Sometimes I Think This Country Is Too Stupid To Survive — Part 3

If you use a credit card to buy $1,000 worth of stuff, you have taken on $1,000 worth of debt. You either have to give the credit card company $1,000 the next time they send you a bill or pay an outrageous amount of interest on what you haven’t paid off.

The federal government is in a similar situation. Since 1970, except for the last four years of the Clinton administration, the federal government has taken on more debt. It’s spent more money than it’s received through taxation, i.e. it’s run a deficit. As a result, the total national debt has increased.

In order to make up the difference, the government has issued bonds, i.e. borrowed money from investors in the bond market (in other words, the government is you and the bond market is the credit card company).

So, in 2020, the last year of the T____ administration, the government spent $6.5 trillion. But the government’s revenue, partly due to tax cuts, was only $3.4 trillion. That means, roughly speaking, the federal government needed to come up with $3.1 trillion dollars to pay its various bills. It was necessary to sell a lot of bonds.

But more than 100 years ago, during World War I, Congress decided that instead of approving the sale of all those bonds, they would set an upper limit on how many bonds the government can sell. That gave the people at the Treasury Department some flexibility. They didn’t have to repeatedly ask Congress for permission to sell more bonds to pay the government’s expenses.

There have been a few changes to the debt limit law since then, but that’s the basic idea. Congress and the president approve a budget. The executive branch then spends a lot of money. When there are too many bills or other obligations to address compared to the taxes collected, the Treasury Department sells bonds to cover the difference, i.e. the deficit. Raising the debt limit doesn’t authorize new spending; it authorizes new borrowing to cover debts the government has already incurred by following the budget Congress and the president approved.

Ordinarily, Congress would simply vote for the debt limit to be increased. But things are not so simple these days. Congressional Republicans don’t believe in governing responsibly. They look for ways to make their Democratic colleagues and the government as a whole look bad. They then claim to be the ones who can fix the problems they’ve done so much to create.

Since the House of Representatives has already addressed the problem by a simple majority vote (218 Democrats voted Yes, 210 Republicans voted No), it’s now up to the Senate to finish the job.

In a more rational world, the 50 Democrats in the Senate could all vote Yes while the 50 Republicans voted No. Vice President Harris could then vote Yes and break the tie. Problem solved (for now).

But the Senate doesn’t have majority rule. It has the filibuster. Sixty votes are needed to do most of the Senate’s business, including raising the debt limit. Without the agreement of at least 10 Republicans, therefore, the 50 Senate Democrats can’t even bring the debt limit increase to a vote.

There are various ways the problem can be addressed before the U.S. government runs out of money and the global markets and the global economy take a dive.

The Treasury Department could mint a special coin and assign it a value of trillions of dollars. Depositing this coin at the Federal Reserve would mean the government suddenly had plenty of money. But it doesn’t look like anybody in authority likes this idea.

The Treasury Department could ignore the debt limit law, citing the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. That amendment says “the validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law . . . shall not be questioned”, which kind of means the government has to pay its bills. But again, this idea doesn’t have enough support.

A third option, of course, would be for the Republicans to allow the Democrats to proceed to a vote. But the Republicans say they won’t do that.

Instead, they say the Democrats should pursue a fourth option: use the complicated process known as budget reconciliation, which allows a majority in the Senate to pass budget-related legislation. Unfortunately, it’s a very complicated process. In fact, it’s the very complicated process the president and congressional Democrats are (very slowly) using to pass most of Biden’s agenda (the agenda that’s popular with the public but too expensive for two Democratic senators, one who’s actually a moderate Republican and one who’s a mystery wrapped in an enigma). 

Reuters explains what the Democrats would have to do in order to use reconciliation to raise the debt limit:

* The budget committees in the Senate and House of Representatives would have to write legislation enabling the debt limit to be raised. . . 

* The Senate Budget Committee likely would deadlock 11-11 if all 22 members were present, preventing Chairman Bernie Sanders from sending such a bill to the full Senate.

* The Senate’s Majority Leader could then make a move on the Senate floor to “discharge” the stuck legislation from the budget panel. There would be a maximum of four hours of debate and then the Senate would vote on whether to instruct Sanders to release the bill to the floor.

