Lost in Transition

There are some things you don’t like because… well, because you don’t like those things. Gay marriage used to be like that. But now New York is poised to legalize gay marriage – to everyone’s surprise. A number of Republicans are jumping ship, so to speak – as the gay-marriage-will-be-the-end-of-life-as-we-know-it ship is sinking fast. Now more than half of America has no problem with gay marriage, and even a majority of Catholics think it’s no big whoop if Sven and Bruce enter into a long-term stable relationship, and are allowed to support each other through thick and thin. We need more stable committed relationships in this sorry world.

But what changed? The Pope didn’t change his mind. But people just thought about it. What harm would this do? Your own marriage is not going to be anything other than it is, no matter how happy or unhappy Sven and Bruce are allowed to be. You may find the idea of their intimate life distasteful, but they might find your habit of chewing tobacco and flying the Confederate Flag and screaming about the uppity blacks distasteful. Distasteful isn’t illegal – or it shouldn’t be. We’d be at each other’s throats, killing each other, if it were. No one should die because they like opera, or Garth Brooks, or Alban Berg. Just turn the volume down and keep it to yourself.

And then there are the Marines. On a visit to Marines based in South Korea last week, top enlisted officer Sgt. Maj. Michael Barrett told troops to prepare for repeal of Don’t-Ask Don’t-Tell (DADT) with a “tough, hard charging, intimidating” address that you would expected from the top enlisted Marine dude – he’s supposed to be intimidating. And the Wall Street Journal’s Nathan Hodge reports that Barrett specifically said this:

Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution is pretty simple. It says, “Raise an army.” It says absolutely nothing about race, color, creed, sexual orientation. You all joined for a reason: to serve. To protect our nation, right? … How dare we, then, exclude a group of people who want to do the same thing you do right now, something that is honorable and noble? … Right? … Get over it. We’re magnificent. We’re going to continue to be. … Let’s just move on, treat everybody with firmness, fairness, dignity, compassion and respect. Let’s be Marines.

And that was that. A small group of Republican congressmen still say all the guys in the armed services hate the repeal of DADT – and maybe they’ll try to get Barrett drummed out of the Corps in disgrace, but that’s going nowhere. It seems everyone got over it. Truman told the armed services that everyone had to serve side-by-side with black folks. That worked out fine. And the Air Force Academy finally got over harassing Jewish cadets and forcing them out because they refused to get right with Jesus – and that wasn’t pretty – they were forced to take down the banners – “I am a Christian first and last! I am a member of Team Jesus Christ!” And yes, a Jewish cadet was told the Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus and another was called a Christ killer by a fellow cadet and so on. But it all worked out, after a few heads rolled. So you can be a killer fighter pilot without a foreskin. Who knew?

So sure, there are things you just don’t like. And then someone challenges you to explain what the problem is. Why don’t you like this or that? What if this or that is allowed? What’s the harm? What’s going to happen? And then you realize that saying probably nothing will happen, or certainly nothing much will happen at all, and there will be no real harm – but that you still don’t like it – is just you being a jerk. And no one – save for a few on the far fringes of the left and right – really wants to be a jerk. Even Mel Gibson probably doesn’t really want to be a jerk. No one is all that sure about Newt Gingrich, of course.

But these changes in attitude do take time to work out. The civil rights acts of the sixties – fair housing, voting rights and the rest – came in the wrong sixties, a hundred years after the Civil War settled the slavery issue. And the Brown decision, integrating public schools, came in 1954 – and had people angry for far more than a decade after that. Jackie Robinson, playing for the Dodgers in 1947, was a long time coming – but the whitest of white teams, the Boston Red Sox, stayed lily-white for many years after that. And no, they didn’t think of themselves as the Boston Jerks. They were just in that transition period, where they had decided something about black baseball players was wrong – and they were quite sure it was wrong – but they couldn’t quite say why.

