Apr 292011
Paul Ryan - Caricature

Image by DonkeyHotey via Flickr

What do you call people who use their power to line their own pockets by taking from people who can’t protect themselves?  “Bullies?” “Thieves?”

What if they also lie about it and attempt to cover their tracks with irrational nonsense that would make Jabberwocky seem like a reference manual? Would they be “liars?” “Thieving liars?” How about “lying, thieving bullies?”

Judging by what’s happening today in American politics, the answer is inescapable . . . we’d all be forced to just call them Republicans.

Congressman Paul Ryan, the new chairman of the House Budget Committee recently released the Republican budget for 2012, and it subsequently passed through the House with all but four Republican members voting in its favor. Labeled the “Path to Prosperity,” the Ryan plan is touted to cut $6.2 trillion from President Obama’s budget over the next decade. But while this may sound promising on the surface, even a cursory look at the details leaves a person asking, “To whose prosperity does this path lead?

According to Ryan, the Republican proposal is “guided by the timeless principles of the American idea,” but unless he was referring to the principles upheld by the Robber Barons of the 19th Century, Ryan must be talking about another America. If the congressman was indeed talking about the United States, a nation that was founded on the notion of a government empowered by the “consent of the governed” to “form a more perfect union” that would “promote the general welfare,” then the only explanation is that the man is either ignorant of the facts of our founding, or he’s just an unethical self-serving liar!

The fact of the matter is that Ryan’s “Path to Prosperity” is a full frontal assault on working Americans. It makes a mockery of our Constitution by subverting the federal government for the benefit of the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. In short, the proposal that Ryan refers to as the “new House majority’s answer to history’s call,” will end Medicare as we know it, replace Medicaid with block grants, make the Bush tax cuts permanent, and lower both the top individual and corporate tax rate to 25%.

Indeed, Ryan and the other social cannibals of the Republican Party like to talk about being adults while paying lip service to shared sacrifice, but as is evidenced by their budget proposal, the truth of their actions is a different matter. The Republican plan not only attempts to slash social programs to pay on the debt created by years of excess military spending, tax cuts for the rich, and banker bailouts, but it does so by first making matters worse.

In what has become SOP for the GOP, the Ryan plan will trim the tax bill of the wealthy by 29%, bringing it to its lowest level since 1931, and it will attempt to cover the loss in revenue by hacking at the discretionary services  relied upon by everyone else.

So, the Republican plan is to address spending by gutting education, allowing our infrastructure to further decay, and slashing $1.6 trillion total from domestic discretionary spending, while shifting the burden for the high costs of healthcare onto seniors instead of addressing the root causes, and also ripping the heart out of Medicaid, which expends 87% of its costs to serve children, the elderly and the disabled. All told, the Ryan budget will reduce spending by $4.3 trillion over 10 years, but even though the justification for all of these draconian cuts is based on the deficit, Ryan and the snake oil peddling Republicans will actually give $4.2 trillion of that total back in tax cuts.

That’s right, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the Ryan plan will reduce the deficit by all of $155 billion over 10 years. But what the heck, the deficit is really nothing but a policy bludgeon created and used by Republicans anyway. Since Ronald Reagan took office, the Republicans have been dedicated to increasing military spending, while cutting taxes, and as a result consistently ignoring the deficit and adding to the debt. The Ryan budget is no exception.

Just why the beltway press has referred to Ryan as “courageous” for proposing what appears to be standard fare for the Republican Party is more than a little curious. The truth of the matter is that the release of the Ryan plan may have been much more “careless” than it was “courageous.” Like the realtor who inadvertently reveals that the field behind that bargain-priced Tudor is slated for a chemical factory, the Ryan budget leaves no doubt regarding the true motives of the Republican Party.

Fortunately, this time around, people are paying attention. Blinded by their own lack of integrity, Republicans evidently believed that by grandfathering everyone 55 and over into the traditional Medicare system, they wouldn’t receive much pushback at their attempt to screw everyone else. But they were wrong. As it turns out, seniors who have learned that the Ryan plan will replace Medicare with a voucher system that will cause future retirees to reach into their own pockets for an estimated $12,500 each year for insurance, have reacted as if the change affected them personally.

Hurray for American seniors! In one town hall meeting after another, Republicans returning to their home constituencies are getting an earful about their illicit attempt to stuff their pockets with money gained by throwing future retirees to the wolves that run the profit-rich medical insurers.

Of course, the big-money Republican damage control apparatus is already underway trying to spin the dismantling of Medicare. Spending millions on bullshit television ads, the voucher system that Paul Ryan euphemistically refers to as “premium support,” is now being presented as a Republican attempt to “preserve Medicare.” Sadly, that preservation would be in name only, preserving the program in much the same way as a classic car is preserved by sending it through a car crusher. But hey, in the Bizarro World of Republican spin doctoring — rhetoric is reality.

