Monday, July 29, 2013

Harsh Truths

As the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington approaches, I've come to realize how little economic progress has been made available to African American's in the United States. A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) showed that nearly half of all black youth live in areas of concentrated poverty.

While the civil rights movement was a quasi-legal (RIP Trayvon) victory, it was most certainly not an economic one. We have allowed ourselves to forget that Martin Luther King was a self identified Christian socialist; he an the millions behind him marched not only for equal rights, but for equal economic opportunity, fair pay, and jobs for all those willing and able to work. The second half of King's dream was never quite realized. Even until 1980, the vast majority of African-Americans never really had economic opportunity on par with the rest of the country. Since then, it seems the bleeding hearts have bled dry, and the regressive policies of a vicious right-wing have sealed the fate of the American poor.

We threw the Native Americans out onto the worthless rural land, and we left the blacks on the worthless urban land. Just take a glance at this map of Detroit's racial composition. These inner city reservations on which many blacks still live lack not only economic opportunity, but even some of the most basic human needs, such as housing, education, nutritious food, and a sense of security of person. With rampant unemployment, urban blight, drug use, alcoholism, and out of wedlock births, these urban reservations present little opportunity for personal improvement, no matter how hard one may try to pull on their bootstraps. Our education system based on local property tax revenues (and now a perverse push for privatization/vouchers/charters) has deprived the poor of the only real ticket out of poverty. Educational opportunities are severely lacking just where they are needed most. Its hard to pull yourself up with your bootstraps when you can't afford new shoes, or don't know how to tie them.

That's why I am torn about the Wal-Mart- in DC issue. Yes, the entire business model of this multinational corporation is dependent on subsidies from the government welfare state. Yes, its owners the Walton family are together worth $90 billion, or as much as the bottom 40% of Americans combined. But the reality is that Walmart can provide access to fresh produce in these urban enclaves that lack traditional grocery stores. Many urban dwellers do not own cars that would allow them to venture into the suburbs to get groceries as we do. Many rely on gas stations, convenience stores, and 7/11's to get the majority of their food. Not only are these stores full of high calorie-low nutrition junk food, they are grossly over priced. So as white suburbanites who shop at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, we have to be sensitive to the fact that Wal-Mart may be providing access to decent food in locations that other grocery chains, for whatever reason, have deemed impractical to do business in.

The traditional liberal welfare state programs, while doing a lot to stave off extreme poverty, are really just a patchwork of band-aids. No amount of income support or job training programs really matter if the jobs are not there to begin with. And as every economist who is paid to be right knows, jobs are mostly a function of aggregate demand. As well intentioned as career counseling and job training programs may be, there is no point in training people for jobs that don't exist. It is common to hear politicos and talking heads complaining about "structural unemployment" or "chronic skills mismatch", but this is really just making excuses for bad macroeconomic policy. If the jobs are there, the skills will follow. Its funny how in the 1990's when we had  3% unemployment, you never heard anyone talking about skills mismatch. Now just a few years later, apparently the skills of millions of American laborers are hopelessly inadequate. Nothing could be farther from the truth.


So many guys my age talk about patriotism, they wear American flag pants and say "American, fuck yeah!' But this is just a meaningless facade of patriotism, not true patriotism. You cannot claim to be a patriot and just walk around wearing red, white and blue while doing nothing to make your country a better place; or in the case of those who go to Wall Street, actively making the country worse.

I love this country as much as the next guy, but we have to be honest with ourselves. You know real love is when you can be honest. Just like in a personal relationship; real love occurs when the two people can be totally honest with each other and not be hurt. Relationships that are built on dishonesty can never really last. This country was founded on slavery of Africans and genocide of Native Americans. These stains will remain on the fabric of the United States for its entire existence. We must acknowledge these stains as part of our history, and work to ensure they remain just that.


At least in the field of education, ideas are almost always better than products, and ideas can be free. The mentality that something has to be developed, produced, purchased, and then physically added to the classroom to improve education is based on path dependent thinking that material improvements are always beneficial. The reality is that the marginal benefit from new classroom technology is small…. Technological barriers are not really what is preventing better teaching- it’s the lack of good ideas and teaching strategies, and the failure to find these ideas and implement them across the country (in fact, technology can sometimes be distracting and therefore counterproductive to pedagogical goals).

And unfortunately for lazy or financially motivated policy makers , it won’t be as easy as simply throwing money at the problem.  Things like changing the hours of the school day, serving healthier meals, and having more physically interactive classes to keep students engaged will make the most difference.  The idea that simply extending the school day and having more “math and science” (whatever that means) will lead to better education is not realistic and intellectually lazy.

