Have Decades of GOP Deregulation & Safety Net Gutting Made Depression the New Normal? (November 18, 2013)

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Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is never afraid to ask the tough questions. Though his Times blog bears the name “The Conscience of Liberal,” the title is sort of an unfortunate misnomer. Krugman’s esteemed reputation was fostered by a decidedly nonpartisan, common sense approach to policy evaluation. It is more a sign of the times that his Keynesian monetary philosophy has earned him the liberal firebrand label. It’s not that Krugman has moved to the left over the course of his career. It’s more that politicians, the media and other economy wonks have veered so far rightward.

I also appreciate that Krugman is an agitator, failing to be complacent about the status quo while accepting situations as “the way things are.” Thank goodness because we live in an era of such whitewashed talking points, of corporate media ownership and blurred lines between church and state that feed each other symbiotically.  It’s a real challenge to stumble across any real, independent thinkers.

This week, Krugman is at it again, acting as the proverbial thorn in the side of the “deficit scolds” he sees it as his civic duty to expose. In an early Monday morning column entitled, “A Permanent Slump?,” he wonders, “what if the world we’ve been living in for the past five years is the new normal? What if depression-like conditions are on track to persist, not for another year or two, but for decades?”

If it is indeed the case that the anemic job and economic growth we’ve experienced in recent years (and, as Krugman rightly points out, well precedes the late-2008 housing and stock market collapses) is now standard operating procedure, we have to go further. We must ask ourselves what’s changed? Why does it seem the robust glory days of the American middle class are behind us, and why should we accept this as so?

Krugman begins with a rather empirical observation about the undistinguished trap of modern economics. He notes, “the evidence suggests that we have become an economy whose normal state is one of mild depression, whose brief episodes of prosperity occur only thanks to bubbles and unsustainable borrowing.”  Thus he ties the latter Bush II “boom years” not to genuine expansion, but rather the disingenuous fraud perpetrated by record household debt and criminally destructive mortgage lending.

Slower post-Boomer population growth, which has led to reduced demand for infrastructure, products and services is offered as an unavoidable accessory to the economy’s stagnation, as well as “persistent trade deficits, which emerged in the 1980s and since then have fluctuated but never gone away.”

All common sense as pertains to the “why?” and I’m sure that even most right-wing economists would find little with which to quibble thus far. But then Krugman transcends the talking point laziness afflicting most GOP think tanks and dares to ask “what?” we can do to upend this trap.

“Central bankers [including the Fed] need to stop talking about ‘exit strategies.’ Easy money should, and probably will, be with us for a very long time. This, in turn, means we can forget all those scare stories about government debt…if our economy has a persistent tendency toward depression, we’re going to be living under the looking-glass rules of depression economics — in which virtue is vice and prudence is folly, in which attempts to save more (including attempts to reduce budget deficits) make everyone worse off — for a long time.”

And this is where he goes in for the kill vis a vis Republican policymakers and the cowardly, election cycle-focused Democrats afraid to contradict them:

“I know that many people just hate this kind of talk. It offends their sense of rightness, indeed their sense of morality. Economics is supposed to be about making hard choices (at other people’s expense, naturally). It’s not supposed to be about persuading people to spend more.”

Ironically, the “spend more” doctrine was championed by George W. Bush after the atrocities of 9/11, rightfully so, in order to stave off a panic-induced economic contraction.  The then-President offered up tax rebates and broadly encouraged Americans to use the funds to stimulate the economy, rather than save or pay down household debt. I offer this example not to champion the overall deficit-busting proclivities of Bush, but rather to hearken back to a time, just a little over a decade ago, when Republican economic policy went further than robbing the lower and middle classes to give gifts to the rich, all while performing Jedi mind tricks in an effort to convince the struggling that these actions were in their best interest.