* The Senate could then start debate for a maximum of 20 hours. But it would be open to a potentially large number of amendments in a procedure that is known as a “vote-a-rama.” Amendments would have to be directly related to budgetary matters however. Vote-a-ramas are often all-night affairs.

* Following votes on amendments, the Senate could vote to approve the debt limit bill and could do so with a simple majority of 51 votes.

* The House also would have to go through the process of debating and passing the bill, also by simple majority.

* As all of this is unfolding, global financial markets could become unsettled as Oct. 18 nears and Washington flirts with a default. 

The reason Senate Republicans want the Democrats to use reconciliation for the debt limit is that it would interfere with using reconciliation to pass Biden’s big, popular agenda. That’s the whole reason.

Fortunately, there’s a fifth option. The 50 Senate Democrats could make an exception to the filibuster rule. That’s already been done for budget reconciliation and approving judicial appointments. Why not do it for the debt limit too? It shouldn’t require 10 extra votes in the Senate to allow the government to pay its credit card bills.

But those two Democratic senators (the moderate Republican and the mystery woman who now votes like one) think the filibuster rule is near sacred. They claim it brings the Democratic and Republican senators together in a wonderful spirit of compromise. Maybe it did once upon a time, and once in a while, but all it does now is allow a minority to control the Senate.

So when the Republican Minority Leader says the debt limit problem is for the Democrats to solve, since they control the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate, he might as well be speaking in tongues. The only way Democrats can control the Senate is to eliminate or change the filibuster rule, which so far isn’t happening. (While they’re at it, they should make a filibuster exception for voting rights too — that seems obvious but so far isn’t to all 50 of them).

When You Think About It, It Really Sucks

From Christian Cooper for The Washington Post way back in January:

Imagine if a country today took a plurality-Black  population, stripped those citizens of any meaningful political power, and relegated them to the whims of a few privileged Whites who ruled in comfort and majesty.

Welcome to Washington, D.C. How did our nation’s capital earn this disgraceful distinction? Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, African Americans constituted a majority of the residents of the District of Columbia. Today, about 45 percent of D.C.’s population is Black, still the city’s single largest racial group. But the people of D.C. do not have voting representation in the House of Representatives or the Senate — despite paying the same federal taxes as the rest of the country.

To make matters worse, D.C. residents have only limited control of affairs within their own borders; the city’s budget and every law the city council passes are subject to approval by Congress. So a collection of outsiders — mostly White men of privilege from somewhere else — dictate to the people of D.C., who are mostly non-White, how things are going to be.

Black disenfranchisement wasn’t the goal from D.C.’s start; rather, it resulted from the confluence of population growth, demographic shifts and the Framers’ quest for neutrality at the center of government. That this situation arises as an unintended consequence makes it no less intolerable.

Yet it has been tolerated, for decades, the insult to Black dignity and self-determination shrugged off, revealing the racial bias at the core of its continued existence. It is part of a long history of African American disenfranchisement, as old as the United States, whose Constitution counted our enslaved ancestors as three-fifths of a person. It echoes the nearly century-long denial of voting rights to Black people, followed by the suppression of the Black vote on through the civil rights era, to today’s renaissance of Black voter suppression, masterfully recast as efforts to combat nonexistent “voter fraud.”

It continues because some look at our right to have a say in our own destiny and still see us as only three-fifths human.

D.C.’s political limbo is all the more infuriating because ending this injustice would be relatively easy. Shrinking the federal enclave to a much smaller, nonresidential area of monuments and key buildings and granting the rest of D.C. statehood would give the people of the District the home rule and full representation in Congress every American deserves.

With some 700,000 residents, D.C. as a state would be more populous than two of the other 50 states. There is no defensible reason that sparsely populated, overwhelmingly White Wyoming (pop. approx. 580,000) and Vermont (approx. 625,000) should each have two senators while mostly non-White D.C. gets none.

