If Only Silly Talk Fixed America’s Infrastructure

What’s known as Biden’s “infrastructure bill” is actually called “The American Jobs Plan”. There’s an 11,000 word summary at the White House site. These are the opening paragraphs from what would print out as twenty, single-spaced pages:

While the American Rescue Plan [the Covid relief bill] is changing the course of the pandemic and delivering relief for working families, this is no time to build back to the way things were. This is the moment to reimagine and rebuild a new economy. The American Jobs Plan is an investment in America that will create millions of good jobs, rebuild our country’s infrastructure, and position the United States to out-compete China. Public domestic investment as a share of the economy has fallen by more than 40 percent since the 1960s. The American Jobs Plan will invest in America in a way we have not invested since we built the interstate highways and won the Space Race.

The United States of America is the wealthiest country in the world, yet we rank 13th when it comes to the overall quality of our infrastructure. After decades of disinvestment, our roads, bridges, and water systems are crumbling. Our electric grid is vulnerable to catastrophic outages. Too many lack access to affordable, high-speed Internet and to quality housing. The past year has led to job losses and threatened economic security, eroding more than 30 years of progress in women’s labor force participation. It has unmasked the fragility of our caregiving infrastructure. And, our nation is falling behind its biggest competitors on research and development (R&D), manufacturing, and training. It has never been more important for us to invest in strengthening our infrastructure and competitiveness, and in creating the good-paying, union jobs of the future.

Instead of a debate about the details, we’re getting a stupid argument about the word “infrastructure”. Paul Waldman of The Washington Post discusses:

Republicans are still road-testing their attacks on the giant infrastructure bill Democrats are assembling, and while some are predictable (It would be disastrous to raise taxes on corporations!), their most frequent one is not only weak; it also shows how disconnected the debate in Washington can sometimes get from the things that actually affect people’s lives.

Unfortunately, the news media are giving them a big hand.

If this past weekend you tuned into the Sunday shows, where the conventional wisdom is lovingly shaped and admired, you would have seen the same theme replayed over and over about the infrastructure bill:

  • “This $2 trillion ask, only about 5 percent of the funding goes to infrastructure,” Margaret Brennan of CBS News’s “Face the Nation” asked Cecilia Rouse, chair of the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers. “Can you honestly call this a focus on building roads and bridges?” [Mr. Waldman lists three more examples from NBC, ABC and Fox, but one is painful enough.]

First, let’s be clear that the “only 5 percent” counts as “real infrastructure” talking point is utterly bogus. It defines infrastructure as only roads and bridges, leaving out railroads, water and sewer systems, the electrical grid, broadband, housing and any number of other things that you probably think of when you hear the word.

The idea that only roads and bridges are infrastructure is like saying, “You said your house needed work, but the floors and walls seem fine. Why bother fixing the leaking pipes and the broken roof and the electrical system that shorts out? That’s not really the core of the house, which as we all know is floors and walls and nothing else.”

But the more important question is: Why in the world would it possibly matter what definition of “infrastructure” we use?

Imagine it’s a few years from now. This bill has passed and as a result, the crumbling bridge in your town has been replaced and the roads have been resurfaced — no more banging your car over all those potholes. In addition, there’s a new senior center in town with all kinds of facilities and services, operated by a skilled staff making a living wage.

Do you think your neighbors will say, “I like the bridge and the roads, but the senior center? Sure, my mother-in-law loves her fitness class there, and they helped her solve that Medicare problem she had, but it just doesn’t seem like ‘infrastructure’ to me.”

Of course not, because that’s not what people care about. They want to know that government did worthwhile things with their tax dollars, whatever category you might put each line-item into.

Now it’s true that Democrats have indeed thought broadly about what to put in this bill, including things that are not installed by burly men in hardhats but that they believe are important. Republicans may find some of those things — like building housing, or improving care for the elderly and disabled, or promoting electric vehicles — not to be worthwhile. Which is fine.

But if that’s what Republicans think, they should explain why we shouldn’t actually build more housing, and we shouldn’t fund care for the elderly, and we shouldn’t promote electric vehicles. Just saying “That doesn’t sound like ‘infrastructure’ to me” is not an argument. This isn’t the Merriam-Webster editorial board; it’s the U.S. government.

So what if instead of asking Is this really infrastructure? about the various provisions in this bill, we ask Is this a good thing?

You can apply that standard to both road repairs and increased spending on elder care. Is this something important and worthwhile? Will funding it in the way that is proposed accomplish the goals we set out? Will it improve life for Americans?

