A word on the debt ceiling

By Luke Freedman in Sydney, Australia

15 January 2013

The US election of 1800 brought about the first peaceful transfer of power from one political party to another in modern world history. It was a straightforward and yet extraordinary affirmation that a respect for the will of the people and the law of the land takes precedence over one's policy preferences or will to power.  

It sounds silly, but I keep coming back to the 1800 election, and John Adams relinquishing power to Thomas Jefferson, when I think about the debt ceiling crisis. No, obviously the losers of the November election didn't refuse to give up their seats. But by threatening to not raise the debt limit unless they get political concessions, Republicans are showing a basic disregard for the democratic process.

The debt ceiling isn't about the debate over taxes and spending, it's about paying for spending that Congress has already approved. As James Fallows notes, discussing whether to honour debts the government has racked up makes as much sense as a family discussing whether to pay a credit card debt on goods it has already bought. 

No one's ever going to be entirely satisfied with the fiscal policy of their country.[1] That's life in a democracy. If you want to change it there's a plethora of legitimate ways of doing so.[2] What's not acceptable is to act like Congress's already approved expenditures are negotiable, or that the full faith and credit of the United States is a hostage that can be used to obtain political leverage. The American political system is fragile, and it simply can't function in the long run if politicians decide to exploit every conceivable rule or loophole that they can find.

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1. The irony here is that conservatives are already doing quite well in the debate on these issues. Large-scale budgets have already been agreed upon, and the debate in Washington is almost entirely about deficits rather than short term job growth.

2. Most of which start with winning elections.


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By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

28 February 2012

The only complaint I had about Armando Iannucci's fantastic BBC political comedy "The Thick of It" was that I suspected I'd enjoy it even more if it were about American politics. Well, ask and HBO shall see to it that you receive: Iannucci has produced a similarly rough-edged satire for the premium cable channel, this time focused on the office of the Vice-President, played by Julia Louis-Dreyfuss. HBO seems a much better fit for Iannucci than ABC, for whom he originally developed a pilot in 2007. One of the charms of "The Thick of It" was its characters' predilection for unrestrained and foul-mouthed fulminations, and FCC regulations would never permit such pungent dialogue to appear on network TV.

This trailer is a rather preliminary look at the series, but there are definitely things to like here. Louis-Dreyfuss's poorly contained excitement at the news the president is experiencing chest pains is an obvious joke, but it's a well-exected one. And the quick "no" in response to her question about whether the president called is a cute reference to the curious mixture of importance and insignificance that characterises the vice president's job. (As John Adams, the first man to occupy the position put it, "In this I am nothing, but I may be everything." Woodrow Wilson's vice-president, Thomas R. Marshall, had a slightly more bitter take: “Once there were two brothers: one ran away to sea, the other was elected Vice-President — and nothing was ever heard from either of them again”)

Anyway, it starts April 22nd. Should be worth a look.

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Weekend update

By Jonathan Bradley in Newcastle, Australia

10 July 2011

Image showing where Flickr and Twitter are used in the USA

  • Image of the week is by Eric Fisher, who has used the geographical information attached to Tweets and photographs uploaded to Flickr to discern whereabout people use the two services. Red dots in the map above indicate a Flickr photo, while blue dots indicate a Tweet. Comments Adam Martin:

More Flickr users have tagged the mountains in the west but more Twitter users seem to be operating in the Southeast. Notice how the cities and main highways facilitate both, but there’s that band of relative darkness running through the central states.

But it’s almost exactly the budget process Republicans want to bring to Washington. The GOP’s latest debt-ceiling demand is a balanced-budget amendment creating a California-like requirement that tax increases garner a two-thirds supermajority in both houses of Congress and restricting federal spending from exceeding 18 percent of the previous year’s gross domestic product. The amendment is so extreme that even Paul Ryan’s budget — itself quite radical — would be considered unconstitutional.

We generally talk about individual candidates building a campaign, hiring people, doing the strategy, and all of these things. And they are doing that, but they’re doing it in the context where there’s a bunch of other people who are very, very important, who have a lot of influence, and can kind of decide, “Look, you can build all the campaigns you want, but if you’re Pat Robertson, you’re not going to be taken seriously, no matter how much money you’ve earned.”

