Category Archives: Philosophy

Why the GOP hates U.S. history: Inconvenient truths that freak out American conservatives

Conservative hero Ben Carson is worried about American teenagers joining ISIS. But it’s not because of “radical Islam.” It’s because of new high school history standards.

American’s right wing, you see, is terrified of history because it is always sentimentalizing it. Many of its arguments rely on a feeling of nostalgia for “good old days,” that appeals almost exclusively to aging whites. That means that a more accurate history, one that considers groups that are traditionally marginalized — women, people of color, Native Americans, immigrants and the poor — don’t necessarily sit that well. Their stories, the stories of the downtrodden, crush the false narrative that many conservatives like to imagine — that of a idyllic past marred by the New Deal, women’s liberation and civil rights.

In Jefferson County, Colorado, a school board recently tried to limit the historical curriculum to only events that would, “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights.” Needless to say, much of American history — the Great Depression, the Trail of Tears and the internment of Japanese-Americans — would, under those parameters, need to obfuscated. The Republic National Committee, meanwhile, has issued a statement calling the new Advanced Placement U.S. History standards ”radically revisionist.” But conservatives may want to take the plank out of their own eye before examining the speck in their neighbors. Here are the most important distortions of history the right has promoted recently.

Before Welfare, Everything Was Awesome 

Example: Marvin Olasky’s “Tragedy of American Compassion,” which argues, “Americans in urban areas a century ago faced many of the problems we face today, and they came up with truly compassionate solutions.”

The Problem: As with most conservative revisionism, the idea is that before nasty programs like welfare, the poor did just fine, because private charity aided them. Many conservatives will argue that the War on Poverty has done nothing to reduce poverty and instead we should rely on private charity. But the War on Poverty has actually done much to eliminate poverty and private charity could never fill that chasm that would open up if federal poverty programs were eliminated. So how did we get rid of poverty before government? The answer is that there never was a mythical time without government.

As Mike Konczal writes,

“There has always been a mixed welfare state made up of private and public organizations throughout our country’s history. Outdoor relief, or cash assistance outside of institutions, was an early legal responsibility of American towns, counties, and parishes from colonial times through the early nineteenth century.”

Later, Congress established a pension system for civil war veterans that consumed about 25 percent of all government spending. Rather than “welfare queens” being a post New-Deal development, some 40 states had programs to support single mothers in 1920. In fact, far from being an invention of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and liberals, social insurance programs are staple in civil society. Frederik Pedersen finds that back in the 10th through 12th centuries, Iceland had an extensive social welfare program. Rome, too, had a system of public support designed to aid poor children.

Elizabeth Bruenig notes that the purely voluntary Church-based social insurance many Christians adore never existed. Conservatives ignore the fact that the church was often acting in accord with the state, “You couldn’t just not tithe; the Church would get it out of you somehow, and even had specific statutes related to methods of tithing which fit it into the schema of secular taxation.” Islamic public assistance was also a hybrid church-state institution. The idea that there has ever been a successful purely voluntary public assistance program is a conservative myth invented to justify dismantling anti-poverty programs in the name of a utopian fantasy.

Basically everything about slavery 

Example: Recently convicted felon and conservative columnist Dinesh D’Souza’s book, “The End of Racism,” provides some great examples of rewriting race. D’Souza says of slavery, “No free workers enjoyed a comparable social security system from birth until death.” Later, he writes, “Masters … encouraged the family unit which basically remained intact.” He concludes, “In summary, the American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well.”

The Problem: Conservatives in the U.S. have a race problem, specifically that many of them believe that blacks are “primarily responsible for their own success or failure” and that government programs only get in the way. And conservative politicians tend to racialize welfare programs to decrease support for them. To believe that black Americans would have been better off without government intervention, you have to pretend history doesn’t matter.

As Marx notes, people, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” There simply is little mobility for black Americans today because the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and housing segregation still weighs heavily. A recent study finds that counties with higher concentrations of slave ownership in 1870 had higher levels of poverty and racial inequality in 2000. Further, white people in these counties harbor more racial resentment.

That’s because when slavery permeated society — the legal structure, culture, science — nothing was left untouched by racism and racial hierarchy. The conservative “I built this myself” mentality denies that most wealth is passed from generation to generation, and so is privilege. Erasing the memory of racial hierarchy allows conservatives and Americans to pretend that individual effort, rather than structural racism, is keeping black people down.

So what was slavery really like? Jennifer Hallam writes, “Economic benefit almost always outweighed considerations of family ties for planters, even those who were advocates of long-lasting relationships between slaves.” Rather than being “relatively mild,” slavery relied on brutality and violence, the horrors of which are described in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “Bury Me in a Free Land”:

I could not sleep if I saw the lash
Drinking her blood with each fearful gash,
And I saw her babes torn from her breast,
Like trembling doves from their parent nest.

I’d shudder and start if I heard the bay
Of bloodhounds seizing their human prey,
And I heard the captive plead in vain
As they bound afresh his galling chain.

If I saw young girls from their mother’s arms
Bartered and sold for their youthful charms,
My eye would flash with a mournful flame,
My death-paled cheek grow red with shame.

And, of course, racism and racial hierarchy didn’t end when slavery was formally abolished, but rather continued through local policies, terrorism and violence. This violence was often orchestrated at the highest levels of government. Consider, for example, the FBI’s attempts to discredit MLK or the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton.

In his response to Phil Robertson’s sentimentalism about the Jim Crow era last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates cites Freddie Moore:

“The corpse of 16-year-old Freddie Moore, his face showing signs of a severe beating, hands bound, remained hanging for at least 24 hours from a metal girder on the old, hand-cranked swing bridge spanning Bayou Lafourche. Hanged by the neck the night of Oct. 11, 1933, in a mob lynching, the black youth had been accused in the death of a neighbor, a white girl.”

And racial violence didn’t end in the ’30s, but continued until through the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s and, well, two months ago.

U.S. foreign policy

Example: Conservative foreign policy is dictated by a small coterie of conquistadors. These people are called “neo-conservatives.” Some people claim neoconservatives have no uniting vision; in fact, the basis of neo-conservativism is a belief that imperial violence can spread democracy. To maintain this myth, the long history of imperialism must be re-written. Thus the official RNC statement on the AP controversy laments that “the [AP] Framework excludes discussion of the U.S. military (no battles, commanders or heroes) …” and “presents a biased and inaccurate view of many important events in American history, including American involvement in WWII, and the development of and victory in the Cold War.”

The Problem: Imperial violence cannot spread democracy. America’s foreign policy history is littered with failed attempts to impose our ideas on others — often with the ulterior motive of stealing resources. As Mark Twain writes, “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.” Among the other examples of horrifying and cynical use of American power conservatives may wish to avoid:

  • Reagan supporting the Contras, a fascist junta: Much of Reagan’s presidency is now hagiography, rather than history. Because of this, it’s often hard to remember how awful the group that Reagan called “the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers” truly was. Truth is, the Nicaraguan Contras were known for their brutality. And where did Reagan get the money to support the brutes? Why, by selling weapons to Iran. Yes, the Iran that George W. Bush later called a member of the Axis of Evil. The International Court of Justice ruled against the U.S. for violating another country’s sovereignty and laying mines in Nicaragua’s harbors, but the U.S. ignored the decision.
  • Chemical weapons: Before the U.S. joined forces with Assad to fight ISIS, he was public enemy number one for allegedly using chemical weapons on civilian populations. But the U.S. has used chemical weapons on a range and scale that Assad could hardly even fathom. During the Vietnam war, the U.S. dumped between 12 and 18 million gallons of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people. At least 1 million Vietnamese had defects or disabilities caused by U.S. chemical attacks. And those chemical weapons we judged Saddam Hussein so harshly for using? The U.S. not only knew the attacks were coming, we gave Hussein intelligence on strategic sites to attack.
  • Screwing up democracy: Sure, America supports democracy — unless that democracy will do something to hurt business interests. Among acts that qualify: nationalizing oil fieldsraising minimum wages and boosting literacy. In place, we installed brutal, murderous dictators — but only ones that would push through economic “reforms” and play ball when we needed.
  • Prolonging the Vietnam War: Richard Nixon intentionally sabotaged the Paris Peace Accords to undermine Lyndon Johnson’s chances of winning the Presidency. In the wake of the failure, the war continued for two long and bloody years, made more horrifying by Nixon’s secret carpet bombing of Cambodia.

