The Bizarre Physics of American Politics

PendulumKevin Phillips is a very keen political observer. Today, he is one of the Republican Party’s harshest critics. But he used to work for Richard Nixon where he was partly responsible for the racist “southern strategy” that has worked so well for Republicans ever since. In 1989, after Bush the Elder had become president, Phillips wrote, The Politics of Rich and Poor. He quite rightly recognized that Bush had skated in on the tail end of the conservative ascendancy that started with Reagan’s 1980 election as President of the United States.[1] And so he predicted that things would swing back in the other direction in the 1990s.

He sees politics about movements. That’s true to some extent. But of course, most people don’t see themselves as parts of movements. They vote the way they vote, and that helps some political movements and hurts others. So in 1989, Phillips wrote:

Politics is a process of movement and countermovement. Only for so long will strung-out $35,000-a-year families enjoy magazine articles about the hundred most successful businessmen in Dallas or television programs about the life-styles of the rich and famous.

And indeed, by 1989, that show had reached its peak and it was on its inevitable decline to late night punchline, even if it did survive all the way to 1995. But the country was ready to leave the world of “greed is good” and move back to a more normal world of, “You know, those Wall Street guys really are a bunch of assholes.”

Phillips even predicts a pretty big swing back, “The 1990s could easily be another watershed decade.” Yes. Yes, they could have been. After all, the Reagan years had brought the top marginal tax rate down from 70% to 28%. That’s one big mother fucking pendulum swing. So what kind of counter swing did the left have in store? Well, the “left” nominated the Democratic Leadership Council candidate Bill Clinton, a man so liberal he had been hugely successful in Arkansas. And he pushed back, alright!He pushed that 28% top marginal tax rate (actually 30% by that point) all the way back up to just over 39%! He ended welfare as we knew it, which is a nice way of saying that he fucked the poor. And, of course, he bombed the shit out of the world.

And then came Bush the Younger. He lowered the top tax rate down to 35%. He took us into at least one unnecessary war. He ran on stopping gay marriage and used the “political capital” he had made to privatize Social Security. (Thankfully, he failed.) He ran an administration with so much crony capitalism that the fascist states of the 1930s would have been envious. But again, the people had had enough! The pendulum was ready to swing back the other direction. So the “left” nominated Obama, another New Democrat, who would have felt right at home in the Reagan White House. And after four years and two elections, Obama managed to raise that top income tax rate back up to where it was under Clinton. Except… It only applied to incomes over $400,000 instead of the $250,000 it had been under Clinton. And Obama’s big success—his legacy—is a conservative healthcare plan that simultaneously gives conservatives what they want and an excuse to claim that the plan is, “Socialism!”

There is a bizarre kind of physics that goes on in modern American politics. When the pendulum sings to the right, it swings way to the right. But on it’s return trip to the left, it barely makes it past the equilibrium point. It is no secret why this is. The Republican Party has convinced itself that the nation is made up of a bunch of conservative extremists. And the Democratic Party has convinced itself that they are right.

[1] I don’t actually agree with this interpretation of history. I have a more radical, although numbers based, story to tell. I’m working on a book about it. But in terms of electoral politics, what he is saying is roughly true; it’s just that the cause is wrong.

I Gotta Be Me!

I Gotta Be Me - Far SideThis is a detail from a very famous The Far Side cartoon. This particular image is from a coffee mug that was made of the cartoon. Everyone seems to think it is funny. And I am very much in agreement. But it was only rather recently that I learned that my reading of the joke was completely different from that of others.

The standard reading of the cartoon is that the singing penguin is a fool. Look at him: he’s just like all the other penguin. He fancies himself special when the only thing special about him is that he thinks he’s special.

I find that reading of the cartoon abhorrent. What a tiny and awful worldview it exposes: we are all the same and the differences are trivial and unworthy of comment.

