When the Abstract Becomes Specific

Congress is about to begin its six-week August recess. Yeah, yeah – August has only four weeks, but they won’t be back until mid-September. These things take time, as this is when members of congress go home and listen to their constituents, which is kind of a joke. They don’t go home to listen to their constituents. They go home to explain themselves to them, which this year is a bit problematic, because Congress has now perfected the art of getting absolutely nothing done. Senate Republicans, the minority, with only forty votes, can filibuster anything and everything, and do. Those are the rules. They recently relented and agreed to confirm a new head for the EPA, finally, and one for the new Consumer Protection Bureau, finally, and perhaps, later, maybe, a few federal judges to fill vacancies that had been open for years – on the condition that the majority Democrats didn’t change the rules and eliminate the filibuster entirely. There’s an implicit promise not to use it on everything from here on out, just on what they think is outrageous. That still would be most everything, but now it won’t be absolutely everything, for a few weeks. As for the EPA, their folks in the Senate can count on House Republicans to cut off most funding to the agency. They’ll do the same to the Consumer Protection Bureau. Let them be fully staffed, with a real director and everything. Anything can be established by law, but so what? They can still be paralyzed. That’s as good as abolishing them, and maybe even more satisfying. You can point and say, look, they don’t work at all. That works too.

The Senate did manage to pass something like comprehensive immigration reform, after they added thirty billion dollars for additional border security to rope in about a third of the reluctant Republicans. Everyone knows that’s a joke – net illegal border-crossing has been at zero for years because jobs dried up here – but those reluctant Republicans had to have something they could say to their nativist constituents in August. Xenophobes are reliably enthusiastic voters. Ignore them and you’re toast, not that it matters anyway. The Republican-controlled House will not take up the Senate bill. They say they’ll write their own, but now it’s clear they won’t. No one came up with a thing. They now say they might write a few smaller bills, dealing with immigration reform in small pieces, step by step, but no one has proposed a single thing, and no one will. Even that is too dangerous for the entirely safe districts they set up for themselves last time around – so nothing will get done. Immigration reform is dead. Republicans have decided to make do without the Latino vote from here on out. It’s best to hang on to the votes you do have, and hope for the best. If you outlaw abortion, and then birth control of any kind, maybe there will be more white votes to be had in a generation. Both are more than a moral question, really.

Underlying all this is the primary reason nothing gets done. Anything getting done would make Obama look effective, which is the last thing any Republican member of Congress wants. Their constituents hate the guy and won’t accept that premise. He can’t be effective. How could THAT man be effective? Of course this sets up an odd dynamic. Nothing must get done. In fact, the government must fail miserably and deliver nothing to anybody, or the whole idea of Obama as an incompetent fool, or socialist Muslim-atheist Kenyan imposter planning the end of America, falls apart. Widespread if not universal misery is necessary to prove the point. That seems to be the plan.

That’s why House Speaker John Boehner said this of Congress “We should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We should be judged on how many laws we repeal.”

That’s interesting. That means doing nothing new about anything, ever, and doing less and less of what’s already on the books, until nothing get done. That’s what Boehner says Americans really want, but he may be guessing, or he’s thinking of his core constituents in southern Ohio and no one else. The August recess is coming up and he answers to those folks, not the rest of us.

That explains the instructions the Republican leadership provided for handling the August recess – say Washington is out of control. Tell your constituents you’re fighting Washington for them.

Any fool can see the contradiction here. They ARE Washington. They are the very ones who made a mess of things. Sure, their solidly-conservative constituents want to embarrass Obama any way they can, but there’s no need to ruin the country. Yeah, fix Washington, but don’t bring on the pain for everyone. They’d better hope someone doesn’t start scratching their head and then ask embarrassing questions, like what happens when everything shuts down. Less government might be a good thing, but how much less government is always open to debate, and that discussion could get painful. Angry and frightened old white folks want their Social Security and Medicare, and roads and bridges are nice. Breathable air and clean water may not matter much, unless you live in the wrong place, some of which are in southern Ohio. That new Consumer Protection Bureau may be bullshit – no more than a way to hobble business and ruin America – unless you’re trapped in some big bank’s trick mortgage and about to lose your home, or already lost it – in which case it could be useful. It’s not like that didn’t happen to anyone in Boehner’s district. One must be careful. The argument for doing nothing only works in the abstract.

The problem is that no one lives in the abstract, and as the August recess begins, the pollsters have decided, perhaps unfairly, to make it hard for the Republicans with stuff like this:

Heading into another budget battle this fall, the number of Americans who say they have been negatively affected by the sequester budget cuts is on the rise, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

Twenty-two percent of Americans in the survey say they have been significantly affected by the cuts, which are a product of Congress’ inability to reach a compromise on a broader budget deal last year. Shortly after the Sequester first took place in April, just 16 percent said they had been significantly impacted by the policy.

