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Why Our Pundits Are Broken

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Andrew Sullivan on the Ryan Budget:

There are two possible responses to the news that the House has put its votes on the line and endorsed the Ryan plan for the budget. It behooves me to note that I doubted they would ever get this specific, given their refusal to raise any of these specifics in the election campaign. You can gloat that the GOP has committed political suicide by essentially ending Medicare and Medicaid as we know them, but that is not a substantive response. They deserve political props for nailing this proposal to the door of the White House.

But the substantive criticism is still salient. It is that simply shifting Medicare to private insurance plans with subsidies that will mean progressively less and less healthcare for seniors does not really bring down healthcare costs – just shifts their responsibility away from the federal government. The likelihood that the insurance companies will actually want this new more vulnerable population without at some point, begging the government to provide more resources is … well, slim. But since the GOP proposal is simply indifferent to whether people have healthcare or not (they effectively withdraw coverage for all those covered by the ACA), this is a feature, not a bug.

Only a conservative plan would be lauded for it’s boldness politically. No one was saying how much political respect the anti-war Democrats deserved a decade ago; indeed, the likes of Sullivan called them fifth columnists.

But the same is true even more recently: no pundit praised the public option the House passed (or the even more progressive robust public option) as brave politically. No, they called them just plain stupid and political non-starters. And that’s what the House passed! Exactly what we have here!

But now that someone proposes a plan to make – as Sullivan himself describes it – “progressively less and less healthcare for seniors,” pundits such as Sullivan himself are falling over themselves to praise it for being bold and brave even when they disagree. None of these pundits gave the same deference to Nancy Pelosi. None. The closest was Sullivan saying the public option was wildly popular and then meekly saying the death of it made the bill move more right and be suddenly palatable. Not at all comparable.

There is no boldness, no bravery in failed policy, left or right. Dennis Kucinich proposed a Department of Peace: that’s not brave.

Ask yourself this question: why is not political criticism the same thing as substantive criticism? Ought they be the same?


Written by John Whitehouse

April 16, 2011 at 8:56 pm


with 11 comments

So, apparently Glenn Beck has questions. No link provided: take my word for it. In response, I’m giving some answers, to make the questions better ones. I’ve culled the following questions from a Beckwit, for which I shall again provide no link. I’m a bit feisty today.

Here they are:

– We are in so much debt, why spend more borrowed money on cap-and-trade and healthcare programs before we stop the flow of red-ink?

These are actually a number of different questions.

First, how much money do cap and trade and health care reform cost? That’s a really interesting question that no one really agrees on for health care. However, everyone agrees that cap and trade would actually raise money – that’s why it’s being attacked from the right as an energy tax. It’s not. Health care reform cost varies on what is included, but there’s also the problem of health care costs if not dealt with spiraling out of control.

The bigger question is this: can we solve the debt problem without doing some sort of health care reform? It’s the biggest reason we’re in debt in the first place (aside from the Bush tax cuts being overly broad – remember the days of a surplus?). These are highly technical questions that the CBO and OMB are going over meticulously. But there’s no easy answer for the right or the left on this one.

– The stimulus package funneled billions of dollars to ACORN. How does giving billions of dollars to ACORN stimulate the economy?

Where did it do that? I just searched the text of the bill, and ACORN was not listed. There are a number of places where someone who is not verssed in how bills are written could terribly misunderstand something. But there is that seriously gives billions to ACORN.

Fact: this is not a question, but a lie phrased as a question. It’s akin to someone hypothetically asking the question: How does Glenn Beck kidnapping and feeding homeless people to his secret lizard army benefit society?

This is putting aside any discussion of what ACORN actually does. Groups like ACORN and Habitat for Humanity are being demonized .. and in many cases falsely. I’d agree that I’m not a fan of their voter registration methods… but beyond that, what’s the big deal? If you’re going to ask a question about ACORN, you can’t assume everyone will agree with you that they’re bad … unless, again that your intention is not to ask questions, but rather to rile up your base.

– If it was so important for congress to pass the stimulus bill before they even had time to read it why has only a fraction of the stimulus money been spent 6 months later?

I doubt that no one read the bill. As I’ve explained before, time is precious, and a congressional staff should read the bill and issue reports to the congressman or woman.

Moreover, the stimulus was certainly available to read before it was passed. Versions of it were circulating on the internet before it was signed.

Furthermore, these two assertions have nothing to do with each other. It was not a secret bill. It was two thirds of what was originally planned, and if you actually read any part of the bill, you can note the procurement process is intricate and in very few cases immediate. (This process is described in great deal on the Apollo Alliance website, ironically enough.) The procurement policy runs according to the basic principles of administrative law. It’s a good class, I took it last year.

