Tuesday, July 13, 2010

We Live In Strange Times

Here’s a very strange scenario. I caught an interview with Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-MI, on the radio yesterday. It appears that there has never been a time in U.S. history when the unemployment rate has exceeded 7% and the U.S. Congress has failed to pass an extension of unemployment benefits. Never.

We are now in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, with unemployment still near 10%. Amazingly, it appears our U.S. Senate may do what it has never done: fail to pass an extension of unemployment benefits. Of course, Republicans are filibustering the bill and of course Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, whose state has an enviable unemployment rate of 4.5%, has joined it.

This is very odd. Why would the Senate do this? Nebraska’s modest unemployment rate notwithstanding, there are unemployed people all over the country: red states, blue states -- even that 4.5% in Nebraska. With an election a few months down the road, why would you want to look like you aren’t responsive to the people in your state who are out of work? Why would you want to keep these people from having money to spend, when the economy depends on people spending money?

I’ve heard the argument that Republicans want the economy to keep sucking so they can blame the Democrats and the Obama Administration. The worse things are for Americans, the better Republicans look; at least, so goes the argument. And I realize not everyone pays attention to this stuff. But if you’re out of work you’re surely paying attention and if your unemployment benefits have run out, you surely know who is trying to hammer out an extension and who is blocking it.

For years no matter what your party affiliation it was generally deemed a good idea to at least put up the pretense of caring about the people in your district and state. You wanted to look like you “felt their pain,” that you understood where people were hurting and you were there to help. This is why every time unemployment rose above 7% Congress was quick to pass an extension of unemployment benefits.

These days we have a disconnect. For some reason, Congress doesn’t feel like there is a penalty to be paid for their inaction. Even if it were true that Republicans could mine the misery of the unemployed into electoral gold in November, what makes them think they won’t suffer some of the same blowback? If it’s true that politicians are facing an “anti-incumbent” backlash, and with Tea Partiers trying to oust less pure conservatives from the ranks of the Republican Party, wouldn’t you want to look like you are concerned about people in your state who are out of work?

I don’t get it. But hey, maybe someone can explain it to me. And I’m not the only one asking, too. Yesterday, Bob Herbert wrote:
What’s needed is the same sense of urgency about helping struggling families and putting people back to work as the Bush and Obama crowds showed when the banks were about to go bust. That sense of urgency is always missing when it’s ordinary people who are in trouble.


With our help, the banks and Wall Street have done fine. Better than they had any right to expect. It’s the ordinary folks outside the casino, in the real world, who are still in desperate need of help. But in a society of, by and for the rich, that help will be a long time coming.

I wonder if it’s as simple as that? This is the plutocracy argument, that a government of and by the wealthy is also only for the wealthy. Historically, times such as these are followed by populist surges and reforms. I’m just wondering if we’re there yet? The Tea Party, for all the media attention, seems bent only on reforming the Republican Party, and not in a good way: these far-right candidates support policies that further establish the plutocracy, not dismantle it.

True populism, it seems, is dead. Where are the "ordinary people"? The ones Washington has been giving the middle finger to for the past few months? Clearly there is some feeling that the "ordinary Americans" hurting right now won't lash out in some way, either through civil unrest or at the voting booth. Washington seems to think that it can ignore the needs of ordinary Americans for some reason, and I really don't get it.

It defies logic.