And one specific group – Americans who earn less than $30,000 per year – says they have been the hardest hit. Among all respondents under that income level, 31 percent say they have been affected by the spending cuts, up from 24 percent in April and the most of any other income level group.

This NBC News item is mainly anecdotal – one sad specific tale after another – but the overall idea is clear. Make nearly seven hundred thousand civilian defense workers take one day off without pay each week and they have twenty percent less to spend, and small businesses and individuals lose twenty percent of their business, and thus twenty percent of their already meager income. Cut per-school programs and Meals on Wheels and park rangers and meter maids and all the rest and the little guy loses. They have no cushion. They were already living on the edge. Wall Street is doing fine – record highs almost daily, as the Federal Reserve is still doing that quantitative easing thing, buying eighty-five billion in securities each week, flooding the financial markets with free money. It hasn’t caused runaway inflation yet, even after all these years, so there’s no harm. The harm is at the low end, and it’s beginning to show.

Republicans don’t believe it:

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told Fox News on July 10: “The one lesson of the sequester is that there’s a lot of fluff that can be cut out before we actually have to get to things that are important, like paying our soldiers, providing for our wounded soldiers. All of that needs to be done, and if you cut out all the extra stuff we’re doing, we’d have plenty of money to take care of our soldiers.”

That all depends on how you look at it:

Randi Allen, a 21-year-old student in Walnut Ridge, Arkansas, said that cuts to education funding for her National Guardsman husband have become a “constant” stress for the two of them.

“The cost of schooling is already enough, when he went in they promised he’d get it paid for,” she said. “He has to pay a lot out of pocket now.”

The sequester is also making it more difficult for younger Americans – the unemployment rate for those between the ages of 20 and 24 was 13.5 percent in June – who are struggling to find their footing in an economy still recovering from the Great Recession.

Ben Rhiger, a 28-year-old warehouse worker in Portland, Ore., didn’t lose his job, but said a researcher friend lost his job due to the Sequester. And Rhiger voiced outrage that the spending cuts potentially set back a generation of young workers.

“In a time when we could have had more cash in the economy by having the government be a spender, be a customer to the economy, we didn’t do that. In fact, we took more money out of the economy. For that reason, there’s just less job opportunities for everybody entering the job market after college,” he said. “It just decreased any opportunity of getting more work experience, learning a trade or skill on the job, while being able to support ourselves.”

These people might vote. That could be trouble for the Republicans, and the Associated Press was no help at all:

Four out of 5 U.S. adults struggle with joblessness, near-poverty or reliance on welfare for at least parts of their lives, a sign of deteriorating economic security and an elusive American dream.

Survey data exclusive to the Associated Press points to an increasingly globalized U.S. economy, the widening gap between rich and poor, and the loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs as reasons for the trend…

The details aren’t pretty:

As nonwhites approach a numerical majority in the U.S., one question is how public programs to lift the disadvantaged should be best focused – on the affirmative action that historically has tried to eliminate the racial barriers seen as the major impediment to economic equality, or simply on improving socioeconomic status for all, regardless of race.

Hardship is particularly growing among whites, based on several measures. Pessimism among that racial group about their families’ economic futures has climbed to the highest point since at least 1987. In the most recent AP-GfK poll, 63 percent of whites called the economy “poor.” …

While racial and ethnic minorities are more likely to live in poverty, race disparities in the poverty rate have narrowed substantially since the 1970s, census data show. Economic insecurity among whites also is more pervasive than is shown in the government’s poverty data, engulfing more than 76 percent of white adults by the time they turn 60, according to a new economic gauge being published next year by the Oxford University Press.

The gauge defines “economic insecurity” as a year or more of periodic joblessness, reliance on government aid such as food stamps or income below 150 percent of the poverty line. Measured across all races, the risk of economic insecurity rises to 79 percent.

How will the Republicans handle everyone being poor now, not just the low-life black folks? And it’s not just that:

Marriage rates are in decline across all races, and the number of white mother-headed households living in poverty has risen to the level of black ones.

“It’s time that America comes to understand that many of the nation’s biggest disparities, from education and life expectancy to poverty, are increasingly due to economic class position,” said William Julius Wilson, a Harvard professor who specializes in race and poverty. He noted that despite continuing economic difficulties, minorities have more optimism about the future after Obama’s election, while struggling whites do not.

“There is the real possibility that white alienation will increase if steps are not taken to highlight and address inequality on a broad front,” Wilson said.

No one has accounted for white alienation. Poor white folks always vote Republican, maybe to prove that at least they’re not black, or Mexican, or whatever. But they’re still poor:

Nationwide, the count of America’s poor remains stuck at a record number: 46.2 million, or 15 percent of the population, due in part to lingering high unemployment following the recession. While poverty rates for blacks and Hispanics are nearly three times higher, by absolute numbers the predominant face of the poor is white.

