After 15 years of blogging, building a readership of a million, a paid subscriber base of about three percent (30,000), revenue of one million dollars, and a paid staff of (slightly less than) 10, Andrew Sullivan (AndrewSullivan.com) stopped blogging on Feb. 6, 2015. He's giving it up to first, rest, because he's close to burn-out, and then pursue other forms of writing where he can take a longer view.
After working so hard to build a business, he seemingly walks away from a million dollars in revenue, and a loyal online community. I certainly don't blame him for wanting to escape the daily, or hourly grind. As one of his paid subscribers, I thought he was mainly guilty of over-producing: few readers who have a real life off-line had time to read everything his blog produced.
Sullivan, to me, represented the high-water mark of achievement for a personal blog. One now sees the toll it took on him personally.
Another blogging pioneer, Ed Cone of Greensboro, NC, stopped daily blogging in 2014, though he continues to post occasionally. A once thriving online community of bloggers in the Greensboro area -- dubbed "Blogsboro" in 2005 -- has essentially dispersed. Some of them can be found on Facebook, in "Greater Greensboro Politics: A Forum for Civil Discourse."
But the early passion for blogging, for creating an online community on one's own platform, and for heated political debate, have clearly dissipated across the Internet. Certainly the tendency to divide into hyper-partisan, warring tribes and to simply score ideological points got tiresome. While I don't miss the vitriol, I do sometimes miss asking penetrating questions, and the challenge of answering others' penetrating questions.
The aggregation function of blogs like Sullivan's and Cone's has been displaced by the popularity of Facebook and Twitter, where anyone can post links to articles they find interesting; others can "like," or comment, and a viral meme spreads almost automatically.
Some have called recent developments "the end of blogging." What do you think?
After 10 years of blogging, I'm gradually migrating content to thematic blogs that I may turn into premium content or downloadable ebooks. It's a way of exploring topics in more depth, bringing more focus to my writing, and trying to create online communities of people with shared interests.
Your comments and insights are most welcome.
I'll continue to post here occasionally.
"The threat of this radical Islam is not abating. It is growing. It is spreading across the world. It is destabilising communities and even nations. It is undermining the possibility of peaceful co-existence in an era of globalisation. And in the face of this threat we seem curiously reluctant to acknowledge it and powerless to counter it effectively." -- Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, current Mideast peace envoy, in a speech called "Why the Middle East Matters." The full text of his speech is worth reading. It has sparked an interesting debate on the present and future of the Middle East.
I certainly agree with Blair that a) the Middle East matters; and b) radical Islam is a dangerous ideology. But like his Cold War predecessors who perceived Soviet, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, European, American, Asian and African communism as a united and monolithic force, I wonder if Blair grasps the many differences and conflicts within radical Islam. Rigid ideologues easily fragment; they can spend more time fighting each other than fighting their perceived enemy.
Let's review the history of the last 35 years. One version of radical Islam got its start in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Afghanistan as a violent reaction to the Soviet invasion and the Russians' attempt to turn the country into a Soviet satellite. Back then, during the Cold War, the West -- including the US CIA -- cheered on, fomented, and supported the mujahideen who declared jihad against the Soviets. Ronald Reagan even invited Afghani jihadists to the White House for a photo opportunity. What Americans didn't seem to understand back then was that mujahideen, a precursor to the Taliban, were a reactionary force that resented all Western attempts to control their country. In retrospect, the West could have avoided a decade-long war in Afghanistan if the Soviets had kept radical Islamists at bay, or if the Islamists directed their ire solely at the Soviets.
"It may seem hard to believe today, but for decades the United States was in fact a major patron, indeed in some respects the major patron, of earlier incarnations" of radical, militant Islam, in order to use all possible resources in waging the Cold War, wrote Rashid Khalidi, an American historian of the Middle East at Columbia University. "The Cold War was over, but its tragic sequels, its toxic debris, and its unexploded mines continued to cause great harm, in ways largely unrecognized in American discourse."
During the same period-- early 1980s -- a separate branch of Islamic radicals -- Shia from Iran -- sought to export the Iranian revolution, first to Iraq, where an eight-year war caused terrible devastation to both countries, and then to Lebanon, in the form of aid to Hezbollah, a group that vowed to destroy Israel and democratic elements within Lebanon. Hezbollah and its sponsor, Iran, were integrally involved in the Lebanese civil war.
Another branch of radical Islam came from the Wahabi Movement, a purist branch of Sunni Islam, rooted in Saudi Arabia. Despite its anti-modernist similarities to the Shia revolutionaries of Iran, the Wahabis were and remain highly antagonistic towards Iran and to the Shias, as well as to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. James North on the progressive Jewish blog, Mondoweiss.net, points out that "Saudi Arabia hates the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, enthusiastically endorsed its overthrow, and is spending billions to prop up the military regime that replaced it."
The Muslim Brotherhood did have some moderate elements willing to work within a democratic system and to share power. It won a fragmented election in Egypt in 2012 and attempted to govern the country. But a year later, in the midst of vehement public protests against the failures of the regime to address the economy and develop democratic coalitions, the Egyptian military intervened, staged a coup d'etat, installed their own leader, and is now engaged in a harsh public crackdown on anyone even remotely associated with the Brotherhood. Human rights organizations assert that hundreds if not thousands of innocents have been killed. As Patrick Cockburn pointed out at Counterpunch.org:
Human Rights Watch says that the Egyptian authorities now show “zero tolerance for any form of dissent, arresting and prosecuting journalists, demonstrators and academics, for peacefully expressing their views.” In reality, events in Egypt can only encourage recruitment by jihadi al-Qa’ida-type movements which will argue that the fate of the Brotherhood, which tried to take power democratically, shows that elections are a charade and the only way forward is through violence. Click.
The Financial Times has uncovered “Egypt’s black holes,” in which “thousands of government opponents have disappeared into secret jails...radicalising a new generation of jihadis.” The Egyptian government has condemned more than 500 individuals to the death penalty, many without due process or an opportunity for legal defense.
Since the Muslim Brotherhood is no longer tolerated in Egypt, adherents may indeed seek to engage in terrorism in Egypt or export jihad to other countries such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The two tangible proposals coming out of Blair's speech were 1) strong support for the military government of Egypt because it seeks to crush the Brotherhood and restore stability to the country; and 2) support for the rebellion against Bashir Assad in Syria.
John Wight, a UK writer for the RT Network, notes the "cognitive dissonance" in Blair's speech. In calling for aid to Syria's rebels, Blair fails to note that most of the rebellion is made up of Islamic extremists. "He can’t have it both ways," Wight says. "He can’t be against radical Islam on the one hand, yet call for those governments and peoples that are engaged in a life and death struggle against radical Islam to be defeated on the other."
I would add to Blair's contradictions his advocracy of more democracy in the Middle East, but at the same time he supports the anti-democratic government of Egypt, and calls for alliances with Russia and China against Islamic fundamentalists. Blair himself has a certain responsibility for the rise of radical Islam. The ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, which he strongly supported, flamed the flames of Islamic fundamentalism. It moved into power vacuums in Iraq and Syria. As the Financial Times noted in its critique of Blair's speech, by his current logic, he would now support a tyrant like Saddam Hussein.
In the case of radical, violent extremism, its root causes are profound economic and social dislocation (that may result from war, occupation, massive unemployment and forced population migrations) or psychological alienation (that may result from repression or policies of discrimination and exclusion).Seen in this light, the causes for the growth of the particular extremism that concerns Mr Blair can be as varied as his own war in Iraq, or the West’s silence in the face of Israel’s humiliating treatment of Palestinians, or Russian and Chinese oppression of their minority Muslim communities, or the failure of Europe to successfully absorb and fully include Muslims as equal citizens in their societies. Since acknowledgement of these realities might prove to be a bitter pill to swallow, Mr Blair finds it easier and better to blame the victims.
Read more: http://www.thenational.ae/thenationalconversation/comment/why-the-middle-east-matters-and-why-tony-blair-doesnt#full#ixzz313Nv0EPa
Some of the best coverage of the conflicts in Crimea and Ukraine recently were in The New Yorker. Few in the West seem to remember the long-suffering history of the region. As many as eight million Ukrainians were purposely starved to death by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in the early 1930s. Yet this genocide did not prick the West's conscience like the Jewish Holocaust did, and certainly is not used as a major argument for Ukrainian independence from Russia the way that the Jewish Holocaust was a major rationale for creating the independent nation of Israel.
Jon Lee Anderson reports on upheaval in the Crimea, with predictions of "a river of blood" coming with Russian occupation:
For the second time in seventy years, the Crimean Tatars are forced to confront a complete upending of their lives. The Tatars, Muslim descendants of Genghis Khan’s Golden Horde, saw virtually their entire community—some two hundred thousand people—uprooted in May, 1944, after Stalin’s forces took Crimea from the occupying Nazis. Stalin justified the occupation by pointing out that some Tatars had fought alongside the Nazis in the war—even though others had fought in the Red Army. Nearly half of the Tatars are thought to have died in the harsh conditions of their deportation and the early years of their exile.
