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The last place you will hear about the new American labor movement is in big American outlets.

Via lambert, via susie. See them, their blogrolls, Twitter hash tag #1u and just about any other outlet where citizens can get the word out.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW)

The CIW is a community-based organization of mainly Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage jobs throughout the state of Florida. Via.


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MMT as antagonist of democracy and tool for entrenching inequality

Disclosure: I am not an economist and have no formal training in the field. What follows are the observations of a layman.

1. Clerics

Last week Naked Capitalism had a post by Randy Wray about Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). The theme was taxes and inequality, and the comment thread on the post is fascinating. Funny enough, while (unbeknownst to me) the debate there was raging over there, I was on Twitter having a much less edifying argument with an MMTer on roughly the same topic. Sublime to the ridiculous, as it were.

Between the two I was able to bring into focus some nagging, amorphous reservations I’ve long had about MMT. Here is my brief understanding of the concept, and corrections/clarifications from knowledgeable theorists are appreciated:

Taxes do not fund spending, and there may in fact be no connection at all between the two. Their macroeconomic purpose is to, as Wray writes elsewhere, prevent a “huge increase of aggregate demand, [which] could cause inflation.” The federal government simply determines what it wishes to spend on, creates the reserves to fund them, and spends away. Taxes are, at best, a distant concern in MMT. They may in fact be entirely irrelevant, as evidenced by the very first two words in Wray’s headline: Forget Taxes.

If that sounds like an oligarch’s wet dream to you, you’re not alone. Dan Kervick thought so too and commented (emph. in orig.) (also - “schmunding” is my new favorite word):

The Federal government cannot simply create all the dollars it wants and spend them without blowing up the currency. It has to tax back at least a substantial portion of what it spends. Now some think it it is really important to jump up and down at this point and say, “That’s not funding! It’s…it’s…schmunding!” But it doesn’t matter. From a policy point of view it’s the same thing. You can and should convince people to run reasonable deficits. It would be nice to convince people at the same to make sure the Fed holds treasury rates down next to nothing so that Federal deficits aren’t a tool for the rich to rent-farm the public treasury. But the free-wheeling, what-me-worry fiat money mania that MMT has allowed itself to be turned into is for the birds. It’s both a political and economic dead-end.

There was a time when its seemed like the MMTers were going to get serious about price theory, about defining the inflation constraint in more precise theoretical and mathematical terms, and about coming up with policy rules that turned an airy framework into something policy-makers could really grab hold on. But instead they decided to stop doing research, stop engaging with any other economists and focus everything on marketing and “framing” with slogans and pictures.

And of course it matters what we spend public money on, and not just that we spend it. But if you want to expand the state, expand public education, build a national health care system and build an honest-to-goodness national pension program that works, you’re going to have to raise revenues. Every hour spent kneecapping the people who want to go this route by imagining that there is a magical free money path that lets us spend freely, lets all the billionaires keep their money, and that even a hedge fund manager could love, is an hour wasted an an agenda which will never succeed politically and is crackpot policy in any case.

Lambert responds: “I don’t recall claiming there was a bottomless money well; and I’m thoroughly familiar with the ‘ZOMG!!!! Zimbabwe!!!’ argument and how to debunk it.” He doesn’t do any actual debunking, though. This is one of my reservations about MMT: its adherents seem extraordinarily reluctant to address concerns head on. I’ve followed MMT casually, and I’ve seen lots and lots and lots of (virtual) ink spilled about how government can simply fund what it wants, period. MMTers are nothing if not voluminous. But boy howdy does inflation get treated lightly. You’ve really got to comb through the writing to find it, and it typically is relegated to a brief, oblique reference (“when potential inflation threatens” and such).

In the same comment lambert writes “If you want MMT to propagate widely, its exposition needs to be simplified and popularized.” That’s exactly why Kervick is right on this one. The way MMTers put the goodies front and center, and barely (if at all) discuss the risks, makes the “bottomless money well” caricature stick. They may discuss it substantively elsewhere, but it is not presented in commentary packaged for public consumption. Again, not addressed head on. If the best response MMTers have to that is “please see [48 page PDF],” then popularization fail. Requiring casual readers to have a near-comprehensive understanding of a topic is called a contradiction.

