Monday, December 9, 2013

How the Too Big To Fail Banks are driving America broke while pullingwool over pundits eyes

Like most conservatives in sheep’s clothing, Robert J. Samuelson of the Washington Post appears to be delivering sage advice on the woes of world, and has a handy prescription for their fixing.  Today he pontificates (again) on the fact that America is aging, and this aging is THE driver of government spending, which in turn in A MAJOR CAUSE of our economic woes:

We are locked in a generational war, which will get worse before it gets better. Indeed, it may not get better for a long time. No one wants to admit this, because it’s ugly and unwelcome. Parents are supposed to care for their children, and children are supposed to care for their aging parents. For families, these collective obligations may work. But what makes sense for families doesn’t always succeed for society as a whole. The clash of generations is intensifying.

Sounds frightening!  This, we are told is the reason Detroit is backrupt, this is the driver of ever increasing government spending and debt; This has led to heartfelt but bad decision making by shifty and risk averse decisions:

The explanation for this is politics. For states and localities, benefit cuts affect government workers — a powerful but small group — while at the federal level, it’s all the elderly, a huge group that includes everyone’s parents and grandparents. As a result, the combat has been lopsided. Political leaders of both parties have avoided distasteful choices. Younger Americans have generally been clueless about how shifting demographics threaten their future government services and taxes.

Expect when it isn’t (all about politics or generational warfare).  Take elder care – like many Conservatives Mr. Samuleson is appalled, nay apoplectic, that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid account for 44% of total federal spending.  Yet, and slo like other conservatives, he NEGLECTS to tell readers that all three are self-funded from payroll taxes; that Congress regularly reassigns monies collected for these three to the regular federal budget; and that if Congress paid back everything actually owed to these program they’d be solvent indefinitely. Once you understand this – which any  Third Grader with Google could have told Mr. Samuelson – then you understand why these programs have been exempt from deficit reduction talks and mini-bargains up to this point.   For those not yet awake enough to grasp the point – Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid DO NOT add to the National Debt or the Deficit; they are routinely raided by Congress to make both those things lower.

Rather, the federal deficit is caused by the well documents differences in income tax collection and federal spending on the discretionary side.  Again, remember that in total (including the payroll taxes mentioned above) America’s Exceptional Government only takes in 2/3rds of what it needs to operate.  The rest, which creates the debt by accumulating deficits, is on one big giant monetary credit card.  Conservatives want to pay the credit card off by slashing spending on the Mandatory Expenses (those very same Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) whose surpluses have kept deficits (and thus debt) at lower than actual levels for years.  The more sensible approach – until recently the Liberal Approach as well – would be to close tax loopholes in the income tax (and possible raise top end rates) while eliminating the income cap on what can be taxed to support Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  I personally include in these reforms the need to get rid of  “Carried Interest” as an income category – this is how investment bankers, high power stock brokers, and financiaers who broke our economy in 2008 pay lower actual tax rates the you and I do as wage earners, even though that “carried interest” is their principle form of income.

First and foremost, Detroit suffered from an unprecedented loss of public revenue. As I’ve previously reported, this was brought on by many factors. The most obvious of those were the recession and free-trade-related deindustrialization, both of which decimated the city’s manufacturing job base and drove population out of the city. On top of that, the state of Michigan reduced its revenue sharing with the city.

Second, the city and state spent — and is still spending — big money on wasteful corporate subsidies to politically connected private interests. That includes a reaffirmed commitment to spend $283 million — or more than the city’s entire annual budget shortfall — on a new professional hockey arena. Such profligate expenditures have drained revenues out of city coffers.

But perhaps the least discussed factor is the financing cost associated with a series of Wall Street-engineered debt deals back in 2005 and 2006. These schemes crafted by UBS and Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch were supposed to reduce pension fund obligations by using derivatives to try to “synthetically” convert variable-rate interest instruments into fixed-rate contracts.

Like many cities, Detroit got sold down the river by large (Too Big To Fail) banks, on everything from municipal bonds to interest rate swaps that mad the banks big bucks, but left Detroit hurting. 

