Driven to Distraction

Ah, driving down Sunset Boulevard on a hazy Friday July afternoon, running errands, checking out the usual visual oddities – this is LA, after all – and listening to the serious end-of-the week talk shows on the radio – you know, the measured voices on National Public Radio and that sort of thing. That was fine. LA does have Rush Limbaugh of course, and on the other side Randi Rhodes and Stephanie Miller too, but outrage, from the left or right, just doesn’t seem to be appropriate to the scene. We’re mellow out here, you know. Punk Rock came from the big cities back east. Grunge Rock came from Seattle. Devo came from Akron, although they’re here in town this week, back together again. But that’s not us. This is Beach Boys territory. Then it was Carol King and James Taylor and their first gig down the hill at the Troubadour, then the Eagles and a bit of the sly Frank Zappa and so on. We’re cool. So you don’t have the radio in the Mini-Cooper shout at you. If you want talk as you cruise down Sunset you choose that long-form thoughtful stuff.

But even that got very odd – it was interviews with think tank people from the right, saying the country was outraged. Yes, they bypassed John Boehner who is forever saying the whole country hates Obama and everything he stands for, even if the polls don’t exactly show that. He just knows. It’s obvious. And they bypassed the Republican candidate for Senate for Nevada, Sharron Angle, saying that when the wrong people are in office the good people might have to resort to Second Amendment remedies – you know, guns – to take America back from those who shouldn’t be running it, even if they were elected fair and square – “The nation is arming. What are they arming for if it isn’t that they are so distrustful of their government?” She was just musing – “If we don’t win at the ballot box, what will be the next step?” It seems that the violent overthrow of the duly elected government is okay now, if you’re upset and outraged enough, as she says you should be. And there was none of Janet Brewer, the governor of Arizona, outraged at the drug wars and beheadings right in the middle her state, now overrun by Mexican gangs turning it into one big killing field – even if that was wildly untrue. There was no one on-air calling for the United States to declare war on Mexico. John McCain will no doubt get to that later. And there was no talk of the evils for fluoridation.

No, it was the boring economists – or those who assess what boring economists say – and yes, there’s a fine line between mellow and boring, but it seemed the right thing to listen to. The folks from the think tanks on the right carefully explained that the country was worried sick about the deficit, as well they should be – we cannot keep borrowing money, as everything will collapse when we one day have to pay it back. Taxes will go sky high then, and that will ruin everything. And people know this – so no one is upset that the Republicans have three times blocked any vote on extending unemployment benefit. Everyone knows we cannot afford to extend those benefits – it would increase the already absurd deficit, and anyway, people know that the worst thing you can do when unemployment is at record highs is pay people not to work. You do that and they won’t go out and get a job. And on the matter of the this state or that going broke, you just can’t have the federal government help out, as we’d have to increase the deficit to pay to bail them out – so people are okay with the states laying off millions of teachers and policemen and firefighters, closing libraries and parks and shutting down the state university systems, and not fixing the road and bridges. People want that to happen, really. They are scared silly by the deficit and know that controlling the deficit matters more than any of that stuff. And if there are no police when you need them? There are Second Amendment remedies, after all. And all in all, spending to jump start the economy – that stimulus stuff – didn’t work. The economy still sucks, even after pumping in seven hundred billion dollars. Everyone knows the only way out of the woods now is lowering taxes so no one pays much of anything at all, except for the poor and middle class, who always got a free ride on the back of the rich, and cutting all spending to as close to nothing as possible. And these guys said everyone knows all this, and the voters know it all too well – that’s why Obama and the crew will be tossed out on their ears. That’s just the way it is.

Of course this was delivered in calm, analytic fashion – they were describing the nation’s outrage at the deficit, not expressing it. There is a difference between expression and description. “Ouch!” versus “That hurt my left toe” is the difference between AM talk radio and NPR.

But were these guys right? Sometimes you hear all sorts of statistics that show this or that, but somehow you don’t trust those statistics. They just don’t seem to make sense. The facts don’t lie? Maybe so, but there are lots of facts, and then there is common sense. Some things are counterintuitive – lose control of your car on an icy road and you steer into the skid to gain control of the car, not what you might instinctively do, slam on the brakes and steer away from that big tree that’s coming up fast – but that’s not always the case. We do have instincts for an evolutionary reason. They’re quite useful. They keep you out of trouble.

So what you want to find is someone with good instincts. And that’s not too hard. Michael Lind is the policy director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and he was the one who gave us Up From Conservatism: Why the Right Is Wrong for America – his recantation. He’ll do.