In the late nineteen-eighties, as the Soviet Union opened up a bit, Tatars were allowed to return, and a trickle began coming back from Central Asia. Those who could afford it returned to their villages, but few provisions were made for their reintegration into Ukrainian society, and there was no compensation for the properties they had lost. Many ended up squatting on public lands, where they remain. Known as the “original inhabitants” of the peninsula, Crimea’s Tatars now constitute twelve per cent of the region’s population. They are the poorest and least educated section of society, and the least represented in local government. For all the rhetoric emanating from the Kremlin—and from Kiev—they are effectively the Ukraine’s Lakota Sioux.
Nervous Baltic Republics, Belarus, Moldovia
Citizens of the Baltic republics -- Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia -- as well as the former Soviet republics of Belarus and Moldovia watch nervously to see what happens with Ukrainian independence. They too were once part of "Greater Russia," and Vladimir Putin might want them back as well.
I also note that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Ten years ago, George W. Bush was roundly criticized for "weakness" in light of Putin's authoritarian pressures on Ukraine, much as Barack Obama is criticized for "weakness" today. In both cases, one wonders what the strategic interest of a war-weary US is in the Ukraine, which in Cold War terms, is still within Russia's "sphere of influence."
The American people can sometimes be roused to foreign intervention by appeals to higher morality and idealism, or the principle that "aggression must not be rewarded," as George H.W. Bush declared before "liberating" Kuwait from Iraq. But such appeals to principle are highly selective and often don't work out well (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, now a mess). We have so far resisted intervention in Syria and Ukraine on the grounds that realism and pragmatism must prevail, but it's not clear that diplomacy is having much impact.
The more I study foreign relations, the more I realize morality, realism, pragmatism and principles of non-aggression are selectively applied in the world.
North Carolina's long reputation as a state that highly values public education is up for a vote this year. NC voters will decide in this year's midterm elections whether the record of the Republican legislature and Gov. Pat McCrory are to their liking, or whether the legislature should switch back to Democratic control. McCrory has promised to raise the salaries of inexperienced teachers from $30,800 to $35,000 by fall 2015, but has made no promises about raises for other, more experienced teachers. The governor and legislative leaders say the state is too cash-strapped this year to give all teachers a raise because of a multi-billion tax cut enacted last year.
The state's average teacher salary of $45,737 a year during 2012-13 was more than $10,000 below the national average.
Former Governor Jim Hunt, who served four terms, has proposed that the state's elected leadership pass a law in 2014 to raise teacher salaries to the national average, in stages, through 2018. The people of the state, he says, "want our state to make a bipartisan, iron-clad commitment this year to raise teacher pay to the national average in four years."
NC plunged to 49th in per-pupil education spending in the 2011-12 budget cycle, when the GOP legislature removed a one-cent sales tax for education, despite a veto from then-governor Beverly Perdue. The veto was sustained. The legislature also decided in 2013 that tax cuts for businesses and vouchers for private schools were more important than public education spending. They stripped teachers of tenure and higher salaries for advanced degrees.
Edward Snowden, an IT consultant with high security clearance, downloaded about 1.7 million secret documents from the US National Security Agency (NSA) and tens of thousands of documents from the NSA's British counterpart, GCHQ. Luke Harding has written a book about the Snowden case, called The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man. David Blair of the UK Telegraph gives Harding's book just two stars, complaining that it lacks complexity and nuance. In particular, Blair says Harding ignores the real dilemmas of intelligence work:
If GCHQ and the NSA share everything, they risk Snowden-style breaches. If they restore pre-9/11 restrictions, then vital information that might prevent attacks is bottled up. If the agencies store data, they are accused of threatening privacy; if they do not, then the communications of terrorists simply vanish. Harding considers none of this; only when Snowden flies to Russia does he voice any unease.
Extracts from The Snowden Files are here and here, as well as by clicking on the Amazon.com click above and downloading the first chapter for free to a Kindle or Kindle app for pc, smart phone or mac.
Previous posts on Intelligence Reform.
The race is on to persuade Americans that Obamacare is either the worst idea since Prohibition or the best idea since Social Security or Medicare.
A great, hyper-partisan public relations war is now under way that will continue through the 2014 if not the 2016 elections.
So far, from September 2013 through May 2014, I count 10 battles in the PR Informational War.
Next comes a TV, radio, print and Internet ad campaign and propaganda war going through the November 2014 midterm elections if not beyond to sway and manipulate voters. That ad war has already begun in the states of vulnerable incumbent Democrats. In January, they began to face a $20 million barrage of negative ads from Americans for Prosperity, funded in part by the billionaire Koch brothers. Patriot Majority USA, a progressive group, is firing back with ads attacking the Koch brothers and likely Republican nominees, though the PAC has not yet begun to match the AFP's ad buy.
It's not clear yet whether or when Democratic candidates themselves will respond aggressively and tout the successes of the Affordable Care Act. Yet they do have increasingly positive data to trumpet.
Like most complex legislation in the real world, Obamacare is shaping up to be three steps forward and one step backward -- a net plus, but with some real downsides.
Latest Rounds in the Perceptions War, Back to the First
* Round Ten: Fox News Predicts Most Employer-Provided Insurance Will Disappear By 2020. Call it blue smoke and mirrors, but conservative propagandists, frustrated that their predictions of immediate doom for Obamacare in 2014 have not come true, are now projecting that the employer-based health insurance system will collapse by 2020. "The research firm S&P IQ predicts less than 10 percent of those who get insurance at work will still get it there ten years from now," reports Jim Angle of Fox News. Kaiser Health News counters that a wholesale shift away from employer-sponsored plans is unlikely. They analyse the question without Fox's hyperpartisan spin. In some cases, it would be to the advantage of employees, who would receive $2000 or more from the employer for health care, and to employers who would have a fixed cost for employee health care.
* Round Nine: Projections on Obamacare Participation Longterm. By the end of 2016, Robert Laszewski, president of Health Policy and Strategy Associates, projects that 20 million people should be enrolled "for a sustainable pool," with a mix of healthy and sick people. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office projects that by 2017, Obamacare will slash the number of uninsured. Some 28 million Americans will enroll in health insurance, down from 57 million in 2013.
After 2017, the remaining uninsured would consist of 30 percent undocumented immigrants, 20 percent -- those eligible for Medicaid but choose not to enroll; five percent ineligible for Medicaid because their state has chosen not to expand coverage, and 45 percent who choose not to purchase insurance through their employer or on the individual market. CBO report (pdf).
Nearly six million poor Americans will be deprived coverage because (currently) 25 states refuse to provide Medicaid insurance coverage for them. After 2017, nearly 30 million will remain uninsured, the CBO estimates. That number could continue to decrease if local health insurance markets expand, offer more competition or consolidate and offer more efficient services, if states that have so far opted out of Medicaid expansion agree to do so, and if Congress passes immigration reform allowing undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship with health insurance.
Somewhat less than four million consumers (see below) may, in the first year of Obamacare, find health care policies too expensive in their local marketplace, deductibles higher, or their employers pressuring workers to work part-time in order to avoid paying insurance benefits. A chunk of these consumers may simply prefer to pay a penalty for non-compliance with the law. Market reforms may eventually reach them.
Since more than 13% of American motorists did not have legally required auto insurance in 2011, during the Great Recession, despite serious financial penalties and even the threat of jail in some states, it's unlikely that the US will ever reach 100% compliance and complete universal coverage without a single payer system that pays all health care costs and taxes all citizens a relatively small amount for providing health care, as Canada and many European nations provide.
* Round Eight: Obamacare's Impact on Growth in Federal Health Care Spending and the Deficit, Short-term and Long-term Projections. A CBO study estimates that federal health care spending for 2012 is coming in at 15% below initial estimates, and that hundreds of billions of dollars are being saved in Medicare and Medicaid. For the fourth straight year, the rate of growth in health care spending has declined, and the CBO attributes "a significant part" of the savings to health care restructuring resulting from Obamacare, according to Forbes.com.
As for the cost of emergency room visits, studies conflict on the impact of Obamacare. A years-long study in Massachusetts found an eight percent decrease in emergency department visits with the enactment of Romneycare, the model for Obamacare. But an Oregon study indicated a 40 percent increase in emergency room visits when Medicaid was expanded. Initially, it seems emergency rooms will be over-burdened and under-staffed, but if they learn how to better manage patients and set up more clinics for routine and preventive care, costs could decline, wait times could shorten and care could improve.
