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Mark Sanford. (AP Photo/Mary Ann Chastain)
Mark Sanford’s comeback bid was never so audacious as America’s political gossip columnists would have us believe.
Yes, the conservative Republican once boomed as a presidential prospect, before drawing national headlines in 2009 when it turned out that he had not gone missing on the Appalachian Trail but had instead snuck off to visit a woman friend in Buenos Aires. Yes, revelations about the affair led to his resignation as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, to his being censured by the South Carolina General Assembly after a State Ethics Commission investigation into allegations that he had misused state travel funds and to his divorce from a popular South Carolina politico.
But Sanford had a prominent name, an easy-going style and a carefully crafted message about forgiveness and redemption. He was, as well, an on-message conservative. That got him through a competitive Republican primary and a not-so-tough Republican runoff for his old US House seat, which had come open when Congressman Tim Scott, R-South Carolina, was appointed to the US Senate.
Once he had the Republican nomination, the numbers were on his side.
Even though he stumbled several times in his special-election race against an able and well-financed Democrat, Elizabeth Colbert Busch, Sanford won Tuesday with a solid 54-45 majority. Colbert Busch was competitive. In a district that gave Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney an eighteen-point advantage over President Obama last fall, she came within nine points this spring.
That’s not bad for a Democrat running in a congressional district that, in various incarnations, has been sending Republicans to Washington since 1980.
But Sanford still enjoyed the advantage that most winners of congressional races in the United States have. He was nominee of the party that the district was drawn, with painstaking attention to collecting all the Republican and Republican leaning support that could be found on the South Carolina coast, to support.
Partisan redistricting—not just classic gerrymandering but a variety of structural factors—assures that the vast majority of congressional districts in the vast majority of states produce predictable results. Even if the candidate of the dominant party is flawed, even if a challenger has financial advantages, FairVote executive director Rob Richie reminds us that “partisanship is the dominant factor in determining election outcomes.”
Another reform group, Common Cause explains, “For decades partisan wrangling has led to gerrymandered redistricting maps, collusion among the major political parties to create safe Congressional and state legislative districts, and the packing and splitting of concentrations of voters to weaken or strengthen their influence to gain partisan advantage.”
Common Cause notes, correctly, that the circumstance is growing worse, explaining that “advances in information and mapping technology has enabled a level of precision in district drawing that in effect, enables legislators to choose the voters they wish to represent and makes it difficult for voters to hold their elected officials accountable.”
There’s always been gerrymandering, but we are not at a place where the general process of drawing and redrawing district lines has become definitional: If a district is drawn to elect Republicans, it almost always elects Republicans. If a district is drawn to elect Democrats, it almost always elects Democrats.
Money is influential, personality is a factor.
But nothing comes close to redistricting when it comes to defining the results of elections.
“In 2010, Democratic incumbents went 139 and 0 in the most Democratic districts but were swamped in Republican districts,” notes Richie. In 2012, “Democrats won 176 of the 177 most Democratic districts, but Republicans didn’t need to win a single Democratic-leaning seat to keep their majority.”
This is the structural reality that shapes our politics.
And it shapes the governing that extends from that politics. Almost everything about what’s happening now in Washington can be linked to the design of our congressional districts, and to the elections that shape the House of Representatives.
“On Nov. 6, Democrats won the most votes in contested House races,” explains Richie. “FairVote’s post-election analysis of partisan voting trends suggests an underlying national preference toward Democrats of 52 percent to 48 percent. (If there had been no incumbents and each party had run a candidate in every district, the Democrats would have won 52 percent of the votes.) With a comparable edge in 2010, Republicans gained sixty-four seats to take the House. But this year, winning a House majority would have required a much bigger swing toward Democrats, as much as 55 percent of the vote, a historical high.”
This brings us back to Tuesday’s special election in South Carolina’s 1st district. Colbert Busch’s capable campaigning—or, perhaps, Sanford’s imperfect campaigning—resulted in a significant swing by voters to the Democratic column. But the district was designed to withstand a significant swing.
In 2012, the Democratic nominee took just 29 percent of the vote. Colbert Busch took 46 percent. So, in what was probably a best-of-all-worlds scenario for the Democrats, their candidate raised the party’s percentage of the vote by almost sixteen points. But she needed a swing of more than twenty-one points.
What happened in South Carolina will keep happening there and in the vast majority of American congressional districts for so long as those districts are drawn to advantage one party or the others.
Groups such as Common Cause argue for a host of redistricting reforms that make sense in a democracy including the creation of independent commissions to conduct redistricting and the establishment of strict criteria for how districts must be drawn.
FairVote’s Richie argues for going even further.
“The best way to remove the structural unfairness inherent in the current House of Representatives is to get rid of winner-take-all elections,” Richie argues in a recent report (written with Devin McCarthy). “FairVote has a plan to do just that, grounded in our Constitution and American electoral traditions. The first requirement is an act of Congress. The more ambitious plan would be for Congress to prohibit winner-take-all elections in all states that elect more than one House Member. A more modest step would be to repeal the congressional mandate for states to use single-member districts that was established in a 1967 law.”
FairVote’s proposes building a new model for electing members of Congress. They’d like to see American states follow the model of countries around the world and move to a system of proportional representation, in which “existing congressional districts would be combined into multi-seat ‘super districts’ of between three and five members, in which members would be elected using fair-voting systems—American forms of proportional representation based on voting for candidates.”
That’s a smart proposal that would result in a far-more representative Congress.
As such, it will be hard to enact—as, frustratingly, are even the most simple redistricting reforms.
But Americans who favor representative democracy don’t have a choice. Along with all the reforms that are needed—overturning Citizens United, eliminating the Electoral College, establishing a constitutionally defined right to vote—working to make congressional elections genuinely competitive is necessary to curing what ails the political process.
And it sure beats trying to come up with deep and meaningful explanations for why Mark Sanford is headed back to Congress. This one isn’t complicated. It’s structural.
John Nichols is the author (with Robert w. McChesney) of the upcoming book Dollarocracy: How the Money and Media Election Complex is Destroying America. Hailed by Publisher’s Weekly as “a fervent call to action for reformers,” it details how the collapse of journalism and the rise of big-money politics threatens to turn our democracy into a dollarocracy.
Representative George Miller. (Flickr/Nancy Pelosi)
It is rare that a member of Congress calls out a major industry, especially one with a powerful presence in his home state.
It is rarer still that a senior member of Congress, with a ranking position on a powerful committee, does so.
The California Democrat is speaking to the heart of the matter.
As the death toll at the Bangladesh garment factory that produced clothing for US stores passed 650, the powerful California Democrat who has for the better part of forty years made workplace safety his congressional brief did what few in Congress or the media have the guts to do.
