Thursday, July 28, 2011

Most Who Get Government Benefits Fail to See Themselves as Government Beneficiaries

Clarence Page had a great column on July 20th that took off from the incongruity of Michele Bachmann ranting against government programs while her own family has benefited from them significantly. But the main point of the column was that Bachmann is not untypical of thousands of other Americans who also fail to see how much they benefit from government programs.

The only caveat I would raise is that there are many different kinds of government benefits -- from those to which people should feel entitled because they have specifically paid into them, to those that help people who have served their country in the military, to those which aim to promote home ownership and education, to those designed to help the poor through expenditure of other peoples' tax revenue. Given this variety, it is possible for people to value some of the programs more than others. But otherwise, Page's point stands. Some of his paragraphs follow:

A substantial number of Americans who say they support cutting government programs don't realize just how much they benefit from them.

Many who receive government benefits either don't believe or don't understand that they are government beneficiaries, according to a study last year by Cornell University political scientist Suzanne Mettler.

Those who incorrectly identified themselves as not receiving government help included 60 percent of homeowners who qualify for a mortgage-interest deduction, 53 percent of those who hold government-backed student loans, 47 percent of those who qualified for the Earned Income Tax Credit, 44 percent of Social Security recipients, 40 percent of Medicare recipients and 27 percent of Americans receiving welfare or Medicaid benefits.

As a mortgage payer, I was not surprised to hear that homeowners and student loan borrowers were least likely to see themselves as receiving a government benefit. After all, we work hard to pay off our loans. That makes it harder for us to think of tax breaks and government loan guarantees as "benefits," a term that today's political conversations tend to equate with "handouts" — even in some liberal circles.

Cornell's Mettler refers to such popular programs and policies as "the submerged state," a social welfare system that is virtually hidden in a wide array of popular policies aimed at incentivizing and subsidizing incomes, education, home-owning and other productive activities.

The reasons for the camouflage are political and practical. For example, liberals and conservatives alike find the Earned Income Tax Credit to be more popular than welfare payments as a way to fight poverty, reward work and help the poor become economically independent. But it's still a government program, even if almost half of its recipients don't realize it.

Government Can Stimulate Demand--and Should--Rice's Baker Institute Says

The Houston Chronicle on July 24, 2011, posted an op-ed column entitled "Government can stimulate demand." The print version on July 25th carried the sub-head, "Now is not the time for fiscal prudence."

The analysis argues that the economy is in deep trouble, and there is only one entity that can help it grow:

"Consumption is an unlikely source of growth. Given high levels of unemployment and consumer debt, the household sector is not in a position to power a robust recovery. Neither is the business sector. Businesses are not going to invest without some convincing signs that expenditures by other sectors are increasing. It doesn't make sense to invest in additional capacity when there is no demand for the new output. Finally, the rest of the world is not going to bail out the U.S. economy. U.S. exports have grown a little over the past year, but with contractionary policies being pursued in many countries, including Europe and even China, exports cannot be counted on to drive the economy. Besides, if the U.S. economy does start to recover, its imports will increase, partially offsetting the stimulus effect of exports.

"That leaves the government sector."

This, of course, makes perfect sense to me. And it is something that Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has argued for years.

What is remarkable about the Houston Chronicle column is that it is authored by two scholars from the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. For scholars at a conservative Republican think tank to come to this conclusion is truly eye-opening -- and just another marker of the national Republican Party's total disconnect from fiscal and political reality.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Duplicitus Rex: Prayer-a-Palooza Perry Reprises "Let's Do the Flip-Flop Again"

Political columnist Lisa Falkenberg had an excellent commentary in yesterday's print edition of the Houston Chronicle on how often Texas voters have allowed Rick Perry to change his mind on important political issues over the last 20 years.

Unfortunately, since the Chronicle has thus far not seen fit to post the column on-line, we'll have to rely on my typing skills to give it the internet presence it deserves. The column is below, followed by a link to the Chronicle's take on Stephen Colbert's suggestion that the best running mate for Perry would be ... GOD!

The latest breathless dispatch from the Rick Perry presidential watch beat is that the governor told the Des Moines Register he's getting "more and more comfortable every day that this is what I've been called to do."

