Nasty Days

Let me tell you now: it is still morning in America. It just happens to be kind of a head-pounding-hung-over-vomiting-for-four-hours kind of morning in America. And it’s shaping up to be kind of a nasty day, but it’s still morning in America.

— Glenn Beck, CPAC Keynote Address, 20 February 2010

In this week’s Sift:

  • The Health-Care Reform Endgame. Bipartisanship is dead, but the Democrats can pass reform on their own. It gets more complicated than your civics teacher ever described, but it’s possible. Plus: some historical perspective on how this fits into the long-term breakdown of the gentlemen’s agreements that used to keep Congress on track — closing with the image of heads on spikes.
  • The Next Time You’re in the Bookstore … look for The Long Descent by John Michael Greer. Because if you can learn to think reasonably about the end of civilization as we have known it, everything else should be a snap.
  • Short Notes. Speaking of heads on spikes, Digby starts fantasizing about guillotines. Drinking While Brown is a crime in Texas. Vote Whig! Glenn Beck explains why businessmen deserve our sympathy more than the people they fire, making Bill O’Reilly sound reasonable by comparison. And more.

The Health-Care Reform Endgame

Here’s where we are on health-care reform: The House and Senate each passed similar bills some while ago, but they’re not identical. In the basic-civics, how-a-bill-becomes-law process, a conference committee with members from both houses would iron out the differences, so that the identical bills could be re-passed in both houses. That course has been blocked by the Scott Brown election, because now the Republicans have the 41 votes they need to support a filibuster if a conference-committee bill comes back to the Senate.

The next obvious course would be for the House to pass the same bill the Senate already passed. Then you don’t need to go back to the Senate, because they already passed that bill. The question is whether the House has the votes to pass the Senate bill as is and let it go at that. The answer is probably no; the House only passed its own bill by five votes (220-215), and it really needs some of the concessions a conference committee would have worked out if it’s going to hang on to that small majority.
That’s the real point of the 11-page proposal President Obama came out with just before the televised Health Care Summit with the Republicans. It outlines a compromise proposal between the House and Senate bills (heavily weighted towards the Senate bill). In essence, the White House is doing the work that a conference committee would do in the ordinary process.

From there it might go like this: The House passes the Senate bill with the promise that the Senate will agree to the fixes outlined in the Obama plan. The Senate bill becomes law, but before it takes effect it is fixed by a second bill.

But now we have the filibuster problem again, because the Senate still has to vote on the second bill. But the second bill (i.e., the difference between the original Senate bill and the Obama plan) has been designed to fit through a filibuster-proof Senate procedure known as reconciliation. So it could pass the Senate with only 51 votes rather than 60. There’s some trickiness about the timing of all this (in particular how the House can be sure that the Senate won’t just walk away from the deal after its bill becomes law), which leads to some further legislative arcana described here.
Still, it can work, and it might.
So that leads to an obvious question: If the Senate has a procedure for passing bills with 51 votes, why didn’t it do that to begin with? We could have skipped all that nonsense with Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson. Ezra Klein explored this back in August, and came to the conclusion that full-scale health reform couldn’t be made to fit within the rules associated with reconciliation.
And this points out the fallacy of the main Republican talking point against this plan, as expressed in the Wall Street Journal by former Majority Leader Bill Frist:

Using the budget reconciliation procedure to pass health-care reform would be unprecedented because Congress has never used it to adopt major, substantive policy change. The Senate’s health bill is without question such a change: It would fundamentally alter one-fifth of our economy.

Frist ignores one basic fact: The Senate already passed health-care reform without reconciliation. So nobody is talking about “using the budget reconciliation procedure to pass health-care reform.” Reconciliation would just be used for the second bill, the small number of changes necessary to fulfill a deal with the House. And that’s not unprecedented at all.

That’s the legislative nitty-gritty. Now let’s back up and get some context. The bigger picture of what is going on is this: For decades, the conventions, traditions, and gentlemen’s agreements that made Congress work smoothly have been breaking down, with the result that more and more things happen strictly according to the rules — as power plays, in other words.

