What Republicans Are For

Political parties usually tell voters what they want to do. One way is to write a party platform when they nominate somebody for president. The Democrats did it for the 2020 election. The Republicans didn’t. Instead, they said they’d continue to support (i.e. bow down to) the person they were nominating:

. . . in the context of a pandemic, recession, social inequity, and climate crisis the party’s policy is simply:

RESOLVED, That the Republican Party has and will continue to enthusiastically support the President’s America-first agenda.”

It is hard to read this “platform” as anything other than “we stand for whatever D____ T____ wants” [Brookings Institution]. 

In other words, l’etat c’est moi (or rather, l’etat c’est lui).

Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post explains why the Republicans still don’t want to spell out what they’re for:

President Biden at his news conference last week asked the question that the media should have been asking Republicans for months: “What are they for?”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) won’t say. Asked last week what was in Republicans’ agenda if they regain control of Congress, McConnell told reporters: “That is a very good question. And I’ll let you know when we take it back.”

Consider the arrogance and disdain for voters inherent in that answer. Responsiveness to the voters? Solutions to the problems they complain about, such as inflation? Only suckers would care about such things, Republicans seem to believe. They prefer to spend their time concocting cultural wedge issues, spreading conspiracy theories and obstructing progress on issues for which there is broad, bipartisan consensus (e.g., a path to citizenship, reasonable gun laws).

But it would be misleading to say Republicans are not for anything; they certainly do have an agenda. The problem is that it is so unpopular they dare not remind voters about their plans.

Republicans have clear views on taxes. They want to protect the super-rich from paying more taxes, even though billionaires became 62 percent richer during the pandemic and many pay practically no federal income taxes. And Republicans really don’t want corporations to pay their fair share either. They favor keeping the corporate tax rate at 21 percent, even though corporate income taxes make up a mere 7 percent of federal revenue. (The Tax Policy Center reports: “Revenue from [corporate taxes] has fallen from an average of 3.7 percent of GDP in the late 1960s to an average of just 1.4 percent of GDP over the past five years, and 1.1 percent of GDP most recently in 2019.”)

Republicans are also for underfunding the Internal Revenue Service so that the agency does not have adequate resources to enforce existing tax laws. And they would like to do away with the child tax credit that cut child poverty by 40 percent. It is not a stretch to say Republicans actively promote income and wealth inequality.

Republicans are in favor of forcing women to continue pregnancies and giving birth, even in cases of rape and incest. They also delight in incentivizing Americans to spy on pregnant women whose reproductive choices don’t match the party’s religious doctrine and to turn them in for bounties. Meanwhile, they strenuously favor protecting anyone who refuses to be vaccinated or wear a mask. In other words, Republicans favor “personal choice” when it comes to preventing the spread of a deadly disease, but not when it comes to a woman’s body.

Republicans are all in when it comes to keeping in place monuments to the slave-owning traitors of the Confederacy; removing anything from school curriculum that might make White people feel uncomfortable, including Martin Luther King Jr. and the KKK; and stopping the FBI from investigating death threats against school board members and other public officials. No wonder white supremacists are so enamored with the GOP these days.

Republicans are also the best friends of climate change. Why else would they oppose the Paris accords, new subsidies for green energy, measures to phase out of coal and higher car mileage standards? They are, however, all for emergency aid when extreme weather strikes — but only for their own states.

And now we know Republicans are devoted to making voting harder and giving Republican lawmakers the ability to elbow out nonpartisan election officials so they can control vote-counting. They are definitely for respecting election outcomes — only when they win.

You don’t have to be a mind reader to figure out why McConnell wants to conceal Republicans’ agenda for as long as possible. . . . 

A Few Thoughts About Twitter

People often say Twitter is a virtual hellhole. That may be true for people who are well-known and write about controversial subjects. I’ve been off and on the site for a few years and found it a nice way to stay informed about current events, mainly politics, and occasionally read something funny. It all depends on who you to choose to follow and interact with. I recommend Paul Waldman of The Washington Post (for politics), Paul Krugman of The New York Times (for politics and economics), Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo (for politics and news if you can tolerate an occasional Wordle tweet), David Roberts (for politics and climate if you don’t mind your blood pressure going up) and Conan O’Brien (for humor and relatively few plugs for his podcast). 

Today I read an article by a philosophy professor named Justin Smith that’s mainly about Twitter and the way negative comments often pile up (getting a lot of comments usually means they’re negative). He thinks some famous people and big organizations like lots of negative comments because it shows they’re important.

