Monthly Archives: April 2011

Contrasting Japanese Sense of Responsibility and American Sense of Entitlement

The Liberal Ironist generally tries to stay away from this kind of post–namely, the “national character” exposition with a generous dash of “We’ve lost our way.”  But 2 articles in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal leave one with very different impressions of the business cultures of Japan and the United States.

1st was the cover article, “Financiers Switch to GOP,” which tracked the abrupt switch from relatively-even campaign spending on Democrats and Republicans through the Aughts to near-exclusive campaign spending on Republicans by hedge fund managers and their employees during the 2010 midterm Congressional elections.  This shift towards near-exclusive financing of Republicans was justified by several hedge fund managers as a response to an intolerably anti-business climate ushered in by President Obama and the Democratic Party.  What’s interesting (and frustrating) about this claim is simply how little substance there is to it.

Cliff Asness of AQR Capital Management (formerly Advanced Quantitative Research), one of the principal figures in The Quants, Scott Patterson’s fascinating history of the largest American hedge funds and the role that the simplistic assumptions of their economic models played in the 2008 Financial Crash, is a longtime Republican campaign contributor.  (Incidentally, I’ve previously reviewed The Quants and even discussed what I thought were interesting facets of its theoretical critique.)  But employees of AQR Capital Management had become increasingly-generous Democratic campaign contributors until 2010.  Apparently Asness had long characterized President Obama’s way of talking about Wall Street as “bullying,” but this “bullying” hasn’t resulted in higher taxes on hedge funds, nor has it resulted in regulations which weren’t long-expected by the industry or which they weren’t able to moderate through “the 41st Republican vote in the Senate,” Scott Brown (R-MA), as of his election to fill Senator Kennedy’s old Senate seat in January 2010.  In sum, Cliff Asness’ volunteered criticism of President Obama for the article was that he said mean things about the hedge fund sector.

The article does go on to identify a contentious debate over tax code changes.  In his early months in office, President Obama and the Democrats sought to prevent hedge fund managers from being able to pay the relatively-low 15% capital gains tax rate.  (Senator Max Baucus (D-MT), the article reported, objected to the fact that hedge fund managers could be billionaires but pay a lower tax rate when they sell their stake in the hedge fund “than teachers or doctors or firefighters.”)  Since most of their assets in the fund wouldn’t qualify as capital gains because of how rapidly it was traded, they accepted this tax increase.

The proposed tax increase that did earn hedge fund managers’ outrage, apparently, was a Democratic proposal that the sale of a hedge fund be taxed as income rather than as long-term capital gains.  (Top-bracket marginal income tax rate: 35%.  Top long-term capital gains tax rate: 15%.)  In short, hedge fund managers objected that the sale of a multi-billion dollar financial institution might be taxed at the income tax rates paid by doctors and successful lawyers.

These hedge fund managers may yet find that the joke’s on them; Standard & Poor’s has given the United States Federal Government a negative bond rating.  (A negative bond rating doesn’t mean that the Federal Government’s rating isn’t still AAA–which it is–but rather that Standard & Poor’s may downgrade its bond rating in the near-future.)  This is the 1st tangible consequence of all the loose talk, mostly by Republicans, about obstructing the debt limit increase.  Officially the Federal Government will hit the authorized national debt limit by mid-May; however, complicated accounting practices can keep the Federal Government fully-funded through the first week of July.  Then we have a problem, and if the Federal Government can’t make its debt commitments, not only will this inevitably damage the Federal Government’s credit, it will lead to higher interest rates for everyone, tighten credit in general and dampen the economy by abruptly reducing Federal spending.  Hedge fund managers, like other business leaders, were playing with fire when they bankrolled such an ideological trend within the Republican Party; perhaps now prominent members of the US financial industry will recognize that President Obama’s supposedly-intolerable hurtful talk didn’t preclude some of their highest profit margins ever, and during our worst economic crisis since the Great Depression at that.

The 2nd article contained what to me was a more-shocking story: “Tokyo Increases Role in Crisis.”  What shocked me so was a seemingly-incidental sentence from the 2nd paragraph: “Amid such criticism, plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. pledged to cut the remuneration of its senior executives by half as it deals with the financial impact of the crisis, while its general staff would see 20% cuts in pay…”

The senior executives of TEPCO are taking a 50% pay cut because of their company’s failure to prepare for a natural disaster beyond their honest reckoning.  Essentially, they are accepting a halving of their salaries as a penalty for their failure to think the unthinkable.  (One of my old college professors was fond of the saying, “Not to think the unthinkable is not to think at all”–and the 2008 Financial Crash particularly highlighted the wisdom in this.)

Interestingly, it’s typical for Japanese corporations to limit executive salaries to around 5 times what an average company worker makes.  A recent Nikkei business survey found that Japanese executives earned around 4.8 times their average company worker’s salary from April 2009 to March 2010, while American executives at some corporations earned as much as 350-500 times an average worker’s salary.

So there you have it, folks: On the one hand, the managers of a large and dynamic but volatile component of our financial sector express feelings of betrayal by a President who supported a $750 billion bailout of their parent companies after their reckless accounting mechanisms crashed the World economy because he once proposed that if they sell their multi-billion dollar foundations they should pay the same tax rate that other rich people do…and on the other hand, Japanese executives at a major electric company take a massive pay cut following weeks of dangerous and setback-laden containment and cleanup actions at a large nuclear power plant following the most-debilitating natural disaster in Japan’s history.

The Liberal Ironist doesn’t think hedge fund managers are evil.  In my book review of The Quants, I acknowledged that hedge funds, while technically an opportunistic and voltatile way of flipping stocks, are beneficial, keeping corporations well-capitalized, thereby affording them the means to invest in new production and new employment.  I disagree with the director of Inside Job, this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Documentary, and Michael Moore, who think hedge fund managers are criminals and should be jailed.  I don’t think these hedge fund managers sound like bad guys or that they committed a crime when they innovated their complex accounting schemes.  (If they committed fraud when striking contracts with either their creditors or debtors, well, that would be a crime.)

For the most part hedge fund managers simply thought they found a scientifically-valid way to invest, and to hedge their investments, and to stay ahead of broadly-available market information all the while.  Plus, they thought that credit-default swaps (basically insurance policies investors offer lenders on other people’s loans, complete with premiums while the loan is outstanding) meant that investment banks had finally manged to arbitrage-out the risk involved in lending to financially-insecure clients.  They thought mathematics would allow them to easily beat the market, borrowing money at little or no interest abroad, buying stocks in bulk when they were underpriced and selling them when they became overpriced.  They were vindicated in this conceit right up to the point that they led all of us off a cliff.

The Liberal Ironist would accuse hedge fund managers of a sense of entitlement that is truly pathetic.  The same men (and a few women) who meekly supplicated while asking for Federal Government assistance to stop the self-created free-fall in the financial sector condemned a President who voted for that bailout for proposing that they should pay as much in taxes on investments that could gross billions of dollars for them as other wealthy professionals.  In contrast to the solemn gesture of TEPCO executives, there isn’t the faintest sense that anyone in this industry owes anyone anything, or that the industry has lost its way, or even that its own calamities are its own responsibility.

