The propaganda machine-3: The third tier pundits’ role and purpose

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In my previous post in this series, I described the kinds of arguments put out by some of the better-known third tier pundits. You can probably discern a characteristic common to all of them. They start by identifying an enemy (people or ideas) and then throw everything at it, using any spurious argument they can think up, hoping that something will stick. Their purpose seems to be to fill the airways and print media with noise and confusion. The idea is not to make a cogent case but to create a fog through which the public is encouraged to see the designated enemy as vaguely disreputable even if no one can say exactly why. One enemy they have agreed upon is ‘liberal’, a word with an honorable ancestry but now so muddied that they can use it in almost any way they like. So they assert that liberals are weak, fascistic, atheistic, immoral, anti-American, terrorist-loving appeasers. It does not even matter if their assertions contradict one another. The third tier pundits are glib and have a superficial cleverness that seems to be convincing to some people but they lack good rhetorical forensic skills, instead using the equivalents of sledgehammers.
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Dog whistle politics

In an article written in 2000, William Greider said something that really stuck in my mind: “An enduring truth, a wise friend once explained to me, is that important social change nearly always begins in hypocrisy.”

This is very true. When we look back at the improvement in our attitudes to race and gender, at some point indulging in crude stereotypes, offensive humor, and derogatory remarks against this or that hitherto discriminated group becomes seen as unacceptable behavior and the people making them are viewed as ignorant and become ostracized, outside the bounds of decent society. As a result, we then go through a long period when people who harbor such offensive views feel forced to hide them or even say things that are opposite to what they truly feel. As Greider says “[T]he powerful are persuaded to say the appropriate words, that is, to sign a commitment to higher values and decent behavior.”
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More on bubble economics

Dean Baker (co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC) argues that the US is heading towards a recession, if not already in one, and he says that the main cause is the collapse of the housing bubble and not the spending on the Iraq war, though that is not helping either.

The villains in this story are the economists who somehow couldn’t see an $8 trillion housing bubble, the banks that fueled the bubble with bad and often predatory loans, the regulatory institutions that did nothing to prevent the growth of the bubble and the spread of predatory loans, and most of all, Alan Greenspan and the Fed who blessed the whole thing.

We have to hold these folks responsible for their bubble economics. The best place to start would be to remove them from positions where they are still making economic policy.

On Tuesday, we saw the Federal Reserve decide to pump $200 billion into the financial system to try and alleviate the crisis and it sent stock prices soaring that day.

I didn’t understand exactly what they did or how it was supposed to work because the news was reported in a very obscure way. Fortunately for people like me, in another article Baker explains clearly what is going on here and argues that the media is not characterizing this action for what it really is: a federal bailout of the banks that were partly responsible for this mess.

Can’t the media find any economists who don’t think that handing hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars to the big banks and the incredibly rich people who own and manage them is a good idea? Apparently not, given the coverage so far to the Fed’s proposal to lend $200 billion to the banks using mortgage backed securities as collateral.

The workings of the Fed and the financial markets can appear complicated, so let’s simplify matters a bit to make it more clear what is going on here. Suppose that it was suddenly discovered that much of the wealth held by the country’s leading financial institutions was in fact counterfeit. Instead of having hundreds of billions of dollars of real currency in their vaults, institutions like Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, and Bears Stearns actually had hundreds of billions of dollars of counterfeit currency. Suppose further that the public did not know exactly who held what in terms of counterfeit currency, only that all of them had a lot of it. (The point here is that these banks hold mortgage backed securities, many of which are only worth a fraction of their face value, and therefore can be viewed as the equivalent of counterfeit currency.)

In such circumstances, investors would be very reluctant to accept the credit of any of the major financial institutions. They couldn’t know whether most of their assets were in fact counterfeit, and they were dealing with a bankrupt institution, or whether the counterfeit currency was only a limited share of the wealth, which would not jeopardize the institution’s ability to meet its obligations.

