Change of Possession

This is where they go to commercial break – seemingly endless thirty-second spots for oil filters and Viagra and pizza deals. Yeah, the full moon is rising early in the evening of the last day of August and college football has resumed, with the pros to follow on Sunday, and there’s a rhythm to it all. The first team has its opening drive – they run a little, they pass a little, and what they can and can’t do starts to become obvious. Then, having moved as far down the field as they can manage, they punt – the safe thing to do, as it’s going to be a long game. It’s a matter of getting a feel for what works, and what weakness on the other side can be exploited – the new linebacker who easily can be fooled perhaps. The other side receives the punt – a boring fair catch or just letting it bounce out of bounds. No one is taking any chances early on. And after all the commercials it will be their turn to see what works and what doesn’t, to probe for weaknesses and exploit them. You have to be a real die-hard football fan to like the first quarters of the first football games of the new season. The good stuff happens in December and January, and always at the end of the game. This is just positioning and strategy for what comes much later – but the commercials are cool. For an erection lasting more than four hours call your doctor. You wish.

It’s the same in politics, as now is the break at the first change of possession – the Republicans have wrapped up their convention in Tampa, trying to see what works and what doesn’t, and what weakness they can exploit, and the Democrats are about to kick off their convention in Charlotte, where they will do the same. The Republicans moved the ball as far down as they could and punted to the Democrats. At the break, during the commercials, America heads for the fridge to grab a beer – except for those who sit and think about what they just saw. Those are the die-hard political junkies who are trying to get a sense of what’s really going on – a sense of who is likely to win this game, and why. There are things that somehow do seem to work, and obvious weaknesses to exploit – each side simply has to discover what those are. What’s going on now determines what happens in November.

That’s what’s going on now with students of the game, in this case political scientists and pundits. At the first change of possession they’re assessing which sort of plays are being run effectively – finesse passes or pounding it up the middle on the ground – and assessing where the weaknesses are. Each side has a game plan. They execute it or tweak it on the fly. Sports metaphors can be extended too far, but not here, and Jonathan Chait thinks he’s figured out the Republican game plan:

The most persistent argument advanced by the Republican Party at its convention was a general view, often put forward through implication rather than explication, about wealth and opportunity. Speaker after speaker touted their humble origins – or, if lacking humble origins, as many of them do, the humble origins of their parents or grandparents or perhaps those of some striving businessperson they knew. All this was deployed in service of a case (that Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio leaned into most heavily) that President Obama is destroying the chance for people to rise in America. His “attacks on wealth,” which are imaginary, or his proposals to increase taxes on the most affluent, which are real, will (or have) shut down the upward mobility pipeline that is the American Dream.

In short, yes, Mitt Romney is damned rich, and his backers even richer, and he and his party seem to be defending only the rich, but being damned rich is a good thing, as is wide inequality of income. That just shows the system is working as it should – anyone starting from nothing can make it big. That’s how it should be, which is an interesting argument in the abstract – as it has to be, as almost all these folks started out damned rich to begin with – but Chait points out that this argument only works in the abstract, and he cites studies that show equality of opportunity and equality of condition are not mutually exclusive:

There are many countries with substantially higher levels of intergenerational mobility than the United States, and all of them are much more equal. This makes perfect sense, because one of the things people do with greater wealth is deploy their resources toward buying greater opportunities for their children.

Chait adds supporting detail to that but it’s pretty simple – countries with a very rich few, running things, with everyone else just scraping by, are countries where no one can really get ahead. There are no exceptions, or there haven’t been any yet in human history. No one wants to punish success, but severely concentrated wealth always seems to crush any opportunity for everyone else. A political game plan to celebrate millionaires and billionaires is bound to bump up against the facts sooner or later. Those who got “there” from humble roots, as they say, are the rare exceptions. That’s not Romney’s story or Ryan’s. That’s hardly anyone’s story. There are a million ghetto kids who dream of making it big in the NBA – maybe five or six do every ten years. Many nerdy white kids may dream of being the next Bill Gates, but there’s only one of him – which may be a good thing actually. Dream big and you can “build that” – and you can also win the lottery. It’s just not likely. A few months back Romney said young people, now just out of college and finding it so hard to find any work at all, should take risks and start a new business all on their own. It’s a wonderful thing to do – just borrow a couple hundred thousand from your parents – it’s the American way. This is the land of opportunity after all. He’s since revised the number downward.

Ah well – that’s the Republican playbook. Dream big – anyone can make it in America, and Obama just doesn’t understand that. In spite of all the pesky data showing that just isn’t so, they’ll run with that.

