What did we learn last week?
Yes, Paul Ryan got up there and just, well, lied/fibbed/bamboozled/what-have-you. And it seems like some of the press realized that, which is refreshing. Even Fox joined in. But Ryan is not the point. Then Clint Eastwood yelled at a chair. Which was seriously uncomfortable to watch, because he seemed a bit out of it at times. But Eastwood is not the point. The point is larger, and potentially more disturbing.
So what did we learn from the Convention, the coordinated roll-out of Romneybot 2012?
1. There Is No Big Romney/Ryan Jobs Plan. At Least, No New Plan. Romney definitely does not have a secret plan to create new jobs.
Here's the relevant part (and really the only substantive part) of Romney's convention speech:
Paul Ryan and I have five steps. First, by 2020, North America will be an energy independent by taking advantage of our oil, are coal, our gas, our nuclear, and renewables.
Second, we will give our fellow citizens the skills they need for the jobs of today and the careers of tomorrow. When it comes to the school your child will attend, every parent should have a choice, and every child should have a chance.
Third, we will make trade work for America by forging new trade agreements, and when nations cheat in trade, there will be unmistakable consequences.
And fourth, to assure every entrepreneur and every job creator that their investments in America will not vanish, as have those in Greece. We will cut the deficit and put America
on track to a balanced budget.
And fifth, we will champion small businesses, America's engine of job growth. That means reducing taxes on business, not raising them. It means simplifying and modernizing the regulations that hurt small businesses the most, and it means we must rein in skyrocketing cost of health care by repealing and replacing Obamacare.
So: 1. Energy - Allow more drilling, fracking, maybe support pipelines, maybe support new nuclear plants? 2. Public School Choice (presumably including private school, which takes money out of public schools and reduces public school resources even further - even after teacher layoffs across the nation which will already increase class size. Reducing class size, of course, is one of the most important dynamics in getting more effective schools). 3. New trade agreements and enforcing current ones (not going to happen, not with the amount of our debt that China holds and the fact that the WTO doesn't like us much). 4. Balance the budget (also not going to happen, neither Romney's plans nor Ryan's would actually reduce the deficit or balance the budget). 5. Reducing taxes on small businesses and rich small business owners, reducing regulations, repealing and replacing Obamacare (with what? And repealing Obamacare will have large costs, even if Romney and Rs could do it).
It's just the same old cut taxes, cut regulation, cut spending (for poor people, unemployed people, old people, young people)... and trust us, it will magically get better. Don't worry your pretty little head about HOW it will get better, or about the fact that every time we cut taxes and cut regulation to the extent that these guys want to, we've ended up with the same kind of lopsided economy where working people suffer and rich people do well.
Never mind that it doesn't even make sense to spend what little money we have trying to give the rich more money - when they will not spend it, while cutting back money from the poor, elderly, unemployed, and young - when they definitely WOULD spend it, thereby creating actual, useful, predictable, consumer economic activity. You know, the kind that creates jobs.
We've tried lots of things in this country. Some of them have worked. Trickle Down Economics isn't one of them.
2. Baseline, Baseline, Baseline. The best professor I had in law school talked a lot about baseline assumptions, and it was a lesson that has always helped me understand what's going on when somebody seems far away from me in their logic. So let's talk about them now.
- Republicans are setting their baseline - and would like very much for you to set your baseline - at 2008. They often include all of 2008, even though President Obama did not take office until January, 2009. They want you to assume that nothing relevant happened before Obama took office, and to blame Obama for everything bad that has happened in the recession and downturn - while giving him zero credit for anything that has gone better.