One thing I’ve noticed about Twitter is that a popular way to dismiss someone’s “tweet” (I wish it was called something else) is to point out how few followers they have, as in “Why would I respond to someone who only has 12 followers?” It’s a classic ad hominem attack (for other examples, see this).

What I found is that the best way for an average person to acquire followers – and thereby appear significant – is to follow them. They often reciprocate and follow you. But that creates a problem. The more people you follow, the more tweets appear in your feed or timeline. Prof. Justin Smith follows 141 accounts. A journalist I follow follows 800. Another journalist follows 3,392. There is no way to keep up with tweets from that many people.

When I eventually acquired 50 or so mostly reciprocal followers (only 50!), I quickly realized it was necessary to mute most of them. That meant I’d still be their follower but not see any of their tweets. I expect that’s what being a follower means for many on Twitter, especially for those who “follow” a lot of people. They “follow” but don’t really.

Prof. Smith says nobody is on Twitter “for dialogue”. But I’ve found that following a few insightful, clever people and occasionally leaving a comment is the most satisfying way for me to use the site. Yesterday, for example, I read a NY Times article (that I won’t link to) about the US Senate that suggested Sen. Krysten Sinema (“Democrat” of Arizona) had an unanswerable argument for keeping the filibuster just the way it is. I found the reporter on Twitter and left a comment, disagreeing with her view. Last time I checked, it was the only comment she received. Perhaps she read it. Although it’s less likely it will change her mind about Sen. Sinema’s arguments, there’s no harm in giving feedback to a reporter.

I myself am following 13 Twitter accounts and am “followed” by 12. Sen. Sinema doesn’t fall into either category. (The Arizona Democratic Party, a major contributor to getting Sen. Sinema elected, has censured her because of her failure to protect voting rights.)

I just realized that I’ve said something positive about five white men and something negative about two white women. I don’t recommend following me.

Professor Krugman Says This Isn’t Ordinary Inflation

Paul Krugman is Distinguished Professor of Economics at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a columnist for The New York Times. He knows what he’s talking about but admits mistakes (this is from his Times newsletter):

Back in 2010 a group of conservative academics, economists and money managers signed an open letter warning that the efforts of the Federal Reserve to support the economy would be dangerously inflationary. But the inflation never came. So four years later, Bloomberg reached out to as many of the signatories as it could, to ask what happened.

Not one was willing to admit having been wrong.

I don’t want to be like those guys. So I’m currently spending a fair bit of time trying to understand why my relaxed view of inflation early last year has been refuted by events. What I want to do today is share where I am now on that topic and what my current take says about future policy.

Last spring the debate was focused on the American Rescue Plan, the Biden administration’s large spending package. A number of economists, including Larry Summers, Olivier Blanchard and Jason Furman, warned that it would overstimulate the economy — that output and employment would soar to levels that would create a lot of inflationary pressure.

Those of us on the other side argued that the risks of excess spending were much less than they warned — that large parts of the Biden package, like aid to state and local governments, would end up being disbursed gradually over time and therefore not have that much of an inflationary impact. To use the jargon, I argued that the [American Rescue Plan] would have a low “multiplier” [The multiplier effect measures the impact that a change in investment will have on final economic output, so that a low multiplier means less inflation.]

So here’s the funny thing: The multiplier does indeed seem to have been low. The economy has expanded fast, but it started in a deep hole and at this point is still if anything a bit below its pre-pandemic trend.

Here, for example, is real gross domestic product:

krugman210122_1-articleLarge

The Congressional Budget Office regularly publishes projections of “potential” G.D.P. — the level of output consistent with stable inflation. So far the official numbers through the third quarter of 2021, extended by private estimates of growth in the fourth quarter, still put us slightly below what we thought the economy’s potential was going to be.

Here’s another number, the employment rate of prime-age adults, which has generally been a good indicator of the state of the labor market (probably better than the unemployment rate):

krugman210111_2-articleLarge

We’ve seen a strong recovery in employment, but we’re still significantly below pre-pandemic levels.

The point is that if you had told me a year ago that this is what current output and employment numbers would be, I wouldn’t have predicted soaring inflation. To put it another way, my expectations of a relatively muted effect of government outlays on demand were more or less vindicated. But of course my expectations of moderate inflation weren’t. So what happened?

