Congresswoman Giffords, violence, rhetoric and other thoughts

Happy 2011!  I had made a resolution to post at least once a week this year and am already behind.  I have had a difficult fall with lots of energy sapping family and work issues.  It also didn’t help that for someone like me, the political news was depressing.  There were a number of bright spots including the Massachusetts election, the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t tell, and ratification of START.  But overall it was pretty bleak.

But watching the first week of the new House was most entertaining.  At least it was until Saturday.

Bob and I were driving back from western Mass after a day of packing up my mother’s old apartment and when we got to Worcester, I turned on the NPR station to see if there were any news.  That was how we heard about Congresswoman Giffords, Judge Roll and the others who were shot and wounded.  I think that the assassination or attempted assassination of any political figure regardless of party or political philosophy is horrendous.  But this shooting is the culmination of the violence advocated by the radical right of the Republican party and the Tea Party Movement.

The first official to put the blame squarely where it belongs was Clarence W. Dupnik, the Pima County sheriff.  Sheriff Dupnik was blunt.  He was quoted in the Washington Post

There’s reason to believe that this individual may have a mental issue. And I think people who are unbalanced are especially susceptible to vitriol,” he said during his televised remarks. “People tend to pooh-pooh this business about all the vitriol we hear inflaming the American public by people who make a living off of doing that. That may be free speech, but it’s not without consequences.

He went on to say

It’s not unusual for all public officials to get threats constantly, myself included,” Sheriff Dupnik said. “That’s the sad thing about what’s going on in America: pretty soon we’re not going to be able to find reasonable, decent people willing to subject themselves to serve in public office.

So let’s look at some actual facts since the Republicans and the Tea Party appear to be painting themselves as victims of the liberal media and claim no responsibility of what happened.

First it is a fact that Sarah Palin posted a map with cross-hairs over the Congressional Districts of 20 Democratic Congresspersons including Giffiords.  She remarked on the fact last year.

Ms. Giffords was also among a group of Democratic House candidates featured on the Web site of Sarah Palin’s political action committee with cross hairs over their districts, a fact that disturbed Ms. Giffords at the time.

“We’re on Sarah Palin’s targeted list,” Ms. Giffords said last March. “But the thing is the way that she has it depicted has the cross hairs of a gun sight over our district. When people do that, they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that.”

The image is no longer on the Web site, and Ms. Palin posted a statement saying “my sincere condolences are offered to the family of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of today’s tragic shooting in Arizona. On behalf of Todd and my family, we all pray for the victims and their families, and for peace and justice.” (Late Saturday, the map was still on Ms. Palin’s Facebook page.)

Second, her office in Tuscon was vandalized after her vote in favor of Health Care Reform.  And both she and Judge Roll received threats. 

Third, her opponent in last November’s Congressional race held an event.  This information is from the blog, Firedoglake.

Kelly’s website has apparently scrubbed the event , but here is the account from the Arizona Daily Star:

Jesse Kelly, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to be bothered in the least by the Sarah Palin controversy earlier this year, when she released a list of targeted races in crosshairs, urging followers to “reload” and “aim” for Democrats. Critics said she was inciting violence.

He seems to be embracing his fellow tea partier’s idea. Kelly’s campaign event website has a stern-looking photo of the former Marine in military garb holding his weapon. It includes the headline: “Get on Target for Victory in November. Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office. Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelly.”

The event costs $50

I’m sure I will have much more to say on all of this as time goes on but I want to end with this from Paul Krugman’s column today.

It’s important to be clear here about the nature of our sickness. It’s not a general lack of “civility,” the favorite term of pundits who want to wish away fundamental policy disagreements. Politeness may be a virtue, but there’s a big difference between bad manners and calls, explicit or implicit, for violence; insults aren’t the same as incitement.

The point is that there’s room in a democracy for people who ridicule and denounce those who disagree with them; there isn’t any place for eliminationist rhetoric, for suggestions that those on the other side of a debate must be removed from that debate by whatever means necessary.

And it’s the saturation of our political discourse — and especially our airwaves — with eliminationist rhetoric that lies behind the rising tide of violence.

Where’s that toxic rhetoric coming from? Let’s not make a false pretense of balance: it’s coming, overwhelmingly, from the right. It’s hard to imagine a Democratic member of Congress urging constituents to be “armed and dangerous” without being ostracized; but Representative Michele Bachmann, who did just that, is a rising star in the G.O.P.

