Aiming higher

From the President’s State of the Union speech:

Seven years ago, Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis were newlyweds. She waited tables. He worked construction. Their first child, Jack, was on the way.

They were young and in love in America, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

“If only we had known,” Rebekah wrote to me last spring, “what was about to happen to the housing and construction market.”

As the crisis worsened, Ben’s business dried up, so he took what jobs he could find, even if they kept him on the road for long stretches of time. Rebekah took out student loans, enrolled in community college, and retrained for a new career. They sacrificed for each other. And slowly, it paid off. They bought their first home. They had a second son, Henry. Rebekah got a better job, and then a raise. Ben is back in construction — and home for dinner every night.

“It is amazing,” Rebekah wrote, “what you can bounce back from when you have to…we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.”

We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.

This touching story of survival in the face of economic adversity was probably the single dominant thread in the President’s speech. The President referred to the Erler’s as a narrative device multiple times in the speech, complete with numerous shots of Rebekah in the audience. It truly is an impressive, though presumably common, story of how Americans worked their way through the economic collapse of 2008, the collapse of housing bubble, and the rise of debt and joblessness that accompanied it all.

Of course, you can also look at this story and see a depiction of how the American government utterly failed this family.

They were the victim of the bets of Wall Street banks, given license to gamble by bipartisan deregulation. Houses were overvalued, loans were inflated beyond what borrowers could pay, and when no one was buying houses, no one was building them. Wall Street banks were let off the hook – allowed to continue to exist despite being insolvent, while insolvent homeowners were told to quietly surrender their homes to these very same bankers. When stimulus spending was passed, it was small and limited, lest the deficit scolds be given optical license to scold the President and his new majorities in Congress.

There was no way for this family to get higher education without debt, so debt they took on. The risk seems to be paying off and the economy is rebounding. Things seem bright for the Erlers and that’s to be celebrated.

But how would the last six plus years of their lives looked differently if the government had actually sought to help people impacted by the economic crisis, instead of waiting for them to gamely dig themselves out of trouble? What if there had been stimulus spending to keep construction jobs from contracting? What if there were free community college (as the President has now proposed to the Republican controlled Congress)? What if there was a minimum wage that was a living wage? Surely all of this would have helped this family, kept them afloat and maybe brought them what they themselves earned painstakingly a bit faster and with a bit less pain.

There are many ways in which government is not like a family. Just as a government doesn’t have to balance the checkbook the way a family does, the characteristics of grit through austerity do not hold from the family to the government. Maybe this family got through it all, but I think we must aim higher than that. Maybe our country is getting through it all – though this is a highly contentious claim in my view – but again, we must aim higher.

In fairness, the President did call for Congress to aim higher, though more in the spirit of cooperation and civic duty than in pursuit of any particular set of outcomes.

I’m left with a description of a family’s trials that, while admirable, is not one that I would hold up as anything other than an example of the ways in which the Democratic and Republican parties have failed poor, working and middle class Americans.

Guest Post: What Would Carl Oglesby Say About Bob Rubin?

My good family friend Avram Barlowe penned this thoughtful piece which I think merits wider reading. Avram is a teacher in the New York City public school system and a union shop steward.

What Would Carl Oglesby Say About Bob Rubin?
. . . and by extension, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama?

Coming of age under the influence of the New Left, one of the political traits I developed was an enduring mistrust of powerful liberals and liberalism. There have surely been times in my life when that mistrust was misplaced and dogmatic. And decades of neoliberalism’s slow but steady erosion of the welfare state have certainly taught me the value of certain liberal reforms and the need, sometimes, to work within the system. However, I still believe in an aspect of the New Left’s critique, which suggests that liberalism is too often an accommodation masking capitalism’s injustice. I would also argue that social democracy as we have known it, with all of its considerable benefits, in both its European and American forms, is fundamentally a concession that capitalism is rejecting in the context’s of the left’s defeat. It should not be an end in itself. I understand that fatigue in the face of reaction at home, the failure of “really existing socialism” abroad, and a pragmatism born of conditions have narrowed the horizon for many decent, serious activists, but I think these people are engaged in denial to the extent that they accept the good intentions, if not the practices, of the “centrist” liberals who run the Democratic Party.

