The Tea Party’s perverse leftist fantasy

The left has spilled pages of ink and innumerable pixels wondering why the middle class votes against its interests, debating the effect of the Democratic Leadership Council, and which candidate would be the best presidential contender in 2016 (one of us is guilty ofsuch indulgences). Lefties have harangued Barack Obama, even suggesting that Richard Nixon was more liberal. By doing this, the left has has succumbed to right-wing ideas about social change – that it comes from great men, rather than collective action.

Throughout history, we can find examples of this mythos. FDR, the liberal hero, was not a Nietzschean overman, he was confined by his circumstances. Economics professor Richard Wolff argues that he could only raise marginal tax rates to 90 percent, create a vast array of make-work programs and push through a universal pension because capitalists were so terrified of a mobilized left.

Similar outside pressures also account for the widespread myth that Nixon was a leftist. As Erik Loomis noted discussing Nixon’s environmental record, “Richard Nixon was however a very shrewd politician operating in the time of the postwar liberal consensus.” That is, no matter how conservative Nixon was, he simply could not veto the bills before him without either being overridden or digging deep into his limited cache of political capital. In the same way, no matter how much Obama may want to pass universal health care or gun regulations, he cannot. The central lie of the DLC was not neoliberalism, but the idea that the presidency mattered. By shifting the focus to an almost sacrosanct view of the presidency, the left has forgotten about movement building to fawn on “progressive heroes.”

Consider the press around Bill de Blasio, the newly elected progressive mayor of New York City. For the most part, it has succumbed to the “great man” narrative, and many New Yorkers wait with baited breath for him to single-handedly obviate income inequality. But de Blasio’s success was not his alone, and his governance will not be either. As Harold Meyerson documents, it was the Working Families Party, which spent decades building a progressive infrastructure in and around the city that de Blasio needed to win and it is WFP defense attorneys, city council members and public advocates that will make his time as Mayor successful.

 

If a Democratic president sits in the Oval Office it may well be due to the tireless efforts of organizations like National Employment Law Project, Demos, Project Vote, Common Cause and others that register voters, build coalitions and sue states just to get them to comply with laws on the books.

The best palliative for this great-man obsession is “The Lego Movie.” In the movie, the “Master Builders,” await a prophesied “special” to destroy Lord Business. When they finally meet the special, Emmet, they find him entirely banal. Eventually, they realize there is no savior, and that they must use their own talents and abilities, contribute what they can to create an emancipatory movement. Such is the debacle of the left. Our hero, long prophesied, has come, and though he is extraordinarily capable, there is simply no way that he can single-handedly end all wars, pass immigration reform, save Social Security, stop the rising oceans and slash rising inequality.

In “The Lego Movie,” the opposition was not only wrong about who would bring change — they were wrong about how change would come about. The Master Builders thought they were going to use their existing institutions and infrastructure. Although they did not use manuals, they still loathed to deviate from the prepared plan. It is Emmet’s insight that the plan is fatally flawed – there is no need for a vanguard party, but rather a mass collective action. His insight is scorned by the council who expected to simply storm Lord Businesses’s offices again, even after Metalbeard’s failed assault. For us as for them, the existing institutions and infrastructures are only part of the equation. Sheldon Adelson votes, like you and me, but he also spent more than the residents of 12 states combined on the 2012 election cycle. In their recent study, Larry Bartels find that the wealthy are not only more engaged in terms of voting, they are also more likely to vote, donate money to campaigns, attend rallies and meet with or call candidates. The left cannot continue storming the Presidency and expecting change.

The right learned the lesson of 1930s and began a mobilization of their own, one which has become so powerful it is almost unseating them from power. The Tea Party is, in nearly every way, a leftist movement. It is based on a perversely egalitarian sentiment, a “makers and takers” narrative, and leftist mobilization. Many may be surprised to learn that the Republican primary candidate who raised the largest percentage of his money from large donors was the most moderate: Jon Huntsman. Like the communists and socialists of the post-depression years, the Tea Party has obliterated the paradigm, pushing change from outside the political system.

“The Lego Movie” is in stark contrast to other “leftist” movies, like “Elysium,” that rely on “great men” to save humanity. “The Lego Movie” is not meant to be communist propaganda, but rather aims to obliterate the “hero narrative” that Joseph Campbell identified in “Hero With a Thousand Faces.” In “The Lego Movie,” Emmet is not “the special.” In fact, the the prophecy predicting such a figure was made up by Emmet’s mentor Vitruvius. But Emmet’s adventure over the course of the film still mirrors the Hero’s Journey narrative laid out by Campbell. However, somewhat contrary to Campbell’s outline, Emmet’s journey doesn’t change him. Instead, his journey changes those around him: his allies the Master Builders and the people of Bricksburg.

Christopher Vogler’s book “The Writers Journey” adapts Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to the craft of writing. In it, he discusses the various kinds of heroes seen in storytelling. Emmet fits into the category of “Catalyst Hero”: “A certain class of Hero is an exception to the rule that the Hero is usually the character who undergoes the most change. These are catalyst Heroes, central figures who may act heroically, but who do not change much themselves because their main function is to bring about transformation in others.” Emmet’s journey teaches the Master Builders and the greater Bricksburg population that everyone is special and should use their personal talents to work together.

In this story, the hero is not unwilling, but impotent; he is not called, but rather stumbles upon his fate; and he does not grow, but rather those around him do. This is a far more realistic description of the reality of Obama’s presidency the salvific narrative that surrounded his election in 2008. His failures remind us that it is not “Great men” who act as a force for social change, but rather great movements. Norberto Bobbio recognized that the central feature of the left was the belief in human equality. As Rousseau said, “the destruction of equality was attended by the most terrible disorders.” In  a brilliant bit, British comedian Robert Newman diagnoses the problem on the left,

When I first started getting involved with Radical-Direct-action-Non-hierarchical-Eco-autonomous-grassroots organisations, I didn’t understand the concept of no leaders. I thought I did; but I didn’t. And I’d go upto the nearest alpha male or alpha female and say, “Here’s what you should do – Why don’t you do this – It’d be great if you all did this – And when are you going to do this?” And they’d give you this look, that I never understood…

What this look meant was, “Yes, good Idea, why don’t you do it yourself? You print the leaflets, I’ll distribute them; you call a meeting, I’ll attend; you organize an action, we’ll come along”.

