Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Change We All Can Believe In... But Apparently Nobody Knows About?

How could I not know about this already?

I am informed by Floyd Norris at the New York Times that
starting in 2013... [m]arried taxpayers with income over $250,000 will pay a 3.8 percent Medicare tax rate on income over that amount, and all income will be covered, including... capital gains... That tax was passed as part of the health care bill enacted by Congress and signed by President Obama in 2010 -– a law known as “Obamacare.”
Not only does this set the scene for what has always seemed to me the obvious eventual reform to save Social Security, to the extent that it needs saving over the long-term -- namely, raising the taxable cap on income paying into the Social Security Trust Fund -- but it also sets the scene for what has seemed to me the indispensable progressive shift more generally of treating capital gains as income to be taxed at the same rate at which we presently tax actual work.

Although I am a reasonably well-informed citizen, I have been proceeding under the assumption that these were mostly future battles, little aware that buried under the acres of pages of the Affordable Care Act -- an Act I have strongly supported even though I have always offered up the inevitable caveat of folks to Obama's left that I was disappointed that it wasn't a Medicare for All single-payer plan -- were provisions that generate enormously significant structural changes to the legal- normative - institutional terrain on which reformers will continue to operate in coming years, changes that are enormously empowering to those of us who would struggle to transform this country in the direction of equity-in-diversity.

Obviously, I should no longer be surprised at this. As Michael Grunwald has exhaustively elaborated in his recent book about the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Obama administration's stimulus legislation at the beginning of his first term, The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, few seem really aware of the epochal shifts that were enabled by the Act, from thousand-fold increases in investment in clean energy technologies, jump-starting whole new industries for a renewable energy future (think of the Hoover Dam, and while we're thinking dams, did you know the Act also funded the demolition of some environmentally pernicious dams?), investing billions bringing broadband to underserved communities (an analogue to FDR's rural electrification), providing billions in seed money for a smart grid (setting the stage for a renewed push in a second term) and opening the door at long last to the sanity of high-speed rail across a continental nation-state suicidally addicted to car culture and air traffic boondoggles, also shoring up crumbling infrastructure in countless places across the country, sometimes only just in the nick of time, after a generation of neglect in the long post-Reagan era of privatizing/ deregulatory eat your civilization and pretend you can have it, too, market fundamentalist ideology. Although the stimulus didn't create splashy new agencies like the New Deal's Federal Writer's and Arts Projects, it did actually fund writing and art projects to the tune of millions and millions of dollars.

Part of Grumwald's thesis is to contrast Obama's rather patient and circumspect (a less kind word would be "stealthy") data-driven pragmatism to the splashy, often contradictory, initiatives of FDR's New Deal. Given that the most serious blows to the success of the stimulus initiatives followed from Republican obstruction -- the removal of a project to renewably rebuild and retrofit public schools was eliminated from the stimulus as the price for Republican Susan Collins' necessary vote in support of it, New Jersey Governor Christie refused to build a stimulus-funded tunnel project, the whomping up of the Solyndra scandal, and so on -- this suggests that the administration's low key approach enabled an enormous amount of good work to get done beneath the radar of lazy low-information voters while at once mostly avoiding the scandal-megaphone of the Republican noise machine with its ugly preference for brown-skinned scalps and low-hanging fruit.

This preference for stealth definitely has its dark side(s) as well, when we realize that the stimulus also mobilized Obama's Race to the Top initiatives, introducing enormous changes in public education, following the more questionable advice of experts far too enamored in my view of "charter schools" and fantastically insensitive standardized "performance based measures" that de-emphasize the need to create conditions under which learning can happen for specific students in specific circumstances and hence ends up reinforcing the mostly racist stratification of education and knowledge across our landscape (although Race[/ism] to the Top is far too complex simply to be dismissed in toto on such grounds).

The pattern is being repeated in the step-wise implementation of the Affordable Care Act, as Republican Governors refuse to set up exchanges or accept extra Medicaid money (to the immediate detriment of their most vulnerable constituents and the long-term detriment of giving over control to federal bureaucrats over setting the terms under which the mandated exchanges are indeed eventually set up in their states however much they pout and stamp their feet about it), but also in the way incredibly laudable accomplishments from a progressive perspective seem to be finding their way into implementation while even those who strongly sympathize with these goals and who strive to be informed citizens remain mostly unaware of what is happening. No doubt the incredibly fraught struggles over the ongoing implementation of financial regulation present comparable pitfalls and hidden gems.

