Stories by Fred Bauer

Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.  He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm.

How Means Testing Social Security Could Backfire

April 13th, 2011 at 6:24 pm 12 Comments

Yuval Levin’s provocative essay on going “Beyond the Welfare State” offers the following prescription for a conservative re-thinking of entitlements:

Second, essentially all government benefits — including benefits for the elderly — should be means-tested so that those in greater need receive more help and those who are not needy do not become dependent on public support. Most retirees would still receive some public benefits (and the poorest could well get more than they do now), but the design of our welfare programs would avoid creating the misimpression that they are savings programs. People who are already retired or nearly so today should be exempted from such means-testing, as they have planned for decades around the existing system; Americans below 55 or so, however, should expect public help only if they are in need once they retire. Means-testing should, to the extent possible, be designed to avoid discouraging saving and work. And private retirement savings should be strongly encouraged and incentivized, so that people who have the means would build private nest eggs with less reliance on government.

Means-testing for entitlements for the elderly has been a notion recently gaining in popularity among some sectors of the right, but I think there is reason for some skepticism about means-testing all elderly entitlements, particularly Social Security.

One of the more dangerous aspects of Great Society-style welfare was its encouragement of unsustainable and deleterious behaviors. Welfare checks provided to single mothers were no doubt motivated by a worthy spirit of compassion, but those very same checks indirectly financed the breakdown of the urban family. Rather than ending misery, they often ended up subsidizing it. Unlike private charity, government subsidies can create a sense of entitlement that may undermine the behaviors necessary to support a government capable of providing such subsidies.

As it stands now, Social Security mostly avoids that trap. Whether you manage your resources well in retirement or manage them poorly, you receive the same check. Far from encouraging bad economic behavior, Social Security tends to reward good economic behavior: if you achieve success in the workplace and improve your salary, you also reap a higher Social Security check when you retire. But even if you struggle in the workplace, you still will collect some benefit to help you in your old age. In many respects, this is exactly how government should work from a conservative perspective: it rewards industry but also provides a safety net for the less fortunate.

Means-testing could utterly vitiate that structural tendency. Instead of rewarding a person for economic success over a career, means-testing for Social Security could penalize them for this success. Levin notes some of the challenges of means-testing when he says that means-testing “should, to the extent possible, be designed to avoid discouraging saving and work.” Yet I think it might be very hard to means-test Social Security so that it did not discourage saving and work.

If we means-tested Social Security based on the net-worth of a household, we would give the elderly little incentive to save. Say government offers the following choice: live close to the bone for years until you exhaust your savings and then get a Social Security benefit OR spend it extravagantly and then get that very same benefit. What choice would many people make? While elderly men and women are unlikely to start an explosion of illegitimacy (thankfully), subsidizing profligacy and discouraging prudence are rarely smart policies for a government; our current economic troubles are testament to the dangers of that course of action.

Means-testing on income could result in a significant lowering of the standard of living for the elderly. Right now, elderly Americans who have some level of health can work to supplement their Social Security income and so raise their standard of living. Means-testing could take that incentive away. The elderly could sit at home and collect that government check OR they could go out and work, with the dollars earned in the workplace eating into their government checks. Many people of an advanced age would find it hard to earn enough in the market in order to make more than their government-guaranteed income, so many elderly Americans might find Social Security checks the absolute limit for their income.

I suppose some of these doubts are predicated on my suspicion that Social Security is not driving any potential entitlement crisis. Currently around 4.8% of GDP, Social Security is scheduled to peak at around 6.1% of GDP and stay around there for as far as federal actuarial accounting can see. That is a manageable number and a manageable increase. Many deficits the program may face could be eliminated by making a few relatively minor changes to the program (such as raising the cap on taxable income). Compared to something like Medicare, Social Security is very sustainable.

Granted, some of these objections could be worked around, but fiddling with Social Security is a dangerous business, and not only from a short-term electoral perspective. Compared to many government programs (including many means-tested ones), Social Security provides a social insurance safety net of equity while also encouraging individual initiative and prudence. Those advantages should not be overlooked.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

For GOP Nominee: 2012 Win Won’t be Enough

March 25th, 2011 at 6:45 pm 28 Comments

Any Republican contemplating running for president in 2012 has two formidable obstacles: November 2012 and what happens starting January 2013.

For the first obstacle: Republicans should not underestimate Barack Obama. He’s a vicious political fighter who seems to get a thrill from the campaign for power. His political team proved itself a master of media narratives in 2008, and many in the media will be willing to give Obama an assist against any Republican opponent. The president has already somewhat turned around his poll numbers from the nadir of November 2010; Republicans should keep an eye on that trend continuing. Moreover, recent polling shows him with a significant lead over a generic Republican in 2012.

Obama’s approval rating may still be under 50%, but Republicans would be premature in expecting a cakewalk in 2012. One of the big lessons of 2010 is that candidate quality does matter. There were numerous statewide races in 2010 that, by many metrics, Republicans should have won–but ended up going Democratic. If a Republican candidate cannot close the deal with voters, Barack Obama could end up being reelected, even with a sub-par economy and middling approval ratings.

If a Republican does win the presidency in 2012, he or she will have a host of problems to face. A Republican president in 2013 would likely inherit the longest-running economic stagnation since the Great Depression. The administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have witnessed a massive expansion of the federal government; if a Republican president is serious about paring this government back, a lot of work lies ahead.

