Too Broke to Fix

I started to skim the Salon article, “Straight-up propaganda”: Fox News, charlatans, conspiracy theorists and the religious fanatics endangering democracy, thinking it would be the usual rant against the right-wing crazies who keep us from having nice things, but it actually goes deeper than that and is worth reading.

The author, Joseph Heath, argues that the entire U.S. political system has built-in vulnerabilities, and mass media makes these vulnerabilities more easily exploitable by demagogues, and as a result democracy in the U.S. is more, shall we say, challenged than in many other democracies.

The author writes that democracies of any sort must strike a balance between being responsive to public concerns but not being so responsive that public policy is perpetually being jerked around by every passing whim. He points out, for example, that nearly always in functioning democracies the central banking system functions independently of government so that it can make necessary but unpopular decisions without interference.

Thus it is important to recognize that modern democratic political systems involve a delicate compromise between, on the one hand, the desire for public control of decision making and, on the other hand, the need for rational, coherent policy. Democracies need to be democratic, but they also need to work, in the sense that they need to produce a state that effectively discharges its responsibilities. Thus they have a variety of institutional features that allow them to function even when the democratic public sphere is completely degraded.

But this only works up to a point; ultimately politicians elected by the people have the last word on many things. Where issues are complex — and most of ’em are these days — one may either rely on experts or reach consensus through democratic deliberation. And there’s our problem — democratic deliberation itself is utterly degraded. We can’t even discuss anything anymore. And here is where the U.S. is uniquely vulnerable.

One of the glaring deficiencies of the American political system, for instance, is that the president is never forced to engage in debate with other legislators and is never forced to answer any question he doesn’t want to answer. In the British parliamentary system, the prime minister has to show up in the House of Commons when it is in session and defend the policies of the government. He or she is there treated like any other member of Parliament, and thus jeered, heckled, and challenged by members of the opposition. For this reason, and despite how degraded the spectacle has become over time, “question period and debate institutionalize doubt and scepticism in the political system.”

Weirdly, this fact can protect incompetent legislatures as much as Presidents.

In January 2010, House Republicans took the unusual step of inviting President Obama to address their caucus retreat in Baltimore, after which the president spent over an hour responding to questions directly  from legislators. Two things about this were noteworthy. First, Americans from one end of the country to the other were astonished by the lucidity of the exchanges. What they were used to seeing was the president and the members of Congress exchanging barbs through the media. Seeing the president able to respond to questions directly was a revelation. Second, there was the fact that President Obama completely eviscerated his opponents—to the point where Fox News cut off the live broadcast,  in order to save the Republican Party from further embarrassment. The major reason is that most of the Republican legislators did what they were accustomed to doing, which is use their questions as an opportunity to spout talking points. They didn’t realize that this only works as a media tactic; it doesn’t work in a face-to-face exchange with a political opponent, particularly one who can take as much time as he likes to respond.

Because it went so badly for them, Republicans never invited Obama back. Therein lies the central problem with the American presidential system: this kind of exchange is optional. In most other democracies, this kind of exchange is institutionalized as a requirement. As it stands, the American political system simply lacks any mechanism to force the president and legislators to explain themselves or their actions to one another. This makes the “norm of truth” very difficult to enforce, and in turn encourages the slow descent into truthiness. The point is that irrationalism is not an inevitable consequence of the modern condition; it is in many respects a consequence of the institutions we have chosen.

I confess I’d never thought of this before. The author also suspects that had Ronald Reagan “been forced to enter a ‘parliamentary bear pit’ every week the way the British prime minister is, he could not have survived his second term in office.” His dementia would have become obvious. And the Cult of Reagan that still dominates the Republican Party might never have taken hold.

But then there’s mass media. As much as we love transparency, there is evidence from other countries that just putting everything on television is not necessarily helpful. In many countries the introduction of television cameras to legislative debates has caused politicians to speak in sound bytes for public consumption rather than actually argue. The very fact of mass media technology seems to cause some degradation of deliberation. But mass media in the U.S. is worse than elsewhere.

American journalists have a peculiar habit of interviewing each other rather than independent experts, making the entirely media universe something of closed loop. When discussing the federal budget, for instance, they will often put together panels consisting entirely of lobbyists and other journalists. It is relatively rare to see an actual economist (with the exception of Paul Krugman, who typically appears in his capacity as a New York Times columnist, not as an economist). This seems to be just a part of the culture of American journalism—public television is nearly as bad as private—and it’s difficult to see what could be done about it.

