Monday, February 28, 2011

The Centrist Granfalloon

A political black hole?

Whither The Center?

Browsing the Centersphere, I noted Sol Kleinsmith of "Rise of the Center"  "" worrying about the state of the political center in American politics. In his "Must Read" post last week, he quotes a National Journal article "The Center Falls Apart:"
"National Journal's vote ratings in 1982 found, to cite just one example, 60 senators who could credibly be described as operating in the ideological middle. Back then, 36 Democrats and 24 Republicans voted in ways that put them between the most liberal Senate Republican, Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, and the most conservative Democrat, Edward Zorinsky of Nebraska. The number of those in the broad middle in the House was 344... In the most recent Congress, not one senator fell into this middle category. In the 111th Congress, not one Republican fell into the ideological spectrum between the most conservative Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and the most liberal Republican, George Voinovich of Ohio. Neither did any Democrat. In the House, the number of in-betweeners fell to seven (even after Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “revolution,” the House number had been 226)."
Kleinsmith laments this trend in the comments, but holds out hope for a coalition of Independent voters asserting themselves in the political process:
"The Center is Rising… its just we’re rising from almost nothing, and we don’t even have a foundation to start from, so we have a lot of work to do before we can mount a real opposition."

There are "Independents" and then there are Independents
Whither the Centrists?The idea of building a political movement from a rising Independent coalition is not new and is not easy. In another post Kleinsmith illustrates the difficulty of the Sisyphean task he has set for himself and his blog, when he complains about the liberal bent of an Independent conference he attended, sponsored by the venerable Independent Voting Organization:
I knew is a liberal group, stating openly that they’re the “Progressive Wing of the Independent Movement”, but I thought they’d set that aside, ala No Labels style, for a conference of independents. Instead I heard just as much vilification of the right at this rally as you would find a meeting of democrats. Calling this even the Conference of Independents makes as much sense as their spin, and outright lies, on Top Two “Choke Point” Primary rules, their claim that Obama is (I kid you not… Jackie Salit says this all the time) an independent and their doublespeak calling what is going on with independents around the country is a movement."
He is completely correct about the political proclivity of the organization. They are as committed to a progressive "big government" agenda as the most liberal wing of the Democratic Party. But it is also true that as an organization, they can legitimately claim a historical provenance to the single most significant Independent voter "foundation building" of the modern era - the Perot Reform Party. Despite Kleinsmith's assertions to the contrary, an Independent voter foundation was built and still exists. The Reform Party did build an Independent foundation, and that foundation remains the underpinning of the Independent Voting organization today.

Kleinsmith's lament reveals the organization's foundation was/is built on sand. It is built on the illusion that there is a large and viable independent voting coalition in the American electorate. His complaint about the politics of the organization, and - from the other side - Jackie Salit's refusal to acknowledge the Tea Party as a legitimate part of the Independent "movement" - speaks directly to the absurd triumphalism regularly trumpeted by Salit and others:
"This is an exciting and challenging time for independent voters and for the independent movement. Independents are now 40% of the electorate. Polls show that 41% of college students consider themselves indies as do 35% of African Americans under the age of 30."

Whither the Independents?
Whither the Centrists?One problem Kleinsmith (or Salit or anyone) faces when looking for an Independent "movement" or "coalition" on which to build a foundation is the well documented fact that the majority of voters self-identifying as "Independents" actually vote as partisans. In fact they vote so reliably partisan that they cannot be distinguished from those self-identifying Democrat or Republican based on their voting record.

Another problem when discussing the plight of "The Center" is sloppy semantics. The terms "Centrist", "Independent", and "Moderate" are used almost interchangeably across the political spectrum by both new and traditional media as if they describe a set of voters with a shared political perspective. The reality is that "The Center" may be best described by Kurt Vonnegut's creation in Cat's Cradle - as a "granfalloon":
"A granfalloon, in the fictional religion of Bokononism (created by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1963 novel Cat's Cradle), is defined as a "false karass." That is, it is a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless."
How voters self-identify in a self-serving response to pollsters may be mildly interesting but it is not a basis on which to build a political movement. Anyone purporting to identify a meaningful Independent coalition must be able to answer four questions with crystal clarity about their potential base. Who are they? What are their numbers? How are they organized? What are they voting for?

Herding Cats
Whither the Centrists?The only firm ground on which a sound political foundation can be built is a significant group of voters that can be shown (or be convinced) to vote in a consistent and coherent way. This requires organizing a vote around something (anything) tangible.

Historically, the most meaningful 3rd Party or Independent efforts have organized around personalities (Perot, Nader, Anderson, Wallace, Roosevelt), and they are meaningful only to the degree they succeed in affecting national elections as spoilers. If he chooses to run, Michael Bloomberg has the potential to fulfill that role in 2012, with exactly that effect. There is no history of a third party succeeding in American politics, unless one of the two major parties self destructs, and is replaced by the new party, still leaving only two parties standing.

Effective voting coalitions can also be organized around single issue politics. A candidate issue must evoke intense passion to be effective. Examples include war, abortion, segregation, gay marriage, discrimination and most recently - irresponsible deficit spending. Call me a cynic, but I just don't think that demanding polite and civil debate is a sufficiently compelling issue to organize an effective voting coalition. Even issues that evoke intense passion tend to be short-lived as effective Independent organizing principles. The movements built on them tend to remain independent for only as long as it takes one of the major parties to co-opt and subsume the issue into their partisan base.

It is important to be realistic about the size and nature of the truly Independent vote that can actually be seen to swing from one election cycle to the next. The best analysis I've seen over the the last few cycles comes from The Cato Institute. In a series of policy studies, they've identified a "fiscally conservative, socially liberal" voting block that has been documented to swing in the 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, and 2010 elections. The Cato Institute being the Cato Institute, it identifies these voters as closet libertarians. That identification is a reach. These voters do not self-identify as libertarian, and many would recoil from strong libertarian positions.