This is perhaps the central irony of the contrast: With a religious culture that doesn’t believe in a personal God, free will, or a Hell resembling the place in Christian mythology, Japanese civil and political culture actually seems to foster an ethic of taking responsibility; our individualistic but sometimes Christian-themed civil and political culture seems to encourage us to take what we can get, or failing that, to plead victim status.

The Liberal Ironist accepts the need for elites; he simply wonders why ours are so manifestly unworthy of their power.

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The Absence of Evidence in the Gospel According to Mark: A Call to Faith to a Christian, An Open Field of Potential for an Atheist

A wise and educated friend of mine who is pursuing a divinity degree offered me a challenging Christian interpretation of the strange, minor-key original ending of the Gospel According to Mark–an empty tomb, but no resurrected Jesus–that was the subject of my previous entry.  In his view, the absence of the risen Jesus is actually an invitation to faith:

“We could have a great discussion on Mark. I took a course on it this past term that blew my mind. Mark’s entire Gospel is built around the idea of resurrection. Resurrection is the glue that ties Mark’s gospel together. To go into details would be far too long for a guy who still has to finish a final=) It asks of the reader, and has ever since the first community listened to it being read all those years ago in Palestine, what will you do with this Jesus? Will you follow him along the way, and will you meet him where he is waiting for you? Look at the end of Mark 16: There is an empty tomb coupled with a promise that Jesus has risen, and a matter of fact statement that he has gone on ‘ahead of you’ on the way to Galilee, where he waits. The women at the end of gospel flee in fear, which is a very human reaction, and thus the story ends with the reader/listener forced to make a choice: Will you follow the risen Jesus or not?”

To a person of faith, absence of evidence is an opportunity to test his faith. That is a logical conclusion in the sense that it has internal validity. To an atheist an absence of evidence for anything is an opportunity for anyone to have faith in the unsaid anything; it is merely a question of which words will inspire the subject to become what sort of believer. That suspicion also is logical. In the former case the believer claims to have understood the purpose of the Gospel on its own terms; in the latter case the atheist (or at least the ironist) merely acknowledges that believer and nonbeliever both find that the Gospel According to Mark is able to corroborate and enrich their understanding of Christianity.

As a non-believer and an ironist, I don’t think the Gospel of Mark is written the way it is because the mode of mystery is an open invitation of faith; I think an intellectual Christian interprets the Gospel According to Mark as an open invitation to faith because, compared to the other canon Gospels, it is so mysterious. Simply put, Mark’s comparatively moody, unpredictable Jesus and startling, minor-key climax and ending are hard to square with the mountains of assurances and proofs offered in Matthew or the transcendental, unaffected Jesus of John. A less-intellectual believer doesn’t have to concern him- or herself with Mark’s dark, almost-naturalistic quality; what the Bible says is simply true. An intellectual who is honing his faith has to find an explanation: The Bible is complicatedly true, hence the early, unadorned Gospel According to Mark is an invitation to faith.

I’d make 1 further observation as an ironist (and thus, a thoroughgoing atheist).  The Jesus of Mark is himself a miracle, in the sense that Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan would put it: He is an imperfect person, his actions alternately a cause of disappointment for the curious crowds who follow him or a source of anguish for his apparently-worried family.  He has an ego that can be stung–and as a result of this makes one of the Liberal Ironist’s favorite observations: “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor” (Mark 6:1-6).  These are truly the words of Jesus as I imagine him, a country exorcist with a chip on his shoulder but who cares passionately about social justice, who sees the invisible, and yet can’t stand sanctimony.  There is arrogance, hucksterism, even a remarkable element of alienation about him, but his rare combination of these elements produced words that have deepened all of our intellectual and emotional lives.  He is the Jesus who was crucified, died, and was buried but who did not rise from the dead; his body remains undiscovered just as it was in the earliest manuscripts of Mark.  An intellectual Christian may see in the absence of the body a challenge to faith; the Liberal Ironist sees the omnipresent but variable space of uncertainty within which all creative work happens.  Jesus’ profile doesn’t sound like that of a man who will tell all people that they have a capacity to be exalted in their actions, but then he even led by example, thus going 2 miles with us on a difficult road when asked to travel only 1.

The Liberal Ironist Hopes You Had a Happy Easter 2011…

I find the Gospel According to Mark more-interesting than the others.  It’s short and raw, unadorned with as many signs and wonders, and with Jesus sometimes saying things so coarse, or so subtly-disturbing, that belief in Jesus the man could come easy for an atheist.  The Jesus of Mark is a moodier, less-predictable sort of person than the one from the other Gospels.  He is best-known as an exorcist, and sometimes he doesn’t do what those who came to him for help asked of him–not right away, at least.  When his family entreats with him to return home with them, he insists that those who travel with him are his family.  That’s a bit dark (Mark 3:31-34).  Indeed, Jesus never seems to attain credibility in his hometown, where he is known as an ordinary human being; people incredulously refer to him as a carpenter, and in apparent exasperation he says “Only in his hometown, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor” (Mark 6:1-6).

The coming of Easter inspired this post; consider the complete failure of the Gospels to agree on even the most-general facts of the touchstone miracle of Christianity: the Resurrection.  Below I have included the New International Version’s translation of Mark 16:1-8:

“1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, ‘Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?’

“4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

“6 ‘Don’t be alarmed,’ he said.  ‘You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified.  He has risen!  He is not here.  See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, “He is going ahead of you into Galilee.  There you will see him, just as he told you.”‘

“8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb.  They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

“[The most early and reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20]”

That last parenthetical…is part of the quote.  That’s right, that note is a frank admission that “the most reliable early manuscripts” of the Gospel According to Mark have nothing after this.  What traditionally follows the viewing of the empty tomb in the Gospels?  Well, what remains is Jesus’ appearance as a living man after his crucifixion, death, and burial.  That wasn’t originally in Mark.  Mark-plus-additional content, Matthew, Luke and John have very different accounts of what supposedly happened after Jesus rose from the dead:

As the women witnessed the empty tomb…

Mark: They met a man clad in white.  They tell no one what they saw.

Matthew: They met an angel of God.  They tell the disciples immediately.

Luke: They met “two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning.”  They tell the disciples immediately; Peter runs back to the tomb and finds Jesus’ discarded burial cloth but meets no one, and goes home in confusion.

John: Mary Magdalene–by herself–finds the tomb empty and runs to Simon Peter “and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved,” and they ran back to the tomb.  They both inspect Jesus’ discarded burial cloth but meet no one there, and both go home in confusion.

After leaving the tomb, Jesus first appeared to…

Mark: Mary Magdalene, who tells the disciples but is not believed.

