Managing Diminished Expectations

Ah, the first Tuesday in June was a big news day – if the big news is that what everyone knew would happen actually happened. In Wisconsin, the recall of anti-worker pro-business Republican governor, Scott Walker, seemingly out to dismantle all social services in the state and privatize everything in sight, did fail spectacularly – he stays.

But there was no surprise there – Scott Walker managed to outspend his challenger with his thirty million dollars, to his challenger’s four million. What else would one expect? Yes, at least seventy percent of that money came from out of state – from the Koch Brothers and Sheldon Adelson and the like – protecting their interests. And in this new age of anonymous unlimited campaign donations, perhaps some of the big money came from the Saudis or mischievous Russian billionaires or the Vatican, or the Olson twins and Elvis, as some say he’s still alive. No one will ever know. And the Democrats are disconsolate, and also pretty ticked off at Obama, who stayed out of this. He sent Bill Clinton.

But that’s just prudence. There was no point in making this a referendum on Obama. As much as this recall election might be emblematic of the big themes that will play out later in the year, this was somewhat local and the outcome was almost predetermined. Money talks – and the Obama team can use this crushing disappointment as an object lesson, to raise cash for the fall campaign. The fabulously wealthy Koch brothers, of the oil-chemical-paper industries, have pledged at least four hundred million dollars to the Romney SuperPAC – or more if necessary. That’s chump-change to them, and a worry for the Obama folks. It might be useful to them to point to what happened in Wisconsin, over and over. This recall election only made what was already clear even clearer. And Wisconsin teachers, who lost their pensions and all their bargaining rights, facing drastic pay cuts and a doubling of class-size and workload, can simply move to another state – or as many Republicans like to say, get a real job. If Walker manages to shut down all the state universities the solution isn’t as clear – college professors don’t do well in the real world. But it is what it is – the recall failed, as expected. And that’s that.

And the other news of the day was expected too:

An election-year Democratic measure designed to ensure that women don’t face pay discrimination was blocked Tuesday by Republicans who complained that the bill was politically inspired and would reward trial lawyers at the expense of employers.

The motion, which needed 60 votes to succeed, got only 52, not one from a Republican.

President Obama issued a statement criticizing Republicans for putting “partisan politics ahead of American women and families.”

It seems this bill would close loopholes in the 1963 Equal Pay Act – employers would have to prove that differences in pay were related to job performance, not gender – with the kicker that employers would have to scrap their work rules against employees sharing salary information with each other. You couldn’t get fired for that anymore – and of course this would allow women who believe they were discriminated against to sue for damages. The Republicans – every single one of them – said this would make doing business in America next to impossible:

“This is just politics. This should be called the trial lawyers bonanza bill,” complained Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming, the top Republican on the Senate labor committee. “It has nothing to do with the women. They will get very little out of it. What it allows is huge class-action suits with very little defense by any employer.”

And maybe this does have nothing to do with women – what they don’t know won’t hurt them and all that. You just don’t want to make it any more difficult for American business right now, or ever. And any woman who’s all hot and bothered about equal pay for equal work can always move to a country that has such laws about these things – Sweden perhaps. This was an attack on free-enterprise.

And yes, this looks bad for Republicans, more reason to laugh at them when they claim they’re not waging a war on women, but the Romney campaign had a response:

Of course Governor Romney supports pay equity for women. In order to have pay equity, women need to have jobs, and they have been getting crushed in this economy, losing far more jobs than men. As president, Mitt Romney will create a pro-jobs business climate that will put all Americans back to work.

That’s a pretty clever reframing. You see, Obama is the one who’s waging a war, a war on free enterprise and the successful, the good Americans – this is class warfare, really. And Romney and the Republicans are fighting the good fight, for the natural winners in life, who make our economy hum along. And they do plan to win this war to save free enterprise and the American way of life. But what they seem to be saying here is that in any war there will be, regrettably, collateral damage. Sometimes that drone strike takes out the awful terrorist leader but blows up a classroom full of little kids. It happens. Sorry, gals. But it’s for a good cause. And anyway, now you’ll never know you’re earning half what the guy at the next desk, doing the same job, earns. Ignorance is bliss, as they say. Find your bliss. Or start your own company, or move to Sweden or wherever. This is bigger than your petty concerns.