If the answer to those questions is yes, then we should probably do it.

There may well be provisions in the initial proposal that don’t meet that test. But I want to hear Republicans explain why they think we shouldn’t invest in elder care or electric vehicle charging stations. Maybe their arguments are so well-informed and persuasive that we’ll say, “You know what, they’re right — Democrats should take that out of the bill.” I doubt it, but it’s always possible.

That’s how policy debate is supposed to work: We argue about which problems need addressing, then we argue about which solutions to deploy. If it all works out, the legislation that gets passed reflects the outcome of that deliberation, with the unworthy ideas jettisoned and the worthy ideas becoming law. But arguing about the definition of words such as “infrastructure” gets us precisely nowhere.

Yet because one of the parties is repeating this talking point, journalists feel that to be “tough” they have to use it to frame their questioning of the other party. The result is that we miss what’s really important.

Unquote.

Calling talk show hosts “journalists” is an insult to journalism. “Talking heads” would be more accurate. “Overpaid talking heads” to be more precise. We can hope, however, that talking about semantics will serve to educate the public, the politicians and even some talking heads.

Meanwhile, Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia “Democrat”, says he can’t support putting the corporate tax rate back at 28%. Playing the sensible statesman for the folks back home, he thinks 25% would be all right. In a way, it’s good that he’s got so much power at the moment, providing the last vote for Democratic initiatives. It shows that Biden is trying to make progressive changes. If the president was being more conservative, Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders would be the 50th vote. So we’ll continue to hear Manchin’s pronouncements. He must love all the attention.

Twitter Banning Him May Be More Important Than We Thought

Paul Waldman of The Washington Post thinks we haven’t yet realized how important it is that Twitter banned the creep. That’s because journalists and others who dominate the national conversation use Twitter a lot:

The silence is remarkable.

For all that’s happening — President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, the threat of right-wing violence, the coronavirus death toll approaching 400,000 — the loudest voice in American life for the past five years has been reduced to a whisper. President Txxxx is not on Twitter.

On Jan. 8, Twitter’s leadership finally decided that it had had enough of Txxxx using the platform to spread lies and incite violence and barred him from the service. According to a new Post/ABC News poll, 58 percent of the public supported the move (though that includes 91 percent of Democrats and only 16 percent of Republicans).

But the magnitude of that decision still hasn’t been fully appreciated. The fact that this one social media company decided to shut down this one account might have completely reshaped American politics for the coming few years.

Until 10 days ago, nearly everyone assumed that Txxxx would be in a unique place for a defeated ex-president, retaining a hold on his party’s base that would make him the axis around which the Republican world revolved.

His opinions would shape the party’s approach to Biden’s presidency. He would make or break Republican officeholders, depending on their loyalty to him. Everyone within the party — especially those who want to run for president themselves in 2024 — would have to grovel before him, just as they have for so long. The GOP would still be Txxxx’s party, in nearly every sense.

But not anymore.

As much as we’ve talked about Txxxx’s tweets for all these years, if anything we might have underestimated how central Twitter was to his power. Without it — especially as an ex-president — he’ll be like Samson without his hair, all his strength taken from him.

Twitter was so important to Txxxx, according to Shannon McGregor, an assistant professor at the . . . University of North Carolina, because of a few critical features of the platform itself and who uses it.

First, “Twitter is the space for political and media elites,” McGregor told me. Facebook has many more users, but journalists are on Twitter constantly, which means that when Txxxx spoke there, he was speaking to them.

So even if Facebook lets Txxxx back on (it, too, banned him, but so far only through the inauguration), that won’t give him the ability to send a missive and then sit back as one news organization after another runs stories about it, multiplying its effects. “Whatever he said on Twitter ended up on the news,” McGregor said. According to research McGregor conducted . . ., when President Barack Obama tweeted during his second term, 3 percent of the time the tweet would find its way into a news story. The figure for Txxxx’s tweets during his term was 65 percent.

Second, the platform provided him a place to speak uncontested. He could say whatever he wanted without being challenged, at least in the moment.

Third, his Twitter presence enabled him to constantly reinforce an affinity between himself and his supporters by speaking to them not only about politics but also about plenty of other topics.

Txxxx connected with them “because he was so genuinely himself, for better and for worse, on Twitter,” McGregor told me. They identified with his opinions about everything, whether it was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or the merits of KFC or the latest celebrity scandal.