Then there’s the support of genocidal maniacs like SuhartoMontt and Khan. And that’s just the last half century!

Conclusion 

English philosopher Michael Oakeshott defines conservatism as “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”

There was a time when conservatism was a philosophy concerned primarily with wrestling with and understanding tradition and the limits of human reason and ability. However, these days conservatism is reactionary — it has been imbued with racism, conspiratorial thinking and a hyper-individualistic capitalism. Instead of questioning the limits of reason, it has jettisoned it. In its place remains free market dogmabad Biblical interpretation and a sentimentalized past. In place of reason and argument, most conservatives rely on fantasy and reminiscence. Allowing conservatives to redefine the past will be incredibly harmful.

As George Orwell notes, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

This article originally appeared on Salon. 

Inequality benefits the rich and hurts the poor

For a long time, the right has argued that we shouldn’t worry about inequality because the true concern is the reduction of poverty. Conservatives also maintained that higher levels of inequality were unimportant because “a rising tide would lift all boats,” and high levels of inequality propelled the economy forward. New research by Roy van der Weide and Branko Milanovic decimates these myths. They find that inequality doesn’t fuel growth for the whole economy, but rather, just the rich.

Before we get to the research of van der Weide and Milanovic, it’s important to understand how mainstream thought on inequality and growth has changed recently. For a long time, mainstream economists didn’t spend much time worrying about distribution. Nobel laureate Robert Lucas declared, “Of the tendencies that are harmful to sound economics, the most seductive, and in my opinion the most poisonous, is to focus on questions of distribution.”

Once rampant inequality did become an increasingly mainstream concern, Martin Feldstein insisted that the question is “not inequality but poverty.” Economists believed that redistribution slowed down economic growth, and that attempts to reduce inequality would, as a result, only worsen poverty. The reasoning had at least two strands of thought: First, since the poor tend to consume most of their income, it was good for the rich to have more wealth to invest in the future — inequality would increase savings. Second, inequality provided incentives for individuals to work harder to take home more of the pie.

There is now a burgeoning literature showing that these assumptions aren’t true, and that inequality actually reduces growth. That’s because the reasons for accepting inequality were actually backwards. Instead of motivating the rich to invest, higher inequality meant that the poor took on more and more debt, destabilizing the economy. Without enough poor and middle-class families consuming their products, businesses had fewer customers, and less revenue. Further, instead of providing the poor and middle class an incentive to better their lives, higher inequality gave the rich a reason to pull up the ladder, leaving the poor behind. Instead of working harder, the rich sit back on their wealth. The poor and middle class, disenchanted by lack of opportunity, have less money to invest in their own education (and are therefore are increasingly burdened by debt). Inequality thereby reduces growth by reducing both demand and upward mobility.

So Milanovic and van der Weide decided to investigate how inequality affects growth across the income spectrum. They used a state-level survey conducted once every decade to estimate annualized income growth at different income percentiles. What the researchers find is that the old story of “trickle down” economics have no support in the data – instead, inequality boosts growth only for the rich.

The charts below show income growth across different percentiles. Each line shows annualized growth over a decade with the horizontal axis defining growth by quintile. The first chart shows that during the relatively equal period of the 1960 to 1970 (red), when inequality was lower, growth was strong and equally distributed (it actually slightly favored the poor). During the 1980-to-2000 period (blue and green) growth favored the rich; however, their gains weren’t enough to make up for the massive losses to the poor and middle class. Finally, in the period between 2000-to-2010, growth for everyone was abysmal in the wake of a massive financial crisis (see the purple line of the final chart). 

As Milanovic tells Salon, “You know it used to be that the U.S. growth was pro-poor, in the sense, that the growth rates among the poor were higher than amongst the rich. Now it’s the opposite.”

Inline image 2

When the authors dug deeper and looked at individual states, they find that, “inequality is negatively associated… with subsequent real growth for the population located below the 25th percentile, and positively with growth for the population belonging to the top decile.” In simple language: Inequality benefits the rich and harms the poor. A rising tide doesn’t lift all boats — just the luxury yachts.

Using the data the authors have developed, we can discover what growth would look like in a more equitable society. The chart below shows annual income growth between 1960 and 2010 by percentile in red. The chart is sloped upward, meaning that the income of the richest grew by 1.8 percent each year, while the growth of the poorest grew by .7 percent each year. However, if inequality was reduced by one standard deviation (the difference between Connecticut and South Carolina) across the country, income growth for the poor would more than double, to 1.6 percent each year (blue line).

Inline image 1

This has important political implications. First, we should not assume that the mere fact that inequality reduces economic growth will be enough to convince the rich to reduce it. Inequality benefits the rich immensely. Second, the idea that a rising tide lifts all boats has been so utterly disproved it should be embarrassing to state in public. Yet reformicons like Michael Strain continue to repeat the mantra, “ Growth Beats Inequality.” That is false, Between 1960 and 2010, GDP increased by an annualized rate of 3.2 percent (a total of  378 percent) but incomes for the poorest 5 percent increased by only .7 percent a year. However, if we had reduced our gini coefficient (the standard measure of inequality) by only 9 percent, to the level of Japan, we could have doubled income growth for the poorest Americans.

Inline image 4

There is also hope, however. The growth rate of the 1960-to-70s was rapid and equitable. Compared with growth rates from the massively unequal 1990-to-2010 period, everyone was better off. So there is some reason to believe the rich could support more equitable policies. But the rich won’t be so easy to persuade – in a massively unequal society, even modest economic growth still benefits economic elites. Don’t worry about growth, worry about inequality.

A version of this article originally appeared on Salon. 

It’s a fact: inequality slows growth

My latest in Salon cites new research on the inequality and growth debate. Toward the end to the piece, I discuss the political implications of the findings:

First, we should not assume that the mere fact that inequality reduces economic growth will be enough to convince the rich to reduce it. 

On Twitter, @richisglorious objects:

 

Initially, I was tempted to respond simply that this is a slightly pedantic point – my argument is that even if the wealthy accept the proposition that inequality reduces growth overall, they may still oppose redistribution for other reasons.

As I thought about the question though, I realized the sentence is true: inequality reduces growth. To see why, simply imagine a perfectly unequal society where one person controls all income and everyone else has nothing. There will be no economic growth. Imagine a slightly less unequal society, where ten people control nearly all the income, and everyone else struggle to survive. Again, no growth. The question then, is not whether inequality reduces growth, it’s at what point inequality reduces growth.*

The evidence I summarize in my essay strongly suggests we might be at the point. Other research suggests this as well. But let us not re-litigate this and instead make an important distinction between good inequality and bad inequality.

In my interview with Branko Milanovic, we discussed this distinction. He tells me:

These two extremes [absolute inequality and absolute equality] are clearly not good. We know that the optimum must be at some point in-between. Now, we don’t know what it is. Is this the Gini of “X” or “Y”? We have no idea, but we have in mind a certain “good” range simply by observing things empirically or, sort of, heuristically looking at the world. We see that there are countries that do well economically and socially and what type of inequality they have. Moreover, we have now studies, and I’m quite encouraged by them, which  for the first time try to empirically ascertain what percentage of overall inequality is caused by so called bad inequality. And that leads us to the issue of “deserved” and “undeserved” inequality and social mobility.

The bad or undeserved inequality would be the one that arises from the factors over which you have no control: what was the income level of your parents, whether you were born male or female, what is your race, and things like that. Actually, these studies do show that, in some countries, a large chunk of inequality is due to these factors. Thus we can rank countries by their bad and good inequalities. The good inequality, calculated as the residual between overall and bad inequality, is inequality we effort, work, luck and so on.**

The studies to which he refers can be found here and here. They find, after studying Europe and the United States, that inequality which stems from factors beyond an individual’s control (father’s education/race) are correlated with lower growth. Their study of 23 U.S. states over a two decade periods finds, “Inequality is good for growth when that comes from differences in the returns to effort, while it is harmful for growth when that comes from differences in opportunity.” They also find a strong correlation between changes in total inequality and inequality of opportunity.

Inequality and Opportunity

I believe that there are persuasive reasons to believe that the much of the exploding income inequality in the U.S. is due not to the good inequality, but bad inequality. As inequality increases, the opportunities for rent-seeking through the political system, education system and labor market become greater.

It is also worth noting that good inequality quickly become bad inequality unless mitigated (see: Walton family). Call it the The First Law of Inequality: inequality tends to perpetuate itself unless acted upon by an outside force. Estate taxes and capital gains taxes can limit such rent-seeking.