I find it enormously striking that the article in which I discovered this extraordinary detail about the Affordable Care Act did not emerge from a policy discussion per se, but as an almost incidental detail enabling a snarky attack on the Republican Presidential candidate, offered up as more or less one more variation on the theme of the "47%" secret video comments that have dominated coverage of the campaign for well over a week now:
Most Americans pay more in payroll taxes –- which finance Social Security and Medicare –- than they do in income taxes. The rich are different. Mitt and Ann Romney paid virtually no payroll taxes in 2011, because nearly all their income came from investments on which payroll tax was not owed. For most taxpayers, the 2.9 percent Medicare tax levied on wage income will be the same next year as it was in 2011... [but i]f their 2013 income were unchanged from this year, their [the Romney's] Medicare tax bill would exceed $500,000. Mr. Romney has pledged to seek repeal of that law.
While all of this is true, and it is hardly insignificant on its own terms, this really does seem something of a snarky tail wagging a flabbergastingly large policy dog in my view. Frankly, even on its own rather appalling campaign as high school homecoming queen contest gossip column terms, this way of framing the policy details manages to bury the lede somewhat, inasmuch as it surely matters less that here is yet another in an endless trail of data points illustrating Romney's out of touch rich white douche bag proclivities than that here we see a real reason beyond opportunistic flip-floppery why Romney might indeed despise the Affordable Care Act while still thinking of its Massachusetts counterpart as an achievement of his, even if the dot-eyed zealots of his Base won't let him say even that much.

It also helps us grasp why asshat neo-feudalists like the Koch Brothers and their bazillionaire ilk are willing to blow hundreds of millions of dollars through the Citizen's United poop-funnel trying to buy this election while screeching about Death Panels and all the rest of that patent nonsense. As it happens, Obamacare will indeed cost these fuckers something, something real, something they will feel, and not in principle, not eventually, but BAM! as of 2013, as of a day soon after Obama wins his second term -- and they don't like it one bit, even if it means their own country and hell their own customers will be incomparably better off for it. For those to whom much is given much is expected, unless you're a Republican for whom those to whom more is given whets the unslakable thirst for still more More MORE MORE! to fill that dead stinking bottomless hole where your heart would be if you were a human person (er, hrm).

Those who marvel at why Wall Street hates Obama even though Obama saved their asses in 2009 and then saved their bacon for the next three years running, so much so that it often seems that those who hate Obama most vociferously are the ones who have benefits most from his policies, stop marveling. Those who are perplexed about the plutocrats whining about the "uncertainties" of a second Obama term, be perplexed no more. What these shits have on their minds are not uncertainties but near-term certainties that go ka-ching in the night. Even if few of us had the time or the expertise (or the money to enable or hire either one) to dig into the details and notice all the little earthquakes in the Affordable Care Act, you can rest assured that the Koch Brothers and the Chamber of Commerce and their fellow Slitherins were well aware of them all years ago and never once have they lost their focus since.

I am very glad to know now as I did not know before this incredibly positive detail about the Affordable Care Act, not only because it is exciting on its own terms but because it improves my grasp of the state of play among larger political actors whose motivations have otherwise seemed to me a bit perplexing. But I am not glad to know that I didn't know before what I know now. The question with which I began this post remains the exasperated question that infuses this entire piece. The knowledge differential between the voting Base and the donor-constituency within our present party system provides the material referent that drove all those sometimes derisive, sometimes hopeful, always uncomfortable eleventh-dimensional chess comments in the first two years of the Obama administration, it seems to me. That material referent remains an enormous problem for democracy, ameliorated but the farthest imaginable thing from solved by the impact on especially the DNC of the p2p-democratization of small-donor aggregation and media-pushback, not to mention general political education and organization both within and against party politics via fledgling direct mass action like Occupy.

1 comment:

jollyspaniard said...

I find myself making similar arguments on a weekly basis. Progressives have a habit of making perfection the enemy of the good.