So, where does this go from here? Nowhere. There is absolutely zero chance that the Ryan plan will pass the Senate and be signed by the president, which makes it all the more painfully obvious how ridiculously disconnected the Republican Party is from the reality of life in America. Why House Republicans would actually reveal their true agenda, knowing that it would never become law, is anybody’s guess. It’s like a thief giving his victim advanced warning — in writing. But be that as it may, the genie is out of the bottle, and he’s got “Republican doom” tattooed on his forehead.

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Jan 302011
Official photo of Congresswoman Michele Bachma...
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Article first published as Michele Bachmann’s State of the Union Tea Party Commercial on Technorati.

TeaPartyHD, the television and Internet network responsible for the unseen camera and teleprompter that Michele Bachmann looked toward while delivering her rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union address, finally posted their video of the congresswoman’s speech on Friday. And yes, she’s looking squarely at the camera.

So now, with a little luck, this will be the end of media coverage of the strange off-angle shot aired on CNN. In the big picture, who really cares what camera Michele Bachmann was looking at? The gaff made the speech a bit odd to watch, but it really could have happened to anyone. This aspect of the Bachmann story has been given far too much attention — so much that nobody’s talking about the insaniTea of her message.

First off, to call Bachmann’s speech a “response” or “rebuttal” to the State of the Union is to completely ignore everything she said. She didn’t deliver a response; it was nothing more than a rerun of the same fact-free Tea Party commercial we’ve all seen over and again, ad nauseam. It is on this inane content where criticism for the Bachmann slideshow should be focused.

Bachmann wants Americans to blame President Obama for unemployment, so she shows a nice red and blue chart depicting unemployment rates by year. According to Bachmann, the spike in 2009 is Obama’s fault. Of course, she failed to mention that we were hemorrhaging jobs at a rate of 600,000 per month when he took office, and that the economy was in a freefall stemming from the Bush orchestrated bank collapse, but what the heck . . . it’s all fair in politics.

The congresswoman then hit the tried-and-true “attack the Stimulus” chord. The “failed stimulus,” as she referred to it, gave America nothing more than “a bureaucracy that now tells us what light bulbs to buy.” This is a great tactic: just make up your own story, completely devoid of truth, throw in some exaggeration (the trillion dollar stimulus), play upon people’s emotions, ignore the facts, arrive at a hyperbolic conclusion, and BAM — the falsehood lives on. Keep repeating it, and you will gain believers.

This works well so long as the audience just buys the bullshit without checking any facts. But if people have even the slightest inclination to think for themselves, to actually understand the situation, the bald-faced nature of Bachmann’s nonsense shines through. It’s just too bad that so many people don’t care that the Stimulus actually staved off total collapse of the economy — that it added as much as 4.5% to the GDP, saved or created as many as 3.3 million jobs, kept unemployment from climbing to 11.5% or higher, and gave tax cuts to 94% of Americans. If they took the time to know the facts, they’d understand that the biggest problem with the Stimulus was that it was too small.

But the truth doesn’t always play well for the political goals of the speaker, so politicians and pundits are often forced to turn to propaganda — fact selection that results in lying by omission. According to Ms. Bachmann, while there had been “unacceptably high” deficits under the Bush administration, these “exploded” under Obama. She illustrates with a graph showing huge blue bars that tower above the short red Bush deficits, and she assigns all blame for the spending increases on President Obama.

Bachmann’s graph appears to be accurate, but like an iceberg, what’s seen on the surface doesn’t accurately reflect all that’s hiding below. And since the congresswoman doesn’t really want people to recall that her tallest blue bar, the one for 2009, actually reflects President Bush’s budget through October, or that it included much of the $700 billion “bailout” that was passed under Bush, she conveniently leaves these details out. And so what if she failed to mention that those little red bars didn’t include the spending for the two deficit-expanding wars that President Bush chose to keep off the budget. If President Obama didn’t want the billions in war expense reflected in his budget, he should have kept the costs hidden.

But as disingenuous as is Bachmann’s Tea Party spin on jobs and the deficit, there’s really nothing more egregious than the distorted fantasy of fear mongered hype she spewed regarding healthcare reform. In Bachmann’s words, “Unless we fully repeal Obamacare, a nation that currently enjoys the world’s finest healthcare might be forced to rely on government-run coverage that could have a devastating impact on our national debt for even generations to come.” What a crock!

