Magical Thinking in American Politics

It’s been almost thirty years here in the land of magical thinking – but you get used to it. Coincidences aren’t coincidences at all, they’re fate. And your mind can directly affect the physical world – think positive thoughts and some producer, or at least a casting agent, will see you in the checkout line down at Ralph’s on Sunset and you’ll become a star, no matter that you have little talent at all and look like a total dork, and you know it. It’s happened to others – Lana Turner sipping a soda at Schwab’s Drugstore and all that. Except she wasn’t a dork and that story isn’t quite true – when she was sixteen and a student down the street at Hollywood High she decided to skip typing class grab a Coke at the Top Hat Cafe, where she was spotted by William R. Wilkerson, the publisher of the Hollywood Reporter, who referred her to Zeppo Marx, whose agency signed her and introduced her to film director Mervyn Leroy, and the rest is history. Maybe that’s close enough. But the idea that something like that may happen to you seems a long shot, and the Top Hat is long gone, and Schwab’s is gone too – it’s been replaced on the corner here by a small shopping center with a multiplex, a Starbucks and a Trader Joe’s. You could see Schwab’s from the front door, were it not long gone. Maybe Ralph’s is a better bet. Or maybe the whole idea is foolish. But in this apartment building the young come and go, convinced they will be discovered, like magic. You can hear them doing their vocal exercises in the mornings, getting prepared for the next American Idol tryout. But mostly they just hang around, waiting. And then they’re gone. Magical thinking can really bite you in the ass.

But that’s Hollywood. They call it the Dream Factory. For almost a hundred years we’ve been churning out visual tales of what shouldn’t have happened but did (in the movie), or what could or might happen, or what people want to think might sort of happen, or wish would happen. Now it’s Cameron’s Avatar, but it’s instructive that Harold Arlen said that the song Over the Rainbow came to him one evening when he was driving down Sunset, and he had to stop and write it down, so he pulled over and jotted it down in the light from the neon sign at Schwab’s Drugstore, Sunset at North Laurel Avenue. That figures. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the man who gave us the tale of the man who made his dreams come true, the Great Gatsby, spent his final days around the corner at his place at 1403 North Laurel Avenue. He knew dreams too. Fitzgerald had his final heart attack at the cigarette counter at Schwab’s. Dreams are a tricky business, and the Gatsby novel was about the nobility and foolishness and tragedy of magical thinking. And that shallow, simpering Daisy Buchanan wasn’t worth it all, really – but that’s another matter.

Of course Hollywood dreaming spills over into politics, and the whole state dreams of what could or might happen, or wish would happen, magically. USC gave us the economist Art Laffer and his Laffer Curve – the more you lower taxes the more tax revenue is generated for the government, like magic. Eliminate most taxes and the government will be flush with money to spend on all sorts of good stuff, as when no one has to pay taxes the economy undergoes explosive growth and the few taxes you collect will be massive, as a tiny slice of a big pie is bigger than a normal slice of normal pie. It’s Pie Magic. Of course there’s no proof that things work that way, and much proof they don’t. But it was a cool idea. That was the basis of Reaganomics, from the second-rate Hollywood star who became governor out here, then president, and ended up confusing what had actually happened in his life with what his character had done in this film or that. But the magic tax idea has persisted, as if it’s as true as true can be, and is now the basis of all Republican economic theory since, and a matter of faith – in magic. The Bush tax cuts were about that. And magic has its appeal, as out here Californians recalled a dull and earnest Democratic governor and installed another second-rate movie star, Arnold Schwarzenegger, because he dazzled everyone by incanting the same magic words. We wanted to believe No new taxes, lowered existing taxes, with many eliminated, and tons of money for school and roads and everything else. That’s the ticket.

But as Kevin Drum noted some months ago, that bit us in the ass:

We have structural deficits as far as the eye can see. A Republican governor took over a few years ago and cut taxes, making things even worse. Healthcare costs have gone through the roof. Unemployment is over 12%. And a rabid Republican minority in Sacramento can – and does – prevent any of these things from being seriously addressed because the state constitution requires a two-thirds majority to pass a budget or raise taxes.

But no schadenfreude, please. In Washington DC, federal deficits have become enormous, Republican tax cuts have made them even worse, healthcare costs are skyrocketing, unemployment is about to break double digits, and it’s nearly impossible to seriously address these problems because the Republican Party has adopted a policy of making the filibuster a routine tool of state. If you can’t get 60 votes in the Senate, you can’t pass anything of consequence these days.

In the past, California has been a bellwether for the nation, and that’s been no bad thing. But this time? Fasten your seatbelts, gang. It’s going to be a very bumpy ride indeed if it happens again.

