Congress DOT Finance

As a New Congress Sets Up Shop, Questions About the Future of Transportation Funding

» With split power in Congress and a compromised executive, moving forward on transportation will be a delicate project, to say the least.

After the 2010 elections, the future of transportation funding in the United States has been subject to yet another round of questioning. Two years of Democratic control over the White House and Congress led to little serious agreement about how to find federal funding for highways and transit; meanwhile, despite advances in the fields of livable neighborhoods and high-speed rail, those programs may be subjected to considerable rethinking or even elimination after the change in power in the U.S. House.

Whatever the current hysteria over the size of the annual federal deficit and government debt in general, the demand by states and localities for financial aid for the construction and maintenance of transportation projects is unlikely to subside. Repeated warning by groups like the American Society of Civil Engineers about the failure of our public infrastructure today and into the future are not imaginary. Thus at some point, there will have to be some agreement about how to move forward on collecting revenues and allocating grants for the purpose of relieving those difficulties.

If Republican Party candidates campaigned heavily in the 2010 election for fiscal austerity after what they claimed have been two years of Democratic-led profligacy — frequently ignoring the massive budget deficits the party managed to accumulate when it had full control of the government between 2003 and 2007 — their seriousness about the matter has been arguably put to rest this week thanks to the news that the GOP Senatorial delegation is undergoing significant in-fighting over whether to ban earmarks (which the party has been criticizing on and off for years) and the revelation that self-proclaimed budget-cutter New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was a spend-thrift with public funds during his stint as a U.S. Attorney.

Take this hypocrisy as you wish, but the moral of the story is that the Republican adherence to reducing the size of the federal government is less than firm. This could be good news for future investment in public infrastructure — as long as a significant number of the party’s members can be convinced of the importance of such spending over the next two years.

The announcement yesterday by the Co-Chairs of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform of a draft policy for relieving problems associated with the growth in the federal deficit was significant in terms of its handling of transportation issues. Though the draft is unlikely to go anywhere — other members of the Congressional and President Obama-appointed group immediately announced their dislike for many of the measures, especially those that would reduce Social Security payments even as taxes are reduced — its recommendations are indicative of the current thinking about how to solve the problems facing the budget.

Specifically, the proposal advocates moving Transportation Trust Fund spending to a mandatory budget line (currently, with aid from the general budget, it is partially “discretionary”) thanks to a gradual 15¢ increase in the gas tax (from 18.4¢ today) beginning in 2013. In addition, the report would eliminate all Congressional earmarks, many of which go to transportation projects. The net effect would be basically eliminating questions of transportation from debate over the budget and limiting spending to what is earned.

This is an adamantly anti-Keynesian approach that proposes “shared sacrifice” in which Washington should “tighten its belt,” despite considerable evidence that government deficit spending plays an important role in relieving depressed economies. In terms of transportation, the fuel tax increase would correspond to a prohibition on general fund bailouts of the fund and presumably make spending on mobility from any revenue source other than the fuel tax impossible, despite the report’s initial claim that it is in favor of increased investment in infrastructure. This, however, negates the possibility that we need a phase change in thinking about how to move forward on transportation funding and spending in the United States and ignores technology changes that are slowly but surely limiting the value of the fuel tax in general.

Enacting the policies framed in the draft report also would permanently enshrine the idea that transportation funding is generated entirely from automobile user fees, making the transition to an economy in which cars are not the primary mode of transportation very difficult. The effect of using a user fee on cars to fund transportation over the past 65 years has been that the vast majority of federal spending has been on highways rather than alternatives. There are arguments to be made for using user fees on automobiles to compensate for the negative externalities produced by free driving, but for the purposes of envisioning a society that moves in a different manner, separating those revenues from expenditures could be a useful rhetorical device.

The release of the draft report by the Co-Chairs of the Fiscal Responsibility commission comes just two weeks after a new funding idea has suddenly come to the fore: Reforming the fuel tax from a per-gallon fee to a percentage of sales fee. If implemented, such a system could work as following: If a gallon of gas costs $3.00, a 5% fee would provide the government 15¢ in revenues, while a $6 per gallon cost would provide the government 30¢. The current system gives 18.4¢ to the federal government no matter how much the gallon costs. The problem with this idea, of course, is that the price of gas fluctuates wildly through the years — far more so than the total number of gallons consumed — and so revenues into the trust fund would move up and down similarly. That’s a dangerous proposition.

