Thursday, September 4, 2014

Democratic Platform: Wishy-Washy Worry

 "I worry a lot," Elizabeth Warren admitted this week. "I worry across the board."

If whining and complaining is how the Great Progressive Hope of the Senate inspires enthusiasm in voters, then despair all ye who enter the fresh hell of her Yahoo! interview with Katie Couric.

What's really worrisome to me is how narrowly Warren defines the "core economic issues" of our time (hint: it's not the record wealth inequality that was a popular talking point of Democrats for a couple of minutes last year before a plutocratic temper tantrum sent them all scurrying to fetch imaginary "opportunity ladders" for one and all.)

Not even close. Warren's core issues, the issues that "it is critical that we speak up for" are as follows: the $10.10 minimum wage, reduced interest rates on student loans, pay parity for women, and oh yeah, Social Security.

In other words, just enough crumbs to make the Democratic wing of the Uniparty seem slightly less bad than the Republicans. In other words, the same neoliberal agenda being wheezed out by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. No universal health care. No guaranteed income. No government jobs program. No increased taxes on the rich. No Fed money-drop on Main Street to stimulate the economy, as even some moderates are once again suggesting. 

Furthermore, Warren sets up her legislation for failure. The student loan bill, for example, dog-whistled its cynicism loud and clear by gratuitously including the "Warren Buffett rule" tax increase on the wealthy to fund it. Since the Buffett Rule is universally despised by the GOP, she should have and could have simply called for the reduced interest rates without any "pay-for" gimmick at all. The whole purpose was to make Republicans look like sadistic assholes. (Funny how you  never hear any of them clamoring for offsets or tax increases to pay for the escalation of the war in Iraq.)

To be fair to Warren, though, she is only a "progressive" because the Washington Consensus says she is. She's a moderate Republican who simply got fed up with all the blatant corruption. That disgust is pretty much all that separates her from such openly compromised politicians as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. On  domestic policy, she's as conservative as the rest of them; on foreign policy, she's as hawkish as the worst of them.

And she never, ever criticizes them by name. Like Barack Obama before her, she's a consummate insider only pretending to be an outsider.  

Obviously stung by criticism over her pro-Israel remarks last week, Warren did attempt to tone it down somewhat in the Couric interview, allowing that a two-state solution is probably the way to go... eventually. In that part, she sounded like a mildly sedated NetanYahoo! hawk very lightly tethered to a left-handed gauntlet.

On ISIS, though, she talked from both sides of her mouth as ably as Obama on one of his increasingly rare good days. We should rush with all possible speed to crush the terrorists, she says, but only with the careful cooperation of unnamed "others."

On Ferguson and race, she was just a total wuss. She wants to wait until the criminal investigation is complete before "assigning any blame."  Because only when we hear both sides can we have a hackneyed "conversation" -- that meaningless thing that all politicians fall back on when they don't want to discuss inconvenient truths in the here and now. While allowing that the militarized cops put a damper on peaceful protests, she uttered not one single word about the endemic poverty in Ferguson. She uttered not one word about that population having "a fighting chance." (the title of her book.)

So much for the Washington Consensus that the Democratic Party is split between liberal (Warren) and centrist (Clinton) factions. If Wall Streeters are really convinced that Elizabeth Warren is such a divisive populist, they are even more paranoid than I thought. 

She's a neutered pussycat, yowling on cue for appearance's sake. Meanwhile, those pampered colonies of rabid feral fat cats continue to hiss and claw with abandon, all the way to the teetering top of the scratching post.

Update: Elizabeth Warren and Paul Krugman, NYT columnist and new hire at the Luxembourg Income Study Center at CUNY, will team up for a livestream event this evening at 7:30 p.m. to discuss those hardcore issues of student loan interest rates, minimum wage, and women's health care. I won't be home to watch the live event, but will try to play catch-up tomorrow. In the meantime, if you do watch it, please weigh in with your comments. Since the think tank where Krugman works is supposedly dedicated to the study of wealth disparity, maybe it will actually be included as a core issue. One can always hope.


Zee said...

I consider myself “progressive” on some sociopolitical issues, and pretty damned conservative regarding others, which, I think, makes me a small-“l” libertarian. So where am I going with this exercise in upper-case/lower-case semantics?

