Notes on a Theory…

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Archive for August 2012

Hypocrisy isn’t the important thing here. Ideological failure is.

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The title of this post comes from an excellent diary at Daily Kos, that you should read.  It’s great not just on it’s main point about Ayn Rand accepting Medicare and Social Security, but more generally. Hypocrisy arguments often end up failing to state what you are for.  They can even come off as though you agree with the conservative principle, implying that it’s a good thing. But Scientician shows how to use such moments as a hook to make a larger argument that is rooted in our values. Those values include the idea that everyone deserves security and opportunity, by virtue of being a human being.  Social insurance is designed to ensure our shared fate includes protecting against shared risk, risks that come about simply by living in our world.

That’s the failure here;  Rand needed society’s help.  Rand ran headlong into the very premise of why Medicare was created in the first place:  The for-profit insurance market  is terrible for the elderly and particularly to those already stricken with serious diseases.  It’s not about chortling at Rand as yet another greedy right wing hypocrite, it’s about realizing she implicitly acknowledged the superiority of liberalism with her actions.  This is her endorsement, and as Paul Ryan’s sort gears up to destroy Medicare, we shouldn’t hesitate to remind them that Ayn Rand, whatever her rhetoric and books, ended her life on our side.

To quote Will Ferrell: “That’s how you do it. That’s how you debate.” (Also, check out his blog, Autonomy for All).

Written by David Kaib

August 17, 2012 at 1:26 pm

When is a Cut not a Cut? Framing and Medicare

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Scott Lemieux points to the confusion over “cutting” Medicare, arguing that not all cuts are created equal.

There’s nothing wrong with Medicare cuts per se; indeed, spending less per capita on Medicare should be a progressive goal. It’s a question of what these cuts mean. Evidently, cutting payments to the rentiers Republicans have sought to reward through Medicare Advantage is an unequivocally good thing. And reductions in payments to hospitals that come because there are fewer uninsured patients that hospitals have to treat are also a good thing. And this is what the Medicare cuts Obama supported come from. The Medicare cuts Ryan supports, conversely, come from requiring people to pay much more out of pocket for the same things, preventing them from getting insurance that will get the same things covered, or denying them the ability to get insurance at all.

I agree on the substance, but I think we need to rethink our terminology. Talk of ‘good cuts’ is counterproductive.  You can’t use the same word to denote taking benefits away from people that you use for delivering the exact same benefits for a better price. Those who oppose social insurance but want to shift as much public money into corporate hands as possible (that is, proponents of the Predator State) have an obvious interest in conflating the two. Those who want to protect Social Security and Medicare need to be a lot clearer about the difference.

Personally, I think “cuts” implies “benefits cuts” to most people, so I’d use it that way – always including the word benefits. Talk of saving money shouldn’t be referred to as a cut – and should always mention that it’s delivering the same benefits more cheaply. You should also always mention that Medicare is already providing health care more efficiently than the corporate insurance sector, misleadingly called the private sector.  Talk of Social Security cuts (which as Scott notes, are different, in that it’s always about a cut in benefits), in any form, should make one a social leper.  In essence, if you don’t want something to have a chance of happening, then you don’t want it to be floated without a massive freakout.  The reaction to such suggestions is how people know the boundaries of the possible. But ambiguity makes that more difficult.

Clarity is important both for getting the public engaged on this issue, where they are far more progressive than official Washington. It’s also important for ensuring accountability for those who present themselves as our allies.

Written by David Kaib

August 16, 2012 at 9:14 am

Blaming the People: Democratic Efficiency as a Cop Out

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Mark Graber takes “constitutional populists” to task for failing to blame the real culprits when it comes to our broken system—the people.

        Constitutional populists always assign the blame for constitutional failings to evil institutions which are thwarting the good American people from fully realizing their constitutional commitment to the “Blessings of Liberty.”   If we can just get rid of the Electoral College, eliminate state equality in the Senate, abandon life tenure for federal justices, and change the rules for constitutional amendment, my friend Sandy Levinson and others imply, gridlock would disappear, the American people would cherish their governing officials, and most other ills of contemporary American politics would be significantly alleviated.

