Stubborn Ounces

You say the little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in balance.
I don’t think I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.

Bonaro W. Overstreet

In this week’s Sift:

  • A Hard Week to Sift. A difficult week makes me think about who the Sift is for, and whether I’m falling into the traps I want others to avoid.
  • Starve the Beast. Defund the Left. What we’re seeing in the budget battles is not the normal back-and-forth of liberal/conservative politics. Aggressive strategies that used to be outside the mainstream have taken over the Republican Party.
  • Libya: The Third War. I have no way to know what is actually happening, so for now I’ll just say what I hope is happening.
  • Short Notes. A Potemkin University, Weiner congratulates Republicans on defunding NPR, the tax cuts that make budget cuts necessary, a political wife wants to recall her husband, and Nuclear Boy has a stomach ache.
  • This Week’s Challenge. Watch yourself watch the news.

A Hard Week to Sift

Every now and then as I write the Weekly Sift, my spider-sense goes off. I seldom know immediately just what I’ve done wrong, but somehow I have fallen into one of the traps I try to guide others around. I have accidentally wandered over some indistinct boundary and am in danger of spreading ignorance and confusion rather than knowledge and clarity.

Usually the alarm isn’t hard to turn off. I just delete, re-think, and start over. Or sometimes the topic itself (like Sarah Palin) is already getting more attention than it deserves, and whatever I say about it will just make the problem worse. So I delete and don’t start over.

This week my spider-sense went off and refused to be cajoled into silence. It wasn’t the specific topic, and it wasn’t the way I was framing the topic. It was the week. I was looking at the week all wrong.

That had never happened before, so it forced me to re-think things I usually take for granted. In general, sifting about sifting is not that interesting or worthwhile, so I try to avoid meta-articles about what I’m trying to accomplish or how I do it.

I thought I’d make an exception this week. But don’t worry, it’s not going to become a habit.

What/who the Sift is for. The purpose of the Weekly Sift is to provide useful information to people who are trying to be good citizens without quitting their day jobs. If full-time political activists find it interesting or apathetic people are entertained by it, that’s fine, but that’s not what it’s for. The target Sift-readers are not the political movers and shakers, but ordinary people who want to keep track of public affairs so that they can wisely position the stubborn ounces of their weight.

Given how many well-intentioned ordinary citizens there must be, you’d think they would be a well-served market. But they’re not. (You probably know that already.)

On any given topic, it’s easy to learn the same five facts everybody else seems to know. You hear them repeated on newscast after newscast, headline after headline. But if you think about those five facts long enough to realize that (put together) they don’t make sense, it takes much more effort to dig up the sixth and seventh facts that might bring things into a new focus. Worse, sometimes the five ubiquitous facts are so mis-stated or mis-framed that they might as well be lies.

Every topic has its own traps — misleading ways of arranging the facts that either disarm the public or turn well-intentioned people against their own interests. But there are three traps that apply across the board:

1. Distraction. In the summer of 2009 we lost about two weeks of news coverage because Michael Jackson died. I admit, he was the King of Pop, and the Billie Jean video is one of my all-time favorites. But was there really nothing else happening that needed our attention during those two weeks? And what could you do about Michael being dead anyway?

That’s an extreme case, but just about every week the corporate media dangles some bright shiny object to distract you from events that actually affect your life — events that maybe could be changed if enough people like you paid attention.

2. Passive obsession. In reaction to the distractions of the corporate media, the blogosphere has its own trap. You can use the internet to learn everything about an important topic, and then you can either sit at your computer angsting about the whole thing, or you can feel quietly superior to all those ignorant drones who only know five facts (three of which are completely wrong).

The root problem with passive obsession is that action — even something as simple as changing the kind of bread you buy — is what makes information worthwhile. Without some minimal connection to action, knowing all the facts and figures about global warming is no more important than knowing the batting averages of the 1927 Yankees. If you’re not going to do anything, ever, it’s all just trivia.

3. Hype. When you know that people aren’t really listening to you, and that even the ones who do listen are unlikely to do anything about what you’re saying, it’s tempting to turn up the volume. Nearly everyone, I imagine, gets regular emails from some friend or relative claiming that some current event is the Worst Outrage Ever!! Not only is the sky about to fall, the sky has already fallen, and we’d all be too mesmerized to notice if our friend didn’t point it out to us.