This is in fact the credit squeeze that we’ve have recently witnessed. The spread between the interest rates on a wide variety of assets and the interest rate on safe assets (U.S. government debt) has soared. As a result, the Fed’s effort to stimulate the economy, by lowering the federal funds rate, has been largely unsuccessful because other interest rates have remained high.

In response to this situation the Fed today announced that it would lend $200 billion to banks and other financial firms, accepting mortgage backed securities as collateral. This is effectively the same as saying that the Fed is going to lend money to banks and accept the counterfeit currency as collateral, treating it just as though it were real money.

The intended effect of this policy is to convince other investors that the counterfeit currency is in fact real currency, or at the very least that there is a really huge sucker out there (the Fed) which is prepared to treat the counterfeit currency as real currency.

So how does this story play out? Well, insofar as the Fed is successful, the counterfeit currency retains its value for a while longer. This allows Citigroup, Merrill Lynch, Bears Stearns and the rest of the big boys more time to dump their counterfeit currency on suckers who haven’t figured out how the game is played.

It is possible that they won’t be able to find enough suckers, in which case these banks will end up defaulting on their loans and the Fed (i.e. the government) has lost tens or hundreds of billions dollars paying good money for counterfeit currency. Alternatively, perhaps the big boys are successful and can offload enough of their counterfeit money to restore themselves to solvency before the music stops. Then the Fed is repaid, but the counterfeit money now sits in the hands of other, less informed, or less inside, investors.

You should really read the whole of this excellent article.

Baker shows how once again, we have the Federal Reserve colluding with the government to use taxpayer money to protect and enrich the wealthiest people in the country.

POST SCRIPT: The work of Satan

Almost everyone has had encounters with those annoying little plastic containers of milk that always seem to squirt onto your clothes when you try to open them. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie deal with this menace appropriately.

The propaganda machine-2: Examples of third tier pundit work

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

One does not have to go very deep to understand why third tier pundits are not worth spending much time on. In making my criticisms of them, I have to confess that I do not take the time to read these people’s books, so readers will have to take that into account in weighing my comments on them. Fortunately there are people among the first-tier pundits and other commentators who freely and voluntarily take on this truly thankless task and document the bankruptcy of these people and their ideas. You couldn’t pay me enough to waste my time reading their books when there are so many worthwhile books to read. I have read enough articles written by them and about them and watched some interviews, sufficient I think to judge their caliber. It is of course theoretically possible that if I spend the hours necessary to wade through all the prolific output of these third tier pundits, I may find that they have produced works of extreme profundity and elegance that their critics have overlooked. But given the evidence from their other works, I would put the chances of that about as close to zero as you can imagine.

Take for example Jonah Goldberg. He has recently published a book arguing, if you can believe it, that fascism is an outgrowth of liberalism. In a review, Brad Reed says that early on in the book Goldberg apparently acknowledges that he could not really define fascism and he revealed a lack of awareness of its historical roots. That small problem might have stopped you or me from pursuing the idea of writing a book on the topic but Goldberg’s ignorance actually served his purposes since he could then argue, on the basis of the most tenuous links, that almost anything was fascistic. He lists things that some fascists liked (organic food, vegetarianism) which are also liked by some of the people in America he dislikes and presto! this makes those people fascists. As Jon Stewart pointed out, by that line of reasoning one could argue that mustaches are symbols of fascism since Hitler had one. See his interview on The Daily Show where Stewart quickly exposes the vacuity of his arguments.

