Thursday, January 31, 2013

Republicans Blunder Into The Immigration Minefield-Again

A political cautionary tale
Stinging from an electoral defeat that saw Barack Obama win 71% of the Hispanic vote, Senate Republicans (they tend to be 15% less crazy than House Republicans) have embarked on another legislative push to enact comprehensive immigration reform.  This is not based on any sense that immigration reform is important, or would be good for the country, the economy or their constituents, but rather on a strict political calculation.  The operative assumption is simultaneously that Mitt Romney lost the election because of the Hispanic vote differential, and that all they need to do to win the support of the Hispanic community in America is to somewhat change their position on immigration.

While it certainly isn't obvious that the Republican Party's only problem with Hispanics is their position on immigration, it is also true that any moderation of their most extreme views would help them expand their base of voters.  But therein lies the real problem.  Much of the Republican base, particularly in the South, has shown themselves to be driven by bigotry, racial hatred, nativism and tribal resentment.  The loudest voices in the conservative movement tend to be the most hate-filled, and repeatedly say offensive and ugly things in public venues.

Now that the immigration debate will once again occupy the network news, front pages, magazines and cable tv, led by the odious Fox News, those voices will once again rise in unison, shrieking messages of hatred, divisiveness and intolerance.  In the end, it won't really matter if some watered down immigration reform bill eventually passes - what started out as a political outreach effort will end by setting back the Republican brand among Hispanic Americans by another ten years.

See, the thing is, by definition, voting is limited to American citizens.  They have varying levels of empathy for immigrants, both legal and illegal, and varying public policy preferences.  But the Hispanic-American citizens very much tend to be part of Mitt Romney's '47%', poor, uninsured, incarcerated, high-school dropouts.  They are disproportionately at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, and so, like their fellow fortyseven percenters, the ideology and policy goals of the Republican party, even without the bigotry and nativism, aren't going to resonate with that community.  What difference will it make to a family from El Salvador if they are devout Catholics who are pro-life if they are unemployed and their children are sick? Which message is going to earn their support - "you're on your own" or "government has a role in helping you to succeed"?

So, once again, the Republicans find themselves in a self-inflicted lose-lose debate.  Any support for legalizing the immigrants already in the US, for anything that might lead to citizenship for them, for any kind of moderating policy, even one as common sense as a Guest Worker Program will bring out the worst of the Republican messages on race and ethnicity, from Rush Limbaugh to Michelle Malkin to Tom Tancredo.  And those messages of hatred and intolerance will poison the well for immigration reform yet again.  And even if some cobbled-together coalition of Democrats trying to fix a broken system and Republicans trying to fix a broken party is ultimately able to pass something, it won't change the basic political and economic calculation, and Hispanics will continue to support the party that is obviously working to help them, not imprison and deport them.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Not Even With a Whimper...

How I saw it all playing out in '06
Living through the ugly brutality and breathtaking hubris of the GW Bush years, I increasingly became convinced of one thing.  Though it was hard to say when it might happen, it was crystal clear to me that the American people were being pushed to the breaking point, that the rise of the authoritarian surveillance state that eviscerated the fourth amendment and assumed everyone was a criminal to be watched and regularly interrogated alongside the aggressive militarization of the United States, the blatant, unapologetic, almost gleeful corruption and an intentional rush toward massive inequality would eventually cause the people to rise up and reassert their values.  I took it as nothing less than an article of faith that, at some point, protest and civil disobedience would lead to violent clashes, and as the authoritarian state grew increasingly brutal in its defense of its own privilege, that violence would lead to some kind of open revolt, as the people, seeing their future and that of their children stolen from them, waged war against those who were so clearly stealing it.

Part of the basis for my certainty around this future was the incredible availability of powerful, lethal small arms in American Communities.  That, coupled with what can only be described as the institutionalization of two "tribes" in America, loosely described as "Liberal" and "Conservative" and the rise of ideological hatred and intolerance, seemed to direct all roads to a clash of ideas, of ideals, of values, of hope vs. power.

And when that populist fury exploded with the 'Occupy' protests, I could sense it was beginning.  Sure enough, the mechanisms of the state fought back with excessive violence, and the hate from the 'tea-party' Right was palpable.  All the pieces were in place for the expected paroxysm that would remake America into something different than what it had become.  Then the weather turned cold.  The new TV season started.  People lost interest, wandered off, went home.  Occupy found itself abandoned, without occupants.  Once again, Americans found things just weren't bad enough to sustain real effort, real sacrifice.  They could make it another year, probably, if they didn't get sick and the car didn't break and the rent didn't increase TOO much.

And now we see the rabid, spittle-spewing tea-partying right wing threatening violent revolution, blood in the streets, but not over inequality or an opaque, authoritarian government, but over...proposed firearms regulations.  They say THIS is the tyranny that we have these guns to resist.  THIS is the liberal government overreach that will push us beyond our limits.  Fear us, they say, for we are legion. But you know what?  If we have learned anything from our experience in the last 25 years, it's that this is all talk, no matter how much the individuals believe the fantasy.  When confronted with the stark choice of violent, armed revolt or a couple beers and a barbecued tri-tip, the revolution begins to look less inviting.  And when life, even as it is today, is measured against prison or death, the choice becomes simple, and the talk trails off to a self-conscious silence.

Make no mistake, we can certainly expect to see right-wing acts of violence and domestic terrorism in the four remaining years of the Obama era.  The rhetoric has gotten far too overheated, the issues framed in such apocalyptic, existential terms, that there are those with the right combination of mental illness and ideological indoctrination who will break things and hurt people.  Oklahoma City and Waco and Ruby Ridge have taught us all we need to know about that toxic cocktail.  But will their friends and fellow travelers rise up with them, beginning a fight for the soul of America?  No, of course not.  Their friends will read the newspaper, shake their heads and head off to another day at work.  Because Americans just aren't suffering in large enough numbers, the future is insufficiently bleak and there is still far too much hope for any real popular rebellion.

But there is no hope of ever fixing the system from within.  The electoral system is bizarre, the system of governance is an obsolete oddity, and the entire process is deeply corrupt at its very core.  Either the wealthy will find a way to keep the system in some kind of equilibrium, with enough people earning enough money to keep a lid on the fear, frustration and hopelessness over the long term, or, much more likely in my estimation, they will continue to follow the edicts of their own greed and hubris, and at some point Americans will burn it down and start over.  But if we have learned anything, it's that a reckoning like that is a long way off.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Intervention in Mali - Who's the Enemy?

French Freedom Fighter
The narrative reads just the same as it did in Afghanistan and Iraq.  The West needs to intervene in Mali because the North was captured by groups of al Quaeda influenced and supported Jihadis who will launch regional and even international terrorist attacks from any secure base they can take.  But I'm not sure that's the real reason, even as I am certain it should not be.  It seems likely that it has been judged to be the most effective marketing message supporting intervention, like selling laundry detergent on the basis of how it smells, rather than how well it cleans your clothes.