48 replies on “As a New Congress Sets Up Shop, Questions About the Future of Transportation Funding”

This site has been such an education! Could you recommend any books for a general audience covering the history and politics of transportation? I’ve found mostly very wonky looking textbooks on transportation, maybe you need to write one?

Yonah i wanna say first in foremost in agreement with Kelly that i enjoy ur articles. kinda off topic but i just want to know if i can request u doing an article comparing what the Japanese government does with PPP’s for there transportation and the pros and cons with the US. because i always wanted to know, especially with all that’s going on in the US government like the article mentions. unless you already have an article similar. thanks

For books about transportation politics, it depends on what you’re interested in. For US-specific stuff, 20th Century Sprawl is a nice intro, with references to everything else that’s relevant about the good roads movement in the US. For Japanese stuff, I’ve found the articles on JRTR very informative.

I’m all for getting rid of earmarks, period. Transportation can be funded competitively or merit based.

I’m fed up with the Keynsian model as well as tricke-down. We’ve going to have to buck up and raise taxes at the state and local levels and using the feds as a feeding trough when many projects could be financed at home.

A sales tax for gas could be good if there were a floor and a ceiling applied, so that gas prices below a certain limit would still be subject to a minimum fee, and vice versa. This would provide more certainty in revenue forecasting.

But ultimately moving away a fuel tax and more toward a mileage tax is prudent. (If localities could stomach raising parking taxes, again we could get away from our federal reliance for all things expensive.)

You may be “fed up with the Keynesian model”, but the facts are the Keynesian model is not just a model — it’s empirically proven to be the right thing to do.

Of course, in addition to its better known recommendations for what to do in recessions (deficit spending by governments), the Keynesian model ALSO says that during BOOM times governments should CUT spending, RAISE taxes, balance the budget and pay down debt.

Nobody has yet managed to make any government in the US do this. If you can figure out how, that would be great.

Keynesian economics is not empirically proven to be the right thing to do. In order to prove a theory, you have to deny its falsifiability. There have been several examples of anti-keynesian fiscal austerity measures that have not resulted in continued recession, thus falsifying either the theory in whole or in part. It is an incomplete economic theory that at best can only explain and treat specific types of recessions.

If it were truly an economically proven concept, there would be broad consensus among economists in this matter, rather than a broad disagreement with three different and yet prominent theories holding their own. In fact, the recent QEII, which is a Monetarist (and thus, not Keynesian) measure, has the backing of thousands of economists, including Ben Bernanke who is a PhD scholar of the great depression and the Japanese depression of the 80’s.

And consensus among economists isn’t exactly an impossible thing:

I think the key consensus among economists of interest to those who support transit and dense urban development is at the top of the list:

1. A ceiling on rents reduces the quantity and quality of housing available. (93%)

The first example in Econ 101 from Uwe Reinhardt was the destructive impact of rent control on the housing market in New York City. The exorbitant cost of living in New York is the product of price limits and land-use controls, not some inherent inability to build more housing aimed at the average consumer. Thankfully, New York is home to industries, most especially finance, and an urban lifestyle that have maintained it’s vitality despite rent control and other regulatory burdens. The south Bronx wasn’t as lucky as the upper east side but the city has flourished. Imagine what would happen if the regulatory inhibitions on further densification and development in the city were lifted…

Danny, there’s a difference between austerity and fiscal austerity. If monetary policy is loosened to offset fiscal tightening, then overall the policy can promote growth, as it did in Canada.

The argument Krugman makes is that in a liquidity trap, monetary policy has lost all traction, and therefore fiscal policy must be expansionary. Although Krugman has a liberal Democratic agenda, what he’s been saying about liquidity traps goes back to 1998, before his views were so politicized.

I’m familiar with the liquidity trap argument, and it makes sense to use a Keynesian model response when there is a liquidity trap…as long as it is not after a bubble.

