Friday, April 23, 2010

Graph: Rulers + Ruled; Free Persons

Most of civilization is the story of a small group at the top controlling armies, knowledge, and faith; a leader and retainers running what this blog now calls a kleptocracy. The elite made most history, and wrote all of it. It was life’s natural order.

Yet as knowledge spread widely following the printing press and Protestantism’s empowering the individual to read the Bible and manage his own faith, the idea grew that power lay with the people. Democracy eventually flourished with the American Revolution.

Republicans used to be fond of arguing the U.S. is “a republic, not a democracy.” The U.S. constitution provided for indirect election of the president, gave state legislatures the power to appoint senators, created an unelected third branch of judges with lifetime appointments, and restricted voting to literate, free males. We had a small ruling class and the masses, whom Federalist Alexander Hamilton called “a great beast.” Republicans used to fear the beast.

Times have changed (see graph). In the eyes of Democrats, society today is properly constituted with an elite open to anyone and chosen by merit, benevolently ruling over masses of victims. Someone has to rule on our behalf, and it should be our “best and brightest.” Democrats are sensitive to their need to rule well the ruled.

America’s leading universities, the elite’s important training ground, search for brilliant representatives from all major interest groups, future leaders who themselves will be elite “stakeholders” representing their interest groups at the top. The Democratic elite rules through a permanent bureaucracy, chosen by merit, and a network of interest groups, headed by “stakeholders”. What’s wrong with this picture?

Republicans today feel left out of this government + governed structure. Big government, a gift of Democrats, gets in the way of free people making their own choices through the capitalist system of competition, with hard work producing winners, and slackers becoming losers. We fight, we win, we lose, we win, we don’t wait around for government to help us. Capitalism, not government, made America great. Big government, in fact, threatens the very exceptionalism that is the American success story.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Farmers and Tyrants

Jared Diamond, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, provided the piercing insight into how politics works that perhaps can only come from an outsider (according to Wikipedia, Diamond’s fields are physiology, biophysics, ornithology, environmentalism, ecology, geography, evolutionary biology, and anthropology, but not politics).

As noted earlier, Diamond described governments as kleptocracies that transfer net wealth from commoners to those running the show. Blunt. Amazingly accurate. He added that government chiefs, in order to retain power,
1. Disarm the populace, and arm the elite.
2. Redistribute tribute in popular ways.
3. By maintaining order, make popular the use of force.
4. Create a religion or ideology that justifies kleptocracy.

Civilization is around 10,000 years old. Industrialization yielding a healthy population mostly living in or near cities is less than 100 years old; 1/100th of 1% of history. Therefore, almost all political philosophy is about farmers, a governing class dependent on taxing farmers, and a sub-class of slaves (serfs, indentured peasants) with no rights. When Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal,” he was asserting the rights farmers held against their oppressive king. He drew the battle line that marks American politics today.

The Federalists believed in a strong central government, Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans in limited government and the rights of free farmers. After the civil war, Republicans restricted government’s power to interfere with farming, finance, and industrialization, but also kept farmers support by building railroads that took their harvests to market.

Democrats, the "out" party, focused on the Republican-run society's ills. They itched to take over government and put it to doing good. Which they did, under Roosevelt during the Great Depression and World War II. Democrats became the party of Federalists, believing in a strong central government, and Republicans became heirs to Jefferson’s anti-government farmers, gathering together those worried about government trampling on their individual rights.

How do Diamond’s four levers of power look today?

1. Disarm the populace, and arm the elite.

Whoever controls government controls the elite’s use of force. Democrats enhanced government’s power from 1941 to 1968 by pursuing an internationalist foreign policy that took us into World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. But Vietnam was a disaster, costing Democrats the White House and killing their taste for war. Now Democrats are the party of peace, the mother party, determined to disarm and pour resources into domestic “wars” against poverty and inequality. Republicans have by default become the party of war, the father party, the only party that takes overseas threats seriously, and the party the U.S. military gravitates toward (which makes Democrats even more anti-war).