Matthew: The women, apparently overtaking them on their way to tell his disciples as fast as they can.  He simply tells them to do what the man in white–er, the angel of God–told them to do.  (All the apostles go to the appointed place to meet him, but some apparently doubt he rose from the dead even upon supposedly seeing him.)

Luke: 2 of the Disciples in Emmaus, a village outside of Jerusalem.  This one is really weird.  Jesus literally overhears these 2 talking about what had happened to him, and proceeds to pull a “Gandalf the White,” appearing before them and even speaking to them without being recognized.  He asks them “What are you discussing…?” and then gets the whole account of his own crucifixion, death and burial from them.  When they say Jesus’ tomb was empty, he admonishes them both for not having more faith.  Then he walks with them to their home village, where they invite him to spend the night.  He breaks bread with them, and they recognize him as if all they needed was a little communion.  (Actually, that’s kinda cool…)  Then he disappears from their sight.  Pouf.  They then ran back to Jerusalem as quickly as they could to tell the others.  Once they have finished recounting this, Jesus appears before them all again.  Pouf.

Apparently the Jesus of Luke is the master of the jump-scare.

John: Mary Magdalene, after pulling another “Gandalf the White.”  He does this in the company of “two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning.”

After his posthumous appearance, Jesus says to the Disciples…

Mark: Whoever believes in him “will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues, they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” (Mark 16:17-18)  It would be fair to say the Jesus of Mark is Pentecostal.

Matthew: They should take the Christian message to all the nations.  Unlike the Mark addendum, there no mention of condemnation for unbelief.  Jesus assures the Disciples he is always with them

Luke: “Do you have anything here to eat?”  He enjoys a nice broiled fish.  The Gospel According to Luke is bizarre…

Oh, he also shows them the correct interpretation of the Bible.  That’s helpful!  He doesn’t do this in any of the others…

John: They have the power to forgive (or withhold the forgiveness of) sins.

He also shows the holes in his hands to “Doubting” Thomas, and invites his erstwhile-ardent Disciple to put his hand into the deep wound in his side.  In implicit admonition of Thomas’ need for evidence that Jesus truly died and was resurrected, Jesus says “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’

Ironically, this is the epitome of a statement that must be taken on faith.

Jesus appears to most of the Disciples on another day by the shore of the Sea of Galilee, while they are about 300 offshore fishing.  Pulling another “Gandalf the White,” he coyly asks them if they have any fish.  When they say they haven’t, he miraculously…instructs them to throw their net over in such a way that they catch 153 fish.

After they have eaten a lot of fish–no, that is literally what they do next–Jesus tells Simon Peter (incidentally my family’s namesake) to lead the faithful in his absence, and tells the Disciples to leave Judas alone.

That believing any of these accounts of Jesus’ resurrection requires faith goes without saying; viewed in light of each other’s discrepancies the Liberal Ironist thinks that skepticism or even cynicism about these discrepancies is positively virtuous.  But if it’s redemption you want, I offer both Christian and atheistic defenses of Mark’s spartan and at times challenging account of Jesus’ life and actions in an immediately-succeeding entry.

Thoughts on Yet-Another Badly-Conceived Populist Mass-Email

I got yet-another of those populist emails about how Congress should be run differently, and I figured I’d offer some rejoinders.  Altogether they sum to this: Maligning Congress and talking like Representatives and Senators don’t work for a living is a poor perspective from which to propose reforms.  I find it strange that so many erstwhile-Conservatives who assert that we have lost our way and must morally renew this country express contempt for officials they have elected in the same breath, assuming that no specialized knowledge or experience is needed to legislate for a country of 310 million people in the 21st century.
The 26th amendment (granting the right to vote for 18 year-olds) took
only 3 months & 8 days to be ratified!  Why?  Simple!  The people
demanded it. 
That was in 1971…before computers, before e-mail, before cell phones,
etc.

Of the 27 amendments to the Constitution, seven (7) took 1 year or less
to become the law of the land…all because of public pressure.

I’m asking each addressee to forward this email to a minimum of twenty
people on their address list; in turn ask each of those to do likewise.

In three days, most people in The United States of America will have the
message.  This is one idea that really should be passed around.


Congressional Reform Act of 2011

1. Term Limits. 12 years only, one of the possible options below..

A. Two Six-year Senate terms
B. Six Two-year House terms
C. One Six-year Senate term and three Two-Year House terms 

I don’t like it.  I haven’t heard a convincing argument why preventing either legislators or executives from running for reelection makes government more-accountable.  Who is responsible for reelecting politicians?  We only send them back to Washington/the State capitals/the county seat/city hall/town hall when we want to.  Term limits are thus anti-democratic.  I wish such proposals (which are really manifestations of resentment for elected officials) would go away.
My professor for American Public Policy back in college made an interesting point about term limits: If you term-limit elected officials, you lose much of the sum of experience that allows legislators and executives to contend with the State and Federal bureaucracies, or those in the private sector lobbying them for tax breaks, subsidies or favorable regulatory changes.  So, while term-limits in theory could get rid of some of the legislators bringing home the most pork (which has actually always been a very small component of the Federal budget), they could actually result in bigger and more perversely-structured government.
2.  No Tenure / No Pension. A Congressman collects a salary while in
office and receives no pay when they are out of office.
3.  Congress (past, present & future) participates in Social Security.
All funds in the Congressional retirement fund move to the Social
Security system immediately.  All future funds flow into the Social
Security system, and Congress participates with  the American people. 
This one makes sense to me.  Congressional Republicans might look ascance at risky and inefficient ideas like President George W. Bush’s grandiose plan to divert some of our Social Security funds into private investment accounts.  Such a measure would have brought catastrophe had it been implemented before the 2008 Financial Crash; we would have been bailing-out our seniors as well as the largest banks and the Big 3 American automakers.  Congressional participation in Social Security could help lead future discussions of our oldest entitlement to really focus on its long-term solvency rather than using it to…um, “change the course of history.”
4. Congress can purchase their own retirement plan, just as all
Americans do. 
…Uh, just as Americans who can afford to do.  This email assumes the average American is middle-class and has good finances; this isn’t true.
5. Congress will no longer vote themselves a pay raise.  Congressional
pay will rise by the lower of CPI or 3%.
Why shouldn’t Congress be able to vote itself a pay raise?  It’s not like it does constantly.  We assume a lot when we assume the right people will be willing to go to Congress on any salary.  Right now the Speaker of the House earns $223,500 in annual Congressional pay, and the Majority and Minority Leaders in both the House and the Senate earn $193,400 a year in Congressional pay.  That might sound like a lot, until you consider they are only making about as much money as a top-paid college professor–or far less than they could be making as lawyers (which most of them are by trade, as is logical).  Now consider this fact, posted on the AFL-CIO’s website:
“In 2010, Jeffrey R. Immelt received $21,428,765 in total compensation.  By comparison, the median worker made $33,190 in 2010. Jeffrey R. Immelt made 645 times the median worker’s pay.”
What even the AFL-CIO doesn’t mention in this space is that General Electric Corporation paid no corporate taxes this year after making over $10.8 billion in profits in 2010.  Actually, General Electric has apparently filed for $1.1 billion in compensation from the Federal Government for domestic losses last year.  I think this focus on Congressional pay is a sick distraction from the fact that lots of talented people are being siphoned off into top office jobs that pay millions (or tens of millions, or hundreds of millions) and practically being encouraged to dodge Federal taxes while deciding at their leisure that millions of Americans who definitely work for a living (or at least did) are economically superfluous and must fend for themselves.
6. Congress loses their current health care system and participates in
the same health care system as the American people.
Why not just give the American people their health care system, since it’s obviously better?  This is what President Obama was saying from the beginning.  Bear in mind that every other country in the developed world has a socialized health care sector, and that those countries all pay less per capita for health care than we do, and that roughly all have higher life expectancies and lower child mortality rates than we do.  The AMA and the insurance companies screamed back in 1965 when President Johnson proposed universal health care but said nothing when Medicare (Federal health care for the elderly) and Medicaid (Federal health care for the poor) were instituted; that’s because insurance companies didn’t see any profit in taking care of sick or poor people–that is, the people who need help.
7. Congress must equally abide by all laws they impose on the American
people. 
That’s…already the law.  Don’t you remember Senator Kennedy getting told he was on a no-fly list (due to an administrative mistake, of course) and not being allowed to fly?  Did he say “I am a Senator!” in a booming voice and was promptly shown to a plane?  No, the TSA barred Senator Kennedy from flying, just as it does with the 6-year-olds it flags as supposed airline security risks.

