Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Senator Ron Johnson and The American Jobs Act

Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson recently replied to President Obama’s address to the joint session of Congress. In email sent to Wisconsin voters, Senator Johnson called The American Jobs Act “the definition of insanity” because, to the Senator’s way of thinking, it merely repeats American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA).

Actually, Mr. Johnson could not bring himself to use the proper titles of either the ARRA or the President’s proposed legislation. The latter is simply the “latest government stimulus program.” Neither could Mr. Johnson address any of the specifics of the proposed legislation.

Mr. Johnson did begin with ad hominem.

“As I sat listening carefully to our President, it was painfully clear that his remarks were merely a campaign speech. His proposals were designed to assist in his reelection campaign, rather than a serious attempt to forge alliances, address our massive debt, strengthen our economy and create jobs.”

It has been difficult for Republicans to deal with a president who is arguably the best communicator to occupy the Oval Office since President Ronald Reagan. It is particularly grating as this president follows eight years of Mr. George W. Bush, who was the master of malapropisms. President Obama, however, repeatedly spoke to the concerns of both Republicans and opponents in his own party. He appealed for their support in terms of their own goals. Mr. Johnson’s claim that Mr. Obama’s address was only a campaign speech is inaccurate and unfair.

Certainly Mr. Obama’s speech cheered his supporters and annoyed his opponents. It is undeniable that Mr. Obama is running for a second term and the speech did not hurt that effort. That there was a political aspect to the speech is unsurprising to any mature observer of our government. Characterizing the detailed proposal the President set before the joint session of Congress as merely a campaign speech, however, only reveals the weakness of Mr. Johnson’s position.

That weakness is manifest as Mr. Johnson sputters on in his email.

“Even worse, the overall substance of his proposals were nothing more than a rehashing and repackaging of the same big government, ideological agenda that our President has already tried – driven our debt up another $4 Trillion - and have failed miserably. These ideas would simply double down on that failure.”

Mr. Johnson needs a grammarian. Verbs are supposed to agree with the subject of a sentence. “Substance” is singular and requires the singular “was” not “were.” He should have chosen “rehashing” or “repackaging.” Using both is redundant. The accusation that the President’s “ideological agenda” drove up the debt “another $4 Trillion” calls for another sentence and should not have been smashed into this one. (Trillion should not be capitalized.)

Mr. Johnson ignores the niceties of grammar and the specifics of the President’s speech because all he has is Tea Party boilerplate. Mr. Johnson rants about “big government” but says nothing about the President’s expressed goal of jolting the private sector back to life. He ignores the President’s proposals to help small business. He makes no mention of the President’s tax cuts for middle class consumers. He is oblivious of the need to help the long-term unemployed.

In sum, Mr. Johnson’s complaint does not touch upon anything the President actually said, but merely repeats the talking points of the House radical Republicans. By ignoring the proposed American Jobs Recovery Act, he fails to prove that it is merely a repackaging of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The most significant falsehood of Mr. Johnson’s missive is his assertion that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was a failure.

“Since his inauguration, during admittedly tough economic conditions, President Obama has taken America 180 degrees in the wrong direction. His failed $800 billion stimulus, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank and the explosion of his Administration's other job killing regulations have combined to put a stranglehold on our economy.”

Mr. Johnson’s only concession to the President is that he took office “during admittedly tough economic conditions.” This is a gross understatement. The President took office after decades of deregulation of the financial market initiated by Republican President Ronald Reagan and fostered by Randian Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. Republican policies resulted in the 1980s Savings and Loan Crisis, the 2001 Internet Stock Bubble and finally, beginning in 2007, greatest financial meltdown since the Depression.

Mr. Johnson conveniently ignores the details so that he can continue to rail against government regulations. He specifies no regulations that kill jobs. It is he, not the President, who fails to learn from history.

(Note: Inside Job (2010), the Academy Award-winning documentary film about the late-2000s financial crisis directed by Charles H. Ferguson and narrated by Matt Damon is one-sided, and, I believe, unfair to President Obama. Its subject is complicated. Nevertheless, it is a good introduction to all the facts that Republicans would have us ignore.)

The Republicans have blocked the full implementation of the Dodd-Frank bill, so it is impossible to attribute anything good or ill to it. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – which Mr. Johnson calls “Obamacare”—will not be fully implemented until 2014. That leaves only the so-called “failed $800 billion stimulus,” ARRA, as a possible “stranglehold on our economy.”

