Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Keith And Me …

So I had this mini conversation with Keith Olbermann on Twitter today, which started out with a simple question I posed in response to his impassioned critique of yesterday’s debt ceiling deal. The conversation began thusly:

I respect @KeithOlbermann’s righteous indignation over the debt deal. I just wish he, or anyone, could identify what the alternatives were.

To which Mr. Olbermann responded:

@Dave_von_Ebers The alternatives are for POTUS not to congratulate himself, and for there to be pressure on him and the system from the left

And then added:

@Dave_von_Ebers and practically, since the credit rating may be lowered anyway, the 14th Amendment was just as viable as capitulation

As to the latter point, while I don’t know if Mr. Olbermann’s correct about the impact on the country’s credit rating, I’ve already expressed my trepidation over the so-called “Fourteenth Amendment solution” here and here.

But as to the former argument, Mr. Olbermann has a point, doesn’t he? That is to say, those of us who aren’t in Congress or the White House have to use the tools that are available to us to try to effect change. On election day, you can vote; and leading up to an election, you can pound the pavement canvassing for your favorite candidates. Between elections, however, the only tool we really have is, as Mr. Olbermann says, pressure. Meaning, I guess, writing, calling and e-mailing your elected representatives (I e-mailed my Congressman, Rep. Danny Davis, earlier today); writing letters to the editor; blogging and Tweeting to your heart’s content. … And, if you’re lucky enough to have a television or radio program, you can take to the airwaves to rail about anything and everything that gets your goat.

Nonetheless, the question remains: if you’re going to use the tool that’s currently available – political pressure – what are you going to apply it to? I suppose there’s some utility in grousing about the debt ceiling deal itself, even though it’s, as those French socialists say, a fiat accompli. After all, if your elected officials do something you don’t like, why wouldn’t you give them an earful? Theoretically, the more complaints they hear about their past mistakes the more likely they are to think twice about repeating them.

Or, maybe it just makes you feel better even though you know it’ll have little impact on the jokers anyway.

But when the outrage over the debt deal wears off, or when you decide you really want to do something to improve the country’s future, you may want to consider applying that political pressure to … getting rid of the debt ceiling once and for all. I made the case the other day that the debt ceiling is both horrible policy and most likely unconstitutional under Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment, but I’m not the only one who thinks the debt ceiling has to go. In fact, former Republican economic advisor Bruce Bartlett made a similar argument in the New York Times just yesterday:

Almost 10 years ago, I testified before the Senate Finance Committee that the debt limit should be abolished. Among the others who testified that day, including Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, no one supported my position.

What we have seen, currently and in the years since that hearing, is that for any politician to deny the validity of the debt limit is effectively to support unlimited debt, something no member of either party can afford to be accused of.

The negotiations leading up to Sunday night’s announcement that President Obama and Congressional leaders of both parties had reached a deal to cut trillions of dollars in federal spending over the next decade makes the case against the debt limit that much stronger. We now know that it is a powerful mechanism for political extortion.

Unless the party holding the White House has a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives and at least 60 seats in the Senate, raising the debt limit is going to remain a means by which the minority party can impose its demands on the majority.

That is, in fact, exactly what happened here (and, in my view, would have happened no matter what strategy Pres. Obama pursued); and it’s exactly what the drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment, and in particular, Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment, sought to avoid.

And while Mr. Bartlett is right when he says that, generally speaking, politicians have been reluctant to take a stand against the debt ceiling (meaning, in Mr. Bartlett’s words, they’d be “support[ing] unlimited debt”), if ever there was an opportunity to turn the tide on the issue, it might be right now, because the country is pretty disgusted with the way this whole scenario played out. According to CNN:

A majority of Americans disapprove of the deal struck Sunday by President Barack Obama and congressional leaders that will raise the country’s legal borrowing limit, and three out of four believe elected officials have acted like “spoiled children.”

According to a CNN/ORC International poll conducted Monday during a House of Representatives vote on the legislation, 52 percent of Americans say they are opposed to the debt ceiling deal while 44 percent are in favor of it. The Senate passed the legislation Tuesday in a 74-26 vote.

Full results (pdf)

Seventy-seven percent of respondents said elected officials who have dealt with the debt ceiling have acted like spoiled children. Just 17 percent believe the politicians have acted like responsible adults.

That’s pretty astonishing, when you think about it; and if anything it plays right into the arguments I have made, Mr. Bartlett made yesterday, and, in fact, the drafters of Section 4 of the Fourteenth Amendment made 145 years ago. We should not allow the spoiled children in Congress to use the nation’s public debt for extortion – but they will as long as they have the debt ceiling to rely on.

So now that we’ve got the public’s attention, let’s bring that pressure to bear on repealing the debt ceiling, shall we, Mr. Olbermann?

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.


  1. If there was any doubt about your assertion that the debt ceiling should be abolished, the fact that this ugly altercation took place now, and not the many times other President's were in office.

  2. Ah, Dave, I admire your earnest good citizenship. But -- there's always a but -- my attitude is "Why bother?" Since you used some French in your post, let me give you my French saying for this case: "Save qui peut!" It's the French "run away" call, which translates into "Save yourself if you can!"