He explained in blunt, unapologetic language, who was really responsible.
“The reason factory managers keep their workers in unsafe buildings on the verge of going up in flames or collapsing is fear,” declared Miller. “Fear that the Western brands and retailers will take their orders elsewhere because of a missed day of production, late delivery or a minuscule increase in production costs. The brands know this. That’s why I believe they bear the ultimate responsibility for these horrendously unsafe working conditions.”
The senior Democratic member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce minced no words. And he made his statement in a forum where the fashion industry could not miss his message: a Monday morning column in Women’s Wear Daily, the industry “bible.”
To their credit, the editors of WWD placed Miller’s remarkable statement front and center, making it the top story on the publication’s website.
Though he comes from a state where many apparel firms are located, Miller offered a stark assessment not just of the horrors that have already been reported in a factory that served global brands but of the horrors to come if action is not taken.
“The death toll in Bangladesh’s garment industry is staggering, with 1,000 dead over the past several years. In the latest tragedy, an eight-story building that housed five garment factories collapsed, killing more than 500 so far, injuring more than 1,000 and leaving an unknown number of people trapped in the rubble of the Rana Plaza. And just five months earlier, a devastating fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory killed at least 112 garment workers,” wrote the congressman, whose influence with the Democratic leadership in Congress, with responsible Republicans and with the White House means that he is taken seriously by corporate executive who are all too adept at neglecting pressure to change their practices. “These two tragedies are not isolated. Since Tazreen, at least 40 incidents causing death and injuries as the result of fires and explosions at garment factories have occurred. Undoubtedly more will follow unless the major fashion brands change their business models.”
To change those business models, Miller is calling on the corporations that produce major brands and that sell them to sign on to an initiative backed by the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, the International Labor Rights Forum and other groups that have for years struggled to focus attention on conditions in the garment factories of southern Asia.
“American consumers and leaders in the fashion industry have a moral imperative to ensure that these tragedies do not happen again. The only way forward for the global brands to improve conditions and worker safety is an effective, enforceable and binding commitment. That is why I have asked a number of retailers and brands to join together and sign the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, developed by nongovernmental organizations to prevent these types of disasters from occurring,” says Miller.
The agreement is a vehicle for addressing “the most urgent elements necessary to tackle these dangers.” As such, it includes requirements for:
detailed public reporting of fire and building audits conducted by independent safety experts
timely repairs to unsafe workspaces and buildings
termination by brands of contracts with factories that defy obligations to keep workers safe
a right of workers to refuse unsafe work without retribution
union access to factories
The great debates about global trade, conditions for workers and a just economy rarely get the attention they deserve. And, too often, as Miller notes, corporations lay low hoping for the attention of governments and the media to turn to other issues.
But the congressman, by speaking directly to the fashion industry, and by making all the noise he can about the issue, is seeking to keep the economic, political and moral debate focused on concerns that are too fundamental to neglect any longer.
“The major global brands now face a choice: They can attempt to weather the storm, leaving workers in continued danger, or they can take a different road—one that includes healthy profits without the human death toll by signing onto an enforceable safety agreement,” writes Miller. “It is time that American consumers understand which brands will accept blood on their labels and which will not.”
When will free-traders-gone-wild own up to their complicity in global workplace disasters? Read William Greider’s take.
A job fair in Washington, DC. (Reuters/Jason Reed)
The US economy is suffering from a nasty case of austerity.
More than 11.7 million active job seekers cannot find work. And that figure does not include millions of Americans who have given up on looking for work, or who are severely under-employed. Add them in and the real unemployment’s at 13.9 percent.
Even the jobs that are being created tend to be in sectors of the economy where wages tend to low and benefits often nonexistent. For instance, the latest report notes growth in the “temporary services” sector. But there’s zero job growth in manufacturing.
“This is a classic ‘hold-steady’ report—enough job growth to keep the unemployment rate stable but not much more,” Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, says of the latest news from the US Department of Labor. “In good times, this would be fine, but at a time like this, it represents an ongoing disaster.”
Why are things so slow?
In a word: austerity.
“This month’s abysmal jobs number—165,000 new jobs in April, barely enough to cover new people coming into workforce—is a self-inflicted wound. Government austerity—[misguided tax policies] and spending cuts—is suffocating the economy, just when it needs air,” explains Robert Borosage, the co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future. “And the perversity will get worse. The sequester cuts are only now beginning to hit. Austerity is driving Europe deeper into recession. China is slowing. US exports will suffer. And Washington is about to descend into new self-manufactured crises around next year’s budget and the debt ceiling. The positive signs in housing, the extraordinary measures taken by the Federal Reserve, the soaring stock market are undermined by Washington’s failure.”
Congress cannot even agree on the problem. Despite the fact that their approach has been discredited—academically and practically—there are still members of the House and Senate who buy into the fantasy that what’s holding the economy back is government spending. Typical is Senator Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, who says, “To get the economy moving and generate real, self-sustaining job creation, we need to limit spending and reject more tax increases.”
In fact, the government should be targeting investments to spur job growth. As Dean Baker, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, says, “Unless the government takes steps to boost growth, we will be seeing millions of people needlessly denied employment for over a decade. That should be the central focus of everyone in Washington.”
The immediate threat is posed by sequester cuts—following a classic austerity model. As they are implemented, the Congressional Budget Office projects, growth will be reduced by 0.5 percent, costing as many as 700,000 jobs. Congressman Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who has emerged as a key player in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, says the House and Senate need to “pass a budget that ends the job-killing sequester cuts for everyone—not just the well-connected—and makes investments in job-creating programs such as infrastructure, education, and research and development.”
Pocan’s got the right answers. Unfortunately, there are too many politicians in Washington who have yet to start asking the right questions about how austerity is strangling economic recovery.
The entire austerity enterprise is based on faulty math. Listen to John Nichols's take.
An activist in New York City. (Reuters/Lucas Jackson)
When the Maine State House voted 111-33 this week to call for a constitutional amendment to overturn the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the support for this bold gesture was notably bipartisan. Twenty-five Republicans joined four independents and all eighty-two Democrats to back the call.
Similarly, when the Maine State Senate voted 25-9 for the resolution, five Republicans joined with nineteen Democrats and independent Senator Richard Woodbury to “call upon each Member of the Maine Congressional Delegation to actively support and promote in Congress an amendment to the United States Constitution on campaign finance.”
What happened in Maine this week was a big deal for several reasons:
1. Maine became the thirteenth state to urge Congress to develop an amendment to address the money-in-politics crisis that is unfolding as a result of Supreme Court rulings that that have effectively struck down campaign-finance regulations and ushered in a new era of unlimited spending by wealthy individuals and corporate interests. Maine joins West Virginia, Colorado, Montana, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, California, Rhode Island, Maryland, Vermont, New Mexico and Hawaii in calling for an amendment. Washington, DC, has also backed the drive.