Did the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 fail to increase employment? Mr. Johnson and his fellow Republicans have repeatedly said that it did. The economy is still in recession. Unemployment is still high. The ARRA did fail to meet with the administration’s projections. All of this, together with the fact that many citizens cannot distinguish GDP from GPS, makes the Republicans’ simple declarative statement, “The stimulus failed,” persuasive.

Repeat a falsehood long enough and you will convince the masses. This is particularly true with a subject as complicated as the economy.

On September 27, 2010, the independent FactCheck.org posted, “The economic stimulus package is a favorite target of Republican candidates and groups, but more than a few ads falsely claim it did not create or save any jobs. … The truth is that the stimulus increased employment by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million people, compared with what employment would have been otherwise.” (FactCheck.org, “Did the Stimulus Created Jobs?”) 

The Richmond Times-Dispatch PolitiFact.com examined Republican Eric Cantor’s May 26th, 2011, statement, “They (Democrats) passed a nearly $1 trillion stimulus bill which failed to get people back to work.” The Virginia publication rated Mr. Cantor’s statement false after consulting experts from both the right and the left.

Both of these publications based their conclusions in part on the 2010 report of the Congressional Budget Office, which stated: “… CBO estimates that ARRA’s policies had the following effects in the second quarter of calendar year 2010:
  •    They raised real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) by between 1.7 percent and 4.5 percent,
  •    Lowered the unemployment rate by between 0.7 percentage points and 1.8 percentage points,
  •    Increased the number of people employed by between 1.4 million and 3.3 million, and
  •    Increased the number of full-time-equivalent jobs by 2.0 million to 4.8 million compared with what would have occurred otherwise …” ( http://www.cbo.gov )
If Senator Ron Johnson had been doing his job, he would have known about the CBO report.

What animates Mr. Johnson, however, is not concern for the unemployed or the challenges of a global economy in recession. Mr. Johnson, as I pointed out in October of 2009, is an advocate of the Atheistic Capitalism of Ayn Rand. He is a true believer in an ideology that holds that government involvement in the economy, in any way, at any time, is wrong. From health care, to stimulus, to regulation, the government can only kill jobs.

Mr. Johnson writes, “President Obama simply and sadly does not understand the basic economic truth that expansion and job creation must come from the private sector, not government.”

One hopes that President Obama understands that in difficult economic times, remedies must be sought from both the private and public sectors. Progressives hope he understands that the history of this country is in part the history of a mixed economy, with the government playing a positive role in protecting the country from the excesses of capitalism. Mr. Johnson and his ilk hanker for a pure capitalism that has never existed and is every bit as false as Marxist-Leninist millennialism.

It is the insupportable small government advocacy of Mr. Johnson and his Republican colleagues that will take us in the wrong direction, as the August unemployment figures indicate.

“On September 2nd the government reported no net jobs were created in August. To be precise, private firms created 17,000 jobs while governments trimmed payrolls by the same amount. Adjusting for striking mobile-phone company workers, underlying private job growth was actually more like 60,000, consistent with an economy still growing; but barely.” (The Economist, “A Choice of Medicines,” September 10, 2011.)

The Economist does not say so, but I suspect the “governments” that trimmed their payrolls are the state governments run by Republican governors, like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker. Among the jobs trimmed are those of school teachers. President Obama’s American Jobs Act calls for the hiring of teachers to train students to be competitive in an increasingly global job market. This is just one small detail that shows that President Obama is the one working for America’s future, not Mr. Johnson and his small-government colleagues.

President Obama’s American Jobs Act is not all that progressives wanted. It is more than they expected. It is not a magic bullet. It will not immediately reverse the global recession. Mr. Johnson may choose to ignore it. The Congress should pass it and press on to strengthen both the private and public sectors of the economy.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Is the Opposition Loyal? Part Two

Tonight we will not hear the President of the United States address a joint session of Congress regarding the dire economic condition of the nation. It was Mr. Obama’s intention to begin this new session of Congress by addressing the issues about which the whole country is concerned. As is well known, Speaker John Boehner has informed the President that the United States House of Representatives will be otherwise engaged.

