A New Kind of Robber Barron in Washington

Rahm Emmanuel once famously said that he would never let a good crisis go to waste. Only in an emergency can the American people be convinced to allow some kind of drastic change; otherwise, the majority prefers change to plod along at a more manageable pace. So, how does a politician convince his constituents that their unemployment problem is less important than the debt problem? He manufactures a crisis, or blows a temporary problem out of proportion. That’s what Republican governors are doing across the country as they force workers to abandon half a century of labor protections. That’s also what Paul Ryan, the new and eager chairman of the House Budget Committee, is doing right now with his morally repugnant long-term plan to allegedly solve our looming debt crisis.

As I wrote in my last column, we do not have a debt crisis. We do have a massive budget deficit and our debt has skyrocketed, but the slow recovery from the recession should take precedence. A strong and growing economy will get us out of that mess far more quickly than the kinds of massive cuts that Ryan and other extremists salivate over on their way to work every morning.

Even if you accept that we need to act quickly to reduce long-term government spending, one look at Ryan’s plan reveals that it will address no such issue. By turning Medicaid into a series of block grants, by completely dismantling Medicare so that seniors have to buy far more expensive private insurance, by gutting the Pell grants that help poor students afford a first-class education, by cutting back on the food stamps used by an ever-growing segment of the population and through a draconian series of other cuts, he would indeed cut $5.8 trillion in long-term spending.

In Ryan’s eyes, the money from those cuts can have only one destination: the wealthy. His plan would use the vast majority of the $5.8 trillion that he allegedly intended to subtract from the debt and instead use it to fund the GOP’s out-of-control fetish for tax cuts. These tax cuts would make the Bush tax cuts look tiny in comparison. The top income tax rate — once 91 percent under our secretly Socialist President Eisenhower — will fall from 35 to 25 percent. Corporations will receive greater tax cuts. The total amount of Ryan’s savings that will go to tax cuts is $5 trillion, meaning that a proposal that’s pitched as solving our deficit could actually only diminish long-term deficits by $800 billion at the cost of restructuring the American economy in one of the worst possible ways.

There’s ample reason to doubt even this figure. It turns out that to reach these savings, government discretionary spending must magically shrink from 12 percent to 3.5 percent of GDP after all of the other cuts. Ryan does not say how this will be achieved, but significant decreases in defense spending are of course not part of the proposal. Even more bizarrely, he also relies on a projected unemployment rate in 2021 of less than three percent. As the rate is currently hovering under nine percent, this would require a literally unprecedented boom in the American economy. Although his proposal is short on details, I can only imagine he reaches this number either by assuming that the people who can no longer afford health care will simply die off or he plans to toss the unemployed into prison.

That such a proposal would make its way into the highest levels of the American government is a sad testament to the success of the far right. Soon, thinking Republicans like Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins will have vanished from the ranks of the GOP. The party of Michele Bachmann, John Boehner and Paul Ryan would dismiss Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and even Reagan as “liberal.”

It is uniquely depressing, disgusting and shameful that men like Paul Ryan can look at this country and decide that, in a time when the wealthiest one percent of Americans receive nearly a quarter of the nation’s income, the rich are not rich enough and the poor are too well off. I can only hope that the next election cycle will sweep this new generation of political robber barons from power.

The Mind of Glenn Beck

“It’s difficult for anyone to have warm and tender feelings for the crazy man.” – Glenn Beck, Feb. 22

It’s a surreal scene: Glenn Beck, all alone on a TV set flooded with a low, blue light. He’s surrounded by an array of chalkboards; like mirrors in a haunted house, they reflect the many, many fears of the chubby, baby-faced excuse for a man who was once the rising star at Fox News. Words like Marxism, socialism, Islamism, political correctness and George Soros cover the boards. Beck circles a word here and there as he rants about the Communist/Islamist/UN caliphate that will soon engulf the Western World. The mind of Glenn Beck is a terrifying place.

One of the items in his set is a large television screen showing five different scenes. On the bottom, video streams from Libya, Yemen and Bahrain show protesters rioting, burning cars, and clashing violently with the police. The two feeds on the top of the screen show protesters peacefully waving signs demanding that they retain their right to bargain collectively. In the mind of Glenn Beck, these are the same. He actually seems to believe that a combination of socialists and radical Islamists have banded together in places across the world in order to form a New World Order.

Beck fears these protesters so much that he seems to support any measure against them. When a prominent Libyan intellectual who happened to belong to the Muslim brotherhood called on Libyan soldiers to rise up and assassinate the leader who seems intent on butchering his people with the help of mercenaries and fighter planes, Beck expressed support for Qaddafi, who he called “the crazy man” without any sense of irony. He qualified this support by saying that the dictator reminded him of “Scar, from the Lion King.” Apparently his viewers need to use Disney cartoons in order to gauge their views of the real world.

