NPR Asks, Will Big Government Make A Comeback?

President Obama delivering his second inaugural address.  Source: AP via NPR

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about President Obama’s second inaugural address, which many have characterized as “liberal”.  I would agree – and I say that in an exhilaratingly positive way.  Not only did Obama lay out a liberal policy agenda and refer positively to the gay rights struggle (shriek!), he also made, albeit obliquely, the ideological case for “big government”.  And that is something I’ve been wanting to see from a President of the United States for a long time – and why I almost supported Obama in the 2008 primary.

Here’s what I wrote in a Facebook post (linking this The Maddow Blog post):

— Very good.  This kind of communitarian rhetoric was why I used to favor Barack Obama before he started running for President in 2007.  This is what we need to see and see more of out of the President, not just on special occasions like the inauguration but every day if possible.  We need to break the right’s stranglehold on the ideological role of government.

Also, I would have preferred if the President had been more explicit about government’s role; for example, if he had used Rachel Maddow’s pro-government language interpreting his own more vague language.  Still, overall this was the right direction for President Obama and I hope he sticks with it.

See also:

Then, in response to an email linking me to this excellent NPR write-up, I write:

— Yay.  President Obama has had a long history of using communitarian, “we’re all in it together” rhetoric, which is one of the things I like best about him.  We need to hear more rhetoric like the one in his second inaugural address, more often – and not just from him but from other national Democrats as well. (Alan Grayson is another great spokesperson, though he doesn’t use exactly the same lines of argument.)

I do wish, as I always do, that Obama had been more explicit about the role of government; he should’ve connected government directly to the idea of “collective action”.  The one time he did say the word “government” was to talk about how we can’t expect government to solve all our problems.  This is a common rhetorical pattern for him: he’ll first say, “yeah yeah we know government can’t do everything for us”, and then follow up with “but there are certain things that we have to do together as a nation”.  The weakness with the second part of that is that “doing things together” usually implies government action, but technically it doesn’t have to be government – we can “do things together” through private charities, businesses, etc.  If he would just add on “the best way for us to act collectively is through the democratic government that we have chosen to represent, protect and empower us” or something like that, that would seal the pro-government deal.

Overall, this kind of rhetoric is one of the good things to come out of the Obama presidency (though like I’ve noted in the past, Obama’s also supplied bad rhetoric, like how government has to tighten its belt and what not).  I hope to see more of it from more people.  And it’s also really good that it’s generating this kind of discussion in the media, which is supplying the pro-government interpretation that Obama did not.  Media-driven interpretation and propagation will be crucial for getting the idea of a positive government out there among the masses. —

My New Position on Filibusters

Today the U.S. Senate passed a few incremental changes in the ability for Senators to filibuster and use other dilatory tactics.  For details, see here.  For some perspectives, see David Waldman (mixed attitude and analytical), Chris Bowers (very upbeat), and Joan McCarter (more negative).

As for me, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t grateful for the filibuster during the George W. Bush years.  However, since the Democrats took control of the Senate, the House, and the White House in 2009, I’ve come around to support some filibuster reform.  Initially I wanted to end all filibusters except for those on confirming presidential nominees.  I’ve since scaled my position back to just requiring a “talking filibuster”, where Senators have to fill in the “extended debate” time with actual debate.  This has been proposed by a leading champion of filibuster reform, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), but his proposal would have set the bar for cloture at 51 votes after all talking was concluded.  I wouldn’t necessarily go that far (though I wouldn’t necessarily oppose that either); I would support, at minimum, keeping all the rules (including 60 votes for cloture) the same except that Senators have to actually talk. (“Yes, Mr. McConnell, I do expect you to talk!”)

Given the history of the U.S. Senate and its supposed status as the “world’s greatest deliberative body” (an irony given the almost-total lack of actual debate in that body; a malady the talking filibuster could potentially fix), I think it is important that everyone, members of the minority included, should be able to have as much time as they need to make their points.  But they should actually be making their points – not abusing the privilege of speaking in the “world’s greatest deliberative body” and using it as a dilatory weapon that makes the Senate not only dysfunctional but a total joke.

Having said that, I do think that in general it needs to be easier for Congress to pass legislation, and I maintain that even if Republicans regain control of it.  I don’t sympathize with arguments that “oh we need to keep the filibuster in case we need to use it against a Republican majority!” anymore, for a simple reason: it’s undemocratic.