And the new polling shows it’s bigger:

The Pew Research Center has a new report out Tuesday suggesting that America is more divided than ever along partisan lines, and that the differences between Democrats and Republicans outstrip differences between Americans of different races, genders, ages and incomes.

Race, gender, age, income – all of that matters far less than where you stand on the core partisan issue of being for business and the further success of the successful, and the resulting booming economy, or for the rights of individuals we get hurt in the hurly-burly of getting the economy humming along. And that has to do with the social safety net:

Forty percent of Republicans agree with the statement, “It’s the government’s responsibility to care for people who can’t care for themselves,” compared with 75 percent of Democrats. That gap has widened by 20 points since 1987.

Republicans used to agree with that statement. Now they don’t. Make sure the successful thrive. Don’t do much else. That’s the new rule. Those who can’t take care of themselves are unfortunate collateral damage – but that happens. There’s the greater good.

But curiously, one thing didn’t change in the last twenty-five years, as we all agree about social mobility:

One way Pew measures this is by asking people whether they believe that success in life is largely determined by factors outside a person’s control. A “yes” response signals that the respondent doesn’t believe in one of the central promises of the American Dream – social mobility and equality of opportunity. The stark divide in answers by income is startling, but that gap hasn’t changed much in a quarter century. Half of lower-income people say that success in life is mostly beyond people’s control, while only 22 percent of upper income people believe so. College graduates are also much more likely to believe that a person can control his or her success.

The stasis in this divide comes in spite of the widening income gap between the rich and poor in America and Republican criticism that Obama engages in “class warfare” by saying wealthy people should pay higher taxes than they currently do.

It seems that everyone but the rich, and naïve college students, long ago gave up on the idea you can really do anything about your lot in life – that hasn’t changed. The rich believe in the American Dream – they borrowed three hundred thousand dollars from their parents and built a multimillion-dollar corporation out of nothing but hard work and their father’s Rolodex. Donald Trump did it, and Mitt Romney did it, and his son is doing it. Anyone can.

But not many have such parents, and they know that all too well. This is bullshit, and even the Europeans have worked things out better:

A belief in personal control over financial destiny sets Americans apart from many Western European nations. In a Pew Global Attitudes survey last year, 72 percent of Germans and 57 percent of French people agreed that success is mostly decided by outside forces, compared to only 36 percent of Americans overall.

Almost two-thirds of us know full well we’re stuck. It’s a matter of impartial observation. And Alex Pareene dives into the details of the polling:

Americans still hate the rich, according to yet another poll. And not just godless secular liberals! Pew’s major Trends in American Values poll shows class resentments bridging the partisan divide: “Majorities in all educational and income groups agree that ‘today it’s really true that the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer.’ In the current survey, 76% of the public agrees with this statement, about the same as the 74% that agreed in 1987.”

Even the moderate pundit crowd’s beloved independents agree: Our ruling classes are worthless parasites. A mere 22 percent of “swing voters” “admire the rich.” (How many Romney supporters “admire the rich,” you ask? Thirty-eight percent. No one likes rich people.)

As Elspeth Reeve puts it, succinctly and correctly, “swing voters are not libertarians.” They’re also not “socially liberal and fiscally conservative,” like the vast majority of our well-off media elites tend to consider themselves.

But then it gets complicated:

Basically, vast swaths of Americans hate the rich, and also hate immigrants. Right now there are two pro-rich people political parties and one anti-immigrant political party. You can probably imagine which one is winning over these voters. It’s almost as if the conservative party gradually scared the ostensibly liberal party away from economic populism then reaped the electoral benefits of being the only Populist Party!