* Round Seven: Obamacare's Impact on US Employment, Short-term and Long-term: Opponents and supporters of Obamacare rushed to put a spin a CBO projection about the workforce impact of Obamacare through 2021. Joseph Rago of The Wall Street Journal editorial page published a flattering portrait of Casey Mulligan, the University of Chicago professor who "exposed the job losses in Obamacare" and convinced the CBO to revise its earlier numbers.
Thom Tillis, a Republican US Senate candidate in North Carolina, immediately accused incumbent Democratic Senator Kay Hagan of causing the loss of two million jobs by supporting Obamacare.
Supporters countered that, actually, two million people over eight years would experience more economic freedom, decide not to work, or work less, or become entrepreneurs and consultants, because they were no longer dependent on their employer for affordable health insurance.
Factcheck.org called out Tillis and other Republicans for misusing the CBO report, and quoted the author of the CBO study to explain how some Republicans were distorting the analysis.
Round Six: Government Bailout or Reasonable Assistance to Insurance Companies? Opponents of Obamacare say that it amounts to a taxpayer-funded bailout of the insurance industry, to the tune of $450 million for one insurer alone, Humana. Supporters reply that no, it's a reasonable feature of the law, a built-in shock absorber that will stabilize the insurance market "while carriers adjust to new regulations that prohibit them from denying coverage, withholding benefits,or charging higher premiums to people with pre-existing medical conditions." Unless you're an ideological zealot, it's really premature to come to any conclusions about this. This debate will go on until at least 2017.
* Round Five: More than eight million signed up before deadline to avoid $100 tax penalty. The Obama administration announced that more than eight million Americans enrolled in health care through the exchanges by the March 31st open enrollment deadline to avoid a tax penalty of $100 for lack of coverage. This number is AHEAD of the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office's projections. And the Gallup Poll reported that the number of uninsured has declined from a peak of 18% in 2013 to 15.6 percent in the first quarter of 2013, the lowest level since before the recession began in 2008.
Obamacare opponents remain skeptical of the numbers. They gleefully predicted that sign-ups would fall so far short that the system would collapse, in an "adverse selection death spiral." But even Obamacare critic Avid Roy of Forbes.com wrote a column headlined, "Sorry, Conservatives, But Based On the Latest Sign-Up Figures, There Won't Be an Obamacare Death Spiral."
* Round Four: Obama Administration's PR Comeback. The front end of the website was mostly fixed by December 1, 2013 and Americans started enrolling in force. More than two million Americans signed up for Obamacare by the third week in December, more than 3.3 million by the end of January 2014, and more than 4.2 million in February.
Journalist Andrew Sullivan declared "a new era of freedom begins now" for those Americans newly enrolled in affordable health insurance, no longer discriminated against because of pre-existing conditions. Their most common expression? "Relief." Plus, "peace of mind, security and health,' Sullivan wrote, citing his own experience as an HIV-positive entrepreneur and the experiences of others.
More than four million poor Americans signed up for expanded Medicaid under Obamacare, to begin receiving health care coverage January 1, 2014. As Ezra Klein wrote on Bloomberg.com, "If the point of health-care reform is covering people who need health insurance, the expansion in Medicaid coverage should be a huge win. The people qualifying for Medicaid are, on average, poorer, sicker and more desperate than the people signing up for private insurance."
* Round Three: Insurance Cancellations for About Four Million Americans: The Associated Press estimated in December that 4.7 million Americans received cancellation notices from insurance companies because their plans did not meet Obamacare's higher standards. Obama offered temporary fixes -- allowing insurance companies to keep consumers on substandard plans until the end of 2014, and waiving the individual mandate for the first year for consumers' whose plans were cancelled -- are likely to reduce that number. But states and insurers ultimately decide how broadly the waivers apply, and the AP offered a state-by-state breakdown of waivers.
If this group, somewhat fewer than four million people, don't find better insurance for a reasonable price, they could feel worse off, especially if they make too much money ($46,000 for individuals; $96,000 for families) to qualify for a significant subsidy and don't find satisfactory health plans in their marketplace.
This group of less than four million could deeply resent Obamacare and see it as a sham. They could resent the $100 tax penalty for refusing to garner insurance this year. Some independent contractors, small businessmen, or freelancers who do not have employer-based insurance may lose financially from Obamacare. They may be required to pay more for new policies -- up to eight percent of their income. These policies should offer more comprehensive coverage, but could cost more. Some will be satisfied to find more comprehensive insurance, even if it costs more. But probably a majority of the four million will not be happy, and could even be outraged.
They could be more vocal and politically powerful than the 14 million who are likely to be better off. Discontent causes anger and tends to spur political action, while contentment may simply cause complacency and passivity -- even non-voting in the midterm elections -- rather than gratitude and a desire to reward the political party that improved your status.
* Round Two: Embarrassing Obamacare Website Debacle. President Obama and the Democrats clearly lost Round Two when they acknowledged that the Obamacare rollout was a disaster, the website didn't work and Obama was forced to admit he misled the American people when he said everyone who liked their current insurance plan would be able to keep it. As it turns out, not everyone, only the vast majority who like their current insurance plans, will be able to keep them. Somewhat less than three percent of the population, mostly those who buy insurance independent of an employer on the private market, if their insurance policies are substandard and do not meet mimimal government requirements, will not be able to keep their health plans even if they like them.
Call this Obama exaggerating or "lying," if you must be hysterical, but strategically it was essential for Obama as the proposal's chief salesman to assure the nation that the ACA would be not be disruptive to those who are already insured. Telling Americans they would "probably" be able to keep their current coverage would not have clinched the deal.
* Round One: Government Shutdown. Republicans are widely perceived to have lost Round One when they shut down the federal government, hurt the economy and got nothing in return for their antics. They conveniently forgot history: the models for Obamacare were a) originally a conservative Heritgage Foundation think tank proposal; and b) Romneycare in Massachusetts. They conveniently forget that social Security in the 1930s, Medicare in the 1960s, and the Medicare prescription drug benefit (Part D), championed by President Bush, all got off to rocky starts, but are now solidly popular programs with the vast majority of Americans. Some of the same Republicans who defended the Bush administration's snafu-ridden rollout of Medicare Part D now excoriate the Obama Administration for its introduction of the Affordable Care Act.
Skirmishes Over Executive Branch Authority to Delay Mandates in Congressional Legislation
In the summer of 2013, when the Obama administration announced that it was delaying the implementation of the tax penalty/mandate on small-to-medium-size businesses to 2015, and again in February 2014 when the Treasury Department announced that the mandate tax was going to be delayed again until 2016, Obamacare opponents howled with outrage that this was an impeachable offense. The President and the Executive Branch do not have the authority to decide what laws passed by Congress they are going to obey and disobey, or wantonly revise, they contend.
Since these opponents generally did not accept the US Supreme Court decision in 2012 declaring most of Obamacare constitutional, it's unlikely they will gain standing to challenge the administration's actions. And since most of the opponents are hard-right partisans who revere Ronald Reagan, a president who repeatedly defied congressional mandates and aided the anti-communist Nicaraguan contras despite a congressional ban on such aid, their double standards are obvious and their credibility is lacking. One does have to admire the principled opposition of a Washington Post editorial against presidential over-reach in delaying the mandate. At least they don't have different standards for presidents depending on political party.
But as I advised my conservative friends on Facebook, lawsuits forcing the Obama administration to immediately impose employer and employee mandates aren't likely to succeed. Pushing for Obama's impeachment will be self-destructive on Republicans' part. The public would see them as zealots grasping desperately at every straw imaginable. As difficult as it may be, they might as well accept that Obama is president until 2017, he's not going to be impeached, Obamacare is not going to be repealed even if Democrats lose the Senate in November 2014 (Obama will still have veto power), and btw, the Confederacy lost the civil war. Yes, I know: "Fergit? Hell no!"
Battle of Anecdotes
Several PR rounds will be fought throughout 2014 spotlighting miraculously positive and horrifyingly negative anecdotes, with no certainty as to how representative or fully accurate these stories actually are. Let the public beware of such propaganda.
Impact of Midterm Elections on Obamacare
Voters may render another verdict on Obamacare in November 2014, possibly by turning the Senate over to the Republicans -- throwing out six Democratic senators (current ratio, 55 Democrats, 45 Republicans). I think that's unlikely, even though an incumbent president's party usually loses congressional seats in the last midterm election of second terms. After the 2014 elections, I suspect the pattern of a divided legislative branch will continue. This New York Times analysis reached the same conclusion.
Obamacare Winners and Losers
So, who are the winners and losers under Obamacare? It depends on who's doing the calculations, but in 2014, at least 14 million people are likely to be better off, according to the Congressional Budget Office, if you add the seven million projected Obamacare sign-ups to seven million new Medicaid enrollees. About five to seven million people will qualify for subsidies that will pay most of the cost of comprehensive plans.