2. The swift action by both houses of the Maine legislature, coming less than a month after West Virginia urged Congress to act, confirms the momentum that is building for the movement, which has been backed by almost 500 communities nationwide. Though media coverage has been scant, it is rare in recent history for a grassroots movement to amend the constitution to have attracted so much official support at the municipal, county and state levels nationwide.
3. As in a number of other states, the significant level of bipartisan support in Maine provides a reminder that this movement is attracting support from across the partisan and ideological spectrum.
That final point merits particular attention.
Because of the often narrow and simplistic way in which political debates are covered in the United States—if they are covered at all—there is a tendency to think that all Democrats are reformers, while all Republicans are backers of big money in politics. That’s not the case. Polling has consistently shown that Republicans support for restrictions on corporate spending in elections very nearly parallels that of Democrats. And, while there are too many national Democrats who buy into big-money equations, there are Republicans who have begun to raise the right objections—and point to the right answers. Notably, Congressman Walter Jones Jr., a very conservative Republican congressman from North Carolina, is a cosponsor—along with Kentucky Democrat John Yarmuth—of a constitutional amendment proposal that would overturn key provisions of the Citizens United decision and establish that campaign contributions can be regulated by Congress and state legislatures.
Bipartisan support for reform is more evident in the states. State legislators are active at the grassroots, knocking on doors and meeting constituents face to face. They recognize the deep frustration with a political process that seems to have spun out of control, and they reject the premise that corporations and wealthy individuals have a constitutional right to buy elections.
“There has to be a way to secure First Amendment rights to speech and still control the amount of dollars spent on campaigns,” says Maine state Senator Edward Youngblood, a Republican who went so far as to appear at rallies calling for a constitutional amendment. “It should be plain to everyone after the election we’ve just had, which broke records for spending, that the system isn’t getting better.”
Youngblood is right, and the group that organized support for reform in his state, Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, wisely reached out to Democrats, Republicans, independents and third-party backers in pursuit of a “multi-partisan” coalition.
The approach has excited national groups such as Public Citizen’s Democracy Is for People Campaign, Move to Amend and Free Speech for People. Indeed, Free Speech for People’s Peter Schurman declared, “This terrific bi-partisan vote is a huge win, not only for Maine, but for all Americans. Republicans, independents, and Democrats alike are clamoring for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United and bring back real democracy. We’re thrilled that Maine is now helping lead the way forward.”
He’s right, especially when it comes to the emphasis on drawing support from all parties for a reform that seeks to restore genuine competition based on ideas—as opposed to a shouting match between billionaires.
How did Wall Street knock the wind out of Dodd-Frank? Read Gary Rivlin’s analysis.
Early voting in Ohio, November 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
As the 2012 election approached, Republican governors and legislators in battleground states across the country rushed to enact restrictive Voter ID laws, to eliminate election-day registration and to limit early voting. Those were just some of the initiatives that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People identified as “an onslaught of restrictive measures across the country designed to stem electoral strength among communities of color.”
Why did so much energy go into the effort?
John Payton, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, explained, “These block the vote efforts are a carefully targeted response to the remarkable growth of the minority electorate, and threaten to disproportionally diminish the voting strength of African-Americans and Latinos.”
Civil rights groups pushed back, working with the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other organizations to mount legal and legislative challenges. But the most dramatic pushback may well have been the determined voter registration and mobilization drives organized on the ground in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and other battleground states.
A key supporter of the Ohio voter registration and turnout drive, State Senator Nina Turner says, “Republicans thought that they could suppress the vote, but these efforts actually motivated people to get registered and cast a ballot. It’s no surprise that the communities targeted by these policies came out to the polls in a big way—they saw this not just as an affront to their rights, but as a call to action.”
Turner’s point turns out to be highly significant.
According to a new study produced by Brookings Institution demographer William Frey for the Associated Press, 2012 turnout was down overall from 2004 and 2008. But African-American turnout does not appear to have declined at the same rate as white turnout.
Headlines suggested that African-American turnout levels may actually have exceeded white turnout levels, which would be a historic first. Frey tells MSNBC that he'll need to analyze more census data -- some of which is not yet available -- to confirm whether this was the case.
But the data that is available points to the critical conclusion: While overall turnout dropped from 2008 to 2012, African-American turnout remained steady at 13 percent.
That 13 percent figure is a big deal, as African Americans make up only 12 percent of eligible voters. In other words -- according to numbers reviewed by Brookings, the Pew Research Center and others -- the actual African-American vote in 2012 “outperformed” the group's percentage of the potential electorate.
Turnout among non-Hispanic white voters has traditionally outperformed that group's percentage of eligible voters. This was still the case in 2012. But, according to AP, the margin was down, and overall the white turnout nationwide was off by millions of votes.
The turnout patterns appear to have aided President Obama’s reelection run. Polling data tells us that the president always retained a good measure of popularity in the African-American community, as he did among young people. There was plenty of talk before the 2012 election, however, about an “enthusiasm gap” that would undermine turnout among voters who were most likely to be supportive of the president.
But the Reverend Al Sharpton, the president of the National Action Network and the host of MSNBC’s Politics Nation, says anger over voter suppression did much to alter the dynamic.
“From the tours we did in 22 states, it became clear to us that many blacks that were apathetic and indifferent became outraged and energized when they realized that [Republicans] were changing the rules in the middle of the game, in terms of voter ID laws, ending ‘souls to the polls,’” Sharpton told theGrio.” So what was just another election, even though it dealt with the re-election of the first black president, took on a new dimension when they realized that they were implementing the disenfranchisement of black voters.”
This was a big deal for Obama and the Democrats.
Indeed, the emerging research on voter turnout suggests, it might well have been definitional.
Romney would have erased Obama’s nearly 5 million-vote victory margin and narrowly won the popular vote if voters had turned out as they did in 2004, according to Frey’s analysis. Then, white turnout was slightly higher and black voting lower.
More significantly, the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida and Colorado would have tipped in favor of Romney, handing him the presidency if the outcome of other states remained the same.
If the African-American voting patterns seen in 2012 continue—in combination with rising Latino and Asian turnout and support for Democratic candidates—Frey says, “By 2024, the [minority] vote will be essential to victory. Democrats will be looking at a landslide going into 2028 if the new Hispanic voters continue to favor Democrats.”
But that’s a prediction that does not take into account the prospect that political parties can and do change.
By and large, the recent focus with regard to the future of the Republican Party has been on speculation about how the Republicans might change their fortunes by nominating a candidate with broader appeal: Florida Senator Marco Rubio or, perhaps, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez.