Eliminating social and psychological blocks to learning, such as feelings of inferiority or unwillingness to seek help and ask questions can make an enormous difference by getting kids more involved and excited about learning. If school age kids can see ways that they can personally improve themselves from what they are learning they will certainly be more motivated. One way to do this is by creating opportunities for field specialization, which at the latest should occur at 8th grade. By this point, the core curriculum's have essentially been repeated at least 5 years, and most kids have a good idea of their academic strengths and weaknesses.

This has a personal meaning for me too. I realized by age 8 or so that I was terrible at math. I hated it and could never seem to learn it as fast as the other kids. Although I was pretty good at writing, reading, and social studies, being forced to do math for every year of my K-12 education made me hate school as a whole. The stress and anxiety from having to take math classes (which I was terrible at) spilled over into the rest of my course work and made me hate school in general. In economics, this is called a "negative externality;  a phenomenon that all economists know is detrimental to societal improvement. And all that stress turned out to be in vain, because to this day I have yet to use anything more than simple multiplication in my daily life.

I always desperately wanted math to be taught to me in some sort of relevant context. One of the reasons I had such mental block towards mathematics was that it was taught as a bunch of abstract rules and theorems that never seemed to have any real world applicability. So instead of just teaching more out of context equations, what the mathematics curriculum going forward should do is be included in real world problems. Basic personal economic education, such as balancing checkbooks, paying taxes, saving money/investments etc. is not only severely lacking from modern K-12 curricula, but if made mandatory could act as a fantastic supplement to traditional mathematics.

Forcing all students to take the exact same coursework, regardless of their talents is foolish, wasteful, and demoralizing. Instead, allowing the prolific writers, the creative artists, the inquisitive scientists, and the few and the proud mathematicians to pursue their talents and differentiate themselves will be a boon to education nationwide, especially with students in their teenage years, where identity formation is so important psychologically.

And what could bring light and warmth to those dark teenage years better than a new realization of ones future potential. In the teenage years where prevailing self-doubt and confusion so often serve to demotivate and undermine academic efforts , giving students the ability to truly see themselves having a successful career and adult life could serve to motivate classroom effort at a time where it is needed most. It is often said that the key to happiness is simply the feeling of progress. And for America’s unmotivated and faltering schoolchildren, a feeling of individual progress will lead to collective progress nationwide.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

No Confidence

I always get mad when policy arguments move into intangibles such as "confidence, expectations, or structural problems". These terms are used by people who are confused and don't know what they are talking about, or people who's ideology/worldview has failed to describe reality and need a rhetorical escape hatch. Since modern economics has failed to live up to a lot of outdated models, many  arrogant economists, instead of admitting they were wrong, simply start making things up.

It is now obvious that economics is more than just the "dismal science" - it is really a pseudo-science. In no other fields of study do you hear so called experts using intangibles to justify the non-performance of their models. Real scientists are concerned with finding the truth, even if that means scrapping old models, no matter how much time was devoted into developing them. Many high profile economists, on the other hand, seem to be concerned only with maintaining their public reputation to a high enough degree to keep their corporate cash rolling in. There is no need to seek the truth when you get paid to be wrong.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Now is not the time to be stingy

Concerns about economic efficiency are important, but they are misplaced when the economy is running so far below full capacity as it is now. Right now our top priority should be reducing unemployment. If you really care about waste, nothing could be more wasteful than having tens of millions of our fellow citizens being un or under employed. This represents literally billions of lost man hours every year-hours that could be put to use rebuilding our transportation and energy infrastructure for the 21st century.

Where we should use our concerns about efficiency is when the economy is back up running near full capacity and things start to heat up. This is where you can start saying oh, things are getting wasteful, or overheating or delusional to spend money in a certain way. God knows that concerns over efficiency would have been extremely useful in the past decade when the economy was running hot and the housing bubble was inflating like crazy. But as we have learned over the past decade (actually re-learned from past boom and bust cycles), is that no one wants to be a downer during the good times. When everyone is fat and happy, no one wants to interject and say, hey, maybe we should slow things down a bit and prune out the excess. 


