Let Them Eat Dirt

The poverty numbers out today are not only discouraging, but they highlight the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots in our society. Sure, it is hardly surprising that in a time of deep recession that poverty would increase. But we should be cautious not to write this off as a mere side effect of the Great Recession.

The problem we face is not merely poverty itself, but the yawning gap in income inequality. And while some of the policies we might enact to reduce poverty are short term in nature, the real effort must be focused on reducing income inequality. Programs such as unemployment insurance and food assistance are stop gap measures that do very little to ensure that a person, or family, remains above poverty. (In fact, such assistance programs do not even get a person or family up to the poverty level.)

What we really need are programs and policies that will reduce the enormous, and unsustainable, gap between the super rich and the poor. Adequate funding for primary and secondary education, scholarships and reduced tuition for public colleges and universities, public housing, and other social safety net programs must be strengthened. These types of programs help to promote upward mobility and poverty reduction over the long run.

Unfortunately, we live in a society and political climate where such investments are viewed as budget busters, despite their long term benefits. An entire political movement is fueled by the idea that someone, somewhere is getting something for nothing. And propelled by the rhetoric of personal responsibility, such that the poor are solely at fault for their plight. Never mind our legacy of discrimination, never mind an economic landscape tilted in favor of those who already have so much, never mind a political system bought and paid for by corporate cash. The true reason you’re poor or homeless or hungry is because you have some inherent character flaw, some type of malignant laziness.

And so we fail not only to address poverty in the short term, but we ignore or even exacerbate income inequality. The same people who refuse to adequately fund poverty reduction are the same who want to renew an enormous tax cut to the wealthiest Americans. And while they try to paper over the true motivation with economic arguments, the reality is that there is scant evidence that the Bush tax cuts created jobs. Yet there is loads of evidence that shows pumping those same dollars into poverty reduction efforts will increase aggregate demand now, and reduce poverty (thus ensuring economic growth) in the future. There is simply no sound policy argument to be made for extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

But the real rank hypocrisy on fiscal policy is that these same people who wish to continue a tax cut for the rich are the same ones who crowed about the impact on the deficit of extending unemployment benefits. So, increasing the deficit hundreds of billions of dollars so Paris Hilton can get a tax cut is good, ponying up $34 billion to help those without a job is going to break the bank?

The old saying, attributed to Marie Antoinette, about eating cake showed how out of touch an aristocrat was with the peasants. The GOP and the Tea Party have turned that into something even more despicable- let them (the poor, jobless and hungry) eat dirt.

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Political Psychology

In the post below, I make reference to the difficulty of sustaining an agenda of change over the course of multiple elections. Though that point makes intuitive sense to some readers, I thought it would be helpful to elaborate more. In doing so, I will make the argument that a change agenda is difficult to sustain in itself, but further that change, as a positive agenda, is far more difficult to maintain, than its opposite, which is a negative, fear based agenda (not its logical opposite- a status quo agenda).

At certain moments in history, people yearn for change in the political arena. Often this drive for political change is correlated with societal change, as evidenced by the Civil Rights movement and other large social movements. Here, however, social change precedes and leads political change. In other instances, the change sought is more of a political nature. People have what may be an abstract or specific notion that the country is headed in the wrong direction. The most obvious, and I think helpful, example would be the elections of 2006 and 2008.

The country was mired in two costly foreign wars, the economy had started to slide some by 2006, only to see it crater by 2008. The public mood was one of disenchantment, bordering on malaise. The GOP controlled all the levers of government and had done their best to wear out the public’s post 9-11 goodwill. (The probable tipping point seems to have been the Schiavo affair.) When people are feeling economic insecurity, it becomes easy to make the case for change.

The Democrats retook Congress in the 2006 midterms by calling for change. They capitalized on the public’s desire to lead the country in a different direction. Of course, Congress alone cannot make significant change when the White House is controlled by the other party. Though the Democrats were not successful in their change efforts in 2007, the ground had been set for a Democratic presidential nominee to run under the banner of change. Clearly this was made all the more possible by the cratering of the economy and the Bush administration’s fumbling through the early days of the economic crisis and the public’s general Bush fatigue.

