Saturday, November 20, 2010

Livin' the Dream
If you’re at all attached to the media or popular culture, you can’t really escape the Palins. The half-term former governor, someone I personally regard as nothing more than an aging Mean Girl, a probable sociopath and possible sadist, inspires such ferocious devotion from a chunk of the electorate that she’s a plausible presidential nominee, with an outside shot she actually gets the job. Meanwhile, she has a highly popular “reality” television show and an upcoming book. One daughter evidently is about to win a dancing contest decided by voting that it’s difficult to argue is all that much more farcical than the elections we hold to determine political power. Another is either a hateful bigot, a typically immature teenager, or both. And so on.

I don’t think the ubiquity of the Palins is solely a function of the mother’s charisma or attractiveness (though admittedly she is the first presidential candidate to whom a heterosexual male could masturbate without deep misgivings, which obviously is a part of the story). In a moment when most sober observers note that the American Dream as classically understood seems to be slipping out of reach, the Palins are living the 21st century, bad-joke version of that Dream: they’ve gotten very wealthy and very, very famous despite the absence of any obvious talent or accomplishment.

Under any established or even coherent value system, this isn’t rational, much less admirable. From a narrative standpoint, it’s actually kind of offensive: you need to do something—overcome a challenge, show strength of character or intelligence, best a rival, deliver service, something—to earn the happy ending. Again, though, this seems entirely of a piece with where our politics and culture are going now.

The issue that just boggles my mind is the evident Republican rejection of the “New START” nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia--a decision which worsens that important international relationship, undermines European security and makes it much harder to contain Iran… all because these goals are far secondary to inflicting another political defeat on the president. Not quite as bad, but still pretty awful, is the unyielding rejection on the part of left Democrats, led by the incomparably tone-deaf Nancy Pelosi, of bipartisan deficit reduction plans that include adjustments to or reductions of benefits through social insurance programs.

(I could write a long separate piece about these proposals, to which I’m generally sympathetic on the merits even if I find some of the particulars--like the seemingly arbitrary call of Simpson-Bowles to cap spending and revenues at 21 percent of GDP--a little goofy. More than anything, they kind of make me sad: they represent a bygone conception of politics in which compromise wasn’t just inevitable but admirable, from a time before polarized media made that instinct a political death mark. Paul Ryan’s idealized notion of how to restore long-term fiscal balance is as unrealistic as Paul Krugman’s—but it’s possible both would rather see us default than accept that the other guy might have a point. The larger takeaway is that the policy is actually quite easy—see this New York Times application in which you can make a series of policy choices to close the deficit by 2030; I did it, generating a surplus of several hundred billion dollars, the majority coming from spending cuts rather than revenue gains, without core cuts to entitlements—there was a cap on Medicare increase and some Social Security benefit reduction to higher income seniors—or even going back to Clinton-era tax rates, which themselves were pretty low in historical terms—but the politics is fucking close to impossible.)

Outside of the mainstream, the culture seems more wistful than angry. As I type this, I’m listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “lost” album The Promise, recorded in the years between Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, when The Boss was embroiled in fiendishly complex legal troubles and at something of a creative crossroads. The songs are all about disappointment and compromise and yearning, similar to but a bit more gentle than those that wound up on “Darkness”; it feels perfectly of this time, not the mid/late ‘70s. And I’ve just started reading Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death, a novel released this year set a few decades from now, in which the economic desperation of the Rust Belt seems to have expanded across the U.S. in conjunction with a slow-moving environmental disaster and the sense that our historical moment has passed is pervasive:

We were citizens of a post-industrial economy that no longer produced much. Our rate of emigration exceeded our rate of immigration. Our GDP was contracting for what? The twelfth quarter? Tourism was down. Manufacturing was all but non-existent… This once robust superpower may have been on its last legs, but we still loved it, the way you love a dog in the backyard, whose attempts to close its jaws around your leg are stymied only by the rope tethered to the dead paloverde.

One more dumb war, one default, and I think we're just about there.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A Quick Take on the Election Results
I think it's a near-consensus view that the president's re-election chances really hinge on how the economy performs over the next two years. Of course, the Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, has said that his top priority is making sure that Obama is a one-term president. So does it follow that the now-empowered Republicans will try to thwart any action to boost the economy?

The obvious response (promptly offered when I wrote this on is that they've been doing just that the last two years, so why expect anything to change. There's something to this, I grant, but with the House of Representatives under their control, they probably will need to come up with something to say to the country beyond "No." With even a tiny majority--and it looks like they're going to have a pretty big one--you can push anything through the House, and so the Republicans surely will.

But, as others have written, this is a blessing not even all that well disguised for Obama in a political sense. He has a foil now. Put his ideas and ability to communicate against Speaker-presumptive John Boehner's, and as a progressive I'm feeling pretty good about who wins that argument.

Add in that Boehner is going to have a hell of a time with his caucus (see this very informative National Journal piece) and it should be at least pretty interesting. What Boehner wants to do, per my read of that article, is impose reforms that give the appearance of empowering new members, somewhat de-emphasizing seniority and strengthening committees, but that don't actually cede power. I guess the gamble is that the new Republican members, predominantly hard-right types, will focus their ire on the (probably still) Democratic Senate and/or President rather than Boehner and his leadership team; I have my doubts.

I'm a Democrat at this point primarily because I believe they're more serious (though not nearly serious enough) about honestly addressing the major structural problems the country faces, and secondarily because they're more in line with my personal values (individual freedoms, equality of opportunity, equal rights, etc). While it might not have mattered given the economy, I do think the Dems failed utterly to point out how totally incoherent the Republicans are on those same challenges: foaming-at-the-mouth angry about deficits and debt but unwilling even to support common-sense measures to rein in health care costs, look hard at military expenditures or ever contemplate letting a tax cut lapse, let alone an increase. Mindlessly bleating American triumphalism but ignorant of the economic basis of our world-historical success--human capital plus smart public investments--and thus intent on killing the golden goose (or, more accurately, letting it continue to die). Eager to pick fights all over the world without acknowledging simple logic of cause and effect, or that wars ain't cheap. And so on.

My guess is that Obama will suddenly find it a lot easier to expose the hash of the Republican agenda and make the case that he's the grownup in the room. Ultimately, though, we need the Republicans to get serious too. The real bad news about this year's results might be that with so many clowns winning office, that's probably going to take longer than it would have if the nuts got clobbered again. And, worse, many of the less clownish Republicans--Mike Castle most obviously, but he's not the only one--didn't even win within their party.