For years now, the modern GOP has tried to leverage the Federal deficit, combined with “these are unusual times” rhetoric to try to wrench the social safety net out from under us, and delay job-creation spending to provide relief to the long-term unemployed. Only, as Paul Krugman demonstrates, these are not unusual times and current policy, if left unchecked, will only worsen the decline of hardworking American prospects.

That’s exactly what the one percent is hoping.  If we let these tactics continue to succeed as they have, shame on all of us.

Does de Blasio Victory in NYC Offer Post-Racial Blueprint for American Cities? (November 11, 2013)

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Short answer: it depends on who you ask as well as where the respondent lives.

In recent decades (starting with the ascent of former President William J. Clinton to the White House in 1992), “true” liberals have stood by helplessly as members of both of the nation’s political parties continued to drift further to the right. It’s a popular water cooler topic to discuss the radicalization of the G.O.P. However it’s nearly as important to remember the days when issues such as domestic spying, military drone strikes that end civilian lives and a constant focus on the deficit in the face of high, sustained unemployment would have been political kryptonite for liberals, rather than championed causes.

This column is not the place to debate the multitude of reasons why the left side of the spectrum has drifted so far rightward. They start with a need to win popular elections and end somewhere with the 24-hour news cycle and the instant judgment of social media turning elected officials into paralyzed indecisives.

Into this cesspool of partisan gridlock, where few voices remain to articulate and advocate for the platform of the true liberal waded New York City Mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio. De Blasio captured the zeitgeist after 20 years of Republican and “Independent” rule by emeritus leaders Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Just how hot is de Blasio right now? An early September article published by The Atlantic writer Molly Ball characterized the candidate as “a populist progressive and yuppie dad whose son has an awesome Afro.”

But there is much more to de Blasio’s Big Apple appeal than serving as one of the heads of a real-life Modern Family, although his clear devotion to his African-American wife and biracial children ultimately resonated with voters. But post-ballot armchair quarterbacks may want to focus less on money and the message and consider the natural next question. If de Blasio understands the diversity of tomorrow’s family (as of July 2012, the Census Bureau reported that the rate of Caucasian births had fallen to a minority among babies), what else is he able to anticipate?

Many New Yorkers have felt left behind in Manhattan’s decades-long resurgence. Skyrocketing housing prices, preferential treatment for Wall Street and diabolical laws such as the wildly controversial stop-and-frisk have pushed a growing number of middle class citizens to the fringe. And they’re no longer content to sit there peacefully. New York Times writer Michael N. Grynbaum published a story this week entitled Many Black New Yorkers Are Seeing de Blasio’s Victory as Their Own. In it, he observes:

“After the divisive tenor of the Giuliani years, and the deep grievances engendered by the stop-and-frisk police tactics of the Bloomberg era, black New Yorkers are now claiming Mr. de Blasio’s victory as their own. In postelection interviews, dozens of black New Yorkers said that Mr. de Blasio’s personal touch, his biracial family and his pledge to help the working-class and poor had affected them deeply. His victory, they said, was a chance to gain a voice in City Hall after two decades of leadership they viewed as inattentive, distant and, at times, even callous.”

In other words, a populist victory for a populist leader. And for those less fair-minded Republicans who seek minority voter disenfranchisement as a return path to the Mayor’s residence, be warned. The Times piece continues:  ”Some of those interviewed said they would have voted for him even without his biracial family, citing his staunch Democratic politics and pledge to address economic inequality.”

De Blasio’s surprising and unequivocal victory is both a sign of the coming post-racial times, as well as an indication that the G.O.P.’s careless “47 percent” dialogue made infamous by Mitt Romney is starting to elicit action from the masses so disregarded by the party. Though this sea change and demand for leadership more racially and ideologically diverse may take some time to trickle down to red states and more rural areas, it has begun.