In the fall of 2008, Democrats increased their 2006 gains in Congress and elected a President. These successes were all premised on the mantra of change. They promised changes in government (clean up corruption), changes in policy (draw down troops in Iraq; health care reform) and changes in political climate (post-partisanship). These messages drew broad support from an electorate deeply concerned about the country’s direction. Not only did it move regular voters to support the Democratic change agenda, but it brought in millions of new voters.

Some thought we had witnessed a new movement, some sort of seismic shift in our politics. (Of course, we’d been there before with Reagan’s morning in America, Clinton’s New Democrats, etc.) What those people did not foresee, or learn from political history, was the difficulty of maintaining an agenda based on positive change. Unlike social movements, such as Civil Rights, which are focused on one particular set of agenda items (sometimes so narrow as to be one item), a political change agenda is too broad and diffuse.

Though it is undeniably true that Obama and the Democrats ran on some specific change items, voters will tend to over-interpret such broad calls for change. Voters/supporters often make a couple mistakes. First, they come to believe that a particular politician subscribes to their notion of change, regardless of the lack of evidence for such a belief. Also, they tend to underestimate the length of time it takes a large bureaucratic organization, like the US government, to actually change. These two mistakes lead to inevitable disappointment.

This disappointment often leads to a loss of momentum for the change agenda, but it is not a fait accompli. There are steps that leaders can take to minimize the disappointment. Most importantly, political leaders need to keep their supporters informed and engaged. This requires direct communication with their people, and not relying on the media to carry their message. If people are kept “in the loop” about the actions politicians are taking to enact/pursue the positive change, they are more likely to show patience when that change is slower than they might have anticipated and preferred. Beyond keeping their supporters, and the public, informed leaders must be clear about what it is they are doing. In other words, explain their agenda to the public through a variety of ways. This also entails correcting false information about their agenda before it becomes so widespread as to be the accepted reality.

Accomplishing those tasks alone are difficult enough, as voters are busy and often not tuned in to the smaller bore issues facing government. These tasks do not occur in isolation, but rather in an environment where opponents are engaging in their own political rhetoric and activism. Thus, change leaders must not only promote their vision, but counter what is often a disinformation campaign against them.

A much easier political strategy, and one employed largely by the Republican Party over the past five decades, is a negative, fear based agenda. (I am leaving out their opposition to the New Deal and also avoiding the Cold War, which had as many Democratic adherents.) Motivating voters with fear and anger is a far simpler row to hoe for a number of reasons.

Fear and anger are somewhat base emotions. They require no explanation nor any sort of positive aspiration. Hope and change do rely somewhat on emotions, but need to be based upon some tangible policy ends. Anger and fear require no such grounding. And so, Republicans have used a variety of bogeymen to scare voters to their side for over a generation.

Starting with the 1960’s and the Dixiecrats changing of allegiances, the GOP has pursued a policy of demonizing others for electoral gain. It began with talk of state’s rights, a not so clandestine appeal to racist voters upset with the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. Since then there’s been a succession of villains used to raise the level of fear and anger- war protesters, women/feminists, gays and lesbians, the poor, environmentalists, and now Muslims.

There is always some other available to demonize. To frighten voters into believing they are somehow under attack from people who are not like them. It plays into people’s inherent fears and prejudices. And these tactics require little to actual evidence of threat. It’s more of an existential threat to some voters’ notion of America as a white, Christian, straight, male enclave.

Not only is this strategy successful in its appeals, but it is almost impossible to combat. Fear and anger are nearly immune to logic and reason. So, it doesn’t matter how many times it is shown that Obama was born in Hawaii, there are still a high percentage of Republicans who believe he is a secret Kenyan Muslim. It doesn’t matter that all the science shows convincingly that global temperatures are rising and melting the polar ice caps, many (most?) Republicans believe it’s a myth.

All that is needed to sustain the momentum of a negative agenda is a new villain. And so that is why gays and lesbians have recently been replaced with Muslims, as public attitudes towards gays has shifted. So long as you stay ahead of the curve of public opinion with regards to your preferred bogeyman you cannot go wrong. There is no need to keep your base informed, just scared. No need to offer up a policy agenda, just talk about how the other party’s agenda will lead to socialism. And no need to defend the status quo, just talk about fictitious death panels.

