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.

Sometimes I Think This Country Is Too Stupid To Survive — Part 2

Part 1 dealt with one ridiculous aspect of the story: how the $3.5 trillion everybody is talking about ignores the taxes and cost savings that would approach $3.5 trillion and offset the spending. Paul Waldman of The Washington Post is disgusted with another aspect (“Our Budget Debates Are Insane”):

One of Congress’s main jobs — perhaps its most important — is to decide how to spend the government’s money. And there’s quite a lot of it; in 2022 we’ll be spending around $6 trillion.

Yet the way we talk about budgets in Washington is misconceived, misleading and often downright mad.

Everything wrong with how we think of spending money can be seen in the current negotiations over the social infrastructure bill Democrats hope to pass through reconciliation. But to put this in its proper context, let’s consider another, much bigger bill.

On Thursday, by a vote of 316 to 113, the House passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which will fund our military operations to the tune of $768 billion in the coming year. The nay votes were mostly conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, presumably dissenting for opposite reasons.

If you’ve been following the reconciliation debate — in which people have been absolutely obsessed with the supposedly terrifying number of $3.5 trillion [Note: which ignores the taxes and cost savings that would pay for it!!!] — you might have thought the defense bill would produce enormous breast-beating about out-of-control spending and debt. After all, that $3.5 trillion is over 10 years, or $350 billion a year, less than half of what we’re going to spend on the military.

But that’s not what happened. . . . 

There were no painful negotiations, no ultimatums, no desperate threats. President Biden did not have to beg and plead to secure anyone’s vote. And you sure didn’t see centrist members of Congress expressing deep concern about its size, claiming it was irresponsible to add so much to the national debt — although we’ll easily be spending $8 or $9 trillion on the military over the same 10-year period.

Yet all that has happened on the social infrastructure bill. The bill’s final spending total — whatever it turns out to be — has been imbued with a bizarre talismanic power, as though it represents something meaningful above and beyond what it’s actually buying.

Consider Sen. Joe Manchin III’s (D-W.Va.) description of a White House meeting President Biden held with centrists to try to work out what’s holding back their support:

“He just basically said find a number you’re comfortable with,” Manchin said, adding that Biden’s message was to “please just work on it. Give me a number”.” Manchin told reporters that he didn’t give Biden a number . . . 

. . . Not only do the centrists not know their preferred number, they don’t seem to have many real opinions about what should actually be in the bill. They may object to an item here or there if you press them, but clearly their perspective starts from the conviction that $3.5 trillion is too big; they’ll fill in the details later.

But that’s completely backward. To negotiate a bill such as this is, you ought to begin by deciding what you want to do, then figure out how much it will cost.

It’s not that cost is completely irrelevant, or that there are some things we’d like to do but won’t because they’re too expensive. But we have plenty of money to work with, and the defense bill proves it.

If we decided the reconciliation bill’s paid family leave and universal pre-K and free community college and aggressive moves to promote clean energy were as important as all the guns and bombs and planes and ships in the defense bill, we’d treat it in the same way, by just buying everything without worrying about the price, because we think it’s worthwhile.

This isn’t the first time Democrats have convinced themselves that there was something magical about a particular budget number: In 2009, during internal debates about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and the Affordable Care Act, Obama White House advisers decided that crossing the threshold of a trillion dollars for either bill would make support melt away. As Michael Grunwald put it, “A trillion was a psychological Rubicon.”

The trillion dollar number became like “Candyman” — intone the word too many times and a monster would come to destroy you. Voters would recoil in disgust, lawmakers would cower in terror and the bill would die. So they reduced the size of the recovery bill, even knowing it was too small to give the economy the boost it needed.

Today, the centrists seem to believe that $3.5 trillion — if you’re spending it on Americans’ actual needs . . .  — will have the same effect [on public opinion?] as $1 trillion did in 2009.

But you know who doesn’t care about numbers? Republicans. When they want to pass a gigantic tax cut for the wealthy and corporations, they just do it, no matter what it costs.

You know who else doesn’t care? The public. They don’t have strong feelings about whether the [spending side of the] social infrastructure bill should add up to $3.5 trillion or $2.5 trillion (here’s a poll showing that changing the dollar figure has no effect on opinion). They’re more interested in what government is doing for them.

Which is exactly as it should be. If only [all of the] Democrats in Washington had enough sense to see things the same way.

Much Ado About Not Much

It looks like the Senate will pass an inadequate infrastructure bill after months of discussion. It’s been heralded as a bipartisan breakthrough. But it doesn’t meet the moment, as Katrina vanden Heuvel explains for The Washington Post: 

While the infrastructure deal’s architects are hailing it as proof that bipartisan cooperation is possible, in fact, the deal is both inadequate and disingenuous. Its inadequacy is illustrated by the hundreds of millions of dollars cut from the original administration proposal: no more funding for research and development, for U.S. manufacturing, for public housing, schools and child-care centers, for home and community-based care, or for clean-energy tax credits. The bill also cuts proposed funding for public transit by half, for electric vehicles by 90 percent and for broadband by a third.

The bill is disingenuous both on the spending side and on the revenue side. To lower the bill’s price tag without totally gutting the programs, the bill uses a five-year timeline as opposed to the eight years in the original Biden plan. Because Republicans refuse to consider raising taxes on the rich and the corporations — which most Americans sensibly favor — or even empowering the IRS to collect taxes that the wealthy already owe, the bill offers gimmicks such as collecting unpaid taxes on cryptocurrencies and reclaiming past coronavirus aid funds. Almost half of the supposed $1 trillion price tag is from money already authorized.