8. All contracts with past and present Congressmen are void effective
10-1-11

The American people did not make this contract with Congressmen.
Congressmen made all these contracts for themselves.

Serving in Congress is an honor, not a career. The Founding Fathers
envisioned citizen legislators, so ours should serve their term(s), then
go home and back to work.
I actually just find this closing offensive.  Who is this person to say members of Congress don’t work?  It’s pretty clear he or she has no idea what Congressmen and Senators do.  They hold frequent investigations and draft and modify legislation, pass budgets and vote on treaties and Executive appointments.  At the same time they are handling a variety of demanding and often angry phone calls, correspondences and requests from their constitutents (who could be as few has half a million or as many as 37 million) almost constantly.  The horse-trading and deal-making is an inevitable component of trying to build support for political causes you care about; if you never traded votes, how should you get other members of Congress to support the measures you care about?  Members of Congress are often called crooks and cheats, but the truth is their impulses aren’t very different from ours (except that they may momentarily be following the career path that is least lucrative for them).  I actually feel bad for them, considering the cynicism and hostility they have to put up with and still ask anonymous hundreds of thousands or millions of us to let them keep their job every 2 years or every 6 years.  (Naturally I feel even worse for Congressional and Senate staffers, who have no power but get some of that invective from resentful constituents themselves, and have to be respectful because the boss has to run for re-election).  The Founding Fathers may have envisioned citizen legislators, but they also envisioned a country in which only white male landowners needed a vote, in which their were no political parties, and in which we didn’t have a standing army.  This was a pre-Industrial landscape of about 4 million Americans (rather than 310 million), with the United States occupying about 1/3 of its current territory.
My point isn’t to say that the Founding Fathers didn’t do a find job, or that they didn’t mean well, or that they didn’t know what was what; my point is simply that their vision of citizen-legislators isn’t a good model for the national legislatre in a country of our vast size and population, facing complex and sensitive issues both domestic and foreign.  The issues Congress faces are complex-enough that serving in Congress absolutely can be a career, and with so many inducements of wealth and celebrity from fields which are clearly not as essential we are lucky to have men and women in Congress who care about politics and at least know how to debate and draft bills.
Anyway, the Liberal Ironist will be back on in a while with a post about Easter.

Michigan is Burning: Benton Harbor and Emergency Financial Management

There’s something fishy in Michigan.  I just heard of Benton Harbor for the 1st time from a friend last night.  He had seen a report about this while watching his beloved Rachel Maddow; I have since made an effort to triangulate my sources somewhat on the State of Michigan’s initial use of augmented powers to manage financially-stressed municipalities.

In case you haven’t heard, the State of Michigan passed a bill granting Governor Rick Snyder broadened powers to declare a municipality “financially stressed.”  Emergency financial managers have existed in Michigan for some time; they can be appointed to oversee the finances of cities and public schools that chronically face large deficits.  The modified law allows emergency financial managers–appointed at the Governor’s discretion–to suspend public employee contracts, suspend the authority of public schools and local governments to pass laws, and even abolish the jurisdictions they oversee completely, nullifying local democracy by fiat in areas so-targeted.  The law passed around the time of the state budget, which included $1.8 billion in business tax cuts paid for with cuts in spending on public schools and local government assistance, and–to the Liberal Ironist’s knowledge unmatched even by the gall of Wisconsin Republicans–tax increases on senior citizens and a $250 million tax increase on the poor.

To be fair, there’s no denying that some Michigan cities and school districts are financially-distressed.  It’s worth mentioning that Michigan was the only State in the country to lose population over the course of the past decade.  Population loss among many Michigan counties both urban and rural suggests that this decline is distributed around many parts of the State; however, there is no question that it is the population loss from some of Michigan’s biggest cities that contributed to the State’s overall demographic collapse.  Detroit, which 40 years ago had about 2 million residents, dropped to an official 2010 Census count of 713,777.  Reflecting a weird symmetry with the hollowing-out of the auto industry’s employment base in the region, Detroit has declined to the population it had 100 years ago, in 1910.  The city lost 1/4 of its population in the past decade, or an average of 1 person moving out of Detroit every 22 minutes for 10 years.  The State of New York has appointed financial managers for some financially-stressed school districts and local governments, famously for Nassau County, 1 of the wealthiest suburban counties in the United States which had chronically failed to collect the taxes and fees needed to pay for its large bureaucracy.  Furthermore, consolidation of city and county services has been a positive experience in previously depressed or poorly-financed cities such as Rochester, NY or Nashville, TN.

It is against this backdrop of this argument that Governor Snyder has made his inaugural use of his augmented powers of municipal financial restructuring.  Benton Harbor may serve as the demonstration case for just what the Governor can do with these powers, as “Emergency Financial Manager” Joseph Harris has now suspended the powers of the city government.  The only powers that remain in the hands of the elected city council for the foreseeable future are the powers to call meetings to order, adjourn said meetings, and to approve the minutes of said meetings.

Naturally, under the circumstances there won’t be much for the city council to discuss during these meetings other than outrage at the stripping of their regular powers by their new financial czar.

