Monday, November 30, 2009

The Prosperity Gospel

This passage (from Sullivan's blog) struck me:
It's staggering really that modern American Christianism supports wealth while Jesus demanded total poverty, fetishizes family while Jesus left his and urged his followers to abandon wives, husbands and children, champions politics while Jesus said his kingdom was emphatically not of this world, defends religious war where Jesus sought always peace, and backs torture, which is what the Romans did to Jesus.
It occurs to me that the Prosperity Gospel, as it has been called, is not something that occurs organically from Christianity. It is a perversion, even a negation, of the actual message of the religion, but it cannot be completely understood apart from a broader social context. The Prosperity Gospel isn't a cause, it's an effect, and it's an effect of the broader notion that there's some sort of relationship between wealth and goodness, which necessarily posits that the poor are morally unfit. Some liberal bloggers might insist that this is a cornerstone of conservatism, which isn't necessarily true in a philosophical sense, though this sort of Randism is awfully convenient to a lot of conservatives' priorities.

Jesus himself, of course, insisted that one cannot serve both God and money. Ever since, people have been trying to figure out ways to do both. Such is the nature of man. My view of this has long been that humans possess both material and spiritual dimensions to their existence, and this is why money can both buy happiness and it cannot. Adding more material possessions can fulfill the material dimension of existence but never the spiritual. And despite the religiosity of most Americans, my experience has been that relatively few are drawn to the faith for spiritual reasons. What appeal the thing possesses is similar to the appeal of something like Americans' simplified reading of concepts like Karma: that, eventually, following the discipline will make them tangibly better off. For quite a few people, Christianity is less a lifestyle than a smart business decision. PG speaks to this.

In the end, the increasing popularity of PG merely proves the fundamental lack of spirituality among many Americans. Spirituality is not directly related to religion--I've met many examples of people in which those characteristics were disjoint--but the latter is meant to help guide the former. Materialists will no doubt reject the entire division I've described, but I think there's a clear argument to be made here. A human race made of pure materialists wouldn't have bothered to try to understand the world better through art. All literature would just be self-help tracts. And there would never have been any religion at all were it not for some sort of spiritual longing. If human happiness were merely a factor of material wealth, there would be no sad rich people. There clearly are a number of them. That doesn't imply that poor people are going to be happier, as they do indeed lack on the material dimension of human existence.

In the end, though, I am pretty sure that the PG trend will really last. Admittedly, it has nothing to say to the billions of people around the world living in poverty, many of whom are Christians and haven't any wealth to show for it. There are plenty of rich assholes out there, and plenty of great poor people as well, and plenty of the reverse in both groups. The worldview underlying PG is not particularly rigorous, but it doesn't need to be. It is not an attempt to explain the world, as it fails miserably at that. It exists largely to make lots of people feel better about themselves and their present lifestyle. And that is a need that will exist for some time to come.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Filibuster blag

Counter to most liberal bloggers, I don't really think that the filibuster is unconstitutional in concept. I think the present version of it is pretty plainly intolerable--40 senators should not be able to veto something the majority wants--but I think that reforming the filibuster is a better solution than eliminating it completely.

The reason why is because I do think that there should be a mechanism for protecting minority rights in the Senate, but I don't think it should come at the expense of the entire ability of the majority to make policy. Elections are supposed to have consequences, after all. But I do think there's a solid argument that large majorities might lead to a scenario in which unwise legislation is rammed through without much of a debate, or that something might be plowed through in a moment of intense emotion that needs more consideration or that ever shouldn't happen at all, such as the limits on bonuses for AIG executives. Right sentiment, wrong idea.

So my solution has always been to allow a minority to block cloture, but not to allow it to be infinite. Put a clock on it. If 40 senators want to block cloture to have more debate on an issue, they should be able to do that, but only for, say, six months. Then, the bill goes up for a majority vote. If the minority was able to convince their colleagues and the country that a bill is a bad idea, then it should fail. If not, then it will pass. It seems to me that this sort of reform enhances the debate rather than diminishing it, and it seems a lot less prone to abuse than the alternative. After all, if my system were in place and Mitch McConnell were to filibuster every conceivable thing out there, it wouldn't make much sense since it would just postpone everything by six months. And the Republicans aren't going to convince everyone of everything in six months.

Of course, I don't think that filibuster reform is likely in the immediate term. But eventually Republicans are going to want to govern again (right?), and while the Democrats didn't filibuster everything that moved during the Bush years, they absolutely will when the Republicans eventually take over the Senate after having gotten the same treatment from them in the past, and since the Republicans have established a new 60-vote norm for anything, they'll have only themselves to blame.