And from that moment, I realized that, my whole philosophical outlook changed. And from then on, instead of suggesting things other people could do, I stopped suggesting things altogether, in case they expected me to do them…

Such a problem won’t be found in “The Lego Movie,” where characters are exhorted to “start building” with whatever they have on hand. The left needs more middle class donors, giving not just to political campaigns, but unions and think-tanks. The left needs more writers, artists, policy analysts, historians and scientists. The truth, the one that no pundit will ever write publicly, is that it doesn’t matter whether the Democratic nominee is Warren or Clinton, what matters is whether there is a mobilized worker’s movement, student demonstrations and new and refreshed leftist thinking. McGovern didn’t end Vietnam; hippies did. We, the people, did.

Can We Make Environmentalism a Centrist Issue?

For decades, thinkers on the left have wondered why the working class regularly votes against its own interests, upending what Marx believed would be an inevitable march from democracy to socialism. In his book,What’s the Matter with Kansas?Thomas Frank argued that social issues obscure economic motives, and indeed the most salient non-economic one has always been race, at least in this country. In America, conservative politicians have exploited racism to their own benefit, first to disempower blacks with Jim Crow, then to undermine the union movement, and more recently to undercut support for welfare programs, as Ian Haney Lopez recently documented in Dog-Whistle Politics. Nixon’s “law and order campaign” played on racial fears, as did Reagan’s denunciation of “welfare queens.” Republicans played at race to win solid majorities for decades while actively working against the interests of the majority of Americans. The left has much to learn about this strategy. It needs to fundamentally re-align Americans around an issue with a deep and latent importance: the environment.

When asked about the most important global issue, 25 percent of Americans cite environmental degradation, while only 10 percent cite the economy. “Everyone studying American politics has been waiting for a new realignment because the last few decades have been marked by political apathy and the rise of a new voting bloc that is not strongly tied to either party,” says Dr. Benjamin Radcliff, professor of politics at Notre Dame and author of The Political Economy of Human Happiness: How Voters’ Choices Determine the Quality of Life. “What is needed is some spark, either an event, like the Great Depression—or just a party capable of mobilizing this latent potential.”

Hedge-fund manager and environmentalist Tom Steyer’s recent pledge to pour $100 million into 2014 races could certainly create the political infrastructure to allow the left to capitalize politically on the next oil spill. A potent path forward is for the left to appeal to independent voters concerned about the environment. By adopting a moderate framing and language that appeals to both centrist thought leaders and disenchanted Republican moderates and independents, the environment could become to the left what race has been to the right.

Dr. John Roemer, a professor of political science and economics at Yale, wrote in a 2005 paper with Woojin Lee and Karine van der Straeten that “the Left might attempt to exploit global warming the way the Right has exploited racism.” He says that the issue is even more salient today, although the right is currently in a state of “cognitive dissonance” because of their anti-government ideology. His own upcoming book, Sustainability for a Warming Planet, uses terms like “intergenerational equity” and “sustainability” that are commonly used by centrists like David Brooks and Joe Scarboroughwho worry that the federal debt is unfair to future generations and on an unsustainable course. Such leaders thrive on issues like the federal debt and sustainability, a leftist concept that is intellectually harmonious with stewardship, a right-wing one. By using the language of responsibility and intergenerational equity, as well as homespun wisdom about “living within our means,” the left could create a broad umbrella coalition encompassing concerned centrists. Internationally, moderate right-wing parties have successfully co-opted the environment from the left; Angela Merkel famously won re-election in part by promising to phase out nuclear energy. In Britain and France, conservative politicians have been at the forefront of initiatives to adopt alternative measures of sustainable progress. France’s conservative Nicholas Sarkozy created the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance to identify ways to move beyond GDP as the measure of economic progress. In Britain, conservative Prime Minster David Cameron also pursued a measure of happiness and well-being.

Both Roemer and Radcliff note that a key detriment to progress is the right’s fixation on eliminating government. “There’s simply no way to reduce emissions without some bureaucracy,” Roemer says. “You can’t fight global warming without government intervention.”

In America, some left-wing candidates have won in heavily right-wing parts of the country by using conservationist rhetoric. Bernie Sanders won his Senate seat in Vermont—a rural, white state that holds the record for longest-consecutive streak voting Republican in presidential elections—by, according to David Sirota, “visiting hunting lodges to talk about protecting natural resources for hunting and fishing and establishing a connection with [hunters].” In Montana, a state that has voted Republican in all but one of the last ten presidential elections, Governor Brian Schweitzer won twice (the second time in a landslide) partially by wooing hunters and fisherman with land and stream access. In Wyoming, the most conservative state in the country, Governor David Freudenthal’s administration focused on a long-term strategy for resource extraction that included, among other things, preserving the state’s forests and regulating hydraulic fracking. The result: a re-election margin of 20 percent and a reputation as one of the most popular governors in the country with 66 percent approval among Republicans.

In hindsight, the potency of the environmentalist message should not be surprising. Religious traditions have always stressed the importance of living in harmony with the environment, and the very idea behind conservatism is not radically re-inventing the world in which one lives, lest unintended consequences ensue. Data from the Pew Research Center show that the environment used to be a non-partisan issue, and only recently became politicized. In her 2013 paper “A Cooling Climate for Change? Party Polarization and the Politics of Global Warming,” Deborah Guber, a professor at University of Vermont, finds, “partisan conflicts are not inherent in the subject of climate change” but rather, that “party polarization among elites has now trickled down to the masses.” She cites thefamous memo by Republican political distorter extraordinaire Frank Lutz, in which Republican politicians were encouraged to “continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.”

The Pew data cited above show that swing voters lean toward Democrats on environmental issues. Rasmussen polling finds that voters overwhelming favor the Democratic position on the environment (51 percent to 34 percent). That leaves a lot of voters open for a sustainability-minded lefty, particularly in states where big businesses threaten land that was once preserved for hunters or fracking threatens water supplies.

According to Dr. Robert Bartlett, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Vermont, the problem has been framing. “Environmentalists tend to frame the issue in terms of harm and justice, while conservatives respond to in-group loyalty, sanctity, respect and stewardship.” Aaron Sparks, a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Barbara who is studying the issue with Phillip Ehret, finds that about 20 to 30 percent of strong conservatives hold pro-environment attitudes (meaning they are willing to sacrifice economic growth to protect the environment). But Democrats must be “smart about how they frame their appeal,” Sparks says. “Conservatives can be persuaded to accept the environmental argument if is pitched in a way that is consistent with their morality, which tends to emphasize the sacredness of nature and a focus on local, community-building issues.”

