What’s with the Right and Vladimir Putin?

Over at Political Animal, Martin Longman notes something that has bothered me as well.

I voted against George W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004, and I spent most of his presidency actively working against his administration with every tool at my disposal, but I never said or wrote that I would prefer that the country be led by a foreigner or a foreign leader. Not so, for many pundits on the right. Ann Coulter wants Benjamin Netanyahu to be our president, Erick Erickson wants David Cameron to be our president, and Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle would be okay with either Netanyahu or Vladimir Putin being our president.

Someone needs to explain the right’s adoration for Vladimir Putin because it’s creeping me out.

This desire for a strongman to tell us all what to think and do–and take us into glorious battle a la “Braveheart” or whatever–is creepy. But it’s also a characteristic of people frightened by complexity and ambiguity, people who want bright lines distinguishing good ‘us’ from evil ‘them,’  who conflate strength with certitude.

People who don’t want to have to think too much.

In the Land of the Blind…..

Yesterday’s New York Times had a story about efforts to register voters in Ferguson, Missouri, in the wake of the tragic shooting of Michael Brown. This paragraph absolutely floored me:

“A lot of people just didn’t realize that the people who impact their lives every day are directly elected.” Said Shiron Hagens, 41, of St. Louis, who is not part of any formal group but has spent several days registering voters in Ferbuson with her mother and has pledged to come back here each Saturday. “The prosecutor—he’s elected. People didn’t know that. The City Council—they’re elected. These are the sorts of people who make decisions about hiring police chiefs. People didn’t know.”

The story also repeated the statistics we’ve seen before about Ferguson: a town that is two-thirds African-American with a virtually all-white power structure and a twelve percent voter turnout in the last municipal election. (And that was overall—black turnout was even lower.)

A few pages on, the Times had a report about the growing influence of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers’ vast organization. Taken together, these articles are a dramatic picture of what is wrong with our political system.

I know I sound like a broken record on the issue of civic knowledge. I quote the studies (only 36% of Americans can name the three branches of government! People who are civically ignorant rarely vote!). I insist that our civic deficit is far more worrisome than our fiscal one.

These articles explain why it matters. Vividly.

We The People need to understand something about the disproportionate influence of money in politics: it requires civic ignorance. Whether it is intentionally misleading political messages or well-meaning but wrongheaded appeals to voters, these tactics are effective only when the people on the receiving end of the message don’t know any better.

The most basic civil right we Americans enjoy is the franchise. It would be great if we could reverse Citizens United and the other cases that have enabled the wealthy to buy our political system, but we actually have the power to neuter these people now.

The antidote to money in politics, ultimately, is an informed electorate.

In this day and age, it is absolutely unforgivable that American citizens don’t know who they elect—not that they don’t know the names of officeholders, but that they don’t know what offices they can vote to fill. This phenomenon is not limited to impoverished residents of Ferguson, Missouri; I regularly encounter middle-class college students who cannot define government, have no idea what a Constitution is or how it differs from a statute, and have only the haziest notion of what “rights” are.

Money is a huge advantage, and I am not minimizing its power. But the people who are all-too-often exercising undue influence in America are those who’ve figured out how to benefit from widespread civic ignorance.

What’s the old saying? In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

The Warmongers Refuse to Learn

John McCain ( “get off my lawn”) and Lindsay Graham (“I’m running for re-election and nobody gets to the right of me!”) have a letter in yesterday’s New York Times, insisting that President Obama do something about ISIS. They don’t say what that something should be, but they scold the President for failing to do it.

McCain and Graham have a long history as proponents of a “muscular” (belligerent)  foreign policy; in their world, war is the first, not last, resort. As I recall, both were supportive of the Bush Administration’s disastrous decision to invade Iraq and further destabilize the  Middle East.  Given the way that little adventure turned out, you might think they’d be a bit more reluctant to rattle their swords, but they don’t seem to have learned anything.

Martin Longman, over at Political Animal, reminisces.

It’s surprisingly easy to compose a list of the 25 stupidest things Bush administration officials said about the invasion of Iraq, and no such list can be remotely comprehensive. For example, the list I just referenced has President Bush assuring Reverend Pat Robertson that he doesn’t need to prepare the public for casualties because we won’t have any casualties, and it has Donald Rumsfeld dismissing concerns about looting because “free” people are free to do dumb things, but it makes no reference to Paul Wolfowitz saying in Congressional testimony that, “There’s a lot of money to pay for this. It doesn’t have to be U.S. taxpayer money. We are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction, and relatively soon.” It doesn’t include his testimony that “It is hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam’s security forces and his army — hard to imagine.” It doesn’t include his testimony that “I can’t imagine anyone here wanting to spend another $30 billion to be there for another 12 years.”

The current Administration is trying to deal with–or as Longman puts it, triage– the disastrous consequences of massively wrongheaded policies. It’s a huge mess.

I have no idea whether Obama is doing what needs to be done, because I have no idea which measures would help and which would make things worse.  I definitely have no advice to offer.

The difference between me and McCain/Graham is: I know what I don’t know.

The Nitty-Gritty Matters

When I tell people I work at a school of public policy, I can often see their eyes glaze over. Policy is so…boring.

Politics, on the other hand, is interesting.

Political horse-races are so much more exciting than the intricacies of the tax code. And let’s be honest: people can decide how to vote on the basis of a candidate’s skin color or his willingness to stick a probe up a pregnant woman’s vagina; they don’t have to know anything about that candidate’s stance on tax policy.

Today’s politics, especially, is all about distraction and the “shiny object.”

And while we are all engaged with that shiny object,  American taxpayers are getting ripped off–and it’s all legal.

We’ve heard a lot lately about so-called inversions.