Whatever you want to label them, these voters represent the real Independent voting base in the electorate. They can be measured, they can be identified, we can understand what they are voting for and against, and they swing their vote in a measurable predictable way. They represent 14% of the electorate. That is your Independent voting base. If you want to build a realistic voting strategy and political strategy around Independents - recognize first that your strategy is based on, at most, 14% of the vote. Anything else is building on sand and mirage.

This begs the question - how do you herd these cats? And if you do herd them into a voting block, how do you avoid the spoiler effect with only 14% of the vote?

The 14% Solution
Whither the Centrists?Kleinsworth himself unintentionally points to a simple organizing principle that offers at least a tactical "14% solution" for these voters in another post - "Wisconsin Illustrates Hazard of One Party Rule in Era of Major Party Arrogance":
"The answer really is simple. We need to elect more moderates and centrist independents, and we need to not allow either party to have complete control of government anymore. We need to have split government at every level, to at least force the two parties to have to gain the support of a handful of non members to pass anything. They just can’t be trusted anymore."
The notion is seconded by D. Eris at Poli-Tea:
"At Rise of the Center, Solomon makes the case for multi-party government on the basis of one simple fact: the Democratic and Republican parties cannot be trusted with power."
This idea sounds vaguely familiar to me, and I'll get back to you if I can recall where I've heard this before. In the meantime what I think both Eris and Kleinsworth miss, is another benefit of a divided government voting heuristic. Divided government not only helps keep both major parties honest, it is an easily understood and easily communicated tactical organizing principle for herding those 14% truly Independent cats.

Alas, many are called, but few are chosen. Many will agree "in general" with the notion that divided government is a good thing, but few will specifically vote against their natural partisan inclination to maintain that state. Kleinsworth and Eris will be an interesting test.

They are both self-described independent centrists, but see different solutions to the two party hegemony in our political system. Kleinsworth thinks the solution is electing moderate centrists in both parties.* Eris thinks the solution is a viable third party.* Both express distrust of one party rule. The question is - How will they vote in 2012 if, as it looks now, the only logical divided government vote will be a vote to re-elect Barack Obama?

We'll see. In the meantime, I will provisionally be inducting both into the 2012 Coalition of the Divided. Just as soon as I get around to posting it.**

*NOTE TO SELF: Someday work up and post a taxonomy of the Centrist zoo with Phylum/Order/Genus/Species - Something like this:
  • SK - Centrist/Rightish/Moderate/Compromiser
  • DE - Independent/Rightish/Discordian/3rd Partonian
  • MW - Independent/libertarianish/Discordian/Dividist.

**UPDATE I: 1-March-11
Done. Got an early start on the Coalition of the Divided this cycle. The C.O.D. 2012 Election Edition is up and running.

UPDATE II: 3-March-11
Modified the image at the top of the post to include The Dividist's location in the Nolan Chart firmament orbiting the Centrist black hole. A better image of my Political Quiz test result can be found here. This in preparation for cross-posting a tighter version of this at the Donk, incorporating some of the constructive criticism found in the comments and elsewhere..

Speaking of which, the Dividist notes that Damon Eris at Poli-Tea has also weighed in with a thoughtful critique. Misguided and wrong, but thoughtful. The Dividist will need to cogitate on this a bit, and better understand the concept of a "fractal fallacy" before responding - probably over the weekend.

UPDATE III: 6-March-11
The Dividist's reply to Damon Eris (and Kleinsmith commenting on his blog) is apparently unable to pass the google span filter muster. So the Dividist is instead copying here the response he attempted to put there:

I intended to respond to some of the issues raised in this post, but see I first need to deal with the comments. Specifically this:
"I ignored the part of his post where he vomited that garbage about independents can't vote for one of the two major parties." - SK
I actually like a lot of the stuff that Kleinsmith does, but this makes me wonder whether the guy has some reading comprehension issues. Either that, or he did not actually read this post. I don't really care whether he reads my stuff, I just don't understand why he would post such a virulent reply without bothering to read and understand the post first.

Nowhere in this blog post (in fact, nowhere in any of the posts I've written over the almost 5 years of blogging at DWSUWF) did I say anything remotely like "independents can't vote for one of the two major parties". In fact, that is the exact opposite of the voting heuristic I promote on this blog.

I advocate that a percentage of the true Independents (those who do not vote identically as partisans) should always vote at the federal level in a manner that would prevent either major party from controlling the executive and both legislative houses. To whit - always voting for divided government. That means as a practical reality, I am advocating that true independents should almost always vote for one of the two major parties at the federal level. In the last election that meant voting straight GOP for the House and Senate. In the next election it means voting to re-elect Barack Obama, as that is likely to be the only way to avoid One Party Republican Rule into 2013.

Yes, it is conceivable that a third party vote could be considered a "divided government" vote, because of the spoiler effect. For a hypothetical example, should Mike Bloomberg run as an independent in 2012, he would have no chance of winning, but would likely have a similar effect as Perot did in 1992 drawing more from the GOP vote and contributing to the election of a Democratic President. A vote for Bloomberg in 2012 instead of a vote for the GOP challenger would also be a vote to reelect Obama and retain divided government.

Interestingly, Kleinsmith does not seem to notice that his less-than-civil outburst is more critical of the political theme of the Poli-Tea blog than it is of my blog. As I read this, it is actually D.Eris at PoliTea who is specifically advocating that Independents should almost never vote for one the two major parties. Perhaps Kleinsmith is having as much trouble comprehending what Eris' blog is about as he is comprehending mine.

My sense is that all three blogs have similar policy goals and see independents as the key to a voting strategy to get there. PoliTea (PT) advocates that Independents should strategically vote for 3rd parties. Kleinsmith's Rise of the Center advocates that Independents should strategically vote for Moderate/Centrist/Polite candidates. Here at DWSUWF I advocate that true Independents should first and foremost tactically vote for divided government. Of the three, I submit that the divided government voting heuristic has the greatest likelihood of succeeding for the foreseeable future, and having an actual policy impact on our federal government.