Chait sees how this plays out in specific policy:

Obama proposes to repeal the Bush tax cuts on income over $250,000 a year. Is there any evidence that these tax cuts contributed to economic mobility, or broader growth in any way? None that I can see. In fact, the strongest period of rising wages for the poor occurred after Bill Clinton jacked up the highest marginal tax rate in 1993, a period that ended around the time George W. Bush reversed course. This doesn’t prove that tax cuts for the rich harm growth, but it certainly suggests that returning top rates to Clinton-era levels would not harm the incentive to get rich.

Then too there’s the matter of how we treat the poor:

The most dramatic policy changes on the table are Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s proposals to slash spending targeted to the poor by somewhere on the order of half. Many liberals would concede that it’s possible for some programs for the poor to be designed in such a way as to harm the work incentive and trap the poor. But I have yet to see a serious case that Romney and Ryan’s plans to do things like slash funding for children’s health insurance and raise the tax burden on the non-rich would increase opportunity to make it in America.

So this opening drive, so to speak, showed some weaknesses:

The Republicans have no serious argument that, in return for higher inequality of outcome, they would create “equality of opportunity,” or even less inequality of opportunity. They would bring about more inequality of both.

The real role opportunity plays in their argument is to serve as a justification for their plans to increase inequality of condition. You see, they tell us – we (or those who came before us) made it out of humble origins. Therefore we deserve our wealth and should keep as much of it as possible. The working class strivers the wealthy Republicans extol are not the actual working class but merely an idealized version of themselves.

Chait is a guy on the left of course, but on the right, the conservative side of things, there’s Reihan Salam, offering this in the National Review:

While reading a left-of-center friend lament the resonance of “You Didn’t Build That,” I started thinking about what I take to be the official Democratic argument for higher taxes.

One can imagine an argument that government is worth paying for, as it does many good and valuable things. According to this logic, all middle-income households should be willing to pay somewhat more – the price of a cup of coffee for houses at the median household income, the price of a laptop computer for households earning 1.5x the median household income, etc. And of course high-earners should be willing to pay more still. This argument has the virtue of coherence.

That, however, is not what he’s hearing:

In the evolutionary struggle that is our politics, the argument that has proved most robust is the argument that only highest-earners should pay more, as households earning $199K or $99K are, regardless of the composition of the household, victims of a broken economy. The implicit suggestion is that it is only the highest-earners who have truly benefited from the genius of the American system, and who are thus obligated to pay more for its maintenance – and indeed who should be enthusiastic about doing so. More recently, congressional Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have suggested raising the threshold for tax increases to those earning $1M or more. In practice, this has meant attacking high-earners – or rather attacking high-earners who do not explicitly welcome the prospect of paying higher taxes – as shirkers.

That changes the whole tone of the argument:

The danger of this approach for the left is that it implies that government is not worth paying for, and that tax increases are best understood in punitive terms. And it is closely aligned, in my view at least, with the view crystallized by President Obama in his Roanoke speech – “I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something – there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.”

Higher taxes can be seen, in this frame, as a way to cut down tall poppies. Note that the valence would be very different if we all, or rather if all of us with jobs, should pay higher taxes to sustain the commonwealth, and high-earners should pay somewhat more than the rest of us. The tone would be very different.

Maybe Obama was picking on the rich, and if this were a football game that might have been a bad play, enraging the other team and inspiring them, or a good play, really charging up your own team. Either way Salam cites Matthew Yglesias with this:

The Republican argument is more or less that it’s unseemly to be poking around under the hood of various success stories looking for excuses to raise taxes. We should be celebrating success and congratulating the Job Creators on their prowess, not worrying about exactly how much money we can soak them for – although this does leave you with Obama’s original point. It’s just not plausible that America is so much richer than India because no smart, hard-working entrepreneurs were ever born in India. It’s America’s public framework that makes all the difference.

Salam is having none of that:

Conservatives and libertarians tend to understand America’s public framework as something broader than the state. Rather they see it as a system of rules, institutions, and norms. One concern is that the expansion of the state has compromised the effectiveness of our institutions, undermined important norms, and created a “pebbles in the stream” dynamic in which the accretion of rules and regulation has contributed to stagnation. This is one potential rejoinder to President Obama’s original point, per Yglesias’ stylized characterization.

Yglesias says Republicans just can’t make that argument:

The counterpoint I would have liked to see the GOP raise to this is that while it’s true this kind of thing is important, if you crack open the books you’ll see that this isn’t really what the federal government spends money on. The federal government’s big programs are the military, income support for the elderly, health care for the elderly, and health care for the poor and disabled. When the 111th Congress had the chance to pass some big government laws, their big agenda item was to increase the provision of health care subsidies to lower-income Americans, not to drastically increase public investment. But that argument isn’t available to them because much as people might worry that the social insurance state is crowding out investment, the Romney/Ryan budget framework cuts federal investment spending even more aggressively than it rolls back social insurance.