Goldberg’s book has deservedly been received with hoots of derision. Even conservatives are embarrassed. As this article in the conservative Taki’s Magazine says:

One of the stranger aspects of contemporary American “mainstream conservatism” is the obsession with “fascism,” a political philosophy one might have supposed was safely buried under the rubble of 1945 Europe . . . The need to label everything conservatives oppose as “fascist” hardly stops with Osama bin Laden and his ilk. Goldberg sees FDR and the New Deal as “fascist,” even though FDR was far more eager to wage war against Hitler than was the contemporary American Right . . . Goldberg and his admirers also seem not to fully appreciate that what so thoroughly discredited fascism was not the domestic policies of Mussolini’s Italy, but the aggressive wars waged by the Fascist dictators, culminating in the horrific Nazi crimes of World War II . . . In other words, even though those [i.e., like Goldberg] who like invading other countries have often also liked building up the state and curtailing freedom at home, crusading around the world for “democracy” and invading foreign countries at will is now okay and definitely not “fascist”—as long as you still want to repeal the “death tax.”

Moving along the rogue’s gallery of third tier pundits, we come to Hall-of-Famer Michelle Malkin. She authored a book actually approving the internment of all Japanese-Americans (including children!) during World War II, an act that is now widely seen as one of the most shameful governmental policies in recent history and for which the government in 1988 formally apologized. She has also been arguing for racial, religious, and nationality profiling to be taken against all people of Middle Eastern origins and of the Islamic faith. She is constantly scaremongering about the threat posed by Muslims.

Her most recent book argues that liberals are more unhinged (her preferred term is ‘moonbats’) than the rest of the population.

The level of her analyses can be judged by the following clip that she herself proudly produced. This cheerleader clip has been a big hit on YouTube, but perhaps not for the reasons she hoped.

Can you believe your eyes? Are we supposed to take people like her seriously?

And of course, Ann Coulter has mastered the art of gaining attention by saying outrageous things that will get her noticed. The very titles of her books (How to talk to a liberal (if you must) and Godless: The church of liberalism) are good indications of the level at which these people pitch their discourse. I will not waste much time arguing that her work is worthless because I think that has been well established by others.

Dinesh D’Souza wrote a book that blamed American liberals, going all the way back to FDR for the events of 9/11. How did he arrive at that breathtaking conclusion? By arguing that liberals in America, with their permissive attitudes, had caused the moral decline of the US. The fear that this US-inspired decadence would pollute the Middle East so inflamed the Islamic radicals in al Qaeda that they decided to punish America by flying planes into building. In order to combat this, he argues that traditional conservative Americans should join up with traditional conservative Muslims to fight the liberals and their pursuit of moral decline. Really, that’s his argument. How is one expected to respond to such idiocy?

Incidentally, when third tier pundits like D’Souza speak of ‘moral decline’, you can be sure that they are referring to sexual sins. Genocide or racism or sexism or homophobia or the abuse of power or the neglect of the underprivileged do not seem to trouble their moral sensibilities.

Watch this interview on The Colbert Report. People like D’Souza have so self-awareness that he does not seem to realize that Stephen Colbert is having immense fun at his expense and that he is being made to look ridiculous

The silliness of D’Souza’s arguments is truly breathtaking. Alan Wolfe reviewing D’Souza’s book says: “Like his hero Joe McCarthy, he has no sense of shame. He is a childish thinker and writer tackling subjects about which he knows little to make arguments that reek of political extremism. His book is a national disgrace, a sorry example of a publishing culture more concerned with the sensational than the sensible.”

Wolfe’s words apply equally well to all the third-tier pundits.

Next in the series: The special media niche that the third tier pundits occupy

POST SCRIPT: In praise of bad musicianship

Have you ever listened with envy to an orchestra and thought it looked like a lot of fun but sighed with regret that you didn’t have anywhere close to the talent or skill to play alongside such accomplished musicians? Well, there are a lot of us like that out there but one enterprising group in Scotland has decided that they are going to play anyway. They have created what they call the Really Terrible Orchestra where lack of skill is no barrier to participation.

They seem to be a hit, playing to capacity audiences, and have even made a CD with original compositions. This idea may catch on.

