Saturday, February 06, 2010

This Stupid Country
Here's some good timing: the same day that the scared-of-their-own-shadow Democrats met for their aptly named winter retreat and the Tea Party people ("The other White Party!"?) convened for a weekend of rage, Slate details the national dumbassery:

Anybody who says you can't have it both ways clearly hasn't been spending much time reading opinion polls lately. One year ago, 59 percent of the American public liked the stimulus plan, according to Gallup. A few months later, with the economy still deeply mired in recession, a majority of the same size said Obama was spending too much money on it. There's nothing wrong with changing your mind, of course, but opinion polls over the last year reflect something altogether more troubling: a country that simultaneously demands and rejects action on unemployment, deficits, health care, climate change, and a whole host of other major problems. Sixty percent of Americans want stricter regulations of financial institutions. But nearly the same proportion says we're suffering from too much regulation on business. That kind of illogic—or, if you prefer, susceptibility to rhetorical manipulation—is what locks the status quo in place.

At the root of this kind of self-contradiction is our historical, nationally characterological ambivalence about government. We want Washington and the states to fix all of our problems now. At the same time, we want government to shrink, spend less, and reduce our taxes. We dislike government in the abstract: According to CNN, 67 percent of people favor balancing the budget even when the country is in a recession or a war, which is madness. But we love government in the particular: Even larger majorities oppose the kind of spending cuts that would reduce projected deficits, let alone eliminate them. Nearly half the public wants to cancel the Obama stimulus, and a strong majority doesn't want another round of it. But 80-plus percent of people want to extend unemployment benefits and to spend more money on roads and bridges. There's another term for that stuff: more stimulus spending.

This is why I don't think much of polls: for the answers to have any guiding relevance to elected officials, it seems the answering public should have some idea about the facts on the question on which they're opining. But all we know is what we want: "We despise the government, but want it to solve all our problems. We pay too much in taxes but will see services cut, even demonstrably wasteful ones, over our dead bodies. We're always for forceful response and bold action, until reality confounds us again by not immediately conforming to what we want it to be or, above all, moving as quickly as we wish it to."

Human nature being what it is, it's actually neither surprising nor, in the larger sense, particularly distressing that so much of public opinion seems indistinguishable from a teething two year-old. Most people don't have the time or inclination to follow the news closely, and given the imperatives of for-profit media, what they mostly do see when they're paying attention is process-guided conflict freighted with despicably parochial considerations, not a clash of principles or ideals. The Founders intuitively understood this, which is why we have a representative democracy with a wealth of checks and balances (probably more than is good for us in a moment when partisan forces act in bad faith) rather than a plebiscitary system or something more directly responsive to popular will at any given moment. Ugly as it was when George W. Bush spoke in early 2005 about the "accountability moment" he'd faced and survived in the 2004 election, he wasn't wrong: that was the electorate's chance to express a judgment on his record. On an everyday basis, public opinion simply shouldn't matter very much.

But even the core leap of faith--that the electorate generally gets it right when called upon to do so--comes into question when polling so strongly suggests a foundational ignorance of the issues. That's doubly true when politicians gleefully fuel and exploit that ignorance:

The politicians thriving at the moment are the ones who embody this live-for-the-today mentality, those best able to call for the impossible with a straight face. Take Scott Brown, the newly elected Senator from Massachusetts. Brown wants government to take in less revenue: He has signed a no-new-taxes pledge and called for an across-the-board tax cut on families and businesses. But Brown doesn't want government to spend any less money: He opposes reductions in Medicare payments and all other spending cuts of any significance. He says we can lower deficits above 10 percent of GDP—the largest deficits since World War II, deficits so large that they threaten our future as the world's leading military and economic power—simply by cutting government waste. No sensible person who has spent five minutes looking at the budget thinks that's remotely possible. The charitable interpretation is that Brown embodies naive optimism, an approach to politics that Ronald Reagan left as one of his more dubious legacies to Republican Party. A better explanation is that Brown is consciously pandering to the public's ignorance and illusions the same way the rest of his Republican colleagues are.

I don't mean to suggest that honesty is what separates the two parties. Increasingly, the crucial distinction is between the minority of serious politicians in either party who are prepared to speak directly about our choices, on the one hand, and the majority who indulge the public's delusions, on the other. I would put President Obama and his economic team in the first group, along with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Republicans are more indulgent of the public's unrealism in general, but Democrats have spent years fostering their own forms of denial. Where Republicans encourage popular myths about taxes, spending, and climate change, Democrats tend to stoke our fantasies about the sustainability of entitlement spending as well as about the cost of new programs.

I really like this typology of public figures. Unfortunately--and this gets back to the severe structural problems that I and others see bedeviling us right now--the incentives are all lined up against those who try to be honest and constructive. This past week, Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin did something I think unique for his party since it's been in opposition: he proposed a serious long-term budget that would eliminate the federal deficit. I don't think it's a great proposal on the merits: Ryan wants to privatize Medicare, and do so in a way that would render the program far less effective, and revive the private accounts model for Social Security that Bush tried to push forward five years ago. But it's an actual attempt to grapple with problems. And Democrats are attacking it to score political points in a manner roughly as shameless as the Republican barrage against the proposed health care reforms.

Thus it becomes that much more difficult for Ryan or any other Republican who might be inclined to propose something necessary but politically painful. And we continue to want ever more from government while putting in ever less.


The Navigator said...

