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Steve M. has a really great post totally eviscerating the right-wing trolling of the office and compensation of White House Calligrapher which ends, unfortunately, on a false note:

Oh, and that $277,050 salary expense? If you fired all the calligraphers and pocketed their salaries, that would give you approximately one one-millionth of the $28.7 billion in cuts this year to domestic discretionary programs from the sequester.

I don’t want to pick on Steve here because this is a common trope in the leftwards blogosphere, but I think it’s a really bad one, for a couple reasons. Firstly, eventually you can get a big cut from aggregating lots of little cuts. If you took all the little seemingly-goofy-sounding-but-actually-probably-valuable-and-useful things the government does and cut them all you probably would have a decent chunk of change when all is said and done.

But secondly I just think this is a weak talking point because waste is waste and value is value. Steve spends the whole poist making a great argument for the value and traditional nature of the program, then concludes by undercutting himself by saying "well even if we did cut it it wouldn’t save us much anyway." A program that brings a net benefit to society that oughtweighs the cost of funding it is a good program that we should keep! If deficits are a problem but all of our programs are valuable than we should raise taxes.

The reason right-wingers dig for these anecdota is that they perpetuate a story that goes "government spending is rife with waste so we should cut it deeply." If left-wingers respond to each individual instance of right-wing trolling with "and this would only cut 3.7 gazillionths of the deficit so it hardly matters" they will convince exactly nobody. Convince people that good government is worth spending money on. Is calligraphy absolutely vital to good governance? Probably not. Is it befitting the office of the President of the United States that formal invitations sent to the Prime Minister of India aren’t laser-printed on white letter paper from awful and goofy MS Word templates? Absolutely.

Nixon says, "let's not add fractions with different denominators"

I always enjoy going to zerohedge for the most intelligent, compelling, and engaging iteration of the sociopathic perspective on events. I was disappointed, however, to see Tyler Durden submit this guest post from Bill Buckler, who is apparently of this publication. Anyway, in the course of writing some positive things about Ron Paul, Buckler writes:

The root of the problem is perfectly illustrated in the fact that since August 1971, the funded debt of the US government has risen from $US 400 Billion to $US 15,236 Billion. The severity of the problem is illustrated by the fact that with Mr Obama having yet to complete his third full year as President, he has presided over $US 4,600 Billion (or almost one-third) of that increase. The root of the problem is the abandonment of money – the final legal connection between Gold and the US Dollar was ended in August 1971. The severity of the problem is the grotesque expansion of what has taken its place.

Of course this is a giant stink bomb of the “correlation equals causation” fallacy. But beyond that this is a comparison equivalent to comparing apples to zebras. This may be painfully obvious to most people, but let’s examine some other things that happened between 1971 and the present.

Firstly, we went from having 200mm people to 300mm. Secondly, NGDP went from $1.1 trillion to $14.6 trillion. And lest hard-money types wave that all away as ruinous inflation, the Inflation Calculator says that $1 in 1971 is equivalent to $5.32 today, which if you take it purely at face leaves today’s RGDP relative to 1971 at $2.7 trillion, a nearly three-old increase even though population increased 50%, leaving per-capita GDP much higher, which can be confirmed by looking at all kinds of measurements of quality of life in the United States over the last 40 years and seeing them all rise. So we are a much wealthier country now than we have been, and we have experienced a decent amount of inflation, so it makes no sense whatsoever to just throw up the nominal gross national debt numbers from 1971 and today and call it “the root of the problem.”

And look – the debt-to-GDP ratio, which is a very useful measurement since it complete controls for any nominal growth that isn’t reflected in real standards, has tripled! In 1971 it was below 40%, now it’s over 100%! If you wanted to push the idea that we are dangerously indebted (we aren’t, but if you did), that’s all you have to say. You don’t have to make grossly misleading comparisons to prove that point.

FWIW, I’m not even mentioning how deeply unfair this is specifically to the President, who was handed a $500b structural deficit and an economic implosion worthy of the Great Depression by his successor. I’m not sure it’s really possible to stabilize debt-to-GDP in those conditions unless you unilaterally abolish most government functions.

Taking The Bait

the gopfish has trouble resisting the allure of tax cuts

Brian Beutler’s piece over at Talking Points Memo aggregating GOP outrage over the President’s speech today is a clear sign the President did the right thing. As I mentioned above, the President has been dealt the better cards here – his position is more popular, he is more popular, he is an incumbent president running for re-election during a recovering economy, and the status quo – repeal of the Bush tax cuts – is an outcome far more favorable to him. Today’s speech was a display of strength, and a hostile reaction from Republicans was totally predictable.

Hopefully this, my first substantive post, will add some clarity to my perspective on things.