And there’s a huge contrast in the media. Listen to Rachel Maddow or Keith Olbermann, and you’ll hear a lot of caustic remarks and mockery aimed at Republicans. But you won’t hear jokes about shooting government officials or beheading a journalist at The Washington Post. Listen to Glenn Beck or Bill O’Reilly, and you will.

Of course, the likes of Mr. Beck and Mr. O’Reilly are responding to popular demand. Citizens of other democracies may marvel at the American psyche, at the way efforts by mildly liberal presidents to expand health coverage are met with cries of tyranny and talk of armed resistance. Still, that’s what happens whenever a Democrat occupies the White House, and there’s a market for anyone willing to stoke that anger.

But even if hate is what many want to hear, that doesn’t excuse those who pander to that desire. They should be shunned by all decent people.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been happening: the purveyors of hate have been treated with respect, even deference, by the G.O.P. establishment. As David Frum, the former Bush speechwriter, has put it, “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.”

And this sums it all up.

Dan Wasserman

About November 2nd

Actually the election was better than I thought it would be.  Here in Massachusetts the Democrats swept the Constitutional offices and proved that there was no enthusiasm gap – or if there was one it was on the Republican side.  The Democrats proved that old fashioned shoe leather is still the way to get out the vote.  The turnout was very good for a mid-term election in my precinct where Charlie Baker got all of 19 votes out of 433 voters.  Equally significant the two most important propositions got voted down.  We kept affordable housing laws on the books and didn’t reduce the sales tax.  But remember we also voted for George McGovern.

I have mixed emotions about the scene nationally.  On one hand, it probably means nothing will get done legislatively until after the 2012 Presidential election is over.  We can only hope that Congress musters the votes for a continuing resolution on the budget.  On the hand, it will be very entertaining to watch the Republicans try to deal with dissent in their party as the election of Rand Paul and others means the end to the lockstep voting of Republicans in Congress.  And given what is happening in recent European elections, particularly the Conservative take-over in England (and while we are talking, can someone please explain to me why the Liberal Dems there are in a coalition with them?) we shouldn’t be surprised that the Republican-Tea Party coalition won.  But how bad is it really?

There was a 60 vote swing in the House.  But remember that before the election the Democrats held 255 seats.  After the election the Republicans hold 239.  Even if all 8 still undecided races break Republican, they will hold 247 seats.  So yes, there was a huge swing, the biggest since, I believe since the Truman mid-terms, but even so, the new Republican majority is not as large as the Democratic one before the election.  And I was very sorry to see my old friend, Rick Boucher, lose in Virginia as part of the wave.  

The pre-election talk was a 9 seat pick-up in the Senate for the Republicans.  Pundits on both sides were saying that the Republicans would have had the 10 seats to take over if not for Christine O’Donnell getting the Delaware nomination.  But the gain is only 6 with Alaska still undecided.  The Democrats still hold 53 seats in the Senate.  Maybe Harry Reid can figure out a way to change the Senate rules to a majority instead of 60 votes.

Joshua Holland has a great piece posted on AlterNet titled “It’s Not the End of the World — 7 Things Progressives Need to Keep in Mind about Last Night’s GOP ‘Wave”.

Here are a few of those 7 things.

2. The electorate is hopping mad, but they still dislike Republicans. A month before an election that has swept some rather extreme GOPers into Congress, an Associated Press-GfK Poll found that “60 percent disapprove of the job congressional Democrats are doing — yet 68 percent frown on how Republicans are performing.”

A New York Times/CBS News poll last week found that while a majority of Americans voted GOP yesterday, the electorate “continues to have a more favorable opinion of the Democratic Party than of the Republican Party, with 46 percent favoring Democrats and 41 favoring Republicans.”

This will be the third consecutive year in which the party out of power wins. That’s not a measure of the country’s ideological leanings, it’s a sign that people are hurting and are mad as hell about it (in case one needed such a sign).

3. Blue Dogs took the brunt of it. The loss of Wisconsin’s liberal lion, Russ Feingold, is a blow to the progressive movement. Alan Grayson’s defeat in Florida hurts. Other good lawmakers were booted out of office last night as well. But in many cases, what we saw were conservatives with Ds next to their names replaced with conservatives with Rs.

That’s to be expected after two big Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008. They won in a lot of conservative districts, but as many observers noted at the time, many of those Dems winning in marginally “red” districts were the bluest of dogs, who have not exactly helped advance a progressive agenda.

In his new book, Ari Berman argues that a smaller, more ideologically coherent Democratic party would in fact be good for progressives. Whether or not one agrees, it’s hard to see a bunch of the most corporate-friendly Dems losing their seats as a tragedy for American progressivism.