2. Redistribute tribute in popular ways.

Democrats believe government is good, and set out to prove it every time they are in power. As we found, Democrats are increasingly comfortable with the word “socialism.” Democratic socialism became the norm in Europe after World War II; it was an acceptable counterweight to the Fascism that had destroyed the continent and the Communism that threatened Western Europe after 1945. Faced with totalitarianism, socialism emerged as the democratic alternative, distributing tribute to labor unions that controlled European electorates. To Democrats, the U.S. trails Europe. They want national health insurance on the European model. Republicans don’t like government buying off working class votes, and prefer to limit government to its more basic functions.

3. By maintaining order, make popular the use of force.

Democrats are evolving an ideology that employs government coercion to suppress dissent in the name of “political correctness” and putting down “hate speech.” Today’s Democrats are the opposite of the Democrats of the 1940s-1950’s, who fought a heroic battle against Communist infiltration of their ranks and subsequent McCarthyism. Republicans are more inclined to support police power to maintain order, especially when the disorderly elements come out of the Democrats’ natural constituency groups.

4. Create a religion or ideology that justifies kleptocracy.

Before the Depression and again in the 1950s, Republicans used Protestantism's stress on individual salvation ("the Protestant ethic") to support the party's agrarian/small-town values power base. Overthrowing Protestant values was part of the Democrats' expanding federal control; it helped drive most religious people toward the Republicans. But religion isn’t exclusively the province of Republicans. Democrats use the “social gospel” interpretation of Christianity to justify government helping the disadvantaged, and the Democratic elite ever increasingly approaches environmentalism as its secular religion.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Brazil President Lauds B(R)iC’s Power

As I’ve written, I don’t think Russia belongs in the BiC powers. So what? Brazil’s President Lula da Silva likes having the large (geographically), nuclear-armed, European, former superpower around. Lula recently hosted the leaders of China, Russia, and India at the second annual BRIC summit (last year’s in Russia was the first), four countries representing 42% of the world’s people and 22% of its wealth.

Lula used his host role to stress accomplishments the BRIC powers have already made, and lay out his version of their agenda. Lula said:

➢ we are . . . agents of change in making global governance both more transparent and democratic.

➢ [Our agenda includes] food security and energy production in the context of climate change.

➢ during the financial crisis of the past two years. . . our collective strategies. . . opened up new alternatives to the shabby dogma inherited from the past. The collapse of financial markets revealed the failure of paradigms previously [unquestioned]. Truths about market deregulation collapsed. The ideal of a minimal state also collapsed. The easing of labor rights is no longer a mantra to fight unemployment.

➢ BRIC countries promoted growth focused on work and prudence. At the Group of 20 summit, we proposed anticyclical policies, market regulation, curbing tax havens, and renewal of the Bretton Woods institutions[, where] we are determined not to let . . . global economy [recovery] serve as an excuse for abandoning a democratic remodel of these organizations. The BRIC members have not injected nearly $100 billion into the International Monetary Fund just to leave everything as it was before.

➢ Developing countries have the right to be heard. Bridging the gap that separates them from the rich countries is not only a matter of justice: The world’s economic, social and political stability depends on this. It is our best contribution to peace.

➢ resources. . . needed to overcome hunger and poverty [are] modest when compared with the cost of rescuing failed banks and financial institutions

➢ distortion in world agricultural trade still persists. Unfair subsidies in rich countries discourage local production, foster dependency, and divert resources that would be better used in development programs. . . conclusion of the Doha Round is critical.

➢ [but this impasse] is nowhere as serious as that on climate change. . . BRIC countries are committed to helping close the deal that was elusive in Copenhagen. . . BRIC countries have been demonstrating with ambitious initiatives to mitigate their emissions.

➢ we must . . . rely increasingly on each other. . . forge a more representative and transparent system of global governance that can [reach] consensual solutions.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The VAT. Be very worried.