“ ‘As the majority leader announced more than a month ago, the House will not be in session until Wednesday, Sept. 7, with votes at 6:30 that evening,’ the speaker wrote. ‘ With the significant amount of time, typically more than three hours, that is required to allow for a security sweep of the House chamber before receiving a president, it is my recommendation that your address be held on the following evening, when we can ensure there will be no parliamentary or logistical impediments that might detract from your remarks.’ ” (“Obama Moves Jobs Speech After Skirmish With Boehner,” The New York Times, August 31, 2011)

Mr. Boehner’s unprecedented refusal to grant the President’s request has been reported, reviewed, and, from the very beginning, denounced as just another petty political squabble. Blame has been cast on both the Speaker and the President.

“ ‘If the objective of the White House and Speaker Boehner was to demonstrate to the American people that they have gotten the message from the markets and from voters that our economic straits are so dire that it is time to set petty politics aside, they have failed before they started,’ said David Rothkopf, a former Commerce Department official in the Clinton administration. ‘This childish gamesmanship regarding timing reconfirms to the world that Washington is a sandbox full of petulant children who don’t play well together.' He called Wednesday’s antics 'late-summer silliness.’ ” (The New York Times, same article as above)

Despite the fact that Mr. Boehner is the first member of Congress to deny a president permission to speak to a joint session of Congress, it is the President who has received the most criticism. He is accused of playing politics.

“The real story, of course, was that the White House had high-handedly announced its preferred time for the speech, which just happened to conflict with a long-planned GOP presidential candidates’ debate at the Reagan library.” (The Weekly Standard, “The Scrapbook: Dissing Boehner,” September 12, 2011)

Even before Mr. Boehner took his stand against the President’s supposedly political proposal, talk radio condemned the idea. How could the President dare to upstage a Republican Party candidate debate? It is only reasonable to conclude that Mr. Boehner’s motive to deny the President’s proposal is to thwart Mr. Obama’s alleged political gambit and please the likes of Mr. Limbaugh. His stated reason is lame. The House has no business this evening that cannot be postponed.

Other aspects to this story have been reported, mostly from anonymous sources. Most of what has been reported is irrelevant. It remains that Mr. Boehner has done what has never been done before. In this, he has shown that, despite the fact that the Republican Party likes to wrap itself in the Constitution and boast its fidelity to the intentions of the Founding Fathers, it knows and cares little for either.

Let us grant the Republican contention that Mr. Obama scheduled his address to Congress to upstage Republican candidate debate. I do not know that this is so. It is, however, the best reason the Republicans have to deny the President’s request. So let it stand.

The activities of any political party should not interfere with the work of the elected government. A single debate, this early, is of negligible importance, particularly when compared to an official address by the sitting president.

The Republicans are far from selecting a candidate for the coming election. They have held one straw poll, in which Mrs. Bachman was selected. The Iowa straw poll historically has had little positive effect on selecting the eventual Republican candidate and even less on the results of the national election. Mrs. Bachmann’s victory was quickly eclipsed by Texas Governor Rick Perry’s mere announcement of his candidacy.

Even with Mr. Perry’s announcement, there is dissatisfaction among Republicans with the candidates vying for the ticket. Despite the fact time is growing short, there are calls for Representative Paul Ryan, Governor Chris Christie and even Mrs. Sarah Palin to enter the race.

The Republican contention that tonight’s debate should take precedence over a president's speech to Congress is nothing less than hubris.

The Constitution established three branches of government, the legislative, executive, and judicial. There is no mention of political parties. Political parties have no official standing in the work of government. In fact, the Founding Fathers disliked the idea of political parties and hoped that the nation could do without them.

The Republicans should know this if they knew the Constitution and its history as they claim. James Madison penned Federalist 10 as a warning against political parties, which he called “factions.” The Founding Fathers hope of politics without political parties did not survive their lifetime, and even Mr. Madison became a member of a political party. Nevertheless, the Founding Fathers would be appalled to see this day when a single party’s candidate debate interferes with the work of the elected government.

Perhaps some would question the wisdom of Mr. Obama using his office to upstage a single debate of the opposing party’s candidate debate. Let them. There is no reason that any sitting president should take into consideration the internal work of the opposing party in the rightful execution of his duties. More importantly, there is no reason the opposing party should expect such consideration.

The Constitution established three branches of government. Mr. Boehner won a majority of the votes of the 8th congressional district of Ohio to become a member of the lower chamber of the legislative branch. The majority of that lower chamber elected Mr. Boehner Speaker of the House of Representatives. Mr. Boehner thus represents both the 8th congressional district and one half of the bicameral legislature.

The President of the United States is elected by the whole nation, albeit indirectly through the Electoral College. Mr. Obama won the office of President of the United States by a clear majority of the popular vote and the Electoral College – without the assistance of a decision of the Supreme Court. He represents not a district, or even a state. He is President of the whole country and for the whole country.