Mali is just the latest epicenter for the argument over international humanitarian intervention.  But it shouldn't be.  Mali is not like Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Syria.  In general, I support the theory of humanitarian intervention.  I believe that wealthy, powerful nations have some responsibility to the rest of the world, and to sit idly by and watch thousands of innocent civilians be slaughtered by powerful military or para-military forces, as they did in Rwanda and Bosnia, is just as much a war crime as any prosecuted at Nuremburg.  The key, however, must be a realistic assessment of the benefits and shortcomings of such an intervention.  It is clear, for example, that military action against the regime in Syria would widen the conflict and result in more death and suffering, while making any post-conflict rapprochement more difficult.

Mali is different in a number of ways.  By tradition, the Malian people are colorful and inclusive, a community of merchants, farmers and traders who love music, dancing and celebration.  While 90% Muslim, Mali was not one of those dark grey nations of fundamentalist brutality and vicious misogyny. The population in the south, outside the harsh environment of the Sahara, is African, largely descended from slaves captured farther south.  In the North, the population - about 10% of the country as a whole - is more Arab and Berber, with stronger historical ties to Egypt and Arabia than with Africa.  So when the latest in a series of Tuareg separatist revolts was co-opted by Arab Jihadists, primarily funded by Wahabbi fundamentalists in Saudi Arabia, the Malian population had every reason to fear.  And sure enough, the foreign occupiers imposed a savage interpretation of Shari'a Law, requiring beards and veils, banning music and dance, destroying ancient Sufi shrines and mutilating those it found to be criminals.

It's an interesting thing about fundamentalist religious law.  It is always something that is desired by a minority, and must be imposed on the larger population.  People very seldom want their leadership to control their lives at that level, and they aren't typically overjoyed to have such a stringent set of rules enforced in such a violent and uncompromising fashion.  So the Malian government asked the world for help.  And their former Colonial master, France, had fortunately maintained close economic and diplomatic ties to the government in Bamako.

So keep these distinctions in mind when you read about the conflict in Mali, and think about yet another Western intervention.  First, the West isn't acting to topple the existing regime, they are defending it.  Sure, the coup makes that somewhat problematic, but certainly not so much as an arbitrary decision to impose "regime change".  Second, the government ASKED for help.  This isn't an invasion, but welcome assistance to a government and a people who are not powerful enough to protect themselves and their way of life.  And this isn't, no matter what they tell you, about "terrorists".  Islamic fundamentalists, Jihadis and terrorists are all completely different things.  But the foreigners are the ones who invaded Mali, with the intention of imposing an unwanted and primitive theocratic government, one that is the antithesis of democratic governance and human rights.  And finally, for once, the US is not taking the lead.  The French are perfectly capable of handling this intervention, are better suited to it culturally and linguistically, and they are the ones with all the history in the region.  If they want airlift, intelligence or air tanker support from the US, I can't see why that would be a problem.  The US should take the support role rather than the lead much more often, and this is a very good opportunity for America and the world to learn that lesson.

But most of all this is a clear-cut case of a weak nation in need of help, and the wealthy and powerful nations recognizing their obligation to provide that assistance.  This time it's not about oil, not about terrorism, not even about American Exceptionalism - it's just an opportunity to defend the powerless against the powerful, and the world could use a little more of that these days.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Free-Floating Angst

It's amazing, when you start to think about it, how much of our current political dysfunction is predicated on fears that don't seem to be based in any sort of observable reality.  On the right, there is this constant fear that we stand on the precipice of Socialism, and that at any moment the "Liberals" in Washington will confiscate the guns in civilian hands.  On the other side of the aisle, there is a constant refrain that everybody is trying to cut social insurance programs.  And everybody is convinced that the deficit is the primary challenge to American governance.

Of course, everyone actually knows that regulated free-market capitalism with some social insurance programs is not anything like Socialism, but the unfocused trepidation the generally misunderstood word creates is useful to the proponents of theory.  As long as there have been communities, the political leaders have understood that if their policy goals were popular, they would be cheerfully implemented, but if they were unpopular it was necessary to frame them in terms of something even worse.  Thus, the messaging goes, we must accept the sickness and death of millions of uninsured Americans because the alternative is the complete destruction of America as we know it.  Is this logical?  Does it pass even the most careless empirical test?  Of course not - but therein lies the true power of ideology - play on people's fears, hatred, bigotry and resentments, and they will willingly believe whatever outrageous story you choose to tell them, because they understand that the outcome will harm those they hate and fear.

And then there is the ridiculous panic that swells up from the fever dreams of the American Political Right every time someone tries to have a common sense conversation about reducing gun violence in America.  The uncharitable interpretation would be that conservatives don't care about the thousands of deaths caused by the easy availability of deadly weapons, but that can't be right, can it?  After all, they have rushed to spend trillions and abrogate whole swaths of the Constitution and basic American values in the aftermath of the 3000 lives lost over a decade ago in the 9/11 attacks.  So why, then, do so many on the Right conflate basic regulation with outright bans and even confiscation?  There are several reasons, but they are so tightly bundled and tangled it has become impossible to tell where one stops and the next begins.  First there is the rise of apocalyptic rhetoric.  In American politics, with a near-perfect parallel in entertainment, it has come to be viewed as necessary that every problem be an existential one.  The conclusion seems to be that only by increasing the stakes to an unacceptable level can they expect to persuade people to accept their ideologically favored "solution", whatever it might be.  There is also undeniably an essential American-ness about guns, from John Wayne and Audie Murphy to Arnold Swartzeneger and Sylvester Stalone.  To many, guns are part of their identity and they actually do fear any reduction in their access to them.  And there is the evolution of the NRA from an organization representing gun owners to one representing gun manufacturers and sellers, with the attendant rise in highly professional marketing communications that enlist their customers in the protection of their profits.  And they are very, very good at it.

Every bit as calculated and disingenuous is the insistence by so many on the left that just about everybody in Washington is working to reduce social insurance programs, primarily Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  This is taken as an article of faith and repeated endlessly, alongside breathless predictions of the impending end to the any government safety net expenditures.  The problem, of course, is it's pretty hard to find any actual evidence of this position.