There are some other more obvious problems. The creation of straight-up propaganda networks like Fox News in America has done enormous damage to the quality of democratic discourse in that country.

Heath goes on to say that the abolition of the Fairness Doctrine did make things worse, but even more than the Fairness Doctrine we need laws that penalize outright lying and misrepresentation. Other countries have such laws.

The European Parliament, for instance, has passed a resolution specifying that “news broadcasting should be based on truthfulness, ensured by the appropriate means of verification and proof, and impartiality in presentation, description and narration.” In the United Kingdom, the Broadcasting Code requires that “news, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality.” Canada has a rule (enforced by the Canadian Radio-television Communications Commission) that simply prohibits the intentional, repeated broadcast of “false or misleading news.” This type of constraint is more easily defended than the Fairness Doctrine, since it is closer in spirit to the laws governing  false advertising. And yet the Canadian rule is strong enough to have so far prevented Fox News from expanding into that market.

Here, even a state law that prohibited outright lying in campaign commercials was struck down as being a violation of free speech rights. This is insane. Commercials can’t make false claims about toothpaste, but they can about candidates for office, because freedom?

Heath also thinks that a fairly simple way to stop the voter suppression games is to make voting mandatory. That had never occurred to me, but maybe it’s worth considering. Unfortunately …

Criticizing the American political system has, unfortunately, become something of a mug’s  game, simply because the deficiencies are all mutually reinforcing, and so no matter how much sense it would make to change one thing or another, nothing is going to get fixed.

The status quo depends on nothing getting fixed, actually. So the status quo will see to it nothing gets fixed. Krugman’s column today says, “Today’s political balance rests on a foundation of ignorance, in which the public has no idea what our society is really like.” And the system is rigged so they can’t find out.

I very reluctantly have come around to thinking that the system is so broken it cannot be returned to anything resembling functionality. The most likely outcome is that the U.S. will continue to decline economically and politically over the next several years until quality of life is so eroded for enough people that something big and nasty and possibly violent will happen to change everything. We may actually have to become a failed state first, though.

We’re Crazy Enough Already, Ross, Thanks

Channeling his inner David Brooks, Ross Douthat has cranked out a column notably clueless even by David Brooks standards. Douthat has decided we have a deficit of whackjob religious cults.

LIKE most children of the Reagan era, I grew up with a steady diet of media warnings about the perils of religious cults — the gurus who lurked in wait for the unwary and confused, offering absolute certainty with the aftertaste of poisoned Kool-Aid. From the 1970s through the 1990s, from Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate, frightening fringe groups and their charismatic leaders seemed like an essential element of the American religious landscape.

Yet we don’t hear nearly as much about them anymore, and it isn’t just that the media have moved on.

Douthat notes that today’s “cult” leaders are a far more innocuous crew — instead of David Koresh, we get Joel Olsteen — and he thinks this is a bad thing.

The decline of cults, while good news for anxious parents of potential devotees, might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large.

The Branch Davidians were many things, but I never thought of them as creative. Anyway, Douthat quotes a couple of guys, one of which says that a wild religious fringe is a sign of a healthy center, and “a religious culture that lacks for charismatic weirdos may lack ‘a solid core of spiritual activism and inquiry’ as well.” Another guy says that “fewer crazy cults” are a sign that “we have given up our sense of wonder at secrets left to be discovered.”

If it’s creativity Douthat is worried about, he should rest assured there’s plenty of it out there, and most of it is in his party. Consider such creative folks as Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Laura Ingraham, who on Friday told her radio audience that President Obama plans to expose our troops to Ebola to make up for colonialism. David Koresh was a slacker compared to such as these.

You don’t hear a lot about people being abducted by aliens any more, either, but when you’ve got a President exposing troops to ebola and crazed jihadi prayer mats / soccer jerseys mysteriously turning up in Texas, who needs UFOs?

Today in Panic News

I don’t want you to panic, but the Lt. Gov. of Texas announced that prayer rugs have been found on the Texas side of the border. The sneaky, nefarious payer rugs apparently attempted to disguise themselves as soccer jerseys. Don’t trust textiles.

On a more serious note, there is considerable panic over the workplace decapitation in Oklahoma, which strikes me as the work of someone with borderline personality disorder who watched the recent ISIS beheading videos a few too many times. This is a good argument for keeping some things off the Internet.