I’ve been stewing about this in recent weeks as I’ve perused assorted bits of news, which reveal the manner in which liberal Democrats have essentially conceded to the big banks the right of risky, financial speculation and the fiscal austerity/privatization that accompanies it. (If you doubt me on this one consider as examples the latest, paltry fines paid by UBS to settle [out of court] its “LIBOR” violations and by HSBC to resolve [out of court] its laundering of billions of dollars for Columbian and Mexican drug cartels, a clear violation of the Banking Secrets Act and the Trading With The Enemy Act. In each case, according to The New York Times, the government clearly “chose not to indict . . .for fear that criminal prosecution would topple the bank and, in the process, endanger the financial system.) I’m reminded that so many of the current policy’s architects are liberal, east coast Democrats, products of prestigious educations, the best and brightest, just as were their 1960’s counterparts (except that this time several of the wise men — Jack Lew, Gene Sperling, David Plouffe, Larry Summers, Peter Orszag, David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel — are Jewish, as are their not-so-informal guru, Bob Rubin, and myself). And when one takes a closer look at their profiles, credentials, interests and political actions, the parallels to the 60’s are rather striking.

Yves Smith wrote a smart blog piece this week on Jack Lew, Obama’s Secretary of Treasury nominee, that examines Bob Rubin’s influence in the Obama Administration. (Lew, by the way, worked with Rubin in the Clinton Administration and later was one of a group of former Clintonites recruited by Rubin at Citigroup.) It includes a telling description of Rubin’s liberalism:

“Rubin was admired by everyone for his low-key personal style. Rubin always had a big heart and a gentle manner: He was a liberal Democrat who, as a young trader at Goldman Sachs, used to show up at New York community meetings on the inner-city poor. Later on he opposed Clinton’s welfare “workfare” reform—a much-criticized compromise with the GOP—as too harsh. . . .

In the year 2010, in an interview with me a decade after his star turn as Treasury secretary, as the floodwaters of the subprime disaster lapped at his executive suite in the Citigroup building on Manhattan’s East Side, Rubin mulled over the consequences of what he had wrought. ‘We have a market-based financial system, and yet we have a whole bunch of institutions that are too big or too interconnected to fail,’ Rubin said in puzzled tones. “Yet the market-based system is the way to go. How do you reconcile all that? The fundamental theory of the [market] case is premised on the notion that failure or success reaps their own rewards. But now that’s not happening.”

The quotation cited here is quite an admission. One wonders why someone capable of it and someone apparently concerned with the plight of marketplace “losers” doesn’t renounce the present system and call for or seek an alternative. The answer, of course, is that he and others like him are deeply vested in the system, ideologically, emotionally, and, perhaps most important, materially.

Now consider for a moment one of the New Left’s defining moments, the words spoken by SDS leader Carl Oglesby’s at the first national March on Washington protest against the Vietnam War:

“We are here again to protest a growing war. Since it is a very bad war, we acquire the habit of thinking it must be caused by very bad men. But we only conceal reality, I think, to denounce on such grounds the menacing coalition of industrial and military power, or the brutality of the blitzkrieg we are waging against Vietnam, or the ominous signs around us that heresy may soon no longer be permitted. We must simply observe, and quite plainly say, that this coalition, this blitzkrieg, and this demand for acquiescence are creatures, all of them, of a Government that since 1932 has considered itself to he fundamentally liberal.

The original commitment in Vietnam was made by President Truman, a mainstream liberal. It was seconded by President Eisenhower, a moderate liberal. It was intensified by the late President Kennedy, a flaming liberal. Think of the men who now engineer that war those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the President himself. They are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals.”

I know some will argue that it’s wrong to compare the horrors of Vietnam to our current economic problems. But substitute the casino economy and growing inequality for Vietnam and the liberals yesteryear for the liberal leaders of today and you have an analogy that fits. As Yves Smith notes, “we have created a free-market system dominated by institutions so huge and systemically important that they no longer have to play by free-market rules.” Bob Rubin and proteges such as Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Peter Orszag and Jack Lew — honorable, liberal men all — have done as much as anyone to create that system. And the lives of ordinary people are being damaged and destroyed in order to preserve a power structure, just as they were in the Vietnam War.

