Puritan Politics

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school,
It’s a wonder I can think at all,
And though my lack of education hasn’t hurt me none,
I can read the writing on the wall…

That’s from Paul Simon’s song Kodachrome – released in May of 1973 and not the sort of thing you want running through your head when you’re about to become a high school English teacher. Or maybe it was just the thing. It was easy to remember how stultifying high school English was in the early sixties. There was The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne showing how the Puritans were hopeless and hypocritical and really mean people, out to suppress what really couldn’t be suppressed. That’s fine, but the agonies of guilt are boring, and talk of the nature of sin even more so. Then there was The Crucible – Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem Witch Trials, or, if you like, about the McCarthy Hearings. Yes, there were big issues – something about groupthink and mass hysteria, but Tina Fey covered much of the same ground in her 2004 movie Mean Girls – and that was a comedy. Still, that was the curriculum, and it was dismal. Sure, think back on all the crap you learned in high school – you learned that there are a lot of self-righteous people in the world making things miserable for everyone else. So what? Teenagers already know that – and sin and redemption are what adults talk about, which is what makes them so absurd. So it would be no Hawthorne and Miller for the kids in the late seventies. Great Expectations and Hamlet would do just fine – something they could relate to, as they say.

That may have been a mistake. If you want to understand America you need to understand its prissy holier-than-thou Puritan heritage. Yes, people who think that all of life is a morality play are infinitely irritating, but they’re still with us. There’s Rick Santorum and just about everyone on the evangelical right – the social conservatives. Mitt Romney also liked to say that eliminating the federal deficit was a moral issue, as it is immoral to force our grandkids to pay off the massive debt from our profligate and selfish spending – assuming the economy never grows again of course. That was a Puritan argument about sin, perhaps, but it never gained much traction. It was just a throwaway line for the remaining hard-ass Puritans among us, the holier-than-thou Tea Party crowd and those who like to talk about that angry Jesus who hated abortion and Obamacare and taxing the very wealthy a bit more in hard times, and who wanted us to go to war everywhere, right now.

There’s nothing new here. That’s part of what we are as a nation, but that seventeenth-century Puritanism is only part of the story. Back in high school there was usually a course in American Government or Civics or whatever, where you learned about what happened here in the following century. The Age of Reason gave us the Enlightenment – the idea that most of life could be figured out empirically. There was no need to bring God into mundane things, like the operation of the government, and thus God was excluded from the Constitution – there would be no religious test for office and the government would never do anything that even hinted at establishing any particular religion. The Constitution was the answer to Puritanism. Talk all you want about God and sin and all the rest, but do that elsewhere. We can reason out, all on our own, how best to govern ourselves.

The neo-Puritans never liked that much and do twist themselves into knots claiming the Constitution is really based on the Bible, and all that stuff about the separation of church and state isn’t really there, in spite of what the text says. Antonin Scalia says just that and so does Michele Bachmann – which is a bit of an attack on reason as a tool for figuring out the world. Then there was that woman on Fox News attacking reason directly:

You know, the Age of Enlightenment and Reason gave way to moral relativism. And moral relativism is what led us all the way down the dark path to the Holocaust… Dark periods of history are what we arrive at when we leave God out of the equation.

The Age of Enlightenment and Reason gave us the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. That’s the whole concept behind all of it – we, the people, can work out what’s best to do – but she’s the CEO of Concerned Women for America and was upset that Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx had proclaimed May 2, 2013, as a Day of Reason – when everyone knew that was the National Day of Prayer, damn it. The whole crew at Fox and Friends nodded in agreement, a little sadly. Puritans do that when anyone talks about reason. It was just another day on Fox News, but then it was also just another day in America.

That’s odd. It seems that what you learned in high school wasn’t crap. In English class you learned about how we are, at heart, prissy Puritans, for better or worse, and in American Government you learned that we stepped away from that, for a time – and we never resolved the conflict between the two. That basic conflict plays out every day in our politics – the holier-than-thou party wants to talk about good and evil and sin and God, and the empirical party wants to talk about what policies are best for the greatest number of us, given the available facts. They talk about God in church, but at present the neo-Puritan party is obsessed with the Obama scandals – Benghazi and the IRS picking on the Tea Party and the Department of Justice tracking Associated Press telephone records trying to find who leaked secret stuff and screwed up our efforts against al-Qaeda – none of which has a damned thing to do about policy.

It’s a morality play, and it’s not going well. See Ezra Klein explaining how the scandals are falling apart – there’s nothing much there. And see Chris Cillizza on how Republican consultants are telling every Republican in sight to back down – this is going to blow up in their faces. But the pull is irresistible. It has to be a morality play, about the biggest scandals ever, and Andrew Sullivan hammers Peggy Noonan with this:

Has this president broken the law, lied under oath, or authorized war crimes? Has he traded arms for hostages with Iran? Has he knowingly sent his cabinet out to tell lies about his sex life? Has he sat by idly as an American city was destroyed by a hurricane? Has he started a war with no planning for an occupation? Has he started a war based on a lie, and destroyed the US’ credibility and moral standing while he was at it, leaving nothing but a smoldering and now rekindled civil sectarian war?

