Via Matt Yglesias, Business Week used an unfortunate graphic to argue that hedge funds were not the great investments that most people think they are. But that wasn’t what I thought when I saw the image. I thought was Yglesias wrote, “BusinessWeek has a new cover story out by Sheelah Kolkhatar about how despite the perception that hedge fund managers have large erect penises, their penises are actually quite squiggly looking.” Someone had to say it.
A lot of people wonder what a liberal like Dean Baker means when he writes a book like, The End of Loser Liberalism. He means a lot, of course, and you should read it because that link provides the book in various electronic formats that are free. But mostly what he means is that the whole paradigm that we have of liberals being for big government and conservatives being for small government is just dead wrong. I write about this a lot myself, but I’m not sure that I didn’t originally get the idea from him. The fact is that conservatives are just for a different kind of big government. Most of the time, it is even bigger than the government liberals want. What’s more, it is infinitely more pernicious. My favorite example is that liberals want to spend money on libraries. No one ever lost their liberty because of public libraries. Yes, I know: conservatives think that taxation is theft, but that doesn’t stop them from taxing for whatever it is they want. And the things they want to tax for really are associated with the loss of liberty: armies, spying, vaginal probes.
Today, we had as clear an example of this divide as we will ever have. The farm bill is normally a very popular thing. Rural representatives like it because it gives money and price supports to farmers; urban representatives like it because it gives food (mostly in the form of food stamps or SNAP) to poor people. But when the House tried to pass a farm bill last month, it failed. Democrats didn’t like it because it made savage cuts to SNAP. The most conservative Republicans didn’t like it because it didn’t cut SNAP enough. So in order to get a farm bill passed, the House Republicans split the farm bill in half: part for farms and part for SNAP. And they passed the “farm only” bill and said they would get to the “SNAP only” bill later.
Note what’s going on. The Republicans have no trouble with spending taxpayer money. They just don’t want it to go to the poor. It is just fine if it goes to farmers. This is interesting, because as economist Vincent H. Smith has shown, farmers are richer than Americans on average, and getting more so. And in the past, this is what people hated about the farm bill. It wasn’t that poor families were getting nutritional support or that kids were getting hot lunches at school. Now the Republican Party is saying very clearly that all that really matters is that tax dollars go to people they see as authentic rather than those who might actually need it.
There is another part of it. The farm bill sets price floors on goods. That is a big way that it helps farmers. This means that everyone has to pay more for food than they would in a free market. Those hit worst by these price floors are the poor. Thus, SNAP is a logical way to offset that unfair burden (although it does far more than that). As you can see from this, it has nothing to do with conservatives being in favor of free markets. Not only are conservatives giving direct payments middle class and much more wealthy farmers, they are providing a huge distortion to the market with price supports.
The real question is why even liberals continue to believe that they are for big government and conservatives are not. I think this stems largely from conservative mythology. They so believe that liberalism is a form of socialism and conservatism is a form of libertarianism, that they have themselves convinced that they really are for small government. History tells a different story with the two coming out of exactly the same traditions. And thus, it isn’t surprising that they act much the same. And there is also the question of how politics works. People get political power by providing their constituencies things they want. There is no consistency that wants the government to disappear. But there are constituencies that believe the only correct function for government is to give stuff to them alone. And that’s how we get today’s logic: farmer gooood! Poor people baaad!
On this day in 1274, Robert the Bruce was born. He was the guy who gained Scottish independence from the English. The Elizabethan playwright Robert Greene was born in 1558. He is best known for Greene’s Groats-Worth of Wit, a rant he wrote on his deathbed. In it, he took a swipe at Shakespeare as an “upstart crow, beautified with our feathers.” Doncha just love how the Brits keep their metaphors consistent? Anyway, most people want to take this reference as an indication that Shakespeare was already rocking the theater world. I think there is a simpler explanation: Shakespeare pissed off Greene at one point or another. Anyway, that kind of carping about colleagues was typical of the time, and Shakespeare was barely mentioned compared to other writers. John Quincy Adams was born in 1767. He had rather a bad middle life but his later life was pretty noble.
The great 19th century painter and creator of tonalism, James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born in 1834. He is best know for Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, better known as Whistler’s Mother. It was indeed a painting of his mother. And it was not well received when it was first displayed in England. Eventually Whistler pawned the painting. But within 20 years, it was purchased by the French government and was hanging in the Luxembourg Museum in Paris. It made Whistler’s career. Personally, I’m not that fond of it. I find it drab, at least in reproduction; seeing an actual painting often changes my opinion. But I’m fond of most of his other work. On the right (almost at random), is The Little Rose of Lyme Regis.
The discoverer of Carlsbad Caverns, James Larkin White was born in 1882. Russian artist Boris Grigoriev was born in 1886. Philosopher Carl Schmitt was born in 1888. Character actor Thomas Mitchell was born in 1892. Bald actor Yul Brynner was born in 1920. And comedic actor Brett Somers was born in 1924.
