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Here's Why I Never Warmed Up to Bernie Sanders

| Fri Apr. 29, 2016 1:25 AM EDT

With the Democratic primary basically over, I want to step back a bit and explain the big-picture reason that I never warmed up to Bernie Sanders. It's not so much that he's all that far to my left, nor that he's been pretty skimpy on details about all the programs he proposes. That's hardly uncommon in presidential campaigns. Rather, it's the fact that I think he's basically running a con, and one with the potential to cause distinct damage to the progressive cause.

I mean this as a provocation—but I also mean it. So if you're provoked, mission accomplished! Here's my argument.

Bernie's explanation for everything he wants to do—his theory of change, or theory of governing, take your pick—is that we need a revolution in this country. The rich own everything. Income inequality is skyrocketing. The middle class is stagnating. The finance industry is out of control. Washington, DC, is paralyzed.

But as Bill Scher points out, the revolution that Bernie called for didn't show up. In fact, it's worse than that: we were never going to get a revolution, and Bernie knew it all along. Think about it: has there ever been an economic revolution in the United States? Stretching things a bit, I can think of two:

  • The destruction of the Southern slave economy following the Civil War
  • The New Deal

The first of these was 50+ years in the making and, in the end, required a bloody, four-year war to bring to a conclusion. The second happened only after an utter collapse of the economy, with banks closing, businesses failing, wages plummeting, and unemployment at 25 percent. That's what it takes to bring about a revolution, or even something close to it.

We're light years away from that right now. Unemployment? Yes, 2 or 3 percent of the working-age population has dropped out of the labor force, but the headline unemployment rate is 5 percent. Wages? They've been stagnant since the turn of the century, but the average family still makes close to $70,000, more than nearly any other country in the world. Health care? Our system is a mess, but 90 percent of the country has insurance coverage. Dissatisfaction with the system? According to Gallup, even among those with incomes under $30,000, only 27 percent are dissatisfied with their personal lives.

Like it or not, you don't build a revolution on top of an economy like this. Period. If you want to get anything done, you're going to have to do it the old-fashioned way: through the slow boring of hard wood.

Why do I care about this? Because if you want to make a difference in this country, you need to be prepared for a very long, very frustrating slog. You have to buy off interest groups, compromise your ideals, and settle for half loaves—all the things that Bernie disdains as part of the corrupt mainstream establishment. In place of this he promises his followers we can get everything we want via a revolution that's never going to happen. And when that revolution inevitably fails, where do all his impressionable young followers go? Do they join up with the corrupt establishment and commit themselves to the slow boring of hard wood? Or do they give up?

I don't know, but my fear is that some of them will do the latter. And that's a damn shame. They've been conned by a guy who should know better, the same way dieters get conned by late-night miracle diets. When it doesn't work, they throw in the towel.

Most likely Bernie will have no lasting effect, and his followers will scatter in the usual way, with some doubling down on practical politics and others leaving for different callings. But there's a decent chance that Bernie's failure will result in a net increase of cynicism about politics, and that's the last thing we need. I hate the idea that we might lose even a few talented future leaders because they fell for Bernie's spiel and then got discouraged when it didn't pan out.

I'll grant that my pitch—and Hillary's and Barack Obama's—isn't very inspiring. Work your fingers to the bone for 30 years and you might get one or two significant pieces of legislation passed. Obviously you need inspiration too. But if you don't want your followers to give up in disgust, your inspiration needs to be in the service of goals that are at least attainable. By offering a chimera instead, Bernie has done the progressive movement no favors.

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Campaign Reporters Fess Up: They Really Can't Stand Hillary Clinton

| Thu Apr. 28, 2016 5:46 PM EDT

Last month Politico polled 80 campaign reporters about this year's race. It turns out they hate Nevada and Ohio but love South Carolina—mainly because it has good food, apparently. They think Maggie Haberman is the best reporter covering the race, and Fox News has done the best job of hosting a debate. Donald Trump has gotten the softest coverage, probably because they all agree that "traffic, viewership, and clicks" drives their coverage.