To summarize: in a state of perfect inequality, there will be no growth. In the state of perfect equality there will be little growth. At some point, inequality will become high enough to choke off growth, mainly by reducing demand and opportunity. Most of the research here is being done by economists who aren’t as cocky as Reinhart/Rogoff and therefore uncomfortable declaring a cut-off point. Instead, we’ll have to use Potter Stewart’s maxim: “I know it when I see it.” I think we see it.

image

* We might have a similar thought experiment with perfect equality, in which no one is motivated to work since they earn the same amount as everyone else. Even if we assume that Amour-propre provides some incentive, we can assume growth would be slower.

** The full interview will be available next week on the Demos Policyshop blog.

Five reasons why democracy hasn’t fixed inequality

One of the most longstanding hopes (on the left) and fears (on the right) about democratic politics is that voters of modest means will use their electoral weight to level the economic playing field. In a market economy, the median voter’s income will invariably be below the national average creating an apparently compelling opportunity for a politics of redistribution. This makes the sustained increase in income inequality in the United States and other developed countries a bit of a puzzle. One common suggestion, offered recently by Eduardo Porter in The New York Times, is ignorance. Voters “don’t grasp how deep inequality is.”

But while Americans understanding of economic trends is certainly imperfect, the data suggest that the broad trends are known to the population. Nathan Kelly and Peter Enns, for instance, find that when asked to compare the ratio of the highest paid occupation and the lowest, Americans at the bottom of the income distribution do believe inequality is high and rising. In 1987, Americans as reported that the highest-paid occupation took home 20 times what the lowest paid occupation did – by 2000, they thought the gap had grown to 74 times.

A recent Pew survey finds that 65% of adults agree that the gap between the rich and everyone else has increased in the past 10 years, only 8% say it has decreased. A Gallup poll from earlier this year suggests that 67% of Americans report that they are either “somewhat” or “very” dissatisfied with the income and wealth distribution in the U.S.

If ignorance doesn’t explain inaction, what does? These five factors are the most important culprits:

1) Upward mobility

(Sean McElwee, data from Engelhardt & Wagner)

(Sean McElwee, data from Engelhardt & Wagner)

According to research from Carina Engelhardt and Andreas Wagner, around the world people overestimate the level of upward mobility in their society.

They find that redistribution is lower then when actual social mobility is but also lower where perceived mobility is higher. Even if voters perceive the level of inequality correctly, their tendency to overstate the level of mobility can undermine support for redistribution. In another study Alberto Alesina and Eliana La Ferrara find that, Americans who believe that American society offers equal opportunity (a mythology) are more likely to oppose redistribution. Using data from 33 democracies, Elvire Guillaud finds that those who believe they have experienced downward mobility in the past decade are  32% more likely to support redistribution. A relatively strong literature now supports this thesis.

2) Inequality undermines solidarity

Enns and Kelly find, rather counterintuitively, that when “inequality in America rises, the public responds with increased conservative sentiment.” That is, higher inequality leads to less demand for redistribution. This is perhaps because as society becomes less equal, its members have less in common and find it less congenial to act in solidarity. Bo Rothstein and Eric Uslaner argue that, “the best policy response to growing inequality is to enact universalistic social welfare programs. However, the social strains stemming from increased inequality make it almost impossible to enact such policies.”

As inequality increases, the winner-take-all economy leads voters try to look out for their own children. The period during which overall inequality has risen has seen a massive increase in more affluent families’ spending on enrichment for their own children.

(Sean McElwee, data from Lars Osberg)

(Sean McElwee, data from Lars Osberg)

Chris Dillow points to research by Klaus Abbink, David Masclet and Daniel Mirza who find in social science experiments that disadvantaged groups are more likely to sacrifice their wealth to reduce the wealth of the advantaged group when inequality was lower than when it was higher. Kris-Stella Trump finds that rising inequality perpetuates itself, noting that, “Public ideas of what constitutes fair income inequality are influenced by actual inequality: when inequality changes, opinions regarding what is acceptable change in the same direction.”

3) Political misrepresentation

Ideological factors can’t tell the whole story. Many Americans support redistributive programs like the minimum wage and support for the idea that hard work leads to success has plummeted in the last decade. A further important reason for the lack of political response to inequality relates to the structure of American political institutions, which fail to translate the desires of less-advantaged Americans for more redistribution into actual policy change. Support for this thesis comes from many corners of the political science field, including Martin GilensDorian WarrenJacob HackerPaul Pierson, andKay Lehman Schlozman. Research by five political scientists finds that status quo bias of America’s often-gridlocked congress serves to entrench inequality.

More simply, lower-income Americans tend to vote at a lower rate. William Franko, Nathan Kelly and Christopher Witko find that states with lower turnout inequality also have lower income inequality. Elsewhere, Franko finds that states with wider turnout gaps between the rich and poor are less likely to pass minimum-wage increases, have weaker anti-predatory-lending policies and have less generous health insurance programs for children in low-income families. Kim Hill, Jan Leighley and Angela Hilton-Andersson find, “an enduring relationship between the degree of mobilization of lower-class voters and the generosity of welfare benefits.” Worryingly, Frederick Solt finds that, “citizens of states with greater income inequality are less likely to vote and that income inequality increases income bias in the electorate.” That is, as inequality increases, the poor are less likely to turn out, further exacerbating inequality.

4) Interest-group politics

The decline of labor unions has decreased the political importance of poor voters, because unions were an important “get-out-the-vote” machine. A recent study by Jan Leighley and Jonathan Nagler finds that the decline in union strength has reduced low-income and middle-income turnout. But labor’s influence (or lack thereof) is also important when the voting is done. Research finds that policy outcomes in the United States are heavily mediated by lobbying between interest groups, so organization matters.

Martin Gilens writes, “Given the fact that most Americans have little independent influence on policy outcomes, interest groups like unions may be the only way to forward their economic interests and preference.” His research indicates that unions regularly lobby in favor of policies broadly supported by Americans across the income spectrum, in contrast to business groups, which lobby in favor of policies only supported by the wealthy.

(Sean McElwee, data from Martin Gilens)

(Sean McElwee, data from Martin Gilens)

It’s no surprise then that numerous studies have linked the decline in union membership and influence with rising inequality.

5) Racial conflict

A recent study by Maureen A. Craig and Jennifer A. Richeson finds that when white Americans are reminded that the nation is becoming more diverse, they become more conservative. Dog-whistle phrases like “welfare queens” have long driven whites to oppose social safety net programs they disproportionately benefit from. Research from Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam indicates that racial bias among white voters is strongly correlated with hostility toward means-tested social assistance programs. Another study by Steven Beckman and Buhong Zhen finds that blacks are more likely to support redistribution even if their incomes are far above average and that poor whites are more likely to oppose redistribution.

In other words, a massive public education campaign about the extent of income inequality is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve the kind of redistributive policies liberals favor. The real obstacles to policy action on inequality are more deeply ingrained in the structure of American politics, demographics, and interest group coalitions. Insofar as there is a role for better information to play, it likely relates not to inequality but tosocial mobility which remains widely misperceived and is a potent driver of feelings about the justice of economic policy. As John Steinbeck noted, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Stronger unions, more lower income voter turnout and policies to reduce the corrupting influence of money on the political process would all work to reduce inequality. It will take political mobilization, not simply voter education to achieve change. The wonks have interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it.

This piece originally appeared on Vox.

The GOP’s libertarian time bomb: Why “going Rand” would be an electoral disaster

The time has come again for a perennial theme in politics: the idea that Republicans should “go libertarian.” The questionable premise, forwarded most recently by Robert Draper and Emily Ekins, is that the Republican Party could sweep up millennials, who are “socially liberal” and “economically conservative,” by adopting a more libertarian message. The ascent of popular startups like Uber and Airbnb — which have about them a decidedly libertarian flavor — has only strengthened this supposedly conventional wisdom.

Here’s the thing, though. The data show that this is an unlikely possibility, but more problematically, doing so would actually decimate the Republican base. The truth is, libertarianism is antithetical to conservatism.

The Republican base, broadly speaking, is made up of five often-overlapping coalitions: business conservatives who seek low taxes and low regulation; foreign policy hawks who seek a strong defense budget; social conservatives who fear moral anarchy; racists and nativists worried about immigration and affirmative action; and elderly retirees who rely on Social Security and Medicare. This coalition is already difficult enough to maintain, but in the future it will become more difficult.