The ultimate source of this alarming information (if you can trace it at all) is usually some interested group: a political party, a special-interest front organization, or some entertainer/propagandist on the radio.

One way to spot hype is that the proposed action (if any) is woefully inadequate to the scale of the alarm. You should buy a book or forward this email or send $20 to a campaign or just stay awake at night shaking in your bed.

The Week. Three major things have been happening this week: the failing nuclear reactors in Japan, the intervention in Libya, and the continuing budget battles at both the state and federal levels.

The first two are the kinds of stories the Sift can’t cover well, at least not yet. Right now, there really isn’t much you need to know or should be doing about Japan. There are various places you could send money, but frankly, Japan isn’t Haiti. The Japanese have money, and to the extent that money can solve this problem, Japan will get it done.

Eventually, we’re going to need to assess what happened and what it means for our own nuclear industry, but the information necessary to make that assessment isn’t available yet. It’s a good idea to start learning some background on nuclear power, and I’ll link to some in the coming weeks. But speculating on what horrible things might be happening (or about to happen) isn’t that useful.

Libya is still in the breaking-news category. There are a few things that it makes sense for a weekly to point out, and I’ll have a few paragraphs later. But much of what has happened so far has been behind closed doors, or in places where we have no reliable eyes and ears. So we’re all just speculating about it. Is the intervention working? Well, something might happen between my posting the Sift and you reading it that changes everything. You need a good 24-hour news channel to cover this story right now, and all I can do is wish we had one.

That leaves the budgets.

Budget battles. I’ve been on the state-budget story for weeks now, and there is more material this week than ever. More outrageous things in more states are getting closer than ever to fruition — so many that filling the Sift’s 3000-word template was going easily this week.

And then my spider-sense went off.

It took a while to sort out, but eventually I realized I was bouncing back and forth between passive obsession and hype. This awful thing is happening! That awful thing is happening! Here’s a near-complete list with hundreds of links you can follow.

I was losing the useful-information-for-citizens perspective.

So I took some time off, backed up, and wrote the next article. Some details are down there, mostly in the links. But what you really need to know is the big picture.

Starve the Beast, Defund the Left

As I explained in the first article, I have had a hard time finding the right level of alarm to convey about the political battles that have followed the 2010 elections. The sky is not falling, but something new and dangerous is happening. It’s easy to pick out the particular outrages that affect your community or your family or your particular interest group, but it’s hard to get a handle on what to do unless you understand the big picture. So let me boil it down to bullet points:

  • This is not the normal back-and-forth of liberal/conservative politics.
  • The many different proposals in the various states and at the federal level are part of a unified conservative strategy.
  • That strategy’s ultimate goal is the complete dismantling of the public sector.
  • This is the archetypal think-globally-act-locally issue. You need to understand the big picture, and then make common cause with people near you who care about the things you care about: your local schools, your library, the special services your children need, or the infrastructure of your town.
  • Your local concerns then need to make common cause with the local concerns of other people. That’s why you need the big picture, so that your energy doesn’t get diverted into fighting against someone else’s equally valid concerns.

Now let’s talk that through, starting from the beginning.

The origin of Starve the Beast. The fundamental economic differences between the two parties go back at least a century, and hardened during the Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt created the federal government we know today: a government that takes responsibility for the welfare of individual citizens through programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance, and is big enough to regulate the corporations.

But although post-Roosevelt Republicans continued to be for lower taxes and smaller government than Democrats wanted, from the 1950s through the 1980s there was broad agreement about government’s overall mission. Republicans just wanted government to run more cheaply and efficiently, Democrats more generously. That yin/yang relationship worked fairly well, so losing an occasional election was nothing to get alarmed about. A Republican governor might cut away Democratic mistakes, and leave a more sound foundation on which the next Democrat could build.

In particular, both parties shared a fiscal vision: You decided what the government needed to do, then found taxes to pay for it. Republicans prided themselves on balanced budgets, and often had to raise taxes to achieve them.

