From Squawk Box to CSPAN – Cutting Through the Beltway Bubble & Democracy Gap

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LadyLibertyByRobChandanaisFailed ideas, infighting, and glimmers of hope.

I found myself watching CNBC’s Squawk Box the other morning and an Ohio Republican named Ron Portman was on. He was being beamed in from the Russell Rotunda in Washington, with its columned grandeur and air of gravitas. What a lovely backdrop for the savaging of America. Portman is the Republican prototype. Innocent eyes. Puritan earnestness. Flour white face. Bland coat and tie. As part of that long-running hit, the GOP Weekly Address, Portman announced a seven-point plan to create American jobs. He said his program would spark an economic recovery, a whip that political hacks never tire of using to flog the presses. Here are his seven sterling steps to the next big boom:

1. Adopt “Common Sense” Healthcare Solutions

Portman didn’t go into much depth on this one, but a majority of Americans would agree. Although Portman and the people might fall into a bit of a quibble over what exactly “common sense” meant. For Portman and his colleagues, common sense healthcare means leaving it to the market, where the all-important profit margin invariably dictates stingy coverage and unaffordable premiums. For many Americans, health is a sacred human right that ought not to be subjected to human greed. But more to come on that front…

2. Power America’s Economy

Note the pun in this one? Clever. This is mostly about fracking, faster permitting, and exporting liquid natural gas (LNG). None of which are the slightest bit helpful from a climate change standpoint (See Gasland and this fast-track special for more on that). As the powers that become ever more enthralled by “energy independence” and the wondrous profits it promises our billion-dollar petro giants, the work of committed anti-frackers may be increasingly marginalized by the enormous financial incentives to fracture the bedrock of the earth, no matter how many poisoned aquifers result.

3. Begin Living Within Our Means

This is more fearmongering around the Koch brothers’ deficit reduction campaign, a bipartisan con if there ever was one. Without mentioning the elephants in the room—the military budget and the periodic trillion-dollar bailouts of corrupt mega-banks—Portman wants to slash the deficit in other ways. Gee, I wonder where those cuts will come from? Perhaps “reform to entitlement programs”? Republicans like nothing more than anything that will “encourage personal responsibility,” a perpetual refrain of Senatorial millionaires. Perhaps Goldman Sachs’ Jamie Dimon can be brought in to help make this case to Main Street.

4. Reform Tax Code to Spur Economic Growth

This is especially farcical coming right after the harangue about cutting debt. It must be acknowledged that cutting taxes cuts government revenue, which pays for programs that must otherwise be sustained with loans or—as the GOP prefers—not sustained at all, but rather demolished altogether. Yet “reform tax code” is itself code for lowering taxes on corporations and individuals, with particular callouts for cutting taxes on the rich. It’s not as though taxes are already pretty low by historical standards, and when you begin factoring in deductions, you soon arrive at globally competitive corporate rates, and occasionally discover that your multinational owes no tax at all. In any case, this concept is based on the fallacy of trickle down economics, that the more money you put into the pockets of rich people, the more they will spend creating jobs for poor people.

Perhaps Portman and his rabid neoclassical colleagues have been napping since 2008 and missed the mortgage meltdown, the too-big-to-fail bailouts, and the aftermath, when banks sat on more than a trillion dollars in government money since they had what is sometimes referred to as a “liquidity preference.” As political economist Alan Nasser has noted, nobody likes to invest in a crappy economy. Hence the need for Keynesian stimulus. But that would require government intervention, a terrifying scourge at which we’ll soon arrive. Even Obama seems to believe jobs can only come from the private sector, as he famously touted in 2009. But set reality aside, and let’s embrace failed economic theories in the hopes that uneducated workers will fall for the ruse of tax cuts one more time. Viva a falsidade!