In the ACA, legislators agreed to cut almost a trillion dollars out of Medicare, but it was entirely on the provider side - no cuts to benefits whatsoever.  And considering how much more Americans pay for health care services than any other nation, cuts to the providers are quite reasonable.  It's also true that President Obama offered a proposal during budget negotiations to reduce Social Security benefits, but everyone knew it was a red herring, an offer tied to a trillion dollars in tax increases that the Republicans would never accept, and so was nothing but a negotiating tactic.  For people to refuse to acknowledge that the proposal could never pass the House and therefore would never arrive on the President's desk for signature is to be intentionally obtuse, and that tends to signify an ideological agenda rather than an honest evaluation of the political environment.  Then there was the foul GW Bush, who unhesitatingly proposed a privatization scheme for Social Security.  Right Wing think tanks and pundits applauded loudly, but elected officials were notably less sanguine.  In fact, even with the President's cheerleading, no legislative proposal ever even went to committee.  It was President Bush's worst political defeat.  Even now, Republicans demand something they vaguely call "entitlement reform", but they are pathologically unwilling to present specific proposals.  That's because, if you'll recall, they used even the ACA's cuts to Medicare providers as a way to attack the President for "cutting Medicare".  Legislators know that to support specific cuts to social programs leaves them exposed to highly effective political attacks, because outside of Washington DC, social insurance programs are quite popular.   It is telling that even the noxious "Ryan Budget" has backed away from a strict voucherization approach to Medicare, and even so Republicans have suffered repeatedly at the polls for their budgetary fantasies.

And, of course, everybody reaches for that ready-made budgetary cudgel, deficit spending, to beat the other side about the head and shoulders in support of whatever political agenda they wish to demand on any given day.  Deficit financing, of course, is a perfectly normal and sound method of government funding, and is often even the preferred method.  But after decades of using the deficit as a boogie man, no one in Washington has the political courage to say that for fear of looking, quite rightly, like a disingenuous hypocrite.  By now, conventional wisdom has taken hold - people simply KNOW that the deficit is a huge problem that must be "solved", and if and when it is, there will be economic bliss and budgetary peace now and forever amen.  Meanwhile, all the talk of deficit reduction has hurt the economy and prolonged very high unemployment without addressing a single real issue.

It is true that the American system of governance is obsolete, deeply corrupt and dysfunctional, while the electoral system is antiquated and subject to all manner of manipulation and warped incentives.  But even so, there are problems we could be addressing, progress we could be making, people and communities we could be helping if only we were arguing about REAL problems instead of imaginary ones.  The problems we create in our paranoid fantasies and ideological manipulation can never be solved, because we can never imagine a world without them.  And so we occupy all the narrow ground our system allows us to govern ourselves screaming lies and slogans back and forth across the intellectual wasteland of our stunted discourse.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Musings On the Gun Debate

Everybody's an idiot.  This debate may be unique amongst all political arguments for its overwhelming bi-partisan stupidity, delusion and magical thinking.  Sure, the health care debate was incredibly annoying, but at least one side was thoughtful, compassionate, pragmatic and mostly honest.  It was the other side of the debate, with it's lies and paranoia and shrieking about everything from Socialism to Death Panels that provided the ignorance and stupidity that fueled most of the misery.  But now, in a post Sandy Hook political environment that opens the window to some kind of common sense action to reduce the horrific toll of gun violence and the associated terror, no one on either side seems capable of focusing on the basic truths and realities - instead, they all keep shrieking slogans and lies at each other without either thinking about the problem or listening to calm, logical voices.

On the fragility of the 2nd Amendment:
Of course, the leading madness and delusion comes from the Right, primarily due to their recent tendency to take the most extreme, absolutist position on every issue and refuse to consider anything less.  In this ideologically paranoid worldview, there are only two choices - Freedom and Tyranny.  Or in this case, unfettered access to all firearms by all Americans, with no limitations on the right to own, carry or use guns; or a blanket government ban on firearms, complete with criminalization and confiscation.  Now all absolutist and binary positions are stupid, because they prevent thoughtful common sense from entering into the discussion.  It's very easy to see a path to a set of regulations that would reduce the availability of guns in our communities while remaining broadly compatible with the Constitutional Guarantee.  For a group of people so focused on a constitutional provision, they seem to believe it is terribly weak.  In their fevered paranoia, they repeatedly make the claim that "the government" or "the President" is going to ban or confiscate their guns.  But they never seem to think through exactly how this might happen - which would bring them to quickly conclude it cannot.  The government cannot ban guns unless legislators could pass a bill through both houses, the President signed it and the Supreme Court found it to be constitutional.  Since this is a constitutional guarantee we're talking about, that obviously could not happen.  If the President ordered civilian firearms to be confiscated, that order would be illegal and would not be carried out, and the President would very likely be impeached.  The fact of the second amendment and it's broad interpretation by the courts stands as the protector of gun ownership rights, and as a very real practical limitation on those would seek to restrict those rights.  So it is within the terms of the US Constitution that we should all be able to agree on effective regulation.  That we can't is the result of greed, paranoia and delusion.

Nobody NEEDS an AR-15:
Meanwhile, over on the left we're having a pointless argument about banning some particular rifles, not because we have a particular problem with them - they're used in less than 1% of the shootings in America - but, we are informed, nobody needs an assault rifle.  I hear an important argument framed in such a dishonest and meaningless manner and it makes my head hurt.  The statement is true, of course, but then, you can't debate rights and regulations based on need.  What do people need?  Some food, a place to sleep, a pair of trousers.  We don't need golf, or a front lawn, or a ski boat, or carpeting or a flat screen teevee or running shoes or diamond rings or Cadillac Escalades or cigarettes or chocolate chip cookies.  What's need got to do with anything?  Why does anyone think they can frame ANY issue (beyond perhaps health care) in terms of need?  Nobody claimed to need an AR-15, so taking the position nobody does need one gets us not one tiny step closer to solving any real world problem.

Let's just ban semi automatic firearms:
You see an awfully lot of ink and pixels wasted with this idiocy.  Even setting aside that fact that it's both politically and constitutionally impossible - sometimes you have to discuss solutions that can't be implemented in the current political environment - it's also legislatively and practically impossible.  What does "semi automatic" mean?  At it's core, one could take the position that it refers to a gun that fires repeatedly with no user interaction but the pull of the trigger.  But that also includes revolvers and double barreled rifles and shotguns.  And even within the intended universe of self-loading rifles and handguns, there are a huge number of different mechanical implementations.  You couldn't write a law that would cover them.  But, just for fun, let's say you did.  Apparently, the assumption is that the gun makers, with thousands of brilliant designers and engineers would simply shrug their shoulders and run up the white flag.  As they would tell you on the rifle range, Maggies Drawers - clean miss.  They would design new actions that were compliant with the law.  And if you updated the law, they would design further changes.  It simply isn't a battle you can win if you start with a constitutional guarantee that has been broadly upheld by the Supreme Court.