Why is being governor better than being senator?

Ezra wonders. It's true that Texas has a weak governor position, which is to say that he or she doesn't get to pick department heads. But being governor makes you the single most powerful person in your state. You don't have to travel as much. You still make plenty of appointments, like judges, and if it's a big state you could have a good platform to launch national ambitions, which is much harder to do as one of 100 in the Senate, and a backbencher at that.

All this was why I figured that Charlie Crist would remain as Florida's governor instead of running for the Senate. The GOP must have promised him the moon if he ran, and ultimately they couldn't deliver for him. I used to think Crist was the most likely bet to restore sanity to the national GOP, but he's quickly become the symbol to the base of the corrupt Republican machine instead of a talented, moderate conservative who can win broad support. One by one, the GOP is sacrificing its most promising potential leaders in order to glorify nonstarters like Palin and Steele. This isn't the way back to long-term viability.

The purists attack!

Chris Orr on the new Republican purity tests:
Beyond its exceptionally dubious prospects as a national political strategy, a few things about the document leap out. First, it demands that adherents oppose President Obama’s health care reform twice, but nowhere requires opposition to abortion (only the government funding of abortion), which is either a shocking slap in the face to social conservatives or, more likely, evidence that the compilation of this list was exactly as careless and haphazard as its stilted language suggests. [...]

Second, in a hamfisted effort to avoid the “Party of No” label, the ten points are all framed in terms of what Republicans are expected to support. The problem is, in seven of those ten cases, they explicitly define what they support in terms of opposition to President Obama. If he’d endorsed a Senate resolution on the innocence of kittens, the document would probably have included an item on the superiority of puppies. But don’t call them reactionary!

Finally, the authors have named this document “Reagan’s Unity Principle for Support of Candidates,” drawing on the former president’s semi-famous line, “My 80 percent ally is not my 20 percent enemy.” In their reading, 80 percent agreement is the floor of what Reagan would have tolerated, so if you fail more than two of their ten criteria, you’re out. Of course, this is the exact opposite of the sentiment the line--which is a plea for inclusiveness, not expulsion--was intended to convey.
And, of course, Reagan himself would easily have failed the test.

But this is all beside the point. These sorts of lists are the inevitable culmination of turning politics into a theater for cultural debates. It was smart for Richard Nixon to appeal to a very specific cultural identity and to really begin to frame politics as a sort of grudge match for public morality--after all, it got him elected handily two times. And it's true Nixon wasn't completely unprecedented, and that all politicians define their opponents and try to differentiate themselves from their opponents in different ways. In-group loyalty is one of the strongest pulls on human behavior. It's why Washington journalists who likely disdain Fox News stand up for it when it's being attacked, or why Hollywood rallied for Roman Polanski despite the fact that not everyone in Hollywood is an amoral hedonist. (Just most of them, I'm sure, even though I know some people in that group who meet the description and some who don't.)

So, it's smart to appeal to this loyalty, but this sort of thing has to be played delicately, or else literally everybody outside the group will be alienated and they won't join you. It seems like you want to keep the group united, while appealing to persuadable people on the outside by making the whole operation look appealing, to make it look like something they should want to be in on. This is precisely what Reagan did, despite starting his career as very much an identity politics maven and then maturing into something different. Ultimately, though, today's problems are rather different from what they were in the 1980s and the only thing holding Republicans together is increasingly that cultural identity. Everything else constantly changes--during the Bush years, spending was no problem, and now it's evil?--but it's that identity that still keeps them going. And the returns diminish every election cycle as America continues to look less white, less Christian, and less Southern, essentially.

And this is fundamentally why I disagree with people like Erik Kain who seem to think that after some further losses and disillusionment, the Republican base will finally start listening to reformist conservatives that care about fixing problems in the near future. The GOP is based more on cultural identity now than anything else, and so long as people believe things simply because Fox says them or disbelieve things because Barack Obama says them--in other words, so long as the truth of a statement is based on whether they're a member of the "club" rather than their track record of telling the truth--I think there's little hope of change within the Republican Party for a while. That will change in the long run, and in a decade or two the GOP will likely be completely unrecognizable from what we see today. My guess is that it will be a lot more the party of Ron Paul than the party of Jim DeMint, as the former happens to be the only person to present a conservative vision that resonates with significant numbers of young people. But that's decades off, and we're stuck with the party of DeMint for some time to come. It's going to take the most ardent culture warriors dying off before we start to see a real shift in Republican attitudes toward politics, but considering that the average Fox News viewer is in his late 60s, there is reason for long-term optimism for sensible conservatives.