So far as I can tell, this president has done nothing illegal, unethical or even wrong.

Ah well, maybe he should wear a scarlet letter. That might satisfy them.

As for that giant immoral federal deficit, which we are passing off to our poor little grandchild, yet to be born, Daniel Gross explains that’s not going well either:

On Tuesday, Washington was consumed with a series of scandals, non-scandals, and tail-eating – Benghazi, the Internal Revenue Service, the AP. So much so that the biggest policy and political story of the day was largely ignored. You could search in vain on Politico’s front page for articles about the Congressional Budget Office’s bombshell report that the fiscal 2013 deficit would come in at $642 billion – $200 billion smaller than its February estimate, and down a stunning $447 billion, or 41 percent, from last year.

This is a big deal, and should change everything:

For much of the past two years, deficits, debts, revenues, and spending were all elite Washington (and New York) wanted to talk about. Endless pixels were spilled on the maneuverings surrounding the debt-limit negotiations, the various commissions and efforts to forge a grand bargain, the approach of the fiscal cliff, and the brutal logic of the Sequester. Because debt, budget, and spending issues were one of the few cudgels Republicans could wield against Obama, attention was paid 24-7. But the interest was always more in process and politics than policy: Who would be the vital dealmaker? Would we have a grand bargain to raise some taxes and rein in the growth of Medicare and Social Security? Could the establishment save America from becoming the next Greece?

As we’ve been noting, a funny thing has happened on the way to America’s becoming the next Greece. Even as Washington failed – again, and again, and again – to strike a grand bargain or engage in rational policymaking, there has been immense, unprecedented progress in reducing the short-term deficit. It turns out the miracle cures for deficits aren’t grand bargains. Rather, the cures are sustained growth and willingness to tax income and investments at higher rates. And the miracle cure for reducing the growth rate of entitlements may well be the unipartisan Affordable Care Act, not some bipartisan commission.

The economy is recovering – there’s more tax revenue – and Obamacare is doing what Obama said it would do – slowing the growth of healthcare costs:

Through the first seven months of fiscal 2012, which started last October, revenues are up 16 percent from the year before, while spending is off about two percent. Several factors are at work. More people are working, at slightly higher wages, and are paying higher payroll taxes. Rich people, who took huge capital gains and dividend payments in late 2012 in anticipation of higher taxes, were forced to pay taxes on that income in the first few months of 2013. Spending is falling, thanks in part to the Sequester, and thanks in part to lower spending on defense and unemployment benefits. And so in the first seven months of the fiscal year, the deficit came in at $489 billion, off about 31 percent from the first seven months of fiscal 2012. As of last week, it was looking like the deficit for the full fiscal year might come in at about $800 billion. That would represent fantastic progress.

But wait, said the CBO on Tuesday. There’s more! Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-owned mortgage agencies, have been minting money and turning it over to Treasury. Tax revenues are continuing to rise, and spending is muted. So when CBO updated projections for this fiscal year and the next 10 fiscal years on Tuesday, it said the fiscal 2013 deficit would come in at $642 billion – or about 4 percent of GDP. That’s astonishing, especially given that in fiscal 2009 the deficit was $1.4 trillion, or more than 10 percent of GDP. Like I said, this is the Golden Age of Deficit Reduction.

The New York Times reviews all the studies on healthcare costs dropping, but no one seems to have noticed any of this, as none of this has a thing to do with big issues of good and evil. It’s just basic economics, so Gross adds this:

The press prefers covering dysfunction and controversy to covering policy. For much of the last two years, fiscal issues were dangerous, all-consuming controversies. The inability of Washington to create a rational budget deal was an obvious sign of dysfunction. But with the fiscal cliff behind us, the Republicans reluctant to play chicken with the debt limit and the deficit melting away, fiscal issues aren’t nearly as controversial.

That doesn’t mean the numbers should be ignored. If a grand bargain had been achieved, and CBO was reporting these sharply lower numbers on short-term and long-term deficits, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson would be the grand marshals of a ticker-tape parade down Pennsylvania Avenue. The irony is that we have achieved a good chunk of the professed goals of the professional deficit hawks and the Republicans – just without their active participation.

Yes, but Jonathan Chait notes this:

The general conservative response to date has involved ignoring the trend, or perhaps dismissing it as a temporary, recession-induced dip likely to reverse itself. Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal editorial page offered up what may be the new conservative fallback position: Okay, healthcare costs are slowing down, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the huge new health-care reform law. “It increasingly looks as if ObamaCare passed amid a national correction in the health markets,” the Journal now asserts, “that no one in Congress or the White House understood.” It’s another one of those huge, crazy coincidences!

