Today’s Edition: Progress, at last.

October 6, 2021

         Here is the good news: Democrats have begun negotiating in earnest over Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda. That represents progress, at last. The details are not essential, but if you are interested, I will be brief: The competing wings of the Democratic Party have narrowed the range of the differences in terms of dollars. Senator Manchin indicated a willingness to agree to $1.7 trillion, while Rep. Pramila Jayapal said that $2.5 trillion was the “bottom line” for the Progressive caucus. In all likelihood, the negotiators are circling around $2 trillion. Biden deserves a lot of credit for the progress. He has been actively lobbying the Progressive caucus to good effect, while acknowledging the difficulty of dealing with Manchin and Sinema. (“I hear your frustration. You don’t have to talk to them as much as I have to talk to them.”)

          There are multiple paths to success from this point. Progressives (representing Biden’s agenda), can cut the final price by eliminating programs, reducing their funding, or limiting their duration. The last approach could be seen as creating a place marker for programs that can be renewed by future Democratic majorities. The obvious risk of that approach is that if Democrats do not hold their majorities, the programs will expire. Progressives will likely use each of the above approaches to get to a number acceptable to all parties.

          If the infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better package both pass, the American people will be the real winners. Joe Biden will rightly be praised for achieving a legislative milestone—something that last happened a decade ago with the Affordable Care Act.  Manchin and Sinema will likely attribute great credit to themselves. They deserve none. There is no virtue in their effort to cut benefits to the American people funded by recapturing tax cuts gifted by Trump to corporations and the super-wealthy. Given that the programs are paid for, it is nonsensical to say that they are “too expensive.” As Greg Sargent wrote in WaPo, Manchin and Sinema can “get away” with chopping trillions in benefits to Americans because

our discourse privileges fiscal conservatism and hostility to spending as somehow inherently realistic and hardheaded. But there is nothing realistic or hardheaded about any of this.

          By limiting their negotiating position to the ultimate price tag, Manchin and Sinema have avoided identifying which programs should be denied to the American people. There is no virtue in arbitrarily dictating a final price tag. Indeed, it is a cowardly and disingenuous way to decide which needs of the American people will be addressed and which will be ignored. But it is where we are, and we must accept that fact. Progressives will be doing the heavy lifting for President Biden to achieve a final agreement.  Good for them.

The debt ceiling.

          Senate Democrats are floating the idea of limiting the filibuster to the debt ceiling. Senator Manchin dodged a reporter's question about whether he would support such a carve out. No one has any idea of what Senator Sinema’s position would be on limiting the filibuster to avoid a grave injury to the U.S. economy.

          The Democratic Whip in the House, Steny Hoyer, acknowledged on Tuesday that Democrats could use reconciliation to raise the debt ceiling. He later walked back the comment, saying reconciliation “was not the preferred method.”

          Why are the Democrats reluctant to use reconciliation? As noted yesterday, it will not preclude them for using reconciliation to pass Biden’s Build Back Better agenda. The first explanation to make any sense to me is contained in this article by Steve Benen, MSNBC, “The point of the GOP's debt-ceiling scheme comes into sharper focus.” If Democrats pass a regular bill (assuming no filibuster), they can simply suspend the debt ceiling. But if they use reconciliation, Democrats must raise the debt ceiling by a specific dollar amount. That dollar amount will be the fodder for Republican attack ads in 2022.

          This is madness—on both sides. We are playing a dangerous game with the American economy over which specific phrases will be included in attack ads in the midterm elections. As I have said before, if Democrats can’t explain to the American people why paying the nation’s bills is a good thing, they don’t deserve to be elected. We need to stop governing from a place of fear and start governing from a place of confidence.

The Facebook hearing before the Senate Commerce sub-committee.

          The Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, testified before a Senate Commerce subcommittee regarding her claims that Facebook knowingly amplifies toxic and anti-democratic disinformation in pursuit of profit. If you are just catching up with this controversy, reader Whitney Tilson included a helpful series of links to Haugen’s interview on 60 Minutes, links to the WSJ investigative articles based on documents provided by Haugen, and Tilson’s letter to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. See Whitney Tilson’s Daily, “Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen; An open letter to Sheryl Sandberg.”

          Haugen has provided a great service to American social and political discourse. The threats she has identified at Facebook are inherent in most of social media and raise questions about how artificial intelligence and computer algorithms are shaping our society. The short answer is that there is greater profit in creating animosity, encouraging extremism, and fueling pseudo-science than there is in creating a safe place for civil discourse based on facts. A commentator on Chris Hayes’ program on Tuesday evening described the challenge as follows:

          It's not just about one company or Facebook. It's about the business model that [exploits] the commodification of human attention. Which means it is a race to the bottom of our brain stem’s paleolithic responses.

          We have arrived at this point because Ms. Haugen revealed that Facebook was aware of its toxic effect on the lives of its users (especially young women) and its threat to democracy, but chose to ignore those facts. In a stunning show of hubris, Facebook executives attacked Ms. Haugen on Twitter as she testified rather than addressing the damning information contained in the documents she provided to the WSJ. Proving that he is unfit for a leadership role at Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg released the following statement:

          At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritize profit over safety and well-being. That's just not true.

          No one in the world believes Zuckerberg’s statement and he embarrassed himself by releasing it.

          The issue of Facebook’s corrosive role in our society is vast and complicated. There are, of course, free speech dimensions to Facebook’s business model. But Facebook is choosing to amplify specific speech that maximizes its profits while harming its users and damaging democracy. We are not powerless to address that danger.

          I am open to suggestions from readers regarding sources that (a) describe the problems at Facebook (and related companies) and (b) discuss the potential path forward in a way that is accessible but deeper than the usual “top five takeaways” approach. For the moment, see Vox, “Facebook’s whistleblower tells Congress how to regulate tech,” and Business Insider, “Key Moments From Facebook Whistleblower Senate Committee Testimony.”

Concluding Thoughts.

          Although this has been a painful process, it appears that Biden will achieve a significant portion of his legislative agenda. We face tough slogging ahead, but there is a path to victory. Good. If Biden can close the deal, it will be thanks to the hard work of tens of thousands of volunteers who helped elect Biden and Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. It is too early to celebrate, but we have every reason to be hopeful.

          Talk to you tomorrow!

Postscript: The KNP Complex fire may make its way into our mountain community in the next few days. We could get a lucky break with the weather later in the week, but the fire is only 1.5 miles away from our community. CalFire has decided to station dozens of firefighters on the ground to fight the fire when it reaches the three communities in the Mineral King Valley. This is a courageous decision because when the fire reaches our community, the only overland escape route will be blocked by fire. The firefighters have created safe zones to which they can retreat, and there is a helipad up canyon for air evacuations (smoke permitting). See CalTopo KNP Complex Fire