P.S. Sully has a particularly good take on this as well.

How you can tell if someone really cares about cost-cutting

Or anything, for that matter. The Senate bill contains some very real long-term cost-cutting mechanisms, like the excise tax on high-value insurance plans, cutting excess Medicare Advantage spending, etc. It also spends a fair amount of money to insure people who don't have insurance, which admittedly costs money, though all of this is accounted for. This is not to mention that the bill will reduce the deficit by $120 billion. Basically, if your #1 priority is "bending the curve", then there's a lot to like in this bill.

Of course, if your stated #1 priority is cost-cutting, but your real #1 priority is to place yourself in the center of public discourse (like some certain pundits named David), then endorsing health care reform is simply not an option. Don't get me wrong, the plan before Congress should do much more on this front, as well as any number of fronts. But if you truly desire cost-cutting, this bill is a step in the right direction. And considering the nature of Congress, a step in the right direction is indeed a miraculous event, and one that can be built upon in the future.

I'll take Broder and Brooks at their word that they care about cutting costs. But they care about other things much more. And this is why I don't trust either one's opinions on much of anything these days.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

One can only hope

That something comes of this:

Despite the surface glamour of the Oscar race, studio executives have been waging a ferocious, and almost entirely private, debate about the value of joining the hunt.

The chase for prizes can add tens of millions of dollars to the cost of marketing a movie that, like “Crazy Heart,” may have been produced for peanuts. Sometimes, as with “Slumdog Millionaire,” which also fell to Fox Searchlight after a division of another studio passed on releasing it — Warner Brothers, in that case — the prize game pays off. That movie won a best picture Oscar and took in $141.3 million in domestic ticket sales, which were shared by Fox and Warner. But Universal was disappointed after spending heavily on “Frost/Nixon,” a best picture nominee, and its Focus Features division did only modest business with “Milk,” which was nominated as well.

An Oscars minus multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns wouldn't necessarily mean that obscure Icelandic films would start contending for real awards--the Oscars do better in ratings during years where people have seen the films, which still aligns the incentives in favor of pandering--but if they stopped with the campaigns, it would definitely be an improvement. I personally think that the entire concept of the Oscars is wrong. The tendency to try to pick The Best Movie of the current year invariably leads to a popularity contest, and while the Oscars sometimes get things right, the movies that sell the most tickets are of course rarely the most important or innovative ones. I'd rather see the Oscars happen with a five-year latency period. Let's take some time to see which movies stick in the public's consciousness, which ones inspire rabid cults, which ones spawn tons of imitators before closing the book on the year. I think it's safe to say, for example, that The Insider was a considerably better film than American Beauty, which confused misanthropy with insight; and Munich was obviously a much, much better film than Crash as well as Brokeback Mountain, the movie that everyone figured would win. But I'll readily admit that I thought much more of American Beauty the first time I saw it (my excuse was that I was, at the time, eighteeen). And I initially thought that Munich was sort of an average genre exercise until I watched it again a few years afterward and realized it for the masterpiece that it truly was. Sometimes something doesn't catch you the first time you see it, or maybe something inferior convinces you it's something it's not.

So, enhanced Oscar latency would probably result in better picks, I suspect, but then again there are some decisions (Shakespeare In Love over Saving Private Ryan?) that don't make any sense at all unless one considers the bribery campaigns that these studios wage to get their baubles. At the very least, we might be spared some of the more blatant Oscar head-slappers in the future.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Good politics

Republicans are expected to largely oppose financial regulation. The particular sticking point seems to be creating a consumer protection agency for financial products.

Okay, so I think that the Obama Administration hasn't exactly handled the whole "Everyone hating the banks" situation incredibly well, and I think it's hurt the Democrats' numbers in general. But my strong feeling is that debate over financial regulation will very likely turn things around politically. Republicans are occupying an untenable position here, as most Senate Republicans supported TARP last time but now tend to lash out against it, and now they're going to oppose fixing financial regulation. The clear trend here is doing whatever helps the banks (and themselves), and while I'm sure that Glenn Beck will somehow shout "Socialism!" about consumer protection, I just don't think that argument will sell with the public.