More than 19 million whites fall below the poverty line of $23,021 for a family of four, accounting for more than 41 percent of the nation’s destitute – nearly double the number of poor blacks.

Luckily no one notices them:

Sometimes termed “the invisible poor” by demographers, lower-income whites generally are dispersed in suburbs as well as small rural towns, where more than 60 percent of the poor are white. Concentrated in Appalachia in the East, they are numerous in the industrial Midwest and spread across America’s heartland, from Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma up through the Great Plains.

Buchanan County in southwest Virginia is among the nation’s most destitute based on median income, with poverty hovering at 24 percent. The county is mostly white, as are 99 percent of its poor.

More than 90 percent of Buchanan County’s inhabitants are working-class whites who lack a college degree. Higher education long has been seen there as nonessential to land a job because well-paying mining and related jobs were once in plentiful supply. These days many residents get by on odd jobs and government checks.

And of course they vote Republican. They’re not black, after all, but they’re also not all that special:

Census figures provide an official measure of poverty, but they’re only a temporary snapshot that doesn’t capture the makeup of those who cycle in and out of poverty at different points in their lives. They may be suburbanites, for example, or the working poor or the laid off.

In 2011 that snapshot showed 12.6 percent of adults in their prime working-age years of 25-60 lived in poverty. But measured in terms of a person’s lifetime risk, a much higher number – 4 in 10 adults – falls into poverty for at least a year of their lives.

The risks of poverty also have been increasing in recent decades, particularly among people ages 35-55, coinciding with widening income inequality. For instance, people ages 35-45 had a 17 percent risk of encountering poverty during the 1969-1989 time period; that risk increased to 23 percent during the 1989-2009 period. For those ages 45-55, the risk of poverty jumped from 11.8 percent to 17.7 percent.

Higher recent rates of unemployment mean the lifetime risk of experiencing economic insecurity now runs even higher: 79 percent, or 4 in 5 adults, by the time they turn 60.

By race, nonwhites still have a higher risk of being economically insecure, at 90 percent. But compared with the official poverty rate, some of the biggest jumps under the newer measure are among whites, with more than 76 percent enduring periods of joblessness, life on welfare or near-poverty.

That’s the new America:

Going back to the 1980s, never have whites been so pessimistic about their futures, according to the General Social Survey, a biannual survey conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. Just 45 percent say their family will have a good chance of improving their economic position based on the way things are in America.

The divide is especially evident among those whites who self-identify as working class. Forty-nine percent say they think their children will do better than them, compared with 67 percent of nonwhites who consider themselves working class, even though the economic plight of minorities tends to be worse.

It’s miserable out there, but one group has chosen sides:

Although they are a shrinking group, working-class whites – defined as those lacking a college degree – remain the biggest demographic bloc of the working-age population. In 2012, Election Day exit polls conducted for the AP and the television networks showed working-class whites made up 36 percent of the electorate, even with a notable drop in white voter turnout.

Last November, Obama won the votes of just 36 percent of those non-college whites, the worst performance of any Democratic nominee among that group since Republican Ronald Reagan’s 1984 landslide victory over Walter Mondale.

Having cheap (and subsidized) health insurance? They’ll have none of that. Raising the minimum wage? They’ll have none of that. Having the rich pay a little more in taxes and everyone else pay a bit less? They’ll have none of that, or spending money for better schools and job training, or having new rules to keep banks from screwing you over. They’ll have none of any of that. Tell them that America would soar into prosperity if every American worker, save for senior management and corporate officers, and professional athletes, would agree to work for minimum wage ten months a year, and two months a year for free, with no benefits, and they’d probably agree. Greedy workers, and unions, ruined America, after all – or something like that.

That’s actually worked pretty well, but Republicans had better hope someone doesn’t start scratching their head and then start asking embarrassing questions, like what happens when everything shuts down. Not everyone is senior management or a corporate officer, or a professional athlete, or a hedge fund manager. There are few of those, relative to everyone else, and everyone gets to vote. Even if the Republicans succeed in assuring it will be next to impossible for minorities and the elderly and college kids to ever cast a ballot again, as is the idea in Texas and North Carolina and Florida at the moment, plain old white folks might figure out that everyone got poor. It wasn’t just the riff-raff. It was them too. They might even start to wonder why, and figure it out. NBC News reports that the number of folks who figured out the real consequences of that sequestration thing just jumped up six points, and that’s going to keep jumping up. The Associated Press item is even worse for Republicans. The “them” who were supposed to be mocked and ignored turned out to be their own natural base too, and they may wise up. Telling a poor and angry old white guy, or a permanently unemployable young one, that he’s as screwed over, with no hope, as any black man in America, by the same people, for the same reasons, but at least he’s not a black man, may one day no longer work to your advantage. You can’t pay the rent with racial pride.