But a 2012 study finds that climate campaigns overwhelming continue to frame the issue as harm and care, fairness and oppression of marginalized groups. These liberal values don’t resonate with conservatives. Environmentalists might take a page from E.F. Schumacher’s book, Small is Beautiful:

Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he won the battle, he would find himself on the losing side. Until quite recently, the battle seemed to go well enough to give him the illusion of unlimited powers, but not so well as to bring the possibility of total victory into view. This has now come into view, and many people, albeit only a minority, are beginning to realize what this means for the continued existence of humanity.

Six Ways America Is Like a Third-World Country

Although the U.S. is one of the richest societies in history, it still lags behind other developed nations in many important indicators of human development – key factors like how we educate our children, how we treat our prisoners, how we take care of the sick and more. In some instances, the U.S.’s performance is downright abysmal, far below foreign countries that are snidely looked-down-upon as “third world.” Here are six of the most egregious examples that show how far we still have to go:

1. Criminal Justice

We all know the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed, but few are likely aware of just how bad it is compared to the rest of the world. The International Center for Prison Studies estimates that America imprisons 716 people per 100,000 citizens (of any age). That’s significantly worse than Russia (484 prisoners per 100,000 citizens), China (121) and Iran (284). The only country that incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than we do is North Korea. The U.S. is also the only developed country that executes prisoners – and our death penalty has a serious race problem: 42 percent of those on death row are black, compared to less than 15 percent of the overall population.

Over two and a half million American children have a parent behind bars. A whopping 60 percent of those incarcerated in U.S. prisons are non-violent offenders, many of them in prison for drug charges (overwhelmingly African-Americans). Even while our crime rate has fallen, our incarcerated population has climbed. As of 2011, an estimated 217,000 American prisoners were raped each year ­– that’s 600 new victims every day, a truly horrifying number. In 2010, the Department of Justice released a report about abuse in juvenile detention centers. The report found that 12.1 percent of all youth held in juvenile detention reported sexual violence; youth held for between seven and 12 months had a victimization rate of 14.2 percent.

2. Gun Violence

The U.S. leads the developed world in firearm-related murders, and the difference isn’t a slight gap – more like a chasm. According to United Nations data, the U.S. has 20 times more murders than the developed world average. Our murder rate also dwarfs many developing nations, like Iraq, which has a murder rate less than half ours. More than half of the most deadly mass shootings documented in the past 50 years around the world occurred in the United States, and 73 percent of the killers in the U.S. obtained their weapons legally. Another study finds that the U.S. has one of the highest proportion of suicides committed with a gun. Gun violence varies across the U.S., but some cities like New Orleans and Detroit rival the most violent Latin American countries, where gun violence is highest in the world.

3. Healthcare

A study last year found that in many American counties, especially in the deep South, life expectancy is lower than in Algeria, Nicaragua or Bangladesh. The U.S. is the only developed country that does not guarantee health care to its citizens; even after the Affordable Care Act, millions of poor Americans will remain uninsured because governors, mainly Republicans, have refused to expand Medicaid, which provides health insurance for low-income Americans. Although the federal government will pay for the expansion, many governors cited cost, even though the expansion would actually save money. America is unique among developed countries in that tens of thousands of poor Americans die because they lack health insurance, even while we spend more than twice as much of our GDP on healthcare than the average for the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a collection of rich world countries. The U.S. has an infant mortality rate that dwarfs comparable nations, as well as the highest teenage-pregnancy rate in the developed world, largely because of the politically-motivated unavailability of contraception in many areas.

4. Education

The U.S. is among only three nations in the world that does not guarantee paid maternal leave (the other two are Papua New Guinea and Swaziland). This means many poor American mothers must choose between raising their children and keeping their jobs. The U.S. education system is plagued with structural racial biases, like the fact that schools are funded at the local, rather than national level. That means that schools attended by poor black people get far less funding than the schools attended by wealthier students. The Department of Education has confirmed that schools with high concentrations of poor students have lower levels of funding. It’s no wonder America has one of the highest achievement gaps between high income and low income students, as measured by the OECD. Schools today are actually more racially segregated than they were in the 1970s. Our higher education system is unique among developed nations in that is funded almost entirely privately, by debt. Students in the average OECD country can expect about 70 percent of their college tuition to be publicly funded; in the United States, only about 40 percent of the cost of education is publicly-funded. That’s one reason the U.S. has the highest tuition costs of any OECD country.

5. Inequality

By almost every measure, the U.S. tops out OECD countries in terms of income inequality, largely because America has the stingiest welfare state of any developed country. This inequality has deep and profound effects on American society. For instance, although the U.S. justifies its rampant inequality on the premise of upward mobility, many parts of the United States have abysmal levels of social mobility, where children born in the poorest quintile have a less than 3 percent chance of reaching the top quintile. Inequality harms our democracy, because the wealthy exert an outsized political influence. Sheldon Adelson, for instance, spent more to influence the 2012 election than the residents of 12 states combined. Inequality also tears at the social fabric, with a large body of research showing that inequality correlates with low levels of social trust. In their book The Spirit Level, Richard Pickett and Kate Wilkinson show that a wide variety of social indicators, including health and well-being are intimately tied to inequality.

6. Infrastructure

The United States infrastructure is slowly crumbling apart and is in desperate need for repair. One study estimates that our infrastructure system needs a $3.6 trillion investment over the next six years. In New York City, the development of Second Avenue subway line was first delayed by the outbreak of World War II; it’s still not finished. In South Dakota, Alaska and Pennsylvania, water is still transported via century-old wooden pipes. Some 45 percent of Americans lack access to public transit. Large portions of U.S. wastewater capacity are more than half a century old and in Detroit, some of the sewer lines date back to the mid-19th century. One in nine U.S. bridges (or 66,405 bridges) are considered “structurally deficient,” according to the National Bridge Inventory. All of this means that the U.S. has fallen rapidly in international rankings of infrastructure.

America is a great country, and it does many things well. But it has vast blind spots. The fact that nearly 6 million Americans, or 2.5 percent of the voting-age population, cannot vote because they have a felony on record means that politicians can lock up more and more citizens without fear of losing their seat. Our ideas of meritocracy and upward mobility blind us to the realities of class and inequality. Our healthcare system provides good care to some, but it comes at a cost – millions of people without health insurance. If we don’t critically examine these flaws, how can we ever hope to progress as a society?

Natural Gas Will Not Save the U.S. Economy

Co-Written with Lew Daly

Economist Kenneth Boulding famously said, “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” But it’s not just economists who believe that anymore. Such ideas are still widely accepted by thought leaders, journalists, and politicians who, together, form a strong consensus that the U.S. recovery should be bolstered by natural gas exploration and production. The McKinsey Global Institute claims in a recent report that a natural gas boom is one of the most important “game changer” ideas for U.S. economic growth, while The Economist writes, “Become a champion of a global fracking revolution, Mr. Obama, and the world could look on America very differently.” And in his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said “I’ll cut red tape” for factories that use natural gas, and that “Congress can help by putting people to work building fueling stations that shift more cars and trucks from foreign oil to American natural gas.”