“That’s the reason influencers of all stripes are successful, because of that sense of intimacy” that social media can create, McGregor said. [Twitter] allowed people to make that connection between him and themselves” as they responded to the news together.

When he’s not president, Txxxx will have means of speaking to the public — he can call in to “Fox & Friends,” for instance — but he won’t be surrounded by reporters waiting to write down his every word, so he’ll have to work harder to get the attention of the press. Without Twitter, he won’t be able to speak to his people on an hourly basis, maintaining that affinity and crowding out the other Republicans who might compete for their affection.

He could go to some upstart conservative social media platform, like Gab or Parler (if it gets restored). But those don’t have the mainstream legitimacy he craves, and reporters aren’t on them, so their reach is much more limited.

That means that when new events occur, Txxxx won’t be able to make himself the core of the story. He won’t be able to constantly remind Republicans that they need to fear him. While many of his supporters will remain loyal, others will drift away, not turning against him but just no longer thinking about him every day.

That will create a vacuum into which other Republicans can move as they position themselves for 2024, not because they’re such Twitter ninjas themselves, but because space will have been created for something more like a normal, non-Txxxx presidential nominating contest.

There are profound questions about the role social media now plays in our political process. I agree both with those who argue that Twitter banning Txxxx was long overdue (his account was the single most important nexus of misinformation on the entire platform) and that it’s deeply troubling that a private company has this much power.

But, for now, it does. And so one company’s decision to finally say no to a president who used it to inject poison into the American political bloodstream for years has remade the future of the Republican Party, and perhaps the whole country.

Txxxx will still play a role in his party and in our politics; we won’t shake off this horrific presidency so easily. But that blissful quiet, as we no longer have him shouting in our ears every day? We could get used to that.

Is It a Political “Lord of the Flies”?

We human beings like explanations for strange phenomena. The way one of our political parties has become incredibly extreme is one of those strange phenomena that cry out for an explanation. I’m sure there is no single, simple reason, but Prof. Paul Krugman gives it a shot:

There have always been people like Dxxxx Txxxx: self-centered, self-aggrandizing, believing that the rules apply only to the little people and that what happens to the little people doesn’t matter.

The modern [Republican Party], however, isn’t like anything we’ve seen before, at least in American history. If there’s anyone who wasn’t already persuaded that one of our two major political parties has become an enemy, not just of democracy, but of truth, events since the election should have ended their doubts.

It’s not just that a majority of House Republicans and many Republican senators are backing Txxxx’s efforts to overturn his election loss, even though there is no evidence of fraud or widespread irregularities. Look at the way David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler are campaigning in the Senate runoffs in Georgia.

They aren’t running on issues, or even on real aspects of their opponents’ personal history. Instead they’re claiming, with no basis in fact, that their opponents are Marxists or “involved in child abuse”. That is, the campaigns to retain Republican control of the Senate are based on lies.

On Sunday Mitt Romney excoriated Ted Cruz and other congressional Republicans’ attempts to undo the presidential election, asking, “Has ambition so eclipsed principle?” But what principle does Romney think the [Grand Old Party] has stood for in recent years? It’s hard to see anything underlying recent Republican behavior beyond the pursuit of power by any means available.

So how did we get here? What happened to the Republican Party?

It didn’t start with Txxxx. On the contrary, the party’s degradation has been obvious, for those willing to see it, for many years.

Way back in 2003 I wrote that Republicans had become a radical force hostile to America as it is, potentially aiming for a one-party state in which “elections are only a formality.” In 2012 Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein warned that the G.O.P. was “unmoved by conventional understanding of facts” and “dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition”.

If you’re surprised by the eagerness of many in the party to overturn an election based on specious claims of fraud, you weren’t paying attention.

But what is driving the Republican descent into darkness?

Is it a populist backlash against elites? It’s true that there’s resentment over a changing economy that has boosted highly educated metropolitan areas at the expense of rural and small-town America; Txxxx received 46 percent of the vote, but the counties he won represented only 29 percent of America’s economic output. There’s also a lot of white backlash over the nation’s growing racial diversity.

The past two months have, however, been an object lesson in the extent to which “grass roots” anger is actually being orchestrated from the top. If a large part of the Republican base believes, groundlessly, that the election was stolen, it’s because that’s what leading figures in the party have been saying. Now politicians are citing widespread skepticism about the election results as a reason to reject the outcome — but they themselves conjured that skepticism out of thin air.

