Category: Congress

Of Crabs and Men – How Economic Spite and Fear Gets Us Nowhere

“If I have it this bad, why shouldn’t they?” You’d think words like this only came from annoying toddlers, but I hear it all the time here, usually speaking about teachers, but more broadly it’s about all government employees. I had a discussion the other day with someone that claimed government employees never got hit by the recession. Not only that, but he argued that it’d be good if they did get hit even more. This isn’t the first person I’ve met with that sort of mindset, nor will it be the last.

First, this factually wrong, because pay raises were stopped and harsh budget cuts were enacted in state and local governments throughout the US. Many workers were laid off, and hiring was frozen, leaving  those lucky enough to have a job to pull things together and perhaps do the work of more than one person. The LA Times points to a report by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, “which calculates that while private-sector employment is down 3.1% from its peak in January 2008 and on the rebound, state and local government employment is down 3.4% from its peak in August 2008 and continuing to slide.” In addition to this, because of the commitment the public sector has to equal opportunity and affirmative action, the recession in the public sector is hitting women and African Americans the hardest.

It’s not only wrong, though. It’s dangerous, and there’s a great phrase for it. That phrase is crab mentality, and it refers to a scenario of crabs in a bucket. Individually they could escape, but they end up pulling each other back down. In the end none of them escape. This collective antagonism kills any chance that any will survive. It’s a very similar thing here, especially when you’re talking about a recession. Conventional wisdom is that during a recession the government will need to spend a bit more in order to jump start things and get the economy back on its feet. Conventional wisdom also says during this time, through no real fault of their own, many more people will need government programs. That’s just factually what a recession does, and that’s just factually how one gets out of a recession. Like the crabs, stuck in their bucket, though, we end up either not helping each other upward or even not letting our fellow humans climb. Like the crabs we end up pulling others downward.

When people are frustrated with their own lives they have a tendency to lash out at others. This translates to a feeling that government employees should be cut down even more. Let’s go over exactly why such a reaction would be terrible. Right now we’re not in the midst of a recession, but our unemployment still sits at 7.9%, and a lot of people are wondering exactly why we can’t lower that. Well, if you look at this chart you can see at least one reason:

publicjobchange

And here’s what the Economic Policy Institute says about that graphic:

How many more jobs would we have if the public sector hadn’t been shedding jobs for the last three years? The simplest answer is that the public sector has shed 627,000 jobs since June 2009. However, this raw job-loss figure understates the drag of public-sector employment relative to how the economy functions normally.

Over this same period, the overall population grew by 6.9 million. In June 2009 there were 7.3 public-sector workers for every 100 people in the U.S.; to keep that ratio constant given population growth, the public sector should have added roughly 505,000 jobs in the last three years. This means that, relative to a much more economically relevant trend, the public sector is now down more than 1.1 million jobs. And even against this more-realistic trend, these public-sector losses are dominated by austerity at the state and local level, with federal employment contributing only around 6 percent of this entire gap.

Paul Krugman points out a very similar thing here:
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His assessment is that if public employment mirrored the growth under Bush that by the time he wrote this (April 25, 2012) we’d have 1.3 million more government workers, and our unemployment rate would be less than 7 percent. That’s a almost a full point lower than it is now, and he wrote this a year ago!

In Wisconsin this fight against public workers came down to a fight about collective bargaining. Despite the fact that there’s really no correlation between collective bargaining and state budget deficits, that right just had to go.

Here’s what The New Republic says about the rollback in rights:

What proponents of the rollback in public-sector bargaining rights are unable to explain is how taking rights away from some American workers will improve the lot of others. How will denying collective bargaining rights for teachers, social workers, or parks employees in Wisconsin create good jobs in the private sector? How will taking away the rights of prison guards to bargain collectively in Ohio keep manufacturing jobs in the United States? How will reducing the pensions promised to government workers (often in return for their agreement to forego salary increases) create retirement security for private sector workers whose paltry 401Ks are unable to support them? How will holding down public-sector pay stop the erosion of the American middle-class—of which public-sector workers constitute a significant proportion?