In an upcoming post, the Liberal Ironist will address the Benton Harbor emergency financial management case and the debate on whether State receivership of this impoverished former factory town represents a radical means of recourse for these municipalities, a case of laizzes-faire ideology run amok, or simply a prelude to a spectacular case of official corruption.  This is a question worth getting right, because it is hard to deny that the Michigan Governor’s new emergency financial management powers over cities are draconian.  What remains, the Liberal Ironist would hope, is the prospect of city consolidation with its surrounding suburban county, a measure that can centralize planning initiatives and better-distribute financial resources for old industrial cities; several Midwestern cities may face a choice between local government consolidation and the spectacle of their slow-moving abandonment, a surreal development for the 21st century.

Star Trek: FUBAR

(Level 3 spoiler hazard: I will proceed to give away the events of the re-imagining of Star Trek by J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman as it serves my purpose throughout this review.  I do this not out of malice—though I positively hate that movie—but because science fiction that makes no sense at all annoys me, and today I will have my revenge.  So without further ado, I’m posting something very different today.)

Star Trek is a science fiction mythology about humanistic values and progressive hopes.

The Liberal Ironist is not going to talk about humanism or progressivism today.

No, today’s post is stand-alone self-indulgence: The Liberal Ironist is going to carry on angrily about Star Trek, the J.J. Abrams-produced, Damon Lindelof-directed reboot of the Star Trek film franchise.  This will be an angry review for no reason more-complicated than that this movie doesn’t make any sense.  Star Trek, heretofore and eternally known as Star Trek: FUBAR, is a nonsensical mess that insults our intelligence.

“FUBAR” is an informal military shorthand for “f***ed up beyond all recognition.”  This is nothing like what I normally write on this blog, but I wanted to clarify a few problems with a mostly critically-acclaimed (and very financially successful) sci-fi action/adventure movie.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a Trekkie.  I have seen all of the Star Trek movies.  But I’ve only seen several episodes apiece of the classic TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  I haven’t really seen the often-panned Voyager or the apparently-authentic but short-lived Enterprise at all.  I’m not very engaged in the lore of the show, and I am often quite comfortable with the shifts in tone that occur when a franchise is “re-imagined.”  I am a loyal observer of several other pop culture crazes, prominent among them the TV series LOST, the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica and Doctor Who, each of which similarly straddle the line between science fiction and fantasy in ways that put them in a similar general category with Star Trek.  In declaring myself a LOST fan (and I am a big one), my disappointment with Star Trek: FUBAR should nonetheless be clear.  I expected a whole world of brilliance from J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, 2 of the principal lines behind the groundbreaking TV series that sold me on the value of allegory as a means of mapping out the web of one’s themes and cultural influences.  What I got from Star Trek: FUBAR was nonsensical manic bunk even in comparison to the mediocre big-budget action or disaster movies we see today, and it was so distracting that there was really no chance of me enjoying all the pretty special effects and warp-speed dialogue.

Without further ado, I will now do my best to spoil the movie.  For a standard post on politics or philosophy, please just wait a day or 2.  You’ve been warned…

Star Trek: FUBAR opens aboard the Federation starship on which George Kirk, the father of James T. Kirk, serves as 1st officer.  But his 1st officering is violently-interrupted as a huge, spiky and evil-looking ship suddenly emerges through a wormhole.  I don’t know why a ship piloted by an evil person has to be huge, spiky and evil-looking…particularly considering that it eventually turns out to be an unremarkable Romulan mining vessel from 175 years in the future.  So, consider that stupid thing #1 about this movie.

Oh, wait—that’s actually stupid thing #3.  Stupid thing #1 is the fact, also unknown at this time but causally prior to the 1st scene, that this mining ship fell through this wormhole from 175 years in the future completely by accident.  Isn’t it a little convenient to fall into a black hole as a result of a careless maneuver and to simply ride it back into the past?  Stupid thing #2: Isn’t it way too convenient to fall into a black hole completely by accident and to be transported 175 years into the past to the time and place in space of James Tiberius Kirk’s birth?  I mean, what are the odds?  Why not fall through time to…well, a location close to the system Romulus is in, or somehow accounting for galactic drift and rotation, to a location still in Romulan space?

Don’t give me that “many worlds theory” bunk.  Just don’t.

Wow.  I’m just through the 1st scene of the movie and already I have so many problems with it that I’m getting lost.  That’s funny, because when I would watch LOST I would see so many things I liked in it that I’d get lost.  Am I over-thinking this?  No, this is really reall dumb, and I am just getting started.

Stupid thing #4: Romulan mining vessels 175 years in the future are obviously pretty advanced, as they are able to utterly destroy capital class Federation starships in a matter of minutes.  An Alaskan fishing ship today is definitely more technologically-advanced than an Imperial frigate of the late 1700s, but I still wouldn’t put my money down on the fishing ship if the 2 did battle.  I mean, the frigate does have cannons…

So long story short, George Kirk’s captain is killed, his ship comes under heavy attack from a…futuristic evil mining vessel, and in order to save most of the crew George Kirk has to ram his ship into the enemy vessel, sacrificing himself.  This is a deviation from Star Trek canon, as Captain Kirk’s father “historically” went on to become a captain and died an old man having lived to see his adult son become captain of the Enterprise.  James Tiberius Kirk, who was miraculously being born at that very moment, grows up fatherless.  25 years later, he is a complete jerk.

This sounds to me like a plot a grade schooler would come up with—a smart grade schooler, sure, but still…

So Kirk grows up as a trickster with a death wish (although it is only the petty criminality involved that makes this Kirk different from the original, as he too had a devious side and sometimes exhibited a death wish).  He gets into a fight in a bar, right after buying a drink.  He pays for this drink…with money.  Again, I’m not a Trekkie, but I do know that in the humanistic future Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry envisioned, money has been abolished within the United Federation of Planets because all people labor for the rational betterment of society as a whole.  (Granted, one may say this is not only ridiculous but in a sense unnecessary, as money is a perfectly valid means of measuring the exchange of a given number of hours of labor of 1 type for another, and the efficiency with which money tracks that exchange would remain regardless of the prevailing economic order.  The point is that this is a central feature of the world J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof have to work with, and there is no explanation of this glaring departure from canon by these 2 avowed Trekkies, making this stupid thing #5.)

During this bar fight, Kirk has the audacity to assault a Federation officer who tries to stop him.  That’s not just a death wish, that’s a stupid thing to do.  But young James Kirk isn’t the only person whom has taken leave of his senses, as he is visited in the brig by Captain Christopher Pike, who challenges young Kirk to be a real man, joining Starfleet like his valorous but deceased father.  It’s true Captain Pike knew Kirk’s father and understandable that he is troubled to see his friend’s son wrecking himself, but it’s showing extraordinary faith indeed to encourage a young delinquent to distinguish himself at Starfleet.  That’s not stupid thing #6, but it’s a little hard to fathom.