Republicans respond by saying that, since any senators from D.C. would likely be Democrats, granting statehood to the District is nothing more than an unfair political power grab. Here’s what’s truly unfair: Our Constitution grants every state two senators regardless of its population. That may have been fine in 1789, when barely a dozen states existed and differences between rural and urban areas were not so pronounced.

But it has become absurd with the passage of 230 years. North Dakota and South Dakota, with a combined, nearly all-White citizenry of about 1,650,000, are represented by four senators, all Republican; California, with a diverse population of about 40 million, is represented in the Senate by two Democrats. It is Republicans who have pulled off the power grab.

But it should not matter whether senators from a new state of D.C. would be blue, red or Day-Glo green: Nobody gets to deny any Americans their rightful votes just because they don’t like who those Americans vote for. . . . 

The House voted last year to make D.C. a state. The Senate has never taken a vote on the question. As of Jan. 20, Senate Democrats can take the next step. It requires only that they close ranks to scrap the filibuster, either in its entirety or more surgically, to advance this cause of full enfranchisement for District residents. The filibuster has already been diminished twice in recent years; such a move is not unprecedented.

It is a stain on our nation that, in the very shadow of the monuments to American democracy, a separate and unequal form of citizenship has been allowed to endure. Democrats can put an end to it once and for all by granting statehood to Washington, D.C. The only question is whether they have the will and the moral conscience to do it.

[At which point, the narrator says “not enough of them did or do”].

Giving full voting rights to the residents of Washington D.C. would fit nicely with the voting rights legislation now pending in Congress, more than eight months after the above was written. If only all fifty Democrats had the will and moral conscience to do something about it.

A Lingering Question from the 2020 Election

Why didn’t Democrats do better in House and Senate races last year, given that Biden got seven million more votes than the other guy.

First, the House of Representatives. There were roughly 156 million votes for either Biden or his Republican opponent. Biden’s share of that 156 million was 52.3%. Meanwhile, Democrats got 51.5% of all the votes cast in House races and, as a result, 51.5% of seats in the House. If they had gotten Biden’s percentage instead of 51.5%, they would have done better, but not much better. Instead of 224 seats out of 435, they might have gotten 227 or 228. That wouldn’t have been a big difference. The House vote pretty accurately tracked the presidential vote.

One reason the Democrats’ House vote fell slightly short might be that five million voters didn’t bother voting for a House candidate — maybe more of those lazy, uninformed or cynical voters were Democrats. Another reason, no doubt more likely, may be that Biden’s opponent was especially unpopular. More than a few people who usually vote Republican couldn’t bring themselves to vote for their party’s presidential candidate, even though they were willing to vote for his supporters in Congress.

The Senate was a different story. Because senators serve for six years, only one-third of Senate seats are contested in any given election. In 2020, thirty-four states had Senate elections. For no reason except that it was their turn, twenty-two of those thirty-four states had Republican senators. Only twelve had Democrats.

Since states generally elect their senators with large majorities — incumbent senators often win 60% or more of the vote — you’d expect Republican presidential candidates to do extraordinarily well in states with Republican senators. That’s exactly what happened in this election. The Republican presidential candidate got 57% of the vote in states that elected Republican senators, compared to 47% in the country as a whole.

Even so, Democrats ended up winning Senate seats in fourteen of the thirty-four states, adding two states to their total. Precisely those fourteen states of the thirty-four also went for Biden.

So the Democratic presidential candidate won 52.3% of the votes cast for either him or the Republican [not for a 3rd party candidate]; Democrats running for House seats did only slightly worse; and Democrats running for the Senate picked up a few seats, despite the fact that two-thirds of the states with Senate elections usually vote for Republicans.

If there’s an anomaly here, it’s that almost half of the electorate voted for a terrible president and disgusting human being, while also voting for congressional candidates who’d support him every step of the way.

One other statistic is worth noting. Biden got 49.6% of the vote in the thirty-four states with Senate elections, even though two-thirds of those states preferred his opponent. How did he get almost half the votes in thirty-four states if two-thirds of those states voted for the other guy? The reason is that Democratic states have larger populations.