Current estimates put 1/4th of the city’s budget shortfall – which has necessitated this bankruptcy filing – squarely in the hands of servicing interest and fees on the interest rate swaps along.  In fact (a set of inconvenient things that, again grade school kids with search engines could help Mr. Samuelson find):

Commissioned by the think tank Demos, the new report out today from former investment banker Wallace Turbeville shows that contrary to the myths about a bloated municipal government overspending on lavish social services, Detroit’s “overall expenses have declined over the last five years” by $419 million thanks to the city “laying off more than 2,350 workers, cutting worker pay, and reducing future healthcare and future benefit accruals for workers.” Today, Turbeville notes that “Detroit has a significantly smaller workforce per capita than comparable cities.” Yet, those draconian cuts still left the city with an annual $198 million shortfall because of three big problems — none of which has anything to do with supposedly greedy public workers and their allegedly overly “generous” pension benefits.

Like it or not, spinning the same, worn out lie doesn’t make it true – and Mr. Samuelson should be ashamed of himself for taking these lies to a national platform.  Someone of his supposed intelligence and moxie would do far better to look at the REAL FACTS, and lead us all to better, more informed judgments about the real causes of a crisis.  Until he and other like him do, our Country is doomed to make the same mistakes we’ve always made in public and government budget policy, and therefore we’re doomed to hurt many of our fellow citizens unnecessarily in the process.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Confronting American Racism - Are we any further along because of one movie?

Over at Ordinary times, my friend Mike Dwyer poses this important question about the newish movie 12 Years a Slave:

I ask the question, does this film bring us any closer to an understanding of American slavery? Perhaps. It is such a foreign concept to the modern mind that it may be impossible to bridge that gap but 12 Years A Slave is important because it tries to do just that.

Frankly, slavery as practiced then may be a foreign concept to the mind, but only if the mind is closed both to history  and modern news reporting.  How many stories have we seen on CNN, how many Bravo network docu-dramas about rescued children in the sex trade, how many raids of houses for foreign workers held against their will in the US?  What it different now is that slavery is not a major underpinning of the economic success of a large part of our country, and where it exists it is generally discovered, condemned and prosecuted.  I certainly hope this important piece moves our National discourse along, but as one of Mike's commentors notes:

I think part of the “close to home” issue is that we never really rectified slavery. Or even made meaningful efforts to attempt to do so. “White guilt” persists in large part because little genuine effort has been made to assuage it. I mean, there was 40 acres and a mule, reconstruction… and what else? Affirmative action? Kinda-sorta? I mean, our government hasn’t even offered an apology.
As long as we nibble around the edges of slavery, it will remain a pernicious force in American society, both culturally and economically. And that is a reason to keep at it, whether we've answered Mike's question or not.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Say What You Will - the Semantic Art of Running Away From Real Economic Consequences.

Modern political discourse – or what passes for it anyway – seems to be mostly about semantics, and not really about substantive discussion and debate to find solutions.  Today’s 113th Do Nothing Congress (as I hope History will remember them) spends more time parsing what is “revenue” and what isn’t then they do actually proposing policy and legal solutions to the nation’s problems (like 40 plus votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act in the House without a single vote on an alternative).
So, along comes Robert Samuelson in the Washington Post to politely suggest that the final piece holding us back from prosperity in our country is the semantics of what to call our economy. 

Among our problems is a failure of economic language. We lack the words and concepts to describe observable reality. By conventional wisdom, the Great Recession is long over. “Recession” connotes shrinking output. “Expansion” signifies the opposite. That’s how the National Bureau of Economic Research, a group of academic economists, defines business cycles. Following this logic, the bureau determined the economy stopped contracting in mid-2009. Yet, most Americans — 53 percent, says a recent National Journal/Allstate survey — think we’re still in recession, by which they doubtlessly mean “bad times.”