5.  A wave of low-information voters says more about our media and education system than our politics. In late July, a much discussed poll revealed that only 42 percent of Republican primary voters were confident President Obama was born in the United States. Compare that to 77 percent of the electorate at large.

It’s important to remember that many Tea Partiers are voting in an alternative universe where the decidedly centrist Dems are stealthily pushing the nation toward socialism, trying to enact Sharia law, taking over broad swaths of the economy, setting up “death panels” to decide if grandma lives or dies and plotting to join the United States with Canada and Mexico.

Given those beliefs, it’s really no surprise they’re so animated to “take their country back.” But all of that is a testament to the power of the Right’s mighty Wurlitzer, and says little about the state of our political beliefs.

So right now, I’m going to sit back and watch the Republican Party try to reign in Michele Bachmann and Rand Paul and the expectations of the people who voted for them that the world will now run their way while I hope that the President and the Democrats stick to their principles and don’t compromise them away.  We don’t need them to become the equivalent of the English Liberal Dems.

Misinformation and the disappearance of moderate Republican

Long title without an obvious connection.  I was reading John Nichols in the Nation about Australian politics and their equivalent of the old moderate Republican which he calls an endangered species followed by an opinion piece in Politico about the disinformation age by Neal Gabler.  Thinking about it I realized that the two were related.  The demise of the moderate Republican has destroyed the ability of Democrats and Republicans to have a conversation in a civil facts and it now threatens the ability of either party to govern.

Nichols writes

Growing up in Middle West in the latter half of the 20th century, I was surrounded by moderate Republicans of the old “Main Street” school—former Ilowa Congressman Jim Leach, former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson, former Illinois Senator Chuck Percy and former Illinois Congressman John Anderson, former Wisconsin Governor Warren Knowles and former Wisconsin Congressman Bill Steiger—all of whom embraced environmental, civil rights and clean government principles that made them worthy competitors with the Democrats at election time and worthy governing partners when the voting was done.

The suggestion that Leach, Steiger, Percy or Anderson might find a place in today’s Republican Party would provoke laughter in anyone familiar with the contemporary definition of the term “tea party.” Like the great modern Republicans of the recent past: former President Dwight Eisenhower, former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, former New York City Mayor John Lindsay, former Massachusetts Senator Ed Brooke, former Connecticut Senator Lowell Weicker and dozens of other national leaders, the Midwest’s moderate Republicans would be about as likely to secure a Republican nomination these days as Barack Obama. (In point of fact, Obama’s governing style, with its emphasis on compromise and seeking private-sector solutions rather than classic governmental fixes, owes more to the moderate Republican tradition than to the liberal Democratic model of a Franklin Roosevelt.) 

He contrasts the situation with Australia.

In Australia, I’ve appeared with Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, the former leader of the conservative opposition party that’s roughly equivalent to the American Republicans. (They’re called “Liberals.” But that’s a reference to the traditional European term for fans of free markets and limited regulation.)

Turnbull, a former journalist who made millions in business, is enthusiastic about the private sector and more than willing to score government bureaucracy. But he is not a cookie-cutter conservative. A genuine “republican,” he wants to cut Australia’s last ties to the British Commonwealth and make the country a republic. A convert to Catholicism, he breaks with the church to support reproductive rights and stem cell research. He backs gay and lesbian rights. He’s concerned about climate change. A tech-savvy blogger who reads the ancient Greeks on his Kindle, he’s in the thick of Australia’s debate about how to build a state-of-the-art national broadband system.

Nichols points out that Turnbull is in the same mold as David Cameron, the new prime minister of England who is partnering with the Liberal Party.  I thought it a strange coalition, but is it different from Everett Dirksen working with Lyndon Johnson to pass legislation?  Probably not.

[I think Dirksen is the man in glasses to the right of Johnson in the picture]

 So how have we lost the ability to have a civil dialogue?  The internet and blogs like this one.  Fox News and MSNBC.  The fall of the non-partisan television news program.  The decline in newspaper readership.  Or all of the above.

Gabler writes

The recent Pew Research Center poll revealed that 18 percent of respondents believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim, and a whopping 43 percent are unsure exactly what religion he practices. This is disheartening on many levels — not least that it illustrates an astonishing degree of ignorance.

It is unlikely, however, that Americans are dumber now than they were, say, 25 years ago. With more of us attending college, we might even be smarter. But higher education rates and easier access to information have been undermined by what amounts to a vast and insidious revolutionary force — a kind of anti-Enlightenment in which facts yield to rumor, reason to uninformed opinion and objectivity to proudly declared subjectivity.