My reading of the cartoon is the opposite. Here is this one penguin who seems like the others. But he knows—just knows—that he is an individual. It doesn’t matter what it looks like on the outside. It doesn’t even matter how much he is like other penguins. He is willing to proudly proclaim to the world that he is own penguin. And that’s funny, because, you know, he’s a penguin.

But like with most of The Far Side, that penguin is all of us. At least he is when we are at our best. I gotta be me!

Again: No Conservative Healthcare Ideas

Marketplace Magic: And Then a Miracle OccursEzra Klein seems to have gotten everyone all talking about how Republicans are suddenly against high deductible healthcare plans, Obamacare Exposes Republican Hypocrisy on Health Care. You see, in the old days (last week), Republicans said, “We need high deductible plans that people can afford but also put the onus on them to manage their healthcare. They’ve been saying this for decades. This is where those lauded health savings accounts come in. This was a great thing to complain about! Obamacare was stopping the market from working it’s magic!

There was one small problem. And from a Republican standpoint, it wasn’t a problem at all. Obamacare didn’t have anything to say about cheap, high deductible insurance plans. Remember: Obamacare is the the conservative “free market” approach to healthcare reform. So the Republicans turn the “problem” into an “opportunity.” They turned on a dime and started shouting, “Obamacare is killing people with these high deductible insurance plans!” Ezra Klein calls this hypocrisy.

Jonathan Chait calls it, The Heritage Uncertainty Principle. You can go over and read his article, if you want. But this is what I’ve been writing about for years. Let’s start with the facts: Republicans do not want any healthcare reform. So when the Republicans turned against Obamacare, even though it was their very own healthcare reform policy, they weren’t being hypocritical. Chait quotes Newt Gingrich saying, “[I]t started as a conservative effort to stop HillaryCare in the 1990s.” And that’s what I’ve been saying: any Republican healthcare “idea” is only one they support so long as it isn’t up for consideration.

My father came to me the other day asking me about this new healthcare reform law by Georgia Representative Tom Price. He saw it on Fox News, but given that everyone was so positive about it, he smelled a rat. Dad’s starting to wake up. Anyway, I didn’t know what the proposal was, but I explained to him that the Republicans had plenty of chances to change Obamacare along the way and they have never taken one. So I was pretty sure this was just a way to kill Obamacare and replace it with the usual Republican policy wish list.

I looked it up, and I was right. What does it do? It allows people to buy insurance across state lines. Then it will enact “tort reform.” And it would have “high risk pools.” I discuss all of this in, Republicans New Healthcare Distraction. So the new healthcare reform bill that Fox News was all excited about was the same old healthcare reform bill that Republicans always bring up.

Now in this regard, Jonathan Chait is wrong. If the Democrats went along with tort “reform,” the Republicans would not turn their backs on it. This is something that the Republicans really want. It wouldn’t improve healthcare or access to it. But it would make the rich richer and poor poorer and the Republicans are always for that! But in general, he is correct. Conservative healthcare reform ideas are just a means by which actual healthcare reform ideas are destroyed. And we are living through that right now: Obamacare is a healthcare law that was created (as Gingrich admitted) only to stop a more liberal law.

But Ezra Klein is right too. The Republicans are hypocrites. But not in the way that he means. They are hypocrites when they say they really want healthcare reform. They don’t. If they would stop lying about that, the rest would just be very honest political tactics. But you may well ask, are the Republicans really that evil. Yes. Yes they are.

Lester Bangs Did Not Have Contempt for the Audience

Lester BangsYesterday, Andrea said to me, “Do you know how many times you use the word ‘great’ in your birthday posts?” This was in reference to our decades long argument over the fact that I find the universe constantly fascinating, whereas she doesn’t like Frank Sinatra. Or much of anything. She likes what she likes. But actually, that’s how I am. She’s really into needlecraft, and although I find it interesting enough, I am not fascinated. I am not the person who, through years of thrift shop addiction, has collected (and this is not an exaggeration), a quarter million buttons. But there is a reason I use the word “great” so much in the birthday posts. I only list people in my birthday posts who I find remarkable. If I say great, it is because I think they are great.