Between Tea Party and more mainstream Republicans, there is no piece of legislation more illegitimately maligned than the Healthcare Reform. Their fallacy starts with erroneous claims about the quality of the American healthcare system, one that consistently produces outcomes inferior to other developed nations, and it always extends to outright lies about the nature of the legislation that was passed.

The truth of the matter is that “Obamacare” is not “government-run.” It’s actually an extension of the public/private system currently dominant in the U.S.. And as far as costs go, it’s designed to reduce them. In fact, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), it will reduce the deficit by $230 billion. And although that doesn’t solve the problem, at least it’s a step in reducing the costs of a system that now outspends the average of the developed world by more than two to one.

Bachmann is right about one thing regarding healthcare, it will bankrupt the country if allowed to continue on its present course. But the issues driving that dynamic are actually made better under “Obamacare,” although not to the extent needed — that would have required the “public option,” but the Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats made sure that didn’t happen. There was no way they were going to do anything to cut into the record profits of the medical insurers and Big Pharma.

Our nation faces serious problems, and President Obama’s State of the Union was light on specifics regarding how he will address them. But unless the American people want more poverty, more debt, more concentration of wealth, fewer jobs, lower wages, and a healthcare system that puts the insurers above the patients, they will do with Michele Bachmann’s “response” what they do with all fecal matter — flush it and forget about it.

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Dec 022010
Economic growth for the 2001 to 2005 business ...
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Article first published as Why Don’t the Facts Seem to Matter Anymore? on Technorati.

How do Americans make up their minds on political issues? Some, I’m sure, simply echo the positions of trusted friends. There are people who are persuaded by specific arguments that just seem to personally resonate and still others who simply adhere to strict party lines. Such practices are understandable in the fast paced world of 21st Century America. But understandable or not, one has to wonder if a more deliberate approach might be warranted.

Take for instance the current debate over the extension of the Bush tax cuts. Most polls previously showed that the majority of voters support extending the cuts for only the middle class. But the margins were remarkably thin and continue to shrink.

The most recent Gallup poll shows only 44% of participants in favor of extensions depending upon income level and tallied 40% in support of cuts regardless of income. An Associated Press poll of 1,000 people, taken just before Thanksgiving, showed a slightly larger margin, with 50% in favor of cuts for income up to $250,000 and only 34% favoring cuts for all income.

Division of this sort is typical on political issues, but what’s interesting about these results is that, while only 2% of Americans would benefit directly from cuts on income above $250,000, a third or more of those polled consistently support those very cuts. This is an atypical disparity that surely must have some explanation.

One possible motivation could be that people are concerned about jobs. According to that same AP poll, 82% of participants cited unemployment as an “extremely” or “very” important issue. Perhaps these people believe that extending tax cuts to the wealthy will result in job creation. After all, anyone who’s listened to the media has heard this argument. It’s a favorite of congressional Republicans, who regularly cast any tax increase as “job killing.”

But the fallacy of such a premise is immediately evident in even the briefest moment of serious contemplation. The fact is that employers simply don’t hire based on their personal income tax treatment. The formula for staffing is strictly limited to the number of employees required to produce the product or provide the services necessary to meet demand while maintaining a profit — period. Profits must be made before taxes even come into play. The fundamental rule is that, if demand goes up, businesses must hire more people, and if demand wanes, there will be layoffs.

I’m afraid that while the don’t-tax-the-job-creators line seems to have some legitimacy on the surface, nobody who’s actually studied the issue believes it. Economists are all forced to agree with Cornell University’s Robert Frank, who sums up the present situation with “Businesses aren’t investing because they can already produce more than people want to buy.” Indeed, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) produced a report on the matter and concluded that, of the top 12 suggestions for spurring job creation, income tax cuts was the least effective option.

So, maybe jobs aren’t the primary concern. Could it be that people are moved to support tax cuts, even for millionaires and billionaires, out of a general concern over the economy? The economy was the highest priority issue amongst those voting in the AP poll. A full 90% of participants ranked it at one of the two highest levels of importance.

There has certainly been enough rhetoric flying around about the detrimental effects of raising taxes on anyone to give ample cause for alarm. Republicans are unified on the topic. The new Speaker of the House, John Boehner, voiced this conservative wisdom in an interview last August, “You cannot get the economy going again by raising taxes on those people who we expect to create jobs in America.” It sure sounds good, but once again there’s no evidence and only rare opinion to support the conclusion.

The fact of the matter is that the American economy is driven by consumer spending. To put that in perspective, around 70% of our GDP is generated thusly. So, it’s actually lack of demand that’s the key issue with the American economy today. Too many people are either without jobs and unable to spend or holding onto what money they have because they’re worried about the future. Businesses are flush with cash but aren’t investing for the same reason. They’re not refraining from hiring because they may have to pay more in taxes. They’re not hiring because there’s insufficient demand.