To me, at least, it means that I am willing to consider even large-“P” Progressive ideas on a case-by-case basis, and, if they make sense, to seriously consider adopting them. Thus, I have been persuaded by Progressives that a Canadian-style, single-payer health care insurance system would be best for this country (with a few personal caveats to be discussed on the way there.)

I'm willing to consider a single-payer system because I believe that there's adequate evidence from Canada and elsewhere that such a system works to the benefit of all, and clear evidence here in the states that health care is not amenable to “market forces” in any event.

But what I find troublesome about other large-“P” Progressive ideas is the absence of any detailed analysis before they are trotted out before the public, leading to rapid public derision and rejection.*

The idea of a guaranteed annual income, or, more precisely, the notion of “A Helicopter Drop [of money] on Main Street” is one of these:

“Assume a $1 trillion dividend issued in the form of debit cards that could be used only for goods and services. A back-of-the-envelope estimate is that if $1 trillion were shared by all US adults making under $35,000 annually, they could each get about $600 per month. If the total dividend were $2 trillion, they could get $1,200 per month. And in either case it could, at least in theory, all come back in taxes to the government without any net increase in the money supply.**”—(My bold emphasis.)

Unfortunately, it seems that most Progressive economic plans are based on “back-of-the-envelope” calculations. But it's lay-people like me who do back-of-the-envelope economic calculations, not serious economists:

I expect more from those who are trying to win my vote, so how 'bout some real analysis as to what this will really cost?

Moreover, where did the “magic number” of $35K/year come from as a “cutoff” number between those deserving of a $600 per month raise, whereas those making $35,001 per year get nada?

These “step-function” cutoff points are guaranteed to alienate every adult who makes a single centime more than $35K per year from supporting any such idea. Smooth curves are what work.

Only about 20% of the American electorate identify themselves as “Progressive” or “Liberal:”

If Progressives want to sell their ideas, they have to be backed by facts and numbers, not by “back-of-the-envelope” calculations.

*This was a concern that I raised to a fellow Sardonickista concerning Jill Stein during the 2012 presidential campaign. I was told then that the Green Party just couldn't afford to do detailed economic studies and so I had to settle for hope and glittering generalities. Not gonna do it.

**Owing to the assumption/assertion that “one dollar spent seven times over on goods and services could increase tax revenue to the government by 7 x 24.3% = $1.7. The government could actually get more back in taxes than it paid out!” Yeah. Right.

Fred Drumlevitch said...

@Zee (and @all):

My primary critique of the "rain money on main street" comes from different direction (though I'm NOT saying your concerns are unjustified). Such a distribution, "...debit cards that could be used only for goods and services..." has a very "free-market"/"neoliberal" (in fact, downright right-wing) implicit premise --- that the market, and the individual purchasers and sellers that make up the market, will put that capital to its "best use".

I contend that they won't, for a variety of reasons. In many areas, commercial consolidation in recent decades means that we don't have real competition --- think banking, airlines, supermarkets, drug stores, major appliance retailers --- sometimes as few as two or three main choices, which I don't consider to be robust competition. Furthermore, modern commercial (as well as political) advertising operates with a manipulative sophistication that would astound even twentieth-century dictators --- so we don't have the other necessary component of a robust free market --- informed, rational buyers.

But by far the biggest problem with raining money on main street, I think, is that many of our national problems are BIG problems that are not amenable to solution by market mechanisms, problems that instead require a fundamental shift in thinking and considerable national planning --- yes, that word that has been tarred by its failures under Communism and its denunciation by American conservatives. Like it or not, fact is, that consumer with an extra $600 in his pocket can't build a properly-functioning health-care system, can't fix the roadways, still can't afford higher education, or return higher education to its older role of encouraging the development of a broadly-informed, thoughtful citizenry (as opposed to simply providing job-training for industry).

Denis Neville said...

It is difficult to be sympathetic with someone calling himself/herself a “small l” libertarian.

What does being a “small l” libertarian mean?

The doctrines of libertarianism are sufficiently extreme that anyone who says that he/she subscribes to what he or she thinks is a “nicer” form libertarianism is still buying the rest of the libertarian doctrine.

Libertarianism is an ideology without empathy. It’s most important failure is its systematic contempt for humanity.