To see the difference, compare the Nixon impeachment with the Clinton impeachment. Everyone involved in the Nixon impeachment appreciated that the process had to meet the judgment of history. Both parties did their best to avoid partisan excess: Democrats appointed a two-time Nixon voter to lead the investigation, and 6 of the 17 Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee voted for impeachment.
The Clinton impeachment was a circus by comparison. Republicans spent most of Clinton’s two terms looking for some excuse to impeach him. Their investigation started with the Whitewater real-estate deal, and when that didn’t produce results they kept coming up with new “scandals” until one stuck. Democrats resisted, and the process consisted of one nearly party-line vote after another. Fifty Republican senators and zero Democrats voted for conviction, falling short of the necessary 67 votes.
All the same, no rules were broken. The Constitution gives the House the power to impeach the president. The Republican majority wanted to, so they did. Democrats had enough votes in the Senate not to convict, so they didn’t.
Look at the filibuster in that light. It’s not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, but follows from Senate rules adopted in 1806. The first actual filibuster didn’t happen until 1837, and they remained rare until the 1970s. The rules didn’t prevent them, but filibusters were ungentlemanly, so they only happened in extreme circumstances. As this graph shows, the number of filibusters has shot up in the last few decades, no matter who controlled Congress.
In the current Congress, you can take for granted that the Republicans will filibuster anything they didn’t propose themselves, because they can. It has become common to hear journalists say “It takes sixty votes to get anything done in the Senate” — a statement I’m sure the Founders would have found shocking. The Constitution defines a few circumstances (like constitutional amendments) that require supermajorities, and we can assume that the Founders intended a simple majority to suffice in all other cases.

Reconciliation is an ungentlemanly solution to the filibuster problem, a power play. But again, no rules are being broken. And the alternative is what? To accept that Republicans can do anything within their power, but Democrats have to be good sports?

Even so, I wish more people would read Colleen McCullough’s historical novel The First Man in Rome. It deals with a similar period in the Roman Republic, when the traditions and gentlemen’s agreements of the Senate were breaking down. By the end, Marius is mounting the heads of his enemies on spikes in the Forum. But the escalating provocations have gone back-and-forth so gradually that you can’t draw an obvious line and say, “This is where it should have stopped.”

Most embarrassing line of the health-care summit: Eric Cantor talks about “people who are allegedly wronged by our health-care system”. Allegedly?

Glenn Beck’s CPAC speech is worth a look, if you want to understand where a lot of people are coming from:

We believe in the right of the individual. We believe in the right, you can speak out, you can disagree with me, you can make your own path. But I’m not going to pay for your mistakes, and I don’t expect you to pay for my mistakes. We’re all going to make them, but we all have the right to move down that road. What we don’t have a right to is: health care, housing, or handouts.

Caring for sick people is “paying for their mistakes.” They “make their own path,” so they need to be allowed to fail (and maybe die), so they can learn to do better.

The Next Time You’re in the Bookstore …
… look for The Long Descent: a user’s guide to the end of the industrial age by John Michael Greer. Because you need to have some high-quality pessimism in your head. Seriously. People without high-quality pessimism either get depressed when things look bad or cling to optimism out of sheer panic. In either state it’s hard to think clearly about things.
The Long Descent is a book of clear thinking about the end of civilization as we have known it. And its main point is this: It takes a long time for a civilization to collapse. You don’t go straight from high tea at Buckingham Palace to Mad Max.
Look at Rome again. The peak of the Roman Empire comes during the reign of Trajan, the second of the Five Good Emperors. He dies in 117. Rome itself doesn’t fall to the barbarians for another 350 years. And that’s just the fall of the Western Roman Empire. In the east, the Byzantine Empire hangs on for another thousand years after that. There were still Caesars in Constantinople until the Renaissance.

Got the picture? Just because you think we may be headed down the Big Hill, don’t list the good tea set on Ebay just yet. You might get a few more sips in.

Myths. Greer is at his best early in the book when he goes meta and explains why most of our thinking about the end of the industrial age is so misguided: We’re not looking at facts and theories at all. Instead, we’re having an argument between two diametrically opposed myths. The Myth of Progress says that collapses or long-term declines are impossible now. Something magical happened in the 1700s, and now we’ve got no place to go but up. Science and technology always improve, and so life in general will always improve too.
On the other hand, the Myth of Apocalypse predicts that someday soon our sins will catch up to us in one big, nasty punishment. It’s like Mother Nature saying, “Wait until your Father gets home.”

This Progress/Apocalypse argument may cloak itself in all sorts of science and pseudoscience, but fundamentally it’s a religious dispute. Things will turn out a particular way because they have to. On the Progress side, science is the superhero who will never fail us. On the Apocalypse side, there’s no way we can get away with all the crap we’ve been doing. (That’s why, if you listen closely to some prophets of Apocalypse, you will hear a perverse joy in their visions of doom. They sound like Jonathan Edwards describing the tortures of Hell.)

