Saturday, October 30, 2010


In a fit of self-importance—or perhaps it is despair—the media has pounced on Jon Stewart for stepping out of the studio and into the public square. Some veil their criticism as concern for Stewart’s career. Others savage him for crossing the line between news and entertainment.


Like some rendition of Brigadoon, one has to wonder what world these critics are living in. Twenty years ago—give or take a decade—Ted Koppel interviewed Rush Limbaugh on Nightline. In response to Koppel questioning whether he—like Steward today—was crossing a sacred line, El Rushbo retorted, Ted, let’s remember, you and I, we’re in the entertainment business now.

Religion. Politics. News. Entertainment. If the line was blurred for Rush a few decades ago, it is now gone. When Glenn Beck stood on the Washington Mall in August and pronounced the next Great Awakening, he was bringing all four together, with himself firmly placed at the epicenter. Those who suggest that Jon Stewart crossed a line should open their eyes and behold the new world.

No one questions whether Glenn Beck is in the business of entertainment. Or politics. Or news. Nor should one question the same for Sarah Palin. Beck and Palin stand at the cutting edge of a democracy that is being subsumed into popular culture, and they understand well the seamless flow between news and entertainment, religion and politics. Beck has been in the ratings game for longer than Sarah. She spins one-liners with the best of them—her riff, How’s that hopey, changey thing workin’ out for ya? is viscous and humorous at the same time—but Beck has a trained ear for when one argument has run its course and it is time to develop new material.

The ones who don’t learn and adapt are the ardent followers. Whether in the guise of Reagan Democrats of the 1980s, the Perot voters of the 1990s or the Tea Party acolytes today, disaffected American voters are easily seduced by politicians who channel their anger and provide succor through promises of lower taxes and easy fixes. The rhetoric of false prophets and entertainers alike can lure them into the public square, ready to point fingers at all the sources of their pain.

But they never want to look into the mirror.

Check the record. With promises of cutting waste, fraud and abuse, and pointing the finger at welfare cheats, Ronald Reagan offered the promise of cutting taxes and reducing the size of the federal government. The Reagan administration succeeded in cutting taxes, but never introduced a budget to Congress that reduced spending. Despite all of the familiar arguments about the revenue growth that ensued, the greatest legacy of the Reagan years was the political lesson that tax cuts buy votes, while there is no meaningful constituency for cutting budgets beyond old school Republican bankers sipping a single malt at the New York Athletic Club.

In the three decades since the Gipper recast the rules of the game, the Republican Party has become the party of tax cuts and the Democrats the party of spending increases as the key argument to their constituencies. But neither party feels any obligation to take the painful steps necessary if they are to pay for the promises that they aim to deliver.

To suggest that Republicans have abandoned their brand is not an idle claim. Since 1980, Republicans have controlled the White House for 20 of 30 years. During that time, Republicans have routinely cut taxes, while never once proposing a budget that would pay for them. The Congressional Budget Office recently observed that the Medicare Part D program passed by George W. Bush will add more to the federal deficit over the next decade than the combined cost of the stimulus, healthcare and TARP legislation—to say nothing of the wars and tax cuts—yet the power of brand still leaves Republicans as the party of fiscal conservatism.

The past three decades offer ample evidence that there are no pure players in this debate. Not the Republican Party that lost its fiscal bona fides decades ago. Not the Democrat Party that in pursuit Wall Street largesse became the handmaiden of accelerating financial deregulation that culminated in financial chaos. And certainly not the American Family, those of all faiths and political persuasions who bought into the silly shibboleths of the new economy, and chose to lever up rather than hunker down as they faced stagnating real incomes.

Yet Tea Party acolytes remain enthralled by those who are selling them a bill of goods to build their own ratings, their electoral prospects or their speaker fees—with little regard for whether they are leading America further down a path of cynicism, and contributing to the further dysfunction of a political system that seems incapable of addressing the real and deepening problems that we face. The plaintive cry “Don’t let the Government get its hands on my Medicare,” might be apocryphal, but it highlights the vacuousness of a political movement that is built on deliberate denial by Americans of their own responsibility for the straits in which we find ourselves. As Pogo said, We have met the enemy, and he is us.

Today, as the economy lies in tatters in the wake of financial crimes and misdemeanors from Wall Street to Main Street, Americans remain reluctant to confront and admit their own complicity in the mess. It was tens of millions of average Americans who violated every rule they were supposed to have learned in kindergarten about living within their means and not borrowing too much. Today, these same Americans who bought too much house and borrowed against too many cards, now want to point the finger at the politicians and decry their profligacy.

The anger and fear that Americans feel as they gather to protest the unfairness of the world should be tempered by their own complicity in buying the same bill of goods, year after year. The truth is that we did not hold our politicians accountable because we did not want to have to choose between consumption and savings. We wanted more now and more in the future.

