Feb 11 2019

Political Economics

In the “classical” (there are other ways of looking at it) history of Economic thought among Anglophones it has always been closely tied with desired political outcomes. This is why as a student I was forced to take classes in it (to be fair Art, Music, and Literature were also core requirements) even though I hated it and thought it dull as dishwater. Had you told me at the time I would be devoting so much time to writing about it I would have looked at you as if you had suddenly sprouted a third eye (I felt the same way about Computers too, silly me).

But it was originally called “Political Economics” because even the earliest thinkers in the Industrial Age recognized that Wealth and its distribution had enormous impact on policy and power.

This is why I’m not upset when someone like Herr Doktor Professor strays a bit over the line and discusses Political Sciencey things (By the way, if there is an Academic discipline more rife with con men and rattle shaking Shamen than Economics, Political Science is it. There is no Science at all in “Political Science”, Economics can at least be predictive in certain limited situations for short amounts of time.).

When he talks about “Quarters” he’s referring to a popular model that puts purely “social” concerns like inclusion and tolerance on one Axis of a Cartesian graph and values like Egalitarianism and Communal Distribution on the other. For instance “Libertarians” and “Radical Centrists” like to claim that they’re socially liberal and economically conservative.

Unfortunately for those who profess to hold these views, examples of this species are rarely encountered in nature.

The Empty Quarters of U.S. Politics
By Paul Krugman, The New York Times
Feb. 4, 2019

Howard Schultz, the coffee billionaire, who imagined that he could attract broad support as a “centrist,” turns out to have an approval rating of 4 percent, versus 40 percent disapproval.

Ralph Northam, a Democrat who won the governorship of Virginia in a landslide, is facing a firestorm of denunciation from his own party over racist images on his medical school yearbook page.

Donald Trump, who ran on promises to expand health care and raise taxes on the rich, began betraying his working-class supporters the moment he took office, pushing through big tax cuts for the rich while trying to take health coverage away from millions.

These are, it turns out, related stories, all of them tied to the two great absences in American political life.

One is the absence of socially liberal, economically conservative voters. These were the people Schultz thought he could appeal to; but basically they don’t exist, accounting for only around, yes, 4 percent of the electorate.

The other is the absence of economically liberal, socially conservative politicians — let’s be blunt and just say “racist populists.” There are plenty of voters who would like that mix, and Trump pretended to be their man; but he wasn’t, and neither is anyone else.

Understanding these empty quarters is, I’d argue, the key to understanding U.S. politics.

Once upon a time there were racist populists in Congress: The New Deal coalition relied on a large contingent of segregationist Dixiecrats. But this was always unstable. In practice, advocating economic inclusion seems to spill over into advocacy of racial and social inclusion, too. By the 1940s, Northern Democrats were already more pro-civil rights than Northern Republicans, and as the Northam affair shows, the party now has very little tolerance for even the appearance of racism.

Meanwhile, the modern Republican Party is all about cutting taxes on the rich and benefits for the poor and the middle class. And Trump, despite his campaign posturing, has turned out to be no different.

Hence the failure of our political system to serve socially conservative/racist voters who also want to tax the rich and preserve Social Security. Democrats won’t ratify their racism; Republicans, who have no such compunctions, will — remember, the party establishment solidly backed Roy Moore’s Senate bid — but won’t protect the programs they depend on.

But why are there so few voters holding the reverse position, combining social/racial liberalism and economic conservatism? The answer, I’d argue, lies in just how far to the right the G.O.P. has gone.

Polling is unambiguous here. If you define the “center” as a position somewhere between those of the two parties, when it comes to economic issues the public is overwhelmingly left of center; if anything, it’s to the left of the Democrats. Tax cuts for the rich are the G.O.P.’s defining policy, but two-thirds of voters believe that taxes on the rich are actually too low, while only 7 percent believe that they’re too high. Voters support Elizabeth Warren’s proposed tax on large fortunes by a three-to-one majority. Only a small minority want to see cuts in Medicaid, even though such cuts have been central to every G.O.P. health care proposal in recent years.

Why did Republicans stake out a position so far from voters’ preferences? Because they could. As Democrats became the party of civil rights, the G.O.P. could attract working-class whites by catering to their social and racial illiberalism, even while pursuing policies that hurt ordinary workers.

The result is that to be an economic conservative in America means advocating policies that, on their merits, only appeal to a small elite. Basically nobody wants these policies on their own; they only sell if they’re packaged with racial hostility.

So what do the empty quarters of U.S. politics mean for the future? First, of course, that Schultz is a fool — and so are those who dream of a reformed G.O.P. that remains conservative but drops its association with racists. There’s hardly anyone who wants that mix of positions.

Second, fears that Democrats are putting their electoral prospects in danger by moving too far left, for example by proposing higher taxes on the rich and Medicare expansion, are grossly exaggerated. Voters want an economic move to the left — it’s just that some of them dislike Democratic support for civil rights, which the party can’t drop without losing its soul.

What’s less clear is whether there’s room for politicians willing to be true racist populists, unlike Trump, who was faking the second part. There’s a substantial bloc of racist-populist voters, and you might think that someone would try to serve them. But maybe the gravitational attraction of big money — which has completely captured the G.O.P., and has arguably kept Democrats from moving as far left as the electorate really wants — is too great.

In any case, if there’s a real opening for an independent, that candidate will look more like George Wallace than like Howard Schultz. Billionaires who despise the conventional parties should beware of what they wish for.

In short what the “Centrists” really represent is a Neo Liberal elite, a Davos consensus of Beltway Bozos who have to go on Safari to discover what the unwashed Apes of the Peasant Class are thinking and doing since it is so far removed from their daily experience (I’ve got news for you, most people don’t fly because they can’t afford to, thus while a shut down of the FAA has an impact on the Chattering Versailles Villager Idiots, skipping SNAP payments has a more immediate and lasting effect on the average voter).

On the other hand we have a rather large minority (yes, they are a minority) of Bigoted Misogynist Racists.

Fortunately they are diminishing through attrition (one of the reasons they’re so afraid of change), but ultimately they will need to be decisively defeated and their irrational hatred exposed to the ridicule and shame it deserves.