Iowa Town Says No to Koch Brothers Influence on Local Elections (November 4, 2013)

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If 2013’s utterly wacky political developments have taught us anything, it’s that lasting democratic change is not going to trickle from the top down. The corruption of money-infused election and issues campaigns that never rest, the partisan gridlock that seems hopelessly entrenched in the House as a result of gerrymandering and the growing mistrust on the part of the American public (more than justified) is enough to engender forlorn feelings at the national level.

To offer an analogy, I find myself repeatedly returning to the behavior of the job market since the 2008 inception of the Great Recession. The simultaneous collapse of the stock and housing markets led to decreased consumer demand, which resulted in mass layoffs. An increase in the number of unemployed Americans further reduced spending capital, thus more layoffs. Though the stimulus package passed early in the President’s first term staunched a lot of the bleeding, we have yet to recover from those enormous job losses and if Republican policy continues to have sway (or the G.O.P continues to plant its collective feet and refuse to budge to help the country), we may still be years away from returning to pre-recession employment numbers.

And this pattern relates similarly to our country’s broken political discourse. The increasingly unproductive, shrill nature of the nation’s legislative branch is yielding a collective estrangement between elected “leaders” and the constituents they are purported to serve. The cynically-minded among us (count me a member of this group) might argue that populist disengagement is one of the explicit goals of some of the more nefarious lobbying groups, who may find it easier to sneak democratically harmful legislation through the back door when no one is looking.

Though it can certainly be argued that the movement toward complete inertia and recklessness at the Federal level has been decades in the making, the situation certainly escalated with the ascension of the Tea Party and its moneyed financial backers. And it’s very possible that no duo has prompted the Tea Party faction to wreak its irresponsible government havoc more than the Koch brothers. The brothers Koch have shielded their patently unpatriotic activities behind the ironically named group, Americans for Prosperity. It has been clear for sometime now that the “prosperity” this concerned body favors begins and ends with corporations, and the top one percent of the nation’s wealth holders.

But while Team Koch has a virtual stranglehold on Washington Republicans, Americans for Prosperity is finding it a bit harder to ram its agenda down the throats of voters at the local level – folks who have suffered in real time at the hands of a low tax, low personal freedom (for minorities, women and the gay community), low job creation agenda.

Monday morning’s edition of The New York Times carried a feature story entitled, Koch Group Has Ambitions in Small Races. At first glance this is a rather dispiriting headline. But a closer read carries a beacon of hope for those wondering when the predatory siblings might get their comeuppance. Writer John Eligon takes a look at the coming local elections in Coralville, Iowa, where voters are preparing to select their next Mayor and City Council members.

It seems Americans for Prosperity has been everywhere. Eligon writes that the group’s local chapter, “has jumped into the race…with an aggressive campaign, mailing fliers, advertising in newspapers, calling voters and knocking on their doors. Its latest leaflet hit mailboxes last week, denouncing the town’s growing debt and comparing it to the financial woes of Detroit.”

Marvelously, it seems Iowans have been largely unmoved by these efforts, to such a degree that they are turning from candidates who appear affiliated with the propaganda. Eligon continues, “Chris Turner, a first-time candidate for the City Council who has spoken out against the debt, said that although he disagreed with Americans for Prosperity on most issues, he could not seem to catch a break because his campaign platform aligns with the organization.

‘Every time I go to a debate or anything, I’ve tried talking about the budget, and then they just go, ‘Koch brothers, Koch brothers, Koch brothers,’ he said of his critics, adding that he wished Americans for Prosperity ‘would just go away.’”

While many more such repudiations of the Kochs’ expensive, undermining tactics will be needed before we can classify the local revolt as a full-fledged movement, this is highly encouraging. The thing about trends is that they can always be reversed. If Americans for Prosperity continues to repulse savvy municipal voters who know they are being had, that we can’t cut our way back to a thriving middle class, candidates will stop accepting Koch money and support. And then just maybe Chris Turner will get his wish and Americans for Prosperity will go away, taking their benefactors with them.