In the past, I’ve suggested some avenues for a rethinking of Republican policies, and what follows are some thoughts (in no particular order) about qualities a Republican candidate should possess, for both a successful campaign and a successful administration.

Articulate a vision. John McCain struggled to articulate a comprehensive vision for his campaign or a McCain presidency, a weakness Obama eagerly exploited. The “vision thing” is often crucial for successful presidential campaigns. This vision may not be enough (see Goldwater, Barry), but it is important, especially if a president wishes to build a longer-reaching legacy. There’s a fine line between a vision and a mere slogan, and it was not always clear on what side of the line George W. Bush’s notion of “compassionate conservatism” stood. Still, Bush was able to conjure some kind of purpose to his campaign. A successful Republican candidate in 2012 will have to do the same thing.

Take on the map. A candidate who has to reach for the “Bush” states is probably a candidate the party would be better passing by. Yes, a candidate could win with those states in the end, but those states should more be viewed as a last-ditch firewall than a goal. And it’s worth noting how fragile the Bush coalition of the 2000s was: the loss of one closely contested state (Florida in 2000, Ohio in 2004) would have cost Bush the White House. One of Obama’s greatest electoral strengths in 2008 was his ability to open up the map for Democrats; this led to an Electoral College victory greater than any Republican has enjoyed since George HW Bush in 1988. The actual contours of the new GOP coalition might vary depending on the eventual candidate. But there’s no reason to write off states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Oregon, Minnesota, or Wisconsin. Some of these states recently elected a Republican senator in 2010. And the GOP also needs to keep its eye on states Bush barely won (or didn’t even win in both elections): New Hampshire, New Mexico, Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada, to name a few.

Lower the temperature of social issues. This is not the same thing as surrendering on social issues. Social conservatives are a key part of the Republican coalition; many socially conservative positions are among the more popular parts of the GOP platform. Moreover, there is, I think, an often undervalued theoretical affinity between social conservatism and fiscal conservatism. But one can argue for socially conservative positions without sneering at those who disagree with them. Dualisms like “Heartland Real Americans” vs. “Coastal Elitists/Fake Americans” (or suggestions that Republicans don’t deserve the freedoms of the Constitution) are probably better left behind. A game-changing Republican presidential candidate will need to be able to show that he or she respects the views of a variety of other Americans, even if he or she doesn’t always agree with them.

Remember managerial competence. Unfortunately, the challenges that face this nation cannot be dissolved with a few easy votes or executive orders. Repealing Obamacare will not be enough to stabilize the nation’s healthcare system; cutting earmarks will not restore the nation’s fiscal health. In order to be successful, a Republican president has to have the ability to recognize and promote competent bureaucrats. The White House must be part of the “reality-based” community if it is to succeed.

Be willing to experiment. Government policy is often less about blind obedience to absolutes and more about being able to muddle through. Contrary to the wishes of some, the president–even at the peak of power–does not have a totally free hand to write policy. Various Congressional factions, public interests, and bureaucratic inertia all shape policy. Moreover, many policies can lead to effects completely unanticipated by their designers. All these facts will require an administration to be fluid, resourceful, and flexible. It’s worth noting, though, that flexibility in means need not require an empty faith in political ends. One can still have deep principles and be flexible in applying them.

Fight the big battles, even if they cause you to lose the small ones. Barack Obama did not win every news cycle as a candidate in either the primary election or the general. Yet some of these daily losses led to his overall victory. Consider, for example, the flap about his willingness to meet with the leaders of countries like North Korea and Iran without preconditions during the primary battle of 2007/2008. The Clinton people hit Obama hard on this, and he endured some rocky coverage in the media, but this admission also illustrated Obama’s break with some of the rhetorical tendencies of the Democratic past, at least during that part of the campaign. This break in turn helped solidify his image as the “change” candidate in a cycle in which “change” was very hot. A candidate, Republican or Democrat, must be willing to take the heat of taking a strong stand at times. This willingness to face criticism can strengthen the image of a candidate’s inner fortitude and also can allow the candidate to push the parameters of public debate.

The political pendulum has swung fairly wildly from one party to the next in recent years. It remains to be seen how much the Republicans will be able to make good on their significant gains in 2010 for the presidential race in 2012. There is the real possibility of a major victory in November of next year, but there is also the possibility of a major disappointment–in that month and in the months after it. The GOP currently has the benefit of a wide-open field, and Republicans should welcome this opportunity for debate, trial, and exploration.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

Social Security: The “Easy” Crisis

March 7th, 2011 at 4:13 pm 4 Comments

In bewailing the “entitlements crisis,” many have made much of the fact that the percentage of GDP expended on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is growing at a fairly ferocious pace. In 2007, those three programs totaled 8.4% of GDP. By 2050, the CBO estimates they could be 18.6% of GDP. By 2080, they could be nearing 25% of GDP. The current federal budget as a whole is 25% of GDP, and that recently spiked (it was under or around 20% for most of the past 15 years). So, if current trends do not change (a colossal if), federal spending on just three programs would be as big as a proportion of the economy as the whole federal budget is now. Those numbers would probably not be sustainable.

However, grouping those three programs together hides a significant fact: the driving force behind the inflation of those “entitlement” programs is the increase in medical spending. Social Security spending is far more sustainable than the current Medicare and Medicaid regimes.

