Some commentators (e.g. Mark McKinnon writing in the Daily Beast) are pleading for us to take Michele Bachmann seriously.  However, they do not always make clear if we should credit her candidacy or her ideas.  She might be politically successful, but she will never be a credible leader and her political ideas are simply crazy talk.

McKinnon quotes Bachmann speaking about America’s economic problems as follows.

“I don’t believe that the solutions to our problems come from Washington. More than ever, Washington is the problem, and the real solutions will come from our businesses, our communities, our schools, and the most basic and powerful unit of all—our families.”

It seems impossible that simple ignorance could produce, in such a short statement, so many errors of fact and judgment.

Bachman does not believe “the solutions to our problems come from Washington.”  However, Washington was certainly the solution to the recent banking crisis.  No other entity, certainly not Business, could have bailed out the nation’s leading banks.  So crucial and so successful was Washington’s rescue package that the nation’s most successful investor, Warren Buffett, publically thanked the government in a New York Times op-ed titled “Pretty Good for Government Work”.

Bachman says that “More than ever, Washington is the problem.  However, the government played no role in precipitating the banking crisis, except that it failed to regulate the mortgage brokers and investment banks that did create the crisis.  The phrase “Washington is the problem” was made famous by Ronald Reagan, who began the era of deregulation.  We can certainly suspect that had the Government not been hobbled by years of deregulation, under regulation, and lax regulation, it might have prevented the financial crisis.  In his testimony before congress, Allan Greenspan agreed that as chairman of the Federal Reserve, he had been too lax in regulating banks and had placed too much faith in the supposed self-correcting nature of the market.  He said, “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholders’ equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief.”

Bachman says that “the real solutions will come from our businesses, our communities, our schools, and the most basic and powerful unit of all—our families.”  What is it about recent history that would give anyone a shred of hope that business is the solution to any problem, much less the current economic slump that it created?  Furthermore, the nation’s major economic problem is high unemployment and it is unlikely in the extreme that international corporations, even those based in the U.S., will hire American workers when they can hire labor more cheaply abroad.

Charles E. Wilson, President of General Motors and President Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, famously remarked that he thought “what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa.” Because our corporations are now international players, Wilson’s remark is no longer true either in its specific or in its general, metaphorical sense.

As for our communities and our schools, because of the business-induced economic downturn, they are underfunded and barely able to provide basic services, much less provide a solution to the nation’s current economic woes.

Similarly “the most basic and powerful unit of all—our families”, are in no position to help.  It is not clear how Bachmann thinks families could increase employment when nearly 10% of them are being undermined by unemployment.  If Bachman believes that the American family is important, she should be (but is not) a champion of government programs that strengthen most of America’s families: progressive taxation, day care, health care, etc.

The misrepresentations packed into this short quote are unlikely to be the result of ignorance.  At best, they are cynical propaganda.  At worst they are the ravings of a crazed charlatan.

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Republican Generalities

June 26, 2011

In the political propaganda wars, the Democratic Party coalition of white professionals, Blacks, Hispanics, and fading trade unions is badly outgunned by the Republican Party forces which include Corporate America, and the ignorant masses, especially those in the Bible belt. However, Niccolò Machiavelli made an observation about the deception of the masses that may offer the Democrats some hope.

Niccolò made his observation by way of an example concerning the   republican period in ancient Rome.  At this time there were two political factions: the nobles and the commons.  At first the nobles dominated, but through a process of rabble rousing, struggle, and series of hard won reforms, the populous gained political power.  In one such reform the commons gained the right to elect four tribunes to represent their interests in government affairs.  However, having been excluded from government there were no qualified candidates among the commons themselves.

The people clearly believed and fought for the general idea that they were just as good as the nobles.  We might expect that given the opportunity, they would have elected Tribunes from the commons, qualified or not.

In his Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius, Machiavelli tells us what actually happened on the occasion of the first election.

“When the four tribunes came to be chosen, the people, who had it in their power to choose all from the commons, chose all from the nobles. With respect to which election Titus Livius observes, that “the result showed that the people when declaring their honest judgment after controversy was over, were governed by a different spirit from that which had inspired them while contending for their liberties and for a share in public honors.” The reason for this I believe to be, that men deceive themselves more readily in generals than in particulars.”

CHAPTER XLVII – That though Men deceive themselves in Generalities, in Particulars they judge truly

In contemporary America, the public clearly believes the general tenants of the Republican Party platform.  Americans accept the notion that the U.S. should swagger on the world stage, that free-loading minorities are ruining the country, that homosexuality and other forms of moral degeneracy are threatening our social cohesion, and that we must return to traditional values.  You might think that in this environment the Tea Party’s message of rage and self righteousness, would propel it to victory across the board.