And a “libertarian” message would only further erode the base.

Business conservatives seem like they would be the most open to a libertarian message. After all, lower taxes and less regulation are amenable to both groups. But Republicans are already very pro-business and anti-regulation; to go further in order to pull in a few more libertarians would entail (1) decreased fiscal or monetary intervention, or (2) the elimination of corporate subsidies. Both of these moves would alienate business conservatives, who, after all, rely significantly on government support (to the tune of $92 billion in 2006) and accept the need for countercyclical spending policies. Libertarians might struggle to support Republicans doling out farm subsidies year after year, subsidizing exports and bailing out big businesses and banks, but business conservatives demand it.

Foreign policy hawks would also find many of the core tenets of libertarianism — skepticism of foreign interventionism, opposition to the NSA and a healthy loathing of the military-industrial complex — to be problematic. Republicans could try to peel off support among libertarians by opposing torture, closing Guantanamo and investigating the NSA, but it’s tough to believe that the party of Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld would be able to garner much trust. The swift turn of Rand Paul from libertarian anti-interventionist to foreign policy hawk attests to the difficulty in going this route.

Social conservatives would likely be the most difficult challenge to libertarians. Libertarians tend to support individual  liberty:the right to gamble, drink, smoke, watch pornography, take one’s own life, participate in any form of sexual activity and use drugs. Needless to say, these views would be incredibly problematic for the moral majority coalition, which still forms an incredibly important part of the Republican base. It was Hayek who wrote in “Why I’m Not A Conservative”: “The conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes… like the socialist he regards himself as entitled to force the values he holds onto other people.”

While it’s often considered impolite to note in public, a rather significant base of Republican power is still nativism. Witness the hysterical response to Central American refugees, the baseless claims against Obama’s citizenship, and the opposition to any immigration reform that doesn’t include a moat full of crocodiles across the border. But most libertarians are strongly supportive of open borders. Libertarian economist Bryan Caplan calls it, “The Efficient, Egalitarian, Libertarian, Utilitarian Way to Double World GDP.” In a world when even the “reasonable” Republicans are still spouting xenophobic drivel, witness Ross Douthat’s columnworrying that “the bills under discussion almost always offer some form of legal status before enforcement takes effect, which promises a replay of the Reagan-era amnesty’s failure to ever deliver the limits on future immigration that it promised.”

Finally, there are the elderly retirees, whose support Republicans maintain by making sure that any spending cuts fall on the backs of the poor – not the old. One wonders how they would receive the Cato Institute plan to turn Social Security into private savings accounts subject to market forces. Many would balk if a politician called Social Security “federally mandated generational theft,” but this is how Nick Gillespie regards it. Social Security and Medicare are sacrosanct and any attempt to reform them is likely a “third rail” that would lead to electoral death for the politician that tried.

The problem with libertarianism is mainly that few people agree with its ideological assumptions — but will often come to the same political answer. But this means that most people will be “libertarian” on some issues, rather than use a libertarian mode of thinking to get there. So people may be programmatically libertarian, but ideologically disagree with fundamental assumptions. As political scientist Seth Masket writes, “Basically everyone agrees with libertarians on something, but they tend to get freaked out just as quickly by the ideology’s other stances.”

These contradictions are obvious, and Draper’s widely discussed piece touches on some of them. For instance, there is Mollie Hemingway, who claims to be a libertarian, but is anti-choice and rejects gay marriage. She argued that although “‘people should be free to organize their own lifestyle,’ the state had a unique interest in protecting heterosexual marriage, because it was ‘the relationship that’s ordered to producing children.’” She might want to turn to Ayn Rand, who argued that, “but it is improper for the law to interfere with a relationship between consenting adults” and noted that “abortion is a moral right — which should be left to the sole discretion of the woman involved; morally, nothing other than her wish in the matter is to be considered. Who can conceivably have the right to dictate to her what disposition she is to make of the functions of her own body?”

Or what of Murray Rothbard’s claim that “the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. The parent therefore may not murder or mutilate his child, and the law properly outlaws a parent from doing so. But the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die.” Hemingway is a programmatic libertarian — she likes some proposals, but rejects the radical individualism libertarianism truly entails.

And those are on the issues where Republicans are supposed to agree with Libertarians. Nick Gillespie touches on the minor contradictions in an interview for Draper’s piece:

Republicans always saw libertarians as nice to have around in case they wanted to score some weed, and we always knew where there was a party. And for a while it made sense to bunk up with them. But after a while, it would be like, ‘So if we agree on limited government, how about opening the borders?’ No, that’s crazy. ‘How about legalizing drugs? How about giving gays equal rights?’ No, come on, be serious. And so I thought, There’s nothing in this for me.

He leaves some equally problematic things out: legalized prostitution, restrained foreign policy, massive defense cuts, abolishing social security and Austrian economics. None of these will curry favor with the Republican establishment. The question is not whether there are a large number of Americans who would be excited by libertarianism; the question is whether the Republicans could maintain their current coalition and also court these voters — this seems unlikely.

Then there’s the fact that Rand Paul, once an ardent libertarian, has had to step back on numerous positions. There’s the fact that Gary Johnson alienated the base and Ron Paul looked loony in 2012, opposing the Iraq War, calling for an end to the federal reserve and arguing that the government should legalize all drugs. Ronald Reagan, who successfully used libertarian rhetoric (see: A Time for Choosingeschewed it when governing. The Republican Party has long used libertarian rhetoric while pursuing statist policies. The Mercatus Center, a libertarian think tank, ranks the 50 states based on “freedom,” but weights “tax burden” as 28.6% of the metric and “freedom from tort abuse” as 11.5%, while “civil liberties” only account for 0.6% of a state’s score and “education policy” 1.9%. In Mercatus-land, alcohol, gun and cigarette freedom rank above marriage freedom, and abortion goes unmentioned. A libertarian turn for conservatives would be nice — libertarians actually hold the free market views conservatives claim and actually accept the importance of reason and individual liberty. But this is the reason it will never happen: True libertarianism would decimate the Republican base, so instead a half-hearted libertarianism prevails — stripped of policies, it subsists on empty rhetoric. But then again, the last few Republican rebranding efforts have been empty rhetoric, and so will this one.

This piece originally appeared on Salon.

The Rise of the React-o-Cons

The rise of “reform conservatives” has drawn an increasing amount of attention. The wonky right has been treated most recently to a lauding article in the New York Times, following a critical take by E.J. Dionne in Democracy.  Some writers have gone as far as declaring Republicans the party of ideas. But reform conservatism fails to reach the holy grail of modern conservatism, wedding support of the family with adoration for the free market.

Cracks have already formed in the reformicon facade. There is little willingness to challenge the insanity of the Republican Party, so environmental issues have gone entirely ignored. Attempts to bend a fundamentally flawed theory of poverty into wonky centrist plans have collapsed under the weight of their own absurdity. When foreign policy is broached, and itrarely is, the result is embarrassing. (Conservative writer Scott McConnell worries, “it is more than a little disconcerting to see neoconservatism be welcomed back into the public square under the false flag of Burkean moderation.”  The reformicons, if they care about immigration (it didn’t garner a mention in their famous “Room to Grow” plan), did nothingto halt recent Republican self-destruction on immigration. The most substantive challenge they appear willing to make toward the party’s right-most wing is banalities about inflation.

Instead, reform conservatism sticks to “wonky” economics plans, where attempts to distinguish themselves from centrist Democrats fall away. Had the Obama administration chosen to push for a more progressive plan (which likely would have failed to pass), then the reformicons may well have proposed something very much like the Affordable Care Act. Obama instead chose the conservative route: expand already existing programs and keep the private insurance system broadly in place. The fact that Obama’s plan was drawn from Heritage documents and implemented previously by Republicans is inconsequential — the important point is that it is philosophically conservative. That is, it prefers market mechanisms when possible and expands old bureaucracies (Medicaid) rather than create new ones.

In fact, the Obama administration has shown a consistent preference for conservative policy proposals — ones that don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater but rather leave already existing structures in place, but reform them subtly. His administration has preferred, where possible, to delegate power to the states and to use market mechanisms rather than government decree to reach policy goals. (Witness his recent plan for curbing global warming, which relies on federalisminnovation and market mechanisms, rather than command and control.) His foreign policy has been restrained compared to the naive sentimentality of the previous administration and he has shied away from crusading on social issues, preferring to silently advance transgender rights.