The Limits of Legislation:
Between the constitutional guarantee (which can't be changed) and the legislative environment (which can) there are, tragically, very tight limits to what can be done about gun violence in America today.  I've spoken at length about the practical problems with type bans and magazine capacity limitations, but it's important to recognize that in spite of their virtually non-existent impact on firearms crimes in the US, it's unlikely that even these mostly symbolic actions will be enacted by Congress.  So a realistic approach would take three simultaneous directions.  First, work to keep effective, common sense gun regulations in the public dialog.  This should include product liability and insurance mandates, along with reassurances that the Second amendment guarantee of the right to gun ownership isn't going away in our lifetimes.  Second, we should encourage and support the Executive to take whatever actions they can take through commerce and import regulations.  Anything that can begin to reduce the nightly body count that doesn't depend on courageous congressional action should be done - but the President has to believe it is good politics, not just good policy.  Third, we need to do a better job of electing congresspeople who will stand up to the gun lobby and work to reduce the levels of gun violence, not simply to increase the profits of the gun industry.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead - Maybe

And then there's Sequestration, and then
there's the Continuing Resolution, and then...
I keep reading that the Debt Ceiling crisis is over.  That the Republicans had a retreat in which they "talked their membership down from the ledge", convincing them of the futility and self-destructiveness of putting the full faith and credit of the United States at risk.  Interestingly, reports out of the retreat also indicate that members were encouraged to stop saying stupid and hurtful things about rape.  There's something important to be learned about a political movement that has to tell it's most successful professional politicians that there is little advantage to be gained in saying offensive things about rape.

But the way it's being described, the Republican House leadership will bring a debt ceiling increase up for a vote, with most of their members voting no or "present" and allowing it to pass with overwhelming Democratic support, once again violating the increasingly pointless Hastert Rule.  But it's also being reported that this will be only a 3 month extension and it will come with legislation requiring Congress to pass a budget in that 90 day period on pain of the withholding of Congressional salary.

So far, I haven't heard a response to these positions from the White House, which is probably reasonable in that there has been no formal proposal or specific legislation, so an official response would be premature.  But a lot of the information available has me wondering if we have truly averted a debt ceiling crisis yet.  First of all, would Obama sign a 3 month extension, even if it was clean?  That doesn't really solve the problem of legislation by hostage taking - it's like letting the hostage free, but keeping him under house arrest with a GPS tracker around his ankle.  Obama could rightfully say that there's no kicking THIS can down the road, but he risks being viewed as the one who caused the crisis if it then leads to economic damage.

More problematic than that is the threat of attaching the Budget condition to the debt ceiling increase.  The President has been very clear that he will not allow any conditions to be imposed in exchange for increasing the debt limit, and that would violate the spirit, even if not the letter of that insistence.  There are a lot of people on the political left congratulating the President, exulting in their perceived proof that "Hardball Works".  An administration so often accused of negotiating with itself and preemptively capitulating, they say, has won its most important political victory by drawing a line in the sand.  It will not sit well if there is, ultimately, any condition attached to the "clean" debt ceiling increase they have been demanding.

The demand itself, for that matter, is more Republican political buffoonery.  It's true that Congress has not passed a budget in years, but that's just a matter of legislators not wanting to see their names attached to either unpopular spending or unpopular cuts.  And this years budget is determined already, under the terms of the Budget Control Act passed in 2011, so there's really no need for one, other than those quaint notions of transparency and accountability.  But it's the trigger they would impose that is the real head scratcher here.  If either House of Congress doesn't pass a budget in 90 days, we are told, the legislation would require the withholding of their salary.  Beyond the obviously questionable strategy of taking themselves hostage, it has been pointed out that under the 27th Amendment this is very likely not constitutional.  This from the very people who just last week spent a day reading the Constitution aloud on the floor of the House of Representatives.  I guess none of them was actually listening.

Ultimately, of course, it seems very likely that the President will get a debt limit bill he is willing to sign.  It just doesn't seem that the Republican leadership is willing to own the economic consequences of default.  But, based on what we know so far, it certainly seems as if pronouncements that the crisis has passed might be more than a little premature.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Doughy Pantload
One of the most relentlessly mocked characters in the ranks of the American Political Right is author, pundit and blogger Jonah Goldberg.  And he has earned every bit of that mockery and opprobrium.  He first came to prominence through the vile and grotesque actions of  his mother, Lucianne S. Goldberg in the Monica Lewinsky affair.  His most noteworthy accomplishment was writing the book "Liberal Fascism" in which the premise is so prima facie, indefensibly wrong that the entire thing reads more like satire than any scholarly political work.  And his near legendary laziness, coupled with a lack of physical fitness and a tendency to whine and snivel when challenged led the left-wing blogosphere to christen him with the moniker "Doughy Pantload".

So it was with substantial shock that I read his latest column in the online venue of National Review, pointed there by an equally surprised mention on The Atlantic website.  In the context of another typical bit of conservative myth-making, or more accurately perhaps "myth repeating", Goldberg actually comes out and says something that virtually no one in the movement Conservative intellectual leadership has been able or willing to acknowledge:

Nonetheless, conservatism is a mass-market enterprise these days, for good and for ill.
The good is obvious. The ill is less understood. For starters, the movement has an unhealthy share of hucksters eager to make money from stirring rage, paranoia, and an ill-defined sense of betrayal with little concern for the real political success that can come only with persuading the unconverted. 
A conservative journalist or activist can now make a decent living while never once bothering to persuade a liberal. Telling people only what they want to hear has become a vocation. Worse, it’s possible to be a rank-and-file conservative without once being exposed to a good liberal argument. Many liberals lived in such an ideological cocoon for decades, which is one reason conservatives won so many arguments early on. Having the right emulate that echo chamber helps no one.

Now, critically, he names no names, adopting a weird passive-voice format to point out that "the movement has an unhealthy share of hucksters".  It seems, at first glance, that if your core ideology were being negatively impacted by "hucksters", your primary obligation would be to call them out and have them driven from the ecosystem.  There is, admittedly, a bit of an agency problem here, when this sudden outbreak of honesty and self-awareness comes in the form of projection from a pathetic third tier huckster in his own right.  Jonah knows well the consequences of challenging the top tier, the Limbaughs and Becks and Hannitys that dominate the very conservative echo chamber he laments, and realizes clearly that any specificity in these allegations would lead to his own exposure as the worst of the those who "make money from stirring rage, paranoia, and an ill-defined sense of betrayal...".

To be fair, his challenge was that the very nature of modern movement conservatism makes the goal impossible.  There is no viable ideas left on the right, nothing that contributes to freedom or economic growth or the betterment of their constituency at large.  They have become nothing but the mouthpiece for the wealthy, a wholly owned subsidiary of Rich White Men Inc., playing on the bigotry, sectarian hatred and tribal resentments of a dwindling population for what remains of their power.  If they had anything of value to contribute to the discussion, this call for recognition for those ideas would serve a valuable purpose.  Instead it only offers us a view into a cynical political mindset, one whose leadership recognizes what they do and how they do it, and yet finds it too hard and too risky to change course.