Part of the answer lies in supply-chain issues. Overall demand hasn’t grown all that fast, but fear of face-to-face interactions has skewed demand away from services toward goods, overstraining shipping and in some cases manufacturing capacity. These issues account for a lot of recent inflation, but in a way they don’t worry me too much: The private sector has huge incentives to get stuff moving, so sooner or later supply-chain issues will fade away.

However, it’s not just the supply chain; it’s obvious that we’re now experiencing widespread labor shortages even though employment is still below its prepandemic level.

I mentioned that the employed percentage of prime-age adults has generally been a good indicator of the state of the labor market. Another good indicator is the rate at which workers are quitting their jobs: Quits are high when people believe that new jobs are easy to find. Normally these two measures move in tandem; but something has changed.

Here’s a scatter plot of the prime-age employment rate against the quit rate since 2001; the blue dots represent the pre-pandemic era, the red dots the era since early 2020:

[Krugman has a diagram that I totally fail to understand, so you’ll have to imagine it.]

You can see [or imagine] the close relationship between the two measures [the prime-age employment rate and quit rate] before 2020. Since then, however, the relationship seems to have shifted, so a labor market that seems only OK judging by the employment rate looks extremely tight judging by the number of people who are quitting. And wages are rising rapidly, which suggests that quits are telling the real story.

What we’re seeing, of course, is the Great Resignation — which is also, to an important extent, a Great Retirement. A recent blog post from the International Monetary Fund shows that there has been a surge in the number of older Americans (and Britons) choosing not to be in the labor force. . . . 

Now, a labor market in which jobs are easy to find and workers can bargain for higher wages is a good thing. But the fact that labor markets are so tight even though employment and real G.D.P. are below pre-pandemic projections suggests that we can’t rely on those projections to assess the economy’s productive capacity. For whatever reason or reasons — presumably linked to Covid-19 — the U.S. economy apparently can’t sustainably produce as much as we expected [and scarcity means rising prices].

And that in turn tells us that it’s time for policymakers to pivot away from stimulus — in particular, that the Federal Reserve is right to be planning to raise interest rates in the months ahead. As I read the data, it doesn’t call for drastic action: The Fed should be taking its foot off the gas pedal, not slamming on the brakes. But that’s a story for another day.

For now, the moral is that because of Covid-19, we can’t assess where we are simply by comparing our situation with the pre-pandemic trend [i.e. the normal state of affairs]. . . . 

Unquote.

In other words, inflation, a global phenomenon, not one restricted to the US, is principally an effect of economies adjusting to a fading pandemic, another global phenomenon, which is not business (or economics) as usual. 

Biden’s First Year: A Reality Check

I hoped that the standard year-in-review or one-year-anniversary appraisals of Biden’s first year would remind anybody who’s paying attention that he’s already achieved a lot as president (in addition to making the White House less corrupt and less incompetent). There have been a few such positive appraisals, but not as many as I expected. CNN political analyst Kirsten Powers wrote one of the positive ones:

Here’s an apparently unpopular opinion: Joe Biden is not failing or flailing. His presidency is not in peril.

It’s hard to see this through the blizzard of over-the-top headlines such as, “Biden Can Still Rescue His Presidency,” “How the Biden Administration Lost Its Way” and “Biden’s Epic Failures.”

Everyone needs to take a breath: It’s been one year. These headlines could just as easily read, “Joe Biden Fails to Fix Every Problem in the World in 365 days.”

What drives much of the “presidency in peril” coverage is Biden’s approval ratings. CNN’s poll of polls, released Thursday, found that 41% of Americans approve of the way Joe Biden is handling his job while 54% disapprove.

Low approval ratings are used as a proxy by various political and ideological factions to argue that the president needs to do more of what they want and if he doesn’t, he won’t get reelected. (Spoiler alert: nobody will cast their vote in three years based on how they feel today about Biden). . . .  It’s become conventional wisdom in the media that Biden’s approval ratings started dropping because of how he handled the Afghanistan withdrawal. But Gallup’s senior editor Jeff Jones told Politico in November that his declining poll numbers began before that, during the Delta Covid-19 variant surge.