To those who would deny this or question the wisdom of placing the system on trial even as we fight to defend and advance reforms, I would ask you to consider as well the closing of Oglesby’s speech in today’s light as well:

“Let me then speak directly to humanist liberals. If my facts are wrong, I will soon be corrected. But if they are right, then you may face a crisis of conscience. Corporatism or humanism: which? For it has come to that. Will you let your dreams be used? Will you be a grudging apologist for the corporate state? Or will you help try to change it – not in the name of this or that blueprint or ism, but in the name of simple human decency and democracy and the vision that wise and brave men saw in the time of our own Revolution?And if your commitment to human values is unconditional, then disabuse yourselves of the notion that statements will bring change, if only the right statements can be written, or that interviews with the mighty will bring change if only the mighty can be reached, or that marches will bring change if only we can make them massive enough, or that policy proposals will bring change if only we can make them responsible enough.

We are dealing now with a colossus that does not want to be changed. It will not change itself. It will not cooperate with those who want to change it. Those allies of ours in the Government – are they really our allies? If they are, then they don’t need advice, they need constituencies; they don’t need study groups, they need a movement. And it they are not, then all the more reason for building that movement with the most relentless conviction.

There are people in this country today who are trying to build that movement, who aim at nothing less than a humanist reformation. And the humanist liberals must understand that it is this movement with which their own best hopes are most in tune. We radicals know the same history that you liberals know, and we can understand your occasional cynicism, exasperation, and even distrust. But we ask you to put these aside and help us risk a leap. Help us find enough time for the enormous work that needs doing here. Help us build. Help us shape the future in the name of plain human hope.”

Carl’s words are hardly a program for working within and beyond the system today, but the approach and spirit they represent remain highly relevant. ‘Nuff said for now.

The immorality of climate inaction, the fossil fuel industry

I was offline last week, so I missed President Obama’s press conference last week. Included in it were the President’s remarks on climate change, which while acknowledging its existence offered nothing in terms of commitment to action, let alone action the scale needed to confront the climate crisis. Here’s some of what President Obama said:

So what I’m going to be doing over the next several weeks, next several months, is having a conversation, a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers, and elected officials to find out what can — what more can we do to make a short-term progress in reducing carbons, and then working through an education process that I think is necessary — a discussion, a conversation across the country about what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we’re passing on to future generations that’s going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with.

I don’t know what either Democrats or Republicans are prepared to do at this point, because this is one of those issues that’s not just a partisan issue; I also think there are regional differences. There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices. And understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused, and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth, that if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody is going to go for that. I won’t go for that.

If, on the other hand, we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth, and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that’s something that the American people would support.

So you can expect that you’ll hear more from me in the coming months and years about how we can shape an agenda that garners bipartisan support and helps move this agenda forward.

Part of what is so confounding to me is the refusal for elected officials, including but not limited to the President, to refuse to understand the scope of the crisis in front of us. And not just the scope, the presence of the crisis as a crisis in the immediate term.

As Bill McKibben has made abundantly clear, we don’t have the time. We need immediate changes to the math behind global energy policy, otherwise the planet is screwed.

Surely in coming weeks and months, we’ll see environmental groups float potential legislative options for the President and Congress to consider over the next four years. While I’m all for some of the brick-and-mortar Beltway environmental groups providing concrete solutions with an eye towards pragmatism as always, I don’t think that’s actually what a left flank looks like.

In this case, the left flank on climate needs to built squarely around morality. Specifically the immorality of continuing to destroy our planet through a fossil fuel-based energy policy (let alone one which enriches a small handful of individuals and corporations at the expense of what will be a potentially infinitely large dollar amount in climate destruction). Continued inaction or action at the snails pace we’ve seen from all American elected officials is simply immoral.

Taking this a step further, it’s clear that at the end of the day, there will be no solution to this crisis without public officials having the moral clarity to say, “The fossil fuel industry is killing our planet. This is a crime against every living person and all future generations. As a result, they can no longer exist.” The left flank of the climate crisis isn’t a set of taxes or tariffs, it’s an abolitionist movement.

If Lincoln had speechified about the danger of wiping out half of the South’s GDP by ending slavery, abolitionists wouldn’t have stood for it. Why should contemporary climate activists stand for Obama or any other politician hiding behind bad economics* in the face of a fundamentally moral question? It’s time for anger, built around moral clarity that is clearly lacking from the debate playing out in DC and in the press.

* The President’s economics are bad – a massive shift to green energy sources would be a huge economic boost, both in terms of jobs created by the required infrastructure creation and the removal of massive negative externalities that come from our reliance on fossil fuels. So not only is he wrong to hide behind economic numbers as an argument against a green energy shift, but he’s using a bad argument.

