Mountain Sun

Mountain Sun

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hard Times

Washington's bipartisan response to joblessness continues down the wrong and damaging road of austerity strategies and budget cuts.  

I can't help but be reminded of Stephen Foster's classic "Hard Times Come Again No More."  Written prior to the American Civil War, the song is frequently treated as a historical piece.   It shouldn't be--the theme of economic despair and extreme disparities between rich and poor is once again the soundtrack to our current American economic folly.   Here are two covers for this remarkable song.  First, Mavis Staples.

Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears, 
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh Hard times come again no more.

Chorus:Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh hard times come again no more.

While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh hard times come again no more.


There's a pale drooping maiden who toils her life away,
With a worn heart whose better days are o'er:
Though her voice would be merry, 'tis sighing all the day,
Oh hard times come again no more.


Tis a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
Tis a wail that is heard upon the shore
Tis a dirge that is murmured around the lowly grave
Oh hard times come again no more.


Another excellent version by the supergroup composed of James Taylor, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O'Connor.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Next Disappointment: Obama to Back Simpson-Bowles as Budget Debate Starter

Booman: "I don't get disappointed by a whole lot because my expectations are so low."
And when the president makes budget cuts at a time when increased federal spending is one of the only ways to reduce unemployment, of course it is frustrating. But I think it shows a degree of political immaturity to not understand that the president is going to take credit for brokering a deal that both lowers the deficit and keeps the government open. The alternative wouldn't have helped unemployment either. The alternative wouldn't have prevented a lot of people from being hurt or inconvenienced. 
Part of what is annoying me is that everything is being put through this prism where government spending goes in and a rainbow of awesome stuff comes out. Yes, in the particular situation we finds [sic] ourselves in, more government spending makes sense. But, as a general matter, our government spends way too much fucking money, which is why we are trillions of dollars in debt with no end in sight to the bleeding. When I hear people moaning that the president is legitimizing budget cuts, it just rubs me the wrong way.
Well yeah, if you view Obama as nothing more than "a broker"--a disinterested neutral party who's sole task is to establish an agreement between two competing sides, then he did everything he should have done.  But we didn't elect Obama to be a neutral broker.  And liberals didn't expect that Obama would be using the other side's talking points.  We didn't expect that he'd simply abandon our own arguments and inhabit theirs.  If calling out Obama and most other Democratic leaders on that point rubs Booman the wrong way, I'm very sorry about that.  Get used to it.

While Booman does see the need for deficit spending now, his belief that government spends too much generally is both unsubstantiated (at least by Booman)  and untimely.  Now is not the time to worry about deficits.  One reason liberals are angry, I think, is that there are a bunch of economists out there who strongly disagree with all the deficit kool-aid being drunk by people who should know better--including Obama and most of the current Democratic leadership. Liberal economists tend to see the deficit scam, including efforts like the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Commission, as economically harmful.  Premature deficit-reduction measures, they argue, are highly damaging to an economy in which true unemployment is hanging in the vicinity of 16% or so (I haven't seen the latest U6 unemployment number but it is somewhere in that area).  Instead, they see the entire deficit argument as an attack on vital socioeconomic institutions that huge numbers of Americans depend on.  But such economists, like this one, either can't or won't be heard by Obama:
The Simpson-Bowles Commission, just established by the president, will no doubt deliver an attack on Social Security and Medicare dressed up in the sanctimonious rhetoric of deficit reduction. (Back in his salad days, former Senator Alan Simpson was a regular schemer to cut Social Security.) The Obama spending freeze is another symbolic sacrifice to the deficit gods. Most observers believe neither will amount to much, and one can hope that they are right. But what would be the economic consequences if they did? The answer is that a big deficit-reduction program would destroy the economy, or what remains of it, two years into the Great Crisis.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Who Won the Budget Deal?

Two weeks ago, prior to much of the budget insanity we've been subjected to, Salon's Andrew Leonard wrote a piece titled  How to tell if Obama is losing the budget showdown .   It was subtitled "A quick and dirty scorecard for would-be judges".   I suggest we all need to be judges of what just transpired, because this showdown was not a final act.  It was not "High Noon".  High Noon is still in front of us. There are much more important budget battles to come, and how our leadership performs in these battles is going to impact everything, going forward.  The Tea Party fully understands this.  Just after the deal was cut, Lawrence O'Donnell reported that leading Tea Partiers had already called for a primary against Boehner.  Their pressure on him and their House Reps. will be non-stop.

Photo: André Karwath via Wikimedia Commons 
In spite of Obama's "pragmatic" rhetoric during the battle, budgets are not just about getting the mail delivered and the potholes filled.  They are in fact moral documents that show what the social and political priorities of the nation are.  And because there are such radical and reckless conservative views holding sway on the other side, we had better pay very close attention to how the Democratic side did. This isn't a political beauty-pageant.  This stuff matters.