Beginning in the Reagan administration, though, a new Republican strategy developed that became known as starve the beast. Traditional Republicans had wanted to cut spending so that they could cut taxes, but starve-the-beast said Republicans should cut taxes first, intentionally create a fiscal emergency, and then use the panic of that emergency to build popular support for spending cuts.

President Reagan pioneered the rhetoric of starve-the-beast, but he didn’t practice it. The Reagan tax cuts of 1981 were pitched as a way to raise revenue by stimulating growth. When large deficits emerged instead, Reagan spent the rest of his terms raising taxes to cover them. Bush the First did the same, even though his famous read-my-lips campaign pledge said he wouldn’t.

The first authentic beast-starver was Bush the Second. He inherited a budget surplus from President Clinton, destroyed it by cutting taxes and starting wars, and then kept cutting taxes until he handed President Obama a $1.2 trillion deficit and a broken economy.

We are still in the first economic downturn since the starve-the-beast strategy took hold. That’s what’s new.

Starve-the-Beast tactics. Economic booms raise revenue, while recessions raise government expenses for things like unemployment insurance. So ideally, a government would run a surplus in good times and a deficit in hard times.

If you want to starve the beast, though, you cut taxes in good times so that when the recession starts, the deficit is already at the maximum level acceptable to the public. Then as government revenues drop and expenses rise, you have the fiscal emergency you need to stampede the public into accepting deep cuts in otherwise popular government programs.

State-level starving. The federal government can ride out a recession by borrowing, but states can’t. The hidden story of the Obama stimulus was that it countered beast-starvation by passing borrowed funds down to the states.

Now that the stimulus has ended, states face the full force of the unusually deep Bush/Obama recession. Simultaneously, newly elected Tea Party governors are cutting taxes even further on corporations and property owners, intentionally making the fiscal problem worse to extract deeper spending cuts.

Targets. This would all make sense if Republicans had some specific target, some particular government waste that they wanted to eliminate. In fact they don’t.

Instead, conservative rhetoric has worked hard to create a vague impression of government waste, without identifying specifics beyond an occasional overpaid bus driver or bridge-to-nowhere whose cost is an infinitesimal fraction of government spending. This leads to the kind of citizen comment Democratic Congressman Paul Tonko faced at a recent townhall meeting: “I find it incredible that out of a $3 trillion budget, we can’t find $100 billion to cut.” The citizen can’t find the cuts-that-won’t-hurt-anybody either, but he is sure they must be there.

In fact the target is the entire public sector: public schools, libraries, Social Security, all of it. There is no part of government that someone has not proposed privatizing, including many military functions.

In the current state budget battles, the cuts are largely being pushed onto the schools and Medicaid. Again, this is not because specific wastes have been identified, but because conservative rhetoric insists waste must be in there somewhere.

Defund the Left. Within the beast-starving cuts is a much smaller target list: any money that might find its way back to Democrats. This explains the vehemence of the current assault on public-employee unions: Those unions support Democratic candidates. Ditto for tort reform: Trial lawyers are not just enemies of the big corporations, they are major contributors to Democrats. So anything that decreases the income of lawyers is a double win for Republicans.

The destruction of ACORN and the current attacks on Planned Parenthood and NPR are similar efforts that save minuscule amounts of money, but eliminate liberal infrastructure.

It’s worth pointing out that many government contracts go to corporations that support Republican candidates, including Koch Energy, but there is no comparable liberal plan to defund the Right by canceling those contracts.

Local impact. You’re likely to face the effects of  budget cuts on a very personal level: teacher lay-offs will give your child fewer curriculum options and more crowded classrooms; your street will have potholes; your union could go away; your library will cut back; emergency services will be slower to arrive; the impact of any personal misfortune will magnify as the social safety net frays.

It’s important to realize that these are all effects of starving the beast. It’s not an accident or a misfortune, it’s a plan. If we don’t realize that, we’ll all be pitted against each other to maintain our slice of a mysteriously shrinking pie. People who want their school’s music program restored will try to take the money from the special education budget, or vice versa. Teachers will resent nurses, or vice versa.

