Manufacturing Perspective

You don’t begrudge your old students their success, but sometimes you get disoriented. Even after all the years you listen with sympathy to their current woes, and offer encouragement – it’s a habit, and it’s the right thing to do. You knew them way back when, when you read their essays and pretended those odd words made sense, until after pretending they made sense and offering suggestions to tighten up the argument this way or that, those essays actually began to make sense. That’s the sort of thing that makes teachers feel they aren’t totally worthless.

But now it’s different. They’re working through other problems, as life is tough. So you listen – working in Manhattan and living in New Jersey and putting two kids through college is damned expensive, and careers are made and unmade in an instant these days. The miasma of insecurity stretches from Wall Street to the Upper East Side – after the financial collapse in the last months of the Bush administration half of Manhattan knows they could be out the door by noon. It’s easy to be worried sick about that, and whether to take the risky job that pays half a million a year, at the awful new place, or stick it out as is. So you listen as they work things out. And, as before, you offer suggestions to tighten up the argument this way or that. Yes, it’s a habit, and the right thing to do. And it’s arrogant to be proud of them – they created their success, not you. It’s more appropriate to be amazed. They became extraordinary. Good for them.

But then there is the disorientation – teachers don’t make much money, that’s how the culture is set up, and sometimes you feel as if you’re talking to someone from another planet. The problem is in getting a sense of the magnitude of the problem at hand while worrying how you yourself will make it through the next year. You may pride yourself on putting things in perspective, but you can get whipsawed jumping from one perspective to the next. Just who has money problems?

But it’s the same chatting with the CEO of the managed care contracting company – getting the HMO’s and the doctors groups to even vaguely understand each other was always a challenge, but now healthcare reform will ruin the whole capitation model, and it has already destroyed the whole concept of insurance underwriting, which is based on excluding those who can bring down the whole profit model, like those with pre-existing conditions, or those who get expensively sick who weren’t supposed to get expensively sick. It’s madness, you know.

So you listen politely and make sympathetic sounds. But you may soon have to drop your expensive health insurance and hope like hell you don’t get sick before 2014 or so, when the new stuff starts to kick in. It’s a matter of perspective. And the friend who started his own software company, which is now limping along, wants to bend your ear on how awful corporate taxes are, and state taxes, and that, along with all the stupid regulations and absurd labor laws, is driving him out of business – unless he finally sells the whole thing to those assholes at Microsoft, who he hates. Fifty million free and clear would be nice, but it’s the principle of the thing. You listen politely and make sympathetic sounds. It’s not that hard to understand, and you can see his point. But there is that whiplash. You can walk a mile in the other guy’s shoes, but your feet will hurt. And he’ll want his shoes back.

Or you can pretend we’re all in this together and manufacture a unified perspective. Ryan Enos discusses that and notes that people don’t know the answer to this question and overestimate things quite a bit:

Any idea what proportion of American families make more than $250,000 a year? Or, to potentially make it easier, any idea what proportion of families in your state make more than $250,000 a year?

Don’t feel bad if you don’t know – most people don’t. The actual number, nationwide is somewhere less than 3% of families earn more than $250,000 a year. What did the survey respondents say when asked this question? The average response was close to 17%! – meaning your typical survey respondent thinks that almost 1 in 5 families in America earn that kind of money, when the answer is closer to 1 in 50!

Matthew Yglesias comments:

That seems to imply that most people are underestimating how well-off they themselves are compared to other Americans. A family earning about $200,000 a year is better off than the vast majority of the country’s families, but might perceive itself as merely around the 80th percentile.

So everyone has money problem – the ordinary Joe earning a quarter million a year too. And Enos point out that there is a political element to all this:

Do Republicans, who, more than Democrats, tend to favor leaving the tax cuts in place have a more distorted view of how many people are making that much money? No, not really, the average Republican gave pretty much the same answer as the average Democrat.

However, there does seem to be some political consequence: in statistical analysis that controls for other influences, among Independent voters, the more distorted their view of how many people make more than $250,000, the lower their opinion of President Obama and the more likely they are to say they will vote for a Republican for Congress next week. So, a person that says 20% of people make $250,000 is more likely to vote Republican than a person that says 5% of people make $250,000.

