Some People Just Want to Watch the World Burn

by E.C. Gach

So by now, most of you know about Mike Lofgren’s piece in Truthout (if not you can find it here).

E.D. Kain applauded it but Tod Kelly pushed back and then clarified:

“Where I disagree with Lofgren, Erik, and frankly most other people I know is this whole idea that the GOP today is apocalyptic, scary, or really even anything new and different.  And while I think that the party is far worse than its counterpart today, I think this is largely due to its current circumstances and don’t think it worse than its counterpart has been in the past.”

Kelly’s basic point is that, no matter how radicalized the Republican Party is right now, we shouldn’t jump to hyperbolic conclusions that proclaim this to be a fundamentally new shift in American politics. Most things that come along aren’t new, so Kelly’s skepticism is prudent. But stretch any timeline over a long enough period and the local extremes naturally moderate. Wars, civil unrest, and technological breakthroughs don’t appear as dramatic when looked at in terms of a whole century or millennia perspective, no matter how radical things might have been at the time.

And then there’s the tendency to view history through a deterministic lens. On the one hand, much of the U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War now, from the vantage of 2011, appears to have exaggerated the threat of communism and the autocratic regimes that championed it. Yet had just one exchange of nuclear weapons occurred, our interpretation of the entire period would be different. And there’s no reason to think that just because an exchange didn’t in fact occur, such an outcome was necessarily precluded by circumstances at the time. Things could always have been different.

Thus, while prudent, Kelly’s skepticism runs the risk of overlooking the importance of radical shifts. Even if they have occurred before, and even if over the long run these shifts will balance out, there’s no reason to think something dramatic, and possibly disastrous, can’t happen in the short term.

The radicalization of the GOP is evident in their willingness to sacrifice political popularity by threatening default, take advantage of a weak Presidency by running dismal, B-team candidates, and oppose middle class tax cuts for the sake of, well, who knows. Is this how a sane GOP takes back control of the federal government? Actually, this is how a rogue party demonstrates its irrationality through repeated attempts to harm themselves and others. And though the Republican Party is crazy right now, they have message, and this message is derailing Congress and the prospect of effective governance to an unusually dangerous degree.

Using the votes of the many to deregulate and protect the wealth of a few only makes the grand GOP electoral strategy that much more insidious. Admittedly, that’s been the name of the game for a while. Pit private sector workers against public unionized ones and watch the working class undermine itself while the plutocrats divide and conquer. Nothing new here, except that the economy is looking really, really grim. Maybe not by historical standards, but certainly by recent ones. American’s care about their level of prosperity when compared to their neighbor and to yesterday. If things are getting better and they feel on par with the folks next door, it’s Morning in America. If the economy is getting worse and they also feel like they’re falling behind relative to the top, then times are really bad. And there’s plenty of evidence for why this recovery is just different.

Then there’s the situation that Lofgren describes: fewer and fewer Americans trust their national political institutions to put the country on the right track, and one of the two parties has found a formula for gaining support while eschewing responsibility. There is a broad portion of the electorate who hates government in the abstract but likes it in the particular, disapproves of Congress on the whole but thinks their Representative is doing a good job, and thinks Obama is a poor leader despite liking him as a person.

This schizophrenia can actually be a powerful tool, and has been, when channeled using GOP tactics and rhetoric. This is how Republicans can rule the House while Obama is held accountable for the economy. In part, this incentive to scapegoat flows naturally from America’s unique flavor of divided presidential democracy. But it’s been accelerating in part because of increasing polarization on two fronts. On the legislative end, Congressional districts are more politically safe then ever. For Democrats, this radicalizing mechanism is partly offset by an apparent preference for compromise, but also because of the disparate groups that make up that party’s ruling coalition. Republicans on the other hand, have little structural factors to prevent them from racing to the right during the ever expanding primary campaign season.