Technology guerilla warfare

One of the interesting things about technology is the way that it creates a kind of arms race between those who quickly adopt new technologies and those who feel that it impinges on their own freedom and want to thwart them. We know, for example, that the radar guns used by traffic police have spawned detectors that can tell drivers who like to speed when such devices are in use, leading to more sophisticated devices being developed for police, and so on. In this case, the radar detectors were being used by people who were trying to break the law for their own benefit and increasing the risk to other users of the road.
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The propaganda machine-1: The third tier pundits

When I was interviewed recently on Blog Talk Radio about my 2005 posts about the people I call third tier pundits and the baleful influence that they have on political discourse, I didn’t really have the time to go more deeply into how it is that they got to play the particular role they currently play. It would be a mistake to think that they are merely the flotsam brought to the surface by media currents. They play a vacuous but integral part in a propaganda machine.

Third tier pundits are those people who occupy almost the bottom rung of the punditry world, the value of their contributions rising just barely above that of the people who write graffiti on bathroom walls. The most prominent examples of this species are people like Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Jonah Goldberg, and Dinesh D’Souza but unfortunately there are many, many more. In fact, it seems like there is a seemingly endless supply of such people, available at a moment’s notice to appear on TV and radio and fill up newspaper op-ed space or the shelves of bookstores, spouting a predictable line of nonsense. But while they add little, they fill a significant niche in the media world and it is interesting to see what the purpose of that niche is and how they fit into the overall structure of the media. As Jonathan Schwarz says about the whole species:

A few weeks ago I wrote something comparing Michelle Malkin’s moral and intellectual standards to those of Holocaust deniers. But I also said Malkin has no significance in and of herself; every country has people as strange and confused and angry as she is. What matters is that normal societies leave them to fulminate in their parents’ basement. In contrast, troubled societies let them organize “conferences” and guest host national television programs.

In an absolute sense these third tier pundits are not important because they have nothing important to say. But understanding how they became a ubiquitous presence can give us insights into how the media is currently structured. The next series of posts will focus on this topic.

The first tier pundits are those people who actually have useful things to say. They often have deep specialized knowledge in some area. They are grounded in reality and data, do careful analyses, have a good historical and global perspective, and are not narrowly blinkered by nationalistic or jingoistic sentiments. They are not quick to rush to judgment and often have their own sources and do some original reporting and thus have new information to add to their thoughtful analyses. These people tend to write for opinion magazines (both online and traditional) that do not have huge circulations and a few of them sometimes appear on TV talk shows, though not the high profile ones. Their names tend to be not very well known to the general public, being familiar mostly to political junkies.

Some of the first tier pundits are Noam Chomsky, Norman Solomon, Howard Zinn, Edward Herman, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Katha Pollitt, Matthew Yglesias, Steve Benen, Juan Cole, Stephen Zunes, Robert Jensen, Jonathan Schwarz, the pseudonymous Digby, Justin Raimondo, Ken Silverstein, Jim Lobe, Ray McGovern, Bill and Kathleen Christianson, Greg Sargent, Josh Marshall, Paul Craig Roberts, and Alexander Cockburn. (In writing this partial list, it struck me that there were only three women in it and (as far as I know) no people of color. I am not sure why that is. Have I overlooked some people or is punditry more appealing to men? Or is this another instance of women and minorities having to struggle to break through traditional barriers?)

The second tier pundits are far less informative but much better known than the first tier. They consist of widely syndicated columnists who have regular access to the op-ed pages of the major news outlets. They appear often on the high-profile TV talk shows. These are people such as David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, David Broder, etc. Their names are usually familiar to those members of the general public who follow politics even casually. They are people who consider themselves and each other to be ‘serious’ commentators. They do not use inflammatory language. They are courted by political figures who desperately want their approval.