One thing I like about Leonard's piece (excerpt below) is that it was written prior to much of the latest manueving we've seen, and obviously long before the final decision was reached last night, by which time both sides were busily spinning how each had won the battle.  Leonard posed three tracks along which the budget negotiations might travel [emphasis added]:

So here are three scenarios that could play out in the next two weeks that will allow us to score this fight.
1) The Democrats offer cuts equaling the House Leadership's original proposal, minus social policy riders. Facing a rebellion from hard-line members, House Republicans reject those cuts as insufficient and force a government shutdown.
Score: Big win for Democrats. Public perceives them as willing to compromise, while judging Republicans too extreme. This, in turn, dramatically affects ensuing fight over raising the debt ceiling, as well as negotiations on the 2012 budget and entitlements. 
2) The Democrats offer cuts equaling the House Leadership's original proposal, minus social policy riders. House accepts.
Score: Win for Republicans. Speaker of the House John Boehner plays his hand perfectly, gets bigger cuts than the conventional wisdom expected originally, avoids blame for government shutdown, strengthens position for follow-up. 
3) The Democrats offer cuts equaling, or exceeding, the House leadership's original proposal, plus some social policy riders. House accepts.
Score: Huge win for Republicans.  

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Hopeless Left, As Obama Launches Re-election Run

I recently had the lucky opportunity to attend talks by two well known and influential liberals who work in different fields--one of the many benefits of living in a town with a big university.  The first of these was Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law Professor whose effort and concern focuses on US campaign finance reform, election reform, and the like.  The second was James Galbraith, a liberal economist.  Among other things, Galbraith is concerned with issues of economic equality (more specifically, the lack of it).

I'd heard or seen both speakers before, but this time I heard their talks about a month apart, in person.  Galbraith's was just a couple of days ago.  Both were excellent, and both were presentations that had been given before, to other audiences.  Lessig has since uploaded the particular version I heard and so it is placed below.  Warning: this version is just under 40 minutes long.  Those wanting a shorter but equally excellent version can see it here at an earlier post on this blog (hit link and go to bottom of that post).

In his concluding unscripted remarks, Lessig posed a rather hopeless view of the money-in-politics problem.  He likened our republic to a patient suffering from some horrible and fatal illness (no argument here), and admitted that in such circumstances a doctor might choose to go on treating that patient, even though there wasn't any reasonable hope for a cure.  Lessig was saying that he didn't see victory or anything like it on the horizon, but is choosing to struggle on is the only thing he can do.  It struck me as a surprisingly pessimistic statement for a liberal leader to make in public.

Galbraith's talk focused on another problem altogether, that of economic policy and the great bank failure of '08.  The talk was essentially identical to this one which he first gave about four months ago--just after the disastrous midterm elections.  When first given, the piece was ambiguously-titled "Closing Remarks".  A few weeks later, it bore the much sharper heading "Whose Side is the White House On?", published at New Deal 2.0.    Finally, AlterNet made it personal and published the piece as "Galbraith: Whose Side is Obama On?"   It is the angriest talk I have heard or read from Galbraith.  Read the entire thing--it's short and absolutely non-boring.  Here are some representative bits [bolding added]:

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"One Toke Over the Line" by Lawrence Welk

And now for your weekend viewing pleasure here is Lawrence Welk doing "A modern spiritual", One Toke Over the Line.  Commentary by Mr. Welk following the number.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Job Growth Continues Positive in March, But Do Public Sector Layoffs Threaten Longer Term

Employment had respectable gains in March, with all 216,000 new jobs coming from the private sector.  The growth helped to extend a continuing decline in unemployment rates--both for new unemployment claims (U3--the one typically used in media discussions on employment) and for the more comprehensive (and realistic, I think--U6) "Total and Marginally Unemployed".  The two unemployment rates are now under 9 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

Here's a chart showing where we are currently on both unemployment measures (click on graph for larger, interactive version).

Reuters reporting on today's numbers includes the following:

The private sector accounted for all the new jobs in March, adding 230,000 positions after February's 240,000 increase. Government employment fell 14,000, declining for a fifth straight month as local governments let go 15,000 workers.
If public sector job loss remains at these levels, it may be that they will not threaten this very modest recovery.  But it seems more likely that the worst of the public layoffs are yet to come.  For example, this estimate from the Texas Legislative Budget Board for the next biennium anticipates budget-related job losses to be in excess of 271,000 jobs in the coming fiscal year, and over 335,000 lost jobs the year after that (Texas state budget is appropriated on a two year cycle).  Let's pause a moment to consider these figures.  If I'm reading the numbers right, we're talking about just over 600,000 jobs lost through public budget cuts in just one state over the next two years.  That's an averaged job loss of 25,000 per month for the next two years in Texas alone (the actual losses will of course not be so evenly distributed).  Of this total, it appears that over 340,000 public jobs would be lost directly from budget cuts, with the remaining 260K losses coming indirectly, as the impact ripples through the larger state economy.  For more on the Texas situation, here's one of several good articles from the Texas Tribune.

So looking forward, one question is whether the modest job growth occurring exclusively in the private sector right now can withstand what may be a pretty substantial wave of public layoffs at the state and local level.   Wonder how the above might impact the 2012 election cycle...