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Will Obama face a primary challenge?

[ 141 ] August 2, 2011 |

Last week Bernie Sanders suggested it would be a good idea, and today I would guess a lot more people agree with him.

They are all losers, from the White House to both houses of Congress,” said political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia. “The condemnation is universal. People are just disgusted with them.”

But Obama may have taken the most damage. Boston University political history professor Thomas Whalen predicted he’s lost friends on his own side with a compromise with Republicans that “probably guarantees some kind of liberal opponent to President Obama in 2012,” he said.

“I think there are a lot of ticked-off people on the Democratic side here, because President Obama, he’s basically giving (the GOP) 80 percent of what they want. I don’t see how he can declare some kind of political victory here.”

At this point a primary challenge would almost certainly be a purely quixotic gesture. Obama has already raised nearly $50 million for his re-election campaign, and it’s difficult to even come up with a name of a plausible opponent (Sanders says he’s not interested, and Obama campaigned hard for Russ Feingold last fall, which would seem to eliminate the two most obvious choices).

Beyond that, would a primary challenge by a prominent progressive be a good thing? This in my view is a difficult question to answer at the moment. The disadvantages of such an effort are obvious. The argument for it turns on the extent to which one believes that the difference in the current attitude of the GOP and the the Democrats towards their bases (fear and contempt, respectively) represents a problem for progressive politics. Given that Obama has done nothing in two and a half years that has displeased neo-liberals (except to the extent that neo-liberals agree with progressives on various issues; in other words Obama has done nothing that any Democrat this side of Zell Miller would consider too “left”), and an enormous amount that has angered progressives, some pushback is probably desirable. But without a plausible candidate for what would almost surely be a symbolic gesture, such speculations are probably academic in the worst sense of the word.

Update: At Davis X. Machina’s suggestion:

Silver linings

[ 145 ] August 2, 2011 |

There’s no reasonable defense of the substance of the debt deal on even vaguely liberal, let alone progressive, grounds. (The extent to which the Democrats were stuck with that substance because of a combination of procedural perversity and GOP lunacy, as opposed to their own ideological bad intentions and political incompetence, is a separate topic).

A couple of notes:

(1) The claim that the deal doesn’t cut Medicare benefits gets those who make it an F in Econ 101. Cutting reimbursements to providers is a functional cut in benefits.

(2) It’s unfortunate that the increasingly desperate struggle to protect the most prominent features of what remains of the social safety net obscures the fact of how deep these budget cuts are in terms of the rest of the government’s functions. As Dean Baker points out, if you make the reasonable assumption that the cuts going forward will mostly exempt entitlement programs, the military, and unemployment insurance, that means that something close to a third of the rest of the federal budget is going to get cut. It would be nice to fantasize that this consists mostly of subsidies to Archer Daniels Midland and bridges to nowhere, but in point of fact the rest of the budget consists of essentially everything the federal government does that doesn’t involve direct transfer payments or killing foreigners. Given that we’re not living in 1890 any more that’s actually quite a few things that are pretty important: education, science, environmental protection, infrastructure, health and safety, the entire federal legal system, and so on.

Now on the bright side:

(1) There seems to have been a big shift in the mainstream political discourse toward the idea that the Pentagon’s budget shouldn’t continue to grow at 9% per year, as it has over the last decade. Even a lot of right wingers are making noises about cutting military spending, although who knows how long that will last the next time somebody with an Arab name kills a white person. In any case, we’re at least at a point where Bill Kristol and John Bolton are beginning to worry that we may no longer be quite as eager to invade whatever country annoys them next week.

(2) The complete ideological incoherence of the Tea Party wing of the GOP, i.e., we need a balanced budget amendment but don’t touch our Social Security or Medicare, has had no apparent effect on its political salience. I’m growing more optimistic that Bachmann has a real shot at the nomination, and that Obama will face an opponent whose platform consists of demanding extremely unpopular cuts in government spending while launching investigations into exactly what the queers are doing to the soil.

Paul Krugman is shrill

[ 85 ] August 1, 2011 |

Shorter Krugman: Coffee is for closers.

Republicans will surely be emboldened by the way Mr. Obama keeps folding in the face of their threats. He surrendered last December, extending all the Bush tax cuts; he surrendered in the spring when they threatened to shut down the government; and he has now surrendered on a grand scale to raw extortion over the debt ceiling. Maybe it’s just me, but I see a pattern here.

Did the president have any alternative this time around? Yes.

First of all, he could and should have demanded an increase in the debt ceiling back in December. When asked why he didn’t, he replied that he was sure that Republicans would act responsibly. Great call.

Meanwhile John Boehner:

Remember how this all started: the White House demanded a “clean” debt limit hike with no spending cuts and reforms attached. We stuck together, and frankly made them give up on that.

Then they shifted to demanding a “balanced” approach – equal parts spending cuts and tax hikes. With this framework, they’ve given up on that, too….