This is all about how to organize the Independent vote in a predictable and meaningful way. The Kleinsmith Uniters strategy is problematic on two counts. First, it is difficult enough to try and herd the Independent voter "cats" without trying to organize around a concept as ambiguous and as subject to partisan interpretation as whether a candidate is actually moderate/centrist/polite enough to deserve the Indy vote. Look no further than the very next post on the PT blog, where Kleinsmith is arguing with another Indy on whether Obama is a centrist, to see this problem in action.

Second, is a problem that Kleinsmith shares with the PT blog, which is overstating the size of truly Independent vote. Yes, it is a fact that something like 40% of the electorate self-identify as Independents. The problem is that 2/3 of those so-called Independents have voting records that are indistinguishable from those voters self-identifying as partisan Republicans and Democrats.

The problem is not that they vote R or D. The problem is that they are in fact functional partisans by the way they vote at the Federal level. 1/3 of the "Independents" always vote like partisan Republicans. 1/3 of the "Independents" always vote like partisan Democrats. This is not a "fractal fallacy". This is documented historical fact. They are not voting that way because they don't have other choices. They vote that way because they are more comfortable with and lean toward one party or the other, and where the rubber meets the road, in the voting booth, they are in fact pure partisan voters at the federal level.

The correct way to view the electorate as a practical voting reality, is as 86% Partisan, split down the middle, with a 14% Independent swing vote.

Any voting strategy that presumes or requires something different to succeed, is built on sand.
UPDATED: 11-Feb-2018 - Fixed broken links to Kleinsmiths's old site (Rise of the Center) to point to his new site (

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Taiwan explains Wisconsin

Cheeseheads cheering Governor Scott Walker

As previously noted, Taiwanese animations are the future of all mainstream news and consequently a regular feature of this blog. As usual, the folks at NextMedia have distilled US TV news, newspaper commentary, blogs, and twitter feeds on the Wisconsin standoff into an easily digestible two minute animation. After three posts on the subject we'll give NMA the last word. It appears this story is winding down anyway, and the Dividist is getting bored with it.

This is what a cheesehead protest looks like in Taiwan:

"Republican Scott Walker was elected governor of Wisconsin in the US mid-term elections last year. He ran on a conservative platform emphasizing fiscal responsibility.Once in office, Walker set about dealing with Wisconsin’s debt problem. He targeted the benefits of Wisconsin’s public sector unions.Knowing that they would lose if the matter came to a vote, Wisconsin’s Democratic senators fled to deny Republican lawmakers from bringing the matter to the floor. When Walker started threatening to cut benefits, public sector workers like teacher, firemen and nurses were enraged. Despite threats from Walker that he might mobilize the national guard against the unions, 25,000 strikers converged on Wisconsin’s state capitol to protest the proposed cuts. The protest struck a chord all over the world. A local pizzeria got orders from as far abroad as Egypt to help feed the strikers. But what will happen to Wisconsin’s fiscal condition if they get what they want?"
The Dividist wonders why we bother watching the news. We should just wait for NMA to distill every story down to its essence.

Despite all the giddy excitement on the left about the embarrassing prank call to Governor Walker from a fake David Koch, he did not say anything that is going to change the dynamic in Wisconsin. The problem is not anything he said in the call. The problem is that he took the call.

Taking that call reinforced left wing paranoia about David Koch which is beginning to take on the epic proportions of right wing paranoia about George Soros. The only likely long term effect will be to Walker’s presidential ambitions and potential re-election. He'll be running against that audio recording for the rest of his political life. So it goes. He took the call, now he'll live with it. The Dividist is good with that. But as far as the legislative standoff is concerned, this is a foregone conclusion. Walker will win.

Wisconsin Democrats run for the exits.

Polls do not support the AWOL Wisconsin Senators. The state Assembly is on the verge of passing the Walker Budget Repair Bill and the Senators will have to return sometime or be recalled. The protesters in Madison will have to go back to work or be fired. The Republicans have the votes and Walker has the will. Done deal. We'll update here with any breaking news, but the Dividist thinks it is Kabuki Theater from this point. Moving on.

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Digby is not amused.

Jon Stewart is on top of his game this week, skewering media coverage of the Madison Madness and offering some laugh-out-loud commentary:

For reasons that elude me, this bit was one step over the line for liberal blogger Digby at Hullabaloo who expends almost 800 words to explain why Jon Stewart is not funny and a traitor to the cause:
"I'm fairly sure that the only people who listen to Stewart are liberals who are getting the idea that it's wrong to get in the streets or call out the other side in rough language. Conservatives just think he's a useful idiot. I find this attitude very perplexing coming from a comedian, especially one who commonly does things which could be perceived as unfair, silly and undignified.

This is why Colbert's satire is so much more effective and, frankly, much braver. His satire is firmly aimed at the right, so he cannot take both sides. That's why it works --- it takes a position. By contrast, I'm increasingly not finding Jon's church-lady finger wagging all that funny, much less cool, and I fast forward though his opening segments more often than not."
While Digby was not amused, I found her pompous church-lady finger wagging at "Jon's church-lady finger wagging" to be vaguely bemusing in its own meta-bizzaro "you've-got-to-be-kidding" kind of way.

From the peanut gallery, Shakesvile, Bob Cesca, and Matt Christie sniff their approval at Digby's take-down.

James Joyner also took note of Digby's displeasure:
"The reason I watch Stewart (and Stephen Colbert, who I’ll turn to shortly) and not more vitriolic liberal comics like Bill Maher is precisely because of his civility. While his bits are aimed at people who generally agree with him, he’s not insulting to those who don’t. He’s welcoming and engaging conversation, treating his audience like intelligent, decent people. We tend not to agree on the issues but he rightly calls out the BS on both sides. Given his political leanings, he naturally sees more of it on the Right than the Left. But he at least tries to be intellectually honest and consistent in his principles."
I suppose I could take a cheap shot by noting the similarity of Digby's screed to Mao's dictum that "art must serve the interests of the workers, peasants and soldiers..." but I won't go there. Let's just say that if anyone ever needed an example of the stereotypical humorless liberal, I think we found Exhibit "A".