Our government has become incredibly undemocratic, as we can see with polls showing that a majority of Americans support policy positions way to the left of anything coming out of Congress.  There are several reasons for that but one of them is because it’s so easy to block stuff in the Senate, allowing the minority to basically dilute the majority’s agenda.  I want the majority to pass their agenda more-or-less fully intact, and yes, that goes for a Republican majority as well as a Democratic one.  The next time Republicans have full control of the government, I want them to do it all: cut taxes to 10 percent for everyone, privatize Social Security and Medicare, cut all non-military and non-corporate welfare federal spending to the bone, eliminate 10 Cabinet departments, and blow up Iran.  Why?  Because that’s what the voters wanted, and I firmly believe the people should get the government they asked for.  I want the American people to feel the teeth of conservative governance, so they’ll know exactly what that means.  And if they like it, well that’s good –that’s what they asked for.  If they don’t like it, lesson learned – now they know what Republican control will mean for them.

JANUARY 30 2013 UPDATE: This is disgusting.  From the Huffington Post:

— At Tuesday’s closed-door caucus meeting, Merkley was upbraided by Reid for breaking unspoken Senate rules and naming specific senators in a conference call with Democratic activists last week, according to sources familiar with the exchange. “He’s pissed off so many in the caucus,” said one Democratic aide piqued at Merkley. “He has been having conference calls with progressive donors and activists trying to get them energized. He’s named specific Dem Senators. Many are furious. He was called out on Tuesday in caucus and very well could be again today.”

A Reid staffer was on the conference call with the activists and donors, and Merkley’s move was reported the next day by Politico:

On a private call with the Bay Area Democrats on Wednesday, Merkley identified Reid as the key person in the talks, and he urged activists to target members of Reid’s leadership team ahead of their meetings next week, according to people on the call. He also characterized Democratic Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.), Joe Manchin (West. Va.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) as wrestling with his proposal, sources say. —

Now let me be clear: Up until now I had been a fan of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.  I thought he was a tough and knowledgeable leader who was generally on liberals’ side.  Now I know this about him: he doesn’t want people to know where their own elected representatives stand on important issues like filibuster reform.  You know what that makes him?  Anti-democracy.  Kinda ironic that Harry Reid is a Democrat, because he’s definitely not a democrat.

We don’t need anti-democrats in the Democratic Party.  Fuck Harry Reid.  I hope he gets primaried in 2016 and replaced by Jeff Merkley as Majority Leader.

My Position on Gun Control II

Today President Obama released a series of proposals put together by his administration’s task force addressing gun violence.  The Washington Post has a helpful graphic here that organizes the proposals into seven categories: strengthening background checks (including closing the private sales loophole), banning “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines, funding and training law enforcement (including new penalties for illegal gun sales or “trafficking”), increasing support for research in gun violence, promoting gun safety, promoting school safety, and boosting support for mental health treatment.

Most of these proposals are sensible and worthwhile, and I support almost all of them.  The only ones I don’t support are all the ones in the assault weapons category (I’ve stated my opposition to categorical bans previously) and the law enforcement-related provision to “eliminate restrictions that force the ATF to authorize importation of certain firearms because of their age”, because I don’t know what that means and I can’t offer an informed opinion either way.

In particular, closing the private sales loophole to make background checks universal, promoting research on gun violence (which has languished in recent years), disseminating gun safety information to citizens, sharing information among police and teachers on how to deal with potential shooters, increasing funding for mental health, and providing better funding and training for police departments (many of which in this lousy economy have had to cut their numbers even as poverty and crime rates increase) are excellent ideas.  I don’t give credit to the Obama administration very often, but in this case, aside from the assault weapons ban they did well.  Now I hope Congress will pass these proposals, minus the assault weapons ban (which already seems to be drawing vocal opposition from various members of Congress).

I also support repealing legal immunity for gun manufacturers.  I don’t like legal immunity in general; I think a big part of American civil rights is that everyone should be able to have their day in court.  If we’re worried about frivolous lawsuits then write the law clearly and let judges decide which ones are frivolous.  Setting a blanket ban on all lawsuits makes as little sense as setting a blanket ban on, oh I don’t know, all “assault weapon” purchases.