How Collapse Works. Not only doesn’t civilization collapse overnight, it also doesn’t go straight downhill. You have a jolt and spiral downward for a while; then society regroups and even rebounds a little until the next jolt.

Greer explains the decline process like this: At its peak a society builds a larger capital base than it can maintain. From then on, the deferred maintenance periodically comes due in some big failure, which cascades through the system until things settle down at a lower level. Then the pattern repeats: The lower capital base generates enough resources to maintain itself day-to-day, but not long-term — eventually leading to the next big failure.

Compare post-Katrina New Orleans to a rising city, like London was when the Great Fire hit in 1666. For London (and for Chicago after its fire in 1871), the disaster was also an opportunity to rebuild bigger and better. But New Orleans is only sort of rebuilding. The touristy parts are back, but much remains in ruins. Poorly maintained levees caused the Katrina flood, and you have to wonder what long-term maintenance the city’s lower tax base can’t cover now. How will that lead to the next disaster?

Why Now? Greer believes that what changed in the 1700s was simple: We figured out how to tap the energy of fossil fuels. Now those fuels are running out, so the Fossil Fuel Age is ending, taking progress with it. We can adjust to the new era of decline, or we can try increasingly crazy schemes (like shale oil) to try to deny it.

Greer promotes the Peak Oil Theory, which I’ve described before. A well-established principle in the oil industry says that an oil field’s production peaks when about half the oil has been pumped out. The geologist M. King Hubbert speculated that the same principle holds on larger scales. He correctly predicted that U.S. oil production would peak in the late 1960s, something none of the other experts expected. Since his Hubbert’s death, people have been using his techniques to predict when global oil production will peak. Estimates range from about now to as late as 2050, and some people reject the theory entirely.

Peak oil fits well with Greer’s long-decline vision, because it’s not as if the pumps all run dry one day with no warning. Instead production peaks, and no matter what new techniques people come up with, they can’t get oil out of the ground as fast as they used to. Over decades, oil becomes increasingly rare and expensive, and all the economic processes that depend on cheap oil work less and less well. (Greer is a little less convincing when he explains why no other form of energy will fill the gap. He’s not obviously wrong, but his conclusions are more speculative.)

Personal strategies. The Myth of Apocalypse leads to the Myth of the Lone Survivor. (Lot escapes from Sodom to live in a cave. Noah and his family survive on the ark. Jor-El saves his infant son from the destruction of Krypton by rocketing him to Earth.) Apply the Lone Survivor myth today and you get survivalist fantasies about cabins in the wilderness stocked with food and gold and weapons. But Greer believes that if you look at things realistically rather than mythically, you’ll picture something completely different.

First, civilizations fall from the outside in. As Roman power declined, the best place to be was Constantinople; the periphery fared much worse. Unpopulated areas become bandit territory, so you’d better have a lot of weapons if you’re planning to hang onto your stocks of food and gold. In contemporary countries that have had actual declines, like Iraq after the invasion or Russia after the Soviet collapse, the best place to find food, electric power, and medical care was near the capital.
Second, stockpiles of goods just carry forward the Fossil Fuel Age illusion that strength comes from owning things. What will really save you in the long decline are skills and relationships. In other words, what can you do and whose plans do you fit into? What community will claim you as a member? Somebody in town who can set broken arms or keep old machines running will do a lot better than a survivalist Rambo in the hills.
Finally, prepare for decline, not apocalypse. Not: “Could I live without electricity?” but “How would I live if electricity were unreliable and expensive?”

In short: Learn some useful skills, figure out how to be happy at a lower level of consumption, and develop relationships based on real loyalty rather than expedience. Oh, and try to develop a habit of thinking realistically rather than mythically. That’s not bad advice even if civilization muddles through somehow.

Short Notes
Fannie Mae lost $74 billion last year, up from $60 billion the year before. That makes AIG’s $11 billion loss look small. A lot of this money eventually winds up bailing out the big banks and Wall Street firms, many of whose deals were insured by Fannie Mae or AIG. Meanwhile, Morgan-Chase CEO Jamie Dimon whines about a bank tax proposal, causing Digby to comment: “For the first time in my life I’m really beginning to understand why the French went so nuts with the Guillotine.”

Huffington Post collects 16 bad headlines that actually ran. Several are unintentionally sexy, and others suggest false interpretations, like the Boston Globe’s “Man Executed After Long Speech”.