And what’s striking if you look into the background of the politicians stoking resentment against elites is how privileged many of them are. Josh Hawley, the first senator to declare that he would object to certification of the election results, rails against elites but is himself a graduate of Stanford and Yale Law School. Cruz, now leading the effort, has degrees from Princeton and Harvard.

. . . These aren’t people who have been mistreated by the system. So why are they so eager to bring the system down?

I don’t think it’s just cynical calculation, a matter of playing to the base. As I said, the base is in large part taking its cues from the party elite. And the craziness of that elite doesn’t seem to be purely an act.

My best guess is that we’re looking at a party that has gone feral — that has been cut off from the rest of society.

People have compared the modern G.O.P. to organized crime or a cult, but to me, Republicans look more like the lost boys in “Lord of the Flies.” They don’t get news from the outside world, because they get their information from partisan sources that simply don’t report inconvenient facts. They don’t face adult supervision, because in a polarized political environment there are few competitive races.

So they’re increasingly inward-looking, engaged in ever more outlandish efforts to demonstrate their loyalty to the tribe. Their partisanship isn’t about issues, although the party remains committed to cutting taxes on the rich and punishing the poor; it’s about asserting the dominance of the in-group and punishing outsiders.

The big question is how long America as we know it can survive in the face of this malevolent tribalism.

The current attempt to undo the presidential election won’t succeed, but it has gone on far longer and attracted much more support than almost anyone predicted. And unless something happens to break the grip of anti-democratic, anti-truth forces on the G.O.P., one day they will succeed in killing the American experiment.

Unquote.

Krugman offers two explanations: (1) Republicans are living in a closed, right-wing information loop and (2) most Republican politicians never face serious electoral competition from the left — they fear competition from radical Republicans who are even further to the right. Maybe reason (1) is the explanation for reason (2)? It’s only because of the closed information loop that members of the party move further and further to the right.

But why is there this closed information loop? My guess is that Republicans hate the reality of contemporary America so much — uppity women, uppity Blacks, immigrants from Latin America, professional people who tell them uncomfortable truths, a society and a culture that become less traditional every day — that they much prefer news and information that isn’t based in reality. If you can’t stand the reality of the modern world, avoid it as much as possible. People like Rupert Murdoch and Rush Limbaugh (and Mark Zuckerberg) then come along and see how much money they can make propagating a right-wing fantasy world millions prefer to live in. The result is a vicious circle. The fantastic media feeds the masses and the masses demand media that’s ever more fantastic. Down and down the spiral goes and it still hasn’t hit bottom.

Hoping for the Best & Getting the Worst

David Roberts is a writer for Vox who I don’t follow on Twitter anymore (he’s @drvox, but not a doctor). I don’t follow him because he’s so good at pointing out how bad things are. But somebody linked to what he posted today:

Untitled2

Among the many reasons this is horseshit, this whole genre of liberal-scolding rests on the premise that the offended heartlanders are responding to what Democrats actually say — the intramural debates in which people like (NY Times columnist Maureen) Dowd are involved. They’re not! 

By & large, Txxxx’s base has no idea what Dems actually say or do. They are responding to a ludicrous caricature they see on (Right Wing) media & RW social media. They are responding to lies & conspiracy theories. Dems changing how they talk *won’t change any of that*. 

It’s very weird how America’s elite journalists/pundits/etc. wring their hands over “post-truth politics” & the problem of misinformation, but then turn around & treat the things voters do as a direct response to Dem “messaging.” Voters rarely HEAR Dem messaging. Because — stop me if you’ve heard me say this a trillion times — the RW has a giant propaganda machine that carries their messages directly to the ears (& id) of their voters. Dems lob messages out into the (Main Stream Media) & hope for the best.

Unquote.

He could have added “& often get the worst”.

America Is Totally Screwed, Well, Maybe 90% Screwed

Margaret Sullivan, who writes an excellent column about the news media for The Washington Post, gave some stern advice to her fellow journalists this morning:

First, be bolder and more direct than ever in telling it like it is. No more pussyfooting or punch-pulling. No more of what’s been called “false equivalence” — giving equal weight to truth and lies in the name of fairness.

Can mainstream outlets, influential as they are, really go up against the counter-messaging on places like Fox News, or Steve Bannon’s podcast or fact-averse outlets like Newsmax?

This battle can’t be fought with facts alone, argues journalism scholar Nikki Usher of the University of Illinois.