I like the following quote by G. K. Chesterson, because it illustrates the characteristic libertarian flaw –their contempt for the human frailty of people they depict as lesser:

“Nietzsche has a description somewhere - a very powerful description in the purely literary sense - of the disgust and disdain which consume him at the sight of the common people with their common faces, their common voices, and their common minds…this attitude is almost beautiful if we may regard it as pathetic. Nietzsche's aristocracy has about it all the sacredness that belongs to the weak. When he makes us feel that he cannot endure the innumerable faces, the incessant voices, the overpowering omnipresence which belongs to the mob, he will have the sympathy of anybody who has ever been sick on a steamer or tired in a crowded omnibus. Every man has hated mankind when he was less than a man. Every man has had humanity in his eyes like a blinding fog, humanity in his nostrils like a suffocating smell. But when Nietzsche has the incredible lack of humor and lack of imagination to ask us to believe that his aristocracy is an aristocracy of strong muscles or an aristocracy of strong wills, it is necessary to point out the truth. It is an aristocracy of weak nerves.” - G. K. Chesterton, Heretics

Libertarianism is quite amenable to kleptocracy because of its laissez-faire attitude toward economics – so conducive to looting – and its hostility to the social safety net – which steers $$$$$ away from the looters.

Fred Drumlevitch said...

On the subject of government spending (in this case, a massive subsidy for a large corporation):

Observe the smirk worn by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, as he shakes hands with Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval over a proposed state subsidy worth up to $1.3 BILLION. I'd be smirking too if I had just managed to get as much as $1.3 billion of government money for my private business.

On the other hand, if I were a long-time small-business owner in Nevada, or virtually any Nevada voter, I'd be furious.

Zee said...

@Denis Neville--

I find it somewhat astonishing that with your fantastic memory, you still seem to forget all that I have said—or not said—in this forum.

Have you ever heard me calling for the dismantlement of Social Security or Medicare or the food stamp program or any other element of our “social safety net?” Have you ever heard me demanding that government regulation of business be reduced or eliminated so that the “true power” [read: “savagery”] of the marketplace could be “unleashed?”

Large “L” Libertarians are, IMHO, a pretty loony bunch, and I think that you would be hard pressed to find me endorsing any of their craziest ideas in this forum, save for (1) a belief that the size of our government could be reduced significantly without affecting any of the core functions that a government should perform and (2) total legalization of all recreational drugs. That certainly does not translate in any way to a call for the destruction of the social safety net or a completely laissez-faire capitalist economy.

Perhaps rather than calling myself a small “l” libertarian I should call myself a conservative with libertarian leanings. (Or maybe I should forget about labels altogether, as they consistently seem to get me into trouble.) Which means to me that rather than feeling contempt for those around me—as the Chesterson quote would seem to imply—I try very hard to respect, and empathize with, those with values and beliefs differ from mine, even when I find it difficult to understand why they think and act as they do. And I try equally hard to let them live the lives they choose to live, rather than the way I think they should live. The greatest social safety net in the world is of no value at all if it is not accompanied by the freedom to try to be who we want to be. That's what “small 'l' libertarianism” means to me.

Abraham Lincoln had this to say about the proper relationship between a government and the people it serves:

“The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves---in their separate, and individual capacities.

In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.

The desirable things which the individuals of a people can not do, or can not well do, for themselves, fall into two classes: those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not. Each of these branch off into an infinite variety of subdivisions.

The first—that in relation to wrongs—embraces all crimes, misdemeanors, and non-performance of contracts. The other embraces all which, in its nature, and without wrong, requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.

From this it appears that if all men were just, there still would be some, though not so much, need of government.”
(My bold emphasis.)

pete v said...

Totalitarian governments are conducive to looting, too.

Zee has gone to some lengths, in this post and others, to substantiate what "small l" means to Zee, yet the mere mention of the word libertarian evokes such reaction.

Pity, it would seem that progressives, greens, libertarians, occupiers, etc. have a lot of common ground and shouldn't be so reliably divided.

Regarding the Money Drop, even Milton Friedman was a proponent of a Guaranteed Minimum Income.

Regarding G.K. Chesterton, he was a strong proponent of Distributism, an economic ideology that "has often been described in opposition to both socialism and capitalism."

From the Distributism Wikipedia page:

"According to distributists, property ownership is a fundamental right[4] and the means of production should be spread as widely as possible rather than being centralized under the control of the state (state socialism), a few individuals (plutocracy), or corporations (corporatocracy). Distributism therefore advocates a society marked by widespread property ownership.[5] Co-operative economist Race Mathews, argues such a system is key to bringing about a just social order.[6]"

Three Acres and a Cow!