Among the thirty-four states, the average Democratic state had 3.6 million voters. The average Republican state had only 1.8 million. Because each states has two senators without respect to population, the 40 million voters in the twenty-two Republican states are represented by forty-four senators. The 43 million voters in the twelve Democratic states only have twenty-four senators.

The men who wrote the Constitution made the US Senate a bastion of minority rule. The Senate filibuster adds insult to injury by requiring sixty votes out of one-hundred to get much done. There is no justification for giving a minority of senators so much power in a legislative body that already gives disproportionate power to America’s smallest states.

Setting the Record Straight on Afghanistan

From Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post:

Testimony from Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A Milley before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday was enlightening in several respects. The two defense officials may not have persuaded those who wanted to continue an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, but they certainly put President Biden’s decision-making in context.

Much of the media’s attention focused on Milley, who at the beginning of the hearing shattered the notion that he had acted outside the chain of command or usurped civilian control in the waning days of the Trump administration. His conversations with the Chinese to de-escalate any conflict were cleared with civilian officials beforehand, he said, and he debriefed them afterward. Milley, who acted deftly within the bounds of the Constitution to avoid disaster, is not deserving of blame; rather, the ones who need to explain themselves are the former president’s cowardly enablers, who to this day pretend the former president is fit for office.

The bulk of the hearing, however, focused on Afghanistan. Austin effectively conceded in his testimony that three presidents never acknowledged (or at least never appreciated) that the mission of the war — to create a viable Afghan government and military — failed spectacularly. Austin explained:

We need to consider some uncomfortable truths: that we did not fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in their senior ranks, that we did not grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders, that we did not anticipate the snowball effect caused by the deals that Taliban commanders struck with local leaders in the wake of [President T____’s] Doha agreement, that the Doha agreement itself had a demoralizing effect on Afghan soldiers, and that we failed to fully grasp that there was only so much for which — and for whom — many of the Afghan forces would fight. We provided the Afghan military with equipment and aircraft and the skills to use them. Over the years, they often fought bravely. Tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers and police officers died. But in the end, we couldn’t provide them with the will to win. At least not all of them.

That’s as devastating a critique of the war’s promoters as any defense official has delivered.

Biden’s critics will have a hard time explaining why a limited force left indefinitely in Afghanistan would have been a viable alternative. There has been no evidence to dispute the conclusion that the United States could have preserved the status quo. Miley acknowledged, “The Taliban [in 2020] strengthened its positions around several provincial capitals in anticipation of the departure of foreign forces and, over this time period, enemy-initiated attacks increased by over 50 percent and were above previous seasonal norms.” He added, “The Taliban controlled approximately 78 districts in February of 2021. This rose to over 100 in mid-June and surpassed 200 by mid-July, with fighting occurring on the outskirts of 15 provincial capitals.”

The notion that the Taliban would have halted its advance if the United States kept a few thousand troops in the country defies logic. Indeed, Milley conceded, “On the first of September, we were going to go to war again with the Taliban. Of that, there was no doubt.”

As Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wrote in an op-ed earlier this month, “If Biden had reneged on this deal, there would be a ferocious response from the Taliban. Two thousand five hundred troops would have never been nearly enough to repel the reaction from a jilted Taliban.”

The idea that the administration did not prepare for the collapse of the Afghan government was false as well. Both Miley and Austin described the advance planning in detail, including the pre-positioning of troops and a noncombatant evacuation. Moreover, the Monday-morning quarterbacking that the administration should have retained Bagram air base appears to have been misplaced. Milley explained:

The U.S. military could not secure both Bagram airfield and Hamid Karzai International Airport [HKIA] with the troops available. All together securing Bagram would have required approximately 5-6,000 additional troops assuming no indigenous partner force was available. These forces are in addition to those that would be required to secure Kabul and HKIA in the event of a [noncombatant evacuation operation]. As Gen. [Austin S.] Miller has previously testified, HKIA would always be the center of gravity of any NEO due to the population that would need to be evacuated was mostly in Kabul.

Austin also explained, “[Retaining Bagram] would have contributed little to the mission that we had been assigned: to protect and defend our embassy some 30 miles away. That distance from Kabul also rendered Bagram of little value in the evacuation.”

