When Extreme Isn’t Extreme Enough

Tea Party Terrorist

Guess who said the following: “Congress consistently brings the government to the edge of default before facing its responsibility. This brinkmanship threatens the holder of government bonds and those who rely on Social Security and veterans benefits.” Ronald Reagan. But as David Horsey says, “The current crop of congressional Republicans have more in common with the Weather Underground of the 1960s than they do with traditional Republicans, including the man they claim to venerate, Ronald Reagan.” Of course, let’s not hold up Ronald Reagan as a kind of ideal. If the Democrats hadn’t given him his enormous tax cuts, he might have been leading the charge for a government default. The main thing, though, is that a serious threat of a government default was always unthinkable—at least up to two years ago.

Last night, Politico reported some amazing news, House Republicans Lack Votes to Move Plan to Raise Debt Ceiling. Let me put this in perspective. Remember yesterday when I reported on the Ridiculous GOP Debt Ceiling “Plan”? This was the House Republicans’ laundry list of every policy they’ve ever wanted: Obamacare delay, tax cuts, entitlement cuts, more oil drilling, and even an end to net neutrality. John Boehner couldn’t get his caucus to agree to that.

According to the article, the Republicans didn’t think there was enough in terms of deficit reduction. It reported, “Conservatives complained that it lacked specific spending cuts and failed to tackle entitlement reform.” But not to worry! Representative Tom Cole said the leadership was tinkering with the bill. And Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers said they were working on the exact timing for the vote.

This is madness! They know that there are three stages to this process: the House, the Senate, and the president. Creating and passing a ridiculously conservative bill is not going to go anywhere. This is the very definition of political theater. I guess even the House Republican leadership thinks that pretending to legislate is good enough. If Boehner had any power whatsoever, he would be explaining to his caucus now is not the time for wish lists. Now is the time to put together a bill that might have some chance of actually becoming a law.

But I don’t suppose I have any room to expect more. This is the group that has voted 41 times to repeal Obamacare. Getting actual work done doesn’t seem to matter at all to them. But now we are at a point where something actually needs to be done. And that means they need a leader. Unfortunately, they have John Boehner, who is probably perfectly competent under most circumstances. But he is clearly no good at dealing with these idiotic and immature Representatives.

This will not end well.

Media Could Make Default Much Worse

Debt Ceiling CartoonJonathan Chait wrote a really good article this morning, The Debt-Ceiling Showdown Is the Fight of Obama’s Life. In it, he argues that Obama cannot negotiate on the Debt Ceiling. Even giving the Republicans nothing but a symbolic concession would be catastrophic, because it would just set up another blackmail opportunity for the Republicans the next time that the Debt Ceiling has to be raised. This is absolutely right, but it is slightly deeper than this.

If Obama allows Debt Ceiling negotiations to become a normal thing, it doesn’t just mean that we will have these totally ridiculous fights where our entirely undemocratic Congress can push for unpopular policies that they would never be able to get in the normal legislative manner. It means that the government will breach the Debt Ceiling. So if Obama manages to stop the Republicans from forcing a government default by giving them something, all he will have done is put off the default to some later time. The Debt Ceiling can only be used as a hostage so many times before it gets out of hand.

What is especially bad about the current situation is that in the minds of many reporters, what the Republicans are doing with the government shutdown and Debt Ceiling has become a new normal. Chait quotes Time Magazine reporter Zeke Miller writing, “Hostage taking—by promising harm if you do not get your way—has long been a standard way of doing business in Washington.” But Chait notes this isn’t at all the standard way of doing business:

Democrats, in the cases Miller cites, were objecting to outcomes—full extension of the Bush tax cuts, continued filibustering of executive appointments—that they defined as unacceptable. House Republicans, by contrast, don’t object to raising the debt ceiling. They concede it’s necessary to avoid disaster!

In other words, there is something entirely new and dangerous about saying, “We will destroy the country if we don’t get what we want!” In contrast, the Democratic examples are just political hardball. And it is hardball only because the Republicans, while making excessive demands on offense, won’t give the slightest when on defense.

This is what makes the current situation potentially very dangerous. There is potential catastrophe if enough “neutral” reporters stand back and say, “This is just the way politics has always worked in the United States. The Republicans aren’t any worse than the Democrats.” If we are to stop these very dangerous political tactics, the country must be united in denouncing them. If we get more both sides now reporting on this issue, we are lost. We might as well just burn the Constitution, because this is not how any constitutional democracy—much less our own—is supposed to work.

The Killer Inside Jim Thompson

Jim ThompsonTwo of the 20th century’s greatest magicians had a birthday on this day. The first is Harry Blackstone who was born in 1885. He was the last of the long line of the big magic shows. These were huge touring companies with large scale illusions. People like Harry Kellar and Harry Houdini. You can see how at the time, they were really something. They were grand. Houdini did a vanishing elephant. Kellar decapitated himself and made the head float around the stage. But with the advent of movies they became less relevant. How can sawing a woman in half compare to King Kong climbing the Empire State Building? Now, I think magic is coming back to some extent—precisely because it only really works live. Literally anything can be rendered on a movie screen and so it now has all the romance of the computer program it is. But there really is something special about a guy moving around holes on a business card a couple of inches in front of your eyes.