We swim in a limitless sea of misinformation, even disinformation, without much inclination to separate truth from fiction.

Is this a flaw in the American character, this inability to recognize the truth?  Gabler reaches back to de Tocqueville and his observation that Americans believe that they are all equal.  Some how truth has become a tool of the elite.

Daniel Moynihan famously said that everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own facts. Well, Moynihan spoke too soon. From the political shoutfests on TV and radio to the endless drone of sports radio callers to the millions of vanity blogs, opinion has rapidly become fact.

The idea that there is such a thing as verifiable truth — such as Obama being a Christian — is increasingly seen as elitist. It’s as if truth were yet another scheme by the powerful to impose their will on everyone else.

This overzealous sense of democracy has been encouraged by the right-wing, which has a stake in taking on science and evidence because these things are often likely to betray the tenets of their beliefs. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) offered one example of informational demagoguery on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, saying “I take the president at his word” that he is a Christian.

So why is the Republican leadership so anxious to appear unintelligent and unable to stand up to the facts?  Is that why the moderate Republican is an endangered species?  Gabler believes that we are entering a post-Enlightenment era.

Steven Colbert has jokingly snarled that facts are liberal. The problem for the right is that facts are stubborn, so when you disagree with them — whether it is global warming or evolution or the effect of tax cuts on economic growth — you want to substitute your own “facts” for the allegedly objective ones.

Indeed, of the multitude of ways that President George W. Bush changed America, this may have been the most important. He helped legitimize the idea of individual truth. In doing so, he became the first president to challenge the old Enlightenment foundation on which this country was established.

Nichols points out

What makes Turnbull most like the American moderate Republicans of old is his style. When we shared the platform at the Walkley Foundation’s forum on election coverage, he was confident, not arrogant. His wit was quick and cutting. He refused to dumb things down and he knew how to charm an audience that might not have liked his party but did like him.

“He refused to dumb things down….”  And that is still another issue.  When you have your own facts, you don’t have to think too hard or work to uncover the truth.  You don’t have to plow though any real investigative reporting or read anything that isn’t on your favorite internet site (one that agrees with you, of course).  You can reduce complex issues to slogans.

It is a rainy night here in Boston and I’m feeling pessimistic, but sometimes it is very hard to think we aren’t entering a dark age when along comes this breaking news:   Former moderate Republican Senator Chuck Hagel has endorsed the liberal Democratic Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, Joe Sestak.  Do you suppose that the moderate Republicans might just save the Democratic party since they don’t seem to have a place in the Republican Party?

 

The case for ending tax cuts

This week Kenneth Feinberg announced the list of banks that took tax payer money while paying our huge bonuses.  On NPR, John Ydstie reported that

In the fall of 2008, with the financial system on the verge of collapse, 17 large banks that were being propped up by taxpayers doled out $1.6 billion in bonuses.

On Friday, the Obama administration’s pay czar, Kenneth Feinberg, passed judgment.

According to Feinberg, “…many were over $10 million per individual.”

And what exactly have these individuals done with their bonuses?  Have they created jobs?  I don’t think so.

Which brings me to the tax cut which is looming as the next hot potato for the Democrats and for President Obama.  We all remember the conversation the President had with Joe the Plumber during the campaign during which Obama, who clearly thought he was talking with someone rational, tried to explain that he was not going to raise taxes on the middle class.

The New York Times reports

Democratic leaders, including Mr. Obama, say they are intent on letting the tax cuts for the wealthy expire as scheduled at the end of this year. But they have pledged to continue the lower tax rates for individuals earning less than $200,000 and families earning less than $250,000 — what Democrats call the middle class.

Most Republicans want to extend the tax cuts for everyone, and some Democrats agree, saying it would be unwise to raise taxes on anyone while the economy remains weak. If no action is taken, taxes on income, dividends, capital gains and estates would all rise.

We do not buy into the theory that because the economy is still recovering, extending tax cuts for the highest earners is a necessary or effective policy response,” said Gene Sperling, counselor to Mr. Geithner.

“While we are supporting measures like small-business lending and tax cuts to spark growth,” Mr. Sperling added, “it is also important to show the world that we are following through on our commitment to long-term fiscal discipline.”

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont makes the case for the change in the Nation.

The American people are hurting. As a result of the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior on Wall Street, millions of Americans have lost their jobs, homes, life savings and their ability to get a higher education. Today, some 22 percent of our children live in poverty, and millions more have become dependent on food stamps for their food.