We need to remember that earning interest on savings or investment is an economic privilege, not a right. Being able to use your productive capacity as a human being by being gainfully employed is a right. Societies that forget this will doom themselves to stagnation and decline. And the ironic thing is that they are not mutually exclusive. When the economy is growing and unemployment is low, chances are real yields will actually be higher than during slow economic times that we have now. This is because real goods and services will be making everybody in the economy wealthier, unlike now where stock prices/yields are dependent mostly on the ability of large corporations to extract larger and larger rents from productive workers. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

On Sausages and Congress

On sausages and congress:

People famously say that lawmaking is like sausage-making; you wouldn't want to see either in action. I've come to realize that there is even more to this analogy than first meets the eye. What sausages do is take pieces of meat and animal products that would otherwise be inedible and disgusting, and wrap them all together to make something delicious. Congress has a similar function. It takes all sorts of ideas and priorities from the amazingly vast array of constituencies across these united states, some bad and some good, and turns them into something that we can all live with and sometimes enjoy. This process is ugly, slow, frustrating, and seemingly corrupt, but it yields an acceptable whole product made from otherwise unacceptable parts. 

Similarly, I find frustrations about pork a little misplaced. I understand the desire to see politicians acting as cleanly as possible, but I believe that pork is actually necessary to the functioning of Congress. Again, when you have such a wide variety of conflicting priorities emanating from a country as diverse as the United States, you need something to grease the wheels. These pieces of varying size and shape can only come together when the right incentives can be used to get members to vote on an otherwise unacceptable piece of legislation. I’m not sure to what extent this is true, but it cannot be denied that some of today’s legislative gridlock is the result of limitations on pork and earmarks. That, combined with unprecedented right wing partisanship has made it harder and harder for members to convince each other to support measures that may not align with their partisan interests. The great thing about last year's hit movie Lincoln was that it showed how one of the most important pieces of legislation in human history (the 13th Amendment) was only passed after a series of deliberate bribes were handed out to various members.

That being said, I don’t think that even the best written laws can always counteract the moral failings of the most powerful people in business and government, but it is imperative that we try. When there is no justice, no rule of law, no punishment for antisocial behavior, those behaviors will spread and society will decay. The lesson of the past decades is that men in power can make vast sums of money trampling over uncodified social norms and get away with it (remember that Mitt Romney guy?) Because we no longer live in small, intimate societies where social norms can be enforced with personal contact, as many of these norms as possible should be codified at the federal level and enforced consistently.  All actors in our modern society, public or private, and especially the most powerful, must come to realize they are ultimately subordinate to the will of the people, written and enforced by a democratically elected government. This is the essence of our American democracy, and it will fail without it.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Waiting on Change

When it comes to dealing with climate change, we’re not gonna wait on the rest of the world because the rest of the world is waiting on us. The status quo defenders like to point to China and the rest of the developing world as evidence that US leadership on reducing emissions will not make much difference. But the fact is we remain the worlds largest emitter of CO2 per capita, and by far the most responsibility for legacy polluting- the CO2 that’s been up there since industrialization. Washington spends most of its time obsessing over financial transactions between the private and public sector, which is very foolish. First of all, when it comes to what must be done to mitigate and adapt to climate change, the important thing is not who does this work, but that it is done. The fact that much of this work must be done by the public sector is one that conservatives hate to acknowledge, and that I believe is their primary reason for disbelieving in climate change. Their image of the rugged individual responsible for his own actions falls apart with the acknowledgement of global climate change. Climate change is a unique 21st century challenge that the 17th century right wing ideology simply cannot comport to.

The reason that obsessive arguments over debt, deficits, and government spending are so foolish, even after an understanding of MMT and economic realities has been established, is that these arguments are about financial transactions between human beings. These transactions are for, by, and of human beings, and are thus entirely manageable by human beings. They pose little long term risk to our well being because they are human rules that are entirely with our ability to manage. What is not within humanity's ability to manage is our relationship with nature's rules. We cannot quickly and easily repair the damage that climate change and biodiversity loss will wreak on our planet, so we must start planning now.

The reality is that the US needs to be carbon neutral by 2030 or sooner if we are to avoid catastrophe. The barriers to this happening are enormous, and the naysayers are many. But the point I like to make is this: if I had gone to the White House on December 6, 1941, and said to Roosevelt: “Mr. President, I’m here to tell you that in four year's time, we will have defeated the Nazis, the Italians, and the Japanese, have zero percent unemployment, and have in our military arsenal a weapon capable of destroying and entire city in a matter of seconds” he would have laughed at me and the secret service would be carrying me off to the loony bin before I could draw my next breath. But as we know, in four year's time that is exactly what happened. The war period was an unprecedented time of national economic activity that was initiated and managed by the federal government, and the world was forever changed.