So far only Breitbart — the same crew who can’t tell the difference between a prayer rug and a soccer jersey — plus the usual suspects such as Pam Geller and Jim Hoft are reporting a direct connection between the perpetrator and actual jihadists.  This tells us with a high degree of certainty that there  is no actual evidence of such a connection at the present time, although that hardly matters to the unfortunate woman who was killed.

As Steve M says the mainstream press is downplaying this story, possibly because there’s not much to report so far except the grisly details. And the world is full of people with borderline personality disorder.


Killing the Goose, Dreaming the Dream

I have just a couple of quibbles about Digby’s otherwise excellent rant about the death of the American dream. One is that she doesn’t clarify that the American Dream was pretty much exclusively owned by white people until relatively recently. Here’s the other:

In a time when people feel they can’t keep up or are falling behind, it’s hard to have faith in the idea that everyone can achieve a base level of security and provide for their kids to do better than they did. That was always the deal for working-class Americans, immigrants and middle-class alike.

That may always have been the ideal, and it worked out for a lot of folks, but I’m not sure even most white people born in the U.S. in the 19th century thought of it as “the deal” and expected to achieve a greater degree of security than their parents. They may have reasonably hoped to, and a lot of them did, but the experience that made the dream an expectation was really what happened from the late 1930s until about 1972. Digby’s a boomer too, although I think slightly younger than I am, and white middle class boomers really did expect a financially secure and ever more affluent life, because that had been our parents’ experience and we saw no reason for it to stop. And for some of us that happened,and for some of us, it didn’t.

In the 19th century, the Dream was largely crafted from the Western Territories. If you were an ordinary white working-class shlub or farmer living in the East you probably were not going to improve your situation much, but you could always Go West. That didn’t always work out, but the possibility was always there and made life seem less desperate.

Also in the first half of the 20th century ordinary working people and farmers, white and black, often lived very meager lives in the U.S., but people ignored them. (My mother used to tell stories about her very white poor cousins who sharecropped watermelon in the Ozarks in the 1920s, whose standard of living probably wasn’t appreciably different from what their parents’ had been in the 1890s.) Large parts of the U.S. were sunk into terrible poverty during the “Roaring 20s” but we remember the Gatsby lifestyle, fueled largely by speculation and bubbles, because that’s what was recorded in the magazines and in films.

The New Deal, GI Bill and other great liberal 20th century programs that did things like improve working conditions and reduce black lung in coal miners really created the Middle Class that we think of today as the Middle Class. And just as we all got complacent and began to think this is the way things are always going to be, the malefactors of great wealth started to persuade some of us that everything would be so much better if we dismantled some of those awful government programs that got in the way of wealth creation. We didn’t remember that those awful government programs had made the Middle Class possible. We really have become people who got greedy and killed the goose who laid golden eggs.

As Digby points out, part of our problem is that today Democrats and Republicans conceptualize the American Dream very differently.  Democrats think in terms of a decent and secure standard of living; Republicans want to get rich. And what’s happening is that the more modest “dream,” which might be achievable for most people, is being sacrificed for the sake of the fantasy one.  And, ironically, data tell us that southern working-class whites, who overwhelmingly vote Republican, are the biggest losers here. But you can’t tell them that because guns, gays and God.

Reactionary “conservatism” has put us on a course that is not sustainable, and I honestly don’t see what’s going to change anything, especially with our corrupted election system. So there we are.

Update: See also Krugman

I’ve just reread a remarkable article titled “How top executives live,” originally published in Fortune in 1955 and reprinted a couple of years ago. It’s a portrait of America’s business elite two generations ago, and it turns out that the lives of an earlier generation’s elite were, indeed, far more restrained, more seemly if you like, than those of today’s Masters of the Universe.

“The executive’s home today,” the article tells us, “is likely to be unpretentious and relatively small — perhaps seven rooms and two and a half baths.” The top executive owns two cars and “gets along with one or two servants.” Life is restrained in other ways, too: “Extramarital relations in the top American business world are not important enough to discuss.” Actually, I’m sure there was plenty of hanky-panky, but people didn’t flaunt it. The elite of 1955 at least pretended to set a good example of responsible behavior.

But before you lament the decline in standards, there’s something you should know: In celebrating America’s sober, modest business elite, Fortune described this sobriety and modesty as something new. It contrasted the modest houses and motorboats of 1955 with the mansions and yachts of an earlier generation. And why had the elite moved away from the ostentation of the past? Because it could no longer afford to live that way. The large yacht, Fortune tells us, “has foundered in the sea of progressive taxation.”