But the significance of rising African-American turnout—in combination with other turnout and voting patterns—suggests that the extent to which the Republican Party changes its approach on voting issues could matter as much or more than the ethnicity of candidates.
The Republican National Committee’s remarkable “autopsy report” on the GOP’s 2012 election debacle concluded that “many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.”
“The pervasive mentality of writing off blocks of states or demographic votes for the Republican Party must be completely forgotten,” wrote the authors of the report. “The Republican Party must compete on every playing field.”
The Republicans who penned that statement provided indications of their sincerity. The autopsy report was strong in its general recognition of the challenges the GOP faces in attracting African-American, Asian-American and Latino voters, as well as women and young people. But it was soft with regard to the voting-rights debate.
But it is hard to imagine that Republicans can make the inroads they seek with minority voters if the party is identified with what civil rights, voting rights and good-government groups identify as voter suppression.
If that identification remains, the party’s candidate recruitment and messaging strategies are unlikely to be sufficient to renew its fortunes.
If the GOP becomes more clearly and seriously supportive of voting rights, on the other hand, the party’s options expand.
This is something Republicans—and, frankly, Democrats who imagine a simple strategy of benefitting from Republican missteps—ought to recognize: There should not be a partisan divide when it comes to voting rights.
The message for Republicans is clear enough: The backlash against what were broadly perceived as assaults on voting rights appears to have been a significant factor in the 2012 election results.
If Republicans are serious about reaching out to African-American voters, and to voters in other minority groups, they have to address voting-rights concerns.
Republicans have a tremendous story to tell. Theirs is not just the “Party of Lincoln,” it is the party of former Congressman William Moore McCulloch, the Ohioan who served as the ranking Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee in the critical days when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were being forged.
No one who knows the history of that time doubts the vital role that McCulloch, a very conservative Republican who was a steady critic of federal spending, played in securing essential support for measures that outlawed segregation and racial discrimination. Lyndon Johnson would hail the Ohio Congressman as “the most important and powerful political force” in advancing civil rights legislation in the period.
McCulloch did so because, he said, “To do less would be to shirk our responsibility as national legislators, and as human beings who honor the principles of liberty and justice.”
The contemporary Republican Party has lost four of the last six presidential elections. It has won a plurality of the popular vote just once since 1988. A recognition of the challenges the party faces has led to a measure of soul searching, and that in turn has inspired public and private wrangling over electoral strategies. It may be the case that some Republicans still want to play the voter-suppression card, but they do their party no favors.
The smarter strategy is to recognize that voters are wary of those who seek to restrict voting. In Maine, in 2011, a referendum vote overturned an attempt by the Republican governor and legislator to eliminate election-day registration. In Minnesota, in 2012, voters rejected a Republican-backed constitutional amendment to impose a strict Voter ID law.
Republicans need to engage in a rethink when it comes to voting issues.
It is often said that the emerging demographics of the United States are not on the side of the GOP. However, demographics are not necessarily the stuff of electoral fate.
The new studies of voter turnout offer sobering indicators for party strategists. But they also suggests a way forward.
If Republicans desire to stop “writing off blocks of states or demographic votes,” the party must send affirmative signals about its commitment to voting rights. Republicans can and should do so in the spirit of William Moore McCulloch, and the many Republicans—some of them quite conservative—who recognized that his party should be in the forefront of supporting voting rights.
But it’s not just Republicans who need to get more serious, and more focused, on taking practical steps to advance voting rights. Both parties need to work dramatically harder to establish a uniform commitment to defend the right to vote and to assure that every vote is counted. In short order, Congressmen Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, and Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, will introduce legislation calling for a “Right-to-Vote” amendment to the US Constitution. It’s being proposed with an eye toward ending the lingering uncertainty about voting rights in the United States. Ellison and Pocan are interested in appealing to Republicans as potential co-sponsors. They should make this a high priority, not merely for the practical reason that broad support is needed for their initiative but because the American commitment to expand and sustain voting rights can and should be embraced by all parties.
Immigrant rights activists, unions and others are gearing up for May Day—under the FBI’s watch. Read Allison Kilkenny’s analysis.
A web surfer in silhouette. (AP Photo)
The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution, which has for 222 years promised that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
That’s an old commitment that members of Congress swear an oath to uphold.
But members of the House on the right and the left have concluded—correctly—that it applies to the most modern of technologies.
Amash and Ellison, Rohrabacher and Grayson, Sensenbrenner and Conyers were among the 127 members of the House (ninety-eight Democrats and twenty-nine Republicans) who last week voted against the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act.
Described by the Electronic Frontier Foundation as “Digital Big Brother,” CISPA is a sweeping proposal to bypass existing privacy law to enable corporations to spy on personal communications and to pass sensitive user data to the government.
“CISPA is a poorly drafted bill that would provide a gaping exception to bedrock privacy law,” says EFF Senior Staff Attorney Kurt Opsahl. “While we all agree that our nation needs to address pressing Internet security issues, this bill sacrifices online privacy while failing to take common-sense steps to improve security.”
It is this disregard for the Fourth Amendment that united Democrats and Republicans, progressives and libertarians in opposition to the measure. In the face of a 38-1 lobbying advantage for corporate proponents of the legislation (who spent have spent more than $600 milion over the past two years to influence Congress ), key members of the House on both sides of the aisle rejected the spin and focused on the objections raised by civil libertarians and grassroots privacy activists.
Conyers summed up the common-sense concerns:
In its current form, CISPA would allow the federal government to potentially have access to a private citizen’s email, medical records, and other personal information. Unfortunately, the House did not approve amendments to require companies to use reasonable efforts to remove unrelated private information from what they turn over to the government.
In addition, CISPA contains provisions that limit private companies from liability. If a company makes a poor cybersecurity decision based on information it obtains that harms public, the company would not be held responsible for their actions.
Our nation faces very real cyber threats, but this bill is not the right way to address them.
CISPA actually won 288 “yes” votes in the House, but the 127 “no” votes—coming from principled members on both sides of the aisle—sent a strong message to the more deliberative Senate. In combination with a grassroots campaign spearheaded by tech-savvy privacy activists and a threatened veto by President Obama, the bipartisan House opposition appears to have convinced Senate leaders have signaled that they plan to put the legislation on hold. The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday suggestion that CISPA looks to be “dead for now.”
Groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ACLU and Free Press will remain vigilant in opposition to proposals that the latter warns “would obliterate our privacy laws and chill free expression online.” They recognize that the fight to block CISPA is a multi-year struggle that is likely to take many forms.
But we should all recognize the importance of what has been accomplished.
It is often said that Washington doesn’t work, that partisans cannot work together. Yet, a left-right coalition in support of an old ideal and a new urgency with regard to online privacy is mounting an inspired, and effective, defense of the Bill of Rights.