And Pareene argues that old-fashioned liberalism is dead:

Everyone’s been trained to believe that the deficit is bad and that government spending on the needy will only help unnamed Other People, so no one really supports the expansion of the social safety net. On the other hand, rhetorical rich-people bashing is an obvious political positive…

That’s curious mix, but Pareene argues Obama could do something with it:

Even if these swing voters think helping the needy isn’t worth growing the debt, I am reasonably sure they’d all happily sign on to a program of taxing the hell out of the “job creators,” whom everyone apparently despises. That is my free tip to Democrats looking for some of that “Ryan Plan” magic. Just have someone draw up a “soak the rich” plan that involves spending the money on things “swing voters” like, like schools and so on. So crazy it just might have worked for 30-plus years!

But what if there are no things those swing voters like. Along with all the money, one thing Scott Walker had going for him in Wisconsin, and one thing all Republicans rely on, is that everyone hates government programs. And Kevin Drum has an interesting question about that:

Over the years, most of us have retained roughly the same view of whether the government is wasteful and inefficient. The postwar (“Silent”) and Boomer generations hover around 65% and Gen X hovers around 55% – with very little change as members of those generations get older. But Millennials are different. In 2003 they were pretty optimistic about government-run programs, with only about 30% saying they were wasteful. Today, though, nearly 50% think that. In the course of only a decade, they’ve become far, far more cynical about government programs.

Why? Is this related to the Iraq War? To the Bush/Rove administration more generally? To the stimulus bill? (The numbers went way up between 2009 and 2011.) Or were they just unnaturally optimistic during their 20s and are now catching up to everyone else? Any guesses?

And Ryan Cooper, who grew up in the nineties, happy with government, offers this response:

I can remember when gas was less than a dollar a gallon. (Not to say that was a good thing per se, it’s just emblematic of the times.) People had jobs, the economy was good, computers were amazing and getting more amazing at a blistering pace – and the government seemed generally competent. Not that I paid a whole lot of attention to it…

And when he thinks back on the impeachment of Bill Clinton over that Monica Lewinsky business he realized even that didn’t matter much:

If the entire country was captivated for years by a minor sex scandal, then surely we must not have had any actual pressing problems. After all, if we did, wouldn’t the media be paying attention to those? (Please, stifle your laughter, I was only a kid.)

But things changed soon enough:

Then we had an entire decade of catastrophic failures, one after the next. First Bush stole the election in a banana-republic fiasco that badly tarnished our highest court. Then our massive security apparatus missed 9/11. Then we invaded Afghanistan, ostensibly in part to get bin Laden, but dawdled and let him escape so we could invade Iraq, based on a pack of lies. While that country was fast turning into a dystopian, bloodstained nightmare and sucking chest wound in the nation’s treasury and military, a hurricane destroyed one of our largest, most original cities, and the government stood there helpless for months, mouth agape. It turned out the very top of the government, up to and including the president, instituted a torture regime in blatant violation of constitutionally-binding treaties. (They later brag about this fact on national television.)

Then what turned out to be the biggest financial bubble in eighty years popped – and the government swooped in with incredible speed and force, to shovel money into the gaping maw of the banks, pulling back the moment the immediate crisis was over. The enormous recession that ensues got only tepid response from the government.

Though President Obama has been better than his predecessor, he still didn’t manage to alleviate the foreclosure crisis, or punish banks for committing systematic fraud. His efforts to police the financial sector have been laughable. The biggest banks are bigger than ever, and with Citizens United, the political system is awash with cash from the ultra-rich.

Cooper suggests that Chris Hayes has it right when Hayes called this a “fail decade.” And that colors things:

Now, I don’t think that good government is impossible, and I think a lot of government programs are great, especially if you look overseas to, say, Scandinavia. I support ObamaCare, and I think the stimulus did save us from another Great Depression, though it obviously wasn’t enough. But I don’t think it’s possible to honestly look at this country and not conclude that we have an enormous governance problem.