But the belief that natural gas can be a “bridge fuel,” allowing us to grow rapidly in the age of global warming, is fit for a madman.

The current consensus is that if global temperatures rise more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the consequences would be catastrophic (the Arctic melt would raise sea levels by tens of meters). So scientists have proposed a “carbon budget”: the total amount of carbon dioxide that can be released into the atmosphere without raising temperatures by 2 degrees. Using a conservative carbon budget of 450 parts per million—which has been endorsed by the International Energy Agency and Britain’s Stern Review—economists Humberto Llavador, John Roemer, and Joaquim Silvestre have thrown cold water on the idea that natural gas is our nation’s economic savior. In a forthcoming paper, they argue that given that budget, the world’s two largest CO2 emitters, the U.S. and China, must keep GDP growth within the threshold of 1 percent and 2.8 percent of GDP per year, respectively, for the next 75 years.

These results may sound surprising, but they are in line with a growing body of research on stranded carbon assets, which are assets such as fossil fuels (oil, coal and natural gas) that will lose their value well before they’re expected to. This can happen as a result of, say, market disruption (rapid advances in green technology like wind and solar polar or divestment) or government regulation (a carbon tax or stricter fuel economy standards). That latter is more likely because, even now, we have found way more fossil fuels than we could possibly burn without inviting long-term environmental disaster.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s carbon-budget model, widely considered the most reliable, puts the budget for 2012-2100 at between 886 and 1119 gigatons of CO2. Total known fossil fuel reserves in the world, if burned, would add 2860 gigatons of CO2 to the atmosphere. Thus, simple math indicates that almost two-thirds of all known fossil fuel reserves must remain unburned if global temperatures are to remain habitable. And these are optimistic estimates. James Hansen of the Columbia Earth Institute and other leading scientists and economists argue that all extraction of coal and other unconventional fossil fuels, like the Canadian Tar Sands, must cease immediately and the extraction of conventional fossil fuels, like oil and natural gas, must be significantly pared down.

Projects like the Keystone XL pipeline and other attempts to revive the U.S. economy based on fossil-fuel extraction are the equivalent of running up billions in debt and then running off to borrow more. The international community is already blowing through its carbon budget; the IPCC predicts that given “business as usual,” we’ll burn 1,000 gigatons of CO2 between 2012 and 2033, depleting the more conservative budget entirely and nearing the upper bound. We’ve already seen the consequences of temperatures growing by less than one degree Celsius, yet we’re on track to see themrise by more than six degrees by 2100. Our current trajectory tempts ecological and economic collapse, and yet, many are arguing that we accelerate the process.

Part of the problem is that our measure of growth, GDP, does not take into account the costs or sustainability of growth. One billion dollars of growth in the production of solar energy is not the same as $1 billion produced by coal in terms of ecological harm and sustainability, but GDP counts them equally. Instead we should measure progress using more extensive metrics like the Genuine Progress Indicator, which factors the impact of greenhouse gas emissions into its calculations. Further, we should institute a carbon tax, preferably an international one. Some companies currently price carbon internally—meaning that they put a price on the carbon produced by their projects, and subtract that from any expected returns—but do so at widely varying rates. A Carbon Disclosure Project study finds that nine of the largest energy companies in the United States internally price carbon dioxide emissions, at a cost ranging from $15 per ton (Devon) to $60 per ton (ExxonMobil). Governments should consider the social and environmental cost of carbon dioxide when they are making infrastructure and research investments, regulating extractive industries like fracking and offering tax incentives. Against the EPA’s recommendation, the State Department decided not to consider the social cost of carbon in its analysis of the Keystone pipeline.

The State Department also didn’t consider the very likely possibility that the pipeline will become a stranded asset. We can only hope it will—because that would mean we’ve finally learned that if we don’t live within our carbon budget, the long-term ecological and economic harm caused by our relentless extraction and burning of fossil fuels will obviate any short-term benefits to the economy. If we build our recovery on natural resources that need to remain underground to keep global temperatures stable, then we’ll be like the foolish builder in the Gospel of Matthew “who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

Do Conservatives have a philosophy? Do Liberals?

Jonathan Chait is great.

When he’s not writing on the Keystone XL pipeline he’s generally pretty solid; I imagine we have deep disagreements, but presently, with a Republican party largely off the hinges, he’s writing on stuff I agree with. One qualm I stumbled upon:

And not because conservatives are necessarily more stubborn. (Indeed, on an individual level, liberals may well be just as stubborn as conservatives.) Rather, conservatism, unlike liberalism, overlays a deeper set of philosophical principles.Conservatives believe that big government impinges upon freedom. They may also believe that big government imposes large costs on the economy. But, for a true conservative, whatever ends they think smaller government may bring about–greater prosperity, economic mobility for the non-rich–are almost beside the point. As Milton Friedman wrote, “[F]reedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself.”

As far as I can tell, this is total bunk. For one, I’ve met a lot of liberals and all of their political decisions are formed by deeply philosophical principles. Chait essentially contradicts himself in his next paragraph:

We’re accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people’s lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

Now, liberals do have an underlying set of philosophical principles, i.e. utilitarianism. Conservatives, in Chait’s telling are more concerned with ideology i.e. government is always bad. In this paragraph it is the liberals with the deep philosophical claims, while the conservatives are simply reactionary. I would argue that, in fact, conservatives are likely right that a material improvement in someone’s life should not be the end-all, be-all of politics, because millenia of existing as human beings confirm that far more important to well-being are family, community, a sense of purpose and fulfilling work.

There was a time when conservative philosophy was represented in Republican policies, and not a reactionary conservatism, a conservatism that was logically coherent and powerfully persuasive, one that made you think (read: Michael Oakeshott or Leo Strauss or Carl Schmitt and, if I’m being gracious, Chesterton – though never Lewis). Now, that tradition is in shambles, mainly because the Republican party is no longer informed by a coherent set of underlying principles. That’s why Jon Stewart can satirize them so successfully, they are entirely nihilist. Chait recognizes this, in his newest piece on the EITC when he talks about a proposal that is once accepted by Republicans is immediately denounced when their opponents cite it. This is not philosophy, it is, ultimately, nihilism.