But notwithstanding their serious tone, as I have discussed before, their analyses are most often shallow and greatly inferior to those of the first-tier pundits. They do, however, serve an important ideological purpose, which is to limit the range of ‘acceptable’ opinion to the narrow piece of turf bounded by their views, and to advance the agenda of the pro-war/pro-business party that runs the country. While the analyses of these people tends to be ideologically driven, lack content, and sometimes don’t even make much sense, reading them is not entirely a waste of time since they give you a good sense of what the agenda of the ruling class is, what they want you to think.

The third tier pundits are near the bottom of the barrel. They are to journalism and political analyses what Paris Hilton is to acting, i.e., people who have become well known for reasons that have nothing to do with any intrinsic ability but, as a result of our celebrity-obsessed culture which assumes that if one is well known there must be a reason, have now have become fixtures on the public stage. They are a waste of time and airspace and their views range between the silly and the despicable.

Next in the series: Examples of third tier punditry

POST SCRIPT: Believing myths

Forget about who can answer the phone at 3:00am. Hillary Clinton was interviewed in June 2007 on the Christian Broadcasting Network and said the following:

Reporter: Can I ask you theologically, do you believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened, that it actually historically did happen?

Clinton: Yes, I do.

So here in the 21st century we have a potential president who believes in something that violates scientific laws, not to mention plain common sense. The sad thing is that not only are such questions considered reasonable to ask but that every candidate for any major elected office in the US would probably feel obliged to answer the same way, even if they felt that these were absurd things to believe in. They probably can not even evade the question by saying that religion is a private affair, because that would lead to the sneaking suspicion that they are rational and scientific thinkers, who use logic and evidence to come to their conclusions, and we can’t have that in a president, can we?

You can read the full transcript of the interview here.

The phony Social Security crisis-4: What needs to be done

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While Social Security is not in a crisis, it does require periodic adjustments to make it work, as the economy and demographics of the population change. It can be made solvent with minor tinkering at the edges such as removing entirely the cap on payroll tax income or increasing the rate of taxation by small amounts or by lowering the annual cost-of-living increases in benefits or, in the worst case, by slightly reducing the benefits. We are not facing the catastrophe the doomsayers predict.

The major problem with Social Security is not with the retirement benefits part but with rapidly rising Medicare costs. Currently the Social Security tax (the part that goes towards retirement benefits) is 12.4% of income up to the cap, which is $102,000 for 2008. The tax rate for Medicare is 2.9% of your gross income. Your employer pays half of this 15.3% total, unless you are self-employed in which case you are responsible for the entire amount.

It is the Medicare costs that are already outstripping Medicare revenues and rising rapidly, and thus straining the government’s finances. But this is largely a health care costs problem, caused by the hugely wasteful profit-making health system that currently exists in the US that has resulted in per capita costs that are at least twice as much as the costs in other developed countries and yet produces worse results. Introducing a single-payer system like that which exists in France or Canada would result in savings, greater ability to control costs, and better health care overall. (See the series of posts on health care where these arguments are presented in more detail.)

As far as Social Security is concerned, one thing that could and should be done immediately is to remove the cap on incomes that are taxed for Social Security. The existence of this cap means that people earning more than that pay no Social Security taxes at all on the extra income, and thus pay a smaller proportion of their total income into Social Security than those making less than the cap. Thus the richer you are, the smaller the fraction of your income that goes towards Social Security, making it a very regressive tax.

Social Security and Medicare are programs that can be made solvent for a long time. The ‘problem’, such as it is, is that the way to do so goes against the dreams of those ideologues who want to privatize Social Security funds and preserve the huge exploitative profits of the health care and health insurance industries. These people have sought to divert more and more wealth to a very few.

So how have their plans worked out? Very well, it turns out. The share of the income of the rich has been increasing at a rapid pace at the same time that their share of taxes has been decreasing. The March 5, 2008 issue of the Wall Street Journal reports:

The nation’s top 400 taxpayers reported a total of $85.6 billion of income on their federal income-tax returns for 2005 — an average of $213.9 million apiece, according to Internal Revenue Service data obtained by The Wall Street Journal.

