Quantum Meruit

As much information as you deserve

Month: August, 2011

‘National Economics Looks Like a Junior High Locker Room’

From The Economist, via Boing Boing, comes an interesting answer to a question that has vexed liberals for a long time, especially in the wake of the Tea Party’s prominence: “Why do lower middle-class and working class Americans support tax breaks for the rich?”

One possible answer appears to be that no one wants to be on the bottom, and the people closest to the bottom are the least likely to give money to people just below them: “One paradoxical consequence of this ‘last-place aversion’ is that some poor people may be vociferously opposed to the kinds of policies that would actually raise their own income a bit but that might also push those who are poorer than them into comparable or higher positions.”

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Like I Was Saying

Drew Westen, writing in The New York Times, has it all right there: pretty much everything I talked about in my earlier post about partisanship and centrism:

The real conundrum is why the president seems so compelled to take both sides of every issue, encouraging voters to project whatever they want on him, and hoping they won’t realize which hand is holding the rabbit. That a large section of the country views him as a socialist while many in his own party are concluding that he does not share their values speaks volumes — but not the volumes his advisers are selling: that if you make both the right and left mad, you must be doing something right.

Whether it’s an aversion to conflict, a misunderstanding of the system, or capitulation to moneyed interests, this guy isn’t doing what he’s supposed to be doing.

I Would Protest Tuition Hikes, But I Can’t Afford It

Back in the ’60s, Berkeley students had few qualms about protesting the Vietnam War. Why aren’t they protesting the nearly 10% increase in their tuition this year (on top of 10% last year)? They can’t protest their high tuition, says Matt Yglesias, quoting a blog called Zunguzungu, because their tuition is too high!

During the time in one’s life when it should be easiest to resist authority because one does not yet have family responsibilities, many young people worry about the cost of bucking authority, losing their job, and being unable to pay an ever-increasing debt.

Now that college is so expensive, students won’t risk being kicked out by protesting. While Yglesias doesn’t completely buy this, he finds it interesting and adds a more-interesting corollary:

This does, however, cast the Tea Party movement in a suggestive light. The United States has moved to making students bear a much higher share of the cost of their education, but remains strongly committing to subsidizing senior citizens’ retirements. At the same time, one of the points of consensus in the fiscal policy debate is that today’s old people should be held harmless in any set of potential entitlement cuts. Is it a coincidence that so much of present-day activist energy is located in the heavily conservative senior cohort and its peculiar brand of nostalgic nationalism?

Young people don’t vote, but old people do. Therefore, the elderly need to be kept happy. Not reducing their social security or Medicare benefits makes them happy. But cuts have to come from somewhere. So make it come from subsidies for higher education, because students might gripe, but they won’t protest (because they can’t afford to lose their expensive education), and they certainly won’t vote.

It’s difficult to say what young people will do in November 2012. 2008 was the first election in a very long time that the winner did not carry the senior citizens’ vote. Barack Obama won largely due to young people. Where are they now? Four years on, a lot of the Obama supporters I know have become disenchanted with their milquetoast president. Faced with the prospect of voting for a Republican Crazyperson or Barack Obama, they might just stay home.

Partisanship May Save Us All

I used to call myself a “centrist.” Then I stopped.

Tom Friedman last week called for “radical centrism,” which is not only an oxymoron but is also exactly what this country doesn’t require. Paul Krugman correctly points out: “The ‘both sides are at fault’ people have to know better; if they refuse to say it, it’s out of some combination of fear and ego, of being unwilling to sacrifice their treasured pose of being above the fray.”

As a former centrist, I can say that the tendency toward centrism comes out of fear. The fear is of adhering to a side that must be defended. A lack of belief in something that merits defending. A moral vagueness that doesn’t understand advocating for a position. A political centrist reasons that he doesn’t want to be labeled a Republican or Democrat because sometimes he thinks Republicans are right, and sometimes he thinks Democrats are right. The centrist believes that adherence to a named party is a prerequisite for participation in political dialogue, and refusing to adhere to that orthodoxy puts him above the fray, effectively meaning that he doesn’t have to defend anything.