I grant that in politics, the lines of your philosophy are blurred. But you can still get a general reading. The humor that Stewart creates is in showing that all of the modern Republican party’s pretensions toward traditions and such are empty – their goal is to forward the plutocratic agenda, it is pure class politics. Chait believes Republicans want small government for no reason. What? No one just hates government out of nowhere; Republicans have a reason for it – primarily, helping those who benefit from smaller government (i.e. richie riches). I don’t know inside their hearts, but I’m guessing this because when big government helps wealthy donors (farm subsidies) the party has trouble getting rid of it. There are libertarians as well, their political program is also informed by philosophical principles – different from my own, but philosophical nonetheless.

I wish there were more people like Andrew Sullivan who really wrestled with their traditions to come up with a realistic conservative political program. When that happens, we could say that the right was infused with political philosophy. As it is, it’s just naked class interests (which is why Sullivan has distanced himself from the Republican party). Liberals, as far as I can tell, have a better, if not incomplete political philosophy, rather than a reactionary program of class interest.

The “donor class” and the minimum wage

When the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) recently released a new report estimating the effects of a higher minimum wage, conservatives pounced on the possibility that a minimum wage hike to $10.10 would cost about 500,000 jobs. But much like their reaction to the recent report about the Affordable Care Act, they are jumping to conclusions far too quickly.

First, there are reasons to be skeptical about the negative employment effect. Many studies find no negative employment effects. A recent report by Demos finds that by stimulating economic growth, a minimum wage could in fact create jobs. After all, a worker for one company is a customer for another. Minimum wage workers struggling to make ends meet are more likely to spend, reviving local economies. This is the argument forwarded by billionaire investment banker Nick Hanauer and economists like Joseph Stiglitz. It has strong theoretical support, as well as empirical support; studies show that poor workers are more likely to spend marginal income than wealthy workers.

Part of the problem is that the CBO relies heavily on simulations, rather than the empirical (observed) effects of the minimum wage. Textbook economics would predict job losses; if you make a good (labor) more costly, you reduce demand for it. But the world doesn’t work like a textbook. Workers being paid more may work harder (economists call this an “efficiency wage”). Workers struggling to make ends meet may not be paid in accordance with their ability, because they can’t credibly threaten to leave their job or unionize (they will simply be fired and replaced). The most famous study on the issue, by David Card and Alan Krueger finds that, “Contrary to the central prediction of the textbook model of the minimum wage … we find no evidence that the rise in New Jersey’s minimum wage reduced employment at fast-food restaurants in the state.” More recently, these findings were replicated empirically by Arindrajit Dube, T. William Lester and Michael Reich.

Looking internationally will not help Republicans. Even the right-leaning Economist magazine has argued that a minimum wage hike in Britain, “has done little or no harm” and instead, “Not only has it pushed up pay for the bottom 5% of workers, but it also seems to have boosted earnings further up the income scale—and thus reduced wage inequality.” The U.S. minimum wage pales in comparison to other developed countries; Australia’s is more than double our own. Historically, too, the current minimum wage is anomalous. Adjusted for inflation, it is far lower than the $10.77 a worker would be making in 1968.

But even if some minor job losses materialize, raising the minimum wage is still good policy. The data show that 55% of the people making a minimum wage work full-time and their the average age is 35. Many of these workers are struggling under student debt, or the costs of raising children. These are not simply college students working on the side; for many people these jobs are the only source of vital income. For these poor workers, a $3 raise may be the difference between a Thanksgiving Turkey and empty stomachs.

The minimum wage has potent implications for our national discussion of inequality and upward mobility. Republicans have been paying lip service to the idea of reducing inequality and increasing upward mobility, but so far policy proposals have been sparse. The minimum wage is a perfect solution. It requires little government spending and is unlikely to have any significant effect on the deficit. It certainly doesn’t violate the “no new taxes” pledge. So a minimum wage hike would be the perfect conservative solution to inequality: targeted at working people (rather than the unemployed), minimal bureaucracy and no new revenue for the government. And studies show it would work. Larry Mishel of the Economic Policy Institute finds that the declining value of the minimum wage has been a major driver of increased inequality. Citing the work of David Autor, he finds that more than half of the growing divide between workers at the median and workers at the lowest 10% of the income distribution can be explained by a declining minimum wage.

The CBO isn’t interested in adjudicating studies, but rather creating a consensus, and it generally errs on the side of conservatism. While the effects of the minimum wage on the job market is mixed and uncertain, the effect on upward mobility is not. The CBO estimates that in total, “overall real income would rise by $1 billion” and that a $10.10 minimum wage could lift 900,000 people out of poverty. The report estimates that those making less than $26,300 a year will their real family income increase by $300 dollars, and those making less than $51,400 would see it rise by $200. All told, more than 16 million workers will be positively affected. For many, that might enough to fix a broken dishwasher or afford Christmas presents. However, one group would be negatively affected: those earning more than $182,200, who would see their real family income drop by $700. Given that this classis the most likely to vote and donate money to Republicans, it’s unsurprising that the part will be slow to embrace raising the minimum wage. Business groups like the Chamber of Commerce have spent millions aiming to keep the minimum wage low.

Republican opposition indicates just how much the party has been co-opted by the interests of the donor class. While a large plurality of economists and more than 73% of citizens support raising the minimum wage, research by Larry Bartels finds that only 40% of the wealthiest Americans do. When combined with research by Martin Gilens and Kay Lehman Schlozman showing how the wealthiest Americans have a disparate voice in public policy affairs we begin to see why the minimum wage has yet to gain traction: class interests, not economics are driving the debate.

If Republicans are serious about reducing inequality and increasing upward mobility without increasing deficits and killing jobs, the minimum wage is the way to go. Sadly, they have been co-opted by a donor class less interested in good policy than their own economic interests.

Creationists can’t be scientists

Creationism is back in the news, following the Ken Ham/Bill Nye debate and the recently released HBO documentary, “Questioning Darwin.” Many writers, including myself, have argued that creationism is neither religion nor science, but rather a thinly veiled political doctrine. In contrast, William Saletan sees creationism as “harmless” because scientists who espouse it can “compartmentalize” their beliefs. He recognizes its absurdity, but writes that, “You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life.” But creationism is part of the larger crusade within the religious right to make “biblical literalism” Christian doctrine and federal law. To espouse it is to preclude practicing science.

Saletan believes that a distinction between historical science and modern science is what exculpates the creationist:

The core of Ham’s worldview, which Nye attacked again and again, is a distinction between “origins or historical science” (the fictional stuff) and “experimental or observational science” (the real stuff). “Bill and I all have the same observational science,” said Ham. He spoke with perfectly modern delight about satellites, mobile phones, and vaccines.