Just to make the cutoff to join this exclusive club, you had to report income of at least $100.3 million, up sharply from $74.5 million the previous year. The average income among the top 400 in 2004 was $172.8 million.
. . .
Indeed, the top 400 taxpayers have greatly increased their share of individuals’ income since the mid-1990s. The group accounted for 1.15% of total income in 2005, up from 1.02% the prior year — and more than twice as large as its 0.49% share a decade earlier. It’s the highest percentage since the early 1990s, which is as far back as the IRS data go.
. . .
The average federal income-tax rate for the group was 18.23% . . . well below the average income-tax rate of nearly 30% back in 1995,

As the article points out, the way the data was collected actually underestimates the wealth since it takes into only the adjusted gross income (AGI).

The assault on Social Security is part of the generalized rhetorical attacks on all public services, including public education, Medicare, Medicaid, and welfare by those who would seek to destroy them. A key strategy in this war is to portray all government as bureaucratic, wasteful, and incompetent. Bush’s contribution to this war was to appoint to high positions people who were either actually incompetent (so that they would mess things up, feeding into perceptions of a useless government) or those who were ideologically committed to having the government avoid its obligations.

My worry is that the pro-war/pro-business interests and the Wall Street investment classes may think that they have got all the goodies that they are likely to get from Republican administrations and think that they need a Democratic administration and Congress to be able to overcome the grassroots opposition to attempts to subvert Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and all the other government services that try to provide a much needed social safety net.

This is why even greater vigilance will be needed if and when Democrats take control of government. Bill Clinton got away with a lot of things because he was able to talk populism while acting in the interests of Wall Street. That should not be allowed to happen again.

POST SCRIPT: Telephone opera

As readers of this blog know, I am not a big fan of television. But one of my favorite TV programs is Sesame Street. It can’t be beaten for its unique combination of great music with clever lyrics, genuine humor, education, and positive messages, all without being preachy. I used to watch it almost every day when my children were younger and now, thanks to YouTube, I can watch again some of my favorite segments.

In this sketch, Placido Flamingo and other Muppets affectionately parody opera.

The phony Social Security crisis-3: More realistic views of the alleged ‘crisis’

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In deciding whether Social Security is in trouble or not, it is important to bear in mind different measures. Let us start by assuming that no changes at all are made in the system and that current projections for future demographics hold for the next fifty years. This is a very big ‘if’ indeed, but a starting point for analysis. The alarmists look at the year in which projected Social Security benefits paid out in that year exceed the revenues from the payroll tax that same year. That is expected to occur around 2018. But that alone does not constitute a crisis. Social Security has been running a surplus all these years so by that time the trust fund will have about 3.7 trillion dollars in reserve. This fund earns interest and the interest can be used to supplement the payouts following the year when the expenditures start to exceed the revenues. At a 4.5% interest rate on the US treasury bonds, the accumulated trust fund can generate an annual growth of about $170 billion due to interest alone. Using this interest to pay benefits can be done for some time during which the size of the trust fund will remain the same or will still be increasing, though more slowly.

There will then come a year when the addition of the interest to the payroll tax revenues is not sufficient to cover the cost of the expenditures. The trust fund principal will then have to be used to pay benefits and will thus start to decrease. The worst-case scenario is having all the trust fund be used up, which is quite far into the future, somewhere around 2050. Actually, this scenario is actually the original Social Security model. It was designed as a pay-as-you-go system, with each year’s payroll tax revenues going to meet that same year’s benefits expenditures, without running up big surpluses or deficits.

