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Yet another post on social security

Dean Baker once again takes on the folks who are calling for means testing Social Security:

Eduardo Porter had a piece this morning about how a group of academics on the left and right came together around a common agenda. It is worth briefly commenting on two of the items on which the “left” made concessions.

The first is agreeing that Social Security benefits for “affluent Americans” should be reduced. There are three major problems with this policy. The first is that “affluent Americans” don’t get very much Social Security. While it is possible to raise lots of money by increasing taxes on the richest 1–2 percent of the population, the rich don’t get much more in Social Security than anyone else. This means that if we want to get any significant amount of money from reducing the benefits for the affluent we would have to reduce benefits for people that almost no one would consider affluent. Even if we went as low as $40,000 as the income cutoff for lowering benefits, we would still only save a very limited amount of money.

The second problem is that reducing benefits based on income is equivalent to a large tax increase. To get any substantial amount of money through this route we would need to reduce benefits at a rate of something like 20 cents per dollar of additional income. This is equivalent to increasing the marginal tax rate by 20 percentage points. As conservatives like to point out, this gives people a strong incentive to evade the tax by hiding income and discourages them from working.

Finally, people have worked for these benefits. We could also reduce the interest payments that the wealthy receive on government bonds they hold. After all, they don’t need as much interest as middle-income people. However no one would suggest going this route since the government contracted to pay a given interest rate.

via Beat the Press

Dean has made this case before, and I’m sure he’s absolutely correct so far as his figures go. But I think he gives away too much by failing to note that, at bottom, the push for means testing Social Security (whether it involves cutting off the “affluent” altogether, or merely cutting their benefits to the bone) has nothing to do with saving money. Anyone from the “left” who believes that is what the right wing advocates are trying to do is, to put it simply, a dupe. The right plays the long game, and this is yet another instance. The point is to destroy the program, and this is part of the plan.

Social Security is a universal program. Everyone benefits from it, and except for the Pete Petersons (“It is not enough that they succeed, everyone else must fail”) of the world, everyone likes it, and is perfectly willing to let other people get benefits as long as they get theirs. Roosevelt understood this at the very beginning. Means testing is about driving a wedge between the politically more (relatively) powerful and those with no power at all. Once you means test it, it becomes a welfare system, and will be subjected to attack on that ground by the very people who advocated means testing in the first place. Imagine the field day they’d have pointing out to those they cut off the rolls that there’s money taken out of their paychecks every week that they will never see again, because it all goes to “those people”.

It’s good that Baker makes the case in pure dollar and cents terms, but it’s vitally important to call the right out on the actual motivation. That should really be front and center. This is not about saving social security, it is about destroying it, and it’s incumbent upon those of us on the left to make that argument forcibly and continuously. Now, you may argue that the actual motivation is so obvious it hardly needs mentioning. But remember, this is America, where someone named Cruz, Trump or Rubio may be the next president. We have a surplus of stupid in this country. The only way many people in this country “learn” anything is by hearing it repeated so often that they accept it as true.

McKesson running for Baltimore mayor

Bowdoin alum DeRay McKesson (of whom we left thinking Bowdoinites are very proud) is running for mayor of Baltimore. It’s a job I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but he apparently wants it. You can donate here.

Grifter’s goodbye

Back in August I drafted a post that I guess I never put up, since I can’t find it on the net. The thrust of it was that the Republican candidates, other than Trump, came in three basic flavors. Here’s how I described one of those flavors:

The second group are the grifters. These are the folks who also know that they can’t win the nomination and, if truth be told, are not at all interested in doing so. They are looking to improve their brands, and cash in over the course of the next four years. Huckabee and Carson are prime examples of this sort of candidate. I’ve written before (in fact I made this point during the last election cycle) that Sarah Palin made a big mistake in 2012 by not running for President. She hurt her brand and lost all ability to play the victim. Things are so bad for Sarah that she had to make her premium channel free for the ever dwindling number of people who care what she thinks ….wait, I’m at a loss here. What’s the word for what Sarah does inside her head before words are ejected from her mouth? Carly is a bit of an outlier in this group. She doesn’t expect to be president, and she’s not necessarily in it for the money, though after her stint at Hewlett Packard she’s not likely to get a job anywhere other than Fox. She’s running for Vice President, and will probably be nominated. If the Democrats were competent, her record at Hewlett Packard would then become common knowledge throughout the land. But campaign competence is not a Democratic strong suit.