When their leading budget wonk, Paul Ryan, supported wholeheartedly by their leading think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, devise a budget where non-defense discretionary spending falls below 4% of GDP, you know they aren't telling the truth.  When their candidate for President calls half the population of the nation he proposes to lead the enemy, to be defeated and silenced, you know whom they believe they serve.  They are all, from the very top, hucksters and con men, who recognize that their policy goals are toxic and destructive but still use every means at their disposal to implement them on behalf of those to whom they sold, not just their souls, but their minds too.

But kudos nonetheless to Jonah Goldberg.  He didn't try to solve the problem, and he didn't even identify it correctly, but he admitted it exists.  He said clearly what so many of his peers would stand and deny - that the opinion leaders of the American Political Right are dishonest, exploiting hatred and fear and resentment to make money for themselves and gain power for those who support them.  He even goes so far as to recognize the existence of the "echo chamber", that place where ideas without substance can gain currency among those who no longer even consider opposing arguments.  He's also right that the Republican Party is trapped and failing due to it's original successes - it's choice to defend the powerful against the powerless led to much early opportunity, but, having picked all the low hanging fruit, they are left to try to implement the least popular and most destructive portions of their agenda, in a nation that increasing grows exhausted at the inequality, brutality and dysfunction of its political leadership.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Doing the Same Things and Expecting Different Results

But be real careful not to piss anybody off
So now we have the President's agenda on firearms legislation, including both his planned executive actions and his legislative proposals.  It's a pathetic combination of hand waving and feel-good laws and rules that will have NO impact on gun violence in America.  And the sad thing is that our insanity around guns is so deep and so complete that even most of these proposals have little or no chance of passing.

Most of the President's executive agenda (other than "Nominate someone to head ATF" -  Wow - how'd they come up with something that radical?) centers on improving the background check process.  This is fine - there's no reason NOT to do this, and it might actually do some good.  But here's the problem - amidst all this talk about 'strengthening' background checks, you haven't heard any details, have you?  Do you know what they mean when they talk about "strengthening" background checks?  Anyone?  They're talking about including individual's mental health records.  And nobody wants that information made available to any idiot with access to the DoJ database.  There are even laws protecting individual privacy by preventing public disclosure of this information.  It's a dogwhistle, similar to terms like "entitlement reform", and it means making public some of the most private medical information we have.  Whether you think it's a good idea or not, as these proposals wind their way through the regulatory process, they are going to run into resistance from just about everyone in the mental health and privacy community, and may very well find that the whole idea is a non-starter.

Now, there are two problems with background checks.  One is the lack of comprehensive mental health information discussed above, and the other is the so-called "Gun Show Loophole" that actually has very little to do with gun shows at all.  If you buy a firearm from a licensed dealer, he is required to run a background check on you to determine that you are legally entitled to own a gun.  But if you buy a gun from an individual, there is no such requirement.  Now, we can argue quite logically that there SHOULD be universal background checks, but there's a very simple reason why there are not.  An individual can sell his car, his stereo, his dog - anything that he owns - without intervention from anyone.  If someone owns a gun and wants to sell it to their neighbor, essentially the same dynamic applies.  Getting a piece of legislation written and passed in such a manner that could pass muster with the courts has been difficult, and enforcement would be a nightmare.  If we had a national registry of firearms we could easily make it the buyers obligation to provide an update to the ownership record, just as we do with automobiles, but as I have mentioned before, our firearms laws are insane.

So the point is that in a year, we'll have slightly modified our background check regulations and the entire issue will have disappeared from the radar for most Americans who will assume that somebody must have done something after Sandy Hook.  But it's hard to make profound changes to a premise that is so fundamentally flawed at it's root that you're essentially slapping a coat of paint on a burning building.  And even worse, we'll see even these virtually worthless "feel good" laws fail in Congress.  Some say "well, you have to start somewhere", and that's perfectly valid, but if we can't even start here, and must wait for more horrific bloodshed to try again, we're complicit in perpetuating an insane system.

The legislative proposals are for a renewed federal assault weapons ban and federal limits on magazine capacity.  I've gone on at length about the pointlessness of such legislation, but the bottom line facts remain that "assault weapons" bans don't ban guns that do precisely the same thing but don't meet the strict legal definition of an assault weapon, whatever you decide it should be, and that limiting magazine capacity MAY on some occasions reduce the number of people killed in certain mass shooting events (and may not), but will do nothing to reduce the overall gun violence problem in America.  As long as we place no real limitations on manufacturers, importers and dealers, guns will continue to be broadly legal, widely available and ridiculously cheap.  That's the insanity we can't seem to find the will and courage to address.

If you had an elephant in your living room, that would be a problem.  You'd have trouble moving around, he'd get in the way of the TeeVee, he'd often break your stuff, and OH LORD, the piles of poop.  Now, you could try to address this problem by putting him on a leash, spraying him with Febreeze and training him to always poop in the same corner, but what you really need to do is GET THE ELEPHANT OUT OF YOUR LIVING ROOM.  As long as we are doing nothing and yet can find a way to convince ourselves we are doing something that matters, we'll continue to see the same results.  And that's the definition of insanity.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Haunted by Hastert

Hail Fellow, Well Fed
So you're shaking your head in outrage and disappointment over the current debt ceiling standoff.  Why, you're asking yourself, would the United Stated Congress be willing to wreck the US economy in order to accomplish changes to budgetary policy they could not achieve through regular democratic means?  How dare American legislators put their own country and constituents at risk rather than simply governing, proposing and negotiating spending bills that can pass both houses and the Presidents pen?

But here's the thing.  If put to a vote, Congress would raise the debt ceiling today.  Clean, with no demands or offsets, because the debt ceiling is an arbitrary limit that leaves the US government in an impossible bind.  On the one hand, legally obligated to spend the money congress has already authorized, yet legally prevented from acquiring that money.  By a large margin, American lawmakers have a clear understanding of where their obligation lies, even if they don't agree on optimal budgetary strategy.  It is only a small number of Republicans, primarily in the House of Representatives, who would impose their extreme ideological will upon their nation under pain of economic destruction.  So why don't they just have a vote, raise (or even eliminate) the debt ceiling in a responsible manner, and move on without all this brinkmanship?

The answer to that question is something called the "Hastert Rule".  Named after former Speaker of the House Denny Hastert, it is simply a political principle that a Republican majority will only allow a bill to come to a vote if it is supported by a majority of Republicans.  Not a majority of Representatives, but a majority of the majority.  That is to say, a bill requiring 218 votes to pass will not be voted on if it would receive 118 Democratic votes and 100 Republican votes.  This effectively allows the most extreme right-wing lunatics in the Lower House to control American policy, giving them veto power over any legislation, even that which would pass both houses easily.