And while the Great Wall Street Recession has devastated the middle class, the truth is that working families have been experiencing a decline for decades. During the Bush years alone, from 2000-2008, median family income dropped by nearly $2,200 and millions lost their health insurance. Today, because of stagnating wages and higher costs for basic necessities, the average two-wage-earner family has less disposable income than a one-wage-earner family did a generation ago. The average American today is underpaid, overworked and stressed out as to what the future will bring for his or her children. For many, the American dream has become a nightmare.

 But, not everybody is hurting. While the middle class disappears and poverty increases the wealthiest people in our country are not only doing extremely well, they are using their wealth and political power to protect and expand their very privileged status at the expense of everyone else. This upper-crust of extremely wealthy families are hell-bent on destroying the democratic vision of a strong middle-class which has made the United States the envy of the world. In its place they are determined to create an oligarchy in which a small number of families control the economic and political life of our country.

The New York Times story points out how difficult changing the tax policy will be as it will involve many different element.

Congress must also wrestle with the estate tax, which lapsed last year but will automatically be reinstated effectively at a 55 percent rate on Jan. 1 for estates larger than $1 million. Lawmakers must also deal with an array of other provisions, including tax rates on dividends and capital gains, and the Alternative Minimum Tax, which has been adjusted annually to prevent millions of middle-class families from paying higher tax bills. The child tax credit would also be reduced.

So what should the strategy be?

Negotiations are expected to start in the Senate, where it is hardest for Democrats to advance legislation because of Republican filibusters. But some Democrats say a fallback plan would be to have their larger majority in the House approve a continuation of the lower rates just for the middle class right before the election, almost daring Republicans to oppose them.

In that case, Democrats say, Republicans who opposed the bill would be blocking a tax cut for more than 95 percent of Americans to defend tax cuts for a relatively few wealthy households. Republicans are readying an arsenal of economic data to portray the Democrats as endangering the precarious recovery and harming small-business owners, some of whom are taxed at the top personal income tax rates.

But some lawmakers, including Mr. Wyden, [Senator from Oregon] say the deficit concerns and the attention on the debt commission could help forge a deal: a short-term continuation of the tax cuts for the middle class, and perhaps some new tax breaks for businesses, that would buy lawmakers time to undertake a broad overhaul of the tax code in the next Congress.

It will be interesting to see if a change for the middle class can be made before the election and even more interesting to see what the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform reports in December.

I am not an economist, but won’t the revenue generated by increasing taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations making over a certain amount – or that off shore their jobs-  help the deficit?   And I wonder if some are not actually paying more on their unemployment than those bankers are on their bonuses?

Talking jobs and unemployment

Today I went to a graduation for 58 men and women – almost all over 3o – who went to a program at the local YMCA to sharpen skills and make them more competitive in the job market.  I shared an intern with several others in my agency.  It was announced that 8 or 9 had found jobs.  Not bad in this market, but not good either. 

Last week the Boston Globe ran a story about the report by the National Skills Coalition. 

The report projects that by 2016, Massachusetts will have nearly 400,000 job openings that require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year college degree. The report says “middle-skill” jobs will account for 38 percent of all openings.

Ranging from licensed practical nurses to computer support specialists, the jobs have median annual incomes of about $50,000 to $55,000.

The report says the state faces challenges in meeting the demand for middle-skilled workers, with only 32 percent of current employees having the credentials.

The graduation I attended was designed to train people for these middle-skill jobs.  But until the jobs are created, the graduates still need to pay the rent, the mortgage, buy food and clothes.  These are men and women who are doing the rights things and are still finding it tough to find a job.  Some of them were unemployed before entering the program and some will be unemployed after graduation.  Some may be eligible for unemployment benefits, but may have exhausted their time.  Which brings me to the unemployment benefits issue.

Let’s start with Paul Krugman.

There was a time when everyone took it for granted that unemployment insurance, which normally terminates after 26 weeks, would be extended in times of persistent joblessness. It was, most people agreed, the decent thing to do.

But that was then. Today, American workers face the worst job market since the Great Depression, with five job seekers for every job opening, with the average spell of unemployment now at 35 weeks. Yet the Senate went home for the holiday weekend without extending benefits. How was that possible?

The answer is that we’re facing a coalition of the heartless, the clueless and the confused. Nothing can be done about the first group, and probably not much about the second. But maybe it’s possible to clear up some of the confusion.

So who are the heartless?  They are Republicans and some Democrats a tiny number of whom may be acting out of principle.  They hide behind the deficit and statements from the clueless.

