the question we should ask given this unpleasant reality is what policies would offer the best prospects for healing the damage. Mr. Obama’s camp argues for an active government role; his last major economic proposal, the American Jobs Act, would have tried to accelerate recovery by sustaining public spending and putting money in the hands of people likely to use it. Republicans, on the other hand, insist that the path to prosperity involves sharp cuts in government spending.
And Republicans are dead wrong.
Has it occurred to you that the 2008 recession and its aftermath is being seized upon by conservatives as an excuse to enact the kind of ideological social spending cuts they’ve always wanted to do? I mean, regardless of whether their proposals help the economy or not? Me, too. In fact, I think I’ve seen this movie before.
I remember when 9/11 was used as an opportunity to sell the American people an ideological foreign policy agenda that they would otherwise never have gone for. Again, completely regardless of whether those policies would address the threat of terrorism or not.
“I want to reduce the deficit.” = I want to shrink the size of government.
“I want to shrink the size of government.” = I want to cut the spending I don’t like.
“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” – Barack Obama
And the right goes insane. He’s the most anti-business president in history! Or something! But if you read his remarks in context it becomes clear that his meaning is other than what these two unscripted sentences alone would seem to imply. Really. Take a look.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.
“The point is, when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.
(Emphasis my own.)
When we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. Radical, I know. And when he’s saying “you didn’t build that,” he’s quite obviously referring to the “roads and bridges” of the previous sentence. If you seriously don’t get that…well, no. I don’t even believe someone doesn’t get that.
But wait! The president is still awful and a communist! He doesn’t seem to realize that the business owner himself paid the taxes that built those roads in the first place! He doesn’t get it!
Or maybe it’s the right-wingers who don’t get it. Sure, the successful business owner paid taxes for the roads. (Well, some of them do.) But here’s the thing your’e forgetting: So did everyone else. It’s not that “you didnt build that”–it’s that you didn’t build it alone. We built that road together, through our taxes, through our government. And having done so we created an environment where business can thrive–your business, my business, everyone’s business. If you are successful in America, you owe a little of that success to other Americans. The ones who helped pay for the infrastructure in which your business could thrive.
And, importantly, if we forget that doing these kinds of things together is part of that recipe for success, then we risk having less success in the future. It is not only necessary that wealthy individuals and successful businesses pay taxes, it’s only right that they do so. Not to pay back the people who helped them. But to extend that nurturing environment forward so that the next hard working person with a big dream can be successful, too.
Anyone who reads the presidents remarks to mean something different is engaging in, shall we say, “motivated misunderstanding.” His meaning is obvious and factual on its face.
Sometimes it seems like American conservatives are less interested in solving problems than they are in establishing that the problem is visited only on the people who deserve it.
It’s as if they do not really care about reducing poverty as such. They just want to make sure that the people who are poor are those who deserve to be poor. They do not want to decrease the number of people who are uninsured. They just want to make sure that those who are uninsured are uninsured because of their own bad choices. Sometimes I think they would rather see people dying in the street than see any kind of redistributive government policy to save them–just so long as those dying are doing so because of their own choices.
To them it seems unfair and counterproductive to shield people from the worst consequences of their bad decisions. Especially if it means shaving off some of the benefit from those who ostensibly made better choices. In other words, don’t tax the successful to shield the unsuccessful from the consequences of their poor life choices. Doing so distorts–no, perverts–the natural order of things in which the virtuous prosper and the wicked flounder.
Putting aside the sheer inhumanity of it, the problem here is that this Calvinistic view assumes a just world. That is, a world in which people reliably get what they deserve. It isn’t luck, it isn’t chance, it isn’t genetics, it isn’t large societal forces or anything outside of an individual’s control–it’s their own choices.
But the Just World Hypothesis is wrong. It’s an error, a common cognitive bias that has been studied for decades.
Poor people may indeed have made bad choices. But some are just unlucky. Many are both. Meanwhile, the ease and privilege of the wealthy may not be entirely due to their superior life choices. Some of it might be good luck. In some cases, it’s entirely good luck. That’s life. It’s complicated. And it’s often unjust.
Understanding this is one of the reasons people like myself feel that it is appropriate for those of us who are doing ok to chip in and ease the burdens of those in less desirable life circumstances. There are practical reasons to do this as well, but that is the moral case for it. You can’t accurately detect someone’s character and decision making skills simply by observing their life circumstances. Sometimes the wealthy are just lucky and the poor unlucky.
