Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Betrayal of the Smart Sons

Having recently read a dyspeptic and grouchy, but eye-opening, look at the fix we’re in - 15 Signs American Society Is Coming Apart at the Seams, by David DeGraw - it occurred to me that there are all sorts of possible theories to explain what's happened to American Civilization... its astonishing plummet from the richest, most confident and progressive nation in history to an irascible bunch of bickerers, trapped in perpetual a cycle of Culture War. 

Why, especially, have Americans been losing their knack at creating new and better goods and services and winning at the agile game of market capitalism?  This is a matter of no small import to the world as a whole, since it is precisely the engine of U.S. economic success that has - thereupon - driven the development of most of the rest of the world. (See: How Americans Spent themselves into Ruin…But Saved the World.) While that engine has to learn to run leaner, more efficiently and more sustainably, its actual vigor and innovation are just as important, if the world is to see better days.

Alas, the engine is sputtering.  Furthermore, none of the diagnoses that I've seen publicly bruited, so far, has seemed convincing. Most are either superficial ("we were led by fools!"), or myopic ("MY side is always right and so is every item on our wish list!"), or dreamy ("we should wake up and face the future again, as a nation of ambitious problem-solvers!")  (All right, that last example is the favorite wish-whine of yours truly.)

Time for a fair warning.  I was raised, trained and apprenticed in the art of "what-if" generating... the craft of offering unusual outlooks. New-Perspectives-R-Us.  Even knowing full well that most of them will be flawed at some level, people still pay me -- sometimes a lot -- to do this. To be interesting, even if I don't turn out to be right.

Hence, some of my hypotheses, to explain America's current funk, are iconoclastic. For example, I think that a big part of our problem may be rooted in a simplistic, insipid, illogical... and French... metaphor, the so-called "left-right political axis," a dismally lobotomizing meme that some of the smartest people I know actually buy into, without ever being able to define it.
Spinning around in a different direction, last month I offered a relatively sunny theory about the rise and gentle decline of Pax Americana -- suggesting that everything we've seen, including our trade and budget deficits, may have been intentionally mapped out by the greatest genius of the 20th Century, George Marshall, whose innovative counter-mercantilist trade patterns wound up propelling two-thirds of the people on this planet toward peaceful prosperity through one simple method -- Americans buying trillions of dollars worth of crap we never needed. 

Sound cheery?  I can also do dark. (See Republicans and Democrats: Two Very Different Kinds of Internal Party Struggle. )

But let's put aside all the optimistic and pessimistic scenarios, for now.  This time, I want to get strange and cynical with a new theory that's simple, creepy, and chillingly plausible. I don't expect any modern person will agree that this is the real, underlying cause for all that’s been happening to our economy, across the last few decades. 
 Yet, I'll bet any of the top thinkers from other centuries and civilizations would take a glance at America today and totally agree with the hypothesis!

"Yep, that's it," they would say. "Any nation that allowed such a thing to happen would deserve what it got."

It is a theory about the sons and daughters of the rich.

Who’s Minding The Aristocracy?  A Crackpot Explanation for the Decline of American Capitalism
Now and then, during my time at Caltech and JPL and across careers in science and the arts, I used to notice something that struck me as strange. While interacting in these endeavors with bright men and women who were colleagues and/or peer-competitors, all of us eagerly pursuing truth, I would every now and then pick up on something odd and unexpected. Through all the normal give and take, amid fascinating conversations that plumbed ideas at the fringe of the known, a hint would slip out revealing that... hey... this guy or that gal, in addition to being a skilled worker and dynamic innovator, also happened also to be rich! 

Now let's be clear; I’m not talking about the self-made billionaires I know -- guys who started in the middle class before developing some cool concept that gave millions of people added value. Exemplifying Free Enterprise at its best, those fellows are proudly “first generation” self-made men. Indeed, several have declared that they will join Warren Buffett in leaving most of it to causes, making a better world.  But we’re putting them aside. They’re not relevant here.

No, instead I'm talking about another kind of rich people. Folks who got wealthy the old fashioned way, by inheriting it.

And yet, despite being raised in affluence, these colleagues, friends or fellow scientists were not using their silver spoons to live it up or lord over others. Sure, they had some of the finer things. But they treated money as something that one can actually get enough of. More is always nice, of course!  But one of the principal hallmarks of sanity -- satiability -- means a surfeit that's doubled, and then redoubled, drops in importance.  In its place, the central drive may even move on to other things.  Like curiosity.