It’s a tempting argument – if our “real” problem economically right now is we don’t know what to call our current decline (if it is even a decline), then the clear solution is to present different language.  The implicit benefit is that if we can better describe the “real world” as we see it, then we can get at those mysterious “causes” that keep Americans from being “confident” and recreating the post-WWII growth era into which so many of them were born.  Samuelson then postulates that if we got the terminology right, we’d be able to overcome a condition in which:

The problem might not be a dearth of investments so much as a surplus of risk aversion. For that, candidates abound: the traumatic impact of the Great Recession on confidence; a backlash against globalization, reduced cross-border investments by multinational firms; uncertain government policies; aging societies burdened by diminishing innovation and costly welfare states.

It all sounds cozy and nice, right?  The problem is that Mr. Samuelson, like so many on the Right side of the political aisle (where Mr. Samuelson sits his own protestations not withstanding), is unwilling to grasp a fundamental – and easily described truth of our current economic situation:

 The problem, then, is not machines, which are doing a great deal to boost productivity; the problem is that the benefits from increased productivity no longer accrue to workers. In a provocative paper earlier this year, Josh Bivens and Mishel argued that the gains for the richest 1 percent were due to “rent-seeking” behavior by CEOs and financial professions, not competitive markets. As John Kenneth Galbraith said, “The sense of responsibility in the financial community for the community as a whole is not small. It is nearly nil.” The newly minted rich want to blame robots for declining wages at the bottom and their innate superiority for their disproportionate share of the income. But these excuses mask their theft of productivity gains that rightfully belong to the rest of us.

Put another way, when real wages decline against spending power in most jobs as the increased “productivity” in the economy goes to a small group of investors (also known by the counter intuitive term “rentiers”) and isn’t spread across the workforce, that loss of productivity contributes to the further erosion of wages by driving down demand for goods and services.  It also contributes to stampedes at Walmart on Black Friday in which people are killed for deep discounts on consumer goods.  Powerful economic elites probably lament the disorder that all this creates (hence their walled communities and bulletproof houses) but at the end of the day they seem to think many of those at the bottom have earned it.  

The ultra simple version is you can't solve demand side economic problems with supply side approaches or solutions.  But we've been trying ever since David Stockman helped President Reagan create the now infamous (and discredited by Stockman no less) Voodoo economics approach.

Cast against all this – and interestingly so given the professed Catholicism of so many conservative pundits and politicians – are the recent writings of Pope Francis.  Ever the Jesuit (and thus dedicated to the state of the nation’s poor and down trodden as few others are) his recent The Joy of the Gospel calls all this out for the heartless and discordant pursuit it is:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.

As E. J. Dionne reminds us in today’s Washington Post:

His apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” is drawing wide and deserved attention for its denunciation of “trickle-down” economics as a system that “expresses a crude and naive trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.” It’s a view that “has never been confirmed by the facts” and has created “a globalization of indifference.” Will those conservative Catholics who have long championed tax-cutting for the wealthy acknowledge the moral conundrum that Francis has put before them?

But American liberals and conservatives alike might be discomfited by the pope’s criticism of “the individualism of our postmodern and globalized era,” since each side defends its own favorite forms of individualism. Francis mourns “a vacuum left by secularist rationalism,” not a phrase that will sit well with all on the left.

Mr. Dionne is right, of course, that many so-called Liberals have also made their beds with the gods and goddesses of the Market – how else to explain our current “Democratic” President’s interest in placating Wall Street (by not prosecuting them for their crimes in the court of public opinion, to say nothing of the actual courts).  Mr. Dionne goes on:

The difference is that a concern for the poor and a condemnation of economic injustice are at the very heart of Francis’s mission. “In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits,” he writes, “whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.” Can you imagine an American liberal who would dare say such things?

Well, as a liberal who has written similar words, why yes, Mr. Dionne, I can imagine it very well thanks you.