Eventually, the $100 tax penalty or fine will increase to as much as eight percent of income. (If you can't find a health insurance policy for less than eight percent of your income, you're exempt from the penalty.)
Public Opinion of Obamacare Depends on Economy's Performance
If unemployment rises or does not decline below 7.2% by the 2014 mid-term elections, and certainly by the 2016 general elections, Obamacare's perceived drag on employment could indeed hurt Democrats.
If unemployment declines to six percent or lower in 2014, and the public clearly feels the country is in economic expansion mode, opposition to Obamacare could hurt those Republicans who voted to shut down the government and classified Obamacare as an unmitigated disaster when it actually helped far more of their constituents than it hurt, with a minimal negative impact on business growth.
Obamacare, at least initially, greatly expands demand for doctors and nurses, with shortages approaching 20 percent at many hospitals, according to Forbes.com, as potentially millions of new patients start utilizing new insurance coverage. Because of changes in the structure of health care, many doctors are leaving independent practice to take salaried positions on hospital staffs, the New York Times reports.
Medical and nursing schools may be under increasing pressure to graduate students quicker to fill demand, or to allow students to work part-time in clinics and emergency rooms experiencing high demand.
Obamacare's Impact on the Urban and Rural Poor Unknown
Health care is a complex industry. Even before Obamacare was enacted, many hospitals, especially those in poor and rural neighborhoods, were struggling financially. An epidemic of hospital closures has occurred since 2000. "All across the country, nonprofit hospitals dedicated to serving the poor and uninsured in exchange for tax breaks and federal subsidies are closing money-losing facilities and setting up in more affluent communities where patients are more likely to have health insurance," US News reported.
Obamacare is set to reduce federal subsidies to hospitals, especially non-profit hospitals in poor neighborhoods where it is presumed far more patients will have insurance. But that's a gamble that may not work out financially for some hospitals, especially in states that don't expand Medicaid. The USNews report on hospitals of the present and future is worth a read.
Are employers limiting workers' hours, to avoid paying workers health insurance?
Administration economists have said they don’t see evidence this is happening on a large scale and the Congressional Budget Office came to the exact same conclusion. But anecdotes of such decisions have been all over the media. Jed Graham of Investor’s Business Daily has been tracking them.(Hat tip: AndrewSullivan.com.)
Economists will continue to debate the impact of Obamacare on employment, probably for years to come, based on their own ideological inclinations:
Some leaders of small-to-medium-size businesseses (with 50 or more employees) complain that they could hire more workers if they didn't have to pay employees' health insurance or the $2,000 to $3,000 penalty per worker for not providing it. The penalty for small-to-medium size businesses has been delayed until 2016. Of course, these businesses could also hire more workers if they didn't have to pay minimum wage, unemployment insurance, pay into workers' social security, or provide any benefits whatsoever. A strong argument could be made that these businesses are freeloaders. They want to enjoy the fruits of workers' labor, but don't want to pay the fair cost of hiring workers, and instead seek to shift the cost onto the government or society.
This debate is ideological -- libertarian vs. communitarian -- and will not be settled by economic progress reports any time soon. But the future growth of the economy in the near future will probably determine which ideology gets the upper hand with the public before the 2014 and 2016 elections.
Consider New Legislation in 2017
Jonathan Gruber, an architect of the Massachusetts plan (RomneyCare), predicts it will take three years for the full impact of Obamacare to take hold, as it took three years for RomneyCare to take hold. Offering a litany of improvements for millions of Americans that have already been implemented by Obamacare, Gruber notes that "we won't be able to draw final and firm conclusions until late in 2016."
Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic summed up Obamacare's impact best:
"People tend to talk about Obamacare as if it’s going to be a ringing success or a total catastrophe. In reality, it’s likely to be a mix of good and bad news, with lots of variation from state to state, and with lots of unanswered questions that linger for months and even years."
At that point, in 2017, Congress may want to consider improvements to Obamacare.It's certainly not the last word or final reformation of America's extremely complex health care system.
"His primary rules were: never allow the public to cool off; never admit a fault or wrong; never concede that there may be some good in your enemy; never leave room for alternatives; never accept blame; concentrate on one enemy at a time and blame him for everything that goes wrong; people will believe a big lie sooner than a little one; and if you repeat it frequently enough people will sooner or later believe it." -- Psycholological profile of Adolph Hitler, prepared by the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Wikipedia entry on the Big Lie.
Michael C. Moynihan asserted in a Tablet Magazine article, "Hitler on the Campaign Trail: Republican and Democratic Politicians Are Reviving A Favorite Nazi Debating Point This Campaign Season" that a common technique in contemporary US politics is to criticize an opponent for [allegedly] using the Big Lie. But it is misleading and incorrect to imply that any such opponent is somehow "similar to" or "analogous to" either Hitler or Goebbels. ("See also" Association fallacy.)
The “big lie” wasn’t a Nazi propaganda “technique,” Moynihan points out. "A little detective work reveals the Big Lie to be a rather big lie. In fact, there is only a single reference to the “big lie” in Hitler’s collected writings and speeches," he writes. "The Big Lie" wasn’t “invented” or “pioneered” by either Hitler or Goebbels. Nor was it the backbone of an anti-Semitic media strategy that precipitated the Holocaust. "If the ubiquitous and industrious fact-checkers bothered to check the claim, they would have gotten a two-for-one: the irony of supposedly truth-seeking politicians perpetuating a historical myth, and the satisfaction in helping rid the Internet of junk history. And perhaps most important, preventing a uniquely evil regime from being banalized by wildly inaccurate historical analogy," he concludes.
When I was a teen, fire and brimstone preachers quoting Old Testament prophets or teachers using language rich in righteous indignation and condemnation struck me as way way over the top, unlikely to persuade or motivate modern audiences, and certainly not me. I preferred tactful, nonjudgmental language and a therapeutic approach.
Nowadays, as a middle-aged father with a teenager testing limits and as a university teacher with sometimes recalcitrant students, I relate to the outrage, righteous indignation, high-standard setting, and disappointment expressed by the Old Testament prophets. And sometimes, I have to grudgingly admit in retrospect, I was motivated by the disapproving language. My previous post, "Give the People Bread and Circuses Instead of Intellectual Challenge and Education," outlined my concerns about habits young people are developing, entertaining themselves to death. I also ranted in an email to a friend about what seems to be the increasing frequency of offensive language in public. I found validation from a Katy Couric column.
These observations probably expose me as a judgmental, uptight old codger who has lost his sense of humor, grouses about kids' bad language, the decline of the species and civilisation due to decadence of this addled and computer-game addicted younger generation. They are all going to hell. And another thing. Get off my lawn!
So be it. Frederick Buechner described some of the Old Testament prophets in light, humorous language I could relate to. In his book, "Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who," Buechner writes that the OT prophets had a "total lack of tact. They roared out against phoniness and corruption wherever they were found."
Amos: "When the prophet Amos walked down the main drag, it was like a shoot-out in the Old West. Everybody ran for cover. His special target was The Beautiful People, and shooting from the hip, he never missed his mark...When justice is finally done, Amos says, there will be hell to pay."
Hosea: "The prophet portrays God as lashing out at the Israelites for their disobedience, and says that by all rights they should be wiped off the face of the earth..."
Jeremiah: "The word jeremiad means doleful and thunderous denunciation, and its derivation is no mystery. There was nothing in need of denunciation that Jeremiah didn’t denounce. He denounced the king and the clergy. He denounced recreational sex and extramarital jamborees. He denounced the rich for exploiting the poor, and he denounced the poor for deserving no better. He denounced the way every new god that came sniffing around had them all after him like so many bitches in heat; and right at the very gates of the Temple he told them that if they thought God was impressed by all the mumbo-jumbo that went on in there, they ought to have their heads examined.
The ancient Roman satirist and poet Juvenal accused his fellow citizens of selling out their patriotic duty for bribes of “bread and circuses.” They cared not about their freedom or the well-being of their fellow citizens, only about entertainment and food.
"… Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses." Juvenal was the first to utter the phrase, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," famously borrowed by John F. Kennedy in his 1961 inaugural address.
We Americans, and other cultures today, are in danger of doing the same. As visionary educator Neil Postman wrote way back in 1985, we are "Amusing Ourselves to Death." He observed that people have come to love the technologies that undo their capacities to think, and have actually come to love and participate in their own oppression. I observe this closely in my university classrooms, where students have difficulty going 20 minutes without checking their smart phones and texting online with friends. If I assign a book, it's guaranteed that a minority of the class will actually read it to the end.
The problem is far worse today than it was when Postman wrote his book. Worldwide, many citizens in diverse countries are addicted to entertainment which "has been compared to the circuses of ancient Rome. We can, and do, spend much of our free time watching dreck on TV,' Alice Schroader wrote on Bloomberg.com, in an article titled The Danger of Living on Bread and Circuses. "Circuses are where the money is."