They prefer coincidence to reason:

Of course, it’s not just that the Journal didn’t predict the health-care cost slowdown. The Journal insisted it couldn’t possibly happen. Indeed, it insisted that Obamacare would destroy – was already destroying – any possible hope for a health-care cost correction, and would instead necessarily lead to a massive increase in healthcare inflation.

It seems they were wrong. Reject reason and that does happen now and then, and Kevin Drum chimes in:

The medium-term national debt has stabilized. Hooray!

You might still not be happy about this. Maybe you won’t be happy until debt drops back down to Carter-era levels. That’s fine. It’s a free country, after all. But for the next decade, at least, the trendlines are no longer shooting upward, and if the economy continues to improve the trendlines will look even better. So no more screaming about how the country is going bankrupt, okay?

Drum underestimates Puritans’ ongoing need for self-righteous screaming, or the milder form, sermons with moral stories. They are an austere bunch, and in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, Paul Krugman tries to explain the Puritan psychology that leads them to believe that austerity is the cure for economic recessions:

Everyone loves a morality play. “For the wages of sin is death” is a much more satisfying message than “Shit happens.” We all want events to have meaning.

When applied to macroeconomics, this urge to find moral meaning creates in all of us a predisposition toward believing stories that attribute the pain of a slump to the excesses of the boom that precedes it – and, perhaps, also makes it natural to see the pain as necessary, part of an inevitable cleansing process… By contrast, Keynesian economics rests fundamentally on the proposition that macroeconomics isn’t a morality play – that depressions are essentially a technical malfunction. As the Great Depression deepened, Keynes famously declared that “we have magneto trouble” – i.e., the economy’s troubles were like those of a car with a small but critical problem in its electrical system, and the job of the economist is to figure out how to repair that technical problem.

Krugman has been beating this same drum for quite some time, but here he hints at our Puritan traditions:

I’d argue that Keynes was overwhelmingly right in his approach, but there’s no question that it’s an approach many people find deeply unsatisfying as an emotional matter.

Scarlet letters and witch-hunts were emotionally satisfying too. They, like austerity economics, were also based on what was never real.

Kevin Drum isn’t buying this argument:

I think Krugman is subtly wrong here. Or maybe not all that subtly. In the United States, at least, I’d argue that plenty of ordinary people view the economy the way he describes it here. They think of the macro-economy as merely a jumbo version of a household economy, and they know that when a household economy overspends and goes into debt, it really does have to pay a price. It has to cut back on consumption and start paying down its debt. The moral conclusions from this are both obvious and justifiable, and they figure the same thing is true of the national economy.

But is this what elites believe? Some do, probably. But I think for most of them, austerity is just a convenient facade. Their real motivation is simpler: they want to cut spending on the poor. Unfortunately, they’ve learned that this appeals only to voters who are already hardcore conservatives. To win over a broader audience, they need to appeal to the conventional view that a high debt level betrays a lack of national discipline and needs to be corrected at a national level. Like a household that spent too much redecorating its kitchen with a home equity loan, the country has spent too much and now needs to cut back. For most people, this argument is far more palatable than a simple appeal to cut spending.

Their real motivation is that they want to cut spending on the poor – but of course that’s another morality play. The poor are unworthy sinners – it’s that Calvinist notion that the sign of God’s grace is prosperity. The good folks, the chosen, are the rich folks. God hates laziness and bad luck too, apparently:

So yes: a lot of people view the economy as a morality play. But among conservative elites, I suspect there’s less of this than you might think. Rather, it’s used primarily as a cynical way of getting the spending cuts they want without overtly bashing the poor.

Drum, however, has no idea why liberal elites buy into this nonsense:

Beats me, but if I had to guess I’d say that too many of them were burned by the 70s and have remained in a fetal crouch ever since. For them, every recession is a rerun of the 70s and needs the same kind of medicine if we want to recover. It’s kind of sad, really.

We never escaped our Puritanism, perhaps, and Michael Kinsley certainly hasn’t:

I don’t think suffering is good, but I do believe that we have to pay a price for past sins, and the longer we put it off, the higher the price will be. And future sufferers are not necessarily different people than the past and present sinners. That’s too easy. Sure let’s raise taxes on the rich. But that’s not going to solve the problem. The problem is the great, deluded middle class – subsidized by government and coddled by politicians. In other words, they are you and me. If you make less than $250,000 a year, Obama has assured us, you are officially entitled to feel put-upon and resentful. And to be immune from further imposition.

Damn – everything’s a morality play. What about policy – jobs – fixing the economy – that sort of thing? There are reasonable things to do about that stuff. We could do something logical.

Oh never mind. There are too many Puritans still around. They were really irritating in that crap you had to read in high school, and they still are.

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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