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Posted by on Apr 7, 2009 in At TMV, Politics | 22 comments

Political Spines of Steel

Earlier, in his guest column, Don’t Blame The Republicans For Having Principles, Dalitso Njolinjo raised some interesting points about the difference between obstructionism and principle in the political arena. Upon reading one of his conclusions, though, I found myself a bit too cynical to get on board.

“In the end, isn’t that what we want from our politicians, to have the steel spine and have the courage to stick with their beliefs and principles, especially if the wind is against them?”

In some theoretical, fantasy America which only exists in our minds any more, I suppose that’s exactly what we want. Sadly, I live in the real, 21st century America where, on the political battlefield, the fight itself is far more important than winning, losing, or even remembering why you were fighting in the first place. Confronted with any issue of the day, it seems that our two parties take no interest in acting unless they can stake out opposing turf and cast stones at each other.

The practical upshot of all this is that important problems where we can all agree are deemed to be not “sexy” enough to merit the attention of our elected representatives, so nothing is done. Prime examples of this are the need for more attention to the sagging infrastructure of our nation’s bridges and highways or an overloaded electrical grid which requires a 21st century makeover. Since nobody opposes such things, there is no sport to be found in debating it and very little gets done.

At the other end of the spectrum are debates which are too frightening for our leaders to confront. Were you to ask regular voters how many of them were in favor of outsourcing American jobs, moving our manufacturing base to other countries and lugging around a trade deficit that would make Sisyphus happy with his lot in life, you couldn’t find one person who likes the concepts. Doing anything about these issues, though, would anger the big dollar masters who hold the leash on both parties and fund the never ending campaigns which make up the lives of politicians today. And so, no matter which side you elect, they meekly push forward with the same economic open borders policies which have been crushing us since the early nineties.

Instead, politicians far prefer to demonstrate the “steel spines” which Dalitso so cherishes by spending their time and our tax dollars arguing over whether or not the godless homosexuals should be allowed to marry, if the Ten Commandments can show up in a courthouse or if cancer patients can fire up some marijuana in their back yard. Every issue seems to be a race to see how far each party can run to the extreme opposite of their opponents’ positions.

The problem with this, of course, is that real solutions rarely come from the extremes. Different schools of thought often have valuable advice to offer and a combination of concepts generally leads to the best solution. But when you exist in a hyper charged atmosphere where the recognition of merit in anything said by the opposition is viewed as a sign of weakness, productive conclusions are rarely sought, to say nothing of found.

Spines of steel? We want them in our warriors, who defend our nation and fight our battles overseas while we sit safe and secure at home, expanding our rotund guts on pounds of sugar and gallons of beer, screaming at each other over whether or not homosexuals should be allowed to join their fighting ranks. For politicians, though, perhaps we should be looking for more supple and flexible backbones. Everyone wants to be the sturdy oak.. stiff, upright and unbending. Nobody wants to be the willow which sways in the winds. But which one survives the storm?

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  • Don Quijote

    At the other end of the spectrum are debates which are too frightening for our leaders to confront. Were you to ask regular voters how many of them were in favor of outsourcing American jobs, moving our manufacturing base to other countries and lugging around a trade deficit that would make Sisyphus happy with his lot in life, you couldn’t find one person who likes the concepts. Doing anything about these issues, though, would anger the big dollar masters who hold the leash on both parties and fund the never ending campaigns which make up the lives of politicians today. And so, no matter which side you elect, they meekly push forward with the same economic open borders policies which have been crushing us since the early nineties.

    Early nineties, my ass! Try mid seventies…

    This is what happens when you don’t have a powerful left-wing party with a broad base of support, say Unions…

  • CStanley

    Good post overall, Jazz, but what exactly does this mean:

    And so, no matter which side you elect, they meekly push forward with the same economic open borders policies which have been crushing us since the early nineties.

    I’m having trouble figuring out what the alternative to ‘economic open borders policies’ would be. Isolationism? Protectionism? Can you define what alternative you’d prefer?

    But yeah, on the gist of the post, I agree. Fighting over hot button issues is part and parcel of the game of political distraction that keeps people from noticing that the politicians rarely accomplish much in the way of reform or progress, and what little does get done is usually a lousy mix of some of the worst policies from left and right. When ‘compromises’ occur across party lines, they’re really bribes that buy off enough Congressional votes from each party, rather than having an actual thoughtful process with leadership taking good ideas from each side which can be incorporate into a meaningful policy.

