American Politics Today: A Case Study

One America News Network (OAN, not OANN) is where you go for “news” when you think Fox has become way too liberal. Somebody posted this screenshot today:

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Yes, we all remember how the former president “went and fought every weather crisis”, like that time after Hurricane Maria when he personally launched paper towels — or was it toilet paper? — to a roomful of Puerto Ricans and then decided to delay millions of dollars in financial aid.

So why is that cowardly weakling Joe Biden “hiding in his basement”? Biden may have immediately declared a state of emergency in Texas and authorized the federal government to send generators and other supplies, and and he may have spoken to Gov. Abbott yesterday:

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. spoke this evening with Texas Governor Greg Abbott about the severe winter weather situation facing central and southern parts of the United States, including Texas. [He] conveyed his support to the people of Texas [and] reiterated that the federal government will continue to work hand-in-hand with state and local authorities in Texas to bring relief and address the critical needs of the families affected. He also shared his intentions to instruct additional federal agencies to look into any immediate steps that could be taken to support Texans at this time. The President also expressed that his administration was at the ready should the State of Texas or any other impacted region need additional federal disaster support or assistance as severe storms move across the US.

But what has Biden done for Texas lately? Damn liberals.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman of The New York Times tells what occurred after the disaster struck:

For a while, the politics surrounding the power outages that have spread across Texas looked fairly normal. True, the state’s leaders pursued reckless policies that set the stage for catastrophe, then tried to evade responsibility. But while their behavior was reprehensible, it was reprehensible in ways we’ve seen many times over the years.

However, that changed around a day after the severity of the disaster became apparent. Republican politicians and right-wing media, not content with run-of-the-mill blame-shifting, coalesced around a malicious falsehood instead — the claim that wind and solar power caused the collapse of the Texas power grid, and that radical environmentalists are somehow responsible for the fact that millions of people were freezing in the dark, even though conservative Republicans have run the state for a generation.

This wasn’t normal political malfeasance. It’s the energy-policy equivalent of claiming that the Jan. 6 insurrection was a false-flag Antifa operation — raw denial of reality, not just to escape accountability, but to demonize one’s opponents. . . . 

Like many states, Texas has a partly deregulated electricity market, but deregulation has gone further there than elsewhere. In particular, unlike other states, Texas chose not to provide power companies with incentives to install reserve capacity to deal with possible emergencies. This made power cheaper in normal times, but left the system vulnerable when things went wrong.

Texas authorities also ignored warnings about the risks associated with extreme cold. After a 2011 cold snap left millions of Texans in the dark, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission urged the state to winterize its power plants with insulation, heat pipes and other measures. But Texas, which has deliberately cut its power grid off from the rest of the country precisely to exempt itself from federal regulation, only partially implemented the recommendations.

And the deep freeze came.

While Texas’s Republican governor was blaming wind power, other state officials admitted that power plants and pipelines that deliver natural gas were the main source of the problem. (Besides which, wind turbines operate in places like Norway and Greenland all winter without breaking down.)

The Washington Post describes what actually happened this week:

Wind accounts for just 10 percent of the power in Texas generated during the winter. And the loss of power to the grid caused by shutdowns of thermal power plants, primarily those relying on natural gas, dwarfed the dent caused by frozen wind turbines, by a factor of five or six.

As the cold hit, demand for electricity soared past the mark that ERCOT [the Electric Reliability Council of Texas] had figured would be the maximum needed. But at a moment when the world is awash in surplus natural gas, much of it from Texas wells, the state’s power-generating operators were unable to turn that gas into electricity to meet that demand.

In the single-digit temperatures, pipelines froze up because there was some moisture in the gas. Pumps slowed. Diesel engines to power the pumps refused to start. One power plant after another went offline. Even a reactor at one of the state’s two nuclear plants went dark, hobbled by frozen equipment.

Krugman (who knows the answer) asks, therefore, “Why, then, the all-out effort to falsely place the blame on wind power?”

The incentives are obvious. Attacking wind power is a way for both elected officials and free-market ideologues to dodge responsibility for botched deregulation; it’s a way to please fossil fuel interests, which give the vast bulk of their political contributions to Republicans; and since progressives tend to favor renewable energy, it’s a way to own the libs. And it all dovetails with climate change denial.