This is the state of American governance today.  Extreme ideological positions held by a small number of lawmakers, supported by the filibuster in the Senate and the Hastert Rule in the House define the political agenda of a nation that doesn't even support that agenda.  They can be resisted, but to do so results in utter gridlock, with no law able to pass beyond resolutions naming Post Offices.  No matter how increasingly dysfunctional, the status quo remains in effect, and no real problem, even those that common sense tells us would be easy to address, can be solved.

And don't forget, in this dysfunctional miasma of unnecessary crises and ideological brinkmanship, we have two additional drop-deadlines in the next 70 days.  First there is the sequester cuts, which can be thought of as an austerity IED.  The cuts are huge, across-the-board broad, completely untargeted and, it should be remembered, were intended to be too painful to ever allow them to come into effect.  Then, on March 27 the Continuing Resolution, the law that funds the government when Congress is incapable of passing a budget, expires.  While the debt ceiling threatens default, and the sequester cuts threaten Eurozone style recession, the CR threatens government shutdown.  There might well be enough pressure on Speaker Boehner to cause him to violate the Hastert Rule (which he already did on the fiscal cliff deal), and lawmakers may well agree to make the sequester cuts go away (half of the cuts are to the military, and who in Congress doesn't love them some military spending?), but even in that best-case scenario, the tea-party nutbags in the House of Representatives are going to insist - that's right, insist - that they be allowed to shut down the United States government.  All while Americans blissfully watch American Idol...

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Rise of the Machines

Some trends are more catastrophic than others
Labor force participation rates have been in steep decline at least since the collapse of the dot com bubble in 2000.  Arguably, the decline started in 1989 and the overall trend was only masked by the vast hiring free-for-all of the nineties, when everybody who could fog a mirror could at least get a marketing job.

Recently, the news has been full of exciting, hopeful announcements that a significant portion of high technology manufacturing is returning to the United States.  The explanation is that market forces are driving flexibility, customization and quicker time-to-market in such a manner as to require localized, or at least "on shore", manufacturing and assembly operations.  That explanation may even be reasonable, but it's not what's driving these two seemingly unrelated trends.

Have you ever seen a television show called "How it's Made"?  No matter your level of interest in the subject matter on display, you will find this program instructive for another reason.  Just watch the factories and assembly lines - how many people do you see working there?  You'll see a huge amount of automated, high-speed production, but virtually no workers.  Think about the same kind of factory twenty five years ago.  It would have been filled with workers, doing repetitive, menial tasks, operating the cutting, bending and welding equipment that was the basis of fabrication, inspecting the parts, doing the final assembly, packaging and shipping.  But not today.  Today, machines are not just faster, cheaper, more reliable and more precise.  They are smarter, making consistently better decisions, seeing at more wavelengths, gathering and reviewing more information faster than people ever could.

Those manufacturing jobs we keep hearing about - the ones that are returning to the US from low-wage countries in Asia?  These are high technology assembly jobs - classically building smart phones, computers, tablets and networking gear.  Those jobs use very few people.  They are done by automated circuit board machines, automated pick and place robotics, automated final assembly and packaging lines, all with integrated automated Quality Control inspections throughout.  The parts are too small, the volumes too high, and the required precision too fine for people to be capable of doing them.  Of COURSE the jobs would come back to the US once the labor cost was eliminated from the process.  It makes no sense to assemble products in Asia if the assembly work is all being done by machines.

And now it's not just manufacturing.  Phone systems are automated and everyone is expected to type, so the role of secretary is obsolete.  Large scale enterprise software manages entire supply chains, so there are no buyers, no planners, increasingly no project managers.  Machines have the sensors and intelligence to do a better job of inspection, so there are no QC/QA techs.  Warehouses are rapidly replacing people with automated smart pick and pack systems, and inventory manages itself with RFID systems and automated procurement.

Lets face it.  As machines get smarter, more capable, cheaper and even mobile, the number of jobs requiring people is going to shrink, and at some point a tipping point will be reached.  Now, this should be a very good thing, ushering in a new era of rising productivity, unlimited GDP and economic freedom for all.  But does anybody look at the system Americans have built and expect that outcome?  I don't.  The machines will be produced, not by labor, but by the owners of capital.  The goods will be produced, not by labor, but by the machines owned and operated by the owners of capital.  The result will be a larger share of economic activity will flow to the owners of capital, and the share flowing to labor will, as a consequence, shrink.  If you think we are a desperately unequal society today (and we certainly are), just wait until we are competing with machines for jobs.  There will be a huge underclass of unemployable people, people who have few skills but are too slow, too fragile and too expensive to do the work of an intelligent machine.  Is there any reason to expect that those wealthy people and corporations are going to contribute some of their wealth to help those dislocated by the technologically driven change, or even stand by and accept higher taxes so that the community might care for them?

This is not some kind of "future problem" that might affect the next generation.  This is with us today - note the graph.  That is a frighteningly steep decline in people with jobs - or, put another way, in jobs for people - and there is no reason to believe it's likely to turn around any time soon.  No matter what we might do to reduce unemployment, as long as the number of jobs requiring people is shrinking fast, even with fairly strong economic growth we can expect to see stubbornly high, even rising long-term unemployment.  The levels of inequality, of homelessness, of illness and depression and suicide will rise as technology eliminates any hope for a significant and rising number of Americans.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Burn the Boats

Damn, sir, I hope you know what you're doing
There is a story, likely mostly apocryphal, told variously of Greek, Viking and Spanish warriors.  In this story, the commander feels that there is no option but complete victory, so to eliminate any thoughts of "live to fight another day" from the troops, he orders the boats to be burned after the soldiers are landed.  Knowing there is no return path for them, they fight with the focused desperation brought about by being stranded in the enemy land, with the only valid options to win or die.

Which brings us, in a somewhat roundabout fashion, to the vaunted trillion dollar platinum coin - the technocratic solution to Republican hostage-taking on the debt limit that would use a specific law originally intended to facilitate the production of commemorative platinum coins to allow the Treasury to directly fund government obligations without increasing the national debt.  Everyone knows this was a problematic and less than ideal solution - once the government adopted this kind of funding mechanism, there would be no reason for the legislature to ever raise the debt limit, and global markets would be deeply troubled by this impractical shift in funding the largest democratic government in the world.

But that was never the point.  The point is to eliminate any possibility that Congress can use the debt ceiling to hold the American, and even the global, economy at risk in order to get concessions they can't pass democratically - and eliminate it forever.  That means no negotiations, no concessions, not one step in their direction until they back down and raise the debt limit, or preferably simply eliminate the whole, pointless exercise.  In theory, things will get very hot for the ideological holdouts, with everyone from business leaders to defense contractors to hedge fund managers to wealthy individuals to government employees demanding they put an immediate end to their destructive and un-democratic behavior.  But there is simply no guarantee that these intransigent ideologues will back down, or at least that they will back down in time.