Companies striking deals to become technically foreign can be found in all corners of American business, from California computer-equipment manufacturer Applied Materials to Minnesota medical-device giant Medtronic to North Carolina­based banana behemoth Chiquita. Little is changing in the core business of these firms. They will just pay less in taxes – and to a foreign government, often Ireland or the Netherlands.

As the article notes, however,

[I]nversions are just the tip of the iceberg. The crisis of corporate tax avoidance is far more pervasive – and destructive – than either Obama or Lew is letting on. At a moment when Congress appears impossibly divided, a strong, bipartisan consensus has, in fact, emerged in Washington: The world’s richest corporations will get away with fleecing hundreds of billions of tax dollars from the rest of us….

Last year the IRS finally collected more in tax receipts than it did before the crash in 2007. But dig a little deeper into the numbers and it is clear we haven’t returned to normal: Corporations paid nearly $100 billion less in federal income taxes last year than before the Great Recession….

The top names in American business – from Apple to Xerox – have joined in the greatest tax dodge in world history. Using clever accounting games, these corporations have siphoned majestic sums out of the country and into tax-haven shell companies – where the money is untouchable by the IRS.

 The numbers are staggering. More than $2 trillion in U.S.-based multinational profits currently sit in offshore accounts, representing, by credible estimates, in excess of $500 billion in unpaid taxes. If that money were deposited in federal coffers tomorrow, it would wipe out the deficit for 2014. And every year that Congress dithers on a crackdown, America is forfeiting an approximate $90 billion in revenue.

The article details a variety of tax provisions–all legal, all part of the U.S. Tax Code–that privilege corporate America at the expense of individual taxpayers. The people who are outraged–outraged–by the use of tax dollars to provide poorer citizens with access to healthcare are curiously silent about the immense costs of this preferential treatment of corporations.

The silence of the elites, of course, is understandable. People who understand that our tax code is massively tilted toward America’s “haves” tend to be beneficiaries of those provisions. They are unlikely to complain.

Most of the silence, however, can be attributed to the average American’s deep-seated disdain for policy, our preference for easy issues, “shiny objects” and pop culture distractions from all those boring details.

I guess it’s just too much trouble to figure out who is picking our pockets, and how they’re doing it. And too much work to vote their lapdogs out of office.

 

The Tangled Web Politicians Weave

When three separate people send you an article, you read it.

That’s what happened to me; three readers of this blog evidently live in or around Florida, and independently emailed a link to this column from the Palm Beach Post.

Here are the pertinent sections:

 The challenge to the Obamacare law was aimed at declaring it unconstitutional. While that didn’t work, foes of the new law were given a small consolation prize by the U.S. Supreme Court — a chance for the states to opt out of the expansion of Medicaid under the new law.

Florida, like 23 other Republican-run states, hung onto that thread and waved it around like a victory flag.

“For all of those who are about fiscal sanity and protecting the taxpayers of our states, the court’s decision on the Medicaid issue was a big win,” Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said two summers ago at an event sponsored by the Koch-brothers group, Americans for Prosperity.

It certainly wasn’t a “big win” for the estimated 750,000 Floridians who have incomes that fall below 138 percent of the federal poverty wage, which is about $26,000 for a family of three and $15,000 for an individual.

Not only did Florida refuse to accept an expansion of Medicaid that would have used federal dollars to cover health-care costs for these people, but the state did its best to make it as difficult as possible for the rest of Florida’s 3.8 million uninsured residents to purchase plans under the new health-care law.

Umm…Hoosiers, does this sound familiar?

The state refused to set up an insurance exchange, spent no money to encourage citizens without medical insurance to sign up for the plan, and banned federal workers from helping Floridians sign up for insurance at county health departments. Even so, Florida led the nation with sign-ups for Obamacare plans, accounting for nearly 1 million insured state residents……

The state is losing $66.1 billion in federal Medicaid funding over the next 10 years, costing hospitals in the state $22.6 billion in lost reimbursements, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported.

No other state has turned its back on so much money, the foundation found. If Florida invested $5.3 million in Medicaid expansion from now until 2022, it would get back $13.41 in federal funds for every dollar it invested in its citizens’ health care, the report said.

“Every comprehensive state-level budget analysis of which we know found that expansion helps state budgets, because it generates state savings and additional revenues that exceed increased Medicaid costs,” the report said.

Not to mention helping people like Charlene Dill, 32, a working mother of three from Central Florida. Dill died earlier this year from a lingering heart condition.

She worked a variety of part-time jobs and was selling vacuum cleaners when she collapsed and died. Dill couldn’t afford health insurance, but she would have been covered under Medicaid if Florida had expanded it under the law. But unlucky for her, she lived in a state that put her on the losing side of a “big win.”

How do you calculate that cost?

I have watched Republican governors tie themselves into pretzel-shaped knots trying to explain their hysterical opposition to a program originally developed by conservative think tanks and promoted by GOP leaders like Bob Dole and Mitt Romney (pre-presidential campaign). I’ve been amazed by the governors’ willingness to forgo billions of  dollars for their states–not to mention their willingness to let uninsured citizens continue to die–in order to deny President Obama a “win.”

(As Americans have begun to use the program, and warmed to it, some of those Republican governors have begun back-tracking. Indiana’s Governor is a case in point–his version of Medicaid expansion isn’t as inclusive as the real thing, but it’s a start.)

Here’s the thing. I’m one of many people who don’t think the ACA is particularly good public policy, although it is demonstrably better than nothing. If these naysayers proposed a better approach, I think a lot of us would consider it. Instead, we’ve been treated to a particularly ugly expression of high dudgeon–how dare the government use tax dollars to provide medical care to these worthless “takers”? 

I know that everything these days is politics, but shouldn’t there be some games even politicians won’t play?