But to point is still well made – we as a Nation, a society, and as individuals do indeed have the language we need to accurately describe the world in front of us.  We don’t need to adopt the cumbersome semantic twisting of those who refuse to acknowledge the failures of clinging to economic myths simply because those myths both bolster our socio-cultural myths and shield those who have worked actively against the coming to fruition of our full potential personally and nationally.  If a Jesuit Pope from South America can accurately call out America’s ever failing supply-side experiment, using readily available words (and not in his native language), why can’t you Mr. Samuelson?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

America's White poor - Republicans in Name Only

The number of Americans who are poor enough to qualify for food stamps has increased by a disturbing 30 million in the last 13 years. In 2000, 17 million Americans were receiving food stamps; in 2013, the number is 47 million. Hoping to stir up racial tensions, far-right AM radio talk show hosts and Fox News wingnuts try to paint food stamp recipients as strictly or mostly people of color. But the facts don’t bear that out. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, roughly half of food stamp recipients are non-Hispanic whites (in Ohio, it’s around 65%). So when Republicans vote to cut food stamps, many of the people they are hurting are white. On September 19, Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to slash billions of dollars from the U.S. food stamp program during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Tough words today in Salon, especially since SNAP- more commonly referred to as Food Stamps - has long been viewed by Republican politicians as a coded way to talk about minorities in America.  Ronald Reagan affirmed that association during his political life by discussing the plight of the "Welfare Queen" and successive conservatives have only exacerbated the problem.

Yet since the beginning of the Great Recession, whites have NOT been spared the horror of slipping into poverty.  With American unemployment at 7.3% at the end of October , many of those same white folks are now several years into using a program of federal financial assistance (or dare I say it - welfare) that many of them never thought they'd need, but without which many of them will have a hard time surviving.

Monthly unemployment Rates January 20013 through October 2004
And while we are nowhere near the high (but not historic high) unemployment Rates we saw in 2009 and 2010, it is becoming clear that we are not yet at "full employment" and may never be.

So, in the end, many of the Congressman (and a few Senators) who have voted to cut SNAP - and are pursuing drastic reductions to Medicare, Medicaid, the ACA mandates, and even Social Security, are cutting the very federal programs keeping their constituents alive.  I hope that when these recipients go to get their checks, and see the reductions they get angry and demand their elected officials do something.  I fear those same officials will manage to frame the issues in a way that shifts blame from the politicians to somewhere, anywhere, else.  That shifting will have tragic consequences, but it will be America's economic margins - and so it will go unreported, unnoticed, and uncorrected.  America the exceptional indeed.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Remembering President Kennedy: The Quote we SHOULD all carry with us.

"Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer. Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future." —John F. Kennedy

Monday, October 28, 2013

Firing government employees will solve unemployment (Said too many people now)!

Over on Facebook I got into another argument with a moderate conservative friend. I should really stop doing that. But he was responding to my post of E.J. Dionne's Column today which essentially says that drastic cuts to government spending - given our current employment numbers - is the WRONG thing to do if we need jobs.  Which we do.

My well meaning, but underemployed friend took that as another "I'm entitled to my job" screed by another overstuffed, underachieving, under employed fed.  He should know better with me, but there we were.  His argument was that federal employment - for that matter - any government employment - should go down in a down turn, as should government spending.

Leaving aside the anti-Kenynes approach he has (RE stimulative impacts of federal spending in down economies since governments aren't actually bound by supply and can create demand through deficits), I took him to task over federal employment, since I'm not the only one of his friends who's a fed.

That argument led me to do some data analysis, which I present below.  First, looking at federal civilian employment trends since 1962 (Data courtesy, I find that the federal government is nowhere as big as it has been in my life time.  Specifically, the federal government topped out at over 3 Million employees under President Reagan, began to shrink under President Bush 41, shrank dramatically under President Clinton (to less then 2.65 Million), climbed again under President Bush 43 (During the prime years of the Great Recession), and began to shrink again under President Obama. 

Sadly, the data cut off from OPM is 2011 so we can't see what the impacts of 2012 and 2013 budget decisions are - particularly Sequestration.

Interestingly, I'm not the only one to notice the dip in employment under our current President.  Forbes published a short, to the point analysis of total government employment (in which they lump local, state, and federal employees) vs. total population.  Their "in the face of conventional wisdom" conclusion is that not only did the ratio of total government employees to the population go down, but that the rate of growth of government employees to the population went down under President Obama.  They rightly attribute the declines to the Great Recession, though they note most decline is due to budget cuts forced on states that are legally mandates to balance their budgets.