Lind was a rising star on the right, and one of the original neoconservatives – and a Texan – and he’d had enough. Things had changed, so he wrote a book about it, about how conservatives decided to use “the culture war, a revival of racism and radical antigovernment rhetoric” to distract everyone. The actual game was economic exploitation. And he argues the most damaging conservative hoax of them all, and he lists quite a few, is supply-side economics, which led to our current deficit, the “the central fact of American politics today.” He argues it’s probably too late to rescue American conservatism from the radical right – they sold out long ago to antigovernment hate groups – and it’s time to start over. He suggests something he calls “national liberalism” – something other than this cultural war strategy for acquiring and maintaining political power, and keeping all the goodies. You fix the problems so we all prosper – and you move away from this I’ve-got-mine-and-you’re-pathetic loser thing. He wasn’t a happy camper. His instincts told him something was wrong.

And when that happens you do some digging – you look into things. So he did, and in an item at salon.com he discovers the American people want more government spending – even if the “conventional wisdom in Washington is that more spending to promote job creation is out of the question, because the public has changed its priorities and is obsessed with the danger of federal deficits.”

It seems if you’re going to describe an obsession there really ought to be one there. But there isn’t:

The actual views of the American people are at odds with the corporate media’s portrayal of a nation of deficit hawks. According to a June 11-13 USA Today/Gallup Poll, 60 percent of Americans favor “additional government spending to create jobs and stimulate the economy.” Only 38 percent of the respondents opposed the proposal, while 2 percent had no opinion.

It seems that federal deficits are an obsession with what he calls the American elites, and that includes a good number of establishment Democrats, but deficit reduction is not exactly the leading priority of the American people:

In another USA Today/Gallup Poll, taken March 26-28, the list of issues considered “extremely important” by voters was headed by the economy (57 percent), followed by healthcare (49 percent) and unemployment (46 percent). The federal budget deficit came in fourth, at 45 percent. Note to the Obama administration and Congress: Fewer than half of Americans think that the federal budget deficit is an “extremely important” issue.

Back in March, the only group in which a majority listed the federal budget deficit as extremely important comprised independents (52 percent). The deficit was less important for Democrats (37 percent) and Republicans (47 percent).

That these independents feel this way he attributes to a sort of Ross Perot hangover – these are folks still stuck in the nineties. And dealing with them can be tricky:

On the basis of that poll and similar ones, many have concluded that in order to reduce the defection of independents to the Republicans in the fall, the Democrats must at least make a show of being deficit hawks. But other polls suggest a different strategy. In the June USA Today/Gallup Poll, majorities of Democrats (83 percent) and independents (52 percent) supported more stimulus spending. Only the Republicans opposed it, by 61 to 38 percent. How can it be argued that Democrats need to appeal to independent swing voters in the fall by denouncing deficits, when a majority of those independents side with Democrats against Republicans on the need for more spending to spur job creation?

The polls show they were just kidding, or confused.

But the real problem remains:

Is it possible to be in favor of more federal spending now to save the economy and promote jobs, while being in favor of deficit reduction in the long term? It is not only possible, but necessary. The more rapidly the economy grows, and the greater the number of Americans who are employed, the higher tax revenues will be and the sooner federal deficits can be reduced without measures that would cripple the economy, like raising taxes and cutting spending in the middle of a near depression.

Well, that’s just common sense, even if Obama cannot bring himself to articulate it. Actually, Obama followed his instincts, which were crappy:

Instead of emphasizing that borrowing more to pay for infrastructure investments and job creation now will pay off in greater revenue growth and faster deficit reduction later, he has taken measures like proposing a freeze on deficit spending and supporting the deficit commission, with its right-wing bias. By doing so, he has effectively conceded the right-wing argument that the federal government is spending too much in combating the Great Recession at the present moment, instead of what is in fact true – it is spending too little. (If Obama sincerely believes the former, then he is the wrong person for the job, and economic leadership will have to come from Congress, not the White House).

But somehow you cannot avoid the obvious:

Further evidence that Americans are more concerned with job creation and shoring up social insurance comes from the AmericaSpeaks “town hall” forums sponsored by deficit-hawk billionaire Pete Peterson. As numerous commentators have pointed out, Peterson must be disappointed if he expected these forums, coming shortly after his associate David Walker’s deficit-fear-mongering “IOUSA” movie and discussion tour, to demonstrate public support for the case he has made since the 1990s, in good times and bad, for major cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

Even though they were probably less liberal than the public as a whole, the AmericaSpeaks town hall participants delivered a devastating setback to the Peterson-Walker agenda. By 51 percent to 38 percent, AmericaSpeaks participants favored more stimulus spending. To reduce budget deficits, the participants favored cutting defense spending and raising taxes on the rich.