Now, if Perry really believes he's being called, I won't blame the Lord, whom Perry has falsely accused before. Recall that unfortunate Gulf oil spill that Perry famously blamed on "an act of God."

And there's always a chance the governor didn't hear quite right. It could have been a bad connection, like the time Perry prayed for rain and we got the worst drought since the 1950s.

That being said, it doesn't surprise me one bit that Perry would suddenly become"more comfortable" with the idea of leading a country he once flirted with seceding from.

If our governor is consistent about anything (other than good hair days) it's his penchant for changing his mind. Call it flip-flopping. Call it hypocrisy. But nobody does it better than our Perry.

It is, for me, the single most irritating thing about Texas' longest surviving governor. But it's also one of his best weapons. While other candidates may be bound by silly, old-fashioned things like truth, and principle and vertebrae, Perry -- the Democrat-turned Republican-turned Tea Party Darlin' -- is free to be whoever he needs to be in any given polling period.

He's an anti-government crusader who's a career politician who's collected a government paycheck for 20 years.

He's a fiscal conservative who called on lawmakers to make up a budget shortfall in the tens of billions by living within our means. Yet he's charging taxpayers $10,000 a month for a 6,386-square-foot rental mansion in the West Austin hills with seven baths and $1,000 Neiman Marcus window coverings.

He railed against federal stimulus funding, then took credit from a misinformed Fox news host who applauded him for not taking "any stimulus money," when, in fact, he signed a biennial budget in 2009 plugged with $12.1 billion in stimulus funding.

During the last gubernatorial campaign, Perry made a big do-to about so-called "sanctuary cities" like Houston when, by his own standards, he's the governor of a sanctuary state. Houston officers don't ask about immigration status in the field, but neither do troopers with the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Perry opposed the federal health care reform act, but considers it an "emergency" for government to force a woman considering an abortion to have a medically unnecessary sonogram.

While the governor is perfectly comfortable with government micromanaging women's wombs, he's appalled by such overreach in the form of, say, a bill that would have banned texting while driving. Our proudly "pro-life" governor saw nothing wrong with vetoing the anti-texting measure that would have surely saved lives.

The good Christian governor wears his faith like a campaign bumper sticker, and makes headlines with events like the upcoming prayer-a-palooza at Reliant. But when it comes to putting his money where his mouth is? The Chronicle's Gary Scharrer reported recently that, of the $2.68 million he's earned since he became governor, only half of a percent went to churches and religious organizations.

He's Fed Up with the federal government, and even wrote a book saying so. Texas can take care of itself, he says. He wants Washington out of his life, he says. Unless of course, he needs it. Like in the case of a wild fire, or when his political ambitions have grown too big even for Texas.

The subtitle of Perry's recent book is Our Fight to Save America from Washington. If Perry gets in, it'll be up to those of us who know him to save Washington from Perry.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Liturgist Writes Scathing Critique of New U.S. Missal Dictated by Rome

Christians devoted to authentic liturgy and the authentic exercise of liturgical authority should be grateful to the National Catholic Reporter for publicizing an experienced liturgist's "searing critique of the New Roman Missal translation set to take effect in November." The critique by Rita Ferrone, author of several books on the liturgy, appears in the latest edition of Commonweal magazine.

Ferrone blames the sad shape of the new English translation on misuse of authority by the Vatican, a questionable set of liturgical translation principles decreed by the last two popes, and above all a reactionary drive to reverse the most significant liturgical reforms promulgated by the world's Catholic bishops at the Second Vatican Council. Ferrone offers examples of the translation's failings, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and shows how they result inexorably from Rome's failure to respect the experiences of local Catholics at public prayer.

I'll join NCR is highlighting the three concluding paragraphs of Ferrone's critique, which nicely summarize her point-by-point indictment of Rome's abusive meddling in liturgical decisions that, according to Vatican II, should rightly be made only by local bishops and their national conferences.

Where is this new translation taking us? It is important to realize that negative responses to the new translation reflect both dismay at the wording of the text and disagreement with the principles that guided its production. Yet the conflict goes deeper than an argument over theories of translation. That the new translation of the Roman Missal should come to us replete with embarrassing gaffes, nonsensical passages, and a near-total lack of accountability is as clearly a symptom of the misuse of authority as it is the fault of the questionable set of translation principles enunciated in Liturgiam authenticam. Yet even the misuse of authority is not the root cause of the immense disquiet and even outrage that this translation has aroused.