    • Good post overall, Jazz, but what exactly does this mean:

      It means the same thing that it’s meant on the dozens of other times I’ve written about it. We continue to lose the battle of trade deficits in an embarrassing scale, we continue to see high paying, white collar engineering jobs going to India and South America, promised “new jobs” in other growth areas continue to fail to materialize in anywhere near matching levels, the textile and manufacturing base continue to whither, and all the while both parties continue to tell us that “free trade” and policies like NAFTA will do exactly the opposite of what they are doing.

      But, of course, this isn’t really the correct thread to have this same, tired old fight with people who are willing to ignore those facts as long as the current policies hurt unions which generally back Democrats.

      • CStanley

        I guess I’m missing the ‘solution’ part of that. You blame NAFTA, but what is the alternative? Do you really think that there’s some way of putting the globalist toothpaste back in the tube, for the US to stop trying to globalize our economy, or isn’t it more important to find ways to be more competitive and innovative again?

        • Don Quijote

          or isn’t it more important to find ways to be more competitive and innovative again?

          We could come up tomorrow with a device that produces energy out of thin air with zero pollution, whose research was entirely funded by DARPA, five years from now every one of those devices would be manufactured in China using slave labor.

        • Actually, CStanley, the way you phrase the question actually does tie in fairly nicely to the whole “all or nothing” subject of the column, at least in broad strokes. The general response I hear from people who try to defend so called “free trade” is an immediate all or nothing straw man. They seek to insist that if you oppose the current policies then you must want full blown isolationism and a bigger and badder Smoot-Hawley era. But there is middle ground on that. We can start by *not* fighting things like the previously proposed (and defeated) “buy American” clauses in the bailout bills. We can remove all state and federal tax benefits for companies who outsource jobs and offer new, different incentives for companies who primarily employ here and/or reverse course and begin repatriating jobs. We can take a tougher stand at the negotiating table for our various trading “partners” so that the flow of goods, services and jobs isn’t so completely lopsided in the favor of everyone except us. (Which is EXACTLY how it stands today)

          So there’s your solution in broad strokes. The details could readily be hammered out by the legislators who would have to implement them if they had the will and “spine” to do so.

  • Don Quijote

    I’m having trouble figuring out what the alternative to ‘economic open borders policies’ would be. Isolationism? Protectionism? Can you define what alternative you’d prefer?

    Call it “Managed Trade”, if you don’t want to see American Capital and R&D (a good chunk of it funded by the US Tax Payer) used to build factories that employ low wage workers who might as well be slaves in countries that have no enforced environmental laws nor labor laws (China & Indonesia) and if you don’t want to see massive migration from peasants displaced of their lands(Mexico & Central America).

    How good has that free trade been for the Rust Belt? Oh, that’s right it’s now called the Rust Belt not the Industrial Belt.

  • Leonidas

    As long as we are committed to just a 2 party system, we are doomed to quibbling over the minor items and partisan saber rattling. A viable moderate party could bring some sense back to the task of governing our nation. I have no problem with spines of steel over bending willows as long as there are some steel spines in the middle and not just on the left and the right. The middle has too often played the willow swaying one way then the other, it survived the storm but isn’t doing well during the partisan forest fire, it needs to steel itself and become fire-proof.

  • $199537

    Good post, Jazz. I think the main determinant for most people on whether a politician has a steel spine vs being an obstructionist depends on whether your bread is being buttered at that particular time. Both parties have been obstructionist in approving judges and appointees, something I don’t see much sense in as it amounts to spending a lot of time and effort in situations that usually don’t warrant it.

    I do like your point that politicians tend to develop spines in problems that are relatively minor, allowing them to avoid offending too many constituencies. I do have to disagree with Dalitso that the GOP is any more principled than the Democrats as both parties are driven more by the factors you mention.

  • HemmD

    Jazz

    Isn’t it the subset of both parties that are the real problem? It seems no matter which party is on top, NAFTA gets passed and augmented?

    You and CStanley are right that the hot button issues are meant to deflect from those important trade agreements that have hamstrung the American worker?

    To tackle this problem, don’t you have to tackle the lobbying that fuels this inner circle of globalists?

    • CStanley

      To tackle this problem, don’t you have to tackle the lobbying that fuels this inner circle of globalists?

      See, I think that’s a strawman argument in the other direction. Sure, lobbyists are a problem in this as in everything else in our system- but why do some of you assume that normal people with no vested interest in corporate profits also agree that twenty first century America is part of a global economy and we have to find ways to be competitive rather than try to protect noncompetitive industries from global competition?

      • Don Quijote

        but why do some of you assume that normal people with no vested interest in corporate profits also agree that twenty first century America is part of a global economy and we have to find ways to be competitive rather than try to protect noncompetitive industries from global competition?