That scary budget deficit! The one that scares the hell out of Pick’n Save lady. What can we possibly do about it?
Republicans say they care about it, but they don’t. The Bush tax cuts blew an enormous hole in the federal budget going forward but they aren’t even willing to entertain the idea that we might, at some point, let some of them expire as planned.
They are, however, willing to kill Medicare and instead give seniors coupons to buy private health insurance. They are willing to raise the eligibility age for Social Security and lower its benefits. Strangely, they aren’t willing to cut military spending, though.
Need I remind you of which presidents presided over which periods of deficit growth and shrinkage? Need I remind you of what Dick Cheney famously said about deficits? No. They don’t truly care about deficits. They just use it as a bludgeon to attack spending they don’t like. Citizens who care about fiscal responsibility should really think twice before ever voting for these guys.
Hey, here’s an idea. Why don’t you fix the deficit? You can (at least for pretend) with this Budget Puzzle page at the NY Times. I know it’s from 2010, but it’s still a hoot. I got the feds back in the black in nothing flat just by clicking 12 boxes. And at a 65/35-ish ratio of spending cuts to tax increases. Try it!
As I was waiting for the woman in Pick’n Save to check out my stuff, she was concluding her conversation with the previous customer. The guy was thanking her for something or other, saying he’d never thought about whatever-it-was that way before. Then she turned to me.
“This is a really important election,” she said. “Is it?” I asked, not too sure I wanted to hear what was coming.
“Aren’t you concerned about this debt?” she asks. “No,” I reply. “I’m a lot more concerned about unemployment.” I told her that if we were at full employment we’d probably find other fiscal problems a lot easier to deal with.
She agrees with me. Then she says “I just get so frustrated whenever I have to balance my checking account. Why doesn’t the federal government have to do the same?” I tell her that the federal budget isn’t like a household budget. “Well, it should be a law that they have to balance the budget, don’t you think?” No, I tell her. I don’t want that.
I don’t have time to explain to her that balancing the budget through spending cuts will make the economy worse, make unemployment worse. I don’t’ have time to explain the paradox of thrift. I don’t have time to explain that if she’s perhaps really concerned about the debt, she should hit me a couple of years hence and let’s talk about repealing those supposedly temporary Bush tax cuts–something I bet never occurred to her as the main driver of our debt outlook going forward.
I was pretty rattled by then. I wish I had been nicer. I left, telling her that she really didn’t know a lot about economics. She agreed that maybe it was so–although I can’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not.
I really don’t get why this TED talk was considered controversial. Someone suggested to me that it was because it contained “proof” that supply side economics is bunk, that such proof is dangerous to The Man–and thus the effort to keep it hushed.
But I think the reason it was kept under the rug was not because it contained anything new, but because saying these things to an audience of venture capitalists was simply embarrassing to TED organizers. One of the points of TED, after all, is to lure VC money into funding the great ideas presented there.
Internet pal and noted libertarian Nick Schweizer tweeted a familiar quote today:
Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.
I’ve heard it before. Usually in a very specific context: conservatives whining about being taxed for a social safety net they don’t want. The “wolves” in this scenario are the recipients of government spending. The “sheep” are the hardworking taxpayers who foot the bill. Democracy, they would have us believe, is always at risk of being nothing more than the have-nots taking advantage of the haves through government action.
Nick seemed a little nonplussed when I expressed exasperation. He apparently didn’t mean it in the way I’m used to. Nevertheless, here’s my reaction to its more common use by American conservatives.
First, we have a constitutional democracy. Not everything can be decided by a vote of our representatives. The Constitution sets the limits of what the legislature can do. One presumes that having the sheep for dinner would violate his civil rights and be disallowed–no matter what the vote tally came to.
But more specifically, I find the conservative’s use of this quote puzzling. It seems as if they live in a world where wolves are voting the sheep dinner left and right. That is, a world in which the have-nots are taking from the haves to an alarming and unfair degree.
That’s not the world I live in.
Taxes are lower today than they have been in my lifetime. And wealth concentration at the top is greater now than it has been in many decades. Does that sound to you like the rich are being overtaxed by recipients of social programs? So much for the wealthy being cast as mutton dinners.
And the middle class taxpayer? They’re people who themselves rely on things like Social Security and Medicare, so the fact that they have to pay for it can’t really be considered unfair.