I would add endless sports watching, video-gaming, Internet surfing, chatting and constant social-media-posting. Schroader cited a 2009 U.S. study indicating that "people over age 15 spent an average of 58 percent of their leisure time watching television, playing games and using the Internet -- an increase of 16 percent from 2003." A 2010 study by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America found that "teens spend 53 hours per week on electronic media." Since then, with the widespread increase in smart phones, the number of hours online has increased even more. The average teen sends more than 3,000 text messages per month, according to Nielsen. "Overall book sales have been anemic in recent years," the New York Times reports, "declining 6 percent in the first half of 2013 alone...Librarians, described by the novelist Richard Powers as 'gas attendant[s] of the mind,' saw a national decrease in their numbers of nearly 100,000 over the two decades to 2009." At the same time, attention spans have declined dramatically in the last two generations.
I read about the decline, sadly, at my alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and in my home state in general, where the quest for educational excellence seems no longer to be a priority. Educators' salaries have dropped dramatically -- from 25th in the nation to 48th in just six years, and class sizes have increased at the elementary, secondary and university levels. Student athletes are being exploited, admitted to colleges where they can't compete academically, encouraged to sign up for classes that don't meet and that require minimal homework, in order to become gladiators in the money-grubbing sports entertainment industrial complex, which provides increasingly important income to universities because funding by taxpayers has been slashed and costs have gone up.
Only the luckiest college students graduate without debt these days. Most will spend years paying off student loans, and if they get stuck in low-paying jobs, many will wonder whether it was worth it. In the 1970s, when I was an undergraduate, few of my peers at public universities took on significant debt to graduate.
Sometimes I feel like I'm watching the decline of a modern Roman Empire before my very eyes. It's not just an American phenomenon, but world-wide.
Do the people actually care about this intellectual and educational decline? Or are they so distracted and anesthesized by a modern equivalent of "bread and circuses" to do anything about it? Young people, especially, seem to be so addicted to cheap entertainment, diverting drama, exciting sports competitions, interactive gaming, online social networking, endless texting and chatting on mobile phones that they are failing to become the conscientious students and involved citizens that they could become.
I believe that the University of North Carolina will recover its tarnished reputation. At least the shortcuts and athletic exploitations are widely seen as a scandal in the state and the nation, and it's unclear how common the abuses were. But the larger cultural trends I identify will probably be a problem for a long time to come.
It's great to see that Silicon Valley ingenuity can simplify health care reform and unclog federal government website arteries. In a few days, three 20-something programmers created www.thehealthsherpa.com, which can tell you quickly what your Obamacare premiums are likely to be.
The results show that Obamacare reforms would give my family a modest but not revolutionary improvement in the health care marketplace.
My family of three relatively healthy people was paying $1,500 a month for comprehensive (Gold Plan) health insurance on the private market in 2009 (before we moved abroad, where we get free health insurance). According to The Health Sherpa, our premiums in Chatham County, NC would plunge to $355 per month for a Gold plan covering 80 percent of health care costs if we have the very modest income that we did at the height of the Great Recession.
However, if our NC family income rose above $80,000, premiums would increase to $845 per month for the Gold plan for a family of three, or possibly more than 10 percent of our total income. If we chose only a catastrophic plan, with a deductible of $5,000 to as much as $10,000 annually, we could get coverage for a family of three for $340 per month, or about $4,080 per year. That's probably what most healthy families will choose, meaning they could still be stuck with more than $10,000 in medical bills over one year if a family member has a serious illness.
None of these plans are as good as the coverage we've received as part of employee packages in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. Neither plan had significant co-pays or deductibles. In Turkey, even without health insurance, medical and dental costs were shockingly cheap for an American. Before our health insurance took effect in Turkey, I remember paying $10 for an emergency room visit to get antibiotics for a sinus head cold, and $200 for my son's root canal, and in both cases we didn't have to wait any time.
If the US would adopt a single-payer health care system like so much of the civilized industrial world, costs would decline even more dramatically than they do under the marketplace reforms of Obamacare. Even political conservatives in the U.K., France, Switzerland, Israel and Canada defend their national health care systems. But ideological zealots and entrenched financial interests in the U.S. make adoption of such a system unlikely anytime soon.
One government contractor writes: "What drives me the most crazy is the argument that private companies replacing government is somehow supposed to be more conservative??? It is nothing but corporate welfare and inefficient use of taxpayer dollars. If you want to shift responsibility for weapons production or waste management or environmental cleanup, then shift the responsibility to private industry and get government out of it. But if anyone thinks hiring companies to do the work the feds used to do is efficient, they haven’t stepped outside their echo chamber long enough to look at reality. These contracting company officials are so savvy at playing the politicians, the regulatory system, the contracting system, and the legal system, that they’ve taken us taxpayers for a ride. Sickeningly, many of my colleagues are Tea Party sympathizers who see no conflict in their positions. I wonder how they would fare if they were thrown to the street and had to survive without a federal tit."
My friend Bruce Johnson writes: "I'm more heartened by the 2013 election outcomes than I can remember. Maybe you can post this reflection on your blog and we can look back and see if I am a prophet or a Pollyanna.
"Chris Christie could win the Republican nomination. If he does he not only can win the 2016 election, especially if the Democrats commit harikari by nominating Hillary. Christie can DO what Obama talked about and restore bipartisanship to DC.
"Christie is a pro-life fiscal conservative who believes government can make people's lives better. He wants to make it efficient and fiscally sound. He opposes public sector unions as drains on the taxpayers. I agree. Public sector unionized employees are overpaid compared to their private sector peers and their productivity is lower.
"Christie believes capital gains taxes should be cut. I agree. They discourage investment. They impose a harsh penalty on those of us who sometimes have to sell stock to pay for, say, our childrens' educations or a financial emergency.
"This does not mean that he's blindly anti-tax. He actually raised taxes in New Jersey. He worked with Obama to rebuild his state and praised Obama on the eve of the election for his role. Hispanics love him and he is popular with African-Americans.
"I have no idea where he stands on foreign policy but I assume he would favor the same consensus approach there he brings to domestic politics. He would have to be an improvement in foreign policy over Obama who is becoming a huge national embarrassment with his spying on allies, drone strikes on civilians (unintentional I'm sure) and Orwellian surveillance programs. Not to mention his flip flops on Syria.
"Governor Christie, like Governor Bush of Texas, has achieved his overwhelmingly popular programs to make the Garden State a better place to live with the backing of a state legislature, both of whose houses are controlled by Democratic majorities.
"Meantime, I think 2014 will break the gridlock for BO's lameduck years. The President's incompetence in implementing Obamacare will sink some good centrist Dems but that will be good for the country because Senate Republicans are more centrist than Senate Democrats.
"Meantime revulsion against the Tea Party and shutdown will cost House Republicans their majority in 2014 in spite of the gerrymandering. The House Democrats are leftist but unhampered by a Pelosi equivalent to the Hastert rule; House Dems will play ball with the Senate and the centrist White House. Biden will emerge as a key leader and Obama will belatedly become the unifier he originally hoped to be but the leftist wing of his party will repudiate him and nominate Mrs. Clinton.
"As President, Christie will initiate reforms with bipartisan support and trim the cost of government and might actually restore people's faith in Washington and in Government. My friend Ron Krauss is a Democrat. He agrees."
My Response: Christie Will Have a Hard Time Winning Nomination or Avoiding Third Party Challenge
I do agree that Chris Christie represents the Republicans' best hope of taking the White House in 2016. Ohio Governor John Kasich is also a moderate Republican who could perhaps mount a formidable campaign as well.
Christie will have a big challenge winning the Republican nomination. He's pro gay marriage, pro immigration reform, pro-gun control, trusts the majority of climate scientists on global warming, and New Jersey adopted both Obamacare and Medicaid expansion. On foreign policy, there is no consensus within the GOP, divided between neo-cons who want to bomb Iran and Syria, and isolationists who want the US to withdraw from the world. Christie seems likely to side, as did Bush and Obama, with the intelligence community on spying, and drone strikes. On Syria, btw, Obama's "flip flop," or flexibility, has led to a ban on the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government without the threatened bombing by the US. Would Bush or Christie be so flexible as to let Russia take a lead role in negotiating this?
The base of the Republican Party is anti-gay marriage, anti-immigration reform, anti-science on climate change, and hates both Obamacare and Medicare expansion with a passion. The GOP base is also Southern and Tea Party. Their candidate will likely be Rand Paul, Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz.