Finally, the widespread declaration that the administration’s airlift was a “failure” was exaggerated and lacked context. Austin and Milley conceded there were a couple of days of chaos, but tens of thousands more Afghans were evacuated than thought possible. “We planned to evacuate between 70,000-80,000 people. They evacuated more than 124,000,” Austin said. He also noted, “At the height of this operation, an aircraft was taking off every 45 minutes. And not a single sortie was missed for maintenance, fuel, or logistical problems. It was the largest airlift conducted in U.S. history, and it was executed in just 17 days.”

Critics who said the United States would not be able to evacuate anyone after the military left were wrong. The military was able to evacuate 6,000 Americans and, with subsequent extractions, has removed the vast majority of Americans who wanted out. (After months of warnings, assistance and advice, it is hard to think what more the administration could have done.)

With regard to the Afghans we failed to extract, the sad reality is that when a nation loses a war, it simply cannot get everyone whom it wants out. The expectation that we could have saved hundreds of thousands of Afghans from Taliban rule was never realistic. (Arguably, the president should have made that clear rather than make open-ended promises.)

President Biden’s critics are left exasperated. How could the United States not have done better? Certainly, Milley, Austin and other officials should have known that Afghan forces and the civilian government were hollow. But even had they foreseen an immediate collapse, a mass evacuation on any timeline would have likely had the same result (i.e., a rush to the exits). For those who wanted an indefinite war, it is time to admit there was no way to preserve the status quo without loss of more American lives. For those who wanted a “clean” and swift end, it is time to acknowledge wars do not end that way.

Moreover, the military officials’ emphasis on the disastrous Doha deal negotiated with the Taliban under President D____T____ was a proper corrective to the hypocritical blame Republicans heaped on Biden. My colleague Aaron Blake writes, “Both Austin and Milley cast the deal as largely a failure, particularly when the Afghan military — which the United States had tried to prop up for 20 years — quickly collapsed and allowed the Taliban to take control.”

In sum, the testimony went a long way toward confirming an uncomfortable truth: The 20-year war to create a viable Afghan state was a fruitless, misguided and arrogant undertaking. Biden finally decided not to sacrifice more troops and spend more money on an unwinnable venture. His error may have been in failing to prepare Americans for the ugly, heartbreaking reality of losing a war to no real effect. . . .

Identify This State

When we moved to the East Coast from California 30 years ago, I met someone who lived in New Jersey and told him that the state, from what I’d seen, was much nicer than I expected. He said “Yes, we like to keep that a secret”.

Of course, there are old cities and rundown neighborhoods, ugly factories and the challenging NJ Turnpike, but for such a small, densely-populated state (47th by size, 8th by population), there’s a lot of variety. We do have the most hazardous waste sites in the nation — a remnant of the state’s industrial past, when NJ also earned its nickname “The Garden State” because of the way NJ farms fed New York City and Philadelphia. New Jersey also has the 2nd highest income, 3rd highest percentage of college graduates and 3rd highest percentage of immigrants. Much of the Revolutionary War was fought here, Thomas Edison became “The Wizard of Menlo Park” here, researchers at Bell Labs developed radio astronomy, the transistor, the laser, the UNIX operating system and the C programming language here. Abbott met Costello here.

Much of the state away from New York City and Philadelphia is undeveloped. The coastline is beautiful. We’re in the top 10 in life expectancy. The public schools are highly rated. We get less back from Washington than any other state, compared to the federal taxes we pay (you’re welcome). And we avoid electing Republicans.

It was notable, therefore, that when 1,200 Americans were asked to choose America’s best states, New Jersey just barely beat Mississippi and Alabama, coming in 48th out of 50.

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Maybe that’s because, according to generations of comedians, New Jersey is funny. “I’m from Joisey! You from Joisey? Which exit?”

Property taxes are too high. There are those toxic waste sites scattered around. And who knows whose remains are hidden in the Meadowlands, which is more swamp than meadow (and where the “New York” Giants and Jets play football, but won’t admit it)?

Fortunately, however, New Jersey and its state government have a sense of humor:

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The state of New Jersey. A well-kept secret.