In fact, I tend to think that the financial regulation fight is a win-win for Democrats, in addition to being the correct thing to do. If it passes, that's a real accomplishment that might help dissipate the enduring anger over the bailouts. If it doesn't get cloture, it seems to me that it gives Obama and Harry Reid a very real justification to go nuclear and kill the filibuster, especially if regulation is pitched in such a way that it enjoys overwhelming popular support. And if they don't want to do that, then they can talk about how Republicans used procedural tricks to kill the bill to rein in Goldman Sachs. I think that the last is the worst of the three possibilities for the Democrats (though I still don't think it would be bad for them) because it will probably just make people feel more hopeless in the face of Goldman and Citi, and passing a good bill would be a victory that would show that the banks don't control everything. It would bring some hope of making things better. And at this point, I tend to think that would be a nontrivial accomplishment for any politician.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Palin and the left

Great post by Daniel Larison on Bible Spice here, though I think this is a little too pat:
"What McCain misses in his article is that liberal journalists actually take great delight in the Palin phenomenon. Yes, of course, they don’t want to see her in power, but I think they do want to see her prosper and thrive as the face of the Republican Party. An American right led by or identified with Palin is one that they can very easily ridicule and discredit, and at the same time they can be confident that a Palinized GOP poses no threat to anything they value."
Some liberal journalists and bloggers want to see this. Most partisan-left types, perhaps. Others, like Steve Benen and myself, would much rather see a mainstream, serious Republican Party. The reasoning is simple. No party holds onto power for too long in our system. Right now, the GOP is entirely off its rocker, but if the economy gets much worse it might find itself in power, anyway, albeit completely lacking the tools to engage on the issues. As a Democrat I would naturally prefer that the Democrats always be in power, because I prefer their ideas to the Republicans'. However, as an American who wants the best for my country, I am well aware that a Democratic majority is only an economic slump away from becoming a Republican majority, and therefore I have as much stake in there being a viable Republican Party waiting in the wings as anyone else, because I want America to be as well-governed as possible. And having a smart, engaged Republican opposition also helps when the Democrats are in power, as they could theoretically engage in constructive criticism designed to make the majority's policies better.

But it's pretty obvious that we don't have anything like that kind of Republican Party at this point. Instead of rethinking the ideas that led to the Bush disaster, the Republicans have doubled down on those very ideas. There is sometimes a kernel of truth in their complaints about Obama, but it's mostly just populist nonsense designed to make President Obama and the Democrats politically toxic. I'd much prefer a right led by 2005-vintage Mitt Romney to one lead by Sarah Palin, to answer Larison's remark specifically, but it's at least possible that Palin could lead the Republicans into utter catastrophe and oblivion by running solely on her culture warrior antics, and therefore bring about some creative destruction for the Republicans by discrediting the Teabagger types and letting some different folks seize power. This did happen in 1972, where George McGovern's loss led the way toward the subsequent shift of the Democrats toward the center, but I'm more skeptical of it happening with today's Republicans, as backlash and culture warrior nonsense seems to me to be the substance of the conservative movement, rather than an unfortunate symptom. Most Republicans tend to support this backlash stuff in a way that was never true of Democrats and "New Leftism". I can see the case, though I'd just as soon they picked someone else.

The right and cultural sensitivity

Admittedly, the right long ago abandoned any semblance of a workable foreign policy in favor of brash, aggressive, aggrieved nationalism. But their recent freakout over President Obama bowing to the Japanese Emperor is pretty lame, even for them. The major problem seems to be that they think that such a bow is somehow a sign of submission, but this isn't really the case among Japanese. Indeed, it couldn't be. The Japanese Emperor and the U.S. President are of roughly equal rank--they're both heads of state--and in Japan, a bow is a sign of respect that is shared among equals. From my understanding, in fact, Japanese have different bows for different settings, levels of formality, and disparities of rank, though I'm hardly well-versed enough to explain them all.

One could chalk this up to ignorance, but I do think that the right needs to understand the importance of cultural sensitivity in a way they simply do not now. Indeed, many on the right would snigger at such an assertion and complain about political correctness, but this sidesteps the issue. Political correctness involves using language to make it more difficult to discuss and fix social problems, and its use by (usually well-intentioned) left-leaning academics was memorably exploded by David Foster Wallace in Authority and American Usage. But there's a difference between calling the disabled "differently abled" and calling black folks African-American rather than, well, any number of things. The latter is showing respect to the wishes of a community, and the former is condescension in order to make the speaker feel better about him- or herself.

