A Rare Civil Dialogue

Robert Reich

by James A. Bacon

Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer and liberal professor/author Robert Reich squared off in a civil and thoughtful debate at the Richmond Forum last night. Neither man changed my thinking but I enjoyed the dialogue immensely. I also walked away with one powerful conviction: The contentious, sound bite-driven format of cable television and the recent Republican “debates” is poisoning this country.

The beauty of the Richmond Forum format is that it provided ample enough time for Krauthammer and Reich to amplify their thoughts (although it did become a running gag during the event that Krauthammer always needed a little more than the time allotted). Further, they were given an opportunity to respond in a meaningful way to one another. There was no name calling. There were no cheap shots. There were no “gotcha” moments. There was no misrepresentation of the other guy’s position. None of the intellectual pollution that passes for thought in cable television was evident.

Charles Krauthammer

The theme was America’s social contract — can it be sustained? It would surprise no one that I sympathised most with the conservative Krauthammer. But Reich made his case eloquently and advanced a number of propositions that any thoughtful conservative would do well to address. By the end of the event, it also was clear that the two men actually agreed on a goodly amount.

I rarely turn on the television at home but one member of the household seems curiously addicted to MSNBC, with the result I spend a fair amount lot of time watching Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz, al Sharpton and (anomalously) Joe Scarborough. The liberal hosts of the first three shows don’t have the faintest idea what conservatives think. They erect straw men of conservative thought and then bash them with ridicule and personal demonization. The same technique describes the pseudo-news comedy routines of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I don’t watch Fox News but  based upon my radio exposure to the the likes of Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck (though Beck no longer works there), I would surmise that Fox is an ideological photo negative of MSNBC.

One does not come away from those shows enlightened. One is led to draw the conclusion that “the other guys” are frauds, charlatans, dupes, malevolent seekers of power or complete ignoramuses. Not only are they wrong but they are willingly and deceitfully wrong — either that or they are mentally deficient. From my observation, CNN is somewhat more balanced in the views it presents but its talking-heads format still encourages dissemination of daily talking points rather than an enlightening exchange of ideas.

Many others crave a new talk show format. Indeed, a former Virginia legislator of my acquaintance has been working on a business plan for an enterprise that, much like the Richmond Forum, would promote civil debate. I wish him the best of luck. We desperately need a change.

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  1. this is not that hard. FAUX News and Mr. O’Reilly pretty much started this “culture war” along with much help from evangelicals who decided they had to become politically active.

    Take the most recent issues involving trans vaginal ultra-sounds or contraceptives from your health insurance or even the Race for the Cure and funding for Planned Parenthood.

    How did these issues get started and who started them and why?

    Who started the birth certificate controversy?

    Who start the Jeremiah Wright kerfuffle?

    I can name a couple of dozen of these issues where I would ask how they got started and you’d be hard pressed to indict those nasty “liberals”.

    how about a list of the wedge issues that were started on the left?

    Virtually all of these issues are direct, overt, provocations that intend to divide the country and attempt to peel off independents for the Conservative position.

    The far left IS INDEED GUILTY of Some things… but very, very few in comparison. Again.. tell me, for instance, the wedge issues that Rachel Maddow has propagated?

    The right has launched wars against unions, Hispanics, Muslims, Women, Blacks, Teachers, Gays, Lesbians, Auto Workers, MedicAid recipients, Social Security, Medicare, …..you name it… the attacks …the war…comes from the right.

    but I’m glad that Jim is starting to notice a “few things”!


  2. The culture wars started when the U.S. Senate Democrats went after Judge Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court and it has escalated ever since. We have constant attacks on Virginia as a low-tax state from the editorial staff of the Washington Post for at least as long as I have lived here. Try getting an anti-tax letter or op-ed published by the Post. It ain’t gonna happen. I’ve been told by Post reporters that they often experience editorial staff when they write an article that does not promote bigger government and especially higher taxes. Post editorials cover up facts and even lie when the goal is higher taxes in Virginia. I see no difference between Fred Hiatt and Glenn Beck. Both are dishonest and idealogical extremists.
    I am pretty pro choice and would have voted against the abortion ultra-sound requirement. But Planned Parenthood requires one before every abortion it performs. The woman and her doctor don’t have a choice. Yet the left has been silent, preferring to have a wedge issue. It’s pretty black and white. Either you think that this procedure should be up to the woman and her doctor or you don’t.
    Immigration (legalization of illegals) is a left-started wedge issue. The DREAM Act is a wedge issue. The whole religion and politics issue is another left-inspired wedge issue. When have you ever heard any criticism or even discussion of liberal politics in black churches?