Because of Obama’s conservatism, the “reformers” have been forced to take on an increasingly reactionary tone. Yuval Levin, for instance, according to the generous Sam Tanenhaus, sounds rather more reactionary than reformist:

For all [Levin’s] temperateness of tone, and for all the meticulously reasoned arguments that he has shepherded into the pages of National Affairs, Levin justly says his ideas are radical. He envisions not just a shrinking or scaling-back of government, but an entire re-imagining of it.

This longing to roll back time and go to a long-gone utopia is not a conservative impulse, but rather a reactionary one. We see this impulse when Ramesh Ponnuru seeks to obliterate the conservative Affordable Care Act on the basis of a radical (and almost entirely unsupported) reading of a single sentence. This is not the attitude of someone who, as Burke might suggest, attends to “the faults of the state as to the wounds of a father, with pious awe and trembling solicitude.” Instead Ponnuru resembles the impetuous “children of their country, who are prompt rashly to hack that aged parent in pieces, and put him into the kettle of magicians, in hopes that by their poisonous weeds, and wild incantations, they may regenerate the paternal constitution, and renovate their father’s life.”

Most reformicon (react-icon?) proposals still hold to the old Reaganite dogma that “the government isn’t the solution to the problem, the government is the problem.” Instead of “tax cuts,” the new right-wing buzzword is “tax credit.” Reading their foundational document, “Room to Grow,” you wonder whether the reformicons might try to solve terrorism with “tax credits” as well; the phrase appears 21 times in the manifesto, and “credit” 81 times (abortion and gay rights go unmentioned, guns are mentioned once). Given that immigration is the single biggest issue that faces the Republican Party, one would expect a chapter, or even a paragraph, on the subject — she would be wrong. Sadly, for reform conservatives, the Obama administration has already begun expanding tax credits and has signaled its intent to do more, meaning that reformicons generally substitute real change for the Taco Bell effect.

* * *

From the beginning, “reform conservatism” had deep troubles. For one, its thinkers have made no secret that their goal is to somehow save the odd Republican coalition of social conservatives, foreign policy hawks and business conservatives. These contradictions are most obvious in the conflict between business libertarian conservatives and social conservatives, and expose the deepest failings of reform conservatism.

The most famous and influential reform conservatives all cut their teeth in the culture wars. Ponnuru first graced the national spotlight after calling Democrats the “party of death,” and blundering through an interview with Jon Stewart. Yuval Levin worked with Robert P. George who believes marriage can only exist where penile-vaginal intercourse does. (This is not a caricature of his argument). Ross Douthat is known for his radical Catholicism. (He supports allowing businesses to discriminate against gays and compared the contraception mandate to sterilization.) All of them swarm at a chance to rue the rise of single mothers. But their “family-friendly” values are tough to reconcile with the market — one of the most anti-family institutions (there is a reason the Atlas Society, which exists to forward Randian ideas, harbors an open disdain for the family).

Hobby Lobby, which could be seen as another instance of market relations inserting into family life (the decision of when to begin one), is instead seen as a victory of “religious liberty.” This conclusion is not foregone, but rather justified, rather explicitly, as a way to maintain an uneasy alliance between religious radicals and the more libertarian business wing of the Republican Party. As Julia Azari writes,

The religious liberty-contraception question provides an opportunity for three important factions within the Republican Party – ideological libertarians, business interests, and social conservatives – to agree on something.

Someone actually concerned about families might worry about Hobby Lobby’s policy towards pregnant women, which is certainly not Christian and barely civilized:

When a very pregnant Felicia Allen applied for medical leave from her job at Hobby Lobby three years ago, one might think that the company best known for denying its employees insurance coverage of certain contraceptives—on the false grounds that they cause abortions—would show equal concern for helping one of its employees when she learned she was pregnant.

Instead, Allen says the self-professed evangelical Christian arts-and-crafts chain fired her and then tried to prevent her from accessing unemployment benefits.

That is unsurprising: The question at hand in Hobby Lobby was not religious liberty, but corporate power. The goal is not “family,” but rather exclusion of certain groups from the public sphere. We don’t need to look too far back to find conservatives who understand that the deepest threat to the family is not the government but the market. Marxist conservative Christopher Lasch writes,

The sentimental veneration of motherhood, even at the peak of its influence in the late nineteenth century, could never quite obscure the reality that unpaid labor bears the stigma of social inferiority when money becomes the universal measure of value … children pay the price for this invasion of the family by the market.

The greatest threat to the civic institutions that the reformicons praise so highly are also threatened by the market: “all that is solid melts into air.” Pope John XXIII writes in “Mater et Magistra,”

We therefore consider it Our duty to reaffirm that the remuneration of work is not something that can be left to the laws of the marketplace; nor should it be a decision left to the will of the more powerful. It must be determined in accordance with justice and equity; which means that workers must be paid a wage which allows them to live a truly human life and to fulfill their family obligations in a worthy manner.

And yet the reformicon proposal for getting the long-term unemployed hired is to reduce their wages — further degrading them.

America is one of the only countries in the world that does not offer paid maternity leave. Because of this, paid leave is a luxury in America that is available to all wealthy and most middle-class women but denied the poor. Only 5 percent of women in the retail sector have access to paid maternity leave. A study by Linda Houser and Thomas Vartanian finds that only 11 percent of private sector workers reported paid family leave through their employers, and only 5 percent of women in the bottom quarter of wages report access. The reformicons aren’t interested in what almost every other country (and some states) have done: guaranteed paid leave. In the “Room To Grow” essay on work-family balance (the only one, notably, written by a woman), Carrie Lukas rejects the idea of paid leave, arguing that, “Knowing that any worker facing a medical issue could take up to three months of paid leave creates a significant new risk for employers.” The reformicon dogma  can be summed up quite simply as “money over everything.”

When family and marketplace meet, reformicons will prefer markets. They therefore lack proposals to deal with rampant wage theftscheduling abuse and the massive gender pay gap. The gender pay gap will cost women in retail $381 billion over the next six years, a recent Demos report finds. Given that 40 percent of women in retail contribute 40 percent or more of their family’s income, reducing that gap would be a benefit to working families. It’d be great to hear some reformicon proposals — instead we get decepticon denialism.

The failure of reform conservatism to forward actually family-friendly policies is probably its most glaring deficiency. As Christ once said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” I’ve noted these contradictions before: Rubio and Ryan want to expand opportunity and reduce inequality; the only way to do that (at least the way every other country has done so) is to strengthen government programs. The best way to strengthen the family is to remove the market from family life. It is corporations, not government, that schedule workers and it is laissez-faire that has eroded the middle class for the past four decades. In Dionne’s essay, he notes that some of the reformicons have recognized their ideological contradiction, but he summarizes the failure to correct it accurately, “Even when they face up to the contradictions in conservative ideology and acknowledge the market’s shortcomings, their solutions rarely challenge the market’s priorities …”

Eventually reform conservatism will collapse upon the weight of its own contradictions. Ronald Reagan, like an unwitting best friend setting up a bad blind date, formed an increasingly unmanageable coalition. The initial spark has died and the elderly lovers are increasingly bickering. Vitriolic hatred of Obama is a weak attempt at coalition maintenance. The dirty fact is that very few policies can make all the parties of this increasingly fractious coalition happy. Reform conservatives have tried to brush these issues under the carpet, but eventually voters will want red meat, something Republicans simply cannot deliver and remain a viable party. Without a symbolic enemy to rally around the coalition will fall apart, which is why the reformicons are neither particularly interested in actually existing policy or conservatism.

Originally published on Salon.

When Workers Own Their Companies, Everyone Wins

In 1921, the Olympia Veneer Company became the first worker-owned cooperative to produce plywood. By the early 1950s, nearly all of the plywood produced in the United States was manufactured by worker-owned cooperatives. Today, however, worker-owned cooperatives seem few and far between. Say “co-op” and most people think of Park Slope foodies or strictly guarded apartment buildings. Worker ownership may seem a relic of the past, but it could actually play a significant role in reviving the union movement, bolstering the green economy, and stemming the tide of deindustrialization.

Today, there are only about 30,000 cooperatives, strictly defined, employing 856,000 workers in the United States. Most of these cooperatives are consumer cooperatives, owned by consumers, rather than workers. (Technically, cooperatives are defined by incorporation, ownership, and tax-filing status.) But about 47 percent of American workers participate in profit-sharing arrangements of some sort. Employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs), for instance, involve around 10 million workers and range from plans that are essentially cooperatives (in which workers have decision-making power) to plans in which workers have stock, but no ownership or decision-making powerthese are essentially profit-sharing by a different name. Procter and Gamble, the twenty-seventh largest corporation in America is estimated to be10 to 20 percent employee-owned. Among the Fortune 100, many companieshave employee ownership plans, including Exxon Mobile, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, GM, Ford, Intel, UPS, Amazon, Coca-Cola, Cisco, and Morgan Stanley.