A fascinating example of how different things are considered too risque in different countries: Paris Hilton’s commercial for Devassa beer is too much for Brazil. Brazil? How could anything be too much for Brazil, where bikinis are constructed with nanotech? But it’s not a question of less or more, it’s just different.

This may sound like a clip from Ron White’s “They Call Me Tater Salad” routine, but in Texas a cop can walk into a bar and arrest you for being drunk. No one has to complain and you don’t have to be causing any problems. Giving the police that kind of discretion is bound to lead to abuse, and Mother Jones says it does. Remember the crime of Driving While Black? You can add Drinking While Brown to that list.

But surely police wouldn’t do anything like that. They also wouldn’t murder people trying to get away from Hurricane Katrina and then cover it up. Would they?

If you’re so fed up that not even the Tea Party does it for you, try this. The DespairWear collection (“Clothes make the man. These clothes make the man sad.”) also includes a good anti-TARP shirt.

When you get Bill O’Reilly off his own show, he almost sounds reasonable. (HuffPost pitches his Palin remarks, but that’s a small part of the interview.)

Another snippit from Beck’s CPAC speech:

Small businessmen who work hard, they put their last dollar into it. And if they succeed, they’re demonized and penalized. Why? … When you’re in a small business you feel it when you have to let Sally go. You feel it when you have to let Bob go. How many small businessmen have look in the eyes of their employees with tears and said, I’m sorry. I’ve tried everything I can. Those are the people that are truly, truly struggling. And those are the people that nobody is even noticing anymore. Right?

So, forget Sally and Bob — the businessman who had to fire them is the one who really deserves our sympathy. And note the delusion of persecution: Who is demonizing successful small businessmen? Anybody?

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  • macduff  On March 1, 2010 at 2:54 pm

    On the subject of health care insurance reform: It is important to recognize that the so called public option is a red herring designed to keep eyes off a single payer solution (Medicare for All, if you will). The current bill does not address rampart health care inflation, mandates every one buy into a system which remains in effect unchanged. Possibly, the elimination of the egregious preexisting condition to deny service might just survive. But at what cost?

    There are provisions in the senate bill for multiples to be applied to premiums for lifestyle, age, and other conditions. There are no curbs on the upward drive of increased premiums which will serve to drive consumers toward watered down policies with high deductibles and co-pays. I think, this must not pass and that the market will quickly drive the congress to revisit this issue with more realistic and equitable solutions. Passage of the current health care reform solution will in all likelihood set the country back another decade or so.

    Access to the elusive public option will be severely restricted, only those insurance carriers deemed to sick or vulnerable to insure will have access. The pool will be small and filled disproportionately, it will be primed for failure. Then later down the road, our best and brightest, those in congress, will be able to say, see, the public option we provided back in 2010, is a failure, we told you it wouldn't work, well they will be correct. It won't work.

    A word about single-payer as envisioned by H.R.676 This short 20 odd page bill states simply put that all medically needed health care services and equipment, prescriptions, long term care, dental, substance abuse programs, are covered. Not unlike the rest of the industrial world. How is this to be paid for? 1. payrolls taxes, recognize however that you have no employer deductions for health insurance, you have no copays, you have no deductibles, and that everyone is covered in an efficient insurance system not unlike Medicare.
    Recognize also that while a Medicare system has a 6% overhead, the current for profit system has a 30% plus overhead according a Harvard Medical School Report. What does the approx 25% difference mean? Well, the entire industry for which the insurance companies act as gatekeepers is currently about 2.7 Trillion dollars a year. 25% of this is not chump change. It is approx. 675 billion dollars. Also, we should take into account the shear complexity of existing federal programs to fix some aspects of health care; programs which serve children, disabled, et. all. These can be melded into the single payer system. Also consider the amount of your local and state taxes that go to servicing the health needs needs of their civilian workers, police, fire, teachers, dpw, town offices, courts, etc. Finally such a system would have the buying power to effectively correct the current free for all in medical equipment and prescription pricing.

  • b0b  On March 1, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    macduff – you make too much sense. I need buzzwords and soundbites to argue against that. Nothing else will work.

  • magdy halim  On March 4, 2010 at 9:59 pm

    about Rome
    here is what I posted on my bolg two weeks ago:
    another example that I would like to mention here,is the gradual fall of the Roman Empire, fact,the Roman Empire was just an extension to all the old civilizations,so,the time of its building has to include all the time of these older civilizations,….but when we come to examine a real original civilization,like the old Egyptian state,we will find how dramatic its collapse was.
    please see:

  • Anonymous  On March 5, 2010 at 8:55 am

    So is there anything left to read in the Greer book? The synopsis seems frightfully complete. The idea of “overbuilding your capital” seems powerful and compelling.