  3. both sides have gone after individual candidates but that’s different in my mind that bringing up an issue that affects thousands, millions of people.

    “silence” does not cause wedge issues. You can condemn the silence but it takes activism to make something actually happen and that’s my point.

    When do you step up the issue as a political thing that involves people and politics?

    the “legalization” of illegals is a “left-started” wedge issue?

    come on TMT – even if it was ONLY the left that did not want to take action against illegals, that’s still NOT a wedge issue. The wedge issue comes from those who say it’s wrong and make it an issue that divides people.

    most of the liberals are classically “live and let live” ..willing to look the other way… you know this is the truth guy.

    it’s the people who Will NOT look the other way and INSIST on putting the issue in the face of everyone – that define it as a wedge issue – where you can no longer look the other way – you must, instead, you are forced – to choose – to respond in a political way verses a human, “live and let live” way.

    Let’s me clear about who insitigates ‘wedge’.

    You’re basically saying here that the folks who push the wedge issues “had no choice” because other were ignoring it.

    How about we agree on that? that wedge issues come from those who see it as wrong to not make it a issue where people have to choose NOT the “live and let live” types.


  4. the pro-wedge folks CANNOT let the issue alone. They feel the need to push it into the public realm ..not only push it into the public realm but FORCE people to choose…. THAT’s when the issue becomes very Political.

    the “live and let live” types are actually opposed to making it a political issue.

    the areas, where liberals DID indeed push it into the public realm were, Civil Rights, Womens Rights, Vietnam… and more recently gay rights but even then in all cases it was a DEFENSE of what they thought was equal rights – NOT a moralistic “it is wrong to do this” approach which pretty much defines the right’s wedge issues whether it be gay marriage or contraceptives …. or immigration.

    It’s the exact opposite of the “live and let live” philosophy.

  5. Intellectual pollution that passesd as thought.

    Good one

  6. DJRippert Avatar

    Here is LarryG’s opening comment about a blog posting where Jim Bacon asks for an end to political name calling and insulting dialog:

    ” this is not that hard. FAUX News and Mr. O’Reilly pretty much started this “culture war” along with much help from evangelicals who decided they had to become politically active.”.

    Somehow, I feel that LarryG missed the point of Jim’s post.

    However, the question of reporting and the angry rhetoric of political debate is a good one. In my opinion, there is too little detailed and quantitative reporting and too much “interviewing” radical commentators.

    Social security is a good example. The conservatives call it a Ponzi scheme while the liberals pretend there is no problem of issue at all. The truth, ass usual, resides somewhere in-between.

    This article from the Washington Post is a good perspective on the matter:


    The fact that the promises made by Social Security are not legally binding on the government should give everybody pause.

    As for the Richmond forum – Reich has always been an open-minded liberal. His thinking on unions is constructive. Jim – did you get the chance to ask Mr. Reich his perspective on PLAs?

    1. No, I didn’t get a chance to ask Mr. Reich about PLAs. People in the audience get to submit questions in writing, which the moderator sifts through during intermission. Getting a question answered is a long shot, so I never bother submitting them. Besides, I concluded long ago that other peoples’ questions are just as interesting, if not moreso, than mine!

  7. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Doesn’t turn on the tv. It’s the 21 st. century! Could explain a lot.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      What are you talking about? I saw a commercial over the weekend heralding a new reality series – Long Island Psychics.