Bowing to the head of state in a country where that is a tradition is an example of respect--of, dare I say, cultural sensitivity. Refusing to do so would be something of an insult, and those who would condemn Obama for something like this are, as always, coming at these issues from a place of extreme nervousness and insecurity rather than strength. Respecting other people and other cultures doesn't diminish America, though refusing to do so would, for it would make us look arrogant and petulant. It doesn't diminish America in any way for the President and the Emperor of Japan to exchange bows. But I suppose it doesn't diminish Washington Times editors for making a silly political point out of it, as they already occupy the bottom of the barrel, as it were.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Courage of Chris Hitchens

Allow me to associate myself with these words from Freddie deBoer:
The stand against Nazism and all fascism is our duty, but it is one that we wage best by recognizing as one that can remain unspoken. The reduction of that duty to grist for the mill of professional ambition dulls its edge and trivializes one of our most important political responsibilities.
This comes in a post criticizing self-righteous anti-"Islamofascists". But I think that this conclusion lets Hitchens, James and Applebaum off the hook. What made Gunther Grass, George Orwell and the rest of them significant, brave voices of anti-fascism back in the day was that they were writing in a time when fascism was popular and spreading. Britain was riddled through with fascist sympathizers before WWII, for example, and especially on the right. After the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, that group also included much of the left of the country. For Orwell to do what he did back then was gutsy because he was kind of on his own for a great period of time. Islamofascism (I'll use the word without quote marks from now on) appeals to relatively few people and isn't spreading. Denouncing it--especially in America--takes zero moral courage. So when these idiots pat themselves on the back for it, it's pretty annoying. It's like applauding yourself for saying that you believe that women deserve equal rights to men. Of course they do, at this point it's just assumed.

Putting aside the decidedly unsexy notion of fighting for things that most people say are right but that few people seem too willing to fight for (e.g. opposing torture), if Hitchens really wants to be remembered alongside Gunther Grass and Orwell, the best way of doing that would be to try to find the areas where the current consensus is wrong and to work to correct it. There are the obvious, under-the-radar causes like drug legalization and prison reform, but perhaps there's something else we've never heard of that Hitch could research and bring to our attention. Such a thing probably wouldn't generate the moral thrill of writing scathing, sanctimonious articles about Islamofascism (that don't really matter to anyone), but it would have the benefit of maybe making the world a better place. And I don't really think that Hitchens has done that. As it stands Hitchens is mainly famous for his antitheism and for being pro-Iraq War. I think he's added some value to the former conversation (though I naturally disagree with his views) but I think the other half of that equation cancels it out. I think one could easily make the case that the world would have been worse off without Gunther Grass, Czeslaw Milosz or Orwell. These men helped us to better understand and react to the world. It's unclear to me how the world would have been worse off without Hitchens and those other puffed-up clowns.

I do wonder where Hitchens will wind up in the pantheon, finally. He probably won't make it in. They don't put banal thinkers in the pantheon, after all. But probably the closest match I can think of is Rudyard Kipling. There is the same broadly tragic scope to both mens' thought: Hitchens bolloxed it up when it counted--after 9/11--and Kipling similarly proved to be a man of his times rather than a transcendent figure with his championing of the Empire. The only thing Kipling did that transcended his time and place were his poems, which are still read today. Hitchens doesn't even have that. Of course, Islamofascism will eventually lose in the long run. But that will have nothing to do with Hitchens's work. It will have to do with it being an unsustainable system, as Communism was.

Next up on the TV: Palin vs. Blago

An interesting idea. Probably better for Fox News, though, since both of them are really dumb and Fox needs its lame token liberal, post-Colmes.

Ah, it would never work. Sarah would never share the hosting duties.

A theory for why Lou Dobbs quit

Might it be that Univision is nipping at NBC's heels in primetime ratings? They're taking away our TV jobs! Okay, maybe not really, but it is pretty stunning. NBC has gone from being #1 to knocking elbows with the CW and Spanish-language TV in just a few years Then again, it's not hard to see why people aren't tuning in to a jam-packed lineup of Heroes, Trauma and Leno every Monday.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Why I'm no longer a Republican

This is from the American Family Association (via Steve Benen):

It it [sic] is time, I suggest, to stop the practice of allowing Muslims to serve in the U.S. military. The reason is simple: the more devout a Muslim is, the more of a threat he is to national security. Devout Muslims, who accept the teachings of the Prophet as divinely inspired, believe it is their duty to kill infidels. [...]