But there is no reason to think that even this ‘worst-case’ scenario is inevitable. Dean Baker and Mark Weisbrot, co-directors for the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in their book Social Security: The Phony Crisis demolish the scaremonger arguments about Social Security by those who would love to turn over all that money to investors to speculate with. In an op-ed article, they write a detailed point-by-point rebuttal of all the myths propagated and conclude:

The latest Social Security trustees’ report, whose numbers even the White House uses, predicts that the Social Security program can pay all promised benefits for the next 38 years—with no changes at all. The June 2004 estimate from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that Social Security can pay all promised benefits without changes for even longer, until 2052. That’s nearly half a century.

And we are supposed to be worried about this?
. . .
The bottom line is that Social Security is more financially sound today than it has been throughout most of its 69-year history, according to Social Security trustees’ numbers.
. . .
The impending crisis of Social Security is a myth. Without it, however, Bush’s initiative to slash benefits and partially privatize the program wouldn’t have a prayer.

Economist Paul Krugman has also challenged the myth of a Social Security crisis, and his article is worth quoting extensively:

Inside the Beltway, doomsaying about Social Security — declaring that the program as we know it can’t survive the onslaught of retiring baby boomers — is regarded as a sort of badge of seriousness, a way of showing how statesmanlike and tough-minded you are.
. . .
But the “everyone” who knows that Social Security is doomed doesn’t include anyone who actually understands the numbers. In fact, the whole Beltway obsession with the fiscal burden of an aging population is misguided.

As Peter Orszag, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, put it in a recent article co-authored with senior analyst Philip Ellis: “The long-term fiscal condition of the United States has been largely misdiagnosed. Despite all the attention paid to demographic challenges, such as the coming retirement of the baby-boom generation, our country’s financial health will in fact be determined primarily by the growth rate of per capita health care costs.”

How has conventional wisdom gotten this so wrong? Well, in large part it’s the result of decades of scare-mongering about Social Security’s future from conservative ideologues, whose ultimate goal is to undermine the program.

Thus, in 2005, the Bush administration tried to push through a combination of privatization and benefit cuts that would, over time, have reduced Social Security to nothing but a giant 401(k). The administration claimed that this was necessary to save the program, which officials insisted was “heading toward an iceberg.”

But the administration’s real motives were, in fact, ideological. The anti-tax activist Stephen Moore gave the game away when he described Social Security as “the soft underbelly of the welfare state,” and hailed the Bush plan as a way to put a “spear” through that soft underbelly.

Fortunately, the scare tactics failed. Democrats in Congress stood their ground; progressive analysts debunked, one after another, the phony arguments of the privatizers; and the public made it clear that it wants to preserve a basic safety net for retired Americans.
. . .
Social Security isn’t a big problem that demands a solution; it’s a small problem, way down the list of major issues facing America, that has nonetheless become an obsession of Beltway insiders. And on Social Security, as on many other issues, what Washington means by bipartisanship is mainly that everyone should come together to give conservatives what they want.

Orszag, Krugman, Baker, and Weisbrot point their fingers at the real problem, which is the out-of-control rise in health care costs. Of the 15.3% of the income below the cap that goes as payroll taxes (half of which is paid by employers), 2.9% goes towards Medicare. It is these rapidly rising health care costs that will cause huge budgetary problems in the future, not paying Social Security retirement benefits.

Scaring us about Social Security serves the purpose of diverting out attention from the very real problem of high health care costs. After all, the administration and Congress are completely in the pockets of the health care industry (the insurance and pharmaceutical companies and the hospital and doctors lobbies) and they want to avoid for as long as possible the fact that a government-run single-payer system of financing health care is the only long-term solution to this problem.

Next: What needs to be done

POST SCRIPT: This woman is very upset

Before he started playing the doctor in the current TV series House, Hugh Laurie played goofy characters in comedies on British TV. Here he plays a hapless TV news reporter in a sketch from the BBC TV show A Bit of Fry and Laurie.