The fact is, approval ratings are most closely tied to how people feel about their day-to-day lives. Americans are understandably fatigued as we enter the third year of the pandemic and, until the US gets back to some semblance of normal, we should expect Biden’s approval ratings to reflect that frustration. Moreover, gas prices are high and research has shown that presidential approval ratings often track with gas prices, even though the president’s power over these prices is limited. The economic news is mostly good for Biden — unemployment is down and wages are up — but inflation is high and rising (note: In the US but also in many other countries). Taken together, this means the day-to-day life of many Americans feels really hard. 

It doesn’t help that the media reinforce the idea that Biden is somehow failing because he hasn’t solved issues that have bedeviled his predecessors over longer periods of time. The New York Times dinged Biden this week, noting that, “The president has not yet succeeded in meeting his own goals for combating climate change,…[hasn’t] delivered on his broader promise for a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented Americans” and has failed “on the central promise he made during the 2020 campaign — to ‘shut down’ the pandemic…”

This is bananas, but it’s a fairly typical roundup of the disconnected-from-reality analysis of Biden’s first year.

No president has been able to achieve a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who were not able to accomplish immigration reform over an eight-year period each. Biden should not be expected to do what they couldn’t, in a single year, in the middle of a global pandemic.

Speaking of the pandemic, it’s hard to shut it down when conservative leaders across the country are committed to making sure that doesn’t happen. Biden, for his part, signed into law the historic $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan to ensure broad distribution of vaccines. But he can’t force people to get vaccinated. He did issue vaccination and testing mandates for businesses, but those were rebuked by the Supreme Court. He also isn’t responsible for conservative disinformation and efforts to thwart measures to protect people from Covid by Republican elected officials, which is the primary reason the US is still struggling with the virus in a way that some other industrialized countries aren’t.

What about Biden’s alleged lack of success in solving the climate change issue in a single year? Biden has taken many steps that are within his authority on climate change such as rejoining the Paris climate accordcanceling the Keystone XL pipeline and undoing many Trump-era anti-climate executive orders. He has pushed climate priorities in his Build Back Better bill which anyone who is sentient knows hasn’t passed because Biden enjoys the slimmest of majorities in the Senate and he couldn’t win over Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. There is also the fact that Republicans have zero interest in this bill. Republican obstructionism is not Biden’s fault.

Biden is not a magician; he is president. He can’t shout “abracadabra” and produce 50 Democratic senators who will support every element of his agenda. There aren’t 10 GOP senators to pull out of a hat to back common sense and patriotic priorities like protecting voting rights. “But he didn’t end the filibuster for voting rights,” is the complaint. Right, because he doesn’t have the votes.

This doesn’t mean that Biden couldn’t have done some things better in his first year. The administration was caught flat-footed by the Omicron variant and failed to deliver on promises to make testing easier and more available to Americans. Biden should have called Sen. Manchin’s bluff on Build Back Better a long time ago and struck a deal if there was one to be had (which is debatable). If Manchin wouldn’t strike a deal, Biden should have moved on to something more achievable like breaking the bill into smaller parts (something he said in his press conference this week he is open to doing).

Ultimately, we need to remember that Biden entered the White House during one of the most difficult periods this country has ever faced. “The worst pandemic in 100 years. The worst economic crisis since the Great Depression,” he said during his campaign. “The most compelling call for racial justice since the 60’s. And the undeniable realities and accelerating threats of climate change.” We can now add to that list an attack on democracy by one of the two major political parties.

. . . Whatever Biden’s flaws, the country is in a better place than it was when he took office, something that was not a given considering the challenges he was up against. Like all presidents, he is clearly absorbing the lessons of the first year and recalibrating for the next.

Unquote.

I’ll add two positives not mentioned: 

No president since Ronald Reagan has gotten so many judges confirmed in his first year. Mr. Biden has also fulfilled a campaign promise by nominating perhaps the most diverse slate of judicial picks ever: 75% are women and 71% are people of color, according to FiveThirtyEight. Also important, court watchers say, is that the 40 new judges bring with them a wide backdrop of legal experience [including, for example, public defenders and civil rights and labor lawyers] (CS Monitor).

Secondly, he had the courage and insight to end the longest, stupidest war in American history, while evacuating nearly 130,000 Afghans and Americans in a matter of days after the national government collapsed more quickly than most observers expected.

A Silver Lining, Perhaps

The arguments Democratic senators made last night to reform the filibuster, e.g. by returning to the “talking” filibuster that can delay legislation as long as the minority keeps arguing against it, meaning that a bill can’t be stopped in its tracks by email, were so good that the refusal of two “Democratic” senators to vote for reform is either the result of stupidity or base motives.