However when it comes to specifics, as it did in the special election in New York’s 26th district, people are not easily deceived.   The voters (who have elected a Democrat only 3 times in the last 100 years) elected Democrat Kathy Hochul, 47 percent to her Republican opponent Jane Corwin’s 43 percent.  Tea Party candidate, Jack Davis, got approximately 9 percent.

The Democratic Party won that election, not by battling the Republicans about generalities, but by making the election about something very specific, Social Security.

The same contrast between the public’s support for Republican generalities but Democratic specifics applies to several other important issues, such as health care and financial industry reform.

From the Republican perspective, the recent events in New York are more ominous still.  On Friday (24 June 2011) New York’s Republican-controlled Senate passed a bill to recognize same-sex marriage on a 33-29 vote.  According to the New York Times, Nation-wide 50% of the electorate supports gay marriage versus 34% who are opposed.   Only two years ago, the numbers were 42% in favor versus 54% opposed.  I believe that what accounts for the difference is that two years ago the issue was seen as an instance of a generality.  People’s opinion reflected their general opinion about homosexuals. Now the issue is seen as a specific choice.

We can hope that the Democrats take a lesson from recent events in NY, position themselves as pragmatists, and fight their election battles on specific issues.  If the Democrats fight on specifics, they will force both parties to craft proposals that are less extreme and we can hope, help form a practical political consensus.

Last week, in response to Paul Ryan’s Republican plan, President Obama presented his own budget blueprint.  From a Machiavellian perspective, the dynamics of the opposing power blocks are more enlightening than the two plans.   Most interesting of all, the associated Republican propaganda has created a political Frankenstein.

There is an important underlying issue that comes in two parts.  First, between 1972 and 2001, real wages for the top 1% of Americans (a key constituency of the Republican Party) jump by 100 percent.  However, gains for Americans at the 50th percentile were meager, roughly 7%.  (I am relying on numbers from Janet L. Yellen, President and CEO, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco November 6, 2006 ). 

Second, since the 1990s, productivity has increased at 3% per year.  If you put these two facts together, it is fair to conclude that the benefits of the productivity increase ended up in the pockets of the top 1%. 

There are several ramifications.

  • To protect its gains, the 1% pressured the Bush administration for tax cuts.  Granting those cuts created a revenue shortfall that resulted in a budget deficit. 
  • Most Americans, including the base constituencies of both political parties (neither of whom are part of the 1%), have suffered a loss of status.  In our materialistic, consumer society, this loss of status has translated into widespread envious dissatisfaction.
  • The 1% has been able to translate its economic resources into political power and become an emerging oligarchy.   The oligarchy has been increasingly able to operate America’s corporations and its government in their own short term best interests. This has escalated the feeling of discontent in to pervasive political dissatisfaction.  Most Americans feel that the country is headed in the wrong direction.

The Republican Party’s elite constituency is made up primarily of oligarchs; whereas, the party’s base is made up of traditional conservatives and the religious right, essentially old white people. 

The Democratic Party’s elite constituency is made up primarily of upper middle class professionals and liberal idealists; whereas, the party’s base is made up of Blacks and Hispanics.

Unsurprisingly the two parties’ budget proposals reflect the interests of the party elites.

  • Republicans propose to cut government services but keep the tax cuts for their elite.  Unfortunately this obliges them to cut some services for their base.  They mitigate this side effect by rhetoric and by making the most severe cuts fall on the young and people of color (i.e. the Democratic base).
  • Democrats have proposed to tax those who have a level of income that falls above that of their elite.  The added revenue allows the Democrats to propose less severe cuts in entitlement programs, which are political payoffs to their base constituents.

Democratic rhetoric has been muted, because they too rely on campaign contributions from the oligarchy.  To be sure, oligarchs prefer to fund the Republicans, but they do their best to co-opt influential Democrats, particularly those that cannot be defeated because they occupy safe seats.  Democrats have not been confrontational, but have relied on their standard liberal rhetoric, which is largely harmless, but sets a Machiavellian’s political realist teeth on edge.  According to the Democratic dream world vision all children want to learn, discipline is unnecessary, education is optional, criminals are easily reformed, everyone is entitled to entitlements, and in foreign affairs, all we need is to give peace a chance.  

However, since continuing tax cuts for the 1% is not in the interests of the base of its own party (much less that of the Democrats), Republican rhetoric has had to leap well beyond simple persuasion. 

The deficit presents an awkward fact. In reality the deficit is due to (A) the revenue shortfall created by the Bush tax cuts, and (B) one-time factors including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and by the recession, which necessitated a bailout and a stimulus package.  The onetime factors are, of course, a direct result of mismanagement by the Bush administration.  To explain away this problem the Republican propaganda machine has floated the idea that the deficit is due to a pattern of over spending. 

Even with mismanagement America’s budget deficit is not out of line with that of our European allies.  However, to continue to push its agenda Republicans have portrayed it as a crisis and have whipped its media allies into frenzy about the “Deficit of Mass Destruction.” 

