Tag Archives: Tea Party

Column: There has to be more than tax cuts

My latest column in The StarPhoenix.  I’ll add in some extra link later today but for now I need to get some work done for my other employer.

The Star Phoenix Since the end of the Super Bowl, I have been following the National Football League lockout and the litigation surrounding it. I have concluded that the hard-line owners and the players association leaders are the stupidest group of people not working in the National Hockey League’s front office.

That all changed last week, when both the Republicans and the Democrats started to talk openly about defaulting on the debt of the United States – something that seemed so preposterous that I thought I was reading a headline from News of the World.

Sadly it wasn’t. If a deal isn’t struck soon, the U.S. will default on debt – something that neither Canada nor most western nations have ever done – and it will cause economic chaos around the world, again. Why has it come to this? You can blame George W. Bush or Barack Obama, but this one rests with the Tea Party.

Almost everyone agrees that the U.S. budget has to be cut.

Incredibly, President Bush cut taxes at the start of his first term and then, while the world changed after the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. tax rate did not.

Rather than raise taxes to pay for wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Bush kept the rates low and borrowed, as if there were no tomorrow.

In case you haven’t taken time to think about how expensive wars can be, the U.S. spent $20.2 billion to provide air conditioning alone in Afghanistan and Iraq last year. By contrast, Canada’s massive Economic Action Plan had just $12 billion in new infrastructure spending.

On top of the wars, the Great Recession hit. Then, to control long-term health costs, Obama brought in health-care reform. It wasn’t universal care, but better than what Americans had. Suddenly people started talking about seceding from the union. Apparently helping people with their health problems is unconstitutional.

Somehow, out of all of this, the Tea Party was formed and has decided to fight raising the debt ceiling.

Conservative columnist David Brooks calls the Tea Party a "psychological protest," and I tend to agree. You would dismiss the partiers as wing nuts if they didn’t hold the balance of power.

In the 2010 midterm elections, the Tea Party was quite willing and able to defeat any Republican incumbent who compromised on increases to spending or taxes. The result is that Republican Congressmen know they will face a tough primary challenge from the right if they step out of line and compromise.

The result? A possible debt default.

What I find interesting about this is not the politics but the psychology. Tea Party supporters see taxes and government as evil: No tax increase can ever be justified.

I complain about taxes like everyone else. I howl every year when the mill rate goes up, but after 13 years of making weekly mortgage and property tax payments, my payments are now $130, up from $114 a week in 1998. Even if the city reduced its tax rate to the 1998 level, my gain would be about $15 a week. I cheered when the GST was lowered to five per cent from seven per cent, but I haven’t noticed the price go down on anything I have bought.

While I don’t especially like paying taxes, I also know they go toward making our city and our country a better place to live. Even the great icon of conservatism, Ronald Reagan, raised taxes when more revenue was needed. Brian Mulroney’s hated GST was a component that allowed the Chretien Liberals to balance the budget.

Yet to balance the budget the Tea Party demands only spending cuts, which will largely hurt the poor, rather than seeking to close tax loopholes for the rich. They propose gutting Medicare, which could hurt seniors across the nation.

It’s something you hear often and it boils down to: "If I can make it, so can everyone else." It’s based in a deep ignorance of the social, medical and geographic realities of how we are raised, the opportunities we are given or the geography we settle in. In Saskatchewan, where prosperity often has come because of the soil conditions of the homestead, we understand this.

Spending cuts are often deemed to be courageous and noble and at times they are. But so is ensuring the less fortunate are taken care of. We’ve always known that as a city and a province. I hope we won’t forget that, as others have.

Is Eric Cantor the House of Representatives Last Valuable Player

From James Fallows in The Atlantic

Last month I argued that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was doing more harm to the national interest, or at least doing so more noticeably, than any of his Republican or Democratic colleagues on Capitol Hill.

Events during the budget/debt-ceiling “negotiations” suggest that he was just getting started back then. By comparison with Cantor, Speaker John Boehner has shown a touching national-interest big-heartedness. Sen. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, no fan of bipartisan agreement, has at least based his hyper-complex “make the President do it” debt-ceiling scheme on the premise that the nation should not be forced into default — not even on a Democratic president’s watch.

But Cantor? As Jonathan Bernstein and Matthew Yglesias have pointed out, he has gone straight from the White House-Congressional negotiating sessions, prepared a slide show (you can see it here) purportedly based on their contents, and used it to encourage House Republicans to pocket all of the hypothetical concessions the Administration has discussed while making none of their own.

So why does this matter?