By the clueless I mean people like Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate for senator from Nevada, who has repeatedly insisted that the unemployed are deliberately choosing to stay jobless, so that they can keep collecting benefits. A sample remark: “You can make more money on unemployment than you can going down and getting one of those jobs that is an honest job but it doesn’t pay as much. We’ve put in so much entitlement into our government that we really have spoiled our citizenry.”

Now, I don’t have the impression that unemployed Americans are spoiled; desperate seems more like it. One doubts, however, that any amount of evidence could change Ms. Angle’s view of the world — and there are, unfortunately, a lot of people in our political class just like her.

And then Krugman tackles the misinformed.

But there are also, one hopes, at least a few political players who are honestly misinformed about what unemployment benefits do — who believe, for example, that Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, was making sense when he declared that extending benefits would make unemployment worse, because “continuing to pay people unemployment compensation is a disincentive for them to seek new work.” So let’s talk about why that belief is dead wrong.

Do unemployment benefits reduce the incentive to seek work? Yes: workers receiving unemployment benefits aren’t quite as desperate as workers without benefits, and are likely to be slightly more choosy about accepting new jobs. The operative word here is “slightly”: recent economic research suggests that the effect of unemployment benefits on worker behavior is much weaker than was previously believed. Still, it’s a real effect when the economy is doing well.

But it’s an effect that is completely irrelevant to our current situation. When the economy is booming, and lack of sufficient willing workers is limiting growth, generous unemployment benefits may keep employment lower than it would have been otherwise. But as you may have noticed, right now the economy isn’t booming — again, there are five unemployed workers for every job opening. Cutting off benefits to the unemployed will make them even more desperate for work — but they can’t take jobs that aren’t there.

Will extending benefit add the to deficit?  Krugman tackles this one also.

But won’t extending unemployment benefits worsen the budget deficit? Yes, slightly — but as I and others have been arguing at length, penny-pinching in the midst of a severely depressed economy is no way to deal with our long-run budget problems. And penny-pinching at the expense of the unemployed is cruel as well as misguided.

But is being against extending benefits a political plus?  Not according to two new polls out today.  According to the New York Times story in the Caucus both a CBS News and a ABC News/Washington Post poll found the majority of those surveyed believed that Congress should extend benefits.

In the CBS News survey, 52 percent of respondents said Congress should extend unemployment benefits for people currently out of work, even if it meant increasing the budget deficit. Thirty-nine percent disagreed, and the rest said “it depends” or gave no opinion.

Broken down by party affiliation, about 7 in 10 Democrats said they supported an extension, while most Republicans said they opposed it. Independents were more evenly divided, with 47 percent in favor and 42 percent opposed.

The ABC News/Washington Post poll asked the question a little differently, and found even more support for an extension of unemployment benefits. The question noted that Congress had previously extended benefits because of the economic downturn, and was considering extending them again. It also presented capsules of each side of the debate, noting that supporters of the extension say it “will help those who can’t find work” while opponents say it “adds too much to the federal budget deficit.”

The result: 62 percent of respondents said Congress should approve another extension, while 36 percent said it should not. Those in favor included 80 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of independents, as well as 43 percent of Republicans.

So there doesn’t seem to be a lot of gain in opposition.

Standing with three Americans who have struggled to find work, President Obama spoke in the Rose Garden about the need to extend unemployment benefits.

The last word goes to the President.

Under pressure in an election year to reduce the unemployment rate, now at 9.5 percent, Mr. Obama also urged the Senate to approve a package of tax cuts and an expansion of lending to small businesses. “We all have to continue our efforts to do everything in our power to spur growth and hiring,” Mr. Obama said at the White House.

Mr. Obama, appearing before reporters in the Rose Garden flanked by three Americans who have had difficulty finding work, took aim at that argument. “That attitude reflects a lack of faith in the American people,” Mr. Obama said. “They’re not looking for a handout. They desperately want to work.”

Mr. Obama sharply criticized Republicans who have several times in the past month voted against bringing an unemployment extension bill to the Senate floor.

“After years of championing policies that turned a record surplus into a massive deficit, the same people who didn’t have any problem spending hundreds of billions of dollars on tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans are now saying we shouldn’t offer relief to middle-class Americans like Jim or Leslie or Denise, who really need help,” Mr. Obama said, referring to the three people who stood with him in the Rose Garden, brought to Washington by the White House to help illustrate the president’s point.

The Bill will pass this week, probably without Republican support, after we get the new temporary Senator from West Virginia, Carte Goodwin. 