It wasn’t pretty – a majority of these folks opposed reductions in Social Security benefits, and to pay for future shortfalls in Social Security revenue, they favored raising the payroll-tax cap – higher taxes, on the better off. And if everyone hates higher taxes, these folks hated higher taxes even more. And they said raise the tax rate.

It was very odd:

Indeed, an extraordinary 85 percent of AmericaSpeaks participants favored lifting the payroll-tax cap. This option was mentioned by Obama in his 2008 presidential campaign, but despite its popularity with the American people, it is not to be found in mainstream discussions of Social Security, which are instead focused on cutting benefits and forcing elderly Americans to work longer. Obama is partly responsible for this, because his administration ruled out any increases on taxes for people making under $250,000 a year.

Is that too arcane? Think of it this way – folks like they system and don’t mind paying for it, and think everyone should chip in, even the rich, even if the conventional wisdom is that picking on the rich will make them grumpy and they’ll refuse to invest and the economy will collapse. No, that’s not extortion – it just seems like it. If you tax the rich and regulate the banks and large corporations you yourself are the problem – that’s just class warfare and you’re angry and jealous of your betters, or something. We should all get along, so stop picking on them. But it seems that notion has its limits, even among pro-business deficit hawks.

It is odd, but Lind says the conflict here reveals “the oligarchic nature of the contemporary American political system.”

As observers pointed out during the campaign-year debate about lifting the cap on payroll taxation, only the top 5 or 6 percent of American wage earners would be affected. But that tiny minority includes the overwhelming majority of politicians of both parties, as well as think tank experts, elite journalists and other opinion makers – to say nothing of the donors to both parties. Is it coincidence that affluent members of the bipartisan political class, whose members pay considerably less as a percentage of their income to Social Security than do janitors and maids, want to keep it that way? And is it coincidence that members of the elite political class, who are the least dependent on Social Security for their retirement income, are the most vocal about making the less-well-off majority work longer in order to receive less?

So, driving down Sunset one was listening to the oligarchs. And oligarchs don’t have to rant. They’re on top, just like an ancient Rome:

In the Roman Republic, the two parties were the populares, representing the ordinary citizens, and the optimates, representing the hereditary elite that controlled the Senate. Analogies between Rome and the US – particularly in foreign policy – should be taken with a grain of salt, but we do seem to be re-creating something like the politics of late republican Rome, right down to a Senate controlled by rich, reactionary optimates and the equivalent of Rome’s slave population in the form of illegal immigrants and indentured servants like H-1B workers who labor on American soil without the civil and political rights of Americans.

Ancient Rome, Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood – it’s the same thing. Cool. So where is Spartacus when you need him?

But Lind maintains the analogy is tight:

The apparent lack of interest on the part of our elected officials in the actual views of the American people about Social Security, stimulus spending and other subjects makes sense, once it is understood that most ambitious Washington policymakers of both parties seek to engage in triangulation between the party of the people (non-elite Democrats, Republicans and independents) and the party of the oligarchy (elite Democrats, Republicans and independents). The politically attractive position is the one that will be least alienating to the non-elite majority and the elite minority, two groups that are given equal weight in spite of the great disproportion in numbers between the two.

So it’s a grand game – the trick is to tell the masses that they don’t think what they think, that they really think the deficit is the one major problem we face. The polls show they don’t think that, so you go on NPR and say people are just worried sick about the deficit, and they should be worried sick. And you say the people are wise, and hope they aren’t. Or you acknowledge the polls and lament that the great masses of people are so very, very stupid.

And there you have it:

If the populares were the ignorant yahoos that the press controlled by the optimates would have us believe they are then we might welcome the check on mob passions provided by our oligarchic institutions like the US Senate. But when it comes to support for more federal spending to combat the Great Recession and raising taxes on the affluent – rather than cutting benefits for the needy as the solution to Social Security revenue problems – sound economic analysis and the preferences of the majority are aligned.

The majority in this case is not the majority of those in power – that oligarchy of those to whom none of the consequences of deficit-hawk austerity matter much at all, both Democrats and Republicans, and their donors, and the gullible, like the Tea Party crowd, and the frightened, like the Blue Dog Democrats. It’s the actual majority.

And that leads to the final irony:

The problem with American politics is not that it is too easily influenced by public opinion. The problem is that it is not influenced enough.

But there is that matter of public opinion. Drive around town with the radio talking to you and you’ll be told what it is and damn it, that’s the opinion you also have, even if you don’t have it. And you can be driven to distraction, in many senses.

But sometimes something just doesn’t feel right, and your instincts kick in, and then your common sense. And then, reading Lind and seeing the data, you find out you’re not an oddball-creep after all. Then it’s time to do the right thing and punch up the Oldies station and listen to the Beach Boys. That’s what you should do while driving around on a hazy summer afternoon in LA.

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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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