(This doesn't impugn the tech billionaires. Past a certain point, is it cash that really matters to them?  Or winning, again and again, at a cutthroat, innovative game?  Most claim that money, itself, isn't the motivator, anymore.  It's being -- and doing -- the best.)

In fact, when it came to the rich scientists and artists I knew, these colleagues nearly always seemed to be at pains to downplay the whole topic. It was never polite to go there.  Often, to my puzzlement, they acted as if admitting their wealth would be like avowing to some mildly repulsive and irritating social disease.

I pondered this phenomenon over the years... I mean, beyond ratcheting up my respect for women and men who turn their back on luxury (though they often had boats or planes), in order to head for realms where the truly interesting stuff is going on.  (BTW, some of them went into science fiction, too.  I won’t tell who.)

These were people with options.  Yet, they chose to go and prove themselves in fields where ability and quality are genuinely measurable, and where esteem generally ignores the number of digits in your income. You gotta respect that.

Still, I eventually got around to wondering -- all right then, who is managing your family’s influence and power?

Who gets the treasured stock exchange seat?  The Skull & Bones membership? The golf games with Illuminati board members?  I even probed about this a couple of times, when I felt the friendship could stand it.  Clues showed up, when I would accompany a friend to some family gathering, and met relatives. Soon, I observed enough to stoke a growing suspicion.

Who got the power and influence?

Dim-witted siblings.   That’s who.  The family dullards, who are not lured by adventures in science or innovation or the arts.  The brother who, if left in charge of a restaurant or small business would run up the mortgage and leave it bankrupt, in months.  The sister for whom preening and partying with Paris Hilton actually seems important.  The kind who drift toward crony dealing, because genuine market competition might be way too challenging.  Who will clasp their (reflex-genetically-inherited-by-all-of-us) notions of born-privilege, and justify them with mantras of smug superiority.

Look, I am really, really not interested in making enemies of any of these rich/spoiled/dumbasastone fellows, so in case any of them just happen to read this obscure blog, will you accept a pre-apology? Or assume I am talking about someone else? Thanks.

Nevertheless, seriously, don’t we all know what families are like?  Typically, each one has its bright bulbs and dim ones. In fact, one of the ways that families work best is that the bright sons and daughters wind up taking care of everybody else.  If there's a shared business, they make sure the taxes get paid and the workers are happily creative and that customers remain content. They see too it that the whole thing doesn’t get leveraged too far to weather the next storm, and they refuse to let company officers vote themselves lavish bonuses, diminishing value that could be re-invested in growth.  They use their prefrontal lobes to look ahead and invest not in wild ass get-rich-fast schemes, but in things that will enhance product or service, engendering more wealth -- for everybody -- down stream.

You see this in almost any family-run business.  Sometimes, the other siblings resent it.  Often, they know what’s good for them and help the smart-bro or wise-sis, however they can. (Heck, we saw it in “The Godfather,” right?  Well, maybe that’s not such a great example, after all.)

Only here’s the point.  An awful lot of American family businesses don’t get to benefit from this process.  They lose the natural leader, for a reason that’s ultimately ironic -- because the bright siblings may get a little too bright.  Having been raised in some comfort and privilege, with all the education they could possibly want, lo and behold, they want - and get - a lot!  Moreover, they look around for where exciting stuff is happening, and they soon come to recognize the places where human endeavor is really achieving important things, pushing back the envelope.  Challenging the unknown, breaking molds, inventing the new, and unrolling the very blueprints of God.

Sure, sometimes these challenges can be found right there, in the family business. Making the products and services way-better.   Terrific. Still, there is a natural human tendency for the smartest kids to wander off, away from all the privileges and assumptions, to prove they can make it on their own, perhaps even in a field where some of humanity’s top minds may acknowledge their talents and hard work with the greatest of all rewards... that nod of genuine respect.

It doesn’t have to be science, though that is where I found these refugees from the aristocracy, most often.  It might also be the arts, or starting a new company from scratch, in a completely different field.  Any way you look at it, this trend has to be viewed with admiration.

Alas, it may also be one of the principal reasons that American capitalism is going down the toilet. Because... who is left behind, minding the store?  Oh.  Yeah.  I already answered that question.