And compounding that anger and that fear must be a healthy dose of shame for what we have wrought. But rather than facing up to our own culpability, we have become even more determined to lash out at the other that must have created this mess.

After all, it can’t be our fault, because we are Americans. We are the noble citizens of the greatest nation in history. Our ethical conduct and fiscal prudence is beyond reproach. We know this to be the true because Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and a raft of other politicians and pundits tell us so.

And we are too happy to believe them, because to do otherwise, and to accept some measure of responsibility for the world of our making would too hard. And for that, we should feel undying shame.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Working class hero.

The Delaware Senate race may not be close in the polls, but people in Delaware are nervous. Despite an apparent 15 point lead for the Democrat, Chris Coons, the palpable anger on the streets of the long-time patrician state of the Dupont family leads many to believe that the outcome of the race remains uncertain.

Delaware is a small state of less than one million people. With the industrial north and rural, agricultural south, it has its own political culture and history. While viewed by many as a Democrat, blue state, its statewide office-holders have flipped from D to R with regularity. And its politics have always had a certain genteel character—with each Election Day followed by Return Day, a public festival of reconciliation culminated by a parade honoring the winners and losers together.

But this year emotions are running high, as they are nationally. At the most recent debate, Republican Christine O’Donnell quizzed Chris Coons on the Constitutional basis of the separation of church and state. The Constitution has carried iconic status among right wing insurgencies over the years—though their affection has tended to focus on a few amendments of choice while ignoring those that less suit their purposes—and O’Donnell was quick to expand her query to whether there was any federal authority that should rightfully bind the choices of a free people. Perhaps unwittingly, her stance in defense of radical federalism recalled Delaware’s history as among the last states to abolish slavery, almost a full decade after the Emancipation Proclamation.

But despite being ridiculed in the national media for her apparent ignorance of the First Amendment, O’Donnell seemed quite pleased with her performance. Indeed, she appeared nothing short of gleeful during the exchange, as she egged Coons on, goading the Yalie into a brief discourse on the Establishment Clause.

In her view, O’Donnell won the moment—evidenced by her joy and the hoots from her supporters—as she had succeeded in stripping the veneer off of the generally unflappable Coons, exposing his essence as a high-brow elitist. You could almost read her thoughts: You see! Listen to him! Thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room, and that he can shame me with that little lecture on the Constitution. But he just doesn’t get it—this race is not about how smart he is; it is about deep and undying anger of Main Street Americans at all of those who for so long have pulled the levers of power, and seen fit to tell the rest of us how much smarter they are than we are.

O’Donnell got this far by bringing down the old school patrician Republican Mike Castle, who in her mind was not one whit better than Coons. Yet many still refuse to take her seriously and suggest that her goal is simply to garner the national stage for a bit and perhaps land a reality show on Fox. But the fact that her numbers remain north of 40% even after her First Amendment performance speaks to the depth of the anger and resentment Delawareans feel toward Washington, D.C., and support her belief that with strong turnout on Election Day she can ride that wave to public office.

O’Donnell’s rhetoric of resentment toward elites has been central to the Republican Party narrative for decades. In prior incarnations, the Party leveraged those resentments to build its base—from Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the Reagan Democrats and Pat Buchanan Peasants with Pitchforks to Lee Atwater and Karl Rove’s success in co-opting the evangelical Christian community.

But this time, the Republican Party apparatchiks have lost control of the narrative, and Tea Party leaders have wasted no words in asserting their willingness to tear the party apart if it does not follow their lead. They understand all too well that the anti-Washington movements of the past foundered quickly, and saw their leaders compromised and their energies dissipated as the rise of federal power and spending continued unabated.

The irony, of course, is that the Tea Party is a movement without any internally consistent principles. The anti-tax core of the message loses its coherence when combined with the parallel anger over deficit spending. And for all the rhetoric about deficits and healthcare reform, no serious Republican candidate who has embraced the Tea Party talking points believes that deficits were the cause of the housing bubble and ensuing collapse or that our continuing economic problems will be cured by eliminating deficits or repealing healthcare reform.

Instead, rage against the machine is the underlying theme. Christine O’Donnell is not running for office because she believes that she has a better idea about how to fix the economy, or anything else for that matter. Hers is a platform of platitudes and resentments against all those smartest-kids-in-the-class who have been running things all these years and treating the rest of the country like second-class citizens. And she hopes there are enough Delawareans who share her disdain and anger.

But while O’Donnell is unlikely to win on November 2nd, the Republican Party and House Speaker-in-Waiting John Boehner are in for a rough ride. After 40 years of service as the tip of the Republican spear on Election Day, this crowd of angry, resentful Main Street Americans may not be willing to fade away as they have in the past, as the election fades and Washington returns to business as usual. This time, the Republican Party may have to make good on its promises, and John Boehner et al will be hard pressed to construct a legislative agenda and budget that delivers on the disparate slogans they have endorsed and promises they have made.