        Please make a list of our “competitive industries”, other than Hollywood, Corn and Defense?

        And if we could find a way to ship those overseas, we would… Cheaper Labor…

      • HemmD

        CS
        ” but why do some of you assume that normal people with no vested interest in corporate profits also agree that twenty first century America is part of a global economy and we have to find ways to be competitive rather than try to protect noncompetitive industries from global competition?”

        The assumption I make is based upon the fact the jobs shipped overseas come with actual tax breaks for doing this. The reason for my loathing for corporate lobbyists is simple greed on their part has distorted the position you stated that you hold.

        I agree we are a global economy. World trade must take into account that underdeveloped nations require some form of assistance in becoming equal partners in trade for the benefit of all.

        I restate that that is not what the current lobbyist system is used for. As long as short term profits by companies using lobbyists to “get theirs” regardless of the distress they cause to the US workers that made them economic powerhouses is how the lobbyist system operates, I will oppose it whenever possible.

        The Lobbyist talking point is that NAFTA will employ the less developed countries and at the same time make imports cheaper in our market. Superficially, that is true, but the hidden costs slave wages and out of work US manufacturing employees is never discussed. The products are of lesser quality, and the economic damage done to our system makes a mockery of your real desire to elevate world trade and general well being.

  • CStanley

    But there is middle ground on that. We can start by *not* fighting things like the previously proposed (and defeated) “buy American” clauses in the bailout bills.

    Even though other countries have already indicated their displeasure over those clauses, making it evident that those really could have triggered Smoot Hawley era retaliatory policies?

    We can remove all state and federal tax benefits for companies who outsource jobs and offer new, different incentives for companies who primarily employ here and/or reverse course and begin repatriating jobs.
    New different incentives like lowering corporate tax rates? The GOP proposes this all the time and gets hammered for corporatism, so how do you overcome that (or, if you have something different in mind for these ‘incentives’, please do elaborate.)

    We can take a tougher stand at the negotiating table for our various trading “partners” so that the flow of goods, services and jobs isn’t so completely lopsided in the favor of everyone except us. (Which is EXACTLY how it stands today)
    You can’t change the reality that Americans enjoy a higher standard of living and thus have a higher wage threshhold. The idea behind globalism though is that eventually the creation of a middle class in these other countries will lead to their workers also demaning higher standards, and will create new markets for American goods (if we don’t neglect to develop our own industries and innovate products that people actually want to import.)

    Look, I don’t disagree with your general premise about the way people argue these issues in black and white terms- and that there’s room for improvement in our trade policies. But I disagree strongly with the way you frame the issue because I think it’s simply ignoring reality to believe that there’s some simple way to protect American jobs. The real answers are damn hard because we have to actually be better at making things than other people are, if we want to continue to enjoy our high standard of living. And that means doing the opposite of what the unions usually want to do, which is to guarantee high wages even in the face of lower quality of product (we only need to look to Detroit to see how that works out in the long run.)

  • Janjanjan

    I’ve not seen a Republican proposal to provide lower corporate taxes only to those companies which repatriate jobs or primarily employ in the US. The Republican proposals I’ve seen offer lower corporate taxes to all corporations, even those which arguably are at the vanguard of moving jobs overseas.

    • CStanley

      I’ve not seen a Republican proposal to provide lower corporate taxes only to those companies which repatriate jobs or primarily employ in the US. The Republican proposals I’ve seen offer lower corporate taxes to all corporations, even those which arguably are at the vanguard of moving jobs overseas.

      I don’t know if that’s completely accurate but I understand your point. But that just means that this would be the perfect example of how a ‘postpartisan’ solution could take ideas from one side and adapt them to the criticisms of the other side, to create the best overall policy.

      In other words, instead of the usual kneejerk reaction of Democrats to GOP proposals to cut corporate taxes, we’d need to hear from Democrats saying what you are- that corporate tax cuts would help keep companies (and jobs) in the US, but they’d have to be written specifically to apply only to the companies that do stay on our shores.

      • Between Janjanjan and CStanley you have just accomplished in 30 minutes what our two party system on the Hill hasn’t managed in nearly two decades. There’s a real solution which could be proposed to our representatives in Congress. Let the Democrats show that they are able to grit their teeth and allow a “tax cut for the rich and the big corporations” and let the Republicans show that they can grit their teeth and actually propose something that might make some union bosses smile. And the entire country would applaud them for it except for the corporations in question who would doubtless prefer to have the tax benefit and continue shipping jobs out of the country.