But why do they think they can get away with such an obvious lie? The answer, surely, is that those peddling the lie know that they’re operating in a post-truth political landscape. When two-thirds of Republicans believe that Antifa was involved in the assault on the Capitol, selling the base a bogus narrative about the Texas electricity disaster is practically child’s play.

Greg Sargent of the Post concludes:

No doubt many Republicans expressing outrage at the failures producing this disaster — and calling for accountability and reform — are sincere in their intentions, though we’ll see how long those demands persist.

But it’s painfully obvious that in an important larger sense, many aspects of their reaction to the Texas calamity do indeed demonstrate the future they want.

It’s a future in which the default response to large public problems will be to increasingly retreat from real policy debates into an alternate information universe, while doubling down on scorched-earth distraction politics and counter-majoritarian tactics to insulate themselves from accountability. . . .

The thing is that Abbott knows renewable energy isn’t to blame. Elsewhere, he has admitted that natural gas and coal failures played a key role. Yet the lure of retreating into the Fox News universe — and spewing nonsense he knows will resonate there — is irresistible.

When a politician’s fundamental purposes in public life are to pursue power and maintain the economic and cultural status quo, it’s easy to lie with a clear conscience. As Gen. Sherman once said:

The lust for Power in political minds is the strongest passion of Life, and impels Ambitious Men to deeds of infamy.

In Race Relations, Altruism Isn’t Enough

Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times says it’s more productive to talk about economic self-interest:

When Heather McGhee was a 25-year-old staffer at Demos, the progressive think tank she would eventually lead, she went to Congress to present findings on shocking increases in individual and family debt.

“Few politicians in Washington knew what it was like to have bill collectors incessantly ringing their phones about balances that kept growing every month,” McGhee writes in her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.

Demos’s explanatory attempts failed. . . . For McGhee, the disaster was an education in the limits of research, which is often no match for the brute power of big money. But as she was walking down the hallway of the Russell Senate Office Building, she learned something else.

. . . She heard “the bombastic voice of a man going on about the deadbeats who had babies with multiple women and then declared bankruptcy to dodge the child support.” She doesn’t know whether the man was a Democrat or a Republican, but when she heard him she realized she and her allies might have missed something. They’d thought of debt and bankruptcy primarily as a class issue. Suddenly she understood that for some of her opponents, it was more about race. . . .

McGhee’s book is about the many ways racism has defeated efforts to create a more economically just America. Once the civil rights movement expanded America’s conception of “the public,” white America’s support for public goods collapsed. People of color have suffered the most from the resulting austerity, but it’s made life a lot worse for most white people, too. McGhee’s central metaphor is that of towns and cities that closed their public pools rather than share them with Black people, leaving everyone who couldn’t afford a private pool materially worse off. . . .

McGhee argues that it’s futile to try to address decades of disinvestment in schools, infrastructure, health care and more without talking about racial resentment.

. . . McGhee and her colleagues, she writes, discovered that if you “try to convince anyone but the most committed progressives . . . about big public solutions without addressing race, most will agree … right up until they hear the countermessage that does talk, even implicitly, about race.”

. . . Her work illuminates what’s always seemed to me to be a central contradiction in certain kinds of anti-racist consciousness-raising, which is that many people want more privilege rather than less. You have to have an oddly high opinion of white people to assume that most will react to learning about the advantages of whiteness by wanting to give it up.

“Communicators have to be aware of the mental frameworks of their audience,” McGhee told me. “And for white Americans, the zero-sum is a profound, both deeply embedded and constantly reinforced one.”

This doesn’t mean that the concept of white privilege isn’t useful; obviously it describes something real. . . . “However, I think at this point in our discourse — also when so many white people feel deeply unprivileged — it’s more important to talk about the world we want for everyone.”

So McGhee is trying to shift the focus from how racism benefits white people to how it costs them. Why is student debt so crushing in a country that once had excellent universities that were cheap or even free? Why is American health care such a disaster? Why is our democracy being strangled by minority rule? As the first line of McGhee’s book asks, “Why can’t we have nice things?” Racism is a huge part of the answer.