I think I want to say a few words in defense of the Democrats for attacking the GOP over Ryan's budget proposal. I haven't watched closely, but my sense is that they've attacked it by holding it up to the light and criticizing in on the merits, without distorting it. So what's wrong about that? The GOP has been making contradictory criticisms without offering substantive alternatives for a while now, and finally one them has actually said how he'd reconcile their goals: by destroying Medicare and savaging Social Security. Those are two of the Democrats' all-time greatest and proudest accomplishments, and if they can't challenge the GOP to either side with Ryan or else abandon him and thus tacitly admit that they have no alternative plan, then when can they score a political point?

The Navigator said...

The Dems' attack doesn't seem all that shameless to me - the GOP's attacks on health care has involved the most extreme hypocrisy, e.g. a party that tried to kill Medicare for decades now suggesting that Dems want to pull the plug on Grandma for reducing redundant and wasteful Medicare Advantage payments. The Dems's pro-SS resolution by contrast seems of a piece with their long-standing position. And they're right on the merits: I've read that Ryan's proposal would actually cost more that current projections, with a switch to private accounts; the Dems can accurately counter that SS can be salvaged as a public program with slight tweaks to eligiblity and benefits.

I take your general point about not launching hypocritical, unfounded attacks on politicians who attempt serious fixes, but the Dems are right to savage Ryan in this case - the criticism would be more apt if he proposed slightly raising retirement age and capping benefits for the wealthy, and the Dems then said he was making Grandma starve, etc.

The Navigator said...

And Ryan's less serious than you give him credit for: his proposals wouldn't go into effect until 2021. His budget is, in fact, an effort to split seniors from the middle-aged, buying off the former in the hopes of destroying social insurance for the latter, in the expectation that the latter's general anti-government attitude and lack of focus on benefits they haven't qualified for will be enough to bring down our decades-long commitment to keep retirees healthy and out of poverty. If Ryan had the courage of his convictions he'd proposed starting these changes in 2011.

The Navigator said...

Finally, from my cynical side: I see no signs that the GOP will ever cease from shameless, hypocritical attempts to score political points. Evidence mounts all the time that that is the way to win elections. I don't like it - not only for a persnickity affection for honesty and fair process, but also because there's something to the idea that we'll never make real progress if we can't be honest and open with each other and the broader electorate - but it's a fact of life, and as long as it is, I don't want the Dems to unilaterally disarm. The Dems spent 2009 trying to pass Romneycare, for f#@!'s sake - in line with what Dole, Baker and Daschle all agreed made sense - and the loyal opposition called them Stalinists. And Scott Brown won. I don't see the evidence that the way to win this game is to refrain from shameless political point-scoring.

David said...

The question of how to keep winning elections--which ultimately is the only way *not* to reward the Republicans for their despicable political behavior--while trying to cultivate a responsible and serious opposition, is admittedly a really tough one.

It might be impossible, in which case the small-d democratic project is probably doomed--because we'll either have ineffectual democracy, which itself won't last very long, or a more effective governance structure without democracy ("the Petraeus Protectorate").

On the question of Ryan's proposal, I haven't read it--I'm largely going on Ezra Klein's assessment. To be clear, it's not how I'd do it, and I agree that his radical ideological bent is on display. I like social insurance. But at least it's serious. In a better world--hell, in the world of the Tax Reform Act, which wasn't all that long ago--it might serve as one starting point for a conversation.

Any serious person knows that to get our budget under control, we'll need both benefit reductions and revenue enhancements. The problem with the Republicans is that they're now more or less explicit in the preference for tax cuts and permanent deficits rather than balancing the books. That's not an available option, is the thing; in my worse moments (which are more numerous these days) I wonder if anything short of China's central bank declaring, "we're cutting you deadbeats off" will bring them around.

David said...

Okay, now it sounds like Ryan's proposal wouldn't actually eliminate deficits.

I still think it's admirable that he put it out there, but, well, yeah...

The Navigator said...

I should emphasize that I didn't mean to sound as if Dems never try to score cheap shameless political points when conservatives try to offer serious, good-faith policy solutions. I genuinely think they do that much, much less than the GOP, mostly because Dems are far more interested in governing whereas Repubs are more likely to take a Goldwaterian "I have no desire to improve government for I mean to reduce it" approach. But both sides launch bad faith attacks when the other side tries to get serious; it's a real impediment to good policymaking.

It's an interesting question - at what point should the Dems, when they're in the minority, cut a deal on reforming entitlements? I think they were absolutely right to oppose Bush's 2005 Social Security proposal, which really did amount to the slow destruction of the program. But suppose the GOP were to propose a long-term fix that preserved the program but relied more on benefit cuts and eligibility restrictions and less on taxing wealthier recipients than Dems would like - would a responsible minority party have to take that deal? Even if they could plausibly claim a plan to retake power and cut a better deal - while knowing they might well not? I'm not sure. I would have to agree that, under those circumstances, if they launched a mirror-image tea party-style attack calling the proposal euthanasia in disguise, that'd be unfair and not conducive to bipartisan cooperation on policymaking.

The Navigator said...

I think the Dems have almost certainly done this when the GOP suggested Medicare cuts, for example. Which probably contributed to the GOP taking an extreme stance when the Dems actually proposed modest cuts this time. It's just so hard to trust the GOP when they get anywhere a program they've always lusted to kill. But if I were a serious GOP policymaker who'd put out good-faith deficit-reducing proposals that wouldn't have dumped Grandma out of her hospital bed, only to be accused of that, it'd be hard to resist turning the tables with some unfair attacks, purely for revenge.

David said...

Yup. This gets to a basic problem of the system now, which seems to think it's parliamentary though it isn't structured that way: there's no electoral reward for responsibility when you're in the majority or good faith when you're not. Quite the opposite, in fact.