Only now, squint and envision good old Fredo, put in charge of a big investment fund.  Instead of a ma and pa grocery store, picture a prominent county bank that used to service mortgages carefully, combining intimate knowledge of local borrowers with a strong sense of community. That is, til frat-bro came back from a golf junket fizzing with excitement over hedge investments that he learned about from some sharpguy on the back nine. I mean, how else can you explain the fact that Wall Street is filled with fellows who actually think that vampiring companies with endlessly-churned commissions is doing them a favor and improving their bottom line?

Has anybody out there read The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy?  Remember the "Golgafrincham B Ark"?  If you don't, ask your nerdiest friend to lend you that passage.

Is That Really The Answer?

If you were to offer up any list of hypotheses to explain what has happened to American business and capitalistic enterprise, across the last 40 years, this one surely ranks among the most crackpotty-sounding. And I am not declaring it to be true. (I don't believe all my own strange hypotheses -- it's simply my job to come up with an endless supply!)

 Yet, doesn't it belong somewhere on the table of notions to investigate?  Note that the Standard Model -- proclaiming that we've been half-ruined by moronic, short-sighted greed -- does relate. I'm simply suggesting a process -- one that is totally consistent with the facts -- by which a large fraction of the mover-and-shaker slots in American finance might have become filled with greedy, short-sighted morons.  Moreover, there are plenty of precedent-examples one can point at, from history, where it proved devastating for a nation or enterprise to be inherited by the wrong brother.
Nor is this explanation inherently leftist. (Though Karl Marx mentioned "inherent contradictions" leading to capitalism's demise.)   Indeed, it posits something decidedly non-lefty.  Even far to the opposite direction.

It suggests that, if we are destined to return to the core human method of governance -- the one that dominated 99% of civilizations and recorded eras -- then at least aristocratism ought to be run by the BEST scions of the ruling class.  Not its worst.  They owe us that much, at least.

Consider, if this hypothesis has any validity at all, the profound awfulness of a well-intended betrayal.  In these high families, the smarter brothers and sisters want to be part of a lively, enlightenment civilization and to prove they can make it on their own. Today, these brighter siblings vanish into science, the arts, etc, leaving their bonehead bros, who shouldn't be trusted with a burnt match, holding great power.

 And hence, the bright ones have committed a crime against the very thing they love.

Okay, maybe I should have saved this one for April Fool's Day...

There. Forget all the convoluted analyses of Wall street and the Fed. The aristocracy was betrayed by its smartest scions. That's it!  Crackpotty or not, if this weird scenario does have any basis, then the cure is obvious.
Hunt down all the smart boys and girls who vanished into challenging and honest activities... science, teaching, research, the arts... and chase them BACK into the family business! Make them pick up their responsibilities to manage the inherited capital and influence well. Send the dullard brats off to sniff coke and chase models in Hollywood.

Yes, it sounds draconian, even deeply cruel.  But this measure could rank second only to closing all the undergraduate business schools, as a way to save our economy and our civilization.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Health Care. Again... Insure the kids first!

 What does it take to see the obvious?

 First, in today's weirdly reshaped political process we should not be wringing our hands over details in the Senate's version of Health Care legislation.  The current bill is warped by the need for perfect unanimity among members of the Democratic Party coalition. The Republicans’ strangely awe-worthy trait of utter party discipline, threatening filibusters instead of negotiating and deliberating as individuals, has put the independent senator from Hartford (capital of the insurance industry) in a powerful position to make certain that his industry gets what it wants.

In the current Senate version, that is.

But remember, all the Democrats need is to get some kind of bill out of the Senate.  It will then go into a reconciliation process with the version passed by the House.  The final bill that results from that blending will then be offered up for a straight vote in both chambers with no filibuster allowed.  This means that:

 1- liberals who are crying now about President Obama's "cave-in" concessions to Joe Lieberman ought to learn something about the process. And about patience.

 2- Since the final bill will only need 50 Senate votes to pass, Senators Lieberman, Lincoln, Landrieu, Nelson, Baucus and several other Democrats from more conservative states, will be able to posture and vote against it, for the sake of those at home, and still see it pass.

3- If the final version looks a lot more like the House Bill, and thus more liberal than anything the Senate might have passed, that will only be the Republicans' fault.  They could have negotiated and participated in a real process of deliberation, and hence had a real voice on the reconciliation committee.  (Democratic majorities have traditionally given the GOP Congressional leadership substantial voice in the reconciliation process -- that is, until the Republicans chose all-or-nothing political war. Total political war has its consequences)

 But I want to focus, briefly, on another matter-- one that I've raised many times before... that the Democrats have waged this struggle with the wrong emphasis, all along, in ways that are tone-deaf to both justice and the inclinations of the voters.