Currently, Social Security spending is about 4.8% of the GDP. This spending is estimated to rise to about 6.1% of the GDP by 2035 and will linger around 6% for the next fifty years after that. This is about a 27% increase in Social Security spending as a percentage of GDP. That’s not a small number, but it is a manageable one, especially when one considers that that period will witness the retirement of the Baby Boomers. If it gets its economic house in order, the US could conceivably afford to spend 6% of its GDP on Social Security for a very long time.

Moreover, due to reforms during the Reagan era, Social Security is more sustainable now than it used to be. According to the Congressional Research Service, the worker earning an average income who retired at 65 in 1980 drew out more in benefits than he had put in through taxes and accumulated interest in less than three years. An average 65-year-old retiring in 2002 would have to collect for almost 17 years for that to happen; the retirees of 2020 would have to collect for nearly 21 years to reach that point. (And, yes, I realize that those figures could also be used to argue for a kind of privatization, but let’s focus on fiscal sustainability for the moment. I also realize that the federal government has borrowed against the Social Security “surplus” of past decades, and that a time will come, if it has not already come, when the federal government must pay back the billions and billions and billions it owes to the Social Security system.)

If there is an eventual crisis for Social Security (the status of Social Security crises depend upon assumptions about rates of economic growth, employment, and other factors, leading to various projections), the solutions to make Social Security more sustainable seem relatively clear cut. Raising the cap on incomes taxed for Social Security (the current max is around $106,000) and slightly changing the retirement age—to suggest two obvious choices—could extend Social Security’s sustainability for a long time.

It may be Pollyannaish to suggest that a few minor changes could indefinitely protect Social Security, but it is realistic to say that those changes are minor compared to the ones needed for Medicare and Medicaid. That’s where the real growth in spending is. Health-care spending has long exceeded the rate of inflation, and, with an aging population, that spending is only increasing at a faster rate.

For Medicare and Medicaid, the options are a lot harder. Because Social Security works on a fixed-benefit model, the costs are easier to project and, if needed, easier to curb. Federal health expenditures have long operated upon a blank check model, and there seems to be considerable waste in federal health-care spending. But finding strategies to identify that waste and cut it is a much more challenging proposition. I think effective savings can be found, but achieving them will acquire bureaucratic know-how and determination.

Some Republicans may find themselves in a hard place in terms of dealing with Medicare/Medicaid spending. Barack Obama’s proposals to cut the rate of growth of Medicare spending were met with cries of “death panels.” Over the past few years, many Republicans allied themselves with protecting Medicare funding. Yet now Republicans want to talk about seriously cutting the deficit, and photo-op cuts to the “discretionary” side would offer marginally cosmetic changes to the budget at best. (None of this is to suggest that I find the supposed “savings” of Obamacare particularly persuasive.)

There may be something to be said for various Social Security reforms. But Social Security does not seem to be ground zero for the government’s fiscal crisis; the fiscal necessities for reform there are far less pressing than those for other parts of the federal budget.

Two points in closing:

The first is electoral. Social Security is one of the most popular government programs. According to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, 77% of Americans find cutting Social Security to be unacceptable. Kicking grandma off of Social Security while also advocating for ever-expanding tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans (who have been the real economic winners of the past decade) is the electoral equivalent of running into machine-gun fire.

The second is more principled. From a small-government perspective (or at least from my perspective), Social Security is far from the most invasive program or the force that most undermines the sustainability of our nation as a free-market economy. If conservatives do want to advance the cause of a smaller government, there are, I think, much bigger and more pressing fish to fry. Reckless financialization, the hollowing out of the middle class, government distortions of the market through cronyish favoritism, the decay of the family—all these things are much more dangerous to the future of individual liberty vis-a-vis the government than Social Security.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

Do Wisconsin’s Teachers Make the Grade?

February 24th, 2011 at 11:25 pm 22 Comments

CNS is running a news story that skewers the Wisconsin educational system. A few key details:

In the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests administered by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009—the latest year available—only 32 percent of Wisconsin public-school eighth graders earned a “proficient” rating while another 2 percent earned an “advanced” rating. The other 66 percent of Wisconsin public-school eighth graders earned ratings below “proficient,” including 44 percent who earned a rating of “basic” and 22 percent who earned a rating of “below basic.”


Wisconsin public schools increased their per pupil expenditures from $4,956 per pupil in 1998 to 10,791 per pupil in 2008. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator the $4,956 Wisconsin spent per pupil in 1998 dollars equaled $6,546 in 2008 dollars. That means that from 1998 to 2008, Wisconsin public schools increased their per pupil spending by $4,245 in real terms yet did not add a single point to the reading scores of their eighth graders and still could lift only one-third of their eighth graders to at least a “proficient” level in reading.

Sounds pretty terrifying. Except there are a few problems.

To tackle the matter of finances first. The statistics quoted above compare apples to oranges. The $4956 CNS attributes to 1998 does not cover the total per-pupil spending—only the spending for instruction (and not for support services). The amount spent per pupil on instruction in Wisconsin in 2008 was, according to the Department of Education, $6560, or about exactly what it would be if 1998′s numbers were adjusted for inflation. The total expenditures per pupil in 1998 were $9298. According to the inflation calculator, $9298 in 2008 comes out to $12,281. So total expenditures in Wisconsin for education seem to have gone up slower than the rate of inflation.