On the side of the American electorate, the commercialization and overall failure of the mainstream media has left a vacuum that’s been filled by partisan editorial and closed epistemic feedback loops. The result is an ill-informed public that lacks a strong objective reality. Elections are won by getting people out to vote rather than persuading them to follow a particular policy agenda. Journalists still talk about the “Center” as if it is an active force in American politics. The center doesn’t vote and is easily confused. Republicans know this, which is why they focus on energizing the base rather than debating policy. As a former Congressional staffer who wrote into James Fallows noted:

“One thing that especially resonated with me about Mike’s piece is the importance of "low information" voters. The mainstream media absolutely fails to understand how little attention average Americans really pay to what goes on in all forms of government. During our 2008 race, our pollster taught me (hard to believe it took me 24 years to learn this) that the average voter spends only 5 minutes thinking about for whom to vote for Congress. All the millions of dollars of TV ads, all the thousands of robo-calls and door-knocks, and it all comes down to having a message that will stick in the voters’ minds during the 5 minutes before they walk into the voting booth.”

The GOP is just better at this style of politics. Presidential elections might be about “hope” and the future, but Congressional elections are based on fear. Mid-term elections are overwhelmingly decided by older voters and tend to turn on fear of the other, fear of losing entitlements, or some combination of the two (like the prevalent belief that Social Security is being used up by illegal immigrants and disability abusers).

Republicans don’t have to offer a coherent policy plan because Congressional politics is increasingly more about perception than governance. And the cynical strategy of defaming the federal government may just be about winning elections, but the collateral damage is real. The problem with the GOP’s parasitic campaign against all things Washington D.C. is that they have gone beyond demonizing its flaws and excesses to defaming the institutions and the people who are associated with them. If you work for the government you are part of the problem (unless, of course, you are part of the military or local police and fire departments). This isn’t “starve the beast,” it’s anti-government nihilism; faithfully on message and fundamentally paradoxical. Imagine a program with the purpose of deleting itself, thus repetitiously chasing its own tail with the aim of self-annihilation. That’s the Republican Party of the moment in a nutshell.

How else to account for public sentiment over the past few years? Rather than a wave of economic populism following the banking crisis, a significant portion of the electorate flocked to the defense of private enterprise and corporate job creators. So distrustful of their own political institutions and elected representatives, of one another and themselves, a large swathe of America drank the supply-side Kool-Aid and wants to save the economy by first letting the business pillage the remains.

Fallows reader also wrote:

“Privately, many of us who have worked in Congress since before the Clinton Administration have been complaining about the loss of the respect for the institution by the Members who were elected to serve their constituents through the institution. I don’t think people realize how fragile democracy really is. The 2012 campaign is currently looking to be the final nail in the coffin unless people start to understand what is going on.”

We’ve heard this line often enough now. Moderates, centrists, and Broderian compromisers complain about Congressional incivility while partisans and political historians remind us that it’s always been that way. But while in the past it was only the individual political parties that won or lost in Congressional squabbles, it’s now the legislative system that threatens to implode.

That doesn’t mean an implosion will occur tomorrow, this election cycle, or even the next. Beyond that though, I don’t see how the national problems, many of which have been around for decades, are going to be resolved in some moment of high, Henry Clay style statesmanship. The country faces real challenges, is at the very least in “relative” decline, and is coming to the realization that there’s no money left to spend our way out, or even afford the status quo.

One in three people slips out of the American middle class when they reach adulthood. “Climate change is real and it’s heating up.” And the economic prospects for recent college graduates are still sluggish, not to mention for those with only a high school diploma, whose financial future is as bleak as ever. In response to these challenges, the Republican answer is to burn down the American experiment and wait for social prosperity to arise from the ashes. Kelly may be right that in the future we look back at this period in the natural ebb and flow of American politics. But in the near term the process is breaking down, and outside of having faith in the resiliency of the system, there’s little to indicate that this unraveling is going to reverse anytime soon.

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102 thoughts on “Some People Just Want to Watch the World Burn

  1. re:
    “And there’s no reason to think that just because an exchange didn’t in fact occur, such an outcome was necessarily precluded by circumstances at the time. Things could always have been different.”

    Game Theory suggests that in a reasonably trusting relationship, a 30 minute window remains adequate to shout “Did you just launch all your nukes at us???” without need to retaliate.

    This at least suggests that any interchange of nuclear weapons would be intentional and deliberate.