As for the charge that MMTers have stopped doing research, engaging with other economists and focused everything on marketing, at least one adherent essentially pleads nolo contendere. Joe Firestone describes himself as something of an authority on MMT (“one of the MMT writers, immersed in the MMT community”) and had this to say about Warren Mosler’s prospects before a theoretical Congressional committee:

Warren would have the support of the other [MMT economists], all academic economists with plenty of publications…Warren’s really brilliant; all the others I’ve named really think so, and his common sense wrap is very plausible. Finally, he’s unflappable, and knows his theory very, very well.

Epistemic closure? Check. Absence of an economic model? Check (also, I should hope he knows his own theory very well!) Emphasis on marking? You betcha. What’s being described here is not a field of technical expertise but a priesthood.

What emerged in both my Twitter shitfight - where the individual I was arguing with could not get off the “taxes don’t fund spending!” talking point even after I had conceded as much four times - and the thread at Naked Capitalism was an almost bristling opposition to discussing tax policy, at least among some MMTers. Lambert (“Obviously, we should tax the rich painfully,”) and Joe (“Measures like that worked in this country for a very long time to reduce inequality, and I think they can work again”) are in favor of taxing the rich, but they - and MMTers generally - only say so parenthetically. Forget taxes, right? The justification for taxes, if it exists at all, does so outside the ordinary scope of MMT. Taxes, as characterized by MMT’s would-be popularizers, exist only as caveats and footnotes.

This makes MMT a tool that can be used for progressive ends or regressive ones. The MMT church of lambert, Firestone et. al. includes a book that calls for taxing the rich. A more fundamentalist denomination would seem to consider that book apocryphal, heretical even. After all, the next step after forgetting taxes is to do away with them entirely. Raise them? Burn the witch!

2. Wizards

There is a kind of magical thinking among MMTers about the possibilities of their new theories, combined with a steely-eyed realism about the shortcomings of the existing system. I’m not quite sure how to reconcile that. For instance, Wray says this about the rich: “Trying to punish them with taxes is a fool’s errand.” (How does he explain the increase that occurred when the Bush tax cuts expired?) His preferred solution? “Put a thousand of Wall Street’s ‘finest’ behind bars.”

So, trying to increase the top marginal rate: A pipe dream. Having a starved and captured regulatory authority assemble the monstrously complex case required to prosecute individual executives - when the Attorney General of the United States has already explicitly said these very people have been granted a free pass - THAT, my friends, is the real-world approach MMT favors.

And what kind of bullshit is this:

Let’s raise sin taxes on the rich to reduce the sin of ill-gotten gains.

How high? 100%? Nay, 1000%. Take everything: all their income, all their wealth, the house, the car, the dog. Don’t let crime pay.

Calling prosecution a “sin tax” is a transparently phony way to get people to think a fundamentalist MMTer is actually (finally!) proposing a tax. The only problem is that it doesn’t, you know, actually tax anyone - most especially not our precious, irreplaceable rich. Nay, not 1000% thanks. How about we start with a marginal income tax of, say, 75% at $5 million? And leave your sin tax in that fabulous world that has a functioning justice system for elites.

More magical thinking. Lambert has no illusions about the problem of translating additional raised revenue into just and equitable spending: “Suppose we raised a trillion new dollars with progressive taxation, and then blew it on a manned space mission that the oligarchs to build Galt’s Gulch on Mars?” Yes, that sort of useless outcome is a very real possibility - and given our recent history even a likely one.

Yet look at how Firestone characterizes the MMT alternative: “using by platinum coin seigniorage [PCS] to fill the TGA with enough to pay down the debt and cover deficit spending for a long time to come.” How exactly does PCS get used for such a public-spirited purpose when existing (and probable future) spending mechanisms get wrenched by the 1% to their own purposes? Is the novelty of PCS our secret weapon? If so we’ve only got one shot; it will just be re-appropriated for boondoggles once the powers that be know to expect it. (Um, shouldn’t we be taking this discussion offline?)

