Hold Fast

A Blog by Matt Browner Hamlin

Hold Fast - a blog by Matt Browner Hamlin

Warren Buffett rides again

November 27th, 2012 · Comments Off

I’ve been quite skeptical of the value of Warren Buffett as a key advocate for Democrats around tax policy and social spending (see: here, here, and here). While Buffett is supportive of the not-bad idea that rich Americans should pay higher taxes, he’s been either vague or advocated small increases – while coupling his tax positions to advocacy for cutting spending, including for the social safety net.

On Sunday, to much fanfare, Buffett penned an op-ed arguing for a minimum tax for the wealthy. But his suggestion is fairly small bore: “I would suggest 30 percent of taxable income between $1 million and $10 million, and 35 percent on amounts above that.” I’m in favor of it as it’s an improvement over the current tax structure, but this is hardly a proposal that merits rampant celebration from the left.

If you have any doubt that this is nothing more than a proposal which would provide the patina of progressive taxation with an eye towards reducing inequality in the US, look no further than Buffett’s comments today, in which he says that of all the people in America, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon would be President Obama’s best choice for a new Treasury Secretary.

Given we are still suffering from the damage inflicted on the economy by Wall Street banks, including Dimon’s JPMC, in the inflation and bursting of the housing bubble, the idea that Dimon would be a good pick for Treasury Secretary is just bonkers.

I’m glad there are people like Buffett who have the courage to say that they are wealthy enough to afford higher taxes. But just because he throws out a tiny morsel clinging to an old, dried-out bone doesn’t mean he’s someone to be elevated a spokesperson for the left in these debates.


Comments OffTags: Economy

Facts you probably didn’t know

November 21st, 2012 · Comments Off

I didn’t know this one, from David Dayen:

Of course, nobody is questioning why we’re holding to this artificial deficit reduction construct at all. As Jed Graham explains, over the last three years, the US has reduced the federal budget deficit more rapidly than at any time since World War II. This is an artifact of a relatively stronger economy leading to the reduction of spending on automatic stabilizers like unemployment and food stamps, as well as stimulus programs running out. But fiscal policy at the federal level has taken away from growth since mid-2010, and it’s poised to drag much, much more with implementation of these austerity measures. With borrowing costs so low, there’s no logical reason for this except to please elites, who really want lower tax rates and a smaller safety net and think that fearmongering on the deficit could provide a gateway to that goal. [Emphasis added]

Comments OffTags: Economy


November 21st, 2012 · Comments Off

EnvironRant has a fake interview with President Obama on the climate crisis.

Comments OffTags: Barack Obama · Climate Crisis

The immorality of climate inaction, the fossil fuel industry

November 20th, 2012 · Comments Off

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.

Comments OffTags: Barack Obama · Climate Crisis

Fake Dem Andrew Cuomo’s Very Bad News Cycle

November 19th, 2012 · Comments Off

First Chris Hayes of MSNBC absolutely obliterated NY Governor Andrew Cuomo for his refusal to intervene on behalf of the Democratic caucus in the NY State Senate.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Then Alex Pareene of Salon piled on:

Cuomo doesn’t hide his conservative tendencies — they’re part of his sales pitch, especially upstate and outside New York City — but he’s in an enviable position of being able to run and govern as a conservative while retaining a progressive reputation, because he’s, you know, a Cuomo and a big-city blue state liberal governor who got gay marriage passed. His response to Sandy has raised his national profile even more, and barring the sort of disastrous scandals that have sunk the last couple of New York governors, he’ll keep being mentioned whenever people bring up 2016 candidates until the day he announces his intentions. But Democrats ought to know what sort of Democrat he is. If Cuomo allows Republicans to subvert the will of the voters of New York, so that he has an easier time cutting taxes and rolling back regulations, he shouldn’t be allowed to sell himself to future primary voters as a progressive.

Cuomo is clearly positioning himself for a 2016 presidential run and has been for a long time. He’s been good for gay rights and may end up being good on public financing of elections, but he’s horrible for labor, working people, and the environment. He’s a pro-Wall Street DLC-type LieberDem of the worst variety and it’s important progressives who may see him make the occasional good statement not be conned by Cuomo.

Cuomo is clearly playing a very cynical game of trying to wedge different parts of the progressive Democratic base against each other to maintain a facade of progressivism while running for President. He should not be allowed to get away with it.

Comments OffTags: Democrats · Elections

Occupy Sandy & the climate crisis

November 18th, 2012 · Comments Off

Yotam Maron is must-read on how the Occupy Sandy response is a real-time model of what anti-climate crisis social movements look like:

Welcome to the climate crisis. There’s nothing abstract about it. It isn’t some apocalypse decades away or an event that comes down like one big hurricane to wipe us all out. It’s Hurricane Sandy. It’s all the economic, political and social conditions that were already in place. And it’s the opportunity for forces of profit and repression to push their agenda forward in the aftermath.

But guess what: The climate justice movement isn’t so abstract either. This is it. It’s dedicated organizers recognizing how their work can be aligned across issues. It’s relief providers and hard-working volunteers transforming into activists and community leaders. It’s the hardest hit neighborhoods taking control of their own liberation. It’s local community institutions with deep roots and long histories connecting to one another and mobilizing their efforts as part of a movement. It’s all of that alongside so many other fights for climate justice — from the blockade of the Keystone XL pipeline to the fight for water rights in Bolivia, from Indian women standing up to corporate seed monopolies to youth from 350.org launching campaigns to divest from fossil fuel companies.