McGhee describes a “solidarity dividend” gained when people are able to transcend racism. Look at what just happened in Georgia, where the billionaire Kelly Loeffler, in an attempt to keep her Senate seat, waged a nakedly racist campaign against Raphael Warnock, who ran on sending voters $2,000 stimulus checks. He still lost most white people, but won enough to prevail. He did it by appealing to idealism, but also to self-interest.

In the fight for true multiracial democracy, counting on altruism will only get you so far.

The Late Molly Ivins on Limbaugh

Talk radio blowhard Rush Limbaugh (1951-2021) is no longer taking calls from his devoted listeners. Texas writer Molly Ivins summed up Limbaugh for Mother Jones in 1995:

One of the things that concerns a lot of Americans lately is the increase in plain old nastiness in our political discussion. It comes from a number of sources, but Rush Limbaugh is a major carrier.

I should explain that I am not without bias in this matter. I have been attacked by Rush Limbaugh on the air, an experience somewhat akin to being gummed by a newt. It doesn’t actually hurt, but it leaves you with slimy stuff on your ankle.

I have a correspondent named Irwin Wingo in Weatherford, Texas. Irwin and some of the leading men of the town are in the habit of meeting about 10 every morning at the Chat’n’Chew Cafe to drink coffee and discuss the state of the world. One of their number is a dittohead, a Limbaugh listener. He came in one day, plopped himself down, and said, “I think Rush is right: Racism in this country is dead. I don’t know what the n____s will find to gripe about now.”

I wouldn’t say that dittoheads, as a group, lack the ability to reason. It’s just that whenever I run across one, he seems to be at a low ebb in reasoning skills. Poor ol’ Bill Sarpalius, one of our dimmer Panhandle congressmen, was once trying to explain to a town hall meeting of his constituents that Limbaugh was wrong when he convinced his listeners that Bill Clinton’s tax package contained a tax increase on the middle class. (It increased taxes only on the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.) A dittohead in the crowd rose to protest: “We don’t send you to Washington to make responsible decisions. We send you there to represent us.”

[Note: If this sounds quite familiar, a Republican official from Pennsylvania was discussing Sen. Pat Toomey, one of the Republicans who voted to convict last week, and said: “We did not send him there to vote his conscience. We did not send him there to ‘do the right thing’ or whatever”. Now back to Molly Ivins.]

The kind of humor Limbaugh uses troubles me deeply, because I have spent much of my professional life making fun of politicians. I believe it is a great American tradition and should be encouraged. . . . So what right do I have to object because Limbaugh makes fun of different pols than I do?

I object because he consistently targets dead people, little girls, and the homeless—none of whom are in a particularly good position to answer back. Satire is a weapon, and it can be quite cruel. It has historically been the weapon of powerless people aimed at the powerful. When you use satire against powerless people, as Limbaugh does, it is not only cruel, it’s profoundly vulgar. It is like kicking a cripple.

On his TV show, early in the Clinton administration, Limbaugh put up a picture of Socks, the White House cat, and asked, “Did you know there’s a White House dog?” Then he put up a picture of Chelsea Clinton, who was 13 years old at the time and as far as I know had never done any harm to anyone.

When viewers objected, he claimed, in typical Limbaugh fashion, that the gag was an accident and that without his permission some technician had put up the picture of Chelsea—which I found as disgusting as his original attempt at humor. . . .

The reason I take Rush Limbaugh seriously is not because he’s offensive or right-wing, but because he is one of the few people addressing a large group of disaffected people in this country. And despite his frequent denials, Limbaugh does indeed have a somewhat cultlike effect on his dittoheads. They can listen to him for three and a half hours a day, five days a week, on radio and television. I can assure you that [cult leader] David Koresh did not harangue the Branch Davidians so long nor so often. But that is precisely what most cult leaders do—talk to their followers hour after hour after hour.

A large segment of Limbaugh’s audience consists of white males, 18 to 34 years old, without college education. Basically, a guy I know and grew up with named Bubba.