To the point that social programs like Medicare are experiencing great cost increases, well that goes directly to the heart of our health care system problems. Specifically, it’s not that people have too much health care–it’s that health care costs too much in America. Control the costs like other civilized countries do and Medicare becomes pretty manageable.
Anyway, the sheep and wolves quote always annoys me. What do you think?
1. The 2008 financial crisis can best be explained by
a) federal regulations forcing mortgage companies to lend to low income people who could not really afford mortgages
b) deregulation of the banking industry which had been going on in a bipartisan way for decades
c) a government takeover of banks
2. Businesses aren’t hiring in this so-called “jobless recovery” because
a) their taxes are too high
b) they don’t have access to capital
c) they’re too uncertain about future regulation and tax law
d) customers aren’t buying
3. The largest cause of our increasing federal deficit is:
a) Social Security
c) Stimulus spending
d) The Bush tax cuts
4. Current federal tax rates are
a) higher than they were four years ago
b) higher than they were ten years ago
c) lower than they have been in decades
5. Teen birth rates in the United States have been dropping since the 1970s because of
a) abstinence-only sex education
b) comprehensive sex education
c) wide availability of contraception
d) both b and c
6. The so-called “cap and trade” system for reducing industrial carbon emissions was first proposed by
a) Bill Clinton
b) Newt Gingrich
c) Heritage Foundation
d) Vladimir Lenin
e) both b and c
7. Among the measures the Obama administration has taken to curtail second amendment rights are
a) closing the gun show “loophole” which allows the purchase of firearms without background checks
b) limiting magazine capacity
c) further restrictions on the ownership of certain kinds of automatic weapons
d) the Obama administration has done nothing whatsoever to curtail the rights of gun owners
8. The bailout of the US auto industry was
a) a success, resulting much of the loans paid back and in GM becoming the world’s top-selling auto maker
b) a government takeover of what was once a private industry
c) a partisan kickback to the American auto worker’s union
d) both b and c
9. Effective corporate tax rates are
a) lower than they’ve ever been before
b) higher than they’ve ever been before
c) Trick question! Corporations don’t pay taxes, they just pass the cost along to consumers
10. The bottom of the recession occurred during the period of time when the policies of which administration were in effect?
c) we still haven’t hit bottom
d) technically there was no recession
11. The bank bailout or “Troubled Asset Relief Program” (TARP)
a) was among Bush’s last policy decisions
b) was among Obama’s first policy decisions
c) was a highly partisan decision
12. The so-called Republican “war on women” is
a) entirely fabricated by Democrats
b) a term used to describe Republican lawmakers recent attempts to curtail not just abortion but contraception, women’s health care in general and even equal pay
c) a term used to describe Republican presidential candidates’ hostility toward not just abortion but contraception, women’s health care in general and even equal pay
d) going well
e) both b and c
13. State governments are experiencing large deficits chiefly because
a) the entire country is struggling to climb out of the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, increasing safety net expenditures while simultaneously lowering the tax base
b) teachers are greedy
c) corporate tax rates are too high
14. With regard to domestic oil production, the Obama administration has
a) increased it
b) decreased it
c) done nothing
15. Your own personal federal taxes have __________ under Obama administration policies
a) gone up
b) gone down
c) have not changed
16. The death of Osama bin Laden was
a) a coup for the Obama administration and highlights a difference between himself and Romney
b) no big deal as a president Romney would have done the exact same thing had he been given the opportunity
c) precisely planned for maximum political effect
d) a hoax
17. The mandate that individuals be required to purchase private health insurance is an idea that was first cooked up by
a) Karl Marx
b) Heritage Foundation
c) Barack Obama
d) the “lame-stream media”
18. Speculating that watching Glee can cause people to experiment with homosexuality means that you are
a) genuinely concerned about the youth of America
b) a homophobic dick
d) both b and c
19. The first American politician to put the individual health insurance mandate into effect was
a) Paul Wellstone
b) Barack Obama
c) Mitt Romney
d) Jefferson Davis “Boss” Hogg
20. When the individual insurance mandate became the law in Massachusetts, then-governor Mitt Romney said
a) it’s a shame we can’t do this nationally because that would be unconstitutional
b) we should do this on a national level
c) this was a terrible idea that went wrong, let’s never speak of it again
d) where’s my Etch-A-Sketch?
21. Of this list, who was the first to say that millionaires should pay a higher tax rate than bus drivers, and that to do otherwise would be “crazy”?
a) Warren Buffett
b) Jimmy Buffett
c) Barack Obama
d) Ronald Reagan