Note that many reliably Republican voters now call themselves independents because they don't trust the Republican compromisers in Washington. They would almost rather vote for a third party libertarian than a RINO like McCain or Romney or Christie. Their distrust is rooted in their repudiation of the policies of George W. Bush to a) engage in grandiose big government schemes to transform the Middle East (Iraq, Afghanistan) that failed; b) balloon the deficit and expand the entitlement culture -- Bush greatly expanded the cost of Medicare with his pharmaceutical drug benefit; c) bail out Wall Street and the big banks, as Bush did, practicing socialism for the rich and infringing on free market ideology. To this populist crowd, Bush, McCain and Romney were establishment politicians conspiring with Democrats to advance entitlement culture (Romneycare/Obamacare), and immigration "reform" -- letting all the riffraff from Central and South America who don't speak English become citizens, sure signs (to this crowd) of American decline and decadence.
Culturally, the Southern base of the Republican Party probably distrusts the Yankee Christie who hugged Obama in the final days of the 2012 election campaign. Christie also has a tendency to shoot from the lip and show rage in public that some will find offensive. He will have trouble engendering enthusiasm in the Republican base.
I could see Paul or Cruz mounting a third party challenge if Christie is the nominee. They disagree with him almost as much as they disagree with Democrats. If Paul would run as a true libertarian -- dropping opposition to gay marriage, abortion, and appealing to progressive libertarians -- he might even have a chance to garner a plurality in a three-way race. He could win Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee, possibly Arizona (where there's strong anti-immigrant resentment), Nevada, Indiana, Missouri, Wyoming and Montana.
The threat of a third party challenge from the right would force Christie or Kasich to make overtures or policy concessions to the Tea Party in order to keep the Republican Party together.
In the age of the Internet, you can organize your own political army -- you don't need political parties like you once did.
But I agree with you that a conservative/libertarian/Tea Party challenge to the Republicans on the right would probably be seen as suicidal if there is not a viable Green/progressive party challenge to the Democrats on the left.
Principles Vs. Pragmatism
I guess the main question for the conservative base of the Republican Party and the liberal base of the Democratic Party will be whether to stand on principle and mount third/fourth party challenges if necessary, or to take a more pragmatic approach.
That may be determined by how much conservatives *like* or can stomach Christie and how much liberals *like* or can stomach Hillary, Biden or whoever the Democratic nominee is. I suspect there would be a lot of discontent among Democrats with Hillary or Biden.
The intensity of dislike/fear/hatred for the other party's nominee will also be a factor. And how much passion each side can generate -- how much do they really want to win the presidency?
Generally it takes a political party eight or 12 years out of the White House to rebuild their fractured coalition and to generate enough passion for victory to win the White House again. It took the Democrats 12 years to recover from the Reagan-Bush years. The Clintons' enthusiastic coalition of 1992 and 1996 fractured just enough in 2000 to create a Nader/Green Party that deprived Al Gore of the presidency. The "Tony Blair" or Joe Lieberman or Reagan Democrats supported Bush on Iraq in 2004, depriving John Kerry of the White House (his credibility on Iraq -- "he was for the war before he was against it" -- was the same as Mitt Romney's on health care reform in 2012).
The Republicans fractured in 1992 and 1996 between moderates and conservative ideologues, and again in 2008, between the establishment types and the libertarians. A surprising number of moderate evangelicals who had voted for Bush in 2000 and 2004 voted for Obama in 2008.
Bruce, you're suggesting that some Senate Democrats will lose their seats in 2014, and Democrats will lose control of the Senate due to the incompetent rollout of Obamacare? I don't think so. I suspect by the fall of 2014 the smoke will clear on Obamacare and it will be seen as a "win" or as a draw for the vast majority.
I don't think the Republicans will lose the House of Representatives in 2014. For example, the newly gerrymandered conservative district in Western North Carolina represented by Tea Party freshman Mark Meadows shows few signs of throwing him out, even though his district lost millions of dollars and possibly thousands of jobs due to the shutdown that Meadows engineered. The most vociferous supporters of the shutdown came from safe Republican districts. Google search: Most Vulnerable Republicans.
Democrats in 2016: I don't see Hillary as the candidate of Democratic leftists but of corporate centrists. Same with Biden. I don't think either one of them can run from the left. Does this mean the Democratic left will be dormant in 2016? Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, darling of the left, says she has no interest in running. Maybe Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley or New York Senator Kristen Gillibrand (if Hillary doesn't run) will take up that cause. Neither has much crossover appeal in a national campaign, from my first vague impression of them.
What will the Democratic agenda be in 2014 and 2016? Hard to figure out. Economic inequality, which Bill DeBlasio ran on in New York? How do you make that a national issue? Do you run on a platform of cutting corporate welfare, strengthening unions, raising taxes on the wealthy? Those are dubious solutions to economic inequality in the nation as a whole, and not particularly popular with the overall electorate.
Obama is quoted as saying he had a very thin agenda for his second term. Those issues that the left might be most passionate about -- surveillance, invasion of privacy, press rights, drones -- involve repudiation of the Obama administration, which I don't think either Clinton or Biden will do. If Paul would take up those issues, he could broaden his support.
Mainstream GOP Could Unite Behind Christie; No Third Party Challenge from the Right?
Bruce Johnson replies: "I agree that the Tea Party and Christian Right will combine to make it tough for Christie. My biggest hope is that there will be so MANY right-wingers running that Christie will be the early front runner and then the more mainstream party types will unite behind him and help him win the nomination the way they did behind previous nominees all of whom were fairly mainstream sorts (who then did horrible things like picking Palin and talking about the 47%).
"I can't see Cruz or Paul running a third party campaign. They are serious politicians who care for their own future. They might like to see Christie go down to Clinton or Biden or whomever, but they wouldn't risk their chances for 2020 by openly breaking with the party. Not even Ron Paul did that."
"In Britain, academics often dismiss counterfactual history as a 'busman’s holiday.' Maybe so. But it can be an enlightening exercise to challenge the belief that what happened had to happen. Usually, it didn’t." --JACOB HEILBRUNN in a review of Jeff Greenfield's new alternative history on John Kennedy's two terms as president, if he weren't assassinated.
I love studying plausible alternative histories, because it teaches you two contradictory things: a) the importance of individual action in determining the course of history; b) the unimportance of individuals in determining the great sweep of history.
America's individualistic culture probably places too great an emphasis on the individual, as we try to understand history, whereas more collectivist cultures place too little emphasis on individuals as they try to understand history.
Back in 1995, just as the Internet was beginning to emerge as a political tool, I envisioned a time when citizens would become more engaged in politics, right from their computers. See my piece, "Vision of a New Democracy: Internet Gives Citizens Chance to Connect." That future has certainly happened. With the proliferation of email, Facebook, Twitter, other forms of social media, and Youtube.com, citizens are more engaged in politics than they were in 1994. Voter turnout jumped from 49.1 percent in 1996 to 56.8% in 2008. It declined slightly in 2012, to 53.6%, but that's still higher than most elections since the 1960s, which was the last time voters were consistently engaged the way they are now. Back then, turnout topped 60 percent.
What I didn't foresee were the unintended consequences of digitization of politics, that is not entirely a good trend. Americans are probably more divided by politics, more partisan, less interested in listening to one another and engaging in compromise. Hyper-partisanship seems to dominate.
Why is the political atmosphere in America so partisan today, and so filled with partisan gridlock? The 113th Congress is one of the most unproductive in modern American history, so far passing only four major pieces of legislation. This is in sharp contrast to the two previous Congresses. The 111th Congress (2009-2010) was one of the most productive in American history in passing major legislation, and the 112th Congress (2011-12) was also quite productive.
To some Tea Party conservatives, the current "partisan gridlock" may be a good thing because it means Congress is doing less harm than it might if Obama and the Democrats had more power and were able to push through more harmful legislation. So what if, due to Tea Party intransigence, Congress can't agree on a budget, shuts down the government and furloughs federal employees? So what if the sequester isn't replaced with thoughtful budget cuts? So what if the debt ceiling isn't lifted and the government doesn't pay its bills? So what if the federal budget is held hostage until Obamacare is fully repealed? So what if there isn't immigration reform or tax reform or another stimulus bill to supposedly create jobs?
There's a faction in Washington that believes action on this agenda is worse than inaction, that agreeing to "wasteful government spending," immigration reform that gives amnesty to illegals, and agreeing to tax reform that doesn't cut taxes further is worse than the current gridlock.
Never mind that these uncompromising legislators are risking damage to the full faith and credit of the United States and to economic growth, never mind that the costs of sequester, government shutdown, inaction on immigration and tax reform are greater than the costs of compromise.
So what are the underlying causes of such partisan gridlock?
