whether shooting up a movie theater or becoming freelance jihadists. Maybe radical ideology is not the cause of the murderous impulses but just the package the murderous impulses crawl into, to give them some shape. Charles Pierce writes of the younger Tsarnaev,

What are they all going to do if this guy just turns out of be a pathetic, murderous follower of an unhinged older brother? What are they going to do if there’s no “cell,” and if he doesn’t declare his allegiance to jihad in court? What if he is, as he still appears to be, merely Dylan Klebold with a funny name and a pulse? We are supposed to be seeking justice here, not a public blood sacrifice to the gods we’ve made of our fears. What do we do if the truth denies us that?

Truth? Who needs truth?

Scared and Stupid

I had hoped to find something interesting to write about that is entirely removed from the Boston bombers, but have not succeeded. Michael Tomasky has a must-read piece on the conservative reaction —

As usual, conservatives are rushing to judgment, shredding the Constitution, using the bombing as an pretext for derailing immigration reform, and generally seeking any excuse to reimpose their paranoid and authoritarian worldview, which needs fear like a vampire needs blood, on the rest of us.

That’s scared, so let’s go on to stupid. Power Tool John Hinderacker provides a textbook example of bigotry as a strategy for conserving cognitive resources. He ridicules speculation about the Tsarnaev brothers’ possible motives. All you need to know, he says, is that they were eeeeeevil and Muslim. As if slapping a label on someone is the same thing as understanding. (Clue, Tool. It isn’t.)

But fear does love ignorance, so I can understand why the Tool is eager to short-circuit attempts at knowledge. And fear is what it is all about.

Conor Friedersdorf ties together our themes of scared and stupid by reminding us that war-on-terror hawks have no credibility.

The self-assurance of War on Terror hawks is one of the most peculiar phenomena in our politics. You’d think that the failure to foresee or stop the biggest terrorist attack ever carried out on U.S. soil would’ve caused guys like Dick Cheney to question their own geopolitical prescience. Instead, they immediately began urging the invasion of Iraq they’d long desired, insisting it was necessary to keep Americans safe. They got their war. As efforts to “keep us safe” go, it was a spectacular failure: Almost 4,500 Americans died in Iraq. More than 30,000 were wounded. Despite deaths and casualties far greater than on 9/11, the hawks insist to this day that Iraq was a prudent war. They’re ideologues who can’t see or won’t admit failures, facts be damned.

Don’t forget that.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon, the War on Terror hawks are speaking out with characteristic bluster. An uninformed observer might easily mistake their certainty for wisdom or competence. There is, in fact, no reason to trust their judgment on foreign policy or counterterrorism. Their dearth of self-doubt should be unnerving, not reassuring. And most Americans will recognize as much, so long as they’re reminded of the catastrophic policies the hawks unapologetically advocated, the many times their predictions have proven wrong, and the logical flaws in the arguments that they’ve been making in response to last week’s terrorist attack.

Be grateful we don’t have a Republican president, or we’d have declared war on somebody entirely unrelated to the Tsarnaev brothers by now.

Refusing to Watch

I’ve hardly watched television at all this past week, figuring it would be all Tsarnaevs all the time, bobbleheads frantically filling air time with interviews of the brothers’ cousin’s dog walker and what not. The British tabloid The Mirror is pushing a “sleeper cell” story that doesn’t appear to hold water. There’s also a story floating around that the older brother was killed by the younger one, not by cops. Maybe in a few weeks or months we’ll have a clear idea of what happened. Maybe. In the meantime, I’m not watching this.