And then there's this little nugget from The Atlantic in May, 2013:

But rather than Washington leading the still-weak economy, the cart has led the horse, with the private sector adding roughly 2.2 million jobs over the past year while state, local, and federal governments have shed more than 90,000 jobs.

 Finally, the American Enterprise Institute notes that total government employment as well as Federal government employment have declined under President Obama (they conveniently carry their data back to 2001, and ignore the increase under President Bush; but theirs is the same data set I  used above):

So no, federal and state and local government employees haven't been spared the axe - far from it.  And no, federal employment isn't out of control - Mr. Reagan had a million or so more feds the Mr. Obama has.

And no, cutting federal spending on employees won't solve any economic problems.  If the private sector is adding jobs while government is still firing people, I'd say we're suffering enough.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Tea Party Racism

Over on Facebook I got drawn into a discussion/argument/throwdown between two folks I highly respect.  The subject was, nominally, Tea Party racism, and the essentials of the conversation is that one of the combatants called Tea Party members racist based on an image of a Confederate Flag from a protest last week at the White House.  The other combatant, who identifies with the Tea Party cause (though I don’t know if he’s actually a member of any Tea Party group), took it personally and the “usual” fireworks ensued.

I waded in with a well reasoned mini-essay attempting to put the severe reaction of the first combatant in perspective for the second, hoping since I know these men to generally be men of integrity, that we might actually come to an understanding.  Combatant number 2 challenged me to come up with some facts – not blog posts, not retread photos, but facts – to buttress my claims.  So being a scientist for whom the call to display facts in an emotional argument is like sweet nectar to a bee, I jumped in.

But before I get to the research – which I think is important – I have to acknowledge that this argument, like so much in the current political sphere – is not about demonstrable facts.  Its about fears – fear of economic loss, fear of loss of social standing or place, fear of unknown or “other” cultures or socio-economic groups.  And its about an America that is changing so fast that in my life time we’ve gone from one or two rotary phones attached to the wall in each house to handheld “phones” that have more computing power then the Lunar Lander.  That change, along with demographic shifts in America that will render European Whites a minority in my life time (2050) is something that society has not really equipped its members to handle, nor have we acknowledged (particularly on the Left) the need for that equipping.  Instead we’ve leapt from TRS-80’s to Mac’s to Thinkpads to iPads to Google Glass without so much as turning to our fellow citizens and asking if they are still ok.  And like it or not, those fears and that change are now being exploited by those who want to resurrect and then fix in place a social and economic order that rests on some people have economic and social privilege built on the backs of economic serfs who are politically powerless.

Back to the data:

First up is research highlighted at  While they don’t give actual percentages in their coverage, the story does summarize what appears to be legitimate and recent social science research (sadly buried behind one of those infernal paywalls; emphasis in Italics mine):

New research published online in Race and Social Problems suggests the racial politics surrounding the tea party movement are highly nuanced. The researchers found no difference between the racial attitudes of the general white population and self-identified tea party members. Those who had a favorable view of the tea party {i.e. Tea Party Supports but not members}, on the other hand, were in fact more likely to admit to holding anti-black sentiments.
“Clearly, an African-American, mixed-race, liberal President may trigger symbolic racism and even racial stereotypes among the population at large,” Angie Maxwell from the University of Arkansas and Wayne Parent from Louisiana State University wrote in their study. But the evidence suggests the tea party wasn’t simply a racist reaction, though racists appear to be drawn to the movement.

The link between racial animus and favorable opinions of the tea party movement was clearer. Tea party supporters were more likely than the general white population to agree with statements like, “It is really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder, they could be just as well off as whites” and disagree with statements like, “Generations of slavery and discrimination have created conditions that make it difficult for blacks to work their way out of the lower class.”
These results coincide with previous research, which found tea party supporters held negative attitudes about African Americans, Hispanic Americans and LGBT Americans. Unlike past research, the present study found a difference between tea party supporters and actual tea party members.
“These distinctions demonstrate that the ‘subterranean agenda’ of the tea party may be different among members and among those who admire the general movement from afar,” Maxwell and Parent concluded. “What the tea party means to its members and what it represents to the large public may, in fact, not be the same thing.”