On to the role of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests: One of the unfortunate tendencies of many right-leaning approaches to education policy has been the elevation of standardized test scores above all (see No Child Left Behind, etc.). Especially from a classical conservative perspective (though not only from that perspective), it seems problematic at best to reduce educational success to a few test scores. Moreover, one perhaps cannot disregard the notion that certain parties inside and outside the government may have an interest in defining “proficiency” up in order to precipitate a useful “crisis.” So I think these scores might be taken with a grain of salt.

But it should be noted that Wisconsin’s average eighth-grader NAEP reading score of 266 is above the national average. 34% of students at or above grade level in reading may sound bad, but the highest-scoring state scored only 43% at or above level. That state happens to be the union bastion of Connecticut, which spent over $14,500 per pupil. Massachusetts and New Jersey round out the top three, both having spent significantly per pupil more than Wisconsin.

What does a low-scoring state look like in terms of scores? States like Louisiana ($10,000 per pupil), Mississippi ($7890 per pupil), California ($9706 per pupil), and Nevada ($8180 per pupil) have NAEP proficiency ratings in the low 20s (Mississippi is in the teens). The lowest-scoring jurisdiction in the USA is Washington DC, with only 13% of 8th-graders at or above level. The District spends over $16,000 per pupil.

The case of DC shows that high spending is not enough to ensure academic success, and the case of Idaho (which spends $6900 per pupil for an achievement level about equal to Wisconsin’s) shows that higher spending is not necessary for scores above the national average. Many of the states near the bottom are right-to-work states, but some right-to-work states have higher scores. Meanwhile, many union-strong states dominate the top of the charts, but having a strong union (see California) is not a sufficient recipe for educational success.

Unions in public education may be bad or they may be good. But to single the public schools of Wisconsin out for a unique inefficiency and failure is rather unfair.

There are far more variables involved in the success of our schools than mere funding and union presence. The composition of student populations in a school district, for example, plays a key role in the challenges and opportunities for that school. An inner-city school with a majority of immigrant students faces a very different educational situation than a small middle-class town in Idaho—and that educational situation would not suddenly turn around if a union were abolished. Unfortunately for us, perhaps, educational policy often seems more about struggling with numerous finite particulars than grasping that golden panacea.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

What’s at Stake
in Wisconsin’s
Budget Fight

February 20th, 2011 at 2:17 am 60 Comments

The Wisconsin budget battle is really not about today or tomorrow but the day after tomorrow; it is far less about helping the state make up for a projected $137 million budget deficit than it is about changing the role that public unions play.

This budget shortfall was not unexpected. Indeed, Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Scott Walker, has pushed for policies that, in the short term at least, have exacerbated the state’s deficit. Walker and the Republican-controlled Wisconsin state legislature passed in January $117 million (over the next two and a half years) in tax breaks for businesses and health savings accounts. Part of the budget deficit is really the story of transferring some state subsidies from public employees to private businesses. That transference may be good or it may be bad, but it is a key detail of this battle.

Moreover, it seems as though union leaders are open to accepting Walker’s demands that members contribute 5.8% of their incomes towards their public pensions and at least 12.6% of their incomes towards health-care plans. This increased contribution would be a de facto pay cut for union members (for example, University of Wisconsin union members could see a 8-15% pay cut). Union leaders have suggested that they would be willing to make these concessions. If this battle were just about the upcoming deficit, it would be over.

But it isn’t. There’s one concession that unions are not willing to make: surrender their collective bargaining power. Walker’s proposal would deny most unions the ability to collectively bargain for anything more than salary (and even that would be limited); Walker’s proposal excepts from these collective bargaining rules his political allies in the police and firefighters unions. His proposal also puts up additional hurdles for unions to maintain their union status. These measures set the stage for a long-term structural change.

Consider education. The elimination of union collective bargaining could open up the door for destroying tenure, limitations on teaching load, pay for extracurricular activities, limits on working hours, and state funding for continuing the education of teachers. The end of collective bargaining could also help undermine public employee pension funds.

Scott Walker has borrowed a page from Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel and is not letting a crisis go to waste. As with Obama, the most contentious part of Walker’s proposals (collective bargaining) serves a far more structural purpose than a short-term one.

(A couple other structural notes: At a time when private sector employment is stagnating and wages shrinking, public workers are not going to be able to defend ever-increasing wages and benefits for themselves. Also, many public unions made the choice to full-throatedly back Democrats, which has limited their leverage over Republicans. With Republicans newly empowered in state legislatures across the country, the hands of public unions are significantly weakened. These unions could be paying a price for their partisanship.)

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm

Want to Cut the Deficit? Jump Start Job Growth

February 16th, 2011 at 12:09 am 41 Comments

After having backed a $800+ billion tax-cut/stimulus package last December, House Republicans are now looking for ways to trim $100 billion from the federal budget. The new wonky cocktail party comment on the battle over Obama’s new budget is that non-defense discretionary spending was merely 15% of the 2010 budget. Defense spending came out at about 20% and interest payments on the ballooning national debt were about 5%. The rest of the budget came from “mandatory” programs. Last year’s deficit was about 40% of the federal budget, so, even if we were to reduce all discretionary spending to zero, we would still have a considerable deficit. Even reducing defense spending to zero might not erase the deficit.