Today, the forces resisting change in Washington have more power than any of us can fully comprehend. But they can and will fall faster than the Berlin wall if we the people want them too. And that’s the core beauty our American democracy.  If we can learn to work together, acknowledge and overcome our weaknesses and deficiencies, and throw ourselves holeheartedly into this cause, not only will we save our planet and our species, but we will radically redefine what it means to be a human being on this planet earth. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Age of Empires IV, Modern Money edition

Modern monetary policy can be very hard to understand, and I sometimes think this was deliberate. Anyway, everyone know that analogies are usually a good way of explaining complex things in and understandable way, so here goes:

For those of you who may have been real time strategy geeks like I was as a child, you may remember playing some version of the Age of Empires game or something similar. In the game, you use village people to collect resources that you then spend on farms, buildings, and military stuff. The goal of the game is to invade and conquer your opponents on the map, so naturally it has a very military heavy focus. My dad, an economist, originally bought me the game because he thought it would teach me some economic principles about resource distribution, or something. To his dismay, the game turned out to really be mostly about killing your enemies, but I just recently realized that there is in fact an incredibly important economic lesson in the game.

Like most computer games, Age of Empires had various cheat codes that can be found online, that when typed into the game can cause deviations from the tradition script. Some of these cheats are ridiculous, such as instant-win or the creation of corvettes mounted with machine guns, that can be giddily driven through enemy territory to slaughter everything in sight. However, one of the cheats is actually very useful for demonstrating the benefits of a fiat currency. This cheat allows you to simply add 1000 units of gold to your national account by keystroke. While this may seem like cheating, most players will tell you that what this really does is unleash the full potential of the game, and makes it more fun to play. This cheat allows the player to no longer have to sit around and wait for villagers to dig gold out of the ground before being able to spend it on the things needed to win the game.

This cheat effectively ends the "gold standard" of the game, and turns the gold resource into a fiat currency. It allows the player to spend more time on the military strategy component of the game, and less time sitting around waiting for gold to accumulate. It saves the player from wasting his time, just as a fiat currency has the potential to save the time of the unemployed by putting them in productive jobs. Governments that don't have their spending abilities constrained by some ridiculous fixed convertibility are free to spend money into the economy to achieve maximum resource utilization. As any HR rep will tell you, "people are our greatest resource", so the high under/unemployment levels we have been suffering for the last 5 years represent a huge waste of resources. Instead of waiting around for the private sector to gain the "confidence" necessary to hire, fiat currency can get real resources moving as quickly as possible, stimulate demand, and help businesses and individuals pay down their debt sooner. In both cases, fiat currency allows people that would otherwise be sitting in a chair the ability to get up and do something with their lives.

This analogy goes even further, because the creation of modern money occurs in a similar way: it is just keystroke entries into computers. The gnomes at the Federal Reserve no longer have to spend time closely guarding their gold reserves; today they just sit in front of computer screens and make keystrokes into bank accounts. Thats it! Just like Age of Empires. Thanks dad.

We Can't Afford Not To

There are tons of policy issues that need fixing in Washington, but the increasingly widespread problem of food insecurity is perhaps the most obscene. Bill Moyers recently did a good piece about how poor access to nutrition is affecting millions of parents and their children. In DC, the recent debate over SNAP and the Farm Bill brought out the tired right wing platitudes about government spending and mythical "welfare dependency". As usual, Republicans trotted out the "b word" (billion) as a way to make SNAP expenditures sound excessive. Of course, taken out of context these numbers have no meaning and are deliberately used to scare people. And right on cue, all some Democrats could do was propose a less-worse bill. The only disagreement was on how much to cut food assistance to 50 million working parents and their children. 

We are literally starving the brains of developing children because we are afraid of numbers on a spreadsheet. This obsession with government spending is the height of insanity, and a form of national suicide. The government is the only source of dollars and can never run out of them, and thus has no functional constraint on its ability to spend money to move resources around the economy. 

Not having enough crops is an economic problem, not having enough cement or rebar is an economic problem, not having enough doctors is an economic problem. Not having enough money is NOT an economic problem, because dollars are simply a means of directing real resources to help society achieve its full potential. Today our country is not lacking in any real resource, it is only lacking in the funds to get these resources to their most productive locations. And there are few things I can think of that are more productive than ensuring that all our children have the food they need to help them reach their full potential. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

We Always Have the Money (and the People)

The willingness of so many people to remain ignorant about how modern governments spend fiat currency stems not from a lack of intellectual capacity, but from a normative preference for smaller government. The mere thought that the federal government has no functional spending constraint is enough to send even some Democrats into a raging fury. The notion that a democratically-empowered government should and does have the unique ability to create as much currency as it wants is so distasteful for the plutocrats and corporate cronies in Washington that they will never publicly except it. The right wing has spent the last three decades dismantling and destroying American democracy, and they will not allow MMT's implications about the true power of democratic governments to promulgate far. However true MMT's descriptions of modern monetary systems may be, they are incredibly dangerous to the conservative establishment and will thus face enormous resistance.

