Stepping Outside the Tribal Circle

It’s generally accepted – and supported by information theory and cognitive psychology – that facts and evidence don’t generally affect people’s opinions much at all. We only pretend that we’re persuading the other side to change their mind on this or that – but it clearly doesn’t work that way. No one budges an inch, almost as if the current accepted ideas floating around – the memes – have taken on a life of their own and are mutating and replicating like viruses, and we are only the unwitting hosts as they fight to propagate themselves. Or maybe that’s too far out. But argument just isn’t what it used to be. In the late eighteenth century, William Shenstone commented that people generally quarrel because they cannot argue. But that was a comment on lack of rigorous intellectual training, in the art of argument and debate – something that could, presumably, be fixed. We’re well beyond that. We no longer even see that there is a skills problem. We just hiss and spit at each other.

But now and then there’s a surprise. Someone steps back and looks at facts and evidence and sees where they lead – no matter where they lead. It doesn’t happen often, and you would not expect it from the highly-disciplined conservative right, always on message as they say. But then there’s David Frum – a speechwriter for George W. Bush (who came up with that Axis-of-Evil line) and then a member of Rudy Giuliani’s campaign team, and then a supporter of the McCain-Palin ticket, and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Well, the American Enterprise Institute did eliminate his position in 2010 and suggested he could stay if he wanted to work for them for free – and he certainly got THAT message. He left. He may have been one of the most influential conservative voices around, particularly on economics, and he really, really, really wanted that war with Iraq, but then he didn’t think much of the nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court and to the highly-disciplined conservative right that should have been a warning sign. He was going to be trouble. And he was. And if all politics is tribal, he was banned from the tribe.

Naturally you don’t see his columns now in Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal, and not in Forbes, and he’s never invited on Fox News, the network of that particular tribe. Now and then he would pop up on MSNBC – until he ripped into Rachel Maddow for being entirely too perky and playful or something. Maddow may have been a Rhodes Scholar with her PhD and all that, but she doesn’t have the right doom-and-gloom demeanor for our national discourse. Frum is a bit of a sour person, of course. But Frum found his home on CNN – he’s a frequent guest on the network that sees news as news, not tribal chanting.

And now he’s at it again, with a widely discussed column on his own website (of course) – Two Cheers for the Welfare State – which is what no one expected. He offers what used to be called a center-right perspective – rare enough these days, or maybe a perspective that cannot even exist in modern American conservatism, with the most basic tenet of that conservatism being rejection of the whole idea of the welfare state.

But Frum argues that the right’s guiding principles – from Burke onward – just broke down and the larger societal “trade” involved in all this simply failed during the Bush era:

Especially after 2000, incomes did not much improve for middle-class Americans. The promise of macroeconomic stability proved a mirage: America and the world were hit in 2008 by the sharpest and widest financial crisis since the 1930s. Conservatives do not like to hear it, but the crisis originated in the malfunctioning of an under-regulated financial sector, not in government overspending or government over-generosity to less affluent homebuyers. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were bad actors, yes, but they could not have capsized the world economy by themselves. It took Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, AIG, and – maybe above all – Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s to do that.

Yes, he argues from the (gasp!) evidence:

In the aftermath of the catastrophe, the free-market assumption and expectation that an unemployed person could always find work somewhere has been massively falsified: at the trough of this recession, there were almost 6 jobseekers in the US for every unfilled job. Nothing like such a disparity had been seen since the 1930s. The young faced the worst job odds. But some of the most dismal outcomes were endured by workers in their 50s, laid off from middle-class jobs likely never to see middle-class employment again.

GK Chesterton once wrote that we should never tear down a fence until we knew why it had been built. In the calamity after 2008, we rediscovered why the fences of the old social insurance state had been built.

No wonder the tribe is uncomfortable with this guy, and see Kevin Drum:

It’s nice to read it because it’s such an unusual concession to reality. The financial crisis of 2008 was a stupendous event, and it’s frankly stunning to me how few people seem to have responded to it in any substantive way. Occasional throat clearing aside, it’s been business as usual for a huge chunk of the political, business, and pundit class, especially on the right.