In Run-up to 2016, Chris Christie Finds Himself Alone in the Center Right (October 22, 2013)

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In evaluating Chris Christie’s leadership record as the Republican Governor of New Jersey, there are plenty of reasons for the moderate or liberal voter to be concerned. Christie took the oath of office on January 19, 2010 and initially offered a rather tired retread of the same G.O.P policies that have been called into question for decades: an across the board 10 percent state income tax cut, opposition to same sex marriage and the defeat of the Hudson River Tunnel Project.  The infrastructure initiative would have doubled the rail capacity for Jersey commuters traveling to New York City, and Christie killed the project according to NJ.com “even as Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was urging him from behind the scenes not to pull the plug before the two had a chance to discuss the matter, according to officials in the office of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).”

All that said, there is good cause to believe that Christie feels no need to submit to the “true conservative” litmus tests which pandering former moderates such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell routinely and disingenuously undergo. By the “white, straight male is right” standards of his party mates, Christie’s appointments of the openly gay Bruce Harris, and several Asian Americans, to the New Jersey Supreme Court were a breath of fresh, modern air.

On January 2 of this year, Christie openly and savagely criticized Congress’s postponement of a Hurricane Sandy disaster relief bill as “selfishness and duplicity” that was “disgusting to watch.” Most pointedly and grievously in terms of his party standing, the Governor claimed there was “only one group to blame, the Republican Party and Speaker Boehner.” Insult to injury as far as the G.O.P. was concerned after this photo of “The Hug,” a rare moment of emotional bipartisanship between a Republican leader and President Obama.

Two months ago, Christie signed a bill outlawing gay conversion therapy in children, making New Jersey the second state to implement such a law. While this may sound like average, tolerant and compassionate good sense, bear in mind that the party lags far behind the American people when it comes to the recognition of equality for all. Consider the loathsome “pray away the gay” clinics once operated by Marcus Bachmann, husband of Tea Party standard bearer, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

Christie is far from perfect. His temper is legendary, and in 1996, the Governor switched from a pro-choice to a pro-life viewpoint, a move widely seen as base pandering rather than authentic change of heart. However, Christie is not the first politician from either party to adapt his platform to his public (see Obama’s often frustrating “evolution” on LGBT equality questions). By and large, the burly boss appears real and unscripted in an age of kowtowing and carefully scripted sound bites.

Early into the week, Christie once again finds himself on the wrong side of Republican party doctrine. The New York Timespublished a story on Monday by writer Marc Santora with the title, Christie Withdraws Appeal of Same-Sex Marriage Ruling in New Jersey. Although the Governor’s team was clear that the withdrawal should not be taken as support of the state’s Supreme Court ruling that hurdles to equality must be immediately and finitely removed, Christie breeches again with the right wing by embracing common sense. He will not continue to waste time and taxpayer money on a battle he can’t win. “‘Although the governor strongly disagrees with the court substituting its judgment for the constitutional process of the elected branches or a vote of the people, the court has now spoken clearly as to their view of the New Jersey Constitution and, therefore, same-sex marriage is the law,’ Mr. Christie’s administration said in a statement. ‘The governor will do his constitutional duty and ensure his administration enforces the law as dictated by the New Jersey Supreme Court.’”

At the risk of giving the Governor too much credit for simply refusing to take up residence in despotic Fantasyland, I find myself relishing a good 2016 Presidential contest in the event that Christie is able to overcome his party’s primary season extremism. One can always hope that conservative voters will come to see the merits of nominating someone who might actually, you know, win a general election. I’m unlikely to cast a ballot for Christie myself, especially if Hillary Clinton makes a formal decision to run, but it would be awfully nice to be able to summon some respect for the opposition. It’s been too long.

