The RNC’s plan to keep the 2016 Republican primaries from being a clown show hasn’t worked out very well. The guy who was supposed to be the establishment candidate is polling in single digits. Leading the pack is a mobbed-up reality TV star. He’s fending off a challenge by a candidate who insists the media are biased for questioning whether he really tried to murder a child. It’s been a weird one.
But it’s been a good race for the fact-checkers. They’ve certainly been busy.
Yet beyond the day-to-day distortions that are typical of any campaign, the entire Republican field – really the whole party – shares some truly deep disconnects with objective reality these days. Here are a few that stand out.
The Apocalypse Isn’t All That Nigh
We’ve got problems. But if you’re a normal person, you’ll probably notice that the sun is still shining, there are no jackbooted government thugs or hordes of zombies roaming the streets and for the most part, we’re muddling through well enough.
But for many conservatives, this country has gone straight to Hell. Our lawless government is letting mobs of angry (but probably well-dressed) gays persecute defenseless Christians, Black Lives Matter activists are calling for cops to be murdered, ISIS is bringing Ebola into the country from Mexico and if Republicans don’t win in 2016 and stop this slide into either fascism or socialism – take your pick — the country will be doomed.
Typically, members of the party that doesn’t hold the White House tend to be pessimistic about the state of the country. But add in a dash of goldbuggery – which requires a firm belief that the economy is on the brink of collapse — some prepper mentality and a steady stream of right-wing rhetoric about how the United States is descending into tyranny, and you get the profound sense of doom that’s reflected in conservative discourse these days.
In reality, the unemployment rate is the lowest it’s been since early 2008. The share of Americans without health insurance has plummeted. Corporate profits are at record levels, stock prices have more than doubled and new business startups have increased by 19 percent since Barack Obama took office. And while the recovery has been too slow and unnecessarily painful, it’s also true that we’ve bounced back better than any of the other countries that were hit hard by the Great Recession. Yes, we’ve got problems, but it’s really not all that bad.
No, The Military Hasn’t Been “Gutted”
Every Republican debate so far has featured someone lamenting the sad fact that that Obama has gutted out military, and this is often based on two related claims: We have the fewest number of active-duty troops and the fewest number of Navy ships since World War II. Which is true, but also a lot like saying that our cavalry has fewer horses than at any time since the Spanish-American War. We have a technology-intensive military that requires fewer troops to pack a far greater punch than our grandfathers’ Army ever dreamed of. And a modern aircraft carrier has more firepower than dozens of World War II vessels.
In 2011, when Mitt Romney made the claim, political scientists Brian Crisher and Mark Souva answered with their dataset on relative naval power. While the relative power of the US Navy has indeed declined somewhat from its Korean War-era peek, we still control half of the world’s naval fighting capacity, and that share remains higher than at any point during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
Now, it’s true that overall defense spending has come down somewhat as we’ve wrapped up major combat operations in Iraq and limited our footprint in Afghanistan – just as it declined after all of our previous wars. And the sequester has taken a small bite out of our historically bloated military budgets. But it still makes up around 20 percent of all federal spending, and we still shell out more on our military than the next seven countries combined. That’s not exactly a “gutted” military.
No, Federal Spending Really Isn’t “Out of Control”
It’s almost a religious belief on the right that the government has grown into this massive Leviathan under Obama. But here’s a fun fact: In Obama’s seven years in office, federal spending, as a share of our economic output, has averaged 22.2 percent, and for the past three years it’s been under 21 percent. To put that in perspective, during Saint Ronald of Reagan’s eight years in office, it averaged 21.6 percent.
But discretionary spending, which is everything in the budget that isn’t mandated by law, really tells the story. It’s currently at 6.1 percent of our output. That number averaged 10.2 percent under Reagan and 7.3 percent under George W. Bush.
Here’s a picture, via economist Jared Bernstein:
The Border Is Anything But Open
Another mantra for conservatives is that our Southern border is wide open, allowing anyone to just saunter in anytime they want. Calls to “secure the border” are ubiquitous. But anyone who’s visited the border knows that it’s a heavily militarized zone, with check-points and multi-billion dollar boondoggles littering the entire region.
In 1994, we spent $550 million on border security. Since then, spending has increased 30-fold, to $18 billion in 2012. That’s 24 percent more than we spend “for the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals Service and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives,” according to a 2013 report by the Migration Policy Institute.
