Conclusions of yesterday's Congress Drama

The House of Representatives eventually got around to passing the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012.  According to Wikipedia, as of right now it's not been signed:

The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (H.R. 8) was passed by the United States Congress on January 1, 2013, and is expected to be signed into law by President Barack Obama.

Late last night, I remembered hearing somewhere (regrettably I can't remember the source) that it was reasonable to expect that congress would pass the bill at the last second.  The reason is that while no congressperson had anything to gain by passing it (a recession isn't good for anyone, and everyone agreed that's what would happen), it was also true that no congressperson had anything to gain by compromising in advance.

In the video I posted by John Green yesterday, he points out that, due to gerrymandering, the only real competition most congresspeople face is from other members of their own party, who present themselves as more extreme, and therefore more loyal, in their adherence to party dogma.  So congresspeople who hope to keep their careers need to seem as uncooperative as possible, and congresspeople who also want to do their jobs have to walk a fine line, avoiding ever appearing to compromise while actually compromising as much as possible (compromise being the essential function of a smooth-running democratic process).

This all reminds me of the second paragraph of George Orwell's essay, Politics and the English Language:

Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible.

I quote it, even though it's not quite as much about politics as it is about language, because Orwell expresses very clearly the point: that the American people have become polarized and unsophisticated, and the United States government has become polarized and unsophisticated.  The reason this has happened is complicated, and it can't be pinned down to one or the other group failing in their responsibility -- and there are other players, as well, including the failure of the media, of the courts, of academics, and so on.

But a polarized populace elects a polarized government, and a polarized government encourages a polarized populace.

But, as Orwell says, the point is that the process is reversible.  It really, honestly, comes down to a number of bad habits, which, when applied every day by every citizen and every politician to every decision, creates and perpetuates a failing state.

I encourage you to read Politics and the English Language, because lazy and ambiguous use of language is one of the bad habits that politicians, journalists, and people are particularly prone.  Read it, and think about words like terrorism, socialism, liberal, conservative, corrupt, and so on.  Here's the link again

Some of the other bad habits:  binary thinking, over-simplified economics, failure to engage with local politics, and  a fatalistic attitude towards large problems.  The biggest bad habit, though, is the attitude that politeness and compromise are forms of hypocrisy, which leads us to choose, frequently, worst-case scenarios over bad-but-not-awful scenarios.  I often see people argue in against any given system because they call it inefficient, or insufficient, or impractical.  Those criticisms are usually true.  But when the alternative is something even more inefficient, insufficient, and impractical, those criticisms are also entirely missing the point.

Hopefully, the next batch of congress we get will be a lot better at doing their goddamn jobs, but we can help by making an effort to be more reasonable and less extremist.

It would also really help if we could redraw the district borders for non-political divisions.

So I guess we're all doomed

In all the celebration last night, I forgot that one of the major features of the transition between 2012 and 2013 was the resolution -- or not -- of the issue of the Fiscal Cliff.  Fortunately, John Green reminded me in his Vlogbrothers video today.  The video was, tellingly, titled, Why Does Congress Suck?

I've been trying, for the last half hour or so, to figure out what's going on with our government right now.  It appears, according to an article on Politico updated at 7:08pm today, that the House of Representatives has failed to vote in the deal that the Senate passed last night, 89-8, meaning that -- right now -- we've gone over the fiscal cliff.

Er, update (not that I posted this before getting here) -- as of 7:37, according to, the House Republicans have proposed an amendment, but they don't think they have the votes to get it through, and "Republican members are now saying that it looks like the ... bill will pass on an up-down vote."

I'll be keeping this window open tonight, because it's a live-blog, so I will hopefully get better information here than I'm getting frantically googling.  I'm going to post this now, but will continue updating.

UPDATE 7:53 in a super-exciting turn of events, Businessinsider quotes a GOP House aide arguing that the Senate bill will be passed:  "Members seem tired and ready to go home."  I know this isn't serious commentary, but I'm annoyed and feel like being pissy:  does it bother anyone else that the (at least short-term) fate of this country is hinging on a bunch of old people feeling tired?  I think the federal government should be required to stay up late sometimes if it's necessary to stop America from collapsing into a new depression.

UPDATE 8:03 I have a tweet!  This means I get to try out embedding a tweet!  It's via Dana Bash, who is a CNN reporter.  So it's pretty credible, I guess.

UPDATE 8:13 Loads of people are complaining about the fact that Hollywood gets tax incentives on Twitter.  I am frustrated by this.  Not that the government doesn't have a problematic relationship with Hollywood, but governments subsidize industries.  They do that.  All the time.  Subsidizing American entertainment means we get to sell our entertainment overseas, we get to influence the worldwide narrative, we get to pump ourselves up as a destination for tourism and economics.  Like most other industries, a healthy entertainment industry is good for America, so it makes sense to stabilize it against the clumsiness of the free market.

UPDATE 8:27 I've seen this link about 20 times on Twitter in the last half hour, so I'm going to talk about it.


Did you look?  Pictured is a comically oversized graph showing the massive difference between the tax increases that the current bill suggests and the 2011 budget deficit.

a. The 2011 budget deficit isn't on the table.  It will never be on the table.  There is no way to negotiate out the current deal in such a way as will change how much money we spent in 2011.  Maybe it had something to do with the amount it went down this past year.  Or maybe it has something to do with the fact that there are spending cuts in the deal, too, meaning the deficit will be going down again.

b. I've mentioned this before, I think, but it's okay for a government to have a deficit.  It's practically required during a recession, because we need money to stimulate our economy, and (by definition) we don't have a lot of money.  Borrowing money is how you solve those problems.  Furthermore, most of our deficit is money borrowed from the American people, or other parts of the US government -- it's not the kind of debt you tend to think 'debt' means.  Finally, having loads of debt is, in my opinion, a good thing -- especially since other countries also owe us loads of money.  Being financially entangled puts us in the fantastic position of making it really inconvenient to go to war.  The more our economies are intertwined around the world, the more we have to get along with each other.  If you think that's bad, I think you are centuries out of date, politically.

UPDATE 5:34 businessinsider -- the vote is expected for around 9:30.

Slate on the Fiscal Cliff

Honestly, I don't really know how to follow this whole fiscal cliff thing.  It's big and complicated and I can't get a straight answer from anywhere about whether it's really likely to happen or if this is just chest-thumping. But Slate's coverage, if it's accurate, cleared at least one thing up for me.

Our government is run by fracking children.

 [...I]f there is ever going to be a deal, it will only happen if Boehner looks like he has dragged the president somewhere President Obama doesn’t want to go. Each time the speaker makes a public display, as he did today, it shows that he is fighting the good fight and holding the president's feet to the fire. Now, if there is a deal, he can say, "I beat on the president about cutting spending, and he gave in." Members are going to look closely at the math above the theatrics, but if Boehner were unable to point to moments of peril and stalemate, his rank-and-file will just assume he got rolled. Therefore, this statement that seems to be about frustration—which would suggest we're farther than ever from a deal—can actually be seen as a necessary prerequisite for a deal.

The one trick for Boehner is that he can’t appear to be too effective. He doesn’t want to stir his members into such a fevered pitch that they don’t accept any deal. Perhaps that’s why Boehner described his meeting with the president this weekend as “nice” and “cordial.”

Emphasis mine.

What the hell?  Why is it okay for our government to balance our economic stability on the possibility of bruised egos? It's like we elected a bunch of eight year olds, and a few of them have started to notice that they can't keep throwing tantrums without blowing everything up -- but now the atmosphere of the political dialogue is "I want my toys and my candy and I want to get to stay up late and I don't want to clean my room."