And who's gotten the harshest coverage? Do you even have to ask? It turns out that even reporters themselves agree that it's not even a close call:

Help Us Make Conservatives Even More Miserable

| Thu Apr. 28, 2016 2:56 PM EDT

The progressive movement is being torn from within. It’s close to a civil war. The fault line runs straight through the heart of the Democratic coalition, but not through Mother Jones. We stand on one side of the chasm, while many of our friends have set up shop on the other. And quite a few others think they can stand with one foot on—

Oh wait. That's actually Jonah Goldberg writing an epitaph for the conservative movement and begging for money for National Review. I tried to rework it for MoJo's spring fundraising drive, but it just doesn't fit. There's no liberal equivalent of Donald Trump. Also: the prose is a little too purple for my taste.

So how about this: If you donate some money to us, we'll use it to try and make Jonah even more miserable. That's a movement I can get behind! And we accept either PayPal or credit cards.

Click here to donate via PayPal.

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Obama Is Right: Reagan's Tax Cuts Didn't Revive the Economy

| Thu Apr. 28, 2016 2:34 PM EDT

Here is President Obama, in the course of defending his economic performance:

If we can’t puncture some of the mythology around austerity, politics or tax cuts or the mythology that’s been built up around the Reagan revolution, where somehow people genuinely think that he slashed government and slashed the deficit and that the recovery was because of all these massive tax cuts, as opposed to a shift in interest-rate policy — if we can’t describe that effectively, then we’re doomed to keep on making more and more mistakes.

This train has long since left the station, and Republicans are dead set on making sure it never returns. But that doesn't mean Obama is wrong. He's not. Even conservative James Pethokoukis acknowledges this:

A recent Brookings literature review noted that Martin Feldstein and Doug Elmendorf found in a 1989 analysis “that the 1981 tax cuts had virtually no net impact on economic growth.” They find that the strength of the recovery over the 1980s could be ascribed to monetary policy. In particular, they find no evidence that the tax cuts in 1981 stimulated labor supply.

Feldstein was Reagan's chairman of the CEA, so he's hardly some liberal shill trying to take down Reagan's legacy. As I noted a few years ago, there were five main drivers of the 80s boom. In order of importance, they were:

  1. Paul Volcker easing up on interest rates/monetary aggregates in 1982
  2. The steep drop in oil prices after 1981
  3. Reagan's devaluation of the dollar
  4. Reagan's deficit spending
  5. Reagan's tax cuts

Conservatives will never admit any of this, but there's no reason the rest of us have to go along with their fairy tale about Reaganomics. Taxes matter, but they simply don't matter nearly as much as they claim, and it's long past time for the mainstream press to acknowledge all this. It's hardly controversial anywhere outside the Fox News bubble.

Economic Growth Slows to 0.5% in First Quarter

| Thu Apr. 28, 2016 2:07 PM EDT

The economy grew at a sluggish 0.5 percent annual rate in the first quarter. The main culprits for the poor performance were downturns in durable goods, nonresidential construction, and defense spending. This is the third year in a row in which growth has been poor in the first quarter, which means that one-off excuses about snowstorms and so forth don't really hold water anymore. But it might be a statistical artifact. Jared Bernstein says "there’s some concern with the seasonal adjusters, which some argue are biasing Q1 down and Q2 up." I guess we'll have to wait until Q2 to find out.

Even if that's true, however, growth is still fairly listless, averaging around 2 percent per year. It's yet another indication that the global economy remains fragile and the Fed should think twice before raising rates any more than they've already done.

High-Risk Pools Don't Work, Have Never Worked, and Won't Work in the Future

| Thu Apr. 28, 2016 11:59 AM EDT

Even among conservative voters, Obamacare's protection of people with pre-existing conditions has always been popular. In a recent Kaiser poll, it garnered 74 percent approval from Democrats, 70 percent approval from independents, and 69 percent approval from Republicans.