What proponents of cutting government employment are unable to explain is how taking away jobs and cutting pay will help improve the lot of others. How will it helps a small business owner to have one more potential customer lose his job? How will it help him to have another potential customer get a cut in pay? What needs to be explained to everyone who proposes something like this is the interconnectedness of our entire economy. We are not islands with no relation to each other. Your spending is my potential profit. A cut in your pay is a cut in my potential profit. If that teacher you’re so jealous of gets her job cut, then that means every business she shops at gets their business cut. It’s all connected.

A solid example of this is found in the numbers released last week that show the US economy shrunk by .1 percent late last year. The reason for this? Government spending cuts. A lot cheered because those are spending cuts in our bloated defense budget, and I’d likely agree, but we shouldn’t cheer about an all around cut at this point. Cuts should still be made up elsewhere with spending, so that someone can at least chase that profit and we can all experience more hiring and more growth. Every cut we make at this point represents a cut to someone’s income or job somewhere.

Krugman goes further in blaming that shrinkage on the shrinking government sector. He says that “transfer payments like Medicare and Social Security are rising (although unemployment benefits are falling), but government purchases of stuff — mostly at the state and local level, where the stuff in question includes hiring schoolteachers — has been in fairly rapid decline.”

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What this shrinkage translates to is, according to him, a possible 1.5 percentage point higher unemployment than what we should have right now.

The result of his absolutely historic spite and fear throughout our state, local, and federal governments is seen here:
government

We’ve hit a historic decline in our government at one of the absolute worst times to do it.

John T. Harvey does a good job of pointing out exactly why the private sector needs the government to spend. He points out that the real drivers of economic growth are in Investment and Government Spending. Since WWII, government spending has been an affective counterbalance to business cycle falls in investment. When a recession hits, government spending, without any sort of legislation attached, goes up simply because of less tax receipts and more people qualifying for things like unemployment. It’s this spending that makes these recessions less severe and damaging to the country overall, and it’s at least partially why we didn’t experience another Great Depression.

So, we really should not give in to fear and spite. I realize that a lot of people now are working themselves to the bones, perhaps with two or three jobs, and not seeing much in the way of raises. Seeing someone else doing ok can be hard, but we must not let that mean we should take it from them. That hurts us all in the long run. It’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face. Pulling down your fellow humans as they try and escape from the bucket into the middle class during this recession does nothing but doom us all to continuing stagnation. Instead of looking to one another to see what we should cut down at this time, we in the private sector should really be looking to one another and seeing how we can come together to demand better. After all, the “U.S. corporations’ after-tax profits have grown by 171 percent under Obama, more than under any president since World War II.” The money is there. We just have to demand it. And then things will grow, because we all have more to spend.

Immigration and the Republican Divide

Image Source: Reuters

Image Source: Reuters

This past Monday, a group of eight senators, four Democrat and four Republican, announced a legislative plan to address the eleven million illegal immigrants who currently reside within the United States. Not only is the makeup of those making the announcement bipartisan, but the ideas within the proposal are as well. The legislation would create a path to citizenship for those who are already within the United States while making significant increases to border security. The following day, President Obama essentially endorsed the Senate proposal. Achieving true immigration reform is something that is politically beneficial to both parties, as it’s an issue that Democrats have sought to address for some time and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that the GOP’s disastrous support among Latinos is a recipe for defeat on a national level, something Senator John McCain admitted.

Senator McCain’s public admission of their dire electoral situation highlights the feeling among establishment Republicans who see the writing on the wall that says that unless they do something to address the 3-to-1 advantage Democrats have with Latinos, they are going to be in trouble in future elections. Despite this reality, the base and the non-elected, de-facto representatives of the Republican base are not so pleased with this idea.