Of course, most U.S. Muslims don't shoot up their fellow soldiers. Fine. As soon as Muslims give us a foolproof way to identify their jihadis from their moderates, we'll go back to allowing them to serve. You tell us who the ones are that we have to worry about, prove you're right, and Muslims can once again serve. Until that day comes, we simply cannot afford the risk. You invent a jihadi-detector that works every time it's used, and we'll welcome you back with open arms.

This is not Islamophobia, it is Islamo-realism.

Of course, I registered as a Democrat in 2005, so it wasn't this particular press release that made me switch. But it was due to what I was hearing from the right in 2003 and 2004. Basically, I bolted as soon as I started hearing prominent Republicans talking about how prisoner abuse wasn't a big deal, the Constitution only applies to Americans, etc. As Iraq played out, and the abuses of Abu Gharaib became exposed, I slowly came to realize that there was something rotten deep down in the guts of conservatism, as the response from the right was largely to downplay all this stuff. I tended to dismiss lefties that made a big deal of Bush's gaffe about a "crusade" against terror at the time he said it, but as time has gone on I think that it might well have been the most illuminating thing about the issue that George W. Bush ever said. For a lot of these people--and I personally know a few of them--we are fighting some sort of religious war against Islam. A lot of people think the apocalypse is upon us, and that Islam is purely evil. As a Christian but not a fundie, this presents something of a problem to me as my only interest in fighting terrorism is to keep me safe. Period. I have no particular quarrel with Islam, and I imagine that most Muslims are more interested in the "live and let live" idea than fighting an apocalyptic jihad. Some don't, but these aren't the mainstream of public opinion and shouldn't be taken as such.

It does seem like we're hearing the return of the, "Well, we hear about moderate, peaceful Muslims, but why don't they speak out against the bad ones?" argument, one of my biggest pet peeves. This rhetorical construction exploits the notion that silence implies assent. But it doesn't have to signal assent. It could merely signal indifference. Most Muslims hate al-Qaeda, but they also hate America. They aren't particularly concerned with denouncing their coreligionists for the benefit of making the likes of Michelle Malkin happy. Furthermore, I suspect that few Christians in public life would like to be forced to denounce every single act of Christian intolerance that ever occurs in order to make, say, Michael Moore satisfied. What this rhetorical frame does is to try to insinuate that we shouldn't take moderate Islam at its word. In a world where the Muslim community outnumbers America by 4-to-1, this sort of assumption makes the world a very frightening place indeed. The Right has a clear interest in making the world seem like a scary, dangerous place, so that we just put them in charge and not ask too many questions, for risk of emboldening the enemy. It's what they do. Which is why, barring real evidence that there's something to fear here, that sort of thing can't be inferred, and the burden of proof should, as always, be on the accusers of these sorts of slurs and not on the accused.

It's a lynch mob mentality, basically. I tend to dislike this particular phrase, but considering conservatives' history, it kind of fits: for them, Muslim is the new black. I personally don't know how policymakers should respond to Fort Hood: presumably, enhanced security procedures at military facilities concerning firearms are the best response to this. But that doesn't address the underlying ugliness that is prominently on display here. It's ironic that it was George W. Bush who talked at length about how Islam wasn't our enemy after 9/11--for my money, it is one of the few good parts of Bush's legacy--and it's the one that's been the most rapidly dismantled by the right. I guess he wasn't convincing enough.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Good employment news?

Unemployment is now over 10%, but Noam Scheiber is optimistic:

Grant and Gertner argue that the dynamics of the current recovery, in terms of those unemployment peaks, look a lot more the pre-1990 business cycle than the post-1990 business cycle. Which is to say, they resemble the era of "jobful" recoveries rather than the era of jobless recoveries. During the current recession/recovery, the number of people out of work 5-14 weeks peaked the same month as the presumed end of the recession (May, according to Bloomberg), and the number of people out of work 15-26 weeks peaked a month later.

The only real hitch in Grant/Gertner analysis was that final category: people out of work at least 27 weeks. As Grant and Gertner conceded, the number of people out of work that long hadn't yet peaked. In fact, in the last set of data prior to today, the number actually jumped pretty sharply, from 4.988 million to 5.438 million.

Which is why the latest 27-weeks-and-over number is so encouraging. After jumping by 450,000 in September, it only jumped about 150,000 in October, suggesting that the number of very-long-term unemployed could be about to level off. If it does peak in the next month or two, that would really strengthen the Grant/Gertner case that employment growth could come a lot more quickly than we think, since it resembles what we observed before 1990, when "jobless" recovery wasn't yet part of the lexicon.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

This made me laugh

"Erickson said defeating Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid would 'send a message' and 'hamper Obama' in the second half of his term." -- TPM

I mean, it would be embarrassing to lose the Democrats' leader, but replacing Reid with Chuck Schumer strikes me as a potentially exponential increase in the boldness and ability of the leadership.