    In my two small stints in non-profit governance, I've found both organizations hampered by the fact that it is so much harder to do to anything now than it used to be, whether it's building a structure or running a program. As a society, we've spent so much time thinking about “the best possible way” to do things, that we've mandated simplicity and common-sense into obsolescence.

    I find myself talking (and to a certain extent, thinking) like a “tea-partier” here, and wonder if a certain amount of that frustration doesn't come from this same place. How does “Joe Sixpack” feel when he's told that the septic system he put in his house 50 years ago for $2000 is a hazard to public health and needs to be replaced with a $20,000 pump-driven quarterly-maintenance-required electricity dependent high-tech marvel that he doesn't understand and can't afford. And the old system hasn't failed in any obvious way. Power out? No problem, a $10,000 stand-by generator with cut-over electronics solves the problem. No, you can't just unplug the pump from the grid and plug it in to your $800 portable generator. Perhaps an overly long example, but not unrealistic, and, I think relevant to a lot of people who don't spend time in the “policy cloud.” Of course the problem is separating the nut of what may be a real issue – unsustainable capital investment – from the wing-nut politics.

    I had a conversation with an upper-level DOE analyst back in the early 1980's (when I flirted with being a Washington policy wonk) and was groping my way towards the concept of “peak oil” – I didn't really know how to express what I was asking, but now that the concept's been articulated, that's what I was getting at. He estimated (answering to the manner in which I asked the question) that oil prices would be constrained by supply rather than politics or capital investment some time in the first decade of the 21st century. Seemed like a long time away, but he gets points for prescience in my book.

    On a lighter note, I can't let your comment about Brazil pass. “How could anything be too much for Brazil, where bikinis are constructed with nanotech?” Brazilians are surprisingly conservative when it comes to sex. They are, however, much much more comfortable in their own bodies than Americans (particularly us Northeasterners) are. I figured this out on the beach in Rio, where I was not only surrounded by micro-tangas, but buy 50-year-old guys with beer bellies in their Speedo's as well. And no one looked twice. No one thought that was weird. It was nice out, and everybody wanted a good tan.

    Americans confuse being body-positive (can I dredge out that 1970's term?) with being wanton about sex. Both family mores and social expectations are much more conservative than the images would have one believe.

    So Paris Hilton's salaciousness is just not what I recall seeing a lot of on TV there (though admittedly, it's been a while; I supposed Brazilian TV might have declined as quickly as American TV).


  • Doug Muder  On March 5, 2010 at 9:24 am

    I completely agree with MacDuff that a single-payer Medicare-for-everybody solution would be better, simpler, and cheaper in the long run. That's what countries like France and Germany do, and they get better outcomes than we do at about 2/3rds of the cost.

    Where I disagree, or at least focus on the other side, is that I think a failure to pass this bill will set us back a decade. It's been 16 years since the Clinton plan failed. Imagine us 16 years in the future with our current system.

  • Doug Muder  On March 5, 2010 at 9:33 am

    To answer Jordan's question, Greer goes into much more detail about technology: What kinds of tech will fail first? What kinds of old tech will have to be revived? And so on. As a proof-of-concept, he describes the many uses of the hundreds of millions of alternators that are sitting in junked cars.

    I'm sure there's more than that, but that's an example that I can pull out of my memory with no research.

    Jordan's comment is pushing me in a direction I've been thinking about going anyway: to ask the question “What part of tea party anger is legit, and how should liberals respond to it?”

    There was a hint of that in my review of “Methland” a few weeks ago. Several times in that book, you run into problems that would be solvable if the public interest really came first.

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  • […] The most pessimistic book I’ve ever reviewed in the Sift is John Michael Greer’s The Long Descent: a user’s guide to the end of the industrial age. Greer paints a very plausible picture of how, over centuries, industrial civilization might fall […]

  • By The Monday Morning Teaser | The Weekly Sift on September 4, 2017 at 8:13 am

    […] about how it might be rebuilt take me back to The Long Descent, a book by John Michael Greer that I reviewed in 2010. Greer argues that civilizations decline not day-by-day, but in a series of scattered disasters […]

  • […] Long Descent came out in 2008, and I reviewed it for the Sift in 2010 (long enough ago that I’ll assume you either hadn’t discovered the Sift yet or […]

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