What does public shaming mean in the Web 2.0 era? Read Cole Stryker’s take.
Dick Cheney and other senior administration officials at a meeting in George W. Bush's Oval Office. (Reuters/Larry Downing)
George W. Bush’s presidency began on a note destined to inspire skepticism.
Bush did, after all, lose the ballot-box count at the close of his 2000 run for the nation’s top job by 543,895 votes. But with a boost from an outdated Electoral College system and a Supreme Court that decided to make an extraordinary intervention on his behalf, the son of the forty-first president of the United States became the forty-third president of the United States.
And in what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., long ago identified as the era of the “imperial presidency,” the fact of his tenure entitles Bush to something George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison never got: an official presidential library and museum.
Bush has gone all in.
His library and museum are the biggest of the thirteen that have been established to recognize former presidents: 226,560 square feet on the grounds of the twenty-three-acre Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University near Dallas.
His is also the most expensive of these monumental endeavors, with a $250 million price tag.
But it may not be the most thorough.
News reports tell us that:
Politics is downplayed; the 2004 reelection campaign goes unmentioned. And essentially invisible are Karl Rove, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, who the president became somewhat estranged from in his second term.
Bush wants to be remembered as a statesman, not a hawk.
Why would anyone who is hoping to be remembered as a statesman want to avoid being associated with Karl Rove and Dick Cheney?
To ask the question is to answer it.
A case might be made for giving Bush a pass when it comes to downplaying Rumsfeld—whose Pentagon role kept him of the fringe of domestic policy making and who surely took a backseat to Cheney when it came to foreign policy.
But Cheney and Rove were not exactly spectators in the George W. Bush White House.
As Bush’s senior advisor, deputy chief of staff and political czar, Rove proudly positioned himself in the tradition of Mark Hanna, the Gilded Age political operative who created an assessment system to channel the riches of the robber barons into a scheme for “buying” elections with what came to be known as “The Money Power.” Rove’s updating of Hanna’s approach—via his network of contribution-bundling “Bush Rangers” and “Bush Pioneers” and his more recent machinations with the American Crossroads combine—created a crony capitalist behemoth that delivered mightily for Wall Street and the energy industry but steered the party away from core conservative principles and set the stage for the economic turbulence that rocked the last years of his protégé’s presidency.
As Bush’s first-term prince regent, Cheney guided Bush away from the basic premises and principles on which he had campaigned in 2000. Cheney showed little taste for the “compassionate conservatism” that was Bush’s most appealing—and I would suggest sincere—message of the 2000 campaign. And Cheney abandoned Bush’s stated skepticism about positioning the United States as a nation-building “policeman to the world,” embarking instead on a neoconservative rewrite of American foreign policy objectives which, from the very first days of the Bush-Cheney administration, saw the country begin to reject international diplomacy and cooperation in favor a heavy-handed approach that would eventually include invasions, occupations and pressure tactics so crude that some of the country’s closest allies distanced themselves from its endeavors.
Rove liked, or at least appreciated, Bush. They came up together politically and there is no question that at key “decision points” along the former president’s political trajectory, the man they called “Bush’s Brain” did his best to serve his candidate. Which, of course, also served Rove’s ambition to be a defining figure not just in the Republican Party but the broader conservative movement—in much the same way that Mark Hanna’s “service” to William McKinley made it possible for Hanna to define the politics of another era (and to become a very wealthy and powerful figure). But just as Hanna’s name became associated with the backroom deals and abuses of power that progressive reformers (many of them Republicans) decried a century ago, Rove’s name is now synonymous with manipulation of the political process by billionaires, corporations and their cronies.
Cheney’s relationship with Bush was always more complex than Rove’s. It is much harder to suggest that the former vice president ever really served Bush. As Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff during the harshest days of the Bush-Cheney tenure, well explained it, Cheney “became vice president well before George Bush picked him. And he began to manipulate things from that point on, knowing that he was going to be able to convince this guy to pick him, knowing that he was then going to be able to wade into the vacuums that existed around George Bush—personality vacuum, character vacuum, details vacuum, experience vacuum.”
What this all adds up to is a quite understandable choice by Bush to downplay his former associates.
Aides report that Bush was a very hands-on player in the development of his museum. “He literally looked at every exhibit and said ‘I want this one, and I want that,’ ” says George W. Bush Foundation President Mark Langdale.
So it is that the space devoted to the former president’s commendable efforts to tackle AIDS and malaria in Africa is by all accounts quite substantial. And the section dealing with his stated commitment to “Protecting the Environment” is a good deal grander than those mentioning his response to Hurricane Katrina or the Wall Street meltdown of September 2008.
Such choices fit within the broad debate about Bush’s legacy, which the former president—who is mounting a campaign to improve his image—well understands.
Bush seeks to make a case for himself.
But he does not want to shoulder the burden of the Rove and Cheney legacies.
This is understandable. Ron Suskind noted in his 2004 book, The Price of Loyalty: George W. Bush, the White House, and the Education of Paul O’Neill, that Rove and Cheney often appeared to roll over Bush in a mad rush to advance their preferred agendas.
Famously, following the Republican success in the 2002 off-year elections, Treasury Secretary O’Neill (a former deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget and CEO of Alcoa) counseled that new tax cuts for the rich would be economically and fiscally unwise. Bush seemed to agree. “Haven’t we already given money to rich people?” Bush asked. “Shouldn’t we be giving money to the middle? Won’t people be able to say, ‘You did it once, and then you did it twice, and what was it good for?’ ”
Rove immediately told the president to: “Stick to principle. Stick to principle.” Cheney was typically blunt, explaining: “You know… Reagan proved that deficits don’t matter. We won the midterm elections, this is our due.”
Nine days after O’Neill argued against more tax cuts, he got a call—not from Bush, but from Cheney—asking him to resign.
Stories like that offer a fair measure of insight into why Bush would want Americans to remember him, as opposed to Rove and Cheney. Or at the least, to remember him in a better light than his political czar and his vice president. So it is understandable that the focus of The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum would err in that direction.
The problem, of course, is that it was Bush who gave Rove and Cheney the extraordinary power they enjoyed through his first term. And as O’Neill reminds us, that power defined the Bush presidency. Rove and Cheney may indeed have formed a “a praetorian guard that encircled the president.” But it was from Bush, not anyone else, that they gained the authority to form the circle.
In the middle of Bush’s tenure, Paul O’Neill said: “The president started from scratch and relied on advice of ideologues without any honest brokers in sight.”