– Bush said he had to abandon free market principles in order to save them, how exactly does that work?

This is really, really easy to answer.

John Maynard Keynes. Google him one day. Basic theory: governmental debt spending can spark demand, which is the current problem.

Let’s examine two hypotheticals: one, the government spends in a depression, the other it cuts back. (No one is arguing for keeping things the same, I think we all agree).

If the government cuts back, the depression will spiral down and get worse. People that had relied upon the government as a safety net will be completely cut off. And states which relied on the government will also be cut off, and have to trim their budgets, which again will only end up hurting people – education and prison money, for instance, was already spread thin. And if we want to cut back, you’d have to cut defense spending too. No one wants to do that, except of course the Defense Department.

Government spending during an economic crisis, by contrast, can save the economy by stimulating demand – just look at the Great Depression. By creating large social programs, you create demand for products that actually can have ripple effects through the entire economy. The guy paving the road needs to by furniture for his house, while the furniture salesman needs to by a car, while the car salesman needs to buy milk, while the farmer needs to send his child to school, etc. The more money we have circulating through the economy, the stronger that is. Depression economics just makes that more direct than normal.

– Why won’t members of Congress read the bills before they vote on them?

Most of the time, they do. But on extra long ones, it makes sense to have staff members read them and report on them. Also, there’s a strong financial incentive to trust party negotiations – if the stimulus bill was an intricate compromise in the Senate, can a House member really do anything about it? Probably not. Any move to do so would only infuriate donors and House leadership, and cost them any chance of seniority.

These are basic principles of how legislation gets passed. Losers complain about not reading the bills. For both the Patriot Act for liberals and the Stimulus bill for conservatives, there are and were plenty of people offering critiques at the time. The question as Beck writes it is solely about obstructionism. Nothing else.

– Why are citizens mocked and laughed at when they ask their congressman to read the bills before they vote on them?

Because they tend to do so while shouting at the top of their lungs and just after saying Obama was born in Kenya? Just a thought.

Seriously, though, conservatives like Beck should read the story of the boy who cried Wolf. When you say crazy things over and over, eventually no one will take you seriously. It’s your own fault conservatives. Take yourself more seriously.

– Was the cash-for-clunkers program meant to save the earth or the economy? Did it accomplish either?

A bit of both (the program alone couldn’t “save” anything) and probably neither. There are reasonable critiques on the program from the left too. I heard one on NPR, on Diane Rehm’s show. A fair question, actually. See what I just wrote above: By hiding this question among a bunch of louder and sillier ones, it’s going to get lost. Well done, Glenny boy.

– How did Van Jones, a self-proclaimed communist become a special advisor to the president?

Van Jones was as much of a communist as Ronald Reagan was: they both were attracted to it in their youth after a tragedy (Great Depression for Reagan, Rodney King for Jones) and eventually outgrew it when they realized it was just stupid.

“Happened after he got to Hollywood. Reagan got carried away by stories of the Communist Party helping the unemployed, the homeless, the dispossessed. Some of his friends, people he respected, were Party members. So he turned to them. Said he wanted to become a communist… Said he was determined to join. They discussed it with the local Party leader, who asked around, and word came back that Reagan was a flake… They said Reagan couldn’t be trusted with a political opinion for more than 20 minutes. So the decision was taken to prevent him from joining, but to use him as a friend of the Party.” – Howard Fast

Jones had since clearly disavowed those types of views – look at his own words and acts since then. Hell, he was in Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded. I know Friedman is a liberal, but no one thinks HE is a communist, right?

Lastly, this is not really about Van Jones’ beliefs. It’s about Jones’ connection to Color of Change.

– Did President Obama know of Van Jones’ radical political beliefs when he named him special advisor?

I imagine he did know of his past, but there’s no indication he’s a communist now. Beck insinuates in his question that he still is a communist. is it like being born a Jew? Once a communist, always a communist?

Also, what is the Obama administration doing that indicates anyone from the communist party has any sway? A stimulus bill? Debt spending? FDR did these much more in the 30s, so that alone can’t be enough. Communism is the seizing of private businesses to be run by the government. Has that happened at all? Some on the right would say the car companies, but in that case, they – the CEOS – flew to DC to beg for help. So that can’t be it.

Lastly, i just want to reprint the first sentence of what the Wall Street Journal – now Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal – printed when Jones was hired: “Van Jones will join the Obama administration, but not as any sort of czar.”