    I clicked across your post (one of the many reasons I enjoy teh Gen'l's site is because I use his blogroll as my suggested reading list) right after I had watched Olbermann's "get mad and get active!" special comment on one of the Internets tubez. Been there, done that a lot, got nowhere.

    I have voted in every election since 1976 -- including every local election I was eligible for. We mailed in absentee ballots from Australia in 2006 and 2008 (expats can still vote for Congriftscritters from the district where they used to live, and for Preznit, of course.) In 2010, we drove down to San Francisco to vote at the Supervisor of Elections office in City Hall because they were still sending our absentee ballot to Oz. (Not as extreme of an electoral effort as it might seem, because we had planned a trip to S.F. to visit friends and catch a few shows by that Hoodoo Gurus Aussie band at the tail end of their U.S. tour. But we still felt compelled to participate.)

    In my previous career as a newspaper reporter, I banged away at corrupt politicians large and small. I used to write letters to Congressmen, until I read an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle by a former House staffer who revealed the disregard and contempt that the office drones had for the poor schmoes who sent letters. I've donated average amounts of money to lots of candidates, many of whose districts I wasn't even living in.

    Even before the Iraq War, my wife and I were marching in the streets against it. I was part of the mob raging through the streets of San Francisco on the night when the attack began. (I would have gotten arrested as an act of civil disobedience, but I had already bought a ticket to see a good New Zealand punk band called The D4 that was playing that night. How many times do you get to see En Zed groups in the U.S.?) I drove back across the border March 19 this year to join the protest in Seattle on the 8th anniversary of the war's beginning. (In the middle of the demo -- a pathetic turnout of 300 people that was way outnumbered by shoppers gawking at what must have seemed like a peacenik street festival to them -- we learned that President Hopey had started bombing Libya.

    I've been activating and demonstrating all my life (including in Australia.) Didn't do a lick of good at stopping fascism. I don't think the U.S. deserves saying. It's too full of sociopaths and cretins. Yourself and a good 1/3 of the population excluded, of course. The bastards who cheer the fascists on, and the inert masses who do nothing to prevent their own downfall will get what's coming to them, get it good and hard.

    Peak Oil, peak finance, peak complexity (when a system gets too complex, it starts breaking down) means we've hit peak human population. It's only a matter of how hard it falls during the inevitable collapse. Activism can't stop the forces of nature.

  3. And continuing from above, because I blathered too long for Blogger to make it one comment...

    Up here, there's a citywide group called "Village Vancouver" that's focused on preparing for life after an "energy descent." (When the oil runs out, basically.) It's not gun-toting survivalists or end-times cultists. Mostly a bunch of old hippies (including a surprising number of American expats and other immigrants) and young families who do stuff like raise chickens in their backyards, grow urban gardens, etc. A way of connecting with neighbours, because it's people who are going to help each other ride out the coming Long Emergency, not weapons and canned goods.

    We've been making friends with farmers. Our neighbour on the east side of the house has a mom with a fruit orchard on Galliano Island, off the B.C. coast. Last weekend, we visited with some of my wife's Deadhead friends who have a 43-acre spread in rural Washington State, just south of the Canadian border. A bolthole if we ever need to bug out in a societal implosion, less than one tank of gas away in our Prius. We've got talent and work ethic to offer, and better yet, we measure our gold holdings by how many kilos we have, not by the ounce, so I reckon we'll be welcome wherever we go. Our cynicism and paranoia have led us to make good investment decisions, eh?

    I wish there was hope for what you suggest, Dave. Good luck with your efforts. But I hope you're as good at working with your hands as you are with your mind, and that you have friends who have country land, because I think that's going to be more useful than activism within the course of our lifespans.

  4. Bukko, my friend, as you know I don’t share your cynicism … but I do respect it, listen to it, ponder it. I certainly don’t reject it out of hand. I still believe there are reasons to fight the good fight, but then again I used to think there were reasons to remain Catholic too. And truth be told, in my heart I left the church and religion generally long before I was able to own up to it. Maybe it’s the same with politics and activism.

    Here’s the thing though. I’m not devoid of cynicism; in fact I guess it’s my cynicism that leads me to believe that Pres. Obama is the best we can get in our current political climate. So I take what I can get and I’m happy that – for the moment, anyway – we’re not dealing with someone considerably worse (read: conservative Republican) in the White House. What if all we get out of the country’s first African American president is an incrementally better life for African Americans, an incrementally less racist nation, incrementally more and better opportunities for people of color, and for women, and for other groups that have traditionally been left out of America’s largesse … what if that’s all we get out of Pres. Obama’s election? Well, then, at least we got that.

    That isn’t hopey-changey; that’s looking at the world, and America, with eyes wide open.

    But I love you anyway, brother. ;-)

  5. And, dammit anyway, I forgot I was going to post a Hoodoo Gurus video after your comment on my Midnight Oil thread. I’ll get to it sooner or later …

  6. They're a fun band, fer sher. The brains behind the band, rhythm guitarist Dave Faulkner, writes some hellaciously intelligent lyrics. Big words, sophisticated emotional concepts, but still sounding like rock 'n' roll. Unlike the message-heavy Oils. And he's gay! But it's such a non-issue to Aussies, I didn't even realize it until I had been listening to the band for about a decade.