We have now arrived at the stage of the campaign where this group drops by the wayside. Their work is done, having secured another four years of grift cred that they can take out on the road. Santorum has dropped out, in the process, boarding, and perhaps sinking the good ship Rubio. Ben Carson, the greatest grifter of them all, is apparently on the way out as well, but his work was monumental. It will be years before any grifter can beat his records. Consider this:

Carson’s big cutbacks are coming even though he raised more money than any other Republican. His problem is, as David Nir wrote:

Ben Carson’s campaign has been completely exposed as a grifty fraud: It spent millions more than it raised last quarter, mostly on scammy (and expensive) direct mail fundraising. Carson’s entire operation is irrelevant at this point, except to the people he’s ripped off.

via Daily Kos

But those people like being ripped off. They must, because they will surely come back for more. Carson is set for the next four years, and in the process of renewing his lease, he made tons of money during his campaign. Life is good for some people.

I forget, is Carly still in it? I used to think she was almost a sure thing for VP, but I think she’s sunk her chances even for that. I think she jumped the shark when she tweeted that she was rooting for Iowa against her alma mater, which should, by the way, be ashamed of itself on her account.

UPDATE: I guess I missed this. Huckabee is out too, so that’s one more grifter down.

Can’t miss, get rich quick scheme

Sent to me by a friend from California:

It’s not every day you can make money and perform a public service.

Trump field organizer totally blindsided

My heart is bleeding for this woman:

A former paid organizer for Donald J. Trump who was fired this month has accused his presidential campaign of sex discrimination.

Elizabeth Mae Davidson, 26, who was the Trump campaign’s field organizer here in Davenport, Iowa’s third-largest city, said in a discrimination complaint that men doing the same jobs were paid more and were allowed to plan and speak at rallies, while her requests to do so were ignored. She also said that when she and a young female volunteer met Mr. Trump at a rally last summer, he told them, “You guys could do a lot of damage,” referring to their looks.

The complaint was filed on Thursday with the Davenport Civil Rights Commission.

via The New York Times

Here she was, just trying to make the country great again by getting Donald Trump elected president. Who could have predicted that he would run a sexist campaign organization? Surely, she couldn’t have, because no self respecting woman would work for a self centered out and out misogynist, would she? Otherwise, you might almost say she got what she was wishing on all other women.

Seven Stages

Glenn Greenwald traces the Seven Stages of Establishment Backlash, demonstrated completely in the case of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, and in process here in the U.S. in the case of Bernie Sanders. Other than the numerical quantities, there isn’t much parallel with the Seven Stages of Grief, particularly at stage 7. In the case of grief, that stage is acceptance, in the case of backlash, as Greenwald explains it:

STAGE 7: Full-scale and unrestrained meltdown, panic, lashing-out, threats, recriminations, self-important foot-stomping, overt union with the Right, complete fury (I can no longer in good conscience support this party of misfits, terrorist-lovers, communists, and heathens).