        Methinks it’s time for a new post.

  • CStanley

    DQ: I’m not arguing that we have a lot of competitive industries- my point is that we need to figure out why we don’t and where we can innovate. That’s what always kept our country on top in the past, and that’s what is currently lacking.

    And when the innovations come, then I’d agree with ‘protectionism’ in the form of patents to protect the recoup of R&D costs, and closing loopholes which might be affecting corporate relocations overseas, and with the most benign form of protectionism which is PR to encourage American pride which supports buying quality American products.

    But what I don’t support is the across the board trade policies which seek to protect dying, non-competitive industries like our auto industry, nor the ‘buy American’ clauses in govt contracts which trigger retaliatory clauses in our trading partners’ domestic policies.

    • Don Quijote

      DQ: I’m not arguing that we have a lot of competitive industries- my point is that we need to figure out why we don’t and where we can innovate. .

      That’s easy:

      Improve the educational system, and bring down wages to Chinese levels. Good luck selling that to the American Voter…

      That’s what always kept our country on top in the past, and that’s what is currently lacking.

      No what has built our economy in the past was a total disregard of foreign patents and protectionism.

      But what I don’t support is the across the board trade policies which seek to protect dying, non-competitive industries like our auto industry, nor the ‘buy American’ clauses in govt contracts which trigger retaliatory clauses in our trading partners’ domestic policies.

      Welcome to North Argentina.
      More or less equal?
      Any explanation for this rise in inequality needs to account for several different trends. In the 1980s the poor fell further behind the middle classes, but since the 1990s those middle classes have been squeezed. Both groups have lost ground to the elite. Between 1947 and 1979 the top 0.1% of American earners were, on average, paid 20 times as much as the bottom 90%, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a think-tank in Washington, DC; by 2006 the ratio had grown to 77. In 1979, 34.2% of all capital gains went to the top 1% of recipients; by 2005 the figure was 65.3%.

      All this happened during a period when American workers’ median real incomes stagnated (though the notional value of any health insurance would have risen steeply). In 2007, according to the Census Bureau, the median income of American male workers was $45,113, less than the $45,879 (in 2007 money) that they earned back in 1978 (see chart 4). At no point over that 29-year period did median incomes pass the $46,000 mark. Families made ends meet because more women worked (and their real incomes did rise) and because they were able to borrow money to maintain their spending.

      The classic tool for measuring inequality is the Gini coefficient. The higher it is, the less equal the society. In America the coefficient climbed steadily from 0.395 in 1974 to 0.47 in 2006 before dipping slightly to 0.463 in 2007. In Britain, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Gini has risen from 0.25 in 1979 to 0.35 in 2006.

  • Let the Democrats show that they are able to grit their teeth and allow a “tax cut for the rich and the big corporations”

    They “allowed” Bush’s tax cuts didn’t they? Is our economy better off for it? How about our national debt?

    In other words, instead of the usual kneejerk reaction of Democrats to GOP proposals to cut corporate taxes, we’d need to hear from Democrats saying what you are- that corporate tax cuts would help keep companies (and jobs) in the US

    As was pointed out in the 2008 campaign, with all the tax breaks written in to our system we have one of the lowest effective corporate tax rates in the Western world.

    You’d have a point if the issue was our jobs fleeing to other Western nations with lower tax rates, but I think the evidence points to our jobs going to China, India and other third world nations. The problem there is that we can’t compete with labor that demands a mere fraction of what American workers need for basic living expenses. The average income in China is still around $3,000. $3,000!!!

  • CStanley

    You’d have a point if the issue was our jobs fleeing to other Western nations with lower tax rates, but I think the evidence points to our jobs going to China, India and other third world nations. The problem there is that we can’t compete with labor that demands a mere fraction of what American workers need for basic living expenses. The average income in China is still around $3,000. $3,000!!!

    How much of the problem is really with American companies moving their operations to those countries, though, vs. American companies getting out of certain sectors and ceding the field to companies based in those countries? It seems like we’re conflating a few different issues here- in terms of unskilled manufacturing jobs, I think it’s more of the latter than the former but I’m open to being proven wrong if you have stats.

    • Don Quijote

      How much of the problem is really with American companies moving their operations to those countries, though, vs. American companies getting out of certain sectors and ceding the field to companies based in those countries?

      Ideally, you’d have every plant you own on a barge.
      —JACK WELCH, FORMER CEO OF GENERAL ELECTRIC, DESCRIBING THE OPTIMUM MANUFACTURING MODEL FOR HIS COMPANY

      Pretty much says it all…

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