Finally, a rant about the assault weapons ban proposal, and the optics of gun restrictions in general (part of this is adapted from an email I sent out recently).

I do support making it harder for criminals and the mentally ill to obtain high-capacity magazines.  However, I would point out that those magazines are dangerous only in Jared Loughner-type spray-and-pray shootings, which are relatively rare but of course get all the headlines and attention.  I would not go so far as to say that high-capacity magazines should be categorically banned for everyone.  Such a ban would carry the implication that everyone is going to be a Jared Loughner.

I’ve changed my previous opinion about the same limitations applying to so-called “assault weapons”, which are usually just semi-automatic civilian variants of military-grade rifles, e.g., an AR-15 is the civilian “assault weapon” variant of the military’s M-16.  There is nothing that makes a semi-automatic rifle particularly more dangerous than a semi-automatic handgun, and those are everywhere (and very commonly used in gun homicides).  Going after so-called “assault weapons” today is essentially the same as what it was when the last assault weapons ban was passed in 1994: people who don’t know much about guns banning certain guns because they look and sound scary.

Like I’ve said before, targeting “assault weapons” is a very knee-jerk reaction where people cry out to have their rights taken away so that they may be given a false sense of security.  Just like how 9/11 happened and that somehow justified the Patriot Act, warrantless wiretapping, the Iraq war, and so on.  It’s just such a reactionary, authoritarian, and ultimately unintelligent answer to some headline-grabbing mass shootings.  And the supposed liberals calling out for this ban seem to be operating from a position of intellectual weakness.  Here’s why.

1. Some assault weapons ban proponents seem to think that most gun deaths are from mass shootings.  They’re not.  Mass shooting deaths are just the ones that grab people’s attention because they don’t really see or care about the misery and suffering and – yes – violence that people endure on a daily basis, away from the TV news headlines.

2. Some assault weapons ban proponents seem to want the ban because they think it’s a quick and easy fix to gun violence.  They don’t care about what actually causes violence of any kind; they’re only interested in banning the instruments of that violence so they think they’ve done their job and can return to their default state of self-absorbed complacency.  Okay, no one’s explicitly said that to me, but I get that sense because of how a few of them dismissively pooh-poohed my call to vigorously eradicate poverty and gang violence, which is how and why many, if not most, gun homicides are happening.  This suggests to me that they’re simply looking for a way to mitigate the number of deaths that occur from these shootings, without any real desire to actually stop violence from happening in the first place. (Short answer: you reduce violence by reducing people’s daily suffering.  But I know that sounds too hard to these defeatist “liberals”.)

People who really care about stopping violence (gun or otherwise) should read this account of actual, everyday gun violence in the inner city and get back to me with some constructive solutions on how to stop it from happening and make these people’s lives better.  Because until then they’re just blowing hot air to make it look like they’re doing something meaningful when they’re not.

3. Some of the assault weapons ban proponents recoil at the idea of banning violent video games or other forms of entertainment that may inspire people to commit crimes, even as they seek to deprive others of what could be a source of their entertainment (as well as what may save their lives).  They dismiss the idea even though there’s evidence that one of the mass shooters they point to as a reason to ban assault weapons was himself motivated by a violent film (The Dark Knight).  This suggests to me that they have a very selective defense of civil liberties – they will fight tooth and nail for the liberties that they personally enjoy but don’t give a rat’s shit about the ones that “only the gun nuts” care about.  This is disturbing because I feel like our generation is already very apathetic about erosion of our civil liberties.  We blissfully tolerate domestic surveillance and government invasion of privacy.  Hell, we’re even okay with the idea that the President can just randomly decide on his own to kill us (and where is the outrage over those deaths, by the way?)

I feel like nowadays people don’t understand what the point of freedom is anymore.   Yes, sometimes freedom seems like an inconvenience or a danger, and yes to some extent certain freedoms may need to be regulated – but always in a thoughtful and restrained manner, i.e., the opposite of the assault weapons ban.  The whole point of liberty is that it’s not easy or safe, but we still accept that because life is not worthwhile without it.

Or maybe not.  Ah, fuck that liberty crap.  We should’ve let the British win.