It’s looking more and more like a European-type value-added tax (VAT) is headed our way. Health care reform will cost $1 trillion over the next decade, and we know Europeans couldn’t pay for national health insurance without the VAT. NPR’s Mara Liasson has found (end of video) that Obama no longer promises to refrain from raising taxes on people making less than $250,000 a year. He now says he won’t raise our income taxes, which the VAT isn’t, meaning Obama could be readying us for the VAT (the White House denies this, but so what?).

We earlier covered Donald Marron’s essay on how to combat debt. Marron says we have to stop the growth of spending, but he also favors consumption taxes, which the VAT is, because they help the economy grow better than income taxes do.

Writing in Newsweek, Robert Samuelson says the VAT, in contrast to what advocates including Marron and former Fed chair Paul Volcker advertise, wiil cause us lots of pain:
Applied to all consumption spending -- about 70% of GDP -- the required VAT rate would equal about 8%. But the actual increase might be closer to 16% because there would be huge pressures to exempt groceries, rent and housing, health care, education and charitable groups. Together, they account for nearly half of $10 trillion of consumer spending.

But Samuelson thinks simplistic VAT advocacy poses a problem bigger than high rates. Since any VAT will take pressure off spending cuts, the VAT deemphasizes what we most need:
The consequences [of too much spending] would be unnecessarily high taxes that would weaken the economy and discriminate against the young. It would become harder for families to raise children.

I worry Samuelson is right. The VAT won’t be used in a revenue-neutral fashion, raised while income taxes go down by the same amount. If we pass a VAT, it will be to increase spending and avoid the tough decisions we must sooner or later make to reduce debt.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The politics of fog.

"the policies Republicans now tout as the engine of recovery are the same ones that helped drive the economy into the ditch."

--Ronald Brownstein, National Journal

Why such a harsh, partisan statement from Brownstein, a usually calm observer of the political scene? I think because our main problem is becoming crystal clear, and Democrats like Brownstein prefer fog. They want bigger government, and nobody else does.

How does Brownstein make such a statement in the first place? All his friends may believe Bush’s 2003 tax cuts hurt the economy, but lots of others think they helped boost job creation; the economy added 5.3 million jobs in the four years after Bush’s cuts.

2009 stimulus spending on government jobs seems to have been ineffective on its face. Unemployment after the stimulus passed rose from 8.2% to 9.7%, with 3.3 million thrown out of work. So if Republicans would keep taxes low to help private sector job creation as it did in 2003-07, and cut the growth in deficit spending to finance continued lower taxes, who is Brownstein to say such policies would “drive the economy into the ditch”? Strange.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Debt, and how to avoid it.

Heavy deficit spending, $1.4 trillion this year, at least $1 trillion a year for the next ten, means we will have an unsustainable national debt 85% the size of our total economy by 2020. In that year, we will spend $900 billion, five times what it costs now, just to pay interest on our debt. Except we won’t. We can’t let the debt grow that much [chart]. We’ll be a crippled nation first.

To keep from having such a disastrously-sized debt, we need to begin corrective action now. So says Donald B. Marron, formerly on George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers and ex-head of the Congressional Budget Office. Marron’s lengthy article in National Affairs provided the above figures and chart.

Marron says we need to set debt-reduction targets immediately. Our long-term goal should be to hold debt to 40% of GDP, the average of where it’s been over the past half-century. We can’t get there right away, Marron believes, so we should make sure to keep debt below 70% of GDP in the short run, drop it to 60% of GDP in the medium run, and return to 40% of GDP in the long term.

There are three ways to reduce debt: 1) grow the economy, 2) raise taxes, and 3) cut spending. Marron says we will have to use all three approaches, but it’s most important to cut the growth of spending. As he says,
Driven by an aging population and rising health-care costs, the government's biggest long-term financial obligations — Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — grow faster than the economy each year. . . .Without serious [cost-cutting] of Medicare and Medicaid especially, we have virtually no hope of controlling future deficits. . . Furthermore, . . spending reductions tend to be more successful than tax increases in achieving sustained budget improvements[, a] conclusion . . . upheld by . . . Harvard economists Alberto Alesina and Silvia Ardagna. [They] found that fiscal adjustments based on spending reductions were much more likely to result in sustained declines in deficits and debt-to-GDP ratios than were efforts based on tax increases.