- The "Obama Hasn't Made It Better" Argument - There are two parts to this argument:
- ...The part where Rs want you to believe that Obama has been able to enact his policies and those policies are failing to help the economy. Meanwhile, Rs in Congress have done everything that they can to limit and obstruct anything that the President might do. Republicans reportedly decided that they didn't want to work with Democrats on anything, lest anything positive should get done before the 2012 election that could actually help the President win. Regardless of whether there was an actual pact, we've seen a consistent obstructionism in congressional Rs. That's how we got the zero votes in the House taken on the President's Jobs bill, but 30 votes to repeal Obamacare. That's why Senate Republicans filibustered the Jobs bill, so that there wouldn't even be a vote on legislation that could actually show what Obama's real policy choices could do for our labor market. It's also how "fiscal conservatives" could care so little about America keeping its credit rating that they would play politics with raising the debt limit.
- But There Is Another Reason Why Rs Want the Baseline Set at 2008. Because of this guy.
- Trickle Down II, The Bush Empire Strikes Back. Bush spent 1.8 trillion dollars in tax cuts, instead of using the budget surplus to create a Gore-style "Lock Box" to shore up social security and medicare. These tax cuts included the incredibly regressive capital gains and dividend tax cuts, which almost entirely benefitted the wealthy, and rewarded investment income over earned income (wages). Those cuts are still in effect, and they discourage spending - they discourage stimulus.
- Budget? We Don't Need No Stinkin' Budget. Bush financed two simultaneous wars through emergency spending, so that he didn't have to add the cost of the wars ($1.47 trillion) into his budget numbers, and so that the Republicans would not have to vote on what the budget would look like with the wars added in.
- What's A Few Billion, Between Frenemies? Bush financed two simultaneous wars by deficit spending - basically by borrowing money from countries like China - because he was too chicken to (or maybe worse, just didn't think it was necessary to) raise taxes in order to maintain some kind of budget sanity - maybe because he didn't want voters to be able to focus on the costs of the wars.
- That's Fiscal Conservative, With A "B.S." Bush increased domestic government spending by 1.785 trillion dollars, including the Medicare Part D expansion, the creation of the Homeland Security Department, and the TARP and other bailouts towards the end of his term.
- In total, Bush policies accounted for $5.07 trillion in spending and debt - policies supported by most of the Republicans who have suddenly forgotten Bush's name these past 4 years. Including Republicans who call themselves "fiscal conservatives" with a straight face. Like Paul Ryan.
- But the truth is that this was a conscious choice. There is a Starve the Beast theory of anti-big-government conservatives who believe (and have for quite some time) that the only way to reduce the government was to cut taxes dramatically to create a fiscal crisis. It doesn't work, by the way. But it's a theory that some Rs are willing to bet our financial future on. Like Paul Ryan.
- Democrats for the most part want you to set your baseline either at 2000 or at 1992, but will take 1988 if pressed. Any of those places underlines Clinton's economic successes, including a balanced budget, and the Bush presidents' recessions and failed attempts at Trickling Down. Any of those places does not include stagflation, gas lines, and Jimmy Carter. This, btw, is why you heard all about Jimmy Carter, but almost no mention of Bill Clinton, last week.
- Sometime (once my kids are settled back in school), I'll take us back to a pre-Gilded-Age baseline. But for now, the important part is to know that there is a larger, more important picture if we take a step back from the 2008 baseline.
3. "Hey, Look Over There!" As Political Strategy. Republicans traditionally have economic policies that favor the rich over most middle-income, lower-income, and poor people. This has been true for a really long time. They may occasionally ask for a tax cut that helps middle-income people, but that's generally in conjunction with asking for gigantic tax cuts for rich people and corporations. But because Republican economic policies are geared towards the wealthy, they have to find ways to convince un-wealthy people to vote for them. Generally, they use social issues (abortion, gay marriage, guns, school prayer, etc.) to get some middle- and lower-income people on their side and against Democrats (whose economic policies would probably benefit more of the middle- and lower-income people). But they also sometimes try to pit working people against each other in other ways. That's what is at the heart of the anti-union and the racist welfare rhetoric.