As the President prepares to make a big statement on the issue of the national debt this evening, it’s worth taking a look back to review where we’ve come on this issue. I want to put aside a lot of the more substantive issues here and focus specifically on the politics of where we are.

The first half of the President’s term in office was primarily consumed by a single major legislative item, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), which after a hard-fought year-long battle was finally voted into law. As scored by the CBO, the bill would reduce the deficit, by a moderate amount in the first ten years following its enactment and by an enormous amount in the decade after. These estimates were challenged by Republicans as well as deemed too conservative by Democrats, but the CBO is a neutral and trusted entity and therefore I think it’s fair to take their estimate of a baseline.

And how does ACA reduce the deficit? Primarily by focusing on health care costs, and a big part of that was reducing Medicare expenditures. Mostly this was targeted as spending identified as wasteful and ineffective, not at actual reductions in benefits, but all the same it added up to a large amount of money not being spend on Medicaire. And how did this play out politically? The administration and Congressional supporters were brutally savaged over these cuts in the midterm elections, where ads like this were common:

And Republican “wonks” like Paul Ryan (R-WI) claimed those cuts were unsustainable and damaging, and therefore would never really be enacted. And it seems in retrospect that those Medicare cuts were a major issue that Republicans were able leverage into their major gains in the 2010 elections.

So now that they have reclaimed the House and have the chance to set the conversation on the budget, are they restoring those cuts as well as protecting Medicare from any further cuts? Far from it – the Republican Budget Chairman, the very same Paul Ryan, released a plan that not only retains every dollar of those cuts but proposes further cuts in Medicare that are far more drastic and draconian. In fact, his proposal amounts to essentially abolishing Medicare and replacing it with a new program that would allot government spending on health care purely on the basis of a fixed cost – exactly the type of rationing Republicans campaigned against.

On the broader issue of the deficit, have the Republicans proven themselves any more credible as negotiating partners? Well, no. Certainly their dogmatic allergy to even the most minor or benign of tax increases is well documented. But even beyond that Republicans have proven that their approach to negotiations consists of repeated hostage taking, first on the tax cuts for the middle class the President wanted to preserve, then on continued funding for FY 2011, and now again as we approach the debate on the debt ceiling. The Republicans seem quite willing to play with fire and risk catastrophic consequences in order to see their priorities enacted, and those priorities don’t seem to be “lowering the deficit” as much as it is doing away with spending items they disfavor, mostly, it seems, social safety net programs, environmental protections, public health regulation, and infrastructure investment.

So forget all the substantive issues – whether we truly face a debt crisis, whether it needs to be addressed in immediate spending cuts, whether debt-fueled spending is necessary to sustain economic recovery, and even whether Paul Ryan’s budget plan is credible or just snake-oil – and look at the politics: the Republicans have repeatedly proven themselves to lack any credibility as partners in governance. If this were tit-for-tat the game would have been abandoned long ago.

During the first two years of his Presidency, the President seemed less focus on engaging in overt politics – the constituent and strategic applying of pressure to powerful actors – in order to avoid polarization of Congress. He avoided criticizing Republicans in strong terms, and even protected some supposedly-moderate Republican Senators by appointing their strongest challengers into his administration. With strong majorities in both houses this strategy seems to have paid off – the President was able to secure landmark legislation such as ARRA, ACA, Dodd-Frank, and a host of other progressive legislation, even as the dysfunctional nature of the Senate left a lot of good bills passed by the House (most notably ACES) untouched.

But the President is now in a very different situation, and has yet to demonstrate that he fully understands this shift and adjusted to it. He will be able to accomplish very little over the next two years in terms of passing good legislation through Congress. But what he can do is successfully engage in politics – he can define the terms of the public debate, use the veto threat, and take strong negotiating positions. This seems uncomfortable for the President, who seems naturally inclined towards compromise and conciliatory behavior. However, this approach may very well backfire against a polarized and radical opposition that seems to have as their primary aim the political destruction of the President.

And so my advice for tonight is this – start a fight. The Democratic Party’s biggest weakness over my lifetime has been their studied unwillingness to pick a fight and stick it out and win it. The Republicans are very successful at winning the framing debate in the elite media, which Democratic officeholders have unfortunately confused with public opinion (a confusion the Obama Campaign notably did not suffer from). But if the President is to not merely be re-elected but to accomplish substantive, positive change, he needs to show that he can engage in a political fight and win. And the natural advantage is on his side – public opinion is not inclined to support Republican proposals, and the President is trusted and well-liked.

There is an iron law of politics – change means movement; movement means friction; friction means heat; heat means controversy. For the last six months the President appears to have been trapped in an unwinnable game of endless compromising with hostage-takers. The way to win this game is not to play. Tonight the President should stake out a strong position, and justify it not with numbers but with principles. And he should make clear that certain things are non-negotiable. For that’s how negotiations are won.

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