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LBJ and the Famous 89th

Lyndon_Johnson_signing_Civil_Rights_Act,_July_2,_1964

Pictured above: President Johnson signs, as Martin Luther King Jr. watches him, the Civil Rights Act of 1964

Today is MLK Jr. Day, and as we all know, Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. This movement culminated in the passage of two of America’s most important pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Today’s also the day that Obama gave his second and final inaugural address. Most of those who watched the speech agree that it was one of, if not the most, progressive speech Obama ever gave. In it he espoused equality for pay among men and women, the freedom to marry whomever we love despite our lover’s gender, how voting should be the easiest thing to do in the world, and that we need – we absolutely must – tackle climate change. That’s not everything he mentioned, but what was clear in Obama’s speech was that an activist government is better than a government that doesn’t do anything.  How government action doesn’t make us less free, it makes us more free, because the more risk we bear together and as a nation, the more risk we can take as individuals and succeed.

So let’s go back about fifty years, to a clear demonstration of the kind of activist and good government Obama was talking about, and realize how America is now better off.

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Happy Inauguration Day!

While many political nerds will spend the day glued to their televisions watching the day’s proceedings unfold, many are wondering just what will be the defining issues of this second term. Historians are quick to note that second term Presidents are known to attempt for an overreach in power and many also face scandals of various sorts. Eisenhower saw his party get beaten pretty badly during his second term. Clinton saw an impeachment scandal. George W. Bush botched a disaster response and presided over the greatest economic calamity in nearly a century. Though despite this, Albert R. Hunt of the New York Times writes that President Obama is very much aware of these events and the other types of issues that second-termers face. To me, this is just another piece of evidence that President Obama wants to be remembered as more than the first African American President; he wants the first African American Presidency to be a good one in the history books.

The question that many observers are asking is; what can we expect from a second Obama Administration?

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Nobody Likes Republicans, Not Even Republicans

There are lots of problems for the Republican Party on a national level these days.  They just got crushed in an election in which the incumbent President presided over a weak economic recovery, high unemployment, and massive government deficits.  The only thing that saved the party from irrelevancy were heavily gerrymandered districts preserving a majority in the House.  Congressional ratings are around 15% approval and 80% disapproval while the President is over 50% in approval.

So, what do we make of this and why haven’t the Congressional GOP changed course to rectify the problem?  For one, it’s partially a problem of the party’s ideas.  The median voter has simply drifted from the current GOP platform whether it’s regards to taxes, immigration, gay rights, or rape (seriously, stop mentioning rape). Nearly 6 of 10 voters view the GOP as protecting the interests of the wealthy.   At some point the Republicans are going to have to re-evaluate their positions and alter them more towards the center of American politics and then re-brand themselves in a more appealing way.

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Some Random Thoughts, including Term Limits, and a new, more modern Congress

Just a side note about Trevor’s post on term limits. As was touched upon in his post, there have been many papers written about what term limits would do for Congress, and a significant number of them aren’t positive. Though it does depend on how long the term limit is – this wouldn’t really apply to a 9+ term limit for the House – if term limits were enacted, Congresspeople would have to rely more and more on lobbyists. If you were to limit your typical House member to two terms, that’s not enough time for her to establish relationships with other members of Congress or become an expert on a specific issue. She would have to increasingly rely on party organizations, lobbyists, and interests around Washington to make a decision.

That all relates to a paper called “Congress’ Wicked Problem: Seeking Knowledge Inside the Information Tsunami,” written by Loreleie Kelly.  In the paper, Kelly puts forth the argument that what’s wrong with Congress isn’t corruption, but that it’s “incapacitated and obsolete.”  (Thanks to Ezra Klein for linking this paper on Wonk Blog).

I especially agree that Congress is incapacitated.  Congress is Congress’ own worst enemy.  Gridlock is around every corner.  With the fiscal cliff, debt ceiling, the numerous near-government shutdowns, Congress’ inability to get even the most basic stuff done quickly (like aid for Sandy), and a lot of other shenanigans, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that we need to move to a unicameral, more parliament-like national legislature.