Republicans poised to lose to Boxer in 2010

As a Californian, I'm well aware that Sen. Barbara Boxer is not the best conceivable senator the Democrats could hope for. She is a fine progressive, but not the most talented politician in the world and there's certainly a possibility that a fiscally-moderate, socially-liberal Rockefeller Republican could mount a strong contest to her. California is Democratic and liberal, but there is a real strain of mild fiscal conservatism in the state that its most successful politicians are able to tap. Schwarzenegger is as popular as polio in the state right now, but he's the sort that can make a race of it. Carly Fiorina is probably not--I'm guessing she's Rockefellerish, but the political moxy she showed as a stumper for McCain makes me think she's not likely to be able to beat Boxer. But it's not inconceivable to me. Since NY-23 is over, though, it looks like it's time for the teabaggers to meddle in exciting new races, and that means California:
A California Republican aiming to unseat Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) next year has gotten a boost from conservative Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) [...] "California is ready for a turn back to freedom," DeMint said. He said DeVore has a "record straight up the way mine is" and applauded the candidate for flying to Washington to meet him.
DeMint is on the cutting edge of these sorts of things, so look for this to pop up on the wingnut radar soon. The California GOP is one of the most inexplicable entities on the planet--they don't seriously try to gain power, they don't try to help solve peoples' problems, and they mostly just do everything possible to throw a wrench into California's government (which is not exactly hard) and jeer any attempt to fix any mess. There are a few of them who aren't worthless, but one frequently wonders why they even bother to run for office, considering how poorly they frequently acquit themselves.

My point is that California Republicans will so totally back DeVore against Fiorina, and while I doubt that they are so deluded as to think that a Jim DeMint-style Republican will win the seat, I guess they'll be able to have some satisfaction that they'll be represented by a very liberal Democrat instead of a moderate Republican. Putting myself in their shoes, that makes no sense to me at all, but I guess it makes sense to them.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Another glorious triumph for the Club for Growth!

It appears that Bill Owens has won his election in NY-23. Fun facts: the Republicans haven't won a Democratic seat in a special election since 2001. And they have gone 1 for 12 for the past two years. Well, 1 for 13, including Owens's election.

The extent to which these elections had a "message" is debatable. The Republicans turned out to have better candidates than the Democrats in the governor's races tonight. But those candidates also ran issue-oriented campaigns that avoided La Palin and the pitchforks. A Republican Party that debated and campaigned like Bob McDonnell might well be one that can win elections. Perhaps today's results could lead to some rethinking on the right. We'll see.

Success brings respect

Good point from Matt Yglesias:
Realistically, success buys respect in Washington. When the contemporary conservative movement got rolling in the 1960s and 70s, it didn’t have a track-record of success. But ever since 1980 or so the conservative movement has demonstrated, time and again, an ability to build national majorities around candidates who identify themselves with the conservative movement. The case for progressives is much weaker. But recall that Nancy Pelosi first took over as Democratic leader, the conventional wisdom was that the party was doomed. By winning in 2006 and 2008, she’s gained some respect from the press and if the House Democrats stay in power in 2010 she’ll earn more.
I think this explains a lot more than Yglesias argues. The media's coverage of conservatives was fairly negative during 2005-2008, probably because they screwed up quite a few things. And the media's coverage of Democratic politics wasn't really too positive during Bush 43's first term, for obvious (and, frankly, not indefensible) reasons. Now, the media is more positive to conservatives because the media perceives that Republicans are gaining momentum with their arguments. It will be interesting to see how that coverage changes if the GOP has an average election night next year. One would imagine that they would be taken about as seriously as Labour was during the Thatcher years in Britain.

But I think the point that needs to be made here is that, while I think Yglesias is correct on this point, this is not the way that things should be. Covering one side more or less favorably based on their electoral success (or perceptions of it) strikes me as reasonable up to a certain point (I don't really think that news outlets need to cover the national convention of the Peace And Freedom Party, for example), but I do think that it is grossly unfair in the way it seems to play out these days. It might be reasonable, say, to cover the town hall healthcare protesters. But it is unreasonable to only cover the town halls that do have protesters (indeed, not all of them did). That is an editorial decision that doesn't convey the full story, and that makes a statement that distorts the reality of the thing. I guess it's a little passe to complain about how the media has lost all of its integrity in pursuing ratings and power, but I think the reason it's passe is because everyone realizes it and nobody wants to admit it.