UPDATE: Replaced entire post with better version cross-posted at "Donklephant"

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Elections Have Consequences -
Wisconsin Heart of Darkness Edition

Wisconsin Favorite Sons
Cannibals Jeffrey Dahmer and Eddie Gein

Memeorandum informs us the Madison, Wisconsin protest story crested the Yossarian* threshold and is now a mandatory post for all political bloggers.

Full Disclosure: Your loyal blogger has a few issues with the state of Wisconsin. I have driven the full length of the state more times than I care to remember, as there is no choice when transiting from Chicago to our family lake-side cottage in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Wisconsin produces little that is edible with deep-fried cheese curds the epitome of state cuisine, is responsible for foisting tasteless macro-brewed beers out of Milwaukee on the rest of the nation, is best known as the premier breeding ground of world-class serial killers (Eddie Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer being two examples of note), experiences periodic outbreaks of widespread community madness (Black River Falls), famously re-enacts the Vietnam war during deer season (with real bullets), and not coincidentally - is the home of the Green Bay Packers. Yes I am still bitter about the NFC Championship game. But I digress...

Having won the Wisconsin gubernatorial election in November, Republican Governor Scott Walker set out to do exactly what he said he would do as a candidate. This outraged many Democrats and liberals both in and out of the state, who apparently believe he should govern more like the Democrat who lost.

A few days ago Rachel Maddow sounded the liberal alarm and, as is often the case, her clarion call is the clearest articulation of the progressive case. We learn from Rachel that nothing less than the entire future of the Democratic Party is at stake in Madison, Wisconsin. Recall that the Democratic Party was characterized as a juggernaut only two short years ago, riding an unstoppable permanent demographic realignment over Republican Party roadkill with an open highway of political dominance rolling out before them. Yet now, suddenly and inexplicably the Democratic Party is facing political extinction in Madison, Wisconsin:

There is a downside to being crystal clear in your argument. You can be shown to be clearly wrong. Such is the case with the first claim of Maddow's case, that the state fiscal problems were all ginned up by the new governor. Politifact reports she clearly got her facts wrong:
"There is fierce debate over the approach Walker took to address the short-term budget deficit. But there should be no debate on whether or not there is a shortfall. While not historically large, the shortfall in the current budget needed to be addressed in some fashion. Walker’s tax cuts will boost the size of the projected deficit in the next budget, but they’re not part of this problem and did not create it. We rate Maddow’s take False."
The rest of Maddow's argument - that this is really all about money flow to Democratic Party - has merit. In fact, the right and left completely agree on this point. John Fund via Da Tech Guy:

'Labor historian Fred Siegel offers further reasons why unions are manning the barricades. Mr. Walker would require that public-employee unions be recertified annually by a majority vote of all their members, not merely by a majority of those that choose to cast ballots. In addition, he would end the government’s practice of automatically deducting union dues from employee paychecks. For Wisconsin teachers, union dues total between $700 and $1,000 a year'

This is what this is all about, nothing else, that’s why the biggest guns in the democratic party are fighting this fight. They know those dues will end up funding their campaigns, if they lose this fight here it’s all over..."
Isn't it great when the right and left, Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives can come together, be of one mind and agree on the facts? Krugman echoes Maddow's thoughts, saying this is all about power for Republicans, yet with a partisan blind spot as big as Wisconsin, he fails to notice that this is also all about power for Democrats. And no - this is not a "false equivalency". This is as equivalent as it gets.

Democrats believe that Republican politicians are the beneficiaries of corporate largess and consequently vote taxpayer funds into profits for private contractors, "public-private" partnerships, and contracts for unnecessary weapon systems, with the expectation that portions of said profits are funneled back into supporting Republican campaigns. Republicans believe that Democrats continually increase spending on the size of the public sector and legislate union-friendly rules in order to increase the base of forced dues payed into union coffers which in turn funnel money back into supporting Democratic campaigns. They're both right. May the circle be unbroken. Kumbayah.

This is one reason (among many) why The Dividist is so adamant that neither party can ever be trusted with all the keys to the castle. Ever. Without exception. Regardless of individual candidates. But I digress...

Meanwhile, back in Madison, the public sector unions have again organized protests at the steps of the capitol to exercise their Democratic right to shut down the Democratic process and subvert the Democratically expressed wishes of the Wisconsin electorate, in order to be sure that the money flow to the Democratic Party is not interrupted.

The irony was not lost on Joe Klein:
"An election was held in Wisconsin last November. The Republicans won. In a democracy, there are consequences to elections and no one, not even the public employees unions, are exempt from that. There are no guarantees that labor contracts, including contracts governing the most basic rights of unions, can't be renegotiated, or terminated for that matter. We hold elections to decide those basic parameters. And it seems to me that Governor Scott Walker's basic requests are modest ones--asking public employees to contribute more to their pension and health care plans, though still far less than most private sector employees do. He is also trying to limit the unions' abilities to negotiate work rules--and this is crucial when it comes to the more efficient operation of government in a difficult time...

Public employees unions are an interesting hybrid. Industrial unions are organized against the might and greed of ownership. Public employees unions are organized against the might and greed... of the public?

The events in Wisconsin are a rebalancing of power that, after decades of flush times and lax negotiating, had become imbalanced. That is also something that, from time to time, happens in a democracy."
Patrick McIlheran finds support for the Governor from a surprising historical source:
"Roosevelt's reign certainly was the bright dawn of modern unionism. The legal and administrative paths that led to 35% of the nation's workforce eventually unionizing by a mid-1950s peak were laid by Roosevelt. But only for the private sector. Roosevelt openly opposed bargaining rights for government unions. "The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service," Roosevelt wrote in 1937 to the National Federation of Federal Employees. Yes, public workers may demand fair treatment, wrote Roosevelt. But, he wrote, "I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place" in the public sector. "A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government."
As Klein notes, the politics of power has a way of balancing itself out. The media and Democrats exclusive focus on the union power-play fight over the union give-backs in the "Scott Walker Budget Repair Bill", have allowed some of the possibly more egregious issues buried in this bill to remain relatively unnoticed. As with Democrats in 2009, the seeds of destruction for the resurgent Wisconsin Republicans are being planted now in 2011. Perhaps in this very bill.