But this distinction actually obfuscates the deeply political motives of the creation movement, expressed by Ham here:

As the creation foundation is removed, we see the Godly institutions also start to collapse. On the other hand, as the evolution foundation remains firm, the structures built on that foundation — lawlessness, homosexuality, abortion, etc — logically increase. We must understand this connection.

This statement shows the operative premise of the young-earth creationist, and from where such creationists draw their power: a literal interpretation of the Bible. Augustine warned of these charlatans, writing of men who, “try to defend their rash and obviously untrue statements by quoting a shower of words from Scripture and even recite from memory passages which they think will support their case.” While Saletan thinks that creationism can be largely “compartmentalized” and that a young-earth creationist can still happily vaccinate his or her children, I am far more fearful than he that such an approach to science could easily bleed into the realm of something like vaccines or climate change (as it already has). Ken Ham argues in “Questioning Darwin” that to accept evolution is to abandon absolutes, which will bring a host of sins upon the world, (one wonders how war, rape and murder existed before Darwin).

What should make us terrified of the creationist movement is this political mobilization. The movement is deeply intertwined with right-wing fundamentalism. Among the terrors Ham worries about are abortion and gay marriage.  Across the country creationism has tried toforce itself into science curriculums, with political maneuvering and outright lies. But Saletan glosses over this concern, mentioning only briefly that seeing creationism as harmless “doesn’t mean we should teach creationism in schools or pretend it’s a scientific theory.” I agree we shouldn’t, but the creationist movement is trying to do exactly that.

To believe that someone whose starting premise is profoundly unscientific will practice good science could well be dangerous. Saletan argues that,

From the standpoint of scientific literacy, it’s galling to listen to absurdities about the distant past. But what matters in daily life isn’t whether you believe humans and apes evolved from a common ancestor. What matters is whether you’ll agree not to use antibiotics for your kid’s sinus infection after your doctor explains how germs, under the selective pressure of these drugs, evolve resistance.

But modern biology is based on evolution. Modern astronomy requires a scientist to understand that the universe is far more than 6,000 years old. In order to make creationism work, Ham has to deny radiometric dating. Paleontology is functionally impossible if you accept the disaster-based explanations that creationists offer. The fields of linguistics and psychology are intimately tied to evolution, as is the field of neuroscience.

“Questioning Darwin” makes clear the distinction between those, like Pastor Peter LaRuffa, who states, “If somewhere within the Bible I were to find a passage that said 2+2 =5, I wouldn’t question what I’m reading in the Bible, I would believe it, accept it as true and then do my best to work it out and understand it” and Darwin, who says, “I have steadily endeavored to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.” One is the mindset of free inquiry, the other of dogmatic quackery. Science requires ambiguity. A scientist must weigh competing claims and she must understand complex systems. Creationism rejects all of this. In one telling quote, Angel Dague says, “I can’t even fathom coming from this little thing that crawled on the ground to apes, to being human, it just doesn’t, it sounds crazy to me.”

Consider the story of Kurt Wise, a brilliant student of geology (he studied under the eminent Stephen Jay Gould). Wise writes that in high school he dreamed of a Ph.D from Harvard.  He studied evolution intently but struggled to reconcile it with his literal reading of the Bible. Eventually he went through the entire Bible and cut out every verse that he felt could not be true if evolution were true. He concluded,

With the cover of the Bible taken off, I attempted to physically lift the Bible from the bed between two fingers. Yet, try as I might, and even with the benefit of intact margins throughout the pages of Scripture, I found it impossible to pick up the Bible without it being rent in two. I had to make a decision between evolution and Scripture… With that, in great sorrow, I tossed into the fire all my dreams and hopes in science.

That is not someone who has compartmentalized his creationism. It is someone for whom creationism is the overarching lens through which he sees the world. Given how much one must give up to be a creationist (legitimacy, honors, awards, respect), could holding onto these beliefs really be a small detail for scientists? I suspect very much the opposite. Saletan concludes that while “Nye portrayed creationism as a cancer” which threatens scientific institutions, in fact, “It doesn’t. You can be a perfectly good satellite engineer while believing total nonsense about the origins of life… Just don’t let it mess with your day job.” Given that creationists like Wise have agonizingly determined that this is not true, I think we should take them at their word. At the end of “Questioning Darwin,” the narrator says, “Darwin himself never stopped asking questions about his science and about God.” Creationists have, and that is why they cannot be scientists.

Are the Republicans serious about mobility?

The GOP’s response to widening inequality has long been similar to Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt: “The sooner a man learns he isn’t going to be coddled, and he needn’t expect a lot of free grub and, uh, all these free classes and flipflop and doodads for his kids unless he earns ‘em, why, the sooner he’ll get on the job and produce—produce—produce!” But between the fallout over Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” remark and a resurgence of progressive populism, Republicans realize they need a new, softer approach. It appears they’ve finally found one.

Paul Ryan recently appeared at the Brookings Institute’s “Social Mobility Summit” to announce, “We’re losing not only mobility, we understand that, but whole generations of Americans don’t know what this is.” Eric Cantor told Bloomberg, ”All of us want to grow the economy … that means more jobs, upward mobility.” Mike Leewarned last year of an “opportunity crisis.” Cathy McMorris Rodgers’s response to the State of the Union included the line, “The president talks a lot about income inequality. But the real gap we face today is one of opportunity inequality…” And in a speech on the anniversary of LBJ’s “War on Poverty” address, Marco Rubio said that “it is this lack of mobility, not just income inequality, that we should be focused on.

“Mobility” is the party’s new mantra—but it’s based on a familiar delusion.

Mobility in many parts of America is abysmal. In some cities, children born in the poorest quintile have a less than 3 percent chance of reaching the top quintile. Across the country, a child born in the poorest quintile has a 60 percent chance of staying in the bottom two quintiles.

It’s a two-part problem. First, there is opportunity hoarding at the top, wherein the wealthy invest heavily in their children’s education and job prospects, while also passing their wealth on to their children. Then there is stagnation at the bottom, caused largely by reverse trends, economic and racial segregation, awful schools, and poor parents without much money to invest in children.

Why does the “land of opportunity” have such low mobility? Laissez-faire economic policies—massive tax breaks, untrammeled free markets, unregulated free trade, deep cuts to the safety net—have widened the income gap. While Republicans have tried tosever the link between mobility and inequality, research shows that the two issues areintimately connected: Societies and communities with high inequality have low levels of upward mobility. Josh Bivens of the Economic Policy Institute estimates that had income growth risen proportionally between 1979 and 2007, the median incomewould be $19,000 higher.