The phony Social Security crisis-2: Double talk on Social Security

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

We currently see this curious double-talk taking place about the US bonds that form the assets of the Social Security trust fund. When trying to scare people about Social Security, people in this administration talk about the bonds in the trust fund being ‘worthless’ pieces of paper. But when trying to actually sell the bonds in international markets to finance its deficits, the government talks about how robust the US economy is. Like all double-talking politicians, the two different faces are presented to two different audiences, with the hope that the audiences will not overlap.
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Some campaign thoughts

Today is voting day in the Ohio, Texas, Vermont and Rhode Island primaries, and is as good a day as any to discuss the nature of the race.

This day is being breathlessly marketed as a crucial, decisive, make-or-break day, just like the Potomac primaries day before that, or Super Tuesday before that, or the New Hampshire primary before that. On the basis of the results, reporters will declare that one candidate has the momentum and start urging the other candidates to drop out of the race just because they think those candidates are unlikely to win. Why do the reporters care? The candidates have every right to continue for as long as they can or want to without being accused of somehow ruining the process by staying in. Why not just let the voters decide when they have had enough of a candidate? As a result of the elections, if Obama or Clinton or Huckabee or Paul refuse to concede and decide to go on to Pennsylvania on April 22 and even after that until the final elections on June 3, let them do so without being hounded to get out. Even if Huckabee (say) has no mathematical chance of winning his party’s nomination, surely the voters in the remaining states have a right to express their preference for him if they want to?

On another point, with the final primary being on June 3, there will be almost two whole months before the party conventions. So as a result of all the leapfrogging that took place with so many states trying to get in early, we will now have the summer doldrums where nothing happens for two months. Couldn’t they all have started about six weeks later?

I have not been writing about the significance of the Democratic presidential nominee being, for the first time, either a woman or an African-American. Not that this isn’t an important development but before we sprain our elbows patting ourselves on the back, it might be good to realize that this is long, long overdue. After all, many other countries have elected both women and minorities as heads of state much earlier. My own country of origin (Sri Lanka) elected the world’s first female executive head of state way back in 1960, when Sirimavo Bandaranaike became prime minister.

Our reaction here shouldn’t be “Isn’t this great?” but “Why did it take so long?”

But progress is progress, however belated, and should be welcomed. At the very least, this development should put to rest tiresome discussions about whether the US is ‘ready’ for a woman or minority president.

But just at the moment when the possibility of a female US President is being savored, along comes this extraordinarily silly article in the Washington Post by Charlotte Allen in which she argues in support of all the absurd negative female stereotypes that we have long striven to eliminate from our discourse, such as that women are dumb, bad at math, looks-obsessed, shoe-fetishizing airheads, governed exclusively by their emotions, who can’t even drive properly.

The editor of the section of the newspaper in which the article ran now says it was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but the first rule in humor and satire is to be funny. If you are not, people have a right to take what you are saying as intended to be serious. There are suspicions that this explanation was a story designed to protect themselves from the furious denunciations the article received. What is the Post going to do as a follow up? Run another ‘tongue-in-cheek’ article by an African-American arguing that black people really are stupid and lazy and shiftless?

Charlotte Allen should get some tips from Dave Barry, who is a great example of a writer who exploits all kinds of stereotypes for humor and you are never in any doubt as to his intent. His classic essay The Difference Between Men and Women is a brilliant example of how to use gender stereotypes to humorous effect.

Finally, just the day before the primary elections, we in Ohio were deluged with poll results about the Democratic race, with conflicting predictions. What is the point of such last-minute poll results? It does not help the campaigns since it is too late for the campaigns to do anything with this information. Are the polls meant to influence voters? What kind of voter would choose a candidate on the basis of a last minute poll? Frankly, I cannot think of any good reason to release such last-minute polls except that the polling outfits think that real point of elections is to see which of them is better at predicting election results, so that elections become a test of the polls.

POST SCRIPT: Save the economy! Buy more junk!

Berkeley Breathed’s excellent comic strip Opus comments on the absurd ‘economic stimulus package’ that our wise leaders in government have come up with.