Stupid things #6, #7 and #8 are all biggies, spectacular failures of imagination, even common sense.  First, after the (still completely mysterious) Romulan mining vessel from the future destroyed a Starfleet ship, no Federation fleet has been sent out to counter this menace; apparently no Federation ship has even attempted a reconnaissance of that part of space.  This splendid desolation allowed Nero, the villain of this movie, to wait 25 years for his as-yet-unidentified quarry to pass through the wormhole himself—something the villain couldn’t have known for certain would happen at all—so that he could take him prisoner and set his plan for revenge in motion.  That absurd single-mindedness is stupid thing #7.  The fact that his crew made no noteworthy attempt at mutiny or defection for 25 years is stupid thing #8.  Apparently his entire crew is absolutely bent on revenge.  When you hear their reason why, that will sound pretty stupid, too.

Stupid thing #9 is the fact that Spock apparently devised the Kobayashi Maru test taken by Kirk.  (The Kobayashi Maru is a fictional freighter ship that issues a distress call to a Federation starship, only to face simultaneous sneak attack from 5 Klingon birds-of-prey.  As capital class offensive ships, there is no way for a single unprepared Starfleet vessel to defend itself; it is disabled and then either boarded or destroyed—a no-win scenario conceived to test the character of the pilot under evaluation.)  Now we learn that the test was conceived by Spock in a pointless and excessively aggrandizing bit of history.  Kirk takes the test and hacks it, contriving an utterly implausible way out for himself in a famous but never-before-seen moment in Star Trek canon.  Kirk and Spock confront each other in an inconclusive competition over who has the most-formidable ego.

This battle of egos is inconclusive because, after 25 years of silence, our villain has now decided to attack the planet Vulcan.  Because Starfleet’s main force is unavailable for some reason, a ship full of recruits is mobilized to combat this mysterious and powerful menace.  That ship is the Enterprise, commanded by Captain Christopher Pike.  Is there any canon significance to the timing of this?  No, nothing—it is a complete coincidence that out of all Starfleet, the Enterprise would be the only capital class ship available for deployment to Vulcan, and that James Kirk would be a cadet of sufficient standing to get roped onto the crew by the captain at the last second.  Talk about a cosmic coincidence; this is stupid thing #10, along with the fact that Starfleet apparently isn’t able to provide an adequate standing defense for 1 of the Federation’s core planets.

When the Enterprise reaches Vulcan we find that our villain, Nero, has launched a giant drill into the center of the planet.  This will also turn out to be stupid.  Anyway, Captain Pike is taken prisoner by the renegade Romulans following a failed diplomatic mission, but not before appointing Mr. Spock, his 1st officer, as acting captain, and James Kirk, a cadet in the middle of disciplinary proceedings, as acting 1st officer.  Is Captain Pike insane?!  That would be stupid thing #11.  An aerial insertion onto the giant drill by three trainees follows.  These are cadet–I’m sorry, acting 1st officer Kirk, ensign Sulu and an unknown man in a red suit; who do you suppose is killed in action?  While the drill is damaged by the strike team, it comes too late to prevent the launching of “red matter” into the planet’s core.  A pseudoscientific scan by a young Chekhov reveals that this “red matter” has produced a black hole in the core of Vulcan.

This brings us to stupid thing #12.  A black hole can have an event horizon of about 1 light-month; for perspective the distance from the Earth to the Moon is only about 1.2 light-seconds.  Yet apparently for this “red matter” to effectively produce a black hole that can consume the planet Vulcan entirely requires insertion directly into the core of the planet, an operation that requires…entire minutes!  Nero has jeopardized his harebrained revenge plan just to center a planet-destroying superweapon.

So, Vulcan is destroyed in a major history-altering event (as nothing like this ever happens in Star Trek canon).  Spock’s quick thinking saves the Vulcan High Council (or at least most of it), and his father whom out of the entire planet is conveniently located at the same place; his mother, however, is lost.  (Maybe they couldn’t afford to keep Winona Ryder on in the part?)  Most of Vulcan’s 6 billion inhabitants are killed.  As Captain Pike has been taken hostage, Spock remains acting captain.  He is deep in shock, of course, but still able to calmly follow orders to meet with the rest of the fleet.  Kirk angrily protests Spock’s refusal to pursue Nero (even though he is obviously an incredibly-dangerous, little-understood quantity, and they have a ship full of trainees), and proceeds to make a fool of himself on the bridge of the Enterprise.  Spock orders him loaded into an escape pod and dropped off on the next terrestrial planet, which amazingly has an atmosphere!  It’s also so close to Vulcan that the planet can be observed in the sky.  So, these planetary conveniences are stupid things #13 and #14.

Kirk receives an automated warning that the planet is a near-hostile environment and that he should stay with the escape pod; this he promptly ignores as he sets out on foot for the nearest Federation military facility.  Along the way he gets caught up in a pretty intense game of big fish, bigger fish as a few native predators chase him down.  He runs into a cave where 1 man with a burning branch—Where “on Earth” did that even come from?—scares off a predator the size of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and far more-agile.  This turns out to be Mr. Spock—as in Leonard Nimoy, old Mr. Spock!  This is definitely stupid thing #15.  Yeah, I know time travel is involved and I’m just supposed to run with that—but this really doesn’t make sense: When’s the last time you were marooned on an ice planet and after being chased by a succession of predators just happened to run into a cave where you incidentally met a much-older, gentler version of the man who marooned you just minutes before?  That’s not a cosmic coincidence, it’s a colossal plot convenience.

I should make an aside here.  I’m a huge fan of LOST, a show that practically runs on cosmic coincidences.  The difference (and a crucial narrative element in that show) is the fact that these coincidences aren’t supposed to be coincidences.  There is a manipulating force behind a series of long-shot encounters, it is purposive, and this purpose is central to the perspective one will have on the show.  Star Wars, of course, is centrally about the Force, the various shifts in which (depending on your perspective) either determine the nature and scope of our actions, or else provides a resource for the fulfillment of our wills.

Star Trek: FUBAR has no such prior metaphysical entity to address the point of why such an extraordinary chance encounter as Nero’s retreat through the past to the moment of James Kirk’s birth, or the James Kirk’s stumble upon old Spock, should ever happen.  This is simple plot convenience.  I mean, they only have about 2 hours with which to reboot the franchise!

Now it’s time for exposition and back-story…really stupid back-story.  175 years in the future, a supernova explosion “would threaten the entire Galaxy.”  (This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, as our own Milky Way Galaxy contains well over 100 billion stars, a number of which are massive-enough to go supernova and which have gone supernova in the past.  These most-certainly haven’t destroyed life on Earth, which is located in a reasonably-busy suburb of the Milky Way where life has been evolving for about 3.5 billion years; meanwhile, supernova-prone stars are so unstable that they can only exist for a few million years at most.  So, that’s stupid thing #16.)  Anyway, the Vulcans invented or discovered something called “red matter,” which if freed from its containment will generate an instant black hole.  So, the Vulcans equipped their fastest ship with the red matter so as to deploy the red matter, form a black hole, and swallow up the shock wave from the supernova.  This doesn’t make much sense either, since a constantly-expanding supernova emanates in all directions and wouldn’t require long to exceed the event horizon of this “instant black hole.”  So this plan to save the Galaxy by deploying red matter to absorb the shockwave of the supernova shouldn’t be very effective; you would have to envelop it with black holes, a task of far greater difficulty, even giving Star Trek technology, than I think the writers appreciate…So that’s stupid thing #17.