Against this backdrop, it’s not so surprising that some are making the case for co-ops. Union leaders, in particular, argue that there is significant opportunity to expand the coop model by associating it more closely with unions. This make sense: Unions are looking for new allies and methods for increasing worker control, while cooperatives can benefit from the organizational skill and scalability of unions. Associating with coops would also allow the unions to extend their reach. While the union movement is concentrated in manufacturing, a recent study by Hilary Abell finds that 58 percent of cooperatives are in the retail and service sectors. “If you go back to the beginning of the labor movement,” says activist Carl Davidson, “unions and cooperatives used to go together like bread and jelly.”

Leo Gerard, the President of United Steelworkers Union, has been vocal about the possibility of what he calls “union cooperatives.” He has even studied this: In the wake of the recession, his union allied with Mondragon, a large federation of cooperatives based in Spain, and spent three years developing ways to build a similar movement in the states. Gerard noted that even while the Spanish economy has fared poorly in recent years, Mondragon proved resilient, maintaining steady employment.

The idea is catching on in the U.S. as well. In Pittsburgh, a “union cooperative” industrial laundry called Clean and Green uses green technologies and employs 120 worker owners. The business replaces a traditionally-run laundry; if it succeeds it will be a potent proof-of-concept for the cooperative movement. Two thousand minority home health-care workers in New York City formed a cooperative that increased their wages and benefits while also giving them more control of their working conditions. They are coordinating with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU. The coop model might provide unions with just the fresh air that they need. The economist Richard Wolff tells me that, “Unions concentrated mostly on how to minimize what to give back. They very rarely think in terms of strategic alternatives.”

Coops are also already an important part of the emerging green economy. In Cincinnati, one cooperative is connected with local building trades, and it retrofits buildings with green energy technologies. The nascent nature of the industry makes it ideal for cooperatives, which cannot be formed in industries already dominated by large hierarchical corporations. Ohio Cooperative Solar,for instance, installs solar panels on rooftops in downtown Cleveland.

Cooperatives can also supplement economic development programs in cities suffering under the weight of deindustrialization. In Cleveland, historian and political economist Gar Alperovitz has developed a cooperative model based on the idea of “anchor institutions.” He aims to use institutions like hospitals, local government, and universities, which are constantly in demand, to serve as a bulwark against the vicissitudes of the business cycle. He tells me that he’s had interest in his anchor-institutions model from representatives from about a hundred cities across the country. Cincinnati has experimented with the anchor-institution model, as well as Atlanta, Washington, D.C., and Jacksonville. Most of these areas are either deindustrialized or were hit hard by the housing crisis.

And coops are not just good for unions, the environment, and struggling townsthey are good for workers, too. A meta-study by economist Chris Doucouliagos examines 43 published studies and find that profit-sharing, worker-ownership, and worker participation in decision-making are correlated with higher productivity. The effects are stronger among labor-managed firms than among those with merely worker-ownership schemes like ESOPs. This seems to be playing out in the Union Cab Cooperative in Madison, Wisconsin. The coop was formed when cab driverswho were fed up with long hours, poor benefits, and low payditched management and bought the cabs themselves. The cooperative is run by a nine-person board of directors elected by the workers who sit for terms of no more than three years. In total, about 60 workers are involved in management, with representation distributed throughout the cooperative. The highest-paid workers make a base salary that is only 2.2 times the lowest-paid workers, although drivers who spend more hours driving and those elected to management positions make more.

The Union Cab Cooperative isn’t going to overtake Uber any time soon, but there is no reason to believe that cooperatives have to remain small. The Spanish coop that aligned with United Steelworkers, after all, has 80,321 employees. Its revenues in 2012 were €14.081 billion. In the United States, Hy-Vee, a chain of 235 supermarkets with 62,000 employees and $8 billion in revenue is entirely employee-owned.

The appeal of worker-ownership in the United States could even cross partisan lines. The two biggest supporters of ESOPs are the conservative Dana Rohrabacher and socialist Bernie Sanders. In 1999, they co-sponsored “The Employee Ownership Act of 1999” which would grant companies with a threshold of worker ownership an exemption from the federal income tax. Sadly, more recent cooperative bills have been primarily supported by liberals. But conservative policy wonks talk about an “ownership society,” and cooperatives are an ideal way to promote ownership and responsibility.

According to Democracy Collaborative, the world’s largest 300 cooperatives together constitute the ninth largest national economy. America is a land of ownership and democracyand yet these values are generally ignored in the workforce. Cooperatives can change that.

Originally Published on The New Republic.

How to Fight Oligarchy: Lessons From The States

Patrick Flavin is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Baylor University. He is also doing pioneering work in the area of policy representation at the state level. You can find a discussion of his work here. I talked with him about his studies and what they tell us about fixing our democracy.

Sean McElwee: What exactly did you do? You have a rank of states by political equality of representation, what does that mean?

Patrick Flavin: All the papers use a pretty similar method. It basically measures how strongly the relationship is between the higher your income is and the likelihood that your ideology will be well-represented by policy. So think of two people and we had a number line from a one to a ten and the state generally passed policy measures that are a six and someone who is at the number line at the six would be well represented, someone with a one would not be well represented. So the table ranks how much income correlates with that. In Mississippi there is a strong relationship between your income and your representation, in North Dakota that relationship is not strong.

S: Does the inequality of a state affect the inequality of representation?

P: Usually states with higher levels of economic inequality also tend to be the most politically unequal. States with a big divide in rich and poor in income also tend to have a bigger divide in political representation. It’s not a one-to-one relationship or a perfect correlation, but it’s a general pattern. For example, Mississippi has a fair amount of really poor people with more liberal preferences, but Mississippi tends to pass very conservative legislation.

S: You had an interesting paper on what constitutes responsiveness. For some people  it’s ideological preferences and for some people it’s how much money is being brought back to the state.

P: The study of political inequality bounces between two measures. The first is opinions or ideology, which we discussed before. The second is interests. We would assume, I would argue rightly, that those at the bottom end of the spectrum would prefer more spending on public assistance and greater public spending. Surveys support that idea. I find that states that have stricter campaign finance laws pass more egalitarian policies on public assistance. That’s another way of measuring representation. There is not an agreed upon way of doing this. Martin Gilens looks at individual policies. We all tend to be finding the same thing, which is that there is unequal representation between the rich and poor.

S: But you’re the only one who has done this on the state level, which gives us a chance to see what works. What works?

P: One relationship is disclosure laws. There are three ways to regulating campaign finance. The first is ensuring that donors have to disclose who they are donating to. The second is limiting how much donors can give. The third is moving to a public financing system. The only type of policy I found with a strong relationship with my measure was disclosure requirements. I think that’s important because disclosure is something that both parties can agree on. There tends to be more agreement on the question. I also find that states the more strictly regulate lobbying and lobbyist interactions and what type of gifts they can give – those states are more egalitarian in terms of whose opinions get represented. That’s a good thing to learn for the states and possibly bring to the federal level. This policy is especially good in the wake of Citizen’s United, because in the wake of Citizen’s United individual and organizational limits allow individuals to spend independently.

S: Now what policies don’t have a strong correlation? You found, for instance, that more participation for low-income voters doesn’t have a strong effect.

P: Right. That’s depressing but it’s also consistent with what others have found. Places where the poor turn out they don’t seem to have more representation, which is a very troubling finding. The poor don’t get a whole bunch of a boost from voting. There is also research showing that minorities get less of a representational boost from turnouts than whites [Flavin refers here to the research of John Griffin and Brian Newman.]

[Interviewer’s Note: Flavin also points out that other studies find that turnout affects representation. One study specifically examined the low-income turnout, and found policy responsiveness increased with a higher low-income turnout. See this summary.]

S: Could gerrymandering and housing segregation explain the racial gap?

P: That’s probably part of the explanation. You have districts with Democratic candidates winning with 90% of the vote. It can definitely help explain racial inequality, but it can’t help with income inequality.

S: You also have a study that finds the more regulations a state has the more money that is distributed to the poor?