JANUARY 17 2013 UPDATE: I stayed up last night for two hours reading this ridiculous Daily Kos diary, “Cars kill people, so quit picking on guns!”, so I might as well write about it to make it worthwhile.  This diary (or perhaps more accurately, the comments following the diary) provides an example of what is so wrong with the gun debate: people who don’t know much about guns are ignorantly attacking guns because they’re scared.  There were just a handful of gun rights defenders, the most vocal and brilliant of whom was KVoimakas, who effortlessly deflected the rather poorly-conceived arguments of the gun control advocates.  Unfortunately, the idea of having a rational, intelligent debate about the issue was totally lost on them.  This is what the conversation tended to look like:

Gun control person: Prohibiting alcohol isn’t the same as prohibiting magazines because regular people can’t make magazines!

KVoimakas: Actually, they can-

Gun control person: Whatever, I don’t care!  I don’t care about learning more about the thing I’m trying to ban because I find it loathsome so I don’t want anyone else to have them either!  Shut up you gun nut!

Okay, I exaggerate a bit.  The actual dismissive comment was “Have fun with your guns, weirdo.”  The term “gun nut” was used to refer to those who supported gun rights several times.  I wonder how these same people would feel if I called for censorship of violent films and video games and dismissively told those in opposition, “Have fun with your movies, weirdo” and called them “free expression nuts”?

In other news, here is a rational, fact-based look at whether semi-auto “assault weapons” are really any more dangerous than “regular” pistols and hunting rifles. (The short answer: they’re not.) Here’s another similar take.  Also, apparently I was wrong about the definition of “assault weapons”; the 1994 AWB did include semi-auto pistols with certain features (including a barrel shroud, which protects the user’s hands from the barrel’s heat.  Apparently some people think we’ll all be safer if someone shooting a gun gets his hand burned, or something.).

Finally, I want to say to those who believe in restricting innocent people because it might “save lives”, if you care so much about saving lives, you know what else kills people?  Poverty.  I will happily join you in your impending anti-poverty crusade.

The 2013 Fiscal Cliff Deal

On January 1 2013, Congress passed the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, also known as the fiscal cliff deal, which made permanent the 2001/2003 Bush tax cuts for income under $400K, allowed the tax rate for income above $400K to return to pre-2001 levels, postponed automatic spending cuts for two months, extended unemployment benefits for a year, and gave out random pork to big corporations.

At first glance, there was nothing outstandingly bad about the deal, and many progressives, including Paul Krugman, seem to support or at least accept it.  Krugman, for his part, focused mainly on the revenue that came out of the deal, which I’ll concede was not terrible.  He also focused on President Obama’s subpar negotiating approach, which I agree was bad (was Krugman expecting otherwise?), but it wasn’t like it was any worse than usual.  And he and I are both relieved that the deal didn’t contain any cuts to Social Security or Medicare, which speaks to the sad state of our politics these days – we’re elated when Democrats don’t cut Social Security or Medicare.

So initially I thought, hey, this deal doesn’t seem too bad, and it looks like for once Democrats didn’t get hosed.  But then I realized two things which made me change my mind, and now I can say that had I been in Congress, I would have voted against the fiscal cliff deal.  The two things are:

  1. This deal made the Bush tax cuts for income under $400K permanent.  Not just extended them for another few years (as the 2010 deal did and as I initially thought this deal did), but permanent.  So now much of the Bush tax cuts that Democrats fought against because they deprived the government of badly needed revenue are set in stone, with no expiration date.  The beauty of the Bush tax cuts was that they came with an expiration date, so we could always take comfort in that they would go away if Congress did nothing – and we could use that as a bludgeon over the conservatives’ head.  Now that’s all gone.  It will take another law to ever raise taxes, and I take no comfort in our chances of passing a law that will raise taxes. (No, the fiscal cliff deal didn’t raise taxes – it cut them from what they would’ve been if nothing had been done.)

I don’t know what the ideal tax rates are.  Maybe we can get by on Bush-era tax rates for income under $400K and Clinton-era tax rates for income above.  I doubt it though.  Our government is badly underfunded as it is, and I never liked the Bush tax cuts (even those for under-$400K or $250K or whatever level) for that reason.  The only part of the Bush tax cuts I would even consider making permanent are the ones that primarily benefit the poor (e.g., the 10 percent bracket and the expanded child tax credit).  I strongly feel that at some point the middle class is going to have to be asked to contribute a little more.  That point isn’t now, with the economy still fragile, but when the economy fully recovers at some point down the road, the middle class should be asked to pay more in taxes, and having the tax cuts expire would have facilitated that process.  Making the Bush-era tax rates permanent for them, as this deal did, makes doing that all the harder.