I think the Democrats and unions are seriously misreading the temperament of the Wisconsin voters who just elected this Republican governor and legislature. Particularly when Democrats talk about initiating recall campaigns for Wisconsin Republican politicians. As noted above, Wisconsin does have a history of madness and a long standing tradition of eating their own, but this recall campaign is truly delusional, and likely to backfire on Democrats in a big way. Who is more likely to get recalled? Republicans doing what they were elected to do four months ago? Or Wisconsin Democratic legislators shirking their responsibilities and hiding out in Illinois motels?

Well, Democrats are always welcomed in Chicago. Maybe the Wisconsin legislators should stay in their Illinois hideouts. They may find that they will be more welcomed in the President's old Cook County stomping grounds than back in their home districts.

*Paraphrasing Joseph Heller's famous protagonist from Catch 22 - "What if everyone was blogging about about the Wisconsin protests?" I can only respond as did Bomber Pilot John Yossarian: "Then I'd be a damn fool not to".

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Elections Have Consequences
F-35 Alternate Engine Edition

An interesting and surprising story this week offers insight into the difference between the 111th and 112th Congress. The Dividist hopes this is a sneak preview of coming attractions from our new Tea Party infused House of Representatives in the upcoming budget battles.
Obama, GOP freshmen win in jet engine budget fight

WASHINGTON (AP) — Determined to reduce deficits, impatient House Republican freshmen made common cause with President Barack Obama on Wednesday, scoring their biggest victory to date in a vote to cancel $450 million for an alternative engine for the Pentagon's next-generation warplane.

"Right here, right now was a surefire way to reduce spending," declared Rep. Tom Rooney of Florida, a second-term lawmaker whose summons to cut money from the F-35 fighter jet was answered by 47 Republican newcomers...

Strictly by the numbers, the vote was a bipartisan one, with 110 Republicans and 123 Democrats supporting cancellation of the funds, while 68 Democrats and 130 Republicans wanted to leave them in place. But that breakdown obscured the change wrought by the voters last fall. A similar vote in May ended in defeat for opponents of the alternative engine."
Let's review. The alternate engine is a defense pork barrel project that will not die because it is supported by legislators determined to bring home the bacon to their respective district or state. It was opposed by Presidents Bush and Obama, as well as their Secretaries of Defense who considered it unnecessary and a waste of taxpayer money. Nevertheless, Congress continued to allocate billions on an engine the military did not want or need.

Last May, with a Democratic President and large Democratic majorities in both the Senate and House, this project continued to be funded, passing in Nancy Pelosi's House of Representatives by a vote of 231-193.

Last week, in the Republican controlled House of Representatives, despite Speaker of the House John Boehner supporting the continued funding of the unneeded engine, it was finally defeated. Credit to President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates for reaching out to Republican legislators. Kudos to the new crop of Tea Party supported freshmen Republican representatives who stood up to their own leadership.

The Dividist was dubious about the bipartisan lame duck tax and spend compromise passed in the last gasp of the One Party Democratic Regime last December, but this kind of bipartisanship compromise the Dividist can get behind. Score one for Divided Government and the Tea Party.

The Reader may be shocked! shocked! to learn that this fight is still not over. The Democratic controlled Senate may yet restore the funding. I'll leave it to The Reader to figure out where the problem in the Senate may lie. Here is a hint:

There will be a lot money and influence put to work in the Senate in a last ditch effort to restore funding for this boondoggle. There will be bipartisan support. But the Senate rejected this once before and it seems likely that bipartisan support will also be found to reject it again.

The Dividist is optimistic. Pass the popcorn.

X-posted at Donklephant

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Budget Bolero Ballet Begins

Anyone familiar with Ravel's Bolero will instantly recognize the simple musical phrase that is repeated over the entire piece. It begins slowly as a snare drum establishes a military march-like rhythm, joined by a solo woodwind, then a flute, then more instruments are added with every iteration until the entire orchestra is engaged. The piece was written for ballet, is simplistic and highly repetitive, yet as the increasing musical voices repeat the same monotonous refrain, it becomes oddly compelling. The composition was popularized in the movie "10" when Bo Derek declared it as the perfect musical accompaniment for getting screwed. Which, when you think about it, makes the Bolero a perfect analogy for the political process surrounding the federal budget.

On Monday, as the President's proposed budget was released, the right and left executed a familiar pas de deux. On Tuesday the President introduced the budget in a Press conference:

"Just like every family in America, the federal government has to do two things at once. It has to live within its means while still investing in the future. If you’re a family trying to cut back, you might skip going out to dinner, you might put off a vacation. But you wouldn’t want to sacrifice saving for your kids’ college education or making key repairs in your house. So you cut back on what you can’t afford to focus on what you can’t do without. And that’s what we’ve done with this year’s budget...

We also know that cutting annual domestic spending alone won’t be enough to meet our long-term fiscal challenges. That’s what the bipartisan fiscal commission concluded; that’s what I've concluded. And that's why I’m eager to tackle excessive spending wherever we find it -– in domestic spending, but also in defense spending, health care spending, and spending that is embedded in the tax code."
The president is absolutely right. Like the family in his example the US has been overspending for a long time. In fact our extended American family is now spending $5 every year for each $3 of revenue we bring in. Anyone with basic arithmetic skills can easily understand this as problematical and unsustainable. Not to mention - batshit insane.

If one was to quibble with the President's message, it would be with his measured tone, and not the words themselves. The Dividist is just not sure that skipping a few dinners out and cutting back on vacations is going to cut it when the family debt is greater than the gross economic output of the entire fracking planet. Just sayin....