Back to my premise, that from the last years of the Depression and until about 1972 — the point at which real wages for working American peaked and began to decline — the U.S. enjoyed the smallest degree of wealth inequality in its history. The rich were not so rich, and the poor were not so poor. A lot of factors killed this situation, but more than anything else “Reaganomics” has seen to it those conditions can never come back.

Update: See also “The most important chart about the American economy you’ll see this year”

On Holder

We learned today that Eric Holder is resigning, and already his replacement is controversial. Ted Cruz is warning the President that he must not try to sneak a candidate through the Senate until next year, when the new and possibly Republican-dominated Senate is sworn in, because apparently lame duck Senators are not real Senators

And of course, Republicans will automatically reject anyone the President nominates, leaving Holder on the job for two more years, because they love him so much. One of the most stirring tributes to Holder came from the Cato Institute, in fact, but Cato quickly yanked it off their website because someone there possibly realized that comparing Eric Holder to George Wallace was getting a little too stirring.

Charles Pierce:

Numerous reports, now confirmed, have it that Attorney General Eric Holder is going to resign. (The New Yorker reported a while back that Holder was planning to leave this year, but there was no firm date set.) Quite naturally, because they can’t help themselves, the FastandFurious/IRS/NewBlackPanthers/Benghazi! peanut gallery is aflame. Jim Hoft is beside himself, which means, I guess, there are now two Dumbest People On The Internet.

One of the dimmer  bulbs on Fox News actually said

“He was droning terrorists without a trial while he was giving them trials in downtown Manhattan. He ran the DOJ much like the Black Panthers would. That is a fact.”

The Black Panthers have drones? I did not know that. Or does Holder remind Ms. Dim of Black Panthers in some other way? Hmmm…

Scorched Earth Elections

Gov. Scott Walker has been trailing in his re-election bid, so it must be a relief to him to be able to fall back on voter suppression. But there is a new wrinkle, which is voter intimidation by armed pro-Walker goons. The Wisconsin Poll Watcher Militia is not just going to try to look intimidating at polling places; they are actually checking to see who signed the petitions to recall Walker a short time back, identify which ones are Democrats, and investigate them. And if any of those people have outstanding warrants, the militia will not just call law enforcement but will follow them to their homes — I think that’s called “stalking” — and then turn them over to law enforcement.  Digby writes,

They are using information from a website a volunteer has set up to identify people who signed recall petitions. He’s created subsets of those with tax issues, those who are Democratic donors, those who (they claim) are sex offenders, etc., and they are listing the names in a searchable format that includes offenses as minor as speeding. Rush Limbaugh even gave them a shout-out the other day, saying, ”Thanks to his hard work, we finally know who is not paying their fair share of taxes in Wisconsin.” (That’s not actually true; this list only includes those who signed the recall petitions. It’s fair to guess that there are plenty of Scott Walker fans who aren’t big on paying their fair share of taxes.)

Are you putting up with this, Wisconsin? Seriously?

In the Kansas Senate race, Republican Pat Roberts is trailing independent Greg Orman, and the GOP is doubling down 0n the nasty. This is a critical race for keeping the Senate from changing hands. Part of Roberts problem is that he ran a scorched-earth campaign to win his primary against a Teabagger candidate, and the Kansas baggers have not forgiven him. He may yet persuade the Kansas baggers that Orman is a secret communist or worse, an Obama supporter, however.  So we may yet see what baggers are made of. Um, be afraid.

Forward or Backward?

I spent the day at a zazenkai, or short meditation retreat, instead of at the climate march in NYC. I think about half of our sangha must have been in the march, though. Just as we were ending the retreat a couple of people who had been in the march walked in and said it was fantastic, with an estimated 310,000 participants. (See also.)

There really are people who give a damn, you know.

If you didn’t watch the PBS Ken Burns series on the Roosevelts you missed out; it was really good. You can probably watch it on the PBS website. It was a bit depressing, though, to consider how un-progressive the country has grown since then. The great presidents, the great leaders, always left the country with the sense that progress is possible; that the nation could do whatever it needed to do. Those days are sure gone.

In my lifetime I think the last President who made me feel that way was Kennedy, and he didn’t live long enough to accomplish much. I know that conservatives got that feeling from Reagan, but Reagan was leading the nation backward, not forward. For all his economic accomplishments Clinton more or less seemed like a placeholder to me. His motto might have been He Managed to Keep the Right From Screwing Us Even Worse. But I also suspect that if FDR came back to the White House today, he wouldn’t be much more effective than President Obama. There’s just way too much retrograde energy in Washington for anything genuinely progressive to happen.