Because its behind that paywall, its hard to know how many people were surveyed, or if the percentage of Tea Party respondents mimics what has been reported to be Tea Party representation in th egeneral population.  These finding do suggest that there are, in fact, racist elements and ideas/views in the Tea Party universe.  They also suggest that Tea Party members (those actively participating in Tea Party groups as citizen activists) are probably not the problem.  So both of my combatant friends are right at least to some degree.

Searching for more numbers (!), I found this:

A striking difference over positive attitudes towards black people showed up in a multi-state poll, conducted in March 2010, by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race & Sexuality. Of those who strongly disapproved of the Tea Party, 55% agreed with the statement that black people were “VERY hard working.” Of those who strongly approved of the Tea Party, only 18% agreed with the statement that black people were “VERY hard working.” This 24-point difference pointed at Tea Party supporters as more likely to have negative feelings about the work ethic of black people. In fact, 68% of the Tea party “approvers” believed that if only they would try harder, then black people would be as well off as white people. That number fell by almost half, to 35%, when the “disapprovers” answered it.[245]

Further, almost three-quarters of Tea Party supporters (73%), told pollsters that government programs aimed at providing a social safety net for poor people actually encourages them to remain poor.[246] In fact, more than a bit of anecdotal evidence shows hostility and resentment towards the poor and the programs designed to help them. Hence, the signs such as one at an early St. Louis Tea Party that read: “Honk if I am paying your mortgage.” Not every Tea party supporter exhibited such feelings, certainly, but enough of it showed up in opinion polls to give credence to the description of Tea Parties as mean-spirited.
Similarly, both anecdotal evidence and poll data point to an irreconcilable gap between the president and Tea Partiers. More is at issue here than a simple disagreement of social policy and legislation. Indeed, a quarter of Tea Party supporters polled on the question admit that they think that the Obama “administration favors black people over whites.”[247] When asked whether or not Barack Obama understood the “needs and problems of people like you,” almost three-fourths of Tea Partiers (73%) said “no.” A similar number (75%) said he did not “share the values most Americans try to live by.”

Is all that of that Racist?  To an African American – definitely.  To a liberal white guy trained in statistics – more then likely.  Obviously not to some Tea Party folks.  But the University of Washington study cited above intrigued me.  Open access to data is a hallmark of quality science, so I followed the interwebs.  Sadly for my Tea Party supporting combatant, the data don’t look good (again, emphasis and clarifying additions in Italics are mine):

For instance, the Tea Party, the grassroots movement committed to reining in what they perceive as big government, and fiscal irresponsibility, also appear predisposed to intolerance. Approximately 45% of Whites either strongly or somewhat approve of the {Tea Party} movement. Of those, only 35% believe Blacks to be hardworking, only 45 % believe Blacks are intelligent, and only 41% think that Blacks are trustworthy. Perceptions of Latinos aren’t much different. While 54% of White Tea Party supporters believe Latinos to be hardworking, only 44% think them intelligent, and even fewer, 42% of Tea Party supporters believe Latinos to be trustworthy. When it comes to gays and lesbians, White Tea Party supporters also hold negative attitudes. Only 36% think gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to adopt children, and just 17% are in favor of same-sex marriage.

As this figure shows, even as we account for conservatism and partisanship, support for the Tea Party remains a valid predictor of racial resentment. We're not saying that ideology isn't important, because it is: as people become more conservative, it increases by 23 percent the chance that they're racially resentful. Also, Democrats are 15 percent less likely than Republicans to be racially resentful. Even so, support for the Tea Party makes one 25 percent more likely to be racially resentful than those who don't support the Tea Party.