As for the other two tools, Marron says to grow the economy while increasing taxes, one must carefully choose which taxes to increase. If taxes must go higher, in order to encourage growth we should adopt flatter tax rates (unlike Obama’s planned increased income taxes on the wealthy) and place greater reliance on consumption taxes (which are regressive, but impact growth less). We also need more efficient benefits systems that minimize the degree to which subsidy programs discourage beneficiaries from working.

Tax increases and spending cuts hurt some more than others. Therefore, Marron says, we need a comprehensive attack on our national debt, one that spreads the pain around widely, so that people feel we are all in this fight together. Such a spirit seems far removed from where we are today, but Marron says we have no real option.

We must work together to lick our humongous debt problem.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Wall Street Nearly Back to Full Health

Today, the S&P 500 rose to 1,211, within 100 points of its pre-crash healthy level of 1,300. The Dow cleared 11,123, less than 900 from its healthy level of 12,000. And the NASDAQ, at 2,505, is already above 2,500, its healthy level. The NASDAQ is back, and the S&P 500 and Dow aren’t far behind. As a consequence, I’ve changed my FOX INDEX back to its original, simple form. It only shows the points by which the S&P 500, the Dow, and NASDAQ remain below their combined “healthy” total of 15,800 (1300 S&P 500+12,000 Dow +2,500 NASDAQ) [see chart].

While Wall Street seems nearly recovered, the AP’s economy survey documents continuing problems with the larger economy. The survey believes:

➢ The unemployment rate will stay stubbornly high the next two years. It will inch down to 9.3% by the end of this year and to 8.4% by the end of 2011 (it has been 9.7% since January). When the recession started in December 2007, unemployment was 5%.

➢ Home prices will remain almost flat for the next two years, even after plunging an average 30% nationally since their 2006 peak. The survey forecasts no rise this year and a 2.3% gain next year.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

U.S., Israel, Iran, and War

Two weeks ago, I wrote that Obama may have picked a fight with Israel to change the subject away from Democratic unwillingness to sanction war with Iran. Obama, in fact, has a strategy for dealing with Iran that he has linked directly to Israeli expansion of settlements into Palestinian territory.

Obama’s strategy for pressuring Iran to forego nuclear weapons, as the blog noted last year, involves first getting Israel to stop construction of new settlements in Palestinian areas, then using Israel’s cooperation on settlements to unite most of the Arab world against Iran’s nuclear program.

Israel isn’t cooperating, so Obama has reason to be upset with Israel. And he also has grounds to feel that lack of Israeli cooperation on settlements means Israel must care more about that issue than it does about uniting Arabs against Iran. As a senior White House official put it, “the Israelis need all of us to be working together on the common goal of keeping the pressure on the Iranians to back off.”

Comment: Obama makes a big mistake if he uses anger at Israeli settlement construction as an excuse to back the U.S. away from war with Iran. It seems Democrats don’t want war with Iran more than they don’t want Iran with the bomb. But Democrats shouldn’t gamble with our future in such a manner. As Israel and others understand, we have to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if that objective means war.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hispanic Vote Somewhat in Play

Without any proof, I suggested recently that Democrats shouldn’t count on Hispanics as part of their core constituency during our current private sector recession, which is costing people jobs. And now, the Washington Post’s Sandhya Somashekhar has an article about why Hispanic voters are unhappy with Democrats:

➢ According to immigrant advocacy groups, lawmakers risk losing the support of Hispanic voters if they do not establish a way for the 12 million people in the United States illegally to achieve legal status.