Republican pundits have their own theories on these problems, of course. They like to point to the disintegrating family and other social factors, even though a large swath of research suggests this is to mistake an effect for its cause. As for solutions, Ari Fleischer has argued for more (straight) marriage, Ross Douthat prefers chastising single mothers, Charles Murray wants the poor to emulate the values of the rich, and David Brooks wants… well, it’s not clear exactly. None of these proposals are serious about the problem, because being serious about the problem will require doing the one thing that Republicans hate: government spending.

Several Republican politicians have put forward specific policy proposals. Rubio’sbig idea, supported by Ryan, is to make the Earned Income Tax Credit (a tax break for low income workers) a monthly, rather than yearly, program. With the median income of American households $19,000 dollars below what it should be, students struggling under piles of debt, and millions trying to pay off underwater mortgages, such a plan, while welcome, is wholly inadequate. Lee and Rubio have both proposed modifying the EITC for married couples, to eliminate the “marriage tax” (whereby two single people who become married become ineligible for the program or take a benefit cut). However, if they increase the benefit, they’ll have to increase deficits. The only other option is to reduce the EITC for single mothers.

Rubio’s other idea (again supported by Ryan) is revenue-neutral block grants to the states, which means that states would have more leeway in how to spend the funds. “Revenue-neutral” is the key phrase here; if you’re not increasing spending, you’re just shifting around authority at best and sneaking in cuts at worst.

This is the catch-22 the Republicans are facing: The only way to increase upward mobility is more government spending. Schools need more money, unemployed workers need extended benefits, poor mothers need daycare, kids need Pre-K. The best way to be upwardly mobile is to get a job, which is a lot harder to do when Republicans are still criticizing the 2009 stimulus that created millions of jobs. It’s easier to move up if you have health care, but Republicans are cutting Medicaid. Paul Ryan wants to talk education, but Republican governors across the country are cutting education budgets to fund tax cuts.

Ryan argues that the real thing hurting the poor is big government: “Government is a very powerful tool. Too powerful, you might say. Just as it can build and encourage, it can frustrate and deter.” The actual data show that higher government expenditures increase upward mobility. That’s why countries like Denmark have much higher levels of mobility. We find the same correlation at the local level within the U.S.: Higher government spending leads to more mobility.

 

It is no surprise that the period with the most equal growth and upward mobility was the post-war era, when marginal income taxes on the wealthy topped 90 percent, the government invested heavily in infrastructure and education, and the social safety net was being strengthened, not vitiated. Today, booming countries like China and India are discovering that the government must bolster their middle class with a pension and safety net.

In his book, Social Democratic AmericaLane Kenworthy argues that social democracy—a fully-developed, European-style welfare state—will require the U.S. government to increase revenues by 10 percent of the national GDP, and he proposes a series of tax boosts to get us there. But most Republicans have signed a no-tax pledge, so social democracy is out of the question. If we can’t spend more on poverty, the only other method is lowering taxes on the poor (who, according to Republicans, already pay toolittle in taxes).

Republicans want a strong, upwardly mobile middle class and a weak government, but the two cannot coexist. Instead, Republicans will have to choose between social mobility and low deficits. Given the party’s obsession with cutting government spending, “mobility” will remain a hollow mantra, nothing more.

Live-blogging a response to my Marx piece

I’ve been tweeted this video more than a few times, so I figured I’d use this President’s day to put down some thoughts (I wrote this up on Monday, just got around to publishing it).

1:00 – Sean doesn’t define capitalism

It’s a 1,000 word piece, I can’t define everything.

1:21 – Molyneux defines capitalism as “respect for private property” and the “non-initiation of force.”

These are contradictory. There is no way to enforce property rights without violence (i.e. the state).

2:14 – Communism when implemented resulted in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people

I’m defending some of Marx’s predictions, not Stalinism or Leninism. Marx and Engels, of course, believed that democracy, not totalitarianism, represented the road to socialism (a revolution of the working class, not a vanguard party).

2:23 – Marx was wrong about the labor theory of value.

I’m daily amazed that the same people who champion Adam Smith will then pillory Marx for accepting the labor theory of value that the former developed.

2:52 – Millions died in agony

Again, because of totalitarianism. Also, I’m not interested in the vulgar parlor game of counting bodies (too common to debates about religion and Marx) but the slave trade and the Belgian occupation of Congo were both wholly “capitalist.”

3:00 – I’m over-afflicted with compassion for the endless victims

Very selective and politically beneficial compassion, but compassion nonetheless. It may be more useful to aim the frustration at Stalin, Lenin and Mao, rather than Marx, though.

3:37 – Cambodia

Perfect example here. Marx spent very little time on how socialism would come about and what it would look like (Capital was supposed to be 12 volumes, only three -four if you include the partial publication of Volume IV by Kautsky – were published). In the manifesto, Marx notes that the distinction between town and country should be eliminated, the KR did so by a violent forced relocation of the people in the city to the town. It strikes me that there is a more humane way to do this. I never really see a logical way to get from Marx’s work to the violence committed in his name (I would countenance one on the teleological view of history, but then Hegel is the problem. Also, my piece is specifically on marxian economics, not his theory of politics or morality).

5:00 – 11:00 – A list of ways that the U.S. is now socialist

I note that the progressive income tax was something Marx proposed, and it was something that did not exist before he advocated it.

Of course, what is so odd about libertarians is that they would almost certainly agree with Marx’s conception of government as a means for the bourgeoisie class to exert power.

It is odd that in a rebuttal of my argument that Marx predicted 2014, Molyneux literally goes through and shows how to varying levels the ten planks of the manifesto have been implemented. It’s incredibly conspiratorial, and would disagree on many, but it seems to prove my point (and appears to come from here).

11:44 – Capitalism means the government doesn’t interfere in private property rights

Here it is again. Always confused when libertarians make this argument. Without the government, you can have no private property, anyone bigger and stronger will just take your shit. Read Hobbes.

11:51 – Government can’t create currency in a capitalist system

Wow, this is getting very crazy.

12:00 – Children are indoctrinated in government schools

Okay, so we’re talking like, an Alex Jones type of character here.

12:45 – Governments create bubbles

Right, because they never happened before the federal reserve

13:00 – Sean is deluded.

Well, he might be right there

13:30 – The federal reserve caused WW2

I pass this assertion to you, dear reader, without comment. Okay, okay, I’ll comment. Milton Friedman, no friend of Marx, argued that the federal reserve’s folly in the aftermath of the Great Depression is that it did not act enough. So…

14:45 – Asserts that I have never exposed myself to opposing views

I interned at the Reason Foundation and the Fox Business Network and described myself as a libertarian from the age of 13 to about 18.