This populist optimism fails to acknowledge that the cause of most contemporary constitution ills lie in the character of the American people rather than in American constitutional institutions.  Consider that one major party in the United States routinely runs candidates for public office, most notably the presidency, who deny basic scientific and social science findings.  Give me a billion dollar backer, and I thought I could make hay in the Republican primaries on a platform that questioned the Pythagorean Theorem (the theorem is un-American and no one in the academy permits any dissent from liberal right-triangle orthodoxy).  One does not have to be too skillful at “connecting the dots,” to quote my friend again, to realize that no commonly proposed constitutional amendment is responsive to a society many of whose members reject evolution and think that Mary and Ben’s thirty year marriage will somehow be affected if John and Tony are also allowed to be married.

First off, it seems clear that there is a vast difference between arguing that some reform is needed and believing that achieving that reform will bring about a utopia.  As near as I can tell, this is a strawman.  From what I’ve seen of Levinson, he’s implied no such thing. People generally want to improve institutional structures to improve politics, which I think we all appreciate is a messy business.  Unless you’re trying to place control in the hands of some unaccountable body (Supreme Court, the Fed, etc.) you probably don’t think politics will disappear.

The second point is an example of a fairly common error in logic. Graber’s proof that it’s the people who are the cause of our ills rather than our institutions is statements of candidates running for office and their success. But you can’t prove an outcome is caused by some factor by pointing to the outcome alone.   The whole argument hinges on the assumption that causation runs from the mass of individuals to the functioning of institutions.  It makes more sense to assume that institutions produce such beliefs, to the extent they exist, in people.  But either way, stating the problem is the beginning of the argument, not the end.

A great deal of political science makes the same mistake, as does the bulk of political punditry.  If Congress is dysfunctional, it must be because the people are increasingly polarized. (They aren’t.)  If Republicans win elections, it must be because the people are increasingly conservative. (They aren’t).  If a majority of people say something in a poll, that causes political outcomes, not vice versa. (Wrong again).  (A great resource on all this is Class War?: What Americans Really Think about Economic Inequality by Page and Jacobs).

it strikes me that increasingly the power has been shifting towards those at the top.  Political explanations that rely on formal understandings of how politics work confuse justifications for explanations.

The myth of democratic efficiency is a cop out.  It reassures us that we bear no responsibility for changing things.  It means we don’t have to contest these issues, and seek to change the views of our fellow Americans.  It means we don’t have to build better institutions, mobilize our side, or articular what it is we believe.  It makes us quiescent.

Given the challenges we face, that’s the last thing we need.

Written by David Kaib

August 10, 2012 at 9:40 pm

Partisan Politics and the End of the Union Movement?

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[Updated below]

Back in January, the Center for American Progress put out an issue brief entitled Unions Make Democracy Work Better for the Middle Class.  As it shows clearly, declines in rates of  in union membership and the share of income held by the middle have moved together since the 1960s.  This is just a dramatic illustration of a great deal of evidence that unions produce a stronger middle class and less inequality.  The picture is as clear as it is disturbing.

The point of the chart, as with the report as a whole, was to make the case for the value of unions for society as a whole.  I’m fully convinced, needless to say, but I want to focus on something else for the moment.  Look at the decline in union density and point to where the Democrats held the White House, Congress, or both.  Density certainly declined when Republicans, who have made union busting a central tenet of their faith, have held power, but has it gone up when Democrats have? The Clinton years aren’t distinguishable from the Bush years on either end. There is a small uptick around the beginning of Obama’s presidency, but it’s insignificant in the face of the larger trend.  At this rate, it won’t be that long before union density is zero.  You simply cannot look at this chart and believe that Democratic control of the White House will stand in the way of the end of the union movement or that this is not where we are headed.