  

Keeping the Faith

I’ve been thinking about the mid-term elections a lot recently.  With financial reform and health care reform passed, President Obama has kept two big promises.  Of course, neither bill is perfect.  But both are steps in the right direction.  So when his poll numbers go down anyway and the pundits think mid-term election disaster it is hard to keep the faith.  In this connection, I’m looking at a piece from last Sunday’s Boston Globe and Paul Krugman’s New York Times column from yesterday.

The Globe article by Joe Keohane in the Ideas section was titled “How Facts Backfire”  and the role factual information plays in a democracy.  It was pretty bleak and discouraging.

It’s one of the great assumptions underlying modern democracy that an informed citizenry is preferable to an uninformed one. “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789. This notion, carried down through the years, underlies everything from humble political pamphlets to presidential debates to the very notion of a free press. Mankind may be crooked timber, as Kant put it, uniquely susceptible to ignorance and misinformation, but it’s an article of faith that knowledge is the best remedy. If people are furnished with the facts, they will be clearer thinkers and better citizens. If they are ignorant, facts will enlighten them. If they are mistaken, facts will set them straight.

Maybe not. Recently, a few political scientists have begun to discover a human tendency deeply discouraging to anyone with faith in the power of information. It’s this: Facts don’t necessarily have the power to change our minds. In fact, quite the opposite. In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.

This bodes ill for a democracy, because most voters — the people making decisions about how the country runs — aren’t blank slates. They already have beliefs, and a set of facts lodged in their minds. The problem is that sometimes the things they think they know are objectively, provably false. And in the presence of the correct information, such people react very, very differently than the merely uninformed. Instead of changing their minds to reflect the correct information, they can entrench themselves even deeper.

“The general idea is that it’s absolutely threatening to admit you’re wrong,” says political scientist Brendan Nyhan, the lead researcher on the Michigan study. The phenomenon — known as “backfire” — is “a natural defense mechanism to avoid that cognitive dissonance.”

Paul Krugman wrote Friday about the Republicans proposed economic plan.  Basically tax cuts for the rich and nothing for the rest of us according to Krugman.

Republicans are feeling good about the midterms — so good that they’ve started saying what they really think. This week the party’s Senate leadership stopped pretending that it cares about deficits, stating explicitly that while we can’t afford to aid the unemployed or prevent mass layoffs of schoolteachers, cost is literally no object when it comes to tax cuts for the affluent

And that’s one reason — there are others — why you should fear the consequences if the G.O.P. actually does as well in November as it hopes.

For a while, leading Republicans posed as stern foes of federal red ink. Two weeks ago, in the official G.O.P. response to President Obama’s weekly radio address, Senator Saxby Chambliss devoted his entire time to the evils of government debt, “one of the most dangerous threats confronting America today.” He went on, “At some point we have to say ‘enough is enough.’ ”

But this past Monday Jon Kyl of Arizona, the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, was asked the obvious question: if deficits are so worrisome, what about the budgetary cost of extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, which the Obama administration wants to let expire but Republicans want to make permanent? What should replace $650 billion or more in lost revenue over the next decade?

His answer was breathtaking: “You do need to offset the cost of increased spending. And that’s what Republicans object to. But you should never have to offset the cost of a deliberate decision to reduce tax rates on Americans.” So $30 billion in aid to the unemployed is unaffordable, but 20 times that much in tax cuts for the rich doesn’t count.

The next day, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, confirmed that Mr. Kyl was giving the official party line: “There’s no evidence whatsoever that the Bush tax cuts actually diminished revenue. They increased revenue, because of the vibrancy of these tax cuts in the economy. So I think what Senator Kyl was expressing was the view of virtually every Republican on that subject.”

The Republicans seem to be making it pretty clear that they want to go back to the old economic way.  Krugman continues

But we’re talking about voodoo economics here, so perhaps it’s not surprising that belief in the magical powers of tax cuts is a zombie doctrine: no matter how many times you kill it with facts, it just keeps coming back. And despite repeated failure in practice, it is, more than ever, the official view of the G.O.P.

Why should this scare you? On paper, solving America’s long-run fiscal problems is eminently doable: stronger cost control for Medicare plus a moderate rise in taxes would get us most of the way there. And the perception that the deficit is manageable has helped keep U.S. borrowing costs low.

But if politicians who insist that the way to reduce deficits is to cut taxes, not raise them, start winning elections again, how much faith can anyone have that we’ll do what needs to be done? Yes, we can have a fiscal crisis. But if we do, it won’t be because we’ve spent too much trying to create jobs and help the unemployed. It will be because investors have looked at our politics and concluded, with justification, that we’ve turned into a banana republic.