There is case to be made that, as Bush’s presidency progressed, he came to recognize that Cheney, in particular, was not the honest broker he needed. Indeed, the story of Bush’s claiming of his own presidency during his second term is the stuff of interesting history. But it is a history that requires a clear recognition of the role that Rove and Cheney played—not a history where the “praetorian guard” remains “essentially invisible.”
Max Baucus talks with reporters on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Montana Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat who frequently clashed with his party’s economic populists as the Wall Street–friendly chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, will step down at the end of his current term.
Baucus, who will retire from the Senate after thirty-six years, played a critical role in the health-care debate that led to the enactment of the Affordable Care Act. Given substantial responsibility by the White House, the Montana senator declared that “single payer was not an option on the table.” That drew the ire of activists, who charged that Baucus was tipping the balance in favor of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and Finance Committee hearings grew so contentious that the chairman ultimately ordered protesting doctors and nurses removed.
A New York Times profile of Baucus later reported: “He conceded that it was a mistake to rule out a fully government-run health system, or a ‘single-payer plan,’ not because he supports it but because doing so alienated a large, vocal constituency and left Mr. Obama’s proposal of a public health plan to compete with private insurers as the most liberal position.”
The senator frequently split with progressive Democrats on critical issues. For instance, he voted to authorize President Bush to attack Iraq and provided high-profile support to President George W. Bush’s tax cuts in 2001. A frequent defender of corporate tax breaks, he was criticized for his tepid response to efforts to crack down on abuses of overseas tax haven. In 2005, he opposed repealing the tax subsidy for US corporations that offshore manufacturing operations.
Baucus, who sided with the US Chamber of Commerce 64 percent of the time in the group’s 2011 survey of Senate votes, often parted with organized labor on free-trade issues. Famously, after the senator wrote a 2007 Wall Street Journal opinion piece arguing that his party should work with former President George W. Bush to renew so-called “fast-track authority” for negotiating international trade deals—a move that limits the ability of Congress to check and balance the executive branch—the Montana State Senate (which was controlled by Democrats) voted 44-6 in favor of a resolution that urged Congress “to create a replacement for the outdated fast track system.” Montana’s other Democratic senator, Jon Tester, pointed declared that he was “against fast-track.”
Baucus and Tester split again this month on the question of adopting gun-purchase background checks. Baucus voted “no,” while Tester voted “yes,” explaining, “Common-sense measures that protect our Second Amendment rights while making our families safer deserve our support.”
As the gun vote approached, the national Progressive Change Campaign Committee launched an ad campaign urging Baucus to vote “yes.” Despite the fact that a poll commissioned by Mayors Against Illegal Guns found that 79 percent of Montanans backed background checks for guns sales, Baucus pushed back, arguing that the “top-down, one-size-fits-all approach like the president is pushing simply won’t work for us in Montana, and I won’t support it.”
Ultimately, however, it was on the economic issues that critics scoured Baucus upon his announcement that he would step down after this term. “Good bye, Senator K Street,” said PCCC co-founder Stephanie Taylor, referencing the DC base of many special-interest lobbyists. According to a recent New York Times report, at least twenty-eight former Baucus aides have become lobbyists on tax issues that are often addressed by the Finance Committee.
“Max Baucus has a history of voting with corporate interests and not the interests of Montana voters—taking millions from Wall Street, insurance companies, and lobbyists,” continued Taylor. “Montana will finally have a chance to have a senator with its best interests at heart, and we hope Brian Schweitzer jumps into the race immediately.”
Schweitzer, a popular former governor, tops lists of prospective Democratic contenders to replace Baucus. Distinct from the retiring senator in style and on many policy matters, Schweitzer several years ago proposed establishing a single-payer healthcare program in Montana. And he’s been a loud proponent of “Buy American” proposals that aren’t particularly popular with advocates of free trade.
Pitched as a 2016 Democratic presidential prospect, Schweitzer acknowledged Tuesday that he is seriously considering the Senate race. He came on the Montana political scene in 2000 as an upstart candidate who narrowly missed unseating Republican senator Conrad Burns.
Now, says Schweitzer, “I’m the kind of guy that, when I see a broke-down pickup, I’ll get out with my tools and try to fix it, and I can tell you looking at Washington, D.C., from Montana, there is no bigger broke-down pickup than the Senate in Washington, D.C.”
Montana is not much of a swing state in presidential politics, but populist Democrats have run well there in recent years, winning the governor’s office in the past three elections.
The race for the Montana Senate seat will be an intense one, however, as control of the chamber will be very much at stake in 2014. The Democrat Caucus maintains a 55-45 majority in the Senate, but Baucus is the sixth veteran Democrat to announce he’s retiring in 2014.
Polls in Montana showed Baucus trailing likely Republican challengers. By contrast, Schweitzer has been running ahead of one and even with another. If he runs, he’ll bring to the race the populist approach that was on display at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. In Charlotte, he drew wild cheers for a speech that ripped Republican policies with the line: “In Montana, that dog don’t hunt.”
As Tom Tomorrow says, the Senate owns a special place in the failure that was last week.
The Boston Globe’s online homepage. (www.bostonglobe.com)
When editors at The Boston Globe recognized that their city had been bombed by suspected terrorists who were still at large, they immediately mustered a substantial and experienced newsgathering team to cover one of the most tragic, frightening and unsettling moments in the long history of a great American city.
They got the story, from the epic photos of the heroism of emergency workers last Monday to the remarkable announcement on Friday night of the apprehension of the second suspect in the bombing attack.
the Globe’s web headline, published minutes after the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, reflected the interests and emotions of a great city as a great newspaper should: “Alive, Conscious, Captured.”
Bostonians read the Globe all last week with a passion, as they did the tenacious Boston Herald, its smaller rival in a rare competition for big-city readers. Along with the Globe’s Boston readers, millions of people across the United States and around the world made the paper’s website an Internet hot spot.
That most of this reading occurred online is not news. What we call “newspapers” are better described today as “newsrooms.” It is silly to talk of an “old media” versus “new media” divide. A daily paper is still printed, and some of us love the experience of reading it. But, especially in rapidly-evolving “breaking news” moments, it’s the website that’s got the dynamism. And Twitter: the Globe now has 275,000 followers.
“This shows how vital (metro daily newspapers) are when disasters strike,” Globe editor Brian McGrory told The Huffington Post. “The Globe and its website became something like a town square, where people turned for information and they got it.”
The Globe’s site was packed with instant and detailed coverage and analysis and superb editorials on the conflicts and concerns that arise in these moments. Some mistakes were made along the way, as is always the case when news is breaking so rapidly. But the Globe’s 24/7 coverage—which placed immense demands on its staff and on its limited resources—was overwhelmingly accurate, detailed and insightful. Media writer Seth Mnookin hailed the paper’s coverage of the bombing and the search for the killers as “Tireless. Dogged. Spirited.”