My problem with Keynesian economists, including Krugman, has to do with their opposition to deflation that can only be described as religious. They speak about deflation as if a 0.1% quarterly deflation will result in a deflationary spiral.

There are two problems with this theory: 1) There are literally hundreds of examples of deflationary trends that did not result in a deflationary spiral, while only a handful of examples where they did, and 2) It relies on religiously strict adherence to the idea of Rational Expectations, and even then it assumes that the “rational” response to a falling price is to wait for an even lower price, which is only the case some of the time.

After a bubble has burst, it is often more reasonable (and less difficult) to let those specific prices fall, rather than to inflate the economy through fiscal policy or monetary policy to “catch up”. But if you freak out the second you see a half percent deflation, you will never let that happen. And as a result, we get terribly conceived (by non-economist elected politicians, no less) stimulus programs that never have quite the effect that is promised.

In the case of this last recession, our deflationary trends were driven by housing prices and oil prices. Everything else has seen inflationary trends. Just because a composite price index which includes houses and oil starts to decrease doesn’t mean we are in a deflationary spiral. People aren’t going postpone buying clothes, tires, computers or groceries while they wait for housing prices to stop dropping.

No, even if you ignore housing and oil, inflation is falling. Krugman has specifically criticized the use of general price indices, supporting alternative measures instead like core and median-trimmed inflation. The temporary deflation of 2009 isn’t the worry; the longer trend of falling inflation is.

Low levels of deflation are damaging in their own right entirely independently of whether there is a risk of a deflationary spiral. That is a fact that tends to be masked in classically and neoclassically informed economic theories, since they lay money on top of a model that does not require money, rather than building money in from the beginning as an institution required for complex industrial economies to function.

So long as networks of business transactions are given shape and a requisite degree of certainty by contracts written in terms of money that can be enforced in civil courts, that fact that deflation steadily reduces the nominal value of real investment in real productive capacity by reducing the nominal value of the product of that equipment is a factor depressing real investment in an industrial economy experiencing protracted deflation.

Alon, the phenomenon were seeing now is stagnant activity in the consumer sector while asset values are unusually high.

The problem now could very well be that the monetary lever is now powerless to stop the crisis, because there are so many money-equivalent assets to speculate on and trade.

Think about how the housing bubble did essentially the same thing as Mugabe did to his currency in Zimbabwe. It was devalued to the point of freezing all economic activity.

Currencies are both a store of value and a medium of exchange. Well, so is real estate. Buildings provide shelter and a means to produce more activity. They can also be traded, mortgaged or borrowed against. As we saw during the 2000s, so much real estate was created and so many expectations were wedded to this abnormally large supply that we ended up devaluing real estate as a sturdy store of value and medium of exchange.

The funny thing is, the U.S. didn’t print more dollars but let oil and real estate prices do the hyperinflation for us!

hyperinflation for us!

It wasn’t anything close to hyperinflation. Housing prices in the hot markets were inflating 10, 15% a year. Hyperinflation is when all prices inflate 10-15% a month, week or day. Prices were stable or deflating in the rest of the economy.

@Wad: our currency supply is tap issue: if banks have reserve account balances, they have the right to withdraw cash. If there isn’t any available, the Treasury prints more.

So inflation drives printing presses, not visa versa.

There’s actually multiple mechanisms by which deflation — even a “little” deflation — hurts the economy. People have argued over which one is more important, and there’s no clear answer. However, general deflation has pretty much always resulted in economic shrinkage. Which is usually bad, unless you have an “overheated” economy to start with.

Some mechanisms:
(1) Makes it harder to pay off debt, thus crunching consumer and business spending when both are highly indebted (they are), and benefiting only financiers. Also drives increased bankruptcies, which softens the effect, but the Bankruptcy Bill made it hard for that to work as it would.
(2) Future expectations cause investors — those who are left with money — to see little reason to invest in companies, because money isn’t losing value, it’s gaining value…. and companies are going bankrupt (see above).

Both are clearly happening right now; the low real volumes of trading in the stock market and high Treasury holdings indicate (2), the still-crunched consumer spending and lack of business spending on expansion indicate (1).