And it’s the transition period that presents real problems. Many people will say this is so, and I know it’s so, and I don’t really know why it’s so – but trust me, this is so, it really is, as I just know it. Republicans say that a lot, about most every issue. And evangelicals say that God says it’s so, and if God hasn’t spoken to you about it, directly, maybe He just doesn’t like you at all – and that’s YOUR problem. Others might say that this is something that everyone knows – and that you don’t know it just shows how out of touch you are with the reality of what everyone just knows – and that’s YOUR problem. There is not a lot of thinking going on. So you have to wait. They’ll come around. Give them time. Back in the day you’d take your friend from Boston to a Dodgers game at Ebbets Field. All you had to do was watch Robinson.

But when it comes to specific issues, the real problem at the moment is the deficit issue. Do we do something about the stalled recovery and the fourteen million jobless, and the maybe ten million more who don’t get counted in the unemployment figures as they gave up trying to find work long ago, even if it means incurring more debt to get things rolling – or do we do something about the massive debt we’re already carrying, as that will ruin us, by shutting down as much of the government as possible, even if that means doubling the number of unemployed and giving up on all social services and letting the elderly and poor fend for themselves or die. Is the deficit the real issue here? What are we arguing about?

Greg Sargent has some thoughts on that, suggesting that the Democrats lost the argument over the deficit, because they never engaged it:

In case you need further evidence that the Dem decision to effectively endorse the right’s austerity/cut-cut-cut frame is only harming them, check out the internals of the new Bloomberg News poll. They show that the public broadly agrees with Republican arguments about the deficit, spending cuts and what it takes to rebuild the “confidence” required for an economic rebound.

The data are here and Sargent points out the key numbers:

Fifty-five percent of Americans think that spending cuts and tax cuts will give businesses more confidence to hire. Only 17 percent think government should spend more to stimulate the economy, and only another 17 percent think we should maintain current spending levels.

Sixty-five percent say that a major reason for the economy remaining in the toilet is because the large federal deficit makes the economy “unstable.”

Fifty-two percent think a major reason for our economic doldrums is that “uncertainty” created by government regulations and taxes is harming hiring.

Only 35 percent think a major reason for the economic doldrums is that spending cuts hurts jobs.

So it comes down to this:

In other words, the public broadly believes in what Paul Krugman refers to as the “confidence fairy,” i.e., the notion that deficit cutting is an important component in restoring “economic confidence,” a notion that even the White House has endorsed. It also agrees with the GOP’s argument that excessive regulation and taxes create “uncertainty.”

See Paul Krugman on the confidence fairy – it’s amusing, and alarming. There is no fairy. There is Ryan Avent reporting from a White House forum on the economy:

The comments from Gene Sperling, Director of the National Economic Council and a key member of the team negotiating an agreement on an increase in the debt ceiling, were clearer still. The White House believes, he said, that deficit-cutting is an important component (the emphasis was his) of a growth strategy. And he repeatedly said that deficit-reduction was crucial in generating economic confidence. Confidence – he repeated this word many times.

Krugman adds his wonky refutation – the US government can borrow almost three trillion dollars with zero, absolutely no, effect on interest rates, so what is this crisis on confidence?

Sargent speculates:

Now, maybe you can see this as a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. Maybe these numbers support the idea that there was never any percentage for Dems in making a real case for more stimulus and for deferring action on the deficit until unemployment came down. Maybe these numbers show that the public has internalized the idea that government is a massive drag on the economy and can’t possibly create jobs – and that there’s no point in trying to change people’s minds. Maybe these numbers show that the best hope for Dems is to reach a deficit reduction deal and get this issue off the table before trying to manage some kind of pivot to jobs.

Or maybe the opposite is true. Dems, by effectively ceding the argument over the economy to Republicans and getting themselves caught in a Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop, only ensured that this entire battle would unfold entirely on the GOP’s rhetorical turf, leading Americans to except GOP doctrine as gospel.

Either way, the result of Dem conduct has been that Americans only got to hear one side of this argument, so it’s only natural if they agree with it.