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  2. I’m not sure if this place is taking a hard Left turn or just a complete anti-GOP approach to politics If it’s the latter, this doesn’t make sense when you take the actions of both parties into account. I fail to see where cronyism, militarism, civil liberty violations or social engineering have been charateristics of just the Republican Party. This recent hyperbolic GOP trashing is not credible or balanced, therefore it comes across as talking points — the attacks are cliches rather than substantive and nuanced. Certainly there’s some understanding of some GOP’s positions, and that their opposition is not totally cynical and misguided. As much as I think the Democrat Party has become an interventionist disaster in the economy, I have sympathy with the basic ideas of civil liberties and social issues regarding poverty. I think the Dem Party has been too resistant to re-evaluating the welfare state and accepting innovation regarding poverty issues, but I don’t think they are all cynical dolts. I just don’t understand the absolute denigration of the GOP and TP as if they are non-human, monsters out to destroy the poor and middle class.

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    • Write up a guest post on the subject and submit it old boy. I have no doubt it’d be aired. To paraphrase the ever quotable Jaybird, be the balance you say is missing. I certainly use your writings at bonzai as my right wing GOP-libertarian ballast (Freddie’s your left wing counterpart in my warped internet world).

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    • … it would help if you actually knew ’em. Then we could discuss the differences between the Tea Party, and its backers, in terms of both morality and sociopathy.

      Cronyism as seen in Bush’s DoJ hasn’t been seen this CENTURY, from either party. I haven’t seen so many honest Republicans crying themselves to sleep about being unable to do their jobs… since I don’t know when. Hell, the CIA wanted Clinton Back! And they hated Clinton.

      I’ll drop my cents about the problems with Obama’s DoJ some other time. But they’re significant, and diametrically opposite to those of bush (and i don’t mean dem cronyism!)

      Republicons are welcome to register their disagreement. [You’ll get called your party’s name, when you will use the actual name of the Democratic party. namecalling may be childish, but I’m doing it to prove a point.]

      The Tea Party’s backers do plan to reduce the middle class to poverty, in order to retain the riches that they’ve gained during the last fiscal collapse. I don’t think it will WORK, mind, but I do know their plans.

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      • Re the cronyism in the twenth century you had the able and great president Warren G Harding who let his cronies make money teapot dome and the like. In the 19th you had US Grants cronies both of who echoed Pope Julius II who I believe said We have been made pope let us make the most of it.
        Note the tea party is partly a reaction to the elite telling folks how to live and not listening to how they want to live, as the elite believe they know better. (And of course fly around in private Jets as well) This ranges from the love of urban environments etc. Read the recent dust ups on lemonade stands and the controversies about Food Trucks and local politicians protecting incumbent restaraunts. (Actually if I were directing things I would say to a lot run for city council, and abolish municipal regulations, for example anyone who meets some standard can run a cab.) At the state level reduce the number of positions that need licenses, such as the rule recently overturned that monks could not make coffins in LA because they were not funeral directors.

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        • Anecdotal cases about children’s lemonade stands only cheapen the need for legitimate reform.

          See Erik’s post from earlier today. Is the capitalist energy of restaurants, lemonade stands and cabbies really what needs to be unleashed? I’m all for smart reforms, but for every stupid regulation, there’s 10 other that make sense and protect public health and saftey.

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    • I can appreciate that sentiment M. My natural inclination is to be a bit outraged, but the tone should really be more tragic. To the degree that any of the assertions or connections I make are true, I don’t mean that to lay blame at anyone’s feet. I think the GOP is “responsible” in a cause and effect way, not that they specifically malicious or blameworthy.

      I think in part, that’s why I want to highlight some structural reasons for not only why I think it’s specifically Republican tactics that are undermining the political process, but why the current state of things also incentivizes this sort of behavior.

      One could imagine a wave of Democratic demoguagery against small business and corporations, undermining their credibility and capacity to the point of ruining one of the pillars that is fundamental to American success. We’re not at that point though currently.

      And though I agree with Tod Kelly that, especially in a two-party system, the pendulum will swing back, and the balance will return and then go the other way, my fear is that at one of these “swings” of the pendulum could be especially dramatic.