Differences in {Tea Party website} content emerge when comparing the content from official tea party websites to the content from the National Review online, a mainstream conservative commentary.  Only 14 percent of the content from tea party websites focuses on big government or states rights, issues that are supposedly the ultimate concern of the tea party.  This is compared to 39 percent of the content examined from the National Review online.  19 percent of the content from tea party websites focuses on immigration, the gay community, race and personal attacks on Obama, compared to only 10 percent of the National Review’s online content.  10 percent of posts and articles on tea party websites focus on patriotism and taking back the country while less than 1 percent of the content from the National Review online have this focus.  Similarly, 36 percent of the content from the National Review online examines national security or foreign policy compared to only 2 percent of the content from tea party websites.  Content focusing on socialism, communism, and the current government ruining the country make up 24 percent of the content on tea party websites.  Again, this is in contrast to the National Review online where only 5 percent of the content is of this nature.  These findings suggest that the opinions and concerns of the tea party not only differ from mainstream America, but also from the conservative mainstream as well.

These data are striking for two important conclusions.  First, that Tea Party supporters (as opposed to members) are more likely the other conservatives to harbor racial resentment (which many conflate with racism); in turn conservatives are more likely then liberals to hold similar racial resentments.  Second, Tea Party groups focus nearly the same amount  of their web content on immigration, gays, race(including attacks on President Obama), socialism, communism, and the ruination of the country by the current government (43%b total) as the “mainstream” conservative press focuses on big government and states rights – which the Tea Party has claimed are its central issues.  It might be true that Tea Party web managers don’t seek content on these issues because National Review already does it; more likely the Tea Party needs to get straight what its issues really are. 

Finally in the data department, the Southern Poverty Law Center has published data (under the hilariously dark euphemism unsweet tea) that suggests the Tea Party’s almost all white membership may be a factor in its apparent racial resentment:

Just 1% of Tea Party supporters are black, the recent poll found, compared to more than 12% of the general population. Nine out of 10 disapproved of President Obama's job performance. Asked why they didn't like the president, 19% said they just don't like him, 11% suggested he is moving the country toward "socialism," and 9% said he is dishonest. Fifty-two percent thought too much has been made of black people's problems, about twice the proportion of all Americans.

Does all this make the ENTIRE Tea Party Racist?  No, it does not.  But these data do point out that the Tea Party has race relations problems and blindspots, some of which appear to be even bigger then the race relations blindspots that have been part of the conservative movement since it’s inception.  Sadly, that racial blindspot trace back to the pre-civil war South, an economy built on the owning (and abusing) of people of color:

The battle against the Constitution and later against an energetic federal government — the sort of nation-building especially envisioned by Washington and Hamilton – emanated, in part, from the fears of many Southern plantation owners that eventually the national political system would move to outlaw slavery and thus negate their massive investment in human bondage.
Their thinking was that the stronger the federal government became the more likely it would act to impose a national judgment against the South’s slavery. So, while the Southern argument was often couched in the rhetoric of “liberty,” i.e. the rights of states to set their own rules, the underlying point was the maintenance of slavery, the “liberty” to own black people.

{After the Civil War} However, the defeated South still balked at equal rights for blacks and invoked “states’ rights” to defend segregation during the Jim Crow era. White Southerners amassed enough political clout, especially within the Democratic Party – the successor to Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party – to fend off civil rights for blacks.
The battle over states’ rights was joined again in the 1950s when the federal government finally committed itself to enforcing the principle of “equal protection under the law” as prescribed by the Fourteenth Amendment. Many white Southerners were furious that their system of segregation was being dismantled by federal authority.
Southern rightists and many libertarians insisted that federal laws prohibiting denial of voting rights for blacks and outlawing segregation in public places were unconstitutional. But federal courts ruled that Congress was within its rights in banning such discrimination within the states.

Southern white anger was also reflected in the prevalence of the Confederate battle flag on pickup trucks and in store windows. Gradually, however, the American Right retreated from outright support of racial segregation. The growing public revulsion over the “Stars and Bars” as a symbol of racism also forced the Right to make a stylistic adjustment as well.

To this day, much of the American Right has refused to come to grips with the idea of non-whites holding U.S. citizenship. And, there is now a palpable fear that the demographics of democracy might finally eradicate white supremacy in the United States. It is that last-ditch fight for white dominance – as much as anything else – that is driving today’s Tea Party.