We now have meager expectations, and rightly so. We had the Bush decade, where they told us government just doesn’t work, and systematically proved it. And now Obama tries to get things done in a world where he can’t – so Obama lowers his own expectations too.

And Thomas Schaller suggests low expectations fit a nation that has no real clue about what’s going on:

Last summer at a community fundraiser, I was conversing with a man who began to carp about runaway federal government spending. His was a reasonable complaint: Relative to the gross domestic product, both federal spending and the national debt are near historically high levels. When I asked him what types of spending ought to be cut, he mentioned foreign aid. “What share of federal spending do you think goes to foreign aid?” I countered, knowing that the correct answer is just under 1 percent. “Forty-eight percent,” he hazarded as my jaw dropped.

Fast-forward to last week’s Gallup poll revealing that, when asked to estimate the share of their fellow Americans who are gay, 35 percent of respondents answered 25 percent and another 43 percent answered between 10 percent and 25 percent. As the Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta points out, although the Kinsey Report’s most broadly inclusive definition put the figure as high as 10 percent, contemporary studies peg it closer 2 percent. In short, nearly fourth-fifths of the country believe homosexuality is more prevalent – and possibly five times more prevalent – than it in fact is.

The uncomfortable truth is that across a range of issues, many with important policy implications, Americans are simply misinformed, and often wildly so. Presuming citizens form their opinions based upon what they know about society and government, how in the world can even the most earnest politicians respond properly to preferences expressed by such a highly misinformed public?

Now that’s a good question. You can’t have high expectations:

The public grossly misunderstands who owns how much in America and who gets what from the U.S. government in ways that make liberal policy prescriptions harder to sell. Americans drastically underestimate wealth inequality in the country, undermining the case for raising higher-bracket income, inheritance or capital gains tax rates. Like the budgetary-challenged man I met last summer, Americans likewise tend to believe the U.S. government spends more than it actually does on items like foreign aid and welfare to the poor, and less on defense.

Such findings explain the paradoxical public preference for shrinking government spending…

Meanwhile, to President Obama’s great chagrin and partially resulting from his own communication failures, Americans remain very confused about the provisions of the Affordable Care Act: what it does and doesn’t do, when certain provisions kick in, what the law will cost, and so on. Again, it’s hard to square the circle of a public evenly divided on the legislation overall despite the fact a plurality if not majority of polled respondents support every major provision of ACA except the very unpopular individual mandate. Unless the mandate is so damning in the public’s mind that it ruins an otherwise acceptable bill, one of two things must be true: Either Americans oppose this law despite supporting all but one of its provisions, or they are just so completely in the dark about it they oppose it as a matter of reflex.

But it’s a one-sided darkness:

As for the 2003 Iraq invasion, the most significant security policy decision since Vietnam? Long after the publication of the 9/11 Commission Report and as late as 2007, more than 40 percent of Americans still believed Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks, as did a startling 85 percent of military members fighting on the ground in Iraq. The consequences of that ignorance – 5,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, and a long-term cost to the U.S. treasury in the trillions – will continue to be felt for decades.

Despite an earnest Google search, I failed to find any comparable examples of political or societal ignorance that favor the left.

That war may be over, but we’re still arguing about government spending, where, as Shaller notes, “conservatives not only have a vested interest in creating or at least perpetuating falsehoods about government, but they doubly benefit from the fact that many Americans who at some point in their lives relied upon government programs believe they never did.”

And thus our expectations are low – Scott Walker will have to do in Wisconsin, even if teachers and other workers flee the state, and women will just have to accept they will be paid less than men for the exact same work, or, really, accept they will be forever forbidden to learn if that is the case. We don’t expect much now. And that seems to be the new American Dream. Only the billionaires expect good things. That’s what they pay for.

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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 Equal Pay for Women, Republican War on Women, Scott Walker, The American Dream and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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