      This current swing, fueled by GOP rhetoric, to distrust and deamonize government (another fundamental pillar of American success) seems at present at least, to be where the danger exists.

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    • Mike, I think our leadership senses what’s coming…a complete repudiation of the derailed ideas.
      Actually it may be more than that, it may be one of those seminal political moments when the American people realize what the Left is and finally acts, maybe for a generation.
      You’re right there’s an aire of frustration, angst, and hostility that’s running through many of the blogs posted, that are just fascinating, and fun to read. It’s kind-a like the Fuhrer’s bunker, late April, ’45. And, Barry just keeps fishing up, and fishing up!

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  3. Several points:

    1. Radicalism is usually moderated by history because it is opposed with equal and opposite radicalism.

    2. I find myself in the awkward position of defending the Republican Party here. I think it’s far more likely that the incentives structure is all screwed up and what we’re seeing isn’t any calculated irrationality but just an emergent property of a system that needs to be cleaned up.

    3. “The center doesn’t vote and is easily confused.” I disagree with this as well. The center usually votes for whoever it thinks will screw up its non-political indifferent lives the least. This is virtuous I think.

    4. “Imagine a program with the purpose of deleting itself, thus repetitiously chasing its own tail with the aim of self-annihilation. That’s the Republican Party of the moment in a nutshell.” – If this were true of the Republican Party, I’d be an unabashed Republican partisan, only the last ten years of Republican politics suggest otherwise. If I didn’t think Republicans were going to cut valuable services to the poor before tax breaks and structural benefits for the rich then I’d vote for small government in a heart beat.

    “We’ve heard this line often enough now. Moderates, centrists, and Broderian compromisers complain about Congressional incivility while partisans and political historians remind us that it’s always been that way.” – Which brings me to my central criticism of this piece: what’s changed is the scope of the game. Government – not my team or your team – is the problem. Decision-making power concentrated in few (too human) hands is what’s different this time around and why circumstances are so dire.

    Systemic risk.

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    • … a systemic risk that the Democrats don’t have, at the moment. When your sole source of information is your priest, that’s a lot different from hearing from all your backers and taking all their views into consideration.
      single points of failure are different from aggregations of multiple points of failure, even if they look similar.

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          • Increased prosecutions of government whistleblowers?
            Increased targeted killings with drones?
            Increased prosecution of medical marijuana distributors in states where it is legal?
            Are those not executive decisions? Where is he significantly better than Bush?

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            • I’m going to go out on a limb and say that no one in Obama’s DoJ has been fired for being a Republican — explicitly, in those terms.
              Obama has put good people in charge of most positions, and isn’t biasing everything towards a “Democratic” slant.
              And Obama’s DoJ doesn’t explicitly fail to do its job, so that corporations can run amuck (the other way, however… your point is well taken about whistleblowers).

              So, in short, as an administrator, he is heads and shoulders better than Bush.

              (didn’t know that one about marijauan distros, actually…)

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              • Fair enough . . . he isn’t actively evil in his management of DOJ and he has nominated some decent folks. So better than Bush. (I’m pretty sure Bush would have given the OK to killing Osama as well . . . ) At the same time he has no problem taking us into, err, kinetic military action without Congressional approval despite the advice of the Attorney General. I.e. he isn’t exactly humble about the limits of executive power (similar to W).
                To be fair to O – I think much of it has more to do with institutional inertia than his personal failings (esp. on the drug war). He has to pick where he spends his time and political capital. But in this sense I agree with Christopher Carrs comment that the problem is the systemic risk of having a large government regardless of who is in charge.

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    • I agree with 2 very much. I find a lot of Republican politics revolting but it is not helpful to claim that the cause is that Republican politicians/voters have suddenly become evil/stupid. We have to look for how and why the system is selecting and rewarding what seem to be negative outcomes and fix the system. Cyclical throwing out of the bums clearly does not work, we just keep getting more bums because the system we built selects for bums and/or creates incentives where the most logical course of action is to be a bum.