The right wing's worst nightmare is an educated and empowered citizenry that realizes its potential for self-determination. The closest America ever came to that was in the New Deal period between 1933 and the mid 1970's, and the Republicans have worked hard to make sure that those small and big "D" democratic attitudes never return again. So far the right has been very successful at undermining faith in democratic government through its various channels in the academic (R&R anyone??), religious, legal/judicial, media, and legislative realms.

Even those on the left that still believe in a pro-social role of government are despaired and disillusioned at best. But we simply have no alternative to fighting back. Although our nominally Democratic president and slim Democratic Senate majority remain a buffer to total right wing dominance, we can no longer vest any of our hopes in them. Although elections are still incredibly important, they are just a small part of the political toolbox. Our only remaining channel is public outreach and education, and thankfully it appears MMT is rising to the occasion. In the past few months alone MMT and its proponents have gained considerable steam in online and television policy debates, and recently punctured even the walls of the Old Gray Lady with the recent piece on Warren Mosler (as sloppily written as it may have been). I hope that going forward MMT can really begin to affect attitudes and behaviors in Washington, which for better or for worse, seems to be the only place where policy opinions really matter. Going forward I'd like to see (and be a part of) a more organized MMT presence that has a strategy set up for how we are going to educate the public, and if we try really hard, the politicians, too.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The importance of currency sovereignty

Although it should seem obvious, the ability of democratic governments to issue their own currency is perhaps the most important thing any government does. Economic models that apply to fixed exchange rate currencies simply do not apply to floating currencies, a point that many economists seem to have tragically missed. For some reason, even smart economists like Paul Krugman have been "surprised" that currency sovereigns operate under completely different economic realities than pegged or non-sovereigns do. The reality is that the loanable funds and money multiplier models simply do not apply to currency sovereigns, nor should they.

The ability to issue its own fiat currency is critical to the ability of any government to make public policy for its citizens, and thus is a crucial element to any nation that claims to be a democratic sovereign. Surrendering currency sovereignty, as Argentina did in the 1990's, and the Eurozone nations did in 1999, is an enormous leap away from democratic sovereignty. Any government that does so significantly weakens its ability to move real resources around its country to maximize utility for its citizens (Argentina's currency board basically turned the country into an internationally-financed Ponzi scheme). The importance of this seems to have been greatly under appreciated during the 1990's and 2000's, when countries in Europe were falling all over themselves to join the Euro and abandon their currency sovereignty. And although the British economy has faced its own challenges from misguided policies of the Cameron government, they can at least congratulate themselves on having had the restraint to stay the hell away from the Euro.

Now the Eurozone has been stuck in nearly 6 years of disastrous depression, with sky high unemployment levels and continually contracting economies. The only option sufficient to restore growth, namely default and devaluation from the periphery countries (Portugal, Italy, Spain, Greece, or the PIGS) has been considered Verboten by the policy elite that have been so disastrously ruling Europe. The so called "Troika" of the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the IMF, have been unbelievably bad economic policymakers, for the precise reasons that they don't understand the benefits of currency sovereignty, have considered default a non-option, and refuse to ever admit their errors. (As a GW student, I regularly walk by the IMF building and witness the international house  of (t)errors of European bankers standing outside and smoking cigarettes in their $2500 Italian suits.)