I'll never forget my introduction to Russia and world politics in junior high school. First we read "The Communist Manifesto." Then we read "Animal Farm," about the "real way" it worked. A small cadre of unprincipled, violent, godless, radical atheists seized power in Russia in 1917, toppling the Christian tsar, murdering his family and proceeded to turn Russia into a prison camp called the Soviet Union. All private property was seized by the government. Children were forced to tattle to the government on their parents' thoughts and actions. They were programmed and indoctrinated. Then after World War II, the virus of communism spread into Eastern Europe, China, and right to America's doorstep in Cuba, 90 miles from our shores. Next our teacher dramatically showed us a world map. He explained the "Domino Theory" and pointed to all the countries that had fallen to the "Reds." It was pretty scary. The commies were united in their desire to overtake the world and to bury us, our teacher said, and we had to stop them.
That's why we were in Vietnam. To stop communist aggression and give the Vietnamese people freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, the right to own private property and to become prosperous like we were in America. To stop the dominoes from falling. We only half succeeded in stopping the communists in Korea. If Vietnam fell to the Reds, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan, Australia and New Zealand couldn't be far behind. And then the communists would move on to conquer Hawaii, Alaska, Canada and the West coast of the United States. The communists would stop at nothing.
I was ready to enlist in the army to defend my country and our way of life.
Believe it or not, our teacher said, there were American citizens who did not want us to win in Vietnam, did not want us to beat the Reds, and would actually assist them in America. There were communists right here in America, right here in North Carolina. My teacher was a big fan of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. I read "Masters of Deceit: The Story of Communism in America and How to Fight It" and reported on it for class.
These communists threatened our way of life, especially in the South, my teacher said. They pushed racial integration as a way to get blacks and whites fighting each other. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was a rabblerouser, controlled by communists. He started riots and cowardly fled the scene, we were told.
At that, I started to doubt what I was taught, to do some reading on my own, and to come back to my teacher with questions. The more I studied, the more I realized his simplistic world view was falling apart. To be sure, I had been gripped and initially frightened by it. He had gotten my attention. Less threatening, boring "pro and con" analyses of America's role in the world perhaps might not have captured a 14-year-old boy's imagination.
So in that sense, his teaching was a success. I had resisted programming and indoctrination. He had inspired me to think for myself, to study, and to his credit, allowed me to debate him and try to punch holes in his arguments.
These good-vs-evil paradigms and black-vs.-white dichotomies still shape our views of the world. Fox News and MSNBC generate them routinely. Sometimes it's implicit assumptions rather than explicit assertions, which we know do not stand up to scrutiny:
Or vice versa. One purpose of education is to recognize indoctrination (like I experienced as a 14-year-old) and develop a nuanced view of the world.
I'm sure you can think of other either/or, good vs. bad paradigms. if only the world were so black and white, life would be a lot simpler, wouldn't it?
Russia today is now investing in a much stronger military, strongest in two decades, to counter concerns about the growing threat of China, Japan and the US in the Pacific. See "Massive Exercises Underscore Russia's Interests in Asia." It is also creating a Eurasia Union with former Soviet states, set to launch in 2015. On the surface, these moves may be seen as defensive in nature. But it could very well be that Russia is seeking to recreate its old empire.
The truth is that today's Russia does not act much different in foreign or domestic policy from the former Soviet Union. Twenty years ago, it did let go of its satellites in Eastern Europe, of course, because it couldn't afford to subsidize them any longer. It allowed the Berlin Wall to be torn down, Germany to unite, and it no longer engages in an intense "sphere-of-influence" battle or lethal arms race with the US. (It has signed numerous nuclear non-proliferation treaties with the US to limit arsenals.)
But Russia still sharply restricts free speech, jails dissidents and generally has a poor human rights record. See Human Rights Watch's report, "Worst Human Rights Record in Post-Soviet Period." Russia's now "capitalist" economy doesn't work much better than its old communist economy. (See "Russia's Economy Sputtering" in The Economist.)
These were things the U.S. spotlighted during the Cold War, opposing the Soviet Union on moralistic grounds and thumping our chests over our superior economy and superior freedoms. Now we mostly look the other way from Russia's human rights record, because there's not much propaganda value to be gained among non-aligned nations in trumpeting America's economic superiority when they know that already and the world is no longer a bipolar clash between two superpowers, engaged in proxy wars -- hot or cold -- all over the globe.
We're no longer "engaged in a long twilight struggle with communism," as John Kennedy said. There's not much to be gained by American presidents to refer to the Russian threat with domestic audiences either. "The people" already perceive that "we won the Cold War," and don't want to hear otherwise.
Yet Russia still perceives the US as a great competitor if not a threat in parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East (Syria and Iran), and Asia. It's nervous because neighboring buffer states have disappeared. Lauren Goodrich, Stratfor:
"The US successfully incorporated former Soviet satellites into NATO, supported pro-Western "color revolutions" in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan; set up military bases in Central Asia; and announced plans to place ballistic missile defense installations in Central Europe. To Russia, it seemed the United States was devouring its periphery to ensure that Moscow would forever remain vulnerable."
The truth is that Vladimir Putin, now in his 14th year of power, does not act much different from the old Soviet premiers or Russian czars. See some of the many references to "Czar Putin." He's an autocrat not accustomed to sharing power with a Congress or Supreme Court like US presidents must.
More from Lauren Goodrich of Stratfor:
"The Soviet Union did not act differently from most of the Russian empires before it, and Russia today is following the same behavioral pattern. Russia's defining characteristic is its indefensibility, which means its main strategy is to secure itself. Unlike most powerful countries, Russia's core region, Muscovy, has no barriers to protect it and thus has been invaded several times. Because of this, throughout history Russia has expanded its geographic barriers in order to establish a redoubt and create strategic depth between the Russian core and the myriad enemies surrounding it. This means expanding to the natural barriers of the Carpathian Mountains (across Ukraine and Moldova), the Caucasus Mountains (particularly to the Lesser Caucasus, past Georgia and into Armenia) and the Tian Shan on the far side of Central Asia. The one geographic hole is the North European Plain, where Russia historically has claimed as much territory as possible (such as the Baltics, Belarus, Poland and even parts of Germany). In short, for Russia to be secure it must create some kind of empire."
Look at the history of invasions of Russia.
Now you can argue that in some of these cases, Russia was actually the aggressor. But at the least, you'd have to concede that at least five times in 150 years, from 1812 to 1941, Russia was a victim of foreign invasion. Insecurity is not just paranoia on the part of Russians. In sharp contrast, aside from the War for Independence in 1776 and a few border disputes with Mexico, the continental United States has been invaded by foreign armies only once since its formation, by Britain in 1812. Yet the US has spent far more on military matters than Russia has.
To maintain its empire, Russia must keep a strong central government, and "a tight grip on society and security," Goodrich observed. Russia's leader -- whether Christian Czar, Soviet premier, or current president -- must make it clear he controls the army and the security apparatus, she says.
Characteristics of the Russian state we Americans wrongly blamed on Soviet communism -- the failure to provide a strong and efficient economy and integrate its many ethnicities, the brutal suppression of non-conformists and dissidents, the desire to dominate neighboring countries -- were actually endemic to the nation's geographica position and history, and remain so.
Millenials, now between the ages of 18 and 33, are far more likely to say they are not religious, 39%, than their grandparents in the Silent Generation, age 68 or older, only nine percent of whom say they are not religious, according to a new survey.
This may be a function of age. As young people settle down, get married, and have children, they are more likely to want religious values passed on to their children, so they may return to religious services and desire for their children to learn at least basic religious traditions. Even so, it's unlikely Millenials when they reach 70 will be as uniformally religious as their grandparents were.
Whether Millenials "return to the fold" as they age or maintain their distance from organized religion is already a subject of fascination for sociologists. Google Millenials and Religious Belief.
Americans are still, currently at least, one of the most overtly religious nationalities in the world. Only 15% of Americans overall describe themselves as not religious, according to the survey by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution.
And surprisingly, a lot of the growth in religious belief is on the left. In an article titled, "The Rise of the Religious Left," Katie McDonough of Salon reports that "the proportion of religious conservatives in the United States is shrinking with each successive generation, and close to 20 percent of Americans today are religious progressives." In coming decades, religious progressives may outnumber religious conservatives, according to Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute.
Forty percent of Baby Boomers describe themselves as "religious conservatives," while only 16 percent of their children and grandchildren in the Millenial generation describe themselves that way. In the nation as a whole, 28% say they are "religious conservatives." Thirty-eight percent of Americans describe themselves as "religious moderates."
According to the executive summary of the survey:
Religious progressives and religious conservatives also hold different views about what being a religious person means. Nearly 8 in 10 religious progressives say it is mostly about doing the right thing, compared to 16% who say it is about holding the right
beliefs. By contrast, a majority (54%) of religious conservatives say being a religious person is primarily about holding the right beliefs, while less than 4 in 10 (38%) say it is mostly about doing the right thing.