      Where I disagree is that the scope of government is the pivotal factor. If that were the case, we’d see similar problems in the rest of Western Europe where governments are even larger. Yet, we really don’t. I find more persuasive the school of thought that the pivotal changes were first the political re-alignments that came from the Civil Rights Act and the end of the Cold War.

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      • Plinko – You’re comparison with W. European countries is interesting. What we have here, I think, is a mismatch between scope and design. In another post at this sight Gach wrote about the advantage of a parliamentary system. I contend that for a large scope National government, a parliamentary system is preferable. But we are trying to run a large scale, national government in a system designed for a small-scoped federal government. It’s not surprising that we have systemic problems.

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        • “But we are trying to run a large scale, national government in a system designed for a small-scoped federal government.” – Very well put. A parliamentary system allows for more nuanced representation and so it can grow larger without taking on systemic risk. Ours, which I personally prefer to a parliamentary system provided it stays within the scope it was designed to stay within, cannot grow as large as it is today without becoming the two-headed monster we all hate but are powerless to stop.

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    • “Which brings me to my central criticism of this piece: what’s changed is the scope of the game. Government – not my team or your team – is the problem. Decision-making power concentrated in few (too human) hands is what’s different this time around and why circumstances are so dire.”

      I have to disagree with this as a point that refutes this piece. You cannot say that government is at fault without first realizing that the government is that whim of a two party system. A system that has become more contentious since the powers of each party became more equal (Democrats had a vast majority till the 80s/90s in congress) we can say is to blame, but the actors in that system can be worse or better towards its operation. The mentality that our party is only going to win if we steer and control the boat is the problem. It is certainly a relevant point that our current power in government is in the hands of fewer people and central (especially in terms of parties). Yet, that is because one party has made it there objective to try and control the entire game and not work together. Instead of working together one party has decided to attempt to destroy the other for control.

      We can sit here and say the problem is systemic, but these parties create and control the system. If one party creates or maintains a system we don’t agree with its the parties fault because contrary to your point, they are not zombies or mindless individuals subject to the entire whims of the system.

      Thus, it is valid to both repudiate the party and the system without one excusing the other for its actions.

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    • Chris, did you read where I wrote about how the current state of electoral politics incentivizes their behavior?

      The point isn’t to blame Republicans, though they should be responsible for their actions in part, no matter what mechanisms are controlling them, it’s to note that due to a number of factors the GOP is going down a dark road that may, because of the unique economic and social moment, actually do some lasting damage to the political system.

      I do think there are problems with the system, and they should be addressed, but you’re not going to do that with an obstructionist GOP calling the shots.

      That’s why I’m of half a mind to hasten their return to power, so that their recent nihilistic turn can run it’s course as soon as possible.

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  4. Lofgren writes:
    “where is the popular anger directed, at least as depicted in the media? At “Washington spending” – which has increased primarily to provide unemployment compensation, food stamps and Medicaid to those economically damaged by the previous decade’s corporate saturnalia.”

    Really? Spending has increased primarily to help those in need? I would be thrilled to be proved wrong, but it appears to me that most of the increased spending has gone to bailing out banks and on corporate welfare. The leftover money that actually flows to the needy is a benefit to both parties: so Dems can support it and Repubs can oppose it. Everybody wins!

    I agree with Tod Kelly’s original take that what we’re seeing here is not entirely new: both political parties will say and (if really necessary) act how they need to to stay in power (at least that’s what I thought he was saying). Although the GOP’s rhetoric and tactics are particularly loathsome, they are simply doing what they do best: trying to tap into what will get them votes and allow them to gain power.

    I also find goofy the notion of Lofgren’s 1890’s farmer who knew exactly “which economic interests were shafting him.” Yes! What we need is more voters who push for the government to interfere in the economy to protect their special interests. Tariffs all around. Similarly, we are informed above of the tragedy of the voter who spends 5 minutes educating himself on his vote. There are some of us who dream for a world where politics is inconsequential enough to our daily lives that 5 minutes would be more than sufficient time to spend on a congressional election.