Fear and anger, unlike hope and change, require no heavy intellectual lifting. They require no real thinking on the part of voters, which is especially helpful given how little they actually pay attention to politics and government. The Tea Party provides the perfect example of my point. Most of them believe things that are provably untrue; they have no actual agenda other than opposing Obama and the Democrats; most of them know very little about our government or its founding documents. Yet, they are the most energized group of voters heading into the November midterms.

We have survived at least 50 years of this type of politics, but we have not prospered as a country in many ways. Our lack of prosperity is the product of many factors, but one of those is its politics. And it is unclear how much longer we can survive, as a nation, as a society, when we are fed a diet of fear and anger.

Politics Is Not Rocket Science

Lately, we have been inundated with statistics based projections for November. Though I do love statistics and modeling, what underlies the data is something very simple. In order to win elections, you must turn out your base and persuade a certain number of movable voters to vote for you. It really is that simple. Obviously, the number of movable voters you need depends on a few factors- size of your base, size of opponent’s base, estimates of turnout, and potential anomalies.

Herein lies the problem for Democrats as November approaches- our base is not motivated, and neither are a good chunk of our 2006 and 2008 movables. Most polling shows very close races when using registered voters. However, when the screen of likely voters is used, Democrats are faring quite horribly.

This enthusiasm gap is the product of several factors. It is hard to ignore the disappointment some activists Democrats feel towards the administration and the Party in general. But I think some of this is overblown and results, at least in part, from the netroots’ echo-chamber. (Full disclosure- I count myself among those who are disappointed and online.) The average non-activist/non-netroots Democratic voter is not turning away from voting in November because Harry Reid can’t get Obama’s judicial nominees through the Senate.

Instead, Democratic voters are disappearing because they expected more to be done on the economy. Sure, some may be disappointed by the compromised health care reform bill, but what they really want are jobs and economic stability. (I’ll leave aside the discussion of how realistic it is to fix eight years of damage in twenty months.) I would argue, too, that a prime reason Democratic voters are not enthusiastic is that they do not perceive the threat of a GOP takeover.

It is a far easier task to rally the base for change than it is to maintain that momentum over the course of three elections. Change is infinitely more appealing, on an emotional level, than stay the course. So the task at hand for Democrats is to energize their base by explaining the very real dangers to progress that a Republican House and/or Senate would be. And, they must make clear to movables that there has been progress over the past twenty months, that the economy is getting better, and that but for the stimulus we would be in much more dire straits. (In a normal year, Democrats could also try to suppress Republican turnout. I do not think much of that is possible this year.)

Over the past two weeks the administration has shown they get it. And while I wonder if maybe it was too little, too late, it is hard to argue with the team that ran one of the most technically proficient presidential campaigns in my lifetime. It will take a combination of the White House political team, with its agenda setting power, and other Democrats stepping up, with a helpful assist from the teabaggers and their extremist candidates, to craft a winning strategy for November. There may still be just enough time to save us.

Ken Mehlman Is Not a Real Man

And not because he is a homosexual. Rather, Mehlman is not a real man because he stood by while members of the Party he led not merely bashed homosexuals. No, the Party he led compared homosexuals to alcoholics, pedophiles, bestiality and an array of other very bad things. A real man would have stood up and shouted, “this is not right!”, regardless of the professional consequences. And regardless of his own sexuality.

Ken Mehlman is not a real man, he is just a coward.

Fixing Social Security

We are, once again, in the midst of another debate about Social Security. This is being fueled by contemporary fears about the deficit and debt. And lurking behind the scenes, as always, are the professional Social Security haters like Pete Peterson.

First off, we should dispense with the notion that Social Security is any sort of crisis. According to the trustees, the fund has sufficient revenue to last until 2037. While that is nearly thirty years away, it is not a bad idea to be proactive about ensuring Social Security’s long term stability. However, as I will argue below, raising the retirement age is not the right policy choice.

