Universalism vs. the What-About-Mes

May 10, 2016

This primary season has made plain Americans’ dissatisfaction with American politics – dissatisfaction because someone else seems to be getting all the goodies and concern. The right wing thinks the poor are the government’s favorites. The left wing sees its wages and taxes mostly benefitting the super wealthy. Both Sanders and Trump mined the political backlash from special interest politics. Trump’s apparent nomination increases the urgency for both parties to respond to this problem.

And for anyone who wants to argue that impoverished or minority Americans are being short changed, one runs a minefield of envy, and the “what-about-mes.” The same weighs down discussion of the advantages of international trade agreements. If we don’t all share, the biggest issue is me. Similarly, for too many people the environment never seems to be about themselves but someone else, people on islands, lowlands, the next generations, but not themselves. That makes all our problems tougher to deal with.

When he wanted to establish a program for the elderly and the injured, the genius of President Franklin Roosevelt was to make it seem universal. Social security insurance applied to all kinds of people and most kinds of jobs.[1] We pay into the system long before we know whether and how much we’ll need. Many get social security who would be excluded by any need based program. But that’s the point. There is no stigma to social security. FDR did it as an insurance program; most of us contribute and collect. Roosevelt wanted to make it simple – you did your social security business at the post office. And when some politicians wanted to tamper with it for ideological reasons, they found that social security was a third rail of politics. FDR had hit that nail on the head.

Now, however, simple, universal programs like medical insurance have become a political football, and the very possibility of the government pursuing the general welfare is under attack from the not-with-my-money crowd. But because it is under attack, because we cannot count on government even to pull us out of a recession that would involve spending tax dollars, no matter how good the investment, the very possibility of economic changes are much more threatening than they should be.

Investment in infrastructure should be an investment in the general welfare, full of benefits for everyone, putting people to work building it, making jobs and businesses easier to reach, and creating benefits for all of us, from clean water and more reliable utilities to better education and internet services. The best way to protect people from unemployment is to provide jobs that provide benefits for the public. Infrastructure can pay dividends, in jobs and services that make everyone better off, and that only government can build.

Unfortunately politicians prefer big showy projects, dramatic new bridges and buildings rather than maintenance, repair and cost effective options. They prefer projects targeted for their contributors, Or they prefer to get on their soapboxes and try to get us to tear down the very government that made this country a great one. The cost of political behavior that breeds distrust of American government is enormous. Good government, self-government was the signal contribution of America to the world and we are allowing our political infrastructure to crumble along with the water, utility, transportation and electrical infrastructure.

It’s not just who we tax; it’s also what we do. Government matters; it does things for the public that no one else will take care of. We need good government, fair government, government for all of us, but government – strong, effective government – and the confidence that comes from doing it right.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 10, 2016.

[1] On the original exclusions, see Larry DeWitt, The Decision to Exclude Agricultural and Domestic Workers from the 1935 Social Security Act, Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 70, No. 4, 2010, https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/ssb/v70n4/v70n4p49.html, but he is less convincing regarding motivation. For summaries of current exemptions, see Intuit Inc. (U.S.) at https://turbotax.intuit.com/tax-tools/tax-tips/General-Tax-Tips/Who-Is-Exempt-from-Paying-Social-Security-Tax-/INF19965.html or http://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/013015/who-exempt-paying-social-security-taxes.asp.


The Outdated Economics of Conservative Ideologues

April 26, 2016

Some of you may have been following Shankar Vedantam on NPR or the discoveries of Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning psychologist on the Princeton faculty, and their demonstration of the irrational ways that people very naturally and ordinarily reach decisions. Indeed, for quite a long time it’s been apparent that rational decision making often demands too much of people. As Cornell’s Vicki Bogan said in a talk in Albany, the rational choice model of economics assumes that people:

  • Think like Albert Einstein
  • Can store as much memory as IBM’s Big Blue
  • Can exercise the will power of Mahatma Gandhi
  • … [and] make unbiased forecasts

Nobel Prizes have been awarded to psychologists and economists who have been studying human decision making, showing that people literally can’t do what conservative economic theory expects them to. The rational man doesn’t exist, and for that reason, markets often don’t protect us. For both businessmen and consumers, rational choice is often impossible; it’s just too hard. Sometimes things aren’t currently knowable. Sometimes they’re beyond the capacity of individuals, even if institutions can figure it out.

A trip to the grocery store helps make the point clear. Even though much of the information exists, I can’t know enough about all the ingredients of the goods I buy, and their impact on my body, and still take the time to do my work and have a life to live. I have to trust someone or something else. But consumer ignorance shapes what businessmen have to do to survive. Those who cater only to the most informed, cater to small markets and often go under.

One consequence is that the market doesn’t protect us. That’s why workers’ compensation was started many decades ago – workers couldn’t figure out the odds of injury and didn’t have the ability to protect themselves as cheaply and effectively as informed employers could. Government stepped in to move that burden of knowing and choosing from the employee to the employer.

Those are examples. The broader impact of what is now called behavioral economics is that the economic theory of market ideologues is thoroughly discredited nonsense. It doesn’t work. A couple of decades ago there was a big debate about the efficient market theory which claimed that the market had it right even though individuals could be wrong. But they couldn’t tell me whether the market had it right the day before or the day after the crash. In other words it was nonsense on stilts.

That’s one of the reasons the public, all of us, have to get out of the glare of the outdated economics coming from conservative ideologues. It’s one of the reasons why it has been so important that Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have moved the Democratic Party to the left. That shift also clears the way for Hilary Clinton to return to the roots of the modern Democratic Party in the Great Depression, in Roosevelt’s New Deal, in being a party with heart.

Hilary and Bernie both have a lot to offer, but just as big a key to progress will be the Senate and the House of Representatives, which have blocked Obama’s efforts to push this country toward better, more caring solutions at every turn.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, April 26, 2016.


Race & Economic Justice, for Martin Luther King

January 17, 2012

Yesterday was Martin Luther King day. That actually led me to think some more about the Occupy Movement and their slogan, the 99%.

Movements for economic justice have repeatedly had their backs broken over the race issue. In the 19th century, the surging Populist Movement tried to ignore race and bring poor whites and blacks together. But it was destroyed in the South over race. We limped into the 20th century without major reforms although the Progressive Movement that brought Woodrow Wilson to the White House enacted pieces of the Populist creed and the Roosevelt Administration enacted more.

But the Roosevelt Administration also steered clear of race in ways that would have an enormous impact on America. Read the rest of this entry »


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