The liberal denomination of MMT is already getting set up for a “MMT cannot fail but only be failed” outcome. They want it to be used to create just and popular policies, but seem to think MMT will provide some kind of painless shortcut. No, the fight is the same either way, and it will inevitably be ferocious. There’s no sneaking it past anyone. As soon as MMT gets traction in Washington, it will be used to slash taxes on the rich, and pre-distribution will go where the current owners wish. At which point, please spare the rest of us your “where’s my fucking pony?” outrage.

Instead of going to all the effort of establishing a new economic paradigm, one that is agnostic on taxes and as likely to be hijacked as the existing one, why not have the fight right now on the same ground? Because it’s not, as Yves Smith incorrectly notes in her introduction to Wray, about redistribution for redistribution’s sake, but redistribution for democracy’s sake:

Scandalous as it may sound to the ears of Republicans schooled in Reaganomics, one critical measure of the health of a modern democracy is its ability to legitimately extract taxes from its own elites. The most dysfunctional societies in the developing world are those whose elites succeed either in legally exempting themselves from taxation, or in taking advantage of lax enforcement to evade them, thereby shifting the burden of public expenditure onto the rest of society.

(Fukuyama’s piece is a bit, shall we say, heterodox. For as resonant as I find the preceding quote, there are some other items that are a bit eye-opening. For example, on the newly installed Obama White House: “Administration principals thought they had a mandate to move the country sharply to the Left…But as it turned out, Obama was not riding a tide of left-wing populism. While the Democratic majorities in Congress succeeded in moving this ambitious legislative agenda forward, the results fell far short of expectations.” That’s not quite the 2009 I remember!)

Taxing the rich is important because it measures our health as a democracy. It’s not something to put, as Firestone would, at the end of several “staging initiatives.”. Or rather, maybe that’s an acceptable sequence from an MMT perspective but it’s completely unacceptable from a democratic one. Demonstrating the ability to once again extract wealth from elites needs to be one of our highest priorities, not an afterthought. And it needs to be done directly via the income tax.

Wray has literally no proposal for extracting wealth from elites, and once again: the intellectually dishonest “sin tax” he describes ain’t it. Firestone approves of taxing the rich; but he also wants to “diminish the importance of conventional corporate forms in our society, and measures limiting total compensation of executives,” and to do so by “legislating structures of vigilance” (needz moar popularizing!) But again, that just highlights the problem with MMT: It’s being sold as a theory that is inherently just and progressive when it’s just a tool. It might liberate those who have suffered the most under the current system. It might be inequitable and exacerbate current problems.

Why re-invent the wheel? The answer to Firestone’s structures of vigilance is hinted at by washunate: “We still have the IRS, too. And the SSA. Taxation and social insurance are two of the things that have survived the assault on Constitutional governance and rule of law, comparatively speaking, the best over the past few decades.” The link between being able to collect what is owed and the provision of public goods is underappreciated. Both are key for equitable redistribution, but the former is also radically democratic because it extracts wealth from elites. The fact that the both agencies are objects of great antipathy among the wealthy is also instructive.

As for the argument from MMT that the rich will just get new loopholes, give themselves raises, and otherwise subvert any attempt to extract their wealth, the response is simple (though not necessarily easy): Prioritize and fund tax collection. Think of it as democracy insurance, and like with other insurance you get what you pay for. Consider this from Econned (pp. 187-8, emph. added):

But there are much deeper problems with risk management as commonly practiced. The junior risk managers will earn more if they can apply their analytical skills on the product side. Anyone who is thinking about making that change is unlikely to ruffle the feathers of the producers. In addition, risk managers are bound to sound some false alarms. If they escalate every one, they wind up looking like nervous Nellies and lose credibility. And if they win and have exposures cut back on what turns out to be a nonevent, the traders will be sure to broadcast how much they “lost,” as in failed to make, thanks to the interference.