Here comes the shite

Kevin C. Murphy lays out what we are going to see coming in the lame duck and early days of 2013:

We all know what’s coming up first, and Glenn Greenwald already laid out the dismal pattern we can expect — and need to break — on the Grand Bargain front. True to form, Peter Orszag — and what does it say about our president’s priorities that he staffed up his first administration with this kind of jackass? — has already sent out the let’s-fiddle-with-social-security trial balloon. Erskine Bowles’ name has been aggressively floated as the new SecTreas and High Inquisitor in the matter of the Deficit Witches. By all accounts, President Obama seems to think he can play Nixon-in-China on Social Security and Medicare. But this is not at all why voters gave him a Democratic mandate, and that’s exactly the sort of wrong-headed notion, coupled with Katrina, that turned the electorate against Dubya in 2005.

Murphy goes on to make a compelling case for strong pressure on Obama from the left:

The only way President Obama will make that progressive shift, it is now clear, is if the American people push him in that direction. In this, what Obama said on election night is absolutely correct. No matter what the president has said on the campaign trail, we can no longer hope this administration will bring change we can believe in. He is going to have to be forced into it by a Democratic electorate that refuses to accept anything less. It’s not a coincidence that the two progressive reforms Obama finally embraced this year — same-sex marriage and the DREAM Act — were ones that had passionate, vocal, and uncompromising reform movements behind them.

The election results showed that progressives are and can be ascendant in America. But we need to be much tougher on this administration than we have been in the past. Lip service to good intentions and progressive ideals is no longer satisfactory. And that hard work of keeping this administration in line has to begin right now, before the tentpoles of our current social insurance system are chipped away at by way of Grand Bargain.

Democrats just elected this president for a second time, and we don’t want to see any more compromising with and capitulating to economic terrorists. It is past time for this president and this administration to do right by us.

In short, don’t waste time celebrating, organize!

The Day After Election Day

Some thoughts on the day after the election:

  • Pro-gay marriage referenda passed in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, and Washington state. This is an incredible victory, given that in years past these sorts of popular votes were brought by anti-equality conservatives. The culture war is changing and marriage equality is becoming a reality in an ever-larger swath of America – something that makes me feel my “traditional” marriage is stronger today than it was yesterday.
  • There are invariably a lot of groups who make efforts, post-election, to get credit for their issue/demographic being the margin of victory for the winning side. Obviously this is usually partly true and partly exaggeration allowed for by demographics (it is rare any group can successfully argue on a demographic level). Of note from this cycle:
    • Roughly 5% of yesterday’s voters were gay. That’s a huge bloc and no small reason why pro-equality candidates and initiatives won across the country. By comparison, 3% of voters were Asian and 10% of voters were Latino.
    • The GOP has made a horrible misplay in embracing anti-Latino nativism. They’ve fallen from solid 40s support under Bush to about 21% in this election. To put it differently, Latinos could be credited with delivering this election to Obama. This demographic trend alone could ensure that the GOP doesn’t win a presidential election until they get their heads right on immigration and Latino issues.
    • Youth voted for Obama at about 60%, a slight drop from 2008 but enough to ensure that America’s future ideological demographics are squarely on the side of whichever party is more liberal.
    • Union voters in swing states, particularly Ohio, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Wisconsin, are likely at or around the margin of victory.
  • Taken together, it’s clear that the demographic and ideological base of the Democratic Party should be pro-worker, pro-immigrant, pro-gay and anti-debt. Whether that happens under Obama’s leadership is an entirely different story.
  • The Senate pickups are genuinely exciting. A class that keeps Sherrod Brown, Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand and Sheldon Whitehouse, while adding Elizabeth Warren, Tammy Baldwin, and Chris Murphy is a genuinely strong one. Murphy is a huge improvement over Joe Lieberman, even if he is unlikely to be as outspoken a progressive as Warren or Baldwin. Considering Warren, Gillibrand, and Brown could all be presidential candidates in 2016, this is a class that will have real incentive to show visible, progressive leadership, particularly on issues of economic fairness and reigning in corporate power.
  • As someone who wasn’t invested in President Obama getting reelected, it was easy for me to always look at the race from a dispassionate position. The polling all year seemed clear – at no point did Romney make inroads into the swing states to a degree that Obama’s path to 270 electoral college votes was threatened. On the one hand, this meant I didn’t agonize about how things were going. And on the other hand, it made the whole ouvre of attacks on Nate Silver’s polling analysis by Beltway pundits who demanded that the race as a coin toss completely absurd. There are a lot of people in the press (and on the right) who should be eating heaping piles of crow today. Though I doubt we’ll see as much of it as should happen.
  • Going back to the Senate, it’s remarkable that Democrats gained three seats when they had 10 more up to defend this cycle than the GOP. It was really a massive failure by the NRSC to let an opportunity for gaining the majority turn into lost ground for the GOP in the Senate.
  • President Obama made a passing reference to climate change in his acceptance speech last night. The speech was probably the best I can recall him making in years, but I would have loved to hear him make climate change a major issue this cycle. That he did not do this makes major climate action less likely, as he did not use the cycle to build political capital for it (akin to what he did for healthcare in 2008).
  • One of the best things from Obama’s speech last night was his call for political participation beyond the ballot box. While much was made by the professional left of the FDR “Now make me do it” story from the 1930s, Obama did not ever say this in 2008 or 2009. But this time he effectively told his supporters, “Make me do it,” where it is actual progressive policies that Obama campaigned on: “But that doesn’t mean your work is done. The role of citizens in our Democracy does not end with your vote. America’s never been about what can be done for us. It’s about what can be done by us together through the hard and frustrating, but necessary work of self-government.”
  • With an ideological shift to the left in the Senate, it’d be great to see filibuster reform. I’m not going to place any money wagering this will happen, though.
  • And also on the Senate, David Dayen makes a strong case that Democrats in the Senate should do nothing on fiscal issues in the lame duck and instead wait until the new Congress is seated in January. The caucus took a meaningful step to the left last night and is more capable of getting something good passed in January than they are in the next two months.