➢ Hispanics are suffering in the current economy, many with their homes in danger of going into foreclosure. There is a belief in the Hispanic community that ending the illegal immigrants' uncertainty would boost housing, including Hispanic voters' home prices, because millions would finally feel secure enough to buy homes.

➢ It’s not like Republicans stand to gain directly from Hispanic unrest; today, Republicans seem even more strongly against helping illegals adjust their status than they were when Bush pushed immigration reform in 2007. It’s that any Democratic failure to take action this year on immigration reform may well keep Hispanics from voting in November.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Rhee, DC Teachers, Reach Compromise

I had hoped that in a showdown between DC school boss Michelle Rhee, the nation’s highest profile education reformer, and Randi Weingarten (picture), president of the American Federation of Teachers, national parent organization of the DC teachers union, reform might win out. Education is so important. But the reality seems so different, after the contract “compromise” Rhee reached with the teachers union April 6, three days before this blog highlighted Rhee’s struggle over teacher quality. (I’m embarrassed I missed the news.)

Here’s why reform lost:

1. Politics forced Rhee to settle. Rhee’s most important supporter, DC Mayor Adrian Fenty, is facing a tough fight for re-election Rhee’s war on teachers was making that much tougher. Rhee had to get off the front pages.

2. Rhee offered teachers 20% raises with no real changes, or 45% raises with big changes. The teachers chose 21% raises and little change.

3. Rhee blows $65 million in private funds, from the Walton Family and three other foundations, to pay for a settlement that leaves bad teachers largely in place.

4. Rhee gives up all this for what? She gets a voluntary program that allows participating teachers to earn more money if they are able to boost student performance, and she gets to make performance, not seniority, the top factor in deciding who goes, when lack of funds or low enrollment create excess teachers.

5. Education specialist Larry Cuban of Stanford thinks Michelle Rhee may be gone by next year even if Fenty is re-elected, and if she goes, teachers will quickly roll back her main accomplishment, a new teacher evaluation system.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Verbal combat is what we do.

Obama: "Last I checked, Sarah Palin's not much of an expert on nuclear issues."
Palin: “Now the President, with all the vast nuclear experience he acquired as a community organizer, and as a part-time senator, and as a full-time campaigner—all that experience, still no accomplishment to date with North Korea and Iran.”

Men used to carry swords and later six-shooters to defend themselves against those who would do them harm. Now words—the biting insult, the rapier wit—are our major tool of combat. It’s better than killing each other. And it seems acceptable to be nasty, whether or not you're happy with people dissing each other.

In politics, debates have moved front and center as arenas of combat. The famed Lincoln-Douglas debates were to choose a senator, not a president, and the first nationally-significant presidential debates were those on TV between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. The first one (of four) mattered; it elevated Kennedy to equality and eventually victory over Nixon, who had been our vice president for eight years. The 1960 debate was so decisive that the leading candidate in each of the next three elections simply refused to debate.

In 1976, Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford in one debate; enough to win the election. In 1980, Reagan beat Carter in one, then won the election six days later. Reagan lost the first of two in 1984, but recovered in the second and saved his presidency. Michael Dukakis lost his debate to George H.W. Bush on the first question in 1988 and never recovered. Bush was caught looking at his watch in his 1992 debate with Clinton and Ross Perot; soon Bush was looking for a new home. Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in 2000 by changing his approach in each debate; it confirmed an image people had that Gore, the liberal Southerner, didn’t know who he was. John Kerry in 2004 made a ham-handed reference to Dick Chaney’s lesbian daughter that badly hurt his campaign. Slip in combat, lose the war.

Our academic world, our high-powered legal profession, our national media—all admire those who excel at verbal jousting. Sure, we still have football, boxing, mixed martial arts, and even war, but it’s really the verbal skills, often developed in the classrooms of our great universities, that are most likely to lead to victory over our fellow beings. Obama, the academic, the law school star, the great orator, has of course had his verbal skills take him to the very top.

And if you don’t like all this fighting with words, would you really prefer bringing back the Colt .45 "equalizer"?