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  5. In response to these challenges, the Republican answer is to burn down the American experiment

    Can you explain what the phrase “American experiment” means in this context? You seem to insisting that a particular slice of Americ’a political history is synonymous with the “American experiment.” In addition to disagreeing with that claim, I would add that what you are really doing- much like many of our modern progressives- is taking a reactionary stance to any effort to cut back on the expansion of the Federal Government. Insisting that any effort to do so is some act for which the proponents must apologize as they are sinners against the American Experiment.

    Accordingly, I guess my ultimate question would be, of the two parties, which side is the conservative one again?

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    • No one party does, or should, encapsulate a complete conservative or liberal philosophy. Idealy, and I think in practice, both parties exhibit both tendencies.

      Cutting back on the expansion of government is one thing. But it’s not the same thing as defaming and delegitimzing the institution. Urging that governemnt shrink or play a lesser role in public life because that’s how government could be more effective and our society more prosperous is different from opposing “government” at ever turn.

      By American experiment I mean the country’s political institutions and civic compact. Republicans aren’t just saying that government does bad things, they are saying that everything the government touches (with the noted caveats) withers and dies.

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  6. Spending has increased primarily to help those in need? I would be thrilled to be proved wrong, but it appears to me that most of the increased spending has gone to bailing out banks and on corporate welfare.

    This is only true if you limit it to FY2009 alone. The overall net effect on spending from the bank and auto bailouts has turned out to be minimal to the point that we may even end up making a small profit on one or both in the end.

    When looking at the entire period of the economic downturn to date, Lofgren is right in that the lion’s share of increased spending has been on social safety net programs.

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  7. Please – all this talk that republicans aren’t irresponsible is disproved by a very significant fact that does prove that they are terribly irresponsible. Human induced climate warming (AGW) is a scientific fact. Any one is free to disagree for reasons of personal gain or just because they are too lazy to bother to learn very easy to obtain proof written at a level most high school students could easily understand. But no one can claim it is not scientifically proven fact unless then use stand methods that apply to all sciences. That is, to say otherwise requires scientific proof that is peer reviewed by people in the field – that is the scientific method. No one has done that todate and that is a fact.

    So, any large political party that has access to scientific experts and this party is unable to show in any standard method that these scientific facts are incorrect and then they officially deny current AGW facts and related future projections, then they are flat out lying. That makes them irresponsible – period.

    If you then claim such a political party is not being highly irresponsible, then you are not a person who uses reason and can be ignored since you are just making noise. Then such a person’s argument about republicans not being irresponsible is flat out wrong since that party are the very same group that denies AGW and does all in its power to prevent any significant effort to stem this planetary disaster in the making.

    As a result, people who are not in any way responsible for the vast majority of AGW will die first and in very large numbers yet this is ok by a political party because profit matters more than lives? Yes, `if AGW would only caused minor economic harm to (Us) the elite then this might very well outweigh a few lives but AGW is going to be very large and harm millions – this is a scientific fact.

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    • … few things here (and I’m on your side).
      1) lying on AGW is only bad if it will be a severe problem,a nd if not lying will help you solve it.
      2) GOP appears to be pivoting with their “clean nuclear energy” position and “no foreign oil” position, into a stance that will dovetail with much of what an actual AGW proponent would say.

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  8. It’s certainly possible that Republicans just see government bloat and debt in much the same way that Democrats see global warming: a man-made disaster waiting to happen that reflects decades of moneyed interests looking the other way and pretending it’s not happening, and which needs to be solved for the sake of future generations, even if the measures necessary to solve it are politically unpopular; similarly, they might see the other side as obstructionists who are blocking the serious measures that need to be taken because it’s in their own economic interest to continue looking the other way. I’m not sure their position is crazy any more than I’m sure the global warming position is fanatical.

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    • If that were really the case Rufus, wouldn’t they have taken the Dems up on a more optimal debt-deal?

      Yield to a modest raise in taxes while shrinking the defense and discretionary budgets in exchange for a simpler tax code with no expenditures and modest cuts to entitlments.

      Based on their actions and rhetoric at least, they clearly don’t regard the debt as a man-made disaster that poses an existential threat to the country.

      If they did, would they really seek to discredit government to the point of making it impossible to pay down the national debt?