- X Group Isn't As Deserving as You Are: If you want people to ignore the fact that you are trying to take Medicare away from their parents and grandparents and education funding away from their kids and grandkids, to ignore that their wages have stagnated while rich people are doing great, and to ignore that things got profoundly worse the last time you held power... why not try to make them resent other people who are fighting for the same jobs? This argument goes - "You know the real problem isn't rich people. Democrats are just jealous of rich people. The real problem is X." Who is X? Well, X is any other working-class group who is different in some definable way from your prospective R working-class voter.
- Race as X - We all know our turbulent, sad racial history in this country. There are some people who are outright racist, but there are also some who may not self-identify as racist, but who believe some racial stereotypes and may have what we'll call racial resentment. Those people might be susceptible to, say, ads that make it seem like while they are struggling, people they see as different and maybe less deserving are getting handouts out of the taxes we all pay. That's where the (false) welfare ads come in.
- Unions as X - Gov. Chris Christie on Tuesday: "They believe in teachers' unions. We believe in teachers." Now, aside from the obvious fact that teachers' unions are in fact made up of a whole bunch of teachers, and spend their time advocating for the welfare of teachers, this is a cynical argument. Republicans promote the belief that union workers are lazy, and overpaid, and don't even represent their members well. Republicans would like you to believe that their party is pro-capitalist and anti-socialist. But keeping or trying to keep people from banding together to increase their economic power is anti-capitalist. That's why Rs are so weird on health care. Americans should get the benefit of the purchasing power of our country's consumers in the health care market. We don't. That's anti-capitalist. Working people should be able to unionize. They should not have to be subject to the whims of employers. Employers who have shareholders will place a preference on shareholders' interests over employees (if they didn't already do this naturally, it would be required of them under our corporate law). That preference has become so pronounced that we have out-sourcing and off-shoring and a whole bunch of business lobbying against employees' interests in labor law, regulatory law, and trade law. That lobbying has had an effect on our policy. And that effect has made the now-global labor market decidedly more difficult for American workers. And every time that Rs have had the opportunity to undercut unions (notably in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, and in many, many state government skirmishes over the last couple of years), they have done so - with relish. Christie says Republicans believe in teachers, but apparently they don't believe in doing anything to actually support teachers, like giving them wages that don't stagnate when everything else gets more expensive, or promising retirement security and not yanking the rug out from under them when times are tougher. And now even Labor Day is about employers, if you ask Republicans. But hey, Chris Christie is a hell of a speaker, am I right?
- Immigrants as X - See, the Race Part. But add in the fact that this country has a long history of anti-immigrant/nativist fervor in hard economic times. Then take a good look at the rhetoric Romney used in the primaries on immigration.
4. So let's recap:
Republicans want you to ignore history. They want you to ignore the fact that their economic policies fail you - and the country - by creating stagnant wages for most Americans and ballooning deficits and debt.
They want you to ignore that they have been waging class warfare against you for years now. Republicans have been working to undercut people's economic power by stripping them of union rights, stripping trade deals of labor and environmental protections, fighting tooth and nail against labor, environmental, and safety protections and all regulation. Which then makes it easy for businesses to say that they are only following good economic policy to use American labor as long as it's convenient, but then ship jobs abroad to the lowest, most desperate bidder when it isn't convenient.
But here's the part of the Ryan/Christie/Romney political theory that has my blood boiling: After all of that hard work by Clinton and Democrats to balance the budget after the Reagan/Bush deficits, and after all of that Bush waste and deficits, and after all of the work Obama has tried to do to fight for any meager amount of stimulus to alleviate the pain so many Americans are experiencing... these profligate, big spending, big-borrowing Republicans who have done exactly as Romney did with Bain and sucked all the tax benefits and corporate welfare that they could out of the country - they are now turning to the poor, the old, the young, the hard-working, and saying: well, guys, it's time for some sacrifice and some tough truths. You should like me for being honest with you about the fact that your parents' health care is just too expensive, your kids' education is just too expensive, I'll be shipping your jobs abroad to the lowest bidder... but I still needs my tax cuts, baby.
That's vampire economics.
And it's even worse than old school voodoo economics.