And the Globe’s coverage was something else: Free.
The paper knocked down the paywall that separated potential readers from what is usually a subscription-only website. Editors stripped a banner across the top of the webpage reading: “BostonGlobe.com is currently available to all readers.”
The readers came. On the day the paywall came down, the paper attracted 1.2 million unique visitors—six times the normal amount. Of course, dramatic events drew readers; of course, many of the new readers were from outside the Boston area. But the numbers were way, way higher—locally, nationally and even internationally—because readers did not have to jump through digital hoops and type in credit card numbers.
So dropping the paywall made sense from a standpoint of civic responsibility and from the classic journalistic standpoint of wanting to get new information and ideas to the broadest possible audience.
But it was not viewed as as economic success for the Globe, which is currently up for sale and wrestling with all the financial challenges that face American newsrooms. On Monday, the paywall will return.
That’s understandable but, to my view, unfortunate.
It is no secret that this is an era when major media outlets are desperate to find ways to pay for journalism. In some cases, this really is because they are out of touch with their audience and because alternative media is simply more compelling. But, more often than not, this is because of a dramatic shift in media economics. Advertising revenues that once sustained vast newsgathering operations, with deep commitments to cover communities, states, the nation and the world, have collapsed. And online advertising does not begin to provide sufficient support to pay for the journalism even of popular news sites.
Many publications (including The Nation), and most major dailes, have experimented with strategies to get people to pay for news stories, columns and editorials.
the Globe erected a subscription-style paywall two years ago to try to collect revenue from readers. It has had some success with this approach, as have other publications that are experimenting with models that charge for individual articles or groups of articles.
But when all news broke loose, dropping the Globe’s paywall was a “no-brainer.”
The decision by the editors to collapse the paywall at a critical juncture for the city the paper has covered since 1872 was not unprecedented. A number of major papers did so when Superstorm Sandy was hitting, as did several during in the aftermath of the Boston bombing.
But the Globe’s move was especially wise, and valuable. And it ought to provoke a new discussion about whether paywalls make sense, economically or journalistically.
Newsrooms needs resources to pay reporters, photographers and editors to produce quality journalism that is sufficient not only to inform citizens but to sustain a democratic discourse. And it’s not wrong to ask readers, listeners and viewers to contribute. Indeed, Los Angeles Times national writer Matt Pearce announced Friday night: “If everybody in Boston doesn’t pay the Globe back with a subscription after all this, not sure what more you could ask from a newspaper.”
I agree. If Boston pays the Globe back with a flood of new subscriptions, I’ll be thrilled.
But we ought not presume that this will be the case.
Americans who recognize the importance of not just journalism but the daily amalgamation of journalism that is produced by classic urban newsrooms—with substantial numbers of at least reasonably compensated reporters, columnists, editors, photographers, graphic specialists and all the other people who once made newspapers work and who now make news-oriented websites work—should be thinking of how to get the most news to the most people.
The huge readership—and the huge regard—that the Globe achieved during a critical week in the history of its hometown reminds us that there are a lot of readers out there who don’t leap paywalls.
That’s unhealthy for the future of big urban newsrooms, for the future of journalism and for the future of a vibrant and nuanced democratic discourse.
A lot of traditionalists would like to imagine that the people will eventually pay. After all, they say, newspapers have always charged for subscriptions—or copies on the newsstand.
But the Internet is different. It’s built on the premise that information should be free. And even if some newspapers make some money by erecting them, veteran technology writer Mathew Ingram correctly notes that paywalls that are hailed as “successful” still are not “making up for the continuing decline in print ad revenue.”
So it is that newspapers keep closing, cutting back and laying off reporters, photographers and editors.
But it’s not just the economic challenge that worries me. When a paywall limits access to the journalism produced by a great city’s newsroom, the public debate suffers. People can still get information, but they are edged out of the core conversations of their community—and often toward sources that reinforce rather than challenge and expand assumptions.
My point here is not to suggest that metropolitan dailies—or, to be more precise, the newsrooms that now produce the most popular news sites—can or will simply provide great reporting and analysis at no cost. What I am suggesting is that publications should be examining alternatives to paywalls.
If we learn anything from the Globe’s experience of recent days, it is that it’s a good idea to make information and ideas available to all readers in a moment of crisis. But why isn’t it a good idea to make information and ideas available during elections? During great debate about national, state or local priorities? Or during periods when cities are “getting back to normal” after terrifying events?
In other countries, journalism is sustained with public subsidies and tax breaks—not just for muscular public broadcasting systems but for print and digital journalism. There are, as well, models for running newsrooms (like that of The Tampa Bay Times) as nonprofit or low-profit enterprises, and for leveraging foundation money and community investment to sustain journalism. Some communities—including St. Louis and Seattle—have seen the use of public radio stations as platforms for sites bring together laid-off newspaper reporters to cover local news.
People who care about journalism can and should be engaged in a wide-ranging discussion about how to sustain journalism in the twenty-first century. And this week’s decision by the Globe to drop its paywall should get not just reporters, editors and publishers thinking about those alternatives. It should get citizens engaged with the issue.
For Boston in particular, but for the nation in general, this past week has been daunting. People haven’t just wrestled with the news, they have wrestled with questions about the news means.
It is natural in such a circumstance to try to figure things out, to struggle with questions about specific events and about broad threats and deep fears. About clues and indicators. About responsibility and accountability. About the balance between public safety and civil liberties.
This wrestling with issues and ideas, this search for explanations, can be frustrating and contentious. But it’s healthy. It means that people are engaged. Even when they make mistakes, they tend to do so sincerely.
What’s important is that citizens have a steady flow of information and analysis and—of particular significance in so intense a circumstance—thoughtful reflection that helps steer the discussion beyond kneejerk reactions.
This is what the Globe provided. Its coverage was rich and nuanced. Its commentary was adventurous and challenging. Editorials provided comfort and perspective, reminding readers: “The fact that the Marathon takes place on Patriots Day may or may not have been a factor in the attack; it is, absolutely, a part of what makes the event unique, a celebration of both nature and history, the coming of spring and the region’s connection to the Revolutionary War.”
The Globe’s editorial pages even found room to defend Family Guy, noting: “A real-life terrorist attack isn’t an appropriate source of humor. But some snippets of old movies and TV shows are bound to prompt cringe-inducing associations in the wake of an attack; still, viewers will understand the difference between a calculated insult and an unintended coincidence. So, while Fox executives showed commendable sensitivity in taking the unusual step of removing an old ‘Family Guy’ episode that involved the Boston Marathon from the web, it was an unnecessary gesture.”