The only hope, she wrote, is for mainstream journalism to appeal to passion as well as reason — “providing moral clarity along with truthful content.” Or, as NYU’s Jay Rosen recently wrote, journalism must reposition itself in the media ecosystem, to seize this moment in history to take a clear stance, in everything it does, as “pro-truth, pro-voting, anti-racist, and aggressively pro-democracy.”

In other words, the reality-based press has to unapologetically stand for something. Otherwise, it’s just a pallid alternative to the excitement of burgeoning lies. . . .

Can journalists, mired in our “how we’ve always done it” mind-set, really change their stripes to fight the war on disinformation? Can we be more clear and direct, embrace a moral purpose, help to educate news consumers? And even if we do, will it make a significant difference?

I have serious doubts about the answers to those questions. But I do know that we have to try.

Soon thereafter, I saw the name “Chuck Todd” trending on Twitter. Todd is the host of Meet the Press, probably America’s best-known Sunday morning political talk show. He works for NBC, one of the networks Americans rely on for reality-based journalism. It was disturbing to see what he’d done this morning:

Untitled

Really? We are totally screwed if this is what passes for reality on NBC.

I couldn’t find a video where he actually expressed doubt about Biden winning, so I did a search for “Chuck Todd” and found a Meet the Press transcript for this morning’s show. Here’s that part. He’s interviewing a Republican senator from North Dakota:

CHUCK TODD:

I mean, are you really saying that the president is — you’re out there saying that the president’s not encouraging somehow any way of sort of being disorderly about this. How is that not encouraging disruption and disorderly — he’s accusing the entire system of being corrupt. Is that not undermining the democracy?

SEN. KEVIN CRAMER:

Well, first of all, what they’re claiming is that there’s a lot of evidence and they’re presenting that evidence in cases. Now, it’s up to them to present that evidence, Chuck, obviously. And we’ve yet to see a real hearing where evidence was presented. And, and they’re not obligated to present it, you know, yesterday or tomorrow, although the sooner the better from my perspective. But I’m just speaking strictly now from this “attack on democracy,” as you call it. This is, these are legal systems. This is, these are processes that are in our Constitution, in our laws, and they’re not just appropriate, but they’re really an obligation, frankly, to the millions of Americans that President Trump is a reflection of. I know, you know, a lot of people like to think that we’re the reflection of him. He’s the reflection of millions of people that want to see him fight this to the end. Now, there has to be an end, Chuck. I agree there has to be an end. I, frankly, do think it’s time to — well, it was past time to start a transition, to at least cooperate with the transition. I’d rather have a president that has more than one day to prepare, should Joe Biden, you know, end up winning this. But in the meantime, again, he’s just exercising his legal options.

CHUCK TODD:

I just want to confirm. You believe that the head of GSA [the General Services Administration], tomorrow morning at this point, ought to say, “The transition needs to begin. It looks like Joe Biden’s going to be the apparent winner. Yes, there’s more to go through.” If this is what the head of GSA said, “Yes, there’s still more to go through, but it looks like Joe Biden’s the apparent winner. Let’s allow the transition process to begin,” should that be what happens tomorrow morning?

SEN. KEVIN CRAMER:

Yes, it should happen tomorrow morning because it didn’t happen last Monday morning. I just think you have to begin that process, give the incoming administration all the time they need.

So it wasn’t as bad as people were saying. He was putting words in the mouth of the Republican jerk who runs the GSA and still hasn’t started the official transition to the new administration, two weeks after we knew who won. Maybe we aren’t totally screwed yet. 

Nevertheless, he did give a Republican politician several minutes on national TV to defend the indefensible. His audience got to hear a U.S. senator claim it’s reasonable that millions of voters want a sociopath to spread lies and undermine what’s left of our democracy. So maybe it’s only 90%.

Some good news, however: Biden now leads the maniac by more than six million votes. That margin will grow as laggard states, like New York, keep counting. He’ll end up with more than 80 million votes, the most ever for a presidential candidate. He’s won 306 electoral votes to the maniac’s 232, the same number the maniac got in 2016 (when he called it a “landslide”).

Most importantly, he made DDT (a more apt acronym than “DJT”) a one-term president. Since Franklin Roosevelt won his fourth term in 1944, only Jimmy Carter and the first George Bush have run for president as incumbents and lost (Truman and Johnson chose not to run). We know this election shouldn’t have been as close as it was, but, considering the alternative, having JRB in place of DDT counts for a lot.