And Drum just does not get that:

The Great Collapse was a big enough, and unexpected enough, event that it should have changed your mind at least a little bit about something. If it didn’t, you either have godlike powers of prognostication or else you’ve simply decided not to let real world events ever affect your worldview. I’m willing to put money on the latter.

That’s a good bet, and all Frum did was reconsider the very idea of public benefits that his tribe has said were unnecessary since FDR starting messing with things:

I cannot take seriously the idea that the worst thing that has happened in the past three years is that government got bigger. Or that money was borrowed. Or that the number of people on food stamps and unemployment insurance and Medicaid increased. The worst thing was that tens of millions of Americans – and not only Americans – were plunged into unemployment, foreclosure, poverty. If food stamps and unemployment insurance, and Medicaid mitigated those disasters, then two cheers for food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid.

And there’s this:

I strongly suspect that today’s Ayn Rand moment will end in frustration or worse for Republicans. The future beyond the welfare state imagined by Yuval Levin will not arrive. At that point, Republicans will face a choice. (I’d argue we face that choice now, whether we recognize it or not.) We can fulminate against unchangeable realities, alienate ourselves from a country that will not accede to the changes we demand. That way lies bitterness and irrelevance. Or we can go back to work on the core questions facing all center right parties in the advanced economies since World War II: how do we champion entrepreneurship and individualism within the context of a social insurance state?

And as a final jab Frum quotes William Kristol’s father, Irving Kristol, arguing this in 1995:

The idea of a welfare state is perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy – as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago. In our urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need governmental action of some kind … they need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it.

So try this – “Conservatism’s task is to shape that social insurance state, not repeal it.”

That will not go over well, and Steve Benen comments:

In 2011, this isn’t just heresy in Republican circles; it’s no longer what one might even call “conservative.” Leading GOP voices, including the likes of Paul Ryan, consider a social insurance state itself a form of socialism. Food stamps, unemployment insurance, and Medicaid – the elements of a safety net Frum feels it necessary to cheer – have not only been deemed unnecessary expenses by the right in 2011, a surprising number of Republican officials have insisted these programs literally unconstitutional, along with Social Security, the minimum wage, and most of the federal government’s other functions.

Indeed, I suspect a great number of those on the right saw the piece and dismissed the author as a “liberal.”

And that’s a problem:

What Frum’s piece reminded me of is the basis for a modern conservative political party – in other industrialized democracies. Other countries have conservative parties, but it’s obvious that they’re not nearly as far to the right as our Republican Party, and Frum’s essay help get to the heart of the difference. Around the world, “conservatives” believe in a safety net and a social insurance state. As recent elections in Canada and England show, conservatives tend to go out of their way to make it clear they won’t dismantle the foundations of the welfare state. This existed the same way in the U.S. for much of the post-WWII era.

Of course, any hopes that modern conservatism might return to a worldview consistent with Frum’s vision is folly. The right has simply gone over a cliff – jumped, really – and has no interest in climbing back up.

Well, maybe they’re idealists, or post-modernists, or something – what seem to be facts and evidence aren’t really what they seem. In the Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer has been thinking about his party’s prospects in 2012, and he offers advice – basically that the message that works best for Republicans is when they debate “the size and reach of government, spending and debt, and, most fundamentally, the nature of the American social contract.” Krauthammer thinks this worked for the Republicans in 2010, and “the more the Republicans can make the 2012 election like 2010, the better their chances of winning” – QED.

And E. J. Dionne argues that Democrats would be in great shape if Republicans actually took Krauthammer’s advice:

Americans simply do not agree with the approach that Rep. Paul Ryan has laid out (and that Charles so admires). It’s clear from the polling that Americans would rather raise taxes on the wealthy than slash away at the federal government’s programs to offer health coverage to the elderly and the less well-off. On the merits, I think this majority is right.