But like musical chairs, this is a manufactured crisis. We have to push and shove only because someone keeps taking chairs away. America continues to be a rich country. We are not broke; there are plenty of chairs. We can have roads and schools and adequate medical care and retirements without poverty. But we can’t do that while continually slashing taxes on the rich and the corporations.

Libya: The Third War

After a UN Security Council resolution and with the support of allies including France and Britain, air strikes against Libya started Saturday. The stated purpose of the intervention is to protect civilians who were being killed, mainly by the pro-Qaddafi forces, and President Obama says no U.S. ground troops will be used.

There’s a lot we don’t know yet: what the full intentions of the coalition are, whether the Qaddafi opposition is coherent enough to put together a government and what kind of government it would be, how solid Qaddafi’s support is, and so on. Some of these things might be known by the Obama administration, or might not.

Rather than project my hopes onto facts I don’t know, I’ll just list my hopes explicitly: I hope that Qaddafi is widely unpopular, and was being kept in power only because his side had the heavy weapons. I hope that air strikes can take out a lot of that weaponry without massive civilian casualties. I hope that Libyans who calculated that Qaddafi would win are changing their calculations and deserting him. I hope the opposition can now overthrow Qaddafi quickly, without foreign troops, and that Western troops not set foot in the country. I hope that a new government can form, can hold the country together, and can give the Libyan people the benefit of that nation’s enormous oil wealth.

So far, the main difference between this intervention and the invasion of Iraq is that there is already an indigenous revolution going on; it’s not just us taking out somebody we have decided is a bad guy. If that continues to be the story, this could turn out well. If not, it won’t.

Watch for developments on BBC and Al Jazeera.

Short Notes

Huffington Post exposes Ashford University, a 76,000-student online money machine that is headquartered in San Diego, but maintains a Potemkin campus in Iowa for 1% of its students. Investors bought the campus, along with its accreditation, from an order of Franciscan nuns whose only alternative was bankruptcy.

Now Ashford runs like one of those mortgage-lending schemes from the real estate bubble. They intensely recruit students who have little chance of college success, sign them up for federal student loans they don’t understand, and give them lots of encouragement for the four weeks of enrollment necessary to qualify for the loans.

Some students do eventually get an Ashford degree, for what that’s worth, but many drop out and then are surprised to discover they’re in debt.

Rep. Anthony Weiner’s satirical reaction to the House’s defunding of NPR is hilarious.

Things are getting testy on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. A new judge gets elected April 5.

Protesters who went to the home of Wisconsin State Senator Randy Hopper were met by his wife, who says he doesn’t live there any more — he lives in Madison with his mistress. According to one report, the wife and family maid are signing the petition to recall Hopper. The mistress is a 25-year-old woman who recently got a state job making significantly more than her predecessor.

Recall petitions against the Republican state senators are going well, while the corresponding efforts against Democrats are fizzling.

This graphic compares tax cuts to budget cuts.

This strangely amusing Japanese animation explains the stomach ache of Nuclear Boy.

This Week’s Challenge

This week as you listen to or read the news, think about the traps of distraction, obsession, and hype. Watch yourself watch the news, and monitor your emotional reactions. Let me know if you identify other traps I should have listed.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift’s Facebook page.

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  • Patty  On March 21, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    A breath of air in a world gone nuclear and stale. Thanks for doing the “sift” — could be a new dance step.

  • Hanna  On March 21, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    Doug, what are your assumptions about the political positions of readers of The Sift? You don't say, but I think most of us choose our media outlets (to FOX or not-to-FOX) to support the positions we've already developed. So how does that affect your analysis?

  • Heather  On March 21, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    I've been thinking about the “sweep the leg” moment from Karate Kid as a metaphor for the right's strategies. And it suggests strategies for the left's responses.

  • Doug Muder  On March 21, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    Even news outlets that slant in a direction you like can push you into obsession or hype. And there's a strong temptation for them to do that, because any commercial news operation will do better if it is addictive.

  • Georgia Yankee  On March 22, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    Thanks for an excellent set of posts. I thought I was the only one who remembered Gvoer Norquit's plan to “weaken it just enough so I can drag it to the bathtub and drown it.”

    Meantime, as a form of deflection and distraction, the conniebots are whimpering about Cloward/Piven.

    Keep it up!


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