      Don’t turn on the TV? Don’t turn off the TV! Otherwise you might miss an episode of Lizard Lick Towing. Or, an episode of Moonshiners – a Discovery Channel reality TV series which features illegal distilleries in the South – including one group in Virginia. But … not to fear- the Clown Show in Richmond is on the case. No actual moonshining is being filmed in Virginia –


      However, the portrayal of the overall intelligence of Virginians is interesting. Of particular note is the character known as Tickle. Perpetually drunk, Tickle is usually either hurting himself or wreaking the moonshine operation.

      Tickle for Governor, 2013?

  8. point taken from DJ Rippert on “civility” but I really do stick to the point about whether one hails mostly from a “live and let live” orientation or whether one thinks something needs to be an intense political discourse and it seems to me -more and more that some folks WANT wedge issues and DON’T WANT principled compromises. They actually don’t want comprise at all.

    In terms of this statement: ” The conservatives call it a Ponzi scheme while the liberals pretend there is no problem of issue at all. ”


    It’s MUST LESS of a problem RIGHT NOW…. COMPARED to the OTHER problems we have that we are NOT dealing with.

    Social Security is the ONLY government program that BY LAW – cannot pay out more than it takes in.

    If the other govt problems and entitlements operated that way – we’d NOT have the 1,5 Trillion deficit would we?

    Social Security can be fairly easily fixed – as it has been about a dozen times in it’s 60+ year history.

    But now THIS TIME – we’ve made it a WEDGE ISSUE instead of embracing reform as has been done before.

    why? Why is this now a wedge issue?

    Medicare is the other WEDGE issue that is being propagandized by the right.

    The Medicare that most are alluding to as threatening to undermine our financial stability is Part B which is a VOLUNTARY fee-for-service program where people pay premiums for their health care insurance.

    What will happen to Medicare Part B is the same exact thing that is going to happen to private health care insurance if we do not address the underlying problem that is at the root of BOTH of these plans.

    We will NOT …CUT Medicare in the sense that people have already paid for it and now will have their entitlement “cut”.

    Nope. We will do with Medicare EXACTLY what private insurance does,

    We WILL raise the ridiculously low premiums and we will require much higher co-pays and deductibles JUST LIKE private insurance will.

    Senior who own 2 houses and 3 cars will have to pay MORE for their hip or knee replacements and cataract removal.

    WHY is this issue CHARACTERIZED as “out of control” and will “bankrupt the country” when the solution is to reform the program by charging more for premiums and trimming overly generous benefits?

    How can you even talk about unfunded liabilities for SS when BY LAW it cannot run a deficit?

    How can you talk about unfunded liabilities for Medicare Part B which is budget-wise EXACTLY like DOD in that BOTH of them ARE – APPROPRIATED spending ?

    If we treated DOD like we do Medicare Part B would we ALSO call projected DOD spending in the future as having unfunded liabilities?

    It’s things like this that not only are driven as wedge issues but the underlying truths are purposely slaughtered in disinformation campaigns designed to convince the sound-bite gullible of things that simply are not the truth?

    the question is – WHY are some people doing this? WHY are some people calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme and a threat to our financial future while at the same time ignoring that SS has virtually no impact on the current deficit and budget?

    WHY do we FOCUS on Social Security and Medicare when even Medicare Part B is a total of 210 billion in a 3.1 trillion budget?


    1. DJRippert Avatar

      There are certainly plenty of things to worry about. Social security makes my list for the following reason (from the article in the Post):

      “They are also material to the financial expectations of tens of millions of Americans. The typical U.S. household has been promised retirement payments totaling $1.2 million, more than 1,200 percent of its median net worth of $96,000.

      Is it acceptable that our leaders are able to promise trillions of dollars to the voters but do not have to recognize the cost because their promises can be rescinded?”.

      Remember when Mark Warner said 13 times on the campaign trail that he would not raise taxes only to push the largest tax hike in Virginia history once elected?

      How did he explain this?

      He claimed that the state’s finances were in worse shape than he expected. He made this claim despite running Doug Wilder’s successful 1989 gubernatorial campaign and being the head of the state Democratic Party.

      Someday, politicians at the federal level will “pull a Warner”. They will “discover” that Social Security is unsustainable and decide to either cut it back dramatically or end it altogether.