For at least two years, I’ve been saying that if the Republicans failed to defeat Barack Obama this cycle, it should go down  as one of the worst failures in American political history. The economy has been weak for the entire term (though getting stronger over time) and unemployment has been historically high. The President’s job approval rating has been in the 40s most of the last two years, often in the low 40s. The single largest legislative accomplishment – the healthcare bill – has mostly not gone into affect and is fairly unpopular. With this range of facts defining the situation, it really is stunning that the GOP couldn’t nominate a candidate capable of beating President Obama.

Already today there are some Republican voices calling for a pivot to appeal to Latino voters, but this is really just the tip. The GOP didn’t lose just because of anti-immigrant nativism. They lost because they have become captured by the most reactionary voices of the party. While I do not have high hopes for the GOP, the country is better served when they are a center right party and not a far right party. I hope that what few moderate voices still exist in the GOP find a way to bring their party back to a position of relative sanity. And in so doing, I hope that Democrats will shift from being a center right party to a left wing party.

Finally, I have no clue what this election victory – the margin, the constituencies that delivered it, the fact that he will never have to face the electorate again – will do for the policy agenda in his second term. It’d be great if he becomes the progressive champion lots of activists have thought he would be from early 2007 onward. But we don’t need to speculate at this point – the evidence will arrive soon enough. Digby writes:

If the Obama team learned anything from all this it should be that they cannot be all things to all people. We disagree in this country and that’s ok.  This election wasn’t about post-partisanship, bipartisanship or “changing the tone.” This was a strictly partisan victory made up of  the Democratic Party coalition.
The liberals were validated this election and it behooves the administration to strategize their next four years with that in mind.

He’s run his last race and all he has left to worry about is properly governing the country and solidifying his legacy — and that legacy will be made or broken on how well he fulfills the agenda of those who have voted for him in massive numbers. He has a right and an obligation to unapologetically work to enact the agenda those people elected him to enact.

I really hope Digby is right. But I’m afraid that this isn’t how the relationship between politics and governance works. Political coalitions emerge around the achievement of an electoral outcome. The policy outcomes of governance are fundamentally and functionally disconnected from this. That is, Obama is going to pursue the policies he believes in and wants to enact, regardless of what the people who got him elected want or believe. This is particularly true in places where liberals made the choice to vote for Obama in spite of his lack of alignment with them on issues like solving the foreclosure crisis, ending deportations of immigrants, and the prosecution of the war on terror. There is no transitive property of electoral politics, wherein the politician elected will now adopt the policy preferences of the people who delivered him to office. It’d be nice if there was, especially in this case, but it doesn’t exist. Obama may well end up being more liberal this term than last. I certainly hope he is. But I don’t share Digby’s optimism that this victory will make Obama obligated to support an agenda driven by the policy desires of the constituencies which elected him. Again, we shall see what happens soon enough.