But it sure will be interesting to watch.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

They're mad as hell, but so easy to manipulate.

Today’s Tea Party has a point. The political progeny of George Wallace Democrats, Richard Nixon’s Silent Majority, the Reagan Democrats, supporters of Ross Perot, and Pat Buchanan’s Peasants with Pitchforks—largely white, working and middle class—are very pissed off. And for good reason. The American middle class that was once the envy of the world has taken an economic beating.

Since 1970, the middle class’ share of national income in the United States has steadily declined. Based on U.S. Census date, over the past 40 years, the middle class—as represented by the middle quintile of households—has improved its share of nation income in only four years, 1990, 1995, 2002 and 2007, and in aggregate saw a decline of 16% over the four decades. By way of comparison, the top quintile improved its share of national income by 17% over the same time period, and the top 5% of families by 31%.

The relative and absolute economic decline of the American middle class has accelerated. Back in the Mad Men years of the 1950s and 1960s, when the American middle class was the envy of the world, real household incomes grew by 35% and 35% in the respectively. Since then, real income growth has moderated, with growth rates of 6% in the 1970s and 1980s, before a brief uptick to 10% in the 1990s. Then the hammer fell, as over the past decade, real incomes for the middle quintile of American families declined by 6%.

So it is no surprise that, in Paddy Chayefsky’s words from the 1976 film Network, middle class Americans are mad as hell and aren’t going to take it any more.

What is surprising—and disappointing—is how easily manipulated the Tea Party movement has been, and how willing its followers seem to be to have their rage channeled against the chosen targets of self-interested and opportunistic leaders.

Socialism. Deficit spending. Healthcare reform. Barack Obama.

The current plight of the middle class had unfolding—and accelerating—for four decades, and this is the best Dick Armey and Sarah Palin and Glen Beck can come up with? And the millions of people embracing the Tea Party creed are willing to accept such blatantly shallow explanations for their plight?

The truth is that the plight of the middle class is a product of the triumph of capitalism, and is the direct product of deliberate national policies that have reflected the consensus of the American political and corporate establishment. Since the end of the Second World War, America has pursued national economic and foreign policies that have purchased world peace—such as it is—at a price of providing our former military and ideological adversaries with largely unfettered access to our markets. Free trade and the opening of world labor markets has supported dramatic growth in standards of living first in Japan and German in the wake of the Second World War, and then in China, the states of the former Soviet Union, India, and other smaller proxy states such as Vietnam as we “won” the Cold War.

Simply stated, we sought to create a world where the dominant world powers would compete in the economic marketplace rather than on the battlefield. Opening our markets brought billions of workers from the nations of our adversaries into direct economic competition with American workers. The impact of our integrated economic and foreign policies first emerged in the 1970s as Japan changed the landscape of the world auto industry and began an economic onslaught from which the American industrial heartland has never recovered.

The ensuing deterioration in the economic outcomes for middle class and working class Americans, and ultimately the decline in family incomes of the past decade, were masked by the steady declines in interest rates from their peak in the early 1980s and the growth in consumer and mortgage debt, which exploded over the past decade even as incomes declined in real terms. The now-familiar adage of the house-as-ATM-machine was very real, and sustained the illusion of growing disposable income until the music came to an abrupt halt in July 2008 when consumer debt peaked.

Real incomes across the American industrial heartland were doomed from the moment America chose to pursue its policy of open markets as a foreign policy tool. Competition with foreign workers depressed American real incomes as open markets pushed real wages toward a new equilibrium that would bring up living standards first in Germany, Japan and East Asia, and then across the globe. Flows of capital investment into new markets raised real incomes in these new markets, while the pressure on the American middle class continued unabated. While global economic growth ameliorated the depressing effect on wages in high-income countries, and technology and capital investment has maintained the level of productivity of American workers, it has done so at the expense of reducing employment levels, even as it increased aggregate output.

Socialism, deficits and healthcare are fine targets for bumper stickers and partisan finger pointing, but they have little to do with the plight many Americans face, but it has been capitalism, not socialism that has led to the dramatic changes in the world economy that have pressured American real incomes and brought middle class America to where it is today. And these changes have been the product of Democrat and Republican administrations alike. Similarly, while today’s deficits may loom as the next threat to our economic future, today they are neither crowding out investment in the private economy nor a plausible cause for the deterioration of middle class incomes over the past several decades.

Absent a more robust economic and political assessment of the state of our nation and the decline of the middle class, the Tea Party movement will lose its moment and leave us with nothing other than a few members of Congress who lack any meaningful platform that offers hope for a future that is different from the past. And the followers of Glen Beck, Sarah Palin and the rest will wonder what happened as they are reduced to just one more political constituency, complaining about their plight, claiming their entitlements, but doing little to build a brighter future for themselves or for the nation.