– The Apollo Alliance claimed credit for writing the stimulus bill—why was this group allowed to write any portion of this bill?

Where did they take credit for writing it?

And if we want lobbyists to stop writing bills, we’re going to have to go way, way past the stimulus. How about the Energy Bill a couple years ago? Or the bankruptcy “reforms”?

Lobbyists regularly write bills. This is annoying. But it happens because of the financial aspect of elections, and because it’s easy to walk up to a congressman or woman and say “You want to do X, we want to do X, here’s a bill that does X. And by the way we can give your reelection campaign millions of dollars.”

There’s no possibility with all the intricate compromises and negotiations over the stimulus that some random lobbyist wrote all of it. None.
– If politicians aren’t writing the bills and aren’t reading the bills, do they have any idea what these 1000 page plus bills actually impose on the American people?

Gosh, that would be some conundrum if it were true. But it’s not. They clearly have a good idea of what they do. Down to the letter? No. But they certainly understand what bills do much more than, say, any pundit on TV.

– If the ‘public option’ health care plan is so good why won’t politicians agree to have that as their plan?

Technically, it would be what they already have – government provided health care. Same with the military.You don’t think regular Americans deserve the same health care delivery systems as the military, Glenn?

But the public option would be imposed on no one – not even Congressman. If it’s so bad, why not offer it as a choice? The theory behind the public option is that health insurance companies are not providing a meaningful service, and the market is attempting to go around it – cut off the middleman. The government would be available to provide the same service (if people wanted) at a much lower cost, allowing more people to get medical coverage. This isn’t rocket science, nor is it some governmental take over. The current system is like Medicare Part C: 20% more expensive for no meaningful reason.

– If town hall meetings are intended for the politicians to learn what’s on our mind—why do they spend so much time talking instead of listening?

Because it’s also a chance for the people to learn more. Believe it or not, television today isn’t very good at conveying meaningful details and educating the populace – TV either demagogues around silliness (cough, Glenn, cough) or it just attacks the opposition (eg, MSNBC). Hearing from the primary sources is very meaningful – just try writing a good history book without looking at any primary sources.

Also, politicians need to get reelected. And it’s not very efficient to get lectured at for hours on end by a handful of people.

– Politicians are refusing to attend town hall meetings complaining, without evidence, that they are scripted. Does that mean we shouldn’t come out and vote for you since every campaign stop, baby kiss and speech you give is scripted?

Umm, sure. I think that’s a quite reasonable trade-off. After all, people generally don’t go see politicians on the trail to be persuaded – they go because they’re already part of the fan base. Real persuasion is of fundraisers in small rooms. No one wants to get rid of those.
– Why would you want to overwhelm the system?

I really am not sure what -exactly- this refers to. So I’m not going to make assumptions. But if you want to ask questions that change people’s minds, I’d ask that you provide more context in the future, Glenn. If I can’t make sense of it, how can anyone else? Or, perhaps, is that the point?

– Is using the economic crises to rush legislation through congress what Rahm Emanuel meant when he talked about “not letting a crises go to waste”?

You don’t want to rush to help people? You don’t think the economic crisis is a serious one? You don’t think any reform or change is needed? That the Bush years were the golden age of America? Really, Glenn?

You don’t think that and nor do most people. But the fact is that if a strong majority believe that certain legislation is needed, they will rush to achieve it, within reason. Liberals and conservatives alike. In legislation, delay is equivalent to defeat, and nothing short of that. If a Republican Congress and White House existed tomorrow with these same numbers, they would try to rush things through too. It’s just the ature of the Congressional calendar.

– What are the czars paid? What is the budget for their staffs/offices?

Gosh, this is easy to find out. Here you go. Some people are not listed – Van Jones for instance was not hired until March. But he would have to be added by the next year. As you can see across the board, no one is getting rich on their salary at the White House.

But constitutionally, the key thing is that Obama or any president can add as many special advisers as they want. But that doesn’t give them any more power to implement policy. If Jones was doing something unconstitutional, the Supreme Court would have no trouble at all to take a case on it and overturn it.

The bottom line is that Beck asks a bunch of meaningless questions meant to rile up his base. The answers are mostly either readily available or completely irrelevant. But I’m sure he’ll attack someone – if not me than someone else like me – for calling him names, or something else ridiculous. Let’s have a serious discussion of the issues. In a span of my lifetime, we’ve gone from William F. Buckley on the right to Glenn Beck. Thank god Buckley doesn’t have to live to see what is being done to the movement he began. I can only imagine how Beck would insult Buckley’s vocabulary.

Written by John Whitehouse

August 30, 2009 at 2:18 am