Monday, July 9, 2012

The single most important issue in American politics

I generally hate stuff like this.  Articles or posts suggesting that we'd all be better off if not for That One Thing.  It feels simplistic, ignorant.  It feels like a rant.  I tend to like complexity, both in identifying problems and proposing solutions.  But I've got this nagging feeling that maybe This One Thing may be at the heart of a lot of problems the US is facing right now.  So here goes:

The single most important issue in American politics is this: people like government services, and they don't want to pay for them.

Because it's not their fault.  It's the fault of Other people. 

Okay, we're in a demand side recession, and classic Keynesian theory calls for fiscal stimulus, which, with multipliers, will reduce unemployment.  I happen to think all of that's true.  Why didn't the Obama stimulus work?  It did work; it was just much too small.  The evidence to support those ideas is massive.  Keynes still does work.

But deficits are still bad (as Keynes would again agree).  We will still have to cut spending at the federal and state levels and also raise taxes.  And most Americans would agree.  As long as we don't cut spending on programs they like, and as long as we're not raising their taxes. 

Two narratives: one is an internet meme I've seen, suggesting that President Obama wants to bribe poor people with free money stolen from hard-working Americans so they'll vote for him, perpetuating him in office. So: free health care.  Among other goodies.  Of course, this entire thing is completely nuts; we could cut every nickel the government spends on welfare for poor people and it wouldn't make a dent in the debt, plus poor people don't vote, plus the whole thing's crazy (and, sorry, borderline racist).  What strikes me is the way in which this narrative constructs the people who are the problem.  Undeserving poor.  Bums.  Parasites.  As, in other words, Other.

Second, just as crazy on the left; the suggestion that passing the Buffet bill would do anything at all to solve the deficit.  The problem is Those Greedy Rich Folks, who aren't paying their fair share.  Again, the problem isn't people like me.  It's Others.  It's Those Folks over there.

Better example: California is famously ungovernable.  The California constitution makes referenda too easy; that's one problem.  I read a book--California Crackup-- by two journalists, Joe Matthews and Mark Paul, who looked at the administration of Arnold Schwartzeneger.  In 2005, having failed to find any way at all to work with the nation's most dysfunctional state legislature, Arnuhld held a special election, voting on four reforms: limiting state spending, stopping the practice of gerrymandered districts, limiting public union spending on elections and making it a little harder for teachers to get tenure.  All four were attempts to deal with California's fiscal crisis.  And all four were defeated.  As Paul puts it: Schwartzenegger tried to govern as a Republican, he tried to govern as a Democrat, and when everything else failed, he took his case to the people.  He did pass a small tax increase.  The legislators who voted for it were then swept out of office.

The Deseret recently ran an op-ed piece calling for Shared Sacrifice--another of those sacred, time-honored, essentially meaningless phrases (right up there with 'hard-working Americans').  It called for cuts, among other places, in Defense spending.  But, said the editorial, we can't close Hill Air Force Base.  We should close other bases.  That one's a big employer in our state.

I think of the illegal immigration debate.  There's simply no question that immigrants are a net positive in our country.  They contribute more to our economy than they cost in government--no serious economist disputes that.  But they're Other.  They're Illegal.  They're Not Us.  Hence a resurgent American nativism.  It's got to be Their fault.

Our country has massive debt problems, in part because we're under-taxed.  We also need to cut spending--judiciously, but it needs to happen.  Let's start by eliminating Hill Air Force Base.  I live in Utah, and Utah needs it, which is why it needs to go.  


  1. I would've been bothered by that letter as well and for similar reasons. We are stupidly selfish when we cling to our own benefits while looking down on others who do the same.

    I'm honestly not a huge fan of any kind of government dependency.I know that sometimes government is meeting a need that cannot otherwise be met, but it can often create unnecessary dependency. Being dependent on other people or organizations really sucks. There is little satisfaction in dependency. The benefits are never quite sufficient, and we are at the mercy of someone else. We forfeit control over an aspect of our lives.

    I admit that I'm probably one of those naughty people who judges others for depending too much on the government (or on their parents or anyone else for that matter). Maybe I'm just jealous. We definitely had help here and there when I was growing up, but we had a lot of free-falling too. At times, we were totally white trash. :) But I'm proud of my mom, because she always wanted more for our family.

    I've shared this story with some friends, but I love it so much I'll share it again. My mom was a single parent during most of our lives. In the early 1980s, she realized that she needed computer skills in order to support our family. So, after analyzing our finances and realizing that she couldn't afford computer classes AND rent and board (the child support check was pretty modest), she knew that she had to do something drastic. Her parents lived in New York, but the relationship was very strained, and there was no chance of our living with them.

    So she went to K-Mart and bought camping supplies - two small tents, a screen room, cots, lanterns, and cooking supplies. Then she found a great but apparently reasonably priced campground. Thankfully it was during summer vacation. For about 6 weeks, we lived in a campground. We swam, played in the woods, ate ice cream, played many games of Risk (Republicans in the making), and pretty much had a blast. I think I saw "Pippi Longstocking" and "Watcher in the Woods" that summer. I'm still a little scarred from both movies.

    It was honestly one of the best summers of our childhood. We were a little neglected, and it was drastic. But in the months that followed, Mom found decent work, bought a small mobile home, and we never came that close to homelessness again. I consider it one of my mom's finest hours.

    While I'm bragging about my mom, I guess I'll confess a case (or situation) where I'm frustrated with others for depending too much on the government. WIC. We never did WIC. I kind of resented that David didn't want to turn to WIC, because we totally would've qualified. Plus we managed our money poorly enough that we were racking up debt. But we worked through the tough times, learned some valuable, painful lessons, and we eventually paid off our debt.

    I tend to feel a little resentful when I'm in line behind a mom getting her WIC benefits. Juicy Juice, pre-mixed formula, many other brand names or products we never purchase because it's just not economical - all provided to WIC families at no cost. I'm kind of happy for them, but kind of not. I just think there is something to be said for free-falling a little, or racking up and then paying large sums of debt, or maybe even spending a few weeks in tents. (Well, maybe the tents thing is drastic, but it was pretty fun.)

    1. What a lovely story. Thanks so much.