The President needed some safety valve, some way of defusing the economic consequences of Republican irresponsibility without surrendering to their demands.  If he saw US markets in free-fall and global markets beginning to fail, he could bring the standoff to at least a temporary halt whenever it became necessary.  It would have made sense for the administration to keep silent on their options, keeping them in reserve if they became necessary for economic survival, but giving no indications that they were planning to use them.  This strategy would actually enable the President to bring maximum pressure to bear, because he would always know he could do so while preventing things from completely blowing up if it became necessary.

But no.  Instead the President decided to burn his boats.  To the great surprise of the economic community, Treasury released an unequivocal statement on the platinum coin yesterday that took that strategy off the table and left no wiggle-room whatsoever.  And I wonder why?  It certainly means that the Republicans can't expect the President to act like the adult in the room and bail out the economy if they go ahead and undertake to wreck it.  But it also smacks of another case of unilateral disarmament, setting the stage for another epic Obama capitulation.  Without a technical solution available, if the President decides to play the role of "the adult in the room" once again, he will have no option available but to once again pay the ransom.  The Republican caucus "knows" two things - that the President has negotiated over the debt ceiling before, and that he ALWAYS backs down.

Now the White House has been very clear that they will not make concessions in exchange for a debt ceiling hike, that they won't even negotiate over it.  They say they are going to bring an end to hostage-taking in American governance, and that the Republicans will bear the consequences.  But the President has made strong statements before, and yet has a well-earned reputation for being a weak negotiator.   It may be that he plans to fall back on the 14th amendment as his escape hatch, but it's worth remembering that he explicitly ruled that out during the last debt ceiling crisis.  Now that he has burned the boats, his choice is stark.  Stand on his (perfectly admirable) principles even as the US economy slides into recession or, once again, surrender to the Republicans' vile tactics and watch the further disintegration of his own credibility and American democratic governance.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Afghanistan Endgame

A thief and a murderer
There has been essentially no reason for US and NATO troops to continue occupying Afghanistan for quite a number of years now.  You could tell this was the case by the convoluted and incoherent explanations of the "necessity" of that occupation from Washington.  It was a simple calculation - the political risk associated with withdrawal has always been greater than the political cost of the occupation, so the President had no incentive to end US military involvement in that blighted country.

But now, things have shifted significantly.  President Obama's political career is, for all intents and purposes, over.   He'll govern for four years, and then assume the ex-President Statesman role that we like to bestow on our political leaders at the end of their tenure.  Political "risk" takes on a more abstract meaning at this point, meaning risk to the party in general and its standing in Congress rather than direct political risks to the President himself.  Additionally, underlying the predictable American apathy towards international matters is a pretty powerful drumbeat of disgust and dissatisfaction with America's great Afghan adventure, being, as it is, well into its second decade.  Even Americans can see that there is no cohesive national Afghan identity, the government is weak and corrupt, the people tribal, unsophisticated and narrow minded, and that violence is a permanent, endemic feature of the culture.  They see no reason for their country to waste lives and resources in such a place.

The risk was always one of a post-withdrawal terror attack on US soil or interests, leaving the President and his cabinet open to accusations of negligent weakness and unnecessary vulnerability.  But between the soured public opinion and the President having already won reelection to his second term, he has a great deal more freedom to limit the US role and withdraw at least most of the troops than he did even just last year.

So what happens then?  That depends on the strategies adopted by the US, and to a lesser degree, on those implemented by the Karzai government in Kabul.  The US has a long term military interest in Pakistan, a much more dangerous Islamic global player than Afghanistan has ever been, so they will likely want to retain access to Afghan bases.  For that matter, President Karzai cannot remain in office even for a month if he is abandoned by the Americans, so while there is a basis for a (fairly cynical) agreement between them, there is also the possibility that Washington would rather let Karzai fall and deal with his successor - depending, of course, on who that might be.  There will be negotiations with the insurgent factions, including Mullah Omar's original Taliban, the Pakistani ISI and various Afghan tribal warlords who will want their seat at the table.

Sooner or later, however, Afghanistan will descend into a state of civil war, as shifting alliances and weapons flows are matched and countered.  There will almost certainly eventually be a Pashtun Taliban-type government with strong Sunni fundamentalist principles and a powerful opposition led by the Dari-speaking tribes of the North.  Assuming that something along those lines more or less comes to pass in the next couple years, the whole bloody exercise will have been for nothing, returning smoothly and without notable progress to the pre-2001 status quo.

Contained within the Afghan (and Iraq) debacle will be an important lesson about the limits of military power in a modern, globalized era.  The US would be very well suited to keep her troops at home.  It appears that at this point we've learned the lesson, but choose to implement it in a perverse and vile fashion.  We'll keep the troops at home and murder foreigners in their homes and cars with lethal flying robots.  Of course, I expect the backlash to that to be very unpleasant, so it might have a very short shelf life.  Or it might be seen as the only solution to world full of lethal flying enemy robots.  One probably should not indulge a particularly high set of expectations.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Cuts Like a Knife

DoD - Defending the Money Since 1940
The Republicans in Congress insist on reducing the deficit with deep cuts in federal government spending rather than raising government revenues to accommodate the spending Congress has already authorized.  Now, while the insistence on spending cuts alone, with an utter refusal to consider various schemes to increase revenues, is a ludicrous ideologically-driven policy position, it is clear that, where it can be done in a manner that makes sense, spending cuts are immensely preferable to tax increases.  Taxation is an onerous, if necessary burden on people and families, and to whatever extent the government can supply the services demanded by its constituents with a lower tax regime, the better it will be for all.  While defining a budget deficit as strictly a "spending problem, not a revenue problem" is a transparent ruse that wouldn't fool a third-grader, it makes sense to examine spending closely before turning to revenue increases.

In America, however, we have huge spending programs that could be cut significantly but that are entirely off-limits to the discussion.  The largest, by far, is the Orwellian-named "Defense Budget".  We have very little to defend against.  There are no conventional military threats to the United States - the only real defense programs we actually need are the very large scale - strategic deterrence - and the very small scale - the threat posed by trans-national extremist political groups.  On the one hand, the US could maintain its strategic deterrence with something on the order of 100 nuclear warheads, divided between submarines, land-based ICBMs and cruise missiles.  On the other, terror groups are a problem best managed by intelligence agencies and law enforcement, so the military's involvement could be limited to special operations strike capabilities.

Certainly, any talk of significant reductions in defense spending are unrealistic in today's political environment, so talk of a 75% or greater reduction is pure fantasy, but it's an important exercise to think about it, as it quickly becomes apparent that it could actually be done.  Everywhere you look you see ridiculous levels of excess.  The US has 10 active nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, with three more under construction.  If the US had only three Carrier Groups, it is true that it would greatly curtail an aggressive global posture, but that would not increase the threat of attack on the United States, and other nations would take up the slack, actually contributing to the American economy with advanced weapons sales.