The callously indifferent responses of these policymakers to the ever growing demonstrations of discontent in the EU have been equally disturbing. This response suggests that in the future, a country that gives up its currency might as well also dissolve its legislature and end elections. Countries that are constrained by foreign central banks or arbitrary debt/gdp ratios simply cannot meet the economic needs of their citizens, especially during times of economic difficulty. Relying on foreign investment or bond market "confidence" to boost an economy has proven to be an incredibly difficult, if not impossible proposition. No government that calls itself politically sovereign can really be so if their economic output is determined by the whims of foreign investors.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Calm Down about the Debt, Part 4: Kicking "The Can Kicks Back"

I recently stumbled upon a political action group called "The Can Kicks Back" on Facebook. It is a youth-oriented political action group that advocates for entitlement reform and deficit reduction, and does so with "hip" looking website and articles clearly written for a college age audience. It appears that most of its members are of or near college age as well, and a quick glance over the website makes it seem innocent enough. Upon closer inspection however, I quickly realized that it was just another variation on the Pete Peterson-funded theme of disseminating false information about government spending in order to gut our old age benefit programs of Social Security and Medicare. For those of you who don't know, Peterson is an ancient billionaire who has been using his money to advocate for gutting of SS and Medicare for decades now, with little success. (btw Peterson's money dump into this fruitless cause is an excellent demonstration of the low utility of rich people's dollars and the need for higher marginal tax rates!)

Anyhow, while I am always excited to see people my age interested and engaged with federal policymaking, I simply cannot trust any Peterson funded institution, of which "Can Kicks Back" is one of the most recent. It saddens me to see what seem like well-intentioned people wasting their talents on the cause of this billionaire hack. A basic understanding of modern public finance reveals that just about all the claims made on the "Can Kicks Back" site are incorrect. There is nothing to prevent the US from meeting any and all of its liabilities in the future. In no way are "unfunded liabilities" or the federal debt a "burden" to future generations. These funding issues are entirely within our control and are not worth 1/100th of the time we dedicate to debating them . Spending on entitlement programs doesn't really preclude us from investing/spending on anything else.(see my previous blogs for more detailed explanations) Instead, it is climate change, which is several degrees of magnitude more important, than we should all be worrying about. Mitigating and adapting to climate change will be incredibly difficult, since the laws of Nature are most certainly NOT in our control. All economic and financial systems are. For future reference, here is my list of things to worry about:

1) In the short term: Unemployment
2) In the medium term: Health care costs (the primary driver of our deficits)
3)In the long term: Global climate change

So while the deficit reduction fetishists seem to have been silenced for the time being, I'm sure they will return soon. Their over-the-top calls for deficit reduction come not from any real world understanding of macroeconomics; rather they are just further efforts by the PetePeterson medusa to impose on the rest of us his normative preference for smaller, impotent federal government. Thanks to the shrinking deficit, along with valiant efforts from Dean Baker, Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, and the growing group of MMT economists, the latest Peterson snake head has been lopped off. However this is no time to rest on our laurels: He will be back soon enough.

(my hilari-bad photo editing skills on display)

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

How can progressives win elections? Let's start with a look in the mirror.

It is no surprise that much of working America despises the so called Washington elite. They seem devoid of empathy, and perfectly happy to doll out political advice from their ivory towers on the east coast. There is nothing a struggling middle class parent wants to hear less than some morally vacuous ideologue gassing off on a Sunday morning show like Meet the Mess or Fool the Nation (I'm looking at you Thomas Friedman, Jonathan Alter, Robert Samuelson, Harold Ford Jr, Peggy Noonan, George Will). 

We need to constantly ask ourselves where all of the passionate hate for Washington, and the Democratic Party comes from. Granted, some of it does come from old fashioned racism, but most of it does not. Perception is reality. Most of these people used to be Democrats, or at least should be voting democrat for economic reasons. Many Americans consider themselves Christians and American a Christian nation and we shouldn’t be afraid to call them on it. Let’s make clear the discrepancies between republican policies and the Gospels. I think the best description of political communication can be summed up by the phrase “politics is not about what you say, but how you say it” This dictum has been fully embraced by the right but not so much by the left. The political spectrum has evolved but Democrats, unwilling to admit it, have been left behind.

I feel like there is nothing wrong with appealing to Americans sense of being Christian as a political tool. Republicans have been using it since the 1980’s with no shame and great success. If for no other reason, we should be using it too, because the teachings of Christ are actually, you know, on our side. But also because even if people don’t go to church on a regular basis, the Christian identity is a very important part of many American’s self concept. The see it as the “good” in them, and often use it as an excuse “yeah, but at least I’m a Christian” etc. Since it is such an important part of self concept, it should be something to be be appealed to for political reasons. Even if making a policy argument using Christianity can be a little far fetched,  if you develop the underlying political philosophy/ideology using the language, symbolism, and ethics of Christianity that most Americans, even conservative ones are familiar with, you can reasonably expect the politics and policy to “settle in on their own”. At the very least it makes the policy argument easier by knocking down some resistance.