Crazy Pelosi has got to be one of this many liberal people in politics throughout the actual nation. It’s hard with regard to us in order to believe just how folks can certainly reelect her inside their particular appropriate mind.

Oh, BTW, Danny, Krugman would agree with you that housing prices need to fall and will fall.

The problem signal is that we’re seeing a general drop in inflation across the board.

Combined with rising prices for oil, it could end up being really quite nasty. Also a situation with relatively little historical precedent and none of it in the last 100 years (tight energy amid a bust). Should be interesting….

Isn’t the big picture here the high unemployment and slow growth? Aren’t both QE and fiscal stimulus both meant to increase aggregate demand; and the point about the flat price level, given the slack in the economy, is that we can do both QE and deficit spending without causing a general rise in the price level.

Unfortunately, government spending (local, state, and federal) has been going DOWN, not up, the past two years. The increase in federal deficit spending has been offset by state and local governments cutting spending and/or increasing taxes/fees. So, we are trying fiscal austerity.

To the extent that quantitative easing is more than just propping up big money center banks (Bank of America is valued by the market at something under 60% of its financial reports book value, indicating some skepticism regarding its financial reporting) … it is an effort to try to push harder on a string than regular easy monetary policy.

But given an adequate fiscal policy response, all that is required in terms of monetary policy is to maintain the cash rate at 0.1%.

Wrong, Danny. I’ve read through the very careful list of all of the supposed instances in which “austerity” measures didn’t make recessions worse. Krugman and DeLong did some nice analyses.

(1) A bunch of the supposed cases weren’t actually austerity measures.
(2) A bunch of the supposed cases weren’t actually recessions.
(3) The rest featured major monetary easing, counteracting the austerity measures.

All turned out to be textbook examples of “Keynes is right”.

A key problem with Keynesianism is the political aspect of it. It requires spending restraint when times are good as well as spending largess when times are bad. It’s extremely difficult to get politicians to hold off spending when times are good. And that phenomenon basically undermines the concept. If you could combine Keynesianism with, say, a balanced budget amendment to the constitution that required the budget to be in balance over a five or six year average, it would be on to something.

There is a terminology overlap here, where “Keynesianism” may refer to a family of models of the economy built on certain confirmed observations about how complex industrial economies work (and like many families, there is often quite a lot of argument between different members of the family and, indeed, some members don’t really talk to other members at the annual family reunion) …

… and it may refer to a post-WWII approach to fiscal policy. The worst hubris of that approach was the period when it was thought that ongoing activist policy interventions could “fine tune” the economy, which presumes a far simpler and more easily predictable economy than the one that we in fact have.

Under the first Keynesianism, a sensible approach to the political business cycle problem (long recognized in academic Keynesianism, since the 1950’s at least) is to have:
(*) long term ongoing spending commitments should be funded, so that they do not have an expansionary effects during periods of strong private sector growth
(*) where possible, ongoing spending programs and ongoing tax systems should have substantial fiscal stabilizers built in
(*) long term inflation prevention through investment in productivity gains through technological advancement, infrastructure provision and broad based skills growth is superior to short term inflation treatment through policy-created recessions
(*) the explicit deficit spending required when the private sector’s demand for savings substantially exceeds its willingness to generate financial assets to hold that savings by going into debt should be unlocked by an objective measure of depressed economic activity.

A key problem with politics is politics.

Keynesianism is a political choice. So is monetarism. Even staying the course, and hoping everything works itself out, is a political choice. There’s no such thing as a nonpolitical choice, because every choice has an consequence.

Here are two problems with Keynesianism, monetarism, and any economic doctrine for that matter.

1. “Law of the instrument.” This is popularized in the saying “When all I have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.” Economic doctrines endure particularly because they worked once to solve a certain crisis of the times. These doctrines will be invoked in all economic circumstances. Which brings us to …
2. Fighting the last war. Most economic policy assumes that the crisis at hand is very similar to the previous crisis. Keynesianism was tried during the 1970s stagflation, and because Keynesianism failed to revive the economy, it was discredited and tagged as the cause of the crisis. One of the problems, as we now know, was the 1970s crisis was nothing of the sort of the 1930s.

