Wrong Again, Bill!

Bill MaherBill Maher was at it again this Friday night on Real Time. It is sad to see, but he seems to be listening to a lot of Very Serious People. Last week, he was bashing disability and assuming that Americans were getting lazier. This week, he was bashing old people. He noted that we spend $4 on every senior citizen for every $1 spent on children. He also said that on average, Americans put in $150,000 into the entitlement programs, but receive $300,000 from them. I haven’t been able to verify either of these claims, but let’s just assume he’s right. (The numbers sound about right, even if they are also probably deceptive on their surface.)

On the first issue: there are a couple of ways you can look at this. You could say, as I do, that this is wrong and we ought to spend more money on our children. Or you could say, as Maher seems to, that we should spend much less on our older citizens. I don’t go along with that. We can afford just about anything we want. Our entitlement programs are miserly by European standards. When I see senior citizens on the bus, I think they can use more help, not less; they don’t seem to be getting over on the system.

As bad as all this is, it is the second issue where I get really mad. Maher completely ignores the fact that there are two numbers: inputs and outputs. If we want to make entitlements cost neutral, we could increase payments. We could, for example, raise the Social Security tax cap. But that isn’t even brought up. In fact, no mention of increased revenue is mentioned at all by anyone on the panel.

In talking about cuts, the discussion was just as bad. Sam Harris added very unhelpfully that we could means test the programs. There are two problems with this. First, it would make the programs more vulnerable as exactly those people with the most political power lose benefits. But the second issue is the killer: it wouldn’t save much money, unless we means tested down to less than middle-class incomes.

Nowhere in the discussion did anyone point out that the reason we spend so much money on entitlements is that medical care in the United States costs about twice what it does in other advanced countries. That—and that alone—is the reason we are spending so much money. To ignore this fact is to be deeply unserious about the issue. And presented as Maher did, it is nothing short of demagoguery.

I don’t know what is going on with Bill Maher these days. I fear that more and more he is hanging out with the libertarian crowd. And as I well know, they can be very seductive. But someone needs to talk to him, because it is starting to hurt his brand.

From Racist Rhetoric to Electoral Games

Republican PanicEarlier today, Jonathan Chait wrote, The GOP’s Anti-Democratic Panic. In it, he calls out David Frum for his recent bit of “both sides now” reporting. In all the major swing states, Republicans have been looking seriously at changing the way their electoral votes are granted—making them determined by (the currently gerrymandered) congressional districts. Frum says this is nothing new because the Democrats tried to do the same thing in Colorado back in 2004.

Chait pointed out two major differences. First, the change would have made the electoral votes proportional, not based upon congressional districts so it would have been much more fair. Second, the idea was neither proposed nor supported by elected officials, even on the local level. “The plan seemed to spring from liberal activists and was opposed by Democratic officials,” Chait wrote.

The main point of the article is how panicked the Republican Party is about Democracy:

All of these things are an attempt to handle political adversity by expanding the ability of the conservative minority to wield political power. Not all of them will succeed perfectly, or even at all. But it’s indicative of the party’s current state—not a coordinated strategy by any means, but a kind of adaptive response to the growing sense of being outnumbered at the polls.

This is to be expected, of course. For the last 30 years, the Republican Party has maintained policies that are unpopular. But they were nonetheless successful with two strategies. They fully embraced social conservationism and racist subtexts. The first part of this is easy enough to understand and it still represents a strong part of their coalition. But to this day, even most “moderate” Republicans refuse to acknowledge their racist appeal. But it is there and it is anything but subtle.

In 1980, just after becoming the Republican candidate for president, Ronald Reagan went to Neshoba County, Mississippi. That is where the three civil rights organizers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner where murdered by the KKK in 1964. In his first speech since the convention, Reagan said:

I believe in states’ rights…. I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment.

That’s about as clear as you can be apart from saying, “I’ll get the federal government out of your hair so you can go back to keeping your niggers in line.” Of course, it doesn’t take much digging to find Republicans more or less that blunt.

Now the demographics are moving such that there aren’t as many whites and those who remain are less inclined to find such dog whistles appealing. So the most obvious solution to the failing GOP constituency is to game the system so that they can stay in power without being popular. It is their only choice if the party is to remain unchanged. But even if they succeed at this, it will only work for a while. The party will eventually change. But that doesn’t make me particularly happy. Eventually we will all be dead.

Afterword

There is a tendency for liberals to assume that moves like this on the part of the Republicans are purely cynical. It isn’t. Take for example Pennsylvania House Republican leader Mike Turzai’s comment, “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania: done.” Most liberals present this as an example of Republicans cynically trying to game the system. This is not how Turzai sees it. To him, the only reason that Obama won the first time around was all the voter fraud that ACORN did. His comment only means that of course Mitt Romney would win in a fair contest and now that Voter ID was “done” it would be a fair contest.

Republicans believe their own bullshit. In Pennsylvania, where they may indeed change how electoral votes are distributed, I doubt they are thinking, “This is a way to screw the Democrats!” Instead, they are thinking, “This is a way to stop all the voter fraud that the Democrats are doing!” I am absolutely serious about this. Republicans see themselves as the victims in all of this and what they are doing is only meant to make things fair against those evil Democrats.

I bring this up because I think it is dangerous to assume that Republicans know what they are doing. They only listen to other Republicans. They are certain that the United States is a center-right (or even extreme-right) nation. According to their thinking, if only the votes of “real” Americans were counted, the Democratic Party would collapse. But as liberals, we can’t make the same mistake; we have to know what we are really fighting. Accusing Republicans of cynically manipulating the voting system will only make them retrench. We must convince them that their ideas really are toxic. That’s hard to do, of course. But we will never succeed in convincing them that they are cynical. Because they aren’t.

(Okay: many of the professionals are cynical. But the base isn’t. They are true believers. They drank the Flavor Aid.)