This is a fact, and facts, as John Adams said, are stubborn things. Unlike questions about the fate of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), or the impact of Race to the Top (RTTP), or about the relationship between Democrats at the state level and unions, this fact doesn’t leave much room for interpretation.  And it strikes me as one of the more important facts for understanding the challenges for our democracy, our economy, the Democratic Party and the union movement.  Any argument about strategies for the union movement, and the left, has to take this into account.

Something has to be done.  That said, strategies don’t flow automatically from facts, let alone one fact.  Figuring that out requires identifying opportunities, assessing strengths, expanding on models that are working, and any number of other things that facts like this cannot inform.

Of course, a lot of people have been talking about this, but I suspect that even more difficult than finding a roadmap will be enacting the sort of institutional change that would bring it about.  Announcements about change often are nothing more than wishful thinking, and even determined people may find it impossible to turn words into action.  This latter challenge strikes me as the most important piece, and as it stands I’m not sure what the answers are or even what the questions are.

One thing that this sort of institutional change will require is thinking big about what our goals are.  The new report Prosperity for America by Jacob Hacker and Nate Loewentheil and endorsed by the AFL-CIO and a number of other progressive organizations is a great start (I’ll have more to say about that later).  It remains to be seen what will come of this.

But we better figure it out quick.  The clock is ticking on the movement, and our democracy.


The always great Josh Eidelson reports on a janitors’ strike by SEIU members in Texas, not exactly the first place you might think of when you think of unions.  Whether they succeed will depend in part of the pressure allies can being to bear on some of the countries most profitable countries, which contract with the companies that employ these janitors and who likely hold all the power here.  Sadly, it doesn’t seem to be getting much attention from anyone else.  If progressives can’t get mobilized to support working people when they go out on a limb, it’s hard to see how these trends are going to turn around.

Written by David Kaib

August 5, 2012 at 11:26 am

Taxes and the Myth of Democratic Efficiency

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Steve Kornacki notes that 19 House Democrats broke with their party on letting the Bush tax break for the richest to expire.  As always, the willingness of some Democrats to defect on votes that the White House and congressional leadership are trying to use to draw a contrast with the Republicans on muddies the message and makes mobilizing one’s own side more difficult.

To be fair, plenty of House Democrats from competitive districts did vote for their party’s tax plan. But almost every incumbent on the “no” list who is seeking reelection is in a competitive or potentially competitive race. This speaks to a phenomenon I wrote about a few weeks ago – that even though voters tell pollsters they like the idea of raising taxes on the rich, they won’t necessarily reward leaders who do it (and, in fact, they may actually punish them). A number of vulnerable House Democrats are sensitive to this possibility, and the result is less unity on the Democratic side than on the GOP side.

Follow the link and what do you find? A story about how Republicans Senators in Indiana and Utah have found themselves under assault in Republican Party nomination battles –assaults which are of course funded by the elite conservative machine.  This is hardly evidence about what voters in Democratic-held districts want.

Does that mean that voters are itching to reward Democrats for voting for raising taxes on the rich? No.  But voters don’t generally reward legislators for how they vote. If legislators and the party make an issue out of something, if they treat their actions are worthy of being rewarded, they might.  But it doesn’t happen automatically.  Kornacki slips here into the myth of democratic efficiency—the idea that electoral outcomes are a straightforward manifestation of aggregated individual opinions, rather than shaped by institutions and elite strategies.  Hacker and Pierson have detailed why this is not the case in particular with the modern Republican Party.  Progressives generally reject the ridiculous claim that this is how the economy works—that investor confidence and workers laziness is responsible for the recession rather than the reduction of aggregate demand, coming from the crash of the housing bubble, reductions in government spending, opportunities for profit that don’t create jobs, the feedback loop of unemployment, etc.

Yet we all too often accept it in politics.

Written by David Kaib

August 3, 2012 at 12:06 pm

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