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  9. EC – First and foremost, great post as usual. It’s hard for me to argue with much here, especially since – as I said in my last post – I am keenly aware that the picture you paint here is the one commonly seen; I think I am fairly alone in my stance. Most of what I might argue about here I feel I already have – again, with my last post – and don’t want to clutter up your threads doing a series of rehashing. That being said, and at the risk of being overly Pollyanna-ish, I think where I disconnect with most can be found in the following consensus “givens” you give voice to here, which are items I am not yet convinced are true:

    “The radicalization of the GOP is evident in their willingness to sacrifice political popularity by threatening default”

    I still argue this is not the case. I think that the GOP are taking actions that are rewarding the individual members who are making them. These “unpopular” decisions are quite popular with populist media consumers, and taking the positions they have been taking get them fawning coverage on national and local FOX affiliates. But I hasten to say I suspect that while most of these populist consumers love the idea of paying less taxes and having less government, most don’t think that far beyond it. Had their been an actual government shutdown, I believe a replay of Clinton’s first term would have taken place. What’s more, I think the GOP thought the exact same thing, which is why Boenher was obviously so nervous about them actually succeeding in doing this. What they did instead was essentially say they were going to shut down government and that would be so awesome, but in the end didn’t. (I should also add I think their agreeing to raise the debt limit was purely a self-preservation move. Again, I think they knew what the next election would be like if their constituents suddenly loss services, Social Security checks and Medicare benefits.)

    “take advantage of a weak Presidency by running dismal, B-team candidates”

    I also don’t agree with this. Or to be more specific, I certainly agree that they are dismal B-team candidates, but similarly to the Dems in the 80s I think its all they really have or can have without a coherent direction. I don’t think enough about the braintrust of the current GOP to believe this is part of a nuanced, behind the curtain 5-chess-moves-ahead strategy.

    “fewer and fewer Americans trust their national political institutions to put the country on the right track, and one of the two parties has found a formula for gaining support while eschewing responsibility”

    I agree with the this, but will still say that I don’t today ranks in the top 3 times in my lifetime in terms of “lack of trust in institutions.” But even though I think the part here about the GOP is correct, I argue that it has one of two realistic ways of playing out: The first is that voters ultimately reject this policy based on anti-, and this forces the GOP to figure things out and grow up. The second is that they are successful, regain substantial power, and they and their supporters will magically do what they always do – suddenly agree that overreaching government and spending is wicked awesome. (The possibility that they gain power and begin systematically shutting down the vehicle to that power I categorically reject as a realistic possibility.)

    With all that being said, I still must confess that there are two factors that might prove me very, very wrong. The first is the success of the GOP media machine, which means that it is possible for the upper leadership to be more personally profitable in down times than good. I suspect that the underlings won’t let this stand for too long should things start radically deteriorating, but I can’t deny that there is no precedent I can think of for me to read tea leaves from. The second is that things are really far, far more dire than I understand right now, and that at the end of the day the American people really will prefer to scrap everything they have for a promise without a plan.

    I really don’t think that will happen, but I’d be lying if I said part of that isn’t wishful thinking.

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    • Contrary to popular belief, most people don’t need a powerful, interventionist government. I have no way of knowing what the percentage would be, but I’d say, conservatively, that a good 75%, if there were no income tax, could use the extra money to create their own retirement and safety net through insurance and savings plans. And this 75%, while they might prefer to pay some taxes to a limited government to take on the responsibility of highways and infrastructure-type concerns, because this is the way it’s been done for so long, they could, if they had to, develope ways to build the infrastructure needed to travel and maintain communication and commerce. Government is not something other in this sense — if infrastructure can be developed and maintained through what we call government, it can be accomplished in cooperative and competitive ways through the private sector. Thinkers have suggested such ways before. I think it’s a mistake to assume that because government has taken over so many responibilities people are helpless and needy. All it will take is for people to begin thinking creatively and growing beyond the ingrained ideas of statism, and before you know it major changes are taking place. I think we’re getting close to a long period of innovation and creativity which moves away from government dependence.