That’s probably about right, and we have to hope that Sanders and his troops are ready to respond. When push comes to shove, the powers that be will be far more comfortable with Trump than Sanders, because they’ll ultimately conclude that Trump poses no real threat to what really matters (for them). It is disappointing to see that Krugman is among the Sanders bashers. He has every right to support Hillary, but it’s absolutely true that he is almost parodying himself when he says stuff like “as far as I can tell, every serious progressive policy expert on either health care or financial reform who has weighed in on the primary seems to lean Hillary.” This from the guy whose always going on about the “very serious people”. (See here, also)I doubt he’d choose Trump if it came to that, but it’s disappointing that he’s repeating his (more justified then, it turns out) performance of 2008. It’s hard to see, by the way, how anyone could believe that Hillary is better on financial reform, given that she’s fully embraced Obama’s non-action, and has suggested the typical incremental changes going forward. The economic blogs I’m reading are telling me that there’s a hard rain about to fall (just one example here), a storm that wouldn’t be threatening if we’d taken effective action in 2008. And I’m not talking communism or anything, assuming we can all agree that FDR wasn’t a communist.

Is that an echo?

I have to admit that I’m always gratified when I read something by someone who is basically saying the same things I’m saying, and sometimes I feel the need to pass these things along, for after all, if they are saying what I’m saying, they must be spouting profound thoughts indeed.

Today, I point the reader to this piece in Consortium News, the entirety of which is worth reading. Just a few of the points I’ve made that are echoed there:

  1. The media will, once they suspect Bernie may win, start comparing him to Donald Trump, despite the fact that his proposals are not at all radical. He will be accused as being as far left as the Republicans are to the right, i.e., equidistant from the mythical center, which the media keeps redefining.
  2. If you want to achieve something worthwhile, you have to push for it. You don’t get the full loaf if you make it clear you’ll settle for the crust.

A few out takes:

Elite media often blur distinctions between right-wing populism and progressive populism — as though there’s not all that much difference between appealing to xenophobia and racism on the one hand and appealing for social justice and humanistic solidarity on the other. Many journalists can’t resist lumping Trump and Sanders together as rabble-rousing outliers.

[David] Brooks warned that his current nightmare for the nation is in triplicate — President Trump, President Cruz or President Sanders. For Brooks, all three contenders appear to be about equally awful; Trump is “one of the most loathed men in American public life,” while “America has never elected a candidate maximally extreme from the political center, the way Sanders and Cruz are.”

That “political center” of power sustains huge income inequality, perpetual war, scant action on climate change and reflexive support for the latest unhinged escalation of the nuclear arms race. In other words, what C. Wright Mills called “crackpot realism.”

Meanwhile, liberal Times columnist Paul Krugman (whose idea of a good political time is Hillary Clinton) keeps propounding a stand-on-head formula for social change — a kind of trickle-down theory of political power, in which “happy dreams” must yield to “hard thinking,” a euphemism for crackpot realism.

An excellent rejoinder has come from former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. “Krugman doesn’t get it,” Reich wrote. “I’ve been in and around Washington for almost fifty years, including a stint in the cabinet, and I’ve learned that real change happens only when a substantial share of the American public is mobilized, organized, energized, and determined to make it happen.”

And Reich added: “Political ‘pragmatism’ may require accepting ‘half loaves’ — but the full loaf has to be large and bold enough in the first place to make the half loaf meaningful. That’s why the movement must aim high — toward a single-payer universal health, free public higher education, and busting up the biggest banks, for example.”

The momentum of the Sanders campaign will soon provoke a lot more corporate media attacks along the lines of a Chicago Tribune editorial that appeared in print on Monday. The newspaper editorialized that nomination of Trump, Cruz or Sanders “could be politically disastrous,” and it declared: “Wise heads in both parties are verging on panic.”

Well, of course anyone who takes David Brooks seriously is an ass, but there are a lot of asses out there. Krugman’s a different story, but recall that in 2008 too, he was in the “No, we can’t” school of thought as well.

Anyway, the fact that Norman Solomon, the author of the piece quoted, agrees with me doesn’t mean I’m right. But I am, and so is he.

The Moving Center

Riffing slightly on a few recent posts.