The essential insanity of the Hoffman strategy

Farbeit for me, a Ned Lamont donor back in the day, to say that parties can never conduct ideological purges. But what surprises me about the Hoffman race is that conservatives spent so much time and money to finish "as expected" (assuming, of course, that he wins today). One would figure that an enfeebled minority would want all the help they could get, but evidently Republicans thought they could be choosers in addition to being beggars. Very well.

The crazy thing is that the millions of dollars spent by Republicans in this race could have gone to, say, contest the seat of freshman Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D-OH). Or to defend the very marginal seat of Rep. Joseph Cao (R-LA). These are areas where the Republicans stand to either gain or lose strength in the House. As a Democrat I'm pleased as punch to see the GOP wasting money replacing a moderately conservative, libertarian-type candidate with one that's all-around conservative, because that money won't be used against other Democrats. But don't Republican donors want to get the most bang for their buck? It's not like the Republican Party at an elite level is infested with moderates.

The answer, as we all know, is that the incentives for all the groups here are not the same. The Club for Growth, in particular, is making its play for power within the GOP. They have silently reorganized themselves as the financial arm of the Tea Party Movement, and if Hoffman wins they'll have a real scalp on their wall, and their power will increase. Being as the Club's record is pretty terrible anywhere outside than hard-right districts, it will be interesting to see what races they try to intervene in. Considering that they carried a great deal of blame for unseating Sen. Lincoln Chafee a few years back, I think it's safe to say that no moderate Republican will be safe.


I might be expected to agree with this, but I don't. It is true that the Federal Government and the California Government are looking similar in terms of being both Democrat-dominated and gridlocked by supermajorities, but there's a big difference here.

National Republicans are doing what they're doing as an electoral strategy to win more votes. It's been partially successful--the Democrats' favorability has gone down a bit--though at the cost of making the GOP more hated than it's ever been. It's entirely possible they'll be able to scare voters into voting for them to prevent President Obama from enslaving them from the Soviet Gulag that is insuring people without health insurance, but that vote won't be because they started liking Republicans.

California Republicans (I should say their representatives) are a small, corrupt group of mostly assholes who don't care about the state's problems and who have no desire to wield actual power. California has one of the most far-right Republican Parties in the country--even more conservative than Oklahoma's!--and most of them are completely embittered that the state that gave rise to Nixon and Reagan is now one of the more liberal states in the country. They have no desire to engage the center, and while the state is still winnable for Rockefeller Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Republicans in the state seem more willing to lose with a winger than win with a moderate. Arnie never had any leverage or clout with the state's GOP legislators, and despite the Governator's decidedly rightist ideas for clearing out the state's deficit he could secure no Republican support. They are like the Enron guys who cheered the Southern California fires back in 2000. They're petty, angry, and all they can do is to gum up the works and screw over everyone who receives services from the government. I don't have a very high opinion of national Republicans, but they aren't nearly that bad, though there is certainly room for growth...

So, basically, I tend to think that California Republican representatives are suffering some sort of bitter derangement, while national Republican representatives are merely running a strategy. In the end, if the Democrats pass healthcare and the economy starts to rebound, perceptions of the Democrats will rise and you'll be dealing with a fairly popular Democratic Party and a toxically unpopular Republican Party, and it will be interesting to see how Republicans from Obama-won states react to this--they could be Hoffmanned if they move too far to the center, or be tossed out by voters for being too Republican. This is why I think that the GOP is at its peak right now in the election cycle. Obama has hit his floor of support, and the economy is beginning to turn around. Toss in the end of our Iraq adventure and some real legislative accomplishments, and I think there's still reason for Republicans to worry.

The Man, The Myth, The Bio

East Bay, California, United States
Problem: I have lots of opinions on politics and culture that I need to vent. If I do not do this I will wind up muttering to myself, and that's only like one or two steps away from being a hobo. Solution: I write two blogs. A political blog that has some evident sympathies (pro-Obama, mostly liberal though I dissent on some issues, like guns and trade) and a culture blog that does, well, cultural essays in a more long-form manner. My particular thing is taking overrated things (movies, mostly, but other things too) down a peg and putting underrated things up a peg. I'm sort of the court of last resort, and I tend to focus on more obscure cultural phenomena.