Many working class Americans hate Democrats because we sold them out. Being beat up by the boss hurts, but rejection hurts even more. It’s always easy to hate a bully, but often a victim of bullying will be even angrier at the friend who ran away and wasn't there to help them fight back. I think that goes a long way to explaining the hatred of Bill Clinton, who was a white Southern male. If any Democrat could have identified with old Democrats, it was Bill, but they still hated him. By pursuing triangulation, NAFTA, Gramm-Leach-Bliley etc, he sold out the working class, and codified/condoned the anti-labor attitudes of the previous right wing administrations.

I have this image of a white working class, blue collar guy that hasn’t seen a real salary increase in decades. He’s pissed off at the elites who smugly discuss the “issues” yet can never seem bring about any change. He’s in a vindictive mood, and he turns on Fox News. Lou Dobbs is talking about immigrants and homosexuals and this is where his attention turns to. But we have to realize that this rage is not legitimate. It cannot be counted by reasoned arguments, by logic or facts. This mindset cannot be punctured by scientific inquiry or logical reasoning, for the precise reason that it was formed in spite of them to begin with. The person is not actually angry at the minorities, but he is angry about something, and gays, immigrants and "big government" are easy and available targets. Fox has done an amazing job of conditioning its viewers to displace their rage onto these groups. Fox expertly puts up this cathartic side show to distract the middle class from the real culprits of its demise. 

WE also shouldn’t be afraid to call out bad luck for what it is. Jimmy Carter was a victim of really bad luck, and he should have stated it simply. His defeat in 1980 was, at least to this date, the defeat of progressive, compassionate liberalism in the United States.

WE can’t start counting electoral votes with one third of the country omitted.

WE need more than just electoral victories, we need a movement. We need actors, musicians, scientists, clergy, farmers, artists, poets, comedians, union leaders and community organizers all together on a great big stage. We need to have a meaningful discussion about what we want to be as a country. 

WE must come to realize that serving the poor and dispossessed and simultaneously seeking wealth and pleasure for oneself simply will not work. We must pick sides, and choose to forgo a life of pleasure and comfort for a life of fighting poverty and injustice.  This is why Christ taught us to free ourselves of worldly possessions- those who are tied down by material wants are incapable of being free enough to fight for meaningful change.

If the Democratic Party wants to succeed, we have to get our hands dirty. We need to physically enter these downtrodden middle class communities and get some first hand experience of the problems people are facing. And all this must be done with the utmost empathy and a desire to get to work achieving real results. No more philosophizing, no more gratuitous, recreational debating for its own sake, no more “he said, she said” blame games and excuse making. For a moment, we need to just shut the hell up and get to work rebuilding the middle class.  I think this is a classic action paradox. We become so focused at shooting down each attack ad, each piece of bad news, that we lose focus on the underlying issue, which is economics, pure and simple. We need a singular focus on action, to get things moving again. I think then we will be amazed at how quickly much of today's fear and uncertainty will dissipate. Once the American people again feel justice and fairness, when their wallets start thickening, I guarantee much of this rhetoric will fade away. So we can’t continue to just wage a rhetorical war. That’s what they do, and everybody is sick to hell of it.

And finally, love. No matter how hot or vitriolic the rhetoric, we must remember that we are on the side of the majority of Americans, and the Republicans are not. We must keep cool heads, be patient, and above all, love the souls that lie behind those dangling teabags, mizpelt signs, and NRA hats. It wont be easy, because we are up against 30 years of carefully crafted right-wing fear propaganda that has now reached a fever pitch. Many Americans are scared and confused, and we must tread carefully. We cannot hope to counter this fear with more division, more hatred, more vitriol. Violence, whether physical or verbal, always begets more violence.

What's Wrong with Washington, Part 1 of ∞

Making fun of the DC press could be a full-time job for comedians (and for my favorite economist Dean Baker it almost is a full time job.) Those outside the Beltway have to realize that most of the people in the media are total morons. They always know what to say, but not what they are saying. They are very keen at picking up the latest buzzwords and zeitgeist, but not at independent analysis and deep thought. And for the most part that is what their job is. Most think tanks and media outlets in Washington are not independent operations. They are mostly funded by billionaires with an agenda, are not tanks, and don’t think. The media’s biggest mistake is that they treat all parties in a debate as if they are arguing in good faith i.e. in the public interest. This is rarely the case anymore. The true talent of Washington’s highest paid “experts” is using the language of government and public policy to promote private interests. They betray the American public on a daily basis, and they, and their audience, are rarely aware of it.

