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The Rise of the Reverse Houdinis

Posted on Oct 13, 2011

By E.J. Dionne Jr.

So let’s see: The solution to large-scale abuses of the financial system, a breakdown of the private sector, extreme economic inequality and the failure of companies and individuals to invest and create jobs is—well, to give even more money and power to very wealthy people, to disable government and to trust those who got us into the mess to get us out of it.

That’s a brief summary of the news from the Republican Party this week. It’s what Republican candidates said during the Washington Post-Bloomberg debate, and it’s the signal Senate Republicans sent in voting as a bloc against President Obama’s jobs bill. Don’t just do something, stand there.

Those who have plenty of capital to invest are holding back because consumers don’t have enough cash. But let’s not give potential middle-class buyers jobs and money to spend. No, let’s heap yet more resources onto investors. And if sharp guys made fortunes writing abusive mortgages, let’s repeal all the rules we just passed to prevent them from doing the same thing again.

Better yet, don’t blame the people who got the windfalls. Blame poor people. Thus did Rep. Michele Bachmann place responsibility for the mortgage mess on the Community Reinvestment Act, a law aimed at preventing discrimination against people in neighborhoods, many of them predominantly African-American, where banks wouldn’t make loans. The CRA had nothing to do with the proliferation of subprime mortgages; old-fashioned greed did the trick there. But it’s so much easier to pass the buck to the powerless. They don’t make many campaign contributions.

Then there is Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan, the only policy proposal to get really serious attention at Tuesday’s encounter. The biggest flaw in Cain’s scheme barely got discussed. It is designed to shift the tax burden away from the wealthy and toward the middle class and the poor by cutting income, corporate, capital gains and estate taxes. It would then collect a lot of new money from a 9 percent federal sales tax, layered on top of existing sales taxes. Plutocracy, thy name is 9-9-9.


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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who dominated the debate, is much smoother than his adversaries. He even had some good words for the struggling middle class and spoke with concern about getting health insurance to children. (Romney’s desire to provide poor kids with a chance to see a doctor will surely bring down upon the architect of Obamneycare charges of socialism.)

For the most part, though, Romney was selling the same wares as everyone else. “The answer is to cut federal spending,” he said. “The answer is to cap how much the federal government can spend as a percentage of our economy and have a balanced budget amendment.” But wait: This was the answer to every question that was posed in New Hampshire. There’s no problem that can’t be solved if the federal government just does absolutely nothing about it.

And thus spoke Republicans in the Senate on the same day as the debate. In any other democracy, we would say that Obama’s jobs bill passed its first test in the Senate because 51 out of 100 senators were for moving it along. But not in America, where we now require 60 votes to get a bill out of the Senate—despite the fact that our Constitution, supposedly so revered by conservative “strict constructionists,” says absolutely nothing about a Senate supermajority.

The jobs bill is a pretty simple mix of tax cuts and spending on popular items such as schools and roads. Its core idea accords with what the vast majority of economists (and a lot of business people) think needs to be done now: In the absence of private-sector investment and job creation, the federal government should be the investor of last resort to get the economy moving. This should be an urgent priority with unemployment stuck at more than 9 percent.

But no, “don’t do something, stand there” is the order of the day. Every Republican senator present voted to block the jobs bill. Government is to be powerless because the country’s most energetic ideological minority has declared that it must be powerless.

Years ago, Rep. Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat much maligned during the Post/Bloomberg debate, introduced me to the concept of the “Reverse Houdinis.” They are people who tie themselves up in knots and then declare, “I can’t do anything because I’m all tied up in knots.” We seem on the verge of putting Reverse Houdinis in charge of our government. 

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is ejdionne(at)
© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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By Jah, October 21, 2011 at 11:37 am Link to this comment

I came to this site searching for quality and some resemblence of balance in opinions, actual journalism. I get WAPO hacks and mental midgets who can’t transcend pointing fingers. Its quite a pathetic display of political discourse.

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By Mekhong Kurt, October 20, 2011 at 6:40 am Link to this comment
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@Jah wrote, October 13 at 11:01 am, “ummmmmm, it is ‘the Republicans’ fault’? Really? Truthdig’s about to lose a reader.”


(P.S.—do the folks at Captcha have a sense of humor??? What I have to type to prove I’m human to post this comment is “tax 25”! LOVE it, given what this article’s about! LOL!)

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By anaman51, October 15, 2011 at 4:05 pm Link to this comment

The worst disaster to befall modern America is the rise of the Republican Party.

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By Carl Quinlan, October 15, 2011 at 8:10 am Link to this comment
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Should be an interesting next four years.

