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Obama’s “mess of pottage”

9:45 am in Uncategorized by Eric Laursen

Barak Obama is the first Democratic president to advocate cutting Social Security benefits. Whatever happens next, this is a historic change of direction for his party and an ominous turning point for the American social/economic compact.

Esau Selling His Birthright

In the Bible—Book of Genesis, to be precise—Esau returns, exhausted and famished, from working in the fields, and sees his brother Jacob eating. He asks if he can share, and Jacob says yes—but as the price of his “mess of pottage,” he must give Jacob his birthright. He agrees, and thus is inaugurated the prosperity of the descendants of Jacob and the impoverishment of Esau’s.

This ancient tale is being repeated today in Washington, where the first months of the second Obama administration are shaping up as a historic disaster for American working people. It’s also a momentous turning point for the Democratic Party, now led by a business and professional elite convinced that to survive as a brand, the party must serve as executioner of the social contract that created that brand to begin with.

First, the Obama administration, and congressional Democrats, agreed to a deal to end the artificial “fiscal cliff” crisis that made the vast majority of the Bush tax cuts permanent—in fact, rescued them from imminent expiration. In return, they got a temporary extension of unemployment benefits, a two-month delay of sequestration, and extension of child care and tuition tax credits. All of which are quite nice in their own way, but small potatoes—nothing that Washington couldn’t easily scuttle at some point in the near future, just as it cast aside Obama’s signature anti-poverty measure, the Making Work pay tax credit, when that one became inconvenient.

The president, in other words, received a “mess of pottage” in return for surrendering something of inestimable value to the Republicans, something the GOP had been fighting for a decade to consummate. Crucially, only nine of the 77 members of the House Progressive Caucus voted against the bill, encouraging the White House that it could go further and making clear to voters from working households that their ability to hold their alleged champions in line is fading. The fiscal cliff drama served notice that less and less of an effective countervailing force exists to the Washington consensus, deepening the chasm that separates The Village from any meaningful connection with the 99%.

Now, it’s happening again, via the president’s budget. This time, the deal is for another $680 billion-some in revenues over 10 years by limiting tax breaks. This is calculated to please the deficit hawks by raising Obama’s 10-year deficit reduction total to $4.3 trillion, topping the $4 trillion that the center-right cargo cult has touted as its magic number. In return, the White House proposes, quite literally, to surrender the Democratic Party’s birthright—its stewardship of Social Security, the capstone of the New Deal and the foundation of working Americans’ party loyalty—what remains of it, that is.

By beginning the process of redefining Social Security downward, the Obama administration is taking the first major step toward dismantling the Democratic “brand”—its commitment, never perfect to begin with, to provide a social underpinning to American capitalism. For the vast majority of Americans, the “Democratic Party” label means less and less. Read the rest of this entry →

ALEC’s bigger target: Social Security

11:06 am in Uncategorized by Eric Laursen

The low-key “legislative exchange” group has been in the news a lot, promoting right-wing bills in state governments. But it seeks a role on the national level as well. One of its longtime targets is one of the biggest: Social Security.

Jeb Bush in 2003. Photo by Marion Doss.

The American Legislative Exchange Council is taking some flack – and burnishing its conservative credentials – due to the remarkable success of some controversial initiatives. Model bills that have made it onto the books in multiple states thanks to ALEC members of those state’s legislatures include laws mandating stringent new voter ID rules and “stand your ground” laws that helped create the poisoned atmosphere accompanying the tragic gunning down of Trayvon Martin.

What’s sometimes overlooked is that part of ALEC’s goal is for its work at the state level to have a cumulative effect – leading, wherever possible, to legal changes in Congress as well.

One of ALEC’s oldest and most consistently pursued causes has been
the dismantlement of public-employee pension systems. It won a major victory in this fight in May 2000, when the Florida State Legislature passed a bill setting up a 401(k)-type savings plan alongside the traditional, defined benefit pension plan for state workers. The new law allowed state employees to opt out of the existing system and move their assets to a new Public Employee Optional Retirement Program (PEORP). It was the product of an intense fight that brought more lobbyists – mostly from financial services vendors – to Tallahassee than the state capital had ever seen before.

Read the rest of this entry →

Newt Gingrich Can’t Get With the Program

9:17 am in Uncategorized by Eric Laursen

Why is the Republican Party leadership so scared of Newt Gingrich? Putting aside his generally abrasive personality, his loud streak of megalomania, and his tendency to self-destruct – OK, that’s a lot! – it’s hard to think of much in the way of substantive policy matters that sets the former House speaker apart from the rest of the Republican presidential field.

Oh yes, there’s one thing.

Early last month, when it still seemed that Mitt Romney’s anointment as GOP nominee was a matter of course, the editors of the Wall Street Journal took Gingrich for his position on, of all things, Social Security. The Journal has been pushing for Social Security privatization for decades, but strangely, Read the rest of this entry →

The Greed of the “Bottom Half”

9:22 am in Uncategorized by Eric Laursen

We’ll shortly be hearing the objections of deficit hawks to the deficit reduction package Demos, The Century Foundation, and the Economic Policy Institute. No doubt they’ll echo the criticisms that have already been leveled at the deficit-shrinkage roadmap Rep. Jan Schakowsky put on the table earlier this month. To get a sense of what those criticisms are likely to be, I recently had a close look at a Schakowsky critique by The Atlantic’s resident deficit hawk, Derek Thompson.

The first thing that makes Thompson’s November 16 piece interesting is that it actually acknowledges the existence of Schakowsky’s plan. The second thing, only slightly less extraordinary, is that Thompson makes an effort to analyze and understand the proposal. It took the New York Times nearly two weeks after Schakowsky released it to even note that it was there (and even then, didn’t provide details).

What’s most remarkable about Thompson’s analysis, however, is that he lectures Schakowsky for not squeezing poor and low-income workers hard enough. Read the rest of this entry →

“Inside Job” – See This Movie!

12:34 pm in Uncategorized by Eric Laursen

Charles Ferguson has made a documentary that must be seen if you want to understand why the same people who let the housing bubble and the 2008 financial meltdown happen are still in charge. But if you can’t go out and see Inside Job right away (it opened in New York and Los Angeles Friday), read Ferguson’s article, “Larry Summers and the Subversion of Economics,” summarizing his case in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The thesis of Ferguson’s film (a trailer is available here; a New York Times review is here) is simple, and astonishingly obvious: economics, as a profession, has been subverted by its proximity to power and money.