So “mandatory” spending is the only thing left on the chopping block. The left likes to appeal to this “mandatory” spending as a device for arguing that taxes should be raised; the right likes to appeal to this “mandatory” spending percentage as an excuse for “entitlement reform.” Both views may have some substance.

But what is “mandatory” spending? Despite what some media reports or pundits may imply, it’s not just Social Security or Medicare. While both are part of “mandatory spending,” plenty of other measures are as well. Indeed, if there will be an “entitlement crisis” for Social Security or Medicare, we probably haven’t even hit it yet.

Many of these outstanding “mandatory” costs over the past few years can directly be traced to the nation’s poor employment picture. Even the Obama administration forecasts the unemployment rate for 2012 to be 8.6%. That would mean nearly four years (at least) with an unemployment rate above 8%. We have not seen that continuously high level of unemployment since the end of World War II. With the government safety net bearing more weight than it has in decades, it’s no wonder that it is straining.

According to the Heritage Foundation, government spending on unemployment benefits jumped from about 30 billion in 2010 dollars in 2000 to about 194 billion in 2010. And unemployment benefits are only part of the picture. Section 8 housing benefits would grow 7.5% for the next year under the Obama budget proposal, from $26.6 billion to $28.6 billion. Food stamps spending would grow from $68 billion to $80 billion. Spending for all these measures has been fed by economic stagnation.

This increase in unemployment has also hit tax receipts. Government revenue fell from a high of 2.7 trillion (in 2010 dollars) in 2007 to 2.1 trillion in 2010. If tax receipts reached 2007′s levels, we would cut $600 billion from the deficit. A drop in the need for unemployment assistance could easily cut federal spending by at least $150 billion. That’s already about half of last year’s deficit taken care of without making a single cut to any program. (And those figures do not take into account other areas where unemployment has increased federal spending.)

The fastest, politically easiest way to reduce the deficit would be to restore the health of the labor market (which might be the same thing as saying that the fastest, easiest way to reduce the deficit would be to rub a lamp until a genie come out). This is not to say that there is not a cloud in the fiscal future of Medicare or Social Security, or that there is not waste in federal expenditures, or that making certain budget cuts would be a bad idea, or that taxes should not go up (it’s worth noting that we have had nowhere near a balanced budget since the Bush tax cuts passed). This is not even to say that there are no hard choices that face us in dealing with mounting debts. But the focus should be less on trying to shave off a billion here or there and more on getting the nation’s economic house in order so that it can get its fiscal house in order.

For the past few years, if not the past decade, the US has been in a period of economic stagnation. If the unemployment rate continues to hover around 9% and tax receipts do not go up through increased taxes, expect either more debt or a radically diminished standard of living or perhaps both. The government has been able to mask some of the effects of this stagnation through increased subsidies to the unemployed. We are borrowing to pay for that mask now. Perhaps the best strategy for the nation’s immediate fiscal future would be to make that mask unnecessary.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

What’s at Stake in the Filibuster Fight

January 4th, 2011 at 1:35 pm 8 Comments

Frustrated by the fact that Republicans were able to use the filibuster to block or temper numerous “progressive” power grabs during the first two years of the Obama administration, Senate Democrats, led by Tom Udall (NM), seem to be making a determined play to modify the filibuster. Meanwhile, Harry Reid is in negotiations with the Republican Senate leadership about some kind of compromise or deal about the filibuster. Brian Beutler at TPM has done some excellent reporting on this, though there is still much uncertainty about the actual movements. In 1975, Democrats changed the filibuster rules by using the controversial strategy of invoking the “Constitutional option,” one Udall and friends seem inclined to use when the Senate reconvenes later this week. This “option” would find that the Senate could modify its rules (including the filibuster) by a bare majority vote on the first day of the Congress. Normally, it takes 2/3 of the Senate to change the rules. Ironically, the reform of 1975, by requiring a 3/5 vote of the whole Senate to override a filibuster, actually made the filibuster stronger and helped it become more common.

Filibuster reformers have a few different options. Perhaps one of the more striking ones is requiring 41 votes to sustain a filibuster. As Beutler explains,

Here’s how they propose to change that. Under this plan, if 41 or more senators voted against the cloture motion to end debate, “then you would go into a period of extended debate, and dilatory motions would not be allowed,” Udall explained.

As long as a member is on hand to keep talking, that period of debate continues. But if they lapse, it’s over — cloture is invoked and, eventually, the issue gets an up-or-down majority vote.

This change would offer a radical shift in the burden of the filibuster, transferring it from the majority to the minority. There is something to be said for this reversal, but making the filibuster threshold 41 votes (instead of, say, one-third of the senators voting) would be a great weakening of the power of the minority.

Furthermore, Udall’s plan may provide a further weakening of the filibuster in that it seems to suggest that cloture never needs to be successfully invoked for a majority to override the minority; it only needs to wait that minority out. So 51 votes (or even fewer) could have greater power in the Senate.

Udall has a number of proposals floating around, but all have the same goal: weakening the power of the minority. Democrats have a smaller majority in 2011 than they did in 1975, but the caucus is also much more under the thrall of a “progressive” ideology as well. One of the key tenets of many self-styled “progressives” from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama is the importance of centralizing power. A bicameral legislature helps check this centralization, and the filibuster, by stressing the need for bipartisanship, further exasperates “progressives” eager to have government by monolithic ideology.