      They already have the accounting treatment associated with a “best efforts” plan rather than a legally binding obligation.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      As far as Social Security and the deficits … Also from the Washington Post article:

      “This decision is embraced by virtually every one of our elected leaders and accepted by virtually all of our journalists. The $1.3 trillion budget deficit would be $4.2 trillion if the change in the current cost of Social Security and Medicare promises during fiscal 2011 were included. Why is this cost excluded?

      It is not because the promises are immaterial. Remember that 5 percent threshold? The current costs of Medicare and Social Security total $33.8 trillion, which is more than 1,400 percent of the federal government’s 2011 revenue.”.

      I am not sure why you keep claiming that Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit. I can only assume that you expect the government to cancel the program which will extinguish the obligation. One thing I’ll say – you and the politicians on Capitol Hill have the right accounting treatment to just cancel the program.

  9. DJ – you are continuing the big LIE either through your own gullibility or on purpose.

    SS and MedA is NOT funded from the general revenues but instead from dedicated, earmarked FICA revenues and it, by law, cannot pay out more than it’s take in.

    By purposely co-mingling SS/Med A with the budget that is funded from General Revenues you are avoiding and evading the truth and the reality.

    You can “cut” SS and Med A and it will ZERO material effect on the CURRENT budget that is current 1.5 Trillion in deficit.

    I’ll say again.. cutting SS/MedA does not help the budget nor the deficit.

    SS/MedA are a looming problem in the future as more baby boomers retired IF ..NOTHING is done, In the past, more than a dozen times, SOMETHING WAS DONE. Again, keep in mind that even if you do nothing that by law, SS will not pay out more than FICA generates … as unless or until something is changed SS/Med A have absolutely nothing to do with the general budget (save for the trust fund that SS generated from SURPLUS revenues).

    When you purposely or ignorantly conflate FICA/SS/Med A with the general revenues budget and Medicare Parts B,C,D and MedicAid – you are either displaying ignorance or you are joining those who purposefully are misinforming others … and for what purpose would you willingly engage in misleading others in the first place?

    My advice is to KNOW THE FACTS – … WANT TO KNOW the facts, and to see the truth – BEFORE you parrot wrong/bad information and/or support actions based on not understanding the realities.

  10. DJ – here’s the TRUTH about SS.

    If absolutely nothing is done – SS will AUTOMATICALLY reduce to a 75% payout of “scheduled” benefits.

    NONE of this money will come from general revenues. ALL of it WILL come from FICA.

    this is the truth.

    you should know the facts DJ. You should WANT to know them.

    If you want to complain that the 75% payout is wrong – fine – make that argument – but DON’T convert that to an unfunded liability argument – because it simply is not the truth.

    There are NO unfunded liabilities for SS because the program – by law (unless or until that law is changed) CANNOT pay out more than FICA brings in.

    that’s the truth DJ.

    you should want to know that fact.

  11. Argh! Larry, you are correct that SS will automatically reduce to a 75% payout of scheduled benefits when the trust fund money runs out. And you are correct that Congress is under no legal obligation to make up the difference with general government revenues. But you miss the point that a 25% cut in SS benefits will precipitate a national crisis of monumental proportions. Either the income of the elderly will plummet by 25%, enough perhaps to plunge the country into a recession, or Congress will feel compelled to “fix” the problem by doing who knows what.

    Thus, you are correct in a narrow legalistic sense, but you’re ignoring economic and political realities.

  12. ” But you miss the point that a 25% cut in SS benefits will precipitate a national crisis of monumental proportions. ”

    No Jim. YOU MISS THE POINT when you CONVERT this to a unfunded liability argument that affects the CURRENT BUDGET.

    That’ s my complaint here.

    When you and others talkl about the CURRENT BUDGET and the CURRENT DEFICIT – you totally MANGLE the facts … to suit your agenda.

    there ARE legitimate issues with SS and baby boomers but how in the world does that justify altering facts to suit one’s agenda?

  13. When you argue that FUTURE POTENTIALs are what is a Crisis in the CURRENT BUDGET and DEFICIT that is simply not the truth of what the basis of the current budget crisis is really about – as well as how to fix it.