Unsurprisingly, Beck’s ratings are down nearly 40 percent since January of 2010.  This might be because he doesn’t offer solutions to his nightmares other than to buy gold and wait in a basement for the world to end, toy rifle in hand and tin foil hat in place. He claims not to support the dictators throughout the Middle East, but if they fall for any reason other than military intervention by Republican presidents, he points to a vast, international conspiracy run by either George Soros or the Muslim Brotherhood. He sees liberal workers protesting in Wisconsin and Ohio and young people in the Middle East alike as the agents of this international conspiracy. To him, they probably all look like Jafar, from “Aladdin.”

It’s a shame that the situation in Wisconsin has not received more attention from the mainstream media. Freshly elected Governor Scott Walker has created a budget crisis as an excuse to try and undo a century of labor agreements. No longer will teachers be able to use their collective bargaining power to negotiate for better benefits. Salary increases will be tied to the Consumer Price Index, which means that, essentially, teachers will never again have a salary increase. Their “raises” will always match or lag behind inflation. Wisconsin responded with a fury that seems shocking to their new Republican leaders. As of last Saturday, at least 70,000 protesters had flooded the capital, making camp in the halls of the state capital and trying the only way they know to preserve that most American of rights — the right to unionize, to demand fair compensation for an important and thankless job, and to defend against the encroachment of a government that doesn’t respect the rights of its citizens. By villainizing the protesters, commentators like Beck are ignoring the legacy of their beloved Ronald Reagan, who said that the Solidarity movement in Poland should “remind us that where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost” (full disclosure — I stole this quote from the Facebook page of one of my high school teachers. Thanks, Mr. Feldman!).

Glenn Beck should be praising these protesters. But in the fearful mind of Glenn Beck, since they aren’t members of his beloved Tea Party, they must be Marxist Islamist Nazi Zombies. At times like these, Beck seems increasingly likely to abandon everything and flee to an underground bunker in an undisclosed location. I hear the caves in Afghanistan are great this time of year.

Two More Years!

Bill Clinton made an appearance on the Daily Show two weeks ago, and he made the first strong case I’ve heard in a while — from a Democrat — for keeping his party in power after November: 18 months have passed since President Obama took the White House with the tough task of repairing the damage to the economy caused by the recession. Tough times and tough choices remain, but his administration has made progress. They deserve two more years before voters pass the keys back to the party mostly responsible for this mess.

It was probably a mistake to focus first on health care at a time when people were more concerned with their jobs. Yet it was still a good long-term move: as of last week, insurance companies can no longer drop people’s coverage when they get sick, children can no longer be denied coverage for pre-existing conditions and limits on claims have been banned. All of these are positive and necessary steps forward for our country. None of these would have happened without Democratic control.

Despite unrealistically sunny projections by the administration that have hurt the public perception of their policies, the vast majority of economists believe that the stimulus bill prevented things from getting far worse. The bill protected a lot of jobs — providing states with money to prevent massive layoffs of teachers, policemen and firefighters, as well as creating jobs in the construction sector. Government spending has a far higher and faster rate of return than tax cuts, which people often save rather than spend in a weak economy. We desperately need more money for schools and direct spending on our infrastructure. Many of our roads, bridges and tunnels were built after World War II. Our rail system is the shame of the developed world. With interest rates at record lows and millions of Americans out of work, we might as well invest the money now.

If Democrats retain control of Congress, some of this might happen. If Republicans seize the reins of power, none of it will; these are, after all, the same people who attack both the first stimulus package and the Troubled Assets Relief Program, a program that has mostly paid for itself. There is no chance they will support the spending needed to help repair the economy. Instead, they’ll push through tax cuts that we cannot afford while doing nothing about entitlements and the ballooning defense budget. Don’t believe me? Read their recently unveiled “Pledge to America.”

The best arguments for a Democratic Congress come from the Republican Party. I have never enjoyed situations where the best reason to support one party is because the other would be so disastrous to America, but we have reached that point. The “Pledge to America,” promises to rein in spending and balance the budget, which sounds reasonable until you read their proposals for doing so. They pledge to make Bush’s tax cuts permanent — at a 10-year cost of $3.7 trillion — and promise not to cut money from Medicaid, Social Security or the military, which together make up nearly 60 percent of the total federal budget. To make up for this, they propose repealing Obama’s health care bill and cancelling the rest of TARP. The Republicans claim that ending the bank bailout will save $16 billion — hardly enough to fill the crater in the budget the tax cuts create.

I believe in a balanced budget. Now might not be the best time to focus on it, but we will soon need to make the tough choices necessary to close the deficit. Yet, based on history and the Republican “vision” for the future, they are not the party to accomplish this task; they don’t even appear to understand the math.

Democrats have been almost comically bad at building support for their agenda, but it’s tough to be the ruling party in the world of the 24-hour news cycle. And they deserve more time to fix the damage from the recession and the Bush administration; they deserve two more years. If they haven’t made any progress by then, I will gladly vote for a Republican in 2012. I just hope it’s someone reasonable, like Mike Bloomberg or Mitt Romney.

Unfortunately, the Republican party of today is anything but reasonable.