That narrow view illustrates a deeper problem: risk management is a form of insurance. Effective insurance is costly. You expect to miss a few calls, quite a few. But the noise back from the “money colonels” and the perceived importance of maximizing current extractable value means that the expense of taking protective measures is deeply resented. The predictable result was that the banks wound up being underinsured.

In fact, the obvious failings of risk management reveal an ugly truth: it is an exercise in form over substance. If a firm was serious about this sort of thing, it would not structure a supposedly crucial activity in such a way that guarantees that it is politically weak and easily suborned. Risk management is often an exercise in providing cover for managers and directors, and thus serves as another tool to hide looting.

If the IRS is viewed as being linked to social insurance, Smith’s point is especially true: good insurance costs money. (And the ongoing attacks against the agency are an attempt to make it politically weak.) If you raise taxes on the rich, you damn well better be prepared to purchase a good policy for enforcement. The IRS would need to be expanded, its agents made knowledgeable of loopholes and encouraged to go after tax cheats (instead of its current state), and generally have to become much more robust than it currently is. It would need, in short, to be an object of screaming horror among the rich.

But the point is, the needed mechanism already exists. We don’t need a new one, or some comparable thing, we just need to make use of what we’ve got. And we also need to understand that efforts to address inequality will never be settled. It will always be a fight, and each generation will have to fight it. There is no spell that will vanquish it for all time. MMT is being sold as just that, as a cure-all. It isn’t. It’s a tool. Why not just use the tools at hand? It will be a struggle no matter what. Why make it harder than it already is?

America: Canada and Europe's willing chump

One of the more memorable turns of phrase I’ve heard in the past few years came during the effort to unionize an Ikea plant in Virginia. In the same way that Mexico became an attractive location for American capitalists because of lower wages and less stringent environmental standards, some European employers began finding America more to their liking. Or, put more colorfully:

During its successful campaign to organize the Danville workers, the International Association of Machinists (IAM), through its Machinists News Network, produced a web video called “Same Rules, Same Respect.” It charged that “when on American soil, IKEA is playing by a very different set of rules than when at home.” In the video, IAM Woodworking Division director Bill Street says, “We’ve become Sweden’s Mexico.”

That isn’t Europe’s approach across the board, of course; heaven knows Volkswagen did its best to give its American workers more of a voice. But there has definitely been a willingness for other Western nations to take advantage of America’s willingness to put itself at risk or a disadvantage. This has been especially pronounced with fossil fuels.

For instance, Canada has been at best ambivalent about building pipelines for its Alberta tar sands. On the one hand, its political and media elite is not only firmly in favor but vigorously lobbying for them. On the other, the combination of grassroots activism and court challenges has made building them in-country dicey. So it looks like Ottawa might just decide it’s easier to build what Charles Pierce called a death-funnel down the spine of the United States. Since Keystone has the enthusiastic support of climate science-denying cretins in both the House and Senate, it just might succeed.

(Post intermission #1: Canadians’ flattering image of themselves as unfailingly reticent and polite is wearing a bit thin lately. The actions above are not those of a reserved and self-effacing people but an aggrandized and obnoxious one. Please own your new identity and stop insulting our intelligence, thanks.)

A similar dynamic is playing out with fracking. It turns out there is a new trade agreement under negotiation called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), not to be confused with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) except to the extent that both are awful. The TTIP would, among other things, greatly increase American energy exports to the European Union. Since Europe is still acting like Hamlet on fracking, the effect is basically this: Let America bear all the hazard with unconventional extraction and let EU countries get the benefit. And since fracking enjoys roughly the same political constituency as Keystone, there are plenty of takers in Washington.

(Post intermission #2: These international pacts have gone from going from “free trade agreements” to “partnerships.” Maybe that’s because free trade agreements now have such a foul odor, but in any event the change of nomenclature is useful. Monstrosities like TTIP and TPP have less to do with trade than with forcing all participants to abide by individual signatories’ worst practices.)