On several occasions I've pointed out the obvious, that Americans are inherently more "socialistic" toward children than toward adults.

When it comes to grownups, we retain, from Wild West Frontierland days, an attitude that people ought to stand on their own two feet.  Hence, our public still expresses relative puritanism over issues like welfare and insurance etc, compared to other industrial nations. (For all the FoxNews screeching about "Socialist Obama," the most radical version of health care reform that he ever proposed -- including the "public option"-- was positively right-wing by European standards.) 

But that puritan-cowboy-individualist reflex tends only to apply when the topic is adults.  The point I have been pushing is that we feel differently toward kids.

Just Go Ahead and Take Care of All Kids First!

It goes all the way back to Adam Smith, the so-called "father of capitalism" who nevertheless pushed for free public education.  The logic is simple.  Free enterprise works best from a level playing field, so that a maximum number of  individuals can participate in the competitive  process, delivering ever-improving goods and services  (Um, duh?  This is why any trend toward monopoly or oligarchy is the enemy of enterprise, whether that oligarchy is governmental or "private.")

Now, one can level the field by bringing the aristocracy down a notch. (Smith actually favored this, to a cautious and limited degree, at least by eliminating the secretive, collusive power of oligarchs to warp markets.) But a better way is to lift the bottom up. Again, carefully.  In the right ways.

If helping the poor has real capitalist-pragmatist justifications, certain types of help benefit long-range competition better than others. Conservatives are right to be suspicious toward lefty endeavors to "equalize outcomes."

On the other hand, certainly, the most justifiable kind of aid to the poor is also the most moral -- lifting up children.  Even rough-n-ready Americans know that.  And even George W. Bush felt compelled to push the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), which - inefficiently and haphazardly - helped states with matching funds, to reduce the number of uninsured children.

My point is that Obama and the Democrats have been foolish to ignore this inherent double standard -- a willingness on the part of Americans to apply socialist methods to help kids.  Instead of trying to expand Medicare downward to include people between the ages of 55 and 65, they should have gone to the other end and presented a provision to simply cover all American children.   

I've been proposing this for a long time. First, it would - in a shot - take care of the most vulnerable citizens and those whose long range futures merit the greatest investment... offering the most profound return, on a simple cash-actuarial basis!

Second, a lot of the health care needs of kids offer great bang for the buck.  These include effective preventive care, or the rapid attending to brief-acute problems... exactly the areas where even Republicans admit that Canadian-style single payer systems work best.

Third, even if that left a lot of parents uncovered, at least those parents would get their worst fears lifted off their shoulders.  They could then negotiate their own policies with private insurers from a position of strength.  In fact, the insurance industry would know it had to play nice, or else "children" could be re-defined upward, from ages 21 to, say, 25... and so on.

Finally, this approach is politically powerful.  Because many who rage at "socialism" for lazy adults would not dare object to making sure that children get seen by a doctor and have their basic needs met. Putting opponents in a position of refusing care for babies... now that's political hardball.

Frankly, it worries me that this blatantly obvious option seems not to have occurred to Obama or the Democrats.  It reveals a tone-deaf lack of political savvy, as well as any clear-eyed notion of how to get the most accomplished, in a long and grinding process of incrementalism.


Final note... go to GOODREADS.COM and look up your favorite author! But you can help by writing "reviews" of some or all of his books! It would be much appreciated and help a lot! Come on, do this for the guy! ;-)

Friday, December 11, 2009

Miscellaneous wonders.....

While polishing a more entertaining piece for you all, here are some interesting snippets….

This one is simply amazing! ”For 23 years Rom Houben was trapped in his own body, unable to communicate with his  or family. They presumed he was in a vegetative state following a near-fatal car crash in 1983. But then doctors used a state-of-the-art scanning system on the brain of the martial arts enthusiast, which showed it was functioning almost normally. "I had dreamed myself away," said Houben, now 46, whose real "state" was discovered three years ago.  What is even more amazing is that he was even sane at all, after that time.  I find that incredible.

Fascinating story about the Man Who Forgot Everything.