Now listen, this isn’t the greatest deal in the world. But it shows how much we’ve changed the terms of the debate in this town.

Under the circumstances, it’s easy to forget that Democrats control the White House and the Senate, and that we live in a country where taxing the rich is extremely popular, and cutting entitlements is extremely unpopular. This is like giving up a three-run game-winning homer to Mario Mendoza.

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Help us Obi-Wan Pelosi: You’re our only hope

[ 86 ] July 31, 2011 |

The Democrats are slowly figuring out that in the long run it doesn’t pay to negotiate with the political equivalent of suicide bombers.

“We all may not be able to support it,” she said. “And maybe none of us will be able to support it.”

Liberals in her caucus are set to revolt. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), a leader among House progressives, blasted the deal in an official statement earlier Sunday.

“”This deal trades peoples’ livelihoods for the votes of a few unappeasable right-wing radicals, and I will not support it,” he said.

As for what alternatives are available to allowing the lunatic wing of the GOP to send the economy off a cliff, here’s an interesting suggestion.

Update: In the wake of Obama’s announcement of a deal Pelosi issued a very equivocal statement, saying that she looked forward to reviewing the agreement with her caucus “to see what level of support we can provide.”

I used to be disgusted

[ 154 ] July 31, 2011 |

Now I try to be amused.

The deal they were discussing, this person said, resembled the bill that Mr. Boehner won approval for in the House on Friday more than it did the one that Mr. Reid had proposed.

It would immediately raise the debt ceiling by about $1 trillion, accompanied by a similar range of spending cuts, and set up a new bipartisan committee that would work to find deeper cuts in exchange for a second debt limit increase that would extend through the 2012 election.

A failure of the new committee to win enactment of its proposal could then set off automatic spending cuts across the board, including to entitlement programs.

Of course nothing fills the Village with joy like a bipartisan committee. (The Ghost of David Broder may arise just to write a column about this triumph of the sensible center over partisan politics). The Democratic leadership appears to be trying to sell this thing by claiming that automatic cuts in defense spending will “force” the committee to come up with something more palatable than the big cuts in Medicare and non-military discretionary spending which will also automatically take place next year.

Upate: The proposed deal may be slightly less horrible that it appeared at first glance, in that the Bipartisan Committee will consider tax increases as well as spending cuts. (That the automatic cuts in Medicare are framed as coming out of the provider side rather than from beneficiary payments is mostly a political fig leaf, given that direct cuts to providers will to a significant extent become indirect cuts to beneficiaries). I doubt the current Congress will actually go for any recommendation that includes real tax increases, and therefore the most likely outcome of this deal is that the automatic cuts will take place.

In sum this deal will probably result in fairly massive spending cuts and no revenue increases, at a time when the economy remains in a deep recession in all but the narrowest technical sense. That this is happening under a Democratic president and a Democratic Senate naturally raises the question of the extent to which the Democrats in general and Barack Obama in particular are getting rolled, and the extent to which this outcome reflects something close to the genuine policy preferences of large swathes of the contemporary Democratic party.

CNN gives its readers a wide range of views on how to solve the budget crisis

[ 41 ] July 29, 2011 |

Ranging from a former GOP senator, to another former GOP senator, to another former GOP senator, to another former GOP senator, to a former GOP congressman, to Ronald Reagan’s budget director.

All balanced out by this guy . . . sorry, this guy.

Favorite album covers

[ 143 ] July 29, 2011 |

As we slouch toward the Eve of Destruction, it fills me with a certain melancholy to contemplate the passing away of many features of a once-great civilization. One in particular, first severely wounded by the scale of the digital compact disc, and then slain altogether by the mp3 player, is the vinyl record album cover.

Here are two three personal favorites:

on the beach

london calling


Feel free to link to others in comments.

Life On the Dole

[ 108 ] July 28, 2011 |


One of the most devastating economic effects of long-term structural unemployment is that a significant number of people become more or less permanently unemployed. The political effects of such unemployment, however, are complex. Consider this passage from The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell’s 1936 study of the effects of the Great Depression on the industrial areas of northern England: Read more…

Drinking and driving don’t mix, except in NASCAR

[ 37 ] July 27, 2011 |



It’s been a busy day in the world of high profile athletes and drunk driving.

First, former NBA star and current TV analyst Jalen Rose was given 20 days in jail for drunk driving. Rose’s sentence is remarkably harsh in that it was a first offense, and that a test at the time indicated he was not far over the legal limit of .08% BAC (.088%; although a subsequent blood test indicated a BAC of .12%), and he was involved in a minor one-car accident in which no one was hurt. The judge in Rose’s case is notorious for being very harsh with drunk driving cases, so this doesn’t seem to be a case of disproportionate sentencing based on celebrity status.