What’s more, the birthday posts are the most personal things I write here. Readers get a very good idea of what I care about. You can go lots of other places to find far more rigorous and “objective” listings of famous birthdays. And if that’s what you want, go there. But what is true about these posts and this site in general, is that the only thing that I have to offer that is special is me. Love it or hate it, I will tell you what I think in my own way. When I was a kid, I loved pure foods. As I grew up, I appreciated complexity of taste. This website is like a wine. It has a lot of different flavors swirling around. And you may hate or love it. But it’s the only wine on the list. And with that, I present to you today, the birthdays that suit by palate.

Why don’t we start with a nice German realist painter, known for his portraits. Franz von Lenbach was born on this day in 1836. I know, another realist. Yet Lenbach’s work is rich with contradictions. He plays around with neoclassical techniques and some of his work verges on photorealism. There’s also something dark and melancholy about his work, as if he knows Hitler is coming and what is the point anyway.

I was never a big Family Affair fan, except that I really like English people with the last name “French.” But something has to be said. Kathy Garver is 68 today. She played the teenage niece Cissy. Johnny Whitaker is 54 today. He played the little boy Jody. And Anissa Jones, who played Buffy, is just dead. Now I ask you, where else are you going to get this kind of reporting?

The great singer-songerwriter and founder of Television, Tom Verlaine is 64 today. Here he is all the way back in 1984 without the band doing the title song (which he wrote like all those songs) off the first Television album Marquee Moon:

Other birthdays: Mary Todd Lincoln (1882); silence film director Edward LeSaint (1870); Medal of Honor winner Alvin C York who killed lots of Germans in WWI (1887); Bewitched creator Sol Saks (1910); actor Christopher Plummer (84); shockingly, Dick Van Dyke is still alive (88); while producer Richard D Zanuck is dead (1934); actor Steve Buscemi (56); actor Jamie Foxx (46); and truly talentless “cute” girl Taylor Swift (12).

The day, however, belongs to the greatest rock journalist of all time, Lester Bangs who was born on this day in 1948. He’d still be with us today if he listened to me: don’t mix your drugs. Or if you are going to, check with me first. He mixed Darvon, Valium, and NyQuil. Look: I understand. That would be a hell of a high. But you’ve got to be really careful combining those opioids with GABA drugs. But that’s sad and that’s about death. So what.

Bangs was great because he didn’t buy all the rock star bullshit. Here’s what he said about interviewing, “Well basically I just started out to lead with the most insulting question I could think of. Because it seemed to me that the whole thing of interviewing as far as rock stars and that was just such a suck-up. It was groveling obeisance to people who weren’t that special, really. It’s just a guy, just another person, so what?” And here is his entire review of Black Sabbath’s first album that not only kicks them to the curb but also kicks Cream to the curb:

Over across the tracks in the industrial side of Cream country lie unskilled laborers like Black Sabbath, which was hyped as a rockin’ ritual celebration of the Satanic mass or some such claptrap, something like England’s answer to Coven. Well, they’re not that bad, but that’s about all the credit you can give them. The whole album is a shuck—despite the murky songtitles and some inane lyrics that sound like Vanilla Fudge paying doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley, the album has nothing to do with spiritualism, the occult, or anything much except stiff recitations of Cream cliches that sound like the musicians learned them out of a book, grinding on and on with dogged persistence. Vocals are sparse, most of the album being filled with plodding bass lines over which the lead guitar dribbles wooden Claptonisms from the master’s tiredest Cream days. They even have discordant jams with bass and guitar reeling like velocitized speedfreaks all over each other’s musical perimeters yet never quite finding synch—just like Cream! But worse.

Here he is complaining about a number of things:

Happy birthday Lester Bangs!