Education Reform: Report from the Front

You really should read Katherine Mangu-Ward’s article on Michelle Rhee’s effort to reform D.C. schools.

Here are some key passages:

• Rhee’s approach goes right to the heart of a decades-long political debate about what schools really need, more money or fewer lousy teachers. On that question her position is clear: No real change is possible unless good teachers are hired and bad teachers fired.

• [Rhee] offered the teachers a whole lot of money [and] two choices. With the first option, teachers would get a $10,000 bonus—a bribe, really—and a 20% raise. . . Benefits, rights, and privileges would remain as they were. Under the second option, teachers would receive a $10,000 bonus, a 45% increase in base salary, and the possibility of total earnings up to $131,000 a year through bonuses tied to student performance. In exchange, they would have to forfeit their tenure protections.

• No one is better positioned to throw together an afternoon protest rally than a bunch of teachers. They have poster board and markers on hand at all times, and they get off work at 3 p.m.

• Randi Weingarten, the head of the powerful American Federation of Teachers . . . is no dummy. Rhee’s endgame, which she has made fairly explicit, is to seize control of hiring and firing from the unions. And with the national union involved, the D.C. contract is imbued with more precedent-setting value. . . If the unions accept Rhee’s bribes, their stranglehold on the nation’s schools will be endangered.

• Teachers unions contribute more than $60 million a year to political campaigns, topping contributor lists at the state and federal levels, and nearly all of the money goes to Democrats. That investment buys the continuation of the status quo plus some platitudes about class size and teacher pay from every prominent Democrat. Reformers have virtually no presence on Capitol Hill.

Europeanization of America: Unemployed Youth

I did the chart. The figures speak for themselves.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Summary: Politics

although there seem to have been no fireworks or fuss marking its demise, with this election the Republican party has lost not only the White House and more than a few seats in Congress but an entire generation of voters.

--James Carville, 11.5.08

Politics is about power. The north that emerged victorious from the civil war created an industrial and agricultural powerhouse from New England to California. The New York financial industry stood at its center, while at the local level, banks lead elites in cities and towns across the country where each chamber of commerce and Rotary club included Republican-friendly newspaper publishers and Republican Party leaders. Republicans won election after election by reminding voters who won the civil war (Republicans), and who sided with slave owners (Democrats). When robber barons, monopolies, and cartels grew too powerful around 1900, Republicans supported government reforms under trust buster Teddy Roosevelt, a shift that helped keep the party in power another 30 years, until the Crash of 1929.

Democrats replaced Republicans as the majority party during the Great Depression, promising to use government and Washington to put people back to work, and to provide the “forgotten man” needed security for his family. As Democratic Washington gained power, the business-based national elite made room for New Deal power brokers—top government officials, well-connected law firms, big city machines, and labor union leaders—the America of Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, and Johnson (1933-1968).

When national Democrats under Johnson in the 1960s pressed ahead on both civil rights and Vietnam, it cost them dearly. Democrats first lost the South and then “middle America," even as they consolidated domination of America’s elite, led by a powerful, unified national media that helped force our withdrawal from Vietnam, then forced Nixon to resign. Republicans under Nixon, Reagan, Gingrich, and Bush were able to check the Democratic drive toward government take-over of the country. Still, the GOP during 1969-2005 could never gain control over the Democrat-dominated elite, leaving the nation at more or less a stand-off.

More recently, Bush mistakes in Iraq, with Katrina, on immigration, on boosting the national debt, and with social security reform—all topped by overseeing the greatest economic collapse since the Depression—opened a path for liberal Democrats to override Republican opposition for the first time in 45 years. Republicans, as James Carville suggested (above), after losing badly in 2008 seemed crushed, no longer a major political force. But that was yesterday.