Republicans think they have the white working-class vote locked up, and maybe they do, and that may keep them in power, or what power they have now – control of the House and the procedural cleverness to stop the Senate from doing anything at all. That’s impressive, but that leaves them as no more than an extreme irritant to the ruling party, the one that represents most of the people, as demographics marginalize whites of all sorts over the years. That leads to what is really a one-party system, and at the Washington Monthly, Ryan Cooper wonders where that leads:

It’s probably fair to say that poor whites are overwhelmingly Republican, and in large part due to an overhang of racial resentment… This is why I despair of analysis like Matt Yglesias’ or Sean Trende’s making the case the Republicans can keep winning with white voters alone (though note that Trende doesn’t argue that this means the GOP doesn’t have to change) – because that does not bode well for our future.

I lived in South Africa for a time, where voting breaks down almost entirely by race. To a first approximation, blacks vote for the African National Congress, whites and Coloureds (the non-offensive term adopted by mixed-race people) vote for the Democratic Alliance. The upshot is that because blacks make up about 77 percent of the population the ANC has won every election with over 60% of the vote. (An outcome, I should add, that is the predicable outcome of the Apartheid state’s vicious racist terrorism.)

But the lack of political competition has been disastrous. Especially during the tenure of Thabo Mbeki, the whole South African government was shot through with corruption and rank incompetence, culminating in the 2008 power crisis. Single party states, outside of a few possible exceptions like Singapore, are a recipe for failure.

You really don’t want a country run by Democrats forever, with the few remaining Republicans throwing spitballs and whining. One party should check the other, to keep them honest and all that – but there may be no real option here. One party wants to get things done and the other party wants to make sure nothing gets done, perhaps on principle, or as a strategy to return to power – but people are beginning to understand what it’s like to live in a country where nothing gets done. It’s quite unpleasant, unless you’re quite rich, because the argument for doing nothing only works in the abstract, where few live. Everyone else lives in someone’s congressional district, and there might be questions now.

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, Effects of Sequestration, Poverty in America, Republican Obstructionism and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to When the Abstract Becomes Specific

  1. Rick says:

    And so, it turns out that, instead of there being be a bunch of white potential voters that the Republicans somehow missed, there may be a huge number of white voters that the Democrats missed.

    Not that I actually know what argument the Democrats can use to persuade these down-scale whites to abandon the Republicans, but I suspect if they were able to get across this one idea about sequestration, it might help my side to focus on advocating more of something they have so far been shying away in fear from — government spending!

    So here’s a suggested message for them to offer to voters, particularly low- and no-income voters who have, for some reason, found themselves voting Republican:

    “Although they cleverly tried to blame it on Obama, Sequestration is something only Republicans really like, because at the bottom, it’s about cutting spending. Republicans cut spending. It’s what they do. In fact, they even argue that doing so helps the economy instead of hurting it. They’re wrong, of course.

    “So how much of the American economy is made up of ‘spending’? The answer is, all of it.

    “And yes, contrary to what Republicans would lead you to believe, even government spending is part of the American economy. Think about it: when the government spends tax money, where does it spend it? Answer: In the private sector.

    “So every dollar of government spending the Republicans cut is a dollar not being spent in the private sector, and that means that if you cut enough government spending, you start to eliminate private sector jobs. You often hear the Republicans say the government doesn’t create jobs, but then almost in the same breath, you hear them yell, ‘Mr President, where are the jobs?’

    “So it follows that cutting any spending, even one dollar, is cutting the economy. And we shouldn’t be cutting the economy, we should be growing it. So when you hear John Boehner shout, ‘Mr Obama, where are the jobs?’, you know you’re hearing a guy blame someone else for a situation that he and his party are responsible for.

    “We so often hear Republicans like Rand Paul talk about ‘out-of-control spending’, we tend to accept without question that there is such a thing. In fact, yes, there is a spending problem in this country, but it’s not that there’s too much of it, it’s that there’s too little!

    “You want proof? Think about it: If there weren’t too little spending, the economy wouldn’t be as weak as it is. When it comes to an economy, the more spending there is going on, the healthier the economy. An economy is weak, by definition, when there’s too little money changing hands.

    “Believe it or not, increasing government spending, instead of reducing it, would have the opposite effect. Instead of seeing jobs disappear, you’d see them being created.

    “Republicans want to cut spending and shrink the economy; Democrats want to increase spending and therefore grow the economy.”

    Naw, forget it. That probably won’t work either, since it probably doesn’t get at why these people are voting Republican anyway. And I wish somebody could give me a good reason as to why they do.


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