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By Mekhong Kurt, October 15, 2011 at 7:42 am Link to this comment
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SoTexGuy (whose commented appeared October 13 at 4:25 am) favors Cain’s 9-9-9 plan. Some of what STG seeks I agree with. However, a 9% national sales tax on top of state and local ones would create a disproportinately heavy burden on people at the lower end of the income scale—it’s basically a flat tax, and all such taxes suffer that same fatal flaw.

For example, in the very small town outside of which I grew up imposes a city sales tax, raising the total ales tax there 8.25%. Under Cain’s proposal, that would more than double to 17.25%. That means a family of four living on an income of, say, $50,000 would see its income slashed drastically in direct proportion to how much family members have to spend. True, some necessities are exempt, but others—school clothes come to mind, as other than a day or two a year, those are taxed at ordinary rates—aren’t exactly blowing money on a holiday on the Riviera.

As I said, I do agree with some of STG’s points, such as closing loopholes. And if a national sales tax were somehow calculated to be the ONLY one imposed—with the money being appropriately shared by the different levels of government—and if it were set in some way that avoids cripply lower-income people, I’d sure be willing to look at that.

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By oddsox, October 14, 2011 at 3:16 pm Link to this comment

Damn, Dionne—you’ve been called some nasty names by TruthDiggers and I’ve held back, but ....

ok, I’ll remain civil, but you really are a bought-and-paid-for spin-meister for Obama, aren’t you?

You write:
“(The Jobs Bill) should be an urgent priority with unemployment stuck at more than 9 percent.”

Well, how long have we BEEN at 9%+?
And we’re getting to the jobs bill just now? 
This “Jobs Bill” was designed as weak tea (pun intended) & Obama knew from the beginning it wouldn’t pass.  It was a political maneuver from the beginning.

(a similar move from the Right: some Repub hack crowing that even Harry Reid voted “Nay,” ignoring the technicality surrounding his vote).

Now that the gamesmanship is over (for the moment), I’m hopeful now that congress will cherry-pick the bill and pass SOMETHING, but that’ll be weak tea, too.

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By anaman51, October 14, 2011 at 7:18 am Link to this comment

And the Party of Do Nothing scores another hit, by standing in the way of what 80% of the people in this country want to see happen—-the fair taxation of the richest one percent. This is what they’re good at, preventing that which the people want.

If they’re lucky, there’ll be some large body of people desperately needing Federal help that they can hold as hostages until they get what they want.

What I want is to see every last one of them arrested for conspiracy and extortion.

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By Billy Pilgrim, October 13, 2011 at 4:55 pm Link to this comment

Mr. Dionne: I wish you would stop writing about the
Republican assholes who are running for President. You
are preaching to the choir.

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By Jay, October 13, 2011 at 1:07 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Really this is rich compassion for themselves , the rich. We no longer have strong minded Presidents the like of FDR. He took a nation from poverty and through a world war. He created jobs for those lazy people the republicans say, just should pick cotton.
No, we have no FDR and we have a sold out Supreme Court, Congress and Media.
Can the people be smart enough now not to take the posined apples they did in reelecting Bushler/Cheney?

Hope is dim since they caused through their ignorance, more republicans in the house who proceeded to do exactly as expected. Neigh and block..

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By Jah, October 13, 2011 at 11:01 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

ummmmmm, it is “the Republicans’ fault”? Really? Truthdig’s about to lose a reader.

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By Rixar13, October 13, 2011 at 9:59 am Link to this comment

“Don’t just do something, stand there.”

I just find it so hard to belive the suffering by the Ameican people is ignored by these out of touch Republicans and Tea-Baggies….?

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By SarcastiCanuck, October 13, 2011 at 6:35 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Whats more important,thier corporate campaign contributions or thier constiuents who are sinking?Think they just answered that one.

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By Jerry Elsea, October 13, 2011 at 4:58 am Link to this comment

“Don’t just do something, stand there.”

I like that, but it doesn’t cover everything the GOP is up to. Take, for example, the attack on “Obamacare.” There it’s “Don’t just stand there, undo something.”

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By SoTexGuy, October 13, 2011 at 4:25 am Link to this comment

If the 999 tax plan or any similar plan would result in closing the loopholes and more that allow companies like GE to pay no taxes then it needs to be seriously considered. Right now big earners are nominally taxed at higher rates but pay less.. And if ‘999’ hits financial transactions and ends absurd corporate welfare then it would do a lot of good.

Score one for Bachmann and her remark about how viewed up-side down ‘999’ is ‘666’ or the mark of the beast..

As is the tax code is a huge and powerful mechanism for social engineering and change.. were it wielded by sane people who share common ideals and the goal of a better life for all then that would be great.. Recent events and disclosures especially show us it’s the nuthouse and the jailhouse that are in charge of who pays taxes.


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