Technically, this protection is guaranteed by two different provisions of Obamacare: guaranteed issue, which means that insurance companies have to accept anyone who applies for coverage, and community rating, which means they have to charge everyone the same price. But popular or not, Paul Ryan wants nothing to do with it:

In election-year remarks that could shed light on an expected Republican healthcare alternative, Ryan said existing federal policy that prevents insurers from charging sick people higher rates for health coverage has raised costs for healthy consumers while undermining choice and competition.

...."Less than 10 percent of people under 65 are what we call people with pre-existing conditions, who are really kind of uninsurable," Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, told a student audience at Georgetown University. "Let's fund risk pools at the state level to subsidize their coverage, so that they can get affordable coverage," he said. "You dramatically lower the price for everybody else. You make health insurance so much more affordable, so much more competitive and open up competition."

It's true that the cost of covering sick people raises the price of insurance for healthy people. That's how insurance works. But there's no magic here. It costs the same to treat sick people whether you do it through Obamacare or through a high-risk pool—and it doesn't matter whether you fund it via taxes for Obamacare or taxes for something else. However, there are some differences:

  • Handling everyone through a single system is more efficient and more convenient.
  • High-risk pools have a lousy history. They just don't work.
  • Implementing them at the state level guarantees a race to the bottom, since no state wants to attract lots of sick people into its program.
  • Ryan's promise to fund high-risk pools is empty. He will never support the taxes it would take to do it properly, and he knows it.

This is just more hand waving. Everyone with even a passing knowledge of the health care business knows that high-risk pools are a disaster, but Republicans like Ryan keep pitching them anyway as some kind of bold, new, free-market alternative to Obamacare. They aren't. They've been around forever and everyone knows they don't work.

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Quote of the Day: John Boehner Sure Doesn't Think Much of Ted Cruz

| Thu Apr. 28, 2016 10:50 AM EDT

From former House speaker John Boehner, asked what he thinks of Ted Cruz:

I have never worked with a more miserable son of a bitch in my life.

The interesting thing about this is that it's not very interesting. It's just par for the course for Cruz.

Democrats Have a Class Gap. Republicans Have a Generation Gap.

| Thu Apr. 28, 2016 12:48 AM EDT

What are the big fault lines within the Democratic and Republican parties? According to a recent Pew report, Democrats have a class gap: Democratic elites are far more liberal than less educated members of the party. But there's not much of a generation gap: old and young voters are pretty similar ideologically.

Among Republicans, it's just the opposite. They have a huge generation gap, with older voters skewing much more conservative than younger voters. But there's no class gap: their elites are in pretty close sync with the party base. The raw data is here, and the chart below shows the magnitude of the difference:

This is interesting, since the most talked-about aspect of the Democratic primary was the astonishingly strong preference of young voters for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton. But why did they prefer Bernie? The obvious answer is that they're more liberal than older Democrats and therefore preferred his more radical vision—but the Pew data says that's not the case.

So what is the answer? The age gap could still explain a bit of it, since young Democrats are a little more liberal than older Democrats. And the class gap could also explain a bit of it, since Bernie voters tend to be both young and well educated. But even put together, this doesn't seem like enough.

Obviously there was something about Bernie that generated huge enthusiasm among younger voters. But if it wasn't ideology, what was it?

Weekly Flint Water Report: April 16-22

| Wed Apr. 27, 2016 5:24 PM EDT

Here is this week's Flint water report. As usual, I've eliminated outlier readings above 2,000 parts per billion, since there are very few of them and they can affect the averages in misleading ways. During the week, DEQ took 302 samples. The average for the past week was 15.03.

The Media Weighs In On Carly Fiorina

| Wed Apr. 27, 2016 5:12 PM EDT

The reviews are in on Ted Cruz's choice of Carly Fiorina as his running mate. Can you spot the consensus opinion?