  14. The CURRENT BUDGET has nothing what-so-ever to do with SS other than the fact that 2.1 Trillion of the debt is what is owed to SS.

    But even if you totally reneged on that 2.1 trillion.. all that would happen is that SS would have to automatically reduce.

    Jim says that WILL create a CRISIS.

    My point is that it IS NOT a CRISIS right now and it has NO BEARING on the CURRENT deficit and debt …and “fixing” SS right now will not do a thing with the current deficit and debt.. which will still be 1.5 trillion and 15 trillion.

    but we make the argument SS – LIKE it is THE REASON for our CURRENT deficit and debt – and that’s simply not the truth.

  15. this is a GOOD EXAMPLE of the CIVILITY conundrum!

    how can any discussion be CIVIL when the basic facts are not only
    in dispute but one suspect they are purposefully being misrepresented to suit
    the other persons personal philosophies?

    No matter what one’s personal philosophies and politic leanings are – we should seek the truth and the facts to be our starting points for dialogue and debate?

    How meaningful is any dialogue and debate when the facts themselves are ot only wrong but purposefully wrong?

  16. some folks want to FIX SS and Medicare right now but they apparently have much less interest in fixing the CURRENT DEFICIT right now.

    why is that?

    It seems totally illogical to me to want to “fix” something that is in the future but ignore the problems we have right now.

    Doesn’t that pretty much describe the current Conservative approach to the budget?

    It drives me crazy to be honest.

    One would think that AT THE LEAST – you’d want to PRIORITIZE the CURRENT deficit and budget FIRST …get that squared away and under control then move to address the next issues… the impending baby boomer problem with SS and Medicare.

    I’m not even opposed to addressing them BOTH right now but what drives me stark raving nuts if for someone to say that the future problems with SS and Medicare are what is causing the CURRENT deficit and debt and therefore the cause of it ..ergo.. what we have to fix first.

    This is totally bizarre … but it seems to be the mainstream Conservative view. Even Paul Ryans budget is anchored on this concept.

  17. One more and I’ll shut up.

    If you want to worry about the CURRENT budget and deficit entitlements – it’s Medicare Part B (C,D) and MedicAid.

    Both of these are NOT funded from FICA but instead funded from General Revenues – and are known as Appropriated Entitlements (vice Earmarked Entitlements (FICA)).

    But the really funny thing about Medicare Part B (besides it being heavily subsidized) is that no one pays for it ahead of time (like they do with SS).

    Medicare Part B is totally voluntary but virtually everyone signs up for it because it’s one hell of a bargain at $100 a month for many ( but more for the wealthier).

    You can own 2 or 3 houses and have hundreds of thousands of dollars in assets – and pay $100 a month for 80% coverage health insurance (and buy the 20% gap coverage also at heavily subsidized rates).

    We don’t need to “CUT” Medicare at all.

    All we need to do is increase the price of it and increase the co-pay and deductibles for those that easily afford it.

    We can do that right now. We don’t need to “block grant” it – just change the price and coverage (which is what ALL insurance does – to stay solvent).

    Why is Ryan and others calling for “block granting” Medicare – in the future – instead of changing the price / coverage of it – right now – to address the CURRENT budget deficit and debt?

    I can tell you why. It’s because at 210 billion dollars, Medicare Part B is a smaller (but important) part of a 3.1 trillion budget that is one trillion more than we take in – in revenues.

    if you say you will “fix” Medicare right now – the 600 lb elephant that remains in the room is what to do about the rest of the budget deficit – more than a trillion dollars worth – that you cannot fix just by cutting entitlements.

    Ryan’s approach is so bogus that it stinks to high heaven but the average person simply does not understand the basic facts – to know just how bogus the RYan budget really is. Ryan’s budget – by the way – does not balance – until 2040 and all that time in between, we are still generating deficits that add to the debt. by 2040, the debt will be 30+ trillion under his plan.

  18. oh come on guys… let it out!!!!