At Salon, Thomas Franks writes that Gov. Sam Brownback has been so ineffective even the people of Kansas have noticed. Kansas is a state in which the governor and the legislature ran everything according to the Tea Parety/Koch Brothers book, and the results are more than pitiful. They are damn near catastrophic.

“What is going on here is so freakishly self-damaging, so bizarrely self-contradicting that it makes you think of a man trying out his new shotgun on his own foot, or of a president putting a meth addict in charge of the nuclear football.” Brownback is trailing his Democratic opponent, although narrowly. How incompetent does a Republican have to be to be voted out of office? I guess we’re about to find out.

Dark Money, Dark Science

Resolved: Every time someone uses the phrase “settled science” we should all throw a penalty flag. And if this is said by an actual scientist, he should be locked in stocks so that we may pelt him with genetically altered tomatoes. It is not the nature of science to “settle”; there is always doubt; there is always something more to know.

Most non-scientists don’t appreciate this, which makes the myth of “settled science” an easy way to bamboozle the rubes whenever science starts to step on monied toes. The Masters of the Universe don’t have to disprove science when it threatens to cost them money. All they need to do is discredit it enough so that government hesitates to act on it.

A “leading scientist” named Steven Koonin writes in the Wall Street Journal that climate change is not “settled science.” He acknowledges that it is “settled” that climate change is happening, but that since we don’t know precisely how in all details it’s too soon to actually do anything about it.

Let me add that Koonin is a physicist, not a climate guy, who was once chief scientist for BP.

David Atkins writes,

The argument sounds reasonable at first, but it’s absurd on its face. It would be like a doctor refusing to treat a strange new disease because we don’t fully understand all of the effects it might have on the body. It might cause kidney failure and heart failure, or maybe just one, or neither! We just don’t have enough information to treat, so let’s do nothing! Of course, by the time kidney failure occurs it will be too late to save the patient, but oh well.

Of all the cynical arguments against action on climate change, Koonin’s ranks among the most disturbing because it’s so obviously calculated by a very smart person to make a radically irresponsible conclusion just to protect a few entrenched economic elites.

Note also that 2014 is shaping up to be the hottest year on record.

Since Koonin is a physicist I wish someone would ask him about gravity. Science has not settled on an explanation of how gravity works. Until it does, can we walk off cliffs? You first, Steve Koonin.

The Clinton Ambivalence

Those sneaky lefties got caught talking to each other through private secret sneaky leftie emails again, and we learn that a lot of them don’t want Hillary Clinton to be nominated in 2016, which apparently was big news. Not news to me, mind you, but it was a revelation to The Hill. Maybe the Media will adjust the narrative now, though.

At The Atlantic, Molly Ball writes that Hillary Clinton’s unofficial campaign so far is long on pablum, short on substance. Molly Ball has revealed a tendency to be clueless in the past, so a certain degree of skepticism is required here. But Dave Weigel pretty much says the same thing. She’s being covered by media like syrup on pancakes, but she isn’t giving them anything to write about, he says.

Taylor Marsh writes that Hillary Clinton is too making substantive policy statements, but they are statements about women’s empowerment and so they are ignored, because sexism. There’s no doubt something to that. On the other hand, Taylor’s examples are not exactly earth-shattering stuff. Dems have been running on equal pay for decades. And the party generally is no longer running away from reproductive rights as they used to.

Also, too, since when have media covered Dem candidates’ policy positions? Or anybody’s, for that matter? They cover the horse race. They cover personalities. They cover scandals, real and imagined. They cover gaffes. They cover the stuff one candidate claims about the other candidate. Actually reporting on what candidates might do in office, not so much.

I suspect what the reporters tailing HRC are waiting for is a commitment to seek the nomination, at which time they will climb all over each other trying to be the first one to get a report on the Web someplace. They may be so focused on that she could promise to personally fly air strikes over Iraq and no one would notice.

Maybe she knows that, and maybe that’s why she won’t commit.

If she actually is considering not running, she should do the Democratic Party a favor and make up her mind now. If she actually is not running she should get out of the way and let other Dems get the media attention. But she probably is planning to run, and remaining ambivalent as long as possible is part of her campaign strategy.  In the meantime, she’ll get innocuous press coverage about appearing here or there and not saying shit, which may be what she wants for now.