That’s statistical evidence of what may be a carefully manufactured perspective. The fewer than three percent are just ordinary folks, and are really almost a fifth of all of us – if you ignore the math.

Enos goes on to explain that Americans aren’t really that dumb and it may be kind of an honest mistake, so we shouldn’t worry that much about our national habit of getting the basic facts wrong. Or perhaps we should:

However, the level of distortion on political issues can be consequential – for example, a tax cut that effects 1 in 5 or 1 in 6 families is very different than a tax cut that effects 1 in 50 – and if these beliefs are affecting vote choice, then the public’s distorted views are important.

It is the political element that is troubling. We make things up. We manufacture perspective, like the idea that the whole country is angry and that’s why the Republicans will sweep into power, with a mandate to compromise on nothing and shut the government down if necessary.

Steve Benen comments on that:

For some, there’s no reason to be too worried. Over the last couple of decades, we’ve seen the White House change party hands more than once, and the same goes for fleeting congressional majorities. We’ve been pushed to the brink, and some constitutional crises have popped up, but we’ve generally weathered some unpleasant storms. For much of the ’90s, we even enjoyed peace and prosperity.

For others, the avoidable future poses a more a serious danger.

And Benen notes that Paul Krugman, expecting a Republican majority, argues that this is going to be terrible – and he predicts that “future historians will probably look back at the 2010 election as a catastrophe for America, one that condemned the nation to years of political chaos and economic weakness.”

And here’s the gist of it:

When Republicans took control of Congress in 1994, the U.S. economy had strong fundamentals. Household debt was much lower than it is today. Business investment was surging, in large part thanks to the new opportunities created by information technology – opportunities that were much broader than the follies of the dot-com bubble.

In this favorable environment, economic management was mainly a matter of putting the brakes on the boom, so as to keep the economy from overheating and head off potential inflation. And this was a job the Federal Reserve could do on its own by raising interest rates, without any help from Congress.

Today’s situation is completely different. The economy, weighed down by the debt that households ran up during the Bush-era bubble, is in dire straits; deflation, not inflation, is the clear and present danger. And it’s not at all clear that the Fed has the tools to head off this danger. Right now we very much need active policies on the part of the federal government to get us out of our economic trap.

But we won’t get those policies if Republicans control the House. In fact, if they get their way, we’ll get the worst of both worlds: They’ll refuse to do anything to boost the economy now, claiming to be worried about the deficit, while simultaneously increasing long-run deficits with irresponsible tax cuts – cuts they have already announced won’t have to be offset with spending cuts.

So if the elections go as expected next week, here’s my advice: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Benen says he’d feel slightly less horrified if Krugman didn’t have such a good track record:

What’s more, his dire warning doesn’t even touch on the likelihood of a government shutdown, the possibility of default if the GOP blocks a debt extension, the partisan witch-hunts, and the mind-numbing fight to keep the progress we’ve already made.

But everyone agrees we need to shut things down, don’t they?

Bruce Bartlett suggests these guys may not want to get their wish:

Republicans should savor the period from Election Day to the first day of the new Congress on January 3, 2011. That will be as good as it gets for them; afterwards, it’s all downhill once they have to act, take responsibility, and can no longer blame Democrats for everything bad that happens anywhere. That goes for their allies in the business community, who naively assume that every action of the last two years that they opposed will magically disappear. And it goes double for the Tea Partiers, who have never had to take responsibility for anything. It’s a whole new ballgame in January.

On the other hand, John Sides cites a lot of quite persuasive data that predicts that voters always hold the president responsible for results and not the congressional opposition. Bartlett may be wrong. But Matthew Yglesias says it’s a matter of perspective:

Things look different in interest-group terms. CEOs do want their personal income taxes lower, do want the capital gains taxes they pay lower, and do want to be able to pollute and violate labor law with impunity. But they presumably don’t want to see the economy fall into a depression and Speaker Boehner may be “responsible” in their eyes.

Kevin Drum is not so sure:

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But the business community has long demonstrated a remarkable ability to value ideology over actual results. Think about it: if congressional Republicans had been in charge over the past couple of years, there would have been no TARP, no stimulus, and no auto rescue. In other words, the economy would be in truly harrowing shape and businesses would be failing left and right. What’s more, simple self interest dictates that going forward the business community ought to be clamoring for monetary easing and more fiscal stimulus, something that Republicans are dead set against. But they aren’t. In fact, they’re planning to vote in massive numbers for Republicans. They’re basically content with anemic economic growth.