P: Yes. There are six policies I looked at: disclosure, limits on individuals, limits on organizations, whether there are public funds for governors, public funds for legislatures and clean elections. I gave each state a score for each year examined [1962 – 2006]. Then I compared it to what percentage of a state’s budget goes toward public welfare in general and then to cash assistance in particular.

S: To put it baldly, then, if we don’t get money out of politics, it won’t matter as much if poor people vote?

P: If poor people voted at the same rates as rich people, I’d expect they’d be better represented but at an institutional, practical recommendations level, passing laws that limit campaign finance are doable, so I focus on the laws side of things. There is evidence that these laws work.

S: Do you have any thoughts on the DISCLOSE Act?

P: I find that the stringency of disclosure requirements is statistically related to the equality of political representation across the states. Out of possible campaign finance fixes disclosure requirements seem to have the most bipartisan support, though this support is certainly not universal. It is probably the most practical/realistic area to push for reform.

Neil deGrasse Tyson vs. the right: “Cosmos,” Christians, and the battle for American science

The religious right has been freaking out about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” for what feels like an eternity. And, while the theological complaints seem laughable for their rancor and predictability, it’s time we thought harder about what they represent, because the Christian right’s “Cosmos” agita actually indicates a far deeper problem in religious conservatism — the selective acceptance of Enlightenment values. Religious conservatives have selectively adopted the legacy of liberal Enlightenment, from free speech to science, and jettisoned it when it does not suit their narrow ideological aims.

There is a nasty tendency for those arguing for their case to adopt a stance of enlightened empiricism on one issue to devolve into empirical nihilism on another. There is also the habit of shifting from a high praise of liberal values on one issue to utter contempt on another. Of course, our various liberal values will come into conflict frequently and must be weighed, but we must be disturbed at how quickly some, particularly on the religious right, are willing to twist these traditions for their own gain.

The odd conflict of science and religion has come to define modern religious fundamentalism. While most religious people happily accept scientific theories about gravity, claims about the age of Earth are subject to a strange scrutiny by those who believe that the literary creation narratives in the Bible describe actual events.

The scientific consensus about global warming must be untrue, because, as Dr. Innes writes in “Left, Right and Christ,” the world is “not a glass ornament that we might accidentally destroy … we are not capable of destroying it, whether by nuclear weapons or carbon emissions.” Young earth creationism is the ultimate attempt to both accept modern science, but also to deny it. Fundamentalists like Ken Ham argue that the world and laws we currently observe simply bear no resemblance to the past.

In truth, we cannot get fundamentalism without the scientific revolution. Fundamentalism does not exist independently, but rather defines itself in relationship to post-Enlightenment values. It is the odd melding of science and religion that creates fundamentalism — the belief that the Bible is ultimately both a scientific and religious text. Fundamentalists, like the conspiracy theorists they resemble, will build up reams of evidence creating the case for something that can be disproven with a simple logical proposition. Few thinkers have built such an impressive edifice of logic and evidence upon such a thin foundation of speculation.

Dinesh D’Souza, for instance, has taken to using science as proof of religion — he argues, rather absurdly, that the Bible’s explanation of the origins of the universe predates modern science. In his speech at Intelligence Squared, he claims:

When the discovery of the big bang came — this, by the way, was at a time when most scientists believed the universe was eternal, the steady state universe was the prevailing doctrine of American and Western science — so it came as a shock that the universe had a beginning. Why? because, in a way, it wasn’t just that matter had a beginning, but space and time also had a beginning. In other words, this was something that the ancient Hebrews had said thousands of years ago and without conducting a single scientific experiment. By the way, this is not the same as other cosmologies. Other ancient cosmologies posited the universe being fashioned by a kind of carpenter god who made it out of some preexisting stuff, but the ancient Hebrews said, “No, first there was nothing, and then there was a universe.”

But this rhetorical flourish is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of the creation narrative, and religion in general. Religion, ultimately, aims at truths deeper than science and trying to apply religious reasoning to the natural world is absurd. Augustine warned as much, telling Christians in “De Genesi ad litteram libri duodecim” to avoid, “talking nonsense on these topics.”

More worryingly, the idea that a rather tenuous reading of a literary work holds the same weight as centuries of scientific evidence is more than a little absurd. D’Souza is trying to selectively apply science, but without its foundation — empirical, testable, repeatable propositions.

We see here the fundamentalist flaw: a mass of rhetoric, reason and evidence built on the utterly insane proposition that the Old Testament is meant to be a scientific account of the origins of the universe.

The reason any somewhat knowledgeable Christian is frustrated by these debates is that they simply pit one fundamentalist against another. One tries to use science to disprove religion, the other to prove it — both apparently unaware that belief is something that cannot be “proven.” That’s the entire point! Too often, religious excursions into science resemble the thinking of the suicidal people described by Anne Sexton, “They ask only what tool, they never ask why build?” Fundamentalism at its core is the misunderstanding of the proper relationship between science and religion — one practiced just as frequently by atheists as Christians.

Another form of this trend is the co-option of liberal values. The religious right cannot generally be found decrying freedom of speech or freedom of religion, instead they make a selective application of these values — much the way they’ll talk science when you question nuclear power but deny a consensus about evolution or global warming on entirely spurious grounds.

One recent example of this illiberalism was the quickness with which Catholics decried a “Black Mass” at Harvard. The “Black Mass” is merely a satanic parody of the Catholic mass — which, while it may be offensive to some Catholics, is totally harmless in practice. Of course, the idea of Catholics demanding special privileges is not rare, but to be expected; one wonders if Satanist child abusers could claim that their church would deal with the matter internally.

Liberal values are not weighed in a vacuum, but this weighing appears to be something many religious conservatives are incapable of doing. During the Black Mass controversy, Father James Martin appeared on MSNBC and said, “I think to put it in perspective, we could say, how would we feel if they said, ‘we’re going to do a little cultural thing, we’re going to do something that’s anti-Semitic, or racist, or homophobic, just as a cultural experiment, we’re going to set up the reenactment of a lynching …’” Father Martin claims to put the event in perspective, and then does the opposite, equating the merely offensive with an act of white supremacy.

Lynchings were intimately tied to white supremacy in the post-Civil War South — their intention was to establish white hegemony and create a permanent underclass. Lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan and the burning of crosses were either overtly violent or symbolically violent. The reenactment of a lynching would not be acceptable at a liberal university because it would amount to the direct threat of violence to minorities on campus. It would be aimed at suppressing their rights to expression.

One wonders how Father Martin has lived his entire life in the United States and is still capable of making such an odious comparison. The distinction between the merely offensive and what amounts to group libel or defamation is hard to make, but the Supreme Court has endorsed the idea that some speech may be more than just offensive, and can therefore be regulated. As Clarence Thomas noted in his correct dissent in Virginia v. Black,“just as one cannot burn down someone’s house to make a political point and then seek refuge in the First Amendment, those who hate cannot terrorize and intimidate to make their point.” Father Martin seems to miss this distinction and believes that he should be protected from ever being criticized or offended.

Hobby Lobby provides another example of the selective use of the liberal tradition. One might find it ironic that Catholics aim to carve out an exception for themselves from laws of general applicability when denying other religions that privilege. But sadly, religious majorities have a long history of understanding the First Amendment diametrically wrong, as a protection of powerful religions rather than weak ones. It is the latter the Founders knew would need special protection (see: Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah), not the former.

To both of these claims — that many on the religious right have entirely abandoned the post-WWI liberal consensus of scientific inquiry and Enlightenment values — there are those who would like to say the same about the left. The Economist is quick to point to GMOs as the left’s version of anti-scientific inquiry. Such claims are entirely overblown. More recently, there have been claims that the left is showing the same illiberal tendencies as the right, most notably Michelle Goldberg of the NationShe argues we are “entering a new era of political correctness,” which she calls “left-wing anti-liberalism.”

While she cites some rather damning movements, they are all fringe movements that have produced pixels but will not bring about change. As Marx once wrote of Communism, “In order to supersede the idea of private property, the idea of communism is enough. In order to supersede private property as it actually exists, real communist activity is necessary.” We might note that the idea of illiberalism is something liberalism must countenance, even though it must be prevented from ever being existent.

And here the threat from the right is far stronger: We have seen free speech, freedom of association, freedom of religion and rights of due process come under scrutiny at all levels. Workers are being denied even the semblance of control over their labor and women over their bodies. Money is making a mockery of democracy.