The problem is not with what President Obama says. His message is spot on. The problem is with what he does. The problem is that, despite what he says, the budget he is proposing does not reduce spending. He says we need to "live within our means". This budget does not. He says we need to "cut back" on spending. This budget increases spending. Those of us who are familiar with conventional English usage know that increasing spending is the diametric opposite of "cutting back."

Chris Edwards at Cato:
The chart shows Obama's proposed spending for FY2012 from last year's budget, and his proposed spending for the same year from his new budget. His new budget proposes slightly more discretionary and entitlement spending for next year than did his last budget!
  • Last year, Obama planned to spend $1.301 trillion on discretionary programs in FY2012, but now he plans to spend $1.340 trillion.
  • Last year, Obama planned to spend $2,107 on entitlement programs in FY2012, but now he plans to spend $2,140.

So take that Tea Party!

Obama claimed in his "Budget Message" yesterday that "taking further steps toward reducing our long-term deficit has to be a priority," but looking at his actual budget numbers shows that isn't true."

"Actual numbers" can be so annoying. So black and white. So... indifferent to soothing tones or soaring rhetoric.

The Dividist is going to cut President Obama some slack here. I assume that this budget is a tactical non-serious opening offer in what the administration expects to be a protracted, knock-down drag-out no-holds-barred steel cage match negotiation with Congress. Given the slings and arrows the President suffered from his left flank attacking his negotiating posture on Obamacare and the lame duck tax compromise, we should expect a different opening gambit now.

The administration knows that whatever they put on the table, the need to compromise with the GOP will force deeper cuts into the final budget. So why not start with a budget that makes no cuts whatsoever? It is a good negotiating posture, but the Dividist just can't believe he has the cajones to describe this budget as if it represents any fiscal belt-tightening at all. Even the press corp had a hard time finding anything resembling fiscal responsibility in the proposed budget.

This glaring credibility gap between what the President says and does is the defining characteristic of his first term. This budget may be the worst example yet. Remember when President Obama said there would be no more budget gimmicks to hide the real cost of programs and the impact on the deficit? Remember when President Obama claimed that Obamacare will lower costs and reduce the budget? Well, meet the Mother of all Budget Gimmicks, used to disguise the fact that Obamacare is not paid for. Not even close. This is not a credibility gap, this is a credibility Grand Canyon.

Megan McArdle explains:
"Obama's budget includes a two-year, paid for fix. But how it's paid for is pretty worrying: as Cannon's graph shows, the spending is all done in the first two years, but the cuts needed to pay for them take place over 10 years.
  • Limit the taxes that states can place on Medicaid providers, which has had the effect of increasing the federal contribution to state Medicaid budgets: $18 billion over 10 years
  • Claw back "erroneous payments" to United Healthcare under Medicare Advantage: $6 billion one time
  • Limit the ability of brand name pharmaceutical manufacturers to cut side deals with generic manufacturers to end patent challenges: $8.8 billion over 10 years
  • Shorten the market exclusivity period for biologic drugs from 12 years to 7: $2.3 billion over 10 years
  • Lower Medicaid reimbursements for home medical equipment: $6.45 billion over 10 years
This is a dog's breakfast. First of all, as I noted yesterday, many of these things are having trouble getting through Congress as it is; and second of all, why on earth would you use this motley grab-bag of long-term pay-fors to cover short term spending? The answer, I suspect, is that the cupboard is bare. They don't have any better revenue mechanisms left--everything that anyone even thought was plausible went into ObamaCare. And yet, they can't simply cut doctor's reimbursements by one fifth. So they scrambled for anything at all--and the only way they could come up with the necessary revenue was to stretch the cuts out over ten years, while covering the spending for only two years.

Obviously this is not a sustainable strategy, any more than I can simply pay for an increase in my annual restaurant budget by cutting back on my movie budget for the next ten years--eventually, you've zeroed out the rest of the entertainment budget, and the tab at Komi is still growing. Yet this seems to be the only plan the administration has to pay for the doc fix--a problem that wasn't addressed during health care reform, as far as I can tell, precisely because it was too expensive."
The music plays on.

The Dividist would like to see President Obama re-elected, as he distrusts One Party Republican rule even more than he distrust President Obama. But President Obama is not going to get re-elected if he continues to treat American voters like they are complete idiots. He cannot tell us that increased spending is really a spending cut, and that a massive new entitlement program will save money when it will actually cost money and expect to maintain any credibility.

If he wants to get reelected he needs to outflank the Republicans on fiscal responsibility by supporting the bipartisan recommendations of the deficit commission he sponsored. If he puts the full weight of the Presidency behind the Simpson-Bowles Plan and pushed it to a floor debate, the American people would put their electoral weight behind him.

Shall we dance?

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Friday Flotsam - Special "Hosni has left the building." Edition

It is time once again for the Dividist to stroll down the metaphorical beach of the DWSUWF blog and takes note of the detritus that has washed ashore and cluttered this little island of rationality in the great big blogospheric ocean.

A lot of news floated by this week, with a particularly strong current pushing flotsam out of Egypt onto our distant shores.In addition the usual ebb and flow of partisan tides left a few shiny baubles on the beach that caught the Dividist's eye.

ITEM - The Military Dictatorship is Dead.
Watching the jubilation of the Egyptians in Tahrir square, it is impossible to not feel optimistic, happy about this outcome, and excited about Egypt's future.

The ability for wired opposition to organize using the internet and social networking tools have put a well deserved focus on the role facebook, twitter, and google played in Egypt and Tunisia. However, the Dividist thinks that all should keep in mind that while on-line organizing can help facilitate starting a revolution, bullets can still be effective stopping them. Protesters in Tienanmen Square and Iran learned that hard lesson. The Egyptian military chose to show restraint, and probably not because they were hoping to be friended by Mark Zuckerberg. The simple reality is that all we know now is that a military dictatorship that was a strong ally of the US, firmly supported peace with Israel, and was a 30 year rock of stability in an unstable region, has now been replaced with a military dictatorship that will transition Egypt to… no one knows. This may be the nature of Egypt's nascent Democracy, or....