There is much work to do. But people are doing it — day by day, block by block. Windows of opportunity have opened here in New York, just as they have in other places around the world. Many people are working to keep those windows open and continue the transformation that is already underway — from volunteer work to organizing, from emergency response to a genuine recovery, from relief to resistance.

Comments OffTags: #OccupyWallStreet · Climate Crisis

Occupy’s Mutual Aid Efforts

November 9th, 2012 · Comments Off

Occupy Wall Street has bred a number of offshoots that are specifically focused on providing mutual aid to members of the 99% who are in crisis. I’ve been involved with Occupy Our Homes for over a year – it’s a housing justice campaign aimed to keep people in their homes and stopping bank theft of houses. More recently, Occupy Sandy has provided crucial aid to affected areas following Hurricane Sandy. And now, Strike Debt has launched a Rolling Jubilee, a campaign meant to leverage the cheapness of debt to reduce it for others:

We buy debt for pennies on the dollar, but instead of collecting it, we abolish it. We cannot buy specific individuals’ debt – instead, we help liberate debtors at random through a campaign of mutual support, good will, and collective refusal.

Projects like this are critical for three reasons:
  1. Occupy off-shoots like Occupy Our Homes, Occupy Sandy, & Strike Debt’s Rolling Jubilee are providing services which government at all levels has failed to provide. Mutual aid is filling the gap that policy makers and politicians have tragically left open, resulting in massive human suffering.
  2. By providing mutual aid in moments of crisis, these Occupy offshoots have the opportunity to turn people they have aided into activists and leaders for these causes. We’ve seen it time and again with Occupy Our Homes, where people who have been helped become gung-ho community organizers afterwards.
  3. Additionally, by providing mutual aid, these groups succeed in radicalizing the people they help, educating them on the root causes of these crises and the sorts of solutions which are needed to address the problems. These are not things which are part of normal American political discourse, so this step is significant.

All of this work is slow. It’s oriented on helping people one individual or one family at a time. But it has tremendous power and potential, not in the least because each of these efforts provide frameworks of a vision for a better America. One where banks can’t steal homes, where debt doesn’t destroy peoples’ lives, and where natural disasters aren’t exacerbated by human failures. In short, these are the sort of projects which have the potential to create a real, sustained new movement that can create massive change in America.

More than any electoral outcome, these developments make me hopeful for the future of our country.

Comments OffTags: #OccupyWallStreet · Progressive Infrastructure

Here comes the shite

November 8th, 2012 · Comments Off

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!

Comments OffTags: Barack Obama · Social Safety Net

The Day After Election Day

November 7th, 2012 · Comments Off

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.

Comments OffTags: Barack Obama · Elections

Stoller on voting third party

November 5th, 2012 · Comments Off

Matt Stoller has a very long and very thorough response to some of the criticisms levied against his progressive argument against Barack Obama. It’s long and there’s a lot worthy of consideration. But I think this passage on the need to generate real resistance to what is happening with the climate crisis, with the entrenchment of oligarchy in America, and with the ongoing class war against the 99% is so important:

Moving policy to save our civilization has nothing to do with voting on Tuesday, and this is obvious when you consider Sandy as a moment to define man-made global warming as the key challenge of our society, as the Cold War was after World War II. Progressives are obsessed with reelecting Obama instead of governing, so there is silence in response to a massive leverage point (except on CNBC, where the anchors are screaming for more refining capacity in response to Sandy). We the people need to protest and demand the solutions that might have a chance at saving our civilization from the many Sandy’s to come. Indeed, global warming fueled Hurricane Katrina killed 3000 people, and we did nothing except allow the privatization of the New Orleans school system. But as we see now, this is not just because of George Bush, it is because our theory of change, of looking to right-wing politicians entrenched in the Democratic Party as an answer, was an utter failure. It is the politics of self-delusion, and catastrophe. Voting third party is a way of indicating, to yourself and your community, that you will not be party to this game any more. Voting third party is a way of showing, to yourself and your community, that you consider Barack Obama an opponent, and that you oppose his policy. This is a profound admission, and it creates the space for real opposition, for real resistance.

Also regarding third parties, Ian Welsh observes that, “making a third party viable starts with, oh, voting for it.”

The 2012 election hasn’t really been a watershed moment for the creation of progressive infrastructure outside of the Democratic Party. That’s why I think these posts written by critics of the President are so important. If the debate about where we are going as a country isn’t really front and center, then the intellectual arguments of activists as a community become much more essential. Tomorrow the country will go vote on two candidates – one from the far right, the other center right. In the absence of an electable left wing candidate, the sole source of consideration of left wing critiques on where our country is headed is through commentators like Stoller.

As Stoller notes throughout his piece, his critics are not disproving or discounting the factual arguments against policies that have done damage under President Obama. I really wish that this wasn’t the case. The absence of earnest debate over things which really are happening in this country – and will likely continue to happen – serves to completely level-down these policies. They are normal, accepted, and acceptable. The long term consequences of this are not pretty, as they represent not only a rightward shift under Obama, but the normalizing of the worst Bush era policies and the neutering of the Democratic Party and professional left as a source for criticism of them (as noted by both Welsh and Stoller).

All in all, I think the critics of Obama from the left have done a far better job articulating their criticisms in response to the President’s policies and actions than his defenders have articulated why these policy choices are good or right or necessary. But your mileage may vary.

Comments OffTags: Barack Obama · Climate Crisis · Progressive Infrastructure