Liberal Democratic efforts to transform the U.S. into a European-like social democracy are generating a powerful reaction, as seen by Republican victories in Virginia, New Jersey, and Massachusetts--states Democrats carried easily in 2008. We will see if Democrats have misread the public mood so badly in 2010 that they face a dramatic loss of power that goes beyond their setbacks during the Nixon-Reagan-Gingrich-Bush years. The possibility exists for such a rout; the liberals controlling our national agenda today are just 20% of the electorate. Yet Democrats so dominate the elite that they may fail to grasp the degree to which they are alienated from their country. Democrats seem all head, no body. All leader, no follower.

Democrats do claim that significant blocs of voters—young people, African-Americans, Hispanics, unmarried women, nearly half the electorate—are in their corner. But will male or married female young people who are outside the elite and not African-American stick with Democrats? Will male and married female Hispanics searching for private sector jobs? It may be the foot soldiers the national elite truly possesses are limited to:

 African-Americans, plus
 Non-African-American unmarried females, plus
 Non-African-American male or married female government workers.

Morality politics good. It costs less.

Washington Post contributor Robert Samuelson has written a column that’s caused me to re-think what’s most important in politics today. He notes both sides in our deeply-divided country practice "the politics of self-esteem." Samuelson believes the two sides strive to make people feel good by affirming their belief in their moral superiority.

We used to think politics mediates conflicting interests and ideas, that winners receive economic benefits and losers don't. After all, in 2010 the federal government will distribute about $2.4 trillion in benefits, with taxes and regulations helping and hurting various groups. But because Democrats want to spend more and raise taxes only on higher earners while Republicans want to reduce taxes but keep spending, we end up with vast budget deficits.

Faced with this dilemma, one discussed earlier in this blog, Samuelson finds politicians prefer framing issues in moral terms. Global warming is about "saving the planet." Both sides of the abortion and gay marriage debates believe they hold the high ground.

Obama pitches his health care plan in moral terms: health care is a "right;” its opponents less moral. Why not use this tactic? On a simple calculus of benefits, Obama’s proposal would have failed. Perhaps 32 million Americans will receive insurance coverage -- about 10% of the population. But for most Americans, the bill imposes costs, including higher taxes, fees, and/or longer waits for service.

Supporters instead back expanded health care as "the right thing"; it makes them feel good about themselves. They get "psychic benefits." Economic benefits make people richer, but cost money. Psychic benefits make them feel morally upright and superior at no monetary cost to politicians! The magic solution.

Today's tendency to turn every contentious issue into a moral confrontation is far more divisive, however, than the old fight over economic spoils. You can boost people's self-esteem by praising them as smart, public-spirited and virtuous. But it’s even easier to portray the "other side" as scum: The more scummy "they" are, the more superior "we" are.

Furthermore, unlike economic benefits, psychic benefits can be dispensed without going through Congress. Mere talk does the trick, though only for a time. Then one has to escalate. The opposition cannot simply be mistaken. It must be evil, selfish, racist, unpatriotic, immoral or just stupid. Stridency from one feeds the other, and political polarization deepens.

Political scientists Morris Fiorina and Samuel Abrams argue in their book Disconnect: the Breakdown of Representation in American Politics that polarization is stronger among elites. About 40% to 50% of Americans classify themselves as "moderates,” while political activists tend to be "very liberal" or "very conservative." Yet it is the political class of activists that determine "how the debate is conducted."

To Samuelson, it’s no wonder politics seems too bare-knuckled for most voters, and no surprise Congress responds to their activist "base" by enacting major programs like health care that lack wide support. Samuelson suspects that as long as our politics caters to people's desire to think well of themselves, it will sacrifice the pragmatic goals that serve us best.

And please don’t look for any near-term turn away from “the politics of self-esteem.” Obama built his 2008 run for the presidency on moral politics. According to Joan Walsh, a self-described “advocacy journalist” writing about New Yorker editor David Remnick's just-published biography The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
Remnick . . . describes a kind of racial force-field that surrounded Obama, with which black supporters and their white allies pushed back at any slight that seemed racial, with the full moral force of the civil rights cause.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

You Really Did See It Here First

Greg Sheridan (no, I don’t know him either, but he sure has his head screwed on right) today writes
Obama has decided to abandon any serious effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. He is determined instead to live with a nuclear Iran, by containment

as you saw here a few days ago.