Academic critic Harold Bloom is 83 today. The man annoys me greatly, yet I largely agree with him. Strange. The great ventriloquist Jay Johnson is 64. Character actor Bruce McGill is 63. And singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega is 54. You can read my analysis of Marlene on the Wall. But here’s the song anyway:
The day, however, belongs to the great writer E. B. White who was born on this day in 1899. He is best known for writing the children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. I read Charlotte’s Web only about a year ago and it made me burst out crying three separate times. I do not plan to read it again. He also co-wrote The Elements of Style, and his part of it (the second part) should be read by anyone who wants to write well.
Happy birthday, E. B. White!
This is fun. Some GOP members in the House have written a draft letter to John Boehner asking him to break up the immigration bill. The supposed reason for this is because doing comprehensive immigration reform will “ensures that little will be done right.” Well, Riverside, CA Democratic Representative Mark Takano got hold of the letter. He used to be a high school teacher, so he graded it. And gave it an F. But the comments are the best part.
Much of the grading is highly pedantic. For example, he complains that the phrase “incremental, step-by-step approach” is redundant. And indeed it is. But it is a rhetorical flourish. What’s more, it is the kind of thing that one finds when he is looking for things to criticize. But don’t get me wrong, it is delicious fun!
Mostly, however, he provides a substantive argument against those on the right who are complaining about the bill. The first paragraph reads:
Takano comments, “Seems like you support the Senate bill that addresses all of these.” The letter later states, “We are disturbed by the secret and underhanded way in which the immigration bill moved through the Senate.” On this issue, Takano destroys the letter with such ease that I remain in awe. He doesn’t even argue against it; he just lists the facts:
He notes also that the letter never deals with the main issue which is the path to citizenship. And then he ends with a laugh-out-loud line, “If you don’t understand the bill—come by my office and I’ll explain it.”
This is all political theater, of course. Takano is not serious about the grading, but his point is very serious. These conservative Representatives are being disingenuous. The only reason they want to break up the Senate bill in little pieces is so they can take out of it what they want and leave the pathway to citizenship, which they don’t want. Militarize the board? Check! Make the lives of undocumented immigrants far worse? Check! Provide more corporate welfare in the form of cheap labor? Check! But anything that might improve the lives of current undocumented residents is out of the question. In other words, they aren’t for immigration reform; they want to kill immigration reform; and if they can get some traditional conservative goodies at the same time, so much the better.
There is one thing that Takano did not say that ought to be: this is the most honest conservative approach to immigration reform. And it is likely the most honest we will ever see. Politicians never come out against popular legislation. It is always, “I would love to support this bill, if only it weren’t for blah, blah, blah.” Takano does make this point in a specific case near the end of the letter, telling the writers, “Please argue policy, not procedure!” But what exactly do the Republicans have other than procedure? The only policies they agree on are lowering the taxes of the rich (repeal of Obamacare is part of that) and stopping women from having abortions. And they aren’t going to come right out and say that they hate immigrants.
Regardless of these real issues, all politics is theater. But rarely do we see great theater like this paper grading from Mark Takano.
There was much rejoicing yesterday as a bipartisan group of Senators allowed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) to move through the Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions Committee. That’s good, of course, but does it really matter. There is so much about all of this stuff that strikes me more as theater than anything else. The problem is that commentators treat it as though it were real. In this case, does anyone think this has a chance to pass through the Republican controlled House?
But I’m more interested in the word “bipartisan.” I know that technically, if 54 Democrats and 1 Republican vote for a bill, it is bipartisan. But doesn’t that give a bill a sheen of widespread acceptance that it really doesn’t deserve. The best example of this kind of thing is the immigration bill. I don’t anyone for a moment that anyone thought that calling it bipartisan was wrong. After all, it received 68 votes in the Senate. But that was just because all the Democrats and only 30% of the Republicans voted for it. And that was about as bipartisan a vote as we’ve seen in the last four years (other than the important legislative efforts to rename post offices).
So it was with the effort to bring ENDA out of committee. The vote was 15 to 7. That doesn’t sound that bad, of course. The problem is that the vote was heavily weighted toward the Democrats, all 12 of whom voted it out of committee. With the Republicans, it was 3 to 7. Again with the 30%! I’m beginning to think that any bill that would traditionally have received near unanimous support can get at most three out of ten Republicans. That means in the always more reasonable Senate, 30% of the Republicans are awful and evil but not completely useless. That leaves 70% who are awful and evil and useless.
When Obama first got into office he was very excited about the prospects of bipartisanship. Remember when he thought he could get 80 votes in the Senate for the ACA? (That would have been 50% of the Republicans.) Over time, he’s learned that such thinking was naive bullshit. But the press still wants to believe it. And they want to believe it in all kinds of ways. That’s why clear charlatans like Paul Ryan are held up as models: the Reasonable Republican! And just the same, the talk of bipartisanship is just another way of saying, “See: the Republican Party isn’t that bad.”
We’ve moved from a place where actual moderate Republicans would vote for reasonable bills to a place where pretend moderate Republicans will only vote on bills that are so conservative that most Democrats would have voted against them thirty years ago. And these bipartisan votes are heralded by those ostensibly on the left to argue that democracy continues to work. (This is like sitting in a car without an engine and saying, “See: it works; I can sit in it!”) What it usually means is simply that the Democrats have compromised so much that the slightly less nutty Republicans will support it. And then it’s off to the House to die!