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 Dinner

Last night there was a State Dinner at the White House, the first given by the Obamas. 

First Lady Gursharan Kaur of India, First Lady Michelle Obama, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India, and President Obama arrived for the state dinner.

The dinner for the Prime Minister of India was attended by over 300 guests including two women with the first name Maya (one being the President’s sister), General and Mrs. Powell, and Governor  Bobby Jindal and his wife.  Governor Deval Patrick attended with his wife, Diane.  But where were the Republican Congressional Leadership?  Not there.

While the Washington Times reported that neither John Boehner not Mitch McConnell were invited, it turns out that is not true. Keith Olbermann reported last night on Countdown that both had been invited and had declined.  

I have several questions for the Republicans.  Are you so fixated on bringing down this President that you can’t spend an evening being civil at a State Dinner?  Are you afraid that because this was a dinner given by an African-American President for an Indian Prime Minister that somehow your whiteness would be threatened?  Notice that two of the Republicans (I don’t know if any of the Indian American attendees are Republican.) were black and Indian.  Are you letting your racism out do your civility?  The lame excuse of having to go home for Thanksgiving doesn’t cut it. Most Americans travelling for Thanksgiving will do so today. 

Too bad you didn’t see your way to attend.  It looks like it was a wonderful occasion.  And you missed Jennifer Hudson singing.  Oh, I forgot.  She’s African-American.

The Republican Problem with Blondes

I generally don’t like to stereotype people, but today I just can’t resist.  Remember Dan Qualye?  He who used to look adoringly at Bush I?  He was a blonde back then. Then there was blonde bombshell pundit Ann Coulter.  Now the Republicans have Liz Cheney and Elizabeth Hasselbeck. 

Liz Cheney is on a crusade to save her father’s image.  Maybe she is trying to save a Spanish court or a truth commission or U.S. attorney from prosecuting him, but I don’t think it helps much at she can’t get facts which are clearly on tape correct.   Last night Rachel Maddow deconstructed Liz Cheney’s interview with Andrea Mitchell in which Cheney claimed that the linking of Saddam Hussein with 9-11 was an attempt to smear the Bush administration and that her father never said any such thing.  And here I’ve been thinking for at least 7 years that this was the reason for the War in Iraq.  Silly me.  Oh, the link wasn’t really with 9-11 just with Al-Qaeda.  Didn’t they take responsibility for the attack which would mean, if Saddam and Al-Qaeda were linked that Saddam would be linked to 9-11?  But no one has ever found such a link including the Congressional 9-11 Commission.  Liz is a blonde.

And then there is the other Republican blonde, Elizabeth Hasselbeck.  She criticized President Obama’s Cairo speech by saying he never mentioned “democracy.”  Elizabeth, he had a whole section which he called “Democracy.”  Keith Olbermann deconstructed this one.

The Republicans may have a problem with blondes.

Banks and Our Money

Are the banks using TARP money to – successfully – lobby the Senate?  Sure looks that way.  I first heard this story on Keith Olbermann’s Countdown when he interviewed Arianna Huffington.  But the best story  is by Ryan Grim on the Huffington Post.

The Senate on Thursday rejected an effort to stave off home foreclosures by a vote of 51 to 45. It was an overwhelming defeat, with the bill’s backers falling 15 votes short — a quarter of the Democratic caucus — of the 60 needed to cut off debate and move to a final vote.

The death of the bankruptcy reform measure — which would have allowed a small number of homeowners who met strict conditions to renegotiate mortgages under bankruptcy protection — is a major tactical win for the banking industry. But allowing the foreclosure crisis to continue unabated may end up being a failed strategy for the financial sector.

A little background from the Washington Post.

The measure would have allowed bankruptcy judges to modify troubled mortgages, lowering the interest rate or principal balance, a process known as a cramdown. Bankruptcy courts can already make those changes for a second home or investment property, but not a primary residence.

This would impact owners who are seeing home values drop to the point that the mortgages are larger than what the home is worth.  Sentator Richard Durbin was the primary sponsor and the bill was back, a little tepidly, by the Obama Administration. So back to Ryan Grim.

The Chamber of Commerce has deemed the vote a crucial one that will be heavily counted in its annual scorecard, and those who voted yes will pay a financial price from the Chamber and the banking industry.

Other Democrats stuck with the banks against the homeowners. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) was wheeled into the chamber and pointed his finger in the air, signaling a yes vote, then dramatically swung it down, as if taunting the backers of the bill.

Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) all voted with the banks, as they told the Huffington Post they would. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) voted no, as did the new Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

Sen. Michael Bennett (D-Colo.), Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and Max Baucus (D-Mont.) voted no as well.

Earlier this week, Durbin concluded that banks that “frankly own the place.”

How much did the Senate go for?