And then Sheridan adds, exactly as I speculated,
This is the giant story of the past few weeks which the world has largely missed, distracted by the theatre of the absurd of Obama's contrived and mock confrontation with Israel over [new housing] in a Jewish suburb in East Jerusalem. Iran is the only semi-intelligible explanation for Obama's bizarre over-reaction against the Israelis.

Sheridan, an Australian, doesn't deal with the internal reason for Obama's shirking his responsibility to defend Israel against Iran: Democrats simply won't entertain the idea of sanctioning war over a Middle Eastern country's defiance of the international community and U.N. resolutions. For the party now in power, it's too much like Iraq.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Good News on Unemployment

We gained 162,000 jobs in March. While that figure included temporary census counters, we added 123,000 in the non-census-worker-influenced private sector, a very positive sign. The March job gains, coupled with revised figures for earlier months, mean we have increased jobs in three of the last five months.

The unemployment rate remains high at 9.7%, but that’s partly because the improving job situation has encouraged more people to look for employment (the unemployment rate is the share of people looking for work who can’t find it). During the earlier bad months, the unemployment rate was artificially low, because those too discouraged to look for work dropped out of the workforce entirely. Now they are returning.

Unmarried female seeks socialism.

Thomas B. Edsall, political editor of the liberal “Huffington Post”, has written a big “think piece” for the Atlantic about the Democrats’ future. Edsall stresses demographic realities, which conventional wisdom—as noted in this blog—says favors Democrats. Yet while Edsall is optimistic about the out years, he’s somewhat concerned about what’s happening right now to Obama’s agenda.

I was especially interested in what Edsall reported about unmarried women and about socialism.

Democrats have identified (see here) their key supporters as unmarried women, youth under 30, African-Americans, and Hispanics—together 52% of the population and 46% of the 2008 vote. Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg has collectively branded the four groups “the rising American electorate.” Greenberg’s tag is in line with the work of Ruy Teixeira, co-author of The Emerging Democratic Majority.

Unmarried women make up 26% of the voting age population and 21% of the 2008 electorate, a larger bloc than youth (22% voting age and 18% of 2008 voters), African-Americans (11%, 13%), and Hispanics (13%, 9%). Unmarried women overwhelmingly (70%-29%) voted for Obama in 2008; only African-Americans (95%) provided Obama a higher percentage of support. I’ve called Democrats the “Pink Party”—Edsall’s figures bear me out.

Edsall regrets votes Democrats are losing, especially the downscale whites whose ancestors were solid Roosevelt New Deal Democrats. These “have nots” fail to do what Democrats say they should do—vote their economic interests (see What's the Matter with Kansas?). At the same time, Edsall is excited about a future America where by 2016, less than half the electorate will be white Christian, and Democrats will by then truly be in control.

And Edsall’s also excited about America going socialist:
[A Gallup] survey demonstrated that just 36% of Americans view “socialism” positively, and 58% have a negative view—not a particularly surprising finding. Looking [deeper], the survey gets more interesting. By a solid 12%, 53-41, self-identified Democrats view socialism favorably, as do an even larger share of self-identified liberals, 61-34. Among these segments of the electorate, “socialism” is not rejected reflexively, according to Gallup. Decisive majorities of Republicans and conservatives were found to hold negative views of socialism, by respective margins of 79-17 and 75-20. Gallup reported that by better than two to one, white respondents were critical of socialism, 64-31 negative-positive, while non-whites were favorable by a 49-40 margin.

These general findings suggest the possibility that the political strength of voters whose convictions are perhaps best described as Social Democratic in the European sense is reaching a significant level in the United States. With effective organization and mobilization, such voters are positioned to set the agenda in the Democratic Party in the near future.

Wow. For real. Democratic socialism coming to our country soon.

But you already knew that.