Some Republicans may think that, with the GOP controlling the House, the party would be insulated from any diminution of the filibuster—and that 2012 will bring Republicans to power in the Senate and the White House, so a weakening of the filibuster now would set the stage for a conservative empowerment shortly in the future.

This would be an incredibly short-sighted assumption. According to the conventional Washington narrative, Barack Obama went from being politically untouchable to being a political Untouchable in under two years. There’s no reason to think that that process can’t be reversed. It would be a foolish thing indeed to underestimate Obama’s political strength.

There are deeper structural issues at play as well. Republicans and Democrats will both have their time in the minority. Partisan alienation is never in short supply in our republic, and the traditions of the Senate that limit the power of smaller majorities help build a bipartisan consensus. Checks on small majorities (and that’s what the filibuster is, in part) incentivize cooperation and help keep the federal government from dissolving into wild swings as one temporary majority flips into another.

In the days ahead, a few questions remain. Perhaps the most prominent of them: Are the Democrats really serious about “reforming” the filibuster? True, Senate Democrats have almost unanimously signed off on a letter asking for some procedural changes in the next Congress, but there’s a lot of vagueness in that desire for change. While “progressive” netrooters salivate over ending the filibuster, numerous Senate Democrats approach this issue more as practical politicians and less as ideologues. Senators know that the filibuster can be a valuable tool when they are in the minority, and have an interest in keeping that tool. Democrats might be able to herald as a great victory some weakening of the (sometimes abused) power of anonymous holds. They might put on a good show of Senatorial kabuki, rile up activists, and leave things pretty much the way they are.

Or they might decide to make a real move against the filibuster. Republicans should fight any radical assaults upon the power of the minority. Under the current Democratic gameplan for attacking the filibuster, there are a lot of delays that Republicans can use to rally popular support in defense of the rights of the minority and the spirit of compromise. The “opening day” could presumably take “weeks” as Republicans demand debate on rules changes.

Moreover, this debate about Senate rules could put a hold of the Senate’s business. As a memo from one of Beutler’s sources states,

Reform Senators would need to object to any attempt to transact substantive business or seek a unanimous consent request to that effect. The objective is to ensure that the reformers do not waive any rights to amend Senate rules on opening day by majority vote.

The GOP could use this tactic to its advantage. After all, the Obama administration does have a number of pressing issues, especially the raising of the debt ceiling. How much patience will the public have with a seemingly unchastened Democratic party attempting to arrogate more power to itself instead of doing the nation’s business?

Having experienced a substantial setback in 2010, “progressives” are trying to reach for more power and undo checks on the power of future “progressive” forces. It remains to be seen whether Republicans and moderate-minded Democrats will allow them to succeed.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

How the Elites Blew It

November 2nd, 2010 at 4:30 pm 9 Comments

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama took the office of president with, it seemed, the wind of history at his back. Not even two years later, whispers and proclamations of a failed presidency abound. How did this happen? How have we come to the third “wave” election in a row?

This is the fourth part of a series. Click here for part 1.

Economic worry has partially (but only partially) contributed to the growing anxiety about elites in contemporary society. Pummeling the effigies of the elite has been a commonplace in US politics since at least the days of the Whiskey Rebellion. But panic over the elites has spiked in the past few years.

The crash was triply damaging to the current elite: it caused the American public to view its current elite as dishonest, avaricious, and (perhaps most damaging of all) incompetent. Before late 2008, many Americans suspected that their economic and political elite was far more concerned with profiting itself than profiting the nation as a whole; the near melt-down showed for many that the elite was even willing to profit itself by taking down the prosperity of the whole.

For many Americans, the crash, its aftermath, and, in retrospect, the years before the crash showed a triumph of mendacity. Even as many Americans view the elite as growing more insular (increasingly pedigreed, increasingly dismissive of middle-class concerns, increasingly self-protective), they also see this elite as incompetent at getting the real work—of business and of government—done. Say what you will about the titans of over a century ago, but their work enriched the nation as well as themselves. Rockefeller’s oil fueled the nation, while Carnegie’s steel provided an industrial backbone and Vanderbilt’s railroads knit together the nation. FDR and his Ivy League crew led the nation to triumph in World War II and created an enduring postwar diplomatic infrastructure.

The past decade has witnessed the spectacular failure of the governing class on many levels, from national security to international affairs to the economy. And yet the members within this class often seemed immune from any consequences of their failures. For example, consider the public image of Tim Geithner. He began serving as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in 2003. Yet his stewardship at ground zero of the investment nightmare of the 2000s did not result in his chastisement but his promotion to Secretary of the Treasury. Geithner’s tax problems suggest further aspect of anxieties over the elite: a sense that the elite uses its power to ensure that the rules will not apply to its members.

So American views of elites are conflicted. Even as many Americans worry about the growing power of elites within the system, they also fault the elites for weakening the whole (of government, of finance, of security).

This backdrop of anxiety and scorn is important for understanding the fate of Obama and, more broadly, “progressive” Democrats for the 2010 elections. One of the central principles of Obama’s vision of governance is the centralization of power. What was the Orszag/Obama gambit on healthcare but the assertion that a centralized bureaucracy in Washington could effectively set health policy for the nation as a whole, from the pediatrician’s office to the nursing home? Conveniently enough, this centralized power would fall into the hands of the credentialed elite, which would churn through and hand off power with an almost dynastic sense of inevitability.