5. Unburden the Economy from DC Regulations

This is perhaps the most comical point, especially when Portman tosses around terms like, “regulatory relief” as though American business is simply hamstrung by the myopic interference of our frothing socialist government. It’s not as though the lack of regulation, happy encouraged all through the Clinton years, led directly to the mortgage meltdown and the subsequent horror show, thanks to savings and investment bank mergers, lax lending standards, unregulated derivatives and commodities markets, and toothless criminal regulation of premeditated mortgage fraud, pension theft, and so on. And it’s not as though the history of British, American, and German, not to mention Korean, Japanese, and Chinese industrialization was dependent precisely on regulation in the form of protectionist measures such as import tariffs and currency and price controls.

6. Create Competitive Workforce

This is another laugher. As if Barack Obama isn’t already fast-tracking America labor toward Third World status. Have any Republicans been paying attention to the jobs being produced by the Obama-conomy? Part-time, low-wage, low-skill, high-turnover, nontradeable service positions. In other words, bartenders, wait staff, and bedpan emptiers. Or, to put it another way, we’re only creating jobs that can’t be exported. A Chinese laborer in Shanghai can’t bring a beer to your table in Des Moines, no matter how cheaply he can be had.

Of course, Portman’s bullet points on the workforce ignores the need to generate good jobs, and instead offers a fog of rhetoric about consolidating job training programs, consolidation being a synonym for cutting programs, as is the call to defer decisions on how to allocate training monies to states, where Republicans control the majority of legislatures. There is some logic to this: why train people for nonexistent jobs? Portman’s colleagues also smuggled education beneath the banner of a competitive workforce—another strange inclusion. Why waste money educating the population? But the purpose of mentioning education is, as always, the desire to enervate the Department of Education and empower the privatization of education, primarily by creating more charter schools.

7. Increase Exports to Create More American Jobs

Perhaps the only way to do this on a mass scale would be to drive wages down far enough for America to be competitive with Bangladesh and other nations were factories routinely collapse on top of their employees. Of course, ten buildings have collapsed in Harlem in just the last five years, so perhaps the analogy isn’t so apt. If this is indeed the goal—and the president does frequently harp on exports—this may be as much of an admission as point six that the bipartisan objective of our government is to pauperize America. Then feudal conditions can be implemented. Fiefdoms overseen by CEOs instead of Lords. We vassals can trade our labor for subsistence, never wondering where the surplus goes (who reads Marx anymore?). And perhaps then we will proudly become the world’s sweatshop, filling shipping containers with the plastics craved by Indian parvenus and Chinese arrivistes. It has been suggested that in a few years a Detroit autoworker will be competitive with his Chinese cohort. Should we rue the day, or accept our reduced privileges, even as our corporate moguls, untethered from their employees by labor arbitrage, soar above us in private sky fleets, while their state minions monitor our hoods from hovering drone helicopters, awaiting the advent of a tepid protest?

Hope Springs Infernal

But then you see Senator Dianne Feinstein making a speech before Congress that accuses the CIA of spying on the Senate. This is mighty surprising coming from one of Edward Snowden’s biggest haters on Capitol Hill. I suppose so long as the spying is done on low-wage, low-profile Americans, it’s fine. But once the surveillance community turns its wanton eye to Congress and its bevy of millionaire influence peddlers, the ethics take a sharp U-turn. Feinstein was plenty irate at the thought of Obama’s paramilitary “agency” impeding her committee’s investigation into its torture habits after 9/11. Anxious to further impair its public reputation, the CIA has accused the Senate of criminal activity and asked the DOJ to investigate. Nothing like getting out in front of a scandal, right?

But there’s always a harsh rebuke in store for a freethinker. This one comes in the form of CIA Director James Brennan, who openly scoffs at Feinstein’s accusations. A bemused Brennan claimed that illegal, clandestine activity is far below the ethical code of the CI—but wait, isn’t illegal, clandestine activity the heart of the CIA’s mission statement? You hear him tell a CSPAN staffer that Congress ought to be careful not to inflate its description of what the CIA has done. Yes, Mr. Brennan, because prudence has long been the byword of the Central Intelligence Agency. We all remember how careful it was in assessing the threat of Iraqi WMDs—it’s not as if it played fast and loose with the facts in the lead up to the Second Iraq Oil War.