It may be time for that trip to Ebbets Field, metaphorically speaking of course. Steve Benen puts it this way:

There’s a lingering disconnect in most public opinion polls. When pollsters ask Americans what they consider to be the top issues facing the country, the American mainstream strongly agrees with the Democratic line: job creation and economic growth are paramount, and the deficit isn’t that important.

But when pollsters ask Americans about the deficit itself, the American mainstream tends to agree with the Republican line. The new Bloomberg News poll shows the public adopting all kinds of odd GOP talking points, from inspiring “confidence” through spending cuts to the deficit making the economy “unstable.”

The public may have “internalized the idea that government is a massive drag on the economy and can’t possibly create jobs” – but Benen says that is “in part because Republicans have been effective getting their ridiculous message out, and in part because Dems have been so inept in fighting back against the bogus argument.”

And he notes Jonathan Bernstein makes a related point:

My comment, once again, is that I simply don’t believe that most people have any idea what “deficit” means. Or, rather, what “deficit” means to them is basically some version of “bad economic stuff.” I very much doubt that when mass publics answer survey questions about the deficit that what they think of is the difference between government revenues and government expenditures. Well, maybe some do – but at least in my view, many, perhaps most, don’t.

Of course, if true, this makes what Greg calls the “Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop” even sadder, at least for those who don’t believe that immediate deficit reduction is a good idea.

The idea is that politicians talk about the deficit because they think that constituents care and reporters talk about it because they believe it’s important, and then (because they’ve been talking about it) the polling comes back saying that, gosh, voters really do care about it, which then makes politicians even more likely to focus on deficit reduction. If, however, voters are only picking up on “deficit” as a synonym for hard times, then the signal they’re sending back to politicians isn’t even that the deficit should be cut; it’s just that bad times are, well, bad.

So sure, there are things you just don’t like. No one likes them. Maybe God doesn’t like them. And then someone challenges you to explain what the problem is. And there, as Benen notes, the fun begins:

I’m sure everyone has heard this anecdote a hundred times, but I often think about one of the 1992 presidential candidate debates, at which a young voter asked, “How has the national debt personally affected each of your lives? And if it hasn’t, how can you honestly find a cure for the economic problems of the common people if you have no experience in what’s ailing them?”

President George H. W. Bush was first, and answered the question directly, talking about interest rates. The questioner wasn’t impressed, and talked about “friends that have been laid off in jobs.” Bush responded, “I’m not sure I get it. Help me with the question, and I’ll try to answer it.”

Bill Clinton had no such trouble. He realized that the woman said the “deficit,” but she was really just talking about the economy in general. Bush took the question literally, not realizing that the questioner didn’t know what the deficit even is.

And Benen suspects public ignorance has gotten worse in the twenty years since:

It’s fairly common to hear people say, “People are really struggling out there, so we better get the deficit under control.” They don’t realize – because no one in power has told them – that tackling the deficit would make matters worse, not better, for those hurting most.

And so the polls, the discourse, and the political world slide further down the rabbit hole.

Ah, he would bring up Alice in Wonderland:

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.
“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least – at least I mean what I say – that’s the same thing, you know.”
“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “You might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

It’s like that. Meaning what you say is not the same as saying what you mean – especially when you really don’t know what you mean. And there is a lot of that not really knowing what you mean going around these days, even if you really, really mean it, whatever it is, in a very forceful way. This talk of the deficit is like that. No one quite knows what it is, but it’s BAD – or something is, and that might be it. You never know.

Yes, there is not a lot of thinking going on. So you have to wait. They’ll come around. Give them time. Hey, we elected a black president far sooner than anyone ever expected, and the idea that gay folks are just fine evolved far faster than anyone expected – and although it took them twelve years to do it, in 1959 Pumpsie Green became the first black player for the Boston Red Sox. Give it time.

But of course there is no time on this issue. Now what?

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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 Austerity Economics, Deficit Hawks, Political Epistemology, Populist Outrage and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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