And the more conservatives make 2012 like 2010, the more they will rally progressive voters to the polls. 2010 was a classic midterm protest election – conservative turnout was way up relative to progressive and moderate turnout. The Ryan budget is creating more energy among its opponents than among conservatives; or, to put it another way, to the extent that Ryan is rallying positive energy on the right, it is among people who were already going to come out and vote Republican anyway. But by reminding progressives of the stakes in 2012, Ryan will bring many of them back to the voting booths. That is one reason why President Obama is talking about the Ryan budget so much. Another is that middle-of-the-road voters will like it less the more they know about it.

So yes, let’s rerun 2010. I am persuaded it will come out quite differently the next time around.

And Ron Brownstein reports here that the White House is thinking the same way – as the Obama team sees it, the Ryan plan is actually really helpful in framing the debate – make it all about fiscal issues and let people choose between a radical and unpopular Republican vision of how things should be, and a more popular “balanced” approach from the courteous and cool president – or as Steve Benen puts it:

Krauthammer and many GOP leaders seriously seem to believe there’s a real public appetite for slashing domestic spending, more tax cuts for people who don’t need them, and a radical overhaul of popular programs like Medicare. With 2012 in mind, it’s a sucker’s bet.

Maybe the highly-disciplined should not have shown David Frum the door. Yes, Charles Krauthammer is on Fox News every day. Ah well. But the idea of more tax cuts for people who don’t need them is central to this all, and the argument is that they really do need them. And Matthew Yglesias has an interesting question about that:

We used to have a debate in which the left said redistributive taxation might be a good idea and then the right replied that it might sound good, but actually the consequences would be bad. Lower taxes on the rich would lead to more growth and faster increase in incomes.

But now, Yglesias notes, the right seems fixated on the point that taxing the rich is unfair. It’s a moral thing – they made it, they should keep it. But he wonders if the right is, implicitly, conceding that trickle-down economics doesn’t work.

But Paul Krugman disagrees:

But my take is that what we’re looking at is the closing of the conservative intellectual universe, the creation of an echo chamber in which rightists talk only to each other, and in which even the pretense of caring about ordinary people is disappearing. I mean, we’ve been living for some time in an environment in which the WSJ can refer, unselfconsciously, to people making too little to pay income taxes as “lucky duckies”; where Chicago professors making several hundred thousand a year whine that they can’t afford any more taxes, and are surprised when that rubs some people the wrong way. Why wouldn’t such people find it completely natural to think that the hurt feelings of the rich are the main consideration in economic policy?

Of course all this was occasioned by Arthur C. Brooks writing in the Washington Post – Obama Says it’s only ‘Fair’ To Raise Taxes on the Rich. He’s Wrong.

Brooks is head of the American Enterprise Group, that asked Frum to leave, and Mark Thoma at Economist’s View offers a quick summary of Brooks’ point:

The immorality is based upon the idea that the wealthy earned every penny they received and it would be immoral to take it away and give it to those who didn’t toil as hard, as effectively, or at all (you know, the people whose wages have not kept up with their productivity). The arguments against the idea that pay at the top reflects merit alone are well known – the contention hardly passes the laugh test – and I won’t repeat them here. But anyone who thinks the reward for crashing the financial sector ought to be unimaginable wealth should rethink their ideas.

And there is Brooks’ opening paragraph:

The Ryan plan is based on three premises. First, our economy is headed for a predictable disaster because of the ruinous levels of government spending. (Standard & Poors’ decision this week to downgrade its outlook for U.S. debt only confirms this worry.) Second, we already have one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world, and we can’t load more income taxes onto entrepreneurs without expecting collateral harm to jobs and economic growth. Third, therefore, we must cut spending and reform entitlements, and this would necessarily affect the nearly 70 percent of Americans who take more from the government than they pay in taxes.