ITEM - Long Live the Military Dictatorship.
This may be the nature of the Egyptian military dictatorship. The Egyptian military is deeply ingrained in the decidedly un-free market that makes up much of the Egyptian economy, and the senior officers have personal fortunes invested in the status quo. They just may decide that, after due consideration, they themselves are best qualified to continue to run things. There are just not that many examples in history of generals or politicians like George Washington, who refuse political power when it is offered on a silver platter and no one is in a position to resist. We can only hope for the best for the people of Egypt, and hope that there is a George Washington in a position of authority in the Egyptian military hierarchy.

ITEM - Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch.
Some GOP 2012 presidential hopefuls were quick to pick nits about Obama’s handling of these events. No surprise there, but they would be better served and earn more credibility with voters by observing the old dictum of leaving politics at the border, and supporting the President's foreign policy. Or at least, if they have nothing good to say during a critical foreign policy crisis, have the good sense to say nothing at all.

ITEM - All's well that ends well.
My take is that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the administration did a masterful job of walking a very narrow path while carefully avoiding many diplomatic land mines along the way. There were a lot of ways this could have gone very wrong for the US. There still is, but so far so good. I cannot help but think that when Obama got that 3:00 AM call, it was good to have Hillary around to conference in.

Frankly, I have no problem with 30 years of spending a billion dollars a year on the Egyptian military to prop up Mubarak. We bought decades of stability, peace with Israel, and an ally in an unstable region and at a time when and where we really needed an ally. As a bonus we got leverage and a relationship with the Egyptian military that probably served us well during this crisis, no doubt with some deftly pulled strings behind the curtain.

If we get a friendly Democratic government in Egypt (or even if we get a friendly slightly less autocratic government), that $1B/year looks like a real bargain compared to the hundreds of billions we spent to install Democracy in Iraq at the point of a gun. The Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush administrations did what we needed to do over the last 30 years with Sadat and Mubarak, and this administration is doing what we need to do right now to stay on the right side of history in Egypt. Foreign policy done right.

ITEM - 2012 Just got tougher for Democrats
Last fall, the Dividist noted that Democrats would be unlikely to hold the majority in the Senate after the 2012 election:
"Much has been made of the structural advantage the Republicans will have in the 2012 Senate races, a point the Dividist has been making since 2008. Of the 33 Senate races up for consideration 23 seats are currently held by Democrats. Moreover, many of those Democrats are among the putative moderate/conservative class of Democratic Senators that won narrow races in red states, on the strength of the 2006 Democratic wave. In that class are Webb in Virginia, McCaskill in Missouri and Tester in Montana. "
Holding the Democratic Senate majority just got tougher, as incumbent Democrat Jim Webb announced he will not run for a second term in Virginia. Republicans are licking their chops. Democrats are grasping at straws.

As we also noted in the same fall compilation, it is becoming clearer that the only way to maintain our happily divided government and avoid a rerun of One Party Republican Rule in 2013, will be to re-elect Barack Obama in 2012.

ITEM - Speaking of Senators and Divided Government...
Republican Senator Roy Blunt has some good things to say about divided government:
"With a growing number of Democratic Senate colleagues worrying about their political futures, a Republican led House, and even a president willing to reach to the other side of the aisle, U.S. Senator Roy Blunt sees opportunity for bipartisanship. “Divided government gives us the opportunity to do hard things, but both sides will have to be willing,” Blunt said Wednesday afternoon to a news conference with Missouri reporters. “If we’re going to get things done, it’s going to require bipartisan support.”
Of course, in addition to divided government giving Congress the "opportunity to do hard things", it also gives the Congress the opportunity to not do stupid and bad things, like:
  • Squander our treasury and blood to occupy Iraq (One Party Republican Rule)
  • Pass wildly expensive Stimulus legislation that does not stimulate the economy (One Party Democratic Rule)
  • Pass wildly expensive Health Care Reform that does not reform the health care system (One Party Democratic Rule)
  • Irresponsibly increase spending and the deficit to record levels (One Party Republican Rule) until they increase spending and the deficit at an even faster rate and to even more irresponsible higher record levels (One Party Democratic Rule)
We've now had divided government restored for a little over a month. So far, so good.

ITEM - Michael Reynolds still owes The Dividist a bottle of 15 year old Laphroiag

Just sayin'. I am almost out.

UPDATED: Incorrectly identified Blunt's party affiliation as Democrat. He is Republican. Fixed now.

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Gridlock is really good. Really.

The Dividist has complained in the past about the propensity of pundits and bloggers to conflate the concepts of "divided government" and legislative "gridlock". The terms are often used erroneously as interchangeable synonyms. Yet, even the Dividist has occasionally employed this semantic shortcut, such as in the July, 2010 post "Gridlock is Good." In that post the beneficial aspects of partisan legislative gridlock was presented in the form of gridlock preventing a negative outcome - specifically stopping bad bills from being passed into law (see legislative abominations - Porkulus and Obamacare as examples of the damage done when one party has the power to pass legislation on pure partisan votes). The underlying common sense notion is that divided government and partisan gridlock prevent the worst instincts of either party from becoming law. When the moderating influence of legislative gridlock is bypassed, we get legislation no one really understands, except the special interests that helped craft it. So we are treated to the spectacle of our legislative leaders explaining that we won't know what sweeping legislation will accomplish until after it is signed into law. Our legislators may not know what they are passing, but once it gets to the agencies administering the law, the special interests do.

In a recent Cato Institute Policy Analysis, Marcus E. Ethridge (University of Wisconsin Political Science Professor) outlines a new positive argument for the inefficient, constitutionally divided, and often gridlocked legislative process. Ethridge offers a compelling case that our inefficient checked, balanced, and divided government is far less susceptible to special interest influence than the more efficient executive branch agency rule-making process preferred by Progressives impatient for rapid change.