The perfect answer to those who think that Twitter encourages short term... oops, ran out of characte--

Out this week, Jeff Carlson's PLAGUE ZONE brings his popular trilogy to a close with a new adventure featuring fan favorites like Cam Najarro and Allison Barrett as well as a host of new characters, both good guys and bad.  The arms race for weaponzied nanotech has continued.  America is struck by a new contagion. Together with a small band of friends and rivals, Cam must discover the source of the new plague, never suspecting that its creator is an old enemy he believes dead... 

Another pal, Jamais Cascio, has been named a “Top 100 Global Thinker” by Foreign Policy Magazine.

In this new science fiction anthology: WHEN IT CHANGED: 'REAL SCIENCE' SCIENCE FICTION, each piece of fiction is partnered with a note from the scientist whose input inspired it, allowing us a rare glimpse into their world.

==News Updates==

Snippet of interest: More than half of the $923 billion's worth of US currency in circulation is in the possession of foreigners.

As an expedition from Chinese state television worked its way across the remote Tibetan plateau earlier this year, the explorers were amazed by what they found. The plateau has been called the world's third largest ice store after the North and South Poles. Yet according to Chinese scientists, the "third pole" is warming up faster than anywhere else on earth. They brought back a visual lesson in global warming so stark that censors allowed the program makers to broadcast a frank exposé. Their film attracted the attention of the Communist party's leaders and has put climate change at the centre of a remarkably open debate in China. 

From the Transparency Front... or "shades of EARTH"... The IRS is analyzing a trove of information from more than 7,500 taxpayers who voluntarily disclosed their offshore accounts this year to avoid prosecution. To qualify, clients had to disclose everyone who handled their money overseas and everywhere it went. IRS Commissioner Douglas Shulman said the IRS is hiring 800 people in the next year and increasing staff in eight overseas offices, including Hong Kong. It also will open offices in Beijing, Sydney and Panama City.  

==Science Snippets==

Seven Answers to Climate Contrarian Nonsense --Evidence for human interference with Earth's climate continues to accumulate

Spiral galaxies seem to feature an odd X-wing shape around their center, odd dust tracks at and angle to the galactic plane, and beforewe can explain them we have to be able to see them: specifically, we need a galaxy that happens to be edge-on from where we are to afford us an end view. Like NGC 4710, recently imaged by the Hubble telescope.

Astronomers have watched the violent death of what was probably the most massive star ever detected. The supernova explosion, which lasted for months, is thought to have generated more than 50 Suns' worth (10E32 kilograms) of different elements.  It also may have revealed the unique Pair Instability mode of supernova collapse.

A new "crystallising block universe" model that combines relativity and quantum mechanics suggests that the past crystallises out of the future, in the instant we call the present.

Petman, a bipedal bot that walks on two legs and can recover from a push (using the same balancing technology that allows BigDog to recover from a kick) has been developed by Boston Dynamics. 

== Plus Some Politically Redolent Items ==

Why China has cornered the market for rare earth elements.  Seems a good reason to start mining asteroids. 

Unbelievable.  Several senators and congressmen actually live on the premises of a weird (and powerful) evangelical Christian cult that preaches that Jesus believed in exceptionalist capitalism, aristocratism and the secret manipulation of power by an elite.

Zombie Reagan Raised From Grave To Lead GOP.


Thursday, December 03, 2009

Democrats and Republicans -- two very different kinds of internal party struggle

There seem to be civil wars taking place within both of the major American parties.  At least, that is how internal disputes among republicans, and among democrats, are portrayed in the media -- as bitter tiffs  between political pragmatists and stubbornly intransigent (or else 'principled') idealists of either the far-right or far-left.

Certainly, you do hear some left-leaning democrats accusing President Obama of betraying his promises and beliefs, by accepting anything less than the full suite of liberal health care recommendations, or by continuing to put troops in the Middle-East.  Meanwhile, the wrath of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck crashes  down upon any GOP office holder who so much as utters the word "compromise."

So, have we embarked on an era of ever-more bilious partisanship?  Is dogmatism on both left and right all that remains of the once-vaunted American gift for dialogue, courtesy, reciprocal-learning and practical problem solving?  Certainly, one can be excused for picturing this trend -- sometimes called "culture war" -- as a pell-mell rush toward one inevitable conclusion.  The violent and hate-drenched third phase of our ongoing American Civil War.