The result is that any serious effort to alleviate the real crises facing Americans will depend on progressives corralling Democratic unity around the $3.5 trillion budget resolution that has been put together under the leadership of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). That bill will authorize crucial funding left out of the bipartisan deal — clean energy, research and development, manufacturing aid, housing and schools, child care — as well as sustaining the child tax credit and expanding Medicare coverage.

But to pass the reconciliation bill, Democrats need the votes of all 50 caucus members, and [Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)] have indicated that they may balk at the $3.5 trillion price tag. (Sinema has even said that she won’t allow any votes to interfere with her vacation plans. If she were to carry out that threat, she could torpedo both bills on her way out the door.) Once again, these so-called centrists are standing in the way of Congress addressing catastrophic climate change, investing in civilian research and development, boosting domestic manufacturing vital to our economy, and alleviating inequality and the pressures on working families. Also at stake are the chances Democrats have to retain their majorities in both the House and Senate in the 2022 elections, for their vote will surely be depressed by a failure to deliver.

It’s not that Sinema or Manchin have a specific, principled stance. They just want less. If there is a final agreement, it will probably be reached just like the infrastructure deal, by lowering the total price tag while sustaining most of the annual level of spending by reducing the number of years the programs are authorized. That will give the programs less time to take effect and make them more vulnerable to repeal.

With record wildfires, a terrible pandemic starting to revive, extreme inequality and an economy that doesn’t work for working families, most Americans increasingly realize that it is time for bold action. Yet, we have a Republican Party consumed by delusions and dedicated to making the administration fail. For all the bipartisan blather, Democrats must get it done on their own — despite having only a one-vote margin in the Senate (counting the vice president breaking a tie) and a three-vote margin in the House. And that requires Sinema, Manchin and others to get with the program.

Using the Legal System Against Facebook and Other Titans of the Internet

Two Democratic members of Congress are trying to stop big social media companies from doing so much damage:

Imagine clicking on a Facebook video alleging that a “deep-state cabal” of Satan-worshiping pedophiles stole the election from [a horrible person]. Moments later, your phone rings. The caller says, “Hey, it’s Freddie from Facebook. We noticed you just watched a cool video on our site, so we’ll send you a few dozen more videos about election-related conspiracy theories. As a bonus, we’ll connect you to some people who share your interest in ‘stopping the steal’. You guys should connect and explore your interest together!”

The scenario is, of course, made up. But it basically captures what social media platforms do every day. In the real world, “Freddie from Facebook” is not a person who calls you, but an algorithm that tracks you online, learns what content you spend the most time with and feeds you more of whatever maximizes your engagement — the time you spend on the platform. Greater engagement means that users see more ads, earning Facebook more revenue.

If you like cat videos, great; you’ll get an endless supply. But the same is true for the darkest content on the Web. Human nature being what it is, the content most likely to keep us glued to our screens is that which confirms our prejudices and triggers our basest emotions. Social media algorithms don’t have a conservative or liberal bias, but they know if we do. Their bias is to reinforce ours at the cost of making us more angry, anxious and afraid.

Facebook recently played down the role of its algorithms in exploiting users’ susceptibilities and enabling radicalization. The company says that users, not its product, are largely responsible for the extreme content showing up in their news feeds.

But Facebook knows how powerful its algorithms can be. In 2016, an internal Facebook study found that 64 percent of people who joined an extremist group on the platform did so only because its algorithm recommended it. Recently, a member of the Wolverine Watchmen, the militia accused of trying to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), said he joined the group when it “popped up as a suggestion post” on Facebook because he interacted with pages supporting the Second Amendment.

Policymakers often focus on whether Facebook, YouTube and Twitter should take down hate speech and disinformation. This is important, but these questions are about putting out fires. The problem is that the product these companies make is flammable. It’s that their algorithms deliver to each of us what they think we want to hear, creating individually tailored realities for every American and often amplifying the same content they eventually might choose to take down.

In 1996, Congress passed Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which says that websites are not legally liable for content that users post (with some exceptions). While the law helped to enable the growth of the modern Internet economy, it was enacted 25 years ago when many of the challenges we currently face could not have been predicted. Large Internet platforms no longer function like community bulletin boards; instead, they use sophisticated, opaque algorithms to determine what content their users see. If companies such as Facebook push us to view certain posts or join certain groups, should they bear no responsibility if doing so leads to real-world violence?

We recently introduced a bill that would remove Section 230 protection from large social media companies if their algorithms amplify content that contributes to an act of terrorism or to a violation of civil rights statutes meant to combat extremist groups. Our bill would not force YouTube, Facebook or Twitter to censor or remove content. Instead, it would allow courts in cases involving extreme harm to consider victims’ arguments against the companies on the merits, as opposed to quickly tossing out lawsuits on Section 230 grounds as would happen today.

Liability would incentivize changes the companies know how to make. For example, last year Facebook tested a new system in which users rated posts on their news feeds as “good” or “bad” for the world. The algorithm then fed those users more content that they deemed good while demoting the bad. The experiment worked. The company’s engineers referred to the result as the “nicer news feed.” But there was one problem. The nicer news feed led to less time on Facebook (and thus less ad revenue), so the experiment died.

This is the fundamental issue: Engagement-based algorithms made social media giants some of the most lucrative companies on Earth. They won’t voluntarily change the underlying architecture of their networks if it threatens their bottom line. We must decide what’s more important: protecting their profits or our democracy.

Unquote.

The authors of the article are Rep. Tom Malinowski, who represents a traditionally Republican district in suburban New Jersey, and Rep. Anna Eshoo, who represents the part of California that includes Silicon Valley.