Krugman also looks at the facts

…But the real news here is the confirmation that Republicans remain committed to deep voodoo, the claim that cutting taxes actually increases revenues.It’s not true, of course. Ronald Reagan said that his tax cuts would reduce deficits, then presided over a near-tripling of federal debt. When Bill Clinton raised taxes on top incomes, conservatives predicted economic disaster; what actually followed was an economic boom and a remarkable swing from budget deficit to surplus. Then the Bush tax cuts came along, helping turn that surplus into a persistent deficit, even before the crash.

So the facts seem to be higher taxes on higher incomes results in lower deficits and more economic benefit for the rest of us.  But if we believe Joe Keohane, the facts don’t matter much to those that have settled beliefs.

…Most of us like to believe that our opinions have been formed over time by careful, rational consideration of facts and ideas, and that the decisions based on those opinions, therefore, have the ring of soundness and intelligence. In reality, we often base our opinions on our beliefs, which can have an uneasy relationship with facts. And rather than facts driving beliefs, our beliefs can dictate the facts we chose to accept. They can cause us to twist facts so they fit better with our preconceived notions. Worst of all, they can lead us to uncritically accept bad information just because it reinforces our beliefs. This reinforcement makes us more confident we’re right, and even less likely to listen to any new information. And then we vote.

This effect is only heightened by the information glut, which offers — alongside an unprecedented amount of good information — endless rumors, misinformation, and questionable variations on the truth. In other words, it’s never been easier for people to be wrong, and at the same time feel more certain that they’re right.

So how exactly do the Democrats combat all the Republican nonsense?  Not only the Kyl and McConnell quotes that Krugman mentions, but also statements that if the Republicans take over during the mid-terms they will repeal the health and financial reforms.  They know very well that if they try, there will be a Presidential veto and that they will not be able to keep that promise, but despite that fact, they will be believed.  Keohane discusses a number of studies and possibilities but the most immediate solution to this problem seems to be increasing self-esteem.

One avenue may involve self-esteem. Nyhan worked on one study in which he showed that people who were given a self-affirmation exercise were more likely to consider new information than people who had not. In other words, if you feel good about yourself, you’ll listen — and if you feel insecure or threatened, you won’t. This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.

Increasing the self-esteem of the American electorate right now means creating jobs and making some radical moves on the economy.  Some of the benefits of the reforms will also begin to impact voters by fall.

The Democrats should take Eugene Robinson’s advice on Keith Olbermann’s Countdown last night. 

I mean it’s not like the Democrats don’t have something to run on this fall. So get out there and run on it.

Gene also said in a recent column in the Washington Post

One reason I’m not so confident of a Republican blowout in the fall is that while polls clearly show that the country is in an anti-incumbent mood, there’s also considerable evidence that people see the GOP as part of the problem, not part of the solution. A new Post-ABC News poll, for example, showed that 58 percent of voters have “just some” confidence, or even less, in President Obama’s leadership, and that 68 percent were similarly doubtful about the ability of congressional Democrats to lead. But 72 percent had little or no faith in congressional Republicans — which suggests to me that the GOP has work to do before its leaders start picking out new office suites in the Capitol.

Another reason for caution is that the Republican Party is out of step with the American public on so many issues. Americans want to see unemployment benefits extended. They want tougher financial regulation, complete with consumer protections. Even health-care reform, which the GOP succeeded in painting as the apocalypse, becomes more popular as the months pass and somehow the world does not end.

I have to believe that there is a large portion of the American electorate that can be swayed by facts.  And the ray of hope is in the slide that Olbermann showed with the results of the NBC/Wall Street Journal Poll which indicates that the majority would like more, not less regulation of Wall Street, big business, the health care industry and, by a big margin, the oil industry.  They won’t get that from the Republicans who want a moratorium on regulation.

The State of the Obama Presidency

All of our expectations were so high when Barack Obama took office 18 months ago.  He was going to fix the economy, end the wars in Iraq and Afganistan, give us health care reform, fix the schools, walk on water….

After 8 years of George W. and after the wasted Clinton years, we progressives were ready.  So where are we now?  This Doonesbury cartoon says its all.

We are like his kids and think he can do anything.  Unfortunately, there is the Senate to deal with and the fall elections which still look difficult for the Democrats.  I’m hoping they can just hang on to enough seats to keep control and Obama’s agenda has a fighting chance.