Zee said...


I agree with your additional analysis of the failings of the “rain money on main street” approach to stimulate the economy.

But the words “national planning” are not anathema to me. I can't recall exactly where I said it in this forum, but I believe that I, too, have called for a major effort to first decide what it is that we want our government to do for us, and second, to determine how we will distribute the tax burden across the citizenry in the fairest way possible. And third, to keep a watchful eye on our government to regularly prune agencies that no longer fulfil a useful mission.

Instead, we have both federal and state governments that have grown almost without thought. The Government Accountability Office has documented numerous examples of federal agencies that needlessly perform the same or similar functions:

“This 2013 annual report identifies 31 areas where agencies may be able to achieve greater efficiency or effectiveness. Within these 31 areas, we include 17 areas of fragmentation, overlap, or duplication where multiple programs and activities may be creating inefficiencies. Although it may be appropriate for multiple agencies or entities to be involved in the same programmatic or policy area due to the nature or magnitude of the federal effort. The report also includes 14 areas where opportunities exist to achieve cost savings or enhance revenue collections.

To address the issues identified in these areas, we suggest 81 actions that the executive branch or Congress could take to reduce or eliminate fragmentation, overlap, or duplication or to achieve other financial benefits. Given that the areas identified extend across the government and that we found a range of conditions among these areas, we suggest a similarly wide range of actions for the executive branch and Congress to consider. For example, the actions we suggest in the report include, among many others, canceling a demonstration program, strengthening oversight of certain payments and investments, and limiting or reducing subsidies for a particular program.”

Got a problem? Create some new agency or other to deal with it. But when the problem is resolved or the agency discovers that it can't fix the problem, does that agency ever “sunset?”

No! It simply gins up some other mission or other for itself, for which it may or may not be well-suited, because it is in the nature of government agencies to perpetuate themselves once established.

Military bases are the same way. A base established in a once- remote area becomes the commercial hub for the surrounding community. So if a base's mission goes away, a new one—no matter how inappropriate—must be found immediately to protect the economy of the community.

Waste, fraud and abuse abound in our government which, if eliminated could result in savings on the order of tens of billions. I recounted examples in a long-ago thread, so I won't review that particular topic here:

The federal government should be scrubbed from top to bottom to eliminate outdated, unnecessary and/or duplicative agencies. Waste, fraud and abuse need to be taken seriously and punished severely for the theft of bread from the mouths of of our most vulnerable citizens that it is.

And then we need to decide exactly what it is we want our government to do for us in the areas that you outline, Fred, along with many more, and determine a fairer taxation system to cover the costs.

Your list of BIG projects appropriate for government looks surprisingly similar to the list that Abraham Lincoln enumerated some 150 or so years ago:

“public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself,” , versus “health-care system ...roadways...higher education”

Plus ça change...

Zee said...

@pete v--

Thanks for the interesting information on "distributism," a theory of socioeconomic organization of which I had never heard.

I will have to spend some time reading and absorbing the Wikipedia article, but it's clear that G.K. Chesterton subscribed to the theory.

One thing that did stand out, however, during my quick skimming of the article, is that some "distributists" seem not to have thought much of the social safety net, or perhaps just didn't think that it would be necessary under their "system:"

"Distributism favors the elimination of social security on the basis that it further alienates man by making him more dependent on the Servile State. Distributists such as Dorothy Day did not favor social security when it was introduced by the United States government. This rejection of this new program was due to the direct influence of the ideas of Hilaire Belloc over American distributists." (My bold emphasis.)


Fred Drumlevitch said...

@Pete V, @Zee, (and @all):

I too had never heard of "distributism" (such ignorance being one of the consequences of having focused on the sciences in my studies), and it's something I will want to look into.

One point, though, comes to mind: If I remember correctly, when the Soviet Union broke up, shares in many state enterprises were distributed to all citizens. However, that "distribution" did not endure, during the bad times post-collapse, when many people desperately needed money, those with more resources (the existing/future oligarchs) were able to acquire many of those distributed shares --- and become even more wealthy and powerful going forward. Sort of like the banks and speculators here stepping in to snap up foreclosed properties at dimes on the dollar.

When times get tough, as periodically (perhaps inevitably) happens, them that has, get even more. So as Zee points outs, a safety net is vital; and that is not only for moral reasons, but also to prevent "fire sales" and consequent increased concentration of wealth and resources in the hands of a few.