Now we’re at the point of fighting the 21st century crisis as we did the 1970s. Yet the phenomena are so much different.

Keynesianism is a way of seeing the economy, and then various Keynesian policies follow for different circumstances.

monetarism is a way of seeing the economy, and then various monetarist policies follow for different circumstance.

But the ‘ism’ is not the policy package. The Samuelsonian hydraulic Keynesianism that Nixon had in mind when he said “we are all Keynesians now” was not a policy stance, it was a common agreement on the terms of the argument over policy.

That common agreement on the terms of the argument today is most often called neoliberalism (after the 1800’s “economic liberals”, not the 1900’s “race liberals” and “social liberals”). Only problem is that it includes assumptions that are patently false, so we are always in a risk of getting blindsided by events that follow the real world facts of the matter rather than a neoliberal assumption that those facts are otherwise.

Robust, effective, fine-tuned: we never get to pick more than two out of three.

Mr. Freemark, don’t go down the path of being anti-Republican in your articles. Support for transit should not be a partisan issue; I am active in Republican politics (on the grassroots level) and am strongly in favor of many transit programs, as are plenty of Republicans, according to public opinion polls, but when being pro-transit equates with being anti-Republican, transit’s prospects will be significantly hurt (especially since the GOP won most governorships, state legislatures and the US House in the last election).

(And to respond to your charge of hypocrisy, the same Tea Party types who rebelled against Obama’s spending in 2010 were the same people who stayed home in 2006 and 2008. Plenty of Republicans were irked about Bush’s spending, although his deficits were only a fraction of the size of Obama’s.)

See the paragraph about Republican “hypocrisy”-

Polls show that grassroots Republicans, and plenty of elected Republicans, are pro-transit- let’s not drive them away!

That’s not a claim that hypocrisy is an intrinsically Republican thing, or that Republicans are intrinsically hypocrites, but that there are Republicans who have been observed acting as hypocrites with respect to their pronouncements regarding pursuit of balanced budgets, and that bears directly on the question of whether transport budgets will or will not be squeezed as a result of the Republicans taking primary charge of the purse strings.

I’m sure that there are a similar number of Democrats who have been acting as hypocrites on something or other, since it is, after all, elected politicians that we are talking about here, but unless its on transport policy, it would be a bit off topic to raise the issue.

I have to say that I, for one, have little truck with grassroots Republicans any more.

While you are all nice people, and often thoughtful, you are supporting a party leadership which is corrupt to the core, criminal to the core, frankly anti-Bill of Rights, and has openly declared that its priority is to shut down the government, rather than to make it work; it’s even been opposed to honest elections.

Nor, critically, do I see the internal party opposition to such things, which I see when they happen in the Democratic Party (and they do).

I do respect grassroots *former* Republicans, or those who vote Republican only on the *local* level, but the national Republican Party crossed a bridge too far in the last decade. It’s not a legitimate political party any more.

If you’re trying to reform it, I respect that, but I warn you that better people than you have failed and been forced out. See Charlie Crist.

Without delving too deeply into Keynesian vs. Monetarist vs. other economic theories, aside from Mortgage Backed (Casino) Securities disaster, we know a second cause of this deep recession. Its the first time we cut income taxes during an active major war. Excluding the families of veterans, people at home have little direct sense of the fiscal cost of these two wars.

Thomas, people will have a sense of the cost of these wars. It was all done on China’s credit card, and we should anticipate China using its holdings as geopolitical leverage over the U.S.

Yes, we know second and third causes of this recession are the oil price shock and the collapse of the housing bubble. The financial panic, which was in fact accelerated by the two earlier shocks and turned the recession already in progress into a perfect storm, was only the third shock to hit, and hit when the economy was already eight months into a recession.

Oil Prices are going to bring bring down what recovery the goverment thinks is happening. When $3.50 gas and $4.00 gas come back they are going rip open a gash and make us sink back down into a super depression.

Since we papered over the problems with our finance sector, rather than fixing them as a few countries did (Australia pushed their banks to start cleaning up their balance sheets as soon as the US housing bubble collapsed, and then got the benefit of both an aggressive stimulus as well as selling raw materials for China’s stimulus) …

… if any other part of the world gets their act together, which will push gas to $4 and beyond, we will be in for another Financial Panic.