Many of the “reforms” championed by Obama and his congressional allies would, while increasing the power of certain government bureaucrats, also offer further incentive for the rich and powerful to manipulate the decisions of these bureaucrats. Cap-and-trade would have created an army of interested parties and interested governmental adjudicators. Debates over bailouts and financial reforms have been saturated with the influence of corporate giants.

Since the passage of the new healthcare law, members of the Obama administration have threatened companies with the stick of regulatory retribution if these companies make undesirable claims about Obamacare while at the same time holding out the carrot of “waivers” from this law’s rules for certain politically favored entities. The passage of healthcare “reform” itself seemed to many Americans a display of bubble-like elitism, as members of Congress rushed and double-talked through a greatly unpopular measure.

Many Americans see in Obama’s “progressive” vision an increase in power for an elite that has used its power irresponsibly. Beyond his political appointments and his policies, some of Obama’s personal comments have only helped to identify him with some of the trends in politics that many Americans in the middle find so toxic. His infamous “bitter-clinger” comments of 2008 suggested a tendency to equate skeptics of certain “progressive” claims with backwards-looking bigots. Obama picked up on that theme in some recent comments, when he implied that opposition to his program is based on irrational fear rather than a reasonable disagreement or prudent doubt. Many Democrats and their allies have made this theme even more explicit.

That sort of argumentative tactic may seem one additional sign of the elite’s rapaciousness: in addition to demanding a greater and greater share of economic and political power, the elite also seeks to have a monopoly on setting the grounds of “correct” political discourse. It is perhaps no wonder, then, that many Americans feel shut out.

Worries about elitism are not just jealousy of people with big bank accounts and Ivy League diplomas or just proletariat resentment: they can also be legitimate concerns about how to maintain the United States as a free and fluid republic.

Consider the fact that a prominent New York Times columnist and Pulitzer-prize winner has numerous times dreamed about the virtue of having an absolute dictatorship (led, of course, by the noble and good—that is, those who agree with him), if only for a day. Consider the fact that what many “progressives” found so good about the Orszag-like medical review panels is that they would not be directly accountable to the democratic process. One need not invoke the specter of the “road to serfdom” to find these developments troubling.

A fundamental source of the contemporary anxiety about the elite is the deeper worry about the future of the American republic. Is there hope for economic progress? Will our nation have to accept a future of diminished expectations—for our security, our wealth, our health, our freedom? Can we defend deliberative democracy in the face of so many seeming obstacles? Can we remain a nation rich in our differences but also strong in our fellowship?

The political pendulum has swung back and forth over the past few cycles, as Americans look for a way forward. So far, it seems as though all the paths of seeming hope have become dead ends. And so these questions are asked with more and more urgency. And so passions broke forth into movements angry with the establishments of both political parties.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

O’Donnell’s Epic Ad Fail

November 2nd, 2010 at 12:57 am 7 Comments

I’ve been in contact with a source closely involved with Comcast Channel 28 who has given a fairly detailed timeline of the events about the Christine O’Donnell ad problems. A key detail about this story is that the company that O’Donnell contracted with to broadcast the ad (Positive Promotions) only supplies content to Channel 28; it does not have full control of the broadcasting technology. That will have important ramifications below.

So here’s the timeline:

Afternoon of Friday, October 29: Station is told to expect O’Donnell epic ad by 5:30 that day.

5:00 pm Friday: Station employees are told that they will not be receiving the epic ad until Saturday at 2.

Saturday: 3 ads and a 2-minute piece are delivered (which are available on the TV station website), but no epic ad.

Sunday: Told that epic ad would be done by 2 pm on Sunday.

9 pm Sunday: Epic ad is delivered. But it needs to be converted.

10:30 pm Sunday: Ad ready for broadcast. But it needs to be taken to the Comcast studio. Here’s where it runs into some serious problems. As the source relates:

…the employees running the show at Comcast do not have the time to take a show that arrives that close to airing with what they are already busy doing on Sunday nights. I believe there was a live taping at 11pm. The program needs to be loaded into the automated system, before it airs. The employees leave at or before midnight, and they are not legally obligated to [Positive Promotions] to load a program into the system before they leave. In fact, it is my understanding that programs should arrive 48 hours prior to airing, but they usually make exceptions for [Positive Promotions], but right before airing and before they want to leave is not one of them.

The source also relates that the Comcast studio employees do not begin to work until 3 pm on Monday, which explains why the Monday morning broadcast did not go forward (since the program wasn’t in the system, it couldn’t be broadcast).

The source emphasizes the O’Donnell people were warned about the consequences about submitting the epic ad late. The source also suggests that Positive Promotions was not required to post the shorter ads on their website but did so as an act of goodwill.

Based on this timeline (which no O’Donnell person has yet challenged), it would seem hard to accuse the employees of Positive Promotions of any grave misdeed or sinister conspiracy to destroy Christine O’Donnell. Of course, if anyone has any information to the contrary, they are welcome to come forward.

O’Donnell’s people now seem to be trying to smooth things over with Channel 28, which is now airing the epic ad.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.

The Middle Class Hits a Dead End

November 1st, 2010 at 6:59 am 28 Comments

On January 20, 2009, Barack Obama took the office of president with, it seemed, the wind of history at his back. Not even two years later, whispers and proclamations of a failed presidency abound. How did this happen? How have we come to the third “wave” election in a row?