What we see is an asymmetric illiberalism. The religious right and some portions of the conservative movement have hijacked Enlightenment values for selective use. A truly deep (almost dogmatic) commitment to free speech, say, that practiced by the ACLU, which will defend the right of neo-Nazis to protest, is not what we find in many conservative circles. Instead, we see an embrace of empiricism when it is good and a rejection when it is bad. We see an embrace of religious freedom for me, but not for thee. Harry Emerson Fosdick preached in 1922:

The present world situation smells to heaven!  And now, in the presence of colossal problems, which must be solved in Christ’s name and for Christ’s sake, the Fundamentalists propose to drive out from the Christian churches all the consecrated souls who do not agree with their theory of inspiration.  What immeasurable folly!

Well, they are not going to do it; certainly not in this vicinity.  I do not even know in this congregation whether anybody has been tempted to be a Fundamentalist.  Never in this church have I caught one accent of intolerance. God keep us always so and ever increasing areas of the Christian fellowship; intellectually hospitable, open-minded, liberty-loving, fair, tolerant, not with the tolerance of indifference, as though we did not care about the faith, but because always our major emphasis is upon the weightier matters of the law.

His words are still more important today. We live in an increasingly connected and multicultural world, and yet many major religions refuse to recognize marginal ones. We also live in a world threatened by global warming, and yet some Christians deny it, even though it has long been a tenet of religion to live in harmony with nature.

Originally published on Salon.

Welcome to the Piketty revolution: “Capital in the 21st Century” is a game-changer (even if you never read it)

Anyone who’s anyone (and many more who aren’t) has written something this week about “Capital in the 21st Century,” the new treatise on income inequality by French economist Thomas Piketty.

The book was actually published early last month by Harvard University Press, but arrived to fanfare only within the insular, if august, community of economic policy researchers. So, on arrival, it might have seemed like the 700-page tome, with its academic tone and laboriously documented historical analyses, was destined to a life of obscurity. But then something strange happened. People — regular people — started to buy it in droves. By the time “Capital” surged to the top of the charts this week — so many physical copies of the book were sold that Amazon actually ran out of inventory — Thomas Piketty had become the most famous economist this side of Paul Krugman, celebrated on the left and reviled on the right.

At this point, a review or discussion of “Capital” is almost a rite of passage for an aspiring wonk. (You can read this writer’s here.) But the one question that hangs over Piketty’s meteoric rise is, in a way, the most obvious one: What does any of this actually mean?



First off, Piketty is a symbol of the increasing consensus among academic economists and political scientists about inequality and democracy. This consensus, which has been demonstrated in innumerable studiesreports and books already, establishes a few propositions: Inequality has been increasing in the United States over the past three decades. This inequality has been defined particularly by an explosion among the very top, be it the 1 percent or the 0.1 percent (or even the .01 percent). This concentration of economic power has coincided with an increase in political power for the wealthiest Americans. There are still some ideologues who dispute these points, but there are ideologues who still disputeevolution and global warming — best to move along.

Second, Piketty puts conservatives in a rather awkward position. Conservative values, like “opportunity,” “family” and “tradition” — which are broadly supported by Americans — were once the backbone of the Republican Party. Today, that tradition has been jettisoned by the GOP in favor of becoming a subservient vessel for the richest of the rich. Some conservatives have argued that inequality isn’t a problem because government transfer programs — Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare — reduce inequality. This is certainly true, but these are the same transfer programs conservatives are so eager to cut! So if conservatives wish to make this argument, they must implicitly accept that transfer programs work to alleviate inequality, and therefore that cutting them will increase inequality.

Other conservatives, like Kevin Hassett at the American Enterprise Institute, have arguedthat the increase in income inequality has not led to increase in consumption inequality. That is, while incomes have diverged, because the wealthy save more, the poor and middle class can still afford to keep up in purchasing consumer goods. This isn’t true: Numerous studiesfind that consumption inequality has increased along with inequality. However, if the poor have been able to buy goods, they are only able to do so by increasing their debt-loads, which means that wealth inequality will increase concomitantly. (There was a day when conservatives would fear an increase in debt and a large propertyless class. Today, they cheer it on!) In both of the aforementioned conservative arguments, the right reveals the depths to which it will happily sink to gain the patronage of the wealthy.

Third, Piketty points us again to the most important facet of inequality — the inequality of capital. Capital — the ownership of assets that allows individuals to attain wealth and exploit labor — was what Marx worried about. As he wrote in “The Communist Manifesto” of the members of bourgeois society: “Those of its member who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything, do not work.” Today, the debate over income inequality is framed often as the distinction between the salaries of mega-CEOs and minimum-wage workers. This inequality is certainly disturbing; a recent Demos report finds that the compensation of fast food CEOs was more than 1,200 times the earnings of the average fast food worker. But salary is only one part of compensation. Piketty reminds us that a far more potent driver of inequality is the passive accumulation of capital that is only exacerbated through inheritance (see chart below, from Piketty).

This distinction is important, because it reveals the true depth of Republican hypocrisy. While they talk of the value of hard work, they cut taxes on the various parasites whose only source of wealth is the labor of others. They wish to reduce income taxes to 25 percent and, more disturbingly, eliminate capital-gains taxes altogether. That means more wealth inequality, because the percentage of Americans who owns stocks is decreasing(and capital is even more unequally distributed than labor). When their policies are examined objectively, they help not even the 1 percent, but a much smaller portion of society — the 0.01 percent that make their money through capital accumulation and exploitation, rather than of honest labor.

* * *

Is Piketty’s book more likely to be purchased and sat on a coffee table than read? Certainly. The same can be said of “Das Kapital,” though no one would attempt to deny its immense political impact. Keynes’ “General Theory of Employment” — the ur-text of modern economic policy — also wasn’t widely read by the masses, but no book has had a more potent or prolonged influence on the world economic program. The idea of a dense, academic tome setting the public alight is not extraordinary, but rather quite ordinary. The list can certainly be expanded. It’s unlikely that public fully understood the “Origin of the Species,” the Pentagon Papers, “Silent Spring,” “The Kinsey Report,” “Democracy and Education” or “The Course of Positive Philosophy” at the time of their publications, but their impact on society, because of the movements they either fomented or supplemented, is undeniable.

“Capital in the 21st Century” is such a book. For decades, Americans have been aware of the fact that “growth” was no longer benefiting them and their children. We have noticed that the benefits of new technology and of our labor have been flowing to a very few, and that those same people then dictate policies to consolidate their wealth even further. Our voices are not heard, as both political parties, to differing extents, have become subservient to those with wealth.

If nothing else, “Capital” will finally bring questions of “who gets what” back to the center of economics. Economists will no longer be able to couch tax cuts for the rich behind a veil of jargon, disguising power relations as mere economic efficiencies. We forget, if we ever knew, that the earliest economists were philosophers and historians first — and that economics was always considered to be a question of politics.

The Founding Fathers feared that inequality and the conflict between capital and labor would undermine the nascent American government: John Adams, for example, wrote that “property monopolized or in the possession of a few is a curse to mankind.” And even Adam Smith — he of the “invisible hand” — worried of men who “monopolize economic power and undermine the government.” The solution proposed by America’s founders was widespread capital ownership. As Adams writes, “The only possible way then of preserving the balance of power on the side of equal liberty and public virtue, is to make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society.” Later, Abraham Lincoln said, “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Lincoln and the Founders would have been disturbed to learn that one family, the Waltons, now owns more wealth than the bottom 48 million families in America combined; and that wealth inequality is again back to the levels last seen in the days of “The Great Gatsby.” (See chart below, from Saez and Zucman.)

Piketty supplies us with the basis for a new narrative. In this narrative, the postwar period — in which rapid growth produced broad-based, equally shared growth — is unique, not an inevitable product of capitalism. Piketty believes this postwar lull in violent inequality to be an inevitable coalescence of population and war. I believe it was brought about by a powerful labor movement and an epochal crisis of capitalism, coupled with wartime solidarity. Either way, such equality will not come again without action (and it’s unlikely we could grow our way to equality). Money will not remove itself from politics. Power cedes nothing without demand.

The owners of this country, those who profit off of lung cancer, environmental degradation and political capture, are very worried that we learn their tricks. They did not create wealth, they stole it, and continue to accumulate it. As Marx noted, the default position of capitalist societies is ever more inequality and accumulation. Although he is far from a Marxist, Piketty has reaffirmed this truth. The only question that remains is the question Nikolai Chernyshevsky asked in 1863, “What is to be done?”

Originally published on Salon.