Stupid thing #18 is the fact that this supernova explosion destroyed Romulus before the Romulans had a chance to evacuate.  Supernovas definitely don’t travel faster than light; and how far is this supernova from Romulus, anyway?  The next-nearest star to the Sun is Proxima Centauri, about 4.3 light-years away.  That means nothing could travel from there to here without taking at least 4.3 years to do so.  It would, however, be possible with already-known (though little-understood) physical principles such as quantum teleportation to develop a system that could detect a supernova and relay a warning when it occurred, so it makes no sense that a star close-enough to Romulus to threaten it in the event of a supernova wouldn’t be closely-monitored.

Anyway, “the unthinkable happened,” and Romulus was destroyed by this supernova.  Apparently the Romulans were just sitting around on their home planet, waiting for Mr. Spock to save the day with…a black hole…Nero was the leader of a mining team that returned to Romulus to find it destroyed.  He decided to take revenge on Mr. Spock for not getting to Romulus fast-enough to help; both Nero’s and Spock’s ships were pulled into the black hole Spock created to absorb the force of the supernova.  Nero passed through the black hole first; instead of being crushed along with his ship and his entire crew, down to a singularity, this black hole which they just happened to fall through delivered them, unscathed, to the time and place of James Kirk’s birth.  That’s unbelievably stupid, but we’ve already addressed that.

Nero then waited 25 years in the hope that Spock would pass through the wormhole, which he eventually did.  Stupid thing #19 is the fact that Nero never bothered to warn the Romulans that their planet would be destroyed by a supernova in less than 2 centuries.  When Mr. Spock emerged through the wormhole, Nero took him prisoner, commandeering his ship and the remaining red matter, dropping him off on the ice planet they both are on now so that he could watch Nero destroy Vulcan with the red matter.  Stupid thing  #20 is the fact that Vulcan loomed as large as the moon in the sky of this planet; such a close orbital situation would either destroy both of these planets or at least wreck their orbits and send them hurtling into space or into their own star in reality.

It’s about to get real stupid here.  Kirk and old Spock meet the young Mr. Scott on this ice planet.  That’s right, he just happens to be stationed here, so they can meet for the 1st time.  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good Scottish engineer in a science fiction story, but finding him in this barren waste, especially after Kirk’s utterly implausible encounter of old Mr. Spock, is just too much.  That’s stupid thing #21.  It also turns out that Mr. Scott is the inventor of a teleportation system that allows safe beaming onto a moving object; he just doesn’t know it yet!  So, old Mr. Spock literally says “Here is the equation for warp-speed beaming,” and Mr. Scott has the requisite knowledge to beam Kirk and himself onto the Enterprise.  No need for a retrofit of any equipment, no need for a test-run to ensure that they won’t get left in space due to a rounding error or explode at the speed of light upon beaming onto the Enterprise…No: “Here is an equation,” and now teleportation onto an object moving at warp speed is possible.  You could do it on your own teleportation device at home, just so long as you understand the math involved!  I’m pretty sure applied physics isn’t that convenient.  That’s stupid thing #22.

Onboard the Enterprise, Kirk taunts the young Mr. Spock into hitting him and attempting to strangle him (which is at least an understandable impulse considering how ridiculous this movie has been).  The purpose of this is to invoke a Starfleet regulation that requires an emotionally-unfit captain to relinquish his command to the ranking officer.  Once Acting Captain Spock realizes the extent of his impairment, he relinquishes command…and James Tiberius Kirk, who was a cadet facing disciplinary proceedings that very day, who isn’t yet a regular part of the Enterprise crew, who was just expelled from the ship by the previous acting captain and who just came aboard the ship unlawfully to pick a fight with that same acting captain, takes charge of a capital class Federation vessel.  If you’ll pardon the resort to cliche: “God help us all.”  That’s stupid thing #23.

Now it’s up to the Enterprise to protect Earth from Nero’s insane plan to destroy all Federation home planets, on the theory that “Only then will we (Romulans) truly be safe!”  (Actually, since Romulus was only destroyed because the Vulcans couldn’t come to their aid fast-enough, it seems like the greatest danger to the Romulans is not enough Federation, not too much Federation; did I mention Nero is a genocidal lunatic?)  Anyway, it’s all up to the Enterprise because the Federation fleet again is out of range.  The capital of the United Federation of Planets is on Earth, mind you; Starfleet doesn’t maintain a force in the Solar System strong-enough to defend the Federation Capital or Starfleet Academy from a Romulan mining ship from the future.  That’s stupid thing #24, and yes, by now I do regret deciding to enumerate the things about this movie that annoy me.

Kirk and young Spock finally teleport onto Nero’s vessel for a final confrontation; having been caught in the bowels of the ship surrounded by armed, fanatical Romulans, Kirk and Spock are able to phaser their way to safety.  A series of dramatic fights in a floorless room ensue…There is a room without floors or guardrails on a mining ship.  That’s stupid thing #25; why would anyone design such a ship?

Anyway, in a big climactic battle, red matter spills inside Nero’s vessel, opening a black hole inside it but somehow leaving enough time for communication from the Enterprise for an offer to take Nero and his crew prisoner.  The Liberal Ironist won’t debate the ethics of offering the worst genocidal abomination imprisonment as opposed to a quick, crushing death; he  will debate how there can possibly be any time to talk surrender terms while a black hole is forming in the hangar bay of Nero’s spaceship.  That doesn’t make the cut as a stupid thing, though; it isn’t as dumb and ridiculous as the preceding 25.

Maybe you can see what was coming: While Captain Pike was rescued from Nero, he is promoted to admiral and the movie ends with James Kirk’s promotion to captain of the Enterprise.  James Kirk, who enters Starfleet as a completely-unreliable jerk, essentially goes from cadet to captain after 1 day of active duty.  True, he just saved the capital of the Federation…but is Starfleet sure about this?  What about Mr. Spock?  He clearly acted above and beyond the call of duty, and he did so by the book; indeed, he is a true exemplar of Starfleet discipline and competence.  He also just lost 6 billion of his fellow-specimens, and still managed to act both heroically and gracefully.  What does he get?  He remains 1st officer of the Enterprise.  Ouch.

During a climactic ceremony, now-Captain Kirk approaches a wheelchair-bound Admiral Pike, formally relieving him as presiding officer on the Enterprise.  “I am relieved,” Pike says gracefully, with a warm smile.  So am I, because this absurd, extremely-taxing movie is finally over.