Republicans To Big Business: Guess What? We Don’t Care What You Want (October 14, 2013)

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I don’t often say this in print so my detractors should enjoy the novelty. I was wrong. Granted, I have been in error at several intervals when I believed that Tea Party Republicans, no matter how fervent and misguided their messages, were ultimately Americans first. There’s no way they’d take us close to the brink during the 2011 debt ceiling crisis, causing our nation’s credit rating to be downgraded for the  first time since those stats were recorded, right?

Once Obama roundly won re-election in November 2012 and after Obamacare became the law of the land, they’d come to accept this as reality and move onto another target? Anyone? Anyone?

But most assuredly I had been led to believe that no matter what intransigent, batty opposition this faction of the G.O.P. had to all things POTUS supported, there was still one group’s authority that brooked no opposition. I speak of course of Big Business, that bastion of free market, deregulated “freedom” that these Tea Party patriots seem to value above all things, starting with the fabric of the social safety net.

It isn’t very often that the views and interests of compassionate liberals and sterile, bottom-line driven business leaders intertwine, but these my friends, are unusual times. Thus we encounter headlines such as Business Groups See Loss of Sway Over House G.O.P. in last week’s New York Times. The piece, from writers Eric Lipton, Nicholas Confessore and Nelson D. Schwartz, opens with the following:

“As the government shutdown grinds toward a potential debt default, some of the country’s most influential business executives have come to a conclusion all but unthinkable a few years ago: Their voices are carrying little weight with the House majority that their millions of dollars in campaign contributions helped build and sustain.”

Realizing that they are part and parcel of the tools used to build the 21st Century edition of Frankenstein’s Monster, the story goes on to observe:

“Their frustration has grown so intense in recent days that several trade association officials warned in interviews on Wednesday that they were considering helping wage primary campaigns against Republican lawmakers who had worked to engineer the political standoff in Washington. ”

Well that is certainly a seismic shift in attitude toward the years of dollar-funneling in support of political campaigns, representing the most conservative “lawmakers.” But I suppose even entities with interests that run counter to the health of the American worker see this indefensible legislative squatting for what it really is: a threat to the collective livelihood of everyone. How democratic.

The Times piece, however, was written a week ago. Since then Republican leaders have flirted with the possibility of a reasonable, balanced solution to the government shutdown/debt ceiling standoff. At the moment when a weekend compromise finally seemed possible, they then pulled the football away, Lucy-style, just as a tentative Democratic caucus (definitely the Charlie Brown of this analogy) was ready to kick it.  What was the result?

Writers Annie Lowrey and Nathaniel Popper write a fresh Timespiece, World Leaders Press the U.S. on Fiscal Crisis that widens the net of recorded business community frustration. It represents an area no smaller than, you know, the entire planet.  The article begins:

“Leaders at World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings on Sunday pleaded, warned and cajoled: the United States must raise its debt ceiling and reopen its government or risk ‘massive disruption the world over,’ as Christine Lagarde, the fund’s managing director, put it.”

Let it never be said that the IMF, former superfans of austerity, are in the pocket of liberal, Keynesian economists like Paul Krugman.

But here’s my favorite section of the Lowrey and Popper piece:

“Jamie Dimon, the chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, painted a bleak picture of the days ahead if there is no resolution. ‘As you get closer to it, the panic will set in and something will happen,’ Mr. Dimon said …’I don’t personally know when that problem starts.’ He added that JPMorgan had been ‘spending huge amounts of time and money and effort to be prepared.’”

People, when the pleas of the vaunted Jamie Dimon, Wall Street kingpin and “London Whale” trading loss shepherd, go unheeded, we have entered a new era.

An era when a small minority of terrorists (I care not that Democratic leaders have tried to soften their language. It’s getting them nowhere.) stand for nothing, care for no one, above and beyond getting their own way. I’m not sure people on the right know what that even means anymore. Is there anyone left who can articulate and defend the maneuvers of these crackpots?

The business community has finally gotten hip: you were pawns. Pawns with a lot of money. The Tea Party intends to bring you down along with the rest of us. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.