I can’t help but comment on the rapidity with which the “center”, as defined by our media, moves ineluctably to the right. This post at Hullabaloo, in which it is noted that the Times characterized the George Bush administration as from the “comparatively moderate” wing of the Republican Party got me thinking about the subject once again. The wording is not completely indefensible, for it’s quite true that the current crop of Republican candidates is largely a competition among a group of men (is Carly still in it?), each of whom is striving, in his own way, to prove that George Bush is not the worst we can do. Still, the use of the word “moderate” is peculiarly inapt. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to say that Cruz is simply even more extreme than Bush? Using the term “moderate”, even limited by the adjective “comparative” is yet another brick in the wall, so to speak. As the Republican Party moves ever rightward, the media obediently redefines the center, even though there is no evidence that the actual center in this country has moved much at all. On the issues, the American people are pretty much where they have been, and that would show up in the various state legislatures and in Congress, had not the majority’s will been gerrymandered into irrelevance. A corollary of this type of thinking is the following: the media will not acknowledge that it is defining the center to the right. It is also an axiom that both sides do it. Therefore, If the extreme on one end is ever more extreme, it follows as the night the day that the extreme on the other end is also ever more extreme, and to the same degree, massive evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Therefore, we can expect, if Sanders takes off, that he will be endlessly described as the left-wing version of Trump or Cruz, even though, despite his self description as a socialist, the policies he’s advocating are no different than were commonly supported by mainstream liberals in the 60s. As one small example, when JFK (and then LBJ) proposed Medicare, they went right for a single payer system. I may be wrong, but I don’t think there was ever any discussion of handing the system over to rent seeking insurance companies, as happened with Obamacare. That only happened later, when the Democrats caved to Republican demands for the money wasting “Medicare Advantage”.

On another framing issue, it appears that Elizabeth Warren has shut the door to a Clinton endorsement, at least while Sanders is still in the race. She gave a speech in the Senate and concluded with these words:

A new presidential election is upon us. The first votes will be cast in Iowa in just eleven days. Anyone who shrugs and claims that change is just too hard has crawled into bed with the billionaires who want to run this country like some private club.“

I think that aligns with the point I tried to make recently, that you can’t achieve progressive goals by pushing for incremental changes that inevitably bring you no closer to what you actually want. You might accept incremental change if that’s all you can get (and you won’t get much of that, if tiny change is your opening demand, see Obama, B, first 6 years in office), but you should never stop demanding the real thing. In the current context, Clinton is defining success as achieving minor adjustments to the status quo; Bernie is defining it far more broadly. I can understand the argument some make that we have to go with Clinton, because Bernie is a sure loser. I don’t agree, particularly if his opponent is Cruz, but I understand how someone can come to that conclusion. The unfortunate fact, in my opinion, is that we have no choice but to roll the dice. Give the billionaires four more years of country club living, and we may have lost the last opportunity to turn that club into a public course.

In politics, you can’t get what you won’t demand

If you read a range of left wing blogs you know that one of the knocks against Bernie Sanders is that, given the present makeup of Congress, there’s no way that he could get his proposals through even if he wins. It follows, therefore, as the night the day, that he shouldn’t be advocating for stuff like single payer.

This has been a Democratic mantra since time out of mind: don’t demand what you can’t deliver right now. It ignores the fact that if you don’t demand what you actually want, you will, almost as a matter of definition, never get it. Not now, and not some far off day in the future.

That’s not the way Republicans do things. They play the long game. They make demands that start off derided as loony and impossible to achieve. They repeat themselves over and over until whatever lie they are telling becomes conventional wisdom. After a number of years, lo and behold, they get what they want, be it the destruction of unions, a constitutional right to carry guns, or, most importantly, a transfer of wealth from the bottom 99.99% to the top .01%.

It’s probably true that we can’t get single payer, or free college tuition, from the Republican Congress we presently have. It is equally true that we will never get single payer, or free college tuition, if we never demand them. Hillary’s incremental changes are just another way of preserving the status quo.

The limits of our discourse

One of the better news sources out there is Consortium News, which gives an informed but dissenting view on current affairs, primarily focusing on foreign policy. The reporters know their stuff. When I read their pieces, I call to mind the few voices that dissented from the Iraq invasion that were allowed on traditional media; mostly to have their sanity questioned. Nowadays, the voices of dissent are just ignored.