On the first point, it’s debt not spending, that is at issue. You can have high spending with little debt if you are willing to collect the taxes to support it. In addition, the problem is mainly rising health costs, not spending in general – so that’s what we ought to be talking about. We shouldn’t let deception over where the true problem is lead us to solutions that meet the ideological goal of Brooks and others of smaller government, but do little to help solve the main problem.

On the second and third points, the third follows from the second, but the evidence for the second proposition is shaky at best even given the narrow way it is stated (income taxes on entrepreneurs as opposed to taxes more generally). We can raise taxes on the wealthy without harming economic growth, particularly since we are taxing away income that was earned on some basis other than merit (and even if we do buy into the claim that it is all merit, would you work substantially less if the reward this year was only $16 million rather than $20 million?). There is no solid empirical evidence that suggests that changes in taxes at the rates we are considering would have any meaningful effect on economic growth and employment. Thus, it is not true that our only choice is to cut spending – the cuts would be too large to be tolerable anyway – tax increases must also be part of the solution.

There is no solid empirical evidence… not that it matters these days:

We’ve heard versions of these arguments before. But the only thing that seems to trickle down after tax cuts at the top is the hole in the budget they bring about, and the desire to pay for those cuts through cuts to programs that provide important benefits to middle and lower income households.

And Michael O’Hare really lays into Brooks:

He sounds his horn to alert us that “rewards are fair when they are proportional to merit”. This prescription has troubled philosophers for centuries, because they have rather stupidly failed to see how easy merit is to discern. Cutting bravely through this fog, Arthur shows (and is sure we see) that merit is measured by income and wealth, with only the most occasional and unimportant errors. (Well, “shows” is maybe a little strong; it’s sort of an “as any fool can plainly see; I can see!” argument.) Indeed, by halfway through his piece, all the victims of these looming unfair tax increases are entrepreneurs, not a Paris Hilton among them; and conversely, there’s no merit at all for poets, artists, firefighters, doctors undermining the American way by practicing in clinics for the poor instead of LA plastic surgery suites, teachers….

Perhaps it’s meritorious to choose wealthy parents, or get yourself born into a two-parent family that makes you do your homework, and can afford to live where the schools work. There’s certainly no question in Brooks’ mind that all of the amazing increase in American productivity of the last couple of decades is due entirely to the brilliance of the financial sector, and the chief executives of the companies whose paper it plays with. It can’t have anything to do with workers, because they haven’t kept any of the wealth it created, QED! The captains of industry who trashed their companies and walked away fixed for life under golden parachutes, too: nothing but merit there.

And Brooks offers this:

And even if only a portion of the outcomes in life were due to merit, we should still gear our system to the part that is under our control. Otherwise, we have no incentive to be industrious, honest, innovative and optimistic and there’s no reason to teach these values to our kids, either.


The only incentive for merit is to make money, the only evidence of merit that matters is having made a lot, and it’s both fair and efficient that the people who should pay taxes are the people who haven’t. Dang.

But Brooks does toss in a bone, to stop the growling:

There is certainly a role for government in this system. Private markets can fail due to monopolies (which eliminate competition), externalities (such as pollution), the need for public goods (such as education, which is indispensable in an opportunity society), corruption and crime. Furthermore, most economists agree that some social safety net is appropriate in a civilized society. When the government focuses on these things, it assists the free-enterprise system.


His technical chops are a little rusty; education is great, and it may be a market failure, but it’s certainly not a public good. Still, the nose of the camel is in the tent.

Well, it’s something.

But you see where this is heading – Todd A. Heywood, Michigan Messenger: Foster Children Would Be Allowed To Get Clothing Only From Second Hand Stores – “Under a new budget proposal from State Sen. Bruce Casswell, children in the state’s foster care system would be allowed to purchase clothing only in used clothing stores.”

Yeah, Bruce, whatever – you get points with the tribe for that. But what’s the point? No wonder David Frum is such a sour person. Someone steps back and looks at facts and evidence and sees where they lead – no matter where they lead. That seems to be a thankless and lonely task.

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 David Frum, Political Discourse, Political Orthodoxy, The Welfare State, Tribalism in American Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s