Each Party Has Its Own Style

We'll get to the fascinating and rather surprising nature of internal conflict between democrats, a little later, leading to something even more astonishing -- what may be a unique and highly strange historical phenomenon. A weird new take on how legislation is now done, under the U.S. Constitution.

 But first, let's talk about the republicans, among whom the popular diagnosis really does appear to be on target. No one can deny that influence within the GOP is measured by a person's fierce adherence to doctrine. And to bitter, uncompromising, partisan wrath.

The results of a poll conducted by "60 Minutes" and Vanity Fair magazine and issued Sunday (November 29, 2009) show that, by a wide margin, Americans consider Rush Limbaugh -- who openly prays for the current administration to fail, even at achieving any good for the nation -- to be the nation's most influential conservative voice. The radio host was picked by 26 percent of those who responded, followed by Fox News Channel's equally vociferous Glenn Beck at 11 percent. Top politicians -- former Vice President Dick Cheney and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin -- were the choice of 10 percent each, neither of them particularly well-known for concession-trading with folks on the other side of the spectrum, or being amenable to agreeable bargaining.

As for those GOP members who now hold actual office, few even figured as blips on the influence poll.  But stalwart partisanship applies to them as well.  Reciting the same talking point phrases -- sometimes within minutes of their issuance over Fox -- these men and women seem content to be interchangeable, seldom making any effort to be distinguishable, in a political sense, from one-another.  When it comes to the republican denizens of the U.S. Capitol, the current style of GOP partisan uniformity has had an odd effect -- of rendering them into doctrinal clones who matter only en masse, never as individuals.

Stunning Party Discipline

Sure, the 40 republicans in the Senate and 200 or so GOP representatives in the House appear to be there.  They inhale and exhale, make speeches and intone "present" during roll calls.  But to what effect?  To a man, they have submitted themselves, almost 100%, to absolute party discipline.

Let's make this situation plain; on the republican side, there is no bargaining, dickering, haggling, persuading, pleading-to-conscience, intercession, arbitration, or mediation -- nor efforts to find common ground of any kind with the majority party, representing more than half of America. They do not seek to come up with incremental steps toward creating new laws, amending old ones or allocating tax dollars  These "delegates" do not serve their constituents or the districts.  They are party men, first and last.

Now lest we simply shrug and accept this as normal, let's recall that American legislators used to be among the least party disciplined in the world, notoriously willing to negotiate as individuals.  Traditionally, the way things used to get done was that you might seek the least-unpalatable portions of the wish-list of the opposing side, and grudgingly let some of those smelly-but-acceptable measures come into being, in exchange for getting some progress on matters that you consider to be really important. It is the "sausage" approach to making law... perhaps inelegant, even ugly, but it's democracy and we did okay with it.

But that sort of behavior is now impossible, at least among republicans.  Even one deviation from party line perfection may be punished, volcanically, on radio and in the blogosphere. Everything is now purely black vs white.  Good vs evil. A complete matter of "sides," with no permissible shades of gray.

History Lesson: How Has This Played Out?

Now, you might imagine that this trait would have differing effects, depending upon whether the party is in the majority, controlling Congress, or in the minority.  Let's see if that was the case.  Take the brief era of 1993-94, when -- for a short time -- newly elected President Bill Clinton also had slim democratic majorities in both chambers.  As economic pundit Russ Daggatt put it:

The 1993 Budget Act, which was designed to eliminate the record budget deficits inherited by Clinton From Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, included an overall increase in taxes and extended the pay-as-you-go budget rules.  It passed without a single Republican vote in Congress by the closest possible margin – by one vote in the House and with Vice President Gore breaking a 50-50 tie in the Senate.   Republicans predicted that the economy would collapse as a result. (Like all predictions based on Supply Side theory -- that one failed diametrically to come true.) Instead, it produced record budget surpluses and the strongest economy in a generation.  But the Democrats paid a price, as they were crushed in the 1994 elections and lost control of Congress.  Unfortunately, the lesson that was learned in Congress was that fiscal responsibility doesn’t pay politically."

In fact, polls showed that it was not the 1993 tax bill, but Hillary Clinton's overly complex attempted Health Care legislation, that helped propel the 1994 rout. Nevertheless, Daggatt's point is taken.  While in the minority, in 93-94, the GOP showed impressive discipline and utter devotion to partisanship, just like today.

One might have expected the Party of No to change its tune, after it gained control of both houses of Congress, in late '94.  After all, Newt Gingrich led that "revolution" with a full agenda of clearly stated goals.