Incidentally, the push to get Europe off of Russia’s energy supply line is also leading to some fairly scary developments in Ukraine. While it would be lovely to think Hunter Biden’s recent employment with a Ukrainian gas giant is a noble attempt to beat back creeping isolationism in the States, there is unfortunately a more plausible and disturbing explanation.

Since neither Keystone XL nor fracking are long term job creators, it isn’t even like the US is selling out on these issues. “Selling” would imply some kind of profit. American workers will have virtually nothing to show for either, and the economy will be similarly unmoved. Extraction industry executives will make out like bandits, and that’s about it.

Anyway, let me conclude by being very clear on something: The point here is not to demonize Europe or Canada. Neither Keystone nor TTIP will happen without the substantial, ongoing support of America’s political system. No one is pulling a fast one on us here. We know exactly what’s happening. But here’s what I find curious: There are a whole lot of “my country right or wrong” types who bristle with indignation if they believe America is being taken advantage of - yet they have been silent on both of these issues. Apparently it’s no longer a stain on the national honor to play us for a fool. I’ve never been a fan of that antediluvian notion, but it sure picked a bad time to fall by the wayside.

America: Canada and Europe's willing chump

One of the more memorable turns of phrase I’ve heard in the past few years came during the effort to unionize an Ikea plant in Virginia. In the same way that Mexico became an attractive location for American capitalists because of lower wages and less stringent environmental standards, some European employers began finding America more to their liking. Or, put more memorably:

During its successful campaign to organize the Danville workers, the International Association of Machinists (IAM), through its Machinists News Network, produced a web video called “Same Rules, Same Respect.” It charged that “when on American soil, IKEA is playing by a very different set of rules than when at home.” In the video, IAM Woodworking Division director Bill Street says, “We’ve become Sweden’s Mexico.”

That isn’t Europe’s approach across the board, of course; heaven knows Volkswagen did its best to give its American workers more of a voice. But there has definitely been a willingness for other Western nations to take advantage of America’s willingness to put itself at risk or a disadvantage. This has been especially pronounced with fossil fuels.

For instance, Canada has been at best ambivalent about building pipelines for its Alberta tar sands. On the one hand, its political and media elite is not only firmly in favor but vigorously lobbying for them. On the other, the combination of grassroots activism and court challenges has made building them in-country dicey. So it looks like Ottawa might just decide it’s easier to build what Charles Pierce called a death-funnel down the spine of the United States. Since Keystone has the enthusiastic support of climate science-denying cretins in both the House and Senate, it just might succeed.

(Post intermission #1: Canadians’ flattering national image of themselves as unfailingly reticent and polite is wearing a bit thin lately. These are not the actions of a reserved and self-effacing people but an aggrandized and obnoxious one. Please own your new identity and stop insulting our intelligence, thanks.)

A similar dynamic is playing out with fracking. It turns out there is a new trade agreement under negotiation called the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), not to be confused with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) except to the extent that both are awful. The TTIP would, among other things, greatly increase American energy exports to the European Union. Since Europe is still acting like Hamlet on fracking, the effect is basically this: Let America bear all the hazard with unconventional extraction and let EU countries get the benefit. And since fracking enjoys roughly the same political constituency as Keystone, there are plenty of takers in Washington.

(Post intermission #2: These international pacts have gone from going from “free trade agreements” to “partnerships.” Maybe that’s because free trade agreements now have such a foul odor, but in any event the change of nomenclature is useful. Monstrosities like TTIP and TPP have less to do with trade than with forcing all participants to abide by individual signatories’ worst practices.)

Since neither Keystone XL nor fracking are long term job creators, it isn’t even like the US is selling out on these issues. “Selling” would imply some kind of profit. American workers will have virtually nothing to show for either, and the economy will be similarly unmoved. Extraction industry executives will make out like bandits, and that’s about it.

Incidentally, the push to get Europe off of Russia’s energy supply line is also leading to some fairly scary developments in Ukraine. While it would be lovely to think Hunter Biden’s recent employment with a Ukrainian gas giant is a noble attempt to beat back creeping isolationism in the States, there is unfortunately a more plausible and disturbing explanation.