Bubba listens to Limbaugh because Limbaugh gives him someone to blame for the fact that Bubba is getting screwed. He’s working harder, getting paid less in constant dollars and falling further and further behind. Not only is Bubba never gonna be able to buy a house, he can barely afford a trailer. Hell, he can barely afford the payments on the pickup.

And because Bubba understands he’s being shafted, even if he doesn’t know why or how or by whom, he listens to Limbaugh. Limbaugh offers him scapegoats. It’s the “feminazis.” It’s the minorities. It’s the limousine liberals. It’s all these people with all these wacky social programs to help some silly, self-proclaimed bunch of victims. Bubba feels like a victim himself—and he is—but he never got any sympathy from liberals.

Psychologists often tell us there is a great deal of displaced anger in our emotional lives—your dad wallops you, but he’s too big to hit back, so you go clobber your little brother. Displaced anger is also common in our political life. We see it in this generation of young white men without much education and very little future. . . . Unfortunately, it is Limbaugh and the Republicans who are addressing the resentments of these folks, and aiming their anger in the wrong direction.

In my state, I have not seen so much hatred in politics since the heyday of the John Birch Society in the early 1960s. Used to be you couldn’t talk politics with a conservative without his getting all red in the face, arteries standing out in his neck, wattles aquiver with indignation—just like a pissed-off turkey gobbler. And now we’re seeing the same kind of anger again.

Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting [FAIR] . . . has a sweet, gentle faith that truth will triumph in the end, and thinks it is sufficient to point out that Limbaugh is wrong. I say it’s important to point out that he’s not just wrong but that he’s ridiculous, one of the silliest people in America. . . .

It’s important to show people that there is much more wrong with Limbaugh’s thinking than just his facts. Limbaugh specializes in ad hominem arguments, which are themselves ridiculously easy to expose. Ted Kennedy says, “America needs health care reform.” Limbaugh replies, “Ted Kennedy is fat.”

Rush Limbaugh’s pathetic abuse of logic, his absurd pomposity, his relentless self-promotion, his ridiculous ego—now those, friends, are appropriate targets for satire.

The Pandemic’s Economic Pain Hasn’t Been Shared

From The Associated Press:

In a stark sign of the economic inequality that has marked the pandemic recession and recovery, Americans as a whole are now earning the same amount in wages and salaries that they did before the virus struck — even with nearly 9 million fewer people working.

The turnaround in total wages underscores how disproportionately America’s job losses have afflicted workers in lower-income occupations rather than in higher-paying industries, where employees have actually gained jobs as well as income since early last year.

In February 2020, Americans earned $9.66 trillion in wages and salaries, at a seasonally adjusted annual rate, according to the Commerce Department data. By April, after the virus had flattened the U.S. economy, that figure had shrunk by 10%. It then gradually recovered before reaching $9.67 trillion in December, the latest period for which data is available.

Those dollar figures include only wages and salaries that people earned from jobs. They don’t include money that tens of millions of Americans have received from unemployment benefits or the Social Security and other aid that goes to many other households. The figures also don’t include investment income.

A separate measure tracked by the Labor Department shows the same result: Total labor income, excluding government workers, was 0.6% higher in January than it was a year earlier.

That is “pretty remarkable,” given the sharp drop in employment, said Michael Feroli, an economist at JPMorgan Chase.

The figures document that the vanished earnings from 8.9 million Americans who have lost jobs to the pandemic remain less than the combined salaries of new hires and the pay raises that the 150 million Americans who have kept their jobs have received.

The job cuts resulting from the pandemic recession have fallen heavily on lower-income workers across the service sector — from restaurants and hotels to retail stores and entertainment venues. By contrast, tens of millions of higher-income Americans, especially those able to work from home, have managed to keep or acquire jobs and continue to receive pay increases.

“We’ve never seen anything like that before,” said Richard Deitz, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, referring to the concentration of job losses. “It’s a totally different kind of downturn than we’ve experienced in modern times.”

Of the nearly 10 million jobs that have been eliminated by the pandemic, 40% have been in restaurants, bars, hotels, arts, and entertainment. Retailers have lost nearly 400,000 jobs and many low-paying health care workers, such as nursing home attendants and home health care aides, have also been laid off.