  19. DJRippert Avatar

    Larry is basically admitting that SS is a Ponzi Scheme. Let’s see … in a Ponzi Scheme the early participants often profit handsomely as the operator uses payments from newcomers to pay out a few, select, existing “investors”.

    Jim Bacon has it right. People paying in to SS today are paying in at the highest rate in history. They believe they will get, at least, today’s benefits adjusted for inflation. If you go to Social Security’s web site, you will see your benefits portrayed as an extension of today’s rates. If you listen to a liberal commentator, he or she will tell you that “everything is all right”.

    But everything is not all right. People depend on getting at least the same benefits as beneficiaries today receive. Why shouldn’t they? They’ve paid in a higher percentage of their income than people receiving benefits today have paid in. Why should they pay in more but then get less?

    I guess it’s because our government is running its own version of a Ponzi Scheme. They take in more and more money but keep everybody placated by paying out (relatively) big benefits to those who take their benefits early.

    Where is the national politician saying, “You people who are paying in to SS today will only get 75% of the benefits being paid out today?”.

    How popular do you think SS will be in the “under 45” crowd if they were ever truthfully told that they would pay in the most ever and get back far less than those receiving benefits today?

    People like LarryG say that “adjustments will have to be made”. Yeah. And Charles Ponzi made adjustments too. He payed out big time in the early days so that others would be confident in investing. Then he didn’t pay out at all.

    SS is paying out right now. But it won’t be paying out for long. All too soon, it will pay 75% of what’s payed today.

    And that’s the honesty that our politicians owe the people paying into the scheme today.

  20. Ponzi scheme or not…why are you IGNORING the REAL budget issues?

    why is SS the focus instead of the 1.5 trillion annual (adding to the debt each year) deficit that has nothing to do with SS?

    that’s what is bizarre to me.

    I do not agree with the Ponzi characterization ANYMORE than I would if you characterized Medicare Part B as a Ponzi scheme.

    the whole idea of characterizing SS as a ponzi scheme reveals the underlying self-imposed ignorance about SS and how it was designed (from the beginning to work) but it also reveals an unwillingness to actual deal with the ACTUAL budget issues that are in our face right now.

    Why do we focus on SS which is a slow-motion problem and ignore the budget deficit which is not?

    Why should I believe than anyone who thinks this way is REALLY interested in REAL solutions rather than a culture war about social security?

    SS is EASY to fix. When it was first devised it was based on life expectancy and life expectancy has changed dramatically. All you need to do to fix SS is to re-adjust life expectancy back to it’s original design premise.

    But again..if you do nothing.. SS automatically reduces … which is ironically EXACTLY the same thing that is proposed to rein in Medicare Part B expenses.

    The folks who say they are concerned about the budget and deficit are all over the map.

    Rationality is not part of their gig. It’s all about their agenda and virtually nothing about the basic facts.

    You cannot begin to approach the problem as long as one insists on your own set of “facts” that simply are not.

    The “answer” to Medicare is what? Cut it – right?

    and yet when SS automatically “cuts”, DJ and Jim say this will cause a crisis.

    why is this a “crisis” for SS but not the other entitlements that we say – must also be cut?

    again – trying to understand the rationale is virtually impossible. It’s totally arbitrary and totally in disregard of the basic facts.

  21. here’s the other bizarre thing.

    What PROMISES were made for Medicare Part B? Did anyone PROMISE that seniors would receive – forever – dirt cheap health care at $100 a month?

    who made that promise?

    It costs about $400 a month to provide health care to seniors. Are we breaking a promise if we tell them that they have to pay what it will take to keep the program solvent?

    Why are we so hung up on the SS issue which is a gnat on a dogs butt in comparison to Medicare Part B costs?

    SS has – at best about 17 billion in supposedly unfunded liabilities. Medicare Part B is over 100 billion.

    It’s Medicare Part B that is helping (along with DOD and MedicAid) to kill the budget so what is SS the priority?

    How can we have “civil discourse” when we have people who refuse to deal with the facts?

  22. okay.. so what is being said here is.. that the budget deficit and debt …is NOT the priority issue.


    the deficit and debt is secondary to other issues.


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