Current law dictates that the Social Security payroll tax is capped at an earnings level of $106,800. This presents policymakers with a host of revenue options, but two that are most appealing- (1) eliminate the earnings cap and pay out higher benefits to reflect the higher taxes collected; eliminate the earnings cap and pay no additional benefits. It is estimated that the first option would close roughly 95% of the trust find’s 75 year projected shortfall, which would necessitate a 0.1 percentage point increase in the payroll tax. Option 2 would actually do more than close the 75 year projected shortfall, and give policymakers the option of lowering the tax rate or banking the surpluses. (for full explanation, see here)

Either one would be a sensible, and simple, solution to addressing Social Security’s longterm soundness. Unfortunately, we live in a time where a tax increase is seen as some great scourge that will ruin our economy. Never mind that if given the option most voters would support lifting the earnings cap rather than cutting benefits.

Bolstered by an alliance between Tea Party, Republicans (yes, one in the same, I know), “fiscally responsible” Democrats and professional entitlement opponents like Peterson, we are now having a debate about raising the retirement age. The debate is dishonest from the get-go, as the retirement age at which someone can receive full benefits has increased since the 1930’s. It currently sits at 67 and provides incentives to wait until 70.

The notion of officially raising it to 70 seems to have the most appeal to people who, like myself, hold at least a four year degree and work in a white collar industry. It is particularly attractive to members of Congress and the wealthy, though. You see, retired Representatives and Senators enjoy a very generous defined benefit retirement plan. They do not have to rely on Social Security, even to help get by, as most other Americans do. And the wealthy, of course, have been able to bank significant retirement assets outside of the Social Security system.

But there are many others who support an increase in the age who are neither wealthy nor members of Congress. People who are not unlike myself. We work in offices, doing work that may be at times mentally stressful, but is never physically difficult. It’s easy to work that type of job until you’re 70 or 75 or maybe even 80+ if you wanted. But the key here is that people like me would be making a choice to work beyond normal retirement age because our jobs have not left us bruised and battered. Or worse.

If only the age-raisers would spend some time in the coal fields, or on an oil rig, in a factory or any other number of places where millions of Americans engage in backbreaking labor everyday maybe, just maybe, they would see that raising the retirement age to 70 is no solution at all. Do we really, as a society, want to tell 67 year old laborers- hang on, just a few more years, and you’ll be there? If so, then we are no society worth living in.

An Enduring Peace?

Over the past several months, several prominent Republicans and conservatives have signaled something of a retreat in one of our ongoing cultural wars- gay rights. Ann Coulter spoke to GOProud, a gay conservative group. Rush Limbaugh had flaming queen Elton John sing at his wedding. Glenn Beck told Bill O’Reilly that the federal court decision on Proposition 8 was not the end of civilization. And the list goes on.

There are at least two factors driving this change on the Right. (I should note here that by Right I mean the elites/opinion leaders on the Right.) First, most of the conservative elite is, in some respects, similar to the liberal elite. They went to some of the same schools, share some of the same cultural affinities and have encountered many gays and lesbians in their private and professional lives.

Conservative and Republican elites have probably never shared the prejudices of their base, especially with respect to gays and lesbians. There are any number of studies showing support for gay rights (this can include equal marriage rights, ENDA, etc.) tracks positively with educational attainment, exposure to homosexuals and other personal traits often held by elites. So it’s really no surprise that prominent conservatives employ and befriend gays and lesbians.

What those same people realized a long time ago, though, was that there were votes to be had by antagonizing homosexuals. It’s no different from the Southern Strategy and the dog whistle politics employed today. It’s not so much giving the base what it wants as it is exploiting their prejudices to electoral advantage.

But the country’s demographics are making that advantage smaller and smaller each year. Younger voters, and voters with post-secondary education, tend to be highly supportive of equal rights. Over the past twenty years, they have started to displace the older, more traditional anti-gay voters. The voters whose fears were being exploited are, quite simply, dying off.

I would not argue that we are yet at a place of parity between gay rights supporters and opponents, but we are narrowing that gap each year. Conservatives and their GOP allies realize that not only does their anti-gay rhetoric turn off a large bloc of voters now, but could come back to haunt them in the future are people’s perception of the Right/GOP as the anti-gay party harden.