And in the months since he wrote that the ride has been bumpy, as he predicted. And it has been made bumpier by the Tea Party crowd endlessly invoking another bit of magical thinking from Ronald Reagan – small government is best, and the government should do as little as possible, and thus free people to do what they want and keep their own money and get rich, with few or any rules about anything, and no support for anyone in trouble. That would make things wonderful, like magic. All you have to do is starve the beast – cut taxes again and again so the government not only can’t grow, it can barely function. Then we’ll be free, because it can’t interfere with us at all. As Grover Norquist famously explained, conservatives want to get the government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”

But the economist Paul Krugman explains an inherent problem with this:

Voters may say that they oppose big government, but the programs that actually dominate federal spending – Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security – are very popular. So how can the public be persuaded to accept large spending cuts?

He argues that the conservative answer, since the seventies, has been that we must starve that beast, through magical thinking:

The idea – propounded by many members of the conservative intelligentsia, from Alan Greenspan to Irving Kristol – was basically that sympathetic politicians should engage in a game of bait and switch. Rather than proposing unpopular spending cuts, Republicans would push through popular tax cuts, with the deliberate intention of worsening the government’s fiscal position. Spending cuts could then be sold as a necessity rather than a choice, the only way to eliminate an unsustainable budget deficit.

That worked, except for the deficits, which bit them in the ass:

So the beast is starving, as planned. It should be time, then, for conservatives to explain which parts of the beast they want to cut. And President Obama has, in effect, invited them to do just that, by calling for a bipartisan deficit commission.

Many progressives were deeply worried by this proposal, fearing that it would turn into a kind of Trojan horse – in particular, that the commission would end up reviving the long-standing Republican goal of gutting Social Security. But they needn’t have worried: Senate Republicans overwhelmingly voted against legislation that would have created a commission with some actual power, and it is unlikely that anything meaningful will come from the much weaker commission Mr. Obama established by executive order.

So now they’re caught. They’d have to explain the magic trick, how voters can have what they want and pay next to no taxes. No wonder they voted against that commission. A magician is dead meat if he has to reveal just how he pulled that rabbit out of that hat. And Krugman pounces:

Why are Republicans reluctant to sit down and talk? Because they would then be forced to put up or shut up. Since they’re adamantly opposed to reducing the deficit with tax increases, they would have to explain what spending they want to cut. And guess what? After three decades of preparing the ground for this moment, they’re still not willing to do that.

In fact, conservatives have backed away from spending cuts they themselves proposed in the past. In the 1990s, for example, Republicans in Congress tried to force through sharp cuts in Medicare. But now they have made opposition to any effort to spend Medicare funds more wisely the core of their campaign against health care reform (death panels!). And presidential hopefuls say things like this, from Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota: “I don’t think anybody’s gonna go back now and say let’s abolish, or reduce, Medicare and Medicaid.”

What about Social Security? Five years ago the Bush administration proposed limiting future payments to upper- and middle-income workers, in effect means-testing retirement benefits. But in December, The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page denounced any such means-testing, because “middle- and upper-middle-class (i.e., GOP) voters would get less than they were promised in return for a lifetime of payroll taxes.”

So they’re trapped:

At this point, then, Republicans insist that the deficit must be eliminated, but they’re not willing either to raise taxes or to support cuts in any major government programs. And they’re not willing to participate in serious bipartisan discussions, either, because that might force them to explain their plan – and there isn’t any plan, except to regain power.

So all they can do now is double-down on starve-the-beast:

Depriving the government of revenue, it turns out, wasn’t enough to push politicians into dismantling the welfare state. So now the de facto strategy is to oppose any responsible action until we are in the midst of a fiscal catastrophe. You read it here first.

But this needs to be quantified, and John Sides, a professor in the Department of Political Science at George Washington, does just that with this bar chart showing that rank-and-file conservatives actually like big government:

In 2008, the American National Election Study asked a national sample whether federal spending on 12 different programs should be increased, decreased or kept about the same.

As the graph above illustrates, the respondents who identified themselves as “conservative” or “extremely conservative” had little appetite for specific spending cuts.

Very few conservatives said they favored reducing (or cutting out altogether) spending on any program. The least popular program proved to be childcare – with a grand total of 20 percent of conservatives saying they’d slash it. The most popular is highways; only 6 percent want to cut spending there. Even bugaboos like welfare and foreign aid fare well, attracting the ire of only 15 percent of conservatives. Amazingly, the survey found that, on average, 54 percent of them actually wanted to increase spending.

And Kevin Drum takes a look at this:

What to make of this? It’s a pretty good guess that if conservatives don’t want to cut Social Security then they don’t want to cut Medicare either. War on terrorism is probably a pretty good proxy for the defense budget. Low scores for public schools + welfare + aid to the poor suggest they don’t really want to cut social safety net programs. And interest on the national debt is off limits no matter what they think. That accounts for about 90% of the federal budget right there, and spending on highways, the environment, crime, science, and foreign aid probably takes care of another 5%. And that’s pretty much the whole ball of wax.