Anyway, let me conclude by being very clear on something: The point here is not to demonize Europe or Canada.. Neither Keystone nor TTIP will happen without the substantial, ongoing support of America’s political system. No one is pulling a fast one on us here. We know exactly what’s happening. But here’s what I find curious: There are a whole lot of “my country right or wrong” types who bristle with indignation if they believe America is being taken advantage of - yet they have been silent on both of these issues. Apparently it’s no longer a stain on the national honor to play us for a fool.

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The touching, eternal optimism of liberal hawks

As the response to the kidnapping of several hundred Nigerian schoolgirls has grown from hashtag activism to full blown international incident, the calls for action have become increasingly bellicose. Some of those calls have revealed (once again) a deeply rooted militaristic streak in America, one that transcends political affiliation. This time around the example starts in the UK, where last week Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett appeared to support bombing or invasion:

It is my view that there is a case for military assistance, but on a more basic level, there are things that we can do to support those who are begging for help. The British feminist movement has immense social media clout. We can all follow the Facebook group Bring Back Our Girls and use the hashtag. We can write to our world leaders, demanding that they offer assistance to rescue the girls. We can organise rallies and marches locally, as many others already have. We can support and listen to the Nigerian community here in the UK.

That paragraph has an interesting construction. It starts by at least tentatively approving bombing or invasion, but then details a number of non-military options for rescuing the girls. Interpretations may vary, but I got the impression she at least wanted preparations for bombing or invasion to begin and in addition to that for activists, governments and NGOs to continue to apply pressure on the Nigerian government.

But the bottom line is, she mentioned military action first. Given America’s recent history with bomb dropping, cranking up the war machine for another round doesn’t seem like a good idea. Glenn Greenwald said as much, and the reaction from some on the left was incandescent rage.

Bob Cesca decided to simply mischaracterize Greenwald, but that’s about par for the course with him. Rebecca Schoenkopf cut right to the chase and went Godwin. Chez Pazienza literally dehumanized him (“he has no humanity”) and also pulled off a neat trick. He linked to a piece of his detailing what an awful person Greenwald is, which includes the following numbered highlight: “Glenn Greenwald Is Almost Certainly Going To Call You Names at Some Point.” Pazienza furnished that link in a post titled “Glenn Greenwald: Asshole.”

Schoenkopf and Pazienza also gave hearty endorsements for bombing. First Schoenkopf, who apparently has been spending too much time playing Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell:

It is time to take out the Boko Haram dudes like you took out those pirates, and get those girls.

Seriously, just drone the shit out of em. Go get those girls.

But her understanding of the situation is actually more grounded in reality than Pazienza’s you’ve-got-to-be-fucking-kidding-me level of naïveté: “There was no concession that maybe, just this once, the vast resources and technological prowess at the disposal of a superpower could be used for good.”

Perhaps instead of hoping that maybe, just this once, this military adventure will be the one that finally gets freedom bombing right, it would be useful to reflect on how (darn the luck!) such actions have persistently refused to work out that way in the past.

Just a few years ago Libya was on the verge of genocide, remember? And we needed to drop lots of bombs to prevent that (no weaselspeak about NATO and leading from behind, thanks - without the US, the bombing wouldn’t have happened). We are now too modest to boast about such benevolent intervention with a Mission Accomplished party, but we all know it worked out splendidly right?

The impulse to say “fuck it, send in the troops” is not confined to neoconservatives. There are plenty on the left who enthusiastically support it as well - provided it is done for the correct purpose. The fact that such interventions invariably make things worse, aggrandize the “war first” faction, and marginalize those seeking effective nonviolent responses doesn’t seem to occur to those people, though. If we just keep fighting new Hitlers and preventing new Rwandas every few years we’ll eventually get right, no?

I actually do agree with Cosslett up to a point, though. There is a case for military assistance - if it’s made by, say, Belgium. Belgium seems like a peace-loving nation. They declined our offer to help bring Jeffersonian democracy to Iraq, and it doesn’t seem like its people feel the urge to regularly take up arms. So if Belgium says “this is bullshit, we’re going in,” I’m willing to listen.