The Republican propaganda machine has constructed an alternative vision that is so divorced from reality as to be delusional.  The main tenants of this alternative reality include: the god-like wisdom of the free market, the virtue of personal responsibility, and the evils of government.  Unfortunately the recent mortgage crisis demonstrated a massive failure of the free market, and a corresponding failure of personal responsibility at all levels.  Worse still, corporate America had to be bailed out by emergency funding from the hated Federal Government.   In the face of this stubborn reality, the right wing vision is a sort of paranoid delusion in search of a host. 

The delusion has found many hosts among those who are victims of income inequality and the ensuing crisis of envy and political dissatisfaction.  The readymade paranoid fantasy has attracted to the Republican banner a entire cult of people who seem to have Schizotypal disorder.  This is an official personality warp that is characterized by odd beliefs (magical thinking), suspiciousness, obsessive elaborate and stereotyped thoughts, odd speech, and delusional ideas.  Think for example of talk show hosts such as Glen Beck. These people have organized themselves into a cult, the Tea Party, which has taken on a life of its own.  Unfortunately for the Republican hierarchy, as in the Frankenstein story, the thing has got a bit out of control.

For example, in the budget compromise passed in the House last Friday, 59 Tea Party members voted against the party elite. The crisis nature of the budget debate, the threatened government shutdown, and the Republican defections are unsettling for the world financial system.  The political mess raises the specter that America may not be able to reach pragmatic policy decisions that are in its own interests.  Clearly, if we have a genuine debt crisis, we should be doing everything possible to down play it. 

The next political showdown will come near the May 16th deadline for raising the Federal debt-ceiling.  The Frankenstein faction again threatens to push the Republican Party into creating yet another crisis, but this time it may have dire consequences.  According to the Wall Street Journal, Rep. Michael Grimm is warning his Republican colleagues that “Wall Street understands that if we default on our obligations, our markets are going to crash,” By its inflexible stance the Tea Party cult has set up a dynamic of catastrophe.  The party’s Schizotypal rhetoric will repel independent voters.  As the Tea Party cult takes control, the Republican Party will expel its political realists. The repulsions and expulsions will make the Republican Party increasingly desperate and confrontational.  In the end, demographics are against a party of crazy old white people.  The Republican Party will implode and America will then have to rely on the Democratic Party for political realism and that too is a Machiavellian horror story.

Obama Outsmarts GOP

April 4, 2011

Based on his audacious rise to power at a young age, I infer that President Obama is an ambitious, aggressive politician of the Napoleonic type.  Yet he consistently appears to be a reasonable man of good will, open to compromise, and cooperation.  The most reasonable inference is that Obama is also a fox.

As a modern Machiavellian, I am disinclined to take appearances at face value and therefore suspect that Obama’s image is a strategic pose.  I am sure that as an intelligent, thoughtful man (who is therefore short on passionate convictions) his image does not strain his acting skills, but I suspect that the image is nonetheless, a conscious stance. 

The strategic value of that pose will become clear in the course of the upcoming budget debate.  Obama’s well developed reasonable man of good will persona, has done more than just seized the moral high ground, it has enabled him to use the Republican’s strength against them.  The base of the GOP, used to be not just conservative, but dull.  They were temperamentally conservative, grey-haired bankers, family doctors, and farmers. Now the Republican rank and file is made up of fire-breathing idealists.  These people have packed the new House of Representatives with safe candidates who are true believers, and therefore temperamentally uncompromising.   Far from being dull, they are flamboyant. 

Suppose that a confrontation between Obama and the GOP comes to an impasse.  Given Obama’s reputation for compromise, he can paint the GOP as fanatical.  If the Tea Party forces an ugly showdown, it has to face the specter of the President going to the American people “more in sorrow than in anger” saying that in spite of his best efforts, he just has to draw the line at Republican intransigence.  Almost certainly, the public will judge the situation not on the issues but on the images, and will take the President at his word. 

Worse still for the GOP, the most recent Gallup Poll puts the President’s approval rating at 46 approve vs. 44 disapprove.  It has declined a bit in recent months, coincident with the increase in gas prices.  However, the decline has come mainly from independents, the people who are least likely to side with flamboyant congressional radicals.

By contrast, the most recent Gallop Poll puts the public’s approval rating for Congress at only 18.

The GOP controlled House is in a miserable bargaining position.  Even if their stance is reasonable, they will not look reasonable.  Indeed any confrontation with Obama will transform the source of their political strength into a weakness.  The committed idealism of the Republican base will look like pig headed radicalism.

Obama knows that significant budget cuts are necessary but unpopular.  He is now positioned to blame the Republican Party for cuts that will, in the end, benefit his legacy as president.  It may be that the President is a reasonable man of good will but it is unlikely that he is just that.  Given his skillful handling of his campaigns in the Democratic primary and in the general election, it is more likely that his image is a deliberate construction.  If so, it is a Machiavellian masterpiece.