People forget that the Great Depression was launched by more than the Great Crash: there were Bank Runs in 1930, 1931, and 1932 on top of that.

At root, allowing the megabanks to lie about their losses is core to the entire problem we have right now. It’s been turning out that they’ve been lying about practically everything and have been running a fraud-based business model (for more, read Naked Capitalism…) yet the *same people* are still running them. *And* they’re being given preferential treatment by the government, both under Bush and under Obama.

This is a situation which is deadly for any economy. While it would have been ideal to kick out the corrupt managements and clean house, as was done by Sweden, I suspect a total collapse of the financial sector back in ’08 would have been the second-best option, as it would have allowed for new, more honest banks to emerge. The current situation seems like the worst possible one to me.


Part of the problem with the debate over austerity versus stimulus is (or ought to be) the nature and effects of stimulus spending. We’re in the situation we’re in now because the $5b or so that we borrowed under the Bush administration was spent on:

bidding up the price of residential real estate beyond all reason

buying consumer goods

relocating the manufacture of said consumer goods to low-wage foreign countries

This happened despite severe structural problems with the US economy: a crippling trade deficit, overdependence on imports of fuel and vehicles, and chronic underinvestment in infrastructure, both public and private.

Stimulus spending for the simple purpose of putting people back to work in the short term isn’t enough. We need heavy investment in things that’ll address our fundamental economic challenges, or else we’ll be right back in the same boat in a few short years, but with a debt load that even more severely limits our options in digging ourselves out.

During the Great Depression, we invested in infrastructure that was sure to deliver benefits essentially forever. We need to be identifying and pursuing investments of similar merit now, and improved transit and rail are certainly a big part of an ideal mix.

Bear in mind, the Depression stimulus wasn’t especially good. It was small, focused on symbolic infrastructure, and not that effective. It was much better than sticking to Hooverism or whatever the conservative Democrats and Republican remnants supported, but it could have been so much better. Sweden got out of the Depression within a year by forcing wage hikes and massively spending money on direct cash transfers to the poor; cash-strapped people spend everything they get, leading to a high multiplier. Damming rivers and building roads is photogenic and useful, but is not the best way to reduce unemployment.

And the strongest New Deal stimulus programs were not 1933 but not until 1935, and then sabotaged in 1937 at ~10% unemployment by the chase for a balanced budget.

The Stimulus program that generated enough excess income to sate the private sector’s excess demand for savings was WWII.

I’m well-aware that the stimulus that worked was WW2. That’s because the New Deal was inadequate. It was better than nothing, as any graph of unemployment or GDP in the 1930s will show, but it could have been so much better. Of course part of the problem is that Keynesian economics didn’t really exist then – some countries just got it right by ideological accident. But today people know what to do and are still not doing it.

One thing that history has shown again and again is that when the people’s economic expectations are not being met, whether there’s a recession, depression or not, those leaders who aren’t doing whatever’s needed to produce results are going to be replaced. In many cases outside the was through other methods besides the ballot box. Whomever promised improvements in people’s lives and whatnot won the day regardless of the method used. That’s how the Chinese Communists won the 1949 revolution. It’s how monsters like Hitler and Mussolini were nurtured. And that’s how the Tea Party reactionaries got so popular in this year’s midterm elections so go figure.

One thing that history also has shown is that societal upheaval always ends in a bad way.

The Chinese Communists’ 1949 victory also produced the Cultural Revolution. Hitler and Mussolini led their respective societies into a much-needed humiliation, and it was so brief that fascism was able to be smothered within the same generation.

It will end in a bad way for the U.S. as well. It’s all now a matter of how it will end.

Well… not quite.

You’re missing the forest for the trees. For all the horrors of the Cultural Revolution etc., practically nobody who had lived in the declining days of Imperial China would have chosen to go back to the period before Sun Yat-Sen’s revolution.

The Russian Revolution of 1918 led to Stalinism, and yet that was still a major improvement over the situation under the tsars (serfs legally bound to the land!) — again, nobody would have gone back.