Beneath the words of the new translation, one senses a drive to minimize the practical effects of Vatican II. The reforms of Vatican II prized clarity and intelligibility in the liturgy; they gave priority to the work of ecumenism and evangelization; they respected the local work of bishops conferences; they invited aggiornamento and engagement with the world. This vital heritage is being eclipsed by another agenda. We are seeing a wooden loyalty to the Latin text at the price of clarity and intelligibility. We are seeing a retreat from advances already made in ecumenism. We are seeing the proper role of local bishops and bishops conferences increasingly taken over by the authorities in Rome. We are seeing the liturgy reimagined as an event taking place in some sacral space outside of our world, rather than the beating heart of a world made new.

Yes, we can get used to the new translation of the Roman Missal. But we shouldn’t. The church can do better, and deserves better, than this.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

David Brooks: GOP "Not Fit to Govern" If Their Fanaticism Causes Debt Default

New York Times columnist David Brooks, who has decades-long credentials as a conservative but rationale Republican, took advantage of the 4th of July to repudiate the tea-bagger wing of the GOP as "an odd protest movement that has separated itself from normal governance, the normal rules of evidence and the ancient habits of our nation."

Brooks' verdict: "If the debt-ceiling talks fail... independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern.

"And they will be right."

The last three-quarters of Brooks' column follow. The paragraphs are the best multi-count indictment I have seen for detailing how completely the tea-bagger Republicans have separated themselves from reality and from the values that characterize America. And in a religious assessment I very much share, he finds their "sacred fixation" on never raising taxes nothing less than idol-worship.

If the Republican Party were a normal party, it would take advantage of this amazing moment. It is being offered the deal of the century: trillions of dollars in spending cuts in exchange for a few hundred billion dollars of revenue increases.

A normal Republican Party would seize the opportunity to put a long-term limit on the growth of government. It would seize the opportunity to put the country on a sound fiscal footing. It would seize the opportunity to do these things without putting any real crimp in economic growth.

The party is not being asked to raise marginal tax rates in a way that might pervert incentives. On the contrary, Republicans are merely being asked to close loopholes and eliminate tax expenditures that are themselves distortionary.

This, as I say, is the mother of all no-brainers.

But we can have no confidence that the Republicans will seize this opportunity. That’s because the Republican Party may no longer be a normal party. Over the past few years, it has been infected by a faction that is more of a psychological protest than a practical, governing alternative.

The members of this movement do not accept the logic of compromise, no matter how sweet the terms. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch in order to cut government by a foot, they will say no. If you ask them to raise taxes by an inch to cut government by a yard, they will still say no.

The members of this movement do not accept the legitimacy of scholars and intellectual authorities. A thousand impartial experts may tell them that a default on the debt would have calamitous effects, far worse than raising tax revenues a bit. But the members of this movement refuse to believe it.

The members of this movement have no sense of moral decency. A nation makes a sacred pledge to pay the money back when it borrows money. But the members of this movement talk blandly of default and are willing to stain their nation’s honor.

The members of this movement have no economic theory worthy of the name. Economists have identified many factors that contribute to economic growth, ranging from the productivity of the work force to the share of private savings that is available for private investment. Tax levels matter, but they are far from the only or even the most important factor.

But to members of this movement, tax levels are everything. Members of this tendency have taken a small piece of economic policy and turned it into a sacred fixation. They are willing to cut education and research to preserve tax expenditures. Manufacturing employment is cratering even as output rises, but members of this movement somehow believe such problems can be addressed so long as they continue to worship their idol.

Over the past week, Democrats have stopped making concessions. They are coming to the conclusion that if the Republicans are fanatics then they better be fanatics, too.

The struggles of the next few weeks are about what sort of party the G.O.P. is — a normal conservative party or an odd protest movement that has separated itself from normal governance, the normal rules of evidence and the ancient habits of our nation.

If the debt ceiling talks fail, independent voters will see that Democrats were willing to compromise but Republicans were not. If responsible Republicans don’t take control, independents will conclude that Republican fanaticism caused this default. They will conclude that Republicans are not fit to govern.

And they will be right.