One other variable is at play here, too. Its magnitude right now is unclear and will only surface over time. I would argue that the Right/GOP have always exploited some out group, whether it was blacks, gays and lesbians, the poor or some other group outside of the white, male, Christian majority who comprise the Right/GOP base. Most recently those attacks have focused on two other groups- Muslims and illegal immigrants. We are close enough to the midterm election to see the shape of the Right/GOP plan of attack, and the target out groups are clearly Muslims (see, for example, Lower Manhattan mosque, but also other mosques) and illegal immigrants (see, for example,  Arizona’s SB1070).

Due to the focus on Muslims and Mexicans, the Right/GOP has been fairly muted in their anti-gay propaganda. But only time will tell if their jihad against gays and lesbians is over. Or if it is just a temporary ceasefire while they are busy persecuting others (see, for example, invading Iraq while Afghanistan was still a mess).

Reasonable People May Disagree

And indeed they often do. Examples abound, from the right way to deconstruct and decode the human genome to the proper method of bleeding a brake line, etc. But each of these things are predicated upon a certain amount of knowledge and more than a minimal dose of reason. After all, reasonable does lead the rest of the sentence. And while we might, as I often have, argue about just what reasonable means, we can probably accept that it is at least somewhat context dependent.

For the sake of the argument I am about to make, one about politics and policy, reasonable shall be taken to mean a willingness to expose one’s beliefs to reason. Then by reason I mean rational thought, whereby one’s beliefs, when in conflict with objective reality, fall.

Partisans off all stripes often have a tenuous relationship with rationality. This is not unique to America, nor to democracies. However, a healthy functioning democracy requires reasonable people in a way that an authoritarian regime never will. As much as I personally despise the median voter theorem, it does hold some explanatory power vis-à-vis American politics. It is such that, at least theoretically, politicians will seek some middle ground between the two polar extremes. In short, let us assume that there is a relatively strong centralizing tendency present in  American politics (I think this is generally true, while missing much fine detail, but suffices here).

But what does good (read: rational) policy making require? Well, rational actors, quite obviously. Just who do we mean by actors, though? Will it suffice to have rational, reasonable elected officials and agency heads? Without getting deep in the weeds about degrees of freedom, agency issues, etc. it ought to be clear that policymakers (politicians and agency personnel) are necessary but not sufficient. They are not sufficient due to their source of power (voters and the people elected by voters), which means that our rational policymaking regime requires a reasonable polity.

Again, the emphasis is on reasonable, not unanimity of beliefs/values, etc. What is necessary is a common vocabulary, some core shared knowledge and a willingness to expose one’s beliefs to objective truth, insofar as such a thing exists. This civic dialogue helps to make finding that median a bit more clear. And ensures that such a point still sits within the realm of rational policymaking.

Unfortunately, one of our two major political parties has long ago abandoned rational thought, preferring instead a series of slogans, fearmongering and religious hucksterism. All of these are the sworn enemy to reasonableness. The examples are legion, but let’s think about just a few things one has to believe in order to be a Republican in good standing.

  1. Obama is secretly a Kenyan Muslim, despite his birth record from the state of Hawai’i and his attendance of a Christian church.
  2. Global warming is a secret plot by scientists who hate capitalism and want the world to return to the Stone Age.
  3. Two people of the same gender who love each other and wish to get married are secretly plotting to undermine the institution of marriage.

Let us just accept that the modern GOP is a party built upon a frighteningly large number of conspiracy theories (Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style on steroids, if you will). Nearly of these “theories” are easily falsifiable. Yet they persist, not merely on the fringe of the Republican Party, but in the very mainstream of it.

This makes rational policymaking nearly impossible. Not only does it prevent the type of civic dialogue necessary for democracy to exist (how does one have a dialogue with someone yelling socialist at you?), but it has the potential to drastically shift the median voter to a point well outside of what would be objectively good policymaking (see, for example, polling data on the lower Manhattan mosque).

All of this does not bode well for the future of our democracy or our country. We have come to a point where knowledge and expertise are cast aside for religion and gut feeling, by at least one-third of our population. Will we look back on this time as an aberration in a great country’s trajectory, or will future historians cite 21st century America as they do Rome- a once great empire that lost its way.