The French Revolution of 1789 led to Napoleon, endless wars, and a partial “restoration” of the monarchy — and still, nobody would ever have wanted to go back to the “ancien regime”. The vast majority of the revolutionary reforms were retained even after the restoration.

Even Mussolini made the trains run on time.

Hitler…. well, there’s nothing good to be said there, really, but by repudiating the reparations he actually did get the economy back on track, until he destroyed it all by invading Poland.

How about the US Civil War? Again, results disastrous, but (almost) nobody wanted to go back to the prior situation.

History shows that societal upheaval results when blatantly-needed reforms are stymied by a dysfunctional government for far, far too long. I don’t think we’ve hit “far, far too long” yet. We may, and the results may be massively unpleasant for a couple of decades, but I expect at least *some* horrifyingly awful rot will be burned out of the system if we do. Perhaps we’ll get rid of the bankster/CEO oligarchy (either by electing genuine populists, or by having them take over even more completely with a government so awful that they get subsequently overthrown).

The single worst famine in 19th century Russia killed 400,000 people, about one tenth as many as Lenin’s agricultural collectivization and one twentieth as many as the Holodomor. Soviet-style communism is great for you if you’re one of the 80-90% of the population it doesn’t kill, but sucks otherwise.

Yes, which doesn’t bode well for the Republicans, elected on a mix of no platform and a promise to take actions that will make things worse, or the Democrats, elected on a platform that might do some modest good but which they only ever support half-heartedly.

Which suggests that we are in an 1832 like situation, with the only real question who gets to play the 1840’s Whigs that fall apart under the stress of the challenge facing the country and who gets to play the 1840’s Democrats that stand together on the wrong side of history.

To use your scenario, Bruce, it doesn’t bode well for the Democrats in the same way it doesn’t bode well for a death row inmate waiting for the governor’s call for clemency.

Like it or not, politics is a highly dramatized version of everyday reality. It’s based on real events.

Politics is hopelessly corrupt and hate-filled only because the people who elect them are.

The hatred in politics is a mirror of the populace.

The proof is in the 2010 elections.

The Republican Party reaped the whirlwind of untempered disaffection and white racialist rage, aided and abetted by a demoralized countervailing force.

The Republicans are stronger than ever because they embraced and owned a concept they created as an enemy to unite around: identity politics.

Do you know what led voters to elect Republicans, from the voters’ perspective? It was a coalition of voters who:

*Awoke dormant deep-seated racial hatred the moment the 2008 election was settled for Barack Obama. The American white nationalist movement gained immediate strength and is back with a vengeance.
*Believed the election of Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House and the Democratic gains in 2006 terrorized the economy into the recession we remain in today.
*Sought to overturn the Obama presidency by categorically rejecting his birth in a state of the U.S.
*Believed unions spooked capitalists and politicians into supporting free trade agreements to enable jobs to be shipped to Third World countries.
*Thought every time the Democrats get in power, they’ll repeal the Second Amendment.
*Don’t believe any part of the Constitution amended after the original drafting is legitimate.

There’s a stew of deep-seated paranoia, resentment and perceived victimhood that drove at least 50%+1 of them to elect people who agree with this nonsense. This was all in the body politic before the election, and it will be present after the election.

There’s one president and vice president, 100 senators and 435 representatives. The clear and present danger, though, is not in the lawmakers. It’s the electorate, because of their numbers, a simple and clearly defined tribal structure, and — as George Lakoff theorized — their tendency to Obey Daddy.

You’re overdramatizing the 2010 election results. It was a midterm election with roughly 14% real unemployment rates (averaging U5 and U6). The only thing in those circumstances that would have avoided a massive Republican win would be if the President had, FDR-like, set up the election as a fight with the big money interests, and concerned about his fund-raising chances, he declined to do so.

Mid-terms are older and whiter than Presidential elections … setting aside any “enthusiasm” gap, apply normal midterm demographics to the 2008 election, and McCain would have been the winner.

It’s not the election results that bother me. The “Get the gubmint’s hands off my Medicare” crowd not only earnestly believes in its nonsense, but they’ll also act on it.

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