Meanwhile, NASCAR driver Michael Annett got a suspended sentence, a $200 fine, and 48 hours of community service for rear-ending a car stopped at a light last February (Charges of resisting arrest and unlawful use of a mobile phone were dropped. His driver’s license was also suspended for a year, but apparently you don’t need a valid driver’s license to compete in NASCAR. It’s like rain on your wedding day).

The remarkable aspct of Annett’s case is that he had a BAC of .32 when arrested, which for most people would be falling down drunk/bordering on fatal alcohol poisoning. According to this calculator, I could drink seven Martinis in a few minutes and not get to a BAC of .32

Americans tend to have very inconsistent attitudes about driving while impaired, depending on the source of the impairment, and the outcome. For example few people seem to get morally outraged about using a cell phone while driving, even though there’s evidence to suggest that cell phone use (let alone texting — it’s incredible how many people will text while driving) is as dangerous as Jalen Rose-levels of drunk driving.

And I’m sure Annett would have gotten a much harsher sentence if his accident had seriously injured or killed someone, despite the fact that he would have been engaging in precisely the same behavior.


[ 60 ] July 23, 2011 |

Amy Jade Winehouse (14 September 1983 – 23 July 2011)

Good age for baseball players, bad age for music icons.

Why do people read papers at academic conferences?

[ 61 ] July 22, 2011 |


I mean literally read them when giving a “talk.” This practice gives unfortunate credence to Alfred North Whitehead’s remark that the university has been obsolete since the invention of the printing press. Hearing someone read a paper is a far less efficient communication process than just reading it yourself. (This is especially aggravating when the paper has been distributed beforehand).

I’ve heard the practice defended by people who point out that not everyone is a good extemporaneous speaker, which is true, but it makes me wonder what such people do in their classes. How are they adding value exactly? Of course some people are skilled at mixing reading from a prepared text with apt interpolations, expansions, digressions, etc., which is a different thing. But too often in recent years especially I’ve run into the faithful oral transmission of written text (often accompanied by the dreaded Powerpoint “enhancement” of key paragraphs).

Grover Norquist and the metaphysics of taxes

[ 48 ] July 22, 2011 |

When I first read this passage from Norquist’s NYT Op-Ed this morning regarding what counts as a violation of the no new taxes pledge he authored 25 years ago, I hadn’t had any coffee yet and it made no sense whatsoever:

Finally, there has been much confusion — some of it my fault — over whether the ending of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts or the A.M.T. “patches,” scheduled for Dec. 31, 2012, should count as a tax hike. If they are ended, the government will take in nearly $4 trillion more over the next decade than if they remain.

My position, and the implications of the pledge regarding such “temporary” tax cuts, is clear. If there were no vote in Congress and taxes rose automatically, then no politicians would have voted for higher taxes and no elected official would have broken his or her pledge.

But that is different from supporting a plan by some Democrats that would end some [!] or all of these lower tax rates, higher per-child tax credits and the A.M.T. patches
— policies that, by the way, Congress has extended repeatedly with bipartisan support. It is difficult to see how such a package would fail to violate the Taxpayer Protection Pledge. Contrary to the hopes of some that I am somehow softening the pledge, it is stronger and more important than ever: it has made it easier for members of Congress to credibly commit to voters that they will refuse to increase taxes and instead focus on reducing the cost of government.

Did you follow that? If all these lower tax rates expire without further legislative action then members of Congress who allow this to happen will not have raised taxes. But if members vote for a bill that (among other things I suppose) “ends some or all of these lower tax rates” then that does count as raising taxes.

What’s going on here? Theories:

(1) Norquist is all twisted up in some devious game where he wants to kill any “grand bargain” in the works.

(2) He adheres to some very strange act/omission distinction in regard to the politics of taxes.

The second possibility is more interesting. It would track with what to me has always been one of the weirdest quirks of the anti-tax theology of the contemporary GOP, which is its otherwise inexplicable objections to “wealth redistribution.” The “logic” of the position seems to be something like this: It’s OK for government to collect taxes to pay for government services, but it’s not OK to take money people have earned and give it to other people who haven’t earned it. This view requires maintaining various distinctions that collapse under the slightest intellectual pressure, which is one reason great care is taken to never exert any (the anti-intellectualism celebrated on the right is among other things a pragmatic strategy).

Norquist’s otherwise strange act/omission distinction makes a certain degree of sense in this broader context. The basic underlying metaphysical assumption appears to be something like, “There’s a natural economic order. Interference with that order is bad. Legislative action interferes with that order. Legislative inaction does not. Therefore higher taxes that result from legislative inaction are not tax hikes, while precisely the same tax rates — or even tax rates that are lower overall than the present baseline; note the “some” in the quoted passage — resulting from legislative action are tax hikes.

If Norquist and his ilk really do adhere to this kind of distinction, then it becomes more obvious than ever that there’s no reason to compromise on the expiration of the Bush tax cuts.

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