If they truly believe the filibuster fosters bipartisan solutions, they are stupid. If they think the country will be better off with Republicans having total electoral control in various states, possibly resulting in the return of the worst president in history — whether he wins or not — they are horrible people. (We shouldn’t rule out the likelihood that they’re both stupid and horrible.)

Anyway, Paul Waldman of The Washington Posts looks on the bright side:

For years, Democrats have been waiting for Republicans to have their “epiphany,” to realize that scorched-earth politics and implacable opposition to anything a Democratic president might suggest are not good for the country. The epiphany has arrived — but it’s the Democrats who have finally come to understand reality, and are prepared to act accordingly.

This might seem like a moment of Democratic defeat [it sure as hell does]. But it could be a turning point, one that leads to more progress in the future.

At his Wednesday news conference, President Biden was asked whether he had over-promised and what he planned to change in the remainder of his term. In response, he said, “I did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done.”

Lots of people anticipated it — it has been a topic of debate for years, and Biden took a lot of criticism in the 2020 campaign from those who thought his claim that he could persuade Republicans to work with him was disingenuous or naive. Every reasonable observer knew that [Republicans] would approach his presidency with the same strategy it used with Barack Obama: Oppose almost everything the president proposes, and do everything in the party’s power to make him fail.

But what matters at the moment isn’t whether Biden ever believed [Republicans] would act differently. It’s that he seems ready to stop pretending that a dawn of bipartisan cooperation is about to break.

Now consider what happened that night, when Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) joined with every Republican to shoot down a rules change that would have allowed two voting rights bills — bills Manchin and Sinema claim to support — to receive an up-or-down vote.

It was absolutely a defeat, for Biden, for his party, and most of all for voters. But it also represented a significant shift within the Democratic Party. That’s because every single Democrat apart from Manchin and Sinema supported setting aside the filibuster.

A variety of factors led them there. The obstructionism and radicalism of today’s [Republican Party] certainly played a part. Perhaps just as important, we’ve had our first real, detailed debate about the filibuster, and all the arguments in its defense were revealed to be so preposterous that it has become almost impossible for any honest person to oppose reforming it.

As Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), a more moderate Democrat, explained in a passionate plea, the Senate has adjusted filibuster rules to allow majority votes more than 160 times, including for such pressing matters as “approving compensation plans for commercial space accidents.”

So with two exceptions, every member of the Democratic caucus, from progressives such as Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) to moderates such as Jon Tester (Mont.) and Angus King (I-Maine), agreed that the filibuster has to change here as well.

There was nothing like that kind of unanimity even a year ago. That glass is now 48/50ths full.

And the defeat of these voting rights bills, which is extremely painful for both Democratic legislators and their party’s base, might actually hasten the filibuster’s demise.

As I’ve noted, in every state where Democrats have a chance to take a Republican Senate seat, all Democratic primary candidates favor scrapping the filibuster. That includes both moderates and progressives. Though there are many things that divide, for instance, Rep. Conor Lamb and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman in Pennsylvania, they agree the filibuster should go.

Democrats, including the president who has spent so much time insisting that he can achieve bipartisanship, are simply done waiting for Republicans to see the light. The next step is for them to get mad enough to do something about it.

Which might happen. Even though the most likely outcome in 2022 is a Republican sweep (following the usual midterm election pattern), Democratic voters can and should be angry enough about the death of these voting bills — among many other things, including the Supreme Court’s likely overturning of Roe v. Wade this year — to organize, register and overcome Republican voter suppression to get to the polls in November.

If you’re a Democrat and you’re mad at Manchin and Sinema — and you should be — the answer is to make them irrelevant by electing a few more Democrats to the Senate.

Besides, they’ll probably be around for only a few more years. Manchin might not run for reelection in 2024, and if he does, he’ll probably lose, as long as Republicans find a halfway decent candidate in deep-red West Virginia. And after this, Sinema couldn’t win a Democratic primary for dogcatcher; if she runs again the same year, she’ll face a strong primary challenge [the latest poll shows she has an 8% — eight percent — approval rate among Arizona Democrats].

So it’s not hard to imagine the Senate considering voting rights again in the near future — and this time, there will be 50 votes to pass it.

Thanks to Manchin and Sinema, and to Republicans who remain just what they’ve been all along, Democrats can no longer afford to delude themselves about how politics works today. And for a change, they all know it.