The fractious state of political discourse in the United States in 2011 is not due to partisanship. It’s due to unequal partisanship. As the Republican National Committee solidified and became a monolithic organization in which all members fell into lockstep, the Democratic Party became disjointed and more milquetoast. As Fox News became the explicit communications arm of the RNC, the Democratic Party did nothing. As the RNC used its unified communications platforms to promote a unified agenda, the Democratic Party bickered within itself. The Republican agenda condensed inside the minds of enough Americans that, suddenly, positions that would have seemed radical and untenable fifteen years ago — unions are bad, war is great, corporations know what’s good for us — are now normalized, and the formerly “moderate” positions have been pushed to the left.

This is the problem with centrism: the “let’s agree to disagree” stance ignores the occasions when one person is right and one person is wrong. Sometimes, there is no middle ground. The sky is blue, period. Water is wet, period. Intelligent design is not a scientific theory, end of story. The fallacy of false equivalence would like to attribute “two sides to every story,” but there are one-sided stories.

Let’s take the budget as another convenient example. Republicans want deficit decreases, but they also want revenue decreases. When they say they want tax cuts, they necessarily mean, “We want revenue decreases.” Taxes are revenue. Lower taxes, and you lower revenue. Balancing our budget using spending decreases requires balancing the budget on the backs of the poor. The wealthiest Americans see more income, while the poorest see less. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security all get cut. These are not “partisan” propositions. These are not things upon which we can compromise. If John Boehner gets his way, entitlements programs will be cut. Social welfare programs will be cut. Rich people? Not cut. Bolstered, in fact. The people who can most afford a hit will be be hit the least, and the people who can least afford a hit will be hit the most. Tom Friedman is wealthy, so he doesn’t care to inquire more.

Coming out of this, only one party’s plan will succeed, but not because of partisanship. It’s because Republicans refuse to compromise. Their definition of compromise is “Give us everything we want or we’ll drag the country to a screeching halt.” Because someone high up in Democratic Strategy Headquarters misunderstood this, centrism, or at least the lip-service of it, got us where we are right now. President Obama and John Boehner were playing two different games. Obama thought they were playing with Super Soakers, but Boehner was playing with a shotgun. This has been Obama’s problem since his election: he was too centrist. He was too willing to agree to disagree, let bygones be bygones, live and let live, ad nauseum. Republicans didn’t see compromise as a strength; they saw it as a weakness.

It was Jesus Christ, after all, who said that people should turn the other cheek. Then they nailed him to some wood and let him die after three days. I wonder what post-crucifixion Jesus would say about that. It’s all well and good to rely on others’ sense of shame to passively motivate them to do things, but that presupposes that they have a sense of shame. Boehner, et al. have shown that they are completely immune to any sense of shame, or irony, self-respect, hypocrisy, or anything else that might get non-reptiles to do worthwhile things. The Republican Party, on the other hand, has shown that it really couldn’t care less about governance. Its game is wait out the clock. Drive the economy into the tank, and then in November of 2012, complain about how the Obama administration drove the economy into the tank in order to elect some new people.

And this problem won’t be solved by sitting on the sidelines, arms folded in scorn, lamenting how partisanship is destroying us. Partisanship may just save us. It’s not both parties that are trying to hurt America equally. Only one party is trying to give tax cuts to the wealthy, torpedo the social safety net, destroy unions, and use the sorry state of the economy as a sword to get its people into power. When Tom Friedman refuses to acknowledge this, he demonstrates that he lives in a parallel universe (perhaps as research for his new book, The Galaxy Is Flat).

Update: Rich points out that my Christian history is woeful. In my defense, if it’s not Early Modern England or the United States, I don’t know what’s going on.