When you heard the talk in the recent "fiscal cliff" negotiations of a trillion dollars in spending cuts over ten years, it is helpful to realize that could be accomplished with a 100 billion dollar annual reduction in the Pentagon budget.  For that matter, fully HALF could be accomplished with 50 billion dollar annual cut, and much of the balance could be found in wasteful and pointless Homeland Security programs, from much of TSA's security theater to counter-terrorism aid to local governments.

The point is that, in the next 20 years, health care spending, particularly on the elderly, can be expected to increase to something on the order of 10% of GDP.  We can also expect a large and growing pool of permanently unemployed/unemployable people as more and more jobs are done by intelligent machines instead of humans.  As such, the current ideological resistance to a higher tax/higher services society will necessarily break down in the face of the actual consequences of life in a modern technological society. Many things that are inconceivable today will suddenly become very conceivable in the mid-term future.  It is often said that America's ongoing budget problems exist because we refuse to face the "hard choices".  Today this is mere rhetoric, but it won't be long before the real hard choices start to manifest themselves.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

America's Next Economic Crisis - A Continuing Series

These days it's much harder to write a ransom note.
You have to cut the letters out of the screen..
America's appalling inability to govern itself has come to manifest itself in a series of crises, where the lying and posing and intransigence lasts right up to, or typically even shortly after, the last possible moment, whereupon some band-aid agreement is reached that defuses or at least postpones the crisis without addressing any of the larger issues.  The fact that our political leadership fully recognizes this dysfunctional dynamic is evidenced by the fact that these serial crises are entirely artificial in nature, unnecessary artifacts of the attempts of a failed institution to force itself to act.  Last week, a basic question of tax policy took our nation's economy to the brink, before being resolved in a simple and rational adjustment to the tax law.  Of course, Congress still found itself paralyzed and unable to solve the other half of the "Fiscal Cliff" crisis, the sequestration cuts that were intended to create an artificial crisis in the first place.  These pointless, irrational across-the-board cuts were merely postponed for two months, leaving them to become part of the next unnecessary, artificial crisis, the much steeper economic "cliff" represented by the debt ceiling.

If there's any anomalous artifact of America's massive failure of governance that leaves other nations shaking their heads in wonderment it is the debt ceiling law.  It's not enough that Congress controls the purse strings, being the sole government body that can authorize spending and the collection of sufficient revenue to cover the spending they order.  To a large degree, the Executive Branch merely exists to administer the spending ordered by Congress.  And of course, being not just a single dysfunctional body, but rather two dysfunctional bodies with opposing majorities and substantially different constituencies, Congress has long found it impossible to responsibly raise sufficient revenue to cover their appropriations.  This does not relieve the various agencies of government from their obligation to carry out the spending legislation passed by Congress, so they are left with a revenue deficit they must cover by borrowing money.  But of course, Congress didn't stop there.  They passed yet a further law, this one placing a hard cap on the amount of debt the government can issue.  This puts the government in the impossible position of being legally obligated by Congress to spend money they are legally prevented by Congress from raising.

And, inevitably, we find ourselves at that point again.  The Republicans in Congress, unable to pass their unpopular, destructive and toxic legislative agenda any other way, are now going to hold the entire global economy hostage, promising to wreck it if they don't get their way.  Unfortunately, President Obama has consistently felt he was obligated to play the role of the "adult in the room" and give in to these sorts of ultimatums in order to prevent serious damage to the economy.  But even as the Republicans believe he will once again acquiesce to save "the hostage", he seems to recognize the long term risk to America's well being, not to mention his own legacy, brought about by his willingness to negotiate under these terms, and is loudly promising a flat refusal to negotiate to raise the debt ceiling.

So what happens next?  Well, the American government still has its regular sources of revenue.  The funds that the Treasury is blocked from raising are those required to close the deficit, the difference between what is to be spent and the revenues available.  If we assume the deficit this year is a trillion dollars, that would mean a shortfall of about 80 billion dollars a month, or about 6% of GDP.  That's HUGE, and the President will have to figure out who gets paid and who doesn't.  If a US default is considered the worst outcome, that can be avoided.  And it would only make sense that the President would allocate funds in such a manner as to bring the maximum pressure to bear on Congress to simply raise the debt limit.  That would mean issuing IOUs to defense contractors, government vendors and consultants, and furloughing non-essential government personnel.  It would mean an immediate cut-off of aid to states, and a sharp reduction in government programs.  All these people, organizations, institutions and corporations would then be expected to loudly and clearly demand that Congress raise the debt limit immediately.  If history is any guide, about the time these types of extraordinary actions become necessary, Congress will recognize they had once again waited until the last second to act, and they will agree to raise the debt ceiling for another year or two.  Once again, the crisis will be averted, but the problem will not be solved.

What happens if Congress can't come to an agreement, and things start to get ugly?  In theory, the President has a couple of options, both of which are fraught with risk.  First, under the 14th Amendment which prevents the government from legally defaulting on its debts, the President could simply declare the debt ceiling unconstitutional and order the Treasury to issue debt in spite of the law.  The problem is that the bond markets would see that as a different class of debt, bonds with a large asterisk next to them, and would likely insist on a higher rate of return for them.  And if, ultimately, the Supreme Court ruled against the President, what would happen to those bonds and their bondholders?  Second, there is a unique provision in US law for one particular type of currency.  Here we have Subsection (k) of 31 USC § 5112 "Denominations, Specifications, and Design of Coins":

(k) The Secretary may mint and issue platinum bullion coins and proof platinum coins in accordance with such specifications, designs, varieties, quantities, denominations, and inscriptions as the Secretary, in the Secretary’s discretion, may prescribe from time to time.
Under a literal reading of this section, the President could instruct the Treasury to mint a couple of trillion dollar platinum coins and place them on deposit with the Federal Reserve, which would serve as a replacement source of revenue.  The problem here is this would remove any pressure to raise the debt ceiling from Congress, and might, in the end, serve to permanently institutionalize the debt limit at the current level.  This would turn a gimmicky stopgap funding measure into the primary source of revenues to cover deficit spending, and would have unknown effects on the global economy.

At this point, we cannot know how it will all turn out.  We can safely assume that any solution will come down to the very last possible moment, and will likely be partial and temporary in nature.  In this case the President is faced with more than a political problem - the "weaponization" of the debt limit is far too dangerous to the American, and for that matter, the global economy to be allowed to continue to exist.  The President should not agree to ANYTHING in exchange for raising the ceiling - but he should consider nothing short of the elimination of the debt ceiling law entirely.