Daily Kos contributor kronius makes the same argument, but more brilliantly, here.

     2. As I’ve argued previously, the expiration of the Bush tax cuts served as useful negotiation leverage against conservatives – though clearly it wasn’t fully utilized as it should’ve been.  Now that leverage is gone, and we still have to deal with the automatic spending cuts in March, the debt ceiling increase in March, and the continuing resolution that funds the government expiring later this year – what Representative Jim Moran (D-Va.), who voted against the deal, called “three more fiscal cliffs”.  And as Moran pointed out, we now only have spending cuts automatically built-in, whereas before we at least had automatic expiration of tax cuts to use as leverage.  Sure we can still try using the automatic cuts in defense spending as leverage, but given how poorly Democrats have negotiated even when they had a lot more leverage I’m not looking forward to how they’ll do now.  We may have averted cuts to Social Security and Medicare this time around but I’m not so confident about the next round of negotiations.

So for these two reasons, I would have voted against the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. (That law’s name is just awful – “taxpayer relief” is total right-wing framing.)

The deal passed 89-8 in the Senate and then 257-167 in the House.  In the House, most of the opposition came from Republicans.  The paltry Democratic opposition in the House seemed to be split between the right and left flanks of the party.  In the Senate, the only person to vote against the deal explicitly from the left was Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who explained via Facebook:

— We averted the fiscal cliff — but at what cost? This deal does not support the middle class or create jobs in Iowa or throughout our country. Instead, it locks in an unfair tax system and makes cuts to Social Security and Medicare more likely. I believe in compromise. But any compromise that permanently sets a new standard for the most fortunate among us while leaving out our economic engine — a thriving middle class — is something I cannot support. —

As a parting sidenote on the fiscal cliff deal negotiations, here is Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid being awesome:

— The White House sent Reid a list of suggested concessions as his staff debated what to send back to McConnell. Reid looked over the concessions the administration wanted to offer, crumpled up the paper and tossed it into his fireplace. The gesture was first reported by Politico and confirmed to HuffPost by sources with knowledge of it, who noted that Reid frequently keeps his fire going and is fond of feeding a variety of proposals to it. —

That is exactly what one should do with the Obama administration’s concessions.

JANUARY 6 2013 ADDENDUM: Two more comments.

In case you’re thinking that I’m being too purist about this, or that I’m allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good, I’m not.  I’m taking a stand against what I see as genuinely bad policy.  For the record, I would have preferred either the 2010 Bush tax cut deal (which extended all the Bush tax cuts without making any of them permanent) or doing nothing at all and allowing all the Bush tax cuts to expire, over making any of the Bush tax cuts permanent, as this deal did.  Neither of those two alternatives are ideal by any means, but at least they would have offered paths to more revenue that this deal closes off.

I’m also extremely disturbed by the legislative process through which this deal and several others were birthed.  Apparently we no longer have legislation deliberated on in a thoughtful and deliberate process, involving relevant Congressional committees, full debate and votes in both Houses of Congress, conference committee negotiations, and a final vote in both Houses.  Instead, we lurch from one last-minute crisis to another, and leave the negotiations entirely to an elite six-member club consisting of the President, the Vice President, and the majority and minority leaders of the two Houses of Congress. (Actually, in this latest deal House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi was hardly involved at all, even though ironically it was her House Democratic Caucus that carried the legislation through the House.  The final version of the deal was mostly the handiwork of just two players – Vice President Biden and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell.) After they huddle in secret and haggle ceaselessly over minute details, they emerge with an unappetizing compromise which they then shove in the lowly Congressmembers’ faces, commanding them, “Okay this is what we have – hurry and vote for it!”  The rest of the government – the lowly “regular” members of Congress, as it were – then dutifully do as they’re told and vote for what the power-that-be gave them by overwhelming margins.  Is that how our government is going to do business from now on?  Will the House and Senate be reduced to mere rubber stamps for whatever the top six (or five, or two) oligarchs have decided is best for all of us?  This is most certainly not the way our representative democracy was intended to function.