What is occasionally mind-boggling is just how close these federal agencies actually come to seeing the truth—and even stating it. The Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR, released last week, provided a summary of international threats. The authors were remarkably clear-eyed in noting that Al-Qaeda has vastly expanded its influence across the Middle East. Then, in a staggering admission, they conceded that destabilizing events in the region, such as wars in Syria and Iraq, were the leading causes of Al-Qaeda’s resurgence. It’s only the smallest of leaps from here to the question, “Why is the Middle East unstable?” Answering this question would lead our brave military leaders to the nearest mirror. But the leap is never made, the question left unasked, and the dark visage never glimpsed. This habitual lack of self-incrimination is increasingly a device employed by the White House.

Few presidents have spoken the truth with more regularity than Barack Obama. He has talked about the uninsured, income inequality, the trouble with surveillance, the need to reboot American manufacturing, and on and on. It’s clear, in some compartment of his brain, he knows what’s wrong with America, but is incapable of acting to fix it. It’s as though, in his incrementalist philosophy of political change, merely stating the truth is an innovation worthy of the name ‘progress.’ He might feel differently if his most secret conversations were being openly compiled by the dismissive Mr. Brennan.

The Subversive Breakout Session

Thankfully, there are pockets of sunlight, blades of brightness that slice through the dark cloud of ignorance that darkens the beltway day. A couple weeks ago, the irrepressible Senator Bernie Sanders hosted a hearing on healthcare, an event expressly designed to cast scorn on Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA). Sanders assembled a Benetton ad of healthcare experts from around the world—Taiwan, Canada, Denmark, Australia, and one dismayed and defensive defender of the ACA. This paladin of corporate interest increasingly retreated to some fortuitous study on infant mortality, only to see it quickly discredited by a bored academic seated along that dire row of socialists.

One after another, goaded by Sanders, the guests dispassionately extolled the virtues of free publicly funded healthcare—taking time, as one Canadian did, to disparage elements of their system (prescription drugs) foolishly left to the private sector. From lower costs to higher outcomes, the case was made. Eventually, the sole guest defender of the ACA and a couple of Republican Congressmen—condescendingly bemused by this minor specter of socialized medicine—argued that all of these Benetton nations were simply benefiting from America’s prodigious research budgets and thus able to offer free care. The implication being that only private industry was driving the medical innovation that saved lives. Nobody bothered to mention that vast funding for R&D comes from the government itself via taxpayer dollars. In any event, Sanders soon closed the proceedings and the foreign guests were sent packing, while the transcript of the festivities were hurled down Orwell’s memory hole. But trust me, this actually happened.

The Continental Divide

While there’s plenty of media coverage now—thanks to Occupy—about the gross inequalities of American incomes, very little coverage is given to another gap: the democracy gap. Or, to frame it otherwise, the gap between what Americans say they want and what American politicians give them. An abyss has opened between our desires and our policies. A majority want universal health care. We get the ACA. A majority want us out of other countries. We get clandestine coups. A majority want more spending on education. We get bigger Pentagon budgets. If polls like those of Pew or Gallup are to be believed, Americans generally don’t get what they want. Examining some of the debates underway in the beltway bubble is enough to illuminate you to this fact—you needn’t poll anyone. The story of our anti-democratic drift also occasionally surfaces, like a bubble from a gaseous swamp, amid the general miasma of mainstream media. The stray left-wing blogger. A labor union old-timer scribbling in a socialist rag. The curious senator with a bottomless ire for injustice. If only there were some force multiplier by which we could clone and amplify their voices. But then, something like that would have to be called democracy.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at [email protected].

Photo by Flickr User Rob Chandanais

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