The banking and real estate industry has funneled roughly $2,000,000 into Landrieu’s campaign coffers over her 12-year career, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. The financial sector is Nelson’s biggest backer; he’s taken $1.4 million from banks and real estate interests and another $1.2 million from insurance firms. Tester has fielded roughly half a million in his two years in office. Lincoln has taken $1.3 million from banking and real estate interests.
Carper has raked in more than $1.5 million. Baucus, chair of the finance committee, has been on the receiving end of $3.5 million over his career. Specter has hauled in more than $4.5 million and Johnson has gotten some $2.5 million.

So don’t these Senators realize how we got into this mortgage mess to begin with?  I see crazy loans made way above a homes value even in good times whose owners are now in trouble.  Where are the mortgage bankers getting the money to lobby?  I thought they were in trouble and needed taxpayer help.  I say, no more bailout for any mortgage bank which lobbied against this bill.

By the way, there is also a list of Senators who voted their consciences:  Evan Bayh, Mark Warner, Jim Webb, and Ted Kaufman (who is not running for re-election).  We need to thank them for their votes.

The Slow Drip of Torture Revelations

Sometimes it feels like torture.  Everyday it feels as if there are new revelations.  Everyday there is more speculation about why President Obama doesn’t come out and say he will or will not support prosecution of Bush administration officials.  I have said before that I think he is waiting to see what Congress does and what the Justice Department finds in various investigations.  I think he doesn’t want to be seen as too eager and too partisan.  I understand why many are frustrated.  After all, the Republicans brought impeachment procedings and had a multi-year investigation by a special prosecutor about what was essentially a personal crime by President Clinton.  The whole thing sapped energy from things that Clinton could have been doing and I can understand that Obama wants to pass some of his real agenda first.  I want to see criminal prosecutions in the courts, although Judge Jay Bybee is an exception who needs to be impeached.

John Nichols writing in the Nation says

And President Obama, who erred on the side of the transparency demanded by the American Civil Liberties Union in its long campaign to obtain the memos, gets points for ordering an end to the use of the torture techniques they outlined and for expressing at least a measure of openness to a “further accounting” and perhaps prosecution of wrongdoers. But Obama’s fretting about inquiries “getting so politicized” and suggesting a preference for shifting responsibility to a bipartisan independent commission are unsettling.As a former constitutional law lecturer, Obama should have a firmer grasp of the point of executive accountability. It is not merely to “lay blame,” as he suggests; it is to set boundaries on presidential behavior and to clarify where wrongdoing will be challenged. Presidents, even those who profess honorable intentions, do not get to write their own rules. Congress must set and enforce those boundaries. When Obama suggested that CIA personnel who acted on the legal advice of the Bush administration would not face “retribution,” Illinois’s Jan Schakowsky, chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations, offered the only appropriate response. “I don’t want to compare this to Nazi Germany, but we’ve come to almost ridicule the notion that when horrific acts have been committed that people can use the excuse that, Well, I was just following orders,” explained Schakowsky, who has instructed aides to prepare for a torture inquiry. “There should be an open mind of what to do with information that we get from thorough investigations,” she added.

There must also be a proper framework for investigations. Gathering information for the purpose of creating a permanent record is only slightly superior to Obama’s banalities about wanting to “move forward.” Truth commissions that grant immunity to wrongdoers and bipartisan commissions that negotiate their way to redacted reports do not check and balance the executive branch any more than “warnings” punish speeding motorists.

Impeaching Bybee, as recommended by Nadler and Common Cause, would send the right signal. But it cannot be the only one. The House Judiciary Committee should examine all available avenues for achieving accountability–including the prospect of formal action against former officeholders, up to and including the sort of impeachments imagined by Mansfield and his compatriots in 1974. And Nadler and Feingold should use their subcommittees to begin outlining statutory constraints on the executive branch. The point, again, is not merely to address Bush/Cheney-era crimes but also to dial down the imperial presidency that has evolved under the unwatchful eye of successive Congresses.

“Congress…must be vigilant to the perils of the subversive notion that any public official, the president or a policeman, possesses a kind of inherent power to set the Constitution aside whenever he thinks the public interest or ‘national security’ warrants it. That notion is the essential postulate of tyranny,” California Congressman Don Edwards warned thirty-five years ago, when too many of his colleagues thought Nixon’s resignation had caged the beast of executive aggrandizement. That vigilance, too long delayed, is the essential duty of every member of Congress who swears an oath to support and defend the Constitution.

Here’s most recent example of the drip of revelations.  It appears that former Secretary of State Condi Rice might also be implicated in a conspiracy.  Keith Olbermann ran this tape  of her trying to defend torture.

So I say the Congress should begin impeaching Jay Bybee and we should let the relevatiions continue.  I’m not sure when enough will be enough to begin criminal proceedings but I’m sure Eric Holder will figure that out.