I only used “great” twice and “greatest” once. So there!

Sometimes Debt Matters, Sometimes Not

Nothing Can Be DoneThis is why I start each day by wanting to take a Xanax and go back to bed. On my video Tea Party Idiot Rant – Up with Chris Hayes, I got a comment from cvdogman. His icon is a charming image of an assault rifle that says, “It’s because I’m black, isn’t it?” It was marginally clever when I first saw it 30 years ago, but now I think it more says, “I’m a racist” and not “I’m a gun lover.” That’s not to say that cvdogman is a racist. What he seems to be is a paintball enthusiast. So I’m going to err on the side of niceness and assume he’s just a kid and doesn’t know any better.

His comment wasn’t offensive. It was an honest question. It’s just… It’s just… Fuck! It’s just that I’ve answered this question slightly more than a million times over the last three years. I’ve heard political activists talk about how it is never over. The education campaign goes on and on. And at this point, I don’t know that I’m up to it. There is a multi-billion dollar industry out there “educating” people to believe things that just aren’t true.

Im no economic or political expert, but isnt a huge and growing debt bad for us? I mean if i spend spend spend and cant pay the bill, im going to collections, garnished wages, etc. but what im getting from you is that its ok to continue down this path.

It is a fair question. So I responded:

You are not the government, but even if you were, most people are way in debt regarding their houses and cars. The amount we are now paying to support the debt is less than it was in 2000. Our debt steadily fell until Reagan. Then it fell under Clinton. Noticing a trend? But yes, there is a time to pay down the debt: when the economy is good. And for the umpteenth time: under Obama the deficit has gotten smaller and smaller. Why are conservatives ONLY concerned about the deficit when a Democrat is in the White House?

But let me get into this a little more. Debt really does not matter. Debt service matters. Let’s suppose that you have a rich uncle who loans you $100 without interest. He says, “Don’t worry when you pay it back.” That debt does not affect your finances. Yes, you certainly should eventually pay your uncle back. And hopefully, you spent that money on a book about computer repair so you can make some money and not on a new paintball gun. But it hardly matters. Next month, your cost of living is exactly the same as it was this month.

People get confused about this stuff. The issue is not the total amount the government owes anyway. The question is: is the economy growing faster than the debt. If it is, that’s great! In fact, that’s how we paid down most of the debt from World War II (until Reagan started spending again). Very few years did we actually take in more money in taxes than we spent. Instead, the economy grew really fast. I discussed this issue in more depth in my article, Sarah Palin Still Terrifies Me. Look there. As I said, I am tired of going over this stuff.

But if I am tried of discussing this basic economics, I am infuriated that I have to discuss this stuff only because a Democrat is in the White House. Look, Democrats in general are a bunch of weak-kneed idiots who are always worried about the debt and deficits. The Democratic Party really is the fiscally conservative party. The Republican Party, and conservatives in general, are only fiscally conservative when they aren’t the ones spending. And when they are spending, they spend on the two most expensive and least economically useful things: military contracts and tax cuts for the rich.

So weary am I! The moment that there is a Republican president, Fox News and Michael Savage will stop talking about debt. And all the good little conservatives will go back to worrying what’s really important to them: war with Iran, White Santa, and the need for more tax cuts for the rich.

But I guess I will just slog through this. “Is a huge and growing debt bad for us?” Well, huge by what standard? Growing by what rate? Bad under what conditions? Sometimes sick patients need more oxygen and sometimes they need less. “Is giving a patient oxygen bad for him?” Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Right now, we should have a bigger deficit. Under Bush Jr, we should have had a smaller deficit. But no conservatives were pulling their hair out about Bush’s tax cuts that ballooned the deficit. So it’s complicated. Cvdogman was right to admit that he was not an economist, but that didn’t stop him from proffering the same old economic lies that conservatives rant about daily now that a Democrat is in the White House.