It’s hard to tell what the game plan is now, and back on the left, Andrew Sabl offers this:

Salam is basically completely right on the policy – though I’d gloss the political implications quite differently. While we should rein in health care costs (which will mean somewhat less care, many fewer hospital stays, and a reduction in medical specialists’ demand for second homes), and should cut military spending steadily over time, maintaining even the government that’s left at the size it needs to be will require slightly higher tax payments from everyone. The liberal argument should be, but hasn’t been, that in a growing society whose prosperity is promoted by public goods, we won’t notice the slight increase. And the conservative argument should be, but hasn’t been, that they will be willing to make a deal for slightly higher taxes provided that the increase doesn’t single out only the wealthy and provided that spending really is redirected from wasteful spending on health care for the elderly to innovative (and expensive) education for the poor, infrastructure, and other areas where intelligent conservatives must know that our government needs to spend more. I can imagine moderate progressives making something like the responsible argument within a few years (Clinton wasn’t far off from it).

Sabl just doesn’t see any conservative conceding anything on that side, although he’s okay with Salam’s other point:

Of course social conventions and norms are necessary for a peaceful, prosperous, and free society. In such a society people need to mostly tell the truth, work hard, obey the law, not steal and cheat, pay their taxes (even when the expected cost of doing so is higher than the risk of audit), trust government bureaucrats, be trusted by government bureaucrats, be able to work with people somewhat different from themselves even if they don’t understand them, put their children’s welfare over their own, and stick with their spouses (or civil partners) even when doing so isn’t easy. This is a center-left list: true radicals would no doubt add a sense of egalitarian solidarity and a harder-edged celebration of diversity and leave out the pro-family stuff; conservatives would tend to leave out (yes?) the part about trusting those from unfamiliar subcultures and add something about how we all need to attend church a lot (which liberals would doubt on empirical grounds: Europeans don’t do that and society works fine). And of course the list is subject to revision. But in principle there’s no liberal I know of, and few thoughtful radicals, who doubt the role of norms.

But Sabl just doesn’t see how government action undercuts civil society:

Where’s the evidence? Have rates of church-going declined under Obama (and do they in general stagnate under liberalism)? Do voluntary associations demonstrably lose membership, influence, or status when the government grows and gain it back when it shrinks? Why hasn’t welfare reform, which ended long-term government income support, strengthened marriage (instead we see that marriage rates went down, and childbirth out of wedlock went up, in the years after it was passed)? And if the issue is wider social norms, not the membership and status of conservatives’ favored formal institutions: are people more moral where there’s less government? Do they lie less, cheat less, pay more of their taxes, drive less recklessly, treat their children better? Do you feel unsafe in Stockholm? Do you think marriages are more stable, and children better taken care of, in Mississippi than in Massachusetts?

He knows nonsense when he sees it – but then it’s early in the game. And the New York Times’ Gail Collins came away from the Republican convention with this:

The big, if-not-quite-articulated, message in Tampa was that in a free economy, everybody will get what they deserve. There is no need to worry about the vast, growing gap between the richest and the rest, or the shrinking middle class, or the fact that America currently has one of the worst rates of social mobility in the developed world.

Untrammeled, the business sector will create plenty of jobs, and the hard-working big-dreamers will jump in, amass wealth and achieve success. You cut taxes, reduce regulation and let the magic happen. It’s that or what Paul Ryan called “a dull adventureless journey from one entitlement to the next, a government-planned life, a country where everything is free but us.”

She was amazed:

Listening to the convention speeches, it was easy to get the impression that every high-ranking Republican in the country had parents who were truck drivers or convenience store workers who moved up entirely through their own efforts. Also, there were a lot of grandfathers who worked in the mines. Republicans love mines, particularly coal mines. This is partly because of their big donors, but the fact that environmentalists hate coal makes coal mines even more adorable.

And the miners themselves are always sympathetic figures because they work hard and play by the rules. As a result, their biggest dreams have been realized, and they are able to spend their lives underground developing chronic pulmonary disease.

Shortly before the convention, Mitt Romney had pressed the coal theme with an appearance in Ohio, where he stood with a group of sooty miners whose sad, solemn faces seemed to underscore their concern about big government. Also, some of them later told the news media that they had been required to show up and weren’t paid for the day.

The reward will undoubtedly arrive at a later date.

It’s going to be a long strange game. Now it’s first and ten for the Democrats.


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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