On average, restaurant workers make just below $13 an hour, according to Labor Department data. Retail cashier pay is about the same. That’s less than half the economy-wide average of nearly $30 an hour.

“It tells the story of an economy that has really tanked for the most vulnerable,” said Elise Gould, an economist at the liberal Economic Policy Institute. “It’s shocking how small a dent that has made in the aggregate.”

The figures also underscore the unusually accelerated nature of this recession. . . . “This is one of the worst recessions we’ve ever had — compressed into one-tenth of the time that a normal recession would take,” said Ernie Tedeschi, policy economist at the investment bank Evercore ISI. . . .

The recovery in wages and salaries helps explain why some states haven’t suffered as sharp a drop in tax revenue as many had feared. That is especially true for states that rely on progressive taxes that fall more heavily on the rich. California, for example, said last month that it has a $15 billion budget surplus. Yet many cities are still struggling, and local transit agencies, such as New York City’s subway, have been hammered by the pandemic.

The wage and salary data also helps explain the steady gains in the stock market, which have been led by high-tech companies whose products are being heavily purchased and used by higher-income Americans . . .

This week, the New York Fed released research that underscored how focused the job losses have been. For people making less than $30,000 a year, employment has fallen 14% as of December. For those earning more than $85,000, it has actually risen slightly. For those in-between, employment has fallen 4%. . . .

Some companies have cut wages in this recession, but on the whole the many millions of Americans fortunate enough to keep their jobs have generally received pay raises at largely pre-recession rates. . . .

Unquote.

Another group that must have done relatively well is people who are retired. Social Security payments and pensions have stayed where they were and investment returns have generally been very good.

A Suggestion for Fixing America

Two professors writing for Foreign Policy see a way to simultaneously repair our country’s politics and economics (I’ve left out some of their analysis). Whether or not it succeeded, it wouldn’t hurt:

According to the Brookings Institution, Biden won 509 counties to [the other guy’s] 2,547—that’s over five times as many won by [the Republican]. But here’s the kicker. Biden’s counties constitute 71 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, [the loser’s] less than 30 percent. Surely we must somehow factor this into how we think about why people vote the way they do? How does growth, or the lack thereof, determine elections?

What we see in U.S. politics today is the death and dissolution of a particular social coalition that dominated politics and economics and underwrote social peace for three generations; call it the carbon coalition.

The carbon coalition was an encompassing political coalition, built on a set of agreements negotiated between 1932 and 1950, that distributed the income generated by the industrial economy among groups within society. In the auto and steel industries, the most dynamic of that era, United Auto Workers and General Motors signed the 1950 Treaty of Detroit, which tied pay to productivity. This created a path to prosperity for two generations of workers in manufacturing.

Meanwhile, to bring rural areas into the coalition, the urban middle class paid higher prices for food and accepted permanent agricultural subsidies so that farmers could enjoy higher incomes. These agreements drew together labor, business, and farmers; the North and the South; the Great Plains and the Great Lakes into one settlement. This broadly inclusive distributive coalition in turn softened the sectional and partisan divisions that had roiled U.S. politics almost continuously since the 1890s.

. . . This political coalition was in fact entirely dependent on a particular growth model: an extremely fossil fuel-intensive agro-industrial economy.

It is only a slight exaggeration to suggest that the United States’ postwar economy was a massive machine that transformed oil, coal, and natural gas into income and food. Consider the following: In 1971, automobile production directly and indirectly provided 1 of every 6 jobs in the U.S. economy. Most of these jobs were unionized, or, if not, most workers enjoyed wages and benefits that spilled over from union agreements. Then add to these jobs others created by the interstate highway program, by the oil and gas industry, and by the retail sale of gasoline and the repair and maintenance of automobiles. And then throw in jobs in aviation, shipping, and agriculture, which became increasingly energy intensive due to the use of diesel-fueled equipment and through the use of natural gas to manufacture artificial fertilizer. Finally come jobs in plastics and petrochemicals.