15:00 – Government causes recessions via monetary policy

Google Dutch Tulip Bubble. Very humorous to hear me described as a fundamentalist by a person who ascribes all evil in the world to governments.

15:34 – War on Drugs!

The war on drugs is a terrible policy. But this is an odd segue.

18:15 – Federal reserve is fascist!

Again… No comment

18:39 – The housing market crashed because of government (Community Reinvestment Act)

Not supported by the most comprehensive study of the financial crisis.

19:52 – Government shouldn’t take on debt, because that is a violation of private property

Really?

20:29 – Choke back anuerism when struck by [Sean's] rank insanity

Lots of rhetoric, little argument.

23:38 – Globalization was greater one hundred years ago because you didn’t need a passport, labor was more mobile

I assume he’s talking about immigration controls, not travel. I don’t know the data here. I do know that the mobility of capital and goods has increased dramatically, and I suspect the same is true of labor. Anyone who knows history knows that immigration quotas have been a feature of American society for centuries.

24:00 – Sean lives in cliche

Pull out the plank in thy own eye before examining the mite in thy neighbor’s

25:00 – He views business as a jackal constantly eating up resources

As did Smith, Malthus and Ricardo. Most classical economists felt that imperialism was the invetible result of the tendency of the rate of profit to decline.

25:15 – Sean has never run a business and nor have most economists

I hear this one a lot. It’s a very silly argument rooted in an anti-intellectual mindset.

26:00 – Businesses satisfy consumer demand

Sometimes. I like what I get does not mean I get what I like.

26:40 – The idea that businesses destroy stuff is absurd

Google ozone layer, smoker’s lungs and Amazon rainforest

27:00 – “I don’t know what that means”

Yeah, I know

27:05 – Businesses don’t eat each other, they compete

Google Comcast and Time Warner.

28:41 – Small businesses are good, but unstable

True, and yes, he is proving my point.

29:45 – Walmart more satisfies people and is environmentally friendly

I like what I get, but do I get what I like? Also, Walmart is hardly a paragon of environmental virtue. Studies show it also depresses local economies when it comes around.

30:00 – Walmart reduces inflation

…By keeping wages low

31:21 – Big banks replace small banks because of politics

Always weird how much libertarians essentially parrot Marx’s theory about the bourgeois overtaking the economy and give him no credit for the idea. Also, again, he’s conceding my point.

32:48 – IPR is bad

Yeah, I know, I’ve written about it. Pretty big red herring though.

36:40 – In a free market if there is an excess of labor, the price of labor will go down, or people will become entrepreneurs

Yes to the first part. The second part is only true if there is enough demand.

37:00 – The progressive income tax does not fight inequality

See Thomas Piketty

To sum up:

This guy mainly just shits on the federal reserve for 30 minutes and occasionally references my article. He does know a lot of multi-syllabic words, which I’m sure will impress many, viewers more interested in style than substance.

I’ve been struck through-out this video of how well my prose stands up. Essentially, this is just a denunciation of the straw man I called elsewhere “vulgar Marxism.”

 

Do the 1 percent create jobs?

A friend of mine, AJ, posted this on his blog:

Open letter to Jamie Johnson, director of “The One Percent”:

Dear Jamie,

You are an arrogant idiot. Your perception of a “just” America is one that is far from free, and your efforts have hurt the poor much more than they have helped them. You foolishly talked to Milton Friedman in various clips from your documentary “The One Percent”, who gave solid reasoning for why we need wealthy people for job creation. He’s Milton Friedman! You just don’t argue with him when you’re an ignorant “non-economist”–especially disrespectfully. You’ve taken Kanye West as my least favorite person, and I sincerely hope you drop your disposition and ignorance and buy a simple economics textbook. Heck, I’ll buy it if you’ll read it. Let me know.

It’s as good as any example of a tendency I’d like to address again. The idea, at its heart, is whether cutting taxes on the wealthy will create jobs, and therefore the converse, will increasing tax rates on the wealthy (to finance a stronger social safety net) decrease jobs? No. A few reasons here. First you have the Stiglitz argument that Nick Hanauer has adopted: rich people need demand. But more importantly, the amount of investment in the economy doesn’t depend on tax rates, but how much investment there is to be had. At some point, cutting taxes is just pushing on a string. In a depressed economy with little private investments available, it makes sense to make public investments financed by taxes. But even in a non-depressed economy, there is no correlation between economic growth and marginal tax rates on the wealthiest.

Piketty_Blog

Piketty_Blog

I want to plaster this chart up on every subway on the nation, because it shows, empirically, what the left has been saying for decades: cutting taxes on the rich doesn’t stimulate the economy. Why is this important? Well I was talking to my dad over the break, and I asked him why he voted for Bush, given the tax breaks for the rich. Once I established that these tax breaks primarily helped the rich, and hurt him by giving the government less money for say, Social Security or college loans, he told me this:

I just figured that the money being in the hands of someone who could invest it and create jobs, rather than me, who would just consume it.

We now know empirically that this simply isn’t true. For one, my dad can invest, he can easily take out money in the stock market, he could help me and my brother go college (or grad school). More importantly, he can spend! That creates opportunities to invest! That creates jobs! The rich want to place themselves at the center of the economy, but it’s the middle class that is the engine for growth. Don’t forget that.

Let’s talk politics quick. What my father is expressing is a classic example of what Engels would call “false consciousness.” Generally speaking, we would expect people to vote for their class interests, but often they don’t. Thomas Frank proposes that they are swayed by social issues. Steinbeck, proposes aspiration as the motivation (I have frequently invoked this as well). Other political scientists suggest that when material standards cease to become an issue, people vote symbolically (i.e. Bush is just like me!). But all of these arguments understate the extent to which the middle class is entirely unaware how misaligned the interests of the wealthy are with their interests. I find it hard to believe that prejudice against gays, aspiration and symbolism can explain why the middle class would forgo $19,000 in yearly income (how much more money the median family would have if incomes had grown proportionally over the last 30 years). That is, voters have not made rational choices, because they were deceived.

So we are back to the Marxist explanation: the central feature of all capitalist societies is obfuscating class interest and exploitation. As my mother said, “Sean, you should really tell people about this.” So I am. The rich have been screwing you. Your interests are not theirs. It’s as simple as that.

P.S. My ideas on history (and my Christianity) prevent me from being a full-on Marxist, but we really need to start understanding Marx as a classical, Enlightenment economist, rather than, as Lenin re-interpreted him, a radical. This would make our public discussion of his ideas far less prone to the vulgarity * it descends to today.

*Classic sense