That’s one example of the Globe’s many invitations to think freely, while focusing on what matters. A great paper—even if it’s not read on paper—can still do this, especially if it speaks to everyone. That’s what the Globe did last week. It deserves celebration and emulation—especially of the banner that reads: “available to all readers.”
How not to normalize terrorism in the wake of what happened in Boston? Read Aura Bogado’s interview with Sohail Daulatzai.
Paul Ryan touts his 2012 federal budget plan. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Paul Ryan’s numbers are wrong.
As in: his most urgent argument on behalf of painful cuts to federal programs and the denial of new funding for job creation, education, healthcare and infrastructure repair is based on a coding error.
The paper the House Budget Committee chairman has used as the intellectual and statistical underpinning for his austerity agenda has been significantly discredited by the revelation that essential data was excluded from the study, leading "to serious errors that inaccurately represent the relationship between public debt and growth."
The Harvard professors who produced the paper—which Ryan cited as recently as last month—have acknowledged their mathematical error.
Now, the question is whether Ryan and conservative proponents of austerity will acknowledge that they have built their arguments on a false premise. The same goes for the media pundits—including many liberals—who prattle on about the need for painful cuts in government spending. And for Democratic politicians who have accepted elements of the austerity agenda as “necessary.”
Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman suggests that an essential underpinning of the “the intellectual edifice of austerity economics” has been called into question. But, adds Krugman, “the really guilty parties here are all the people who seized on a disputed research result, knowing nothing about the research, because it said what they wanted to hear.”
And Ryan is definitely at the head of the list of the "guilty parties" that seized on the disputed research.
After decades spent as a backroom conservative in Washington, first as a Capitol Hill aide and then as an obscure congressman from Wisconsin, Ryan raced to prominence after President Obama's 2008 election. Condemning Obama's spending to stimulate employment and growth following the Wall Street meltdown, Ryan positioned himself as an economic "Paul Revere," warning that public debt was stalling out the US economy. This notion was always questioned by savvy economists, such as Center for Economic and Policy Research co-director Dean Baker. But Ryan went all in, seizing on the controversial Harvard study as essential information for anyone concerned with debts, deficits, spending and budgets.
Ryan began preaching an economic gospel based on his absolute certainty that when a country’s debt level tops 90 percent of its gross domestic product, it’s economy will decline and crisis will ensue. And he found plenty of takers for his dystopian analysis, which inspired obsessive talk about how the US economy was heading toward a apocalyptic "tipping point."
As the House Budget Committee chairman, the Republican nominee for Vice President, and America’s primary proponent of austerity, Ryan rallied his party and much of official Washington around his argument that, because the United States had edged above the 90 percent level, immediate and draconian action needed to be taken to cut the debt.
Echoing the messaging of billionaire-funded groups such as the “Fix the Debt” coalition, Ryan has argued that any “pain” suffered by working Americans—in the form of restructurings of Social Security, Medicare or Medicaid, post office closures and cuts to state and local aid—was necessary in order to avoid an economic meltdown.
"Economists who have studied sovereign debt tell us that letting total debt rise above 90 per cent of GDP creates a drag on economic growth and intensifies the risk of a debt-fueled economic crisis," Ryan told a congressional hearing in 2011. When he accepted the Republican vice presidential nomination in Tampa, Ryan brought that sense of urgency into the national spotlight, declaring that "a defining responsibility of government is to steer our nation clear of a debt crisis while there is still time."
Since the defeat of his national candidacy, Ryan has continued to claim that the threat of economic ruin is so clear that—despite their rejection at the polls—his proposals must be adopted by President Obama and Congress. This has been and remains a steady message from Ryan, whose “Path to Prosperity” budget proposal rests on the premise that economists have "found conclusive empirical evidence that [debt] exceeding 90 percent of the economy has a significant negative effect on economic growth."
But the 90 percent threshold is a false precipice based on a false premise.
The paper on which Ryan builds his austerity argument was published in 2010 by Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. In the paper, "Growth in a Time of Debt," Reinhart and Rogoff concluded that “median growth rates for countries with public debt over 90 percent of GDP are roughly one percent lower than otherwise; average (mean) growth rates are several percent lower."
Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal explains:
In a new paper, "Does High Public Debt Consistently Stifle Economic Growth? A Critique of Reinhart and Rogoff," Thomas Herndon, Michael Ash, and Robert Pollin of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst successfully replicate the results. After trying to replicate the Reinhart-Rogoff results and failing, they reached out to Reinhart and Rogoff and they were willing to share their data spreadsheet. This allowed Herndon et al. to see how Reinhart and Rogoff's data was constructed.
They find that three main issues stand out. First, Reinhart and Rogoff selectively exclude years of high debt and average growth. Second, they use a debatable method to weight the countries. Third, there also appears to be a coding error that excludes high-debt and average-growth countries. All three bias in favor of their result, and without them you don't get their controversial result.
Herndon, Ash and Pollin (a frequent contributor to The Nation) reviewed and recalculated the information on which the Reinhart-Rogoff paper was based. They determined conclusively that data from key years and key countries had been erroneously excluded. When they included all the data from all the years and all the countries, the Amherst professors showed that the average growth rate of nations with a 90 per cent debt load does not decline by 0.1 percent, as suggested by Reinhart and Rogoff. Rather, the growth rate is a positive 2.2 per cent.
Reinhart acknowledged to the CBC News business reporting team that “Herndon, Ash and Pollin have written a useful paper, finding a significant mistake in one of our figures.”
"It is sobering that such an error slipped into one of our papers despite our best efforts to be consistently careful," noted the Harvard economist. "We will redouble our efforts to avoid such errors in the future."
Give Reinhart credit for the admission.
Now, as Krugman suggests, the issue is with the politicians and pundits who have based not just economic arguments but a broader political demand for austerity on a “significant mistake.”
This is a crucial challenge for Ryan, who is supposed to be the Republican Party’s “numbers guy.”
The Budget Committee chairman was never the economic whiz that his fans imagined. Rather, he’s an Ayn Rand-obsessed ideologue who seeks to promote austerity out of a seemingly sincere belief that it is necessary.
Now that his economic case has been discredited, Ryan must either alter course or confirm the darkest assessments from his critics: that he cribs data from academics not with an eye for accuracy but with a determination to advance his austerity agenda at any cost. (And the cost has already been high. As economist Dean Baker asks: "How Much Unemployment Was Caused by Reinhart and Rogoff's Arithmetic Mistake?")
If Ryan is honest, he must admit that his sense of urgency with regard to the debt is misplaced. He can still argue, as an Ayn Rand enthusiast and a Republican partisan, for cuts in federal spending and for a general downsizing of government. But he should at least acknowledge that the argument is based on Rand’s fictional writing, not on economic reality.
Walmart's global labor practices are, workers say, wreaking death and destruction. Read Josh Eidelson's report.