Cato Institute Policy Analysis #672 - The Case for Gridlock:
"In the wake of the 2010 elections, President Obama declared that voters did not give a mandate to gridlock. His statement reflects over a century of Progressive hostility to the inefficient and slow system of government created by the American Framers. Convinced that the government created by the Constitution frustrates their goals, Progressives have long sought ways around its checks and balances. Perhaps the most important of their methods is delegating power to administrative agencies, an arrangement that greatly transformed U.S. government during and after the New Deal. For generations, Progressives have supported the false premise that administrative action in the hands of experts will realize the public interest more effectively than the constitutional system and its multiple vetoes over policy changes. The political effect of empowering the administrative state has been quite different: it fosters policies that reflect the interests of those with well organized power. A large and growing body of evidence makes it clear that the public interest is most secure when governmental institutions are inefficient decisionmakers. An arrangement that brings diverse interests into a complex, sluggish decisionmaking process is generally unattractive to special interests. Gridlock also neutralizes some political benefits that producer groups and other well-heeled interests inherently enjoy. By fostering gridlock, the U.S. Constitution increases the likelihood that policies will reflect broad, unorganized interests instead of the interests of narrow, organized groups."
This is an important read but not an easy one. Etheridge challenges conventional thinking about why special interests hold such sway over public policy. He explores the mechanism by which their financial and lobbying muscle are applied to maximum effect influencing public policy and resources in direct contradiction to the public interest and even legislative intent. Distilling his 20 page argument into a blog post is difficult if not impossible. We will instead excerpt a few representative paragraphs, comment briefly on salient points introduced in his analysis and encourage you to read the whole thing.

Friday, February 04, 2011

My B.A.D.

Once again, Skippy and Blue Gal are carrying the torch and lighting the way for the four year old blogging tradition - Blogroll Amnesty Day. First observed on February 1, 2008, this year the celebration is a bit less festive. It is the first B.A.D. observance since co-founder Jon Swift/Al Wesiel passed last year.

I occasionally wonder why some of the blogs on my blogroll are um... on my blogroll. Then I recall it is a direct consequence of adopting Jon Swift's "liberal blogroll policy" during the 2009 B.A.D. celebration. For those unfamiliar with this notorious bit of blogging lore, I'll let Skippy explain:
"once again, it's time for our yearly celebration of blogroll amnesty day!

readers of this space know that b.a.d. is the holiday wherein we ask everyone in blogtopia (and yes, we coined that phrase) to link to 5 smaller blogs w/less traffic than theirs (no bad jokes about no blogs having less traffic than yours, please).

this way we all can introduce our readers to new voices in blogtopia (and yes, we coined that phrase)' as well as giving greater exposure to blogs which may otherwise go unnoticed.

of course, the impetus for this whole ordeal originated w/our dearly departed friend, the legendary jon swift, aka al weisel, who was quite upset by the original blogroll bloodbath and self-amnesty declaration by those big box blogs who shall not be named.

al, in his guise as conservative blogger jon swift, wondered why so-called liberal blogs would have the least liberal blogrolling policies. we here at skippy international joined al/jon in his mock self-righteousness, and thus, four years ago b.a.d. was born!"
Blue Gal adds some ground rules:
There's plenty of time to celebrate Blogroll Amnesty Day this year. As a tribute to the late Jon Swift, we are running it for a week. Old timers know that this holiday has a rather sullen history, but now it is a happy occasion: On February 3, bloggers are invited to post links to blogs you like, that have smaller traffic than your own. It's a great celebration and a time to discover new blogs and link them and stuff. As I have said in previous years, "not to get all mushy here, but do you know how fucking great it is to be here in the blogosphere? Take a moment. Take it in." Spread some linky love.

Small and newbie bloggers please be aware of the ironclad rule that you are not allowed to make "hey no blog is as small as mine" jokes regarding Blogroll Amnesty Day. The rule is, straight from the queen of the indy blogs herself (ahem), that you are not allowed to complain or mention your blog's low traffic until you have been posting daily for a year.
We cannot let this B.A.D. boy post without quoting Jon's original 2007 complaint:
"This past weekend Atrios, the proprietor of Eschaton, declared a Blogroll Amnesty Day, saying, "one of the big complaints by new bloggers is that it's impossible to get onto blogrolls because established bloggers tend not to add them." I thought that adding new lesser-known blogs to his blogroll would be a wonderful idea. Although for some inexplicable reason that I am at pains to discover, Atrios has never seen fit to link to me, I, nevertheless added Eschaton to my own blogroll and introduced myself to Atrios with a sincerely sycophantic email, since he is after all a blogging pioneer who deserves our respect.

But the more I learned about this Amnesty Day, the more I realized that it was a very strange amnesty indeed. The amnesty he granted turned out to be amnesty for himself. He wanted to assuage himself of the guilt he might feel at kicking blogs off his blogroll instead of granting amnesty to others to swarm across the border into his domain. "Everyone feels a wee bit guilty about removing blogs from their blogroll, so they're hesitant to add new ones to an ever-expanding list," he explained. So Atrios deleted his entire blogroll..."
I do wonder whether B.A.D. will ultimately be consigned to the dustbin of history, as it appears to this blogger that Twitter and Facebook are becoming more significant sources of traffic than the classic blogroll. No matter - Skippy is on the case with twitter hashtags for this year's celebration at #bad2011 and #jonswift2011!

If anyone is so inclined, feel free to follow me on twitter in lieu of adding DWSUWF to a blogroll. I have expanded Jon's liberal blogrolling policy to Twitter, and will follow anyone who will follow me. I now have 13 followers on Twitter although I have yet to send a single tweet and may never send one. I am just curious to see how many twitter followers I can get without tweeting. I'm not saying I'll never send one, just saying... well I don't know what I'm saying. I don't even know why I signed up for the damn thing. I just wish those kids would get off my lawn.

Anyway - some links to blogs that may or may not be smaller than me - just because they are reading and blogging about the same Cato Study that I'll be posting about over the weekend:

Divided and Balanced.™
Now that is fair.