Anyway, here is Blackstone doing a pretty typical transformation from his show. It isn’t very exciting, but it’s short:

The second is the great comedy magician Carl Ballantine who was born in 1917. Regardless of whether you love or hate magic, he is hysterical. “This takes a lot out of an artist! Of course it doesn’t bother me much.”

The great jazz pianist Bud Powell was born in 1924. He was an amazing talent. It is better to think of him as a classical musician. I think that is why he is still largely a specialized taste. You can hear it in this great version of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s “Anthropology.” The rhythm is really difficult and the implied harmony is challenging. But if you can get past that it is a fun and swinging performance:

Other birthdays: composer Cyril Scott (1879); the great psychologist Albert Ellis (1913); film director Arthur Penn (1922); idiot climate denier Fred Singer (89); singer Meat Loaf (66); and actor Gwyneth Paltrow (41);

The day, however, belongs to the great pulp novelist Jim Thompson who was born on this day in 1906. Ever since he died, Hollywood has been in love with him. Typical. And I’m not all that fond of what they’ve done with him. A good example of this is with his novel The Grifters. It is a great tragedy. In it, whenever Roy tries to do the right thing, it goes bad. He is cursed to be only good at being bad. Throughout the novel, he struggles to connect with humans as something other than marks. And just as he reaches a transformative moment, he is killed. None of that is in the film.

Most of his novels are really dark—far too dark for me ever to have allowed myself to read. One of them, The Killer Inside Me still haunts me. But Thompson was at his best when he let his sense of humor fly. Pop. 1280 is a wonderful dark comedy. If you only read one of his books, it is the one to read. But I will warn you: it’s easy to get addicted to his books. They transcend the pulp genre, and Pop. 1280 is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

Happy birthday Jim Thompson!

The Rich Are Supposed to Be Evil

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman has long argued that the reason the rich will brook no public criticism has to do with the needs hierarchy. Since they have everything that money can buy, they’ve moved beyond that. Now their need is to have all the nation worship them as demigods for their brilliant successes. He wrote about this today, Plutocrats Feeling Persecuted. I think there is much to this. But the issue is more fundamental than this.

Last year, I reported on a study by sociologist Paul Piff. He had kids play the board game Monopoly with special rules. As I wrote, “Instead of giving players an equal start, he defined players as either rich or poor. The rich player received three times the usual starting cash. The poor player received half the usual starting cash, got half as much money for passing go, and had to roll one die instead of the usual two. Obviously, the poor player lost—and quickly.” There is nothing especially surprising about that. But what happened was that the rich players came to see themselves as deserving of their special status. For example, the rich players were far less likely to cut the other player any slack and showed feelings of schadenfreude.

This is quite natural. People tend to think that they are entitled to whatever they are used to having. I’ll give you an example of this. I have a friend who has rented a house for a couple of decades. Last year, his landlord raised his rent 50%. He thought this was totally unfair. But in fact, his landlord had not raised his rent in ten years. If his landlord had raised his rent only 4.2% per year, it would have been at the new rent level, plus he would have been paying higher rent for the previous ten years. But none of that really mattered to him because he felt that what he was paying was the amount he was entitled to. The sudden rent increase shattered that fantasy.

1%The rich are like all of us in that they come up with ways to justify living better than others. But they have a lot more work to do because the nature of our economic system is to intensify inequality. If two people invent something at the same time, the one who gets the patent first can go on to be a billionaire, whereas the other gets nothing. And over time, these kinds of disparities only grow. For example, because he was rich and well connected, Bono got to invest in Facebook early and so made about a billion dollars. His children will inherit his money in addition to all the other advantages that come from being Bono’s child. Wealth accumulates over generations. (This isn’t to put down Bono, who seems like a decent guy—especially compared to other billionaires.)

As a result of this, the rich need to do some heavy duty justifying. This is where we get the myth of the Job Creator. The little people just spend money but the rich create jobs. Thus, in their own minds, they take on the responsibilities of the government. What need is there for social programs when these great Job Creators are doing God’s work by caring for the poor? And this leads to a feeling that anything the government does to reduce their wealth is evil because it gets in the way of their own program of Good Works like yacht buying.

But as I said, this is completely normal. I don’t expect the rich to behave any differently. Similarly, I don’t expect corporations to work for the public good as others do. These people and institutions do what is best for themselves. And that’s how the whole capitalist system is set up to work. It is wrong to expect anything different. What we need, then, is a strong government that stops the rich from getting too rich and corporations from getting too big. Because once that happens, we see what we have today: a system where the wealthy manipulate the government. And what they do is make the already unfair “winner take all” capitalist system even less fair.

So the question is not, “Why are the rich so awful?” It is, “How did we allow the rich to get so powerful?” And going forward, we have the even more important question: what are we going to do to reverse this?