Click here for part 1 and part 2 of this series.

One of the great undercurrents of contemporary politics is the growing sense of economic frustration or even despair among a broad swath of the American public.

Consider the perspective of many a worker. Your factory closes down and the work is shipped to another nation, where the company can pay subsistence wages. Suck it up; it’s the free market. You’re a tradesperson, whose wages have been radically cut by a massive influx of illegal immigrants. Suck it up; it’s the free market. You’re a customer service representative whose job is outsourced. Suck it up; it’s the free market. You’re a tech worker whose wages have stagnated due to a persistent application of H-1B visa policies. Suck it up; it’s the free market. (It is worth noting, of course, that many of these outcomes are not the result of the pure operations of the free market; many of them have occurred or at least been exacerbated due to selective government intervention in the market.)

But then, when a hedge fund or banking group risks faltering, the mantra from the same talking heads that ridiculed the economic difficulties of other workers suddenly changes. No longer can the free market have winners and (sometimes massive) losers. Now, it’s a CRISIS. Not giving bailed-out money managers multi-million dollars bonuses is now an affront to capitalism. Our future depends upon funneling billions and billions of dollars to the very same people who almost caused a nuclear meltdown in our economy.

The point here is not to dispute the value or even the necessity of the various bail-outs that took place in 2008: the point is that many Americans, who lack PhDs in economics and may not have a great interest in the details of high finance, notice a surprising difference in elite attitude when the financial fortunes of multi-millionaires and billionaires are at stake than when the middle class suffers. These workers might find it awfully convenient that the conventional highways of the middle class are being undermined by government action in the name of the “free market” or “competition” or “fairness” or whatever while the private jets of the financial elite are being built, fueled, and distributed by the government.

Adjusted for inflation, the median wages for both high school and college graduates have so far declined in the 2000s. The past forty years or so have not been relatively kind to the middle class: the annual income (adjusted for inflation) of the bottom 90% of Americans has only grown 10% since 1973. Meanwhile, the fortunes of the upper-upper-upper echelon have improved substantially.

And this high economic elite has seemed to show little sympathy for the economic losers of the past decade or so. Indeed, many of these elite have advocated or at least advanced the cause of lowering workers’ wages even more. One of the subthemes of elite defenses of illegal immigration is the belief that some jobs (such as farming, construction, childcare, food preparation, manufacturing, etc.) should not pay very much. The whole “jobs Americans won’t do” stance is predicated on the belief that such jobs should not pay middle-class wages.

The decimation of manufacturing has put further pressure on the middle and working classes. This decimation is not wholly due to automation; if it were, we would still be producing things like jeans and televisions and computer devices in the United States. Further embittering many Americans is the belief that many countries engage in a de facto trade war with the United States—or would engage in a trade war if the US had not already unilaterally disarmed with respect to its manufacturing trade policy.

Whatever some talking heads may say about the need to “reeducate” workers, the high-tech sector has never fully recovered from the early 2000s. Wages and hiring in many high-tech fields have stagnated. Often, the same people who lament the supposed dearth of high-tech domestic workers are themselves working day and night to decrease the incentive for US citizens to study high-tech fields by continually campaigning for more and more foreign-trained workers (and therefore lower wages in this sector).

Running into a seeming dead end in terms of jobs, the Bush administration backed into a novel strategy to create a nation of investors: turn the real estate market into a commodities trading floor. Using the infrastructure set up in the 1990s (including changes in tax laws, the powers of certain government-backed enterprises, and so forth), the federal government—including the Bush administration and many in Congress—began to inflate a real estate and investment bubble.

This bubble was predicated upon making it easier for people to get bigger mortgages. If the post-Y2K economy couldn’t increase the wages of the middle class, the government could at least increase the ability of the middle class (and upper class and poor) to get into debt. Bush and others assailed high down-payment requirements as a barrier to the economic advancement of the poor. Congressional Democrats attacked any attempt to rein in the excesses of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which contributed to the spending binge. Large financial organizations (with ties to both parties) pushed for the ability to leverage more and more debt and to create hocus-pocus investment instruments as a way of lining the pockets of an increasingly select few.

Unfortunately, an epidemic of speculation fueled by capacious borrowing is not a firm basis for a health economy. And so the crash came. Those who precipitated the crash were for the most part protected or promoted; the unconnected many were left with mountains of debt.

Barack Obama did indeed come into office facing tough economic circumstances. However, many Americans seem to be disappointed with his performance. Obama’s fixation on securing long-term “progressive” reforms (in areas such as healthcare) strikes many Americans not as just a distraction from the nation’s economic growth but outright harmful to it. For them, the first two years of the Obama administration have been more like the end of the Bush administration: more stagnation, more despair, more diminished expectations. The fact that Obama and Congressional Democrats chose to go it alone on the stimulus bill also meant that they had little bipartisan cover: the Democratic leadership had singular responsibility for the success or the failure of the stimulus. And, to many, our nation seems still stuck in the economy of debt rather than the economy of progress.

This economic despair is an important backdrop to the current backlash against “elites.” Many Americans are quite willing to accept growing economic inequality, but they will only do so if they feel like they are improving their own economic situations. The sense of economic stagnation only inflames conflicted anxieties about the elite.

Originally published at A Certain Enthusiasm.