Indeed, it is instructive to recall the one time that Gingrich actally negotiated with Bill Clinton in good faith.  Out of that narrow moment of adult-style bargaining, we got the Welfare Reform Bill, which was without any doubt one of the most successful pieces of social legislation in the last forty years, correcting hundreds of abuses and inefficiencies, effectively getting millions off of the state dole and into job training... followed by real employment. Despite dire predictions by both radicals of left and right, this pragmatic piece of goal-oriented legislation achieved real progress, proof of which is seen in the simple fact that nobody mentions welfare anymore.

Alas, though, Gingich got so much grief from his partisan-dogmatic wing, for even speaking to Clinton, that this kind of thing never happened again. Indeed, apart from a relentless flurry of brinksmanship confrontations with the President (which Clinton always won), republicans on Capitol Hill settled in for the laziest, do-nothing stretch in the history of the Legislative Branch.

Until democrats wrested back control in 2006, the Senate and House spent fewer days in session and considered fewer bills than any comparable period in the last 100 years.  Except for seeking the ever-elusive "smoking gun," to prove that the Clintonites were corrupt, they held almost no investigative hearings. Even bills that might have pushed the conservative agenda languished and were seldom even reported out of committee.

During the long era from 1995 through 2009 -- and especially 2001-7, when they  controlled every branch of government -- there were only three general ways in which the Republican Party consistently used its sweeping power to change conditions in the United States of America. (1) They passed bills cutting taxes and granting special privileges to the wealthy and well-connected.  (2) They then passed more bills cutting taxes and granting special privileges to the wealthy and well-connected.  And (3) they yet again gathered the energy and will to pass bills that cut taxes and granted special privileges to the wealthy and well-connected.
Beyond that, despite having the best-disciplined and most potent lock on government since the democrats' Do-Everything Year of 1965... and despite the nation facing major problems, plus a tsunami of outright corruption... the GOP consensus seemed to be to Do-Nothing.

 Never Really Happy in the Majority
My private impression?  Fellows like Tom Delay, John Boehner and James Imhofe never seemed all that happy when they were in the majority.  For one thing, they had to face nagging questions from sincere conservative citizens, demanding: "Well?  We sent you to Washington, and now you have complete power. So legislate!"

They couldn't even blame the darned democrats, since that party almost never practiced lockstep-obstructionism.  Here, again, is Russ Daggatt:

'During the George W. Bush years, his tax cuts and Medicare Part D passed the Senate with less than 60 votes. which meant there was no problem with any democratic fillibuster.'  In fact, Medicare Part D was -- "the largest increase in entitlement spending since the creation of Medicare in the 1960 s with a ten-year cost of almost a trillion dollars.  At least when LBJ created Medicare he also enacted taxes to pay for it.  Bush and Congressional Republicans never even discussed any means of paying for their budget-busting initiatives.  To pull that off, they had to let the pay-as-you-go budget rules lapse."

The point here is that from Nixon to Ford, from Reagan to both Bushes, there was always some way to get democratic votes, when they were needed. Always some who were willing to horse-trade... as when the mega tax cuts of 2001 and 2002 passed without any serious threat of a democratic fillibuster. In that case, one small concession got enough democrats to go along. That was an expiration date on the tax cuts.  The GOP simply assumed that, by 2010, every supply-side dream would have come true and they would thereupon be so popular that they could make the cuts permanent, before they expired.

 (Alas, at risk of repeating, every major Supply Side forecast in history has been disproved.  It is pure voodoo, and our children are deep in debt, as a result. But let's move on.)

 The crucial point is that, when the GOP was in power, the opposition Democratic Party nearly always let things come down to an open, majority vote.  And that had a real downside to GOP leaders like Boehner and Delay.  For it meant they never had a very good excuse to offer conservative constituents, for their near-total inaction on any part of the official GOP agenda... except, of course, doing favors for the rich.

 Happier to be in the minority again
Ever since the GOP became the minority party in both houses, the republican senators and representatives now seem -- in fact -- much more cheerful!  Not only is it easier and more emotionally satisfying to be outraged outsiders, but this has meant that their existence, in either chamber, is simply a matter of standing up, whenever the party whip calls, shouting "Nay!" when ordered to, then perhaps staging an irate public statement before going off for an early weekend.

And yet, whether they are in power, or in the role of Loyal(?) Opposition, one thing stands out as consistent -- republican grumpiness and refusal to negotiate. This uniformity is far more than simply a function of being in the minority.

