Sunday, November 9, 2014

Plaid butterflies and other political visions

Like all good liberals I’ve been in mourning for the last few days.  I thought I was recovering, but I guess not.   So even though I generally try to stay largely rantless, I’ll allow myself this one rant as therapy.   

“Still in mourning” may not be quite right; it’s more that I’m still very concerned about what may happen in the next few years.  In fact I’m uncomfortable about some of the early things we’re already hearing from the new majority in the Senate---Mitch McConnell saying, for example, that if Obama uses his legal authority as President to do anything sensible about immigration that would be like “waving a red flag in front of a bull” to the newly elected Senators.   I’m shaking my head in utter flabbergastion, if that’s a word: Senator McConnell, what, exactly, has not been a red flag to Republicans over the last 6 years?  Your entire careers have been built on purple-faced rage, spittle-filled bellows and gnashing teeth.  If Obama bent over and kissed your---um, feet---that would be a red flag to you.  Why is it, Mr. McConnell, that Obama always has to please you, whether you win the election in 2010 or 2014, or lose it in 2008 or 2012?  Why do you never have to worry about waving red flags in front of the rest of us, which you do constantly? 

And there was a letter to the editor in the Washington Post yesterday, wondering if this election would mean we could come to some kind of “compromise” on the Keystone XL Pipeline.  What did this letter writer have in mind?  This is basically a binary decision, yes or no.  Build it or don’t.  What does a binary “compromise” look like? Is he suggesting that we build half of the pipeline?   Perhaps we should build segments in alternating states---maybe build the segments through Montana, Nebraska and Oklahoma, and leave out the segments through Texas, Kansas and South Dakota?  Or maybe he’s thinking the Republicans will offer something the Democrats want in return for building the full pipeline.  What is he thinking the Republicans are likely to offer?  My guess is: nothing.  To Republicans, nothing but complete collapse from the other side is acceptable, and real compromise is not an option they will consider. 

Frankly, I do expect the pipeline to be approved.  Obama has been waffling on it for years, which means that he won’t fight against approval when Congress sends that bill to his desk.  So the Post’s letter-writer will get his way: Obama will accept a Republican-style one-sided “compromise” on the pipeline, and get nothing in return.  

Of course what bothers me most is my expectations about what a Congress dominated by modern Republicans will do to the economy, and to government.  I expect them to decimate both.  Their economic beliefs seem to me to be so wrong-headed, so blind, that they will almost inevitably blunder us into a new recession.  The Fed is looking forward to raising interest rates next year, because they expect that we are finally returning to what they think of as a normal, fully employed economy.  I think that would be a little optimistic even if we did not have this group of budget-slashers about to take control of the Senate.  The next round of sequester budget cuts are to be enforced in January, and I expect the Republicans to insist on them---except, of course, for defense spending, where they will want sequester relief.   I expect Obama to accept this “compromise” as well, since his inner heart has always tended toward fiscal hawk, and that dose of austerity will slow what looks like a still meager recovery.   And of course we will face a new round of debt-ceiling negotiations somewhere around next March.  So my hazy expectation is that by the end of next year the steady fall in the unemployment rate may have stalled.   The numbers will still be much better than they were two years ago, so it won’t cause panic.  But by the middle of 2016, after the full impact of a new Republican budget, we may be where Europe is now: stalled completely and facing a possible new recession.   The Fed’s hopes for a “normal” economy, where they can once again use a positive interest rate to restrain corporate investment exuberance in excess of our potential production limits, may be gone.

That’s what I expect, to be honest.  But I may be wrong.  I hope I am.   In 2008 a large number of conservative economists made terrible predictions about what would happen if the Fed continued with monetary stimulus too long, or if we tried a fiscal stimulus.  They predicted soaring interest rates and inflation.  They were wrong, or at least they have been wrong so far, but I believe they were sincere in their beliefs.  Like Yogi Berra said, “predictions are tough, especially about the future.”    And these expectations I have are really no more than mood right now; I haven’t even done so much as a back-of-the-envelope calculation.  We don’t yet know what the Republican budget will really be, so we have no basis for a calculation even as rough as that.

So maybe, hopefully, my predictions are wrong too.  Maybe the recovery is stronger than it seems.  Maybe it’s truly robust, a surging tide that can’t be stopped.  Maybe the new Republican Senate will want real compromise, rather than one-sided collapse from Democrats. Maybe their budget cutting zeal has been sated, at least a little, by sequester and all the rest, and they will pass budgets that actually get things done.  Maybe the whole capital will soar into the blue, blue sky carried by a flock of paisley butterflies.

But it will be entertaining to watch the Senate struggling with the inevitable Ted Cruz bill to repeal Obamacare.  In order to pass it they need 60 votes, unless they eliminate the need for cloture---in effect, eliminate the filibuster in the Senate, by some parliamentary maneuver, for this bill.  But if it’s possible for this majority to do that for this bill, it’s possible for any majority in the future to do it for any bill.  McConnell is not so blind that he can’t see the danger for himself, and for his own party, in that.  At least maybe he’s not.  And maybe he can control Ted Cruz and the rest of the Senate Republicans.

Maybe the butterflies will be plaid.

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