It’s easy to forget at times like these, but the whole ponderous U.S. political/governmental system is made of actual human beings, who — even as they respond to large-scale ideological, political, financial, and interest-group pressures — can still choose to behave better, or worse, in a given set of circumstances. And the difference between good and bad behavior can make a difference. (If JFK’s national security council had been much more hair-trigger and impatient during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or if Khrushchev had been, world history would have been different.)

And if a leading party in a very important set of negotiations has shown that he’ll walk right out of the “bargaining” room, release a distorted version of what has just been discussed, and use it to whip us his side to more demands, that makes a difference too. For the worse. The prospects for an agreement now are worse because of Rep. Cantor’s presence in them. That’s not because he’s a conservative — so, obviously, are Boehner and McConnell. It’s because he’s acting like a weasel.

Cutting our own wrists

Back in 2005 I saw a link to a review of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse on the New Yorker website. Malcolm Gladwell was telling the story of Norse settlers coming to Greenland a millennium ago and I found the story fascinating. Even to the Norse, Greenland was not a place that one would want to inhabit but on the southwest corner there are some Fjords that looked a lot like southern Norway and was a perfect place to settle so they got off the boats and set out to tame the land. For four hundred and fifty years they built two settlements, churches, traded with Europe and possibly even had a section of prime downtown real estate they couldn’t develop. They hunted seal, caribou and raised livestock and pets. Life was good and then one day it was all over. What happened?

Diamond’s book is full of stories of societal collapse. Easter Island, Mayans, and even the genocide in Rwanda but the Norse on is the one that I keep re-reading. Partly because I am part Norwegian but partly because I keep seeing those settlement’s demise being played out again and again today.

What happened in Greenland is what happened in most of the societies that Diamond looks at. The ecosystem was too fragile to support the population. The trees were chopped down for fuel, the soil erodes, the crops fail and society has to leave or ends up dying. He tells essentially the same story over and over again. Greenland wasn’t as green as the Norse thought it was and the same thing happened to them.

What is so odd about this chapter is that within feet of their shore is some of the best fishing grounds in the world. Diamond describes running into a tourist who had caught two Arctic Char with her bare hands so why did they not fish. For years archeologists have looked for the fish bones and no one has ever found them. They found tons of trash fully of garbage and livestock bones. When the pastures couldn’t support the cattle, the Norse ate the cattle, then their young (right down to the hoofs), and even their pets while ignoring a massive food supply right that was within feet of them. You could argue that maybe the Norse didn’t know any better but there was Inuit there but the Norse looked down at the Inuit and their hunting practices that probably would have saved their lives.

What does this have to do with today? Until last week I wasn’t that preoccupied with the U.S. debt ceiling. To be honest I was much more preoccupied with the NFL lockout. It never occurred to me that American politicians would allow the U.S. government to default on its debt. As the rhetoric flew in Washington, I realized it all sounded familiar. This isn’t about economics; this is about the survival of ideologies and political parties. In the same way the Norse wouldn’t fish, intermarry with the Inuit or even copy their ways of life because they were ranchers and because of cultural status, Republicans can’t make a deal because they can’t be seen raising taxes or Democrats can’t been seen cutting Social Security or Medicare. Michele Bachmann can’t compromise because that would alienate the Tea Party. John Boehner can’t compromise because then he looks weak. Obama can’t compromise or he’ll upset his base. They may push the United States into another recession but they won’t have compromised on their values.  It’s a pile of crap and the rest of the world in this case pays for it.

This is what bothers me about ideological arguments, they ignore the cost to people along the way.  Real leaders are not ideologues.  They are pragmatists who are capable of making hard decisions that go against their base.  In Saskatchewan how popular do you think it was for the NDP when they closed rural hospitals or cut the public sector in their efforts to reign in the Saskatchewan deficit?  In Alberta during the same time Ralph Klein instituted user fees on healthcare.  How popular were the Chretien budget cuts and austerity of the 1990s with Liberals.  So much for the short term vision of a just society.  While the Saskatchewan Party says it is a party of free market principles, they dug in (with the support of the NDP) to help save PotashCorp (an American company that for some reason we could not handle being taken over by an Australian company because that would be wrong for some reason).  Leaders decide to go fishing from time to time.  They also know they need to raise taxes to pay for a war in Afghanistan and Iraq, no matter what it does to their presidential aspirations or how much it hurts their base.

So why didn’t the Norse settlements eat Arctic Char (apparently it’s quite tasty, similar to rainbow trout)?  Because they were so concerned with the survival of their northern European culture, a culture of churches, cattle, and trade that they never could see there was an alternative way to act.  Why is the United States about to walk into financial Armageddon because Republican’s don’t raise taxes and Democrats don’t cut entitlements and they are both too stupid to realize that this polarization can’t continue.