“But if every country decided for itself whether to do that, it would be terribly destabilizing!” Yes, but in case you hadn’t noticed the US hasn’t been much of a force for stabilization lately. Furthermore, that objection implies the US is the nation in charge of deciding when wars should happen; that we are exceptionally and uniquely qualified to judge when military action is appropriate. Liberals who - even implicitly - endorse that should acknowledge it puts them comfortably with the Bill Kristols of the world. As a card-carrying member of the vast left wing conspiracy, all I can say is: I did not get that memo.

Benghazi: the environmental angle

One of the stranger stories in Washington this week happened in a House Oversight Committee hearing on Wednesday. The committee was investigating allegations of bad conduct at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and it certainly looks like some stricter oversight is in order. While it’s nothing compared to the Bush administration’s coke-snorting and lobbyist-banging Minerals Management Service, the theft of nearly a million dollars by (now jailed) former deputy assistant administrator John Beale is definitely worth a hearing or two.

What’s particularly interesting about this is that Beale initially said he was working undercover for the CIA, which kicked investigative authority over to the agency’s Office of Homeland Security, or OHS (not in any way connected to the Department of Homeland Security, of course). OHS is responsible for hazardous waste cleanup in the event that terrorists managed to, say, poison the water supply of hundreds of thousands of Americans. Since its investigations touch on national security, no one must know any details about them - including the agency it works for. In this case, OHS basically stonewalled the EPA Inspector General.

This sets up as a potentially fascinating case study of how bureaucracies have trouble working for the public good in a surveillance state. (As always with this topic, please keep in mind that in United States v. Reynolds, the case that established the State Secrets Privilege, a fraudulent claim of national security was used to shield the government from embarrassing disclosures.) The easier it is to shut down an investigation by invoking national security or state secrets, the more likely it is to be used to cover up incompetence or criminality. This is no garden variety turf war; it touches on some very important contemporary issues.

Which means Issa missed it completely. Instead he called it “the tip of EPA’s fraudulent iceberg” (Jesus does not love me enough for him to have called it a factory fire of malfeasance), and lumped it in with some penny-ante bad behavior to make an agency he is ideologically predisposed to dislike look bad. If the agency had more backbone than it appears to have, here would be a nice response to Issa’s grandstanding: “You know what, chairman? You’re right. The agency has been far too meek. So we’re going to re-open those investigations in Pavillion, WY, Dimock, PA, and Parker County, TX and this time we won’t stop till we get to the bottom.

That won’t happen, obviously. The most likely direction for all of this was foreshadowed by a different comment. First a little background though. Whether because of the failure of Obamacare to crash and burn the way Republicans had predicted, or as part of midterm (or God help us beyond) election strategy, the GOP now has the Benghazi cauldron at full bubble. The word must have gone out that no context was too ridiculous because here is how Issa worked it into an EPA hearing:

“It is my intention to bring to this committee a contempt if that is not done,” Issa said during a Wednesday hearing, before citing his investigation into the Internal Revenue Service targeting of Tea Party groups and the Benghazi terrorist attack as evidence that the Obama administration has a strategy of “running the clock” on House investigations.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee “subpoenaed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy for documents and communications with White House officials related to the Agency’s response to congressional requests” in November.

Issa emphasized to Perciasepe that he has the support of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who has just opted to appoint a select committee to investigate Benghazi.

“This branch of government’s time and willingness to cooperate with delay and denial has expired,” he said.

So there is your preview of coming attractions. It’s not bureaucratic wrangling, it’s not yet another unpleasant consequence of an aggrandized spy apparatus, no, it’s something much more far-reaching and sinister: The Benghazification of the entire executive branch!

Roughly half the national government is in some kind of political fugue state, unmoored from reality, continually blurting a single word answer to all questions. Until that breaks, it’s going to be all Benghazi all the time. Insanity may be your most attractive option.

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