These are complicated men. Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemings? Patrick Henry’s rather clueless move to take for his second wife a woman his son was in love with? The Founders are hard to make movies about if we treat them if they’re distant gods, so wise and so important as to be divine — we can’t reckon with that. But we don’t necessarily want to reckon with them as men either. We’d rather believe the Founding Fathers across the board had modern ideas about slavery than accept the messy, ugly compromises they made both in their personal and political lives. If we’re so anxious about their beliefs, we’re probably not ready to accept them as full persons.

After the jump: a trailer for the new Sarah Palin movie, Tim Pawlenty talks pop music, and, find out if you can you balance a city budget!

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  • A trailer for the Sarah Palin documentary The Undefeated is out. The movie will open in American theatres on July 15.

And [Thomas's] most provocative opinions have been solo dissents. Among them, he has declared that the Constitution gives states a right to establish an official religion. Prisoners, he wrote, have no constitutional right to be protected from beatings by guards. Teenagers and students have no free-speech rights at all, he said in an opinion Monday, because in the 18th century, when the Constitution was written, parents had "absolute authority" over their children.

Unless we’re willing to be honest about the political motivations driving different sides in this debate, we’re never going to get anywhere. “Real” conservatives don’t want to find a way to balance the budget while keeping services at a steady level; they want to cut everything, including services. And that’s fine! But it’s not a worried husband pacing the floor at night, trying to figure out how to pay his bills. It’s an angry old man canceling cable, internet, water, and power because he thinks he can live off the grid.

The really odd thing about this is that she is not altogether wrong, but she can't seem to get the right part right. Plenty of founders did fight hard to end slavery, but Ms Bachmann doesn't seem to know who they were. Part of the problem may be that conservatives' favourite founders, Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, held large numbers of human beings as slaves and did less than a lot about it. The really good guys on the slavery issue—which is to say on the human freedom issue—were not the Virginia plantation masters but the less-venerated "big government" Yankee founders who sped the abolition of slavery in the north.

Where is John Adams, our feisty second president and lifelong American patriot? If George Washington was the sword of the revolution and Thomas Jefferson the pen, why have we neglected the voice of our nation’s independence?

It is true that House Republicans can risk crashing the economy through a debt limit crisis, or by fighting for an economy-crippling austerity program, secure in the knowledge that Obama would probably pay the price is the economy tanks. But I think the evidence is strong that what's driving Republicans on these policies is that they either truly believe in them (and don't forget, the Conservative Party in Britain is pursuing austerity), or that they are frightened of primary voters and organized groups within the party who really believe in them. In other words, I strongly suspect that President Bachmann, Speaker Ryan and Majority Leader Paul might well be implementing the same policies they're advocating today.


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We few, we happy few...

By Jonathan Bradley in Sydney, Australia

4 July 2011

John Trumbull's painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence

The document that created the United States of America, was as any stickler for historical trivia will tell you, not signed on July 4, 1776, but approved by the Continental Congress on that date. The Declaration of Independence is most famous for its second sentence, a piece of writing marvellous in both prose and sentiment that reflects America's best hopes for itself and throws into sharp relief its meanest impulses: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

But I also, for entirely different reasons, have a fondness for the final sentence of the Declaration:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

Americans, apparently, can't help themselves: their flair for the dramatic, for the cinematic, came out even in their pre-cinema days. Here a political act of separation becomes a Hollywood pact of friendship and fealty, complete with Ben Franklin quipping to his fellows, "We must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately." Sometimes it's difficult to be cynical about American history; there are moments of real honor and greatness in it.

Yet even with all that determined intermingling of personal loyalty and patriotism, there was very human doubt at the signing. Or at least according to John Adams's memory of it, recounted in an 1813 letter:

I could not see their hearts, it would be hard for me to say that they did not approve it: but as far as I could penetrate, the intricate internal foldings of their Souls, I then believed, and have not since altered my Opinion, that there were several who signed with regret, and several others with many doubts and much lukewarmness.

But that's great too: all these dudes plotting sedition, and some of them thinking, is there a way I can, like, sneak out the back? What sort of idiots rebel against the British empire? Franklin's joke must have seemed like a form of particularly black humour to the more pessimistic of the Founders.

Happy birthday, America.

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