Religious conservatives and religious progressives disagree about the degree to which social problems stem from individual actions and decisions. More than 8 in 10 religious conservatives (82%) agree that if enough people had a personal relationship with God, social problems would take care of themselves. By contrast, nearly seven in 10 (68%) religious progressives disagree that if enough people had a personal relationship with God, social problems would take care of themselves, compared to 31% who agree.
About 15% of the U.S. population describe themselves as religious but non-Christian (Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindus, or other).
Rachel Held Evans, an author and blogger in the millenial generation, wrote a piece for CNN's Belief Blog explaining why her generation is turned off by evangelical churches. "Young adults perceive evangelical Christianity to be too political, too exclusive, old-fashioned, unconcerned with social justice and hostile to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people....(They) often feel they have to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness."
Evangelicals' "obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt," she writes. Read her essay at CNN . And the comments among readers on her personal website are insightful as well.
As a teacher, I've encountered young people enthalled with "the scientic method" and therefore initially skeptical of religious belief and leaps of faith. I've tried to encourage them to make room in their lives for spirituality, to regularly engage their questions, to choose a path of spiritual growth and find ways to routinely help others and feel part of a community, rather than to close their minds to a beautiful part of life. Their understanding of the meaning of life is sure to evolve as they age. See my "Letter to a Young Skeptic of Religion."
Often missing from political and sociological analysis of the American people today are generational influences. There are stark differences between how people born at different times perceive the world. I encourage everyone to think about the generational influences on their own political and religious perspectives.
I clearly identify as a member of the Baby Boom generation. My parents were part of the Greatest Generation, my older siblings were part of the Silent Generation, and my sons are part of Generation Y (Millenials) and Generation Z. The experiences that shaped my politics and outlook -- the civil rights revolution, political assassinations, the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignations, repeated political disillusionment, are very different from the formative experiences of my parents, my older siblings, my children, or my Generation X nieces and nephews.
Compare and contrast the world views of these generations:
These generational descriptions are meant to be suggestive guidelines to identify common experiences of people who grew up in a particular time and to get one thinking about one's own cultural influences. They are not of course prescriptive of everyone born during that period nor are they set in stone. A person may have been born in the latter phase of one generation, but feel that their experiences were more in line with those of the next generation. Likewise, another person may have been born on the cusp of a new generation but feel their cultural experiences and influences belonged to the earlier generation.
How would you describe your generational influences?
Jim Alexrod of CBS News, in the clip above, reports on how NC is cutting unemployment benefits and actually eliminating unemployment benefits for anyone jobless more than six months. Alexrod profiles a man from Goldsboro, NC who has been unemployed for six months and has less than $200 in his bank account. He's willing to move to another state to seek work, but doesn't even have enough money for gas in his truck to get there. (Details from CBSNews.com)
I've been having a discussion on Facebook with my Republican and Democratic friends over the NYT editorial, "The Decline of North Carolina," my home state. Click.
I seriously doubt all Republicans approve of the actions of the NC legislature slashing more than 5,000 teaching positions and 4,500 teacher assistants, cutting education spending to 46th in the nation per capita; refusing raises for teachers and other state employees for five years (with no prospect of a raise next year); eliminating funding for pre-k and disabled children; slashing Medicaid funding; ending federal unemployment benefits for 170,000 residents; closing many of the state's abortion clinics -- all justified to cut taxes for some businesses and individuals. My guess is that the legislature is misreading the public and over-reaching. They are certainly endangering the 'moderate' image of the new governor, who must either acquiesce or fight his own party.
Cutting long-term unemployment benefits is necessary to prevent the unemployed from, in the immortal words of Rep. Paul Ryan, "turning the safety net into a hammock." The 2013-14 NC budget also cut $120 million in spending for teaching assistants (by 21%); eliminated the Rural Economic Development Center which gave grants to spur job growth in small towns; raised out-of-state tuition at NC universities by as much as 12.3 percent; and increased tuition at community colleges to $71.50 per credit hour for in-state students. It also provided $10 million in vouchers for private school tuition for families that meet certain income guidelines.
Even though North Carolina teachers rank dead last in teacher salary growth since year 2001, and 48th in teacher salaries nationwide, the legislature refused to give teachers a raise for the fifth straight year. It eliminated extra pay for teachers with advanced degrees like masters, giving teachers no incentives to advance their knowledge or skill set. Chris Fitzsimon of NC Public Policy Watch explained:
Funding is cut for instructional support personnel, school buses, limited English proficiency students, and a host of other programs.
The bottom line is that lawmakers made deep cuts to public schools and higher education this year at the same time they were doling out tax cuts to millionaires. Overall education spending falls $481 million short over the next two years of what it would take to keep services at the same level as 2012-2013.
The General Assembly passed legislation restricting access to abortion, barring insurance plans of public employees from covering abortion services; barring the new Obamacare plans from offering abortion coverage; and setting such rigid standards for abortion clinics that advocates fear many clinics will be forced to close.
Republicans are betting that reducing benefits, cutting personal taxes from 7.5% to 5.75% by 2015, cutting corporate taxes from 6.9% to 5%, and eliminating the state estate tax will spur job growth. North Carolina in July 2013 had a jobless rate of 8.8%.
And yet after five straight years in the top 10 states for good business climate, North Carolina in 2013 fell to 12th nationwide, in a ranking by CNBC. And yet even conservative economists acknowledge that little job growth will occur as a result of these cuts.
Governor McCrory says that he and the legislature are aggressively paying off the state's debt to the federal government. But the $475 million cut from unemployment benefits would stimulate NC's economy at a time the state has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation. That $474 million could possibly prevent thousands from becoming homeless. Will the state's homeless population increase? We will soon find out.
Alexandra Sirota, Director of the NC Budget and Tax Center, blasted the legislature's priorities:
"Lawmakers chose to drain available revenues by $524 million over the next two years through an ill-advised series of tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy and profitable corporations. This revenue loss isn’t just a number on a piece of paper—it means fewer teachers in more crowded classrooms, higher tuition rates and elevated debt load for families, scarcer economic development opportunities for distressed communities, and longer waiting lists for senior services."
In an earlier statement, Sirota noted that the GOP legislature's budget "cuts taxes for the wealthiest, and takes away the highly effective state Earned Income Tax Credit from low-income working families. We’ll all pay the price for this sweet deal for wealthy taxpayers and profitable corporations. Our state will be the poorer for it – less attractive to businesses, less hospitable to families."
These are the kinds of details that should be made into political advertisements.
The NC BTC produced a graphic showing how the legislature's tax "reform," while giving huge tax breaks to the wealthy and corporations -- a $10,000 tax cut for someone making a million dollars a year -- actually costs married couples with kids thousands of dollars (through loss of the child and dependent care tax credit) and senior citizens living on modest incomes hundreds of dollars in taxes. Other analysis show how the so-called tax reforms will hurt low and moderate income taxpayers.
The GOP legislature's expansion of the regressive sales tax also hurts low and moderate income families, because they spend more of their income on taxable goods and services.
Gerrymandered Legislative Districts
A major problem in holding NC legislators accountable for these big changes in priorities is that redistricting in 2011 greatly favored Republicans. In 2012, Democrats garnered a majority of the votes for Congress. However, due to the way the districts were redrawn or gerrymandered,
"the GOP gained three congressional seats and now hold nine of the state’s 13. In the General Assembly, the party gained veto-proof, super majorities in the House and Senate. Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer has said only 11 of 120 House seats and three of 50 Senate seats are truly toss-ups." (News and Observer: "NC House Coalition Proposes Independent Commission for Redistricting.")
While reducing the veto-proof, super majorities for Republicans in the legislature may be possible in 2014, eliminating the GOP's legislative advantages in 2014 or 2016 may be impossible unless there is overwhelming Democratic turnout.
"Freed of federal election supervision by the Supreme Court, the North Carolina legislature passed a bill that combines every idea for suppressing voter turnout that Republicans have advanced in other states. Rick Hasen, an election-law expert at the University of California, Irvine, called it “the most sweeping anti-voter law in at least decades.”
"The law requires a government-issued photo ID card to vote, but doesn’t allow student IDs, public-employee IDs, or photo IDs issued by public assistance agencies. It shortens the early voting window, bans same-day registration during early voting and prohibits paid voter registration drives. Counties will not be able to extend voting hours in cases of long lines, or allow provisional voting if someone arrives at the wrong precinct. Poll “observers” are encouraged to challenge people who show up to vote, and are given new powers to do so.""...(Some) 319,000 people who lack a photo ID will have a hard time voting, a disproportionate number of whom are black or poor. (No back-up IDs or sworn statements are allowed.) Eliminating same-day registration during early voting — two provisions that have been popular among Democratic-leaning voters — would have eliminated 4,766 votes in Durham County alone, according to one estimate. And as all Republican lawmakers know, President Obama won North Carolina by about 14,000 votes in 2008."