The first amendment is alive and well in the United States, though the present Supreme Court has twisted it to accommodate the political preferences of the right wing judges (I can’t bring myself to call them “justices”, as that gives them too much credit), but the First Amendment does not confer any right to command an audience, nor should it. So it’s fairly easy for the corporate media to squelch dissenting views, or at least to prevent them from invading the DC bubble and contaminating the prevailing received wisdom, which, oddly enough to, is inevitably proven wrong.

Two recent cases in point from Consortium News, both of which involve topics that should be open to debate generally, but which will never be debated in the corporate media.

First, in an article written by Paul Pillar, a former CIA analyst, we learn that ISIS, at the mere mention of which we are all supposed to shake with fear, may very well be in decline. He points out that there are phases to successful insurgencies, the first being organization; the second involving terrorism and guerrilla warfare, and the third conventional warfare. He points out that ISIS attempted to compress the process; has already attempted conventional warfare; and after some initial successes is already being driven back. It is now reverting to the terrorist phase, a sign of desperation and decline:

As ISIS declines, it is likely to resort increasingly to international terrorism. It will do so for the same general reasons that other movements that have been pushed backward along the Maoist timeline have focused on terrorism. If one is not succeeding in large conventional operations, one relies more on smaller asymmetric ones.

In the case of ISIS, increased reliance on international terrorism should be all the more apparent in that it represents a departure from the group’s earlier focus — much different from the strategy of Al Qaeda — of concentrating on building and expanding its so-called caliphate. The terrorism will serve the purpose of demonstrating continued vitality of the group and keeping it on the mental maps of potential recruits.

We will need to recognize such a change in emphasis for what it is, as well as recognizing the reasons for it. There will be a tendency to equate more ISIS international terrorism with greater overall ISIS strength. Bowing to that tendency will be an error in analysis, and it will play into the hands of the group.

The decline of ISIS will be violent. The violence should be taken seriously and must be dealt with, but when a decline is occurring we nonetheless should understand that it is in fact a decline.

via Consortium News

In yet another article, reporter Robert Parry, who broke many of the Iran-Contra stories, notes that Hillary Clinton appears to believe that she can score points with the American electorate by claiming that Bernie Sanders “isn’t adequately committed to the positions of Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his American neocon acolytes.” He questions whether Clinton has made the right call. Inside the Beltway it is a given that the Israeli tail must wag the American dog, but he argues that it is not at all clear that the American people share that point of view.

You can take issue with the conclusions of either reporter, but the fact is that there are good reasons to believe that both Pillar and Parry are essentially right. The sad fact is that while you can find this stuff if you search long enough on the Internet, the arguments they are making will never penetrate into the corporate media, and thus will never penetrate into the corridors of power, or even into our political debate at election time (for, after all, who gets to ask questions at those debates). Besides the Iraq debacle, it reminds me of the debacle in a country that starts with “V”. The idea that the Vietnamese were mainly fighting against colonialism and that a country historically fearful of China would never voluntarily submit to Chinese domination (a prerequisite to becoming a member of the monolithic Communist menace) was given no credence during that long and fruitless war. In retrospect, of course, we know the dissenters were right.

The sad fact is that on too many issues, only one side is allowed to express itself in the corporate media or the corridors of power. Sometimes dissenting views break through. The Occupy Movement is often deemed a failure, but inequality remains an issue that the corporate media can’t avoid, even though they would prefer to do so. Of course, they certainly don’t want anything done to reverse the wholesale appropriation of the people’s wealth by the plutocrats; hence the certainty that attacks on Bernie Sanders will multiply beyond measure if he beats Clinton in Iowa. A man who is almost indistinguishable from the typical Democratic politician of the 60s will be branded a rabid radical, and were it to come down to a Sanders vs. Trump contest, we will be amazed to see how quickly our overlords get comfortable with the idea of a President Trump.