As Gladwell points out,

The lesson of "Collapse" is that societies, as often as not, aren’t murdered. They commit suicide: they slit their wrists and then, in the course of many decades, stand by passively and watch themselves bleed to death.

I think I see blood on the floor.

The thinking that is behind the Tea Party

Fascinating interview with former G.O.P. Representative Bob Inglis (who lost a primary run off to a tea party candidate) in the 2010 mid-term election.

It was the middle of a tough primary contest, and Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) had convened a small meeting with donors who had contributed thousands of dollars to his previous campaigns. But this year, as Inglis faced a challenge from tea party-backed Republican candidates claiming Inglis wasn’t sufficiently conservative, these donors hadn’t ponied up. Inglis’ task: Get them back on the team. "They were upset with me," Inglis recalls. "They are all Glenn Beck watchers." About 90 minutes into the meeting, as he remembers it, "They say, ‘Bob, what don’t you get? Barack Obama is a socialist, communist Marxist who wants to destroy the American economy so he can take over as dictator. Health care is part of that. And he wants to open up the Mexican border and turn [the US] into a Muslim nation.’" Inglis didn’t know how to respond.

It was a tough primary campaign according to Inglis

During his primary campaign, Inglis repeatedly encountered enraged conservatives whom he couldn’t—or wouldn’t—satisfy. Shortly before the runoff primary election, Inglis met with about a dozen tea party activists at the modest ranch-style home of one of them. Here’s what took place:

I sat down, and they said on the back of your Social Security card, there’s a number. That number indicates the bank that bought you when you were born based on a projection of your life’s earnings, and you are collateral. We are all collateral for the banks. I have this look like, "What the heck are you talking about?" I’m trying to hide that look and look clueless. I figured clueless was better than argumentative. So they said, "You don’t know this?! You are a member of Congress, and you don’t know this?!" And I said, "Please forgive me. I’m just ignorant of these things." And then of course, it turned into something about the Federal Reserve and the Bilderbergers and all that stuff. And now you have the feeling of anti-Semitism here coming in, mixing in. Wow.

Later, Inglis mentioned this meeting to another House member: "He said, ‘You mean you sat there for more than 10 minutes?’ I said, ‘Well, I had to. We were between primary and runoff.’ I had a two-week runoff. Oh my goodness. How do you…" Inglis trails off, shaking his head.

What drives the Tea Party?

When he returned to the House in 2005, Inglis, though still a conservative, was more focused on policy solutions than ideological battle. After Obama entered the White House, Inglis worked up a piece of campaign literature—in the form of a cardboard coaster that flipped open—that noted that Republicans should collaborate (not compromise) with Democrats to produce workable policies. "America’s looking for solutions, not wedges," it read. He met with almost every member of the House Republican caucus to make his pitch: "What we needed to be is the adults who say absolutely we will work with [the new president]."

Instead, he remarks, his party turned toward demagoguery. Inglis lists the examples: falsely claiming Obama’s health care overhaul included "death panels," raising questions about Obama’s birthplace, calling the president a socialist, and maintaining that the Community Reinvestment Act was a major factor of the financial meltdown. "CRA," Inglis says, "has been around for decades. How could it suddenly create this problem? You see how that has other things worked into it?" Racism? "Yes," Inglis says.

As an example of both the GOP pandering to right-wing voters and conservative talk show hosts undercutting sensible policymaking, Inglis points to climate change. Fossil fuels, he notes, get a free ride because they’re "negative externalities"—that is, pollution and the effects of climate change—"are not recognized" in the market. Sitting in front of a wall-sized poster touting clean technology centers in South Carolina, Inglis says that conservatives "should be the ones screaming. This is a conservative concept: accountability. This is biblical law: you cannot do on your property what harms your neighbor’s property." Which is why he supports placing a price on carbon—and forcing polluters to cover it.

Asked why conservatives and Republicans have demonized the issue of climate change and clean energy, Inglis replies, "I wish I knew; then maybe I wouldn’t have lost my election." He points out that some conservatives believe that any issue affecting the Earth is "the province of God and will not be affected by human activity. If you talk about the challenge of sustainability of the Earth’s systems, it’s an affront to that theological view."

I remember reading a study on why people voted the way they did in 1999.  It was the most messed up thing I had ever seen.  It literally made sense.  They voted against Gore because of the amount of rain they did or didn’t get that year.  They voted for Bush because of things that he or any other federal politician had nothing to do with.  It wasn’t just some hick in West Virginia either, it was hundreds of thousands of votes on these bizarre issues.  Sadly reading stories of racism and anti-Semitism doesn’t surprise me.  What a mess for Barack Obama and moderate Republicans to deal with.