As I wrote in Salon, it’s an “ungodly stupid” get-rich scheme for defense contractors, both because net migration from Mexico has essentially zeroed out over the past four years, and because around half of all undocumented immigrants enter the country legally, through an airport or whatever, and then overstay their visas. All that money does is force migrants who do enter the country illegally to take deadlier paths to get here – it increases the body count in arid Southern deserts but not the number of people living here without papers.
And a PS on immigration policy: Another central Republican belief is that Obama refuses to enforce our immigration laws. But let’s remember how the government works: Congress writes laws and controls the power of the purse, and the executive branch enforces those laws with the resources that Congress authorizes it to use. According to the Justice Department, Congress has authorized enough funds to deport approximately 400,000 undocumented immigrants per year, and the Obama administration has deported right around 400,000 undocumented immigrants per year.
According to one study, it would cost between $420 billion and $620 billion to round up, process and deport all 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in this country, and doing so would result in a loss of around 10 percent of our economic output. Crazy idea, but the good news is that it’s also a silly one and will never happen.
That Old Saw About Dependency
In 2012, Obama’s reelection team briefly ran an online campaign called “The Life of Julia” to illustrate how his domestic policies might help a typical American. Three years later, conservatives are still obsessed with it. (No, really, they just keep talking about it.) For them, it typified the disastrous dependency that the left’s “cradle-to-grave” government benefits foster. But the interesting thing, as I noted back when it was still sort of relevant to normal people, is that the fictional Julia was quite independent. In fact, she represented the Republican ideal, working hard and striving to get ahead. Sure, she got some student loans, but then worked her butt off to get good grades. Thanks to the ACA, her birth control was covered, but it was covered under the insurance policy that she paid for. By working. She never stopped working. Julia was also entrepreneurial – she started her own business and ultimately became a “job creator.” But somehow they hate this fictional cartoon character with a passion because they’re convinced that she’s just lazy.
Such is the conservative view of “entitlements” and dependency. It really is central to their entire worldview. But research shows that “nations characterized by progressive and developed welfare policies and by a large public service sector tend to have high levels of female labor force participation.” Other studies find that there is at best a weak correlation between levels of employment and the generosity or duration of unemployments benefits (also here, here and here) or disability insurance.
European countries have more generous social welfare systems than the US. And a study of 19,000 people across 18 European countries released earlier this year found that the more generous a country’s benefits are, the more eager its citizens are to work. People like working. Keeps them busy.
Contrast all of that with what you hear in Republican circles, where it’s just assumed that millions of Americans have become shiftless moochers who are living high on the hog on their $29 weekly food-stamp benefits.
I’m tempted to write: ‘Climate change. ‘Nuff said.’
But there is a divide among the Republican candidates here. The question is which is worse: denying the overwhelming scientific consensus that human-fueled climate change poses a grave threat to a huge number of people, like many of the candidates, or acknowledging that reality but then agreeing that the government shouldn’t take action to deal with it, which is basically the position of the “moderates” like Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich.
While it’s true that 97 percent of climatologists agree that anthropogenic climate change is real and a serious problem– it’s actually up to 99.9 percent now — a scientific consensus isn’t the result of surveys. It’s the result of many different researchers, in many different institutions all over the world, running many different kinds of experiments in different fields of study, and all of those disparate results being broadly consistent with one another. More importantly, it arrives when competing theories don’t stand up to the scrutiny of the peer-review process. That’s the case with global warming.
So just step back and think for a moment about how crazy it is to think that all of those scientists, including Republican Mormons from Utah, are in on a massive hoax designed to undermine capitalism, as Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Ben Carson all insist.
In every Republican debate, we’ve heard that American companies have the highest corporate tax rate in the world and that it’s just killing us.
This one’s simple. We do have very high corporate tax rates on the books – not the highest, but the third highest after Chad and the UAE – topping out at 39 percent. But that’s just the official rates, and our corporations have successfully lobbied for all sorts of exemptions and loopholes. The result, according to Edward Kleinbard, a prof at the University of Southern California, is that our corporations pay only about a third of that top rate, on average.
So which is more important for a company’s bottom line, the rate on the books or the amount on the check they have to send to Uncle Sam? The question really answers itself.