Tax cuts for the top 2% will stimulate the economy, but the sad truth is that pretty much any other practical option would be more effective. Numerous studies have been completed, and virtually all agree that general tax cuts are the least effective form of stimulus, and those applied to the very rich are the worst of the worst. The CBO study mentioned above again rates tax cuts at the bottom of the heap with regard to impact on the GDP, with a best case of returning $0.40 for every dollar invested. Compare that to $1.90 for increasing unemployment aid, and you might glimpse the insanity of the conservative argument.

Although concern over the deficit is also high on everyone’s list, it’s difficult to see how anyone can argue that extending tax cuts that would trim $700 billion from federal revenue could help the deficit. So, if it’s not jobs, and it’s not the economy, what is the explanation for as much as 38% of Americans supporting tax policy from which they will not personally benefit?

There is one other possibility. It could just be that good old American sense of fair play. When asked how they felt the spending cuts and tax increases needed to address the deficit should be applied, the majority (54%) of participants in the AP poll thought they should “Be spread out so that all Americans share evenly in the costs.” A truly admirable position to take.

But then, just what is it that constitutes an even share? It’s hard to believe that there’s any such equity in extending tax cuts that already provided 52.5% of the benefit to the top 5% of taxpayers. The stark truth is that you cannot achieve an “even share” by extending that which is, by design, extremely uneven.

The facts about the Bush tax cuts are dramatic. They were touted to create jobs and stimulate the economy, yet they did neither. With regard to the economy, the Bush era netted the slowest average annual growth since World War II, averaging only 2.39% per year. And that doesn’t even take into account the economic crash of 2008. The next worst period was 1971 to 1980 at 3.21%. On the job front, the results were even worse, with the Bush era producing the slowest rate of average job growth of any cycle since 1945.

In the final analysis, the Bush tax cuts served but one purpose — to accelerate the concentration of wealth in America. Things have now become so lopsided that the top 1% of Americans now have more financial wealth than the bottom 95%. When the portion of wealth held in home equity is discounted, the top 1% holds 48.4 percent of the wealth compared to 20 percent retained by the bottom 95% — and that gap is growing at an alarming rate.

By 2001, the share of financial wealth had already grown to a 39.7% – 32.5% split, but ramped sharply upward under the policies of George W. Bush. The fact is that the wealth of the very rich is being extracted by squeezing the overwhelming majority of Americans to the point of collapse. The situation is so bad today that 23.5% of overall income belongs to that top 1%.

According to Bloomberg, during the period that followed the first of the Bush cuts, up until the financial meltdown, the average annual income of the top 1% grew from $1.08 million to $1.87 million, an increase of 73%. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Bush economic cycle was the first since tracking of the data began in 1967 to produce a decline in median household income — focusing specifically on working-age household data, real incomes dropped by a whopping $2,176.

This is a sad and unethical story, and it’s not representative of the America that most Americans have grown up to love and respect. Our nation was founded on the principles of equality, of shared prosperity and shared burden — principles to which the policies of deregulation and tax cuts for the rich that have dominated the political landscape for the past 30 years are diametrically opposed.

There’s no guesswork here; we already know the outcome of the Bush policies. If the tax cuts are allowed to be extended intact, we will maintain the present trajectory. Poverty will continue to climb; the rich will get much richer, and any balance achieved will be on the backs of the middle class. Make no mistake about it; this is unfair, unethical, immoral, and completely un-American.

Welcome to the real-life tragedy of the commons in America, where the very wealthy have chosen to bleed the country dry, because regardless of the eventual outcome — they will already have their riches. It’s a game of squeeze-all-that-you-can while the squeezing is still possible; it is in essence the great national Ponzi scheme.

America’s economic elite have no interest in reforming the system to achieve sustainability. Our nation, its people and natural resources are nothing more than fodder for the mill of exploitation. And as with any Ponzi scheme, the sustainment of the system matters only to those who have not yet reaped their reward from the extraction.

The American people are the proverbial frogs in the kettle: they continue to support their own demise because they fail to recognize that the heat is still being turned up. If the American middle class is going survive, we will need a 21st Century awakening. And that awakening must begin with people rejecting the self-serving sound bites of those with their hands on the thermostat.

In the end, the inescapable truth is that, whether the American people choose to recognize the facts or not — the facts do matter. We are presently in a race to the bottom for the vast majority of Americans — and that’s a fact. We can continue this march into oblivion or we can stop the hemorrhaging and restore some semblance of shared prosperity — and that too is a fact. The choice lies with the American people, and the future of our nation depends upon which way they choose — and that’s the most important fact of all.

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