Drum cannot say what accounts for this:

Opposing regulation I get. No one wants to be regulated. Ditto for higher taxes, even if they’re pretty modest. But why do corporate chieftains oppose true national healthcare even though it would almost certainly make their lives easier and make them more globally competitive? Why do they oppose cap-and-trade even though its effects are modest and the alternative is more intrusive EPA regulations? Why do they oppose fiscal stimulus even though it would spur the economy and be good for business?

It’s a mystery. I guess they truly don’t believe that stimulus spending will help. Or, maybe they don’t believe that anything the government does helps the economy. It’s hard to say.

But whatever happens, I’ll bet they won’t hold Speaker Boehner responsible for it. They’ll blame it on stifling regulations or bad trade policy or too much government spending or bad currency management. Something that’s Obama’s fault. It’ll always be Obama’s fault.

John Sides did say something like that:

Under divided government, Obama will have less power but no less accountability. Of course, if the economy turns around, a Speaker Boehner won’t matter one way or the other. But if the economy continues to stagnate, blaming a Republican-controlled House or even Congress won’t help Obama.

It’s all a matter of perspective, or manufactured perspective. And Bruce Bartlett, conservative but on the outs with the current Tea Party crowd, in this item discusses Republican overreach and their lack of basic indiscipline in the next two years leading to a real danger of national default, a second government shut-down, and a House majority unable to be controlled by anyone:

I hope I am wrong, but I don’t see any prospect of meaningful action by a Republican Congress that would reduce the deficit, and much reason to think it will get worse if they have their way by enacting massive new tax cuts while protecting Medicare from cuts. And as I have previously warned, I am very fearful that it will be impossible to raise the debt limit, which would bring about a default and real, honest-to-God bankruptcy – something many Tea Party-types have openly called for in an insane belief that this will somehow or other impose fiscal discipline on out-of-control government spending without forcing them to vote either for spending cuts or tax increases.

His previous warning is here – the Tea Party crowd has actually called for freezing the debt limit, making it impossible for the government to borrow money and thus impossible to pay the bills, and thus making all future government bond issues impossible and defaulting on all current bonds, effectively declaring the United States bankrupt. No, really – the idea is we declare bankruptcy and stiff everyone we owe money, even interest payments, and make do with no credit rating at all – we clear the books and never borrow a cent again, and live within our means. And who cares that all our paper is now worthless. We work cash-on-hand or do without – no bonds for roads or bridges or anything. And we never raise taxes again. It’s call fiscal responsibility, or the Dark Ages.

It’s a perspective.

Bartlett is not happy with these people. Nor is another conservative on the outs with the current Tea Party crowd, Daniel Larison, who explains why he isn’t thrilled by the prospect of a Republican surge during the midterms, considering non-economic issues:

I find it hard to get enthusiastic about Republican gains this year because they are wholly undeserved – and because they seem more than likely to result in the re-empowerment of all the same people who supported and enabled Bush’s agenda as if nothing had happened…

I assume that the activists who really are on the right track are going to be sidelined or marginalized at the first opportunity by a party leadership that is perfectly content to exploit their energy and then cast them aside.

The “Pledge to America” has already told us that this is what will happen. On the policy front, I am concerned that some things, such as the arms control treaty, will be scrapped in the wake of the election, and that wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the broad, near-universal hysteria about Obama’s foreign policy coming from movement conservative think tanks, pundits, and activists. Far from correcting for the foreign policy errors that helped drive them from power, the most influential movement conservatives have become even more misguided.

Well, it’s a different perspective. But sometimes you feel as if you’re talking to someone from another planet. The problem is in getting a sense of the magnitude of the problems at hand while worrying that something is terribly wrong – someone has the wrong perspective, that they manufactured something quite odd. You listen politely and make sympathetic sounds – you may even offer encouragement. But you worry. You may pride yourself on putting things in perspective, but you can get whipsawed jumping from one perspective to the next.

And finally you find yourself saying enough is enough. It’s too bad the voters won’t.

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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.
This entry was posted in Income Disparity, Midterm Elections, Party of No, Political Deadlock, Reality and all that..., Reality by Consensus and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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