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Filibuster reform? Good Grief!

Over the last few years there has been a lot of talk about reforming the current Filibuster rules in the United States Senate. Every time it comes up however nothing seems to come of it. Many who fight to reform the Filibuster feel like Charlie Brown trying to kick that football. There’s a belief that it will finally happen and everyone’s hopeful. Then all of a sudden we’re all flat on our backs, looking up at the sky trying to figure out where it all went wrong.

What many of those who want Filibuster reform want to see is a return to the Talking Filibuster. There are those who would like to see the number of votes needed to complete a cloture motion reduced, but a very strong argument can be made for the return of the Talking Filibuster.

Historically the Filibuster has consisted of a Senator, or group thereof, delaying the vote on a bill by standing up and refusing to yield the floor. They would give speeches; force the bill in its entirety to be read, amendments and all; read from cookbooks, magazines and even novels. That is until modern times. Currently the threat of a Filibuster is enough to stop progress on a bill in virtually any stage of the process.

It is important to note that the Filibuster appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution. The idea of the Filibuster came into being in 1806 and was an entirely theoretical option until its first use in 1837. The cloture vote, which the Senate can take to end a filibuster, did not even exist until 1917. Originally it took two-thirds of all present Senators to successfully complete a cloture vote and end the filibuster, over time it was reduced to the three-fifths number we have today.

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Team of Obstructionists

Recently I began reading Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of President Abraham Lincoln and key members of his cabinet. Besides being a fantastic portrait of a wonderful President, one of the most striking things I’ve taken from the book is just how radically different today’s Republican Party is from that in 1860. Over the last four years we’ve seen a Republican Party that has literally opposed everything President Obama has supported, from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s massive infrastructure investments and tax cuts, to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, a free-market approach to expanding health care insurance that was initially proposed by the Heritage Foundation more than twenty years ago. It was even enacted in the state of Massachusetts by a certain former Republican Presidential candidate. The last Congress was the least productive on record, fighting over things that Congress shouldn’t even fight over. In addition, the Republican Party has spent years opposed to improving our immigration laws. Having followed these events made the days of Team of Rivals all the more striking to me, because it shows that the Republican Party has not always been this way. Throughout its history it has been a party that’s not adamantly opposed to absolutely everything involving the government.

Upon reviewing the 1860 Republican Party platform, you’ll see a fairly progressive platform for the time. They were opposed to an expansion of slavery, they supported open immigration policy that grants full rights to all who migrate to the United States, and they supported focusing the government’s efforts on modernizing our infrastructure. Republican President Dwight Eisenhower began “the greatest public works project in history” when he presided over the creation of the 41,000 mile-long Interstate Highway System. Eisenhower also created NASA and supported the creation of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, the agency that ultimately created the Internet through government-funded research. The Environmental Protection Agency was created under President Nixon. Today, many Republicans act as if the current head of the EPA is a cartoon villain, targeting her for actually enforcing environmental laws.

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New Gallup Poll and America’s Love of Term Limits

Gallup put out a poll today saying that 75% of adults would vote for Congressional term limits.

Gallup Polling says 75% of adulst would vote for congressional term limits

The numbers show this isn’t a partisan issue, either. 82% of Republicans would vote for term limits, as would 65% of Democrats, and 79% of independents. It’s also not an age issue, either. Across all age groups this number sits in the mid-70s. It’s a virtual dead heat. Seriously.

This sort of thing might immediately strike fear into the hearts of any democrat, liberal, progressive, or whatever you’d like to call yourself on the left. The immediate perception is that this would give an advantage to Republicans because of their recent tea party success. First, I’ll give you some relief and let you know that only 19 of the 87 GOP freshman from the 2010 election joined the Tea Party caucus. Don’t get me wrong, 19 is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you’re talking tea partiers, but it’s not the end of the world. Or is it?

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