Interestingly, however, this fight is not just focused on racial dominance – it seems to be focused on modern Democrats (and perhaps their predecessors) who, as always, favor government solutions to intractable social and economic problems (or they used to anyway):

And that's a problem. It's a problem because too many observers mistakenly react to the tea party as if it's brand new, an organic and spontaneous response to something unique in the current political climate. But it's not. It's not a response to the recession or to health care reform or to some kind of spectacular new liberal overreach. It's what happens whenever a Democrat takes over the White House. When FDR was in office in the 1930s, conservative zealotry coalesced in the Liberty League. When JFK won the presidency in the '60s, the John Birch Society flourished. When Bill Clinton ended the Reagan Revolution in the '90s, talk radio erupted with the conspiracy theories of the Arkansas Project. And today, with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, it's the tea party's turn.

Above all, though, is the recurring theme of creeping socialism and a federal government that's destroying our freedoms. In the '30s this took the form of rabid opposition to FDR's alphabet soup of new regulatory agencies. In the '60s it was John Birch Society founder Robert Welch's insistence that the threat of communism actually took second place to the "cancer of collectivism." Welch believed that overweening government had destroyed civilizations from Babylonia to 19th-century Europe, and he said his fight could be expressed in just five words: "Less government and more responsibility."

All of this points in one direction. The growth of the tea party movement isn't really due to the recession (in fact, polling evidence shows that tea partiers are generally better off and less affected by the recession than the population at large). It's not because Obama is black (white Democratic presidents got largely the same treatment). And it's not because Obama bailed out General Motors (so did George W. Bush). It's simpler. Ever since the 1930s, something very much like the tea party movement has fluoresced every time a Democrat wins the presidency, and the nature of the fluorescence always follows many of the same broad contours: a reverence for the Constitution, a supposedly spontaneous uprising of formerly nonpolitical middle-class activists, a preoccupation with socialism and the expanding tyranny of big government, a bitterness toward an underclass viewed as unwilling to work, and a weakness for outlandish conspiracy theories.

How did this happen? Partly it's a reflection of the long-term rightward shift of the Republican Party. Partly it's a product of the modern media environment: The Birchers were limited to mimeograph machines and PTA meetings to get the word out, while the tea partiers can rely on Fox News and Facebook. Beyond that, though, it's also a reflection of the mainstreaming of extremism. In 1961, Time exposed the John Birch Society to a national audience and condemned it as a "tiresome, comic-opera joke"; in 2009, it splashed Glenn Beck on the cover and called him "tireless, funny, self-deprecating...a gifted storyteller." And it's the same story in the political community: The Birchers were eventually drummed out of the conservative movement, but the tea partiers are almost universally welcomed today. "In the '60s," says Rick Perlstein, a historian of the American right, "you had someone like William F. Buckley pushing back against the Birchers. Today, when David Frum tries to play the same role, he's completely ostracized. There are just no countervailing forces in the Republican Party anymore." Unlike the Birchers, or even the Clinton conspiracy theorists, the tea partiers aren't a fringe part of the conservative movement. They are the conservative movement.

So where does that leave my combatants?  Clearly there is a racist element to support of the Tea Party even if individual Tea Party members are not, themselves racist.  That racist element is part of a play to use the Tea Party to drive the Republican Party to answer legitimate fears about change, about loss, about economic vitality with firm convictions and easy targets of blame, rather then answering with real nuance and substance.  It’s also clear this is both the culmination of four or five (or even six) decades of Republicans telling people government is the problem– with its power to redistribute income and create equality of opportunity that mocks private market places – have been the latest contribution in a long line of attempts in post-Civil War America to beat back opportunities for the poor, who are often historically and still people of color.  Tea Party members need to come to grips with this reality if they really want to have a place in future America.

Liberals too have to come to grips with something – Tea Party Members are sincere Americans who don’t like what they see happening to a country they love.  Tea Party tactics are many times likely to use or harken to racist tactics – the evidence does exist – and Tea Party supporters do appear to harbor racial resentments if not outright racism.  If we are to build the America we want, we have to confront that racism where and when we see it – regardless of which side of the aisle we sit on.