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      • It’d really help if libertarianism/libertarians could found and operate a “gulch” at some point. It would help the philosophy enormously I’d think if the principles could be put into action as a practical functioning matter on a modest scale; say a city or some such. I know vaguely that some attempts have been tried but I gather between governments pervasiveness and the unfortunate problem that organizing libertarians is harder than herding explosive cats it’s never actually been successfully implemented.

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        • It’s not “libertarians”, it’s people who can do this, if enough believed or were forced to do it by reality. Once people started realizing again what they can do with more freedom, they’d be amazed. Society has been trained under a paternalistic State, but if enough somehow get out of this mindset, good things can happen. Not just in America, but across the world.

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            • Give us Texas, Wyoming, Idaho, Alabama and the Dakotas for starters, but don’t take it personally when you hear all the laughter and champagne popping and we don’t let you in.

              But this is a diversion. You can’t isolate a state and expect the experiment to be meaningful — every blue state would try to undermine the experiment. It would be interesting if the isolated areas could be free of all US laws, so that we could freely trade with other countries to maximize division of labor. Hmm, let’s give it a try. The most interesting aspect to me would be to see how outsiders react to the absence of a welfare state, and in its place a socially cooperative private assistance effort. Who all would apply for citizenship in our State-less country with a minimal government?

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              • Mike, this point seems correct, but so does that one that you don’t address – that if the overwhelming majority really wanted to get rid of the things you say they do, why don’t they? Why is “He wants to take away your SS!” the biggest sure fire way to win in elections all over the nation?

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              • Entrepreneurship!

                Wyoming actually has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, but is (if it’s anything like a neighboring state where I once worked) itching for white collar employers. College graduates would line up around the building for entry wages of $10/hr.

                Also Denver and SLC are both within relatively a couple hours driving distance from Cheyenne and Evanston respectively. Fort Collins and Park City are within commuting distance, if one is sincere.

                But yeah, they traded in their chance for greater freedom for cosmopolitanism and a desire not to live in between the Mississippi and the West Coast.

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      • I’d say, conservatively, that a good 75%, if there were no income tax, could use the extra money to create their own retirement and safety net through insurance and savings plans.

        And I say it’s more like 20%. I can pull numbers out of my nether regions as well as you can. On the other hand the number of jobs in the “Fleecing people out of their savings” field would skyrocket so there’s that.

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    • Thanks for the kind words Kelly. I respect your view and wrote the above more so just to explore the unlikely possibility that “this time is different.”

      With regard to your first point, I think Boenher is very moderate/pragmatic, but also don’t believe that he has any real control over his party, which seems to be in a three way split between the Republican old guard, the “young guns,” and the Tea Party freshmen. But you may be right that he is a good indicator of where the center of the party is at.

      I buy it about dem candidates in the 80s, but by the same token would claim that as part of a whole it’s how all of these pieces come together at the same time. You might correct me on my history here, but were dems in the 80s calling the federal government, in so many words, an illegitimate enterprise?

      My fear is that the GOP will regain power, implement to the best of their ability their plutocratic agenda, and bring about massive unrest that puts the political system to an un-passable test. But on the point of voter distrust, you may be more on target than me: http://people-press.org/2011/03/03/section-1-attitudes-about-government/
      But having been too young in the early 90s, I have no idea how dire things seemed then as well, which leaves the possibility that early 90s level distrust coupled with early 2010s economic failure could lead to a different outcome. But your point here is valid.

      Finally, I hope you are correct that this is more melodramatic pessimism than prophetic fortune telling. I’ll be the first to admit how comfortable I’d be pursuing a robust middle (creative) class existence saving and consuming. But there’s one last bubble that threatens to pop: higher ed debt. That could be the final chip to fall, or it might not be and this is just another “business cycle” to get through.

      Thanks for the thorough rebut.

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      • EC, I just got to this response tonight (this morning?), and didn’t want to let it pass without thanking you for the level of thought and detail in your reply. Good stuff.

        It appears we are on the same page – but with that whole glass half full/glass half empty thing going on.

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  10. I would argue that ‘low information voters’ and a partisan media are the rule rather than the exception in American political history, and the exceptions that exist are themselves arguable.

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