The carbon coalition distributed the income generated by the carbon economy. Elections determined those distributions. That model is now dying and indeed, given climate change, must die. The politics it made possible are dying too.

The carbon economy has been in decline for decades, but the [political effects are only now becoming visible.

The center of economic dynamism and wealth generation in the United States now lies in knowledge-intensive (or at least high-value-added) industries, some of which, like pharmaceuticals, are research intensive and some of which, like various forms of media, are creative.

Although this knowledge economy is diverse, these activities share one overarching commonality: None require (much less depend on) fossil fuels. Indeed, their survival over the long haul depends on successfully switching out of carbon completely. Productivity in these activities doesn’t come from more energy and bigger machines applied to faster assembly lines but from improvements in our ability to manipulate, analyze, and monetize information.

The economy that drives U.S. GDP growth today is already post-carbon. And though many of its activities are energy intensive (server farms consume more than more than 2 percent of the world’s electricity use; financial services consume more electricity than any other industry in New York City), the energy they consume can come as readily from wind and solar as from coal and natural gas. This isn’t the case for the internal combustion engine, for the steel from which its constructed, and for the oil extraction, refining, and distribution systems that support it. Nor is it true for an ammonia plant or for cement or aviation. Farmers cannot substitute solar energy for artificial fertilizer.

The U.S. economy is thus now divided in two: a growing and potentially sustainable post-carbon economy that can adapt to the realities of climate change and a carbon economy in decline that is unsustainable. . . .

Americans no longer live in the same economy.  Rather, they live in two incompatible models of economic growth. Those who remain embedded in the carbon economy quite rationally want to defend and rejuvenate that model. In contrast, those who have found a spot in the post-carbon economy largely embrace the future. . . .

Today, the firms and sectors that make up each of the two growth models fund elections and determine the strategy of their parties.

The post-carbon coalition dominates the Democratic Party. This coalition brings together a West Coast variant composed of high-margin agriculture (think wine), Big Tech, entertainment, and digital and high-end services and an East Coast variant based largely on financial services. These post-carbonites embrace some variant of the Green New Deal, which identifies the climate crisis as the most critical issue the country faces and offers a coherent policy response.

The carbon economy coalition that dominates the Republican Party includes export agriculture, carbon extraction, refinement and production, steel and other declining traditional industrial sectors, as well as low-wage and low productivity services (think Walmart over Accenture). This fragment of the original carbon coalition remains committed to defending and rebooting the carbon economy; this is what “Make America Great Again” means. . . .

The United States’ two coalitions cannot be brought together. Indeed, they are existential threats to each other. And on a population scale, each electoral coalition has more or less the same number of potential voters. As a result, elections are decided by thin margins in a race to the death. . . .

For almost half of U.S. states, the Green New Deal, which is—sotto voce—at the center of Biden’s platform, spells the end of their existing strategies—think fracking, refining, plastics, mining, logging, and so on. And for the other half of the states that support the deal, scaling back its objectives to attract support from the carbon coalition threatens the post-carbon coastal communities. . . .

There is only one way to fix this mess. The post-carbon coalition has to bribe what’s left of [the carbon coalition] to make [a] transition. Non-coastal, largely Republican states must be the epicenter of the green transition and be the recipients of most of the investment. After all, they have the most assets to turn around and the most to lose if they are not compensated. If all they are offered is “you decarbonize/we keep the money,” then all they will give back is more [right-wing radicalism].

There are clear parallels in U.S. history, such as the massive bribe that the urban sector began paying to farmers in 1933 with the Agricultural Adjustment Act and two generations of generous farm bills . . . thereafter. Yet the bribe this time must involve more than a subsidy; it requires exiting the carbon economy. For it to work, green investment must extend well beyond energy capture (solar and wind farms) and downstream into industries that are powered by alternatives. Massive investments in electric vehicle production, for instance, to support a rapid turnover of the U.S. motor vehicle fleet with U.S.-built cars and trucks, are required. . . .

Elections in the United States are not being fought over rival principles and certainly not over median voters. They are contested over which parts of the country will grow and how and who will pay for it. Recognizing this is the first step to fixing the deeper problem of the carbon transition for the good of all Americans.