He sees the obvious lesson from this:

It turns out that conservative politicians really do represent their base pretty well. They like to yammer endlessly about cutting spending, but when push comes to shove, there’s not much they really think we’re spending too much on. It’s all just venting.

At the New Republic, Jonathan Chait puts it another way:

There’s a hoary political science saying that Americans are ideological conservatives but operational liberals. In other words, they oppose government in the abstract but favor it in the particulars.

And he draws another conclusion:

The main operational difference between the two parties for the last two years is that one thinks taxes should be set at a level to finance the government we have, and the other thinks taxes should be set at a level to finance the government they wish they had, but realize they can’t actually get voters to accept.

Magic has its limits, or as Michael Tomasky notes in the Guardian, this is a case of the seduction of rhetoric:

This is fairly stunning. It’s often been observed that Americans, to use Bill Clinton’s phrase, are rhetorically conservative and operationally progressive, meaning that they looooooove talk about slashing government but don’t support doing it in practice when it comes to specific programs.

If these numbers are right, though, then even most conservatives are rhetorically conservative and operationally progressive.

The problem is in the seductive quality of the red-meat rhetoric. It will always win thunderous applause. If someone stood up there and said what about three-quarters of conservative apparently actually believe, they’d get their necks broken. What is to be done?

And Digby reacts to the Sides data about what he calls conflicted Republicans:

I think this may be one situation where “welfare reform” deprived these people of a much needed boogeyman. I think had this been done a couple of decades earlier a much larger percentage of these same people would have chosen it. It’s just that it’s getting harder to find programs that benefit the “lazy and undeserving” poor, mainly because they’ve been eliminated during this period of conservative rule. Now these questions hit closer to home. Even nice law abiding white people would be harmed.

I think calling them conflicted is being a little bit too polite. The proper term for these people is “free lunch” conservatives. The one thing these people really care about is taxes, which they think are evil and believe they should never have to pay. They actually like the spending on programs from which they all benefit, which is why they are so gleeful about these “fleecing of America” earmark stories – there’s some spending which clearly benefits someone else and so it is safe to call it “wasteful.”

Of course Digby writes from out here – Santa Monica, not Hollywood – and this gets what most Californians know quite well now:

Maybe we could be a bit more polite and just call them “magical thinking” conservatives, because “conflicted” would imply that they feel some sort of dissonance, and it’s quite clear that they do not. They truly believe that government should provide all the services they use but that nobody should have to pay any taxes to support it.

I believe it’s the central economic difference between liberals and conservatives. We all like the welfare state and want more of it. They just think it should be paid for with fairy dust and we think progressive taxation is the more logical choice. Sadly, the political system has chosen to go with fairy dust. It’s more marketable.

Well, yes, fairy dust is more marketable. That’s what Hollywood is all about. That’s all we sell. And people love it. Ronald Reagan came to know that in his bones, after all his years in the industry, so he sold his small-government hardly-any-taxes fairy dust and made it to the White House. And Arnold Schwarzenegger made it to the State House, selling the same fairy dust. People love that fairy dust. It’s just that the willing suspension of disbelief, necessary to the whole enterprise, became a problem. Reality intruded, like when you’re in a dark theater really into the movie – really grooving on Cameron’s sexy ten-foot-tall but Smurfs – and some fool inadvertently opens a side door and the afternoon sunshine blasts in, ruining everything. The magic spell is broken. You just can’t get back into it. And in this case, for all the small government and no real taxes stuff, the blast of sunshine is seeing that these guys want to take away what you think is essential.

Of course the whole notion that a nation of over three hundred million people, with the largest economy in the world, and complex transportation, communication and utility grids, and an Army fighting two major wars halfway around the world, all tied together with massive and complex computer systems, should have a small government that does next to nothing, is pretty nuts – but that’s another matter, or a second, different movie.

As for this movie, maybe it needs a new character like the actual conservative like Tony Woodlief defines here:

A real American conservative, to me, is someone who understands that markets are the best means of allocating resources, that liberty is essential to human thriving, and that man is sinful and in desperate need of checking and elevating institutions like the Church and marriage and childrearing. A real American conservative believes in aspiring – at the very least – to truthfulness and humility and thoughtfulness, which means he can’t help but cringe when he hears the likes of an Ann Coulter bellowing about her enemies being traitors. A real American conservative understands that the ills of mankind will not go away if we could only just have a lower tax rate and less regulation.

A real American conservative is not, I’ll submit to you, at home in the maneuvering and manipulation of state capitols, and certainly not in Washington, DC. A real American conservative does not trust large government or mass democracy or even himself, certainly not himself, which is why he wants to keep undivided power out of any man’s hands, including his own.

But the script of that movie is not in development. It seems a real American conservative doesn’t indulge in magical thinking at all, and, in fact, he or she rejects the whole idea of magic. And we don’t like that – or so it seems late in the evening here in Hollywood. And after all, we gave you Ronald Reagan.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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