One of the primary roles of government, as mandated by our Constitution, is the pursuit of justice. The pursuit of justice is one of the most basic and most important roles of the federal government. This occurs in two major ways: (1) By ensuring that statutes keep up with changing social constructs and economic realities. As few implicit social constructs should exist as possible. In modern complex societies like ours, every implicit arrangement should be made explicit, thus having the force of law behind it to ensure that individuals do not fool or take advantage of each other. This is just basic fairness; government’s role as the just arbitrator. (2) The government should devote as many resources as possible to enforcing these statutes. 

The problems now it that there is an enormous amount of money to be made in thwarting the public interest and preventing the above two principles from being realized. Whether during the legislative or regulatory process, teams of corporate lobbyists descend on congress and the agencies to prevent the public interest from being served. These actions can save companies billions of dollars, so even paying lobbyists millions of dollars to stop rules is a fantastic bargain from the corporate point of view. It is no surprise then that conservatives have sought to jam and undermine both of the above described principles. They actively prevent government from achieving its maximal social utility, and do so on behalf of moneyed interests.  By corrupting and deadlocking Congress, they prevent new laws from being made, and ensure that existing ones are rendered hopelessly inadequate. By relentlessly cutting government spending where it matters and pursing rabidly anti-regulatory reforms, they prevent existing statutes from being adequately enforced. This has led to the negative view of government felt by many Americans, and the cynicism towards the whole process that consumes the few good souls that remain in our nations capital.

Stuck in the past

To the dismay of many dunder-headed liberals like myself, it seems that the concept of social progress through government has actually become more difficult since President Obama was elected. I've come to think that the very idea of pursuing societal advancement makes conservatives so uncomfortable with progress.  This seems to emanate from the simplicity of their worldview, which has been developed and presented by conservative politicians and Christian evangelical pastors. It is a a way of looking at the modern world that is both myopic and dualistic (only black and white). This becomes a predominant way of explaining the world, and venturing outside it, especially if you are and older person just looking for some emotional security, is a very scary prospect. This mindset cannot be punctured by scientific inquiry or logical reasoning, for the precise reason that it was formed in spite of them to begin with.

For example, many conservatives grasp on to the Constitution as some sort of repository for the simpler 18th century world in which it was written. While the historical context of the Constitution’s writing cannot be ignored, it is an insult to its framers to think that they couldn't foresee that societal understandings and political interpretations of the Constitution would have to evolve along with the nation which it had established. The founders were way too intelligent and nowhere near arrogant enough to think that their basic governmental framework was a perfect model for hundreds of years of government. While their intelligence and dedication to the concept of self-rule was incredible, it always seemed to me that the founders would be disgusted at the ways in which we now revere and portray them as demi-Gods. Treating their words as infallible statements of timeless truth is antagonistic to the very concept of collective self-determination which they championed. One of my favorite TJ quotes of all time is inscribed on one of the panels in his memorial:

"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."

It is debatable if the founders even expected the Constitution to last for very long anyway, in fact Jefferson stated that it would probably have to be scrapped after 30 years or so and re-written. Additionally, the mechanism for amending the Constitution that they established was made for a much smaller, simpler, and homogeneous nation. It is now next to impossible to amend the Constitution in a country as varied, complex, and large (300 million people!! The founders never would have imagined the US as a country of this size!!) as the US is today. A 2/3rds majority is unheard of for any issue now, especially given the power of psychologically manipulative propaganda that has taken such a foothold in this country, aided both by the ubiquity of media outlets and the virtually unlimited funding that now flows from the corporate world post Citizens United.

Getting sick over healthcare reform

We progressive have to ask ourselves:

President Obama was hell-bent on pushing through the 1993 Heritage Foundation healthcare reform plan while unemployment was over 9%; all the while his administration was thumbing its nose at progressives who were demanding a public option, deriding us as the "professional left."  The bill was incredibly complex, controversial, mostly written by industry, and disliked by both sides of the aisle. Other than Dodd-Frank, very little significant legislation has passed since. It has been one manufactured "crisis" after the other since the Great Tea Party Takeover of 2010.

We now have to ask ourselves if the Pyrrhic victory of PPACA was really worth sacrificing 4-6 years of progressive policymaking. Although he will never admit it, I have a feeling that President Obama  does in fact feel this way. If he hadn't compromised, then pushed so hard on healthcare reform, he may not have lost the House and filibuster proof Senate in 2010, and thus still had a chance of being something other than the lame duck he is now. It will be interesting to see if PPACA can be implemented with any ease, and how Obama reflects on this decision in his eventual autobiography.