Is there anything worthwhile about this exceptionally ridiculous movie?  Well, Carl Urban makes a truly amazing Dr. “Bones” McCoy.  That’s…about it.  The Liberal Ironist eagerly-awaits a sequel in which the surviving Vulcans under old Mr. Spock’s guidance violate either the reproductive rights of their women or any biomedical ethics we humans could embrace in order to restore their species; an interesting depiction of such a challenging issue could at least allow some good to emerge from this complete absurdity of a movie.

Wait a minute…

Star Trek: The Motion Picture: lousy.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: good.

Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: lousy.

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: good.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: lousy.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country: awesome.

Star Trek Generations: lousy.

Star Trek: First Contact: good.

Star Trek: Insurrection: lousy.

Star Trek: Nemesis: very good.

Star Trek: FUBAR: lousy.

Remarkable: After 32 years and 11 movies, the Curse of the odd-numbered Trek remains…

We Have a Budget…and *Maybe* Even a Political Center

We have a budget.  The House and Senate both quickly passed the long-scrutinized and long-imperiled 2011 Federal budget, fully-funding a fiscal year that began on October 1st.

Who won?  (Well, we all did, since we found our elected representatives were not so polarized that they couldn’t agree to fund the government, but) many Liberals feel President Obama preemptively surrendered the progressive agenda out of fear of the Conservatives’ electoral strength, and many Conservatives feel that the Republican Party has forsaken its pledge to curb Washington spending.  This doesn’t just meet the traditional test of a good compromise–everyone is unhappy–but it implies what I’ve seen argued elsewhere, that the final 2011 budget was actually fairly close to the median Congressman’s preferred range of budget cuts.

In my recap on the 11th-hour budget agreement last Saturday, I concluded that House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) was the principal winner because the ability to move the freshman Republicans to his initial compromise position on Federal budget cuts (in the vicinity of $38 billion) meant that he had consolidated control of the House majority his party gained in the midterm elections last November.  Again, however, recent events have given me cause to suspect I spoke too soon.

The final tally of the House vote on the fiscal year 2011 Federal budget is in, and it’s 260-167.  That’s a pretty safe passage for a hotly-contested budget, but the breakdown is interesting.  As the New York Times indicates on its Congressional legislation webpage, 179 Republicans voted for the FY 2011 budget–with 214 votes were needed to pass it (accounting for 6 absences).  81 Democrats voted for the budget; 59 Republicans voted against the budget because it supposedly didn’t entail deep-enough spending cuts, and 108 Democrats voted against the budget because…well, cutting government spending during a recession is usually economically damaging.  It helps to think of this outcome in terms of proportions: The Republicans have just over a 5:4 advantage on the Democrats in the House of Representatives, and the vote for the budget was 3:2 in favor, with Republicans 3:1 in favor of it and Democrats voting just less than 3:2 against it.

How about the 87 Republican freshmen, whom so often arise in these discussions as a likely base of Tea Party ideological rejectionism?  60 voted for the budget compromise, and 27 voted against it–a better than 2:1 margin in favor of the leadership’s compromise position.  The GOP freshmen didn’t even provide half of the 59 votes against it.  Shooting from the hip, the Liberal Ironist can think of 3 explanations for this, none of which I’m yet wedded to:

1a. The House Tea Partiers are more-pragmatic than we realized, and accept arguments about focusing on long-term spending reductions through Finance Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s proposed radical changes to Medicare and Medicaid over a politically-risky and economically damaging fight over the Federal program cuts promised by Boehner in the “Pledge to America.”  Alternately…

1b. The House Tea Partiers are actually rather easily-led about.

2. The Tea Party “brand,” such as it has been established (and which many of the 87 Republican freshmen carry), is not a valid indicator of belief in the sentiments and policy positions reflected in the Tea Partiers’ more-radical “Contract from America” or the Republican Study Committee, which embraced the Tea Party Conservatives when they came to Washington.  This is not to say that the Tea Party isn’t a coherent movement or that it doesn’t have core principles, just that we can overlook the endorsements the big organizations and Mayor Palin made last fall, because the “real” Congressional manifestation of the Tea Party is being shaped right now, among the dissenters in these votes.

3. We’ve been so alternately mortified or fascinated by the emergence of the Tea Party as a (very partisan) grassroots movement that we’ve overlooked how Conservative the House Republican Caucus was to begin with–at least since their massive losses left them a bewildered rump party in 2006.

Actually, the Liberal Ironist does have a preferred explanation: We’ve just witnessed the digestion of the Tea Party.  I don’t mean that the Tea Party hasn’t been effective–it completed the purge of former President George W. Bush’s big government “Compassionate Conservatism” from the Republican Party, and it has clearly empowered House Finance Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, essentially Cato‘s man in Congress.  But this division of the very-large House Republican Freshman class–including brand Tea Partiers–into those who support compromise in the name of legislative victory and those who don’t trust the judgment of their own party leadership–means that in just 4 months in Washington the Tea Partiers have found themselves reproducing the camps that unambiguously rent the Republican Party when Conservatives dissented over President George W. Bush’s Prescription Drug Benefit in summer 2003.

Is the Republican Party in trouble?  No.  Is Speaker John Boehner vulnerable to a leadership challenge from the right?  I rather doubt it.  First of all, a refusal to accept Boehner’s budget deal can be a simple protest vote rather than a vote of no-confidence in the Speaker.  The most-plausible challenger to John Boehner would be the more-combative Majority Leader, Eric Cantor (R-VA)–but he voted for the budget, too.  He has also already insisted that he is not angling for the top House job, that the House Republican leadership is united.  Anyone else who challenged John Boehner for Speaker of the House would simply risk a bizarre situation whereby Nancy Pelosi could possibly become Speaker again by plurality at the start of the 113th Congress.  If the next House somehow had the same partisan breakdown as this one, that would require 49 Republicans to break ranks and vote for an insurgent (Michele Bachmann?) for Speaker.  This is unlikely.

The bigger concern for Republicans going forward is one raised in the New York Times report on the passage of the budget.  If Boehner can’t discipline the rightward quartile of his caucus over passage of a budget, what will happen in future negotiations?  If Boehner can’t work out a compromise with Senate Democrats and the President, he can eke-out only symbolic victories like the protest vote on repealing President Obama’s Health Care Reform.  (That bill sailed loudly but easily through the House and then inevitably disappeared into the ether.)  But the Speaker has made it clear he would rather see what he can substantively achieve with the political circumstances he’s been given.  If the Republicans who voted against the budget were to somehow become a coherent bloc who rejected compromise on controversial items, the Speaker would command fewer votes in the House than the Minority Leader, and House Republican Leadership would be forced into negotiations on the big budget battles with House Democrats.  He can form a unified front with the right wing of his caucus, but suburban Republicans may get cold feet (say, over a refusal to raise the Federal debt limit in coming months), and the Democrats have several means open to them to stall-out or veto a bill they haven’t had any say in.

To demonstrate efficacy, the Speaker of the House will have to do what seems to be his inclination anyway: He will have to keep making deals.  Some kind of a political center is developing here, though it’s too early to know what it looks like or even whether it is sustainable.