It is a character trait.

Are The Democrats The Same?

In a word, no.

All right, I'll add a sentence or two.  Popular American humorist Will Rogers used to say "I'm not a member of any organized political party. I'm a democrat."

Everyone knows that the very words "Democratic party discipline" constitute an oxymoron. Any democratic representative has his or her own, weird internal concoction of ideology and pragmatism, local interests and global passions.  If republicans are dogmatically uniform, disciplined and lockstep dedicated to both complaining and to doing nothing...

...then democrats are scattered across the political horizon, flighty, distractible... and each of them frenetically determined to save the world. (And yes, that can have its scary aspects, too.)

That is where the real difference between the parties lies -- in the small but vital matter of personality. And it explains why we have embarked on one of the weirdest epochs in American political and legislative history.

The Result: A Completely New Approach to Legislation in the USA

So what does this mean for the Republic, right now? It means that all actual negotiation over legislation -- such as finance/banking reform or healthcare or passing a military budget, must take place within the Democratic majority caucus... and that caucus must somehow achieve unanimity, before a bill even goes to the floor of either house. Because, given the predictability of lockstep GOP opposition, only with a completely united democratic caucus can there be any chance of passing any bills, at all.

But we've already seen that democrats don't march well together. If republicans click their heels and obey Rush, then democrats are more like a herd of cats. This means that unanimity must be achieved the hard, old fashioned way.  Through persuasion and negotiation, one legislator at a time.

  It means that the Democratic caucus in each house is the locus of deliberation in today's United States.  That is where men and women who are charged with the nation's business do the actual arguing, criticizing, tradeoff-balancing and incremental modification, by which legislation improves (we hope) enough to become law.  It is there that Santa Monica liberals must debate semi-conservative "Blue Dogs" -- sometimes late into the night and across weekends -- struggling to find common ground, combining (we hope) good ideas from the moderate left and the moderate right, shambling, bleary-eyed, toward a consensus that everybody can live with.  That is, everybody who has chosen to participate in negotiation.

No wonder things get so excruciating!   We have sixty senators - with sixty fractious and varied viewpoints - who must come to complete consensus (with some murkiness regarding Joe Lieberman and Olympia Snowe) in order to get by a Republican filibuster that is now seen as automatic, reflexive, inevitable, and impervious to any effort to placate, mollify or apply reason.  In fact, the GOP senators might as well just go fishing, under the new quasi-Constitutional tenet -- "when the dems are unanimous, it passes.  If not, it doesn't."

Things are similar in the House, only with a teensy amount more slack.

Is that it?  All that blather, just to point out the weirdly obvious?

Well, yes, it's what I'm routinely paid for.

Nevertheless, we now see that the civil wars within the two parties are very different phenomena.  In the GOP, it amounts to the systematic purging of any hint of heresy from central dogma.  Among democrats, today's tiffs between liberals and "blue dogs" constitute something that Americans have almost forgotten the name of -- "deliberation."

Does this grate on liberals? That blue dog semi-conservatives have extra leverage these days, because legislation must be passed unanimously?  (In the real legislature: the Democratic Caucus.)

Sure it does!  The lesson??  Live with it. Learn to accept incremental change. Better yet, recognize that the sane version of conservatism, that the blue dogs represent, does have important and useful things to say.  Moreover, that part of America deserves to be heard.  Especially since the main "conservative" party is lost, down boulevards of delusional catechism that Barry Goldwater denounced as quite mad, before he died.

Indeed, the top liberal agenda right now should be to help more Blue Dogs win in contested districts!  Recruit decent, progressive, if sometimes a bit too-crewcut ex-military men and women to run against the loony culture warriors, everywhere possible.  Help the GOP to continue along in a long, self-chosen path, marginalizing itself into the New Know Nothings, and thus finally put the once-great party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower out of its  terminal illness.

And, if the predictable result is to eventually split the Democratic Party in two?  Into a Liberal party (mostly free of loony lefties) and a Decent-Moderate Conservative/Libertarian Party (free of monstrously crazy neocons)?  Well, it may surprise you to learn that this exact thing happened before, earlier in the life of the republic.

What? You cannot see that as possibly the best of all possible worlds for the nation of Washington and Franklin?  A nation that desperately needs to rediscover the grace and power and effectiveness that arises from the adult practice of reason.