To be sure, the president is not a dictator. There are constitutional limits to his authority. The Constitution provides checks and balances so that no single branch of government has power beyond what is necessary to exercise its duties to the country.

However, the Republicans have taken the legislature beyond anything the Founding Fathers imagined. Republican senators, by the mere threat of filibuster, have turn back presidential appointments. The single disqualifying mark of an appointee is that the appointment came from Mr. Obama.

“Speaking with National Journal magazine about Republican Party priorities for the 2008-2010 Congress, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell explained that ‘the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.’ ” (Wikipedia, Mitch McConnell)

Senator McConnell has expressed clearly that the single priority of the Republican Party is not the welfare of the country, but the augmentation of the power of the Republican Party. In keeping with this priority, the Republican Party perpetrated the unnecessary debt-ceiling crisis. In keeping with this priority, Mr. Boehner denied the President of the United States a joint session of Congress. In these and several other instances the Republican Party has demonstrated that it has no respect for the constitutionally established office of the executive as long as Mr. Obama occupies it – the vote of the people be damned.

This is not the governance the Founding Fathers envisioned. This is the factionalism that James Madison abhorred.

In September 2009, the President addressed a joint session of Congress. It was there that Representative Joe Wilson set the true precedent for Mr. Boehner’s action this month. Mr. Wilson broke with tradition and shouted at the President. On September 11, 2009, I asked the question, “Is the Opposition Loyal?” on this blog (see archive). This question stands.

[Works consulted for this essay: The Debate on the Constitution, Part One, Library of America, 1993; James Madison, Writings, Library of America, 1999; Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution, Richard Beeman, Random House, 2009; The Oxford Companion to United States History, edited by Paul S. Boyer, Oxford University Press, 2001.]

Monday, September 05, 2011

They Are Back ...

For a while we did not hear from them. They did not call. They did not write. It is hard to say why. Perhaps they were embarrassed. Perhaps they felt threatened. It would be too much to think they were repentant. One thing is certain. It was nothing we had done. We went on with our lives the best we could after the 2007-2009 financial meltdown.

This year they returned. We strictly observe the rule that coincidence is not causation. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the fact that their return coincides with the ascendency of the radical faction of the Republican party, particularly in the House of Representatives.

“This is Rachel with credit card services, calling in regard to your current credit card account. There is no need to worry. Your account seems to be in order. But you need to respond immediately to get the new reduced credit card rates…”

Rachel has a sister.

“This is Lisa. We have contacted you before. This is your last chance…”

Rachel and Lisa have another sister, who does not give her name.

“…In order to take advantage of this offer you must have $3,000 in credit card debt and at least one credit card in good standing.”

The above is an accurate representation from memory and not verbatim. One offer goes so far as to illogically reference “the current Federal stimulus package.”

One thing is certain about these three – they are all lying b…witches. The three weird sisters by subtle word choice would have us believe they represent the credit card that is in our pocket. Parse their sentences and it is evident they have no idea what credit card we have. Lisa has offered my last chance two, even three times in one week.

I have not returned their calls, so I cannot be completely certain of the extent of their scam. It would appear however, that their “regard” for my “current credit card account” is to switch it to another credit card. Since their offers begin with mendacity, it is highly doubtful that the switch will be to my advantage.

The wicked advances of the three weird sisters are small beer compared with the predatory lending practices of certain mortgage brokers that brought about the recent housing bubble. Nevertheless, our humble household has experienced the need for government oversight of the consumer financial market, maybe five times a week – sometimes twice in one day – by the three weird sisters.

Of course many, if not most, people are protected from the spells of the three weird sisters by good sense. Most people are not the prey of these anonymous overtures. The poor, the financially desperate, and those who are easily frightened are their intended victims.

Here come the radical Republicans. Mr. Eric Cantor has announced that the agenda for the next session of the House is to repeal so-called job-killing government regulations. Already the Republicans have significantly stalled the newly formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), and their efforts will continue. They have the backing of the completely unrepentant banking industry.

Let us concede that government regulations do kill jobs. Let us also recognize that the jobs of the three weird sisters deserve to be burned at the stake. And we have not even touched on the indefensible usury of payday lenders who charge as much as 524% APR.

Mr. Cantor and his colleagues need to be held accountable for siding with companies whose only purpose is to prey upon the poor and financially uninformed.